Monday, April 30, 2012

Abbott promises crackdown on wayward unionists

The Federal Opposition says a Coalition government would significantly increase penalties for union officials who breach their duties.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says union officials found guilty of breaches will suffer the same penalties as company directors, with fines of around $200,000 and potential imprisonment.

Mr Abbott says there will also be a new body to ensure the rules are enforced.  "Under the Registered Organisations Commission it won't take more than three years to investigate an open-and-shut case of wrongdoing," he said.

"Our commitment today is to ensure that essentially the same governance rules that apply to businesses and that you adhere to in your business life will apply to unions and union officials as they go about the business of running their unions."

But Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten says Mr Abbott is using the controversy surrounding the Health Services Union to justify an attack on all unions.  "Let's not smear millions of trade unionists with some cheap political propaganda to pump yourself up in the polls," he said.

Mr Shorten says that the proposed changes would be made to laws that Mr Abbott introduced during his time as industrial relations minister.


Australians  now 'indifferent' to environment

CONCERN for the environment has dwindled into a "middling" issue that many people do not have strong feelings about, a major study into Australian attitudes towards society, politics and the economy has found.

Food, health, crime, safety and rights to basic public services - the tangible things that people confront on a daily basis - are dominant national concerns.

"Australians are effectively indifferent to global and societal issues, rating these significantly lower," said the report What Matters to Australians, produced by the University of Technology, Sydney and the Melbourne Business School, with the support of the Australian Research Council.

"What we see in these results is a picture of a relatively conservative society concerned with local issues that influence its members' daily lives."

People's concerns about industrial pollution, climate change, renewable energy and depletion of energy resources plummeted when compared with an identical study in 2007, with only logging and habitat destruction remaining among the top 25 issues of concern to Australians.

In 2007, environmental sustainability was the only set of global issues that was ranked as highly important. When the same questions were repeated last year, no global issues appeared among the nation's top concerns.

"Overall, this reveals a startling decline in the Australian population's concerns about environmental sustainability," the researchers wrote.

"It is possible that 2007 was nothing more than an aberration when the debate about environmental sustainability became a matter of ordinary, everyday concern. What we now see in Australia and across Western countries is likely closer to a long-term trend in the value of environmental matters to the general population."

The study is based on a sample of 1500 adults, weighted to represent the population as a whole, who completed detailed questionnaires that forced them to rate a vast array of issues relative to each other.

The subjects were forced to select a series of different issues they felt strongly about and gradually exclude the least compelling ones until only the most important remained.

Parallel studies were conducted in the US, Britain and Germany, with Australians exhibiting a similar range of concerns to Americans and Britons. The German responses, however, were markedly different.

"You can pretty much read German history in the German responses," said a lead author, Timothy Devinney, a professor of strategy at the University of Technology, Sydney.

"They are very concerned about privacy, civil rights, global issues, questions of peace and turmoil. While Australia is globally oriented in some ways, the tyranny of distance means most people aren't actually engaged with global issues as much as some might expect."

Professor Devinney said the lower priority accorded environmental concerns might indicate that 2007 was an "outlier" year in terms of large attention being placed on environmental issues, with last year being a return to the norm.

The findings also show that Australians are relatively disengaged with party politics.

"More than two-fifths of people in the study were either aligned with an independent political position or did not feel their political values aligned with any of the political representation options available to them through organised party politics," the report said.


Health ministers warn of 'unsustainable' services

The report shows in recent years Australia has imported more doctors than it has produced local medical graduates.

The report shows in recent years Australia has imported more doctors than it has produced local medical graduates. Photo: Louie Douvis

AUSTRALIA'S dependence on imported doctors and nurses - which faces rising international criticism - will continue to grow without reforms in supply and use of local graduates, the first national report on the health workforce says.

The report by HealthWorkforce Australia shows in recent years Australia has imported more doctors than it has produced local medical graduates.

That is despite endorsement eight years ago by health ministers of the goal of "national self-sufficiency" in health workforce supply.

The report was released after yesterday's meeting of state and federal health ministers, who warned that "without strong reform intervention these estimates will mean services may be unsustainable".

The ministers gave their support to the prospect of big changes in the working scope of doctors and nurses which is likely to include increased use of assistants and technology such as ehealth.

"This … reform and innovation is imperative to the future sustainability of quality health services for the Australian community," the ministers said in a communique.

On current trends, Australia by 2025 would be short of up to 110,000 nurses and 2700 doctors, the report says.

The figures would worsen substantially if Australia were to retain current local training numbers but stopped importing international medical graduates and nurses, leaving a shortfall of more than 15,200 doctors and 148,000 nurses.

The report says there has been increased concern about the impact of international recruitment of health professionals on the workforce in developing countries.

It cites recent research showing that the loss of medical graduates in training and other costs to developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa amounted to more than $2 billion, while recipient countries like Australia saved billions of dollars.

The report says that to achieve greater self-sufficiency in the supply of doctors and nurses, Australia would have to make significant reforms in productivity and scope of practice to reduce reliance on doctors and nurses.

Reforms may include greater use of assistants, the introduction of "new workforces" and broader application of technologies such as ehealth and telehealth (the use of telecommunications for consultations, diagnosis and procedures).

Yesterday's communique said the report presented the need for "essential, co-ordinated, long-term reforms by governments, professions and the higher education and training sector to ensure Australia has an affordable and sustainable health workforce to meet the changing health needs of the Australian community".

Because of the magnitude of some of the increases in graduate numbers needed in coming decades, training alone would not close the projected gaps.

While the government had increased funding for clinical training of doctors and nurses it was "not likely to be sufficient to meet projected future requirements for growth in training capacity, nor was it intended to do so", the report said.


Melbourne loves its cobbled laneways

DOZENS of historic bluestone laneways will be replaced with cement paths in Brunswick and Coburg, and heritage advocates fear lanes in other inner suburbs will face the same fate.

Residents say the replacement of about 47 kilometres of 19th-century bluestone lanes will tarnish the period charm of the suburbs. "Brunswick will eventually be a network of concrete driveways," said Meredith Carter, whose home of 30 years in Sutherland Street backs onto the first lane earmarked for replacement.

Under a Moreland council maintenance program, the lane's cobblestones will be pulled up for drainage works from next week. "In the guise of making repairs, they're going to be undermining the beauty and the amenity of the area," Ms Carter said.

The works - which will occur over 30 years - are focused on "right of way" laneways, which were built in Brunswick from the 1850s to allow the "night man" to empty backyard toilets, but now give residents rear access for cars. Moreland has 67 kilometres of these laneways, 20 kilometres of which are heritage protected and will be maintained.

But former Sutherland Street resident and heritage planner Chris Johnston said all the laneways were equally valuable. "Ask Melburnians what they see as having heritage value, and the image of a bluestone laneway really resonates," Ms Johnston said.

Mayor John Kavanagh said repairing damaged bluestone, or pulling it up for drainage works and relaying it, was expensive because of specialised labour costs, and the concreting program would save council up to $7 million over 10 years.

"Our budget is limited, and when you look at our other priorities, like footpaths, road reconstructions, bike lanes, maintenance of open public space … these facilities cater to a greater number of people than the aesthetics of bluestone laneways," he said. But heritage advocates say the practice sets a dangerous precedent, as most of Melbourne's bluestone lanes do not have heritage protection.

Paul Roser, conservation manager at the Victorian branch of the National Trust, said councils should conduct surveys looking at the potential significance of all laneways before they "disappear under concrete".

"The advantages of traditionally set bluestone pitchers is that they can settle, move, and any problems are localised and can be easily repaired."

Councils such as Maribyrnong, Yarra and Stonnington repair their bluestone laneways using bluestone. But Darebin council uses asphalt or concrete if lanes are not in heritage protected areas.

Melbourne City Council "encourages" the retention of bluestone laneways outside heritage zones, but this year sold bluestone laneway Elliot Lane, home of the St Jerome's Laneway Festival, to a developer.


Sunday, April 29, 2012

No let-up: Another drubbing for the Labor Party

The Brisbane municipality is huge so control of it is the biggest municipal prize in Australia.  Its budget is comparable to Tasmania's

Queensland Labor’s "thugs and villains" should fall on their sword following the ALP’s drubbing in Brisbane City Council elections yesterday, retiring councillor David Hinchliffe says.

The long-serving Labor figure last night warned the ALP had become the "personal fiefdom of a few egomaniacs" and renewed calls for the party’s state secretary, Anthony Chisholm, to resign.

Labor was reduced to six - possibly seven - wards in Brisbane City Council’s 26 wards in last night's emphatic win by the LNP, with Lord Mayor Graham Quirk also returned with a higher share of the vote than LNP predecessor Campbell Newman achieved in 2008.

It means twice in five weeks Labor in Queensland has been routed by a resurgent Liberal National Party, given the comprehensive state election loss on March 24.

Mr Hinchliffe called for elder Labor statesman Wayne Goss, Jim Soorley and Peter Beattie to play a senior role in re-shaping the Labor party at a state conference to be held "as soon as possible".

Mr Hinchliffe, who has served as a councillor since 1988 and was deputy mayor between 2004 and 2008, said he had been threatened over the phone last night after making earlier comments to "I have already had them on the phone to me tonight," he said last night.  "They will be loading up the guns to shoot the messenger."

Mr Hinchliffe believed the party administration needed to stand down.  "The executive of the party that has been responsible for the two disastrous campaigns - and the third of those campaigns will be on its way as soon as the federal election is called - those people should tender their resignations and get out of the way," he said.

Mr Hinchliffe described Saturday’s Brisbane City Council loss as "a tsunami on top of a wipe-out".

Mr Hinchliffe said he felt entitled to have his say because he had been in office for a quarter of a century and in the party for one-third of its history.  "And that is what I am doing, as vocally and as loudly as I possibly can," he said.  "This is not the time to sit idly by and wait for some mythical pendulum to swing back. "


China drops axe on mine spend after political 'interference'

With both farmers and the Greens baying loudly against mining, the NSW government dithers  -- when it should be acting decisively  on behalf of the community as a whole

THE Chinese government has delivered a damning verdict on doing business in NSW, pulling the plug on a planned $10 billion in mining-related investments across Australia.

The Shenhua Group, which has spent $600 million developing a coal mine in Gunnedah, in northern NSW, will no longer pursue plans to spend a further $9 billion across the country, The Sun-Herald has learnt.

According to mining industry sources, Shenhua told the department of the federal Resources Minister, Martin Ferguson, that it would take its money elsewhere. The energy company will instead invest in mining projects in Africa and closer to home in Mongolia.

Mr Ferguson's office declined to answer detailed written questions from The Sun-Herald about Shenhua's warning, instead referring the questions to the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism.

"Commercial decisions by the Shenhua Group are a matter for the company," a spokesman said.  The company did not respond to questions.

While the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, is likely to claim Shenhua's retreat was a reaction to the carbon tax, sources said it was a direct response to "political interference" and regulatory roadblocks it has experienced under the Coalition government in NSW.

Shenhua officials met the Minister for Trade, Andrew Stoner, on Friday in a hastily-arranged meeting as the state government fights to ensure Shenhua remains committed to the Watermark coalmine at Gunnedah. The project is a 30-year mine in the Liverpool Plains region, which is prime agricultural land.

Just a week ago, Shenhua received the latest stage of government approval for the mine - the "director-general's requirements". The company had waited seven months for the approval, which is supposed to take 28 days.

Sources in the O'Farrell government said the approval had been delayed by the paralysis in the Department of Planning, as the government continues to review planning laws and integrate its strategic lands policy.

The company, which paid the previous state Labor government $300 million to exploit the area, was also furious when the Minister for Energy, Chris Hartcher, changed the conditions of its exploration licence last year.

Mr Hartcher's media statement at the time boasted of "tough new conditions for the renewal of Shenhua Watermark Coal's exploration licence" in response to community concern. Farmers in the Liverpool Plains have battled against a number of mining proposals.

Mr Stoner has also commissioned an investigation into the intentions of foreign investors in NSW.

A government source said "companies are screaming about delays".

"Why would an investor come to NSW, where it takes four years to get a project approved and into production, when you can do it in less than two in Africa? If [Shenhua] money is withdrawn, it sends an awfully powerful message to other investors when Australia and NSW is seen as a less-attractive option than Africa," the source said.

The NSW Minerals Council has been lobbying on behalf of Shenhua. Its chief executive, Stephen Galilee, the former chief of staff to the Treasurer, Mike Baird, asked for written questions before declining to make any comment.

An industry source said: "Shenhua has made it quite clear it has had enough of what it sees as political interference in NSW. There are meetings going on to try to change their minds but this is a seriously bad thing for NSW. The last hope for some of the foreign miners is whether 'can do' [Queensland Premier] Campbell [Newman] can do."


Premier set to act on Victoria's  IT fiasco

Governments and  computers = money down the drain. And all in the name of "savings", of course.   Projects are almost invariably too ambitious

The board of the Victorian government's troubled information technology agency is set to be removed after a review found the body suffered from poor governance.

The move is likely to be welcomed by thousands of state public servants still struggling with substandard IT despite the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars since 2008.

CenITex, which services the computing needs of 36,800 public servants, has been the subject of three inquiries this year, including an Ombudsman's investigation and a police probe by the fraud and extortion squad.

Fairfax Media understands the Baillieu government has acted on the findings of the State Services Authority review, which was expected to be released but has recently been suppressed and labelled cabinet-in-confidence by Assistant Treasurer Gordon Rich-Phillips.

Last month, an investigation by Fairfax revealed that 46 per cent of the $377 million worth of contracts CenITex signed since 2008 had gone to highly paid contractors - many on $1000 a day - while the bureaucracy noticed little improvement in its outdated IT.

CenITex's board is headed by chairman Warren Hodgson, a former secretary of the Department of Innovation, Industry and Regional Development.

Also on the board are Graeme Bowker, former Melbourne Water Corporation chairman Alan Clayton, senior public servant Randall Cohen, who is also a non-executive director of the Mt Baw Baw Alpine Resort, Christina (Chris) Gillies, a director of MS Australia and Jim Monaghan, a former managing director of the Queen Victoria Market.

Fairfax understands that the State Services Authority's draft report into the IT body was critical of Treasury's oversight of CenITex. But senior government and CenITex sources have told Fairfax the department successfully pressured the State Services Authority to soften its criticism in its final report.

Government spokeswoman Stephanie Ryan said the government was considering "the best way" for CenITex to deliver shared IT services across departments and agencies and enhance value for money for taxpayers. The government's move, she said, "will bring CenITex closer to government and improve ongoing accountability".

"CenITex will continue to operate as normal during this period," Ms Ryan said.

In the Victorian Government Gazette yesterday, CenITex was declared a "reorganising body" under the State Owned Enterprises Act 1992. This allows the government to effectively remove the board and appoint an administrator.

CenITex was supposed to amalgamate the government's network systems, internet providers, data centres and help-desk services for the public service.

Treasury officials had hoped the "shared services" model would save on the government's huge IT bill, which has been running at $1.65 billion a year, according to a 2008 cabinet-in-confidence business case obtained by Fairfax..

But some of those who established the agency told Fairfax these savings - to be diverted to "frontline" services for Victorians - may take years to materialise.

Problems with CenITex's service ranged from months of consistently poor internet access for the Department of Business and Innovation to severe service interruptions in the Wangaratta government office to the Department of Justice turning its back on CenITex to outsource the courts IT system to a private provider.

Former executives told Fairfax IT specialists brought into CenITex were paid on average $1000 a day. Leaked internal wages information showed senior manager Gordon Miles, who has been at CenITex since March 2009, was paid $1697 a day, making him one of Victoria's highest-paid public office holders.

CenITex spokesman Ross Gilmour would not comment on the board's removal, while the Ombudsman's office would not confirm or deny its investigation into CenITex.

The ongoing police investigation is into allegations, revealed by Fairfax last year, that CenITex managers awarded a contract to themselves.


Will Australia learn from Europe's mistakes?

In looking at Europe, Australia may well see its own future. In some ways, Australia is just 20 or 30 years behind the developments in the Old Continent. Australia’s population is also ageing, albeit starting from a younger level. Australian governments have recently relapsed into financing their massive public spending increases on borrowing, just as European governments did in the 1970s and 1980s. And Australian government programs now sound as least as ambitious as EU initiatives—and they will probably end up at least as wasteful and inefficient.

The European public debt crisis is a wake-up call to those who believe in running a country on ever more feel-good programs, welfare initiatives, and industry assistance. The crisis of Europe is a crisis of government that has become too big. This is where the massive debt burdens originate—only a small component of government debt is the result of the financial crisis. The financial crisis did not cause Europe’s problems. It only made them apparent.

Perhaps this is the greatest benefit to Australia from Europe’s current woes. Europe provides us with a clear warning. It shows us what happens when government spending grows continually faster than government revenue. Such a scheme of financing government ultimately becomes a Ponzi scheme when eventually more debt needs to be raised to just pay the interest on previous borrowing.

Australian politicians keen to implement their next flagship policy should be sent on a mandatory field trip to Greece or Portugal each time they want to spend extra money (or maybe not, since both countries are still nice places to visit as tourists). The lessons from Europe’s decades-long spending binge need to be learned and understood. Australian governments should refrain from adding any extra programs to existing spending commitments for as long as the budget remains in deficit. Not only would this ease Australia’s dependence on offshore funding but it would also reduce our vulnerability to global economic shocks and prevent us from edging closer to a situation similar to the one in which Greece, Portugal, Spain and other European countries find themselves.


Saturday, April 28, 2012

Lonely students play varsity blues

I think Adele Horin has a point below.  My undergraduate years were in the '60s and I had an exceptionally  good time in campus politics at that time.  Being one of the few outspoken conservatives on campus in the Vietnam era was immensely entertaining.  But what I enjoyed most was my time in one of the university's army units.  So I was the complete counterformist.  Donning an army uniform when most of the campus was scared stiff of being drafted into the army was real defiance.  And I could tell of other adventures ....

