Sunday, November 10, 2013


In his latest offering, conservative Australian cartoonist ZEG is disgusted by the 4-year jail sentence given to a vicious killer

Wesfarmers chief Richard Goyder warns Canberra against intervention in supermarket prices

Wesfarmers chief Richard Goyder has sent a clear message to Canberra not to interfere with the nation's supermarket sector, warning that an attempt to cap the market share of Coles and Woolworths would lead to higher prices for shoppers.

Mounting a spirited defence before shareholders of the Perth-based conglomerate's ownership of the nation's No.2 supermarket chain, Coles, Mr Goyder also made a play to the new Abbott government's "hands-off" approach to the economy, saying shoppers were benefiting from lower prices thanks to strong competitive forces in the grocery sector.

"I keep reading and hearing from market interventionists that market shares should be capped at 20 per cent like in the US," Mr Goyder told shareholders at the annual meeting on Thursday.

"Firstly, that would be a sure-fire recipe for higher prices for Australian consumers, and secondly, there is no such law in the USA. It's simply untrue. Indeed, the ACCC debunked this myth in front of a Senate select committee in 2012."

Mr Goyder, who in 2007 led Wesfarmers' purchase of the struggling Coles, said competition regulator reports have estimated that grocery prices would be 17 per cent higher in towns where a major supermarket such as Coles did not operate.

Internally, Coles and its arch rival Woolworths are greatly  concerned that a government could one day try to push through caps on market shares to placate opposition to the perceived power of the supermarket chains. Some critics claim they have a combined grocery market share of about 70 per cent.

This would give a dream run to newer entrants such as German discounter Aldi and warehouse store Costco, the market-heavyweight supermarkets believe, robbing them of customers and freezing any growth opportunities.

The ACCC has led much of the charge, promising investigations into Coles and Woolworths for alleged treatment of farmers and suppliers, as well as shopper-docket schemes for fuel discounts at supermarket-owned petrol stations.

But Mr Goyder pushed back against critics, making some of his strongest comments to date. He said it was simplistic to blame all of the farm and food sector's ills on the chains' interaction with suppliers.

"So I get a bit perplexed when Coles is blamed for many of the challenges in the farming/food sector today," he said. "The farming and food industries do have challenges today, as they have had for many years.

"They are not helped by our strong currency, as well as productivity issues and cumbersome regulations.

"But, it is just too easy, too simplistic, to blame the supermarkets for a lot of these difficulties."

He said all stakeholders - suppliers, shoppers, staff and investors - benefited from the resuscitation of Coles. "Since Wesfarmers took ownership, Coles is now selling an extra $4 billion of Australian food and over 200,000 tonnes more Australian fruit and vegetables, valued at almost $1.5 billion."

He said earnings for shareholders who "took the risk" on Wesfarmers' purchase of Coles have seen the supermarket's pre-tax earnings increase 84 per cent between 2009 and 2013. "We sometimes make mistakes - we are not perfect, and we are very conscious of the important role we play in Australia for all our stakeholders," he said.

The Abbott government has promised a full review of the nation's competition framework.


Learning the hard lessons of failed educational experimentation

DISMAYED by their children's indifferent literacy and numeracy skills and limited historical, geographical and scientific knowledge, many parents will not be surprised by today's revelation that a doubling of education funding over the past 20 years has not improved education standards. As national education correspondent Justine Ferrari writes, while school funding has doubled in real terms since 1995 to $40 billion a year, Australian students' results in international and national tests have flatlined or fallen. Yet, despite the failure of smaller class sizes, student laptops and better buildings to improve student achievement, educators and politicians continue investing in them year after year. Working with his state colleagues and the non-government sector, Education Minister Christopher Pyne has no alternative but to pursue a sharp break from current patterns.

