Friday, July 3, 2009

Asking For Trouble With Tasers

As New South Wales forges ahead with the plan to roll out Taser stun guns to police officers it’s worth looking at the results of the review of a twelve month trial of the weapons in Queensland. Initially, Queensland authorities were also going ahead with the introduction of the stun guns, until a man in North Queensland died. The investigation of that event revealed that he was stunned 28 times, despite original claims that the device had been triggered only three times. Concerns were immediately raised about the possibility of the misuse of Tasers and the roll out program was put on hold pending further inquiries. Today, the findings of a survey by the Queensland Police and the Crime and Misconduct Commission have been revealed, and it is cause for concern.

While the report concludes that Tasers “can provide an important, alternative use of force option”, it also provides a warning that there is a risk of police officers becoming over-reliant on them and using them when not necessary. It also warned of the dangers of using the Taser repeatedly or for extended periods of time. During the course of the Queensland trial, Tasers were used 170 times. Of those, three quarters of the people involved were unarmed. One quarter of them had the Taser used against them multiple times. One case involved a drug affected mentally ill man who was subjected to a total of ten jolts from the Taser. In 17% of the cases, the subject was already in handcuffs when hit with the stun gun.

The question obviously is why there were so many deployments in circumstances which would not seem to justify the use of a dangerous and potentially lethal weapon, especially against those who are unarmed or already restrained. This report would seem to justify the fears expressed by some that the widespread introduction of Tasers will inevitably lead to the temptation for police officers to use them excessively and unnecessarily. Tasers are often described as a non-lethal or less-than-lethal option for police, and this is an attitude which in itself might foster a certain complacency and a casual attitude towards their use. But firing the weapon ten times, or 28 times, would seem to indicate that there is a more serious problem.

The Queensland report recommends more and better training for police to prevent misuse and overuse, data from the Taser used in any incident will be downloaded and audited, a “significant event” review panel will assess each incident, and there will of course be a mountain of paperwork, which by itself might discourage some officers from using the weapon in the first place. It is likely that this report will result in better training for Queensland police, which is certainly a good thing, but it is unlikely to prevent the distribution of Tasers being resumed at some stage.

In New South Wales, the roll out is going ahead now, but it would appear that unless the lessons from the Queensland experience are heeded, it is only a matter of time until there is a nasty incident in this state. Even if nobody dies, the civil liberties and human rights implications of the potential misuse of Tasers are serious and deserve to be given proper consideration. Tasers do have the potential to provide police with a useful alternative to the lethal force of a Glock, but only if they are also subject to suitable protocols which recognize them as the dangerous weapons they are. Anything less is just asking for trouble.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

High Flyers

Are you really surprised by the revelation that around $8.3 million of taxpayers money has been spent on air travel for retired politicians and their spouses over eight years from 2001? For some reason this has made front page headlines, and while it might indeed be a startling statistic, it is not exactly news, as this has been going on for as long as anybody can remember. Apparently, those who qualified for the “gold travel pass” before 1994 can travel as far and as frequently as they like within Australia. Those who have qualified since 1994 have the number of trips they can take limited to 25 per year, which still works out at travelling every fortnight, so it would be a dedicated traveler who wanted to fly more often than that anyway.

There’s no doubt that this is a generous scheme, and there is no requirement for it to be used in the public benefit. Quite the opposite, it is actually intended to be a benefit which can be used for personal travel such as holidays as a reward for services to the nation. While it is debatable as to just how valuable that service has been in the case of some politicians, this is simply the way the system has been designed. Some argue that this, like other perks and benefits, is justified because the level of pay in politics is not as generous as equivalent management positions in the corporate sector, while others claim that it allows them to continue to serve the community by attending charitable and community events. But the important point is that there is no requirement for any of them to do so.

While 20 000 free flights at a cost of over $8 million is easily seen as extravagant, the fact is that, spread over eight years, the price tag of around $1 million a year out of a federal budget approaching $400 billion is almost insignificant. It certainly isn’t about to send the country broke, and compared to the $12 billion handed out in free money to stimulate the economy it seems to be a mere trifle. In fact, it could even be argued that in the economic downturn the airline industry needs all the help it can get. But of course, all of that overlooks the real question which is quite simply this: is there any benefit to the taxpayer?

For example, does this generous reward help to attract a better standard of politician to the parliament? Do the recipients of this benefit use it in service to the community? And if they do, why shouldn’t that be a requirement of the scheme? In fact, it is hard to see any benefit to the taxpayer at all out of this scheme. It appears to be nothing more than a lifetime handout, which rather rewarding good service, makes no distinction between those who serve the community well and those who do not.

