Monday, February 17, 2014

‘Rainmaker’ PM pledges fair and responsible drought package

TONY Abbott arrived in the NSW outback town of Bourke today to talk drought — but instead brought more rain with him than the district has seen for two years.

As a thunderstorm pelted down on the shearing shed of 40,000-hectare Jandra station, the Prime Minister promised local farmers his government wanted to do more help them cope with the current drought.

“This is a great Australian sound, rain on a tin roof, but I am very conscious this has been a severe drought; it’s a natural disaster and a lot of people are doing it tough,” said Mr Abbott, who is on a two-day tour of drought-hit western NSW and northwest Queensland.

“The important thing is that the government has a (farm assistance package) response that is intelligent, fair and (fiscally) responsible.

“But there will be better income support, better access to the loans people need and an emphasis on social support that farmers and rural communities need in times like this.”

Cabinet is expected to sign off on a drought package in just over a week.

Jandra station owner Phillip Ridge welcomed Mr Abbott as a rainmaker.

“If I had known what he would bring; I’d have asked him here months ago,” Mr Ridge said, as giant rain puddles, a sea of red mud and rows of bogged cars collected outside.

Rain also forced the cancellation of a later planned visit to a property near Longreach in western Queensland.

But Mr Ridge said one downpour would not break the two-year drought.

He said debt and high fixed costs were killing rural Australia.

He wants lower interest rates on cheap government loans available to help farmers through the drought. Rates are currently set at 5 per cent.

More than 70 per cent of Queensland and 62 per cent of NSW has not had significant rain for two years.

Mr Abbott and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce are touring drought-hit areas to hear directly how farmers would like the government to help.

“It’s very important to see and feel how you guys live,’’ Mr Abbott said, having given up a seat in an air-conditioned four-wheel drive.

Cabinet will consider a drought assistance package for farmers in the next fortnight.

The Prime Minister said any government assistance package would ensure the agricultural sector survived the current drought, and that farmers remained viable, strong and producing food for export to Asia’s bombing markets.

But he said failing farm businesses would not be propped up.

Mr Ridge told Mr Abbott it was hard for any farmer to keep going, no matter how good, when it hadn’t rained for two years.

He said his sheep were weak, some had died, he was having to buy expensive hay to feed cattle and that his wool harvest was down by one third.

The Prime Minister flew from Bourke to western Queensland, where more rain forced him to cancel a visit to an outback property.

Instead, Mr Abbott addressed a meeting at Longreach’s Stockman’s Hall of Fame, telling them

he believed drought support was more akin to “natural disaster’’ relief than industry assistance.

The government has in recent times rejected funds for Holden and SPC Ardmona, despite Mr Abbott after the election declaring Australia was “open for business’’.

But Mr Joyce said he believed people in city areas would back a “significant’’ government support package.


PM shows the meaning of 'fair go'

There are few more quintessentially Australian terms than a "fair go". And there is no better phrase to draw together the events of the first parliamentary sitting week of the year - and indeed the start of the Abbott government's term.

A "fair go", according to Mark Gwynn, writing for the Australian National Dictionary Centre's Ozwords, was first recorded during the Queensland shearers' strike of 1891. As the Brisbane Courier reported on March 25 of that year, union leaders questioned whether they received a "fair go" in the course of their arrest for conspiracy.

Their question appears more than a little disingenuous in the context of the activities preceding their arrest - not to mention the fact that 13 of the unionists charged were sentenced to jail terms. The union leaders and unionised shearers had used physical force, and the threat of such force, to harass, bully and pressure non-union shearers and wool growers into ceding to their demands. The unionists were attempting to control whom wool growers could and couldn't employ, along with the terms and conditions of that employment. Their actions were the antithesis of a "fair go".

It's interesting to reflect on this as car manufacturers close and businesses are under pressure. We should ask ourselves whether unionism really gives workers - and the businesses who employ them - a fair go. After all, one can't exist without the other.

On Monday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced a royal commission on trade union governance and corruption designed to "ensure that honest workers and honest businesses get a fair go". The Prime Minister said: "Honest workers and honest unionists should not be ripped off by corrupt officials and honest businesses should be able to go about their work without fear of intimidation, corruption and standover tactics."

No Australian - apart from those engaging in intimidating, corrupt and standover tactics - would disagree with the statement. But such behaviour forms only part of the problem.

The additional challenge for the government, employers and unions in the context of the imminent closure of Australian car manufacturing, and pressures on a range of diverse Australian businesses, is to review our rigid workplace relations system and do something to fix it. After all, there's no point being entitled to some of the most generous employment conditions and highest wages in the world if you don't have a job.

If the government is brave enough to tackle this crucial policy area, the question is will the opposition and the media give the government a fair go to fix the system?

