Friday, December 24, 2010

The Meaning Of Christmas

Here we are at the end of anther year, and it’s time once again to share wishes of peace and goodwill to all men and women. It’s time to celebrate with family and friends, and it’s time to spare a thought and maybe some loose change for those who are less fortunate. It’s time to try hard not to eat and drink too much, and if we don’t fully succeed, then it will no doubt be time for a Christmas afternoon nap. It is time to reflect upon the year that has passed and to look forward to the year ahead. And it’s a good time to remember the true reason for Christmas.

Now before anybody goes and gets all politically correct on me and starts worrying about possibly offending people of different religions, or perhaps none at all, let me point out that you don’t actually have to be Christian to appreciate the true spirit of the season. Whether we choose to follow Jesus or not, his simple instruction to “love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” is one that any of us can accept. That’s why I have always finished my program with a little bit of advice about all of us taking care of each other.

No matter whether you are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim or none of the above, it is advice which can help us to better our lives, and the lives of those around us. To see so many misguided members of the politically correct brigade trying to stamp out that message for fear of offending someone is itself offensive, and is one of the most disappointing aspects of celebrating Christmas each year. But people of good will who belong to every faith should reject such nonsense and simply share in each other’s joy.

Now that the year is coming to a close, I must also thank you for listening to my radio program each day. For the past seven years I have presented the morning show from 9am until midday on 2SM and on network stations. It has been a fun, fabulous, frantic, and sometimes frightening rollercoaster ride, talking to all sorts of people, ranging Prime Ministers to pop stars, to everyday people like you. Thank you for listening, and being part of the show, and thank you for all the phone calls and the emails.

Merry Christmas, and until next time, take care of yourself. But more importantly, let’s all remember to take care of each other because in the end “each other” is all we ever really have.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Last Minute Shopping

All right, own up. Have you done your Christmas shopping yet? Apparently, according to the Australian National Retailers Association, one in five Australians do their shopping in the final week. And it’s men who are more likely to be making the mad dash with a survey done last year showing 40% of men leave their Christmas shopping until the last minute. Behavioural experts claim that men consider shopping, including Christmas shopping, to be just another task, like mowing the lawn, and either avoid it for as long as possible until it simply has to be done, or approach it with a “grab it and go” mentality. Women, it would seem, are more likely to get started on their shopping ahead of time, and might well spread the process out over several days or even weeks.

Either way, if you are brave enough to venture into the shops in the last couple of days before Christmas you are likely to encounter big crowds, and have difficulty finding a parking space. There is a sense of urgency as time runs out to find the perfect gift for that someone special, and the mood of the crowd is best described as frantic. It’s enough to make you question your own sanity for being a part of it all. In fact, that same survey that showed men to be more likely to be last minute shoppers also showed that they were likely to regret not having done it earlier. I guess that it just goes to show that men can be irrational after all.

So, this Christmas, I made the decision to learn from the past, and to take action. No more procrastinating, no more excuses, I would definitely do my Christmas shopping early this year, and get it all done so that I can relax and enjoy the season. And that’s exactly what I’m doing. In fact, I’m off to the shops right now to get it all done today, instead of leaving it until tomorrow. I feel so much better now.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Just Another Dodgy Decision

Nobody much likes the New South Wales government. Nobody much trusts it either. So it’s no great surprise to find that the Premier has decided to prorogue the parliament, that is, to shut down all parliamentary business, in an apparent effort to close down an enquiry into the controversial electricity assets sale. The enquiry, initiated by the Opposition, had been set to commence in January and was to deliver its findings on the 5th of March just three weeks before the election. However, today’s decision means that no parliamentary business can be conducted until after the election, even though it is still three months and four days away.

It’s a blatant and cynical move to shut up the critics and prevent any damaging findings emerging during the election campaign, but simply pulling the rug out from under the enquiry isn’t going to fool the people of New South Wales, or stop them from questioning the wisdom of the electricity sell off. It is not going to stop public criticism and condemnation of a deal which has satisfied no-one other than the government itself, and presumably the purchasers of the assets. On the contrary, voters are likely to see this move as just one more dodgy decision from a government that they no longer trust.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The $50 Billion Entertainment System

Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has responded to the release of the National Broadband Network Business Case by asking “do we really want to invest $50 billion of hard-earned taxpayers' money in what is essentially a video entertainment system?” Of course, the reality is that the Network will actually do a whole lot more than just become a video entertainment system, and the cost to the federal budget will not be $50 billion. In any case, the investment is projected to start showing a profit in just over ten years, so there will actually be a return on investment for the taxpayer over time. Nonetheless, it is still a legitimate question to ask if we are spending too much on a network we don’t need.

To take the second part first, there is no question that Australia desperately needs to have a network upgrade to deliver 21st century technology to as much of the population as possible, so the debate has really been about how much capacity is required. The network is promised to deliver connection speeds of 100 megabits per second, although the business plan acknowledges that ten years from now only about one third of customers will actually choose to use that much. Instead, most are expected to opt for the slower and cheaper 12 megabits per second service. Even then, there are some who are concerned that as the network replaces the old Telstra wires they will be forced to pay more for something which exceeds their requirements.

The fact is that over the last twenty years, internet speeds have gone from about a thousand bits per second for anyone actually able to access the net back then, up to eight million bits per second or even more for many home users today. At the same time, consumer expectations have increased just as dramatically as connection speeds. That being the case, it is only reasonable to assume that both speed and customer expectations will continue to increase over the next twenty years. Just because 100 megabits per second exceeds most people’s needs, doesn’t mean that will be the case in twenty years time, or even ten when the network is completed. Far from being in excess of our future needs, I believe that the planned network reflects the likely continued growth in demand.

As for whether we are paying too much, surely the real question is whether we can afford not to make the investment in this essential 21st Century infrastructure. While some might describe the network as an expensive video entertainment system, it is the impact on commerce, education and health that will really justify the investment. While the price tag appears to be very large indeed, the money will generate jobs for the next ten years, and at the end of it all there will be another huge public asset just waiting to be privatised. When that happens, it will make the sale of Telstra look like a lamington drive, and return a cavalcade of cash to government coffers.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Just What Are These Clowns Getting Paid For?

The Federal Government has today unveiled draft legislation aimed at giving shareholders more power to influence executive salaries, which have been the subject of much criticism in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. Of course, Australian salaries have not seen the same excesses as those that occurred in the United States, and Australian banks and financial institutions have not suffered from the same management failures, but all the same, executive remuneration, especially within the banks, has grown far in excess of ordinary wages. So much so, that many people consider them to be greedy, and out of step with community expectations, and up until now, shareholders have been virtually powerless to do anything about it.

Currently, shareholders have a non-binding vote on the remuneration report at the annual general meeting. It provides an opportunity for shareholders to express their disapproval of salary packages which they believe to be excessive, but little else. Under the proposed reform however, a “no” vote exceeding 25% of shareholders in two successive years will trigger the opportunity for a further vote to vacate the positions on the board of directors. What this means is that if directors cannot justify their remuneration decisions to their shareholders, there will at least be a mechanism allowing the shareholders to replace those directors. It’s a level of accountability which should have existed all along, because in the end it is the shareholders who have put their capital at risk.

While many have called for executive salaries to be regulated or in some way restricted, it is better to allow companies to make their own decisions, so long as they remain accountable to their owners. It’s easy to suggest that multi million dollar salaries are excessive, but the real question has to be by what standard? If an executive is doing a great job, increasing company profits, expanding market share, creating employment, and delivering dividends to shareholders, there is no reason that he or she should not be paid well. How well should remain a matter for the company to determine, no some government agency.

On the other hand, when a company performs badly, losing value in the market place, cutting jobs, and delivering disappointing returns to the shareholders, surely there is a need to ask just what are these clowns getting paid for? Too many times we have seen high flying executives appointed to Australian companies, and paid enormous salaries, only to see the company decimated and the executive paid even more millions just to go away and stop causing trouble. It is this sort of bad decision making for which boards should be held accountable.

And now perhaps they will, at least a little more than they have been.

Friday, December 17, 2010

21st Century Feudalism

The 2010 household survey by the Independent Pricing And Regulatory Tribunal shows that 16% of low income families are having difficulty paying their electricity bills. That’s not exactly surprising, but it is rather surprising to learn that this is the case even though average consumption of electricity has fallen by 6% over the last four years. It’s even more alarming to consider that the figure for low income families with a mortgage is 53%. That means that any further increase in interest rates is going to have a dramatic impact on the ability of those people to pay their bills. But even without any change to interest rates, the one thing we can count on is that electricity prices will continue to rise, putting more and more pressure on people who are already stretched.

The problem has become so bad that people who have already done everything they can to reduce their consumption, turning off lights, abandoning airconditioners and dishwashers, upgrading to low consumption appliances, and eating less hot food, are still seeing their power bills go up, not down. And despite all of the advice from government agencies about the need for investment in the renewal of the infrastructure, nobody can really understand why? Power company executives are getting big juicy salaries, driving around in big fancy cars, and the energy providers are delivering big juicy dividends to the government, so why are the people who can least afford it being asked to pay so much, even though they are actually using less power?

