Saturday, November 13, 2010

The usual Leftist hypocrisy

Get Up! funded anti-Abbott ad with union's $1m gift

THE advocacy group GetUp! accepted a record $1.12 million donation from a large union just before the federal election, at the same time supporting a ban on political donations from unions and business.

The donation from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union funded a prominent TV advertisement that attacked the Liberal leader Tony Abbott's "archaic" views on women and social issues in the days before the election in August.

It went to air as a GetUp! advertisement with no reference to being largely funded by a big Labor-affiliated union. The high-profile group, which says it has more than 300,000 members, pursues issues such as climate change and refugees. Its successful High Court challenge before the election enabled tens of thousands of young people to vote.

But its willingness to take such a large donation, of the type it wants banned, has led to claims it has been hypocritical.

The opposition leader in the Senate, Eric Abetz, said the donation showed GetUp! was nothing more than a Labor front and the advertising could have changed the election result.

"It's clear there is a strong relationship between the unions and GetUp! and the Labor Party campaign," he said. "With that sort of money the CFMEU could have run and authorised their own advertisement but they deliberately got GetUp! to do that as a third party so the odium of the CFMEU wouldn't be associated with the advertising campaign."

Since 2008 GetUp! has been campaigning to stop unions and businesses donating to political parties. It says only individuals should be allowed to donate, capped at $1000 a year. It has nearly reached its target of 50,000 names on a petition on the issue. The petition reads. "Tell the government to get corporate and third-party influence out of politics and end all large-scale political donations. "Our democracy should not be for sale but right now the people we elect to govern us take money from those who stand to gain from government policy and contracts."

GetUp! bills itself as "an independent, grassroots community advocacy organisation" and says it received no money from political parties or government.

Its acting national director, Sam McLean, rejected the claims of hypocrisy. "We had a good think about whether we wanted to [accept the money] but in the end decided that we'd already made the ad. It was not like anyone was giving us a cheque and asking us to run a campaign. It was something we already believed in and had on air." He said the group would be happy for future legislation to ban the type of donation, which he said came from the construction division of the union.

The union contribution is nearly 10 times the size of any donation disclosed since it was founded in 2005.


Australian Govt ponders new laws on asylum seekers

The federal government is considering introducing new laws to circumvent a High Court ruling that's undermined the effectiveness of its offshore processing regime for asylum-seekers who arrive by boat.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard says Immigration Minister Chris Bowen is weighing up Labor's options after the court ruled that asylum-seekers whose claims are rejected offshore still have a right to judicial review. "He'll work through (the decision) and make some recommendations about need for legislative change," Ms Gillard told reporters in Seoul where she's attending a G20 meeting.

Ms Gillard also rejected claims - most notably from prominent human rights lawyer Julian Burnside - that Thursday's ruling could mean asylum-seekers processed in third countries were entitled to access Australia's courts. "There's a suggestion that somehow this High Court decision affects my plans for a regional protection framework and regional processing centre," Ms Gillard said. "It does not."

Mr Bowen backed the prime minister, saying the ruling could only affect processing in other countries if it was conducted by Australian officials. "The advice to me is that there are no implications for offshore processing where it would not be run by Australian officials," he told ABC Radio on Friday.

But that doesn't mean the coalition's plan to reopen a detention centre in Nauru would be in the clear, Mr Bowen said. "I've noticed a number of eminent jurists saying that the so-called Nauru Solution could be challenged under this regime because it would be run by Australian officials as opposed to being run by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) officials or (other) international officials," he said.

Mr Bowen insisted that offshore processing remained a key plank in Labor's border-protection policy despite the High Court ruling. "I think there's a case for offshore detention continuing ... that would be my intention," he said. "Offshore detention and the excision of islands (are) appropriate."

The immigration minister said the government's options in terms of a legislative response "are open" and that he has sought advice from both the solicitor-general and his own department. "(But) I'm not going to stick into the game of `start ruling in, start ruling out' legislative responses or other responses," he said.

The opposition is refusing to back any such legislative response. Coalition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said Labor should instead reintroduce temporary protection visas and shift processing to Nauru. "Labor can't propose piecemeal changes that will simply paper over their High Court problem while doing nothing to address this growing crisis," Mr Morrison said in a statement. "If Labor is serious about cleaning up their mess they will restore the coalition's immigration and border-protection policy regime that stopped the boats."


New York schools not a good model for Australia (or anyone)

Kevin Donnelly says that only test fraud makes them look good

Australia's approach to testing students and holding schools and teachers accountable has been copied from New York. The head of schools there, Joel Klein, has just announced his resignation, and an evaluation of the success or otherwise of the New York experience suggests we may be copying his mistakes.

