Sunday, October 03, 2010

A big health bungle by Federal Labor

GP's service at risk. Clinics left in limbo over after-hours incentive payments

New Medicare figures show that almost every family medical clinic in Australia will lose incentive payments to offer house calls or open their clinics after hours from July next year. The figures show more than half the GP clinics in Australia will lose the payments from July 2011, while many others will lose their incentive payments from July 2013.

Doctors have complained the Federal Government has left them in limbo with no idea of how replacement services will be offered.

The Federal Government armounced in the May Budget that it would enhance after-hours care by offering a national hotline staffed by nurses for emergency medical problems outside business hours. The service would then refer patients to GPs, who would offer after-hours care managed by a new govemment agency called Medicare Local. What the Budget papers did not say was that the current program that offers incentives for after-hours services would be axed.

According to information obtained by the Opposition last week, Medicare Australia has begun work to stop the old service and it will affect most practices in Australia. “lt is expected that 4750 practices will be affected from July 1, 2011 and a further 3100 practices affected from July 1, ZOI3,” Medicare said.

Royal Australian College of General Practitioners’ president Chris Mitchell said this meant almost all general practice clinics would lose funding for the service: “We really do need to ensure there is support. None of the structures around the transition is clear," he said.

The telephone service has been operating in New Zealand and the UK already with success, Dr Mitchell said, but added there had been no advice from govemment about how it would work in Australia.

Opposition health spokesman Peter Dutton said the reforms would send more people to emergency rooms because the hotline would err on the side of caution. Health Minister Nicola Roxon’s office did not respond to requests for details.

The report above by Simon Kearney appeared in the Brisbane "Sunday Mail" on 3 October 2010

It was time to axe our rubber stamp

Rather than an unworkable lower house, perhaps we have a parliament that's closer to what it should always have been

The politicians and the media - and no doubt to a much lesser extent the public as well - have been consumed by the politicking surrounding the first week back in parliament after the federal election.

The Government lost its first vote in the lower house since the 1945. Newspapers headlined the event as some sort of equivalent of the second coming. Really?

The House of Representatives will need to debate policies issue by issue, with no guarantees of legislation passing through to the Senate to thereafter become law. Julia Gillard apparently faces a test like none of her living predecessors under that situation.

Really? So what, I say. Our elected MPs will have to do their jobs, finally, after 70 years of rubber stamping by the House of Representatives. It won’t be enough for MPs to blindly walk through the respective voling doors asking colleagues what they just passed judgment on.

The executive will have to thoroughly explain legislation to at least the crossbenchers to ensure it wins enough support. Surely that is a good thing - having more than just senators responsible for negotiating amendments to legislation to make it acceptable to the parliament?

Doesn't the fact no government has lost a vote in the lower house for 70 years show just how pointless the theatre of debates there has been all these years? The new paradigm is no apocalypse. All it represents is a doubling of what the Senate already does, and has done since the rise of minor parljes controlling its balance of power in the 1970s.

If somebody landed in this country and heard some of the over-inflated predictions about the chaos of the new parliamentary situation, you would think we had been living in some sort of one- party state until now where debate never threatened the machinery of government. In fact, the argy-bargy of the House of Representatives is nothing to be frightened of. It simply means that upper house volatility - a long-term feature of our system - is now shared by the house of government.

The only serious concern to govemment stability with the new shape of the lower house is the prospect of Julia Gillard losing her commission as Prime Minister because she fails to win a vote of confidence. But two things should guard against that- self-interest and the negotiated reforms.

The rural Independents and the Labor Government will want to avoid an early election and the humiliation of having to concede their little deal failed to provide longevity.

The reforms package allows for a follow~up vote when a vote goes against the government, so long as just cause can be displayed. That might simply be an MP missing a vote because of a toilet break or some other incident they couldn’t avoid.

But even if the numbers in the chamber did lead to an early election, is that really so bad? And does the Opposition really need to act “in good faith” and embrace the new paradigm of rolling out the rug on the lawn of parliament and acting like they are all friends all of the time?

Certainly not. Tony Abbott can play the politics of this parliament however he wants to. Yes, he probably risks looking shrill if he plays the game too hard, but the altemative of embracing consensual politics has never really worked for oppositions. Abbott’s instincts that if he takes the govemment on he just might force an early election he can win are well-founded - it is his best chance of gaining the prime ministerial prize.

And it is not as if Labor was all warm and cuddly the last time a minority govemment tried to cling to power federally. The John Curtin-led Labor opposiuon in the early 1940s played a very tough game, making life hard for Robert Menzies as prime minister. So much so that he forced a change of leadership and gained the top job for himself without an election needing to be called.

