Sunday, January 31, 2010

Carhire: Avoid Europcar. Their predatory practices continue

Car rental outrage

Last year I rented a car from Europcar's depot at Coolangatta Airport. Four days later I returned the car and it was inspected: "No problems. Have a good flight."

Europcar's "courtesy call" on my message bank awaited me at Sydney Airport and stated that my credit card would be charged for damage to the car's rear. I made a furious call and learned that the damage was detected during washing. I demanded photos, which duly arrived, with the advice my card had been debited $381.25.

The photos revealed a minuscule black mark to a car I hadn't rented. Given only 86 minutes between inspection and billing, no time was wasted in washing the vehicle, detecting and assessing the alleged damage, obtaining and approving a written quotation and then authorising and debiting my card.

I sent a number of letters, including one from my solicitor, to Europcar. When Europcar caved in, insult was added to injury by its company secretary advising "that Europcar's decision to reimburse the amount was made purely as a goodwill gesture".

- Mel Bloom

Fuel for thought

Following a recent trip to Britain, I arrived home to find an additional charge on my credit card of $1500 from Europcar.

The car we were allocated at the Fulham Broadway branch had a broken key bound up with tape.

On expressing my concern, I was informed that this car was the only one available and the key was working. I also noticed some glue residue on the fuel cap and was informed "it's nothing to worry about".

As it turned out the missing tag and sticker from the fuel cap said "diesel only". Not realising these omissions I filled up with petrol and broke down at night in the Yorkshire Dales.

After appealing to Europcar about the charge I was informed "that it is the customer's responsibility to check what type of fuel the vehicle requires prior to refuelling and, as in this case, when this has not been made clear on the key or fuel cap, it would be deemed especially necessary to clarify this".

- Janet Reynolds

Car scrape

I read Mel Bloom's experiences with Europcar Coolangatta where he was charged $381.25 for minuscule damage to a car that was not even the one he had rented. I had a similar experience with Europcar at Launceston Airport last year.

A "courtesy call" to my message bank awaited my return to Brisbane and said my credit card would be charged $260.23 for a scrape on the front guard. This "scrape" was invisible to me in the photos but there were pre-existing scrapes, scratches and chipped areas, some rusty.

I said I would seek the car's hire records for a history of others subjected to similar treatment. Fortunately, the photos also showed a front tyre lacking sufficient tread; reason enough to have the matter resolved in my favour.

- Chris Longden

Rental quarrel

I, too, had a similar experience as Mel Bloom (Traveller, January 9) when I hired a car for four days from Europcar at Launceston Airport in 2005.

I returned the car washed and undamaged except for scratches already indicated on the signed condition report. It was Sunday morning and the Europcar counter was unattended so I deposited the key in the key slot at 9.30am.

Two days later I received a letter from Europcar advising it had debited my credit card $356.30 for damage to the front tyre, wheel trim, bumper and guard. It provided undated photos of the damage but no photograph of the entire vehicle.

The charge had been made to my credit card at 9.52am, so in the space of 22 minutes the company had supposedly checked the car and obtained quotes.

The quotes I asked for and received were not dated, so I phoned the two businesses named on the quotes and they told me they didn't open on Sundays. When I challenged Europcar it said the quotes were guesstimates. I phoned my credit-card provider for advice and it took on the case. After three months the $356.30 was credited to my card. The lesson: ensure a company representative checks the car with you when you return it.

- Lynda Simpson


Patients in Queensland government hospitals malnourished

Just like government hospitals in Britain. And the solution is very British too: More bureaucracy. That it's more nurses that are needed to help feed the elderly is beyond their tramtrack socialist comprehension

ONE in three patients in Queensland public hospitals is suffering from malnutrition, according to a State Government report. The Queensland Health briefing paper says malnutrition is "highly prevalent" in hospital patients and residents in aged care facilities. It said malnutrition could be costing Queensland more than $13 million a year. It was blamed for extended hospital stays, causing illness and disease, and exposed the department to legal action.

Liberal National Party health spokesman Mark McArdle said he was concerned that the Government had slashed health budgets by cutting patient food services. Health sources said hot meals in some hospitals had been reduced from three to one per day. "This is Third World . . . this is seriously affecting patients' recovery and ultimately tying up desperately needed hospital beds," Mr McArdle said.

