Friday, May 9, 2008

The Vicious Cycle Of Rage

It’s hard to believe that any person could be so inhuman as to perpetrate the outrageous incident that took place at Mascot where a driver is alleged to have deliberately braked in front of a group of cyclists, causing an immense pile up. Fifty cyclists were brought to the ground, and traffic behind them was also thrown into chaos, with a semi trailer jack-knifing in an effort to avoid the incident. More than twenty cyclists were injured and it is amazing that no one was killed. These cyclists were engaged in an early morning training ride, and have every right to use the roadways just like everybody else.

It has emerged that the driver involved claims he had engine trouble and was simply trying to pull over, but the cyclists who were there dispute that claim. Either way, the sort of rage which is alleged to be involved is surprisingly common. Everyday, motorists emboldened by their metal skins and powerful engines take it upon themselves to decide that only motorists are entitled to be on the road and to abuse cyclists for having the audacity to encroach upon their territory. Motorists who might seem like relatively normal people in everyday life become rabid animals striking out without sanity or reason, motivated by the most primal of instincts.

Of course it’s not just cyclists who are the victims of road rage, but they are much more vulnerable than people in cars and become easy targets because they are out in the open. Road rage is a frightening phenomenon in any form, but when it leads to the sort of physical attack we have seen this week where the motor vehicle is deliberately used as a weapon it’s time for everybody to take a deep breath and rethink our attitudes.

Yes, there may be scope for better regulation of where cycles can and cannot be used, for improved facilities for both cyclists and motorists, for safety regulations to be improved. But ultimately the real issue here is the question of how we behave towards each other in society and in particular on the road. It’s time to remember that we all have a duty of care to respect each others rights and safety, not a duty to assert our own primacy by inflicting harm or abuse on others.

Just remember, it could be your son or daughter, brother or sister on that bicycle.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

No Free Lunch Here

It is now conventional wisdom that we are all paying too much for petrol, so it’s only natural that we keep looking for ways to save money where we can. We cut down on the number trips we make in the car. We fill up on Tuesdays when the price is usually cheaper. We use our shopper dockets to save four cents a litre, even though with prices over $1.50 a litre now it doesn’t really represent much of a discount. But it’s worth it, isn’t it? Even a few cents is better than nothing?

Well, actually, maybe not. The A.C.C.C.’s petrol commissioner, Pat Walker, has targeted Coles Express service stations for what has been described as a blatant rip-off. According to Mr. Walker, Coles Express service stations have consistently set the highest prices for petrol at a significant number of locations in the four major capital cities. As a result, the discount voucher often will not actually deliver the best available price.

It is a clever piece of loyalty marketing because people have possibly deliberately chosen to shop at Coles to obtain their vouchers, and then seek out the appropriate service station to redeem them. By that stage people may not even realize that another outlet has a better price. In fact, it would be reasonable for people to assume that a very large company like Coles would be in a position to offer the most competitive price.

Of course, it should be obvious that nothing is given away for free. The profit margins on both the groceries and the fuel must be sufficient to make the discount offer worthwhile for the retailer or else they wouldn’t do it. But with the market power available to them, you would expect that the high volume of turnover would mean Coles could undercut everybody else and remain profitable.

Unfortunately, it seems the opposite is true, where market power leads to exploitation of the loyalty of unsuspecting customers.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Courting Disaster

The sheer scale of the disaster in Burma is difficult to comprehend. The confirmed death toll from Cyclone Nargis has passed 20 000 and could well reach twice or even three times that many. Efforts to assist the victims will be made all the more difficult by the political environment in Burma, where the prevailing military government has a record of isolationism and disregard for human rights. Nevertheless, aid agencies have already begun their work to help alleviate the suffering.

This tragic event is also a reminder to our own authorities of the risks all of us confront in the event of disaster overtaking Australia. The timing of the disaster also coincides with the release this week of a report indicating Australia’s level of preparedness for large scale calamity is not up to the task.

David Templeman is the former director general of Emergency Management Australia, and in association with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has warned that Australia has serious deficiencies in a number of areas. These include a lack of clear leadership in co-ordinating federal, state, and local authorities, along with very big question marks about whether our hospital system can cope with mass casualties. After all, most of us are complaining that the hospital system is just barely coping under the day to day workload. What on earth would happen in the event of thousands of casualties requiring assistance at one time.

In recent years, the focus has been on counter terrorism, with around $10 billion spent since 2001. While no one is suggesting we should reduce our efforts there, it seems the same attention has not been given to the possibility of natural disaster, or large scale accident. No nation is immune to the risk. Hurricane Katrina proved that in the United States.

To ignore this advice is to continue courting disaster.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Opinion Polls No Comfort For Nelson

At last, the federal opposition has enjoyed a turn around in its fortunes with the latest Newspoll showing an increase of 3 percentage points in its approval rating. Not that it’s all good news, but at this point I’m sure any glimmer of hope would be most welcome. Unfortunately for the Opposition Leader, Dr Brendan Nelson’s own personal approval rating has fallen at the same time as the Opposition Parties rating has increased.

At the same time, the approval rating for the Rudd Labor Government has fallen four points, down to 47%. Of course this still leaves the government in a commanding position, but it is the first substantial fall in popularity to be recorded since the election. It just might be first sign that the shiny new gloss has started to fade.

Of course, there has been a lot of bad news lately, with inflation stubbornly rising, interest rates rising, and both petrol and food prices outstripping inflation. With all this happening, the Government has been telling voters to expect a budget which will constrain spending. So perhaps it’s no surprise that some people are becoming a little uneasy about the new government.

Meanwhile, the opposition is bizarrely clinging to the claim that the inflation threat is being exaggerated by the government, and that budget cuts are unnecessary. It would be tempting to believe that, but the truth is that the Treasury Department was ringing the inflation alarm bells a year ago, and the then government chose to ignore the advice and carry on spending. After all, there was an election to win… except that they lost anyway.

So now, with the waters well and truly muddied to the point where the opposition approval rating is back on the way up, Brendan Nelson still can’t make any headway as leader. It demonstrates once again that Dr. Nelson’s leadership is already finished… He just hasn’t left the chair as yet.

At least he’s not sniffing it.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Privatisation Process Will Proceed, One Way Or Another

The debate over the privatization of the power industry in New South Wales became high drama at the weekend’s A.L.P. conference, along with just a little farce. While it was no surprise that more than 700 delegates opposed the plan, the heated nature of the debate has begun to distract from the actual issue itself. In particular, Treasurer Michael Costa has been lambasted for his bombastic style, described by some as a childish tantrum.

The Premier, meanwhile, has remained resolute in his commitment to the sale, while at the same time offering the prospect of further discussion encompassing the possibility of a compromise position. It appears likely that some sort of joint venture partial public float will eventually be agreed, but there is a great deal of negotiating yet to be done before that happens, if it ever does.

What is clear however is that unless the Premier is actually dumped by his own party, some sort of privatization will go ahead. In fact, even if he is dumped, it’s still only a matter of time before privatization occurs. What people don’t seem to realize is that the current compromise position may be the best deal they ever get.

Despite the genuine concerns many people have about privatization, it’s no longer a question of will we or won’t we. After decades of failure to reinvest dividends into the infrastructure, it’s now a question of how. If this privatization fails to proceed, I suspect that a future coalition government will sell the lot, without the concessions and safeguards attached to the current plan.