Monday, February 16, 2009

Creditable national leadership

I have always had some time for Mr Rudd. His instincts seem to be good even if, as a Leftist, he is at times prone to some silly ideas. I have now been particularly impressed by his attitude to the bushfires. Instead of just paying a flying visit to the area, as many politicians would, he seems to have been spending most of his time with the victims and firefighters. And his presence among the victims has been a notably sympathetic one -- giving the victims a sense that their problems are recognized and that they are respected. The fact that Mr Rudd is clearly a committed Christian undoubtedly helps.

And I am a bit prejuduced in favour of our Governor General because she has been an active supporter of my old church but she too has been constantly visiting afflicted parts of the country, particularly the vast areas up North that have been flooded. And that too gives people the feeling that their problems are recognized and that they are appreciated.

There seems to have been a conspicuous absence of the Victorian and Queensland State governments from their respective disaster areas.

Public hospitals have triple the baby deaths of private

Poor people tend to have worse health but the gap here seems too large for that to be the main factor. And the grave problems often reported with public hospital obstetric services leave little room for doubt about where the main fault lies

For every baby that dies soon after birth in an Australian private hospital, three die in the public system, alarming new figures reveal. Women who give birth in public hospitals are also more than twice as likely to suffer tearing, or that their babies will need resuscitation, according to the alarming findings of a new study. Associate Professor Steve Robson and colleagues examined the outcomes of almost 790,000 births which took place over four years, and about a third were in the nation's private hospitals.

Dr Robson said he was shocked not only by the "striking difference" between the two systems, but also by the results that contradict a common criticism of births in private hospitals. "There is often a lot of criticism in the medical press of rates of caesarean birth and rates of the induction of labour - everybody says 'Wow they're so much higher in private hospitals,"' says Dr Robson, of the Australian National University Medical School. "And if you take the literature at face value ... all of those things ought to up the complication rate, (but) it was lower. "We found that quite staggering."

Dr Robson says the study raises questions about the view that some in the medical fraternity hold that "increased rates of obstetric intervention are bad for women and their babies". "Our study suggests these things could be beneficial because the rate of babies dying is about half in the private hospital, and the rate of serious maternal injury is less than half," he said. Dr Robson said differences in the health and socio-economic status of the mothers alone could not explain the performance gap between public and private hospitals, and that further research was needed. "And it's not as though we've taken a small sample, we basically looked at every birth in the country (over four years)," he says.

The study, to be published in the Medical Journal of Australia, reported women giving birth in public hospitals had more than twice the rate of "severe perineal tearing", and their babies were more than twice as likely to require "high-level resuscitation" at birth. The neonatal death rate was one for every 1,000 babies born in private hospitals, compared to three in 1,000 in public hospitals.

The study was also undertaken by Elizabeth Sullivan and Paula Laws from the Perinatal and Reproductive Epidemiology Research Unit, at the University of NSW. Australia's rate of caesarean sections has risen from a single digit per cent in the 1980s to now account for more than 30 per cent of all births.


The most politically incorrect man in the world?

The Top Gear live stage show in Sydney last week caused waves in Britain that we barely noticed. Iconic British host Jeremy Clarkson had barely alighted from his plane when he called his prime minister, Gordon Brown, a "one-eyed Scottish idiot". Since Brown does have only one eye, disabled groups in Britain were outraged, as were Scots, Labour supporters and idiots. Clarkson, 48, was lambasted in front-page stories in his homeland until he apologised - which he did, to all but the idiots.

For Australian audiences who packed the Acer Arena from last Thursday for 10 live performances of the top-rating SBS show, such Clarkson irreverence rated a chuckle rather than a scolding. Such is the relaxed Australian attitude to politician abuse, he could have said whatever he liked about Kevin Rudd and no one would have minded.

But the furore illustrates what is the key to Top Gear's success: Clarkson's brazen political incorrectness. He will bag Audis with one breath and greenies with the next. He has no sacred cows. The British version of Top Gear, which attracts as many as 1million Australian viewers each week, is an exuberant thumbing of noses at climate alarmists and safety Nazis. It is a relief valve from a politically correct world full of admonitions and tongue-biting. Just when cars were being targeted as dangerous, polluting anachronisms, Top Gear became one of the world's most popular television shows. Women make up more than 40 per cent of its audience.

