Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Socialist attack on childcare businesses

"Childcare centres are not just a business – they must be in the services of the common good". "Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz", as Hitler put it. Businesses can be badly run but any bureaucratic substitute is going to be a lot worse

CHILDCARE regulation should be overhauled to remove the profit-driven problems leading to the massive collapse of the ABC Learning empire, a senate committee has found.

A 12-month inquiry into child care tabled in the Senate last night recommended the formation of a new national statutory body as part of an overhaul of the multibillion-dollar industry. The report was damning of the business approach taken by ABC Learning, whose collapse last year sparked the inquiry. "That an organisation catering for up to 25 per cent of the long-day care market should fail so rapidly following its rise to market dominance says as much about the deficiencies in childcare policy and regulation as it does about highly questionable business practices of the company," the report found.

It recommended small-scale or individual independent operators and not-for-profit and community-based organisations as the best to provide services. "Childcare centres are not just a business – they must be in the services of the common good," the report said.

A boost to funding was also highly recommended by the senate committee, especially to services for disadvantaged children and those in rural, remote or poorer areas.

The report said economic modelling of various childcare funding models should be done to find the most effective way to increase spending on the sector.

While looking at current state regulations, the committee found Queensland had improved services by tightening up on centre-hopping. It cut back the amount of time newly recruited carers could work without qualifications as some were avoiding minimum training by changing centres.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said it was now up to the Federal Government to commit to reform.


Learning to add up by using calculators?

YEAR 2 students are learning to add up on calculators in a Cairns school. Mother-of-four Fleur Nightingall was disgusted when her seven-year-old son Jayden's teacher at Trinity Beach State School asked for him to be supplied with a calculator to learn maths for his year 2 classes next year. "I just shook my head. I was stunned," Mrs Nightingall said. "I didn't start using calculators until year 7, but you had to show you could work out your sums on paper without using a calculator. "My son is still learning how to do sums on paper, let alone getting a calculator. It's disgusting - absolutely disgusting."

Education Queensland maintains the calculators support students' mathematics learning and does not detract from this focus.

Ms Nightingall said she had been disappointed by the standard of numeracy being taught in the early years of school. "I think the education department is letting down my son," she said. "I just can't think of any good reason why he needs to learn this in year 2, he just doesn't need to learn how to use a calculator. "I've spoken to a few people, and they just think it's a joke."

James Cook University academic Professor Peter Ridd, who has been vocal on slipping standards of numeracy within state schools, said it was worrying students were being tempted to use calculators at such an early age. "It is a worry that by giving them a calculator, it's a crutch and then they never learn to do arithmetic properly," Prof Ridd said. He said calculators were banned from first-year mathematics exams at JCU, in order to challenge students' mental arithmetic skills. "Their skills are almost universally woeful at first-year level," Prof Ridd said. "They're a little unhappy to start off with, but they accept it well. By the end of the year, their mental arithmetic is tremendous."

The Tableland-based president of the Queensland Council of Parents and Citizens Associations, Margaret Black, said she had been assured the school calculators played only a minor role in year 1 and 2 students’ learning. Calculators were taught as part of a national test in numeracy. "Using the calculator is one out of 44 subjects being taught," Ms Black said. "It's a necessity for our children to sit the national testing."

An Education Queensland spokeswoman said the department placed a strong emphasis on improving literacy and numeracy standards in state schools. "It is important for their future learning that students learn to use appropriate technologies from an early age," she said. "The Australian Association of Mathematics recommends that all students have ready access to calculators and computers to support and extend their mathematics learning."


The lawyer who under-charged...and other fairytales

Heard the one about the lawyer who charged like a perfectly reasonable, unmolested, even-tempered bull? Me neither. There are plenty of them, but it is the horror stories and the bills so far-fetched that they read like cruel jokes that get repeated at barbecues and in organs such as this one. The $50 or $100 accounts for opening Christmas cards, returning an umbrella, or photocopying, for example. There have been some crackers told in the past year.

Sydney man Mohammed Tariq has been plying his one-man stand-up comedy act on the steps of the city's courthouses, employing a sandwich board, a pony and a donkey as props and telling the ones about the welcome letter he received from Keddies Lawyers ($60, ker-ching) and the two-kilometre taxi ride his family was billed for (that'll be $600, thank you). A costs assessor, barrister Michael Robinson, recommended Keddies refund Tariq $37,000 because of what he called deliberate "systematic duplication and overcharging".

