Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Not quite yet

The day of increased interest rates must have moved considerably closer this morning when the economic pundits were again surprised by the strength of the Australian economy. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that retail sales in August, seasonally adjusted, grew by 0.9% following declines of 0.9% in July and 0.8% in June 2009. The median of the economists surveyed by Bloomberg had predicted a much smaller sales increase of 0.5% 

Election winning reputation on the line

Barack Obama delivers himself again to the fate of the ballot box on Friday when he fronts the International Olympic Committee meeting in Copenhagen to support his home town's bid to conduct the 2016 Olympic Games. The Crikey Olympics Indicator thinks he can win again with Chicago the firm favourite.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Punishing Saints fans twice

St Kilda players are not punters. We know that from the atrocious way they behaved after the final siren. Just imagine the anguish of a Sainter in those final seconds. There’s the devastation of defeat but at least the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve got the money from TAB Sportsbet because of the 9 1/2 points start. But no! The backmen in black, red and white have walked away from the goal square like zombies. No one stayed behind to stop that final, after the siren, punt from dribbling through. A Geelong winning margin of 12 points and thousands of Saints fans deprived of the consolation of being able to say we might have been robbed of the game but at least we won the money.

Encouragement for Barnaby

This morning’s Newspoll will encourage Barnaby Joyce to keep on with is campaign of separating the National Party was far as possible from the Liberal Party. The analysis showing that, on the Newspoll figures over the past three months, the Coalition vote is holding up in rural areas while declining in the cities is clearly what the good Senator thought was happening. If his lot is not to go down the gurgler with the Libs then showing you are not the same is the best way of doing it.

A lack of understanding

Malcolm Turnbull was quick to dismiss, during one of those interminable Sunday morning television interviews, the views of Treasury secretary Ken Henry that Australia’s economic stimulus package should not yet be wound back. The Turnbull view can be summarised as being  — the head of Treasury would say that wouldn’t he  — he’s a servant of the government. The leader of the Opposition clearly has no notion of the way that an independent and impartial public servant actually does serve the government of the day without becoming a liar on the government’s behalf. When Henry is asked to give a view, and does so, the opinion is most certainly what he believes. The great skill of the man, and many other decent and responsible senior public servants like him, is to find ways of not answering questions when to do so would involve engaging in criticism of his political masters. That is a long way different from being the unprincipled lackey that Turnbull describes. He clearly has spent too much time with the Godwin Grechs of Canberra and not enough with those who actually make the country work.

Zen and the art of transdisciplinary studies

Australians back climate action the Sydney Morning Herald headline told us this morning as it reported that three quarters of Australians believe that the price of fossil fuels should be increased to deal with climate change and 92% believe a legally binding global climate deal is urgent and should be made at the conference to be held in Copenhagen in December. These extraordinary findings, so supportive of a Green cause, were printed without the slightest hint of the scepticism they deserved to be treated with when it was revealed that the project, “Worldwide Views on Global Warming”, was not some carefully constructed opinion poll. Rather, it gave the views of a hand-picked group  — described as “demographically representative” without any information being given as to how the picking was done. What was revealed was that the picking itself was in the very safe hands of the Institute for Sustainable Futures, at the University of Technology Sydney, whose September newsletter has an illuminating piece entitled “Zen and the art of transdisciplinary studies.” Enough said.

Further fascination with surveys

The Adelaide Sunday Mail is another newspaper that reckons surveys make good news. At the weekend it carried a report based on work by that noted sampler of public opinion the Cartoon Network. The seventh annual New Generations survey of 1952 children conducted by the network earlier this year apparently found that Kids rate global crisis as biggest worry —   not the global-warming crisis this time but children worrying about their job prospects before they even finish primary school as a result of the global financial crisis. If they would only watch more cartoons and fewer news bulletins …

The Crikey German election indicator pointed the way

They are quite complicated things, these elections, which result in coalition governments  — a lot of possible permutations and combinations but the Crikey German Election Indicator we published last Thursday pointed us in the right direction even if the weekend’s result was more clear-cut than it suggested it would be.
The winning Coalition between chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU) and the Free Democratic Party (FDU) was the favoured way with the Indicator assessing it as a 51.3% probability.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Footy fever spreads

