February 17th 2007

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: The Qantas buyout - how to avoid tax

SCHOOLS: Education or political indoctrination?

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Eight months for Howard to claw his way back

WATER: PM puts water on the agenda, but ...

BUSHFIRES: Fuel-reduction burn-offs needed - ACT Coroner

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Double double, toil and trouble / Choosing a new battlefield / Immigration mess / A fire sale for DFAT?

INTELLIGENCE CORNER: The next socialist Shangri-La / Downplaying the Islamist threat / Beware the Bear

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: Pakistan feels jilted by US-India nuclear deal

SPECIAL FEATURE: The legacy of B.A. Santamaria

MARRIAGE AND FAMILY: Rights and wrongs in relationship recognition

PREGNANCY COUNSELLING: Health Minister Abbott's initiative attacked

OPINION: My unhappy memories of Julia

SCIENCE: WA bid to host $2 billion radio telescope

Milton Friedman let off far too lightly (letter)

Free-market capitalism and Christianity (letter)

The enemy in our midst (letter)

Nativity film defended (letter)

CINEMA: Heroism amidst inhumanity - Blood Diamond

CINEMA: Enchanting story for all ages - Miss Potter

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Those with superior intelligence need to learn to be wise

BOOKS: TREASON IN TUDOR ENGLAND: Politics and Paranoia, by Lacey Baldwin Smith

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Double double, toil and trouble / Choosing a new battlefield / Immigration mess / A fire sale for DFAT?

by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, February 17, 2007
Double double, toil and trouble

The Victorian state Liberal Party is still wandering around in search of a cause, while the state's infrastructure is quietly falling apart. Rather than pursuing its brand of efficient management and governance, the party remains silent through a summer when we have had an unreliable supply of water, air, electricity, and now transport. As I write, the new Transport Minister, Lynne Kosky, is reported to be on holidays.

Unwarranted though it is, the Liberals now seem embarrassed at their introduction of privatisation in Victoria — even though it has been a policy introduced by many governments, Liberal and Labor alike.

Locally, the Liberals would be doing better if they understood that the Thatcherite policy was merely in its pioneering stages, and that many adjustments were and are needed, and to point out that Labor has proved to be incompetent in dealing with its complexities, and is thereby compounding already serious energy problems.

However, it is typical of Australian political commentators that they argue in extremes. The fact is that there are different kinds and forms of privatisation, and it can be applied in different areas with varying degrees of success.

In the 1990s, with the introduction of privatisation, there was established an Office of the Regulator-General. In 2001, it was replaced by the Essential Services Commission. It was to promote efficiency and competition, as well as to protect the public interest in the areas of electricity, gas, transport, etc.

The problem was that no-one in the general public really knew that it existed.

This is a lesson for the Liberals, who should now be seen to publicise, strengthen and advocate a more powerful role for the Regulator-General, and who should criticise the Labor Government for the velvet-glove treatment it is giving these privatised bodies, which at least functioned under the Liberals.

According to the legal contracts that the electricity and transport companies have with the state governments, the privatised bodies should be heavily penalised for not delivering. The idea that the public will be compensated by delayed increases in fares does not accord with the promise of 80 per cent punctuality or your money back.

It is unbelievable that this should be happening in the middle of an oil-supply crisis, with no parties commenting on the potential that such mismanagement has in creating serious long-term effects on the local economy … leading the way, once again, to the rust-belt status which Victoria enjoyed in the 1980s.

For it is not only the trains that cannot run (let alone run on time): the supply of electricity has now become unreliable. Indeed, one wonders if the trains cannot run precisely because of the inadequate amount of electricity available to them.

Who is really to blame? Is it really a problem of the trains' brakes? At all events, it should not be impossible to calculate how much electricity Victoria needs, before selling its "surplus" on the national grid.

If this is a matter of Labor silently wishing to use wind and solar energy, then there is a need to work out precisely how much coal energy we need now — and in the long term.

This is a matter with serious implications, not only for public and private companies — the retail sector, and so on — but for the domestic sphere, given governments' policies on increasing the numbers of home offices and "hospitals in the home", so as to cut their own overhead expenses.

Bearing in mind the ageing population, the number of people dependent not only upon air-conditioning, but upon various life-saving medical machines, such as oxygen supplies, for concentrators, etc., etc., the potential for chaos, even tragedy, is obvious.

It looks as if governments are divesting themselves now of all such responsibilities, while assuming others, where their presence is otiose.

All state political parties need really to pay more attention to what went on in the U.S. last summer.

In July 2006, The Economist noted the electricity blackouts in New York and Philadelphia (where one million people were affected), and revealed that there were a series of class actions now being taken against the electricity companies in the U.S.

Who is guarding the guardians? And when will our class actions start? But, I would suggest, don't try Labor lawyers!


Choosing a new battlefield

John Howard has made a very skilful reshuffle of his Cabinet, and Labor and its media friends are somewhat nonplussed.

He has taken Kevin Andrews out of industrial relations, and replaced him with Joe Hockey. Joe has already gained much free television coverage and has performed to his considerable advantage.

