Friday, April 08, 2011

Australian taxpayers' bill for $100 BILLION coming up

It's as certain as death and taxes: Government projects always end up costing at least twice as much as the initial estimates. An extreme case is the Sydney Opera House, which went from $2.5 million to $100 million.

And now that the quotes from potential NBN contractors are coming in, senior people at NBN Co. are walking out rather than being associated with that. I don't blame them. It'll be the biggest boondoggle in Australia's history. John Howard's big boondoggle, the Alice Springs-Darwin Railway, cost only one hundredth of what Gillard is proposing. Think of how many desperately-needed highway improvements you could buy with the money.

FRESH fears have emerged that the peak funding of the National Broadband Network could balloon beyond $44 billion, as construction companies urged the government to pare back the reach of its ambitious fibre footprint so it can meet its budget.

The warnings follow a tumultuous week inside NBN Co headquarters in which a number of senior staff have resigned after a multi-billion-dollar construction contract was placed on indefinite hold.

Yesterday it was revealed that NBN Co's manager of cost and resource estimates, Nick Sotiriou, exited the network builder following the shock resignation of the company's network construction head Patrick Flannigan earlier this week. "I've got no comment as to why I left," Mr Sotiriou told The Australian. "It's inappropriate that I comment at this stage."

He added that he "very much" believed in the NBN project. "From time to time people have differences of opinion and that doesn't mean one is right or wrong," he said. "And sometimes you have to move on."

Mr Sotiriou declined to comment on a report that he left after sending an internal email expressing unhappiness at NBN Co's suggestion that contractors had been "price gouging".

A spokeswoman for Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said the Government did not believe NBN Co was experiencing a staffing crisis, but the Opposition seized on the latest resignation to say the company was "in disarray".

Opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull said: "If this was a publicly listed company, their share price would be in freefall at the moment and management would be out there explaining and providing information."

As the two-year anniversary of the NBN ticked over, new documents released by Treasury under Freedom of Information laws showed that budgetary risks associated with the NBN were raised before Kevin Rudd unveiled plans for a $43 billion fibre-to-the-home project.

Construction executives said yesterday that NBN Co could significantly lower the costs of its construction tender if it could reduce the target of laying fibre to 93 per cent of homes and businesses.

An executive of a firm pitching for the building said costs could be significantly lowered if existing fibre networks - such as Telstra's and Optus's cable networks for pay-TV and broadband - could be used in the NBN roll-out, or otherwise allowed to compete with the NBN. "NBN Co could lower its costs if it just dispensed with the Government's stubborn ideology to roll fibre to 93 per cent of homes," the executive said. "They have gone to the extreme but they still claw it back, but there will have to be some eating of a lot of humble pie if they do."

Last night, another industry source said that even if NBN Co took on more risk as construction contractors were demanding, it would still struggle to meet the project within its budget. "My gut says that even if they get an appropriate risk model, they are still going to struggle to get it built for their budget," the source said.

"We are sailing into the biggest infrastructure boom the country has seen - it's going to be bigger than the last one in 2007-2008. The escalation on labour and materials is something that contractors will put a large premium on if they are asked to take that risk. "We can see what the market is doing, the industrial agreements, industrial relations risk. It's such a long project. The short answer is, they will struggle."

The Australian yesterday revealed that construction firms bidding for NBN contracts had warned that unless more risk was transferred to the government business, the capital works bill could surge beyond the $20 billion mark. It is believed that NBN Co had hoped to spend only about $12 billion on the contract.

According to NBN Co's corporate plan, the project relied on "mid-range" construction costs to stay within its $36bn budget. But the corporate plan warns that "high" construction costs would lead to substantial blowouts in funding requirements for the project and erode the already modest internal rate of return.


The Greens are now "concerned with everything except the environment", say Greenie elders

Norm Sanders, environmentalist and retired senator, near his home in northern NSW, believes the Greens have lost their way. Picture: Jack Tran Source: The Australian
TWO founding fathers of the Greens say the split between the old-school environmentalists and the new generation of ideologically driven urban activists now swelling the parliamentary ranks could destabilise the party and alienate voters.