Legal bills have become such a sought-after form of popular entertainment that the consumer group Choice went looking this year and found one poor sucker whose lawyer charged $750 for the typing of a three-page document.

The great irony, of course, is that the farcical bills that come to light are often the more honest ones, where a lawyer has been silly enough to list their actual activity on the ledger. Consumers of legal services should be given a glossary, informing them that the all-too-common entries of "case management" or "strategy advice" can mean anything from "Opening Christmas card" to "flirting with paralegals", "choosing fancy dress costume online for Natasha's Halloween party", or "scratching self".

The root of the problem is the absurd six-minute billing system that persists in most legal firms. For the unitiated, here is how it works: I just spent a good six minutes thinking about how to begin this article. If I were a lawyer, I would now be obliged to enter "Thinking about how to begin article" in a cell on a ledger — or something more presentable, such as "One-person strategy meeting". I might even be tempted to say I'd begun it. "Started article". "Drafted mildly-arresting opening". Anything but "thinking". Even if I'd only spent two minutes thinking about it, I'd bill the full six to you, the reader. Six minutes later, I'd have to record what I did next.

I've never said this before, but it's enough to make you feel sorry for lawyers. Any wage slave who feels their boss circles like a seagull should spare a thought for the poor sharks in suits who have to account for every tiny block of their working day with a pithy description. The accounting alone must take up a good half hour a day, and most have onerous "budgets" to meet; a minimum number of hours they must bill. Is it any wonder that many bills read like an exquisite work of fiction, and that some are simply laughable?

Even such luminaries as Joe Catanzariti, president of the NSW Law Society and partner at top-shelf firm Clayton Utz, agree that six-minute billing is counter-productive. But no one quite knows how to do away with it.

The financial crisis has led to some change in the way firms bill large commercial clients, but a survey last week by Melbourne's Institute of Knowledge Development confirmed six-minute-ism was here to stay, particularly for so-called "retail" clients like Joe Average. As one law firm partner said, a "smorgasbord" of alternative billing methods is being prepared, "but everyone keeps taking the chicken because it's safe".

Compensation lawyers believe contingency fees are the answer for retail clients, where lawyers get a percentage of the client's winnings, pure and simple — and only if they win. But the jury is still out on contingency fees in Australia; they remain illegal and mistrusted as an Americanism that we don't want down under.

Dodging the bigger issue, a federal government taskforce has determined to put a stop to joke bills by banning the charging-up of administrative costs. In a discussion paper released this week, the taskforce said firms should absorb menial costs that lawyers have been passing on, "including opening files, sending 'welcome letters', sending or reading 'thank you' and Christmas cards, closing files, reordering an untidy file, the use of a legal practitioner's trust account, the use of a telephone directory, or charging for contributions to professional indemnity insurance".

But will those costs simply be shifted onto another part of the bill and disguised in less explicit terms? That will be alleviated, the paper says, by better regulation, which is where the taskforce's suggestion of a national legal ombudsman comes in. One regulator to rule them all, is the idea. Up to 40 per cent of complaints against lawyers in some parts of Australia relate to overcharging and there are 55 different bodies that regulate the legal profession around the country, the Choice report found.

They're the sort of numbers that inspired federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland to tap the public mood by describing anyone who hires a lawyer in Australia today as being "up the creek without a paddle".

Under the current system in most states, making a complaint about overcharging pits a client against their own lawyer on a very uneven legal playing field. In NSW, for example, gripes go to mediation or to a costs assessor, and if you still can't out-negotiate your lawyer, they continue to a tribunal or a court. The NSW Office of the Legal Services Commissioner — which has no power to decide the disputes itself — dealt with 1544 consumer disputes last year and said hundreds were closed after reductions or waivers of bills.

Former costs assessor Paul Garde has said that in NSW and Victoria, where upfront costs disclosure is already compulsory, many lawyers still aren't doing it. When it comes to legal bills, it seems the truth is entirely negotiable.

So national regulation with teeth is sorely needed. The sticking point now is who will set the rules and how will they be enforced? The Federal Government, consumer advocates and the taskforce itself want an independent board to set standards and a consumer representative to play a role. What do the lawyers say about that? They want consumers to pay for the regulation but to be left out of setting the rules. "We are a proud and independent profession and we won't have imposed on us rules that are unacceptable to the profession. That just does not work," Law Council president John Corcoran wrote in a submission.

Self-regulation has got us to where we are now. If lawyers don't want to be the butt of jokes, it's time they got real about protecting naive clients from the sharks in their midst.

