Monday, February 25, 2013

Just a Tipple - Australia's Drinking Problem

It's an issue that lends itself to the boiling frog analogy - the increasing levels of violence in Australia caused impart by drinking to excess.

Alcohol related violence affects around 70,000 people, costing $187 million per year.

That cost is only through violence-related injuries - the wider raw cost on the health system is easily the realm of tens of billions of dollars.

Recently the Australian government has led the world in challenging the big tobacco companies by forcing them to package their goods in plain boxes plastered with graphic warnings about the dangers of smoking.

No doubt tobacco smoking is a significant public health cost, and it's a step in the right direction to cutting smoking levels even further, even though more and more vain young people take up the habit.

Alcohol, on the other hand, seems to be an untouchable by governments and policy makers.

We did have the comical 'alcopops' tax - a tax on drinks that appealed to young people, in the hope that it would drive down their consumption.

A big backlash ensued through social media, as young people everywhere defended their right to drink and throw up in gutters nationwide, free from the taxing tyranny of Canberra.

Alcohol related brain injury is surging in the 20-29 age groups, as is violence related injuries - it's a little difficult to defend alcohol in the face of raw statistics.

I wouldn't personally suggest banning alcohol. That has been tried before, in the form of Prohibition, with disastrous results and the development of black markets for booze.

Besides, it's difficult to ban something that's been brewed for thousands of years, and only requires some sugar and yeast to produce - which is almost as silly as banning plants, ie, marijuana.

The problem is over-consumption - young people are drinking with the explicit intent to get drunk, and usually tank up at home before going out.

Which in some cases ends up with a trip to the emergency room, and putting more pressure on our health system and the people who staff it, not to mention the extra strain it puts on our emergency services who have to deal with it on the front line.

In Melbourne, a trial was put in place, with earlier venue lockout times, and a ban on serving spirits after 10PM - it was challenged by the powerful hoteliers association, and subsequently the trail was dropped.

Which is an example of why governments are increasingly weak, and limp-wristed in the face of lobby and special interest groups that represent the 'good times' brigade.

But it's not even violence - fundamental health problems such as liver damage and cirrhosis are too on the rise.

And while tobacco smoking gets ample attention for causing lung cancer, alcohol is somehow being swept under the rug along with the damaging health effects it can have - once your liver is going, it's a terrible, disgusting death, which can include your esophageal veins erupting and transforming into a bloated, vomiting walking corpse.

Liver cirrhosis is not a disease confined to homeless people drinking from paper bags day and night - it's on the increase among middle-aged blue collar working men, and even middle class females who have unwound with a bottle or two of wine every night.

It's just not spoken of.

Alas, I don't want to sound preachy.

I love a drink also, and hell, I even home brew - but I don't see the appeal of needing to drink until you're going to blackout, or get into fisty cuffs with a total stranger - there's really no point.

The government just can't legislate against stupidity, and they're currently very ill-equipped to put popular pressure on the liquor industry, as they have done with big tobacco.

It's just too profitable for all parties involved - except for the lives it damages, or even completely tears apart.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Ignore The Polls at Your Peril

Paul Howes is at it again.

As Labor's primary vote in the polls drops to 30%, and threatens to fall further, along with Ms Gillard's preferred Prime Minister ranking, Paul Howes on morning TV today proudly announced that he pays no attention to polls, and that he is more interested in looking after workers and such.

Nice try, Paul. Nice try - saluting as the ship goes down.

But if he truly did ignore polls, he wouldn't have been one of the faceless union headbangers that rolled Kevin Rudd and helped to install Julia Gillard as leader of the Labor party, and subsequently, Prime Minister of Australia.

Now however, 7 months out from the next federal election, Paul Howes now magically ignores polls, and admittedly 'ate humble pie' when the question was put forward to him of rolling Mr Rudd - ironically, based on opinion polls.

Usually it's politicians that deny paying attention to opinion polls. Mr Howes is by no means a politician, although he would probably fancy himself as being one, since he wears a similar suit and occasionally bashes the Greens, or whoever else holds a different political opinion to him, despite relying on them for his party to govern.

And evidently, after the ousting of Mr Rudd as party leader, he does wield political oomph.

That move of knifing Rudd barely saved Labor from the wilderness at the last election.

If it weren't for the grace of the independents, and the Greens who Mr Howes likes to savage every-so-often, they would not even be in government.

The hypocrisy displayed by Mr Howes beggars belief.

The likes of Mr Howes may bemoan opinion polls, but they forget to acknowledge that political communication is still mostly a 1950s one-way affair, albeit with a minutely news cycle.

Politicians make piecemeal attempts to interact with the electorate using social media, and perhaps sometimes opening up a dialog with the public, but messages from the government are still mostly 'injection theory' types of communication.

While Australia does love its opinion polling perhaps a little too much, it's one of the main, proper ways that the electorate can voice their approval or disapproval with whom is in government, and whom may become the government.

Even political parties have their own internal means of polling, so don't believe any of them when they say they don't pay attention to the polls, because while they may not pay attention to public polling, they would definitely be paying attention to their own focus groups.

