Friday, November 01, 2013

Campbell Newman to axe secret public service bonuses struck by unions

CLEANERS are being paid extra to deal with dirty linen and plumbers paid a premium to pump "live" sewage under an array of sweetheart public servant deals secretly struck by the former Labor government and unions.

The Newman Government has vowed to cut down on the number of lucrative allowances being paid to public servants for doing their jobs, with the cost to Queensland taxpayers amounting to tens of millions of dollars each year.

Additional payments in the Government's crosshairs include extra money for staff who work in the rain, perform duties in "unpleasant" conditions or when they are required to wear a uniform.

Others include time-and-a-half rates for working at home, top-up payments when rostered hours fall short of contractual conditions and retention entitlements for not quitting.

"I think people would raise their eyebrows around things like a live sewage allowance or a dirty linen entitlement, which people would probably think should be included as a core part of what staff do," Health Minister Lawrence Springborg said.

The system's complexity is forcing some health districts and hospitals to resort to handing out smaller allowances, including the $1.56-a-day foul linen allowance, to all staff rather than spend extra on administration figuring out who is eligible each fortnight.

Other more lucrative allowances, such as quadruple pay when supervising staff while on overtime and call-back payments to doctors, are allowing some staff's income from allowances to exceed their base pay significantly.

The allowances, which extend to 4500 award variations and 22,000 pay combinations, are costing millions of dollars each year just to administer.

Hundreds of staff are employed to input data into Queensland Health's beleaguered payroll system manually.

The Courier-Mail can reveal the list of allowances, entitlements and seemingly endless other stipends available to staff in Queensland Health alone now exceeds 90 pages after they were quietly slipped into wage agreements for years.

"We have to simplify the various awards and entitlements and that doesn't necessarily mean people will be worse off," Mr Springborg said. "It just means that it will be easier for them to understand and simpler for us to administer."

However, unions have threatened widespread industrial action in response as they attempt to prevent a clawback of workers' conditions. The public servant union Together has insisted workers should not pay the price for the previous government's payroll debacle.

"These are matters that have been built up over 20 or 30 years, many for workers who have been very disadvantaged," Together state secretary Alex Scott said.

"The Government are going to use the debacle of the health payroll to strip away people's entitlements."


Australia's role is as a disruptive economy, Rupert Murdoch tells Lowy Institute

RUPERT Murdoch says Australia must become "the world's disruptive economy" if it wants to prosper as a global leader this century.

And with the pace of innovation increasing dramatically, the News Corp executive chairman says he believes Australia is well positioned to excel.

Mr Murdoch, whose company publishes The Australian, made the remarks in a speech to the Lowy Institute at Sydney Town Hall.

Besides the importance of strong democratic institutions and a diverse immigration program, he urged the nation to focus its energy on the revolutionary disruption wrought worldwide by new technology.

Citing Austrian American economist Joseph Schumpeter, who regarded "creative destruction" as essential to capitalism, Mr Murdoch said the modern word to capture this sense of creative chaos was "disruption".

"I guess some would say that I have been a disruptive influence at times," he said. "I will take that as a compliment, even if it wasn't intended that way.

"I have always been a firm believer in providing the public with choice and access to quality content - it was the driving force behind the launch of Sky, Fox News and, particularly, The Australian.

"But when I think of the newspaper industry today, and the transition that has taken place from Gutenberg to Google, I know the status quo is being disrupted yet again. This is the hard reality of ... a global economy."

Perhaps the most revolutionary disruption in the past decade, Mr Murdoch said, had been the stunning growth in mobile communications, which he welcomed as a "shot of adrenalin" for a company such as News Corp.

"Now, each and every one of us can have our news and information when and where we want it. For me, it's right here in my pocket, on my iPhone, where I can get my Australian, my Wall Street Journal, The Times of London and my personalised stock quotes, any time I want."

He said the media industry had made a huge leap after once relying on trucks and newsagents to deliver the news to readers.

"The same opportunity for global growth is there for Australia, if we can make ourselves more nimble," Mr Murdoch said.

"While the lack of a huge domestic market presents challenges, it also means we have fewer huge industries demanding the government protections common in large industrial nations and fatal for any society that hopes to advance in a disruptive world. And, it means we are always forced to think outside the box."

