Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Rolling the dice

There is a good reason that Sydney is called Sin City.

The Mardi Gras (on this weekend, for those of you not in the know) still takes place every year despite Fred Nile's fervent prayers. High-flautin' professionals swan about the city every weekday, and most evenings revellers spill out of clubs and hotels with little regard for other people.

And, gazing over Darling Harbour, we have The Star.
Photo from here
The Star is Sydney's only (legal) casino.  What that means is that whilst you can barely turn left or right in Sydney without seeing a venue bulging at the seams with pokies, The Star is the only place you can play table games.

Today this report appeared in the Herald.
I don't know whether journos and editors are intentionally picking unflattering photos of James Packer, or if he just does not photograph well, but I have not seen him look good in a photo for a long time. As you can see, the trend continues here.

Anyway, it was O'Farrell's reaction that interested me, and enraged a number of people on Twitter today.
Those of you who read this blog regularly and follow me on Twitter will be familiar with my views on pokies. Suffice to say I would very happily see them outlawed tomorrow, and if two out of every clubs went bankrupt I'd still call it a win.

But table games (I mean true table games - not those electronic table games that clubs and hotels have) are somewhat different, at least in terms of perception. For one, they are legal only in The Star - given I seldom if ever go there, I seldom see them. Further rightly or wrongly, there is a perception that table games are far more likely to attract the high-flyer - the player who can afford to lose the money.

Having said that, I'd encourage you to read this excellent post by Greg Jericho which portrays table games in quite a different light.

Let's have a look at some actual stats though, taken from the Productivity Commission's most recent report into Gambling in Australia.
Page 7 of the report
The following paragraph is taken from a paper entitled "Responsible Gambling: Legal and Policy Issues", and whilst it is a little old is provides a particular statistic that I thought was interesting:
That stat was drawn from the Productivity Commissions 1999 report into Gambling in Australia.

The following table is from that same report:
From section 3.16
So, if approximately 10% of people have played a table game, and approximately 3.5% of them have experienced problems, we're talking 0.35% of the population. That sits in comparison with pokie numbers: 38.6% had played and 9.2% had experienced problems, or 3.5% of the population.

That's a very quick and probably quite unreliable calculation - but it gives you an idea of the comparison. What it amounts to, for the purpose of this piece, is that table games are a far smaller problem than pokies.

Having said all that, I still think O'Farrell's position is cause for significant concern. Why?

First of all, I think it is inevitable that a new casino will result in more money being lost, and more problem gamblers pouring their saving away. The gambling industry is not a zero-sum game. The exact numbers will of course be a matter of much conjecture if this proposal goes anywhere, but they must move in that one direction.

Weighed up against that harm, what are the benefits?  Let's look at what O'Farrell nominates.

- "Extra life". This is a nothing statement - any new business, attraction or facility will add "extra life".  There is no need for it to be a casino.

- "World class hotel, generate jobs". It is not clear why the casino would be a an essential part of any new hotel. There must be dozens of hotels in Sydney that do just FINE without any gambling profit.  As for jobs, I have am not really interested in providing more jobs funding by taking money off problem gamblers. Heck, I'm barely interested in protecting those that already exist and depend on problem gamblers.

- "Boost tourism".  This is an odd statement.  I'm happy to be proved wrong, but I find it hard to perceive how a second casino can boost tourism. 

I certainly understand that a first casino can have that effect. No doubt there are travellers in this world who will choose to travel to Sydney over another destination because it has a casino. Of course, putting a value on that tourism and inflow of money and weighing it against the damage caused by the presence of a casino is almost impossible, but I appreciate that the benefit exists.

A second casino, however, is more difficult to justify. Are there really people who will say "What?  They have TWO casinos? This I have to see."

Like I said, if someone can point me to research that suggests otherwise, happy to be proved wrong.  But it seems ridiculous.

Above all that though, it is the eagerness with which O'Farrell has responded to the idea that concerns me. Why is he so keen to make this second casino happen? Does he have any intention of weighing up the potential for damage? Is the relationship with Packer cause for concern?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Writing's on the Wall

I try not be too rude about politicians on this blog.

If you want to read about the ideological failings of any party, there are plenty places for you to go. If you enjoy a writer who just spews hatred at anyone in particular, there are probably dozens of blogs and more twitter accounts than you could count.

But sometimes a politician is willfully stupid. Sometimes a politician chooses to set aside any pretence of governing for the good of the people but rather makes a shamelessly populist, attention grabbing move that could wreck people's lives for no good reason whatsoever.

Take a bow David Elliott.
Photo from Hills Shire Times
Earlier today David published his grand theory of dealing with graffiti.

