Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Checks fail: Sex offenders cleared to work with kids

Government regulation gives a false sense of security. Its irresponsibility and lack of effective accountability makes it very unreliable

CHILD sex offenders, drug traffickers and kidnappers are among criminals who have reportedly slipped through the net and been allowed to work with children in Victoria.

The Herald Sun says Freedom of Information documents show that three out of four ex-criminals who apply to work with children in Victoria get the go-ahead.

The paper found that the state government vetting process designed to stop dangerous or unsuitable offenders working with children has permitted more than 2700 criminals through the net.

Of those, 43 people convicted of child sex crimes have been allowed to work with kids, despite the Department of Justice's efforts to stop them.

Since 2006 when vetting began, the department has stopped 765 criminals.

Of those who had sought permission, 189 were child sex offenders, billed as the most serious Category One.

But an analysis of the Working With Children Check process reveals 689 Category Two offenders - who include stalkers, kidnappers and drug traffickers to kids - were cleared.

The paper says it is understood the government is looking at ways to tighten the Working With Children Check, which costs $15 million a year to administer.


Media "Inquiry" comes at a bad time for media survival

On Thursday I received an email from the Independent Inquiry into Media and Media Regulation. The organisation's secretariat advised that Ray Finkelstein, QC, and Matthew Ricketson had asked about my availability and interest to participate in the public hearings, which will take place late next week.

I declined the kind offer. The fact is that I do not see any valid reason for the expenditure of public money on an inquiry into the private-sector print media, including online publications.

Finkelstein was appointed to the Federal Court in 1997. He was a member of the full bench of the Federal Court which found for the Maritime Union of Australia during the waterfront dispute. Finkelstein has spent virtually his entire career in the law - primarily as a barrister and then a judge. He has never held a significant role in a private sector business and has no experience in the media.

Ricketson, who is assisting Finkelstein, is an academic who has worked as a journalist for The Age.

I'm no prophet and I have no idea as to what the findings of the media inquiry might be. But it is known that lawyers tend to see the answers to life's problems in legislation, regulation and the like.

Recently Finkelstein wrote to the editors of Australia's main print and media outlets. He quoted with approval from the US publisher and editor Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911) that only the highest ideals would ''save journalism from the subservience to business interests, seeking selfish ends, antagonistic to public welfare". Finkelstein went on to ask the editors "whether, and to what extent" they subscribed to "the view that the press has social responsibilities". He also asked "how this social responsibility is, or should be, implemented".

The problem with such leading questions is that they assume there is such an entity as social responsibility which should be implemented. In a democratic society, which allows almost universal free speech, one person's social responsibility may be another person's social irresponsibility.

Democratic societies work well because they entail the existence of competing values and interests, which express themselves in the political process. It is naive to believe that governments, or public servants or retired Federal Court judges, can determine who is, and who is not, acting in a socially responsible manner. In democracies the role of authorities is to ensure that citizens act within the law. That's all.

To those who understand the print and online media, the real challenge at hand is survival. Seldom before have so many individuals read newspapers. It's just that they increasingly do so online where it is more difficult to make substantial profits.

The task of such entities as News Ltd and Fairfax Media in the medium term is to ensure the continued publication of printed newspapers on weekdays. Yet the left in Australia has chosen this time to launch an assault on the print media.

News Ltd publications such as The Australian and The Daily Telegraph are the principal targets but Fairfax publications would be caught up in the downside of any increase in regulation following from the media inquiry.

In his recent talk at the IQ2 debate on the media (screened by ABC TV's Big Ideas program), the Greens leader, Bob Brown, asked the rhetorical question: "What is the difference between an Australian abattoir, an Australian brothel and an Australian newspaper?" His answer was: "You don't need a licence for an Australian newspaper."

This was an unprecedented call for government regulation of the media. Traditionally, governments have issued licences for radio and television because spectrum space is limited.

However, anyone can set up a print or online publication since there is no limitation beyond what the market can bear. The Greens want to bring about a situation where politicians and bureaucrats determine whether an individual can go into publishing.

Brown concluded with the following saying: "Oscar Wilde said 'in olden days they had the rack, nowadays they have the press'. Well, the king or Crown licensed the rack. It's time the Crown licensed the press as well."

Wilde was a brilliant humorist whose demise was brought about by his own choices - the press was not responsible for his jailing.

Brown followed up his performance at the IQ2 debate with a submission to the media inquiry on behalf of the Greens. Complaining about the fact that News Ltd controls about 70 per cent of the capital city newspaper audience, Brown asked: "If the elected representatives are not to rein in this debasing of the ideals of the fourth estate, who should or will?"

Brown's comments amount to the most serious attempt by an elected politician to control the print media since Arthur Calwell, when information minister in the Curtin government, tried to censor the press during World War II. The story is told dispassionately by Paul Hasluck in The Government and the People: 1942-1945.

