Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Wrongly jailed father successfully sues judge for false imprisonment in landmark case

Salvatore Vasta finally went too far with eccentric judgments. He comes from an interesting family of ultimately Sicilian origin. His father, Angelo Vasta, was born in my home town of Innisfail and was also a prominent senior judge -- but was so tainted with apparent corruption that he was removed from office by by an act of parliament. An extraordinary family

A father who was wrongly jailed by a judge for an alleged contempt of court in a family law case has been awarded more than $300,000 in damages after he took the rare step of suing the judge personally.

In a landmark decision on Wednesday, Federal Court Justice Michael Wigney held Federal Circuit and Family Court Judge Salvatore Vasta could not rely on a judicial immunity and was personally liable for the man’s false imprisonment. The Commonwealth and the state of Queensland were also held liable.

The father of two, given the pseudonym Mr Stradford, was awarded a total of $309,450 in damages.

Vasta alone was ordered to pay $50,000 of the total sum in exemplary damages for false imprisonment and deprivation of liberty. Exemplary damages, which are punitive rather than compensatory, are awarded in rare cases.

Each of Vasta, the Commonwealth and the state of Queensland were ordered to pay a combined $59,450 of the total to cover Stradford’s personal injury and loss of earning capacity.

Vasta and the Commonwealth were also ordered to pay $35,000 for false imprisonment and deprivation of liberty, while Vasta and the state of Queensland were ordered to pay $165,000 for false imprisonment.

Stradford launched proceedings against Vasta, the Commonwealth and the state of Queensland in the Federal Court in 2020 after the Full Court of the Family Court overturned Vasta’s 2018 order imprisoning him in that state.

The Full Court said in a scathing judgment in 2019 that it would be “an affront to justice” to leave in place the declaration that Stradford had committed a contempt of court and the order imprisoning him for a maximum of 12 months.

“What occurred here ... constituted a gross miscarriage of justice,” the Full Court said at the time. It said Vasta had no power to make the declaration or order and no factual basis for doing so.

Vasta has been the subject of a series of excoriating appeal judgments, and is facing a second lawsuit brought by another man he jailed for an alleged contempt of court. That case was paused pending the outcome of the Stradford case.

The Federal Court heard Vasta told Stradford, whose former wife strenuously opposed him going to jail, to “bring your toothbrush” after he allegedly failed to hand over all his financial records in the family law case.

Neither Stradford nor his former wife had lawyers acting for them in the property dispute and the man insisted he had “in good faith tried to provide every aspect of my financial life”.

“Don’t tell me ‘I tried’,” Vasta told the man. “Rubbish ... I didn’t come down in the last shower.

“And that’s the strange thing, is you really don’t think that the court ever will jail you for contempt. You’re about to find that lesson is going to be a very hard one for you to learn.”

Stradford was held for seven days in police custody and prison, during which he said he was bashed in prison, became suicidal and woke up to his cellmate strangling him. He was eventually released from custody after obtaining a stay to prevent the order jailing him taking effect pending his court challenge.

Under the doctrine of judicial immunity, judges cannot ordinarily be sued for decisions they make, and Vasta sought to rely on this immunity in the Stradford case.

Wigney found this immunity did not protect Vasta. He said Vasta had engaged in a “gross and obvious irregularity of procedure” and denied Stradford “any modicum” of natural justice or procedural fairness.

Vasta was a Federal Circuit Court judge at the time he imprisoned Stradford and is now a judge of the Federal Circuit and Family Court, after the two courts were merged.


Who’s the Coalkeeper now? The renewables disaster rolls on...

‘Victoria joins NSW in saying no to “Coalkeeper,” ran the headline in Renew Economy in September 2021. ‘Coalkeeper’ was the disparaging name that Big Renewables and their political champions gave to a proposal to pay fossil fuel generators not just for the energy that they supplied but the critical backup they provided to highly subsidised renewables. Without that backup, Australians face blackouts and businesses face being pressured to load shed to help keep the lights on.

