Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Australia the happiest OECD nation in the world, survey finds

Happiness is associated with conservatism and Australia is a very conservative country by world standards  -- but which is the chicken and which is the egg here is moot

AUSTRALIA is living up to its nickname of "the lucky country", with a new survey marking it as the happiest industrialised nation in the world based on criteria such as jobs, income and health.

Having sidestepped the economic malaise gripping much of Europe and with near full employment owing to a once-in-a-century resources boom, Australia has come out on top ahead of Norway and the US in the annual Better Life Index compiled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The findings come despite fresh signs that not every Australian is enjoying the benefits of the resources boom, with tourist attractions seeing a drop in visitors and many manufacturers rethinking their Australian operations because the strong local currency has made exports uncompetitive.

A rising cost of living also is weighing heavily on consumers, who are tightening their purse strings or using the internet to hunt for bargains on items that can be purchased overseas.

The OECD survey - which rates its 34 member countries on categories like housing, jobs, education, health, environment and work-life balance - shies away from explicitly giving any one nation an overall top ranking, but if each of the 11 categories is given equal weight, Australia's cumulative rank rises to No.1, according to the OECD website. It is followed closely by Norway and the US.

Australia's high rank - based on data from the United Nations, individual governments and other sources - is largely due to its strong economic performance despite the economic turmoil in Europe and anemic growth in the US.

Strong demand for iron ore and coal exports means Australia's unemployment rate was 4.9 percent in April, compared with 10.9 per cent in the eurozone and 8.1 percent in the US. More than 72 per cent of the working-age population in the country is employed, compared with the OECD average of 66 per cent.

Unlike many of its developed peers, Australia's government plans to return a budget surplus in the next fiscal year and forecasts its net debt to peak just below 10 per cent of GDP, a fraction of the borrowings seen elsewhere.

The Australian dollar has recently dipped below parity against the greenback, though it remains at historically high levels and is also strong against the euro and pound, giving shoppers firepower if they travel overseas.

Despite a minority government that's sinking in the polls after a series of scandals involving key lawmakers and policy missteps, 71 per cent of Australians trust their political institutions, compared with an OECD average of 56 per cent.

In addition, 85 per cent of people in Australia described their health as good, well above the OECD average of 70 per cent. The survey also found that Australian men spend nearly three hours every day cooking, cleaning or caring - one of the highest scores across the OECD's 34 member countries and ahead of men in the US, Germany and Canada.


Green-Left climate change bias easy as ABC


MALE climate-change deniers are like terrorists, pedophiles and slave owners, claimed a contributor on BBC Radio 4's religious affairs slot Thought for the Day last week. By the BBC's lamentable standards, I'm afraid, this is what constitutes reasonable, fair and balanced commentary on the climate-change debate.

But as I've only now begun to appreciate after a month's tour of Australia, the greenie-lefty bias of your own ABC is, if anything, even worse.

In Melbourne, I had a run-in with prickly ABC talk radio host Jon Faine, who kept insisting how "professional" he was being during the course of a brusque, hugely unsympathetic interview in which he interrupted my every answer and tried to tar me as a card-carrying agent of Satan in the pay of Big Oil. Why? Because I have had the temerity to suggest that there is no strong scientific evidence to support the theory of man-made global warming. (Which there isn't).

My reception at Brisbane's local ABC branch was only marginally less frosty. Before I went on, the host actually felt compelled to apologise to his audience for having a "contrarian" such as me on the show. He was doing so in the interests of "balance", he cringeingly explained. "Gee, thanks, mate!" I thought. "With an intro like that anyone would think I was a kiddie-fiddler or a Nazi, not a climate sceptic!"

Now it's not that I'm afraid of tough interviews. Actually -- as I hope I showed to my new best mate Fainey -- I find them rather fun. Rather, my objection to the ABC, as it is to my own country's BBC, is that it acts clearly and persistently in violation of its obligations as a publicly funded national broadcaster. It's supposed to be fair and balanced -- and it is. But only so long as your definition of "fair and balanced" is greener than Christine Milne and further left than Julia Gillard. Which, in my book, isn't very.

Shortly before my interview with the ABC in Brisbane, I had the contrasting pleasure of a live encounter on 2GB with Australia's most popular talk radio host Alan Jones. Well, obviously I was going to enjoy it more: Jones, like me, like most of his listeners, is a climate-change sceptic. Of course, I realise that for some Australians Jones is more toxic than a blue-ringed octopus. But here's the difference between Jones and his ABC counterparts: if you don't like him you don't have to pay for him, not one cent.

Whereas with all the ABC's vast battery of presenters, of course, you do -- no matter how much you may dislike their almost uniformly green-left-progressive politics. (The single exception, as far as I'm aware, is Paul Comrie-Thomson's consistently superb Counterpoint: the ABC's equivalent of one of those Potemkin villages the Soviets used to build to impress visitors with just how free and lovely their country was.)

And you don't only pay for the presenters (and their battalions of support staff), either. You also pay -- out of the $1 billion-plus of your money spent by the government on the ABC each year -- for their lavishly appointed work environments. The studios in which I met the ABC's Steve Austin and 2GB's Jones couldn't have been more different. Austin's was spacious and state-of-the-art in an office building you could have mistaken for that of a law firm or a bank; Jones was squeezed into a shoebox like the Black Hole of Calcutta at the back of an anonymous industrial estate.

Does this reflect their audience size and reach? Of course not: Jones's show is many times more popular than Austin's. Rather, what this illustrates is the massive difference between public and private-sector budgeting. As the ABC shows, if it's coming out of the taxpayer's pocket then money is no object. In the real commercial world, on the other hand, not even the mighty Jones gets the gold star treatment because profligacy is the enemy of profit.

But the fact the ABC offers relatively poor value for money to its shareholders -- Australian taxpayers -- should be the least of your worries. What's of far more concern is the way that for years this fatly overindulged organisation, with its stranglehold on the Australian broadcast media, has been given carte blanche to skew the political debate in a relentlessly leftwards direction.

It's the same in Britain with the ABC's ugly elder sister, the BBC: on any given subject you know what the organisation's position is going to be -- anti-business, pro-regulation, credulous and uncritical on all green issues, slavish in its endorsement of politically correct pieties, always in favour of ever-expanding government.

Which is fine if you believe in that sort of thing but if you don't you have a problem: here you are, forced to dig into your pocket every year to help people whose politics you violently disagree with campaign for all the things you hate. Not only that, but people who are actively seeking to close down alternative points of view.

In Britain we've seen this with the Leveson inquiry, in Australia you've had a (bitter) taste of it with the Finkelstein report, and in the US it's evident in the ongoing attempts by the Left to hamstring (mostly conservative-leaning) talk shows with the Fairness Doctrine. Whatever their professed aims, each one of these represents a bullying attempt by the statist establishment -- fully endorsed and often orchestrated by its friends in the left-leaning mainstream media -- to gag any broadcast organisations that dare dissent from the prevailing politically correct orthodoxy.

One of the things that has always puzzled me about the Left is that for all its fine talk about the virtues of free speech, it's often at least as eager as any authoritarian Right regime to close it down.

Nowhere is this tendency better exemplified than by the behaviour of those two gruesome siblings, the BBC and the ABC: despite their pretensions of even-handedness and social responsibility, the way they abuse their near-monopolistic domination of their country's broadcast media owes more to statist tyrannies than free democracies.


Pesky "Green" car

Some customers have "failed" a Nissan test to see if they were suitable for the new Leaf electric car.

Nissan has knocked back some customers interested in purchasing its first electric car, the Leaf, because they have been deemed “unsuitable” for ownership.

The plug-in electric vehicle officially hits the market on June 1, but interested customers need to pass a two-stage approval test before being issued with a certificate that will allow them to purchase the $51,500 car from one of Nissan’s special EV dealerships.

The test involves answering five questions about their intended usage for the car, followed by a visit from Nissan’s electrical supplier Origin Energy for an assessment of the suitability of the customer’s home electrical network.

Speaking at a promotional event at Melbourne’s Federation Square designed to raise awareness of the Leaf’s non-reliance on petrol, Nissan Australia model line manager James Staveley told Drive the company had approved about 100 customers with another 100 undergoing the process.

Some intending customers have also been declined. “If you answered that you regularly drive from Melbourne to Sydney, then we might have politely informed the customer that this is not the car for them,” Staveley says.

“The majority of customers we have declined have been because they don’t have off-street parking available to them, which we consider essential for a safe and convenient recharging environment.”

When Mitsubishi brought the only other mass-produced electric car available in Australia to market, the i-MiEV, it initially appointed leases only to high-profile corporate customers.

As supply restrictions eased it later placed the car on general sale, although Nissan says it intends to maintain its selection criteria “to ensure our customers have a great experience with the Leaf”.

Nissan Australia is only holding one firm order on its books for the Leaf. “We chose to do it that way. We held a competition to be the first person to own a Leaf in Australia, and the family that won now holds the first and only order,” Staveley says.

For customers who pass the two “toll gates” of the selection process, the car will retail for $51,500 (plus on-road and dealer costs). That includes a recharging cable, but not a wall-mounted recharging station.

A package including the telephone book-sized station adds a minimum of $2700 to the price, or more depending on the logistics involved in its installation.

Staveley says the recharging station isn’t a mandatory purchase, but that plugging the car directly into a 15-amp power outlet – which is the minimum infrastructure required and costs several hundreds of dollars to install – will take five hours longer to fully charge the car.

“It’s the customer’s choice but we’d really prefer that people take the option of the recharging station because then we know it’s being properly and appropriately installed and minimises the risk of anything going astray,” he says.


Labor party captive to undemocratic union bosses

Labor's crisis is not about rorting of union treasury but unrepresentative union power at the heart of the party's political councils

Craig Thompson is only the most pathetic part of the gift which keeps giving to the Liberal Party. Even were he out of the picture, the Health Services Union would still be a gaping sore, as the Australian Council of Trade Unions has realised too late. But even if the ACTU, or a completely fresh HSU reform group throw all the current rascals out and return the HSU into the industrial mainstream, the union would still serve as an emblem of one of the cancers eating the heart of the political and industrial Labor movement.

The internecine brawling in the HSU is not only about which group of professional suits get access to the union treasury, so that they can give jobs to their friends and relations, pay each other fabulous sums, jet around the nation with their spouses and lovers, extract personal tolls from organisations doing business with the union, and, if needs be, buy sex on the union credit card.

It is also very much about power in the political Labor Party. Labor's incapacity to move resolutely past its Thomson crisis is not only a measure of the fact that it is a minority government, unable to face a by-election. It is because real action to rid itself of the underlying problem would strike at the way the party is now organised.

At issue is not the close and probably unseverable links between political and industrial Labor. It is about how union bosses can in effect, vote on behalf of all of their members, in the higher councils of political Labor. To vote as though their own opinion was the reasoned opinion of all of their members, determined after close consultation, meetings or even focus groups within the union itself.

In most unions, however, there's no pretence of such consultation or discussion. Just most union officials are now part of a professional elite, unlikely ever to have themselves physically performed work of the type their members perform, the viewpoint of the officials is generally determined through the councils of factional systems, and the self-interests of a few key players.

It is particularly at the interface of party and union that one usually sees the most obvious nepotism, or blatant patronage, and how it is dragging down the performance as well as the reputation of the party. When a party is in power, particularly at state levels, union officials expect to be appointed to statutory boards and authorities, the beneficiaries of grants supposed to achieve public purposes and to have their lovers, sons and daughters placed in ministerial office jobs.

