Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Staring down tough economic times, getting with the strengths

When the going gets tough it is probably time to play the strengths, or so Prime Minister Rudd seems to believe. The ‘service economy’ approach was a key factor of neo-liberal economics, with participating economies dumping manufacturing and agriculture in favour of intangibles.

The downside of this approach has been the lack of originality in favour of a follow the leader approach. At best it simply changed international competition from tangible to non-tangible products. At worst the ‘Simon says’ approach led economies lemming-like to global financial disaster.

= Disaster training and research
= Housing former
Guantanamo Bay inmates
= Contracting military training

Recognizing competitive advantages and breaking from the pack should be a core marketing perquisite, though it rarely is. Rudd is adopting the approach and has already signaled the first two initiatives on the list. The third I propose as a logical extension of playing Australia’s strengths.

Disaster training and research

Australia's neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region face an era of "mega-disasters" affecting hundreds of thousands of people as urbanisation, climate change and food shortages amplify the impact of natural catastrophes such as earthquakes and cyclones in coming years…” Disasters warning for Asia-Pacific

Maybe it is the harsh environment in Australia, but the country’s emergency response ability is almost legendary, and largely based on the enthusiasm of volunteers. There is a major market for these skills, right on our doorstep. We are generally first in, in this region, but getting in first as a service provider is a brilliant concept.

Housing former Guantanamo Bay inmates

"Australia, along with a number of other countries, has been approached to consider resettling detainees from Guantanamo Bay," the Prime Minister's spokesman said. Kevin Rudd may take Gitmo inmates

Okay, it sounds like buying trouble, but that is assuming a lot without seeing the detail. "Any determination for an individual to come to Australia would be made on a case-by-case basis. All persons accepted to come to Australia would have to meet Australia's strict legal requirements and go through the normal and extremely rigorous assessment processes."

Is the aim to allow residency to rebuild lives or just stick them in local prisons? About 60 detainees have been cleared for release by US authorities but are unable to return to their homelands because they fear retribution. I’ve already reflected on Australia’s ability to absorb a diversity of cultures (The compleat hedonist or Xmas was a cracker ) and can actually see this plan working – with the US footing the bill of course.

Contracting military training

"… you get better soldiers if you spend more time on education and less on training," he says. "Training is characterised by what to think. Education is characterised by how to think." Brigadier General John Caligari – Australian Army

I had problems with this as a non-militarist, but the realist part of me won out. The relatively small size of the Australian standing military is more than offset by the notable efficiency of our troops. Partly that is due to the training regime and partly the underlying national character.

To my way of thinking Rudd should be on the phone to Obama the day after inauguration, selling the new president on an Aussie based training regime for the US military. The US will always want to be front line, but events are showing us they could perform a hell of a lot better.

Australia offers an incredible range of training terrain and environments as well as a proven approach. I suspect we lose more diggers when our SAS are unengaged than on any battlefield; but SAS are the small but vital aggressive portion of our military, and being idle does not suit them well.

The bottom line is that there are things Aussies do remarkably well, and these should be our international marketing focus. Each of these three concepts actually offers the prospect of greater peace and security on a troubled planet as well an economic boost in troubled times.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dishonesty is still the hallmark of neo-conservatives

Most assuredly one would not seek out commentary from the economic right, the likes of Human Events.com (Headquarters of the Conservative Underground…), still these commentators tend to popup from time to time. Unfortunately the only thing they add to economic debate is transparent dishonesty.

“Only a couple of weeks ago, Canada’s Conservative government was headed for defeat because of its steadfast opposition to rewarding epic failures with cash prizes -- more commonly known as “bailouts”.

“Harper’s opposition to bailouts has been the message all along, until this recent wavering. Canadian banks were made to do without -- and rightfully so.” Rachel Marsden

First up, what the Harper government did offer, as did Aussie PM Rudd, were lending insurance backstops. "Our actions will help Canadian financial institutions secure access to longer-term funds so that they can continue lending to consumers, homebuyers and businesses in Canada," says Canada’s finance minister.

The BIG LIE from commentators of the ilk of Ms Marsden is that the leaders they tend to support, Bush, Harper and the former Aussie PM Howard, have proven consistent supporters pf corporate welfare; while happily leaving the rest of the community out to dry.

