Monday, July 20, 2009

Stupid steel manufacturer puts its faith in fad psychology

It sounds as if the company put its employees through a severe variation of the old "encounter groups" therapy. At the time it did that, such therapy had already been largely abandoned because it often did more harm than good. But 13 years later the company is still denying that the procedure damaged one of their empoyees. They have amazing faith in quacks -- to the point where it has cost them lots more in legal bills that it would have cost them to settle the damages claim in the first place! There was even an advance warning that the "course" could harm the employee concerned!

THE FAMILY of a man who has endured a 13-year legal battle with Bluescope Steel over a debilitating pyschiatric injury has begged the company to do what is right and end their "living hell". The case relates to an eight-day leadership retreat that former BlueScope employee Angus Mackinnon attended in August, 1996. The "Steel Leadership Course" featured drum-beating, interrogations and "psychodrama'', The Australian reports.

Dr Mackinnon, a doctor at BlueScope's occupational health and safety department in Wollongong at the time, suffered hallucinations, was found lying unresponsive on the floor at and ended up in a mental hospital within days of the course concluding. He later had to have electro-convulsive therapy and has been hospitalised a number of times. Ever since, Dr Mackinnon has been locked in litigation with the company in a negligence case that has cost $15 million and is likely to cost millions more.

It is probably the longest and most expensive personal injury litigation case that has take place in New South Wales, The Sydney Morning Herald reports. The paper also reports that the costs of the case have run to $15 million. The case could have been settled for $1.3m but Bluescope has held out, spending far more than that on legal fees and recently lodging a bid with the High Court to overturn a judgment where three judges unanimously found in Dr Mackinnon's favour.

"It's just the brutality of it ... the way they went for me in court without any compassion,'' Dr Mackinnon told The Australian of the effect the ongoing litigation was having on him and his family. "They knew the severity of my illness and the impact it was having on me but they didn't stop.''

The Mackinnons have sold their home unit to fund the court case against BlueScope, as well as pay for ongoing medical treatment, and have been forced to live with his wife's parents, sleeping in the same room as their two young children.

The original case took 94 days and Dr Mackinnon lost the trial. But a subsequent appeal saw three NSW Court of Appeal judges unanimously decide in Dr Mackinnon's favour. The judgment was scathing of the trial judge. The treatment of a crucial issue in the case was "so inadequate" that "the matter would have to go back to retrial in any event", the judges said.

Dr Mackinnon's wife, Nandy, has writen to each Bluescope board member individually, telling them of the "living hell'' she and her husband have endured for 13 years after reading the company's claim that its values reflected its motto that "our strength is in choosing what to do is right''. She says she is "perplexed" as to how the company, and its shareholders, could justify the ongoing litigation. The company has never responded.

BlueScope declined to comment but has denied in the courts that it has been negligent or that there was any breach of duty owed to Dr Mackinnon.

The Sydney couple say they are "not asking for the world" - they just want to be able to pay the medical bills and live in their own home.


Tax office stupidity

Is brain removal required before you get a job as a bureaucrat?

THE tax office is ruining thousands of self-employed workers and small businesses instead of helping them restructure their tax bills. Financial advisers say the self-employed and small firms are being unfairly wound up or made bankrupt because they have fallen behind in payments. The Australian Taxation Office admitted it was responsible for 2 per cent of bankruptcies and 7 per cent of all company wind-ups in the last financial year - and financial counsellors say many of these could have been avoided.

"The ATO is very difficult to negotiate with," said Christian Oey, of, a financial counselling firm. "It is only by sheer persistence that we succeed in restructuring some people's debts. But it shouldn't be so difficult."

One self-employed chauffeur, who did not want to be named, built up tax debts of $80,000 over five years, about half of which was interest on the overdue tax. But when he tried to negotiate repayments, the ATO insisted on a minimum of $6000 a month. "I know I am in the wrong but there is no way I could afford that," he said. "I don't earn anywhere near enough and they know it."

Oey said making people bankrupt made little sense for the ATO because they would get nothing back at all. But, he said, such cases were commonplace.

"About 75 per cent of the time the ATO will come to some kind of arrangement and even knock money off the bill," he said. "But in many other instances they just make people bankrupt."

The ATO admitted it was taking a hard line on some firms. "The tax office doesn't want to wind up viable companies, but must take action where there is evidence of a business trading while insolvent," a spokesman said.


Push by Institute of Public Affairs to offer school vouchers

THE federal government should introduce a system of school vouchers to bring about a genuine education revolution, according to a report to be published today. The paper, prepared by the Institute of Public Affairs, says vouchers -- under which government funds go to pupils rather than the schools they attend -- encourage more choice in education, improve academic outcomes and are popular with parents.

