Friday, May 21, 2010

Perpetuating Prejudice

Just a day ago, the AFL star Jason Akermanis brought down a storm of criticism upon himself by suggesting that it would be a bad idea for gay AFL players to come out of the closet. His point was not that he has any problem with anyone actually being gay, but that the blokey environment of the AFL fraternity might not be very accepting of their situation. Although he may have been clumsy in expressing his concerns it would seem that the media circus unleashed by Channel Seven upon David Campbell and his family actually demonstrates that Jason Akermanis might have a point. It is clear that despite decades of fighting prejudice and discrimination, whether on the grounds of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, we are still living in a society of double standards.

David Campbell did not break the law. He was not found to be corrupt. He did not misappropriate taxpayer dollars. There are no restrictions on the personal use of the car provided to him by the government, and other politicians happily use theirs to drive to church, family picnics, and sporting events. However, on the basis of the fact that Mr. Campbell’s destination was a little more unusual, the Channel Seven reporter took it upon himself to make a value judgment that can only be described as being based on prejudice. The spurious claim that the matter is of public interest because Mr. Campbell campaigned on so called family values is both ridiculous and insulting because it implies that anyone who is gay somehow cannot have family values.

Today, Premier Kristina Keneally said that "It is appalling that he lived a lie, and it is appalling that he lives in a society [in which] he feels he has to live a lie." And that is the whole point. It is precisely because of the attitudes and actions of people like the Channel Seven reporter and the dozens of media representatives reported to be camped outside Mr. Campbell’s house in Wollongong that people feel that they must live a lie in order to protect themselves, and perhaps also their families, from the prejudice, the discrimination and the hate. It is precisely because of those double standards that people sometimes find themselves living inside a prison not of their own making, and it is impossible to condemn David Campbell for living a lie without also condemning the society that makes it necessary to do so.

When it was revealed that Kevin Rudd had been to a lap dance club in New York, in his own time, but while on an official trip to the United States, he emerged as a hero, seen as a real person with a bit of a larrikin streak. By contrast, David Campbell is caught visiting a gay club, in his own time, and he is confronted with front page vilification and feels he has no option but to resign. The double standard could not be more stark, and yet television and newspaper outlets know that they will pull an audience and sell papers because that same double standard runs through a significant proportion of the community. Thankfully, there is evidence to suggest that proportion is actually the minority with around two thirds of respondents to a Sydney Morning Herald on line survey saying that Channel Seven was wrong to run the story.

In fact, many of the online comments have been supportive of the idea that an individual’s private life should be just that: private. Many have expressed their disgust at the media for the way this has been handled. And many have said that even though they did not believe that David Campbell was doing a good job as Minister, and that he deserved to lose his job for that reason, he did not deserve to lose it in this manner.

Perhaps the Australian people are actually a lot less prejudicial than Channel Seven seems to believe.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Phoney Tony And Sloppy Joe…

Following last week’s federal budget, the opposition leader Tony Abbott presented his budget reply speech last Thursday. At that time, Tony Abbott promised that a coalition government would match or better Wayne Swan’s timetable for returning the budget to surplus, but he would not identify the specific cost savings that he would use to achieve this. Instead, he promised that Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey would spell out the details at this week’s address to the National Press Club. It turns out that must have been one of those unscripted moments that we should not have taken at face value.

When Joe Hockey fronted the Press Club yesterday he delivered a speech which was widely reported as being passionate, but lacking in actual detail. Where was the promised list of cost savings measures that a coalition government would impose? Not in Joe Hockey’s speech, and not in the answers he was able to give to journalists after the speech. In fact, the journalists really had no specific questions to ask because they were only just given the details in printed form after the speech, handed out by Shadow Finance Minister Andrew Robb. One journalist was heard to confront the Shadow Treasurer and accuse him of evading scrutiny by dumping what he called a “bowl of soup” on them without time to digest the contents.

Afterwards, Mr. Hockey admitted that in hindsight it would have been better to hand out the printed material before the speech rather than after, but surely the best course would have been to live up to the expectations created by Tony Abbott’s promise and actually make some announcements in the speech itself. But of course, I’m forgetting that we are not supposed to believe everything that Tony Abbott says. No wonder Joe Hockey isn’t sure of what he can and can’t announce when he’s giving a speech. But never mind that, what exactly is on the list of the opposition’s proposed cost cuts?

Ultimately, it has been revealed that the opposition proposes to save $46.7 billion over four years by cutting such programs as computers for schools, training for teachers, and training for the trades, along with abolishing the planned National Broadband Network and selling off Medibank Private. The problem is that only about $12 billion would actually come off the budget bottom line because the broadband network is capital expenditure which means that it has nothing to do with the recurrent outgoings of the budget and no impact on the bottom line. The money is an investment not an expense, and is projected to show a reasonable return to the government before actually being sold off in the future. Equally, selling Medibank Private is not income, it’s the disposal of an asset, and once it’s gone it’s gone forever.

Kevin Rudd may well stand accused of leading a government that is “all talk and no action”, but so far Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey haven’t offered anything of substance as an alternative.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Turnbull’s About Turn

In what has been reported as a turnaround, and even compared to a backflip, Malcolm Turnbull has expressed his support for Tony Abbott’s so called Positive Action Plan on Climate Change. Coming just a day after Tony Abbott’s remarkable admission that not everything he says can be taken at face value, it would be easy to get the idea that the contagion is spreading. Sure, none of us really trust any politician, but surely we can believe that Malcolm Turnbull was sincere when he claimed that an emissions trading scheme was, in his view, the best mechanism for dealing with carbon dioxide emissions. After all, he lost the party leadership over it, he damn near quit politics because of it, and he previously described the coalition positive action plan as “bullshit”. Could it be that not everything Malcolm says is “gospel truth” either?