The man who gave up his seat in the Tasmanian parliament 29 years ago to launch Bob Brown's political career, Norm Sanders, said the Greens had "lost the plot" by shifting away from their core business of the environment.

And Queenslander Drew Hutton, who co-founded the party in 1992 with Senator Brown, hit out at the "ludicrous" decision by the NSW division of the Greens to thumb its nose at federal policy and back an international trade boycott of Israel in the recent state election campaign.

"I just shake my head in wonder at why a state-based party would go into an election pushing out front of a federal issue that the state party has no reason to be concerned with," said Mr Hutton, 64. "Why would you be profiling issues above environmental issues at this particular time? . . . I don't think it helps to alienate significant groups inside the NSW voting public."

Mr Sanders, 78, said scathingly that the Greens were now "concerned with everything except the environment".

"You hear them going on about the tax system, same-sex marriage, adoption, all these social equity issues, but they don't talk about the environment much," he said. The concerns of two such experienced and respected figures in the green movement will intensify the values debate that was kicked off by the actions of NSW Greens figures Fiona Byrne, a suburban mayor in Sydney who stood unsuccessfully at last month's state election, and senator-elect Lee Rhiannon in backing the campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians.

While Senator Brown, the party's veteran leader, has tried to distance himself and the federal Greens from the BDS push, yesterday he supported West Australian senator Scott Ludlam in advocating a ban on any arms sales to Israel, as part of a halt to Australian military exports.

The Australian revealed yesterday that Senator Ludlam and South Australian Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young had previously supported calls for Australian sanctions against Israel, widening the party's exposure on the issue.

They will be joined in parliament from July 1 by four senators elected at last year's federal ballot, taking the Greens' numbers to nine in the upper house and securing the balance of power there. Adam Bandt, who became the first Greens MP to be elected to the House of Representatives at a general election, will push the Greens partyroom into double figures.

Mr Sanders was elected to the Tasmanian parliament in 1980 and resigned in 1982 to make way for the future senator Brown, giving him his start in politics.

Mr Sanders said Senator Hanson-Young, 29, a former campaign manager for human rights group Amnesty International, who challenged Christine Milne for the Greens deputy leadership after the federal election in August, personified the contemporary Greens. "That Sarah Hanson-Young, she's on television and radio all the time, but I've never heard her talking about the environment," Mr Sanders said, speaking from his home near Byron Bay in northern NSW.

"All those social issues they're on about, that's what the ALP's for. Even the Liberal Party can handle some of them. The Greens have lost the plot, and who's looking after the environment?"

Brisbane-based Mr Hutton is still on the front line of environmental activism, having been arrested recently while protesting against coal-seam mining on the Darling Downs, west of the Queensland capital. He stood unsuccessfully for the Senate three times and is now an organiser for the environment group Friends of the Earth.

Mr Hutton said there had always been "tension in the Greens between those who come from a Left background, and those who come from a green background". Describing the furore over the BDS as "mildly destabilising", he said the key role of the Greens

was to address environmental issues "in a way that none of the other parties is prepared to do".

"I would be the last person to say non-environmental issues aren't important, because for the past 40 years I have been involved in a whole lot of issues - the democratic movement in the Joh Bjelke-Petersen days, Aboriginal issues and so on - so I am not just a pure greenie," Mr Hutton said. "But there is no doubt in my mind that the key issues today, and the reason we formed a green party, was that we've reached a time when if we don't take determined and far-sighted decisions on the environment, then the whole planet is going to be in trouble."

But he said the tensions with the "hard Left" of the Greens would subside. "In time, that strong left-wing element will diminish, because the people coming in are wanting us to be in government and they are wanting us to be in policymaking positions," Mr Hutton said.

Both veterans praised Senator Brown's leadership. "Bob and Christine are the only ones who've been on the barricades," Mr Sanders said. "They're the only activists in the Greens. I don't know where the rest come from."


