Friday, August 13, 2010

It’s A Cunning Plan…

Forget about the Chaser! Political parties are now on the lookout for the marauding Mark Latham as he prowls about the election campaign trail looking for material to use in his forthcoming 60 Minutes report. Following the hue and cry over last weekend’s confrontation with Julia Gillard, Mr. Latham has been attacked from almost every quarter, including by the network which has hired him in the first place, for becoming a serial pest. Yesterday he appeared at a Tony Abbott function at the Penrith RSL and instantly became the centre of a media frenzy. Cameras and microphones were thrust into his face, and journalists pelted him with a barrage of inane questions which he had no interest in answering. It was almost enough to make us all feel a bit sorry for him. Almost.

It’s hard to know just what he was supposed to do in the circumstances. He has been hired by Channel 9 to prepare a report on the election. While he may not be a professional journalist, he is a published author, a qualified economist, and his credentials as a political commentator are hard to beat. It is reasonable to assume that this part time role as television reporter should put him on the same side of the velvet rope as all the other media representatives, and his presence at any campaign event should be no different from that of any other camera crew. Even if we do not accept him as a reporter, is it really fair to consider his current activities as any less valid than the antics of the crew from “The Chaser’s War On Everything”? Or even, to take another example, the methods and tactics of American documentary maker Michael Moore? But of course, it really isn’t quite that simple.

It’s a free country, and Mr. Latham is free to take up this opportunity of employment, just as Channel 9 is free to engage his services. But the comedy has reached the level of farce when Channel 9 has now begun referring to him in their own news bulletins as a serial pest when they’re the ones paying him to do it! Regardless of what any of us might think of Mr. Latham’s political career, or his personal behaviour, if there is anyone to blame here surely it is the network which gave him the gig. Obviously, it was a decision made with an eye to creating a sensationalist piece of television in pursuit of ratings. Obviously they must have known that they were throwing the cat among the pigeons, and not just any cat but a wounded leopard with a cranky attitude and a score to settle. Why should anyone be surprised that the fur has been flying?

It’s not hard to see a cunning plan behind all of the contrived outrage about Mark Latham’s activities. While the Labor Party has been struggling to overcome the residual effects of the shock change of leadership on the 24th of June, they have been concerned about the presence of Kevin Rudd. Whether he campaigned or he didn’t campaign, the mere fact that Kevin Rudd exists at all had the potential to be a distraction from the campaign. But have you noticed, in the last few days, nobody’s worried about Mr. Rudd undermining the campaign at all? Instead all the focus has been on Mr. Latham, who by accident or design is now serving as the perfect diversion to deflect attention away from what might have otherwise been an unwelcome distraction. It seems that, rather than just being a nuisance, Mr. Latham is actually the Labor Party’s secret weapon, popping up to take all the flak, and taking the heat off Kevin Rudd.

Don’t laugh! It’s really no more incredible than the fact that Mr. Latham was ever actually leader of the Labor Party at all.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Defence Families Won’t Be Evicted For Asylum Seekers

A number of callers to radio shows, including mine, have been expressing their outrage about a story that Australian Defence Force personnel are going to be moved out of their accommodation to make way for asylum seekers. The allegation is that our military families will be forced to move to inferior accommodation while the asylum seekers take over their homes. In those terms it sounds absolutely outrageous, and people are right to be angry about it. The only problem is that it is just not true.

It seems that the story originated with a briefing paper which was prepared to examine a range of possible scenarios. The purpose of such a paper is to identify all possible options and then assess whether or not they are suitable. In that context, this particular briefing paper assessed possible accommodation arrangements for asylum seekers, and according to the Defence Personnel Minister Alan Griffin, recommended against any such use of Defence Department Housing. Complicating the matter however, was an ongoing program where old substandard military housing at Berrimah in Darwin is currently in the process of being replaced.

There was a suggestion that as Defence Force members and their families move out of the Berrimah facility into their new improved modern accommodation, asylum seekers could be placed into the old buildings. According to the Minister, that idea was also rejected, in part because the new accommodation isn’t ready yet and won’t be complete for a couple of years. The Minister has confirmed that the only Defence Department property which is currently accommodating asylum seekers is the old Curtin Air Force Base, which is not an operational base, and has not been for many years. In fact, it was also used by the Howard Government to house asylum seekers, so that is nothing new.

