Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The new voting system for the Senate

is still causing seemingly endless confusion. 
At one level it sounds simple. You now put the numbers from one to at least six "above the line" (a vote for parties) or from one to at least  twelve "below the line" (a vote for individuals). 
The problem is that I have spent multiple elections telling people with some intellectual and learning disabilities to "just put a one next to the group of people you want to win". Right.
So, I  head out to yet another "group" house - a residence for a group of people with disabilities, supposedly an ordinary looking suburban house where they supposedly mix with the rest of the community in an ordinary way. This doesn't happen of course but bear with me...they live there, after a fashion.
There is the usual pile of dirty dishes in the sink and piles of dirty laundry in the living area. At least they are all out of bed this morning. That may be because they know I am coming. 
We sit at the kitchen table and I explain to all of them and then each of them in turn. I help them individually to fill out their practice sheets - the sheets they will take with them so that they can vote the way they choose by copying what we have put there. Their reasons for voting are interesting. One young woman tells me she is voting for a certain candidate "because he looks nice" and another tells me of another candidate "he's too old". They have no idea what the party policies are but they have a vote. We have to respect that.
And then there is the boy who, having slowly and carefully told me what he wants and who is the only one in this group who has any idea why he is voting and what the policies are, says to me in a very worried way, "What if I forget how to write the numbers."
"You can copy them from this page," I tell him. He frowns. He picks up the pencil and attempts to do it. He gets one number - the six - back to front. I tell him it won't matter - and it won't. His  intention is clear.  
I tell him that, at the polling booth, he is allowed to take his time. He sighs. "Should have done it like my Nana". His grandmother had a postal vote. 
I can only agree. Someone else, not me, decided that going to the polling booth would be "an experience" for this particular group. They would have found postal votes easier and less stressful and, managed in a certain way, we might have been able to ensure that their votes did not get used by other people.
I leave their choices on the sheets we have filled out in sealed envelopes on their refrigerator door. Now I have to hope that at least one of their carers will do the right thing on Saturday and give them the envelopes so that they can fill out their own ballot papers or that someone else will follow their instructions. I am far from certain about this but at least I will have tried.
I don't care which way around the last boy - he's only 22 - has written that six though. Those counting will know what he intends and he has actually thought about what he is doing. That counts. 

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Free Trade Agreements

are part of the modern world - whether we like it or not.
I remember the title of a doctoral thesis I once co-supervised. It was "Post World War 2 trade relations between Australia, Japan and the United States with special reference to the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade". It was being written by a student from Japan. My role in the supervision was to try and make his tortuous English readable. In doing so I kept on challenging his ideas as well. I had to or what he put on to paper simply would not have made sense in English. I can only assume that it made sense when he wrote it in Japanese - which he then translated into English. 
In doing what I did I managed to learn rather a lot about a topic I knew absolutely nothing about when I started. It was quite different from my usual areas of supervision. I don't want to repeat the experience but I am now glad I did it because Free Trade Agreements are now under discussion again.
The leader of one particular political party wants to see Downunder's Free Trade Agreements with China, Japan and South Korea dismantled. It has taken years to negotiate these. What is in them is not all advantageous to Downunder. No FTA works like that. The reality however is that if we don't have some sort of FTA agreement in place it is going to be much more difficult to do business with these countries. Other areas of the world will simply move in instead. 
Downunder is already at a disadvantage in terms of doing business with the rest of the world. Only our Kiwi friends across the pond are in a similar position. We don't have large populations and lack the buying power which makes it worth doing business with us. We are, relatively speaking, geographically isolated which makes it more expensive to get goods moving. And yes, we are expensive in the sense that our standard of living has been very high and the wages we pay are very high. Our manufacturing base has diminished largely because similar goods can be produced much more cheaply in other parts of the world. If, on top of all this, we don't have FTAs we won't do business with the rest of the world.
It is unlikely that Nick Xenophon would achieve his goal of dismantling the FTAs.  He must know that. Nevertheless he also knows that it will be an attractive idea for people who yearn for the protectionist policies of the past. His party might also gain just enough seats to be able to make waves with respect to FTAs. They might only be small waves but they could do considerable harm.
FTAs aren't perfect. They aren't some sort of panacea which makes business easy. Good business is never easy. It's hard work, especially if you want to do it with those whose language, culture and work ethic is very different from your own. It is worth noting though that both the major parties have worked on these FTAs. They know that they are an essential part of how international business is done. What we now have to do is work within them to our advantage. 

