Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Odd! A Left-supporting God is beyond criticism

When Bruce Baird declared that he could not support a Liberal Party bill for the first time in a 19-year parliamentary career, he did so for religious reasons. The Sydney Liberal MP and former NSW Liberal frontbencher could not get out of his head the experience of visiting those in detention centres across Australia and the recurring Christian rejoinder: "These are your brothers, these are your sisters."

An openly religious and caring Christian, Baird did not abstain from voting on the Coalition's bill to excise the Australian mainland from asylum-seekers arriving by boat because he was a member of the Liberal Left; he never joined the Left faction in all his years in the NSW Parliament. No, he did so because his conscience, informed by his Christian beliefs and experience, directed him. "Whether or not we use a Christian analogy, certainly we know that we are encouraged to look at the weak and vulnerable as a starting point. While we build our riches as a nation, the danger for us is that, in this process of collecting a glittering prize of materialism, we lose our soul," Baird told parliament. "We have had conscience votes on RU486 and other things. This is a conscience vote."

Other Coalition and Labor MPs cited religious beliefs and support of the churches for refugees, particularly those seeking to come to Australia from Indonesia's West Papua. Labor's Peter Garrett declared his own Christian position and his colleague Duncan Kerr praised the role of the Catholic Church in helping Papuans. Crucially, in the Senate, the Nationals' Barnaby Joyce and Family First's Steve Fielding cited Christian compassion for not being able to support the bill. Because Liberal senator Judith Troeth had decided to vote against the bill, the opposition of Joyce and Fielding meant John Howard had to kill the bill.

In opposing the bill, Joyce used the Christian image of the holy family: Mary, Jesus and Joseph, fleeing the persecution of Herod and being turned away from modern Australia. Fielding's party represents family values and has strong support from church groups of all descriptions, including many evangelical churches. When the bill was pulled, the Coalition rebels and Fielding were praised for their courage, for acting on conscience, for the quality of their decisions and standing up to bullying.

This is a lovely, warm tale, a positive example of a victory of conscience, principle and parliamentary strength triumphing over the executive and party bullies. But there's something missing, something that is illogical and contrary to the prevailing political mood and a golden thread that joins this act of conscience with others on a range of moral issues: Where are the attacks on all these people for acting on religious beliefs? Where is Australian Greens senator Kerry Nettle's sectarian T-shirt mocking Joyce's Catholicism and urging him to keep his "rosaries off our refugees"? Why isn't Australian Democrats leader Lyn Allison deploring Fielding's links with "Hillsongy types"? Was this not a conspiracy between the churches and proselytisers of the US Bible Belt and our home-grown bible bashers?

It seems that it's OK to have God in politics as long as he's on the so-called progressive side. It's fine for Greens leader Bob Brown to campaign for Tibet and the Dalai Lama and against China's persecution of the spiritual movement Falun Gong, but not to start parliamentary business with the Lord's Prayer. It's fine for Catholic nuns to help refugees on the run or for Catholic justice groups to help West Papuans, but it's not OK for them to attempt to influence politicians on abortion or embryonic stem cell research. A bishop's remarks against industrial relations laws are used widely, but bishops who speak out against abortion are decried as men in dresses who should keep their hands off women's ovaries.

The Catholic Church, Uniting Church and evangelical groups that support resettling refugees using religious ties are praised, yet Family First is accused of belonging to the neo-conservative religious Right with its roots in the US, and of threatening democracy. Baird confirmed to The Australian this week that he'd received no criticism from other MPs and senators about his religious stand on the refugee bill, not even from those who bitterly attack and campaign against his harmless organisational role in a multi-faith parliamentary prayer breakfast. "You're right," he said. "They tolerate it when you are being nice to them."

But when Nationals' Senate leader Ron Boswell mounts an anti-abortion campaign or warns against accepting the Lockhart recommendations for creating human-animal hybrid embryos for research, he's dismissed as a Catholic scaremonger. Allison argues Tony Abbott should not be Health Minister because he's a Catholic, and the Democrats have criticised Howard and Peter Costello for addressing the Hillsong church.

Allison has gone further in her anti-religious crusade, establishing a God and Government website aimed at fighting the "undue influence" of religion in politics. Setting aside Allison's lack of irony in not recognising that the MPs who have taken a stand on moral grounds against the abortifacient RU486 and allowing embryonic stem cell research have lost parliamentary votes in recent years, she allows her conspiracy theories to fabricate arguments.

Earlier this week I contacted her office about a claim on the God and Government website that the Prime Minister said "immigrants who don't share Christian values should leave" Australia. Allison stood by her claims but, after two days and an angry demand from Howard in parliament that the Democrats change their website, she relented. Allison told The Australian she was sure Howard had said it and had gone further, demanding, at the height of a terrorism scare, that immigrants who didn't support Christian values should be removed from the country. Then she said Costello, "who had addressed Hillsong", had said it.

