March 19, 2007

Broken Pillars

For an interesting glance at how the political landscape has been changing in Australia and a timely reminder of what essentials a democracy make, try this document prepared by the Humand Rights Council of Australia...

Eric Sidoti's Paper from August 2003

March 18, 2007

Prime Miniature

John Howard tells us that the next election will be decided on character - he says the people of Australia will have to decide who they trust.

Thanks goodness for that.

Little Johnny seems to be under the apprehension that people voted for him in the past few elections, but it's more likely that people voted against the other guy. As we get closer to the election date expect to see a few more skeletons come rattling out of the closet as the spotlight is put on the 'character' of Howard and his band of merry makers...

Peter Reith
- $50,000 phone card illegally used by his son and friends
- retires as defence minister to join tenex as a consultant, months after reviewing sensitive tender submissions
- found culpable by a senate committee for deceiving the Australian public during the 2001 election campaign regarding 'children overboard'

Michael Wooldrige
- $5m worth of funding for an organisation he later joined as a consultant
- MRI Scan Scam scandal

Bill Heffernan
- distasteful allegations about senior judges made under parliamentary privilege and backed up with nothing more than a lousy stat-dec and a shabby receipt
- the ironic comparison of the farmers' plight in the AWB affair and children abused by priests

Philip Ruddock
- Keeping media out of Woomera and Naru to avoid the human face of (dare I use the word?) *refugees* from being seen on the television - they even demanded they be called 'asylum seekers' instead of bestowing any assumption of status
- The arrest of Natalie Larkins for being a reporter
- Child abuse scandal and the entire issue of privatised detention centres in place of refugee processing

Amanda Vanstone
- Cornelia Rau Scandal
- The failure to respond to the Scandal

And let's not forget a mention of AWB and the lack of recall from Alexander Downer.

The Cole commission found no evidence to link the government to the activities of the AWB, but likewise found no competence on the part of the government either. Don't be thinking this one is dead yet - once the political tide turns and Howard is out of a job I just know some of those faded memories will come good again.

The final word goes to Oxfam, who seemed to smell a rat long befor the Cole commission did...

Oxfam Community Aid Abroad chief executive officer Andrew Hewett told the Congress Daily in June 2003 that the Australian Government's appointment of Flugge to advise Iraq on reconstruction is "like appointing Henry Ford to advise on public transport." He asked: "Is Mr. Flugge's appointment about helping the Iraqi people reconstruct their run-down rural economy -- or is it about making sure that Australia's $800 million grain deals with Iraq can continue and not be replaced by U.S. or domestically grown products?"

March 16, 2007

Thin Ice

Al Gore's attempts to legitimize the climate change debate have drawn criticism from mostly the least credentialed of our society. Attention seeking scientists with no expertise in the field, infotainment publications and the occasional current affairs show trying to masquerade as news.

The New York Times has published a clever piece of work that demonstrates the essential problem of debating climate change - most people don't understand the science, especially the media.

The article in question was reprinted in the Sydney Morning Herald, minus an estimated 770 words. The author takes the position that Al Gore fudged his numbers and ignores dissent within the scientific community. To support this assertion the author brings up a few old chestnuts that have been floating around the media for years, which suggests to me that the real scientific debate was a little too complex and wouldn't make for interesting reading.

The pitfall this author has fallen into lies in trying to fit the data into a different model instead of reporting on what the experts have been able to conclude.

The most common error is made by comparing 20,000 years of climate changes to our present situation. Many journos have fallen for this trap - the current temperature changes are not outside the ranges of those previously experienced and naturally occurring. The statement is true, but the interpretation is usually wrong. The key issue is whether the weather is changing *because* of man or nature, and the cause of the change is of paramount importance when estimating the future changes heading our way.

This is not a trivial distinction. The scientists know that global temperature changes in the last 20,000 have tracked with CO2 levels in the atmosphere. The data shows that when CO2 levels rise, so does the temperature. What is most alarming is the rise in CO2 in recent years, which goes well beyond the levels recorded over the last 20,000 and is still rising. We know that our modern lifestyle has created enormous CO2 emissions, we know that the atmosphere is filling up beyond previously recorded levels, and we know that global temperatures have historically risen with CO2 levels.

To ignore this data and fob it off as "part of the earth's natural cycle" is folly. The ability of civilized man to load the atmosphere with CO2 is not part of any natural cycle, and we are heading into uncharted territory.

The secondary issue is that regardless of the cause, if global warming is happening then we need to do something in order to minimise the impact on the lives of billions of people. It's not just about rising sea levels, ecological destruction by regional temperature anomalies, or an increase in natural disasters - when you put these all together the challenge of sustaining the current human population on earth becomes even more difficult.

I'll add a third issue into the mix, tipping points. Scientists of any specialisation will be familiar with this concept, not to mention a few of the more savvy marketing people out there. Tipping points reflect the inertial nature of all dynamic systems, and remind us that dramatic changes are often preceded by the most subtle of signals.

Cause and effect are rarely linear.

