Sunday, April 12, 2009

Rudd reviewed

By Piers Akerman

EASTER is the traditional season of renewal in the Christian faith, but this year growing unemployment will mean increasing numbers of Australians find little to celebrate. instead of looking forward to growth, Australia, along with the rest of the world, is hunkering down for shrinkage. Unfortunately for Australians, our country is being run by the Rudd Labor government, which has vowed to pursue a number of ideologically driven policies that carry with them a certainty of delivering more unemployment and greater hardship than would otherwise be the case.

The rate of increase in the numbers of unemployed is already well beyond anything the Government predicted. Last month, the national rate climbed from 5.2 per cent to 5.7 per cent - the steepest monthly increase since the last Labor government delivered the last recession in 1991. In NSW, the percentage of jobless jumped a full percentage point - from 5.9 to 6.9 per cent - taking it higher than the jobless rate in Britain, which most nations view as an international basket case.

It's not just the Federal Government that failed to pick the rapidly increasing rate of unemployment. Most economists seem to have had their heads elsewhere as the job market collapsed and employers began to make the cuts they hope will enable them to weather this crisis. Their job is not being made easier by the passage of the Government's draconian industrial-relations legislation or its threatened emissions trading scheme bill, both of which Labor has acknowledged will hurt employment.

Easter is a good time to take stock of what has occurred since the Rudd government came to office, even if there's no hope of a turnaround while it's running the country.

When it came to office, there was a surplus, but that has been given away in so-called economic stimulus measures that the figures now reveal have stimulated nothing except the numbers of jobless. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd even went so far as to claim his Christmas cash splash would create 75,000 jobs, but there's no evidence that it created anything but a hole in the nation's savings. His measure was not a reasoned policy but a public-relations gimmick designed to paper over the growing cracks in the economy. It was another con trick in the long and growing list of stunts pulled by the Rudd government to give the public the impression that it's actually doing something creative to deal with the pressures it finds itself under.

The reality is that it didn't see the global downturn coming - although former treasurer Peter Costello did - and it played the wrong cards from day one, talking down the Australian economy and placing it in harm's way when it should have been talking it up and building bulwarks against the tsunami rolling around the world.

What is also amazing is Rudd's own lack of insight into what was occurring. Before the November election, he was boasting of his ties to China's leadership and exchanging bon mots in Mandarin with the boys in Beijing. We now know that although Rudd was feted at the Beijing Olympics, no one let him in on the joke or told him that China was going to pull down the shutters as soon as the torch had moved on. Whether through stupidity or naivete, Rudd didn't learn a thing from his trip, even though many in the business community were talking of little else when they returned from the Olympic extravaganza.

Since then, Rudd's sleight of hand, and his skill at duchessing those he needs, have successfully blinded those who should have been more sceptical and more focused on representing the interests of the private sector. His remarkable skills have been rewarded by stunning poll results, with a whopping 74 per cent of Australians currently impressed with his pitch.

No one should be surprised. It's only 18 months since the election, a time of huge change, and few who voted for Labor would yet be ready to admit they were partly responsible for contributing to the change in the nation's fortunes. As the numbers of unemployed continue to grow, and economists talk of double-digit levels of unemployment by next year, as more and more pink slips are issued and increasing numbers of families find they are stretching their shrinking budgets to stay afloat, that popularity could take a rapid hit. Pie-in-the-sky is not very sustaining.

The Rudd government has not delivered for its constituents. It has given them gestures, but it hasn't brought home the bacon. Next month's Budget will be telling. The Government will look really stupid if it moves to recover the money it has just sent out, so it will probably maintain its increasingly shaky course. The only way it will be able to do so is by increasing the never-never account, pushing out the debt decades into the future and saddling generations still unborn with the bill for its disastrous administration.


Now THIS might get people out of their cars

Citytrain commuters to receive free internet access

PASSENGERS will soon be able to surf the web free of charge while catching the train in southeast Queensland. Transport Minister Rachel Nolan said commuters with laptops will have high-speed internet access on their high-speed train trips. Ms Nolan said new wireless equipment to allow security footage to be streamed in real time to Queensland Rail's control room at Central Station in Brisbane, would also create wireless internet access at stations and on trains. "This means that commuters will be able to log on to the internet and catch up on emails on their train ride to work or while waiting at a station," she said yesterday. "Access to wireless internet is becoming more and more important in people's professional and social lives, and this technology means a journey on the train can become even more attractive to commuters."

Ms Nolan said the scheme, which would cost Queensland Rail between $1 million and $4 million, was expected to be available in every train and station in the Citytrain network by early 2010. The new technology would make Queensland the only state in Australia where commuters could rely on constant wireless access. She said people living near train lines or stations would not be able to tap into the free internet service because it would be "fire-walled".

The Minister also announced upgraded security for Queensland Rail with real-time camera monitoring of carriages. A successful trial on the Gold Coast line convinced the Government to improve technology. "There are 6000 security cameras covering trains, stations and car parks across the rail network," Ms Nolan said. "The cameras on trains are capable of recording illegal activities, giving police the evidence they need to catch and prosecute offenders, but they are not able to be monitored live. "When this system is installed, police and security personnel will have the ability to monitor travellers on trains and any incidents in real time over a wireless network. "This will give the control room the capacity to track offenders on trains and at stations and also co-ordinate a rapid response by police and transit officers."

Figures released by QR yesterday revealed 230 assaults were reported across the Citytrain network last financial year, including 14 sex attacks and 63 weapons offences.

The Minister said the wireless system would go to tender in July and rolled out in 2010.


IVF baby is priceless, but who pays?

ISABELLA Zogopoulos is a gorgeous $70,000 miracle that we all helped to create. The 13-month-old was conceived after her mother, forklift driver Theona Zogopoulos, endured 10 cycles of IVF at a personal cost of $30,000. Taxpayers chipped in the rest via the Medicare safety net scheme, making the long-held dream of parenthood a reality for Ms Zogopoulos and her council worker husband, Chris. "I call her my little miracle on ice," the besotted mother says. "She was on ice for 18 months."

But without the 80 per cent rebate on the IVF procedure — the family also had other medical expenses — it's doubtful the Zogopouloses, who took out a $20,000 bank loan to cover their costs, would have been able to afford so many IVF cycles. Now, as the Federal Government scrapes for savings ahead of the May 12 budget, it is looking again at publicly funded IVF and obstetric services, which cost taxpayers $141 million a year through the safety net scheme.

The Zogopouloses fear such a move would render their dream of giving Isabella a brother or sister financially impossible. "It is very disappointing," Ms Zogopoulos, 37, says. "There are plenty of other things that the Government can look at and cut money from."

The issue of tampering with public funding for fertility services is politically fraught, as the previous Howard government discovered, because the area of assisted reproduction is emotionally charged and access to IVF is now widely accepted as a right in Australia. It is a right that is increasingly expensive: the safety net scheme, which has leapt 28 per cent since 2007, now costs $319 million a year, 44 per cent of it IVF and obstetric services.

How much taxpayers should subsidise assisted reproduction, and whether it should be means tested, remains controversial. When the Howard government tried to rein in the public cost in 2005 by limiting funding to three cycles a year for women up to the age of 42, or three in total for older women, it was a disaster. But with Labor's economic strategists now considering ways to pare back the safety net scheme, the IVF industry fears rebates on fertility and obstetric services are again at risk. Options being considered by the Government are believed to include capping the number of (now unlimited) publicly funded cycles available, means testing, and restricting access on the basis of age.

In the lead-up to the 2007 election, Health Minister Nicola Roxon pledged there would be no move to tamper with the safety net, introduced by the Howard government in 2004 to cover 80 per cent of out-of-pocket medical costs above $1111.60 in any given year (or $555.70 for low-income earners). Yesterday, Ms Roxon declined to "engage in speculation ahead of the May budget" with The Sunday Age.

