Jenny Morris writes: Re. “The Downer Dynasty continues at DFAT” (yesterday, item 1). Very interesting item on the inspiring career trajectory of Daughter of Downer. Competition for those DFAT jobs is extremely tough – I’m surprised that the holder of a third class honours degree made the cut. But, as this government has demonstrated ad nauseam, it’s one rule for them and another for the rest of us. The audacity of it is breathtaking.

Geoff Meyer, BA [Hons] MA [Coursework] UNE, writes:  It is not the propriety about Georgina getting a scholarship to the London School of Economics, but the fact that she got one at all, that worries me. To get only third class Honours through Melbourne University, she is in no position to do further post graduate work, or even be granted a scholarship. That is the lowest grade of pass in Honours one can get. I gained second class honours, division 2, which was a mark between 70 and 74% through New England University at Armidale in NSW. I am not entitled to do either of the next two steps forward, a Research Masters or a PhD as I had not gained a Division 1 or First Class Honours. I do not know what the rules are for Melbourne University, but I would imagine that third class honours would disqualify one from doing any further higher post graduate studies, and the same in any other tertiary institution. So, what is going on here ? How did she gain a scholarship under such circumstances?

A former high level public servant writes: No doubt it’s only of minor interest, but the material on Georgina Downer got me thinking. I applied to the LSE for a Master’s degree late last year and have since been accepted. I also applied for a Chevening and didn’t even get an interview. Granted, my Honours degree was a 2A (narrowly missed a first), but by that time – 1995 – I had been a public servant for many years, a federal media and political adviser, a senior political adviser for a senior Vic Govt minister for a year and almost 2 years as a public affairs consultant in private practice. Ironically, in 1997 I got through to interview stage for a graduate position at DFAT and bombed at that point. Obviously Ms Downer has some helpful friends in high places!

Rob McCourt writes:  It is right to question appointments which appear blatantly political or worse corrupt. Ambassadorships, positions in the United Nations and other such jobs appear to have become par for the course, questioned, but raising little ethical excitement. So to some extent it is right to question Georgina Downer’s appointment but how far do you go? She is after all entitled to obtain employment. She is clearly a very bright and capable person. Do you suggest she should be barred from applying for positions with the Department of Foreign Affairs? That would be ridiculous. Do you suggest that she has obtained her position other than through the proper channels. If you do then as they say “put up or shut up “. You suggest that in relation to a previous scholarship appointment there is information that cannot be revealed without disclosing a source. The end result is that Georgina’s right to pursue her employment talents is subjugated to the so called right of your source to protect his or her backside. If the information is that good then what is holding he or she back. I think I have a pretty good idea. The information is not that reliable and in that case the whole story becomes quite malicious and dangerous. Most unadmirable!

Andrew Lewis writes: Re. “The media and the Maxine manoeuvre” (yesterday, item 7). It’s nice for Christian to point out that the media may be being too soft on the Labor Party. It would be a cruel irony for Howard to lose the election due, in part, to a lack of scrutiny of the Labor party. Let’s not forget that Mr Howard got into government by using the “small target” strategy, and has hardly been challenged by the media since. Christian suggests that Kevin Rudd went too far in describing Mr Howard as a security risk. I disagree, he didn’t go nearly far enough. Surely no-one, not even Mick Keelty, actually believed that Australia’s security profile didn’t change substantially for the worse as a result of going to war in Iraq. Incompetence in foreign policy is a substantive security risk to Australia, and Howard has been the prime architect of our biggest policy blunder since Vietnam. That he hasn’t been called to account before this is a mystery that nobody seems to be able to answer.

David Havyatt writes: Tim Mackay (yesterday, comments) asks whether John Howard will run his full term as member for Bennelong if he gets elected. I was lucky (?) enough to see the PM at Macquarie Shopping Centre just before the last election and asked him exactly that question, and his reply was “I will always do the right thing.” I haven’t figured out what he meant by that. However, I suspect Maxine will solve the problem for him (though I’m sure Nicole Campbell would as well if they’s let her run a third time – she is the unsung hero of his collapsing margin).