Despite the promise that privatisation will create competition and deliver better deals, nobody actually believes it. Most people expect that privatisation will only lead to price increases as the new purchasers of the assets seek, quite rightly, to achieve a return on their investment. Then of course, there is the expectation that climate change policy will lead to either an emissions trading scheme or a carbon tax, pushing power prices up even further. And to cap it all off, most of us lack the expertise to decipher our power bills anyway, so it’s difficult to determine whether we are being billed correctly anyway, leading to the suspicion that power companies, like banks and the oil companies, are all just taking us for a ride.

Something about all this just doesn’t add up. Every other form of technology gets cheaper as it evolves and becomes more efficient. A pocket calculator in the seventies would have cost you hundreds of dollars, now you can buy a whole computer for the same money, despite the fact that inflation has made the money worth less. So why is the technology of power production getting more and more expensive? Surely, over the decades, we should have been getting better and more efficient at it, so that energy in the 21st century would be cheap as chips. Sure, there are costs involved in developing new technology, and we tend to use more energy than previous generations, but it’s easy to develop a suspicion that consumers are becoming 21st century feudal serfs, lured into a state of perpetual indebtedness to big corporations.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

It’s Time To Honour Our Promise

There seems to be a number of people lining up to blame Julia Gillard and the federal Labor government for at least contributing to conditions which led to the tragedy at Christmas Island yesterday. On the one hand, newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt is demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister, accusing her government of having blood on its hands because of what he calls the relaxation of asylum seeker policy. It is his view that “Even before yesterday, up to 170 people had been lured to their deaths by the Government’s dismantling of John Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’, scrapping temporary protection visas and softening mandatory detention rules.”

On the other hand, refugee activist Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition has also blamed the Gillard government for causing the tragedy through what he describes as its “anti-refugee policy”. He says, “… the blame lies with the Australian government. If the Australian government was willing to properly process asylum seekers in Indonesia and resettle successful refugees in Australia, then far fewer people would get on boats to travel to Australia.” In contrast to Andrew Bolt, Mr. Rintoul is saying that the government’s policies are too harsh, and ironically both are claiming that the current policy is to blame, even if for opposite reasons.

The truth is that they are both right up to a point. The current policy represents a diabolical compromise between being compassionate to people in need and being tough on border security, and this kind of disaster is perhaps more likely in such a policy environment. Mr. Bolt may be correct in that if we simply shut our border completely and refuse to allow anyone to enter in this manner then it is less likely that anyone would try. But that would involve abrogating our responsibility, and our promise to help those in need. However, Mr. Rintoul is also right to say that if there was an effective and orderly process for dealing with asylum seekers both here and in Indonesia then there would be no need for anyone to undertake the dangerous sea voyage in order to seek asylum.

The difference is that choosing to follow Mr. Bolt’s advice would simply push the refugee problem beyond our borders. It would perhaps placate anyone of the view that it is all someone else’s problem, and so long as people are not dying on our doorstep, it’s okay if they are dying somewhere else. It is a case of out of sight, out of mind. It ignores not only the obligation that Australia has accepted by being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees, but also the reasons why our nation chose to make that obligation in the first place.

But this tragedy did happen on our doorstep, and it serves as a reminder of our own hypocrisy as a nation which claims to believe in a fair go, but then labels asylum seekers as “queue jumpers”. We have the policy we do because our government has cobbled together a patchwork policy which tries to appease a broad array of disparate opinions, while failing to actually stand for any identifiable principle. Australia could easily double its intake of recognised refugees with no adverse effects on our own wellbeing, and yet we have a policy which panders to a myopic fortress mentality because there might be a few votes in it.

It’s time for someone to be brave enough to do the right thing and radically change our approach to the asylum seeker challenge. It’s time to assess the claims of potential refugees before they leave Indonesia. It’s time to get people who have been proven not to be a security risk out of detention centres. It’s time to honour our promise to offer dignity and safety to those who are fleeing the oppression and persecution that we claim to denounce and despise. Unfortunately, none of our current politicians seem to have that sort of courage.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

So Much For Democracy.

After a saga stretching over many years, beginning with the failed proposals of Premier Bob Carr, through the political demise of Premier Morris Iemma and the subsequent revolving door on the Premier’s office, the New South Wales Government has finally sold off its interests in the electricity sector. Sort of. The energy retailers along with some of the generating trading rights have been sold off to Origin Energy and TRUenergy, while negotiations to sell the remaining gen-traders are expected to be completed in the reasonably near future. That means the state still owns the actually generators even though the private sector will be buying and selling the power that they generate, and the state also continues to own the poles and wires. In the end, it is a deal which seems to have satisfied no-one but the government and presumably the purchasers.

Opponents, including the state opposition parties, the unions, some industry analysts, consumer groups, and a fair chunk of the general population fear that the assets have been sold too cheaply at a poor time when the market confronts significant uncertainty, and that the result will be higher prices for consumers. While it’s tempting to suggest that since the government has been such a colossal failure at managing the sector that things can only get better now that private enterprise is about to step in, that simply isn’t the case. One of the reasons the government has been so keen to unload the business has been the need for massive new investment to renew the infrastructure. However, the structure of this deal still leaves the bulk of the physical infrastructure in government hands, while somebody else makes money out of it.

It also means that private operators driven by the profit imperative have the motivation to (a) increase prices, (b) reduce service standards to cut costs, and (c) cut jobs for the same reason. It means that consumers will have to put up with more desperate sales people knocking on the door in the early evening trying to sign them up to change providers, whether they want to or not. And it means that the New South Wales government will pocket about $5.3 billion, which sounds good until you compare it with the $20 billion which was bandied about a few years ago, or even the $10 billion suggested while Nathan Rees was Premier. Of course, it’s possible that the government might actually do something useful with that $5.3 billion, but judging by past performance I wouldn’t count on it.

In fact , when you consider the extraordinary amounts of money wasted on things like the Sydney Metro debacle, profligate waste of the federal funds for the B. E. R. schools program, and just about everything else the New South Wales government has done, I’d be surprised if we ever see a penny of that money put into anything that actually amounts to anything. But the sad reality is that for the significant number of people who believe that public utilities should rightly remain publicly owned assets, there is no longer any political party which will support that view.

So much for democracy.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Oprah Oprah Oprah! Oi! Oi! Oi!

She came, she saw, and she captured the imagination of millions. If anybody is still criticising the fuss and expense of welcoming the Oprah Winfrey whirlwind to Australia, their sniping has been completely drowned out by the adulating roar of the masses. 6000 fans assembled in front of the Oprah House today for the taping of two television shows to be screened next month. Samples of the event have already been broadcast showing the overwhelming enthusiasm of the crowd, and the unbridled exuberance of Oprah herself as she arrived on the stage. After leading a spirited chant of Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi, Oprah declared that she now knows why we call our land “Oz”, as it truly is at the end of the yellow brick road.

Of course, it is show biz, and it is all very carefully stage managed, but there is no doubt that the enthusiasm is genuine. Equally, there can be no doubt that the positive publicity for Australia that will reach millions of people, not only in the United States, but around the world is likely to exceed even the wildest expectations of Tourism Australia, the agency which helped to make it all happen. Far from being a waste of taxpayer dollars, as some have suggested, the contribution from Tourism Australia is the best money they have spent since Paul Hogan was throwing another shrimp on the barbie.

It’s not just the impact of the Oprah seal of approval, which in it self can make or break businesses, but the opportunity for an audience of hundreds of millions worldwide to see the best of Australia on show. From Uluru to the Great Barrier Reef, to a back yard barbie in Earlwood, this will probably turn out to be the best travelogue ever made. In fact, the two hours of television which result from this escapade will deliver vastly more bang for the buck than the $120 million that it cost for Baz Lurhmann to make his “Australia” motion picture, and will probably be a damn sight more entertaining too.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Better Deal? Don’t Bank On It!

Well, after many weeks of anticipation, the federal government’s banking reform plan has been announced over the weekend by Treasurer Wayne Swan. While the wrappings have finally come off the package, there are no real surprises in what the government has put forward, including the most widely anticipated step: the abolition of mortgage exit fees. In fact, this move was so widely expected that some banks had already removed their fees in anticipation over the past couple of months. This, along with a proposal to make mortgage insurance portable, is intended to give consumers greater freedom to “go down the road”, as Treasurer Swan put it, and take their business elsewhere.

In theory, if it is easier for customers to abandon one bank and move to another in search of a better deal, it should result in greater competition between the banks. This should result in all banks giving their customers better service and keener rates. It’s an argument that would seem to make sense, but is it really likely to achieve such a result? Well, that depends. Many people are cynical enough to suspect that if banks are forced to abandon exit fees, they will simply find another way to replace the money they would have otherwise collected. That might come in the form of increased application fees, or higher establishment fees, or bigger account service fees. Or even a higher interest rate.

