Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Don't call Brandis' statement a gaffe

When Attorney General George Brandis said this week that 'People have a right to be bigots,' half the country rushed to proclaim its outraged disagreement. This was not surprising. What is surprising is that the other half of the country - those that agree with the current government's position on political censorship - also acted scandalised by Brandis' statement, gasping with dismay as if the Attorney General had dropped a tray of glassware in a quiet restaurant.

Coalition supporters, including proponents of 18c's repeal, scrambled to think of ways to distance themselves from Brandis' remarks without denying that he had been correct in his facts and his analysis.

NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell said pointedly on Thursday that 'bigotry should never be sanctioned, intentionally or unintentionally.' One federal backbencher told The Sydney Morning Herald, anonymously, that Brandis' 'bigot comment' had 'completely inflamed the whole situation.' The Australian's political editor, Dennis Shanahan, concluded that the AG had put the government 'on the back foot' and 'on the defensive.' Even Andrew Bolt backed away from Brandis' line, stating 'I would put this a bit differently.'

There is no reason why Brandis' statement should be treated as some sort of gaffe. As a description of what freedom of expression entails, his remarks were straightforward and unremarkable.

In the past, when artistic rather than political expression has been up for debate, anti-censorship activists have always been quick not just to defend but to celebrate the legal protections afforded to the provocative and the unpopular. Film critic Margaret Pomeranz, for example, trumpeted the public's right to see offensive movies during the controversy over banned film Ken Park. When Bill Henson's nude photographs of underage models were seized by police over obscenity concerns, Pomeranz scoffed, 'You may find his work confronting, controversial. Surely that's a function of art.'

Pomeranz also said in 2003 that she would extend the same protections to Holocaust denier David Irving's documentary The Search for the Truth in History because 'I think as a society we ought to be strong enough to combat those sorts of fallacies.'

It is unfair for those who embrace the principle of freedom of expression to suggest that the Attorney General should have minimised or downplayed the range of opinions legally protected by that principle. The breadth of freedom of speech is not something around which a healthy society needs to tiptoe.


Minimum wage facts and myths

This year's review of minimum wages has generated the usual ambit claims from the union movement.

ACTU secretary Dave Oliver argues that if the Fair Work Commission does not take action to 'turn around the alarming decline in the relative earnings of low-paid workers then Australia will have an entrenched working poor as they do in the United States within 20 years.'

Oliver claims that the statutory minimum wage is just 43.3% of the average full time wage, and that 'if action isn't taken, by around 2035 that figure could languish below 30%.'

With comments like these, one could be forgiven for thinking that low income workers in Australia have seen their wages stagnate in recent years.

In reality, minimum wages over the past five years have increased each year by between 2.6% and 3.4% which places them at or higher than the annual rate of inflation.

More importantly, Australia's minimum wage may be 43% of the average wage, but it is 54% of the median wage: The median wage is a more appropriate measure as it picks up workers in the middle of the income distribution. The average wage can be distorted by a small amount of very well-paid workers whose incomes elevate the average.

Furthermore, Australia's statutory minimum wage (in real terms) is one of the highest in the developed world, ranking fourth highest among OECD nations in 2013.

And this is only the statutory minimum. Australia's award system builds tiers upon tiers of minimum wages above the statutory minimum. Many workers are on minimum wages higher than the current $16.38 per hour, and these minimum wages increase each year with the Safety Net Review.

The union movement is campaigning hard on the plight of low income workers. But if we want to have a serious discussion about this issue, we need to debate the facts not the myths about the minimum wage.


More union corruption

JEFF Kennett wants building giant Thiess to explain publicly why it paid more than $110,000 into a slush fund run by allegedly corrupt union boss Bruce Wilson, after Thiess had won a lucrative contract from a public utility, Melbourne Water.

Mr Kennett said he was surprised and annoyed at learning from The Australian of the secret deal, brokered while he was Victorian premier in the early 1990s with a mandate to pursue privatisation and cut unnecessary costs from the state’s struggling economy.

Key documentary evidence in a current Victoria Police Fraud Squad investigation shows that Thiess paid more than $110,000 in Melbourne Water-related “consultancy fees” into the slush fund, known as the AWU Workplace Reform Association. It appears from the documentation that at least some of these fees were charged back to Victorian taxpayers by Thiess.

In addition, hundreds of thousands of dollars were paid by Thiess for non-Melbourne Water “services”, with the money going to the same “workplace reform association”.

The AWU established the association with legal advice from Mr Wilson’s then girlfriend, Julia Gillard, a solicitor at Slater & Gordon and legal adviser to the AWU.

Ms Gillard subsequently told her senior colleague, Peter Gordon, in a tape-recorded interview that it was really a “slush fund” to raise money for union elections. The former prime minister and Mr Wilson have strenuously denied any wrongdoing, with Ms Gillard saying she had no knowledge of the fund’s operations.

Documents show that invoices were generated by the slush fund to enable payment by Thiess for the “provision of consultancy service for Melbourne Water as per agreement”.

Mr Kennett said if he had been alerted to the payments at the time, he would have been alarmed and it could have led to Thiess being stripped of the taxpayer-funded contract it had won in 1993 to carry out Melbourne Water services.

“If this had been brought to my attention, I would have told the head of Thiess to tell me what was going on, within five working days, and it could have resulted in a show cause as to why Thiess should even continue with the contract,” Mr Kennett said.

