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‘Some dead’ as Algeria hostage crisis ends in turmoil

Algerian special forces on Thursday launched a rescue operation on a desert gas complex, killing fleeing Islamists and an unknown number of their hostages, the communication minister said.


Communication Minister Mohamed Said said a number of kidnappers had been “neutralised” as they tried to flee, in the first official comment on the operation, but admitted that “some” hostages were killed or wounded.

He did not give any casualty figures from the operation which ended late on Thursday, according to Algeria’s APS news agency, amid reports that scores of people had died.

According to a source quoted by Reuters, eight Algerians, two Japanese, two Britons and one French national were among those killed. This has not been confirmed.

Earlier, one of the al-Qaeda-linked Islamists said “warplanes and ground units” had begun an operation “to take the complex by force,” and threatened to “kill all the hostages if the Algerian forces succeed in entering the complex.”

He said 34 hostages and 15 kidnappers were killed in an army air strike, a claim that could not be verified.

APS said the army freed four foreigners — two Britons, a Frenchman and a Kenyan — and 600 Algerian workers held hostage at the In Amenas plant in southeastern Algeria.

The communication minister said that a peaceful solution to the crisis would have been preferred, but accused the heavily armed Islamists of “brinkmanship.”

He said the attack on the major gas complex, jointly operated by BP, Statoil and Sonatrach, was the work of a “multinational terrorist” organisation that wanted to “implicate” Algeria in the Mali conflict and destroy its economy.

Late on Wednesday, Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia had insisted that Algiers would not negotiate with the “terrorists.”

On Thursday, he told the online edition of Algeria’s Arab-language daily Echorouk the hostage-takers had come from Libya.

The Islamists launched their attack at dawn on Wednesday, killing two people, including a Briton. They also took scores of Algerians and 41 foreigners hostage, among them American, British, French, Irish, Norwegian and Japanese.

The gunmen said their attack was in retaliation for Algiers supporting French air strikes in Mali, and demanded that 100 radical Islamists held in Algeria be released and sent to northern Mali in exchange for the hostages.

The Islamists on Thursday called on the army to pull out of the area to allow negotiations to begin, and said Algerian snipers had fired at the site where the hostages were held, wounding a Japanese.

On Thursday morning a Briton, a Japanese and an Irishman, identified as hostages, appeared on Al-Jazeera, demanding the withdrawal of Algerian troops.

Foreign governments voiced growing concern about the rescue operation which a foreign diplomat in Algiers said “did not go too well for the hostages.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron postponed a major EU speech planned for Friday because of the crisis and warned that Britain should brace itself for “the possibility of bad news.”

Norway said it had no news on nine of its citizens, and Japan, whose engineering firm JGC had said five of its workers were believed to have been seized, demanded that the rescue mission be stopped “immediately.”

Dublin said an Irish passport-holder from Belfast was free and in good health.

APS reported that some 30 Algerians managed to escape, while private TV channel Ennahar said 15 foreigners, including a French couple, had also escaped.

E Timor gets new president

As the impoverished half-island nation of 1.


1 million prepares to celebrate the anniversary, the dusty, potholed streets of its capital Dili are being spruced up to welcome VIP guests including Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Australia’s governor-general and Portugal’s president.

This is a crucial year for the country also known as Timor-Leste. It will choose a new prime minister and government in general elections on July 7, then at year’s end will bid goodbye to UN forces stationed since 1999.

Taur Matan Ruak is due to take over the largely ceremonial post of president, which enjoyed a high profile under Ramos-Horta, at 11:30 pm (1430 GMT) Saturday.

Ruak, a former armed forces chief and ex-guerrilla fighter, won a run-off election last month that was widely lauded as peaceful and fair.

He takes over a country that is hobbled by extreme poverty, corruption and an over-reliance on energy revenues.

But the unstable nation has now enjoyed several years of peace.

“I would sum up the challenges and two priorities of our country as security and the well-being and prosperity of our people,” Ruak, 55, told AFP.