For an insider's view of the malaise that has progressively sucked quality, rigour, purpose and discipline from many schools, readers will relate to the insights of Michael Hewitson, an experienced maths/science teacher and former principal from South Australia, whose book How Will our Children Learn? (Connor Court) is reported in Inquirer today by associate editor Chris Kenny. It speaks volumes that Trinity College, a low-fee school founded by Hewitson in 1985 at Gawler, a dusty, working-class community north of Adelaide, grew into one of Australia's largest and most in-demand schools, with 3500 students within 15 years. After it started with only the most basic facilities, much of its development occurred with just 65 per cent of the money, per child, of a state school.

The issues on which Mr Hewitson focuses in his book provide a useful guide for education reform. He covered the importance of parental choice in education, the advantages of state schools being allowed greater independence and reporting to local school boards or councils rather than government bureaucracies, school governance, student discipline, teacher quality and commitment, streaming of students according to ability in some subjects and the importance of making the core curriculum - English, spelling, grammar and writing, number skills and maths - a priority. Like other experienced educators, Mr Hewitson also advocated extending the school day to cater for cultural and sporting activities. Nor should the anecdotal evidence in the book about the value of phonics in teaching reading, even to the most disadvantaged students, be overlooked. Unfortunately, although the benefits of phonics, in tandem with vocabulary work, comprehension and storytelling, have been proven repeatedly in empirical studies, the "whole language" system of teaching reading still prevails in many schools and university teaching programs. Importantly for students from less affluent backgrounds, Mr Hewitson's experience in resolving difficult disciplinary issues, at Trinity and as a young teacher with classes of 45 students at Whyalla, reflected the findings of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development research reported last week. Like the OECD number crunchers who surveyed the impact of rowdy classrooms on student achievement around the world, Trinity College parents, students and teachers found well-managed classrooms raised students' opportunities by boosting their chances of gaining access to their preferred tertiary courses.

After the inherent wastage of the $16bn school building program and an upsurge of recurrent funding under the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments to little avail, the national interest demands Mr Pyne, his state counterparts and universities in charge of teacher education move on from the flawed education theories that have shortchanged two generations of Australian students. Poor outcomes tend to hurt disadvantaged students more. But it is also a serious concern the achievements of the top 25 per cent of students appear to have stagnated, a trend pinpointed in a recent study of 37,000 students from all sectors in Victoria and in international testing.

Some states have already freed up many schools from centralised departmental control and allow principals autonomy in hiring and firing staff and setting their spending priorities. Injecting intellectual rigour and balance and removing postmodern and pop-cultural fads from the curriculum is also essential. As the Gonski funding process unfolds, however, the main challenge for the commonwealth and states is to lift the status and expertise of the teaching profession, starting with academic entry standards for school leavers aspiring to teach. Effective in-service programs for teachers to improve classroom practices and more effective leadership training for principals would also have a direct bearing on school performances. Teaching quality is the main focus of high-performing East Asian school systems, and its value was underlined by Mr Hewitson in his account of a band of dedicated teachers.

Parents know good schools or bad schools when they find them, regardless of sector, postcode, class sizes or facilities. Business as usual, with its prevailing mediocrity, is no longer acceptable. Until teachers' unions and some academics show a more mature understanding of the teaching profession and the needs of students, their continuing demands for smaller classes and more funding will render them irrelevant in one of Australia's most important social debates.


 COAG 'reforms' fail to fix public hospitals

The COAG Reform Council this week released a report on the national reform agenda of the previous Labor government. The major finding was that the national partnership agreements struck between the commonwealth and the states have failed to significantly improve outcomes in health, education and Indigenous welfare.

The theory behind the agreements was that additional funding combined with stricter accountabilities would allow the Commonwealth to manage the states into lifting their games.

Yet even where the report shows improvements in performance with respect to public hospitals, the results are equivocal.

'Solid' progress is said to have been made in speeding up treatment in emergency departments due to the national roll out of the 'four hour rule.' Under the National Access Target for Emergency Departments, which is being progressively phased in over five years, 95% of all patients will have to be either discharged or admitted within four hours. States failing to meet the target will not qualify for federal bonus payments.

