Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Herod to investigate deaths of first-born

If you don't understand the heading, read Matthew chap. 2 -- JR

A report on the flood disaster and climate change will be undertaken by an expert on the federal government's multi-party committee which is investigating ways to price carbon. Professor Will Steffen, a member of the climate change committee set up by the Gillard government in September last year, told AAP he was working on a report covering the floods.

This is the man who already believes that "climate change" made the floods worse. Just the man to do a nice, impartial report.


Sculptor Sergio Redegalli defies 'bullies' and refuses to take down anti-burka mural

A SYDNEY artist whose anti-burka mural has infuriated left-wing and Islamic activists is vowing that the provocative artwork will stay in place despite death threats, abuse, a string of vandalism attacks, a violent weekend protest and a police request to remove it.

Newtown glass sculptor Sergio Redegalli has this week restored the mural painted outside his studio for more than the 40th time after dozens of graffiti and paint-bomb attacks by protesters who say it is racist and inflammatory.

In the latest incident last Sunday, a crowd of 50 activists hurled paint at the mural and then turned on police who had to call in reinforcements to restore order.

Seven men were arrested and charged with offences including resisting police, assaulting police and destroying or damaging property.

The charges will be heard in Newtown Local Court next month. Redegalli blames local left-wing groups, rather than Muslim activists, for the incident.

The sculptor, who is a well-known figure in inner-suburban Newtown, says he has since been visited by local police who asked him to take down the mural after learning of a threat to fire-bomb it.

He refuses to do so in the interests of free speech and public debate. "I'm not going to let the bullies win," Redegalli told The Australian yesterday. "I'm not doing it for pride (but because) I don't believe bullies have the right to stand over people and deny us our freedoms."

Redegalli painted the mural and slogan "Say no to burqas" on an exterior wall of his glassworks last September, after a local fashion designer received death threats over a plan to feature models wearing the traditional Islamic garment in a fashion parade.

The artist says his objective is to promote debate about the Islamic face veil, which he sees as a symbol of repression and violent extremism.


Now we know what NSW Premier Keneally wanted to hide

TAXPAYERS could reap less than $1 billion from the power sale despite being promised an electricity sell-off worth $25 billion a decade ago.

In sensational evidence before the power sale inquiry yesterday, Treasury secretary Michael Schur revealed $1.2 billion of the $5.3 billion the Government claimed it would reap for the sale would go on debt alone to bail out two privatised power companies, Delta and Eraring.

He told the parliamentary inquiry, which Premier Kristina Keneally tried for weeks to shut down, that taxpayers would also be forced to spend $1.5 billion on a coal mine.

The Government will use the Cobbora mine near Dubbo in the state's Central West to supply cheap coal.

Another $600 million will be wiped from the state's coffers over the next four years in lost dividends and tax equivalents, Mr Schur told the inquiry. And the state's top Treasury official said taxpayers would also be liable to pay compensation to the private operators and hundreds of millions would be spent on project costs - wiping off another $300 million and leaving just $1.7 billion.

The Opposition Treasury spokesman Mike Baird claimed the Government could end up with as little as $400 million once all subsidies and costs were taken into account.

And there will be little relief from painful power bills. Professor Hugh Outhred of the University of NSW told the inquiry the sale would "at best put a minor downward pressure on prices."

Mr Shur had recommended a sell-off of the entire industry, not just the retailers, Energy Australia, Integral and Country Energy and the gentraders Eraring and Delta.

"The gentrader option is the next-best option available to the state for exactly the reason that we are having this discussion ... it does leave the state with residual risks," he told the inquiry.

Mr Schur said Treasury had envisaged Cobbora would be run by the private sector but he said their coal prices were too high. Without the Government agreeing to mine the coal more cheaply, the sale would have fallen short of the $5.3 billion it received.

"The high cost of coal would have a significant impact on the value," he said.

The mine would turn a profit and would eventually be sold, he said. Treasurer Eric Roozendaal's office was unable to say how much profit would be generated from the coal, which is of such inferior quality it can't be exported.

Mr Baird said it had become clear why eight Labor-aligned directors on the Eraring and Delta boards had walked out before the midnight sale, adding: "It is very clear ... that the deal is so bad that it is no wonder the directors resigned. We feared it was a charity give away but it is much, much worse."

Documents on the sale would be sought from Treasury. The Premier prorogued Parliament two months early and it was unclear if Treasury would be forced to supply documents. The inquiry will summons those directors who resigned to appear on Monday and call those still on boards of former state-owned power companies to appear on Friday.

Opposition Leader Barry O'Farrell and Mr Baird will give evidence on Monday.

Mr Roozendaal last night defended the sale, saying by retiring debt and escaping future costs of new power plants the state was better off.


