Friday, July 18, 2008

It’s Time To Clear The Air

EDITORIAL FRIDAY 18.07.08. With the weekend still ahead of us it has to be said that the World Youth Day celebrations have been a tremendous success thus far. Predictions of a short fall in numbers have been shown to have been groundless, the visitors are having the experience of a lifetime, and Sydney is on display for the world to see in the most positive light. Over the weekend, it is expected that almost half a million people will gather at Randwick for the Papal Mass.

Throughout all of the cheerful and optimistic festivities however, one dark cloud has shadowed the event. That cloud is the continuing controversy over the history of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, and how the Church has dealt with it. In the past, the utmost efforts were devoted to preserving the reputation of the Church by sweeping such matters under the carpet. Greater efforts have been made in recent times to be more accountable, but it is clear that much discomfort remains.

The damage that has been done in the lives of the faithful is in some cases extreme. It is illustrated by the case of Anthony Foster’s daughters, both of whom were raped by a priest two decades ago. One has committed suicide, and the other turned to alcohol abuse which contributed to her becoming permanently disabled when struck by a car. Mr. Foster has flown from Scotland to seek an audience with the Pope.

Expectations have been raised that the Pope will make an apology to Australian victims of sexual abuse by the clergy, during his visit to Australia. So far he has commended Kevin Rudd for his official apology to indigenous Australians, and now those who have been affected by the abuse scandal are waiting for their turn.

This is the moment for the Pope to make a difference, and to help guide the Church towards genuine reconciliation by recognition of its own failures. It is unlikely that the Pope will grant Mr. Foster’s request for a personal audience, but if by some chance he did it would be a significant gesture of goodwill.


EDITORIAL THURSDAY 17.07.08. The response to the government’s green paper on the proposed emissions trading scheme has been mixed. On the one hand, business and consumer groups have welcomed the support and compensation measures which will help to reduce the financial impact in some sectors. On the other hand, environmentalists and economists fear that these very measures make the scheme too soft and run the risk of failing to achieve significant reductions in emissions.

The support for so called “trade-exposed” industries, that is those which are exporting into the global market, means that some of the biggest polluters will get free permits, while power generators will receive only limited support resulting in the price of electricity rising by around 16%. The result is that Australian consumers will be forced to pick up the tab, which is why there is also the promise to provide assistance to low and middle income earners.

The problem is that there is a paradox inherent in these proposals. If the idea of putting a price on emissions is to discourage people from emitting, the process of providing free permits for industry and financial assistance for individuals would seem to neutralize the incentive to reduce energy consumption.

Of course the reality is that many people already use as little electricity as they can and burn as little petrol as they can because of limited incomes. Increasing the price won’t necessarily mean that they will use less; it just means they will have to make sacrifices in other areas so that they can continue putting petrol in the car so that they can go to work.

Environment Minister Penny Wong has promised to reduce the excise on petrol to neutralize the cost impact of emissions trading for the next five years. Beyond that she has suggested that Australians should think about the type of cars they drive. I suggest that many of us would choose to drive environmentally suitable cars now if only they were available at a cost efficient price. We can’t buy what doesn’t exist.

The fundamental problem is that our entire society is built around the idea of affluence and consumption. If we are not enjoying those things then we are aspiring to them. The truth is that real change is going to require changes to the way we live and the way we want to live. In order for those changes to occur from the bottom up, other changes will be necessary from the top down.

The structure of our society needs to be re-engineered in such a way as to provide ordinary everyday people the framework within which to live sustainable lives. Pricing carbon dioxide emissions is only part of the process. The real challenge is to invest the billions of dollars generated by this scheme into the development of genuinely renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, and build the viable alternatives so that we can all embrace them and get on with our lives.

Doom and Gloom Not Over Yet

EDITORIAL WEDNESDAY 16.07.08. The Australian sharemarket has fallen about 25% in value so far this year. While many people are asking how much longer will this be going in, the real question is “Why is this such a surprise?”

We have been constantly reassured that Australia is better placed than most to weather the economic storm, and that is true. But the fact is that the global economic storm is raging all around us. And despite all of the bravado over a supposed “disconnect” from the fortunes of the United States thanks to the resources boom, it is quite clear that the long standing advice that when Wall Street sneezes the world catches cold remains perfectly true.