The plan was devised by the Energy Security Board (ESB) and backed by the then-federal Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor. The proposed mechanism was a capacity market to provide a stream of income to power companies that guarantee to provide energy which can backup renewables.

Capacity markets are commonplace in energy markets but the fact that the companies providing the backup were coal or gas-fired power stations infuriated the renewable-obsessed state governments of NSW and Victoria.

In September 2021 NSW Minister for Energy Matt Kean claimed there was no need for a capacity market or to ensure the continued operation of fossil-fuelled backup. In response to a call by the UN for wealthy countries to phase out coal by 2030, Kean said ending coal-fired generation by 2030 was entirely feasible. It was quite a boast given that NSW has the biggest coal-fired fleet in Australia, with more than 10GW of capacity. Kean put his faith in his legislated renewable energy plan – the biggest in the nation’s history – with five renewable energy zones to provide 12GW of renewable energy and 2GW of energy storage. He was also counting on the federally-backed Snowy 2.0 pumped-hydro project. By offering generous contracts guaranteeing that the state would purchase energy, NSW received expressions of interest to produce 34 GW of energy in New England and 27 GW in the Central West Orana zone.

Victorian energy minister Lily D’Ambrosio followed Kean’s lead. She claimed she wasn’t opposed to a capacity mechanism provided there were ‘no payments to incumbent fossil fuels generators’. This is absurd given that fossil fuel generators are the only energy suppliers in Victoria capable of backing up a grid supplied by 95 per cent renewable energy – the Victorian target for 2035.

In December 2022, a headline in Renew Economy gloated ‘Coalkeeper killed off as Labor states embrace Matt Kean’s auction and underwriting plan’. ‘Coalkeeper is dead,’ wrote Queensland energy minister Mick de Brenni whose state owns more coal-fired power stations than any other entity in Australia and has committed to closing them all by 2035.

But it’s one thing to legislate targets. It’s another thing for them to deliver reliable power in sufficient quantity. Renew Economy reported the gloomy news this week. Just 188MW of new capacity was approved in July and 1.2GW this year. That’s less than half the amount needed to reach Labor’s target of 82 per cent renewables by 2030 to fill the gap created by closing coal plants.

D’Ambrosio has been mugged by reality. She was forced to do a deal with AGL to keep open the Loy Yang A coal-fired power station which supplies a third of the state’s electricity until 2035. It was scheduled to close in 2048 but announced in February 2022 that it would close between 2040 and 2045. D’Ambrosio refused to disclose the cost of the deal. She also declined to disclose the cost of subsidies to keep open the Portland aluminium smelter – with power from Loy Yang – until 2035.

When AGL announced last September that the plant would close in 2035, federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said, ‘The reason that this is happening is because the cheapest form of energy in Australia and globally now is renewable energy.’ In reality, it is because renewable energy is the most heavily subsidised and fossil fuels the most heavily penalised. In addition, the energy shortages created by renewables create greater profits.

Each year, the CSIRO and AEMO work with the industry on the NextGen report which gives an updated cost estimate for large-scale electricity generation. It supposedly shows that wind and solar are the cheapest forms of energy, however the report substantially overestimates the low capacity factor of renewables and underestimates the cost of additional transmission, battery and pumped hydro storage, land, and backup.

We can get an idea of the gap by comparing federal Labor’s estimate of the cost of its 2030 renewable electricity target of 82 per cent which it claimed was $78 billion before the last election whereas Australia’s former chief scientist Robin Batterham put it this year at $1.5 trillion.

NextGen also overestimates the cost of nuclear energy which it says is more expensive than wind and solar. Compare Ontario, which gets around almost 60 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, with South Australia which has the highest level of wind and solar in Australia. The cost of electricity in South Australia is more than three times higher than in Ontario.

In the NSW election in March, Kean suffered a 12 per cent swing against him in the primary vote and the government lost office so he didn’t have to face the embarrassment of negotiating with Origin to keep the Eraring power station open. It was originally slated to close in 2032 but last year its retirement was bought forward to 2025 because it was deemed unprofitable.

An independent report commissioned by the new NSW Labor government recommended the state keep Eraring open with the establishment of a mechanism to manage the orderly retirement of fossil fuel generators. That sounds like the establishment of a capacity market. Last year AEMO, which was managing the auctioning of Kean’s renewable energy contracts, warned that NSW would experience shortfalls in electricity if Eraring was retired in 2025.

Kean said in December 2020 that building new coal-fired plants was like going back to Blockbuster video after getting Netflix. That hasn’t worried China. Chinese imports of coal from Australia surged to their highest levels in three years in July after bans imposed in 2020 were lifted on 18 May. It approved the construction of an additional 106 gigawatts of coal-fired power in 2022, four times higher than in 2021.

Unlike in Australia, these projects are being built in a matter of months. For the foreseeable future, it seems we are all Coalkeepers now. ?


Vacant land shame: 100k blocks sit idle as housing crisis deepens

Almost 100,000 blocks of land are sitting idle across Queensland – including 879 owned by the government for social housing – as the state sinks further into its housing crisis.

Data held by Queensland Treasury reveals that of the 97,845 blocks waiting to be built on, 59,750 of those are in South East Queensland.

And new figures show that while the average wait time for social housing is 19 months some of the 879 owned by the Department of Housing have been vacant for more than a decade.

Shockingly, two blocks in Mt Gravatt East have been left barren since back in 2013 when fire destroyed the homes.

Opposition spokesman for housing Tim Mander said Queenslanders living in tents and cars, without a roof over their head would find it inconceivable the Palaszczuk Government has done nothing with the idle land.

“As the Queensland Housing Crisis deepens, the Palaszczuk Government has been sitting on 879 vacant blocks,” he said.

But the Housing Minister Meaghan Scanlon defended the hundreds of empty blocks saying “More than 57 per cent of that land is now programmed for construction”.

“There are a number of historic parcels owned by the department, in many cases for decades, that are simply unsuitable because they’re flood-prone, are contaminated or been impacted by historic mining,” she said.

Single father Greg Fellows said there wasn’t enough being done to give incentives to private investors to create housing for average Australians.

Mr Fellows has moved multiple times in the past few years while trying to budget and looking after three boys.

“It’s a challenge not only to locate something but to qualify for something,” he said. “As a single parent with a single income, it’s hard to be favourable to get a property. “That’s why I’ve had to pay three months rent to secure a property.

Mr Fellows said his last rent increase was $50 in April this year, which was a year after he had already moved from another place which increased their rent more than $60.

Mr Fellows also works as a program coordinator for youth service programs and says he sees the struggles for youth up to 25.

“It’s very difficult for them to get a start. They simply do not get enough money to pay their high rent,” he said.

Deputy Premier Steven Miles said his government would be “working closely” with council and industry in coming months to see more homes built.

“Market conditions are also a key factor in vacant lots with the residential construction industry in Queensland facing significant challenges due to supply chain disruptions and shortages and lack of suitably qualified labour,” he said.

Urban Development Institute of Australia Queensland chief executive Kirsty Chessher-Brown said there had “always been an excess of approvals over delivery”.

“There are many reasons why some dwellings don’t get completed, or built,” she said. “This has been exacerbated by the current difficulties in the property development and construction industry.

“A recent survey undertaken by the institute found that the top five reasons that were currently hindering or preventing project delivery were: increased construction costs, insufficient or unavailable contractors or consultants to undertake the work, delays in approvals, skills shortages, and market uncertainty.”

The large swathes of land left undeveloped in South East Queensland has sparked three major councils to lash the State Government over its inadequate funding of vital infrastructure to better support current and future large-scale housing developments.

Ipswich Mayor Teresa Harding said developers were pushing for certainty around the location and timing of public transport links so they could bring forward affordable housing.

Ms Harding said her city’s population was expected to more than double in the coming decades.

“The critical factor for Ipswich to reach these growth targets and support affordable housing coming to market is certainty and access around the delivery of public transport to support this growth,” she said.

“Housing is not affordable if a family needs to own and maintain two cars in order to get to work, school and services, and this is why public transport connections for growing areas are so important.”

Redland City Council Mayor Karen Williams said she believed some developers were “land banking” in but supply chain issues and the huge increases in building costs were also factors in the large number of vacant blocks.

Ms Williams said her region had not been given enough infrastructure, such as public transport or road upgrades, to sustain the growth it has already experienced, let alone to make way for the extra 50,000 people projected under the recently released Southeast Queensland Regional Plan.

Ms Williams called for more transparency around how the government planned to support the projected population growth

“Really, the State Government hasn’t planned anything in regards to policing, to education, to connectivity to public transport to go with the plan and if they if they were local government, we would be requiring them to say every time someone builds a house, you need to tell us how you’re going to support that particular dwelling with the infrastructure required to maintain a sustainable lifestyle,” she said.


Schools force Anglican backdown on statement opposing same-sex marriage

Principals at Sydney’s Anglican schools will no longer be forced to sign a document affirming they believe marriage should only be between a man and a woman under a new proposal by the church that is set to abolish the controversial requirement.

In a draft policy statement, the Anglican Diocese of Sydney says incoming school heads must instead show they are of Christian faith and character, be actively involved in a Bible-based church and sign “a personal commitment to organisational faithfulness”.

The plan to scrap the clause opposing gay marriage – which was inserted into a general statement of faith in 2019 – comes after the matter sparked an outpouring of anger and frustration among Anglican school leaders and provoked intense backlash from parents.

The review of the rule forms part of a major governance overhaul of all Sydney Anglican diocese-run organisations, including more than 30 schools across the state.

In a report to be presented at its Synod next month, the diocese says the marriage clause has become a lightning rod for concerns about how the church imposes rules on schools.

“Feedback has focused on the relational difficulties it has created in school contexts ... with communities and alumni who are deeply influenced by a modern culture hostile to traditional Christian beliefs and practices,” the report says.

“This may create a barrier for the recruitment of governors and leaders, who, while personally agreeing with the statement, may face sanctions from their employer or be prevented from taking up these voluntary roles.”

The conservative Sydney diocese oversees a number of high-fee Sydney schools, including Shore, King’s, Barker College, Abbotsleigh, Trinity Grammar and St Catherine’s. Their councils are made up of volunteers, and are dominated by representatives of the diocese.

The extra clause, which surprised principals and councils when it was added by the Sydney diocese in 2019, said: “faith produces obedience in accordance with God’s word, including sexual faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman, and abstinence in all other circumstances”. New school heads and board members were forced to sign the statement as a condition of their employment.

Last year, parents at Australia’s oldest private girls’ school, St Catherine’s, lobbied its council to scrap the rule after it was revealed that its next principal could only accept the job if they agreed to the terms. Former Abbotsleigh head Judith Poole was brought out of retirement to serve as interim principal at the $40,000-a-year school until the end of 2024.

A similar backlash followed at Illawarra Grammar, where frustrated parents took the matter to its school council to raise their concerns the edict fails to “align with the values of mainstream Australia”. Parents at both schools say the communities were not consulted on the statement.

This month, Illawarra Grammar appointed a new principal, Julie Greenhalgh, who had recently retired after 16 years as head of inner west private girls’ school Meriden. In a letter to parents, the school said Greenhalgh was originally a member of the selection panel for the role but stepped down from the panel so that she could apply for the head position.

The school had previously told parents that more than 220 “educational leaders” had expressed interest in the principal role.

A spokesman for the Sydney diocese said while it had received feedback on the clause, it had “already been discussing ways in which the policy could be improved”.

“The review of the governance policy is ongoing. A school’s executive leadership will need to be Christian in faith and character, following the teachings of Jesus and beliefs and tenets of the diocese, but the commitment they make will be a commitment to organisational faithfulness,” he said.

School board members appointed by the diocese, and new principals, must be of “Christian faith and character” and “attend regularly and be actively involved in a Bible-based Christian church”.




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