Friday, April 18, 2008

Dangerous to photograph ticket machines??

Restrictions on photography in the name of "security" are now common and are often misused by cops and bureaucrats to cover up their own misdeeds and bungles

Trainspotters and tourists could be forcibly removed from train stations if they take photographs of "transport infrastructure" because Queensland Rail guidelines may deem it an act of terrorism. The guidelines, which were updated last September, state members of the public must identify themselves to rail staff before they start taking photographs of trains, platforms and, even Go Card machines.

Under QR's guidelines, no photographs at all are to be taken during peak periods or at busy train stations. And anyone using a camera, should refrain from wearing a safety vests or wearing red, yellow or green near signals. [Why?]

Yesterday, QR staff at Toowong station forced ABC breakfast host Spencer Howson to delete several images, which included one of a Go Card machine, on his digital camera or he risked being fined.

"This afternoon, there were no fewer than seven ticket inspectors. The bloke inside the ticket box said they were 'in training'. Fair enough, I thought," Spencer wrote on his ABC blog. "I'd love to show you the photo I took, but one particularly insistent ticket inspector forced me to delete the pic from my camera. "If not, he said, he would issue me with an on-the-spot fine under the anti-terrorism act!"

More here

Cancer coverup in Queensland

The government does not want the failings of their country hospitals to become known

Life-saving cancer research is being blocked by Queensland Government restrictions on scientists gaining access to a register of sufferers throughout the state. The Cancer Council of Queensland has launched unprecedented legal action in Brisbane's Supreme Court for access to the register to enable independent study of the disease, including blocked work into why survival rates are lower in regional and rural Queensland. Scientists believe the study may embarrass Queensland Health because it is likely to reveal detection and treatment standards are failing outside of Brisbane.

Queensland is the only state in Australia, and one of the few jurisdictions in the Western world, where researchers require case-by-case approval to access the cancer register for the development of prevention and treatment strategies. Queensland Health has refused to release localised cancer statistics and has failed to fund the collation of data on the stages that cancers are being discovered in different areas.

The battle has emerged as suspected cancer clusters - involving the ABC's Brisbane studios and firefighters in north Queensland - are being investigated by the Government. Documents obtained by The Australian show that some of Australia's leading scientists - including former Australian of the Year Ian Frazer - have repeatedly appealed to Premier Anna Bligh and Health Minister Stephen Robertson to grant routine access to the data.

The Cancer Council of Queensland - which was awarded management rights of the register in 2001 - has been denied access or forced to wait up to a year for approval to use theinformation and start the research. A two-year backlog in collating the data, partly blamed on underfunding, has further blown out the delays. Queensland Health has enforced the approval procedure for access to the register because of concerns the release of information could identify an individual sufferer.


Rudd's baby farms not great for kids

Little children need the security, understanding and tolerance of a loving home, not institutionalization

Kevin Rudd's big idea for this weekend's 2020 Summit is a plan to help working families by setting up a national chain of government-run parent-and-child centres. Let's call them PC centres, for with universal child care at its core, this is a very PC idea. The Community Child Care Association's national secretary Barbara Romeril could hardly contain herself when she heard the news: "It's very exciting to finally have a government that gets it," she told the ABC. "We know this is what parents want and we know this is what's good for children." This is classic PC rhetoric, based on shaky evidence but repeated so often that people now assume it must be true.

Rudd wants these PC centres up and running by 2020, although he has no idea how much they will cost. While their core business will be child care, they will offer an all-encompassing range of services to all parents with children under five. There will be health checks on babies, child vaccinations, advice for mothers, counselling for parents, long hours day care for infants, and preschool early learning programs for toddlers. All of this will be underpinned by national quality standards, so every centre will be run in the same way and will be staffed by experts with lots of certificates and diplomas to their name.

Rudd assures parents they won't be compelled to use these PC centres, although they will be compelled to pay for them through higher taxes. This extra spending is OK, though, because it is an investment. As Maxine McKew, the Parliamentary Secretary for Early Childhood Education and Child Care, explained to Sky News: "All the experts tell us this is the way to go. You provide that intervention early on, through the early years, and that's how you get healthy children and, I think, less stress for parents as well."

