Thursday, July 04, 2013

Rudd reborn - or is this a mere lap of honour?

Since Kevin Rudd regained the prime ministership the one question that continues to be debated in media and political circles is, "Has he changed?"

Of course, most leaders change and grow in the job, but perhaps it is what Kevin can't fix that risks making this a short and exhilarating ride towards regaining yet another job: leader of the opposition.

Three things stand out:

The first and most damning thing that Rudd can't change is disunity within the Labor Party. Try as he might to dismiss this as history, anyone remotely aware of his past knows that he's got problems on two sides. First, he's the poster child for disunity, with a track record vividly described by senior ministers as doing more than anyone (possibly Tony Abbott excepted) to bring down a sitting prime minister.

Second the very disunity that unseated him and then reinstated him, leaves him vulnerable to a tap on the shoulder when Bill Shorten and colleagues decide that he's past the use-by-date. Rudd might be the chosen leader but the Australian public know all too well that no matter whom they vote for as Labor leader, the factions will ultimately decide who stays and who goes.

Perhaps disunity can be papered over? Maybe for a short time but it's hard to imagine that there won't be a series of damaging leaks as payback for what Julia Gillard experienced in the 2010 campaign.

The second thing that Rudd can't change is temperament. It would be unfair to deeply analyse this in the media, however you be the judge of how many of six common signs of narcissistic leadership could apply to our Prime Minister:

 *      Prone to grandiose visions and to over-estimating their own capabilities (remember "the greatest moral challenge of our time").

 *      Hyper-sensitive to criticism and liable to fly into anger (be careful when serving him on a plane).

 *      Pursue power at all costs leading to infighting and suspicion which ultimately brings them down (enough said).

 *      Easily bored, change course often (swing to the left, swing to the right on boats).

 *      Lack empathy and trust but say the socially acceptable thing when in public (Is there a better example than saying he won't accept anyone criticising former PM Gillard).

 *      Gather only those who agree around them (was that eight cabinet ministers who have gone?)

Pressure exposes default behaviours and tends to amplify strengths until they become weaknesses. If even half of these narcissistic characteristics apply to PM Rudd then he'd best call the election as early as possible.

The third and final thing that Kevin can't fix is execution and that's not just the political execution of Australia's first female prime minister, but also the Labor government's inability since the 2007 election to deliver policies that actually work. From refugees to pink batts, Grocery Watch and Fuel Watch, to mining taxes that don't tax and surpluses that disappear, this isn't fixable, particularly with a vastly inexperienced cabinet.

All this sounds gloomy, both for Rudd's re-election and what might happen to Australia if he does win but what shouldn't be forgotten is that our shiny new PM is neither silly nor shy of confidence to take the fight to an Opposition Leader who must wish he'd been less effective at targeting Gillard.

Which leads to three things that Rudd can fix and capitalise on by calling an early election (assuming that grandiose visions, or inexperienced aides don't cloud his judgment and decide that the more people see of him the more will vote for him).

First he can apply the blowtorch to an Opposition that has been gifted an easy run from a media who have had plenty to write about from Labor's upheavals. Abbott has things he can't fix either and when subjected to pressure they will certainly show in ways that many in the Australian public won't like (and will start longing for Malcolm Turnbull).

Second, he can sell the message that Kevin is here to fix all the problems. Of course, he can't fix most of them but he can paper them over and the 24/7 media likes papering, particularly if it's colourful, such as a warning of war with Indonesia.

Finally, and probably most worrying for the Liberals, is that he can provide a palatable alternative. For all his failings and failures, Rudd is only a divisive figure to those who are close to him. "He's like an iceberg," suggested a colleague who has worked closely with him, "All white, bright and clean in public but totally different under the surface when cameras and journalists aren't around."

Whether Rudd can win is a fascinating question, but that wasn't the theme of this article. Rather the questions were "Can he change?" and "What can't he fix?". The answers seem pretty clear.

Yes, he can change to some extent but that still leaves things he can't fix and they'll become more evident as the honeymoon subsides.


Boats rancour must be cured

THE domestic political poison that contaminates asylum-seeker policy has seen its latest manifestation with Kevin Rudd's absurd claim that a change of government in Australia could risk armed conflict between Australia and Indonesia.

