Tuesday, August 15, 2006

"Vilification" confusion in Victoria

In multicultural Victoria, it's quite a feat to infuriate the Jewish and Muslim communities at the same time. Yet that is precisely what Liberal leader Ted Baillieu has done this week with his jumbled stance on racial vilification laws. He managed to find himself wedged on the issue even though the laws were passed five years ago and last amended more than three months ago.

The catalyst for his woes was a rally outside parliament led by firebrand Christian cleric Danny Nalliah, who was found to have vilified Muslims after his church dubbed them demons. liars and terrorists. On the eve of the rally, Baillieu reportedly decided to drop his predecessor Robert Doyle's opposition to the laws.

The problem was, Liberal justice spokesman Andrew McIntosh was scheduled to address the rally of evangelical Christians, who had been worked into a lather by Nalliah's fiery rhetoric. At the rally, Mclntosh was heckled over his party's new stance; before long, he declared, the Liberals would "repeal and rewrite" the relevant act. His comments, although short on specifics, satisfied the 400 or so people on parliament's steps, sparked concerns within the Muslim and Jewish communities.

In a rare example of unity, Jewish and Muslim leaders told The Australian this week they shared deep concerns about any move to repeal protections against religious vilification. Both communities rushed out statements condemning the Liberals' apparent backflip.

Baillieu's problem is that once again he has tried to walk both sides of the street in a bid to please sectional interest groups. It suits the Liberals to oppose the laws in the outer suburbs, where evangelical churches are gaining popularity. But the Liberals are also anxious to court the Jewish community to secure the seat of Caulfield - held by Baillieu ally and health spokeswoman Helen Shardey - as well as some much-needed campaign donations from Jewish business leaders.

The Jewish and Muslim communities regard the laws as a vital bulwark against racial and religious hate attacks, while the evangelists believe they stifle free speech. So, Baillieu found himself sucked into a battle over an issue that was only a small blip on the political radar. After some tortuous internal wrangling over the issue, Baillieu's stance appears to be that the laws have flaws and the Liberals will alter them in government, but he refuses to say which sections he will scrap.

However, doubts persist. The Australian asked Jewish and Muslim leaders, as well as one of Baillieu's MPs, whether they were clear on what the Liberal position was. All said no, although the community leaders were clear in their view that Baillieu's support for the laws appears to be wavering.

If the issue has cast fresh doubts on Baillieu's judgment, it has also thrown new light on the judgment of federal Treasurer Peter Costello, who has lent his support to Nalliah, even though the preacher has been found guilty of vilification and believes Muslims are taking over Australia. Nalliah, fellow preacher Daniel Scot and the Catch the Fire Ministries were found to have breached the racial vilification laws in 2004 after Muslims were labelled as demons, liars and terrorists at a seminar and in several publications. They are appealing the ruling.

In a letter dated August 7 that was read out at the rally, Costello tells Nalliah: "I applaud your effort to repeal the offensive parts of this act." It's perfectly acceptable for the Treasurer to share Nalliah's belief that the laws stifle free speech, but he has failed to distance himself from Nalliah and Catch the Fire's more controversial beliefs.

The above article appeared in "The Australian" newspaper on 12 August, 2006

Another scum foreign doctor yawned at by Queensland authorities

Queensland Health failed to protect a vulnerable female patient following allegations of serious misconduct by an overseas-trained doctor. Toowoomba health service district allowed Indian-trained Shamshulhague Shaikh to continue working at the hospital following the accusations, transferring him to another ward where he again came in contact with the woman. He was deregistered by the Medical Board of Queensland for "unsatisfactory professional conduct" on July 20 and a brief of evidence containing the serious sexual allegations against him will be forwarded to the Health Practitioners Tribunal in the coming weeks. Police are also investigating the doctor, but would not confirm the nature of the allegation.

Under the terms of his working visa, Dr Shaikh must leave Australia within 28 days - today - or be in breach of immigration laws. Medical Board of Queensland executive officer Jim O'Dempsey said the board "will allege unsatisfactory professional conduct by an ex-registrant in connection with a vulnerable person he treated". A spokeswoman for the board said actions against the doctor would proceed if he were overseas.

A Queensland Health spokeswoman said the district was advised of the complaints last March. No action was taken by the district until they were advised by the doctor himself in June and the district manager and executive director of medical services advised the Ethical Standards Unit. "Once the district was notified of the serious nature of the allegation, arrangements were made to transfer him and interim working conditions were put in place," she said. "At this stage there had been no determination by the (Medical) Board as to whether the allegations were substantiated."

