Saturday, March 06, 2010

Like Obama, Rudd finds reality to be more complex than he thought

It's typical Leftism: Arrogant ignorance. And also like Obama, voters fear that Rudd is not the man they thought he was.

THE apologies made the headlines, but there was something far more significant in Kevin Rudd's acts of contrition last weekend. "One of the problems that we have had as a government," he admitted on ABC television, "is that we didn't anticipate how hard it was going to be to deliver things." Moments later he added: "The reason that we've had problems with this is we didn't properly, I think, estimate the complexity of what we are embarking on."

The comments were startling because Rudd's claim to govern was based on his claims as an administrator. Unlike most of our prime ministers, he had never served as a minister. He had never even been a government backbencher. Yet Australians were told in 2007 Rudd was a safe pair of hands because he was an experienced public sector administrator. He could deliver. "More than ever, Australia needs a government that will help the nation fulfil its promise, rather than a government that makes promises it can't fulfil," Rudd declared before the 2007 election.

The comments feed a fear among some voters that Rudd is not the man they thought he was. Leaked Labor polling that appeared in a Sydney newspaper during the week pointed to problems with "believability" and "deliverability". The morning before the Prime Minister's National Press Club speech on hospital reform this week, the Coalition opposition distributed a document accusing him of failures on health.

Only two of the 31 -- later 36 -- promised GP super clinics are open, his commitment to leave the private health rebate unchanged has been broken and his mid-2009 deadline for public hospital reform was well and truly missed.

Last month on ABC1's Q&A he admitted to making "about 600" election commitments. The opposition is suggesting he was not just kidding voters about his ability to deliver but also kidding himself, and public administration experts are openly speculating he bit off more than he could chew. "All ministers learn to their peril how important implementation is," former secretary of the Health Department Andrew Podger says.

Scott Prasser, head of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University and a former Queensland bureaucrat himself, says the Prime Minister has only co-ordinated policies, rather than made them work. He points to Rudd's time as director-general of the Queensland Cabinet Office. "He headed a co-ordination body, co-ordinating submissions and processes into the cabinet process, not a delivery body. He's a central agency bureaucrat. He's never really been in a line department."

When he launched his hospitals package, Rudd described it as "the most significant reform of Australia's health and hospital system since the introduction of Medicare".

Neal Blewett, the Labor health minister who oversaw that, believes Rudd's agenda is far more complicated. "We were building on Medibank," he says. "We had a very detailed program which we took to the election of 1983. We had spent two years in working that out. We had the advantage that out of government we had a pretty detailed plan, but let me say it took most of 1983. We didn't get the agreement settled with the states, apart from Queensland, until the end of the year, and again we had the advantage of having talked this over, particularly with the Labor states, in some detail before the election took place. Moreover, we did not constitutionally require the approval of the states."

Blewett says Rudd's proposal presents three additional challenges. "It's novel in a sense that Medicare wasn't. It's massive in scale. I think you would need a longer period of negotiation to get this settled with the states, and it has constitutional complexities Medicare did not have."

Blewett believes the principles of Rudd's proposals are sound. "For the last 10 years or so the profession and health academics have been arguing basically in this direction," he says. "I think the principles are right but there is an enormous amount of devilry in the detail and that is going to take a lot of working through."

Jenny Stewart, professor of public policy at the Australian Defence Force Academy, has a similar assessment of the situation, but puts it far more bluntly. "What Rudd is proposing is quite sensible," she says. "I just think he doesn't have a clue what it's actually going to take to effect real change and, at this stage of where he's at, that is starting to look like real weakness." Rudd, Stewart warns, "doesn't know what he doesn't know". "Rudd thought he was going to be good at this sort of stuff because of his background without perhaps understanding what he was doing was very much top-down."

Stewart says Rudd, despite his background, has "no gut feel for the difficulties of program management. He wants to project this can-do image but he doesn't connect very well with the big picture he is trying to paint." She is afraid this is a recipe for policy failure, and political loss of face.


Rudd on the defensive -- but comes out swinging

KEVIN Rudd has vowed he will not change his leadership style or government decision-making processes in a pointed rebuke to critics within his own caucus who fear his centralised approach is driving Labor's slide in opinion polls and risking its re-election prospects.

The Prime Minister has also declared he is prepared for a political war with state governments resisting his proposed seizure of 30 per cent of their GST receipts to bankroll a takeover of public hospitals, warning premiers and chief ministers he will not "haul up the tawdry white flag" in the face of opposition.

And Mr Rudd has flatly refused to fast-track the release of the Henry review of the tax system, completed last year, in a direct rejection of growing pressure from colleagues to table the document, expected to be politically controversial, as soon as possible to avoid fuelling an opposition scare campaign close to this year's federal election.

The Prime Minister made the comments yesterday in an exclusive interview with The Weekend Australian at his Sydney residence, Kirribilli House. It followed news in yesterday's edition of The Australian of growing tension within the government over Mr Rudd's performance and political judgment, including a cabinet split over the Henry review, last month's messy collapse of his $2.45 billion home insulation scheme and the realisation that the government has failed to deliver many of its 2007 election promises.

