John Hewson and integrity in a post-truth world

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Photo of John Hewson – Crawford School of Public Policy

Nobody can call out an errant politician better than former Liberal Opposition Leader John Hewson. In the 22 years since he resigned from politics, Hewson has become a respected academic, the darling of TV panel shows like Q&A, and a regular on the celebrity speakers’ circuit. Yesterday, Hewson was a keynote speaker at Griffith University’s two-day summit, Integrity20.

Who better to address the opening topic “Post-Truth, Trust and the Ethics of Deceit?” Hewson has been speaking out about fake news and the propensity of politicians to stray from the facts, long before Donald Trump made it a catch phrase. He is also an advocate for evidence-based public policy, often identifying where politicians have used models and commissioned reports to suit their version of the facts.

So to Hewson’s opening address yesterday, where he used the climate change debate to support his argument for ‘evidence-based public policy’.

“We had a very hard-line position as a response to the climate challenge back in the early 1990s. I was calling for a 20% cut in emissions by the year 2000 off a 1990 base. We are yet to know how we are getting the 5% reduction in emissions by 2020 off a 2000 base. And of course, we’re committed under the Paris Accord to cut emissions by 26% to 28% by 2030.

“What’s happened over that period is drift – the issues have been left to drift. Housing affordability’s been left to drift, the climate response has been left to drift and the final line of that drift is the mess we have in the energy sector. Electricity and gas prices are running away to the point where the average household is struggling to afford to pay its power bills.

“These are the outcomes of negligent government over a very long period of time.”

Hewson believes the situation can be turned around, but it will take some years to reverse the damage. He said what the country needed was an honest debate about leadership.

“And leadership is going to be about telling people honestly the way it is. To get good policy up we have to educate people to accept the magnitude of the problem.

“But we don’t have any debate now in this country – it’s all negative. One side puts its hand up and says let’s do X and the other side immediately says no.”

One in three voted for someone else

He said people had lost faith in the two-party system. In the last election, one in three people did not vote for one of the major parties. The protest vote was not just something that had happened only in Australia, he added, citing Brexit, the US, France and Germany as recent examples.

“It’s a longer term trend and it will get worse before it gets better.”

The path to restoring voter confidence, he said, was by focusing on the issues that affect people – the cost of living, health, housing, childcare and education.

But the main problem was that the ‘wrong people’ were in government.

“If you asked them why they went into politics, they’d say to make a difference and leave a better world for their grandchildren.

“And then they do the opposite.’

Hewson, who will be 71 next Sunday, had a distinguished career in politics. He was leader of the Australian Liberal Party and Leader of the Opposition between 1990 and 1994. Before and after politics he has worked as a senior economist for organisations, including the Australian Treasury, the Reserve Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

In this context, it seems uncharitable to recall that in 1991 he advocated an unpopular goods and services tax. He lost the 1993 election to Paul Keating over the “Fightback Package”, of which GST was a central element. Ironically, Paul Keating (who first advocated a GST in 1985), shamelessly exploited public opinion to thwart Hewson.

All that aside, Hewson at least clearly outlined what he was going to do in 1991-93 and stuck to it. He is known still as a straight shooter, a man who once said he lived in hope of ‘spin-free politics’.

Day one of the Integrity20 Summit was not just about politics and truth. ABC presenter James O’Loghlin chaired a panel discussion about solving the world’s problems through innovation.

Inventor and futurist Mark Pesce showed a short video of a robot working on a farm in Indonesia. He described it as just two wheels, an axle and a smartphone on the end of what looks like a selfie stick, collecting data and producing crop reports. These robots cost about $2,500 and can be shared around a farming community. He also demonstrated how 3D printers, aligned with a simple robot used in smart phone technology, can reproduce all the plastic parts to build another 3D printer. Eventually, robots will also be able to assemble the printers – and that’s just the edges of the innovations universe.

CSIRO scientist Stefan Hajkowicz said the impact of Artificial Intelligence on the future of work had been greatly over-stated. He thought there were many areas where robots and humans would work side by side – in hospitals for example. The robot would do the blood test and the nurse would soothe the patient’s concerns.

