Saturday, January 23, 2010

Australians to pay the price of Greenie dam-hatred

Water charges are set to spiral in desalination squeeze

HOUSEHOLDS will pay hundreds of dollars extra for water as state governments splash $9 billion of taxpayer funds on energy-guzzling desalination plants that will produce nearly a third of capital-city supplies within two years. The seawater purification "factories" - which can pump out enough drinking water each year to fill Sydney Harbour - will operate around the clock at taxpayer expense, even when high rainfall means their expensive output is not required.

Water utilities yesterday warned urban water prices would spiral in line with the rising cost of electricity needed to operate the massive plants in Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne and the Gold Coast.

The Water Services Association of Australia, representing most of the urban water utilities nationally, estimated water providers would use up to four times as much electricity as they moved from dams to desalination. "The cost of building desalination plants will be reflected in water prices across Australia," executive director Ross Young told The Weekend Australian. "Electricity prices are only going to go upwards, so operational costs are probably going to climb steadily. "In places like Melbourne in the next four years (water) prices are going to double."

By 2012, water bills for Sydneysiders will rise $103 a year purely to pay for the cost of running the city's first desalination plant, costing $2.4bn, due to open at Kurnell within weeks. Household water bills will soar nearly a third - from $663 to $904 - in the Melbourne metropolis over the next three years, once a $3.5bn plant - the nation's biggest - comes online at the end of next year. In southeast Queensland, where a $1.2bn desalination plant opened on the Gold Coast last year, water bills are forecast to rise about $60 annually until 2013. In Adelaide, where a $1.83bn plant will open at the end of next year, water bills will increase $84 this year for an average household. In Perth, which will open its second plant next year, the average household water bill will rise 10 per cent over the next three years, costing high-use households as much as $164 a year more.

Mr Young said higher bills would give consumers an incentive to save water. "Any resource given away free is always exploited," he said. "If water is priced too low there's no incentive for conservation or to upgrade infrastructure. "We shouldn't underestimate the power of a price signal."

CSIRO urban water research division leader Alan Gregory said electricity made up a quarter of the total cost of building and running a desalination plant. "Just the energy component alone will drive up the cost of water," he said. "You haven't got to be Einstein to work out that prices will go up. It's unavoidable."

A CSIRO analysis for the Water Services Association has found that desalination plants use seven times more electricity than conventional water treatment plants. The research reveals that energy consumption by water utilities would rise 400 per cent if they switched entirely to desalination for city water supplies within 20 years. Energy use would soar by 260 per cent if utilities sourced 40 per cent of their water from the ocean.

The National Water Commission has calculated that the running costs of a typical desalination plant would jump 16 per cent if an emissions trading scheme is introduced that prices carbon at $50 a tonne.

Critics of the states' massive investment in desalination yesterday dismissed the technology as "financially risky". Stuart White, the director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures, at the University of Technology, Sydney, said the desalination plants roped taxpayers and consumers into paying for water that might not always be necessary. "Once you build them, there's the imperative to operate them," Mr White said yesterday. "Sometimes (it's) a contractual imperative . . . flat-out." In Sydney, where dams are now half-empty, the new Kurnell plant will run at full capacity for at least two years, regardless of rainfall levels.

Operators of the desalination plants are trying to douse the debate over greenhouse gas emissions by buying "green power" from sources such as wind farms. But in Western Australia, the government pricing watchdog has vetoed the Water Corporation's plan to charge its consumers the extra cost of buying more expensive experimental green electricity to power Perth's desalination plants.

The West Australian Economic Regulation Authority's chairman, Lyndon Rowe, said yesterday the role of the Water Corporation was to "provide water to consumers at the least possible cost". "If a government itself wants to sponsor the research (into renewable energy) it's fine, but it shouldn't be a cost borne by water users," he said. Mr Rowe likened desalination plants to "water factories". "We can produce all the water you like but it can't be free," Mr Rowe said. "It should be paid for by the users, to encourage people to use water wisely."


