Saturday, January 05, 2008

Howard only 1.5% from being PM again

It felt like a Labor landslide. Yet John Howard and his Coalition government came within 1.5% of holding on to power at the recent federal election, final figures show. The Australian Electoral Commission says the Coalition ended up with 47.44% of the two-party vote after strongly outpolling Labor in the record 2.5 million postal, pre-poll and absentee votes counted after election night. The final count shows the election was closer than it appeared on election night. Not only did the Coalition haul back Labor's lead in overall votes, but the election outcome was decided in an extraordinary number of close seats that could have gone either way.

In the end, Labor won 83 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives, the Coalition 65 and independents two. But nine of Labor's 83 seats were won by margins of less than 1.5%. Had the Coalition won them, the seats would have been split 74-all, with two conservative independents holding the balance of power - and most likely using it to give John Howard a fifth term in office.

Labor's narrow wins included Maxine McKew's victory over Mr Howard in Bennelong (by 1.4%), the Victorian seats of Corangamite (0.85%) and Deakin (1.41%), and three seats won by tiny margins: Robertson (NSW, 0.11%), Flynn (Qld, 0.16%) and the Darwin seat of Solomon (0.19%). With just 320 more votes in the right places, the Coalition could have cut Labor's majority to just 10 seats, a less than commanding tally. With fewer than 6000 more votes in the right seats, it could have held onto government.

But there was even more luck on the Coalition's side. It won 13 of its 65 seats by less than 2%, five of them by less than 0.22%. They included the Melbourne fringe seat of McEwen, which former tourism minister Fran Bailey held by just 12 votes (0.01%), the Brisbane seat of Bowman, held by 64 votes (0.04%), the former Labor seat of Swan, won by 164 votes (0.11%), and the Queensland seats of Dickson (0.13%) and Herbert (0.21%). All told, the Coalition won half its seats - 32 out of 65 - by majorities of less than 6%. Labor won 25 of its 83 by the same margin, including the seat of Melbourne, where Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner beat the Greens' Adam Bandt by just 4.71%.

Most of the 57 MPs in marginal seats now face new uncertainties, with federal redistributions likely in every state except South Australia before the next federal election. The electoral commission has begun the process of redistributing the 15 electorates in Western Australia, and will begin redistributions in Tasmania and the Northern Territory later this year. Population shifts will also require it to once again carry out redistributions in Queensland and NSW in 2009, with Queensland gaining a seat and NSW losing one. By January 2010, it will be Victoria's turn.


Don't rush back to unfair dismissal laws

By Barry Cohen, a former Labor environment minister

If the term mandate has any meaning at all, the Rudd Government has a mandate to repeal Work Choices. The Leader of the Opposition has indicated he accepts the voters' decision, so there shouldn't be a problem. If there is, there will be an early double dissolution and the Coalition will lose another 20 seats. Unquestionably, Labor can destroy Work Choices, but it would be wise to move slowly, particularly in dealing with unfair dismissal.

My opposition to unfair dismissal has been well documented in columns in The Australian, but if press reports are to be believed I am not alone. Apparently there are plenty in cabinet and caucus who aren't keen to return to the unfair dismissal rules of the Hawke-Keating era. The Howard government failed miserably in arguing its case against unfair dismissal. Ministers pointed out it was restricting employment, but they never explained how and why. There was considerable public debate about workers' rights but no mention of the rights of employers, and small-business employers in particular.

The term unfair dismissal slanted the debate one way right from the beginning. It implied that all dismissals were inherently unfair. No one favours unfair dismissal but fairness is in the eye of the beholder. No employee believes they were fairly dismissed. The definition of a small business varies but is generally accepted as being one with fewer than 20 employees. The Australian Chamber of Commerce suggests that there are approximately 1.9 million small businesses with 3.5 million employees. That's a fair slice of Australia's workforce.

Most business owners are former employees who have struck out on their own because they want to be independent. The risks are many and varied because of the variety of trades, professions and commercial activities that come under the small business umbrella. Many invest their life savings and mortgage their home and business while working and worrying around the clock.

Some succeed, but up to 70 per cent fail in the first three years. The majority is lucky to eke out a living, with many earning less than their employees and without any of their entitlements (holiday pay, sick leave, paid public holidays and so on). When there's a credit squeeze or recession, or they simply make mistakes, they ask themselves why they didn't let someone else do the worrying.

Are there bad employers? Of course, but most treat and pay their staff well, if only because it makes for a happy and productive workforce. No sane employer sacks staff that are doing a good job. Are there bad employees? It's a silly question because we all know the answer.

In recent discussions with a friend who was defending unfair dismissal, I recounted some misdemeanours committed by those I had employed during 50 years as an employer. They ranged from the perennially late to one who stole a fortune from the business, and another who regularly failed to show up after a heavy night out. My friend responded: "But they can be sacked under the soon to be reintroduced unfair dismissal legislation." Really?

The previous legislation required an employer to furnish three warning letters, but that didn't guarantee that the employer wouldn't be involved in protracted and costly negotiations with the Industrial Relations Commission. And even if they won the case, the employer was invited by the magistrate to provide some go-away money to the employee. The assumption was that anyone running a business could afford to pay. It was fine if you happened to be Woolworths, but not if you owned the corner shop. Faced with continued angst and legal costs, the employer invariably paid up.

The difficulty with unfair dismissal is prescribing in legislation the thousands of possible disagreements that can occur in the workplace. At present the legislation is loaded overwhelmingly in favour of the employee. With the assumption by many union officials that everyone in business is rolling in money, what's a few months' extra wages to the "rich" boss? And what of the employee who is doing a good job but the employer finds someone who can do it better? Unfair? No. Unlucky? Yes. An owner is entitled to make decisions that can mean the difference between success and failure. Providing the employee is given adequate notice and full entitlements, there should be no argument.

Reverse the situation and imagine the reaction if a long-term employee who has been paid and treated well for many years walks into the boss's office and says, "I've been offered a better job." Should the employee be penalised for unfair departure?

The tricky part for the Government is to draw a line between a small number of genuine unfair dismissals and the right of employers to hire whoever they wish to hire. If you think that's easy, try drawing up behavioral rules for married couples.

What the Government needs to turn its attention to is the Howard government's casualisation of the workforce. Genuine casual workers are easy to define. They are retirees, students, housewives and the like who only want a few hours' work a week. Increasingly, however, full-time workers are being designated as casuals and losing all their entitlements. They may receive a slightly higher rate of pay, but when business is slow they can be stood down or sacked without notice. Consequently their average take-home pay is much lower. It is reasonable for an employee to be given a three-month trial period as a casual, but after that any worker who works more than 25 hours a week should be considered permanent. If the Rudd Government wants to help low-income workers, this is the area in which it should concentrate.


Woman hit by taxi says charges to be dropped

Cowardly Cowdery (notorious pro-criminal NSW DPP) at work again, by the looks of it

Jenny Franco says her worst fears have been realised after she was told that charges against the taxi driver accused of running her down will be dropped. Stuart Russell Graham, 55, was behind the wheel of a cab that allegedly struck the 23-year-old at Miranda, in Sydney's south, on February 20 last year. Ms Franco, who was dragged 150 metres along the road, lost her left eye and spent three months in hospital. Graham was charged with dangerous driving occasioning grievous bodily harm and with failing to stop and assist.

In November, the Downing Centre Local Court heard that Graham's lawyer, Brett Thomas, had asked the Director of Public Prosecutions to drop the charges against him. The court was told police investigations were continuing and the DPP was awaiting a psychiatric report while considering Mr Thomas's request. Yesterday, a spokeswoman for the DPP said she could not comment on whether the case against Graham would be dropped, as the matter was before the courts. Mr Thomas could not be reached for comment.

However, Ms Franco told Channel Seven the DPP had told her the charges against Graham would be dropped. She is reportedly due to meet the DPP on Monday, with the charges to be formally dropped during a court hearing on Tuesday. "It was actually my worst fear," she said. "It scares me to know that this accused taxi driver gets to walk scot-free, possibly return to his work and . possibly hurt someone else."

Ms Franco's mother, Ludy, said her daughter was too traumatised to go back to where the accident happened. She said her daughter had been living in an apartment in the city, away from the family's Miranda home and the scene of the accident.


Australia still a magnet for British migrants

'Wanted Down Under' programme returns to British TV -- putting migration to Australia in the spotlight. As Britain fills up with blacks and Muslims, Australia fills up with Brits. I think it is clear which country has the better of the bargain

As the second series of 'Wanted Down Under' returns to the BBC, a new wave of families are shown sampling life in Australia with an eye to emigrating permanently. With the series documenting life on the Australian immigration fast track, the Australian Visa Bureau looks at the lessons other British migration hopefuls can take from the programme.

The immensely popular 'Wanted Down Under' sees presenter Nadia Sawalha joining a number British families as they're given a look at life in Australia ahead of possible migration. The series takes a realistic look at the reason why emigration has become such a popular option in recent years, as well as the very real demands that come with forging a new life in Australia.

Tom W. Blackett, Official Spokesperson of the Australian Visa Bureau comments: "Seeing 'Wanted Down Under' return to TV screens should be welcomed as essential viewing for any family considering permanent migration to Australia. The idea of moving Down Under to start anew is one that more and more people are considering, and it's important that we see getting an Australian visa as the very concrete reality it is, rather than an unattainable ambition."

"However, 'Wanted Down Under' doesn't shy away from showing the potential difficulties involved in pursuing Australian emigration. While you'll almost certainly be eligible for permanent residence if your job is listed on the Migration Occupations in Demand List (MODL), there are a number of unexpected pitfalls involved when navigating the legislative requirements alone. It can be a time-consuming process that we'd recommend assigning to a trained migration consultant, which can be done by completing an Australian visa application.

"However, the message the programme presents is still a valid one; if the job that you do is on the MODL list of those in short supply in Australia, you are under 45 and you are thinking of emigrating, then the Australian government will help to fast track you through the immigration procedure"

Australia needs skilled immigrants: Anyone applying for an Australian visa should begin by completing the Australian Visa Bureau's online Australian visa application to see if they meet the Australian visa requirements.


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