“This is what people voted for and yearn for as demonstrated in the elections.”

The UN has said that peacekeepers, stationed since 1999, will pull out as planned by year’s end if the general elections are also peaceful.

The former Portuguese colony voted for independence in a UN-supervised referendum in 1999, after Indonesia’s 24-year occupation had left up to 183,000 people dead from fighting, disease and starvation.

The Indonesian military and anti-independence militias went on a savage campaign of retribution after the vote, ravaging the new nation’s infrastructure and killing more than 1,000 people.

The UN administered East Timor until May 20, 2002, when sovereignty was formally handed to its first president.

Since then the nation has suffered bouts of violence — a political crisis in 2006 killed 37 people and displaced tens of thousands, and Ramos-Horta was lucky to survive an assassination attempt in 2008.

There has been no major political unrest since then, and government spending has increased dramatically in line with East Timor’s increased energy income.

Still, the grinding poverty is visible everywhere.

In Dili, away from the venues for the weekend celebrations, mud canals flood slum neighbourhoods after rains, barely clothed children play in the streets, and infrastructure is limited to a few paved roads, a single port and a tiny airport.

The International Monetary Fund calls East Timor the “most oil-dependent economy in the world” after the discovery of large fields of oil and natural gas at sea.

Petroleum products account for more than 90 percent of total government revenue. A special fund, geared for development spending now and to cushion the next generation, recently swelled to $10 billion.

Facebook racial hate page ‘taken down’

A Facebook page filled with racially abusive messages about Indigenous people has been taken down, after hundreds of people campaigned to have it removed.


SBS reported yesterday on the Facebook page, which allows posts with racially abusive “memes” about Indigenous people. The page was temporarily removed, before re-appearing on the site with a tag noting that the content contained “controversial humour”.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy weighed into the debate, saying he thought it should be taken down.

“We don’t want to live by the same standards that Facebook does,” Mr Conroy said. “I think it’s an offence. It’s been reclassified but I think it should be taken down.”

Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Helen Szoke warned the page could be a breach of the Racial Discrimination Act.

“[The page] potentially does insult and offend, but it probably does more than that. I think the depiction of these images on Facebook actually moves more in to vilifying.”


“It is an openly racist page that is encouraging hate towards Aboriginal people. I find it incredible that Facebook would refuse to remove this page,” says Jacinta.


The social media site has responded to complaints with the message: “After reviewing your report, we were not able to confirm that the specific page you reported violates Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.”

When contacted by SBS, Facebook responded with this email message:

“We have nothing to share at this time but will let you know if that changes,” Facebook spokesperson Mia Garlick replied.


The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has now launched an investigation into the page. The content has also been formally submitted to the Classification Board for classification.

“The ACMA is currently investigating specific URLs that contain the online content noted in the SBS story after receiving a complaint yesterday,” an ACMA spokesperson told SBS in an email today.

“The ACMA investigates online content upon receipt of valid complaints from Australian residents or a body corporate that carries on activities in Australia. Investigations are conducted using powers under schedule 7 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992,” the statement said.

The page has caused outrage among many Facebook users.

The page uses internet jokes or “memes” to racially vilify Indigenous Australians, with text referencing colonialism and substance abuse placed against photos of Indigenous people without their consent.


Last night the words “(Controversial Humour)” were added and the page has now gathered more than 4000 “likes”.

SBS believes the site was created and is maintained by a 16-year-old Perth boy.

A post made to the site yesterday by the site’s moderator reads “this page aint racism, its the truth, keep passin the petrol cuzzins”.

Facebook user Mike Gurrieri said he reported it to the social network via the “report” tab.

“I reported the page for hate speech against a race, and I think the page should be taken down immediately,” he said.

ACMA’s stance on its role regarding the page has changed.

Asked yesterday by SBS about Facebook users’ claims they had reported the page to ACMA, a spokesperson said it was not their jurisdiction, despite it being the government agency responsible for regulating the internet.