In the lead up to his PM bid Stephen Harper vowed that a Conservative government would "get out of the grants and subsidies game." But once he became Prime Minister, he started handing out money - to Pratt & Whitney, Alcan, Bombardier, Research in Motion, Hyundai, General Motors, Ford and Magna. and other industrial giants.

In 2007 his government provided a $900-million aid package for Canada's aerospace industry, with most of the money going to businesses in the politically key province of Quebec. Like the bush subsidies these were part of the cost of corporate electoral support – a cost worn by everyone.

Oddly I’m at one with Ms Marsden’s central premise, the inappropriateness of the auto bailout, particularly in the absence of any real recovery plan. What I object to is the tendency to target blame away from all the pointer arrows. The reality is that our societies, our economies, will always have a socialist element. What matters after that is the social balance.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Hold the line, Sol is here

Sol Trujillo was appointed Telstra's CEO on July 1, 2005 after stints like President, chairman and CEO of U S WEST Communications, Inc. Telstra was the publicly owned phone company in Australia, until it was sold off by John Howard as another asset plunder.

Telstra and its previous incarnations, including the Post Master General’s Department, have owned the copper wire infrastructure in Australia, so have always had a massive competitive advantage.

As we try to develop a 21st century broadband network in Australia Telstra and Trujillo are still trying to leverage that advantage; particularly the cost savings of a central fibre-optic network which relies on “last mile copper connection” to deliver internet services to homes and businesses.

“Telstra's exclusion from the competitive process established by the Federal Government to build a national broadband network is another example of how Sol Trujillo and his team have consistently misread two governments.” SMH

Sol has consistently tried to stare down governments and parliament on a range of communications issues; he has consistently lost. But hang on, now his supporters are accusing anyone who critisises him of xenophobia. You see, poor Sol is a bloody American.

Personally I don’t give a damn where he comes from, I’m only concerned about his performance. In fact I doubt any of my regular readers would accuse me of any particular anti-American sentiments. But when we face a barrier like this to a broadband network:

Telstra is not contemplating legally challenging its exclusion yet, but if and when a broadband roll-out by one of the three other groups bidding for the job gets the nod, it will probably go to court.
… Telstra can argue that its existing copper network should not be piggybacked by the new fibre (as all projects will), and that it should not be prevented from building an alternative network.”

Along with many others I objected to the sale of Telstra, and more particularly of the infrastructure. The privatized unit has not served us well and obviously intends to continue with that record of performance.

I’d just like to say I don’t look at nationalities when I critisise performance; I don’t care about antecedents when I say “ah sol…” Enough of the bullshit, let’s have some sensible resolution to the development of communication needs.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bush Prepares Crisis Briefings to Aid Obama

Bush Prepares Crisis Briefings to Aid Obama

We know “a catastrophic attack could occur with little or no notice”, but can Obama duck flying shoes as nimbly as Dublya?

Ok, so George sort of screwed things up a bit, generated a few enemies. But if he’d just get off the stage now the world might start to return to normal insanity.

I wonder in Vlad Putin can slam a shoes as well as Nikita did?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Treat the children well

Australia, Canada and Ireland have been lashed in a UNICEF report, The Child Care Transition. Using 10 benchmarks, including the amount of GDP spent on early childhood services, the availability of paid parental leave and the subsidies provided for childcare and education, the report ranks Mexico, Slovenia and Portugal higher than the three welfare economies.

Britain didn’t fare well either, but is so far the only country making a song and dance: British Children's Minister, Beverley Hughes, has written an official letter of complaint to UNICEF describing the report as poor with many inaccuracies, saying it has misrepresented the British position and querying whether it has also misrepresented the situation of some of the other 24 countries covered.

Canada’s leaders are too busy playing politics to notice and Australia’s leadership can conveniently blame a decade of John Howard. Australia meets just two benchmarks, accreditation for early learning staff and the provision of subsidised childcare services for at least 25 per cent of children under three.

Oh, and the USA just pipped Australia on the list. The report can be downloaded here: UNICEF


Having experienced my early years in a society still scarred by the terrors of war I couldn’t help but reflect how far mores have shifted over half a century. I still regard myself fortunate that my first ten years were spent within commuting distance of Sydney yet in splendid isolation on the banks of the Port Hacking River.

