Doctor and activist

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Category: Privatisation

The Australia Card and Data

16 March 2024

The Australia Card debate, which was from 1985-7 was whether we should all carry a card that would link all the information about us.

I was in favour of it because my concerns at that time in occupational health and safety was as to whether exposure to various workplace chemicals had an adverse effect on health.

The best data came from Sweden, where people’s occupation was on a database and their mortalities could be compared. Nowhere else had comparable data.

It seemed to me that the data was going to be collected inevitably and we should have a debate then and there as to who would collect it and what could be done with it.

I was in the Australian Democrats, who were usually quite sensible and given to rational argument, but the view was that people would be safer if the data was not collected at all so they opposed the card and the naysayers won the day in the Party and the nation.

The Credit Reference Association was already collecting data about unpaid bills and there was a debate as to whether the subject of the data, (who was usually only alerted to its existence when they could not get a loan), could have access to their own record to respond with reasons for whatever was on it.

Naturally financial data was of use to the tax office and now buying habits, web-search histories and emails result in changes to the feed of ads on social media.

Now that financial data is collected, the discussion can move on to more socially helpful data.  Apparently Facebook can announce a flu epidemic earlier than the public register of viral tests or hospital admissions just from reading the frequency of the words ‘flu or sick’ on the posts.

In life I have progressed from dealing with acute diseases in heroic medicine and  intensive care settings to looking at how to do prevention. Prevention is always the poor cousin, because if you spend money on it is hard to show results in the short time frame that accountants and politicians want.

As I moved from medicine to social policy and tried to advocate for ‘preventive social policy’ the situation became even more difficult, despite the well known fact that increasingly social disadvantage gives rise to poorer health outcomes. This is acknowledged with lip service, but the late-stage capitalist growth in inequality powers on regardless.

In 2001 as a NSW MLC I initiated an inquiry into DoCS (Dept of Community Services), which was then called FACS (Family and Community Services), and is now called DCJ (Dept of Communities and Justice).  My inquiry showed that the Dept was dysfunctional, which we knew already, and the changes since have not helped much. Initially the problem was that they wanted to concentrate on the children most at risk, which meant still minimal supportive prevention for cases that were not at risk yet.  Then the Department became even more defensive and privatised cases, so the kids became a commodity with NGO and ‘for profit’ corporations getting packages to look after kids with problems and then giving them to carer families for about a third of the money that they were given.  ‘Management’, it seems, is a very expensive and lucrative business.

Obviously looking after kids whose parents are dysfunctional is a very difficult undertaking.  Does one take the child and give it a good foster care family?  What is a good foster care family? How much do you support dysfunctional parents?  Are the grandparents, who presumably brought up the dysfunctional parents a good bet? Who makes the decision and what appeal mechanisms are there?  Presumably all this is rendered ever more difficult by the fact that the gap between rich and poor is rising, there is no longer anywhere near enough public housing, and welfare payments are not really enough to live on.

It seems that the best way to see what policy works is to follow the kids in a lifetime study and see how they turn out. The criticism is that the OOHC (Out of Home Care) system has a hugely higher percentage of kids graduating to juvenile justice and then adult prisons.  But data is hard to get as the Department, despite its numerous renamings, will not release the information as it is politically embarrassing.  Naturally the privacy of the children is cited, but the data could easily be de-identified as much epidemiological data is.

We need to get data to make better decisions, ones based on facts as far as possible, with transparent assessment procedures with honest assessments of what is happening and a minimum of political or bureaucratic interference. With ‘issues management’ aka PR BS getting more sophisticated all the time, it will be an increasing struggle.  The Aust Bureau of Statistics, which tries to produce facts, but can only work with the data it is given and presumably cannot be political in trying to get better data, was significantly defunded by Tony Abbott as part of his war on facts. Meanwhile the private sector hoovers up personal data and a few diehards try to keep using cash.

Ross Gittins, the SMH Economic Editor who generally writes good commonsense in a digestible form and has recently been recognised for his good work, has penned the article below in today’s SMH.

Australia Card anyone?


How the digital world is getting better at measuring us up

Ross Gittins, Economics Editor

SMH March 15, 2024

These days we hear incessantly about “data”. The media is full of reports of new data about this or that, and there’s a new and growing occupation of data analysts and even data scientists. So, what is data, where does it come from, what are people doing with it, and why should I care?

Google “data” and you find it’s “facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis”. The advent of computers has allowed businesses and governments to record, calculate, play with and store huge amounts of data.

Businesses have data about what goods and services they’re making, buying and selling, importing or exporting, and paying their workers, going back for 30 or 40 years.

Our banks have data about what we earn and what we spend it on, especially when we use a credit or debit card – or our phone – to pay for something.

Much of this data is required to be supplied to government agencies. If you ever go onto the Australia Taxation Office’s website to do your annual tax return, it will offer to “pre-fill” your return with stuff it already knows about your income from wages, bank interest and dividends.

Try it sometime. You’ll be amazed by how much the taxman knows and how accurate his data are.

Another dimension of the “information revolution” is how advances in international telecommunications – including via satellites – have allowed us to be in touch with people and institutions around the world in real-time via email and the web – news, entertainment, social media, whatever.

Last month, the Australian Statistician – aka the boss of the Australian Bureau of Statistics – Dr David Gruen, gave a speech outlining some of the ways these huge banks of “big data” about the economic activities of the nation’s businesses, workers, consumers and governments can be used to improve the way we measure the economy in all its aspects: employment, inflation, gross domestic product and the rest.

We’re getting more information and more accurate information, and we’re getting it much sooner than we used to. But we’re still in the early days of exploiting this opportunity to be better informed about what’s happening in the economy and to have better information to guide the government’s decisions about its policies to improve the economy’s performance.

Gruen starts by describing the Tax Office’s “single-touch” payroll system, software that automatically receives information about employees’ payments every time an employer runs its payroll program.

Not all employers have the software, but those who do account for more than 10 million of our 14 million employees.

Gruen says the arrival of the pandemic in early 2020 made access to this “rich vein of near real-time information” an urgent priority. The taxman pulled out the stops, and the stats bureau began receiving these data in early April 2020.

With a virus spreading through the land and governments ordering lockdowns and border closures, they couldn’t afford to wait a month or more to find out what was happening in the economy. Thus, the whole project of using big data to help measure the economy received an enormous kick along – here and in all the other rich economies.

So, in addition to the longstanding monthly sample survey of the labour force, we now have a new publication: Weekly Payroll Jobs and Wages Australia. These data allowed the “econocrats”—and the rest of us—to chart the dramatic collapse in jobs across the economy over the three weeks from mid-March 2020.

They show employment in the accommodation and food services industry falling by more than a quarter in just three weeks. Employment in the arts and recreation services industry fell by almost 20 per cent. By contrast, falls in utilities and education and training were minor.

The monthly labour force survey has a sample size of about 50,000 people, compared with the payroll program’s 10 million-plus people, meaning it provides information on far more dimensions of the workforce than the old way does.

So, the bureau’s access to payroll data taught it new ways of doing things. And the pandemic increased econocrats’ appetite for more info about the economy that was available in real-time.

With household consumption – consumer spending – accounting for about half of gross domestic product, improving the timeliness and detail of the data was a great idea.

So, in February 2022, the bureau released the first monthly household spending indicator using (note this) aggregated and de-identified data on credit and debit card transactions supplied by the major banks. This indicator provides two-thirds coverage of household consumption, compared with the less than one-third coverage provided by the usual survey of retail trade.

The bureau has also begun publishing a monthly consumer price index in addition to the usual quarterly index. This is possible because big data – in the form of data from scanners at checkout counters and data scraped from the websites of supermarket chains – is much cheaper to gather than the old way.

The bureau has also started integrating different but related sets of big data from several sources, so analysts can study the behaviour of individual consumers or businesses. It has developed two large integrated data assets.

The one for individuals links families and households with data sets on income and taxation, social support, education, health, migrants and disability.

The one for businesses links them with a host of surveys of aspects of business activity, income and taxation, overseas trade, intellectual property and insolvency.

The purpose is to allow analysts from government departments, universities or think tanks to shed light on policy problems from multiple dimensions.

For instance, one study showed that people over 65 who’d had their third COVID vaccination within the previous three months were 93 per cent less likely to die from the virus than an unvaccinated person. But that’s just the tiniest example of what we’ll be able to find out.


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Secularism Australia Conference 2023

3 December 2023
I attended the Secularism Australia Conference on 2/12/23 at the NSW Teachers Federation in Sydney.
There were some interesting features:

There were a number of sponsoring groups, which cooperated to put it on. They were the NSW Teachers’ Federation, the Secular Assoc of NSW. Humanists Victoria, National Secular Lobby, Rationalist Society of Aust, Plain Reason and Humanists Australia. This seems a new level of cooperation, which is encouraging to see.

The Big Picture
Ex-Senator Chris Schacht drew attention to the 2021 Census which had 93% answer the religion question and a very large rise in the ‘No Religion’ percentage:
No Religion 38.9%
Christian 43.9% (Catholic 20%, Anglican 9.8%)
Not Stated 6.9%
Islam 3.2%
Hindu 2.7%
Buddhism 2.4%

It is also noteworthy that younger age groups are less religious with the 15-24 age group at 45.6% and 25-34 at 48.4%. Chris said that the political system and its patronage had in no way responded to this change and that it was necessary that they be forced to do so by more effective advocacy.

He said that a key problem was the reluctance of both Federal and State governments to reveal the true cost of the subsidies to religions. They get huge grants, pay no tax from their activities, not all of which may be charitable, and also have huge tax exemptions from State land taxes and Council rates. It would take quite an effort to get the full total of this, but it seems that neither Federal nor State gover\nemtns of both major parties do not want to draw attention to the issue. That is without considering aspects like private school funding, which is subsidised inequity. One politician when challenged said, ‘I have a 4% margin in my seat, and if I upset the Churches, it might be enough to change that’. Chris points out that if the ‘no religion’ votes were mobilised, it would certainly counter that fear, but most politicians have not considered the matter. And the ‘no religion’ voters have not demanded the end to these subsidies and unquantified tax lurks.

Senator David Shoebridge (whose speech is on his Facebook page) pointed out that there are 15,000 charities who receive government funding of $24 billion in addition to any tax-deductible donations. This is mostly for contracts for hospital or aged care services, but under legislation by Gillard they do not have to produce reports of how the money is spent!

School Funding
In terms of the Federal Government’s response to funding schools, Whitlam wanted a needs based formula and Gonski in his original report was similar, but the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) formula under Turnbull was that 80% of Federal money went to private schools and only 20% to public. Chris hoped to change the formula. The slogan should be ‘Excellence through Equity’ not through ‘choice and competition’, which has manifestly failed as Australia tumbles down the OECD Education rankings. Sadly the current Federal Minister of Education, Jason Clare, was photographed with the Parliamentary Friends of School Chaplaincy.

Religion and the Constitution
There was quite a lot of interest in the legal history, with Michael KIrby ex-Justice of the High Court and Prof Luke Beck an academic. The question was whether the government could support religion as the Constitution specifically forbids the government from having an official religion as discriminating on the grounds of it. There had been a prosecution of a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) in 1894 for illegally working on a Sunday, and he had unsuccessfully argued that their Sabbath was on Saturday and he needed to work on Sunday. The guilty man was fined two shillings and sixpence (=25c) or two hours in the stocks. He chose two hours in the stocks, but it turned out that there were no stocks available and there was a bit of a fuss that the government declined to make any. SDA lobbying may have been the reason that the prohibition on the government sponsoring a religion was included in the Constitution. The precedent of course was the “Church of England’ set up by Henry VIII so he could divorce his first wife. Henry Parkes, the father of Federation did not want any mention of religion in the constitution, but the mainstream churches insisted, so it is mentioned, but not given any practical grounds to empower religious institutions.

When state money was first given to Church schools the Council for the Defence of Government Schools (DOGS) took a case to the High Court that it was unconstitutional to favour a religion. The High Court, whose members mostly came from private schools, ruled against the DOGS, Kirby himself writing a dissenting judgement. He wondered what would happen if the DOGS case were re-litigated today.

