Monday, February 08, 2010

Kevvy's true colours are beginning to show

KEVIN Rudd is turning Left and Tony Abbott is turning Right. This sets the context for the coming election battle. It means that ideology has returned strongly to Australian politics.

After two years of prevarication the Prime Minister's recent defiant speech promising a continuing splurge on infrastructure has now branded this as a big spending socialist government clearly in the mould of the Whitlam government. It includes the centralisation of power over the states and intervention in urban policies. Rudd has not learned the lessons of the Hawke and Keating governments, which were more adept at using market forces to achieve their policy objectives and much more in partnership with the private sector.

This trend will continue throughout the year, which already presents some key opportunities for more government intervention and attempts at redistribution of wealth.

The Henry tax review, the Cooper Report on superannuation and a tight budget will provoke a response from this government, which will see greater slugs on business, as too will the poorly designed Emissions Trading Scheme.

Higher income earners will also be targeted, especially through steeper means tests so beloved of Wayne Swan. The justification offered will be to offset the sequence of interest rate rises that are going to emanate from the Reserve Bank throughout 2010, because once again it will be the mortgage belts around the capital cities that will determine this coming election.

This is because the economy will return to centre stage as the election issue. Climate change will fade as an issue in the minds of voters in the aftermath of the Copenhagen debacle, recent lack of confidence in the scientific integrity of the UN Intergovernmental Panel and the weakening of expert international support for the kind of cap and trade schemes the Rudd government is so doggedly pursuing.

Indeed the unseemly speed with which the government tried to ram its legislation through last year was of great concern given that virtually no attempt was made to inform and educate the public on one of the most expensive and interventionist policies in Australian history.

Similar arguments are true of the ill-conceived, taxpayer-funded broadband scheme, which could just as easily be achieved through private sector funding and tweaked regulation.

The hidden agenda is in workplace relations where it is clear that the trade union movement has been promised further fulfilment of its aims in a second term of office to honour its key role in the election of the government . Just after becoming Liberal Leader, Tony Abbott made a monumental mistake in flagging a return to elements of the Howard government's Work Choices industrial relations regime as this will galvanise union support and funding for Labor in the coming election even from those unions that have been disenchanted with the tepid action from Julia Gillard on key planks of union policies during the first two years of office.

Abbott is taking the Coalition in many conservative directions on economic and social-ethical policy, which is cementing closer relations with the Nationals, and it is clear the public has warmed to the concept of an opposition that puts up a real fight to the government. But it is not clear that his missiles are guided ones. In modern politics all policy pronouncements need to be part of a carefully honed strategy, especially in an election year.

For this coming election will be close. The focus on opinion polling, which has the government well ahead, has taken attention away from the fact that it would take no more than a uniform swing of just over 2 per cent to topple the Rudd government. There are a string of marginal seats in NSW and Queensland; states in which Labor governments are performing very poorly. Recent experience shows us that a party's performance at state level does affect the support it receives at national elections. There are elections in South Australia and Victoria this year that will probably see Labor returned to office but the national government has few prospects of gains of marginal seats in those states.

This emphasis on states reminds voters of the enormous disappointment of the much touted Council of Australian Governments that, for the past two years has tinkered with, but produced no significant, reforms to the federation including the so-called "education revolution", which has proved such a damp squib.

But the key policy failure has been health. Here the best that COAG could come up with was a promise of a "decision-making framework", while ambulances are being turned away from emergency departments, patients lie in beds on hospital verandas, and people wait in vain for places in aged care accommodation rather than in hospital. The failure of the Rudd government to take over state hospitals stands as the most serious of its eight major broken promises from the previous election. Health is going to be a significant election issue.

Labor is going to lose some votes to the Greens at the coming election because of its compromise approach to climate change and it cannot be assured that these will all return to Labor in the form of preferences. And on this score there will be no double or triple dissolution on climate change. Labor cannot control the Senate through this tactic; it would just increase the number of Greens in the upper chamber, which would provide a headache, and climate change will fade as an issue. In the world of political reality a double dissolution is a desperate "crash or crash through" strategy, when all else has failed. There has been only one joint sitting of parliament, in far more dire circumstances than these. There is no need for a double dissolution. At present it looks like a bluff to try to divide the Coalition and maybe stockpile some other bills to keep the pressure on the opposition especially over industrial relations.

