Friday, August 28, 2009

Modern Awards Won’t Cost Jobs.

The process of modernizing Australia’s industrial awards system has been important for two reasons. Firstly, the old system had become cumbersome and complex, growing over the years into a maze of thousands of awards with different terms and conditions in different jurisdictions. Reducing the overall number of awards and creating greater uniformity will provide the benefit of a system which is easier to understand and navigate. Secondly, with the demise of “Work Choices” and the associated move away from individual contracts, awards will become even more important as the safety net for employment conditions and the baseline for negotiations.

For those reasons, the reform process is essential, but at the same time there have been some bumps along the road. Most notably, employers in some sectors have held legitimate concerns that in the process of creating consistency some labour costs would increase. For example, in the retail sector, employees in some states have been entitled to double time on Sundays, while others have only received time and a half. The new award is to put all employees in the sector on double time for Sundays. While it can be seen as fair to workers, it means some employers will have to pay more. They argue that, especially at this time of economic weakness, it will cost jobs.

Similar concerns have been raised by representatives of the horticulture sector, pharmacies, and call centres. All have claimed that the nature of their businesses dictates that they operate seven days a week, and that added costs for employing workers on a Sunday cannot easily be recouped from customers. In such cases, it can easily be argued that wages should be based on the number of hours worked, not on when those hours are worked. After all, the merchandise in the shop is not normally sold with an additional markup on Sundays, and if it was, customers would simply stay away.

However, while it is true that modern life is a twenty four hours a day, seven days a week proposition, many people still believe that having to work on a Sunday, or at odd hours of the day, should be compensated with a better rate of pay. It is still the accepted custom in our way of life that Sunday is a special day. It is the designated day of rest, and an important day for families. Surely that in itself is something which has a commercial value, and which should be recognized in the form of a better rate of pay.

Despite all the concerns, employers have recognized the need for the modernization process to take place. Some have even accepted that the process will result in some increased labour costs. Rather than opposing the changes outright, retailers have called for a two year moratorium on the changes until the expected economic recovery kicks in. By then economic growth will be picking up and cost of the changes will be more easily accommodated.

Responding to these concerns, Industrial Relations Minister Julia Gillard has requested the Industrial Relations Commission to phase in any changes which will impose an additional cost on employers over a five year period. While it is not the moratorium sought by the Retailers Association, it effectively addresses those concerns, while also ensuring that, over time, workers will receive the benefits they have been promised. Rather than costing jobs, the fact is that well paid workers can afford to be consumers, and that is a fundamental requirement in a consumer driven economy.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Nanny State Thinking Punishes The Poor

It has been revealed that the Preventative Health Taskforce set up by the federal government is likely to recommend significant tax increases on tobacco and alcohol, while at the same time proposing healthy food vouchers to assist poor families. The Telegraph has reported that the Taskforce has proposed a “health compact” between the government and the food industry to improve the nutritional quality of supermarket food items such as cornflakes and chips, while providing cash incentives to make fresh fruit and vegetables more affordable. The report is also believed to discuss the possibility of a so called “fat tax” to fight obesity, and also recommends restrictions on the advertising of alcohol.

Many of these proposals are worthwhile propositions which would achieve a great deal to improve community health. However, some of the proposals are of less obvious value, and might also be somewhat contentious. For example, nothing good can be said about cigarettes, so increasing the tax on tobacco might hurt the hip pocket of low income smokers, but in the long run the health benefit is clear. However, the same can’t necessarily be said for alcohol, which can have serious health consequences, but which can also be enjoyed responsibly in moderation. In fact, modest amounts of alcohol are widely believed to have a positive health effect.

Increasing the tax on alcohol would not necessarily deliver the same health dividend as increasing the tax on tobacco. While it might discourage binge drinking, and it might make alcohol less accessible for teenagers, it would also penalize responsible drinkers who happen to be low income earners. For many people the quiet enjoyment of a drink or two after a hard day at work is a fundamental right which should not become a privilege of the wealthy alone. In addition, while higher prices do indeed reduce overall consumption, I suspect that genuine binge drinkers will simply find a way to spend more money, while it is the responsible drinkers who will cut back because they cannot afford it.

