Friday, December 5, 2008

Singing From The Same Song Sheet.

There is very little which is more divisive than the suggestion that Muslims in Australia are subverting Australian values. It’s a suggestion which is pushed at every opportunity by those who object to the growing presence and influence of Muslims in our community. It doesn’t take much for the idea to take hold and to inflame otherwise reasonable and tolerant Australians into a fit of fear and distrust. The problem is that so often some members of the Muslim community appear to be doing everything they can to provoke such sentiments.

The front page story in Brisbane’s Courier Mail reports that the Australian International Islamic College has banned the singing of the Australian National Anthem because it has been deemed to be contrary to the “Islamic view and ethos”. The paper claims to have possession of a memo instructing that the “singing of the Anthem will be put on hold”, and that one teacher has been sacked for asking to have the Anthem performed by students. The school denies there is a ban, but it appears that at least one other teacher has confirmed the story.

Consequently, and understandably, there is a great deal of negative feeling in the wider community, with concerns that the school is promoting segregation and is actively promoting anti-Australian views. But this is where things become complicated. Australia is a free society. That means we enjoy the freedom of religion, the freedom of speech, the freedom of association, and the freedom of dissent. Those are among the benefits of living in our free society. They also mean that we as Australians are also free to have no religion, free to keep silent, free to choose not to associate.

It is not compulsory for schools to sing the National Anthem. It is not compulsory for Muslims to associate with non-Muslims. It is not compulsory for Muslims to approve of so called Western standards of behavior. But there is a crucially important distinction to be made here, and it is this. While Muslims, and everybody else for that matter, are free to believe whatever they like, that freedom is subject to the limitation which prevents them from imposing those beliefs upon others and more importantly denying the rights of others to hold differing beliefs.

In our efforts to be an inclusive, fair and tolerant society, the great risk is to fall into the trap of tolerating the intolerant. Most Muslims want nothing more than to peacefully go about their lives, and many have enthusiastically embraced the Australian way of life. But there remains a number of others who reject the freedoms which Australia embodies, and who seek to change the nature of our society. There are those of extreme views who may be free to hold those views, but who should be made to realize that the rest of us are free to reject them.

When it appears that a Muslim school is propagating such views, it becomes a matter of concern to all who believe in a free and open society. Now that should include those many Muslims who claim to also believe in Australian values. In fact, it is most important that they are the ones who reject any such activities by Muslim schools, or by Muslim clerics, or anyone else purporting to represent the Muslim faith. If they don’t, then they are only fueling the flames of distrust themselves and cannot claim to be innocent victims of misrepresentation.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Not A Recession, But It Might As Well Be

The release of the latest national accounts figures confirm the worst fears of many. That is, Australia is on the precipice of a recession. Of course, the glass half full view would be that economic growth remains positive, although only just. The official growth figure for the September quarter has come in at 0.1%, so close to zero that for all intents and purposes it is fair to say that the economy has come to a sudden halt. The only thing that prevented a negative growth figure being recorded was an improvement in the farming sector.

Some are still clinging to the hope that an actual recession can be avoided, and that may well be possible. The widely used definition of recession is two successive quarters of negative growth, and so far we haven’t even had one. However, the slowdown has been dramatic, and reflects the earlier evidence of retail figures. Today, there is even more evidence with car sales figures plunging a startling 22% last month. Even more startling is that despite official interest rates falling, the cost of car finance is actually rising.

This reflects a wider phenomenon which has seen interest rates on business loans fail to fall in line with mortgages. Credit card rates also remain high. One of the reasons for this is the risk weighting of the price of such loans, but the problem is that it adds to the drag on the economy, and almost becomes a vicious circle as cheaper finance becomes harder to obtain at the very time when it is needed most.

It’s not just consumers and businesses that are finding credit difficult to obtain. One of the unintended results of the Federal Government bank deposit guarantee has been to make it harder for State governments to attract finance. As a result, the Federal government is reported to be considering acting as an investment banker to the states, borrowing funds, and relending them to the States. The opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull, is drawing comparisons with the Khemlani Loans affair of the 1970’s which helped to destroy the Whitlam government.

While the government is holding fast to its forecast of 2% growth, it is a prediction which is looking more and more like wishful thinking. Despite the fact that Australia’s position is much more robust than many other countries, we cannot completely insulate ourselves from the impact of what is happening around the world. The truth is that if there is a further shock to come from international markets it could well push our country into recession.

To some extent, that is not really the great cause for concern that some people see it to be. Whether Australia’s economic growth dips a little below zero or stays a little above it, the real damage has already been done. Either way the Australian economy has been hit with a sledgehammer and arguing over whether or not we are in a recession isn’t going to change that. What is important is for our government to use our relative strength to help shield the vulnerable from the storm in the short term, and more importantly to invest in the capacity to create future prosperity in the long term.

Part of that depends on the ability of the State governments to obtain funding to continue investing in infrastructure. That’s why the idea of the Federal Government borrowing to provide finance to the States for infrastructure programs is not the reckless idea that the opposition pretends it to be. Sometimes it’s hard not to get the impression that Malcolm Turnbull would rather that the government did nothing about the Great Financial Crisis.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Hospitals Full, Go To Queensland.

The story of a badly injured road accident victim being airlifted to Queensland for treatment is the most graphic indication yet that the New South Wales public hospital system is at the point of collapse. In fact, this is a level of failure which would seem to indicate that it has already collapsed. Either the New South Wales health system can treat its own citizens, or it can’t. And in this case it didn’t.

