Memo Starbucks: Next Time Try Selling Ice To Eskimos

Globalisation has pulled millions of people in developing countries out of poverty. It has sent goods, services and people around the world, linking humanity into a vast network of communications and commerce that has ultimately benefited everyone.

But, still. In the case of one American coffee giant, globalisation deserved to fail. Starbucks makes really bad coffee.

Starbucks is almost entirely pulling out of Australia – closing 61 of its 84 stores. In Melbourne, just five of the 16 stores are tipped to remain.

Sure, the company is closing stores across the world. But while the closure of 600 stores in the United States sounds like a big deal, it is trivial when you consider that there are nearly 12,000 Starbucks outlets in that country.

The demise of the coffee giant’s Australian ventures speaks volumes about the challenge of globalisation.

The lesson of Starbucks’ Down Under fiasco is simple. Globalisation is a bit overrated. It’s much harder than everybody seems to think.

So why has Starbucks worked in the US but largely failed in Australia? The secret of the company’s success in the American market wasn’t that it sold coffee. It sold coffee culture.

It is remarkable how alien quality coffee was to US consumers. As late as the 1980s, the National Coffee Association was producing advertisements just trying to convince people that coffee could keep them awake. And what small prestige the drink held in the US was occupied by the old “cup of joe” – cheap, stale and reheated sludge poured from a pot.

No wonder that when Starbucks came on the scene in the 1990s, Americans eagerly embraced it. Starbucks coffees may be weak, poorly made and overly reliant on syrups to mask their flavour, but they are certainly better than what had previously been available.

The other aspect of Starbucks’ appeal in the US has been its establishment of the cafe as a social hub. From a Melbourne perspective, the typical Starbucks may seem somewhat sterile and too over-eager to appear “comfortable”. But it is one of the peculiarities of the US that the idea that a cafe could be a social venue was quite new, at least outside the circles inhabited by the cultural elite. Comfy chairs and pleasant, if bland, music have been just as important a part of the Starbucks product as its coffee.

But when Starbucks came to Australia to bring coffee and the cafe culture to the masses, it found that we already had it. Particularly in Melbourne, we have better coffee and more relaxing cafes than anything that Starbucks brought with it.

Undeterred, the firm simply dumped what seemed to work in America into this country. When Starbucks opened an outlet in Lygon Street – a store that has since sat empty surrounded by bustling cafes – it became an amazing example of just how comprehensively a company could fail to understand its target market.

The inability of Starbucks to adjust its product to local conditions is illustrated even more clearly when we compare it to the international strategy of that other evil American behemoth – McDonald’s. Where Starbucks offers almost the same products around the world, McDonald’s varies its menu depending on local culture and local tastes. In India, they sell the McCurry Pan. In Japan, the “Ebi Filet-O” is available – a shrimp burger. In Turkey, McDonald’s offers kebabs. Some of these products may sound stupid – and Canada’s “McLobster” sounds filthy – but their existence shows that McDonald’s understands the importance of understanding its regional markets, and tries to understand the peculiarities of local culture.

The failure of Starbucks in Australia tells us a lot about globalisation too. It isn’t enough – as some anti-globalisation activists seem to assume – for an American company just to blanket a foreign market with a mediocre product.

Multinational corporations actually have to offer something better than the local alternatives if they want to succeed.

This is true as much for products such as films and television as it is for syrupy coffee and fast food. Clearly, Hollywood films are better than Australian films on some level.

Audiences flock not just to the high-cost blockbusters but also to independent American movies well before they consider seeing a local production. Hollywood knows that a movie has to be entertaining before it can be successful.

If Starbucks can teach us anything, it is that in the global marketplace, turning up to compete just isn’t enough. You have to be really good.

Connies A Nostalgic Symbol Of Lost Community Spirit

The proposal aired in last week’s Sunday Age to reinstate conductors to Melbourne’s trams was greeted with unsurprising enthusiasm. But the nostalgia for connies probably has little to do with the mechanics of tram ticketing and more to do with a general unease about 21st-century relationships.

Admittedly, the reported $12 million a year that it would cost to reintroduce tram conductors sounds a hell of a lot cheaper than the $850 million Victorians have already had to pay for the myki automated ticketing system. For public transport users, myki is at the moment no more than a figment of the imagination. And as the price of implementing myki keeps going up, it just ends up sounding more and more fanciful, like space elevators or underwater cities.

Bear in mind that once myki has its bugs ironed out, its high-tech cards available for purchase, a colourful and energetic promotional campaign blaring out of every Victorian television and it is finally – finally – switched on, myki will still cost a hefty $55 million a year to operate. With a bill like that on the way, is it really any surprise that people are getting nostalgic for the humble old connie?

After all, this nostalgia could also be sound economics. Conductors are as good a way as any to collect transport fees. Every possible ticketing system – Metcard, myki or conductors – should be evaluated on its merits and compared with alternatives. As the State Government pushes blindly ahead with myki despite its enormous cost and a three-year delay, there seems little indication that anybody has done that.

But it probably isn’t the cost of conductors, or the ballooning cost of myki that makes so many people miss the connies. As blog comments, reader contributions and subsequent opinion pieces have made clear, what people are most nostalgic for is human contact on the tram.

This is a feeling that would be easy to mock, but I won’t. Being frustrated by firms automating and depersonalising services isn’t Luddism – it is not the same as going on a machine-breaking rampage or fearing a robot rebellion.

Instead, the apparently widespread desire to return to the days of the connies seems to come more from a feeling that individuals are being left adrift in an ocean of overly complicated superannuation options, phone plans and credit-card loyalty schemes. Unfriendly businesses are common. On many customer service hotlines, the only way callers can escape the automated system and speak to a live human being is by becoming aggressive and abusive. If anything is damaging our collective psyche, it is probably unresponsive telephone hotlines.

Of course, we should not overestimate how much people are secretly yearning for human interaction. Many, if not most, people would prefer to do internet banking at home rather than traipsing off to their branch to deal with a disgruntled teller. And it’s far easier to pay bills online than read out your credit card number to a call-centre employee over the phone.

Similarly, not everybody likes the thought of having to track down a conductor on a crowded tram before their morning coffee has kicked in. It’s not entirely obvious, as Catherine Deveney contended in The Age on Wednesday, that reinstating the connies would be like finding your favourite watch that went missing 20 years ago, or discovering a long-lost dog on your doorstep.

Think back to the heyday of government-owned public transport – not all conductors were rays of sunshine motivated by nothing more than a love of commuters. Sometimes they had bad days. Not every conductor loved every minute of their job. And some of them were – to put it mildly – miserable gits. A small minority, certainly. But it might be worth recalling that not every commuter-conductor relationship spun off into a lifelong friendship.

Sure, the ideal conductor helps parents with prams, directs tourists to interesting landmarks, and knows regular travellers by name.

But there isn’t really any reason why fellow passengers can’t lift prams or aid lost tourists. There are dozens of people on the average tram.

Rather than hoping that conductors will somehow rebuild Melbourne’s community spirit, why not look at what’s holding that spirit back? We will probably discover it is much more than dissatisfaction with ticketing machines.

Protecting Kids From TV Swearing Is Not Canberra’s Job

One of the most appealing features of Australian democracy is our enthusiasm for parliamentary committees. Committees are to politicians what Bob the Builder DVDs are to three-year-olds – if a politician is busy with a committee inquiry, then they can’t get up to any mischief.

So it was easy to be happy when it was reported earlier this year that swearing on television shows – which most people would agree is one of the top issues facing Australia today, perhaps second only to jaywalking – was to be investigated by a federal Senate committee.

Sure, it’s an embarrassing waste of taxpayers’ money to have politicians spend their days discussing the need for politeness when responding to complaints about TV programs. But doing so is a lot better than if they spent that time thinking up new taxes. Senators have to do something – let them deliberate over which words shouldn’t be said on TV.

But the final 80-page report released late last month (it took nine senators four months to write) isn’t limited to platitudes and speechifying. It recommends that all new televisions sold in Australia be compelled to offer a “parental lock”, which prevents children from watching programs above a certain classification.

On the surface, this seems like a good idea, doesn’t it? Adding a parental lock to new televisions isn’t likely to cost consumers too much more money.

But is good parenting impossible without help from Canberra?

The parental lock is very similar to a program implemented in the US after a surge in controversy about violence on TV. All TVs sold in that country have to have a V-chip installed that allows parents to block certain shows. (Journalists joked that if the sex-obsessed Republicans had introduced the measure it would have been called the S-chip.)

But while 70 to 80% of American parents claim that they are “seriously concerned” about their children watching inappropriate TV programs, their concern doesn’t extend to actually using the V-chip. In 2004, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that only 15% of parents had even tried switching it on. As a consequence, some US politicians have argued that the V-chip should be set at its most restrictive level as its factory default.

