Friday, July 24, 2009

Chill Out And Help Out!

Today is Lifeline’s National Stressdown Day, and so I am writing this from the sunlounge by the pool while sipping on a Brave Bull. That’s a Tequila with Kahlua, and the coke is optional, but that’s beside the point. Apparently research for Lifeline has shown that 87% of Australians are stressed, and that’s not good. I suppose it’s alright for the 13% who are not stressed, and presumably are having a fine time. In fact I think I can see them now over on the other side of the pool. But for most of us this stress thing is becoming, well… stressful.

It turns out the most stressful occupations in the community are in the fields of health and community services. That’s not really surprising given that those people have been given the job of providing the critical services which the community ought to be entitled to expect and yet have been given too little money, too few resources, and no encouragement at all. They are given policies, protocols, guidelines, and benchmarks to adhere to, but not the actual facilities they need to do so. We have hospitals with not enough beds, not enough doctors and not enough nurses. We have community workers attempting accommodate thousands of disabled people in a few dozen places. And we have politicians and bureaucrats who manage to run up six fugure lunch bills.

Second on the list of most stressful occupations is education. But that’s hardly surprising given the extraordinary number of rampant anklebiters running riot in our society today. Having been spawned by bogan mothers lying back thinking of their country, as Peter Costello once instructed, and then cashing in the bonus cheque to buy a 50 inch flat screen TV screening non stop Jason Statham action movies, it’s no wonder that there’s a new generation of idle youth which aspires to a life of belligerence, bellicosity, and bashing each other up. It’s only a matter of time until they become binge drinking teenagers, and unemployable graffiti criminals. If that’s what teachers have to deal with these days it’s a marvel that they too aren’t becoming binge drinkers.

Third on the list is “personal and other services”, whatever that means. It could be anything from lawyers to prostitutes, which are pretty much the same thing anyway, that’s why they’re called solicitors, only the prostitutes are honest about it. But it is exceedingly curious that there is no mention of Politicians on the list. Surely with the great and grave responsibilities which confront our politicians they must suffer from terrible levels of stress. Imagine the guilt of sitting back in those big leather armchairs in the sumptuous climate controlled citadels they call offices, fretting and worrying about how to explain that long overseas journey, or the even longer lunches. It must be hell being a politician.

Yes, there’s no shortage of stress in the world today, so it’s probably a good idea to take some time out from struggling with the daily routine of meeting impossible deadlines, wondering how the hell you’re going to be able to afford the next mortgage payment, let alone a tank full of petrol, and stop to smell the proverbial roses. I’m doing my bit, relaxing here by the pool, and you should too. My only concern is that sooner or later the people who run this five star resort are going to realize that my credit card has been declined and they will probably start to become unpleasant and force me to leave. What a pity I never went into politics…

By the way, if you do feel really stressed out and feel like you need to talk about it, give Lifeline a call on 13 11 14. They’re good people and they really do want to help. As for the rest of us, perhaps we should stop worrying quite so much about ourselves, and send a few dollars over to Lifeline to help them out. It really does make a difference.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Passing Judgement

The suggestion by a South Australian judge that there is a difference between a rape and a “technical” rape has triggered a savage backlash. The case in question involved a man who had met a woman at a pub. Both were drinking. Both were intoxicated. They agreed to have sex in a nearby park, and went off to do so. Unfortunately, the woman fell asleep during the process, but the man continued on anyway. The judge indicated that he believed that the offender had not done anything to which the victim would not have consented had she remained conscious.

While it is possible to understand that the judge is attempting to make a distinction between this event and other more violent forms of sexual assault, the fact remains that any decent person would believe that continuing on when a woman has become unconscious is just not right, regardless of the law and any issues of consent. In fact the law itself makes the distinction that an unconscious person is not capable of giving consent, and therefore the act is illegal.

Whether or not the judge is in error, this case does raise the question of whether there are degrees of rape, or even degrees of guilt. Is it not reasonable to recognize a distinction between the violence of what is commonly understood to be a rape, and the less clear situation of misunderstandings, miscommunications and just bad judgment? People do get themselves into awkward situations without necessarily having malicious intent, and isn’t intent itself a component in any crime that might be committed?

It could be argued that in this case, consent had already been given, the green light had already been signaled, and the drunken decision by the man was not much more than an unfortunate misjudgment. In fact, that appears to be what the judge is suggesting. However, that fails to take into account that there clearly has been an issue over consent evidenced by the simple fact that not only have charges been laid, but the man himself has pleaded guilty. Even he knows that what he did was wrong.