Virginia Laugesen writes: Re. “A body in the underpass and the art of not seeing” (yesterday, item 15). Big Issue editor Alan Attwood’s item today was sad and touching. I’m a huge fan of both the concept and content of The Big Issue. I just wanted to say that whenever I see a Big Issue vendor I go out of my way to buy a copy, whether that means crossing the road, risking missing a transport connection, spending change earmarked for a coffee, and sometimes all of the above. It’s not much of a sacrifice, not enough at all really. Over several years, each time I’ve bought the magazine, the experience has been positive, friendly and inspiring. Almost always I can feel people watching me probably wondering why I’m so eagerly approaching this person who looks so out of place in territory usually swarming with busy, blinkered people – all well inside their bubbles, as Alan says. There should be more opportunities like the one this magazine provides, for building purpose and self-esteem in people who just need a simple break. A smile and a bit of eye contact once in a while wouldn’t hurt either.

Doug Clark writes: Alan’s comments are heartfelt and truthful. It’s also worth noting that his magazine is a bloody good read, and that buying one has no comparison to begging: it is a commercial transaction with dignity on both sides. I’m only embarrassed to walk past a vendor along with the parting of the Dead Sea when I haven’t bought this fortnight’s issue. Keep punching Alan!

Rosemary Swift writes: Re. The Big Issue. You didn’t mention the third and fourth reasons, Alan Attwood – that people simply didn’t want to buy the magazine or that they already give to other causes. Alan draws a fairly long bow, equating the tragedy of the Melbourne man’s death with people not buying The Big Issue. People choose to buy or give for all kinds of reasons – just because they choose not to buy from or give to you doesn’t mean they don’t see you or they don’t care. Does Alan give to every busker, sign up for every charity and make a purchase from every street vendor he meets? I envy him his altruism – not to mention his income! – if he does. As a fundraiser myself I know what a challenge it can be to engage donors, but just because someone chooses not to donate to my cause is no reason to assume they don’t give at all.

Peter Phelps writes: Re. “Turnbull’s travel II: Mark Latham wouldn’t have stood for it” (26 February, item 7). Charles Richardson is completely wrong-headed in his assessment of MPs entitlements. If you were to follow his illogic, ie. “rich people should not get paid travel allowance for public service as an MP”, then I’m sure he would agree that they shouldn’t get paid for their civic duty at all. But what’s the cut off point, Chuck? When does one become “rich” and therefore unworthy of public payment? Surely you can tell us that! Howard, Rudd, Bob Brown (for God’s sake!) all have supported Turnball over this matter. Richardson asks: “We don’t pay pensions to millionaires, so why should we pay travel allowances?” For one simple reason – a person should not have to cut into their salary to do their job. That principle is recognised in every award, every certified agreement, every collective agreement and even in the Tax Act! And what is the alternative? If you are a successful businessman like Turnbull you have to pay for the privilege of being an MP; but if you’re a dud loser who’s never done anything more in her life than attend protest rallies which living on AUSTUDY, you get to continue to bludge off the public purse? Is that was Charles is suggesting? As for his praise of Latham, all I can say is: If you want Mark are your guiding star for policy proposals, you deserve what you get. And the final insistence from him that this is some sort of “rort” is disgusting. Let’s get the facts on the table: High Court Judge visiting Canberra: $333 per night; ABC journo visiting Canberra: $201.30 per night; UWA academic visiting Canberra: $198.30 per night; Cabinet Minister visiting Canberra: $190 per night. So let’s stop all those “rorting” judges, journalists and academics before you pick on MPs.

Andrew Gordon writes: The major point about MP’s accommodation allowance is that it’s an allowance. Most Federal Government Departments are now classing accommodation as an expense – where receipts must be produced and therefore GST can be claimed by the Dept. The Defence Dept alone claimed $3 million in GST credits by making this change. Currently MP’s pocket $175 per night tax free regardless of whether they are staying in Joe Hockey’s shed (Brendon Nelson) or at the Commonwealth Club. Not having to provide a receipt means they are not accountable.

