Historic Loss At Qantas: Bad Result, Bad News, Bad Bums

QANTAS this morning posted a nett full-year loss of $245 million; its first loss since it was privatised in 1995, and its largest loss ever. This is a bad result that heralds further bad news at the Flying Kangaroo, and reflects on the federal government, Qantas management, and its unions alike.

The thing striking about this result, no pun intended, is that nobody is particularly surprised; Qantas management has been softening the market up for a result like this since well before last year’s industrial machinations. Indeed, the result is actually better than most forecasters and analysts had predicted.

Yet let there be no doubt: this is a bad result, irrespective of what profit the Qantas domestic business and the frequent flyer program contributed.

Not only have losses in the international division blown out from $2oo million a year ago to almost half a billion dollars today, but one-off costs of $194 million attributed to  industrial action and grounding the fleet in October, if removed, still see the airline’s full-year figures some $60 million in the red.

The figures include $400 million of one-off restructuring costs, but it remains to be seen how much of this figure is recouped against the Qantas Group’s bottom line over the next year in the face of a fuel bill sitting at a record high ($4.4 billion), industry rumours of a failure to fully hedge against rising fuel costs, inefficient structural wage costs, the ongoing need to retain ageing and increasingly ancient components of its fleet, and rampant and increasing competition.

There are many parties to blame for what, to use the vernacular, is an absolute shocker; and — in turn — a thickening band of ominous black clouds on the horizon of the Qantas sky.

Union leaders — with Transport Workers Union national secretary Tony Sheldon blaming the loss on “disastrous management” — have been quick to hit out at Qantas management, with Mr Sheldon saying “It’s devastating…at the hands of very poor management decisions that we have seen over the last two years.”

Australian and International Pilots Association president Captain Barry Jackson spoke of an “unnecessarily militant approach” to industrial relations on the part of Qantas management during last year’s industrial turmoil which he says “continued to do damage to the Qantas brand.”

I was quick to support Qantas management over the unions last year, and I stand by that judgement; not least in view of the ridiculous wage claims the TWU and other unions were determined to pursue against the company.

At the very minimum, those unions collectively wear egg on their faces today: the hard figures of the Qantas annual result prove that its management was not bluffing when it said the pay claims of the unions were unaffordable and, if realised, could send the airline broke.

The cost to Qantas of the dispute — $194 million, on its own figures — is far less than the residual increase to its wage bill would have been if the union pay claims were achieved. Nonetheless, even in putting down the industrial action taken by its unions, it’s clear Qantas is in no position to be doling out wage rises to any component of its workforce.

This brings me to the big pay rise the Qantas board approved for CEO Alan Joyce at the height of last year’s industrial action; at the time, I said it was not a good look, not smart timing, and damned silly tactically.

As fate would have it, these were prophetic words, in light of the fact Joyce has just presided over the biggest loss in the airline’s history. Perhaps — and I say this wryly — it’s a good thing he recently declined to accept his annual bonus.

What many of us suspected 12 months ago, as Joyce was announcing the restructure that would “build the new Qantas” and trigger unprecedented industrial strife — that the airline was in poor shape — emerged with crystal clarity from this morning’s figures.

Exactly what happens from here is, to some extent, anyone’s guess.

This column gave its support to the company over the unions at the time of the dispute last year, and that support remains behind Qantas, Joyce and his management. However, in light of the annual result posted today, that support now comes with a couple of hefty qualifications.

The first is that Joyce has been talking of restructures and painful adjustments for the better part of two years now; having booked $400 million in abnormals attributed to restructuring it is, quite literally, time for a return on those monies to be achieved.

Should Qantas report a similar result in another year from now, serious questions will be asked of Joyce, and his tenure — rightly — will be called into question and reviewed.

Joyce has made too much noise for too long now about “fixing” Qantas: he is entitled to the time for the results of his changes to become evident, but there won’t — and shouldn’t — be any extra chances if he fails.

The second qualification I place on my support of airline management speaks to two dreadful decisions it has taken since the end of the industrial dispute; specifically, in terms of fleet management and brand strategy.

Why — why — Qantas has seen fit, in the wake of the events of the past nine months, to completely trash its entire brand strategy is unfathomable; the long-running “I Still Call Australia Home” campaign is more critically important to the airline now than at any other time, with its underlying themes of familiarity, continuity and stability.

Switching to an obscure strategy based on a focus group-driven faux pas (“We Fly For You,” backed by an odd instrumental composition by Daniel Johns that amounts to nothing to most consumers) is a ridiculous and almost suicidal step to take, given the turmoil and upheaval the airline has faced in recent times.

At a time of falling yields, rocketing costs, rampant competition and diminishing consumer confidence, continuity and a “business as usual” approach are precisely what should be emphasised — not a complete change of direction when the airline faces enough uncertainty as it is.

Management decisions, as much as financial outcomes, are going to be scrutinised more rigorously by commentators and industry analysts alike over the coming year.

The decision by Joyce to defer another order for new aircraft — this time, for 85 new Boeing 787s — is of more concern than the changes in brand management and marketing strategy.

Whilst it is true that some of Qantas’ oldest planes have been retired in the past couple of years, the airline nonetheless retains a sizeable number of aircraft at or very close to the point at which they really should be replaced on the grounds of reliability, fuel efficiency and cost effectiveness to operate.

