OH & S doesn’t kill people, cowardly people kill people – actually they both do

Instituted in 1940 the George Cross, or GC, is Britain’s highest civilian award – the lesser-known, peacetime equivalent of the famous Victoria Cross. The list of recipients is indeed distinguished, and apart from military personnel engaged in peacetime acts of gallantry, the next largest category is police officers from all over the UK, and indeed the Commonwealth.

But that category has been in decline of late – one suspects a permanent decline. As a former police officer myself, I am loathed to cast aspersions on the objective bravery of those who still serve, but I would submit that the culture in which they now serve is a hinderance to bravery. In fact – forget about brave and gallant acts – it’s a hinderance to doing the very basics of the job they are sworn to do.

The most outrageous example is that of Simon Burgess who drowned tragically earlier this year. As horrible as any untimely death is (he was only 41), this is a death that evoked outrage throughout Britain as a veritable army of police, fire and ambulance personnel refused to enter a shallow model-boating lake in Gosport, Hampshire. Those that did seek to enter were cautioned against such rash behaviour in the terms of the occupational health and safety legislation. For more than half an hour, this group, sworn to protect and serve, did neither; rather they looked on as Mr Burgess’ body floated face down a few metres from the lake’s edge, and they waited for so-called level 2 certified officers from Hampshire Fire and Rescue. You see, it turns out that most of Hampshire’s finest (all of whom, it was revealed at the Coronial inquiry, could swim) are not permitted to enter water higher than their ankles, and even then, not if the water is flowing.

Hampshire's finest!
Bravely, they negotiate a 3′ artificial lake, with the aid of depth measuring aparatus and spacesuits.
 

So by the time the more highly qualified variety of public servants arrived on the scene – greeted, as they were, by useless a cast of thousands: numerous emergency vehicles, good-for-nothing emergency workers, a rescue helicopter that had landed, and even an inflatable tent erected for the occasion – the rescue of Mr Burgess had become what every police officer wishes they didn’t have to attend: a body recovery operation.

Chris Snowdon recently labelled Australia the world’s number one nanny state. And while I do not dispute his thesis – and in fact, I live here, he doesn’t, so I know it’s true – I will say this: common-or-garden variety police officers in Australia can, and regularly do, enter water deeper than their ankles. Every few weeks one hears of a police officer somewhere in Australia effecting an aquatic rescue (only “level 3″ officers in Hampshire are actually allowed to swim). But that isn’t bravery – sorry lads, no GC – it’s merely doing the job they are sworn, and paid, to do.

The sad death of Mr Burgess should cast a pall of shame over all concerned; from legislators and public servants of the Health and Safety Executive (which is responsible at least for a culture of regulatory legalism that suppresses even the slightest hint of bravery), to operational supervisors of the various agencies, to the very officers involved – or not involved as was mostly the case – in the incident. And it should be a salutary lesson to all of us that increased regulations – even ones in the politically correct name of “health and safety” – not only cost basic freedoms, but cost lives as well.

Sadly, after today, we will have a PM again

Published: Menzies House, 27 February 2012

Of all the things our PM has said over the last few days, one is particularly disturbing: “This is a distraction, we need to get back to running the country.” In fact both contenders want this ugly leadership stoush out of the way so they can return to running Australia.

The same phraseology is used, of course, by every backbench Labor MP, as they vainly insist that whatever running of the country they might have been involved in is being hindered by the Labor’s antics. Not to be outdone, Sydney radio station 2UE has been asking the question, “who is best to run the country?”, former Liberal leader John Hewson asks it as well but in a rhetorical sense, and at least one Facebook page specifically calls for Kevin Rudd to go back to doing it, if only to put an end to his tedious press conferences.

In any case, the inference seems to be that the country is careening off-course while Labor figures out who’s at the wheel. Hardly!

Friday morning’s tweet from Swiss philosopher and author of Religion for AtheistsAlain de Botton, is instructive:

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He’s right, of course, about it being a debacle, but also about Australia’s privileged position. The Centre for Independent Studies’ Greg Lindsay tweeted similarly:

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While we are being bombarded with the news that no one is “running the country,” things are still going pretty well. Not necessarily because of the government, of course; more likely in spite of it. But Australia is still ticking over. People are still going to work. Children are still being educated. The markets are still trading. And the Waratah’s are still losing. Australia is well-and-truly still running, and all this while no one is running it! Who knew it could work like that?

