Sunday, December 03, 2006

Government "Child Welfare" system leaving young children to die

One hundred and seventeen children, most of them too young to speak or even crawl away from the horrors of their miserable lives, died last year because our society had more important priorities. All but eight of these children of drug addicted, alcoholic, violent or just plain neglectful parents had been reported to the Department of Community Services by people who cared about them. But in a scathing review, the NSW Ombudsman this week found that these children were left to die by a system where reports of abuse were either never followed up or neglected. Here are just a few examples that make you despair about just what sort of society we have now become:

A SEVEN-month-old baby died in suspicious circumstances because she was left in the care of a drug-abusing mother who ignored a DOCS agreement to stop using drugs and take the child to paediatric appointments;

AN 18 month old died because DOCS took six days to respond to an urgent request to intervene because the parents were refusing to take the sick baby to hospital;

THREE children died from methadone poisoning; and

A NINE year old was skipping school to care for a younger sibling when their mother was drunk and drugged. The younger sibling died.

These children were left in the care of their mother even though DOCS histories showed the mother was mentally ill, attempted suicide and overdosed several times. Half the children who died had parents who were drug and alcohol abusers. Most of the children were under five when they died and two thirds of them were babies not even one year of age. They are stories so horrible and tragic it makes it hard to believe they could occur in a country like Australia. They are stories that underline the failure of a welfare system so obsessed with not repeating the mistakes of the stolen generation [i.e. Most of the kids were black] that it is prepared to let children die rather than remove them from clearly unsuitable parents.

And it shows how the Federal Government's bold new policy to quarantine up to 40 per cent of the welfare payments of drug, alcohol and gambling addicted parents so they can be spent on food and clothing for their children attacks the problem from the wrong end. In many cases these children should never have been left in the care of these parents in the first place.

Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia chief Donna Bull says drug users driven by their addition will not spend welfare vouchers on food and clothes for their kids but will trade them with their drug dealers for drugs. And if they can't do this their drug addiction won't disappear simply because the money dries up, they'll just turn to crimes such as bag snatching, shoplifting and burglary.

While taxpayers are understandably keen to see the $28 billion they contribute to family payments every year is actually spent on children and not drugs, alcohol or gambling, Brough's policy won't deliver the results they want. What's right about the Brough approach is its demand that parents exercise some sense of responsibility in return for their money.

Its true many of these parents are themselves victims of appalling childhoods, but until we demand that they shape up instead of indulging them as victims we'll never break this vicious cycle. Good welfare policy is like good parenting. There needs to be clear boundaries on what is acceptable behaviour and if the rules are breached there must be clear, consistent and sensible consequences. If parents can't quit drugs, alcohol and violent behaviour towards their kids then the children must be removed from their care for their own safety. The NSW Government's new parent responsibility contracts go some way to enforcing such a policy but they are not enough on their own.

The Ombudsman's report shows a lack of staff and resources in DOCS is one of the main reasons many child abuse cases aren't investigated. He says poor judgment by the DOCs officers who get around to investigating these cases means often nothing sensible is done to protect the children. Even when these cases are followed up there's not enough public housing or health and welfare workers to provide the care these kids need.

Donna Bull says the lack of resources doesn't stop there. Even when these drug addicted parents want to turn their lives around, one third of them can't because of a chronic lack of places in drug rehabilitation programs. Forcing parents to spend welfare vouchers on food and clothes won't save these children - they need something much more important than money - they need someone to love them and care for them.


The Australian aristocracy is IQ based

Australia has a new upper class based largely on IQ. It comprises a larger proportion of all people than the old upper class but its members have many similarities with that class, in both their lifestyle and their separation from the rest of the country. The reason for the rise of these "aristos", as I'll call them for want of a better word, has been the development of an economy where IQ is more directly rewarded with high income than ever before. These days you simply won't get into a big firm of accountants or lawyers, or a merchant bank, or the upper reaches of any successful corporation, unless you're smart, as measured by the education system. Family background matters less to advancement than ever before. We live in a meritocracy, a word coined by the British author Michael Young in his satirical 1958 novel The Rise of the Meritocracy.

The wealth of the aristos has been well-documented and is reflected in statistics showing the growing inequality of income in Australia. Less noted is the lifestyle the aristos have been able to adopt with all that money. Many of the following traits are shared by lots of other Australians, but the aristos possess them to a far, far greater extent. The crucial element in the aristo lifestyle is the outsourcing of domestic chores. The new aristos have lots of servants, they just don't employ them directly. They outsource a great deal of the care of their children, their houses and gardens, and their cooking (by eating out a lot). The aristos' lives depend on an army of low-paid child-care workers, dishwashers, cleaners, gardeners, car valets, security guards and drycleaners. Not to mention caterers, tutors, fitness coaches, life coaches, dressmakers, children's entertainers, psychologists and financial advisers.

One of the biggest social changes in my lifetime has been the rise of a group of people (I'd guess up to 5 per cent of the total) whose lives depend on servants in a way that was unimaginable a generation ago. I recall older people telling me in the early 1980s that cafes would never become popular. They couldn't see why people would want to just sit around and drink expensive coffee, and in any case, they believed Australians would feel uncomfortable being waited upon by their fellow citizens. In retrospect, these people were living in an egalitarian Dreamtime that has pretty much passed - although most of us don't like to admit it. Few wealthy people bemoaning child-care difficulties like the suggestion that this is a modern equivalent of the Victorian middle class's "servant problem".

The parallel universe for the wealthy is most obvious in the expansion of private health care and education. Leisure is also important. Thirty years ago, most Australians spent their time off doing the same sorts of things, and where it involved public space or travel, the classes tended to mix. Now the rich live separate lives. That old British feature, possession of a place in the country, is common among the new rich, as is the local variant, a place on the coast.

The aristos are keen on expensive trips abroad, and considerable ingenuity has gone into ensuring they need not mix with ordinary Australians on these occasions. Educated people's disdain for the package tour has been overcome by the development of cultural travel tours, of no appeal to the masses. It's a neat way of social organisation. Well-educated Australians today have more in common with well-educated people from other countries than with other Australians. Was it ever thus? On the whole, no.

We might be acquiring a new upper class not just of money, as in the old days, but of genes. Wealthy men are not only more likely than before to be highly intelligent, they are more likely than before to choose a wife who is also smart, partly for financial reasons (she'll be good earner, too) and partly to give their children the best chance they can of being intelligent, too. So high IQ is being sucked into one small group.

Because IQ tends to revert to the mean (that is, most children of really smart parents will be less smart than their parents, although still above average), the new aristocracy will have to replenish its gene pool from time to time by marrying outsiders, just as the old aristocrats had to boost their money pool by marrying the occasional merchant's daughter. As a consequence, these days poor people with brains and energy are quickly assimilated into the establishment. Today, a young Ben Chifley would not have to leave school early and languish as an engine driver. As an emotionally stable youth of high intelligence, he would almost certainly finish school, study law at a good university and get a job as research officer with a union, or with Macquarie Bank.


No substitute for new dams

As any engineer will tell you, when it comes to water infrastructure, Sydney cannot avoid building a new dam indefinitely. Everything else - desalination, recycling, stormwater retention, rainwater tanks, reducing demand, water trading, ruining irrigators - is tinkering at the edges, buying time until the inevitability of a new dam sinks in, as a growing population outstrips supply. Yet for 30 years politicians of all stripes have been loath to utter the "D" word, for fear of antagonising the green vote.

Debnam [conservative leader] is no exception, refusing to mention dam building as part of any water strategy. Morrison confirmed yesterday that Debnam's shadow cabinet this week ruled out building a dam at Welcome Reef, the Shoalhaven River location identified by water planners of a previous generation. "It is definitely not on the Liberal agenda." By deleting Welcome Reef as an option, Debnam has endorsed a ploy of the former premier Bob Carr to lock up 6000 hectares of land that had been set aside for the dam by our more foresighted forebears. Rather than promising to reverse that shameful decision, Debnam has legitimised easily contested green propaganda which claims Welcome Reef is in a hopeless rain shadow and would destroy endangered species.

The Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie, has shown that advocating a new dam, or even two, does not have to be the electoral poison of conventional wisdom. This week he began to make good his election promise by selling the power retailer Energex to raise $300 million towards the cost of new dams.

Even the NSW Premier, Morris Iemma, bowed to the inevitable last month when he announced the first big dam in 20 years would be built at Tillegra, north of Dungog. Existing dams serving the rapidly growing Central Coast are down to a critical 15 per cent. Debnam's response was to dismiss the dam as a diversionary bluff.

At a national level, the Prime Minister, John Howard, and his water tsar, Malcolm Turnbull, have given the appearance of taking water management seriously, with a new Office of Water Resources and the $2 billion Water Fund to deliver infrastructure. But, again, policy appears to be heavily influenced by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, which was founded and funded by the green group WWF (formerly the World Wide Fund for Nature) and is opposed to dam building. While Turnbull has stressed "no option should be pre-censored", last month he released a discussion paper, Securing Australia's Urban Water Supplies, which effectively ruled out dams as an option.

The paper, prepared by the financial and economic consultancy Marsden Jacob Associates, cites the Wentworth Group as its authority, talking at length about why the construction of major dams is "unlikely in the future". It cites environmental damage and cost, claims the "best sites are taken" and says climate change makes dams less reliable. Meanwhile, dissenting voices in water management are being ignored.

Take Peter Millington, who was the director-general of the NSW Department of Water Resources from 1986 to 1995 and now works as a consultant on water management with the World Bank. While not billing himself as a dam fanatic, he says governments need to acknowledge that "probably" dams have to be part of the solution. "We don't want to stuff up the rivers but people want balance . Sooner or later we will have to build Welcome Reef Dam." Millington spends time in developing countries advising on long-term water planning and then despairs when he comes home "and we're doing nothing". He says there has been "no long-term rational water planning here for at least 15 years". The policy he sees is "Band-Aid, ad hoc stuff".

Then there are the Tamworth engineers and dam advocates Michael Firth and Colin Joyce, who managed to get a meeting with the Prime Minister earlier this year to present their ideas for vast projects across Australia, including more than 10 dams, pipelines, weirs, river diversions and recycled water schemes. Buoyed by what they saw as his enthusiastic response, they travelled around the country at their own expense surveying sites for water infrastructure projects - from the Welcome Reef Dam to an ambitious and probably impossibly controversial inland diversion of the Clarence River. The result is an 83-page document they hope will be taken seriously. They say private companies are keen to get involved in building the infrastructure. All it would take is someone in government to acknowledge dam building as part of the solution to Australia's water problems. "There is plenty of water," Joyce says. "We just need to catch the floodwaters and store them. No one has yet found a better way than a dam."

With an election looming, Debnam had a chance to be bold like Beattie, to show real leadership on the state's most pressing problem. But it seems he has squibbed it, and no amount of clever strategy from Morrison will hide that fact.


Australian education: An amusing but revealing rant from a Leftist

He points out that poor kids do particularly badly out of an Australian education but neglects to say why: Because the kids of poor parents go to Left-dominated and dumbed-down State schools. Any Australian with a cent to spare (40% of the population) sends his/her kids to a private High School -- where there is some survival of traditional standards

It is not that schools are turning out dumbos. On the contrary. Our students in general are high performers. Of children from 27 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), Australian 15-year-olds on average ranked second in literacy, sixth in mathematics and fourth in problem-solving in international tests in 2000 and 2003. No, the problem is the system lets down youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds. For all our pride in being egalitarian, our education system and the way it is organised and financed is unfair compared to many others.

Unpicking the test results reveals that who your parents are and how well off your family is counts for more in Australia than elsewhere. School systems in Canada, Ireland, Finland, Korea, Iceland, Sweden, Austria, Norway and Japan have managed to ameliorate the effects of class and social background much better than the Australian system. And they have done so without sacrificing high performance, says Professor Barry McGaw, a former director of education at the OECD, now at the University of Melbourne. While the average Australian student is almost as clever as the average Finn (who topped the literacy test), the Australian from a disadvantaged background is 1« years behind a Finn from similar poor background. (The US is an example of the worst of both worlds - poor-to-middling results on average and inequitable.)

So while our attention is diverted by the latest education furore - a Marxist interpretation of Shakespeare, or the paucity of dates to be memorised in history - the real problem has slipped under the radar. We spend too much money on the elite students who do well, and not enough to lift the disadvantaged who tend to drop out in alarming numbers.

While we were dotting the land with flagpoles, our year 12 retention rate was flagging. It is low by internationals standards, stuck at about 75 per cent for a decade, and falling in some states. Meanwhile, 17 comparable countries surpassed the 80 per cent retention rate years ago. One OECD measure shows our upper secondary school retention has slipped to 20th position while Canada, for example, directly comparable to us, is seventh.

As a result, Australia has a large underclass of alienated early school leavers who can't get full-time jobs. Our teenage unemployment rate is worse than the OECD average. In the midst of a boom we have more than half a million teenagers and young adults neither in education full-time nor working full-time. They are on the dole, or in part-time jobs in retail and hospitality. Employers don't want to hire them full-time, however pressing the skills shortage, because they lack adequate education and training.

The Brotherhood of St Laurence and Mission Australia have both drawn attention in recent reports to the huge economic and personal waste of this pool of alienated youth. As Richard Sweet, a former OECD analyst, has pointed out: "Australia seems to have the worst of both worlds: both a relatively high number of young people without an upper secondary qualification or better, and these young people being at a significant disadvantage in the labour market. The result is that Australia's penalty for not completing year 12 or its equivalent is one of the highest in the OECD."

School has to be interesting to keep more youngsters there [And there is nothing more boring than Greenie and politically correct preaching]. What is taught and how it is taught are crucial though I doubt more rote learning of historical dates will do the trick.

But money is crucial, too, and here, Australia does poorly. In 2003 Australia ranked 18th out of 30 OECD countries for education expenditure as a proportion of gross domestic product. It spent 5.8 per cent compared to 7.5 per cent in Korea and 7 per cent in New Zealand. Government expenditure is actually lower - the 5.8 per cent includes private expenditure, which is the third highest in the OECD. Low government expenditure and high private expenditure have delivered a mixed result - high-performing students at one end and a forgotten ill-educated and underemployed class at the other. We could do better if we directed more resources to those who need it. The nation's failure to spread education's bounty to all is a more serious lapse than a student's inability to explain why the Union Jack is on our national flag.


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