Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Sydney held hostage by anachronistic railway unions

ALL the complexities in the relationship between Labor and the unions were on display this week as a truce was declared by Premier Morris Iemma in the war between RailCorp and its workforce. As part of that truce, Iemma trumpeted the fact the unions were prepared to allow specialist contractors into rail yards to fit new electric door motors.

All this really does is bell the cat on the fact the public sector in NSW is replete with work practices that make the pre-1999 waterfront look like a model of progressive, flexible enterprise. In 2007, the unions can still apparently tell management who can and cannot enter the workplace.

If a small concession on that front ranks as an important breakthrough in rail maintenance - thrust back into the political spotlight since the malfunction of a $2 bolt in a hatch on a train's roof paralysed the entire Sydney network earlier this month - it provides an indication of the long road ahead of Iemma if he wants to get the trains working efficiently. Undoubtedly, whether he does will be one key to his chances of holding off the Coalition in 2011. There is no doubt former Liberal leader Peter Debnam would be premier of NSW now if the train on the Sydney Harbour Bridge had blown its hatch a week before the March 24 election rather than a few months later.

At the conclusion of two days of talks on Wednesday, Iemma announced that, as part of the truce, maintenance work would be double-checked and there would be ongoing talks about other work practices. "All parties have made good progress in a spirit of co-operation," Iemma declared. "Everyone agrees that reform, improved work practices and a better relationship are the only way forward. "The changes will lead to enhanced maintenance inspections, better quality controls and improved accountability."

Possibly. But Iemma has repeatedly dangled the threat of a privatisation of rail maintenance over the unions unless they lift their game. There is some real concern on the union side that Iemma and his (in their eyes) evil sidekick, Treasurer Michael Costa, could use the window between now and the federal election to push through a raft of privatisations in rail and electricity. The union thinking is that lemma could try to leverage their reluctance to cause trouble in the prelude to a once-in-a- generation opportunity to install a friendly government in Canberra. But the same logic applies the other way. Kevin Rudd will not thank Iemma if he provokes a flame war between the two wings of the Labor movement in NSW in the lead- up to the federal election.

The reality is, in NSW, Labor and the unions are like co-dependents locked in a dysfunctional relationship. As their membership shrinks, the unions need Labor in government to achieve relevance. And Labor, with far fewer active party members than the Coalition, desperately needs the unions' political and financial muscle when elections roll around. This year, at $15 million, Labor's election war chest was three times that of the Coalition, courtesy of the bruvvers.

That is why reform to the state's draconian workplace safety laws have repeatedly been shelved or put on the backburner, despite Industrial Relations Minister John Delia Bosca's best efforts to get them through. And that is why the rail system remains littered with arrangements such as drivers being limited to a maximum of 15 hours a week at the controls of a train. Iemma has previously justified that particular rort by claiming Sydney's drivers, unlike those in other cities, perform some maintenance and checking tasks. Not too well, apparently.

The above article by Imre Salusinszky appeared in "The Australian" on July 21, 2007

Immigration 'fuelling housing shortage'

Getting rid of Greenie-inspired red tape and restrictions would soon get more houses built but given the existing regulations, housing prices will be pushed up by immigration

Rising numbers of overseas workers could significantly increase the pressure on Australian housing stocks, according to a new report out today. As many as 170,000 new homes would need to be built around Australia this financial year in order to satisfy underlying demand. But industry forecaster BIS Shrapnel predicts actual housing starts will slip a further 1 per cent to just 148,000.

In its latest publication of long-term building forecasts, the firm says that would be the fourth consecutive year in which demand outstrips supply. Part of that demand is being fuelled by immigration as Australia's employment boom and skills shortage attracts temporary workers from offshore. But BIS Shrapnel says many cities will struggle to accommodate them over the next few years. It says the nationwide shortage of housing is now translating into rapid rent rises.

Last week, the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling and the Housing Industry Association (HIA) predicted the number of households suffering rent stress would jump to 750,000 by the end of the decade.


GM foods gain support in Australia

POLLUTION and climate change have raised public support for genetically modified food crops, according to Biotechnology Australia. A survey of more than 1100 people across the country found that acceptance rose dramatically from 46 to 73 per cent over the past two years. Asked whether GM crops should be grown in Queensland, 50 per cent of respondents said yes, while a further 30 per cent approved, provided there were strong regulations.

Queensland is the only state not to have a moratorium on GM crops: 97 per cent said its application could help develop environmentally friendly vehicle fuels, while 91 per cent thought it could help address the issues of climate change and water salinity. Federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane said the findings indicated a major change in public attitude towards biotechnology.


Hospital rankings coming

HOSPITALS face closer scrutiny of their performance in areas such as patient safety and infection rates under a scheme the federal Health Minister, Tony Abbott, will put to state governments. Mr Abbott told the Herald he was planning to propose hospital "league tables" on safety, and quality measures be included as part of the hospital funding agreement between the federal and state governments. The transparency measures would enable patients to compare the record of different hospitals in such areas as surgical infection rates, unplanned readmissions and waiting times for elective surgery.

Citing new research showing that Australia has fallen behind other countries in the release of individual hospital performance data, Mr Abbott said such information was readily available elsewhere. "Why should we not have it here?". The research says that, by some estimates, adverse events and infections in Australian hospitals generate $2.5 billion in expenditure every year, but improvements are impeded by the lack of comparative data on hospital performance. Besides letting patients know how hospitals rated on different indicators, it would also help hospitals to identify strengths and weaknesses and spur improvements, Mr Abbott said.

A frequent argument against publishing such information was that it was hard to compare hospital outcomes. But Mr Abbott said the public would be able to factor in differences such as some hospitals having a higher rate of problems because they took on more difficult cases. The Federal Government wanted to see such information included in the next Australian Health Care Agreements, which provide for federal funding of public hospitals and are scheduled for renegotiation with the states after the federal election.

A study undertaken for the Australian Centre for Health Research says "very little" analysis has been published in Australia to assess the hospital system and even less undertaken to determine whether hospitals are working in concert with other parts of the system, such as general practitioners. "This raises the risk of wasted funds, poor health outcomes and reduced access for patients," it says. The report recommends the Government take the lead in defining what standard care information should be collected.

The publication of hospital performance indicators had triggered the establishment of "infomediaries" - companies which analysed the performance figures and could help patients make decisions about their health and how to manage it, in addition to providing a guide to quality care. The research was headed by David Charles, who said that the health system had avoided the trend towards greater transparency that had been accepted in many other sectors of government and business in the past 20 years.


The latest gift to Australia from the Greenies: A croc invasion

THE northeast coast of Australia is facing an explosion in its population of saltwater crocodiles, which are protected by law but are becoming a menace to swimmers, surfers and the inhabitants of some towns' outer suburbs. The problem is so serious that there are calls for the country's strict gun laws to be relaxed and hunters to be given open season on crocodiles.

Bob Katter, an independent MP, said that crocodile numbers had reached "plague proportions" and the huge reptiles were moving into places where they had never been seen before. "This is unprecedented in human history," he said. "People should be armed. What do they want us to do - knock the crocs on the head with a hammer?"

Locals have reported man-eating crocodiles basking near popular swimming spots and boat ramps. In Cairns and Townsville they have even been seen sunning themselves on surf beaches. "There are some 50,000 people living on river banks and shoreline between Townsville and Cairns. If you're going into these areas you really need to take some sort of firearm to protect yourselves," Katter said.

According to Peter Guivarra, an Aboriginal leader, officials conducting a night survey along a five-mile stretch of Tentpole Creek counted "more than 500 sets of eyes. That's a lot and absolute evidence that culling is now needed".

The Australian saltwater crocodile often grows to 15ft in length and can weigh a third of a ton. An endangered species in the 1960s, its numbers have reached levels not seen since the first British settlers arrived in 1788.

An 8ft crocodile was recently spotted at Forrest Beach, near Ingham, moments before a carnival was due to start. It was the sixth such sighting on the beach since December. Crocodiles have killed about a dozen people in Queensland in the past 10 years, half of them tourists from other countries. Rebecca Williams, director of the Environmental Protection Agency branch, said there had been 17 attacks since 1985 and of those five had proved fatal. In one famous case in October 2004, a 15ft crocodile attacked two families camped by a river 190 miles north of Cairns.

The rapid rise in crocodile numbers is attributed not only to a ban on hunting but also to the decline of predators such as dingoes which eat crocodile eggs.


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