Monday, 27 June 2016

Travelling with children

is not something for which I have ever taken direct responsibility. I don't think it is something I would wish to do. I have heard some horror stories.
There have been some occasions in my life when I have been involved with other people's children. That is enough. On one occasion I was left quite literally nursing the baby while a mother dealt with a screaming two year old in a plane. Fortunately it was a short trip. I only had to hold the baby for a couple of hours. The poor mother, travelling alone, had to hold the child. (His ears were worrying him.)
Yesterday however there was a phone call. "It's C.... we were wondering if the Senior Cat was up to a short visit?"
Of course. We haven't seen C and her family since they came back from Europe some weeks ago. C is Spanish and they decided to get the three children to Spain to see relatives before the eldest turned twelve and they had to pay adult fares and fees for everything. I had wondered how they would go. The children don't speak Spanish. Their father does not speak Spanish. As the younger two children are only eight (twins) I suspected it would be an interesting experience for all. 
Their parents spent a lot of time planning the trip. Spain was not the only destination. They went to France, Italy, Norway, England and, on the way home, Thailand. The children were out of school for seven weeks - but they were learning all the time. Their parents saw to that. They did maths and language as well as history and geography. They discovered new cultures, new food and new people. They learned about the need to watch out for each other in strange places where they did not speak the language or know anyone else. They learned about the need to take great care not to lose their possessions.
And they have, quite suddenly, "grown up" rather a lot. The twins went away as "small" children. They came back with confidence, bursting with enthusiasm. They want to go back-to see their new found relatives and to see more history, experience more new foods and find new places to explore. They had "so much to tell" us. The words tumbled out rolling over one another almost at the speed of sound.
Their father admitted that it had been a lot of work. It had, in a way, been exhausting but it had also been worth every bit of work and every cent it had cost. Their children are different now, different in the best possible way. They are excited about the world and want to know more. I hope it stays that way.


Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Brexit referendum is not

binding on Westminster. Let's take a look?
In the UK there is no compulsion to attend the ballot box. That means only 71% of the population voted. (It's still a lot higher than the US attendance at the ballot box.) In Downunder the percentage is much higher because there is compulsory attendance at the ballot box. (It is NOT compulsory voting because nobody can compel you to mark the ballot paper.)
I am now trying to find some official statistics on who voted in the referendum because I think they may be interesting. There is evidence to suggest that, of the young people who voted, three out of four voted to Remain. But how many young people voted? Older people are being blamed for Brexit but is that the entire story? Perhaps it is time to turn some attention to those who didn't vote, wouldn't vote, or couldn't vote?
And, as I pointed out, the referendum result is not binding on Westminster. It might seem too late now but is it really? There are some interesting things going on. The rest of the EU seems to be anxious to be rid of the UK but is it really? As someone pointed out to me in a tweet this might be more about saving the EU from further disintegration. A certain Dutch politician is already calling for "Nexit" and a French politician wouldn't mind testing "Frexit". 
Remember how close they came to "Grexit" in Greece too. 
I think it suggests two things. The first is that Germany's Angela Merkel is worried about her own job. Having "lost" the UK she desperately needs to keep the rest of the EU together. I suspect France's Hollande (and Valls) feel the same way - and that Le Pen sees it as green light to try again. Similar situations exist in other countries but these two are the most powerful.
The second thing however is even more serious, much more serious. The vote has told the EU that there is something wrong with the EU itself. It isn't working as it was intended to work. Too much control has been ceded to a central authority but it isn't achieving anything. The EU is bogged down in a mass of rules and regulations. Many colleagues in Europe have complained to me about these. I have complained too. Far from streamlining procedures I have found myself filling out forms for a local authority, the country, the EU, another country and another local authority. I sometimes need to do that even though I am not being paid and won't have anything to do with the project beyond providing some communication assistance. If the EU worked as it should then surely I should only be filling out one set of forms at that end? Of course it won't work like that. Countries don't want to give up their powers. They want the advantages while still retaining control. It's that word "sovereignty" which counts for most people.
Referenda are not binding on Westminster. The results are there for parliament to consider. They could be used as a tool but it seems that, faced with a knife, politicians of all persuasions are simply giving in. I know one of my friends in Scotland has said that to ignore the results would not be democratic but there are questions of responsibility here.  
What I would really like to know  though is an answer to these questions. What percentage of people aged 24 and under voted? What percentage of people aged 31 and under  voted? If they had all voted could they have made a difference? It was their future they were, and could have been, voting on. 

Saturday, 25 June 2016

So why did Brexit

win over Remain?
I have been pondering this. I had thought the result would be close but I thought and hoped it might be the other way around. Were there just too many people who thought, "It won't happen. I needn't bother to vote" - or what?
Seriously, I think there might be a number of reasons. One of them perhaps is that Britain was not a member of the European Union from the beginning. It didn't get invited. They were told "you aren't really European". Later, when Europe saw some economic advantages, they were permitted to join. It's a bit like the footballer who is not on the team to begin with but who gets brought on when an advantage is seen in having that player there but who is still not given due credit for the contribution they make. "You're not really part of the team. We only want you for the skills you have." Is that the view some people hold? Do (too many) people resent that?
Did a lot of people believe that Britain was putting more into the EU than it was getting out of it? It seemed to be one of the points Brexiters were making.
And then there is the issue of  the sort of country Britain is perceived to have come. Like this one it is perceived to be full of migrants - and yes, a lot of people are migrants. Britain has always been full of migrants. My far distant ancestors were Norse. They ended up in the far north of Scotland too far back for the records to go but evidenced by my family and clan name.
The problem is that many people see more recent migrants as having changed the country in ways they are not comfortable with. At least some of these people are perfectly ordinary, sensible people. They aren't racists or bigots. What bothers many of them is the perception that they have invited these migrants to enter their "home" and now find that, having accepted the invitation, the guests expect to be entertained on their own terms rather than those of their hosts. They are seen as wanting their own room rather than mixing with the members of the household. They are seen as wanting to do things their way be it in dress, food, culture, religion, education, values, beliefs or even the law.
For all we claim to be a "multi cultural" society the same problem exists here. I suspect it exists wherever there are migrants, especially large numbers of migrants. I know large numbers of migrants. They take widely differing views on whether things like their language, culture and traditions should be preserved. Perhaps the question being asked however is the wrong one. It isn't "should" but "why" and then "how" these things should be preserved. If the end result is separation and isolation or it is done from a desire to dominate or control then there will be suspicion and resentment.
Is that what caused Brexit?
I know the blame is being laid at the feet of the likes of David Cameron. Some are saying he shouldn't have held a referendum at all. Some are saying he  should have ignored the disquiet. Others are saying he is too "privileged" to know what ordinary people are thinking. It is probably easy to blame Cameron if you don't vote Tory - just as we would blame our Prime Minister for a similar outcome.
The reality however is that British Labour supported Remain too. So did many other high profile people. They worked together on this but it still didn't succeed. The "ordinary" voters sent their leaders a powerful message. It was a message that needs to be heeded.
But the Brexit vote isn't the end of the road by any means. Yes there was a major financial reaction yesterday because investors panicked. There was actually no need to panic because, for now, very little changes. Very little may change in the future. It is even possible that Brexit might not occur - although some would say that is unlikely.
What the Brexit vote has done is challenge the status quo. It may well presage the break up of the European Union. Those who have the capacity to do something about this now need to ask "why" people voted the way they did. The answers may be uncomfortable but they need to be addressed - here as well as there.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Scientific research cannot be done

without access to the proper facilities.
My doctor nephew is doing some research at present. Like any intelligent young doctor he knows that he needs to know more. If the young doctor plans to "specialise" then research is essential.
The same is true in other areas. There was a time when it was considered that simply going to university and getting a first degree was enough to get a good job - sometimes a very good job. People rose to the very top with just that.
Now that is just the first step on the ladder. You go from a "Bachelor" degree to a "Master" degree to a "Doctor". And even that is not enough in the world of academia because there are always "post-doctoral studies". 
I have not done "post-doctoral studies" - well, not formally at university. I have done plenty of study. It's been essential. 
But I don't work in science. I work in psychology, linguistics and communication. It's simple stuff compared with the sort of thing my nephew is doing. He spends his days in a darkened lab staring down a microscope and counting cells. He has to do the same thing over and over again with just the smallest of variations. It is not "exciting". 
I remember one of my fellow students in London complaining to one of our lecturers that they had thought research would be "exciting". No, it isn't. Most of the time it is, quite frankly, boring. It just has to be done. The outcome might be exciting or lead to something exciting but the process is not exciting. 
And it gets worse when you don't have the proper facilities to do it. My nephew is working in difficult conditions now. They are about to get worse. The new facilities they are supposed to move into are actually smaller than those they now work in. His supervising professor has tried to explain that there isn't sufficient space to do what they are now doing let alone expand their work. He has been saying this since the design of the new building was first made known. The planners and architects didn't listen. Why?
There's no money either. When he is not at the lab my nephew works in hospitals - in order to be able to eat. Soon though he also has to do an extended stint to replace a Registrar going on leave and, due to the peculiarities of the system, he won't get paid for doing it - you see at the beginning of the year he was supposed to get a research grant to cover his expenses but it hasn't "come through" yet. 
I wonder about all this. He isn't the only young doctor in this position. I know that. He knows that.
I also know that when I need to go and see a doctor I expect them to be well trained and very competent. Isn't it time we at least paid them so they can do their job?

Thursday, 23 June 2016

We go to the polls

on July 2nd - to elect a new federal parliament. The polls are mixed  but, for the most part, indicate a "tight" race. Neither side has yet delivered a decisive blow - and perhaps they won't. There is talk of a "hung parliament" and about excessive power resting with smaller parties who are able to promise the earth (and beyond) knowing that they will never have to deliver it.
Both the major parties are lying in the lead up to the election. They are saying things they know are not true. They are also making promises they can't keep and don't intend to even try and keep. They are promising to spend money that don't have.
Yes, it is standard political game playing. I know that. Most people know. We will make our decisions based on any number of factors. I've done my homework. I'll try and make an informed decision and implement it on polling day. The Senior Cat will do the same. He is, even at 93, still taking an intelligent interest in what people are saying, doing, and demanding.
But, I still have a problem with all this. As I mentioned a short time ago it is my responsibility to ensure that some people with disabilities know how to fill in their ballot papers. Ballot papers for the Senate must now be filled in differently from before. This has confused many people. The advertising by the Australian Electoral Commission has confused them too - or is simply not reaching them. It isn't what they have been told to do for years.
We have given these people a vote. They have the right to a vote. And it has to be their vote. It can't be the vote of the people who care for them.
"What are they promising Cat?" one person asked me. He's smart enough in his own way. His reading skills are limited but he knows about differences and choice and party promises. 
I have explained. I know which way he voted last time because he asked me to go with him. It was, as far as it could be, an informed decision for him. He probably put more thought into it than many people who always vote for a particular political party without giving it any thought at all. 
"I don't understand Cat," someone else told me, "Can't I just put it there like always?" 
I explain again...and again. 
I have now printed off a list which shows the order the candidates appear on the ballot paper. It seems to me that this will be the easiest way to help those who can fill in their own ballot papers but still need some help. We can sit there with the list. They can decide and write the numbers next to their choice of candidates. They can take that list with them when they vote and simply copy the numbers into the relevant squares on the ballot paper. 
I mentioned this to the Senior Cat. 
       "I was going to do the same thing," he told me. 
Perhaps the AEC should have been suggesting this to everyone.