January 29th 2005


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Lessons of the tsunami tragedy

TAX REFORM: Time to abolish income tax?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Labor needs new direction as well as new leader

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Labor after the Latham experiment

WA ELECTIONS: Labor's Geoff Gallop looking at defeat

FREEDOM OF SPEECH: The perils of vilification laws

EDUCATION: Deconstructing 'Critical Literacy'

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Ockham's Razor ... or Jack the Ripper? / Hogarth's Melbourne / Victoria's ailing hospitals

RUSSIA: Putin, Communism, and Santamaria's hopes for Russia

INDONESIA: Jemaah Islamiah's threat to regional security

Swifter response needed (letter)

Labor misrepresented (letter)

WW2 Allied air raids (letter)

CINEMA: Behind the Kinsey legend

BOOKS: BIOEVOLUTION: How Biotechnology is Changing the World, by Michael Fumento

BOOKS: EICHMANN: His Life and Crimes, by David Cesarani

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STRAWS IN THE WIND:
Ockham's Razor ... or Jack the Ripper? / Hogarth's Melbourne / Victoria's ailing hospitals


by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, January 29, 2005
Ockham's Razor ... or Jack the Ripper?

Just as Australians were putting the final touches on their Christmas puddings, Peter Costello donated a consignment of bitter cherries for the approaching festivities. He has "written off Australia's below-cost manufacturing sector, saying the only future for local production is in niche, high value-added and speciality markets" (The Australian, December 22, 2004).

One third of our $251 billions' manufacturing sector could be described as mass production, The Australian pointed out. This segment would find it difficult to survive: "Low-cost manufacture is increasingly moving to China." So where will Australia find its manufacturing future? "In higher-value added and speciality markets."

Now we have been hearing this story since 1973, when Whitlam and Cairns cut tariffs by 25 per cent in our textile and footwear industries, and wrecked them. The story then was that we would move to high-tech manufacturing, and that this would allow the "poor countries" to our North to develop faster, and be able to buy more of our food, our minerals and our more advanced technological products.

The reality was that these "poor" Asian countries proceeded to advance at a great rate, and, jumping the technological queue, were soon producing the same high-tech products as were we, only cheaper and, dare I say it, in some cases better.

But swathes of our working-class suburbs - former hives of stout activity - were switched off, economically and socially. This degenerative process has continued ever since, until now our manufacturing labour force is 15 per cent - half of what it was when Whitlam and Cairns started on the downsizing, anti-protectionist road. And we face another onslaught - China - even before the China-Australia free trade agreement has left the drawing board.

Where are these displaced workers going to go? How are their families going to fare? The usual story is that they will go into the "service industries". Unfortunately, cost-cutting, downsizing and a continual process of takeovers, mergers and privatisation, are subjecting workers in the service industries to the same job insecurities and instabilities as our blue-collars have been enduring. Only done with more gentility, and spin.

Alain de Botton has just brought out a book called Status Anxiety. In one part of this, talking of factors of dependence, which generate anxiety, including status concerns, he analyses dependence on an employer: the unpredictability and the likelihood that we will have to depend for our status on the priorities of an employer. Then there is the workers' dependence on the employer's profitability, then, as he says, there is dependence on the global economy.

The employer-employee relationship has been a potentially difficult one throughout the ages, despite the views of romantics; but the sheer contemporary remoteness of employers and decision-makers from employees, the inscrutability, inaccessibility and unaccountability of so many of the international forces, transactions and actors, so far as most workers are concerned, are unique.

"Rather than a sign of hysteria, steady anxiety may seem a plausible response to the real threats of the economic environment" (Alain de Botton). Making things worse for most people is the almost total equation of status with money - how much you can buy, spend and exhibit. And own. Just as more and more traditional sources and marks of status, other than money, are dissolving in the face of ubiquitous materialism.

Meanwhile, the old support networks, which both validated and sustained their members - particularly the families and local communities - are too often damaged or virtually disappearing. The retrenched or retired worker can simply drop out of the social system.

We don't know how many unemployed we really have - given the thimble-and-pea official philosophy. We know unemployment is not five per cent or 500,000. It is probably more like two million and as much as 15 to 20 per cent. The whole matter has been canvassed by News Weekly, so I won't reproduce the arguments.

Suffice to say that a socio-economic system where the major parties are not simply spectators of, but advocates for, policies which remorselessly deprive one section of its population after another of gainful employment, replacing lost jobs with short-term band-aid schemes, and parasitic activities - e.g., the gambling, alcohol, "entertainment", hospitality industries - has become, doubtless unintentionally, a conspiracy against the common good. Like Adam Smith's conspiring businessmen, although on a much larger scale.

If our governors have lost control of the system, local and international, what chance of affecting outcomes has the ordinary man?

