Sunday, June 01, 2014

Christopher Pyne's pledge sparks fears public schools will be ignored

Education Minister Christopher Pyne has told Christian school leaders that his government has an "emotional commitment" to private schools, prompting fears the Abbott government will abandon public schools.

Speaking at a Christian Schools Australia national policy dinner in Canberra this week, Mr Pyne assured the school leaders he did not want to sever long-held ties with Christian and independent schools.

"I want to have a direct relationship with the non-government sector, as I believe we have had since 1963," Mr Pyne said. "Having talked to the Prime Minister about this matter many times, it is his view that we have a particular responsibility for non-government schooling that we don't have for [state] government schooling."

Mr Pyne assured the Christian schools he could not "see those circumstances changing".

Mr Pyne made the comments after fears were raised by the National Commission of Audit, which recommended funding and control of the non-government school sector should be handed to the states.

Commonwealth funding for state and independent schools will be provided under the Gonski formula designed to give funding to schools most in need. The government has committed to four years of "Gonski" funding, but there are fears independent schools would be favoured over state schools in a new deal for 2018 onwards.

Mr Pyne's comments follow his statements - quickly quashed by the Prime Minister - that higher education fees for university students would still need to be paid even if the student died.

"The emotional commitment within the federal government is to continue to have a direct relationship with the non-government schools sector. I think the states and territories would prefer that as well," Mr Pyne said.

The president of the NSW Secondary Principals' Council, Lila Mularczyk, warned that Mr Pyne's comments signalled a commitment to directly fund non-government schools at the expense of public schools.

"Students most in need of additional learning support have seen Minister Pyne turn his back on them again," Ms Mularczyk said.

"We cannot rest easy when the educational gaps between schools, and often schooling systems, are entrenched and will grow because of a dismissive, dangerous budget and an Education Minister who openly claims to be emotionally driven in maintaining a relationship with the non-government sector."

The Australian Education Union deputy federal president, Correna Haythorpe, said Mr Pyne's "divisive view of schools" was contrary to the needs-based principles of the Gonski funding model. Ms Haythorpe said federal funding of government schools was crucial to the quality and equity of the schools system.

"Federal governments have funded government schools for over 40 years, recognising the need to support state governments who do not have the same revenue base," Ms Haythorpe said.


Abbott prepares for major shake-up of public service

The Prime Minister is planning sweeping changes to the highest ranks of the public service to make it more responsive to the Coalition government.

With his first budget behind him, Prime Minister Tony Abbott is determined to turn around what he believes has been a significant brain drain of the best and brightest from Canberra in the past decade.

The retirement of Finance Department Secretary David Tune on Friday is just the first step in what will be a one- to two-year reform of the service.

Among a significant shake-up, high-profile Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson will leave at the end of the year after being granted an extension of his contract, and will almost certainly be replaced by someone working outside the department.

By the end of the first term of the Abbott government, change is expected in many key agencies including the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The search for a new treasury secretary will involve the government scouring the private sector, including the upper echelons of Australia's major banks.

Mr Abbott has told colleagues he wants to change the culture of the public service and has formed the view the bureaucracy needs to "own" outcomes, retain its brightest graduates, and be less passive in its dealings with the senior ranks of the government.

He wants to see the federal bureaucracy move away from implementing programs, a job he believes is best left to the states, and is determined to end the tradition of Treasury secretaries effectively anointing their successor.

Health Department secretary Jane Halton is the strong favourite to replace Mr Tune.

Professor Halton has served as the head of health since 2002.

Mr Tune will be the fourth department head to leave the government, which sacked three secretaries shortly after it won office.

Mike Callaghan, a former Treasury official who also served as chief of staff to Peter Costello and now works at the Lowy Institute, is considered a possibility for the Treasury role. Former Treasury official and Finance Department chief Peter Boxall, a member of the government's commission of audit panel, is also in the running. The Business Council of Australia's chief economist Peter Crone, who also worked on the audit, could also be considered.

