Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Gillard trying to buy re-election

Amid growing speculation that Prime Minister Julia Gillard will have to abdicate or face a beheading at the federal election, talk is turning to the country's infrastructure as suggestions of pork barrelling and policy backflips emerge.

It is a sad indictment on a government that returned to power in 2007 promising to rebuild the nation and lift productivity using infrastructure as the centrepiece.

To this end it gave the country its first infrastructure minister and set up an independent advisory body, Infrastructure Australia (IA). IA was designed to eliminate pork barrelling by creating a priority list of infrastructure projects based on a cost-benefit analysis and advising on major policy reforms – including how to make public private partnerships (PPPs) work and rational tolling.

Fast forward to today and outside of the NBN – which has its own set of controversies – the government's grand plan for infrastructure is in tatters and sound policy and decision-making have been hijacked by real politics.

To put it into context, $3.6 billion was outlaid in the last federal budget to support state infrastructure, compared with $7.69 billion in the previous year. This is a drop in the ocean compared with what is required to bridge the country's $770 billion public infrastructure backlog.

The neutering of IA became apparent when the government rolled out the NBN without consultation and 10 days out from an election it committed $2 billion to the Parramatta to Epping Rail Link project in Sydney.

The rail link didn't qualify for IA's priority list or the state government's Metropolitan Transport Plan 2010. It did qualify for votes though. So did a series of rail, road and port infrastructure projects that qualified for funding despite their absence from the IA list on the basis that more work was needed.

As the 2013 federal election looms and pressure mounts on the Labor Party to preserve as many seats as it can, backflips on infrastructure policy are becoming more blatant – and desperate. These include Treasurer Wayne Swan's threats to Queensland based on the state's blueprint for better healthcare, the WestConnex project and the ATO draft determination.

The Queensland government's blueprint was an attempt to cut costs and create efficiencies in an unsustainable health sector by opening it up to new financing models, privatisations, outsourcing and exposing its health services to contestability.

The Treasurer's reaction was almost hysterical as he warned the reforms posed a "threat to Medicare and the values behind it – particularly quality healthcare through free public hospitals". He also said the government would do what it could to stop the reforms.

This was seen as an attempt to placate the Health Services Union and the public sector, given there is no evidence the blueprint would have any impact on Medicare or public hospitals as the only difference is there would be a different contracted employer.

Then there was the Prime Minister's $1 billion pledge during last week's stint at Rooty Hill to ease congestion in Sydney's western suburbs by building the WestConnex (M4 East, M5 East and inner-west bypass).

Funding came on the proviso that tolling would be banned on existing sections of the M4 and M5 motorways. Under the proposal, Gillard has also said that the scope of the project would be extended, to provide commuters travelling on the M4 with a direct link to the city and freight travelling on the M5 with a direct link to Port Botany.

Given it will cost up to $15 billion to complete, such a condition effectively rules out private sector interest, which makes the announcement look like a cynical attempt to claw back votes.

Ruling out tolls also puts it in direct contrast to advice put forward by IA – the body it set up – in its last two reports to COAG.

The brutal reality is there are two ways to fund public infrastructure: taxes or tolls.

But examples of cynical announcements don't stop there. Reports emerged on Monday that during Gillard's trip last week 19 proposed western Sydney infrastructure projects that had applied for Regional Development Australia Fund grants had made it to the fourth round. Only three projects from other regional areas managed to get through to the next stage.

There are also questions over the release of the ATO draft tax determination, unveiled in December without industry consultation. In summary, debt deductions for PPPs will be reduced, making them less viable, changing a project's economics and ultimately making the capital program more expensive.

Infrastructure Partnerships Australia said in a submission: "The draft taxation determination is impacting both existing and future projects, by creating uncertainty for project arrangers, investors and the various state governments. It has also created uncertainty among lenders to such projects. We ask that, as a matter of priority, the draft taxation determination be resolved quickly to remove this uncertainty. We are willing to assist in this process." Indeed.


NSW firm over teaching benchmark

NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli has refused to back away from his plans to set benchmarks for new teachers based on HSC results, despite universities saying they may not implement the plan.

Universities threw their support behind a Commonwealth government plan announced on Monday for new standards for teaching students which include an assessment of aptitude but do not set a minimum standard academic result.

Applicants could be screened for their suitability for teaching via methods which could include "interviews, demonstrated values and aptitude, and a written statement."

The move comes less than a week after the NSW government announced its own reforms aimed at improving the quality of teaching, including setting minimum HSC requirements for school leavers hoping to enter teaching degrees.

Universities Australia said institutions in NSW will not implement any proposals which conflict with the national plan.

"The significance of the federal government's intervention shifts the responsibility for achieving teacher quality to the national arena. In effect this national plan displaces the recently announced NSW plan," said Universities Australia's chief executive Belinda Robinson. "All universities will act on the basis of a national plan and NSW universities will not implement any proposals that are inconsistent with it."

But Mr Piccoli said that while he hoped to work on the plans in collaboration with universities, his government would not back away from setting a "tougher standard" for teachers in this state.

"My interest is not in university revenues [but] in making sure we've got the best teaching possible … Singapore, Finland, Ontario, South Korea - all of the countries that outperform Australia have very high standards for entry."

Mr Piccoli warned NSW students who studied teaching degrees and did not meet the HSC requirements would not get jobs after graduation. "The universities can enrol them but they won't get a practicum placement and they won't be registered when they graduate."

Like the state government, the federal government has also called for a new literacy and numeracy test that teaching graduates will have to pass before they can graduate, to demonstrate their skills are equivalent to the top 30 per cent of the population. Other aspects of the federal government plan, part of its National Plan for School Improvement reforms, include taking a national approach to teacher practicum and a review of all teaching courses by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.

