If you’re of voting age then you’re likely aware of the rhetoric that surrounds our two major political parties. Typically Labor is cast as a party that favours spending with the Liberals being more conservative (and usually “more responsible”). These stereotypes aren’t without merit however as the previous incarnations of both governments ran very close to those lines although the global circumstances in which both of them existed were radically different. Indeed the reason why Australia was one of the few developed countries to avoid a recession during the Global Financial Crisis and the follow Eurozone Crisis was due to the stimulus programs they engaged. However Australians, for one reason or another, seem to prefer our government run a surplus whenever possible and last night’s budget is setting them up for just that.
Hockey and Abbott had been priming us for bad news since talk of the budget first started circulating, noting that we’d all have to pay our fair share in order to correct the “budget emergency”. The line items in the budget show pretty much everyone losing out (with a few notable exceptions including high income earners, private sector business and mining) so the rumors were well founded. You’d be hard pressed to find any regular Australian that was happy with the budget but the consensus from the wider press seems to be that it’s economically sound and will eventually lead us to surplus. As you can probably guess I’m not a fan of it myself as it feels like getting to a surplus, mostly through cutting expenditure, is only being done for the sake of having a surplus.
Australia’s budget isn’t like your home budget where running a deficit for a couple years would likely see you sink into financial ruin. As long as a government is able to make repayments on its debt and is sensible about deficit spending it’s typically not an issue. Indeed when compared to the rest of the world Australia’s debt to GDP ratio is extremely low, well below that of many other countries (including Germany) that are considered fiscally responsible. Thus the talk of a “budget emergency” is built upon a base of incorrect assumptions, ones which have resulted in a budget that hits everyone and hits those hardest who are least able to afford it.
In all honesty it seems like a long term play, one that the current government can take some political pain on now so that when the next election rolls around they can point to the budget and say “Look at this magnificent surplus”. Sure the current projections don’t have that happening for 4 years but this is the first budget of 3 and there’s the real possibility that the next budget will be in the same vein. That is what worries me as whilst running a surplus sounds good the cuts made to get to it are likely to be far more destructive than the small amount of debt required to maintain them.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out with the wider public as this was what the majority of Australians wanted but I’m sure many of them did not expect it to come and slap them in the face like this. The true test will be to see if the political pain is only short term as I believe that’s what the Liberal’s current strategy is betting upon. Abbott is already having a tough enough time as it is with people quickly realising he’s great in opposition but not so in power. Still the Australian public seems to have a short memory and a shiny surplus in 3 years might be enough to convince everyone of the Liberal’s economic credentials (and not the lack thereof).
It seems you can’t go a week without reading at least one article about how us Australians are filthy pirates, depriving the poor rights holders of their hard earned dollars. Whilst the coverage has become a lot more balanced in recent times, mostly thanks to the support of some of the higher up execs in places like HBO, it still seems that Australia’s political landscape is tilted in the wrong direction. For the most part it’s all been postering and bluster but recent statements from our new attorney-general have brought the possibility of draconian and ineffectual piracy control schemes closer to reality. Indeed it seems that rather than tackle the root cause of the issue, I.E. providing a service that’s competitive with what the pirates provide, rights holders are still only interested in protecting their out-dated business models.
George Brandis recently announced that the government would be looking to bring in anti-piracy policies as early as this week which, predictably, sparked outrage among the wider Internet community. The potential policies are the usual suspects we’ve seen bandied about in other countries, things like three strikes laws, taking down sites linking to infringing material and outright blocking larger “infringement enabling” websites. The issues with all these systems are well known and all of them have proved to be vastly ineffective in curbing the amount of piracy that occurs. Worst still Brandis’ rhetoric on the matter shows a complete lack of understanding of the issue at hand: Australian’s don’t have access to a viable alternative. Whilst I’m sure none of his policies will make it through the senate I do worry about people in his position of power making decisions without considering both sides of the piracy equation.
It’s been shown that some of the worst pirates are also the ones spending the most money on content showing that it’s not an issue with wanting something for free. The primary motivator for many pirates is convenience and in this case the legitimate alternative falls far short of what the alternatives provide. You don’t have to look far for evidence of this, just take Steam which has converted many a pirate into paying customers in regions that were once considered impossible to turn a profit in. Piracy rates in Australia will remain high until a solid competitor appears in this space as every entry thus far has proved to be much less than ideal. It’s not like there’s a technical limitation preventing this either, you can use a DNS service to get around the blocking many of the services use, it all comes down to the rights holder’s desire to not change their business model for the digital age.
Indeed the measures proposed are reflective of that stance as whilst they might have worked in the past (shutting down a bootleg CD seller pretty much guarantees that source is gone) they simply don’t function in the Internet age. Blocking websites, no matter what level you do it at, is an incredibly easy thing to work around, so much so that there’s browser extensions to do it for you. With most of those sites not being hosted in Australia the power for Australian ISPs to do anything about them is limited and even then most of them are seconds away from being replicated somewhere else. The Three Strikes style laws are by far the worst as they’re open to wide abuse, usually without little recourse. Whilst this does open up the opportunity for some fun shenanigans (it wouldn’t take much to get every politicians Internet taken down) it’s far better for them to not exist in the first place.
Undoubtedly this situation has arisen due to Australia’s odd place in the world. We’re a remote, affluent country that has a hunger for everything our other western counterparts do. However that remoteness means that companies are, for one reason or another, not interested in bringing their business here or, if they do, it is done at an exorbitant premium. Once rights holders realise that we’ll switch to their services in a heartbeat if they’re reasonably priced and widely available you’ll see the piracy rates of Australia plummet. Until then though all this political posturing will do no one any good and Australia will remain the nation of pirates.
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.
For 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.
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.
Yesterday 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.
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.
In 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.