Monday, May 03, 2010

Bigger profits make everyone happy? Pigs might fly

Australia’s Fairfax Media have been running a story over the weekend - Capitalism is ruining the planet, and pigs might fly – by Chris Berg is a research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs and editor of the IPA Review.

I suspect Mr Berg might take issue with the hype created by headline, subhead and outtakes, but his own argument reeks of poorly target information to prove a dubious case. The Sunday Age ran the subhead – Less waste means bigger profits, and that should make everybody happy. Either Mr Berg or the sub-editor live in cuckoo land if they believe that.

The argument is predicated on a research pig, Pig 05049, and seeks to prove that because all of the parts of this butchered pig were utilized in various ways. The suggestion is that tracking the afterlife of one single pig can be extrapolated across the corporate world. That would suggest that industrial waste is no longer an issue, indeed does not exist at all. We all know the truth of that, business will only expend resources to the degree that they will get a maximum return.

As to the joys of profit motive, surely that exists for those who directly benefit. With the announcement of increased taxes on our mining companies we are now hearing more of this lame justification, an incredible range of claims supporting the widely discredited ‘trickle down’ theory. The mining companies are claiming responsibility for Australia’s economic strength, despite the fact that the mineral wealth rightly belongs to the country as a whole. As to any altruistic motive, the new provision was announced on Sunday and mining shares took a dive on Monday.

I would suggest that it is not bigger profits that gain wide approval, rather it is a more equitable distribution of available wealth. I’m not being ‘bolshie’ here, not claiming business should not make profits, but equally they should not make extravagant, unsupportable claims, even if they do really believe them. I am sure Mr Berg did not achieve his exalted position through ignorance, sure that he knows the difference between a credible and a fallacious argument. I would hope so anyway. This article is shallow and misleading, and I hope it’s author feels at least a little guilt.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Democratic conventions

Australia is well into election season, with two states down and more to come, including a federal election. Predictably we are also flooded with nonsense statements as the jockeying for power heats up. Out here in my rural retreat, with limited power and access, I manage a great deal of time to muse on the political dynamics. One of the issues which both amuses and annoys is claims of breaches of the ‘Westminster System’.

There are many variants of democracy, officially Australia, and the states, are considered part of a ‘constitutional monarchy’. In reality we are constitutional/parliamentary democracies. The Westminster System is a set of conventions or behaviours accepted by the various parliaments and clearly subject to ‘common usage’. The fact that the ‘system’ is clearly evolutionary, subject to perceived political need at any given time.

Even so our politicians, especially on the conservative side, like to claim breaches of the system, forgetting they were most likely the ones to change the base dynamic. Probably the best known convention was ministerial responsibility. That means that the elected minister must take responsibility for any faults in the department’s they administer.

Here in Victoria the conservative opposition, with an election in sight, are making a mockery of the convention which their previous governments managed to sideline. In an attack aimed at the state’s planning minister the opposition have been demanding that public servants should face a parliamentary inquiry.

Following last years bush fires and with a Royal Commission currently underway the opposition are after the scalp of the former police commissioner and current head of the fire reconstruction effort, Christine Nixon. At the same time various of the conservative members, including the opposition leader have bemoaned breaches of the Westminster System.

I expect it makes good copy, and good politicking, as few in the wider community have any real concept of what these people are referring to. Another current issue relating to the Westminster System of government is unfolding in Tasmania, the smallest and arguably most over governed state of Australia.

The issue of ‘cabinet solidarity’ faces a severe test in that state following their recent inconclusive election. Well inconclusive in that neither major party managed to gain enough seats to govern in their own right. The Tasmanian lower house is elected on the basis of five multi member electorates of five members each.

The major parties only managed ten seats each, with the Greens taking up the other five. You could say the majors were hoist on their own petard, having reduced the parliament by ten seats some years ago in an attempt to lock the Greens out. Both Labor and Liberals could probably work together quite happily, egos apart, as both are supported equally by the state’s dominant timber industry leaders.

The odd part is that they chose not to, and it is highly unlikely the Greens will allow Gunns Ltd and other forest companies to have free reign on any government involving them. In fact they have gone further and said they will only support the Labor government if there in the absence of the sort of corruption that has been evident over the years.

Premier David Bartlett has suggested a formula whereby a Greens minister could excuse himself from discussions with which he cannot entertain. That would suggest a sort of optional cabinet solidarity, and once the convention is tampered with, even with a clearly expressed alternative, that old evolution comes into play again.

I suppose, in some ways all this is healthy for democracy. Like a lot of words there is really no clear concrete definition, it is simply a set of conventions again that we are willing to accept. Of added interest is the British election, which could also deliver a minority government with the centre left Liberal Democrats holding the balance. Still, the Brits have a few more than 25 members in their parliament.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Online from the bush

Living back of beyond has it’s issues, like power supplies and internet access. Both are now sort of sorted and I can post from a fly spot called Mia Mia in northern Victoria. Being on a wireless modem is great, albeit subject to the power sources I am using. Not being on the grid is fine, but balancing a solar/generator mix is difficult.

It becomes frustrating listening to the ‘news’, and occasionally there is news, and not being able to respond. Two issues of particular note just now are climate change and health care.

Climate Change

“Two of the nation's top research bodies - the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO - have come out strongly in defence of the science behind global warming.

The leading research bodies say the evidence is irrefutable: climate change is real and the link with human activity is beyond doubt.”. ABC

What concerns me is that ‘Blind Freddy’ could attest to climate change. Assigning blame is another issue, which the “irrefutable” aspect of human causality is not being clearly articulated. The trenchant skeptics will continue to deny evidence, but the fence sitters are not being convinced as yet.

It seems logical tome that regardless of cause we must do whatever is needed to mitigate those issues we understand. That means accepting the need for sacrifices, which in turn requires clearly articulating the irrefutable evidence. I’m a believer, but I don’t feel I have the information to even begin to convince doubters.


If Kevin Rudd is going to win backing for health reform in this country he needs to tie his various arguments together in a cogent form. That he is now talking about funding more front line health practitioners, GPs, he has failed to tie that into hospital funding reform. This argument is vital. Hospitals will never be cost efficient unless we have an early detection, and dare I say mitigation regime, in place.

Hospital care is increasingly a challenging economic item. The advances in science and technology are mind blowing, and budget blowing, but too many people end up in hospital with conditions which should have been detected and treated before becoming a crisis. Hospitals are never a great place to be and front line care makes them a last resort.

Of course, without the front line doctors in place there is still a huge gap to fill, even without the mindless incidents putting pressure on basic emergency services. I suspect health issues require focusing resources on a wide range of social issues.

Standing in the way of any real reform is the federal/state divide, or politics. If the states continue to push responsibility to the Feds then they are writing their own obituary. The issues are all politics in the end, and the state parliaments seem to have lost sight of their reason for being. I still oppose centralizing government, if only because I don’t want to see the state corruption placed in more able hands. Surely it is time the corruption went and ‘commomweal’ took its proper place.

Monday, February 01, 2010

History hazards of the countryside

I’m reminded of the old Punch cartoon with two city gentlemen in a coach on the way to a country weekend. One fop is saying: “The countryside is truly rural hereabouts.” And so it is in my Mia Mia retreat, and there is something about country people I really connect with; not well mind you, but I enjoy it.

Part of the secret is not to be a city smartarse, don’t be telling the locals how they should do things or what they should think. Oh! and it helps to keep yourself to yourself and not be nosy. I generally fail miserably at all those things. Despite the failings I seem to have connected remarkably well in this community of 400 or so people.

I ask a lot of questions about the area and its history, just occasionally being asked why I want to know. That one I fouled up last week with the response: I just like to know the ins and outs of a duck’s bum! I suspect from the look I received word will be out this week that I am a government spy or worse. It was ever thus.

In fact these people have been living their myths for generations and resent being called to account for consistency of detail. Indeed, the issue I was addressing was the identification of remains of an old brick hut on our property. The city owners insist it was an exotic tale of land claim jumping by a Henry Munro, the locals say it was a bloke named Harrison or Thompson… the names go on, in the 1940s or 50s.

