Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Older people the solution – not the problem

The Productivity Commission has reported that the ageing population presents a severe threat to Australia’s economy – much more severe than previous estimates.

A remarkable achievement for these learned and no doubt highly-paid experts to have unearthed a fact that a junior demographer in the 1970s would have been able to reveal – if Governments in those days had bothered to listen.

I could go back further, mindful of a report in the 1960s which stated that if the current demographic trends continued there would come a point where there would be just two workers for every one retiree. However, that was a UK publication, so I simply mention it in passing.

These latest reports show that, for the most part, Australian Governments have been asleep at the wheel for the past 40 years when it comes to adequately preparing for the collapse of the country’s working-age population. Note my difference, the Productivity Commission, the Treasury and others, always put the problem on older Australians – too many of them – rather than productive working younger people – too few of them.

It is so much easier to blame the inevitability of people getting older, over which Governments have no control, than the shortage of tax-paying workers, which Governments could and should have fixed over the past three decades.

One way of tackling the problem should have been a far larger compulsory superannuation fund. The Hawke Government belatedly introduced one at nine per cent in the late 1980s, but there it has rested ever since, woefully inadequate. Successive Governments since have either actively blocked further increases or simply elected to do nothing. What we should have in 2013 is a scheme at around 15 per cent with an employee and well as employer component.

Secondly we should have looked to immigration far more than we have to reduce the age of our working population. Yes, I am well aware that this would be a short-term fix; nevertheless it ought to have been part of the equation. Despite the long drone from unions about immigrants taking jobs from Australians, evidence has shown this is clearly not the case and that new arrivals actually create jobs in the medium to long term by setting up small businesses and creating demand for services.

Finally there should have been a far more sustained effort to encourage young people to have more children. This goes beyond slogans like former Treasurer Peter Costello’s “one for the mother, one for the father and one for the country”, or even baby bonus rewards. What is needed is a comprehensive package of easier and affordable childcare available to all, more attractive maternal and parental leave and tougher laws to ensure that all employers understand that they cannot disadvantage their employees who take time off to have and care for their children.

The Productivity Commission’s answer, is, as usual, weighted against older people, with pensions and retirement ages lifted to 70. While higher age levels are needed, a draconian increase to 70 is unfair and possible unsustainable as there are a number of occupations where people would simply not be able to perform adequately at such an advanced age. This would mean (presumably) that they would have to receive some other form of taxpayer-funded assistance.

Many older people are prepared to do their bit. But to designate them as ‘the problem’ is unhelpful and just plain wrong. They are not the problem; they are a significant part of the solution.           




Saturday, November 16, 2013

Disaster response will lose Beijing respect

Beijing’s initial miserly reaction to the Philippines typhoon disaster has lost it considerable prestige among its Asian neighbours, reinforcing perceptions that it is a ruthless and self-centred power whose rise is something to be feared rather than welcomed.

China’s original offer of $100,000 from the Government matched by the Chinese Red Cross was greeted with disbelief by the international community alongside donations from Australia ($30 million), the US ($20 million plus extensive civilian and military support), Japan ($10 million), United Kingdom ($70 million) and so on.

China later revised its contribution upwards to $1.75 million, mostly in tents and blankets, but still below totals from Taiwan ($4 million), Indonesia ($2 million), India (15 tonnes of medical supplies) and, perhaps most tellingly, the Swedish furniture chain of Ikea ($2.7 million).

So what is the reason for this poor treatment of the Philippines from the world’s second largest economy that has, in the past, been generous with similar appeals around the world? The answer appears to lie in the dispute between the two countries over a series of tiny islets in the South China Sea.

Beijing’s claim to various islands and atolls in the area has been well documented. It has also had disagreements with Vietnam and Indonesia, but it is the Philippines which has been most willing to challenge China’s claims over a formation known as the Scarborough shoal about 160 kilometres off the Philippines coast.

While Manila cannot hope to face down its giant neighbour militarily, it has taken its case to arbitration at the United Nations – and there it has a good chance of winning.

China bases its “indisputable rights” in the area to the fact that it has been fishing there since the fifth century AD, but as one maritime legal authority pointed out to me “the world has changed somewhat since the days of the Roman Empire and claims based on a practice 1600 years ago have to withstand 21st century geopolitical realities”.

Leaving all that aside, it has been universally recognised in the past that when disaster strikes, political considerations are put aside in the face of the need to bring relief to human suffering. The fact that in this case China appears not to have accepted this is an indictment of those who wield power in Beijing.        




Thursday, November 14, 2013

The decline of education

There is no doubt that higher education in Australia is in transition – some would call it crisis – as the pressure mounts for universities and their equivalents to be “relevant to modern society” and produce the workers who will “fuel the 21st century economy”.

The words in inverted commas are not mine but ones I have seen in innumerable media releases churned out by Federal and State Governments – and because these Governments hold the purse strings, the places of higher learning have to take note.

I really wish however, that there was a little more “push back” from the leadership of the these institutions, pointing out that education should go beyond cramming for qualifications that will earn the right kind of job.
Sadly, many key figures in academia seem eager to acquiesce in this trend. The Vice Chancellor of the University of Canberra, Professor Stephen Parker, looks forward to the day when a great deal of his institution’s infrastructure will be redundant because students will come on to campus less often and for shorter periods.