Just what exactly did Malcolm say yesterday that resulted in widespread reports that he had expressed some sort of change of heart? Well, what he said was this: “While the Coalition's direct action plan is inferior, in my view, to a thorough, economy-wide, market-based mechanism which puts a price on emissions, it is nonetheless superior to the Rudd government's climate change policy vacuum.” In other words, Malcolm Turnbull said that he still believes an emissions trading scheme is still the way to go, but now that the Rudd government has put its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in the too hard basket at least until 2013, then doing something, anything, is better than doing nothing. Even if that “something” is a plan that he has previously criticised as cattle manure.

It’s not exactly a backflip, or even a turnaround, but maybe it does show that Mr. Turnbull is finally succumbing to politicians’ disease and beginning to say whatever he thinks people want to hear. If that’s the case, it won’t be long before he becomes just like Tony Abbott and nobody will be able to believe anything he says. That would be a pity, especially after he received so many accolades for having the courage of his convictions and sticking to his principles. But perhaps we were mistaken about that in the first place. Perhaps we have all forgotten that he was a lawyer and a merchant banker before becoming a politician, and those professions also have a reputation for massaging the facts to suit the occasion. All of which would seem to indicate that Mr. Turnbull will be ready and waiting to take over the leadership again when the opportunity arises.

The only question is whether that will be before or after the election.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Self Destruction Of Tony Abbott

Tony Abbott’s apparent inability to take himself at his own word has taken on a life of its own. After admitting on the 7:30 Report on the ABC that only carefully crafted prepared and scripted comments are to be taken as Gospel truth, Tony Abbott is probably still trying to take his foot out of his mouth. When he finally does, no doubt he will use it to kick himself in the backside. The comments have been reported far and wide, quoted, repeated, interpreted, and passed along rather like a game of Chinese whispers which has now reached the point where it doesn’t really matter what he actually said. All that matters is that he has very successfully given the impression that not even Tony Abbott feels he can trust Tony Abbott to always be truthful.

What he was actually trying to say was that sometimes politicians get caught out by their own rhetoric when detailed policies turn out to be at odds with previous casual remarks. Those remarks may or may not have been a firm commitment, but once they are on the record they hang around forever, ready to come back and haunt the unwary. Ironically, it was the effort to be a straight talker that left Tony Abbott floundering to explain himself, when he would have been far better off to simply brush the whole thing aside, or to claim that circumstances had changed in the course of policy development. In other words, Tony Abbott has been caught out trying to tell the truth about the need for reneging on one’s own words in the topsy turvy game of politics.

Unfortunately for Tony Abbott, it’s not just the fact that he has been forced into admitting a policy backflip had made him a liar, but it was the fact that he allowed himself to be maneuvered into a position where his explanation left us all with the impression that there is no way for us to know when he is to be trusted and when he is not. It’s perfectly natural for ordinary everyday people to distrust politicians, but it is another matter entirely when one of those politicians actually tells us not to trust him by implying that we can never be sure if he means what he says or not. And it’s not just the idea that we can’t trust anything that he says, because most of us don’t trust politicians anyway, but it’s also the error in judgment and the lack of competence displayed in the process that is a significant cause for concern.

If the Leader of the Opposition cannot outwit Kerry O’Brien on the ABC, shouldn’t we all be worried about how he would go as Prime Minister dealing with other world leaders, especially in any kind of confrontation or crisis? No disrespect to Kerry O’Brien, but when you’re dealing with sensitive trade negotiations or matters of national security, the potential for disaster is a whole more than just the embarrassment of dropping the ball in a television interview. Tony Abbott has not only admitted to Australians that he cannot be taken at his word, he has shattered his own credibility as a potential Prime Minister.

Of course, some would insist that he never had any in the first place.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Are Our Phones Killing Us?

So are mobile phones dangerous to our health or not? After ten years, studying more than 5000 people, in 13 countries, 21 scientists have delivered the International Agency for Research on Cancer Interphone Study in association with the World Health Organisation at a cost of $26.8 million, so you would think that we would now have the answer. Instead, we have an ambiguous result which seems to mean what ever you want it to mean, with the mobile telephone industry claiming that it shows there is no proven health risk associated with mobile phones, while others point to the finding of an increased cancer risk for people who use a phone for more than thirty minutes a day.

The authors of the report itself advise that “biases and errors” within the study mean that a causal link cannot be established. In other words, while the data collected seem to indicate that there is an increased rate of cancer among heavy users of mobile phones, it cannot be proven that the higher rate is actually caused by the mobile phones. Bizarrely, it also seems that light use of mobile phones appears to be associated with a reduced risk of cancer, but these results are for the most part being interpreted as reflecting the deficiencies of the study itself rather than the actual effect of the phones. Nevertheless, the findings of the study are sufficiently concerning for it to deliver a recommendation that further study should be done, especially on the effects of long term heavy use.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave any of us any the wiser about whether or not we should be shouting into our phones at arms length to avoid exposure to radio frequency electromagnetic radiation. We still don’t know if those long lingering phone calls to that someone special might actually be killing us, and it is staggering that so much time, effort, and money can be spent and still not have a reliable answer. Of course, with so much of the world now so heavily dependent on instant communications anywhere anytime, it would mean a tremendous disruption to our modern lives if it turned out that the cancer risk is real. Some might even be prepared to live with the risk so that they can continue to enjoy the benefits, but either way we all deserve a straight answer to the question of whether our phones are killing us.