Friday, November 13, 2009

A Bully Is A Bully, Regardless Of Race Or Religion

The report that a year five student at Punchbowl primary school was abused by a group of Muslim children for eating a salami sandwich during Ramadan is enough to outrage anyone. Young Antonios Grigoriou was allegedly punched in the eye and kicked in the leg after a confrontation with students who demanded to know why he was eating ham in Ramadan, and told him that eating pig is disgusting. It is also claimed that this is not an isolated incident. Of course, this behavior is utterly unacceptable, from anybody regardless of race or religion.

First and foremost, this is a matter of bullying, something which is not new, and is not specific to any particular ethnic group, religion, or culture. Throughout history, there have been those who mistreat others who are different, or more vulnerable, or less powerful. Issues such as race and religion are often associated, but are not themselves necessarily the real driving force behind the bullying. Rather it is the fact that a perceived difference exists. Whether it is a difference of skin colour, personality, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, or anything else, it is the perceived difference which is the underlying factor, combined with a primitive desire for superiority.

Superiority is also to be found in numbers, so it’s no great surprise that people with similar ethnic, religious, or cultural backgrounds are likely to stick together. When they also share prejudice, intolerance, and a propensity for bullying, it follows that they will use the superiority of numbers to gang up on their victims, and become more bold in their actions. Inevitably, they will come to be identified by their ethnic or religious background, rather than by the actual behavior of bullying. The fact is that such behavior is not the monopoly of any one ethnic or religious group, but occurs in every society and every culture as an aspect of human nature.

When members of a minority ethnic group act in a racist manner it is sometimes called reverse racism. But there is nothing reverse about it. It is just plain racism, and in this case, if the allegations are true, those Muslim students have been racist. They have, allegedly, vilified and set upon another individual based on differences of race and religion. That’s no different from a situation where white Australians do the same to a Muslim person, a black person, an Asian person, or whatever example you care to choose.

The fact is that this alleged abuse did not happen because the perpetrators are Muslim. It happened because they are bullies. The same was true when the Skippies picked on the Wogs, when the Anglican kids beat up the Catholics, and when the big kids taunted the little kids. The only difference today is that every time a Muslim kid does something wrong, there’s no shortage of people ready to blame the religion rather than to blame the individual.

We claim to be a tolerant society, and by and large it is true. We say that Muslims are welcome so long as they too are tolerant, and do not impose their beliefs and standards upon everybody else. But when push comes to shove, and a small number of Muslims act in an intolerant manner, it seems that some of us are quick to blame all of them. In doing so we both insult all those Muslims who do behave in a peaceful and tolerant manner, as well as abandon our own commitment to tolerance and respect.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Throw Another Beer In The Chully Bun

Forget about the asylum seekers. Forget about the boat people. The real problem is the Kiwis! While all of the alarm and all of the debate has focused on about 2000 boat people, Australia is being overrun by about 50 000 New Zealanders moving here to live every year. If there is any drain on the Australian welfare system, any threat to Australian jobs, or any risk to the Australian way of life, it’s the Kiwis we have to watch out for, not a handful of desperate Sri Lankans. But there has been no discussion, no debate, and no alarm raised, because it’s all perfectly legal.

For years now, Australia and New Zealand have had an open door arrangement where visas are no longer required and citizens of either country can reside in the other, and enjoy all the benefits which go along with that. It is a reciprocal arrangement, and Australians are welcome to go and live in New Zealand, but the fact is that the traffic is mostly one way. Of course, our two countries have close ties and shared history, and New Zealand was very nearly a part of our Federation back in 1901. But those Kiwis thought that they would be better off having their own country and have been jealous of Australia ever since.

While it is all very convenient for Aussies who want to go skiing to be able to slip in and out of New Zealand when ever we feel like it, that appears to be about the only benefit for us. The Kiwis on the other hand have been getting the best of both worlds. Until now. You see, the alarm has been sounded by Australian Labor MP Kelvin Thompson, who has pointed out that this uncapped arrangement means that Australia effectively has no control over the total numbers of immigration. That’s a far cry from John Howard’s claim that “we decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”!

