DEAR JULIA: Quit The Melodrama!


Dear Prime Minister Julia Gillard,

I first heard the news yesterday afternoon at around three o’clock. It was Triple J’s hourly news headlines, where I so often do hear snippets of news for the first time – in fact it’s just about the only news I ever see or hear these days, although calling that hourly compilation of articles-in-brief that passes for a news bulletin “news” is probably stretching it. More like elongated headlines I think, but I digress.

“A dark day for Aussie troops”, the newsreader started, in forlorn tones. My curiosity was piqued. “Australia’s worst day since Vietnam”, she went on. Oh my buggery bollocks this sounds bad, I thought to myself. “Five Australian troops have been killed in Afghanistan…”, came the eventual clarification.

What? Hang on, did I miss something there? Five? From all the dramatic hoo-hah at the head of the bulletin, I was fully expecting to hear that twenty troops, or fifty, or a hundred, or even an entire company had been slaughtered or blown up or something. But five? And not just five, but three in one incident involving some random Afghan National Army rogue who went postal and two others in a random helicopter crash.

And then, dear Prime Minister, there you were, looking and sounding as regal as ever. “This is news so truly shocking that it’s going to feel for many Australians like a physical blow” you said, in your usual scripted, single-tone kind of way.

Really, Julia? A “physical blow”? I don’t want to sound callous here, but as sad as I’m sure this is for their families and friends, my reaction to the news was actually more of an exceedingly detached and internalised ‘oh that’s sad’, like the way anyone would shrug their shoulders at learning of any inevitability. When did the death of a soldier in a war zone become such a bone-chillingly unexpected outcome? They’re all there with their high-powered weapons, amidst others with their own high-powered weapons along with various largely indeterminate positions on the whole state of play – is the death of one or multiple soldiers under such conditions really so shocking?

You can label them the ‘International Security Assistance Force’ all you like. The reality is that we’ve been up to our ears in this thing for nearly 11 years Julia. In fact we’ve been at it for so long now that I think the average Australian on the street, if asked to explain why our troops were even still there, would probably struggle to respond in any coherent fashion.

And throughout, a total of 38 Australian troops have been killed. 38 troops in 11 years.

To put that toll into some perspective, more than 100,000 Australian soldiers were killed during the ten years of World Wars I & II.

None of which is intended to take away from the pain and grief felt by those left behind after the deaths of our 38 troops. Of course it’s sad. It’s awful. That they had to be there at all was bad enough. For this last five to be picked off by a crazy terrorist and a random chopper malfunction is even more sad.

But Prime Minister Gillard, please – enough of the melodramatic yet still ever more monotone speeches. The repeated words and phrases. The welling-up of the eyes. The histrionics. The overly dramatic references to the emotional response of a nation that you can’t possibly know the true extent of, let alone speak for. Please, feel free to express whatever degree of your own sympathy, or the Government’s sympathy, you feel is needed, but please don’t tell the waiting media – and, consequently, the very public you seek to represent – that we’re essentially a nation of emotional cripples, utterly brought to its knees by the revelation of this latest chain of unfortunate events.

Because, dear Prime Minister, you seem to be forgetting one very key thing here: they were soldiers! They went into a war zone. Soldiers in war zones die. It’s happened throughout the course of history and will continue to happen for as long as human beings are stupid enough to believe that war, weapons, death and destruction is the way to resolve anything.

But Ms Gillard it’s more than that, isn’t it? They were soldiers sent into a war zone by one of your predecessors. They were soldiers who were still in that war zone because neither you nor any of your predecessors have had the balls to just make the call to get them all the hell out of there!

Those five soldiers died, Julia Gillard, because of you. Thanks to you and the decisions of you and your Government and your predecessors and their respective Governments. Plain and simple. No need to embellish it with dramatic statements, tears and quivering lips coz that’s just about the sum of it.

So quit it with the melodrama Julia! No more tears (enough is enough)! If it’s so dreadfully upsetting, do what you’ve thus far singularly failed to do and get them all out. Just because the United States believes it has a God-given right to be the saviour of everyone and everything, to poke its nose into the affairs of every other nation on the planet and to take offensive action whenever certain countries aren’t playing the game the way the US believes it should be played, Australia should not be hog-tied to the same approach simply for the benefit of the political agenda.

If Afghanistan is still as dangerous as yesterday’s situations imply, we simply ought not to be there at all.

Again, Prime Minister, I hasten to add that I’m not trying to sound purposefully cold or even particularly obtuse about this. Fact is, I’m not a supporter of war of any kind, nor for any reason. Never have been, never will be. But I’m even less a fan of disingenuous melodrama.

Next time the thought strikes you Julia, save it for the election trail… or is that what you were doing?

With thanks & moist regards,

mattsoldmanrants

DANCING TO A DIFFERENT BEAT: the changing fate of reality TV


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Sarah Murdoch, Kelly Rowland and Jason Derülo: everybody dance now… or not.

This week Network Ten axed Everybody Dance Now, only nine days after its début. How about that for giving a new show legs to grow its audience and develop its format? Even the pre-launch advertising blitz lasted longer.

When Everybody Dance Now was axed on 21 August, media commentator Michael Idato observed, “the reason they’ve cancelled it is because obviously its ratings have become unsustainable”… after nine days and four episodes on air? They never even had a chance to become sustainable, let alone the opposite. Presumably Network Ten spent a whole heap of money on pulling the show together, drafting glamour gal Sarah Murdoch in as host and securing US pop starlets Kelly Rowland and Jason Derülo as “dance coaches”, then forked out some more on a (presumably) pricey re-jig of the formula that lasted just one episode before the axe fell two days later.

Huh?

Now I’m no accountant or TV industry executive but to me at least, something about that whole scenario just doesn’t add up.

The press cited everything from Everybody Dance Now premiering amongst some pretty stiff competition to the fact that it came hot on the heels of the London Olympics’ closing ceremony. In fact the delayed telecast of the closing ceremony was in direct competition with Everybody Dance Now – elementary mistake #1 by Network Ten. A less-than-ideal situation, granted, but not an unsalvagable one – if the product’s right. And therein lies the problem.

Before Everybody Dance Now, in Australia alone there’d already been a veritable cavalcade of locally made reality dance-offs, to say nothing of the vast array of same-same overseas programs that’ve been rolled out with monotonous regularity by free-to-air networks or scheduled all over pay TV.

The BBC’s Come Dancing started it all, way back in 1949. A ballroom dancing competition created specifically for TV, it was on air for nearly fifty years and was the notional predecessor of Strictly Come Dancing, the title of the latter being an allusion to the former as well as to 1992’s hugely successful Strictly Ballroom, despite Strictly Come Dancing having no direct connection with either.

Strictly Come Dancing proved a ratings bonanza for the BBC and was exported to the four corners of the earth as Dancing With The Stars, with the Australian version consistently a ratings juggernaut over twelve seasons since its Seven Network début in 2004.

“When you’re on a good thing, stick to it” – or in this case, steal it. That was clearly the ABC’s approach when they launched Strictly Dancing in 2004. It lasted three seasons until 2005. That same year the Nine Network also shimmied onto the dancing bandwagon with the very awful Skating On Thin Ice, a celebrity iceskate-a-thon that was essentially the local variant of the UK Dancing On Ice format. Mercifully the pin was pulled while the ice was still thin enough for the b-grade celebrity contingent to fall through. Never ones to embrace the ‘once bitten’ sentiment Nine revived the concept in mid-2006. After eight episodes they also euthanased Torvill And Dean’s Dancing On Ice, having spent several million dollars bringing it together.

So You Think You Can Dance appeared to much fanfare on Ten in early 2008 but had disappeared again by April 2010 after only three seasons, its ratings having gradually fallen away from a début peak of 2.15 million to an average of 900k during the final season.

Elsewhere, practically all overseas variants have popped up somewhere on Australian TV at some point too: US and UK versions of So You Think You Can Dance, US Dancing With The Stars, UK Strictly Come Dancing, Dancing On RealityTV_SCDIce and Got To Dance (originally known as Just Dance), as well as India’s short-lived version of Just Dance. Australia’s own Andrew Günsberg – the so-called Andrew G – exported himself to the US to host Live To Dance in January 2011. While the contestants were certainly alive and did indeed dance, the show itself didn’t live very long at all and after just seven episodes it was voted off to the great reality dance hall in the sky. In a slightly ironic twist, Andrew G was to return to Australia this year as host of a local version of Just Dance on Foxtel’s FOX8 network – they pulled the plug due to a scheduling clash with Ten’s Everybody Dance Now. If only they’d known.

If you feel slightly bombarded by the bewildering assortment of dancing concepts of the past seven or eight years, it’s understandable – they’re all just a subset of what are no more than variations on a theme. Whether it’s dancing, cooking, singing, weight loss, renovating, modelling, ‘talent’ as a generic concept, fly-on-the-wall, trek-around-the-world or stuck-in-a-remote-location, the one common thread is that each concept is almost identical to the last.

2012 looked like being the start of Australia’s reality TV renaissance. Everybody Dance Now was apparently to be the game-changer in reality dance shows (we’ll never know) and Network Ten seemingly had a stockpile of game-changers ready to roll out: the fly-on-the-wall reality with a twist The Shire (the twist obviously being that it’s almost unwatchable); the reality wedding show with a twist Don’t Tell The Bride; and the reality singing competition with a twist I Will Survive. Add to this the standard fare of MasterChef and The Biggest Loser, along with the increasingly unlikely prospect of The Renovators ever returning for a second season, and that’s more-or-less Ten’s entire schedule wrapped up for the rest of the year. If the axe doesn’t fall first.

Unexpectedly, after four years off air the Nine Network decided 2012 was the year to breathe new life into Big Brother, the one that really kick-started the fly-on-the-wall reality concept in a big way back in 2001. By the time its eighth and final season on Network Ten rolled around, the public’s significantly decreased interest in the concept was reflected in Big Brother’s significantly decreased ratings and the plug was pulled. As with apparently all reality series this year, Nine promoted its new season of Big Brother as ‘different’ and ‘full of surprises’; the only truly surprising thing is that it’s so un-different from the original, it’s so short on actual surprises and Sonia Krueger is so painfully annoying as a host.

Nine has also ridden on the coat-tails of The Block’s massive ratings. It seemed such a hugely successful concept to revive and felt like it had only been gone a short while, but the original series only lasted two seasons and had been off air for six years before its 2010 revival. The network also found new success in 2012 with The Voice.

Now in its eighth season, Nine also manages to ride an annual wave of success with The Farmer Wants A Wife, one of the most contrived reality dating games ever to have a production budget allocated to it. Still, its ratings suggest that Mr & Mrs Average clearly love a story of anti-archetypal country boys – impossibly good-looking and suspiciously eloquent – being presented with groups of city-based ladies from which farm-boy is to choose a spouse. How wonderfully Neanderthal.

Along the way, Nine’s done a couple of one-off local variations of Survivor. Meawhile the Seven Network has thrown in a couple of locally made seasons of The Amazing Race for good measure, presumably to balance out the staple of their reality menu – look-alike singing and talent contests like The X-Factor and Australia’s Got Talent.

And if it’s look-alike you’re after, then you can’t do better than that timeless brainchild of Tyra Banks, the Next Top Model franchise – famous for its ‘cycles’ rather than series or seasons, if not its stream of next top models propelled into the public consciousness and onto the catwalks of Paris and Milan. Australia’s Next Top Model has been through seven of these so-called cycles on Foxtel’s FOX8 network. Almost ironically (again) the program is on hiatus for 2012, with producers allegedly having quite a time of finding a replacement for host Sarah Murdoch – the dear departed Everybody Dance Now strikes again. In between cycles of Australia’s Next Top Model we’ve been treated to America’s Next Top Model, Canada’s Next Top Model, Britain & Ireland’s Next Top Model and the always entertaining-for-all-the-wrong-reasons New Zealand’s Next Top Model.

It’s all so formulaic and the formula itself is so simple: take a group of random, unconnected people and keep them more-or-less trapped within the confines of the program for a set period of time; along the way make them perform stuff (songs, tasks, challenges, competitions, whatever); engage one or more hosts and some good post-production to build an air of wholly contrived suspense; increase the viewing public’s perception of themselves as an entire nation of key stakeholders in the drawn-out proceedings by repeatedly describing contestants as “your” (“your Top 10”, “your final three”, “your housemates”, “your favourite dancer”, “your MasterChef”) and the entire viewership as “Australia”; gradually vote people off one by one, by means of a combination of public voting (rake in the dollars via use of ‘premium’ SMS services) and a panel of ‘celebrity’ judges; build up towards a massive finale; name the winner and award underwhelming prize money; allow the winners to (mostly) wander off back to obscurity… et voilà!

