Friday, September 17, 2010

Waiting For Her People To Call My People

Since it was announced this week that Oprah Winfrey is coming to Australia to film her television show, there have been all sorts of suggestions for who and what should appear on the show, as well as for things for Oprah to see and do while she is here. The Channel Ten entertainment reporter Angela Bishop even suggested in her interview with Oprah that perhaps she might like to stay with a dinky di Australian family, something which Oprah appeared to find appealing. Of course, there would be no shortage of volunteers prepared to play host to the American TV star, but I wonder if she really would enjoy such a visit.

I mean, this is Oprah we’re talking about. One of the richest women in the world, accustomed to being able to have the best of everything. If she was suddenly to find herself camping out at my place she might find things a little cramped. Good heavens, what would she think of the untidy mess in the kids’ rooms, and could she stand sharing the bathroom with the rest of the family? And just what on earth would we talk about? I mean, I am not about to start jumping up and down on my own couch talking about being in love with Katie Holmes just to keep my house guest amused. But I suspect that she might find our usual discussions about balancing the family finances just a tad mundane.

Or perhaps it would be a novelty for her. Perhaps that’s just the sort of thing that she wants to experience. If so, I suppose I can convince my son to vacate his room for a few nights so that Oprah can make her way through the meccano parts and dirty clothes strewn across the floor and curl up in bed in a real Aussie home. We could make our traditional Saturday morning breakfast of bacon and scrambled eggs, followed by doing a couple of loads of laundry and the weekly clean up around the house. Chores done, we could pack up the 30 plus and some bottled water and drive down to the beach. I would carefully explain to Oprah about swimming between the flags, and how to swim across a rip to get back to shore. But not before pulling her leg about the risk of shark attack. Well, she is American after all, so a bit of good natured ribbing should be a part of her Aussie experience.

Yep, sounds perfect to me. I’m just waiting for her people to call my people.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Speaker’s Position A Question Of Priorities

It’s difficult to see just how Rob Oakeshott could continue to function as an independent member of Parliament if he is appointed as Speaker of the House. To some degree it would sideline him from dealing with the very issues which he has claimed are important to him, and to his constituents. The Speaker of the House does not have a deliberative vote, so under normal circumstances which ever party the Speaker belongs to would be deprived of a vote. Among the reforms negotiated by the independent members has been an arrangement for the Speaker to be “paired” with a member of the opposing party so that the balance is maintained. However, if the Speaker is an independent it seems that he would have to indicate in advance his voting intention on every single deliberative vote so that he can be paired with a member from whichever side he is voting against. It sounds awkward and inconvenient, and may well prove to be unworkable.

However, the Speaker does have a casting vote, so that a deadlock can be broken. Traditionally, the Speaker is appointed by the government from among the ranks of their own party, so a casting vote could normally be counted upon to favour the government. However, that’s only tradition, and there is nothing to prevent the appointment of an independent Speaker, at least on that basis. If Mr. Oakeshott does become Speaker, there is no guarantee that his casting vote would go one way or the other. Whether or not that is something that the government would be willing to embrace remains to be seen. There is also some doubt about the level of participation in private members’ business, and whether or not the Speaker would be entitled to put a motion or introduce a primate member’s bill.

While some might be dazzled by the extra $100 000 or so that is added to the Speaker’s pay packet, and wonder whether or not that is the motivation for Mr. Oakeshott’s interest in the position, there are legitimate reasons in favour of the move. All three of the so called country independents have expressed a keen interest in bringing about reform to the parliamentary process, and sitting in the Speaker’s chair is one way of promoting that cause. But, while parliamentary reform might be a good idea, and it might well improve the quality of parliamentary process, the question is one of priorities. If taking the Speaker’s chair means that Mr. Oakeshott’s ability to represent his constituents on the issues about which he is apparently so passionate is in any way diminished, then perhaps it would be better to pass up the opportunity.

After all, he still has considerable influence from where he sits now on the cross benches.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Looking Back And Moving Forward

It’s hard to believe that ten year have gone by since the opening of the Sydney Olympics. Ten whole years, just like that. One moment we are all in Sydney celebrating the event of a lifetime, sharing the spirit with visitors from around the nation and around the world, and the next thing you know here we are looking back. And at the risk of being churlish, perhaps that has been a problem. Perhaps there has been a little too much looking back and not enough moving forward. Perhaps there has been too much basking in past glory, resting on our laurels, and not enough effort directed towards taking the lessons from that great achievement and using them to launch Sydney, and all of New South Wales, into the 21st Century.

