Friday, November 6, 2009

It’s Not Just John… They Are All Deluded.

Is John Della Bosca delusional? It has been reported that some of his own colleagues have described him as deluded because he still harbours ambitions to be Premier of New South Wales. Never mind that he is a Member of the Legislative Council rather than the Legislative Assembly. The convention that a Premier must be selected from the lower house is only a tradition, not a law or a regulation, and it has been done before. Never mind that his public image has taken a battering in recent years, first with his involvement in his wife’s dispute with staff at the Iguana Bar, and then with the spectacular revelation of his affair with a much younger woman. Never mind that he has been a part of the government which is perceived as having failed to fix hospitals, failed to fix public transport, and failed to balance the books in New South Wales for the last dozen years. Why should any of that stand in the way of one man’s ambition?

Of course, it is important for people to have ambitions. It is important for people to have a sense of purpose in life. Without that, people begin to doubt their own worth, and the worth of their lives. Without a sense of purpose, they run the risk of staying at home all day, sitting on the couch with a packet of Tim Tams, staring at Oprah, until they finally decompose into a pool of sludge on the living room floor. Although some people might actually consider just such a fate to be a reasonable ambition, most of us aspire to something more, so there is nothing wrong with John Della Bosca pursuing his own ambitions. Unfortunately, what’s good for John may not be good for his colleagues, or indeed for the state of New South Wales.

I have said many times that the New South Wales government has passed the point of no return. It is almost inconceivable that they might win the 2011 election, and of course most of them know it. That’s why some of them are desperate to orchestrate some kind of miracle to turn their fortunes around. The logic is that if there is no change of leadership they are almost certain to lose, so therefore making a change is the only chance of achieving such a miracle. But there are two flaws to this argument. One is that none of the usual suspects are any more popular than the current Premier, and the second is that it’s not the leader that is the problem, it’s the weight of the last fourteen years of broken promises.

At the risk of repeating myself, it is too late to save the New South Wales government. It doesn’t make any difference who is Premier. They might as well write down the names of the entire front bench, rip up the paper and put them in a hat, and draw one out. They could have “pick a premier” and draw out a new name every week so that they all get a turn in the top job, but it still would not make any difference. The iceberg has already struck, the ship is already sinking, and changing the captain will not stop it. If John Della Bosca is deluded, then he is not the only one. The fact is that if they believe they can save themselves with more of that same old spin, they are all deluded.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Pacific Highway Promises A Road To Nowhere

The Pacific Highway has been a national embarrassment for far too long. I t has been twenty years now it was first proposed that the highway should be upgraded to divided dual carriage way along its entire length, and the original recommendation was that it should be completed within ten years. Instead, we have been promised by State and Federal governments that the job will be done by 2016. Unfortunately, the available evidence suggests that this is just not going to happen.

A report complied by the NRMA shows that after twenty years of promises and with a little over six years to go, only about half the work has been completed. Of the projects to upgrade individual sections of the highway 56 out of 93 have been completed. A comparison of 25 of those projects shows that eight were completed ahead of schedule, while the remaining 17 were late. The NRMA report finds that the 2016 completion date is “unlikely to be achieved without an injection of accelerated funding”. At this rate we could be forgiven for believing that we are not going to see it in our lifetime.

The fact is that the Pacific Highway is one of the most important stretches of road in Australia, and some would say it’s in the top two. This is Highway Number One, and it is not only vital for commerce, but it is also heavily used by tourists. The fact is that it should have been completed years ago, and the only reason it hasn’t been is the lack of commitment by successive governments at both levels. The constant haggling over who should pay for what is a perennial obstacle, and the cynical cycle of making politically expedient promises before elections, only to have them later delayed, has been a repeated frustration.

The recent enthusiasm for spending Commonwealth funds on infrastructure as part of the strategy to combat the Global Financial Crisis should have been an opportunity to dramatically accelerate the program. While some parts of the highway have benefited from the economic stimulus spending, much of the opportunity has been lost. The official explanation for this is that the necessary planning was not sufficiently advanced to attract the funding, but the real question is why not? After all these years there has certainly been more than enough time to have all the planning un place, so that the work is ready to go as soon as the funding becomes available.

Of course, with half of the work already done, many parts of the highway are magnificent. But other parts remain diabolical, which would be bad enough on any regional road, but on the nation’s Number One Highway it’s just unacceptable. With all of the road taxes, petrol taxes, registration fees and so forth collected each year, there has been no shortage of money either, just a shortage of commitment to actually spend it on roads, instead of politicians’ study tours to Europe.

