Friday, July 17, 2009

Cutting Through The “Noise”

Aside from the federal opposition and one or two cranky talkback radio presenters, nobody seriously expects that the dilemma of the detained Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu will be resolved by the act of Kevin Rudd picking up the phone and expressing his concern directly to the Chinese President Hu Jintao. Many people, who no doubt feel outraged by the apparent lack of procedural fairness, would derive some sort of sense of satisfaction from a round of chest thumping regardless of the simple fact that it is precisely the wrong thing to do.

Former federal leaders from both sides of the political fence, as well as foreign affairs experts, and a good number of rational commentators, have all expressed the opinion that the best way to deal with the matter is through private discussions behind the scenes. Even if the Prime Minister did telephone the President, it might be better if he did so without making a public announcement. But even simply making such a phone call is itself counter productive.

It would seem that the rowdy criticism from the opposition and some sectors of the media may have sufficiently needled the Prime Minister into publicly making the observation on Wednesday that China should be aware that the eyes of the world are upon it and that there could be economic consequences for its actions. It was the wrong thing for the Prime Minister to say publicly, and that was demonstrated by what appears to have been the response from China, which saw a relatively junior official Qin Gang describing Australian concerns as nothing more than “noise”.

Further to that, Qin Gang said “this is an interference in China’s judicial sovereignty”, and warned that any such expression of concern is “not in the interests of the Australian side”, and that it “cannot change the objective facts nor can it have influence on the relevant Chinese authorities”. This response illustrates perfectly why the so-called “megaphone diplomacy” approach cannot work. The more criticism there is of China, the less likely it is that they will arrive at any outcome which would appear as if they have given in to pressure from Australia, or anyone else for that matter. Despite the reaction from some that Qin Gang was belittling Australia’s concerns, what he was actually doing was politely ignoring inappropriate public remarks by claiming not to have heard anything other than “noise”.

Of course, media commentators and talkback callers are free to make as much “noise” as they like. This is Australia and here we practice freedom of speech, something which is a troublesome concept for China. Far from being an interference in the judicial sovereignty of China, it is simply the expression of our own sovereignty and our right to dissent. Australians have no illusions about the fact that China views human rights and the rule of law very differently to the way we do. The difficulty is that our politicians and our diplomats must respect the Chinese way, while not abandoning our own principles, if a suitable result is to be achieved.

In that regard, Malcolm Turnbull is cheapening himself by attempting to score political points out of the situation rather than acting in the best interests of a successful resolution. He is drumming up a populist wave of resentment against the Chinese at the same time as attempting to depict the Prime Minister as failing to act. In doing so, he seems to be having a bet each way, on the one hand decrying the “humiliating spectacle of a very junior public affairs official ... chastising Australia for daring to express concern about one of its citizens being detained in China”, and on the other hand criticising Kevin Rudd for not being “prepared to pick up the phone”, claiming that "It creates the impression that the Government is unconcerned."

How can a government be both “concerned” and “unconcerned” at the same time? Perhaps the “noise” that Qin Gang was talking about referred to the remarks from Malcolm Turnbull and not the Prime Minister.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Paranoia And Suspicion

Apparently there is a thing called normal human paranoia. It is the feeling experienced by most of us that we are being watched by those around us, that other people can see the hideous flaws that we possess, and are constantly passing judgment upon us. Some people feel it acutely, and some people just have a vague discomfort about being seen in public while looking less than their best. In reality, the people around us are almost always so preoccupied with their own background paranoia, their own fears, worries and concerns, that they don’t even notice ours, let alone care.

At the same time, it would seem that there is also another feeling which may be related. It is a sort of background level of suspicion which exists in many people, so that whenever somebody else experiences some good fortune there must be something sinister about it. Either they don’t deserve it, or they must have cheated, or they must have a secret plan to somehow benefit at the expense of the rest of us. And so it is that some people seem to be reacting with suspicion to the good news that Jamie Neale has survived his twelve days lost in the wilderness, and seems to be in remarkably good condition.

For whatever reason, some people have suggested that he has faked his own misadventure for the purpose of profiting from what will undoubtedly be lucrative offers from the media. It is a deeply cynical and suspicious accusation to make, one which is uncaring and even inhumane. What could possibly cause people to harbor such thoughts, when the only thoughts should be of relief that for once there has been a happy outcome instead of a tragedy. It is almost as if some people are resentful of the good fortune of others, even though it comes at no cost to themselves. It is mean spirited and demeaning.

Of course, there is the old joke that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not really out to get you. It is possible that from time to time somebody might try to delude the public by staging a disappearance or a kidnapping, or some other adverse event, in an effort to either create publicity, evoke sympathy, or simply cash in. It has happened. Does anybody remember Fairley Arrow, the singer who staged her own kidnapping to seek publicity? But the truth is that such attempts are rare, and are usually so poorly thought out that the perpetrators are found out very quickly. In this case, New South Wales police have expressed no doubt about the fact that Jamie really was lost in the wilderness for twelve days.