But is there no downside to this idea? Perhaps Rudd, his ministers and the childcare cheer squad should take time to reflect on some of the problems before they plough ahead. There are at least seven to consider.

* The core business of these centres will be long hours child care, but despite what McKew and the Community Child Care Association claim, it isn't true that this is necessarily good for children. McKew suggests parents' stress levels can be reduced by long hours care, but she ignores evidence that cortisol (stress hormone) levels among young children spending long periods in institutional care are often disturbingly high, and this is surely what should concern us more. It is true that older children from very disadvantaged backgrounds can benefit from good quality formal care, but this is because the care they get at home is so appalling. Most very young children are better off raised by their parents, and the Government should look seriously at the evidence on this before spending billions of dollars herding them into government institutions.

* The new PC centres will destroy social capital (something the Rudd Government claims it wants to strengthen). At the moment, most of these services are already available to parents, but they are scattered rather than concentrated in one place, and they are unco-ordinated rather than being organised according to a single centralised formula. People get help from neighbours, family members, community clinics, churches, local play schools, and when they use these local resources it strengthens the social ties that create strong communities. Concentrating services in government centres may be more efficient, but it will erode local relationship networks.

* These centres will weaken the third sector and strengthen the power of government. There is a worrying trend for government to enlist voluntary organisations as its agents and then emasculate them. Welfare charities, for example, now depend on money from government contracts to run employment services, and the recently established Family Relationship Centres have effectively nationalised family counselling services previously run by groups such as Relationships Australia. The proposed new PC centres will likewise absorb existing community-based and commercial childcare providers. Open, democratic societies rely on a strong and vibrant third sector as a check and buffer against government power. In Australia, this is fast disappearing.

* These centres will further erode the autonomy of the states within our federal system. Many of the services they will provide are presently the responsibility of the states. As in health care (where the pressure is to nationalise hospitals), so too in child care, Canberra is shifting more power to itself in the name of efficiency.

* Rudd says these new centres will save money and avoid duplication. This is another way of saying they will be big, and there won't be many of them, in which case they will create more inconvenience for users. When your neighbourhood childcare centre has gone bust and you are strapping your toddler into the car for the daily commute across town to your nearest PC centre, remember this change was supposed to make life easier.

* The PC centres will redistribute income from poorer to richer parents by making the former contribute to the childcare costs of the latter. A couple sacrificing some of their joint income by having one parent stay home to look after the kids will now have to pay more tax to subsidise other couples who choose to keep working and earning while parking their kids in the PC centre. This violates the principle that government should remain neutral between parents who stay home and those who go out to work, as it represents an extensive intervention in favour of the latter at the cost of theformer.

* These centres are going to be expensive. Even Rudd doesn't know how much they are going to cost, but Crikey estimates a horrific annual bill of about $12 billion. Based on past experience, we can be sure they will get even more expensive over time as people's expectations and demands continue to rise. For a government that says it has inherited a budget blowout and needs to trim expenditure, this seems an odd way to cut costs. Before it commits to a huge expenditure such as this, the Government should take a deep breath and tell us the ultimate objective of its family strategy. Is it to get more mums back into work to ease the labour shortage? If so, government-run baby farms may be a good plan.

But if the objective is to give parents real choice about how to balance work and family, to support a vibrant community sector, or even to improve long-term child wellbeing, this PC proposal may not be the best way to achieve it.

Source. See here for how a similar Canadian scheme did a lot of harm.

Ignore the gloomy propagandists

THERE are certain things everybody knows. For example, everybody knows banks are ripping us off with higher mortgage rates, supermarkets are robbing us with high prices, plastic bags are an environmental disaster, there is a national water shortage, we have to take immediate action to stop a climate change catastrophe overtaking us in the next few years. Take a hard look at the available evidence and all of these turn out to be either dubious or just plain wrong. And there is another popular claim, promoted by the vested interests that stand to profit from it: Australia has an infrastructure crisis.