It’s easy for parents to claim in a telephone poll that they worry about their kids mimicking the rude words heard on TV. But you have to wonder just how seriously concerned those parents are if it is too much effort to switch on a function that their TV already has built into it. If the US experience is anything to go by, the parental lock will be a flop. And Australian television is already much tamer than TV in the US.

After all, just as you don’t have to buy your children junk food even if they really want it, you don’t have to let your children watch rude programs.

One of the more bizarre reasons the nine senators thought that parents needed help from the Federal Government was because televisions were increasingly being placed in kids’ bedrooms, far from the watchful eye of adults. But perhaps concerned parents could consider simply moving the offending TVs somewhere children don’t sleep.

Indeed, monitoring what TV programs children watch isn’t actually that hard. And for those parents that feel they need some technological help, there are numerous TVs and set-top boxes that already offer parental locks. Is it that hard for parents to inquire about these features when they first buy their TV?

Parents who want to shield their children from the rougher parts of pop culture can easily do so with off-the-shelf technology and simple common sense.

But nevertheless, politicians of all stripes pander to moralising conservative lobbyists for whom the real issue isn’t that their children could hear rude words on TV, but that there are rude words on TV at all. As usual, politicians aren’t actually thinking of the children. Politicians are thinking of marginal electorates.

Perhaps some perspective is needed. Parents and governments won’t have failed if the next generation of Australians lead happy and productive lives, but curse like drunken pirates. Society won’t crumble. The Senate committee should have asked everybody to take it easy – Canberra isn’t a parenting aide.

Free Speech Means The Right To Obscene Speech, Too

The French philosopher Voltaire never actually said the words he is best known for: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” His biographer invented the saying to explain Voltaire’s views on free speech. Still, it’s a great line.

But how many people agree with it? How many people would be willing to go to the barricades for racist, sexist or obscene speech – the sort of stuff that exists only in the deep bowels of the internet? Probably very few.

But if we are concerned about free speech at all, we need to defend some people saying some pretty terrible things.

When debating politics, few people would favour locking up their opponents, no matter how ill-informed or distasteful their views may be. There’s a big difference between strongly disagreeing with somebody’s opinion and insisting that they are banned from expressing it.

The solution to bad speech is simply more speech – one cannot successfully rebut an argument without first allowing that argument to be expressed.

This is the reason that David Marr’s Quarterly Essay – which argued that the Howard government was somehow suppressing dissent – was so popular last year. Political censorship is abhorrent. Almost everybody is happy to let others rant and rave about any political point they like – monarchy, capitalism, foreigners stealing our jobs, the phallocentric patriarchy etc. So there is legitimate anger when the government tries to silence even the most ridiculous opinion about politics.

Nevertheless political censorship is so rare that it is hardly a pressing issue in Australia. Commentators trawl the papers trying to charge the government as an opponent of political dissent. Every possible infringement – real or, more often, imagined – gets highly publicised.

But if we really want to defend free speech in 2008 – if we believe that free speech is a right that we are born with, not a limited gift given to us by politicians – sometimes we may need to make common cause with extreme pornographers, racists, misogynists and other very dislikeable individuals.

Last Tuesday, a 38-year-old Brisbane man, William Reimers, received 12 months probation for possessing five fictional stories about child abuse that he had downloaded from the internet.

Unlike Bill Henson’s famous photographs, there is no ambiguity about the purposes of these stories. With titles like “Daddy’s Best Little Girl”, they were clearly not art. Reimers was charged under laws that consider descriptions of children in sexual activity as child pornography.

Cate Blanchett and her 2020 team will be unlikely to rush to the defence of somebody downloading dirty stories from the internet. But in many ways, Reimers’ arrest is more worrying than the controversy surrounding Henson. Where there are legitimate concerns about Henson’s artistic practice – at what age can somebody “consent” to nude photography? – there are no such concerns with Reimers.

The stories he collected were entirely fictional. In fact, as far as we know, nobody was harmed at any time while they were written, put on the internet, downloaded, or read. And there doesn’t appear to be any indication that the stories were incitements to commit violence. Sure, the stories were the products of a sick mind. But would the arguments presented in the case against Reimers also apply to non-fictional – and non-erotic – descriptions of child abuse? This is a slippery slope.

Having to defend people with repellent views and beliefs is the grimy side of standing up for civil rights. In the US, which has a richer tradition of liberty than Australia, doing so is widely recognised as part of the job. The American Civil Liberties Union has defended not just the uncontroversial rights of religious liberty, immigrant rights and gay rights, but also the rights of neo-Nazis and the Man-Boy Love Association to express their views. Nobody in the union would agree with the views of these groups, but they defend their right to express them.