Yes, Australia’s prosperity and sound economic fundamentals do help to reduce the damage, but there is no escaping the reality that confronts us. In the United States, the storm clouds were gathering well before the credit crunch began a year ago. Already the prices of houses were falling and had been for some time. When the sub-prime house of cards collapsed it released a tidal wave of consequences.

Here in Australia many people still persist in ignoring the facts. Housing is still insanely overpriced with the gap between average house prices and average incomes at an unsustainable level. The only thing propping up house prices is a dramatic undersupply, which means a sudden collapse in value is less likely, but still some form of correction must inevitably take place.

At the same time many experts are telling us that the sharemarket is oversold and that shares now represent a good value buying opportunity. That’s only half true. The reality is that the international instability will persist for some time yet and the result will be that despite the intrinsic value of Australian shares they will continue to come under pressure from an insecure marketplace until the international landscape levels out.

The bottom line is that the idea of a “disconnect” is a myth. The United States remains the largest economy in the world and if the U. S. falls into a depression, as some have suggested, the impact will be worldwide. While I don’t wish to be a prophet of doom, it is possible that the worst is not yet behind us. On the other hand it is encouraging that the United States is prepared to guarantee the survival of mortgage institutions Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. It’s that kind of initiative that might just prevent the worst from happening.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Plea To Populate Ignores The Big Picture

Sydney’s Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell, has taken the opportunity of the World Youth Day festivities to tell the faithful that they should go forth and multiply. Those weren’t exactly his words, but then neither were the ones used by the Sydney Morning Herald in its headline “Populate or Perish”. The Archbishop observed that Australia is not alone among Western Nations is failing to produce enough babies to maintain a stable population. In Australia, the balance is made up by an immigration program.

But what exactly does he mean by “Western Nations”?

While I can’t speak for the Archbishop, I suspect that his remarks may be directed at Christians generally, and Catholics specifically. In a world where other religions are growing in numbers, it would be important for the survival of the church to continue to produce members. In the same way it is important for Western Culture to continue to produce members to ensure its survival. With declining birthrates and increasing immigration the result is a growing population with a dramatically changing cultural balance. In Britain and Europe immigration has already had a massive impact on culture, and not everyone is happy about it. France in particular is struggling with its national identity.

Even taking religion out of the argument and focusing on purely national or cultural issues, the nature of communities around the world is changing. Globalism means that the balance is shifting. But whether we are talking about cultural or religious differences, there is another, bigger picture to be considered.

The world is already burdened with more than 6 billion people. More than half of them are poor, and around one billion are in such abject poverty that they barely survive. The question of environmental survival is also at stake. To call for greater population growth ignores the bigger picture, despite the fact that within the world there are pockets of population decline.

I fear that the Archbishop may be speaking outside his area of expertise. His argument seems to be formed within the context of an “us and them” outlook, when the truth is that we are all in this together.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Time For Miracles

Pope Benedict XVI has been in Australia since the weekend and has already performed his first miracle. The tribulations of Basil Iemma and Manuel Costa have disappeared from the front pages. There’s a very good chance that the next installment of Fawlty Powers won’t be appearing until after World Youth Day has concluded. For this we should all be thankful.

Although it is early days yet, it also appears that another miracle is occurring. The early indications are that the public transport system is running smoothly, delivering passengers safely to their destinations on time. It’s reminiscent of the magnificent success of the Olympic Games in 2000 when the public transport system ran to a special timetable so well that Sydneysiders were asking “Why can’t it always be like this?” I have already heard the same question being asked now.

Despite the critics who wondered why so much money was being spent on a religious festival, and who suggested that no one would turn up, it already looks like World Youth Day will be a towering success, not only for the Catholic Church, but for the state of New South Wales. The money expended is an investment in the future, for both the state and the church. The benefits will be with us for a long time to come. With a bit of luck one of those benefits might be the realization that public transport can actually work well when it is given sufficient resources.

The success of World Youth Day will be a great achievement for the New South Wales government. But by this time next week it will all be over, and you can bet that the tabloid campaign to topple the Iemma government will resume. If it doesn’t, that really will be a miracle.