‘Project Archer’: Govt’s plan to save the ABS

The Australian Bureau of Statistics had a torrid 2014 that began with departing Chief Statistician Brian Pink saying there was barely enough money to keep the lights on. Photo: Melissa AdamsMore public service news
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The Abbott government’s rescue plan for the Australian Bureau of Statistics, including a takeover by the bureau of the nation’s health statistics agency, is set to be in place by July.

There will also be $250 million for the ABS to upgrade its systems, a “surveying centre of excellence” established, probably in Geelong, and a green light for the bureau’s plans to downgrade the national census.

Sources close to the ABS say the takeover of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the axing of Australia’s five-yearly census, in favour of a giant survey every 10 years as revealed by Fairfax Media this month, are already “done deals”.

The rescue package also contains plans to establish a “centre for surveying excellence” probably in Geelong, with details staffing and funding of the centre unclear at this stage.

The reform effort has been dubbed “Project Archer” and would include the integration of AIHW’s 340 public servants with the ABS’s 2800 workers, with the smaller agency allowed to retain some of its identity.

A target date of July 1 has been set for the merger.

The move would require changes to the AIHW legislative framework but would reunite its public servants with their old boss, Chief Statistician David Kalisch who was CEO of the Institute from  2010 to 2014.

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The new funding is understood to be a response to repeated requests from the bureau for money to upgrade its computers, some of which are 40 years old and cannot talk to each other.

The ABS had a torrid 2014 that began with departing Chief Statistician Brian Pink saying in January there was barely enough money to keep the lights on at the 110-year-old agency.

In September, a young public servant was convicted and is facing a jail sentence for using his position at the bureau to help run a multimillion-dollar insider-trading scam.

The following month, the ABS suffered the indignity of having to backtrack on its unemployment figures from July and August, admitting they were unreliable.

Mr Kalisch has previously told Fairfax that a merger between the bureau and the institute would be a good idea but an ABS spokesman declined to answer questions on Thursday, saying plans to reform the bureau were before the government and subject to cabinet confidentiality.

The AIHW has been Australia’s national agency for official health statistics since 1984 with its independence and reporting obligations underpinned by legislation.

AIHW chairman Dr Mukesh Haikerwal told Fairfax on Thursday that he was not privy to the government’s plans for the institute but said it was important the agency’s approach to its work did not change.

“The institute provides good, clear information and interpretation of that information to help decision-makers make decisions,” Dr Haikerwal.

“How that works in the future, obviously time will tell.

“But there is great benefit in the way the institute does business that is worthy of survival, whatever happens.”

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Suspected scombroid fish poisoning at Sydney cafe causes NSW Food Authority to recall batch of tinned tuna

Soul Origin in Town Hall.The NSW Food Authority has recalled a batch of tinned tuna from Thailand that was served at a Sydney cafe after four people fell ill with suspected scombroid fish poisoning.
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Soul Origin takeaway, a cafe in Sydney’s CBD, were notified by the NSW Food Authority their John Bull Tuna Chunky Style tuna had made four customers ill after they ate tuna salads on Monday.

The NSW Food Authority confirmed further samples of the tuna would be used for testing but said the same product was not generally available to the public for purchase.

“A trade level recall of the affected batch has been undertaken and all affected product has been removed from the market,” NSW Food Authority said in a statement. “The information available is that this incident is isolated to one group at the one location.”

Director of Health Protection NSW Dr Jeremy McAnulty said although there were a small number of scombroid cases every year in NSW, the condition rarely caused people to go to hospital.

“It’s usually a very typically rapid onset and fairly rapid recovery,” Dr McAnulty said. “It happens where there has been mishandling of fish after it has been caught … so typically it happens if the fish is caught and it is not put on ice straight away.”

Symptoms of scombroid poisoning include burning around the mouth, facial flushing and diarrhoea, and it is mostly linked to fish such as mackerel, tuna, bonito and sardines.

Soul Origin said they were assisting the NSW Food Authority in its investigations and continued to “maintain the highest hygiene standards”.

Australian Noelene Bischoff, 54, and her daughter Yvana, 14, died last year from suspected scombroid poisoning while holidaying in Bali, which has raised concerns over the possibly fatal nature of the condition.

It comes shortly after the Victorian Health Department recalled mixed frozen berries sourced from China after several people contracted hepatitis A.

In yet another case of poor food handling, the NSW Health Authority has been asked to investigate the Betta Maid bakery in Unanderra on the state’s South Coast after samples tested positive for salmonella, which is believed to have caused the death of two elderly people.

There have been 28 confirmed cases in the last month of salmonella at 10 aged care facilities across the Illawarra Shoalhaven, south-east Sydney and the ACT.

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John Buchanan to release ‘scathing’ report on Athletics Australia

A series of unflattering findings from a forensic review of Athletics Australia by former national cricket coach John Buchanan will be made public on Friday.
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A source who has seen the review and recommendations told Fairfax Media on Thursday that sections of the report – commissioned last September in the wake of several embarrassing events around the Glasgow Commonwealth Games – are scathing.

AA, like the taxpayer-funded national federations for cycling and swimming before it, was subjected to an independent audit at the behest of the Australian Sports Commission, despite its efforts to reset itself through formal self-examination.

The ASC insisted on an independent review following controversy around the national track and field team at the Glasgow Games, none more embarrassing than the departure of coach Eric Hollingsworth, who was sent home after his public criticism of hurdling champion Sally Pearson.

AA’s former CEO Dallas O’Brien was another influential casualty in the fallout.

Described as an investigation of “a number of systematic issues facing athletics across high-performance, governance and participation”, the review of AA – which received more than $8million from government last year – was handed to Buchanan to run.