School Education Minister Peter Garrett said the changes were aimed at ensuring every teacher had the "passion" and "personal capacity" to be the best teacher possible. "It's not unusual for some universities to go through a process of asking people to write down why they want to be a teacher, to spend some time in an interview identifying their passions and their interests," he said.

The executive dean of education at Charles Sturt University, Professor Toni Downes, said having both plans in place would be "the worst case scenario".

"It would almost strangle the university sector," she said. "It's going to be one of the most highly regulated professions … If the state government cared about getting the best and brightest, I think they'd go out and work on transforming the workplace, helping teachers to be more highly respected with higher rates of pay."


'No surprise' that racist bus altercation wasn't reported

A Perth cultural studies expert says overt racism - like that displayed in a recent shocking altercation between two women on a Transperth bus - often goes unreported because of its common nature and the fact many people all but accept it.

The Transperth incident, which was captured on video and uploaded on to YouTube, was not reported by any of the passengers on board: something that did not surprise Curtin University's Jon Stratton.

The video, which was filmed on the Circle Route bus on March 5 near Hilton, shows a woman verbally abusing another woman, who she refers to as Chinese, for speaking in another language.

Comments such as "f... off on your boat you dog," are yelled at the woman.

No response is heard, but a short time later another woman appears to try to intervene by yelling at the abusive woman.  The intervention does nothing to stop the woman's abuse, other than divert it towards the third woman.

Insults based on race, sexuality and appearance are exchanged, with the woman who was defending the "Chinese" woman then also hurling racial abuse, before the argument turns violent and the two begin a fight which ends with both on the floor of the bus, one pinned under the other.

Professor Stratton said although some people may have chosen not to report the incident because of the potential of of being a witness if the case ever went further, there were others who accepted that race based-altercations happened in Australia.

"We like to think of ourselves as multicultural and accepting of others but when it comes down to it, it's only really OK when someone of another race is in their place like serving food at a Thai restaurant," he said.

"It's okay for racial differences to crop up in restaurants provided 'they' stay out of sight."

Public Transport Authority spokesman David Hynes, who confirmed the incident was not reported by any passengers, said the type of behaviour involved was not confined to public transport.

"Statistics suggest an increase in this type of behaviour and violence is less on public transport than in the general community," he said.

"That's a bit of a sad comment on society. Perhaps people are being a bit desensitised to this sort of thing."

Professor Stratton said racism and xenophobia often spilled out on public transport because people were couped up together with people from all different backgrounds, who they might not usually spend time with.

The Perth incident is not the first racist episode involving public transport to recently make headlines.

Earlier this year, ABC News presenter Jeremy Fernandez went public with his recollections of racial abuse on a Sydney bus in front of his young daughter and Melbourne commuters were subjected to a horrifying display of racism and threats of violence on a bus when a French woman was abused for singing in her native tongue.

Professor Stratton said the fear of people speaking languages other than English in Australia had existed since the 1950s.

"You don't know what they are saying, they might be talking about you, saying nasty things about you and if they are speaking another language they have not assimilated," he said.

He said since the John Howard era, Australia had instituted a number of assimilation-based policies and there was a need for more policies which allowed education and understanding.


19th-century weatherman's trove of records found

A northern New South Wales family has uncovered a meteorological treasure in the form of decades of meticulous weather records from more than a century ago.

Farmers are good record keepers of the day-to-day weather on the land, but Algernon Belfield went above and beyond his duty.

For 40 years from the late 1800s, he watched rainfall as well as humidity, cloud movement and wind speeds.

His records were so good that they are now being shared by scientists to help improve the way weather is forecast in Australia.

The rare and unique discovery of his observations started with an annual spring clean at the home of Elspeth and Richard Belfield on the outskirts of Armidale.  "I said to him 'what on Earth are you going to do with these weather records?'," Ms Belfield told AM.

"I had a look at them and they were so complex and we had various people look at them and they all said 'we think these records are incredible'."

With that advice, she sought a second opinion.  That confirmed the little books were in fact some of the most accurate historical weather records in Australia.

"They've since found their place in the national archives, they're in the White House, they're in the UK, they're being studied around the world by various scientific bodies," Mr Belfield said.
The home of Algernon Belfield Photo: The home of Algernon Belfield on the outskirts of Armidale (Source: Richard and Elspeth Belfield)

The reason the books are so rare is the level of meteorological detail that was observed.   Every day, at the same time from 1878 to 1922, Algernon Belfield set out on foot to the same spot on his property to update his books.

"He would go to his weather station and get all his weather details," Richard Belfield said.  "My father said you would never go there at 8.50 because grandfather was on his mission and you just did not disturb him.

"He did 10 readings - cloud, moisture, all sorts of things every day. There's nothing like them in this period that's come to light so far."

That is a point not lost on Bill Oates from the University of New England.  "Suddenly amidst all these records you find this one particular run of really detailed methodical weather record keeping that sits on this continuous run for 40 years," he said.

"We haven't seen anything like this before. A lot of people record rainfalls, a lot of people are recording for the government meteorologists, but this is just a one-off stand-out set."

As well as the detail that Algernon Belfield kept, the importance of his work is the time these records were taken.

The Bureau of Meteorology officially started standardised records in 1910, and they did not start in the New England district until 1961.

Martin Babakhan from the University of Newcastle does a weekly forecast for farmers and says the data are helping him and others better predict weather here in Australia.  "We are coming up with the tools to give ourselves the best forecasting weather patterns for farmers," he said.

"If you can't understand the past, how can you expect us [to understand the future?]."


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