Friday, July 11, 2008

Is Petrol Pricing Itself Out Of The Market?

Eight dollars a litre! It’s enough to make you scream. That’s the predicted price of petrol in ten years time in a worst case scenario put forward by the Future Fuels Forum. The Forum was headed up by the CSIRO and has based this finding on an assumption that peak oil will be reached in the next five years. Peak oil is the point at which oil production begins to decline as a result of dwindling reserves. Nobody knows exactly when peak oil will occur: some predict it will be many decades away, others believe it has already occurred.

Either way, eight dollars is a frightening prediction. But, does it really have to be that way? Actually, no. The point of the report is that government and industry leaders can take action now to reduce the damage. A range of measures need to be pursued including greater investment in public transport, along with the development of alternative fuels and renewable energy. This is already happening, but it would appear that things need to happen more quickly.

The fact is that we already have a great deal of technology which can help. Hybrid cars still burn petrol, but they don’t have to. They can be built to burn LPG, natural gas, ethanol, or even pure hydrogen. Hydrogen is also a candidate for fuel cell vehicles. But the plug-in electric car is probably the best candidate for the mid to long term future. And today’s battery technology is already in use in a sports car that accelerates faster than a Ferrari.

We don’t have to be slaves to the oil markets. We just need substantial investment in the development of alternatives. And we don’t have to wait for governments to do it. Just as private enterprise is now moving into space travel, I believe the time is right for visionary leaders of private enterprise to invest in alternative energy for motor vehicles. I’m not the only one to say this. Already others are pushing the idea. So it just might be that in ten years time, when petrol is hitting eight dollars a litre, it won’t matter because we no longer need it.

Whether it’s a pipe dream or not will depend on the level of commitment and investment, not so much from government, but from industry.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sticks And Stones…

Let’s not get confused about what is and is not racial vilification. There has been an enormous amount of discussion relating to the incident where Petero Civoniceva was insulted by an alleged football fan. The culprit, Sper Vega, has claimed in his apology not to have intended the insult as a racial slur, only a general comment. Of course every racist claims he is not a racist. The use of the word “Monkey” clearly has racist overtones in some circumstances, and as such Mr. Vega should have known this and should have engaged his brain before opening his mouth.

I believe that his behaviour was offensive, insulting and unacceptable. I believe that what was once known as common courtesy would preclude such behaviour in any environment. If I was sitting next to Mr. Vega, I would have been offended by his behaviour and I would have felt uncomfortable for as long as he was allowed to remain there. I am not unhappy that he has been banned from attending games.

But was it actually racial vilification as many have suggested? No, it was an insult. And it was a racist insult, but is that any different from insulting somebody’s mental capacity, or physical ability, or parental lineage? I’ve been called a baboon before, and how many times have we called big brawny blokes gorillas? To be insulted is not the same thing as to be vilified. Vilification is the calculated depiction of an individual or a group as the target of hatred, often to the point of inciting violence or other actual harm against them.

One of the great Australian freedoms is the freedom to insult each other. If we are not careful we will get to the point where it will be impossible to say anything about anyone without being accused of vilification. Genuine vilification is and should be against the law. But, while I would prefer us all to be polite to each other, being rude should not be a criminal offence, only a social one.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A Fair Decision

The decision by the Australian Fair Pay Commission to award minimum wage earners an increase of $21.66 a weak was both the least and the most they could do. That figure represents almost exactly the 4.2% inflation rate, but because it is a fixed dollar amount, the increase for workers on awards above the minimum will actually be below inflation. As the pay scale increases, the fixed amount of $21.66 represents a diminishing proportion of the total when expressed as a percentage. When taken together with the recent tax and welfare changes, minimum wage earners will actually come out a little in front. On balance anything less would not have been fair, anything more would have been economically irresponsible.

Now, the representatives of business such as the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Industry Group are all criticizing the decision for being too generous and running the risk of being both inflationary and too great a burden on small business. The truth is that the increase is a modest one and certainly won’t be a significant driver of inflation. That particular monster is being driven by global factors including oil prices, the credit crunch and of course the resources bonanza. It has very little to do with the earnings or the spending habits of the ordinary battlers who are nevertheless usually expected to carry the can in the form of wage restraint.

