Friday, July 16, 2010

Whatever It Takes

It is a story that doesn’t seem to have been given much of a run in the southern states, but the front page of Brisbane’s Courier Mail newspaper has revealed a recorded message left by Federal Liberal Leader Tony Abbott on the answering machine of Michael Johnson, offering to “fix” a legal problem. Michael Johnson, you might remember, was the Liberal National Party member who made front page news for attempting to broker a coal deal with a Chinese company allegedly in return for a $12 million commission. That deal never went ahead, but the ongoing investigation into his personal financial affairs eventually saw him expelled from the Party on the 20th of May. But it seems that back in February he had some powerful friends on his side including Tony Abbott, who left the now contentious telephone message.

Here’s what it said: “Oh Michael, it’s Tony Abbott. Look mate, um I did speak to McIver. I said to him as far as I was concerned you’d been a member of the team, in fact a fine member of the team, down here in Canberra and that, ah, as long as there was no legal problem, I would be very, very, very disappointed if he wasn’t to get right off your case, (and) give you support rather than grief. And if there was a legal problem, well obviously we’d fix it, but I have no reason to think there was.” There was more, but that is the crucial part of the recording which I would have thought would raise at least a few eyebrows. “If there was a legal problem, well then we’d fix it.”

That’s a pretty powerful promise. Not just “we’ll help you fight it”, but “we’ll fix it”. Perhaps it was just a turn of phrase, but it is a pretty confident choice of words. It can easily be construed as an assumption that the power to influence the outcome of a legal matter is within the grasp of the Opposition Leader. It can easily be construed to mean that Mr. Abbott has the ability to make an awkward legal matter simply go away. Of course, the matter has not proceeded in that direction, and Mr. Johnson is no longer a member of the Party, but it does provide an interesting illustration of the processes at the top level of politics.

It might also remind many people of Tony Abbott’s previous role in coordinating the funding and orchestrating the legal action which effectively destroyed the political career of Pauline Hanson. Never mind the fact that her conviction was later overturned and Ms. Hanson was exonerated, the legal battle achieved its obvious aim by taking Ms. Hanson out of the political picture. There are still plenty of Pauline Hanson supporters who to this day feel that she was a victim of an unjust and unscrupulous attack led by Tony Abbott, which depended upon exploiting the legal system for political gain.

If only Tony wasn’t a Liberal… it would be enough to make Graham “Whatever it takes” Richardson proud.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

How Mad Is Mel?

The seemingly unending stream of leaked recordings of telephone conversations between actor Mel Gibson and his former partner Oksana Grigoriava have shocked and appalled all who have heard any or all of them. The ranting and raving is disturbing to listen to, and would seem to be an indication that Mel has in some way lost the plot. Much of what is heard on the tapes is indefensible, and many of the Hollywood community have distanced themselves from any connection with him, including the agency which has represented him for years. And yet, there are some hints that there are some who are beginning to feel some sort of sympathy for him.

While making it clear that she did not condone what was contained on the tape recordings, Whoopi Goldberg has publicly stated that she does not believe that Mel is a racist. She is better placed than most to know, as they and their families have socialized in the past. Here in Australia, long time friend and colleague John Jarrett has complained that the treatment of the story has been one-sided and that many relationships involve arguments which would be embarrassing if they were made public. And after new excerpts appearing in the media each day, day after day, other commentators are asking whether the whole thing is being manipulated to do as much damage as possible.

In the recordings, Mel Gibson says he “can’t be like this anymore” in a tone of desperation. Without knowing what it is that has pushed him there, whether it is circumstances, or the demons inside his own head, it would seem that even he knows things are not normal. Although the recordings have not been officially verified, it is pretty widely accepted that they are genuine, and if that is the case it becomes impossible to avoid the truth that Mel Gibson can only blame himself for his predicament. Listening to the recordings it is clear that we are listening to someone who has gone over the edge. That being the case, it is reasonable to ask how he got to that point and whether he was in some way pushed.

In any relationship, things can become very complicated very quickly if things turn sour. And it is often far from a simple matter of who’s to blame and who’s not. Matters can get out of hand very easily, and people say and do things that they will later regret very deeply. Watching any relationship from the outside it is difficult, and even unwise, to pass judgment, because we will never really know all that has happened inside that relationship. But, when the spotlight of celebrity is focused on an otherwise private and personal crisis, it is inevitable that judgment will be passed by total strangers, and judging by what we have heard, Mel Gibson will have a tough time convincing anyone that he is the victim.