The city folk are less than delighted when I show Munro was not the occupant, the locals are cautious to stick with a broad suggestion and avoid actual detail. With all that, my nosy probing and other misdemeanors, it seems I am accepted. Having walked to the pub (above) on Saturday, a good uphill hike, I sat with my paper and was reading about the late JD Salinger. I will copy in part the comment I posted on Ragebot in response to Kvatch’s post:

“You read, did you read Salinger?” Well yes, but I thought it was pretty ordinary. Now Kerouak… “Who?” The thing about Salinger is that his name and the book are known – vaguely. One of the bar supports said, “of course he was involved in killing Kennedy – that bloke had his book!” In fact it was the bloke who killed John Lennon was carrying the book. Another corner of the bar offered that he, JDS, was only a Pom after all. It turned out he was confusing another ‘seminal’ text and author, Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D. H. Lawrence.

I forget that oral history is still alive and well, along with it’s social taboos like insisting on consistency and specifics. It is more about keeping the local myths alive and presumably they have their own point for the initiated. So now I’m nervous of asking questions about the photo of the rail. Well I should ask in Kyneton anyway, it is their railway station..

Kyneton is about 25 Km up the Campaspe River which flows, or puddles, near my abode. The town began before the gold rush and became a sort of staging post and supply depot, and rail was part of infrastructure expansion in the fledgling colony. What fascinated me was the well picked section of railway line carrying the mark – V.R. KRUPP 1889. The VR is clearly Victorian Railways, and the KRUPP that German steel maker famous for armaments through many conflicts up to WWII.

The Kyneton – Redesdale area were not big producers of gold as their neighbouring districts were, and have been largely ignored by researchers. I suspect that is changing on some fronts. Aspects like the railways, including the one which used to run to Redesdale, will be well recorded, but I wish them well on collecting the real local history.

Can’t escape bureaucratic bungling

With only a cell (mobile) phone and small radio to keep me in touch I thought I might become less of a carping critic of issues concerning poor governance. No so when you live in a sparsely populated region still in trauma from the bushfires of last February.
I thought heading into the wilderness, beyond the communications systems we now take for granted, would at least shield me from the knowledge of political and bureaucratic. That was a vain hope.
With high temperatures and strong winds hitting my wilderness I am receiving a stream of confusing warnings on fire dangers. The warnings are so confusing the ABC (radio) presenters are constantly seeking clarifications from the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE).
Given the tragic circumstances of previous bushfire seasons, and the pasting authorities have endured through various hearings and inquiries, there is enormous pressure to solve problems of mitigating disasters. Unfortunately it falls to the wrong people in the case of CFA and DSE. Rather than look to the local knowledge of a committed volunteer base it is those who only know the assurance of a pay packet who are dealing with this.
The major issue, in the restructuring of a fire response system, is basic communications. CFA and DSE seem so tied up in their own entrenched language and systems they seem unable to put together A simple set of plans which will work across this relatively small Australian state. Part of the problem is their refusal to listen to those who really understand the territory.

Mapping the issues

BOM has a great reputation with weather districts based on consistently similar patterns. There accuracy, while largely speculative or ‘educated guess’, is well respected. The fire authorities base their maps on multiple municipal boundaries, which are large areas with some dramatic climactic variations.
In my case it is doubly confusing because I live on the edge of the North Eastern Fire District, which extends from central Victoria to the Pacific Ocean. Across the road (pictured above) is the North Western District extending across to South Australia. All last week my district was on the edge of ‘code red’ fire danger, we will get to the various codes, then Saturday the danger swung to the North Western district.
The crazy part of that is where this apparent barrier has been created both sides of the road are tinder dry and any activity likely to set of a fire would only be undertaken by a malicious individual or a dullard unaware of the danger. The problem for my neighbours, and more so for my radio presenters, is the difficulty in focusing in on potential crisis points. As some commentators have noted, there is a danger, after a few panics, of the ‘boy who cried wolf’ syndrome.

Confusing codes

So the CFA and DSE bureaucracies went further than ignoring the well established district regimes of BOM, but also decided to change the old, and understood, fire rating system for a new and confusing model. (see pic) They probably only need low – high – code red, but even with that they have communications problems. It will not be code red across the massive area they are reporting it.
The trouble Coupled with those unwieldy fire reporting districts the new codes simply deepen the confusion on the ground. Now on the ground is just where the local volunteer fire fighters are and there workload is already heavy from using their local knowledge and concern to spot real problems before they happen. That isn’t always possible, but we would already be in deep trouble without their efforts.
So each time code reds have been declared and the worst outcome wasn’t achieved did the authorities clap and cheer a successful operation? No, they blamed BOM who they rely on for their weather predictions. They are bloody crazy. A code red is a message to take special care about fire risk, if people listened then it achieved it’s purpose. But the bureaucrats are obviously focused on a different reality to the rest of us.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Perspectives on racism

The issue of racism has come to the fore again in Australia after another senseless murder of an India student in Melbourne, scene of an increasing number of such incidents. The issue has been exacerbated by State and Federal governments going into denial about the race aspects; rather they claim that it really is just senseless violence.

