Saturday, July 25, 2009

Gross corruption in the Queensland police gets a big yawn

IT'S almost too fanciful to be true: a prisoner is picked up from jail and taken for a drive by police officers through the suburbs on Brisbane's southside. He's handed a list of unsolved break-and-enters, perhaps as many as 300. He reads the details: how entry was gained, what was taken, the time the crime was committed. And he's told that he needs to admit to at least 20 to make his reward worthwhile.

What was that? According to evidence given by the prisoner to the Crime and Misconduct Commission, police collected his girlfriend and delivered her to Morningside police station. And it was there where they engaged in sex and the prisoner injected himself with drugs his girlfriend brought.

The prisoner, called RI in the scathing report into police released this week, was not the only person allowed to come and go from their jail cell. Murderers and armed robbers were allowed out of custody: one to meet his partner and young children in Roma Street Parkland for a play; another to lunch at a swish riverside restaurant.

The CMC's Dangerous Liaisons report, based on its Operation Capri, is not a repeat of the Fitzgerald inquiry - but it's certainly a reminder of how a bad lot of eggs can stink out a whole refrigerator. And with more than 25 officers implicated in wrongdoing - ranging from stupidity to outright criminal activity - it should not be dismissed as easily as it was this week.

The sheer brazenness of some officers seems to know no bounds. Take this example, also outlined in the report. An informant fund existed, courtesy of the Australian Bankers Association and the Credit Union Security Forum. And over the period of its operation, 77 payments were made, a total of $17,990. But no records were kept, an "end justifies the means" mentality meant that few rules existed, and money was misappropriated. Police also falsely claimed payments had been made to informants, signatures were forged and evidence of transactions faked.

There's no better example of the latter than one outlined by Robert Needham and his team in their comprehensive and temperate investigation report. In that example, officers faked an audiotape and produced it as proof of a payment to an informant. The audio was supposed to support a meeting between two officers and an informant at a coffee shop at West End. But investigations showed it was made in carpark bay 148 on level B2 of police headquarters, and that a police officer assumed the role of an informant for the recording.

The litany of misdemeanours, maladministration and outright corruption weaves its way throughout the report, but it is Lee Owen Henderson, who is shown to have more influence on one group of officers than their own commissioner, Bob Atkinson. Henderson had 1241 calls diverted through one police station, at a cost of $2056, and his monthly telephone call bill was $535 - a big sum for a prisoner without any obvious source of income. But he was no ordinary prisoner. Called "The General", he had his own police locker, was able to arrange a police drug raid and despite earning only $7500 as a prisoner in a six-year period, spent at least $100,272.17.

He helped one officer buy a car, organised a theft from prison, and even sent two fluffy toys and two bibs - worth $85 - to a couple of police officers who were celebrating the birth of their baby daughter. He signed it "loyalty and love always".

Henderson was allowed to pose as an underworld crime figure with connections to corrupt police, had his own locker at the Rockhampton police station, and had access to police computers to help someone who wanted to give a "flogging" to a person they couldn't find.

The revelations this week are terrible but so is the response to them at every level. The Police Union decided to go in to bat for those police officers who were subject to the report, not the 99.9 per cent of others who are honest and law-abiding and who will be tainted by the accusations levelled at their colleagues. Commissioner Atkinson, who accepts responsibility for the misconduct, has allowed many of those under a cloud to resign on full benefits. That means they've got off scot free. And the Government? Originally elected on a post-Fitzgerald reform agenda, it seems to have decided silence is the best policy.

Queenslanders deserve better, especially those law-abiding, honest and hard-working police officers who will now be unfairly tainted by the wrongdoing of their unscrupulous colleagues.


More public hospital negligence

Would YOU like to be the one being operated on in such circumstances? Where warnings were ignored, equipment wasn't working and personnel had no previous experience in the procedure?

A DOCTOR whose patient died after a common throat operation says he "neglected to go through the paperwork" and failed to heed warnings from a nurse to delay the procedure. The comments came yesterday during an inquest into the 2007 death of popular Emerald grandmother Yvonne Davidson, who died at Rockhampton Base Hospital.

A critically ill Mrs Davidson died shortly after intensive care specialist Dr Robin Leigh Holland performed a percutaneous tracheostomy to help her breathe easier. Although her official cause of death was septicemia (blood poisoning) triggered by pneumonia, an examining pathologist said the operation hurried her death by two days to two months.

New hospital guidelines for the procedure stated two specialists had to perform the operation after the relevant equipment was checked. Registered nurse Lois Gillespie said she gave Dr Holland a printout of the guidelines and told him about the need for another specialist to be present, and that the monitor to be used was problematic.

Although Dr Holland denied the nurse told him the monitor was not working, he admitted appointing Dr David Guitierrez, who had never performed the procedure, to assist him. "Robin said David was as good as any consultant and (David) was his consultant," Ms Gillespie told the court. "Robin was saying that he would do it right and that he didn't need (the monitor)."

The nurse then said Dr Holland couldn't get the bronchoscope light to flash, but assured her "I'd be right. I'll go blind". She claimed she advised Dr Holland to delay the operation in light of equipment failures and a shortage of back-up staff.

Dr Holland said he did not recognise the hospital guidelines given to him because they looked like a list of medical equipment on a trolley. He said he had all confidence in the pair's ability to complete the operation, even when Dr Guitierrez's first attempt to insert a tube did not work.


An older Australian way to deal with Arab attacks

To Reginald Messenger, it was "just something that had to be done". He was a trooper in the 6th Light Horse Regiment at Beersheba in 1918 when he took part in what is emerging as one of the darkest, and and most overlooked, chapters of Australian military history. Known as the Surafend massacre, it involved 200 Anzac troops, some from the famed Australian Light Horse, who retaliated for the murder of a New Zealand soldier by razing a Bedouin village in Palestine and murdering between 40 and 120 of its inhabitants.

