Saturday, March 31, 2007


LAST Sunday was Neighbour Day. The idea behind the day is simple and worthwhile. Neighbours are encouraged to say hello to one another. Neighbour Day was started by Melburnian Andrew Heslop in 2003 and is now celebrated throughout the country. The concept has been welcomed by politicians from both sides of politics, federal and state governments and local councils.

It is ironic that governments support Neighbour Day, given government regulations are a chief cause of the decline in the sense of community in our neighbourhoods. Forty per cent of Victorians engage in some sort of voluntary activity, and voluntary organisations are central to strong neighbourhoods. Yet government rules are putting the future of those organisations and what they do at risk. Community initiative is being stifled as regulations become so burdensome that many volunteers find that their participation is simply not worth the trouble.

Fund-raising sausage sizzles are now subject to 40 pages of regulation from the Department of Human Services. It is a legal requirement that functions appoint an "event co-ordinator", who must complete a checklist of more than 30 questions, ranging from the time the event started and finished, to whether the area was free of pests, to the name, address and phone number of anyone who supplied food. To conduct a sausage sizzle will probably require two separate permits from the local council. One permit to authorise the fund-raising and another to allow food to be sold.

The purpose of all this bureaucracy is, of course, to prevent food poisoning. And, possibly because of additional regulation, a few people have been saved from an upset stomach. But there is a trade-off. As governments make it harder and more complicated to run voluntary activities, volunteers become less willing to organise those activities. People no longer attempt to help themselves, and instead they look to government for the solution to their community's problems.

It might be obvious, but what is often forgotten is that voluntary organisations are run by volunteers. Even if they wanted to, volunteers don't have the time to navigate their way through 40 pages of instructions, fill out five pages of paperwork, and then wait 14 days for council approval, all so that they can cook some sausages. Common sense has been replaced by adherence to a rulebook. Most people understand that buying food at a school fete is different from buying it at a commercial restaurant. Many of the issues council health inspectors try to solve could be fixed by simply declaring that anyone purchasing at a community event does so that their own risk.

The modern-day mania for "risk management" has eliminated a range of activities previously conducted by voluntary associations. While risk was once an accepted part of everyday life, now it is something that must be eliminated.

For a number of years a group of volunteers has operated an after-school sports program for children living on an inner-city housing commission estate in Melbourne. The program was supported by an AFL club whose players regularly visited the estate to teach drills to the 30 children who attended each week.

This year, with the program growing and consuming more time, the volunteers decided to hand over the running of the program to a local government agency. The first requirement from officials at the agency was that the program institute a "risk management" plan and that every volunteer have a "position description". It didn't matter that the worst accident any child had ever experienced was a bump on the head, and that volunteers had spent years working quite happily without "position descriptions". The result was that because none of the volunteers had the time or expertise to complete the necessary paperwork the program was cancelled.

Victorians would be surprised to know there's a state government department responsible for voluntary organisations. It's called the Department for Victorian Communities and its mandate is to work "with local people throughout Victoria with the mutual goal of strengthening communities". The department is even running an inquiry into the red tape faced by community groups. So far nothing much has happened. Maybe a new and radical approach is necessary. The best thing government could do is get out of the way. Rather than attempting to abolish the inevitable risk associated with practically anything a community group does, government could let people make their own choices. It is hoped that as attitudes change back to what they once were, we may no longer need to be reminded to say hello to our neighbours.


Can you combine a career with motherhood?

By Australian journalist Caroline Overington

YOU cannot have it all. That's the message that Carmel Tebbutt imparted to women when she stepped down from the NSW ministry to spend more time with her six-year-old son, Nathan. It's the same message that Natasha Stott Despoja sent to women, when she announced that she would not stand for re-election in 2008, to spend more time with her two-year-old son, Conrad. Tebbutt said she didn't want other mothers to think it was impossible to "combine a career and being a mother".

But it's true, you can't have a high powered career if you're a mother, not unless you: a) have a husband at home who does not work; or b) have paid help (or a doting grandma) to pick up the kids from school, supervise their homework; put them to bed; prepare the school lunches; and provided you can live with the guilt of never being there for any of the significant moments in your child's life.

Most women can't do it. It feels wrong - indeed, it probably is wrong - to be pounding away at a career while your children lie sobbing in bed, wondering why you're not home. That's why most mothers work part-time: three or four days a week, even in high-powered jobs. And that's why it's simply not true that you can't have it all.

You can, it's just that most women don't want it all - not if "all" means spending most of their waking hours away from their children. Given a choice between a career and the kids, most women will go for a bit of both, thank you. Don't tell anyone, but for most of us, that is having it all.


Alzheimer's tackled by testosterone boost

RESEARCHERS in Perth have made a groundbreaking discovery into the prevention of Alzheimer's disease, after showing that boosting testosterone levels in the body can lower levels of a toxic brain protein linked to the development of the crippling condition. Preliminary results from a clinical trial of West Australian men, presented at the prestigious Royal Society of Medicine in London, show that not only does the use of a testosterone cream lower the protein beta amyloid but importantly it appears to improve memory.

Professor Ralph Martins, of the Sir James McCusker Foundation for Alzheimer's Research at Hollywood Private Hospital, said from London that he was excited by early results from an ongoing trial of healthy men aged 50 to 72 who had a testosterone deficiency and only mild signs of memory loss. They have been treated at Perth's Well Men Centre using a WA-made testosterone cream, and the trial follows an earlier study of guinea pigs which showed the treatment reduced their levels of beta amyloid.

Professor Martins said that it was the first real evidence of cause and effect. "In the past we've shown an association, so when you lower testosterone, you raise beta amyloid levels, and we've also shown an association with people at higher risk of getting Alzheimer's, but we wanted to see what happens in the brain," he said.


Cancer trigger mapped

A DEADLY "active ingredient" in almost all human cancers has been mapped by Australian scientists, bringing the world closer to a potentially life-saving treatment. The breakthrough, published today in the international journal Science, will speed up the global research effort to develop anti-cancer drugs that "switch off" tumour growth.

Cancer researchers at the Children's Medical Research Institute have discovered the composition of an enzyme called telomerase, overactive in almost 90 per cent of cancers. It makes both healthy and cancerous cells immortal and is regarded as one of the most important triggers in cancer. Telomerase was believed to contain a mixture of any of 32 different proteins, but Dr Scott Cohen and his team found only two were involved. "We discovered it was a really simple composition," Dr Cohen said. "All these researchers studying it can really focus now, and that should boost the productivity of research into new drugs, which is very exciting."

The team made the finding by growing cancer cells to collect the hard-to-find enzyme, then purified it down and used a $1 million telescope to work out what it contained. "The next step is to define its shape, if you can do that you can pretty effectively design drugs to very specifically target telomerase, turn it off and stop the cancer growth," Dr Cohen said. The researchers say it is one of the biggest achievements in the telomerase field since the enzyme was discovered by former Melbourne researcher Elizabeth Blackburn in the 1980s.


Friday, March 30, 2007

Is this the cleverest "climate" policy yet?

Plan to rescue the world's forests

AUSTRALIA will form a global fund to fight illegal logging and forest destruction worldwide with the aim of halving the rate of deforestation and achieving greenhouse gas emission reductions 10 times greater than under the Kyoto Protocol. Along the lines of the AP6 Asia-Pacific climate pact, the $200 million Australian initiative will operate outside the Kyoto climate change protocol and will be funded by other developed nations to help developing nations preserve forests.

Germany, Britain and the US are expected soon to contribute to the fund, which will have Indonesia as its prime target. The UN has identified Indonesia as having the world's highest rate of forest clearing. Yesterday, British economist and climate change expert Nicholas Stern said Indonesia ranked third in the world as a greenhouse gas emitter, after the US and China, because of the destruction of forests.

The new world fund - with a similar structure to the six-party Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate created early last year - will give John Howard momentum on the climate change issue as Labor paints him as negative and reluctant on global warming. Labor yesterday peppered the Prime Minister with questions on global warming and promised a $50 million program to subsidise solar panels on homes to cut power consumption and greenhouse emissions.

Mr Howard responded in parliament by pointing to a split between the state Labor governments and federal ALP over compulsory targets for solar and wind power. Mr Howard and Kevin Rudd yesterday both met Sir Nicholas, who said in his report on the effects of climate change last year that deforestation in developing countries was one of the greatest contributors to global warming. Sir Nicholas's report for the British Government predicted dire consequences unless immediate steps were taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr Howard will announce the start of the global fund today as the Government attempts to take the political initiative on climate change. The forest fund, to be managed by the World Bank, is designed to help developing countries start sustainable forest industries, plant new forests, stop illegal destruction of rainforests, provide monitoring of forest production, education in forest management and help communities dependent on illegal rainforest timber find alternative jobs.

Deforestation accounts for 20per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and it is estimated that a tonne of CO2 can be sequestered - or taken out of the atmosphere - through tropical reforestation for just $US2, a fraction of the cost of other technologies. The World Bank has estimated the mismanagement of forests costs the global economy $US10billion a year and says 85 per cent of the world's forests are not managed in a sustainable way.

