Sunday, July 29, 2007

$10 billion of welfare housing funds down the drain

THE Federal Government is threatening to withdraw $1 billion a year in public housing funds from the states if it thinks the private sector can do more with the money. While Labor held a housing affordability summit in Canberra yesterday, the Government launched a scathing attack on state and territory governments, accusing them of squandering a decade's worth of Commonwealth public housing funds.

Community Services Minister Mal Brough said the states had received almost $10 billion for public housing in 10 years, yet the number of public housing properties in Australia had actually dwindled. "There are 13 less public houses than there were 10 years ago," Mr Brough said. "It beggars belief . . . that so much money could be spent and there to be actually fewer houses than 10 years ago."

With the current five-year Commonwealth-state housing agreement ending next June, Mr Brough is now inviting expressions of interest for the next round of federal public housing funds. Private developers, community groups and councils have been given two months to say how they could better use the Commonwealth's money to increase the stock of affordable housing available for those most in need. "Clearly more of the same won't work," Mr Brough said. "The money's been given to the states. The states have not delivered. For $10 billion, we've got nothing. So over the next 10 years . . . let's see if someone else can do it better. Let's look at what new innovative ways are available to actually get cost-effective houses to people."

Mr Brough said he had already had some informal talks on the subject, and believed there were "enormous opportunities" to increase affordable housing. But that was disputed by Queensland Housing Minister Robert Schwarten, who said he was flabbergasted at the idea of getting the private sector to tender for public housing. "They're privatising public housing, with brazen contempt for the poor people of Australia and Queensland," Mr Schwarten said. "Who is going to house the disabled? Who is going to take that tender? Who is going to house Aboriginal people? I mean, people who are poor, you can't make money out of them."

The housing advocacy group National Shelter also criticised the Federal Government's move, saying the Commonwealth itself was to blame for the reduced stock of public housing. National Shelter chairman Adrian Pisarski said the Federal Government had reduced its contribution to public housing in the past decade by about $3 billion - increasing the burden on the states. "What those cuts have meant is that the states have really been forced into maintenance- only - or even into reducing the level of stock," he said. "They can't really expect any new public housing growth when they haven't put in any new money."


Lara Croft clone sends message for the boys

("Digger" is Australian slang for "soldier")

MOVE over Angelina Jolie, the army is using Australia's version of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, to encourage women to join the forces. Posters approved by the office of Chief of Army Lieutenant General Peter Leahy, depict the modern woman Digger as a buxom, full-lipped wonder woman with a sculpted body wearing a tight-fitting uniform. But the posters, on which the female soldier always appears to look like a million dollars - have caused some offence.

Included in the series are images of a uniformed brunette stirring a pot as a cook; wielding a large spanner as an engineer; singing up a storm with the army band and striding across the helicopter tarmac in a skin-tight flying suit. The cartoon heroine fairly bursts out of her white medical gear in the Dental Corps poster. "We want you" is the message scrawled across the posters in Indiana Jones script.

Unfortunately, many women in the military do not believe the "you" as depicted even exists. They believe the posters send inappropriate signals. One senior air force officer was appalled by the portrayal. "I think they are woeful and say a lot about how army males see the world," she said. "They surely couldn't work and we wouldn't necessarily want the type of women attracted by the posters. "I hope the RAAF doesn't go the same way."

The sexy Digger's male comrade is a chiselled-jawed man in skin-tight overalls. A Defence spokeswoman said the posters were not designed for outside recruiting but rather to encourage soldiers to consider a change in trade. "Army accepted that this campaign might not appeal to all personnel," she said. "Professional marketing advice indicated the use of cartoon caricatures would engage the intended targeted audience, predominantly young males in combat-related roles. "In its first week of testing, 450 soldiers indicated a preference to sign-up to a trade transfer, compared with 35 the week before."

According to well-placed sources, the offending posters are about to be recalled. Meanwhile, the TV navy drama Sea Patrol is expected to deliver a recruiting boon to the navy. A website linked with the program will soon be launched so prospective sailors can interact with the Sea Patrol crew. A Defence source said it was too early to judge the impact of the show, but he said its predecessor Patrol Boat had been a good recruiting tool.


Biased Greenie TV show on Australian public broadcaster

Imagine the scandal if ABC TV ran a series promoting a controversial point of view that was partly funded by an advocacy organisation. We'd never hear the end of it, would we? Well, it all depends on the point of view. This is what the ABC is doing with its Tuesday night prime-time series Carbon Cops. This is a politically correct version of a home makeover program, where the presenters turn up and tell you the planet is doomed unless you change your house and your lifestyle.