It has been reported that 56 year old Georgie Batterson waited at Kempsey for two hours in pain while the trauma doctor from the Westpac Helicopter Rescue Service desperately rang hospitals in Sydney and Newcastle. He was told that there was not one single intensive care bed available. Not anywhere. So the decision was made to take her to Southport in Queensland.

There is no excuse for this to happen in a major industrialized nation in the 21st century. It is the result of two decades of flawed policy, bad management, and denial. For too long, successive governments believed the misguided arguments that modern medicine meant shorter hospital stays and fewer beds. They believed that efficiency meant that getting patients out of hospital was more important than getting them well. But worst of all, when it became obvious that the policies were wrong, they still continued to close down hospital beds in the name of cutting costs.

It’s not just that hospitals are underfunded. In fact, massive amounts of money are spent on hospitals and health, but the problem is that too much of it is badly spent. There is too much bureaucracy, and the massive Area Health Services don’t deliver better outcomes, only more paper work. Emergency departments are under stress not because there are too many patients, but because patients who are seen can’t be admitted to hospital beds.

Rather than setting benchmarks, meeting targets, cutting costs, and delivering efficiency dividends, the real business of Public Hospitals is supposed to be about treating patients. To do that they need to have beds. There is no shortcut for that. And yet after all this it appears that the New South Wales Government still doesn’t get the point. After all this, they are still closing wards and cutting beds.

The dedicated and hardworking doctors and nurses in our public hospitals are doing the very best they can while working within a system which is letting them down. It is only through their heroic efforts that the system works at all. But the truth is that they are expected to meet those benchmarks and reach those targets without being given the tools to do so. That amounts to a form of torture which is both cruel to them, and unfair to the patients who depend on them.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

No Substitute For Supervision

There is no greater tragedy for any family than the loss of a child. No parent who has survived such a thing is ever the same again. While sometimes there is simply nothing that might have been done to change things, it is deeply sad to know that in so many cases the tragedy might have been avoided. Time after time we hear about young children who have drowned in backyard swimming pools. In the past week three have died, prompting calls for new measures to improve pool safety.

While pool fences have been compulsory for more than a decade, there are still many older pools which were exempted from the rules, and many more which are simply not compliant. There are now calls to require older pools to be made compliant when properties are bought and sold, along with suggestions of compulsory safety inspections to be carried out at regular intervals. Both these suggestions are reasonable and could help to make a difference, but of themselves are not enough.

There is also a call for pool owners to learn resuscitation techniques. It is astounding to know that despite the number of pools in the community, only about 2% of adults take basic first aid courses each year. One suggestion is that all pool owners should be licenced, requiring a first aid certificate in order to qualify. Another suggestion is to include CPR lessons in ante-natal classes. Either way, knowledge of CPR can be crucial in saving a child’s life, and although you might think that would be enough to motivate more people to learn, it might well be a good idea to make it compulsory in some way.

Of course, no amount of legislation or regulation will abolish stupidity. There will always be someone who simply doesn’t grasp the importance of simple and effective safety measures. Regardless of how high the fence around the pool, or of how many first aid courses parents might take, some kids will always find a way to get themselves into trouble. And there is one factor which must not be overlooked. Parental supervision.

Even with all the safety measures parents can imagine and all the laws that legislators can dream up, things can still go terribly wrong in a frightening short space of time. By all means, let’s look at the regulations to see if they can be made more effective, but in the end the most effective safety measure of all is to make sure children are properly supervised. When it comes to swimming pool safety there is no substitute for supervision.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Great Australian Hero

A great Australian hero has passed away, and he wasn’t even an Australian. In fact, he hadn’t even set foot in Australia since his controversial departure in 1966. And yet his legacy will continue to help define our national identity for generations to come. Joern Utzon, the Danish architect who created the Sydney Opera House passed away at the weekend at the age of 90. Some believe he was always bitter about his experience with Australia, but others, including his family, say that is not the case.

The story of how the Opera House came to be is an epic saga, and perhaps it could be an opera itself. History remembers the selection of Utzon’s design as the winning entry in an international competition, the arrival of Utzon to oversee the project, and the controversy which followed. The opera house construction project ran years overschedule, and ten times over budget. The political skullduggery saw a shortsighted government virtually sabotage the project by stopping payments to Utzon’s company. The headlines at the time said that he quit, but really he was left unable to pay his staff or keep his office open. He had no choice but to leave.

As a result, the task was completed by others, famously described as “a conspiracy of nobodies”, leading to the now iconic form of the Opera House containing an interior nothing like the one originally intended. Today, work continues to refurbish and revitalize the building, but now it is being done in keeping with design principles drawn up by Utzon himself, and supervised by his son.

The story of the Opera House is more than epic history. It is also a lesson for the 21st Century. At a time when the world is reeling under the influence of the Global Financial Crisis, where bottom line thinking has driven us to the edge of disaster, the Sydney Opera House stands as a symbol of greatness. It has become a unique icon of our nation, a national treasure beyond value. Regardless of the extraordinary cost, and the political acrimony at the time, the investment has turned out to be not only worthwhile, but absolutely priceless. The Opera House should serve to remind us all that life is about more than just money. It is about achievement against adversity, the transcendence of beauty, and the importance of integrity.

Joern Utzon may have lived in Australia for only three years, but his legacy has made a greater contribution to our national identity than any of the petty minded politicians who treated him so badly all those years ago. That makes him a great Australian hero, regardless of his citizenship.