Monday, November 01, 2010

A secretive and dishonest education bureaucracy

The NSW Board of Studies risks becoming a law unto itself. Unwilling to take full responsibility for errors, such as last week's mistake in a history exam, it seeks to shoot the messenger. Taking its lead from the state government, the Board has a history of trying to dodge blame and discredit its critics.

The Board dismissed an error it made in an ancient history paper by saying it would have little impact on students. The error related to a multiple choice question worth “only” one mark. As any HSC student will tell you, every mark is crucial when competing for a university place. The error also related to another question worth seven marks - something the Board was slow to acknowledge.

Many teachers and academics are reluctant to publicly criticise the Board, fearing a backlash.

Teachers employed to mark HSC papers at the end of the year make no secret of the generous boost this work provides in their pay packets. The Board consults academics.

Last year, the NSW Ombudsman slammed the Board. The Board was forced to release raw HSC results it spent thousands of dollars trying to keep secret, after the Ombudsman criticised its lack of transparency in how exam results are scaled.

The Ombudsman’s final report was scathing, uncovering a culture of secrecy within the Office of the Board of Studies. It said the Board, under its previous manager, had treated a former HSC student as "the enemy", using "'a defensive and overly fastidious tone and approach" in the crossfire of letters to the student.

The extreme, and often questionable, lengths the Board took to protect the integrity of the HSC marking process from public scrutiny was well documented. The Board advised the student that three sets of documents he requested either did not exist or could not be produced when in fact they did exist and could be produced.
The Board gave the student the false impression that a decision had been reviewed by two different officers, when the same person had reviewed the decision twice.

By the time the Ombudsman’s Office had completed its investigation the Board had spent $51,000 on legal costs.

The Board is well motivated when it comes to ferociously protecting students from any anxiety during the HSC exams. But its protectiveness over students and the integrity of the HSC itself, is being used as a shield against all criticism.

After a report of an HSC timetable glitch – which resulted in students sitting the same examination on two different days - the Board was up in arms during a previous year. The reason being, that the report may have upset students sitting the exams. The timetable had raised legitimate concerns from teachers about the potential for cheating. The Board’s outrage also followed the reporting of a politically volatile Work Choices question in an exam paper. The Board wanted to distance itself from any political controversy in the lead up to the 2007 federal election.

The Board of Studies needs to lose its glass jaw. The Ombudsman’s report made it clear that it should focus more on transparency and less on trying to silence its critics.


Man jailed for calling magistrate 'mate'

"Mate" is a friendly form of address that is characteristic of Australia -- and Australians are in general friendly people. To condemn it is unsufferably pompous and reflects much more poorly on the one condemning it than on the one using it.

CHIEF Magistrate has been urged to introduce anger management courses for members of the judiciary after a man was jailed for addressing an Ipswich magistrate as "mate".

Thomas John Collins was sent to the cells after twice calling Magistrate Matthew McLaughlin "mate'' during a hearing last week. When Magistrate McLaughlin objected ordering Collins to address him as "sir or your honour", the defendant replied "okay mate" and was sent for a stint in the cells. He later returned to the courtroom to apologise.

Ipswich City Councillor Paul Tully said the incident followed another in Toowoomba, where a magistrate hauled two tradesmen before the court for making too much noise, and threatened to charge them with contempt.

Cr Tully said the pomposity of some magistrates had gone too far. "It is getting out of control," he said. He said there was nothing "more Australian than calling someone mate" and it was hard to believe someone could be locked up for using the word.

"It's probably time for magistrates to understand they have a wide variety of people before them and calling someone mate is a term of endearment," Cr Tully said. "I say to every magistrate - Come on mate, get off your high horse and show some tolerance."

He also called on the Chief Magistrate Judge Brendan Butler to introduce annual anger management classes for all Queensland magistrates.


Water bills in Victoria 'to double again'

This is the State that lets dam water flow out to sea as "environmental flows"

THE true costs of Australia's largest desalination plant are becoming clearer, with Melburnians said to be facing another doubling of water bills to pay for the Brumby government's $5.7 billion plant.

