Monday, September 07, 2009

Dangerous bureaucratic secrecy

THE revelation that Anthony Albanese, as an opposition frontbencher with a keen interest in Sydney airport, apparently ignored former Customs officer Allan Kessing's legitimate and serious concerns over security flaws at the nation's busiest airport highlights the inadequacy of the Rudd government's proposed whistleblower reforms. In particular, it demonstrates that making federal MPs authorised recipients of public interest disclosures by public servants is no substitute for extending legal protection to whistleblowers, who draw serious examples of maladministration to public attention.

Before drawing up legislation, Special Minister of State Joe Ludwig is considering the report of the House of Representatives legal and constitutional affairs committee, chaired by government backbencher Mark Dreyfus QC. The report recommends an elaborate new system for handling whistleblowers' complaints inside the public sector. Complainants would be protected from prosecution only if their complaints were directed to their own public service agency, to an outside public agency such as the Ombudsman or Public Service Commissioner, or to federal members of parliament.

Unless they were exposing an immediate and serious threat to public health or safety, public servants leaking to journalists would remain liable for criminal prosecution and up to two years' jail under the notorious section 70 of the Commonwealth Crimes Act. The section provides no defences, even if the information made public is in the public interest.

Mr Kessing, a former member of Sydney airport's border security team, received a criminal record under section 70 after being convicted of leaking reports outlining lax airport security. He has consistently asserted his innocence. The publication of the reports, in The Australian in May 2005, led to the Wheeler review, which confirmed the parlous state of security at our major airports.

One of the most worrying aspects of the issue is that while the documents at the heart of the affair remained inside the Customs bureaucracy, nothing was done to address the problems. Once the documents were published, however, the Howard government spent $200 million trying to fix the problems, although a brawl between two bikie gangs at Sydney's domestic terminal in March suggested much remains to be done.

Mr Kessing approached Mr Albanese two months before the reports appeared in The Australian out of frustration that the Customs bureaucracy had suppressed and ignored the issue. His disclosure today to legal affairs editor Chris Merritt about approaching Mr Albanese in vain drives home a vital point that apparently escaped the Dreyfus committee. That is, politicians, like Customs officials, are prone to human frailty and do not automatically respond to every issue in the public interest, even in the face of serious disclosures by public servants. But they would be far more likely to address incidents of maladministration if legal structures encouraged them to do so.

Allowing politicians, senior bureaucrats or anyone else to ignore maladministration and remain safe in the knowledge that the law imposes criminal penalties on those who reveal their inaction to the media is a recipe for cover-ups and inertia. That, however, is precisely what will be encouraged if the federal government turns the Dreyfus committee's recommendations into law. It is also a concern that the government's shield laws for journalists fall short of protecting confidential sources, as the public interest requires.

Mr Kessing's disclosures are credible and all the more compelling because he has nothing to gain and everything to lose - including a second prosecution under section 70 - by going public now. For his part, Mr Albanese owes the travelling public, and his electorate of Grayndler, which borders Sydney airport, a detailed explanation of why he failed to act on Mr Kessing's information in 2005. At that time, Mr Albanese was a senior member of the opposition team, and the material provided revealed a serious problem in a key area of national security. Mr Albanese has been a strident critic of decisions about Sydney airport. In his maiden speech in 1996, he attacked the Hawke government's approval of the third runway, which increased aircraft noise for his constituents.

Aside from the questions Mr Albanese must answer, the wider issue this revelation has raised involves the public's right to know about issues of major importance, and the media's right to inform them. Until public sector whistleblowers are free to approach the media on serious matters of incompetence or corruption, the public interest will suffer.


Australia's Federal environmental protection laws have increased costs but delivered little benefit

Environmental regulation should be left to the States

THE centrepiece of Australia's environmental law largely duplicates existing regulations, provides little extra protection and has added more than $820 million in additional costs to business since it came into force nine years ago, an Australian National University survey shows. The ANU Centre for Environmental Law surveyed 155 individuals and companies that had been subject to the approvals processes of the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. It found that rather than leading to improved outcomes, the EPBC regime had left project proponents saddled with up to $2.2m in costs.

The government has made much of its decision to cut business red tape and encourage major projects, yet the survey found the EPBC regime has hit "major infrastructure, mining and urban development activities, the environmental impacts of which are already regulated under other regimes".

The EPBC legislation was designed to create a national scheme of environment, heritage and threatened species protection. It gives the states responsibility for matters of state and local significance, but allows the commonwealth to intervene in matters of national significance. The survey found that "where actions have been regulated, there is evidence the regime is not adding significant environmental value. "The concentration of the environmental impact assessment regime on large infrastructure, oil, gas, mining and urban development projects has stunted its capacity to generate significant environmental gains. "These types of activity are already subject to other federal, state and territory regulatory processes."

