Friday, April 17, 2009

No Excuse For Losing David

Imagine wandering lost in the bush, with no food or water, and a mobile phone with just enough signal strength to call for help. You would imagine that one phone call would summon the help you need to get you out of your predicament. You would imagine that the miracle of modern technology would provide you with a lifeline that previous generations could only dream about. You would imagine that once you established contact with the authorities that they would know what they were doing and take the appropriate action. But you would be clinging to a false hope.

What happened to seventeen year old David Iredale in December of 2006 was inexcusable and unforgiveable. David called 000 not once, but five times, only to be treated with disdain and sarcasm as the operators adhered to a script which demanded that he provide a street address. Obviously, most emergencies take place at a location which can be defined by an address on a map, so it’s an obvious question to have at the top of the list. But what is beyond belief is the revelation that the system has no way of dealing with a reply indicating that there are no streets.

There are three clear problems to emerge from this tragedy. The first is the attitude of operators who are apparently sarcastic, insensitive, and it would seem too stupid to know that there are times when independent thought is required. It is possible that some people who spend all day taking an unending series of emergency calls, some of them petty and annoying, and some of them hoaxes, might at some point become jaded and cynical. But when it gets to the point when they tell a clearly distressed caller to stop shouting at them it is time they found another job.

The second issue is the question of the training and procedure. Operators are working in a call centre where they sit behind a computer screen which displays a script for them to follow. It takes the form of a questionnaire and the first question is the one about the address. Now, obviously it is vital to establish the whereabouts of a caller so that assistance can be sent, and usually that means an address. But it seems that the way this particular program has been designed so much emphasis is placed on identifying a street address that the system cannot proceed without it.

This is where training should come into play. If for any reason circumstances arise which do not fit the pre-determined scenarios in the script on the computer system, the operator should have the training to be able to respond appropriately. In fact, the operator should have the basic intelligence to be able to make a common sense judgment about how to deal with the situation. Failing that, a supervisor should be stepping in.

The third issue is just as shameful as the first two. The really stupid thing about the whole situation is that none of this should be necessary in the first place. We already have the technology to identify the location of any phone making an emergency call. It’s not complicated. It’s not difficult. And many mobile phones already have it built in. It’s called GPS. But for reasons of cost, the phone companies and the authorities have not been able to reach an agreement to implement a simple system where any call made from a mobile phone to the emergency number will automatically have its location plotted within seconds.

What happened to David Iredale should never have happened at all. But until the system itself is changed the chances are it could easily happen again.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Standby For An Early Election

Standby for an early election. The federal government has decided to make a second attempt at introducing its controversial alcopops tax after it was shot down by Senator Stephen Fielding siding with the opposition to vote against it. At the time, the Coalition opposed the tax on the basis that it was a revenue measure masquerading as a health policy, and would not achieve the stated aim of reducing binge drinking, particularly among young people. Senator Fielding, on the other hand, was in favour of the tax, but insisted that it should be a part of a larger suite of measures including a ban on alcohol advertising on television during sports events.

What makes the decision to try again surprising is that nothing has changed. The opposition still opposes it, and Senator Fielding says he will vote against it again if he doesn’t get what he wants. At this point it appears that the government hasn’t changed its position either so there is no reason to expect a different outcome the second time around. Unless the government intends to negotiate further, and possibly give in to some of Senator Fielding’s demands, it is hard to know just what the government expects to achieve.

Certainly, presenting the legislation again provides an opportunity for all parties to reconsider their positions, but at this point that seems most unlikely. It also provides the government with more ammunition to depict the opposition as being obstructionist, pointing to the long list of government initiatives thwarted by a hostile Senate. In fact, the government is already plying this line for all it is worth. But more significantly, if the legislation is rejected a second time it provides a potential trigger for a double dissolution election.

Wayne Swan has said that if the opposition blocks the legislation again it amounts to Malcolm Turnbull “loading the gun” for an early election, but that the government has no intention of firing it. No doubt that is true for now, but the mere fact that the trigger becomes available elevates the political stakes. While it is most unlikely that the government will use a contentious alcohol tax as grounds to call an election, the ability to do so at short notice places renewed pressure onto the opposition, particularly when it is considering all future government proposals. If the opposition votes to block any new measures the government may seek to introduce later this year, it is possible that the government might choose to pull the election trigger.

Timing is also an important factor, with some evidence to suggest that the economy is likely to get considerably worse before it gets better. In that light it is possible that calling an early election in the second half of this year before the unemployment figures become too much worse might be seen as preferable to waiting for the scheduled 2010 election. If the economy hasn’t turned the corner by then, it will be much easier for the opposition, and the voters, to pin the blame on the government. But going to the poles this year, on the basis that the opposition is blocking attempts to deal with the economic mess, would make a lot of sense.

While the debate about binge drinking is an important one, it should be obvious that adjusting the price point by increasing the tax is not in itself a measure that will solve the problem. Price pressure can be one component of a larger campaign to deal with alcohol issues, but by itself won’t stop binge drinking. The simple fact is that individuals who are determined to go on a binge will do so anyway, regardless of the price. While there is some truth to the argument that one step forward in the fight against alcohol related harm is better than no steps, there is also a lot of truth in the suggestion that the government needs the revenue to help the budget bottom line. Of course there’s no reason why you can’t have both the revenue and a campaign against binge drinking, but the evidence suggests that the government is also keeping its options open for an early election.

Even though the government insists that it has no intention of pursuing that option, the right combination of circumstances could well see them reconsider that position. As unemployment becomes worse, don’t be surprised if the government seeks to renew its mandate in the second half of this year.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

It’s The Message That Matters, Not The Medium

News Corporation has today announced a new unit within its organization which will facilitate the sharing of content and resources between the company’s many arms. Much more than a stable of major newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal, The Times of London, and of course the Australian, News Corporation includes television production and broadcasting, movie production and distribution, book publishing, and an expanding presence on the internet including Myspace. It should be a no brainer to see the opportunity to maximize the return on all of that content across the empire.

At the same time, Kevin Rudd’s announcement of a new superfast National Broadband Network has prompted many to observe that online streaming of both audio and video will begin to challenge the existence of traditional television and radio broadcasting. It should be obvious that as the technology of the internet improves, and the ability of portable devices to access it expands it is only a matter of time before traditional broadcasting services could be made obsolete and irrelevant. The day is rapidly approaching when reliable always on wireless broadband will be commonly available in the dashboard of every car, and when that happens radio as we know it could well disappear.

Of course, that doesn’t have to be the case. Just because the platform is changing doesn’t necessarily mean that the radio experience has to be lost. The crucial thing is to see it as a process, not as a piece of equipment. Radio itself has embraced the challenges of a changing landscape over the years and has survived the onslaught of television, the introduction of FM broadcasting, and now the rapid expansion of the internet. Right now, radio is gearing up for digital broadcasting, even though there is still some debate about whether or not the internet will one day make it obsolete. Ironically, that brings us to the point. Either way, the program is going to be digital. The important thing is that technology always changes, and it doesn’t matter how people listen to what we call radio; what matters is the content.

This means two things. First, there will always be a niche for local broadcasting to provide the kind of local content that simply isn’t of interest to a national or international audience. There will always be a need for local news, local sport, local weather, and local community information to be disseminated and local radio remains a great way to achieve that, notwithstanding the current tendencies of big companies to rely on networking and syndicated programs. The day will come when even such local programming is online rather than on the air, but remember it’s not the platform that matters, only the content.

The second thing is the opportunity for non local programming, or what might be described as global programming. As the internet grows and matures into a fully fledged digital media platform, the opportunity will open up for individuals to access virtually any programming from anywhere at anytime. In such an environment, the quality of the content becomes increasingly important. In addition to that, the convergence of media, much discussed for many years, really will become inevitable.

Already there are radio station websites which look like newspaper sites; there are newspaper sites that play streaming video reports; there are television network websites which operate as portals into millions of online classified advertisements. Fairfax, the oldest and most traditional newspaper empire in Australia operates a digital newspaper in Brisbane which exists only on the internet and is never printed on actual paper. In all of the big media companies content which is created for the traditional media will find its way onto the internet, but it is also happening the other way around where content which was generated for the internet is now finding its way onto the traditional media.

For any media organization, whether it is a giant like News Corporation, or a small network of radio stations, the key to ongoing success in a constantly changing environment has to be the creation and management of content. It will be the quality of the content which attracts and keeps an audience, and therefore advertisers, not the platform on which it is delivered. The funny thing is that, when you think about it, that has always been the case. It’s just that sometimes the people running the show forget this because they get carried away with flashy new technology. They are distracted by the medium and they miss the message.

In the end, if the content is not relevant to the audience, whether it is old media or new, people will switch it off.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Stealing From The Poor And Giving To The Rich

If you are looking for a good little business to keep you afloat during this Global Economic Downturn you might just be in luck. A great little cash flow business has just come onto the market, and it could be just the ticket to see you through the tough times. Yes, if you have the upfront cash you could be the lucky bidder to take over running New South Wales Lotteries for the next thirty years, and enjoy a return of around $50 million a year, with unlimited opportunity for future growth. Even better, you can pick all this up for just half a billion dollars, a massive saving on the $800 million that was discussed a few short years ago.

Right now, it would seem that the New South Wales government is desperate to sell just about everything because it is so short of cash. Items up fro grabs include the electricity retailers, a couple of prisons, school playgrounds and various buses and ferries. While there can be sensible and compelling reasons for governments to sell various assets and enterprises, the bottom line here is that the government has mismanaged its way into a position where it is flogging off the farm to pay the bills. Instead of reinvesting the proceeds into capital works, a big chunk of it is set to be used to pay the wages of police and nurses. The problem of course is that they will still need to be paid next year and there won’t be anything left to sell.

New South Wales Lotteries in particular is not an appropriate target for privatization for a long list of reasons. Firstly, it’s just a bad deal. Aside from the fact that selling now while the financial markets are weak guarantees that the price achieved will be considerably less than it otherwise would have been, there is the simple fact that the dividend it provides to the government is a better return on investment than almost anything else that the government could do with the money. It is the proverbial license to print money, so who in their right mind would give that away at a bargain basement price?

Secondly, the purchase of a lottery ticket can be viewed by the individual as a sort of voluntary tax. Yes, you might win something back again, but even if you don’t you know that the money is going towards paying for hospitals and schools, highways and railways. Once the lotteries office is sold to a private operator, such as perhaps Jamie Packer, every lotto ticket you buy is making him richer at your expense. Yes, the government will still collect the gaming taxes, but why sell the goose that lays the golden eggs, even if you put a tax on the eggs? Why not keep the goose and invest the golden eggs into the services that the community should be entitled to expect?

Thirdly, any private operator will expect, and be entitled to expect, the opportunity to expand and grow the business in order to maximize the return on investment. There’s nothing wrong with that except for one little thing. This is not a business in the normal sense of producing a product or service which fills an economic need. It is a gambling operation, and the only way to expand or grow the business is to entice more people to gamble, whether they can afford to or not. It is not socially responsible for a government to be handing over even more gambling operations to the private sector. The reality is that many gambling operations are already in private hands, but the sale of New South Wales Lotteries will only add to the proliferation of gambling which carries proven and significant social costs.

While it is within the government’s prerogative to allow private operators to run gambling outlets, such activities are heavily regulated. Such regulation inevitably means that the fortunate few in a position to command a license become the beneficiaries of gambling, at the expense of the rest of the community. While I am not suggesting that gambling should be unregulated, such an arrangement only serves the interests of the elite, rather than the interests of the people of New South Wales.

Selling the lottery office is quite simply stealing from the poor and giving to the rich.