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.


My Father’s Comb

This piece appeared in the Melbourne Age in January 2003

Of all the paraphernalia that hung around my father’s bedroom thirty years ago, the item I remember most is his comb. It was tortoiseshell, and had an amazing amount of ‘stuff’ wedged between each tooth…just where the teeth met the jaw.

Months of accumulated Bryllcream, ‘Bardsley’s Tonic, dandruff and whatever else had formed a sort of grey sludge that never seemed to shift. My sister and I would look at the comb and marvel. How could anyone use such a thing? Didn’t he ever wash it? Was it alive?

Yet every New Years Day, without fail, the comb would be washed. Dad would perch over the concrete laundry tub with a small nail-brush and scrub the thing. In our childhood memories, the ‘cleansing’ seemed to take the best part of half an hour, yet childhood memories aren’t always accurate.

As we prepare to enter another year, little benchmarks about the past 12 months tend to spring to mind for us all. These are the little memories that help us mark the passage of time. My father’s cleansing of the comb was a benchmark for my sister and I; a pivotal memory we can’t forget. My daughter’s first school play was an enormous benchmark for her this year. My friend talks about his retrenchment as if it was his coming of age; his rite of passage. For another friend, it was her son moving out of home and living with his girlfriend. Little boy no more.

For me, this new year marks the sixth year of my father’s dementia…a disease that not only robs sufferers of their history, but of any small landmarks that helps them distinguish the years, celebrate or lament their passing and prepare them for the coming year. For dementia patients, there are few memories and few benchmarks.

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia generally are on the rise in Australia. The experts tell us that these conditions of old age are expected to rise by up to 250% over the next 40 years. Unfortunately it seems that being able to live longer and possess stronger physical health doesn’t always mean that our mental health will keep pace.

We first noticed dad having trouble driving. The Chrysler Sigma would suffer immensely from having both the accelerator and the brake pedal pushed at the same time. He’d forget to indicate and at one stage, completely forgot where he was going and needed to ask me why we were driving. God knows how many times that happened when he was driving alone.

Then were the fits of anger…anger yelled to the world after years of suppression; anger desperate for a voice. The voices were always inappropriate and misdirected. Sometimes at his wife, sometimes at me, sometimes at my young daughter, sometimes at the garden. On thinking about it, perhaps they were appropriately directed after all. It was the vitriolic expression that shocked us.

After a year it was the constant ticks, the incessant scratching of an imaginary piece of dust or crumb on his clothing. He’d also relate stories about this man or that who’d come through the house the night before. He’d always laugh at their boldness, and he’d always comment on their physical appearance. They were always fat.

Later on, through several bouts of bronchitis and an episode of pneumonia, he lost his ability to walk and talk. He hasn’t spoken for a year now. He sits, head down, dressed in his grey work pants as if he just stepped out of his shift at Grace Bros. His wife, desperate for normality, often props the newspaper on his lap as if he’s reading. Dad looks down for a while and then begins to scratch at the letters. It’s anything but normality.

As 2003 dawns, perhaps it’s time to consider our own benchmarks a little more. To reflect on the important personal events that marked the passing of the last 12 months. To ‘measure out our lives’ while we still can.

Reflection on the pros and cons of the year gives us a template for the next, yet while reflection is important, it’s also the documenting of these benchmarks that is necessary.

The onset of my father’s dementia meant that our family lost an individual’s memory; a resource we all desperately need as we approach curious middle age. This memory contained much of our family story; a story important to us all and a story we’d only dipped into a few times.

Questions my family would now dearly love answered can never be answered. We have some photographs, a few medals, sports awards and our own childhood memories. Yet our story begins at chapter seven, not at chapter one as my father would have told it.

So rather than settling down on New Year’s Day to a good book, it’s perhaps the best time of all to begin our own book; to record even briefly the events and lessons that made 2003 great or disastrous for us as individuals or collectively as families.

The grammar need not be brilliant and the spelling can be lousy. It’s the documentation that’s important; the action of making our memory accessible by all at a time when our memories are still lucid. On thinking about it, perhaps the hangovers of New Year’s Day make it a bad choice for many. Thursday may be a better day to start.

Contemporary fashion has spelt the end of the comb. Its popularity went west with Brylcreme and Bardsley’s tonic. Instead my modern bathroom cabinet boasts a number of brushes…several of my partners and one of mine.

My daughter, who seems to collect brushes and hide them in her bedroom, never touches my tatty thing. My partner avoids touching my brush at all. If she ever does its to put it way below in the cabinet so others can’t see it.

So this New Year, after writing a few lines of the family story, I think I’ll reinstate a 30 year-old benchmark and give my brush a rinse. It may be hidden forever among fluffy toys and tweeny cosmetics, but it will probably make us all very happy.

Why we love Monty!

This piece first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in January 2007 during the Ashes Test between Australia and England.

It is no coincidence that the release of the new film version of ‘Charlotte’s Web’ last month coincided with the exact day that English spinner Monty Panesar bowling his first test delivery on Australian soil. OK, OK, that’s drawing a long bow and the two events clearly aren’t linked, but there’s something very similar in the lovable character of Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web and the man we’d really like to call our own but can’t.

There’s obviously something special about Monty Panesar. Not special in the same way as Shane Warne or Glenn McGrath, but special all the same. The chap in my bottle shop reckons he’s the ‘next big thing’ and a Google search shows 1.7 million pages mentioning the bloke. Day one of the 5th test in Sydney showed parts of the crowd sporting beards and headwear just like Monty. Youtube even contains a song about him. It must be serious.

But what is it about this man that makes even non-cricket followers admire him? Like the character of Wilbur is Charlotte’s Web, Mr Panesar seems the epitome of enthusiastic naivety. Just as Wilbur the pig was left out of the barnyard family for being a ‘runt’, Monty was left out of the first two tests for reasons only the English cricket administration understand. When Wilbur is finally embraced into the barnyard family, all he wants to do is play, and Monty is seemingly the same now he’s been given his chance in the English test team.

Commentators during the third test in Perth were giggling about the fact that he wanted the ball even though it wasn’t his turn to bowl; that even after he’d been hit for 19 runs in the previous over, he was putting his hand up for more. He’d bowl every over in the Sydney test if we’d let him and maybe he should. Bugger the strategy, it’s the passion we love, and Monty is showing a passion and unbridled joy of the game we haven’t seen in a long time.

But what really makes Monty Panesar so popular? A far cry from those fashionable, clean-shaven, sports superstars we see so much of these days, Monty seems the antithesis of fashion. Perhaps it’s the fact he seems oblivious to all the latest trends that make him ‘cool’. He’s clearly his own man. A devout Sikh, Panesar wears the patka (a mini-turban) with a dignity that makes the coiffured hairstyles of millionaire sportsmen like Matt Giteau or David Beckham look silly. Maybe I’m getting old, but I just don’t get this current fixation millionaire sportsmen have with their hair. Give me Monty and his patka anytime.

Yet there’s more to it than his passion, his patka and his facial hair. We live in a world of comparisons, and perhaps it’s the natural comparison we make with our own king of spin that makes him so popular.

Now as cricketers go, Warnie is a genius; there’s no doubting that. Yet in the numerous retirement accolades Warnie has received from the world’s batsmen, it’s his label as the ‘king of sledge’ that’s the biggest worry. As the volume on the Channel Nine stump mike is turned up (not in the live broadcast mind you, but in the pre-recorded, swear-checked ‘G’ rated version), we hear Warnie gabbling in a non-stop sledge to English batsmen. His verbal diarrhoea ranges from their ‘hopeless’ batting style to the size of their bottoms to their hairstyles. It’s amazing his team-mates can focus on the game let alone the batsmen! Like the gabbling of the geese in Charlotte’s Web, it portrays a tiresome arrogance; an arrogance that’s slowly wearing thin with Australian cricket supporters. Sure, it’s great to win; yet to win with integrity and grace is even better. As demonstrated in the Champion’s trophy last year when the head of Indian Cricket was jostled off the winner’s dais by the Australian team, Aussie cricketing grace is sadly lacking.

In Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte the spider tries to save Wilbur from being Christmas ham by writing certain words in her web. It’s not that Wilbur is ‘Terrific’ or ‘Some Pig’ that saves his life. Ultimately it’s the word ‘Humble’ that saves him from the smokehouse.

Here lies the secret of Monty’s popularity. Even in our brash and stylised world of cult celebrity, marketing hype and strategic media-managed sound bites, we still have some innate eye for legitimacy. ‘Humble’ would be too simple a word for a 21st century, university educated, representative cricketer like Mr Panesar, yet in the amazing support he’s generated from the Australian public, there’s clearly some lessons for our own cricketing heroes. A touch of humility could well be one of them.

Sticking up for the Blokes

This piece first appeared in The Melbourne Age in May 2001

It’s happening again! Every year about this time men come in for a bashing. Men’s role as dads, their position in the workplace and their even less secure position in the bedroom are all questioned. As usual, men are blamed for everything, yet this year men should prepare for a few new bruises.

The recent report by the Centre for Labour Research at Adelaide University paints a dire picture of working women and particularly working mothers. According to the report, working mums feel tired and guilty. Their sex lives are up the spout. Their partners are bastards and they feel ‘torn’ between the expectations of good mothering and the need to earn a buck.

According to the Head of the Centre for Labour Research, Dr Barbara Pocock, ‘Women find they can’t be a terrific worker, a wonderful mother and have great sex at night’.Oh dear!

Of course, none of this is their fault, but rather the fault of men who simply haven’t kept up with the trend, who still don’t do any cooking, who still don’t care for children and who seem genetically blind to dust, dirt or anything that needs cleaning.

While no one denies that men and women see dirt differently, the real question that needs to be asked of the thousands of ‘tired and guilty’ women is ‘What on earth did you expect?

For hundreds of years, men have known all too well that giving sweat and blood in the workplace means giving less in the family. Men didn’t like it much, but in order to provide financially for families, it was simply something they had to do.

I remember my dad going off to a cleaning job at 5am, only to finish before his ‘real’ job began at 8.30. He then backed up three nights a week with a night cleaning job as well! I saw him perhaps 10 hours a week if I was lucky. Did he like the idea? Not much, but it paid the mortgage and kept us from that ever threatening bread and dripping.

Until the early 70’s, women accepted (and often enjoyed) being the dominant manager of family affairs because dad was busy turning the wheels of industry. If dad was the chief of business, mum was the chief of the family, and while nowhere near a satisfactory situation, the gender roles were tolerated as parts of a system that limped along.

But let’s get back to the original question. What did women expect when they made that bold foray into the workplace 40 or so years ago?

It’s true that many women saw the lure of work and career as a dangerous new frontier; a frontier that had prevented men’s intimate role in families and that could do the same to them if they didn’t look out.

Yet many others took the “women can have it all” approach to this frontier of work. It was simply another item to be included with the driver’s license, the credit card and the multiple orgasm.

Rather than forging a newer, more realistic model of work, 70’s feminists led the charge headlong onto the male white-collar career treadmill. Shoulder pads to the wheel, this charge held no thought for the sanity of the millions of women who would march after them. Like the followers of Jim Jones, or the victims of the Waco massacre, women have been led into the fire, and not surprisingly, they aren’t happy.

The ‘women can have it all’ ideal must rank alongside such other urban myths as the classless society, the level playing field or successful consensus decision-making. Women can no more ‘have it all’ than men can. There’s a price to pay for work that pays, and while we may not like it, our current workplace structure isn’t likely to change for men or women.

Yet perhaps the most distressing part of Dr Pocock’s report is her belief that ‘While women agonise about what it means to be a proper mother, there is no parallel debate over fathering’.

Oh Dr Pocock, where have you been? I know Adelaide is 10 years behind Melbourne but not even the residents of Manjimup have missed that debate.

The fatherhood business is booming, with books, seminars, government funded research, private research and a thousand ‘experts’ giving their tuppence-worth on fatherhood issues every day of the week.

And according to private research carried out in 1998, most dads hate the thought of having to work harder and longer in order to pay the increasing costs of mortgages, school fees and food bills. Most feel tired and guilty at not being able to give more to their relationships. Most feel torn between the expectations of good fathering and the need to earn a buck.

Not surprisingly, most find they can’t be a terrific worker, a wonderful father and have great sex at night’. Sound familiar?

Lessons from the Mongoose

This article first appeared in ‘My Child’ magazine in 2006

New parents tend to be a fairly blinkered lot. For most of us, our world is so firmly fixed on our beautiful new addition that the outside world doesn’t exist. This outside world strangely enough, is a place where life marches on without talk of nappies, breastfeeding or wind. It contains people who incomprehensibly don’t see our child as the very center of their universe. Good heavens!