But it turns out robots are crap at irregular tasks we humans take for granted, A robot cannot tie your shoelaces, for example. And, as Hajkowicz added, they can’t fold towels. They tried to get a robot to fold a towel. It took 20 minutes and did the job badly.

Today I attended the final full-day session of Integrity20, hastily scribbling notes and pressing stop/start on my hand-held recorder. You may wonder how I met my deadline – marvel at my prowess.

M.Y Prowess (sub-editor): “Isn’t it time I had a byline?”

BW: Ghost writers should be read and not heard – and try using commas instead of dashes – please – some of my readers find it tiresome.”

Next week: Bryan Dawe on satire, media censorship and the global rise of populism.

 

Mental Health Week – a psychiatrist walks into a bar

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A mural by Giudo van Helten on 30m grain silos in Coonalpyn, South Australia. https://flic.kr/p/XUsAK9 Steve Swayne

You wouldn’t always associate grain silos with the national funding crisis facing Australia’s mental health sector. Mental Health Australia chief executive Frank Quinlan did just that, using the silo analogy to lament the distribution of funds that so often see alcohol and drug problems and mental health problems dealt with separately.

He cited the 2016 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report on alcohol and drug use which states that one in four people who abuse substances had also been diagnosed or treated for a mental illness.

Mental illness was the subject of a short film shown at Gympie’s Heart of Gold Festival last weekend. A psychiatrist is late for his 11am appointment with a new patient – a man who suffers from delusions that he is…a psychiatrist. It sounds like a man walks into a bar joke, but in this case, the clever premise for a 13-minute film by Josh Lawson (actor/writer) and Derin Steele (director).Lawson and Steele control the farcical plot and sharp dialogue with the panache of John Cleese and Connie Booth.

The film won the best Australian short film award at the Heart of Gold Festival, the 10th year of this splendidly curated short film festival held in Gympie.  I’m happy for the writer/director that they won best Australian short for a film by using humour to have something to say about psychiatry and mental illness.

Seeing is believing – maybe

Unlike physical disabilities (cerebral palsy, MS,  spina bifida, brain or spinal cord injury, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy or the long-term effects of a serious stroke), mental illnesses are hardly ever that obvious. Once the mentally ill person’s latest acute episode has settled, they can present in society, well, as normal as you and me.

The point is well made in “The Eleven O’Clock” where the secretary (a temp), accepts what she sees as “normal”.

There is, alas, nothing funny about mental health, its proven links to alcohol and drug abuse and a lack of co-ordinated national funding that leaves so many mentally ill people in a cyclical holding pattern.

As Mental Health Australia chief executive Frank Quinlan wrote in a recent MHA newsletter, separate plans and strategies to deal with mental health perpetuate the silo model of funding.

Quinlan writes that Primary Health Networks, set up in 2015, offer an opportunity to genuinely integrate and co-ordinate programmes and services.

“But this is only going to happen if we can break down the boundaries that see separate streams of funding for drug and alcohol issues, mental health issues and various psychosocial supports.”

The 2016 AIHW report, which canvassed 23,772 people, noted that 27% of illicit drug users have a mental health issue, compared with 21% in 2013. Mental illness occurred in one in four users of ecstasy and cocaine and in 42% of methamphetamine users (29% in 2013).

The abuse of amphetamines and derivatives doesn’t let righteous boozers off the hook. One in five people who drink alcohol at risky levels have also been diagnosed or treated for a mental illness. That was a 25% increase over three years.

Patrick McGorry, professor of psychiatry at the University of Melbourne, says the overlap between mental ill health and substance abuse is enormous, yet treatment for drug abuse and mental health has been “progressively de-funded, de-medicalised and split off from mental health care.”

He told ABC News: “Mental ill health drives self-medication with drugs and alcohol and yet virtually no services are equipped to respond to this toxic blend.”

Meanwhile, many community mental health programs, be they government-funded units or NGOs, have been ring-fenced within the National Disability Insurance Service. This means that the mentally ill who do not qualify under the NDIS may be without support outside of acute hospital wards. The Federal Government set aside $80 million in the May budget with the intention of plugging the gap.

