Monday, February 16, 2015

Tony Abbott signals crackdown on borders amid terror threat

PRIME Minister Tony Abbott has condemned a “brutal” shooting in Denmark as an affront to free speech, and flagged further efforts aimed at securing Australia’s borders amid growing concerns about the threat of terrorism attacks on home soil.

Twin attacks shook Copenhagen over the weekend. One man killed when a cafe hosting an event where a cartoonist who had caricatured the Prophet Mohammed was speaking was sprayed with bullets, and another fatally shot in the head just hours later at the city’s main synagogue. Three police officers were hurt in the cafe shooting, and another two wounded in the second attack.

Danish police have confirmed a man was later killed after he opened fire on police at a train station in the northern part of the city amid a massive man-hunt.

The shootings come in the wake of the attacks in Paris in January at the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, as well as a Jewish supermarket elsewhere in the French capital.

Mr Abbott, in a statement issued today, said the thoughts of all Australians were with the Danish people. “As with the Charlie Hebdo atrocity in Paris, the Copenhagen attack is an affront to one of our most fundamental values — freedom of speech,” Mr Abbott said.

“We stand with the people and government of Denmark in confronting this cynical attempt to undermine that fundamental right.”

Earlier, the prime minister signalled security at Australia’s borders would be ramped up.

Mr Abbott, who will deliver a national security statement on Monday week, said the rise of Daesh, or Islamic State, had seen new threats emerge, “where any extremist can grab a knife, a flag, a camera phone and a victim and carry out a terror attack”.

Authorities on Friday confirmed police and a prayer hall were among targets uncovered by investigations into two alleged terrorists arrested in western Sydney last week.

A number of items were allegedly seized from the home of Omar Al-Kutobi, 24, and Mohammad Kiad, 25, including a machete, hunting knife and homemade Islamic State flag, as well as a video which allegedly shows one of the men vowing to launch an attack in the name of IS.

Al-Kutobi, from Iraq, is believed to have arrived in Australia in 2009 using another person’s passport, and was given a protection visa before being granted citizenship in 2013.

“It’s clear to me, that for too long, we have given those who might be a threat to our country the benefit of the doubt,” Mr Abbott said in a statement broadcast today via his official YouTube channel.

“There’s been the benefit of the doubt at our borders, the benefit of the doubt for residency, the benefit of the doubt for citizenship and the benefit of the doubt at Centrelink. And in the courts, there has been bail, when clearly there should have been jail.”

Mr Abbott also hit out at the Grand Mufti of Australia for speaking against a possible ban on the controversial Muslim organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir, saying comments attributed to Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed were “wrong-headed” and “unhelpful”.

Dr Ibrahim, the spiritual leader of Muslims in Australia, last week said it would be a “political mistake” to ban the group. The government is seeking advice from security agencies on options for taking action against Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned in other countries including Britain.


Industry Group calls for national strategy to address crippling STEM skill shortages

“A lack of critical Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills among the current and emerging workforce is holding back Australian employers in their quest to be more innovative, productive and competitive;” Australian Industry Group Chief Executive, Innes Willox, said today.

The negative implications for our economy were highlighted in an Ai Group report released today - Progressing STEM Skills in Australia – which included survey results from more than 300 businesses across the economy.  The survey found that businesses are having difficulty recruiting employees with STEM skills including technicians and trade workers (44 per cent), professionals (21 per cent) and managers (19 per cent).

"This report demonstrates the significant challenges facing Australia's educators and employers to adequately skill the workforce required to build a competitive economy for the future,” Mr Willox said

"Over 36 per cent of the employers surveyed reported their greatest barrier to recruitment of staff with STEM skills to be a lack of qualifications relevant to their business.  Other key barriers included a lack of workplace experience and employability skills (34 per cent) and a lack of applicants with STEM skills (29 per cent).

"STEM skills are essential for the future economic and social well-being of the nation and employment in this area grew about 1.5 times the rate of other jobs in recent years.  Despite this, enrolments and the number of graduates with STEM qualifications continue to decline and secondary school enrolments in mathematics and science are also decreasing. Accordingly the pipeline of STEM skills to the workforce remains perilous.

"There is an urgent need to develop a national STEM skills strategy to lift the level of STEM qualified employees in the workforce to enable the Australian economy to be more competitive and prosperous” Mr Willox said.

Key findings:

*                STEM skills are increasingly important for the workforce and the competitiveness of the Australian economy.

*                Australia is underperforming internationally compared to STEM strong countries.

*                Participation by school students in STEM related subjects is decreasing and our performance in international comparisons is below many other countries.