Rather to my regret, however, my own son in his undergraduate years was rather like those Adele Horin describes below: Sticking to his studies and his old school friends.  Fortunately, however, he has now moved to Canberra to do his Ph.D. and he seems to be having there the sort of fun I would wish for him.  In his undergraduate years I kept telling him that your time at university is a time for having fun so I am glad he has finally realized it

Having just read the latest American literary sensation, The Art of Fielding, about college baseball, I am struck once again at the deep emotional connection young Americans feel towards their university; for the American college student the years between 18 and 22 are seminal when new friendships are forged and campus experiences can be life-changing.

It could not be more different from the narrow, often lonely and alienating experience of going to university in Australia.

This week, new figures showed record numbers of students from migrant, indigenous and otherwise hard-up backgrounds are going to university.

But I could not help wonder how these students will fare without a pack - or a pair - of high school mates as a ballast against loneliness.

Some parents once feared university might corrupt their darlings by bringing them into contact with strange and subversive elements. But nowadays parents are more inclined to worry that university is not the broadening and enlivening experience it once was.

The old school tie is more important than ever. Many young people cling to their high school friends for dear life as they progress through the university years, barely making a new acquaintance.

So big and inhospitable are campuses, so large are the numbers in tutorials, so depleted are university clubs, and so pervasive are the changes in life outside the campus that the university experience has become less vital, interesting and social for many students.

A few years ago the mother of a gorgeous and vivacious young woman from Sydney's north shore - now a journalist - revealed how friendless her daughter found university. The only sources of welcome and cheer were the campus Christian clubs that unsurprisingly had gained a huge following. If this young woman with bountiful social skills found university a bit lonely what hope do the shy, awkward and socially disadvantaged have?

My assertions are based on observations over the past five years of a group of young people still making their way through university and backed by three research reports since 2005 charting the engagement - and disengagement - experience of thousands of students.

To give credit where it is due, the universities are keenly aware that student disengagement is a major issue that needs to be addressed. But a lot of the forces causing the alienation are outside the universities' control.

The First Year Experiences in Australian Universities report, which traced changes from 1994 to 2009, found only half the students in 2009 felt a sense of belonging to their university and one-quarter had not made a friend - a significant worsening from previous years. As well, there had been a significant decline in the proportion that felt confident that at least one teacher knew their name.

Decreasing proportions participated through university sports, clubs or societies, and, of course, students spent less time on campus than in the past, and the less time they spent, the less they felt they belonged.

The report also points to improvements in student satisfaction with the quality of teaching, and enjoyment of courses. Academically, life is better.

If university is a less exciting and social place than it used to be for many, it is partly because students are holding down jobs, on average 13 hours a week, and not just to pay for ski trips. Another report, "Studying and Working", which looked at student finances and engagement, found many were in financial hardship and 14 per cent sometimes could not afford to eat.

The decline in shared houses due to soaring rents is another reason for the diminution of university experience. Thinking back, it was the network of shared houses that linked students into a constant party in the long-ago 1970s that made the era so vivid. Living with mum and dad will not be so memorable.

And then there's Facebook. Stephen Marche, writing in The Atlantic, posed the question "Is Facebook making us lonely?" If you use it to make arrangements to meet friends it is an asset. But when Facebook - and online interactive games - become a substitute for meeting people then it robs students of the richness and complexity of real relationships.

That is what makes Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding so fascinating. It is a novel, at heart, about the deep and complex relationships forged at university, with the central character being a shy, awkward and socially disadvantaged young man.

The American system is entirely different from ours, propelling students across the continent to reside at college. It is enormously wasteful. Students and parents rack up huge debts to pay for tuition and board when often perfectly good institutions of higher learning are in their home town.

But it does have the advantage of expanding student horizons and friendship networks, and of imparting a thrilling edge to the university experience, and a deep attachment to the institution.

For the 40,203 students from low socio-economic postcodes who started university this year, the opportunity is priceless. Previous research shows such students have more clarity of purpose, study more consistently and skip fewer classes. But they are also less likely to make friends or like being a university student.

Young people are lucky in so many ways with a world of connection and information at their finger tips. But the university experience seems less special and more impersonal than it used to be, and that's a pity.


PM faces defeat in house as Labor abstentions loom

Slipper obviously turns a few stomachs in the ALP

JULIA Gillard faces the risk of a Labor MP abstaining from a parliamentary vote on the future of Peter Slipper's tenure as Speaker, amid growing internal concern about the impact of the affair on the government.

A senior Labor MP has told The Weekend Australian that the Prime Minister risks the possibility of abstentions within her ranks if Mr Slipper attempts to take the chair on May 8, budget day, and the opposition moves a motion of no confidence.

"I for one am considering whether I'd abstain," the MP said.

With independent MPs Tony Windsor, Andrew Wilkie and Rob Oakeshott favouring Mr Slipper remaining on the sidelines until both Cabcharge misuse and sexual harassment allegations have been dealt with, an abstention by just one Labor MP would leave the government facing a humiliating defeat on the floor of parliament.

Mr Slipper, who has denied wrongdoing, intends to return to the Speaker's chair once the investigation into the alleged misuse of Cabcharges is complete -- even if the sexual harassment allegations are still pending.

Some within Labor ranks believe the Prime Minister or the leader of government business in the house, Anthony Albanese, should have a "quiet word" with Mr Slipper ahead of the resumption of parliament.

While the Slipper affair has raised fresh questioning of Ms Gillard's judgment, sources described as unrealistic Hawke government minister Graham Richardson's suggestion that she had a month to get her act together and that Kevin Rudd's return to the leadership remained a possibility.

Amid the fresh rumblings, senior ministers backed the Prime Minister, including two touted as potential replacements.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith said the caucus had resolved the leadership issue in February, when Mr Rudd failed in his bid to wrest back his former position as head of the party. "That issue is over," Mr Smith said.

Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten, also flagged as a future leader, rejected the prospects of a leadership change. "I just think that's complete nonsense," Mr Shorten said.

Mr Albanese said it was the government's view that Mr Slipper should be free to return if he had been cleared of criminal allegations and the other allegations remained unresolved.

"It certainly is the government's view that you can't have a situation whereby people are held to account because of civil proceedings," Mr Albanese said yesterday. Tony Abbott said he would be surprised if Mr Slipper attempted to come back before all allegations were dealt with.

"The Coalition's very firm position is that the Speaker should not attempt to retake the chair until all of the allegations against him, including the very serious sexual harassment allegations, have been fully dealt with and resolved," the Opposition Leader said.


W.A.: Education Department Director General calls for calm over NAPLAN fears

WA's education chief has urged parents to ignore the "fear campaign" surrounding national literacy and numeracy tests amid calls for parents to boycott the tests next month.

Education Department director-general Sharyn O'Neill called for calm as Year 3, 5, 7 and 9 students across WA prepare to sit the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy tests from May 15 to 17.

Her comments followed a call from the Literacy Educators Coalition for parents to withdraw their children from the tests because they "create fear and stifle creativity".

“This kind of testing has been active in WA schools for the past 12 years, and the information we gather from NAPLAN is for teachers to better educate their students,” Ms O’Neill said.

“NAPLAN can be a call to parents to talk to their school and gather information about their child’s results, and we have an overwhelming response from parents who do just that.

Ms O’Neill also denied claims that the tests put undue pressure on students, likening the anxiety a child might feel ahead of the tests to that of a sports carnival or music performance.

“It is reasonable for teachers to do some preparation with students just like they would for a concert, for example,” Ms O’Neill said.

“However, if parents feel their child’s anxiety is caused by undue pressure from teachers, I encourage them to contact their school to discuss this.

“With these results a teacher can be at the forefront of diagnosing a problem, and parents have good information on the performance of their child.”


Employment is a contract, not a right

Australia’s industrial relations system does not treat the employment contract as a simple contract between two equal agents, but as a relationship with unequal constraints and expectations. Toyota’s sacking of 350 workers last week has brought the issue of ‘unfair’ dismissals to the public sphere, but while the debate centres on the manner and basis of these dismissals, the more fundamental issue of consent has been ignored.

A defining principle of contract in common law is its voluntary nature. A contract is an agreement between two parties that is valid only as long as both parties consent to it. One cannot contract with someone who does not consent, and if one party no longer wants to be involved with the other, they can simply terminate the contract. If employees want to leave their employer, they don’t have to explain why they want to leave. All that matters is that they no longer consent to the contract for their labour.

Unfortunately, the law as it stands today is not a two-way street. Employees may quit work for whatever reason they see fit, but the employer cannot fire employees without ensuring that their reasons for terminating the employment contract are ‘fair.’ No longer is it a simple matter of consent but a case of arbitrary value judgments forbidding dismissals deemed ‘harsh, unjust, or unreasonable.’

Because of unfair dismissal provisions, employers often hang on to undesirable staff. Workers who would have already lost their jobs, and received an important market signal, are kept on out of fear of legal action. Employees may be unproductive, skip work often, not adhere to safety protocols, have a poor attitude, or simply have personality clashes. Whatever the reason, if the employer deems an employee no longer fit to work, keeping the worker employed can be detrimental to both productivity and workplace culture.

Firing workers is not a decision made lightly. Employers must be certain that the worker cannot improve. They then must consider redundancy payments and the cost of finding and training a replacement. This is a time-consuming and costly process in itself, but with the addition of unfair dismissal laws, the employer must also consider the costs of conciliation and arbitration arising from an unfair dismissal claim, and the extra ‘go away’ money needed if the claim is successful.

