Monday, November 15, 2010

Even the OECD is now criticizing the one solitary idea that Kevin Rudd ever had

THE OECD has urged the Gillard government to slow down the rollout of its $43 billion high-speed broadband network. It has warned that the project is installing a public monopoly that could choke off the development of better internet technologies.

The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has declared that a more gradual approach would allow a better assessment of the costs and potential benefits associated with the National Broadband Network.

In a new report, the OECD said the government had adopted a "picking-the-winner strategy" on the NBN that could hinder the development of "as yet unknown, superior technological alternatives". The report also found "substantial financial uncertainties" with the massive project - which is expected to have $26bn worth of equity funding from the government - and cautioned that it may not be the most cost-effective strategy.

The criticism is contained in the OECD's first major report card on Australia since the height of the global financial crisis in October 2008.

The OECD's critique threatens to add to the pressure on Julia Gillard over the NBN.

Late yesterday, opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull said the OECD had confirmed "that this is being undertaken without any proper examination of the alternatives to achieve the policy objective of universal affordable broadband".

The NBN will be an optic fibre-based network connected to 93 per cent of the nation's homes and business premises.

Treasury has warned cabinet that the NBN carries significant risks, both for the public balance sheet and risks around competition and efficiency in telecommunications and related markets.

The Treasury advice said the government's response to the NBN implementation study by KPMG-McKinsey - due to be released "shortly" - would set the parameters for outcomes in these areas for decades.

Concerns about competition are echoed by the OECD.

The OECD finds that the NBN would promote "a fairer competition" between private firms for retail services and that the structural separation of Telstra and simplifying the regime governing access to telecommunications infrastructure should also boost competition. But it warns about the competition ramifications of establishing a public monopoly over the supply of access to wholesale internet services.

The proposed $11bn deal with Telstra - under which Telstra would become a customer of the government-owned NBN Co rather than competing with it - established such a monopoly.

The OECD argues that developing fibre-optic networks more gradually than under the government's program "would also allow a better assessment of the new network's costs and potential benefits and the potential positive externalities". It said the NBN pilot project being rolled out in Tasmania was a good initiative that might provide useful lessons.

Residents in the NSW south coast suburb of Kiama Downs, an area chosen for one of the first mainland trials of the NBN, yesterday questioned the value of the network given existing access to fast broadband speeds.

Of the 12 Kiama Downs residents interviewed by The Australian, only three said they thought the NBN was a good idea, and only one could say for sure that he would buy a service when the trial went live. All expressed concern about the lack of a cost-benefit analysis, and they thought the final costs would be too high.

John and Jill Hanna, both teachers, said they would sign up to the free NBN trial but feared it would ultimately prove too expensive and beyond their needs. "I don't see a use for it," Mrs Hanna said. "We're quite happy with the service that we have."

A spokeswoman for Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said yesterday the NBN would "introduce genuine competition to the telecommunications market".

Mr Turnbull will read his private member's bill seeking a Productivity Commission cost-benefit analysis of the project for a second time this week. Senator Conroy has dismissed the push as "just another stunt".


There is a very comprehensive critique of the Gillard government's stance on the matter here. The NBN is undoubtedly set to be a monumental boondoggle

Teacher, not class size, key to results, says report

GOVERNMENTS waste millions of dollars in education on expensive and ineffectual programs to reduce class sizes. A new report advocates that the money instead be spent improving the standard of teaching.

A report by the Grattan Institute released today aims to refocus the education debate on teacher quality, arguing improving the effectiveness of teachers is the biggest economic reform governments could implement, adding $90 billion to gross domestic product by 2050.

The report says government spending on education increased about 40 per cent over the past decade, much of it spent on reducing class sizes, which has had no effect on improving student or educational standards.

"It is more important for a student to have an effective teacher than to be in a class with a few less students," it says.

"Smaller classes are intuitively appealing. It is easy to imagine that they result in more one-on-one interaction with students, more effective teaching and learning time for each student, and a reduction in the burden of dealing with negative behaviour.

"Unfortunately, the evidence does not support these assertions."

An analysis released this year of the effects of reducing class sizes in the US state of Florida found the program had "little, if any, effect" on learning and behavioural issues such as absenteeism, suspensions and bullying.

But the program was extraordinarily expensive, costing about $US1 million per school per year to reduce class sizes by 2.5 to three students in every year up to Year 8.

The Grattan Institute advocates concentrating resources on lifting the performance of the bottom 10 per cent of teachers to drive improvements in learning, which would be enough to lift Australian students' results to the top tier in international tests.

In the literacy and numeracy tests of 15-year-olds conducted by the OECD, Australia sits in the second tier of nations behind Finland, Hong Kong and Canada. To reach the top tier, Australian students would need to learn at least an extra half-year of curriculum.

The institute's director of school education, Ben Jensen, argues improving teacher effectiveness is the best way of lifting student performance to this level, and increasing the standard of the bottom of 10 per cent of teachers will achieve this.

Dr Jensen nominated five main mechanisms to improve teaching standards: improving the quality of applicants to become teachers; improving the quality of their initial education and training; evaluating and providing feedback to teachers once they're in classrooms; recognising and rewarding effective teachers; and moving on ineffective teachers who are unable to improve.

The last three steps are the most critical development for teachers in Australia.

Dr Jensen said he was not advocating teachers be assessed solely on the basis of their students' results.


