Friday, December 14, 2007

Is It All Just Hot Air?

Kevin Rudd is certainly a good talker, and when it comes to climate change he’s had plenty to say. Having successfully made it an election issue, the new Prime Minister wasted no time signing the papers to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. His first journey overseas as Prime Minister has been to attend the climate conference in Bali, where the speech he delivered attracted much praise. He has pointed to the need for the United States to change its position. But is it all talk?

The Kyoto Protocol has almost run its course, so signing up now is a powerful symbolic gesture, but in practical terms doesn’t really do much. The whole point of the Bali conference is to determine a framework for a post-Kyoto plan to come into effect in 2012. Bali is supposed to provide the so-called roadmap for the next two years of negotiations. At issue is a deep division between Europe and the United States over whether or not to include a commitment to a specific range of emissions cuts from 25 to 40% by 2020.

The United States argues that such a commitment now undermines future negotiations, and so far it seems that Kevin Rudd has fallen into line and accepted this argument, refusing to support the inclusion of the targets in the Bali Declaration. Many people are now questioning whether this represents a failure of the Prime Minister to “walk the walk” on climate change.

Too much has been invested in the Bali talks for them to be allowed to result in total failure. That won’t happen. But the roadmap that is issued may be for a road to nowhere if goalposts are not clearly set by the declaration.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Law Unto Themselves.

New South Wales has taken another step towards becoming a police state. Last week, special legislation was passed to give police additional powers for the upcoming Papal visit for World Youth Day. The legislation also sets up the World Youth Day Co-ordination Authority to administer the laws which provide for wide ranging control over a number of issues from airspace to advertising.

I think most people would accept the introduction of reasonable measures to ensure the safety of the Pope and the community, along with facilitating the smooth running of what will be a massive event. But it seems that the legislation goes beyond reasonable measures. It’s all very well to temporarily give police greater powers of search and seizure, but the new law goes much further.

This legislation delegates power from the Parliament to the Government so that significant matters such as police powers can be adjusted by regulation, not legislation. Further it provides for an unprecedented level of autonomy for the both the Co-ordinating Authority and the Minister to whom it reports. That Minister is the Deputy Premier John Watkins. According to the legislation the authority of the Co-ordinating Authority and the Minister cannot be “challenged, reviewed, quashed, or called into question” in court. In other words, absolute supreme power is in the hands of the Minister, and if anyone believes that the co-ordinating Authority has acted unjustly there is no recourse to the courts.

To remove all judicial oversight of these arrangements is an abrogation of the normal democratic rights we take for granted in a free society. It doesn’t matter who the minister is, the concentration of all power on one desk is contrary to the principles of parliamentary democracy. If the police and other authorities do their jobs properly, they have no need of protection from being challenged in the courts. This legislation is authoritarian, and almost totalitarian, and it does not improve the standard of security provided to the Pope or the community.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Obesity: The Problem Is Getting Bigger…

The new Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon has announced a program to have all children weighed before they enter preschool. They will also be measured and have their body mass index calculated, all as a part of a new initiative to combat obesity. Now while it certainly won’t hurt, the question is will it help?

If the measurements are simply written up in a report and filed away it is not going to achieve anything. As a first step to encouraging more active measures it does have something to offer. Despite some criticism that this might encourage eating disorders among sensitive children, I believe that promoting awareness of good health habits from an early age can only be a positive step.

If a child is weighed and measured, and is also given a comprehensible explanation as to why, that child can learn to make healthy judgments for himself. The key to this is not just the measurement, but the message. Kids are already getting a lot more useful information about good health and nutrition than previous generations, but for some reason it isn’t always getting through. The reason is the cacophony of mixed messages that are bombarding not just kids, but all of us.

While we are urged to eat better food we are also flooded with junk food advertising. While we are told to get more exercise, we are constantly reminded that it’s not safe to go outdoors. And for kids, the biggest factor is the example being set by Mum and Dad. As confusing as all this can be, it’s not (as they say) rocket science. Good food, exercise, fresh air. Unfortunately, we seem to have developed a lifestyle where these things are hard to fit in between all the other pressures and distractions that envelope us.

The Healthy Kids Check, which will also encompass sight and hearing, is a step in the right direction, but success will depend on the steps that follow.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Justice May Be Blind, But People Can See Something Is Not Right!

Since it came to light that a judge in North Queensland handed out what appears to be a remarkably lenient sentence to nine offenders who pleaded guilty to gang rape, the storm of controversy has kept growing. Three of the offenders were over the age of consent at 17, 18 and 26. They were given a six month jail sentence, suspended for twelve months. The younger offenders were placed on twelve months probation, with no convictions recorded. Those are the facts and I don’t have to explain why people would be outraged by this.

In any legal proceeding there is always more evidence and argument presented to the court that can be reported in the media. That is why “trial by media” is a poor substitute for justice. But even with the few facts that we do have this decision just defies common sense. This is the gang rape of a ten year old girl. It’s hard to imagine mitigating circumstances that would reduce the seriousness of that.

In the wake of public opinion the Queensland Attorney General, Kerry Shine, has announced an appeal against the sentences, and more importantly, a review of all judgments in sexual assault cases in North Queensland over the past two years.

It has been reported that the Judge, Sarah Bradley, delivered her sentence in line with the recommendations of the prosecutor. If that’s correct, the people of Australia are entitled to ask just who was the prosecutor representing…. The Crown, or the defendants? While the offenders aged 16 and under can expect to be treated as children by the law, what’s the explanation for the 26 year old? And since all the offenders as well as the victim are indigenous people, some people are also asking if there is one law for “them” and another for “us”.

These are questions that must be dealt with honestly, because unless justice is uniform then there really is no justice at all.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Power to the People, Right On!

The plan to privatize the electricity industry in New South Wales is still a contentious issue. The proposal has a number of features designed to address the main concerns, such as job guarantees, bonus payments, and price caps. But does it all really add up to a better deal for consumers?

Unions are concerned about the threat to jobs and conditions. This has been addressed with a plan to impose a freeze on both for three years. Consumers are concerned that prices will rise, and this has been addressed with price protection until 2013. But despite the fact that these conditions have been imposed, the concerns haven’t gone away. In fact, the need to put them forward in the first place could be seen as an admission that without those protections jobs would go and prices would rise. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be needed would they?

Many people are strongly opposed to the privatization of public infrastructure on the grounds that the taxpayer should continue to own the asset, enjoying the revenue from it, and guaranteeing a level of customer service that is not purely profit driven. Past experience with privatization hasn’t done anything to alleviate that concern.

The privatization of Telstra has seen the reduction of jobs along with a perceived decline in customer service. Along with that, in spite of all the talk about competition, Telstra still maintains a monopoly on most of the physical telecom network. The Telstra experience is proof for many people that the private enterprise approach simply cannot adequately meet the needs of rural and remote Australia, while at the same time serving the interests of shareholders and pursuing a profit.

There are two fundamental problems here. One is the unique nature of Australia which is suffering from the attempt to thrust an American model of economic management onto a place which is not America. The other is a more universal problem which can be summed up with this question: Is the system being made to serve the people, or are the people being made to serve the system?

The idea that democracy is a form of government where sovereignty resides in the people is gradually being undermined by the corporatisation and securitisation of everything the taxpayer owns. In other words, we are becoming tenants in our own homes. A significant slice of the general public is opposed to this privatization, and the government will be ignoring them if it presses ahead with this plan.