Sunday, January 28, 2007

John Howard's Water Plan

Prime Minister John Howard has pre-empted the Labor Party with a proposal for a national water plan. Some reports suggest it took 4 months to plan.

The plan can be found at:
It consists of 10 points, and is conditional on the States handing over all responsibility for the Murray-Darling Basin to the Federal Government.

The 1o-point plan was announced in typical Howard style: big heading, followed by big dollar signs. The fine print is barely reported.

The fine print includes:
  1. the $10 billion is spent over 10 years - it doesn't sound nearly so much then.
  2. Part of the plan is based on the detrimental effects of reforestation in the Murray-Darling Basin. It ignores the fact that at least some of this is designed to overcome the serious effects of dry-land salinity, especially in southern NSW and northern Victoria.
  3. Control of the Goulburn (Vic) and Murrumbidgee (NSW) Rivers is included in the fine print
  4. part of the $10 billion will be spent on a a new Federal bureaucracy - the Murray-Darling Basic Commission (MDBC)
  5. the above new MDBC will be under Ministerial control - ie subject to party political influence. This ought to be a major stumbling block for the Queensland, NSW, Victoria, SA and the ACT.

While the Labor Party has been caught short with the unexpected release of such a policy, the policy does nothing to lessen the effects of global warming or Australia's disproportionately high rate of greenhouse gas production. It does give the promise (hope?) of money for irrigators/farmers. These people are traditionally strong supporters of the National Party, and John Howard's Liberal/National coalition government, and they will appreciate the financial sweetener.

John Howard is creating a history of gaining, and centralizing, political power within his ministries. Here he is asking the states to cede their constitutional rights and hand over power to a body that will be under Ministerial control. *WARNING! Warning! There is danger here"

The concept of a national authority to "govern" the Murray-Darling Basin rivers is a good one. Such an authority needs to be independent of government and free from party political interference, real or perceived. The proposed Murray-Darling Basin Commission ought to be free of politics and Ministers: it ought to have the same independence as the Reserve Bank.

The Analyst

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Australia Day Speeches and Politics

News that NSW Opposition Leader, Peter Debnam, had to be forced to tone down an Australia Day speech because it was too political is nothing less than shameful.

Australia Day is a day when we celebrate community, being Australian, being a multicultural society, and welcoming new citizens.

That Mr Debnam wanted to use a formal speech welcoming new Australian citizens to talk Party policies can only reflect badly on him and his party. It should have been a speech to welcome new citizens, not a speech to belittle multiculturalism and incite right-wing intolerance.

The Analyst

Federal Cabinet Reshuffle 2007

John Howard's cabinet reshuffle sees a new PR image occurring: Workplace Relations (WorkChoices) is to have the smiling, amiable Joe Hockey. Amanda Vanstone has been dumped from Immigration, and the Ministry.

In both these cases John Howard needed a fresh face, preferably one that won't be associated with conflict and bad news. Kevin Andrews, as Minister for Workplace Relations, oversaw the introduction of WorkChoices and the demolition of the Federal Industrial Relations Court. He was always a tough-talking, ride roughshod type of Minister. Amanda Vanstone has had to front the media on many occasions, almost all of them associated with bad news: bad news about detention centres involving "The Pacific Solution", mistreatment or maltreatment of detainees, or their incarceration conditions. Voters have begun to associate both with bad things.

Malcolm Turnbull's accelerated approach into Cabinet (a position as a Parliamentary Secretary was only created last year) will see him opposing Labor's Peter Garrett. A smooth-talking Merchant Banker / lawyer versus a former rock star with considerable environmental and street cred. It will be an interesting battle.

The crux of Mr Howard's reshuffle seems to be to put softer-looking people in the Cabinet hot-spots of Immigration and Workplace Relations; and a high-profile NSW banker in charge of the Environment and Water.

The Analyst

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Australian Flag at The Big Day Out

Organisers of this week's Big Day Out concert have previously issued a statement that they did not want anyone to bring the Australain flag to the concert. Their reasoning was well-meaning: they wanted to avoid the possibility of trouble stemming from a few people who might use the flag as a visible rallying point and who want to cause trouble.

Such use aof the flag, and trouble, had occurred last year at the Cronulla riots. There were also people from far right-wing Nationalist groups trying to recruit some of the people involved.

The problem is not with the Australian flag. The problems lie with the people and concepts that the flag represents a white Australia, and that it should be used as a rallying point in the same way, and for similar purposes, as the Nazi flag. These concepts and the people who preach them are inappropriate, and not what our flag represents. It represents a "commonwealth" of states, where people work for the betterment of the country and all its people.

The organisers of The Big Day Out concert have retreated somewhat from their earlier statements, and are discouraging, rather than banning, people bringing the flag. Friday is Australia Day - a day when all Australians should join together and celebrate; recognising that Indiginous Australians predated white settlement, but that all Australians work and live together in a multicultural society. Let's party! Be Happy.

The Analyst

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Petrol Prices, Economics and Politics

ACCC Chairman Graeme Samuels has made a rare public statement, this time about the slow, or non-existent, fall in the price of petrol. The price of petrol in Australia is set by the oil companies. They follow, more or less, the price of crude sold on the Singapore market. Recently, it seems have been "more" ... for the oil companies.

The ACCC quite powerless, but can try to “name & shame” oil companies that it believes are not dropping prices. Interestingly, some service stations in Sydney dropped their prices this afternoon ... AFTER MR Samuels' statement was released.

The price of petrol has historically been quite inelastic – it is controlled by only a few companies ( an oligopoly) & demand is reasonably constant. This conforms roughly to Keynesian economic theory for goods run by an oligopoly. However, after petrol hit $1 / litre a few years ago, it is more likely to suffer falling demand if price rises quickly /stays too high, as people react and complain.

Deputy PM Mark Vaille has said the Federal Government would look at more powers for ACCC if needed. Here it is caught in political push-pull. Oil companies are significant donors to political parties, but the Government could suffer voter backlash about the continuing high price of petrol, as as happened previously. Then, the Federal Government fixed the amount of fuel excise, in order to reduce the CPI increases in excise, and therefore price. It wants to avoid a voter backlash because there is an election this year.

The Government would like to think fuel price in Australia would be set by “free market forces” (demand/supply). Here, it reverts to Keynesian economics, rather than the “economic rationalism” theory it uses elsewhere. The reality is it needs to have a mixed economy where there is some government regulation in order to prevent excessive price blowouts. This might well include giving the ACCC greater powers to fine, or otherwise penalise, oil companies, and their executives. When it's personal, executives are more likely to be responsible and conform to regulation.

The Analyst

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Childcare, Taxes and Corporations

Let me express at the outset that I have no personal interest in childcare at the moment. My children are too old and I have no grandchildren. However, a friend has asked me to express an opinion, and I am not shy of doing that.

Some facts:
  • Childcare in Australia has become big business. ABC Learning and Childcare Centres Australia are both large corporations, making multi-million dollar profits. Several Federal conservative politicians or leading members of conservative parties have significant shareholdings in one or more of these corporations. This is not to say that they have done anything corrupt or illegal, but the Federal Government does provide the subsidy that these corporations collect, directly or indirectly.
  • In 1991, John Howard's (Federal) government, opened up childcare to private providers.
  • In the years since 1991, the cost of childcare has risen greatly, to the point where Federal Government "subsidies" account for 60% of the fees charged.
  • Ann Mann, author of "Motherhood", researched levels of cortisol in children. Cortisol is a stress hormone (like adrenaline). She found children cared at home had high levels in the morning, which then became lower as the day progressed. Children in childcare had high levels, even in the afternoon.
  • There are mostly 2 "types" of childcare centres: community-based, and corporate.
  • Corporate childcare centres, by their very nature, must concentrate most on the shareholders profits. Part of this is to place quite restrictive budgets in its centres.
  • ABC Learning Centres, like others, receives 60% of its funding from Federal Government subsidies. This represents about 40% of its $250-$350 million income in 2005. It used a large amount of money to sponsor a national basketball team, and to buy paraphernalia from some of its players and coach. If it had no subsidies from taxpayers, it could still make $150-$200 million!
  • Meanwhile (meanly?!), childcare workers remain one on the lowest paid groups of adults in Australia.
The childcare benefit (CCB) paid by the Federal Government is supposed to make childcare affordable. It can be paid to parents at the end of the (financial) year, or as a co-payment to the provider. With the rise of corporate involvement in childcare, and the increase in fees, I'm not sure it's making childcare affordable - rather, it seems to be making corporate shareholders richer.

I believe the time has come when we must consider a system of public childcare, similar to public education. This would have the following benefits:
  • Proper government control of standards
  • Establishment of national standards
  • Improved pay for childcare workers
  • Consistency of care and programs, while still allowing tailoring to suit the cultural and social needs of local communities.
  • Using public money for public good, using public resources.
If they want a change in how childcare is delivered, parents and other voters must make enough noise in the media.

The Analyst

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Holiday Road Toll and P-Plate Drivers

Operation Safe Arrival ran from 22-Dec-06 till midnight on 5-January-07. In that time there were 19 people killed on NSW roads, more than 16000 were booked for speeding; more than 1000 were booked for driving with proscribed amounts of alcohol; and more than 1000 were booked for seat belt offences!

Of the 19 killed in NSW 4 were P-plate drivers; 1 was a 4-month old passenger of a P-plate driver and the other 14 had full licences.

Much has been discussed in the media about bans and further restrictions on P-Plate drivers, and they are certainly disproportionately represented in the holiday road toll. But what about the rest: 15 people died at the hands of people with full licences. I had an experience where a car about 200m in front, on a good dual-carriageway, dual-lane highway, lost control on the outside of a gentle curve, fishtailed, then spun through about 540 degrees. The tyres were useless after. The driver? - an man, about 40 years old, driving a performance version of a family car, who was speeding (about 120+ km/hr) There were 5 or 6 cars alongside and immediately behind him.