The hamlet of my childhood probably numbered fewer than fifty souls to start with, rising to several hundred in the end. The community was stretched along several miles of road with a glorious, sandy river on one side and an untouched portion of national park on the other.

Our shack was hardly spacious, but seemed to accommodate seven of us with little real trouble. The fact is, at least me and my brothers were more drawn to the outdoors attractions, swimming, fishing, exploring, climbing rocks and trees, all that boy stuff. If pater familias was on the violent side we were in pig heaven outside.

A one room primary school was another delight. By the time I reached grade 3 an infants teacher was added, but I missed the plastercine and building blocks, instead absorbing an early introduction to the full primary school scope. I can still recall the sense of wonder and excitement during that accelerated learning time.

It was a wondrous period in my life, though as the picture shows on inspection, not short on domestic violence. I find that horrifying now, but it was simply the way it was back then. I have alluded to the horrors of war and recall the often whispered justifications. UNICEF certainly would not have been amused.

The picture, on close inspection [a sorta bigger image], shows the ravages of domestic violence. Not on me I should add. I’m the cheeky coot holding the flag at the local boys club (third from the right) , from which my father had banned me because he believed it was a communist plot. Fortunately others in the community were encouraging and I don’t recall any fallout from my entry into the world of gymnastics.

It wasn’t until we moved from that hamlet to the inner city I realised, or was made to realise, I had been living in a world of poverty. We had no power to out home, no running water and our bath in the yard was filled from pots and buckets from a wood stove. Even worse was my clothes suddenly had buttons, my shoes laces.

I guess the point is, everything is relative. In those early years, brutal at times, I enjoyed privileges few others can even contemplate. The gymnastics stayed with me for many years, but also a love of poetry and literature absorbed from that one teacher trying to infuse education into a full primary age range in one hit. I expect he overshot the mark and I than him still.

When I did move to a big city school my deficits weren’t education, they were dirty fingernails, untidy dressing and not having a handkerchief. Unlike the city kids I could swim before I could walk and would still prefer to walk rather than ride.

My childhood would no doubt be regarded as underprivileged by some, including UNICEF. Somehow I think the problem is more related to artificial social standards than a real recognition of issues of childhood development.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A week is a long time in politics

Canada's Liberal Party has a new leader following the last week’s abortive coalition attempt by Stephan Dion. Michael Ignatieff has been anointed, following the withdrawal of his main opponent Bob Rae. The party is now furiously searching for a mechanism to legitamise the arrangement.

This time last week the minority Harper government was facing down a non-confidence challenge in parliament and replacement by a coalition of opposition parties. The weak link was the patchy performance of Dion, undermining any real confidence in the effort.

According to reports Ignatieff is not in favour of the coalition concept, though there has been no reference to his possible stand on a non-confidence vote when parliament resumes in late January. Despite convincing the Governor General to prorogue parliament before an early vote could be taken Harper the underlying issues are still to be addressed.


Last week’s crisis began when the Harper government elected to attack the opposition parties, rather than the looming economic crisis, in budget proposals it was putting forward. One of the trigger issues was a move to cut the public funding of election campaigns. Cute, and potentially crippling to other parties, but a sad commentary on the need to circumvent electoral corruption.

But wider than that was the lack of any real stimulus, with proposals that sought dubious spending cuts instead. Now, given seven weeks to come up with an acceptable plan Harper is under pressure to come up with some direction – and failing.

First of all, I think the move by the Bank of Canada [cutting rates] is very significant, and the monetary policy stimulus, the economic stimulus they'll get out of today's announcement, is significant.”

"But no, our assessment is we're going to need additional fiscal policy action....” Harper Dec 9 2008

It is hard to imagine the author of that statement holding a degree in economics, a ‘do nothing’ approach is hardly what the country needs right now. Still, he welcomed the elevation of Ignatieff to Liberal leadership, offering that he will meet with him and put forward economic stimulus proposals for the government to consider.