If we think that the right to free speech stops where perversion starts, then we allow judges and politicians to impose their views of morality upon the rest of us. A right which is limited by the opinions of a conservative legislator is no right at all.

Don’t Close The Door On Our Envied Bar Culture

Premier John Brumby probably wasn’t expecting a backlash this big.

Nearly 30,000 distressed drinkers have signed just one of the many Facebook petitions opposing the 2am lockout — the Victorian Government’s new policy that will ban entry to bars, pubs and clubs in the inner city after 2am. And more than 6000 people have promised to angrily party on the steps of Parliament when the ban goes into force on June 3.

The lockout is being vigorously debated in street magazines and online music forums that would never think to debate the finer points of more “traditional” policy concerns such as means-tested baby bonuses or first-home buyers’ grants.

There is good reason for these protesters to be upset about the 2am lockout. It is a dramatic restriction on our freedom to go to our favourite venues that, in turn, want to have us as customers. The Government is obviously worried that the word “curfew” sounds a little too much like they fear a coup d’etat.

But even if you’re not convinced that we have been endowed with an inalienable right to party, the 2am lockout is still bad public policy.

Certainly, a lockout has precedents across the country. Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast has a lockout at 1.30am, Mackay locks patrons out at 2am, and Newcastle introduced a 3am lockout in March this year. In Victoria, Ballarat, Bendigo and Warrnambool all have lockouts in place.

In many of these cities, police claim that late-night violence has been reduced. But Brisbane has had a 3am lockout since 2005, and the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital told a documentary film crew that it had seen no reduction in total assaults since the ban was enacted. The correlation between bar-hopping and violent assault may not be as simple as the Government would like.

In the absence of a clear model of cause and effect, the policy aims to restrict the behaviour of a huge number of Melburnians in the questionable hope that doing so will set off a chain reaction that ends in the pacification of a few violent idiots. But wishful thinking and guesswork rarely result in good policy.

The evidence from other cities reveals that violent behaviour late at night is clustered only around a few hot spots. In Wollongong, 67% of violent incidents are attributable to just six pubs. Identifying and closely policing these places would be a far more effective strategy to combat the violence than a lockout could ever be.

Unfortunately, haphazardly targeting all late night venues is clever politics. Whipping up fear in the community about violence in the street has always been an effective strategy to build political support. And imposing a lockout doesn’t require the Government to devote any extra resources to the problem. Lockouts don’t affect the state budget at all — the burden of administering the lockout falls squarely on the venues.

Furthermore, changes to liquor licences and lockouts target a group of people who do not have a strong electoral voice. Young people are not known for their skills as lobbyists.

While the 2am lockout has received the most media attention, it is only one part of the Government’s assault against late-night venues. Consumer Affairs Victoria quietly announced earlier this month a “freeze” on granting liquor licences that plan to trade after 1am.

This means that, at least for the next 12 months while the freeze is in place, there will be no new bars, clubs or pubs opening in the inner suburbs that can pour a late-night beer.

And any already operating venue that needs to alter its licence in some minor way — to build an outdoor smokers’ area, for instance, since smokers will no longer be able to go outside pubs after 2am without being locked out — will only be able to apply for a new licence that is loaded with the 1am limit.

Like many regulatory increases, these sorts of burdens disproportionately hurt small businesses, which do not have the resources to lobby for exemptions or the financial slack to adjust to the new regulations.

It all adds up to a major attack on Melbourne’s hole-in-the-wall bar culture — a culture that only a few months ago Sydney was enviously eyeballing.

It would be sad if in the future we had to fly to NSW to find the nightlife we have so long been enjoying at home.

Put A Cork In It, Mr Rudd – You’re Missing The Point

Very quickly, Kevin Rudd has set the tone for his first term. His is a government that doesn’t just want to govern, it wants to parent.

Health Minister Nicola Roxon announced earlier this week that the taxes on alcopops – canned or bottled spirits premixed with soft drink – were to be doubled.

The tax increase was announced as a response to the 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey. But the survey reported that not only has binge-drinking among young females remained steady over the past few years, but the number of those who were endangering their long-term health had actually decreased slightly. If there is a binge-drinking crisis, as the Government claims, then it appears to be one which is resolving itself.

