Posts filed under ‘Australia’

Are you getting exactly what you pay for?

Almost every product you buy is sold by weight, volume, length, count or area. This means that when you buy a product, you might not be getting exactly what you think you’re paying for. Let’s take a tub of potato salad as an example: you purchase this from the deli at your local supermarket. Think you’re paying only for the potato salad? Ah, not exactly: you’re most likely paying for the weight of the plastic container too.

Australia has not had a national trade measurement system up to now and this has allowed retailers to “short-weight” or overcharge for items. But consumers should only be paying for the product and not the packaging. 109 years ago, it was written into the Australian Constitution that responsibility for weights and measures should be a national responsibility and, from July 1 2010, it will be.

A new national trade measurement system will come into effect on this date and will give the Commonwealth the responsibility for weights and measurements for the very first time. The system will cover measures used in trade that total more than AU$400 billion a year nationally, including exports, imports and over-the-counter sales such as meat and petrol. It will greatly reduce State compliance differences and bring Australia on an equal footing with its trading partners.

The new national system will replace 17 different pieces of State and Territory legislation and will make it simpler for businesses to operate within a uniform framework. The National Measurement Institute (which is a Division of the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) will become the national regulator of trade measurement and will be responsible for a national compliance framework delivered by 100 inspectors. These inspectors will use highly accurate equipment to inspect fuel dispensers at service stations, scales at retail stores and packaged products at supermarkets.

Obviously, this is a great boon for consumers because it will mean whether you are buying petrol in Hobart or groceries in Cairns, Australians will be confident they are getting exactly what they are paying for. Parliamentary Secretary for Innovation and Industry, Richard Marles, was quoted in a Media Release on May 20 and highlighted how Australian consumers have been at a disadvantage:

Even small errors in weight or volume can add up significantly over time. If you lose one percent of a weekly $200 grocery shop because the scales are wrongly calibrated, over a year, you could be down more than $100“.

The new national system will require an education and awareness campaign, so the National Measurement Institute (NMI) has provided 10 Top Tips for Australian consumers:

  • make sure you have a clear view of the scale
  • check the scale shows zero weight – if it doesn’t, tell the trader
  • make sure the price/kg on the scale matches the advertised price/kg
  • check the total price on the scale is the price you’re charged at the checkout
  • make sure you get everything that you paid for
  • always read the label
  • pay only for the product, not the packaging
  • ensure the price is indicating $0.00 after you have picked up the nozzle and before you start filling your car’s fuel tank
  • check your receipt to ensure the prices match the advertised price
  • if you think you’ve been “short-weighted” or overcharged, notify the store manager and contact the Trade Measurement Section of the NMI if you think the short-weighting was intentional or happens regularly

Reform has been long overdue but finally the Australian consumer can shop with confidence. Thanks to Mark Communications for providing me with information about the National Measurement System and the photo accompanying this post.

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May 30, 2010 at 2:29 am 1 comment

How to spot a bogan

My stats tell me that lots of people followed the link to the Wikipedia entry for bogan, which I provided in the post telling you I’m about to choof off to New Zealand to live. Since the majority of my readers are from the United States, I thought I would provide some further guidance on what exactly is a bogan and, more importantly, how to spot one. Since I’m about to move to NZ, I also undertook some serious research to find out if bogans exist there.

But first: who or what is a bogan? Aussies who aren’t bogans (ie that would be me for example!) will tell you that a bogan is someone from the the lower working class demographic, usually residing in the outer-urban fringes of a city with inadequate social infrastructure in those fringes. Check out the Wikipedia entry for bogan here to get more details. The word bogan appeared in Australian literature in the 1800s and usually referred to something of poor quality.

The first hint that you might be dealing with a bogan is the speech pattern. Bogans speak in a different language – Boaglish – and shorten their words. For example, fishing becomes fishun. So the suffix -ing is non-existent and is transformed into -un. A bogan also adopts nicknames for people and places. So the Leagues Club becomes leaguesy or Shane Warne (cricket dude) becomes Warnsey.

A second hint that you might be face to face with a bogan is the moniker they have inflicted on their (poor suffering) children – Shazza, Dazza, Montana, Dakota, Baz, Kylie, Charlene, Khayleigh, Memphis, Mikaela, Savannah, Tiffanee, Dallas. Some of these names very well suit American states and cities but a bogan also loves to give kids these sorts of names.

A bogan usually drives a Holden, Ford or possibly a beaten-up old Datsun car sometimes festooned with flame patterns or fluffy dice hanging off the front mirror. They often take the bogan vehicle out for a spot of hooning, which is usually accompanied by loud screeching of tyres (or tires for my American friends) or the blaring out of Barnsey music or Midnight Oil (The Oils to bogans).

