Monday, November 09, 2009


In his latest offering, conservative Australian cartoonist ZEG thinks that the crackdown on graffiti by the NSW Labor government is empty symbolism. Courts Australia-wide do indeed seem very reluctant to jail even the worst of the offenders concerned, despite the large costs they sometimes impose on others.

Incredible incompetence at government welfare agency

When I had some dealings with them many years ago, they made a very ill-informed ruling against me without talking to me about it either beforehand or afterwards. So it went to an appeals tribunal and was reversed. It seemed clear to me at the time that they behaved entirely arbitrarily, with zero effort to get the full facts. Just talking to me was obviously too hard for them, even though that would have saved a lot of bother. It seems to have got even worse since then, hard though that is to believe

CENTRELINK has been forced to overturn more than a third of its decisions because staff continually get facts and legal advice wrong. Complaints about Centrelink decisions surged 104 per cent in the last two years, making it the most complained about government agency in the country, the Welfare Rights Centre said. Appeals against Centrelink's decisions cost taxpayers more than $33 million a year. More than one-third, 34.5 per cent, of its decisions were overturned on appeal, The Daily Telegraph reports.

More than 6.5 million Australians receive some form of payment from Centrelink each year. In the 12 months to July 2009 there were 103,427 reviews of and complaints about Centrelink decisions. The number of internal Centrelink reviews of its own decisions more than doubled from 40,474 in 2006-07 to 82,774 in 2008-09.

There were 13,429 applications to the Social Security Appeals Tribunal in 2008-09, up 56 per cent in the last two years. In the same period the Ombudsman received 7224 approaches and complaints about Centrelink. The largest number of complaints to the Ombudsman were from people on Newstart Allowance, followed by Disability Support Pension, Family tax Benefit and the age pension.

The Social Security Appeals Tribunal annual report found that 33.1 per cent of Centrelink's decisions it overturned involved an error of fact, and 14.7 per cent involved an error of law.

"As a legal centre we are puzzled by the lack of public outrage or scrutiny of this result, but you have to remember that we are dealing with some of the most vulnerable people in the community," Welfare Rights director Maree O'Halloran said. "It is hard to reconcile the fact that over 30 per cent of decisions are found to be wrong, with Centrelink's own survey results which claim Centrelink has a payment correctness figure of 96 per cent."

The surge in complaints led to a 27 per cent - or $7 million increase - in the Social Security Appeals Tribunal's budget. The tribunal spent $33.2 million in 2008-09 and the average cost of each appeal against a Centrelink decision was $1992.


Cambridge University study finds children too young for school

What rubbish! It all depends on the IQ of the kid. Smart kids can not only handle the work better at an early age but tend to be more socially adept too -- typically playing with kids older than themselves. There should be minimal rules about age to start school. It should depend on an individual assessment of the kid. The present NSW laws seem about right

CHILDREN in New South Wales can start school as young as four but an international study says enrolment should be delayed until they are at least six years old. A Cambridge University study recommends children aged under six engage in a year of play-based learning before they start school. It found younger students are not emotionally, socially or developmentally prepared to tackle the rigours of a curriculum. The findings are at odds with other research which suggests four and five are the ideal ages to start school.

Children in NSW can enrol in the first year of school, called kindergarten or Year K, at four years and six months. They must be enrolled by the age of six. Kindergarten students are taught English and maths for at least 12 hours a week. Their lessons include reading, writing, spelling and counting as well as simple addition and subtraction. From next year, all public school kindergarten students will be tested in basic literacy and numeracy for the first time.

Most European children don't start school until they turn six and in Sweden, Poland and Finland, they begin at age seven.

Cambridge Primary Review co-author and chairwoman Gillian Pugh said forcing subject-based learning onto four-year-olds could dent their confidence. "They are not going to learn to read, write and add up if you have alienated children by the age of four and five,'' she said. "If they are already failing by age four-and-a-half or five, then it's going to be quite difficult to get them back into the system again.'' The authors call for a "full and open debate'' on the issue.