Just because the scheme has been in place for a long time doesn’t mean it should remain in place. If the community believes that it is not receiving value in return for the expense, then perhaps it is time to reconsider the plan. Abolishing the scheme won’t save the country huge sums of money, and it won’t stop the budget plunging into deficit. In those terms it is quite simply not that big a deal. But in terms of reward for performance, the standards of the twenty first century which are applied to the rest of us would seem to indicate that this particularly generous reward is the relic of a long past era and no longer appropriate in its present form.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

New Age Puritanism

There’s no doubt that there are some serious issues relating to alcohol in the community, both with alcohol related violence and the health effects of binge drinking. We have seen the evidence of increased antisocial behavior in certain environments, along with the evidence of increased admissions to hospital emergency departments. We have also seen high profile sports personalities getting themselves into trouble for a range of matters and it always seems that alcohol is somehow involved. It’s no surprise that there has been an expectation on the government to do something about these problems.

Responsible service of alcohol laws have been with us for quite some years now, and for the most part seem to work reasonably well. But still we have experienced these problems with antisocial behavior. More recently the federal government announced that it was determined to counter the effects of binge drinking through education campaigns and increased taxes. The state government has taken further steps to fight the violence through more and more stringent regulations over how alcohol is served, while at the same time increasing police powers to deal with intoxicated people.

Recently introduced regulations requiring alcohol to be served in plastic after midnight in designated locations have now resulted in Police prosecuting a club manager who wasn’t even there when a half size champagne bottle was inadvertently handed over to a customer. As soon as the mistake was discovered a duty manager attempted to recover the bottle and rectify the matter, only to find that the customer was actually an undercover police officer. The club manager who was ultimately convicted and now has a criminal record wasn’t even there at the time, but was at home asleep in bed. It might be the law, but it isn’t right and it isn’t fair.

In another case, a rugby league supporter was evicted from a club by another undercover police officer because he was supposedly intoxicated. This was determined on the basis that he gave a “high five” to his friend. Somehow the fact that he was a Wests Tigers supporter watching the Tigers actually win a game was not considered to be sufficient motivation for exuberance. Instead he was evicted and the club prosecuted for serving alcohol to an intoxicated person. This is just ridiculous, and it amounts to making it illegal to have fun.

Is it possible that we are entering a new age of Puritanism? While it remains legal to have a drink, it is illegal to have too many. It is illegal to sell a drink to someone who has already had too many. It is illegal to serve a drink in glass under certain circumstances, but it would be seen to be an unacceptable standard of service in others. Imagine being forced to toast the bride and groom with plastic glasses because the clock has ticked past midnight and that is the law. Perhaps it could all be justified if it was making any difference in reducing antisocial behavior. But it’s not. All it is doing is turning ordinary people into criminals because there is apparently a law against having a good time.

The real crimes are the abusive behavior, the physical assaults, and the offensive language. Those things are already against the law, and those are the laws that should be enforced. Being drunk is not an excuse for breaking those laws, and that should be all there is to it. On the other hand, if you are not breaking those laws, or causing anybody undue offence, you should be entitled to drink from a glass, high five your friends, and enjoy a night out. Alcohol is not responsible for bad behavior, people are, and if they are not held to be accountable for their own actions they will just go on blaming the alcohol.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Happy New Financial Year

Let the celebrations begin! It is Financial New Year’s Eve, and to mark the occasion the biggest ever prize in the history of any Australian lotto game is up for grabs. What could possibly be more fitting at the time of year when we all sift through a mountain of paper work, looking for any meager deduction in order to boost the size of our tax return. Or in some cases, cut the size of our tax debt. But if any of us manages to snag the record $90 million prize tonight the size of our tax return might not be quite so important any more.

So just what are our chances of winning the big one? At a little more than 45 million to one it would seem that the odds are pretty slim. But with the number of tickets sold it is actually against the odds for the prize not to go off tonight, so chances are at least one lucky punter will walk away a winner. It is perhaps more likely that two or three entries will share the money, but hey when it’s this much who cares? Besides, what would you actually do with $90 million anyway?

Most people who dream of a lotto win are thinking of one or two million dollars. They aspire first and foremost to help out family members by paying off mortgages and the like. Then there is the holy trinity of the nice house, nice car and the nice holiday. But when you win $90 million dollars or more, the chances are you will still have $88 million or so left over, so what then? What can you do with all that money? It’s a fair bet most people would look at helping out their favourite charities. Some are probably harboring long held dreams which they would then be able to finance.