A bogan usually has a lot of time on their hands because most likely they are unemployed (aka dole bludgers). So they sit around in their flats (apartments) or boganvillas, in their cheap flanno shirts, drinking Victoria Bitter (or VB) or they lurk in the local RSL waiting for the $10.00 lunch special of bangers and mash followed by tinned fruit salad. Yum.

The dress sense of a bogan is a dead give-away. Apart from the flanno, they love Ugh boots, singos (singlets), black leggings, trucker caps, piercings of the eyebrows and basically any out-dated fashion they can lay their hands on.

American readers: think of bogans as white trash, trailer trash, rednecks or hillbillies and I think you have it. Although I appreciate that between these species, there are subtle differences. And now to the question for today – does New Zealand have bogans? After extensive research, I can tell you that NZ boasts its very own postgraduate student who was awarded NZ $100,000 to study the bogan lifestyle. Dave Snell is a self-confessed Kiwi bogan who declares bogans are not dull-witted, unkempt or uncouth:

Apparently, the NZ bogan is immediately identifiable from the tattoo or T-shirt of choice (very popular: Metallica or AC/DC, an Australian heavy metal band usually referred to by bogans as Acca/Dacca). They are also seen typically clad in black rib jerseys, tight black jeans or tracksuit pants (trackie-dacks). So the key to spotting the NZ bogan is the black clothes, sometimes with beer or Jack Daniels’ Finest Tennessee Whiskey logos. Their favourite haunts are rugby matches and the back roads of country NZ. It would seem that hoons are referred to as petrol-heads over there.

My research tells me that NZ bogans flourish in the provincial cities and towns of Invercargill, Wanganui, New Plymouth, Ashburton and Nelson. I’m yet to discover if the species exists in Oxford but will let you know.  NZ bogans are called by different names depending on geographic location, with westies, booners and bevans being other terms. NZ bogans seem to like hassling kids. In Hamilton, bogans were living in a property next to a High School and, whilst lounging around drinking beer all day, shouted derogatory stuff to kids causing security guards to be hauled in. This would seem to signal a slight difference between NZ Boganis and Boganis Australianus (as I believe the species are referred to). The Aussie bogan lays off the kids.

NZ bogans appear to love loitering in shopping malls but can also be found congregating in pubs that offer live entertainment and dimly lit carparks. Like Aussie bogans, they have free-time on their hands due to bludging not working and so NZ bogans network with fellow bogans on public transport.

Apparently, I just need to watch NZ’s longest-running TV documentary, Outrageous Fortune, to study NZ Boganis. And I have heard mutterings that NZ has its very own bogan QueenPaula Bennett - who is a high ranking Cabinet member and a favourite of NZ Prime Minister, John Key (which leads me to ask the truly important question: is the NZ Prime Minister the world’s first bogan PM?).

So you can see dear reader that whilst I may have a desire to escape the Aussie bogan, NZ Boganis exists in the Land of the Long White Cloud. Subtle differences are evident but a bogan is a bogan. I plan to examine NZ Boganis when I arrive and will report my findings on my new blog.

Meanwhile: any bogans reading this post – please don’t email accusing me of bogan-bashing.

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April 13, 2010 at 2:00 am 8 comments

Not so lucky

I always call Australia the canary in the coalmine when it comes to climate change. We are already the driest inhabited continent on earth and areas of Australia have been experiencing prolonged severe drought since around 2003. We’re the so-called Lucky Country but maybe our number is up. It’s going to be a real party for Australia when global warming hits us. I heard the other day on the news that mosquito-borne illnesses such as Dengue Fever will be increasingly common as we heat up.

I know that some of you will be shaking your heads saying noooooooo climate change isn’t real. Especially because some scientists seem to have been naughty boys and girls. But climate change scientists and academics are fighting back and here’s the really chilling part of what they have to say:

None of the handful of mis-statements (out of hundreds and hundreds of unchallenged statements) remotely undermines the conclusion that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-twentieth century is very likely due to observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations“.

Some 250 climate change scientists and academics have signed the open letter in an attempt to bring back some credibility to the climate change debate. They also state:

“…measurements of global average temperatures show an increase of about 0.6 degrees C over the twentieth century and about 0.8 degrees C warming since mid-19th century.  The pattern of increase has not been smooth or monotonic.  There have been several 10- to 15-year periods of stable or declining temperatures over the past 150 years, but 14 of the warmest 15 years on record have been experienced between 1995 and 2009.  Since 1970, observational evidence from all continents and most oceans shows that many natural systems are already being affected by these temperature increases“.

Globally, the winter of 2009-2010 was the second warmest on record despite the snowstorms and cold temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere.

Whether it’s anthropogenic global warming or just plain old global warming – the scientific stuff is pointing to rising temperatures. Americans: if you want to know what your country might look like in say 20 years, read this. Australia is already there.

And the CSIRO (serious pointy-headed dudes) has just released their State of the Climate report. You can download it here. There are no “is climate change really happening” type questions in this report. It is full of grim statistics like:

  • rapidly rising sea levels from 1993 to 2009, with levels around Australia rising, between 1.5 and 3mm per year in Australia’s south and east and between 7 and 10mm in the north;
  • from 1870 to 2007, the global average sea level rose by close to 200mm;
  • since 1960 the mean temperature in Australia has increased by about 0.7 °C. Some areas have experienced a warming of 1.5 to 2 ºC over the last 50 years. Warming has occurred in all seasons, however the strongest warming has occurred in spring (about 0.9 °C);
  • the geographic distribution of rainfall has changed significantly over the past 50 years. Rainfall decreased in south-west and south-east Australia, including all the major population centres, during the same period;
  • global CO2 concentrations have risen rapidly over the last century. Methane, which is another greenhouse gas, has shown similar increases. The carbon dioxide concentration in 2009 of 386 parts per million (ppm) is much higher than the natural range of 170 to 300 ppm that has existed in the atmosphere for at least the past 800,000 years and possibly the past 20 million years.

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide (parts per million) and Methane (parts per billion)

What does this all mean? We’re going to be toast, literally. In the next few decades, Australia will be a much hotter place. The CSIRO report says:

Australian average temperatures are projected to rise by 0.6 to 1.5 ºC by 2030. If global greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow at rates consistent with past trends, warming is projected to be in the range of 2.2 to 5.0 ºC by 2070“.

Great. Guess I’ll be able to toast some marshmallows on my searingly hot balcony. And of course there will be a decrease in rainfall, which of course will lead to what I most fear – water scarcity and skirmishes over water. The report includes a blunt statement: “Our observations clearly demonstrate that climate change is real”.

Yeah, well I’m not arguing with pointy-headed scientific dudes who have more knowledge than me about global temperature changes and the causes. The science is strong. Australians should stop putting the the proverbial head in sand, hoping this nasty climate stuff will disappear. It won’t. Think about future generations of children instead of worrying about your McMansion or whether you can afford The Brands.

March 23, 2010 at 2:00 am 6 comments

A darker place

Dear international reader. Most likely, you think Australia is a safe place. Probably, when you think of us you imagine cute-looking hopping animals (that would be kangaroos) or fluffy, cuddly bears (that would be koalas, which of course are not really bears). I doubt you imagine stabbings in the school yard or bashings of international students. But Australia is looking more and more like the United States these days.

I’ve been pondering the rise in violence in Australia, particularly what seems to be a knife culture amongst school kids and youth. Just last week, we heard of the sickening attack on a 12-year old school kid, Elliot Fletcher, in a Brisbane schoolyard. He was stabbed in the chest and died within minutes. As if this wasn’t bad enough, we then learn that a 13-year old boy from the same school allegedly carried out the attack and has been charged with murder. Last month, an Indian student was attacked and stabbed to death on the streets of Melbourne. There have been numerous attacks on Indians, which has caused some hysteria within Indian media and could threaten bilateral ties between Australia and India.

We also heard this week of Trinity Bates, an 8-year old girl abducted from her Queensland home and murdered. Her body was dumped in a drain just 50 metres from her home. A 19-year old has been charged and is “assisting police with their enquiries” (which is police talk for “we got you mate and we’re going to grill you”). Then there was the abduction and sexual assault of an 8-year old girl in Sydney allegedly by a 20-year old male.

And then we get to the really, really sick and twisted part: both Trinity Bates and Elliot Fletcher had Facebook pages set up as a tribute to their lives. What happened? Sickos and whackos flocked to the pages and posted distressing, violent scenes of murder, race-hate, bestiality and pornography. Personally, I think Facebook needs to take a stand here and stop pages from being vandalised. (UPDATE 26/2 seems Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, feels the same and has written to Mark  Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook). And what the hell is in the minds of sickos who post such distressing material on a page dedicated to the life of a poor kid brutally snatched from life? Is there no thought for the grief of family and friends? Obviously, not.

Only yesterday, I witnessed two women (probably in their 40s) having a huge public cat fight on my train over a seat. Swear words were uttered. Threats were made. A handbag was thrown around the carriage. I thought they were two brawny fist fighters rather than two ladies (and I use that term loosely). The train had to be stopped and police hauled their assess off.