The commonly made observation has been that for a couple of weeks in 2000 the trains all ran on time, everything worked smoothly, and everybody was friendly, cheerful and happy, so why can’t we do that all the time? Why can’t this state have the best public transport in the world, the best public hospitals, the best public management of our infrastructure? Is it really too much to ask? Of course, there was a tremendous concentration of resources devoted to making the 2000 games such a success. The effort was focused, and relied upon a huge amount of goodwill. It required not only the best standards of management but the coordinated effort of thousands upon thousands of workers and volunteers, all doing their bit and doing it well.

Today we have celebrated what remains an outstanding success, and that is fair enough. But many people have observed that the success of the Sydney Olympics marked a kind of high water mark, and since then the ball has been dropped. Some have said that Sydney, and New South Wales have failed to fully capitalise on the Games in the years since, both in terms of maximising tourism, and of ongoing state development. It has been said that a certain complacency was allowed to settle in, as if the benefits of a successful Games would simply keep on flowing automatically without any further effort. But what if the same standard of management had been applied to the ongoing promotion of the state, to the ongoing development of infrastructure, and the ongoing delivery of all government services.

It’s perfectly fine to be celebrating the success of the games ten years ago, but we should be using that outstanding success as an inspiration to do even better in the years ahead.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Bank Is Not Just Any Business

The Sydney Morning Herald today revealed that at least two of our big banks have been accused of harassing their own customers over outstanding debts. The ANZ and the NAB have been accused of threatening legal action against customers who have already entered into arrangements to make payments, seizing the savings of customers to repay debts without regard to their living expenses, demanding that a customer forfeit half of her Centrelink payments, and in one case initiating action against the wrong customer because she had a similar name to a debtor.

Of course, any business which is owed money is entitled to take steps to pursue repayment, but a bank is not just any business. No other business is in a position where they are both selling us their services and also holding our savings at the same time. No other business is in such a position to impose its will upon our lives, regardless of whether or not their claim is valid. No other business holds us so completely captive as do the banks. We have no choice but to be bank customers in this age of electronic payments for everything. So it should be incumbent upon the banks to not only treat us fairly, but to recognise their social responsibility.

When things go wrong, and customers cannot meet their obligations to repay a mortgage or a loan, or a credit card bill, there are supposed to be provisions for dealing with the problem. If somebody simply refuses to pay then of course steps must be taken to recover the money. But in cases of hardship, it is essential that banks act responsibly to help the customer through the period of hardship, and hopefully back onto a sound footing. That’s just not going to happen if over zealous debt collectors are launching legal action, seizing savings, and ignoring genuine efforts to resolve the difficulty. In the long run, it is not only in the interests of the customer, but it’s also in the best interests of the bank.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Alcohol Isn’t Helping

737 arrests across New South Wales, three shots fired in Kings Cross, one man dead after an alleged assault near Wollongong. Those are the figures after the much publicised Operation Unite over the weekend, intended as a coordinated crackdown on alcohol related violence across the nation. It seems odd that so many people would get themselves into so much trouble after all of the publicity that police would be out in force at the weekend, rather than making an effort to be better behaved. Or is this just a normal Saturday night, and the big numbers of arrests merely a reflection of the increased police numbers? Or is it possible that an increased police presence actually incites some people?

These are questions which are not easily answered, but one thing is certain and that is we do have a problem with alcohol and its link to violence. I have always maintained that the alcohol itself is not the sole factor contributing to the problem. It is possible for many people to have a big night out, possibly drink a little more than is good for the health, but still not become rude, obnoxious, anti-social or violent. But for some people, especially some who may be predisposed to brutish behaviour in the first place, too much to drink obviously brings out their worst. Whether that means that everybody who enjoys a drink should be denied the opportunity just so that the trouble makers are prevented from making asses of themselves is a difficult question, but some would suggest that the sacrifice would be worth it.

Over the same weekend, there was also a report in the press about some establishments enforcing a policy to refuse entry to people with particular styles of haircut. The reasoning had nothing to do with fashion sense, but to do with attitude. It seems that antisocial attitudes have been associated with certain hairstyles which are then used as criteria to determine if you are a desirable patron or not. It might be a flimsy basis upon which to make such a judgement, but it does identify the real problem behind any kind of violence whether alcohol related or not. That is attitude. Violence is always driven by an attitude of entitlement, whther the entitlement to enforce one’s own will, the entitlement to seek retribution for a perceived insult, or just the entitlement to derive some sort of sick satisfaction from inflicting harm upon others.

It’s not the alcohol that’s the problem, it’s the attitude. But the bottom line is that in almost every case, the alcohol is not helping.