“I cannot think of a legitimate reason to pay it. I had no idea of it, and I don’t think the minister (for Melbourne Water) had any idea of it.

“It is just not the sort of thing we would have condoned.

“The fact is that it has gone on in secret. It is something that is not part of the norm, either with the invoicing or the collection of the money. It gives rise to greed, it gives rise to corruption. And if it was a regular practice, you have to ask if Thiess, a company which has had a huge impact on Australian construction for years, has changed its practices from then to now.

“Bruce Wilson was a wildcard in the union movement, but that does not excuse Thiess in their behaviour.

“When these sorts of corrupt practices occur, they also drive up the costs. What’s worrying is how much more of it has been going on with others.”

The invoices from the slush fund started just weeks after the Melbourne Water Corporation, a public utility under the Kennett government, made a policy shift to outsource some of its work, and asked contractors to register to provide maintenance services for water supply, sewerage and drainage systems.

The success of Thiess in winning the $37 million maintenance contract with Melbourne Water hinged on Thiess showing “a proven ability in enterprise bargaining” as many of the utility’s staff were union members.

Fraud Squad detectives have been told Thiess achieved industrial peace from the AWU and had few industrial concerns while payments to Mr Wilson’s slush fund were being made.

Detective Sergeant Ross Mitchell has told the state’s Chief Magistrate, Peter Lauritsen, that he was investigating four types of offences in relation to Mr Wilson and others: obtaining property by deception; receiving secret commissions: making and using false documents; and conspiracy to cheat and defraud.

A newly established royal commission led by former High Court judge Dyson Heydon into union wrongdoing has been given terms of reference to probe the AWU slush fund and other wrongdoing by unions.

One of the seven Melbourne Water-related invoices seen by The Australian includes a handwritten note, understood to have been made by a Thiess employee, that states “OK to pay — cost to Melbourne Water”.

Police have been told this meant that at least some of the slush fund payments by Thiess to Mr Wilson were being charged to Melbourne Water.

A Thiess public report on the Melbourne Water contract to shareholders at the time stated: “Thiess’s industrial relations skill accelerated the transition to improved work practices. Even before the contract was signed, an enterprise agreement was negotiated with employees and the AWU.

“The agreement involves improved rates of pay with clearly identified performance incentives, accredited training programs for multi-skilling and a five-step competency rating system.”

Former Thiess executives Joe Trio, the brother-in-law of Mr Wilson, and Nick Jukes have denied any wrongdoing and have insisted that to their knowledge they were paying for legitimate services by the AWU.

The chief executive of Thiess at the time, Martin Albrecht, told The Australian yesterday that recent revelations about the slush fund and payments by the company that he led through the 1990s and subsequently were an “enlightenment”.

“I was not aware of all the nuances, and I am now making my own inquiries as well,” Mr Albrecht said. “It’s not without precedent that you have to make agreements with unions on specific projects, but if you are asking me if I known then what I know today, the answer is no.”

The seven Melbourne Water-linked invoices from the AWU slush fund to Thiess are unusual for not bearing a street address, nor the name of a contact person, nor a telephone number, but all were paid. The address for the invoices was a West Australian post office box.

Cash paid by Thiess into the AWU slush fund was used to buy a terrace house in Fitzroy in Melbourne in the name of one of the union’s officials, self-confessed fraudster Ralph Blewitt, at an auction Ms Gillard attended with Mr Wilson, who was the successful bidder.

The former prime minister’s law firm at the time, Slater & Gordon, performed the conveyancing for the property transaction, and arranged the balance of the finance.


Incorrect answers in prep test books prove a real trial for students and their parents

You are not alone if you and your children were left scratching your heads over the answers in a book designed to prep students for the selective high school exams.

Several answers in the top-selling study guide are wrong.

Anxious students, and equally anxious parents, turn to the Excel Selective Schools & Scholarship Tests Skills & Strategies book in the hope trial questions will help them snare a spot in a selective school.

This year 13,930 children sat the test vying for 4188 spots at the state's 47 fully or partially selective public schools. But in the first pages of the book, published last year, there are three questions where incorrect answers are given.

One parent, Todd Rockoff, said he was "shocked" when he eventually worked out that it was the book, not him or his daughter, to blame when he was not able to correctly decipher the questions. Mr Rockoff, from the central coast, was helping his daughter prepare for the selective test when he found the errors.

The mistakes included an incorrect mirror image, as well as identifying the wrong rules in a question about patterns.

"I think it is scandalous that kids are exposed to this kind of poor scholarship in terms of the materials that are being presented to them to help them prepare for some pretty important examinations," he said. "I also have compassion for all those other parents and children who are tearing their hair out and they are probably feeling stupid and like there is something wrong with them."

Mr Rockoff complained to the publisher, Pascal Press. In a letter to Mr Rockoff, Pascal's commissioning and project editor, Mark Dixon, said "occasional errors creep in at the production stage".

"There is always the chance of human error, but please be assured that we do take the matter very seriously and will amend these errors as soon as the book is due for its next reprint," Mr Dixon wrote.

"I know how important it is for educational books to be clear and correct so there is no confusion or misunderstanding for students."

The publisher of the Excel series, Vivienne Joannou, said they had "rigorous processes" and employed independent experts to check all answers in their books.


1 comment:

PB said...

'People have a right to be bigots,'

Could be the first statement of real principle to come out of the Parliament since Howard's famous "we decide" speech.