Friday, February 13, 2009

Malcolm’s Two Bob Each Way.

At last, the federal government’s $42 billion economic stimulus package has been passed by the Senate, allowing the plan to proceed. Although the debate over the plan has been completely overshadowed by the tragic events in Victoria, it has had its own measure of drama. It has been a high stakes political game in which the opposition has made a calculated gamble that may have appeared to be risky, but in fact has been a very successful strategy. The minor party and independent Senators have also played the game for political advantage, but of course the only way for them to walk away as winners was always going to involve eventually allowing the package to pass with whatever concessions they were able to extract from the government, otherwise there would have been no point.

Everybody agreed all along that a stimulus package is needed, including Malcolm Turnbull. The only argument was about the details such as how much to spend and on what. The brilliance of Malcolm Turnbull’s ploy is that it both delineates a point of difference with the government which is consistent with Liberal Party philosophy as well as sets the opposition up for the election campaign of 2010 when it might be expected that the global recession is still rampant, unemployment is higher, the deficit is deeper and the national debt is reaching epic proportions. In that scenario, Malcolm Turnbull will be able to stand in front of the people of Australia and say “I told you so,” all while knowing that if he had been in government at the time, he too would have produced a stimulus plan of similar proportions.

The real beauty of it is that if Australia manages to avoid recession, Mr. Turnbull can then claim that the Labor government over-reacted to the Global Financial Crisis and has plunged the nation into debt needlessly. When disaster is avoided, it is all too easy to believe that there was nothing to worry about in the first place, and that is a feeling which will only serve to substantiate Malcolm Turnbull’s claims. It will also reinforce once again the long standing perception that Labor governments cannot manage money, or the economy. Either way, there is absolutely no risk that the opposition can be blamed no matter what the outcome, because while they voted against the plan, they did so with the knowlege that it would ultimately be passed in some form with the support of the cross benchers.

Meanwhile, the government is now in a position to proceed with the plan and will no doubt continue to enjoy high approval ratings for some time to come. However, if this stimulus package, along with the forthcoming budget and any further stimulus packages fails to prevent recession, there will be a backlash. On the other side of the coin, if it works and recession is averted, the door is open for the opposition to embark upon the “I told you so” campaign. These are among the reasons why, as revealed yesterday, Kevin Rudd may be considering an early election. If he already suspects that the news is only going to get worse it would certainly seem to be an attractive proposition to go to the polls early before voters begin blaming him for the downturn.

It might look like Malcolm Turnbull made an unpopular decision, but in reality he has just pulled off an each way bet.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Early Election Is Cheating The Taxpayer

It has been reported that the Rudd Labor Government may be making preparations for a possible early election to be held later this year. The most obvious indication has been the apparent instruction to the New South Wales movers and shakers to protect Nathan Rees from the much talked about plots to replace him as Premier. Obviously the lacklustre performance of the New South Wales Government would be a liability for Federal Labor if there was to be an early election. But the irony is that it would be good advice for the state government anyway.

To be perfectly blunt, the New South Wales government is already dead. It just hasn’t fallen over yet. Nothing that they do can stop them from being thrown out of office at the next available opportunity in 2011. Even if they replace Mr. Rees all that they will achieve is to create another ex-Premier. About the only thing they could possible do to improve their standing with the voters of New South Wales is precisely what has been suggested. Stop the squabbling over the deck chairs on the sinking ship, and get their heads down and tails up working at fixing the problems which have largely resulted from their own policies anyway. It won’t save them, but it’s the best chance they have.

As for Kevin Rudd possibly going to an early election this year, it’s not difficult to see the political logic supporting the idea. Firstly, there is the Global Financial Crisis. At this point, there is a widespread belief that Mr. Rudd is handling the crisis well. He is seen to be taking action to both help boost the economy and at the same time provide support for ordinary Australians. Whether his $42 Billion Nation Building and Jobs Plan passes the senate or not, Kevin Rudd is the winner because he has come to the aid of the Australian people, where the opposition has chosen to stand between the taxpayer and a cash handout. As time goes by however, there is the risk that the international crisis will continue to get worse before it gets better, with the worst of the impact hitting just as the election falls due at the end of 2010. From that point of view, it is obviously better to be re-elected now, giving the government a guaranteed further three years in office.

No doubt, should he choose the early election option, Mr. Rudd will tell the nation that it is necessary to provide certainty in uncertain times, and to allow the government time to properly manage the crisis. What he won’t admit will be the fact that right now Malcolm Turnbull’s opposition is losing popularity because of its stand on the Economic Stimulus Package. It would certainly be to the government’s benefit to run early before Malcolm Turnbull can get the opportunity to claim vindication, which he certainly will should the stimulus package fail to prevent recession.

