Monday, February 25, 2008

Labor government considers US missile shield

PINE Gap may become part of a US-led strategic missile defence shield as Labor considers reversing its opposition to the controversial scheme - a move that could create tensions with China and Russia. In Opposition, Labor was against Australian involvement in a program to build a national missile shield protecting the US, but supported a limited theatre-based system that could be deployed in war zones.

But Foreign Minister Stephen Smith yesterday said missile defence technology had evolved and that the Government was now giving "careful consideration" to participating in the missile shield. Last year, then defence minister Brendan Nelson told parliament the US-Australian defence facility at Pine Gap could form part of a missile shield by providing early warnings of ballistic missile launches.

Any about-face on missile defence could stoke tensions within the Labor Party, with opposition to the joint facilities being an article of faith for many on the party's Left. In his former incarnation as lead singer of activist rock group Midnight Oil, Environment Minister Peter Garrett was a trenchant opponent of Pine Gap.

However, Mr Smith said yesterday: "The technology has moved on, and so what we've said is that in conversation with our ally, with the US, we're happy to give consideration to the missile defence arrangements."

A strategic missile defence system, or strategic defence initiative, as it was originally known, was first proposed in the 1980s by then US president Ronald Reagan. The idea was shelved by president Bill Clinton, but revived by President George W.Bush. The system would offer protection to the US, but could in the future be extended to provide limited cover to Washington's allies, including Australia, through the use of ship-based missiles. Critics say the system would spark a regional arms race and relies on uncertain technology.

Any Australian involvement in a missile shield would generate tensions with nuclear powers China and Russia, both of which are implacably opposed to the scheme, which they fear is aimed at containing their strategic influence. But it would guarantee that Australia would continue to benefit from US intelligence and would give Australian defence contractors access to lucrative work during its development.

Mr Smith said the Government had yet to be persuaded about the viability of a such a system, citing the unknown high cost as well as doubts over the technology. "We're not rushing to embrace it, we are just giving very careful consideration to it and we'll do that in conjunction with our US ally," he said. Mr Smith said the matter had been under discussion during the weekend's Ausmin talks with US Defence Secretary Robert Gates. He denied the two governments were locked in secret talks over the idea, but said certain aspects of the discussions had to remain confidential. The Rudd Government would consider the matter in a "deliberative and sober way", but no decision was imminent. Participation in the scheme might prove to be in Australia's national interest, Mr Smith said. "We don't want to make any decisions which would deprive us of technology which might in the end be in our national security interest and be able to protect our forces in the field," he said.

Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Andrew Robb said Mr Smith's remarks were inconsistent with Labor's pre-election position on the subject. "They need to clearly explain what their position is," he said.

Strategic and defence expert Ross Babbage said that Mr Smith's remarks were a case of "reality biting". "Australia is already involved in a range of things related to missile defence, particularly in monitoring launches," he said. Improved detection, tracking and targeting technology was rendering the distinction between theatre-based and region-based missile defence systems indivisible, Professor Babbage said. He said Australian co-operation in the project would come in the form of research and development as well as surveillance and technology.

Mr Smith also expressed alarm at the trend towards trade protectionism in the US.


Muslims want university classes to fit prayer times

They will push and push for more and more special treatment until someone says No

MUSLIM university students want lectures to be rescheduledto fit in with prayer timetables and separate male and female eating and recreational areas established on Australian campuses. International Muslim students, predominantly from Saudi Arabia, have asked universities in Melbourne to change class times so they can attend congregational prayers. They also want a female-only area for Muslim students to eat and relax. But at least one institution has rejected their demands, arguing that the university is secular and it does not want to set a precedent for requests granted in the name of religious beliefs.

La Trobe University International chief executive director John Molony said several students had approached the Bundoora institution about rearranging class times to fit in with daily prayers. Mr Molony said the university was attempting to "meet the needs" of an increasing number of Muslim international students, including doubling the size of the prayer room on campus.

La Trobe University International College director Martin Van Run said that although it was involved in discussions with the Muslim students who had made the requests, the university was not planning to change any timetables. "That would seriously inconvenience other people at the college and it is not institutionally viable," he told The Australian. "We are a secular institution ... and we need to have a structured timetable." Mr Van Run said that Saudi students were fully aware that the university was secular before coming to study there. "They know well in advance the class times," he said.

