Friday, June 20, 2008

A Matter Of Life Or Death

Shirley Justins has been found guilty of manslaughter and will be sentenced later this year. Her friend Caren Jenning has been convicted of accessory to manslaughter. The circumstances leading to this outcome have once again ignited the debate over euthanasia and the right to die rather than suffer the prolonged pain of a terminal illness. These two women obtained and provided a lethal dose of Nembutal to 71 year old Alzheimers sufferer Graeme Wylie, who had been Ms Justin’s partner for 19 years.

At issue when the court made its decision was the question of Mr. Wylie’s mental capacity at the time the decision was taken. Given the nature of his affliction it is a legitimate question, although there has been evidence given that his wish was to die rather than to suffer. Ms. Justins and Ms. Jenning claim to have been assisting his suicide in accordance with his wishes. Mr. Wylie’s daughters on the other hand believe that what they did was wrong. The issue is further complicated by the fact that Ms. Justins stood to benefit financially under Mr. Wylie’s will to the tune of more than $2 million.

While the court has found these two women to be guilty, the broader debate over mercy killing has been revived once again. Are there any circumstances where it is better to die than to live? And who should be in a position to make such a decision? While it remains a vexing question, the real risk is that if laws are written to allow mercy killing it would be close to impossible to provide foolproof safeguards against possible abuse.

Euthanasia, like abortion, is an issue where it’s impossible to reconcile the opposing arguments. There appears to be a strong level of support for the idea that those who believe in the right to die should not be dictated to by those who do not. But the weakness of that argument is that it could be applied to any activity that is against the law. The purpose of the laws against assisting suicide is to prevent those who do believe in mercy killing from imposing their beliefs upon those who do not.

In the end, we all have the right to live, even if we don’t want to, and protecting that right is the first priority of the law.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Not Having A Bundy Good Time

The campaign against binge drinking and alcohol abuse is a worthwhile and noble cause. Nobody who has witnessed the damage done by alcoholism can deny the seriousness of the issue. But binge drinking and alcoholism are not the same thing. They have different causes and different effects. And now it seems we can’t even seem to agree on what exactly constitutes a binge. If the definition turns out to be four standard drinks as has been suggested it means that two people sharing a bottle of wine at dinner are walking perilously close to the edge.

The serious health and social effects of binge drinking make it important that this debate is taken seriously, and not jeopardized by trivialization or hysteria. And yet that is what appears to be happening. The Prime Minister identified an important social challenge when he launched his campaign to combat binge drinking. His Health Minister Nicola Roxon is a capable and responsible person. But the government risks undoing much of its good work over the strange demonisation of the Bundy Bear.

Already under fire over the so called “alcopops” tax which targets spirits based ready to drink products, Nicola Roxon has attacked National Party M.P. Paul Neville over his display of a Bundy Bear in his office window, and accused him of promoting binge drinking.

The truth is that the Bundy Bear is a brilliant advertising gimmick which has become an icon of Australian culture. The Bundy Bear is an example of classic Australian humour. And far from promoting binge drinking, the Bear sets an example as a character who is always cool, in control, and behaves in an appropriate fashion. The Bear promotes the idea of drinking responsibly, and as Paul Neville points out the premixed drinks actually help to do that by providing an accurate and consistent measure of alcohol in the mix.

Unless we all decide as a community to reject the idea of responsible enjoyment of alcohol and outlaw alcohol completely, the debate must remain focused on the harm done by excessive consumption. Otherwise, the debate will lose credibility and the opportunity to deal with the real problems will be lost.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Housing Is The First Priority

Housing affordability is perhaps the most pressing challenge for Australia at this time. While high fuel prices are very much in the forefront, along with grocery prices and inflation generally, it is housing which presents the most fundamental dilemma. If a person’s residential status is secure, other challenges such as fuel and food can be confronted with greater confidence. Take away that security and everything else becomes so much more difficult.

While there has been a lot of focus on the undersupply of housing as a primary cause of the affordability crisis, there seems to be a reluctance to acknowledge the impact of high taxes and charges and user pays levies as causes for that shortage of supply. Ten years ago, those levies did not exist. Ten years ago there was no G.S.T. Of course those things make housing more expensive. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the G.S.T. is calculated on the price including those levies, which is in fact a tax on a tax.

