Thursday, November 23, 2017

Legal battle: James Cook Univer­sity trying to muzzle critic of reef alarmism

Outspoken James Cook Univer­sity professor Peter Ridd has taken Federal Court action claiming conflict of interest, apprehended bias and actual bias against vice-chancellor Sandra Harding.

Professor Ridd wants JCU to drop a misconduct investigation launched following his interview with Alan Jones on Sky News on August 1 in which he criticised the quality of Great Barrier Reef science.

In the interview, he said research findings by major institutions could not be trusted. “We can no longer trust the scientific organisations like the Australian Institute of Marine Science, even things like the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

“The science is coming out not properly checked, tested or replicated, and this is a great shame.”

JCU responded in late August by launching a formal investigation for misconduct which could result in Professor Ridd’s employment being terminated.

Professor Ridd engaged legal counsel, with new accusations being made by JCU and Federal Court action being lodged by him.

JCU has said Professor Ridd’s comments were “not in the collegial and academic spirit of the search for knowledge, understanding and truth”. It said his comments had denigrated AIMS and the ARC Centre and were “not respectful and courteous”.

In letters lodged with the court, JCU said Professor Ridd’s comments could damage the reputation of AIMS and the university’s relationship with it.

In a letter to JCU on September 7, Professor Ridd’s legal team, ­Mahoneys, called on JCU to drop the case. They said the university suffered a conflict of interest in its investigation.

“The vice-chancellor is a council member (akin to a director) of the Australian Institute of Marine Science,” Mahoneys said. “The vice-chancellor is in a position of conflict between her duties and ­office to the AIMS and to bringing an impartial mind to a decision on the allegations (against Professor Ridd).”

JCU responded on September 19 that it was “not satisfied that there has been no serious misconduct or that the allegations are unsubstantiated”. It said Professor Ridd “must not disclose or discuss these matters with the media or in any other public forum”.

Mahoneys responded on September 27, repeating concerns about conflict of interest: “There are only two conclusions our ­client can reach as to why the complaint is continuing to be prosecuted: incompetence or act­ual bias, neither of which is satisfactory or tolerable to our client.”

JCU then engaged law firm Clayton Utz, which on October 6 wrote to Mahoneys to say: “The matters you have raised are not matters that prevent JCU from ­addressing your client’s conduct and JCU’s expectations of your client as a JCU employee.”

Mahoneys responded on ­October 13 that the Utz response was “evasive and inadequate”.

On October 17, Clayton Utz wrote “further allegations and concerns” had been raised against Professor Ridd. “These matters ­related to allegations of similar conduct and/or a pattern of insubordination and denigration of the university,” Clayton Utz wrote. It rejected the allegation of bias, ­apprehended bias, or inability of the officers of the university to ­address Professor Ridd’s conduct.

JCU again wrote to Professor Ridd on October 23 highlighting comments made to Jones. In the Jones interview, Professor Ridd said: “I think that most of the scientists who are pushing out this stuff — they genuinely believe that there are problems with the reef; I just don’t think they’re very objective about the science they do, I think they’re emotionally ­attached to their subject.” In its letter, JCU said it “is not satisfied that the principles of academic freedom excuse or justify your comments”.

The university said it did not accept a conflict of interest or apprehended bias existed.

On November 7, Mahoneys said “new evidence” was “entirely separate”. “The revised offending conduct cannot reasonably have had any effect on the relationship of trust and confidence between employer and employee, that is, of course, unless the employer was hypersensitive in the extreme and determined to find slight in every action,” Mahoneys responded.

Professor Ridd said in correspondence to The Australian he hoped the court action would “draw attention to the quality ­assurance problems in science and the obligation of universities in general to genuinely foster debate, argument and the clash of ideas”.

“I think it is right to challenge our science institutions about whether their work is reliable and trustworthy,” he said.

A JCU spokesman said “it is not appropriate to comment on confidential matters’’.


These Liberals have missed the point of the party

Government bloat continues under the Turnbull government

Having imprudently cancelled parliament for a week, the Turnbull government could use its spare time to reacquaint itself with the liberal mindset. The one that believes in more — not less — liberty, greater individual responsibility and the corrupting power of big government. And the one that understands the three vices of government: taxing us too much, spending too much of our money poorly and, worst of all, presuming to tell us how we can spend the bit we’re left with after we’ve paid our taxes.

It was once a safe assumption that a Liberal leadership team understood all of this. They understood that a system that taxes work and investments while subsidising non-work has an inherent flaw of discouraging work and investment and encouraging non-work.

Sadly, today there is bipartisan weakness when it comes to genuine tax reform to provide incentives, not penalties, for work.

Malcolm Turnbull told a Business Council of Australia dinner on Monday that tax reform has been a personal priority of his since entering parliament in 2005, when he compiled a paper detailing tax reform options. The test will be whether the Prime Minister can move beyond being a tax teaser, writing a tax paper 12 years ago to rile then treasurer Peter Costello and giving a speech this week, to delivering real tax reform.

In the meantime, as the Parliamentary Budget Office paper revealed last month, during the next four years bracket creep will move 1.8 million taxpayers, particularly middle-income taxpayers, into higher tax brackets through routine wage rises. The top 40 per cent of taxpayers will see their tax rate rise by almost three percentage points compared with tax rates in 2000.

Worse, the PBO analysis found that the Turnbull government is relying on bracket creep and other tax revenue to deliver its 2021 budget surplus. In other words, a surplus will be thanks to taxpayers putting more of their money into the coffers, not through spending cuts.

This raises the other vice of government. When the government spends other people’s money on other people, it invariably makes poor spending decisions. The aim then should be to spend less of other people’s money, leaving more for them to spend themselves.

Sadly, high spending has become bipartisan, too: spending as a percentage of gross domestic product sits at 26.6 per cent in 2016-17, higher than the 26.1 per cent in 2008 under Kevin Rudd and much higher than the final years of the Howard government, at 23.6 per cent in 2006.

You might think that a Liberal government would at least resist the third vice of telling us how we can spend our own money. That sin of government is a truly illiberal form of nanny-statism, the home of paternalistic, far-left Greens who assume they know better than us how we should spend our own money.

Except the Turnbull government is due to put its name to this third vice, too, making it three-for-three on the scorecard of government vices.

Changes to consumer lease provisions, soon headed for the partyroom and then the House of Representatives, breach the most basic principles of individual liberty. The draft legislation lauds as a “key reform” a prohibition on consumers entering into a consumer lease for household goods if rental payments exceed 10 per cent of their income. In a bill of many ill-conceived changes to consumer lending, this one change really stinks.

Paternalistic caps on how much money a person can spend are usually limited to recipients of welfare. Except that the Turnbull government wants to impose the same prohibition on everyone when it comes to consumer ­leases. It raises the simple question: what business is it of government to tell Australian taxpayers — even those on modest incomes — how they spend their money?

Last year, Revenue and Financial Services Minister Kelly O’Dwyer explained it on the basis of “financial inclusion”. Like other faddish phrases such as social justice, diversity and tolerance, financial inclusion is one of those sweet-sounding expressions we expect from the Greens when they try to justify government intervention. And as with so many feel-good words, you can usually count on opposite outcomes. So it is with O’Dwyer’s daft allusion to financial inclusion.

Telling consumers how much of their income they can and cannot use on leases for household goods will end up penalising those who most need the goods quickly, and under the terms of a consumer goods lease that allows them use of goods while shifting risk over maintenance and repairs to the lessor.

That’s why consumer leases cost more and, like other financial products, they must comply with a plethora of laws, from responsible lending requirements to credit licensing to misleading and deceptive conduct provisions.

When the misnamed “reform” was handballed to Small Business Minister Michael McCormack, he said O’Dwyer’s review found that high-cost consumer good leases “have the potential to result in very poor consumer outcomes”. Except that the hard facts, as opposed to “potential” risks, point to very few cases of unscrupulous behaviour in an industry worth $569 million with about 300,000 present consumer leases. On the contrary, in the past financial year just 270 complaints about consumer leases were lodged with the Credit and Investments Ombudsman.

The government urge to “do something” is seductive. But it ought to be part of the skill set of a sound Liberal government to make the case as to why they’re not adding new laws to the books, not telling people what to do with their own money, and not adding more red tape on business.

Smaller government, and less government interference in our lives, used to be a core Liberal Party principle accepted as a good starting point within a Liberal leadership team, meaning the prime minister, the treasurer and senior cabinet members.

So too was personal responsibility. Even if we sometimes make the wrong decisions, mistakes teach us how to become more responsible. It was once a safe assumption that, in contrast to Labor and the Greens, senior Liberals responsible for policy understood that politicians should not infantilise people by encouraging them to see government as a curer of all ills, because that would inflict far worse evils on society.

Not any more. Instead, it’s left up to a solid and growing group of Liberal backbenchers to protect the party brand, keeping it true to liberal values and clearly distinguishable from the paternalistic illiberalism of Labor and the Greens.

When parliament last sat in mid-October, Russell Broadbent spoke up in the Liberal partyroom meeting, challenging the leadership team about the illiberal moves to regulate who can be a senior banker under Scott Morrison’s kneejerk banking accountability regime. The usually quiet backbencher from Victoria described the government’s intervention as the “opposite of everything we stand for”.

Broadbent has emboldened many others across the ideological divide of the party. They talk of the “Russell Broadbent moment” as breaking a dam of silence of those previously concerned about speaking out for fear of being victimised by a leadership hierarchy that has become values-free and transactional.

The silver lining of a truncated parliamentary sitting period is that the Turnbull government will have less time to pass this lousy law and more time to listen to backbenchers who are asking that the Liberal leadership group give liberal values a chance. It can’t turn out worse than the government’s current downward trajectory.


The Four Scorners stopped truth from ruining its ripping yarn

Don Dale remains open. Last year the ABC’s Four Corners announced to the world that the Northern Territory “tortured children”, and engaged in “barbarism” in facilities such as Don Dale. It sparked an inquiry — the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory — which reports on Friday.

More than $50 million was spent trawling through the system that “tortured” so many innocents. The time for investigation more than doubled and the commission heard from hundreds of witnesses, yet Don Dale remains open.

How could this be? Neither has a single person been referred for criminal investigation. If any further recommendations are made regarding criminal investigations, it will most likely be the reinvestigation of matters already ­examined.

Four Corners was told at the time that these matters had ­already been investigated. But that went unreported. The ABC made only passing reference to the fact the Don Dale in which the gassing events and the other acts that so shocked Australia took place had already been closed.

The gassing episode has since been examined by the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory and declared to be an exercise in reasonable force. Neither are charges likely over the use of the restraint chair and spit-hoods. Their use was lawful and was overseen by a panel of experts. The old Don Dale was decrepit and had been closed long before Four Corners arrived. Its reporter did a piece to camera standing in a cell decrying the awfulness of it, but the empty building had long been vacated. The new Don Dale Centre, a former prison, had been declared fit for purpose by Michael Vita, an expert in youth detention in the NSW corrections system.

In conversation with me, Four Corners’ Caro Meldrum-Hanna said: “All I’m saying is we can talk … about change and progress but unless we see it and you can take us into the facilities where the change and progress is occurring, it’s very difficult for people to … to fully understand it unless they’re shown it.”

They were shown it. The public and the Prime Minister were not. Meldrum-Hanna also acknow­ledged the plight of many of the youth in the Territory, saying it was “sad” that Don Dale might be the safest place for some children.

That observation reflected the complexity of the issues faced by young offenders in the Territory.

In correspondence, the ABC indicated it was aware of the substantial improvements in the Territory’s corrections system and wished to report on that and the challenges it faced. Those issues were explored at length but were not broadcast because Four Corners came into possession of footage that then condensed 10 years of events into a few minutes of CCTV footage.

So precious was the footage that it was never put to me. I suspect that was because they knew I had ­already referred the matters for investigation and it would have diluted the impact. The ABC insisted it secured the footage late in the piece but it didn’t ask anyone in the Territory about it. Its Darwin office could have told Four Corners it was known and much of it had been reported on.

Four Corners wanted to shock, not give oxygen to the real issues. The net result was a royal commission. So where are the scalps? Why is Don Dale still operating? The royal commission will likely find systemic problems, but there clearly is no urgency.

