Thursday, October 28, 2010

Australian troops in Afghanistan exposed as costs blow out

ALMOST a third of the weaponry, armour, system and support upgrades promised to Australian troops in Afghanistan have encountered problems. The Gillard government has been warned that these issues could result in delays or cost blowouts.

As parliament continues to debate Australia's role in Afghanistan, amid expectations of a greater number of casualties, it appears those on the front line remain dangerously over-exposed. In the middle of last year, after visiting Afghanistan for the first time, then defence minister John Faulkner ordered a force protection review, which was completed later last year and led to a $1.1 billion package of budget initiatives.

They included counter-IED and counter-rocket equipment, increased armour and firepower for vehicles, improved surveillance, reinforced buildings, better personal equipment, training and health services. "I am satisfied that we are doing all we can to protect our troops," Senator Faulkner said at the time.

"Even so, as the threats to our soldiers evolve, so too must our force protection arrangements." But the incoming government briefs from Defence - obtained by The Australian yesterday after a Freedom of Information search - show the new minister, Stephen Smith, was advised that only 10 of the 48 recommendations had been implemented, with 17 encountering problems. Labor promised during the election campaign that any remaining initiatives would be "progressed as a priority".

By yesterday, there had been a slight improvement, with 15 initiatives delivered and 21 on track to be delivered within the agreed timeframe. But 11 initiatives were still at risk because of schedule, technical or scope issues, and one initiative had not started, because of "significant technical issues". The department - which is under significant strain from a high operational tempo and massive reform effort - would not detail the initiatives at risk.

New force protection systems for vehicles have been delivered, however, with additional bomb-detection and disposal robots and training systems scheduled to be delivered this financial year.

The department told Mr Smith that "the national interests underlying our Afghan commitment remain compelling" and, while most of its advice was censored in the documents released to The Australian, it did not want to see "the return to Afghanistan of terrorists with the freedom to organise, plan and train for attacks on us and our friends and allies".

Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott agree Australia must stay the course in Afghanistan, despite the likelihood of more casualties.

In building up its model force, outlined in the 2009 white paper, Defence has unexpectedly over-recruited and retained personnel, according to its funding schedule, but still has 20 "critical and perilous employment categories".

The department will continue to recruit to achieve the Force 2030 targets but will focus on in-demand specialties, and may cut funding to other programs to compete in another mining boom.

"Defence does not have any funding contingency to enable it to adjust its employment offer if the impact of economic resurgence produces a significant need to meet the market on remuneration or benefits," the briefs state.

Defence is working to improve its beleaguered pay system and continues to roll out major health, housing, and family support initiatives. The posting cycle for personnel is also being reviewed in a bid to "increase the length of back-to-back postings in the same area".

The Australian has previously used FOI laws to shed light on the impact of the high operational tempo on troops, revealing: the number left injured or ill as a result of their deployment; the extent of mental illness and other conditions across the services; the strain of repeat and extended deployments; and ongoing capacity and capability challenges for the department.

Most recently, The Australian revealed that Middle East veterans participating in a landmark health study had described pilots becoming addicted to Stilnox and other prescription drugs, an underground trade in illicit substances and sex, their concerns over a lack of support, poor leadership and a shortage of equipment, including bomb robots.


Court delays mean more jail time for innocent

Prisoners on remand should have top priority for their cases to be heard

More than 1400 adults and children who were never convicted of a crime were imprisoned last year, some for months, and the time people spend behind bars before being cleared by the courts is getting longer.

While court delays overall have fallen in most categories, this is not the case for those waiting in jail for their day in court, says a report by the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

"We should be concerned about holding people in custody unnecessarily," said Julie Stubbs, a law professor at the University of NSW and a spokeswoman for the Crime and Justice Reform Committee. "We have the presumption of innocence; they should await trial in the community, wherever that is safe to occur."

The report showed that 205 juveniles who were refused bail last year - more than 11 per cent - were cleared of charges. Adults awaiting trial in the Supreme Court waited in custody for a median 619 days from the date of the alleged offence until they were cleared.

More than 1200 people in jail who were later acquitted of all charges were dealt with in the Local Court, where the median delay increased from 53 days in 2008 to 79 days last year from the first court appearance until charges were dismissed at a hearing. Others whose charges were dismissed without a hearing spent a median of more than 16 weeks in custody.

The report showed that the state government's proposed bail reforms did not go far enough, said Professor Stubbs.

The report also showed that last year the proportion of guilty pleas in the Supreme Court rose from 40 per cent to 50.5 per cent.

The number of appeals rose slightly last year compared with 2008. More than 60 per cent of District Court appeals against the severity of a sentence succeeded, but the Crown increased its success rate, with 74 per cent of appeals against the inadequacy of sentences granted, compared with 26 per cent in 2008.


NSW High School curriculum fails students

BUSINESS experts have slammed the HSC curriculum for failing to provide skills where they're needed. NSW Business Chamber CEO Stephen Cartwright said schools were ignoring demand for trade qualifications. "The HSC is focused on university outcomes more than trades and apprenticeships, areas in which we face a skills shortage," he said. "It's important that HSC students are encouraged to take up a trade, especially in those areas facing a skills shortage like construction."

Mr Cartwright called for an urgent review of the HSC curriculum to ensure vocational education students don't miss out on crucial skills. "Young people who do not enter university after they leave school need to be supported in their preparation for adult life, including their life at work," he said.

This year about 19,000 students were enrolled in a vocational education and training course, but not all choose to take the written HSC exam that goes toward their Australian Tertiary Admissions rank. There are 2724 Year 12 students enrolled in construction this year - up 8.4 per cent from 2009 - but only 80 per cent of them will sit tomorrow's test


Contractor left unpaid for work at NSW hospital

Tell us something new

The NSW Health Department has been accused of not paying its bills just months after the Health Minister assured Parliament there were no outstanding debts to contractors.

A small business owner, Phil Clare, says he is a week away from bankruptcy, being owed $1.7 million by NSW Health, much of it for work he did at Royal North Shore Hospital in 2008. "For two years we tried to get them to pay without taking legal action because we are doing so much with the other area health services."

He had been arguing with Northern Sydney Central Coast Area Health Service since January last year over a bill for work that it had said was "exemplary". He submitted invoices four months ago for his work, which involves finding, valuing and selling assets.

Steve Cansdell, the MP for Clarence, where Mr Clare's business is based, said: "The department should have sorted out whether the disputed claim was relevant."

In April it was revealed that more than 20 firms had suspended supply to the health service because of unpaid debts. Last year bills totalling $117.5 million went unpaid. The opposition health spokeswoman, Jillian Skinner, said: "There can be no excuse for the Keneally Labor Government not to pay its bills on time."

A spokeswoman for the northern Sydney health service said the service disputed Mr Clare's invoices, only submitted "recently". "It is entirely appropriate that taxpayers' funds are protected by ensuring that goods and services being paid for have actually been delivered."

A NSW Health spokesman said there was $100,000 owing to contractors last month. A spokeswoman for the Health Minister, Carmel Tebbutt, said she stood by her claim that there were no overdue creditors at the end of June.


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