With 16000 drivers (repeat sixteen THOUSAND drivers) fined for speeding in NSW over 15 days, the impact of "double-demerit points" and the advertizing for drivers to slow down is having minimal impact.

Solution: - those drivers fined for speeding, alcohol and seat-belt offences during times of "double demerit", should automatically have their licence suspended for 1 month, on-the-spot! A hole punched in their licence indicates a cancellation. Their licence can be re-issued after paying the appropriate fine and taking the receipt to an RTA office. Drastic? Yes, but at least those people putting the rest of us at risk will be off the road for the holiday period.

The Analyst

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Ban Surgery for Smokers - Surgeon

Today's news carries a story where a surgeon says that denying smokers orthopedic joint replacements, reconstructive surgery and other elective operations was justified in a health system with limited resources because it was more risky and expensive to operate on them.

There are many views on ethical dilemmas: making the most efficient use of resources for the common good creates many such dilemmas. Respiratory surgeon Matthew Peters' suggestion is, I believe, wrong, but it needs more than a cry of "you can't do that".

Dr Peters' position uses the base arguments of: operations on smokers are more risky; smokers take longer (that whom?) to recover from surgery; the benefits to smokers might not be as great as for others.

There are many groups of people for whom surgery is a higher risk than normal: people who use too much alcohol; drug users; those who have suffered significant trauma because of their own stupidity; people who play sports, and want to return to doing the same things; older people; and very young people. Denying surgery to one group of people who have a higher risk, but not targeting other groups is not a reasonable basis on which to operate (so to speak).

Some groups of people do take longer to heal, and need more time and resources from hospitals: very young infants, and older people are two such groups. Do you deny them surgery.

We do not deny people because of the cost. We do not say to any group "Sorry, this operation costs a lot, so you can't have it." Not to any group.

On what basis do doctors decide on surgery? Need, and benefits. Before any surgery, doctors will examine the risks and the benefits. They will discuss them with the patient, if that is possible. If the possible risks outweigh the possible benefits, it is likely that the surgery would not proceed.

For long-term smokers, the risks for some surgery might outweigh the benefits - but that needs to be judged on each individual case, not on a "class" of people. The same applies to all other cases.

The Analyst

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Water Policies 2007

Today's news papers carry more stories about the lack of water in Australia. We have certainly felt the lack of rain resulting from the effects of El Nino.

In the last quarter of 2006, the Federal Government increased the status of water issues, creating a Parliamentary Secretary. Prime Minister John Howard has publicly said that he wants control over all the Murray-Darling Basin - system that covers parts of Queensland, NSw, Victoria and SA. However, water is a State responsibility. Whether it should be handed over to the Federal Government is another matter, and, constitutionally, should be subject to a referendum.

The responses of the States to the prolonged drought and falling water supplies varies. However, NSW is the only state where the Government will not accept the concept of recycled water. Since the concept was raised in 2004-05, various NSW Ministers have stated that the people of Sydney "will not accept recycled water". To my knowledge there has been no comprehensive, reliable survey of Sydney residential users.

As Sydney's storage capacity falls to 36%, the NSW Government says that increased water restrictions in Sydney will cause "panic" and are unnecessary. Were it not for supplementary water supplies from other parts of the State, Sydney's water would be at about 25% of capacity, and Sydney would have the same water restrictions as other towns desperate for water. Goulburn (NSW) and Toowoomba (Qld) are two such towns that have been in the news.

Both the NSW Labor Government, and the Liberal/National Opposition have said that they will not increase water restrictions. The ONLY reason for saying this is self-interest - there is a State election in March and they do not want to upset the voters.

Yet it would seem that that increased water restrictions would be a cheaper option to building and powering a brand new desalination plant to supplement water supplies for a short time. There appears to be no cohesive short, medium or long-term plans to properly manage water supplies for Sydney, or to act in the best interests of Sydney residents.

In the last 20 years, the population of Sydney has doubled; its water storage capacity has not changed. Our governments will not invest in infrastructure; they want to protect their budget surplus, keep demanding a "dividend" from Sydney Water (so it has little money) and keep their votes.

We need politicians who will do something for the community; rather than do something for themselves and their parties. It seems voters have to create a political backlash to force their hand! What a shameful indictment of our governments.

The Analyst

Monday, January 01, 2007

Saddam Hussein is Dead

Saddam has been executed in Iraq, after being found guilty of the murder of more than 100 Shi'ites. This was not his only crime against humanity; but it is the one for which he was executed, in Iraq. Perhaps the millions, who suffered the loss of family and friends because of Saddam's relentless violent suppression of dissent, have also given their own "death sentence" to Saddam. Small comfort.

People must fill the details of his other crimes. We must not allow the human tragedies and degradation to be glossed over, now that he is dead. If humanity is to learn, it must record all that was wrong, and document ways to prevent it.

History will summarize Saddam Hussein's rule in just two words:
"dictator, butcher".

The Analyst