Now don’t get me wrong. There’s a very solid reason why new parents are so single-mindedly child-absorbed. Biologically, new parents are programmed to do their best to guarantee the survival of their child and thus the continuation of their genetic stuff. I know it sounds harsh but it’s true. It’s the same with all animals, yet unlike the mongoose or the funnel web, out young are fairly hopeless in the fighting, hunting and gathering departments for several years. They rely on us to ensure they at least get to the hunting and gathering stage in one piece. I suppose we call it love. I don’t know what mongooses call it. Mongoose

Now in this stable, wealthy country of ours, this should be an easy task. We don’t have the threat of saber-toothed tigers, malaria or rat plague to worry about. NSW isn’t in a civil war with Queensland and unlike certain types of monkey we don’t need to guard against cannibal raids from the neighboring troop. So what do we worry about? What do we need to protect out children from so we can put our natural biological urges to good use? There’s gotta be something!

On asking a couple of new mums this question up at my local café, one came up with a frightening response. It was definitely a threat that no other generation of kids would have been exposed to and I’m not talking bird flu or reality TV here. She reckoned that the main concern with many new parents was that dreaded ‘I’ word…Imperfection. Most parents wanted their child to be not only safe from any form of harm, but they’d do just about anything to maximise their child’s chance of winning in the perfection stakes. From pre-school education to fashion to creative play, today’s toddlers have the expectation that ‘middle of the pack’ just isn’t good enough. If little Amy isn’t interested in reading at three there’s a problem. Ug!

Now this made me think. My grandmother was the second in a family of six kids. My grandfather was the fifth of five. If, as the statistics show, parents these days are having less children than their ancestors, then the biological pressure to ensure the survival of our smaller families is far more intense.

Indeed, if we choose to only have one child, then we’d better make pretty damn sure that child is 100% cocooned until they reach the hunting and gathering stage and can fend for themselves. Not only that, we’d better guarantee they are 100% equipped to deal with whatever nasty forces he or she confronts in adulthood or our genetic line is well and truly stuffed!

Perhaps the one way to make sure our smaller ‘flock’ survives is to make them perfect, or at least as perfect as they can be. This would pretty much comply with Darwin’s ‘Survival of the fittest’ theory. If our child looks better than others, is healthier than others, more intelligent than others, wiser than most, consistent in action and in all ways the brightest star in our local sky, then according to the theory, he or she should survive hands down. A no-brainer really.

Wrong! We here in parent-land have forgotten that in trying to make any creature more perfect, we actually put them at greater risk. Think about it for a sec. If as human animals we cocoon our young in blankets of safety and perfection, don’t we in some ways maximise the chance that when a negative force does hit, it will hit a damn sight harder than it would if our young been just that little bit rough around the edges?

Molecular biology tells us that if a cell is exposed to and survives threats in the form of viruses, bacteria and harsh conditions, that cell will be more robust in enduring future similar attacks. Many pediatricians are now urging parents to let their child eat the occasional bit of slime off the floor or be exposed to the cold more often; that doing so makes the child’s immune system robust and able to fend off other nasties when they attack.

My daughter ate a snail once. The frothy stuff coming from the side of her mouth didn’t seem to worry her but it sure as hell worried me. I then discovered seven of the buggers in her pocket ready to be snacked on when the mood took her. While I didn’t endorse her choice of snack food, I often wonder whether her time running around naked on the farm in Kangaroo Valley, getting filthy, kissing sheep, swimming in damns and having to dig holes in the ground because we didn’t have a toilet, has helped her be one of the healthiest and more robust kids around.

Even when Rambo, our demented black sheep butted her painfully on the bum, she learned a pretty useful life lesson. Not everyone or everything is nice…all of the time. Like Rambo, we’re all imperfect creatures, and imperfection is simply a facet of life we adjust to and even embrace, not avoid.

So perhaps we have found our equivalent of the sabre-tooth tiger after all. Maybe, just maybe, we can put our protective urges to good use by safeguarding our children from the insidious 21st century disease of suffocating safety, impossible perfection and Everest-like expectation. Maybe by doing that for our kids, we’ll also protect ourselves from the same disease. Now there’s a thought.


Why unemployment is good for us

Been to the shops lately? Noticed the posters in windows asking…no…pleading for staff? Shops and businesses everywhere are struggling to find staff either skilled or unskilled to fill vacancies.

It seems those days of placing an advertisement for staff, and being hit with 30 applications are well and truly over. Being hit with one application would be fantastic. Two would be a dream! More businesses are resorting to the trusty answering system or family members to field calls due to lack of reception staff. My local Subway was closed for two nights in a row last week due to lack of staff. When food chains close, you know there’s a problem.