Mr Rudd is encountering resistance from state and federal MPs over the health plan, which would sideline health bureaucracies, with the commonwealth providing direct funding to local boards in control of groups of up to five hospitals. There is particular concern in Labor circles over Mr Rudd's determination to hold a referendum that could see him campaigning against state Labor governments.

But yesterday, as Tony Abbott described him as "a one-man band" unable to delegate, Mr Rudd had little sympathy for dissent and dismissed questions about his style. "I'm not interested in perceptions of style -- never have been, never will be," Mr Rudd said. "I'm interested in substance -- what we deliver."

Dismissing complaints that his government was too centralised around his office, Mr Rudd said Australians expected their prime minister to take the central role in big-ticket policy issues, including health, education, taxation and climate change. "We will not be changing the way in which the cabinet operates," he said. "All the detail work has usually been done in the relevant cabinet committee. That is the right structure in which things are done. The core ministers -- the core line ministers working on it and then brought to full cabinet for reporting and decision. That is the right way to do things."

Mr Rudd described his cabinet as "a first-class team". But he said he retained a close involvement in decision-making because he wanted to ensure his government delivered "substantive outcomes" against which it could be measured by voters.

Asked to account for the bungling of the home insulation scheme, suspended last month after dodgy installations were linked to four deaths and dozens of house fires, Mr Rudd conceded the delivery of the program had been flawed but said the policy formulation had been sound.

And he said he had no immediate plans to release the tax review, completed last year by Treasury secretary Ken Henry, despite demands from colleagues that it be released ahead of next month's budget. "We're going to take this one step at a time," the Prime Minister said. "It is important to get the policy and funding settings right for health and hospitals reform, to know where your landing point is there, because everything affects everything else. "We have to be very mindful of that before we reach final conclusions on tax as well."

Mr Rudd said the health reforms topped his current list of priorities, although he was still committed to continuing his fight in the Senate for the creation of a carbon emissions reduction scheme to tackle climate change.

The Prime Minister said every Australian had seen ample evidence of inefficiency in hospital service, and only a federal takeover would end the "duplication, waste and overlap" in the system. "We intend to get on with it," Mr Rudd said. "Lots of politicians of all sorts of political persuasions have sidestepped this one for too many years. In every state of Australia, I have not gone to a single meeting at a local hospital where people have not put up their hand and said this system needs to be radically changed and radically improved."

He predicted a wave of "opportunistic politics" from state politicians and bureaucrats, as well as the federal opposition, but said there was "a large constituency" for change among average Australians, who understood the deficiencies in the current health system from first-hand experience....

Despite concerns among some of his colleagues about the advisability of holding a referendum on the health reform issue, Mr Rudd said no one should doubt the depth of his resolve, although his preference was to "get the bloody thing done" with the co-operation of the states. And as the states argued that public hospitals needed an immediate injection of extra funds, the Prime Minister said structural reform must come first, because there was "a grave risk" the states would squander further public funds if he handed them "another blank cheque"....

Earlier yesterday, Mr Abbott said Mr Rudd was dominating his government and should place more trust in his ministers. "This is a government which is dominated by one person who will only do things that he can focus on," Mr Abbott said. "He stops his ministers from doing anything that he's not doing himself. . . "This is a one-man band that can only concentrate on one tune at one time, and I think it's high time that Kevin Rudd trusted his other ministers."


NSW demands no hospital closures

Rudd promises that -- but we know what a politician's promise is worth -- and so do other politicians

NSW may refuse to sign up to the federal health reforms until Prime Minister Kevin Rudd guarantees no small hospitals will be forced to close. In a letter to Mr Rudd, Premier Kristina Keneally has hinted the state would not come on board unless future funding increases were secured and the issue of who would bear the cost of rolling out the restructure was resolved.

Mr Rudd has threatened to take his reforms to a referendum if the states do not agree by the time of the next COAG meeting in April.

Ms Keneally has joined health officials and clinicians in raising concerns about how rural and regional hospitals would meet "efficiency targets" under a pay-for-service funding model planned by Mr Rudd. More specifically, she has asked who would be responsible for paying to keep them open if they failed to meet the efficiency targets. NSW clinicians have warned 118 hospitals in NSW would not fit into a pay-for-service model because they do not perform enough procedures to make then financially viable.

Mr Rudd and his Health Minister Nicola Roxon have said that the reforms would not force closure because a rural loading would be applied. However, that loading, and whether it would be sufficient to keep rural and regional hospitals viable, has yet to be determined and would only be done so by a nationally appointed umpire.

"What would happen if, for reasons of geography or population base, a regional hospital is not able to deliver services at an 'efficient price'?" Ms Keneally's letter asked. "Who decides the future of that hospital? Will it be the Commonwealth, the states and territories or the CEO of the Local Hospital Network?"

Mr Rudd yesterday repeated his claim that no hospitals would close as a result of the reforms and issued a guarantee to keep them open. "The guarantee from the Australian Government is absolute. And that is that the formula which will be developed on the pricing of hospital services will not lead to the closure of any regional, rural or small hospital."


Leftist government punishes honest judge

THE career of a judge who criticised NSW Labor's dealings with donor developers is hanging in the balance after the government knocked back a request from the state's Chief Justice for him to work in the Supreme Court's short-staffed equity division. The Attorney-General, John Hatzistergos, is refusing to explain why Justice David Lloyd's commission was rejected. But the opposition says it appears to be political payback against a public servant who held the government to account.

Justice Lloyd angered the government last year when he described its secret negotiations over the state's biggest housing development as a "land bribe". He ruled that the former planning minister Frank Sartor was biased when he approved projects for the Rose Group, an ALP donor, in Catherine Hill Bay and Gwandalan because he had agreed to look kindly upon them in exchange for 300 hectares of conservation land.

When Justice Lloyd retired from the Land and Environment Court in January, the NSW Chief Justice, Jim Spigelman, invited him to be an acting judge - a job he has filled in the past. "Cases were listed for me but at the last minute the Attorney-General rejected the Chief Justice's request," Justice Lloyd said this week. "I don't know the reasons why." Asked if he thought he was being punished for his comments last year, he said: "Some people have suggested it to me, but I wouldn't know. I don't know whether anyone in the cabinet would be that vindictive."

The five-member equity division of the state's top court is understaffed after Justice Robert Forster was diagnosed with a brain tumour last year. "The equity division is in a bit of strife because cases are listed before two judges who aren't there," Justice Lloyd said. He said Justice Spigelman still hoped to bring him in later in the year. The Chief Justice declined to comment, other than to point out through his spokeswoman that all appointments had to be approved by the Attorney-General and cabinet.

Mr Hatzistergos's spokeswoman said the government does not comment on the appointment of acting judges. "[They] are a matter for cabinet and most acting appointments are made in July of each year," she said.

But the Opposition Leader, Barry O'Farrell, said it looked like political retribution. He said the government had an appalling record of dealing with public servants who have "dared to hold them to account" and it was time to remove political patronage from judicial appointments - as they have been in Britain.


Train young Australians to replace immigrant workers, says Deputy PM

A commendable idea and mildly surprising from a Leftist government but how is she going to do it? For many young Australians it is a rational decision to live on the dole and go to the beach rather than undertake any kind of training. I am afraid this is just more Leftist hot air. The Rudd government and the Obama government are remarkably similar in that respect. They both claim that they can solve big problems but in reality have only the most superficial ideas about how to do so

YOUNG Australians should start filling many of the jobs currently taken by imported labour, the Federal Government says. The current reliance on imported labour will not help young Australians find work in future, Education and Employment Minister Julia Gillard says. "Obviously, with skilled migration we are dealing with the skills challenges of today," Ms Gillard said.

"But for the future, I don't want us to be in a country where we are desperately scouring the world for skilled labour, and to get people to come here and do jobs, whilst at the same time young Australians are unemployed and can't get a start. "We want to make sure that we are getting those young Australians a start, so they can fill those jobs."

Ms Gillard was speaking after the launch of Australian Workforce Futures: A National Workforce Development Strategy. It is a report by Skills Australia, an independent statutory body providing advice to the education minister on the skills needed for Australia's workforce and how to develop them.

In a speech at the launch, she said the global financial crisis had reduced the need for technicians and trade workers, and created demand for more professional jobs. "Essentially, there is a long-term trend of growth in demand for higher skills, and a reduction in the share of low and unskilled jobs," Ms Gillard said. In the 12 months to November 2009, Australia shed 97,000 technical and trade jobs, she said. At the same time 78,300 professional jobs had been created. Youth unemployment was unacceptably high in regional Australia and in areas that had relied on manufacturing for generation after generation, she said.

Addressing the problem would require lifting literacy and numeracy skills, and encouraging Australians to further their education. "The more you learn, the more you earn," Ms Gillard said. "There is a benefit to individuals in full-time employment of approximately $100 per week for each extra year of education beyond compulsory schooling. "A person with a bachelor degree earns about 24 per cent above average earnings. "A person leaving school before finishing Year 11 tends to earn 20 per cent below average earnings. "And those with post-school qualifications are also able to work around seven years longer than those without post-school qualifications." [Faulty logic there. It's the brighter kids who undertake further education and they would probably do better anyway]


Europcar again

Three years ago, I returned a car to Europcar in Adelaide and was later billed for damage to an aerial. I eventually won this little battle and thought no more of it. Some time later, I was billed $150 for the returned car to be "commercially cleaned" as Europcar had determined that the car had been vomited in.

I was the only person in the car on this trip and I definitely had not contributed to the alleged source of this accusation, so I protested. However, telephone conversations and letters failed to elicit an apology or refund.

- Nick Mackay


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