But imagine, then, just how good it could be if the diversions could become a little more permanent. Imagine what might happen if the government was distracted more frequently from its regulating and social engineering of Australian businesses and charities and individuals. Imagine.

The worrying thing about this whole affair, is not that no one’s running the country, but that after today one of the clowns intends to get back on the job.

The Clayton’s Royal Commission

The inquiry into the pretentiously named Star (casino) is being hailed as a triumph for public interest and for the integrity of gambling in New South Wales. Maybe so, but it is a retrograde step for democracy, civil liberties and the rule of law.
In case you missed the exciting news, the bureaucracy responsible for regulating Sydney’s only casino, the Casino, Liquor and Gaming Control Authority, has appointed senior barrister, Gail Furness SC to conduct an inquiry into the departure of the Star’s managing director. Sid Vaikunta left the MD’s job under amid accusations of what is euphemistically being termed “inappropriate behaviour in a social work setting.”
Now I hold no brief for Mr Vaikunta – after all, what employer could let inappropriate behaviour in a social work setting go unpunished? But the remedy provided by the state’s casino legislation should concern all New South Welshmen, and for two reasons:
The first concern is the inquiry’s powers. In conducting the inquiry, Ms Furness will have the same arsenal of powers as a royal commission. She will be able to summon witnesses, issue arrest warrants, hold people in contempt, and – most shockingly – require answers to any question without the right to silence, even if the answer might incriminate the witness to whom the question is asked. Or, as section 17 (1) of the NSW Royal Commissions Act puts it:

A witness summoned to attend or appearing before the commission shall not be excused from answering any question or producing any document or other thing on the ground that the answer or production may criminate or tend to criminate the witness, or on the ground of privilege or on any other ground.

Admittedly, any such answer cannot be used in criminal or civil proceedings against the witness, but that’s hardly the point. The common law right to silence, and the right not to incriminate oneself, are not merely concerned with whether or not the answer can be used in subsequent proceedings; they are concerned with the principle that a person has a choice in what they say.

Now I understand that these unfortunate provisions are sometimes necessary – you know, for the greater good. The list of royal commissions at both state and federal level reads like a litany of important public interest, “greater good” matters – systemic corruption in the NSW Police, the collision between HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Voyager, the West Gate Bridge collapse, the Victorian bush fires, Aboriginal deaths in custody, the 2011 Queensland floods – and the list goes on. But is the power to compel a witness to answer a question really necessary to get to find out why Sid was sacked? I think not.

The second concern is the means by which the inquiry is established. In the case of a royal commission, the establishment lies with the governor or governor-general as the case may be. Hence the name. Obviously the viceroy acts on the advice of his or her ministers, with the advice usually coming from the premier or prime minister, and then only after a cabinet decision. Section 5 of the Royal Commissions Act makes clear the vice-regal imperative, and the steps that must be taken:

Whenever the Governor by letters patent under the Public Seal issues a Royal Commission to any person to make any inquiry… (italics mine)

So only the governor – by letters patent, under the public seal, on the advice of the minister –  can initiate a royal commission. Unless, of course, we are talking about a pseudo-royal commission initiated, not by the democratically elected government and the effective head of state, but by an obscure, non-elected quango board and a squad of mid-level public servants.

But at least we can get the get to the bottom of whose bum Mr Vaikunta pinched at last year’s staff Christmas party.

Dan Hannon and the Future of Freedom in Europe and the West

 

 

IMG_4191Published: Menzies House, 22 February 2012

Last night I had the distinct privilidge of attending a lecture by Dan Hannon MEP on The Future of Freedom in Europe and the West. It was hosted by the Institute of Public Affairs, unfortunately at that seedy gambling den, City Tattersalls Club.

I present to you but a handful of quotes from The Quotable Hannon…

On Britain joining the EU: “Far from hitching ourselves to a powerful locomotive, we’ve shackled ourselves to a corpse!”

On the EU’s obsession with debt: “What possible line of reasoning could have led the EU to think that the solution to the debt crisis is more debt?”

On taxation: “The only purpose of taxation is to raise revenue. It’s really not meant to be a way of signaling what you don’t approve of.”

On the political “strength” of the EU: “The strength of the EU doesn’t rely on europhile student groups, it relies on armies of consultants and Eurocrats.”

On the Common Agricultural Policy: “It is a work of genius because it fails on every count.”