Nevertheless, since the federal election, booze has become a bread-and-butter issue of high politics. But the Government’s policy is based on a big leap of logic. Why will raising the price of alcopops result in healthier teenagers? Invariably, government policies have consequences unintended by the politicians who design them.

Certainly, the tax increase might reduce the amount of alcopops sold. Like most products, the demand for alcopops is elastic – that is, if the price goes up, some people who would have bought the drinks at a lower price may now choose not to. But those customers for whom the pre-mixed drinks are now too expensive can easily replace them with other alcoholic beverages. There is no shortage of choice in your average neighbourhood bottle shop.

After all, for a teenager looking to spend an evening drinking with friends, the choice isn’t between alcopops and a healthy glass of water. Would, for instance, the Federal Government prefer teenage children to try to mix their own drinks? It is not easy to estimate the safe ratio of spirits to soft drink while you are at a loud and crowded house party, slightly tipsy and leaning over a kitchen bench trying to pour cheap vodka into a plastic cup.

When alcohol is bottled in premeasured quantities, it is easy for teenagers to gauge just how much they are drinking. The Federal Government might be making it harder for teenagers to regulate their own alcohol consumption. If even a single teenager has to get their stomach pumped because they now have no idea how much they’re drinking, this policy will have been an abject failure.

When teenagers are unable to afford pre-mixed drinks, they will move on to their next choice of alcohol. If politicians increase the tax on every alcoholic beverage – as the Government’s advisers are publicly recommending – then teens may move to taking other, non-alcoholic drugs when they are socialising.

There is another possible unintended consequence of the tax increase that is even more worrying. When a new range of pre-mixed drinks was released earlier this decade, alcohol manufacturers asserted that young drinkers felt safer drinking out of bottles because they were harder to spike with date-rape drugs.

That claim may or may not be true. But it should at the very least remind us that when teenagers choose to buy their alcohol pre-mixed, they often do so for complex and personal reasons – not merely because they have been conned into doing so by stylish ad campaigns.

The alcopop tax increase is the first to come into effect of the many sin taxes that have been flagged by the new Government and its advisory bodies. The federal preventative health task force has now called for taxes on all alcohol to be increased by 300%, and a similar increase to be imposed on tobacco taxes. And the best and brightest summiteers were eager that the Government tax junk food.

When you add to this list last month’s proposed bans on alcohol and candy advertising, it becomes clear that few individual decisions are immune from the disapproval of the Rudd Government.

The left used to ridicule John Howard’s attraction to the moral universe of the 1950s. But the Labor Party is trying to introduce a new moral code that is just as severe – one which is designed to scare parents into supporting the Government’s policies. Don’t worry – Kevin Rudd is working just as hard to look after your children as you are.

But this anti-binge drinking campaign is not very well thought out. Artificially changing people’s behaviour isn’t that easy. Too often it makes the original problem worse.

The Patriot Games

Is there anyone, anywhere, who believes Olympic bureaucrats when they declare that the Games are about athletics, not politics? Even the athletes themselves — standing upon the winners’ podium, draped in their national flag and singing their national anthem — must realise that the Olympics are actually undisguised geopolitics and taxpayer financed publicity stunts.

One need only look at the opening ceremony to realise that the Olympics are little more than an excuse for nation states to preen in front of each other like ostriches in mating season.

By August, the three largest totalitarian states of the 20th century — Nazi Germany, the USSR and China — will all have been Olympic hosts. Certainly, China’s appalling human rights record has improved since the Great Leap Forward. But providing dictatorships with a pre-packaged marketing program is hard to reconcile with the Olympic charter, which argues that the Games are to reflect “universal fundamental ethical principles”.

But everybody knows the torch relay has its origins in the Nazi Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Everybody knows how the USSR seized upon the Moscow Games, proclaiming that it was an acknowledgement of their fantastic record of maintaining world peace.

The relationship between totalitarianism and the Olympics is old news.

The modern Olympics have always been a potent mix of late 19th century nationalism and elite athleticism. The Olympics may now sparkle with the glitter of cutting-edge telecommunications infrastructure and high-performance sports apparel, but the Games have never quite shed their legacy of stern pseudo-militarism.

Even when peaceful liberal democracies host the Olympics, they are drenched with propaganda. As everybody remembers from last year’s federal election, democratic governments are always happy to spend gigantic sums on public relations. The Olympics are a publicity stunt on a colossally expensive scale.

Few of the other justifications for staging the Olympics stack up. Whatever jobs are “created” during the two weeks of events are quickly extinguished when the flame is.