The bottom line is that, no matter how provocative a wife or a partner or a lover might or might not be, any man in a situation of this nature is going to lose the argument as soon as he loses his cool.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Eight Days Of Farce

Today is Bastille Day, the French national holiday, so it might seem appropriate that the Federal Government’s asylum seeker policy is rapidly becoming more madcap than a French farce. After being elected with a mandate to end the so called “Pacific Solution”, the Rudd Government continued to keep the processing of asylum seekers off shore by confining it to Christmas Island. With increased numbers of boats arriving, pressure mounted upon both the detention facilities and the Government’s policies, resulting in the bizarre spectacle that we have witnessed unfolding in the past eight days, and culminating in the prospect of once again using the facilities at Nauru. It’s not just ironic, it’s almost a paradox.

On Tuesday of last week, the sixth of July, our new Prime Minister Julia Gillard presented her speech to the Lowy Institute reassuring Australians that it is perfectly alright to feel fear and anxiety about asylum seekers, instead of advising Australians that any fears and anxieties that they may have been encouraged to feel are in fact unfounded. She then proceeded to announce that discussions had been initiated with the President of East Timor in relation to a proposed Regional Refugee Processing Centre. It was immediately, and inevitably, branded the “East Timor Solution”.

Within minutes the Government was rejecting suggestions that the policy was nothing more than a revamp of the Howard Government “Pacific Solution”. Instead, the Gillard Solution was supposedly of a different character altogether because, unlike Nauru, the proposed Centre would be constructed with the co-operation of regional neighbor nations as well as the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Within 48 hours, the Prime Minister was denying that she had ever said that the centre would actually be built in East Timor, because as it turns out, a quick phone call to Jose Ramos Horta on Monday night wasn’t really enough to lock in East Timorese support for a policy announced on Tuesday. Instead, the Centre could end up being built in Papua New Guinea, or some other unspecified location.

By this point it was becoming impossible to ignore the constant calls by Tony Abbott, and others, for Nauru to be considered for the job. If there is to be off shore processing at all, surely Nauru would have to be a candidate, for a number of reasons. First, and most obviously, it has already performed this role before and the facilities are still there ready to be pressed into service. The Government of Nauru has indicated its willingness to take on the job, having already enjoyed the benefits of the economic boost which arrived courtesy of the Australian taxpayer’s money, and they’re naturally more than happy to take our money again.

But no, said our Prime Minister, East Timor is our first preference because any country which undertakes this function should be a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees, and Nauru is not. That’s fair enough if the aim is to provide a genuine framework for the better handling of the refugee challenge across the region. But wait a minute, the President of Nauru, Marcus Stephen, has now said that the Convention is not an obstacle because he is prepared to sign up. If that’s the case, you really have to ask the question, what’s the difference whether the Solution is in East Timor or on Nauru?

Of course, the farce can only be complete if Julia Gillard actually embraces the Nauru option, but the hollow rhetoric has already become embarrassingly obvious.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Enroll Now, Before It’s Too Late

The suspense is building. A sense of anticipation is growing. One day, perhaps very soon, our new Prime Minister will take a drive to Yarralumla and have a cup of tea with the Governor General and ask for the Parliament to be dissolved so that an election date can be set. Every move of the Prime Minister is watched in the expectation that she could make her move at any moment. Reporters are already camped out in front of the Governor General’s residence, and every time a large white car passes by they all hold their breath as they fight back the palpitations. Could this be the moment? Is history about to be made? Almost every observer is expecting the big moment to come before the end of this week.

Of course, it’s not just idle speculation. There have been some clues. First there was the Prime Minister’s own indication that an election would be preceded by efforts to deal with three big issues. The first was the mining tax. For so long, the RSPT was dominating the front pages, but now that it has been replaced by the MRRT barely more than a week ago it has all become ancient history. Mining tax? What mining tax? Second was asylum seekers. Enter the East Timor Solution, which may not have gone quite as smoothly as the Prime Minister had hoped, but the early opinion polls seem to at least reflect some approval that there has at least been a policy announced, no matter how much it might resemble smoke seen through a mirror.

Thirdly, there is the matter of climate change policy, and while it remains to be seen whether anything more than just more hot air is emitted, it is believed that the Cabinet meeting today is signing off on something to take to the polls. Even if it is just a plan to make a plan, if there is an announcement of any kind in the next 24 hours or so, then all the lights are green. There is one further piece of crucial evidence that has been seized upon by the waiting hordes of journalists. The Governor General is due to travel overseas this week to attend the dedication ceremony at the military cemetery at Fromelles, but yesterday announced that her departure will be delayed until Saturday afternoon. The hounds of the press immediately fell upon this as an indication that the Prime Minister might be planning to call upon the Governor General on Saturday morning.

Now, that might not be the case, and all that rabid speculation might turn out to be off the mark. But just say for a moment that it is correct and the Governor General dissolves the Parliament this week. What happens then? Well, the first and most important thing is that the election writs must issued within ten days, the roles will close at 8pm on the day of the writs being issued, nominations will close anywhere between 10 and 37 days after that, and the actual election will be held anywhere from 23 to 31 days after the close of nominations. This means that am election can be held anywhere between 33 and 68 days from when it is announced. If the Prime Minister visits the Governor General tomorrow, we could be voting as soon as the 21st of August. It also means that if your enrollment details are not up to date you are running out of time to make sure that your vote will count.

And if you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to grumble about who gets elected.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Making Drivers Into Outlaws

Over the weekend it was reported that the RTA is considering tightening up the amount of leeway granted to drivers detected exceeding the speed limit. It was suggested that a margin of as little as 4 km/h is being considered, although technically even one kilometer per hour over the limit is actually against the law. Of course the obvious problem, pointed out by people ranging from motorist groups through to police officers, is that speedometers are not always accurate to that degree. In fact a 5% error is common, meaning that when your speedo is showing 100 km/h, you might actually be doing 105, or perhaps just 95. Even with the best intentions in the world, people trying their best to do the right thing could easily fall foul of any law applied quite so rigorously.

The good news is that the Roads Minister David Borger has said categorically the story is not correct, and that the leeway is not being reduced, although he refuses to say just what the leeway is for fear of encouraging people to push their luck. Nevertheless, this conundrum does identify the shortcomings of relying too heavily on speed limits as a tool to manage road safety, and at the same time fuels the fears of many people have speeding tickets are nothing more than a source of revenue for the government. It should be obvious that it is not speed alone which is dangerous, but whether the speed is appropriate to the road and traffic conditions which prevail. Where speed limits are imposed, it implies that motorists cannot be trusted to act responsibly and drive safely without being subjected to an increasingly draconian range of rules.

In an ideal world, speed limits would exist to inform and assist the driver in interpreting road conditions. Instead, motorists are increasingly subjected to a bewildering array of constantly changing speed zones which could be 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100, or 110, at any given point, and you miss just one signpost you run the risk of becoming Australia’s most wanted. That’s eight different speed zones which are commonly encountered, and which might appear in any sequence at any point. Adding to the confusion are electronic variable speed signs which mean that even familiarity with the road is no help, and ridiculous road works speed restrictions left in place when no actual work is being done. It is both confusing and frustrating, two things which I believe are counterproductive for road safety, but clearly increase the chance of motorists getting stung with a fine.

For many people, the reintroduction of mobile speed cameras from next week only confirms that the Government is more interested in the revenue, than in actually making our roads safer. The fact that the State has already budgeted to collect $137 million form the new cameras is the last nail in the coffin. While the Minister insists that he would be happy if not one cent was collected, the bottom line is that without the money there is a hole in the budget. That’s money that we are told will be spent on fixing roads and providing other essential government services. So, if the government is sincere and really wants us to slow down, why are they counting on having the money? It’s easy to get the impression that they actually want us to get caught out, rather than making it easier for us to stay safe.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There have been studies done in many towns in Europe where all the road signs, speed limits, and traffic signals have been removed, and the road safety record has improved. People actually slowed down because they were forced to judge for themselves what was a safe and appropriate speed for the conditions. Instead of racing through traffic lights, they had to slow down at intersections and give way where appropriate. Instead of clinging to some sort of imaginary right of passage, drivers instead had to exercise respect for all road users, including cyclists and pedestrians. It has been a radical shift in thinking, but it has demonstrated strong results.

That doesn’t mean that all speed limits should be abolished, or that all rules should be thrown out. But it does demonstrate that, in the right circumstances, people can be empowered to autonomously behave in a responsible fashion, without the government enacting so many laws that it becomes impossible to avoid becoming an outlaw.