Indians are 2½ times more at risk of attack than other Melburnians, but the reasons are complicated, writes Dylan Welch SMH. Barkly Street stretches long and dark in both directions. On a quiet Wednesday evening, several pairs of Indian men confer in Hindi under the neon lights of half-empty Indian restaurants. In a nearby side street in the western Melbourne suburb of Footscray West, unsmiling African teenagers mill about a darkened bus shelter.

Not denying racism and other bigotry, I would argue that in itself these unworthy notions are not often translated to violence; at least not violence against those hated. But yes, it does happen. My own father, like many of his contemporaries bought up under the strict ‘white Australia’ policy was a rabid racist. As with many bullies, for his targets he reserved verbal abuse, the frustrated violence was more likely visited on his family.

I could never understand his attitude. My school mates and indeed some memorable ‘crushes’ were generally from strange countries, strange to me at that time, with a kaleidoscope of languages and accents thrown in. The irony with my father, who had very few friends in his life, was a late devotion to a Korean family to whom he became a loving, surrogate grandfather figure.

What I did observe, growing up and later, is that these immigrant folk would often be the most vocal in their racial hatred. Having gained their safe place in a new society it seemed right to attack the next wave. It is difficult to ignore a violent push in Sydney by young Lebanese, intent on taking over the low level criminal activities. That is not racist, but simple fact. It is a fact which tends to drive bigotry.

IN BC Canada, home to a swelling population of Indian and Chinese immigrants, the story is much the same. Ethnic criminal activity drives some of the problem; a culture of very low paid farm workers finishes it off. It is not uncommon for Europeans locals to cheer each time an overloaded ‘Paki bus’ turns over in a ditch killing workers on board. And this from some of the kindest folk I’ve ever met.

India itself is rife with racial and sectarian violence according to news headlines, though often vehemently denied. There was recent talk of Britain pulling out of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi later this year over security threats. The reality clearly shows numerous sectarian and racial tensions through that vast population, but equally a majority who crave peaceful coexistence; as is the case in Australia and Canada.

Great for grandstanding; but understanding?

Indian students are ''soft targets''. They are ''walking ATMs'' carrying mobile phones, iPods and jewellery as they travel on public transport between university and late-night work shifts. SMH

Yet in all of this verbal shorthand becomes a real issues, whole societies become labeled because the real issues a rarely defined accurately. Put another, worst social responses are generally encouraged, unwittingly perhaps, by the perceived needs of politicians and media to make a quick impact. Immediacy driven comment is clearly an inadequate way of dealing with complex social issues.

In Australia the vast over-reaction by politicians and media to ‘boat people’ and a nebulous ‘war on terror’ drives a distrust of any different looking or speaking people. But that over-reaction is typified by three second sound bites and shock jock media responses; great for grandstanding, not so great for understanding.

Prejudice is alive and well, and generally encouraged. It might simply be city Vs city, or country and city, even suburb to suburb, town to town. Partly that reflects a competitive spirit, but can easily fall over into an ignorant, unthinking reaction. The violence is real enough in our societies an always has been; but is it really about bigotry or is it about a relative few insecure, angry, hateful people who want to lash out?

Footnote: I have often wondered if the epithet ‘Whitey’ used against Australians by Asians is not a product of the old White Australia policy. That is long gone now, but prejudice tends to have a long memory. Regardless of historical relevance the mindless name calling is sure to fuel continuing antagonism.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

A rural reflection

If that sounds boring, life in rural isolation has been anything but. The area of north central Victoria suffered in last February’s bushfires, so we are all nervous now as the bushfire season is back with us. I don’t have naming rights to the four acre block, but am tempted to go with the Fishbowl, as the surrounding community is watching for each improvement made.

