Sunday, April 25, 2010

Why the NRL got it wrong

By Graham Cooke

Does the Australian Rugby League really have the health of its competition at heart or are its officials and administrators simply incompetent?

That was the question I asked myself after hearing the list of punishments meted out to the Melbourne Storm for its failure to keep within the mandated salary cap.

The Storm deserves to be punished - and the punishments should be severe. This was no bureaucratic bungle, no error of bookkeeping by a slipshod financial officer who didn't understand the rules. This was a deliberate and cynical rort. It is amazing that Melbourne Storm would have been able to assemble such a group of high-quality and obviously high-paid stars without arousing suspicions before.

So agreed there should be sanctions; agreed that the premierships and minor premierships should be stripped away - although the game's historians will be the only ones seriously perturbed about the blank spaces in the record books - agreed prize money should be returned and agreed there should be a monetary fine on top of that.

What I can't stomach is the decision to bar the team from accruing any points during the current season - even though it must keep on playing.

This is an unfair and devastating blow to the playing and coaching staff. For all the brave words currently being bandied around in the dressing rooms, the effect of playing week after week for no reward against teams that still have the incentive of taking two points will eventually sap the players' will to put in 100 per cent effort.

Why risk injury in a futile exercise? Team performances will decline, crowds will drop off and players and their agents will start to look elsewhere. I am afraid I join the increasing numbers of commentators who believe the Storm will not survive.

And if the AFL thinks it can just plonk in another franchise as a replacement it had better think again. League has a perilous enough toe-hold in the AFL stronghold as it is, and what fans the Storm does have will not easily forgive the code for treating it with contempt.

I believe rugby league's administrators missed the obvious solution to this part of the club's punishment - one that has worked well enough in the English Football League.

Instead of simply being told it cannot accrue points this season, the Storm should have been fined points, for argument's sake let's say 50.

The eight points already won this season would go towards the fine, reducing it to 42, and from then on the Storm would be playing to reduce the deficit further - every time it won the fine would be reduced by two points.

With 24 game in the regular season the total number of points available is 48, so there would bound to be a carry-over into the next season, but the storms incentive would be to have as few owed points as possible left at the end of the year, so it would start in a reasonably competitive position in 2011. In effect it would be playing for next season's premiership, while still having the ignominy of finishing at the foot of the table in 2010.

With the season continuing it is probably too late for a re-think, but in its haste to get sanctions into place the NRL may well have dealt the Storm - and the future of rugby league in Victoria - a fatal blow.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Dictatorship false path to prosperity

By Graham Cooke

Nouriel Roubini is an interesting character and it’s worth taking a look at the website of Roubini Global Economics where he claims to understand and promote ‘the logic of the global economy’.

Professor Roubini is an economist pure and simple. Political and social issues do not concern him, except when they get in the way of his theories for economic growth, in which case they should be brushed aside.

As an example, one his writers currently argues that dictatorships have served Brazil well at times in the past - benevolent dictatorships admittedly, but the problem with that they inevitably end up serving the needs of the dictators and their cronies rather than the people over which their authoritarian rule is exercised. Something about absolute power corrupting absolutely.

China is certainly one major economy that would enthusiastically embrace Professor Roubini’s theories, while the professor himself is an unabashed admirer of the way the mandarins in Beijing conduct their affairs.

For instance, he predicts the Chinese yuan will usurp the United States dollar as the world’s reserve currency sometime in this century because of its large current account surplus, focussed government and few of the economic worries that the US faces.

He tends to overlook that its current account surplus is built on the backs of the low wages and appalling conditions faced by its lowest strata of workers – an average of seven miners die every day for instance – that allows it to flood the world market with under-priced goods.

The policy makes a few people very wealthy, promotes a strong middle class of several hundred million, while leaving perhaps half a billion others in conditions that a medieval peasant would recognise. Far from being the communist utopia, China today represents the unacceptable face of capitalism.

There might be more sympathy for a yuan-based world economy if the Chinese Government allowed it to float and find its own level, instead of being artificially pegged in order to ensure China's exports remain riduculously cheap.

Professor Roubini is known as ‘Dr Doom’ for his continuously bleak prognosis of the West’s economic health. What he fails to see are the social problems that China is storing up for itself by retaining an iron grip on its population and giving no outlet to the aspirations of so many of its people.

China is a pressure cooker with no safety valve. It is something the leadership will have to deal with in the years and decades ahead or face a social explosion of its own making.