But there’s only so many ways you can put a spin on any formula before the law of diminishing returns kicks in. Exhibit A: Everybody Dance Now. An ex-model as host, two popular and attractive American co-hosts, flashy production values and a huge budget will collectively achieve nothing if the format generally is either a bit crap, a bit old, or a bit of both. So is it really any wonder when more of them fail than fire?

The reality TV genre is past its prime. It’s had its day. The time for being enormously entertained by watching groups of deluded fools who think they’re more talented than they actually are, or watching a bunch of people sit around doing nothing or going about their day-to-day lives is long gone. It’s old hat. Passé. It’s time to evict this reality TV drivel from the house.

Ironically (yet again) while I bang on about taking reality TV to the tribal council one last time, I can only channel Gretel Killeen from her days as host of Big Brother for the best way to do it. Gretel would know how to get rid of reality TV once and for all and she’d do it with just four simple words:

‘IT’S TIME TO GO!”

SHE DRIVES ME CRAZY: the idiocy of texting, talking and driving


phonedriveban1_lipstick

Multi-tasking?

I was walking to work this morning and spotted her from a mile off. You can always tell, coz you can only see one arm moving as they walk and it’s usually swaying about far more ferociously than would normally be the case. I guess it’s a balance thing.

I’d say she was a good 50 metres ahead of me. One moment she was more to my right, then more to my left, then back to dead centre. I knew the inevitable result of doggedly maintaining my present trajectory could only be collision, though it was impossible to know how to alter my course to best effect, so extreme and random were her movements. One minute she was striding along at pace, the next she seemed to struggle with the concept of one foot before the other and would slow almost to a complete halt while attempting to clear the signal failure between brain and feet. A quick sideways glance left, then right, an almost imperceptible little shake of her head, already laden with far more hair than anyone this side of 1987 should be struggling under the weight of at 8 o’clock on a Monday morning. Then she was off again.

By the time we were two-abreast on the footpath, I’d watched her repeat this sequence several times over. Just when I thought I’d made it through unscathed, her right arm was thrust up and out in a magnificently theatrical gesture, throwing her off-kilter and sending her crashing into my own right arm which was stuck to my right side, hands thrust only into pockets and not in an especially theatrical way.

The next few moments were like one of those slow-mo sequences from a movie, where the hero of the day jumps into the path of a rogue bullet, crying “Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooo….” as they fly horizontally across the screen. Only this morning there was no bullet. And this chick was by no means a heroin. In those few slow-mo seconds she looked up at me, iPhone in pink bejeweled case plastered to her cheek, with an expression that said all at once, “please, like, yes, like I have no idea what’s going on, like, ummmmm, why did you just walk in to me, like whatever”. It was priceless, the kind of expression you’d expect to see on the face of an English backpacker struggling to decide where – or who – they were after ten-too-many Jägerbombs at the Coogee Bay Hotel. Then, just as quickly as it had slowed down, the space-time continuum reset itself to normal speed and she was back to the intensely theatrical gestures and intellectual phone conversation – “some douche just walked into me, like, uggh, anyways, so yeah, she’s just a total betch anyway, like, do you know what I mean? Like totally. What a betch. Totally.”

All the time I thought I was keeping her at arm’s length and trying to walk past her and I was, like, totally walking into her. Probably on purpose too, just to knock her off her dangerously high stilettos or something. Geez, what a douche. The poor thing, though. Surrounded by douches and total betches and with hair and shoes that were, collectively, taller than she was… what a way to kick off a Monday!

But even more terrifying than the prospect of ever walking near that woman again is the knowledge that she more than likely has a car, or at least a driver’s license. And she probably does exactly what she was doing on the footpath this morning while she drives.

So today it transpired that the National Road Safety Council wants the NSW government to ban all motorists under the age of 26 from using mobile phones while driving. More than that, they also want the government to “explore technologies” that would prohibit phone reception in cars, period.

phonedriveban1_text

Where’s Siri when you really need her?

Let me get this straight. They want to take the first generation to’ve actually grown up with mobile devices, a generation with a voracious appetite for all things text, social media and phone-related and an almost equal obsession with hearing, knowing, seeing and responding to everything as it happens, however pointless or trivial; they want to take the mobile phone (‘mobile device’ is, I think, the term de jour), which I’d guess 99.9% of said generation have at least one of and would be able to operate in their sleep, blindfolded and gagged, hands tied behind their backs, in a straight jacket, thrown off a bridge and floating to the bottom of the world’s fastest-flowing tidal river; they want to take the humble motor car, which we already know to be involved in the deaths of far too many 18-25 year olds; they want to take all three elements and have the NSW government create a new law that says anyone under 26 is banned from using a mobile phone while driving.

But let’s go one better than that and also invent some kind of technology that prevents everyone from being able to use a phone whilst inside a vehicle, be they driver or passenger, irrespective of the fact that they may’ve had decades of driving experience and may have legitimate cause for using a hands-free device in the way it was intended, for whatever purpose. Stuff the lotta yaz!

Yep, pretty awesome suggestion there, National Road Safety Council. Just what we need – another pointless law that’s nye-on impossible to effectively and consistently police. As for their other bizarre proposal, I can only assume a member of the Council will be setting off in their TARDIS at the earliest opportunity – first stop: “the future” – to avail themselves of such fantastical technology.

At any rate according to a survey by the recently renamed RTA, 40% of P2 drivers – those on ‘green Ps’ for the 2nd and 3rd years of their provisional driver’s license – fessed up to using a mobile phone while driving. Presumably not of the hands-free variety. Presumably at least half of the survey’s respondents also lied.