That the introduction of the four hour rule has had an impact is not surprising. Targets often work because what is measured tends to be done, especially when additional funding is up for grabs. Equally unsurprising, though, are the unintended - but predictable - consequences.

The Reform Council reports that despite the improvements in emergency waits, waiting times for elective surgery have increased.

Emergency and elective waiting are directly related, and ultimately come down to how hospitals decide to use their acute beds.

If there is a blitz on elective waiting lists, say, more bed are used to admit surgical patients, and emergency waiting times consequently increase. If cutting emergency waiting times is the priority, the reverse applies, and elective waiting times blow out.

The obvious answer is to increase the total number of beds to admit more elective and emergency patients at the same time. However, increasing bed numbers is very difficult in the highly bureaucratic and inefficient public hospital system in which funding increases struggle to make it through to the frontlines as extra services. As the Australian Medical Association's Hospital Report Card found, the number of public hospital beds in Australia has remained 'basically unchanged' in recent years despite substantial funding increases. 

This shows how hard it is for governments to genuinely boost public hospital performance no matter what they spend or what targets they set.  It also shows why a micro-economic reform agenda desperately needs to be implemented in the sector to raise productivity and generate a real increase in the overall level of taxpayer-funded hospital services provided to the community.


Utilities to share carbon cuts

THE bosses of two of Australia's biggest power companies have vowed to slash hundreds of dollars from family power bills the moment the carbon tax is removed.

Origin Energy's Frank Calabria last night told The Daily Telegraph: "To keep things simple, if the carbon price is removed as an input cost to energy bills, we will pass the benefit on to consumers."

At AGL, the nation's largest electricity provider, boss Michael Fraser said: "Once the repeal … legislation is effective, AGL would expect to apply this to bills accordingly.

"The savings on bills may be expected to vary by state and consumers should also be aware that any savings will depend on their individual circumstances."

But when contacted on whether they would make similar moves, NSW's other major energy providers Momentum Energy and EnergyAustralia did not comment.

The comments follow those of corporate watchdog chief Rod Sims, who described the carbon tax removal as "not a massively complicated process" and tipped prices to fall by as much as 9 per cent once the tax was repealed.

The Abbott government has said the repeal of the tax should lead to a 9 per cent fall in power bills and a 7 per cent fall in gas prices.

Over the past five years, the average household electricity bill has risen between 37 and 80 per cent.

Energy Supply Association chief executive Matthew Warren said the full carbon component of energy bills would be passed through.

"The impact of carbon on the energy supply chain is complex but it can be unravelled and the industry will continue to work with the Abbott government to deliver this," he said.

Recent NSW Audit Office figures have shown the state government's electricity companies boosted their combined profit to $1.54 billion in the year to June - up from $1.03 billion only a year earlier. The state government has sold the retail operations of NSW's main electricity companies, including EnergyAustralia, Integral and Country Energy.

The electricity companies' high profitability helped boost their overall contribution to the government's coffers to $2.2 billion from $1.82 billion a year earlier.

Mum-of-three Katie Davis said the tax had made day-to-day living close to unaffordable and she planned to spend the extra cash saved on power bills on minor luxuries such as family dinners out. "The power bill is up to about $1000 a quarter, it's ridiculous," she said. "When it comes in every time ... it seems like it's been going up and up and you wonder when it's going to stop."


1 comment:

Paul said...

We have gotten around the four-hour rule simply by creating fake wards in areas not being heavily utilized such as recovery bays in procedural areas. We call them "Flex" wards, meaning they open up as the demand gets ahead of our ability to triage. They are basically meant to warehouse ED patients, who still haven't really been seen but need to look like they've been admitted. We are up to Flex 3, and I don't know of any space left for a Flex 4, but the first stages of our major rebuilding project are on the verge of opening any time now, so I'm sure we'll have plenty of new cupboards to put people in.