Fifth-generation serviceman injured, traumatised and abandoned by the military

The defence bureaucracy at work again

ANDREW Bird has dealt with the victims of Taliban torture in Afghanistan, the worst of natural disasters in Pakistan, human failings in the Solomons and the constant threat of death on repeat deployments to Iraq.

Through the worst of it, this fifth-generation serviceman felt he had the Australian Defence Force behind him. Indeed, as an army media officer, he often had the best soldiers, top brass, diplomats and politicians alongside, and ordinary Australians there for the ride, too, given they would see his authorised footage and photos.

But leaving Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital two years ago, head bandaged and throbbing, Major Bird could not have felt more alone. Having sustained serious ear trauma in a helicopter depressurisation in southern Afghanistan, Major Bird had just undergone surgery that would save his balance, but not the hearing in one ear, nor prevent the ringing in the other ear.

This once proud officer found himself facing medical discharge, with the early symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and no one in the army to help him through. "All through that, mate, army was f . . king missing in action," Major Bird, 34, told The Weekend Australian this week. "I came out of hospital, head in bandages, and had to get a taxi back to my apartment. The bloody taxi driver had to help me up to my apartment -- it was a f . . king disgrace."

Spending so much time overseas and being constantly on call fractured Major Bird's personal relationships, and he found no military structure to fall back on. Unable to recover his health, or his usefulness to the army, Major Bird was eventually shunted off to the Department of Veterans Affairs to consider his care and financial needs. Six weeks ago, his promising career came to an end.

As revealed this week, a decade of conflict has seen the DVA accept liability for 9134 injuries and illnesses from 3884 personnel as a result of their time in East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq. The Rudd government has emphasised its commitment to the continued health and wellbeing of the troops and is expected to push through improvements this year.

But for Major Bird, building a new life on the Gold Coast, change could not come soon enough. He was made to undergo repeated medical reviews -- and a senior bureaucrat had him in tears when she suggested his condition wasn't as bad as the doctors thought. The paperwork was extensive and often indecipherable, especially for someone such as Major Bird who was on heavy painkillers, and whose PTSD affected his memory, his confidence and feelings of personal safety.

Defence is now improving its mental health programs and transition arrangements, while the DVA is working on its paperwork and reducing the number of medical reviews required.

Major Bird wants a special army cell to guide injured and ill troops through treatment and rehabilitation, their dealings with the DVA and the move back to civilian life. "Even on my last day I didn't get a phone call, no letter," he said. "You would have got better support had you come back dead."


Parents slap down teachers' union on school league tables

PUBLIC-school parents have expressed anger at a union-led campaign against league tables, accusing the NSW Federation of Parents and Citizens of failing to consult them and misrepresenting their views.

The NSW P&C Federation has joined with the Australian Education Union in warning of the detrimental effects of league tables and condemning a new website that allows direct comparison of schools' performances.

But there is concern among parents that the federation is too closely aligned to the NSW Teachers Federation and is pushing a union agenda that does not reflect the views of parents, who are in favour of greater transparency and accountability.

Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Julia Gillard will launch the website My School on Thursday, staring down teachers' threats this week to boycott national literacy and numeracy testing. The website will allow parents to compare the performance of schools in NAPLAN tests against those of statistically similar schools.

Pevlin Price, the outgoing president of the P&C association at Normanhurst High School, in Sydney's northwest, said many parents were strongly supportive of greater accountability by schools. "Are we going to push on without knowing what the facts are?" Mr Price said. "Who are we protecting? "I am really disappointed that the P&C has not consulted on this issue. If they asked every individual school P&C (for its view), they would have got a very different response."

David Ogilvie, a member of a P&C council at a primary school on Sydney's north shore, said many parents disagreed with the views expressed by the P&C Federation and were strongly supportive of the My School website. "I think generally parents think its a good idea," Mr Ogilvie said. "I personally don't understand the P&C Federation or the Teachers Federation's point of view. "The parents I have spoken to are more than impressed by the steps the government is taking here in terms of transparency. "I don't believe the argument that schools that aren't performing are going to be further disadvantaged. I think the reality should be quite the opposite -- that if these schools aren't performing then the Education Department and the ministers should be addressing the issue of why they are not performing."

