Citizens Opposed to Bureaucratic Bullying and Excessive Regulation

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Council Bullying

The attitude of Councils (Local Government) towards citizens has hardened even further in recent years.  Over 90% of the sad and angry stories I get at COBBERs are now about Councils. In the race to collect more charges and fines, but to deter protests from citizens who feel hard done by, Councils are increasingly adopting the policy that the citizen is always wrong. 

A typical example was brought to Martin King’s Drive Show on Melbourne Talk Radio and A Current Affair (TV) on 26 October 2010.  While a Melbourne couple were away on holiday in Tasmania, their local Council sent them a letter, ordering that they mow their lawn within 14 days.  The couple returned from Tasmania after 3 weeks away, only to find they had been fined $800 for failing to mow the lawn as ordered.

First of all, the size of the fine is … rapacious. That is the only word I can think of.  It’s like financial rape.  The word seems particularly appropriate since we are at the mercy of Councils: they are a law unto themselves: we cannot choose another service provider. 

A few citizens oppose Council and take them to a State-level appeal board.  But most people are too scared, too poor or too busy to take them on.  The Council users ratepayers’ money to arm-wrestle citizens at the appeal level, whereas citizens have to spend their own money. Most people pay the unreasonable charges and fines – with resentment. 

The downright refusal of Council to understand the citizens’ obvious reason for non-compliance is an example of heartless bullying.  Councils are today seen by many citizens as a menacing presence.

We have gone seriously down the wrong path letting public services move onto a business footing.  They are now out to make money, to grow their empires.  By inventing more regulations, charges and fines, they are effectively taking a larger portion of people’s incomes than ever before.  And being an absolute monopoly, they are becoming ever more thuggish with it.

Bureaus should not be allowed to pocket the proceeds of their fining regimes. All fine money should go to some national worthy cause, not directly benefitting the fining bureau. That will reduce the present incentive to fine so highly, so often, without warning and without discussing the citizens particular case.

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The Old East Germany Comes to Australia

I (POC) have appeared on Channel 9’s A Current Affair several times over recent years. My opinions are recorded on camera on various examples of Bureaucratic Bullying. I have I think said some quite useful things in these interviews, but usually only short snippets of my milder remarks are used on air.

The most recent example of COBBERs on A Current Affair was Wednesday 16th July 2008. Local governments have started using citizens to spy on fellow citizens. Geelong Council was named but they said that other councils do it too. This is a most unwelcome breakdown of the level of trust that Australian society has traditionally enjoyed.

A “lollipop” lady helps children to cross the road to reach their school. (She holds a STOP sign shaped like a lollipop). She is a trusted helper to parents and children. Local governments are secretly engaging such people to extract large fines from unsuspecting parents.

How is it done? A parent drives their child to the pedestrian crossing outside their school, at the footpath opposite. The parent parks momentarily, just long enough to let the child out. They wave goodbye and drive off. Technically this is a “no parking” spot.

It is common sense to drop the child at this point. But greedy local governments see it as a chance to extract $1000s more from their hapless citizens. They have the trusted lollipop lady write down the numbers. They collect over $100 each from goodness knows how many parents every day.

It is a well established historical fact that under a regime where citizens are rewarded for spying on each other, the practice grows inexorably – until nobody trusts anybody. How sickening that our own Australian revenue-raising empires are so ready to spoil our way of life.

How distressing to remember that our grandparents fought against regimes like this, only to have the rot start from within our society. Where enforcement is genuinely necessary, we must have recognisable officers who are expected to enforce – not an oppressive jungle where anyone could be out to bust anyone.

(For Newsletter #4)

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Phone 1800 Dobber

Another example where the dreadful system of citizens spying on citizens has been introduced into Australia recently is the 1800 LITTER campaign. Education, public debate and the good will of the people have already achieved a virtually litter-free Australia. We have done well.

There is no justification for introducing this DOBBER system. Everyone is already opposed to litter. The 1800 campaign will make little difference to that. But it will make a difference to the type of society we live in.

Insidiously, this makes it easier to bring in the next 1800 DOBBER campaign. And with each downward step, we will create more cowardly ways for people to hurt fellow citizens, and we will have more reason to fear and resent our neighbour. COBBERs aren’t DOBBERS. Dobbing should be a desperate last resort, not a gaily promoted practice.