Sue Folks writes: Re. “McRae resigns, Carpenter struggles, WA descends into factional chaos” from your anonymous WA government insider “Jack” (26 February, item 11). Could it be that this insider is Brian Burke himself? Why are you printing this rubbish? Let me say that as an ordinary Western Australian citizen with no political affiliations at all I am thoroughly appalled at the insights from the CCC into how the Labour Party functions. Whether this is factional infighting or not, frankly the level of corruption behind the many developments taking place in this state at the expense of ordinary citizens and ratepayers is disgusting. Labour does not deserve our votes. This confirms that I am unlikely to vote for Labour on the Federal or the State scene. Since I also have trouble voting for the Liberals I must find suitable independents, Greens or Democrats to vote for. The CCC reveals sleaze; it reveals power and money hungry Burke and Grill working a network which is reminiscent of the mafia. We need to know about it so that we can do something about it at the ballot box. This lets our whole state down. Western Australians cannot feel any pride in the state whilst this is how our government ministers and public servants behave.

John Hunwick writes: James Mullen’s comments (yesterday, comments) on recycled water may have been true some years ago – but since then technology has improved considerably. The reverse osmosis plant used in Singapore can produce water that exceeds World Health standards for drinking. Adding this technology on to existing treatment plants means that water CAN be put directly into the existing reticulated system. The only reason some people talk about putting such water back into a river or dam is to placate those who presently object to having such water piped directly into their homes. Such objections are unfounded on health grounds (assuming proper safeguards are in place at the treatment plant), and only add to the cost. People who object to drinking such treated water seem to forget that should treated recycled effluent water be put into the water system they are not required to drink it. Any house can provide enough water for drinking by catching the water off the roof, and of course they can always buy bottled water. They can even filter recycled water at home but should remember all water is in fact recycled.

Tony K. Ryan writes: Further to James Mullens’ comments on Toowoomba’s waste water re-cycling plans, it is my understanding that water that had passed through a reverse-osmosis filtration system would have been discharged into an existing dam. This would have meant the exact process that James is discussing would have occurred. The water would have mixed with existing raw water, it would have settled, oxygen and sunlight would have acted on it and the bulk water would have then gone through the existing filtration system. Again, it is my understanding the water discharged from the reverse-osmosis plant would have been level five purity, ie medical grade water. There was certainly “spin” in the Toowoomba argument, but the question is, what side was Warnie bowling for.

Matt Hardin writes: Whatever James Mullins did at Thames water it was obviously not in a technical capacity. The proposal for Toowoomba was not to put “treated sewerage directly back into the water supply”, it was to have another level of treatment (Reverse Osmosis) on the waste water and then to return that water to the dam where it could be extracted and then treated (again!) to bring it up to drinking quality. Water does not come directly from a dam to the pipe and recycling schemes do not propose to do this either. The capacity of the dams feeding Toowoomba is about 21 000 Megalitres. Daily water use in Toowoomba is about 34 Megalitres. If we assume that all of the used water is recycled (a conservative assumption in terms of this analysis), this means that on average water will remain in the dam for 617 days if the dam is full or 98 days if the dam is at about 16% capacity (the current dam level). This residence time is surely long enough in the presence of the biological life of the dam to allow settling and some degradation of waste. (Of course, this ignores any creatures that come and drown in the dam a topic never brought up in any of these arguments.) When this is combined with the fact the Reverse Osmosis water is ultra pure (it is used in scientific experiments when ultra purity is required – especially in the biological sciences) any comment about the lack of safety of the proposal shows an appalling ignorance about water supply and management.

Katherine Finch writes: Re. What’s going on at the Courier Mail? (Yesterday, item 6). Huge numbers of the staff have left, it’s now a tabloid and the writing is worse than that of any average high-school english class – unchecked spelling, incorrect grammar and punctuation, and as for checking facts? I gave up reading the CM the week it went tabloid – it was already garbage and that merely confirmed its status. If the word on the street is right, they’re losing huge numbers of long-time subscribers. It’s truly embarrassing to have a state newspaper that is as bad as the West Australian and the Adelaide Advertiser.

Peter Sheppard writes: Re. Myer service standards. I would like to confirm the comment offered in your rumour section (yesterday, item 6) about the same old non existent service levels at the “new Myer”, which doesn’t look much different from the “old Myer”. New dress, but sadly still the same old hag. I am one of many retailers that can confidently testify to this due to information coming from our customers, and evidenced by our increasing prosperity at their expense. They will find that tarting up the old hag until it can be plopped onto the unsuspecting new owners when listed will not work as they say it will. It’s soul has been almost destroyed through years and years of neglect at the hands of under skilled, overpaid charlatans. Of course the barbarians will probably get their fill. Leaching cement out of the foundations as they have done with inadequate staffing levels, stock levels, and screwing supplier relationships, will never ever allow the foundations to be reinforced to a strength to create a sustainable future. Only a long and painful metamorphosis will be a solution. This will take unending patience and enormous investment in people and capital, and them some. Why do I care? It attacks my sensitivities with regard to a lack of professionalism going on within the retail industry from a major player, and the barbarians exploiting its main target – “suckerville”.