Child psychologist Dr John Irvine warned that accelerating children's learning could backfire. "Play is the way a child learns what no adult can teach them,'' he said. "But we're trying to cut short children's childhood to fast-forward them into this manic anxious state where they get learned early. "In time, the brain will turn off something it's not enjoying so they'll be at school in body, but missing in spirit.''

Primary curriculum officer at Sydney's Catholic Education Office Franceyn O'Connor said children should be assessed individually. "The idea that six, or any age, is the magic number when all children are ready to embark into the structured world of formal education does not make sense,'' she said.

National president of advocacy group Early Childhood Australia, Margaret Young, said children would be disadvantaged if the starting age changed. She said delaying the start of kindergarten worked in Europe because they had strong transitional early childhood education programs, something lacking here. "That's why we're reluctant to say `let's move on to this model'. It's really dangerous to impose one without the other,'' she said.

Western Sydney mother Monique Fenech held back her eldest son, Nicholas, who turns six next March, from school this year because she felt he wasn't ready. "The extra year has given him so many more skills. It means that when he starts school, he's going to enjoy it a lot more,'' she said.

An Education Department spokesman said the NSW Government had no plans to change its enrolment policy or lift the school-starting age.


Common sense has no place in our burgeoning bureaucracy

A group of altruistic young mothers has organised a school fete for next Sunday. They want to raise money to pay the salary of a remedial reading teacher at their state primary school. It's a noble purpose, but the mothers made a grave tactical mistake. They decided to hold the fete outside the school grounds, in a nearby park. This placed them at the mercy of the local bureaucracy, Woollahra Municipal Council, an institution not noted for mercy.

I have on my desk a 10-page document the council gave the mothers. It is 10 pages of legalistic, pedantic, pettifogging strictures, demands and obligations devoid of any sense of compassion or common purpose. Compliance with the council's demands has taken months and cost thousands of dollars. The council requires a $4000 deposit be lodged against the potential cost of any repairs to the park deemed necessary as a result of the fete. It required a development application and an environmental impact statement (cost $500). It required a traffic management assessment and scheme (cost $1000). It required liability insurance.

To convey the full flavour of the majestic repressiveness, I quote from the document: ''The applicant must provide a copy of a certificate of currency prior to each event showing public liability insurance to the value of $10,000,000 for each fete …'' That is not a misprint.

The council's thought police have also been busy. Stipulations have been made about what can be written on any promotional banners and where they can be displayed. The council has provided two pages of instructions about food service. It requires the hire of portable toilets. It also requires ''adequate security measures''. And so on.

This response is not singular to this fete, this school or this council. It is the way Australia's occupying army of 1.5 million federal, state and local bureaucrats and lawyers see the world - through a prism of risk and legal liability. Mercy? Flexibility? Community? The lower you go down the administrative chain the more inflexible and rule-driven the administrators behave. Last week I saw a parking inspector put a ticket on a neighbour's car that was parked in their own driveway. They had been packing the car for a trip. When I told this to the parking inspector, he replied stonily: ''It's illegal to park in your own driveway.''

Common sense suggested he cancel the ticket and place a warning sticker on the windscreen advising of the change to the law. But that's not how the system works. Once written, a parking ticket cannot be cancelled. Only formal administrative disputation can change the result.

Australians have this outdated idea of themselves as easy-going pragmatists, but we are becoming a nation of petty laws and fearful citizens, too gutless to confront this creeping, productivity-killing, initiative-destroying, community-sapping tide of compulsion and constriction, much of it driven by a corrosive ideology of the need for government control and intervention.

Look no further than the volunteer surf lifesaving movement, a totemic symbol of Australian culture and mateship. It is being progressively suffocated by local councils and their obsession with legal liabilities and micro-management. Instead of reforming our ponderous, expensive, dysfunctional, excessively technical legal system, it is the dysfunctional legal system that is colonising the rest of society. Laws pile upon laws, regulations upon regulations. Nothing is repealed, every rule is expanded.

But laws and compulsion do not create civil order. The real moral authority in society comes from community standards, peer pressure, communalism and a sense of natural justice, and all of these elements are under assault.