Giving a personal example of how innovation had improved his life, Mr Murdoch revealed he now wore a special bracelet that he jokingly referred to as a "Jawbone" - in keeping with his reputation as a man who occasionally liked to jawbone.

"This is a bracelet that keeps track of how I sleep, move and eat, transmitting that information to the cloud. It allows me to track and maintain my health much better.

"It allows my family and I to know more about one another's health too, which means it encourages more personal and social responsibility instead of just running to the doctor when we don't feel well."

The News chief predicted everyone would soon have similar watches and apps to keep track of heart rate, blood sugar and brain signals.

When this information was coupled with what was available on the internet, there would be the opportunity to diagnose and suggest treatments instantly.

"That will help us all live longer lives, definitely. But it will also change the health industry and the health dynamic. Not to mention opening many new areas for research and profit."

Mr Murdoch paid special tribute to the Lowy global policy group's founder, Frank Lowy, as the perfect example of what Australia needed - a Jewish Slovakian immigrant who created the global Westfield shopping empire after arriving with nothing but a suitcase.

Australia, he said, was on the cusp of becoming something rare and valuable in the new world: an egalitarian meritocracy, with more than a touch of libertarianism. To become more competitive, the nation needed to promote its democratic institutions and values, accept a diverse immigration population as a precious resource of talent, and thrive on "disruption" through trade, technology and free markets.

Mr Murdoch stressed that Australia's future as a competitive, egalitarian meritocracy could not be achieved if only some of its people had the opportunity for a good education.

"In a world as competitive as ours, the child who does not get a decent education is condemned to the fringes of society," he said.

"I think all Australians agree that this is intolerable. So we must demand as much of our schools as we do of our sports teams - and ensure that they keep the Australian dream alive for every child."

In an apparent swipe at the tactics of some such as former treasurer Wayne Swan, Mr Murdoch warned against the "faux class war that has been stirred by contemporary politicians grasping for an election theme".

With Australia having double the US's 12 per cent foreign-born population, the nation was on its way to becoming what might be the world's most diverse population, he said.

But Mr Murdoch also qualified his support for immigration, saying Australia should embrace openness to all comers provided they were "willing to abide by our way of life".

Watching Mr Murdoch's speech at the formal-attire Lowy Institute event was an audience that filled the town hall, including a who's who from the world of business, politics and the media.


Sperm donors in chronic short supply

Do-gooders responsible

Raise the subject of sperm donation and one is likely to face laughing and double entendres.  But for people with fertility issues which prevent them from having a family without medical intervention, sperm donation is hardly a laughing matter.

in Adelaide, Flinders Fertility's clinical director Dr Michael McEvoy says the difficulties the childless confront are being compounded by a lack of donors.

"We have about six sperm donors at this point in time," he said.  "When I started out in the field, about 20 or 30 years ago, we would have had 20 or 30 donors on a good year."

Not only Flinders Fertility is facing the problem.  At Repromed, Dr Christine Kirby said sperm donation decline was a national issue.  "I think the wider the choice you can have for an individual couple the better. It has been something that has changed steadily over a period of time," she said.

"Thirty years ago the whole recruitment of donors was different. There was confidentiality, donors believed that children would never have access to them. Medical students, university students frequently were donors."

Dr McEvoy believes that change on confidentiality has been major factor in the decline.  Once they are an adult a donor-conceived child must, under Australian law, be able to discover the identity of their donor.

Counsellor Julie Potts thinks that requirement is feeding a long-held misconception that donors could be held financially responsible for the offspring years later.

But whatever the reasons for the decline in sperm donation, Ms Potts says it is not sustainable and something must change.

"Sometimes people cross the border to seek out a donor who is perhaps more suited to their family because we don't have a donor closely matched to them," she said.

Matching grows more complex

The matching of donors with future families is growing more complex as Australia becomes more culturally and ethnically diverse - put simply, people want kids who are like them.

Donors are assigned to 10 recipients and then no longer used.

Because of the shortage, Dr McEvoy has been overseas to source sperm from the European Sperm Bank's American offshoot in Seattle.

"They have a large number of donors, over 100 donors," he said.   "They are able to provide our patients with much more choice in relation to physical characteristics and racial characteristics."

Those donors and sperm have to pass the same rigorous health and counselling checks required under Australian law.  As well, the identity of the overseas donors must be available later to any offspring conceived using their genetic material.

