Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Federal fiscal restraint to destroy Greenie dreams

LINDSAY Tanner and Penny Wong are two of the most talented members of Kevin Rudd's new front bench. Both have had sure-footed starts to their executive careers. And both were on their feet last week.

The best compliment you can pay Tanner, the Finance Minister, is an oxymoron: he's a genuinely committed economic rationalist from the Left. Tanner in factional terms is a transgender politician: a fiscal conservative trapped inside the social policy body of an inner-city Melbourne latte sipper. This is a product of history. Tanner joined the Left on grounds of environmental politics but outgrew his base on economics. Preselection pressures have kept him from having the final reassignment operation he's crying out for. He's an inspired choice as Finance Minister and has been waiting for his moment in the sun - overseeing the fiscal structure of Labor's first budget - for his entire political life. Ultimately Tanner wants to be treasurer. He may get there: the first from the Left since Jim Cairns, though Tanner would cringe at the comparison. [Any treasurer would!]

Wong, as Minister for Climate Change, is also from the Left and another person who's been in training for this calling all her political life, from the campus tussles at Adelaide University on. Her moment came at the UN climate change summit in Bali, just before Christmas, where with 20 years of negotiated factional outcomes behind her, she shifted seamlessly on to the world stage to parlay the final deal on a post-Kyoto framework. Given her talents, she will inevitably have more such moments. And last week Tanner and Wong, rising stars of the shiny new Rudd Government, were at odds. Not that either of them knew it.

Let me explain. Tanner, for his part, was at the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday, delivering a finely calibrated speech in which he outlined the commitment of Rudd's budget razor gang to do its part in bearing down on inflation by cutting outlays by 1.5 per cent of gross domestic product when Labor's first spending document is brought down in May by Treasurer Wayne Swan. Wong, on the same day, was in Melbourne at the Park Hyatt Hotel, delivering a speech to the Australian Industry Group entitled Climate Change: A Responsibility Agenda.

Wong's rhetoric and sense of mission were uplifting: "I want to begin by taking stock of where we are," she said. "Over many years, scientists have gathered a body of evidence which makes the case that climate change is real and is being caused by human activity. "For some time now, that evidence has been irrefutable. [If it is irrefutable, it's not evidence] For some time now, people in Australia and around the world have been calling for action and, in their everyday lives, taking action themselves. "Businesses have been looking at the looming threat of climate change and at the new opportunities it presents, and also taking action for themselves. I acknowledge and encourage these existing industry efforts at climate change mitigation.

"So over the past decade, business and the community have been leading while our national elected leaders abdicated their responsibility. Now it's up to us. "Future generations will look back on us all and ask what we did. "With the prospect of sea levels encroaching upon our mostly coastal population, they will ask why it took so long to act. "Seeing our river systems die before our very eyes, they will ask how this was allowed to happen. "With our knowledge that climate change puts our food and water supplies at risk, they will hold us accountable.

"Two months ago, Australians delivered a clear message. They said we need a new sense of responsibility in this country: a responsibility to protect not only today's economy but also prepare for the economy of the future; responsibility for protecting our country, our values and lifestyles beyond the next electoral cycle."

Through these obvious adversities, Wong remained upbeat: "So it is no embellishment to say that climate change is the challenge of our generation. But it is also the opportunity of our generation," she said. "It's fair to say that most of the talk about the economic impact of climate change has been of the potential threat. Yet we should also look to the opportunity for new growth, for innovation, for a modern economy. "Australia is blessed with resources to exploit developments in clean energy, and we have the scientists, engineers, and capacity to deliver."

Trouble was, back at the National Press Club, Tanner was mounting the inflation case for cutting precisely the programs Wong was promoting in Melbourne. Immediately after his speech, the Finance Minister issued a statement detailing an immediate $643 million in spending cuts as a down payment on the promised rigours of the May budget.

The line items appeared obscure. But closer examination revealed that at least three measures - the defunding of the Asia Pacific Network for Energy Technology and the Low Emissions Technology and Abatement program, and the reduction in money for the Renewable Remote Power Generation Program - were going to contribute $49.2 million to Tanner's budget bottom line. And then there was the $3 million knife taken to the funding for the CSIRO research vessel Southern Surveyor.

A look at the vessel's website is instructive. Its lead item says: "On January 11, Australia's marine national facility RV Southern Surveyor embarks on a three-week voyage to survey deep-sea coral beds in the Tasman Sea and Southern Ocean. "The composition of deep-sea corals is used to determine previous deep ocean conditions, such as temperature, salinity and the mixing of surface and deep water layers over a time scale of tens to hundreds of thousands of years. Using specialised remotely operated underwater vehicles, sampling will occur down to depths of 4000m, deeper than ever before in Australian waters. "The findings will contribute to models of regional and global climate change based on deep-sea circulation patterns in the Southern Ocean as well as documenting the biodiversity of life at extreme depths."

In other words, the Southern Surveyor is an example of just the sort of "scientists, engineers and (research) capacity" Wong lauded in her Melbourne speech as being essential to the frontline battle against the effects of climate change.

This column brought these anomalies to the attention of Wong's office. In mitigation they say the Low Emissions Technology and Abatement money had not yet been committed and the Asia Pacific Network for Energy Technology constitutes an overlap with existing research and development programs. These details aside, the fact remains that the Tanner-Wong episode is an important symbol of an inevitable transitional phase for the new Labor Government. And the transition is from the high-minded rhetoric of election promises and goals on issues such as climate change to the realities of government, dirtied by the hard stuff of inflation and interest rates.

Cabinet ministers such as Wong, shut out from the budget razor gang process - which at this stage includes only Rudd, Swan, Tanner and Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard - are about to learn the speed limits that the responsibility of office will impose on their ambitions for their portfolios as well as their ideas about their station in public life. From Tanner's National Press Club speech henceforth the full stop of inflation will put paid to all ambit claims in both cases.

While Labor will not resort to the crudity of Howard's default position in 1996 of core (to be kept) and non-core (to be junked) promises, the effect in many more obscure areas, such as the fate of the Southern Surveyor, will be just the same. Welcome to the era of budget pain. It's a rite of passage that ministers as well as ordinary voters will have to share. Just ask Penny Wong.


Queensland's public hospitals fail health tests

QUEENSLAND'S beleaguered public hospitals are putting lives at risk by failing to deliver adequate care across a range of key areas. A new report into the performance of the state's 40 hospitals in 2006-07 has measured their outcomes according to 29 specific "clinical indicators". Across the indicator categories of surgical, medical, gynaecological/obstetric and mental health, the report found 26 instances where the outcomes were substandard.

An analysis of the overall performance of the state's public hospitals, released separately to the report, also identified areas where there were inferior outcomes compared to their private counterparts. Across 15 areas where comparisons were possible, the analysis found outcomes in the public sector were significantly worse than the private. It said there was a much higher stroke in-hospital mortality rate in the public sector while complications from prostate and hysterectomy surgery occurred far more frequently. The only area where private hospitals were significantly worse than public was in the frequency of patients catching pneumonia.

While similar data is not available from most other states, Health Minister Stephen Robertson this week insisted Queensland's hospitals were performing as well, and in some cases better, than those elsewhere in Australia. "However, this report highlights areas where individual hospitals need to do better in a particular category," he said. "In every case, where a hospital recorded an unfavourable result, it was investigated and where necessary a management plan was put into place to improve performance."

The report found nine instances where public hospitals failed one of the 13 surgical indicators, with the Gold Coast Hospital responsible for three of these. There were seven failures across the medical indicators with three hospitals - Redland, Townsville and Ingham - found to have unacceptable rates of in-hospital heart failure. Redland was also one of three hospitals that failed one of the gynaecological/obstetric indicators. Across the mental indicators, five hospitals recorded patients getting depressed during long stays at a rate twice that of the state average.

Coalition health spokesman John-Paul Langbroek said the Government's multi-billion-dollar plan to fix the state's public hospitals was failing. "The Bligh Government's band-aid solutions are not working," he said. "This Government is not treating patients and they are failing to fix Queensland's beleaguered public hospitals."


Judge Julie Dick raps prosecutor's office

The sisters are falling out - but rightly so. See also another recent report about the failing Qld. judicial system

A SENIOR Brisbane judge will ask for a "please explain" from Director of Public Prosecutions Leanne Clare after criticising her department's trial preparations as "not good enough". On Friday, District Court Judge Julie Dick dressed down several public prosecutors because they were not ready to proceed with trials. Judge Dick said she would report the matters to Chief Judge Patsy Wolfe and ask her to speak with Ms Clare.

Judge Dick became incensed when the DPP asked that a trial be postponed because the prosecuting lawyer was attending a conference. Another Crown prosecutor told her that subpoenas were still being sent to witnesses a week before the trial was due to start, despite the case having been postponed six times. The next prosecutor told the judge that two interpreters needed for a trial starting next week had not been secured.

"It is just not good enough to say the DPP is making these oversights. I will have these matters mentioned to the DPP and will ask the Chief Judge to speak with the director about this," Judge Dick said. "I do not understand that someone waits for the week before the trial to go look for the witnesses."


Putnam findings confirmed in Australia

Immigration destroys social cohesion and community spirit

Migrants from non-English speaking countries are less likely to be volunteers than Australian-born people or migrants from English-speaking nations, a new study shows. Ethnically diverse neighbourhoods have lower levels of volunteering - even among their Australian-born residents.

The study, by Ernest Healy, senior research fellow at the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University, challenges the notion that ethnic diversity leads to a stronger, more cohesive society. "When you create societies from mixed backgrounds it may not lead to overt violence . but to something scarier, a withdrawal from the civic sphere," Dr Healy said, "a feeling of less connectedness."

Using levels of volunteering as an indicator of social cohesion, the study shows that suburbs with a high degree of ethnic diversity have markedly lower rates of volunteering than more homogenous localities. The study, based on 2006 census data for Melbourne, shows migrants from non-English speaking countries are less likely to be volunteers than Australian-born or people from English-speaking countries, even when their income and age are similar. Length of residence in Australia makes little difference, and nor does citizenship, but English proficiency has a small impact. About 18 per cent of Australian-born middle-income earners aged 25-64 were volunteers, for example, but only 13 per cent of those from non-English speaking countries. But in ethnically diverse areas, both the Australian-born residents and the migrants from non-English speaking countries are less likely to volunteer than their counterparts in the more homogenous neighbourhoods.

Dr Healy said the results were likely to be similar for Sydney. He said it would be wrong to conclude migrants from non-English speaking countries were unfriendly and uncaring and less altruistic than Australian-born people. It was likely their altruism was directed to friends, families and neighbours, not through organised civic, sporting, and welfare organisations. However, altruism directed through formal groups represented a "commitment to the broader social good".

The findings appear to support research by Robert Putnam, of Harvard University, that ethnic diversity can hasten a withdrawal from "collective life". Dr Healy said the assumption multiculturalism would automatically lead to strong cohesive communities without government assistance may have been naive. [Idiotic, in fact]


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