Friday, December 18, 2009

Why Tiger’s Troubles Are So Fascinating

Despite the fact that right now history is potentially in the making with the majority of the world’s leaders gathered together in Denmark to try to determine the future of the world, the one story in the news for the past couple of weeks to really dominate world wide attention has been Tiger Woods. Climate change is not at the top of the most clicked list of stories on the internet, but Tiger Woods is still attracting more attention than just about any other story. Perhaps people are sick and tired of hearing about climate change, perhaps some people do not really believe that climate change is a genuine threat, and perhaps some people just don’t care. Most likely, I believe that many people feel that climate change is something which is beyond their own control, and while many people are happy to “do the right thing” with low energy light bulbs and recyclable bags, ultimately they might feel that there’s not really a lot they can do personally about climate change.

Instead, they leave that to the politicians and the world leaders to sort out, while the rest of us deal with matters that have a more immediate impact on out lives. Most of us are caught up in the day to day struggle to make ends meet, provide for our families, deal with mundane challenges like household maintenance and grocery shopping. There’s the challenge of what to get the kids for Christmas, and then the question of how to keep them from getting bored in the holidays. There’s a lot to deal with for most families without worrying about solving the problems of the world. And that’s one of the reasons why so many people are fascinated to read about the problems of one of the world’s most successful men, a man who had it all and if anyone could be happy in his life he should have been.

There is a certain fascination with the fall from grace of any public figure, but in Tiger’s case it has been so spectacular that it eclipses most Hollywood blockbusters for sheer entertainment value. Because of his high profile, and especially because of his squeaky clean image, the titillation factor has proven to be irresistible, no matter how many times we remind ourselves that one man’s marital difficulties are not really newsworthy and ultimately are nobody’s business but his and his family’s. None of us really know the true reality of his experience or that of his wife, but it can be easy to forget that behind all the headlines there is most likely a wife who is shattered and devastated, and a man once adored by millions who must surely now be feeling very small and quite possibly questioning the meaning of his own existence.

In this way it is a story that attracts our attention precisely because we can understand the nature of what is going on, and we can identify with the people involved. Never mind that they are richer than most of us can even comprehend, and live in a world of private jets and lavish estates, we still understand the pain of the jilted wife and the humiliation of the disgraced man. It is a very human story, and because so many of us have also had our own ups and downs in relationships we “get it”. More than that, we finally get to feel just a little bit superior because despite whatever failure we might have it turns out that Tiger has out done us all. That is why people generally are more interested in reading about Tiger Woods than climate change.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Net Censorship Undermines Our Rights

The federal government’s plan to introduce mandatory filtering of the internet to block access to undesirable material has attracted widespread criticism. The intention is to remove access to such things as child pornography, incest, bestiality, vilification, incitement to violence, instructions on how to commit crimes and so on. It seems like a worthy intention, especially in the context of protecting children from some of the extreme material which resides on the internet. But there are several problems with what the government is proposing to do.

First, it simply will not stop all objectionable material. The filtering system will rely on a black list of material which is categorized as “refused classification”. This list must be compiled and constantly updated from information received about new websites as they appear. Some material will escape the net, so to speak, and some material will simply move to a new website to replace one which has been blocked. It will be very difficult to keep up. Nevertheless, it will stop a lot of the objectionable material and supporters of the idea would no doubt feel that is a good start.

Secondly, it will also stop access to legitimate material. This has been demonstrated by the draft black list which was leaked some time ago. It included websites with otherwise legal content including completely innocent victims such as a tuckshop supply company and a dentist. This raises the question of liability for commercial damages should a legitimate business have its website inadvertently blocked by the filtering system. But both of these issues are practical matters, and with a little bit of common sense practical solutions may be found.

Of much greater concern is the methodology employed by the government, leading to fears of censorship and denial of basic legal and human rights. The most fundamental question is the one of who decides just what is and is not objectionable. Under the government’s plan a secret committee will be responsible for determining what should be refused classification and creating a secret list of websites to be blocked. Because it is secret, any business or individual who has a website blocked will not be notified, and will not be able to enquire if they are on the list. If someone is commercially disadvantaged they will have no recourse, and will have been denied the fundamental legal right to have allegations against them to be heard. They will be denied the vital legal right to confront their accusers and defend themselves.

The government’s proposal opens the door for completely arbitrary censorship where a government authority would have the power to declare anything off limits, without any appeal process, threatening whatever right we believe we have to freedom of expression. We might even trust today’s government to make good decisions and only ban truly unacceptable material, but there is no protection against future governments making bad decisions which interfere with our fundamental rights. Freedom of communication and expression, along with freedom of belief and freedom of movement, are the foundations of any free and democratic society, and this plan undermines those foundations.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

No Excuse For Excessive Interest Rate Rises

After Three successive interest rate rises over the past three months, the widely held expectation has been for more of the same in the New Year. So far many of the economic indicators have been stronger than expected, leading to the conclusion that the recovery from the Global Financial Crisis is well underway and powering along. Unemployment appears to have peaked and is falling, consumer and business confidence are rising, and home loan approvals are increasing. But two things have emerged to suggest that interest rates might pause at current levels before any further increases.

One is the latest economic growth figures showing lower than expected growth for the September quarter at 0.2%, about half of what was forecast, and well down on the 0.6% in the previous quarter. With no risk that the economy might be in any way overheating, the pressure for interest rates to rise is significantly eased. In fact, the feeble growth figures should be seen as a reminder of just how fragile the recovery really is.

