Friday, February 15, 2008

Leading By Example

For some weeks now we’ve been told over and over again that inflation is on the rise. Interest rates have gone up, and are likely to go up again. It’s time to refrain from excessive spending, and behave responsibly. Of course, most of this advice is coming from well paid people for whom tightening the belt means going to a slightly less expensive restaurant.

The Prime Minister has called for parliamentarians to do something unusual. He wants them all to lead by example, and specifically he wants them to sign on for a pay freeze for twelve months, by skipping this year’s increase, and not seeking any “catch-up” bonus next year. Predictably, many of the politicians affected have become hot under the collar when their own pay and conditions have come under threat, even the ones who were so keen to undermine the pay and conditions of ordinary Australians with the Work Choices legislation.

At a starting salary of $127000 a year, there’s something not quite right if you can’t make ends meet. Nevertheless, the M.P.s who are upset about this are right when they claim it’s just a stunt. It is a stunt, but it’s a good one. On its own, this pay freeze won’t do a damn thing to stop inflation. But it does do something much more important. It reminds the politicians that the decisions they make every day have a very real impact on ordinary Australians, most of whom are not as well off as the politicians who represent them.

The Prime Minister is also right when he points to the excessive salaries on offer in the corporate world. There is absolutely nothing wrong people being well paid for a job well done, but the pay scales of our C.E.O.s have dramatically outstripped community standards. If an individual has their own capital invested into an enterprise they deserve whatever return they can achieve from it. But we are talking about people who are at the end of the day nothing more than employees, hired to manage enterprises on behalf of their true owners the shareholders. If C.E.O.s expect such handsome returns, they should be putting their own capital at stake, instead of draining the pockets of their employers, as is often the case.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can look forward to higher interest rates, and higher prices, while being told we need to exercise restraint.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

No Explanation (Or Excuse) For Sheer Stupidity

Three teenage boys have been charged with affray after being arrested in connection with yet another rock throwing incident. On Wednesday afternoon a four wheel drive vehicle, traveling on the M7 in Sydney, was struck by a rock the size of a cricket ball. It hit and cracked the windscreen. Fortunately, there was no injury involved, and the driver safely pulled over and contacted police.

How many more times is this sort of incident going to occur before people realize just how reckless, irresponsible, and criminally dangerous this activity is? There might be some appeal, some thrill, in the idea of throwing rocks at a moving target that motivates young boys to do this. But surely after all the publicity surrounding similar incidents, which have in some cases had much more tragic results, even the most immature young thugs would get the message that this is serious. What’s even more disturbing is the fact that some of these events have involved people of adult age. There is absolutely no possible excuse for such people, who clearly should know better.

Throwing rocks at moving vehicles is such a wanton act of chaos that it goes beyond being merely anti-social. It is indiscriminate, anonymous, and callous. It demonstrates not only a complete lack of regard for the safety of others, but a failure to grasp the basic principles of actions leading to consequences. A person would have to be of doubtful mental capacity to even think such a thing might be fun. The fact that this kind of social disconnect seems to be happening again and again is even more alarming.

Perhaps affray just isn’t a strong enough charge. Really it should be considered to be attempted murder.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Witnessing History

Despite the fact that there are still many Australians who continue to question the need for or the value of an apology, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has given all Australians a remarkable and historic day. It’s very rare that all of us can say that we have been watching history unfold before our eyes, and on those occasions we can it is often for all the wrong reasons, such as war or disaster. On the other hand, the delivery of the apology to the stolen generations has been widely welcomed as a deeply moving and positive experience.

Of course, this hasn’t magically dissolved all the divisions in out society, or suddenly brought compassion and understanding to the hearts of those who have been firmly opposed to any such apology. But, at this early stage, it’s easy to get the feeling that there has been some shift of opinion, and some broadening of people’s capacity for compassion. The real question, of course, is will this last, or will the warm glow fade away in a few days and everything return to business as usual.