*                Participation by university students in STEM related disciplines is not keeping pace with the needs of the economy and is low compared to other similar economies.

*                Employers continue to experience difficulties recruiting STEM qualified staff, especially as technicians and trade workers.

*                Australia lacks a national STEM skills strategy and is the only country in the OECD without a science or technology strategy.

*                Australian Government financial assistance to STEM is thinly dispersed, non-systemic and does not contribute to a national approach.

*                School – industry STEM initiatives are characterised by un-coordinated and non-systemic activity.

*                University – industry collaboration, including in STEM fields, is low by international comparisons.

*                There is a need to develop more engaging school curriculum and pedagogy to attract students to STEM and a need to increase the STEM qualified teaching workforce.


Doctors slam NSW Labor's plan for nurse-run clinics

Australia's peak medical body has slammed the NSW opposition's key health policy to establish four nurse-led walk-in treatment centres as a "waste of money".

The Australian Medical Association said the proposed $40 million clinics, modelled on nurse-led clinics introduced in the ACT in 2010, were not supported by evidence and would fragment patient care in the public health system.

"The proposal shows a lack of understanding of the operation of the NSW public hospital system and goes against established evidence of promoting good quality care," AMA (NSW) president Saxon Smith said.

"There is actually evidence suggesting nurse-led clinics can make the quality of healthcare worse."

Lauching the policy on Sunday, Opposition Leader Luke Foley said the proposed clinics would be a "new frontier in NSW health" and would "take pressure off emergency departments".

He dismissed the AMA's criticism as doctors "protecting their patch" and said he was "not interested in turf wars over work practices".

"Go to any emergency department and the hard-working nurses will tell you the people who work there are stressed," Mr Foley said.

Under the proposal, 45 nurses would be employed across the four clinics and would treat minor injuries and illnesses. Two clinics would be opened in western Sydney, one on the NSW Central Coast and one in the Illawarra region, Mr Foley said.

But Dr Smith said the policy was based on a flawed understanding of pressures on NSW hospital's emergency wards, which had had a decline in the least urgent "triage 5" cases over the past few years.

"Our emergency departments are under significant pressure but this pressure is coming from sicker patients. So obviously our push and pull factors are different from the ACT."

Dr Smith also said a 2013 independent evaluation of the nurse-led clinics showed they either increased attendance in hospital emergency departments or had no impact.

But former ACT chief minister Katy Gallagher, who appeared beside Mr Foley at the launch, said a decision to relocate the clinics in the community, rather than within hospital grounds, had addressed this issue.

NSW Premier Mike Baird backed the AMA's attack on the policy.

"They said [Labor's plan is] a complete waste of money, trials have been done and it doesn't work and I think it shows the depth of policy analysis being done by the opposition. The other thing they haven't told us is where the money is coming from," he said.


Fair Work Commission fritters away taxpayers’ funds

LET’S face it, government departments and agencies waste money left, right and centre.

If public servants aren’t sipping espressos made from newly purchased up-market machines, they are attending workshops on positive thinking and resilience. I’m not convinced that years of efficienc­y dividends have really made much difference.

When it comes to squandering taxpayer money, the Fair Work Commission is right at the top of the league ladder.

It has embarked on an expensive and dubious research program, even though there is not a single person employed at the FWC who can credibly judge a piece of research. That also applies to the vast majority of commission members, from the president down.

What is even more concerning is the probity and procedural fairness of the FWC commissioning and funding its own internal research. This never occurred under the previous leaders of the FWC and its antecedent bodies. In part, the legislation was not accommodative, but in any case there was never any funding.

When the FWC commissions its own research and it is presented in a case, does this research rank above other research that may be presented by other parties? What happened to the arrangement that parties to a case could commission their own expert­ witnesses to undertake research­ and these expert witnesses would be subject to cross-examination?

But if this is not bad enough, the quality of the research that the FWC undertakes in-house or commissions is laughable. You only have to read through the completely predictable and undergraduate-quality overview of economic conditions contained in the national minimum wage decis­ions to see what I mean.

But it gets even worse when the FWC wanders off the reservation by asking research questions that it should know cannot be answered­ using available reliable empirical evidence.

Take the study on the impact of changes on the national minimum wage and award rates of pay on employment and hours worked.

We know from employer surveys that about 16 per cent to 18 per cent of workers are paid the award rate only. But because there is no matched sample of employees attache­d to that survey, we can only infer the characteristics of award-paid workers.

We know, for instance, that they are disproportionately employe­d in accommodation and food services, administration and support services and retail trade. We also know that award-paid workers are almost unknown in the public sector.

So when calling for tenders, the FWC should have known that the question being posed was essen­­tially unanswerable. But dangle money in front of the research community and researchers will do their best to grapple with the question as set out.

Because of a need for a comparator group, some researchers thought to look at the highly reput­able longitudinal Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey undertaken by the Melbourne Institu­te at the University of Melbourne.

The trouble is that the key question — how are you paid? — is the most inaccurately answered question in the entire survey.

More than 30 per cent of public-sector workers claim to be paid the award rate only, even though we know that nearly 100 per cent are paid according to agreements. To proceed any further using HILDA data is just plain ridiculous.

But the FWC research project that really takes the cake is the Australian Workplace Relations Study, an expensive, survey-based project that is trying to emulate a large-scale survey undertaken within the federal bureaucracy 20 years ago — the Australian Workplace and Industrial Relations Survey.

The key idea is to assemble a matched data set of employers and employees.

Questions are then asked about employment and workforce management practices, wages and wage-setting, employee engagement practices, use of individual flexibility arrangements and the like. Employers are asked to provide information about their businesses, including ownership, age and financial performance.

But here’s the thing: the response­ rates of the survey are so low that there should be no analysis of the results undertaken becaus­e of the complete lack of reliability of the data.

Indeed, it was very clear as the survey progressed that real trouble was brewing. Not surprisingly, many employers simply refused to fill in the hard-copy booklets and, in desperation on the part of the FWC, employers were offered a shrunk-down online version instead­. This would take only five minutes to fill out.

Even so, the overall response rate was less than 18 per cent. Indeed, of the more than 17,000 employers contacted, only 1500 filled out all four employer questionnaires. This is a response rate of less than 9 per cent. Joke as a descriptor does not even come close.

(My guess is that quite a lot of employers were none too impressed about filling out a survey from the FWC, an organisation that keeps them waiting on the phone for hours and then suggests they access the non-binding inform­ation on its appallingly designed website.)

And the employee response rate was even lower than employers’. It is not possible to determine from the information provided the matched response rate of employers and employees at the same workplace. Less than 10 per cent would be a reasonable guess.

Any sensible researcher would call it quits at this stage. An expensive survey has been attempted but, for various reasons, the response rate is totally inadequate, giving rise to unrepresentative and biased responses.

But because no one in the FWC really understands the first thing about research, it has gone to the next stage of undertaking some preliminary analysis of the survey results. This surely must be some sort of prank, although it was not released on April 1.

But wait, there’s even more. There is going to be a conference based on the survey — readers, please stop that guffawing — with draft papers required by April 10.

You will also be pleased to know that there is to be a pre-conference data workshop on June 24 and the full AWRS conference during the following two days.

Surely there is someone sensible in the FWC — the president, the general manager? — who will pull the plug on these expensive events now that the survey has failed so dismally.

I also pose the question to the employer groups that are represented on the FWC research committee: what do you think you are doing, apart from providing a convenient veil of respectability to this nonsense?

So here’s a tip for Joe Hockey: the FWC is clearly significantly overfunded. So when you are hunting around for budget savings­, think mega-efficiency dividend extracted from the FWC.

For probity and procedural reasons, there is a case for including in the Fair Work Act a specific prohibition of research being undertaken or funded by the FWC.

In the meantime, Employment Minister Eric Abetz needs to get on with the task of making some sensible appointments to the FWC and these appointees can then politely suggest that the internal researc­h folly be dumped.



PB said...

I recall an occasion when the two of us were traveling for work, and had to have full medicals. My partner turned out to be hosting some parasite well known up here in the water. Treatment was a simple antibiotic so when the result came back he asked the Dr to just leave the scrip at the Desk for him to collect. Oh no! Must make a separate appointment to receive results and have "proper" education about the use of anti-biotics, at the full GP billing rate (no bulk bills here!). He refused, pointing out that he was an RN with post-basic ICU and Cardiology qualifications and was more than able to educate himself on the use of a simple anti-biotic, but no, the fully billed appointment was sacrosanct. He didn't go, and got a work colleague to write him the scrip. They are most definitely protecting their turf. There is a lot of GP work that isn't magical voodoo and doesn't require a GP to perform it, but they wouldn't want that to become widely understood. fed up to the back teeth with the self-serving frauds that so many of them (including a lot of Specialists) are.

Paul said...

I think I've told you before about the Drs who turn up at the Private Hospital here (you know which one I mean, I'm sure) at 6:30AM, breeze in with a cheery hello how are you, then go and bill the fund for an out-of-hours consultation.