Of course, the move against exit fees is only one of the range of measures announced yesterday, and things are never quite as simple as they might first appear. Removing exit fees will help make it easier for people to change mortgages, and the other measures will mean that customers are better informed, and that banks and other institutions will be able to access more sources of funding. Consumer protection has been strengthened, and transparency has been improved. But none of that guarantees that customers will actually get a better deal. It doesn’t mean that loans will necessarily be any cheaper or easier to obtain in the first place.

And it certainly doesn’t do anything to guarantee that interest rates will be any lower.

Friday, December 10, 2010

If Kevin Was Scared, He Was Right.

Is it really any surprise that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd admitted to American officials that the outlook in Afghanistan “scares the hell out of me”? Today’s Sydney Morning Herald has chosen to misquote that observation to create the sensational headline “Rudd: Scared
As Hell”. It’s a spin which is not an accurate representation of what was actually said in the leaked diplomatic cable. It is a headline which appears to be designed to give the impression of a fearful man pathetically cowering in the corner, whereas the original statement that the situation in Afghanistan “scares the hell out of me” means something else altogether. It is a commonly used colloquially turn of phrase which does not necessarily mean that the individual concerned is literally scared.

Even so, wouldn’t it make sense to have just a little trepidation about the potential for disaster in Afghanistan? In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that anyone who was in full possession of the facts about Afghanistan who was not at least a little apprehensive would have their sanity in doubt. If anything, the observations revealed in today’s instalment of the Wikileaks saga would seem to indicate that out then Prime Minister had a fairly good grasp of the seriousness of the situation, as well as pretty clear idea about the effectiveness of the strategies of the various nations involved in the conflict. If Kevin Rudd was at all afraid of everything turning to custard in Afghanistan, it’s hard to see how he was wrong.

The nature of the mission in Afghanistan is such that Australia has been dragged into a “Catch 22” situation. There was never any doubt that Australia should be a part of the effort to overthrow the Taliban and confront the threat of Al Qaeda, partly because of our alliance with the United States, but also because Australia has just as much interest in defeating terrorism as our allies do. The problem has been in the strategies employed to accomplish that mission, and in the evolving nature of the conflict. The mission now is not the same as it was when it began, but that doesn’t make it any easier to simply abandon it.

Regardless of anything exposed by the Wikileaks drama, there is still a serious challenge confronting both Australia and the United States in attempting find a lasting resolution in Afghanistan. Denying the extent of that challenge and branding Wikileaks as a terrorist organisation isn’t going to help in any way to achieve that. In fact, it’s a convenient distraction for those who have been responsible for making a mess of it to hide behind. Real terrorists are those who randomly kill and maim innocent people in the pursuit of often irrational ideological goals which do not recognise or respect the rights of others. By any definition, what Wikileaks has done is not terrorism or even aiding terrorism.

In contrast, those calling for Julian Assange to be executed are in truth revealing themselves to be dangerously close to the dictionary definition of the word terrorism: “The use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.”

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Just Who Is Running Our Country?

When the Wikileaks scandal began to unfold, Prime Minister Julia Gillard referred to Julian Assange as a criminal and described the Wikileaks website as illegal. Later, she said that the “foundation stone” of the affair was the illegal leaking of the original documents. Now she says that the publication of the documents is “grossly irresponsible”. At first, Attorney General Robert McClelland said that Australia was assisting the American Government with their investigation of the leaks. Now, the Foreign Affairs Kevin Rudd, himself something fo a victim of unflattering revelations, has finally laid the blame where it belongs: the United States government itself.

Mr Rudd said in an interview with Reuters, "Mr. Assange is not himself responsible for the unauthorised release of 250,000 documents from the US diplomatic communications network. The Americans are responsible for that." In a few short days, our government has gone from labeling Mr. Assange as a criminal to the vastly different position of pinning the blame on the Americans for not keeping the documents sufficiently secure in the first place. In the face of questions over just what it means to be an Australian citizen, Mr. Rudd has found it necessary to reassure Australians that Mr. Assange is receiving the appropriate level of consular assistance from his own government.

And while we have a strong and close friendship with the United States, today’s revelations of just how close the relationship is between some of our politicians and the American consular staff raise the question of just who do our elected representatives represent? Senator Mark Arbib, one-time faceless man and current Federal Minister, is described today by the Sydney Morning Herald as a “Yank in our ranks” thanks to the revelation that he has been a long term secret conduit of inside information described by the Americans as a “protected source”, meaning that his identity was to be kept confidential.

What does this mean? Is he representing the people who have elected him? Or is he effectively an agent of the Americans, who may be very close friends, but let us not forget are in fact a foreign power? If Mr. Arbib has been having discussions with American representatives and reporting back all the details to our own authorities, that’s one thing; but if the traffic of information has been a one way street, that is getting dangerously close to espionage. It really is enough to make you ask just who is running our country: our government or the Americans?

And speaking of the Americans, there can be little doubt that some of them would love to get their hands onto Julian Assange to make some sort of scapegoat out of him for having embarrassed them so greatly. The smirk on Defence Secretary Robert Gates’ face when given the news of the arrest of Mr. Assange was enough to send chills down the spine. I’ve said it before, and it’s worth saying again: for a nation which is founded upon the principles of individual freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of association, and freedom of belief, the United States seems to so easily forget just what it is supposed to stand for.

Hopefully, Australia won’t make the same mistake just because some of our politicians have been embarrassed.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Patron Saint of Free Speech?

The exponentially disproportionate condemnation of Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange emanating from the United States government and its allies has become so strident as to prompt the simple question “why?” While his arrest has been based upon the allegations of sexual misconduct in Sweden, there is little doubt that the intensity of the effort to pursue and capture him has been driven by the Wikileaks episode. It’s easy to believe that his supporters may be correct when they claim that the charges are politically motivated, and are nothing more than an attempt to ensnare Mr. Assange in a process which will ultimately see him delivered to the jurisdiction of the United States, where some consider him to be such a threat to national security that he should be killed. If there is a genuine allegation of any sexual offence, it should of course be investigated and dealt with. However, that is a completely separate matter from the release of classified United States diplomatic documents.

So why are the United States and her allies so angry at an individual who is after all only the middle man. It was not Julian Assange who actually leaked the documents in the first place. He has merely published the contents, just as countless newspapers and media outlets around the world have done countless times before. If, instead of giving the material to Wikileaks, the original leaker put all the documents in a big cardboard box and sent it to the Washington Post, wouldn’t the Post have done exactly the same thing? Of course, the Post, or any other media outlet, would have fallen upon the material with great glee and enthusiastically examined it, harvesting every salaciaous story it could from the contents. And if Wikileaks is in some way out of order in publishing the material, isn’t every other media outlet in the world also out of order for endlessly republishing it?

The great irony of course is that Western democracy in general, and especially the United States, is supposed to be founded upon principles of freedom which include freedom of speech. In fact, the Americans make such a big deal about free speech that it is specifically protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, along with the freedom of the press. By both standards, Julian Assange has done nothing more than exercise his right to speak freely and to publish. And yet the nation which not only claims to defend freedom and individual rights, but was actually founded upon those principles, is the very same nation which is so aggrieved by the idea than anyone might actually have the audacity to exercise those rights.

The reality, however, is a little different. Mr. Assange and his organisation have angered a significant number of very powerful people, and that is always a dangerous thing to do. Further, it is clear that he can expect very little support from the established media, partly because substantial sections of it are very cosy with the authorities, and partly because old media interests tend to view the so called new media as a major threat to their own existence. Traditional media is struggling to remain relevant and viable in the face of citizen journalism and social media, while also wrestling with their own attempts to make the transition into the digital world. While he has a large number of supporters, and some of them are also powerful and influential, even they may be powerless to help him.

Even if we choose to view Mr. Assange as the patron saint of free speech, there is a real risk that he will become a martyr in the process.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Service Should Be The Selling Point

With Christmas fast approaching it has been suggested that more Australians than ever before might be tempted to do their shopping on line. There’s a number of reasons why people would do so, including the buoyant Australian dollar trading close enough to one for one with the once mighty US buck, the relative ease of shopping from your own lounge room, and the increasing confidence people have with on-line transactions as they become a common feature of modern life. E-bay has become a household name, and for some people a way of life, and off shore retailers are making the most of the opportunities presented by cyberspace. And while there are bargains to be had, customer numbers will no doubt continue to grow.

It’s no wonder then that local retailers are starting to become disgruntled. The big stores, represented by the Australian National Retailers Association, are campaigning for shoppers to keep their dollars here in Australia, ringing Australian cash registers, and supporting Australian jobs. Many retailers are also calling upon the government to find a way to impose the GST on internet purchases so that the traditional retailers are not disadvantaged. Some of them, such as Bernie Brookes at Myer and Gerry Harvey at Harvey Norman, have proposed to set up their own off-shore operations at the expense of their own stores in order to compete.

