Friday, October 16, 2009

Hey Hey It’s Black Faces, Again.

It has been nine days since the infamous Jackson Jive skit was broadcast on Channel 9’s “Hey Hey It’s Saturday” reunion show. Somehow it seems a lot longer than that, but even now more than a week after the event people are still calling talkback radio shows, including mine, to express their view that Harry Connick Junior should get over himself or go back to where he came from. It is remarkable just how strong the reaction has been to whole thing. Not to the skit itself, but to the opinion expressed by Harry Connick Junior.

It seems that most Australians take the view that the skit was not motivated by racism, and it was not intended to lampoon black people for being black. In fact, as it was performed by five individuals with a range of ethnic backgrounds and skin colours, it is ludicrous to suppose that it was. Rather, it was intended to lampoon the Jackson Five, who as public figures are just as legitimate targets for lampooning as anyone else. It’s just that they happen to be black, and part of the joke was that the late Michael Jackson had become increasingly pale in his later years. Australians “get” that the joke is not about racism, it is about celebrity. What Australians by and large don’t get is that Americans have a vastly different cultural perspective, which is easily overlooked because on the surface they seem to be so similar to us.

On that basis, Harry Connick Junior was taking the only position he could. He knew that, although he might be in Australia where the context is different, anything that he said or did would find its way back home to the United States. He knew that he couldn’t simply do as the Romans do when in Rome, and politely ignore what had occurred. He knew that if he did nothing, it would come back to haunt him. He knew that he had to stand up for what he believes, whether it was well received by his hosts or not. From his cultural perspective anything else would have been untenable. In the end, I believe he presented himself in a very diplomatic fashion, acknowledging the fact that there was no malice intended, but asserting the view that an international audience would see matters differently.

In the wake of those events there has been much renewed debate about political correctness, racism, and prejudice. Why, people ask, is it OK for black entertainers to lampoon white people, but not the other way around? Why is it offensive to impersonate the Jackson Five in blackface makeup, but Robert Downey Junior can win awards and accolades for portraying a white Australian actor wearing black face paint to appear as a Black American character in a ficticious movie in the Hollywood comedy “Tropic Thunder”? And why are Golliwogs once again being taken from the shelves in toy stores?

It is true that golliwogs have a history of depicting black people as vagabonds, ruffians, and scallywags. It is true that for a time they were out of favour for that reason. However, in recent times it seems they have been making something of a comeback, without the negative connotations. They are now seen as simply being rag dolls which happen to be black. Or at least they were until the Jackson Jive incident. Now they have been once gain declared by the PC brigade as offensive, and removed from the display at a toy store in Melbourne. But children do not read any such connotations into their toys, and make no judgement based on their skin colour. All they know is that they like the toy or they don’t. When you think about it, isn’t it a good idea for kids to have toys which represent ethnic variety, rather than just having white dolls for white kids and black dolls for black kids?

In the end, regardless of the world’s history of slavery and oppression, of persecution and denigration, we have to learn to distinguish between laughing about racial differences and laughing at them.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hell Freezes Over As Banks Reduce Fees

Don’t look now, but I think Hell just froze over. Today the National Australia Bank has announced that it will abolish a range of fees affecting its ordinary everyday customers. From January 1 next year, the account keeping fee will disappear from the Classic transaction account and the E-banking online transaction account. The $25 over the limit fee on Credit cards will disappear as will a range of fees on other accounts yet to be specified. The late payment penalty on credit cards will be reduced, and the bank has also announced that its business banking fees are also under review and may also be reduced in the near future. The bank insists that there are no strings, and that there will be no attempt to claw back the fees in other ways. That, they say, will cost them $110 million a year.

OK, so why are they doing it then? If it is going to reduce the bank’s bottom line by such a substantial amount, what could possibly be the explanation? The most obvious and rational explanation is that it is an attempt to improve market share and add to the bottom line by growing the customer base. The public relations and marketing benefits of portraying the bank as being more customer friendly will also add to the benefit, presumably compounding the goodwill and attracting even more customers. In other words, it’s a bit of good old fashioned salesmanship, buying more market share by spending a little on making your business more attractive.