Currently it’s only illegal in NSW for drivers on a Learner’s Permit or a P1 license (drivers on their ‘red Ps’ for the 1st twelve months of their provisional license) to use a mobile while driving. At the risk of sounding a tad exaggerative, I can’t remember the last time I saw a red or a green P-plater driving past me, toward me or behind me who wasn’t either talking directly into a hand-held phone or quite obviously playing with some kind of mobile device somewhere below the level of the window sill or steering wheel and, consequently, conveniently out of view. You see it everywhere. And it isn’t just P-platers. Older, more experienced drivers who should know better and who, in all likelihood, aren’t responding to anything even remotely important, do it too. As with people who speed, people who talk and text while driving often don’t even appreciate that they’re actually breaking the law. They are, to all intents and purposes, criminals.

phonedriveban1_crash

The last txt sent read “Soz lol” – who’s sorry now?

So if those who shouldn’t be using a phone while driving at all don’t care and those who should be restricted to hands-free devices are so blatant in their flaunting of the law as well, what’s the point of introducing yet another law that nobody will pay any attention to and won’t – can’t – be effectively policed?

Another pointless ban isn’t the answer here. What’s needed is a change of mindset. Something that, somehow, convinces drivers – of all ages and levels of experience – of the incredible loss of focus and concentration from even the most basic of functions when talking or texting.

It’s such a simple message. Cars and phones don’t mix – you only have to watch someone walk and talk to know that.

READY… AIM… FIRE: the perennial problem of men and their aim


Aim_ToiletBown

A fairly typical stand-alone WC setup: more than sufficient room for correct aim

Seriously, what is it with men?

It’s a problem that seems to plague most of us as small boys, but some apparently never grow out of it. It’s as if adult males suddenly revert to six-year-olds whenever they stand in front of a toilet.

A few years ago I became so disgusted by continually having to side-step puddles in the bathroom at work that I posted an instructional sign on the wall in the hope that maybe, just maybe, it was no more than an educational thing. I dared to hope that if someone just took the time to tell them where they were going wrong, maybe they’d get it right.

The problem did seem to go away for a while. But recently it’s come back with a vengeance.

What’s the go? Coz I don’t know about you, but I really don’t enjoy having to step around puddles of pee every time I need to use the facilities. It’s even more harrowing when a ‘sit down’ visit’s on the cards!

It’s something I’d probably find less surprising – maybe even to be expected – at the pub, a fast food place or a school where, for various and quite different reasons, whether due to the owner’s choice or a lack of it, the male appendage seems only capable of being aimed in every direction but the right one.

But at work? Really? It’s just disgusting! Not to mention both slovenly and unhygienic.

Honestly guys, how difficult can it be to get it out and point it in vaguely the right direction? Coz it’s really no more complex than that. It only needs to be a vaguely directional thing. It’s not like we’re aiming for a receptacle that’s three metres away and no bigger than a pin head. Whether it’s a floor-mounted bowl-shaped affair or a wall-mounted urinal, most are actually rather commodious in every relevant dimension. They’re also designed and positioned such that only someone less than three foot tall would face any real challenge. The rest of us – to be fair, the majority of us – are ideally placed for a perfectly neat, tidy and hygienic outcome.

Aim_Urinal

A typical wall-mounted affair: also more than sufficient for correct aim

There’s no need to aim sideways, upwards or as if etching an inscription into the Royal Doulton; there’s no need to wave it side-to-side, garden hose-style; nor is there a need to stand any further than a few centimetres back. Sufficiently leggy gentlemen can even stand right over the top of the bowl to maximise the effectiveness of their aim. It really is pretty simple to get it right.

But if, in the end, you simply can’t make it work from a standing position, just sit the f*** down! It’s all good, there’s no shame in it. Nobody can see you in there anyway!

All men come in different shapes and sizes, are built differently and function differently and that’s OK. But whatever your personal situation, there is nothing even remotely OK about peeing on the floor and walking away from it. Whether it was missed aim, splash-back, a drip or dribble towards the end, I don’t care what caused it – I just don’t want to step in or around it. In fact, I don’t even want to see it! And I certainly I don’t want to be down at floor level with a handful of paper towels at the ready to wipe up waste fluid expelled from your body, just so I can comfortably take a seat without worrying what might seep into my own clothes.

You wouldn’t leave your own bathroom at home in that state. Come to think of it, maybe you would and if you do, the mess you leave behind you at work probably makes sense.

But unless you actually are only six years old or less than three feet tall, there’s no excuse for it.

SAFETY CHECKS: protecting our cars or their revenue?


SafetyCheck-WorkshopI took my car for its first pre-rego so-called “safety check” this week. It must’ve been so unsafe before that. God knows how it got me to the mechanics’ workshop without killing me and every other road user I encountered along the way – it was clearly a veritable death trap before I was told it wasn’t! Thankfully it only took five minutes for the mechanic to hoist it up, play footsies with the brake pedal, feel up the tyres and look at the lights before its status was restored to that of the safe and roadworthy vehicle I know and love. What a relief – for a moment there I thought it was curtains for the VeeDub!

I spent ten minutes on the phone to book the car in for the so-called “safety check”. It took forty minutes in peak-hour traffic to get to the mechanics, followed by a thirty minute wait for the so-called “safety check” to be done and another thirty minute drive home. That’s 110 minutes of my life that I can’t get back – and all for a five-minute job, the upshot of which was a suitably qualified person establishing exactly what I already knew: that my five-year-old, religiously log book-serviced car was perfectly safe and roadworthy.

Here in the great state of New South Wales, all vehicles over five years old require a so-called “Safety Check”, which must be passed before owners can proceed with the annual renewal of their vehicle’s registration. Transport NSW’s Roads & Maritime Services (I wish they were still just called ‘the RTA’) describes the aforementioned so-called “safety check” thusly:

Safety checks are a basic mechanical inspection, targeting vehicle components that may cause a risk to vehicle occupants and other road users if they are not operating correctly or are excessively worn.

Oddly enough, that’s precisely what I thought my annual log book service was supposed to address and no such concerns were flagged with me when I paid hundreds of dollars for the last one only six months ago.

In the end I paid $35 for what’s arguably little more than a box-ticking exercise. It’s exactly the same so-called “safety check” as the one I paid for six years ago to enable registration of my beaten up, broken down 17-year-old Mitsubishi Magna – a car well past its prime and which, ironically, had its gearbox virtually fall out the bottom of it in the middle of a busy Sydney street only days after passing the so-called “safety check”. This is the same so-called “safety check” I’d have to pay for if I owned a rundown 32-year-old Holden Kingswood last serviced in 1989 and with 450,000km on the clock, or a heavily modified 41-year-old Ford Falcon GTHO with scarcely an original part or panel to speak of.

