Sunday, October 01, 2006

Free speech for Leftist academics

But not for ones who mention racial differences

An extraordinary intervention by a senior federal minister has forced Sydney's Macquarie University to publicly defend the academic freedom of its staff. Defence Minister Brendan Nelson has written to Macquarie vice-chancellor Steven Schwartz after one of his constituents complained of "left-wing" bias in a history subject. A spokesman for Dr Nelson said yesterday that the Defence Minister was just passing on a complaint from a constituent.

But in a copy of the letter, obtained by The Weekend Australian, Dr Nelson has penned a note at the bottom of the letter that says: "I am very concerned about this and would appreciate your personal attention to these issues which I find disturbing." The move comes after another senior minister, Attorney-General Philip Ruddock, recently warned a South Australian academic that his research could breach new terrorism laws.

The situation is awkward for Julie Bishop, who, since succeeding Dr Nelson as Education Minister in January, has been outspoken about her desire to ease government intervention in universities. In a veiled swipe at her colleague, Ms Bishop told The Weekend Australian yesterday: "It is not feasible for university courses to be designed to match the personal biases of individual students. "Students should argue all course content and argue alternative points of view."

The complaint came from a postgraduate student, Douglas Brown, enrolled in the Master of Arts subject Rights and theEvolution of Australian Citizenship. He demanded the university rewrite the unit guide and delete half the articles because the readings were so left-wing the course was an attempt at "indoctrination". Senior academics who investigated the complaint rejected the claim. Mr Brown said one of those academics, Tom Hillard, argued that it was hard to find suitable scholarly writings about Australian citizenship from the conservative side. But Mr Brown said articles from Quadrant magazine or from the Centre for Independent Studies would be appropriate. All university courses and degrees are approved independently by the peak academic senate, a self-accrediting status that institutions guard jealously.

Professor Schwartz would not comment on the Nelson incident but moved to quell growing fears in universities about the erosion of academic freedom in the post-September 11 environment. "It's absolutely fundamental ... that we safeguard academic freedom ... if we're going to have a lively and effective university sector and if we're going to have a fair and lively society as well," he said. There were few instances, if any, where "we would want to stifle an academic's freedom to teach whatever they felt was fair".

Last year, the issue of academic freedom came to a head at Macquarie when law lecturer Andrew Fraser created uproar with his comments about African migrants in Australia. [And the university banned him from teaching as a result] Since then, the university's academic senate has scrutinised the issue and devised a statement, which was being finalised yesterday. It says that academics must be able to teach and research without undue interference from government, university administration, the media, private corporations and other organisations.


Dodgy doctors and nobody cares

Comment below by John P Collins, dean of education at the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons

During the recent inquiry on skills recognition by the federal parliament, evidence was presented to the Migration Committee reflecting concerns about the lack of proper assessment of overseas-trained doctors, and of surgeons in particular. The question that immediately arises is whether the Australian public should be concerned about standards of surgical care provided by surgeons trained overseas? And, what processes, in any, are in place to ensure all surgeons working in Australian hospitals are properly assessed and up to requirements? The first answer is - not usually, and rarely when the existing systems of assessment in place for this purpose in Australia are applied.

The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons is responsible for the training of all surgeons who train in Australia and New Zealand. Those in its programs must undertake comprehensive education and training, gain wide surgical experience and undergo repeated assessments to ensure they have reached the uniform standard required to practise surgery without supervision.

No one would disagree that there must be in place an equally robust process which assesses the competence of overseas-trained surgeons who wish to work in Australia and New Zealand. These surgeons vary enormously in their level of training and experience and include those who are outstanding and occasionally leaders in their field, as well as those who may have had minimal, or indeed no, formal training. There is an established national assessment process available in Australia which is endorsed by the Australian Medical Council, the different medical colleges and the state registration boards. The colleges have worked on streamlining their processes and now have agreed timelines within which they must complete the process.

For surgeons, the process is initiated when an individual first applies to the Australian Medical Council, which ensures the submitted documentation is in order and verifies whether the applicant has bona fide qualifications. Already this year this rigorous process has screened out two applicants whose documentation did not stack up and who never got to practise in Australia. The application is then forwarded to the College of Surgeons, where assessment includes checking for level of training, experience and assessment, recency of practice and documented evidence of "good standing" from the formal registration authorities in the country of their origin. This is followed by a structured interview. A decision is made as to whether an applicant is either "substantially comparable", "partially comparable" or "not comparable" to an Australian-trained surgeon.

