Friday, January 28, 2011

Flood levy blues

THOUSANDS of people, including high-income earners whose homes were not flooded, have a ready-made loophole to avoid paying the Federal Government's new flood levy.

And several Queensland projects designed to stop flooding on the Bruce Highway are likely to fall victim to federal spending cuts to help rebuild the state.

The flood levy will not apply to anyone who received the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment, which was not means tested. As of last Friday more than 250,000 Queenslanders - one in every eight - had collected the payment of $1000 for adults and $400 for children.

The eligibility criteria was broad and paid out even if residents simply could not access or leave their homes for 24 hours or lost electricity, water or gas for at least 48 hours.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the floods posed a massive challenge to build and manage economic capacity. "We're not just going to need money, we're going to need concrete and rubber and steel and more importantly, we're going to need carpenters and bricklayers and road gangs," she said.

However, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott yesterday continued his attack on the levy, calling it unfair, particularly on those who lost their businesses but whose homes remained unaffected. "They obviously face very great reconstruction costs that in many instances won't be covered by insurance and they will still be paying the flood tax under the scheme," he said.

The Government has gone all out to sweeten its levy, restricting its impact to people earning over $50,000 and promising it will not increase and will last just 12 months starting from July 1.

Those earning between $50,000 and $100,000 will pay 0.5 per cent in 2011-12 which rises to 1 per cent on taxable income above $100,000. According to the Government, 60 per cent of taxpayers will pay $1 a week or less and the tax hike only reaches $5 a week when income exceeds $100,000 a year.

But it came under fire for its planned $2.8 billion in spending cuts which hit several projects agreed with the Greens to help Labor form government after the last election.

The federal Independents are also expected to see cutbacks to the $10 billion in regional spending they secured in exchange for supporting Labor.

Queensland Independent Bob Katter has thrown his support behind the levy, saying the precedent was sure to one day benefit North Queensland.

The Greens accused the Government of turning its back on the cause of the disaster climate change. "But it does a disservice to all those tragically affected by these floods . . . to keep insisting that these are one-off events and ignore the role of climate change," Greens Senator Christine Milne said.

Independent Rob Oakeshott said he would examine the package and discuss possible amendments. "On the specific question of flood package impacts on the agreement reached to form Government, I expect that all aspects of the agreement both in writing and in spirit will be upheld," he said.

Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig the Gillard Government's point man for the recovery told The Courier-Mail the work so far had focused on cleaning up after the floods and the effort would now shift to the bigger rebuilding task. "Queensland needs to be rebuilt and it will be rebuilt," he said.

State Premier Anna Bligh supported the package and thanked Australians for helping Queensland. "I understand that no one wants to pay more but the people of Queensland didn't want this disaster either," she said.


Julia Gillard cops heat from radio host over flood levy

JULIA Gillard has angrily dismissed suggestions her floods response is politically motivated as "complete nonsense".

In a sometimes heated 20-minute radio interview with 3AW host Neil Mitchell, Ms Gillard denied she was sticking to her 2013 return-to-surplus timetable to squirrel money away for the next election. “The motivation for bringing the budget back to surplus is an economic one, not a political one,” the Prime Minister said.

She accused Mitchell of patronising her after the high-rating Melbourne radio host warned the public would not tolerate rorts or wasted money under the floods package. “Neil you don't need to patronise me, thank you very much,” Ms Gillard said. “I understand Neil, thank you, the need for value for money.”

Mitchell hit back: “I am simply looking at history and I think that people are looking at history and saying `This government has a history of waste, please don't waste this new tax'.”

Ms Gillard denied her $1.8 billion levy was just another tax, saying the floods were the most expensive natural disaster Australia had experienced.

She rejected suggestions the levy was massively unpopular in the community. “I believe people are generous, they do want to contribute and people will make their minds up about it,” she said.


School chaplain scheme goes to court

A rare event: Australia's version of the U.S. First Amendment in play

A FATHER won the first round in his historic battle yesterday to have government-funded chaplains thrown out of the nation's public schools.

Ron Williams journeyed from Toowoomba to Sydney yesterday for a directions hearing in his challenge and was thrilled to hear that his case could be heard in the High Court over three days in May. "This is a very important moment," a jubilant Mr Williams said yesterday.

The father of six, who has four children attending Queensland public schools, said his main argument was that the funding for chaplains in schools breached Section 116 of the Australian Constitution, which states that the "Commonwealth not legislate in respect of religion". "This is not about getting chaplains out of schools, it's about the government funding them, which I believe is against the Constitution," he said.

If Mr Williams wins his challenge, government funding for chaplains would be removed.

The National School Chaplaincy Program was introduced in 2006 by former prime minister John Howard. The national program won support from Prime Minister Julia Gillard, an atheist who, just before the election last year, pledged $222 million to extend the program for four years.

More than 430 schools in NSW get up to $20,000 each a year for their chaplain services, totalling almost $12 million, and more than 2500 school across Australia now have chaplains at a cost of more than $151 million.

The chaplain program is run in Queensland by that state's branch of the Scripture Union. In NSW the program is run by the National School Chaplaincy Association which is based in Western Australia.

A spokesman for the association said yesterday it was not appropriate to comment.

NSW Greens MP John Kaye said yesterday's decision was good news for those who believed in separation of church and state. "The anger felt by many of us at the use of public money will now at least be tested in the court," he said. "There will now be an opportunity to hear in court why this program so deeply contradicts the integrity of the Australian Constitution."


Australia already has substantial school choice but that is being "reviewed" and is at risk of being scaled back

by Kevin Donnelly

Just ask Mark Latham about the impact of the hit list of so-called privileged schools he championed when he was leader of the ALP. No wonder that Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, on taking over as leaders, rejected the politics of envy and argued in favour of school choice.

During the 2010 campaign, Prime Minister Gillard was so concerned about the issue that she promised to keep the existing socioeconomic status (SES) funding model for an additional year, until 2013.

Gillard also promised that Catholic and independent schools would not lose money as a result of the Gonski funding review currently underway – established by Gillard when she was Education Minister and due to report in 2011.

Unlike the Liberal Party, the ALP is a late convert to school choice. Such pragmatism is understandable. Across Australia, approximately 34% of students attend non-government schools and the figure rises to over 40% at years 11 and 12.

Parents, especially in marginal seats, are voting with their feet and over the years 1999-2009 enrolments on Catholic and independent schools grew by 21.3% while the growth figure for government schools flatlined at 1.2 per cent.

Given that non-government schools are increasingly popular and that school choice, especially for those parents committed to faith-based schools, is a fundamental human right, one might expect that all would agree that such schools should be properly funded.

One might also expect that the best response to government schools losing market share is to ask why state schools are no longer attractive to increasing numbers of parents and what can be done to strengthen such schools.

Logic and reason are not the hallmarks of the self-serving groups like the Australian Education Union and it should not surprise that the AEU, instead of addressing underlying causes, has mounted the barricades to argue that non-government schools should be starved of funding and subject to increased government regulation and intervention.

The AEU has mounted a campaign, including petitions, dedicated websites, surveys and fact sheets, arguing that non-government schools are over-funded, that such schools only serve the privileged and that Catholic and independent schools promote social instability and reinforce disadvantage.

The reality suggests otherwise. Instead of being over funded non-government schools receive significantly less funding when compared to government schools (the following figures are taken from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library Background Note on school funding, dated 17 November 2010).

On average, and excluding capital expenditure, government school students receive $12,639 in funding from state and federal governments, the figure for non-government schools is $6,606. Every student that attends a non-government school saves government, and taxpayers, approximately $6,000.

In terms of total funding non-governments schools raise 43% of their income from private sources with state and federal governments providing the other 57%. Contrary to the impression created by the AEU it is also the case that federal funding is allocated to schools according to a school’s socioeconomic status (SES).

In the words of the Parliamentary Library paper, “Australian Government recurrent per student funding for non-government schools is based on a measure of need”. Wealthier non-government schools only receive 13.7% of the federal funding figure, known as the Average Government School Recurrent Costs (AGSRC), with less privileged schools receiving 70%.

The AEU also argues that non-government schools contribute to social inequality and educational disadvantage. Once again, the evidence suggests otherwise.

Research both here and overseas concludes that Australia has a high degree of social mobility and one of the main reasons is because we have an education system, based on an analysis of the 2007 PISA results, that is high quality/high equity.

In the words of the 2008 OECD report Growing Unequal?: Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries, “Australia is one of the most socially mobile countries in the OECD” and “the educational attainment of parents affects the educational achievements of the child less than in most other countries”.

It’s also the case that while the ALP and the cultural-left condemn low SES students to educational failure, supposedly as disadvantage automatically leads to poor results, the example of non-government school proves otherwise.

Researchers at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) after analysing Year 12 results conclude that non-government schools are more effective, compared to government schools, in getting low SES students to succeed.

In a 2002 ACER report analysing the factors that lead to success at Year 12, the researchers state, “Students who attended non-government schools outperformed students from government schools, even after taking into account socioeconomic background and achievement in literacy and numeracy”.

During the 2010 election campaign Julia Gillard nullified funding as an issue by maintaining the existing SES model until 2013 and promising that “no school will lose a dollar in funding”.

It’s significant that while the ALP’s rhetoric is supportive, the Gillard-led Government refuses to guarantee that funding will be maintained in real terms and that Catholic and independent schools will not suffer, either financially or in terms of their autonomy, as a result of the Gonski review.


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