Religion and the Radical Right
Chrys Stevenson, a freelance researcher spoke on Christian Dominionism. These folk want a theological world where the second coming of Christ will be when there is a (Christian) God on the top of every mountain on every continent. I was inclined to think that this was crazy stuff, but it seems that huge amounts of money from the Right of US politics links to very conservative Christianity through the Atlas network, the Tea Party Movement and Charles Koch (22nd richest man in the world at $US 60 billion), There are quite a lot of ‘Think Tanks’ funded by these groups. It seems that a preoccupation with letting God fix things aligns quite well with unfettered market capitalism. There have been very successful efforts to put more religious people in political parties, particularly the Right wing evangelicals into the Liberals. The links between the religious Right and the US Republicans are well known. The Labor Party has a lot of Catholics. Chrys wonders if the religious nutters are ‘useful idiots’ for the Right. It may be crazy stuff, but I am less sure that it is irrelevant stuff.

Religious Education in State Schools
There was quite a lot of discussion of religious education in State schools. The National School Chaplaincy program was an idea of Peter Eawlings, taken up via Greg Hunt, Julie Bishop and John Howard. It had been previously called CHIPS (Christians Helping in Schools), but with the new funded program the new name for Chaplains became ‘Student Wellbeing Officers.’ Maurie Mulheron the ex-President of the NSW Teachers Federation noted the lack of qualifications of those delivering religious education in schools, which had increasingly been done by volunteers with a trend towards evangelicals as the only people willing to do it. They see it as an opportunity for recruitment. Bill Browne of The Australia Institute surveyed Chaplains on their knowledge of the National Student Wellbeing Program, which replaced the National School Chaplaincy Program. He asked 50 questions. 71% of Chaplains had not heard of the program, 10% were unsure, and 20% had heard of it.

Most schools had struggled to find alternatives to the Chaplains, and kids who stayed away for a free ‘do nothing’ period tended to be hard to get back to a school focus.

Prof Anna Halafoff had surveyed children 13-18 and found that 52% had no religion, as opposed to 45% in the 2021 census of 15-24 year olds.

A Western Australian teacher said that there was a preoccupation with Christianity, but she was concerned that girls in Muslim schools have to have their menstrual periods recorded as they cannot go to the mosque, which is a significant infringement of their privacy and human rights. She tweets under infidelnoodle.

Ron Williams had challenged religious education in schools under Section 51.23a of the Constitution, pointing out that $1.47 billion was spent on it since Howard initiated it, and that funding of $61 million a year was locked in until 2027. Albanese increased it to $307 million! Williams had run out of money so ran the case himself and lost in the High Court.

There is a group called FIRIS, (Fairness In Religion In Schools) run by Steven Cowgill and Craig McLachlan. The slogan is ‘Teaching not Preaching’. There is a similar group, ‘Queensland Parents for Secular State Schools’. It was felt that the teaching of religions should be by qualified teachers who would explain that there were diverse views with the object of increasing understanding and tolerance as well as ethical values.

Chaplains in the Military
Collin Acton was the former Director of Chaplaincy in the Royal Australian Navy. He pointed out that there needs to be reform of the Aust Defence Force (ADF) Chaplaincy service as the only training that the Chaplains have is a theology degree and there are a lot of problems in the ADF, PTSD being a major one. He wanted secular Chaplains, but the Religious Advisory Committee of the ADF targeted him and he was forced out. (There is a story about this on the Rationalist website). There are 150 full time Chaplains and 150 part-time ones, and all of them were Christian. The Navy changed this in 2017 and now has 2 Buddhists, 2 Islam and a Hindu. The British Ministry of Defence has its first 3 non-religious pastors! Acton points out that the major social divide in the ADF is between the military and the civilians. The Chaplains are embedded within the ADF so can be visited easily and without attracting attention. Seeing a counsellor or psychologist outside the military is likely to be noticed and may impact adversely on promotion prospects, so the existing chaplaincy service has an immense advantage.

Religion in Parliamentary and Council Governance Rules
There was quite a lot of discussion about the extent to which religion had embedded itself in society. Some politicians found it offensive that the Lord’s Prayer was said at the opening of Parliament every day, and absented themselves as I had while it was read. It is an opinion that since the Constitution forbids Parliament to make laws that favour any religion, the reading of the Lord’s Prayer is unconstitutional, but it has never been challenged, so the practice stays.

A local councillor from Boroondara in Victoria, Victor Franco, had challenged reading the prayer in his Council, which was in their ‘Governance Rules’. He pointed out that in the census 47% of his community were non-religious, 40% were Christians and 10% were the rest. He wrote to other councillors who still did not want to change. He said that he was going to mount a legal challenge with Prof Luke Beck and Morris Blackburn lawyers. A call for public submissions had 86% anti-prayer, and the Council caved in.

He had compiled some interesting figures of how many councils have prayers:
NSW 72/129 56%
Victoria 42/79 53%
Qld 35/78 45%
WA 11/137 8%
SA 23/70 28%
191/522 37%

He commented that because his Council caved in there was no test case that clarified the matter, and that it might have affected State and Federal Parliaments also.

The conference was felt to have been very successful in that a number of groups had come together to organise it.
It was intended to hold more conferences, regularly and in different States to draw attention to Secular issues and the anomaly of funding religions.
The huge rise in ‘no religion’ was felt to have been ignored and there was a large need to educate the politicians that the religious subsidies, tax exemptions and lack of financial reporting were no longer acceptable.
There was pressure on the politicians present to get the figures as to the extent of subsidies, which they conceded was necessary. All three present, Chris Schacht (retired Labor Senator), Senator David Shoebridge (Greens- NSW) and Abigail Boyd MLC (NSW Greens) said that they had tried without huge success, but would try again.
At an individual level, we need to get our voices heard!

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Hospital Crisis is just part of the story.

