The public service:

Rod Holesgrove writes: Re. “The costs and rewards of devolving public service functions”  (Friday, item 1).

Bernard Keane wrote:

“Imagine the Commonwealth handing environmental regulation to Campbell Newman after he has cut several hundred jobs from the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines. Environmental protection, while legislated at the Commonwealth and state level, would be a dead letter due to a dearth of anyone to enforce it.”

Unfortunately, this is not a hypothetical example. As a result of a COAG decision of April 13, the federal Labor government is currently involved in an exercise of handing over to the states and territories, Commonwealth approval powers for national environmental decisions under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The handover is being rushed through to meet a March 2013 completion date. From then on, Campbell Newman and other state/territory leaders will be responsible for decision on most matter of environmental significance, including matters for which the Commonwealth has responsibility under the constitution’s foreign affairs power.

The states and territories will have to pick up the additional costs of handling these new arrangements. But whether this will be effectively carried out is another matter. Bernard’s reference to Newman’s likely action to cut 100s of jobs from the Department of Natural Resources and Mines is no hypothetical example. Anecdotally there are reports resulting from Queensland public sector cuts of a drain of capacity from the state’s environmental assessment area.

The Commonwealth’s agreement in COAG to accept the Business Advisory Forum recommendation on devolution of Commonwealth environmental powers could have even more serious ramifications if Tony Abbott becomes prime minister. Abbott has already come out with an elaboration of the COAG plan, with his proposal for a “one-stop shop” for environmental approvals in Australia. In turn, as reported by Marcus Mannheim in the Canberra Times of August 22, Andrew Robb said that a Coalition government would use the plan as a “model”  to devolve significant aspects of other areas of Commonwealth responsibility, such as health and education to the states.

Unless the federal Labor government changes its approach on national environmental approvals it may end up creating a perfect storm for Commonwealth/state responsibilities.

Stephanie Alexander:

Keith Thomas writes: Re. “The Power Index: Stephanie Alexander, the most powerful person in food” (August 30, item 5).  Stephanie Alexander is to be praised for identifying a problem — indeed a collection of inter-related problems — and for doing something about it.

But has anyone looked into what her program delivers? Apparently, her program aims to change “the way Australian children — and their parents — eat”. Her project has received $5.4 million of taxpayer’s money, so I hope there are some hard performance indicators in there. That is, if the Kitchen Garden Foundation aims to “plant the seeds for a lifetime of positive eating habits and enjoyment of food” is performance against this aim being measured?

For $5.4 million, I would be looking for more of a change than an occasional soup or a salad (or side salad) at school, even if some of the ingredients were produced co-operatively. I’d be looking for a lasting improvement in diet for “children — and their parents”  a year or two after they left Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Foundation program. We all know it’s easy to get a positive reaction with primary school children and we also all know how these same children, as rebellious teenagers a few years later, are likely to question or ignore the lessons they once accepted.

Is there really any carry-over for a “lifetime”? Alexander writes about the kitchen garden in her childhood home and the food preparation her mother did. Many people from her generation had the same experience, but we know that obesity and lifestyle diseases are taking down many of these same people 60 years later, precisely because these experiences were not formative.

And do we know how parents react to the program? I’m not thinking here of a handful of glowing anecdotes concocted by the well-meaning to support a worthy project; I want to know how it’s gone down across the board. Is it not possible that some parents might be resentful that their child comes home from school and begins preaching to them about the take-aways and colas they have some evenings — meals that appear to get the job done and take only a few minutes out of their busy day?

Might not some parents think “If the school doesn’t like what I feed my kids, why don’t they talk to me, rather than setting my child up to pester me into changing my ways? Don’t they realise my day is busy enough as it is?”

Perhaps Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Foundation program addresses these questions, but the Crikey article did not. In fact it was one of the most uncritical pieces of journalism I have ever read from Crikey.

Prince Harry:

Neil Hunt writes: Re. “Wannabe queen consort couchsurfed at Byron before wooing Harry” (Friday, item 13). Since when is Crikey a base gossip mag, with the crud about some girl sleeping on some bloke’s couch for a few days?

Prince Harry is an heir to the UK throne, but he’s highly unlikely to end up on the throne, as both his father — Charles — and older brother — William — are in line before him. Any children that William and Kate have will also be ahead of Harry on the throne (although a decision will need to be made if their first child is female).

Harry’s wife is likely to simply be a duchess, i.e. married to a duke (which is what Harry will probably be raised to once he marries), not a queen consort. The queen consort will be Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, (even though she has decried the title), followed by Kate, Duchess of Cambridge.

The economy:

Patrick Hyslop writes: Re. “‘Hoary economic chestnuts’ doom Australian economy” (August 30, item 17). Bernard Keane’s and Glenn Dyer’s report shows an overly optimistic outlook for Australia. There is ample evidence that Australia’s housing market is in a bubble. A look at economist Steve Keen’s website is a good place to start.

Keane has previously labelled Keen a housing shortage “denier” but I am unsure why this nullifies his clear evidence of a massive private debt bubble (much of it in home loans) which Australia has been growing since probably the 1970s.

Australia is over-reliant on China buying our resources and there are worrying signs that the Chinese steel industry has over capitalised. In relation to Australian banks being somehow fundamentally different from the US and European banks, perhaps the authors have not read about the recent “low docs” scandal? The methods are different but the outcome is the same, predatory lending practices leading to private debt bubbles (in combination with other things, of course).

While Australia’s situation is certainly not as bad as the PIGS countries, the real “deniers” in the story are those that continue to pretend all is well with the Aussie economy.


Joe Boswell writes: Martin Gordon (Friday, comments) calls the loss of the lives of our soldiers “sad,” although he has nothing to say about the far greater loss of other lives in Afghanistan. He calls “the refrains of the critics … tiresome”; so unlike, it seems, 10 years of this war which has led more or less nowhere. He says a Taliban victory will lead to “repression of women and ignorance for girls and undoubted demand for asylum claims eventually,” but gives no reason why continuing the war will change that.He suggests that those who want to end the war are de facto “enthusiasts” for the Taliban and “useful fools,” as Lenin put it. He goes further and calls them “effectively Nazis” because they aid “an enemy.” He does not seem to care that the Taliban is only an enemy while we have our soldiers on Afghan soil. Inexplicably, he stops short of calling for summary justice and public hangings of these Australian Nazi-Commie-Taliban traitors.

This mad urge to interfere in foreign countries, ostensibly for the sake of the people there, has been condemned before.

William Cobbett, MP, 1829:

“Talk of ‘philanthropy’; talk of ‘universal liberty’; talk of ‘civil and religious liberty all over the world’; it is my business, and the business of every Englishman, to take care of England, and England alone … It is not our business to run about the world looking for people to set free; it is our business to look after ourselves and to take care of our country and Sovereign …”

Richard Cobden, MP, from his political writings:

“If it were the province of Great Britain to administer justice to all the people of the earth — in other words, if God has given us, as a nation, the authority and the power, together with the wisdom and the goodness, sufficient to qualify us to deal forth His vengeance — then should we be called upon in this case to rescue the weak from the hands of their spoilers. But do we possess these favoured endowments? Are we armed with the powers of omnipotence: or, on the contrary, can we discover another people rising into strength with a rapidity that threatens inevitably to overshadow us?

“Again, do we find ourselves to possess the virtue and the wisdom essential to the possession of supreme power; or, on the other hand, have we not at our side, in the wrongs of a portion of our own people, a proof that we can justly lay claim to neither? … there is no country where so much is required to be done before the mass of the people become what it is pretended they are, what they ought to be, and what I trust they will yet be, as in England … It is to this spirit of interference with other countries, the wars to which it has led, and the consequent diversion of men’s minds … from home grievances, that we must attribute the unsatisfactory state of the mass of our people.”

Martin Gordon says he would be “interested to hear” solutions, but he does not anticipate “something that will be remotely constructive.” I fear he will not find this constructive, but it is my solution: Leave the poor bloody Afghans alone. There is no reason why even one Australian soldier should suffer so much as a cut finger for the place.

Niall Clugston writes: I agree with Martin Gordon that Australia’s casualties in Afghanistan are not a valid argument against the deployment. Particularly since they are light by any reasonable standard.

However, his counter-argument doesn’t work. The country is still unstable after a decade. The occupation must therefore be prolonged indefinitely. Unless people who never supported the war can offer “solutions”. And anyone who disagrees is pro-Taliban.

He ignores the fact that the long-term American policy on Afghanistan fostered Islamic extremism, instead implying that it’s all been about the rights of women.

Lastly, his historical examples are wrong. Lenin never used the term “useful idiots”, and Orwell initially opposed the war with Hitler (see his essay “Democracy in the British Army“, 1939).

Alan Baird writes: All very well to label those for extracting from Afghanistan as cynics, but does it not occur to the enthusiasts that the calls for the protection of women and democracy from religious fanatics could apply to most of the Middle East.

The participants in the 9/11 outrage came from various bits of the Middle East. We are involved in Iraq and Afghanistan because somebody in the US wanted action, of any sort, and these countries were chosen pretty carelessly. Why hasn’t Saudi Arabia been invaded, for example. What about Pakistan? Just what is so pivotal about Afghanistan?

We will be there until the US departs, for reasons that are every bit as cynical as the extractionists, with more stupid tragedies followed by statements from our “followers” (certainly not leaders) from government and opposition that could be recited in advance by the entire population of Australia. Cynical? You bet!

Global roaming:

Derek Waters writes: Re. “Paul Barry to Stephen Conroy: roam wasn’t built in a day, but fix it”  (Friday, item 11). In response to Paul Barry’s report on Optus global roaming charges (and note that all of the carriers will operate in about the same way on this front), his internet access charges are being applied for anything on his phone that connects to the internet. Pretty much everything on the phone, apart from SMS and making phone calls will be using the internet, including many background tasks that you may not see: checking your email, looking for app updates, iMessage, apps with ads — all will be connecting to the internet.

Basically, if you’re roaming and you have a smartphone, assume that your phone will be connecting to the internet all the time. People of a non-technical background may not realise this, and the carriers certainly don’t help to make it clear.

Most phones should allow you to turn off “data roaming” completely, so you can still use SMS and make calls, but all other network access is disabled.

On iPhone:

  1. Open Settings
  2. Tap General
  3. Tap Network
  4. Slide Data Roaming to off

On Android:

  1. Open Settings
  2. Open Wireless & Networks settings
  3. Tap Mobile Networks
  4. Turn off Data Roaming

Hope that helps some people avoid bill shock!