Member for Toowoomba South Mike Horan raised the matter in Parliament last week, questioning Health Minister Stephen Robertson over the "serious complaints" originally made in 2005 and why he was allowed to continue working at the hospital in contact with the woman. Opposition health spokesman Bruce Flegg said for the doctor to have remained working while the investigation was underway was "very, very disturbing" and called for the Minister to declare what he knew.

Health Minister Stephen Robertson said the matter had been referred to the Health Practitioners Tribunal and Dr Shaikh was no longer authorised to to practice in Queensland. "Both the board and Queensland Health are taking a very active interest in this matter to ensure all of the actions that were taken in relation to this doctor were timely and appropriate," he said. A spokesman said he became aware of the allegations in July and would not comment further. "The appropriate action was taken by the District and he supports that action - he doesn't politically intervene in these things," he said.


Another government computer meltdown -- this time in Queensland

A new police computer system has been labelled a $100 million "nightmare" that is too complicated for officers to use. The QPRIME system is designed to provide a massive database of all incidents police attend. But internal documents reveal a state-wide review found officers didn't know how to use the system.

Chief Superintendent Mick Hannigan told far northern police region staff there were "great concerns" about poor quality data being entered into the system. "The overall quality of data being entered on the system was of a sub-standard or erroneous nature," he said in documents obtained by The Sunday Mail. In Cairns district, 88 out of 110 traffic accidents and 12 out of 13 coronial matters were entered incorrectly. In Innisfail, there wasn't a single accident or coronial matter entered properly. Problems included officers failing to record times, locations and names. Officers-in-charge had failed to pick up on the deficiencies, Chief Supt Hannigan said.

The concerns are backed by the Queensland Police Union, which says the system is "too complicated" and taking officers off the streets. "I would like to publicly apologise for the unavoidable delays the public are experiencing when they request police assistance," union acting president Denis Fitzpatrick said. "An incident that might require police attendance for one hour will now require two to three hours of data entry. "Even minor tasks take an extraordinary amount of time." He said officers had been given inadequate training.

Canadian officers using the same type of system say they are experiencing similar problems. Winnipeg Police Association president Loren Schinkel said 68 staff had suffered repetitive strain injuries from the additional data entry. "We are currently in our 42nd update version, and to say that it continues to be a nightmare is an understatement," he said. Traffic accident reports in Winnipeg had dropped from 120 a day to 50 a day. Officers were apparently too overwhelmed to bother entering the information.

The Queensland Police Service has denied there are serious problems. "No major problems have been encountered, and the system has been found to be functional and stable," a spokeswoman said. The spokeswoman confirmed $94.4 million had been set aside to buy and implement the system over four years. "QPRIME will replace 234 existing systems, providing officers with a single system and giving police a greater capacity to detect, prevent and solve crimes."


History teaching in Australia under scrutiny

Every once in a while, Tony Taylor likes to go back to the coalface. So Taylor, an associate professor in education at Monash University and Australia's leading authority on history teaching, abandoned the ivory tower for two afternoons a week in 2001 and taught a Year 10 modern world history class at a rural Victorian high school. And to find out what his students knew in the first place, he gave them a simple written quiz, including this question: "What do you know about Lenin? How come he was famous? How do you know this?" And here's one of the answers Taylor got back: "Singer in the Beatles. Made good music. Listen to their music."

Taylor is quick to point out that the study of history is not, or ever should be, about memorising facts: facts about Lenin, or Lennon or anybody else. It is about learning "historical thinking", gaining "historical literacy" and "using that understanding to develop an informed moral, political and social view of the world we inhabit". But he concedes that such literacy can barely get off the ground unless students are given "narrative context"; that is, unless they are taught the great periods and events of the past and the great characters who inhabited them, in chronological sequence.

Along with 21 other luminaries, including former NSW Labor premier Bob Carr and economic historian Geoffrey Blainey, Taylor will play a leading role in Thursday's history summit in Canberra. The summit has been organised by federal Minister for Education, Science and Training Julie Bishop as part of the Government's campaign to pressure the state education systems into reinstating history as a compulsory subject in Australian schools.

Federal-state politics aside, the summit grows out of a sense, shared by many teachers on the ground, that the narrative context of history generally, and Australian history particularly, has been lost in our schools and that the subject, to quote John Howard in his Australia Day speech this year, "is taught without any sense of structured narrative, replaced by a fragmented stew of themes and issues." "Too often," Howard told the National Press Club in Canberra, "history has fallen victim in an ever more crowded curriculum to subjects deemed more relevant to today. "And too often, history, along with other subjects in the humanities, has succumbed to a postmodern culture of relativism where any objective record of achievement is questioned or repudiated."