At least that means they know what a decent road looks like, even if the rest of us don’t get to see it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Telstra Shows Leadership

What is going on? Has there been some sort of outbreak of common sense? In recent times we have seen the big banks reducing and even removing altogether some of their fees. We have seen one bank executive make an extraordinary about face and admit that it was a mistake to close down all those regional and suburban branches over the past 20 years, and commit to reopening many of them. And now, it has been announced that Telstra has decided to abandon its greedy stingy and nasty administration fee for people who choose to pay their bills with cash over the counter.

I was very critical of the company when they introduced the fee a couple of months ago, so it is only fair that I praise the decision to dump it now. Even better, the company will refund all those customers who have paid the fee since it was introduced. The new C.E.O. David Thodey said that upon review it had become apparent to him that the fee was not in keeping with his commitment to return customer service to what he called “the heart of our business”. It is clear that criticism from worried customers has made an impression.

Of course, there were exemptions for pensioners, and the overall impact of a $2.20 fee on others would not have been very large. But it was the impression given, the message sent, by imposing such a fee which really annoyed people. It seemed to imply that customers are nothing more than an inconvenience, and that the company arrogantly assumed that it could dictate customer behavior, rather than respond to customer needs. In that context, the public relations damage caused by the fee far outweighed the $2.20 charged.

It might also seem to be illogical that other telephone companies have charged similar fees for quite some time, without the same level of backlash. But the perception has always been that Telstra is an essential public asset with an obligation to the community. Even after it had been sold into private ownership, a significant number of shareholders were, and are, ordinary “Mums and Dads”, who still see the company very much as a community enterprise rather than just another corporation, despite the efforts of the recently departed Three Amigos from the United States. Charging someone for having the hide to actually pay their bill in cash was viewed as downright un-Australian.

Of course the reality is that the company will find other ways to encourage people to make payments electronically instead of in cash. They might offer a discount for online payments, or even create a whole new service plan with lower prices just for their electronic customers. The net result will be that people paying cash may still end up paying more than people who don’t, but the important point is that customers will be more likely to feel that they have been treated with a reasonable level of respect.

I have said many times that there is far more value for a company in actually delivering good customer service than in spending millions of dollars on glossy advertising campaigns which claim a level of customer service which is simply not reflected in reality. In fact, such advertising is counterproductive and becomes the butt of jokes. So it is a good sign to see Telstra taking steps to deliver on the promise of improving customer service. It is a company which is considered to be an industry leader, and this decision is a small step towards acting like one. With a little luck, the other companies will now be placed under increased pressure to cut their silly fees too.

(Declaration: Leon Delaney is a former Telstra shareholder who sold his holding during the reign of the Three Amigos.)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Border Security Sinks Poll Figures

Up until now it has appeared as if the federal government has been impervious in the opinion polls. Nothing has seriously dented the popularity of either the government or the Prime Minister. The initial goodwill after being elected was reinforced with the widespread approval of the largely symbolic gestures of immediately ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, and then staging the public apology to the stolen generations. Work began to dismantle the enormously unpopular work choices regime, which has recently come to fruition with many of the new arrangements now in place, and the modernized awards due to come into effect in the New Year. And the National Health and Hospital Reform Commission began its work formulate the much promised reforms to the health system.

Then the Global Financial Crisis hit, and attention was turned to saving the economy, and protecting Australian jobs. In the face of the dramatic collapse experienced in other parts of the world, the Rudd Government implemented a stimulatory policy which has proven to be both broadly popular, despite some hiccups, and apparently effective, despite concerns from the opposition that it was too costly. Throughout everything, through every challenge which has emerged so far, the popularity of the Rudd Government has remained extraordinarily buoyant. Until now.

The latest Newspoll shows that the primary vote for the Labor Government has fallen 7 percentage points in the past two weeks. At the same time the primary vote for the coalition has improved, so that both parties are now at 41%. This is the first time since the election two years ago that the government has not been ahead on the primary vote count. It is too soon to say that this is a turning point, as it may yet prove to be nothing more than a temporary blip, however it is a watershed moment in the life of the government. Although Kevin Rudd remains preferred Prime Minister by an enormous margin, this is the first serious dent in his armour.

So, what has changed? By far the most visible issue in the past fortnight has been the question of asylum seekers. It has been on the front page more often than not, and the opposition has clearly made an impression with its claims that the surge in boat arrivals is directly attributable to the Rudd Government’s policies. Another poll, the Essential Media poll, has found that most voters blame the Kevin Rudd for the surge, two thirds believe that the government is not doing a good job on border protection, and more than half believe that there is a real prospect of terrorists being on board the boats masquerading as asylum seekers.