Australians tend to give new governments a second chance and the polling during the past two years would seem to suggest that the odds favour Labor this time round. But this coming election will be fought on ideological grounds, which has not occurred for some time and will at least give citizens a fresh chance to think seriously about the role of governments in their lives.


Something's rotten in the state of NSW - comprehensive public schools

The comprehensive public school classroom is an unreformed rotten borough of public policy. The My School website represents the first significant, successful reform of the Rudd/Gillard era and a welcome departure from decades of union resistance to desperately needed educational change.

Education is a sector sufficiently charged with mythology and vested interests that it's virtually impossible for us to tell each other the truth. At the risk of unfairly disparaging a legion of inspirational teachers, I will now have a crack at that task.

Education in NSW is delivered in five distinct packages: state selective schools, elite private schools, other independent schools (Anglican, Muslim, other religious and non-religious), the Catholic parochial schools, and the state comprehensive schools. The competing power centres, in order of influence, are the NSW Department of Education, the education unions, the federal Ministry of Education (essentially a funding and testing body), principals, teachers and parents. Four out of five pistons are firing - all effort must now be concentrated on lifting the teaching and learning environment of the comprehensive public school.

From a "consumer value" perspective" the selective state school is at the top of the food chain. It costs little to attend, requires little parental involvement and is the most ruthlessly exclusive model. Almost all students attending these schools are the children of first-generation migrants, mainly from Asia and the subcontinent. The smart parents of these smart kids worked out quickly which side of the bread the butter was on. By spending a few thousand dollars on coaching in primary school they can avoid shelling out 50 times that amount to gain access to the quality of teaching and the peer group they want for their children. In terms of results, it's a subsidy worth paying. The Anglo Australians are either too dumb or too complacent to make the same commitment to their children's future.

The selective government school system was extended in the 1980s and '90s as a response to the growing tide of evacuation from public to private schools - worse in NSW than any other state. The NSW Department of Education widened the range of selectivity from academic and agricultural to include centres of excellence in sport, technology and the performing arts. The move was largely successful in fostering great public schools, by drawing on motivated teachers and creating a positive peer-pressure environment.

The problem for public schools generally had been a vacuum of culture. While the non-government schools could define themselves by some coherent religious (or Steiner or other) ethic and community, the public system, in the absence of selectivity, took refuge in concepts of inclusiveness and tolerance, which lacked the horsepower to inspire commitment from parents, teachers and students. The resulting vacuum has been filled by behaviourally challenged students and defensive, disengaged parents - a problem massively exacerbated after the state selective schools and the non-government sector hoovered up the most talented and motivated students.

The so called "comprehensive" school lost its student role models. One public high school principal confessed to me the difficulty he was facing in getting students to accept academic awards at speech day for fear of being mocked and bullied in the playground.

In that climate, the academic results and overall school discipline went into free fall. Many outer suburban "comprehensive" schools, with no effective means to discipline chronic misbehaviour, became a chapter out of the Lord of the Flies. There is a tipping point where the forces of bullying, abuse, high staff turnover and low common-room morale, vandalism and outright violence overwhelms the educational project. Teachers become mere child minders, enduring a job they hate, trying desperately to do something for the few kids who really want to learn. With limited government budgets and without a supportive school community, there is no money for new initiatives.

The comprehensive primary school often evidences a complete drought of male teachers. Low remuneration, low prospects of merit promotion, the risk of sexual allegations in a low-trust culture, and the militant feminism of the teacher unions, creates an intensely male-unfriendly environment. The absence of strong, sporty male teachers is a disaster for boys' education. Education unions, rightly sensing the odds were stacked against them, adopted a strategy of resisting any kind of accountability for teacher and school performance and resisting the empowerment of principals that might distinguish one school from another. Most have no ability to select their own staff or nurture their own ethic, instead suffering a revolving door of department-directed staff transfers.

The unions have worked to maintain a victim culture under which the answer to every question is "more funding", putting all their creative energy into political campaigns that are designed to provide cover for the abysmal performance of most (but not all) outer-suburban comprehensive public schools.

However, there is hope. All the research shows the strongest ballast against the forces of darkness is an inspiring principal. I have witnessed non-selective public schools, drawing heavily from housing department estates and low-income suburbs, that bristle with pride, energy, courtesy and learning - invariably revolving around an inspirational principal..

The My School website is an excellent first step towards parent empowerment and engagement. It allows high-performing public schools to receive the credit they richly deserve, and flushes out the complacent among the privileged private schools.

It should be expanded to include: the number of teacher absences, the turnover of teaching staff, the number of teachers on stress leave, the number of former teachers in litigation with the department, physical assaults, the ratio of male to female staff and some metric for the effectiveness of the school council and the P&C association. It must now be accompanied by genuine devolution of budget and policy autonomy from the department to principals, and opportunities for merit promotion and more money for the motivated teachers we so desperately need to retain.


Coal is king -- despite the Greenies

The Greenies hate coal but they seem to have been steamrollered over this one. The Leftist State government loves the deal. No doubt the Greens will manage a few whines, though

MINING billionaire Clive Palmer has just announced the economic deal of the century -the creation of up to 70,000 new jobs. The Queensland entrepreneur has clinched a contract with one of China's biggest power companies to export $69 billion worth of thermal coal from new mines in central Queensland over 20 years. "This deal is Australia's biggest-ever export contract," he said proudly. "The best years of this state are yet to come." Mr Palmer said the deal would provide a massive boost to the state economy, and likely result in the restoration of Queensland's prized AAA credit rating.

Under the agreement, China Power International Development Limited will take more than 30 million tonnes of coal - worth over $3 billion - each year from six mines to be built near Alpha in the Galilee Basin, west of Emerald in central Queensland. The mines will be operated by China First, a subsidiary of Mr Palmer's massive privately owned company, Resourcehouse Ltd. He last week awarded an $8 million construction contract to Metallurgical Corporation of China, which built Beijing's Bird's Nest Olympic stadium. The project also involves construction of a 500km rail line linking the mine to a new coal ship terminal at Abbott Point, near Bowen.

The news was greeted enthusiastically by Premier Anna Bligh as "a massive shot in the arm for the Queensland economy". "I set out to create 100,000 jobs in this term of government. With the signing of this deal we take that target a huge leap forward," Ms Bligh said.

Standing side by side at the announcement, the irony of the LNP's biggest financial backer helping the Labor Premier achieve her election goal was not lost on either. Both said political differences - nor even an active defamation lawsuit by Mr Palmer against the Premier - would get in the way of creating jobs for Queenslanders.

The deal still has to clear the final hurdles of what the Premier described as "rigorous" environmental assessments. But if approved, work should begin later this year, with the mines fully operational by 2014. Mr Palmer said 7500 people would be employed directly, with 50,000-70,000 indirect jobs flowing on from the initiative.

This deal comes just seven months after Mr Palmer bought the threatened Yabulu nickel refinery in Townsville, saving 950 jobs.

Royalties from the coal exports will pump between $400 million and $700 million a year, depending on coal prices, into the Queensland Government's coffers - a welcome boost but not enough, says the Premier, to justify abandoning the sale of state assets. "This is great news for the Budget down the track," she said. "If everything goes to plan for the project, we will start to see significant mine royalties in 2014. "That's four years away. I'm not going to let the Queensland economy and Budget drift and lag in the meantime."

The deal cements the future of Alpha and the Galilee Basin as an economic powerhouse for the state into the future. With other mines also proposed, the region has the potential to produce 100 million tonnes of coal a year. In the long term, Mr Palmer said it could deliver more than the Bowen Basin, which fuelled much of Queensland's success over the past decade.


