Friday, April 18, 2008

There’s No Such Thing As A Level Playing Field

While the nation’s best and brightest get together for the confabulation known as the 2020 Summit, perhaps they should be pondering the realities of globalization, and free trade. The latest victims of this process are the 310 employees of Fisher & Paykel who will lose their jobs when the company closes its Brisbane factory and shifts the manufacturing operation to Thailand.

Apparently the workers in Thailand will be paid about $2 an hour, as compared with the Australian workers at $18 to $21 per hour. As if that is not enough economic incentive, it also seems that Thailand is prepared to offer incentives and subsidies to manufacturers that Australia is not, despite the fact that our two countries have a free trade agreement.

Free trade and globalization are a fact of life, and they are not going to go away. But the important thing is to find ways to benefit from globalization, and to manage the process to our own advantage. So long as our trading partners continue to subsidise their industries in this way, so called free trade is undermining our industry and our way of life.

It is also important that Australia maintains, and improves, both its capacity and expertise. To that end, properly directed subsidies for manufacturing should not be seen as protectionism or as propping up inefficient industries, but as an investment in both prosperity and security.

If we ever reach the point where we can no longer manufacture anything for ourselves we will have arrived at the Banana Republic that Paul Keating once warned us about.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

2020 Vision

Kevin Rudd’s big suggestion for discussion at the 2020 summit is the establishment of Parent and Child Centres to provide one-stop-shop facilities for parents of young children. The Centres would deliver every aspect of child care and welfare, from maternal and child health services through to long day care and preschool. The Prime Minister claims that such an arrangement would save money and reduce duplication of services.

However, the Prime Minister also had to admit that the proposal is both uncosted and unfunded. He proposes that the centres be up and running by the target date of 2020, but the reality is that he would have to survive at least four more elections to see it through. Although that’s not impossible, it has led some to speculate on just how concrete the proposal really is.

It also remains to be seen whether it really would save money and provide a better service to parents. Despite the scattered nature of current services, is there really any great benefit in co-locating such things as post-natal health and welfare with preschools? In fact, the creation of such super-centres might create facilities of unwieldy size. Bigger isn’t always better.

The other factor is the question of how government and private enterprise would combine to manage these centres. Daycare for example might be run by private operators, but maternal and child health units are run by state health departments. Or is this a move to privatize those aspects of the operation?

The 2020 summit is supposed to be an opportunity to openly discuss and debate the issues that are of great significance to the future of the nation. I wonder though if it’s possible that the whole thing is turning a giant distraction from more pressing matters.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Rent Rort Is The Symptom, Not The Cause.

It has been reported (in the Daily Telegraph) that “greedy landlords are rorting rents”, and that real estate agents have been caught out scheming to gouge more money from renters. This stems from a notice in the window of one agent urging landlords to increase their rents now due to market conditions, and another sending out letters to tenants warning that failure to pay on time could result in increases. While these measures certainly seem harsh, are they unreasonable or unexpected?

A landlord has invested a great deal of capital in a property and should be entitled to seek the best possible return on his investment. That means if the market is paying higher rents then he is entitled to benefit from that. That’s free market economics. In the same way, it is the job of the real estate agent, in the role of property manager, to obtain for his client the best possible return on investment. In fact, not to do so would be remiss of the agent and he would soon lose clients.

Now to balance those observations it should also be recognized that both landlords and agents need tenants or they won’t make any money. Good landlords and agents will value good tenants and treat them reasonably and fairly. Less scrupulous operators will seize the opportunity to squeeze as much out of the bottom line as they can, but to blame landlords and agents for high rents is simply not right.

The problem results from a combination of extremely short supply, high capital values, and increasing interest rates. The real problem is that governments and planning authorities have not adequately provided for the housing needs of the community, and now have the headache of dealing with the social fallout. It has reached the point where there are no simple answers, but the solution has to begin with addressing the fundamental underpinning fact that demand for housing is outstripping supply to the tune of 30 000 dwellings per year.

That’s the simple equation at the bottom of a complicated problem.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

When Doctors Don’t Know Best…

One of the great paradoxes of medicine is that often the patient in most need of treatment is least able to communicate with doctors. If we have a minor affliction we can explain our symptoms to our doctor clearly. If we are less than fully lucid that becomes difficult, and of course id we are unconscious we can’t contribute to our own care at all. So you would think that it would make sense that in those circumstances a doctor would speak to family members both to get relevant details of a patient’s history, and to report any progress made back to the family.

But apparently that’s not the case. The New South Wales Inquiry into Acute Health Care Services has heard of the concerns of the Willesee family. The daughters of journalist Mike Willesee, Amy and Jo, have told the inquiry of their concerns for their mother Carol who died in 2006. Initially, Carol Willesee was told that her problems were psychosomatic, but her condition deteriorated until she could no longer walk unaided, and ultimately could not communicate. When she was taken to the Emergency Department at Nepean Hospital it was almost four weeks before she was correctly diagnosed.

Amy Willesee has told the inquiry that medical staff did not document symptoms that she had witnessed, and did not tell the family about tests being undertaken. In fact no member of the family ever had the opportunity to speak to the treating specialist, despite repeated requests. Their point of contact was a junior doctor who provided only minimal information.

Obviously, senior doctors are very busy, and sometimes worried relatives might be a nuisance. But the fact is a close family member has a special duty of care which should be both recognized and respected, and could very well have detailed knowledge of some aspects of the patients symptoms, behaviour and circumstances. Close family members should have the right to be both heard when they have something to say, and informed of matters which are relevant to the diagnosis and treatment of their relative.

It’s in everybody’s best interests to keep the lines of communication open.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Iemma Dilemma

The Premier of New South Wales, Maurice Iemma, has never been the most erudite or articulate speaker. He is most comfortable being blunt and to the point. And that is the only way to describe his extraordinary attack on journalists. Obviously frustrated by what he feels is unfair treatment of the government by the media, he has declared war by saying “If a journo shits on us we’ll shit on them.” Blunt and to the point. In his defence, it was in the privacy of a Cabinet meeting.

Unfortunately for the Premier, it’s not the media which is the problem, or at least not the whole problem. Certainly, there are sections of the media which thrive on the juicy headline, but surely the problem for the Premier is that his government consistently leaves itself open to such attacks.

The public really doesn’t care about the leadership tensions or the slanging matches between politicians anywhere near as much as it cares about the buses, trains and ferries that are not up to standard; hospitals that can’t cope with the workload in their Emergency Departments; and schools which have maintenance and repair backlogs stretching back for ten years.

But because of those things which affect peoples’ everyday lives, the juicy headlines strike a chord and people respond accordingly. It can get to the point where even if the government gets something right, nobody notices.

At the same meeting, held on a weekend, the Premier also warned his Ministers to lift their games, and not to be arrogant. Some of them clearly are arrogant, but at this point it seems that the Premier is blaming first the media and then his Ministers for the poor public perception of the government. What’s next? Is he going to start blaming the people? Apparently the only person not to blame is Maurice Iemma.

If the government was actually delivering the goods for the people of New South Wales, there wouldn’t be any problem.