Similarly, proposals to ban alcohol companies from sponsoring sporting activities may also miss the mark. What exactly is the problem with the Australian cricket team having an alcohol company as a sponsor? If we accept that alcohol is a legal product which can be enjoyed responsibly, how does sponsoring a sport make it more likely that people will be irresponsible? Is it wrong to associate responsible enjoyment of alcohol with success in sport and other endeavours? If alcohol companies are legally allowed to make profits from selling alcohol, what is wrong with using some of those profits to do good things like promoting sport?

It’s easy to get the impression that we as individuals are not to be trusted to make decisions for ourselves, or to behave responsibly when given all the facts. While it is a great idea to make healthy food cheaper, and to make manufactured food healthier, the plan to increase the tax on cheaper forms of alcohol for our own good is disempowering, and a product of the “nanny state” mentality. It means poor people would be less able to afford a box of “chateau de cardboard”, while the people who are making the rules can still afford to enjoy a bottle of pinot noir whenever they feel like it. Perhaps they feel they are entitled to it and the rest of us are not.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Australia: It’s Better Than The Movie

Australia’s minister for trade, Simon Crean, has called for a new slogan, image or logo to promote Australia as both a tourist destination and a place to do business. The government is throwing $20 million into the pot to try to come up with a brand for the nation which will be as successful and memorable as New Zealand’s “100% Pure”, or South Africa’s “Rainbow Nation”. This follows the recent initiative by business leaders to create the Brand Australia Council in an effort to achieve a similar aim. It is however a challenge which many have tried and few have succeeded.

Recent tourism related efforts have met with a mixed response, especially the “Where The Bloody Hell Are You?” campaign which left many foreigners wondering what the bloody hell it was all about. Paul Hogan was more successful with his invitation to “throw another shrimp on the barbie”, but the new branding exercise is seeking to find an image which somehow encapsulates the Australian identity in a way which can be applied to a broad range of activities, beyond just tourism.

But that’s the problem. Just what is the Australian national “identity”? How is it characterized? We have such a diverse range of cultures and ethnic groups intrinsically tied up in the Australian experience that we can’t even pick out a national costume for our Miss Universe entrants to wear on the catwalk. Should our new brand image highlight our indigenous heritage, our colonial and convict history, our cultural, sporting, and scientific achievements, or somehow attempt to incorporate them all? The more you think about it, the more it appears to be mission impossible.

Then of course there is the dreaded cultural cringe where a combination of Presbyterian modesty over our genuine achievements, and embarrassment over our shortcomings, seems to leave Australians uncertain of their place in the world. Even when we do make a good movie, or produce a great band, or write a good book, it is always identified as being Australian, almost as a kind of disclaimer, or an excuse in case the audience doesn’t like it. It is almost as if we spend half our time apologizing for ourselves, and the other half bragging and boasting, unable to find a comfortable middle ground of quiet confidence.

The reality is that, like a shy schoolboy, we spend all this time fretting and worrying over something that nobody else is concerned about. The rest of the world doesn’t care if we are proud or humble, they just want to see our koalas and maybe some indigenous artifacts. Mostly, they don’t even know that we have restaurants and theatres or even running water. Mostly they can’t tell the difference on a map between Australia and Austria. Mostly, and this is the secret of success, they will believe anything we decide to tell them.

So let’s get over this awkwardness, and simply make something up that sounds good. After all that is what advertising as all about, and Australia has some of the best advertising creative minds in the world. Yes, we are “young and free” and we can sell anything, from lamb roast dinners to longer lasting sex. It should be no trouble to do the same for what is after all the best country in the world. So how’s this for an idea? “Australia: It’s Better Than The Movie”.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Schapelle Should Not Be Abandoned

Concern about the welfare of Schapelle Corby has been raised by a prominent mental health expert who has taken the time to visit her in prison in Bali. Dr. Jonathon Phillips claims that her psychiatric health is hanging by a thread, and has described her condition as being insane by any reasonable definition. His concern is that she is in no condition to survive life inside the prison, and there is no chance of her condition improving so long as she remains there. Dr. Phillips claims that “whether she's innocent or guilty, her needs are medical."