And in what would be a surprise move, there have been suggestions Prime Minister and Cabinet chief Ian Watt could move to Treasury.

Such a move would be unusual as Dr Watt took up his five-year role only in September 2011, but prime ministers typically like to appoint their own department head.

Among other agency chiefs Attorney-General's department chief Roger Wilkins, who has served since 2008, will eventually be replaced by someone with national security expertise.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade chief Peter Varghese is said to have disappointed some in the cabinet with his management of the integration of AusAid and DFAT.

One Coalition insider said he needed to focus on running his department and "not being the junior foreign minister".


Adverse implications of the Eastman inquiry

Inquiry boss acting Justice Brian Martin has recommended that David Eastman's conviction for murder be quashed

His findings reflect ill on the most expensive and one of the most lengthy murder investigations in Australian history, on police competence and good conduct, on the competence of an expensive and well-resourced prosecution, the capacity of the ACT justice system to provide a fair trial, and on public confidence in the capacity of that system to detect legal and forensic error.

Right to the end, counsel for the ACT DPP and the AFP were attempting to prevent the inquiry, and complacently denying extensive public concerns about the safety of the verdict.

As one of many who has agitated those concerns for nearly 25 years, I can say that little of the material which so disturbed Acting Justice Martin was new. It has been about for a long time – simply not adequately investigated by the justice system, and by a very antiquated and inadequate system of external review. A good many of the doubts were not, of themselves, focused on whether Eastman was guilty or not. It was, instead whether the material produced by the Crown at trial, and the way that the trial was conducted, proved Eastman’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Acting Justice Martin, like many other judges who have looked at the case, has rejected many of the concerns which have been expressed. He is not worried about Eastman’s fitness to plead at trial, and apparently thinks, as the trial judge and prosecuting counsel thought, that Eastman’s forensic antics during the trial were a clever stunt intended to abort the trial, not the product of mental illness. I have, over the years, spent a good deal more time knowing, observing and listening to Eastman than any lawyers or policeman, or even psychiatrists, but, even allowing a lack of psychiatric training, I wish I was more convinced that this was always so. Martin found that key forensic evidence was faulty.

Given that the case occurred in the aftermath of forensic disasters in the Chamberlain and Splatt cases, it seems amazing that the defects in the evidence, and genuine doubts about the calibre, competence and good conduct of the major forensic witness was not discovered, and that what Martin thought to be police failures to communicate with prosecution lawyers meant that the prosecutions were unaware of adverse information about the bona fides of the witness. Nor were Eastman or the defence team made aware of doubts by other scientific witnesses about the evidence of the major witness.

The judge did not hold prosecution lawyers individually responsible for such shortcomings; rather, he decided reasonably, that discussion about the prosecution’s duty to disclose all the evidence – helpful or unhelpful – extends to police investigators.

The judge was also critical of police harassment that was obvious from the start, even if it was blandly denied by police, and complacently ignored by the legal and administrative system, including the Ombudsman’s office.

It incidentally established the police under investigation lie to investigators without any sanctions. But the system did not show that the failure of police to bring a convincing case flowed from efforts to frame Eastman. Rather it flowed from tunnel vision, probably a want of experience, an insufficient attention to detail, and, most probably, investigators who were far too close, emotionally and intellectually, to the victim.

The investigation lacked detachment. The ACT, and Colin Winchester, deserved a lot better.

The Martin inquiry was quite constrained by its legalistic format, and by the reluctance of the Attorney-General, Simon Corbell, to order an open-ended inquiry.

That did not reduce expenditure; indeed it probably increased it, as did the cost of efforts, at public expense, by police and prosecutors to frustrate an inquiry that has now declared a plain miscarriage of justice.

What is needed now is a further inquiry  – not one focused on guilt, but on whether ACT policing, the prosecution system and the executive justice system is in good hands.

Given the doggedness with which everything done before has been defended, and the complete failure of police and prosecutors to hold any sort of frank review of efforts made a generation ago, with investigators now retired, it would be simply too easy to declare that it all happened in another time, and another place.