"The federal government's education revolution perpetuates the waste, inefficiency and perverse incentives that come with funding micromanagement," the IPA says. "The current schools stimulus package is a prime example of this, with a range of ill-suited, cost-padded infrastructure works being laid out across the country. "If Australia wants a real education revolution, it should ensure government funding follows the student and not the preferences of education ministers or bureaucrats."

The Australian understands Malcolm Turnbull has ordered the opposition's education spokesman, Chris Pyne, to examine vouchers as part of Coalition policy. Mr Pyne was unavailable for comment yesterday, but the Opposition Leader has backed a voucher system in the past.

Mr Turnbull clashed with then education minister Brendan Nelson in 2002 as chairman of the Liberal Party's think tank, the Menzies Research Centre, when he supported a paper produced by the centre suggesting a similar voucher system. "This is core Liberal stuff," Mr Turnbull said at the time. "A lot of the themes in this report are absolutely core Liberal Party educational philosophy -- issues of greater accountability, more autonomy, divulging more control to schools and communities." The co-author of that paper, John Roskam, is now executive director of the IPA and a Turnbull confidant.

A voucher system provides parents with government funds to spend at the school of their choice. "By separating government financing of education from the operation of schools, vouchers can help break down monopoly control over school services delivery and promote competition between government and non-government schools," the IPA report says.

"As has been increasingly understood by both sides of the political fence, vouchers represent a powerful tool to tackle educational disadvantage. This is because parents of children with special education needs, or from low-income families, are financially empowered to take their children out of failing schools and into high-quality educational institutions."

The report lists options ranging from a universal system to vouchers for students with special needs. "The cost of a universal voucher can be prohibitively expensive," the report's author, IPA research fellow Julie Novak, told The Australian. "If you want to tackle education disadvantage, which is what Education Minister Julia Gillard is keen to do, you may want to bundle up a disability-targeted voucher with an indigenous-targeted voucher. "That would be less expensive than a universal voucher, but has the added benefit that it tackles education disadvantage so students in those groups have the potential to attend high-quality, high-achievement schools."

Ms Novak said bundles of targeted vouchers would "have the most realistic policy potential in Australia." She said this approach would be an effective trial for a broader voucher scheme. Ms Novak acknowledged the proposal would be controversial. "A voucher system threatens the entrenched positions of education unions as government schools in particular have to become more innovative and compete," she said. "It's good for parents, great for students but you can understand why there might be some reluctance among some of the entrenched interests," she claimed.

The report says voucher systems are being pursued in 30 countries around the world, from the US through to developing nations such as Colombia.


Queensland police set their usual "good" example

Too many of them are just goons

A QUEENSLAND police officer has become the eighth officer charged with drink-driving this year and the first to face new disciplinary measures. He is the eighth police officer caught drink-driving this year, but the first to be charged since police commissioner Bob Atkinson introduced a new regime of discipline for officers caught driving under the influence, including possible dismissal.

The off-duty policeman with about three years service was charged with drink driving in his private vehicle on Sunday morning. The constable from Maroochydore Police Station was arrested on the Sunshine Coast Motorway at Marcoola about 1.15am. He will appear in the Maroochydore Magistrate's Court on August 3. The officer is to be served with paperwork on Sunday standing him down from operational duties, the Queensland Police service said in a statement.

On June 24 Mr Atkinson announced a crackdown on officers caught driving under the influence would begin from July 1. He said officers who drink and drive will face a pay cut and possibly dismissal if the circumstances of the offence are considered serious enough.

At the time the police union threatened legal action if the tough new penalties are considered too severe.


Giving schoolkids government laptops may send standards backwards

Getting a kid a laptop may lead to them goofing off more with games etc. rather than doing their homework

THE centrepiece of the Federal Government's so-called education revolution may be worse than useless, a visiting American researcher says. Before the 2007 election Kevin Rudd vowed to spend $2.3 billion rewarding parents who installed or bought home computers. He later said his decisions would be evidence based.

Jacob Vigdor, of Duke University, North Carolina, has conducted what is probably the world's biggest study on the effect on maths and reading scores of gaining a home computer. He finds "statistically significant" evidence that it sends them backwards. "Children in homes with computers tend to do better than those in homes without - there's no doubt about that," Professor Vigdor told the Herald. "But there could be other reasons. Those homes also have a lot of other things other homes don't have, and often have more educated parents."

He examined the performance of students before and after their home gained a computer. This meant examining students from less well-off homes. The better-off ones already had computers. But Professor Vigdor told a seminar at Australian National University he did not think this was an important limitation.

Professor Vigdor found that acquiring a computer at home made end-of-year results for year 3 to year 8 students in North Carolina "significantly worse" in reading and maths. These results were spread over five years. "The bad effects fade somewhat over time, but even after five years they are still negative. I am not saying go out and burn all the computers.

"If you want to buy junior a computer with your own dollars, that's fine … but it's another thing when we talk about spending public dollars."


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