Rudd would know this is a blunder. He can be expected to change his language while insisting he is not retreating. It is a reminder of the sustained Australian ineptitude that Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has stoically tolerated in recent years and the complacency in our attitudes towards Jakarta.

The destructiveness in the domestic debate virtually guarantees that Australia cannot stop the boats. The payback mentality is desperate and ferocious. The political purpose on both sides is to prove the other side cannot stem boat arrivals. By seeking to ensure each side is doomed to policy failure that mutual failure becomes a national failure.

Hopefully, Indonesia will have the maturity to handle Australia's immaturity on this issue. When Rudd travels to Indonesia this week he should be ruthlessly assessed by one test only: his ability to pursue Australia's national interest, not the Labor Party's election interest.

Tony Abbott has previously failed that test. But that failure does not constitute an exemption for Rudd. In 2011 Abbott deliberately destroyed Julia Gillard's main effort to halt the boats.

This was the Malaysian deal negotiated by former minister Chris Bowen based on a consensus of advice from our border control, immigration and national security officials.

Returning boat arrivals to Malaysia by plane within hours of their arrival would have been a lethal disincentive.

Abbott sabotaged the bill to re-establish this policy after the High Court's decision against it, with most judges embracing a false view of the Migration Act and a false reading of earlier parliamentary intentions.

It is probably the most irresponsible single action by Abbott in the 2010-13 parliament.

It guaranteed that Gillard would not stop the boats and this failure became integral to her removal as PM. Destroying the Malaysian policy was second only to his carbon tax campaign in Abbott's dismantling of Gillard's authority.

The Coalition's justification was human rights. It refused to accept the Malaysian policy for humanitarian reasons and it went further, insisting it would enter offshore processing deals only with nations that committed to the UN Refugee Convention.

It was obvious that Abbott, sooner or later, would pay a price for such sabotage in the name of humanitarianism.

An angry Gillard began a political campaign against Abbott's pledge in January last year that he would turn the boats back to Indonesia. "It is time for Australia to adopt turning the boats as its core policy," Abbott said.

He was influenced by three factors: official advice that turning boats, if possible, was the single most effective response; the fact that the Howard government did this for a time without formal political approval; and the obvious point that Indonesia could do more to stem the boats.

Labor has been deeply hostile to Abbott's policy because of the risks involved, its belief Indonesia will not agree and its view that Abbott is a hypocrite rejecting its own Malaysian policy but declaring he will turn boats on the water.

The stakes are high. If Abbott succeeded Labor would suffer the ignominy for years. Abbott and his spokesman, Scott Morrison have defined the terms: they will not infringe Indonesian sovereignty or territorial waters; there is no tow back to Indonesian ports; Abbott will fly to Jakarta within days of any election victory for talks with President Yudhoyono; and this is the sort of policy you only address from office, not opposition.

This highlights Rudd's advantage as incumbent. If Indonesia will acquiesce in turning some boats then why wouldn't Rudd try it first? Alternatively, will Rudd return from this week's Indonesian visit asserting he knows that President Yudhoyono won't wear Abbott's policy?

That would represent an unwise injection by Rudd of Indonesia into our election campaign. If combined with more warnings that Abbott's policy would risk armed conflict it would be a reckless danger to bilateral relations.

Rudd needs to be careful. Labor's management of Indonesian relations is unimpressive; witness his fiasco over the Oceanic Viking and Gillard's contemptuous ban on the live export trade, which personally dismayed the President and was an insult to the Indonesian nation.

Moreover, if Rudd maintains his line of attack, Abbott has the obvious reply: that Rudd has given up and thinks the boats cannot be stopped.

Morrison's message from his Indonesian visit is that "the (boat) problem is getting worse". In this situation Australia needs a decisive shift in policy.

The firm signal by the Rudd government of a tougher refugee determination process is an essential step: witness the public endorsement by Rudd and former minister Bowen of the position enunciated by Bob Carr that boat arrivals are mainly economic migrants.

This is largely accepted in the case of Sri Lankans with the evidence overwhelming in the case of Iranians. An analysis shows low rates of refugee approvals at the initial stage with the high approval rate (upwards of 90 per cent) the result of multiple appeal stages.

In a paper delivered last week, refugee activist and lawyer Frank Brennan confirmed the need for a fresh approach. Brennan advocated a policy of returning asylum-seekers to Indonesia based on mutual co-operation.

Brennan said: "The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees does not confer a right on asylum-seekers to enter the country of their choice or to choose the country which is to process their refugee claims."

He says the key provision is that contracting states cannot impose penalties on refugees because of "their illegal entry" provided they are "coming directly" from a territory where they were threatened.

In short, countries such as Australia have a "defensible view" to decide an asylum-seeker falls outside the scope for protection if such a person spends more than a short period in a third country.

Brennan said: "We are entitled to return safely to Indonesia persons who, when departing Indonesia for Australia, were no longer in direct flight but rather were engaged in secondary movement seeking a more favourable refugee status outcome or a more benign migration outcome." It is a critical point.

Brennan wants Australia to make its big play with Indonesia, not Malaysia. But that needs a new spirit of co-operation.


Businesses face unfair dismissal cases for sacking thieving staff. Yes, you read that right

Employee theft tends to be far more prevalent than is reported, with many business owners reluctant to report staff with whom they are likely to have developed a close personal relationship.

This type of theft has many guises. It includes theft of property, such as stationery or larger items like computers or power tools, as well as data theft and fraud. But how should small-business owners react in this situation?

Norman Ohl has established and sold a number of small businesses over the years and says he has had many cases – proven and unproven – of employee theft.

"The difficulty is that under current regulations a single case of theft is not grounds for dismissal,” he says. "So you must make an assessment and risk analysis on the level of cost to the business and devise a strategy based on risk.”

Ohl cites the example of a bookkeeper he once employed who was stealing from an operational cash float.

"This was probably going on for some time as a bookkeeper can cover this type of thing up,” he says. "I discovered a shortfall when a foreman rang me with a concern. I confronted the bookkeeper, who cried and pleaded with me not to call the police and not to sack her.”

Ohl says that while a dishonest bookkeeper is an unacceptable risk, if he had sacked her he would likely have faced an unfair dismissal case. Instead he gave her the choice to either resign or face criminal charges – her resignation was on his desk within 10 minutes.

"The real tragedy of this 'business decision' is the very real likelihood that she will go on to do it to some other poor bastard and, with this experience under her belt, will probably be a better thief,” Ohl says.

"When it comes to employee theft, the system is broken and the system dictates behaviour. The number of employees who have stolen from me over the years would be in the double digits.”

Andrew Douglas, principal with M+K Lawyers, says the bottom line is that any theft is a case for summary termination under Fair Work regulations. The problem, however, is in proving it was a theft.

"For most small-businesses owners it is an assumption rather than a fact that an employee has stolen from them,” Douglas says. "If they want to prosecute they need to find proof, otherwise the charge will be set aside.”

For example, Douglas says there is nothing wrong with installing surveillance cameras above tills to try to obtain proof.

"There are different varieties of theft and this will affect how you go about getting proof,” he says. "What you do find is usually the person doing the stealing is in a position of trust, such as in charge of accounts.”

There are ways to avoid employee theft, says Douglas. He advises dual signatories on cheques, have the banking done by different people every day, and dual cash handling.

"It's interesting that public companies have to report any thefts because of due diligence but small businesses tend to think of two things before they do,” Douglas says. "They think about whether it's worthwhile to report it and quite often they just let the employee go quietly, or they think about the reputational damage it may do to their business and decide not to prosecute because of it.”

David Henderson, of professional advisers ROCG, says employee theft is a difficult area to deal with. He has had a number of clients who have been affected and says workplace theft is more prevalent than many realise.

"We had one case where an employee was sacked and provided the opportunity to repay the funds after being caught with their hand in the till, with the police being involved if they didn't,” Henderson says.

"In this case the employee committed suicide the next week. This is an extreme example and the business closed within a year as they were devastated by it.”

Henderson says it is important to have the right controls and systems in place.

"If two people are working in concert it is difficult to spot a theft happening,” he says. "It also tends to go unreported because if you sack an employee for theft without pressing charges you may find yourself with an unfair dismissal case on your hands.”

Douglas says the sad part is that when the theft is detected, it is rarely found to be random. "Usually the person has stolen a little bit and when they've got away with it they steal a bit more and a bit more. Having better systems and controls in place can really help.”


'I'm glad my parents were hard on me'

My mother used to say a phrase I'll never forget.

As a teenager, there were times that I would refuse to do as she asked, would stomp my feet in anger, or argue that she didn't love me. But she would always reply, "Wait until you're a mother and you'll see why I worry about you so much.” After becoming a mother three times over, I practically laugh when I remember those words. I know what she means.

My parents always wanted the best for us four children. They tried their hardest to provide for us financially, keep a comfortable roof over our heads, give us the education that we deserved. We were pushed to understand the value of a dollar, the value of family, the value of hard work. We weren't allowed to talk back, we had to respect their authority at all times. I wasn't allowed to drink until I turned 18, and I wasn't allowed to date until I was out of high school.

At the time, I hated it. I hated the power they had over me. I hated the restrictions they had over my life. I hated the fact that they wouldn't let me 'have fun'. I thought all they wanted to do was control me.

I longed to have the lifestyle my friends had: going out on school nights, drinking alcohol at birthday parties, dabbling in dating, doing what typical teenagers did.

But I grew up and my outlook on life started to change. I turned 18, had a party with a few friends, had a couple drinks to celebrate, and that was basically it. I was busy studying at university, and having recently met my future husband, I didn't wish for that life any more. I still haven't changed, and it doesn't bother me one bit.

However, I know that not everyone feels the way I do.

It's hard to deny that there are many news reports of drinking-related violence and car accidents. The federal government is being pushed to raise the drinking age to 21, which has sparked some controversy. Some are on one side of the fence, arguing that this has been a long time coming, while others believe this change will do no good to curb the number of drinkers, the violence and car accidents.

The Alcohol Use and Harms in Australia Information Paper of 2009 states that "the age at which Australians are having their first drink is continuing to decrease", as around 90 per cent of young people have tried alcohol by the age of 14. It also reveals that 80 per cent of alcohol consumed by people aged 14–24 is consumed in ways that put the health of drinkers (and others) at risk. The figures show that about 70,000 people are involved in alcohol-related assaults per year, costing Australia $187 million.

I love a good drink just like everyone else. I love a beer when socialising with friends; I love sipping on white wine, too. But my parents, who I once believed were too 'hard' on me, taught me the importance of moderation.

And the values they instilled in me weren't just my attitudes towards alcohol. They taught me how important it is to show others respect: I said 'thank you' whenever my mother cooked me dinner, I always spoke politely when I asked for a favour. I was taught that these were the right things to do.

But hearing about the recent abuse on public transport has me incredibly disturbed. In a video filmed on a Perth train, a woman in her early 20s is seen refusing to move her books from the empty seat beside her. This leads to a vicious argument with an expectant mum who wants to sit down. And on a Melbourne train, Roger Stapleford, 56, was verbally and physically abused by two teenagers. One teenager refused to move her foot off the only vacant seat, so he chose to move it himself. This resulted in a drink being poured over him and a can thrown at his forehead, leaving a 5cm gash. Both videos were shocking to watch.

I know that all of us parents do the best we can. We aren't perfect; we make mistakes. I also know that sometimes we're afraid to do what's right for our children, opting to do what they want instead.

But I can tell you, from my own experience, being raised by 'tough' parents is something I'm very grateful for.

My parents taught me that you have to work hard to get what you want. Sometimes you'll have to follow rules that you don't like. Sometimes you'll come across people whose opinions you clash with, but you need to learn to accept those differences. You shouldn't disrespect others, and you shouldn't verbally or physically abuse them.

I know that my children and I won't always see eye to eye. I know they'll probably get angry when I refuse to let them go out late at night, when I tell them they're too young to date, or when I ask them to do their homework before playing video games.

But I also know I'll try to be the parent who isn't too lenient nor too strict; the sort of parent that gives my children independence but also unconditional support. The sort of parent that my children will respect, admire, and feel grateful to have.

And I hope that one day, when they've grown up and are raising their own children, they'll be glad I was hard on them too.


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