David M. Russell

Archive for 2009|Yearly archive page

Banks by any other name

In Commentary on September 10, 2009 at 11:23 am

Nobody likes banks. That has been a truism for decades: prior to that all but the richest among us were simply scared of them. But the Global Financial Crisis has sharpened our dislike to a razor-edge.

So, what does an astute capitalist do when a trend emerges? Tries to make a buck out of it, that’s right! Which is where a raft of large and continually growing Australian retailers come into the picture (and their exploitation of this situation is surely replicated – or originated – offshore).

We’re talking about massive retail chains like Harvey Norman and A Mart/Super A Mart. With no fanfare whatsoever, they have begun to play the banks at their own game – and their continual expansion demonstrates how smart their strategic ploy has been and how successful they have exploited the banks’ weakness.

Notice the vanguard marketing tactics of these retailers: 24 months’ interest free – no deposit, no repayments till 2011. There are scores of variations on this theme now but the common tactic remains the same. They are effectively offering consumers a loan. It is tricked-up as a commodity purchase – buy a lounge suite, a plasma TV, a kitchen – almost anything you want: just so long as you sign a binding contract to take a loan with them.

The reality is that the consumer items are really just baubles in much the same way as bankers of yesteryear offered home-buyers an all-day sucker as reward for signing on the dotted line. Some things just never change! In fact, you could argue that the mass-produced items offered by these retail chains are more or less give-aways – the cost of inducing us to enter into a debt agreement.

It is noteworthy that these retailers are now starting to specify minimum monthly repayments to secure their deals (a factor of the reduced availability of capital in the monetary system) but their hope is always that consumers will lose their focus and accidentally not pay-out the full balance by the due date thus becoming liable for all the accrued interest penalties. It’s a harsh world.

Of course, the retailers are as thick as thieves with credit houses like CitiBank who provide the finance packages. It’s a cosy partnership that is making both parties very content. It’s just the banks sitting on the sidelines who are gnashing their teeth at the loss of business. None of us will shed a tear for them but we should never forget that there are all kinds of sharks circling us and not all are called banks. Let the buyer beware.

Advertisements

Dedicated slackers!

In Commentary on September 10, 2009 at 11:21 am

Australians are frequently regarded as liking the good life just a little too much. Other people around the world seem to be convinced that our lifestyle advantages of sun, sand and surf lure us into a hedonistic mindset that puts work a very distant second to the noble pastime of enjoying ourselves to the fullest. Funny thing is, even us Aussies tend to agree with that assessment.

New evidence, however, suggests we may just have to see a different reflection in our mirror. The fact is that we are so dedicated to our jobs that we actually run away from taking annual leave. So great is our aversion to taking time off that we have accrued an extraordinary tally of 123 million days of time off.

What is worrying bosses is not that we won’t take holidays. That much they can handle. No, the problem is more prosaic: the accumulated liability of all that leave is a massive $33 billion. Now that kind of accrued debt can keep sleep away.

While bosses are starting to be concerned about this situation it is the tourist industry which is really beginning to develop grey hair as a consequence. All this dedication to staying at work is sending electric jolts through their hip pocket nerves. They don’t like it and they want us to change. So much so, they have prompted the production of TV ads to prick our consciences into having a holiday.

The response so far has been muted. It seems one in four of us is a committed leave-hoarder with five or more weeks of vacation time sitting unused in our entitlements.

An interesting aspect of this hoarding mania is that many of us really think work is important while just as many believe that if we actually walk out the door for a while, some of our ambitious colleagues will steal a march on us. Talk about paranoid! The Global Financial Crisis hasn’t helped, either, with many workers wanting to stockpile their entitlements just in case they get the sack.

The challenge we all face is to work out whether we are hedonists (taking all our leave as it becomes due); martyrs (the company would grind to a halt without me); scaredy-cats (the axe-blow of the sack could cripple my career at any time) or maladjusted misfits (can’t trust any of those bastards I work with). Whatever category we may belong to, the tourist industry and bosses just wish we’d take a few days off to think about it. As soon as possible, please! Our country needs us to slack off. Now that’s a turn up for the books, eh?

Memory dims for want of a bulb

In Commentary on September 9, 2009 at 3:52 pm

A shadow is falling across the globe as one of the brightest spots in our lives is extinguished forever. Okay, so that’s hopelessly corny but can you believe it? Incandescent light bulbs are about to go the way of the dinosaur. By the end of this year we won’t be able to buy them anymore as they are to be replaced by compact fluorescent lamps.