She admitted later neither had said it and that it appeared she'd made it up. She had indeed. The Democrats' confused campaign to rightly maintain a separation of church and state is being misdirected against the equal right of individuals to hold religious beliefs and use them in exercising their parliamentary duty.

After all, it is inarguable that those MPs representing religions and voting on conscience represent millions more Australians than do the dead men and women walking of the Democrats, a husk of a party reduced to an asterisk in political terms, which aggressively attacks opponents on deep moral issues on the grounds of their religion. The right to express a religious view in politics without harassment depends on which way you vote. It seems that God in politics is OK as long as he's on your side.


Some hope for the ABC?

Credit where it's due. As a long-time critic of the ABC's endemic culture of ideological bias, I've been surprised and encouraged by just a few recent signs of sanity, balance and intellectual openness in the national broadcaster's presentation of important issues.

Not that we should get carried away. Clearly some taxpayer-funded staffers still have trouble deciding who's the most evil person in world affairs today - the Pope or George W. Bush. And clearly some still think that presenting "both sides" of a case means getting one interview with the ALP Left and another with the Greens. After all, who could forget that Four Corners report into the Tasmanian forest industry in 2004? The report, by journalist Ticky Fullerton, was so biased in favour of the greenies that the Australian Communications and Media Authority ruled it failed to meet the ABC's own code of practice on impartiality.

Nevertheless, the sensible treatment by ABC news and current affairs of this month's visit to Australia by provocative conservative thinker Mark Steyn is a good sign that senior figures in ABC news and current affairs recognise a world of ideas that extend beyond the outer ideological limits of the Ultimo/Southbank staff cafeterias. And that this is a world well worth reporting. Within a day of being in Australia, the Canadian columnist was invited as a guest on the ABC's PM, Lateline and Counterpoint programs. His discussion with fellow conservative Owen Harries at a Centre for Independent Studies event on Monday night is scheduled to be broadcast early next week on Radio National.

This has been excellent coverage - especially given that this is a media institution notorious not only for opposing intelligent conservative viewpoints but, even worse, pretending that they don't exist. Perhaps new ABC managing director Mark Scott - who has diplomatically pointed out that there's a distinction between issues that interest the ABC newsroom and issues that interest the Australian people - is changing the culture as no MD has done before. Or perhaps the new board of directors is asserting itself.

A curious recent incident involving "censorship" allegations against the ABC's Helen Razer was, in a perverse way, a further positive sign for Aunty. Writing in The Age earlier this week, ABC Triple J regular guest Melanie La'Brooy claimed the ABC's Razer had censored a guest interviewee, film-maker Bob Weis, when he tried to call ABC board member and writer/publisher Keith Windschuttle a "Holocaust denier" over his published views on Aboriginal history.

Understandably, Razer killed the Weis interview, mid-sentence, because she feared it would be defamatory: a pretty safe assessment from any responsible live broadcaster, one would have thought. Yet Razer now stands accused, in print, by staff cafeteria types of censoring "reasonable" views. But this is not censorship. If anything, the Razer incident shows that ABC broadcasters are showing more signs than ever of understanding intellectual debate in the real world. Calling someone a "Holocaust-denier" because you disagree with them on Aboriginal history, and when they are not present to defend the charge, is not debate but defamation.

But back to Steyn. I do not single out the ABC's recent coverage because I regard Steyn himself as infallible. To the extent that I'm a conservative, I rebel at the line run by Steyn, and like-minded right-wingers, that the Iraq war was a terribly clever idea that only leftist loonies could oppose. I opposed it too: any strategic threat did not justify a preventive war; no clear links were established between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden; and democracy can't be exported by military force to such an ethnically and tribally divided society in the heart of the Muslim world. Still, Steyn's general world view, including his depiction of the West's cultural, moral and social decrepitude, deserves to be heard - and the fact that his ideas have been brought to us at length by the ABC, of all the unlikely institutions, is cause for celebration.

But the ABC's main problem goes beyond news and current affairs. It's also about lifestyle and entertainment shows, where there is no charter requirement for impartiality, such as theoretically holds sway (very theoretically, you might say) in news and current affairs. Unfunny jokes about setting fire to the Pope on The Glasshouse, gay kisses on Spicks and Specks and extended Andrew Denton interviews with eccentric Christian "peace campaigners" who attack military bases are all standard in ABC entertainment.

Interestingly, it's the Australian-made and ABC-made programs that are the problem, while quality international imports like British satirical series Absolute Power, starring Stephen Fry, are not only funny, but succeed in making you think. But, like Steyn, that must also be brought in from overseas. When ABC entertainment starts breeding its own local quality, I'll give three cheers.


