Heated Arguments

According to Abbott and Hockey, leaving a modest debt for future generations to pay off is immoral. But leaving them a legacy of an overheated world is somehow OK.

To them, money matters and the environment does not. Being ecologically responsible is something you only do when you “can afford it”. They forget that the economy takes place inside the environment; we can’t afford not to look after it.

Let Him Dangle

Let Him Dangle

Bentley said to Craig, “Let him have it, Chris”
They still don’t know today just what he meant by this
Craig fired the pistol, but was too young to swing
So the police took Bentley and the very next thing
Let him dangle, let him dangle
Let him dangle, let him dangle

Elvis Costello

Recent events remind us of the tragedy that is the death penalty, still being used in some supposedly civilised nations. Why is this, and why do some people still support it?

- It’s Cheap. Except it isn’t; it takes so long and so many court appearances to run through the inevitable appeals process that the cost is not significantly different. Not that it matters, price is no basis for making any moral decision, let alone a life-and-death one.

- It Prevents Recidivism. Self-evidently true. But the rate re-offense of murderers is no higher than for any other crime, and of course once caught their victims are overwhelmingly other prisoners. Escaped murderers are certainly an exception to this, but their number is of course tiny and again not something to base a moral decision on.

- It’s What They Deserve. Even if that was so, that doesn’t mean that’s what they should get. We rule-of-law nation-states put ourselves in the position of being morally superior to the murderer (and other criminal) – by murdering him in turn we lower ourselves to his level. We need to show that we will not stoop as low as he. It’s the same argument why it was stupid and wrong for the US to torture 9-11 suspects; not only was it useless and a distraction, but it lowered the wronged party to the level of the perpetrators.

- Deterrence. We know now that severity of sentence has influence on the decision or impulse to go ahead with a crime. The only known deterrent (given motive, opportunity and inclination) is the perceived chance of being caught. Murder rates do not increase when capital punishment is abolished. No-one wants to spend life in jail; if that’s not deterrent enough then a possible execution in 20 years’ time isn’t either.

- Vengeance. This is really all the pro argument comes down to – an atavistic impulse that, because he caused suffering, he should suffer. Yet again not a valid reason for doing anything, and profoundly amoral as well. And again it lowers us to his level.
If that’s not enough, here’s the best reason why it’s really not a good idea:

- Innocent People Die. Recent figures show that around 4% (1 in 25) of executed criminals were probably or certainly innocent of premeditated murder. At least if they’re in jail we can free them and give some restitution.

Not many people thought that Bentley would hang
But the word never came, the phone never rang
Outside Wandsworth Prison there was horror and hate
As the hangman shook Bentley’s hand to calculate his weight
Let him dangle, let him dangle
Let him dangle, let him dangle


Elevator Etiquette

Many seem unfamiliar with the use of this apparatus, or with the concept of consideration for others, or both. Here is the user instruction manual everyone should have had to read before first using one of these devices.
- if you can conveniently use stairs instead of taking the lift, do so. It’ll do you good and leave the lift for those who actually need it.

- there is no point pressing the call button more than once, doing that will not bring a lift more quickly. Have you ever been in a lift that suddenly rocketed to an unscheduled floor as a result of someone doing this? Would you yourself design a lift system to work that way? No, of course not. So don’t do it yourself. This is why lift buttons break so often.

- if your floor is near the top of the lift’s travel, try to enter first and move right to the back. Yes, even if you are male.

- if your floor is near the start of the lift’s travel, try to enter last and stay near the front. Yes, even if you are female.

- if the lift stops, it is not your floor and you are near the door, then move away or step out for a second. Surely it is obvious that there is someone behind you trying to get out? Surely?

- if you must listen to music or a phonecall in the lift, pay attention to what’s going on around you. Look around at each stop. People should not have to tap you on the shoulder to get past.

- don’t call the lift unless you are actually ready to get in. Don’t stand there gawping at your phone, or talking to a bystander, or anything else and miss the lift. This annoys others, as it would you, and you put extra load on the system by now having to call a second lift for a single journey. Next time you have to wait a long time for a lift, think about this – it may be why.

