Monday, 7 November 2011

Premier's passage to India

BARRY O'FARRELL goes to India this week with the best wishes of the many who see this state's prosperity coming from links with Asia. Within his first year in office, the visit will take him to the second of the region's emerging economic giants, after his trade mission to China in July.
In his interview with the Herald, the Premier shows an understanding that this engagement will not be one of quick deals, certainly not at the political level. But politicians and politics are certainly critical in crafting and applying the good policies that will provide the right environment for economic ventures.
A strong focus of the Indian mission - and O'Farrell's thinking - is education. The Premier makes a good point that our education system is not preparing Australians for the Asian century, given falling enrolments in Asian languages. Indeed, we have it the wrong way around: foreign language study should start at primary school, not in senior years.
We wait to see how his government starts such a wonderful reform. Meanwhile, he might suggest to the university vice-chancellors on his Indian mission that they could help by giving bonus points for language ability in their entrance scores.
Contact with Asia comes here in the form of the 186,000 international students in NSW. About 14,000 of them are from India, which is down from the peak of about 20,000 just before the attacks on students in Sydney and Melbourne in 2009. Nearly 10,000 are in the vocational sector. The numbers suggest NSW still has some way to go to restore confidence, and a big potential to expand the sector.
Part of this potential growth is here. O'Farrell is right to berate the federal government for its over-reaction to the scams revealed in the 2009 crisis, resulting in visa requirements that are too stringent. The easing for intending university students announced in September should be extended to those aiming at the TAFE system.
Equally, the onus is on the state to reverse its long squeeze on the TAFE colleges and help them expand their educational "exports". The bigger emerging opportunity, as O'Farrell notes, is in setting up vocational colleges in India, and the TAFEs should be geared up for it.
And for the students who still come here, O'Farrell could make one big gesture to show them and their parents we are serious about treating them as our own while they are here - extending the student public transport concession to them and other international students.

Cronulla's loss is no one's gain

EVERY so often governments become fired up about decentralisation. It is a constant of National Party propaganda that city folk cannot understand the problems of those living in regions and towns, that since private investment is regrettably slow to see the advantages of regional life, governments should speed things up by moving transportable parts of the bureaucracy there.
The O'Farrell government is now performing its version of this ancient ritual over the Cronulla Fisheries Research Centre. The centre, which has been operating under various guises in the
same place for more than a century, is to be dismembered and its functions divided among
Port Stephens, Nowra and Coffs Harbour.
The centre has been through this sort of thing before. For more than four decades from the 1930s, the facility at Cronulla was the headquarters of the CSIRO's fisheries and oceanography research.
In 1981 that moved to Hobart, in part because the Fraser government wanted to butter up Tasmanian voters.
Change such as this may be thought a harmless zero sum game. The Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson, announces it as a win for the towns that are to host the transplanted establishment. She does not mention that the move is equally a loss for the Cronulla community, where the research centre is the largest employer. Nor does she say what is to happen to the heritage-listed site - prime real estate on the shore of Port Hacking.
The Liberal MP for Cronulla, Mark Speakman, is understandably unimpressed. The government claims the move will put the research closer to where a significant share of the state's fishing fleet is based. That is disputed, as are any advantages. Otherwise, the minister claims only: "We are determined to maintain the level of services and research currently provided by the Cronulla Fisheries Research Centre." Maintain? Is that all? And why should it take determination? It is, after all, her job.
In fact, the gains and losses as government functions are trucked needlessly around the countryside do not add up to zero. Without big advantages, which are not obvious here, costs outweigh benefits. Quite apart from the private expense and dislocation for researchers - many of whom say they will not or cannot move, and whose expertise will be lost - it costs taxpayers a lot of money. The Cronulla centre has just undergone a $1.5 million refurbishment. That is now wasted.
More millions will have to be spent upgrading facilities elsewhere to gratify the National Party's whims. Given the state's tight budget this simply cannot be justified. The government should reverse this costly, disruptive and unnecessary decision.

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