Friday, September 4, 2009

Just When You Thought Things Could Not Get Any Worse

Just when you thought things could not get any worse for the New South Wales government, yet another disaster occurs. Let’s see now, this week kicked off with the major business organizations issuing a public warning that the Labor Party’s lack of internal discipline was bringing the state into disrepute and further undermining business confidence. Then came the decision by the Land and Environment Court which found that deeds of agreement swapping conservation land for development approvals were invalid, and gave the impression that approvals could be bought. However, before we could even realize just how embarrassing this was for a government already laboring under the perception of being incompetent, the blonde bombshell was dropped all over the front page of the Telegraph.

While the John Della Bosca resignation occurred suddenly and unexpectedly under spectacular circumstances, the fallout is likely to continue, well falling out, for quite some time. The news that the health portfolio is now temporarily in the hands of a former health minister who already has his hands full as attorney general was seen as a blow to a sector which not only needs a full time minister, but which can’t seem to keep the same minister in the seat for more than about twelve months. This is even less welcome at a time when the widely held perception is that the health sector is undergoing a crisis, and is in need of urgent reform.

More bad news has followed with the relationship between the government and the Shooters Party reported to have broken down. This means that unless the government can strike a deal with the greens, or even the opposition, none of its legislation will pass through the upper house. To all intents and purposes, the government of New South Wales has been plunged into a state of paralysis. It is no wonder that people keep asking if there is some way to sack the government and go to an election. Of course, the answer to that is no, we are stuck with them until 2011.

Now, the latest horror to be served up is the report that an elderly man in Concord Hospital was allowed to lie on a bedpan for nearly a week, so that it actually became embedded in his skin. While there are conflicting reports about the accuracy of the story, it seems that there is no doubt that the man has some very unpleasant injuries, and it appears that they may have been inflicted through some form of negligence. While John Della Bosca is not personally responsible for such a thing occurring, it is yet another sign that the health system is continuing to let us down badly, at a time when it would seem that the minister in charge has had his mind on other matters.

All in all it has not been a week to inspire any confidence in the government. The only positive thing to come out of it all is that it now appears that the heat has gone out of the leadership question. With one of the potential challengers now on the sidelines, the Premier may now actually have the opportunity to get on with the job of running the state. Of course, if things keep on going as they have been, pretty soon there won’t be any more leadership contenders left at all, and Nathan Rees will be the last man standing. But don’t bet on it.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What You Lose On The Swings, You Gain On The Roundabouts

Last week I suggested that the request by industrial relations minister Julia Gillard for the Industrial Relations Commission to phase in the new modernized industrial awards system would deliver the reforms in a way which would ease concerns about increased costs to business. Apparently I was not entirely right. Now that the Commission has released its determination, which includes a six month delay to the start date as well as the five year phase-in, business groups are claiming that the process has delivered a result which breaks the promise that no employer would be subject to an increased cost burden.

Interestingly, unions are also calling foul, suggesting that the combination of transition arrangements and the introduction of changes to allowances and conditions means that some workers will experience a fall in take home pay, before any benefit from increases to award and penalty rates come into play further down the track. Unions claim that this too represents a breach of faith from a government which also promised that no worker would be disadvantaged.

On the face of it, with both the unions and business unhappy with the outcome, it might be tempting to think that the result must be a reasonable compromise. After all, both sides are equally disappointed. But that doesn’t recognize the fundamental problem which has led to this state of affairs. The Commission itself however has identified the problem exactly. The Commission’s full bench has found that the government’s objectives of reforming awards while disadvantaging no one are “potentially competing”. The Commission has indicated that it is clear that “some award conditions will increase, leading to cost increases, and others will decrease, leading to potential disadvantage to employees”. What this essentially means is that the government appears to have made a pair of conflicting promises and it cannot keep either of them.

Of course, it should have been common sense that the process of reducing the number of awards while providing uniformity across jurisdictions would inevitably lead to an outcome with winners and losers. The promise to disadvantage no one would appear to have been a rash one, unless the intention was to create no net disadvantage after all the winners and losers were tallied up. Or perhaps the intention was to weigh up any costs incurred against the economic benefits of achieving a simplified uniform national awards system. Whatever the case, the fact is that there will be increased costs to business, and the government’s promise will have been broken.

