15/01/2010 - 00:00

Heavy hitters line up on indigenous jobs

15/01/2010 - 00:00

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Who’s going to answer for ASIC’s failed prosecution of Andrew Forrest?

Heavy hitters line up on indigenous jobs

BUILDING a $16 billion iron ore business, and amassing a $5 billion personal fortune, is nothing compared to the next challenge Andrew Forrest has set himself – a declaration of war against a federal government department.

The battle will not be with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, as some Forrest-watchers might suspect, after its spectacularly failed prosecution of the man behind Fortescue Metals Group.

In his sights is the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, the mob in charge of helping to train Aboriginal people for work, headed by the second most powerful person in the Australian government, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Mr Forrest will not be alone in a campaign, which aims to achieve concrete benefits, rather than the meaningless lip service paid so far, to the Australian Employment Covenant launched in 2008 with the aim of finding 50,000 jobs for indigenous Australians.

Joining him, with cash donations to fund the next phase of the push to get Aboriginal people into work, is a cast of Australia’s super-rich, with James Packer and Kerry Stokes said to be adding their muscle, and cash, to the campaign which will also have the backing of the Channel 7 and Channel 9 television networks.

The aim of the privately-funded campaign, notionally named Generation One, is to elevate public awareness of the unemployment blight, and over-reliance on government hand-outs, which has held back generations of Aborigines.

That goal was supposed to have been kicked by the Australian Employment Covenant, launched with gusto and the backing of the prime minister, Kevin Rudd.

What really happened was that private companies promised to find the jobs (12,000 on offer at the last count) but the department failed to find, or even train, Aboriginal Australians for those jobs.

Mr Forrest is not talking publicly, yet, about the Generation One campaign, but it is believed to include a television and internet blitz developed by the same team of marketing experts behind the election campaign of US President Barack Obama.

People close to what’s being hatched, and scheduled for a mid-March launch, say that the disconnection between the private sector and departmental officials is dramatic.

“There are 80 companies offering jobs and not one has been approached by the department to ask what training is required by Aborigines to do the work,” a well-placed source (who asked to remain anonymous) said.

“The Generation One campaign will aim to change public attitudes towards Aboriginal employment and, hopefully, force the department to act on what the prime minister has promised.”

Mr Forrest’s unhappiness with departmental officials first surfaced last year when he wrote to Mr Rudd complaining about how the original employment covenant had become “mired in bureaucracy”, adding that the department’s suggestions were unworkable, and the overall scheme was not being supported at an operational level.

The new plan is to use private sector cash to crack the department and force it to toe the political line agreed at a ministerial level, setting the scene for a showdown which could contain the raw material for a fresh series of ‘Yes Minister’, a television classic in which a do-nothing bureaucrat, Sir Humphrey Appleby, thwarts every move by his minister, Jim Hacker.

Then again, it could be a case of the irresistible force (Forrest) meeting the immoveable object (the civil service) – with Rudd and Gillard watching from the sidelines and not being sure which side to support.

Entrenched view?

ASIC’s four-year vendetta against Mr Forrest, for essentially spurious reasons as Justice John Gilmour noted in his strongly-worded “not guilty” verdict late last month, might be a reason for the Employment Department dragging its heels on the Aboriginal employment covenant.

During the past year, Bystander has encountered a number of similar reactions by government employees towards Mr Forrest.

The bureaucratic logic seems to have been that, if ASIC, staffed by fellow government workers, is prosecuting, the person charged must be guilty.

The most infamous encounter with this line of thinking came when Bystander was asked to appear on an ABC discussion panel before Justice Gilmour kicked ASIC out of court.

The topic was to be the fate of Mr Forrest after the guilty verdict. The ABC person was quickly told in very blunt terms that, not only was such an approach legally dangerous, it was also an appalling suggestion for one government agency (the ABC) to promote the argument of another (ASIC) against a private citizen.

Not surprisingly, Bystander’s invitation to appear on the panel was withdrawn.

As for ASIC, after three huge strikeouts, and having wasted at least $50 million of taxpayer funds on failed prosecutions of Jodee Rich, Andrew Lindberg and Andrew Forrest, surely its time someone in the legal department (if not its head) to be sacked. Or is it asking too much that civil servants be held accountable?

Or, since there is an Aboriginal theme to this week’s column, perhaps it’s time for someone in government to say sorry to Mr Forrest for ill-founded harassment.

Property pain

WHAT have Australia, Hong Kong and Spain got in common? All three, according to a recent survey, have house prices that are more than 50 per cent over-valued.

This rather alarming view of property values, and the implication that they will eventually fall, is contained in a report carried by The Economist magazine which, it is worth noting, was running alarming stories about US property prices long before the sub-prime crisis hit.

Other snippets from the survey include the fact that Hong Kong has led the house-price recovery over the past year, up by 13.9 per cent.

Mainland China was second with an average rise of 8 per cent and Australia third at 6.2 per cent.

The valuation method was a variation of the classic price-to-earnings ratio used on the stock market. With properties, it was house prices versus rents – which means either house prices need to fall to reach fair value, or rents need to rise; neither is a particularly palatable thought.

 

“Once your reputation’s done, you can live a life of fun.”

Wilhelm Busch

 

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