Of course, I have been saying for years that the money spent on expensive advertising campaigns telling us all about what wonderful service the banks are giving us would be much more effective if it was directed towards actually giving us the service that they depict in the ads. The best form of advertising for any business is to actually deliver a quality product or service, because word of mouth will do the rest for you. Banks have always been big on telling us that they are there for our benefit, but it has been very difficult to believe while they have been so blatantly avaricious. Now it appears that the tide is turning, with more banks now reducing some of their fees.

While the National Australia Bank is insisting that there are no stings and it’s no gimmick, some will no doubt remain cynical. And why not? After all, the big four banks together clock up about $20 billion profit every year. They haven’t done that by giving anything away for free, so it might seem hard to believe that they have genuinely seen the light. But this is the result of competition for market share, and when one of them reduces their fees the others must do it too or risk losing their customers. And maybe it’s just possible that in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis some of our business gurus might have realized that the short term bottom line thinking which has been so prevalent in recent years has actually been part of the problem, while building long term relationships with customers might actually be part of the solution. Maybe.

Otherwise, it could just be a gimmick to cover up the fact that the margins on interest rates are actually getting bigger. Ah, now it all begins to make sense. But who cares, if it means that customers are genuinely better off?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Permission To Spend A Penny

People who are put in charge of other people in the workplace have two responsibilities. One is to effectively manage those people to obtain the most productive use of their labours. The other is to protect the wellbeing of those people by respecting their rights and providing safe and amenable working conditions. It should be obvious that the two responsibilities are complementary, and work best when it is recognized that each duty actually enhances and supports the other. Unfortunately there have always been some people who see them as competing or conflicting interests, and attempt to squeeze more productivity out of people by abusing their rights and pushing them aggressively.

The news that managers at a Medicare call centre in Parramatta were not only imposing a three minute toilet break limit, but were even following staff into the toilets to hurry them along, is a perfect example of such counterproductive behavior. It seems that staff members were required to log all toilet breaks in a compliance diary to keep track of time away from the phones. The log also counted time doing paper work and processing customer claims as time away from the job of answering phones. While the policy was no doubt intended to keep track of workers and their efforts, it should be obvious that such measures are actually restrictive, punitive, and likely to be counter productive.

But, just because something should be obvious doesn’t mean that it can be taken for granted. This sort of draconian regime is characteristic of the petty Bonaparte mentality which occurs when inexperienced, inadequate and insecure people are put in charge of other people. When petty minded people are promoted to positions of authority it seems that the only way that they can exercise that authority is to push people around, and to place unrealistic demands upon them. It is as if they must justify their position by demonstrating the power that deep down they know they really don’t deserve.

Medicare has made a statement that this practice was not a nationwide policy and it has been discontinued. Presumably, whoever was responsible has been “counseled”. But it remains an important issue because it is not the only example of such practices, and not only in the call centre industry. The truth is that any workplace can become the fiefdom of a mean-minded mini-Mussolini who believes that the key to personal success is to keep subordinates not only at heel, but under it. Every office and workshop, every factory and store, can fall victim to the sadistic practices of people promoted above their ability who are terrified of losing control their slaves.

The sad truth is that three minute toilet breaks are pretty mild compared to some of the things that can and do happen in the workplace, and that is not only bad for employees, but it’s also bad for business. People who are treated with respect and dignity are far more likely to be both loyal and productive. Those who are not will be fairly quickly found out anyway, regardless of whether or not any sort of dictatorial rules might be inflicted upon them.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Explosive Decision To Award Peace Prize

Alfred Nobel was the inventor of dynamite, so it has always been a curious irony that the Nobel Peace Prize is named after him. Well, the decision to award the Nobel Peace prize to President Barack Obama has certainly proved to be explosive, provoking controversy and criticism from a wide range of people for a wide range of reasons. Some of the more extreme criticism has come from unfriendly quarters which might be expected to be the source of condemnation simply because President Obama is American. Others have no such axe to grind and yet they too are puzzled by this decision, which is at the very least an unusual one, and many would even say strange. Quite simply, it appears that the President has been given the award not for anything he has done, but for things which he is expected to do.