In its submission to the Prime Minister's taskforce on global warming and emissions trading, the National Association of Forest Industries says forests "can play a significant role in addressing climate change concerns through the benefits of carbon sequestration and managed native forests and plantations".

Mr Howard told parliament yesterday that Australia would work towards achieving its target in cutting greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol but said he would not adopt policies that cost jobs. "Whilst there are quite a lot of things in Stern's report and in his work that we agree with, we will take decisions in the national interest," Mr Howard said. "History is littered with examples of nations having overreacted to presumed threats to their great long-term disadvantage."

Mr Howard highlighted a split between the state Labor governments and federal ALP over the policy on renewable energy to combat climate change. In a submission to the Prime Minister's taskforce, the state governments have recommended that mandatory targets for generating power from solar, wind and other renewable sources be phased out when anemissions trading system is introduced. The states say a market-based system of encouraging greenhouse gas reduction through emissions trading is not compatible with mandatory targets. The federal ALP's policy "supports a mandatory renewable energy target which will promote the growth of renewable energy industries such as solar and wind power". "Labor will ensure a genuine and substantial increase in the percentage of Australia's energy generated from renewable sources," the policy says.

But the states have recommended mandatory renewable energy schemes be discontinued or not renewed. When asked about renewable energy targets in parliament, Mr Howard said that as he was being asked to expand mandatory targets the states wanted to phase them out. "This is at the heart of this debate - you cannot run power stations on renewables. Yet the Leader of the Opposition and those who sit behind him believe you can," he said.


Stern warnings on climate consensus: The thinking man's climate change extremist hits town

An editorial from "the Australian" below

BRITAIN'S climate change emissary, Nicholas Stern, has left something for everyone in his lightning visit to Australia to warn of the likely costs of not taking precautionary action on global warming. The federal Government was given a tick for considering nuclear energy as an answer to cutting carbon emissions. Labor was given encouragement for setting a target to reduce the emissions. The coal industry was assured it was a logical long-term player in the world energy business and that Australia was perfectly placed to research clean coal technology, which would make a profound impact if it proved viable.

Global warming activists, meanwhile, would be heartened by Sir Nicholas's view that Australia should sign the Kyoto climate change protocol and was morally obliged to act on cutting its carbon emissions, even though in real terms any cuts would have a negligible impact on the global situation.

Set against Al Gore's hyperbolic visions of doom, Sir Nicholas can appear to be almost a voice of reason. This is because, unlike Mr Gore, who may morph into a climate change- fuelled US presidential candidate at any moment, Sir Nicholas is a serious bureaucrat and former World Bank chief economist. This should not obscure the fact, however, that he was handpicked to undertake the review of climate change by British Prime Minister Tony Blair for political as much as altruistic reasons.

British politicians have seized on climate change with what appears an almost religious zeal. Both major parties are attempting to outbid each other with climate change responses that promise austere measures for British citizens including the possibility of rations and progressive taxes on air travel. While there have been criticisms of Sir Nicholas's research, including from this newspaper, he has succeed in engaging business in the debate. Where Mr Gore has adopted the rhetoric of zealotry and exaggeration, Sir Nicholas has employed the logic of an insurance actuary. He has persuaded business to accept it makes economic sense to address the issue of climate change now, because if the science proves true, the cost will be much higher the longer it is left. This precautionary principle is well understood by the business mind, which also sees the potential for profit in a carbon trading regime.

That said, Sir Nicholas has not been shy of indulging in a little headline-grabbing of his own, with warnings that the cost of responding to climate change will equal two world wars and a depression. However, he has not overdramatised the state of scientific confidence on the impact of global warming, or the human contribution to climate change, to the same extent as others, notably Mr Gore and Australian of the Year Tim Flannery. Nonetheless, Sir Nicholas's call for harsh carbon emission targets, with reductions of between 60and 90 per cent, are best viewed in the context of the continuing need to draw attention to the issue. A target will always only be a target, and success in meeting it will depend on the success of new technology and innovation.

In political terms, John Howard had little choice but to meet Sir Nicholas, but the Prime Minister has made it clear the Government's response would be guided by protecting jobs and safeguarding the economy. If the Opposition sees Sir Nicholas's visit as a welcome precursor to this weekend's climate change talkfest, it would be wise to take a leaf from the Stern book of diplomacy and ability to deal with business. Having succeeded in getting business to the table, Labor must now satisfying the diverse groups without wrecking its claim to economic credibility.

For a lesson in the art of clever climate change solutions and politics, it's hard to beat Mr Howard's plan to combat illegal global logging, which could deliver 10 times the carbon savings of Kyoto.


Just another end-is-nigh climate guy?

Here's the headline news from Tim Flannery, Australian of the Year: The climate is changing much faster than we thought even a short time ago. These changes will be vast and certainly catastrophic if we do not act. Thousands of species -- including our polar bear -- are headed for extinction. The collapse of the Gulf Stream could trigger a new nuclear arms race and usher in a nightmare era of global conflict. Left unchecked, climate change could well bring about the end of our civilization.

Whew. Pretty grim stuff. Yet Mr. Flannery swears he's no alarmist. "Just because the news is alarming doesn't mean the messenger is alarmist." His book The Weather Makers is riding high on the international bestseller lists, and he's a hot commodity on the speaking circuit. (He's addressing a think-tank conference for Canadian politicians today.) In Australia, where a severe drought has pushed climate change to the top of the agenda, he's at least as influential as Al Gore. The two have other things in common. Both simplify the science, cherry-pick the evidence and play down the uncertainties. They make it seem as if massive action is a no-brainer.

Too right, mate. We all want to do something. But what? How? What kinds of policies make sense? And what about the rest of the world? China, the fastest-growing carbon emitter on the planet, is building a new coal plant every week. Why should it sacrifice its prosperity to save our polar bears?

Mr. Flannery confesses that he gave short shrift to the dilemma of big developing countries. "The reason I don't talk about that is that it's a perfect formula for doing nothing." The flip side of this end-is-nigh pessimism is a remarkably cheery faith in new technologies and the prospect of global co-operation. "There is quite a significant shift even in China," he says optimistically. "They're talking a lot about renewable energy. The richest man in China makes solar panels." One day, he predicts, China could be the supplier of cheap solar panels to the world.

Maybe so. But Mr. Flannery prefers to gloss over the unpalatable economic tradeoffs that people and their governments are probably not prepared to make. For example, he thinks Australia ought to get out of the coal business. Like Mr. Gore (and unlike David Suzuki, who believes we must drastically cut our standard of living in order to avert Armageddon), Mr. Flannery basically promises climate gain without pain. He's also partial to massive social-engineering schemes. For example, he argues that the only equitable way to reduce emissions is to grant every human being an equal "right to pollute" with greenhouse gases. Under this system, developed countries would have to buy enough carbon credits from poor countries to cover their emissions. This would have the added (in his view) advantage of redistributing wealth from the greedy West to the impoverished rest. Does such a scheme have a chance? Not on this planet.

Mr. Flannery admits that emissions trading in Europe has been a flop (he blames the Italians for gaming the system, although they're not the only ones), and that the Kyoto targets are meaningless. He's for Kyoto anyway. "It's like a baby. It's useless when it's born. It needs nurturing, and then you can build it into anything you want it to be." He also points out that everything in his book is based on reputable scientific studies published in major journals, such as Nature.

What he doesn't say is that he tends to pick the most sensational studies and ignore the ones that contradict them. About the starving polar bears, he writes: "It looks as if the loss of nanuk may mark the beginning of the collapse of the entire Arctic ecosystem." Just one problem. The polar bear population is booming. And they've weathered climate changes far longer than humans have. Mr. Flannery was a bit defensive when I raised this. "You'll always find an expert to contradict any study."

Mr. Flannery is a very influential man. I hope his predictions of imminent catastrophe are wrong, because his ideas for tackling global warming are pretty lame. Do I have better ones? Nope. My point is, the real debates have only just begun.


Leftists who want to cut income tax!

Another lurch to the Right from the Australian Left. They even endorse federalism over centralism!

A HIGH-LEVEL report prepared for the Labor premiers has raised the prospect of increasing the GST and lowering income taxes as part of a broader set of measures to overhaul federal-state relations. The premiers are being told that Australia could reap a "federalism dividend" of $86billion a year - or $4188 a head - if taxes such as the 10per cent GST and income tax rates were traded off to give the states greater financial freedom. To achieve the pay-off, Canberra must also stop playing politics with commonwealth grants to the states and reform the delivery of key government services such as health and education, where there is significant duplication of responsibilities.

The findings come in a new report for the premiers, Australia's Federal Future, which concludes that multi-tiered government, contrary to common perception, is an efficient model. It argues that the Australian federal-state system offers social and economic benefits that centralised government - such as in Britain and France - cannot. "Research suggests that federalism may have increased Australia's prosperity by $4507 per head in 2006 and that this amount could be increased by another $4188 or even more (totalling $86 billion) if Australia's system was more financially decentralised," it finds.

