Thursday, May 21, 2015

Timid governments’ consultation cop-out

Dealing as I often do with government announcements, speeches and media releases, I have noticed the growing obsession with public consultations, focus groups and discussion papers.

Just one example: The Australian Capital Territory’s Government was considering the way new technologies and other reforms could be employed by Canberra’s taxi fleet; inevitably it launched a public consultation process. People could access a discussion paper online and send in their comments for a set period of time.

Nothing wrong with that, you might say; good to involve people who might use taxis; an example of government keeping in touch with those who elected it.

I beg to differ and this is why.

Firstly, you will not get feedback from a representative group of taxi users. You will get feedback from the few who happen to see the news article and are motivated to make a reply.

These are often people who have a particular barrow to push. They want a taxi-rank a convenient walk from their home; they want a noisy taxi rank moved from outside their flats to somewhere else – anywhere as long as it does not annoy them; they want guarantees that taxis will arrive within 10 minutes of them calling one 24/7 etc.

Secondly I believe that governments are elected to govern and should not be running back to the electorate every time they have to make a decision. They are ones who have all the facts at their disposal (or should have); they are the ones who have the resources to employ expert advice, or to study the results of similar initiatives elsewhere and to learn from mistakes made.

Governments have become timid, afraid of making an unpopular decision that will affect their chances of getting re-elected next time round. But hard decisions have to be made and should not, indeed could not, be left to the electorate who, in the most general sense, would prefer a world where there were fewer taxes and more services.

Squaring that circle is what governments have to do, even if it sometimes means offending people who may, or may not have voted for them. It’s what democracy is all about.

Finally, you do not always get honest answers from those consulted — and here I might recall a public consultation that was done many years ago in the United Kingdom, not by a government, but by the International Publishing Corporation over the launch a new national newspaper.

IPC was a part owner of the Daily Herald, a staunchly leftist trade union-backed publication that was losing serious money. IPC decided to have a relaunch with a new name geared to the aspiring young middle class (the Yuppies of today).

It employed market researchers who came back with the finding that this cohort wanted a “more intelligent and thoughtful” newspaper — and that was how the Sun appeared in 1964 — and quickly began to sink.

The Sun struggled on for a few years, losing circulation at an even greater rate than the Herald, until IPC sold it to Rupert Murdoch who doubled, then tripled its readership on a solid diet topless models, celebrity scandal and sport.

As columnist Matthew Engels later remarked: “People aren’t going to tell complete strangers with clipboards they want to see breasts on Page Three.”  




Thursday, May 14, 2015

What next for the Pyongyang emperor?

Recent events in North Korea can give no comfort to observers who hope the country’s mercurial leader, Kim Jong-un, can be somehow brought to reason over his long-running confrontation with his neighbours.

All hope has now evaporated that the 32-year-old Kim, who assumed office on the death of his father in 2011, would adopt a more enlightened attitude towards international relations than had existed under his father and grandfather since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Instead the situation has got steadily worse.

Kim has actively pursued his country’s bid for nuclear weapons, and analysts agree that North Korea now has a fully-fledged nuclear program. Earlier this month there was a significant development with the reported firing from a submarine of a missile capable of carrying a nuclear weapon.

The United States has since dismissed this as a stunt, although there is general agreement that the incident was a test of the missile firing system itself. Even this is a clear indication of North Korea’s intention to develop such a capacity, although military experts say, the actual launch of a nuclear missile is still some years away.

Coupled with Kim’s recent actions, there is good reason for serious concern about the future for peace in northern Asia. The Supreme Leader is beginning to adopt some of the worst excesses of the Roman emperors (Caligula instantly springs to mind) with his extermination of family members and other senior advisers from his father’s regime.

Most recently was the bizarre execution of his Defence Minister, Hyon Yong-choi, blown to bits by an anti-aircraft missile in front of hundreds of spectators, apparently for the crime of dozing off during a meeting that Kim was attending.

South Korean analysts say this brings to 16 the number of senior officials who have been killed this year for real or apparent slights against the Supreme Leader.

While the ‘dozing off’ charge provided a ready excuse for dispatching Hyon it may well be that the Defence Chief had dared to reason with Kim over his obsession with nuclear weapons which, if ever used, could lead only to the destruction of his country.   

One of the world's foremost North Korea analysts, Andrei Lankov, says that compared with his father and grandfather, Kim has become dangerously trigger-happy.

He points out that Kim is young and inexperienced and may initially have been regarded as a lightweight by the officials in the regime he had inherited.

“This likely explains the near-continuous series of high-level purges since Kim came into power, including that of his own uncle last year,” Lankov says.