Kevin Rudd has often been his friendly co-performer, so will find it very hard to portray him as a heartless, theory-driven monster, or a cat's paw of the bosses. Julia Gillard must be cursing her luck, for Hockey is a cheery conciliator.

Nevertheless, Hockey has a big problem. The ceaseless takeovers and consequent "downsizing", and the undercutting of local businesses by cheap imports, are driving local businesses to fold, or to invite takeover.

There are going to be endless potential disputes over shutdowns and layoffs, and even more debates about compensation and payouts.

Only Howard and Costello can arrest this process; assuming that it can be arrested.

Hockey has to have a totally efficient early-warning system, so he can get to the place of conflict before the union thugs and gutter press have forestalled him by throwing oil on the flames, and falsifying the issues. But he can't stop businesses folding or going broke.

He should also become au fait with practices which are creeping into conditions of work — fuelled by the belief, held by many employers, that under the new industrial regulations, they now are able to get away with all manner of invasive, and intimidatory, conduct.

Thus, a lady I know, who is a cleaner — but clearly able and willing to perform in many other venues — applied for a job, in Melbourne, at a factory which makes machinery and machine tools. She quickly rose to the short list, then was told that she, like others, would have to wear an electronic tag, which would go back to a monitor in the office.

This would show if she went to the toilet, and for how long she stayed; if she stopped to talk to another worker, and for how long; if she went outside the building, for how long. My friend ended her application at that point, and chose cleaning houses.

This may all be legal, but is a gross invasion of privacy — vintage Big Brother. Hockey, if necessary, should have the law changed.

I have many other examples, including those from state authorities, libraries, the education sector, etc., etc.

The second senior appointment, Malcolm Turnbull, could also be a masterstroke — for his opposite numbers, such as Midnight Oil, are simply not up to the job. In fact, in playing up Midnight Oil, Labor is repeating the original Latham blunder.

The reality is, Australians want the water crisis resolved, and the power crisis resolved, quick-sticks. No more conferences, summits, bellowing about states' rights.

The state Labor governments are in fact in bad odour, and the states' rights cause is seen as a self-serving political ploy. They risk the majority of voters walking away from the states as powerful actors, and withdrawing much of their loyalty. Howard is going to win this one, as he is with the debate on power — including nuclear power.


Immigration mess

The Immigration Department, to which Kevin Andrews has moved, has been a permanent headache, and a periodic nightmare, to successive governments, ever since the 1960s.

Queue-jumping and fast-forwarding individuals and groups favoured by some politicians or bureaucrats, while far more suitable migrants remain in the queue, have been commonplaces.

The Department has a political culture and work ethos which relies on opacity, unaccountability, covering-up, fragmented decision-making, and jobs for the favoured boys, girls and other persons.

More often than not, there has been a Yes, Minister power situation, although Phillip Ruddock did better than many in keeping his end up.

But Amanda Vanstone seemed a total failure in this regard; they were far too cunning for her, and she shares far too much of that touchy-feely sentimentality, whose practical effects are to frustrate the wishes of the more sensible public servants, of the legislators, and of the general public, while creating an enormous cash-cow for mischievous litigation lawyers and the mercenary army of civil rights mountebanks.

Andrews is no touchy-feely, but in his new area of Immigration and Citizenship, he can expect considerable support — especially if he can stop the heists, the rorts, and the bringing here of the wrong people.


A fire sale for DFAT?

It would be nice if a vacuum-cleaner could also go through the Foreign Affairs bureaucracy, and its rusted-on atavistic Whitlamites … but with a powerful minister, who also partakes of this Wilsonian/Dr Evatt goulash, there'll be no change.

The English used to say that a diplomat was a gentleman sent abroad to lie for his country. Whereas the Russian goes abroad to spy for his country. An Australian diplomat in New York said that the Australian mission was just a post office through which documents and cables passed.

A very fine diplomat, Michael Elizur, who was Israel's Ambassador here in the 1970s, once told me that diplomats were just clerks nowadays. (He was the one marked down for assassination by terrorists, along with Bob Hawke, Isi Leibler and Sam Lipski). More than a clerk, you would think; and so he was, but one of a sick and dying species.

Michael and his wife secretly loathed the endless glass-clinking diplomatic round in Canberra, where they had to live.

To retain his sanity, he enrolled in a bookbinding course at the local college, and became a good bookbinder. In his course application, he gave his occupation as "clerk".

"This is true", he insisted to me. This conversation occurred 30 years ago.

Why, then, is Australia opening up new diplomatic posts and lavishly upgrading the others? If it is said, "to help overseas Australians, residents and tourists", my answer is, rubbish.

I got foul service from our lot everywhere, and always used the dear old Brits, wherever I could. They, at least, were at their desks, answered the phones, and felt some strange kind of duty to old members of the Empire.

I doubt if ours felt any such duty to anyone, least of all to us. But nothing will change there, until the next leadership changes.

— Max Teichmann.

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