Wednesday, September 06, 2006

ABC secrecy

In the the four years to September 15, 2004, the ABC received 1408 complaints about its Middle East coverage. The Federal Court allows you to know that. But the court says you can't know who made the complaints, what they said, and how the ABC responded. So next time you hear the ABC board, or its new managing director, Mark Scott, prattling on about the need for openness and transparency, or the public's right to know, just remember that's what the ABC believes is good for others, not for itself.

It's different at SBS. When journalist Antony Loewenstein submitted a freedom of information request to see complaints about its coverage of the Middle East, SBS handed them over. As he wrote in his book, Loewenstein discovered the complaints were overwhelmingly from just one person, Colin Rubenstein of the the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council. But when students from the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ) at the University of Technology, Sydney, submitted their FOI request to the ABC, the ABC pulled down the shutters and claimed the material was exempt, relying on an unusual argument.

The FOI Act lists agencies with certain classes of documents that are exempt, particularly those commercially sensitive. The ABC is on the list with a special exemption for documents "in relation to its program material and its datacasting content". You'd think the idea behind this was to protect from release the ABC's intellectual property in material like films or radio programs. But the ABC said this phrase meant anything connected to a program, including the complaints about it and the records of how the complaints were handled.

The students appealed and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal agreed the exemption was meant to only protect intellectual property. It ordered the documents be released. But the ABC did not comply. It briefed senior counsel and went to the Federal Court. For reasons that are far from clear, UTS's counsel, Margaret Allars, argued the exemption was so narrow it only included tapes and recordings of program material - it didn't even exempt ABC scripts from release. Justice Bennett rejected this narrow interpretation and went instead with the ABC's argument that the exemption was very broad.

The head of the ACIJ, Chris Nash, was appalled at the likely consequences of this decision: "As a result of the judgement, the ABC has been effectively removed from FOI, " he said. "We believe it was appellable but the university, for its own reasons, decided not to."


University bypasses government exam results

IQ test comeback under another name

Victoria's biggest university is bypassing the VCE and moving to choose some students with aptitude tests. Monash University is running a pilot scheme where up to 500 students from underachieving schools can sit an aptitude test instead of using their ENTER score. Students usually receive a tertiary entrance ranking out of 100 at the end of their VCE and courses require a specific score for entry. But there are concerns ENTER scores do not reflect some students' potential to succeed at university, and students from poorly resourced schools are missing out.

The new exam will be available for undergraduate degrees at Monash's Berwick campus, which include business/commerce, communication and IT. It tests decision making, problem solving, argument analysis and data interpretation. Students from 62 "under represented" schools in the city's southeast, where less than 50 per cent of pupils received a tertiary offer, will be allowed to take the exam. Secondary colleges such as Berwick, Sandringham, Cranbourne, Doveton, Lilydale and Frankston are some of those eligible. Almost 130 students have applied and will sit the exam, known as uniTEST, on September 9. Successful students will be offered places in undergraduate courses before receiving ENTER scores.

Monash admissions manager Kai Jensen said the ENTER score was not always the best measure of future academic success. "We believe in the lower ENTER ranges, aptitude tests may be a better predictor of success at university," Dr Jensen said. He said some deserving students did not get university places because their schools could not compete with wealthier city schools. "There are large inner-city independent and Catholic schools that get a lion's share of the uni places," Dr Jensen said. "We believe that in outlying schools and schools in areas that don't have those resources, there are students that could still do well at university but may not be getting an ENTER score that reflects that."

Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor Prof Stephen Parker said the university's aim of the trial was to admit the best students irrespective of means or circumstance. Dr Jensen said the test, developed by Cambridge Assessment in Britain and the Australian Council for Educational Research, had been used successfully at British universities. He said applicants still had to pass relevant VCE subjects to get in and students would be monitored for 12 months as part of the pilot study.

Education Minister Lynne Kosky's spokeswoman said the test was a good idea because it gave students a chance at university when there might be many reasons why their ENTER score was low.


The Communist salute says it all

Good riddance to bad rubbish

About 2000 people marched through the city yesterday to honour union official John Cummins, who died of cancer last week aged 58. Underworld figure Mick Gatto was among mourners who packed the Regent Theatre for Mr Cummins' funeral service. The Supreme Court has heard Mr Gatto brokered meetings between retirement village developer Primelife Corporation and Mr Cummins, state president of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. The court heard the company had union problems at a time of growth.

Yesterday, Mr Cummins was remembered as a tough unionist who struggled for the rights of building workers. Addressing Mr Cummins' two sons, Father Peter Norden said their father was jailed twice for contempt of court after visiting sites illegally. "Your father was in prison because of his honesty," Father Norden said, adding that when he asked why he did it, Mr Cummins said: "I was just doing my job."

Mr Cummins played a high-profile role in the deregistered Builders' Labourers Federation, but fell out with the union's boss, Norm Gallagher, over amalgamation with the CFMEU. The Howard Government's Australian Building and Construction Commission had been pursuing Mr Cummins over a coercion claim at the time of his death.

Brother Jeff said Mr Cummins was a passionate sportsman who supported Fitzroy Football Club and repeated his final year of high school to captain the footy team. He said his brother's career path became clear when he organised protests as a student at La Trobe University. A Sherrin footy, a Fitzroy jumper and a hard hat were placed on the coffin.

Unionist Ralph Edwards spoke against the Howard Government, which he said was trying to destroy the CFMEU. "Make no mistake, we will fight," Mr Edwards told mourners. As Mr Cummins' coffin was carried into the hearse on Collins St, hundreds of unionists saluted with clenched fists. The crowd then marched behind the funeral entourage to Trades Hall. A message of condolence from the East Timor Government was read out during the service. Mr Cummins is survived by his wife, Diane, sons Shane and Mick, and his father, Jack, 97.


Deadly public hospital delays

Queensland cancer sufferers are being forced to wait more than four times longer than recommended for life-saving treatment. A damning Queensland Health document has exposed the potentially deadly delays that many public hospital patients and their families must endure. The fresh health scandal is a significant blow to Premier Peter Beattie only four days from Saturday's election.

The internal memorandum, obtained by The Courier-Mail, reveals priority two patients with aggressive tumours, bleeding or pain are waiting up to 34 days for radiation treatment. The recommended maximum wait time for such patients is 14 days. Priority three patients with breast or prostate cancers are waiting up to 89 days while 21 days is the recommended maximum.

A Medical Radiation Professionals Group spokesman said yesterday that a shortage of radiation therapists was mostly to blame and wait times would blow out further as more therapists quit Queensland Health. "It seems the Health Minister has mistakenly chosen to focus only on doctors and nurses and unfortunately the Queensland public is paying the price," he said. Health Minister Stephen Robertson played down the waiting time figures, saying that the Government was addressing the problem. "Timeframes will fluctuate from week to week," he said.

The August 29 memorandum, with the subject heading "Delay in Treatment", gives a breakdown of the waiting times for the four public hospitals which conduct radiation treatment. Townsville Hospital priority two and three cancer patients wait up to 34 and 89 days respectively. Princess Alexandra Hospital cancer patients are waiting 50 days for treatment on priority three cancers and 36 days for priority two. Cancer patients of the Mater Hospital and Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital also face significant waits beyond what is recommended.


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