Politics

Contract Law Word Cloud

Why IT Outsourcing Sucks for Australia’s Government.

Back in 1996 one of the incoming Howard government’s core promises was to reduce their expenditure dramatically, specifically with regards to their IT. The resulting policy was dubbed the IT Initiative and promised to find some $1 billion dollars in savings in the following years primarily through outsourcing many functions to the private sector. It was thought that the private sector, which was well versed in projects of the government’s scale and beyond, would be able to perform the same function at a far reduced cost to that of permanent public servants. The next decade saw many companies rush in to acquire these lucrative IT outsourcing arrangements but the results, both in terms of services delivered and apparent savings, never matched that which was promised.

Contract Law Word CloudFor many the reasons behind the apparent failure were a mystery. Many of the organisations involved in providing IT services to the government weren’t fly by night operations, indeed many of them were large multi-national companies with proven track records, but they just didn’t achieve the same outcomes when it came to the government contracts. After nearly a decade of attempting to make outsourcing work many departments began insourcing their IT departments again and relied on a large contractor workforce to bring in the skills required to keep their projects functioning. Of course costs were still above what many had expected them to be, result in the Gershon Report that recommended heavy cuts to said contractor workforce.

This all stems from the one glaring failure that the government has still yet to realise: it can’t negotiate contracts.

I used to work for a large outsourcer in the Canberra region, swept up while I was still fresh out of university into a job that paid me a salary many took years to attain. The outsourcer had won this contract away from the incumbent to provide desktop and infrastructure services whilst the numerous other outsourcers involved in the contract retained ownership of their respective systems. After spending about 6 months as a system admin my boss approached me about moving into the project management space, something I had mentioned that I was keen on pursuing. It was in this position that I found out just how horrible the Australian government was at contract negotiation and how these service providers were the only winners in their arrangements.

My section was dedicated to “new business”, essentially work that we’d be responsible for implementing that wasn’t in scope as part of the broader outsourcing contract. Typically these would be small engagements, most not requiring tender level documentation, and in all honesty would have been considered by any reasonable individual to fall under the original contract.  Of course many of the users who I came back to with a bill detailing how much it would cost to do the work they needed often responded with much surprise and often would simply drop the request than try to seek approval for the cost.

The issue still exists today primarily because many of the positions that handle contract negotiations don’t require specific skills or training. This means whilst the regulations in place stop most government agencies from entering into catastrophically bad arrangements the more subtle ones often slip through the cracks and it’s only after everything is said and done that oversights are found. All of the large outsourcers in Canberra know this and it’s why there’s been no force working to correct the problem for the better part of 2 decades. It’s why Canberra exists as a strange microcosm of IT expertise, with salaries that you won’t see anywhere else in Australia.

The solution is to simply start hiring contract negotiators away from the private sector and get them working for the Australian government. Get contract law experts to review large IT outsourcing arrangements and start putting the screws to those outsourcers to deliver more for the same amount of money. It’s not an easy road to tread and it won’t likely win the government any friends but unless they start doing something outsourcing is always going to be seen as a boondoggle, only for those with too much cash and not enough sense.

 

Lake George Windmills

An Oversupply of Renewable Energy? Seriously?

We’re a country of polluters, there’s no question about that. In terms of world ranking we seem to hover around 11th in per capita pollution, beating other big polluters like China, India and even the United States. Whilst we can lay the blame for a good chunk of that on our resources sector it doesn’t mean that we, as a country, aren’t responsible for it and are obligated to do as much as we can to reduce the amount of carbon and other pollutants that enter our atmosphere. The previous government made some headways into this however our current representatives seem intent on undoing the small amount of good they managed to get through, even if it makes absolutely no sense to do so.

Lake George WindmillsYesterday it was announced that the Renewable Energy Target (RET), which was revised under the previous government to a larger figure, was going to be reviewed. Now typically this wouldn’t be something to fret about, especially considering that reviews like this are supposed to be carried out by the Climate Change Commission, but since Abbott disbanded them it’s now being led by Dick Warburton a confessed anthropogenic climate change denier. To make matters worse it’s also going to be done in the context of an apparent oversupply of electricity in Australia, something which the current rhetoric from the Abbott government seems to pin wholly on the rapid uptake in renewables.

Are you fucking kidding me.