Time to scrap Rudd climate plan - academics

A COALITION of academics who doubt the science on the causes of climate change has called on the Rudd Government to dump plans for an emissions trading scheme and consider alternatives.

Their call comes as a Nielsen poll, published in Fairfax newspapers today, shows Australians prefer the federal coalition's climate action policy. Of those polled, 45 per cent favoured the Opposition's direct action emissions fund over the 39 per cent who backed Labor's carbon pollution reduction scheme.

The Australian Climate Science Coalition believes the Government is losing the political high ground on global warming. "The debacle in Copenhagen demonstrated the futility of Australia adopting a go-it-alone strategy,'' executive director Max Rheese said in a statement. Public faith in the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had been shaken following revelations about some of its information-gathering processes, he said.


The self-selected immigrants are flocking in to Australia

Just utter the magic word "asylum" and the door is open. Comments below by Scott Morrison, Australia's Federal opposition spokesman on immigration and citizenship

Christmas Island is overrun with asylum seekers to the point where the detention centre has become a visa factory for people smugglers. Ten days ago I stood on the shore at Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island watching 30 Afghan asylum seekers transfer from HMAS Larrakia into the custody of immigration officials. Their boat was one of two that had been "intercepted" within 12 hours of each other the previous weekend. It's usually not too hard to find these boats, because they are usually looking for us. Getting intercepted is the point. Christmas Island is no longer a deterrent, it's the destination. The arrival of another boat is not a strange sight. It occurs twice a week these days. They're more predictable than Sydney ferries.

Immigration, Customs officials and police have the transfer process down to a fine art. They should, they've been getting plenty of practice. Since August 2008, 78 boats have illegally arrived in Australian waters, carrying almost 3600 people. Just this year, there have been 10 arrivals at an average rate of 100 passengers per week.

When I left the island I was told they had 1848 beds (including 200 in tents) and there was currently 1556 people in residence. While this represented a ten-fold increase in the detention population over the past year, it was clear, things were only getting worse. Since then another 320 people have been intercepted or transferred to the island, including one large vessel, carrying 181 passengers that motored straight into the harbour. Another was picked up on Thursday morning near the Ashmore Islands. During the same time, only 89 people left the island.

Despite its denials, operations at Christmas Island, under the government's failed border protection policies, are simply not sustainable. It is therefore no surprise that last week I was able to reveal in Parliament that the costs of running operations on Christmas Island had blown out by $132million this year, that's more than a 100per cent increase.

We are a generous nation and this is reflected in the way asylum seekers are being treated. In fact, if we looked after our first Australians in central Australia, where I visited last year, as well as we do those on Christmas Island, then there would be no gap to close. The key difference is that within 100 or so days, the vast majority of those on Christmas Island will be living on the Australian mainland with a permanent visa. Indigenous children have no such guarantee of ever being released from their desperate situation.

One of the more pleasing elements of the visit was to see that the many reforms introduced by the former Coalition government, such as case management, parallel processing, community detention for those at risk, separate facilities for families, women and children and a range of other improvements, are making a real difference.

In fact there is not one practical reform you can point to on Christmas Island that has been introduced as an initiative of the current government. Where they have made changes is to undermine the fundamentals of our border protection regime, by providing permanent visas to those arriving illegally, doing special deals for the Oceanic Viking passengers that traded away national security and being prepared to compromise offshore processing by taking people to the mainland before their asylum claims have been determined.

The government's changes have enhanced the product offered by people smugglers. They are now doing a roaring trade, but you can only come if you have the money. It is not uncommon, as I saw, for those arriving to have wads of cash in various currencies, in excess of $US1000 ($1140) at least. This is after paying up to $20,000 per person. Residence in Australia should not be driven by the highest bidder, where people smugglers ultimately decide who comes.

The government's changes have created a sea highway to Christmas Island that has become a visa factory for people smugglers. As long as these policies remain and the government continues in denial, people will continue to risk their lives on this journey. Also, places for those waiting five years in Indonesia and generations in camps, like those in Thailand, will be asked to wait even longer. These seem to me to be good reasons to change these policies and stop the boats.


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