Professor Roubini and his cohorts may be enchanted by dictatorships, but history demonstrates that dictatorships don’t last for ever, and often end in unpleasant circumstances.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Expenses scandal costly for UK's main parties

By Graham Cooke

British Opposition Leader David Cameron is making 'Change' the catchword of his campaign in the British General Election, now fixed for May 6, but if the country's recent history is anything to go by, he may find it difficult to get an enthusiastic response from the voters.

Only once in almost 31 years has the electorate stirred itself to toss out an incumbent government. That was in 1997 when Tony Blair's New Labour image ousted a tired Conservative Party led by John Major after 17 years of unbroken Tory rule. Since then Labour has won two more elections by handy margins and has itself chalked up 13 years in power.

For most of the last three years it seemed the electorate was ready to turn to the Conservatives again. The Cameroons, as the supportive Tory media is calling them, were presenting a fresh, new image, finally shaking off the sleaze that dogged the Major administration during its last days.

It is true that Cameron had to face up to his establishment image - he was educated at Eaton and Oxford, a well-worn path for the sons of the 'ruling classes', but the electorate appeared so tired of the dour, colourless Gordon Brown, the Prime Ministerial successor to Blair, that for once it seemed it would swallow their class prejudices and vote for the 'Tory Toff'.

That scenario began to unravel when early last year, the Daily Telegraph, a die hard supporter of the Conservative Party, broke the MPs' expenses scandal. For weeks the British public were presented with stories about MPs cheating on their expenses - and therefore cheating the taxpayer.

One Member claimed on the cost of cleaning the moat around his country house, another charged for a mortgage that had already been paid off; yet another for a London flat that was actually being used by his daughter - the list went on and on.

To the public is seemed that everyone was on the fiddle - Labourites, Tories and the third party, the Liberal Democrats, were all tainted by the scandal. The Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, tried to play things down and was forced out of office as a result.

In the 12 months since, what had been a massive Conservative lead over the Government has slowly been whittled away. At the start of the election campaign it is still a handy four per cent, but close enough to suggest there will be a contest. Many political pundits are predicting a 'hung parliament' with the balance of power being held by the Liberal Democrats and a plethora of minor nationalist groups.

Another disturbing possibility is the breakthrough of the far right British National Party whose anti-European, anti-immigration stance has so far limited its success to local elections and, ironically, the EU Parliament.

Anything short of a clear Labour victory could prove curtains for Brown with the Liberal Democrats hinting they would not prop up a minority Labour Government while he was still leader.

In the end it might be apathy that wins the day. With non-compulsory voting it is quite possible that a majority of the electorate will take the position of a 'plague on all your houses' and stay home. In those circumstances almost any result is possible.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Responsibility needed this flu season

By Graham Cooke

I suppose it must be the chill in the air this Easter weekend, the hint of brown among the green in Canberra's leafy suburbs, but suddenly the stories about the flu season are making their appearances in the media again, along with grim predictions about how Australia is unprepared and the likelihood that a virulent outbreak could overwhelm the health system.

It is difficult to know how much more prepared Australia could be. We have more than enough vaccine stored to combat a repeat of last season's swine flu outbreak, and if the virus has mutated in the meantime, what can we do, we have scientists, not magicians.

That hasn't stopped Professor Peter Collignon, described as a Canberra infectious diseases specialist, who claims to have found a litany of problems with Australia's response to the previous winter's outbreak of swine flu.

The good professor acknowledges that the 191 associated deaths with swine flu in Australia last year were well below the regular 3000 deaths linked to ordinary strains of influenza, that year and every year.

However "there may have been additional influenza-associated deaths that were not diagnosed by laboratory testing," he says.

Maybe, maybe not. Whatever the case, we were not exactly burning the bodies in the streets.

And, of course, the media is to blame for it all. The 'disproportionate fear' generated by their reports leading to people crowding into medical practices and hospital emergency departments when all they needed was a couple of days at home in bed.

Of course the media always loves a good doom-and-gloom story - that's why Professor Collignon is getting coverage - but isn't it time people took more charge of their lives instead of fleeing into the arms of the professionals at the first hint of a sniffle?

I have a friend who travelled to Taiwan and China during the height of the swine flu 'emergency' last year and came back with an undeniably heavy cold.

Instead of running off to her doctor or the nearest hospital, she got on to the well-publicised flu hotline and discussed her symptons with the nurse at the other end. The nurse asked her if she had a fever - she didn't - so the fast-track diagnoses was that it was very unlikely she had any kind of flu, let alone swine flu, and to take a day off to recover.

That was spot on. The cold cleared and she was back at work without wasting the time of medical professionals at clinics, surgeries or hospitals.

If a few more of us took this sensible and responsible course then there would be no danger of Professor Collignon's dire predictions about health system overload coming true.