Saturday, December 10, 2011

Greenfield still not talking

PROFESSOR Paul Greenfield has been toppled as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland and will leave the post next week after he and his family became engulfed in a nepotism scandal that remains a mystery.

Prof Greenfield becomes the first vice-chancellor in the 102-year history of the university to fall on his sword after The Courier-Mail revealed on November 5 that he had been snared in an integrity probe.

He kept to his practice of not facing the media yesterday, but in a short statement said he could no longer endure the pressure that had been taking a toll on the university and his family.

Although Prof Greenfield maintained the decision to leave early was his alone, The Courier-Mail confirmed his departure date was subject of a formal resolution by the Senate, the university's governing body.

In a final act of defiance, Prof Greenfield did not mention the controversy in his monthly report to senators. To the end, Prof Greenfield would not reveal details of how "a close family member" was able to enter a course for which he or she was not qualified. He would not reveal the faculty, which is believed to be the Medical School.

Prof Greenfield tried to dismiss the affair as a "misunderstanding", and would not take questions on why he would not fix it.

The controversy deepened when university chiefs admitted they attempted to cover up the scandal.

Yesterday Prof Greenfield said: "In recent weeks, it has become increasingly difficult for me to serve as vice-chancellor in the way this organisation and its partners deserve. "In addition, the ongoing pressure on my family and the university is taking a toll, the level of which I am not prepared to accept. "As a consequence, I have decided to step down."

Chancellor John Story would not be interviewed yesterday. In a statement, he said it was clear to the Senate that Prof Greenfield "could no longer fully discharge his duties in a way that either he would like or which the university could expect".

He said the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), Professor Deborah Terry, would be the acting vice-chancellor from December 17, while a hunt for Prof Greenfield's successor begins.

The Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor Max Lu, will become acting senior deputy vice-chancellor at the same time.

The scandal also claimed the deputy vice-chancellor, Prof Michael Keniger. His role in the so-called enrolment irregularity was never explained.

Mr Story said Prof Greenfield would cease executive functions and responsibilities on December 16 and take leave until his official departure date of January 13, 2012.

Prof Greenfield will not receive a termination payment - only his residual accrued leave.


Big jump in university fees for maths and science study at a time when Australia needs more such students, not fewer

AUSTRALIA'S ambition to become the "clever country" is in tatters because it cannot produce enough experts in the two most critical disciplines - mathematics and science.

Top scientists and mathematicians, furious about the Gillard Government's $400 million cut in HECS fee relief and axed school science programs, warn Australia is in serious danger of losing its mantle as a world leader in education.

In a bid to return the Australian economy to surplus Treasurer Wayne Swan has taken the razor to education, increasing annual HECS fees for university science and maths students from $4691 to $8353 - cancelling the incentive to study those subjects.

Barry Jones, a former science minister in the Hawke government, said just 9 per cent of Australian university students enrol in the sciences of physics, chemistry and mathematics when the OECD average is 13 per cent and in South-East Asia it is 26 per cent.

"It looks bad," he said. "There are serious problems in maths and sciences in Australia generally."The "deficiency" starts in primary schools with a high proportion of teachers themselves uneasy with maths and science and by high school, students move on to other interests, Mr Jones added.

And the crisis is set to worsen by 2020 when Australia will have more PhD mathematicians retiring from the workforce than entering it - despite a 55 per cent increase in demand across all sectors of the economy.

The Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute is so worried about the decline it is planning a national advertisement campaign on buses and trains to promote the impact of maths and statistics on people's "daily lives and on their health and wellbeing".

The head of the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of NSW, Anthony Dooley, warned the cut to HECS would affect student numbers in the core subjects.

"The country needs more mathematicians and scientists ... our enrolments have been going up by 10 per cent a year and that growth is a realisation that maths and science are crucial to the world's future," Prof Dooley said.

"We need the Government to realise that this is a crucial national priority ... we need to be clever and we need people with mathematical skills to drive the economy forward."