As a result, employers often try to sack undesirable staff under the cover of economic hardship. They may cite falling consumer demand, a financial crisis, a strong currency, high input prices, etc. It doesn’t really matter. They are simply carrying out a process long overdue and getting rid of employees who have long overstayed their welcome.

The charade needs to end. The law must reflect the reality that employment is a voluntary contract, and when one party no longer consents, the contract must be terminated.


Friday, April 27, 2012

Member of Sudanese gang jailed for his role in gruesome three-week robbery rampage

Africans are a big problem in Melbourne.  The episode below is only one of many.  Rather than feel gratitude towards the country that gave them refuge, many of them seem to feel only contempt for the rest of the community

A MEMBER of a gang of Sudanese youth who attacked 13 victims during a three-week robbery rampage has been jailed for almost six years after a judge said the courts could not tolerate unprovoked violence against soft targets on Melbourne's streets.

The assaults and robberies were "violent, it was unforgivable, it was brazen, it was frightening," County Court Judge Michael Tinney said today in sentencing Ring Chol, now 19, to a maximum five years and 10 months and a minimum term of three years and four months.

Some of the victims, attacked after leaving western suburban train stations or walking alone in St Albans in mid afternoon, had left Australia after the bashings, the court heard.

Judge Tinney said Chol's group, which included offenders aged 13 to 16, targeted vulnerable people, some of whom were bashed, threatened with a knife or bottle, or laughed at during attacks - despite offering to hand over possessions during the 22-day spree in June 2011.

"Just take my wallet, take my phone, take my bag, just leave me alone, I will die," one victim told his attackers after trying to flee.  "Yet he was punched repeatedly by you and at least two others" and lost consciousness during the assault which lasted 10 to 15 minutes, Judge Tinney said.  "These were cowardly and often brutal attacks," the judge said.

"Many people in this community no longer regard public transport as a safe option.  "This court must send a clear and loud message."

Judge Tinney said hardly a day goes by when soft targets are not subjected to robbery and assault in Melbourne and unprovoked violence must no longer be tolerated by the courts, if it ever was.

In one incident Chol stood on the bumper of a taxi and threatened to smash a rock into the windscreen unless the driver gave over property, and in another a victim was followed from Keilor Plains train station to his home where his house window was smashed and three vehicles damaged.

While bailed for the original offences, Chol breached curfew and has since been charged with two other assaults committed in central Melbourne for which he is yet to face court, Judge Tinney said.

He said Chol suffered post traumatic stress from the horrors he witnessed growing up in Sudan and what was described as "three years of hell" being subjected to racially-motivated violence in Egypt before coming to Australia as a 14-year-old.

But Judge Tinney said while some sentence reduction was called for due to his earlier trauma and his youth, the nature and gravity of the offending should be condemned.

Chol pleaded guilty to two counts of armed robbery, six robberies, two counts of recklessly causing serious injury, four counts of criminal damage and one count of attempted robbery.

Two child offenders are yet to be dealt with in the Childrens' Court and other members of Chol's group have not been identified, the court heard.


Dodgy doctors still working in Qld.

DOCTORS continue to work in Queensland public hospitals while unregistered or improperly credentialed, seven years after wide-ranging changes were recommended.

A Health Quality and Complaints Commission report, released this week, identified recurring and system-wide issues within Queensland Health's doctor employment, credentialing and management.

While no patient harm was identified and improvement was "apparent", the HQCC found some breaches had existed for months and one case took an "unacceptable" three years to identify.

The "Dr Right" report found inadequate leadership and a culture of secrecy continued to cause problems, with regional hospitals more likely to face significant safety and quality challenges.

It identified three key areas of concern, including compliance problems, incorrect management and a negative department-wide culture that contributed to ongoing problems.

Former Bundaberg Base Hospital surgeon Jayant Patel was employed by Queensland Health without proper credential checks and was later jailed for the manslaughter of three people and grievous bodily harm of a fourth.

The scandal sparked the creation of the HQCC to oversee complaints and monitoring.

The HQCC decided on the far-reaching credentialing investigation after a 2009 report on an Emerald Hospital doctor.

Commissioner adjunct Professor Russell Stitz said the latest report found one in every 100 doctors may not have been appropriately credentialed as at June 30 last year.

"Patients trust doctors with their lives so they need to be sure their care is provided by the right doctor, with the right skills, doing the right tasks, with the right support, in the right place," he said.

The report made eight recommendations for improvement and will give Queensland Health six weeks to agree on an action plan .


Thousands of Queensland public servants face losing their jobs as Newman Government tightens its belt

THOUSANDS of Queensland public servants face losing their jobs as the Newman Government tightens its belt to boost the state's bottom line.

Public service sources said a climate of fear now surrounded workers on temporary contracts, with a freeze on extensions meaning many whose contracts expired after the March 24 poll are set to join the ranks of the unemployed.

In a cruel twist, many "temporary" contracts were extended for years on end under the previous Labor government, meaning some workers lost jobs they had held for more than a decade.

One woman, who has worked for the same department for two years, was told in February that her position would soon be advertised permanently and she could apply, only to learn this month that her contract would not be renewed.

"I feel betrayed by a department and a system where I have worked so hard and given my absolute best," she said.

Public sector union Together will rally on Tuesday against the changes, with secretary Alex Scott accusing the Government of using a "blunt instrument" to force workers into unemployment.

While the hiring freeze covers only non-frontline staff, there are concerns the Newman Government is revising the definition of frontline so more contracts can be chopped.

The Government could not say how many jobs were affected but up to 20 per cent of the public service is employed on contracts, or up to 40,000 people.

Non-frontline recruitment has also halted even if interviews had already occurred, transfers have been frozen and the roles of those on secondment to higher duties will not be extended unless in exceptional circumstances.

Premier Campbell Newman made a pre-election promise to increase the percentage of permanent public servants while reducing reliance on long-term temporary contracts.

He wasted no time after his landslide win, ordering departmental bosses to sever contracts last month, four days after taking office.

Mr Scott said: "We're not challenging the Government's mandate . . . but we think the process that is currently being used is causing maximum pain to the workers with minimum gain to the Government."

In an email to staff on April 11, Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson acknowledged the so-called Establishment Management Program would be "challenging" and urged those who needed help "coping" to contact their managers.

The Queensland Public Service Commission, which is overseeing the freeze, last night could not detail how many people were affected, saying in a statement that each department held its own figures.


Government loan scheme to bite sharks

Lending taxpayers' money to people who are hopeless risks seems a good way to blow the money concerned

THE State Government is setting up shop to take on loan sharks preying on disadvantaged Victorians.

Under the new Good Money initiative to be launched today, "financially excluded" Victorians otherwise at the mercy of fringe and payday lenders can gain no-interest loans and financial advice.

The first one-stop financial shop will be opened in Geelong today to provide short-term loans of up to $1200, financial counselling and other community services to more than 1000 people.

Without the program, those who do not qualify for credit face borrowing from pawnbrokers and payday lenders who charge up to 1542 per cent interest a year - meaning a $5000 loan over 22 weeks would cost more than $32,000.

Based on the Good Shepherd Microfinance model, the Good Money program will administer the No Interest Loans Scheme where families and individuals on low incomes with concession cards can gain credit free of interest and charges to buy essential household items, and saving accounts.

As well as a $4.3 million state contribution, the program has the backing of National Australia Bank which has contributed $3.5 million, and Good Shepherd Microfinance.

Community Services Minister Mary Wooldridge said the program would help disadvantaged Victorians get financial support.

Having been a single mother on a pension unable to gain a bank loan for a new fridge, Valda Johnson, 44, knows how important such help is.

Forced to rent a fridge at a high cost because the only other option was a pawnshop, she was saved when Uniting Care arranged for a short-term loan and financial counselling.

"It (the pawnbroker loan) was nearly 20 per cent ... you are actually paying double what you borrow from them and I couldn't afford their loan payment of $1000," Ms Johnson said.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Australian public television presents both sides of climate debate

IT'S the taxpayer-funded TV journey which set out to change opinions on the climate change debate - and ends with little ground being made by either protagonist.

After four weeks of filming around the world and 60 hours of interviews (at a cost of 60 tonnes of carbon), I Can Change Your Mind About Climate has barely shifted the opposed views of its stars, former Howard government finance minister Nick Minchin and climate activist/author Anna Rose.

The premise was simple: Pitch up a list of people who hold your views on climate science, then go about convincing each other to change.

Funded jointly by Screen NSW (under the O'Farrell government) and Screen Australia's national documentary program scheme, it was produced by filmmaker Simon Nasht and entrepreneur Dick Smith.

It airs on ABC1 tonight.

Mr Minchin, who led opposition to a carbon trading scheme, claimed he was "a little shocked the ABC had signed off on this proposal as it involves airing the views of those sceptical of anthropological global warming ... and it doesn't do a lot of that".

The program flew the pair across Australia, then to Hawaii, Boston, New York, San Francisco, Washington and London filming meetings with leading professors and anti-global warming bloggers.

Mr Nasht said producers purchased renewable energy offsets for Ms Rose and four production crew.

Mr Minchin argued the federal government was "making a mistake spending billions on the assumption we're the ones causing climate change and I don't think that's right".

He believes the show's value was "in Anna beginning to understand what I call the scare-mongering is actually counter-productive".

Ms Rose said yesterday: "Nick did not present any evidence or coherent explanation for why the world has warmed so significantly that could be attributed to anything other than fossil fuels, cars, coal-fired power stations."

She took up the challenge to educate "people watching at home who might still have some questions about climate science and be able to answer them in a clear way".

While she is steadfast in her position that the climate crisis is a real and urgent one, the duo did share in their disappointment at having several of their suggested interview subjects cut from the final edit.


"Fiddled" hospital waiting list statistics in the Australian Capital Territory

A senior administrative staff member of ACT Health has been stood down after discrepancies were discovered in relation to statistics about the waiting times in the emergency department data.

The director-general of health Dr Peggy Brown said the matter is being treated as "serious", and a formal investigation has been launched.

Dr Brown said the inaccurate reporting on statistics had been happening for more than 12 months, and could have started as far back as late 2010.

"It appears waiting and treatment times have been altered on some records without authority,  and I am very sorry this has occurred."

The hospital’s data is checked externally and internally, and it was an external check that brought anomalies to light.  The data showed improved waiting times, but this would not have impacted on planning to cover peaks and troughs.

Dr Brown says the overall impact on data is small, but the full extent is not yet known. In national emergency access targets recorded under the new National Health Reform, the directorate believes the overall change is 2 per cent.

The errors were discovered about two weeks ago and the senior staffer was stood down on Monday pending a review.

A previous Auditor General’s report found poor documentation at the Canberra Hospital, but Dr Brown says this is the first time she is aware of data manipulation. A paramedic has told The Canberra Times data does not reflect the full extent of delays finding beds for patients delivered to the hospital by ambulance.

Dr Brown says there have been two previous cases where data has been corrected.

She would not speculate on what motivated the senior staff member to change statistics.  "I will note however, that there was no personal or financial gain for the individual. I think they have made a very serious error of judgment seeking to slightly enhance the performance data of the emergency department.  "It has been a very misguided decision."

Dr Brown says a forensic audit has started and there will be a second, overall review of data processes, both of which should take several weeks to complete.

Data, including the latest quarterly figures, will have to be corrected . Staff will have to go back and correct all records.


Very slippery indeed

FRESH claims disputing embattled Speaker Peter Slipper's travel records have emerged after a Melbourne chauffeur rejected records that claim he drove the MP 19 times.

Jamal Patto, who owns Babylon Investment Group, has threatened to take Mr Slipper to court after his company was linked to $1922 in Cabcharge payments between January 2010 and July 2011.

Two of the listed dates were for hire car travel in Sydney on January 18, 2010 - despite Mr Slipper allegedly being at his home in Queensland, raising further questions over the MP's use of entitlements.

Another Melbourne driver also claimed Mr Slipper kept him waiting for about 30 minutes at wine outlet Get Wines Direct, owned by a friend of Mr Slipper. The driver, whose initials are NR, kept a detailed file of text messages sent by Mr Slipper.

Last night, Mr Slipper said: "All my Cabcharge usage is in order and within entitlement."

Mr Patto, Babylon's only director and sole driver, is disputing records showing his company was a regular provider of travel to Mr Slipper.  He claims to have only driven Mr Slipper twice - earlier this year when Kevin Rudd and Prime Minister Julia Gillard faced off in the leadership showdown.

"I was at the (Melbourne) airport and there was a big taxi line and he asked me if I could take him to parliament house," Mr Patto said. "He later called me and asked if I could take him back to the airport. I only met this guy once. All those other dates that appear, I have no idea how."

The Department of Finance said it would "consider" the new allegations.  "The Department of Finance has no relationship with Babylon Investment Group and is therefore unable to comment on whether the company received any payments," a spokeswoman said.


Young Aborigines are the principal authors of their own misfortunes

What is the likely fact missing from the following droll entry in the NSW Police media log for Wednesday, September 28, last year?

"Police have arrested two boys aged 15 and 11 following the pursuit of a stolen car in Sydney's inner west this morning. About 3.30am police spotted a stolen white Honda Civic travelling along Parramatta Road at Stanmore.

"The car failed to stop after being directed and a pursuit was initiated … The pursuit was terminated after … the car crashed into a gutter at an intersection [in Petersham].

"When police approached the car, the 15-year-old driver was allegedly armed with a pair of scissors … The driver, from Glebe, was subjected to a breath alcohol analysis and returned a reading of 0.042."

The same likely fact is missing from a incident two weeks later on October 11, reported on "A 14-year-old girl allegedly failed to stop for a random breath test and led officers on a high-speed car chase before crashing and rolling a car in western Sydney this morning, police say."

The car chase took place about 3am in the western suburb of Whalan.

There have been other similar incidents leading up to the depressingly predictable crash and shooting in Kings Cross early on Saturday, when a stolen car, driven by a 14-year-old, ran down two pedestrians.

What sort of kids are on the streets after 3am, in stolen cars, drinking alcohol, driving recklessly and resisting police?

You know the answer. The statistical probability points to a subculture that is overwhelmingly over-represented in arrests, convictions, incarceration, child abuse, child neglect, domestic violence, alcohol abuse and substance abuse. This subculture functions in a culture of moral apartheid, which perpetuates the vicious cycle.

It was inevitable that a feral teenager in a stolen car was going to run over someone. Cars are more lethal than guns. They kill or seriously injure thousands of people a year, while guns are used in only several dozen murders or attempted murders a year.

In Kings Cross on Saturday morning, Sarah Roberts and Tanya Donaldson were on the footpath when they were bowled over. Roberts, 29, was rushed to hospital. The joyriders going to Kings Cross in a stolen car were begging for trouble and it duly came when a police foot patrol, attempting to stop a vehicle that had already hit two women, fired into the front window to immobilise the car.

In so doing the police wounded the 14-year-old driver and the 17-year-old front seat passenger. The police were aiming at the windshield, not the occupants. When a car is being driven with such callous indifference to safety that two pedestrians are knocked over, police must assume the car's occupants are also dangerous and attempt to subdue them quickly. These incidents take place in instants, not minutes.

It turns out that the driver of the car has been known to police since he was eight. Eight! Five occupants of the car, including two 14-year-olds, were later charged with various offences.

Yet since the incident the two who were shot have been presented as victims, with stories about anger in Redfern. At a rally outside NSW Parliament on Wednesday organisers accused police of "attempted murder".

Predictably, Anthony Mundine, he of the quick fists and quick mouth, entered the fray via Twitter: "Heartbreaking day for me visiting 14 y.o kid shot by police at Kings Cross. I'm at loss to understand how cops could shoot unarmed kids!!!"

He later added: "Barry O'Farrell needs to take a serious look at his police force. All I keep hearing about [is] trigger happy cops killing people. Wrong fo[r] real!!!"

It is not "trigger happy cops" the community is worried about. The bulk of the anger coming out of the Kings Cross drama is from a much wider community sick of violent, self-destructive behaviour by young Aborigines. The community is sick, too, of the constant use of the term "disadvantage" to rationalise the irrational and excuse the inexcusable.

Mundine continued to dig a hole for himself on Twitter yesterday - "police intentionally shot to kill!" - followed by this: "Yes the kids should be trailed [sic] for what they did! But the police should be trailed [sic] for attempted murder!"

Sarah Roberts and Tanya Donaldson were minding their own business when they were mowed down by a dangerous fool. As to their welfare, Mundine had nothing to say, other than this: "DID THEY DIE???"


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Forget the spin cycle, Gillard's problems are ones of substance

The weekend media reported that "senior government figures were very happy with the sale of their surplus" and were finally getting "cut-through" without distractions. Of course, that was before the allegations against Labor's hand-picked Speaker, Peter Slipper, blew up.

How the government imagines it is getting "cut-through" over something that has not been announced - let alone delivered - is a mystery. But statements like these do illustrate how delusional things are becoming in Canberra.

The government thinks it is doing an excellent job and making the right decisions. It is just that bad luck always intervenes to muck things up and distractions occur that prevent people from seeing how good it really is. If only it could get clear air to explain itself and put a proper spin on things, its popularity would rise to the level it truly deserves.

In truth, the government is incompetent. Its real problem is not image but substance. It isn't that it failed to sell the carbon tax. It is that it decided to introduce a carbon tax in the first place after promising there would be none. It isn't that the public is ungrateful for all those insulation batts and new school halls. It is that the public can see how money has been thrown away on wasteful projects and does not believe, along with every sane analyst, that this saved Australia from financial collapse. The gulf between reality and spin is badly undermining the credibility of the government.

So now the government bemoans that the public is "distracted" by the Slipper affair. This distraction arises from another very deliberate decision - to take someone under a cloud in his own party and elevate him to the highest parliamentary position as part of a "cunning plan" to neutralise his vote. What tarnished Labor is the decision, not the presentation.

However, I will say one thing for Slipper: at least he appears to think he is innocent of financial impropriety. He is going to give an explanation for his conduct and answer the questions of investigators, which is more than you can say for Craig Thomson.