The evidence appears to be all around us: traffic congestion, lousy public transport, coal ships queued up along our east coast because of inadequate rail and port facilities. These are all genuine national problems, but calling them a crisis is dangerous because it can lead to precipitate, unwarranted, ill-judged and costly responses. It is important to recognise this danger because tackling infrastructure bottlenecks is a central part of Kevin Rudd's five-point plan for Australia's economy.

The history of Australian governments' attempts to manage the provision of the nation's infrastructure is not a happy one, as Michael Keating, a longtime senior federal economic bureaucrat and now head of the NSW Government's Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal, reminded us recently. In a paper presented at the New Agenda for Prosperity conference organised by The Australian and the Melbourne Institute in March, Keating pointed out that in 1880 Australia had the highest living standard in the world. For most of the next century it also had a rate of public investment that was just about the highest in the world. Yet despite the impressive infrastructure investment, Australia slipped steadily down the international league table of living standards. There were a number of reasons for this, but it surely suggests a lot of our infrastructure investment was wasted in the past. It isn't hard to think of recent examples, the Ord River irrigation scheme and the Darwin-to-Alice Springs railway, for example. John Howard liked to refer to the latter as his "Snowy of steel" and speak of it as nation-building.

When Australian politicians talk of nation-building and drag in the Snowy Mountains Scheme, taxpayers are well advised to hang on to their wallets, because another great waste of public money is usually in the offing. Which gives an ominous ring to this pronouncement by Anthony Albanese, the federal Minister for Infrastructure: "Our infrastructure plan is consistent with our history as a nation-building party. It was (Ben) Chifley who courageously started the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme..."

Albanese promises a new era of infrastructure management, but it hasn't got off to a good start. First cab off the rank has been a follow-on to the Howard government's ill-considered National Water Plan for the Murray-Darling Basin, trumpeted as a historic breakthrough at the recent Council of Australian Governments meeting in Adelaide. "Approximately $6 billion will be spent on improving the supply of water to irrigators by efficiency improvements," Keating says. "So far there has been no suggestion that the cost of this extra water will be recovered from the irrigators. Despite the requirement in the national water plan guidelines agreed by COAG that there will be full cost recovery."

How many irrigators would support the proposed $6 billion spending on irrigation infrastructure if they had to pay for it? One suspects not many. Keating suggests this is a huge infrastructure investment that would be better avoided, or at least vastly scaled down. The money saved could then be used to buy back over-allocated water licences, which would cost much less to effect if their value was not inflated by the provision of free water infrastructure.

Developments in the transport sector, another key infrastructure target, have not been encouraging either. The Howard government's AusLink national road and rail plan was mercilessly rorted by the Nationals and the Liberal Party in regional vote-buying and, contrary to promises, funded projects were not subjected to publicly transparent and rigorous cost-benefit analysis. About $15 billion was allocated to the first stage of AusLink, which runs to June next year, and the Howard government announced another $22billion or so in last May's budget for the second stage, which runs to 2014. It then promptly spent it all in a frenzy of election vote-buying, with Labor in hot spending pursuit.

Labor has foreshadowed an overhaul to address obvious flaws in AusLink. How there can be much reform without reallocating spending is a mystery, yet Albanese has committed to all of Labor's transport spending promises.

One possibility is better use of exisiting infrastructure, suggested by the National Transport Commission's chief executive Nick Dimopoulos recently as part of the NTC's national transport plan. The head of Labor's new Infrastructure Australia, businessman Rod Eddington, had a similar focus in a report on transport for the British government in 2006. Eddington is to complete a national infrastructure audit by the end of the year, develop an infrastructure priority list for COAG by next March and develop best-practice principles for public-private partnerships by October this year.

Perhaps this will be a new beginning, with Rudd focused on a national approach to infrastructure through federal-state co-operation that has so far proved elusive. Perhaps. At the end of the day it comes down to confronting something Australian governments have avoided like the plague for decades: proper infrastructure pricing and national markets, reforms Treasury Secretary Ken Henry has been urging for several years. As Keating concluded, a market-oriented approach would provide a far better guide to future infrastructure investment than relying on unproven, and unprovable, claims of an infrastructure crisis.


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