"Dad told me about it numerous times," Reginald's son, Oliver, said. "He said that they were camped next to this Gyppo village and one day they woke up to find that some of their blokes had their throat cut and their things stolen. It had been going on for some time - the Gyppos would steal from them all the time - and so they decided to do something about it, because no one else would."

One night in December 1918 the soldiers surrounded the Bedouin village of Surafend, emptied it of woman and children, then fell upon the men with bayonets and heavy sticks. "Dad never expressed any remorse about it," Mr Messenger said. "I gather that they had put up with it for too long. They were good soldiers, those blokes, but they didn't put up with any shit."

The incident occurred shortly after the end of World War I, and has been all but obliterated from the official record. Just three pages of H.S. Gullet's 844-page official war history mention it, and neither the NSW Returned and Services League nor the Light Horse Association had heard of it.

A new book, called Beersheba, by the journalist Paul Daley, re-examines the Surafend massacre, and the long shadow it cast over the legend of the Light Horse, famed for their 1917 cavalry charge at Beersheba. Daley says that, after the massacre the British commander-in-chief, General Sir Edmund Allenby, "wiped his hands" of the Light Horse, even maliciously withdrawing citations and decorations. "Dad said that after the incident, a general - perhaps it was Allenby - addressed the men and called them cowards," Mr Messenger said. "But the men just counted him out [counted loudly, in unison]. They just drowned him out, you know?"

A spokesman for the Australian War Memorial, said: "The Anzac legend is an uplifting one but, like all legends, there are some unfortunate aspects. But this doesn't detract from acts of heroism and bravery."


Estimating the effects of teacher quality

The Rudd Government's education revolution will amount to little if it fails to lift teacher quality. Computers, libraries, arts centres and well-functioning buildings are vital in improving the learning environment, and the appeal of schools. Only a curmudgeon would quibble over the extra expenditure. But unless teacher quality also improves, the revolution will be half-baked.

With so many baby-boomer teachers retiring over the next seven years - in NSW virtually half the teaching population - there is both opportunity and imperative to raise the standard.

Any parent knows the quality of the child's teacher is critical. That is why the pushier parents lobby to secure the best teacher for their child, and more reticent parents accept with sinking hearts the lost year or lost marks a bad teacher represents.

Now economists have quantified the effect of a good teacher compared to a bad teacher - not only on a child's academic attainment and future earnings but on the health of a national economy. The difference a good teacher makes is large.

Professor Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford University, has just visited Australia, bringing a body of research that should focus the minds of politicians on teacher quality. It's not easy. Rolling out laptops is child's play in comparison.

Based on extensive work, conducted partly in the Texas school system, he estimates the students of a bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year's worth of material in a year. The students of a good teacher will learn 1 ½ year's worth of material. That's a whole year's more learning with a quality teacher.

To people who say family background is the most decisive influence on children's academic attainment and that teachers can't compensate, Hanushek says: "Dead wrong." If a disadvantaged student had a good teacher instead of an average one for three or four years in a row, the achievement gains would be dramatic, he says. Put another way, a student who starts at the 50th percentile of the state's distribution on test scores after a year with a good teacher will move up to the 59th percentile.

Teacher effects dwarf school effects, his work shows, so that it is better to be in a bad school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher; and better to be in a big class with a great teacher than in a small class with a hopeless one.

In Australia he was talking about the effect of better schooling on economic growth. In a dazzling comparison of 50 countries over four decades, he was able to demonstrate the huge importance of a nation's cognitive skills in explaining economic growth. Countries that have improved their schools - as measured by student scores in international tests of maths, science and literacy ) have also improved their economic growth rates. This applies to developing and developed countries.

Just by getting rid of the bottom 5 per cent to 10 per cent of bad teachers and replacing them with average ones could improve Australia's brainpower, and its economic performance, he says.

Not everyone agrees that teacher quality is so critical. For a start, if this is the main problem it gives governments a handy excuse to minimise expenditure on facilities, or on lower class sizes. A study led by the University of New England that monitored 500 pairs of identical twins through the first three years of school says the "teacher effect" is about 8 per cent, not the 40 per cent other researchers have found. But even if the effect has been overstated in the past, it is still important. Imagine having three talented teachers in a row; even a single gifted teacher can change lives.

Yet improving teacher quality is harder than economists' PowerPoint presentations make out. Good teachers are hard to identify in advance of doing the job - teacher credentials and even years of service are no guide.

It is only when they teach they demonstrate their abilities and, in our system, teachers have virtual tenure for life once they are admitted to a classroom. Little can be done about poor teachers. Even in-service training, Hanushek, claims, has disappointing results.

His own suggestion for attracting and retaining high-quality teachers is the much-lambasted idea of performance pay. Under the single-salary structure that operates here, a bad teacher costs the state as much as a good teacher; across-the-board pay increases give the bad teacher no incentive to leave, and the talented no incentive to stay. The idea is so resisted by teacher unions around the world there is little empirical evidence that performance pay delivers for students.

Thanks partly to the number of bright girls who entered teaching in the 1970s, the baby-boomer teacher generation can boast a high proportion of talented teachers. Australia's respectable international tests scores reflect a reasonable standard of teaching overall. With this generation retiring, it is imperative the replacements are even better teachers. A well-constructed incentive pay scheme deserves consideration, as does better ways to weed out bad teachers. Above all, we have to make schools places where talented people will want to work.


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