Sadly, what this really indicates is that large numbers of Australians have been deceived by the opposition’s grubby campaign to capitalize on peoples’ natural fears for cheap political advantage. Opposition front-bencher Tony Abbott has even gone so far as blaming Kevin Rudd for the deaths of those asylum seekers who have drowned this week, before withdrawing and “clarifying” his remarks. It is a scandal that political advantage is being placed above human rights, and it is a tragedy that the polls seem to indicate that significant numbers of Australians have fallen for it.

The truth is that there is no border security crisis. There is only a humanitarian crisis, and a moral crisis. The truth is that the opposition’s politically driven campaign to “get tough on boat arrivals” is broadly akin to a policy to “get tough on Girl Guides knocking on our door selling biscuits”. We may not want them to ring our bells, we may not wan to buy any cookies, but most of us are not going to answer the door with a shotgun in our hands. Instead, we recognize their right to knock on our door, and we smile and encourage their enterprising actions because we understand that if it was our kids out there doing the same we would expect them to be treated appropriately.

Australians know the truth about the oppression and persecution that takes place in other parts of the world. That’s why our nation signed the United Nations Charter on Refugees in the first place. That’s why our military forces have been deployed to places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and at one stage East Timor. The same Essential Media opinion poll showed that a clear majority of Australians know the truth that asylum seekers are fleeing countries where violence and persecution has escalated. Yet for some reason, the blatant misrepresentations about border security seem to be finding an audience.

Kevin Rudd has made a mistake in attempting to orchestrate a so-called “Indonesian Solution”. His government’s popularity is suffering anyway, regardless of the “tough cop” approach. It would have been far better to stand on principle from the beginning, and make a clear distinction between the government and the opposition, rather than trying to outbid them in some sort of auction of empty rhetoric which focuses on a non-existent border protection crisis, and ignores the genuine humanitarian and moral crisis at hand.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Picking A Winner For The Melbourne Cup

Let me say two things about horse racing. First, I know nothing about the horses, except that they look nice and a day at the track can be a fun day out. Second, when it comes to tipping winners I have been described as the kiss of death. If I pick a favourite then chances are it will not only run last, but it may never race again. The moment word gets out as to what I fancy the odds instantly grow longer. Even if there was only one horse in the race, and I tipped it to win, it would get scratched or disqualified or suffer from some other disaster. So naturally, every Melbourne Cup, I ignore the facts and have a go anyway.

Sometimes I make the pilgrimage to the TAB. Well, it seems to be the Australian thing to do, but sadly I have never had a winning bet at the TAB on the Cup or any other race. My luck at the TAB is so bad that on one occasion, having gone to the inconvenience of braving horrendous traffic, standing in a monstrous queue, and placing my ten bucks each way on a horse I liked, I ended up with a motorcyclist driving into the side of my car. All in all, a very expensive day. Sometimes I attend a day at a racetrack somewhere, which is, as I said before, a fun day out. I have even accidentally backed a winner at the track when my wife picked the horse, but that was only a local race, not the Melbourne Cup. I have had better luck with the occasional win in the office sweep, which is nice, but you have to remember that in the sweep I played no part in picking the horse.

On balance, the evidence would seem to suggest that I only do well when somebody else picks the horse for me. But that doesn’t stop me from trying. Oh no. I am still reading through the list of Cup entrants, looking at the form guides, reading the expert opinions, and will still have a go. I will take note that Bart Cummings is the next best thing to God, and that the horses which do well in the Caulfield Cup are generally a better bet than most. I will consider the experience and the reputation of the jockeys. Then after all of the careful research I will probably pick a horse with a name I like, nice colours, or maybe with a number that feels lucky.

Time is running out and I have to make a choice, and I know that despite all my warnings, you are just dying to know what I will be backing. Well, here goes. I like number 20 Daffodil, for no other reason than that the name leapt up at me off the page. That’s how I pick ‘em. And that might explain my track record. Yes, I know that a mare isn’t supposed to win over this distance, and I know that I am turning my back on Saint Bart, but I think jockey Chris Munce will do a good job. And at $16 on the TAB when I last checked, it’s not a complete outsider. As for picking the trifector, I will have to take Viewed and Roman Emperor to make up the three. After all, you just can’t ignore the track record of Bart Cummings.

Of course, the real winners on the day are usually the bookies, but if we all have a bit of fun without getting into too much trouble then that’s enough for me.