6 November 2023

The hospital crisis is partly because General Practice has been so downgraded that more cases go to hospital than need to. The Federal government starving Medicare has a number of consequences:
Many GPs are simply retiring and there are no enough new ones taking their place, so we are getting towards a serious shortage
GPs cannot survive on the Medicare rebate, so now charge a co-payment.
Since Emergency departments are free, people wait until the situation gets worse then go there.
Emergency Depts are about 6 times the cost of GP visits, so the total cost of the Health Care system rises.
The other part of the Federal government starving Medicare is that the State governments pay for the emergency departments, so it is a case of the Federal government saving money by making it a lot more difficult for the States.
But an overriding fact is that Australia has been convinced by the neo-liberals that tax is a bad thing and government spending must be a small percentage of GDP. Currently this is about 38.4% of GDP, slightly less than the USA, which has very poor welfare and health systems. This means that the governments cannot actually afford to do anything, and behave like a corporation, cutting employee wages and making cuts wherever it thinks no one will notice, or it has the power to do so. Now if Labor ever tries to raise taxes, the Liberals, who are great exponents of small government accuse Labor of being ‘tax and spend’, and Labor, rather than have a serious debate merely retreats. The fact that he Scandinavian countries have government as close to half of GDP and have their citizens much better off never gets mentioned. Denmark is at 49.9%, Germany 49%, Finland 54% and France at 54%. The UK is at 45%.
We now have a failing GP sector, a problem in aged care, a shortage of nurses, paramedics on strike, a hollowed out public service that merely awards its former tasks to private sector operators that it cannot even monitor and Australia falling down the World educational standards table is not a coincidence. The governments have a virtual monopoly of these jobs. They have deliberately let wages fall, so that now people simply will not do them.
We need to stop privatising, rebuild that public sector so that it can deliver services that we need. Profit is merely another unnecessary overhead. We need to decide what needs to be done, and raise enough tax to pay the people to stay in their public service jobs. Education, health and aged care do not need a ‘market’ to function/. If one exists for comparison purposes, that is fine, but there is no actual virtue in having most of the services delivered by corporations that have the choice of good service or good profits. It is a con, and it is time we forced the government to give us Medicare and a health system that actually works for all, and education for all.
Here is a letter from my Medical partner in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

The horror stories now emerging about overloaded public hospitals, ambulances and emergency departments comes as no surprise to anyone following the downgrading of Medicare to a ‘‘mixed billing’’ system. This has made it unaffordable for many people to see a GP. But the real cost of turning Medicare into a two-tier system has been to the public hospital system. The only winners are private corporations, private hospitals, private health insurance funds and their many lobbyists in Canberra. We are going the way of the US, and if people don’t fight for Medicare, we are all doomed.
Con Costa, Hurlstone Park:

Here is today’s Herald Editorial

Health system needs its own emergency care
The state of health of the health system has dominated the lives of Australians for four years, but it has never been in such need of urgent care. Indicative of how working conditions for frontline healthcare workers have deteriorated, people now spend a median of three hours and 36 minutes in NSW hospital emergency departments, the longest wait ever. It’s little wonder that health workers are suffering burnout, stress and bullying and are leaving the industry in record numbers.
The COVID-19 pandemic sharpened awareness of our vulnerabilities and forced extra spending on hospitals, clinical responses, vaccinations and prevention measures.
And when we emerged from the pandemic’s worst days it became evident the health system too was experiencing difficulty recovering from years of stress. It had been deteriorating for a long time already, but post-pandemic we became uncomfortably aware that ambulances were queueing for hours to offload emergency patients and hospitals were under enormous pressure with lengthy wait times in emergency and admission.
GPs bumped up fees, forcing people who could not afford the $11-a-visit hike into hospital emergency departments. The industry is being further destabilised by the exodus of 6500 nurses and midwives a year.
If anything, the situation is worse outside the big cities. Last year, for instance, five deaths in regional hospitals could potentially have been prevented, but not in an overworked hospital system with staff shortages that make mistakes even more likely. The NSW parliament’s health portfolio committee report on rural, regional and remote health 18 months ago found a ‘‘culture of fear’’ which did not encourage or value feedback and complaints. Some workers say they were even punished for making complaints.
Now an investigation by the Herald has revealed a health system sinking further into crisis. Eight nurses and midwives have taken their lives in the past three years, while nearly 2000 NSW Health workers have lodged compensation claims for psychological injuries over the past two years. More than 33,500 NSW Health employees have also claimed they are burnt out, while 21,000 workers say they have witnessed bullying in the workplace. One in 12 ambulance employees hold a compensation claim for a psychological injury.
Experts and unions warn that the data, drawn from documents obtained exclusively under freedom of information laws and the state government’s recently released annual employee survey, People Matter, shows a workplace struggling with staff mental health concerns.
Further illustrating the stress, NSW Ambulance fielded a record 363,251 calls and fired up the lights and sirens for more than 181,000 emergency call-outs between July and September, the most of any three-month period since the Bureau of Health Information began taking records in 2010.
Money seems to be the root cause of health’s problems. Today’s national cabinet meeting will address the rampant cost blowouts in the NDIS and Canberra wants the states to take responsibility for funding treatments. On Friday, Premier Chris Minns and Treasurer Daniel Mookhey meet the Health Services Union over a protracted pay dispute threatening to collapse the NSW triple zero call system on New Year’s Eve. Minns said the money is not available.
The future funding and structure of our health systems concerns us all. It is an area where the federal and state governments share responsibility. The solution to the healthcare crisis is complex and will take time, but it is an area where increased funding must be found.
That clearly calls for a better national approach and the states responding with an end to parochial wheelbarrowpushing and finger-pointing.

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Argentinian Populist Wins Election

25 November 2023

I visited Argentina, Uruguay and Chile  for 4 weeks over Christmas 2018-9.

Argentina was a pleasant, orderly, developed country. The people were friendly, and you could sit in cafes in town squares where flamenco dancers performed, supported by tips from the enthusiastic locals and tourists.  The main part of Buenos Aires had been built, modelled on Paris around 1900, when Argentina was relatively rich because of beef prices. As commodities fell in price relative to manufactured goods, their economy has suffered. But the fine buildings in the centre of the city remain.  They have alternated between leftist governments that nationalise and take resources from the foreigners and right wing governments, usually supported by the US, who privatise and encourage foreign investment, then use repression to control the people.

The government, when we were there was middle of the road, but having trouble controlling inflation, which was at around 40%.  From a visitors point of view, things were cheap, a meal for two with wine less than half what it would have been in a Sydney pub. We did not feel unsafe.