Hogarth's Melbourne

A week or so ago I picked up, on one of the commercial stations, some very sad material about the lifestyles - if you can call them that - of our 14 to 17-year-olds. Apparently, 80 per cent of them drink, and to excess. Binge-drinking is a common expression of this alcohol culture. Over the four-year period, 37 per cent of girls will require medical treatment either from a doctor or a hospital for the effects of alcoholic excess. These are, supposedly, the next generation of Australian parents.

But what are the contemporary parents doing to watch and guard over the dangers, hazards and temptations facing their children, as of now? Clearly, a great many parents are simply walking away from their responsibilities, although the activities in question can affect their children for life.

Needless to say, the orchestrated de-legitimising of parenting, the denial of the prerogatives of the parent, and the rubbishing of the family - not simply as an institution for producing children and raising them, but as a generator of moral, religious and social values - have destroyed the self-confidence of many a parent, and encouraged their children to practise moral blackmail and infantile rebelliousness. Attitudes which can remain with them for life.

Free spirits

Of course the media devote themselves to telling the young that they are free spirits, so as to sell them fast foods, alcohol, grubby sex and violence.

Nevertheless, the contemporary parents still have to shoulder a lot of the blame. For one thing, too many of them are, or were, into the booze culture, the "recreational" drug scene and the gluttony which has made one in four Australians obese (and one in four Australians are on anti-depressants - most brands of which increase weight). Such parents are not simply poor mentors and exemplars to their families, but half-inclined to sympathise with their children's "free" lifestyles.

This is a society in crisis. Readers who will remember William Hogarth (1697-1764) - his Gin Lane and A Rake's Progress paintings of English life in the 18th century, when what seemed to be the whole of society was drowning in gin - may think that we have its successor here, now, in Australia. Naturally, nothing will be done by our political parties to rein in the booze barons, as radicals used to call them. Except, on the roads, where death is no respecter of wealth or party.

Victoria's ailing hospitals

The Red Cross has performed many tasks in its long history; but it is now having to help prop up Victoria's ailing hospital system by calling for volunteers to comfort patients banked up in trolleys awaiting treatment, or admission to a hospital bed.

Doctors are appreciative of this innovation, saying that it is easier to treat patients when they are calm, not upset. Indeed.

The Herald Sun's Tanya Giles recently filed a very good account of the magnitude of the hospital/patient crisis in Victoria.

The Department of Human Services said that 1,075 Victorians spent more than 12 hours on trolleys in emergency departments in the year up to September, with Barwon Heads Hospital accounting for 400 of them.

Opposition health spokesman David Davis said that these numbers did not include those transferred to other hospitals, or who had discharged themselves without being treated. Like those who don't appear on unemployment statistics, because they've given up trying to find work.

The deterioration of health and hospital services under the Bracks/Pyke régime has been continuous and makes the tenure of Marie Tehan seem a triumph of competence.

Yet she was under constant attack from the media and the unions, whereas never-ending excuses are made for Bronwyn Pike and her bosses: "It's the non-bulk-billing doctors. No, it's John Howard. No, it's Uncle Tom Cobbly." Shades of the Kirner Government.

As a patient in public hospitals in the late 1920s, and then the Depression, and despite the almost ubiquitous shortage of money in Victoria, I never remembered people waiting on trolleys, ambulances banking up outside hospitals, ambulances racing from hospital to hospital, patients' operations being cancelled - repeatedly - at short notice. Unthinkable.

It's not really about money. It's about the commitment of the staff and the competence of the governors and the administrators. None of this is present here - so the future may lie with the volunteers. We could do with a new religious order to give support to hospital patients who are now on their own.

Meantime, the situation in regional Victoria is getting worse, almost week by week. Health Services Union Victorian branch secretary, Jeff Jackson, said: "In country Victoria, there are 6,708 people already waiting for surgery. While that figure exists, the decision to close operating theatres is a smack in the face of what is already becoming a crisis."

The Rural Doctors Association Victoria (RDAV) estimates that 10 country hospitals stopped surgery in the past decade, and two more country hospitals - Rochester and Elmore District Health Service, and Koo Wee Rup Regional Health Service in West Gippsland - are ending surgery "because of staff losses and an ageing theatre". Really? Not ageing patients, or ageing excuses?

Waiting up to three years

Bendigo orthopaedic surgeon Dugas James said that up to 20 of his patients were booked for surgery at Rochester within weeks, but now faced waiting up to three years in Bendigo.

Among those were patients suffering constant pain with degenerative conditions of the knee and shoulder.

"Most of these people would be on regular analgesics and anti-inflammatory medications, all of which have side-effects," Mr James said. "We, as medical staff, were not informed of this until Wednesday night."

Bendigo gastroenterologist Michael Weetch broke the news to about 30 of his patients booked for forthcoming surgery at Rochester. He added: "If I was a local, I'd be pretty cheesed off" (Herald Sun, January 14, 2005).

All this talk about decentralisation, and making country towns and country life more attractive, and if you like safer, is humbug, isn't it?

Just as Kennett decimated country schools, Mr Bracks's people are now giving country health services the death of a thousand cuts.

  • Max Teichmann




























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