Bishop wants compulsory, stand-alone history subjects from kindergarten to Year 10, with Australian history the focus in the final two years. If the states hear the message, well and good. If not, it will be amplified through the megaphone of the next quadrennial education funding agreement, which will deliver them about $40 billion of commonwealth money. Just as it has with report cards and flagpoles in school grounds, the Howard Government is prepared to micro-manage the way state education systems do history.

To strengthen Bishop's arm, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that the confusion of Taylor's 15-year-old student regarding the identity of the leader of the Russian revolution, is widely repeated as far as our own history is concerned. Mike Goodwin, an inspiring and national award-winning history teacher at Mackay North State High School in Queensland, says that while most students come into senior years with some knowledge of the First Fleet and Australia's European origins, their grasp of 20th-century Australian history is skimpy at best.

Far from understanding the complex ways the Australian experience has been shaped by two world wars, for example, many students in high school cannot distinguish between those wars at all. "Apart from what they've learned from Anzac Day, the facts of our role in all conflicts are patchy and inconsistent," Goodwin says. "They don't have a big understanding of the social impact the wars had." It is with a view to conveying that impact, in the most vivid terms possible, that Goodwin has organised three overseas tours with his history students. They visit sites such as the Thai-Burma Railway, where nearly 3000 Australian prisoners of war died in 1942-43; Gallipoli, where 8000 Australians laid down their lives in World War I; and the main battlegrounds of the Western Front, where a further 40,000 fell. Students seek out graves with a Mackay connection and deliver eulogies to the fallen Diggers. It has given Goodwin a rare chance to witness the transforming power of historical consciousness.

"They just grow as people," he says of his students. "Not only does it enhance their understanding of the sacrifices of past generations, but as individuals they become more whole. They start to understand just what is important in life. "If the mobile phone doesn't work, it's not the greatest problem in the world, not if you've just lost your 18-year-old brother to war."

In one of the two papers prepared for the history summit, a survey of how Australian history is being presented now, Taylor provides plenty of evidence of why most schoolchildren, less fortunate than Goodwin's, are historically challenged on facts and understanding. Quite simply, history is not being widely taught, except in a vaguely postmodern sense. Until the two final years of high school and, with the partial exceptions of NSW and Victoria, it has been allowed to dissolve into a pomo porridge that throws together elements of history, geography and social studies into amorphous subjects with titles such as Time, Continuity and Change or Study of Society and the Environment.

So obscure are the outcomes-based descriptions of these subjects, says Taylor in his paper, "It is frequently very difficult to discern in several of the curriculum documents where exactly the teaching of Australian history may be found." What does the South Australian curriculum stipulate about history in senior high school? "Students critically analyse continuities and discontinuities over time," it propounds, "and reflect upon the power relationships which shape and are shaped by these."... What Taylor and history teachers on the ground repeatedly stress is that within such vague parameters it becomes all too easy for teachers without any interest or training in history to avoid the subject altogether.

When he inherited the education levers in NSW, Carr decided he was not prepared to accept the situation and its long-term threat to public culture. Since 1999, all NSW students from years 7 to 10 have been taught history as a distinct academic subject. In years 9 and 10 there are 100 mandated hours of Australian history, assessed by public examination. "I saw history as a superior intellectual discipline," Carr tells Inquirer. "It assesses how human beings have actually behaved in different circumstances, with a rigorous look at the oral and documentary record. "In an information age, the skills produced by studying history are more, not less, relevant. An employer will want a recruit who can go out and find the evidence and then, faced with a mass of it, think his or her way through it. "All of us have got to make decisions based on reports. How well are they written? Can you rely on the footnotes? The whole debate about Keith Windschuttle's criticisms of Aboriginal massacres draws our attention to this challenge of weighing evidence and being honest with readers. Look at the footnotes: do they justify the argument?" ...

To avoid setting off a spot fire in the so-called history wars, Bishop has been careful to convene what she calls the "sensible centre" and has left out hardened warriors such as Windschuttle, author of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, and his chief antagonist, Tasmanian historian Henry Reynolds. But Carr remains cautious. "We've got to be careful about specifying content," he says. "It might be useful to recognise some of the choices, some of the spread. I go there a little cautious, however, about embracing an agenda from one school of history writing. I'm not prepared to see the egalitarian strand in Australian history junked in a bit of neo-con spring cleaning." But whatever specific historical narratives people think should be taught, they all seem to agree there should be more of it...

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