Diane Francis of the Financial Post had no problem coming up with a few key economic directions. Current Liberal finance critic Scott Brison cited Statistics Canada's report that almost 71,000 Canadians lost jobs in November, the largest single-month drop in 26 years. He might also consider the relatively low wage structures of remaining jobs.

Fresh elections?

Unless Harper seriously turns his mind to matters economic his government will still face the wrath of parliament early in the new year. Coalition or not, if Harper is dumped a fresh election will follow, probably in early spring. This gives Ignatieff’s team a double job over the break.

First is to formulate a strong economic statement, behind the scenes, ready to deliver when the crunch comes. One reason I would be opposed to feeding a program to Harper is the tendency want to piss in the corner and skew any effective plan out of recognition. When Ignatieff moves it must be with a strong base.

The second thing I would do, given that most of the developed world are going to have a miserable Xmas, is to keep reminding the country of just where Harper’s government has put them. To be sure, it is a global problem, but Harper has shown no great gift for resolving Canada’s stresses.

A week is a long time in politics, seven weeks is an eternity! The Liberals have an enviable economic record and now need to use every moment of this time to position themselves for government.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Politicians, Moody’s – Standard & Poors

“These errors make us look either incompetent at credit analysis or like we sold our soul to the devil for revenue, or a little bit of both.” A Moody’s managing director [Debt Watchdogs: Tamed or Caught Napping?]

There is no real reason most of us would ever know of the existence of the various international credit rating organisations like Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poors or Fitch Ratings. They deal with big money, in $billions, but they impact on our lives just the same.

Where they serve us little guys is by keeping a reign on the big guys, or that’s the theory until the reality began to unravel. Now these agencies stand accused of being substantially responsible for the subprime collapse.

The way it worked was that subprime mortgages were bundled up with other forms of debt into what are elegantly known as CDOs (collateralised debt obligations), each worth maybe hundreds of millions of dollars and paying an attractive rate of interest.

New South Wales

Back in September the Premier of NSW resigned, as did his treasurer Michael Costa. Both had been involved in a drawn out effort to sell off public assets, so desperate that towards the end they were using threats of credit downgrades by these ratings agencies.

There are now doubts that those threats held any substance, but veracity rarely matters when really big sticks are waved around. Regardless, there was no great enthusiasm for selling off our energy infrastructure, just as there is no enthusiasm outside the government to now sell other assets.

Like the ratings company executives our politicians must be seen as being vulnerable to greed. So what is to be achieved by selling assets? From past experience, at the very least well paid consultancies, if not even more valuable appointments.

So where does NSW stand on credit?

NSW has a debt-to-revenue ratio of less than 40 per cent. In comparison, the Germany state of Baden-Wurttemberg, also rated AAA, has a ratio higher than 150 per cent. The state’s finance are in a much better position than, for example, some Canadian provinces or many European regional governments.

Our real problems must sheet back to poor administration and a weak opposition, they all seem like second rate amateurs. Prior to last financial year, NSW households had long enjoyed the highest level of disposable income in the country, with the exception of the ACT. Someone recently suggested that the federal government appoint an administrator for this sick state, and I agree whole-heartedly.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Peace and Goodwill? Not in our parliaments

A government has opted to run and hide over the Christmas season, rather than face a hostile parliament. An opposition ends the year in disarray, its leadership failing to hold the respect of its own or of the government. A parliament seemingly peopled by members prone to verbal, physical and sexual abuse – across party lines.

Three parliaments in two countries, ensuring goodwill is not part of the Christmas spirit:


With barely a 38% of the national vote PM Harper chose to bulldoze his way through a hostile parliament this week. Challenged with a potential loss of power, via a non-confidence vote of parliament, Harper sought the option of proroguing parliament until early next year.

With due respect to the Canadian Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, who approved the move, I personally find the precedent disturbing. The first point I take issue with is usurping of the will of the parliament by this dubious manoeuvre. The second point is that in the cloudy arena a Westminster tradition the Canadian decision creates a worrying precedent across Commonwealth parliamentary systems. Peace, order and good government

Fortunately constitutional crisis across the Commonwealth are few and far between, which makes their mode of resolution particularly vital well beyond the jurisdiction where the decision is made.

