David M. Russell

Archive for July, 2009|Monthly archive page

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.

The vacuous vulgarity of fat dancing

In Commentary on July 21, 2009 at 10:20 am

Given the crap that has been televised on major commercial networks over the past few decades it’s astounding that something has finally offended all my sensibilities: a program called Dance Your Ass Off. This appalling piece of cynical manipulation has just appeared on our screens here in Australia. Thanks, America. I’m now wondering just why we fought alongside you guys so many times during this past century. It’s no way to repay a friendship, I gotta tell ya.

If you are fortunate to have missed this show, count yourself lucky. It features a dozen fat people. Grossly overweight and, in some cases, morbidly obese. Now, before I’m labelled discriminatory or worse I will say that obesity per se does not offend me. Yes, it does make me uncomfortable to watch people who are grossly distorted by excess weight. But I accept that some suffer that fate because of bodily malfunction and some because of a lack of discipline, which can reasonably be labelled a mental malfunction. Frankly, having watched ten minutes of this crap, I just don’t care if my view offends anyone because I think the program is as offensive as anything I’ve ever seen on TV.

The premise of this show is that it is a means of helping contestants regain good health by dancing off massive amounts of excess weight. The lie is given to this rationale by the fact that poor misfits are kicked off the program each week because they have failed in some way (I didn’t watch long enough to learn what). So, let’s be frank: it ain’t about helping people in need control an aspect of their lives that is severely out of kilter.

The reality of this show is that it encourages the female contestants to dress in skimpy costumes and shake their body parts as vigorously as possible Remember, it’s all about the weight loss. Yeah right. The sight of a massively overweight woman in an attempt at a tutu doing the splits (very athletically, I am willing to acknowledge) is not something easily forgotten. Frankly, I think this show is about providing a potentially prurient audience with weird sexual tastes the chance to get their rocks off. A truly scary thought.

In a democracy we all have the right to watch what we like and producers have the right to explore what we might call non-mainstream tastes. Screening a show like this in prime time (7.30 PM on the second most popular network in the nation) does provide a fascinating insight into what network programmers think about their audiences. The whole thing might even be acceptable if it was billed honestly: i.e. a frightening frolic of fat freaks flaunting their afflictions in front of fools. But, no, they try to pass it off as an attempt to offer serious medical assistance to people with demonstrable illnesses (physical and mental). Spare me, please. Pass the remote, quicky!

The demise of journalism

In Commentary on July 21, 2009 at 9:43 am

There are many tragedies that symbolise current times but the demise of journalism is one of the saddest. Sure, our media are full of what is supposedly journalism but, frankly, it’s not. Most of what passes for journalism these days is not even reporting, it’s actually commentary. So, what’s the point?

The issue at stake is the extent to which we, as a society, are entitled to unbiased coverage of what is happening in our world. Over the past few decades, we have been seduced by the cult of personality. If a ‘talking head’ is interesting or even just attractive (whether male or female) we accord them the greatest respect of all: we listen to them and – of far greater consequence – we bestow on them credibility. That is, we tend to accept what they say as ‘the truth’ without having any means to check that it really is or, worse, without even stopping to question whether their views are fact or opinion.

If this seems semantic, it’s not. In fact, it cuts at the very fabric of our democratic system. Our political system is jeopardised by our inability to know the truth. Someone’s opinion is fine. Everyone is entitled to a view on any issue. That’s the foundation stone of democracy. But one of the greatest protections democracy has is a ‘free press’. That is, the government of the day or any other powerful institution or coalition of groups should not be permitted to slant the news. The extent to which governments massage the news through their armies of spin doctors is a very relevant but separate issue.

If we focus on the print media, analysis shows that ever more frequently news staff write stories that contain their opinions. It was originally argued that this gave stories greater intrinsic value because it provided supposedly expert analysis, thus enhancing our understanding of a given issue. Yet that element of commentary has grown like a viral epidemic. Today, fewer news staff (many no longer deserve the title of journalist) even attempt to write stories that contain no opinion at all. Their stories are – to a greater or lesser extent – simply opinion pieces. This is indicative of the cult of ego and it is a pernicious influence on democratic values.

When a writer crafts a story that purports to be journalism or reportage but inserts persona opinion into it (without specifically identifying the parts that are commentary) he or she debases their ethical obligation to the public. They are no longer presenting unbiased facts, they are offering interpretation. It’s not that the interpretation is not valuable. Indeed, it can sometimes be the most pertinent part of coverage of a particular story. The vital issue is that opinion or commentary is identified as such so that readers, listeners or viewers can know that assertions are just that and not necessarily facts.

