Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Don't tell us how to bring up our children

My kids don't watch TV. Ever. Neither do yours. In fact, no one watches TV any more. That's because according to the experts, it's no longer called TV. It's a Non-Productive Sedentary Behaviour device, or NPSB. Doesn't really roll off the tongue does it?

But if the authors of the Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Guidelines for Early Childhood get their way, we'll stop thinking of TV as an innocent childhood pastime. Instead, we'll think of it as one of the great evils of our slacker modern society.

Looking through the guidelines for kinders and childcare centres, which are being considered by the Federal Government, there's a long list of nasties. Besides TV, high on the black list are parents who drive their kids to kinder or child care, use food as rewards or punishments, give their kids "sometimes" foods sometimes, and give them treats in their lunchboxes.

What rot. What parent doesn't slip a sweet treat into their child's lunchbox as a bribe to make them eat the healthy stuff? What parent doesn't rely on a six-pack of Wiggle yoghurt or a Chuppa Chup at the checkout to smooth a circuit of the local supermarket with an irritable toddler? What parent doesn't heave a sigh of relief when they turn on the TV at the end of a long day to give their three-year-old some time out or to get some work done? What parent doesn't drive rather than walk between home and kinder or child care because it's quicker and easier?

Don't get me wrong. The guidelines are medically and nutritionally sound and full of sensible, healthy suggestions for kinders and childcare centres. I hope the kinder and childcare centre my three-year-old attends follow most of the tips. But I do object to staff taking things one step further and "educating" me as a parent about how I bring up my kids. It's pretty much none of their business how much TV they watch, whether we have dessert, and what I put in my child's lunchbox.

Sure, staff can make information about healthy eating and physical activity available to parents, but I don't believe they have a role in "encouraging" or "discouraging" certain behaviour. In this case I think young mum and Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella is right: programs should aim for individuals at risk rather than setting all of us up to fail.

Maybe as a busy working mother with three young kids I'm a bit defensive about my food, entertainment and transport choices. Like most parents, I do the best I can, but the last thing I want is some helpful hints from strangers about how to bring up my kids. For instance, guidelines suggest parents can be "educated" about the benefits of walking part of the way between home and child care or kinder. Great idea, but it's not always practical. Although I live about half an hour's walk from my son's school and my daughter's kinder, I usually find myself driving them around because it's quicker and more convenient.

However, as a family we play lots of active games and spend lots of time running around the yard and the local park, so I wouldn't really welcome some suggestions about my decision to drive them during the week. Really, it's no one else's business. Sure, if there are kids who are clearly unhealthy or at risk, then education staff have a legal duty to take further steps, but why interfere when there's clearly no need? Why can't staff provide some information about healthy lifestyles, but stop short of judging us?

In any case, surely we're taking away all the spontaneity, the fun and the celebration of childhood. Walking into my child's daycare centre yesterday I was hit by the beautiful, sweet aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip biscuits. Our wonderful chef Rachel had baked them from scratch for the kids as a mid-morning treat, and it made the entire place feel homey and welcoming. But this would be frowned upon at many centres following the healthy eating guidelines to the letter. Similarly, our centre has yummy ice cream cakes for kids' birthdays - a much-loved tradition that does no one any harm.

Never has there been a greater gap between the realities of most families and the advice from the experts. No wonder many parents feel overwhelmed by the vast amount of articles, books and commentators telling them what to do. If experts set the bar too high, parents are just going to stop jumping.


Attack on contracts a nightmare for business

Janet Albrechtsen

AN alarming realisation is firming in the minds of close observers of the Rudd Government. Increasing signs suggest that this is not a Hawke-Keating style of Labor government: careful, consultative and sensibly managerialist. Instead, what is emerging is the Whitlam model that relishes revolutionary changes and grand gestures, wreaking vast upheavals in the name of ideology or class war without sufficient thought or care for the consequences.

Just about every week, we see more of this style from the Rudd Government. Its $43 billion national broadband proposal was uncovered to great fanfare, but with no business case or indeed any prior feasibility analysis. Then came laws touted as instilling a responsible lending revolution but which will dry up the flow of credit when the Government is desperately trying to stimulate the economy.

More ill-conceived policy emerged last week when the Rudd Government proposed a taxation regime for employee share schemes that betrayed a deep ignorance of the way these schemes work. The new measure has already led companies to suspend their schemes and unless changed will ultimately kill share schemes stone dead, not wring tax from them.

Possibly worst of all is a little-noticed, but revolutionary, measure sneaked out by Chris Bowen, the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs, in the pre-budget week and given an 11-day period for consultation. The new national unfair contract terms legislation will, at a stroke of the legislative pen, render the vast majority of Australian contracts uncertain. Uniformity is a fine idea except when it means uniformly bad laws. Overnight no business or consumer will know whether the contracts they have entered, or seek to enter, will be enforceable. Any term - apart from the price and main subject matter of the contract - in a standard contract may be declared void by a judge who thinks it unfair.

The certainty of contract so fundamental to Western commerce - and prosperity - will no longer apply in Australia. We will substitute rule by judges for the rule of law, at least in contracts. No standard contract, though freely entered into by willing parties, is final. If one party decides the contract no longer suits him, he can take it to a court and roll the dice to see if a judge will back him out of that contract.

Not content to follow the Victorian model enacted in 2003, which only covers consumer contracts, Bowen’s draft is far more Whitlamesque in its sweep. Bowen’s draft applies to all standard-form contracts between any parties of any kind. The legislation would be problematic even if it only applied to contracts entered into by consumers. However, applying the new laws to all standard-form contracts between businesses is radical lunacy of a kind that even Gough would worry about.

Every contract is presumed to be a standard contract unless the party who wants to enforce it can prove otherwise. And any inequality of bargaining power or evidence the contract was presented on a “take it or leave it” basis - as so many contracts are - will invariably allow a court to treat it as a standard contract, open to potential judicial interference.

A judge can strike down any term in a standard contract apart from the “upfront price” or the main subject matter of the contract. That leaves nearly all contractual terms open to uncertainty. It means that when a person signs a contract with an Australian party, they effectively sign up to whatever an unknown judge at an unknown future time decides the contract should be.

Standard contracts are the lifeblood of businesses, small and large. These businesses use standard forms so they can have uniform, predictable risk allocation and thereby price their offerings sensibly. They save time in negotiations and make it easier to train staff. They promote efficiency and reduce prices to consumers. Whole industries standardise their contracts so consumers are offered a common product and can easily do comparisons.

It is obvious Bowen sorely lacks any kind of experience in, or appreciation of, business and does not understand how business is conducted. Clearly he does not understand the stifling and costly consequences of his proposed laws. His demonisation of standard contracts betrays his ignorance. Indeed, Bowen ought to get out more and see how litigants will use laws like these. Borrowers (even large corporate borrowers) will now routinely be able to defer or avoid repayments of their loans by complaining about terms in a loan contract. It will become standard for anyone who does not like how a contract has turned out, or who has financial problems, to buy time or seek “go away” money instead of honouring their contract.

The international consequences don’t bear thinking about either. Microsoft, Dell and all other foreign providers of services in Australia will be told that their Australian lawyers can no longer give the usual opinion that their contracts are enforceable in accordance with their terms. Standard-form global agreements in the financial services sector - such as foreign exchange, swap and derivative agreements - are now only as good as the judge who hears your case.

Foreigners will learn fast about “maverick judge” risk in Australia. And more likely they will ask, why should we subject our standard terms of trade to the whims of some hometown judge if our Australian counterparty gets into trouble and wants to renege on its contract? Australia may well become an international contractual pariah. Regrettably, the legal profession - normally so vocal on matters legal - is silent on this issue. No surprise. These laws may be disastrous for Australia but they offer lawyers newfound riches.