On subsidies to banks, and the advice to give them: “If you ask bankers whether or not to subsidies banks, what do you expect them to say?”

On the EU as a trading block: “…a bunch of industrial countries getting together to sell each other similar stuff – how is that helpful?”

On what he might write on his blog about Australia: ” you don’t blog about a country until you’ve left it.”

Tom Switzer, Adjunct Fellow at the IPA and editor of the Spectator Australia pretty muched summed up the evening – and the state of the Australian economy – thus: “a centralised, heavily regulated economy is no way to create a new era of prosperity.”

P.S. Apologies for the gratuitous photo, and for the air conditioning vent therein.

Aviation Security and the War on Spoons

Published: Menzies House, 20 February 2012

So it appears that body-scanners will indeed by going ahead at Australian airports (press release here). For security reasons, of course. But no need to worry – the scanners are “perfectly safe.” What a relief!

I’m glad the scanners are safe, because my liberties are anything but. The ABC article linked above makes the point that the Australian version of the airport body-scanner legislation will not include an opt-out clause like the American and European varieties. That security-crazy Americans and regulation-crazy Europeans would have an opt-out clause where Australia doesn’t is astonishing enough, but it the real surprise is that the civil libertarians are not kicking up more of a fuss about the whole aviation security sham that really has gone on long enough.

Please don’t hear me saying that the terrorist threat is not real. And don’t hear me second-guessing the response of governments and airlines after the events of 11 September 2001. Whatever happened in the immediate aftermath was completely understandable. But the veritable industry that it spawned is a charade that deserves to be stopped before it spirals further out of control.

Before my last domestic flight I was “randomly” selected by a non-English speaking security guard to have my bags, trousers and shoes tested for explosive residue, as was the elderly lady in front of me who was taking her first trip to Perth to visit her first great grandchild. She was already flustered after having one of Sydney Airport’s finest hunt through her bag for a souvenir spoon that had been detected by the x-ray, and which she didn’t know that she was carrying. But of course, the whole exercise was for her safety.

As I said, I believe that the terrorist threat is real, and in fact I take it far more seriously than the government which, instead of looking for terrorists, prefers to deploy its resources in the fight against crockery.

But back to the lack of an opt-out clause in the forthcoming Australian legislation – I suppose it doesn’t really matter because the alternative would be having a member of the airport’s elite squadron of security personnel touch you up and down to the same intrusive extend as a body-scanner.

No, the solution is not an opt-out clause, but a government that is serious their citizens’ freedoms, and is therefore serious about fighting terrorism. The two go hand-in-hand, but right now we have neither.

A Real States’ House (On Line Opinion)

Published: On Line Opinion, 17 February 2012

After the indigenous shenanigans of Australia Day, and after further developments as to who said what, prime ministerial talk of a referendum has been put on hold. This week’s Closing the Gap statement to parliament, however, is perhaps seen as a gentle way of easing the electorate back into that discussion, guided as it now is by the recommendations of the so-called Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Any referendum in the terms of the expert panel’s report is guaranteed to fail, regardless of whether or not it has bipartisan support – substituting one racist race provision for a meaningless race provision will not be seen by the voting public as a good reason to bugger around with a document that has served Australia well. And that was the consensus before what happened on Australia Day!

Of course the now infamous sections 25 and 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution should be repealed. In fact they should never have been enacted. Just as the proposed sections 51A, 116A and 127A should never be enacted. I suppose I could be wrong on the outcome of such a referendum, but I comfort in the hope that I’m right.

But allow me to suggest a constitutional change that even hope could not help, but that actually would actually go a long way to “secure the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” ensuring democracy and freedom for them, as well as for run-of-the-mill Aussies like me.

What it will take to do this is a change to the Australian Senate. There is, of course, an equal number of senators for each of the unequally populated states, the point being to represent the states, protecting their rights, and limiting the power of the Commonwealth. In fact, that aspect of the federal system is designed to, according to the Senate’s website, provide “an additional safeguard against misuse of government powers.”

But of course it does nothing of the sort. When 18 of the 31 Labor senators are either government ministers or parliamentary secretaries, the chance of the Senate providing any real sort of oversight or safeguard against the misuse of federal powers is nil. And with the further expansion of federal powers, every Labor and coalition senator is a potential minister, utterly compromising the Senate’s function of limiting the federal executive government to protect the states. And because we do have minister-senators (and I’m not against that practice per se), we need an unelected senate even more than the United States. To be sure there are some Australian senators who believe in small government and state rights, but they are few and far between.