Some are also asking about the cost of the search and rescue operation, wondering if perhaps the individual who has been rescued should now be presented with a bill. What a remarkably short sighted and narrow minded point of view. As human beings we all must recognize our duty to each other to render assistance to those in need. It is the fundamental principle that ensures that we all survive, and usually we have no trouble acting accordingly. When thousands of people suffer the effects of bushfire or flood, nothing holds back our generosity, even if people have been foolish enough to contribute to their own misfortune by ignoring official advice on preventive measures.

But for some reason when an individual encounters difficulties, and has perhaps made mistakes which have contributed to the problem, many people have no mercy. It’s his own fault, and he should pay. He has been irresponsible and put the lives of his rescuers at risk. He has caused a lot of trouble, and deserves to be punished. People who make such assertions completely overlook the possibility that they too may one day be in need of assistance when circumstances overtake them. As much as we believe in individual responsibility, we all rely on each other for survival in one way or another.

Of course the question of receiving payment from media outlets to tell the story adds a further dimension to the issue, and in this case experts are suggesting the sum of money involved could be as much as a million dollars. At this point it is hypothetical, as offers have yet to be made or accepted. Even if they are, Jamie’s father has indicated his belief that any money should be signed over to the rescue authorities in return for what they have done. He sounds like an admirable man of great character, but even if he didn’t have that opinion, would it be anybody else’s business anyway?

Another young man was around the same age when he sailed single handedly around the world some years ago. His name is Jesse Martin, and he experienced great danger and survived to tell the tale. He has made money and established both a public profile and a career as a result. Of course he was not lost, and no search party had to be sent out to rescue him, but what if things had turned out differently? What would people be saying about him then? He took risks and they paid off, and we all admire him for it. Jamie on the other hand did not intend to spend twelve days in the wilderness, but when confronted with that reality he has survived, and his family has the joy of being reunited with him. Why should we admire him any less than we do others who have survived against the odds? And for that matter why should we be concerned if he is also rewarded for that?

Human beings are funny animals, so often concerned with what others might think of us, but so quick to make judgments ourselves.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"Who’s Going To Save Me?"

The decision by the federal environment minister Peter Garrett to approve a new uranium mine in South Australia may not be a great surprise, but it marks an enormous turning point for Mr. Garrett as an individual. Millions have admired him as a rock star, others have followed him as a very vocal environmental and social justice campaigner, and there is no doubt that many of those people will look at this decision and arrive at the conclusion that Peter Garrett has sold out.

Mr. Garrett insists that the decision has been arrived at after a rigorous process of intense scrutiny and that the mine will operate at world’s best practice, posing no threat to the environment of South Australia. The argument in favour of approving the mine includes the controversial proposition that nuclear energy is environmentally sound on the basis that it produces less greenhouse gas emissions than current electricity generation methods, despite widely held concerns over radioactive waste disposal and the possibility of some of the material finding its way into nuclear weapons at some point.

That may be true from a scientific viewpoint, and the proposed procedures at the Four Mile Mine may well represent world’s best practice. It may be a sound, sensible, rational decision that will provide useful export income for Australia at the same time as being environmentally responsible. But in many ways that is beside the point. Whether you support nuclear energy or not, it seems to be a strange paradox that Peter Garrett is the one to put a rubber stamp on it.

His entire career has been built on a political stance which included a passionate objection to the nuclear industry. The appeal of his band Midnight Oil was in the combination of the raw driving power of the music and the political acuteness of the lyrics. Every song had a statement to make, and many of them expressed the anti nuclear sentiment that later led Mr. Garrett to become the founder of the Nuclear Disarmament Party, as well as the head of the Conservation Foundation. Even after becoming a member of the Labor Party, he repeated his opposition to nuclear power and to uranium mining on several occasions.

So, what has changed? Is it Peter Garrett himself? Does he now see things differently? Has he changed his opinion in the light of new information and the changing circumstances of global warming? Or has he been forced to realize the political reality that the price of a seat at the table of government is to surrender personal principles in favour of toeing the party line? Of course, it is not unusual for a politician to have to put aside personal views in order to reach a party consensus, but in this case it is so diametrically opposed to everything Peter Garret has previously been seen to stand for it makes the head spin.

It’s not just Peter Garrett’s career, both as a rock star and as a politician, that has been built on his anti-nuclear beliefs, but his entire public identity. Where has that Peter Garrett gone? Has he been kidnapped by aliens and replaced with a replicant? Or has he had an epiphany on the road to Damascus and crossed over to the other side because he has genuinely changed his beliefs? Or are the majority of people right when they suspect that Peter Garrett has sold out his own principles for the sake of the power rather than the passion?

Isn’t it an amazing coincidence that his own words in the song “Blue Sky Mine” say that “nothing’s as precious as a hole in the ground”? And that the same song also includes Peter Garrett screaming at the top of his lungs: “Who’s gonna save me?”

