All posts by Phil Dye

Media as business: In defence of Fairfax

As Australia’s journalism depth becomes ever shallower with the sacking of 150 Fairfax journalists, the big question to ask ourselves amid all this argy-bargy is “What on earth did we expect?”

The entire Fairfax focus is not on ensuring you and I have are informed and educated Australians; that in many ways is the role of the ABC. The entire Fairfax stable including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Financial Review and 2UE, is essentially media as business. Like any business, its primary mission is to make profits for shareholders…the dominant one being John B Fairfax himself.

This is a markedly different role to that of the ABC whose role it is to educate, inform and entertain in a way relevant to the broad spectrum of Australians. If a similar cost cutting occurred at the ABC we should and would be upset. Yet if a similar cost cutting occurred at Ernst & Young or perhaps Coles Myer would we be as concerned? Not on your life.

The emotional lynchpin in all of this is that The Herald, as one of Australia’s first newspapers, has a social responsibility to bring us ‘quality’ investigative journalism not stifled by  a lack of resources or the need for profit. What rubbish! The Herald is no more a social service than Pizza Hut or McDonalds. It exists to make money, and if we want ‘quality’ we may have to look elsewhere.

This ‘responsibility for quality’ we hear bandied about is the responsibility of the individual journalist, not of the media entity that presents itself as business. While it has been the case that Fairfax employed journalists who maintained ethical and responsible levels of journalism to bring us a ‘quality’ product, there was no guarantee this would continue. In the world of slipping media profits and greater competition from web-based media, there is no way that the Fairfax business could maintain its old-world standards in the face of real-world profit decline.

The truth is that Fairfax missed the boat when it failed to snap up online media products over the last 10 years. A greater online presence in its stable may well have provided the buffer it needed to maintain quality broadsheets like the Herald or the Age.  In the wake of poor past leadership, its flagship products,  the ones that bleed most money, need to be realigned. Like it or not, that would be the decision that any modern management team, a team that leads a business, not a social service, would make.

Most media watchers have known for some time that Fairfax has been piling money into its online entities like Domain, RSVP or at the expense of its old-world broadsheets. A simple look at the Herald website shows a dumbing-down of intelligent discussion and a rise in celebrity-driven guff. In the world of business, this shallow ‘fast-food-journalism’ clearly makes more money than the serious stuff we used to digest.  Sad but true.

So should we be horrified at the sacking of Fairfax staff? No. Media as business has the right to do what it likes. The real reason for our horror, and a reason that should shake us all to the core, is that as our flagship quality broadsheets make their initial slide into mediocrity, we have nothing left to fill the void.

Ode to Colin: Suckling on the tabloid teat

Australia, and in particular Sydney, has witnessed a fascinating human spectacle this week. While the rest of the world has been obsessed by the performance of the Jamaicans in Beijing, we’ve been preoccupied with the health and eventual death of a humpback whale calf named ‘Colin’.

Now Colin (AKA Collette; a closer examination revealed he was actually ‘she’) had somehow become orphaned and was snuggling up to large boats in a stretch of water we call ‘Pittwater’. Supposedly a highly intelligent animal, this small humpback thought one of these boats maybe his mother. As he became increasingly hungry, he became increasingly snugly in trying to suckle whatever piece of racing yachtware he could find.

While this piece of animal delusion was interesting in itself, what was even more interesting was the vast array of whackos that came out of the woodwork as ‘experts’ or ‘friends’ of Colin. Odd-bods from all over Australia were putting in their bit, getting their faces on commercial news condemning authorities for “not doing enough to fix this dreadful tragedy”.

There were whale whisperers, whale chefs (who thought they had the ideal recipe for whale milk), Aboriginal whale callers and whale psychologists all thinking they had the answer. They all believed they knew better than the scientists who concluded that euthanasia was the best and only course of action. Sad but necessary.

What was even sadder was that commercial broadcasters gave these over emotional do-gooders airtime. People whose sole connection with animal health was possibly the ownership of some Skippy videos or a statue of a dolphin, were given the same airtime as our Parks and Wildlife professionals.

Yet the whole shebang doesn’t end with the fast and assisted death of Colin. There are now some in Sydney who are lobbying for a memorial to Colin…a statue or fountain that would help us remember his (her) trials. Oh dear.