So Labor MPs up on their high horses about the need for this parliament to develop a consensual style should get real and accept that the Opposition can decide to conduct itself whatever way it likes, without the typical left-wing moral purity as the judge and jury when they do so.

The article above by PETER VAN ONSELEN appeared in the Brisbane "Sunday Mail" on 3 October 2010

Silenced in court

The right to freedom of speech is being threatened in the courtroom

ANDREW Bolt is getting sued. Don't applaud yet. There's been a lot of outrage about the federal government's proposed internet filter. But lawsuits like the one now faced by the prominent conservative Herald Sun columnist are as much a restriction on freedom of speech as anything Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has come up with.

Nine people are suing Bolt for an article that claimed their Aboriginal self-identification was "fashionable". He had said they all had part-European, part-indigenous heritage (and fair skin) with an opportunity to describe themselves as a range of nationalities. But, he wrote, they chose to describe themselves as Aboriginal. Doing so gave them "political and career clout".

At worst, Bolt is deliberately and provocatively disrespectful.

But as their lawyer has pointed out, there are two tests of whether someone is Aboriginal. The first is an objective genealogical test: a fairly clear cut question of whether they have Aboriginal ancestors. The second is subjective: whether a person chooses to self-identify as indigenous, and whether they are "communally" regarded as such.

Bolt's columns criticised political appointments and government awards that pivot on an individual's Aboriginality. They're absolutely within their rights to apply for those grants, prizes and positions. But like it or not, by sponsoring things like indigenous-specific art and literary awards, the government makes what constitutes Aboriginality a political question.

And it's a question academics have been trying to unpack for decades. Universities teach courses in the "concept of Aboriginality". Surveying the literature in 2002, the Parliamentary Library could only conclude "an individual's ethnic identity is always to some degree fluid, multiple, differing in degrees, and constructed".

Of course, Bolt tackles the issue with trademark belligerence. The merits of his argument will now be tested in court. But put aside the conservative commentator. This isn't about the collected works and opinions of Andrew Bolt. And put aside the complexities of racial identity, Aboriginality and reconciliation.

This case is troubling because of what it says about our right to freedom of speech. If successful - or just really expensive to defend - this lawsuit could have a stifling effect on political debate.

The 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that only by airing contested views publicly and freely could the truth be known. Societies need free speech if only to test and challenge controversial opinions.

And we're not going to have those necessary debates while legal action stifles one side. No matter how wrong or misguided that side may be.

Silencing Bolt doesn't just silence him. It potentially silences the speech of others who might be afraid of being similarly dragged through the legal system.

After all, Bolt and his employer can afford to defend themselves. No doubt they have lawyers on call. Newspapers know their way around court.

By contrast, bloggers, amateur journalists, Twitterers and Facebookers commenting on sensitive political issues - for whatever reason, with whatever motives - are much more exposed to punitive legal action than newspaper columnists are.

Should only the rich be able to have controversial views? If anything is going to suffocate the blossoming citizen media, it will be lawyers.

Bolt is being challenged under the federal government's Racial Discrimination Act. But that's hardly the only law on the books that has a damaging impact on free speech. Our politicians have a long and shameful history of using Australia's defamation laws to sue their critics - threatening someone with a defamation suit is a public relations tactic.

In Victoria, our Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, introduced in 2001, has been co-opted as a stick for religious groups to hit each other.

First, the Islamic Council of Victoria took the fundamentalist Christian Catch the Fire Ministries to court. Then a Wiccan prison inmate took the Salvation Army to court. Then the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council threatened to take the Islamic Information and Services Network of Australasia to court. That's a shabby record for a law supposed to promote tolerance, not division.

Suppressing offensive views can be counterproductive. The churches and mosques targeted by the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act were able to say their beliefs were being persecuted - attracting more followers. The victimised dissident is a hero, not a villain.

To his credit, Bolt is a prominent critic of Victoria's vilification laws. Last year, the Human Rights Consultation Committee faced the task of recommending what should appear in an Australian bill of rights. It struggled to balance our right to free speech with a new "right" demanded by some - the right to not be offended by the speech of others.

But there are an infinite number of ways people could be offended. How could we possibly prevent all outrage? You can have the right to free speech, or you can have the right to be protected by the government from the offensive speech of others. You can't have both.

There are other ways to respond to distasteful views. Refuse to buy the Herald Sun. Tell your friends to do the same. Condemn it in other opinion columns. The solution to bad speech is more speech. If something is offensive, it deserves to be condemned, loudly and often.