Will we ever see Labor act in the same bipartisan manner as the Coalition did when it was in opposition, particularly under leader John Howard during the critical Hawke-Keating economic reforms in the 1980s? Or, like the shearers' strike of 1891, will a fair go be a narrow one, defined by unions and Labor in their interests alone, rather than the interests of the nation?

The same questions might more broadly be applied to the reporting of, and reaction to, Coalition government decisions. Will good policy outcomes and the tough decisions be highlighted, or as seems the case, just those that are negative? Are we giving the government a fair go?

We've heard endlessly about the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection's alleged secrecy over asylum seekers, but virtually nothing about the fact that not one illegal boat or asylum seeker has landed in Australia for more than 50 days. In contrast, at one stage under Labor 3000 asylum seekers were arriving per month. One thousand people died at sea. And 14,500 genuine refugees, waiting their turn in refugee camps, were denied places in Australia because of illegal boat arrivals.

In the interests of a truly fair go, let's consider the first Rudd Labor government at the same stage. Looking back, Kevin Rudd's most memorable achievements five months into government seem to be visiting Cate Blanchett and her new baby in hospital and hosting the 2020 summit.

The contrast with the Abbott Coalition government could not be more marked.

The government is making tough decisions on manufacturing, immigration and the environment. Let's hope this extends to workplace relations reform, and if it does, for the good of all Australians, let's give it a fair go.


Victorian Primary school principals shut down religious education classes

Hundreds of primary school principals have stopped offering weekly religious education in schools, despite a legal obligation to offer the classes.

Current legislation states principals "must" schedule the contentious "special religious instruction" (SRI) classes in the school timetable when accredited and approved instructors are available, but Education Department figures suggest the number of Victorian state schools delivering SRI programs declined by almost a third in the past two years.

In 2011, 940 government schools delivered an SRI program, but by 2013 the number plummeted to 666 - a drop of 274. In real terms, 130,100 students received SRI in 2011, with just 92,808 in 2013.

Christian organisation Access Ministries is the leading provider of instruction, delivering 81 per cent of programs through its weekly 30-minute Christian religious education (CRE) classes.

Joe Kelly has been principal of Cranbourne South Primary School for 15 years, and acknowledged that until two years ago he had been "blindly supporting" Access Ministries' presence. That was until he took a closer look at the actual classes and curriculum.

"It is not education," Mr Kelly said. "It has no value whatsoever. It is rubbish - hollow and empty rhetoric … My school teachers are committed to teaching children, not indoctrinating them."

In early 2012, Mr Kelly sent Access Ministries a two-page letter explaining why they would not be allowed back in his school. He subsequently spoke to a representative of the evangelical organisation.

"We did meet, and we agreed in the end," Mr Kelly said. "His words: 'If the school does not want Access Ministries, we will not force our way in'."

Mr Kelly said his actions created no backlash from within the school community, and nor was there any reprimand from the Education Department for his defiant stance - something he hoped would give heart to other principals considering exercising discretion.  "A lot of principals feel as strongly as I do, but they are not comfortable being as provocative as I am," he said.

Education Minister Martin Dixon said he had "full confidence in school principals making decisions in the interests of their parent body and the school community".

Despite the decline in numbers, Dr Evonne Paddison, chief executive of Access Ministries, said CRE was a "choice" that the parents of nearly 90,000 Victorian children still make.  "Some areas are seeing growth and others not so," she said. "This is not an unusual pattern. CRE happens because parents want it."

Not all parents, of course. Members of the grassroots group Fairness in Religions in Schools have long agitated for change on this issue, and with some success.

Prior to August 2011, the SRI enrolment forms used by schools were "opt-out", meaning parents had to fill in the form or their child would automatically end up being taught religion, enrolled by default.

In the past two years, however, the forms became "opt-in", meaning parents have to make a conscious choice to enrol their child in religious education. This simple change had a massive impact on the popularity of SRI. Namely, far fewer kids are enrolled.

Emerald Primary School principal Mark Carver said before the form was changed, perhaps 75 per cent of students in a class of 24 would receive instruction.

"Last year that was dropping close to 50 per cent," Mr Carver said. "And once it gets below that, it becomes a difficult thing in terms of supervision."

Dr David Zyngier, a senior lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy at Monash University, said his biggest concern remained for parents who opt-in but did not understand what lessons were being taught, or that they were being taught by volunteers - not teachers.

"I have reviewed all six booklets produced by Access Ministries, and it's basically low order, unintelligent, busy work and rote learning," Dr Zyngier said.  "It horrified me. There's nothing educational about it. It's all about becoming a disciple of Jesus."

Dr Paddison said the trained volunteers implement a curriculum designed with four levels of primary schooling in mind, as outlined in the Victorian Essential Learning Standards.  "As any adult interacting with young children will have some impact, we aim to make sure it is a positive one," Dr Paddison said.