“It’s a policy area. Our jurisdiction lies in preventing terrorism, online child pornography, national security and educating the public on how to stay safe,” the spokesperson said yesterday.

UPDATE: The page has been removed as of 6pm 8/8 2012.

Seize the moment, Obama tells US

President Barack Obama inaugurated his second term Monday with an ardent call for unity, but warned his foes their ‘absolutism’ must not thwart action on climate, immigration and gun control.


Obama was publicly sworn in for another four White House years before a flag-waving crowd of hundreds of thousands, then delivered an inaugural address in which poetic power veiled clear signs of a liberal governing agenda.

“We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few,” Obama said, from the Stars and Stripes-draped West Front of the US Capitol building, the epicenter of America’s political divides.

The 44th president repeatedly used the “We the People” preamble to the US Constitution to suggest how to reconcile America’s founding truths and the current discord and dysfunction of its embittered political system.

“Decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay,” said Obama, flexing the freedom of a leader who no longer needs to face voters, and the urgency of a president who knows that second-term powers soon wane.

“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect,” Obama declared.

Though his speech was watched across the globe, Obama sketched over foreign policy, disdaining “perpetual war” and promising diplomatic engagement backed with military steel — though he did not dwell on specific crises like Iran.

“We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”

While reaching for a soaring note of national unity, Obama’s address was laced with liberal ideology, and policy certain to enrage Republicans.

“Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune,” Obama said.

“Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.

While irking Republicans, Obama’s signs of intent on issues like gun control and climate change may also worry Democrats from conservative territory running in 2014 mid-term polls, who may hold the fate of his agenda in their hands.

In an apparent bid to frame his legacy, Obama said America must shield the weak, the poor and those lacking health care and demanded equality for all races and gay rights, and security from gun crime for children.

“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” Obama said.

“Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity,” he said, signaling a policy drive on a deeply contentious issue.

And in an oblique reference to his bid to end the scourge of gun violence, Obama said: “our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.”

Obama also vowed the meet the threat of global warming, despite skepticism on climate change among some Republicans and daunting political and economic barriers to meaningful action.

Obama’s Republican foes welcomed his reach for unity but like the president, hinted at ideological divides.

“The president’s second term represents a fresh start when it comes to dealing with the great challenges of our day; particularly, the transcendent challenge of unsustainable federal spending and debt,” said Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

Defeated Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan congratulated Obama saying, “we serve the same country, one that is still in need of repair.”

Earlier, the president raised his right hand and rested his left on Bibles once owned by Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln, below the gleaming white dome of the Capitol.

“I Barack Hussein Obama…” the 44th president said, vowing to faithfully execute his office and to “preserve, protect and defend the constitution,” led in the oath of office by black-robed Chief Justice John Roberts.

Speaking to AFP, Republican senator John McCain, who lost the White House race to Obama in 2008, damned the address with faint praise.

“I thought it was an excellent speech, delivery was obviously excellent,” McCain said. “I didn’t hear any conciliatory remarks associated with it.”

Obama, his smile flashing bright, appeared more relaxed than at his first inauguration four years ago, when he took office as an untested leader as an economic depression threatened.

After his speech, Obama dined on bison and lobster with VIP members of Congress before heading back to the White House on the inaugural parade route.

One Obama supporter, the Reverend Ruddie Mingo, 54 — who donated time and money to the president’s winning campaign against Republican Mitt Romney — admitted the festivities were less mobbed than four years ago.

“My hope is that his next four years we can get more stuff accomplished on both sides,” he said.

Obama took the oath for a first time Sunday in a private ceremony at the White House because the constitution states that US presidential terms end at noon on January 20.

Poignantly, Obama took his second, second term oath of office on the federal holiday marking civil rights pioneer King’s birthday.