The truly offensive thing about the demands for wage restraint is that in many cases the call is coming from the politicians, the bureaucrats, and the business leaders who have no idea what it’s like to return groceries to the shelf because there’s not enough money in the purse to pay for them all. The very people who are telling us that times are tough are the same ones on six or even seven figure incomes, and who have enjoyed income growth well beyond the level of inflation.

I have always recognized the importance of paying top people top money for doing important work well. But the trouble is that in the same week as minimum wage earners are awarded an extra $21.66 a week, the top public servants in Canberra have been handed an extra $1400 a week. That’s more in one week than minimum wage earners will receive in a whole year!

Criticising that 19% public service payrise is not a matter of greed or envy. It’s a matter of expecting the discomfort of belt tightening to be shared by those at the top as well as the bottom.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

It’s Closing Time

It has emerged that Police in New South Wales are more concerned about the incidence of alcohol related crime than they are about illicit drug crime. Apparently it constitutes a significant proportion of the work they do. Their solution is simple. Curtail the trading hours of licensed premises. It has to be said that this is a common sense approach which would have direct results. But is it the right approach?

As long as we make the distinction between responsible drinking and irresponsible or binge drinking, there will always be the risk of penalizing the many in an attempt to regulate the few. Why shouldn’t a sensible responsible person enjoy a few drinks with friends at four in the morning? In a large international city such as Sydney it is reasonable to expect there to be venues which are open very late, or very early depending on how you look at it. But given the problems that clearly do exist, perhaps there are too many of them, or perhaps some of them are in locations which may not be appropriate.

When it comes to extended trading hours it has to be asked just who is doing all the drinking at that time of day. Surely the answer is largely the problem drinkers, because all the responsible drinkers have already made a night of it and gone home to bed. I know, I’m sounding like a fuddy duddy, and a hypocrite, especially as I have enjoyed the occasional late night myself. But when people are beating each other up in the street we have to ask if it’s worth it. If people seem to be incapable of enjoying the privilege of late trading responsibly, then it is appropriate to remove that privilege.

Of course, simply closing earlier completely ignores all the take away alcohol that is consumed elsewhere, usually in private homes but not always, and which fuels domestic violence and other physical assaults, not to mention malicious damage and of course road accidents.

There is no one simple solution, but reducing trading hours will not unduly inconvenience the responsible drinker, but will effectively reduce the opportunity for social drinkers to become antisocial.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Art Of Creating Controversy

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the art gallery and start looking at Norman Lindsay paintings, a fellow called Maurice O’Riordon has provoked a fresh outcry over photographic works of art depicting naked children. He has done this by publishing such a photograph on the cover of the taxpayer funded magazine he edits called Art Monthly Australia. He claims that he has done so in an effort to “restore some dignity to the debate” and to “validate nudity and childhood as subjects for art”. What nonsense. If he didn’t know the uproar he would cause then he is too stupid to be trusted with public money.

Of course, it is the purpose of art to be confronting, contentious, even at times offensive, and Maurice O’Riordon surely knows that. I suspect that he has deliberately set out to be controversial, either in an effort to make some sort of “artistic statement” of his own or simply to promote the magazine. After all, there is no such thing as bad publicity, and when it comes to creative endeavour it can be a case of the more controversial the better.

Despite all of the debate over whether such photos are art or pornography, that is not really the point. Bill Henson and Polixeni Papapetrou are not threats to society. However, those who really are a threat to society will see these artworks as affirmation of what they believe and validation what they do. At its core, art is supposed to convey a meaning. In this case the message is that it’s OK to persuade kids to undress for the cameras. That may not have been the intention of the artists, but that is the undeniable result.

Art, in all its manifestations, is both a mirror to our society and an influence upon it. Great art has great power. But the fact is that art is a two edged sword and as such art can either shine a light, or it can cast the darkest of shadows. It is more than a mirror; it offers not only a reflection but also a reinforcement of what we see in ourselves. Artists who play with the dark shadows cannot step away from responsibility for what they are doing, simply because it is “Art”.