Log in

The Times' Journal
[Most Recent Entries] [Calendar View] [Friends]

Below are the 4 most recent journal entries recorded in The Times' LiveJournal:

Sunday, November 7th, 2004
7:03 pm
Not just the unborn child deserves concern
By Adele Horin
Sydney Morning Herald
November 6, 2004

He is barely 18, but in February he will become a father. He is looking forward to the birth. I met the blond, softly spoken young man as he left a rehabilitation program this week - the fifth he has attended in an effort to kick his alcohol and pot addictions. Packing up the baby mobile and nappy holder he had crafted in woodwork classes, he said he felt confident of recovery. After all, he faced new responsibilities.

But I found myself thinking of this February baby, of its life chances. You could almost write the script now. It is telling that of all the issues to emerge in the first weeks of the re-elected Coalition Government, abortion has stood out. Morals crusaders Tony Abbott, Christopher Pyne and John Anderson are determined to make pregnant women and young girls have the babies they don't want, can't care for, but can't bear to give up for adoption.

At the same time, the Government has quietly abolished Larry Anthony's old ministry of children and youth affairs. It oversaw policies that gave support and help to disadvantaged children in particular. These programs in early childhood education, early intervention, child abuse prevention and community building are critical to the country's future.

Anthony was admired across the political spectrum for his dedication, but with his defeat in the election, the job of monitoring, developing and improving these programs has been downgraded, and given to a parliamentary secretary, Sussan Ley.

Political interest in children's issues waxes and wanes. For a while, early intervention programs were high on the agenda; now interest has fallen as other concerns, such as an ageing society and terrorism, take hold. Even the United States, which is rarely a leader in social policy, has better early childhood programs than Australia.

There is funding here for schools, of course. But for many children, the die is cast before they reach kindergarten. Prevention is not a high priority, nor are the 680,000 children in poverty, the Aboriginal children doomed from birth to a foreshortened life span, nor the 54,000 children in homeless shelters.

No one can read the future of this February baby. It may be lucky in its genes, its natural intelligence, and its temperament. It may be resilient. It may get the lucky breaks. It may also be much loved and cared for by its parents throughout its life. Its parents may prove to be good enough, which is all we can expect of any parents.

But all the odds are against this child. Conceived to homeless teenagers with drug problems, it is hard to imagine a worse start in life. It is not the child's fault; it is the luck of the draw. But later, if the child fails at school, or commits crime, or turns to drugs, society will blame the individual. It will expect this child to have shown more grit, hard work, and psychological maturity to surmount its tough circumstances than most children can muster.

Professor Clyde Hertzman, a pioneer researcher into the effects of early childhood experiences on later life, recently visited Sydney from the University of British Columbia. His research underlines the importance of giving children the best possible start. By the time they reach kindy, some children are already greatly disadvantaged, and struggle ever to catch up. "These differences are not randomly distributed through society but follow a predictable systemic pattern," Hertzman says.

His research in Canada shows that the poorer the neighbourhood, the bigger the proportion of kindy-aged children with social, intellectual and emotional difficulties. As you descend the socio-economic ladder, the risks increase at each step. But even the researchers were surprised at the gap between top and bottom.

In Vancouver's richest neighbourhood, none of the children fell into the bottom 10 per cent for language and cognitive difficulties. But 21 per cent of the children in the poorest neighbourhood languished there. Hertzman argues that a poor start sets a child down a crooked path to bad health and social problems as an adult. "It's a process that begins before birth," he says.

Yet governments, through social and economic policies, can do much to influence the environment in which young children are raised. It is economics, not accident, which explains why 5 per cent of Scandinavian children are poor compared with 13 per cent in Australia.

Australia has preened itself on the rhetoric of the fair go. But it does too little to tackle poverty or to help disadvantaged children when it matters most. Even the early intervention programs on Anthony's watch were relatively small-scale.

Abbott's obsession with abortion is not matched by a passion to help those children born into difficult circumstances. Yet, as Health Minister, he is in a perfect position to promote programs that would give these children a fairer go.

Nurse home visitors are a proven success in preventing child injury, abuse and death. Abbott should launch a national program that identifies at birth all at-risk mothers and children, and provide them with regular nurse visits over an extended period. For good measure, his Government should ensure all three- and four-year-olds have access to free child care or preschooling.