(For Newsletter #4)

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Local Government

Certainly the majority of complaints that reach COBBERs do relate to local governments. The reach of regulation and the revenue-raising rackets get worse every year. The image of looking after citizens has gradually disappeared and now there is a widespread dread of local government.

It is worth remembering that local governments (councils) are creations of Australian State governments. A good question is how much do the State authorities support the methods of the local governments. How much do they care?

The State governments have the power to sweep away councils and appoint an administrator if they are seriously unhappy. If you can get nowhere with your local council, take the matter up with your State Minister for Local Government. Some at least have been known to straighten out local councils.

(For Newsletter #4)

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Where's Newsletter #4? (POC)

When COBBERs first got going, its message was spread by Newsletters 1, 2 and 3. Copies were sent to all members, subscribers and local governments – and many other bureaus. Many people paid $20 for 4 Newsletters, but number 4 has never been sent. There is no set period, but it’s been over a year.

Why have I taken so long to put together Newsletter #4? To be honest, its because I haven’t known what to say! The first 3 were full of warnings about where bureaucracy in Australia was going. But since then it has only got worse.

More regulations, more charges, more fines, an ever more vexatious tangle of red tape dogging our lives. There is ever more muttering about bureaucratic excesses, but so far, there is no general resistance. Where does one go from here?

I do in fact have some articles ready to publish. So rather than wait for a whole newsletter, I will add them to the website as I go.

(For Newsletter #4)

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Government Image Damaged by Greed

In Australia in recent years, local and state governments have increasingly adopted anti-social methods for filling their coffers. Most conspicuous are the huge increases in random taxes being collected in the form of fines for parking and speeding.

As the public attempt to conform to the unreasonable requirements, ever-tighter regulation is imposed to maintain the income stream. Most of the population see through the revenue-raising tactics. These are damaging to society.

These governments are losing the respect of the people. Furthermore, the blatant greed is a bad example to the rest of the population. As high-profile models, they are saying to everyone, take advantage of your position to extort money from others.

State government collects millions from motorists who exceed the speed limit by only 3 kph. They try to justify their fining regime by publicising rare cases of dangerous speeding – such as 140kph in a 60kph area. Yes, good, but what about the other 99% of fines?

Local governments are increasingly introducing parking restrictions into residential streets, extending their grasp. This doesn’t add any parking for the citizens. But it creates many situations in which citizens are fined for “illegally” parking.

There is sometimes nowhere legal to put your car when you have to be there. And bad luck for visitors who don’t have a permit. There is no way for millions of people not to be caught by this web of greed.

Private companies are hired to collect as much in fines as possible. They are paid bonuses – some in the $millions per annum – for collecting record amounts.

Governments that were historically invented to look after citizens now shamelessly milk them for all they are worth.

(For Newsletter #4)

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What is a Mafia?

A mafia is a self-serving organisation that bullies a local community. A mafia is a law unto itself, making unjustified demands on people, extracting excessive payments from them, and punishing them for non-compliance or non-payment.

(The word mafia is Italian, but the phenomenon can occur in any country. Apologies to Italians, but it is their word that has entered the English language. The historical Italian mafia may have had some socially redeeming feature, but the modern word in English simply implies organised thuggery motivated by greed.)

When a government starts behaving in this same greedy, bullying manner, one is reminded of a mafia.

This raises the question: what is the difference between a government and a mafia? It is rather shocking to realise that in many cases there is no difference at all!

There are places where the “government” is simply an organised group that has gained control, who bully the population into submission, crushing all opposition, collecting the people’s wealth for the personal coffers of the rulers and their supporters.

These mafia governments use the bureaucracy, army, police, militia or plain-clothes thugs against their own people – all to entrench the ruling faction. This is not government for the people. This is exploitation of the people.

Sadly, the United Nations seems unable to distinguish between proper governments and mafias. They all get a seat at the UN: the civilised world still has a long way to go.

When we judge a government – national, state or local – we discern where it stands along the continuum between mafia at one end and true government for the people at the other end.

(For Newsletter #4)

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Is COBBERs Anarchist?