In a week where we’ve witnessed the pinnacle of sports achievement at the Beijing Olympic games, the tragic death of hundreds in a Span-Air plane crash, and TV images of tanks rolling through the towns and villages of Georgia, the death of Colin is a very unimportant bleep on our evolutionary and historical radar. In the big picture, the death of any living thing – human, whale or chicken – is minor. Life isn’t always fair, cute or important.

As the ill-considered blatherings of a few become newsworthy, our myopic view of what really is ‘news’ funnels even more into something parochial and inane. Our increasingly irritating tabloid news becomes fixated on individual teardrops rather than national or world ones.

Yet there’s an even greater concern. By raising the insignificant to something worthy of prolonged media attention, we somehow dilute and devalue the truly significant. While a focus on the small issues maybe benign, a lack of focus on the substantial issues of our world creates a malignant state indeed.  It’s a state that higher mammals like humans – and whales – can do without.

Finding Community: A Christmas or anytime wish

This piece was published in the Melbourne Age in December 2001

Ask anyone what is missing in 21st century life this Christmas and the chances are pretty high that the word ‘community’ will be listed somewhere. Sure, they’ll list the detail like time with the kids and wooden toys, but I’ll bet that somewhere in the top 10 will be that romantic notion of a ‘sense of community’.

Whereas the word ‘community’ once meant a township, or place, ‘community’ is now some ‘feeling’ we long for, and if we can only find this ‘feeling’ the empty hole in our psyche will be filled.

So where if anywhere has our sense of community gone? Many believe it went west with the advent of globalisation or the introduction of internet communities. Others lean towards the work v’s community theory; that the more we work, the less time we have for building a nourishing sense of community.

I don’t subscribe to any of those theories. Many young people talk glowingly of their strong communities formed online. Long, hard work has been around for eons. For many traditional cultures, hard work is so enmeshed with family and indeed survival that our current privilege of separating work and home life doesn’t’ exist.

A more likely answer to our waning sense of community stems from our current fixation with it. I’m convinced that as we become more and more obsessed with finding our lost sense of community, we actually lessen our chances of ever finding it.

Several years ago I joined a commune in order to establish a sense of place. The same motive drove the other participants, and for a while all went well in our consciously created, manufactured community.

But ultimately, our ‘boy band’ of middle class social existence began to crumble. We learnt that trying to consciously create a basic building block of human existence without at least some degree of natural cohesion was disastrous. Our attempt at mapping and manipulating the community genome failed. While we could plan our careers, our holidays and our finances, we simply couldn’t plan and create the thing we desired most.

Yet in our totally planned and timetabled lives, it’s hard to believe that there are just some things that can’t be obtained through conscious endeavor. We tend to believe there must be a formula for everything. If we learn about money we’ll be rich. If we work hard at marriage we’ll live happily ever after. If we learn the secrets of happy children our kids will lead trouble free lives. Bollocks!

Some things in life tend to happen with very little conscious effort. Falling in love is one of them, and like finding love, community will probably be found where and when we least expect it.

So how do we suddenly stop the search and gather the faith to rely on a happy accident to fill our community vacuum?

Perhaps the best message is to simply forget about it all together. Wipe the phrase ‘sense of community’ from the vocabulary completely.  If we go to church, go to worship God as the only reason. If we buy real estate, buy it because we like the house, not because the agent flogs the ‘community’ angle. Shop, sing more, walk the dog and dig the garden. Eat heartily with friends and family this Christmas. Have a drink or two…just don’t even think about community.

It may be then that this Christmas, we’ll find our lost ‘sense of community’ in the nooks and crannies of our existing ordinary lives; in a space we’ve been all along; in a space we were too busy searching for to find.

When giving isn’t giving

This piece appeared in the Melbourne Age in January 2004

I’ve just had my worst ever day of shopping and it had absolutely nothing to do with the annual post-Christmas sales. The crowds were fine, I managed to find a car park in less than 10 minutes and I even remembered my green carry bag so I wouldn’t destroy the environment.

No, my shocker experience was linked to something far deeper and more troublesome than crowds or parking. The sole cause of my daeus-horribillus was that creeping mug of a Christmas present – the gift voucher.

While there’s no formal research on the emerging popularity of the gift voucher, my highly academic questioning of three shop assistants revealed that this Christmas was, as one put it “a voucher boom Christmas.” In our hectic, self-absorbed world, the voucher makes perfect sense.

