Friday, May 28, 2010

iPad Therefore I Am

I’m sure the brand new ipad, which has gone on sale in Australia today, is a wonderful whizz bang gadget. The pictures and videos I have seen show a sleek high tech device which looks all very impressive, but I’m just not sure I want one, let alone need one. I mean, I am already surrounded by various computers and devices at work, with ample access to the internet. At home there’s two more computers plus a laptop, all on the internet, as well as an internet capable mobile phone in my pocket. Don’t forget the three different TV sets, one of them a reasonably new digital LCD screen, and the surround sound 5.1 sound system. Do I really need another device?

The thing about the ipad, and other similar so-called slate devices which will no doubt follow quickly onto the market, is that it is supposed to provide a platform to allow mobile access to content that’s too big or cumbersome for a mobile phone. Things like reading the online version of a newspaper or your favourite magazine. Sure, I can do that at home on my PC, but I can’t really take the PC with me on the bus. I suppose I could lug the laptop around, but that’s still pretty bulky and clumsy for carting about on public transport. So along comes the ipad, filling a need we didn’t even really know we had. Fair enough, but does that mean I’m now going to be stuck with carrying around my ipad, my ipod and my phone all at the same time? I’m going to need more pockets in my cargo pants.

Actually, although I haven’t tried yet, I get the impression the ipad is probably too big for my pockets anyway. Besides, I’m pretty sure it’s bad for my pockets in another way too. The whole point of the device, it’s reason to exist, is to allow those newspapers and magazines I mentioned to actually charge us all a fee to read their content. Now this is where the whole idea begins to get sticky. Fair enough, it costs Rupert Murdoch plenty to pay all his journalists, photographers, and so on, and it is reasonable for content creators and providers to try to find a business model that will pay them for their efforts. But for me as a consumer, I’m starting to get the idea that it all adds up to a headache.

First, I have to buy the device. Anything up to almost a thousand dollars just so that I can read a newspaper which I could buy on actual paper for a dollar or so. Then, I have to pay a service provider for a network connection, not just once but every month, over and over and over again. Then if I want to read Mr. Murdoch’s newspaper I have to pay him a subscription too. And if I like five newspapers and two magazines I will be paying seven subscriptions. By this time I have probably exceeded my network data allowance as well so I will also be billed for yet another fee. So, in order to enjoy this marvel of modern technology, I must pay, and pay, and pay, and pay again, all so that I can read things that I could get at my local library for free anyway.

The ipad is a bright shiny new toy and plenty of people will buy it for that reason alone, but I believe we still have a long way to go before we work out a viable business model for online publishing.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Resource Tax Super Propaganda

There is no doubt that the mining industry has plenty of money. For a start, 25 of the 200 wealthiest people on the BRW magazine Rich List for 2010 are mining magnates, including two out of the top four. BRW has estimated that those 25 have experienced the strongest increase in their wealth out of all the sectors represented on the list, with mining multi-millionaires increasing their wealth by around $9 billion over all. And then of course, you just can’t miss the advertising campaign which has been mounted across all media to protest against the proposed Resource Super Profits Tax. Those TV and radio ads must all add up to a fairly expensive exercise, so it’s just as well that the people paying for it seem to have deep pockets.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with people having deep pockets, and it’s all too easy to allow envy to colour any argument about what constitutes a fair share of the tax burden. But, there seems to be plenty of cynical manipulation of the facts taking place as vested interests seek to defend their positions. It goes without saying that nobody wants to pay more tax, even if they can afford it. As the late Kerry Packer once famously observed, the government isn’t spending it so wisely that we should be in any hurry to give them any more than we must. So do the big mining companies have a valid point when they claim that investment is at risk, jobs will be lost, and the price of consumer goods will be affected? Or is it all just Resource Tax Super Propaganda?

Some of the arguments which have be advanced are just plain wrong. While the common sense view would be that an increase in tax on anything will discourage whatever is taxed, this proposal is not just a simple tax increase. Instead it is a restructuring which will deliver more tax to the government from projects which are more profitable, and less tax from projects which are less profitable. And far from being a grab for cash that somebody else has earned, it represents, theoretically at least, a requirement for the mining companies to pay a share of the booty to the owners of the raw materials involved. That’s you and me, the citizens of the land under which the minerals are found. The rate that should be paid, and the threshold at which it should apply, are quite rightly the subject for debate. But the basic idea is not a threat to investment or jobs.