On the 17th of July, Dennis Shanahan wrote an article in the Australian which said this: “Overcrowding of boatpeople at Christmas Island has forced the federal government to consider shifting defence personnel families. Under the plan, the families of serving defence personnel could be moved into inferior housing to make way for asylum seekers at Darwin’s Berrimah defence base.” This story was the basis for the rumours and emails that have been circulating ever since. However, if you read the whole story, it is clear that the Defence Minister John Faulkner indicated that no defence families would be moved until their new housing was ready in 2013, and that the use of the Berrimah base for housing asylum seekers was “not supported”.

A subsequent article written by Mark Dodd in the Australian on the 23rd of July further reported that “A plan to house asylum-seekers alongside defence force families in a Top End military base has been scrapped by the federal government.” This is a classic case of beating up a news story out of nothing, because there never was any such plan in the first place, only a briefing paper outlining why such a plan would not be acceptable. Once again, if you take the time to read the whole article, you will find that Mr. Dodd also writes: “…the Minister for Defence Personnel, Alan Griffin, said yesterday that there never had been a plan to evict defence families to make way for refugees.” The trouble is that, even now, almost a month later, the story is still going around.

The fact is that the Christmas Island Immigration Detention facility is not big enough to cope with the numbers of asylum seekers currently arriving. Regardless of anyone’s view of how asylum seekers should be treated, the fact is that as long as we have a policy of detention there must be somewhere to actually detain them. At present, some asylum seekers who have already passed health and security checks are brought to the mainland and placed in a number of locations including hostels and other private accommodation, on a temporary basis. But none of them are being put up in Defence Housing, and no Australian Defence Force families have been thrown out of their homes.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Profits Are Not Obscene, But Bank Behaviour Can Be

It’s no great surprise that the Commonwealth Bank has announced a profit of just over $6 billion, and it’s equally no great surprise that there has been a rousing chorus of disapproval. Political parties such as Family First and the Greens have chastised the banks for their greed, and consumer groups have denounced the banks for exploiting their customers. Some have called for banks to be subjected to a super profits tax similar to the new Mineral Resources Rent Tax, some have called for bank fees to be banned, and some have called for a cap to be imposed on bank executive salaries. All this and it seems like just the other day we were all congratulating our banks on being robust enough to ensure that we all survived the Global Financial Crisis. So is it really obscene for a bank, or any other business, to clock up such a massive profit?

The short answer is no, but the longer answer is that the means by which that profit is achieved can be. Every business exists to make a profit, which benefits the owners of the business, keeps people employed, and provides goods or services to the community, thus keeping the economy going. Big profits alone are neither obscene, nor virtuous. What matters is the ethical treatment of all involved, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the community generally. What matters is whether the customers are served in their best interests, or they are gouged and exploited. What matters is not that a profit is earned, but whether it is fairly earned. On that basis, the profits themselves are not obscene, but the manner in which we are all taken for a ride could well be.

The success of the banks overall is good for the community, and good for economic stability, but at the same time the sheer size of the profits would seem to indicate that the banks can also afford to behave in a manner which is socially and morally responsible. It is the manner in which the profit is earned which bothers me. It is the endless array of excessive fees and charges for items which should rightly be an overhead of the business, such as ATM fees which charge people for the privilege of accessing their own money. It is the predatory practices encouraging customers to take on more debt than they can reasonably afford. And it is the reward offered to executives for pursuing such amoral practices.

There’s no need to put a super profits tax on banks, just a reasonable regime of regulation to outlaw unconscionable practices. If an institution can make a big profit and behave honourably at the same time, then they should be welcome to the rewards. But if they abuse their market power to disadvantage their own customers, their own employees, and the community at large, then they deserve to be punished. Only proper regulation, designed to foster a system which empowers and enriches all the stakeholders, can achieve that. Sensible regulation which defends the rights of consumers does not have to stop the banks from making big profits.

It just has to stop them from making big profits by unfairly taking advantage of the rest of us.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Latham Off The Rails

There seems to be an almost universal reaction against the antics of former Labor Party Leader Mark Latham over the past few days, and it is easy to dismiss him as nothing more than a failed leader with an axe to grind, and absolutely no sense of propriety. He has been described as a great big boofhead, and other much less polite names, and his behaviour doesn’t do anything to dispel those opinions. His blunt observations might leave no doubt as to what he is thinking, but they are widely interpreted as thoughts which are distorted by an apparent contempt for his one time colleagues every bit as strong as his disdain for his erstwhile opponents. So why on earth did Channel Nine think it would be a good idea to hire him to prepare a report for Sixty Minutes?

