Why privatisation really doesn’t work.

There was a time when a large proportion of our essential services; water, electricity, transport, telecommunications, postal services, health, education, police force, fire-fighting and to a lesser extent the banking system were provided by the federal or state governments. This was based on the assumption that the state, through taxpayer funding, will take responsibility for the provision of the services for the general population. Providing this level of service required a taxation system that progressively taxed those who earned the most money. It also required that the average taxpayer would pay relatively high levels of taxation. With the steady erosion of the tax base under the Howard/Costello government, the amount of revenue available to provide the services declined. This was combined with adopting policies based on supply-side economics, which encouraged private enterprise at the expense of state funded activity.

These changes were particularly evident in the provision of health services where individuals were able to take out insurance to avoid the impact of expensive surgery and to avoid waiting for places in publicly funded hospitals. Win this insurance was provided through a government, not-four-profit insurance company, namely Medibank Private, it effectively meant that people, normally the better off, could pay an extra tax to fund a specific use of the health system.

The main effect of this privatisation in health has been the same as in education. The wealthy are able to pay to have better access to services then the general population. But there has been another effect as well, also retrograde.

The advent of private sector insurance companies meant that shareholders were able to profit from the investment of the general population in their healthcare services. While the argument is that the provision of profit-based healthcare insurance stimulates competition, the real effect is simply to put the price of health care up by including a profit motive in the provision of those services.

Some of the healthcare insurers are cooperatives where the insured are effectively shareholders in the company. Thus any profit that cooperative may make is ultimately redistributed back to the members.

However with the rush to privatisation in the 1980s and 1990s, the shareholders in our water, electricity and transport systems in particular, became overseas corporations. This effectively means that any profit that is made in the systems is transferred overseas.

The proposed sale of Medibank Private only continues this trend and the “increases competition” argument appears to have increasingly less validity given the sad track record of privatisation to date.

How the Grinch stole Christmas: Speaker Bishop bans laughter

Many may think that Bronwyn Bishop is a less than adequate speaker for the lower house. And her reputation was scarcely enhanced by her actions yesterday

Laughter canned: Speaker Bronwyn Bishop rules ‘new tactic’ of infectious laughter out of order

By the response in the media both printed and social and in Parliament itself, many people in Australia think that Tony Abbott’s unilateral reintroduction of Imperial honours is laughable.

Yet Madam Speaker thinks she can use the rules of debate to stifle laughter on this issue

Just remember Bronwyn, if they can’t laugh, they will start throwing paper darts. Remember your undergraduate days? You can’t stop them laughing. You have to stop being foolish.

No change of tactics from the Catholic Church

One of the many damning things to have come out of the enquiry into the activities of paedophile priests and the Catholic Church was the practice within the church of moving known paedophiles to new parishes. Often this meant that they were able to continue their paedophile activities as the parishioners were not informed of the reasons for their acquiring a new priest.

Cardinal Pell will move to a new appointment in Rome after just two days in the commission of enquiry. Given the Cardinal’s propensity for legal defences for his actions in relation to the victims of abuse, it would be worth asking whether a move to Rome now provides a good Cardinal with a diplomatic defence against any further action by the legal system was in Australia.

Does Australia have an extradition treaty with the Vatican? Can we get Cardinal Pell to return to Australia if he is required to answer further questions? Wouldn’t think so.

So what’s the difference between moving a paedophile priest and moving a cardinal?

This Australian public has now had an opportunity to judge the moral, ethical and spiritual stature of the Catholic Church’s most senior prince. There has been a deafening silence in his defence And significant condemnation, particularly from groups associated with the victims of abuse. Nonetheless, the Catholic Church has decided to promote him to a small elite group of people from whom they will draw the next Pope.

Cardinal Pell’s complete failure to understand

Cardinal Pell suggested in his testimony that the Catholic Church should be judged by the same standards as a sporting club. Well actually no.

The first point is that they have totally different aims and objectives, which will lead them to being judged by different standards.

The football club exists to provide the local lads with a chance for a bit of legalised biffo over the weekend, to drink gallons of alcohol afterwards and to endeavour to have amorous relations with anyone who still sees them as being as attractive as they think they are.

By contrast, my limited understanding of the role of the Catholic Church is that it is charged by the Almighty with the responsibility of guiding its flock to eternal life.

Cardinal Pell was actually referring to the way in which the church should be judged legally, given the principle that everyone is equal in the face of the law. But this seems to be an act of breathtaking hypocrisy. The good Cardinal does not want the church to be judged by the same legal standards as the rest of the community. He took active steps to ensure that the church was not judged by these standards by invoking the Ellis defence.

But every time the cardinal resorts to a purely legalistic interpretation in defence of the church’s actions, he weakens the moral authority of the organisation to which he belongs. He argues that his use of the Ellis defence was to protect the church’s assets from claims of abuse. Clearly, he weighed the importance of the churches temporal assets against the ethical and moral responsibility it had to the children in its care. And he came down in favour of the assets. But the scriptures are quite clear on the issue of material wealth:

“And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Matthew 19:24

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Matthew 6:24

And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Luke 6:20

So what is the theological justification for the defence of the Catholic Church’s assets in the face of the claims of the victims of abuse?

The Governor General and imperial honours

Like almost everybody in Australia, I have been a great admirer of our outgoing governor general, Quentin Bryce. She was significant in many ways: for being the first woman to hold the post and being a continuation of the great tradition of appointing Australians rather than the ragtag and bobtail of the British aristocracy that was foisted upon us until the 1960s.

She was an exemplar in her engagement with the important social issues facing the nation and for the intellectual clarity and compassion with which she articulated those issues. In particular, she was able to tread the delicate line between holding a post that is a vestige of Empire and being a Republican.

Her decision to accept an imperial honour is obviously a personal one and it is clearly recognition to which she is richly entitled.

But I think, as I suspect so many of her supporters do, that her standing in the eyes of the Australian (Republican) population would have been greater if she had said, “thank you, but no thank you.”

Patronage and imperial honours in Australia.

Any honours system is highly symbolic. The Australian system that, up until yesterday, consisted of some letters after your name, much like university degree, and a small badge you could wear on your jacket. Modest, unassuming, Australian.

The new system, introduced by the Prime Minister Tony Abbott, harks back to a set of aristocratic traditions established in England. These distinctions were based primarily on the ownership of land and kept the ruling elite in power for close to 1000 years.

Limitations to power of the landowning aristocracy began with the great Reform Act of 1832 and were by a series of reforms that limited the power of the landowning aristocracy, finally granted universal suffrage in the early 20th century. Imperial honours are a vestige of the political system that was used to subjugate and disenfranchise a significant proportion of the population of Britain.

The honours system stows powerful social markers that distinguish a small group from the masses. The invidious nature of this distinction is that it places one group well above another, by dint of title. There is also the implication, and possibly the expectation, that with these honours comes an entitlement to greater respect, courtesy, service or even patronage than that which would be bestowed on the rest of the population.

What is more invidious about this particular system is that it appears to be in the gift of a politically elected Prime Minister: a return to patronage of the worst kind.

Does anyone remember when Joh Bjelke-Petersen recommended himself for a knighthood? He also recommended that his Chef Commissioner Terry Lewis for a knighthood. Lewis was later jailed for corruption.

This is a retrograde step that will be applauded only by those who think they will benefit from it.

Join some dots on imperial honours

Some time ago there was a small ruckus over Attorney General George Brandis attending the the Council for the Order of Australia. His attendance was defended by the chairman of the council, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston. (The Age 7/3)

Now we have a reintroduction of the imperial honours system for a few selected individuals, currently limited to Governors General.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott says he consulted with a few senior colleagues about the reintroduction of the Imperial honours system. Was George Brandis one of them? And did George (everyone has the right to be a bigot) Brandis suggest to the council that it might be a nice idea if John Howard was granted a knighthood?

Well, only time will tell.

Is Monuments Men a genre parody?

George Clooney has starred in a lot of good movies and has directed at least five including Monuments Men (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Leatherheads) so we can reasonably assume he knows what he’s doing.

His film spans a couple of genres and references many other films and TV programmes. Firstly it’s a war movie and secondly it’s in the “small group of apparent misfits doing great things through wartime “genre. The most recent example of this is Inglorious Basterds while there are many famous examples such as The Dirty Dozen and The Eagle has Landed. There is also a genre of “isn’t war funny” films and television series such as Hogan’s Heroes and Mash. Indeed, many critics has seen this film is a cross between Hogan’s Heroes and Ocean’s 11.

The stars of the Monuments Men set out to save European Art and Civilisation armed with shovels

The stars of the Monuments Men set out to save European Art and Civilisation armed with shovels

There’s also more than a sideways glance at Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark with the ideas of stolen antiquities and the dedicated, brave and fearless antiquarian scholar combating the forces of evil in a light-hearted and slightly eccentric way. The final scenes of the stored artwork in Monuments Men are very similar to those in Indiana Jones.

The first thing that makes you think this film is a parody is the music. Alexandre Desplat’s music mimics the jaunty “Hi Ho, it’s off to war we go” music of many of its predecessors but it’s just a little bit too jaunty and all bit too corny. But it does call out the many other movies that have used this particular kind of music to set the tone for the irreverent approach to the war.

When George Clooney’s Lt. Frank Stokes says, “You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants and that’s exactly what we are fighting for”, you begin to think Clooney is taking the piss.

While the objective of the characters in the film, recovering Europe’s lost out from the Nazis, is a serious one, the attitude of Stokes throughout the film, is pure schmaltz. His speech at the beginning to President Roosevelt sets the tone and the final scene where the ageing Stokes takes his grandson to see the Michelangelo, lays it on the trowel.

Lieutenant Stokes spends most of the film on a soapbox mouthing sentiments similar to the ones above, noble certainly, but always pushed just too far, to the point of parody.

The characters are conventional and trite. The Americans are noble spirited and self-sacrificing. The Germans are covetous, duplicitous and evil. The Russians are dumb. It’s got to be a sendup!

Then there’s the other side of the coin. It’s not a parody. It is just a very badly made, badly written and badly acted film. It’s as if George Clooney didn’t turn up to work often enough and consequently left a whole work of serious filmmaking undone. Given that he starred, directed, produced and co-wrote the film, most of the responsibility for this mess must rest with him.

An example of the untidy direction of the film is evident in one of the final scenes when the Monuments Men discover the Michelangelo’s statue in the salt mine. Much of the structure of this sequence of scenes is quite conventional. The Russians are approaching, everyone is ready to leave, someone discovers the statue that been looking for, there are moments of awed silence and finally a mad scrambled to get the statue out of the mine. It’s conventional stuff: baddies coming down the road, goodies scrambling to escape. But Clooney mishandles even this. He doesn’t even stick with the conventions, cutting between the approaching Russians and the departing Americans, let alone find something interesting in the situation. While everybody is frantically trying to wheel half a tonne of marble out of a disused mine, we suddenly cut to the heroes in a convoy happily driving away with a statue on a trailer behind them. It’s as if something was left out during the final edit.

But the scene is typical of the whole film. It any sense of the dramatic tension that must surely have been a lay down misere given the inherent subject matter. It’s also badly structured. In the first part of the film, the Monuments team splits up to pursue different works of art in different parts of Europe. This immediately dissipates any sense of continuity and suspense that could have made the film much more exciting. Why the director did not simply have the team pursuing one work of art, (the Michelangelo Madonna and Child would have been sufficient for the plotline) and get some coherence into the script is hard to understand.

The actors are not really given much of a chance. The only character who stands out is Claire Simon (Cate Blanchett). Working subversively in her art gallery within the German occupational forces, she documents the destination of all stolen artwork, information that she passes on to the Americans. And then, for all her trouble she is thrown into jail at the end of the war for being a collaborator. Now surely this was something interesting that could have been developed, but no. Suddenly, hey presto, Granger (Matt Damon) gets her out of jail after which she effectively disappears from the film. At the very least, they should have taken her along for the ride.

Claire gets dinner for Granger. He doesn't stay for afters

Claire gets dinner for Granger. He doesn’t stay for afters

This would have been a wonderful lead into the potential relationship between Clare and Granger. When she invites him round to her flat for dinner and suggests he stay the night, he declines. He is married. He is pure of heart and faithful, like all the Americans in this film. When confronted with acres of stolen gold in one of the mines, no one suggests slipping one into the backpack and taking it home as recompense for their labours. Perhaps a little bit of moral ambiguity amongst the Monuments Men would have made the film a little more interesting

How to fix a budget deficit.

Australia, like many countries, is spending more money on government programs than it raises in taxation. It’s not as bad as in the US but we are already on that particularly slippery slope. The Australian Federal government appears to be intent on cutting government expenditure rather than considering revenue raising options. The problem is that there are three big spending items on the horizon: Disability Insurance, Goneski education reform and the ill-advised parental leave scheme. While it can be argued that the parental leave scheme is more of a luxury that we can afford, the other two go to righting significant inequities in our social welfare system.

There has been sufficient informed comment for us to understand that the structural deficit, namely the difference between what is spent and what is raised through taxation, is giving greater. Current expenditure projections indicate that this will get worse.