Carbon Cops is produced in association with the ABC by FremantleMedia and December Films. December Films received $350,000 towards the series from Sustainability Victoria. This is a state government agency involved in advocacy and action, whose website claims: "Everything we do is dedicated to changing the way Victorians supply and use resources." There is no mention of this funding arrangement in the Carbon Cops program or on its website, apart from a very brief acknowledgement that the program is produced with "the assistance" of Sustainability Victoria.

Carbon Cops is at the cutting edge of global warming hysteria. It starts with this piece of emotional blackmail on the ABC website: "If you are at all concerned about your children's future . then Carbon Cops is a must-see." It continues: "We humans have caused more adverse atmospheric change in the past 100 years than the previous 1000, and the rate of change is exponentially accelerating." Both claims, put without qualification, demonstrate more certainty than the last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Apparently, the energy use of the ordinary Australians who appear on the program "is creating an uncertain future" and unless this changes, "our way of life" is over.

Why did the ABC accept external funding to push this point of view? One possible answer might be that it's merely engaging in public education, because the issue is settled and all sensible people agree on what needs to be done. But the ABC itself cannot believe this, because two weeks ago it showed The Great Global Warming Swindle, a documentary sceptical of the premise of Carbon Cops. The online opinion poll held after the documentary showed 45 per cent of respondents share this scepticism.

So this is a controversial issue, which makes the acceptance of funding from an outside advocacy organisation unwise and raises some important questions. Would the ABC accept money from a coal company to fund a series putting the opposite point of view? Or is it only organisations with certain viewpoints that are to have access to the public broadcaster?

Interestingly, there is nothing technically wrong with what the ABC has done with Carbon Cops. Under its editorial policies, the corporation can't accept money from the private sector but can take it from another government organisation. The Carbon Cops example suggests this distinction ought to be questioned. There's an assumption in public debate that any point of view funded by the private sector should be regarded warily, because it might be shaped by self-interest, whereas anything funded by the public sector is pure and in the public interest. I have no problem with the first of these propositions, but the second is naive.

It's a fact of life that publicly funded bureaucrats and scientists have career interests that are influenced by the ideas and policies with which they associate themselves. Climate change is an obvious example. A large proportion of those now working in the field are in positions and organisations that did not exist 15 years ago. If it was confirmed that humans were not causing global warming, or that it was not a serious threat, most of those positions and organisations would disappear. This suggests publicly funded people in the global warming debate are just as likely to be influenced by self-interest as are people working, say, for energy or fossil fuel companies. They are all driven by the natural desire to protect their jobs and career prospects.

I don't mean they lack independence or integrity. Obviously this will vary hugely among individuals. But self-interest can occur on both sides of this debate, as with many other debates, and is not restricted to the private sector. It's time to abandon the assumption that public funding is always used to support the public interest.

The assumption is strangely persistent. One sees it in the frequent criticism of conservative think tanks and intellectuals who've received money from business. It's implicit in the ABC editorial policies' distinction between external funding from the public and the private sectors. Yet, as anyone who has worked in the public sector or watched Yes, Minister knows, public officials are human beings and often act to promote their personal interests or those of their organisation.

There was considerable disquiet some years ago when it was revealed ABC TV was taking money from the private sector to help fund some of its programs. This concern was warranted. We now need to be similarly concerned about what has happened with Carbon Cops. Ideally, the ABC ought to stop taking money from advocacy organisations. But if it sticks with the present guidelines, it should at least expand the range of government agencies from which it accepts funding. Maybe the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation would like a series on the joy of nuclear power?


Fresh questions over another Muslim doctor

New South Wales Health Minister Reba Meagher says she will not speculate on the state coroner's actions following new revelations about the death of a Sydney teenager. Vanessa Anderson, 16, died in Royal North Shore Hospital two days after being hit in the head with a golf ball in 2005. ABC's Stateline program has obtained a letter detailing concerns about the Saudi Arabian anaesthetist involved in the case. The letter details two critical incidents involving the same doctor.

A coronial inquest has already heard that the same doctor gave Ms Anderson an incorrect dose of painkillers. Opposition health spokeswoman Jillian Skinner says the new details raise concerns. "The question has to be asked, why wasn't the coroner told about this earlier?" she said. But Ms Meagher said: "I think we should allow the coroner to be able to make a statement without speculating." The coroner was due to deliver his findings on Monday, but will instead discuss the new evidence with all relevant parties during a hearing.


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