Saturday, 18 April 2009

Fear and Loathing

This week’s hysteria about refugees on boats brings to the surface an underlying paranoia that has been a feature of our national psyche since white settlement.

If you’ll excuse the cliché, this is a chemically pure expression of fear and loathing. In 2009, it’s as real and tangible for a small proportion of our population as any other aspect of national identity. If you don’t believe me, read Andrew Bolt’s blog. (Or better still – don’t – it’s more than a little depressing).

Exploring the reasons for this slowly diminishing national characteristic would be fascinating, but I don’t have the time or the inclination. In any case, I think I grew out of it at about the same time I grew out of fear of the bogeyman.

And it’s real – I’ve observed it in many shapes and varieties over the years. I’ll provide one example.

Back in 1977, I was running a unit for disabled kids in a Western Brisbane high school. Attached to this unit was a setup for migrant students who were learning English as a second language, prior to enrolling in general high school. From memory, they did a six week course.

Given that it was 1977, the bulk of these kids were Vietnamese, who had arrived on boats. They were given the collective label of “Vietnamese boat people”. The teacher in charge of the migrant unit was an excellent operator, and I found her helpful, as at this time I was learning the ropes of educational leadership. We did a fair bit of resource sharing, and the Vietnamese kids were a bright and resourceful lot, and quite helpful with the kids with disabilities in my charge.

The migrant kids were studying “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and it was showing at a cinema at Enoggera. I had a bus licence, and access (through my base school) to a 33 seater bus. A couple of the disabled kids were studying the same text.

I offered to drive the bus if the migrant kids needed to see the movie, and the offer was gladly taken up.

On the day, we drove across to the cinema, which was close to the Enoggera army base (where I had been discharged in 1971 after Vietnam), with a combination of Vietnamese teenagers, three kids from my unit, and a couple of staff from both units.

I pulled up at the bus stop in front of the cinema and the group began to debus. The Vietnamese kids were always extremely polite, and thanked me individually as they went out the door. As one of them was thanking me in her carefully studied (and fairly pedantic) English, I became aware of a steam of abusive language coming from my right.

A short haired character in his thirties and at the wheel of a car stopped in the left lane beside the bus stop was shouting – “F***ing Noggie C***s, get back to where you came from, you filthy F***ing bastards!”

He was almost foaming at the mouth and completely focusing his rage at the Vietnamese kids. Initially he was unaware of the people caught behind him on busy Enoggera road. Soon they began to honk their horns, and he was forced to move on. Fortunately, he continued driving outbound up the road. I say fortunately, because judging by his behaviour and language, he looked capable of anything.

The Vietnamese kids were largely unaware of the incident, mainly I guess because of their poor English. The staff, however, understood what was going on, and were more than a little concerned. One of the disabled kids turned pale, saying “what’s his problem?” We reassured the kids, got them into the cinema, and I parked the bus down the road. I returned to the cinema, and sat close to the door. I was worried that this character was angry enough to come back. He didn’t.

I still wonder about him. Perhaps he was, like me, a Vietnam veteran – he was about the right age. He certainly looked army, given his haircut. I lived in Townsville for many years, and got to know what the army guys looked like, even when dressed in civvies.

This reaction was not typical of veterans in my experience.

I contend that this level of paranoid anger continues to lurk below the surface for some Australians, admittedly a minority. We saw it raise its ugly head again during the Cronulla riots, and lately the celebration of Australia Day sometimes reveals this underbelly of our national consciousness, especially if alcohol is involved.

Unfortunately, there are those in political life who will use it to their own purposes. On the upside, we seem, as a nation, to have outgrown it. We need to continue to call it when we see it.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Vodafone Blues

Sometime back my eldest daughter moved to Brisbane to study IT.

The best accommodation she could find didn't have internet access and she really needed it for her course, so we went looking for mobile Broadband. We found a Vodafone shop in Brookside Shopping Centre where a gilded youth talked us into a deal which involved a two-year contact, and an assurance that it would work in "Metropolitan Areas".

I explained that there was a strong possibility that my daughter would move once she found more suitable digs, and asked for an assurance that I could use the service both in Toowoomba (where I'm based) and as I traveled around in my work in South West Queensland.

In hindsight, I think his gilded youth’s knowledge of his own state was limited to what he'd seen 50 kilometres north or south of the Brisbane CBD, so his assurances about coverage were about as reliable as a 30 year-old Peugeot I once owned. Places like Charleville, St George, Roma and Goondiwindi were well beyond his ken, even though he was happy to assure me that I could use access from them.

Given these assurances I signed up. I've always assumed that people working for large corporations tell the truth, and had no idea that this was a false assumption when it came to Vodafone.

Armed with the hardware, my daughter headed off to set it up. Monthly fees would be deducted automatically from my account until my daughter found her feet financially. I drove back to Toowoomba believing she was right to go online.

Not so.

She phoned me a few days later to say she couldn't get it to work. Now she is pretty IT-savvy, so this surprised me. When I had a free day, I drove down the range to Brisbane and had a go at making the system work.

No dice.

There was nothing for it but to go back to the gilded youth at Brookside. He wasn't there any more. Given the codswallop he'd told me, it may have had something to do with customer complaints, but that’s another story.

The problem was straightforward. Old Mate had taken my money, but hadn't remembered to enter my account details on whatever piece of software Vodafone use to register users. As far as it was concerned I was a non-customer. This was remedied (without anything resembling an apology – despite the cost to me of a day and a 300km round trip) and daughter had internet – of a sort. It dropped out incessantly, and there were times of the day when it never worked.

In time, she found better accommodation with ADSL access, and I loaded the software into my laptop to see if it worked in Toowoomba.

It didn't.

I then took it out west on my next work trip. It didn't work anywhere (Goondiwindi, St George, Roma or Charleville). Why was I not surprised?

I consigned the whole sad saga to my desk drawer for the last eight months, but eventually got jack of paying out $41 a month for nothing at all. $41 a month is near enough to $500 a year that I was effectively donating to the Vodafone Benevolent Society.

I phoned their customer service number and after being ticked off because I'd forgotten the PIN (which they volunteered anyway) was told that I would continue to be billed, despite not receiving a service, for the rest of the contract. Oh… I could buy out of the contract for $325.

To put it simply, I was being charged for a service that was not available to me, and would have to shell out to get out of the contract. When I objected, I was given a stern lecture about reading the small print, needing to understand that the contract did not guarantee a service, and that I would be hearing from Dunn and Bradstreet should I get stroppy and refuse to pay for a service I couldn’t access.

I could always move to Brisbane.

The last time I felt intimidated was in Vietnam in 1970 by earnest little men carrying AK47s. Now I'm sure the good advocates in Dunn & Bradstreet are earnest, but I doubt they carry AK47s.

I decided that Vodafone would not get another cent of my hard-earned. I've never been prepared to go along with unethical practice, whether it shows its ugly mug in business or personal affairs, and I'm not going to start now.

My next stop was the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO). I registered my complaint with them at the same time as I sent an invoice to Vodafone for my time in returning to Brisbane to fix the initial problem.

In the fullness of time, I received an email from someone in Tasmania on behalf of Vodafone. It said that if I posted the CD and hardware back to them, all further charges would be waived.

I did so, and have received no more bills.

There are two lessons in this for me. The first one is not to believe anything a salesperson working for a Telco tells you. They’re much more focused on sales than equipment performance and service.

The second is to stand up to the corporation, irrespective of size, if you know you’re right. In the end they will get away with what they can, as it’s the bottom line, not ethics, that calls the tune.

Hugh White - Without America

Hugh White is always provocative, and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to criticising current defence policy. In 1995, he was appo...