The Small Scale Renewable Energy Scheme (SRES) and the Large Scale Renewable Target (LRET) schemes have been responsible for a massive increase in the amount of grid connected renewable energy in Australia. Indeed it’s been so successful that we’ve even had some regions revise their own targets above what they initially planned, meaning a very healthy percentage of Australia’s energy now comes from renewable resources. The argument being made now is that the incentives provided to those renewables is costing Australia too much and is leading to a glut of energy production, driving prices lower. Whilst I’d argue that the cost of the program (~$1.6 billion according to Warburton) is worth it I can’t understand the thought process behind people complaining about lower electricity costs.

The source of this rhetoric is somewhat understandable; it’s because Warburton doesn’t believe that we’re responsible for the climate change. Thus, when you take that view, renewables get an unfair amount of treatment with their subsidies and feed in tariffs. However if you take the rational scientific view where we are responsible then the picture becomes far more clear and the paltry price we pay to have such a large percentage of renewable energy is a sound investment. Indeed should we lose both the carbon tax and the RET there’s no telling how much further up the global polluter ranks we’ll climb and I don’t think any rational Australian wants that.

We’re seeing the results of electing a government that is packed with representatives who are running with an agenda that clearly runs opposite to the facts. Whilst I’d love to believe that a review of the RET would show that everything should continue as planned I’m afraid I lost all trust in reviews commissioned in this manner after the total farce that was the NBN strategic review. With Warburton at the helm it’s guaranteed that we’ll see cuts to the RET which will have a strong, negative impact on the state of renewable energy in Australia. Unfortunately that will just be the first hit to soften us up before the real hit comes: the abolishment of the carbon price.

 

 

refugees2

Don’t Sell Off Student Debt You Dolts.

If it wasn’t for the HECS/HELP system I definitely wouldn’t be in the position that I am today. Whilst I didn’t come from an exactly poor family we were definitely on the lower end of the middle class and the prospect of going to uni meant that I’d have to start paying my way. Thankfully I was able to defer my HECS debt until I was able to pay it back through tax allowing me to attend university without having to fork out the $25,000 or so which I simply did not have. After 4 years of an accelerated career that was directly attributable to my university experience the debt was fully repaid back to the Australian government with a little bit of inflation added on top for good measure.

refugees2In other countries this same situation probably wouldn’t have been possible. In the USA for instance I would have had to secure a student loan with a bank, something that probably would have seen me paying exorbitant interest rates on top the much higher cost of education. Even if the loan amount remained the same I would’ve been repaying the debt for at least another year just because of interest and I would have been much less inclined to take the risks that I did knowing that I’d have to make those monthly repayments regardless of my current employment situation. The couple percent interest I paid on my HELP debt to curb the deflation on the debt seems like nothing in comparison to that.

The difference between the two systems is the motive behind the loans. HECS/HELP is made by the government to encourage people to go into higher education in the hopes that, because of said education, they will get higher paying jobs and will then be able to contribute more to the economy as well as repaying their debt. Loans made by banks on the other hand, regardless of their intended purpose, are done purely for the motive of generating a profit and they will do anything to maximise the return on them as such. This is why the Liberal’s proposal to securitise (read: sell off) student debt is an inherently bad move.

Should such a deal go down the government would likely have to sell the debt for a fraction of its current value, usually on the order of 40%~60%. This would mean an instant cash windfall of approximately $11 billion or so with the annuity streams being collected by the new owners of the debt. If your government is strapped for cash (which we really aren’t at the moment) then this would seem like a good move however it would only account for 3% of our total budget and only for the year in which it happened. For comparison HECS/HELP revenue was around $1.4 billion back in 2009/2010 financial year meaning that the $11 billion windfall would become a shortfall in 8 years (probably less considering that repayment rates would have likely increased in the interim). It’s a short term cash grab that will make the budget its in look a lot better but at the cost of making every budget that follows it look a lot worse.

The real problem though is the transfer of government owned debt to a private company, one that will inevitably look to make the most out of their investment. Whilst HECS/HELP is one of the few things you can’t discharge through bankruptcy you’re under no obligation to repay it should you not have the means to, a key to encouraging people to at least attempt higher education to further their careers. Should the debt be owned by a bank however there’s no guarantees that the same structures will hold and it’s almost inevitable that the banks would look to squeeze delinquent loans for all they’re worth. Don’t believe me? Just look at the student loan situation in the USA.

Whilst the Liberals may have said that such a plan is not current policy the fact that it’s under consideration should ring alarm bells. It’s an incredibly short sighted move, one that favours short term gains over long term losses which is something that a “fiscally responsible” government should be doing everything to avoid. Selling off national assets, especially one that provides as much value as HECS/HELP does, will only hurt us in the long term no matter how warm and fuzzy running a surplus makes you feel now.