Israel puts ‘temporary hold’ on Gaza ground operation

“A decision was taken that for the time being there is a temporary hold on the ground incursion to give diplomacy a chance to succeed,” he said after a late-night meeting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s key ministers, the Forum of Nine.


“They discussed both the state of the diplomacy and the military operation,” he said on condition of anonymity.

As an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire plan took shape at indirect negotiations in Cairo between Israel and a Hamas team, a stream of top-level diplomats headed for the region to throw their weight behind efforts to end the violence which on Tuesday entered its seventh day.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who is currently in Cairo, is to meet Israeli President Shimon Peres and US officials said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would break away from an Asia visit to travel to Israel, Egypt and the West Bank.

Palestinian officials said she was expected to visit Ramallah on Wednesday morning for talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

At the same time Israel is building up its ground forces along the Gaza border, ready to go in if required, the Israeli official told AFP.

“Preparations for the ground incursion continue,” he said.

“If we see that diplomacy does not bear fruit — and the time we’ve given to diplomacy is limited — all the preparations are being undertaken so that if and when the order is given the ground incursion can happen expeditiously.”

A statement from the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, said its Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee would meet during the day to rubber stamp a request by Defence Minister Ehud Barak to raise to 75,000 the number of army reservists he can call up, in a move already approved by the cabinet.

At least 16,000 reservists had been mobilised by the end of last week, out of 30,000 callups previously authorised.

The army would not give an updated number on Tuesday, saying only that reservists were constantly being drafted according to need.

Click the interactive map below to see more information about missile strikes in Gaza and Israel. This map is a guide only, and does not represent the hundreds of rocket attacks that have been reported in both Israel and Gaza in the last few days.

View Israel-Gaza conflict in a larger map

Indigenous festival launched at Bluesfest

The Byron Bay Bluesfest has wrapped up with the announcement of a new event that will bring together the world’s first nations artists.


As people from all over the world sampled the vast range of blues music on offer, an all-new Indigenous festival was announced, and it was an immediate hit with one of the high-profile international artists.

The festival, Boomerang, is the brainchild of owner and curator of Bluesfest, Peter Noble and renowned creative and festival director, Rhoda Roberts.

“We’re really excited — Boomerang festival is opening here on the Bluesfest site from the 4th-6th October this year,” said Ms Roberts.

“It really is a cultural immersion. It’s about celebrating world cultures, mother tongues and first instruments.

So we have people coming from the Asia Pacific rim, Canada, Finland, New Zealand, and of course remote communities and urban communities across Australia and it really is about all sectors of the arts”

Searching for Sugarman’s Rodriguez, who expressed interest in performing at Boomerang, is a strong supporter of an international indigenous festival.

“As a musician I think these kind of events happen… for the music exchange of course, but also for the cultural exchange,” he said.

“Actually I consider them more like conferences where people can exchange ideas, make plans and so forth. Music is a living art… I think it would be great to have an indigenous festival all over the world so people can be exposed to other cultures.”

Merindah Donnelly, Indigenous Program Officer for the Australian Council for the Arts, said the main focus has been supporting the artists and extending the life of their work beyond one show.

“So a festival like Boomerang provides the most incredible oppourtunity for them to be able to tour their work and for them to reach their full potential and develop and it provides a really good place for internationals to see that work and provide a potential touring outcome.”

Ms Roberts says the festival has taken a few years to get off the ground, but they are all really excited. “It’s really unique, it’s celebrating the oldest culture, Aboriginal culture in Australia.

But it’s really about audiences coming and immersing themselves, getting to know us and just having great fun, great bands, a bit of stomp, some traditional arts practices, rituals. So they get another perspective of us as artists.”

Plans for the new festival were unveiled at the weekend and tickets have already gone on sale.

Comment: Is the NRL enforcing its own concussion rules?

By Bradley Partridge and Wayne Hall

The new National Rugby League (NRL) season has quickly shown that the use of performance enhancing drugs is not the only ongoing threat to player welfare.