Thomson says there is an explanation as to how his credit card got used to buy prostitutes. It's just that he refuses to give it and refuses to co-operate with the police, who want to know what it is. Is this an image problem for Julia Gillard? No, this is a substance problem. She could support full exposure of what is, by all accounts, corrupt behaviour by someone in the Health Services Union or she could give her full support to Thomson. She has chosen to do the latter.

So I am going to suggest a new tactic for the government when it comes to selling this year's budget - level with the public and tell the facts rather than weave the spin. This would involve admitting it was costly and unnecessary to ramp up spending by 36 per cent in the past four budgets. It would mean admitting that if a surplus budget will take pressure off interest rates now (as the government is claiming), then more careful budget policy would have helped over the past four years when we returned budget deficits of $27 billion, $55 billion, $48 billion and $37 billion - in total, $166 billion. And it would mean admitting the 2012-13 budget would not be a surplus at all if the government included its actual spending on the national broadband network (up to $43 billion), which it has taken off-budget.

Most of all, it would mean stopping all this nonsense about its problems being the result of bad karma. Last week Gillard, seeking to explain why the forthcoming budget surplus will be so weak, wailed that "the rivers of gold that flowed into Peter Costello's coffers don't exist any more". I have news for her - they never did. There were no rivers of gold or anything else that could compare to the rivers of iron ore and black coal that are now pumping the Australian economy.

Gillard's latest forecast for the coming financial year is $375 billion in receipts, which is more than $100 billion more than the last full financial year of the Coalition government. Over five years, this is an increase of 37 per cent. The problem is that Commonwealth spending has risen even faster.

This government has tried more spin cycles than would be safe for an average washing machine. It should try a rinse cycle to get rid of all the accumulated grime - and a little bit of disinfectant to spruce up the end result.


Public hospital meltdown in S. Australia

Anything out of the routine stumps them

A QUARTER of Adelaide's ambulance fleet was lined up outside Flinders Medical Centre on Monday - and the state's biggest hospital refused to help.

The backlog included life-threatening emergencies, such as one patient aged in their 90s with a suspected heart attack and very low blood pressure, who was left waiting outside the hospital for at least 30 minutes.

A spokesman for the Royal Adelaide Hospital said it "already had a large number of patients in its own ED" and was not accepting diversions at the time.

Ambulance Employees Association secretary Phil Palmer said the bottleneck also meant no ambulances were available between Cross roads and Yankalilla, delaying dispatches to top priority cases across that area.

He said the state's major hospitals must work together to handle the load.

"We need a state health system where people co-operate with each other for the benefit of the patient," Mr Palmer said.

He said members counted 10 ambulances lined up delivering patients at FMC about 4.30pm - a quarter of the roughly 40 ambulances operating across metropolitan Adelaide.

A photo taken around the same time shows nine ambulances held up outside the hospital, while two more were understood to be on the way.

Mr Palmer said patients left waiting included another with a heart condition waiting for 45 minutes, cancer patients in pain and people with fractures.

He said the "intolerable and unacceptable" incident would be taken to the Industrial Relations Commission.

"On busy days like that, the last thing the community needs is ambulance resources tied up outside a hospital when their patient should have been handed over to ED staff," Mr Palmer said.

FMC general manager Roz Hanson said the delays were caused by a sudden influx between about 2.30pm and 3.30pm.

"Within a two-hour period the FMC ED experienced an unexpected surge in ambulance patient demand, with a high number of ambulances arriving at the hospital in two 15-minute time frames," Ms Hanson said.

"At this time, the FMC was also receiving a number of emergency situation presentations from within the hospital which affected the ED's usual ability to receive the high quantity of patients in a timely manner."


The oldest tree

AT least two miracles have saved Tasmania's 10,500-year-old stand of Huon Pine - the world's oldest clonal tree - from destruction.

Located in the sub-alpine heights of Mt Read near Rosebery in northwestern Tasmania, it's miraculous that 100 years of mining has not wrought the sort of havoc that copper smelting has visited on nearby Queenstown, where woodcutting and acid rain have stripped the slopes of vegetation. Second, it's good fortune that when wildfire did strike the Mt Read heights in the early '60s, killing ancient stands of King Billy pines, the flames stopped metres short of the heart of the Huon Pine that has stunned scientists around the world.

Discovered in 1995 by forestry worker Mike Peterson, the ancient Huon Pine has marched its way over more than a hectare, down a hill towards the Lake Johnston glacial lake, reproducing genetically identical male copies - clones - of itself. While the oldest individual tree or stem on the site now may be 1000 to 2000 years old, the organism itself has been living there continuously for 10,500 years.

For the past decade, 72-year-old Kerry Hay has been the gatekeeper of the tree. A bus company operator in Rosebery, Hay first heard about it one day in 1995 when someone from Sydney knocked on his door wanting to see it after reading about its discovery. Hay had to send them away disappointed. It took almost five years of lobbying to get permission to take visitors to the stand, and longer to get access.

Visitors must be accompanied by a registered tour guide and Hay charges $70. But it's not a particularly bountiful enterprise. With snowfalls at any time and an average rainfall of 3.3m a year, the weather is only good enough to see the tree for about three months of every year. "Not too many come for the tour," says Hay. "If it's cloudy you can't see the bloody thing."

But on a clear day it is a breathtaking experience. To get there it's a steep drive up a mining road before branching off onto an unkept 4WD track. Visitors must wear plastic covers over their shoes before stepping onto a boardwalk that winds its way through the skeletons of ancient King Billy pines that were burnt out in the '60s fire.

At 850m elevation it is a craggy environment with low heath covers. The pathway leads to a lookout over Lake Johnston with the stand of Huon Pines about 100m away. To reach the stand it is necessary to scramble over the shale and low ground cover and navigate around thick dead trunks that must be thousands of years old, their roots spread over the ground like pythons, some as thick as a waist.

Inside the stand of Huon there is a thick carpet of moss and a tangle of roots and shoots that explain how the stand has marched its way over the landscape.

By studying the tree rings of the Huon Pines, climatologists have been able to establish a continuous record of climatic change over more than 3700 years. As a consequence, the Lake Johnston Nature Reserve has received one of the highest ranked protections available in the world, reflecting its immense significance to the botanical and scientific communities.


An angry retort to Bettina Arndt from a feminist

But she ends up agreeing that Bettina has got her facts right

If you read this weekend’s Sunday papers, you will have been thrilled by an incredible piece of news: Bettina Arndt is the first human being to have visited an entirely different universe.

The voyage happened during her piece, Why women lose the dating game; Bettina visited the universe - hitherto only speculated about by astronomers - and found an alien entity who, coincidentally, was called Clem Bastow. This alien entity reached the end of the article and found herself nodding in cautious agreement.

FOOLED YOU! The alien was me! And I have been struggling with this strange new sensation for the past day: what does it mean for you when a large part of a Bettina Arndt article rings true?

First things first, in case you think this article is being written by my dog and I’m actually chained up in a basement somewhere: there’s plenty she didn’t get right, namely, women’s role in the dating game. “Many thought they could put off marriage and families until their 30s, having devoted their 20s to education, establishing careers and playing the field,” says Arndt of silly women nationwide. “But was their decade of dating a strategic mistake?”

Sometimes you just gotta wonder if Bettina even likes women. She seems so determined to decry feminism - even when, as she’s done here, she doesn’t expressly say as much - and defend the plight of the poor men left sobbing in the movement’s wake.

However, on the topic of the misogynist cesspool that is the “dating scene”, unfortunately, she’s spot on.

I used to laugh about things like The Game and the idea of “pick-up artists”, dismissing them as little more than a horror story from across the pond, but then I was hypnotised into a relationship by a 38-year-old Darth Vader impersonator who sidelined as a counsellor who helped young men pick up chicks.

He worked as a ‘guest lecturer’ - or something - with a lifestyle coach who taught meek dudes things like “same night lays” and how to avoid “the verbal leakage of power” (no, I don’t know what that is, either).

These blokes weren’t really interested in actual relationships, and they didn’t have to be, because there were always going to be more single women who were willing to step up to the plate if another demurred.

By that token, the census analysis Arndt quotes - “68,000 unattached graduate men in their 30s for 88,000 single graduate women in the same age group” - isn’t surprising.

Likewise, the experience of Gail - who found that men her own age on dating websites were only interested in younger women - rings true. I am still half-heartedly engaging in the sisyphean saga that is “looking for someone nice to go on dates with”, and now that I’m 30 (well, almost), I find I am almost exclusively contacted by men who are 15 to 20 years older. Who’s contacting the women who are 45+?

In short, it’s hell out there. But here’s where I begin to become human once more, and remember what it’s like to disagree with Bettina Arndt: why do we carry on as though these women who have reached their late-30s and early-40s and found themselves (“still”) single have thrown their lives away?

Yes, it’s nice to share your life with someone - all but the most misanthropic or committedly lone-wolf-ish of us know that. However the tone of Arndt’s piece suggests that we should capitulate to the good-enough husband (even trotting out Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him!, which was listed as a favourite text in the online dating profile of a man I recently encountered who insisted that “[his] crotch!” wanted my phone number).

As Arndt puts it, “many women are missing out on their fairytale ending”. As someone else in the article, Penny, puts it: “We were told we were special, we could do anything and the world was our oyster."