Because of the concerns with the inflation problem, there were worries about democracy in the future, given the history of right-wing coups in many South American countries.

There had been a military coup in 1975, which seems to have been US-facilitated and the military junta had been in power from 1976 to 1983. Approximately 30,000 people who had been arrested ‘disappeared’.  They were part of a wider ‘Operation Condor’ to persecute and eliminate political, social, trade-union and student activists from Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil by the right-wing governments in those countries.  The US CIA provided the database so was well aware of what was happening.

Even now, every Thursday at 1pm the mothers and sisters of ‘The Disappeared’ dress in white and walk in pairs around a statue in Plaza de Mayo outside the Parliament.  The women had started protesting in 1977, but anything more than two people walking together was termed a crowd’ and thus illegal. Of those who perpetrated this atrocity only one soldier actually told the tale of what happened. Some of the disappeared had simply been shot in mass graves, but others went to the Naval training headquarters in Buenos Aires where they were kept in the attic and tortured in the basement. Some  were released, but others were drugged with thiopentone, loaded into trucks, then planes and dumped into the Atlantic Ocean.  Some were made to call their families with a gun at their heads and say that they could not talk, but they were happy  in a new life in Paris or some other unlikely tale.

Survivors described how they had a hood over their head at all times and could only see their feet. They described the steps and the colour of the walls, and where the phone was that they had to speak on and the lift next to the phone.  Later, the government came, took out the lift and the phone and painted the walls of the Naval training centre a different colour, so that the building would not match the descriptions of the inmates. Naturally there were no plans of the building changes available. The area was a museum when we were there and there was a small research area, still trying to identify individuals and what had happened to them. They were worried that the government would defund them and close their museum.

Now a far-Right populist, Javier Milei, has won the election, promising to abolish the Central Bank, change the currency to the US dollar, privatise everything and make guns freely available.  He denies climate change and the crimes of the previous military junta.  He has been congratulated by Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, the recently defeated populist from Brazil. He also wants to re-take the Malvinas aka the Falklands.  There is little hope of this simplistic nonsense improving anything in Argentina.  The worry is not only that the ‘Museum to the Disappeared’ will disappear, but that it will all happen again.

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Apartheid Education Buses

23 November 2023

I live near a turning circle in a good area of Sydney.  There is a Bus Stop there and the government bus there has an ad with a picture of a forlorn looking schoolgirl saying that she cannot have a decent education, so would I donate to The Smith Family so she can.

As the ad displays there, 8 shiny new buses take private school children from the turning circle to 8 different private schools.

It seems that our governments are happy to subsidise ‘choice’ so that they do not have to fund a fair go and we are happy to tolerate an apartheid education system.

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An Apolitical Public Service?

One of the ideas that was fashionable in my youth was that the public service was to be apolitical and give unbiased advice to Ministers, who would then presumably implement it.

This principle seems most challenged in the 1980s when ‘Harvard Management’ was the watchword. The facts about what was needed were presumed to be clear to the manager and his (or rarely her) job was to implement this against the inertia and ignorance of the rest of the organisation. There were workshops on ‘how to break down the culture of an organisation.’  There were articles at the time about how superior the US political system was in that the heads and significant senior level of the public service were all replaced after each electi0on so that their departmental programs followed what their new political masters wanted. 

I saw at first hand at Sydney Water the progressive replacement of managers who had risen up through the ranks and knew what they were doing by people who played office politics or were politically favoured and did not even know what they did not know.  The Liberal management imperative at the time was to slim down the organisation, and since it was a ‘government owned enterprise’ realise the profits of its activities.  In short, to sack staff from 17,000 to 2,000, and take what was formerly paid in wages as dividend.  So these wages actually became taxes because the water rates did not fall.  Stormwater pipe replacement programs were halted, the apprentice training school was closed, the employment schemes for people with disabilities, long term unemployed, and for those recently out of prison were all ceased and repairs were only done ‘when needed.’ So the relationship between the Public Service doing its job in a traditional way, and the political imperatives driven by the dogmas of the day were clearly illustrated.

At a more entertaining level, the ’Yes Minister’ series from the BBC showed the politicians being led by the nose by immutable public servants, while the more recent local ABC show ‘Utopia’ had a sensible public service being mucked around by foolish politicians. 

At the Federal Australian level, one might recall the trouble that Andrew Wilkie got into when working for the Office of National Assessment (ONA), when he alleged that the ONA was being told to find evidence that justified the war in Iraq, rather than being asked to evaluate whether such evidence was persuasive.  The Robodebt saga had public servants who seem to have been justified in their belief that if they did not implement the scheme that may well have been illegal their careers would  suffer.  That did not stop them wearing the flak later.

The dogma that the private sector knows best is only true if the Public Service has all the people with specialist knowledge given redundancy, as was the case in Sydney Water. The rise of PwC and the inability to supervise them comes from the weakening of the knowledge base of the public sector, driven by the current imperative to keep the government sector as small as possible, not that using consultants over career public servants with specific expertise actually saves any money in the medium term.

But there is politics in every organisation, from the local tennis club to the public service to international politics. (My only advice is that since all campaigns take much the same amount of energy do not waste time on small issues).  It is naive to expect people not to play politics; it is necessary for a career.  The critical thing that needs to be ensured is that the competition is fair and transparent and that the right things are rewarded.

The top echelons of the public service still have power as was demonstrated by the saga of Michael Pezzullo. He lobbied to increase the power of Home Affairs, which was of course helped by the demonisation  of boat people that had done so well for the conservative side  of politics. He then interfered in who was in Cabinet, favoured Big Tobacco, favoured recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, supported a firm that was going to process visas when this was privatised, and PwC when the COVID quarantine system was to be privatised.  (It might be noted that today’s SMH which details a lot of this has frequent disclaimers, presumably to evade Australia’s rigid defamation laws).

It is ironic that the Public Service Act was revised by the Howard government in 1999 as they presided over the rise of consultants and  the politicisation of the shrinking public service. 