He believes there is at present no danger of an external initiative to remove Kim from power and absolutely no chance of a popular uprising from the country’s cowed and demoralised population.
The only possibility is a palace revolution among officials and advisers close to Kim. As the Defence Chief, in charge of the country’s 1.2 million-strong army, Hyon would present a particular threat.
But as the fate of Caligula attests, incessant purges of those around Kim will only make the survivors and successors more nervous. How this may play out over the weeks and months ahead will be watched very carefully in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington.      


Thursday, May 7, 2015

Stumped by STEM? It’s not the end of the world

Two news items caught my eye this week: Six Western Australian Institutions have signed up to promote science though the national Inspiring Australia initiative. The aim is to turn school students towards science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the so-called STEM subjects.

Parliamentary Secretary for Industry and Science, Karen Andrews proclaimed the move to be part of the Australian Government’s vision for a “science-literate knowledge nation”.

 Also in Western Australia there was the announcement of a new award to recognise principals who are developing their schools’ science and maths education programs.

Nothing wrong with that, I hear you say. Australia, and indeed the world, needs more scientists, mathematicians and engineers, not to mention technicians to feed the every-burgeoning ICT industries.

 Yes and no. In Australia the push for more young people to embrace this area of education has taken on the trappings of a religious crusade — a crusade led by the Federal Minister for Industry and Science, Ian Macfarlane who seldom misses an chance to decry the fact that such a small percentage of Australian students study STEM subjects at senior secondary and tertiary levels.

There is a need to present STEM in its most attractive forms to encourage young people with an aptitude for the subjects to develop their learning. No-one with talent should be turned away because they think of it as uncool or too dry.

But allowances should also be made for those whose brains are not wired that way and who would prefer to shine in other areas.

As a child, I was a victim of a father who believed passionately that success in life depended on a thorough knowledge of English and maths.

For me there was no problem with English, but mathematics beyond long-division was a mystery. I soldiered on because I had a parent who believed that my good marks in history, geography and religious knowledge (yes it was a long time ago) counted for nothing if I could not get at least a pass in maths.

Eventually I found out for myself that the world need not revolve around logarithms and calculus and found a profession where the only arithmetic I needed was to work out my weekly expense sheet (and anyway pocket calculators had been invented by then).

So my advice to any young person under siege from the STEM crusaders is by all means give it a go, but if it’s not for you don’t waste a moment. There will always be others who are better at it, so leave them to it.

Find where your real interests and abilities lie and don’t let anyone deflect you from them. It’s your best chance of realising your dreams.  


Monday, May 4, 2015

Vietnam: A not so happy anniversary

The Australian Navy’s treatment of 46 Vietnamese asylum seekers in sending them back to their home country last month after a hurried on-sea ‘assessment’ process, was without any real attempt to discover why the people were leaving and what would happen to them when they were returned.

Since then it has been a case of out-of-sight-out-of-mind, with the suggestion from at least one apologist for the action that the asylum seekers were obviously economic migrants as Vietnam had transformed into a stable society that no longer persecuted its citizens.

While the situation has improved in recent years, Vietnam is still ruled by an authoritarian clique that brooks no opposition to its rule and takes action against those who question it.

One such opposing organisation is the Vietnam Reform Party, or Viet Tan, that seeks to bring about democratic reform in the country and which the Vietnamese Government, alone among the nations of the world, regards as a terrorist group. Even the United Nations has stated that Viet Tan is a peaceful organisation which advocates for democratic reform.

That does not stop party members within the country suffering harassment. Viet Tan has published a list of more than 20 individuals who have been barred from leaving the country since 2013. Most recently, the editor of an independent website, Anton Le Ngoc Thanh was stopped from boarding a flight to Manila in March where he was due to speak at a conference promoting an open internet.

His passport was seized and he was never given an official reason why he could not exit the country.

Last year an activist who did slip through the net, Nguyen Dinh Ha, underwent 24 hours of interrogation on his return and had personal possessions, including his laptop and passport, confiscated.

In most cases Vietnam authorities quote a 2007 decree “safeguarding national security, social order and safety”.  This appears in contradiction to the country’s constitution which guarantees freedom of movement.

A few days ago, Vietnam marked the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the civil war with lavish parades, massed flag-waving and giant video screens extolling the virtues of the Communist Party.

But behind the strutting soldiers and smiling children in national dress there are still many who find it difficult to call Vietnam their country. The fact the Government needs laws to restrict its citizens from coming and going underlines that fact.

Which is why Australian authorities should not have been so fast with their ‘tick and flick and send them back’ policy towards the 46 asylum seekers who finally decided to take matters into their own hands last month.