Radio is a medium which makes it enormously difficult to identify opinion masquerading as fact. We mostly listen with half an ear and the brevity of news bulletins is taken to not permit the intrusive and time-consuming identification of fact versus opinion. Television is, frankly, a bastardised medium wherein the cult of ego has become paramount. This particular news source – as a general characteristic – makes very little attempt anymore to differentiate between fact and opinion. Again, brevity of bulletins and programs is used as an excuse to offer the public a hybrid version of reporting: fact, opinion, bias and commentary al rolled into one without any attempt to separate the strands. Indeed, TV and radio have thrived on identities who have risen to fame by being utterly opiniated and rarely using more than a few cursory facts to underpin their rants and raves. Some elements of the ‘quality press’ do make an attempt to differentiate reportage from commentary but even random analysis demonstrates how little and how ineffective this practice actually is.

So, we consumers suffer in silence with the majority thinking they are being supplied an unsullied product when they no longer have the understanding to appreciate the second-rate goods they are being sold. It’s sad. And dangerous.

Decongesting our hip pockets

In Commentary on July 12, 2009 at 3:44 am

Still haven’t met anyone who likes traffic jams. Haven’t been looking hard but just can’t recall a single person who has a good word for traffic congestion. So, when politicians start taking about new and improved ways of getting traffic to flow faster, the concept has appeal. Until you realise that it will cost money to achieve.

The idea that is gaining a lot of traction around the word currently is an innocent-sounding concept called ‘road pricing’. Harmless enough, you think? Trust me, nothing’s harmless when a politician has his hand in your wallet. The underpinning of this latest scheme is that hoary old chestnut: user pays.

It goes like this – charge those who use roads at peak times a fee. This will act as an incentive to make them think about driving at different times and, perhaps, encourage them to use public transport instead.

Now, at face value, that seems like a reasonable stance. But, hey, haven’t all these drivers suffering stress attacks because they’re getting later by the minute already paid for the right to use these clogged roads? Haven’t they paid their taxes? Haven’t they paid registration and licensing fees – on top of their other taxes – just for the privilege of sitting in smog-laden frustration every working day of their lives? Makes user pays sound a lot more like double-dipping by the government, doesn’t it?

Frankly, the whole thing smacks of a cynical government ploy. They argue that roads and bridges should now be built by the private sector and paid-for by tolls. But, hey, don’t we pay all these taxes to government so they can supply us with essential infrastructure? Isn’t that how our system works? Why do we have to pay twice?

As one bureaucrat put it the other day: ‘If you give it to them for free, it’s no wonder they’ll clog the health system and clog our roads with congestion and pollution’. Excuse me! That’s why we pay taxes – to get roads and hospitals and all the other things governments promise us during election campaigns. For them to turn around and start imposing a new series of punitive taxes (call them charges, fees, whatever) is outrageous and we should protest loudly. Doubt it will do us much good but it’s better than letting them rape us and pretend it’s for our own good.

Battle the bottle

In Commentary on July 12, 2009 at 3:23 am

Sounds like an ad for Alcoholics Anonymous, doesn’t it? But it’s not, although the level of addiction is pretty similar for many of the people caught-up in one of the world’s biggest fads: drinking bottled water.

Just so we’re on the same page, drinking water from a bottle is not the problem: buying it in bottles is. The size of the global market for bottled water is huge. Take Australia, for instance. With only 22 million people, we still buy around 600 million litres of bottled water a year. Yep, on average, every man, woman and child in this nation consumes 30 bottles of the clear stuff a year.

Now, this has a few consequences. Given many of the bottled water containers are smaller than 1 litre, we have something like 500-700 million plastic bottle EACH YEAR being manufactured. And that’s just in Australia, folks! You have to wonder why they are making such a fuss about the use of plastic bags in supermarkets. The carbon footprint for the manufacture of half a billion plastic bottles each year is staggering. Even if every single container was recycled, the energy used in that recycling process is scary. The litter resulting from the vast numbers of bottle not properly disposed of should make us all hang our heads in shame.

Don’t forget the strain on our wastewater facilities, either! How many swimming pools could be filled with urine if all that water went into ‘the system’. And dare to think about how much gets pumped straight back into Mother Earth by those who relieve themselves outside of the system. It’s a wonder we’re not all walking around in quicksand!

