Sunday, October 31, 2010

NSW to review weak sentencing of criminals

SUSPENDED sentences could be scrapped by the State Government because of concerns courts allow too many serious offenders to escape jail. Attorney-General John Hatzistergos has ordered a review of suspended sentences after the number handed out by judges and magistrates tripled over the past decade.

More than 6400 criminals convicted of assault, robbery and drug dealing last year received suspended sentences, in which a jail term is deferred on the condition there is no re-offending. The Government is looking to follow the lead of Victoria where the sentencing option is being abolished for all but the most serious of crimes.

The review will be carried out by the NSW Sentencing Council. It will be headed by council chair Jerrold Cripps, QC with advice from Justice James Wood, Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery, NSW Corrective Services Commissioner Ron Woodham and police Assistant Commissioner David Hudson.Mr Hatzistergos said suspended sentences were designed to denote the seriousness of the offence while giving offenders the chance to rehabilitate in the community.

"This review will determine whether suspended sentences are meeting these objectives," he said. "It will also examine the use of suspended sentences for offenders who would have otherwise been given a bond.

"Importantly, it will consider the views of victims of crime, for whom a suspended sentence can be a confusing outcome when they are expecting the offender to go to jail."Suspended sentences can be issued by the courts to people convicted of crimes that carry sentences of up to two years.

But evidence shows that instead of being issued as an alternative to jail, they are being handed down in place of periodic detention and community services.

Figures from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) show 5983 suspended sentences were handed down in the lower courts last year and 489 in the higher courts. Eleven people convicted of manslaughter and driving causing death were given suspended sentences. They were also handed down to 113 people convicted of sexual assault, eight who were involved in kidnapping, 334 for burglary, 301 for importing or exporting drugs and 1644 for traffic offences.

In about half the cases, offenders walked free from court without supervision orders.

Suspended sentences were scrapped in the mid-1970s but reintroduced under Bob Carr in 2000. Critics of the sentencing option claim suspended sentences were designed for "middle-class offenders" as the conditions simply required those being handed them to obey the law, as required by the rest of the community.

Victims of Crime Assistance League vice-president Howard Brown said suspended sentences had been handed out inconsistently by the courts and should not be given to perpetrators of violent crime. "There is a place for them, but they've been given inconsistently," Mr Brown said.


Failed NSW solar power scheme will burn a hole in every pocket

Households will pay an extra $600 on their electricity bill over six years to cover the $2 billion cost of the failure of the state government's overly generous solar power scheme.

If elected in March, the opposition will have the scheme, which runs to the end of 2016, reviewed by the auditor-general so that it can decide on its future.

From midnight last Wednesday, the government slashed from 60¢ to 20¢ per kilowatt hour the tariff paid to households installing solar panel systems because the surging number of applications has blown out the scheme's cost.

In reports tabled in Parliament last week, the government disclosed that it had been advised that even after slashing the tariff for solar panels, it anticipated 777 megawatts of solar panels would be installed by the time the scheme closed. Already, 200 megawatts of capacity has either been installed or ordered.

The reports detailed the total cost to households is forecast to reach $1975 million by 2017, placing a burden on homes at a time when power prices are rising sharply already.

The government refused to indicate when it first became aware that the initial 50-megawatt target had been breached, which triggered an automatic review of the scheme. The government began that review in August. However, Country Energy, one of the largest distributors in NSW, was informing solar industry officials as early as May that the target had already been reached.

Even so, the government "dithered until August" before holding its review, with the report only completed last week, opposition climate change spokeswoman Catherine Cusack said yesterday. "Labor's billion-dollar blowout will be passed on to families who will pay at least an extra $100 per year on their electricity bills every year until 2017," she said.

The total cost to families in some regional areas could be $1000.

A slump in the price of solar panels, to about $6000 per kilowatt from about $13,000 at the start of the year, prompted a surge in the number of households installing the systems. The price drop resulted in it taking only two years for some systems to pay for themselves, rather than six years. Cutting the tariff to 20¢ - what most households pay for their electricity - is expected to result in fewer orders for new systems.