The cold hard fact is that we are still no closer to reducing the gap in life expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. No closer to ending the poverty and disadvantage of remote communities. No closer to resolving the racist attitudes that persist in the minds of a number of Australians.

Others are asking if we can have an apology for Aborigines, why not have an apology for other displaced people such as the British children relocated to Australia during World War Two. Or for the children of young unmarried mothers who were forcibly removed in a moral climate which today would be seen as a breach of human rights. Or for war veterans and their widows who have been left without adequate compensation for suffering incurred in the service of their country.

Yes, there are many people who might deserve some sort of apology or restitution for other injustices. But that should not distract or detract from the importance of the Parliament’s apology to the stolen generations. History has been made, and we have seen it happen before our eyes. Now it’s time for the real work to begin so that all Australians can enjoy the fruits of the “Lucky Country”.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Price Of Prosperity

After an unprecedented period of uninterrupted economic growth it should be no surprise that there now appears to be a speed bump ahead. The Reserve Bank Of Australia has warned that the outlook is for inflation to remain uncomfortably high for the next two or three years. This in turn points toward further increases in interest rates. The prospect of home mortgage interest rates reaching 10% and more is now being more widely considered. All this as housing affordability reaches an all time low. That’s right, the price of a home as never been further out of reach.

Throughout the long stretch of economic growth we have been told repeatedly how things have never been so good. We’ve been reminded about low unemployment, and high wages growth. We’ve seen people who already own houses benefit from their capital growth. Now, it is becoming clear that the party is starting to fizzle. While most observers are forecasting that Australia will survive the global economic slowdown thanks to the resources boom, there is a risk that things could become more gloomy, at least for some of us.

The Reserve Bank warning caught some by surprise in that it is more severe than expected. But the problem is that international conditions are causing credit problems and market instability at the same time as our local Reserve Bank is trying to tackle inflation. So, where is this inflation coming from?

The biggest price increases contributing to the C.P.I. growth are in the cost of housing and the cost of financial services. Adding a twist to that is the view of the Reserve Bank that there is the risk of increased labour costs feeding into a price increase spiral. And here’s the crunch. Wages growth, while healthy, has not significantly outpaced inflation. In fact at 3.8% it’s about right. Contrast that with the increase in executive remuneration for the past year, which is a monumental 28%. Clearly it’s not a wages breakout that is driving inflation, but a drive by companies to pursue maximum profits.

So, just who exactly has been benefiting from all this economic prosperity? And more to the point, who is going to carry the can as the economic sunshine turns to dark clouds this year? As you can see, the people who have gained least from the period of prosperity are very likely to also be the ones who suffer most as the economy slows down.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Don’t Shoot The Delivery Personnel!

The Department of Community Services is never far away from the front pages. As the special commission of inquiry is about to get underway, the Public Service Association has gone public with the views of its members, who are the people at the centre of the storm. The overwhelming message from the people who have to actually do this work is that they are under funded, understaffed and under resourced. Even where there is funding for staff there are positions which remain vacant because of difficulties in recruiting.

Of course, the views of the workers at DOCS represent just one perspective, and may be colored by self-interest. But generally speaking it is usually the people who have to do the actual work who are best placed to identify just what needs to done to deliver a satisfactory outcome. This is true in Community Services, Health, or any other field of service delivery. In this case, the survey done by the P. S. A. indicates that the problem is not just about “what” is done, but “how” it is done. While money is pumped into the department, not enough of it finds its way into practical resources such as child seats in department cars. This is the department responsible for child safety, yet in many cases if a child needs to be transported in a department car, there is no seat. Such things should be a matter of common sense.

Those who deal with DOCS from the other side of the counter also have important observations to offer. Those who might be referred to as “customers” have their own, often negative, experiences to report, and as we have seen last week, foster carers also have difficulties dealing with the department. From accusations of a lack of transparency or accountability, through to allegations of an interfering and meddlesome minister, there is no shortage of criticisms being leveled at the Department.

While it remains to be seen just what the findings of the Wood Commission of Inquiry will be, it is clear that things cannot continue as they are.