 

Generic Fiber Shot

Maybe The NBN Needs To Be Boring.

For those of us who spend a lot of time on the Internet, whether productively or not, the National Broadband Network is an easy sell. If you’re not so Internet inclined then there are thousands of tech heads (which, yes, does include this blog) who will gladly take you on a tour of the benefits one that will likely fill an afternoon if you let them. Those same people will also be more than willing to tell you of the many deficits that the Liberal’s NBN plan has, from simple things like having to run the fiber to the nodes anyway all the way down to the power usage and maintenance costs of the cabinets required by such plans. Of course such arguments are usually lost on non-technical people as they’re nuances of a much larger policy that require a decent amount of tech knowledge to understand.

Generic Fiber Shot

We also lost our champion Senator Conroy in the latest leadership spill, someone who’s deep technical understanding had helped to sell the NBN to the tech crowd. Of course there were also those who were glad to see him go, mostly due to his involvement with the Clean Feed policy, but considering that never went ahead I feel it’s valid to say that his time in office was an overall positive for the state of the high tech in Australia. His replacement however couldn’t have been any less impressive with Anthony Albanese, someone who’s gone on record saying they’re something of a technophobe. This wasn’t taken as a good move at the time, at least not in the tech crowd, but there is one school of thought that this might be just what the NBN needs:

Albanese’s role, then, is less to be the pig-headed advocate that Conroy was, and more to be something of a ring-master — trying to keep his deputies working together to sell a message of continuity to the voting populace. Whether or not he can make that happen without the technical nous that Conroy had, remains to be seen; he will also face a demanding telco community that’s already trying to set his agenda for him.

And yet, just as Tony Abbott seems to have become a stunned mullet in the wake of Rudd’s resurgence, perhaps Conroy’s departure — and the devenomisation of the NBN debate — will allow Albanese to muffle Turnbull and polish the project into a political asset come election time. Either way, it’s sure to be an interesting ride.

I was sceptical when I first started reading the article but after having some time to mull it over I’m inclined to agree with Braue. Whilst it was fun to see Conroy poke hole’s in Turnbull’s faulty technical knowledge it ultimately wasn’t getting us anywhere and the debate felt like it was stagnating on technical points that were doing nothing to win over the general public with the NBN. With things like the asbestos debacle (which is clearly Telstra’s fault and not the NBN’s) most people will just hear “asbestos” and “NBN” and draw their own conclusions; similarly with a dozen other issues like the roll out and the musical chairs that seems to be happening with NBNCo’s board seats. Albanese then, with his pedigree for managing the Infrastructure and Transport portfolio, shifts the focus away from this being a tech-only debate and into the realm of a big infrastructure project. That changes the debate significantly as it’s hard to argue against projects that are ostensibly for the long term benefit of Australia.

His effect on the debate will be very short lived should the Liberal coalition come into power this year. The NBN was a key policy that helped Labor form the minority government 3 years ago and should a similar situation happen this time around then it could pull a victory for them once again. Current polls don’t swing in Labor’s favor however the return of Rudd has seen them get closer than they have been in a long time which makes the likelihood of a similar situation happening again that much more likely. I doubt that the NBN will be their saving grace two times in a row but it’s hard to discount that it will be a factor should it happen again.

I had always tried to explain the numerous benefits of the NBN to my non-technical friends but apart from “faster cats to your browser” convincing them of the other benefits was always a slog, especially with the price tag. Switching tactics and putting it forward as a general infrastructure project, one that will create jobs and opportunities for all Australian’s, seems like the smarter move and I’m sure Labor can win over a few skeptics with this approach. As someone who talks tech incessantly this seemed a little counter intuitive at first but once you realize that most of Australia isn’t elbow deep in tech news all day it makes a lot more sense and hopefully that will work out well for the NBN.

 

Malcolm Turnbull Nice NBN You Have There

The Liberal’s NBN Plan is Just Plain Bad.

Last week I regaled you with a story of the inconsistent nature of Australia’s broadband and how the current NBN was going to solve that through replacing the aging copper network with optical fibre. However whilst the fundamental works to deliver it are underway it is still in its nascent stages and could be easily usurped by a government that didn’t agree with its end goals. With the election looking more and more like it’ll swing towards the coalition’s favour there has been a real risk that the NBN we end up with won’t be the one that we were promised at the start, although the lack of a concrete plan has left me biting my tongue whilst I await the proposal.