The Qantas mainline fleet — that is, excluding Jetstar — retains 10 Boeing 747-400s that are 20 years or more old; these include four (VH-OJA, VH-OJC, VH-OJD and VH-OJE) that are 23 years old, and one — VH-OJH — which is the 22-year-old jumbo that skidded off a runway in Bangkok whilst landing during a severe storm in 1999 that was repaired and returned to service.

8 of the 12 Boeing 737-400s it retains are 20 years or more old, with four of them 22 years old.

And 14 of its 22 Boeing 767-300ERs at or above the 20 year mark, including seven purchased second-hand from British Airways in the 1990s. Of the 14, eight of them entered service in 1990.

With the delay of further Airbus A380 deliveries until at least 2014, and the deferral of new Boeing 787 aircraft until at least 2016, it is unclear as to when these ancient aircraft — which comprise almost a quarter of the Qantas mainline fleet — will be retired.

And this, in turn, will inevitably raise questions of safety, and compound the heightened cost imposts these old machines make to the bottom line with delays and other scheduling mishaps on account of the increased rate of technical issues these aircraft face.

It doesn’t help that Qantas made the wrong aircraft selections when it addressed the issue of fleet renewal in 2002, and that the 747 fleet could have been replaced by brand new Boeing 777-300ERs and 777-200LRs five years ago.

There is at least the silver lining of sorts that these old aircraft will keep more aircraft engineers in their jobs for longer when they might otherwise have been restructured out of the Qantas business.

I would very quickly like to make further mention of Qantas’ unions; it is clear that they do not accept the outcome imposed on them late last year by Fair Work Australia; today’s outbursts by Sheldon, Jackson and others are evidence that discontent lingers very close to the surface.

But the unions have abided by the FWA decision, having opted not to pursue prohibited industrial actions, and — at the very least — should be commended for that.

Finally, the federal government must accept some portion of the blame for the state Qantas is in.

It (or its QANGOs, which is the same thing) has allowed an ever-increasing number of foreign airlines open access to Australian airports to carry international traffic; it is one thing to encourage and foster competition, but another altogether to allow capacity to be dumped into the Australian market at the direct expense of the Australian national carrier.

I just think that granting exponentially increasing numbers of landing slots to middle-eastern, state-run airlines probably isn’t the best way to preserve a local aviation industry in this country.

And it is probably time to review the foreign ownership provisions of the Qantas Sale Act; possibly allowing higher levels of overseas investment to allow the airline to raise capital, balanced by rigorous and far tighter restrictions on the concentration of foreign ownership as opposed to the total level allowable under law.

Still, it’s clear that it has taken a long time to produce today’s result; many parties have had a hand in it, and the end product — the largest full-year loss in Qantas’ history — is abysmal.

The bottom line, however, is that Qantas is a mess.

What happens now, and what Alan Joyce and his management do to remedy the situation, will attract critical scrutiny of a kind seldom seen in corporate governance circles in Australia.

Stone-Aged: Republican Akin’s Rape Views Legitimately Noxious

An outrage occurred this week on the campaign trail in the US, with a conservative Republican Senate candidate claiming that in cases of “legitimate rape” a woman’s body prevented pregnancy from occurring. The comments sought to justify an abortion stance. They are despicable.

65-year-old Todd Akin — an arch-conservative Congressman, backed by the so-called Tea Party group within the Republican Party, and standing against an incumbent Democrat for a Senate seat in Missouri — created uproar across America and around the world on Sunday, with his concept of “legitimate rape” and the role he ascribed to it in justifying his position on abortion.

“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” Mr. Akin said. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Akin also explained his stance in cases where the “legitimate rape” did, indeed, result in a pregnancy: “I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”

Some punishment?

Naturally, once his odious remarks had made headlines across the world, Akin claimed the specious defence that he “misspoke,” but went on to say that “(he believes) deeply in the protection of all life, and (he does) not believe that harming another innocent victim is the right course of action.”

It’s difficult, on the first incredulous glance at these remarks, to tell what’s worse: the fact Akin casually says that a rapist deserves “some punishment” as opposed to having the book thrown at him, or the fact Akin thinks the mother should be put through the consequent pregnancy in the interests of “the protection of all life.”

To put it candidly, these are the noxious utterings of someone unfit for fatherhood — especially of daughters — let alone for public office.

As it happens, two of his six children are daughters, and Akin is also a long-term holder of elected office; I just wonder if he’d be quite so cavalier in his views if — God forbid — one of his own daughters was unfortunate enough to suffer the unspeakability of a rape that led to a pregnancy.

What doesn’t this guy get?

Rape is an abhorrent crime; just the violence and cruelty of it are enough to revolt decent folk.

Surely it is difficult enough for the victim to endure the memory of the act, let alone the forced reminder of a child to go along with it.

And Akin’s comments suggest he has either never had to deal first-hand with rape victims, or — if he has, and has adhered to his “principles” — that he has dealt with them callously and insensitively indeed.

What judgement would he pass on his own daughter in such a circumstance?

I’d be fairly confident that this God-bothering, pious specimen of trumped-up rectitude would be screaming for the assailant to be strung up from the rafters.

If any female I knew — be she a relative, a friend, or simply someone I were in a position to be able to provide support to (and remember, unlike the Neanderthal Akin, I’m not an elected representative, so my ability is much more limited than his) — suffered the indignity and the humiliation of a rape that resulted in a pregnancy, I’d want all options to be available to her, including an abortion.

