Friday, September 10, 2010

A Greater Crime

The death of policeman William Crews is a shocking reminder of the terrible risks than can so often confront our police officers. For most of us, a day at the office is no more dangerous than making a cup of tea. For some of us, the workplace has hazards that can lead to serious harm through accident, such as on construction sites or in mining. But very few of us would be prepared to do a job where there are times when there are people who are actively trying to kill us. But for the men and women who serve our community as police officers, it is an inescapable part of the job. It takes a special kind of person to accept that challenge.

It can be all too easy to criticise police for their failings, or complain when we make a mistake and get a ticket for speeding, but when we do we forget that the role of our police force is to uphold our laws and to protect our right to live in a peaceful society, free of the dangers of drugs and violent crimes. All of us are imperfect, but the best of us are always striving to do and be the best that we can, and the same is true for police officers. That’s why they go to work every day, not knowing what unexpected dangers might present themselves. That’s why they take the risk that perhaps they may not go home at the end of the shift.

There have been calls for the punishment for those who kill police to be increased over and above the usual penalties for killing. The New South Wales opposition has called for a mandatory life sentence for anyone who murders a police officer, not because a police officer is somehow more important than any other individual, but because of what the officer stands for. An attack on a police officer is not just an attack on the individual, it is also an attack against the whole community, against all of us. It is an assault on the state as well as on the person, and the seriousness of that attack should be recognised by the law.

Whether or not a mandatory life sentence is appropriate is open for discussion, but the argument that a greater crime has been committed is valid.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Thin Ice

You might have heard of the low cost airline Ryan Air which operates in Europe. It has made news around the world many times for its ferocious cost cutting measures, including charging passengers for checking in, and slapping extra fees on credit card bookings, checked baggage and so on. Last year Ryan Air attracted widespread condemnation for announcing its intention to install coin slots on its toilet doors, and has even suggested flights with standing room only so that more passengers could be squeezed in. It’s an idea which brings a whole new meaning to cattle class, but at least there’d be no chance of falling over with so many passengers all packed in up against each other. Now, the latest suggestion from the boss at Ryan Air is that airlines could abolish co-pilots.

C. E. O. Michael O’Leary reportedly said, “Why does every plane have two pilots? Really, you only need one pilot. Let's take out the second pilot. Let the bloody computer fly it.” He went on to suggest that a flight attendant on each flight could be trained to take over in emergencies and assist with landing, completely ignoring the obvious fact that in an emergency is the very time when you most need properly trained and experienced pilots to handle the crisis. The man is obviously a lunatic and shouldn’t be permitted to be in charge of a lollypop shop, let alone an airline. Thankfully, authorities are unlikely to approve of his more outlandish ideas, but the fact is that this is just a symptom of a much wider problem, not just in airlines, but throughout the corporate world.

The fact is that this approach to maximising profits by aggressive cost cutting measures is widely embraced throughout the business community. This particular brand of management philosophy is the recipe which has led to overblown executive salaries for the chosen few at the expense of the income and job security of the people who must do the actual work, whatever that might be. The corporate elite see themselves as demigods, or in the parlance of Wall Street “Masters of the Universe”, who profit from playing with the pawns on the chessboard of life. Those pawns are you and me. The evidence is plain to see in the statistics on executive pay. While average wages have generally grown more or less in line with inflation, executive salaries have grown by almost ten times that much.

An even more startling statistic is the proportion of total income which goes to the wealthiest one percent of people. In the 1970's, in the United States, the richest one percent of families took in about 9 percent of the nation’s income. In 2007 the top one percent took home almost 25% of the money. Former United States Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently wrote in the New York Times that the last time the ratio was so heavily weighted towards the wealthy was in 1928, just before the Wall Street crash and the Great Depression. Those are American statistics, but the point is the same in any part of the world. The point is that all this is the natural result of the business philosophy which dictates that profits can be grown by driving down both employee numbers and incomes, rather than maintaining an equitable share in the prosperity for all of those who contribute to its creation.

The inescapable fact is that if an airline keeps on cutting costs, sooner or later it is going to crash, and the same principle applies to the economy as a whole. If the participants in a consumer economy can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that they produce, the whole economy will crash. That has been a significant factor in causing the Global Financial Crisis, and despite all of the stimulus packages and rescue bailouts, that fundamental imbalance has not been corrected. Until it has, the world will continue to skate on thin economic ice, and people like Michael O’Leary at Ryan Air are only making it worse.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

It’s A Bright Bright Sunshiny Day

EDITORIAL 08.09.10.
“Let’s draw back the curtains and let the sun shine in.” So said Julia Gillard upon forming Australia’s first minority federal government in 70 years. It is a well chosen metaphor which highlights the positive aspect of the circumstances in which the nation now finds itself. It implies that the sunshine of political goodwill and improved parliamentary processes can now flood into our lives through the open window of greater consultation and collaboration in government. But even if today is a bright bright sunshiny day, it doesn’t mean that all of the dark clouds have disappeared from the sky. (Apologies to Johnny Nash.)

While some have said that Julia Gillard will now become the first woman to have been elected by the people to be Prime Minister, I’m not sure that can really be said. Her claim to that position can only be sustained with the support of members who were elected by people who did not vote for Labor. The truth is that in a majority of electorates, 78 of them, the people voted against Labor. The independent member for Lyne, Rob Oakshott, was the last of the cross-bench members to declare his intentions, but not before spending an inordinate amount of time explaining that no one party had any claim to anything resembling a mandate.

Mr. Oakeshott, despite overstaying his welcome at the microphone, is absolutely right. No party can claim a mandate, or a clear victory from this election. He and his independent colleagues are also right that this period of minority government offers a tremendous opportunity for reform to the parliamentary process, but more importantly to the political process. It is an opportunity for the process to become more collaborative and less combative. It is an opportunity for those who have previously felt disenfranchised, especially in regional areas, to have their voices heard.

At the same time, there is no guarantee that it will turn out that way. It is still possible that collaboration and good will could evaporate in profound differences of policy. It is still possible that parliament could become bogged down in unresolved debate and legislation could be deadlocked. It is still possible that some might actively work against the smooth functioning of the delicately balanced parliament in order to destabilise the government and bring on an early election. While Julia Gillard’s optimistic reference to the sunshine is a very strong and appealing image, I suspect that not all our politicians will subscribe to that view.

Even if the government manages to run a full three year term, which is by no means certain, those dark clouds will never be far away.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Where Do You Draw The Line?

Swimming star Stephanie Rice caused considerable consternation over the weekend when she posted a message on social networking site Twitter in response to the dramatic Wallabies victory in the rugby union match against South Africa. In her exuberance she posted “Suck on that, faggots!” Stephanie immediately came under fire for using what was described as a homophobic insult, and was widely condemned. She responded with an apology, and deleted the twitter message, but it hasn’t been enough to stop the fall out. Today, the motor car company Jaguar has ended its sponsorship deal with the swimmer and asked for their car to be returned. Some might say that it is something of an over reaction, but of course Jaguar is entitled to make decisions about what they believe will reflect on the image and reputation of their brand.

At the same time, it has been reported that well known, some would say notorious, AFL and Channel Nine identity Sam Newman has been found by the Australian Communication and Media Authority to have breached the commercial television code of practice with a joke comparing a man with a monkey. In discussing a story about a young Malaysian man who had married a 107 year old woman, Sam suggested that the man was “not long out of the forest”. A complaint was upheld by the Authority which found that the remark compared the man to a sub-human primate and was likely to provoke severe ridicule on the basis of race. Channel Nine stuck by their man and argued that the observation was a satirical reference to the man’s behaviour, not his race. ACMA disagreed and upheld the complaint.

Is this political correctness gone mad? Is there now a law against having a sense of humour? After all, Sam’s monkey man joke could well be directed at the man’s behaviour as he claimed, just as it is common to refer to naughty children as cheeky monkeys. For that matter, I am reasonably confident that Stephanie Rice probably didn’t mean to suggest that the South African Rugby Union players are necessarily homosexual, nor to imply, as Jerry Seinfeld would have said, “that there is anything wrong with that”. And where do you draw the line? What about those old Toyota ads that used the word bugger? Shouldn’t that be offensive to gays? And isn’t there a double standard when Sam Newman is to all intents and purposes paid to act like a crude and vulgar boofhead, but when somebody else does it they get penalised?

It can be incredibly difficult to keep track of where the line is currently drawn.

Monday, September 6, 2010

New Election Not On The Agenda

It’s now day 16 and counting since the federal election and still no result. Although anyone with a reasonable understanding of the system would have expected some delay after such a close vote, there is an increasing level of impatience in the community. Increasingly there are calls for the independent members to make up their minds so that everyone can get on with life, while there is also an increasing level of support for the idea of having a fresh election. Opinion polls are now showing that around 60% of Australians feel that a fresh election would be a better solution to the current impasse than a minority government. It’s not hard to understand why many people have that opinion.

Regardless of which side the three country independents finally choose to support, any minority government that is formed will hold power by only the slimmest margin. What’s more, while the independents might guarantee supply and confidence, there is no guarantee that they will support all or even any of a minority government’s proposed legislation. Whatever government is formed will be by its very nature inherently unstable, and possibly hamstrung. If every piece of legislation is going to have to be negotiated through the parliament and depend on a decision by the independents, it could be very slow going. Some might even suspect that the past two weeks of uncertainty are an indication of just how difficult the whole process will become.

Now that may or not may not be fair, but if it has taken this long to decide whether to back Liberal or Labor in the parliament, the question might well be asked how long would it take to negotiate complex legislation on important national issues. Climate change policy for one thing comes to mind. It was difficult to get any kind of consensus before, now it might well be impossible. Despite all this, the election result is what it is. These are the cards that have been dealt, and this is the hand that must be played. There will be a minority government formed. It looks increasingly as if it will be the Labor Party that forms it. The independents are doomed to disappoint about 50% of their constituents no matter which way they decide to go, and after about 12 months or so it will all become so difficult that the government will be tempted to call a fresh election to seek a clear mandate.

But a fresh election right now is a measure of last resort, and is not on anyone’s agenda just yet.