Today Malcolm Turnbull announced his NBN plan, and it’s not good at all.

Malcolm Turnbull Nice NBN You Have There

Instead of rolling out fibre to 93% of Australians and covering the rest off with satellite and wireless connections the Liberal’s NBN will instead only roll fibre to 22%, the remaining 71% will be covered by FTTN. According to Turnbull’s estimations this will enable all Australians to have broadband speeds of up to 25MBps by 2016 with a planned upgrade of up to 100MBps by 2019. The total cost for this plan would be around $29 billion which is about $15 billion less than the current planned total expenditure required for Labor’s FTTP NBN. If you’re of the mind that the NBN was going to be a waste of money that’d take too long to implement then these numbers would look great to you but unfortunately they’re anything but.

For starters the promise of speeds of up to 25MBps isn’t much of an upgrade over what’s available with the current ADSL2+ infrastructure. Indeed most of the places that they’re looking to cover with this can already get such services so rigging fibre up to their nodes will likely not net much benefit to them. Predominantly this is because the last mile will still be on the copper network which is the major limiting factor in delivering higher speeds to residential areas. They might be able to roll out FTTN within that time frame but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll see any dramatic speed increases, especially if you’re on an old line.

Under the Liberal’s plan you could, however, pay for the last mile run to your house which, going by estimates from other countries that have done similar, could range anywhere from $2500 to $5000. Now I know a lot of people who would pay for that, indeed I would probably be among them, but I’d much rather it be rolled out to everyone indiscriminately otherwise we end up in a worse situation we have now. The idea behind the NBN was ubiquitous access to high speed Internet no matter where you are in Australia so forcing users to pay for the privilege kind of defeats its whole purpose.

Probably the biggest issue for me though is how the coalition plans to get to 100MBps without running FTTP. The technologies that Turnbull has talked about in the past just won’t be able to deliver the speeds he’s talking about. Realistically the only way to reliably attain those speeds across Australia would be with an FTTP network however upgrading a FTTN solution will cost somewhere on the order of $21 billion. All added up that makes the Liberal’s NBN almost $5 billion more than the current Labor one so it’s little wonder that they’ve been trying to talk up the cost in the past week or so.

You can have a look at their policy documents here but be warned it’s thin on facts and plays fast and loose with data. I’d do a step by step takedown of all the crazy in there but there are people who are much more qualified than me to do that and I’ll be sure to tweet links when they do.

Suffice to say the Liberal’s policy announcement has done nothing but confirm our worst fears about the Liberal party’s utter lack of understanding about why the FTTP NBN was a good thing for Australia. Their plan might be cheaper but it will fail to deliver the speeds they say it will and will thus provide a lot less value for the same dollars spent on a FTTP solution. I can only hope come election time we end up with a hung parliament again because the independents will guarantee that nobody fucks with the FTTP NBN.

HELP Debt outstanding 1989 to 2011

The Sound Economics of Australia’s Education System.

Australia has one of the best education systems available as evidence by our top 10 rankings for literacy, science and mathematics as well as our overall education index of 0.993, tying us for first place with countries like Denmark and Finland. While our system isn’t exactly unique in its implementation I do believe schemes like HECS/HELP are one of the main reasons that the majority of Australians now pursue tertiary education and whilst this might bring about other issues (like a lack of people in trades) it’s clear that benefits far outweigh the costs. Indeed as someone who couldn’t have afforded university without the help of the government and now has a great career to show for it I’m something of a testament to that idea.

Recently however there’s been some criticism of the HECS-HELP system, mostly focused on the amount of student debt owing to the government and the sizeable chunk of that which is never expected to be repaid:

The Grattan Institute’s annual Mapping Australian Higher Education report finds that students and former students have accumulated HECS-HELP debts of $26.3 billion.

This is about an extra $10 billion owing, in real terms, than in 2007.

The interest bill on the income-contingent loan scheme, formerly known as HECS, is nearly $600 million a year, the institute estimates.

And it says HELP debt not expected to be repaid rose to $6.2 billion in 2012.

The report makes for some intriguing reading and does indeed state that there’s a good 25% or so of the current student debt that’s likely to never be repaid. The reasons behind it though are interesting as whilst some would have you think that it’s due to students skipping out on their debts in way or another (ala Liberal MP Steve Ciobo) it’s in fact primarily due to students either dying or moving overseas. Now there’s not a whole lot we can do about the former (except maybe investing more in the health care sector) but the latter is a problem that’s been around for decades and I’ve yet to see a solution proposed, either from the government or the private sector.