On the ABC 7.30, ex-Treasury boss Dr Ken Henry suggested that it is time to consider increasing the GST. Naturally this is political anathema to both sides of politics. But there are huge advantages in a GST or consumption style tax, particularly if it is set at a variable rate.

The difficulty with the current tax arrangements in Australia is they are too easy to avoid. The ATO’s high profile and successful pursuit of Kerry Packer showed just how difficult it is to get some members of the community to pay a fair share of their tax.

First the advantages of a consumption tax: it is a tax paid by those who spend their money, not by the frugal. If people choose to save, invest or pay off their mortgage, they don’t pay a consumption tax. The advantage of the GST is that it is a tax on spending, whereas income tax is a tax on effort. Why should people who work hard pay more tax than people who don’t? Why should people who have worked to be well qualified pay more tax than people who haven’t? Such a system is based the old argument: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. All we have to do is cross out ability and substitute spending and we have a more equitable scheme.

The other element of the scheme is a variable GST rate: difficult to administer but certainly more equitable. Why should the GST rate of 10% be the same for a loaf of bread as it is for a Rolls Royce? Initially, introduction of a variable GST would create some distortions in the market. Sales of cars costing $500,000 would probably decline creating unemployment amongst car salesman. However, a commensurate reduction in the GST on bread may create employment opportunities for bakers.

It should be possible to introduce a variable GST rate that does not disadvantage lower and lower to middle income ranges. In fact, it may be possible to reduce the GST on some items, if it can be increased on others. In principle, people with greater incomes will pay more tax because they’re able to afford more expensive and, more highly taxed, goods. But these people also have a choice of whether to buy an expensive imported car or to buy a less expensive locally made one. Well actually, Tony Abbott’s put paid to that particular idea but the point is that the consumer has a choice about how much they will consume and consequently how much tax they will pay.

This seems to be a much better idea than taxing them on their incomes which reflect how hard they work or how well qualified they are.

As part of the wider debate what we want Australia to look like in the next decades, we need to begin a serious discussion about the level of social welfare and support we expect the population, the taxation levels we are prepared to tolerate pay for this and the nature of the taxation system itself.

While Dr Henry’s discussion did not include how we can ensure large multinational companies pay an appropriate amount of tax for the revenues they derive in Australia, this element of taxation system also needs to be addressed.

The use of legal technicalities to avoid responsibility for child abuse

While the various national and state and enquiries into child abuse child in the Catholic Church continue, it is s imperative that State and Federal legislature moves to remove the so called Ellis defence.

The Ellis Defence is based on a ruling of the high court of Australia which found that the Catholic Church, as a whole, cannot be held legally (and thus financially) responsible for the actions of its priests who sexually abused children, because it is not incorporated as a single entity and there is no legal requirement for the church to do so.

Despite the utterances of Cardinal Pell this week, the church continues to use this legal technicality to limit the ability of victims of child abuse to seek just compensation.

Anyone who has doubts about the churches view of the Ellis Defence should go to the website and see what the official view of this is.

The church’s view is not that there has been immense damage that has been done by paedophile priests and that the church, either because it was responsible for the actions of its priests or because it has a duty of care towards its flock, should seek to heal the damage that is being done. Neither of these two concerns feature on the website. It is simply about the churches legal right to exploit a legal technicality to avoid accepting responsibility.

Given that the Catholic Church has decided on a legal defence rather than adopting a responsible moral and ethical position on this appalling problem, the Federal and State governments have responsibility to move immediately to close this loophole. While the church argues that it can be sued, the Ellis Defence makes the chances of the success of legal actions against the church close to zero. The plaintiff is forced to rely on the generosity of the church. Accounts from various victims of the abuse seem to indicate that this generosity is pretty thin.

There seem to be two fairly straightforward courses of action. The first is that legislation is passed to require the Catholic Church to incorporate in such a way that makes it possible for action to be brought against it by the victims of abuse. The second is for the establishment of a tribunal, much like the one that was established in South Africa. Three to five people would be sufficient: a senior judge to preside, a representative from the Catholic Church, a representative of the victims organisations and two independent, non-Catholic members. The tribunals would have the power to make binding decisions on applications for compensation for child abuse as well as to recommend prosecution for the perpetrators of the abuse.

It is a monstrous wrong that the oldest and largest church on earth is not capable of accepting its fundamental Christian responsibilities for these damaged souls. The Catholic Church appears to be avoiding its Christian responsibilities by hiding behind a legal technicality. I’m not a believer in the afterlife, but I sure would like to be present at judgement day when the people responsible for these atrocities finally face their maker.