It’s all in the name of sustainability so there can be no argument against it: old-fashioned bulbs generate way more greenhouse gases than fluorescent lamps so they’re being switched-off by government fiat.

Interestingly, I can’t remember any political party in the past decade unveiling a policy platform that promised to dim our lives. And that is just what is happening. At first I thought my eyesight was failing because every time I replaced a bulb, my world shrank a little. Sure, I felt good that I was saving the world but a nagging inner voice kept asking why that world was getting smaller even though I was being as green as a frog.

The fact is that these new lamps are not as bright as the old ones. Their advocates – disturbingly young people with eyesight so good they can see in the bloody dark – don’t notice the difference. Lucky sods. They are so full of joy for the world as they preach the virtues of these new forces of darkness that they ignore the downsides – and there are quite a few of them.

For a start, the new fluoro lamps contain cancer-causing mercury which is also labelled a neurotoxin (don’t let any Russian spies get to you with this stuff). Nor is there yet any safe way to dispose of them. Our beloved federal governments (both persuasions are guilty) have put hands over their eyes so they can see no evil. Their sustainability approach is to ask us to store dead lamps at home or work until someone figures out something we can safely do with them.

And these people expect us to believe they deserve to run the nation! As the old saying goes: they couldn’t organise a root in a brothel.

But those dreadful entrepreneurs that the former government nurtured during its decade in office have recognised a money-making lurk when they see it and will recycle these mercury-ridden lamps safely for a hefty fee. They don’t say how they do that safely so keep a watch in your local creek for fish glowing in the dark. Just kidding.

It’s a wonderful state of affairs, isn’t it? We have to pay way more for these new lamps. They pollute the world with a deadly neurotoxin/carcinogen. There is no safe disposal scheme. We have to pay an outrageous price to supposedly get rid of a few safely. They don’t light up our lives as well. And they look bloody ridiculous.

Thank heavens those relics called candles will not yet be sacrificed on the altar of sustainability. Sure, they may create greenhouse gases but I’m now convinced there are faults far worse than that. Hey, maybe in a few years’ time we’ll be able to spot old folks staging light bulb parties just to celebrate a few bright moments in their dotage. Theirs will be the well-lit houses shining with an inner light.

Stop this bleeding nonsense

In Commentary on September 1, 2009 at 9:07 am

There are some topics that many people believe should be taboo. Sex, religion and politics are said to be best avoided in polite company – which doesn’t leave a whole lot to talk about! But one subject above all really is regarded by many as not fit for discussion: menstruation. This is despite the topic coming somewhat out-of-the-closet in recent years thanks to progressive advertising campaigns for tampons.

If it were just misogynist males desirous of keeping periods or PMS (Pre-Menstrual Syndrome for any naïve blokes reading this) it might be okay, but it appears some women are keen to keep things in the closet, too.

A columnist at a major newspaper recently lamented that women should, effectively, bury the subject of periods. She claimed that women should ignore this issue and just get on with life without complaining. Her thesis was that women could not be taken seriously as potential leaders ‘of the free world’ if they admitted to succumbing to ‘the bloating, cramping anxiety, irritability and the mood swings – to name just a few of the roughly 150 symptoms that the Women’s Health Centre of Australia associates with PMS’.

Look, any reasonable person – male or female – should be forgiven for suspecting our columnist was in the throes of PMS (or completely taking the piss) for making such an inane suggestion. And even if irony was her intent, I suspect she’d now be regretting ever penning those words.

As a man who dares to consider himself a male ‘feminist’ I find this approach appalling. I do so in humble acknowledgement that I have no intrinsic understanding of menstruation and its attendant physical and emotional impacts. But as one who shares his life with women and respects them, I find it absurd to pretend that periods and all their attendant consequences simply do not exist.

Let’s face it: a certain proportion of men will never want to consider this condition – full stop, period – let alone as part of a quest for enlightenment. They can be termed misogynists without argument. But as a hopefully aware man you even wonder if using a term such as ‘condition’ might be deemed derogatory or inappropriate. As a male, even if we are sympathetic, we are often on the back foot. And, I dare to suggest, not through any real fault of our own. This is not a typical male bleat of ‘Oh, I’m not understood’. It’s a reality we have to deal with.

As someone who has been married for more than three decades I have real and practical experience of dealing with periods and PMS. But it would be a betrayal of my wife’s privacy to discuss some of my learnings so I cannot use that experience. Even so, I suspect every woman’s experience of menstruation is unique. Just as some women experience menopause without serious adverse consequences, many of their fraternity suffer truly debilitating symptoms. As a young male who lived through my mother’s stiflingly painful menopause exacerbated by recent deaths of her husband and daughter, the experience remains painfully vivid. Honestly, you would not wish it on a violent criminal offender.