Sebastian Rosenberg, Senior Lecturer, Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney, said the federal budget’s promise of $115 million in new funding over four years was one of the smallest investments in the sector in recent years. The Council of Australian Governments (CoAG) added more than $5.5 billion to mental health spending in 2006, while the 2011-12 federal budget provided $2.2 billion in new funding.

“In 2014-15, mental health received around 5.25% of the overall health budget while representing 12% of the total burden of disease,” Rosenberg wrote in The Conversation.

“(These figures) speak to the fact mental health remains chronically underfunded. Mental health’s share of overall health spending was 4.9% in 2004-05. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, funding has changed very little over the past decade.”

Rosenberg says Australia lacks a coherent national strategy to tackle mental health.

“New services have been established this year, but access to them may well depend on where you live or who is looking after you. This is chance, not good planning.”

This is where the silo analogy reappears: those with the gold key to the silo door will get a quick fix. Treasurer Scott Morrison said the $80 million allocated over four years for ‘psychosocial services’ was for Australians with a mental illness such as severe depression, eating disorders, schizophrenia and post-natal depression. The funding, which seeks matching contributions from the States, includes those who had been at risk of losing their services during the transition to the NDIS.

Some 230,000 Australians with severe mental illness have chronic, persisting illness and most have a need for some form of social support. This can range from low intensity or group-based activities to extensive and individualised support. The latest data available on this subject suggests that 22% of people with psychosocial disabilities have been unable to meet access requirements for the NDIS. (NDIS/COaG Quarterly report).

So $20 million a year won’t go very far, although as much as $160 million a year could be available if all States chip in. But each State and Territory will have to retain responsibility for what was previously known as community mental health services.

Still, you’d agree it’s a better application of taxpayer funds than the $20 million spent in 2015 on charter flights to and from detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

From the archives

 

 

Journalists facing deadly risks

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Photojournalist wearing a gas mask covers civil unrest in Cairo.  Image Alisdare Hickson

Not for the first time, I’m ruminating about the deadly risks facing journalists working in conflict zones or countries like North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Egypt or even India.

It’s 1am and I’m reading the Guardian Weekly, starting with its world roundup, where my eye is drawn to a headline: “Indian journalist beaten to death.” In just 100 words we are told that Shantanu Bhowmick’s death at the hands of a stick-wielding mob brings the tally of reporters killed in India since the 1990s to 29.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) outlines the risks facing individuals in India who have made Right to Information (RTI) requests. Since the law came into force in 2005, at least 69 people have been murdered after they filed RTI requests. Another 130 journalists have been victims of assault and 170 reported being harassed.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says that 1,746 journalists and 104 media workers have been killed world-wide since 1992.

What makes these statistics more compelling is that the majority of deaths were not random: a motive was confirmed in 1,253 cases.

The Committee to Protect Journalists maintains a list of the riskiest countries in which to work as a journalist. The list is based on the use of tactics ranging from imprisonment and repressive laws to harassment of journalists and restrictions on Internet access.

Eritrea is No 1 on the list of regimes which censor the press and the Internet, followed by North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan. Vietnam, Iran, China, Myanmar and Cuba.

There are 23 journalists behind bars in Eritrea. None has been tried in court or even charged with a crime. The Internet is available, but only 1% of the population goes online, using slow, dial-up connections. Only 5.6% of Eritreans own a cell phone. In North Korea, 9.7% of the population have (official) cell phones but an unknown number have phones smuggled in from China. A few individuals have Internet access, but schools and institutions are limited to a tightly controlled Intranet.

The CPJ says tactics used by Eritrea and North Korea are mirrored to varying degrees in other heavily censored countries.

“To keep their grip on power, repressive regimes use a combination of media monopoly, harassment, spying, threats of journalist imprisonment, and restriction of journalists’ entry into or movements within their countries.”

This was not helping my insomnia. I turned to page nine, to reporter Joshua Robertson’s full-page coverage of Australia’s same-sex marriage debate. The story includes interviews with residents of Warwick (Queensland), apparently the last bastion of the ‘No’ vote.