Australian graduates, especially in some sectors, suffer from a distinct lack of choice when it comes to finally finding a career once they’re done with their university studies. Whilst I might have managed to make a decent career without looking too far you have to appreciate the fact that my degree isn’t in IT, it’s in engineering, and such is the case for many graduates who try to find something in their chosen path. Usually they can get close but the chances of landing an opportunity directly in their field of study are usually pretty slim and that leads them to look overseas. I myself did exactly that not too long after I graduated and was pretty staggered at the number of opportunities available abroad that I was more than qualified for.

HELP Debt outstanding 1989 to 2011

Another point that the report makes is that student debt is seemingly sky rocketing when compared decades prior. The graph above demonstrates that quite clearly but it doesn’t give you any indication as to why this is happening. For starters Australia’s population has increased by about 5.8 million in since 1989 or about 35%. At the same time participation in tertiary education has well over doubled in this time with the vast majority having some form of tertiary qualification and  27% of all Australians now carrying a bachelor’s degree or higher. Essentially there’s been a major cultural shift over the past 2 decades towards pursuing an education through universities rather than other avenues and this is what is responsible for the increase we’ve seen. This isn’t exactly an issue considering our GDP has quadrupled in the same time frame and whilst I won’t say there’s a causative link there I’d say you’d be hard pressed to uncouple higher education rates from improved GDP figures.

Realistically the issue of unpaid student debts isn’t much of an issue for the Australian government considering the wide reaching benefits that our high quality and freely available education system gives us. We still need to do something about our best and brightest moving overseas to greener pastures but it’s clear that the economic benefits of free education for anyone who wants it vastly outweighs the cost of providing it. Even if we were to erase all student debt in one year it would still be only a few percent of the total budget, something that could be easily done should there be any burning need for it to happen. There isn’t of course since the cost of servicing that debt is so low (comparatively) and there are much better things to spend that money on.

Active Directory Time Sync Breakdown

A Tale of Woe and PDF Creators (or Dig Up Abbott, Dig Up).

I’ve been working in public sector IT for the better part of 7 years now, starting off as a lowly help desk operator and working my way up through the ranks to the senior technical consultant position I find myself in today. I’m not telling you this to brag (indeed I don’t believe I’m completely unique in this regard) rather I want to impress upon you the level of familiarity I have when it comes to government IT systems. I’ve worked in departments ranging from mere hundreds of employees to the biggest public service organisation that exists within Australia. So when I say Tony Abbott’s office isn’t giving us the full story on this whole Peter Slipper incident and the subsequent time zone argument they used to defend their position you’ll know that I’m not just making stuff up.

Active Directory Time Sync Breakdown

For reference his whole argument has been thoroughly debunked by Sortius in his brilliant 10 hours of bullshit where he shows that the document has had its date modified to show a 10 hour discrepancy. Back when it was first published he was just going off public information but recent updates to the post have seen him get his hands on the original press release with an unmodified date on them, showing that the press release was indeed drafted the night before. You’d think that’d be the last of it (and indeed if it was I would’ve simply tweeted it again) however the Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS) has gone on record saying that they have identified a problem with the time stamps on the files in question and have backed up Abbott’s side of the story.

Reporters have since been granted access to the PC and shown similar files which seem to suffer the same Zulu time zone problem that apparently plagues the press release in question. What wasn’t investigated was whether or not files created in the way that Sortius has shown suffer from the same issue, I.E. is there an on-going technical issue with that particular computer or are those files the result of the same kind of tampering that the press release appears to have undergone. That would go some way to explaining what’s going on here but it doesn’t explain why the time stamp shows a Zulu time zone which Microsoft word isn’t capable of producing.

Indeed doing a little research for myself shows that PDFs created from Microsoft Word’s PDF creator plugin will always show created/modified dates that are more or less identical and reflect the current time it was created (not the time when the original word document was created). If we’re to believe that there was some problem with the PC that caused the Z to appear it follows that it should have been the same for both the created date and the modified date. The fact that there’s a discrepancy gives credence to the idea that the PDF was first created using the Word PDF exporter and then modified afterwards using another program. The original document, the one shown in the final update from Sortius, shows some differences in created/modified times however it appears that was created using the PDFMaker Plugin for Word and then later modified in Adobe Distiller (not the same way as the metadata in the modified press release indicates).

Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that Abbott was aware of this information but it does implicate that someone working for him did. In attempting to track down just who it was who created the PDF I came across 2 probable people (one person who I think works at DPS and a Brisbane based ghost writer) but I wasn’t able to verify it was actually one or the other. Whoever did write it would be able to provide some insights into this whole thing but it’s unlikely that they’ll ever come forward, especially considering the fact that they would’ve been working for Abbott at the time (and may still be).

All of this points in the direction that something is going on over there and that further investigation is definitely warranted. I know there’s several other things I could do to either verify or debunk this theory completely should I have more open access to said system but I doubt we’ll get anything more than the guided tour that was given to the ABC journalists already. If I still had people I knew working at DPS you can be assured that I’d get the full story from them but alas, I came up dry on this one. Sortius is still on the case though and I’m very interested to see what DPS has to say about the current discrepancies and will keep you posted on the progress.

 

Why Plain Packaging Legislation is Bad Policy.

I’ve never been a smoker but I did live with one for the better part of 20 years. My father smoked for about 30 years up until he had a heart attack over a decade ago and that’s a pretty good thing to set everyone straight on the risks of smoking. However I don’t believe it’s my, or anyone else’s business, if people who are fully aware of the risks involved choose to engage that behaviour anyway so long as they’re not harming anyone else in the process. This is why I supported legislation that banned smoking in clubs and in outdoor areas of restaurants as the risk was real and provable then. What I don’t support however is the idea that plain packaging, I.E. olive green packages with bigger warning labels on them, will do anything to lower smoking rates in Australia.

Now I’m fully aware that some people may write me off as a corporate apologist in this regard, I do have a rather lengthy track record of defending certain company’s actions from time to time, but my concerns aren’t the ones that the tobacco companies have brought forward. Whilst I do believe there needed to be some more discussion surrounding the loss of branding potential and the real risk of product counterfeiting my concerns come from the research backing the legislation which, as far as I can tell, don’t really match up with the line that’s being marketed to Australia.

For reference the research I’m referring to are the Cancer Council’s Position Statement and the University of Sterling’s systemic review of plain packaging research.

The research from both articles is quite similar so I’ll focus on the systemic review since that’s a much more sound piece of scientific literature. Below is an excerpt showing the review’s aims:

The primary aim of this review is to assess the impact of plain tobacco packaging on the:
1. appeal of the packaging or product;
2. salience and effectiveness of health warnings; and
3. perceptions of product strength and harm.

I’m not going to judge the validity of these research goals, indeed they are interesting points to note, however I feel it’s something of a leap to translate those particular goals into a reduction in of the current rate of smoking. Indeed the main point that the Australian government hammered home with the plain packaging idea was that it would help stop our younger generation from taking up the habit. Looking deeper into the research there’s really nothing in it to support that idea as there was no investigation into the vectors by which youths (and adults) are introduced to tobacco.

The research is also heavily qualitative in nature, which isn’t technically a bad thing, but for the most part it’s also quite comparative. Take for instance the following paragraph relating to product strength and harm:

Perceptions of harmfulness and strength  were assessed in several ways, by asking respondents which packs: would deliver the most tar and/or nicotine or would be ‘lighter’ in tar; were a greater risk to health compared to other brands;  would be associated with greater or lesser harm; would trigger discussions on harmfulness; inform the smoker about the health effects; and would be more likely to make you think that the cigarettes inside were dangerous.

Whilst this might have shown that people would believe that plain packaged cigarettes were more dangerous to their health than branded ones the research doesn’t show how this would translate into lower smoker incident rates. Indeed much of the research is done in the same manner, with the results being that people found the branded packages more appealing (is that really a surprise?) and that people were more likely to remember the health warnings if they were displayed on a plain package. I’m not disputing these findings, indeed I’m inclined to agree with them, what I’m not getting is how they make the leap to reducing our smoker population.

The argument can be made that if the packaging is less appealing, the health warnings more remembered and the product is thought to be more damaging to their health that these pressures will lead to smokers dropping the habit. You could also argue that it may have some impact on uptake rates as well however the small amount of research into that very idea doesn’t support it. From the systemic analysis again:

Four studies examined the potential impact of plain packs on participants’ own smoking behaviour.
Again the overall pattern is mixed but tends to be supportive of plain packaging having a deterrent
effect on smoking.

It’s statements like the above that really get to me as you can not conclude from mixed results that something is in support of your hypothesis. The only thing you can draw from that is that more research is required to make a proper conclusion, not that it supports your idea. If the conclusion of the study was in fact “we need more research done into this” I’d be much more supportive but instead we’ve got legislation, which is the real issue here.

We’ve had a lot of successful schemes that have helped reduce the number of new and old smokers. Both the health warnings and the ad campaigns on free to air television have a long history of being effective and had good supporting research behind them. Plain packaging on the other hand doesn’t have the same level of evidence to support the conclusion that’s currently being made and fails to investigate critical things like the origins of people’s habits. I would have fully supported a year long trial in order to judge the effectiveness of it and then should the evidence support our hypothesis then we could legislate. However the current approach of taking tangentially related research and then creating policy around that isn’t something I can support and neither should you.

Conscientious Objection to Vaccinations? What The Fuck Australia.

For a while I was lulled into thinking that Australia was becoming some kind of rational place thanks to all the progress we had been making. After years of campaigning, blogging and whining about it to friends we’re less than 6 months away from having a R18+ rating for games in Australia. The government also seemed to become more aware of people acting irrationally and decided to do something about it, removing the family tax benefit for parents who refused to vaccinate their kids. Sure we still had a long way to go but the beginnings of a rational, logical government seemed to be sprouting up everywhere and for a time I was happy.

All it took was one news article to bring that all down in one sweeping blow. I’ll let the exerpt speak for itself:

While parents have been warned they will lose their payment and the childcare benefit if they do not fully immunise their children, they are also being told exemptions will be given to objectors.

All they have to do to still receive the money is fill out a form supplied by the Federal Government.

The Federal Government’s Department of Human Services website outlines the immunisation requirements.

It reads: “To meet the immunisation requirements, children will need to be fully immunised, be on a recognised immunisation catch-up schedule, or have an approved exemption.”

You can imagine how furious this made me.

So last November when I blogged about the Australian government taking away tax benefits for people who refused to vaccinate their children I thought it was a no holds barred approach: if you refuse to vaccinate you lose the money, simple. Turns out that’s not entirely the case as whilst if you do refuse to vaccinate you will lose the benefit that will only happen should you fail to fill out he conscientious objection form available from DHS. If you fill out that form then you’re right as rain and you’ll get the full tax benefits as if you had fully immunized your child even though you haven’t.

To me that seems more like a punishment for the ignorant and unaware, not people who don’t want to vaccinate their children.

Indeed it makes the whole policy null and void as the anti-vaxers are a vocal movement, with posts like these reaching a wide audience. Realistically if the government was serious about this legislation there wouldn’t be any exemptions at all and the anti-vaxers would have to endure both the physical and fiscal consequences of their actions. Instead now all we have is anti-vaxers wasting the time of doctors in order to get them to sign a form so they can then reclaim the money that they shouldn’t be entitled to and that makes me incredibly furious.

You see whilst the Australian Vaccination Network might like to think that there’s two sides to the vaccination debate they are in fact clearly wrong. The old pretence of vaccinations causing autism is patently false and anyone pointing to data saying that there have been more cases of autism since their introduction forgets the fact that diagnosing austim spectrum disorders has been an area of scientific investigation ever since it was introduced. Any increase in the condition’s prevalence is far more likely due to the umbrella of ASDs spreading than vaccinations or some other mysterious environmental factor.

Worse still are the proponents who think vaccinations aren’t the best way to develop a healthy immune system and that it can be had through a healthy diet or some other rubbish. Vaccines work because they give your immune system the tools with which to destroy the disease before it can take hold and the only other way to get a similar level of immunity is to catch the disease. For some vaccinated diseases this might not be too bad (chicken pox has only recently had a vaccine developed as the symptoms are very mild for children, however they can be deadly for adults) but for things like small pox, polio and other nasty diseases vaccination is the only safe way to get immunity. There are other diseases for which no immunity develops after you’ve caught it (pertussis or whooping cough) which means you could very well catch the same disease repeated times without strengthening the immune system at all.

I will wholeheartedly defend the parent’s rights to do as they will with their own bodies but the second they start to make decisions about their child’s (and indirectly all other children that interact with them) health then I believe the government has every right to step in and intervene. The fact of the matter is that refusal to vaccinate your child isn’t a decision that affects your child it puts every other child near them at risk. Herd immunity only goes so far and we’ve seen far too many tragic incidents where parents of children who can’t be vaccinated yet (because they’re too young) die because another child would could have been vaccinated wasn’t and then transmitted a fatal infection to them. Not vaccinating your children is a completely selfish decision and I believe the government has every right to punish you for it.