For example, with $90 odd million you could produce and star in your own Hollywood movie, although there’s a better then even chance that you would do your dough because it may turn out that nobody wants to see you on the big screen. Or perhaps you would like a yacht just like the one Greg Norman had built a few years ago. That would leave about $15 million over, but of course you would need that just to pay for the running costs for the first year and after that you’d be broke again. Here’s a thought… you could build your very own small hospital. Not only would you be helping out the community, but you would also be protecting your own interests. After all it’s pretty clear you can’t rely on the New South Wales government to provide quality hospital care.

Interestingly, the New South Wales government is already a winner, with an expected windfall bonus of around $26 million as a result of the increased ticket sales. The government collects fees and taxes from the Lotteries office every week, but this week it’s just that much more. While the income from Lotteries contributes to consolidated revenue and thence to schools, hospitals and highways, there are calls that the extra windfall should be set aside and directed at a specific project, such as health, or even donated to charity groups. It’s a nice idea, but I suspect that it will never happen because the state government is desperate for cash. In fact, perhaps it would be a good idea for the Treasury to buy a couple of tickets themselves!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Is Peter Costello Sure He Wants To Retire?

So, is this the end of the road for Malcolm Turnbull? The dust is beginning to settle from last week’s seemingly unending “Utegate” affair and according to the startling results of the opinion polls it Malcolm Turnbull who has been torpedoed. While the damage is far worse than some might have expected, it remains to be seen whether it might be enough to sink his chances of ever becoming Prime Minister. In the Herald Neilson Poll, his approval rating has fallen to 32% and his disapproval has rocketed to 60%, broadly comparable to the figures achieved by Brendan Nelson in the weeks before his time as leader came to an end.

In the Newspoll, published by the Australian, the figures are even worse with disapproval at 58% and approval falling to a low of 25%. What is more startling is that it marks a fall from 44% two weeks ago and represents the fastest plunge in support ever recorded for any opposition leader. Other results from the Newspoll indicate that 52% of voters do not believe Mr. Turnbull’s claims about Utegate, compared to only 24% who do, and even 29% of coalition voters don’t believe him. Voters now find Mr. Turnbull less likeable, less trustworthy and more arrogant.

There have been reports of disquiet within the Liberal Party over Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership before, but now the rumbling is loud enough not to be ignored. While he was performing well, as he was not much more than a week ago, critics were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, or to at least give him time to establish himself. But now, the combination of embarrassment and plummeting poll figures means that the question of leadership will be raised. There are only two questions. The first is when?

At the moment, the Parliament is adjourned for the winter break, and the members have all dispersed. Some of them are out of the country, so any party meeting may have to wait a little while, unless matters come to such a dramatic point that some sort of urgent recall becomes necessary. The other question is who? Just who would be likely to be put forward as a potential leader who has a realistic chance of dislodging the Prime Minister? Could the electorate be encouraged to embrace Joe Hockey, who presents a cheerful and friendly image, but who might not be seen by voters as offering enough substance and experience? Or what about the old war horse, Tony Abbott, long seen as harbouring leadership ambitions, veteran of the Howard Government with experience in senior portfolios, but viewed by some as being less than gracious? Is there anybody else?

At the same time, Malcolm Turnbull still has his supporters, both inside the party and out. His positive qualities remain just as important today as they did two weeks ago. He is widely acknowledged as possessing a brilliant mind, having the boldness to persevere, and the strength to endure setbacks. He has the ability to be eloquent, articulate, and charming, but also persuasive and where necessary harsh. He has all the qualities a leader could ordinarily be expected to have. If he fails, it won’t be through lack of talent, but perhaps lack of judgment, which according to former Prime Minister Paul Keating, is said to be his weakness.

But that is where the Liberal Party is confronted with a dilemma. For any party, success depends upon a team effort which harnesses the strengths of its leader while working together to shield his weaknesses. Mr. Turnbull has been described as a “force of nature”, and such a force appropriately directed can be devastatingly successful. Unfortunately, at the same time, such a force misdirected is just devastating, as Malcolm Turnbull has now discovered. For the party to discard him now would be a waste of the time and effort already invested, especially as there is no obvious successor. Mr. Turnbull should survive this setback and continue to lead the Liberal Party.

Unless of course, somebody manages to convince Peter Costello to change his mind about retiring.