The sight of an unconscious Ashley Harrison from Gold Coast Titans, being stretchered from the ground after being knocked out was a vivid reminder of the importance of properly managing concussion in “collision sports”.

Since 2011, the NRL has made it mandatory for any player who may have suffered a concussion to be removed from the field and to be examined by a medical practitioner. The guidelines prohibit any player diagnosed with concussion from continuing to play on the same day.

Any breach of this “concussion exclusion rule” may be sanctioned with fines levied on the club or coaching or medical staff. The NRL has included these concussion guidelines as part of the official rules of the league.

Last week, the Australian Football League (AFL) hosted the Concussion in Football Conference 2013, which discussed an updated version of the global protocol for managing concussion in all sports.

At the conference, the chief medical officer of the NRL, Dr. Ron Muratore, presented an overview of how the football code had been managing concussion over the last two years. He also explained the reasons for his often-made statement that concussion is taken very seriously in rugby league.

Muratore also explained the way in which the NRL monitors compliance with its concussion guidelines. Currently, the chief medical officer may investigate incidents of suspected concussion to ensure that the guidelines were correctly followed. His findings are compiled in a report and one might expect the expert medical opinion of the NRL’s chief doctor is given weight by the code’s administrators in deciding whether to impose sanctions for failure to comply with the guidelines.

To date, no club, doctor, or trainer has been fined for breaching the concussion guidelines. Is this because medical and coaching staffs have fully complied with the concussion guidelines? Or does it mean that the monitoring of compliance has been less than rigorous? Anyone who saw a concussed Robbie Farah remain on the field for the whole of last year’s State of Origin decider may well wonder.

During a public question-and-answer session that followed his presentation, Muratore was asked if he had written any reports in which he concluded that a team doctor or trainer had, or may have, breached the concussion guidelines. He said this had been the case on “two or three occasions” but made no mention of any consequences.

Why have no sanctions for failure to comply with the concussion guidelines been recorded (or, if imposed not, made public) by the National Rugby League? To whom were Muratore’s reports sent within the NRL’s administration? Was the football code’s head of football operations aware of each of these reports?

If he was not, this raises serious questions about who is responsible for ensuring that concussions are managed according to the NRL’s code.

In the interests of transparency, all investigations of possible breaches of the concussion guidelines in the NRL (and the reasons for findings) should be made public. For some, the lack of any fines or other substantial sanctions raises the suspicion that the NRL is reluctant to acknowledge that cases of concussion may have been mismanaged.

Sanctioning any clubs found to have breached the concussion guidelines would be the best way for the NRL to demonstrate its commitment to managing concussion. It’s a step that would reinforce the necessity for the thousands of amateur and junior rugby league players to take the issue of concussion seriously.

If the NRL is, as it claims, putting player welfare first, then it must ensure that its clubs plays by the rules for managing concussion.

Bradley Partridge receives funding from NHMRC and ARC.

Wayne Hall receives funding from NHMRC via an Australai Fewllowship to work on the ethical implications of addiction neuroscience and he has received funding for research from ARC on topics unrelated to the subject of the article.

Yankees plan A-Rod discipline

Already in trouble with Major League Baseball, Alex Rodriguez now faces a penalty from his own team.


The New York Yankees intend to discipline A-Rod for seeking a second medical opinion on his injured leg without their permission, a person familiar with the team’s deliberations said on Thursday.

The exact penalty had not been determined but a fine appeared to be the most likely option.

It is understood that during a conference call Thursday, the Yankees and Rodriguez agreed to a timetable that would have the third baseman resume minor league rehabilitation games or simulated games next Thursday.

Rodriguez, who has been sidelined since hip surgery in January, issued a statement earlier in the day saying he wanted to be activated for Friday’s homestand opener against Tampa Bay. But that apparently wasn’t in the Yankees plans.

MLB has been investigating Rodriguez as part of its probe of the closed Biogenesis clinic in Florida , accused in media reports of distributing banned performance-enhancing drugs. A suspension appears likely, but Rodriguez could ask the players’ association to contest a drug penalty – making it possible he might not have to serve any time until next year.

