Friday, October 29, 2010

More Than A Miracle

It seems like it’s been about three years now that I have been saying that the Labor government in New South Wales is dead, it just hasn’t fallen over yet. Quite simply, the fixed four year election time table means that it is virtually impossible to get rid of an unpopular government until there term finally expires. No matter how desperately the people of New South Wales might want to vent their fury at the ballot box, there is no choice but to wait until March 26 next year. Nevertheless, it has been evident for a substantial period of time that voters have already made up their minds, and it would take nothing short of a miracle to change them back again. It would seem that the latest Newspoll results only confirm that view.

With an approval rating of just 23%, the Kristina Keneally government is now officially the most unpopular Labor government ever in Australian history. The only other government of any political persuasion ever to be less popular was the scandal ravaged National Party government in Queensland in the wake of the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police and political corruption at the end of the 1980s. At the same time, Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell now has a convincing lead over Kristina Keneally as preferred Premier, so on first glance it would appear that not even a miracle would be enough to save the Labor government in New South Wales.

But wait a minute. Don’t count your chickens before the eggs are cracked. The same Newspoll which shows Labor to be in so much difficulty also shows that support for the Greens continues to grow and is now at 17%. There is also considerable evidence that support for independent candidates is also growing, and the prospect that a significant number of independents might choose to put themselves forward next March. The implication is that there is a growing possibility of a hung parliament in New South Wales, just as there is in the federal parliament. Given the alliance forged between Labor and the Greens at the federal level, there is no reason why a similar alliance could not be negotiated at the state level. If that’s the case, then there is still a slim chance that the Labor government might just cobble together the miracle that it is looking for.

Nevertheless, I still have difficulty summoning up sufficient faith to believe that such a thing might actually happen.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Joke Is On Us

Well it’s always easy, not to mention fun, to take a shot at the big banks. It’s even more tempting in the wake of record profit announcements, and so far we have seen the NAB report a profit of $4.2 billion and today the ANZ announced a record cash profit of $5.1 billion. Not bad going for institutions which are still carping on about the increased costs of funding and the impact of the global financial crisis. While the global financial crisis was real, and many businesses are still suffering from the fallout, it would seem to be increasingly obvious that the big banks have not suffered one bit. Any ill effects that might have been experienced by the banks have been dealt with by simply passing on the pain to their customers, either in the form of higher interest rates and higher fees, or by restricting access to the credit which might have made life easier for their business customers. Really, it seems that as far as the banks are concerned the GFC has been nothing but an excuse to justify their own predatory practices, and an opportunity to exploit the vulnerability of others.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with banks, like any other business, making profits. Indeed there would be something seriously wrong if they did not. But the thing which bothers most people is the context in which those profits are generated against the backdrop of exorbitant fees and excessive increases in interest rates. On the one hand the banks keep bleating about how difficult conditions are to justify raising interest rates independently of the Reserve Bank, while on the other they manage to produce record profits. They moan about the margins on interest rates, but the truth is that margins are now back up to pre-crisis levels. They moan about offshore costs, but the Reserve Bank says that those costs are now easing as the worst of the GFC recedes into distant memory. They mutter about user pays, but what they really mean is that they refuse to pay for their own overheads.

Yes, it’s all to easy to take a shot at the big banks, but while it might even be fun, in the end the joke is on us, the customers paying more than we should.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Trick Or Treat?

It’s not enough that we will have to prepare ourselves for the onslaught of pre-teenagers likely to show up at our front door this weekend demanding “trick or treat”, now there is even an activist group calling for Halloween to be made an official holiday. Members of the so-called “Halloween Institute” yesterday marched from Martin Place to Parliament House hoping that Kristina Keneally might heed their call for another day off to be added to the calendar. While I suspect that they are unlikely to be successful in their quest, it does demonstrate just how much impact this American tradition has been having on our own culture in recent years.

Of course, there are plenty of Australians who continue to object to the whole event, considering it to be an American activity of no relevance to Australia. Some go so far as to abuse the children who dare to knock at their door, telling them to go away in language which should not be heard by minors. Equally, there have sometimes been some overly enthusiastic kids who have harassed and harangued residents who refuse to participate. But on the whole, most people have responded in a good natured, if sometimes bemused, manner. In some respects it is surprising that it hasn’t caught on sooner, given the influence of American films and television shows over the last fifty years.

