Friday, June 19, 2009

Parliament Is No Place For Children

The observation is often made that watching question time in parliament is reminiscent of watching the playground at a kindergarten where children sometimes become rambunctious with each other, some become bullies, and some become targets. Personal attacks replace reasonable debate of the issues, and colourful language sometimes overrides the usual sensibilities of a polite society. The comparison between politicians in parliament and unruly children in the playground is so popular, it is ironic that when a real child is taken into the parliament it causes a controversy of major controversy.

When Senator Sarah Hanson-Young took her two year old daughter into the chamber for a vote, ironically on legislation relating to the advertising of junk food during children’s television programs, she was not prepared for what happened next. Following standing orders, which allow only Senators and attendants in the chamber, Senate President John Hogg ordered the child to be removed. At this point the two year old girl became distressed and began to cry. A staff member took the girl outside, but her cries could still be heard inside the Senate chamber as the doors were locked for the vote.

It was obviously upsetting for the child, and nobody likes to listen to the sound of a child crying. But the truth is that no great tragedy was occurring here. Nobody was hurting the child, and the separation was only for a relatively short period of time. Children left in the care of doctors for medical procedures might also cry when taken away from their parents, but we as adults recognize that the upset is only a minor thing compared to the need for the child to be treated. While this is a different situation, it remains a relatively trivial event, despite being awkward and a little unpleasant.

The question however is whether or not this situation should have been handled in that way, or if a better approach could have been found. The Greens are proposing to change the rules to allow politicians who have very young children to bring them into the chamber with them. It is quite clear that when the rules of Parliament were first drawn up generations ago, politicians were all men, and such a scenario simply was not contemplated. Perhaps it is appropriate in the 21st Century to change the rules to reflect the reality that society and its standards have changed. It would seem reasonable to do so.

At the same time, the existing rules have been in place for a long time. I wonder how it is that this situation actually arose in the first place. Surely all the Senators would know that so called strangers are not permitted in the chamber, and alternative arrangements would be made for the short term care of their visiting children. The sitting of Parliament is a scheduled event, so it should be no surprise that a politician might be required for a vote. Even if the rule is a bad rule and should be changed, it has been in force for long enough for politicians to be aware of it and make the appropriate arrangements if necessary.

Even more importantly, why would anyone want to take innocent vulnerable children into such a place where they will be exposed to all those ill-mannered politicians displaying bad behavior which would not be tolerated in a school yard? It should be obvious that Parliament is no place for children.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Taser Fired 28 Times Shows The True Danger

Once more the controversy over the introduction of Taser stun guns has taken another twist. It has now emerged that the man who died last week in Queensland had been shot with the Taser 28 times. It is not clear as yet why that occurred, with some suggesting that the weapon somehow malfunctioned. Others, including the manufacturer, claim that such a malfunction is extremely unlikely. Either way it would seem to demonstrate once again that this is a dangerous weapon which is not to be taken lightly. Once again it demonstrates that it is a mistake to think of the Taser as a “non-lethal” device.

Queensland police have suspended the rollout of Tasers while the incident is further investigated, but have not withdrawn the 1200 units already in use in that state. They believe that on balance Tasers actually save lives because in many cases dramatic confrontations have been resolved when hostile individuals have backed down at the mere sight of the weapon, without it even being used. On other occasions when it has been use, quite clearly the outcome has usually been less catastrophic than it would have been if a gun had been used instead. They argue that, even if there is some risk with using a Taser, it is substantially outweighed by the benefits of defusing violent confrontations.

Of course, as I have said on previous occasions, it should be obvious that a Taser is less likely to cause permanent injury or death than a pistol, and as such there is a legitimate argument in favour of providing them to police as an alternative to firearms. But once again, that is precisely the point. They are an alternative for lethal force, but should not be thought of as harmless or without risk. They are still dangerous weapons and must be handled as such, otherwise the risk is that a culture of carelessness could develop where the casual use of the weapons could become accepted. In that way, while they are generally not lethal, the threat they pose is actually quite insidious, having the potential to promote abuses of power against the powerless.

While last week’s incident is still under investigation, the fact that the Taser was discharged into the individual 28 times could well indicate an abuse of the power of the weapon. If so, it demonstrates the danger of making the assumption that the instrument is safe, and disregarding any concerns about excessive use. And even if that is not the case here, the alternative explanation of a malfunction is still a stark warning that the Taser should not be considered “non-lethal” or “harmless”. It proves that there is still not enough known about the true extent of the dangers and risks presented by the use of this dangerous weapon.

Police are quite right when they say that Tasers can save lives. But for that to be true, it is of the greatest importance that proper protocols and safeguards are enforced to prevent any misuse or abuse of the weapon, or the power that it confers on its user. That means it must be considered to be on the same level as any other dangerous and potentially fatal weapon. Anything less is an open invitation to disaster.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Troubled Parents Need To Be Heard

I have never had direct dealings with the New South Wales Department of Community Services, but I have been told by those who have that it is something which should be avoided at all costs. The series of adverse reports over the past few days, beginning with the eight disadvantaged and disabled children who were farmed out to neighbours because no suitably qualified foster carers could be found, through to the revelation today that a 12 year old girl who was found to have a sexually transmitted disease has been given what was described as a party pack of twenty condoms, highlights the apparent inability of the Department to effectively function. Of course, if a young person is already sexually active, it may be appropriate to provide assistance with health and contraception, but the problem is that this has apparently been done without any consultation with the parents.

Whenever young kids go off the rails in any way, one of the first things to be asked by the public is “where are the parents?” Politicians, community groups, and even DOCS workers themselves all talk about the importance of parental responsibility, and the need for that to be an integral part of dealing with child safety issues. Society expects parents to be in charge of and responsible for their children, both in terms of their behavior and their wellbeing. But, for some reason, those same authorities are so often found to be either ignoring parents, or even working at cross purposes to them.

In the other highly publicized case this week, another 12 year old girl has been found to be pregnant to her 15 year old live in boyfriend, despite repeated attempts by her father to have DOCS intervene in her case. If parental responsibility is so important, why is it that a genuinely alarmed parent is denied help by the very authorities which are supposed to work with parents for the best interests of the child’s wellbeing. Is it because some parents are considered to be either irrelevant, or even a threat, simply because they are not the custodial parent? Is it because the DOCS workers spend so much of their time dealing with bad parents that they just assume that all parents are the problem?

It’s not just parents however who are suffering the wrath of DOCS. There is increasing evidence that one of the reasons it is so hard to find suitable, qualified people to become foster carers is because they too are so badly treated by the Department. The allegation is made by frustrated volunteers, who have dedicated themselves to caring for other people’s children in difficult circumstances, that they cannot deal with DOCS in the best interests of the children. Instead, they claim that if they report a problem to DOCS, seeking assistance, or heaven forbid actually criticize the Department or its procedures, then they are treated as being the cause of the problem and the children are removed. It appears that if any one dares to bring the Department bad news, the response of the department is to shoot the messenger.

There are many parents who are struggling to cope with behavioural problems with their children or with the consequences of other adversity, and what they want, what they need, what they are begging for is help from the Department. They want someone to work WITH them, not AGAINST them. Desperate fathers do not want to be ignored when they have genuine concerns about their daughters, especially when all of society is screaming at them that they should be “responsible parents”. Frantic mothers who have trouble coping don’t want their kids taken away, they want help in teaching them how to be better behaved, or in addressing their health or financial problems.

Sadly, there are some parents who simply are not able to care properly for their children, but even in those cases, the Department needs to have a better process for providing them with alternative care, than the current system which sees kids shifted around a series of foster homes leaving them with no better chance of a decent life than they would have had anyway. For all the other cases, DOCS workers need to be able to hear the concerns of parents who are doing the best they can to be “responsible”, but find that the system simply shoves them onto the sidelines.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Would Be Prime Minister Who Never Actually Mounted A Challenge

It’s almost an anticlimax. After all of the speculation over the last eighteen months about a possible leadership challenge by Peter Costello, and indeed the frustrated ambitions for the best part of a decade before that, it’s almost a disappointment that he has finally announced his retirement from politics. There is almost a sense that we have been denied the thrill and spectacle of the blood-letting associated with a leadership contest, and the often associated collateral damage to the party itself. But, it is not to be.