He is among the dozen or so players under investigation by MLB; he has said in the past that he used PEDs from 2001-03 while with Texas but maintained he has not used them since.

Rodriguez has angered the Yankees by seeking a second opinion on his thigh injury, and declaring his fitness.

“I think the Yanks and I crossed signals,” Rodriguez said on Thursday.

“I don’t want any more mix ups. I’m excited and ready to play and help this team win a championship. I feel great and I’m ready and want to be in the lineup Friday night. Enough doctors, let’s play.”

But Yankees manager Joe Girardi said he had not spoken to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman about the third baseman’s status and said he would be surprised to have him in the lineup on Friday against Tampa Bay.

“I am sure they will go through all the proper rehab channels and we’ll move forward every day,” Girardi said.

In a Twitter posting, the Yankees said that while Rodriguez has shown improvement, he is not ready to return, although he may soon be able to participate in a rehabilitation game.

“Brian Cashman says @AROD’s quad has improved, the hope is he could have sim/rehab game 8/1 but he is not @MLB ready,” the Yankees tweeted.

Tsvangirai urges fair Zimbabwe election

Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has warned President Robert Mugabe not to “steal” a crunch vote next week, so that his veteran rival can exit office with dignity.


“Mugabe stole an election in 2002, he stole the election in 2008. This time we want to tell him that he will not steal again,” Tsvangirai said to thousands of supporters on Saturday.

“As a party we don’t have intentions of retribution. What we only want and what we are saying is: ‘Mr Mugabe run this election freely and fairly so that we can give you a dignified exit.'”

After two previous polls condemned by observers as unfair, Tsvangirai is vying to end Mugabe’s 33-year rule and a four-year shaky coalition forced after chaotic elections in 2008.

Speaking in the farming town of Chinhoyi, 100km northwest of the capital Harare, he hit out at the electoral authority after a disorganised special early vote and the absence of an electoral roll.

“I have not been given the voters roll, three days before the elections,” Tsvangirai said, saying this was a loophole for rigging.

He again accused the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) of printing eight million ballots – instead of 6.2 million, the number of registered voters.

“I am saying this in full view of observers,” he said.

“We know you have printed eight million ballots for (the) presidential election, eight million for (the) parliamentary election. You don’t explain why you need two extra million ballots.”

The lead-up to the July 31 election has been marred by flawed voter registration, chaotic early polling for security forces, and lopsided campaign coverage in state media.

A special early vote held on July 14 and 15 for police officers and soldiers saw polling stations open without ballot papers, leaving thousands unable to cast their vote.

The country’s Constitutional Court on Friday ruled that the thousands of officers who were unable to vote due to the disorganisation, will get a second chance to cast ballots during the Wednesday general elections.

Tsvangirai claims his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party had also discovered that some of the ballot papers that were cast were later thrown away.

“You (ZEC) messed up the special vote of 70,000 people. In two days you could not handle those people,” he said.

“How are you going to handle the 6.2 million voters who are going to line up for one day.”

Comment: COAG – Gillard’s last throw of the dice

By Scott Prasser

Today’s Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting over the so called Gonski “reforms” to school funding, is the Prime-Minister’s last desperate throw of the dice to show she can deliver a big policy promise.


The Gillard government has supported the Gonski proposals for increased funding for schools and a new spending formula, which would increase Commonwealth involvement in school education – an area that lies totally within state constitutional responsibilities.

By framing education “reform” almost totally in terms of increased spending, despite Australian and international evidence that extra money in itself will not make the difference, the Gillard government is playing two political games at COAG.

First, it is saying to the federal opposition that if they do not support these changes and especially the increase in spending, they must be against education. Remember how at the 2007 federal election the Rudd-led Labor opposition scored well over the then Howard government with the “education revolution” catchcry?