Let the demolition of rogue union begin

Paul Sheehan

It is common for people to take a voyeuristic schadenfreude in reading insults about others. I'm aware many readers like reading insults about this columnist, so let's get started. First, my corruption. Then my hypocrisy.

Federal Labor MP Laurie Ferguson posted an item on his website on April 16 last year: "The NSW Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by David Ballard against a decision where his witnesses' evidence was found to be 'false', 'implausible' and 'far fetched'. Will the Herald's Paul Sheehan offer profound (if delayed) apologies, after his advertising campaign for Ballard?"

Ferguson returned to the fray on November 27, via Twitter (a goldmine of indiscretion): "You were less interested reporting the absolute demolition of your close mate [Charkey's] court effort despite your friendly articles." A few minutes later he made a more direct accusation: "You are more than a close mate and you know the judgment was an unmitigated total demolition of your slanderous campaign."

Given that I have never spoken to the plaintiff in this case, building contractor David Ballard, a former boxing champion known as Charkey Ramon, before or after his original court case, Ferguson was not only wrong but he has nailed his colours to the mast of the under-siege Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. Let's just say his objectivity is clouded because his younger brother Andrew, a CFMEU official, was mocked by me for his performance under cross-examination in Ballard v Multiplex.

Then there is the CFMEU's staunch ally in the NSW Parliament, the Greens MP David Shoebridge. On May 22, 2012, he told Parliament: "I have known Andrew Ferguson for well over a decade, including in my professional capacity as a lawyer representing the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union from time to time … Now that a superior court of record has made a conclusive finding against the likes of Ballard … it is clear that Mr Ferguson and the CFMEU are owed an apology. We are all still waiting, Mr Sheehan."

I am familiar with the judgment of Justice Robert McDougall in this matter, all 76,000 words of it. In 2012 I prepared a robust dissent. It was withheld from publication on the grounds of prudence. Times have changed. The scale of corruption touching the CFMEU has become a public issue.

Let's just say I rate McDougall's judgment as highly as I rate the work of his fellow NSW Supreme Court judge Stephen Campbell in the matter of Regina v Kieren Loveridge. In November, Campbell held that Loveridge would spend a non-parole period of six years in prison for his unprovoked and fatal assault on Thomas Kelly, and unprovoked assaults on Matthew Serrao, Rhyse Saliba, Aden Gazi and Marco Compagnoni, all while he was on probation for a prior assault. This judgment was an insult to the grieving Kelly family and an assault on commonsense.

Now McDougall can observe the unfolding royal commission into the bribes, pay-offs and slush funds endemic in the construction industry, not unlike the evidence laid out in Ballard v Multiplex and the CFMEU. A former CFMEU official Craig Bates gave evidence he received payments from companies that wanted to remain "preferred contractors" of the CFMEU. A former finance director of Multiplex, Ian Widdup, gave evidence he made secret cash payments of hundred of thousands of dollars to the union from Multiplex. Former CFMEU organiser John Henderson gave evidence Ballard was forced off a job by the union. Len Anthony gave evidence the CFMEU wanted Ballard out of the industry. former Multiplex employee Joseph Taylor said he attended a meeting where it was decided to lock Ballard out of a construction site, leaving his equipment locked inside.

McDougall inherited this case after the original judge fell ill and thus did not see the overwhelming bulk of the evidence first hand. He found the testimony of the whistle-blowers insufficient as the plaintiff, and two of his key witnesses, Bates and Widdup, had been found to have given false evidence in other matters. The crucial element was the judge's disdain for the criminal history of Bates, which utterly infected his credibility in this case.

Ballard lost his case and again on appeal. His witnesses were shredded by a battery of silks. His personal finances were shredded by the standard legal tactic when big confronts small - attrition via process - and a bill in excess of a $1 million.

The defining fact, which no amount of lawfare can wash away, is that Ballard was an independent contractor who fell foul of the CFMEU and paid a price. Anyone who still doesn't think that collusion has been built into the industrial landscape for decades, at a cost of tens of billions of dollars, should consider the words of Ken Phillips, executive director of the Independent Contractors of Australia, who told me on Friday: "There is an industrial relations cartel in Australia of big unions and big corporations that have been cutting industrial relations deals then passing on the higher costs … The ICA has presented a 10,000-word submission to the Productivity Commission's inquiry into the construction sector which details our argument that a cartel exists, where major construction companies and unions work to suppress competition in the sector, and we identify cost blowouts of around 20 to 30 per cent."

Last week, I spoke to the solicitor who did most of the work for the plaintiff in Ballard v Multiplex, to see how Ballard was holding up. She did not know. But she did say this: "Every time I think about this judgment, it makes me angry." Let the royal commission roll on


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