Save or spill conflict for Wivenhoe Dam bosses

The dam expert who will help preside over the judicial inquiry into the southeast Queensland flood disaster has warned of a potential conflict of interest in the operator of Wivenhoe Dam's dual objectives of maintaining a water supply and releasing water in times of flood.

Phil Cummins told The Australian that the newly appointed commission would investigate whether SEQWater, operator of the dam, was compromised by its joint responsibility for water supply and flood mitigation.

Mr Cummins, one of the inquiry's two deputy commissioners who will assist judge Cate Holmes, said "every aspect" of the operation of the dam would be examined closely over the next couple of months. "I will keep an open mind about whether this is a good way to do it," he said of SEQWater's dual objectives. "I suspect it will be one of the inquiries that we will make."

His comments came as The Australian uncovered a 2004 report to the organisation Mr Cummins formerly headed, the Australian National Committee on Large Dams, warning that Wivenhoe Dam did not satisfy safety guidelines and had to be upgraded, with the addition of a new spillway on the dam wall.

However, SEQWater opted for a phased approach to the work. This meant that the first of two spillways was constructed in 2006 at a cost of $70 million and the remainder of the work postponed for "15 to 20 years".

The report said this was partly due to cost. "The staged upgrading allows flexibility to cater for increases to the flood estimates or freeboard requirements and cost savings to SEQWater over a single upgrade option," it said.

Questions have been raised about whether SEQWater held on to water for too long in the flood compartment of Wivenhoe Dam instead of releasing it prior to last week's flooding of Brisbane.

More than 80 per cent of the flood in the Brisbane River at its peak last Thursday was the direct result of a massive release of water from Wivenhoe on Tuesday at a peak rate of 645,000 megalitres a day, according to official data obtained by The Australian. The data shows that, without the unprecedented release, the flooding in Brisbane would have been minimal.

One of the most critical tasks for the commission will be to examine whether the operators at Wivenhoe retained water in the dam's flood compartment for too long, forcing the drastic release last Tuesday.

Wivenhoe Dam - built 80km out of the city after the 1974 floods - has a storage capacity of 1.165 million megalitres for drinking water, with space for a further two million megalitres for temporary floodwater storage.

Mr Cummins said it was "normal" for dams to have dual purposes of water storage and flood mitigation as this was the case in many locations around the world.

SEQWater was told in 2000 that the dam needed to increase its capacity in the face of dramatically revised rainfall predictions and heightened flood risk in the region.

According to the 2004 report to ANCOLD, completed by dam engineers including those still working at SEQWater, a completed two-stage upgrade would have reduced the possibility of flood by "five times the existing risk".

"Further investigations lead to the conclusion that it would be cost effective for SEQWater to adopt a two-stage upgrade to achieve full PMF (probable maximum flood) capacity," the report said.

The revelation will fuel concern about the management of the huge dam ahead of the disaster that has claimed 20 lives in southeast Queensland and caused massive destruction.

The political truce in Queensland over the response to the ongoing emergency shattered yesterday when the state opposition demanded that Premier Anna Bligh widen the terms of the judicial inquiry.

State Opposition Leader John-Paul Langbroek called on Ms Bligh to adopt the "catch-all" terms of reference of the royal commission into the 2009 Victorian bushfires, to allow the flood inquiry to pursue all possible lines.

Mr Langbroek, reversing the praise he had heaped on Ms Bligh only 24 hours earlier for keeping the public up to date about the flooding and relief efforts, said the Liberal National Party could no longer support the Premier because she had snubbed the opposition when framing the terms of reference to the inquiry.

Writing in The Australian today, Andrew Dragun, adjunct professor of economics at the Australian Rivers Institute of Griffith University, says the management of Wivenhoe ahead of the flooding in Brisbane was "dangerously inadequate".

The incomplete, two-stage upgrade of the Wivenhoe Dam is expected to be among the issues canvassed in the commission of inquiry. The upgrade was first mooted in 2000 and then again in 2003 after reports showed that, in a worst-case scenario, Wivenhoe could get twice the volume of water from its catchment than its existing spillway could handle. Modelling showed it could cause the dam wall to collapse under the pressure.

The first stage of the project, involving the construction of a $70m, 165m-wide spillway, was finished in 2006.

It was predicted to be able to manage a one-in-100,000-year flood, with the second stage increasing capacity even further and bringing the dam in line with Australian safety standards. The report said the staged upgrade would also allow for flexibility for increases to flood estimates and "cost savings to SEQWater over a single upgrade option".

"The two-staged upgrading will provide a significant reduction in flood risk (a reduction of five times the existing risk)," the report said.

As construction began on the first stage of the project, SEQWater said that once the new spillway was completed, further study would begin on when to start the second stage of the upgrade. It has yet to begin.


Labour laws can hurt the weak

ONE of Julia Gillard's most substantial achievements under the Rudd Labor government was a significant re-regulation of the Australian labour market.

The anti-Work Choices campaign made much of the vulnerability of individual workers to unreasonable work demands by their employers. A perceived imbalance of power between employer and employee lay at the heart of the campaign. The answer has been to re-regulate workplaces so that strengthened representatives of workers (unions, in practice) and independent work tribunals can ensure that workers are treated fairly under amended workplace and industrial relations laws.

It is clearly true that individual workers are relatively powerless at work compared with their employers and that this can lead to exploitation and unfair treatment. But in the large majority of cases, this imbalance of power does not lead to bad outcomes for workers. The reason is that employers have a stake in their employees liking their conditions of work. Liked conditions lead to reduced turnover, easier recruitment, higher returns from the provision of training, greater willingness to be flexible in meeting variations in work needs, higher productivity and lower costs.

Since all workplaces differ from each other to some extent by virtue of the different people involved (as well as differences in technology, customers, suppliers, location and so on), imposing uniform standards is bound to reduce the capacity of each employer to tailor their work conditions in ways that best meets the needs of their businesses, including the needs of their employees.

Imposing uniform workplace rules reduces the scope for each enterprise to work out more effective arrangements for all the people involved.

Regulation is bound, through time, to reduce the productivity and competitiveness of businesses and their capacity to produce output, pay wages, earn profits, invest and expand, creating more job opportunities in the process.

A classic example of an outcome of socially regulated workplaces used to occur under the socialist system of worker-owned enterprises in former Yugoslavia. An unintended consequence of worker ownership and control was that existing staff were reluctant to set aside profits to expand their enterprise and employ more people, because their immediate wages would be less and they feared their future wages might be less if the expansion plans were unsuccessful. Laws had to be passed to compel enterprises to employ extra people from time to time.

A similar incentive arises under Australia's unfair dismissal laws. The more costly it is to dismiss an employee, the greater will be the costs that an employer will pay to vet the quality of people before they are hired, the fewer the people that will be hired (as well as being let go, of course), and the lower will be the pay that is affordable by the business if labour costs are to remain as before.

The members of the population who are particularly disadvantaged by unfair dismissal laws are those with the least qualifications, least skills and least work experience. These include school-leavers, women returning to work after a spell of child rearing, the long-term unemployed, refugees, and migrants who enter Australia without a firm offer of employment.

In western Europe, the degree of job protection enjoyed by long-established employees in an enterprise is so great that new entrants to the labour force (young people and migrants, in particular) and the unemployed face long periods of precarious, temporary employment at very low rates of pay before they can enter (or re-enter) reasonable career paths. European-style job protection leads to low rates of economic and employment growth, high unemployment rates, and very high youth and migrant unemployment rates. Fairness for insiders (the large majority of workers in long-term employment attachments with their particular employer) is promoted at the expense of the minority of outsiders seeking to gain such jobs.

Has the labour market really become fairer overall as a result?

The ageing of the Australian population in future decades is likely to be associated with substantial increases in dependency in the society (too many retirees and not enough workers to support them). An important contribution to solving this problem can be made if older people are willing to continue in work, at least part time.

A reasonable income can now be received by a retiree who works fewer hours but also receives a part pension. A business able to construct packages for older workers that reduce the business's labour costs, on the one hand, but that are also attractive to retirees, will prosper, helping society to solve what may otherwise be a substantial problem.

Is it fair if a business pays retirees at a lower hourly rate of pay (matching the lower productivity that results from their old age) if this benefits the firm, the retirees and the community as a whole?

The truth is fairness is a very difficult concept to apply to regulating the labour market without resulting in bad unintended consequences. The alternative to regulation is to rely on the fact that businesses have to pay the market rate to their workers if they are to stay in business.

Further, because people compare the net advantages of different sorts of jobs, a sensible business will try to tailor its conditions of work to suit the preferences of the people it wishes to employ. A sensible business will wish to remove conditions of work that are costly to it and on which the people it wishes to hire place little value. By doing so, it will be able to pay higher wages, if warranted.

Regulations to protect individual workers from unfair treatment may have adverse unintended consequences for working Australians more broadly. A balance must be struck that does not cost the broader community heavily. Excessive labour market regulation has cost Australians heavily in the past.

As Gary Banks, chairman of the Productivity Commission, recently said: "If we are to secure Australia's productivity potential into the future, the regulation of labour markets cannot remain a no-go area for evidence-based policy making".


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