Sunday, June 09, 2013

Another Leftist white elephant

FORMER premier Peter Beattie warned Queenslanders in 2007 that they had to desalinate or die of thirst.  However, his government's decision to rush ahead with the $9 billion southeast Queensland water grid, including the Gold Coast Desalination Plant, has been condemned in a report by the state Auditor-General, Andrew Greaves.

He has slammed the lack of proper planning for the grid that costs taxpayers $76 million a month to run.

Mr Greaves found while the massive project was "appropriate" in the face of an "unprecedented drought, better planning may have avoided the need for such drastic and costly action".

In his report tabled in State Parliament this week, he said there was "no robust business case" for the $1.2 billion desalination plant at Tugun and the potential benefits of the Western Corridor Recycled Water Scheme were overstated.

"The construction and operation of the manufactured water assets come also at significantly higher costs than first anticipated, which further casts doubt on their value for money," he said. "There has also since been a significant and sustained reduction in water consumption in southeast Queensland.

"Apart from water security, no other expected benefits have been realised. The environmental outcomes will not be achieved and economic outcomes were not specified."

The Courier-Mail exposed major problems with the desalination plant, including rusting pipes, faulty valves and cracking concrete soon after it opened in 2008.

Last year, the newspaper also revealed that French water giant Veolia stood to reap more than $30 million a year from the problem-plagued water grid.

Currumbin MP Jann Stuckey, whose electorate is home to the plant and who spoke out against it while in Opposition, said taxpayers were now stuck with the "lemon".

She said while the plant, which operates on standby, was 'of some use' such as in the recent floods, it had proven to be 'a waste of taxpayer funds'.

"It's certainly no comfort to the people of my electorate," she said.

Gold Coast and Hinterland Environment Council president Lois Levy said the plant had been built without an environmental impact assessment and was energy-hungry.

She said it would be too expensive to mothball and reactivate in the event of another drought.

"We're between a rock and a hard place," she said.


Taxed and regulated to death

Australian farmers are very efficient so they have done their bit

HUNDREDS of food industry jobs are at risk as the company behind iconic brands Edgell and Birds Eye considers the closure of plants in NSW and Tasmania.

US-based multinational Simplot says food manufacturing plants at Bathurst and Devonport will shut down if they can't become competitive.

The Bathurst operation employs 167 permanent staff and the Devonport plant 158, but hundreds more are employed as casuals.

The company says the Bathurst plant will close midway through 2014 if its financial performance can't be improved.

The Devonport operation has been given two months to produce a five-year plan or face closure in three to five years.

Simplot Australia's managing director Terry O'Brien said the high costs associated with manufacturing in Australia meant the company could not compete with cheap imports.

The high Australian dollar had made a bad situation worse, he said.

"The frozen and canned vegetable categories have been chronic profit under-performers for years, regardless of the value of the Australian dollar," Mr O'Brien said in a statement.

The company arrived in Australia in 1995 and boasts international sales of more than $5 billion annually.

As well as Edgell and Birds Eye, its Australian brands include Leggo's, Chiko, John West and Lean Cuisine.

Mr O'Brien said Simplot Australia would focus on finding ways to make the plants viable when it met with government, employees, unions and growers.

"If insufficient opportunities are identified, we will be forced to close our Bathurst plant after the next corn season," he said.

"Our Devonport plant will be required to produce a five-year improvement plan with satisfactory outcomes or face the prospect of a longer-term (three- to five-year) closure."

Tasmanian Liberal senator Richard Colbeck, who last year chaired a select committee on Australian food processing, said government-imposed costs like the carbon tax were to blame.

"It is time the Gillard government started removing barriers and costs for Australian business rather than imposing them," he said.

Tasmania's Labor government was preparing for urgent talks with Mr O'Brien on Wednesday night.

"Simplot is an iconic industry on the northwest coast and the government will do whatever it can do to assist the company," Deputy Premier Bryan Green said.


Lazy Qld. cops

QUEENSLAND'S most senior police are demanding to work a day a week from home and spend another five hours of work time in the gym.

The Queensland Police Commissioned Officers Union - which represents inspectors, superintendents, chief superintendents and assistant commissioners - is also seeking private use of police vehicles for members when they are on call, as well as fully funded private issue mobile phones.

The demands are included in the union's 11-point log of claims tabled during enterprise bargaining negotiations with the Queensland Police Service and Public Service Commission.

Number four reads "five hours per week per commissioned officer to undertake health and well-being training" and the sixth claim says "allow commissioned officers the opportunity to work from home one day per week maximum".

Both the commissioned officers' union and the Queensland Police Union are seeking pay rises totalling 11.1 per cent over three years.  The claim includes two 3.8 per cent increases and a 3.5 per cent hike.

The QPS is offering only 2.2 per cent a year, and has proposed a reduction in annual leave from six to four weeks for non-shift workers.

As the matters are in negotiation, QPCOU acting president Steve Imhoff declined to comment on why the union believed members should be allowed to carry out their duties from home.