Industry sources estimate a new system will take 5.4 years to pay for itself with a 20¢ tariff, making it hard to justify installing one. According to the government's figures, a 2.5-kilowatt system would bring a "windfall gain" of $4000 for the installer. The opposition said the total size of the subsidy was $10,000 per installed system.

Jon Dee, NSW Australian of the Year for 2010 and founder of advocacy organisation Do Something!, has added his voice to the condemnation of the government's decision. He has just installed solar panels on his Blue Mountains home and is on a lecture tour advising businesses how they can save money using sustainable initiatives.

"This is typical of our politicians, a knee-jerk reaction," he said. "Initially the tariff was too generous and now they have reduced it too heavily. What we need is a national approach where we look at what tariff will encourage sustainable growth [of the solar industry] and wean the public off … coal-fired power."

The NSW scheme paid existing solar clients 60¢ per kilowatt hour for all energy produced; other states have "net" schemes that pay for surplus power after domestic use is taken off. NSW had the most generous scheme - now the least. Victoria's net scheme pays 60¢ per kilowatt hour, Queensland pays 44¢ and Western Australia pays 40¢.

Mr Dee said a standard national rate would encourage banks to make green loans available. "The government has shown that it is incapable of running green loans schemes but that is the next step so that the average person can afford to get involved," he said.

A spokeswoman for SolarSwitch, one of the largest installers in the state, said: "[Premier Keneally] wanted to slow it down but she has slammed the brakes on and thrown us through the windscreen." She said the tighter margins would encourage consumers to look at cheaper, inferior panels with the risk of them delaminating or the glass turning milky after a few years of use.

The Clean Energy Council said the NSW government had effectively "shut down" the industry by setting the tariff at almost the same rate as the cost of electricity.

The state opposition wants the tariff reviewed. With the election imminent and the government insecure, it may get that opportunity.


Queensland Health erroneously pays millions to ex-employees

Even after many months, they cannot get their payroll system right. And that is symptomatic of how they run their hospitals

The Queensland Health payroll debacle has sunk to a new low as taxpayers fork out "wages" to people who do not even work for the organisation. The Sunday Mail can reveal that former employees of Queensland Health – even some who resigned more than 18 months ago – are receiving the payments. Highly placed sources have told of former staff having to ring repeatedly to ask for the payments to stop.

Others who have been overpaid could have the issue hanging over their head for up to six years and some will have to enter into long-term, fortnightly repayment plans.

Queensland Health deputy director-general of corporate services Michael Walsh confirmed former staff were being paid. "Queensland Health acknowledges that some former staff have received payments after their separation date," Mr Walsh said in a statement. "Some of these staff completed their employment with Queensland Health prior to March 8, 2010."

However, sources said some former staff who had received payments had quit up to two years ago. It has been reported that at least $38 million has been incorrectly doled out.

But section 396 of the Industrial Relations Act means employees cannot be forced to pay back the amount in one lump sum. Mr Walsh said Queensland Health would "sit down with each employee to help them understand their pay situation and develop an appropriate repayment plan".

Meanwhile, Minister for Information and Communication Technology Robert Schwarten dismissed Opposition criticism in Question Time this week about the hiring of consultants to fix the problem. "If you do not know that much, I do not know what sort of a government you will make," Mr Schwarten said.


Great education available outside the mainstream

HOME schooling and private and selective schools give kids the best chance at learning

JULIA Gillard often tells us that Labor proposes to give every young Australian a great education. The phrase is a mantra, of course, but I wonder if there is anything remotely approaching a consensus about what constitutes a great education.

Being something of a traditionalist, when I hear those words my mind turns to the sort of elite schooling that Eton offers its boys and Geelong Grammar provides for both sexes. Although I would have hated being a boarder myself, I'm now inclining to the view that many - perhaps even most - adolescents benefit from longish spells away from the comforts and distractions of family life, in an ordered existence concentrated on study.

Schools like these offer the best of several worlds. Because they cater for grandees and rich people, many of whose children aren't especially bright, they're a model of flexibility in encouraging the extracurricular and sporting interests of pupils who aren't academically inclined. At the same time, they give everyone a good grounding in the basics and attend assiduously to anyone displaying any scholarly inclinations.