Before embarking on the project, the former cricket coach said he was “looking forward” to identifying “the best future pathway in the sport”, and he referred to Little Athletics, which, much to the ASC’s dismay, still operates independently of AA.

The disconnect between AA and Little Athletics is widely viewed as not only inefficient, but also a set-up that has potentially spoiled development opportunities for young athletes.

Fairfax Media has been told the Buchanan report addresses that vexed matter, though it is understood the immediate priority is that AA gets its own house in order.

Governance structures within AA are complicated and fragmented. Even before the review, the ASC described “a lack of common purpose and cohesion” at the top.

It is understood the inefficiencies of the organisation are laid bare in the Buchanan report, which refers to an alarming number of subcommittees.

Problems with participation from grassroots level up, ways to improve coaching and athlete support are also understood to be covered.

Phil Jones, a well-regarded former administrator of Yachting Australia, was installed as interim CEO of AA in December – a development that occurred in close consultation with the ASC.

Lawyer David Grace, a QC who continues to represent former and current Essendon players in their case against the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, is AA’s president. Grace replaced Rob Fildes in November 2013.

A review of Swimming Australia conducted by former federal sports minister Warwick Smith was tabled in February 2013 after a scandal-ridden and generally disappointing performance at the 2012 Olympics.

The review of Cycling Australia, conducted by former NSW Supreme Court judge James Wood, followed that sport’s international crisis after the Lance Armstrong lifetime ban for doping. The most obvious – if not most immediate – consequence of the CA review was a complete dismantling of the board, and appointment of a new president and new CEO.

Assisting Buchanan on the review panel were Australian Institute of Sport director and former elite track and field athlete Matt Favier, former sprint champion Melinda Gainsford-Taylor, former cross-country international and senior Victorian Treasury official Lynne Williams, and investment banker Mark Bartels.

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NRL to reveal financial support given to struggling clubs

The exact amount the NRL spent to support financially stricken clubs last year will be revealed when the annual report is handed down at Friday’s 2014 business review.
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While the report will show that the game has never been in better shape financially, with the NRL to announce a $50 million profit, the game’s governing body now controls Newcastle and Gold Coast, and is propping up the Balmain side of the Wests Tigers joint venture.

St George Illawarra has also received financial assistance from the NRL to help the club develop a business model, which enables the Dragons to be sustainable without relying on leagues club funding.

The costs associated with the ASADA investigation into Cronulla – including assisting with legal costs for players who accepted backdated suspensions for taking performance-enhancing substances as part of the supplements program at the club in 2011 – are also expected to be included in the report.

The NRL loaned Balmain $2 million to pay its share of costs relating to running the Wests Tigers, which must be repaid before the 1908 foundation club can regain voting rights on a restructured seven-person board that includes three independent directors and two Western Suburbs appointees.

An independent board was also appointed at Newcastle after the NRL took over the running of the Knights from mining magnate Nathan Tinkler, who left the club with debts as well as a $10 million guarantee that is still being used to fund operations.

The Titans are understood to have received financial assistance from the NRL before this week’s takeover, while the Dragons have been lobbying for additional money under the game’s new discretionary funding model to assist with their investment in junior development.

This is in addition to the $7 million annual grant provided to all 16 clubs by the NRL.

The extra financial support provided to some clubs is a factor in a $30 million increase in the NRL’s total expenditure from $265 million in 2013 to $295 million last year.

The NRL also spent $2 million to improve the stadium experience for fans and $5 million to assist clubs to recruit new and service existing members.

However, the NRL boosted revenue by a similar amount – from $314 million in 2013 to $345 million last year.

The increase follows a vow by NRL chief executive Dave Smith to boost non-broadcast revenue, which is believed to have accounted for about $120 million of the game’s revenue in 2014.

Much of that came from a successful State of Origin series, the finals series and grand final, plus the inaugural Auckland Nines tournament.

The three Origin matches and the grand final, won by South Sydney, were four of the five top-rating programs on television last year – enabling the NRL to confidently predict the next TV deal will eclipse the current $1.2 billion, five-year agreement with Channel Nine, Fox Sports and Telstra.

A rise in ticket prices for marquee events and a record number of club memberships also boosted the NRL’s coffers.

The chief executives of all 16 clubs are expected to attend the business review, which will be hosted by Smith and Australian Rugby League Commission chairman John Grant.

NRL head of football Todd Greenberg will also address the game’s stakeholders.

The NRL declined to discuss details of the annual report ahead of the business review but issued the following statement:

“Rugby league had a big year in 2014. The incredible football delivered outstanding entertainment and television ratings, we broke our membership records, increased participation levels and our social media and digital presence grew significantly. The NRL also continued to build its financial strength to enable us to reinvest into the game at every level.”

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Todd Woodbridge’s daughter Zara takes step towards golf career

Zara Woodbridge, the daughter of Australian tennis doubles champion Todd, has taken another step towards forging her own career as a professional sportsperson.
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The 14-year-old is a talented golfer and on Wednesday was included in Golf Victoria’s six-girl state team.

Woodbridge, from Royal Melbourne Golf Club, is the youngest player to represent Victoria in this year’s Australian amateur championships and interstate series matches in South Australia in April.

That she was selected over some players three years older is an indication of how highly Golf Victoria considers her potential.

She took up the game aged seven, when her family lived next to a golf course in Florida in the US while her father was on the professional tennis circuit.

She says she liked watching tennis as a youngster, but never pursued playing seriously.

Todd Woodbridge is a low handicapper at Royal Melbourne and has performed as “caddie daddy” for his daughter on occasions.

In 2013 the pair won the Sir Dallas Brooks Trophy, one of the state’s top mixed foursomes championships.

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