That's why transparency is crucial. Take the shocking conduct of the Office of the Board of Studies that affects the lives of the 67,000 students who sit for the HSC each year. In 2001, when a group of aggrieved students sought to see their raw marks, the board blocked them at every turn, even after the Ombudsman intervened on the students' behalf. The Ombudsman's office held 19 hearings into the matter and issued a report last month that found the board had engaged in an adversarial, obfuscating, legalistic war of attrition that was itself in breach of the law. No one at the Board of Studies resigned, because the board is a bureaucracy devoid of honour.

These are no more than a few fleeting examples of the oppressive cultural monolith we are building for ourselves, a monolith whose construction has sped up with the arrival of a genuinely Napoleonic prime minister in Kevin Rudd. All the trends towards the centralisation of control have accelerated and consolidated as the Federal Government seeks to spread its power over every aspect of society in ways the framers of the Commonwealth never intended.

This growing distance between the flexibility of localism and the rigidity of centralism took me back to a brilliant little book by a social visionary, the late Jane Jacobs, whose last work, Dark Age Ahead (2004), offered a warning. Among her many observations was this: ''Central planning, whether by leftists or conservatives, draws too little on local knowledge and creativity, stifles innovations, and is inefficient and costly because it is circuitous.''

Central planning does not come only from Canberra. It comes from every level of government, and the cost of the bureaucratisation of society is as enormous as it is insidious. As the mother who helped organise next Sunday's school fete told me: ''If I had known in March what I know now, there would never have been any thought of a fete.'' Multiply this by a million.


Majority of Australians think government doing a 'bad job' of managing illegals

KEVIN Rudd is doing a "bad job" on managing asylum-seekers, according to a majority of voters, while almost half think he is "too soft" on the issue. A Newspoll, conducted exclusively for The Australian reveals 53 per cent think the Government is doing a bad job of handling the large influx of asylum-seeker boats this year, while only 31 per cent of voters are happy with the Prime Minister's performance on the issue.

Labor voters are increasingly concerned about Mr Rudd's stance, with the number of supporters who believe he is doing a good job on asylum-seekers falling from 53 per cent in April to 44 per cent.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith is due to arrive in Colombo today for emergency talks on the large number of Sri Lankans seeking asylum in Australia. The Sri Lankan Government said yesterday Australia was considering a special "joint mechanism" to boost maritime and border control security, aimed at stopping boatpeople from leaving the region.

As Mr Rudd attempts to find a diplomatic breakthrough to the standoff that has left 78 asylum-seekers in limbo on Australian Customs vessel the Oceanic Viking for three weeks, only 21 per cent of voters believe Labor is the best party to best handle the asylum-seeker issue.

Newspoll also found 46 per cent thought the Government was "too soft" while only 16 per cent believed the government's policies were "too hard". But voters are also unimpressed with the Opposition, with just 22 per cent convinced that the Coalition would better handle the issue if it were in government. Voters have lost faith with both parties on the issue since April, but the Government - down from 27 per cent to 21 per cent - has fallen further than the Coalition - down from 26 per cent to 22 per cent.


Howard unleashes on Rudd over immigration

Former prime minister John Howard has lashed out at Kevin Rudd's handling of asylum seekers and accused his Government of wasting the nation's cash. Mr Rudd's approval rating dropped considerably last week as the impasse continues over what to do with hundreds of Australia-bound asylum seekers who remain in limbo.

Mr Howard used an interview with The Sunday Telegraph to attack the Federal Government's so-called Indonesian solution and defended his own record on immigration. "We stopped the boats coming. The facts speak for themselves. The Indonesian solution? Well, there doesn't seem to be one," he said. "The current handling of the 78 people aboard the Customs ship? I'll refrain from comment on that ... but speaking robustly in defence of our policy - we stopped the boats.

"People knew where we stood. We didn't try and be all things to all men. The net result was support for immigration and a humanitarian refugee program increased.''

Mr Howard also claims the Government has achieved very little since defeating him in 2007 and took credit for Australia keeping its head above water during the global financial crisis. "I can't think of a major thing it has done, except spend the bank balance that Costello and I left behind. Nothing else," he said....

"Mr Rudd will say he had the global financial crisis to handle. Well, courtesy of us he was well endowed with money in the bank."


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