Expensive government secrecy

Queensland Health cash 'wasted' on lawyers' fees

A DOCTORS' group has attacked Queensland Health for wasting scarce resources on lawyers after a futile two-year battle by the Bligh Government to prevent the release of hospital data. AMA Queensland president Gino Pecoraro said the use of lawyers sucked up valuable money that could have been better spent on patients.

Dr Pecoraro called for more transparency in the release of health information so patients could make better choices about their medical care. "I'm a firm believer in that patients need to have access to timely, accurate and complete information," he said.

Dr Pecoraro was commenting on Queensland Health's dogged fight to keep secret reports outlining Emergency Department deaths at three of the state's biggest hospitals.

"Some of these patients may well have died, despite the best efforts of emergency department staff," he said. "But we know from Queensland Health's own figures that there are delays in getting people out of emergency departments and into hospital beds. It would be nicer for them to have met their maker in a quiet room with their families by their sides in a hospital bed, not in the emergency department."

The documents were released to The Courier-Mail by Queensland Health after an order by the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

They were heavily vetted so as not to identify patients or staff. Dr Pecoraro said this was how it should be. "Unwell patients use emergency departments, so we need to be careful not to turn into pariahs the people who work in them," he said. "Part of the quality control and improvement of hospitals necessitate that people can talk openly and freely but without the threat of being got-at over adverse events that occur in a hospital. "No matter what happens, that must be preserved for everybody's sake."

The documents outline 21 emergency department deaths at the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital in the first half of 2009. Of those, 15 were category one (resuscitation), five category two (emergency) and one category three (urgent).

At Nambour General Hospital on the Sunshine Coast, 18 emergency department deaths were recorded in the six months.

Queensland Health director-general Mick Reid said the department's patient safety record was among Australia's best. "We have developed the most open and thorough patient safety reporting in Australia, far exceeding the national minimum standards," Mr Reid. "We are committed to continually improving health care. That's why our health practitioners together review all deaths, as well as the most significant and difficult cases, to learn and improve care." [Well, why the secrecy?]


Drift to private schools continues

Now one third overall and more in private High schools. Anyone who can afford to wants out of government schools, particularly in the teenage years of their kids

ENROLMENTS in state high schools have dropped as parents look increasingly to the private sector to educate their teenagers.

Figures released yesterday, taken on Day 8 of the academic year, show overall enrolments in Queensland state schools increased less than 1 per cent between 2010 and 2011.

But all of that growth was in primary schools. State high school enrolments dropped slightly from 174,721 on Day 8, 2010, to 174,685 in 2011.

Similar figures provided by the Queensland Catholic Education Commission show their enrolments in high schools went up about 3 per cent, while the state's population has been growing at about 2 per cent a year.

Enrolment figures for state primary schools were much brighter. They increased their Day 8 numbers from 307,147 students in 2010 to 310,104 this year. Prep enrolments grew by almost 5 per cent from 40,974 to 42,912 this year.

Queensland Secondary Principals Association president Norm Fuller said he was unsure of why enrolment in high schools went down by less than 40 students.

He said principals had anecdotally reported that some parents had moved their children from the private sector to their state schools after looking at data on the My School website.

But Shadow Education Minister Bruce Flegg said the figures were "a continuation of a very long-term trend" of parents voting with their feet because there was a perception of more opportunities and better discipline in the private sector.

The figures were released yesterday, only a day after The Courier-Mail applied for the data through the Right to Information process.

While the figures are normally released in the weeks after Day 8, Education Queensland initially delayed them this year because of the floods. The numbers are expected to go online today with a statement that overall, enrolments grew by 1.1 per cent between 2009 and 2011.

Independent Schools Queensland said they had not yet received their enrolment figures.

It is the third year in a row that Queensland state school Day 8 enrolments have grown less than one per cent overall, while the Catholic sector has been growing at about 3 per cent.

But Education Minister Cameron Dick said Queensland parents knew state schools offered quality education and the enrolment figures proved it. "Sixty-seven per cent of all Queensland students attend state schools, the third highest proportion in Australia and higher than the national average," he said.

The Day 8 figures, and those supplied by the QCEC, are initial data collections at schools with an official census carried out for the Australian Bureau of Statistics later in the year.


