Friday, February 27, 2009

Deadbeat NSW government hospitals

The Auditor-General has damned the financial management of the NSW health system, saying area health services had failed to pay bills on time and had routinely misused trust funds. Peter Achterstraat said the financial audits for 2007-08, which were made public yesterday, showed that some health services had classed bills as "in dispute" to buy time because they did not have the funds to pay small businesses.

His report noted that health services had dipped into trust accounts to pay bills and wages and the worst offender was Northern Sydney and Central Coast, which had 1000 trust accounts that were $9.9 million overdrawn in November 2007. The overdraft coincided with desperate attempts by the former health minister Reba Meagher to improve operations at Royal North Shore Hospital after a patient, Jana Horska, miscarried in a hospital toilet. The incident became the subject of a parliamentary inquiry.

Mr Achterstraat said bills totalling $312 million were outstanding at June 2008, and $75 million of that was more than 45 days overdue. A year earlier $174 million had been owing, none of it more than 45 days late. He found that only two of the eight area health services paid their bills within the benchmark of 45 days. "From a financial point of view this is not a particularly good report card," he said. "They are not paying their bills on time, they're not managing their budgets properly, they didn't get their annual statements in on time and they are using trust fund money for reasons they were not intended."

He recommended that the Treasurer, Eric Roozendaal, or the Health Minister, John Della Bosca, order area health services to pay interest on late bills as an incentive to clean up their act. "I am concerned about the $320 million in trusts and special purpose accounts. They need to make better use of these funds. In some cases these funds have been there for a long time and the department is not clear what they can be used for," Mr Achterstraat said. "Some funds have been used to subsidise overexpenditure in other areas."

Yesterday Mr Della Bosca said he would consider interest payments but pointed out that the data was more than eight months old. "Let me be clear, I want creditors paid on time. No question. But we are getting on top of the problem," he said. "In November last year, more than $15 million was owed to small businesses across the state. That figure has dropped by more than 80 per cent to just $3.4 million this week."

The Premier, Nathan Rees, said there was a plan to reduce all of the debt to creditors "to acceptable levels" by June. "Things are better than reflected in that report, and there is a plan to continue to drive down those creditor issues," he said.

The Opposition spokeswoman on health, Jillian Skinner, said the Government was financially irresponsible and reckless. "We have a $380 million health budget deficit, more than $300 million in unpaid bills on top of that and donated money in trust funds being used for recurrent expenditure instead of the hospital projects they were given to build," she said.


Green bureaucrats holding economy to ransom

By Michael Costa

Believe it or not, if Kevin Rudd is genuine about stimulating our economy, rather than borrowing enormous sums of money he should talk to Peter Garrett. Why? Because his misguided Environment Minister and the department he runs are holding up billions of dollars of investment.

The way Garrett's department administers the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act provides a perfect rebuttal of Rudd's recent neo-interventionist call for greater government involvement in economic development. The act gives Garrett enormous powers. It requires that he approve any developments likely to have a significant impact on things the act protects, such as world heritage sites, national heritage properties, wetlands of international importance, threatened species and ecological communities, migratory species and marine areas, as well as nuclear actions including uranium mines. If that weren't broad enough, it also requires Garrett's approval of actions that affect commonwealth land. What you need to know is that the act is at present subject to a statutory review, but we'll come back to that.

The act is the federal equivalent of a range of state acts. These overlapping pieces of state and federal environmental legislation are a nightmare for economic development. New projects are subject to dual assessment processes and separate approval. One tier of government may approve a project that then is rejected by another. This creates investment uncertainty and adds to the cost of projects, costs that then are passed on to consumers. When he was environment minister, Malcolm Turnbull streamlined processes by concluding bilateral agreements with all states, except Victoria and the ACT, to create common environmental assessment of projects. Nonetheless, project approval still requires each tier of government to sign off.

Unfortunately, with the change of government, industry players have noticed a change in attitude. Garrett's department has become more interventionist. According to property industry body Urban Taskforce, the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts' interference and slow response to requests is making it virtually impossible to meet statutory timelines. Indeed, interference from DEWHA has reached farcical proportions. Petty disputes between the department and the states over the wording of newspaper ads hold up projects worth billions of dollars. Part of the problem is that DEWHA bureaucrats prefer to talk to their state counterparts, with whom they share a common environmental ideology, rather than to state planning officials who they see as pro-development.

The Property Council of Australia says its experience with the act has been that there has been little consistency or certainty for stakeholders and that some items of national environmental significance do not have sufficient evidentiary support to justify their retention on the list. Their public counsel argues that items included on any list should be based on rigorous scientific evidence, not anecdotal evidence, and observes that staff making determinations generally do not have specialist expertise on relevant NES or planning matters, and little appreciation of economic realities.

Under Garrett the act has become the last hope for theological environmentalists who fail in their opposition to projects at the local or state level. Catering to the insatiable demands of these people is costing the economy billions of dollars when the Prime Minister is putting the nation in hock in the hope of avoiding a technical recession. Critical land release projects have been delayed by the capricious action of these unaccountable bureaucrats. In the Sydney basin, for example, where for many years the state government was reluctant to release land, the Edmondson Park land release is being held up by DEWHA.

This is despite the fact planning for this release has been under way since at least 2000 and has involved numerous consultations between the state government, developers, local councils and the community. The principal developer is Landcom, a state government agency. At issue is the so-called Cumberland Plain woodland ecological community. Green groups have used this issue to restrict urban development in western Sydney for almost a decade. The result? More costly and less affordable housing.