Despite considerable criticism at times that he was destabilizing his own party by keeping his options open, it would now appear that many people were working themselves into a lather for nothing. The timetable for pre-selection always meant that Mr. Costello would have to make his intentions known well before the next election is due. And even though he has dragged it out until the last possible moment, there has been no lasting damage e to his colleagues. In fact, it could be said that keeping them all on their toes has been good for them, although the truth is that much of the consternation was not of Mr. Costello’s making. It was simply the product of feverish speculation on the part of his colleagues, his opponents, and outside observers. All Peter had to do was to sit back, keep his own council and watch it all happen. All along, he insisted that nothing had changed since his remarks on election night in 2007, and now we see that he has been true to his word.

In making his announcement to the Parliament yesterday, Mr. Costello observed “It is just possible that both sides of the dispatch box are happy with the announcement I’ve made.” It is an ironic observation, but at the same time I suspect that will be some of his supporters who are sorry to see him go and lament the missed opportunities of things that never came to pass. Would he have made a good Prime Minister? Perhaps, but the fact is that it is a question which by its nature will forever be unanswered. In order to be judged a success or otherwise as Prime Minister, first you must become Prime Minister. Peter Costello was denied what he believed was a gentlemen’s agreement, and never had either the opportunity or sufficient support to force the issue. Harsher critics would say that he didn’t have the political courage, but that would perhaps be unkind.

So now, the way is clear for Malcolm Turnbull to lead the Liberal Party in his own right, without the shadow of Peter Costello looming over him, a true changing of the guard. Coincidentally, the latest opinion polls have also indicated improved support for the opposition, providing Mr. Turnbull with even more impetus. However, there is still a long way to go before he must confront the voters, and unless the Senate provides the Government with the opportunity for a double dissolution, that won’t be for about another eighteen months.

Peter Costello will be remembered as the treasurer who introduced the G. S. T., while enjoying the period of prosperity which flowed from the resources boom. He will also be remembered as the would be Prime Minister who never actually mounted a challenge. I wonder if he will come to regret that, especially if Malcolm Turnbull actually manages to win next year.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Fair Shake Of The Sauce Bottle On Free Trade

It has been reported that tomorrow’s state budget will include a plan requiring government agencies and state owned corporations to give preference to buying goods and services from Australian companies. It is apparently to be called the “Local Jobs First Plan” and it reflects the view that part of the role of government is to support local business by offering them government contracts where possible. It has the support of unions, and is likely to be seen by the wider community as a positive plan to bolster Australian, and New South Wales jobs. The only problem is that it could also be seen as the beginning of a new era of protectionism which could have undesirable consequences.

As unpopular as free trade is among some quarters, the whole point of free trade is to not only allow Australians to buy foreign goods and services, but also for Australian producers to sell to overseas customers. Without free trade, many of the benefits of our mining and primary industries would be reduced. Without free trade it would be more difficult to sell Australian goods to other countries, and without free trade Australians would pay more for the goods they purchase, including the ones we produce here ourselves.

The downside of free trade, and the reason so many people see it as a threat, is that it can cause significant dislocation of jobs. It can cause downward pressure on pay and conditions as companies compete directly with offshore operations where wages are substantially lower. The idea of a level playing field is a fantasy so long as there are significant differences in living standards between different countries. That’s why the benefits of free trade come at a cost, and if we wish to preserve the Australian way of life it is necessary to find a balance.

While it would be a mistake to try to close the borders and attempt to become completely self sufficient, the idea of protecting Australian jobs by using Australian taxpayers money to buy Australian goods and services rather than imported ones, is a legitimate defence against the economic downturn. Of course, when taxpayers’ money is spent, it is right and proper to expect that it will be spent in a way which delivers value for money. The mistake that sometimes has been made is the assumption that lowest cost equals best value. Common sense should tell us that is not the case, as value depends upon much more than just cost alone.

When it comes to government expenditure, the spending of taxpayers’ money, there is an additional factor. That is the return to the community, in both economic and social terms. It might be cheaper to buy a consignment of firefighters’ uniforms from China, but it may not necessarily be better. Aside from the questions of quality and durability and utility of purpose, there is also the question of where the money goes, where the jobs are, and where the investment is. When you add those considerations into the equation, suddenly those cheap Chinese goods are not quite so cheap.

Despite all of the arguments in favour of free trade, the reality is that the United States is implementing a “buy American” policy to support its economy, and you can bet your bottom dollar that the Chinese government is buying its uniforms and office supplies and such from Chinese companies, so why should Australian governments not put Australian jobs first, and buy Australian goods. I’m sure even Kevin would have to admit that’s a “fair shake of the sauce bottle”.