The government is also seeking to force the states, especially those with Liberal premiers, to support the Gonski-inspired changes. The aim is to put them offside with the federal coalition opposition, and also to make an increased contribution to education.

And if the states do not come on board, especially the Liberal ones, they will be painted not only as wrecking education and denying the children at their schools extra funds, but also as being too partisan. This is especially tricky in a policy area that is seen as being too sensitive for such games.

Because education policy is complex, and the quality dimension that should drive all education policy even more so, it is difficult for the media, stakeholders and the wider public to get past the debate on the money and focus on what’s really needed to improve education quality. That is, where funds should be spent to have any chance of making a difference to education outcomes, and how much these measures would cost.

If the states do sign up on Friday – or by the extended deadline in June – they should seriously consider what is at stake. They already know what is at stake politically in refusing to sign, but the costs of agreeing may be more severe in the longer term.

It will mean more power divested to the Commonwealth, probably forever. It will mean more regulation – the School Improvement Plans could see up to 10,000 individual plans supervised by an expanded Commonwealth bureaucracy.

If the School Improvement Plans are not onerous, but little more than a list of “tick a box” Commonwealth demands (like the obligation on every school to teach an Asian language), or if they are simply lowest common denominator targets, then we can all ask what has it all achieved?

With WA already saying they won’t join, the Gillard government needs to get the three most populous states of NSW, Victoria and Queensland (which are also all Liberal states) to agree. Otherwise, the whole exercise is a non-starter.

The issue to watch is whether the states can rise, for once, above the bait of money and argue a policy case for not joining.

And in this policy area the states have a case to argue. In many instances, the state education reform agendas are more advanced, more progressive, more focused, and more likely to have an impact on education outcomes than the Commonwealth’s big bucket of money and headline aspirational statements.

Look at how Victoria, Queensland, even NSW have been focusing on teacher quality – are they able to use new Commonwealth money to finance their own policies, which involve some of the “hard decisions” the Commonwealth hasn’t been prepared to take? Will they have to give those up?

The states will also need to consider at COAG how much of the Gonski money is new money – it’s too easy to conceal and distort reality in school funding figures, especially with long time horizons.

Indeed, it’s worth unpicking the details of the supposedly lucrative deal Peter Garrett is offering to state and territory education ministers. First, the figure the government attached to the package was A$14.5 billion over six years which includes only around $9 billion from the Commonwealth, with the rest down to the states. States and territories would then be required to commit to annual increases in their own funding of government schools by a minimum of 3%.

But A$2.34 billion of this comes from rolling over the National Partnerships Program funding that was due to run out next year. There’s also other schools programs that are probably encompassed in the Commonwealth figure.

You can see why the package has been described as “Gonski Lite”, it consists of around a third of the amount the Gonski panel recommended for a comparable period. The original recommendations saw A$6.5 billion a year in extra funding, shared between the Commonwealth and the states – around A$39 billion across six years.

Will the premiers and prime minister discuss how the reforms are to be funded, especially the proposed A$2 billion cuts to universities? Will universities be forced to quarantine teacher education from this so they can adequately support poorly prepared entrants to become quality graduates?

Politically, there is another game in town. Almost everything the Gillard government does in the run up to the September election is to act like a government that knows it is not going to win.

This means initiating actions that would make it hard for the incoming Abbott government to undo. If all these proposals go through COAG it gives a green light for legislation to go to parliament and if the Liberals do not win control of the Senate they will be stuck with an expensive program for which they will have to find the funds and one that is intrusive on their Liberal state colleagues.

The Gonski reforms have got to COAG after an appalling policy development process; a poorly conducted public inquiry in Gonski; slogans parading as policy; a refusal to look to the evidence about quality education; playing the states off against each other and refusing to approach this area as a shared responsibility that appreciates the limits and roles of the Commonwealth and states.

It’s hard to see how, from all of this, we’re likely to see any real improvements in Australian education.

Scott Prasser does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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