The number of advanced maths students across Australia dropped by 25 per cent between 1995 and 2008, while university maths majors fell by 15 per cent between 2001 and 2008. The Australian Academy of Science also urged the Government to do more to support the subjects.

"We are slipping behind neighbouring countries in maths and science performance at secondary school and there are growing shortages in the workforce of young people with maths and science skills," president Suzanne Cory said.

"Australia's robust economic future depends upon innovation.," she said.

A spokesman for Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans said the HECS subsidy was being abolished because it had not proven to be a cost-effective way of lifting maths and science attainment.

"By the time young people are making university choices many have already made the decision to drop the study of advanced maths and science subjects at high school," he said. "It's for that reason that the Government has asked the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, to work with the science community to develop new means for further lifting student participation rates in maths and science."

Federal Schools Minister Peter Garrett said that science and mathematics were two of the first four subjects to be rolled out under the new national curriculum.

Universities Australia said alternative programs to improve school science and maths and university enrolments were vital while the University of Sydney was seeking more funds to support the most talented students.


Solar to add billions to power bills

THE federal scheme to promote the installation of rooftop solar panels and hot-water systems will have a cumulative cost to consumers of $4.7 billion by mid-2020, adding to pressure on household power bills.

The prediction is contained in advice to the nation's energy ministers, which also forecasts rises in residential electricity prices of about 37 per cent in the three years to 2013-14, with an average annual hike of 11 per cent.

The predicted rise shows prices may increase faster than previously expected, with predictions in July suggesting the three-year rise was expected to be in the order of 30 per cent.

The advice also shows that the carbon tax is likely to hit electricity prices hardest in Queensland and NSW, where power prices are tipped to rise by 42 per cent over the next three years - compared with a 32 per cent rise without a carbon price.

This is broadly in line with Treasury modelling, which suggests that the carbon tax will add about 10 per cent to power prices from 2013-17.

Queensland, NSW and the ACT faced the highest predicted price rises over the next three years, at 42 per cent.

They are followed by South Australia, with a predicted rise of 36 per cent; Victoria (33 per cent), Western Australia (30 per cent), Tasmania (25 per cent); and the Northern Territory (16 per cent).

The reports, by the Australian Energy Market Commission, were released by the Ministerial Standing Council on Energy and Resources.

After the meeting, federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson announced a Productivity Commission inquiry into aspects of electricity network regulation.

Mr Ferguson said that significant investment was required in electricity networks to replace and upgrade ageing assets, to meet growing levels of demand and facilitate a transition towards clean-energy technologies.

"Critical to delivering our energy needs is ensuring that our network regulatory frameworks are delivering efficient and reliable outcomes for consumers," Mr Ferguson said.

But the energy network businesses hit back, saying network prices had to rise to ensure safe electricity supplies to consumers and because the costs of raising funds offshore was increasing.

The AEMC reports found that on top of the $4.7 billion from small-scale renewable projects, energy consumers would also pay for the costs of state-based feed-in tariffs for households for injecting power back into the grid over the life of systems that have already been installed.

The AEMC found if the states adhered to caps on feed-in tariffs - which several states are imposing in an attempt to rein in generous rebates - then the take-up of the small-scale renewable energy scheme should fall from existing levels.

"But forecasts of higher retail electricity prices and reductions in the technology costs for solar PV will still provide incentives for some consumers to take up the SRES," the AEMC found.

As the SRES is a national scheme, decisions by state governments on their feed-in tariffs hit all consumers, as retailers are required to buy certificates that are then "passed through to all consumers in Australia".

By the middle of this year, about 400,000 households had PV solar systems installed.

The number of solar rooftop panel installations could reach more than 1.5 million by 2019-20 - accounting for more than one in every four owner-occupied households - if a carbon price starts next year.

The main beneficiaries of the green policy have been people living in houses and semi-detached homes in suburbs with low population densities, young children and often have three cars to a dwelling. By contrast, young people, those renting, the very affluent and people in higher population density areas were unlikely to tap the scheme.

The majority of the new solar installations were expected in NSW and Queensland, with a significant number in Victoria and Western Australia.