Consumers, who have already been slugged with a doubling of bills from 2009 to 2013, face further hikes as Melbourne Water's costs soar, an analysis of Auditor-General figures shows.

In the face of the government's repeated refusals to reveal the bill increases for desalinated water, the opposition has analysed figures in the Auditor-General's October finance report and found that Melbourne Water's costs per kilolitre, or 1000 litres, could increase by up to 130 per cent.

These costs are passed on to the retail water companies - City West Water, South East Water and Yarra Valley Water - which then pass them on to customers.

On average, the retailers pay Melbourne Water 70¢ a kilolitre. But the opposition's figures show that once the desalination plant is operating, it will cost Melbourne Water $1.60 to buy a kilolitre of water.

"These figures show there will be a dramatic rise in Melbourne Water's wholesale costs," Coalition scrutiny of government spokesman David Davis said, warning that the rise could mean a quadrupling of water prices.

"Victorian households should prepare to pay up to $2000 a year in water bills … for the exorbitant mismanaged costs of the desalination plant."

The government yesterday rejected the opposition's claim as "back of the envelope" calculations aimed at scaring Victorians.

"We emphatically reject these grossly exaggerated figures, which do not in any way represent what household water bills will look like in the coming years," said a spokesman for Water Minister Tim Holding.

But the government refused, again, to provide an estimate of water bills after 2013 and would not say if the impact on bills had been modelled.

The new water figures come as the Brumby government faces an election backlash on cost-of-living increases, with power bills also set to rise.

On Friday, the Australian Energy Regulator approved an increase of up to $82 on a $1600 bill from next year. This follows the government's mandatory $1.6 billion smart-meter rollout, which added $68 to bills this year and will add $72 next year.

To calculate the water figures, the opposition has taken the cost of the desalination plant in today's dollars and assumed that the maximum 150 billion litres will be taken from the plant each year.

According to the Auditor-General's figures, the plant will cost, in today's dollars, $5.4 billion for its construction and operation, and a further $1.2 billion if the state buys all the available water, taking the overall cost to $6.6 billion.

But a government spokesman said the opposition's figures were wrong because Melbourne Water's costs only made up half the costs on household water bills. The figures were also based on the state ordering a maximum of 150 billion litres a year from the plant, but the opposition had already said this amount would not be required.

The spokesman added that the opposition's figures were inflated because it ignored the fixed component in bills. The costs would be shared between both the fixed and kilolitre, or volume, charges, which would make the volume charge much lower than the opposition claimed.

Also, households would not bear the costs alone: industry, local councils and businesses, as well as water users in Geelong, South Gippsland and Western Port would also contribute.

In 2009, the government signed a public-private partnership with Aquasure, a consortium of three companies. The government has repeatedly cited commercial-in-confidence as a reason not to release information about payments to the consortium. It has also refused to talk about the impact of water bills after 2013, which are regulated by the Essential Services Commission.

To pay for the desalination plant, north-south pipeline and other works to boost Melbourne's water supply, the commission has approved price rises that will push a typical household bill for South East Water from $566 in 2008-2009 to $894 in 2013. The desalination plant is due to come online at the end of next year.


Labor Party not Leftist enough

The following is by journalists who appear to be sympathetic to the ALP. One fervently hopes that the ALP takes their advice and thus hands Mr Abbott an easy victory next election

THE Labor Party is losing support to the Greens on its left, over the issues of refugees, same-sex marriage and climate change.

According to Newspoll, support for the ALP is running at just 33 per cent, 5 per cent lower than the paltry 38 per cent it notched up at this year's election. Support for the Greens is 14 per cent, a record high for the party.

Is this the end of the ALP as a progressive party? Labor's poor primary vote in August was the lowest with which it has ever won an election. The fact the ALP could get so close to losing office less than three years after turfing out the Coalition indicates the extent of the party's problems. But Labor's support has been trending downwards since Bob Hawke's triumph in 1983 when it won nearly half the primary vote. Clearly Labor's problems have deep roots.

