Friday, April 23, 2010

Every Dark Cloud…

They say that every dark cloud has a silver lining, although the huge cloud which has descended over Rugby League as a result of the Melbourne Storm salary cap scandal threatens to wreak more damage than any other incident in a sport which has never been short of controversy. Not only does it bring into question the future of the Melbourne franchise, it also raises questions about the probity of all the clubs, about the administrative structure of the competition, and about the salary cap system itself. Perhaps most importantly of all, it raises questions about the duty towards the fans and supporters of the game to act honestly and to play fairly.

One of the greatest things about sport is its ability to bring people together, to strengthen communities, to promote the ideals of teamwork and mateship, while at the same time offering the opportunity for individuals to test the limits of their talents, to achieve greatness, and to become examples and role models to others in the community. To be, in a word, heroes. And now this. The disappointment for fans is overwhelming, and although it might be a bit old fashioned and even a bit naïve, I would like to think that players, clubs, and managers have some sort of obligation to the fans who are after all the people who buy the tickets and spend the money that makes it all possible.

For that reason, the recent discussions about restructuring the administration of the competition so that it is run by an independent commission are now more relevant than ever. There has always been an ethical dilemma around the idea that a team can be owned by a corporation which also owns a half share in the competition itself, along with a major chunk of the media which covers the game. While that in itself isn’t to blame for the salary cap fraud, it has never been an ideal way to run the competition.

Now is the time to seize the opportunity to reshape the administration of the game, starting with an independent commission. Now is also the time to revisit the operation of the salary cap system, which is obviously intended to ensure that less wealthy clubs have the opportunity to remain competitive. Unfortunately, it would seem that all it has achieved is to drive the money out of sight and under the table. It is clear that the present arrangements are not working as they are intended, and now is the time to consider either a player draft, or some other alternative.

If there is a silver lining in this very dark Storm cloud, it is that. It is the opportunity to restructure, reform, and reinvigorate the administration of what is supposed to be “the greatest game of all”.

Our Rights Are Already Protected.

With all of the attention directed towards the Council Of Australian Governments agreement on health reform over the past few days it would be easy to overlook the Federal Government’s announcement on the proposal for a Charter or Bill of Rights. After spending almost $3 million, and almost 3 years, on a public consultation process headed by Father Frank Brennan, a process which many people were led to believe would result in the creation of such a charter, the Federal Attorney General Robert McClelland this week rejected the inquiry’s recommendation for a Charter to be established. Instead, your human rights and mine will continue to be safeguarded by our elected politicians, aided by a new parliamentary committee which is supposed to assess proposed legislation for compliance with existing human rights obligations.

In making the announcement he said, "A legislative charter of rights is not included in the framework as the government believes that the enhancement of human rights should be done in a way that, as far as possible, unites rather than divides our community." The division to which he was referring arises from the view that a Bill of Rights which constrains the powers of Parliament would see a shift in power from our elected representatives, who by nature of their position remain accountable directly to the people, to unelected judicial officers, enslaving the Parliament to the whims of the senior members of the legal profession. Critics of the concept of a Charter of Rights also expressed the view that a Charter which defines human rights also risks limiting them.

While it certainly sounds appealing to have a Bill or a Charter which would guarantee such things as freedom of speech, freedom of movement, the right to fair and just treatment, the right to education, the right to decent healthcare and so on, the reality is that Australians already take these rights for granted. Even though they may not be specifically protected by any codified Bill of Rights, they have been and remain protected by our democratic process itself, along with the established principles of Common Law, stretching all the way back to the Magna Carta and King Henry I’s Charter of Liberties. While the clauses of those documents have been almost entirely replaced by modern law, the basic principles of fairness and just treatment remain at the heart of our legal system.

Our society operates on the simple assumption that everything is permitted, unless it is prohibited. This means that our human rights should be considered to be automatic. We are already free to speak our minds, to travel about the county, to seek our fortune, and to care for our families as we see fit. The purpose of a Bill of Rights would be to prevent politicians from creating bad laws which deny us our rights. But we have already seen that governments who pass bad laws will inevitably pay the penalty at the polls and lose office. And more to the point, the idea that passing a law would prevent bad laws from being passed ignores the simple fact that any government in a position to force through repugnant legislation could also force the repeal of any such Charter of Rights.

In that sense, a Charter of Rights would really provide only the illusion of protection.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The First Step Of A Journey Of A Thousand Miles

Are you running through the streets celebrating and cheering the astonishing revolution in health and public hospitals? Are you throwing hour hands in the air and dancing a jig, surrounded by cheering crowds with streamers and confetti raining down all around? No? Haven’t you heard? Saint Kevin has single handedly saved us all from the tragedy of a crumbling public hospital system. Well, perhaps not single handedly, since all of the Premiers and Chief Ministers have all signed up to make it happen. Well, almost all. There is one Premier who has refused to be saved, condemning his constituents to continue to depend on the existing hospital services. That’s the Premier of Western Australia, Colin Barnett, who by the strangest coincidence also happens to be the only Liberal Party Leader in government.

Perhaps it is overly cynical to suggest that the decision not to sign is motivated purely by politics, and a desire to derail the success of the Labor Leaders. The truth is that a genuine philosophical difference does exist between the parties, and the surrender of any State power to the Commonwealth is a move which cannot and should not be taken lightly. However, it has proven to be the one fly in the ointment for Kevin Rudd’s grand reform of health and hospitals. Without that one signature, the Prime Minister cannot truly claim to have achieved the agreement he was seeking. But equally, it cannot be said that he has failed either. With the weight of the other States and Territories aligned with the Commonwealth, the fact is that the Western Australian Premier will ultimately be forced to come to an agreement because there really is no other option.

While it has been Kevin Rudd who has forced the issue of health reform, with the promises made at the last election leading to the Health And Hospital Reform Commission, and culminating in the Council Of Australian Governments agreement, it would never have happened if the Premiers and Chief Ministers remained intransigent. It is a matter of record that New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally has played in integral role in bringing this agreement about. Aside from being the Chair of the cohort of State and Territory leaders, it has been reported that it was Kristina Keneally who negotiated the deal with Victorian Premier John Brumby. In fact, she was credited in one report as having “dug him out of a hole” after his previous reluctance to sign up for the change to the GST arrangements. Perhaps that’s why the Prime Minister appeared to be a lot more friendly to the New South Wales Premier than he has on previous occasions.

But now that the backslapping and mutual congratulations are behind us, not to mention the rampant public celebrations in the streets, the real question remains: does this agreement actually deliver the genuine reform that we were promised, and which we all know we desperately need? If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, we won’t really know for at least four years, but the significance of what has been decided here should not be underestimated. The financial underpinnings have been put into place to pave the way for the operational reforms that are needed, such as more hospital beds, as well as better access to community based care, mental health care, and aged care.

In that respect, it is the first step of a journey of a thousand miles.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

He Who Lives By The Sword…

It has been said for centuries that “he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword”, and it seems that despite modern civilization, the rule of law, and the official rejection of vengeance and vigilantism, it still holds perfectly true. The only surprise about the fact that the notorious thug Carl Williams has met an unpleasant end, is that it was done inside the maximum security wing of a maximum security prison. Other than that, nobody would be particularly surprised, and I suspect very few would be saddened by his death.

At the same time, the recent debate about television and the media in general supposedly glamorizing or glorifying criminals and their crimes has sprung up again in the wake of his death. Carl Williams was the central character in the original “Underbelly” television series, and many people outside of Melbourne might well have never heard of him if it wasn’t for the on screen dramatization of his life and crimes. But does that mean that it is appropriate to abandon scheduled programming and televise what amounts to tribute to such a figure?

There’s no doubt that the event is big news, and it is only to be expected that it would dominate the evening bulletins. But a number of people have expressed some discomfort with the manner in which Channel 9 has appeared to be opportunistically cashing in on these events to shamelessly promote the new “Underbelly” series. So is it appropriate for 9 to milk it for all it’s worth, as appears to be the case, or is it morally and ethically wrong? Is it promoting and glorifying the evil deeds of an evil man?

Personally, I would have preferred to watch the scheduled episode of “The Mentalist”, but about a million people watched the Carl Williams program, so it would seem that a great many people wanted to see what it was all about. People have always been fascinated by evil. Crime and violence has always been a popular form of entertainment, whether between the pages of a detective novel, or on the movie screen, or of course in our living rooms on television. It is a legitimate form of entertainment, and factual stories are also a matter for legitimate interest.

I can only repeat what I said before Carl Williams was killed, and that is that far from glamorizing the bad guys, these stories are morality tales. They have no happy endings, as Carl Williams discovered at about 1pm yesterday. Just because we watch them, doesn’t mean we want to be them. And I suspect that anybody who does is already a sandwich short of the picnic anyway, and watching a show like “Underbelly” isn’t going to be the cause of their life choices.

And as for whether the television coverage is responsible or appropriate, the audience will decide as it always does. If Channel 9 crosses the mine and goes too far, the audience will turn against them. So far, that hasn’t happened.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Time for Agreement On Health

Well, after all of the discussion and debate, the campaigning and the critiquing, crunch time has arrived. Today is the day that the health reform debate has finally arrived at the Council Of Australian Governments meeting of Premiers, Chief Ministers and the Prime Minister, and it is expected to be a long day. In fact, there is some suggestion that the Prime Minister is prepared allow the meeting to last several days if that’s what it takes to reach an agreement. That’s because failure to reach an agreement is the worst possible outcome.

First and foremost, it would be the worst possible outcome for the Australian people who depend upon a first class public hospital system, which for all its faults is among the best in the world. Unfortunately, it won’t stay that way without fundamental change. It has been obvious for some time that out public hospitals have been struggling to deliver the service that we all expect and deserve. A combination of poor planning over the long term, cumbersome bureaucracies, and spiraling costs means that hospitals are just not equipped to meet expectations.

Secondly, it would be the worst possible outcome for the States because the bottom line is that the States simply cannot afford to meet their commitments. With the cost of hospital services increasing more rapidly than State government revenue, the day will come when the States simply run out of money. In about thirty or forty years from now, health costs will exceed the total State budget, leaving nothing for anything else. Obviously, the damage would begin to be noticed well before that point, and some would say that it has already become apparent.

Thirdly, failure to reach an agreement would be the worst possible outcome for Kevin Rudd. Already his big reform package for the environment, that is the Emissions Trading Scheme, has been shot down by a hostile senate. Failure to make good on his promise to “fix” public hospitals is something that he cannot afford in the lead up to an election later this year. Of course, he could blame the States and go through with his alternative plan to hold a referendum seeking authority form the people to force a takeover of the hospital system, but that is an option with its own problems. Most importantly, a referendum without opposition support is most likely to fail, leaving the Prime Minister nothing to show for his time in office so far, aside from a string of failures. Or at least, that’s the way many people would look at it.

For all those reasons and more, it is essential that there is an agreement. That being the case, we can only hope that they actually come up with a good one.