Well, there are a number of reasons. Notwithstanding the lack of affection in which Mr. Latham is held by the community, it should not be forgotten that he has genuine political experience at a level that very few ever attain. He does possess a substantial intellectual capacity, despite what many might find to be loutish manners. His exceedingly blunt manner might be confronting, but it can also be incisive. But most importantly, the potential for conflict and confrontation is likely to make for captivating television, and both the Channel Nine executives and Mr. Latham himself know it. Conflict is drama, and drama is irresistible entertainment. There is no doubt that people will want to watch whatever report Mark Latham puts together, in much the same way that they can’t stop staring at a train wreck, and Mark Latham was a powerful political locomotive that went off the rails in a most spectacular fashion.

None of that, of course, makes it good journalism, nor is it necessarily in the public interest. The confrontation between Mark Latham and Julia Gillard in Brisbane at the weekend certainly registered highly as sensationalist tabloid television, and it can only be assumed that the product of Mr. Latham’s work, when it is finally broadcast next weekend, will be of a similar character. But most people found that confrontation to be quite unsettling, to the point that Channel Nine CEO David Gyngell felt it was necessary to issue an apology to the Prime Minister. Veteran Channel Nine political commentator Laurie Oakes felt moved to criticise his own network, on his own network, in no uncertain terms. It has been reported that his colleagues in the Nine newsroom were cheering him on, and it’s not hard to understand why.

Laurie Oakes is in a position of such respect that he is free to say what others have been thinking, and he didn’t hold back. Among other things he said, “He's not a journalist; he's still full of bile and settling old scores. I don't really think it does 60 Minutes or the network much of a favour really to have him posing as a journalist." The fact is that what Mark Latham is doing isn’t journalism or reporting. At best it will be commentary, but more likely it will be nothing more than hollow spectacle akin to the door busting beat-ups on Today Tonight. Real journalists who have devoted their lives to a career in the pursuit of excellence in objective reporting and analysis have every right to be affronted that this political reject has been paid the sort of money that they can only dream of, solely on the basis that he can be expected to draw a crowd.

Really, the best thing we can all do about Mark Latham is to ignore him, although I suspect that there will always be some who just can’t help themselves and just keep on staring at the train wreck.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Take Nothing For Granted

While some have criticised Tony Abbott’s campaign launch in Brisbane yesterday as lacking in substance or vision, right now that approach remains a smart strategy. There’s no need for the opposition to offer any bold agenda at a time when the bold agenda of the current Government has come into such ill repute. The combination of the mismanaged economic stimulus programs, the mining tax debacle, the shock change of leadership, along with the Cabinet leaks, the Rudd soap opera, and the Latham sideshow, adds up to a struggling campaign for Labor. In this context, it would seem that the best thing for Tony Abbott to do is to keep his mouth shut, smile and nod politely, and look as if he knows what he is doing while his opponents continue along the path of self destruction.

Of course, that will only work so long as Labor continues to struggle, and while the Opposition clearly won the first two weeks of the campaign, I believe that week three should be declared a draw. Tony Abbott has been looking increasingly confident as the opinion polls have been swinging his way. At yesterday’s launch, he was surrounded by supporters including former Prime Minister John Howard, promising not much more than to reopen the detention centre on Nauru and to fill us in on the rest of his plans after he gets elected. Contrasting himself with Julia Gillard, he said “Isn’t it great to lead a united political party with a deputy I can trust, a predecessor who’s a friend and a former prime minister who’s a hero!”

The funny thing is that former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd may yet attain hero status for the Labor Party. Last week, Mr. Rudd was brought back into the fray for Labor, and as awkward and uncomfortable as it was, it was also a major step forward for the Government. The Rudd Factor hasn’t been entirely neutralised as an issue, but at least it has been reigned in to some degree. The embarrassing internal leaks have stopped, and finally it seems as if the whole team is rowing in the same direction. The government is finally shifting the attention away from its internal affairs and onto policy matters, especially the economy, and while there have also been problems associated with policy, no one can deny that the economy is strong.

This has been born out with the latest poll figures showing a bounce in support for Labor. It’s not much, but it’s something, with the Newspoll showing Labor ahead on the two party preferred figures at 52% to 48%. That’s a clear improvement on last week’s 50/50 split, while
the Galaxy poll now has Labor in front at 51% to 49%. It’s not enough to ensure victory, not only because of the margin for statistical error, but also the fact that it is possible to win more than 50% of the popular vote and still hold less than 50% of the seats in Parliament. But for Labor it is at least a move in the right direction.

The only certainty is that with less than two weeks now remaining until polling day, nobody can take anything for granted.