Robertson went to an un-named club in Warwick, a town of 15,000 on the Southern Downs, to interview un-named people about the town’s apparent reputation as a ‘No’ Vote stronghold.

“The bible says it’s wrong, and that’s all there is to it,” one woman in the club said, chiding her husband, who was yet to make up his mind.

The reporter also travelled to Roma, an oil and gas town in western Queensland. He interviewed a public servant who said he felt more comfortable being “out” in Roma that in Sydney or Melbourne.

Meanwhile in Queensland

As news assignments go, Joshua Robertson’s Queensland Diary would not fall into the category of risk that faced Shantanu Bhowmick or the other 44 foreign journalists and media workers killed so far in 2017.

These global statistics make the life of a working journalist in Australia look comparatively benign. But not so if you accept an assignment to file news reports, video or images from conflict zones. In 2015, Australian journalist Peter Greste laid a wreath at a new memorial in Canberra recognising the contribution of war correspondents. It was fitting that Greste was chosen for this honour as he’d not long returned to Australia after being imprisoned in Egypt, along with Al Jazeera comrades.

The memorial in a sculpture garden at the Australian War Memorial honours 26 war correspondents killed in combat zones. They range from William Lambie (Boer War 1899-1902) to cameraman Paul Moran, killed during a suicide bombing in Iraq, 2003. Also named is sound recordist Paul Little, who died in a German hospital in 2003 after being caught up in an ambush in Iraq. Also laying a wreath in September 2015 was Shirley Shackleton, widow of Balibo Five reporter Greg Shackleton, one of five Australian journalists killed in East Timor in 1975.

And Australians might want to think about these crucial issues of press freedom and the right to information. On Monday, the ABC’s Four Corners, still the best in the business, sent a reporter and producer to India to dig into the background of conglomerate Adani. It was a good example of journalists taking risks in risky territory. The Four Corners team were grilled for five hours by ‘crime branch’ police after filming at a controversial Adani-owned site. Four Corners investigated Adani’s environmental record and business probity because the Indian company wants the Australian Government to provide a $1 billion loan to underwrite the world’s biggest coal mine in western Queensland and associated rail and port infrastructure.

Joshua Robertson’s Queensland Diary, meanwhile, reminds us that not so very long ago, the State lived under a repressive regime. In 1989 the last criminal charges were brought (in Roma) under Queensland’s homosexuality laws. These were the last days of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen regime (1967-1987), an era when news gathering or protesting was riskier than they are today.

As one of the thousands of bearded, long-haired men who joined their saffron-robed women, wafting about King George Square in a cloud of patchouli essence and acrid cigarette smoke, championing anything that was anti-Joh, I suspect my photo is in a dusty Special Branch file somewhere.

Journalists working in Queensland through the Joh-era needed a Press Pass, which had to be shown whenever entering government buildings. I still have my pass, signed by the former Commissioner of Police, Terry Lewis.

Wonder how much that would be worth on eBay?

 

 

 

 

ATM fees abolition a smoke screen?

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One of several “enhanced” ATM’s located in the Alberta Arts District of Portland, Oregon. Photo by Ian Sane https://flic.kr/p/X2R8op

If you were feeling all warm and fuzzy about the Big Four banks deciding to drop the hated ‘foreign’ ATM fees, sorry, the feeling won’t last. For a start, the Commonwealth Bank’s decision to go first didn’t last long. The CBA announced the fee abolition early on Sunday (aiming for a slow news day lead). But within hours, Westpac, the ANZ and National Bank of Australia had all suddenly (on a Sunday) released statements that they had come to the same point of view. The likely reason is that the boards of all four banks (and others) have had the ATM fees item on their agendas for a while now, just waiting for the right time to tell their media people to press “go”.

And they make it sound like they’re doing us all a big favour. Banks have been gouging ATM fees (typically $2 or $2.50) since the Reserve Bank of Australia first said they could, in March 2009. The main ‘victims’ of this unjust fee (for using an ATM owned by another bank), were the people who travel interstate or intrastate and had no choice.