$1.1bn wasted on solar power

MORE than $1 billion of taxpayers' money was wasted on subsidies for household solar roof panels that favoured the rich and did little to reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions, a scathing review has found.

The review of the now scrapped federal government solar rebate scheme, conducted by ANU researchers Andrew Macintosh and Deb Wilkinson, also found the rebates did little to generate a solar manufacturing industry in Australia, instead sending hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars offshore.

Mr Macintosh, deputy head of ANU's Centre for Climate Law and Policy, told The Age yesterday the rebate had been "beautiful politics, terrible policy".

"I can't see there is anything to be gained continuing to subsidise rooftop solar PV [photovoltaics] in areas where households have easy access to the energy grid," he said.

The program, started in 2000 with lower rebates, offered households an $8000 rebate to install solar panels on their roofs. In total, the government spent $1.1 billion installing 107,000 rooftop solar panels.

In June last year the Rudd government cancelled the program with less than 24 hours notice after surging demand rendered the scheme financially unsustainable. A less generous solar credits program has since replaced the rebate.

The report did not make any conclusion on the merits of the new scheme, or existing state-based solar programs.

By using documents obtained from the federal Environment Department, the researchers found 66 per cent of the solar systems installed under the program were on homes in suburbs with at least a "medium-high" socio-economic status.

All solar panel systems installed under the program combined reduced Australia's emissions by just 0.015 per cent, and cost up to $301 per tonne of carbon saved - hundreds more than the cost of emissions reductions with a carbon price.

In other findings, Mr Macintosh and Ms Wilkinson say while the program drove a six-fold increase in the generation capacity of rooftop solar panels, the technology still generates only 0.1 per cent of electricity output in Australia.

While the rebate benefited the domestic solar industry by up to $780 million, it did little to develop a value-adding manufacturing industry in Australia. Instead solar panels imports, mainly from China, rose from $17 million to $295 million between 2002 and 2009.

Mr Macintosh and Ms Wilkinson's review concludes the experience with the popular solar rebate program "highlights how care needs to be taken to ensure that renewable energy programs are designed and administered to generate public benefit outcomes".

"When poorly targeted and designed, these programs can be wasteful and produce predominantly private rather than public benefits," it says.

Mr Macintosh warned there were several environment programs still on the government's books that had similar flaws as the solar rebate, including the cash-for-clunkers program, which offers motorists $2000 to junk old cars if they buy a new fuel-efficient vehicle.

The chief executive of the Australian Solar Energy Society, John Grimes, said the solar industry needed a clear policy to ensure long-term growth. He said the solar industry had suffered from boom-bust policies, including the sudden closure of the program and the decision by the NSW government to scale down its feed-in tariff.


Bullies win at Qld. govt. hospital

Bullied nurse abandoned; Bullies still in place

A GOLD Coast Hospital nurse who received workers compensation after being bullied has been told to `let it go' and find a job elsewhere.

Queensland Health has been forced to acknowledge it has not dealt appropriately with bullying at the hospital and has ordered its nursing managers to undertake training on how to deal with complex staff issues.

The response drew criticism from business and human resources experts who said any good achieved through mediation and apologies had been thrown out the window by the inappropriate response.

Nurse Susan Dale was awarded compensation for psychological injury suffered while working at the hospital.

In a letter sent to the nurse, executive director of nursing Ged Williams conceded Ms Dale's case had not been dealt with properly, but then told her to `let it go' and find a job elsewhere.

The workers compensation appeal claim found hospital management had acted unreasonably by calling a meeting to address complaints against Ms Dale, which included a manager she felt did not like her, as well as calling a second meeting without allowing time to have a support person present.

Ms Dale, who has been off work on stress leave, has been left confused and upset after receiving the letter. "It's not good enough in the sense that the people who have done the bullying and put me out of a job are still in their positions," she said. "He can say let it go and that I will get another position but how do I get another position? "And these people are still laughing and defaming me."

"I worked in the Psych Dept at the Gold Coast Hospital, where bullying is rife and I was subject to it on a daily basis. Even the powers that be are aware of it, and somewhat powerless to do anything.

I did leave, and get on with my life but Qld Health really needs to pull it's head out of the sand and do some serious work to address the deeply embedded bullying culture that exists. In the end, bullying affects everyone, staff and patients alike, not a good look Qld Health!!"

In the letter, Mr Williams admitted two supervisors had shown poor judgment and used unprofessional administrative procedures in dealing with Ms Dale. He said the Gold Coast Health Service District would now provide all nursing managers with training according to law, policy and human dignity principles. "GCHSD has learnt a lesson," he said. "Your experience is not the first to re-emphasise this need, and I suspect it will not be the last."

He suggested Ms Dale now look for a job elsewhere as it would be inappropriate for her to return to work with her negative feelings towards the hospital. "My personal advice is to 'let it go', that is let GCHSD now deal with its own learning and processes to become the sort of organisation we would all be a lot happier to be associated with," he said.

Mudgeeraba MP Ros Bates, who has been compiling a dossier of complaints from Gold Coast nurses, said it was up to Queensland Health to find Ms Dale a position in a safe environment. "Obviously the letter is an admission of guilt on behalf of the Gold Coast Health Service District," she said.

"They have admitted they handled her complaint inappropriately and also are now implementing supposed training for middle management but that is after the horse has bolted."

Queensland Nurses Union assistant secretary Beth Mohle said the levels of both physical and verbal violence against nurses in the workplace were concerning.


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