Take a glass of milk sitting on the table. You can slide it towards the edge and nothing happens. No milk is spilled. Maybe if you slide it quickly a few drops spill over the edge, but not much. Keep sliding it. Once you reach the edge of the table the whole glass tumbles over and the milk is all over the floor.

At that point there will be no use in crying.

>Sydney Morning Herald abridged version of the story

March 14, 2007

Unprincipled Profit

Benevolence is big business in travel these days. Every company wants to be seen handing out money to children, helping to build hospitals and launching themselves a new foundation.

But marketing their generous credentials seems to warrant bigger spending than the charitable donations.

In the days after the 2004 Tsunami the reaction from Maureen and Tony Wheeler was decisive and committed. Money was needed urgently and they shelled out US$400,000 on the spot. Half went into bank accounts of relief agencies that same day, the other helf held back to be spread across another six months as a clearer picture of need emerged.

Staff at Lonely Planet were given leave to assist with their chosen relief agency, and since then the company has continued to give 5% of their profits directly to charity.

I've just written a story about Responsible Travel with an angle of normalising the idea of being nice to people and the planet. Holidays can be pampering and still be RT friendly.

But I didn't get to say everything I wanted to.

I didn't get to point out that Peregrine Adventures have donated over US$100,000 to help save the Albatross. There wasn't room to include the Tanzanian guides who help Exodus travellers climb Mt Kilimanjaro for 10 months a year - and then receive development english classes during the rainy season in the hope of educating them into a better life.

And I had a snow-flake's hope in hell of getting printed the fact that one of the most RT awarded companies on the market is nothing more than a sham. We'll call them Company X.

This is the problem with awards, they follow the addage that, "the squeaky wheel gets the oil". Company X is covered in oil at the moment and still keeps pumping their marketing resources into maintaining the facade of being responsible tour operator.

This is a serious flaw in the system of selecting award recipients, which is based on review of submitted documents instead of hands-on knowledge. The latest trend is for passenger feedback to be used as a qualitative data source for how well RT principles are implemented.

Passengers are good at spotting things like a visit to an elephant hospital, but are usually unaware of the fact that Company X switched hotels a few months ago to save $10 a night per group.

X learned early in their company growth that cheap travel has a lot in common with RT. Of course, that all changes once you start sending 10,000 people a year to Thailand, but they've managed to side-step that issue pretty effectively to date and keep the fantasy alive.

In the month of April Company X will run 17 departures for their hill-tribe trek, north of Chiang Mai. At what point is "small group travel" no longer classed as low impact? It's difficult to tell but I'm betting it's well before you hit 17 trips a month.

But that's not the worst of it for me, the real kicker is the abuse of fair wages. Now that Company X is a volume business the pressure to be price competitive is immense. In fact it's a significant part of their market strategy; to be so cheap that new companies find it difficult to start up competing products.

So how do you keep your prices cheap when you have so much market clout?

Yep, you put the local operators under the thumb-screws. You can name your price when you provide so many customers each month, and if the price is too low for one person then maybe someone hungrier and leaner will take your business. And thus the cycle begins: Eager local suppliers are drawn in like a month to flame, only to get burned and fail, making room for someone else to give it a go.

Company X need not worry, they're business is sustainable. It's just that the local operators they are hammering on price each year are not.

Eventually the queue of eager hotels and guides starts to thin out in places - you can only tap the market so low before you reach the point of diminishing returns.

The next step is to drop some of the quality aspects that have made Company X great. Training tour guides is expensive, so changing to local guides not only reduces costs but it helps with the "RT friendly image" to be employing needy local people - just don't mention the fact that their wages are significantly less than those of the western guides who once took the job. And we'll have to ingore the tendency for local guides to be ill-educated and mis-informed about issues within their own country such as democratic rights and freedom of the press.

Don't be fooled, a passionate foreigner with a graduate school degree is always going to make a better tour-guide for a group of english speaking travellers.

Other money saving ideas come into play, such as local payments that arent advertised in the price and removing benefits like travel insurance from guide remuneration packages. But at every step of the way these changes are sold to the travellers, the employees and the media as if Company X is doing the entire planet a big juicy favour. The marketing machine kicks in, reality is phased out.

RT is a marketing tool instead of a philosophical ideal. Profit without principles. "It's just good business", as if that was a legitemate excuse for behaving without ethics.

There's a fine line out there somewhere, and without a doubt you cross that line well before 200 people a month visiting the same 'unique and remote' village in Thailand.

March 12, 2007

Love you Barry

The last voice of considered reason in Australian politics is Barry Jones. He'll never be Prime Minister, he's not that much of a bastard to apply for the job.

He gave the Manning Clark lecture this year, at a time when conservative politics has elevated their arrogant attacks on anyone and anything that disagrees with their twisted and self-serving view of the world.

Barry gives us hope, just as Manning Clark gave us insight.

Listen to the lecture

Read a shortened extract

...And ask yourself whether a democracy can be effective if the people who vote are denied education, freedom of speech and a questioning media?