Now I don’t know how many others received these pretty bits of cardboard or plastic but I’ll bet you would number in the thousands or even hundreds of thousands. You know the ones, they usually have a line that says ‘From’ where the friend or relative nicely prints their name followed by a “To” where your name appears. Underneath that is a dollar amount that firmly fixes your value to the said relative or friend. I’d guess some vouchers have three figures or even four. Mine only had two, and I received three of ‘em. They were all for the same amount and all from relatives. For a while I was pleased that I’d managed to be consistent in my dealings with family. That feeling didn’t last long.

For what a voucher effectively does is put the effort of gift decision-making and purchase firmly back on the head of the receiver. Rather than taking time and effort to search for the right gift for the right person, the voucher buyer simply says ‘stuff it, I’m not gonna battle these Christmas crowds and search for a gift that shows I’m really thinking of ‘em, I’ll just buy ‘em some credit and they can do the work.” The buyers are actually thinking of themselves!

Now I know I’m male and not that much into shopping. I know going to a mall doesn’t thrill me much, and yes, I’ll admit it, I’ve also been guilty of buying gift vouchers. This Christmas I gave two. Yet my guess is that even the most ardent shoppers go through some anxiety when doing their inevitable voucher ‘dumping’.

My 10 year-old daughter is into shopping big time. She mainly hunts for earrings and clothes, yet is also into shoes, cosmetics and anything else she’s not allowed to buy with her pocket money. As she also had a voucher from a popular CD outlet to ‘dump’ and as she usually has no trouble making decisions, I thought I’d take her along.

We went to the popular CD outlet first. I thought a bit of solid 10 year-old decision making with swift purchase would set us off on the right foot. I was wrong. After 30 minutes browsing the racks I realised she really only knew two acts and both Shania and Missy were delivered by Santa. Faced with 40 thousand CDs and DVDs she went into buyer shock and was frozen by too much choice. I knew how she felt as I go through the same thing every time I go to the video-hire store. I’d rather they gave me a list of five and made me choose from them.

I then made the most crazy business deal I’ve made in 2004. “Would you like me to give you the $30 cash and I’ll use the voucher when I want to buy a CD?” Her decision was instant and now I’ll have to go back to the mall to dump the voucher at some other time. Stupid, stupid, stupid!

We then went to the bookstore to dump two of my vouchers and where I experienced the same decision anxiety as my daughter. Faced with millions of titles, I was bamboozled by choice. There was nothing I particularly wanted and ended up getting some books ‘on sale’ I had only remotely heard about and that added up to my personal two-digit value.

Our final voucher dump was at a large department store where I was determined to buy a new tie. Now I haven’t shopped for ties in years as ‘significant others’ have always given them as gifts. I have no idea what’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out’ so using the video store idea I collected five reasonable ties in order to narrow down the field. I thought each tie would easily fit my voucher value and was stunned to discover that even at the sales, each tie was worth more than double the value one family member had put on me.

My daughter then came over with a tie she said was really cool. She had recently finished a geometry unit at school and the tie was covered in angular shapes. She pointed out a parallelogram. The best thing though, was that the tie fitted my voucher value. I now own the tie.

Giving a gift means caring about someone. It involves knowing what they like and taking the time to find the gift that will in some way add to their life, or at least not diminish it. My new-year resolution then, is to avoid the gift voucher completely during 2005. As hard as it may be in our fast-paced, news hardened world, I’m going to try to find the time and energy to choose meaningful gifts that are symbols of care, rather than symbols of my own self-focused busy-ness. By doing so, the ritual of gift giving for me at least, will hold so much more.

The new battle for Gallipoli

This piece first appeared in the Melbourne Age in April 2005

Anzac Day is over for another year, and this year for the first time, we’ve been sobered not by the ritual of what the day represents, but by the specter of what the day could become.

This year we’ve seen TV footage of the tons of rubbish left on the hillsides…rubbish left by Australian patriots with a hunger for fast food and a reluctance to take their rubbish with them. We’ve seen images of the enormous video screens used to bombard the crowd with hits by the Bee Gees, James Taylor (what has HE got to do with Anzac Day?) and Eric Clapton (likewise!).