Yet it is – surely – the ignorance (I was going to say mystery or mystique but they are wholly inadequate terms for this issue) that surrounds periods and PMS that creates and prolongs much of the mental rather than physical suffering associated with this phenomenon.

To suggest, however, that a medical condition which so seriously affects so many women should be swept under the carpet is, in my humble male view, madness.

If PMS is a reality for most women why should its acknowledgement stand as some insane barrier to their potential for achievement in our society? Let’s face it: men think with their dicks and that has never precluded them from high office. Indeed, in the cases of leaders such as John F Kennedy and Silvio Berlusconi, it has apparently aided and abetted their attraction.

I, for one, urge women to make PMS a cause celebre. Let’s end the mystique and mystery. It is that cloak of unknowingness that creates antipathy. That which we do not understand we tend to fear. It’s not rational but it’s no less serious because of that.

The columnist’s additional proposition that PMS should not be used as an excuse for poor behaviour caused by ill-discipline is pertinent and valid. Yet it is only if all members of society understand what is involved in PMS that actions and likely causes can be assessed. The suggestion by the columnist that periods and PMS remain secret women’s business (her actual words) is tantamount to denying men a presence at the birth of their children because it was another form of secret women’s business. We have left the Dark Ages behind in no small part because of a willingness to explore realities. The cause of female equality cannot be fully realised in secrecy, darkness and mystery. There are many men who are genuinely sympathetic and open-minded. Do not freeze us out. Do not make us a minority. That can only – inevitably – victimise women.

The blindness of greed

In Commentary on September 1, 2009 at 9:06 am

The Global Financial Crisis has caused many investors to lose their life savings. Many others have suffered severe set-backs to their financial wealth. All of us have (or should have) learned serious lessons about fiscal prudence. But you have to shake your head at some f the madness that was going on prior to the meltdown.

Details emerged recently of just one victim of an investment scheme that collapsed due to poor management. Oh, and a good mix of greed and a very large dollop of madness.

This investor is a female elderly pensioner. She is close to being evicted from her modest home because her shares in a failed investment company are now worthless. At face value, it’s a classic tear-jerker. Poor old lady diddled by financial institutions focused on greed and aided by scumbags who were nothing more than con artists. But is all what it seems?

The basic facts are that this woman was given a loan of $208,000 by a major bank so she could buy shares in the investment company. Well, there are worse things in life than that, it’s true. But then we learn that woman already owed $625,000 on a margin loan for more shares in the same company. Yes, those shares were valued at $713,000 so – on paper – she’s a smart investor.

We won’t ignore the apparent facts that she was conned by slick marketing and was allegedly duped into signing a bank loan application form. Dumb? Sure. But there are two facts which start to pt this picture into true perspective. First, her house is apparently worth just $320,000 and her only income is the aged pension. Yep. That’s worth less than $20,000 a year. So, she’s borrowing the best part of a million dollars with income of not much more than a thousand dollars a month.

Nah, you don’t have to be Einstein to figure that’s not a viable arrangement.

But the point I want to tease out is this: even if this woman was duped, what possible right did she have to think that she could be a million dollar sharemarket player when her only income was the aged pension and her only substantial asset was a house worth a bit more than half the national average?

We have consumer protection laws to muzzle blatant crooks but we cannot simply ignore personal responsibility. The adage of ‘let the buyer beware’ remains just as pertinent today as it ever was. I have some sympathy for this woman but I cannot feel truly sorry for her because she was so greedy she sold her inheritance on a gamble that was – on any sensible assessment – sheer madness. The real sadness is that somehow, some way, the rest of us taxpayers will have to pick up the tab. Now that’s real injustice.

The fated Kennedy

In Commentary on August 28, 2009 at 10:28 am

It’s funny how life works and this was brought home by the recent death of US political statesman, Senator Edward Kennedy.

Ted, as he was almost universally known, left a legacy that has brought praise from every corner of the globe and from both allies and opponents alike. Not bad for someone who has spent his entire life in the brutal, take-no-prisoners world of politics.

Many siblings might have struggled to shine in the shadow of such luminary brothers as John and Robert who were acknowledged giants on the US political stage but who also won global recognition for their achievements. Perhaps it was just in the Kennedy genes but Ted managed to more than hold is own in such extraordinarily distinguished company.