The mafia phenomenon goes back to primitive times when the toughest gang simply lorded it over everyone else in a community. Then royalty evolved, giving us succession to avoid bloody civil war. Then came rule of law, where the same rules applied to everybody (not just off with his head at the king’s whim).

Then came democracy, which implies

  1. rights of the individual and
  2. the right of the population at regular intervals to replace a government.

Nobody has ever had the choice of whether to have government. There is a true old saying that two certainties of life are death and taxes. That is why COBBERs is not anarchist. There is no hope for the withering away of the state.

The human appetites for power, status and wealth will always be with us. We must have democratic government because it occupies the space that otherwise would be filled with something much worse!

So we have to keep plugging away, keeping government honest. Eternal vigilance is our only hope. We will never be able to rest assured that we have a permanently incorruptible government for the people.

(For Newsletter #4)

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Regulation: The Greater Evil

When anti-socials cause a shock to society – by vandalism, perversion or terrorism – we often see an overreaction. In their efforts to prevent recurrences, bureaucracies often proceed to treat everyone as guilty until proved innocent. The 99.9% innocent actions are banned with the rare anti-social action. The loss to the common good usually far outweighs the evil prevented.

In a sense then, the anti-social has won. Their relatively rare attempt to damage the lives of others is greatly amplified by the excessive regulation that is then inflicted on everyone.

An everyday example is where every little old lady boarding a plane with a pair of nail scissors or a bottle of shampoo has these items confiscated in case she is a terrorist. Every passenger is daily reminded of terrorism and inconvenienced by it. The attention-seeking terrorists must be delighted with this greatly magnified effect of their mischief.

Here is a recent letter to the editor (Melbourne Herald-Sun 29 July 2008, p17) expressing frustration over increasing bans on photography:

"…I decided to film a train coming into the platform and then again as it was leaving.

I am aware you are no longer allowed to film children at school functions, but I was in for a big surprise.

A [train official] informed me I was not allowed to film the train… I would have to get permission … Apparently I was breaching security …

… two years ago I was prevented from filming at the Australian Open [tennis].

What is happening to our once happy and carefree country?"

Alexandra K.F. (age 60)

The ban on filming children in public places is another example of hysterical over-reaction. There may be a miniscule occurrence of perverts taking pictures with the intention of later leering at them. But this is no reason to ban everyone from taking pictures – treating us all as guilty until proved innocent. This practice also amplifies the sordid, constantly reminding everyone of the perverted few.

These are clear examples where the regulations are causing more harm than the evils they prevent. It is essential for a worthwhile civilisation that we learn to weigh the cost against the benefit – and, if the merit of regulation is in doubt, let freedom prevail.

We have to be suspicious too of bureaucracies seeking merely to enlarge their empire of control - using and exaggerating public anxiety as a justification.

The daily media (newspapers and TV) do not help by reporting a succession of sensational stories – without indicating to the readers or the viewers the true rarity of these events.

(For Newsletter #4)

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Mental Health in the Modern World

The question is being increasingly asked: How is it that we of the modern west who enjoy the highest standard of living also suffer the most depression?

Consider this example. How many people do you know who build their own house these days? Probably none. The practice is almost exterminated. Modern regulatory regimes have made it almost impossible. 50 and more years ago everybody knew people who had built their own homes. They were typically good homes and had a unique personality – and the owner-builders were proud.

Constructing their own nest provided a deep satisfaction for many people.

Commercial builders of course learn the red tape of modern bureaucracy and build all their houses within those limits. There is no incentive for them to waste time and money fighting for the right to build something original or personally meaningful.

You can extend this from home-building to home improvements, running a business, serving the community - in general, doing your own thing. How many aspects of our lives have been taken out of our control? How much do we now conduct our own lives, steer our own course, fulfil our own instincts?

Life now is highly regulated: the choices are made for us. The regulators have handed over our lives to the commercial specialists. Or simply denied us our dreams. In most cases for no good reason.

Where did we go wrong? Well, we are up against human nature. There is a human tendency to think I know what’s best for everyone else. And I may indeed be very knowledgeable. I might be appointed to an elite bureaucratic committee which sets the rules for everyone else’s life. For example: I make a set of rules which will ensure houses will not fall down. It’s only one way, but everybody will be confined to it.