Canada’s ‘National Post’ on Tuesday described the Gallipoli crowd as ‘young people who spent much of the weekend drinking and partying at a camp out near the site of Australia’s most significant losses of the First World War’. They went on to label the event as a ‘piss-up that rivaled any major concert weekend.’ Isn’t it great to see a leading overseas newspaper describe the event in such glowing terms?

Closer to home the supermarket shelves have been chockers with a dazzling variety of Anzac biscuits. No doubt Woolies and Coles did very nicely out of that thank you. We have Anzac footy games, Anzac flags and a burgeoning Anzac paraphernalia market that will soon rival that of Valentines Day. The Australian Ebay site is currently offering ‘Huge deals on Anzac products” Why, there’s even ‘Anzac Day flag style umbrellas with free post for $19.99’. Bargain!

Our television channels dedicated umpteen hours of highly paid commercial airtime to Anzac Day. The fact that the time delay meant we could actually watch the Dawn Service without getting up at dawn was a marketer’s delight. TV advertising types will be examining the ratings figures closely to tweak next year’s broadcast. Perhaps the March could be cut just a bit shorter so we could get a panel discussion thingy in prior to the actual service. Perhaps there could be an Anzac Eve Service as well and maybe a sponsored pre-dawn sound and light show could stretch the coverage a little.

I even heard people wishing one another a ‘happy Anzac Day’. Why then can’t we have Anzac Day cards that we give to friends and loved ones? Brilliant!

The new battle of Gallipoli lies not with some road going too deeply into a hillside or a car park being built too close to a battlefield. The new battle lies in the probable commercialisation of a significant date that needs no hype and no spectacle to pull the heartstrings of those who care. The new soldiers will be those like RSL Victoria Chief Executive John Deighton who was disgusted at the “lack of respect” shown by attendees at the Gallipoli service. They will be fighting not only the media types who see live coverage of the event as an enormously profitable advertising vehicle, but the myriad of event organisers, promotion marketers and entrepreneurs who see the world as simply a marketplace.

No matter how badly it may sit with business, the world is more than just a shop. It is a children’s playground, a concert stage, a hospital, a game of hopscotch, a school and a garden. It is many things that don’t necessarily revolve around consumerism, advertising and hype. Anzac Day is also one of these things. A day when simplicity and silence can paint a far more memorable picture than any Bee Gees film clip or televised spectacle.

This whole concept is anathema to marketers around the world, yet lets hope that somehow, common sense can prevail and Anzac Day will be spared from the galloping madness of contemporary consumerism.


What can a billion buy?

This piece first appeared in the Melbourne Age in September 2004

The message from big business during the current reporting season is clear. We’re doing very well thank you! The past quarter has seen record profits from Newcrest, Woolworths, Rio Tinto, IAG and Pacific Brands to name just a few. These aren’t just profits in the millions, but profits rated in the billions. Rio’s last profit registered 1.4 billion. BHP Billiton’s was 7.6 billion. Now that’s a big number. I previously thought a billion was only a number astronomers used, yet a billion is actually a thousand million.  I know because I looked it up.

Yet these figures represent only a third of the much-discussed ‘triple bottom line’ now expected from big business. The triple bottom line involves reporting not only on financial matters, but environmental and social factors as well. The recently published Corporate Responsibility Index (The Age, August 28) rated companies according to a number of criteria including corporate values and community involvement. It was a terrific start in assessing big business on more than just financial performance.

Yet Australian business is slow when it comes to thinking beyond the dollar bottom line. Community partnerships, the concept that big businesses can band together to support initiatives that advance society is far more popular in the USA and Britain. The Levi Strauss Company recently pioneered the Community Investment Team (CIT) approach, where over 100 CITs around the world identify and invest in worthwhile projects.

The London Benchmarking Group is another. This is an association of unrelated businesses that donate to specific need areas. Companies such as BP, IBM UK, Marks & Spencer and Whitbread view social investment as a business obligation, and see no need to ‘own’ the investment as a brand recognition or PR tool. The linking together of businesses to foster social development may provide some marketing leverage, yet it’s the power of joint investment that’s more important. In this way, massive investment from a group of companies can be made towards society, and massive results benchmarked. It’s really quite simple.

In Australia, the areas of social concern have always been education and healthcare. The robust argument lately has centred more on education, and specifically federal government funding to the private school system. There’s either rage over the perceived neglect of the public system or rage over the possible withdrawal of funds from private schools. There’s also an enormous chasm when it comes to educational resources across both sectors. Not every private school is well resourced, while not every public school is broke.

Yet what if our big end of town took the lead from some other countries and saw education not only as the responsibility of government and individuals, but of the corporate sector as well…and I don’t mean the corporate takeover of our schools by Krispy Crème or Macdonalds!

An Australian equivalent of the London Benchmarking Group may consist of companies like Rio Tinto, Woolworths, BHP Billiton and IAG. Lets call them the ‘Aussie Helpers’ just for fun. These ‘Helpers’ may identify a few specific issues that need to be addressed during a year, and may decide that 5% of their total net yearly profit is all they can afford. They may argue that they already give to other charities, the arts, sports and community events so 5% is reasonable. Fair enough.

If 5% of net profit came from these four companies alone a total of 512.6 million dollars could be dedicated to particular issues over the year.

Then let’s say they decided to allocate just half of this towards the public and private education of Australians. Let’s call this the ‘Aussie Helper Education Fund’…a fund with 256 million dollars. If my research is correct, this is more than the total public works budget for Victoria’s schools in 2004.

Their advisors may nominate 150 public schools and 50 private schools that really need a hand across the country. Some may only get enough to build a new classroom. Others may get an assembly hall, specialist teachers or new heaters. Two and a half million among 200 schools buys a lot of resources.

Now if the top 30 companies in Australia gave 2.5% of net profit, we would see such a dramatic balancing in our education resources that the great private/public school divide would no longer be an issue. Imagine!

I can hear the cries of ‘red under the bed’ now. Yet doesn’t it seem a little odd that in the days of record profits from the big end of town, we are still experiencing an enormous chasm in the educational resources available to our children? Perhaps with just a little cooperation from our corporate champions we could not just narrow the divide, but fill it completely. By doing so, these champions would add substantially to their triple bottom line at a time when Australians are suddenly realizing the true meaning of billion…a potentially dangerous piece of learning.

2016: Sex crimes & Castration

This is an updated version of the piece that first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in August 2005. In 2016, nothing has changed and sex-crime perpetrators continue to re-offend.

In 2000, Bilal and Mohammed Skaf were sentenced to a total of 79 years jail for their part in a horrifying series of gang rapes in Sydney’s western suburbs. Even with their collective 79 years imprisonment, the youngest of the Skaf brothers was nearly released in 2013. Thankfully rational law won out. The victims, who undoubtedly knew their rapists’ possible release dates all too well, would have been horrified.

In our search for a just and appropriate punishment for crimes such as domestic sexual assault, rape or child sexual abuse , we’ve opted to take the easy option. Our penal system is a system where ‘rehabilitation’ revolves around psychological counseling and where repeat offense is not unusual, but horribly common. The touchy-feely approach isn’t working.

Its time therefore to look at a different punishment and rehabilitation formula; one that will create a sense of security for the victims and a sense of security for a community obviously alert to the horror of sex crimes. We also need a formula that aims for a more tolerable after-prison experience for the perpetrators – not one dominated by public hate and lifelong humiliation.

Castration is currently the sex-crime punishment in several US states and is used as a treatment for repeat sex offenders in many European countries. The actual form of castration varies from chemical castration, where the perpetrator needs monthly injections, to surgical castration which involves removal of the testicles. In women, removal of the ovaries, uterus and possibly clitoris may be necessary.

Whatever the form, castration is a proven method of reducing not only the offender’s sexual urges, but the hormone influenced aggressive traits that produce the violent sex crimes we’ve increasingly seen in Australia. It’s clear from the statistics that violent sexual abuse is more likely committed by men.

A German study compared 100 surgically castrated sex offenders and 35 non-castrated sex offenders ten years after their release back into the community. The repeat sex-crime rate of castrated offenders was 3%, while the repeat crime rate for non-castrated offenders was an astonishing 46%. Other studies from Denmark and the Czech Republic  reveal similar results. The Danish study revealed that the few repeat sex-crimes by castrated offenders were all non-aggressive and non-violent.

In 2016 Alabama, legislation is currently being debated where perpetrators of sex crimes that target children are surgically castrated.  This would apply to both men and women. According to The Huffington Post, “The punishment would apply to both male and female offenders who at the age of 21 or older sexually victimized children age 12 or younger.” While the actual legislation is likely to be tempered, Alabama won’t stand alone in introducing surgical castration for both men and women who commit crimes against children.