What is almost as troubling as this draft legislation and the legal profession’s silence is the process Minister Bowen has adopted. This draft legislation was slipped in before the budget with only 11 days for consultation. And Bowen’s previous attitude suggests he won’t be listening anyway. His insistence last week that he would stand by his employee share scheme tax changes - even after it was pointed out that it would kill off employee share ownership by requiring employees to pay tax on shares that may never vest - was stiff-necked and haughty. Likewise, his stubborn rejection of criticism on issues such as creeping acquisitions and the new cartel laws points to that most lethal cocktail of characteristics: equal parts of incompetence and arrogance.

Murmurs that some senior Labor ministers feel unable to rein in Bowen’s obvious blunders because he is Kevin Rudd’s protected golden-haired boy are even more troubling. One can only hope that wiser and more experienced Labor minds will give the inexperienced Labor pup a clip over the ear, if only for the sake of sanctity of contract in Australia.


The Queensland Health Department is incompetent: Its boss says so

HEALTH Minister Paul Lucas has ratted out his staff over an Anzac Day mouse attack on a war veteran at a nursing home on the Darling Downs. Mr Lucas yesterday said ministers were not responsible for setting mouse traps and blamed his department and own office staff in State Parliament for him only finding out about the incident through the media on April 30.

Queensland Health had known about the plague since early February before two residents at the Karingal Nursing Home in Dalby on the Darling Downs were attacked, including an 89-year-old Digger who had his face and neck bitten by the rodents. However, Ray Hopper, Liberal National Party MP for Condamine, which encompasses Dalby, emailed Mr Lucas's office about the problem at lunchtime on April 29 - a day before the media told him - and got a response from a staffer 26 hours later.

Mr Lucas said he had told everyone involved he should have been told sooner but insisted it was not his responsibility anyway. "Dealing with mice in a facility is not a matter that requires ministerial intervention, or it ought not to be," Mr Lucas said. "It should not be necessary for ministerial intervention or notice in relation to these matters as we expect them to be resolved locally. "If the Leader of the Opposition (John-Paul Langbroek) thinks that every day the Parliament should direct where the mouse traps will be laid, that shows how unfit he is."

But Mr Hopper said staff had been sick of asking for action to be taken, and Mr Lucas as the minister should take responsibility. "Mr Lucas is in denial about the shocking incident and today in Parliament refused to take any responsibility for his department's failure to properly trap and bait the mice, which had infested the buildings since the end of February," Mr Hopper said.

The Federal Government is investigating the incident but Queensland Health insists many mice have been caught since measures were ramped up after the matter became public.

Mr Lucas said he found a spotless nursing home facility when he visited Karingal last week, but staff had been upset by the media coverage. "I have to say that they were somewhat upset at the nature of the publicity surrounding this incident. "Not for a moment do I contend that this was not a matter of public interest in terms of the media."


Another complacent bureaucracy shows its form

Giant pipeline declared safe two months before rupture

QUEENSLAND Government authorities last night revealed that one of two giant water mains that supply all of Brisbane was given the all-clear just two months before it burst yesterday, cutting supplies and damaging property. The burst main, at Anstead in Brisbane's west, sent 150 megalitres, enough water to supply 600 households for a year, thundering through neighbouring properties and into nearby creeks.

Acting Water Grid chief Barry Dennien said the underground pipe was last inspected for corrosion and structural faults during February and March and showed no problems.

The mishap cut off water supply entirely or reduced pressure to scores of suburbs in Brisbane's west and south for several hours. However, acting Natural Resources Minister Geoff Wilson insisted issues of compensation were a matter for the main's operator, Government-owned agency LinkWater.

Earlier, Mr Dennien defended the time it took to fix the rupture. "This is a big piece of infrastructure, a critical main for many parts of other infrastructure and suburbs," he said. "There is 16,000km of mains in southeast Queensland. Nailing it all down, working out who is affected from that main does takes time." The main's construction dates back to the late 1960s....

The Government's forced changes to the way water in southeast Queensland was managed meant that LinkWater took over responsibility for the main from Brisbane City Council in July last year. However, the council remains responsible for emergency repairs to the main.

LinkWater general manager of operational services Andrew Moir said the pipe was "maintained on a regular basis".


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