This week saw the first Aboriginal member of the federal House of Representatives sit in Parliament. Ken Wyatt is a Liberal. He promised to advocate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Parliament. His mother was [allegedly] one of the stolen generations. In his maiden speech, Wyatt thanked Kevin Rudd for the 2008 apology.

That's a genuine step towards reconciliation. Wielding the legal system as a weapon to try to silence critics isn't - no matter how offensive they might be.


NBN: Fast track to the future - or $43 billion farce?

The government is keeping details of its calculations and costings close to its chest so informed comment is difficult but most observers seem to believe that a subscription to the new, faster fibre network will be sold at a premium (high) price.

But because many people already have cable or wireless connections that meet their needs -- and wireless in particular is very cheap -- few people will want an expensive fibre subscription, meaning that the NBN is unlikely to cover its operating costs, let alone cover the costs of its construction.

The government claims its national broadband network will lift Australia to the top of world internet rankings, but the opposition says it is a white elephant.

What is it?

IT HAS been on the political agenda for years. An initial plan by the Howard government known as "Broadband Connect" was dumped by the incoming Rudd government and replaced by the national broadband network. Labor's initial idea was to set up an optic fibre network connecting nodes (basically service hubs) around the country, with existing copper wire infrastructure to be used to connect houses and businesses to those nodes.

But in April 2009 the government announced it had concluded that the business case would not work. It would instead be building a much more extensive and expensive network with optic fibre running directly to buildings, eliminating the nodes.

To achieve this, the federal government set up a business called NBN Co. The company was given the job of designing, building and operating a network that will supply high-speed broadband to every home, business, school and hospital in Australia.

Under the plan, 93 per cent of homes and businesses will be supplied with super-fast internet using an optic fibre network piping the internet directly to homes and businesses. This network will offer download speeds of 100 megabits per second (that's fast by world standards - roughly equivalent to about 5000 pages of plain text per second). The remaining 7 per cent of buildings outside the so-called NBN "footprint" in remote regional areas will be served by a combination of wireless and satellite technologies, with minimum speeds of 12 megabits per second.

What will it cost?

THE NBN will cost up to $43 billion, although that will be spread over eight years, with taxpayers chipping in $26 billion and the rest coming from private sector investment. That means a taxpayer contribution of up to $5000 per household, $1182 for every man, woman and child, or $12.30 each every month over the eight-year construction phase.

The federal government will hold a 51 per cent share in the network, which will eventually be sold. The government will also sell infrastructure bonds to allow private sector investment, which will be capped at 49 per cent.

Supporters argue that the network is likely to cost less than the estimated $43 billion because of a recent agreement to cut the time and cost of construction by using existing Telstra infrastructure.

Once the network is fully operational, it is expected to generate between $2 billion and $2.4 billion a year, probably enough to cover the construction costs and debt. The government plans to sell the network after 15 years.

How much will my internet cost?

THE network will be run like any company. Internet providers will buy access to the network from the government-owned company, which they can then sell to customers. One of the requirements is that there must be a uniform pricing structure, to guarantee that all customers will pay the same rates regardless of location.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has said wholesale prices will range from about $20 to $30 a month for internet only, or $30 to $35 for internet and phone. The costs of retail plans are likely to vary, but will probably be comparable to current broadband packages.

Why doesn't the opposition like it?

THE criticisms have centred mainly on the scale and cost of the project and the fact that there has been no detailed analysis of the costs and benefits. When Malcolm Turnbull was opposition leader, he said the plan made the Whitlam era look "modest and unassuming".

Mr Turnbull has since been appointed to the role of shadow communications minister, and has the task of "destroying the NBN". Recently he said it would represent "an asset worth somewhere between a half and a quarter of [the $43 billion cost]".

The opposition is not so much concerned about the idea of connecting fibre to most homes, but the huge cost involved. Mr Turnbull argues that many Australians already have good broadband access, and the question must therefore be "how can we most efficiently and cost-effectively insure that all Australians have access to good broadband".

Labor claims that many of the benefits of the NBN are intangible and difficult to quantify, including productivity gains over time from technologies not yet available.

Critics of the plan also claim that the NBN, mainly being a fibre network, fails to recognise the shift towards wireless technology that is occurring naturally without the need for major government intervention.

More here

1 comment:

Paul said...

So we'll get a multi-billion dollar broadband network that only carries content approved by Steven Conroy. That's a lot of money for another home shopping channel.