Those who are substantially comparable are required to undertake a period of supervision in their new post, usually over one year, and those considered partially comparable must undertake a period of upskilling and complete the college's exit examination. Those who are not comparable must sit the Australian Medical Council registration examination if they wish to remain in Australia, following which they can apply for surgical training in the same manner as all Australian-trained medical graduates. For those who wish to work in positions designated as "area of need", a decision is made as to whether the applicant has the competencies required to undertake the specific post for which they have applied.

The real worry lies in the number of doctors appointed into surgical positions without any such assessment taking place, because state and territory registration boards are using their discretionary power to grant registration - often due to pressure to fill a longstanding vacant hospital post. Of equal concern is that many of these doctors have no proper supervision in their local workplace. No one is certain how many such appointments have or are being made, but this college regularly receives applications from people who have been in posts for some considerable time. Furthermore there seems to be no local pressure on these surgeons from either their employers or registration boards to apply for formal assessment.

There is often an ongoing tension between the need for safety and standards and the supply of surgical care. However, the recent experience in Queensland clearly demonstrates the danger of bypassing the established assessment processes. A somewhat controversial issue surrounds the requirement for all appointed overseas-trained surgeons to work under supervision for a defined period, usually not less than one year. The federal inquiry was told this is an imposition, as many have already worked as specialists elsewhere and the requirement may impact on specialist recruitment. This rhetoric needs to be balanced by the reality that not all doctors who appear competent on paper and at interview are actually competent once they are in the local workplace.

Overseas-trained surgeons hail from many different countries, with widely divergent cultures and health systems. Once appointed in Australia they require a period to learn local hospital systems, establish support networks and confirm both to themselves, their colleagues and their employers that they can work in what is often a very different environment to the one which they have previously worked in.

There are many anecdotes of overseas-trained surgeons who have benefited greatly by a period of supervision and upskilling, some of whom have been enabled through this process to realise their career aspirations and provide a lasting contribution to the Australian community. Inevitably there also are some practitioners who have been found wanting in different ways. It is vital that these people are quickly identified and a process put in place to ensure patient care is not compromised.

The availability of appropriate local supervisors is also a real issue, particularly in rural or remote areas. The college would prefer overseas surgeons appointed into such positions to first work for a short period in a major hospital where they can be properly supervised, learn how the healthcare system works and establish their networks. The federal government does provide some financial assistance for such a program, but it is rather limited and does not meet the identified needs.

The Productivity Commission has recommended the introduction of a national accreditation board for the assessment of overseas-trained doctors, but it remains unclear what this new bureaucracy will entail. It is to be hoped that the experience and credibility gained by the Australian Medical Council will not simply be dismantled. We are not struggling with the absence of a robust, agreed assessment system - but with the fact it is not always applied. Surely this must be made mandatory.

The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons is very supportive of overseas-trained surgeons. We recognise their importance as part of the surgical workforce and the substantial contribution they make to the healthcare of Australians. At the same time one of the most fundamental roles of the college since its inception 80 years ago has been to ensure that safety and standards of surgical care are foremost at all times. The college will continue to advocate for these issues, not only from its own trainees but for all who practise surgery in both Australia and New Zealand.


"Modern" women have turned the men off

Australia should be mourning the passing of its hard-drinking, tough, sexist men, according to Mark Latham. "One of the saddest things in my lifetime has been the decline in Australian male culture, the loss of our larrikin language and values," the former Labor Leader writes in his new book. "Mates and good blokes have been replaced by nervous wrecks, metrosexuals and nerds."

No, Mark. You've got it all wrong. It's the women, not the men, who've changed. And if your average Aussie male has become a bit more retiring, a bit less interested in women, beer and barbecues, then it's the sheilas and political correctness that are to blame.

Take, for example, the new ruling announced this week by Cricket Australia making it an offence to call an English person a "whingeing Pom" (although Pom by itself is still acceptable). It removes at a stroke what Australian men consider as their right to denigrate males of all other nationalities.

Add to that the growth of feisty, independent, well-educated and ambitious women prepared to postpone marriage and children to pursue a career and it's no wonder that your traditional Australian male feels unwanted. Some are even opting for marriages with Thai and Filipina woman, traditionally and on the surface at least, seen as more submissive. Unable to relate to the new, liberated Australian woman, such marriages have increased fourfold in the past decade. As a result, more Australian women are living alone - up 20 per cent in six years - and they now outnumber men living alone.

The combination of more available women than men, an increase in the number of gay men and shorter marriages mean that eligible men are now in short supply. Thousands of women are said to have emigrated in search of a mate. Visitors have been quick to notice the change. "Dateless and desperate," said the English writer, Kathy Gyngell, about her Australian cousins. "The fact is that they are, to a woman, single and most of them haven't had a decent relationship in years."

A sign of how the sex roles have dramatically reversed are the "ladies only" functions at which professional male strippers perform. These often become rowdy. Geoffrey Martin, a 19-year-old "bottomless waiter", was serving drinks at a ladies-only corporate party in Brisbane, wearing underpants under a long shirt, when some of the women ripped his briefs off. "When the ladies get a couple of drinks into them, they start getting stroppy," he said. "The other two waiters had their undies on, but the ladies ripped mine off me. "Normally you can get them back after a while but they have very funny ways of hiding them. They could be in a handbag or down someone's cleavage. Nothing really bad happens, it's just a lot of fun. If the sheilas can do it, why not blokes?"

Many men blame what has happened on anti-discrimination legislation as a result of women seeking equality in the workplace. The battle for parity for women at BHP in Port Kembla in 1980 proved crucial. In that year, to everyone's amazement, some women working in offices, the canteen or as cleaners applied for jobs as steelworkers. BHP rejected them but the women fought their case in court and won. Each was awarded about $30,000 compensation for lost earnings. The case became a landmark in the struggle by all women for equal opportunity and their ranks in the workforce steadily grew. By the end of the 1990s women sat on the boards of big corporations and managed motherhood at the same time.

A male director of a leading bank revealed, as an example of its liberal attitude, how a woman director had breastfed her infant throughout a board meeting and accidentally squirted milk on his tie. The 1990s also ushered in women pilots in the RAAF; two women state premiers, Victoria's Joan Kirner and West Australia's Carmen Lawrence, and the first female state governor, South Australia's Dame Roma Mitchell.

What were the effects of these changes? It is 2006 and a Friday night at a singles bar in North Sydney. The place is full of well-paid young men and women in their late 20s and early 30s. Listen to the men's chatter and you hear things that would make the traditional male cringe. "It's all too hard," sighs David Smith, a 27-year-old who has not had a relationship for three years. As far as he is concerned, the effort involved in finding out if he is compatible with a woman is just not worth it.

James Cunningham, 28, is not interested. "It's just too difficult to go up and approach a girl. There are too many risks." "All changed," says an older man who is just sightseeing. "Everything is being shaken up. No one knows where they're at. The old Aussie ideal of a lifelong marriage between a tough man and a loving, submissive woman has gone, and no one's yet worked out what to replace it with." Any suggestions, Germaine Greer?


Privileges for smokers being abolished

The tradition of workers being allowed to take a smoke break at work is coming to an end. Almost 2000 workers at a major government department have been banned from taking cigarette breaks during office hours - setting a precedent for workplaces nationwide. Under the new rules, public servants will only be allowed to smoke during their lunch hour, under new rules to come in to force on Monday. They will not be allowed to take breaks to smoke during the day, and all smoking around the premises will be banned. And workers face disciplinary action if they fail to comply, with the potential for losing their job if they continue to disobey the rule.

Secretary of the Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources, Mark Paterson, told The Saturday Daily Telegraph yesterday that the response by staff had been "overwhelmingly positive", and many had appreciated the support in giving up. "We offered a variety of support mechanisms to assist people who chose to give up to do so," he said. "The most significant of those were a series of stop smoking seminars, developed by Allen Carr -- they've been overwhelmingly successful. Everybody who has been to the program has given up -- about 90 people."

Smoking expert Associate Professor Robyn Richmond studies workplace smoking bans at the University of NSW school of public health. She said the ban is likely to take effect in all workplaces. "Employers are now beginning to say we're not giving you any time off now because people who are not smokers are not getting any extra time off," she said.


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