- do not run for the lift and stick your hand between the doors. You’re just slowing up the whole system and another one will be along shortly; you’re holding up all the people in the lift for your own solo convenience – this is called “being inconsiderate”. You know how annoying it is when someone does that to you, so don’t do it to someone else. You are also stressing out the people already in the lift, who suddenly have to lunge for the Door Open button in order to not have your amputated hand drop to the floor in front of them.

- don’t hold the lift doors open for people who aren’t ready to get in right now. There will be other lifts for them. Meet down in the lobby if you must. Again, you slow down the whole system for everyone, for the potential benefit of just one or two.

- if you need to use a card or key to get to a secure floor, have it in your hand before you enter the lift. Failing that, move to the back of the lift and let others in, then “excuse me” your way forward when everyone’s in. Standing there in the doorway fiddling in your pocket or purse, while others are anxiously queuing outside, is the height of rudeness. Then the doors start to close and disaster ensues.

- don’t finish a conversation from within the lift to someone outside it (or vice versa) while holding the doors open. This ascends to Olympian heights of rudeness.

Escalator Etiquette

Many seem unfamiliar with use of this apparatus, or with the concept of consideration for others, or both. Here is the user instruction manual everyone should have had to read before first using one of these devices.

- If you can conveniently use stairs instead of taking the escalator, please do so. It’ll do you good and leave the escalator for those who actually need it.
- If you can walk up or down the escalators, please do so. It’ll do you good, and get you and everyone else to your respective destinations more quickly. Also you will then not look like an utter dork who thinks they are on some sort of very slow amusement park ride. You do realise how slow escalators are, don’t you? If you walked up stairs that slowly people would point and laugh.
- If the escalators were stopped you’d walk up them, wouldn’t you? Why does the fact they are moving – oh so slowly – change that? I mean really.
- If you must stand – that is, if you really can’t walk up stairs – then move to the left and let more mobile people by. Do not stand next to your companion as that blocks the entire stairway – you can do without their presence by your side for a few seconds, surely?
- Handbags, backpacks, briefcases, shopping bags, and all other such impedimenta should be held in front or behind you, not beside. Yes, you and your stuff are blocking the escalator just as surely as if there were two of you.
- For the love of all that you love, of all that you consider holy, for the sake of all humanity – do not stop moving just before you get to the end of the escalator. I promise you getting off the escalator is no trick at all. It is moving really slowly. I mean, really really slowly. All you achieve is to stop the entire column of people behind you along the entire length of the escalator. Dozens of people may be delayed because of your hesitation.
- For the love of all that you love, of all that you consider holy, for the sake of all humanity – do not stop moving just after you step off the escalator. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know 100% which way to go from here, just get out of people’s way, and quickly. Those behind you on the escalator have no way – no way at all – of not running into you, and then what will the people behind them do? Get the hell out of everyone’s way NOW.
- In summary, try to be aware of those around you and see what you can do to ease their way through the world, not make it harder and slower. The fact that you are not in a hurry doesn’t mean others aren’t, and as a member of society it’s incumbent on you to not impede them if at all possible.

I’m Bored, Mum!

Stop me if you’re a parent and haven’t heard that cry, or its patriarchal equivalent. Hard though it is, the worst thing we can do as parents is to make it our job to entertain the kids.

[Sorry, that was hyperbole and inappropriate to the topic. Entertaining your children is of course is not the WORST thing you can do as a parent. However it's not good - you are teaching them that keeping entertained is someone else's problem, not theirs.]

Being bored is not such a bad thing for them. Maybe they’ll actually come up with something to do all by themselves; they might then learn that the world does not owe them entertainment, any more than it owes them a living. Being bored is basically an admission of personal failure – failure of imagination, initiative, personal resources in general. There’s nothing wrong with suggesting things to them (whether creative, playful or thoughtful), but don’t set up stuff or worst of all go out and buy stuff to entertain them. The world is full of interesting books, places, games, films, people, and things – go find them.


Yes, inspired by the musical of the same name. And the recent revival of interest (triggered by the four Kerry O’Brien interviews) in Paul Keating’s time in the political sun.

Keating’s tenure was the last time I was actively proud of a Prime Minister of ours. Certainly he was hugely egotistical, abrasive at times, and as with so many intelligent people overly dismissive of those of lesser intellect. I know now that there’s no credit to be taken for having high intelligence, any more than the colour of hair or eyes – it’s just an accident of birth and upbringing. What matters is what you do with it. I was often the smartest kid in my class, but only got average results because I coasted on it rather than working hard. But he did what he judged was right for the country, and did not bend to the political winds.

There’s a story which illustrates his breadth and depth of interests well; he visited Berlin after the reunification, as of course did many world leaders. The Mayor greeted him in an official reception, and showed him plans and models of the projected rebuilding scheme. Keating amazing him by whipping out his own annotated copies of those same plans, over which he had been poring for some time, and diving into a deep discussion of the architectural and town planning merits of different approaches to city-building and reconstruction.

I am conflicted though, because in a way I blame Keating for John Howard PM and all the ills that fell to us through that. Let me explain.

Keating won the “unwinnable” 1993 election by efficiently demolishing his opponent John Hewson’s programme of politics. Keating utterly dominated Hewson in Parliament. Amazingly despite having championed a GST himself just years before, he was able to run a successful scare campaign against Hewson’s proposed GST and won through. But he failed to draw the right lesson from the unexpected win; I believe his ego did not allow him to recognise that he hadn’t won through the superiority of policy and leadership and intellect (Hewson was probably just as intelligent, but in a more academic and less street-smart way) but through hitting the electorate’s hip-pocket nerve – in fact his own tenure as Treasurer and then Prime Minister triggered a substantial degree of public education in economics and he was able to use that against Hewson. People may not have liked Keating but they believed he knew what he was talking about, economically. But he started to believe the myth of his own political and economic genius, and especially that that would be enough for future battles as it was for the past ones. He didn’t so much win the election as provoke Hewson into losing it.

Then came John Howard. His election as opposition leader was seen as an act of desperation by the Liberals, who had voted him in as leader and then out twice before – Lazarus with a triple-bypass, as he was known at the time. Keating underestimated his old/new opponent, and like a general who fights the last war not the current one, treated him just like he treated Hewson, assuming the same outcome. But he never got under Howard’s skin like he did Hewson’s, and worse than that he failed to realise it and change his tactics. This went on to the extent that he declared his last election (1996) as a referendum on Leadership – which would have suited him if it were true, but all it did is remind people of how much they hated his leadership style. He was, for people, wearing thin, and he needed to re-invent himself. In essence he went to the well once too often.

He couldn’t get under Howard’s skin because, I believe, it was too thick. I know little about Howard’s childhood but if I were a betting man I would wager real money that he was bullied for his unprepossessing manner, nerdish appearance and hearing disability. Awful as a childhood like that is (as I know) it hardens one to bullying in your adulthood, and that’s essentially what Keating was trying to do – break Howard by intimidation and confrontation. But (unlike me) Howard took this in his stride and it made him all the more determined to stand his ground. Keating needed to find some other way to get to Howard, but failed and we ended up with 12 years of debilitating class warfare, middle- and upper-class welfare, splurging of budgetary surpluses on tax cuts for everyone except those who needed them, and an uneven and inflexible GST. Family ‘benefits’, baby bonuses, bailing out his own brother’s failing company from public funds, involvement in two illegal and unnecessary wars, Pauline Hanson and One Nation, a cynically manipulated referendum on the issue of an Australian Republic, and the dudding of the world’s newest and poorest state Timor Leste of their rights to oil and gas in the Timor Sea.

The one beneficial policy that Howard put through was the restrictions on gun sales and ownership after the Port Arthur massacre early in his first term. Indeed I think it’s fair to say that only a right-wing PM could have implemented what would normally be thought to be a left-wing policy, in the same way that perhaps only Ariel Sharon could have got Israel and the settlers out of Gaza.

That aside Howard was a tragedy for Australian society, economics, diplomacy, poor and disempowered, and especially the Aborigines. After the Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke/Keating governments real social progress had been made against discrimination and making public racism unacceptable. Had Keating defeated Howard in 1996 Howard was finished for all time, and we would have had most likely 6 or more years of similar such progress, making 30 years or a whole generation. But we had only 24 years and so fell just short, and Howard’s shameful dog-whistle tacit approval of Hanson’s vile xenophobia rewound the whole painful process back to pre-Whitlam years.

So, much as I admire Keating’s economic management, leadership, intellect and breadth of interests, like General Montgomery and his WWII Market-Garden airborne operation he fell one bridge short of breaking through to clear ground and utterly defeating those who we must eventually end up defeating anyway; it will just take longer and cost more than it needed to.

Justice and Punishment

As with education, Western societies’ approaches to justice and punishment are beset with confusion over goals and aims. We seem to want our current system of fines and jail to:

- deter people from committing crimes
- sequester criminals from the public
- deliver ‘justice’ to the victims and/or society as a whole
- wreak societal revenge on the criminal
- rehabilitate the criminal

No system can possibly accomplish all these goals, indeed some are contradictory. We need to consider what exactly we are trying to achieve with this whole system, and then re-design it accordingly.

Our prison populations are overwhelmingly composed of the poor, the mentally ill, and the societally disadvantaged (in Australia Aboriginals, in the US Amerinds and African-Americans, and so on). It’s hardly news that jailing such people with each other does not improve them in any way, indeed jail might almost be designed as a way of training better criminals.

On the other hand we must face the reality that people expect, demand really, that criminals be punished rather than just sequestered or treated. Criminologists and psychologists will, I suspect, never convince people in general of the self-defeating nature of this line of thought, and any system of justice needs strong public support or vigilanteism will rise again. This means an element of punishment must be included in the criminal justice system.

Here are my proposals for a new system of justice to resolve these inconsistencies. The core ideas are that trials be determiners of fact, not of guilt; that criminals be considered to be mentally ill by definition; and that the guilty not be released until found to be cured of that mental illness.

- there should be three possible outcomes of a criminal trial: proven guilty, proven innocent, not proven. This removes the situation where someone not proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt, but still possibly guilty in fact, can claim to have been “cleared” of the crime by being found not guilty. In this system they would merely be found not proven. There is no plea of not guilty due to mental illness, as all crime is to be treated as mental illness.

- criminal trials are not to factor in criminal intent, motivation, awareness or alleged incapacity (due to intoxication, mental illness, rage or anything else) into the verdict – except insofar as these things are part of the definition of the crime, e.g. murder vs manslaughter. The purpose of a criminal trial is now to establish the fact of whether the accused actually committed the acts of which they are accused, not go into any mitigating factors as to their criminal culpability. Those matters are to be taken into account in the sentencing only, not the trial itself.

- A sentencing judge may conclude that the accused was not responsible for his actions for one reason or another but that merely means that jail time is reduced or foregone, and suitable treatments for the condition that rendered the accused non-responsible be undertaken instead. So if found guilty the sentence will specify jail time for purposes of punishment, and then admission to suitable facilities for rehabilitation depending on the nature of the crime. This latter part is unlimited in time, the sentence being essentially ‘until cured’, or determined to be manageable in a community setting. Crime is to be seen as a symptom of mental illness (and so treatable) rather than intrinsic evil (and so not treatable). That is not to say there is no mental illness that is not criminal, of course, it’s not a crime to be mentally ill in this situation. Rather it’s to acknowledge that an inability to restrain criminal impulses and drives is a form of mental illness. Releasing a mentally ill person back into the community, with no change except a few more years hardening, does neither the prisoner nor society any good at all.

- expert witnesses are engaged by the court as it deems necessary, not by the defence or prosecution. This will prevent expert-shopping and professional witnesses. This may proceed as far as giving factual education to juries or even judges, if required on technically or financially complex cases.

- no prisoner is ever to be held in solitary confinement. This is to be considered torture, and therefore unbecoming of a civilised society.

- no first-time prisoner is ever to be in the same facility as a repeat offender.

- prisoners on remand will never share a facility with convicted felons.

Truthfully the above is not as coherent a “system of justice” as I was hoping to create when I started this, more a series of changes to parts of the existing system. Let’s think of it more as a framework for change; as they always say Needs More Work. To be updated as time and inspiration permit.