Now, Mr. Thompson isn’t as alarmed about being overrun by Kiwi’s as I am, but he is concerned about Australia’s overall population growth which is projected to reach 35 million by 2049. That’s a massive increase from today’s 22 million, and it raises enormous questions about where all these people will live, where they will get water to drink, and what impact they will have on the economy. The projected increase of 17 million is itself more than the population was back when I went to school, which might seem like a long time ago, but still represents massive socio-economic and socio-political changes in our lifetimes.

If we are to sustain a massively increased population it is essential that we plan for it now. Whether that means creating new population centres in the north of the continent where water is more plentiful, or redesigning the existing cities to cope with the growth, we must address the question now. Part of the discussion has to be about whether or not such growth even can or should be accommodated, or, as Kelvin Thompson suggests, we should act to slow down our population growth in the interests of sustainability.

So forget about the boat people undermining the Australian way of life. Before we know it we’ll all start talking about wearing our jandals to the beach and putting our beers in the chully bun. That’s the real threat to Aussie culture.

P.S. To John, Mark, Brad, and all my other Kiwi mates, you know I’m only joking.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

High Court Decision Is Clear: We Must Be Responsible For Our Own Actions

The High Court has issued a ruling which returns the responsibility for drunken actions to the individual who has been doing the drinking by finding that liquor licensees have no general duty of care towards their customers under common law. This finding overturned a decision by the Tasmanian Supreme Court which had ruled against a publican who had returned a set of motorcycle keys to a patron who had later crashed and died. The man was found to have had a blood alcohol reading of .253, more than five times the legal limit. While it might be said that the publican should not have returned the keys, the decision to drink and drive was made by the individual.

There is of course a legal obligation upon venues in New South Wales to deny service to people who appear to be already intoxicated, and this decision does not change that obligation. However, the ruling recognizes the difficulty in both observing and enforcing such regulations, as well as making the distinction between the legal requirement to deny service and the idea that there might be a civil duty of care associated with the consequences of inebriation. The High Court judges referred specifically to the concept of customer autonomy, recognizing that in the normal course of affairs the law generally holds individuals to be responsible for their own conduct.

Many people might also believe that there is a community or moral obligation upon all of us to intervene in circumstances when an individual may have had so much to drink that his judgment has been impaired. We would hope that a person’s friends might try to discourage a stupid decision to drive after drinking, and we would hope that licensees would also take reasonable steps to encourage responsible behavior, even without modern day Responsible Service Of Alcohol laws. But while those moral responsibilities are immensely important, they are impossible to legislate, and it is a mistake to try.

The High Court decision identifies that mistake in its references to “interfering paternalism” and “customer autonomy”. The fact is that the more we make laws to take away personal responsibility, the more people will be likely to act irresponsibly. It promotes a victim mentality where every adverse outcome is somebody else’s fault, and if you can identify just whose fault it might be, then you can even sue them over it. Conversely, if the law makes individuals responsible and accountable for their own decisions, surely individuals will then be more likely to act responsibly, and those who don’t can expect to have to deal with the consequences.

There has been some concern that this decision might be construed as a green light for licensees to serve people who should be turned away, and that it undermines the principles of responsible service of alcohol. But the truth is that blaming licensees for the decisions of others, over which they have very little control, if any, undermines the principles of fairness, justice, and free choice. We should all watch out for our mates, but we shouldn’t be expected to take the blame for other people’s stupidity.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

They’re Not Consultants, They’re Contractors.

Kevin Rudd’s Labor Government was elected on a number of promises. There was the promise to take action on climate change, the promise to fix health and hospitals, and of course the big one was the promise to dismantle Work Choices. If you cast your mind back to the 2007 election campaign, you might also remember that Kevin Rudd stood up on national television and loudly proclaimed decried what he called the Howard Government’s reckless spending. He promised to put an end to profligacy and to reign in government waste. It was obviously all part of the pitch to depict Mr. Rudd as an “economic conservative.”