SafetyCheck-eSafetyPfft! Something about this just doesn’t add up! Did I hear someone say “revenue raising”?

My car hasn’t been modified in any way. I bought it brand new and, even after five years, it’s done less than 50,000km. The worst that’s ever happened to it is a nail in a tyre and a bit of panel damage down one side, which was fully mended by my Insurer’s authorised repairer. Most importantly, it’s been serviced every twelve months since new, as per log-book requirements; if Roads & Maritime Services doesn’t have the technology to be aware of this and to be able to factor it into a dynamic decision – which surely can’t be the case, since they don’t have any trouble finding out about the so-called “safety check” – then they’re doing the driving public of this state a huge disservice.

So tell me, Roads & Maritime Services: which particular components of my five-year-old vehicle, that you so delicately suggest are likely to cause a risk to its occupants and other road users through incorrect operation or being excessively worn, were targeted in this so-called “safety check”? More to the point, how likely is it that they would’ve ceased operating correctly, become inoperative or become excessively worn during the last six months? Exactly what was likely to be so unsafe about my five-year-old recently serviced car?

Because that’s the implicit suggestion, isn’t it? To require a check to establish the safety of a vehicle implies a blanket assumption that all vehicles over five years old must be unsafe. Guilty until proven innocent.

Let me just say, not at all quietly – I did not spend $40,000 for the peace of mind that the perceived quality of a European marque brings with it to be told after only five years that the vehicle is assumed by default to be riddled with safety issues until I pay someone to walk around it for five minutes to tell me that it isn’t!

I already know it isn’t!

Sure, maybe the Queensland model – where safety checks are only legally required when a car changes hands – isn’t necessarily the best option, but surely an alternative that falls somewhere between QLD’s über-lax approach and the bureaucratic overkill of the NSW system could work perfectly to the extent that it needs to – i.e., to ensure that vehicles of a certain age and with no valid record of regular or recent servicing are actually safe and roadworthy, as opposed to just dictating a blanket requirement for yet another expense for NSW motorists.

While I’d be hard-pressed to label the safety check concept as ‘ill-conceived’, it’s certainly the product of another era and well past its ‘Use By’ date. The world has changed, technology has evolved – even the ‘Pink Slip’ certificate that was originally issued after passing a so-called “safety check” has been mostly, if not entirely, replaced by online submission. It’s time the Roads & Maritime Services brains trust – in the unlikely event that one exists – put some serious thought into how they can bring the system kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Or are they more interested in checking the safety of their revenue stream than the safety of our cars?

SYDNEY TAXI DRIVERS: Why’s it OK for them to be so bad?


Taxi1I dread to think how much money I’ve spent on cabs in Sydney over the past twelve years, but let’s get the reality of this established right up-front: I drink. Quite a lot and quite frequently. So I tend to take cabs quite frequently too. Until my internal organs pack it in I don’t plan to stop drinking, so neither do I expect the cab situation will change, irrespective of anything I might be about to say.

Sometimes though, it seriously feels like I’m taking my life in my own hands just by stepping foot inside a Sydney taxi. I mean, come on – have you seen how some of those guys drive? I know there are bad drivers everywhere, but some of Sydney’s taxi crew really embrace the old throw-away line about getting their license from a cereal box a little too enthusiastically!

I had one the other night – lovely old Italian bloke. I’m not being ageist either, he talked about driving a little Fiat around Sydney in 1960, which I reckon puts him close to 70 at least. He was probably the friendliest driver I’ve ever had the good fortune of meeting in Sydney. He knew where he was going, he accepted alternative route instructions without question and he was up for a bit of a chin wag. Actually I just went totally against form – that was the most exponentially under-exaggerated thing I’ve ever said. In fact it wouldn’t have been possible for me to under-exaggerate the situation any more effectively than I just did. Seriously, this guy didn’t draw breath from the moment we stepped into the cab to the moment – what felt like hours later – that we stepped back out again. And it wasn’t just a stream of consciousness or a need to vent or vague conversation about topical matters, it was full-on look-you-in-the-eye conversation. He was so intense that he often wouldn’t pull away from the lights when they turned green. We slowed down to circa-20km/h a few times, such was his excited concentration. He told us about driving cabs, about being picked up by the cops in 1960 for a driving offense that wasn’t his own simply because he was a ‘Diego’, about being on the board of the very cab firm for which he was driving and about how a few savvy property investments in the early ’60s lead to him being loaded. Had I not already had several litres of liquid refreshment, I was tempted to ask at one point if he wanted to swap – he could jump into my seat in the back and continue the conversation with my friend Chris and I’d take over the driving, if only to increase our chances of getting to Newtown some time that night rather than the following day.

If that was the worst of it, you’d be justified in calling me on moaning about my first world problems – “took me so long to get here tonight, my taxi driver was too nice, wanted to talk too much and drove too slowly”. Not exactly the stuff that taxi horror-stories are made of. If only that was as bad as it gets.

Taxi5-crashOver the years I’ve seen some pretty ‘funny’ stuff where Sydney’s taxi drivers are concerned – some of it annoying, some of it downright scary. I’ve had more than my fair share of cabs cruise past me with their lights on and with my hand clearly extended and gesticulating – wildly or otherwise – to hail them down. I’ve seen – and on more than one occasion almost become intimately acquainted with – cabs running red lights, stop signs and pedestrian crossings. They seem to jump the gutters on street corners and bike lanes more often that the average private motorist, even though the gutters themselves haven’t moved for years and are almost always exactly where you’d expect them to be. From our vantage point on the balcony of our ‘local’ near work, I’ve lost count of the number of taxis witnessed driving the wrong way down the one way street outside – a perfectly well sign-posted one way street that cuts right up through the middle of the Sydney CBD, from the Western Distributor Off-Ramp at King St & Sussex St all the way up to Elizabeth St at Hyde Park. How can you be a taxi driver in Sydney and not know that? How is it possible to even become a taxi driver in Sydney and not have to learn the basics of where roads and places are? And should these people perhaps consider an alternative career, given they clearly can’t see their hand in front of their face, let alone One Way signs, red lights, gutters or pedestrians.

And while I’m on the topic, what about my fare reduction for having to direct the driver all the way to where I’m going? On one such occasion I was only going from our ‘local’ to Erskineville – two suburbs out from the CBD! How can you be a taxi driver in Sydney and not know how to get to a destination that’s less than six kilometres from the centre of the city? A couple of years ago I took a cab from the airport to my home at the time in Coogee – by the time we’d reached the end of the airport link road the driver was still vainly attempting to find the suburb in his Navman, but the Navman was having none of it. K – U – J – I… no, K – U – G – I… as a man of obviously African heritage, I could see where he was going with this but I wasn’t going to bother spelling it when, by this time, I’d already had to start issuing directions. Again I found myself asking the same question: how on earth is it possible to become a taxi driver in Sydney and not even know how to go 12km from the International Airport to one of the city’s best known beachside suburbs?

And what about my fare reduction in the form of danger money when the cab driver can’t even stay awake and I have to continually talk to him from the moment I get into the cab to the moment when I throw money at him and flee the vehicle in fear for my life? This actually happened to me once – though the end bit was possibly a tad less theatrical than how I just said it. But seriously, I’d been drinking for six hours. All I wanted to do was get to my home some 5.8km away and stumble into bed. First mistake: looking in the driver’s rear-view mirror and catching a glimpse of his eyes. Actually, it was his eye lids that I caught a glimpse of. I couldn’t possibly relax from that point onwards. To this day I still don’t know how the driver understood the random sounds I was forcing out of my mouth. Occasionally I think I even heard myself scolding myself for mumbling or for stumbling over words or for not enunciating clearly enough, but through it all I kept up as steady a stream of open questions as I could drunkenly manage. The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that if I didn’t keep this guy talking, I wouldn’t keep him awake… and I really wanted to end the night wrapped in bed-clothes rather than a body bag.

Taxi3At least he finally got me there in one piece and only charged me the going rate, unlike the kind chap who stopped me outside the Domestic Airport arrivals terminal about eight years ago to excitedly announce he had a mini-bus ready for me so I could skip the slightly massive queue at the taxi rank. When I told him I was heading to Newtown, he told me how much it would cost. The prospect of only spending $3 more than it ordinarily cost at the time to travel the 6km from the airport to my house three suburbs away excited me greatly. “$15?!”, I asked him incredulously. “No-no-no… fiff-tee-dollar“, came the clarification. Back to earth with a thud, I left him in no doubt of where he could insert his kind offer.

Most of them don’t even drive courteously. They push aggressively through traffic jams just to get one car-length further advanced than they would’ve otherwise been. Anyone trying to merge in front of them can go to hell. When they stop to drop off or collect a new fare, they do so in whatever location and at whatever angle the car is in when it stops moving – at bus stops, driveways, jutting out into traffic, they just don’t seem to care. Or notice. Why would they want to do anything to assist the flow of traffic on Sydney’s already heaving roads?

Despite rules and regulations to the contrary, there are still drivers who won’t let you in until they know where you’re going, then drive off at speed when your destination of choice is either too far, too close or not in a convenient direction for them.

And let’s not even get started on the way some cabs (or their drivers) smell! If it’s not the heady aroma of LPG seeping into the cabin, it’s the driver’s own lack of personal hygiene permeating every nook and cranny of the vehicle; if it’s not what they just smoked between fares, it’s what they just ate – or its after-effects. Some cabs smell truly horrendous.

Taxi2In the end, it’s just frustrating. Drivers who manage to engage in conversation often tell tales of woe – fares are down; Christmas / New Year is the only time they ever make any money; the GFC hit hard and things have never recovered; they have to do back-to-back double shifts just to make ends meet. OK, so some of that’s a bit unfortunate but if things are so bad why not just give it up and do something else? Perhaps the answer to that is that they don’t have the skill set to do much else. Sorry – No Deal. Too many Sydney taxi drivers already lack the basic skills required to be a taxi driver – maybe that should be the focus before considering what else they aren’t sufficiently skilled to do?

The question has to be asked: why is it OK to have a significant chunk of the taxi industry staffed by drivers with so little grasp of the basic and necessary skills of their profession?

It wouldn’t be OK anywhere else – not in any other job, at any other level, in any other industry. So why’s it OK for taxi drivers?

THE FEE CONUNDRUM: Paying for the privilege of paying


Fees_VisaThey always make it look so attractive. Their websites are available 24/7, 365 days a year. They offer the full complement of products and services (sometimes). You can pay by credit card or direct debit. Some even deign to offer the flexibility of paying in one lump sum or in regular installments. How efficient and accommodating it all seems. How customer-focussed they make themselves sound. If only the full picture was so appealing.

And before you can say ‘direct debit service agreement’, you’re being swept away by a tsunami of Credit Card Surcharges, Direct Debit Processing Fees, Account Administration Fees, Payment Processing Fees, Account Handling Fees, Monthly Servicing Fees… the list is endless! There was a time when service providers were happy enough just to receive payment in exchange for services rendered (and maybe whack on the odd ‘Late Payment’ fee if we got a bit slack with our due dates); banks were also once happy enough to offer bank accounts as a safer alternative to stuffing money into tins and under mattresses, a tried and tested option for older people, many of whom still harboured a mistrust of banks until only quite recently. Perhaps that mistrust wasn’t so ill-founded, because these days it seems both our banks and our service providers will create any old excuse to add a surcharge or fee so that, in the end, we’re more-or-less paying for the ‘privilege’ of being able to pay for stuff.

They all do it. Our utilities providers all have little tricks built into their payment arrangements. Ticket agents catch us out with not-negotiable delivery fees. Our big banks still gouge us for almost everything, even after being effectively forced to stop gouging quite so offensively in 2009. Although most of the exorbitant fees of yesteryear have been vastly reduced or eradicated altogether, the raft of basic functions we’re still charged for is staggering. Most of us now pay a fee simply to keep our money in an account designed to keep money in. We then have to give the whole arrangement far more thought than should be required, simply to stay aware of the inherent risk of being charged fees for anything and everything: depositing and withdrawing money over the counter, having a machine count loose change, paying by EFTPOS too often, going to the ATM too often, going to the ‘wrong’ ATM, not putting enough money into our account or taking too much money out of it.