What Four Corners did was gravely misleading and it did so after having been told openly that crimes had been investigated and, where necessary, people had been charged and/or sacked.

Since that time, Four Corners has snarled at critics of its conduct.

The ABC sought to suppress criticism of it at the royal commission and subsequently has refused to investigate Four Corners on the grounds the complaint was not made within six weeks, despite a discretionary power to overturn that rule. Anyway, it said, most of that material would now be “unavailable”.

Really? Material that could have been called as evidence before a royal commission is suddenly unavailable?

I don’t know if Malcolm Turnbull would have called for a royal commission had he been told all these matters had already been investigated. But he wasn’t told. The ABC says he would not have made his decision based solely on its report. Actually, yes, he did.

During conversations with Four Corners, I sought and repeatedly was given assurances that the highest ethical standards were being applied. In the opinion of other news outlets, trusting the ABC was a rookie mistake. That trust was why it was given the ­extraordinary access.

Those ethical standards can be found in the ABC’s Code of Practice under the heading Impartiality and Diversity of Perspectives. I believe Four Corners failed all five guidelines.

The ABC is a federally funded public service organisation. It withheld information from a Prime Minister and based on partial information the Prime Minister made a call to spend $50m. Since that time, the ABC has declared its footage unavailable; attempted to suppress evidence before a royal commission; and, when asked, has refused to investigate itself. Even an ABC journalist referred to it as a “hatchet job”.

If the royal commission report does not deliver scalps or, worse still, fails to even recommend criminal investigations and prosecutions, it will be because the information that led to its establishment was deeply flawed and misleading.

If any other public service department conducted itself in that fashion, it would be worthy of a Four Corners expose.


Brace yourself NSW – you can expect a return to the bad old days unless ICAC's funding is fully restored

Geoffrey Watson, SC

The need for a powerful and independent anti-corruption agency in NSW is obvious. The Independent Commission Against Corruption has been effective, especially in the past five years, in exposing corruption and removing corrupt individuals from government. This work has been an essential step in restoring some confidence in governmental decision-making.

That is why recent revelations that the ICAC is insufficiently funded are disturbing. A failure to properly fund the ICAC undermines its power and destroys the ICAC's independence from government.

We know from evidence given by the chief commissioner, Peter Hall, QC, that as a consequence of funding cuts the ICAC has had to eliminate one-quarter of its investigative team and is constantly hampered by a lack of staff and a lack of funds.

I know from my own days at the ICAC that, even when there was full funding, not all suspicious activities could be investigated because there were insufficient resources. Compromises were made. Because of the funding cuts the position at the ICAC is much worse now than it was then.

It is enlightening to understand how the present problem came about. In June 2016, then premier Mike Baird made two consecutive announcements. His first announcement was he and his government had "zero tolerance" for corruption. This was a strong, positive sentiment for which he could be admired. But his second announcement was he intended to inflict massive funding cuts on the ICAC.

Baird never got around to explaining how he could reconcile these two inconsistent propositions.

Just as a matter of timing, the funding cuts were made shortly after the ICAC had exposed numerous members of Baird's party as committing election funding "irregularities". It is hard to imagine the funding cuts were completely unrelated to the ICAC's work.

Whatever the reason for the cuts, this inadequacy of funding robs the ICAC of its real power. Now, more corrupt transactions will go uninvestigated, and more corrupt individuals will escape exposure and punishment. Brace yourself NSW – you can expect a return to the bad old days.

But the funding cuts have a second effect – it takes away the ICAC's independence. By reducing its funding, the government makes the ICAC subservient to it. It means the ICAC will be required to go to the government outlining why it needs money and justifying it by outlining what it is doing. This leads to the unsettling idea that the investigative agency needs to beg for money from those persons it should be investigating.

It all depends upon what you want. If you do not mind corruption then you will not mind a weak ICAC. If you want to stop corruption and you want to expose corrupt individuals, then you need a properly funded, powerful and independent ICAC.

I say that if you really want to stop corruption in NSW then the chief commissioner should be given all of the funding he wants – and then it should be doubled.


Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here

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