Now, two years later, there is plenty of irony in the way things have worked out so far. The Work Choices policy is no longer an issue. The climate change debate is stalled in the Senate with an opposition which is falling apart because it doesn’t know what it believes. The National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission has completed its review, but out here in the real world, health and hospitals are still waiting to be fixed. And after all the emphasis on being an economic conservative and stopping the reckless spending, the impact of the Global Financial Crisis has meant that this government has delivered a record budget deficit, which will be sustained by record government debt.

Now there are very good reasons for that to be the case. The financial crisis was to a great degree unforeseen, and demanded extraordinary measures in response. All the evidence would seem to indicate that those measures have been very successful and have directly contributed to Australia avoiding an “official” recession, and weathering the downturn far better than almost any other country. But it is still a great irony that this government was elected on a promise to reign in spending and has found itself in a position where it has done the opposite. But the fact is that there are all sorts of different kinds of spending, and there is a world of difference between investing in future prosperity, and wasting money.

It has emerged that the money spent by the Rudd government on consultancies has increased by 5.6% over the previous financial year to reach $454 million. While it is an increase over the previous year, it is also less than the $480 million spent by the Howard government in its last full financial year. On that basis, it would appear to fulfill the government’s promise to spend less than the previous government. Unfortunately, it is never that simple. The figure reported for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship has fallen dramatically after an internal review has changed the way consultancies are defined, so that what was previously a consultant might now be a contractor. It would appear that adjusting for such anomalies leaves a result which is at odds with the election promise to cut wasteful government spending on consultancies.

The way things are going, I wouldn’t be surprised if the government hires a consultant to advise them on how to cut their spending on consultants. After all, that seems to be the way this government makes most of its decisions.

Monday, November 9, 2009

If It Is Broke, Do Fix It.

It seems that local councils who are too broke to fix their roads are putting together a plan to get residents to do the work for them, for free. Across the state, the roads and bridges maintenance and repair backlog confronting councils has been estimated at $4.5 billion, money that most of them just don’t have. As a result, such things as potholes, drainage problems, and corrugations are left unrepaired. To deal with the problem, the Local Government Association is considering a proposal to provide both training and insurance to volunteer citizens who could then go and do the work themselves.

It’s no secret that many councils are strapped for cash. A combination of rate pegging and the increased burden of responsibilities pushed upon them by the State and Federal authorities means that the arithmetic just doesn’t add up. If expenses consistently exceed income, fiscal disaster is inevitable. The trouble is that the local councils are at the bottom of the feeding chain, at the mercy of regulation by a state which is terrified of the political backlash it could expect, should it allow rates to rise significantly. Local government, as such, is an illusion, as it does not have constitutional authority, and instead exists as an instrument of the State. This effectively leaves the people running the councils in the untenable position of having all the responsibility but no authority to make the necessary decisions.

Of course, not all councils have been well run, and not all councilors have been diligent or competent. There have been cases where outright corruption has occurred, and that’s why State regulation and proper supervision must play a part in managing council finances. But as a general principle, local councils should be run by local people who are able to act in the best interests of their local communities, to provide essential local services, including appropriate road maintenance. If that means increasing rates to make sure there are sufficient funds to do the job, then councils must be able to do that. It is an aberration that New South Wales is the only state in Australia which enforces rate pegging and doesn’t trust local councilors to act in the best interests of their local communities.

So now the problem has reached the point where councils are considering asking residents to perform road maintenance tasks themselves. It is something which sounds ridiculous. Why on earth should residents be put into a position where they must take matters into their own hands? Why should residents be expected to pick up the pieces because the state government has been passing the buck to local councils while at the same time tying their hands? Residents who have been paying not only their local rates but also their state taxes, fees, and charges, are entitled to wonder where all the money has been going, when clearly it hasn’t been going into their local roads.

People say that if something ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But this system IS broke, in more ways than one, and it is time that it was fixed.