But, is online shopping really a threat to our big retailers, or is there something else going on? While the tax issue might give the off shore operators some slight advantage, surely you would have to think that postage or freight costs would offset that benefit. While there is something attractive about shopping from the comfort of your own home, it can also be an inconvenience when you cannot actually hold an item in your hands or try on a piece of clothing before making a decision to purchase. And then there is the time spent waiting for delivery as opposed to the instant satisfaction of taking the item at the point of sale the moment you hand over your cash. And of course, if there is a problem with the item, it can be difficult to return, and even more difficult to demand a refund, when you have bought it on-line from the other side of the world.

Keeping all this in mind, is it possible that our local retailers have missed the point? Could it be that they should really be asking themselves about their standards of customer service and their price competitiveness? I have been to one of the big electrical stores with a warrantee problem and they were no help at all, sending me away to deal direct with the manufacturer. I was literally no better off than I would have been if I had bought the item on-line. I have purchased a watch on-line from Florida and paid $220 Australian dollars for a well known brand name item which would have cost me $695 or more at the big department stores here in Australia. That’s not a price difference that can be blamed on the GST, and it means that Australian Retailers need to lift their game.

Regardless of anything else, on-line shopping isn’t going to go away. Traditional retailers are going to have to find a way to co-exist successfully. That means playing to their strengths and using the advantages that they clearly have over their competitors. It’s time that the big retailers remembered that their physical presence in the marketplace is actually a competitive advantage, not a liability, because it gives them the ability to deliver vastly superior service. Once they realise that, and start to make customers feel welcome again, I’m certain that they will find a way to survive, and perhaps even to thrive.

Monday, December 6, 2010

So Where’s The Christmas Spirit?

It’s just under three weeks until Christmas, and the festive season is about to get into full swing. Christmas parties are looming, the mad rush top the shops to buy presents for family and friends, and of course the rising tide of Christmas cheer when total strangers are actually nice to each other and wish each other a “Merry Christmas”. Only, I’m a bit worried about the whole “peace on Earth and goodwill toward all men” thing. What with apparently random shootings on the Gold Coast, newspaper headlines screaming about international tensions, renewed concerns about the impact of violent computer games making young people more aggressive, and a friend of mine reporting an incident where she was threatened by an angry motorist, it seems that “good will” is a little thin on the ground.

Have we really evolved into a more violent, aggressive, and obnoxious society, fuelled by an elevated sense of entitlement and disregard, and reflected in the increasingly ghoulish violence of our predominant cultural art forms in movies, television and electronic games? It is certainly easy to believe that courtesy and manners have long since been rendered extinct by a wave of abusive language and behaviour which now seems to be accepted as normal, at least in some sectors of the community. In fact, it can even be a stretch to call it a community anymore when so many people seem to be so rabidly anti-social.

While it can be all too easy to become fearful for the future in the face of senseless acts of aggression, it is important to keep them in perspective. Most of us want nothing more than to be treated with the same consideration that we are happy to show others. Most of us are equally mortified when this doesn’t happen. Most of us are able to watch a movie or a television show about a murder mystery without becoming murderers ourselves. But as always, it is the minority who attract the attention. It is because hideous behaviour is the exception rather than the rule that it stands out so much, and gets reported on the front pages.

The truth is the majority of motorists just want to get to where they are going without any drama, children are still influenced more by their parents’ behaviour than by any other factor, and decent people still don’t go around shooting random strangers. So if the Christmas Spirit seems to be a little difficult to find just now, it’s probably because we are paying too much attention to the things which are going wrong, and not enough to the things which are going right. It’s not enough to complain about the world becoming a more unfriendly place without being prepared to become a little less unfriendly ourselves.

As always, if we really want to find the Christmas spirit, we have to look within ourselves.

Friday, December 3, 2010

They Don’t Know What They’re Missing

Like many people I never really expected that Australia would win the bid to host the World Cup of Football in 2022, but I did expect that our bid would at least receive strong support. After all, the competing nations were the United States, Japan, South Korea, Qatar and Australia. Of those, I believed the bid would most likely go the United States or Japan, possibly South Korea, and perhaps Australia would come second or third in the vote. And there was, I believed, a genuine chance that we might actually pull it off and win. But to discover now that the Australian bid only received one vote in the first round is something of a shock.

What were they thinking? Here we are, the best country in the world, with the best climate in the world, home to some of the best players in the world, and with the proven experience of staging the best Olympics ever, and yet the executives of FIFA have simply brushed us aside. Qatar, on the other hand, has very few players and fans, and even fewer facilities, and is so hot that entire stadia will have to be air conditioned to stop people from dropping dead in the heat. It is such a bizarre outcome that it can only heighten concerns about the nature of the whole bidding process, which have ranged from collusion through to outright corruption.

While many people might debate the benefits of hosting such a massive event, with some insisting that it would have been too big, too expensive, and of little benefit to Australia, the fact is that Australia would have mounted a magnificent World Cup. It’s disappointing to have lost out, and insulting to have been given just one vote, but in the end, Australia is not the loser from this decision. We have offered the world the opportunity to come play in one of the best counties in the world, and we would have given them the time of their lives. But they have made another choice, and that is their loss more than it is ours. The rest of the world just doesn’t know what they’re missing.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Trainload Of Money

Today, the New South Wales Auditor General Peter Achterstraat released his report on transport projects, with an assessment which has been described as “scathing”. Here is the bottom line, in the words of the Auditor General: “Of the $412 million spent on the Sydney Metro, $356 million represents expenditure with no apparent benefit to the people of New South Wales.” This one sentence neatly sums up everything which has been wrong about the Labor government in New South Wales, and reflects the failure of successive Premiers to deliver on their transport promises.

Each newly installed occupant of the Premier has boldly announced visionary plans to address the transport challenges confronting Sydney, only to be pushed out through the revolving door of the Premier’s office and to have their plans consigned to the dustbin. But not before millions of dollars had been spent on scoping studies, feasibility studies, environmental impact studies, compulsory land acquisition, planning and design. There was the North West rail link, the Parramatta to Chatswood line, the South West rail link, the North West Metro, the West Metro, The CBD metro, and back to the future with the North West and South West lines back on the agenda. But can we really be certain that any plan currently on the table will actually be completed?

When Kristina Keneally took over the position of chief seat warmer, out went the latest grand plan, the Sydney Metro. With it went not only the hundreds of millions of dollars identified by the Auditor General, but also any good will which might have remained with those who had their businesses and livelihoods disrupted by a plan which had come to absolutely nothing. With it also went any level of credibility or trust that might still have existed among the voters of New South Wales. Never mind that the Metro was a flawed plan from the start, and that Premier Keneally probably made the right call to dump it, so much political capital had already been invested into it that it was now, like the cash, all gone.

And it is an awful lot of cash. The $356 million identified by Mr. Archterstraat could have been much better spent on any number of things. It could have built a major new hospital, or upgraded dozens of existing hospitals around the state. It could have employed thousands of nurses to work in those hospitals. It could have paid for the entire backlog of overdue maintenance at state schools, and still had money left over to build some new schools as well. Or it could have paid for about half of the maintenance backlog for public housing. In anybody’s language, it’s a trainload of money, and we can all think of dozens of ways it could have been more productively spent.

Instead, it has been sucked into a black hole “for no apparent benefit”, never to be seen again.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Economic Irrationalism

A study by the Australia Institute has shown that a majority of Australians are costing themselves money by not keeping track of a range of financial details like what interest rate they are paying on their home loan, whether or not they have the best mobile phone plan, and keeping money in low interest savings accounts instead of paying off credit card debts. When you look at it objectively, it would seem to indicate that people are either dumb, don’t care, or just plain irrational. But that’s not really a fair assessment of what is going on. Modern life has become so complicated and so overburdened with endless details to keep track of that you would really have to be some kind of human calculator to stay on top of it all.

In fact, that’s exactly what the study calls people who seem to master the challenges of modern life: human calculators. Apparently they make up 22% of the population, while the rest of us can’t seem to get on top of things like this, even though most of us believe ourselves to be “better than average money managers”. So why is that? A clue can be found in the fact that so called human calculators are more likely to be found among the older population. Other factors are not as significant as you might think. For example, those with tertiary educations were no more likely to be good money managers than those who left school early, and high income earners are actually just as likely to struggle to make ends meet as low income earners. But people over 55 are more likely to be “human calculators”.

Now this might be as a result of the benefit of experience and wisdom, but I suspect that there is another reason. In general, older people have more time to invest in making sure that they get the best deal. The rest of us are so flat out just making money in the first place that we just don’t have the time to manage it as well as we might. Despite all of the promises of the benefits of competition in the market place, all it really means is that we now have to wade through mountains of information comparing banking details, insurance policies, mobile phone plans, internet plans, electricity costs, petrol prices, health insurance, motor mechanics, grocery prices, all while holding down a job and looking after the family.

