Thursday, September 18, 2008

Mixed Messages

It really is quite amazing the things that are discovered in scientific studies. For example, a study from Swinburne university of technology has shown that good humour in the workplace leads to greater job satisfaction and better productivity. Who would have thought it? I mean aren’t we all supposed to be slaving away so feverishly that we just don’t have the time to smile? If you’re wasting time cracking jokes, you can’t be focusing on the job at hand now can you. Of course commonsense should tell us that such an oppressive regime in the workplace is counter productive, but apparently common sense isn’t so common, and some people need a scientific study to convince them of the obvious.

Speaking of common sense, did you know that scientists can actually identify the part of the brain which houses our faculty for common sense? It can be observed on a brain scan lighting up when we use our common sense. Scientists in the United States have done exactly that and discovered something quite alarming. They were studying the effect on the brain of using gadgets like mobile phones, BlackBerries, even GPS navigation systems, and what they found was scary. Whenever you send or receive txt messages, chat on the phone, or interact with your in car navigator, the lights go out. That’s right, the common sense centre of your brain switches off.

Doctors claim that this explains why it is so dangerous to text and drive for example, and why there has been an increase in injuries and deaths associated with gadget use. It’s not just because you take you eye off the road for a moment, but your common sense actually switches off and you literally forget to keep an eye on what you are really doing, namely staying alive. Again this should be a matter of common sense, but if the lights are out then it’s a fair bet that nobody’s home.

Now this might be a bit of a stretch, but with the disaster now unfolding in global financial markets, is it silly to observe that so many of these financial geniuses have spent the last decade permanently wired up to their BlackBerries and other similar devices? I mean, this whole discovery goes a long way towards explaining how they could drive the entire world economy over a cliff and not realise anything was wrong until it was way too late.

Sorry, I have to go now, I’m getting a text.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Collapsing House Of Cards

We know that things are in a pretty bad way when Alan Greenspan, the former head of the United States Federal Reserve tells us that the current financial crisis is a once in a century event. The evidence is plain to see when three of the biggest investment banks on Wall Street have been decimated, despite having survived such previous events as the Great Depression and the Tech Bubble Bust. But the big question for most Australians is “How does this affect me?”

Well it remains to be seen just how much worse the situation might become before it starts to get better. Even so, it is already obvious that one of the first casualties is the value of our superannuation. Once upon a time, only the wealthy invested in shares, but new, thanks to compulsory superannuation we are all share market investors. Already the value of our super funds has declined over the past year, and now it is likely that they will decline further, although it’s hard to say how far or for how long.

For those who are close to retirement, this is a setback from which it is very hard, if not impossible to recover. Sadly, many people will have to reassess their plans for retirement. For others who have longer to go the chances are that the super funds will recover over time and all will eventually be alright.

There is another impact which will also be felt by all of us. It has been revealed that many New South Wales Local Councils have invested ratepayers’ money into products which are now virtually worthless. Hundreds of millions of dollars have already disappeared, and it could get worse. The end result of course will be that council services will be under threat, and there will be increased pressure for rate rises. In fact, it has been the New South Wales Government's imposition of rate pegging which has contributed to the situation where councils were chasing higher rates of return by investing in what have now turned out to be dodgy instruments.

Sadly, there could be worse to come if the expected United States recession becomes truly global. Already the credit crunch has produced a sharp economic slowdown. If that begins to erode the growth of China and India significantly, then the much vaunted resources boom will no longer sustain us. That’s when we will confront the prospect of rising unemployment and increasing hardship.

Just how bad it will get is hard to say, but given the huge amount of debt still in the global financial system it is likely to get worse before it gets better. As for ordinary everyday Australians, it seems that the advice we got from our Grandparents, to only buy what we can afford to pay for, remains sound.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Costello Still Rocking The Boat

Brendan Nelson’s brave move to catch Malcolm Turnbull unprepared for the leadership ballot has failed, and his time as leader has come to an end. With the installation of Mr. Turnbull to the post the Liberal Party now has the opportunity to draw a line under the speculation and the uncertainty, and move on. Indeed, that will be the immediate challenge for the new leader. But is the uncertainty really over?

While it was clear that Brendan Nelson could not survive as leader, the end of his tenure is not the only hurdle confronting the party. The other significant hurdle has always been, and continues to be, the ongoing presence of Peter Costello. Mr. Costello’s stated aim was to support Brendan Nelson, and not to seek the leadership for himself. Now that Mr. Turnbull holds the post it might be wondered if Peter Costello is quite finished with the whole idea of leading the nation.

At any time, Peter Costello could stop all the speculation by simply retiring from politics. But so far he has refused to do so, insisting that he will remain on the backbench for as long as it suits him, and possibly even face the next election. Regardless of who might be the leader, whether Mr. Turnbull or anybody else, as long as Mr. Costello remains in parliament the question will continue to hang in the air. Mr. Costello can insist all he wants that he is no longer interested in the leadership, but there will always be those who either don’t believe him, or hope he will change his mind.

The longer he stays in parliament, the more this will be true, and Peter Costello must know that. So, why is he so intent on staying on, despite knowing the destabilizing effect of his presence? There are three possible answers. One is that he still wants to keep alive the possibility of finally making it to the top. Another is that he wants to maintain a role as a powerbroker, especially as he dislikes Mr. Turnbull. The third is that is that he just doesn’t care anymore and is more interested in looking after his own affairs and the backbencher salary helps to pay his bills until something better comes along.

From the point of view of the Australian people, none of the options is particularly impressive. In fact, whichever one is true, it would only serve to strengthen the view of many Australians that Peter Costello should do everyone a favour and just move on, thus allowing everyone else to do the same.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Outrageous Behavior

Last week I made some observations about the Matt Brown office party affair which have provoked quite a response, mostly negative. One listener, Bill Brindle, wrote on my website “Do you really need to be an apologist for the alleged incident?” Another by the name of Richard wrote to offer me this advice: “Leon, stand up and be a responsible commentator, not a cover up merchant.” It seems that there is no shortage of people outraged by what was alleged to have occurred at that party.

Although the alleged facts remain in dispute, it’s clear that, whatever happened, it was embarrassing enough for Matt Brown to try to cover it up. It’s also clear that whether or not people admit to being drunk there was enough alcohol being consumed for the accusation to carry some legitimacy. It’s also a fact that whatever it was that happened, took place during a parliamentary sitting, when the people of New South Wales might expect their elected representatives to have their minds on the job.

I was also criticized for suggesting that “no one in his right mind would use those words unless he was in the company of friends…” Well, the phrase which Matt Brown is alleged to have uttered is gross, indecent, and just downright dirty. It would take a special kind of idiot to say that to strangers, but of course, it is possible that Mr. Brown is just such an idiot. I don’t know, because I wasn’t there. But note that I did say “in his right mind”.

Many people are offended, even shocked, by any form of outrageous behaviour. But it’s not the behaviour itself that is the problem. This is supposed to be a free country where consenting adults can do as they please behind closed doors, so long as they are not breaking any laws. The problem is that this particular party should not have occurred in a parliamentary office, during a parliamentary sitting. The choice to do so demonstrated a substantial lack of judgement, and having made that mistake, the subsequent cover-up, denials and recriminations, only compounded it.

And so, I come back to my original point. Matt Brown had to go, not so much because he allegedly likes to dance in his underwear, but because he and the rest of the Government should have more important things on their mind, like health, education, transport, and the fiscal disaster now unfolding in the state budget.