And if you’re unconvinced about the federal takeover of state powers, look no further than the recent debate about poker machines. Until Andrew Wilkie got “wilkied” by Julia Gillard, it had been a deal and a promise made between the government and an independent member of parliament. And just so we’re clear, Wilkie is a federal member of parliament – a member of the parliament that, according to section 51 of the Constitution, has no power to make laws regarding poker machines, or gambling generally, or the registering and licensing of pubs and clubs. I mean, the commonwealth can legislate for the coinage that the pokies gobble up (subsection xii), the registration of the banks that provide the ATMs in question (xiii), and, currently at least, even banning Aborigines (or Poms and Kiwis, for that matter) from using pokies (xxvi). But not the way the machines work, or how much can be dispensed by the adjacent ATM. The current (at least theoretical) state supremacy in this issue can be most clearly seen in Western Australia where pokies are confined to the casino, not as part of a federal horse trade, but as a result of rightly-made, constitutionally sound, state legislation.

So here’s the plan. Let’s amend the Constitution such that senators are not elected but rather appointed by their respective state (and territory) parliaments. I admit that this may seem like a bizarre arrangement and, on the face of it, a throwback to a less democratic age. But consider two things:

Firstly, this arrangement is actually how the United States Constitution was originally intended. The “Connecticut Compromise” of 1787 dictated that all states would be equally represented in the upper house, and that senators would be elected by the state legislature, ensuring that they defended the rights of state governments to legislate on state matters. Of course anyone who follows the U.S. elections knows that this arrangement is no longer in operation, the current system being but a recent innovation, coming into force with the 17th Amendment in 1913. The American result: an expansionist federal government. Who’d have thought?

Secondly, although an elected senate results in greater representation – and particularly if you live in Tasmania – it never guarantees greater democracy. But it does guarantee an erosion of state powers, rendering impotent both the Constitution, and the democratic process at that more local level.

My proposal, however, like that of the expert panel, is guaranteed to fail. But in this instance, it is not because it wouldn’t produce real, tangible benefits for states and those who live in them, but because the allure of “greater representation” trumps “real democracy” every time.

Treasure the Regalia, Not the Rat

Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph reported the imminent return of the Speaker’s wig and gown, but my hopes were dashed as I tuned in to Question Time to see Peter Slipper bedecked in a half-arsed set of regalia. He wore an academic gown, together with a court jacket over a business shirt and tie. Missing was the traditional wig, the stiff wing collar and the jabot or bands, although he perhaps imagines that deficiency will be offset by a weekly parade. But it should be all or nothing.
No doubt the irony of the former Liberal, turned “independent,” planning to robe up and process has not been lost on Julia Gillard, Harry Jenkins and the Labor caucus – probably not what they had in mind when they schemed to install him in the speaker’s chair. And so it is easy to dismiss this as merely another line in the litany of bufoonery that is the life and times of Peter Slipper MP. But there is a sense in which it is precisely because of the current incumbent that the past formality of the Speaker’s office should be revived.
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The wig, gown and court coat of the Speaker of the House of Representatives were never intended to bring honour to the wearer, but rather to signify the dignity of the office, and indeed of the parliament over which he presides. And who wouldn’t want that? And who would suggest that our current parliament doesn’t need that?

But as I said, it should be all or nothing. In fact, it should just be all! Forget Slipper’s mix-and-match outfit that looks as if he read somewhere that robes wore worn in antiquity. Instead, he should be fitted for a new QC’s wig (leave the former Speaker’s wig in the Museum of Democracy), as well as the gown and all the appropriate accoutrements. Likewise, the clerks at the table, and other parliamentary officers should be in short wigs, robes, perhaps (indulge me here) with white bow ties. In  light of recent events, no one would suggest that this apparel is about the dignity of the wearers, but the Speaker, the Clerk and the other officials should be seen to be more than mere functionaries; rather they are present holders of high and historic offices that will outlive the names we currently associate with them.

Slippery Pete (or the Rat, if you prefer) will probably be a decent speaker and as impartial as any recent incumbent, but I couldn’t care less whether he lost the job tomorrow. The point of the regalia and the pageantry is to point to something beyond the man or woman in the robe, and that something should be retained, treasured and reinstated.



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