To my mind, in a parliamentary democracy, the will of the majority of elected members is paramount. Harper should have been required face the house and let the votes fall as they will. Instead there will now be seven weeks of speculation, intrigue and jockeying, wasting valuable time and energy needed to address growing economic concerns.

Australia – federal

The Aussie federal opposition is now under the control of would be strong many, Malcolm Turnbull. This former merchant banker might be well versed in running a business enterprise, but seems inadequate to the task of managing a political party, or two for that matter.

The federal opposition is a coalition of Liberals and Nationals, conservative in nature. Turnbull is a relative new comer to parliament, and shows it in his disregard for the powerful emotional and intellectual forces of the place. He managed to visit an number of major gaffes in the dying days of the current sitting.

It is summertime here, just entering the holiday season, and the Rudd government had no need to prorogue parliament like their Canadian counterparts. But the final days of sitting did require cleaning up the legislative leftovers. Turnbulls first gaffe was to force shadow colleagues to change stance on some key bills. Having achieved that step he assumed his parliamentary colleagues would simply follow suit, instead he managed to split his team three ways.

His second gaffe was in response to a Rudd government statement on security. Turnbull told parliament : Turnbull said Australia had to "work energetically through our international partnerships with our major allies - the US, Japan, China, Indonesia, India - and of course our kindred allies, our historically closest allies, such as New Zealand, the UK and Canada."

The leader of the country’s opposition, it seems, simply doesn’t understand the language of international protocol. "China is a long-term friend of Australia; the US, by contrast, has been, for more than half a century, an ally of Australia. That's a term which has a specific definition as a military alliance containing reciprocal defence obligations.”

Australia – NSW

The lower house of the NSW state parliament is not called the bear pit for nothing, in fact both houses rank among the most robust, if crude, parliamentary performers on the planet. They ended the year in fitting style when yet another prominent member was punished for untoward behaviour.

National Party MP Andrew Fraser was sacked as an opposition spokesman after ‘shoving’ a female colleague during an incident on the floor of the house. He also faces further sanctions for yelling at the Government's leader of the house, John Aquilina during the incident. Fraser is just one in a long list of MPs, government and opposition, who have failed basic decency criteria this year.

More worrying is that through all this the government managed to slip two reprehensible measures through in the dying days of parliament, both self serving to this poor excuse for government. The first was a sop to two members of the upper house, both with the rump Shooters Party.

Under an amendment to the Domestic Violence Act, successfully introduced by the NSW Shooters party on Thursday, men who have previously been the subject of apprehended violence orders that have expired will be able to have the orders revoked so they can regain gun licences. Good one NSW!

The second odious measure allows NSW Lotteries products including Saturday Lotto, Powerball and Oz Lotto and other gambling games to be sold 24/7 by phone or internet. NSW already has one of the worlds highest gambling rates, with tougher economic times surely less rather than more temptation is needed.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Canada’s Constitutional Conundrum

PM Harper as bound to overstep the mark sooner or later. Despite his training as an economist Harper has shown a greater regard for the practice of political thuggery, ignoring global crisis to create his own.

The crisis he has created has plunged the country in relatively uncharted waters, but only relatively. The splintered, albeit majority, opposition have worn Harper’s bulldozer tactics long enough. This week they released an open letter to the Governor General, Michaelle Jean:

Today we respectfully inform the Governor General that, as soon as the appropriate opportunity arises, she should call on the Leader of the Official Opposition to form a new government, supported as set out in the accompanying accords by all three of our parties.
from Dion [Lib] to the Governor General | from Layton [NDP] to the Governor General

Constitutional crisis?
Britain's constitution is part written in statutes and partly maintained through custom and convention. Commonwealth countries generally do have written constitutions, though provisions related to the powers of the monarchy, and by extension the governor’s general, are hazy at best.

The Canadian crisis is not the first instance in a commonwealth country; the most striking former example being in Australia in 1975. In that case the GG fearing being sacked by the PM, Gough Whitlam, jumped first and dismissed the Whitlam government.

Sure there were questions of constitutional propriety of installing the opposition as government. A fresh election, confirming public support for a change of government, soon smothered further enquiry. While questions are arise on these hazy extra-constitutional questions the issues are rarely addressed beyond ‘expert’ chatter.