Of course, it nearly wasn’t so. The touch of magic that accompanied the Kennedys (aside from fatal encounters with assassins) deserted Teddy when an alcohol-fuelled driving misadventure cost the life of his staffer, Mary Jo Kopechne, when his vehicle plunged off the Chappaquiddick bridge. That incident cost him the greatest prize in global politics: the US Presidency. It was rightly deemed by the public conscience that he should pay a price and the highest office in his land – in earlier years frequently portrayed as almost his by right – was denied him.

Yet fate works in mysterious ways. As time went by and Teddy Kennedy – albeit slowly – emerged from his womanising and carousing, he started to create an astounding record in the US legislature. Over a 47-year sojourn in the Senate, the man who came to be known as The Lion of that august institution created a lasting legacy of reform that benefited the weakest members of American society.

A true Democrat with regard for the poor and downtrodden, it is arguable that he actually achieved more for those who needed such assistance by his extended term in the Senate than he would have in four or even eight years in the White House. The fact is that even though the US Presidency is regarded as the most powerful office there is, it is actually tightly constrained by a raft of influencing factors. Less so is the Senate and Ted’s dominance in that sphere allowed him to construct a monument of achievement that may come to be regarded as a more important contribution to his nation than holding its highest office. One thing is certain: it will be a very long time before anyone else reaches his pinnacle of service.

That’s no way to treat a lady!

In Commentary on July 30, 2009 at 2:51 pm

The Japanese are remarkable people. They place such a premium value on refinement and cultural sensibility. In social settings they will excuse the most uncultured and even boorish behaviour by foreigners, albeit their ‘tolerance’ can easily be regarded as arrogance and haughtiness. Even so, you have to wonder at their inability to translate their forbearance in social contexts to business ones as has been dramatically highlighted recently.

The situation concerns the absorption of many American staff of collapsed finance house, Lehman Brothers which was one of the key triggers of the Global Financial Crisis. Japanese brokerage house, Nomura, recruited 8000 Lehman staff and then set about integrating the two cultures. What happened next could be funny if it weren’t serious.

A suite of executive training was prepared but when the ex-Lehman staff turned-up they were surprised to be divided along gender lines. The male executives were taught about all things commercial. The female executives, however, got a very different surprise. The women were given hairdressing lessons along with instructions that special touches such as highlights were a no-no. They were also told how to dress according to the seasons but the instructions went much further. The women were told they must not wear sleeves shorter than mid-bicep (at least one executive reported being sent home subsequently for breaching this mandate).

Another edict was that bright coloured clothes were also not permitted. But perhaps it was when they were instructed in the art of serving tea (to male colleagues and superiors) that things really went off the rails. Accurate reporting of the scenes that eventuated are not available but it’s fun just imaging a horde of high-powered female American executives being instructed in misogynist practices to please men.

Perhaps not surprisingly a good many of the Lehman women have decided their future no longer lies with Nomura. You can only hope that the training sessions were filmed for quality assurance purposes because they’d prove a monster hit on YouTube.

Pay per chat

In Commentary on July 29, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Politics governs us all. It matters not what system we operate under, politics determines the broad shape of the quality of our lives and the freedoms we enjoy. As such, it is of vital importance to each and every one of us. Nor is there much difference in the way politics operates. The fact that it is hard to define does not impinge on the way politics is played-out – and the same characteristics can be found in every corner of the globe.

Which is why a form of political corruption in one place has relevance to everywhere else. And why a shabby scam in Queensland – Australia’s Sunshine State – should be condemned universally. Make no mistake, this system isn’t just limited to Queensland or Australia – it happens in lots of places. And it is just as corrupt everywhere it is practised.

The scam involves paying for access to political leaders. Australia’s main political parties – on both sides of the left-right divide – have got it down pat. This should cause them deep embarrassment but they are making so much money from the practice they simply don’t care.

It works like this: a political party stages its annual conference and invites ‘business observers’ to attend. For a fee – usually of several, if not many, thousands of dollars – they are plied with exclusive seating, agendas, briefing notes and other paraphernalia. There are other benefits such as lunches and dinners and, in best spin doctoring tradition, these are classed as ‘working’ functions. The work test is a doozy. For lots of money, the business executive gets to sit close to the Minister or Leader and whisper sweet nothings into his or her ear.

Nobody but the two parties knows what is said and everyone swears on a stack of bibles that nothing untoward (read, corrupt) is ever mentioned. So, why do the money men need to pay to get such access and why is privacy ‘guaranteed’ by the politicians? The whole practice debases democracy which is built on the concept that everyone is equal under the law. But in Queensland, the wealthy get their voice heard. Not so the impoverished voters who can’t even afford the fares to get to the conference venue.