But for some reason most people tend not to make much noise about credit card ‘surcharges’, despite everyone knowing that our biggest financial institutions already make truckloads of profit from credit cards, not least of which from some of the insane interest rates credit cards attract. Typically these ‘surcharges’ are explained away as covering the costs merchants incur for processing the transaction. But some businesses have been making a tidy little profit off the back of these charges by knowingly taking their customers for a ride.

Thankfully, finally, this looks set to change.

The Reserve Bank of Australia’s recent announcement that it was to ‘crack down’ on credit card surcharges couldn’t be more timely. In an age where non-cash transactions have become the norm and where businesses of all kinds increasingly push customers towards online facilities, some have apparently been whacking on credit card ‘surcharges’ of up to 10% of the purchase price, even in cases where there’s no option but to pay online or by credit card. Even though the actual cost of the average credit card transaction is estimated at 0.86% of the transaction total for Visa and MasterCard (which covers the majority of all credit card transactions), there’s never been any regulation of the practice and customers have felt they had little or no choice but to cough up.

Fees_EFTPOSIt’s one of the downsides to the online and digital age – fewer people carry significant amounts of cash and there are fewer shop fronts at which to exchange cash for goods and services. 21st Century businesses encourage their customers to conduct the majority of their business either via websites or call centres, with the face-to-face option quickly becoming a thing of the past. But it seems that even paying cash in-store no longer guarantees that what it said on the price tag is what we end up paying.

Businesses and service providers can call it what they like, but the bottom line is that Australian consumers are being gouged like never before. Everywhere you look, you’re being hit up for some kind of fee for something that probably involves zero human intervention and if it does, it’ll generally be thanks to outdated or inefficient systems and manual processes. So either way they’ll get us for something, whether it’s for the privilege of paying or for the privilege of being sucked into a vacuum of good old-fashioned corporate inefficiency.

To some extent it’s our own fault. Whenever we get to that bit about Terms & Conditions we instantly check the little box to say we’ve read and understood them, without giving it a second thought. In most cases, even if we aren’t intimately familiar with all the fees we could be charged for stuff most of us could rarely claim, hand on heart, to’ve never had the opportunity to find out. The fact that we’re generally scared off by the humdrum, complex nature of the documentation that might’ve warned us about them is, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, and all that.

Take a quick glance through the small-print of this month’s bills, or all those email offers that land in your Inbox each week – it’s all there. Even a basic Google search paints a pretty clear picture.

Take this one from Qantas:

Prices based on payment at qantas.com: by BPAY made at least 7 days before departure; or by Debit MasterCard made within 7 days of departure. For card payments add A$30 per passenger per international booking. Also add A$60 per passenger for international bookings made on 13 13 13 and through Qantas airport locations.

So regardless of whether I pay by credit card, debit card or in cash, it seems I’m going to have to swallow a fee. In all likelihood I won’t pay by cash because I get the impression the only way to do so involves standing at a Qantas counter at my nearest airport; given that every aspect of getting to and from Sydney Airport is a gigantic pain and that parking there for even half an hour would attract yet another exorbitant fee, it’s not exactly on the cards. So I guess I’ll call them – I’ll have to suck up the $30 fee because I have to pay by card, then I’ll have to suck up another $60 fee because I’m going overseas. WTF? As if Qantas’ airfares aren’t already high enough!

Little wonder Qantas was recently served with a ‘please explain’ as to why, among other things, an international airfare booking should attract a flat $30 credit card fee, regardless of whether it’s one-way or return, irrespective of Economy, Premium Economy, Business or First Class. Qantas was asked to explain why it was charging so far above the odds, relative to the average 0.86% merchant service fee. That 0.86% average suggests that for a $1,499 one-way Economy ticket to Los Angeles, the surcharge – if it existed purely to cover transaction costs – should be closer to $13. Meanwhile a customer spending $3,865 on a Premium Economy fare to LA actually pockets a saving of $3 based on the same calculation, while a first class passenger spending $11,298 on their passage to the city of dreams saves more than $67! Qantas clearly has no problem gouging all its customers, with a particular emphasis on those who can least afford it – the same group who just happen to take up more than 75% of available seating on the average international flight.

The amount and variety of fee-incurring options on offer from one of my favourite Australian providers, Telstra, is quite bewildering. But in short:

When you choose to pay your Telstra Bill by credit card, the Credit Card Payment Processing Fee will apply.

Credit Card Payment Processing Fee: If you choose to pay your Telstra bill by credit card, then a payment fee processing fee will apply:

  • The rate for MasterCard, VISA and America Express is 1% of the payment amount, plus applicable GST;
  • The rate for Diners Club is 2% of the payment amount, plus applicable GST.

To their credit I must acknowledge that Telstra offers a vast array of payment options, they’re reasonably upfront about all the processing fees and they encourage customers to use the best payment option for their personal circumstances. But in the end they still charge a 1% fee for every VISA, MasterCard and AMEX transaction, which is higher than the current merchant average – even if only just.

Fees_BillsBut even when organisations are up front about what you’ll be charged, there could still be hidden traps. Some even charge a fee for standard direct debits from bank accounts (i.e. not a credit card), but it’s usually only if you need the flexibility of making smaller, more manageable payments on a more frequent basis – once again, those who can least afford the gouging get the raw end of the deal. Here’s a prime example from the Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry:

1.2 A monthly administrative surcharge of $2.75 will be charged for monthly direct debits. No surcharge applies to an annual direct debit.

You can even get caught with something as simple as postage or shipping. A few weeks ago I booked some concert tickets online through Ticketek. At the end of the process, there was no option to collect my tickets from the venue but two options for delivery – standard and registered. Selection of either added $7.95 to my total.

But I shouldn’t tar all businesses with the same fee-fiend brush. This from Brisbane City Council:

Credit card surcharge: All rates payments made by credit card will incur a 0.79% surcharge to reflect the cost of fees charged for credit card transactions. On an average rate account this is $2.96.

So at least someone’s charging less than the 0.86% merchant average and clearly states the fact up-front. Maybe there is a God after all.