I have no doubt that Dr. Phillips assessment is accurate. Even without the benefit of his expertise, it is not difficult to understand that almost anyone in similar circumstances would be suffering psychological damage. It would take a very strong mind to endure such conditions and remain unaffected, and it is clear that Schapelle is not such a person. The questions that are raised by this are not about whether or not she is guilty, but whether or not her treatment is fair, just and humane.

Of course, there are still many people who believe that Schapelle is innocent, and was wrongly convicted and took the fall for somebody else. It is possible that Schapelle was telling the truth all along, and has been wrongly convicted. If that is true then it is a terrible injustice, and a grave tragedy. Others point to a range of evidence including the drug history of members of her family, and unsubstantiated allegations that Schapelle herself had been known to sell marijuana as a teenager.

Even if we accept that she is guilty, it would appear that she has grown up inside a subculture where marijuana is considered a soft drug, and casual use of it is an everyday normal part of life. As such, her own experience of the world would be telling her that she had done nothing wrong, had done nothing to hurt anyone, and yet had somehow found herself in a living hell. It should be no surprise that her state of mind should be so fragile as Dr. Phillips reports.

Many of those who believe she is guilty also feel that she deserves no sympathy, and that no special effort should be made to have her returned to Australia, especially at taxpayers’ expense. Indeed, it is fair to say that anyone who is stupid enough to smuggle drugs in Asia deserves everything they get. It is no secret what will happen to you if you choose to go there, and to do that, and you get caught. And yet, if it was your daughter, or your son, how would you feel then?

That’s why calls for the Australian government to make representations to Indonesian authorities for compassion are justified. There is no need to criticize the Indonesian justice system, or to question its application. We can acknowledge that Schapelle has been found guilty by a legitimate court in a sovereign jurisdiction, and that we respect that process. But we can also request that compassion is shown, on humanitarian grounds, to someone who is in great distress, and in need of appropriate medical care.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Too Much Plotting, Not Enough Planning

It seems that the press just can’t resist the temptation to propagate speculation about a possible change of leadership of the Labor Party in New South Wales. Once again we have been regaled with reports of secret focus group polling to gage the appeal the list of usual suspects, and the revelation that Nathan Rees is actually on holiday leaving one of his potential replacements in charge of the state. While it is all very plausible, and it would come as no surprise if the reports are on the mark, the real question is does anyone actually care?

The New South Wales government has such a history of making big and bold announcements which never actually materialize that nobody believes a word they say anymore. Time after time, and Premier after Premier, the Labor government has unveiled grand plans to overhaul transport and roads, claiming to have laid the foundation for progress for generations to come. And yet each grand plan is either modified beyond recognition, shelved, or abandoned altogether, only to be replaced by the next grand plan.

The perfect example is the Metro proposal announced by Morris Iemma, which may well have been a great idea, but which was unceremoniously dumped when the revolving door of the Premier’s office stopped spinning for long enough to leave Nathan Rees sitting behind the big desk. Now we have less ambitious Metro plan which will still cost billions, take years to build, and yet only service a very small proportion of Sydney, let alone the rest of New South Wales. Don’t hold your breath, but this one could also be dumped, especially there is a new Premier before the end of the year.

But that’s the problem. With every new Premier, there’s a new agenda. Old plans are scrapped, new plans are concocted, and nothing ever gets done. There’s too much plotting, and not enough planning. What is needed is a plan that can survive changes of leadership and be brought to fruition over an appropriate timeframe. It should begin with maximizing the existing infrastructure by extending the rail network we already have, connect the missing links to join our motorways together, and ensure that whatever Metro and light rail projects do get built actually integrate with the other pieces of the puzzle. Most importantly, an independent planning authority, similar to the Olympic Coordinating Authority which was so successful, is needed to see such a plan through.

Instead, all we get is speculation about whether there is or is not a leadership change brewing in the Labor Party. But it’s not Nathan Rees that’s the problem, and replacing him would not make any difference. All it would achieve is the creation of yet another ex-Premier, but for some reason it seems that the members of the Labor Party are the only ones who don’t understand that. They still seem to think that the people of New South Wales are dumb enough to fall for the same old trick just one more time. And the press hounds still seem to think that somebody cares about which deckhand takes the wheel of the Titanic long after the iceberg has struck.