Truly hard core cynics will also observe that times of national crisis usually see an increase in support for a national leader, and the bushfire tragedy in Victoria certainly qualifies as a national crisis. The truth is that even without this terrible event, the opportunity exists for the government to take the early poll option in an attempt to catch the opposition on the back foot. The harsh reality is that in politics the only thing that matters is winning.

Of course, there is also a risk involved in going to the polls early. Voters can feel that a government is being too clever by half, and is simply playing politics for a perceived advantage. Get it wrong, and the government has just thrown away the remainder of its term. Although it was once common to have early elections, Australians have in recent years become accustomed to their governments running full term, or close to it. There is an increased feeling that once a government has been elected for three years there is an obligation to stay the distance.

Of course, it costs money to hold an election, so doing so more often than you have to is quite literally cheating the taxpayer.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Trying To Make Sense Of What Is Essentially Senseless

Yesterday I spoke about four questions that need answers in relation to the Victorian bushfire tragedy. Mush of my discussion was to do with the first three questions which were about hazard reduction, construction codes, and the debate over the “stay and defend” policy. The fourth question was the question of how to deal with arsonists. In many ways, this is the most difficult question. That’s because the first three can be the subject of rational inquiry and judgments can be made on the basis of accumulated evidence and analysis. When it comes to the fourth question however, much of the discussion is centered around simply increasing penalties.

While it provides some sense of satisfaction to think of harsher penalties applying, especially in such extreme circumstances, the truth is that tougher penalties alone are not the answer. In the wake of the unprecedented devastation in Victoria references to “mass murder” and “fire terrorists” have been used with ample justification. There is also justification for the suggestion that perhaps a new category of crime should be created to reflect the seriousness of what has occurred. However, the evidence available suggests that jail sentences are not a deterrent to arsonists for the simple reason that arsonists are motivated by psychological flaws which will not be made to go away no matter how long an arsonist might be locked up.

Imprisonment is not going to rehabilitate an arsonist, and the threat of prison is not going to be a deterrent. Of course, if an arsonist is found guilty of mass murder and is locked away for life it does at least prevent him from doing it again. While that is a good thing, the majority of arsonists are locked away for shorter periods of time, only to be released at some stage with no reduction in the likelihood of reoffending. And while imprisonment can keep the community safe for a time by removing an offender from the community, it doesn’t prevent the offence in the first place.

It turns out that although there are some early intervention programs for juvenile offenders intended to identify and redirect troubled youth, there is very little in place to specifically deal with personality types who might evolve into arsonists. More to the point, there is also very little research available on the psychological profile of arsonists and the ways in which such thought processes work. The research which is available points to individuals who are almost always male, socially inadequate, and may be angry with society, seeking attention or power, or simply bored and sociopathic.

Over the past thirty years the incidence of arson has increased out of all proportion to the growth in population. The mere fact that arson is becoming more common should be enough to tell us that there is something we are missing. Whether it is a matter of social maladaption, or some form of personality disorder, or whatever the explanation might be, present measures are not preventing offenders from committing arson, or from becoming repeat offenders. While I believe it is appropriate to make stronger penalties available, especially for the extreme circumstances we have seen this week, it is also important to commit greater efforts to understanding the psychology of arson and preventing such behavior before it develops. To achieve that, it is necessary to apply the same principles of rational inquiry and evidentiary analysis to the matter of arsonists as to the other questions of fire safety strategy.

It may seem like trying to make sense out of what is essentially senseless, but it’s a step towards reducing the risk of such things happening again.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bushfire Questions Must Be Answered

The devastating bushfires haven’t even all been put out yet and already the cavalcade of expert and not so expert opinion is becoming an avalanche. It’s only natural that human beings look for answers in time of tragedy in an effort to find some sort of meaning behind seemingly senseless events. When the forces of nature remind us all that we are so much less powerful than we sometimes think we are it’s only natural to seek reassurance, even to attempt to reassert ourselves as having some sort of command over our own destiny. It’s one of the things that makes us human.

In time the Royal Commission which has been ordered by Victorian Premier John Brumby will address many of the questions and concerns which are now becoming a part of public debate. Was there something more or better we could have done to prevent the tragedy? Have “green” environmental policies led to higher risks as a result of abandoning hazard reduction measures? Is the “stay and defend” policy the appropriate response in the face of such extreme conditions? And just what exactly can be done to deal with arsonists who have quite justifiably been described as mass-murders and terrorists?