The judge is right to point out that there are serious consequences to being labeled for the rest of your life as a convicted rapist. But there is every reason for there to be serious consequences. That’s the whole point. When we do something wrong, we are supposed to end up in trouble. We are supposed to pay the penalty. It is supposed to be the job of the judge to determine that penalty, according to the law, and in line with community expectations. In this case, the judge seems to be questioning both.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Turnbull’s Dilemma

It’s almost tempting to feel sorry for Malcolm Turnbull. Despite the fact that he is richer than just about all of us will ever be, despite the fact that he has enjoyed success in a series of careers, despite the fact that he has accomplished more in his life so far than almost any of his parliamentary colleagues, he seems to attract political misfortune like a magnet. After the embarrassment of the utegate affair, in which his own impatience combined with the efforts of his scheming supporters led to the appearance of ineptitude, he now stands accused of “arrogance and inexperience”.

Maverick Liberal backbencher Wilson Tuckey has reportedly distributed an email among colleagues making the allegation in relation to Mr. Turnbull’s handling of Emissions Trading policy, and asserting that the party must address the issue. While Mr. Tuckey is known for being a colourful character, he is not alone in his opinions about the proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, and how the opposition should deal with it. He and some other Liberals, along with many Nationals all want the legislation opposed. However, Mr. Turnbull has appeared to indicate the possibility of negotiating amendments and allowing a modified version of the bill to pass.

Some, like shadow treasurer Joe Hockey have attempted to gloss over any divisions within the coalition by insisting that the stated policy of delaying an emissions trading scheme until after the world meets in Copenhagen in December has not changed. The suggestion is that any scheme Australia implements should be aligned with whatever trading scheme the rest of the world puts into place, especially the United States. The problem is that if that is the case, sooner or later the coalition has to actually produce a policy which delineates their view of such a trading scheme.

It is fair to say that Malcolm Turnbull’s observation of the need for amendments to the current proposals reflects that position. It’s just a matter of timing as to when exactly the coalition intends to come forward with its proposals. On the other hand, Mr. Tuckey and some of his colleagues seem to cling to the opinion that no climate change policy is needed at all. Some of them seem to be still unconvinced that there is any man made climate change at all. That’s all very well, and people are entitled to their views, but it is not in the interests of the Liberal Party to have no policy at all.

The fact is that whether Wilson Tuckey or anyone else believes in the need for action on climate change, the rest of the world is taking action, which will impact on the way we do business here. The fact is that if Australia does not take a seat at the table we will be cut out of the game, whatever form it finally takes. The fact is that as many as 80% of Australian voters want progress to be made on climate change policy, and what Wilson Tuckey is proposing is to delay progress. The bottom line for the Liberal and National Parties is that they need to come up with a consistent, coherent policy, what ever it might be, which they can explain to the Australian people and which can provide the basis for their dealings with the government.

Malcolm Turnbull knows that. Industry and business groups know that. The voters know that. But apparently Wilson Tuckey does not.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fee For Service… What Service?

It might be a coincidence, but on the same day that Telstra announced that it would introduce a $2.20 fee for customers who choose to pay their bill in person the company’s share price went up. Perhaps the shareholders were rubbing their hands together in glee at the prospect of adding, according to some reports, “several hundreds of millions of dollars” to the bottom line. Presumably, much of that sum is expected to come from saving on the cost of employing staff to work behind the counter as more customers are pushed into paying online to avoid the fee. Some of it no doubt will come from the fee itself as some people stubbornly cling to the basic human right to actually pay cash for the goods and services they purchase.

Quite rightly, Telstra points out that they are simply falling into line with what has become accepted industry practice, and that other companies have been charging such fees for some time. But of course, that doesn’t make it any more acceptable. It doesn’t make it fair and it doesn’t make it right. Quite the opposite. It is just one more nail in the coffin of a free society where citizens are forced to be consumers and then have their money cunningly extracted from their pockets by an ever increasing array of fees, charges, levies, taxes and tolls, just for going about their daily existence.

As I understand it cash is still considered to be legal tender, good for payment of all debts within the borders of this great commonwealth, by decree and guarantee of the government we have elected to protect our interests. If I wish to purchase any goods or services from you, and the price is agreed, then I have the fundamental right to pay you in cash and consider the debt settled. I certainly do not accept the notion that I should be charged an additional fee for the privilege of paying you what I owe. It is the long standing principle in business that the cost of receiving payment for goods and services sold is an overhead of the business.