Let me pause here and say: every society has violence. Every society has sickos and whackos. Every society has creepy people who attack, assault or murder young kids. Australia is not immune to any of this. But seems to me that there has been a sharp increase in public violence in recent years, along with a sharp increase in the severity of violence.

Let’s look at some illustrative statistics.

  • Victoria has witnessed a 20% increase of assaults in the public domain in the last 5 years.
  • an international study of early adolescence has found that Australian 13-year olds are more likely to be violent than their American counterparts.
  • people in Perth seem to like slugging it out on public buses – there’s been a 30% increase in assaults on buses over the last year.
  • school-based violence seems to have risen dramatically in New South Wales – serious incidents involving assault, weapons possession, threats or drugs are up 90%.
  • the Northern Territory had a 15% spike in assaults during 2009.

The graph below, from the Australian Institute of Criminology, shows the upward trend in assaults (including sexual assault) in Australia from 1995 to 2007:

The trend in assaults shows an average growth of 5% each year from 1995 to 2007, four times the annual growth of the Australian population in the same period. Disturbing.

Now, I don’t think Australians need to become hermits and lock ourselves up in our homes, afraid to venture out for fear of being the victim of public violence. But I do think we need to do some cold, hard examining of what’s going on in our society.

I have my own views. They may be right. They be wrong. But having lived in Australia all my life, I would tell you that the reasons for the increasing violence are the following:

  • Australia’s binge-drinking culture. When I was growing up, pubs used to shut at 6.00pm on weekdays I think and led to the six o’clock swill ie when workers used to rush to the pub to down a beer or two before heading off home. I don’t recall pubs being open on Sundays and I think on Saturdays they could only stay open until 10.00pm. But now we have 24-hour pubs (although there have been some mutterings about 2.00am closing times and increasing the drinking age to 21 years in an effort to curb alcohol-fueled violence). And it seems to have become acceptable for youths to get as drunk as possible, especially during Schoolies Week. Alcohol abuse is widespread across all levels of society. Let’s face it: Australia has a love affair with alcohol. We have bottle shops galore and advertising that links sport with drinking, Of course, there’s another question to ask here: why is there a binge-drinking culture in Australia? What’s behind it?
  • 24/7 lifestyle, which brings people out more into public spaces and the growth of a night-time economy in Australia. Again, when I was growing up Sunday was a pretty boring day – nothing was open – and on Saturdays shops shut at 1.00pm. I well remember my father stressing out about getting to the hardware store before 1.00pm on Saturday. And there was no Thursday late-night shopping.  Now, Australia has a civic cosmopolitanism, characterised by shopping centres open on the weekend as well as week days; late-night shopping on Thursdays (in NSW); more people living in inner-city areas out and about dining in cafes and restaurants; bars and clubs invitingly open. This of course must lead to more opportunities for encounters with strangers and if you couple this with alcohol consumed, more opportunities for tempers to ignite.
  • Drug use. Illicit drug use is on the rise amongst baby boomers, especially ecstasy and amphetamines. But it’s not just older dudes indulging in drugs. Statistics show that the incidence of possession or use of ecstasy and cocaine across the board has jumped by 50% and 40% respectively over the past two to three years. There seems to be an epidemic of prescription drug use with people popping painkillers or injecting oxycodone and kids as young as 13-years old are taking steroids because they want a buff bod like celebrity sports people. So if you’re high on whacky tobaccy or having psychedelic dreams or suffering from roid rage – chances are higher that violent assaults or attacks will occur.
  • The decline of civility, respect and communality. I’ve blogged about the decline of civility before. I guess this is why you end up with two “ladies” having an embarrassing public cat fight on a train. But there’s also a decline in respect and just plain niceness in contemporary society. Robert Putnam of course wrote about our fragmented society (in Bowling Alone) and how we have become a society disconnected from family, friends and neighbours.  And I think the rise of extreme individualism, particularly in the late 20th Century, can be linked to the age of mass-produced American culture we’re increasingly living in, which sees us identifying and defining ourselves through the brands and products we buy.

I admit I’m puzzled about Australia at the moment. It’s not the place I grew up in but I realise things move on, things change. There are some deep issues at play here that I haven’t even touched on eg the effects of visual violence on kids from TV shows and movies; the question of whether or not Australia has been successful in integrating our many immigrants.

What do you think is going on? Have you seen a rise in public violence in your own country?

February 25, 2010 at 3:55 am 3 comments

Is it a car? is it a plane?