There are many forms of this practice and it is a lucrative one. The Australian newspaper estimated that the Labor Party in Queensland (currently in government) reaped a cool $500,000 in such fees from its annual conference last year.

There are so many appalling aspects to this scam that it is hard to select just one. But the fact that we have public funding of elections in this country would be a good place to start. If election contestants get a government subsidy for every vote they earn (above a minimal cut-off point) to cover their costs (that old democratic tradition again) how come they need to plunder the business community for additional funds? You’d have to count a number of paper bags and their contents to get the answer to that one.

This is sordid, shonky and stinks to high heaven. It needs to be stamped out before the cancer of corruption eats any deeper into the system which notionally guarantees our universal freedoms.

The buck stops where, Mr President?

In Commentary on July 28, 2009 at 4:05 am

East Timor President, Jose Ramos Horta, seems like a lovely bloke. A real nice guy. It’s great to see he has recovered well from getting shot in the chest some 18 months ago by a bunch of would-be assassins although there may be some doubt as to whether the bullet affected his mental faculties.

You see, President Horta now appears mystified as to what happened to some $3 billion in foreign aid money donated to East Timor in recent years. Which is a real shame because that’s an awful lot of money for a tiny nation perched just outside Australia’s northern border. The Prez acknowledges that the money never made its way to his impoverished nation’s villages. “Either we, the East Timorese are the dumbest people in the world, or they send us the dumbest people in the world to teach our people. Because no-one can explain how so much money allegedly provided, has gone.”

Did you notice something there? Prez has bitten not only the hands that feed his country but – for good measure – the hands of those who were supposed to be fed. But the leadership escapes entirely unscathed. Funny that.

Dr Horta, a clever man himself, doesn’t know where the money went: “I never saw this money”. He suspects it all went on reports: “We have been psychoanalysed from every angle. They say it has been spent on ‘capacity-building’ but if that money was really used for capacity-building, every Timorese would have a PhD by now.” Funny, also, that Dr Horta got one but everyone else missed out again.

Perhaps the President should be advised that leadership is not just the ability to take decision but to accept responsibility. His spin doctoring on this issue sounds more like an audition for the role of Pontius Pilate. The fact that hundreds of thousands of impoverished citizens were denied badly-needed aid – whether by criminal intent or pathetic maladministration – is hardly an excuse for cheap wisecracks. It is even less of a reason for Australia and other countries to take Dr Horta seriously when he now asks for new foreign aid policies and better trade deals. Give us some meaningful answers before we put our hands into our pockets again, Mr President.

Blinkered vision on glasses

In Commentary on July 22, 2009 at 10:25 am

There are many, many things in life that strike fear into our hearts and probably every one of us is afraid of something that doesn’t bother somebody else. But there is something about being disfigured that is universal. So, why the hell do we continue to tolerate serving alcohol in glasses?

Maybe Queensland is the worst place on earth for idiot drinkers who overindulge and then use whatever is in their hands to wreak havoc on others in their drunken rage. Or maybe alcohol-fuelled rage attacks are a global phenomenon. Either way, there can be few things more frightening than the prospect of having your face torn apart by razor-sharp shards of a broken glass wielded by someone who has lost control of their faculties.

The photos of victims of these attacks make any sensible person cringe in horror. The inhuman penalty inflicted on them is a life sentence and few of us can adequately imagine the daily trauma many of them suffer as they confront the world with their features ravaged by livid scars. Bad enough for a male but many of these victims are women and their peculiar pain simply cannot be imagined by anyone who has not suffered the same indignity. The anguish must be horrendous.

Yet the penalties imposed on the perpetrators are almost always insignificant in comparison to the trauma of their victims. In a city of one million people (Brisbane) some six glassing attacks are treated at the major hospital each weekend night. There are many other hospitals and many other cities. This is now an epidemic. It used not happen so something has changed. Society is becoming ever more rotten and while that might be a harsh indictment the evidence is incontrovertible.

What has not changed is the unwillingness of hotels, clubs and governments to change the law and force bars to serve alcohol in plastic containers. How many damaged lives do they need before they decide enough is enough? You can be sure that if a politician’s son or daughter was a victim, the law would be altered within twelve months. Will somebody please have the courage to protect innocent people from a scandalous invasion of their rights?

More to the point, why we don’t we start with the real problem which is not glasses but the idiots who drink to excess or who are just evilly violent? Why don’t we amend the law to inflict life sentences on them just as they have done to their victims? We do not need people willing to perpetrate crimes like this walking our streets. They don’t deserve better.