Now, let's be clear about something. Vandalism is a serious issue. Businesses, private individuals, and the taxpayer spend millions every year cleaning it up. I don't think tagging is art, and I'm as annoyed as the next person by graffiti on the train.

As it happens, from where I sit as I type this on a CityRail train, I can see that some wag has scrawled something incomprehensible on the wall. Moreover, some particularly industrious individuals have "etched" words onto every single window of the carriage.

The thing is, though, whilst the perpetrators' work usually simple to the point of being incomprehensible, the solutions are anything but.

Society will always have a lowest rung - a dissaffected, angry youth engages in graffiti because it provides him with self-expression, because he is bored, because he is angry and doesn't know why, or just because, to him, it gives him a sense of power in a society where he has none.

There are any number of reasons why people do this. The causes are not simple, no matter how much you want them to be, and neither are the solutions.

So, let's have a look at Mr Elliott has to say on the issue.
So, he is a victim of crime. That's unfortunate, and not something to be laughed at. What it is not is a good reason to start using the power you have to try and force an increase in penalties for the offence you were the victim of.

That's why we have things like the Law Reform Commission - sober minded people who can weigh and assess all the factors before recommending what, if any, changes need to be made.

Below is a photo of the damage, and it is awful.
Moving on:
Let's be clear.  The entire basis for his call for change is the fact that he has seen graffiti around his local area? And the fact that there is graffiti means that only "strong and aggressive" laws can combat vandalism?

Has he done any research into present penalties? Does he even know what the penalties are? Does he direct the reader to a report calling for harsher penalties? Can he perhaps indicate a foreign jurisdiction where "strong and aggressive" laws resulted in a sudden end to graffiti?

Of course he doesn't.  He's pulling this all from a certain area not mentioned on polite blogs.

Reading on:
Hang on.  He hasn't even discussed this with the AG OR the Police Minister? He is calling for these simply extraordinary penalties without having discussed it with ANYONE other than the poor sod who he got to write this piece?

And let's have a look at what his suggestion is.

Mandatory Gaol? For GRAFFITI? Is he actually crazy?

We all saw how well mandatory detention went in the Northern Territory. We all know how much it costs to keep someone in gaol. We all know that gaols are called Universities of Crime for a reason.

What else? Lifelong bans on Driving? I've written previously about how dumb it is to take licences away from graffiti vandals, so I won't repeat myself. But seriously - for life?
Oh good, naming and shaming.  First of all, if you think the prospect of having your name read out in parliament as being a graffiti vandal is going to stop them, then you really don't understand teenagers AT ALL. If they are smart enough to work Hansard (and that's not a given) I guarantee the extract will be on Facebook within the hour.

When people tag something, they use their "tag".  It's not usually their name, but it is an identifier. As I ride this train, I have no idea who NUEKS is, but I sure as heck know he was here, because his tag is scrawled all over the windows. That's the point!

Of course, had Elliott done five minutes of research he would know this. I suppose, however, that is less fun than grand-standing for attention by promoting a brainless new scheme that won't fix the problem, but will make a few Baby Boomers in their McMansions nod furiously.
Vandalism does cost everyone. And ridiculous politicking like this costs us even more.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Shooting from the Hip

Nothing is more likely to create bad law than a political crisis.

The media focus on the shootings in Sydney has clearly reached the stage where O'Farrell and Greg Smith felt they had to act.  And act they have.

No one seems to have considered whether there was actually any problem with the law.  Do the present laws provide police with the charges they need to do their job?

Are there gaping holes in the law where police are powerless to act? Is there evidence that the shooters would be stopped by tougher penalties or new laws?

I think you know the answers to those questions.

What I wanted to do was have a look at the changes at the law and try to analyse what (if anything) will be achieved through their introduction.

The relevant bill is the Crimes Amendment (Consorting and Organised Crime) Bill 2012. It can be found here.

It introduces some new offences and increases penalties for some others.  I'll cover the changes one at a time, in the order they were discussed in Smith's speech.

Firing at a Dwelling House
At present section 93GA of the Crimes Act) reads as follows:
The change is the insertion of (1B):
In other words, the maximum penalty is increased by 2 years where the shooting was part of "organised criminal activity".  Does change accomplish a great deal?

Probably not a lot, but there is no inherent difficulty with the change. It makes sense that such an offence should carry a heavier penalty where it was performed as part of orgnaised criminal activity.