A spokesman for RMIT University would neither confirm nor deny reports that Muslim students had requested timetable changes.

One university source told The Australian that the requests by Muslim international students for timetable changes included a petition. "Some of the students would prefer that lecture times were organised so it would be easy for them to attend prayers," he said. "But it wouldn't be a good precedent to set."

Islamic leaders yesterday backed the push by Muslim students to have their lectures arranged to accommodate prayer sessions, but said such a move would be essential only for congregational Friday prayers. Female Muslim leader Aziza Abdel-Halim said yesterday it was a religious duty for those who followed Islam to preach with their fellow believers on Fridays. But the former senior member of John Howard's Muslim reference board said there was nothing in Islam that indicated men and women be segregated when it came to educational activities. "There's nothing in Islam that says there should be complete segregation, especially in educational institutions," said Sister Abdel-Halim.

She said afternoon prayers for Muslims - Zhohor, at 1.10pm, and Asr, at 4.50pm - could be performed until 10 minutes before the following daily prayer, so it was more appropriate to alter prayer times than lecture schedules. "It's reasonable to ask for the lectures to be shifted around on Friday," Sister Abdel-Halim said. "But if it's going to cause havoc with the timetable, I don't think it's really feasible to ask for every single prayer to be catered for


Muslim versus anti-Muslim youth gangs in Melbourne

A TEEN bashed with a tomahawk is fighting for his life as youths warn of a Cronulla-type gang explosion in Melbourne. Sunshine Hospital was forced to call police and shut its emergency department as about 100 youths descended, angered by the brutal attack on their friend. In another unprecedented escalation of gang violence, a molotov cocktail was hurled on a suburban train last week. More attacks were pledged as part of a bitter conflict between two of Melbourne's biggest gangs that has seen 10 youth stabbings.

Police are demanding measures to stem the growing scourge of youth gang activity. They want a Youth Crime Taskforce established, new anti-assembly powers to break up loitering crowds of teens and portable knife scanners. Shopping centres and rail operators are also changing their operations to cope with the rising gang challenge.

Four men have been charged with attempted murder and serious assault over the attack on the 17-year-old on Friday. The teenager and four friends were "pulverised" in the St Albans attack. Their assailants - one 16 - allegedly used a tomahawk, baseball bats and hockey sticks in the violence, destroying their car and putting the five in hospital. One of the teens caught in the attack said the violent onslaught had been triggered by them being on someone else's turf. The teen, who would not give his name, had facial bruising and injured ribs and described the attack as ruthless and against innocent victims. As well as being territorial, he said the attack was carried out for fun.

Police, social workers and even gang members said gang violence was flaring across Melbourne's suburbs. The Police Association - representing 11,000 officers - said the youth gang crisis demanded a regional taskforce on youth crime and anti-assembly powers. "They're under-18 and they're coming in from the outer suburbs and causing mayhem in the city and the inner suburbs," assistant secretary Bruce McKenzie said. "This is happening. And we do know it's of considerable concern to our members." The association is expected to lobby Premier John Brumby for anti-assembly powers to break up big groups of teens and expressed a desire for British-style portable walk-through metal scanners.

In an escalating stoush between two of the city's biggest gangs, an Arab coalition from Melbourne's north was seething over a rap song released by enemy gang South-East Boys, threatening "another Cronulla". The song, Lullaby, derides the Dandenong gang's Arab enemies as "p*****s" and threatens a local Cronulla-style race clash.

Gang members said the rivalry between the north and south gangs had already led to 10 stabbings. "Give it tomorrow, give it a year. We will hit back 10 times harder," said Ronni, leader of northern gang ASAD or Arabian Soldiers Arab Defenders. Gang members are aged 17 to 26 and brawl with machetes, bottles, poles, knuckle-dusters and knives. The North-West Boys, who have a distinct double-fist handshake, are made up of gangs including ASAD, which has spread from Newport, and The Clan.