In documents obtained by the Opposition under Right to Information laws, it was revealed that Queensland Health first examined the problem in 2003, but did nothing about it until 2008. A July 2009 report for Director-General Mick Reid warned of the dangers of malnutrition. "Due to the emphasis placed on the high and increasing prevalence of obesity and related disorders, there is little awareness of the existence and extent of the other extreme, malnutrition," the report said.

Queensland Health's Patient Safety Centre conducted a six-month investigation in 2008. It found that 30 per cent of hospital patients and 50 per cent of aged care facility residents suffered from malnutrition. It was estimated to have cost taxpayers $13 million in 2002-03.

The centre recommended the establishment of a malnutrition prevention manager within Queensland Health, to be paid $120,000 a year.


Parents act on schools information

PARENTS rocked by the My School website have already begun pulling their children out of poorly performing schools. At the same time, principals from Sydney schools that rate highly on the Federal Government website have received dozens of calls from parents wanting to transfer their children, the Sunday Telegraph reports.

The unprecedented interest in the website, launched last Thursday, is set to cause further fallout this week as more parents try to make last-minute changes to enrolments at the beginning of the first full week of school.

Public School Principals Forum chairperson Cheryl McBride said parents were already removing their children from schools that recorded poor numeracy and literacy results. "There are certainly anecdotal reports coming through from principals," she said. "On Friday morning, I heard of some parents of children at a western Sydney school who were extremely upset and were threatening to withdraw their children."

Ms McBride said principals were particularly concerned about how parents of pre-schoolers would react. She was worried parents whose children were due to begin school next year would be turned off their local school if its results lagged.

Under current Department of Education guidelines, all public schools must accept enrolments from students who live in the local catchment area, regardless of the existing number of pupils. Parents can enrol their children at public schools in other areas only if the school has vacancies. They are accepted at the principal's discretion.

Some highly ranked schools, such as Cheltenham Girls High, at Beecroft, and Killara High, on the lower north shore, already have more than 1200 students enrolled this year.

St Francis of Assisi Regional Primary School, at Paddington, posted one of the highest average scores in literacy and numeracy across junior schools in the State. Principal Louise Minogue said a handful of parents called her on Friday to discuss future enrolments. "Someone I spoke to, their child doesn't even begin school for a couple of years but they were worried whether the child would get in. "It's amazing how many people have gone to the website."

Federation of Parents and Citizens' Associations of NSW president Di Giblin said she had heard of parents already transferring their children out of the worst schools. Ms Giblin said she advised parents against taking such drastic action, but conceded "a small percentage" would move suburbs to nab a place at a coveted school.


Immigration detention centre continues to grow

Australia's Christmas Island detention centre is expected to keep growing as "asylum seekers" continue to arrive

Labor in opposition called it a white elephant, the Australian of the Year has labelled it a factory for mental illness, while the federal opposition says it's a visa factory. However it's described, the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre is never far from the spotlight.

A group of Tamils staged a peaceful protest inside the compound this week, which included a short a hunger strike that has now ended. Refugee advocates say the Tamils are angry about a mobile phone ban and long processing times, inflamed by the fast-tracking of asylum seekers from the Oceanic Viking who struck a deal with the federal government after refusing to disembark from the Australian customs boat in Indonesian waters.

Built by the former Liberal government at a cost of more than $400 million, the centre has operated only under the current federal Labor government. Tucked away on Christmas Island's northwest point, the detention centre is holding about 1564 asylum seekers. The latest boatload arrived on the island for processing on Friday. Despite the monsoon season asylum seekers continue to arrive in Australian waters bound for Christmas Island, with one group intercepted last week just one nautical mile (less than 2km) to the north of the detention centre.

Last year Immigration Minister Chris Evans announced capacity of the centre and other facilities on the island would be doubled from 1200 to 2200, at a cost of $40 million, to cope with the expected influx of asylum seekers. A Department of Immigration and Citizenship spokesman said the current capacity is 1848.

Senator Steve Fielding and opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison visited the island last week to inspect the detention facilities, which also include alternate accommodation for children and women, along with traumatised asylum seekers. Senator Fielding likened the accommodation for most as 'akin to a motel'. He said Australians did not need to be concerned about how detainees were being looked after other than those who are living in tents erected to provide further capacity at the centre. 'It's very good accommodation, I think people are well fed, they're well looked after, I think the only concern is the tent city and quite frankly they are at capacity and bursting at the seams and that just can't continue,' he told AAP.

Senator Fielding said both he and Mr Morrison were kept away from the protesting Tamils who were sitting outside under a shaded area near the centre's oval. 'We were kept well away from there, in one way it would have been nice to go and chat to them about their concerns but they were very concerned about making the situation worse,' he said. 'They're basically saying they are going to remain on a hunger strike until they're treated as human beings. 'The conditions here are quite good so I'm not so sure exactly what they are complaining about.' Mr Morrison said some of the detainees had been living in tents for 28 days. [How sad!] The federal government had to realise it had a problem and the real issue was to halt the number of boats arriving, he said.

The hunger strike had been triggered by the fact asylum seekers from the Oceanic Viking had been given a special deal to fast track their cases that others had not, Mr Morrison said. 'I don't think they have a claim frankly when it comes to their treatment, I think their treatment here is outstanding,' he said.

Reports of interviews with detainees showed people smugglers were selling a good product to asylum seekers bound for Christmas Island, which was essentially a 'visa factory', Mr Morrison said. He said detainees reported people smugglers were saying the only country to come to was Australia. 'They never said that about Australia when the coalition was in government.'

Boats will continue to arrive, both Mr Morrison and Senator Fielding say. And with the boats come the immigration workers, the police, customs staff, health workers and security guards needed to run the detention centre. The remote island, 2600km northwest of Perth, is closer to Indonesia than the Australian mainland.


Bureaucratic attempts to restructure welfare-devastated Aboriginal life are going nowhere

THIS should be a time of progress and optimism in the remote Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory. Vast reform efforts are under way, huge resources have been committed to transforming the social map, hundreds of new houses are being built or at least are on some official drawingboard, the commonwealth's emergency response is entering a much-advertised sustainable development phase.

Even the town camps of Alice Springs are being cleaned up as part of a $130 million transformation plan. New local government shires are in place across the bush to streamline public services and oversee the creation of 20 "growth towns". There is a remote service delivery headquarters in Darwin and a fresh philosophy of consultation is in the air.

"Grassroots inputs will help the tree to flourish," declares the commonwealth's co-ordinator-general for services to remote communities, Brian Gleeson, in his first report. His Territory-appointed counterpart, development expert Bob Beadman, speaks eagerly of government agencies and indigenous people keen for change, "all poised for the communities to develop a sense of wellbeing and place in society, and taking the opportunity to move forward with the options modern life has to offer".

Why, then, are fights and feuds still the chief markers of time's passage in the Aboriginal societies of the centre? Why is there a pandemic of marijuana use among the young, to go with the mass alcoholism seen in the itinerant camps of Alice Springs? Why are funerals and hospital visits the key events of the social calendar?

In a bid to take the true pulse of the central Australian bush and gauge the effect of the latest reform program, 2 1/2 years since the initial intervention on John Howard's watch, Inquirer this month made a 3000km journey through the far reaches of the Western Desert, visiting communities and outstations.

Despite the rhetoric being pumped out in Canberra and Darwin, it is plain that another policy failure is unfolding across the inland: money is being poured into the region, nourishing support staff and project managers but failing to benefit the indigenous citizens it is intended to help. Indeed, under the present dispensation little has changed and little can change: power over local affairs has been withdrawn from the communities while the welfare and training systems in place constitute a perfectly structured trap.

The consequences are widely felt. A dreadful disconnect between the administered and the administrators is palpable. What does one register in a typical desert community in this new progressive era? Depression, lassitude, a deep lack of purpose or involvement in the economic patterns of the wider world.

There are routine paid tasks to be done by locals: cleaning, rubbish collection and the like. They are overseen by managerial outsiders and helpers, tellingly referred to as staff and accommodated in little white mini-suburbs set apart from Aboriginal living areas.

But the incentives for community members to remain in the workforce or develop skills are minimal: it takes 20 hours of work a week before a remote community labourer has earned as much as he or she receives in standard welfare payments.

Beadman is one of few senior officials prepared to comment publicly on this dilemma. He says "it will take time, persistence and hard-headedness to move people out of dependency", and he cautions that he is hearing reports that remote community locals are refusing jobs at shires and stores. He even canvasses "breaching" welfare recipients who decline to work. But the flow goes both ways. Inquirer saw locals in one community approaching shire officials and pleading for work, to be told none was available.

Inquirer heard testimony that a senior local shire worker on approved leave for ceremonies was terminated because of his absence. The trap of joblessness, however reached, is profound: it is the key feature shaping the communities.

Hence, remote life's unhurried rhythms: dogs gather in their packs, card games wear on, queues form at the shop, police cars drift by on patrol. For many residents, the critical issue at any given time is the next trip into Alice Springs, where drink, drugs and casino gambling are on offer.

At least Canberra is well-informed these days about the surface conditions in the remote Territory. A network of 50 government business managers is in place, observing the 70-odd prescribed communities targeted by the initial intervention. Some of these managers are engaged, some ineffectual; some benign, some unpopular. All of them file detailed intelligence reports to Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, the Canberra department charged with running the emergency response's next phase, when the word intervention will be retired, and "normalisation" put in its place.

These reports which, somewhat creepily, are not shared with the target communities, are transmitted to the remote service delivery board of management in Darwin and they serve as the basis for fine-tuning policy. But since their writers speak no desert language and must rely on paid local "engagement officers", such documents catch little of the mood of discontent and cynicism that has spread through the communities.

The immediate weight of administration is now shouldered by the new shires, Territory local government bodies set up two years ago and virtually insolvent due to their funding arrangements and bizarrely ruinous IT costs. On paper, these organisations had strong potential as vehicles for the democratic control of regional priorities, for in the centre the remote shires cover exclusively indigenous populations and have indigenous councillors.

But as soon as the local shire councillors began trying to influence events on the ground, the bureaucrats hit back. Long lectures on separation of powers now consume shire meetings; Aboriginal councillors and mayors have come to realise the public service has once again clawed back control over their lives. One desert shire has 42 highly paid administrators where seven were needed in the old days when community councils operated; its human resources department alone employs three people.

Much of the tone of community life stems from the ground conditions. Overcrowding is still the key factor in the Aboriginal bush, the chief source of conflict, tension, ill-health and poor education outcomes: hence the critical importance of the $672m Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure program for public housing which, after two years has yet to have any effect in the centre. Take Kintore, the celebrated home of the modern desert painting movement, with its population of about 500. Here prominent artist Yuyuya Nampitjinpa lives in a block house with 27 residents while next door, shire councillor Irene Nangala has 29 people living in her home.

Yet no new houses will be built in Kintore. The repairs and renovations that have been scheduled will be carried out without the involvement of the local training and housing contractor. Six houses in the community stand derelict and a further two, formerly used for Aboriginal housing, have been taken over for health and social service use.

Take little Haasts Bluff, where three home renovations "to city standard" will be carried out when 18 houses need urgent repairs. Even the scope of the renovation works has been scaled back in recent months. Consider the prospective "growth town" of Papunya, where broken houses dot the landscape and many of the population of 300 live 15 to a dwelling: the renovations budget has been cut from $3.2m to $1.9m as SIHIP's program costs have blown out. Nineteen houses in the community will be worked on, at $100,000 each, maybe after Easter this year. Again, no new houses will be built in such places. Thus the largest Aboriginal housing project ever mounted in the Territory will not have the slightest effect on the overcrowding crisis in these communities.

A telling example of today's "whole of government" approach to housing is provided by recent initiatives at Imanpa, a small, functional settlement just off the Lasseter Highway leading to Yulara. Imanpa has 18 houses for its 200 people. Many houses are very full: one holds 17 family members from four generations. There are several modern houses reserved for the handful of outside staff; there is also a new police station.

Now the Territory police want to build a larger police station alongside the community to patrol the highway and three big new houses for its officers as well. Imanpa, understandably, feels over-policed: its leaders are up in arms and say they will not approve the new station unless their own people also get some new housing. Imanpa's promised repairs and renovations budget under SIHIP has already been cut from $1.1m to $700,000, or about $75,000 for each house due to be repaired: enough, on a rough estimate, for a new kitchen and laundry once the outside work crew fees have been factored in.

These are the kinds of new figures that have been quietly provided in recent weeks to the desert communities; they are, understandably, not being widely advertised by the responsible commonwealth and Territory government departments.

In theory, it should be simple to kick-start economic activity in such a landscape when so much needs to be done. Workforce training should be the first growth area. In practice, training leads nowhere: many young remote community men have already been trained as builders under the last housing program, and will now be trained again under SIHIP.

Training is outsourced by government and specialist companies are installed in larger centres. They offer skills judged useful in the brave new world of the centre. Basic courses for the mining industry are the main fare. Tourism, the obvious main chance, is a little exploited opportunity. Mutitjulu community lies next to Uluru and next to a giant tourism complex with 1000 workers, built on Aboriginal land; yet no Mutitjulu local holds a job at the Yulara resort.

There is, of course, another model for Aboriginal social development in the bush beside the vision of growth towns filled with Western businesses. For the past three decades, the dream of a contained life on outstations has held seductive sway in policy circles and, as a result, scores of small, far-flung huddles of houses and facilities dot the desert landscape.

Millions of dollars worth of infrastructure has been concentrated in these places. But many of the outstations now stand empty for much of the year as their occupants congregate in Alice Springs.

During a swing through the Kings Canyon outstation, Inquirer saw deserted facilities, damaged equipment and broken work buildings. At one large, vacant outstation, the houses had been vandalised by the abandoned pet camels. Tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage had been sustained, the septic tanks were full to overflowing, maggot casings lay thick in stagnant pools on the lounge-room floors.

From such cameos of wilful neglect, it is easy to concoct a bleak view of outstation life and the slim prospects for its successful prolongation in the centre. But there are counter-examples. Consider tiny Wanmarra and the details of its circumstances. Wanmarra outstation has 11 residents, six of them diligent market-garden workers on a community development employment program, the work subsidy scheme now being phased out by the commonwealth. There are three neat, solid family houses, all in perfect condition. Two of them were built by the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission two decades ago. Wanmarra has a cool room for the food crops it grows: tomatoes and watermelons trucked off regularly for sale in Alice Springs.

Peter Abbott, the young Community Development Employment Projects co-ordinator for the area, spells out the dilemma. It lies in the core economics of the outstation. A full crop of fruit, once sent out, may earn $3000; the program wages available for him and his fellow workers are $200 a week. "The only good thing," he says, "is we're sitting on our country and we're not somewhere in town. It makes us happy."

Wanmarra illustrates several features of the outstation model: how hard it is to make a living in the desert and to profit from the exiguous market opportunities of the centre; how much, too, depends on personal commitment. But it also shows that the welfare life is not an inevitable temptation; nor must bush houses decay within 10 years of their construction. There is a sharp, implicit lesson. It is precisely the policies of the commonweath and Territory governments, and the signals they still send, that favour the outcomes we see across most of Aboriginal central Australia.

How to recraft the model? The first step is to grasp the tone of the emotional landscape in the communities. Despite the new vogue in Canberra for constant consultations, senior bush men and women feel they have been marginalised and ignored. A mood of gloom and resignation has taken hold now that the emergency response has been smothered by a new tide of bureaucratic initiatives. Never have there been so many outsiders living on communities, and living off them, as locals well know. What limited autonomy once existed at the level of the remote community councils has been prised away and new tiers of administration imposed.

Welfare persists, though in more tightly constrained fashion. Some public housing is being provided, though at the cost of enforced leases over Aboriginal land. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Aboriginal people in the centre's remotest settlements are now being policed and watched more than they are being helped. The intensity of the outside attention tends to backfire: it infantilises and erodes capacity, rather than builds it up. Money flows in, but it is being spent on the outside contractors and providers of services rather than on bush jobs.

A complex new architecture of governance has been put in place but it is, once more, an architecture that blithely ignores the traditional patterns of Aboriginal social authority and contributes to the breakdown of old ways. Such is the map as the freshly badged policies of sustainable development begin to bite.



Paul said...

Do you know how many ceremonies "approved leave" will buy? Few private employers up here will employ indigenous people. It just isn't worth the risk in their eyes so the major employer always endes up Council and Government.

Anonymous said...

Once I have always been training for a race, we view my own metrics
very closely.