Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Shorten shafted

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten's bold attempts at fundamental structural reform of the Labor Party have been all but voted down by the ALP's Victorian conference.

Mr Shorten has built his leadership on party reforms to give rank-and-file a greater say in election of candidates and leaders.

"We cannot shirk the task of modernising the party, we cannot shirk the task of rebuilding the party, we cannot shirk the task of being a party that genuinely practises what it preaches for the nation of Australia," Mr Shorten said at the state conference on Sunday.

But his proposals, designed to weaken union dominance, were deferred and diluted as union factional opponents who stood to lose power under the proposals banded together to defer and defeat the changes.

Despite being 10 points ahead in Monday's opinion polls as the electorate digests an unpopular federal budget, Victorian unions were in no mood to cut Mr Shorten some slack.

"The paradox with reforming a political organisation is that those who have the power don't want to give it up," former ALP state secretary Nick Reece told ABC's 7.30.

"But in order to achieve the reform, you need the people in power to accept the case for reform. So you end up with a stalemate situation, in which reform is very difficult to achieve.

"Australian political parties have the lowest membership in the world. Collingwood Football Club has more members than the Labor Party, the Liberal Party and the Greens combined."

After a public backlash against unions which has seen a royal commission called, the Labor leader had pushed to weaken their stranglehold on Labor's central selection panel.

Mr Shorten wanted to bolster the weight given to the vote of local branch members in candidate selection from 50 per cent to 70 per cent.

After 48 hours of furious behind-the-scenes negotiations by union and party delegates, the proposal was deferred until after the national ALP conference in March 2015.

"The Labor Party's got to continue to change. That's inevitable. The path of rebuilding can't be done in one day or one weekend," Mr Shorten said when asked by 7.30 whether the deferral represented a loss for him.

Also deferred was a plan to allow branch members a say in electing the state leader.

Party sources told 7.30 that supporters of Victorian Labor leader Daniel Andrews were vigorously lobbying against this being debated so close to the state election in November - an election Mr Andrews has a good shot at winning.

A fight with the party could derail his campaign. But Mr Andrews batted off suggestions that he fought Mr Shorten's proposals on 774 ABC Melbourne on Monday.

"You're telling me what my position is, and I'm putting it to you that it's wrong," Mr Andrews told presenter Jon Faine.

Mr Shorten also downplayed questions from 7.30 about tensions between the pair over reforms.

"What matters to Daniel Andrews is the best interests of Victoria. What matters to me is the best interests of Victoria and indeed the nation," Mr Shorten said, adding that the days of Labor disunity were "behind us".


NAPLAN study finds testing causes students anxiety, program not achieving original goals

A new study on the effects of the National Assessment Program - Literacy And Numeracy (NAPLAN) has found the nationwide school testing is not achieving what it set out to do, and is having unintended negative consequences.

Eric Sidoti, project leader of the study, says since NAPLAN's inception in 2008 it has changed from being used as a diagnostic tool to a comparative measure.

"NAPLAN has taken on a life of its own. I guess what has happened is the testing tail is wagging the educational dog," Mr Sidoti told ABC's 7.30.

"It is symptomatic of the high stakes of NAPLAN as it has come to be, rather than what it was intended to be."

The study was undertaken by the Whitlam Institute at the University of Western Sydney and conducted by the University of Melbourne.

It found the tests were causing high levels of anxiety among some students.

"For a significant minority you are finding levels of stress that are beyond the norm, so not just a question of being nervous but vomiting, sleeplessness, migraines," Mr Sidoti said.

It is a view borne out by the experience of Lily Taylor and her nine-year-old son, Hamish. Hamish is one of millions of children in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 who sat the test last week and he is aware of just how important NAPLAN is.

"The teachers told me that if you don't do well in NAPLAN you won't get a good education to get into a good school, and then if you don't get a good education you can't get a good job," he said.

His mother is worried about the pressure on him to perform well.

"He did say to me that he wasn't sleeping, that he was waking up in the night and he is usually a very good sleeper. So that was of concern," Ms Taylor said.


Another natural fluctuation that "research" did not understand or foretell

Hundreds of giant Australian cuttlefish have swum into breeding grounds at the top of Spencer Gulf in South Australia, reversing a worrying decline of recent years.

The population had been dwindling and local diver Tony Bramley says he had not been expecting to see any this season, based on that trend.

He says it has been warmer-than-usual weather for the start of the breeding season and more cuttlefish might arrive as temperatures drop.

Mr Bramley says he does not know where the cuttlefish have travelled from as there has been no sign of many gathering offshore in recent weeks.

Cuttlefish research efforts include:

Monitoring breeding aggregation in northern Spencer Gulf to check numbers, water quality and state of habitat.

Looking at potential alternative cuttlefish spawning areas in northern Spencer Gulf.

Determining the habitat preferred by cuttlefish when laying eggs, to aid research into artificial habitats which might promote breeding.

"It's just baffling to see that many cuttlefish after the year that we had last year," he said.

"I'm really at a loss to explain how they've recovered so quickly, I mean it's wonderful to see that.

"It just proves that, no matter what you think you might know, nature can always surprise you, because it's out of left field. I really didn't expect anything like what we saw."

Mr Bramley says cuttlefish numbers are better than they have been in the past three years but still low overall.

"Now to be fair we've only dived Black Point, so we haven't been through the rest of the aggregating sites."

Federal and state funding has supported research into cuttlefish breeding in northern Spencer Gulf since the decline in numbers was noted.


Foreign aid cuts make up one fifth of budget savings

As Peter Bauer once said:  Foreign aid is a way of transferring money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries

The single biggest saving made in the 2014 federal budget was a reduction in foreign aid spending. On Twitter, World Vision Australia chief executive Reverend Tim Costello said the cut made up about one fifth of overall budget savings.

He accused the Government of balancing the books on the backs of the poor.  "Of the $36 billion Government budget savings - aid cuts contribute 20 per cent when aid is only 1.3 per cent of total the budget," he said.

ABC Fact Check asked World Vision where Mr Costello got his figures. A spokeswoman said that they were drawn chiefly from the 2014-15 Budget Overview released with the budget papers on May 13.

The budget included cuts to aid spending in the current financial year. These were announced in January by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who said that in 2013-14 aid spending would be $5.042 billion. Her predecessor Bob Carr had forecast aid spending of $5.666 billion for 2013-14, so Ms Bishop's announcement represented a cut of over $600 million.

The Budget Overview contains that cut, and forecast cuts of $601 million in 2014-15, $1.2 billion in 2015-16, $1.7 billion in 2016-17 and $3.5 billion in 2017-18. These cuts total $7.6 billion over five years, with the largest cut coming in 2017-18, when Labor had planned to increase aid spending to reach 0.5 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI). The 0.5 per cent is linked to the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, which call on countries to commit 0.7 per cent of GNI to aid.

According to the Parliamentary Library aid spending has been around 0.35 per cent of GNI in recent years.

The Coalition has also committed to increasing aid funding to 0.5 per cent of GNI, but has not committed to a date, citing the state of the budget as the reason.

The foreign aid cuts are the largest in a table in the Budget Overview summarising the major savings announced on May 13. The total major savings in the table amount to just over $35.7 billion.

Share of the total budget

To determine the percentage share of the overall budget spent on foreign aid, World Vision compared aid spending, as shown in the budget papers, and total government payments, as shown in the Budget Overview, between 2013-14 and 2017-18.


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