The difficulty of rebuilding the public service is huge. If people have expertise that they can profit from they will be reluctant to return to the public service on a lower salary, particularly as no one will any longer be sure of security of tenure.  One of the advantages of the old public service was that if your career went into an area of specialised knowledge you were not very employable in the open market but you had a job until retirement and your knowledge was respected and used in your field. This situation will be difficult to re-create.

The harms done by the dogmas of small government and neoliberalism will take a long time and a lot of thought to undo.  

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Qantas- What a Tale!

3 September 2023

I used to fly Qantas.  I used to go on holidays to Europe in winter, having saved my pennies from my casual student job.  I went in winter because it was Uni holidays.  (They were the days when students could actually save while at uni, if they were super frugal, worked enough hours and did not care if they did not get credits).

When the Aussie-accent welcome was spoken on Qantas, it felt like home.  But Qantas became ever more expensive, and now is often double the budget carriers.  I have remained frugal on air fares, as you can stay a week longer overseas on the difference. If you are on the same plane with the same departure and arrival times, why pay a thousand dollars for slightly more legroom, slightly more attention and a slightly better meal?  And if it is a cheaper plane that does not crash, the flying times are also much the same.

I flew on Ryan Air around Europe when Alan Joyce was in charge. The tickets were cheap, but you paid to choose your seat, were encouraged to pay to go to the head of the queue, were hassled to buy lunch, duty-free and lottery tickets even when you got on board.  There was talk of having to pay to go to the on board dunny; I don’t know if it ever happened.  I was therefore worried when Joyce got control of Qantas. The Qantas’ safety record was based on maintenance well done in Australia. That was outsourced. The prices still rose, blamed on fuel prices of course. The staff were largely retrenched with COVID, but Qantas got a lot of jobseeker money that was not repaid.  After COVID, many middle class folks have wanted to have overseas trips or see relatives (including me) and have paid top dollar for tickets. There is a shortage of flights, presumably due to a lack of staff returning to the industry, but record profits.  Luckily I have never thought much of flight credits or bought tickets for non-existent flights; this last must be more luck than management.

Qatar did not get landing rights, almost certainly to protect Qantas profits, even though Qantas is no longer an Australian government airline and after various privatisations Australians own only 51% of it.  But we will all be paying more for this denial of competition .

I was also interested to read Joyce’s background. He was a mathematician who is very good at maximising the profit from various aviation-related sales. I guess this explains the optional extras on RyanAir and the crazy price gyrations even while you are logged on trying to buy a ticket.

Australia is something of a haven for powerful industries seeking monopolies or oligopoly powers. Sydney Airport was privatised by John Howard and his chief of staff, Max (the Axe) Moore –Wilton  left to manage the buying organisation, Macquarie Airport Corporation.  Airport charges rose massively. Some airlines could not afford this and stopped flying their routes. At the time I was living in Dunedin and Sydney-Dunedin was one of the routes discontinued, so instead of a 3 hour flight from $200,  I had to fly via either Christchurch or Brisbane at more than twice the cost with stopovers as long as 13 hrs.  A huge benefit to an Aussie corporation at huge cost to the flying public, and this is totally ongoing. Airports should be a service run on a cost-recovery basis.

It is time Australia got a competition policy that stopped the supernormal profits of oligopolies, which has made Australian companies so profitable compared to overseas companies doing similar jobs, which is leading to huge number of takeovers by foreign companies and Australians further losing ownership and control of our national assets.  This Qantas nonsense has to stop.

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Private Schools- part of entrenching inequality

31 May 2023

In the 1960s State Aid for Church schools was initiated in NSW. Then there became an emphasis on ‘choice’ of school and subsidies for children to catch a bus away from where the child lived to the school that they wanted to go to.

Governments, particularly conservative ones want more children in private schools as this lessens total government expenditure, though private schools have successfully demanded closer to the amount of money per student that the public schools get.  The subsidies also favour their conservative voters.

Private school parents, seeking advantage for their students pay high fees so the government funding seems to be spent along with the other money on swimming pools and ‘luxury items’. 

Meanwhile Australia is slipping down the world education ratings, because public schools are neglected. The sociology also needs to be considered. The ‘choice’ is only for some.  The parents who do not have the financial means for a private school, nor the grades to get into a selective school have to take what they can get.  I visited a school in a disadvantaged area in Sydney, and looked at the school photos in the foyer. There was not a white face in the last 15 years- all the students were either of Pacific Islander or Middle Eastern origin.  The Principal said to me that she just wished she had a few Anglo students to model what the majority of Australians do.  There had been a stabbing in the playground about 30 years ago, and this had led to ‘white flight’.  There were also a considerable number of children with disabilities, which may be related to marriages within ethnic family or religious groups.  With poorer facilities, disadvantaged students  a lack of role models and teachers with lower pay, the Principal said it was very difficult to get her graduates good results and able to compete for jobs. 

I live in a relatively good suburb near a place where buses can turn around.  Each day 8 busses leave from close to me to go to 8 different private schools, 4 single sex male, and 4 single sex female. I think of them as Apartheid busses. The buses are all branded and new.  The students getting on board can go in relative luxury from the civilised suburb to the well-endowed schools. They need have no contact with poorer folk, even on public transport.  These advantaged students will go to universities, into top jobs and make decisions for us all.

I am reminded that in the US in the Johnson era there was ‘bussing’ which took more wealthy students to schools in poorer areas to make richer students aware of how the poorer student lived and to increase equality of opportunity. Australia, supposedly the land of the ‘fair go’, is now quite the opposite, subsidising inequality as we become the country with the most privatised (and unequal) education systems in the world. Now, just to emphasis the point, ‘for profit’ schools are coming in. ‘Hey, what is wrong with making a profit?’ we hear them cry.

When I went to school in Port Kembla, half the school were children of post-WW2 migrants from Europe, ‘displaced persons’, or what we would now call refugees. Half the children arrived at kindergarten unable to speak a word of English.  There were 46 in my class. All this was ‘normal’.  There was no anti-discrimination legislation.  But the over-riding unifying factors were that all the kids in the school had the same experience, all the parents had jobs and the Housing Commission was building whole suburbs of houses as fast as they could to settle the new migrants.  By the end of 3rd class there was really no difference between migrants and Anglo-born. It was equality of opportunity, a ‘fair go’. This is what is being lost. We see the example of the US where the gap between rich and poor keeps growing and we are subsidising the same process!