Julia Gillard, when she was education minister, touted New York's system of teacher and school accountability as the world's best. She used the US example to justify Australia-wide testing in literacy and numeracy at years 3, 5, 7 and 9 and making school results public on the My School website.

In 2008 Gillard met Klein in New York and was so impressed with his policies that she invited him to Australia to show his approach of publicly ranking schools and penalising the underperformers.

Klein argues that his reforms have turned around failing schools and raised standards, but the evidence is far from convincing. He refers to improved results in the local New York tests over the past five to six years. But while the local results have improved, based on the more credible National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, the reality is that standards in New York have flatlined.

The suspicion that students achieved better results because the local tests had been made easier to pass was confirmed by a recent independent report, commissioned by the New York Board of Regents and carried out by Professor Daniel Koretz of Harvard University.

When benchmarked against the US national tests, the report says, standards in New York have not improved. Students achieving excellent results in the Klein tests fail to perform in the more academically focused and rigorous Regents examinations.

As Marc Epstein concluded in an analysis published in New York's City Journal, "The feel-good story of rising student test scores over the last several years is largely an illusion produced by dumbed-down tests."

The education scholar Diane Ravitch, who I visited in New York and who is largely responsible for me changing my mind on the benefits of testing and accountability, argues that Klein's approach is "antithetical to good education".

Mirroring Australian critics, Professor Ravitch argues in The Death and Life of the Great American School System that focusing too much on testing the basics leads to a narrow and impoverished curriculum. Such is the pressure on schools to raise standards that subjects such as history, music, physical education and literature decline as teachers give priority to what is being tested.

Given the high-risk nature of testing and accountability, where underperforming schools face eventual closure and teacher pay is linked to performance, Ravitch and other critics say test results are manipulated.

Increasingly, schools are refusing to enrol weaker students, telling parents to keep underperforming students at home on the day of the test. In extreme cases, teachers have been caught cheating by coaching students during a test or providing answers.

Ravitch also argues that Klein's approach, where schools are measured from year to year in terms of how well they improve test results, is flawed and inconsistent. New York schools that consistently perform at the top of the test table are graded D or F (as they show no improvement from year to year) while less academically successful schools are graded A based on the fact that results have improved over time.

A group of testing experts from the National Research Council mirrored many of these concerns in a 2009 letter to the US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. They warned about relying too much on standardised, short answer tests such as those introduced in New York, saying "a test score is an estimate rather than an exact measure of what a person knows and can do".

The letter also expresses doubts about the reliability and validity of tests. As the aphorism suggests, there are lies, damned lies and statistics.

As someone who has been a vocal advocate of testing and accountability, I might expect criticism for doing an about-face. But as John Maynard Keynes said, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"


The Greens mess with Labor party's mind

CARBON pricing is shaping as the battlefield for Labor and its leftist rival

THE Greens are playing with Labor's head. They court or pressure Labor with tactical skill - on climate change, preferences, gay marriage, boatpeople and industrial relations - while Labor is trapped between its contradictory needs to confront and pacify its new rival on the Left.

Labor's frustration is palpable. It pretends to be in control but agonises about how to respond. Former finance minister Lindsay Tanner warned this week that "what you get with the Greens is left-wing rhetoric and right-wing outcomes", citing their rejection of Kevin Rudd's climate change bills as ultimate proof of his claim.

Delivering the John Button Lecture this week, Finance Minister Penny Wong, criticising the Greens, said: "We [Labor] do not seek a Senate quota, nor to target a particular seat. We seek to govern Australia for all Australians. We never have the luxury of only playing to a narrow audience. We have to build agreement. We have to persuade." She's right. But the historic failure of the Rudd government, passed to Julia Gillard, was its failure to persuade. And the Greens are the big vote winners from that failure.

Ten days earlier Climate Change Minister Greg Combet, in a considered speech, called on Labor to review what it stands for. Combet said Labor needed the courage to lead. It must uphold the principles of equity, social justice and compassion, and recognise that its abandonment of carbon pricing last term was a gift to the Greens and damaged Labor.

Meanwhile, in The Australian yesterday, Graham Richardson, former NSW right-wing factional master, demanded Labor go the path of "robust exchanges" against the Greens. Betraying a touch of desperation, Richardson asked: "Why doesn't the government cost all of the Greens' policies, lift the veil on the totality of their platform and expose what a joke Australia would be if the Greens actually got to govern the country?"

Sadly, there is an answer to Richo's question. Under the written terms of the Labor-Greens alliance, would you believe, the government actually helps the Greens to cost their policies and offers them access to the public service for their policy development. It's enough to make a Labor veteran laugh, or perhaps cry.

But Richardson went further. He said Greens leader Bob Brown was "arguably the best politician in the country" because he offered the facade of moderation to conceal the Greens' extremist character. Now, when Richo thinks the Greens have Australia's most effective leader, something serious is happening.

If you want proof the Greens have scrambled Labor's head, well and truly, consider the public ruminations by Gillard minister and former NSW right-wing party secretary Mark Arbib that it's time for Labor to abandon its opposition to gay marriage. Why is it time?

Because the Greens are stealing Labor votes, that's why. Nothing else. So Labor should cynically abandon its support for the foundational social institution, a move that will trigger a deeply polarising debate and brand Labor indelibly as a libertarian personal rights party ready to ditch any institution or principle. In the process, Labor will alienate permanently an important section of its base.

So what is the answer to Labor's 2010 political crisis? Support gay marriage, of course. No, it's not satire, this view is gaining serious support. It testifies to how politicians can be fooled by opinion polls and miss the bigger picture. It verifies, again, the far-reaching impact the Greens are having on Labor.

On Thursday evening Australian Workers Union boss Paul Howes warned at the Sydney Institute that Labor risked "ending up in an inner-suburban ghetto where we are just manning the barricades against the Greens hordes".

But the Greens hordes are bereft of the working-class masses. As political analyst and former Labor senator John Black argues, the Greens have the highest income profile for any Australian political party, drawing on tertiary-educated public sector professionals, academics, teachers, environmental, arts, media and culture sector workers, residing in professional households, typically in the inner city, often single or with no children. While divided from Labor by values and ideology, there is also a Greens protest vote, giving Labor hope it can claw back some supporters.

The answer to such hopes and the showdown in this Labor-Greens Shakespearean drama will come later this term over climate change. Make no mistake, it will end in euphoria or tears. At present, the result defies prediction.

But pricing carbon is where Gillard and Combet are in fighting mode. This week Gillard was talking as an economic reformer pledging to "grow our economy without growing our pollution". She defined the principle that will govern her policy: to find the cheapest source of emissions reduction, and this is the reason she wants a market mechanism and a carbon price. Stung by criticism over her reform credentials, Gillard has picked pricing carbon as the issue to prove her mettle.

How will Gillard win this battle? There is only one way. She must prevail with Greens votes. Because the Tony Abbott-led Coalition will oppose carbon pricing Gillard's success or failure in parliament depends on the Greens. If the Greens vote with Labor later this term, then Gillard becomes a Labor hero for having the courage to price carbon. But if the Greens refuse to join the party, every pledge by Gillard and Combet is mocked and denied.

The problem is manifest: Labor is hostage to the Greens on carbon pricing. This gives the Greens vast scope for playing with Labor's head. Yet it also poses a test of Brown's leadership and of Greens priorities.

When the time arrives Gillard and Combet will need to mobilise public opinion and pressure the Greens. Is this feasible? Comments from Tanner, Wong, Combet, Richardson and Howes underscore a justified theme: the need for a new public debate with the Greens put under scrutiny.

This did not happen in the last parliament. In this Labor-Greens intersection the role of the ABC is critical because this fault line reflects one of the broadcaster's heartlands where its influence is significant.

Let's state the issue: it is whether the ABC continues to give the Greens immunity from criticism or whether it changes its de facto policy and treats the Greens not as a minor party of superior virtue but as a party that can make and break public policy, thereby deserving scrutiny similar to the main parties. If the ABC fails to make this necessary re-assessment, Gillard Labor will be the serious loser.


The BER taskforce is a whitewash

The head of the BER inquiry has been spending his time defending the program

WHEN does the evidence become so overwhelming, the list of problems too long, and the community anger so great that a government will move from cover-up to repair?

In the case of the home insulation program it took fires and tragic deaths, but in the Building the Education Revolution, it is becoming increasingly likely we will never truly know the extent of the waste, the reach of the rorts and the people who are responsible for the mess.

In Focus last weekend, Brad Orgill, the head of the Gillard government's BER Implementation Taskforce charged with conducting an independent investigation into this program, did something quite astonishing.

Orgill moved from judge to the counsel for the defence effortlessly and before his verdict is due next month. He has become the program's chief defender when he should be staying above the fray.