There will no doubt be a cry from civil libertarians that castration in any form is barbaric and not a punishment suited to a civilized and democratic society like Australia. I would urge these individuals to also consider if giving the perpetrators a post-prison life of public hate, humiliation and harrasment is civilised. In the USA, it isn’t uncommon for sex offenders to undergo voluntary castration, knowing that they are often the mercy of urges that are virtually impossible to control. They also realise a life out of prison is far preferable to a life inside. Child-Sexual-Abuse-Lawyer-Attorney

A true civilized society sees the sociopathic behaviour of the rapist or child sexual abuser as a condition that must be dealt with on both psychological and physiological levels. Our current fixation with prison-based, touchy-feely psychological rehabilitation programs is not only costly, but clearly not providing either the victims, or the community with any sense of continued security.

A sense of security for the victims above all else is what we should be aiming for. Knowing that the perpetrator is unlikely to commit the same sort of crime on release, and be largely incapable of doing so, would give some degree of security to those who have surely suffered enough.

In 2016 we continue to hear of child sexual abuse  cases occurring over years in church operated schools and institutions. We hear of dance studios, scouting groups and even defense organisations tolerating sexual abuse. As the number of repeat offenders grows, it’s time to look at a punishment that fits the crime. While it may be inhumane to some, castration will act as a deterrent and a punishment; a punishment that will create community security and give some sense of relief to the perpetrators of these crimes.

The voice of sport?

This piece first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in July 2005

Attention professional sportsmen everywhere. Now listen up lads. I understand that after a few beers post-game you may get a bit testy and feel like a rumble with someone who’s given you some lip. I can understand you getting hot under the collar during a game and having a wild swing at someone just to relieve the tension. I’m even beginning to understand that as 21st century men you find it tempting to send smutty text messages to women you’ve just met or may not have met at all.

The thing that sticks in my craw is something that no one’s mentioned over the past few months, yet is irritating to me and my family. It concerns language, and I know you’ve had enough of academics telling you how to speak and what to say, but this is pretty important.

My 10-year-old daughter and I like to watch the footy on TV occasionally.

Now while she can’t spell “league” or “union” and would probably spell the “Aussie” in Australian Rules Football with an “O”, she can understand when someone mouths the “F”-word clearly on the television.

She won’t ask anything about the umpire’s rulings or the crazy mixed metaphors of the commentators, yet when it comes to that “F”-word, she knows every time one of you screams it out. “Dad, he said that word again!” she says – often. As a matter of fact, we’ve started to keep score to see which team says it most in each game. Sometimes there are more “F”-words than actual points (but that’s usually only in Carlton or Newcastle games).

Now if you were Lleyton Hewitt yelling the same word at the Davis Cup you’d be fined a few thousand dollars, lose a point, be reported to the match referee and even be disqualified if you kept it up. If you were the member of any Olympic team you’d be sent home on the first available plane.

So why do we accept it from you? What gives you the right to openly use the “F”-word in a family viewing timeslot and when there hasn’t been a network warning about “mature, adult content” or “occasional coarse language”?

One reason may be that no one has said anything. Perhaps by being silent we’ve all given our consent for players to swear their heads off. Yet perhaps all that should change.

If we have put the off-field behaviour of players under the microscope over the past year, it’s time to do the same to their on-field behaviour.

Players’ language during a game can be just as detrimental to their code and just as influential on the thousands of youngsters who hang on their every word. As the football finals approach, it may pay our sporting heroes to realise that someone is keeping tabs on more than just the game score.

Time for business to act

There’s a particular tenet of democracies that is so basic, we often tend to forget about it. Its basic premise is that any organisation, big or small, survives only by public consent. Now this concept doesn’t exist in a non-democratic society because in reality, those government systems don’t give a damn whether the public consents to something or not. In a democracy such as ours however, the notion of consent is paramount for the survival of the system.

In Australia as in all democracies, we give consent through many different means. Because of the consumerist nature of democracies, the dominant way we give consent is by buying. Yes, every time we buy something from Myer, Macdonalds or Macquarie Centre, we implicitly give consent for that business to keep functioning. Without our combined dollars, they would crash, and it’s only by consumer consent that our major businesses survive.

Another way we give consent is by voting. Every three years or so, we vote for the government of our choice. We either give consent for it to keep going, or shift consent and give another party a go. Simple.

Yet there’s two very large differences between consuming and voting. Besides us not having to pay to vote, it’s also true that we only get the chance to give or shift our consent every three years. The last possible date for the next Federal election is January 19, 2008. In anyone’s language, that’s a long time between drinks. Much can happen in three years, and without a means of withdrawing or shifting our consent, we’re pretty well stuck.

Now in ages past, if a society wasn’t happy with government decision making, the people would engage in social action. Burning and looting were common in the industrial era, while protests and strikes were more common toward the end of the 20th century. In 2005 however, the entire concept of social action has become so remote that we seem to have lost the ability to even think about it. It is as if our new-found national wealth has robbed us of any initiative to act in order to improve our already improved lot.

There is no doubt that de-unionising and the societal shift from working-class to professional class has weakened our inclination to act for change. The swift and almost total rise of the white-collar class has meant not only new-found individual wealth, but a work ethic that serves to preserve that wealth at the expense of everyone else. This is the very nature of competition, and in many ways we are all our own personal competitive business nowadays. I’m OK Jack…bugger you!

So what do we do when we suddenly start to understand and detest a government policy that’s been around for yonks…let’s say one like mandatory detention. What do we do when the true nature of the policy starts to sink in? The recent stuff-ups by the government highlighted by the Cornelia Rau and Virginia Leong affairs have made all sorts of people speak out…people who wouldn’t have spoken out before. People like Coalition Government ministers. People like TV personalities. People like you and me.

Yet gee, it’s also just sunk in that we only recently elected our government and if they decide to stick with the status quo like Mr Howard is indicating, we may have this awful policy for years to come! It’s like we’ve been on another planet! What can we do?

We personally can’t do much and to be honest, taking to the streets won’t do a lot of good. It will help show numbers, but won’t really hit the Howard government where it hurts. That can’t happen for another three years at voting time.

But while we as individuals can’t make a meaningful statement now, there is one extremely powerful group in Australian society that can land the Howard government such a body-blow on mandatory detention that it would easily turn policy. This group has increased in power dramatically since the arrival of the Howard Government and is arguably the most powerful sector in Australian society today. It’s also the group that is the quietest on social issues, as if they’re somehow deaf to any debate that doesn’t impact on them specifically. As if they’re somehow uninvolved in the greater community they work in.

The group I’m talking about is the business sector, and particularly the CEOs and directors of our Aussie businesses both big and small. Imagine if you will, that Australian businesses, in a combined show of ‘non-consent’ for the Howard Government policy on mandatory detention, or any damn policy for that matter, decided to actually make their feelings felt. I don’t mean taking to the streets here. I certainly don’t expect Gerry Harvey to pick up a placard or Richard Pratt to go on strike.

I’m talking money here lads, and I’m specifically talking about the considered non-payment of your quarterly ‘ GST payable’ your ‘Pay as you go instalments’ and your ‘Pay as you go withholdings.’ Now to the non-business person, this probably all seems like gobbledygook. Yet business people have now become so accustomed to paying these regular amounts to the government they don’t give it a thought. They especially don’t consider the absolute power they hold in NOT making the payments.

I can feel the quaking of the accountants now. What, refuse to pay our company tax! Preposterous! But listen up lads…it’s easy. I suggest its just a simple matter of writing the words ‘NO Mandatory Detention’ in large letters in black felt pen on a copy of your quarterly BAS statement (I’d use a copy just in case the ATO fines you for desecrating a legal document). Phase one could be simply making the statement. Let’s claim the next BAS due date of July 28 as ‘No mandatory detention day’. Phase two, in the next quarter, involves you not paying a cent and risking a fine.

Of course the government will say they’ll fine you just as Bob Carr in NSW stated that everyone who didn’t pay their train fare on Sydney’s recent ‘No fare’ day would be fined. In the face of such overwhelming public action, he backed down.

What perhaps the bean counters forget is that we, the public, give consent for their businesses to exist. By buying from them, we give permission for them to run their department stores, their factories and their fast-food restaurants. While we may like their products, it’s probably high time we also know where these businesses stand on the important issues in our society. If as individuals we have unconsciously relinquished our power for social action, we now rely on you, our business leaders to do the right thing and sway policy where you can. Where does the NAB’s Chief Executive John Stewart stand on mandatory detention? What is BHP Chief Executive Chip Goodyear’s view on Australia’s presence in Iraq? Does Kerry Packer support the Howard policy on industrial reform? And what lads, are you prepared to do about it?