The vexing questions giving rise to the constitutional crisis claims include: Can the GG sack a serving prime minister and government? Conversely can a PM sack a GG? If the first can the GG appoint a new PM from the existing house or must the house go to election?

Canada, like Australia, is essentially a parliamentary democracy the individual elected members should have precedence over political parties. Convention holds that where there is no majority party after an election the party with the most reps should be asked to form a minority government.

That is the current Canadian situation, with the added dynamic that the current government apparently cannot ensure the confidence and support of a majority of MPs. As with the Australian situation in 1975 that situation can become untenable if supply bills are blocked by a hostile parliament. Those bills allocate the money to run government.

We know from that episode that a GG can sack a PM, what we don’t know is how that action would stand up to the scrutiny of the courts. No one has yet tested it. We know the Aussie GG of the time acted to avoid the PM sack. Again, we have no idea how this would stand the test of a court challenge.

To my mind, the important factor is the will of an elected parliament; that means the individual members. Once voters have elected their representatives those office holders hold a delegated authority.

That does not mean they are bound to the shifting whims of an electorate, they have been given authority to act as they believe is best for the electorate. To do otherwise would require endless consultation with voters, most who have no way of being privy to the intricacies the parliamentary situation.

We have been conned into believing we are voting for a presidential type leader. That is untenable under a Westminster style system. The rigid dominance of the party structure already dilutes democratic principles enough without handing all power to one person.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

News media in permanent decline?

“The publishing sector has continued to be squeezed as readers and advertisers increasingly migrate to the Internet.” E&P

I grew up, one way and another, in the print media sector. I was also an early adopter of the transition to print media electronics, hardly a good move twenty years ago. I’d moved from stringer for one regional newspaper to advertorial writer for another.

The first, the smaller of the two actually initiated the prototype electronic newspaper production which included remote transmission of stories by ‘acoustic coupler’ like the one picture except with a keyboard. Like my first modem these were a lightning fast 2400 bits (baud rate).

For the bigger paper I’d write at home on my trusty Mac LCII, then take floppies to the newsroom after hours and copy and paste onto one of the papers dumb terminals. When I suggested uploading from home of a night the supplement editor suggested I was talking fanciful science fiction and wouldn’t consider it.

Eventually I went to the IT manager and organised a trial, which was obviously successful, but the editor never really accepted that I didn’t just sneak in of a night – clear proof was still too far out there to be acceptable. The media have remained reluctant or incredulous towards the potential of electronic delivery.

The media squeeze

That is perhaps a long illustration of how the media have consistently missed the boat on technology developments. Between a steady diminution of the value of news as news and not entertainment, television he undermined the raison d'etre of newspapers and print news.

The internet is a great delivery medium, but the promise hasn’t been realised. Sure it is de rigueur to have an online version of a newspaper, but that seems more about ‘me tooism’ then developing effective strategies. There have been no effective approach to generating a dedicated internet delivery, at least by the major media.

Now with a major economic crisis and reduced advertising revenues it might be too late for some, electronic or print. While allied communications sectors have created and driven new approaches the once dominant print sector has remained stuck in the past, an easy prey for the alternatives.

For a news junkie the developments, or lack of them, are being monitored with a real sense of dread. The death of the newspaper probably began when accountants and financiers began to take over the industry. Advertising was a license to print money, but they ignored the basic reason news media existed, the reason people subjected themselves to advertising.

With money people running the show the problems are being further compounded by the apparent disregard for readers. Certainly newspapers need to make achieve ROI, however papers aren’t going to sell because they feature ads and gossip, their core business should be delivering news.

In Holiday Season, Some Papers Show Contempt For Readers
Leafing through the season's (slightly) thicker newspapers sends a clear message to readers: You don't matter enough to get "premium positions."

Sadly the newspaper genre seems to be in terminal decline, even sadder so is news delivery. The much heralded citizen journalism is not a bad thing, as part of a proper mix. The problem is that is could become, by default, the new media. It is cheap, enthusiastic, but lacks the industry training and discipline, particularly in style, objectivity and dare I say ethics.

Computers and the internet have the capacity to make everyone designers and writers, as a consequence we are simply seeing more bad design and writing than ever before. Having the capacity does not guarantee ability, as the barely surviving print media are already showing.