I can’t answer all of those questions, and I doubt that many of us can, but like most of us I find that the emotions involved in these events produce an urge to make the attempt to find those answers. While I can’t offer a scientific opinion, others can, such as David Packham from the Monash University climatology group who has made a study of bushfires. He and others have repeatedly pointed to the need for a return to hazard reduction strategies. Mr. Packham points out that reducing forest density and removing the fine fuel of twigs and undergrowth produces an exponential reduction in the intensity of any fire. His figures indicate that hazard reduction can and does make the difference between a fire which can be fought and survived and a fire which is impossible to survive.

On that basis alone it would seem that years of conservationist policies have been misguided, both in causing increased fire risk and at the same time failing to conserve the environment. Surely common sense would tell us that hazard reduction means a reduction in both the risk and the severity of any fire. Although there are those who seem to believe that environmental preservation can only mean refraining from interfering with it in any way, I fail to see why genuine environmental preservation should not involve active management of natural landscapes to provide for both fire safety and heritage protection.

It should also be a matter of common sense that building codes for forested areas should require dwellings to be built in a fire resistant manner and provide both the type of structures and the appropriate means to implement a “stay and defend” policy. Why have such a policy at all if the nature of the construction and the landscaping as well as the lack of safe refuge areas are all working against the success of that policy? These recommendations are not new, and they are not mine. They have emerged from several inquiries and investigations after previous bushfire disasters, and many of them have already been put into place in New South Wales, while for some reason in Victoria they have not.

As for how to deal with arsonists, I am sure there is no shortage of opinions on that. With the Prime Minister describing such an act as mass-murder, and the Federal Attorney General calling for any culprits to be charged accordingly, I think it’s safe to suppose that we all feel the same way.

Of course, these are all matters that will and must be dealt with in due course in the weeks and months ahead. Right now the priority remains assisting those most in need. And even on that score, more and more people are coming forward with suggestions. Some have suggested that the huge lotto jackpots up for grabs this week could have a proportion donated to the cause. Others have suggested that when Kevin Rudd’s $950 bonuses are handed out many people might choose to donate those. All good suggestions, but the important thing is that we are all doing whatever we can.

Monday, February 9, 2009

We Can All Help

The sheer scale of the bushfire disaster in Victoria is enough in itself to leave a person speechless. We have seen the Prime Minister struggle to comfort victims, and the Premier of Victoria break down with emotion. The loss of life and the destruction of property have been devastating, and the raging violence of the fires inspires a level of horror that is difficult to confront. Like any natural disaster, the impact is both widely and deeply felt. But what is truly horrifying is the idea that not one, but possibly several of the fires have been deliberately lit.

Psychologists and other experts will have their explanations of how a mind might work in such a way as to be capable of this evil, but most of us just can’t contemplate such a thing. People are capable of all kinds of stupidity, but this goes beyond stupidity. It can only be the work of a defective mind which has somehow developed with some crucial component missing. Like the idiots who throw rocks from overpasses at moving traffic, these are people who behave in a way which is less than human.

Most forms of crime have some sort of motivation that the rest of us can at least understand, even if we disagree with it. Murders can be motivated by greed, or revenge, or fear. Theft, assault, even rape, we can comprehend in one way or another. But deliberately starting bushfires has no rational explanation. It has been explained to me that this type of behavior is a way of demonstrating power, sometimes associated with characters who feel they have none. Obviously, it is an illusion of power rather than real power, but sadly the tragic results are all too real.

Some are referring to arsonists as mass murderers, others as terrorists, and it’s a choice of words which is not too extreme. While police in Victoria are investigating the causes of these fires, the expectation is that anyone found to be responsible will be charged with murder. That may or may not be appropriate depending on the circumstances, but even if someone has started a fire which accidently got out of hand the charge needs to be sufficiently serious to reflect the enormity of the consequences.

At the same time, if there is anything that is good to come out of such tragedy it is the simple fact that once again, in the face of disaster, Australians will put aside their differences and do whatever it takes to help. It is the Australian way, a part of the national character and one of the values we cherish most. We look after our mates.

The Australian Red Cross is conducting the official appeal in conjunction with the Victorian government. The big banks are helping, the government is chipping in, and the Salvos, as always, are out there too. No doubt, thousands of other organizations, businesses, community groups, and individuals will also do anything and everything they can. If you want to help you can call the Red Cross on 1800 811 700.