The North-West Boys said their opposing gang, based around Dandenong, was a mix of white "Aussie bogans", Sudanese, Afghans, Italians and Greeks. "We were hunting them for almost seven hours," The Clan leader Hash said. "If the South-East want war, then so be it." The gangs have sophisticated fight strategies and youths are attacked if they stray into another gang's side of the city. "Something in the future is going to happen to them," Ronni said. Hash said they tried to isolate their activities so members of the public would not get hurt.


NSW public hospital kitchens fail hygiene, safety tests

GRUBBY benchtops, sloppy pest control and off deli meats were found during independent audits of NSW public hospital kitchens that found 94 per cent did not comply with new hygiene and safety laws. The Daily Telegraph can reveal 166 of 171 hospitals checked during voluntary audits "required one or more corrective actions" for them to meet new guidelines set down by the NSW Food Authority. Four public hospitals were deemed so bad they failed completely, scoring an "unacceptable" rating for their operations.

But the hospitals won't be named and shamed as the Food Authority claims it would be a breach of their business affairs - considered more important than patients' right to know of threats to their health. It was also claimed identifying the hospitals would make them unco-operative in complying in future audits.

Overall, documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws show there were 719 areas of corrective action required for the 166 hospitals. Censored audit reports for the failed public hospitals show the detail of how poor some hospitals are on hygiene and safety. One of the reports shows a coolroom was running at an unhealthy warm temperature, a precondition for food poisoning. The same kitchen had frozen meats and milk powder stored beyond use-by dates, with sliced deli meats with a 24-hour life found stored for four days. Another report of a public hospital found unclean can openers, no records on pest control and food handling concerns.

Staff involved in food preparation wearing gloves were observed picking up food off the floor. One staff member was "observed coughing into her glove and not removing it".

The unhealthy kitchens are the latest blow to the NSW health system, already reeling over scandals including mismanagement of Royal North Shore Hospital and the bungled construction of the new Bathurst Hospital. A NSW Health spokeswoman said none of the issues incurred penalty notices and there was no threat to public health. [Really??] "In all cases where there was an issue found at audit, remedial action was undertaken immediately."

Brian Holloway, 56, had nothing but praise for the medical staff at Mona Vale Hospital during his long stay last year - but he had no love for the hospital's menu. He was appalled at being served what he said was quiches served flat like pancakes, rice tough enough to put through a slug gun and mashed potato like "quick-set cement".


Academics criticize newspaper

I guess it must be doing a good job of challenging West Australia's notoriously corrupt Leftist government

SENIOR journalism academics have attacked The West Australian newspaper, claiming dubious reporting is costing it the community's trust. A group of seven academics, two of whom are in charge of journalism schools at Perth universities, told The West Australian this week that its reports had "increasingly crossed the line into beat-up and misrepresentation" and the newspaper "is losing its authority".

The mauling came when The West Australian asked Murdoch University's head of journalism, Chris Smyth, to comment on Attorney-General Jim McGinty's decision to exclude the newspaper's reporters from mobile phone media alerts. But Mr Smyth and colleagues at Murdoch and Edith Cowan University accused the newspaper of risking confidence in journalism in general. "Mr McGinty is unwise to deny media conference alerts to The West Australian newspaper, but many people would understand the frustration that has led to this imprudent action," they wrote in a statement.

"Decisions in recent years against the newspaper by the industry's own regulator, the Australian Press Council, demonstrate the paper's style has increasingly crossed the line into beat-up and misrepresentation. "This type of reporting has reduced the paper's authority ... (and) when a major news organisation loses community confidence, we risk a loss of confidence in journalism generally."

In 2004, the press council upheld a complaint against a story about a family of 10 previously homeless Aborigines, titled "The true cost of bludgers", with a picture of the smiling family in front of their new home. Retired Supreme Court judge Henry Wallwork said The West Australian's article, which followed a report in The Australian about the family, was "cowardly in the extreme as it attacks a relatively defenceless family, including innocent children".

Editor Paul Armstrong was unrepentant yesterday. "The press council has issued six findings against The West Australian on reports published since I became editor in September 2003 compared with 10 against The Australian," he said. "By the academics' measure, The Australian must be the biggest beat-up merchant in the country."

In the past week shares in West Australian Newspapers have fallen more than 4.7 per cent. Readership of the paper's flagship weekend edition has fallen by 4.6 per cent in a year while circulation has fallen 3.5 per cent.


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