At the opposite end of the scale is private tuition at home. The days when rich people in Australia thought nothing of hiring a full-time tutor to teach their children are almost gone, except in the case of invalids and infant prodigies.

However, there is a thriving home-schooling movement, delivering most of the same benefits at a fraction of the cost and producing more than its share of outstanding students.

It was born of a warranted mistrust of the ideological baggage of the state system and, increasingly, of the Catholic parochial and independent systems.

Parents tend to rely on unfashionable textbooks that teach you how to parse a sentence, to construct a paragraph and to mount an argument in 500 words. They do not pander to the fads for dumbed-down literary studies but offer English as we once knew it.

Similarly, the maths and science books are usually at least 20 years old and quaintly insistent on the difference between a right answer and a wrong one. Because the parents learned from similar texts, they find them relatively easy to teach from.

Home-schooling parents enjoy an unenviable reputation in official educational circles as a current equivalent to the American Amish. In my experience this is seldom warranted because most of them believe in the value of a rigorous education that will let their offspring think for themselves and free them from enslavement to the zeitgeist.

Home-schooling parents include blue-collar social conservatives and middle-class people who set great store in education. Quite a lot are disenchanted former teachers who tend to pool their expertise and hold group tutorials for students in their area. This has the added advantages of getting the kids out of the house and into the company of their age-mates.

Retired Latin, French and music teachers can earn a modest supplement to the pension, instructing small groups of highly motivated youngsters. Old maths teachers are also much sought-after.

I should declare an interest here. I've found teaching English and history to individual home-schoolers one of the most rewarding experiences of recent years.

In between what many would regard as the two extremes, another example of an education that could plausibly be called great is the kind provided by NSW's James Ruse Agricultural High School. It's a selective co-ed school with a catchment area including a lot of poorer suburbs. Nonetheless, in exams its students regularly outperform every other secondary school, public or private, in the state and they excel in the arts and sport as well.

By virtue of its dedicated staff and track record of academic performance, James Ruse has broken down what's probably the biggest barrier to equality of opportunity in schooling. It has overcome the habitual under-valuing of education by generations of working-class Australian parents.

There are a few groups that have been notable exceptions to that rule: the Lutherans and the remnants of the old-fashioned Presbyterian and Methodist cultures (which maintain a strong ethos of self-help) and the Jews, known from the earliest times as "the people of the book".

Among the crucial reasons for the inequality of educational outcomes in Australia - which Gillard often conflates with the separate question of educational opportunity - is that middle-class parents tend to value schooling highly and reward good results.

The fact their children are over-represented in the professions is less a function of the advantages of their class than because those are the careers to which they and their families have historically aspired and so many of them are over-achievers.

Considering the three models of an excellent education canvassed here and the shape of a consensus that might emerge on the subject, there are a few points that can be made.

The successes of home-schooling suggest it's the quality of teaching and parental support, rather than the amount of money expended, that is critical.

In contrast, vast amounts of public funding underpinned the fad for "whole word" reading programs in primary schools that have wasted years of everyone's time and left many thousands of younger Australians functionally illiterate.

All three models assume that schooling should be a demanding exercise as well as a rewarding one and that this applies to the slow learners and the disengaged as much as the gifted and the keen.

Unless schools expect the best their pupils can achieve, they'll seldom see it and the young may never get a good grounding in the basics, let alone find out what they're capable of doing.

The surest way to avoid institutional dumbing-down is by streaming all students according to ability, as measured by IQ tests and annual exams.

However, it's well documented that the British model of an all-important 11 Plus hurdle has discriminated against late developers and bright kids from backgrounds of complex disadvantage, so there needs to be periodic opportunities to change stream.

Not everyone belongs in the top streams and not everyone belongs in their local secondary school. Selective schools with competitive entry may offend the politically correct pieties of the teachers unions, which say they want every school to be a centre of excellence.

But in the meantime, until that happy day dawns, selective schools are the best chance of a great education for students in the public system. They are the leaven in the lump.

There should be more of them and they should encourage their youngsters in academic competition as fierce as the kind we take for granted in sport.


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