Co-authored by ANU professor of public policy Glenn Withers and University of Sydney associate professor in law Anne Twomey, the report will today be presented to the Council for the Australian Federation, set up by the premiers to co-ordinate policy at Council of Australian Government meetings. COAG meets on April 13 to consider issues such as control of the Murray-Darling Basin water system, global warming and setting education benchmarks.

But the Howard Government is likely to seize on the Labor premiers receiving a report that raises the spectre of tax changes. John Howard will press the point that changing the rate of GST requires the agreement of all states and the commonwealth, a more likely scenario if Labor wins the federal election.

Professor Withers told The Australian that to deliver the benefits of decentralisation, the states require more financial autonomy, and part of the solution is tax reform. "Australia needs to consider rebalancing its spending and income tax mix to both better support the states in what they can spend without ties and allow the income tax burden to be reduced," he said.

The report says "serious tax reform would recognise that Australia overtaxes incomes and undertaxes spending compared with other OECD economies". It concludes that the commonwealth has used its control of the GST revenue to impose its political agenda on the states. "Recent trends in Australian federalism show a shift from competitive and co-operative federalism to a system of 'opportunistic federalism', where the commonwealth uses its array of financial and legislative powers to intervene selectively in areas of traditional state responsibility to make ideological or political points," it says.

Professor Withers said Australia should be prepared to harness the advantages of a strong multi-tiered system of government, which provides greater scrutiny and limits opportunity for corruption, and encourages competition between the states to attract business and immigrants. "The common view is that several tiers of government create bloated public services, but this is a myth," he said. "Unitary states in the OECD employ nearly 11 per cent more public servants (as a percentage of overall employment) than us. In other words, if we hadn't had a federation we would have another 180,000 public servants."

The report advocates taking heed of other OECD countries that have streamlined the health and education sectors, and endorses last year's National Commission of Audit that called for the states to be responsible for preschool, primary and secondary education, and the commonwealth to take over responsibility for vocational training and higher education. Victorian Premier Steve Bracks said that the report "debunks some of the myths about our federation being expensive and the states being awash with cash".


Thursday, March 29, 2007

Homeschooling revolt

The Australian State of Queensland seems to have laws about homeschooling that are similar to Germany's. The approach to enforcement is however very different

An attempt by the State Government to overhaul home-schooling registration requirements appears to have failed. A new system was introduced in January to make it easier for parents teaching their children at home to legally report to the state without fear of being forced to send them to school. But Eleanor Sparks of Education Choices Magazine for home-schoolers said thousands of parents were reluctant to register with the Government "There is still a lot of distrust there. A lot of parents don't want to sign up and then have the department try to change the way they choose to educate their children," she said.

An Education Queensland report estimates up to 10,500 children are being home-schooled, but just 260 of them are officially registered with the State Government. Education Minister Rod Welford does not accept the figure though it comes from his own department's Home Schooling Review. He said he believed parents who have registered under the department's distance education scheme (4800 students) and the 260 students under the new system represented the "overwhelming majority". "There may be one or two hundred who we still haven't captured because we don't know precisely the number of children who are not in school," he said.

He said he believed the "home-school industry" had an interest in exaggerating its numbers. "I want to spread the message that it is against the law not to be registered, and secondly that it is in their interests to do that," he said. "It is not a question of bludgeoning parents into some sort of Big Brother control system. "By registering those students we can give them support such as advice on teaching text and give them some assistance through nearby schools if they want to access that."

Parents who reject the school system say they do so for many reasons. There are financial benefits to home schooling as parents do not have to worry about fees. uniforms, text books or trips. But parents say the decision to home-school also means financial sacrifices, as at least one parent must spend all their time with their children.

Amanda from Ipswich told The Sunday Mail she opted out of schools because she feared exposing her children to peer groups there. "I know that a lot of people out there think that people like us are weirdos who want to live outside society but we're not. We just don't believe that schools are the best place to put your children." Amanda, who asked that her full name not be revealed, has not registered any of her children with Education Queensland and has never followed a structured learning system.

Her eldest child, Gabby, 15, did not start reading until she was nine but is studying for a bachelor of arts at the Open University (an online higher education service that does not require any entry grades). "I enjoyed it. It was a fun way to learn and now that I am at university I don't find the work too hard. I am able to handle it," Gabby said.

Parents must send their children to school unless they receive special dispensation from Education Queensland. But Ms Sparks says governments have turned a blind eye to thousands of parents who choose to school their children ast home.

The article above by Edmund Burke appeared in the Brisbane "Sunday Mail" on March 25, 2007

Road to university widens

A good idea. General knowledge is so indicative that it has been used as a proxy for an IQ test

THOUSANDS of VCE students could get an extra shot at university under a plan to use general knowledge tests in course selection. Under the radical proposal, the General Achievement Test would be used for the first time alongside ENTER and VCE scores for selection in some uni courses. The GAT would be used to help choose "middle band" students -- whose results fell just below ENTER cut-off scores for courses. The proposal by Monash University and the Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre could be implemented by the middle of this year if schools support it.

A joint discussion paper outlining the plan says that, although the ENTER provides a "good outcome" for most students, there is a need to improve the selection process for some university applicants. "For some students, the ENTER score may not fully reflect their ability to succeed at tertiary study," the paper states.

About half of all university courses -- up to 1500 of them -- use "middle band" selection along with the ENTER score. This means that some universities look at individual subject scores when deciding whether to take middle-band applicants. But under the proposed plan the GAT -- which tests English, maths and science skills -- would be taken into account for the first time.

Every VCE student currently sits the GAT in the middle of the academic year but it has been used only to check student work and exams. The GAT could also be used as a supplementary tool to select students who have suffered disadvantage during year 12. "It is proposed that applicants' GAT scores . . . be available for use as an additional tool to increase the reliability of middle-band selection," the report states.

VTAC director Elaine Wenn said the proposal would be implemented by June if supported by schools and universities. She said Monash University had advanced the proposal but other universities could take it up if it were approved. Ms Wenn denied the plan amounted to a move away from the ENTER score as the main selection tool for university. "The ENTER score is still the best predictor of academic performance," she said. Monash University pro-vice chancellor Prof Merran Edwards said the university was trying to improve middle-band selection.

The president of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals, Brian Burgess, said the ENTER score was not a particularly effective way of selecting students. "That one third of students fail their first year says something about how universities are selecting their students," he said. Australian Education Union Victorian branch president Mary Bluett welcomed the plan. "We think the idea of broadening out the entry criteria is a good thing," she said. "Too much depends on the ENTER score."


Students' results just get worse

SHOCKING student test results revealed thousands of children were getting lower scores in literacy and numeracy the longer they stayed at school. The disturbing trend has emerged in a national analysis of results provided to Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop. Figures showed the 6 per cent of Year 3 students who failed to reach the numeracy benchmark grew to 9 per cent by Year 5 and 18 per cent in the first year of high school. Despite millions of dollars poured into classroom programs, 25 per cent of Year 7 students in NSW did not meet benchmark standards for numeracy and 12 per cent for reading.

The number of students meeting an acceptable standard in numeracy plummeted between primary school - where it reached the mid-90s - and high school. Ms Bishop said yesterday she was worried about the results showing the decline in student performance after Year 3. "It concerns me that too many students are still failing to meet these minimum standards," she said. "Reading, writing and mathematics are fundamental life skills that every person needs for further education, employment and participation in society."

The data, based on 2005 exam results in all the states and territories, had taken the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs almost two years to process. In NSW, females outscored males by up to 6 per cent - particularly in reading and writing. Students in Years 3 and 5 performed better than the national average but slipped below it once they reached high school. Students living in cities did slightly better than those in regional and remote areas.


Facing black realities

Comment by Christopher Pearson

Since the 1960s, across the spectrum of Australian politics, there has been a default position on traditional Aboriginal culture. It is, axiomatically, a many splendoured thing, as viable a world view for contemporary indigenous people as it was for their ancestors. Louis Nowra's new book, "Bad Dreaming: Aboriginal Men's Violence Against Women and Children", is a sustained critique of all that.

Nowra is to be congratulated for rare courage in confronting the dysfunctional aspects of both traditional culture and its latter-day manifestations. It's not likely to win him many friends. But then, as someone who's been thinking about the cultural problems underlying Aboriginal men's violence against women and children for more than 30 years, he's had plenty of time to sort out which of Aboriginal Australia's (usually self-appointed) champions are in earnest.

Two who he thinks have failed that test are fellow columnists at The Australian, Phillip Adams and Elspeth Probyn. "After recent revelations about the extent of domestic violence in Aboriginal communities," Nowra says, "Adams, a left-wing ABC broadcaster, opined that the public outcry about its magnitude was an example of conservatives using the information to pick on Aborigines, expressing his belief (erroneous, of course) that there is just as much domestic violence and child abuse in the general community."

Probyn, a professor of gender studies at the University of Sydney, is another of those experts who's reluctant to let the facts get in the way. According to Nowra: "She wrote that the abuse in Aboriginal communities is 'supposedly rife', yet was horrified that children would be removed from their families, even though it would be to protect them from a grim situation. And that has been the problem with this issue. Ideology has taken prevalence over revealing the ghastly facts of what is happening to indigenous women, boys and girls."

Nowra has assembled a catalogue of the ghastly facts to silence all those who want to wish the problem away. He quotes Nanette Rogers, the Alice Springs lawyer who was interviewed last year to such gripping effect on Lateline: "The volume of sexual assault is huge and I don't have a single file in my room that is not related to violence."

There are other, more clinical, indications of the scale of the problem. The rate of syphilis infection in the Northern Territory Aboriginal population is 65 times the non-indigenous rate. One-third of 13-year-old girls in the territory are infected with chlamydia and gonorrhoea. How much of the underage activity was involuntary, as well as illegal, is hard to say. However there is no shortage of Aboriginal leaders to attest that sexual abuse of children has reached epidemic proportions in urban, rural and remote communities.

Nowra cites research to show that more than half the perpetrators of sexual violence were victims of it themselves in their youth. It's a sign of what anthropologists call "a repetitive culture". At least one in 10 Aboriginal boys can expect to be sexually assaulted. In Western Australia there was a documented tenfold increase in the sexual assault of women and children between 1961 and 1981. The urban statistics are grim, especially for Alice Springs, but grimmer still in remote settlements. "One of the most salient features of domestic violence and child abuse is that the highest incidences are occurring in communities that are the most traditional, and where men defend their actions as being part of customary law."

There are a variety of contemporary circumstances that exacerbate the problem of sexual violence. The collapse of Christian observance and the work ethic among most of Noel Pearson's generation is part of it. Bored idleness on welfare is another major element. Alcohol, illegal drugs and pornography sap the self-discipline of men, many of whom are already demoralised and lacking any moral compass. One of the more shocking passages in the book recounts the matter-of-fact way in which middle-aged perpetrators talk to him about their exploits, with no sense of shame.

These are all contributory factors, but Nowra claims it is the dysfunctional elements of traditional culture, which still persist in even more pernicious forms, that are the ultimate cause. He takes a short tour through the historical and anthropological record, from Watkin Tench's journal in 1788 to the end of the 19th century. His conclusions are hard to argue with, although the sub-discipline of feminist anthropology has been trying to divert attention from the inconvenient evidence for most of the past 40 years.

Aboriginal custom entrenched a male gerontocracy. Women were commonly treated as though they were chattels and could be lent out in sexual servitude to strangers in exchange for trade goods or to help settle a dispute. Sometimes young girls were offered to white men in payment for food, blankets or axes. Nowra quotes A.W. Howitt on the gang rape of young girls, typified by orgiastic scenes, sometimes including their fathers. He also cites Joan Kimm's finding that "the sexual use of young girls by older men, indeed much older men, was an intrinsic part of Aboriginal culture and is a heritage that cannot be denied". Nowra is admirably straightforward about traditionally sanctioned sexual relations between men and boys, another taboo subject for most anthropologists. He notes boy-wives in some tribes and the widespread evidence of pederasty. Along with Fred Hollows, he touches on homosexual activity, casual and otherwise, in historic as well as contemporary rituals of initiation. He also remarks on the many gay Aboriginal men in present-day Australia and tells the story of an Aboriginal drag queen he says he became close to after leaving university. "He told me that he had been molested by his father and two brothers when he was young. At the time it seemed far-fetched to me. But it sparked an interest in Aborigines and their cultural conflicts with white society."

Nowra summarises the argument thus: "Traditional Aboriginal society expressed anger through aggression but the violence and sexual behaviour was tightly structured through ritual, ceremony and proscribed procedures. But with the influence of alcohol and acculturation, some of these customs have become a pathological distortion of those that were the basis of traditional life."

Because white Australia sentimentalises hunter-gatherer customs - no matter how brutal - latter-day noble savages are exploiting the precedent of past practices to do as they please and ignore the law. Another dimension of the problem is that Aboriginal women are very often reluctant to report domestic violence or sexual abuse. He says "they cannot separate their cultural identity from their gender. In other words, some women believe that if they accuse their men of such crimes, they in turn can be accused of criticising their own culture. After two centuries of seeing their culture devalued and mocked by whites, one can understand this. So they would rather suffer in silence than be seen to be criticising their identity as Aborigines. They consider their status as a woman to be less important than being Aboriginal."

The importance of Bad Dreaming lies in its documentation of shameful abuses that the perpetrators and their lawyers and other apologists have been able to cover up for decades. One of the strongest arguments Nowra mounts is that the permit system - which excludes journalists, among others, from visiting isolated settlements where women and children often lead lives of quiet desperation - should be abolished. "The permit system, although useful for protecting sacred sites, is also used to keep dark secrets of domestic violence and sexual abuse from being publicised," he writes. "People should not be prevented from accessing what are essentially public townships, accessed by public roads."

There is no quick fix for a culture with so much archaic baggage, not to mention "sit-down money", drugs, all-day pornographic video sessions and binge drinking. Nowra seems attracted by Tony Abbott's suggestion of "a new form of paternalism". He finds it almost indistinguishable from Nicolas Rothwell's more nuanced view that failing indigenous communities should be subject to "a system of benign social control". He offers as a small sign of hope the example of Groote Eylandt, where a new alcohol management scheme came into force in July 2005: "Anyone who wanted to drink had to have a permit. At the first hint of domestic violence, the permit was revoked. Within a year, domestic violence on Groote had dropped by 40 per cent."


Wednesday, March 28, 2007


In American terms, he would be the bluest of the "Blue Dogs"

KEVIN Rudd has risked a brawl with Labor's Left by placing economic growth and free trade at the core of a new policy platform. The Opposition Leader's proposals, obtained by The Australian, would denounce passive welfare, embrace the casualisation of the workforce, boost business grants and formally bury Mark Latham's disastrous Tasmanian forests policy with support for logging.

The draft platform, which also embraces public-private partnerships to fund roads andother infrastructure, ensures a showdown between Mr Rudd and powerful Left unions at next month's ALP national conference. Seeking to win over swinging voters, Labor dumps previous positions on welfare and indigenous affairs in the new policy platform as Mr Rudd shifts to the middle ground.

While Labor remains firmly opposed to the Government's workplace reforms, the new platform recognises the growing march of independent contractors. The policy jettisons previous discomfort with the casualisation of the workforce in a move that will alienate left-wing unions, which favour government encouragement of full-time work.

The Australian last month revealed a plan by five powerful left-wing unions to push their alternative economic plan at the national conference. The unions want Mr Rudd to muscle up to big business and abandon free trade deals. But the new ALP platform places a much stronger focus on wealth creation and free trade, under plans to lock in the high levels of public support for Labor seen in opinion polls. "Labor is committed to building a modern economy that competes successfully in global markets for agriculture, resources, manufactures and services," the draft platform says. "With the economic fundamentals in place, Labor's key priority is to raise the incomes and living standards of the Australian people by building an economic climate of enterprise and innovation."

The policy blueprint - which will be voted on by 400 delegates at the showcase ALP event - rejects the heavy hand of government intervention, or a withdrawal from free trade deals. Instead, the Labor leadership argues that long-term prosperity ensures Australia is "able to sustain high-quality public services and a generous safety net for those in need". It locks Labor in to keeping "taxes as low as possible, consistent with maintaining a sound revenue base to fund quality public services". Fearful of another interest rates campaign at the election, Labor will pledge to preserve low inflation as the "key to maintaining low interest rates".

Amid a concerted government attack over Labor's plans to raid the Future Fund, the ALP platform backs new measures to build superannuation savings. Labor wants to build national savings by introducing "new programs and incentives to encourage families to save for their children's future". The reform push comes as Mr Rudd has ditched Labor's "hit list" of public schools and won caucus approval to overturn the ALP's historic opposition to selling off Telstra. In a move that will be endorsed by the powerful Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, Labor will also formally dump Mr Latham's 2004 policy to lock up hundreds of hectares of old-growth forests in Tasmania. Announced just days before polling day, the forestry policy was blamed for Labor's loss of twoTasmanian seats: Bass and Braddon.

In the new policy, Labor says it now supports "sustainable economic, environmental and community outcomes for Tasmania's forests". While Mr Latham blindsided the CFMEU - and the Tasmanian Labor Government - Mr Rudd has committed to consulting with unions, industry and the state Government on a "sustainable" forestry plan. This will involve no loss of jobs in the forestry industry and support for the existing Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement, announced in May 2005 by John Howard.

Labor is committed to overhauling the policy platform by placing economic policy at the heart of a new blueprint. Labor will go to the election with a commitment to boosting levels of business research to "above" the OECD average - and consider a tariff freeze for the textile and clothing sector - as part of a new industry plan. It will establish an independent authority, Infrastructure Australia, to oversee a national plan to build roads, rail and ports infrastructure. But it will also challenge the big Left unions by recognising the "legitimate role" of public-private partnerships in financing roads and other infrastructure. In a historic shift, the draft platform recognises the "legitimate role" of PPPs, which have been controversially used to build road tunnels and other costly infrastructure.