Another disgrace at Queensland Health

No surprise in a Department that can't even get its payroll right

A SINGLE forged signature was all it took to orchestrate what is believed to be the biggest embezzlement of taxpayers' funds in Queensland history.

A nationwide manhunt has been launched for prime suspect Hohepa Morehu-Barlow, a purchasing officer in Queensland Health who claimed to be a co-owner of an upmarket perfumery.

More than $5 million is believed to have been transferred from the department's accounts through a sophisticated network over the past three years.

A further $11 million was shifted in a single transaction in the past fortnight.

The gaping hole in Queensland Health's financial security is a massive embarrassment for the Bligh Government.

An identical complaint about 12 months ago to the Crime and Misconduct Commission about Morehu-Barlow, who also goes by the first name Joel, was dismissed by a Queensland Health internal investigation.

However, a low-level financial officer is believed to have become suspicious and raised concerns with the chief finance officer this week.

"By forging the name of a senior officer who had authority to transfer large sums, this middle-level officer has been able to deceive those that are there," Health Minister Geoff Wilson said.

The Auditor-General also failed to discover the multimillion-dollar ruse in his frequent checks but warned recently of risks because of lax financial controls.

"There appears to have been a loss of focus across the public sector on maintaining basic financial controls with the number of agencies failing to maintain these controls increasing," a report in July said.

"This trend has the potential to expose the public sector as a whole to significant risk."

Premier Anna Bligh announced an independent audit of Queensland Health's accounts, with the results to be handed over to police. "I have to say I am furious about this issue," she said. "I think every Queenslander has a right to be angry.

"What it shows is that no matter how many checks and balances you have, large organisations can sometimes be victims to people with a serious criminal intent."

Police sources said Morehu-Barlow had a history of fraud-related offences in his native New Zealand. However, it was unclear last night whether Queensland Health conducted checks on him before his employment in 2005 as purchasing officer.

Morehu-Barlow was at work on Thursday as police descended on the department but has disappeared.

Police have frozen up to $12 million of his assets ranging a swanky New Farm apartment, luxury vehicles, including a Mercedes-Benz, to high-class artworks and large sums of cash in bank accounts.

Morehu-Barlow was lauded among Brisbane's fashionistas and earned a spot in The Sunday Mail's annual most-stylish list.

However, the lavish lifestyle of the public service middle manager seems to have evaded the scrutiny of Queensland Health, despite the prior investigation.

Queensland-based family of the unmarried 36-year-old have been contacted by the police.

"We believe he is still in the country and we have taken all appropriate steps to protect all exit points," Deputy Police Commissioner Ross Barnett said.

He refused to comment when asked about prior offences but revealed Morehu-Barlow went by "a number of aliases".


The sad end of Sir Lunchalot

Booted out of his own party

DISGRACED former Labor minister Ian Macdonald has been suspended from the state Labor Party in the wake of corruption allegations. The move followed a request from Opposition Leader John Robertson.

Mr Macdonald - who has previously held posts including energy minister and state development minister - is being investigated by the Independent Commission Against Corruption over allegations that property tycoon Ron Medich arranged for him to spend time with a prostitute as reward for setting up meetings with executives from Country Energy and Energy Australia.

Mr Robertson last week said he was "appalled" by the allegations coming out of ICAC and said he would not put up with it in his party. "There is no place for this in politics," he said. "I can tell you that there is no place for anyone behaving like that in the Labor Party under my leadership."

Following Mr Robertson's written request on Tuesday, the NSW Labor branch said it had suspended Mr McDonald's membership and would reconsider it pending the outcome of the investigation.


Censorship push defeated

NBN Co has been forced to back down on its plans to restrain Telstra from promoting its wireless internet services as a substitute for the $36 billion fibre network for two decades after pressure from the competition watchdog.

The Weekend Australian can reveal that the $11bn deal between Telstra, the government and NBN Co for Telstra to decommission its copper network and shift its customers to the new service will be revised following concerns by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission that the curbs on Telstra's marketing of its wireless services could hinder competition for wireless voice and broadband services.


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