Friday, September 15, 2006

Speak English 'or go home'

All new Australian citizens would have to pass English tests under a plan to be announced soon by the Howard Government within weeks. Thousands of migrants are refusing to take part in taxpayer-funded English courses each year and those applying for citizenship only need to show they understand the questions they are asked for citizenship to be granted. A decision on mandatory English tests for citizenship is to be announced soon by Andrew Robb, parliamentary secretary for immigration and multicultural affairs. "If these people want to reside here and take citizenship, they should have a functional grasp of English, that is why I have been canvassing the idea of a compulsory citizenship test with an English test component," Mr Robb told the Herald Sun.

All new non-English speaking migrants would also be encouraged to have English lessons to help them integrate into Australian society. "We already have a compulsory test for skilled migrants - this year nearly 100,000 skilled workers, around 70 per cent of all migrants - were required to sit such a test," Mr Robb said. "For refugees and the families of skilled migrants, they have an entitlement to English lessons if they haven't got functional English." Although optional for non-skilled arrivals who speak little or no English, as few as 62 per cent of those turn up for study.

Senior ministers, including Alexander Downer, have expressed support for making English skills essential for migrants. The push comes after Prime Minister John Howard called on all Muslims to learn and speak English and make stronger attempts to integrate into Australian society. "Fully integrating means accepting Australian values, it means learning as rapidly as you can the English language if you don't already speak it," he said.

Mr Downer has also pressed for migrants to learn English. "All migrants should speak English. If you come to Australia as a migrant and you can't speak English then you're going to be enormously disadvantaged," the Foreign Affairs Minister said. "Migrants who come here and aren't able to learn the language are going to end up becoming alienated from the mainstream of society." The number of migrants entering the English courses rose last year from 34,000 to 36,000.


Brakes too hard a problem for the Army brass

Imagine how something hi-tech stumps them

A $585 million upgrade of the army's M113 armoured personnel carrier - already one of Defence's most troublesome projects - will be delayed at least a year, with its brake system having to be completely redesigned. After being fitted with new armour and other protective equipment, the redesigned 12-tonne vehicles became too heavy for the existing brake system. The M113, the army's main land battle transport, designed to take up to a dozen soldiers into battle, has been in service since the 1960s. A total of 350 of the tracked vehicles are being completely overhauled and were due to re-enter service from November.

Defence Minister Brendan Nelson wrote to the project's prime contractor, Tenix, last week saying he still expected the company to meet a contractual deadline of 2010 for all 350 upgraded M113s. The problems with the M113's brake system are the latest to hit what is regarded as one of Defence's two most troublesome "legacy" projects dating from the early 1990s. The other is the Seasprite helicopter. The M113 is the third major defence project to experience a serious delay this year, following problems with the Seasprites and the 18-month delay in the delivery of the RAAF's $3billion Wedgetail early-warning aircraft.

There is now doubt that the M113s will ever be put in harm's way, because of the changing nature of military conflict. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have highlighted the lethal threat to them posed by a new generation of shoulder-fired missiles and roadside bombs. Defence analysts say that even the upgraded M113 will be obsolete in the face of weapons now routinely employed by terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Defence Materiel Organisation chief Stephen Gumley confirmed to The Australian that there had been problems with testing and certification of the M113's brake system. "We are expecting of the order of a 12-month delay to the project," he said. "A new brake system has to be designed and a new prototype made and tested." Dr Gumley said the contract with Tenix to upgrade the vehicles was for a fixed price, with the contractor expected to incur the costs of fixing the brake problem. The 2000 defence white paper planned for the vehicles to enter service last year.


More openness coming at black settlements

The permit system giving indigenous elders the right to stop people entering their land is to be abolished by the Howard Government. Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough wants the permits scrapped, despite opposition from the Northern Territory Government. "I believe the time has come for the federal Government to look at the legislation we need to remove in the territories and some states where we require people to get a permit to go to these communities," Mr Brough told parliament yesterday.

But Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin supports the permit system. "We invite Mr Brough to sit down with Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory to discuss why this is so important to them," Ms Martin said.