And if anyone did that to my daughter, hell would have neither fire nor fury to rival  the retribution that would be visited upon he who did it. To hell with the notion of “some punishment.”

As the debate over Akin’s remarks has raged in the US, it has been noted that a study by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 1996 found an estimated 32,101 pregnancies result from rape in the United States each year. This equated to an average national rape-related pregnancy rate of 5% among victims aged from 12 to 45.

Unsurprisingly, a conception rate of 5% is very similar to the statistical conception rate  resulting from one-off unprotected sexual encounters between consenting partners.

So much for a woman’s body short-circuiting pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape.”

Make no mistake, denying abortions to rape victims is a pretty low act.

I understand that in such circumstances, some women choose to proceed with the pregnancy, and some choose termination, but that’s just it: the woman, in this situation, should be given the choice.

I’m fairly conservative when it comes to social issues, and I certainly don’t condone abortion as a routine birth control method in normal circumstances when there are so many other options available. But I would never deny a woman an abortion if she had been raped — and I don’t think any reasonable individual would either, be they conservatively minded or otherwise.

Todd Akin and his repulsive moral stand on this issue gives men in general, and conservative men in particular, a bad name by virtue of the fact he trumpets his principles as a great recommendation as to why people should vote for him.

You can see for yourself — here is his bio aimed at electors in the state of Missouri.

To be perfectly honest — as a political conservative, and one who hopes Mitt Romney beats Barack Obama in November — I hope Akin’s Democratic opponent, Claire McCaskill, is re-elected in that particular Senate seat in a landslide.

Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, quickly distanced themselves from Akin, releasing a statement to say that a Romney-Ryan administration would never deny an abortion to a rape victim. Whilst I would be inclined to believe their assurance, I would also add that just as they would never deny that right to a rape victim, nor should they deny it.

To the good burghers of Missouri, I’d suggest a presidential vote for Romney and a Senate vote for McCaskill; and if enough of them do so, it’ll send a powerful message that dinosaurs like Akin will no longer be tolerated in America’s seat of governance.

And to those Missourians who meet Akin on the campaign trail, I would strongly recommend they check the back of his hand for scars before they shake it.

I really just have to shake my head in disbelief.

 

Statement On Allegations Of Corruption And Fraud Against Julia Gillard

The Red And The Blue wishes to make the following statement regarding ongoing allegations of impropriety against Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Over the past ten years, I have followed with great interest — through instruments of the media, and through channels of hearsay — allegations of misconduct by Julia Gillard dating back to the early 1990s.

The matters in question pertain to alleged activities undertaken by Julia Gillard at the time she was a solicitor at left-wing Melbourne law firm Slater and Gordon between 1991 and 1995, prior to her candidature for the Senate in 1996, and prior to her entry to Parliament in 1998.

These matters centre on alleged activities of fraud and misconduct involving Ms Gillard and persons involved in the AWU — Ralph Blewitt and Bruce Wilson — who were known to Gillard and who, through their connection to the AWU, were clients of Slater and Gordon.

In the past few months, I have repeatedly been approached by readers of this column, asking me when and whether I intend to write opinion in relation to these matters.

At this stage, I do not intend to do so.

This is partially on account of the fact that I am not satisfied all of the details of these matters are yet known, although I note that a number of internal inquiries and retrospective investigations appear to be underway within some of the organisations said to be involved.

It is also partly by virtue of the fact that at the present time — operating this column as an independent blogger — I have neither the resources nor the support staff available to larger entities and mainstream media organisations to ensure that anything written in relation to these matters is sound, from a legal perspective.

Considerations of the law are paramount to all media outlets, and this applies to independent publishers of privately-operated blogs and opinion instruments as well as to major media organisations.

And whilst I am satisfied that from the informal perspective of a private citizen I have a clear understanding of the alleged matters, I am not satisfied that it is appropriate to publish opinion on these matters at this time.

Moreover, these are matters that may well end up before the Courts, and should that occur, due judicial process must be allowed to run its course — without prejudice.

I would therefore like to advise all readers that for the moment, I will not be publishing any content in relation to Ms Gillard’s alleged activities as described above.

Nonetheless, I assure all readers of this column that as soon as I am satisfied that it is expedient to do so, having regard to legal considerations, I will in due course do precisely that.

Like all of my readers, I watch developments and revelations in regard to these matters with very great interest.

I look forward to discussing these matters in detail, in the future, and at the appropriate juncture.

John Howard As Governor-General? I Don’t Think So

Nowadays, anything Godwin Grech says shouldn’t warrant mention. However, the Fairfax press and The Spectator Australia magazine have seen fit to publish an article in which Grech expatiates upon the glorious idea of G-G John Howard. This is a bad idea, on every conceivable level.

It comes as some surprise that reputable instruments of the press would give oxygen and airtime to a character like Grech, the disgraced former Treasury bureaucrat and past informer to the Liberal Party, who went several steps too far in 2009 by producing a fabricated email which “proved” that former PM Kevin Rudd was corrupt.

In what became known as the “Utegate” affair, Grech’s missive destroyed his own career, and guaranteed Malcolm Turnbull’s days as Liberal leader were numbered after Turnbull foolishly acted on the email without adequately checking its veracity.