Many current and former Labor supporters say yes, Labor has lost its way as a progressive party on the Left. Graham Maddox, a political theorist and old-style social democrat, looks back to a golden age when the ALP, under Curtin, Chifley and Whitlam, was a moral party, committed to achieving greater equality by limiting the effects of the market.

These governments certainly implemented some policies that generated enthusiastic support from Labor's working-class base. But they also tried to maintain employers' profits. Curtin and Chifley expanded social security but paid for it by taxing low incomes for the first time. Their "wage pegging" regulations pushed down real pay.

More than two decades later, under pressure from a massive wave of strikes, the Whitlam government introduced Medibank and other reform measures, before the economy tanked in 1974. The government then turned on workers, delivering Australia's first cost-cutting monetarist budget and introducing indexation to rein in wages.

A century after Labor first formed a majority federal government and took office in NSW, its supporters see nothing to cheer about. Under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, Labor has gone to the voters with the most right-wing platform in the party's history. Party loyalists looked to the ALP to be better than the hated Howard government, with its WorkChoices legislation, prosecution of the "war on terror" in all its manifestations and attacks on refugees. Instead they have more of the same under Labor.

The Labor Left senses the need to pull the party back from right-wing positions, if only to combat the Greens.

The Left, however, is a shadow of its former self. At its recent national conference, the party's left-wing chiefs called on Gillard to scrap the union-busting Australian Building and Construction Commission and to lift the ban on same-sex marriage. But they have also urged her to press ahead with a price on carbon, which will have a regressive impact on workers' living standards, and backed the government's obsession with returning the budget to surplus by keeping a lid on public spending while so much needs to be fixed in health and education after years of neglect during the Howard era.

The ALP has problems that go beyond votes and the party's ideological soul. In his recent book former NSW Labor minister, Rodney Cavalier pointed to structural degeneration including the decline in active membership and the prevalence of branch stacking.

But equally important is the fact there has been no serious post-mortem of the election debacle within the party and none is likely. Nor has there been any sign of revolt from the branches. The absence of any serious ructions within the ALP tells us how inert its internal life is today.

Clearly Labor has been transformed in many ways and would be unrecognisable to its founders, or even the stalwarts of the 1960s.

But there are important continuities as well: the mainly working-class character of core ALP voters (in contrast with the Greens) and the role unions play in the party.

Kristina Keneally, under union pressure, has resisted Gillard's efforts to water down occupational health and safety laws in NSW. Through the extra-parliamentary Labor Party, unions also prevented the Iemma government in NSW from privatising the electricity industry in 2008. Critics such as Cavalier argue that only 20 per cent of the workforce is unionised and it is time to cut the knot. But that would worsen Labor's situation.

The union connection provides the ALP with votes. Who can doubt that after the Your Rights at Work campaign lifted the party into office in 2007? The union link also lies at the heart of Labor's appeal to capitalists, at times. The ALP can use the union connection to discipline the working class, to cut wages and boost profits, as it did during the Accord years.

So there has been change but a continuity as well, that also applies to the ALP's policy orientation.

Labor has shed much of the statist ideology of the early 20th century. Tariffs are gone. White Australia is history. And the apron strings that tied Australia to the "mother country" were cut long ago. Tariffs have been replaced by National Competition Policy, cuts in company tax and privatisations. White Australia has been recast but racism still underpins the Gillard government's refugee bashing. And ties with London have been replaced by unwavering support for the US alliance.

One hundred years after Labor became a natural party of government, its links with the working class, through its core electoral base and the trade unions, still exist although they are somewhat frayed. This explains the distinction between Labor and the Liberals. The ALP's commitment to the interests of big business is as solid as ever. This, along with the current period of economic uncertainty and low-working-class combativity, accounts for Labor's degeneration as a party of the Left.


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