So what’s the take out from all of this? What’s the message that businesses and service providers across practically every sector and industry are sending to consumers? Seems to me there are several. But the most important one is that regardless of whether you make payment online, by phone or in person, you’re almost always going to be slugged with a fee or surcharge – whatever they want us to believe, an ‘in person’ surcharge will, bizarrely, exist to cover the costs of conducting face-to-face business via a shop front that serves no other purpose than to allow customers to conduct business face-to-face; an online surcharge will exist purely because you can’t physically stuff money down the phone; and a phone surcharge will cover an organisation’s ‘loss’ because you need to set up a monthly direct debit rather than shelling out thousands of dollars in one hit – the fact that you might be paying in advance of services rendered and not in arrears won’t be deemed relevant.

One way or the other, we’ll always pay for the privilege of paying.

One way or the other, we’ll always be screwed over.

MY FAMILY: their gain is your loss


MyFamily1_ArseFamily

My Family: what a load of arse!

What is it about those stupid My Family stickers that makes me hate them so? They’ve only been around to annoy the crap out of me for a relatively short time, but I possibly now detest them even more than those awful Baby On Board things with the little suction cups.

I honestly don’t know what it is. What I do know is that I’m certainly not alone in my disdain. There are any number of webpages and Facebook groups, all united in their mutual hatred of My Family. However, I’m also cognisant of the fact that harbouring an irrational dislike of something so ostensibly inoffensive, for no readily apparent reason that I can think of, is neither sound nor logical.

I’m determined to get to the bottom of this! After all, how many reasons can there be?

It’s not a personal longing to’ve thought up the over-priced concept myself, though I’m undeniably envious of the absurdly enormous income stream they’ve generated for their creators. It’s not jealousy of those fine procreative families ticking every box on the Stereotype Application Form – I’ve no reason to be jealous of a dated, Anglo-centric urban family ideal that, I suspect, doesn’t really exist any more.

It’s certainly not some perverse desire to have what others have – offspring and family life are very much theirs to enjoy and I unreservedly wish them well with it, thank you very much! It’s not even that I wish I could put the stupid things all over my own car either – I could if I wanted to.

MyFamily1_DalekFamily

If only someone would exterminate ‘My Family’…

So what is it?

I recently stumbled across an opinion piece by Letitia Rowlands, published in The Daily Telegraph in November 2011. At the risk of being a tad lazy about this, her point of view perfectly sums up my own. In short, it’s a combination of three basic things:

1. So you’re a family unit of one or more parental entities, two or more offspring and some pets? So far, you’re nothing too far out of the Australian Bureau of Statitics’ ballpark;

2. It’s not as if you’re the only one who’s ever bred and reared offspring; and

3. I don’t really care what the make-up of your family unit is – just drive properly or get the f**k out of my way!

Rowlands’ article is a good laugh. Click here to have a read of it.

OK, so I’ve managed to pinpoint what I don’t like about them, but I’m still not sure exactly why.

It’s not really about the money the My Family creators have made off the back of something so simple. Everyone has to make a living somehow and if they’ve managed to convince so many struggling Aussie families to part with their hard-earned cash just to be like everyone else, good luck to them!

It isn’t because the whole thing doesn’t amuse me either. Even if there’s not much to laugh about where the ‘original’ My Family characters are concerned, there’ve been quite a few really funny piss-takes of the concept… although I guess they’re only ‘funny’ because they’re so self-referential in nature. And what an easy target, considering it’s f***ing everywhere!

Maybe that’s it? Maybe that’s the answer I’ve been looking for? So many people have My Family all over their cars that it’s become inescapable. Do people, by and large, really all think so similarly about things? Or is this just another example of how strongly the power of suggestion dictates so much of how we live in the 21st century? See. Want. Must have.

But it’s not this widespread lack of independent thought that really gets to me. It’s the blind stupidity of these My Family lemmings and the still-scarier thought that they’re probably not the slightest bit aware of what they’re doing. My friend Caroline recently told me a story about a car she’d seen that truly made me shudder – the story, I mean, not the car.

Picture this: I’m parking in the street and from no more than a few cursory glances and the time it takes to reverse park my car, get out of it and walk away, I can already tell more about you than the average identity thief could hope to learn from gaining access to your mailbox, inbox and online banking for an entire month. I know, for example, that you’re one half of a same-sex couple. You have three kids (2 girls and 1 boy), 2 dogs (1 large, 1 small) and a cat. Your mother or maybe your mother-in-law also lives with you… or maybe you’re in one of those lesbian ménage à trois deals?

Your son plays soccer. One of your daughters plays hockey, the other is a musician. Your name could be Kim (maybe Kimberley) and you might’ve been born in March 1978. Personality-wise, you’re pretty out there without going too over the top; I suspect you’re a follower of NRL football; and you live somewhere in or around the suburb of Rockdale.

MyFamily1_GayFamily

Variations on a theme: ‘My Modern Family’?

I don’t know you or anything about you – not officially anyway. In fact, I’ve never actually met you and probably never will. So how could I know so much about your family?

Simple – you told me. Or more to the point, your car told me. In less than a minute, without intending or even attempting to learn anything about you or your family, I found out more than I could’ve imagined possible.

Your reasonably out there top-of-the-range Toyota Rukus, liberally decorated with My Family stickers and Parramatta Eels paraphernalia, was sufficient evidence of your family unit, your borderline shy/wild personality and the football thing. Your personalised number plate was a fairly good indication of your name and your age. The Toyota dealership sticker in the middle of the rear window, plus a local council sticker on the bumper and a small adhesive label from a local automotive repairs place in the windscreen all gave me a pretty sound idea of roughly where you live.

That was a hypothetical, but it’s close enough to the truth of what my friend Caroline actually saw.

The volume of personal information that people volunteer about themselves these days – particularly via their cars – is frightening. In an age of such paranoia over the apparent threat of identity theft, a lot of people clearly aren’t concerned about being identified through their car. Maybe they’re not actually conscious that the My Family creators’ financial gain could very easily be their financial loss!

Hey I know – I’m gonna patent a My Family spin-off series that I can suck as many gullible fools into as possible. It’ll be so simple, just a few stick-figure images – a pile of cash, an ATM and an ATM card – and a whole series of letters and numbers in that cool My Family-style lettering. I’ll call it My PIN. Right next to their families, the same gullible fools that already have their entire lives displayed on their back windows can also proudly display their ATM PIN. Outcome: even more of their personal information on display, with the added bonus of potential financial ruin. Result!

Then again, maybe the original idea’s already stupid enough as it is.