The root of the problem is simple. It is the so called user pays principle which has seen the introduction of developer levies to pay for infrastructure and services which were once paid for by the public purse. The truth is that “user pays” is a con. The user already pays! We already pay our rates and taxes, and yet this all pervasive philosophy means that we also have to stump up for levies and charges which never existed before. It is the same scam which sees us paying an increasing number of tolls to use roads and bridges which should have been built by the tax payer.

Economic rationalism has delivered an economic environment where as much of the cost as possible is shifted to the end user to increase the bottom line at the top end. The result is that the pockets of the ordinary consumer are tapped until they are dry. And that is what we are now witnessing. As the cost of fuel, food, and housing goes up, ordinary people are finding that they have been bled dry.

The brave new world of economic rationalism has been designed so that the people serve the system, without the system properly serving the people. History tells us that any economic system which fails to sustain its general population is doomed to fail. Unless we ensure that ordinary everyday people can afford secure housing, it will be impossible to tackle the other challenges looming on the economic horizon.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Premier O’Farrell Sets The Agenda

Well, the deal has been done. Against the wishes of the people, the privatization of the electricity industry in New South Wales will go ahead. Despite the significant resistance offered by the union movement, and the community in general, it was always going to happen, one way or another. Ironically, it is Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell who has been able to make it happen, and he’s not even the Premier… yet.

To get the deal done, the government has been forced to accept the demands of the opposition, the most significant of which are the assessment by the Auditor General and the rural impact statement, both prior to the sale. The Opposition insisted upon these conditions as an assurance that the taxpayers of New South Wales are getting the best possible value out of the sale. In reality the outcome of the Auditor General’s report will depend largely upon just what exactly are the terms of reference he is given. It is unlikely that his report will be allowed to result in a negative outcome.

As for the impact on rural areas, it’s not too hard to foresee that service guarantees will be required for the privatization to proceed. Those provisions have already been factored in to the government’s plan, and the impact assessment is unlikely to present any impediment.

In many respects, the pressure to privatize is so great it is remarkable that it hasn’t happened before now. Of course it has always been politically unpopular, but the reality is that a better deal would have been possible ten years ago than is the case now. If it had been blocked now, it would only get worse. Opponents of the plan might take some comfort from the knowledge that this is a minimalist privatization with distribution networks remaining in government hands, and generators being leased not sold.

The masterstroke for Barry O’Farrell and the opposition is that the privatization process which they see as necessary will go ahead, and the current Premier will take the blame from an unforgiving public.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Petrol Promise Impossible To Deliver

It’s no surprise that almost 80 percent of voters want the Federal Government to take direct action to cut fuel prices, according to figures from the latest Herald/Nielsen poll. After all, it was the Labor Party which went to last year’s election making bold promises to take action against high housing costs, high grocery costs and especially high petrol prices. While no politician was foolish enough to say that they could actually deliver lower prices, they certainly weren’t shy about giving that impression.

Since the election, all kinds of economic hell have broken loose. Of course the seeds of the United States credit crisis were sown long ago and began to emerge well before the election, but in the past six months it has become increasingly clear that all is not well. Inflation has been identified as a significant threat, not only by our own government, but around the world. Coupled with an economic slowdown which is already gripping the United States and may or may not eventuate here, inflation spells tough times for individual consumers, especially Kevin Rudd’s “working families”.

While inflation is being propelled by a number of factors, it is fair to say that oil prices must be at or near the top of the list. And while Brendan Nelson’s proposal to cut excise is a direct and popular approach to cutting the price of petrol, sadly it would amount to no more than a drop in the oil can. Sadly, the truth is that there is virtually nothing any government can do about petrol prices, except perhaps cut the tax. And while that sounds appealing, it does nothing to address the underlying problem, and does nothing to assist climate change policy.

The government only has itself to blame for raising expectations of doing something to halt the incessant increase in petrol prices. But even worse, if the doom and gloom forecasts of a recession do come true, the government, and the rest of us, will have a lot more to worry about than just the price of petrol.