Sunday, September 01, 2013

Rudd will be the loneliest politician in Australia next Saturday night

THE mandarins of Australia's public service are naturally silent creatures, at least in public. The idea of taking sides in a political argument is anathema to them.  That is especially the case during an election campaign. They understand they have a duty to behave in a nonpartisan way and they are serious about it.

But sometimes senior bureaucrats can be pushed too far by politicians. That happened on Thursday.

Kevin Rudd and his two most senior economics ministers crossed the line by trying to use the reputation of Treasury, the Finance Department and the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) in a bit of political trickery. Treasury head Martin Parkinson and Finance Department secretary David Tune cried "Enough!" .

The Government's aim was to damage the Coalition campaign. Instead, by provoking the bureaucrats, it knocked the stuffing out of its own remaining election hopes.

It was possibly the biggest blunder in a bloody awful Labor campaign. Small wonder talk in the ALP has already turned to who might lead the party in the coming wilderness years.

Frank Sinatra used to sing "Saturday night is the loneliest night of the week".  Next Saturday night Rudd is likely to be the loneliest politician Australia has seen for a long time.

Treasury undermines claims of $10bn black hole

The Government claims now that it did not suggest the three departments had costed Coalition policies. Readers can judge for themselves.

A day after the Coalition unveiled what it claimed were cuts and savings that would total $31.6 billion during the Budget forward estimates period, the Prime Minister strode into a news conference with Treasurer Chris Bowen and Finance Minister Penny Wong.

"There is an error of $10 billion in the claimed $30 billion of savings the Opposition released yesterday," the Treasurer said.

"This is based on advice from the departments of Treasury and Finance and the Parliamentary Budget Office, which we are releasing today."

Mr Rudd chimed in that the allegation of a $10 billion hole was "based on the most basic analysis driven by the advice of government agencies". The shortfall, he said, "is clearly identified in the table circulated to you now". The table, looking very official, was part of an ALP press statement.

It began: "Treasury, Department of Finance and PBO figures released this morning have exposed a $10 billion hole in the savings claimed by the Coalition yesterday."

Attached were a Treasury Executive Minute classified "Protected", a two-page Finance Department memorandum and several pages of costing advice from the PBO with the name of the person who had requested the information blacked out.

Sure, the departmental documents were dated prior to the calling of the election.

And Mr Bowen told the news conference: "This is advice given to the Government prior to the caretaker period."

But presumably we were supposed to believe the costings they contained were based on accurate information about the Coalition's proposals. Otherwise, what was the point?

There is no avoiding the conclusion that it was all calculated to create the impression that what Mr Rudd, Mr Bowen and Ms Wong alleged was backed by the authority of the top economic experts in the bureaucracy.

Mr Rudd's fatal mistake was to use what he claimed was Treasury, Finance and PBO advice to justify an accusation of fraud against the Coalition.

Liberal leader Tony Abbott, shadow treasurer Joe Hockey and shadow finance minister Andrew Robb - likely to be the mandarins' new bosses after next Saturday - were furious.

Mr Parkinson and Mr Tune, presumably believing they and their departments had been compromised, decided not to cop it and put out a statement - brief, but more than enough to have a significant impact on the election.

At no stage, they said, had either department costed Opposition policies. In other words, the information and assumptions for any costings they had done came from the Government. In other words. In other words, he so-called costings of Coalition policies put out by Labor were so iffy they could not be taken seriously.

The mandarins' intervention was, as far as I can recall, unprecedented. And it was a body blow for Labor.

Back at the start of the campaign, Mr Rudd had cast the election as a test of who could be trusted by voters. The unravelling of Thursday's exercise played right into that central issue of trust - and not to Mr Rudd's advantage.

And it will be much easier for the Coalition to get away with keeping its planned cuts secret until the campaign's dying days.


The enemy within NSW child protection

Social workers ideologically opposed to adoption are the real problem

The NSW Minister for Community Services, Pru Goward, is under pressure to resign for allegedly misleading the parliament, the public and the media about the number of child protection caseworker in the state.

The Minister's office had said that 'more than 2000' caseworkers were employed by the Family and Community Services Department when in fact 300 less than budgeted (around 1800) were employed.

This followed reports that only a quarter of children reported to be at significant risk of harm were seen by a caseworker to check on their welfare.

Departmental workers took industrial action last week in protest and to demand that vacancies be filled. There is more to this than the standard public sector union attempt to boost membership numbers.

The strike – together with the confected outrage over staffing levels – is part of a political campaign designed to discredit a Minister determined to change the NSW child protection system.

The shortage of caseworkers (a perennial problem under both Labor and Liberal administrations) is superficially significant. Even 300 more staff is unlikely to significantly dent the number of children who caseworkers never see.

The opposition is calling for the minister's head even though the 2008 Wood Commission established that under the previous Labor government just 13% of reports that warranted further assessment received a detailed investigation involving a home visit and sighting of the child.

None of this stopped the ABC's Quentin Dempster from spending most of Friday night's Stateline interview focusing on the relative minutiae of caseworker numbers and 'transparency'. The bigger picture, involving departmental opposition to planned changes to child protection practice in the state, was only briefly mentioned in passing towards the end of segment.

Minister Goward will soon introduce a reform package designed to increase the number of abused and neglected children who are adopted.

There are many arguments in favor of increasing adoptions to better protect children (detailed here). One is that adoption will make it easier to ensure that risk reports are properly investigated.

The huffing and puffing about caseworkers shortages endangering children, which all sides of politics engage in, needs to be viewed in the proper context. The real and systemic problem with child protection in Australia concerns the large number of children who are re-reported because of unresolved safety concerns.

Approximately half of all reports of child harm in NSW concern a hard core of around seven or eight-thousand frequently-reported, highly dysfunctional families. Many of these children have a long history of risk of harm reports stretching over many years, and end up being damaged by prolonged exposure to parental abuse and neglect.

Too little is done to rescue these children because child protection authorities in NSW (as in all Australian jurisdictions) believe in 'family preservation' at nearly all costs.

Many of these children would be much better off if they were removed earlier and permanently, preferably by means of adoption. This would significantly reduce the number of reports and, by making the caseload more manageable and alleviating staff shortages, would ensure a higher percentage of reported children (ideally 100%) could be seen.

It would also significantly reduce the amount of often catastrophic abuse and neglect experienced by the most vulnerable Australian children.

Despite this, adoption is 'taboo' in child protection circles, and most caseworkers (due mainly to what social workers are taught during their university training) are ideological hostile to any moves to increase adoptions for child welfare purposes.

The institutionalised opposition to adoption inside the agencies responsible for child protection is the reason that in 2010–11, fewer than 200 children were adopted in Australia. This was despite more than 37,000 children being in government-funded out of home care placements, and more than 25,000 of these children having been in care continuously for more than two years.

Stopping Goward's push to turn these figures around is the real objective of the 'caseworker shortage strike'. It is a pre-emptive public relations hit job on a minister who it is hoped will have diminished credibility in arguing the case for adoption when the memory of her 'lies' and alleged failure to ensure there are sufficient staff to see abused children is fresh in the public's mind.

Doubling or even tripling the number of caseworkers won't keep more children safe if family preservation remains the orthodox practice . The tail should not be allowed to wag the dog and subvert the democratic process. Politicians are elected to make the policies that public servants are obliged to implement.

This episode will be instructive for the new Family and Community Services director-general, Michael Coutts-Trotter, who has taken charge of a rogue department. The enemy of better protecting the children of NSW lies within.


Tony Abbott stands by MP in burqa row

BURQAS are confronting and should never be widespread on the streets of Australia, Tony Abbott says.

The Opposition Leader was responding to comments reportedly made by McMahon Liberal candidate Ray King that burqas are a "sign of oppression" and can be linked to criminality.

Mr Abbott described Mr Ray as a decorated police officer and "outstanding" candidate.

He said he understood Mr King's comments to be more about identifying people in policing situations, given their attire.

"I've been asked about the burqa on lots of occasions and whenever I've been asked about the burqa I've said that I find it a very confronting form of attire," he said.

"Frankly it's not the sort of attire that I'd like to see widespread in our streets.  "But this is a free country.  "Everyone's entitled to make their choice and if people want to wear a burqa, it's ultimately their business."

Earlier, Mr Abbott said he expects Labor to ramp up a "smear campaign" against the Coalition in the next week.

And it comes as a Newspoll published today in The Weekend Australian predicts a wipe-out for Labor.

He said polls would tighten sharply in the final week as politics got ugly.  "Mr Rudd is a very clever politician and the Labor Party are ruthless politicians ... and we're going to see plenty of low politics in the last week,'' Mr Abbott said this morning.

Ray - former Liverpool police commander - is standing against Treasurer Chris Bowen who has called for him to answer questions, including explaining his links with disgraced detective Roger Rogerson, who reportedly attended the launch.

Mr Abbott said Mr King was an "outstanding" candidate.

"We've already seen a nasty smear campaign against all sorts of our members and candidates including that outstanding policeman Ray King in Sydney," he said.

"It's just contemptible the way the Treasurer of this country, who is constantly demanding honesty and integrity when it comes to budget figures, is making unsubstantiated smears against a great servant of the people of NSW."


Aussie students excelled as "all rounders" but still beaten by  East Asians

Australians helped by the fact that  40% of them go to private High Schools.  Asians helped by their higher IQs

HIGH school students in Australia have entered a rare category - they are among the world's best academic all-rounders.

OECD data shows that more students in Australia achieve high levels in maths, reading and science than their counterparts in most other countries.

On average across OECD countries, 16.3 per cent of students are top performers in at least one of the subject areas of science, mathematics and reading but only 4.1 per cent are top performers in all three.

In Australia however more than 8 per cent of students are high-achieving all-rounders.

The OECD analysis was based on international tests among 15 year-olds across 65 countries.

It showed that Shanghai-China had the highest numbers of academic all-rounders at 14.6 per cent, followed by Singapore with 12.3 per cent.

New Zealand is ahead of Australia with 9.9 per cent. In Hong Kong and in Japan 8.4 per cent of students are good all rounders.
In Australia 8.1 per cent of the students tested were top performers across all three subjects.

This puts Australia ahead of the UK where just 4.6 per cent of of students were considered all-rounders - just slightly higher than the OECD average.

A briefing note published by the OECD says that academic all-rounders are rare.  "To satisfy the growing demand for high-level skills in knowledge-based 21st-century economies, school systems need to increase the proportion of their students who are top performers," it said.


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