When the $42 billion stimulus package was announced in February 2009, the centrepiece was a building program worth $14.1bn that sought to add a new, "iconic" building to every primary school in the country. What we now know is that from the outset the guidelines approved by the present Prime Minister were a recipe for waste, and never checked by the departments of Treasury or Finance.

The Rudd-Gillard government scrapped the extremely successful funding model of the previous government, where federal funding was handed directly to schools, and instead rolled out billions of dollars to state governments with little oversight.

Almost comically, seven months after it's inception the BER guidelines were quietly revised to include the words "value for money" for the first time. It was also at this time that Julia Gillard revealed a $1.7bn blow-out in the BER costings, bringing the total price tag of the primary school program to $16.2bn.

The Coalition and The Australian began receiving complaints about the roll-out of the BER as early as April 2009. Schools were being forced to accept buildings they didn't want or need. Prices for government schools were soaring, and reports of system-wide problems began to emerge.

At first Gillard, who was education minister at the time, described Coalition concerns over the growing examples of waste in the BER as nitpicking. Members of parliament who dared to raise constituents' worries were lampooned by Gillard.

Twelve months after a trickle became a tidal wave of complaints and concerns, Gillard announced she would establish a body to investigate.

Orgill was appointed last April by the Rudd-Gillard government to examine the school hall program, and from day one the Coalition has questioned the independence of a taskforce that works within the Department of Education and has no powers to subpoena documents and summons witnesses.

During the months that have followed, our fears that the taskforce is a whitewash designed to hide the truth about the BER have largely been validated.

From the outset the taskforce appeared to be conducting a public relations exercise rather than a forensic investigation.

The taskforce employed a media adviser to spin before an accountant to examine, and Orgill regularly fronted the national media to defend the decisions of the government and the rollout of the school hall fund. It reached the point where Orgill was criticised in the media for farcical visits, with journalists in tow, to schools where there were no BER complaints.

The taskforce's interim report, delivered in the heat of the election campaign, suggested the evidence of waste could be justified as an "efficiency dividend", that is, an extra amount governments were justified in paying to get buildings quickly, and therefore provide stimulus to the economy during the global financial crisis. But it is clear now that the BER entirely missed the GFC, the first brick being laid at a school only after the crisis in Australia was over and the economy was growing again. We also know that the BER is in some cases years behind schedule, there are billions yet to be spent and only 30 per cent of projects are completed.

Since the election, it seems Orgill has become the government's BER fall guy. During a recent appearance at a parliamentary inquiry, he appeared to contradict evidence presented to other inquiries into the school hall program and even his own interim report. Under questioning, Orgill said: "There is no evidence to say that value for money has not been achieved . . ."

The taskforce's interim report, released during the election campaign, states several times that evidence exists showing value for money was not obtained for taxpayers' funds, including: "From our investigations to date, the majority of complaints raise very valid concerns, particularly about value for money."

Orgill also denied that the taskforce was aware of any intimidation or bullying of principals or staff at schools where complaints had been made. This is contrary to evidence presented at other inquiries that supports media reports of bullying and intimidation of principals and teachers, designed to encourage them to keep quiet about their BER concerns.

Orgill has said he would investigate complaints, but initially said he could not guarantee the anonymity of the complainant, meaning these very people, genuinely in fear for their careers, would never have bothered to get in touch with the taskforce. Surely this is a critical deficiency for any genuine investigation.

It has become a sorry state of affairs and can be remedied only by a fully independent judicial inquiry.

The Coalition sought to introduce a bill into the House of Representatives creating a judicial inquiry, but as it lacked the support of key crossbench members of the house, it was defeated.

We will seek to reintroduce this bill in the Senate, but in addition we will attempt to force the government to keep at least one of its election promises and publish all BER costings.

During the campaign, the Prime Minister promised to implement all of the recommendations from the interim report of Orgill's taskforce. The first of these was to publish all costings data for every school in Australia in a nationally consistent manner. To date the government has made no move to do so.

In the new year, the Coalition will be seeking the support of the crossbench members in the House of Representatives to compel the government to make good on this promise and publish a breakdown of costings for every BER project in Australia on the MySchool website.

If crossbench members feel they need further evidence to support the creation of a judicial inquiry, then the costings information will provide it.

Meanwhile, we will await Orgill's final report in December and hope that it will be a genuine critique of the BER program, not an apologia for waste, mismanagement, buck passing and failure to take responsibility by senior ministers.


1 comment:

Paul said...

You can tell by the advertisers choice of name that "Get Up!" is a phony (astro-turf) organisation. I knew it the minute I saw the name.