Have you heard the one about 100 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? If jokes like that are to stop doing the rounds, consumer protection would be a good start.


Rednecks! The new racist term for ordinary Australians who are critical of illegal immigration

As a moderator of comments for news.com.au I see a lot of intolerance expressed in the debate over asylum seeker boats, especially from a vocal minority prepared to get very nasty. The Oceanic Viking has stirred the asylum debate. The comments from this quarter typically employ broad-brush terms of abuse to stereotype on the basis of nationality.

The targets of these hateful attacks are Australians. The most popular terms of abuse are “redneck” and “racist”. Those commenting along these lines normally express a boundless compassion for asylum seekers. Strangely however, they seem completely devoid of any interest in sympathetically understanding the views of their fellow citizens, without name calling.

The overwhelming sentiment I’ve seen online mirrors what opinion polls say, most want a hard line on boat people. Undoubtedly sometimes this does reflect racism or xenophobia and a desire to keep Australia “white”. I occasionally see these type of comments.

What is more interesting, I think, are the other reasons repeatedly given by those advocating a hard line. The general sentiment is that the boat people are queue jumpers. Often the strongest outrage is from people who have recently migrated or know others trying to. Australia is not an easy country to move into, the process can be long and expensive. So for people to sail in and simply claim residency upsets many, whatever the boat people’s circumstances. For all our supposed larrikinism, Australians, I’d say, value law and order. They like those who “do the right thing” and “go through the proper channels”.

The legalistic argument that asylum seekers are not jumping the queue because “there is no queue to jump” generally doesn’t wash. There is a UN process for refugee settlement readily available offshore and it certainly puts you in a long bureaucratic queue, one that may take years. When some asylum seekers are seen to get a special deal, as appears to have happened for those who occupied the Oceanic Viking, it looks even more unfair.

Another sentiment often expressed by those opposing asylum boats is that those onboard will become welfare bludgers and we have lots of other things to spend money on. Australia resettles migrants with extensive welfare and social community support, teaches them English and provides training to those who can enter the workforce. That’s all well and good because jobs are the key to upward social mobility for migrant groups. Without plentiful jobs you are likely to perpetuate welfare slums, crime and often alienation extending into a second generation.

All the high wage and highly economically regulated countries in Europe that have relatively high and entrenched levels of unemployment have struggled with immigration. Many make it difficult for outsiders to become full citizens. Some, like Denmark, are even paying migrants to go back. Many have trouble with ethnic populations, who sometimes war in tribes against the police, as in France. Some nations have seen the rise of anti-immigration parties.

Britain with low minimum wages has had high migration but it isn’t escaping the other problems, especially during an economic downturn.

The world’s most successful immigrant society is America, at least by scale. America has resettled the “huddled masses”, including large refugee communities and millions of illegal migrants. This has been done by basically saying people should look after themselves, with minimum welfare offered and not even universal healthcare but usually free education. What America traditionally provided was plenty of low wage jobs that require no skills and limited or no English.

In Australia we do not believe in low wage jobs. So except in times of real economic boom unskilled migrants without English will have few employment prospects.

Sometimes it seems widely forgotten, even by Australian Workers Union boss Peter Howes when he talked about “Labor hero stuff” in leading the debate for a more welcoming approach, that Labor heroes of yore were leaders in keeping people out. The unions and Labor were strong advocates of the White Australia immigration policy. The traditional aim was to preserve Australian wages and conditions against the hordes of cheap Asian workers.

I would suggest that most people who call their fellow Australians rednecks or racists often also value award-set high wages, extensive economic regulation with universal and generous welfare. Probably many of these same people have environmental concerns and support policies that will result in higher costs of resources and lower economic growth. None of this is really compatible with increased humanitarian immmigration on a major scale, or perhaps greatly increased immigration of any sort.

Tightly controlled borders are the precondition of much of the Australia we know, the barrier behind which “the Lucky Country” (said with or without irony) was built. Having our borders opened in a major way would threaten to undermine this. We would likely see a less orderly Australia, a less equal one and perhaps a less safe one.

On the other hand it would be more interesting, more dynamic and more exciting. Personally I’d pick the more exciting version. I acknowledge though that I am pretty well economically protected from the real costs and pressures of increased immigration, whether that is competing for unskilled jobs or living in a potentially high crime suburb. I suspect many of those who want the boats welcomed are in a similarly fortunate situation. I’d also guess many are just as committed to preserving the insular “Australian way of life” as the people they call “rednecks”.


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