The page-one pictures I understand  — it is grand final eve in Melbourne after all and they are down to four teams in the northern state’s rugby league comp. But editorials about football in the Melbourne Herald Sun and the Sydney Daily Telegraph? Not that the theme of both will come as a surprise to anyone who has followed either code during the season. The behaviour of the boys has inspired both editorial writers.
In Melbourne the Hun sternly tells Brendan Fevola that “You deserve to be dumped by the Carlton Football Club for years of drunken behaviour that even for you went over the top at the Brownlow Medal night at Crown.” At the Terror they passed by commenting on the story of the manager of a junior league team suspended for five years and one player banned for 15 years over the vicious grand-final brawl in Sydney’s west to concentrate on the way that league has found God. Out at Parramatta Leagues Club, a new chief executive has welcomed the pastors from the Hillsong church in to the fold and the club’s star fullback Jarryd Hayne is following the Christian path. Which has prompted this editorial:
There is no mention of eels in the Bible  — the closest similar term, possibly a little worrying for Parramatta fans, is Beelzebub  — but that should be of little concern to Parra fullback Jarryd Hayne, who along with several teammates is carrying his faith through the NRL finals.
Many in the tough world of rugby league may be inclined to mock Hayne and his fellow faithful but it is worth considering how much possible benefit to the game may result from their beliefs.
For a start, those following a religious calling are usually less inclined to get into the sort of controversies that have diminished league in recent seasons.
This can only be a very good thing. Look at the example set by the Bulldogs’ Hazem El Masri, who might just be the most admired man in rugby league. In large part this is due to, not despite of, his deeply-held religious convictions.
Also, it is also worth appreciating that new audiences may be brought to the game by those who share an enthusiasm for various religious beliefs. The potential size of that audience is large and growing.
Beyond league, this can only help build bridges in wider society. The NRL, through the example of its players, is now able to take a stand against bigotry. Good on them.

A most peculiar thing

By 11.30 this morning it was as if the old Sydney Sun had arisen from the dead. The Sydney Morning Heraldwebsite was transformed from a serious enough replica of that paper’s printed Friday edition into a real shock-horror-probe-bid tabloid. In the top, headlines half of the site there were none of the stories that featured in the version on screens at 8am when I went off for my morning nap having filed Crikey’s breakfast media wrap.

Being nice to New Zealand

Kevin Rudd had his mate, Bill Clinton, to say nice words about him. Now New Zealand Prime Minister John Key is claiming the current US President as his new best friend. In rather breathless fashion this morning the New Zealand Herald tells the story.

Just like the child rushing home from school to say “Mummy, mummy, that lovely new boy spoke to me twice today.” World leaders surely do love standing in a little Barack Obama reflected glory.

The real casualties of war

They have been holding a conference at the war Memorial in Canberra this week on the treatment of soldiers coming home from wars and our local ABC has featured interviews with some of the participants. Some really heart-wrenching stories of the ways that suffering so often continues for years after the battlefield is left behind. But nothing so starkly shocking as the report in The Guardian this morning of how in the United Kingdom the number of former servicemen in prison or on probation or parole is now more than double the total British deployment in Afghanistan.

The study by the probation officers’ union Napo uncovers the horrid hidden cost of recent conflicts. The Guardian reports:
The snapshot survey of 90 probation case histories of convicted veterans shows a majority with chronic alcohol or drug problems and nearly half suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as a result of their wartime experiences on active service.
Those involved had served in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. They are most likely to have been convicted of a violent offence, particularly domestic violence.
The study provides the strongest evidence yet of a direct link between the mental health of those returning from combat zones, chronic alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence.
In many cases the symptoms of depression or stress did not become apparent for many years and included persistent flashbacks and nightmares.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Paying for a Clinton plug

Former President Bill Clinton really might have a high regard for our Prime Minister but somehow the glowing endorsement would have meant more if it had not been for the disclosure earlier this year that the Australian government is a donor to the Clinton Foundation, which put on the conference where the plug was given.

Immigration minister as God

If we still had a system of ministerial responsibility I would not care that the Immigration Minister is delegating to departmental officials difficult decisions about refugees. The real problem is not the inconsistency of public servants as refugee advocates are reported as saying this morning.
There is absolutely no reason to expect them to be that to any greater or lesser degree than the minister. The criticism should be that the very anonymity of the process of using public servants is that no one is publicly accountable now that ministers no longer take the blame for the failings of their underlings

Adding up the travel days

Rest assured that it will not be long after Kevin Rudd returns from his latest world tour before the Opposition mounts another one of its attacks on him for being such a peripatetic fellow. The assumption is that there are votes in portraying the PM as spends his time swanning round the world on a private jet while staying in luxury accommodation. Call it an appeal to the politics of envy.
And true it no doubt is that people meeting in those little market research focus groups grumble a bit about the injustice of life when they can’t get out of the western suburbs while Kevin Rudd is shaking hands with the rich and powerful overseas. But there is another side to this politics of world travel or our much-travelled Prime Minister would not have the phenomenally high approval rating that he has. Australians want their country to be respected by others and a leader who looks comfortable meeting the Queen, a Pope or a US President is a symbol of that.
Sure there will be the odd joke and snide remark but pride wins out whether it is a George W.Bush praising his friend, John Howard, or Bill Clinton declaring how clever is Kevin.