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Press Ban Is Not The Way To Protect Students

The teachers of New South Wales have voted in favour of industrial action, including strikes and bans on testing, to prevent the publication of so called league tables of the performance of schools. It may not come to that as the New South Wales opposition has supported a bill by the Greens to make it illegal to publish such comparison tables, even if they are collated from publically available information. Unless the government is able to overturn that legislation latter in the year, the teachers won’t have to worry. But it does illustrate the depth of feeling on both sides of this very contentious argument.

The core of the concern is that making comparisons between all schools does not take into account variable factors such as socio-economic disadvantage, geographic location, cultural issues, and other circumstances which impact on the students themselves. As such, any comparison would be likely to result in an unfair judgment about the success or failure of individual schools, and the students who attend them. Such a fear reflects the publication a few years ago of a newspaper story under the headline of “The Class We Failed”. Even with the best intentions, such publicity can reflect unfairly on the students and their future job prospects, as well as the school itself.

Of course, the performance of schools is assessed all the time. It is necessary for a range of information to be collected and collated for the education administrators and the politicians to determine funding and policy decisions, but usually that information is not made public. The real heart of the matter however is the fact that whether it is published or not, any attempt to measure the performance of schools runs the risk of labeling individual schools and their teachers as failures unless the individual circumstances of students and their communities are taken into account.

A classroom full of students who have learning difficulties will always produce a lower academic score no matter how well the teacher and the school might do their job. This is the fundamental flaw in the whole idea of implementing performance pay for teachers and of rewarding top performing schools with more funding and facilities. Such a process can result in those needing the most attention and recognition actually receiving the least. Even before anyone contemplates comparing one school to another, the process of assessing performance in the first place is itself fraught with potential anomalies.

Nevertheless, the ultimate purpose of school is to provide an education, and there must be a way to assess the success or failure of that endeavour. It is essential that students are tested for literacy and numeracy, as well as for their knowledge of the curriculum as it is taught. It is important to monitor the levels of achievement of students, not just to determine how well they are performing, but also how well the system is performing. Ultimately the result that counts is whether or not the student can read, write and calculate sums. That’s an empirical result, regardless of what the socio-economic conditions might be.

Unfortunately, that’s not all there is to it. In fact, the whole issue is further complicated by the fact that the New South Wales legislation imposes significant penalties for news organizations collating there own comparisons from publically available data. That measure is quite simply wrong. It is contrary to the principles of a free and open society which professes to have freedom of speech. Preventing the news media form reporting the facts will not protect students from the effects of failures in the education system, or from their socio-economic circumstances. Whether or not such tables are beneficial, the news media should not be punished for simply collecting information which has already been published. Otherwise we might as well outlaw travel magazines from drawing up their lists of the top tourist destinations, or car magazines making comparisons between different cars, or even newspapers reporting on the relative merits of different political parties’ policies.

Remember it is not the information itself which is dangerous. It is how you interpret it, and put it to use, that matters.

Monday, July 13, 2009

What’s In A Name?

Maybe I’m missing something, but it just seems to me to be completely nonsensical that people with a criminal record in New South Wales can simply change their legal name by deed poll and their criminal record is not automatically updated. The New South Wales Police Association has been attempting to have this loophole closed for some time now, but appear to be frustrated by the effect of privacy law. So far, the government has not found a solution to the problem despite claims by police that lives could be endangered if Police confront a dangerous individual without knowing who he is.

It is actually an offence to change your name with intent to deceive or to defraud, but in this case any person with a criminal history can actually change his name and have his record virtually disappear for all intents and purposes and it is perfectly legal. Of course there are undoubtedly people who wish to put their mistakes behind them and embark upon a new life with a clean slate. They may wish to seek work without having to constantly explain their criminal past. But they could well be others who simply wish to confuse and deceive the authorities to help disguise their ongoing activities.

Overseas experience has revealed cases of people who have changed their identities, moved into a new location and committed more horrendous crimes before they were discovered. Police in Australia have stumbled across offenders whom they recognize visually form previous encounters and upon asking to see identification have found that the individual now goes by a different name, with no clear link back to the original criminal record. It has to be asked just what is the point of keeping a criminal record if the individual’s legal name is not recorded on that file?

While there are legitimate privacy issues, there is an obvious risk of abuse by habitual criminals, and it should be a matter of common sense to require that criminal records be updated to reflect any legal change of name. It’s not something that the whole world has to know, and there is no need to make changes of name a matter of public record. However, if you do change your name for any reason, it is only right and fitting that some authorities should be aware of the fact. You are required to notify the Tax Office for example, so why not also be required to update any criminal record which might be held?

It does seem odd that a state government which appears to be incredibly enthusiastic about handing out new powers to police to conduct covert searches, phone tapping, search and seizure operations, heavy handed crowd control tactics, and even authorizes operations where undercover officers are permitted to break the law themselves in order to maintain their cover, for some reason seems to be powerless to close this loophole which allows known criminals to evade the law.