Nobody has the time to deal with it all. The idea that people are always rational beings is at the centre of most economic theory. It underpins the concept of free markets, and is supposed to guarantee that overall the economy will work itself out. But the fact is that the assumption is just plain wrong. People can be rational, but people also have a range of differing priorities. For many people it is more important to spend their time with their families, going to the beach, having barbecues and watching the football, than it is to devote their lives to counting beans. When you look at it that way, you really have to ask just what is so irrational about that.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Poisoned Chalice

In what was always the only possible outcome, Bernie Riordan has resigned as New South Wales President of the Labor Party. In doing so, he has accused the Premier of an over-reaction, and indicated that if it were not for the approaching election his decision would have been different. But, in the end, there was no other choice. To be presiding over a union which has published a statement that it will not support the Labor government makes it impossible to also remain Party President. The two positions are simply impossible to reconcile. It doesn’t matter that he was not personally responsible for the remarks, or that he did not authorise them. It only matters that it created an unacceptable appearance of disunity within the party.

At the same time, that is really only part of the story. In fact, it is the tip of the proverbial iceberg, with the disaffection between Mr. Riordan and a succession of Premiers itself symptomatic of significant tensions between the unions and the parliamentary Labor Party. In particular, the internal war over the plans to privatise the electricity sector has taken its toll with Bob Carr, Morris Iemma and Nathan Rees all becoming casualties in one way or another. It’s no surprise that all three of those former Premiers have been so vocal in their support and praise for current Premier Kristina Keneally, and in Mr. Rees’ case that is in itself a remarkable result.

It was Mr. Rees who famously predicted, on the day before he was deposed, that whoever was his successor would be a puppet of the party powerbrokers. By contrast, Kristina Keneally has not only grasped the poisoned chalice with steady hands, but she has effectively flung its contents back into the faces of her critics. Time and again, she has dealt with the fallout of a party apparently bent on self destruction in a firm and decisive manner. Dealing with the matter of Bernie Riordan has been no different, and she has attracted more admirers in the process. Finally, the New South Wales Labor Party seems to have a leader who knows how to take charge.

What a pity the party she has been asked to lead is in such a sorry state of disarray.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Time’s Up!

At the risk of sounding like a cracked record, absolutely nothing can save the New South Wales Labor government from copping a massive hiding at the state election next March. I have been saying the same thing for years and the evidence only continues to grow to support this view. In the wake of the Victorian state election over the weekend there have been even more logs thrown onto the fire. Now, Victoria is not the same as New South Wales, and the issues are not all the same, but even so the outcome in Victoria remains a very clear message for the New South Wales government. That message is, “Time’s up!”

To some, the result in Victoria has been seen as a surprise because the Labor government in that state was not in anywhere near as much trouble as the one in New South Wales. It was largely seen as a competent and stable government which might have become a bit stale, but nobody expected it to be tossed out of office. And yet, when the votes are all counted over the next day or so that will be the end result. By contrast, here in New South Wales, the Labor government is seen as anything but competent, riddled with scandal, and unable to command the support of even their own Party President, Bernie Riordan.

Over the weekend, it emerged that the union which Mr. Riordan leads published a statement in its newsletter that it would support candidates from any political party, including the Liberals and Nationals, based on where they stood on workers’ rights. Now, Mr. Riordan claims not to have seen the comments before they were published, but to say that it leaves him in an embarrassing situation is an understatement. While the Premier is rightly calling for his resignation as Party President, it should also be seen as an indication of just how much support the government has lost among some of the unions.

But it goes even deeper than that. Across the nation, the Labor Brand has become severely tarnished. The federal election result in August was a reflection of that, and it has been a combination of state and federal factors which has seen the reputation of Labor, not only trashed, but shredded in a matter of months. A little over two years ago, Kevin Rudd was the most popular Prime Minister ever, presiding over a nation with Labor governments in every state and territory. Even after Labor lost government in Western Australia in 2008, the federal government was still in good shape.

While it has been obvious for some time that the New South Wales government was in trouble, they at least had the benefit of time on their side with the state locked in to the four year electoral cycle. There was at least time for things to be turned around, and for the party to get itself back into a position where it might have a chance to survive in 2011. Instead, the phenomenon described by some as the “New South Wales” disease spread to Canberra and Kevin Rudd has become history. Now, in every state, at every level, Labor is seen as both incompetent, and as incapable of seeing past its own internal workings to the real issues affecting real people.

Kristina Keneally hasn’t got a snowflake’s chance… well, you know the rest.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Pass The Champagne…

Although it seems that bank bashing has only become fashionable in the last few months, with both the government and the opposition climbing on board the bandwagon, some of us have been pointing out the excessive and unacceptable practices of banks for many years. Over that time, it has always seemed as if the targets of such criticism have the hide of the proverbial rhinoceros, as every attack appeared to leave no impression whatsoever. In fact, there have been times when it seemed as if the big banks actually enjoyed the criticism, smiling smugly from within their ivory towers, sipping Veuve Clicquot and puffing long panatellas. But now, suddenly and almost shockingly, one of the enemy appears to have broken ranks and spoken the unspeakable.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Cameron Clyne, the CEO at the National Australia Bank has said that it is time for banks to stop being arrogant. How extraordinary! But of course, this outburst of humble pie hasn’t suddenly come out of the blue. It is a carefully constructed reaction to the realisation that after years of customer dissatisfaction, the government might finally be about to actually do something to intervene. With both the government and the opposition taking up the cause, and preparing to impose greater regulation, the banks have suddenly found themselves backed into a corner of their own making. So naturally, the only course of action open to them is to try to head off any such moves by launching a pre-emptory strike.

While it might well seem cynical that after years of people like you and me loudly pointing out their failings, the banks are only now getting the message under threat of government intervention, it is nevertheless a good thing. Now at last, instead of spending millions on glossy television advertisements proclaiming their wonderful service, they might devote more efforts to actually delivering that wonderful service. You know, practical things, like abolishing those excessive fees and charges, keeping branches open in country towns, and giving customers a fair go on interest rates. If they did, it would do more to revive their public image than any glossy advertising campaign ever could, or any number of bank executives standing in front of the cameras wondering if perhaps they should become less arrogant.

Now pass me that bottle of Veuve Clicquot would you?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Altiyan Childs Interview

After a huge response from listeners today, here is the full recording of the interview with X-Factor winner, Altiyan Childs...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

It’s Knock Off Time

So today is “National Go Home On Time Day”. This event has been declared in response to findings that Australians are working longer hours than any other Western country. And if that’s not enough, it appears that many of the extra hours are unpaid overtime. Research from the Australia Institute has found that Australian workers are “donating’ over $70 billion worth of overtime to their employers each year. Of course, the word “donation” implies choice, and while I’m sure that many people volunteer to go the extra mile in order to improve their chances of advancement, I am equally sure that this is not always the case. At least some of those who are working unpaid overtime do so for fear of losing their jobs, or because there is a workplace culture which will judge them harshly if they do not “love their job” so much that they are prepared to do it for free.

The plain fact of the matter is that involuntary unpaid overtime of this nature is nothing short of theft. It is a form of exploitation where the powerful take advantage of the vulnerable, stealing their labour for no financial reward. The truth is that any workplace with this kind of culture is going to find that the best and most capable employees will be the ones who get fed up with being treated like dirt and decide to leave. It is a culture which belittles the individual and demeans the worth of that individual’s contribution. It reflects a management attitude which is cavalier and autocratic, and which amounts to a kind of corporate serfdom where employees are expected to offer undying gratitude for the job that they hold, even if they are not being paid for what they do. And yet, if a plumber is called out to a job after 5pm he will expect to be paid for the hours that he works, so why should any of us be treated any differently?

And since today is “National Go Home On Time Day”, it’s now time for me to do my part and knock off. Good bye.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Stop, But Go!

While it seems on the face of it that the New South Wales government has done motorists a favour with the announcement of the overhaul of the demerits points system, there is also a strangely mixed message attached. On the one hand, the government has over the years increased the penalties for a variety of offences, increased enforcement measures such as introducing more speed cameras, and increased the impact of penalties at certain times with the imposition of double demerits for public holiday weekends. On the other hand, they now appear to be admitting that they have been too harsh on motorists and to make up for it have decided to become more lenient with yesterday’s changes to demerit points. When you stop and think about it, doesn’t that seem to be something of a contradiction? It’s as if the government is saying “stop, but go” at the same time.

Of course, drivers who feel that the penalties have become too draconian will no doubt feel some relief at these changes, but surely there is a risk that we will all miss the point. While we might feel a bit more relaxed about all those new speed cameras now that we are going to see them clearly marked, aren’t we forgetting that ultimately the responsibility for road safety is in our hands? The most important factor is driver attitude, and the onus upon us all to drive in a manner suitable for the road conditions, whatever they might be, at all times. And while we are all feeling more grateful to the government for letting us off the hook a bit more often, aren’t we forgetting that it is that same government who is responsible for under-funding road infrastructure? Not to mention, for creating an increasingly complex road environment with apparently arbitrary and constantly changing speed limits which leave drivers frustrated and confused?