While there might be legitimate concerns about very young children knocking on the doors of total strangers after dark, I’m sure that with a little common sense we can all come to terms with this annual event. With appropriate supervision, and a reasonable curfew, there’s no reason why kids can’t have a bit of fun, and for the rest of us to relax and go with the flow. But, despite the efforts of the Halloween Institute, it is likely to be quite some time before Australia embraces the event quite as whole-heartedly as the Americans, where it is not only a cultural institution, but a mammoth marketing event with families shelling out about $2.4 Billion for costumes and candy.

Maybe that’s the real reason the Halloween Institute wants us all to embrace the occasion.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Putting The Boot In

As much as well all like to put the boot into our politicians from time to time, the fact is that we usually choose to do it verbally rather than literally. However that didn’t stop Peter Gray from standing up in the audience of the ABC television show “Q And A” and hurling his sneakers at former Prime Minister John Howard last night. In a bizarre flash of prescience a twitter message ran across the screen just moments before the incident asking “why doesn’t somebody throw a shoe at this man?” And then, right on cue, somebody did. Obviously, the stunt was deliberately intended to be reminiscent of the shoe attack upon former United States President George W. Bush, and it was intended to highlight similar issues. Mr. Gray shouted from the audience, “That is for Iraqi dead!” as his shoes failed to hit anything or anyone of any importance.

Subsequently, Mr. Gray has stated that he believes that he found the “appropriate” form of protest to get his point across. The throwing of shows is culturally significant in the Middle East, and he says that they are the people to whom he was sending a message. Criticised for his poor throwing technique, Mr. Gray said, "I certainly didn't want to hurt the man but I certainly wanted to make my point known." He has no remorse for his actions, and regrets only that the ABC has refused to return his shoes. The response from the community has been mixed, with even opponents of Mr. Howard labelling the protest as pathetic. While this form of protest is vastly preferable to genuine political violence, it would generally be considered to be something foreign to Australian culture, and most Australians are likely to dismiss the incident as idiotic, even if the agree with the sentiment. But it is worth noting the cool calm and collected response of Mr. Howard who simply laughed off the whole affair.

After, a little controversy never did any harm to anybody’s book sales.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Speed Devices Not So Intelligent

After the recent trial of a device which sounds a warning when a driver exceeds the speed limit, the RTA is working towards the introduction of the so called “Intelligent Speed Adaptation” devices in all vehicles. According to the Daily Telegraph, it is another step towards a goal of having mandatory speed control devices which can cut power to the accelerator in every car in New South Wales. Although representatives of the RTA deny any such plan, it would appear that things are heading very much in that direction. The device which is currently being trialled contains an up to date map of every road in the state, complete with accurate records of every speed limit. When the driver exceeds the speed limit a warning is sounded, prompting the driver to slow down.

While most GPS navigation systems have a similar feature, the RTA version has the benefit of being regularly updated to reflect any changes in speed limits. As such, it may well represent a useful addition to the array of road safety aids available to the driver. However, the suggestion that such a device should be connected to the accelerator so as to wrest control of the car from the driver at any time that the computer decides the driver is exceeding the speed limit should be rejected. While not all drivers are as responsible as they should be, it is wrong to treat all drivers as irresponsible. And while most drivers will have no need to exceed the speed limit, there may well be the rare occasion when it is necessary to get out of the way of an impending disaster.

If the RTA was really serious about road safety, it would be building better roads, providing better driver training, and insisting on drivers learning to be responsible for their own actions, rather than trying to build the idiot-proof car. If they were serious about road safety they would set about reducing the complexity of the driving environment by removing the vast array of seemingly arbitrary and utterly inconsistent speed zones which appear to exist only for the purpose of trapping unwary motorists and milking their wallets for revenue. It has been demonstrated in other countries that over-regulating the roads actually creates problems rather than reducing them. It’s time to strike a balance which actually helps motorists to drive safely rather than causing them frustration.

Of course, if we did have computers cutting off the accelerator when we tried to drive too fast, surely that would mean that no-one would ever fall foul of the law. No one would ever break a speed limit because the system simply would not allow it to happen. And if for some reason the system didn’t work properly, and we managed to break a speed limit anyway, we could just blame the equipment. It would be somebody else’s fault, and we could wash our hands of all responsibility. Just imagine it, no more speeding fines ever! Maybe the whole thing isn’t such a bad idea after all.

But wait a minute, just what would the state government do for revenue then?