The madness of this fad is reinforced by the powers behind the bottle water market. In Australia, the people who bring us Coca-Cola have nearly 30 per cent of the market. Big market, too: half a billion dollars a year.

Bolstered by their battalions of spin doctors, the overlords of the soft drink industry tell us they are great human beings because they provide work for quite a lot of people. Whoopty-do! Sorry, folks, still think you suck.

It’s wonderful that people are today so willing to drink so much water. Yet, perhaps we need to think not so much of our own personal welfare and consider the planet where we all live. This is a situation that is now out of control and it needs to be reined-in before the environmental costs are beyond redemption.

Stop them squandering our future!

In Commentary on July 8, 2009 at 4:23 am

Could it be possible that the world faces a bigger catastrophe than the Global Financial Crisis? Yes, a truly frightening scenario (and it has nothing to do with nuclear warfare). The challenge we face – and which must be brought under control with great urgency – is spendthrift politicians! No, this is not a joke. Wish it was.

One of the unintended consequences of the GFC is that we gave politicians unofficial emergency powers. At a time of crisis – after they had thought about things for a couple of days and realised that they were unlikely to be re-elected unless they pulled a rabbit out of a hat – they resorted to their usual remedy for all things threatening their job security: spend like drunken sailors. It seemed like a good idea at the time, too. This is because they lavished largesse on us. They were giving us handouts. How could that be bad, we asked ourselves while trying to pretend the squeamish feeling in the pit of our stomachs was not there.

Now we are starting to realise why we felt concerned. It’s because politicians have behaved as though it were Christmas Eve and they suddenly remembered two dozen presents they hadn’t bought and no-one was telling them their credit card had run out of funds. So, they bought four dozen – just to be sure they had everything covered. Now, the monthly statement has come in. The politicians couldn’t believe the first invoice and queried whether there had been some mistake in adding up.

So the card issuer sent a new statement to us, the ultimate guarantors of all these cards. Now we really do feel queasy. And there’s good reason to be. There is a hangover creeping up on us as the euphoria of the handouts wears off and reality creeps in on our consciousness. Going to be the mother of all hangovers too as public debt soars in almost every economy across the globe.

Spend, spend, spend has been the mantra of salvation but now comes the time to settle the bar tab.

The Obama administration probably gave up counting after the first trillion of debt (where do they get calculators that big?). Even tiny Australia has racked-up a third of that – an estimated $350 billion of debt. And still the politicians are looking for ways to stimulate the world’s economies. We must stop them before it’s too late.

It will take years, if not decades, to recover the surplus positions many economies were enjoying before the crash. Sadly, our children will bear much of the weight of this millstone (though we certainly won’t escape unscathed).

The danger is that administrations which get into a spending binge, almost never have the courage – or the intelligence – to work out that restraint is the necessary antidote. Right across the globe we have scores of these governments all staring with a fixed gaze at the hypnotist’s watch that carries just one word: stimulus. If we don’t stop them spending we may even teeter over the precipice into a Depression truly worse than the 1930s.

It’s time we raised our voices because it is our future prosperity that is being sprayed up against a wall.

Politics besmirches itself yet again

In Commentary on July 6, 2009 at 3:23 am

We all know that politics is a dirty business. Well, some incredibly naive people still think it’s about looking after the common people but they are so misguided as to warrant a psychological assessment (and probable incarceration in an instution for their own good!). Even so, it’s distressing to learn some of the inner secrets from an apparatchik.

The juicy morsel to land in our laps today is the quaintly-named ‘scab flicking’. This is not a new practice – just new nomenclature for something as distasteful as the name suggests. That it is being practised by both sides of Aussie politics comes as no real surprise but it will no doubt distress the Prime Minister somewhat to learn it is one of his own side who has tossed us this untasty morsel.

Corin McCarthy, a former adviser to a leading Cabinet Minister, is quoted in The Australian newspaper about the practice of ‘scab flicking’ politics. It is described along these lines: an issue is raised, causing some damage to your opponents, and this creates a scab. The issue is politicised, which is apparently known as ‘flicking’. Charming isn’t it? We poor fools – the voters – watch politics for awareness of the big issues of the day and how governments and oppositions are promising to make our lives better. We assume they are taking principled and ethical stands on the things that matter to us but all the while they’re just scab flicking.

Somehow, I feel dirty. Thanks, Corin.