If the New South Wales government was serious about road safety they would invest more into road infrastructure, driver training, and real police in highway patrol cars, instead of doing deals with merchant bankers to raise revenue from speed cameras. The problem is that relying on measures like speed cameras makes it too easy for the government to appear as if they are doing something, when really they doing nothing about the factors that actually matter. The change to demerit points, while easing the burden on mistake prone motorists to some degree, is really a bit of nonsense, because those who habitually break the road rules will always find themselves just one more infringement away from disaster no matter how many points they might be allowed to accrue, while those who genuinely and diligently try to avoid breaking any rules very rarely will.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Still Blaming Anyone But Themselves

The latest Neilsen Poll published by the Sydney Morning Herald shows that the Gillard led Labor government is struggling to gain public support. With the two party preferred figures favouring the opposition 51% to 49%, it appears that if there was an election held today the government would lose office. Of course, the fact is that there isn’t going to be an election held today and, in theory at least, there won’t be until 2013. And in the unlikely even that a snap election is brought on any time soon, the fact is that calling an election actually has an impact on opinion polls because people are pushed into making up their minds. When an election is actually called, it suddenly becomes real rather than hypothetical. So, despite the continued poor performance in the polls for the Labor Party, it’s all really just academic.

Or is it? Already, barely three months since the election, and about five months since the sacking of Kevin Rudd by his own colleagues, there are hints of whispers of rumours of suggestions that Prime Minister Gillard may be targeted for similar treatment if the polls don’t turn around. At this point, it is not an imminent threat, but the prospect that such a thought could be contemplated by anyone in the Federal Labor Party is extraordinary. It is also an indication that there are at least some who have simply not understood the meaning of the message delivered to them at the election they so nearly lost. It is a lesson that the Labor Party has failed to learn in New South Wales, and can’t afford to ignore at the Federal level.

The idea that any government can avoid electoral defeat in the wake of poor opinion polls simply by bringing down a leader and replacing him with a shiny new one is not only misguided, but it is morally bankrupt. Perhaps it gained some acceptance because Morris Iemma won an election in New South Wales after replacing Bob Carr despite widespread discontent with the government at the time. But the difference was that Bob Carr actually retired, rather than being forced to leave. Paul Keating won a Federal election after bumping aside Prime Minister Bob Hawke, but that was only because Liberal Leader John Hewson couldn’t cut up a birthday cake without getting confused about the tax implications.

The bottom line for both the New South Wales and the Federal Labor governments is that dumping a leader in response to poor polling will always bee seen by the voters for what it is. That is, a pathetic attempt to hoodwink the voters not to notice that bringing in a new clown hasn’t changed the fact that it is still the same old circus. It’s a clear indication of a government which has become more concerned with polls than with policy, consumed by their own spin, and completely out of touch with the real world. If any such move is ever launched against Julia Gillard in the coming year or so, it will be a sure sign that the same old desperados are still looking to blame anyone but themselves for their failures.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Acts Of Crime Should Not Be Misconstrued As Acts Of War

They say that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. It’s an expression that I have never been comfortable with, because it can so easily be misused to legitimise what are otherwise quite simply criminal acts. Sure, we can all accept that Nelson Mandela was at one time considered by his own country to be a terrorist, only to later be hailed as a hero. Of course, the truth is that Nelson Mandela really was a freedom fighter who represented the oppressed majority of his countrymen, and so it is easy to arrive at the judgement that he was not really a terrorist at all. It’s not quite so easy to dismiss the Palestinian suicide bombers who can also legitimately claim to be oppressed in their own land, but who are much harder for us to identify with. The tactics that they choose to employ are sufficiently horrific to erode any sympathy we might otherwise be tempted to feel.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, the United States has introduced a range of new security measures and enacted laws which place greater controls over its own population. Australia, along with many other countries, has followed a similar path with laws which specify not only the physical acts of terrorism, but also the motivations behind it. To some degree, these are laws which are only a few steps away from making it illegal to hold certain beliefs, to say certain things, and to associate with certain people. The real risk, which needs to be weighed in the balance when considering such laws, is the prospect that they will effectively undermine the very freedoms and ideals that they purport to protect. It is this risk to free speech, and ultimately free thought, that prominent human rights lawyer Julian Burnside will address in a presentation at the State Library tonight.

Mr. Burnside will say in his speech, “The terrorist acts we all fear are also orthodox criminal offences. The important question is whether it is a good idea to create a range of offences which depend on a definition based on an ideological purpose, and which casts such a wide net using that definition as a starting point.” It is at this point in the speech where Mr. Burnside points out that our legal definition of terrorism would include not only Nelson Mandela, but also the rebels at the Eureka Stockade. His point is that the law itself is flawed, and could so easily be perverted to ensnare anyone who expresses dissent. He is right to consider this to be a threat to our civil liberties, and our right to freedom of speech, of assembly, and of thought itself.

But there is another flaw in our approach to terrorism. It has been a mistake to declare a “War on Terror” in the military sense, because it only serves to legitimise the purported political causes behind it, when really today’s terrorists do not serve any genuine cause. A war implies a contest between sovereign nations, or at the very least between legitimate competing interests. Declaring a “War on Terror” awards the terrorists a status they do not deserve when they are nothing more than psychopathic criminals who do not represent any recognised country or religion. Osama bin Laden could never be confused with a freedom fighter, and neither could Abu Bakar Bashir.

Just because people purport to be warriors of some kind does not mean that they really are, and acts of crime should not be misconstrued as acts of war.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

We Should Whinge About the Performance, Not The Pay Packet

There’s nothing better than to have a good whinge. We love it, we can’t get enough of it, and we can be pretty good at it. We whinge about bank profits, about the cost of living, and of course there is the old favourite, we whinge about politicians pay packets and perks. Even though these and many other topics might really be easy targets, we feel some justification for our indignation because there is a sense of righteousness about these perceived injustices. But, are we really whinging about the right things, or are we guilty of being so lazy that we just go for the cheap shots, rather than actually doing anything about these bugbears?

In the case of bank profits, is it really the size of the profit that upsets us? When you think about it, isn’t it really the feeling that those profits have come at our expense that bothers us? Surely, with such healthy profits those banks can afford to give us a better deal! Similarly, with the cost of living, isn’t our complaint really about our feeling that we have somehow been inadequately rewarded for our labours? What we really want is not so much cheaper goods, but a bigger pay packet. And that brings us to the politicians, who already have pay packets much bigger than most of the rest of us, but still seem to keep whinging themselves that they deserve more.

The Federal Government is currently in the process of reviewing politicians’ pay and perks. The idea is that many of the existing benefits such as the electoral allowance will be eliminated, and others such as travel more heavily restricted, in order to make the arrangements more transparent and the politicians more accountable. In return, it is proposed that the base pay for politicians will be increased from about $135 000 to around $170 000. Now that’s a big increase, more than the annual income of a substantial number of Australians, but is it actually something that we should be whinging about?

Every time we hear the politicians are getting a pay rise, or are looking for one, the immediate reaction is to howl them down with snarls of derision for already being paid more than they are worth. But what are we really complaining about? Surely, what really bothers us is not how much they are paid, but whether or not we believe they are giving us good value for money in the service they deliver. Surely, we should whinge about the performance, not the pay packet. Isn’t the idea that our politicians are not up to scratch the thing that really bothers us? And on that score it is fairly easy to judge that at least some of them are only there to make up the numbers. But that doesn’t mean all politicians should be considered to be in that category.

It can be a tough demanding job, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and if we want good people to do the job, they must be paid at least enough that they will not be spending all their time wondering how they will pay the bills at the end of the week. They need to spend their time worrying about running the country, not worrying about whether or not they can pay for the groceries. If we want good capable people to take on the great responsibility of running the country, we must be prepared to pay proper salaries which reflect both the demands and the responsibilities of the position.

After that, it’s up to us to make sure that we actually vote for the right people to live up to our expectations.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

More Than Just A Celebrity Story

It seems that every time there is any kind of bad publicity or scandal any where near the Royal Family, Australia’s Republicans seize the opportunity to question the relevance of the Monarchy. Why, they ask, should Australia have as its head of state a foreign Monarch whose own family are so frequently the cause for embarrassment, rather than one of our own citizens? Why should we persist with old fashioned arrangements which are relics of the colonial era, and an Empire which no longer exists? Isn’t it time that Australia finally cut the apron strings and stood on its own feet, dispensed with the Monarchy, and became a republic?

So often, these are the questions wheeled out when there is any sort of adverse media coverage of the Royal Family. In contrast, the official announcement of the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton seems to have left the Republicans without much to say. Perhaps they don’t see any mileage in trying to rain on the parade, and are reluctant to risk any kind of backlash, but it is interesting to stop for a moment and ask ourselves whether this Royal Engagement is of any special significance for Australians, or if it is simply another celebrity story to fill the pages of the tabloid magazines.

While Australia remains a Constitutional Monarchy, the Royal Family will remain relevant, perhaps not so much in themselves and their daily activities, but in the simple fact that they are there at all. For Australians, the relevance is in the constitutional arrangements which have served us well since the beginning of our nation. Our Constitutional Monarchy has provided us with a level of political stability and security which is matched by very few other countries. It means that our politicians are subject to constraints which prevent them from becoming despots, and that even the Prime Minister is simply the first among equals rather than a power unto him or herself.