But Access Australia, which represents IVF consumers, is taking no chances. It has been encouraging its members to flood the offices of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan with angry emails. Sandra Dill, Access chief executive, argues that infertility is a medical condition like any other funded through Medicare and should not be singled out. Means testing or restricting public funding would make IVF affordable only for the wealthy, even though fertility issues affected as many as one in six Australians, she said.

IVF is now the preferred treatment for infertility, and the number of babies born with the help of assisted reproductive technology has trebled since 1995, to 11,000 a year.

"I find it curious that on the one hand the Government recognises the economic benefit of having children … and yet for another group of people who are trying to have them who need medical help they are threatening to make that even more unaffordable," Ms Dill said. She did not believe access to IVF should be restricted on the basis of age because individual doctors made decisions on a case-by-case basis and were unlikely to recommend IVF to women who had a low probability of success.

In Ms Zogopoulos' case, each of the 10 IVF cycles involved an upfront cost of $5300. The usual cycle costs $4400, but she was also using the ICSI technique, in which sperm is injected directly into an egg. Should she attempt IVF again, she will need to have a $3280, non-Medicare rebatable procedure in which cells from her embryos would be tested each cycle, to check for any genetic abnormality. The test could help avoid the previous nightmare of repeated failed implantations. But it will add to the overall cost and if rebates are cut, could mean the Zogopouloses cannot afford to try for a second baby.

Ms Zogopoulos believes the only fair cut would be a means test, by which wealthier people get smaller rebates. "I feel sorry for people just starting out on IVF. It is always very stressful financially," she said.

The extraordinary 28 per cent blow-out in the safety net bill since 2007 has been linked to the rise in gynaecologists' fees, which, according to one estimate, have increased by more than 400 per cent since the scheme was introduced in 2004. A senior Government source said the safety net had blunted competition in the health sector, allowing obstetricians to raise fees. But the president of the National Association of Specialist Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Dr Andrew Pesce, denied that charging for IVF in Australia was spiralling out of control, saying costs were relatively low by world standards. He said the increase was due to IVF becoming the treatment of choice for infertility, whereas previously it was one option among several, including surgery.

Federal MP Tony Abbott, who as health minister in 2005 tried to implement the disastrous attempt to limit public funding for IVF, concedes now that: "If you are a fortysomething woman who is desperate to have a baby and the Government decides that the rules are going to be changed to make it harder for you to pay for this, you get very, very unhappy."


Cultural sensitivity directives 'bamboozle' teachers

An education expert says teachers are being "bamboozled" by mysticism surrounding Aboriginal children and letting educational standards slip. Dr Chris Sarra, director of the Indigenous Education Leadership Institute in Queensland, was in Darwin this week addressing 200 principals and senior education department figures.

He says he told the conference teachers should demand high standards of Aboriginal children, instead of making allowances for cultural differences. "There is the potential and I believe this absolutely, that the Territory education system can move from one that is perhaps been guilty of creating an underclass to becoming a world class education system," he said.

Dr Sarra says he read a paper last year directing educators "not to look Aboriginal children in the eyes" because it might somehow damage their psyche. He says there is an impression that being culturally sensitive means accepting second rate outcomes from Aboriginal students, but that this approach does the students no favours. "It presented Aboriginal children as being so mystical and so culturally different and so exotic, to the extent that lots of teachers were overwhelmed by that sort of information and forgot these are actually just kids in schools who deserve an education as much as anybody," he said.

"We can't get to a point where we just cannot see the kids for the black faces. "We've got to take Aboriginal children as high-potential learners, high-calibre learners with tremendous potential."

Dr Sarra says he has completed a structural review of the Northern Territory Education Department which is currently with the Chief Minister. He was commissioned to conduct the review after the former head of the department, Margaret Banks, was sacked by the then education minister Marion Scrymgour in October last year.

Dr Sarra says it would be inappropriate for him to comment on whether his review recommends redundancies. "You'll have to wait for the Chief Minister to have a look at what's contained in the report," he said. "I don't believe it's fair that that education department employees up there should be hearing about any outcomes from me through this forum."


No comments: