Friday, November 20, 2009

Raising The Drinking Age Is Not The Solution

Rising concerns about the prevalence of binge drinking, and the associated incidence of offensive, abusive and violent behavior, have led to renewed debate about the regulation of alcohol in our society. This week, the Police Commissioners of the nation have joined together to launch “Operation Unite” cracking down on bad behavior, while renewing calls for changes to the law. Health authorities are also calling for changes, with one prominent expert, Professor Ian Hickey proposing that the legal drinking age should increase to nineteen.

While there is growing evidence that exposure to alcohol at an early age has significant consequences in terms of brain development, that’s not really an issue by the time a person is eighteen. By that age it would seem that the issue is more related to people’s propensity to engage in risky activity such as drink driving, getting into fights, or simply having physical accidents because they are drunk. As for becoming violent and abusive while under the influence, older people can be just as badly behaved.

It is clear that there is a problem with alcohol related violence, and it should be recognized that there is a range of contributing factors. While age might be one of them, other factors include an apparent increase in belligerence in society in general, a decline in respect for authority, increased opportunity through longer alcohol trading hours, and a decline in personal responsibility. For some people, it seems that everything is someone else’s fault, and instead of minding their own behavior they become arbiters of everybody else’s behavior. If someone is seen to step out of line, they take it upon themselves to punish that person, whether verbally or otherwise. Add alcohol and the confrontation is magnified out of all proportion.

This is supposed to be a free society, and as such we should be able to enjoy our freedom to go where we please, as we please. But that freedom comes with a responsibility to respect each other, and to be courteous and well behaved. That respect comes along with people taking responsibility for their own behavior, choosing not to take offense at others, choosing not to be belligerent, and choosing to drink at safe and responsible levels.

I don’t believe that simply being intoxicated should be illegal. That’s a personal choice, regardless of whether it is good or bad for your health. But being abusive and violent is already illegal, and if getting drunk makes you abusive or violent then you should not be surprised if you wind up in trouble with the law. That’s personal responsibility. There is a good argument for regulating trading hours as a means of discouraging people from becoming a nuisance in the early hours of the morning. There is also a good argument for regulating advertising, and for running education campaigns to change people’s attitudes.

But raising the legal drinking age is not a practical solution. It might reduce the total number of 18 year old drinkers, but those who do still drink would now be doing so illegally and would therefore increase the underage drinking problem. The likelihood of risky behavior among those people would also increase. But most importantly, it removes personal responsibility rather than fostering or encouraging it. It penalizes all 18 year olds who do drink responsibly, and punishes them for the actions of those who are irresponsible. At the age of 18 people can vote, get married, go to war and die for their country, and are expected to be responsible for their own actions in every respect. So if they are expected to be responsible adults, they should be allowed the opportunity to prove it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Police Need Better Support For Dealing With Mentally Ill People

There is no doubt that the death of Adam Salter is a tragedy. But it seems to have an even greater poignancy when you consider that the Adam’s father called 000 because he needed help. 36 year old Adam was apparently suffering from mental health problems and was stabbing himself with a kitchen knife. When paramedics and police arrived they tried to assist him, but Adam is reported to have leapt to his feet and lunged with the knife at the police officers. One of them made what has been described as a spit second decision to draw her gun and shot Adam in the shoulder. Adam later died in hospital.

At this point it is unclear whether he died from the gunshot or from the knife wounds he inflicted upon himself. Either way however, questions are now being asked about why the police officer used her pistol when she was also carrying a taser. There are also questions about the training and procedures given to police for dealing with such confrontations, because in the heat of the moment a police officer’s actions and reactions are usually the result of the training they have been given. There just isn’t the luxury of taking a moment to stop and think about things before making a life and death decision.

This is a crucial question, not only because of the potentially devastating outcomes of hostile confrontations, but more importantly because of the changing nature of the situations police are asked to deal with. We probably think of police spending most of their time dealing with hardened criminals, and when we think of police using lethal force we might imagine that it’s like the shows we see on TV featuring gun battles with bad guys who must be stopped. But the truth is that more and more violent confrontations involve people who are not necessarily criminals, but are in mental distress. They need help and support, not lethal force.

So the question is whether our police are being given the right training, equipment and support to deal with the growing problem of mentally disturbed people who find themselves in great distress. Do they have the tools that they need to deal with such complex and challenging situations? Or is their training focused more around dealing with the sort of criminals which exist in our traditional idea of police work? Are police trained to reach for the pistol, even in situations where the pistol may not be the best solution?

These questions are of great importance, not only for the benefit of poor unfortunate people who might find themselves looking down the barrel of a police officer’s pistol, but also for the benefit of the police themselves. Although police officers should not be expected to take the place of mental health professionals, they are so often the first on the scene when somebody is in a mentally distressed state. We owe it to our police, who do put their lives on the line for our safety, to give them the best possible training, so that they are properly equipped to deal with such situations.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sport Report Recommends Robbing The Poor To Give To The Rich

The release of the Crawford Report into sports funding has unleashed a flurry of controversy, debate, and downright fury. The reason for this is the central recommendation that money currently spent on Olympic sports, such as canoeing and archery, should be redirected into popular professional sports, such as AFL, rugby league, cricket and so on. It seems that the panel in charge of the report is unable to see any value in the Olympic Games, and instead want to direct funding into sports which are already so well funded through corporate sponsorship and broadcast rights as to be not only self sustaining, but highly profitable businesses in their own right. It’s as if the report has been complied by bean counters instead of sportspeople.

The report suggests that money should be directed into sports which are more in tune with the national psyche, while at the same time it states that the public should be re-educated as to what constitutes Olympic success. That’s not only a contradiction in terms, it’s insulting to the Australian people. On the one hand it suggests that sports funding should reflect what people think and feel, and on the other hand it says that people should be told what to think and feel. The fact is that the Australian people already know what they think and feel, and they know what constitutes Olympic success. It’s winning medals. If you’re not winning medals then you cannot claim to be successful at the Olympics. There is no substitute for winning medals.

More importantly, a big part of the Australian psyche is reflected by the unexpected victory of the perceived underdog. Without government funding it is unlikely that we would have enjoyed the Olympic moments of magic delivered by Steven Bradbury, Tatiana Grigorieva, and even Cathy Freeman. But bean counters don’t understand moments of magic, they only look at spreadsheets and ledgers. That much is clear from another extraordinary assertion found in the report, which is that there is no evidence that high profile sporting events materially influence participation rates in sport. That is just utter nonsense. If that was true, then where did all of today’s competitors come from? What motivated and inspired them to pursue their sports? If there was nothing for them to aspire to, and no role models for them to admire, they would never have become the people they are now.

But removing support for Olympic sports such as archery and tae kwon do and redirecting that money into cricket and football makes no sense either. The big, popular, professional sports are already well supported. They attract corporate sponsorship, media money, and community support at every level. Some of the money that goes in at the top finds its way down to the junior development level. The avenues for pursuing success in those sports are well paved with dollars. Taking the money away from Olympic sports to put into mass market sports is basically stealing from the poor to give to the rich. The whole point of government support is to provide opportunities to the community which would not otherwise exist.

Unfortunately, the raw reaction to the silly ideas in this report has overshadowed any useful recommendations that it might contain. Among them are the suggestion to put sport and fitness back into education, and a call to boost community sport, including money for local sporting infrastructure. These are good ideas, but they are lost in the sea of noise created by the astoundingly dense suggestion that we can succeed at the Olympic Games without actually winning any medals. That makes about as much sense as making an omelette without any eggs.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Let ’Em In!

According to the Workplace Futures Report, Australia confronts a potential workforce shortfall of 1.4 million people by 2025. The report has been prepare by the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and is based on current trends of population growth, retirement rates and the ageing population. Even though population growth has been stronger than expected, with projections of 35 million people by mid century, it will still not be sufficient to support the even faster growing pool of ageing Australians. One or more of four things will need to happen to address the imbalance. Migration and birth rates will need to increase, the retirement age will have to be lifted, the participation rate will have to increase, and productivity will also have to increase.

While there is a great deal of concern in some quarters about rampaging hordes of boat people descending upon Australia, perhaps it is misdirected. It might be that instead of telling the boat people to go back to where they have come from, we should be encouraging more of them to come to Australia. After all, these are people who seek liberty and freedom and a better life, and who are prepared to go to great lengths to achieve those things. We need people like that in the workforce to continue driving the county’s prosperity, and to pay the income taxes which will pay for our pensions in retirement. At the same time, we should all do our part to keep the birth rate increasing so that there is a healthy mix of New Australians from both offspring and offshore, thus maintaining the character of Australian culture and traditions. Are there any volunteers?

Of course, there are many people who are concerned that Australia does not have the natural resources to sustain such a large total population. In particular, there are concerns about water supply and environmental degradation, but if increasing the population is not acceptable the alternative is for all of us to keep on working for longer. Without sufficient younger workers entering the workforce it will be necessary for the retirement age to be increased. In fact, the government has already taken steps in that direction with the plan to lift the pension age to 67 in the years ahead, but that alone won’t be enough. Unless the workforce is increased by other means it is likely that the pension age will rise further, perhaps to 70, in the not very distant future. Again, are there any volunteers?

