Miscellany: Better late than never?

Better late than never?

“It’s time for the AICD to say where it stands on James Hardie” starts the CEO report in the December-January – yes December-January – issue of the Company Director, the AICD official publication.

Now by December, when a settlement was finally reached, it was probably difficult to find anyone who hadn’t taken a stand on the issue except the AICD but supposedly better late than never does apply.

The CEO report, from Ralph Evans, ploughed on with the comment “Justice should be done in the funding of the claims.” If this doesn’t strike you immediately as ridiculous just substitute the word ‘injustice’ for justice and see how it reads. Evans continues that the best option is for the company to meet the claims with testing the claims under existing laws in the court the next. “We hope governments will not rush to introduce new legislation”, is the cry, followed by that old cliché “hard cases make bad law”.

…and of course, anything at all which might be done should be “approached with great caution”.

This embrace of the precautionary principle may seem to sit oddly with an organisation whose members are frequently preaching on the need for painful – and necessary – change for others ranging from trade unions to welfare recipients but then that’s probably different isn’t it?

It does remind one, however, that the greatest reputation risk facing many companies in the insularity of their directors and senior managers. Cocooned from real life with multi-million dollar salaries and fees; travel at the front end of planes; chauffer driven cars’ and residence in desirable multi-million dollar homes in Sydney and Melbourne eastern suburbs; and, not too often embarrassed by junior staff telling them they’re wrong it is easy to see how far out of touch they can get from the concerns of ordinary people living real lives.

That’s why they get ambushed and that’s one of the main reasons the PR industry flourishes – recovering from the ambushes. Ironically, as a young PR person Miscellany was constantly told PR would only come of age when it got into the Board room. Today it can only function effectively when it gets out of the board room – and away from the board room world view – and into the trams, trains, buses and streets where people who don’t travel first class internationally tend to gather.

Numbers (an occasional feature)

George Monbiot in The Guardian on January 4 produced some interesting numbers. The US Government has so far pledged $350 million to the tsunami victims and the UK Government $96 million. The US has spent $148 billion on the Iraqi War and the UK $11.5billion in the 656 days of the war. That’s one and half day’s spending in Iraq by the US and five and half days by the UK.

The next scandal?

Before Christmas Miscellany chanced its arm on predicting the next big financial scandal – that is of the scale of the savings and loans affair in the US.

One guess was pension funds and unfunded liabilities. Now the FT, on January 2 this year, has reported on a paper prepared in December for the Financial Economist Roundtable which suggests the US pension insurance fund faces a possible taxpayer funded bail-out similar to the savings and loans one.

Various Nobel Prize winners and others blamed the risk on the 2004 US law which allowed companies to underfund pension schemes and reduce the insurance premiums they pay into the fund. The current fund deficit is some $23 billion with estimates, according to the FT, of possible shortfalls around $100 billion.

This is, of course, occurring at a time when the George W. has put the privatisation of

Social Security at the top of his second term agenda.

The US has always probably been the worst developed western country in which to be poor and/or old. It looks as if it might just get worse.

Alexander the Great

One of the silliest legal cases for many a year is the attempt by some Greek lawyers to take action against the new film about Alexander the Great because it portrays Alexander as gay.

Now this is one thing which is not very mysterious about Alexander – at least not as mysterious as the fate of his body and tomb in Alexandria. Over the years there have been a number of theories – and some hoaxes – about the body and the tomb. There were many descriptions of it and Augustus visited it in 30BC inadvertently breaking off the corpse’s nose while placing flowers and a crown on it. Now an historian, Andrew Chugg, has published a book about the tomb and the corpse – The Lost Tomb of Alexander the Great.

Chugg postulates – supported by circumstantial but persuasive evidence – that the Alexandrian corpse disappeared around the late fourth century just when St Mark’s corpse appears on the historical scene and that there is an explanation linking both events.

The argument is too lengthy to summarise here, but basically suggests that if you hop along to Venice to see St Mark’s tomb you could well be worshipping the body of one Alexander the Great.

One of those stories which, if it isn’t true, ought to be. And, somewhat more plausible than legal actions against allegations that Alexander was gay or the contention that modern inhabitants of Greece have some identity in common with the inhabitants of ancient Greece.

Torture and legality

The forthcoming confirmation hearings for George W.’s nominee as A-G, Alberto Gonzales, will no doubt re-run many of the arguments about torture and legality among other things.

One issue which should be on the agenda as well is his competence. He was, according to The Economist on December 18, the person who led the vetting process on the Bush nominee for Homeland Security head, Bernard Kerick. In doing so he missed a few things as we all now know.

However, his fame or otherwise really rests on his memos about torture. My good friend in Manhattan sent me details of Gonzales’s memo and suggested they be contrasted with two other legal opinions to give a flavour for how they differ from the views of other jurists around the world in countries considered under threat.

The first, drawn from The Economist, was the finding of the law lords in the case about the UK plan for indefinite detention of suspected terrorists. The law lords ruled that it was unlawful with Lord Nicholls finding: “Indefinite imprisonment without charges or trial is anathema in any country which observes the rule of law.” The general gist of the decision was that the rule of law comes first and undermining it undermines our system as well.

The second comes from the ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court on the West Bank Security Wall.

Chief Justice Aharon Barak referred to an earlier finding by the court (in 1994) regarding torture when he said: “We are aware that this decision does not make it easier to deal with that reality (national security). This is the destiny of a democracy: she does not see all means as acceptable, and the ways of her enemies are not always open before her. A democracy must sometimes fight with one arm tied behind her back. Even so a democracy has the upper hand. The rule of law and individual liberties constitute an important aspect of her security stance. At the end of the day they strengthen her spirit and this strength allows her to overcome her difficulties”.

Then going on discuss the security wall Barak said: “This goes for this case as well. Only a separation fence built on a base of law will grant security to the state and its citizens.”

And for good measure: “Regarding the state’s struggle against the terror that rises up against it, we are convinced that at the end of the day of the day, a struggle according to the law will strengthen her power and her spirit.”

Now – as the old exam questions used to say – compare and contrast the views of Mr Gonzales with those of the UK law lords and the Israeli Supreme Court.

In a memo on torture Gonzales said: “As you have said the war against terrorism is a new kind of war…The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities…In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on then questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions….”