RBA data tells us there were 251.65 million ‘foreign’ ATM withdrawals in the last financial year. Deutsche Bank estimates the Big Four have foregone about $117 million by dropping the ATM fee, according to the Australian Financial Review. But that’s a modest amount compared to the $4.4 billion we collectively pay out in bank fees every year.

RateCity analysis of RBA data shows the average mortgage holder paid $471 on banking fees last year. That includes $240 a year in home loan fees and $231 in credit card fees.

In this context as some have suggested, the ATM fees abolition story is a PR smoke screen. ABC senior business correspondent Peter Ryan said of Sunday’s news coup…“the planned, if not co-ordinated, decision is mostly about banks doing what it takes to avoid a royal commission into bad banking behaviour.”

The most recent media disclosures about money laundering allegations compound other image issues for banks, including financial advice scandals and allegations of market manipulation and misleading conduct.

While the big bank PR people might be spinning this as “listening to our consumers”, the real story is ATMs are becoming less popular.

Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) data shows ATM use is falling and falling sharply. Monthly withdrawal transactions have fallen from a high of 78.427 million in December 2008 to 48.684 million in January 2017.

Banking analysts ascribe this sharp downturn in ATM use to the now ubiquitous “tap” method of paying for anything from a Mars bar to a week’s worth of groceries. There is also the “any cash out?” query whenever you spend money in a supermarket or bottle shop.

Pat McConnell, Visiting Fellow, Macquarie University Applied Finance Centre, says new technologies will soon be launched that further undermine ATMs. The biggest will be the New Payments Platform (NPP). Another is OSKO, a new payment mechanism from the developers of BPAY.

McConnell writing for The Conversation, says the NPP will change the way that payments are made in Australia.

“Rather than putting a payment on a credit card or waiting a few days for a payment from another bank to clear, with NPP payments will be cleared in a few minutes or less. Using NPP, anyone will be able to make an almost instantaneous transfer of funds into the bank of a supplier, such as a plumber.”

As McConnell puts it, with NPP, everyone with a smartphone and spare cash is an ATM.

Technology changes go some way to explaining why so many bank branches are closing or relocating to kiosk-style retail outlets. Last week, for the first time, I withdrew cash from an ATM outside the local Bank of Queensland branch. I did so because the Suncorp branch in Maleny closed in mid-September and with it went the Suncorp ATM. Suncorp’s advice was to use (a) the BOQ-branded ATM across the road or (b) withdraw cash at the Post Office. Transaction duly completed, I was pleased/relieved to find that I was not charged a fee for using the other provider’s ATM.

(Incidentally, Suncorp announced on Tuesday it would scrap ‘foreign’ fees on its 400 ATMs Australia-wide by the end of December).

There are still six ATMs in Maleny, although the jury is out as to which won’t charge a fee if you bank with someone else.

In case you didn’t know, some ATMs (the ones found in pubs, casinos, convenience stores, roadhouses and other retail outlets) may charge you a fee regardless. What the Big Bank decision to scrap ATM fees means for their business model remains to be seen.

Maleny has just two banks left (Bank of Queensland and Maleny Credit Union (now called MCU Ltd). The ANZ left its ATM in place and established a mobile business bank at the other end of the street.

Since 2007, the number of bank branches in Australia has dropped from 6,600 in 2007 to fewer than 5,600. Branch closures are ongoing, with the Finance Sector Union recently revealing Westpac branch closures in Western Australia and Victoria.

When our local Suncorp branch closed, we went in to check out rumours of cake. Yes, there was (gluten-free) cake, iced in Suncorp colours.

We popped in to say “bye”, but ironically tellers were too pre-occupied serving customers for other than a quick “thanks and good luck”.

What’s bothering me more, honestly, is my habit of collecting gold coins in a container and, once I have $100 or so, banking the cash in my account. Oh, you do that too? The gals at Suncorp didn’t have a problem with this old-school habit. We were told (by Suncorp) we could do basic banking business at the local Australia Post branch. I queued up yesterday, banked $30 in gold coins and it was no drama at all. I even got a receipt.

Now, about that late fee for missing a credit card payment by one day…