Wait a minute. Do we really want to keep on working longer? What about all those other people who aren’t working full time, or even working at all? Can’t we get some of them back into the workforce? While there has been an increase in unemployment thanks to the Global Financial Crisis, that is only a temporary effect and the underlying shortage of people hasn’t changed. So that leaves the single parents, the stay at home spouses, the disabled pensioners, and delinquent teenagers who wag school. Surely there’s a way to put all of them to work and force them to make a contribution to the economy instead of sponging off welfare that this country can no longer afford. After all, why should I do all the work when my disabled cousin just sits around in a wheel chair all day?

While it may sound appealing to some to force welfare recipients into the workforce whether they are capable of working or not, it may not be a terribly practical solution. It may also be considered inhumane. But we are running out of options here, so what’s left. We’ve ruled out population growth because we don’t like immigrants and besides the environment can’t handle it. We’ve ruled out working till we drop dead because retirement is part of the great Australian dream, and it’s about the only time most of us will ever have the chance to drive a caravan around Australia. And we just don’t have the heart to turn disabled pensioners into slaves.

That leaves only one option. Productivity. Now that sounds like a great idea, and in some circumstances it actually is. For example, if new technology means that one person can now achieve the same output as ten people once did, that’s a good thing. It means we can all benefit from the substantial and real gain in productivity which promotes prosperity and a better way of life for all of us. Unfortunately, that’s usually not what the boffins mean when they are talking about productivity. Nine times out of ten what they really mean is the you and I have to work harder and faster to produce more and more using less and less materials and supplies, for lower and lower pay. That’s not the kind of productivity increase that is going to provide prosperity for all Australians, and I am not even going to ask if there are any volunteers.

So where does that leave us? After all that, maybe the population growth answer is the right choice after all. Maybe instead of trying to stop the boat people, we should be doing everything we can to help them get here safely. Of course my motives are selfish. I don’t really want to raise any more children, I don’t want to work past a decent retirement age, I don’t want to work harder for less, and I don’t want to be forced to work if I become disabled. And I could really use somebody to polish my shoes, clean my house, and pay for my pension, so I say let ’em in!

Monday, November 16, 2009

You Can’t Say Nathan Rees Didn’t Warn Us

You can’t say he didn’t warn us. From the beginning of his time as Premier, Nathan Rees has observed that he has been underestimated by people all of his life. It seems that his own Labor Party colleagues are the latest to fall for the trap, finding themselves stunned and amazed by his move at the Party Conference over the weekend to literally take command. Nobody expected it, and nobody was ready for it, so when Mr. Rees demanded the authority to appoint his own cabinet it was given to him. While there may have been those who went along with it because they felt that they had been snookered, I suspect that many rank and file party members might have been happy with the opportunity to allow their Parliamentary Leader to actually make leadership decisions.

This is a significant step, something which itself should not be underestimated. It overturns more than a century of Labor tradition, a tradition which in many ways is central to the Labor philosophy of consensus and compromise. But it also recognizes the reality that the old way has left the party struggling with the practicalities of modern politics, as well as leaving it mired in internal divisions when it needs to be focusing on external imperatives such as building infrastructure and fostering economic growth. For much of the current term this government has been seen as not only ineffective but also incompetent. It has developed a reputation for promising everything and delivering nothing.

As premier, Nathan Rees has had his fair share of stumbles. Most notably, the infamous mini budget of last year was tremendous misstep as it tightened fiscal policy to the detriment of economic growth, while abandoning the original Metro plan seemed to confirm that nothing the government promised could actually be counted upon. Nevertheless, as repeated reports emerged of internal plots to replace the Premier, Mr. Rees stood his ground time and time again. As more and more Ministers fell by the wayside through their own folly, such as the couch dancing Matt Brown, Mr. Rees stuck to his guns. As the opinion polls fell to near fatal levels, Mr. Rees has simply become even more determined.

I have said repeatedly that this government cannot survive the next election, and that changing the leader now would not make any difference. None of the likely contenders have shown anything to indicate that they would fare any better, and in many cases quite the opposite. If there is to be any hope at all for the government to reverse its fortunes before the next election it can only come from one thing. Leadership. And that is exactly what Nathan Rees has done on the weekend. He has made a decision, taken decisive action, and put his own position on the line, but done it in a cool calculated way which left his opponents little if any option.

There’s no need for the party to be looking for a leader… they already have one. The sad truth however is that the disaffected powerbrokers will most likely continue to conspire to replace the Premier. If and when they do, it will be clear that they do so out of personal motivation for revenge and power rather than any consideration for what’s in the best interests of the party, the government, or, most importantly, the people of New South Wales. Ultimately, that would be just one more indication that the party really doesn’t deserve to be in government at all. But if Nathan Rees can successfully keep the plotters and schemers at bay between now and then, perhaps it would also be a mistake to underestimate his chances of winning the election.