Tuesday, June 24, 2014

ABC hit by $50m of new cutbacks

THE Abbott government is planning to strip an additional $40 million-$50m from the ABC’s budget, following ­recommendations from an ­independent efficiency review of the taxpayer-funded national broadcaster.

Last month’s federal budget cut $43.5m from the budget of the ABC and SBS over four years through a 1 per cent annual efficiency dividend, representing what Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull described as a “down payment” on further savings to be identified by the Lewis efficiency review.

It is understood that having seen the review, which was conducted by former Seven West Media’s chief financial officer Peter Lewis, the government will now seek to implement a “second wave” of cuts that would amount to a 4 per cent hit to the broadcaster’s annual budget of $1.28 billion.

The Australian understands that the ABC will be forced to reach the 4 per cent target through a combination of cuts and asset sales that will be redirected to the government in as little as a one-year period.

ABC managing director Mark Scott has argued that the ABC should reinvest the proceeds from any sales back into the broadcaster.

But Coalition sources have said it was a “laughable” suggestion, which would defeat the purpose of making savings.

A second senior Coalition source has indicated some ministers could push for harsher cuts, saying it would be disappointing if the cuts were not at least 4 per cent.

The ABC has previously indicated it expects to make announcements of big efficiency savings between August and ­October, with more savings to be found over coming years.

Mr Turnbull and Mr Scott were due to meet last Wednesday to discuss the Lewis review but were forced to delay their meeting because of heavy fog at Canberra airport.  The two will meet in the coming weeks.

Mr Scott has said programming could be at risk but it’s understood the Lewis study has found more than ample savings in back of house operations. When asked about the Lewis ­efficiency review last week, Mr Scott said: “The first matter of business is for us to resolve the Australia Network funding and what that means for redundancies and the future of our international service.”

Last night, a spokesman for the ABC said: “The Lewis review is confidential. Discussions ­between the ABC and the Communications Minister about the review are ongoing.”

The review was ordered in January by Mr Turnbull “to ­ensure ABC and SBS fulfil their charter responsibilities at least cost to the community’’.

Mr Lewis’s draft report says there are “opportunities for greater operational co-operation between the ABC and SBS, while retaining their ... unique programming identities”.

ABC insiders say a cut of near 4 per cent will lead to a tangible effect on programming, most likely in drama, documentary and children’s TV, and not in the news division so disliked by some Coalition members.

SBS insiders are unhappy several of their efficiencies being implemented were adopted in the Lewis review, meaning money it was going to reinvest from savings will go into federal coffers.

Insiders claim many of the “savings” identified were impractical or even “harebrained.”


Abbott offers asylum seekers $10k to go home

The Abbott government is offering asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru detention centres up to $10,000 to abandon their hope of resettlement in Australia and voluntarily return to the country they fled from.

The revelation comes as the High Court on Friday issued a stunning rebuke to the Abbott government's border protection policy, striking down its decision to to refuse to issue permanent protection visas to boat arrivals found to be refugees.

In two unanimous decisions, with implications for thousands of boat arrivals, the court ruled that Immigration Minister Scott Morrison's decision to impose a cap on the number of places in Australia's refugee intake for boat arrivals was invalid.

The sudden boost in payments is the latest tactic being used by the Abbott government to cement its hardline stance against asylum seekers who come to Australia without a visa.

In what are dubbed as "return packages", the Coalition has dramatically increased monetary incentives for asylum seekers to return home that range from $3300 to $10,000 based on "individual circumstances", compared with Labor's offering of between $1500 and $2000 last year.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees on Friday showed Australia's efforts to help alleviate the crisis have stagnated or worsened, with the country sliding backwards in the global rankings, according to some measures.

Australia now ranks 17th in the world to resettle refugees, according to the Refugee Council of Australia.
Asylum seekers who take up the cash offer are transported to the Hideaway Hotel in Port Moresby that is paid for by the International Organisation of Migration before being flown back to their country of origin.

Fairfax Media understands Lebanese asylum seekers are being paid $10,000 if they voluntarily return to Lebanon, while Iranians and Sudanese are being offered $7000, Afghans are being given $4000 and Pakistani, Nepalese and Burmese asylum seekers are receiving $3300.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that 283 people had voluntarily returned home since September 2013.
It is understood the payments, which are administered by the IOM but funded by the Australian Immigration Department, are made once the asylum seeker has returned to their home country.

Mr Morrison said the packages were tailored to each individual case. "The process of voluntary return is conducted in direct partnership with the International Organisation for Migration which has extensive experience in such matters worldwide," a spokesman for Mr Morrison said. "All such returns are voluntary. The IOM does not facilitate involuntary returns," he said.

Yet in a motion before the Senate, the Greens are urging the government to put a moratorium on sending asylum seekers back to Iraq, where a violent uprising continues to swallow the country.

It is not known whether any money has been offered to Iraqi asylum seekers to leave the centres. Only two days before the violent clashes in the north of the country, an Iraqi man on a bridging visa was forced back to Basra, Iraq by the Australian government, it was revealed on Friday.