Hate to break it to you, Penny, but all of that is true - provided you don’t need the pearl inside that oyster to be a man.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Slipper looks like a slip-up for Julia

Will it bring on an early election?  It seems possible.

Leftists normally screech loudly about sexual harassment but Gillard  appears indifferent to this episode.  Perhaps homosexual harassment is OK?

KEY independent MP Rob Oakeshott says he is "open minded" on a no confidence motion that might be moved against the Gillard Government in the wake of the scandal to engulf controversial MP, Peter Slipper.

Mr Oakeshott said this afternoon he was "frustrated", "despondent" and "pretty angry" at the latest turn of events, saying if allegations made against Mr Slipper were proven true, it would turn out to be "the darkest days of this 43rd parliament".

Mr Oakeshott hasn't ruled out withdrawing his support from the government on the floor of the House of Representatives. "I'm open minded on a no confidence motion that may come before the House in May in regards the speakership," the federal NSW MP told ABC Radio.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said: "One of the really worrying features of the Prime Minister's attempt to explain herself away, to explain her actions away, is that she's essentially making light of sexual harassment.

"I mean, to suggest that sexual harassment and the misuse, the quite possibly fraudulent use of Commonwealth entitlements is on a par with those other issues just shows again that this Prime Minister does get bit.

"She just doesn't get  it when it comes to the seriousness of this and the appalling cloud that now hangs over, not just the Parliament, but her and her Government."


The embattled Queensland MP, who was forced to step aside yesterday following The Daily Telegraph's revelations of alleged sexual harassment and Cabcharge misuse - also faces questions over a mystery Townsville taxi trip on June 1 last year. Mr Slipper was in Canberra on the date the taxi fare was booked.

A Daily Telegraph investigation has now uncovered a raft of apparent breaches of Commonwealth entitlements by Mr Slipper. These include a number of questionable taxi fares, including a short ride from Pascoe Vale to Carlton in inner-city Melbourne that took place at 4.19am (EST).

He also flew to Melbourne to interview a potential adviser for a role in his electorate office on the Queensland Sunshine Coast.

And in a further blow to Mr Slipper - who now faces a lengthy and potentially costly court battle to clear his name - it can be revealed that one of his most trusted advisers, Tim Knapp, is being questioned by the Australian Federal Police over two matters.

One of these involves the illegal use of a Commonwealth fuel card - which was in Mr Slipper's name - and was used in a private vehicle.

The AFP is also investigating claims that Mr Knapp may have engaged in fraud against the Commonwealth by taking leave from Mr Slipper's office, even after he had been paid out for these entitlements.

Mr Slipper, who has been forced to repay more than $20,000 in wrongly claimed entitlements, is prevented from using taxpayer funds for blatant political or "party business", according to Finance Department guidelines issued to every federal MP.

And yet in March 2010, he spent more than $3000 to help a good friend, Jillian Law, as she campaigned for a seat in the Tasmanian parliament as a member of the Liberal Party.

On March 5, 2010 - just two weeks before the Tasmanian election - the then Liberal backbencher flew to Melbourne where travel records show he caught a taxi from Pascoe Vale to inner-city Carlton at 4.19am.

A few hours later, he flew to Hobart for the sole purpose of speaking at a fundraiser for Ms Law, who only managed to attract 800 votes at the March 20 election and failed to secure a seat.


Negligent Vietnamese doctor now practising in Australia

There have been other instances of East Asian doctors not relating well to indigenous people.  The attitudinal and cultural gaps can be too wide to transcend fully  -- leading to a dismissive attitude on the part of the doctor

A baby too weak to suck from a bottle, with a high temperature and losing weight rapidly, was sent home three times by doctors in the two weeks before she died.

A New Zealand coroner has found that the last doctor who saw three-month-old Skylah Vaimalu should have sent her to hospital.

But he is powerless to make any recommendations against Dr Huu Hoai Nam Nguyen because Dr Nguyen is now practising in Australia.

Skylah died at her home in Arawhata Street, Porirua, on September 1, 2007. Wellington coroner Ian Smith's long-awaited findings into her death have just been released.

Born in May that year, the fourth daughter of Travilla Pupuke and Mosa Vaimalu, Skylah was a bubbly baby. "She was a very happy baby," her mother said yesterday.

Shortly after Skylah received her vaccination injections in August 2007 she developed flu-like symptoms. Ms Pupuke gave her Pamol but, by August 19, her cough had a high pitch and she had diarrhoea.

The next day she took Skylah to Waitangirua Health Centre, where the baby was diagnosed as having bronchiolitis and continued paracetamol was prescribed.

Later that afternoon, she developed a high temperature and was bleeding from the nose. Her mother took her to the emergency department at Kenepuru Hospital, but the doctor was not concerned, again diagnosing bronchiolitis.

In the following days, Skylah remained very sick and continued to lose weight. On August 29, Ms Pupuke again took her to Waitangirua Health Centre, where she was seen by locum Dr Nguyen. Skylah was dehydrated, had severe diarrhoea, was pale and losing weight.

Dr Nguyen again diagnosed bronchiolitis, prescribing Histafen. He told Ms Pupuke that, if Skylah would not take a bottle, she should feed her with a syringe. "Ms Pupuke felt that her concerns for her daughter's health were being ignored," Mr Smith says in his findings.

On August 31, the family continued to monitor Skylah and give her medication. By this time her breathing was heavy, her skin was pale and she had trouble sleeping.  At 1.45am on September 1, she was given formula with a syringe.  "Ms Pupuke was now exhausted and fell asleep but, when she awoke between 7.30am and 8am, she found her daughter deceased."

Pathologist Jane Zuccollo found Skylah lost 1.5kg in 10 days, from 7kg to 5.5kg. The coroner concluded she died from sudden unexpected death in infancy after suffering bronchopneumonia.

Wellington Hospital general and community paediatrician Nikki Blair completed a review of the medical care Skylah received. In a statement, she told the court that Skylah should have gone to hospital.

"Dr Blair was also critical of Dr Nguyen's suggestion of providing a syringe for feeding as being inadequate for a baby too weak to suck," Mr Smith said.  "Had Dr Nguyen still been practising in New Zealand, I would have recommended that he receive more formal training in paediatric medicine, but I understand that he now resides and practises in Australia."

Ms Pupuke, who has since also moved to Australia, said: "It's very hard to understand that Mr Nguyen, being the last doctor that saw her, did not admit her. I feel strongly that her health and wellbeing was not much of a concern for them. I do feel I've been let down – me and my family, but mostly my daughter."

The Medical Council issued Dr Nguyen with a certificate of good standing before he left, unaware of this case until contacted by The Dominion Post yesterday. Spokesman George Symmes said it would hold a complaints hearing next week.

Waitangirua Health Centre chairman Logan McLennan said there had been no concerns about Dr Nguyen's performance.


Compensation claim fears cramp students after classmate sues girl over tennis mishap

COMPENSATION claims against schools for playground and sporting field accidents are creating a "nanny state" harmful to children's health, a childhood obesity expert says.

Professor Geoff Cleghorn said a growing number of compensation claims by students and parents could lead to more schools banning or restricting sports and outdoor activities.

His concerns follow revelations in The Courier-Mail that Julia Wright-Smith, 13, a student at prestigious Somerset College, was served with legal papers by lawyers acting for architect Paul Burns, whose daughter Finley was allegedly accidentally hit in the eye with a tennis ball by Julia, her classmate.

Other Queensland schools have also moved to ban activities including tiggy, red rover and cartwheels because of injury fears and a flood of compensation claims.

Prof Cleghorn, from the University of Queensland, said accidents happened in the playground and risks could be eliminated only if all sports and outdoor games were banned.  "If you try to legislate against every element of chance, you're not going to have them (activities)," he said.  "In the drive to provide a caring and nurturing environment, you could be creating a nanny state. I feel strongly that kids should be out exercising."

An investigation by The Courier-Mail in 2010 found Queensland state schools had been successfully sued for thousands of dollars for playground and sporting field accidents.  They included lawsuits by children injured while doing handstands, running on the school oval and being thrown in a judo demonstration.

But compensation law expert Mark O'Connor, of Brisbane firm Bennett and Philp lawyers, said most school sport injuries lawsuits were thrown out.

"Sports injuries rarely succeed in the courts because the courts expect people doing physical sports to be aware of any possible risks involved," Mr O'Connor said.

But the Burns' lawyer, Mark Frampton, said there was "nothing malicious" in the case and Finley had to serve legal papers on Julia in case she suffered long-term eye damage and needed to mount a compensation claim "down the track".  Mr Frampton said the Burns family was required to give notice of a potential claim.


The impossible dream:  Firing hospital bureaucrats

It appears to have happened in South Australia but it's mostly just a reshuffle

MORE than 50 full-time bureaucrats will be axed from the state Health Department.

In a statement late yesterday, SA Health chief executive David Swan said 53 full-time equivalent staff would lose their jobs in a savings measure expected to rein in $10 million a year. The cuts equate to each job being worth nearly $190,000 a year.

Front line staff and service delivery would not be affected.  "All of these roles are located within the Department for Health and Ageing, not in our hospitals," Mr Swan said.

Earlier this month, Health Minister John Hill admitted his department would not be able to meet savings targets set for it by Treasurer Jack Snelling.

Mr Hill also banned flexitime for senior employees to save up to $13 million a year. The department was supposed to shed more than 440 full-time equivalent public servants this year but had only managed to shed 70 by December last year.  The Health department is facing a projected overspend of $125 million in 2011-12.

Mr Swan said the department was "continuously looking at ways to identify efficiencies to ensure funds are directed into services".

"In line with this, the department has conducted a review of activities over the past few months which has resulted in a restructure," he said.

"The review has led to the reduction of 53 FTE positions through targeted voluntary separation packages and redeployment. These positions were situated across a number of head office functions, including communications and policy."

Mr Swan said the review also identified additional savings in goods and services expenditure throughout the department. In addition to the review, a further 22.4 FTE vacant positions were declared "excess to requirements" as part of the existing savings strategies.  This brings the total number of positions to be reduced by 75.4 FTE.

"We are always looking at how we can improve the way we do business and continue to deliver world-class health services to South Australians," Mr Swan said.


Monday, April 23, 2012

Gonski: top losing schools named

Prime Ministers Howard, Rudd and Gillard knew better than to cut any private school funding.  Private schooling is sacrosanct to a big proportion of Australians. Former Leftist leader  Latham wanted to attack private school funding but lost the election,  in part because of that threat

LORETO Kirribilli is among the independent schools in NSW with the most to lose - estimated at up to $3.9 million a year - in the proposed Gonski reforms of schools funding, a preliminary analysis shows.

Other schools at risk of having their federal funding reduced are Monte Sant' Angelo Mercy College at North Sydney, St Aloysius' College at Milsons Point and Oakhill College at Castle Hill.

They are among the 17 per cent of independent schools in NSW that have had their funding maintained and indexed at the levels they were at before the Howard government changed the system in 2001.

The Commonwealth formula uses census data to allocate funding on the basis of need according to the socio-economic status of parents.

Since the introduction of the so-called SES funding formula, the wealth profile of many schools has increased, entitling them to less funding under the formula.

But the Howard government introduced a "no losers" policy, which was continued under the Rudd and Gillard governments, which meant annual funding for schools would not decrease.

Analysis by the Association of Independent Schools using 2009 data from the federal Department of Education suggests 86 NSW independent schools would lose between $65,000 and $3.9 million each year under the Gonski system.

The NSW Greens MP, John Kaye, said government figures showed Loreto Kirribilli would have received $32 million less than it has since 2001 if the SES formula had been applied strictly. This year it will receive an estimated $3.6 million above its strict SES entitlement of about $1.7 million.

"Losing some of that money would be more than fair and reasonable, especially if it ends up back in public schools," Dr Kaye said.

Geoff Newcombe, the executive director of the Association of Independent Schools NSW, said an examination of the proposed Gonski model using 2009 data showed a number of schools to have had their funding maintained and indexed would receive more funding, casting doubt on claims that these schools were "overfunded and rorting the system. Other schools, however, will have their funding reduced by amounts ranging from relatively low levels to up to $4 million," he said.

He said all education sectors were awaiting 2010 data to allow the Gonski model's indexation rate to be calculated.

If it was below 6 per cent, the "feasibility of the Gonski model will be struck a severe blow".

It would need to reflect "the real increases in the annual cost of education which has averaged around 6.5 per cent to 8 per cent per annum". A spokeswoman for the Education Minister, Peter Garrett, said the Gillard government had said repeatedly that no school would lose a dollar per student as a result of the funding review.

"Mr Gonski and the review panel have made clear that there is still a lot of work to do to test and refine the various elements of their proposed funding model.

"This includes testing the proposed funding amount per student, and examining whether the loadings for disadvantage are set at the right levels."


Labor would lose both chambers if an election were held now

LABOR would suffer its worst result in the Senate since 1944 if an election were held now, giving Tony Abbott control of the upper house as well as the lower, an analysis shows.

This would allow him to wipe out many of the big achievements of the five years of Labor governments, as he has pledged to do, though some financial and legal complications would remain.

The analysis was conducted by a senior Labor strategist, who wishes to remain anonymous, using the latest Herald-Nielsen polling results and projecting them onto a Senate election.

Only two prime ministers have enjoyed control of both houses in the past four decades - Malcolm Fraser and John Howard in his last term.

Among the nine Labor senators who would probably lose their seats are the Finance Minister, Penny Wong, a convener of the Left faction, Doug Cameron, and one of the so-called faceless men who brought down the Rudd government, the Right faction's David Feeney.

With the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter Slipper, standing aside, the government is again forced to survive on the narrowest possible margin.

Yet the prospect of a Coalition clean sweep in both chambers raises the question of how much of its work would remain intact. Mr Abbott has promised to repeal the carbon and mining taxes, and parts of the Fair Work Act.

The Herald's pollster, Nielsen's John Stirton, said the analysis was a legitimate use of Nielsen polling data but it represented "a worst-case scenario rather than the most likely scenario".

This was because it used a single poll, the March poll, rather than an average of several months, and March was an especially low point for Labor. His "most likely" scenario assumed Labor recovered support before an election. But even then, it would manage only barely half the seats in the Senate.

Labor's primary vote was 27 per cent in the lower house in the March poll. At that level the Coalition would win control of the House in a landslide.

However, no pollster tests support for the parties in the Senate. To see what the consequences would be in the upper house, the strategist took the state results from that poll to estimate a Senate outcome. He subtracted 3 percentage points to replicate voter behaviour in recent elections.

Mr Stirton said: "In the absence of any other data on how people might vote in the Senate, it's not unreasonable to discount the lower house vote by 3 per cent because that's been the experience in the last couple of elections.

"The main caveat is that the state breakdowns give you fairly small samples and that results in a high margin of error."

In a chamber of 76, the projected result would shrink Labor's Senate strength from 31 seats to 22 or 23. The Greens would grow from nine to 12.

So the combined total of Labor and Greens - the now-governing coalition - would go from a majority of 40 to a minority of 34 or 35. The Coalition's numbers would swell from 34 to 38 or 39.

The fringe parties and independents would hold three spots instead of the present two, as Bob Katter's Australian Party would win a seat in Queensland.


High price paid for low solar return

ACT electricity consumers are paying about $8.37 million annually for power generated by more than 10,500 solar generators which produce only 0.7 per cent of the overall annual requirement.

The cost for an average household paying for the government's feed-in tariff scheme has reached about $26.40 a year and Environment Minister Simon Corbell expects this to jump to about $50 late next year.

Meanwhile, those who have had solar generators installed receive on average almost $800 a year for the electricity they generate.

The feed-in scheme compares poorly to ActewAGL's Greenchoice program. During 2011, its more than 20,000 customers bought 2.54 per cent of the ACT's annual electricity requirement for less than half the cost of the government's feed-in scheme.

Under the federal government's mandatory renewable energy schemes, ActewAGL was required last year to buy 5.62 per cent of electricity sales from large-scale renewable generators and 14.8 per cent from small-scale renewable generators.

ActewAGL general manager retail Ayesha Razzaq said ActewAGL's fully accredited GreenPower program allowed ActewAGL to purchase renewable energy from sources such as hydro, windpower and biomass on behalf of customers. This electricity would otherwise be sourced from fossil fuels.

ActewAGL general manager network services Rob Atkin said that on April 16, there were 10,566 solar sites connected to the ActewAGL network.

From April 1 last year to March 31, the energy produced by photo voltaic systems in the ACT was estimated at 0.7 per cent of the total demand.

These systems contributed nothing to the peak winter demand because at that time, without sunlight, they were not operating. During the summer peak, solar photo voltaic systems contributed about 0.47 per cent of that demand.

Mr Corbell said the ACT micro feed-in tariff scheme was initially capped at 30 megawatts. This was increased to 35 megawatts on a Greens-Liberal amendment to reflect the introduction of the medium scale category. This would cap the maximum annual cost to the average ACT household at $50.


What an arsehole! Some very unfunny "comedy"

I would have knocked him over if he had invaded a function of mine like that

CELEBRITY comedian Rod Quantock has refused to apologise for gatecrashing a glamorous Melbourne wedding, leaving guests stunned by a series of "unfunny" stunts.

Wearing Groucho Marx masks and brandishing a rubber chicken and megaphone, Quantock and 60 other uninvited guests interrupted a private function at Comme restaurant on Saturday afternoon.

The reception takeover was part of Quantock's award-winning roving show for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, where he takes his audience on a tour of the city, hijacking shops, cafes and events with impromptu performances.

But guests say Quantock's act was "uninvited, unwelcome, and very unfunny" and ruined what was otherwise a tasteful and painstakingly planned affair.

They say his performance of Another One Bites the Dust was a pointed joke about the newly married couple's future that fell flat.

Wedding photographer Shannon McDonald said: "A lot of time and care went into planning this lovely couple's wedding, and for Rod Quantock and his followers to disrupt it for their own amusement wasn't funny or cool. It wasn't his moment, it was theirs."

Quantock, who won the MICF directors' choice award for his act the same night as the wedding, was surprised he had offended the wedding party.   "I thought most people enjoyed it and those who didn't - well, I couldn't care less about them," Quantock said.

"It was just a little bit of silliness that invaded their world for a few minutes."