A publicity agency has sent me information about nifty eco-transportation that’s just been released in Australia. It’s called the Manhattan M3 Eco Pod and is the next generation of eco-friendly transport. It has three wheels and reminds me a bit of those Messerschmidt micro-cars that were seen whizzing down roads after WWII. Did you ever seen one of those? I think they were also called bubble cars and used the canopy off a Messerschmidt fighter plane to cover the car’s cabin.

But back to the eco pod. It looks a bit like a scooter or a bike but is much sturdier with its intuitive lean stabilising system, allowing you to lean into corners, exactly like a bike, whilst keeping all three wheels still firmly on the ground, gripping the road. Check it out:

And have a look at it whizzing around on Australian roads in this YouTube video:

With gas guzzlers clogging up our roads and freeways, the eco pod is a genuine alternative mode of transport. It has a lockable boot/trunk (the volume of the boot is an impressive 72 litres), spacious back seat with fold-out arm rests and is economical. This baby can achieve up to 200km on 6 litres of fuel and is equipped with a 150cc single cylinder 4 stroke engine with an automatic CVT transmission. I can really see it as a convenient “car” to go shopping, run errands or beat the morning traffic. The cost is around AU $6,490 ride-away.

February 21, 2010 at 2:00 am 4 comments

Oh to be a pig

Dear international reader.  When you think of Sydney or Australia – what comes to mind? The sparkling blue of Sydney harbour? The constant sunshiny days? Exotic wildlife and man-eating koalas? Blonde babes in bikinis or guys with windswept hair on surfboards? Good food? Laid back life style?

Well, tick all those, you’re right. But I bet you didn’t say: trains that you find in the third world. And I bet you also didn’t say that pigs are treated better than humans in Australia.

Sydney has been experiencing a fairly humid summer. It has not been unusual to have 35º/95 ºF or higher days. Now, you would think that a developed, sophisticated country like Australia would have air-conditioned trains wouldn’t you? Ah, well nope, not exactly.

A couple of weeks ago, it was a shocker and I had to catch a train from Wynyard to Central (two stops). Into the station rattled a silver set train that looks like this:

Old and tired. I boarded and became convinced that CityRail (who runs the Sydney train network) is trying to kill passengers. There was no air-conditioning and the outside temperature was around 35º. Hot, cranky, sweaty passengers were crowded in the vestibule area.  Some windows were open but were blowing in hot air. By the time we reached Central, most of us rushed out gasping for air (must have been at least 38º in the carriage I was travelling in).

Sydney’s trains can often be crowded and about a third of the network I believe is not air-conditioned. So here we all were, stuck together like sardines in a heat-soaked tin can train, shunted from station to station.

Now, if we were pigs, we would be transported in air-conditioned luxury. Yep, that’s right folks: there are rules and codes of practice aplenty for the transportation of pigs but none for the transportation of the victims of CityRail trains.

The Parliament of Australia Senate Committee on animal welfare recommends that piggies are never to be transported during temperatures of 38º or higher; the Code of Practice (Vic) for the land transport of pigs says that piggies can suffer temperature stress when the weather hits 30°C or more;  and the National Farm Care Council of Canada has a very handy fact sheet for the handling of pigs, which recommends that housing for pigs should never reach temperatures higher than 34°C.

Yet, CityRail seems to think it’s fine to transport humans in crowded carriages that can reach 34°C or higher. Hello? CityFAIL.

February 5, 2010 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Oh hai! Happy Anniversary

Well, who would have thought. Three years ago to this very day, I started the ThinkingShift blog – and I’m still ranting and raving about this and that. At first, I thought I’d struggle to find things to blog about. But nope: that hasn’t happened. In fact, there’s too much to talk about.

Occasionally, I consider giving blogging the toss because it takes time and discipline to blog regularly; research topics; and write the (yeah, let’s face it) overly long pieces I do. I had hoped that Twitter, with its limit of 140 characters, might force me to be more concise with my posts. Alas, that has not happened. You might find that the TS blog takes a whole new direction in 2010 but I’ll save this news for a later time.

Meanwhile, January 26 is Australia Day so happy Aussie Day to all Aussie readers. Did you know that Australia Day has only be celebrated as a public holiday on January 26 since 1994 and that it wasn’t until 1935 that all States and territories started using the name “Australia Day” to mark the date? During the 19th Century, it was referred to as Foundation Day or First Landing Day. On January 26 in 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet of eleven convict ships from Great Britain and the first governor of New South Wales, landed at Sydney Cove. And like the Americans with Thanksgiving, convicts and children of convicts, began celebrating the colony’s beginnings with an anniversary dinner or an emancipist festival.