Not a good look

Dr Farmer thinks that Malcolm Turnbull is still looking quite crook — or at least old and very tired. He is hardly thriving on the pressure and why he jetted off to London to give a speech during this short parliamentary recess is beyond me.
A day or two on a northern beach pretending to be developing some major policy initiative would have done him more good. Have a look at a replay of his performance last night on Lateline and judge for yourself.
There is something essentially negative about everything the man now says and grumpy old men are rarely popular as Dr Farmer well knows.

A nice little political toy

It’s safe to say that I’m not too worried about which parties end up in the Coalition government to be formed in Germany. I’ve just taken an intriguing little test calledElection-O-Matic on the Der Spiegel website, which compares my views on an extensive range of policy options with those of the competing parties.
The end result is that it seems I have slightly more in common with the Free Democratic Party (currently third in the opinion polls) than the other majors but the CDU/CSU, led by chancellor Angela Merkel, and the SPD are locked together in my fancy not far behind followed by the Greens and Die Linke.

Taking the test was quite a bit of fun and an interesting way of learning a little about who stands for what in German politics. Perhaps our Crikey blogger Possum Comitatus might devise an Australian version for our next federal election. It would fit in well with those tests he already has on his site, which seek to classify people’s political leanings in a more sophisticated fashion than as simply left or right wing. To help you better understand my prejudices here’s how I scored on the Possum tests and you will find an explanation of what it’s all about on his site.

The Crikey German Indicator

Apparently the game for my newly chosen lot of pro-business liberals, the FDU, is to get enough seats to join Merkel as her Coalition partner and the Crikey Election Indicator suggests that is the most likely outcome at just over 50%. The Indicator on who will become chancellor has Merkel well out in front as a 95% chance.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Preparing for a warmer world

Talk, as they say, is cheap. Actions are far more expensive. So what really are the prospects of the nations of the world solving the problem of global warming? Even getting agreement on a form of words declaring the best of intentions is proving difficult enough.
Political leaders have been described as saluting the notion of controlling climate change but, as with Chinese President Hu Jintao and US President Barack Obama yesterday, there has been much emphasis on the difficulty of actually reaching an overall deal in Copenhagen in December.
And any agreement that is made looks very much as if the difficult bits of actually curbing carbon dioxide emissions in a meaningful fashion will be promised by this lot of leaders but left to their successors in 10 or 20 years to actually carry out.

An August record

The world’s ocean surface temperature was the warmest for any August on record, and the warmest on record averaged for any June-August summer season, according to the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. Worldwide records began in 1880 and the NCDC, part of the Us Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, alsoreported that the combined average global land and ocean surface temperature for August was second warmest on record, behind 1998.
For the June-August 2009 season, the combined global land and ocean surface temperature was third warmest on record. For the year to date, the combined global land and ocean surface temperature of 58.3 degrees F tied with 2003 for the fifth-warmest January-August period on record. This value is 0.99 degree F above the 20th century average.

A day of shame in NSW

They’ll be legalising hanging paedophiles from tree branches next. The special legislation being introduced today to evict Dennis Ferguson from his Ryde public housing flat is the act of a government that has given in to mob rule.

Obama steadies

The burst of media activity by US President Barack Obama at least seems to have stopped the rot in his popularity rating. The latest Gallup poll puts his approval figure at 53% after briefly getting down to 50%.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The dead weight of competition