Vicious Polynesian let off lightly

Only 20 months in actual jail for grievous attack. There is a high crime rate among Polynesians (e.g. Maori) generally

A TEENAGE amateur boxer has been jailed for five years for a "brutal, sickening and protracted" attack on a blind man who rushed to the aid a distressed woman in a Brisbane inner-city public toilet block.

The Brisbane District Court was told Samoan national Kevin Paisa, then aged 18, savagely punched disabled man Glenn Trapnell, 41, in a Brisbane City Council public toliet block in an Albert Street section of Brisbane's Queen Street Mall about 4.30pm on July 28, 2009.

The court was told Paisa attacked Mr Trapnell so viciously that his jaw sustained serious fractures - forever robbing the vision impaired man of one his most prized pursuits, that of playing the harmonica.

Prosecutor Caroline Marco said Paisa, after knocking Mr Trapnell unconscious, then attacked the blind man's carer, Nathan Reith, 30. She said Paisa punched Mr Reith in the head three times and then stole $60 from the unconscious man as he lay in the toliet block alongside his friend Mr Trapnell.

Paisa, now aged 20, pleaded guilty on February 1 to one count each of assaulting Mr Trapnell and causing him grievous bodily and Mr Reith and causing him bodily harm and stealing.

Paisa today pleaded guilty to one count of going armed so as to cause fear by waving about a machete and menacing students at Mabel Park State High School, at Slacks Creek on Brisbane's southern outskirts, on February 18, 2009.

Judge Wally Tutt sentenced Paisa, who has been in presentence custody for more than 19-months, for five years, but ordered he be suspended after 20-months. The sentence imposed means Paisa will be released from jail in about three weeks.

Barrister Kim Bryson, for Paisa, said that because of the fact her client was a Samoan national and did not hold Australian citizenship he was almost guaranteed of being deported upon his release from jail. "(Paisa) is not an Australian citizen," she said.

Judge Tutt said he hoped immigration authorities were made aware of Paisa's case and subsequent convictions and resulted in his immediate deportation back to Samoa.

Ms Marco, during sentencing submissions, said after the attack Paisa gave police a "self-serving" account of what happened and claimed the had acted out of self-defence. She said Paisa falsely claimed he did not know Mr Trapnell was blind until after the attack, but that Mr Reith had told him that after the first blow was thrown. The court was told Paisa admitted to police he was an amateur boxer.

Judge Tutt, in sentencing Paisa, described the acts on Mr Trapnell and his carer as "callous, cowardly and violent." "Your actions are on of the serious examples of (of this type) ... (and) a more despicable act is hard to imagine."


Crooked Keddies again

Now that they have merged with Slater & Gordon, it is Slater & Gordon that I would steer clear of. One wonders what Slater & Gordon were thinking of when they took Keddies in

THE law firm Keddies has settled a claim by a 95-year-old woman who alleged the firm overcharged her when handling her personal injury case.

Margaret Shuetrim was hit by a car and injured while crossing a road in Petersham in 2003. The following year, the pensioner engaged Keddies as she claimed compensation under the Motor Accidents Compensation Act. According to a statement of claim filed with the District Court, the insurer of the vehicle at fault admitted liability and her claim was settled for $150,000, before court proceedings were commenced.

But Keddies charged Mrs Shuetrim $66,747 for costs and disbursements - an amount she claimed was ''grossly excessive''. Mrs Shuetrim claimed that under the relevant regulations, she should have paid $14,400 plus GST. She said she suffered ''disappointment, anxiety and distress'' after being left more than $50,000 out of pocket.

Keddies recently merged with another law firm, Slater & Gordon. Mrs Shuetrim sued former partners Tony Barakat, Russell Keddie and Scott Roulstone, trading as Keddies Lawyers, seeking economic compensatory damages and damages for distress.

The case was set for hearing yesterday but the parties reached a settlement, with Keddies to pay Mrs Shuetrim $75,000 plus legal costs. Rob Tassell, for the defendants, said Mrs Shuetrim's age was taken into account.


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