Friday, December 7, 2007

Paying the Privateers...

The chief amigo at Telstra, Sol Trujillo, has spoken. It seems that after a long battle with the previous government in regard to investment in broadband services, Telstra is now prepared to take on the new government. Prior to the election Telstra’s position appeared to support the Labor Party policy for a national broadband network. Now the government has changed, and Telstra has now clarified its support for the plan. Putting it as bluntly as he could, Sol Trujillo said “We are only going to participate in the things that we own and control.”

Now this is a potential problem for the new governments plan to invest almost $5 billion of taxpayers money into broadband infrastructure. Quite understandably, the government wants to have some kind of joint equity arrangement, which is a sensible protection of the taxpayers’ investment. At the same time, Telstra would be happy to take the money, or even spend its own money to build the network, but will only do so if it can own, control and set the fees for the use of the asset.

This demonstrates the very reason that it was a bad idea to sell off Telstra as a going concern in the first place. If the intention was to create competition, the network and the service provision components of the business should have been separated at the beginning. By allowing Telstra to keep its network intact the process preserved the monopoly. Even now other providers depend on the Telstra network to deliver their services. If Telstra is allowed to have sole control of the new broadband network, nothing will change and the monopoly will continue to be preserved.

As privateers (and yes I know that’s another word for pirates) Telstra is perfectly entitled to protect its interests and pursue whatever it determines to be the most profitable course. What matters is whether the new government has the fortitude to stand up to the bullying tactics of Telstra and, if necessary, build the infrastructure with another partner.

Sol Trujillo is right about one thing: if Telstra invests its own money it should be entitled to set its own prices. But that same argument suggests that if the taxpayer is also investing in the project, then the taxpayer is also entitled to have a commensurate level of control.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Part Time Police

The recent report by the New South Wales Auditor General revealed that the completion rate for police investigations fails to meet the standard of other states. It also highlighted the issue of the controversial block rostering system which can see police officers work three or four twelve hour shifts and then have as many as six consecutive days rostered off. This system is unique to New South Wales and critics have made the connection between rosters and a “part time policing” mentality.

There is a number of important concerns about this practice that deserve to be properly addressed. Block rostering is popular among police because it allows them to have extended breaks, which many of them use to moonlight in second jobs. Now, anybody is entitled to do whatever they like in their own time, so it’s perfectly legitimate for police to have second jobs. But while there are controls in place to prevent inappropriate employment, there seems to be no clear policy on fatigue management. If somebody is working two jobs it would be fair to assume that fatigue could be an issue.

But it’s not simply a matter of second jobs. Even if an officer isn’t moonlighting, the length of the shifts themselves could also lead to fatigue problems, given the demanding nature of much police work. Then there’s the situation where an officer is off duty for three or four days, or even more. Does that mean investigations can come to a standstill, and is that really in the best interests of the community?

The Police Association insists that the system works very well at attracting and retaining personnel, and that if it was changed, as many as one third of officers would leave the force. The commissioner says that he supports the right of officers to take second jobs. The difference is that no other employer bends as far over backwards to accommodate its workers moonlighting.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Blaming the Wrong People

The Department of Community Services can’t stay out of the headlines for more than a few days. The latest tragedy to hit the front pages involves the death of a newborn baby in a family already known to DOCS. “Known to DOCS” is a phrase that we have heard repeatedly in recent times, and usually in the most tragic of circumstances. Increasingly attention has been focused on the performance of DOCS as we all wonder what more could have been done to prevent these unthinkable events. But is it possible we are asking the wrong questions?

The Department certainly has shortcomings, and has a history of failure. Efforts have been made to improve training and procedures, and more and more money is spent. But the results have not been good enough. And despite an increased budget, the recent Auditor General’s report revealed that the actual per case funding has halved over five years. It is clear that more needs to be done.

The opposition has been critical of the government for holding inquiry after inquiry and achieving very little. Then, in the same breath, the opposition calls for a Royal Commission, which is really yet another inquiry. The current inquiry is headed by Justice James Wood, famous for his previous Royal Commission work, and it should be reasonable to expect him to identify clear recommendations to improve the Department’s effectiveness.

In all of this however, the headlines have begun to verge on hysteria. Surely it is a mistake, and an easy shot, to simply blame DOCS and expect the government to fix it with more money and another inquiry. Let’s not forget that DOCS did not kill these children. Severely dysfunctional individuals and families did. The real question here is where does this dysfunction come from in the first place? These tragedies are not just a sign that the Department is failing… they are a sign that society is failing to address the underlying issues that cause this extreme level of dysfunction.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

It’s Time To Move Beyond Kyoto

Kevin Rudd sure wasn’t joking when he told us during the election campaign that his first act in office would be to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Barely had he and deputy Julia Gillard been sworn in when he and the Governor General adjourned to another room to sign the necessary papers, even before the rest of the cabinet took their oaths. The urgency of doing so was perhaps partly to do with the Bali Talks getting under way on the same day as the swearing in, but more importantly, the move was symbolic in that it was intended to send a strong message to the rest of the world that Australia has changed tack on climate change.

While that is important, the real challenge still remains ahead. Climate change policy will come at a cost, and despite the evidence that the cost of inaction is greater, many people will feel the pinch as energy costs and the cost of living increase. The point has been made that we cannot continue to consume and sell coal as we have been if we are to make a genuine difference to greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, out economy can’t afford to simply abandon coal, at least not yet.

While the way ahead globally should be to move away from coal, Australia still has a tremendous vested interest in continuing to export it. This is a dichotomy that won’t be easy to reconcile. Longer term however, it will be imperative that Australia becomes a world leader in alternative energy such as solar, wind, and geothermal, just as we have been world leaders in minerals.

That’s the key to ensuring long term prosperity.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Speed Camera Figures Not Too Flash…

Since January the New South Wales government has rolled out 100 flashing light devices to warn motorists that they are entering a school zone. While the 40 kmh limit is in force, before and after school, the lights flash. It’s pretty simple, and it’s hard not to see. At the same time, 25 of those locations have fixed speed cameras in operation. According to figures reported in the Daily Telegraph almost 20000 motorists have been snapped breaking the limit in the five months from January 29 until June 30. Remember, these infringements were recorded at locations with the flashing warning lights!

It’s one thing to object to speed cameras as nothing more than revenue raising devices, and to question their deterrent value when a driver is not aware of having been caught until several weeks after the event, but this is another matter entirely. In order to get caught in one of these school zones, a driver must pass the school zone sign, pass the new flashing warning lights, and pass a speed camera warning sign. There really is no excuse for getting caught in those circumstances.

Is it possible that people are so preoccupied with other matters that they fail to notice all those warnings? Or is it an indication that some people just don’t care? Either way, it’s not good news.

The results of the RTA’s assessment of the effectiveness of the new program are not yet known, but I would hope that they will show a reduction in school zone speeding. If you can’t see the flashing lights then quite simply you should not be driving at all. And if the flashing lights aren’t getting the desired results, I expect that the authorities will respond with even more speed cameras and higher penalties. If we want to avoid that happening, then we had better start paying attention to those flashing lights and slow down for schools.