The federal government does not support the creation of league tables but is unwilling to introduce measures to ban them.

The NSW Federation of P&Cs president Dianne Giblin said yesterday the data that would be available on the My School website would be simplistic and comparing schools would result in a narrowing of the curriculum.

Northern Sydney Regional Council of P&C Associations president David Hope said while he supported the position of the P&C Federation on league tables, he said the issue of accountability and transparency was far broader. "We need to ensure that the education system doesn't let down individual students or particular schools," he said.


Police not interested in attacks on Indians

Covert racism?

WHEN attacks on overseas students emerged as a serious problem, the issue did not even rate as an agenda item for Australia's peak police council, according to Freedom of Information advice. "It's extraordinary, given what we know was going on at the time," said Mark Briskey, head of the Australian Graduate School of Policing at Charles Sturt University.

The attacks were not discussed at the Ministerial Council for Police and Emergency Management in the 17 months to last November, the Attorney-General's Department confirmed. Nor were the attacks discussed by the supporting Senior Officers Group, despite strong warnings from the Chinese, Indian and Indonesian embassies about the safety of their student nationals from as early as 2008. The regular police meetings were held late in 2008 and as recently as June last year, at the height of the student unrest and as Kevin Rudd was calling for calm, amid talk of vigilante groups of Indian students protecting fellow nationals.

Mr Briskey said it was highly unusual that this wasn't a significant issue of discussion at either the MCPEM or SOG. "It shows a failure to address this in a more urgent manner."

A spokesman for Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor said the Police Ministers Council did not meet specifically on the attacks "as the issue was the subject of a special taskforce established by the Prime Minister". State and territory police agencies attended meetings of the Prime Minister's taskforce, which met regularly for six weeks from June 2 last year, the spokesman said.

Despite requests from the HES, Home Affairs declined to say whether the Prime Minister's taskforce had produced a report, or to give an account of its activities and achievements.

Monash University's Chris Nyland said the FOI advice suggested the authorities had failed to take the attacks seriously enough. "Given at the time the Prime Minister and the premiers were assuring us that all possible resources were being [put] into this issue, this is a matter of concern," Professor Nyland said. "This is a sign that the issue wasn't considered to be of sufficient importance to organise a meeting for."

Mr Briskey, a transnational crime expert who used to be a senior investigator with the Australian Federal Police, also called for more co-ordinated action to deal with visa fraud. He said Australia and India should jointly investigate criminal elements involved in visa and document fraud to better protect overseas students. "There should be a dedicated bilateral approach between Australia and India looking at fraudulent and unethical education and migration agents in both countries," he said.

Last year The Australian highlighted claims of a people-smuggling operation centred on student visas. Mr Briskey said while there was a federal working group on overseas students, he knew of no dedicated investigatory group unearthing links that have damaged the Australian export education industry.

Tony Pollock, chief executive of IDP, revealed last October that some overseas students had become victims of "a highly integrated chain" of exploitative education and migration advice, access to dodgy colleges, part-time work and accommodation. "This could be construed as people-smuggling," he said. The Weekend Australian also reported that education agents were implicated in a trade in providing falsified bank and loan statements from corrupt bank staff, with the Immigration Department cancelling the applications of 500 Indian nationals.

Mr Briskey said the AFP and the Immigration Department had a combined taskforce that looked at people-smuggling. "[But] this [chain of student exploitation] is below the radar of what's being looked at as the primary people-smuggling problem," he said. "It's the opposite side of people coming by boats. By far the largest number of illegal entrants come by aircraft." He said a bilateral investigatory approach was essential. "This is something that walks the tightrope between organised crime and opportunistic business practices that could be criminal in both India and Australia."


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