The survey said the average cost of the environmental impact process to project proponents varied between $660,000 and $2.2m. "The inability to identify clear environmental benefits from the environmental impact assessment regime has led to questions being raised about its cost effectiveness." Industry groups have already claimed the commonwealth role had added little to the environmental protection achieved through existing processes, but instead burdened business and taxpayers with significant compliance costs.

Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry director Greg Evans said the survey showed more needed to be done to reduce state and federal overlap. He called on the commonwealth government to restrict its role to "strategic national significance issues", making sure Australia conformed with its international obligations: "There's an issue of whether the commonwealth needs to get involved in a project by project basis."

Environment Minister Peter Garrett referred to the complexities of the act on several occasions while finalising his decision to approve the giant Gorgon gas project off Western Australia last month. A review of the legislation headed by former Department of Defence chief Allan Hawke is due by the end of next month.

A spokesman for Mr Garrett said yesterday most of the study related to how the environmental impact assessment process had been implemented in the Howard years. He pointed to the signing of bilateral agreements with the states for environmental assessments. "Assessments conducted under bilateral agreements cut out unnecessary duplication and are a more efficient way of ensuring we uphold important state and commonwealth environmental protection," he said.

Opposition environment spokesman Greg Hunt said the Coalition strongly supported further simplification. "Many of the states duplicate the federal process," he said. "We will be working towards a single national approvals process covering matters under the federal jurisdiction."


Queensland's brainless medical bureaucracy

One heroic doctor worked 168 days straight. We're killing people, say tired doctors. The tales of incompetence and bureaucratic bloodymindedness from Queensland Health are legion but the disastrous hours many doctors are asked to work is something that has been going on for decades so is probably Queensland Health's worst bureaucratic excess. The EU now stipulates that no doctor may work for more than 48 hours per week. When will Australia catch up?

ANDREW Reedy's devotion to duty is legendary in rural doctor circles. Even his weary colleagues, beat after days and days without a break, say they can't match the man in Millmerran. Dr Reedy said he worked almost six months without a day off in the Darling Downs town in southeast Queensland. He counts them off – 168 days between October 2005 and March 2006. And he wasn't sitting around checking runny noses and writing referrals.

Dr Reedy was on call, meaning he could never be more than 15 minutes away from Millmerran's 15-bed hospital in case of an emergency. Queensland Health did not have a doctor to replace him. So the father of four young children, married to a modern version of Superwoman, ploughed on and on and on.

How did he feel towards the end of the marathon? "Tired, fed up, isolated, questioning my marriage stability," Dr Reedy said. "If I wanted a day off, I would have had to walk away and the town would not have had a doctor. "Queensland Health banks significantly on the goodwill of their employees. They know we won't walk away."

There have been times when Dr Reedy has shivered with sickness. But still he has been called in to the hospital. On one occasion, he stood in the waiting room, produced a thermometer and told the gathered patients that if they could top his fever, he would see them immediately. If they could not, they should go home, take Panadol and come back the next day. No one beat Dr Reedy's mark of 39.9 degrees.

Millmerran now has two doctors, enabling Dr Reedy more family time. But it's not much more time. And the fatigue that has bedevilled the minds of Dr Reedy and many of his colleagues remains one of the key issues for the doctors demanding better conditions from Queensland Health.

Dr Reedy can recall the murkiness when his memory has fizzled. And he admits that he has made mistakes. "There have been times when I've had two to three hours' sleep in four days. I've written incorrect drug orders. I've written incorrect drug amounts. Instead of writing 20mg, I've written 20g," Dr Reedy said. "This is why I rely on my nursing staff. I say that I need them to be checking everything that I do."

Wouldn't it be much easier for him to pack it in, head for a bigger place and revel in a cosier private practice? "If I didn't love my job and I didn't care about the people I treated, I would have left long ago," he said.

Dr Reedy's passion for his career extends to his demands for a fair deal as doctors fight for better conditions. "This is not about the monetary value. It's ensuring that we get what we are entitled to. It's about the conditions," he said. "There are some days when they could offer me an extra $10,000 to work for a day and I would say I would rather have my day off."


Law backs breastfeeding mothers

I think a lot of anti-discrimination legislation is oppressive and wrong but I like this bit

REFUSING a woman the right to breastfeed in public is against the law in Queensland, according to the state's Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Susan Booth.

Last week The Sunday Mail revealed one in four people believed breastfeeding in public was unacceptable. But Ms Booth said women had the right to breastfeed their children in public places. "Queensland's anti-discrimination laws protected their right to do so," she said. "Mothers who breastfeed their babies at work, in education and in cafes, restaurants and shops and public buildings are protected from discrimination under section seven of the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act 1991."

Ms Booth said each year the Commission received several complaints from people about women breastfeeding in public. "Often the complaints are about women breastfeeding in restaurants. Apparently they don't like watching a baby feed when they are eating." she said.

Ms Booth said the Newspoll survey revealed an unacceptable double standard. "There is general consensus amongst health professionals that breast is best for babies."


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