Friday, June 18, 2010

Throwing Away The Key

A senior judge has called for a review of bail and sentencing laws because he believes that too many people are locked up in jail and too much money is spent on keeping them there. Justice Reg Blanch is the Chief Judge of the District Court, and was previously the Director of Public Prosecutions, so he has a wealth of experience and knowledge backing up his opinions. In a speech to Legal Aid lawyers at a conference he claimed that having record numbers of prisoners in jail didn’t necessarily make the state a safer place. He claimed that New South Wales has lost the balance between the need to protect the community and the cost of providing that protection.

More than 10 000 people are currently held in New South Wales prisons, and while it would be easy to dismiss that as an indication that law enforcement agencies are succeeding in the fight against crime, about one quarter of those prisoners have not yet been convicted of a crime. That’s an awful lot of people locked up waiting for justice, and in part is due to the introduction of presumption against bail provisions intended to reduce the risk of violent suspects reoffending while on bail. Justice Blanch maintains that while offences are sometimes committed on bail, “it cannot be said to be a common occurrence”.

Also bulking up the prison population numbers are standard non parole periods, mandatory disqualification for some driving offences, the definition of some sexual assaults, and a tendency to wards longer sentences across the board. Justice Blanch believes that all of these factors should be subject to a “calm review” to determine if the aim of protecting society can be achieved at a lesser cost. Of course, the financial cost is substantial, but the human cost is also enormous. Justice Blanch points out that longer sentences have resulted in former prisoners having “extreme difficulty” reintegrating into society, and that the cancellation of driver’s licences had led to the jailing of drivers who could not be considered dangerous.

Justice Blanch made a comparison with the State of Victoria, where prison budget is half that of New South Wales, and suggested that “there is no greater level of safety in New South Wales and that the level of crime is no less as a result of the increase in sentences”. In other words, locking up more people and throwing away the key, doesn’t necessarily mean that the community is a safer or a better place. While it is essential that the community is protected by an effective justice system, it is important to remember that the measure of success is not how many prisoners are locked up, but whether fewer crimes are committed.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Buck Stops At The Top

Yesterday I suggested that the growing disconnect between Kevin Rudd and the Australian public was perhaps reflected by a similar disconnect between the Prime Minister and his own colleagues. In recent weeks it has increasingly appeared as if the Prime Minister and a substantial chunk of his own government have been at cross purposes. When senior Ministers have attempted to promote a more conciliatory approach to the mining industry, the Prime Minister has maintained his bluster about not backing down. Yesterday I mentioned Wayne Swan, Craig Emmerson, Martin Ferguson, and Simon Crean all, to one extent or another, having spoken in favour of a meaningful process of consultation, while the rhetoric of the Prime Minister himself seems to be firmly opposed to giving any ground whatsoever.

Today, it has been reported that the Trade Minister Simon Crean, a senior Cabinet Minister and a former leader of the party, has in effect asked his own bureaucrats to keep him informed of government policy because the Prime Minister has displayed a tendency to keep him in the dark. Last month, he addressed a gathering of executive officers of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and urged them to establish closer connections with their colleagues in other departments so that he could be kept better informed. It was reported that this request had been prompted by the embarrassment of learning of important policy decisions from the media rather than from his own Cabinet colleagues. “Little surprises”, such as the decision to put the emissions trading scheme onto the back burner, or the response to the Henry Review of taxation. It has been reported that Simon Crean has asked for no more such “little surprises”.

Amidst ongoing speculation about Kevin Rudd’s leadership, admittedly much of it driven by the media more than anything else, such an admission of the lack of communication and consultation between the Prime Minister and his Cabinet Ministers is hardly reassuring. And let’s face it, some of those Cabinet Ministers have a lot more experience in government than Mr. Rudd does, so at the very least it is unwise to ignore the benefit of their collective wisdom, not to mention just plain rude. The fact is that Simon Crean’s experience, his level headed approach to policy, and his well proven negotiating ability probably make him better qualified to be Prime Minister than anyone else in his party. Keeping him out of the loop can only result in the sort of policy screw ups that have destroyed the Prime Minister’s once unassailable popularity.

Mr. Rudd has long had the reputation for micro-managing, to the point of being considered a control freak. Such things are tolerated in politics as long as they are successful, but the downside is that when everything starts to crumble, as it is now, there is really only one person to blame. As Mr. Rudd was once so fond of saying, the buck stops with him.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mixed Messages Damaging The Government

Is it just me or is the Federal Government sending out mixed signals? It seems that every time that Craig Emerson or Wayne Swan says that a process of consultation and negotiation with the mining industry is underway, Kevin Rudd pops up somewhere declaring that he will not budge. When someone like Trade Minister Simon Crean says that perhaps it might have been better if there had been greater consultation before the announcement of the tax, Kevin Rudd comes forward demanding that the mining companies cough up their fair share. Every time someone like Resources Minister Martin Ferguson says that when it comes to the tax “one size doesn’t necessarily fit all”, Kevin Rudd rushes out to maintain that he his holding firm. It’s almost like a bad parody of “good cop, bad cop”, and it would be as funny as a Leslie Neilson movie if it wasn’t so serious.

I could be wrong, but this hint of a disconnect between Kevin Rudd and his own party would seem to be consistent with the much more obvious disconnect between the Prime Minister and the public. The plummeting opinion polls indicate clearly that people have taken a sudden dislike to Kevin Rudd, and the only real question is “why?” Many believe that this death-dive in the polls indicates that people no longer feel that they know what Mr. Rudd actually stands for. Having backed away from the “greatest moral challenge of our time” because it appeared to be no longer politically expedient, the Prime Minister has increasingly been seen as a politician who has the unique ability to start with what most people recognize as a good idea and turn it into a disaster. For examples, just consider the school halls, the roof insulation, and the latest blockbuster, a tax reform which is supposed to make people better off, but instead everybody is fearful will destroy the economy.

At the same time there has been increasing speculation that Kevin Rudd’s leadership might be in doubt, with reports of rumours of rumblings within the party regularly making the front pages, and equally regularly being denied by the heir apparent, Julia Gillard. The problem with repeated denials is that at some point people stop believing them and start asking if where there is smoke there might also be fire. Kevin Rudd’s leadership is getting closer to that point, but the catch for the Labor Party is that they might also be at the point where changing the leader wouldn’t make any difference anyway. John Howard crossed that point of no return about a year before he lost office. Prior to that, a leadership change might possibly have saved the coalition, and forever altered Peter Costello’s Curriculum Vitae. Similarly, I suspect that changing leaders now would not necessarily improve the government’s fortunes.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. But if it does, I’m not convinced that Julia Gillard would be the only contender. Watch this space.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sticks And Stones

I once wrote that half the trouble in the world is caused by people who choose to give offense, and the other half is caused by those who choose to be offended. It’s a way of looking at things which can allow an individual to ignore the ignorant and unjustified insults of others by recognizing that it is the perpetrator and not the target who is diminished by such attacks. If, on the other hand we choose to take the bait and rise up in righteous indignation, we may run the risk of becoming the very thing we oppose. We risk becoming just as intolerant as those who revile us.

However, that doesn’t mean that we should always ignore the taunts and insults which might come our way. Sometimes, it becomes necessary to say “no” to ignorance and prejudice. When Andrew Johns referred to Greg Inglis as a “black so and so”, it could have been taken in the context in which it was no doubt intended. It could have been accepted as nothing more than boisterous talk among mates in private, as they built up a common purpose to defeat their opponents on the sports field. These were not public remarks, and were not intended to become public remarks.

The words might not have even been intended to be racist, but for at least one individual present, that’s how they were interpreted. Timana Tahu decided to stand up for what he believes in and he left the New South Wales State of Origin training camp, sparking a controversy which has opened old wounds and led to fresh allegations of ingrained racism in rugby league. Some have accused him of being precious and of causing trouble, while others have admired his decision and supported his actions. The truth is that it was a decision which must have taken courage, and which Timana Tahu had every right to make.

It is said that sticks and stones can break our bones but words can never harm us, and that might sometimes be a useful comfort. Equally they say that actions speak louder than words, but the true power of words should never be ignored. It is words which make us who and what we are. It is words which define the way that we think, which in turn determines how we act. The power to speak is what separates us from the animal kingdom, and it is the power of words which creates the lives we lead. Words actually do have the power to change the world. That’s why it is important that we choose our words carefully.

And that’s why Timana Tahu’s decision to make a point and walk away will achieve more than if he had simply chosen not to be offended.