Literacy suffers as teachers take on propaganda roles

PRIMARY schools are swamped by a cluttered curriculum that places equal importance on issues traditionally taught by parents, such as awareness of dog attacks and nutrition, rather than the core skills of literacy and numeracy. The Australian Primary Principals Association, representing more than 7000 government and non-government primary schools, will today release a position paper calling for a charter to redefine the role of primary schools and cull the curriculum to focus on education rather than social welfare.

APPA president Leonie Trimper called on the nation's education ministers to discuss the issue at their meeting next month and form an independent group of primary educators to draft a charter. Ms Trimper said it was time to reassess the curriculum and the importance placed on different aspects of traditional subjects like literacy. "Are there things in literacy that should be of lesser importance: for example, is viewing as important as listening, speaking, reading and writing?" Ms Trimper said. "We would rather do less and do it well and make sure it's well resourced."

Ms Trimper said rather than schools supplementing parental responsibilities, the pendulum had swung too far. Schools were now forced to offer breakfast programs, values education, nutrition, personal finance, road safety, and even awareness of dog-biting and parenting programs. A joint report by the APPA and the federal education department in 2004 found that primary schools were also under-funded; for every $100 spent on a high school student, only $73 was spent on a primary school student. Ms Trimper said the needs of primary schools rarely featured in public debate or government policy.

The policy paper prepared by Greg Robson, from Edith Cowan University, says the pressures placed on primary schools "may well be undermining their capacity to deliver continuing success". "The pressures are significant, the expectations unrealistic, the appreciation of what is needed underdeveloped and the phase has lost its pre-eminence as a point of focus in education," the paper says. Professor Robson, who oversaw the introduction of highly criticised year 11 and 12 courses as head of the Curriculum Council in Western Australia, said a charter should reposition primary schools as the key phase of schooling.

The national umbrella group of parents and citizens organisations, the Australian Council of State School Organisations, yesterday supported a charter that refocused primary schools on the traditional core tasks of literacy, numeracy and socialisation. ACSSO executive officer Terry Aulich said primary schools were overloaded with excessively detailed curriculum and were forced to deal with social problems without adequate resources.


Clean coal is all hot air

Comment by Australian economist Alex Robson

LAST month Federal Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd announced Labor's National Clean Coal Initiative. Roughly speaking, the term clean coal refers to various technologies for removing carbon dioxide from coal when it is used to generate electricity, both before and after combustion occurs. The term encompasses carbon capture and storage technologies. Rudd's policy commits $500 million of taxpayer funds on the development of these technologies, with the proviso that each taxpayer dollar must be matched by two private sector dollars. Rudd also proclaimed that Labor would establish an emissions trading scheme, set renewable energy targets, develop plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, convene a summit on climate change and ratify the Kyoto protocol.

Apart from ratifying an obsolete international treaty and organising yet another Canberra talkfest, Labor's policy of subsidising corporations, making grandiose plans and setting impressive-sounding targets is eerily similar to existing Government policy.

The Howard Government happily boasts about Australia meeting its Kyoto targets and has already set up a taskforce to examine emissions trading schemes. Its Low Emissions Technology Demonstration Fund has committed taxpayer funds of $500 million for research, with the proviso that each taxpayer dollar must be matched by - you guessed it - two private sector dollars. Additional funding is planned for future years. This subsidy is simply a form of taxpayer-funded corporate welfare, with no discernible benefit to Australia in terms of the effect on climate change.

Neither Rudd, Howard nor any other Canberra politician seem to be willing to admit that none of these policies will have any impact on global temperatures. Indeed, even if Tasmanian Senator Bob Brown got his wish and shut down Australia's coal industry overnight, it would not make a whit of difference to climate change.

So much for Rudd providing sensible policy alternatives. The only real difference between the two spending initiatives is that Labor will revert to its unhealthy old ways and explicitly try to pick winners by directly focusing the subsidy on clean coal technology. In contrast, the current government subsidy is neutral with respect to the technology used to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

These minor differences are simply political manoeuvring. Labor is attempting to appeal to green voters, appease the coal mining unions, and shore up votes in marginal coal-producing electorates. But in the rush to get on board the clean coal bandwagon, both parties seem to have ignored the Howard battlers - ordinary taxpayers with mortgages and electricity bills.

When it comes to clean coal, there is a gigantic elephant in the room. Although $500 million is a significant amount of money to spend on corporate welfare, it is a drop in the ocean compared with the higher costs of electricity generation that are involved in the use of clean coal technology, and the effects that these higher costs will have on consumer prices. The vast majority (77 per cent) of Australia's electricity is produced using black and brown coal. As Labor's policy announcement acknowledges, CSIRO scientists have estimated that carbon capture and storage technologies are not commercially viable (and will not be for many years), and would effectively double the cost of producing electricity. It is also estimated that electricity prices could rise by 40 per cent.

There is no way that individual electricity producers will voluntarily double their generating costs unless they plan on going out of business. Thus clean coal technology will not be adopted unless governments force producers to use it, taxpayers directly subsidise it or if an artificial price (effectively a tax) is placed on carbon emissions. Forcing electricity generators to adopt this cost-doubling technology is equivalent to imposing a 100 per cent tax on the consumption of coal, without the government collecting any revenue. Both parties seem to believe that such a policy will somehow put the coal industry on a sustainable footing and protect coal jobs. This is pure economic fantasy. Doubling the effective cost of coal will likely lead to a significant reduction in coal demand and significant job cuts in the coal industry.

Similarly, the idea that such large increases in consumer electricity prices will not lead to higher inflation and higher mortgage interest rates is completely divorced from economic reality. The only alternative is to shift the costs to the taxpayer by directly subsidising clean coal electricity generation. Inevitably Howard's battlers will end up footing the bill for a bipartisan clean coal policy that will have absolutely no effect on climate change. No wonder neither side wants to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

Dr Alex Robson teaches economics at the Australian National University


Rotated map puts a twist in the foundation tale

DID a Portuguese seafarer called Christopher de Mendonca lead a fleet of four ships into Botany Bay in 1522 - almost 250 years before Captain James Cook? The startling claim is made in a book - published today - by the retired Canberra-based science journalist Peter Trickett. Trickett believes Mendonca left irrefutable evidence of his historic voyage: a detailed and uncannily accurate map of Australia's entire east coast.

Trickett's quest began eight years ago in a Canberra bookshop where he bought a beautiful portfolio of rarely seen maps - exquisite reproductions from the Vallard Atlas, a 16th-century document so precious and delicate it never leaves its air-conditioned vault in the Huntington Library in Los Angeles. The original Vallard Atlas contains 15 hand-drawn maps, completed no later than 1545 in Dieppe, France, and represents the entire world as it was then known to Europeans. Scholars had long asked why part of one of the Vallard maps - featuring 120 place names in Portuguese, not French - closely resembled the coast of Queensland. But they had dismissed it as a coincidence, because the map suddenly jutted out at right angles for 1500 kilometres, bearing no relation to any known coastline.

However, Trickett came up with an intriguing theory: what if the atlas compilers in Dieppe had wrongly aligned two Portuguese charts they were copying from? He called in a computer expert who was able to cut the map in two and rotate the bottom half 90 degrees.

"Up to that point it was just a theory," Trickett says. "But once it was rotated . the entire east coast of Australia, and part of the south coast as far as Kangaroo Island, was revealed in incredible detail."

Trickett believes the charts were made by Mendonca, who set off from the Portuguese base at Malacca with a fleet of four ships on a secret mission ordered by King Manuel I. If Trickett is right, Mendonca sailed past Fraser Island, into Botany Bay, around Wilsons Promontory and as far as Kangaroo Island before returning to Malacca via the North Island of New Zealand. But because the Portuguese wanted to prevent other European powers learning about their discovery, Mendonca's charts were kept secret. Instead, says Trickett, Mendonca was rewarded by being made commander of the lucrative fortress at Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, where he eventually died. "His voyage ranks with that of Columbus or Magellan," says Trickett. "But it was secret, unfortunately."

On the southern coast, Trickett says, Mendonca clearly marked many of the outstanding features: Cap Frimosa (Wilsons Promontory), Illa Grossa (Kangaroo Island), Rio Real (Spencer Gulf) and Golfo Grande (the Great Australian Bight). But the most significant feature on the Vallard map is Baia Neve. Trickett insists this is what Cook later called Botany Bay, the birthplace of modern Australia.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Muslim moderate seeks police protection

One of Australia's most important Muslim leaders has sought police protection after criticising controversial cleric Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali. Tom Zreika, president of the Lebanese Muslim Association - and Sheikh Hilali's employer - said he received non-stop phone threats yesterday after he released a document urging greater integration and for Muslims to "mend their ways".

The report, prepared for a national meeting of imams in Sydney this weekend, says some Muslims are "ruining it" for all and that Australians have "had enough" of Muslims. His report also recommends that imams become involved in community activities such as voluntary firefighting and surf lifesaving.