But it doesn’t have to be. The simple solution to the impasse on increased costs to employers is to offset those costs in other ways. One way to do that is to enter into an arrangement with the states to reduce payroll tax, or to cut the other compliance costs and on-costs associated with employment. Small businesses might be offered an employment tax credit to offset the cost, and encourage job creation. The benefit is that these measures would preserve the wages and conditions of workers, protect employers from increased costs, add further stimulus to the economy in a way which supports business, and in the long run increase the government’s revenue from GST and income tax as a result of the economic growth.

After all, it is a well tested economic theory that what you lose on the swings, you gain on the roundabouts.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Other Piece Of The Puzzle Is Stress

The release of the Federal Government’s Preventative Health Taskforce report has presented a range of recommendations to deal with the big three health challenges which confront our nation. They are the continued rise in obesity, the abuse of alcohol and the impact of tobacco smoking. But the authors of the report insist that it is much more than simply a collection of recommendations. They say that it is a plan to reverse one of the most alarming trends of our time, which will, if unchecked, will see our children experiencing a reduction in life expectancy from one generation to the next for the first time in our history.

For much of the twentieth century, a combination of improving medical technology and unprecedented prosperity has meant that both quality of life and life expectancy have improved dramatically. One hundred years ago, average life expectancy was less than 50 years. Now it is more than eighty. Along with that, improvements in medicine have kept most of us in good health for longer. But unfortunately, it appears that the same prosperity which has made that possible has also made people less active and more likely to eat too much, or just too much of the wrong foods. If the research is right, it would appear that we are at a tipping point where we can either continue in the same way, allowing our children to become fatter and confront the prospect of declining health and a shorter life, or change they way we do things and turn the trend around.

While the proposal to increase the tax on cigarettes and put them into plain packaging has received a great deal of attention, that is only one aspect of the report and one which is likely to meet the least resistance. There is nothing good that can be said for cigarettes, so it’s hard to argue against measures which make them more expensive and less attractive. Changes in the treatment of alcohol may meet with more objections, but ultimately will probably come to pass. Restrictions on the advertising of junk foods, and improvements in food labeling are likely to be welcomed enthusiastically by parents, while manufacturers and vendors may be less enthusiastic. All of these measures are likely to have positive health impacts, but is there a piece missing from the puzzle?

A big part of the challenge for ordinary everyday people is to not only make ends meet in the user pays world of economic rationalism, but to even find the time to be more healthy. Part of the price of our apparent prosperity is that, on average, we all work more hours than almost any other country, leaving less time to get out and enjoy a brisk walk in the fresh air. Lower income people, who may have more time but less money, can’t always afford healthier food when the junk food alternative is so often actually cheaper. Increasing levels of social anxiety only contribute to the inability of people to relax and enjoy a more healthy lifestyle, while some of us relieve the stress of surviving the modern world by having a big night out, which might be bad for us in the long run, but makes us feel good at the time.

While the recommendations of the report are all very worthy and for the most part worthwhile, the real solution to lifestyle related health issues won’t be found until we also find a way to make achieving that lifestyle a little less demanding and stressful.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Affairs Of State

The surprise resignation of John Della Bosca as health minister and leader of the government in the Legislative Council represents the latest in a long series of disappointments delivered by members of a government which has run well past its use by date. Rather than occupy themselves with running the affairs of state, they have been chasing their own tails over the leadership of the party, and now it seems just plain old chasing tail. It’s not because he has been involved in an affair with a younger woman, and it’s not because he has been unfaithful to his wife and family. Those are matters that are nobody’s business but their own. What matters is the allegation that it has interfered with his ability to fulfill his duties.

The Daily Telegraph reports that the young woman at the heart of the matter has claimed that she didn’t know how the minister found the time to do his job because he spent so much time with her. She has specifically stated that there were times when the minister cancelled work to be with her. She has alleged that the minister missed a flight to Armidale to meet with health department officials and to attend the opening of a hospital, spending the day with her instead. John Della Bosca rejects the allegations that he neglected his duties, but that won’t stop many people from believing that he has, which in politics is close enough to kill a career.