The first batch of US sperm arrived at Flinders Fertility a few weeks ago, after six months in quarantine, and is expected to be used soon.

The task of introducing sperm and egg will fall to scientist Herman Fernandes, who still recalls the first time he performed the procedure.

"It's going back 20 years now, I do remember the first egg I brought in my hand and added sperm to it and the next day you see the two nuclei which tells you it is fertilised. It was the glorious, most happy day of my life," he said.

No doubt that joy also was shared by the recipient.


Barnaby Joyce correct on bird flu risk in free-range chicken farms

Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has sounded a warning about free-range egg production leading to an increase in bird flu.  Senator Joyce says a decision by supermarket giant Woolworths to phase out eggs from caged production poses a major threat to the industry.

His comments came after 400,000 chickens were destroyed at an egg farm in Young, central-west NSW, after becoming infected with the H7 strain of avian influenza. Ten days later the Department of Primary Industries announced a nearby farm had also become infected. It is believed the infection spread from free-range chickens on the first farm.

"I think a big point to remember from this, and this is one of the discussions I'll be having with some of the supermarkets, is this virus got into the caged-bird population from the free-range bird population," Senator Joyce told ABC radio last month.

"What we see is that you've got the avian flu in ducks, and when the ducks have contact with the birds outside in the free-range form, it brings the disease into the shed. And if we want to move to just free-range birds, this is going to be a problem that's going to reoccur and reoccur and reoccur."

ABC Fact Check asked Senator Joyce for the basis for his claim - that greater free-range egg production will lead to an increase in bird flu incidents. A spokeswoman said the Department of Agriculture would answer on his behalf, as it provides advice to the minister. The department said free-range birds will have exposure to wild birds and contaminated feed and water, which could lead to avian flu infections.

Fact Check examines whether Senator Joyce's fears are well-founded.

How avian influenza is spread

Avian influenza is a viral disease among birds which usually poses little risk to humans. The H7 strain, which is found in Australia, is not harmful to humans, while the H5N1 strain has caused several hundred deaths overseas. The disease can infect domestic poultry, wild birds and even pigs, tigers, leopards and domestic cats. Symptoms range from the mild to quickly fatal.

Wild birds, particularly ducks, are the primary carriers of avian influenza. They can spread the virus to chickens through direct contact or by contaminating their feed or water supplies with faeces or feathers.

Free-range chickens at greater risk

The two main types of poultry farms are caged and free-range. About 30 per cent of Australian chickens raised for egg production are free-range or barn laid.

Facilities vary, but most free-range farms let chickens roam paddocks throughout the day. During this time they are exposed to all the elements, in particular puddles and dams, which can contain avian influenza. Roaming free, the chickens are also more likely to come into direct contact with wild birds carrying the disease. The NSW Department of Primary Industries says because free-range chickens require access to the outdoors, bird-proofing their sheds is "practically impossible".

Dr Peter Scott, a poultry veterinarian and senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne, says not only are free-range farms at higher risk, there is also concern free-range chickens will infect caged chickens with avian influenza.

"I've spoken to poultry farmers who once saw the idea of a free-range farm as a lucrative side endeavour and are now shying away from the prospect because they're worried the free-range hens will infect the caged birds," Dr Scott said.

"And there's no way to commercially vaccinate against this when it happens. It's like vaccinating against all the strands of the common cold - too tricky and too expensive."

Dr Andrew Peters, an avian veterinarian and lecturer in veterinary pathology at Charles Sturt University, agrees. "Because of the nature of how the disease spreads, if free-range hens are more commonly in contact with water pools and dams that contain the influenza, it is safe to say they are in greater danger of being infected than caged hens".

The CSIRO's Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, the national reference laboratory for avian influenza, said in a media release that "poultry, feed and water, if exposed to AI-infected wild birds, may be infected or contaminated". However it also noted that influenza carried by wild birds causes very few diseases in healthy domestic birds. It said the risk of infection could be "mitigated" if farmers put appropriate measures in place.

The verdict

It is almost impossible to stop free-range chickens coming into contact with avian influenza when they leave the shed. Caged chickens are not exposed in such a way. If farmers do not tighten up the measures they put in place to stop free-range birds coming into contact with the disease, then it is likely avian influenza will continue to infect free-range populations.

Senator Joyce's claim that this is going to "reoccur and reoccur and reoccur" if the industry shifts to free-range is correct.


No comments: