Thursday, February 22, 2007

Foreign minister says Blair's Iraq decision makes good sense

The Federal Government has played down a decision by the British Prime Minister Tony Blair to start withdrawing his country's troops from Iraq. Word that one of America's closest allies is going to start pulling out of Iraq comes as President George W Bush faces heavy opposition to his plan to send more US troops in. The White House has confirmed Mr Blair has phoned the President to tell him about the move but there is no confirmation of the details. British media say that as many as 1,500 UK soldiers could be home as early as March and that 3,500 will be home by Christmas.

The move comes just days after the Prime Minister John Howard announced plans to send up to 70 military trainers to Iraq, to help Iraqi forces. Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says the British move is a troop reduction, not a withdrawal. As he went into a federal Cabinet meeting in Perth, Mr Downer said while Britain is reducing is troop numbers, it will also leave several thousand troops in Iraq. "It makes good sense, what we are all trying to do is increasingly transfer responsibility for security to the Iraqi security forces," he said. Mr Howard would not discuss the British decision on his way into Cabinet.

Mr Blair will detail the withdrawal in the House of Commons later this evening, Australian time. There has been no official statement yet but on Sunday he said an operation to hand over control to Iraqi forces in the south had been completed successfully.

The White House says the US president, George W. Bush, spoke to Mr Blair today and he welcomes the improved situation in the south of Iraq. Reports suggest the timetable could change if the security situation there deteriorates. The White House says the British withdrawal is a sign of the increasing stabilisation in Iraq.


Big squeals about performance pay for teachers

The Federal Opposition says the only way to ensure the quality of teachers in public schools is to work cooperatively with the states. Education Minister Julie Bishop wants to introduce performance pay for teachers and says it could be determined by exam results or feedback from principals, parents and students. If the states do not submit to the plan in the next education funding agreement, the Minister says the Commonwealth could withhold some state funding.

But Labor's education spokesman Steven Smith says that is not the right approach. "Yes, the quality of the teacher in the classroom is absolutely essential, yes we want to reward quality teaching, but doing it simply on the basis of the outcomes of standardised tests, doing it on the basis of cheap political points is not the way to proceed," he said.

The Queensland Teachers Union says the Federal Government wants to take control of the portfolio from the states. Union state president Steve Ryan says members are looking at a loss of conditions if Ms Bishop gets her way. "There are two issues here one is the proposal itself regards performance-based pay and the loopy ideas the Minister has put out in today's press, and the second issue is of course how the Commonwealth treats the states," he said. "All teachers in the state system across Australia are employed by state governments and it's curious to see the federal minister trying to interfere in that process."


Economic growth picking up speed

Economic growth is likely to pick up in the months ahead as the Australian share market and money supply surges alongside a strong world economy. The annualised growth rate of the Westpac-Melbourne Institute leading index of economic activity, which indicates the likely pace of economic activity three to nine months into the future, rose to 6.1 per cent in December. The result was well above the long-term trend of four per cent and took the index to a seven-year high. The level of the leading index rose by 1.4 points, or 0.6 per cent, in December.

Westpac chief economist Bill Evans said the result was the fastest annualised growth rate of the index since February 2000. "It continues to point to a solid pickup in economic growth in 2007," he said. Meanwhile, the annualised growth rate of the coincident index, which measures current economic activity, was 4.1 per cent, above its long-term trend of 3.3 per cent. "Westpac expects economic growth to pick up from around two per cent through 2006 to around three per cent through 2007," Mr Evans said. "The leading index is telling us that even that growth profile may prove to be conservative, against the backdrop of above par world growth for the fifth consecutive year. "Of course the index is not capturing much of the impact of the November rate hike."

Mr Evans said the index results supported the Reserve Bank of Australia's (RBA) decision to raise interest rates three times last year, with the latest move in November pushing rates up to 6.25 per cent. "It is telling us that without that policy response, Australia's growth recovery would be strong, probably putting renewed pressure on inflation which, although easing most recently, remains at the top of the Reserve Bank's comfort zone," he said. However, he said the RBA would be unlikely to raise interest rates this year, but risks pointed to a rise in 2008.

Three of the four monthly components of the index rose, including a 3.4 per cent rise in the share market, 0.8 per cent growth in real money supply, and a 0.4 per rise in US industrial production. However, dwelling approvals declined by 1.9 per cent. "All components of the index, except dwelling approvals, are contributing to the annual growth rate, with the money supply, overtime worked, US industrial production and productivity providing the largest contributions," Mr Evans said.

The level of the coincident index rose by 0.7 points, or 0.3 per cent, in December. The index showed that employment jumped 0.4 per cent in the month, while real retail sales were virtually steady, as was the unemployment rate at just 4.6 per cent. "Employment has been the largest contributor to the above trend growth in the coincident index," Mr Evans said.



Report from a black activist, Noel Pearson

On a recent Friday night I walked out on to the lawn of my mother's house in my home town. It was after 2am and though my family lives a kilometre away, I could hear loud music booming from several stereos in various parts of what I would have called a village in my youth, but which more accurately answers to the description of an outback ghetto today. The music emanated from houses known as party houses, where numbers of men and women congregate to binge drink, share marijuana, often out of what are called bucket bongs, laughing, shouting, singing and dancing and seeking sexual partners - consensual and otherwise.

By midnight the bonhomie of the early evening descends into tension, as various bingers develop dark moods, vent anger, resentment and suspicions at those to whom they earlier professed love. Arguments and fights ensue, over the smallest slights and often over ownership of and access to the dwindling supplies of alcohol.

While parties rage at a number of notorious locations throughout the town, with erstwhile hosts boosting their stereos with specially bought amplifiers, often placed at windows facing outwards as if for the benefit of the rest of the inmates of this sad place, it is hard to maintain the fiction that this place is a community. It is a hellhole where whirring fans and airconditioners in the concrete block houses drown out the noise, including the screams.

This Friday night was the third night in a row of parties, beginning on Wednesday evening following the receipt of Family Tax Benefit payments, which continued at a lower gear over the next day and got back into top gear on Thursday night following the receipt of CDEP work-for-the-dole payments. The number of people missing from work has led almost every community to declare Fridays as the unofficial start of the weekend. School attendance collapses from already low levels earlier in the week. This has led to many proposals over the years from educators to reduce school days in Cape York Peninsula schools to four days, as if that would be a solution.

As I drove around the streets at 3am, I passed by drunks stumbling from one party house to another. I passed groups of young teenage girls walking around or sitting on the kerbside. For too many of them, sexual activity begins young at Hope Vale, very young. Who knows the circumstances of their first experience, but the incidences of abuse that come to light are only the tip of the iceberg of sexual assault, unlawful intercourse with minors, and incest. That older men should be able to have sexual relations with the young girls I pass in the street in exchange for alcohol, marijuana or esteem, is water off the moral backs of our people. Young men may jump through windows to rendezvous with their paramours, but it is as likely they do so to interfere with women and children.

My home town looks and feels like a ghetto. The mango trees, frangipanis and old wooden church still evoke the mission of my early youth, but the fibro and weatherboard cottages built by the hands of our own local carpenters have been replaced by welfare housing, increasingly built by outside contractors. The uniform rows of kit homes and Besser Block houses are of course much more expensive and have better amenities (at least at first, because they do not last for long), but they look squalid. The once lovingly tended gardens with topiary, gardenias and fruit trees are scarce today, and the plastic bags, VB cans, old motor cars and general rubbish spill out of the homes and on to the streets.

With the eyes of someone who returns to his home town for holidays and occasional weekends, I marvel that the people who live here do not see the shit in front of their eyes. Despite vastly improved levels of funding and infrastructure the place is a mess compared with the village of my childhood. I drove past the place where my parents brought up our family in a small fibro cottage with no hot water and a pit toilet out the back. We got electricity when I was in Year 4 but I did not see television until I went to college. Now they have Austar and adults carelessly expose children and young people to their pornographic videos and DVDs.

Earlier in the afternoon at the roundabout I saw the shocking sight of a beautiful puppy that had been run over by a vehicle, in a pool of blood on the bitumen. As we say in the language of this place, Ngathu wawu baathi, my soul cried for this lost life. In my nocturnal drive I passed the puppy in the same place. The binge drinking will continue to daybreak, and on through Saturday. Bingers pass out and catch some sleep, before waking again to resume the fray.

The parties change gear during the course of the four days as participants come and go, supplies run out and fresh supplies are brought in from Cooktown. The beauty of electronic banking is that welfare and CDEP income is dropped into keycard accounts automatically, and Centrelink will assist recipients to stage the time at which payments are made to members of a household. So Jimmy can get his on Wednesday and Sally can get hers on Friday. There is money for drinking and drugs over a longer stretch of the week. Centrelink's intention of course with flexible payment plans is to assist people to manage their income to purchase food and pay their bills, but the reality is that it makes more money available for binge drinking over a longer period of time.

As I drive down to the beach early on Saturday morning I see the young children emerging out of the houses, as if from a war zone. Yes, there are children and young girls in the homes of the hosts of the binge drinking parties. How they fare through these weekly episodes depends on whether their often inebriated parent is nevertheless able to keep an eye on their welfare, because the chance that molesters are among the party people is very high. Older children may run off and stay with sober relatives, particularly grandparents, but what happens to the ones left behind? Some of the young people sitting on the kerbside at 3am are simply scared to go back home.

On Sunday things will be quiet. "They run out of grog," people explain to me. The town will be mostly quiet for the next two, and if you are lucky, three days. The bureaucrats from Peter Beattie's Government will do their business with the people and organisations of Hope Vale in the sane part of the week. Certainly the communities of Cape York Peninsula during the quiet days can give the impression of being pleasant if untidy "communities". You can excuse the rubbish and the ubiquitous high barbed wire fences and iron cages that have to be constructed around almost every public facility, because after all this is an Aboriginal community.

But the public servants and politicians only visit for the day and never sleep in the town. They never have anything other than the official conversations down in the administration offices, so they too easily have the view that "this place is not too bad", "we just need to co-ordinate the programs" and "we have a demand reduction plan" for the alcohol problem. The underbelly of these so-called communities is not intriguing like a David Lynch movie, it is Hobbesian.

Meanwhile in public policy land three relevant events take place. First, journalist Margaret Wenham reported in The Courier-Mail on February 8 as follows: "Hundreds of impoverished indigenous people in remote communities have been hit with fines totalling nearly $600,000 for breaking Queensland's controversial alcohol management laws. Figures, released this week by the Justice Department, also show that seven people have been jailed and six vehicles confiscated since December 2002 when AMPs were phased into the state's 19 discrete indigenous communities. Reports of the penalty tally were greeted with dismay by Aboriginal leaders who said most people could not pay the fines and the AMPs were not working to curb violence."

The problem with Wenham's argument and that of any Aboriginal leader to whom she refers, is that if you divide $600,000 worth of fines between 19 communities over 3 1/2 years, the average fine for each community is about $9000 per annum, or less than $200 per week. The liquor licensing authorities in Queensland do not release liquor sales figures from each community, and no one tracks alcohol purchases from outside of the communities, but if you make a rough estimate of alcohol expenditure per week I would say an average of $10,000 per week would be extremely conservative. So if an average community spends $520,000 on alcohol, how can you say that $9000 worth of fines is causing or even compounding impoverishment? Is it not the spending on alcohol that is causing poverty?

Second, on Monday this week the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University released a study which showed that in the period from 2000 to 2004, an estimated 1145 indigenous Australians died from injury, disease or suicide caused by drinking. The study found that many indigenous people died very young from diseases that do not exist among young non-indigenous people. A third of the deaths investigated were female. The second biggest alcohol-related killer of indigenous women was haemorrhagic stroke, and the average age of the deceased was only 25 years. Among non-indigenous people, stroke is a disease of the elderly. The worst alcohol-related killer of indigenous people, alcohol liver cirrhosis, on average shortens indigenous sufferers' lives to 54 years. The other major causes of death - suicide, road traffic injury, assault injury, stroke - mainly kill indigenous people in their 20s and 30s.

Third, Premier Peter Beattie met the mayors of Queensland's indigenous shire councils to discuss the problems besetting indigenous communities. The Premier emerged saying his Government would be making various investments in the communities and he expected the community leaders to take greater responsibility for alcohol.

One problem with the Premier's hopes is that these councils are still the owners and operators of the canteens which sell alcohol to their people. The councils are as addicted to the profits from the canteens as the Queensland Government is to gambling revenues. Tony Fitzgerald recommended in his Justice Study report to Beattie in 2002 that the nexus between alcohol profits and councils be broken, but the nexus remains. Typically it is the justice groups that want to maintain AMPs while shire councils want them to be watered down. In fact the Government is considering proposals from councils to allow weekend trading and takeaways, against the opposition of local justice groups.

Beattie's minister responsible for the issue, Warren Pitt, has already weakened restrictions in some communities. Beattie and Pitt need to spend an anonymous night or two in at least one, preferably a couple, of these communities. They need to be in the town on the binge-drinking nights, and they need to take a quiet drive or walk around the town and hear and see the nightmare that the sober people and children have to endure.

Last year Hope Vale's Mayor Greg Mclean invited a delegation of children from the local primary school to present their views to a large roundtable of assembled bureaucrats and community leaders. In plain English the children pleaded to these black and white adults that they wanted the drinking and violence in their community to stop. As I drove through my home town on the Sunday evening on my way back to Cairns, I saw the dead puppy still in the street. I thought about the distance between being inured to the fate of a puppy that didn't see the car coming, and being inured to the fate of our own children.


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