Monday, July 08, 2013

Ministers passed buck as men died

AS the home insulation death toll continued to climb in 2009 and 2010, state and federal Labor ranks were locked in a tit-for-tat battle of letters, with both claiming the other was not doing enough to fix the debacle.

Queensland Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie said the death of the third young man, 22-year-old Mitchell Sweeney, could have been prevented had former Bligh government minister Cameron Dick and then-federal environment minister Peter Garrett stopped "buck-passing" through a series of letters beginning in October 2009.

"While three boys died, governments couldn't work out who was going to implement safety measures," he said.

State coroner Michael Barnes last week found the bungled home insulation scheme was rushed and that any dangers should have been "foreseen and mitigated". Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised for the program.

Rueben Barnes, 16, Matthew James Fuller, 25, and Mr Sweeney were killed while working in Queensland as part of the doomed scheme, launched in 2009.

Mr Fuller was electrocuted in October 2009, Mr Barnes in November that year and Mr Sweeney in February 2010.

During that same period of time, letters, used as evidence in the coronial inquest, were exchanged between Mr Dick and Mr Garrett, with both sides urging the other to step in and take action.

"The buck-passing between the two (levels of government) had to stop," Mr Bleijie said. "That should have stopped. Someone should have taken responsibility for it and just got on with the job, or shut the program down earlier, and then we possibly could have prevented, particularly, the third young man's death."

The first letter from Mr Garrett to Mr Dick, dated October 28, 2009, asked the former Bligh government to consider setting up a coronial inquest to "ensure that the full circumstances of the incident (were) investigated".

On November 20, Mr Dick wrote to Mr Garrett demanding "urgent action" and expressed concern about training requirements for subcontractors, who he believed could have been "employing untrained workers, exposing them to unacceptable risks".

"It is clear from Queensland's experience that your Department needs to strengthen prequalification requirements and mandate safety training requirements for installers registered with the program," he wrote. "Such action should be taken immediately."

On February 18, 2010, he again wrote to the Federal Government insisting that the Queensland Electrical Safety Office had formed the view that "more (could) be done to protect workers and householders from the potential dangers that foil insulation poses".

In a letter from Mr Garrett to Mr Dick, dated February 26, he wrote that a "clear and consistent regulatory framework is required to address both the existing safety concerns and any future installations", adding that "Queensland is best placed to lead in this area".

"I request your urgent assistance to resolve this matter," he wrote.

On March 5, Mr Dick wrote to then-minister assisting the minister for climate change, Greg Combet, arguing the Federal Government needed to take the lead.

"Minister Garrett suggested that Queensland is best placed to lead the development of a clear and consistent regulatory framework," he said. "While Queensland stands ready to assist, my view is that the Commonwealth Government needs to lead in relation to legacy issues arising out of the old Home Insulation Program, as well as all aspects of the new scheme."

Yesterday, Mr Dick said he stood by the comments he made in the letters, which he also used to detail the steps the state had taken at the time to minimise future risk.

"At the time, I made it clear to departmental officers that they should take all necessary steps to ensure Queenslanders were protected and in particular that the laws protecting workers were enforced," he said.

Mr Garrett could not be reached for comment.


Labor unveils hard line on asylum seekers who destroy passports

Long overdue

ASYLUM seekers who fly to Indonesia and dump their passports and identity papers before boarding people-smuggling boats to Australia will have their applications "sent to the back of the queue".

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will also unveil before the election a tougher test for refugee applications, and there are hopes of expanding the fly-home deportation policy for bogus asylum seekers that exists with Sri Lanka to new countries, including Indonesia.

But the get-tough approach will be balanced with an immediate order to free as many children as possible as the number of minors in detention climbs to 1800.

Under the new rules, which come into force immediately, applicants with identification papers will be dealt with first while those who destroy their papers or refuse to co-operate will be considered last.

Why we'll fight people smugglers

Immigration Minister Tony Burke confirmed the changes would apply to 20,000 asylum seekers who would now be processed after their applications had been kept in limbo for months. The changes did not require new legislation.

“If you refuse to co-operate in providing documents you're right at the back of the queue. That starts now,’’ Mr Burke said.

But Labor's shift in asylum-seeker policy falls short of the Coalition's previously announced position that there would be a "strong presumption that illegal boat people who have destroyed their documents not be given refugee status".In an exclusive column for The Sunday Telegraph today, Foreign Minister Bob Carr warned Australia's immigration policy risked being outsourced to criminals.

Senator Carr said: "If this persists we would see arrivals of close to 40,000 a year. That would be equivalent to nearly 20 per cent of our annual migration program - 20 per cent of our intake now being delivered by people smugglers.

"Do people smugglers screen out customers and only take those fleeing persecution? Don't be ridiculous. They're interested in $10,000 a head.

"Are we really prepared to allow criminal rackets to control a significant slice of our immigration program? To see that 40,000 figure rise higher?"

There are hopes a deal could be struck with Indonesia and other countries to deport failed asylum seekers, like the one already in place with Sri Lanka.

Senator Carr and Mr Burke signalled a willingness to consider the ideas of Jesuit law professor Father Frank Brennan, a confidant of Mr Rudd, who proposed flying failed asylum seekers "safely" back to Indonesia. While that would require a deal with Indonesia, Mr Burke said the scheme was working well with Sri Lanka, with 1200 flown back this year.

``If you don't activate our legal obligations I want you on a plane as quick as we can find one," Mr Burke said.

Senator Carr said: “Father Frank Brennan's contribution to the debate is welcome. With a humanitarian instinct and a concern for human rights, he recognises we need to break the people smugglers business model. That was behind his suggestion that Australia and Indonesia could enter into an arrangement to return asylum seekers from Australia to Indonesia for processing provided they had no fear of persecution in Indonesia.”

But he also confirmed he had ordered the release of 18 minors from a Tasmanian centre holding 300 children and teenagers.  "I want children out of detention," Mr Burke said.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison rejected Indonesia's attack on Tony Abbott's "unilateral" policy to turn back boats. "We will make the decisions on our sides of the border," he said. But he said the Coalition was unhappy with the current situation where Australian vessels were rescuing asylum seekers in Indonesian waters then processing them under Australian law.


Good teachers trump small classes: OECD adviser

I have  been saying this for years --JR

Australian children could be achieving the same stellar results in international testing as those from Korea and Finland within a generation if educators addressed equity challenges, boosted teacher quality and strengthened discipline, a world-leading education expert said.

Education policy adviser to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Andreas Schleicher said too much money had been spent reducing class sizes, instead of boosting teacher performance.

"If you have to make a choice between a great teacher and a small class, go for the great teacher," he said. "Australia has put its bets very much the other way around over the past decade."

The federal government has set the goal of having Australian students in the top five in the world in reading, science and maths by 2025, a target inscribed in the Gonski legislation.

Mr Schleicher said the target was "credible, reasonable and achievable".

But when speaking to senior education bureaucrats and academics in Sydney on Friday, he warned "this goal is shared by virtually every education system around the world".

To reach the target, Mr Schleicher said Australia had to address the social inequities the existing system reinforced.

Implementing the needs-based funding system recommended in the Gonski report, he said, would go a long way towards achieving that.

"The current approach to school funding in Australia is, to say the least, not entirely transparent," he said. "There's a lot of money going into the Australian system but it's really a matter of using that money well and aligning the resources better with the challenges being faced."

Federal Education Minister Bill Shorten met Victorian Education Minister Martin Dixon on Friday, as well as representatives from the Catholic and independent school sectors, as the government continued in its push to sell the reforms.

The Victorian government said the conversation was productive and both parties had expressed goodwill to come to an agreement.

Mr Schleicher explained that, to address the performance disparity within Australian schools, teachers needed to be able to identify struggling students early. That, he said, was where NAPLAN testing should help.

"I think NAPLAN has really brought into the system a more rigorous approach to quality assurance."

He said Australia's performance could lift in the coming years as the impact of NAPLAN began to filter through.

OECD data also showed that Australian students were not as well-disciplined as other high-performing countries.

"Students complain about noise and disorder in classrooms and there is instruction time lost at the beginning of lessons."

Mr Schleicher said work also needed to be done to "attract the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms".

He said Australia's biggest problem was not training but continued professional development. "Many teachers feel left alone in the school, they don't get the feedback they need to improve their teaching."

Chief executive of the Department of Education and Communities's Office of Education Leslie Lobel said teacher quality reforms announced earlier this year "are very much about ongoing professional development".

"These things can't be done overnight but they are obviously being started and there's significant reform under way."

Making teaching more attractive was important, Mr Schleicher said, but increasing pay was not the answer. Australian teachers were paid well compared with those elsewhere and relatively well compared to professions with similar qualifications. "It's more about creating a more flexible, knowledge-based profession," he said.


The town with no crime

THERE is little need to lock your doors in Jericho, in central west Queensland between Emerald and Longreach.

It's been two years since the last break-in and more than a year since the local police officer had to deal with anything more dramatic than a traffic stop.

That's because for the past year, the 300-strong outback community has had virtually no crime.

A low-level drink-driving charge is the only offence that shows up in Jericho on the Queensland Police Service's new online crime-mapping database. And the culprit still feels guilty about blemishing the town's clean slate.

Standing not much more than 5ft tall in her stockman's hat and workboots, a slight, middle-aged woman has the dubious honour of being Jericho's only "criminal" in the past year.

She'd had three beers when the local police officer pulled her over, enough for her to register a low-range offence.

"I don't want light made of it," said the woman, who asked not to be named. "It's a serious offence. Losing my licence for two months was really tough in a place like this."

Barcaldine Regional Council Mayor Rob Chandler said while Jericho had dealt with disasters of biblical proportions - flooding in 2010 and 2011, bushfires in 2012 and now drought - crime was not something locals had to think about.

"I know the police say not to do it but I'm sure there are people from town who leave their keys in the car," he said. "I know of a couple of houses where you can't even lock them.

"When you've only got a couple of hundred people in town and a couple of strangers rock up, they're on to them straight away."

In the past decade, there have been around 100 crimes. A quarter were traffic offences, three were assaults and two stolen cars. Only 13 crimes are unsolved.

The one-pub town is built in the middle of a cattle-grazing district and is a popular destination for grey nomads and tourists wanting a taste of the Outback. And it boasts the smallest drive-in movie theatre in the southern hemisphere, with room for only 30 cars.

Megan Otto grew up in Sydney but found herself in Jericho raising a family on a property about 20km out of town.  "It's a really family-orientated community," she said.  "You can come into town and the children can go to the park and you know there is someone looking out for them."

Tracey Misson, who lives in town with her husband and two young children, said Jericho was a safe place to raise a family.  "I let my children out to play and know they'll be fine," she said. "Everyone knows who they are and who they belong to."

Inspector Mark Henderson said the one police officer covers 14,000sq km.

"Jericho is on the main highway from Rockhampton to the west," he said.  "A place like that with a crime rate like that comes about through a partnership between police and the local community.

"It's a real balancing act between showing authority and being a member of that community.  "They know every single one of the residents and more importantly, they know everyone that's not."


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