Many have pointed out that the nominations for the prize closed on the 1st of February, just eleven days after the President was sworn into office. Quite literally he had not had enough time to unpack the suitcases before the nominations closed. Although it might be said that the President has embarked upon a number of important initiatives since then, the fact is that they have yet to come to fruition. In any case, the rules of the peace prize are quite clear. The prize is to be awarded in recognition of achievements from the preceding year, not the year yet to come.

In Australia, the former foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer has said that the decision is a farce which has discredited the peace prize. Mr. Downer said that the prize “has to be for actual achievement, not potential, and it has to be achievement in promoting world peace, not raising the prestige of the American state.” While Mr. Downer may have differing political views to the American President, that doesn’t change the fact that he is right. But the fact that the award seems to have been given prematurely is only part of the problem.

While the Nobel award judges explained their decision by stating that they wish to support what President Obama is trying to achieve, there is a real problem that can emerge from making the award in such a premature manner. Not only does it presume that future endeavours will prove to be of at least some benefit when there is always the possibility that they will not, it could also serve to actually impede progress towards those benefits. The mere act of making the award before the achievement could potentially prevent the achievement from occurring by changing the weight of expectations and altering the perceptions of those participating in the various processes involved.

While there are a great many expectations placed upon the Obama presidency, and there is a great swell of goodwill supporting his efforts, those things do not justify this decision. It seems to me that awarding the Nobel peace prize to a first term President before he has completed even a year in office, and before any of his diplomatic initiatives have had the chance to come to a resolution, is very much like awarding the Olympic gold medal for the 400 metres footrace to an athlete before he has reached the first corner. Not only does it presume the result, it actually runs the risk of interfering with it.

Malcolm Turnbull Is Not The Problem

Two newspapers, two headlines, two contradictory stories about the same thing. The Sydney Morning Herald today told us that “Hockey firms as voters’ choice – Lib supporters reject Turnbull on climate.” This headline was inspired by a Herald/Neilson poll which showed that 33 per cent of voters preferred Joe Hockey as leader of the Liberal party compared to 31 per cent in favour of Malcolm Turnbull. Meanwhile the headline on the front page of the Australian was telling a different story with “Turnbull leadership boost – Hockey’s support falters after Costello withdraws from race.” According to Newspoll, support for Malcolm Turnbull is at 32 per cent, and Joe Hockey has just 24 per cent. Clearly, the two surveys must have been conducted by asking different people.

While there is often some discrepancy between different polls, which might be conducted at different times, and sometimes have their questions constructed differently, it seems difficult to believe that both polls can be right. However, they do agree on two things. Firstly, Tony Abbott is running a distant third as preferred Liberal leader in both opinion polls. Secondly, neither poll gives the opposition a snowflake’s chance in hell of winning an election if it was to be held any time soon. It would seem to be the clearest indication possible that any debate over the leadership is really only a squabble over the seating arrangements on the deck of the Titanic.

Of course, the truth is that there is an increasing likelihood that there will be an election some time soon, with the emissions trading legislation due to be returned to the parliament next month whether the Liberals are ready or not. At this moment they are not, and despite Malcolm Turnbull’s plan to have amendments ready in time, the chances are that any amendments he can get his colleagues to approve will be rejected by the Government. If the legislation goes down, and it very well could, then the trigger is armed for a double dissolution election before the end of the year. If that happens, it doesn’t matter who is leading the Liberal Party because they have been caught out with their policy pants down.

At the same time, there’s always the chance of a backlash against a government who is seen to be rushing too enthusiastically to an early election. Such arrogance can be punished. That’s why the government would be unlikely to pursue such a course unless they can la the blame clearly at the feet of an intransigent opposition who is doing nothing but obstruct the government’s mandate to proceed. That’s why Malcolm Turnbull’s amendments are so important. They must on the one hand appear to be a genuine attempt at compromise with the government in an effort to avoid the threat of a double dissolution, while at the same time satisfy his own colleagues in terms of preserving jobs and protecting industry.

This extremely delicate balancing act is the precise reason why this is not the time for the Liberal party to be entertaining any doubts about leadership. If anyone can pull it off, Malcolm Turnbull can. Changing leaders won’t improve the party’s chance of success at all, in fact quite the opposite. As I have said before, and others have also observed, it is not Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership which is the problem, it is the party members who seem to be reluctant to follow him who are the problem.