Secondly, the opposition is arguing that it is was the resources sector that almost single handedly kept Australia out of recession during the Global Financial Crisis, and that it would be foolish in the extreme to do anything which would weaken the sector. That is only a half truth. The fact is that the mining sector actually went backwards quite dramatically during the GFC, with a rate of job losses which would, if replicated throughout the whole economy, amounted to national unemployment at around 19%. Obviously the mining sector has bounced back since then, but at the time it was a very bumpy ride.

The truth however, is that the massive resources boom of the past decade was one of the major sources of the increased tax revenue which drove Peter Costello’s budget surpluses and put truck loads of cash into the nation’s piggy bank. For that reason, the federal budget had the capacity to support the Rudd Government’s economic stimulus spending, keeping cash moving through the economy, and keeping people in jobs. As much as the opposition might deny it, the evidence is there in the national construction figures which quite clearly show public sector expenditure on education and social housing construction has kept the building industry afloat at a time when private projects have plummeted. Despite the obvious problems with mismanagement of both the school halls and the home insulation programs, the fact is the economic aims were achieved.

If anything, the role of the mining sector in keeping Australia afloat during the GFC is actually an argument in favour of the new tax regime. It was the tax revenue from the mining sector which provided the funds for avoiding the worst of the effects of the GFC, so therefore securing an appropriate share of the bonanza profits that are experienced during boom times for the benefit of the taxpayer is actually a sound method of providing for the future prosperity of the Australian people, while also delivering a fair return on risk for investors.

Of course, everything hinges on determining just what amounts to an “appropriate” share.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

But Are They Ready?

The opinion polls very clearly show that the Tony Abbott led opposition has a genuine chance of winning this year’s election. So, while there is plenty of evidence of embarrassing failures from the government, such as the school halls fiasco, the home insulation disaster, and the emissions trading humiliation, the question must be asked whether the opposition is actually ready for the job of government if they win. Would the coalition actually be any better, given that their own record of embarrassments and backflips is not terribly impressive either?

Last week Tony Abbott straight out told us that nothing he says can be taken at face value. Sometimes it might be gospel truth, and sometimes it might not. The trick is actually being able to tell the difference. I mean, even if he swears black and blue that he is telling the truth about telling the truth, how can we be sure that he is telling the truth about telling the truth about telling the truth, if you see what I mean. Then, yesterday, Deputy Leader and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop managed to find herself in a position where it was necessary to “clarify” her remarks. In politics, “clarify” means to clean up the mess you made when you had your foot in your mouth.

While criticizing the government for over-reacting by expelling an Israeli intelligence officer from Australia in response to the apparent identity fraud perpetrated by the Israeli government against Australian citizens, Julie bishop said “It would be naïve to think that Israel is the only country in the world that has used forged passports, including Australian passports, for security operations.” The interviewer asked if Australian agencies use forged passports, her reply was a short firm “Yes”. Whether or not she misunderstood the question or the context, it is a reply that she repeated under repeated questioning.

Given her position now, and her previous role in a senior capacity with the Howard government, it is reasonable to assume that she speaks with some authority. However, as the Foreign Minister Stephen Smith later pointed out, there is a long standing convention that politicians should not comment on operational matters relating to defence and security, and there are very good reasons for this. Whether or not Australian agencies use false passports, such a statement can be construed as an official confirmation of the practice, something which is not only a breach of convention, but also damaging to the national interest. Even if everybody pees in the bushes, nobody wants to get caught.

Julie Bishop later withdrew her remarks by saying ''I have no knowledge of any Australian authority forging any passports of any nation'', but by then the damage had been done with the original comments reported around the world, and prominently in Israel. But wait, there’s more. The Shadow Minister has also insisted that there is no actual proof that the Israeli government forged the Australian passports, effectively discounting the advice given to the government by the very intelligence agencies over which she would have some authority should she ever be returned to government.