When you see an industry association lobbying for regulation of its activity you can be sure of one thing: the real aim is to improve profitability by reducing competition. And so it is this week that the nation’s undertakers appear to be embarking on a campaign to keep the cost of dying high by calling on governments to regulate low cost operators out of business. Not that the expensive burial merchants are putting their case quite in those terms. The lobbying campaign which surfaced this week disguises the motives behind a veneer of a concern for the public good.
Hence in the Brisbane Sunday Mail at the weekend the pitch by Australian Funeral Directors Association president Rowan Steer was all about how difficult it was relatives to accurately assess a company’s credentials without there being an accreditation process. I mean, heaven forbid, left to their own devices some people might even choose the cheapest option for getting daddy’s body burned! That was exactly the point made by Doris Zagdanski, general manager of InvoCare Queensland, the state’s biggest funeral group, when she called for tighter regulation of the industry.
Without a scrutiny of scrutiny of private mortuaries operated by funeral companies “they can operate out of their lounge room and have a very nice website,” she told the paper with obvious horror. The result was some funeral directors offering funeral packages for about $3000, compared with an average $5000 for a cremation and $8500 for a burial, including the cemetery costs.
The attempt to get regulations in place to keep prices up has been going on for some years in Queensland. In the very finest of lobbying traditions the industry obtained an “independent” third-party endorsement for its views in the form of a Queensland University of Technology report prepared for the Queensland Funeral Industry Regulation working party in 2006. The report recommended a code of conduct, safety regulations for the transportation of bodies carrying infectious diseases, regulation of mortuaries and the roll-out of industry training programs but the Queensland Government has not yet acted upon it.
Perhaps those pesky public servants cannot see what is actually wrong with what the Funeral Directors Association calls “unchecked funeral directors” not even having a hearse or office but relying on public crematorium chapels and churches to hold services, and hiring mortuaries belonging to other firms.
For the New South Wales leg of the lobbying campaign the spokespeople for the high priced end of the undertaking market have chosen a slightly different tack in their attempt to keep the fees high. For them, as explained in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday, the big problem with a lack of regulation is that anyone can walk into the morgue and claim a body without showing identification, prompting fears that corpses could be wrongly removed or defiled. At Royal North Shore Hospital it was possible for members of the public to enter the mortuary’s freezer, which stores up to 10 bodies, and ”help themselves”, the secretary of the Funeral Industry Association, Graham Stewart, said.
He said undertakers were in fear that the wrong body could be buried or cremated before hospital staff had checked the paperwork, a particular concern for Jews or Muslims, who must usually be buried within 24 hours of death, or on days when two people with the same surname were in the morgue.
”It’s been going on for years and it’s appalling, but the health department told us not to complain to the hospital because they could make things worse for us,” Mr Stewart said.
At other hospitals, undertakers were required to submit detailed paperwork at the medical records office before being escorted to the mortuary by a porter and monitored by a morgue attendant while they removed the body.
”Not at Royal North Shore,” the proprietor of Mannings Funerals, John Manning, said yesterday.
”Anyone can walk in there, pick up a body without any paperwork and nobody would be any the wiser.”

Beating a nice retreat

It’s a good thing about being the government. If your opponents come up with a really good idea all you have to do is change your mind and steal it. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is proving quite adept at that task as the Labor record on climate change shows. The policy keeps softening while the pro-action rhetoric gets louder.
The latest Prime Ministerial admission that failure to get emissions trading legislation through the Senate was not hurting Australia’s influence in world forums gives but a Pyrrhic victory to Malcolm Turnbull and his team. The mob have no idea what an ETS is.
They just want their man Kevin to keep talking the good climate change talk and Kevin just wants to get his next election over before anyone has to pay a price for it.

Monday, 21 September 2009

The naughty choir boy

If it wasn’t for the fact that his opinion poll ratings were already so high I would predict that Kevin Rudd’s standing with Australians would improve as the news seeps through to the mob that he is capable of using a swear word or two.
That our angelic looking leader is capable of being a toughie when necessary in dealing with factional party hacks will clearly be seen as a good thing by most people. Nobody wants a wimp in charge of the country and as long as the “f” word is kept for use behind closed doors very few these days will be offended. Mr Rudd should be sending message of thanks to News Limited columnist Glenn Milne for breaking the yarn on Sunday.
It came just a day after the Morgan Poll returned Labor’s two party preferred support to the 63 per cent level. To give an idea of just how high that figure is, consider that in the last five Federal elections the highest two party vote of the winning party was John Howard’s Coalition which had a landslide win with 53.6 per cent in 1996. A vote of 60% plus would result in an electoral slaughter of a kind not seen in Australia before.

The daily health attack

A change of tactics is clearly needed if the Coalition is to stop the rot and the best this old Labor election strategist can do is suggest that the Opposition try something completely different like urging Labor to be foolhardy enough to carry out the Rudd threat to take over the administration of the nation’s public hospitals because state governments are proving incapable of running them.
Today’s example of how the system goes from bad to worse is once again from New South Wales where it is reported in the Sydney Morning Herald that Unions say 1000 jobs are to go in a hospital purge under the NSW Health Department’s voluntary redundancy program. With waiting lists already long and quality of service suffering, nurses, therapists and other health workers are to be let go.
Despite severe workforce shortages, the department has been calling for massive redundancies to compensate for its $646.6 million budget blowout. Surely it is time to tell the Prime Minister to really stop playing his blame game by ending the pretence that State Governments can fix things.

Changes in Japan

It will be intriguing to see how the totally inexperienced new Government in Japan will adapt to its role but it certainly looks like things will be different. For one thing I note that changes are being made to the particularly Japanese system of making information available only to selected journalists who agree to play the reporting game in accordance with rules devised by public servants. From now on that closed shop approach will end — at least at the Foreign Minister — where press briefings will in future be open to all media outlets.
The Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said on Friday that in princi0ple (the briefings) will be open to all media organisations, paving the way for non-members of Japan’s press club system to cover ministry interviews. The Mainichi news reported that members of the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association (NSK), the National Association of Commercial Broadcasters in Japan (NAB), the Japan Magazine Publishers Association (JMPA), the Internet News Association of Japan, and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (FCCJ) are among those subject to the open-door policy.
In addition, holders of the Foreign Press Registration Card, as well as freelance journalists who regularly contribute stories to organization members will also be allowed access to the ministry briefings, according to Okada.

Quote of the day

From the Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan visiting Lord Howe Island in the Pacific where he finds an environmental zealot he describes thus:
His attitude was a metaphor for the dark side of the environmental movement, the uncompromising, didactic, self-important side. Religious zeal may be on the wane in our society, but the impulse towards crusading, evangelistic certainty is not.
This is why the Greens have failed to break out of their 9 per cent political rump. The party should be in a much more powerful position, with the benefit of the great gale of environmental concern billowing in its spinnaker. Instead, it constantly sails into the politically less rewarding and less pragmatic territory of anti-capitalism, anti-Americanism, drug politics, sexual politics, identity politics, refugee politics and a doctrinaire brand of sanctimonious environmentalism that irritates more than educates.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Townsville’s PET problems - The daily health attack

The opportunity for the federal Coalition to attack Labor for being all talk and no action when it comes to improving public hospitals comes from the north today. The good burghers of Townsville are up in arms because north Queensland does not have its own PET scanner.

The Townsville Bulletin report this morning says 500 people are being flown to Brisbane each year from the Townsville region for a life-saving cancer scan. The paper then adds the argument that is ready-made for a political Opposition: the waiting list for a scan in Brisbane can take months  — putting lives at risk from aggressive cancers that are not found in time. Kevin Rudd talks about ending the blame game while Townsville people die.

A complacent campaigner

German chancellor Angela Merkel took to a train for her campaigning this week but it was a far cry from one of those whistle-stop tours so beloved of 1950s American politicians. Ms Merkel’s was apparently a very leisurely affair with Radio Deutsche Welle describing it as a lethargic trundle. In a nostalgic touch, the glass-topped Rheingold Express was the same train used during Konrad Adenauer’s election as the first chancellor of the Federal Republic exactly 60 years previously. Ms Merkel will not be too concerned as being described as a little boring. The CrikeyElection Indicator has her a 95% chance of being returned as chancellor.

Bad news and better news

Long-time readers of these snippets  — if there are such people  — will be aware of my fascination with sea ice concentration in the Arctic and the Antarctic. As one who finds all the calculations of the climate-change modellers far too complex to understand, I appreciate the simplicity of satellite pictures turned into little graphs with a straight line showing the trend.
I look, for example, at these pictures of the Arctic and grasp in an instant that something significant is going on when the area covered with ice is declining at more than 8% a decade. And while the latest reading has at least risen back to that frightening enough downward trend line, it is still the third biggest negative anomaly recorded by the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

At least when I move to the other hemisphere, the picture is far happier. The map shows sea ice coverage roughly the same as during the base period of 1979 to 2000 and the graph of southern hemisphere anomalies shows an ever-so-tiny rise in coverage every decade but still a rise.

The best I can conclude is that as the world gets hotter, I am happier being in the southern hemisphere rather than the northern. As this NASA chart shows, those northern temperatures are rising considerably more than here down south.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Try ramping for a change

Perhaps today would be a good time to make the switch to concentrating during question time on hospitals as I suggested earlier this week. On most days there is a perfect demonstration of how the public system is not coping adequately and today is no exception. Over in Perth the St John Ambulance has reported that ambulances spent almost 2000 hours ramped outside Perth’s public hospitals over winter because emergency departments were too busy to deal with the extra patients. The West Australian reported that ramping is the term for when ambulances are queued outside emergency departments over and above the usual turnaround time to transfer patients. Instead of going on to the next call-out, ambulance officers are forced to continue caring for patients until they can hand them over to hospital staff.