Of course, politicians have had affairs before, as have doctors, lawyers, journalists, housewives, and landscape gardeners. It hasn’t stopped them from doing their jobs, and ordinary everyday people won’t find themselves on the front page of the newspaper if they do. Moral judgments about politicians’ private lives are not commonly a part of the Australian experience, unless there is any suggestion of abuse or illegality. An affair is not necessarily enough in itself to warrant a resignation, but from a political perspective there really was no other option. Mr. Della Bosca himself has said that his poor personal choices should not be allowed to be a distraction from the important issues of running the government, and that’s why he has quit.

In a way, he is right. His private affairs should not be allowed to detract from affairs of state. But that is why so many people are so outraged. At a time when the government already has an abysmal reputation for its consistent failure to deliver adequate services for the people of New South Wales, when business leaders have publicly warned the government that their own lack of discipline is damaging the reputation of the state and hindering investment, at a time when the party can’t even make up its own mind about who should be Premier, at a time when the majority of voters are itching to tick the box marked “none of the above”, this is a distraction which is appalling.

If there is anything good to come out of this entire debacle it is that there is now a very good chance that it will actually stabilize the leadership of Nathan Rees. One of the key contenders and back room powerbrokers has been put out of action, probably permanently. Not only has he been ruled out of consideration for the top job, it would be reasonable to assume that his once great influence inside the party has been further diminished. In the wake of this disaster, even the most cynical plotters will realize that it is now imperative for the remaining players to band together to support the incumbent Premier. They might just realize that it is far better to work at shoring up the Premier’s perceived weaknesses rather than trying to exploit them. They might just finally understand that it is far better to actually stop the scheming and plotting and focus on employing whatever talents they do have on actually trying to dig the state of New South Wales out of the hole of despair they themselves have helped to excavate.

They might, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Monday, August 31, 2009

We Are All Responsible

There can be no greater tragedy than the loss of a child. The death of fifteen year old Jai Morcom after a brawl at Mullumbimby High School is such a tragedy, and although the details of just exactly what happened are not yet clear, it would seem to be a tragedy amplified by the sense that it should never have happened at all. While politicians and school administrators claim to have successful anti bullying measures and that any outbreaks of violence which do occur are treated with a zero tolerance policy, many parents and students know a different reality.

There have been allegations that trouble has been brewing at Mullumbimby High School for a number of years, and that the particular feud which led to Friday’s tragedy has been running for some time. Other schools have featured in controversial reports of schoolyard bashings captured on camera and uploaded to the internet. Still more instances of so called cyber-stalking have also made the news. Some of these activities are carried on outside the school yard fence and beyond the reach of teachers and principals, but it is at school where the interactions between warring students usually begin.

Don’t be fooled by suggestions that there is a difference between bullying and a dispute that erupts into a physical fight. Both stem from an individual’s belief that there is an entitlement to force his or her will upon another. The only difference is that a so called bully picks a weaker victim who can’t or won’t fight back. Just because a bully picks a fight with “someone his own size” as the saying goes, doesn’t make him any more a well adjusted individual or any less dangerous.

Schoolyard bullies and schoolyard fights are nothing new. They have been around for as long as there have been schools. It is a part of human nature that in any institutional environment a hierarchy develops, and amongst children animal instincts can prevail without an understanding of why or from where they came. What is new is the range of modern methods of mediation, dispute resolution, and counseling. What is new is the politically correct culture of zero tolerance where intended victims who are brave enough to defend themselves are equally vilified for not lying down and allowing themselves to be beaten.

But despite all the talk of zero tolerance and victim support, it would seem that bullying has not gone away, and nor is it likely to. It is too easy to simply blame schools for inadequate policies and procedures, or to blame the government for inadequate support for teachers. The truth is that aggression and bullying in schools is just a part of a much bigger problem with aggression and bullying in the community generally. We live in a world where gratuitous violence is glorified in films and video games, where supposedly mature adults perpetrate acts of road rage, and where abusive language and obscene gestures are considered to be a legitimate means of self expression. When it comes to teaching our children that there is a better way we all have a responsibility, one that starts in the home, and which extends to everything we do.