A baby will be born in February to parents who are barely out of childhood themselves. It is pointless to disapprove. Their own backgrounds, unsurprisingly, were difficult.

But politicians can do more to break the cycle of deprivation. They can rally to ensure this child, and others born to unlucky circumstances, will get proper support. Every child deserves a fair chance to write its own life story, not to act out a script.

Sunday, October 31st, 2004
3:49 pm
The wages of fun
Sydney Morning Herald
October 30, 2004

As the last containers of toys leave China for the Christmas gift season, Hamish McDonald reports that good cheer is missing in Toyland.

The Tyrannosaurus Rex shuffles forward, twists and raises its scaly head, then roars, displaying rows of sharp, greenish teeth. Li Xinkai, who has been working the joysticks and buttons on a little hand-held infrared control unit, smiles with satisfaction, and offers a visitor another tiny cup of bitter, green tea. The knee-high T-Rex stands silent on the floor.

It is almost the end of the pre-Christmas rush in Santa's Cave, otherwise known as the port city of Shantou in the south of China, where much of the world's toy-making industry is concentrated - about 2000 factories ranging from giant gated complexes to backyard workshops.

In Shantou and other factory zones in Guangdong province, a million workers have been putting in 12-hour days, seven days a week, since midyear, filling orders for the global toy giants such as Hasbro, Mattel and Disney. In local showrooms, salesmen like the Disga Toy Factory's Li are still hanging out for last-minute orders for T-Rex and other dinosaur species, selling for about 75 yuan ($12) each.

Large-scale toy manufacturing follows the shifts in cheap labour supply and international logistics. It moved to Hong Kong when Japan and Taiwan became too expensive, then moved on when China opened the Shenzhen special economic zone. The factory jobs gradually spread out to other Guangdong towns, especially those in the Pearl River delta or along the coast, such as Shantou.

Young men and women have flooded into Guangdong from the villages of China's interior to take up 19 million factory jobs: making toys, sports gear, homeware, bathroom fittings, furniture and electronics. With hundreds of millions of rural villagers still underemployed, the supply of labour seemed endless, suggesting China would continue to grab world manufacturing by virtue of low wages.

But in recent weeks, this picture has clouded, at least for the factory owners and toy companies. China's Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare has just reported a shortfall of 2 million migrant workers for the region, at the busiest time of the year. Many of Santa's elves have not turned up for work this year.

The reasons are not hard to find. The labour ministry found that the average salary for a migrant worker, between 600 and 700 yuan ($96 to $112), had risen by only 68 yuan in the past 12 years. "That means wages have been going down, even though the official minimum wage has been going up every year," says Anita Chan, a researcher specialising in China's labour market at the Australian National University.

Analysts say Guangdong's workers have been pushed punishingly hard over the 15 years of the Chinese factory boom. Working weeks of more than 80 hours are common during peak periods. Overtime is often paid at a lower rate than the basic salary. Pay is often in arrears to stop workers changing jobs. Dormitories are crowded and food poor, but deductions to pay for them keep rising to offset rises in the official minimum base rate (450 yuan).

Police harass migrants without local residency papers, extorting small pay-offs, and health benefits are generally not transferable from home towns.

Workshops are often hot and unventilated, despite Guangdong's steamy heat, and occupational diseases are rife, often caused by dust particles, fibres and chemical vapours. The region appears to have been the incubator of last year's SARS epidemic and several avian flu outbreaks.

"Very few factories around here pay the government minimum rate," says Huang Xinghe, 20, a worker who gets about 600 yuan a month including overtime at a Dongguan factory making golf clubs and tennis rackets for export. "Most of us are not even aware of what it is."

Three young women from the nearby BabyToys factory earn about 700 yuan a month, working eight hours a day or 10 hours or more when big orders came in. They laugh at the government minimum. "In our factory the boss is the ruler," one says.

Three years ago, the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee surveyed 20 factories supplying four of the world's largest toy groups - Hasbro, McDonald's, Mattel and Disney - and found that in none of the products did more than 6 per cent of retail price flow back to the Chinese workers who made them. In the most extreme case, only 26 cents came back to the workers from an interactive electronics doll that sold for $US64.99 ($87).

Officially, the interests of the workforce are protected by China's trade union federation, aligned with the ruling Communist Party. In reality, the union is part of the oligarchy of local power, in which government, legal authorities and entrepreneurs collude for mutual benefit. The region is overrun with private security guards, ordinary police and paramilitary units who pick out ringleaders of labour protests for draconian jail terms. Despite this, wildcat strikes and factory sit-ins have been on the increase in recent months.

"For workers to go on strike or stage protest actions means there's something quite wrong," says the ANU's Chan. "Chinese workers tend to stick it out until they can't bear it any more."

Provinces in eastern China and up the Yangtse Valley have drawn factories into their own industrial zones. The Government has slashed taxes levied on farmers, so village incomes have risen sharply in the past year. The money may not be as much as in Guangdong, but the work can be less brutally long and closer to home and family.

While the labour supply is still big in China, the population profile is narrowing in the late teens and early 20s age group as a result of the national one-child policy, which began in 1978. More younger people have some secondary education and look to service industry jobs where work is less isolated and physically onerous, and residency transfers may be easier. With mobile phones now selling in second-hand markets for a few dollars, young workers are more in touch with job opportunities around the country.

Guangdong factory owners, many of them from Hong Kong or Taiwan, say they are being pushed just as ruthlessly by the toy industry, increasingly merged into a few giant combines linked in royalty arrangements to entertainment groups Disney and Warner Bros, and fast-food chains such as McDonald's. More and more of the final retail value flows to enterprises engaged in research and development, design and marketing.

The remote-controlled T-Rex that Disga is offering in Shantou for 75 yuan is being sold on the Amazon.com and Toys R US websites for $US39.99 - more than four times as much. However, the high-technology toy firm Wow Wee, which says it developed the T-Rex in its design studios, has never heard of Disga. Wow Wee had its T-Rex made in a Shenzhen factory. "It's possible this company is knocking it off," a Wow Wee executive says.

Hence perhaps the coyness of Disga, which refused to let the Herald onto its factory floor in Shantou. "You want to find out our secrets," a manager said.

Whether or not Disga is copying an ageing product line, the case illustrates the difficulty in monitoring the global toy industry. A similar T-Rex is sold in Australia by Kmart under another brand name, Jasmine, at $25.

The concentration of buying power in retail groups, notably the American chain Wal-Mart, simply blasts even the biggest Chinese factory out of the bargaining ring.

"What we are seeing is the famous race to the bottom, the pursuit of cheaper prices in retail stores in the West for Chinese-made goods," says Robin Munro, of the China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong.

"Those constant price cuts have to come from somewhere. Basically it's the foreign buyers squeezing the factory owners to do reverse bidding for orders, bidding the lowest possible price to get the order. Often the factory owners in south China take on these orders at a loss, simply to keep their share of the market. That inevitably translates into cutting workers' salaries, or keeping them constant at best."

Only with the new labour shortage are wages starting to rise. At a Taiwan-owned company in Dongguan making electrical transformers, director Joyce Lin said the bill for its 4300 workforce was now 25 per cent above the same time last year, with about 60 per cent of that going in higher wages and the rest coming from improved medical benefits and costs associated with a jump in staff turnover.

"But there will be no price increase - we are the ones taking the blow," Lin says. Lin, who spoke on condition her firm was not named, said the Taiwanese owners were starting to think about leaving China. "The shortage of labour is influencing our plans," she says.

"In the future we will try to avoid investing more in the Chinese market and invest in other countries or regions. There is India, for example, though the supply chain is not yet mature in the Indian market, so we are still considering that."

Researcher Parry Leung, of the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, thinks it may be another six months or a year before the impact of higher wages in Guangdong flows through the toy industry to foreign buyers. Meanwhile parents can enjoy another cheap Christmas, thanks to the low wages that have prevailed up to now in southern China's toy industry.

Monday, September 27th, 2004
10:29 pm
Labor isn't a big economic risk
By Ross Gittins
Sydney Morning Herald
September 27, 2004

A Martian would find it amazing. Here's John Howard spending money like water as he seeks to buy his re-election, while claiming that only he can be trusted to keep the budget in perpetual surplus and thus keep interest rates low forever.

Brushing aside the quite dishonest depiction of the factors that drive interest rates, this is the gaping contradiction of the election campaign. The man's hypocrisy is breathtaking.

And yet he gets away with it. Why is there no surge of cynicism from talk-back radio? Why aren't even the political commentators pointing to the glaring disconnect between what's being done and what's being said?

I'll tell you why not. It's because, as the opinion polls have long revealed, the public has a deeply ingrained belief that the Liberals are by far the better party to be entrusted with the management of the economy.

Labor has its obvious strengths - handling education, health and welfare - but on matters pertaining to responsible economic management - inflation, interest rates, taxation, the balance of payments - the Libs are clearly superior.

The strength with which these views are held varies somewhat depending on which party is in power and how the economy's travelling at the time but my scrutiny of Newspoll findings confirms that the underlying views have been remarkably constant for as far back as records go.

So here we're observing something the public just knows and has always known deep in its bones. My guess is that these prejudgements go back to the historic stereotyping of the parties.

If Labor is the workers' party while the Libs are the party for the bosses, it follows that bosses ought to know a lot more about managing the nation's economic business than the workers would.

My point is that the public's belief in the Libs' superiority as economic managers is so deeply ingrained that evidence to the contrary isn't easily recognised. If Mr Howard's doing it then it must be economically responsible - otherwise he wouldn't do it.

On the other hand, if Labor is making many big-dollar promises - which it is - this just reinforces our suspicions that, were it entrusted with office, it would go wild and mess things up - again.

Part of the syndrome is that Labor's past failures - 17 per cent mortgage rates, the recession we had to have, even the excesses of the Whitlam government - are more easily called to mind than the past failures of the Libs.

(Such as? Mr Howard's far from impressive performance as treasurer in the Fraser government - the recession he presided over, which led to 10 per cent unemployment, his return to double-digit inflation and mortgage interest rates - and the more recent fact that, after promising to keep the budget in surplus throughout the present term, he incurred a cash deficit of $1 billion in 2001-02.)

Of course, the public's prejudices - pre-judgements - on this issue are being reinforced at present by the economy's sterling performance. But the fact remains that the public has a double standard on the question of which party can be trusted with the economy.

And get this: it's not just the ignorant punters. Whether they realise it or not, the business community, the financial markets and the media economic commentators apply the same double standard.

They're invariably terribly suspicious of Labor, wary of any signs that it may stuff up, while being terribly tolerant of the Libs' little peccadilloes - "boys will be boys".

Right now, for instance, the economic establishment is in plague-on-both-your-houses mode. It's true Mr Howard's being irresponsible with all his spending commitments - commitments that are vastly expanding middle class welfare and tend to substitute tax breaks to special interests for general tax reductions - but we're not speaking up about it because Labor's just as bad.

Really? Are you sure? According to the Financial Review's figuring at the end of last week, since the May budget the Libs have announced spending promises worth $7 billion over four years, offset by savings measures of just $500 million.

By contrast, Labor has announced spending promises (including the tax and family plan and last week's Medicare stuff) worth $21.3 billion over four years, offset by savings measures of $21 billion.

So thus far Mark Latham is raiding future budget surpluses to the tune of $300 million, compared with Mr Howard's $6.5 billion.

(There is, however, a question mark over $5.1 billion in spending announced by the Government since the budget but before the calling of the election. Labor hasn't said whether it's accepting or repudiating these commitments.)

Two points to note. First, no one in the media or elsewhere has bothered to bring clearly to your notice this news that fits so ill with our prejudices about who are the good economic managers and who aren't.

Rather, everyone's kept a straight face while Peter Costello's tried without ceasing (and so far without success) to find the Black Hole in Labor's costings. It's occurred to no one to point to his double standard: his side doesn't really have savings measures to be costed.

Second, when you look at these figures you realise that, in terms of minimising the call on future surpluses, Labor has defied our ingrained expectations by being more fiscally responsible than the Libs.

It follows from all this that, because the public and the economic elite are so convinced of his economic rectitude, Mr Howard always gets the benefit of the doubt and doesn't have to live up to his reputation. He can be as politically expedient as he chooses.

The other side of the coin is that Labor is always treated with suspicion and never gets the benefit of any doubt. (See, for instance, the commentariat's wild overreaction to Labor's industrial relations policy.)

So Labor always has something to prove. It's always got the public, business, the markets and the media commentators on its case. It must always be on its best behaviour.

See the point? Our beliefs about who's good on the economy and who isn't are so deeply held that, in practice, they're almost self-defeating. The Libs don't bother trying, whereas Labor lives in fear of being judged irresponsible.

That's why, contrary to all his emotional button-pushing, electing another Labor government would not involve any greater risk to the economy than re-electing the hugely complacent John Howard.

Ross Gittins is the Herald's Economics Editor.
Friday, September 17th, 2004
5:53 pm
Four to three they've thrown away the key
By Richard Ackland
Sydney Morning Herald
September 17, 2004

How can it possibly be right in a sunny democracy like ours that the Government has the authority and power to keep an alien in detention forever - or, in temporal terms, until the poor wretch dies in captivity? We're not talking of someone who, as a result of breaking the criminal law, has to be incarcerated and punished. The case in question arose because of a stateless Palestinian, Ahmed Ali Al-Kateb, 28, who arrived in Australia in December 2000 and whose application for a protection visa was knocked back all the way up the food chain to the full Federal Court.

This "unlawful non-citizen", as he is characterised bureaucratically, then asked to be sent to Kuwait or Gaza, presumably on the strength that they are the next closest freedom-loving places to Australia. The Kuwaitis didn't want him and to go to Gaza, oddly enough, requires the permission of Israel which, so far, has been unyielding.

The migration law says that our "unlawful non-citizen" must be kept in immigration detention until removed from Australia or granted a visa. Here, uniquely, neither has happened and as one judge lower down the labyrinth said of Mr Al-Kateb, "there is no real likelihood or prospect of removal [from Australia] in the reasonably foreseeable future". So, if the legislation says he stays in detention in theory, if not in practice, this is what must happen, until hell freezes over, or certainly longer than your average murderer would ever be likely to see out.

That's what the High Court thinks, and found so just last month - at least by a bare majority of four of the seven judges. It scarcely seems credible. Something must be wrong with the thinking, surely? There can be little surprise that the Commonwealth's Solicitor-General, David Bennett, and his team of the finest from the Government Solicitor's office, would argue strenuously that this is the only acceptable outcome, but for the High Court to swallow it seems, well, scary.

One particularly fetching body of thought can be found in the reasons provided by Justice Hayne, a leading light of the indefinite incarceration school. He said that no real likelihood or prospect of removal from the country in the reasonably foreseeable future "does not mean that continued detention is not for the purpose of subsequent removal". This sounds awfully close to saying that if you keep him locked up long enough, who knows, one day some country, maybe even Nauru, might take him. Therefore, according to this reasoning, the purpose of the particular section in the legislation is not "spent" just because efforts to find somewhere else for this stateless being to live have so far not been successful.

This is to be contrasted with the leading minority judgement of Justice Gummow, who thought that where, as a matter of practicality, the person cannot be removed from our shores, then there must be a "constraint" in the operation of the law. In fact, the legislation can no longer be said to retain a present purpose of facilitating removal from Australia, "and to that extent the operation of [the legislation] is spent".

Spent or not spent - such is the exquisite finery of the law. The majority of the court thought that the interpretation of the meaning of the legislation does not "yield" the meanings contended by the alien. It was a classic judicial battle between literal and "interpretative" approaches, and in this case it's fascinating to see where the literal approach ends up taking us. At least the minority judges (Gleeson, Gummow and Kirby) contorted themselves modestly enough to arrive at the "spent" conclusion. Kirby went further and piled on plenty of thinking from the US and English courts and international law and questions of the legislation's constitutional validity.

He suggested one way around the problem would be to say that the power of detention can, in a comparatively short time, turn into punishment, and under the constitution punishment is the reserve of the judiciary, not the other branches of government. He didn't adopt that approach in the end, because he found the interpretation of the legislation yielded to Al-Kateb's contentions.

Yet, Kirby got into terrible bother from Justice McHugh for his troubles. McHugh said it is difficult to accept that the constitution's meaning is affected by rules created by the agreements and practices of other countries. If that were so, judges would need a "loose-leaf" copy of the constitution. McHugh was adamant that Kirby was amending the constitution under "the guise of interpretation". Kirby shot back: "My conclusion is no more a judicial attempt to 'amend the constitution under the guise of interpretation' than were the many decisions of this court, in which McHugh participated, where the process of interpretation produced a significant change." Thoughtfully he listed those cases which included Kable, Lange, Mabo and Dietrich.

The case shows the vigour with which the High Court's "culture wars" are being fought, and that arriving at a literal interpretation requires no less an amount of contortion than arriving at an interpretative one.


Current Mood: gloomy
About LiveJournal.com