In 1826, during the anniversary dinner, the word “Australia” started to be used during toasts to the colony. By 1837, fierce loyalty to the new continent of Australia was evident during the anniversary dinner which could only be celebrated by the Australian-born.

After Federation in January 1901, conservative Australian and State governments (fearing that federation might weaken ties to the Mother Country of Great Britain) started celebrating Empire Day on May 24, which marked the late Queen Victoria’s birthday. There was also debate over moving Foundation Day to April 29, the day Captain Cook first landed on the east coast at Botany Bay in 1770. And during World War I, July 30, 1915 became Australia Day.

By 1938 Australians were still 98% British in background and, with the support of the Prime Minister and State premiers, there was agreement for the first time over the name of the day and the timing of the celebration. And so Australia Day started to be celebrated uniformly throughout the country.

January 26, 2010 at 2:00 am 5 comments

Did I stuff it up?

Just over a year ago, I walked the plank. Well, not quite. I offered up my predictions for 2009. The first time I’ve done that – so time to look back and see how many predictions I stuffed up. If I managed to get them all right, then I am going to embark on a new career as a psychic. Dress up with wild red hair in ribbons and gaze dreamily into a crystal ball. That should do it.

To refresh our collective memories, here were my predictions for 2009 with a look at how I tracked against them:

  • Reinvent yourself as a Chief Financial Officer (or CFO) – due to the global financial crisis, I said that organisations would need a financial wizard to navigate them through the mess.  I may have this one right – the Best of 2009: Careers in CFO.com (possibly a biased publication!) declared 2009 as the Year of the CFO, with the role of strategic CFO being prominent. A quick look at seek.com.au and I found 95 jobs for CFOs or senior corporate accountants. So I’m giving myself a tick for this prediction.
  • Formal recognition of global recession: I predicted that the IMF would formally admit the global economy was in recession. Well, that happened in April 2009 with the IMF’s April World Economic Outlook. I thought that despite a new Prez in the White House, Obama’s economic stimulus programme would not put a halt to rising unemployment during 2009 in the US or a deepening recession.  Although hiring is starting to pick up now and jobless figures are dropping, a record 20 million-plus people collected unemployment benefits in 2009 in the US and the unemployment rate hit 10%. In March 2009, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, told the grim tale of a deepening US recession and indeed world recession. Falling US auto sales and increasing home foreclosures signalled a recession that wasn’t going to disappear quickly. Further, I muttered that I wouldn’t be surprised if some US states declared bankruptcy. Well, that happened in California. Arnie ran out of money and basically had a US $12bn deficit on his hands. He ended up giving IOUs to creditors and civil servants. Illinois is in the midst of a financial struggle that could mean tax increases for its citizens. And Business Week laid it all out, highlighting the US states in bad financial shape. Thankfully, hyperinflation didn’t happen. So…basically a tick for these predictions.
  • Banks will screw us. What better example can I give than the Westpac (Australia) outrage and its “mortgages are banana smoothies” ill-judged metaphor. And Australian banks certainly tightened credit in 2009. Tick.
  • I said that Governments would take increasing control of banks. Well, the Austrian Government had to take control of Bank Medici; Ireland became the first European Union country to take de facto control of all of its most important banks; Obama took over control of the bonus pool by capping executive pay at banks that were bailed out; and the Spanish Government took over the troubled savings bank, Caja de Ahorros de Castilla-La Mancha. Tick.
  • Employers could get nasty. I predicted that wages could be cut and more demands made on staff to “do more with less”. This certainly happened – Hewlett-Packard imposed wide-ranging pay cuts including Executive council members who took a 15% haircut on their base pay; Japan slashed wages across the board in an effort to stem job losses; and the recession was putting pressure on some workers to do unpaid overtime so they could keep their jobs. And the global recession witnessed worsening employee morale. Tick.
  • Trend towards a simpler life. Really, I think this is an ongoing trend and will continue into 2010. But with many people in the US, for example, out of work – people are learning to be thrifty (and enjoying it). Here’s the story of 37-year old woman leading a simpler life after being laid off; USA Today reported that Americans were paring back their lavish lifestyles because of the financial crisis; the DIY industry exploded in 2009 with people doing their own home improvements, learning how to cook at home or making crafts to sell. The global recession even renewed interest in home vegetable gardening.  Tick.
  • Increase in civil unrest and rekindling of socialist ideals. I’m sure you all remember the angry protests against financial institutions in the UK; Greek farmers blocked roads and protested over falling agricultural prices; a million workers in France joined demonstrations to demand greater protection for jobs and wages; Icelandic demonstrators clashed with police in Reykjavik. There was unrest all over Europe; a wave of protests swept across Russia; folks in Connecticut weren’t going to take it anymore and descended on the luxurious homes of bank CEOs and US students at the University of California clashed with police whilst protesting against a hike in tuition fees the university says is needed to raise US$505 million. A Rasmussen poll during April 2009 pointed to a possible shift towards socialism in the US – 53% of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism and 20% say they prefer socialism (I’m going to bet on the high probability that many young people, who don’t know what socialism is, were in that 20% and the 27% who weren’t sure which is better). So…tick.
  • I thought that the cosmetics and entertainment industries would thrive in 2009 – because women won’t give up lipstick (lipstick sales during the Great Depression of the 1930s rose by 25%) and people will want to forget economic doom and gloom for a few hours whilst watching a film. Both are mood enhancers. 2009 saw an increase in Avon representatives (probably as people laid off thought of new career opportunities) and I think there was a trading down to cheaper brands. The so-called “lipstick index” (created by Leonard Lauder, chairman of Estee Lauder) says that when there’s a recession, women buy more lipstick and Forbes reported what women were still buying in 2009, with lipstick high on the list. What I didn’t predict but should have is the rise of natural and organic cosmetics, which increased by 13% to €1.7 billion in Europe in 2009. Although cosmetic companies have taken a bit of a battering, make-up and lipstick is still selling well. Similarly, moviegoers defied the global recession with attendance at US cinemas up 5% during 2009 and box-office revenue up 8.6% in the U.S. and Canada and certain to top $10 billion, an all-time record. Tick.
  • Better leadership from our politicians and more cooperation between political parties. The US and China pledged to work more closely together on political, economic and environmental issues; representatives of political parties from Latin America and Asia-Pacific met to strengthen cooperation amid the global financial crisis; and UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, urged global cooperation at the World Economic Forum in Davos. So I guess a tick.
  • Politically, Afghanistan will start to haunt Obama.  You just have to read the newspapers to know that Obama’s troubles are pretty desperate in Afghanistan and that quite possibly the country will be Obama’s Vietnam. And he’s going to have to spend 2010 explaining to Congress why he needs roughly $100 billion a year and at least 40,000 more troops (surge anyone?) in fighting a war that is increasingly unpopular. Tick.
  • Rise in trade protectionism. Tick, this has happened despite the need for a coordinated economic approach to the financial crisis. Global use of trade remedies rose by 18.8% in the first quarter of 2009 – download a report here.
  • Wild weather due to climate change and skirmishes over water and food. This is not science to say this but when I was a kid, I don’t remember so many days of 35 or 40 degrees.  We seem to be getting warmer weather during winter (eg in August) and very very hot days in summer followed by a day that is 15 degrees cooler. Read about Australia’s weird weather here. We’ve had severe storms and floods, Perth and Adelaide are on fire, and of course Sydney was hit with a red dust storm during September. Wild weather has wreaked havoc in Indonesia and climate scientists are predicting that the year ahead will see El Niño exacerbating the effects of climate change, bringing with it floods, droughts and the hottest years on record. We’ve also seen snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures in the UK, Europe and the US – which the skeptics use as evidence against global warming – but climate scientists are putting this down to La Niña (cooler than normal water temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean) and does not detract from the fact that we are seeing thinning ice and retreating glaciers. Climate experts are predicting that the real heat will set in after 2009 with a surge in temperatures. So I’ll give this a tick.  Crop failures saw 1500 farmers commit suicide in the Indian state of Chattisgarh; there were some reports of a catastrophic fall during 2009 in global food production; and I’ve already told you about skirmishes over water. Tick.

Clearly, I should reconsider my career path and become a psychic. I’ll dust off my crystal ball. But frankly, if you follow world events keenly and note the patterns, you don’t need to be Einstein to figure out what will happen. Next post – my predictions for 2010. Given my track record, I know you’ll be excited but try to get some sleep :-)

January 3, 2010 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Awaken the spirit

Happy New Year to all ThinkingShift readers. I think 2010 is going to be year of transformation. I like even numbers, so hasta la vista to 2009. Sydney did its fireworks thing and led the world into the new decade (actually, Auckland NZ really does that). Our Harbour Bridge was once again lit up in spectacular fashion.

The theme for the 2009 12-minute fireworks display was Awaken the Spirit. I think this was an excellent theme to signal that 2010 is about awakening our spirit after a tough year brought on by the global financial crisis. It’s about unity and bringing people together in a time of new beginnings. And of course, indigenous Australians talk of awakening the spirit within the land, water and sky every year. The colour theme was blue. That’s the thing about Sydney: it’s always blue. Bright blue sky with stunning blue sparkling water. To match this, there were some amazing blue fireworks, which is apparently the most difficult colour to create because blue fireworks burn at a very low intensity.

