Thursday, December 20, 2007

Merry Christmas…

Well this is my last editorial for the year, and although it might sound like a cliché, what a year it has been. History has been made with the end of the Howard Government, and the beginning of the Rudd term of office. Climate change and environment issues have become part of the mainstream agenda. The Iemma Government in New South Wales was re-elected, even though nobody seems to like them. Sydney hosted the APEC conference. And the list goes on…

Partly because it is fresh in the memory, the Federal Election stands out as a watershed moment. Time will tell if the new government lives up to its many promises, but it is already certain that Australians have soundly rejected work choices. It would seem that Australians still believe in a fair go. So much so that we have decided to give Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party a go, even though the State Labor Governments continue to disappoint.

But despite the big events and the big changes, it’s the everyday things that still matter to most of us. Can we afford the house we live in? Why does the price of petrol keep going up? Will the train be on time? Can I see a doctor if I go to the Emergency Department at my local public hospital? Are the kids getting a decent education?

The New Year will bring both challenges and opportunities, not only for our politicians, but for all of us. The question is will we be smart enough to recognize that challenges and opportunities are really the same thing, and turn those opportunities into a better life for all Australians? In the end, it’s up to all of us to do own own little bit.

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year. And let’s remember to look after each other. In the end, that’s all we ever really have.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

They’ve Got Us Over a Barrel

The release of the A.C.C.C. report on petrol pricing might be viewed as disappointing, as it finds no evidence of price fixing or collusion. However, it is interesting that the report finds a “comfortable oligopoly” between the big four oil companies, which hampers competition at the wholesale level. Despite the failure to identify anti competitive practices, the report is faint in its praise. It also provides a number of recommendations which may go some way to giving consumers a better deal.

First, the A.C.C.C. will now have monitoring powers over petrol prices on an ongoing basis, reporting annually to the government. The government will also appoint a petrol price commissioner. And there is a proposal to extend the Fuel watch program from Western Australia to operate nationally.

Fuelwatch is a program where the petrol companies are required to report the following day’s price by 2pm, which is made public. This has the effect of reducing market volatility and improving predictability for the consumer.

In the end though, petrol prices will continue to be high for a number of reasons. It is a precious resource and an essential commodity. Any company selling it can command a good price. The cost of all energy is going to continue increasing as environmental policies take effect. And in the end, the function of any business is to maximize its profit.

In the absence of more draconian price controls from government, that will always be true.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Lingering Legacy of Misguided Policy

The legacy of some of the less appealing aspects of John Howard’s government will continue to haunt the community for a little while yet. The cabinet has resolved to present its legislation abolishing work choices at the earliest opportunity in February. However, it will take time making its way through the parliament and is not likely to pass until July when the coalition finally loses control of the Senate. Even then, the legislation will provide for transitional arrangements to tide us over until the new regime arrives in 2010, and the last Australian Workplace Agreement probably won’t expire until 2013.

In the meantime, there is another piece of Howard Government policy that still impacts on a number of Australians. The Welfare to Work policy saw the introduction of harsh penalties for anyone who fails to comply with the requirements, up to and including the complete loss of benefits for up to eight weeks. This has always been problematic, because the people who find themselves in this position are already at the very edge of financial survival.

While it sounds like a good idea to penalize people who don’t meet their obligations, the truth is that people have a whole host of reasons for falling foul of the system, which does not take into account the underlying causes of the failure. Whether people suffer from a mental illness, family crisis, or just plain made a mistake, the consequences can be severe. It is projected that about 2000 welfare recipients will be trying to make it through Christmas with their usual benefits suspended, and no other source of support. They must turn to family or charity to survive.

Two thousand might seem like a small number in the overall scheme of things, and it is, but that actually demonstrates the foolishness of the policy. Most people do the right thing. There is no problem with any kind of widespread rorting of the system. Sadly, this draconian and punitive regime only penalizes those who are already desperate, along with innocent family members, without doing anything to help these people overcome their circumstances.

That’s why the new government must keep its promise for a full review of the system as quickly as possible.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

It’s no longer a point of debate whether or not the Australian Government should say “sorry” to the stolen generation of indigenous Australians. The new government has made the commitment to making a formal apology next year, so now the discussion has turned to the contents and phrasing of such a statement, along with the proposal to set aside a compensation fund.

There remains a lot of misunderstanding about the events of the past, along with a continuing attitude by some that there’s nothing to be sorry for, or if there is, then it was the fault of previous generations and not our responsibility. That attitude completely misses the point.

Already various State and Territory Governments, as well as the major Churches, have made formal apologies. So have other organizations and community groups who have expressed their support for the cause. But the one existing entity which should truly be the one to carry the responsibility is the ongoing entity which was originally responsible for the policies of the past. Governments change, but the parliament continues as the ongoing representative of the sovereign people of Australia. As such it is appropriate for the parliament, representing the Commonwealth of Australia, to make whatever apology is deemed suitable. We the people may not be responsible for the policies of the past, but the parliament, as an ongoing institution, is.

Secondly, it’s important to recognize the reality of the policies that created the stolen generation. While it is true that such policies were created in the belief that they were in the best interests of both the people and the broader community, we must examine the basis on which those assumptions were made. Even today, we expect the authorities to intervene and “rescue” a child from an environment where it is at risk of harm, and we’ve seen startling cases in recent times highlighting that challenge. But the assumption underlying the stolen generation was that such a decision could legitimately be made solely on the basis of race and culture.

Christine King of the Stolen Generations Alliance summed it up by saying that the children of the stolen generation were not taken away to save them, but to change them. That’s a distinction which identifies it as an exercise in social engineering with no regard for individual human rights, and that’s why an apology is not only warranted but long overdue.