How you can claim to have a concious and object to protecting your child with scientifically proven and tested methods is beyond my comprehension. There is no scientific argument that the anti-vaxer movement can bring forward that supports their view, it’s all based on the emotion of those who believe vaccines are responsible for something that they’re not. I can understand their frustration, I used to work with special needs children and it can be truly heart wrenching at times, and the need to look for a source of blame is incredibly strong. However I can’t condone them blaming vaccines for anything but making their child cry when they get the injection as there’s no evidence to support it and abstaining from them puts their child and all other children around them in serious danger.

Seriously Australia, don’t support this kind of bullshit. It’s our kids who will pay the price.

Australia is Too Focused on The Boats.

You know why I typically avoid posting about the political issue du jour? Mostly because it angries up my blood but also because it seems that the Australian public’s opinion on most matters is so woefully uninformed that I feel like an angry rant about it on my blog really won’t do anything to help the cause. Of course some issues get enough attention that I feel warranted in straying from my usual cool educative demeanor and instead zip up my flame suit and get ready to unload some napalm on my unsuspecting readers. I know that I’m preaching to the choir for the most part but there are some things that I feel just need to be said.

So as any Australian can tell you the hot button issue right now is the current debate raging over asylum seeker reform triggered by the deaths of 100 people aboard a boat off the coast of Christmas Island. “The Boats”, as the Australian media loves to refer them as, are always something of a topic of contention in Australia with one side furious about the way these people are arriving and the other side equally as angry about the way we treat said arrivals. Whilst I hesitate from making general accusations about how Australians tend to be xenophobic (I certainly have tons of anecdotal evidence to support that, but I digress) it does seem the idea of people coming to Australia via boat is found offensive by no small part of the Australian public and therein is where all the drama originates.

Now before I get into the slightly less ranty section of this post let me give you my opinion as it stood prior to me doing the research for this. I personally don’t have any good answers for what a perfect solution would be as an open door policy isn’t a great idea but neither is the strict mandatory detention and offshore processing arrangement we have right now. I feel that this should be a minor issue, something that’s completely under the purview of the government and should not be receiving so much attention. Whilst I don’t know the exact percentage of refugees and migrants coming to Australia via boats I know it vastly dwarfs that of other migrants who come here on real visas and that’s the reason why I can never understand why people go so ballistic when we find another boat coming to Australia.

I think people would do well to read the Lowy Institute’s report on Responding to Boat Arrivals as there’s a lot of information in there that will make people think twice about their stance on the boats. It’s quite lengthy though so I’ll summarize the more important points.

Firstly the acceptance rate for people arriving by boats when compared to that arriving through official channels is much,  much higher. What this means is that the vast majority of people arriving by boat are in fact refugees seeking asylum and the others, the ones who most Australian’s coming in “legitimately”, are more than likely not refugees. This supports my view that we’re far too focused on the wrong kind of immigration, if we should be focused on it at all (hint: we shouldn’t be, at least not in a negative sense).

Probably the major point though is that of the two types of factors that see asylum seekers come to our shores, pull (ones that draw them here) and push (ones that force them out of their country of residence), the push factors are far more influential in someone making the decision to come here. This also explains why Australia saw an increase in refugees when the rest of the world didn’t as the vast majority of our refugees come from 2 countries and the push factors in those areas escalated substantially at the same time (the ongoing war and dire human rights situation in Afghanistan are primarily responsible for this.).

In fact the most profound part of the Lowy Institute’s report are the reasons why Australia is attractive to asylum seekers. It’s not because of our “soft” asylum policies or anything like that, no it’s more to do with the fact that we’re a prosperous, democratic and fair place to live. Indeed should we want to make Australia unattractive to refugees the real way of doing it would be to abandon those qualities rather than “getting tougher on boat people”. Of course no one in Australia would support that idea which demonstrates why there really doesn’t need to be this much hype about asylum seekers in the first place.

I know that this isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind nor make the impact I would hope it to but I really couldn’t let my views go without a voice any longer. If you’ve been reading this and nodding along I’d urge you to educate people on the realities of the situation so that hopefully they won’t react in an irrational way because they don’t know the full story on asylum seekers arriving by boats. I don’t pretend to have an ultimate solution for all this but I’ll be damned if a better one couldn’t be found if this issue wasn’t used as a political punching bag for both sides to score points for the up coming election.