Thursday, March 26, 2009

Razor gang eyes 450 government boards, statutory authorities

This will be great if anything comes of it

MORE than 450 government boards and statutory authorities in Queensland have been told to justify their existence or face the axe. Fresh from an election victory in which it promised not to cut frontline public service jobs, the Bligh Government is preparing to target less sensitive parts of the bureaucracy for efficiency gains.

Amid calls for greater accountability in the public sector, a review has found that Queensland's statutory bodies spend more than $6.2 billion a year, or 17 per cent of all state spending. The Government is likely to use the independent review's findings to decide on the abolition or restructure of many government bodies, with their functions being taken over by government departments.

While Lawrence Springborg's promise to save $1 billion a year in efficiency dividends dominated the election campaign agenda, the Government has set about finding up to $200 million in annual efficiency gains from next year. A spokesman said Premier Anna Bligh had not yet received the review's final report but it remained "on track" to be handed to her next week.

Led by Griffith University Professor Pat Weller and former senior bureaucrat Simone Webbe, the review has caused great consternation in the state public service. Some bodies have protested that they should not be the subject of review, while Auditor-General Glenn Poole has expressed his approval. Bodies under the microscope range from the Queensland Water Commission to the Babinda Swamp Drainage Board. Other organisations targeted include the Industrial Hemp Advisory Committee, the Fibre Composites Forum and the Community Consultative Committee for the Control of Exotic Pest Fish.

The review was part of a major overhaul of the public service announced by Ms Bligh last year, which included an audit of each department and a $60 million "productivity dividend" to be collected across government departments. However, the Government has since set itself a target of finding another $100 million in public sector efficiencies from next year, rising to $200 million from 2010.

In a preliminary report, Prof Weller and Ms Webbe said the review would apply a formal "threshold" test to each of 457 statutory authorities and other government bodies in Queensland.


Christian school rejects Muslim teacher

A CHRISTIAN school in Werribee has been forced to defend its refusal to offer a training placement to a Muslim teaching student on the grounds of her religion. Victoria University student Rachida Dahlal has reportedly lodged a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Commission against Heathdale Christian College, accusing it of discrimination and prejudice.

But the faith-based private school stood by its decision last night. It said it would have been "inappropriate" to offer the student a placement because of the school's Christian ethos. Principal Reynald Tibben said Mrs Dahlal - who wears a head scarf and is a devout Muslim - may have found it difficult to work at a school where the teachers' morning staff briefing includes prayer devotion and Bible reading. "The way we practise our education is not just nominal, it's actually what parents want for their kids, and it would have been confusing for the kids. It's not that we have anything against her or her beliefs, we just felt it was an inappropriate placement," Mr Tibben said. "There's obviously a difference between being a Muslim and a Christian - so it was a religious issue from that perspective - but it was as much about supporting her as it was the college."

Mrs Dahlal could not be contacted by The Age last night.

According to the Wyndham Leader, the 35-year-old mother had chosen Heathdale because it was the closest school to her home, and one of few offering her specialty subjects of mathematics and French.

Mr Tibben said his school, which takes about 12 university students for training each year, offered to support Mrs Dahlal in finding another school and questioned why Victoria University hadn't given "a little more thought" in guiding her into a school-based placement. The university's acting Vice-Chancellor, Professor John McCallum, said Mrs Dahlal had been counselled about Heathdale's policy of taking those whose values aligned to its own.


Freedom of Information improvements

EMBARRASSMENT to the Federal Government will no longer wash as a valid excuse for bureaucrats to block the release of information to the public. In the first significant overhaul of the nation's 27-year-old Freedom of Information laws, Special Minister of State John Faulkner yesterday announced the Government would scrap all FOI application fees. The Government will set up an independent umpire to adjudicate on FOI applications and encourage the release of information from public service agencies. Cabinet records would be released after 20 years instead of 30 years, and Cabinet notebooks would be available after 30 years instead of five decades.

Senator Faulkner said the reforms would demonstrate the Government's commitment to openness and transparency. Under the plans, FOI requests would no longer be denied on the grounds the information would embarrass the Government or cause misinterpretation or confusion about government activities.

"The Freedom of Information commissioner will be for the first time an independent champion of FOI, charged with overseeing agencies' compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the legislation," Senator Faulkner told a Freedom of Speech conference in Sydney. However, classified national security information would remain protected in the national interest.

News Limited chairman and chief executive officer John Hartigan said that in Australia "freedom of information simply isn't working (and) in fact it has become an oxymoron". "Secrecy and censorship of what we are allowed to know has reached troubling levels," Mr Hartigan said. "In some cases the lack of transparency by our elected government is frightening. Just think about the Australian Wheat (Board) scandal or the Mohammed Haneef case."


Food freak mayor imposing her views on others

SYDNEY Lord Mayor Clover Moore has banned Tim Tams from council events for fear they're partially produced through cruel child labour on Africa's Ivory Coast. In a move to create "sustainable, healthy and cruelty-free catering" at City of Sydney meetings and events, staff have stopped providing chocolate biscuits along with meals containing eggs, bottled water, fat-rich cakes, dairy deserts and "bad" fish species.

One of the first attempts at the new politically correct meals policy was at the council's Investing in Sydney's Future business forum on February 25. On the menu were vegetables (locally grown), NSW wines (organic) and "a good fish species choice" (blue-eye trevalla).

Liberal councillor Shayne Mallard, who was at a briefing on the guidelines, said the first hint of the new policy was when Tim Tams disappeared from meetings. "We are being dictated to by a radical green agenda telling us what fish we can eat, what water we drink and banning eggs or Tim Tams instead of focusing on issues like saving jobs," Mr Mallard said.

"Council staff told me Tim Tams were banned because 80 per cent of world cocoa production comes from the Ivory Coast, where there are allegations of child labour." An Arnott's spokeswoman said only a very limited supply of chocolate was from the Ivory Coast. "But this supplier is a member of the International Cocoa Initiative, which is dedicated to ensuring no child is exploited in the growing of cocoa and to ending child and forced labour," she said.

Requests for comment from Ms Moore were declined yesterday but a spokeswoman said: "No particular brand of food or drink has been identified as being off the menu." In a memo obtained by The Daily Telegraph, the council's environmental projects manager Kirsten Woodward said the council would serve only cruelty-free and healthy options. "Vegan, vegetarian and lactose intolerant options have also been developed for future events," Ms Woodward's memo said.


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