And so, to find The Spectator Australia gifting column space to Grech for an opinion piece is grotesque; The Spectator proper — the original, UK version — is an excellent publication, and one which in view of this event might be better served abandoning its “focus” on Australia and sticking to events in Britain.

Why The Age saw fit to reprint the piece is unfathomable.

Even so, Grech’s article (the version of which The Age published can be viewed here) does contain some material I don’t necessarily disagree with, although much of it is petulant hot air from a man whose time never really was; his piece essentially boils down to a partisan rant underpinned by the thesis that the Howard government was brilliant, and that the Rudd-Gillard government is terrible.

Beyond that basic premise, there is little to substantiate or validate some of Grech’s more outlandish statements; this brings me to his claim that John Howard should become Governor-General when the term of incumbent Quentin Bryce expires in September next year.

Make no mistake: this is a very bad idea, and one whose momentum — if any — must be stopped in its tracks; of all the potential candidates to replace Bryce when her term expires, Howard is far from the top of the list of the most credible, feasible or sensible.

As a staunch political conservative, I realise that I might be expected to show some sympathy for this suggestion — not least as Howard led what on any objective measure was the best government, at the federal level, this country has seen in the past 50 years. As it turns out, I have no truck with the idea whatsoever.

Grech talks of Howard as potentially “a first-class head of state who would be warmly embraced by Buckingham Palace” and goes on to declare that he “would perfectly complement Tony Abbott, providing Australians with a world-class leadership team.”

It’s clear Grech has no comprehension of how a constitutional monarchy works, if he really thinks that.

The role of the Governor-General is largely ceremonial, although its holder is the Head of State; and with the exception of certain circumstances in which specific constitutional provisions provide otherwise (such as in 1975, when Sir John Kerr acted in accordance with S64 of the Constitution to dismiss the Whitlam government), the Governor-General usually acts on the advice of the Prime Minister.

The Governor-General does not act as some type of political advisor to the Prime Minister of the day, as Grech explicitly proposes.

And the Governor-General does not form part of some tag-team “leadership” team, operating in cahoots and in cohort with elected parliamentarians.

In John Howard, we see a figure who is overtly (and, in this context, overwhelmingly) political; the man was Prime Minister for nearly 12 years until fairly recently, and prior to that spent more than 30 years as a Liberal Party operative, elected member of Parliament, and political spear-thrower for the Right.

Irrespective of whether you’re on the side of the spear-thrower or not, such an openly political figure would politicise the office of Governor-General and polarise public opinion and confidence in it as a legitimate instrument of governance.

It is true that political figures have held the role in the past, and that they also discharged their duties with some distinction; Sir Paul Hasluck was a very distinguished Governor-General. Bill Hayden, more recently, was unremarkable and uncontroversial.

But Hasluck was made Governor-General in 1968 by then-PM John Gorton to get rid of a dangerous enemy from the ranks of the parliamentary Liberal Party and to remove the most serious rival he faced for the party’s leadership; Hayden’s appointment — irrespective of how it may have subsequently been presented — was payback for resigning in favour of Bob Hawke’s leadership of the ALP in early 1983.

It doesn’t matter, as Grech states, whether Howard would be “warmly embraced” at Buckingham Palace; he is simply too polarising a figure, and too overtly political, for that particular role.

Laurie Oakes also responded to Grech’s absurd arguments in the Herald-Sun today; Oakes pointed out — correctly — that Howard’s appointment to the role would be “divisive and provocative,” noting that “after several years of political turbulence and non-stop nastiness, that is the last thing Australia will need.”

As it happens, Oakes’ misgivings of the merits or otherwise of John Howard as Governor-General largely mirror my own.

But something that does niggle in the back of my mind as I write this (and we may well revisit the thought at some point) is the timing of the expiry of present Governor-General Quentin Bryce’s term, in September next year.

It suddenly occurs to me that an election is due in August; for this to occur, it would need to be called by the Prime Minister no later than about mid-July.

It also occurs to me that every Labor Party figure who has spoken publicly in the past 12-18 months on the issue of the timing of the next election has referenced “late 2013” or “toward the end of 2013” as the time such an election is “due.”

Even Julia Gillard implicitly announced the date as the last Saturday in September, until she realised it would be Grand Final day, and went on to make a fool of herself with wild predictions about the prospects of the Footscray Football Club.

Constitutionally, they are all correct; an election may well be held as late as the November/December period.

But more usually, and by loose convention, elections are held three years apart, unless they are for some reason called early, and on that basis the next one should be in August next year.

I just wonder whether the ALP plan is to go to an election later in 2013 to ensure its own nominee is appointed to the Governor-Generalship, rather than go to an election it is likely to lose in a landslide, only to gift the incoming Liberal government the right to fill the vice-regal role with its own appointee for a five-year term.

Then again, I might just be a terrible cynic…

But in terms of precisely who the next Governor-General should be, it sure as hell shouldn’t be John Howard, or any other political figure from either side of the political spectrum for that matter.

Oakes suggests the Head of the Defence Force, Angus Houston; a fine man to be sure, and somebody I think would perform the role of Governor-General admirably.

My thoughts, however, are that the best candidate is another military man: Houston’s predecessor, Peter Cosgrove, who would not only make an excellent fist of the role, but would also be the sort of unifying figure to which Oakes alludes.

Godwin Grech and his undebunked theories of the world are best left undisturbed (and unpublished) in whatever cave to which they retreated following Utegate; as for John Howard, I trust he is enjoying his retirement, and I hope he finds satisfaction in the summer of cricket — his great passion — that will soon commence.

Beyond that, the occupancy of vice-regal office will be determined in due course; a Cosgrove would be ideal, and a Houston just as good; but a Howard is, and should rightly be, completely out of the question.

What do you think?

Plain Packaging: Where There’s Smoke, There’s Furphies

OK, the disclaimer first: I’m a smoker; I’ve averaged a packet of cigarettes per day since I was 18. I don’t deny the health risks and implications, and I fervently hope my children never smoke. But as an anti-smoking initiative, plain packaging is a measure doomed to fail.

The cheers have gone up across the country this week, among health campaigners and anti-smokers alike, in the wake of the High Court finding against the tobacco companies’ claim that legislation to force cigarettes to be sold in plain wrappings — as opposed to branded packets — stripped them of their intellectual property without monetary compensation.

And I use the term “anti-smokers,” rather than “non-smokers,” because there’s a big, big difference: a non-smoker is a fairly self-explanatory creature, but an anti-smoker is often someone who takes all leave of their senses whenever the subject of tobacco crosses their line of sight, their auditory range, or their thought processes.

A prime example of just this phenomenon became evident this morning — in newspaper articles and talkback radio segments across Australia — as anti-smoker after anti-smoker sought to follow up “victory” in the High Court with ambit demands that the “logical next step” be taken — and for smoking to be banned in Australia altogether.

And those demands neatly highlight just how far, in the wrong direction, the whole public discussion — including the health debate — has travelled.

I think it’s reasonable to say that a large number — nay, a solid majority — of smokers genuinely regret ever having taken up the habit. I certainly do, and those who know me will have heard me say many times that the stupidest thing I ever did, aged 18 in 1990 — supposedly having cleared the great peer-pressured risk period of my secondary schooling years — was to buy a packet of cigarettes.

Yet by the same token, the adage “once a smoker, always a smoker” is very true: nicotine is the most addictive substance known to man, and it doesn’t take very many years for anyone who is or has been a regular smoker to embark on the first of what is often dozens of attempts to quit — only to relapse, for one reason or the other, after varying periods of time.

And most smokers enjoy smoking — if not all of the time, at least some of the time, even if such admissions appear to sit in awkward juxtaposition against any desire to quit or regret at ever having started — and again, I fit this category too.

So early in this piece — even if I write from the unsexy side of the argument as a smoker — I would like to think there is still a reasonable degree of balance on display here.

But on the headline question, it is precisely my views as a smoker that are most relevant: would cigarettes sold in a drab olive-green packet, plastered with pictures of diseased organs and health warnings, with a brand printed in the same small font as all other cigarette brands, motivate me to stop smoking?

No. Not at all. Not for a moment. And I will tell you why this over-hyped measure is likely to be utterly useless in reducing overall smoking rates in Australia as well.

The simplistic answer is that there is nothing at all new in the changes to cigarette packaging being forced on the tobacco industry; for starters, there have been Government Health Warnings on cigarette packets for decades. We grow immune to seeing them, and don’t bother reading them. Not all of us are stupid — we know the potential dangers and we continue to smoke. After a while, there’s no further impetus to continue to read all about it.

It’s the same with the pictures of diseased organs; they, too, have graced the packets cigarettes are sold in for many years. It is true that when these were initially introduced, an instant –albeit small — reduction in the overall smoking rate occurred. But any shock value such images carried very quickly wore off, and most smokers have become just as desensitised to them as they have to the printed warnings that accompany them.

And as for reducing all portions of a cigarette packet not devoted to health warnings and/or interesting pictures to a plain green colour, I can’t think of a more ridiculous or less propitious measure being introduced that would cause anyone to stop smoking.

The vast, overwhelming majority of smokers are brand loyal to a degree most marketers can only dream of; even after 20 years of the near-universal absence of any form of tobacco advertising in Australia, cigarette brands routinely fill six or seven of the 10 top-selling brands of product sold at retail level in Australia.

Those brands will still be identifiable to smokers and thus remain available for ease of purchase, courtesy of a template provision in the plain packaging legislation for the brand and variety of cigarettes to continue to be displayed on the packet itself.

Objectively, and in light of the points I have made so far, what is the counter-argument? There isn’t one. The whole exercise, to my mind, is mostly about the anti-smoking lobby being seen to be doing something as opposed to actually doing something that might achieve its aims.

And before anyone asks why, if plain packaging is so ineffective as a measure to cut smoking rates that the tobacco conglomerates went to the High Court to stop its introduction, I would make the simple observation that the case at law won by the federal government in the High Court this week was based on an argument over intellectual property, not on the merits or evils of smoking.

And anyone who thinks curious/rebellious teenagers won’t buy cigarettes just because they come in a green packet after 1 December is an imbecile. Pure and simple.

Part of the problem — and an element in the sheer farce of this latest do-gooder, nanny-state initiative — is that cigarettes and tobacco products generally remain legal in Australia, and consequently may be sold, purchased and used in this country on a lawful basis.

Already, as mentioned earlier, the anti-smoker lobby is already yelling for these products to be outlawed in the wake of a constitutional challenge to the validity of plain packaging laws being dismissed. But prohibition — as the US found so painfully, where alcohol was involved — simply creates underground black markets, and causes far more trouble in terms of law enforcement, public corruption and the restriction of supply than the original intention of the measure warrants.