Australian Council of Civil Liberties president Terry O'Gorman said the claim seemed out of step with recommendations from the Fitzgerald Inquiry and the more recent Operation Tesco, which called for greater supervision of junior police by senior officers.

"Police officers and firefighters and ambos all have a common theme in their role and that is being on the street, dealing with emergencies," he said.

"That's what the commissioned officer's role is all about - supervision - using their greater experience . . . when an event is unfolding so the best possible policing tactics can be brought to bear.

He said in the absence of any explanation from the union, the demand seemed "tactically not that smart" in the wake of police service restructuring.

"If they're in effect saying we can do our work from home the immediate response is you're just leaving yourself open to further arguments by the commissioner that there are too many of you," he said.

More than 100 commissioned officers recently accepted voluntary redundancies from the service, including then-president of the QPCOU John Pointing.

Mark Burgess from the Police Federation of Australia said he was not aware of police officers in any other state or country, being able to work from home.

A spokesman for Police Minister Jack Dempsey declined to comment on the QPCOU demands.

"The Government has placed its offer on the table," he said. "Both parties will now negotiate from there."

QPU president Ian Leavers would only say negotiations were progressing well.


Compliance toll a lose-lose game for universities

LET'S hope that the mooted review of red tape in higher education is quick, accurate and decisive. The weight of regulatory compliance confronting the sector is monumental, to the point where institutions must consider regulation among their greatest risks.

What passes for regulation at present seems more akin to paranoia. Rather than a sensible underpinning of quality in the sector, regulation has become an obsessive overburden that is stifling development and innovation.

And the cost? The public appropriations to run the regulator pale into insignificance by comparison with the real cost to the sector. The cost of compliance, in the hundreds of millions, must rankle university leaders as they contemplate cuts to fund Gonski reforms.

Private providers in the sector also are hit hard. At their scale, they simply can't absorb the compliance overburden without risking their whole operation.

And the apotheosis of compliance overburden? The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.

The national regulator is fast engulfing the sector with controlling tentacles pushing into the furthest corners of institutional life. The cost to the sector is high, the threat to institutional autonomy real and regression to a TEQSA-determined norm spine chilling.

The impost of escalating compliance on higher education is amplified by opportunity cost. Resources lost to compliance reduce teaching and research quality and stifle innovation. It's a lose-lose game.

Several universities are in the middle of the TEQSA re-accreditation exercise. Here, swaths of academics and administrators struggle to interpret the regulator's requirements for quantitative and qualitative data. Time is eaten up compiling and delivering portfolios, responding to interrogatories, correcting errors of fact and misinterpretation, commenting on the regulator's drafts and ultimately responding to commendations and recommendations in the public arena. And then they must prepare for regulatory follow-up that demands to know of any change in circumstance in the interim.

Universities now have risk managers, risk assessors, quality assurance directors and departments and the back-up dedicated to regulation.

University committees, executives, legal officers and vice-chancellors oversee TEQSA reporting, pore over responses, handle the misinterpretations and design the communication strategies to cope with the agency. It's a monster. Compare all this with the more rational peer and self-regulatory regime that previously served the universities and the community well.

Recall that the compliance overburden came to pass because a few private providers played wide and loose with international student visas, dodgy courses, poor services and insufficient financial viability.

The upshot? Universities and the best of the private providers now find themselves in a web of regulation that has punished the entire sector, rather than just dealing with the recalcitrants.

Draining resources, though, is not the only problem of this overburden.

Compliance is taming the sector. Fear of the regulator's red flag embeds timidity, works against diversity and pushes the sector towards a line of regression.

The capacity of an institution, public or private, to develop a world view, shape a vision and innovate is at risk.

Colouring a different teaching and research profile, shaping distinctive graduates and creating innovative ideas is the lifeblood of any institution. A monocultural approach to sector regulation, imposing sector-wide standards and metrics, pushes institutions towards a norm - or, if they resist, into liminal existence.

This is particularly true in the case of private providers. By and large this sector provides a valued education to many Australians.

The best private providers are agile and innovative. They maintain quality programs and deliver highly proficient graduates into the professions and industry. They are highly focused, often specialising in areas that universities will not or cannot offer. They have a different but valuable approach to education from the universities.

Yet they fall within the purview of TEQSA and are little appreciated or understood. The regulator has a conventional and university-led view of higher education culture, and it seems determined to push this orthodoxy hard into a diverse sector in which private providers are integral but different.

A one-size model may be convenient to the regulator but tough on quality private providers, especially those in more liminal areas, which may be the real movers and shakers of the sector.

Ironically, TEQSA itself is now at risk because it seems determined to regulate from a position of singularity.

The agency has failed to recognise that a flexible, contextualised and nuanced model is needed, one that moderates risk for all concerned but encourages innovation and respects difference. And one that is more in tune with Australia's diverse regions, communities and democratic ethos.


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