Human rights groups and advocates are outraged at the incentives being offered, saying Australia should not be paying people to return to the countries that they fled from.

The Australia Director of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, said Australia was not alone in facing the problem of increasing global migration.

"By making the conditions in Manus and Nauru so awful that people are encouraged to go back to active conflict zones, you are putting them in danger and quite likely, they'll simply have to leave," she said.


Surge in frontline numbers in Queensland police, school and hospitals

MORE than 2600 public servants were employed in frontline services in Queensland in the last three months with the biggest boosts to hospitals, schools and police, according to figures obtained exclusively by The Courier-Mail.

The surge showed the Government was winning the battle of the bureaucrats, with more police, teachers, nurses, doctors, and ambulance officers replacing bureaucrats made redundant, Premier Campbell Newman said.

A staggering $95 million was saved in a single year by halving the number of pen-pushers at the Department of Health head office.

“These figures show we are delivering on our plan to revitalise frontline services,” Mr Newman said.  “We are investing in more doctors and nurses, teachers and police, boosting services for Queensland families.”

Mr Newman said a “disciplined, methodical approach” had saved taxpayers money.  “Funds are being rightly targeted to our key areas of health, education and keeping our streets safe,” he said.

The figures compiled by the Public Service Commission show an increase of more than 2600 public servants in the March quarter.

According to briefing notes to the Premier the biggest winner was Queensland Health where an extra 656 nurses were engaged along with 235 doctors, 274 other medical professionals and 117 Queensland Ambulance operational staff.

The Department of Education, Training and Employment workforce added 677 teachers and 221 teacher aids.  “There is continued growth in the overall size of the department due to the implementation of the Great Results Guarantee Initiative,” the report said.

Health Minister Lawrence Springborg said the figures showed the LNP was cleaning up the “mess”.  “When Labor gave up on Queensland Health, its only solution was to cut it in two – to make two bureaucracies instead of one,” he said.

“My job is to reverse the mess – to transfer the impact of these massive resources from backroom paperwork to frontline service. “We have a simple plan to put patients first.”

Mr Springborg expected the number of bureaucrats to decline further and frontline nurses and doctors to increase by a total of 2911 over two budgets to 2015.

Mr Springborg said money saved was reinvested.  “In Rockhampton, for example, this dividend will deliver the rooftop helipad that Labor cut from the new hospital design in 2010,” he said.

“Labor’s big-spending bureaucracy left patients flying into Rocky to be transferred from the airport by ambulance. That risks negative health outcomes and costs even more money.”

He said halving the number of bureaucrats in Brisbane head office saved $96 million in a single year.  The savings enabled the delivery of a PET scanner for Cairns worth more than $5 million and a mobile surgery van to service outback Queensland towns.

Police Minister Jack Dempsey said the extra police meant a safer future for Queensland families.  “As part of our continued revitalisation of frontline services we’re already put more than 900 new police cadets through our academies and are well on the way to our commitment of having 1100 additional officers on the beat,” he said.

“The new officers come from a variety of backgrounds and bring a wealth of life experience to a job that requires lots of community engagement.”


Will defunding school chaplains mean smaller government? 

It's hard to come up with a good reason why the federal government should fund chaplains in schools. Even if you feel the program has merit, why should taxpayers fund the general provision of religious services anywhere (like belief itself, this should be up to individuals)? Moreover, services delivered in state schools are unquestionably a state government responsibility.

However the recent High Court decision that effectively ends federal funding for the national school chaplaincy program does not address the merits of the program. Nor does it rest on separation of state and church; that argument had already been rejected in the first case on this issue in 2012.

Instead the High Court's latest decision confirms that the government can only fund and run programs where legislative authority is given under a specific head of power in the Constitution. While this limitation sounds obvious, there are more than 400 programs that have been identified that may not meet that condition.

This decision is a marked turnaround from several decades of expanding involvement of the Commonwealth in all aspects of government. This expansion has been justified in a number of ways - from the states 'dropping the ball' and providing subpar services, to the need to implement international treaties (under the Tasmanian Dams case), and even the importance of local government to the community (in the recent failed constitutional amendment).

In reality, the expanded involvement of the Commonwealth boils down to one thing. The states may provide the services, but the Commonwealth has the money - politely this is called a vertical fiscal imbalance.

The massive duplication of regulation at the state and federal level is a side effect of the vertical fiscal imbalance. The Commonwealth has to see outcomes (though outcomes here really means positive news stories), and can't be seen to be funding failures, so they attach strings to their funding.

But things have changed. The recent federal budget flagged the end of spiralling Commonwealth funding for state government responsibilities in hospitals and schools. And while the budget may have upset the apple cart; by reminding the Commonwealth government they are limited by the Constitution, the High Court is threatening to shut down the whole market.

Some have called this High Court affirmation of states' rights a 'sinister cause,' but it can instead be a pathway to better government. If politicians can't do an end run around federalism any more, they might finally be compelled to fix it.


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