Readers will note that I make no denial of the health risks associated with smoking; to do so is unnecessary.

But smokers have not been completely unforthcoming, either; and in doing so, often the concession of the smoker is rewarded simply with deception.

For example, in the early to mid 1990s — when so-called “sin taxes” were being applied to cigarettes — such taxes were “sold” to smokers as being the advance payment on the healthcare they may require later in life as a result of their addiction to cigarettes.

In the time I have been a smoker, I have seen the price of a packet of cigarettes rise from $2.20 to $17; most of this increase — even accounting for inflation — consists of the rising tax take on the basis the sin taxes were introduced.

Now, public health officials warn that smokers may be refused treatment in public facilities altogether, despite the tax dollars they have forked out on the basis they were paying for precisely that.

And that doesn’t take into account the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars many smokers pay in Medicare levies in a lifetime, either.

Could it be that smokers are simply a convenient source of consolidated revenue?

Smokers have been prepared — mostly with good humour — to leave their habit outside when it comes to offices, shopping centres, sporting venues, airports and aeroplanes, restaurants and (with some gripes) pubs and clubs. To name a few.

Now, they get chastised for smoking in the open air adjacent to such places.

And in a particularly odious trend I have noticed emerging of recent times, people who pass in the street — often in situations where prevailing conditions mean smoke has dissipated before it can even reach them — pretend to cough and retch and carry on at the mere sight of a cigarette. It is far more a reflection upon the noxious individuals who engage in this type of insidious and offensive behaviour than it will ever be upon someone smoking a cigarette.

The point is that a lot of what the anti-smoking lobby does now has reached the point at which it is actually counter-productive in cutting the rate of smoking in Australia.

And the easiest way to get a smoker to dig in and actively commit to continue smoking is to sermonise, assert that you know better, and to present as some morally superior being simply because you don’t smoke.

For all of these reasons — and there are others — selling plainly packaged tobacco products won’t make a jot of difference to the number of smokers in this country.

But I’d like to ask some really unfashionable questions as well:

Why is the FAT PERSON — often at far greater risk of health problems than a smoker, and potentially a greater burden on the health budget and for many years more — untaxed, unvilified, and unencumbered with the sort of shock-and-shame campaigns smokers are routinely hit with?

Why is the ALCOHOLIC — arguably an exponentially greater health risk than the smoker, as well as a source of domestic violence, shattered families, death to others on the roads and so forth — generally offered support and rehabilitation and endless medical treatment without the odium accorded the smoker, when the alcoholic is arguably the far greater public health risk?

Why is the GAMBLER — perhaps a mental health case rather than a cancer case, sure; but often a thief, a fraudster, a wrecker of families, and a poverty agent — not vilified, but supported by society?

And why is the ILLICIT DRUG USER the focus of so many rehabilitation programs, harm minimisation strategies, support services, the recipient of so much costly medical treatment and often the recipient of a smack on the wrist for breaking the law, without the vilification meted out to the smoker?

Readers, I ask these questions and raise all of the points in this article not to justify smoking — and certainly not to deny the links the habit has to ill-health — but merely to point out the disproportionate nature of the anti-smoking effort, the singling out of smokers whilst leaving other groups virtually undisturbed, and to show that at some point, people need to simply be allowed to make their own decisions and that there is a limit to the amount of nanny-state enforcement that will have any effect.

It is for all of these reasons that I can assure you that cigarettes sold in plain packaging — if, indeed, those regulations come into force in December as scheduled — will make no difference to the rate of smoking in Australia whatsoever.

Asylum Seeker Policy: Indictment, And Cautious Endorsement, Of Gillard

Julia Gillard’s pledge to implement the recommendations of the Houston Report into unauthorised boat arrivals elicits the support — guardedly — of The Red And The Blue. In terms of deaths at sea, however, the Prime Minister and her government stand condemned.

It didn’t have to come to this; more than four years after the ALP dismantled the Howard government’s Pacific Solution, hundreds of asylum seekers have died at sea whilst Labor pontificated, procrastinated, politicised innocent deaths in the callous and cavalier pursuit of smearing opponents, all the while avoiding at any cost the reintroduction of a suite of policies it should never have abolished in the first place.

Very few policies, in Labor eyes, were as emblematic of or synonymous with John Howard as the Pacific Solution; the ALP’s loathing of this hardline but effective policy is and was visceral, and it was little surprise when — in early 2008 — its abolition was an early item implemented from the new Rudd government’s agenda.

We all know the subsequent storyline: the boatloads of asylum seekers began arriving again, as people smugglers in the Middle East roared back into business; hundreds of them, carrying thousands of souls desperate to get away from whatever they were fleeing from, and from wherever they had come.

And all too tragically, hundreds have died; drowned, as the rickety, unseaworthy vessels into which they were packed by unscrupulous smugglers proved unable to withstand the voyage.

Time after time after time in the past few years — beginning with Gillard’s ridiculous East Timor Regional Processing Centre, announced prior to the last election and of which the East Timorese had never heard — this Prime Minister and this government have ducked and weaved, and put option after inadequate option on the table to “deal” with the boat arrival/asylum seeker issue.

And time after time, those options have come to naught: in large part because, politically at least, they were motivated almost solely by the desire to avoid reinstating Howard’s policy package.