Normally, the Harbour Bridge is festooned with one symbol. My all time favourite being the 1999-2000 “New Millennium” theme displaying the word Eternity in copperplate writing. Eternity was in honour of Arthur Stace – an Aussie reformed alcoholic who converted to Christianity and spread the word by writing Eternity in chalk on footpaths around Sydney.

But to kick off 2010, we chose to use three powerful symbols: the yin-yang symbol, a blue moon and a ring of fire. The blue moon symbol was in honour of the second full moon in the calendar month of December (December 2 and 31 2009).

I stayed home and watched Mad Men (I’m obsessed). I rushed out onto our balcony at 9.00pm to see the blue moon (which seemed more yellow to me) and watch the local 9.00pm fireworks but by 12.00am I was tucked up in bed so missed the midnight display. Boring I know. But I just don’t relish the thought of spending New Year’s Eve jostling with thousands of others trying to get a vantage point to watch the sky light up for 12 minutes. Actually, forget thousands of people – last night’s fireworks attracted over 1.5 million people to the Sydney harbour foreshores.

The fireworks display involved 5000 kg of explosives that cost AU$5 million. This is the only part I question – spending five million on a bunch of explosives that last just 12 minutes when there are many people doing it tough out there. But if it puts us in the right frame of mind to tackle 2010 head on, then maybe it’s spending public money in a beneficial way.

Photo credits: SMH

January 1, 2010 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Water conflicts

Did you read my post about water barons and how multinational companies or private individuals are spotting the opportunities to make a profit from an increasingly dwindling supply of fresh water?  I told you about how we will be slugged with substantially increased water rates, contaminated water supplies or poor service delivery when water scarcity hits us.

Australia of course is the driest continent on the planet and has one of the highest levels of water use per capita – so what happens when an area or region runs out of water? It’s what I’ve been saying – illegal water carriers swoop like vultures to the carcass. The Upper Hunter region in New South Wales has been in the grip of drought. Dams, tanks, bores and streams have been running dry from Cessnock to Murrurundi and thousands of families in this mainly rural area are being forced to buy water for drinking, washing, bathing and stock such as cattle.  Bores in the village of Wingen are dry for the first time in years and I saw a TV show the other night where the publican was being interviewed – he was saying they fear it when people who come to his pub go to the toilet (because it means litres of water being used to flush the toilet and more expense for him).

Water carters are charging between AU $100 and $160 for residential loads. Water loads vary from 9000 litres up to 28,000 litres but the average load seems to be about 12,000 litres. That sounds a lot but remember these people are farmers mainly, so they have stock and soaring temperatures to contend with. Beef farmers are apparently weaning calves four months early due to the lack of water.

And in the midst of this water crisis, you get the opportunists, the water privateers – who are illegally supplying water and causing damage to water mains and hydrants because they are not licensed and not accessing water supplies in the approved manner (which is via a credit card-like key).

I suspect this is our future – a world that will see increasing skirmishes over water and opportunists who will sell us water (a basic human right) at exorbitant costs.

Since the late 1980s, the Pacific Institute has been studying the connections between water resources, water systems and international security and conflict in an effort to track and categorise events related to water and conflict. Their water conflict chronology will freak you out but it’s a reality we must face.  You can view the chronology in a number of different ways, from a timeline to interactive Google Earth water conflict maps. You can filter the timeline to show when conflicts over water occurred by region, conflict type and date range. There’s also a list of conflicts over water starting in 3000 BC with extensive descriptive notes.

Australia is not the only country facing water scarcity. American readers should read this article on water issues challenging the US, including inter-state water battles. If you live in Oklahoma, might be time to consider getting out before corn and soybean yields decrease by 30 to 46% due to the Ogallala Aquifer under the Great Plains of the United States (including important parts of Oklahoma) experiencing a 20% decrease in recharge. And of course when you get crops failing around the world due to water scarcity…you get food scarcity…you get skirmishes and death.

India has already witnessed deaths and injuries over water shortages and Nigeria has recently seen thousands of people protesting over dwindling water supplies. Water covers three-quarters of the planet’s surface but most of this is undrinkable. Less than 3% of the world’s water is fresh and drinkable. Lloyd‘s are already talking of “water bankruptcy” being our future and pointing out that 55% of the world’s population will be dependent on food imports as a result of insufficient domestic water by 2030. That is just 20 years from now.

December 29, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

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