Ken Helsby writes: Re. “Media Watch, not Economics Watch” (yesterday, item 10). Charles Richardson seems to like land tax. I wonder if this is because he doesn’t pay land tax himself. Democracy, it has been said, is all about the majority voting for the minority to pay the taxes. Charles says “land tax doesn’t tax buildings, just land value.” What he forgets is that a lot of rentable homes sit on very heavily taxed blocks of land in the suburbs where zonings do not permit the creation of additional dwellings. My wife paid last month her WA land tax bill for 2006 of $17,386 for a 13 yr old home of 200 sq m on 970 sq m of land in Mandurah. (She’d bought a year ago for over three times its previous sale price 4.5 yrs earlier). The rent is $20,505, so after paying for rates and repairs there is nothing left. She doesn’t have the financial capacity to redevelop. What incentive is there for her to continue provide rental accommodation? And where is the fairness in forcing her to sell? Values have risen because there is talk of rezoning, but that isn’t going to happen for another ten years. So land tax cannot, as in this very common example, act as “a stimulus to supply of housing” as Charles claims – not for ten years at any rate. All around the nation, apart from the NT which doesn’t have land tax, people are being hit with much larger land tax bills than my wife’s. These amounts have to be paid every year. If Labor governments had an interest in encouraging the supply of rental accommodation, land tax would be related to cash flow or short to medium-term potential cash flow and a capped percentage of actual rents or assessed rental value charged, in the same way as water rates and council rates are determined. Charles also claims “the supply of land itself is fixed”. That is an amusing, hypothetical, irrelevant notion here in WA where we have hundreds of square kms of habitable land all around Perth. Many years of land tax extortion here has failed to produce an adequate supply of homesites. Land tax has been tried, it has failed miserably, and should be abolished. Sadly, it is more likely it will continue to be used as a crude instrument in perpetuation of the politics of envy.

Institute of Public Affairs’ Alan Moran writes: Re. “Housing affordability: why some cities are so expensive” (23 February, item 10). Macquarie Bank’s Rory Robertson never lets his ignorance of facts and analytical inadequacies get in the way of a good spray against those who have been more systematic in addressing facts. He accuses the Institute of Public Affairs and Demographia of being unable to understand his own idiosyncratic and crazy logic about house price movements. Among the reasons that have been offered for the increase in prices is the effect of the market overheating through increased demand. Mr Robertson has maintained that the increased prices are caused by increased demand especially in urban areas he refers to as “s-xy”. He defines these as those cities he likes. Alongside those cities Robertson refers to as “s-xy” are those he considers to be too “dull” to attract the monied people. (He dismisses Houston’s attractiveness because he claims an ex-girlfriend lived there and found it boring!). Like Beauty, s-xy is in the eye of the beholder. What really distinguishes the cities that have affordable prices from other cities, sadly including all of Australian capitals, is the supply of land on which the authorities allow new houses to be built. Land that is readily released on demand enables cities like Houston, Dallas and Atlanta to be kept affordable (house/land packages roughly half the price of Melbourne) despite growing faster than any Australian cities. Australia is better placed than any country in the world in terms of land availability. Yet, planning restraints on land for housing purposes has meant that in spite of high house prices current levels new housing starts in NSW at under 30,000 per annum compare with 50,000 in the early 1990s. Victoria was suffering from the Kirner ALP blues in that period but its present level at 30,000 is fewer than the 36,000 of 2002. Queensland in the early 90sturn and again in 2002 was starting 40-50,000 new homes a year, well above last year’s level and South Australia’s 11,000 compares with 14,000 in the early 1980s. Even Perth is commencing fewer dwellings than in the late 1980s. It would be sad for all those who are priced out of housing by government land restrictions to have their misfortune maintained and compounded by policy makers being swayed by callow analyses of the sort promoted by Macquarie Bank.

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Peter Fray

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