We forgot about the first Gonski report on educational inequality as the politicans did not want to offend the middle class by lessening their education subsidies. Gonski was pressured to do a weaker second report and inequality of opportunity keeps growing.

The politicians tell us that their education funding has never been higher. Perhaps this is so, but while the money is spent on luxuries for some and there is not enough financially or sociologically to help disadvantaged areas, Australia will continue to slide down the international education rankings and the entrenched disadvantage that continues from generation to generation will continue.

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Our government is being privatised by stealth.

SMH 17 May 2023

Geoffrey Watson

The PwC scandal is serious, but it seems to have been lost in the background noise of a coronation and a federal budget. Yet the scandal raises some very big questions about how we are being governed.

The facts are simple enough: in 2013, Australia was engaged in an international effort to crack down on multinationals avoiding corporate tax through cross-border income and asset transfers. Specialists from PwC were brought in as consultants and given access to highly secret materials, subject to confidentiality agreements.

PwC’s top international tax partner, Peter Collins, took the information and shared it widely inside the firm. It was then sold to the targets of the crackdown, teaching them how to sidestep the same anti-avoidance measures PwC was helping to draft. The misuse of the highly confidential material was given a name reflecting the targeted market – ‘‘Project North America’’. PwC probably made many millions of dollars.

Disgraceful conduct, but highly lucrative for the partners at PwC.

So how do we know about this? Well, we did not hear it from PwC. In fact, PwC was obstructive: when the Australian Taxation Office sought information, PwC declined to cooperate, claiming legal professional privilege – a tactic commonly deployed by those clients of PwC. Instead, we only know about this from the outstanding work of two journalists at the Australian Financial Review digging into the reasons why the Tax Practitioners Board was resisting the reregistration of Peter Collins as a tax agent. If not for them, this sorry tale would not have come to light.

As usual, there seem to have been few adverse consequences for those involved. Collins and the chief executive of PwC, Tom Seymour, have left PwC, but we don’t know upon what terms – they may have received handsome payouts. We don’t know how much money PwC made from its Project North America because the partners won’t say – and they have not made an offer to disgorge their wrongful profits. PwC has not told us to whom they sold the information, so we have no idea how much tax has been avoided. PwC has announced it will commission an internal inquiry, but that is obviously insufficient.

But this is much more than a story about misconduct by a Commonwealth contractor; it is far darker than just that. There are many questions, all unanswered.

The first question: Why on earth was PwC – a substantial contributor to the global problem of crossborder tax minimisation – involved in designing Australia’s response to that very problem? Anyone could see this was going to be a problem.

That raises the second and even larger question: Why is Australia outsourcing so much of its governing to private enterprise? Policy development and implementation are now routinely taken from the public service and turned over to private ‘‘consultants’’. Some will say this is because the most highly skilled and experienced people are in the private sector and, you know, this is probably true – but it is only true because the private firms have poached the most skilled and experienced public servants from the public service. This makes good economic sense for the big firms who can charge those services back to the Commonwealth at high rates.

I am not exaggerating. Look at the audit results published by the APS for 2021-22. The Commonwealth paid $21 billion for external labour – i.e. consultants, contractors and labour-hire contracts – in a single year. To give some perspective, that is roughly the same as the federal government spent on secondary education that year. This spending was not made public. The Coalition had boasted of massive costs savings through cuts and caps on public service employment without telling us the holes were filled by payments to private enterprise. Our government was being privatised by stealth.

It may be a coincidence but, over the last decade, the major beneficiaries of mass privatisation were donating heavily to both sides of political power – Labor and the Coalition. PwC was one of the largest donors. It is another sad story of inadequate federal election funding laws and the pernicious role of big money in our election cycle.

Will Labor be better? So far, the new government’s response to this debacle has been strangely muted. Existing contracts with PwC must be investigated. Negotiations with PwC for further contracts must be frozen. Heads must roll. We need an inquiry – surely we should not be outsourcing that to PwC.

We need to take a deeper look at the way in which we have been outsourcing government. It seems we have been going down the wrong path. It is time for change.

Geoffrey Watson SC is a director at the Centre for Public Integrity.

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The Triple Lunacy of Westconnex

17 February 2023

Westconnex, the underground freeway network will open later this year.  Few realised the extent of it and for a period, trafffic will flow more smoothly.

But it was, is and will be a triple lunacy. 

  1. Nowhere else in the world are governments building freeway networks, let alone tunnelling them undergroup at vast cost. Cities like London have congestion taxes, some European cities are even closing their major roads, and it a subject of significant discussion (ww:://  The world is trying to have more public transport to lessen the need for private cars, their cost, their parking and their greenhouse gases- except NSW!
  2. The underground freeways will be privatised, so represent a huge subsidy  from the taxpayer, as the private monopolies have a track record of huge tolls and guaranteed revenue.  The tolls are already subsidised to lessen commuter pain, which amounts to continuing payments to the toll operators. Chris Minns’ Labor election platform is to subsidise motorists who spend more than $60 a week on tolls. Who are these and how many of them are there?  Logistics companies?  Couriers?  Or tens of thousands of commuters?  Naturally there will only be  a few toll operators.
  3. The money spent on road tunnels was not spent on a decent Metro system, that would have made most trips unnecessary and taken the cars off the roads.  Of course a train tunnel is smaller than a road tunnel, much cheaper to build per Km, carries far more people and does not require ventilation (or very little).

One might ask why all this happened.  My theory is that the RTA engineers were far more politically savvy than the State Rail Authority.  The RTA were dealing with politicians and building motorways all over the state, wherever they could get the government to pay for them.  The SRA confined its thinking to the existing rail network, and thought in terms of better train technology and industrial relations problems, rather than building their network and having a big part in urban planning.  And of course the lobbying was probably helped by big bankers and big construction companies and by ex-politicans at Infrastructure  NSW, which was set up in 2011 by Barry O’Farrell with ex-Premier and ex British-American tobacco executive, Nick Greiner in charge- a great privatiser.