The next definition is small change to law on criminal groups.  Presently section 93T reads, in part, as follows:

The change will replace subsection (1) with this:
Essentially the change softens the prosecution's burden, in that the police no longer need to prove that the offender knew or was "reckless as to whether the conduct contributes to the occurence of any criminal activity", they now need only prove that the offender knew or ought reasonably to have known.

This offence is notorious for being difficult to prove - how can the police prove what a person knew, or ought reasonably to have known?  It requires the prosecution to provide enough evidence about the all the circumstances of the offender's involvement in the "group".

It's not even easy to prove what a criminal group is - have a look at the definition:
Moreover, this is an offence that is most commonly "tacked on" when a person is charged with a far more serious offence, such as drug supply.  This means that the number of criminals who police are now able to prosecute that they couldn't otherwise prosecute will be small indeed.

The bill also adds a new offence of directing a criminal group, and directing a criminal group whose activities are ongoing:
Essentially, all the same issues arise.  Criminals not being in the habit of taking minutes when meeting mean that it will be pretty difficult to prove that a person was "directing" the activities of a group.

Any time police are able to charge a person with directing a criminal group, they will almost certainly be able to charge the person with all the offences committed by that criminal group.  How is this new law supposed to assist police in prosecuting anyone they wouldn't otherwise be able to prosecute?

The next change is the introduction of section 93TA, which reads as follows:
As Smith puts it:
That's true.  What he doesn't mention is that we already have section 193B, which reads as follows:
It is difficult to imagine who could be guilty under the new section 93TA who is not also guilty of s193B, meaning that this change accomplishes precisely squat.

The final change, and by far the most troubling one, is this:
There is also a defence:
There is presently section 546A, which reads as follows:
It should also be noted that, as best I am able to tell, no one has ever been prosecuted in s546A.  Ever.

It is a deeply troubling section, for a number of reasons.  First of all, it is the very definition of "guilty by association". If you spend time with people who have convictions, you are committing an offence.

Moreover, police have to warn you first.  That's fair enough, given that you may not know that they are convicted persons.

What that means, however, is that police will be able to approach you and tell you that someone is a "convicted person", and to hell with their privacy.  There is otherwise no entitlement or reason for you to have that information.

A convicted person is someone who has been convicted of an indictable offence.  Without getting stuck into the detail, that casts an incredibly broad net.  I don't have the resourses to determine how many people in NSW fit that category, but it must be an enormous number.

There is also the fact that the law will be applied pursuant to a police discretion (ie only people they have warned first) means that it is open to police to pursue whoever they want in relation to this offence.  Groups or people can be targeted maliciously or without good reason.

That is a power that worries me.

It gets worse.  The defences to the offence are so broad that they can be easily manipulated by people committing the offence.

If you are given an official warning for consorting with someone, get them to hire you, or enrol you in some bogus "training".

It seems unlikely that police will be able to prosecute many people at all for the offence, despite the repugnance of the provision.

But we should come back to the original intention of the changes.  As Smith put it:
You can read that as "Do SOMETHING legislatively to get Labor off our backs."

The result?  Four minor changes at the margins that will interest criminal lawyers and no one else.  One change that is entirely redundant.  And one change that gives police truly incredible powers but then includes defences that will make the offence easy to circumvent, meaning that it is unlikely that anyone will be prosecuted for it.

How is it that these changes are meant to help police stop the shootings?  No one's really sure.  I'm not even sure whether anyone has asked what the hold-up is.  I doubt it is the lack of useful laws, and if it is then it is difficult to see how these changes will help.

The end result - Labor are now reduced to whining about the efficacy of the changes in a way that will not resonate with most people.
 Mission accomplished, I'd say.  Good governance be damned.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Day in the Sun?

Being in opposition for the first time in a while brings with it a fairly unique set of challenges.

On one hand, a new government is likely to over-reach, and over-estimate the public's enthusiasm for change.  It is all to easy to ignore the fact that, as often as not, the voters weren't so much endorsing you as repudiating the other lot.

Either way, new governments usually unfurl an ambitious agenda.  They roll out a lot of the unpopular stuff early, which makes easy (if not always effective) fodder for a new opposition.

On the other hand, some ideas from a new government are harder for a new opposition to combat.

Sometimes a government will extend or expand an unpopular program championed by the old government.  Even when the program is massively unpopular, there is often not much that can be done, as any comment criticising the move can easily be seen to be petty and opportunistic.

However, when the original program was generally popular and the new government extends it, there is even less that an opposition can say.  They can't oppose the changes because the program was their idea in the first place, and they can't very well complain that the new program doesn't go far enough, given that the original program did even less.

Any opposition that made such a comment would be pretty stupid, yes?

Full release available here
This is what the Coalition has announced:
Full release available here
Putting aside the rights or wrongs of banning solariums - where does Labor get off pretending that it is imperative that solaria are banned immediately? The situation is pretty much exactly the same as it was when they proposed that people under 30 or with fair skin be banned from using the solaria.

Moreover, hundreds if not thousands of people are employed in the business.  Those people deserve the chance to start finding new jobs or new products for their businesses

Best of all, as I understand it, the quite timid restrictions on who could use solaria Labor proposed  in November 2010 were cancelled just before leaving government.

Maybe Labor had their tails in the air after their success in the early parts of last week, and figured that it was time to start hitting the Coalition with everything they've got.

What Labor forgot, much like the "100 Broken Promises" document, is that a weak attack distracts from all your stronger once.

I think most voters are smart enough to see straight through this kind of politics.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

TGIF (tomorrow)

This has not been a good week for the Coalition.

The new government has had more than its fair share of politically tricky issues in its first year (many of them of their own making).

In many cases these problems have been single large issues - often a large structural change or the implementation of a (at least, in their eyes) necessary but inevitably unpopular change.

In many ways these larger issues can be handled as they are easily anticipated.  This is why many of them have been introduced in the government's first year - they hope that memories will fade by the next election, and they're probably right.

This week has been different though.  Put simply, there has been a sudden spate of pretty obvious stuff-ups of various sorts, and Labor is making a lot of hay with it.

The NSW Labor website has a very handy collection of "News", and their items posted there really do tell the story of the Coalition's week.

Monday was about planning.  Before the election O'Farrell made a big song and dance about returning planning control to councils, and immediately on being sworn in the hated Part 3A was repealed.

The thing is, there are some developments that should be controlled by the state - major developments that are too big for councils.  Almost everyone acknowleges this - the issue is where that bar is set.

At this stage it seems unclear exactly what the Coalition has done or is intending to do - but whatever the precise change is, there will be a political cost to be paid.

It is hard to say whether O'Farrell was foolish to over-promise on this issue.  He knew that ALL control could not be returned to councils - if he had qualified his statements before the election, isn't it more likely that the qualification would have been lost in the media reporting, and therefore would not have lost him any votes?

Having said that, no amount of qualification before the election would have spared O'Farrell a slap from Labor when the issue arose, so perhaps he was better placed to simply do it early and take his lumps when it came up.

In any event, the headline generate by the Labor website was this:
The bigger issue on Monday, however, was about disabled kids.  And it's hard to comprehend just how such an easily anticipated problem was not avoided, especially when it presented such a easy opportunity for Labor.

The Labor press release is here. In short, bus contracts were not orgnised and signed in time, meaning that disabled kids could not get to and from school on the first day.
When it was revealed on Tuesday that a quick thinking Labor MLA wrote to the Minister a week earlier to alert him to the issue, the Coalition really had no excuse.

Without sounding crass, this story really had everything. It's about transport (always a sensitive issue).  It's about not just kids, but disabled kids.  It made the Coalition look disorganised and incompetent.

This is the kind of screw-up that starts to taint a government.  Put simply, this is the kind of thing the public expected from Labor, and the Coalition will not like being tarred with that same brush.

The drama continued through the week as it was revealed how long the Coalition had known about the issue and then will calls from Labor for Minister to resign.
Wednesday was mostly about the carers allowance.

Carers are a horribly undervalued sector of society.  Most people have a great deal of respect for the work they do, not least of all because it is an incredibly difficult and challenging job that no one else will do.

Foster carers get an allowance from the government to cover the cost of caring for the kids.  The suggested change was that, once a child is over 16 and in receipt of youth allowance, the carer's allowance would be reduced by the same amount.

One a purely accounting basis, it makes sense.  On a political basis, it is stupid.

Labor called it an attack on carers, and whilst that may be hyperbole, one has to wonder what the government thought would happen.

Most incredibly, according to this SMH article, that there are only 1000 or so families affected.  This means that the government let itself get tarred with "doesn't care about foster carers" for what, in the scheme of things, is a pretty small sum.

Moreover, after the week the Coalition has had, Labor has every excuse to lead off with this:

When you include the cutting of funding to vision impaired and the Fair Work Australia decision, the week was thoroughly Labor's.

As I said earlier, this kind of politics is all to easy for an even vaguely competent opposition.  And the more stories like this there are, the more the idea of a mean, selfish and uncaring government sets in.

The Coalition is already going to struggle to dispel that idea, being a centre-right party.  They don't need to make it easy for the opposition.

But that's exactly what they did this week.  They'll want to stop.