I wonder how much confidence those people will have in her judgment after this.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

They Are Not Asylum Seekers

By now you would have heard that six asylum seekers have escaped from the Villawood immigration detention centre in Sydney, and three more were apprehended by police in the attempt. It has been widely reported by all media since mid morning that the escaped asylum seekers have so far eluded detection and remain at large. Upon hearing or seeing these reports, many people may feel naturally alarmed at what they perceive as a threat to public safety, and be left with the impression that these asylum seekers are in some way dangerous. The only problem is that it’s just not true. The fact is that they are not asylum seekers.

The initial report distributed by the Australian Associated Press quite clearly and categorically states “The escapees did not arrive in Australia by boat and are not asylum seekers”. However this unambiguous statement of fact seems to have escaped the nation’s newshounds with some reports labeling them as “asylum seekers”, and at least one referring to them as “refugees”. The Sydney Morning Herald website reported that “Police are on the hunt for six asylum seekers who have escaped…” Even the Australian Newspaper website, usually a reliable and factual source of reporting, fell for the mistake of publishing the AAP report without reading it properly and giving it a headline which said “Asylum-seekers escape from Villawood”, even though the text beneath the headline contradicted it.

This kind of shoddy reporting and sub-editing not only perpetuates the demonization of people who genuinely seek asylum, a basic human right which belongs to all of us, it also erodes the reputation of journalists and the news media generally. It is sad enough that we have to suffer some sectors of the media having set themselves up to be arbiters of moral standards as we witnessed last week, but now we can no longer depend on the media to be bothered with maintaining standards of accuracy, let alone grammar, punctuation or spelling. For a business which is supposed to be all about communication, some of the practitioners appear to have a slender grasp of the tools required for the task.

As might be expected, the Federal Opposition has not been slow in laying the blame for the escape at the feet of the government either. Shadow Minister Scott Morrison claims that the increased pressure in detention centres is directly caused by the increased numbers of boat arrivals. While it is clear that there are more people now behind the razor wire, the fact is that there are more than 50 000 foreigners who overstay their visa every year who are the real illegal immigrants. Those are the people who are far more likely to pose a threat to national security, if one exists at all, and the continued demonization of asylum seekers and refugees will do nothing to change that.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Life Lost In Legal Limbo

Most of us probably thought that proper recognition for the loss of an unborn child as a result of injuries caused by another had already been achieved with the passage of the legislation known as “Byron’s Law”. The law is named after an unborn child who died when his mother was the victim of a violent road rage attack almost ten years ago. The inquiry which resulted in the creation of Byron’s Law found that putting such cases into the category of manslaughter or murder would not be appropriate or practical, and so Byron’s Law specifically extends the law relating to grievous bodily harm to include the death of an unborn foetus, and provides for a maximum penalty of 25 years prison if the harm is intentional.

Today, the case of another unborn child has prompted renewed debate about whether or not Byron’s Law is an adequate reflection of the severity of the tragedy. Baby Zoe died as a result of her mother Brodie Donegan being run over by a van driven by a woman alleged to have been under the influence of drugs. Brodie and her fiancé Nick Ball are reported to be unhappy that the driver cannot be charged with murder or manslaughter, and feel that a charge of grievous bodily harm does not recognize the depth of their loss. Under the law in New South Wales, when the harm is not intentional, the maximum available penalty is seven years in gaol.

In another unrelated case, an elderly driver has pleaded guilty to a charge of negligent driving causing death following an accident where an entire family of five people was killed. 68 year old Ronald Jaray was overtaking a series of cars when he accidentally clipped one of them, causing it to spin across the road into the path of a truck. He has been given a suspended sentence of twelve months, along with a suspension of his driving licence. Despite being responsible for the deaths of five people in the one family, he has escaped imprisonment. Fair or not, this is because the law recognizes the difference between causing harm deliberately and accidentally.

The Baby Zoe case is yet to be heard in court, but it seems to me that what is important is not so much the nature of the charge, or even the scale of the possible penalty. It is the idea that an unborn baby is in some way not real that is so deeply hurtful for someone who has suffered such a loss. It is the need for some form of recognition that a life was lost, even if that life had not yet officially begun. Surely it is not too much to ask that the law should offer that recognition in a way that validates the grief and suffering involved, and removes this legal limbo.