ABS’ open-mic bargaining gaffe. Australian Bureau of Statistics staff and management are currently in the midst of what we’re told are increasingly bitter negotiations over a new enterprise agreement. This situation apparently wasn’t helped when — after an information session broadcast live to all state offices — the HR branch head and his team didn’t realise the mic was still live as they wandered to the side of the stage to bitch about staff and the stupid questions they were asking. There has been no official acknowledgement or apology for the gaffe, one staffer tells us, but it’s undermining ABS management claims of bargaining in good faith.

Bulk billing the budget savings. An anonymous tipster informs us the Queensland Health Department plans to start billing Medicare for essentially the entire public hospital out patient service en bloc. It’s a budget saving, they say, and follows moves by other states. Medicare may not have been informed, we’re told. We thought this was standard practice anyway — do you know more?

Radio National staff wary of change. ABC Radio National staff Crikey heard from today were a little miffed by a Tim Dick story in Fairfax papers on a possible schedule re-jig and chase for younger listeners. We’re told key producers will be locked into brainstorming meetings from Monday on shaking up the specialist network, though radical changes aren’t expected in the short term. Staff are happy they’re being consulted — unlike the last round of changes which saw programs on media and religion boned — but some are worried about what impact the drive for younger ears will have on programming and presentation. We’re listening, too — we’d love to hear from more RN staff on the future of the network.

Transfield gears up for batts mop up. Yesterday we got to the bottom of Transfield Services’ rather lucrative contract with the Department of Climate Change to mop up the failed pink batts program. One reader believes the quoted figure of $26 million is conservative given the scale of the program — “which will include both compulsory, scheduled inspections as well as an uncapped number of people who could call in to request an inspection”. They write:

“Huge project, short ramp up time, lots of pressure and the potential for some seriously bad PR if it goes wrong. Great margin though. Transfield Services has a fairly solid internal risk review process so it can only be assumed they know what they’re in for. They have put a very competent senior operations manager at the head who should be able to manage it. He has done his tour of duty with a major Australian client widely regarded as one of the most difficult to work with, so in comparison this contract will be a holiday.”

Another tipster reminds us of Transfield’s work on social housing property maintenance for Housing NSW. The clearly disgruntled tenant writes:

“It works like this: a tenant with a leaking tap rings the department’s maintenance line. They take all the details and ring Transfield who do nothing. Tenant rings again, and again, and again. Eventually a plumber will arrive, look at the problem and promise to come back ‘this week’. ‘This week’ translates as ‘in your dreams’. If the tenant is lucky the tap will be repaired sometime in the next six months.

“The Transfield system involves a complicated web of supervisors, contractors, sub-contractors and tradies. Maintenance requests suffer from a Chinese whispers-like syndrome where the intital request filters through so many people it can end up as something totally different. That leaking tap may eventually get the tenant a phone call from a tradie booked to fix the door locks. If a property has two plumbing problems Transfield will send two plumbers who will often arrive at the same time.”

It doesn’t bode well for pink batts, they say. Indeed.

Farm stories: squeezed by foreigners. Also yesterday, we asked who had sold the farm — identifying the foreign nationals buying up our prime agricultural land. Andrew Stewart, a Queensland operator, offers his story:

“I am a farmer whose sugar mill is under an offer from a wholly overseas-owned company. None of the 220 cane growers are particularly happy given the offer for Proserpine Cooperative Mill is lowball at $115 million from Sucrogen (the Singaporean Wilmar). After debt racked up by the local board the net left for farmers is after tax about $4 a tonne — or a tenth of this year’s revenue from cane. Even at $145 million that’s still only $20 a tonne after tax. That to give up control, and face lower returns because Sucrogen have middle-man charges that take another $1 to $2 per tonne off farmers (the co-op pays certain fees and tramway upgrades and weekend penalty rates, etc, that Sucrogen does not).

“So why would growers sell out at $150 million? Because they feel unloved by government (we were called “killers of the reef” so the state government could win a marginal electorate; the water plan in a very wet tropics is based on “the Murray Darling principles” and has no relativity to reality; taxes and charges are going up three and four times our gross and net incomes) by banks and by industry groups, which increasingly spend time in lobbies saying “the right things” rather than talking reality.

“As a result, why bother putting several millions at risk for a very low return? Why not sell out whichever foreigner wants to buy-out what Australians regard as “dumb farmers”? Maybe we won’t be so dumb and just take the easy foreign dollars, invest it in the stock exchange which even in a bad year does better returns than a farm in a good year, put the feet up and let the vast majority of Australians believe that food comes from supermarkets.”

Do you have a story to tell? We’d love to hear from you — on email or anonymously.

Password protect no lulz matter. RFC is a well-known finance group. Its web administrator was on the list of emails and passwords recently released by Lulz Security — a woman’s email account was completely compromised and several confidential documents involving ASIC, Triton Coal and, more recently, confidential proposals for Sasol. These are likely to be released. Writes one reader wisely: “When will people learn not to have passwords that are six lower-case letters?”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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