Perhaps the most overlooked way we give consent in a democratic society is by being silent. If as has been the case, Australia’s business sector continues to remain silent on the important social issues present in our society, we can only assume they agree with policies such as mandatory detention. This being so, it is then up to us as consumers to direct our spending dollars to the business that makes a stand, and takes some action for change.

So accountants, CEOs and directors of small and big businesses everywhere, it’s time to realise there’s more to being in our society than just operating your business. As BAS time approaches, it’s high time you consider how you can act to make Australia a better place to live. Get that felt pen ready.

Beware the sanctions stick

This piece first appeared in The Courier Mail in September 2006

Sanctions are very high on the USA’s agenda lately. Not only are they pushing the United Nations to support sanctions against Iran for their pursuit of a nuclear program, they have just recently announced sanctions against Thailand because their military did what nearly every Thai citizen wanted them to do. As Australia debates whether to go along for the Iran sanctions ride, it’s perhaps time to examine this whole sanction issue more closely.

It would be true to say that the entire idea of sanctions against Iran is losing favour. Russia, China, France and now Norway have stated they would vote against sanctions due to the right of any country to access peaceful nuclear technology. This right to a nuclear future seems even more sensible and indeed necessary when we consider the global warming crisis we inarguably face. With coal-fired power stations being a major contributor to global warming, it’s far more responsible to support a country’s drive towards peaceful nuclear power, than insist the coal-fired status quo be maintained.

The USA’s insistence on a coal fired future for Iran comes from a country that is the largest contributor of greenhouse gases in the world, with its yearly share equalling 24.3% of the total. Iran has long stated that its drive towards nuclear technology is solely for power generating, while the USA (of course) has argued that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Naturally, the USA would be right here. They were right about Iraq’s ‘Weapons of mass destruction’ stash weren’t they? Who could honestly doubt their intelligence now!

Yet just imagine, that just before the UN were to vote on sanctions against Iran, some scallywag country…let’s say France because they’re always taking a contrarian view, proposed sanctions against the USA for their failure to join the Kyoto Protocol and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Can you imagine the quiet on the floor of the UN? Can you imagine the deathly silence as Switzerland or Germany moved to second the proposal?

The average thinking UN Rep, after taking a few deep breaths and a stiff gin from the closest bar, would vote against the proposal. Any country imposing formal trade sanctions against the USA would effectively be shooting themselves in the foot, as the USA would swiftly retaliate with sanctions against them. Anyway, Australia has a free trade agreement with the USA, which means we can’t possibly impose trade sanctions. Trust the French to come up with silly ideas. Sacré bleu!

Yet informal public action, action taken by the populace without government endorsement is not so silly. This type of action against the USA could simply stop at mild first tier boycotts, or extend to the more ugly second tier model. First tier boycotts could involve US origin products like, shoes, software (yep, that includes you Mr Gates), Ipods, sports equipment and even holiday travel. Disneyland beware! These first tier actions wouldn’t negatively affect non-American enterprises to any great extent. Businesses selling USA origin products would simply redirect customers onto other brands. There are alternatives to the Ipod you know!

It’s not like we Australians haven’t done this sort of thing before. I clearly remember a dinner party in 1995, at the height of the Mururoa French nuclear testing crisis, where the host enthusiastically declared that there was nothing French at all on the menu. He even resisted French ingredients and French dressing. Restaurants at the time were advertising proudly on blackboards that there was “No French cheese served here.”

Second tier sanctions would be more painful yet potentially more influential. These would involve the boycotting of local companies with USA ownership including McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Oracle, Caterpillar and Dell. Certainly not the preferred option, this form of boycott would hurt local workers; yet create greater discontent, greater publicity and greater potential for change.

Yet hold on, what if those trickster French included Australia on the sanctions list because of our refusal to sign the Kyoto agreement. After all, we did reject their cheese for a while AND we beat them at rugby. Sacré bleu again!

Before we rush to join the USA in the sanctions push, Australian politicians must consider the repercussions of our own environmental inaction. Sanctions are usually only imposed by the very sure or the very arrogant, and for both American and Australian governments in the lead-up to elections, surety is not something they can easily claim.