There may well come a day when Australians decide to become a Republic, but it would be foolish in the extreme to do so simply for the sake of it, or because it is seen as some sort of declaration of independence. We already have our independence, and we have a constitutional system which works very well. If we are to contemplate changing that system it is imperative that we make very sure that the new system we create is actually better than the old one that we tear down. Until such a system is devised, there is no sound reason why the Constitutional Monarchy cannot continue to serve the Australian people.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


It’s always fun to make up new words, and it must be even more fun to see those words enter the mainstream vernacular to such an extent that they receive official recognition in the Oxford Dictionary. Of course, language is a living and evolving construct and it’s only natural that new words will spring out of new technologies, new discoveries, and new social phenomena. Many of these words are born out of practical necessity, some by sheer accident, and some out of a healthy sense of humour. To celebrate this continuing genesis of new terminology, the people at the Oxford American Dictionary add new words to the official list each year, and celebrate the occasion by selecting one in particular to be honoured as the “word of the year”.

Some of the new words that were in the running for this year’s award included “retweeet”, referring to the act of forwarding a twitter message to other users of that social network; “vuvuzela”, after the World Cup in South Africa introduced the world to this native musical instrument, although “musical” might be a bit of a stretch; and “bankster”, a combination of “banker” and “gangster” which requires no explanation, and might actually be redundant anyway. Then there is “Gleek” to describe a fan of the television show “Glee”; “webisode”, referring to television show episodes or spin-offs which are made specifically for the internet; and “Tea Party”, which is of course the political movement calling for tea with scones and jam to be reintroduced into American society.
But the winner of the Word Of The Year for 2010 is…. “refudiate”. Defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “refudiate: verb used loosely to mean "reject": she called on them to refudiate the proposal to build a mosque. [origin — blend of refute and repudiate], it is Sarah Palin who is responsible for bringing this word to popular attention. The Oxford editors pointed out that although Ms. Palin will be forever remembered for using this word, she is “by no means the first person to speak or write it”. Which only proves one thing: Apparentley, although Sarah Palin did actually say something memorable after all, it still wasn’t an original thought.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Smoke, But Not Yet Fire

How interesting it is to see reports emerging today questioning whether there are knives being sharpened in the Federal Labor Party for Julia Gillard. Melbourne Age reporter Katherine Murphy has written today that there appears to be some internal friction between the forces of the New South Wales Right Faction and the Prime Minister’s office. It comes in the wake of Party Secretary Karl Bitar’s address to the National Press Club this week which blamed the election result on campaign mistakes made by the Prime Minister, along with a perception of disunity. As I remarked at the time, the twist is that he is himself one of the reasons for that perception, and this week’s speech didn’t do anything to subdue that appraisal. Following that speech, another prominent figure from the Right, Graham Richardson, although now retired, has gone into print with comments further undermining confidence in the Prime Minister and the members of her office.

Katherine Murphy asks in her report “are we watching the beginning of yet another destructive power struggle?” Now, Ms Murphy may be seeing smoke where there is not yet a fire, but it is never a good idea to simply ignore the smoke. Is it really possible that the very same power players who tore down Kevin Rudd are now preparing to do the same to Julia Gillard? Surely they could not be that indifferent to the lessons of the recent past? It was the so called “faceless men” led by Karl Bitar and Mark Arbib who have dragged the party into ill repute over the manner in which they dealt with the problem of Kevin Rudd’s falling popularity. It was those same men who actually drove the disunity that they now claim has done them so much damage. But so far, all the evidence seems to suggest that they have not learned from their mistakes, and refuse to accept any responsibility for their own contributions to the party’s troubles. By that reasoning, it is entirely possible that they may indeed be thinking the unthinkable, and preparing to turn against their chosen leader. But if they do, it will only serve to confirm that they really have lost the plot altogether.

After all, if there is a problem with the Prime Minister’s leadership, these clowns only have themselves to blame because they were the ones who put her there in the first place.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Not So Common Sense

The federal Attorney General Robert McClelland has released a consultation paper on the draft Family Law Amendment (Family Violence) Bill, which once again tackles the impossible minefield of child custody arrangements. It’s not so long ago that the Howard Government introduced shared parenting measures which were intended to ensure that where possible children of separated couples would have an ongoing relationship with both parents. That law provided for equal joint custody to be used as the starting point for consideration by the court in making its deliberations. It was in principle a good idea, but there have been a number of problems in practice. In some extreme cases, children have died at the hands of violent or unstable fathers after the court insisted on shared custody. But even in less tragic cases, there are difficulties.

One difficulty was the assumption that shared care was supposed to mean that equal joint custody was supposed to be the automatic default, when that was not really the intention of the plan. When there is shared custody, there can often be logistical problems with children shuttled back and forth between houses with no sense of having a stable home. The court has been asked to balance the protection of a child’s safety against the presumption that the child should be entitled to a meaningful relationship with both parents, while under the present legislation both aims appear to have equal weighting even if they are in conflict. Under the proposed new laws it would be clear that the protection of the child’s safety should be given greater weight, although you have to wonder why that was not always the case. Interestingly, the new bill stops short of placing “the child’s best interests” as the highest priority, describing the proposal as “radical”. I find it difficult to understand what is so radical about something that should be plain old common sense.

Of course, you know what they say about common sense…. It isn’t actually so common.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Campaign Mistakes Were The Symptoms, Not The Disease

It appears that the Federal Labor Party is still experiencing a certain level of denial over its near death experience at the recent election. Party General Secretary and Campaign Director Karl Bitar yesterday addressed the National Press Club delivering his assessment of what went wrong. In his view, the electoral disaster was brought about by a combination of the following factors. 1. There was a widely held expectation that Labor would win easily, allowing many who would normally be loyal supporters to exercise a protest vote without worrying about the outcome. 2. There was disappointment over the performance of the first term of government which he said had resulted from voters holding excessively high expectations. 3. There was a perception of disunity prompted by the internal leaks about cabinet discussions and the intrusion into the campaign by former leader Mark Latham. And 4. The campaign itself stumbled on three specific occasions, which were the so called “real Julia” debacle, the embarrassing climate change citizens’ assembly proposal, and the promise to complete the Epping to Parramatta rail line which was widely seen as a pathetic and cynical grab for votes.

While all of these factors did indeed play a significant part in the election catastrophe, it is plain that they are in fact the symptoms, not the disease. If voters had high expectations of the Rudd government, who was it that raised those expectations? Who was it that promised to deliver an education revolution, fix hospitals, and rescue the climate? Who was it that not only failed to make good on these promises, but also botched their efforts to rescue the economy by building school halls that were too small, installing insulation which caused houses to burn down, and mailed out cheques to dead people? If there was a perception of disunity, might that not have been because the party had just executed the overthrow of its own leader just weeks before calling the election? That was no perception; that was real disunity, exposed for the world to witness. Blaming Mark Latham is an act of scape-goating that would embarrass even Pontius Pilate.

There appears to be absolutely no acknowledgement whatsoever that many of the voting public felt cheated of their right to vote either for or against the man they believed they had elected to be Prime Minister. There seems to be no recognition that Kevin Rudd’s popularity began to fall only after acting on the policy advice of the very same individuals who later blamed it all on him and got rid of him. Now, I’m not saying that Mr. Rudd had no problems or that he would have necessarily won the election. There’s no real way of ever knowing that. But the fact is that a significant number of Australians were left with a disgusting taste in their mouths over that whole affair and many of them would have changed their vote because of it. And yet, Karl Bitar can only point to what he considers “mistakes” in the campaign, despite the fact that he was the campaign director.

Or was that somebody else’s fault too?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Whatever They Want, Whenever They Want

For years I have known that Australian bank mortgage contracts are not really contracts at all. They are more like documents of indentured servitude. If you bother to read the small print, as I did once many moons ago, you will discover that there is usually a clause which says something like “the bank may vary any of the terms and conditions at its discretion at any time without notice.” It effectively means that while you have signed up to a set of conditions which will bind you, committing you to pay on time, to pay certain fees under certain circumstances, and so on, there is no such constraint on the bank. The so called contract does not commit the bank to anything, because that wonderful escape clause basically means that you have agreed to let them get away with doing whatever they want, whenever they want, without consultation or recourse.

When it comes to the standard variable rate home loan, we are usually fully aware that the bank reserves the right to change the interest rate as it sees fit. Even though we might not like it, we know that’s what we have signed up for. However, even that arrangement is now being called into question with the revelation that Australian home loans are almost unique in the world. It turns out that in some countries, most notably the United States of America, the “standard” home loan is usually a fixed rate long term loan. Not only that, but it is also usually a non-recourse loan, meaning that if the worst occurs and the bank is forced to take your house away you are at least protected from owing the bank any shortfall that might occur if the house is worth less than the debt.

Although the American approach sounds more appealing than ours, it is also unusual. In fact, the most prevalent form of home loan around the world is known as the “adjustable rate” loan. In this version of a variable rate loan the contract binds not only the customer but also the bank to an interest rate which is determined by adding a specific margin to a benchmark interest rate. For example, in Britain a typical home loan interest rate might be set at the Bank Of England Base Rate plus 2.25%. If a similar scheme existed here it would have prevented the Commonwealth Bank from making its controversial decision to almost double the Reserve Bank increase, saving their customers a whole lot of anguish, and the bank a savage public relations backlash.