Mr Zreika said he was threatened recently after saying, "I can't tolerate this freak show", following recent remarks by Sheikh Hilali. But yesterday, after the contents of his paper were publicised, the threats, from Muslims, came non-stop. "They just say, 'Mate if you don't shut your mouth we are going to come and fix you up'," Mr Zreika said. "I know they are Muslims because they quote Muslim prayers."

In his paper, Mr Zreika, a barrister, says the vast majority of non-Muslims understood and empathised with Islamic issues in Australia, but a small group of Muslims were inciting anti-Islamic feelings. "Only when we mend our ways and we respect our fellow country people can we demand tolerance and forbearance." Among Mr Zreika's suggestions for the new board of imams, which will be responsible for accrediting prospective clerics, are that imams should be citizens or permanent residents and not have been members of suspicious groups. He says they must do everything possible to prevent radicalism or fanaticism.


Amazing bureaucracy stymies vital checks on foreign doctors

Since overseas-trained doctors, mainly from India, have done great harm to Australian patients (including deaths) this is a matter of considerable importance

Plans to establish a national system to rigorously assess the competence of overseas-trained doctors have stalled after the NSW Government rejected a range of measures backed by the other states and territories. The recommendations include standardised supervision guidelines for all overseas-trained doctors and the creation of an independent body to assess doctors' qualifications and clinical skills.

"All the jurisdictions have signed off on the improved standards to assess doctors trained overseas, bar one," said Australian Medical Association president Mukesh Haikerwal. "I don't know why NSW is dragging its feet."

The Council of Australian Governments announced in July last year that new nationally consistent guidelines to assess doctors would replace the ad hoc state-based systems. Overseas-trained doctors working in Australia are normally assessed by the Australian Medical Council. However, doctors who come from countries with similar medical systems to Australia's can enter the country on temporary visas and are not required to take the AMC's examinations if they agree to work in an area of need.

A report commissioned by the Howard Government, but never released, found more than 3500 doctors enter Australia every year on temporary visas and are given jobs without having their competence assessed by the AMC. The report recommends that all overseas-trained doctors should undergo a standardised assessment process before commencing work in this country.

Lesleyanne Hawthorne, associate dean international of the University of Melbourne's faculty of medicine and author of the report, warned that it was unlikely all the states would agree on how doctors should be evaluated. "The idea of getting uniform screening standards that every state will sign up to is a pipedream, because the states are competing with each other to attract overseas-trained doctors," Dr Hawthorne said.

The NSW Department of Health would not explain why it opposed the changes. "The commonwealth and the states are still in discussion on the matter to develop final proposals for agreement by health ministers," the department said in a statement. "NSW continues to work closely with other states and territories to ensure doctors from countries which have been assessed as having equal standards to Australia do not face unnecessary restrictive barriers to employment."


Fast forward on literacy IS possible

A PERTH trial of a program aimed at helping children with learning delays has achieved dramatic gains in literacy in just 10 weeks. But the principal of Fremantle-based Samson Primary School, Barry Hancock, said he was struggling to get other schools and the Education Department to look at the results. Four Perth schools took part in the trial last year of the computer-based program Fast ForWord to test claims it could boost learning in children struggling with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and other learning delays. A total of 144 students aged 5-14 took part in the trial, and were found to have made significantly better gains in language and literacy tests than a comparison group who received the standard WA curriculum alone.

On average, students who completed the 10-week program improved from being in the bottom 12 per cent of age literacy to the bottom 25 per cent. Their receptive language skills jumped from the bottom 12 per cent to bottom 21 per cent, while their expressive language improved from the lower 10 per cent to lower 18 per cent.

Mr Hancock said the program should be made part of the WA school curriculum because it was the only one that worked on the pathways in the brain to allow children to become better learners. "It's the greatest thing I've found in 40 years of teaching,'' he said. ``It teaches kids how to concentrate and to learn. "It doesn't matter how good teachers are, some kids are going to slip through the net because what you're telling them goes in one ear and out the other.'' Mr Hancock trialled the program on 36 of his students with special needs and found that all improved. Some made gains equivalent to two years of learning after just 10 weeks.

Quinns Rocks mother Amanda Cope said the program had improved her daughter Leticia, 13, who had repeated a year at school, but whose reading and writing skills were now above average. The Education Department said use of the program in schools was at the discretion of individual principals.


Boom in busts

SILICONE breast implants are getting much larger, with models deciding "bigger is better" for their careers. The trend has forced Australian plastic surgeons to import the super-large 1000ml implants from the US. They credit former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson, despite her recent much publicised breast reduction, for encouraging models to be ambitious about breast size.

Pamela Noon, from the International Surgery Group on the Gold Coast, told The Sunday Mail: "In the last four to six months I've noticed a rapid increase in size. "The trend for women having breast augmentation is to go large. Our patients believe bigger is better." Ms Noon believes there are two factors influencing the trend, which has three clients this week booked for 800ml implants. She said many patients after having surgery realised they should have chosen a larger size: "We're now encouraging them to think very carefully about their size."

The other factor was many patients no longer looked upon Pamela Anderson as a "freak", because other models have breasts just as large. The average implant size for the Coast surgery has increased from 280ml to 375ml in the past five years, and models with 400ml implants have recently sought surgery to double the size


Monday, March 26, 2007

New mothers badly treated in government hospitals

A CRISIS in Queensland's maternity service is leaving one in three mothers traumatised and endangering the health of their babies. A Sunday Mail investigation has revealed shocking lapses in care in overcrowded maternity units, with mothers going into labour in corridors and others pressured into having unnecessary caesarean deliveries. Poor post-natal care has led to some women needing emergency hysterectomies after developing avoidable infections.

A new study by Jenny Gamble, state president of the Australian College of Midwives, has found 30 per cent of mums experience symptoms of psychological stress after giving birth in Queensland hospitals. Lobby group the Maternity Coalition said overcrowding was now a problem statewide following the closure of 38 maternity units. In rural Queensland, a different study shows five women a week give birth before reaching a hospital with specialised maternity care.

The State Government was warned of the appalling state of maternity services two years ago, but midwives say it has so far failed to help frontline staff or their patients.

A Sunshine Coast couple have launched a court action against Queensland Health, alleging their son was born with cerebral palsy as a result of an emergency caesarean. On Thursday, an inquest was told that a young Brisbane mother suffered a fatal brain haemorrhage after another caesarean delivery.

Maternity Coalition president Joanne Smethurst said Australia's standard of care was almost "Third World". "The health of mothers and babies is suffering every day, but the Government has wasted two years doing nothing," she said, adding that hospitals were encouraging women to be induced and undergo caesareans because of a shortage of midwives and beds. Queensland has a caesarean rate of 32 per cent. The World Health Organisation recommends 10-15 per cent. Dr Gamble, who also runs the midwifery program at Griffith University, wants a community midwife scheme introduced: "We know what the problems are, we just need the Government to get on with it."

Since 1995, Queensland Health has received 20 reports on the state of its maternity services. The most recent, presented by the department's maternity services steering committee, said action was needed to improve care for women in rural areas and called for the introduction of post-birth care for all. In the past two years, the steering committee has spent almost $1 million on paperwork to prepare for the creation of yet another committee on the crisis. Steering committee chairwoman Cherrell Hirst said State Cabinet still had to approve the second committee and would make a decision by the end of the month.

She said it could be four years before any improvements in care were seen. "Stage one was setting up the interim committee, ahead of establishing the second committee," she said.

Opposition health spokesman John-Paul Langbroek said the situation was outrageous. "We get review after taskforce after investigation, and meanwhile services suffer," he said. A spokeswoman for Queensland Health said "moves are under way" for change. The Gold Coast Health Service District Birthing Centre, opened in May 2006, offers an "alternative model of care for birthing", but nothing has been rolled out state-wide


Fresh food now bad for you!

FRESH fruit, vegetables and salad sprouts are responsible for an increase in food poisoning caused by the potentially deadly salmonella and E-coli bacteria. There were 27 outbreaks of gastroenteritis between January 2001 and June 2005 across Australia due to fresh, uncooked produce including orange juice, cucumbers, lettuce and alfalfa spouts, resulting in almost 700 people becoming ill, with 51 hospitalised, a conference has been told. At least half of the outbreaks occurred at restaurants and nearly one-fifth of gastro illnesses were linked to fast food or takeaway shops.

The Communicable Disease Control Conference was told this month that fresh produce in particular may cause outbreaks because it was often eaten raw. Adrian Bradley from the NSW Food Authority said the widely held assumption that fresh produce didn't harbour pathogens such as salmonella, norovirus and Campylobacter was now known to be incorrect. OzFoodNet, the national food-borne illness surveillance system, shows that three major salmonella outbreaks occurred in 2006. More than 120 people in Western Australia and Victoria fell ill in the first half of last year after eating alfalfa sprouts. In October 2006, more than 120 cases of food poisoning caused by eating rockmelons occurred along the eastern seaboard. In November there was a small outbreak of salmonella linked to pawpaw.