Yet what does our super-low unemployment rate do for us as individuals, and more importantly, for society in general? The no-brainer says that we’ve all got money and are therefore ‘better off’ than generations before. We’ve got a little disposable cash, and even though we don’t like rising interest rates or falling house prices, we can at least work six jobs to cover whatever financial stress we find ourselves in. If we only had 72-hour days to work in these six jobs we’d be fine.

The not so obvious answer is that super-low unemployment creates a distinct decrease in service and product quality that we’re only just starting to see. As businesses, in their panic to get staff, employ people who either aren’t suitable or aren’t skilled, we find that whatever level of satisfaction we had experienced as a consumer is being eroded.

Staff competence is an odd term. While mostly it means the ability of a staff member to do their duties as expected, in Australia we’re accustomed to a little more than just ‘adequacy’. The notion of ‘caring’ about the customer, and going ‘beyond expectations’ has long been accepted and valued. Good staff don’t just do their job, they are an integral part of the business that assists in its growth and development. Adequate staff say, “Have a nice day” or “Enjoy” because that’s the template they’ve been fed and they don’t question it. Great staff say, “Enjoy your golf game on the weekend John” because they take the extra step of knowing the customer and, shudder the thought, remembering their name.

Yet why should any staff member push beyond the realms of ‘adequacy’ when they know full well there’s not hundreds of potential replacements scratching at the manager’s door? What makes anyone be and do the best they can?

The answer lies in human evolution and the theories of Charles Darwin. If we as human organisms are forced to compete for any of the resources we value, we’ll go out of our way to do our best. Valued resources could be food, shelter, sexual partners, credibility, money or a squillion other things. If we on the other hand, have no competition for these valued resources, we don’t bother to do our best, or find creative ways of attaining them.

The sportsperson who’s told before a match that they’re guaranteed of winning due to their competition’s failed drug test will seldom do their best. Even the African lion, when fed a regular and plentiful diet of prepared food, will lose the incentive and ability to hunt creatively. Why bother?

Professor Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi from Chicago University, in his research into how and why humans work, found scarcity or the lack of guarantee one of the conditions of ‘flow’ and work enjoyment. We’re more likely to work well at a job that challenges us and makes us do our best. The possibility we may lose our job, is one challenge that drives us.

Psychologically, there’s another interesting implication. As competition for a resource decreases, the value of the resource diminishes. It’s a fact known by biologists and fashion designers alike…we don’t value what we don’t strive for. A job that’s easily won is a job less valued. A product no one else wants, or is plentiful is a product not worth shopping for.

In order to avoid a society made up of ‘adequate’ or mediocre service, products and modes of thinking, a degree of scarcity is essential. While no-one wants to return to the unemployment levels of the mid 90’s when unemployment hit 8.5%, an unemployment level that creates a clever country, rather than an adequate one, is unpalatable yet important. While not everyone will agree, surely having a ‘great’ day, is better than having a nice one.

Legal assault on the treadmill of life

Last week I took a visit to the shopping mall for my yearly purchase of business shirts at the ‘stock take sales.’ While I doubt the true value of the ‘bargains’ I came home with, I felt that after the experience I needed some counseling…as if I’d suffered some emotional assault at the hands of the mall.

There were hundreds of people grabbing at clothing items they normally wouldn’t have glanced twice at. These ‘sale’ shoppers, in their search for the perfect ‘bargain’, were more like hyenas to a carcass than savvy consumers. It was hunting and gathering at its worst, and I was a part of it.

No doubt overly sensitised by my shirt experience, I was then struck by the thousands of signs demanding that I ‘Look’, ‘Buy’, ‘Try’ or ‘Eat’. Demanding signs and audio messages were everywhere, and this assault, coupled with the hyena frenzy could easily make the faint hearted spiral into fit of unconscious spending. I decided to go to the gym instead.

After struggling with a few barbells, and feeling depressed by the 18 year-old Adonis nearby lifting double the weight I was, I took to my weekly stumble on the treadmill. Yet even in my sacred treadmill space, the assault continued. The main reason was that the ‘cardio theatre’ at my gym has 16 screens all showing a different program. Programs ranging from Oprah to Dr Phil to Judge Judy all show at once. My brain can’t cope with one American talk show, let alone 16. I’m not epileptic, but I felt a seizure coming on.

The main screen however, the one that truly is theatre size, showed non-stop clips of black rappers pumping and gyrating with women all dressed in …well …not much. The rappers all held their hands in some special way that looked like they had no second or third fingers. Perhaps they didn’t. Whatever their physical ailments, the rappers, their message, clothing and ‘bling’ was out of my world. I wondered why my gym thought that us stumblers, mostly over 40 and looking nothing like ‘MC Funky-dog’, would be at all interested. Even Mr Adonis, who was now strutting proudly on a step thingy, didn’t seem interested.

The final punch came when ‘MC Funky-Dog was interrupted for a ‘Boot Camp’ advertisement. Lots of young people were running on the sand and being ordered about by someone in army fatigues. It was clearly the modern thing to do. The ad told me to ‘Enrol now and save’ and asked me to ‘Reach for the sky’ and ‘Try my hardest.’ I thought I was.

I felt another fit coming on, and to avoid it I calculated that if there were 15 ads an hour on each screen, I had been exposed to 127 advertising messages during my 30-minute treadmill stumble. No wonder I feel bad when I leave the gym.

Now I might be getting old and grumpy, but surely it’s time for us all to minimise the sensory assault we tolerate in our daily lives. If the mall assaults us, we could decide to shop in a less bothersome environment. If the gym assaults us with video blah, we could change gyms or jog in the park. If the clock radio wakes us with advertising messages, we could simply choose to wake up to a non-commercial station. We’ve just got to take a deep breath, realise we do have the power to change our world, and act.

Time to put-up or shut-up on fuel prices

On holidays with my daughter in California recently, we caught the Amtrak train from Merced to San Francisco. During one of the all-too frequent stoppages we struck up a conversation with Brian and Jean, a couple who were on their yearly holidays and who were two of the few Americans who take a train at holiday time. Brian was an executive for Amtrak, which meant he only paid a fraction of the fare anywhere in the States; a good reason to travel by train in anyone’s language.

 Now besides the obvious topics like ‘Why does the train stop for long periods for no apparent reason” and “will the Democrats win the election”, we spent quite a while talking about the nature of wealth in America. The bottom line according to this couple was that if Americans could buy a mid-range four-wheel drive plus afford the gas to run it, they felt wealthy. It didn’t really matter about education, health or real estate. The main criteria, the one that mattered in the hearts and minds of Middle America, was the good old gas-guzzler.

 The recent local outcry on the price of fuel indicates that we also see cars and the ability to run them as more than just a transport imperative. Yet there’s a major difference between our American friends and us here in the luckiest country. We have a public transport system and they don’t. Simple. We have a car alternative, whereas they are largely car-dependent due to necessity.

 Catching a bus between suburbs in LA is harder than buying a good coffee anywhere in the States. Sure, there’s the New York subway and the San Francisco trams, but other than the few icon systems in the major cities, America’s public transport system is old fashioned and predominantly used by school children. It’s pretty crook.

 So why is there suddenly a public outcry about fuel prices when we could actually save many dollars and a great deal of stress by jumping on a bus, train or tram. The answer is that for us, like for our US buddies, the motorcar has become less a functional tool and more a symbol not only of our wealth, but of our personal freedom and sense of control.

 Our obsession with individual freedom means that we choose the splendid isolation of our motorcar rather than having to share a seat with someone on public transport. How yucky! Taking public transport means succumbing to the often unpredictable hiccups that impact on the smooth running of any system. All systems at times catch a cold. There’s always the possibility of breakdowns, vandalism, buckled lines, flat tires and those terribly thoughtless people who fall onto railway tracks.

 Rather than place ourselves in an imperfect system where our hard fought sense of control is threatened, we choose the car…the perfect icon of air-conditioned, GPS assisted freedom.

 Yet this control comes at a price, and as we’re experiencing lately, this price is the ever-increasing cost of a litre of fuel. Americans are discovering as their fuel costs bite, that the price of freedom is never stable. As they begin to lose the sense of control that filling up the V8 provides, some may realise that any sense of freedom based on a piece of metal or a market commodity is a fragile sense of freedom indeed.

 The strange thing is that the theory of supply and demand states that the less fuel we buy, the more likely it is that the price will go down. Yep, that’s right, the classic price model tells us that should we somehow manage to leave our symbols of independence in the garage more often in order to brave the imperfections of public transport, the price of fuel would plummet. What’s more, due to public transport largely being government controlled, the same model won’t apply in reverse. Ticket prices won’t rise with demand…or so the theory goes.

 So the answer really is very simple. Either we shut up and happily pay the escalating price of fuel in order to maintain our fragile sense of control, or we shut up and embrace our public transport system…a system that like all of us catches a cold sometimes. Unlike our US cousins, at least we have a choice.

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