In his vision students will do increasing amounts of their learning online, working with videos and text “reserving every minute of personal time of the teacher to smaller group encounters where students defend and discuss their work”. 
This sausage-machine mentality may produce the short-term results that politicians want, but there are so many flaws. One being the assumption that by 18, all young people know exactly what they want to do with their lives and therefore the courses they should follow.

I quote an academic from an American university who believes that in addition to providing its students with qualifications, higher education should be equipping them to answer four questions:
What is worth knowing? What is worth doing? What makes for a good human life? What are my responsibilities to other people? 

If the trends in Australian higher learning continue their answer to the first question would be: The information that gets me a job; to the second would be: My job; while the third and fourth questions would probably not be answered at all.
Higher education should be shaping a person to make a worthwhile contribution, not just to an employer, not just to the economy, but to the community, locally, nationally and globally. Above all it should teach that minds should be open to all influences, and to develop the maturity to judge them, to accept them, or to reject them.

It should teach them about compassion about justice and yes, about a fair go; it should point out to them that the society they have been raised in is just one among many on this earth. Part of that knowledge doesn’t come from the internet or even from the lecture hall, but from interaction on campus in all sorts of contacts, formal and informal. It comes from debate and discussion, not just about work, but about the world in general. What’s right; what’s wrong, what should be preserved; what needs to be changed.
If we don’t do that, we deserve to be judged as the generation that for its own, selfish, materialist ends sought to impoverish its young people by denying them the basic knowledge of what it means to be human.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

China’s censors working overtime

China’s censors have been busy in recent weeks. Most recently there was the strange case of the car that somehow eluded the tight security that generally surrounds Tiananmen Square in central Beijing, crashing through barriers and exploding, killing the three occupants, two nearby tourists and injuring about 40 others.

Pictures of the incident taken from innumerable mobile phone cameras quickly blossomed on to the internet and were just as hastily removed from Chinese social media sites such as Renren and Sina Weibo. The sanitised Government version initially referred to the incident as a simple traffic accident and when that looked patently ridiculous, as a terrorist attack.

The names of the three people in the car identified them as members of the Moslem Uighur minority from the far west of the country, and five ‘suspects’ have since been arrested.  

There the matter, as far as the Government in Beijing is concerned, rests.

Chinese social media played its part in alerting Western journalists to another case, which otherwise might have gone completely unnoticed. A former street vendor, Xia Junfeng, was executed for killing two officials who were punishing him for operating an unlicensed shish kebab stall.

At first sight there seemed little unusual about the incident in a country that routinely executes hundreds of its citizens every year, but the execution of Xia touched a raw nerve among members of China’s massive blogosphere.

Many who followed the case believed that the evidence at Xia’s trial had been rigged to show him in the worst possible light and that he, in fact, killed the officials, known in China as chengguan, in self defence while they were beating him up.

However, the greatest anger was directed at comparisons with the another killer before the courts, Gu Kailai, the wife of a disgraced Politburo member, Bo Xilai, who was convicted of poisoning a British businessman, but was given a suspended death sentence. It is likely that she will be released from prison within a few years.

A professor at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, Tong Zongjin, summed up the mood when he said that if Gu could escape the death penalty after killing someone with poison, Xia should not have been put to death.   

Once again the censors struck and within a few hours all comments on Xia’s execution were swept clean. The official record of his death, among thousands of others, is all that remains – another example of the fact that in this socialist paradise there is still one law for the powerful and influential and another for the masses.   


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Tallest statue sparks giant row

A plan to build the world’s tallest statue in the Indian State of Gujarat is fuelling controversy throughout the nation and may yet feed in to next year’s national election.

The project has been instigated by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and will honour Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the country’s first Deputy Prime Minister and one of the founding fathers of the Indian Republic.
The 182-metre tall memorial, about twice the height of New York’s Statue of Liberty, has been named by Modi as ‘The Statue of Unity’. He says as well as attracting visitors from all over India and the world, it will be a long-overdue tribute to one of the nation’s foremost statesmen.

But there is far more to it than that.
Modi is almost certain to be the leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India’s general election, due in the middle of 2014. Opposing him will be the incumbent Congress Party dominated by the Gandhi family. It is still quite possible a member of the latest generation, Rahul Gandhi, will be Modi’s opponent for Prime Minister, although he has denied it. 

Patel served as deputy to India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who is Rahul’s great-grandfather. While the two were Cabinet colleagues, they were often at odds, most fundamentally over the fledgling country’s economic path. Nehru favoured a socialistic planned economy, Patel was a free marketeer.
Nehru also sought close relations with China, believing the two Third World giants could dominate Asia in partnership; Patel warned that China would only see India as a dangerous rival, a fact borne out by the short-lived war between them in 1962.

Patel is also credited with doing the hard work that forged India into a single State out of a ramshackle collection of principalities. He is often referred to as India’s Iron Man.
With Nehru’s socialism long abandoned and India’s economy booming under a free-market system, many historians now believe that the country would have been better placed today had Patel been Prime Minister in those early days.

Add this to the fact that Patel came from Gujarat and is revered there, and Modi appears to be on to a winner. When the Federal Environment Ministry announced that they would investigate the statue project – which also includes a visitors centre, garden, hotel and convention centre – veteran BJP leader Venkaiah Naidu hit back, saying the intervention was inspired by the Gandhis who did not want to see Patel memorialised.
Naidu went on to list 450 schemes, projects and institutions that are named after various members of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

The massive statue will not be completed for four years, if at all. Well before that the BJP will be hoping it will have done its work in helping to propel Modi to the leadership of the world’s biggest democracy.