Overseas evidence suggests contaminated water, fertiliser, contact with pests or animal faeces or insufficient cleaning of produce prior to sale could cause contamination. A spokesman for the Department of Health and Ageing said centralised growing and distribution of fresh produce, as well as enhanced detection, might be a factor in the increase in outbreak numbers. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) plans to introduce primary production and processing standards for high-risk fresh produce such as sprouts.

The NSW Food Authority said people considered "vulnerable" such as young children, the elderly, diabetics, pregnant women and those with cancer or suppressed immune systems should never eat any type of sprout. It advises avoiding any bruised, damaged, mouldy or slimy produce and washing all produce with cool tap water immediately before eating.


"Outcomes-based" education shown the door

The widely criticised model of outcomes-based education introduced in West Australian schools was effectively dismantled yesterday when the Government announced the return of syllabuses specifying what students should be taught and a return to traditional marking methods.

Education Minister Mark McGowan has commissioned a detailed action plan addressing problems with the curriculum for kindergarten to Year 10 after an independent evaluation concluded the changes introduced over the past decade "cannot be regarded as a success". Mr McGowan described the evaluation report as a "cold shower" and announced that syllabuses detailing the content of courses would be reintroduced next year. The changes also include providing clear reports to parents based on grades linked to common standards, providing resources for teachers for planning and assessing students, and reintroducing traditional methods of marking, such as percentages.

Under the curriculum framework introduced in 1998, marks were replaced by "levels" at which students were working, based on the idea that students travel along at their own pace. The curriculum adopted an outcomes approach to learning that focused on what students should achieve and assessed what they learn rather than traditional syllabuses that focus on content and how and when it is taught. The state Government has faced widespread criticism over its changes to school education, particularly over the introduction of levels, and the new courses of study for Years 11 and 12, which are claimed to be of poor academic standard.

A group of teachers formed to fight the changes, People Lobbying Against Teaching Outcomes, welcomed the announcement as a step in the right direction. PLATO president Marko Vojkovic said the syllabuses and levels were two key pieces of the outcomes-based education jigsaw but there was still a way to go. Teachers will be able to choose the type of assessment they use, marks or levels, which Mr Vojkovic said was unacceptable. "Levels should be abandoned altogether," he said. "There shouldn't be a choice between a valid and invalid method; if it's invalid it should be thrown out." He said the draft syllabuses did not contain enough specific content but their reintroduction was a philosophical move away from outcomes-based education.

In a letter sent to teachers yesterday, the department said syllabuses would contain explicit descriptions of core elements to be taught. In kindergarten to Year 3, the emphasis would be on literacy, numeracy, social, emotional and physical development. In Years 4-7, syllabuses will expand to include science, civics and citizenship, and information and communication technologies. Syllabuses for Years 8-10 will cover all learning areas. The evaluation of the curriculum changes found almost 60percent of teachers did not agree the changes had improved teaching and learning or student assessment in recent years.


Australia's humane British founders

Leftist historians give the impression that Australia's founders were genocidal military dictators. But many of Australia's early colonial leaders were human rights activists ahead of their time, as Keith Windschuttle documents below. Australia's first governor, Capt. Phillip was anti-slavery before Wilberforce! Following the documentation below is a summary of what the Leftists say -- and a rebuttal of it

According to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the 200th anniversary of his country's abolition of the slave trade tomorrow offers the chance to say how profoundly shameful slavery was. Equally, however, it provides the occasion to commemorate those who abolished the trade. In 1807, the British were the first people in the world to do so. This was one of the great feats in the history of human freedom and its originators and their motives deserve to be understood and celebrated today.

Moreover, there was a strong connection between the British colonisation of Australia and those who campaigned against slavery. Today, our contemporary historians avoid this topic. Hence, few Australians are aware of how powerful the abolitionist sentiment was in colonial Australia or how strongly English abolitionists influenced the political and moral foundations of this country.

Soon after British secretary for home affairs, Lord Sydney, appointed him the first governor of NSW in September 1786, Arthur Phillip drew up a detailed memorandum of his plans for the proposed new colony. In one paragraph he wrote: "The laws of this country (England) will of course be introduced in New South Wales, and there is one that I would wish to take place from the moment his majesty's forces take possession of the country: that there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves."

In all of Australia's founding documents this statement stands out starkly. There are no other appeals to great principles, no declaration of independence, no constitutional preamble full of nation-building sentiment. Instead, we were founded by bureaucratic correspondence from the British Home Office to the Admiralty, the Navy Board and the Treasury, by other letters, commissions of appointment and warrants for transportation, and by one act of the British parliament concerned mostly with "the transportation of felons and other offenders". Hence Phillip's paragraph above, especially his unequivocal and spare avowal, "there can be no slavery in a free land", is probably the best founding proclamation we have.

It was a remarkable declaration to make at the time. For a start, it demonstrated that its governor and those who appointed him had more ambitious plans for the new colony than they made public. "A free land" meant much more than a dumping ground for convicts. Phillip clearly expected NSW eventually to be composed largely of free settlers. Moreover, Phillip's objection to slavery was noticeably ahead of his time. At this distance, it may seem part of the stock opinion of the day, just one more expression of the abolitionist movement that persuaded the British parliament to outlaw the transportation of slaves on the high seas. But there was more to it than that. As Phillip said, the laws of England did not permit slavery. The ownership and sale of human beings had been illegal in England since the early Middle Ages, but by the 1700s the growth of the slave trade to the Americas saw thousands of black slaves employed as servants in London, Edinburgh and other urban centres. In the celebrated James Somerset case of 1772, Lord Mansfield found that English law did not permit slavery and that black servants were free to go as they pleased.

Nonetheless slavery still thrived across the British Empire. The merchant fleet of Liverpool dominated the transport of slaves from Africa to the Americas; the sugar plantations of Britain's Caribbean colonies were dependent on slave labour; and slavery was widespread in the Muslim realms of British India. Moreover, Britain's former colonies in North America had just formed an independent union based on an appeal to freedom and equality, yet still they housed almost 700,000 slaves.

Phillip wrote his memorandum before the abolitionist movement gained public momentum. At the time, to take a stand for this moral cause put him decidedly on the progressive side of politics. The abolitionists' parliamentary leader, William Wilberforce, decided to take up the issue only in May 1787, eight months after Phillip declared his own attitude. The abolitionist evangelicals in the Church of England and their Quaker supporters were then a marginal group of activists. Their spokesman, Thomas Clarkson, had not yet begun the speaking tours of British cities that were to make abolition a popular cause. By 1791, when Wilberforce introduced his first bill to abolish the slave trade, the movement had made progress but parliament still rejected it decisively by 163 votes to 88.

Although the evangelicals were the main force behind the abolitionist movement and Wilberforce its best-known politician, Phillip had not been greatly influenced by them. Indeed, he was not an especially religious man. His 1786 memorandum discussed his proposed colony's housing, health care, clothing, relations with the Aborigines, rewards and punishments for convicts, land grants, shipping regulations, exploration and trade. Conspicuously, he mentioned neither religion nor the church. In practice, he seemed to regard religion primarily as a utilitarian device for maintaining social order and good behaviour.

Instead, he took a more secular political position that saw slavery as an offence against the tradition of "the freeborn Englishman" that defined his country. This was a political and a folk tradition that extended back at least to the English Civil War but probably much further. It meant that no one in England could be born into slavery, bondage or vassalage. All were born with inalienable rights to freedom.

Phillip was also the inheritor of the British naval tradition that looked down on Europe's original imperial powers, Spain and Portugal. Since the Spanish Armada, English Protestant sailors had been nourished on a diet of anti-Spanish stories designed to show that the adherents of the Catholic Church were capable of any cruelty. Tales of the atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition and the brutal treatment of African slaves and the indigenous people of the Americas entrenched the sentiment.

A further influence on Phillip was the humanitarian movement that emerged within the British Enlightenment in the late 1700s. This movement, which had support from early British anthropologists and the Anglican Church, emphasised the unity of humankind. All human beings, whatever their skin colour, were members of the one species and were thus equal, both at law and before God. This sentiment led several Scottish intellectuals to openly condemn slavery, especially Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), plus George Wallace and Adam Ferguson. In England, William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69) made a firm break with Roman law on the subject.

In April 1787, Phillip made another memorable statement that applied this egalitarian sentiment to the Aborigines of NSW: "Any Man who takes the life of a Native will be put on his Trial the same as if he had kill'd one of the Garrison. This appears to me not only just but good policy."

Since his early 20s, Phillip had found slavery repugnant. As a junior naval officer on a tour of duty to the Caribbean in 1760-62 he saw the Spanish and British slave plantations on Jamaica, the Leeward Islands and Cuba. "By the time he left the lavish islands," writes his biographer Alan Frost, "Phillip has come to see that behind their gleaming skin lurked a gruesome skull." The evil commerce and the lot of the slaves, Frost records, made an abiding impression on the young naval officer. Phillip spent the years 1775-78 in Brazil as a captain in the Portuguese navy. During a lull in duties at sea, he made an investigation of the king of Portugal's Brazilian diamond mines. He discovered much about Brazil's "Forbidden District", where 5000 African slaves mined diamonds under the constant gaze of their individual overseers. This experience confirmed his aversion to slavery.