Paradoxically, as environmental alarmism grows, so too does our attachment to cars, with Top Gear's popularity one indication. We've just had Clint Eastwood's movie Gran Torino, about a retired auto-worker and his most precious possession - his red 1972 muscle car, the Ford Gran Torino. Next month we will have the ultimate car lovers' movie, Eric Bana's Love The Beast, starring his red Ford GT Falcon Coupe. A documentary charting Bana's 25-year love affair with his car, it also features his three best friends, Jay Leno, Dr Phil and, of course, Jeremy Clarkson.

Apart from great cars, Top Gear's appeal is about three middle-aged men having unrestrained blokey fun, and insulting each other and everyone else, in classic pommy style. Clarkson once had a custard pie thrown in his face by green protesters; his advice to cyclists was: "Do not cruise through red lights. Because if I'm coming the other way, I will run you down, for fun."

At his Sydney press conference last week he slammed environmentalist critics of the show. "We don't have a carbon footprint. That's because we drive everywhere." And he claimed Britain's current cold snap was caused by "too many green people in the world . not buying enough Range Rovers to warm it up."

Then he insulted his British studio audiences of his Top Gear live show: "You should see some of the apes that turn up." He obviously hasn't been to a WWF wrestling match. It was quite a different crowd last Friday at the ACER Arena from the one I got to know a little too well when my sons were wrestling fanatics. Fewer tattoos, shorter hair, no John Cena T-shirts. Top Gear drew families from middle Australia, in Holdens and Fords, Audis and Subarus. The most flamboyant young men wore Holden jackets or T-shirts with such slogans as "Own the road" and "I am the Stig" - in reference to Top Gear's test driver.

The live show came to Sydney on the last part of its tour to South Africa, Hong Kong and New Zealand, "a tour of countries we used to own," said Clarkson, before joking about his first sightseeing adventure in Sydney last week. "Coogee Bay Hotel - chocolate chip heaven", referring to last year's faeces in the ice-cream scandal. "I'm sure there was sweet corn in there," quipped his sidekick Richard Hammond.

There were brunettes in tight red jumpsuits, and French stunt motorcyclists performing death-defying feats inside a giant mesh sphere which Clarkson called "the colander of death". "They're only French," said Clarkson. "If something goes wrong it will just be corned beef," said Hammond.

There was also ritual audience humiliation. Clarkson singled out one hapless man and called him a "cock" for owning an Audi and a "poor cock" because it was an A6. "You can tell he's an Audi driver because he's wearing a branded shirt." The audience squirmed as the man, sitting with his young son, turned beetroot red with embarrassment. We mightn't care about politicians but perhaps British schoolyard bullying of the type Clarkson practises isn't enjoyed in Australia. And it's just as well the audience didn't know some of the cars were fakes. Car soccer went down rather better, with six little cars pushing a giant inflatable soccer ball around the stadium, with only one fender bender and many close misses in a display of superb stunt driving.

There is something about Top Gear's unabashed celebration of human ingenuity, technological precision, speed, snazzy styling, comfort and independence that ignites the passions of car fans and car agnostics alike. Killjoy car-haters: eat your hearts out.


Where did Sydney's summer go?

About one week after western suburbs endured its hottest four-day heatwave in 37 years; Sydney is likely to be heading for it coolest February period in more than 50 years. The city is in the middle of at least a week where the temperature stays below 25 degrees. The likely number of days is nine, with next Wednesday being the first day warmer than 25 since last Sunday. This will make it the longest February stretch below 25 degrees since the 1950s. Sydney also had nine days in-a-row below 25 in February 1953 and eight in 1996. The last time there was a longer stretch was in 1950 when there were 13.

The extraordinary turnaround from last week's heat is a due to plenty of cloud and showers being blown in by persistent onshore southeasterly winds. When will the summer warmth return? The middle of next week as winds turn warmer northeasterly, but it will only be brief, just a few days. The city is likely to reach the high 20s, possibly the low 30s, but a cooler change late next week will put an end to that warmth. Western suburbs will hit the low-to-mid 30s before the change.


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