So what is the problem? The problem is I have just stripped away a serious chunk of everybody else’s governance of their own life. I have removed yet another avenue of self-fulfilment. I may have enforced the standard of living, but I have reduced the quality of life.

(For Newsletter #4)

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Bullying and Greed exposed on TV

A citizen, Nino Boca, had placed for sale signs on his car which was parked in front of his own home in his own street. The local Council descended upon him, saying the sign must be removed. They also took $240 from him as a fine.

Television Channel 9’s A Current Affair of 14 August 2008 asked me (POC) to comment on this case, which they had read in The Whittlesea Leader of 14 Aug 2008. This is a classic case of sweeping regulation, bullying and highway robbery.

Yes, perhaps there was a time when some car seller did clutter up a roadway with too many cars and too many signs. The council responds by making a new regulation. But, as usual, the new regulation is too sweeping: it says no-one is allowed to do anything – not even a private owner selling his own car in front of his own place.

They could have ignored this harmless case. Or if they felt the regulation was really worth enforcing, they could have simply advised Nino that it was not permissible. Then if he had persisted, they could have fined him. But no, they slap the fine on him right away. Furthermore the fine is excessive. This is an entire week’s rent. Or two week’s food.

Every day in Melbourne (and how many other cities?) councils are oppressing innocent citizens. They do this by:

  1. making too many regulations,
  2. making the regulations too sweeping,
  3. enforcing the regulations severely, and
  4. taking the opportunity to extract money from citizens.

In the broadcast I also made a general protest against excessive regulation:

  • “There are so many things you can’t do, it is spoiling the Australian way of life”;
  • “How far do we want Australia to go down this path?”
  • “We need to stand up for ourselves”; and
  • “If we all object to this heavy regulation .. then we can get a fairer go”.

(For Newsletter #4)

Political Donations

When I wrote The New Corruption in Newsletter #3, I was ignorant and puzzled.

I did not want to get distracted by The Old Corruption, old-fashioned bureaucratic crime, such as when local government building officers or councillors accept fists full of dollars to expedite building permits. Yes, that is bad, but when perpetrators are caught, they are prosecuted.

I wanted to emphasize the new corruption, the self-serving program of excessive regulation which builds bureaucratic empires, restricts our freedoms, and extracts ever more charges and fines. That still stands as the biggest issue.

But I was puzzled. I could not understand how big developers could so often get building permits for unattractive and low-quality constructions, while careful home-improvers are given such delays, obstruction and heartache by the same local governments. The standards enforced on the small owners are so much stricter.

Since then, I have learned what is actually going on. Political donations. Councillors wish to be re-elected. Greater election spending means more votes. Citizens, including developers, can donate to any political movement. The more money that is donated, the less the candidate will have to spend from their own pocket.

This is only slightly different from The Old Corruption. The developers contribute money to whatever (mad mix of) parties the councillors belong to. There doesn’t have to be an ounce of sincerity. This is buying permits.

At this moment, I don’t have a solution for the misuse of political donations. But if you are being given a hard time by local government, perhaps you can publicly ask How much would I have to contribute? to the election fund to get co-operation from them.

(For Newsletter #4)

Distributing Kindnesses Kindly

Sometimes a government provides a special kindness to a special group.  But sadly, they sometimes spoil it by giving it in an unnecessarily nitpicking and distrustful manner.   

Here is a simple way to remove just one unpleasant and clumsy bureacratic transaction  - one of the many - from the present Australian way of life.

As a senior (old) citizen, I am often asked at movies, on public transport, and at other venues to show my Senior Citizens Card to qualify for the special senior entry price.  I am obviously a "senior" person - given away by my bald head, white hair and many wrinkles.  So why do I need to be asked?   

I am troubled by this routine, because it excludes oldies from these kindnesses who are just too illiterate, too vague or too disorganised to apply for and obtain a Senior's Card.  

The only other excluded group I can think of are elderly tourists, who would not have a local senior's card.  But I think it regrettable to exclude them too.  If a tourist is motivated to ask for a senior's entry price, it is surely rather bad hospitality to refuse them.  It makes no sense to spoil our reputation as a host country for tuppence.

I say give people who are obviously "senior" the special entry price: and if they look too young to be senior, accept ANY document, such as a driver's licence, which shows their age to be over 60.  


By Philip O'Carroll



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