There has been growing concerns about the permit system following widespread claims of abuse and violence in closed communities. Darwin-based Coalition MP David Tollner wants the permits abolished, as does Darwin Lord Mayor Peter Adamson. But the Northern Land Council and Central Land Council strongly back the system, with the CLC arguing in June that the permits helped protect sacred sites and allowed Aboriginal people to control who could work on or enter indigenous land. NLC chief executive Norman Fry told the ABC yesterday "every man and his dog" would get access to the land if the permit system were removed. "All people with private property have a right to say who comes on their land," he said.

But Mr Brough said the Government could no longer allow the situation where children were being abused without scrutiny. "It's time the permit system be removed ... I hope the states and territories will support this call." Mr Brough said he believed increased public scrutiny was in the interest of victims and the disadvantaged in closed communities. Depending on the outcome of the federal Government's review of the system, the minister will write to the relevant jurisdictions seeking a uniform approach. Mr Brough has overhauled his department, establishing a strategic intervention taskforce aimed at the troubled communities.

The Australian has been blocked from entering the town of Wadeye, 300km south of Darwin, to report on gang violence and overcrowding there. The Territory's permit system was established under the 1976 Northern Territory Land Rights Act and was originally designed to prevent exploitation. Under commonwealth and Northern Territory law, entry to Aboriginal land requires a written permit. Unauthorised entry to land in the Territory can result in a fine of $1000.

Members of the Howard Government's handpicked indigenous advisory group have questioned the Government's "ad hoc" intervention in indigenous communities in crisis. The National Indigenous Council met yesterday, and members expressed concern that some communities might miss out on getting help because the Government would choose communities it wanted to assist. But council chairwoman Sue Gordon said she thought the new approach would work. "I don't know if it's ad hoc. It's very necessary governments should intervene and that they should be proactive as well as reactive," she said. "Sometimes you just have to be reactive when there's a crisis, and that may well be considered to be ad hoc."


Desalination advance

It's long been an Australian dream: turning the country's unforgiving deserts into lush tracts of green, capable of sustaining communities and crops. However, proposals ranging from diverting rivers into the dry interior, to building canals, to blasting a giant lake in central Australia have never proved feasible. But advances in nanotechnology - engineering materials on a microscopic scale - could finally make creating an enormous oasis in the desert a reality.

South Australian researchers believe a filter they are developing will be able to produce fresh drinking water from salt water with minimal power input and cost. A team working out of Flinders University say the individual components of the system are already in existence and hope to produce a workable filtering device within three years.

The cheap fresh water could be used to irrigate arid areas close to the sea or, if economically feasible, piped inland. ``It could be used in areas like the Great Australian Bight or the mid-west coast of Western Australia where the desert impinges right up to the coast,'' said researcher Professor Jani Matisons.

Nanotechnology involves working with matter on an ultra-small scale. A nanometre is one-millionth of a millimetre. A human hair is around 80,000 nanometres in width. Traditionally desalination has involved a process called reverse osmosis. Salty water is pumped up against a membrane through which water molecules can pass but the constituents of salt cannot. Under high pressure some of the water passes through the membrane, leaving the salt on the other side. The water that does not pass through the membrane becomes briney due to the increased salt content and is discarded. Because of the amount of power involved in pushing the water through the membrane, the process is often regarded as too costly for large scale desalination. The Flinder team will test two types of nanotechnology to see if they can reduce the amount of pressure needed for reverse osmosis and therefore reduce the cost. One involves shaping a matrix of minute carbon nano-tubes into a membrane while the other would see chemical nanotube molecules used as a filtering mechanism. While the team declined to reveal the exact process, their system is expected to create a more porous membrane that would allow water to pass through under far less pressure. Nano engineering will be used to create structures which traps salt molecules and prevent them passing through.

Matisons said it was expected the proposed process would cut the power required for desalination by more than half, greatly reducing costs. Fresh water removed from seawater could be used to irrigate arid areas adjacent to the coast. If transportation costs were low enough, the water could theoretically be piped further inland, helping to green Australia's dry interior.


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