Phillip's successors as governors of NSW, John Hunter, Philip Gidley King and William Bligh, were all naval men who shared similar ideas and experiences. All had served in the West Indies or North America and subscribed to the same naval values and humanitarian spirit. They had directly encountered or heard tales of the slave trade to the Americas much like that experienced by Lachlan Macquarie in August 1809 while en route to NSW. Off the Brazilian coast, Macquarie's ship accosted a Portuguese slaver bound for Rio de Janeiro carrying 540 African females. Disease had broken out and, to prevent the infection from spreading, the captain had thrown 50 live women overboard. Elizabeth Macquarie was shocked. Her husband's biographer, John Ritchie, records: "Elizabeth's humanity shuddered at this monstrousness and caused her to think of the abolitionist William Wilberforce."

As well as the Enlightenment tradition of the naval officers, the Australian colony harboured a vigorous evangelical movement. Evangelicalism was a reform movement that arose within the Church of England in the late 18th century. It aimed to apply the principles of the Gospels to social life. Its main causes were penal reform, the abolition of slavery and missions to the native people of the empire. The founding of NSW as a convict society in the Pacific, where the Australian and Pacific Island tribes seemed ripe for conversion, was tailor-made for the movement. Although Wilberforce's main project was the abolition of slavery, he was also concerned with improving the living conditions of convicts, Aborigines and Pacific Islanders. From the outset, he took a close interest in NSW, soliciting reports from his evangelical followers in the colony and acting as patron of their appointments. He successfully nominated the colony's first two chaplains, Richard Johnson and Samuel Marsden.

He thought the key to good colonial order was religious observance. In 1792 he wrote to home secretary Lord Dundas saying he had information from NSW that among "the higher, as well as the lower ranks, a degree of open profligacy and vice is allowed if not encouraged there". He urged Dundas "to introduce and keep alive amongst the bulk of the people such a sense of religion as will make them temperate and orderly, and domestic and contented".

Until 1796, Lachlan Macquarie had unquestioningly accepted slavery. He was then a captain in the British army in India. At the time, India had a population of eight million slaves and the institution had existed since time immemorial. Indeed, in 1794, when he joined his regiment in Calicut, Macquarie purchased two slave boys from the market in Cochin. His first wife, Jane, was the daughter of the chief justice of Antigua in the West Indies and she owned a small number of slaves there. Jane died of consumption in 1796 and in her will she set her slaves free. Her husband followed her example and emancipated his Indian slaves, enrolling them in a parish school at Bombay to learn to read and write.

Later, as military secretary to the governor of Bombay, Jonathan Duncan, and as a friend of wealthy merchant Charles Forbes - two Englishmen who endorsed the emerging humanitarian sentiment of the time - Macquarie became a critic of slavery. He returned to England in 1807, the year of the abolitionists' victory, and caught the enthusiasm for their cause. That year he married his second wife, Elizabeth, and came under the influence of her religious outlook, especially her belief that all human creatures were equal in the eyes of God.

These views changed the course of Australian colonial history. Determined to avoid any comparison between convict transportation and slavery, Macquarie radically reformed the punitive regime for convicts, turning it into a program for their regeneration. He moderated corporal punishment, reduced life sentences to 15 years and reprieved numerous convicts sentenced to death. Where Bligh had granted two pardons during his 18-month term as governor, between 1810 and 1820 Macquarie gave 366 absolute pardons, 1365 conditional pardons and 2319 tickets-of-leave (certificates of exemption from compulsory labour). He granted land to emancipists (pardoned convicts) and expirees, and even invited some to dine with him. He appointed former convicts as magistrates, as assistant surgeon, acting surveyor, civil architect and poet laureate. To celebrate St Patrick's Day in 1810, Elizabeth Macquarie invited to dinner 58 convicts and their overseers.

Although Lachlan Macquarie's generosity and clemency sowed seeds of dissension among the free settlers that eventually brought him down, he demonstrated that a penal regime of this kind worked. Most successive governors kept his policies largely intact. The long-term result was that probably more than half of the 160,000 convicts transported in 80 years were transformed from the criminal subcultures of their youth into useful citizens: farmers, tradesmen, soldiers and, in a small but notable number of cases, successful professional and business men and women. Transportation to Australia became history's most successful large-scale experiment in penal reform.

Macquarie translated Wilberforce's agenda into policy towards the Aborigines. He established the Native Institution for Aboriginal children; he settled Aboriginal adults on a farm at George's Head and gave them seed and tools; he built huts for others at Elizabeth Bay and gave them a boat, fishing tackle, salt and casks; in 1814 he inaugurated an annual gathering and feast for all the Aborigines of the Sydney region.

Left-wing historians today record with some satisfaction that all his Aboriginal policies eventually failed. They still demonstrated Macquarie's intention towards the Aborigines, which was to give them the gift of British civilisation. He regarded them as his equals and thought that with only a little assistance they could make the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

In the 1820s, two other Australian colonial governors, Ralph Darling and George Arthur, owed their positions partly to the reputations they gained for actions against the slave trade. Other prominent Australian colonists who had dealings with Wilberforce in London or who gained positions here on his recommendation included navigator Matthew Flinders, lieutenant-governor Charles La Trobe, judge Barron Field; merchant and philanthropist Robert Campbell, banker and newspaper editor Edward Hall Smith, author Nicholas Liddiard, pastoralist John Leake and Anglican clergyman Thomas Hassall.


Leftist historians hide Australia's humane past

The idea that slavery was an affront to humanity that had no place in a free land was part of the original definition of what it meant to be an Australian. Unfortunately, in today's academic climate in which the Left dominates history and the prevailing mind-set is to disparage our origins, very few academic historians discuss these issues. Anyone looking to the Oxford Companion to Australian History for insight will find its editors, Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre, did not think the abolitionists worthy of an entry or even a mention in the subject index.

Moreover, although NSW founder Arthur Phillip's original anti-slavery declaration was once well known to earlier generations of students, historians today rarely mention it. Even when they do, their intention is usually to qualify it heavily. For instance, in The Europeans in Australia (1997), Alan Atkinson calls Phillip's statement "almost gratuitous", then tries to make him look the odd man out in the colony by saying that once he returned to England, the officers of the marines hoped the Aborigines "might be harnessed to a form of slavery on the current American model".

This claim is hardly credible. The sole evidence for it is half a sentence written in 1795 in the diary of the alcoholic, dissolute magistrate Richard Atkins, a long-time adversary of the officers, who did not name those concerned. Moreover, Atkinson neglects to inform his readers that the other half of Atkins's sentence mocks the very notion. The full sentence Atkins wrote was: "They seem to adopt the Idea that the Natives can be made Slaves of, than which nothing can be more false, they are free as air and Govr. Phillip's conduct was highly approved of for reprobating that idea."

Worse still, students of Australian history taught by the present generation of university lecturers are swamped by allegations that colonial officials were guilty of genocide against the Aborigines. According to Ann Curthoys and John Docker of Australian National University, joint editors of the 2001 edition of the academic journal Aboriginal History, Britain was the most "overtly genocidal" of the European colonial powers and its colonisation of Australia produced a genocide comparable to that of Nazi Germany. Most other authors in that journal agreed with them.

Since genocide is a crime of government and a crime of intent, this accusation is disturbing. If true, it means that all those Australian colonial officials who supported the abolition movement, who were proteges of William Wilberforce and who publicly declared that all human beings were equal before the law, must have been liars and hypocrites. Moreover, their words must have been the opposite of their deeds not just once but consistently across several decades and throughout many colonial administrations. In other words, the accusation is implausible on these grounds alone and is evidence not of the intentions of our founders but of how something has gone seriously wrong with the historical interpretation that prevails in this field.

Today, on the rare occasions it is discussed in Australian history books, the abolitionist movement that triumphed in 1807 usually figures only as an introduction to the campaign in the late 1830s to end convict transportation. Those colonists and their English supporters who were opposed to transportation often compared it with slavery. It is true that Britain's Molesworth Committee of 1838, whose report effectively ended transportation to NSW two years later, did use the comparison with slavery to capitalise on abolitionist sentiment in the wake of the 1833 act outlawing the ownership of slaves in the British Empire.

This makes recent historians think they are licensed to repeat the charge as if it were true. In her volume of the Oxford History of Australia (1992), Jan Kociumbas calls the convict regime variously "slavery" (her scare quotes), semi-slavery and a system of slave labour. This analogy is false since convicts could not be bought or sold in Australia and most were sentenced to fixed terms, after which they were free to remain here or return home. And unlike slaves, their children were always born free. Hence, it is historically inaccurate to use the term today to describe what the convict system was really like.

However, in an era when readers of Australian history are so readily seduced by the pseudo-scholarship of books such as Robert Hughes's bestseller The Fatal Shore, which portrays the convict era as Britain's equivalent of Joseph Stalin's gulag archipelago, bad news is obviously what sells. That Australia's founders were so closely connected to, and so strongly motivated by, one of history's great movements for human liberation is, for some perverse reason, something we now prefer not to know.