Under the influence of theological environmentalists the development of NSW's Hunter Valley has been a frequent victim of the department's political interventionism. A particularly notorious example of this department pandering to green groups has been its frustration of a popular tourist development on Newcastle's Nobbys Headland on the grounds that the gap between two structures had heritage significance.

The handling of a residential development at North Cooranbong in the Hunter Valley, undertaken by the Johnson Property Group, shows just how out of control Garrett's department has become. This project was approved by all relevant NSW government departments, complied with the state government's regional strategy and conservation plan and the developer had provided environmental offsets in accordance with NSW legislation. Despite this, after eight years of assessments, Garrett's department intervened at the last moment and is demanding more land be quarantined for ecological reasons, which will have the effect of increasing the price of land packages by $30,000, making the project financially unviable. The result? Hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs lost to the local economy.

But here's the catch. As if the present administration of the act weren't bad enough, there is a concerted attempt by environmentalists to use a statutory review to extend its scope and powers. Green groups want to include global warming as an assessment trigger. Their goal? Nothing less than to close down the nation's coal industry. But that's not all. This trigger is so broad it could be applied to all human activity undertaken on land. This would effectively give the department the right of veto over any future development of the Australian economy. Now that would be a recipe for recession.


Schools dump stupid Leftist grading scheme

A PIVOTAL part of the controversial outcomes-based education system will be killed off at WA schools. From 2010, teachers will no longer use a "levels" system to calculate grades for school reports for Years 1 to 10. But Education Department Director General Sharyn O'Neill said schools could "choose to dispense with levels with immediate effect". "Certainly the use of levels to assess and report to parents has been a major platform of OBE and we're removing that today," she said today at a media conference at Applecross Primary School.

Ms O'Neill said simplifying assessment by removing the use of levels would free teachers to focus on teaching and make it easier for parents to track their child's achievement at school. "Teachers will continue to report to parents using A to E grades, but without the current requirement of having to convert levels to grades," she said. Levels were dropped for years 11 and 12 in early 2007, after extreme pressure on the previous Labor Government from the anti-OBE group People Lobbying Against Teaching Outcomes. Many teachers felt that the eight levels of achievement were too complex, inconsistent, and created unnecessary and time-consuming paperwork.

Ms O'Neill said parents had told her they had been "confused" by levels. She said that to determine grades under the new system, teachers would use their ``professional judgement''. But Ms O'Neill, who conceded that WA had previously gone further with OBE than other states, also said teachers would be given online resources showing what standard earned a particular grade. "I want to make sure that an A in Albany is the same as an A in Applecross, as in any other place,'' she said. The Education Department would also give principals a grade distribution guide.

Ms O'Neill said student grades would be based on information including class work, tests and a student's performance in national literacy and numeracy tests. From what she could see, the new system would be compatible with the proposed national curriculum.

The move is seen as honouring a pre-election commitment by the Liberals, who when in Opposition promised an independent audit of WA's curriculum framework by an expert advisory group if they won government and to abolish levels from kindergarten to Year 10. Education Minister Liz Constable said she applauded the decision because unlike the new system, the use of levels did not meet the criteria of being fair to students, easily understood by parents and not creating extra and unnecessary work for teachers.

Rob Fry, president of peak parent group the WA Council of State School Organisations, said the move was a positive step in the right direction. "This way the teachers can focus on doing the grades, making the best judgement from their professional point of view and everyone will know exactly how the child is progressing,'' Mr Fry said.

Applecross Primary School principal Barry France said his teachers would appreciate the decision because it would save them doing a "significant'' amount of work that was part of an "unnecessary bureaucratic step'' - freeing them to focus on teaching and learning.


Queensland police goons again

A disabled woman with a bandaged hand told how she was bullied and evicted from a train by police who did not believe that she had trouble operating an automatic ticket machine. Stricken with kidney disease and a broken hand, Rosemary Carey, 54, a disability pensioner, struggled up the steep stairs at Brisbane's Indooroopilly station on Saturday night and tried to work the machine with her left hand. When her train to Oxley arrived, she jumped aboard without a ticket.

She said two plain-clothes officers in their 30s threatened to arrest her if did not get off at the next stop, Sherwood. She said the officers were menacing and told her she would have to pay a $200 fine. "I was outraged," she said. "There is nothing threatening about me. ''I'm a frail female in my 50s, five foot two, 45kg wringing wet and suffer from a chronic kidney condition which leaves me with little energy. "Managing the steps at the station, then the steep flight of stairs at the cinema (the lift was out of order) is pretty much mountain climbing for me."

The mother of two said she went to the cinema near Indooroopilly station to see the new Clint Eastwood film, Gran Torino. Because she had broken her hand the previous week, she decided to go by train instead of taking her car. She said the movie finished about 8.45pm. "I'm normally in bed by eight and I was exhausted, " she said. "I get to the unfamiliar ticket machine and as quickly as I can with my left hand, begin to follow the prompts.

"In the midst of this a train pulls in. The next train could be in an hour, I have no idea of the timetable, so I board the train. "I remember a time when a conductor could sell a ticket on the train, or you could give your name and address and pay the fare later. Not now." She said she wept when she was ejected.

"I felt utterly humiliated being put off the train like some criminal or violent hooligan," Ms Carey said. "To make things worse, it was scary sitting at a deserted railway station late on Saturday night, so despite my very limited income, I spent $15 to take a cab home. Now I'm angry that innocent people can be treated like this. "Why can QR afford to pay for plain-clothes police to act as ticket inspectors, yet can't pay the presumably much lower wages of a conductor? "What happens if it's the last train of the night? Who would be responsible if I'd been attacked while waiting on a lonely station? Can't they understand that most of us aren't trying to evade the fare?"

Police Minister Judy Spence has ordered an investigation.


No comments: