Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Australia's crooked Left

There is little doubt that an epidemic of amazing corruption allegations and criminal charges against state ALP MPs has damaged the "Labor brand". Equally there is little doubt that John Howard expected a political hit on interest rates in the public polling. To Kim Beazley's consternation, the first has cancelled the second. After spending precious reserves on an "attack" political campaign of television advertisements and billboards over Howard's interest rate promises, Labor has come up a loser.

In NSW on the night of the official interest rate rise - the fourth since the 2004 election - and the morning after, the media, correctly, concentrated on the serious sexual abuse and drugs allegations made against Labor's Aboriginal affairs minister, Milton Orkopoulos.

In Western Australia and Queensland, former ministers are facing investigation and charges from crime commissions, and in Tasmania a former deputy premier is facing conspiracy charges.

That such events are occurring at the same time turns them into a national reflection on the ALP. Normally, voters are careful to separate federal and state issues at election time, but with such a storm of publicity it is inevitable that Labor at all levels will suffer. For Beazley's federal Labor, it has meant their silver bullet of interest rates has been deflected. Federal Labor is back in the fatal zone below 40 per cent of the primary vote in Newspoll and Beazley is still trailing Howard by more than 25 percentage points.

But for all the validity of pointing the finger at state Labor, the federal MPs should not hide from some ugly truths emerging. Federal Labor's support is soft: at the first sense of trouble it collapses. Negative campaigns on Iraq, industrial relations and interest rates can be easily derailed. And there is the possibility that Labor's support is bleeding from both ends of the climate change debate: the dark greens are going back to the Greens and the coal workers are just going elsewhere. Labor can't win on these numbers. And it can't win if it thinks it's all the states' fault.


The strange priorities of government social workers again

They only take kids away from responsible, loving parents. It doesn't give them a rush of power to take kids off trash parents

A teenager was returned to a foster family even though care officials knew the adolescent had been repeatedly sexually abused by a family member, a scathing report into Tasmanian foster care has found. The case was one of seven of alleged abuse of children in foster or "out of home" care studied by Tasmania's outgoing Commissioner for Children.

In his report, released yesterday, David Fanning said the foster system had failed children and that abuse was likely to be occurring still. He recommended a review, particularly of foster parent selection and placement monitoring, as well as improvements to support for foster children and carers. "There probably can be no greater failure of a system that seeks to protect children than actually (placing) a child in ... circumstances where they are further abused," he said. The system had failed children. "And ... I can't guarantee they're not failing children currently or won't fail them in the future," he said. The failings were so serious that a further audit of the files was pointless. Instead, he called for immediate reform and increased funding. "In all likelihood, any audit would reveal instances of abuse," he said.

In the worst case, Department of Health and Human Services workers returned an adolescent to a family in which it was known the child had been abused. The placement was supported by DHHS "even though there were ongoing concerns noted onfile by several workers that the adolescent child was at risk of sexual abuse by another family member, also residing in the same home". "There were several notifications that the child was indeed being sexually abused by the family member over a long period of time," Dr Fanning's report found. "The DHHS response to this abuse was to interview all parties, including the child and the alleged perpetrator and to accept assurances, including the child's, that sexual abuse was not occurring in the home. "It was later disclosed by the parties that there had been an ongoing sexual relationship between the child and the family member and therefore the child had not been protected in the placement."

Dr Fanning's report, carried out at the recommendation of an earlier damning ombudsman's investigation into abuse of state wards, is the fifth released in recent days pointing to a fundamental failure of child protection in Tasmania. Health and Human Services Minister Lara Giddings conceded last week that the system had failed and announced the appointment of an interim replacement for Mr Fanning. But that replacement, former welfare department head Dennis Daniels, withdrew on Friday after a victim of physical abuse made allegations relating to Mr Daniels's time as a staff member in a boys home in the 1960s.


Dinky-di lingo adds culcher

G'DAY. Keep your trackies on, chuck a sickie and jump in the ute, you bogan. If you tried to cram Australia's favourite five Aussie words into one brief exchange, that is how it might sound, according to a new survey. The results have prompted computer software company Microsoft to get fair dinkum about Australian colloquialisms by including some in its 2007 version of Microsoft Office. "Fair dinkum" is not actually one of them, but dinky-di and ridgy-didge make it. Both made the cut of the top 20 words considered most relevant to everyday Aussies in an online poll that drew more than 24,000 voters.

"G'day" came out on top with 2868 votes, followed by sickie (2152), ute (1912), trackies (1597) and bogan (1557). The winning words will no longer appear with a red squiggly line under them, indicating a spelling error, when typed using the world's most widely used software. "Although many Australian words and spellings are already included in Microsoft Office, we saw the upcoming release as the ideal opportunity to make sure the Aussie classics weren't forgotten," Microsoft Australia spokesman Tony Wilkinson said. "We knew that some quintessential Aussie vernacular was missing."

David Blair, a founding member of the Macquarie Dictionary editorial committee, said it was exciting to see Microsoft support Australian culture. Older Australians will be pleased that "bonza" has made the cut.



Governments in Australia seem unable to wean themselves from a bad habit of over-regulation, writes Elisabeth Wynhausen

The Victorian government once decided to do something about the safety of food sold at stalls on public land, such as the cake stalls at community fetes and church bazaars. The government declared that the food sold at these stalls should meet the same standards as restaurants. That meant the elderly parishioners raising money for churches could sell their cakes only if their kitchens at home had been certified by the health department. The result is that cake stalls have disappeared, says Steven Munchenberg, deputy chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, who tells the story to show that regulation may well achieve the opposite of the intended effect. Communities were providing a social good. But governments have become so risk-averse, he says, they regulated the cake stall right out of existence, in Victoria at least.

The Making the Boom Pay conference held in Melbourne last week, co-sponsored by The Australian, was told that preliminary analysis by the Productivity Commission suggested compliance with needless regulations could cost the nation as much as $7 billion a year. "There are three reasons why we see regulation getting out of hand," Munchenberg says. "One is risk aversion. If there is a worry something could go wrong, politicians feel they have to be seen to act decisively, and regulation is a good way to do that. "The second reason is that it's just too easy for governments to regulate. They can spend money on a problem or they can regulate. The third is that regulation is self-perpetuating. If an existing regulation doesn't do exactly what was intended, they add a regulation," he says. "They're always tinkering."

When John Howard was elected in 1996 he vowed to cut red tape by 50 per cent in his first three years in office. Instead, as shadow treasurer Wayne Swan likes to point out, the regulation taskforce the Government later set up found that from 2000 to 2003, parliament passed as many pages of legislation as were passed from 1901 to 1969. And that's just the commonwealth. In his speech at the conference, Productivity Commission chairman Gary Banks said it was clear to the regulation taskforce, which he chaired, that with as many as 1300 regulatory bodies Australia-wide (including more than 700 local councils), their turf wars, parochialism and bureaucratic self-interest all conflicted with the official intention of easing the burden of regulation.

The federal Government regularly declares itself bent on deregulating, only to end up reregulating. Take universities. The Government insists it is intent on giving universities the independence they need to manage their own affairs and compete for students and research funds. But rather than leaving it up to the market, it also insists on directing universities to suit its economic objectives and its idea of what they should be teaching. When Defence Minister Brendan Nelson took up his previous post as education minister, "of course he had a review," says Caroline Allport, president of the National Tertiary Education Union. "It was during this review that Brendan started saying, 'I don't think we should have this course', or 'I don't think we should have that course."'

It often seems as if governments want to deregulate but can't let themselves. The classic example is Telstra. They desperately want to sell it but they can't bear the thought of losing control. "There are a number of forces at work," says John Buchanan of the Workplace Research Centre at the University of Sydney. In Australia, which started as a modern society, "there's a deep faith, almost an optimism, about the capacity of the state to shape social relations", Buchanan says.

One reason for the resulting mania for regulation is that the government seems to think it can micro-manage human behaviour, says Ron McCallum, dean of the University of Sydney law school, locating many signs of this misplaced zeal in the Work Choices legislation. The avowed intention of the Howard Government's most recent reform of industrial relations was to deregulate the labour market. In reality, the Government got rid of the old laws only to superimpose a layer of new regulations so complex that it involves 1500 pages. The new laws andregulations tightly regulate the operations of individual employment contracts and severely limit the legal activities of unions. The Government claims to be producing a system free of "interfering third parties" but interpolates itself everywhere in the process. The micro-management has reached the stage where Kevin Andrews, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, gets weekly reports on all agreements made, and all industrial action contemplated by unions.

But it doesn't stop there. After spending 12 tortuous months and a fortune in legal fees renegotiating agreements to make sure they complied with the Work Choices laws and building codes, the Electrical Trades Union and the Electrical Contractors Association were ready to sign on the dotted line with the department last week. The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations had advised them in writing that everything was fine. "Then, after all the deals were done and approved by his own department, the minister changed the national building code of practice," says Dean Mighell, the Victorian secretary of the union. Andrews's last-minute intervention means that all agreements that would have flowed from that agreement do not comply with the code. Mighell says: "The minister is saying, 'You did it fair and square but ... I'm changing the rules again."'


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