Even the economic rationalists who harp on about a “user pays” approach have missed the point that in this case it is the business who is the “user” of whatever method is employed to receive payments from customers. If I go to a shoe shop to buy a pair of shoes, I pay whatever the price on the sticker on the box says, minus any discount I can negotiate through the employment of charm and persuasion. I do not pay an additional fee for the cardboard box which contains the shoes. I do not pay an additional fee for making an over the counter purchase. I do not pay an additional fee for the privilege of speaking with the shoe sales person. I do not pay an additional fee for standing inside the shop where the shoes are sold. All of those things are overheads, and are the responsibility of the business which id the “user” of those overheads.

Of course, it’s not just Telstra. I have made the same arguments over bank fees and charges for years. And I also feel the same way about electronic tolling. Putting aside the issue of the need to actually pay tolls in the first place, which in itself is an affront to liberty and a blatant extortion of people who have already paid their taxes and registration, electronic tolling is also another elaborate method to extract more money form the pockets of everyday people who are already struggling to survive. I should have the right to show up at your toll road or bridge or tunnel and say “Right, here I am, I want to use your rod and here’s my cash.” But instead I have to go to all the time and trouble to obtain an electronic device, pay for it, deposit money into an account, and keep that account above a certain balance even though I might have more urgent need for the money elsewhere.

Perhaps I am in the minority on this. Perhaps most people are happy to be penalized for paying cash, which supposed to be legal tender. Perhaps most people think E-tags are a good thing because you don’t have to slow down on the bridge. But if you stop and think about it, surely it is obvious that bit by bit, cent by cent, simple rights and freedoms are being taken away in the name of efficiency and a better way. My question is more efficient for whom? Better for whom? The people paying for it? Or the people collecting the money?

Monday, July 20, 2009

If You Believe They Put A Man On The Moon…

The fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing has arrived, and while the NASA boffins and their fans are marking the occasion with the appropriate celebrations, I wonder just what it all means, if anything, to ordinary people. Many of course simply do not believe it ever happened. They believe that it was all a massive deception, despite the fact that there is no rational motive for such a thing, and a massive 400 000 Americans were involved in one way or another in actually making it happen. The idea that it was a conspiracy of such proportions is itself outlandishly unlikely. Any examination of the facts not only leads to the conclusion that it really happened, but also just how amazing the accomplishment really was.

At a time when the future was uncertain, overshadowed by the Vietnam War and the threat of a nuclear world war, President Kennedy’s greatest achievement was not the moon landing itself, but providing the vision, the purpose, and the inspiration to make it happen. In the space of a single decade the space program went from a pie in the sky idea to the most far reaching expedition of all time. It was achieved, not just by spending lots of money, but by effectively managing the project, co-ordinating resources, focusing the combined efforts of almost half a million people, and sheer determination.

Even at the time, and still to this day, many have suggested that the money could have been better spent on feeding the hungry and helping the poor. Certainly the scale of spending was huge, but the criticism is misdirected. Not spending the money on the space program would be no guarantee that it would be put to better use elsewhere. That is not how governments work. The true lesson from the Apollo program should have been that a similar commitment of intellectual capital, rather than financial capital, could achieve the noble goal of ending poverty. It was the sense of purpose that made it happen, not just the dollars and cents.

At the same time, there are literally thousands of benefits that have flowed from the space program, ranging from the well publicized Velcro and Teflon, through to the obvious advances in computers and communication. Other less well known advances in medicine, industrial chemistry, and thousands of other areas, can all be connected to research from the space program. Without the decade of accelerated development in the sixties, life today would be very different. Even the effort to reduce poverty has been advanced by the availability of new technology to improve quality of life.

Now, forty years later, when we ask whether it was all worth it, the question can be seen from a different perspective. Life has changed dramatically since 1969, but not necessarily in the ways that were expected. Travel to the moon has not become routine. There is no Moonbase. There has been no manned landing on Mars. The space program now could be seen as lacking the sense of direction and purpose which it once had. Even the current plans for a return to the moon by 2018 and to land humans on Mars within 50 years have failed to inspire the population, and are subject to constant review which could see them delayed or even dropped altogether.

Here on earth, the story of Apollo has become a quaint page from history, one which runs the risk of becoming little more than the memory of a detour which petered out at a dead end, should the space program ever be cancelled. It is a curiosity, which has little meaning for many people today, and as the years go by there will be fewer and fewer people left who were alive at the time that it all happened. In some ways it marks a high point from which humanity seems to have retreated.

While we have more and better technology now, it is easy to think that we are doing less with it. Where are the bold visions for a better future? Where are the ambitions to inspire, not just a nation, but all nations? Where is the John F. Kennedy of our time who not only has the bold vision we need, but also the persuasiveness, charm and perseverance to make such visions reality? Sadly, such men are rare, and if we are to achieve such greatness in our time we need to find something we have lost. We need not just a goal, but a positive purpose which will inspire us all.

That is the true legacy of Apollo 11.