With so much discussion in the past week about reform of banking regulations, and improving competition among banks, there is now a proposal to introduce this form of lending here in Australia. Along with restrictions on excessive fees and charges, this is a measure which would help to give Australian bank customers a better deal. So why has Australia been the odd one out for so long? Why have these “adjustable rate” loans not been offered to Australian customers before? The answer can only be that, until now, the big banks have been able to get away with doing whatever they please, whenever they please.

It even says so, right there in the fine print of their loan contracts.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Thanks For Not Mugging Me Anymore.

Welcome to Bank Bashers Anonymous. My name is Leon, and I am a bank basher. In my own defence, I would point out that the banks do seem to go out of their way to encourage us to take aim at them. Slagging the banks might be a cheap shot at an easy target, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t actually have any impact upon them at all. They really don’t care, in fact if anything they seem to derive a perverse kind of enjoyment out of it. Let’s face it, with $22 billion profit between the big four and with their executives getting paid more money than a lotto winner, they’re the ones who are laughing all the way to the, well er bank.

Of course, they do provide so much ammunition for the humble bank basher such as myself that it is impossible to ignore. As I have stated countless times before there is nothing wrong with any business making a profit, but in the case of the banks it is the context in which those profits are made which really gets up people’s noses. It’s the unjustified fees and charges, it’s the decisions to increase mortgage interest rates over and above the Reserve Bank official rates, and it’s the willingness to destroy the livelihoods of Australian families by retrenching staff and replacing them with offshore contractors.

No wonder both the government and the opposition are now promising to do something about it, and the first cab off the rank is apparently a move by the federal Treasurer to outlaw mortgage exit fees. But wait a minute! Here come the banks, apparently preparing to launch a pre-emptive strike by abolishing such fees of their own choice. Presumably, this is a move intended to stave of the threat of having tighter regulation imposed upon them, and if it means that these unfair and unethical fees disappear that’s very good news. But it shouldn’t mean that they get let off the hook by the government.

There is no justification for these exit fees, and there never has been. They are nothing more than a mechanism to prevent customers switching to another bank or financial institution, and as such are clearly anti-competitive. They are also clearly nonsensical. If I borrowed $100 from you and promised to pay you back at the end of the month, only to find myself in a position to pay you back sooner I would not expect you to charge me extra for repaying my debt ahead of the due date. And yet that is exactly what the banks do by charging up to $1000 to any customer who has the audacity to pay back the money he owes the bank ahead of time.

This ludicrous practice cannot even be justified by the spurious claim that the bank needs to cover the cost of discharging the mortgage. Aside from the usual legal costs which would apply no matter when the loan was finalised, it is only going to take a staff member a few minutes to enter the data into the computer system, sign a few papers, and file it all away. Unless it is done by the C. E. O. himself, the cost of the employee’s wages will be something like $30 or so. If the banks really are about to abandon this vile practice, it is no more admirable than the mugger who has finally decided to stop beating you over the head.

That’s why, regardless of whether or not the banks act of their own volition, there still needs to be appropriate regulation to ensure that they never do it again.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Maintaining Safety Must Come First

The uncontained engine failure on Qantas flight QF32 yesterday is the latest in a growing list of serious incidents to have affected Qantas flights in the last few years. It is obviously premature to make any assumptions about what may have caused yesterday’s failure, but the obvious question has to be whether concerns about cost cutting and offshore maintenance have any substance. Is it just a coincidence that, at the same time that the Australian Licenced Aircraft Engineers Association has raised the alarm about reduced staff numbers and outsourcing of maintenance work, things seem to have started to go wrong for Qantas? Or is the airline industry, and not just Qantas, now under too much pressure to cut costs, and as a result cutting corners?

It’s a fact that Qantas has reduced its staff numbers so that less maintenance work is done in house and more is done by outside contractors. It’s true that this arrangement means sometimes relying on the quality standards of foreign companies operating in jurisdictions which might not have the same regulatory standards as our own. There are many good reasons for keeping jobs in Australia instead of outsourcing to foreign countries. Preserving Australian jobs not only helps Australian workers and their families, it is good for the community, it preserves our national skills base and it is good for the economy. It’s even good for business, even if they are sometimes too short-sighted to see it.

If by chance it also means better safety standards then the argument becomes overwhelming.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

What’s the difference between a banker and a mobster?

While many of us have been criticising the banks for years, and while the banks have always appeared to be quite happy to provide plenty of ammunition, the events of this week might just have provided the proverbial last straw. At a time when household budgets are already stretched by increasing utilities prices, the big banks have stunned the nation by first announcing record profits, then following up with the Commonwealth Bank deciding to almost double the official interest rate increase. On top of that Westpac has confirmed plans to reduce staff by as many as 6000 people, roughly one job axed for every million dollars of the profit just announced. It’s not the size of the profits that is the problem. The problem is the callous disregard for customers and employees who are bled dry to create those profits.

Profits are good, necessary and healthy. Profits create prosperity. Profits expand the economy, pay for jobs, and contribute to taxes. A big profit should be welcomed as good news. Instead, bank profits have come to be seen as a sign of corporate greed for the simple reason that in spite of these record profits, the banks still consider it necessary to destroy people’s jobs, impose unjustifiable fees and charges on their customers, and arbitrarily increase mortgage rates over and above the adjustments made by the Reserve Bank. Despite making record profits, banks keep telling us how tough it is for them to source offshore funds. Despite making record profits banks insist that you and I must pay more. It’s the same sort of behaviour that you would expect from Tony Soprano, only their clothes are more expensive.

What’s the difference between a banker and a mobster? Nobody likes a banker.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Worthwhile Investment.

The announcement by Prime Minister Julia Gillard of a commitment to spend $500 million on building 2000 schools should have been greeted with a chorus of approval. Unfortunately, the schools are to be built in Indonesia and so the chorus was singing a different song, with widespread public criticism of the plan. Why spend so much money on fixing another country’s schools when so many of our own schools are in desperate need of better resources, repairs and maintenance? Not to mention our public hospitals and our public housing? Surely, the argument goes, charity should begin at home, and only when we can completely provide for our own needs should we seek to provide for others.

Unfortunately, this argument misses a few very important points. First, foreign aid is an investment, not a gift. The money that we spend assisting other countries in our region helps to foster stability and improves our national security. It helps to facilitate trade agreements providing Australian businesses with greater opportunities. And in many cases money spent on foreign aid is actually spent on Australian contractors delivering the assistance. But in the case of the Indonesian schools there is another even more important bonus. Investing in the education of Indonesian children helps to fill a vacuum which is often otherwise filled by radical fundamentalist schools such as the one run by Abu Bakar Bashir where many of the Bali bombers received their indoctrination.

That’s an investment which is worth making.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Banks Must Recognise Their Debt To Society

By the time this is broadcast we will not only know the winner of the Melbourne Cup, but we will also know whether or not the Reserve Bank has decided to increase interest rates. At the time of writing, the widely held expectation is that the Bank will leave the 4.5% cash rate untouched, but the much more important question remains just what will the big retail banks do in response? In recent weeks they have been making more noises about the increasing costs of funding and the supposed need to set interest rates independently of the Reserve. While treasurer Wayne Swan has asked for the 31st time for the banks to behave responsibly and exercise restraint, shadow treasurer Joe Hockey has attracted some flak of his own for daring to suggest that the parliament should do something to act against banks colluding on interest rates.

Much of the criticism of Joe Hockey centred around an assumption that he was proposing some sort of reintroduction of regulated interest rates, which is not actually what he said. But interestingly, the Daily Telegraph has today published the results of a survey by Essential Research which shows that 82% of respondents are in favour of the government forcing banks to keep their interest rate increases in line with the Reserve Bank. 91% supported regulations which would restrict fees to no more than the actual cost of services, and 84% wanted the salaries of bank executives to be capped.

The fact is that none of these measures is likely ever to happen because re-regulation of the financial markets is not on the agenda of either major party. But there is a significant difference between that kind of market regulation, and reasonable, effective regulations pertaining to corporate governance and marketplace behaviour. It is that type of appropriate regulation which is supposed to be designed to prevent the kind of excesses and stupidity which occurred elsewhere in the world and contributed to the Global Financial Crisis. And that same regulation should protect consumers from being gouged.

But there is another reason why there is room for greater supervision of the banks. While it is only right and proper for private enterprises, including banks, to make their own commercial decisions, the fact is that banks are more than just private enterprises. They also provide an essential service which is not only an integral part of the economy, but forms the fundamental platform for our economy. Moreover, during the Global Financial Crisis the taxpayer stepped in to provide a guarantee for our banks. They now have a firm basis from which to conclude that they can always rely upon the taxpayer to underwrite their existence. On that basis alone it is clear that banks now have a duty to consider not only their own interests and the interests of their shareholders, but to also to consider the national interest.

They owe us all at least that much.