The other factor is a speech given by Reserve Bank Deputy Governor Ric Battellino which has provided some clues as to the future direction of Reserve Bank policy. While recognizing that the cost of borrowing has risen for banks, Mr. Battellino has shown that the margin between what banks pay for funds and what they charge their customers is now wider than it was before the Global Financial Crisis. Closer examination shows that the greatest margin increase is not in mortgage lending, but in business lending, further undermining the strength of economic recovery.

Mr. Battellino also explained that this increased margin represents a shift in what might be considered a normal setting for official cash interest rates. As the differential between bank lending rates and the Reserve Bank cash rate is now about 1% greater than it was, the effect of the current official rate at 3.75% is similar to the effect that 4.75% would have had before the increased margins came into play. In other words, he is saying that the Reserve Bank won’t have to increase official rates by as much because the banks have already increased their rates independently.

What this means is that the current official rate is now, in Mr. Battellino’s words, “back in the normal range”, even though it is still below historical norms. On that basis, there is no rush for the Reserve Bank to push rates up again when they meet again in February. It also means that not only are banks actually making more profit out of their loans now than they were before the Crisis, but most importantly they have no excuse to pass on any more increases above the rate set down by the Reserve. If they do it will only prove that they really are being greedy and profiteering at our expense.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Under The Influence Of Liquor Lobby Groups

Comparisons have been made between hoteliers and developers in terms of their relationships with government. The influence of developers and their lobbyists is currently the subject of much examination in the wake of the Michael McGurk murder, and the perceived influence of Graham Richardson, the former federal minister and Labor Party powerbroker. The idea that developers who make donations to political parties might receive favourable treatment is an easy concept to grasp. But while all the attention has been focused on allegations of corruption involving developer donations, it has been easy to forget that other lobby groups also seek favour with the government.

The alcohol service industry is also a significant source of political donations, as well as being an enormous tax revenue generator for any government. For that reason, it has been suggested that there is a potential conflict of interest for a government which claims to be targeting alcohol related anti-social behavior. A paper produced by a police officer, and endorsed by the Police Association, apparently alleges that the government is “unduly influenced” by political donations from the Australian Hotels Association, described as “unacceptable practices that subvert established democratic processes.”

The reason for the Police Association’s concern is quite simple. They are tired of police officers being injured by drunken thugs who pick fights and resist arrest. While the government is talking about finding ways to reduce such violence, police officers know from experience that one of the most effective ways to do that is to reduce trading hours. Yet, despite the evidence of trial changes to trading hours in Newcastle, the government appears to be very reluctant to take that approach. Instead, there is a great deal of talk about personal responsibility and measures such as plastic cups.

Of course, not everyone who gets drunk is also going to get violent or anti-social. Reducing trading hours could easily be seen as depriving the majority of their rights to go out and have a good time in the attempt to thwart the few who cause the trouble. In a free society, responsible adults should be able to go where they please, when they please, including out for a drink. In fact, in a free society it should not be against the law to make an idiot of yourself, so long as you do not harm or interfere with others.

Personal responsibility must be the central principle from which all else proceeds. But from a practical point of view, reducing trading hours is effective because it reduces the opportunity for people to get themselves into trouble. Even a modest reduction in hours can make a big difference in the amount of violent behavior, as has been proven where it has been tried. It’s an idea that deserves at least to be properly considered in an objective fashion, and that’s not likely to happen as long as we have governments who are seen to be under the influence of the liquor industry.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Doctors And Nurses

You might not have heard of the Health Professional Entry Requirements 2009-2025 - Macro Supply and Demand Report before today, but the government has been sitting on it for some months now. Maybe that’s because they know they can never deliver the outcomes that are called for in the report, which looks at how many training places are needed to produce the doctors and nurses who will be required to serve the expected population in 2025.

According to the report, an additional 356 training places for doctors and more than 7000 for nurses are needed each year. This would require whole new medical schools to be established to cope with the increase, but as alarming as that is, it’s not the biggest problem. The real problem is finding places for medical graduates in training hospitals to gain critical clinical experience. It is an essential part of any doctor’s training, but even if university places are increased, there is nowhere for them to go.

Part of the reason for this is the fundamental flaw in planning which has left our hospitals struggling across the board. Some decades ago it was assumed that improved medical technology would result in patients leaving hospital sooner, reducing the need for beds, and the staff to service them. Decisions made then have left hospitals underfunded, under equipped and understaffed. What this means is that not only are there insufficient facilities for training new doctors, but even more alarmingly there are not enough senior doctors available to pass on their expertise.

One possible solution is to radically alter the nature of doctor training so that internships are served in general practice clinics, and plans for that to occur are well advanced. However, a general practice clinic is not a hospital and there is a real risk that doctors would not gain the same breadth of experience in such an environment. The fear is that it would amount to a kind of doctor-training-lite, and that’s why there should always be at least some in-hospital training for interns.

In the end, there is only one solution to the dilemma, and that is to properly fund the public hospital system. It comes down to the money, and the realisation that health funding is not just an expense, it is an investment. Decades of so called cost efficiency measures have eroded the ability of our hospitals to fulfill their vital functions, and first class medical training is one of them. In the end, cost cutting is very much like pruning the garden: it’s all very well to cut away the dead wood, but cutting too deeply will kill the bush.