Given that this was the biggest thing AFP detectives have done since establishment in 1978, it is hard to be sure they would do any better today.


The tentacles of welfare

JOE Hockey has recently been in correspondence with a single unemployed mother of two who has taken him to task over the apparent cruelty of his Budget.

I will not name her, out of respect for her privacy, but this young woman has made no secret of how angry she is about the welfare entitlements she claims she now stands to lose, having posted her complaints on social media.

Her major beef was she was about to lose an education supplement as, to her credit, she was studying to improve her chances of getting a job.

The loss of this entitlement, she claimed, had convinced her to switch her vote. She would no longer be supporting the Coalition.

I’ll admit, I didn’t even know such a supplement existed. Nor, it seems, did Treasury. In fact it is fair to say that Treasury, while in command of the total numbers of expenditure, couldn’t tell the Treasurer the full list of entitlements, income payments, supplements, bonuses and concessions any particular individual might be entitled to.

That is because such a person is drawing income from so many different sources within government that no one in government could say just who was getting what and how much.

If this is not an illustration of just how complex and out of control this country’s welfare system has become then try the following numbers.

A government-wide analysis of the welfare system has discovered this: a single person in a similar situation to the one who has been sparring with Hockey of late can earn a grand total of $54,417 a year in payments from the government — as in the taxpayer — without working. That’s net. Not gross.

In other words, such a person is effectively earning as much as a worker on a gross salary of more than $70,000 a year.

For starters, this person receives a parenting payment of $18,192 a year. This is supported by a further $8979 payment under Family Tax Benefit A and a further $3818 under Family Tax Benefit B. There are FTB-A and FTB-B supplements as well, worth $1807.

To help with accommodation this person is also entitled to rent assistance of $3798 a year as well as subsidised telephone calls through a $157 telephone allowance.

To ensure they are doing their bit to tackle climate change, their electricity is also subsidised with a $305 single-parent Clean Energy Supplement, which is itself supplemented with an extra $244. A trip to the chemist is also subsidised with a pharmaceutical allowance of $161 a year.

There are also bonuses, a term which usually refers to a reward of some kind, such as the income support bonus of $214. To top it off, as an encouragement to further their education, they are entitled to a Pensioner Education Supplement worth $1622.

If I’ve done my maths right, this all adds up to a grand total of $39,297 in tax free payments to this person.

But it doesn’t end there. If this person is studying, which of course is something that should be encouraged if work is unavailable, they can access the Jobs, Education and Training Child Care Fee Assistance (JETCCFA). This helps with the cost of childcare during the hours the parent is studying.

Assuming the average long day care hourly rate is $7.50, the parent only pays 50c an hour.

If this person studied for example, 27 hours a week, the subsidy for child care comes to $15,120, assuming it is accessed 40 weeks of the year.

Adding this brings the total net payments to this person to $54,417 which, using the normal tax scales, would be the equivalent of a $70,000 gross wage — roughly the average wage.

And who pays this person’s income? The taxpayer. Or more correctly in the case of this person, 3.2 taxpayers.

To fund this welfare payment for one person, the government must take the tax paid by three single workers with no kids and receiving no benefits earning an about average wage of $75,000 a year.

No one would quibble with how tough a single parent has it. But one could fairly ask what incentives are there to work, if you can get paid more to stay at home?

This is but one example, when you drill down into the pension and veterans payments, concessions and supplements it becomes a quagmire of complexity.

The discovery of a vehicle assistance scheme which subsidies the running costs of some pensioners’ cars to the tune of $2144.40 a year surprised some members of the expenditure review committee, to say the least.

No one can seriously argue that our welfare system isn’t already very, indeed overly, generous and not in need of dramatic reform.

What this Budget is about is taking money at the top end, from those who worked and earned their money, where at the lower end they are freezing the rise in payments from the taxes to those who don’t work.


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