Interestingly, the communist party of China is constantly polling its own population, just to check up if the public is happy with them, even though they're the only legitimate party.

When public polls are good for a party, they feign disinterest. When public polls are bad for a party, they feign disinterest.

So it has to be acknowledged, that commenting on public opinion must be poison.

In Labor's case, there's not really much else they can do to please the public. Things such as the Schoolkids Bonus (all one word, that really is what it's called, despite being an 'education' initiative) are currently being used by Labor to sweeten the electorate.

"Oh, my!" they collectively cry - "the Opposition would TAKE AWAY the Schoolkids Bouns!!"

Which is ironic, given that it was the Liberals that introduced a means for parents to claim similar amounts of money, so long as they produced receipts for the cost of school items - Labor only removed the need for receipts and re-packaged it as their own, and instead hand out lump sums of cash.

So besides the Schoolkids Bonus, Labor isn't really focusing on what it would mean for Australia if the Liberals came to power - hence why the former's popularity is dropping in the polls, and why Mr Abbott is appearing more and more prime ministerial.

I suppose we can put it down to the fact that the official political campaign hasn't even started, and perhaps we're all getting ahead of ourselves, especially with the polls.

The political year has only barely just started, and we still have one more Federal Budget to get through before election time, which will probably be the true test of Labor.

Especially given the fact that the promised surplus is no more, and that the watered-down resources rent tax (mining tax) has failed to raise any meaningful revenue.

In the meantime, I wonder if the faceless men behind Labor, such as NSW Labor Secretary Sam Dastyari, whose party is stinking awfully at the moment with allegations of corruption coming out of ICAC, is paying attention to those polls and mulling their party's future.

Labor will probably run a very smart, and very tight federal campaign, but a cloak-and-daggers leadership change is surely not an option.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Labor - 'do not resuscitate'

What whirlwind start to the Australian political year.

Pollies, tired and weary from the summer break, are lumbering back to Canberra, perking themselves up to face the Press Club and take questions from snooty, monotone-sounding reporters.

We certainly shouldn't envy them; no amount of free travel is worth that torture, which is probably why pollies have so much free travel - to get away from Canberra at any possibly opportunity.

One surprise recently dropped, by Ms Gillard, was that the next Federal Election will be held on September 14.

Apparently, this was with the intent of giving people certainty, and honouring the deal with the independents that a solid date for the next election would be set.

A short time afterwards, our Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, announced that she can no longer balance work life and family, and so will be bowing out after the election, as will leader of the Senate, Chris Evans.

Two big players, and two big public faces of the Labor machine, as Nicola Roxon has recently just completed a maddening media tour selling the plain packaging of cigarettes.

Newspapers have even ran lines to the effect of 'frontbenchers resign days into election campaign' - so apparently, we're already in a campaign now.

Lord help us if we are.

However, frontbenchers signalling resignations after the call of an election isn't too much of a surprise.

It's a bad look however after just announcing an election date, and the electorate will pay attention, so perhaps it was just unfortunate timing on behalf of Roxon and Evans.

The fact that troubled MP Craig Thomson was arrested amongst it also freshens the bruises.

The polls have also dipped once again against Labor, and Tony Abbott is looking more prime ministerial, and perhaps even salivating at the fact that his party's numbers popularity wise are climbing.

As is typical in a democracy, a good government won't be voted in - a bad government will be voted out - and it seems that Australia in particular will never escape this paradigm.

And Labor, for the most part, haven't even been a 'bad' government; for instance, avoiding a recession following the GFC.

They were criticised heavily for withering away the Howard-era surplus, but the government sitting on a pile of cash during a financial crisis would not have been the correct course of action.

One also wonders what the Liberals would have done in similar circumstances.

Would they have protected their surplus at all costs? After all, that's the one economic achievement they continually spout.

Joe Hockey as Treasurer for instance will be an interesting time. Liberals stalwarts shouldn't kid themselves - the smarts and prowess of Peter Costello are not coming back anytime soon.

Additionally, the more approachable Liberals, such as Malcolm Turnbull, have duly been purged and distanced from possible leadership.

Of course, that isn't to say a Liberal government would be a 'bad' government if they were voted in, it simply means that people are simply just looking for a change, which is again a folly of democracy.

The only reason Labor should not govern would be because the party has become so caught up with itself - it's become the Paris Hilton of political parties, only concerned with its image, such as dumping Kevin Rudd when the polls took a bad turn.

Or trashing the Greens at every opportunity, the party that allowed them to govern in the first place.

I've lost count of how many cabinet reshuffles we've had, and you could forgive most people for not knowing what minister has what portfolio.

If Ms Gillard's government were an iPod, you could be sure it would permanently left of 'shuffle'.

However, to keep a minority government together this long is to be commended, and it is an experiment in Australian political history that will be studied for years to come, and an example to future leaders.

Having said that, keeping it alive on the operating table has been a trial, and a more certain political landscape may well be a good thing to look forward to, regardless of whom 'wins'.