Some Games supporters claim that staging the Olympics provides an opportunity to make much-needed infrastructure upgrades, particularly in transportation. Those who still hold this view clearly haven’t been to Sydney recently.

Others claim that the Olympic publicity encourages international tourism once the festivities are over. But we only ever hear politicians predict tourism bonanzas when they can’t think of anything else to say. What potential visitors were unaware of the existence of Athens, Beijing or London until they heard that those cities would be Olympic cities?

Whatever economic spillovers hosting the Games can bring, they nowhere near justify the enormous cost. If there is an economic benefit to staging the Olympics, then the economy hasn’t heard about it.

Looking at the impact of the announcement in 1993 that Sydney would host the Games, a group of RMIT economists concluded that the stock market didn’t budge at all. Only building firms saw their values rise.

The two biggest beneficiaries of the Olympics are politicians hoping to bask in the loving glow of the international media, and property developers looking for stadium contracts.

In Beijing, Chinese taxpayers have to support an event designed to glorify the Communist Party that has ruled over them for more than half a century.

But boycotting the Beijing Games is no more likely to pressure China into repairing its human rights record than granting them the Olympics did in the first place. There have been dozens of Games boycotts over the past century, and none have had any significant political impact.

In fact, political controversy has shared the stage with athletics at almost every modern Olympics. Even innocent Melbourne in 1956 was marred by boycotts — China withdrew because the Games committee recognised Taiwan, three countries withdrew because of Israel, and another three withdrew in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary. When the USSR played Hungary in water polo that year, the match resembled a pub brawl.

Boycotts and underwater fisticuffs may be rarer since the end of the Cold War, but politics still infuses every aspect of the Games.

The official website of the Chinese Olympic Committee is unambiguous about Beijing’s ideological content, advertising its National Fitness Program, which has been hard at work since 1995 “promoting mass sporting activities on an extensive scale, improving the people’s physique, and spurring the socialist modernisation of our country”.

In the same breath — or, at least, on the same page — the website laments the attempted politicisation of the Beijing Games by “some Western forces” and “separatists”.

Remember the tedious controversy about non-Australian marching bands in the Sydney opening ceremony? Every moment of the Beijing Games will be stage-managed to shed the best light on a dictatorship that has more than 4000 domestic political prisoners.

So, rather than pretending that politics can be hidden under the woolly feel-goodness of the officially prescribed “Olympic Spirit”, we should encourage the Games’ politicisation.

The Chinese Government is welcome to its publicity stunt, but while the country is under the full glare of the world’s media, there is probably no better time for demonstrations and counter-stunts.

Despite their lofty ambitions, the Olympics have never brought world peace. Nevertheless, if the press corps manages to outflank China’s propaganda machine, they might be able to turn this expensive political advertisement into something good for human rights.

Don’t forget — it’s not about the sport.

Come On, Aunty, Time To Work Out Where You’re At

Management guru Peter Drucker famously asked the chief executive of General Electric two simple questions: “If you weren’t in the business you’re in, would you enter it today? If the answer is no, what are you going to do about it?” Has our ABC ever asked itself these questions?

The GE chief took Drucker’s questioning as an opportunity to radically restructure the company and re-examine its core business. The ABC should use the challenges brought on by new media and the internet to do the same.

A poorly kept secret of Australian libertarian and conservative politics is that when we complain about bias, it’s usually only because we faithfully watch and adore the ABC.

The network’s nickname – Aunty – makes it seem more like a kindly relative who has cats and loves having you over for quiche than a major government program that employs 4500 people and receives nearly $1billion dollars of taxpayers’ money.

Aunties don’t have to justify their own existence; government programs do. Certainly, the broadcaster has a charter. But that charter consists of little more than vague platitudes towards diversity, community and “awareness of Australia”.

Unfortunately, the reforms announced over the past month – the introduction of a 24-hour news-gathering service, a few local websites, and some shedding of in-house production staff – do little to clarify the ABC’s proper role.

But that is hardly surprising. In fact, in her 76 years of operation, Aunty has never really known what she is for. Australia has public broadcasting primarily because our pre-WWII federal government didn’t trust the commercial radio stations to sufficiently educate the lumpen masses on the finer points of Brahms and Shakespeare.

Since everybody in parliament agreed that Britain’s BBC was really cool, the government set up an Australian version. But unlike the original BBC, the ABC has tried to be “for all Australians” and tried to compete with commercial broadcasters, adopting an uncomfortable mix of highbrow and lowbrow programming.

But a core foundation of liberal democracy is that the government should not do anything that society can do itself. The government should not directly compete with the private sector.

What then would the ABC be doing now if it took Drucker’s advice?

There seems little reason for the network to have a commercial arm – should the ABC be directly competing with bookstores? Why, too, should it be broadcasting highly popular sporting events when there is no lack of private networks willing to do so? As a rule, the ABC should never out-bid another broadcaster for programming.

ABC director Mark Scott argued that not only can the network provide local news and commentary to remote and rural communities, but it could also provide a digital “town square” for community engagement.

Among public broadcasting advocates, this view is popular – it is a convenient way to imagine a role for the ABC far into the online future. But it is again indicative of the ABC’s drifting purpose. Why should taxpayers be paying the government to imitate the thousands of bulletin boards and forums that already pepper the internet? And genuine communities are built by individuals, not governments.

There are, unquestionably, roles for which the ABC is necessary. Government is responsible for broadcasting political events such as Parliament. And the ABC has an enormous back catalogue of Australian history it should be immediately digitising.

Its cultural role needs to be examined in the context of the entire broadcasting market – in particular, the Australian content regulations that apply to commercial channels. If government is convinced that artificially promoting Australian culture is vital even in the age of media abundance, then that may be a task for public broadcasting alone.

But these are unasked questions. The ABC is seen by commentators from the left and the right as a sort of gift from the government for the politically obsessed, rather than a major public policy initiative of the Federal Government.

All media organisations across the world need to go through similar soul-searching. But because the ABC is insulated from the punishing winds of the market, it has consistently avoided tough decisions about what services it should provide. If it is to adjust to the future, that will need to change.

Nanny State Ad Bans Won’t Stop Kids Liking Junk Food

It used to be that if the government didn’t like something, it would ban it. Now, if the government disapproves of a product, it just bans it from being advertised.

A Senate committee is currently examining the feasibility of restricting advertisements for alcohol, and Kevin Rudd has expressed interest in making such a measure part of his binge drinking campaign.

Similarly, the Australian Medical Association wants to ban junk food advertising during children’s TV shows. Advertising restrictions are the new coolest thing for paternalistic policy-makers and their nanny state.

But are we that easily manipulated by brand managers and advertising firms? Does the Government have to step in to protect us, and our children, from harmful ads? Advertising is, at its core, just the simple delivery of information. Those who oppose it are essentially arguing that this information is too challenging for individuals to process safely; that, if told the wrong thing, they will be unable to resist self-harm.

The anti-capitalist Naomi Klein famously took this argument one step further when she decried the psychological power of corporate brands – we are all, apparently, oppressed by tyrannical graphic designers. Mining would be finally recognised as the environmental catastrophe it is if only everybody wasn’t so disorientated by BHP’s trendy looking bubble logo.

This view does not just reduce us to the level of dumb automatons, passively waiting for advertising executives to beam their instructions directly into our brains, it also creates a profound dilemma for democratic politics. If we don’t have free will in the shopping centre, we certainly don’t have free will in the voting booth. And figuring out which political party would be better for interest rates is far more complex than figuring out which brand of shampoo to buy.

Nevertheless, most people acknowledge that adults are sensibly sceptical about marketing claims.What is surprising is just how advertising savvy children are.

Minors are depicted by policy-makers as unable to defend themselves against a well-planned onslaught of marketing. However, as the new book Prohibitions published by Britain’s Institute of Economic Affairs shows, children as young as five form preferences about their favourite TV programs. And by the age of 11, children demonstrate a pronounced scepticism about claims made in ads.

During the federal election campaign, anti-advertising rhetoric took a decidedly surreal turn. In response to the Labor Party’s dislike of Shrek-themed merchandising, the Howard government promised to fund a new ABC channel for children completely free of junk food ads. It was a bizarre train of thought that led Liberal policy-makers to think that the best way to combat childhood obesity was to make sitting on the couch and watching TV more appealing.

The belief that an individual’s free will is crushed under the jackboot of catchy advertising jingles is, of course, nonsense. We have just as much autonomy over our personal decisions as we did before an ad break.

So what, then, is advertising for? It informs us that new products are available in the marketplace. We may, after having watched an ad, have a different idea of what our next purchase may be. But that isn’t because we have been manipulated by a ruthless marketing department.

An ad that informs us that McDonald’s now sells salad only interests those people who would probably like to buy a salad from McDonald’s. If the preference for salad doesn’t already exist, then no ad, no matter how brilliant, is going to be effective.

This logic is fairly obvious. What child is going to abandon chocolates and lollies when their ads disappear off television? Kids will always like junk food. Any parents who think that a government ban will make walking up the chocolate aisle less stressful are deceiving themselves. And anybody who thinks that teenagers will refuse the next “alcopop” just because they are no longer being specifically marketed to under-25s has forgotten a lot about their youth.

Politicians and activists are attracted to the theory that advertising manipulates consumers. It gives them yet another reason to regulate the media, and a way to appear to be doing something about the latest health scare. But they won’t change our behaviour. Instead, politicians should face the hideous truth – people are smarter than advertisements.

Pedestal To The Metal

The car is doomed announced two Melbourne academics in The Age last week. According to them, carbon emissions targets compel us to reduce automobile travel by 80%. And the State Government should probably stop building new roads. We won’t need them anyway.

Sure, it’s easy to criticise research that is little more than media bait. But after years of abuse, the humble car still can’t catch a break. And the reasons the car still has a long, healthy life ahead of it highlight the biggest problem in the debate over public transport. When people choose to drive, they do so because it is more comfortable and more convenient than the alternatives. No public transport policy is going to change that.

A lot of factors stack up in favour of the car. As Roads Minister Tim Pallas pointed out on Wednesday, public transport may be convenient for those living in the inner suburbs, where the average distance to a train station is less than a kilometre, but in the outer suburbs that distance expands to 10 kilometres.

A more critical issue is that only a small, declining percentage of journeys are from the suburbs into the city, as workplaces move out of the CBD. And it is these journeys that are the most suitable for public transport – when everybody is travelling the same direction it is easy to map out a new train line.

The remaining suburb-to-suburb journeys are exponentially harder to service, not least because the origins and destinations are dispersed. It is impossible for transport planners to account for the huge variety of journeys taken every day in modern Melbourne.

To put it simply, people like having a car. For most Australians, owning a car means having the freedom to travel wherever you want, whenever you want – just ask any giddy teenager with their newly acquired driver’s licence.

The urban historian Graeme Davidson describes how the automobile was a major impetus behind postwar gender equality in Australia, as women recognised that the freedom to drive also meant the freedom to do a lot more things. And, for a young person, owning a car – or even just being able to borrow their parents’ car – has long represented a degree of personal autonomy.

No matter how many billions the Victorian Government spends on public transport, it will never be able to challenge the independence provided by an automobile.

You don’t have to wait for your car to arrive, unlike public transport. There is ample room to put your bags of shopping or new flat-packed furniture. Your children can’t run wild in your car like they can in public transport – after all, they’re strapped down. And, unlike a tram, there is no chance that your car will be so full of fellow commuters that you have to hang halfway out the door with someone’s armpit in your face while the driver yells indiscriminately over a damaged loudspeaker.

These objections may seem trivial in comparison to the grave importance of saving the planet. Public transport fantasists – like all radicals who want to change our behaviour – dismiss such considerations as minor. But it is these sorts of minor considerations that inform our everyday transport choices.

In the trade-off between environmental concerns and the importance of the automobile, the Federal Government is trying to have it both ways.

Eager to placate its traditional union support base, but also wanting to be seen as concerned about the environment, Labor is happy to pay $500 million for more cars to be produced in Australia. But it only wants hybrid cars. Industry assistance is getting awfully picky.

A similar mixed message greeted the announcement of the Indian Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest car. The chance that personal motorised transport was suddenly within the reach of some of the poorest people in the world was described by one prominent environmental scientist as a nightmare.

In the developed world, the automobile has been one of the most important sources of social freedom in the 20th century.

How can we think of denying such freedom to the developing world?

For some journeys, public transport is indispensable. Melbourne’s experience since privatisation has shown how trains and trams can be better used – patronage has gone sharply up with the new management.

Similarly, when building new roads, the Government has been aware of the increasing popularity of bicycles. For nearly a decade now, more bikes have been sold each year than cars. New dedicated bicycle lanes may have had some influence on this.

But cars continue to sell in increasing numbers.

The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries reported last week that monthly sales have been up nearly 10% over last year’s figures. Sales of the much-hated SUVs have gone up even more.

Cars have been getting cheaper and cleaner almost since they were first invented. But the hard reality is that no matter how many train lines or bicycle paths the Government builds, people will continue to use the transport method that they believe best suits their needs. And for most trips in Melbourne, that will continue to be the car.

A responsible government will therefore continue to spend money building roads and relieving traffic congestion – just as taxpayers seem to want it to.