That avoidance has come at a price; the deaths of hundreds of asylum seekers at sea in the time Gillard and Labor have stuck to their intransigent refusal to reinstitute the Pacific Solution are the direct consequence of those actions and the federal government is responsible, morally at least, for those deaths emanating from its ill-considered policies and its refusal to embrace practical and workable solutions.

Legislation has now been urgently prepared to enable the reopening of detention centres on Manus Island and in Nauru; parallel to this, teams of Immigration officials have already been dispatched to those islands to begin to ready the facilities to be recommissioned.

Obviously, this column heartily endorses these measures, and reiterates — again — that the facilities in question should never have been closed in the first place.

The Red And The Blue also gives cautious support to another recommendation of Houston’s panel — the increase in Australia’s humanitarian refugee intake to 20,000 people per annum. However, I am adamant that these additional places should not be allocated to family reunion considerations in any way, shape, or form.

Indeed, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that so-called family reunions are likely to be the next category of immigration arrivals to experience explosive growth; now that these policies will enforce an involuntary change of focus onto people smugglers away from “get there at any cost” the focus is likely to become “just get one there, and we can work with it.”

This column does note that the Houston report stipulates that Gillard’s preferred “Malaysia Solution” should remain on the table, but be improved and refined prior to any implementation phase being commenced.

The Red And The Blue restates its resolute opposition to the Malaysia Solution in any way, shape or form; as I have said many times now, it is completely unacceptable for this country to countenance any arrangement that involves Australia sending 800 illegal immigrants to a third-party country for “processing” in return for agreeing to resettle five times that number of “processed” persons over whom this country has exercised no control or input into the selection of.

This brings me to the second key point: this column supports the implementation of all of the Houston report’s recommendations, with the specific qualification that this does not and will not extend to the so-called “Malaysia Solution” under any circumstances whatsoever.

It should come as no surprise to readers and to the wider public that Tony Abbott and his parliamentary colleagues have moved swiftly to help facilitate precisely that outcome.

But equally, it ought surprise nobody that the point continues to be made, both by Abbott and his colleagues (led by shadow Immigration minister Scott Morrison) that the measures being legislated should never have been dismantled in the first place.

And if there is a key point I would repeatedly restate on this issue, it is that: Labor should never have abolished the Pacific Solution.

Make no mistake, this outcome is an utter vindication of the Liberal Party and its policies, of John Howard and his government’s stand on this issue, of Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison, and of their consistent and principled position on a difficult issue in the face of attacks in the Parliament, the media, and from those sections of the commentariat who are most able to yell their views the loudest.

Equally, the outcome now being put to practical effect is an utter and abject humiliation of Julia Gillard and the ALP; and it reflects just as profoundly and in the same damning vein on Kevin Rudd as it does on those who now sit in Cabinet following his demise as Prime Minister.

As confrontational as it may sound, Julia Gillard and her colleagues in government deserve no credit or acclaim whatsoever for the measures shortly to resume effect; they have gone well out of their way to attempt to ensure that the Pacific Solution, once dismantled, was buried forever.

Buried for no better reason than the fact it was a Howard government initiative; this is petty Labor politics at its worst, and if there is one lesson Gillard should learn from this, it is that a seemingly petty triviality, if pursued with obsessive fervour, can still lead to the most disastrous of outcomes.

Just ask the families of the dead asylum seekers who perished at sea as a direct consequence of the Gillard government’s policies.

Even so, making these observations are no more confrontational than the language Gillard has already sought to deploy, attempting to portray the reinstatement of the Pacific Solution as an example of her government “getting things done” and presenting Abbott with silly ultimatums almost daring him to attempt to vote the restored arrangements down.

Gillard has rightly been made to look like an absolute idiot over this issue, and whilst it may very well be those around her and in the ALP back room that are equally or more responsible for the contemptible policy settings the government has been determined to pursue, the ultimate responsibility for Labor’s failed immigration policies rests with Gillard.

Ironically enough, if there is one government minister who to some extent is absolved from blame over the asylum seeker debacle, it is Immigration minister Chris Bowen, who — alone of his colleagues — at least attempted to put a reactivation of the Pacific Solution on the agenda on a number of occasions during the past year.

This is part of a point made by Neil Mitchell on his morning programme yesterday on Melbourne radio station 3AW; Mitchell also sheeted home blame for the asylum seeker fiasco — including for the deaths that have occurred in the past year — to Gillard.

It cannot be emphasised strongly enough — nor, indeed, over-emphasised — that the outcomes being implemented are in no way a vindication of, nor a triumph for, Julia Gillard and her government.

Rather, they are an indictment on an inept and incompetent political, policy and administrative outfit that was, and remains, unfit to govern, and which is very heavily culpable for the volume of lives lost off the coasts of Australia.

It may yet prove the case that the restored Pacific Solution is, on its own, inadequate as a complete solution to the boat arrival problem, and as a deterrent to the God-forsaken activities of people smugglers.

Even so — should that prove to be so — a far better framework on which to build lies in a suite of policies previously proven to work in this arena, as opposed to Labor Party alternatives that collectively amount to virtually nothing of any meaningful or constructive consequence whatsoever.

In closing, there one more aspect of this issue, and of this debate, to address.

Looking at the Communist Party Greens — with their protestations that onshore processing of asylum seekers should not only be retained, but expanded, on the basis offshore processing and mandatory detention are cruel — I have two words: grow up.