In recent days the left-wing Labor senator Doug Cameron has called the Murdoch press "absolutely reprehensible". He, too, appears to want the print media constrained by regulation. Any regulation aimed at News Ltd today could be extended to Fairfax and to as-yet unborn publications in the future. It's difficult to see how the media inquiry can make a positive contribution to the debate.


Labor Government Murdoch-hatred on display

They can't take criticism so rejected a best bid when it came from a Murdoch company

THE debacle over the $223 million Australia Network contract is a product of Labor's meddling in what should have remained an independent public tender.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy put on an extraordinary display of chutzpah last night and tried to blame a succession of ''significant'' media leaks for terminating the tender.

But leaks are merely the symptom of a flawed process. The cause was the government's decision to tear up the rule book when it looked likely Sky News would win the rights to run the network over the ABC. Media scrutiny has ensured the government didn't get away with it.

The resulting saga is far more than a battle pitting Rupert Murdoch and his part-owned Sky News against the publicly funded ABC - although it is that. It is more than a Labor feud with News Limited - though there is an element of that too. And it is more than a manifestation of Labor's internal battle of how you run a government that includes Kevin Rudd and the factional warriors that deposed him - but that's also part of the story.

Rudd had set up a process at arm's length from politics and allowed the bureaucrats to decide the future of the service, intended as Australia's voice in Asia and the Pacific. That came after Labor invited discussion last year on whether to put the Australia Network out to tender again, as it has been every few years since it was launched in the early 1990s.

If there was to be a debate over permanently leaving the service with the ABC, that was the time to have it. But instead the government invited companies to bid in good faith for the contract. Sky News and the ABC both invested heavily to put in their best pitch. Sky News won the day.

But some government members didn't like the prospect of a company linked to Murdoch getting their hands on public money, so they stripped the decision from Rudd's department, gave it to cabinet and handed Conroy the final approval. The government tried to sneak out these changes late on a Friday night. That alone was enough of a hint that something was badly wrong.

But the real problem was the logic behind the changes. It was supposedly the fault of upheaval in the Arab world, but no extra funding was on offer to expand the service. Nor was it clear why the Communications Minister was in a better position to judge the overseas impact than the Foreign Minister. Or the Trade Minister, for that matter.

The Australia Network is supposed to promote Australian values to a middle-class audience in the region. Instead, it has turned into a bad soap opera.


Qantas must cut costs to survive

Qantas yesterday announced the “first phase” of a package of measures to apologise to customers disrupted by the grounding of the airline for two days last Saturday week. It has also been blitzing the media with ads proclaiming the return to certainty for the first time in more than six months, after Fair Work Australia ordered the end of industrial action by unions representing pilots, engineers and ground handlers.

In the week since the grounding, consumers have been stirred up by highly misleading claims about the personal pay packet of chief executive Alan Joyce and have joined in a disgraceful outburst of xenophobia, bordering on racism, against the Australian Irishman.

There are 22 million different opinions about the national carrier and many of them miss the point: Qantas’s costs are too high, especially on long-haul international routes, and must be reduced if it is to survive.

Joyce has been held responsible for the late delivery of new planes by Boeing and Airbus – problems that had nothing to do with with him. That has also been used to argue that he has the wrong fleet strategy, but the Qantas we have would look vastly different if Boeing had not stuffed up development of its new super-plane, the 787 Dreamliner, which is running four years late.

There is also a nonsense being promoted mostly by the unions that Qantas is immensely profitable. In fact, dragged down by its international flying, it is a hiccup away from losing money; as things stand, it would be far better off putting its money in a fixed deposit earning 5 or 6 per cent a year than continuing to fly its planes around the world.

In the year to June, Qantas’s net profit was $249 million on $14.9 billion in revenue – a net margin of 1.6 per cent. Bluntly, that means it is breaking even. In business terms, it is a basket case.

Yet readers of this blog gleefully report they no longer fly Qantas because its fares are too high, especially in business class. To London, for example, you can regularly fly Emirates business class for around $9000 return, while the Qantas rate is nearer $15,000.

That is because Qantas, with all its legacy issues, faces its strongest competition to Europe from what are effectively low-cost carriers, all less than 20 years old – Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways – who can provide the same seat for around 40 per cent less than what it costs Qantas. Singapore Airlines’ operating cost advantage is 20-25 per cent.

Domestically, Qantas’s main opposition, Virgin, also started life 10 years ago as a low-cost carrier and has a 30-40 per cent per-seat operating cost advantage.

Alan Joyce, a mathematician and a self-confessed nerd, knows the numbers all too well. His biggest crime appears to be that he is not a six-foot-tall Australian who speaks with a loud voice.

He has not sold himself well, nor the airline he is trying to create. But most of what is being directed at him in the current poisonous political atmosphere is ignorant and unfair.


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