Governments raid home-buyers

Crippling State Government taxes make up more than $160,000 of a $550,000 new house and land package in Sydney, official figures reveal. The staggering sum supports Treasurer Peter Costello's argument that state tax grabs are pushing the Australian dream of home ownership out of the reach of ordinary wage earners. The levies and taxes, described by Housing Industry Association managing director Ron Silberberg as extortionate, include the charging of stamp duty twice during development. Stamp duty is then levied a third time, when the buyer purchases the total package. On a $150,000 block of land, developers and builders pay:

* up to $10,000 in stamp duties at stages of development;
* $15,000 State Government roads levy;
* $15,000 state services charge;
* $120,000 in two lots of state development and infrastructure levies.

The addition of local government charges and taxes raises the cost of the block of land to $350,000 - even before the house has been built. By contrast, the only tax paid on the purchase of a $550,000 established house in NSW is the stamp duty, at $24,750.

In the past three years the price of a land block in Sydney has skyrocketed 300 per cent. The revelations come in the wake of claims by outgoing Reserve Bank governor Ian Macfarlane that State Government land release policies and upfront levies on new homes were making it harder for people to enter the housing market. Authorities want state governments to accept financial responsibility for building community infrastructure. Infrastructure levies are pushing the price of an average block up by $120,000, which is then passed on to buyers.

"It is grossly unfair," Peter Rich, general manager of house and land for property group Clarendon Residential, said. "The person who buys that house and land package is contributing to the cost of setting up the infrastructure, but the benefits go way beyond the use of that buyer. "It isn't user-pays - it's user pays for future generations."

After the GST, revenue from housing taxes provides the biggest source of tax receipts for state governments. In 2003/04, states and territories collected more than $10.47 billion in stamp duty and $3 billion in land tax. Purchasers of new homes believe they're only paying stamp duty once on the final purchase price," Mr Silberberg said. "In reality, the final purchase prices includes stamp duty levied on a range of taxes, compounded at each stage by the collection of that stamp duty".

Official figures released last week revealed that national affordability for first home buyers fell 5.3 per cent during the June quarter and average mortgage repayments topped $2000 a month for the first time.....


18,000 patients harmed by hospital mistakes in NSW

Thousands of patients a year are being harmed by often avoidable mistakes such as being given the wrong drugs, incorrect treatment or falling down while in the care of public hospitals or other parts of the health system. An analysis, to be released today, of the first full 12 months of data from a NSW program designed to encourage reporting of so-called "adverse events" has found there were 125,000 notifications in the year to July 2006, of which 18,750 resulted in some level of injury or harm to patients.

NSW accounts for about one-third of the healthcare episodes across Australia, so on a national basis the figures could be expected to be three times higher. But because reporting events to the system is voluntary, the true level of mistakes and problems in the public hospital system is likely to be higher still. Falls represented the biggest category of adverse events, accounting for 26 per cent of all notifications or 32,500 incidents. Medication errors -- patients given the wrong drug or the wrong dose -- came next, accounting for 18 per cent of notifications or 22,500 incidents.

Incorrect clinical management -- in cases where the patients' conditions may have been misdiagnosed, diagnosis was delayed, or the wrong treatment given -- accounted for 13 per cent of notifications, or 16,250 incidents. The figures were compiled by the NSW Clinical Excellence Commission, whose CEO Cliff Hughes will present some of the findings at today's Australasian Conference on Safety and Quality in Health Care in Melbourne. Professor Hughes told The Australian that all but about 400 to 500 incidents a year resulted in minor or no harm to the patients. About 37,000 of the 125,000 notifications were of a non-clinical nature, such as lost or stolen property, or complaints over how a patient was spoken to. However, he conceded many incidents could be prevented by better hospital procedures, and said the data was being used to change the times at which some common yet potentially dangerous drugs were given.

An example was the blood-thinning drug warfarin, which is commonly used to reduce the risk of strokes and heart attacks or for patients with irregular heart rhythm. Too large a dose could cause haemorrhage, while too small a dose meant the drug would not work, Professor Hughes said. For historical reasons, such as the fact the results of blood tests ordered in the mornings would only be available in the evening, warfarin was usually given to patients at about 8pm to 9pm. But the figures showed a three-fold spike in adverse drug events at about that time. NSW was changing procedures to have the drug administered at about 4pm, when more staff would be on duty to monitor effectiveness and handle adverse consequences, he said. "That's a pretty good example of how this data can be used to drill down and look at the trends, and make changes in healthcare to make it safer for patients."

Professor Hughes said analysing the figures showed inadequate knowledge or skills on the part of doctors or nurses was linked to about 56 of the 500 or so serious adverse events. Over three times more (170) were due to communication issues -- for example, when key details about the patient's condition were not transferred to another ward or hospital department. "Any adverse event is the end-point of some deficiency in the system," Professor Hughes said.


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