Friday, March 14, 2008


It is startling to learn that foreign bus drivers can come to New South Wales and be allowed to drive coach loads of tourists around, even if they cannot speak a word of English. Yes, foreigners do have to sit a road knowledge test for the RTA, but apparently they can sit that test in whatever language they choose. Consequently, drivers are at the wheel despite the fact that they cannot read road signs.

This has come to lkight as the result of an investigation into a fatal tourist bus crash three years ago. In 2005, Chinese bus driver Hua Chen lost control of his vehicle on a steep hill south of Wollongong. Three Taiwanese tourists on that bus died. This was an accident which would not have happened if the driver had been able to read the sign which warned that the road was too steep for buses.

The Office Of Transport Safety Investigations is reported to be concerned that another tragedy could easily occur. The Office also notes the increase in the use of variable electronic signs, and radio broadcasts inside tunnel systems. These messages cannot be learned, says the report, they must be comprehended.

The solution is simple. The Office has recommended that all drivers should be required to take their tests in English. It should be a matter of common sense, and it should never have been allowed to become a problem in the first place, but presumably, somebody somewhere must have thought that such a requirement might be a form of discrimination.

The sooner this dangerous loophole is closed, the better.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Tale Of Two Australias

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has made the front page with his observation that he doesn’t want to see two Australias emerge where one sector of the community enjoys the benefits of economic prosperity, while another group falls behind and is left out of the economic sunshine. Obviously, he has become Prime Minister at a pivotal time, when world financial markets are in turmoil, and the United States is confronting a recession at the same time that Asia continues to boom.

But back here in the real world, Kevin Rudd’s two Australias scenario has already come to pass. That’s one of the reasons he was elected last year. Already many Australians fell they have been left behind amidst all the talk of unprecedented prosperity. For those people the question is “if these are the good times, what are the bad times going to be like?”

The great irony here is that in the new government’s mad scramble to fight inflation with budget cuts, it appears that the most vulnerable have been the first to suffer. The scrapping of the medicare rebate for dental work, the confusion over carer and aged pensioner bonuses, and now the news that a modest grant for a miscarriage support service will be scrapped. Is this how Kevin Rudd helps the working families of Australia?

It’s the struggling families, the casual workers, the aged and disability pensioners and the carers who are already contending with increased interest rates, higher grocery prices and higher fuel prices. They are not the ones driving inflation. Meanwhile, the gravy train at the top is still running, despite the collapsing sharemarket, despite the threat of international recession, and despite the repeated calls for restraint.

We already have two Australias, and Kevin Rudd’s supporters elected him because they believed he could change that.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Highway Robbery And Other Misdemeanours

At the risk of being accused of endless whinging, sometimes it seems as if “they” are always out to get the better of us. Whether it is the banks jacking up interest rates for borrowers by a bigger margin than for depositors, or the oil companies playing silly games with the price of petrol, it’s hard not to think that nobody cares about the plight of everyday people.

Banks are all about making money, and once upon a time they seemed to be interested in helping their customers to make money too. It’s easy enough to understand: happy prosperous customers result in a long and fruitful relationship with a happy and prosperous bank. Not any more. Now, on top of the iniquitous imposition of endless fees and charges to cover what used to be overheads, banks are now adding insult to injury by grudgingly granting interest rate increases to their depositors which are less than the increases imposed on their borrowers. The do it because they know they can, as we are a captive market dependent upon them for an essential service.

Similarly, the oil companies know that they can manipulate the price of petrol as much as they like because we are a captive market dependent upon them for en essential commodity. But that’s not all. It is becoming increasingly apparent that stocks of the more expensive premium fuels are suddenly and mysteriously in short supply on the very same days when we might expect the price cycle to be falling. It’s hard not to be cynical and suspect that this might be an organized effort to punish motorists for have the audacity to criticize the oil companies.

And here’s another example of “economic rationalism” gone mad. I heard one bloke today talking about selling his house and complaining about the real estate agent charging for advertising costs, including payment for a copywriter and a photographer. Hang on a minute, isn’t the agent supposed to be paid a commission on the sale of the house? If he’s charging up front for items which would rightly be considered overheads, just what exactly is he doing to earn his commission?

Really there ought to be a law against it!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Here’s To Your Health

The federal government’s $53 million program to combat binge drinking has been hailed by many as a significant step towards making a real difference. The cornerstone is the $20 million which will be spent on an advertising “scare” campaign, warning teenagers in particular about the health and social risks of excessive drinking. Other features include just over $19 million earmarked for intervention and diversion programs, as well as a plan to withhold funds from sporting clubs which fail to tackle the problem among their young members. Alcohol advertising and sponsorship deals have also been identified as areas for review in the future.

While shock advertising campaigns have been very successful in dealing with smoking, drink driving and the spread of H.I.V., the youth drinking culture might be more difficult to tackle. For such a campaign to succeed it is not enough to simply depict the negative health impacts. The most successful campaigns of this nature are the ones which depict certain behaviours as being uncool. The drink driving campaign’s most signifcant message was the phrase “bloody idiot” which has become part of everyday language. Another example is the “little pinky” anti-speeding campaign which belittles men who break the speed limit. It’s this characterization of socially unacceptable behaviour which has the most impact on changing community attitudes.

We will know that we have made progress on the binge drinking issue when we start to see teenagers themselves passing on the message to their peers.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Liberal Identity Crisis

While the coalition parties are no doubt still reeling from the election loss, it’s only natural that some pretty deep soul-searching is going on. The approval ratings of Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson just keep getting worse and worse, and now it seems that the very existence of the parties is being re-examined, with Dr Nelson throwing his support behind a possible merger.

While there has been a push for similar mergers in the past, it’s never really been given serious consideration until now. While there is significant opposition, what is surprising is the level of support for the idea. Whether this is because the idea is genuinely appealing, or because the members are desperate for a glimmer of hope remains to be seen.

Critics have suggested that such a merger would not be a comfortable fit, with the two parties having some significant differences, but that is not really the problem. After all, the coalition has worked every successfully for a very long time. Most if not all philosophical differences could probably be accommodated into a new National Liberal Party without too much difficulty.

Where the plan is more likely to come unstuck is in the bush. Despite the fact that the Nationals have struggled in recent years to retain relevance, if they disappeared now it would leave something of a vacuum. The experience of the One Nation phenomenon has shown that people in the bush are keen to find representation that will more accurately reflect their views, and the disappearance of the “Country” party could be the catalyst for a new force to emerge. Conversely, reaffirming a strong and independent image for the National Party would actually help the opposition parties regain some political traction.

The discussion about a possible merger is a distraction. The problem is not with the coalition agreement or with party rivalries. The problem has been policy and leadership. When the Liberal Party gets those right again, they will be back in the political race. Of course that’s probably not so reassuring for Brendan Nelson.