A close second is Stone Farm. Part of my Christmas reading covered the story of Charles Darwin and his son Horace investigating the power of earthworms by placing a stone on the ground and watching it sink by about 2 mm per year. Apparently that experiment is still being monitored at Down House near London. Well if Charles had gone to Stone Farm he could watch as stones rose out of the red clay, volcanic earth.

I’ve had two major tasks to occupy my time on Stone Farm. Given the extreme fire danger hereabouts, particularly grass and stubble fires, there has been an immediate need to slash back the wild, ungrazed pasture around the house at least. Then the robbery late last year, including generators and water pump prompted the need to at least make a work in progress look like an occupied property – like paint the house!

Since Christmas the weather has been against both those operations. Either/or very hot with low humidity and extremely windy. With the painting it was a simple issue, either the paint was drying on the brush or I was blown off the ladder. The danger of slashing is the blades hitting rocks and other debris and sparking a fire. The kanga pic (note the numerous bullet holes) above is an old road sign, found lying under the rampant grass.

Too much excitement

Normally, if I feel the need for company I’ll do the mountain treck to the pub, a stiff climb 20 minutes away, enough to moderate all but the direst needs. However, over the New Year period I seemed to have a stream of drop ins, none carrying a cheering bottle mind. Among them was a motor bike cop who patrols the area. The Bendigo cops cover something like 3000 square kilometres, or it last the major roads.

It seems the heifers I had been watching, in a paddock across the road, had decided the grass was greener on the other side of the fence – and it indeed was. Said cop was looking for the owner, or at least someone to keep a watch out. The road had been busy all day, including holiday bikers. He was concerned that with shark corners and a steep hill (either end of my boundaries) it was a potentially fatal situation to have cows wandering the road.

So I became lookout, then later in the afternoon rounded a bunch of cows off the road and led them up the lane looking for their home. Well all the gates were padlocked and with ‘beware of dogs’ signs, so I left them a fair way up to find their way home. Then a Vic Roads patrol contractor came by. He pushed then back up the lane, honking the whole way, then saw me and drove in to find out where they belonged. I’unno!

Now with the police and the roads authority in my ear I was keeping a close watch. It was a potentially serious situation. Just on dusk the next day the whole herd of two dozen cows all wandered out onto the road. I was told to call the emergency number 000, but with poor cell phone reception, running up and down shooing them off the road and warning drivers I didn’t get far. Finally I called my son in Melbourne and he talked to the police in Bendigo.

By the time a council ranger arrived an hour later I had 18 of the heifers locked in my yard, eating the fresh, well watered plantings rather than the abundant dry pasture grass. He found the other six just as the owner turned up, raging angry. Well I was too at that stage, but he didn’t clobber me when I refused access to my place until he’d talked to the ranger he’d brushed aside.

The kangaroo sign seemed apposite in all this; it was not posted to protect the poor roos, the which we have many grazing our block, but to protect unsuspecting drivers on a dangerous piece of road. I don’t know who shot it up or when, but that act was as delinquent as allowing cattle to stray on a busy road.

Ownership and possession

I was still sitting out at midnight, on a glorious night, winding down from all this and listening to the conversation as temporary fence were underway. The comment which floored me was a loud “well we mustn’t upset the neighbours. Never mind that I was biting my tongue with the owners only comment “I wasn’t angry at you, I was angry at the cows!” Like maintaining fences was the lot of these poor heifers.

Sure I’m just a city bloke, but I thought I did well to move ¾ of the herd, on a dark night, into my yard without harm to them or me. In fact two I missed nudged me in the back so they could get in as well. Perhaps I’m better with animals than with people.

Whatever, I’m no Marxist, but I do have issues over ownership perhaps different from those Karl expressed. The fact is, if regardless of how you on something, a gift, theft or earned, it will keep on demanding from you. Ownership comes with a multitude of obligations. Possession is something you never stop paying for.

In this instance I could have been sensitive to my outsider status, but I still own my conscience. It would have troubled me if one of those animals had been hit by a car if I did not act. Even though I had no legal culpability if I did not at it would have troubled me more justifying to someone’s loved ones my inaction. My sense of ownership is more about my intellect and a sense of understanding social values.

The cost here was to act on those social values, even when they were clearly opposed to my new neighbours. I expect I have partly resolved the tensions since, but only on a clear understanding that I would do the same thing again. Or perhaps the wilderness is not really the place for me…