TransIndigenous Mediation

Australian author Bruce Pascoe is in a spot of bother. His ancestry has been referred to the Australian Federal Police for investigation into his ethnicity.

Ponder that for a moment; in 2020, it’s in the purview of the police to question and, presumably, lay criminal charges as consequence of what they might find regarding someone’s ethnicity.

How on earth did we get here?

In Pascoe’s case, it’s been a lengthy journey and one which, depending on which “team” you are on looks like this chronology listed by Andrew Bolt or the more sympathetic version (presumably written by supporters) in his Wikipedia entry.

What’s apparent from either side of the story is Bruce’s claimed Australian Aboriginal ancestry is not likely to amount to many actual relatives who existed anywhere but his fertile imagination, if any at all.

But how did he manage to get away with this fantasy for so long?

Obviously, the opportunity was created by well-meaning politicians. When trying to rectify centuries of appalling and egregious treatment of the first people of Australia, politicians needed to create a definition against which they could allocate the additional state funding and resources.

That definition is as follows:

An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he (she) lives.

Can any bright students see the problem with that?

Yes, young girl at the back of the class, what’s the answer?

The words identify, accept and community all require definition to remove subjectivity.

If not, there is a situation ripe for exploitation by people who want free money.

As in most situations, where America leads, Australia follows.

Famously, 2020 Presidential hopeful, Elizabeth Warren, was the recipient of a place at law college reserved for a Native American after claiming to be Cherokee.

Cheekier still, Rachel Dolezal claimed to be of African American ancestry to become chapter president of the NAACP without having any black ancestors.

What can we learn from this?

Bill’s Opinion

As always, incentives matter.

In a situation where there’s free value (money, housing, academic places, increased employment prospects, perception of victimhood) and little obvious consequence for lying, there will be fraud.

The fact that this isn’t obvious to legislators says more about their IQs and knowledge of human nature than the dishonesty of the people who claim to be an ethnicity they are not.

Warren and Pascoe and Dolezal (see what I did there?) are at the top end of the fraud town. It’s not beyond imagination to suspect there are likely countless more frauds at the bottom end.

And who can blame them; presumably people already living an underprivileged life have a great incentive to invent a memory of an distant indigenous background like Pascoe’s to get to the front of the queue for housing or free dental care, for example.

What is going to be interesting about Pascoe’s case is to see what the decision might be regarding the potential crime committed. I’m not a lawyer so my research for precedent utilises the same resources as you, i.e. Google.

The best I could find was this campaign, which infers there’s definitely suspected cases of Aboriginal identity fraud but doesn’t describe any consequence.

My suspicion is, the crime rarely, if ever, results in a successful prosecution for two reasons; 1) there would need to be proof of intent rather than a mistaken “family memory”, and 2) until Pascoe, the people committing the crime were already in relatively humble conditions so the authorities took a lenient view.

Of course, like Elizabeth Warren, Pascoe has a low cost and quick remedy to clear his name; take a DNA test with 23 and Me.

We’ll wait, Bruce. We’ll wait.

In the USA, people who fraudulently claim to be military veterans are guilty of the crime of “Stolen Valor” (in the UK, they’re referred to by the name “Walt“).

In Australia, the Aboriginals suffered the pain and trauma of the Stolen Generation.

Now it would seem Bruce Pascoe and others might be accused of Stolen Victimhood.

Again, incentives matter; when victimhood is increasingly seen as having value, don’t be surprised to see fraudulent claims to it.

When errors are a feature, not a bug

Woolworths are burning shareholder value in the latest wages underpayment “scandal” in Australia.

“Scandal” is presented in inverted commas because, frankly, it’s becoming easier to list the organisations not caught up in this problem than those who have.

After self-reporting their heinous crime, Woolworths have presumably poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into one of the big four accounting firms to get to the bottom of the problem.

In addition to the subsequent remediation costs (project resources, IT costs, management time and, obviously, the repayments to staff), they now have a class action to defend.

From the article, we can unpick the top level maths involved:

6,000 staff have been underpaid somewhere between $200 and $300 million since 2010 (let’s assume May 2010, as it seems an EBA was signed then).

So, a sensitivity analysis of this:

Worst case – $300,000,000 / 6,000 / 103 months = $485 a month or about $24 a day

Least worst case – $300,000,000 / 6,000 / 103 months = $323 a month, or about $16 a day

Not insignificant but not the difference between cashed up and struggle street either. It’s the equivalent of having to pay for your car parking if you work in a metropolitan area.

What isn’t explained is what the source and reason for these errors is likely to be. Is it an under calculation of pay, superannuation contributions, rostered days off, over-calculation of tax, etc.

Consider those questions when you read of these “underpayment” cases.

A lifetime ago, I worked in various jobs which involved variable pay for reasons such as overnight shift work, weekends and public holidays.

Every month when the pay packet arrived I would spend a few minutes with my diary and a calculator and check the numbers. Mainly the payroll department’s calculation was correct but there were several occasions where I found an issue to be corrected (always in my favour – strangely, I never mentioned the other ones).

I doubt I’d be capable of performing that check and balance if I were employed in a similar role in Australia in 2019. I’d be impressed if many of the current variable wage-earners could do so either.

Actually, if they could accurately calculate their wages, they’re missing a huge career opportunity to switch to working in payroll.

Bill’s Opinion

We’ve investigated these issues previously and explained why we think it’s a feature, not a bug of the Australian employment environment.

There are some heuristics when discussing this epidemic of Australian payroll “scandals”:

– You will never meet anyone in Australia who earns minimum wage. That’s not to say nobody earns at that rate, but there’s so few of them you stand little to no chance of ever meeting one.

– Anyone who claims to understand how to calculate payroll based on Australian Enterprise Bargaining Agreements is not to be trusted. Do not, I repeat, do not buy a used car from these people. I know payroll accounting managers with decades of experience who, in a quiet moment in the pub, will admit to not being certain about these calculations and waking up at night worrying about it.

– Any worker who claims to have been underpaid has only come to this conclusion after being told so by an “expert” (see the previous point).

– The reporting on these issues will never mention the labyrinthine employment regulations in Australia as being even partially-responsible for these screw ups.