Family is almost always a part of it. One of the late powers of the HSU, Mike Williamson is a former national president of the ALP though he has never had a thought, or insight, or said a thing which has helped fight the good fight. He and some of his allies are the subject of allegations, as yet unresolved, of receiving six-figure kickbacks from people providing seven-figure services to the union.

As a key operator in the Sussex Street Labor machine, and vice president of the NSW branch of the party, he would have been involved in its decision to pay Thomson's legal bills, lest he fall into bankruptcy. His daughter, Alex, is on Julia Gillard's staff.

Williamson is personally close to Leo McLeay, the former Labor speaker who famously had to be compensated from the public purse when he fell off a parliamentary bike. The McLeay dynasty might by itself illustrate how some have turned Labor into a family business. Leo, in heavily publicly pensioned retirement, is "ombudsman" for the HSU. His job has been to prevent the sorts of abuses which are so prevalent. Leo's son Mark is an HSU organiser. Another son, Paul, was a NSW Labor minister, until he joined the long list of ministers who had resigned in disgrace, in his case over accessing pornography.

Another national official of the HSU is Natalie Bradbury, whose brother, David, is Assistant Treasurer. He holds the marginal seat of Lindsay, near Penrith, on which Gillard lavished so much personal attention, and party moral credit, in 2010.

The Jacksons represent another faction of the HSU fighting over the rich spoils of office. Kathy Jackson is the present HSU national secretary, but has in recent times lacked the confidence of the Williamson faction, about whom she is now a "whistleblower". Her claims of complete moral purity might be more credible if she did not have a history in union affairs when her former husband Jeff, was the Victorian branch secretary.

All outsiders always insist they are acting only on behalf of the members, and she is no exception. In bodies such as the HSU actual corruption - in the sense of witting diversion of money to one's own interests - is usually preceded by a corruption of the spirit. Thinking the best interests of the membership come from becoming entrenched in power, and in resisting the entry of those who want entry into the cosy club. A reason to fill the office with relations, mates, and others so interlocked with other power groups that betrayals have serious consequences. Nothing should be too good for the workers, or the workers' representatives.

But the problem is by no means confined to the HSU, nor to patronage and nepotism. It comes as much from the tendency of senior union officials to think that they are, ex officio, senior statesmen of the party, ex officio wise, and from their tendency to think that public policy, public appointments and even public appropriation can be handled much as it is inside the cosy councils of union Labor.

The power of a Joe de Bruyn comes, essentially, from the shop assistants' union. He and his group may, or may not be good stewards of SDA interests, and modest in their draw on the union's funds. In that sense, they may be better than the HSU group, even if they have often had common cause with it.

But de Bruyn has strong personal moral views, sincere ones deriving from his Catholic faith. His power in Labor, including his power over Labor social policy, comes from the fact that he can "vote" his SDA membership as though every unionised shop assistant in Australia shares his view, though there is no reason whatever, to think that any but a minority do. To be fair there are other unions whose votes cancel his out, if again without reason to think them representative of their memberships, or cast on that account.

One might remark that at least de Bruyn believes in something. There are any number of factional chiefs, particularly in NSW, not known for believing in anything very much, apart from their own self-advancement or, in some cases, celebrity status. Some of these lack even an understanding of what was once agreed as a necessary separation of powers between union and caucus, as well as platform and aspiration versus practical reality.

The union-party interface can be used legitimately to advance the broad causes of the industrial labor movement, the reason why the two link between political and industrial wings has been so strong since the formation of Labor parties in the late 1800s. But it needs to be modernised, and made accountable and transparent.

That's not going to happen under Gillard Labor. Gillard is a creature of the present system. Her very being there is a result of the judgment and the power of that system. Labor is trying to sell the HSU, and Thomson, as an anomaly, rather than an evidence of its condition.


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