WestConnex has beavered away at vast but unperceived cost and only attracted attention for its ventilation shafts in suburbia, or the chaos on existing roads as its portals were constructed. Now, for the next few years the affluent and the through traffic will have an easier time of it, and we can continue to lobby for the Metro system.


Web of steel, concrete and cable takes shape below

WestConnex is on track to open late this year, writes Matt O’Sullivan. (SMH 17 February 2023)

The scale and complexity of the final stage of the $17 billion WestConnex motorway project, buried up to 60 metres beneath inner Sydney, becomes clear the deeper workers venture into a twisting maze of road tunnels, ventilation passages and giant caverns for jet fans and substations.

Above ground, inner-city residents and motorists get a sense of the scale – and disruption whenever they pass a massive construction depot for the project on a site that was once the Rozelle rail yards, next to the City West Link roadway. However, the surface work represents only a fraction of the motorway junction below, which features three layers of tunnels.

All up, Australia’s most complex motorway project comprises 24 kilometres of tunnels beneath Rozelle and Lilyfield, about seven kilometres of which motorists will never see because it will be used mostly for ventilation. Once opened late this year, the $3.9 billion interchange will connect the recently opened M4-M8 Link between St Peters and Haberfield, the City West Link, the Anzac Bridge, Iron Cove and, by 2027, the planned Western Harbour Tunnel.

Almost four years after construction started, Rozelle interchange project director Steven Keyser said the focus was now on fitting out the finished tunnels and connecting ‘‘everything together, so it all talks to each other’’ as the targeted completion date looms. ‘‘We have the body built, but we need the brains,’’ he said of the mechanical and electrical systems.

Keyser said other road tunnel projects built in Sydney in the past decade had taught his team that fitting them out with mechanical and electrical equipment often took longer than anticipated. ‘‘We’ve got 1.7 million metres of cabling to run through all those tunnels. It’s a real spider network of cabling,’’ he said. ‘‘The back end takes a lot longer, and we’re scheduling far more intensely to get that right. And so we’re in a good position to open at the end of the year.’’

Keyser said that, while facing disruption from the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires, the pandemic and wet weather, the biggest logistical challenge for the project had been ensuring equipment and componentry arrived in the correct sequence. ‘‘We had 23 road-headers [excavating] and 500 blue-collar workers starting and stopping each day, getting in and out of the tunnels. This is one of the biggest logistical exercises and that’s all hidden,’’ he said.

Like the rest of WestConnex, the Rozelle interchange has been contentious due to the disruption caused to inner-city residents, and the eyesore it has created near Sydney Harbour during the years of construction.

Transport for NSW’s deputy secretary of infrastructure and place, Camilla Drover, said the project would have been far more controversial if early plans for the interchange had been pursued. ‘‘The original scheme for this was all above ground. Can you imagine? It would have been viaduct and overpasses. But the fact that it is now all underground, and we have a park instead, that is the evolution people forget about,’’ she said.

The 10-hectare park, which includes two sporting fields, on the site of the old rail yards, will open late this year when the interchange is completed.

And Keyser said the public would see the construction site change quickly over the coming months as the park began to emerge. ‘‘We’re getting to the stage where you can see what the finished product will look like,’’ he said.

Underscoring the complexity of the underground junction, the state’s transport agency took control of the project in 2017 from a corporation set up to oversee WestConnex after only one bid from contractors to build it was received in the initial tender process. The interchange was also separated from construction of the M4-M8 Link, which forms the other part of the third and final stage of the 33-kilometre motorway project. The upshot is that the risk of delivering the interchange ultimately rests with the government.

While the tunnels for the interchange average 35 to 40 metres beneath the surface, a sump where water is collected before being pumped out is about 60 metres deep. Twin tunnels for the $27 billion Sydney Metro West rail line between the CBD and Parramatta, which will include a train station next to White Bay power station at the so-called Bays West, will be dug even deeper beneath a part of the interchange over the coming years.

For tunnellers, ground conditions have presented a constant challenge during construction. ‘‘It’s always challenging with ground conditions, no matter where you are in the world. Each time we’re digging the tunnels we’re checking the reactions of what’s happening,’’ Keyser said. ‘‘We’re always a step ahead, probing things, making sure that things are only moving to the model. We have probably 5000 instruments around measuring.’’

While sandstone is easier to excavate, softer soil conditions required so-called rock bolts to be installed closer together in the tunnel walls to provide extra support. The closest the tunnels get to each other is about 10 metres. ‘‘You’re basically doing what the Romans did – you’re creating an arch [in the tunnels],’’ Keyser said of the tunnelling techniques.

About a quarter of the $3.9 billion cost of the interchange, being built by contractors CPB and John Holland, has been spent on a labyrinth of ventilation tunnels and related facilities. Three exhaust stacks about 35 metres high, which are connected to the interchange below, have been built on the site of the old rail yards. Large caverns – some about 23 metres high – also had to be dug deep underground for electricity substations and to house giant fans for the ventilation system.

Part of the reason for the mammoth size of the ventilation facilities is the need to design the interchange to cope with a catastrophic event. ‘‘You’re always catering for what is the worst case, which is if something catches fire in the tunnel,’’ Keyser said. ‘‘The standards now are quite high and the design caters for that emergency situation. In the roof, you have a fire deluge system, which is going through its testing.’’

Greens MP for Balmain Jamie Parker, who has been highly critical of WestConnex, said the interchange’s construction had caused major disruption to nearby residents over the past four years. ‘‘Everyone is relieved that it will be over. But the local community feels like they have had such widespread impacts on their homes, and now they have to deal with the longer-term consequences of the three exhaust stacks which should be filtered,’’ he said. ‘‘The impact is really significant, and it is ongoing.’’

While acknowledging the disruption to locals from construction, NSW Metropolitan Roads Minister Natalie Ward said the interchange, along with the rest of WestConnex, would result in significant travel-time savings for motorists once fully completed. ‘‘There are always challenges in construction – it’s messy; it’s disruptive,’’ she said.

‘‘The upside is it gives local roads back to local communities. This area, you might remember, was just disused rail yards; it was overgrown … [and] you couldn’t enter. We are transforming this to see community benefits.’’

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