And two more: get real!

The Greens would do well to inform themselves of the fact that parties of the Left do not have a monopoly on such decencies as kindness and compassion.

More to the point, they should reflect that in the real world — as opposed to in some doctrinaire microcosm of the mantra of the hard Left — it is sometimes necessary to temper the human instinct to kindness and generosity of spirit with practicalities that are not pleasant, but which optimise the prospect that the best eventual outcome will be realised.

It’s called doing the right thing. Belatedly, the ALP and its leader have done so. It’s time the Greens opened their eyes, put down the platform pamphlet filled with their lunatic ideas, and came to the same conclusion.

Opinion Polls And Parliamentary Sittings: Dead Cat Bounces And Orangutans

One opinion poll favourable to Labor last week — even as others showed the ALP position deteriorating — and the political chatterati are talking of miracle revivals; but Parliament resumes this week, and as it does Julia Gillard is likely to receive a timely and sobering reality check.

It’s a measure of just how grim the present government’s prospects are that a poll showing it headed to a landslide defeat — and still losing nearly 20 seats to the Liberals and Nationals in the process — can be trumpeted as the harbinger of better times.

Yet that is precisely what happened last week; a Newspoll in The Australian, finding a two-point move back to Labor after preferences and a 54-46 lead to the Coalition, has whipped sections of the mainstream commentariat into a frenzy. Tentative signs of a revival, they say; early evidence that the worst of the carbon tax slump is now behind Gillard — just as she said.

This type of analysis is doggerel, and its currency likely to have been expended within the week.

The very same day Newspoll was delivering Gillard her latest poll-derived stipend of breathing space in the face of ongoing leadership ructions within the Labor Party, Nielsen and Essential were both reporting findings of 56-44 to the Coalition, or another ten seats at an election, to look at it practically; in the case of Essential at least, that result has Labor losing ground, not regaining it.

And — to wheel out a boring old caveat — all of these polls are within each other’s error margin, and so getting too excited over Newspoll probably isn’t the cleverest idea until or unless a sustained trend of improvement has been shown in that poll after another month or so.

Very simply, that isn’t going to happen.

The problem with all of these polls is that Parliament has been in recess; Gillard may be stultifyingly unpopular, but even that sentiment tends to ameliorate to some degree when the lady isn’t being thrust into the faces of voters on a daily basis.

To be sure, there have been other distractions during Parliament’s winter recess this year.

Not least, the Olympic Games, which largely has pushed retail politics off the front pages of newspapers across the world; even the hubbub of “Nice Korea” and “Naughty Korea,” engineered by mX in Brisbane with its tongue fairly in cheek, proved to be a storm in the proverbial teacup.

Such international sporting festivals traditionally underpin — temporarily, at least — a much more benign political undercurrent. I think this has been the case to a greater than usual extent this year, as discussion of Australia’s supposedly woeful performance generated great debate and discussion, especially in the earlier stages of the games.

And Gillard probably got in a lucky strike by picking a fight with the Liberal Premiers over power prices; a continuation of an obvious strategy that began with her disability insurance scheme — when she took aim at the same Premiers for effectively refusing to fund her own policy — the attack over power prices was largely ignored in the mainstream media.

The scrutiny — and the counterattack — will resume apace tomorrow.

With the resumption of Parliament tomorrow comes the reapplication of the blowtorch by the opposition, and that means the availability of easy goals and cheap free kicks for Gillard will come to an end.

In its editorial this morning, The Australian opines

“The Prime Minister’s new political strategy seems to hinge on seeking confrontation with the states, choosing fights over the NDIS, mining tax, health reform, carbon tax, electricity prices, and soon, we expect, education funding. Voters will not judge Ms Gillard kindly if these debates are seen to be political games, designed to trumpet her empathy on crucial issues, without delivering results.”

And therein lies the government’s core problem: Gillard might be a clever lawyer, adept at semantics and crucifying an opponent’s case; but her politics are of the confrontational variety, lashing out at scapegoats and shifting blame for her own incompetence, and engaging in half-baked games to score cheap political points that invariably explode in the government’s collective face.

Indeed, the issue of asylum seekers is near the top of the list of issues to be dealt with in the new session of Parliament; already there are whispers of a strategy from the ALP to agree to reopen detention centres on Nauru as a mechanism to ultimately facilitate Gillard’s “Malaysia Solution” in all its half-arsed glory.

Given the Coalition has explicitly ruled out support of any solution to the problem of boat arrivals involving Malaysia under any circumstances whatsoever, it is likely this will ultimately rebound on Gillard in spades.

Added to this is the smouldering issue of Craig Thomson and the attendant issue of union corruption, which is also due back on the running sheet this session — another guaranteed source of discomfiture for the government.

And lingering in the background of all of this is the ongoing tension over the ALP leadership and the spectre of Kevin Rudd; Labor’s need to get rid of Gillard, if it is to have any real hope of winning next year’s election — weighed against the reality that Rudd will never resume the Labor leadership — conspires to further underline the explosive nature of the parliamentary session due to commence.

So if anyone wants to talk in terms of opinion poll bounces and green shoots of revival, where the Labor Party and Julia Gillard are concerned, I’d rather talk in terms of the political vernacular, and describe such a bounce as a “dead cat bounce.”

Then again, “dead orangutan bounce” is probably more apt in this case…

But it doesn’t really have the same ring to it, does it?