Thursday, February 25, 2010

Private emergency room opens as an alternative to long waits at government hospitals

Patients who pay $195 can jump the queues at hospital emergency departments when the nation's largest health fund opens its first standalone clinic today. Medibank is guaranteeing patients with minor injuries and illnesses will be treated within one hour at its first Rapid Care Clinic in Brisbane. The fund is confident it will have a Sydney facility operating in June.

The clinics, staffed by specialist emergency doctors, will deal with urgent but non-life-threatening medical conditions such as broken bones, sprain, cuts and minor burns, viruses, headaches, earaches and sore eyes.

Twenty thousand patients a month wait more than the clinically-recommended one hour to be treated in the clogged emergency departments in public hospitals.

Single mother Kylie Endycott, who spent five hours at Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred Hospital yesterday after her one-year-old son Beau had difficulty breathing, said the clinics were a great idea but thought fees could be altered for different family situations.

Almost 170,000 people using a public hospital emergency department leave in frustration every year because of their wait for treatment. Medibank hopes to fill this gap. "Anybody who experienced attending a busy hospital emergency room with a minor injury or sick child, tried to get an appointment with their GP at short notice or out-of hours, will understand the Rapid Care Clinic," Medibank managing director George Savvides said.

The clinics will be open 365 days a year from 8am to 9pm to anyone, although Medibank members pay just $150 for a consultation and face no charge for X-rays, plaster or stitches. The clinics will refer conditions such as chest pain, severe breathing difficulty, acute stomach pain, severe burns, loss of consciousness, head and neck injuries or pregnancy-related conditions to the nearest hospital.

Emergency medicine specialist Dr Peter Herron - who runs the Brisbane clinic, which has been open for a week and a half - has treated seven people including several fractures, a bee sting, a laceration and an earache.

Australian Medical Association president Dr Andrew Pesce said the clinics would help those who could afford them but was disappointed that underfunding of the public hospital system had made them necessary. He is concerned they will lead to further fragmentation of patient care. Those who use these clinics can't claim for their treatment from their health fund or Medicare and must pay the full cost out of their own pocket. The Health Services arm of the fund has run similar clinics for corporate clients for years.


Rogue unions now off the leash and doing a lot of damage

Woodside chief executive Don Voelte has called on the Rudd government to toughen up laws to deal with illegal strikes. He declared the resource giant's timetable for shipping the first gas from its $12 billion Pluto liquefied natural gas project was contingent "on a productive industrial relations environment".

While Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard has repeatedly labelled wildcat strikes by Pluto workers as unacceptable, Mr Voelte said the laws should be changed to ensure employees returned to work sooner once their action was deemed illegal. "It's like a pendulum swung it too far one way with Work Choices. We're concerned maybe we swung it a little too far the other way," he said.

Woodside is a senior member of the Australian Mines and Metals Association, which this week called for legislative changes that would allow for immediate sanctions to be imposed on workers taking unlawful industrial action.

Asked what changes the company would like the government to make to the Fair Work Act, Mr Voelte said: "It's not the issue of collective bargaining. We understand that and we accept that. "When you have an agreement, we expect the unions to follow the law too. It took us eight days to get people back to work in an illegal strike. "The area we'd like to focus on is, `Hey, once it's declared illegal, get back to work'. "It's like a two-year tortuous battle to go through courts to pay fines for being illegal. It should be a bit different."

Mr Voelte said Woodside's target for the first liquefied natural gas exports in early 2011 was contingent on a "productive industrial relations environment" and the company had arranged emergency cargoes from other LNG producers for customers in the event of more strikes.

Ms Gillard, the Workplace Relations Minister, said the government would continue to take a tough position against unlawful industrial action. "Unlawful industrial action is wrong," she told the National Press Club. "People should expect to be punished . . . to feel the full force of the law."

A spokesman for Ms Gillard said last night that throughout the Pluto dispute, Fair Work Australia ordered strikers back to work within 24 hours of illegal industrial action. "Workers chose to ignore those orders, and the Federal Court, just as would have been the case under the previous government's industrial relations system, issued an injunction ordering workers to return to work," he said. "As would have been the case previously, these orders took a number of days to serve on individual workers."

ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence said yesterday Mr Voelte's comments showed that big business "continues to hark back to the days of Work Choices". "The increase in profits reported by Woodside Petroleum exposes the hypocrisy of big mining companies calling for changes to Australia's industrial relations system," he said.

While further industrial action has not been threatened at the Pluto project, unions have refused to rule out further strikes.

Workers, many of whom are being pursued by contractors for $22,000 fines over illegal strikes, said they were furious with the Rudd government's retention of construction watchdog the Australian Building & Construction Commissioner, which they said was being used to attack them. Militant West Australian Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union assistant secretary Joe McDonald, who attended a meeting of 2000 Pluto workers yesterday, said the federal government was deeply unpopular in the Pilbara.

"You wouldn't want to be a Labor Party politician in the northwest right now," he said. "The blokes think they've been betrayed by (Kevin) Rudd, by Gillard and (Resources Minister Martin) Ferguson. "They're seen as absolute traitors, (those) were the words that were used. The ABCC is still running around like thieves in the night."

Australian Manufacturing Workers Union state secretary Steve McCartney said Labor had turned its back on workers who felt vulnerable to court action by the ABCC.


Australian government suffers twin setbacks to carbon scheme

KEVIN Rudd's carbon pollution reduction scheme has been dealt a double blow, with the Senate pushing a vote off until at least May and the scheme's last influential industry supporter declaring it off the agenda.

After calling for the CPRS to be passed last November, Australian Industry Group chief executive Heather Ridout said yesterday the fracturing of consensus on climate change policy and the failure of international negotiations meant there was no clear way forward. The AI Group would now consider the opposition's direct action approach as well as other emissions reduction options through a high-level industry leaders group to "identify the best way forward".

Ms Ridout's comments came after the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry this month declared their opposition to implementing an emissions reduction plan ahead of the rest of the world.

Last night, the Coalition was pushing for a new Senate inquiry into the government's scheme after succeeding in delaying the debate until May. Ms Ridout said that, in the longer term, the AI Group continued to see a market-based approach as the best means of delivering "least-cost abatement" but a cap-and-trade system was not included in five principles that would guide the industry leaders group's deliberations. She described the chances of adopting an emissions trading scheme as "remote" in the near term. Ms Ridout said five key principles would guide deliberations:

* That the competitiveness of trade-exposed industries not be eroded;

* That Australia be able to meet its international emissions reduction commitments at least cost;

* That the continuity of energy supply should be assured in the transition to lower-emission energy;

* That research and development of new approaches to emissions reductions and refinement of existing approaches be supported; and

* That compliance costs and regulatory burdens be minimised.

Ms Ridout said that the AI Group had supported the amended CPRS legislation in good faith however the deal had still fallen apart. In trying to find a way forward on carbon reductions, the AI Group was being "realistic" rather than "idealistic".

Climate Change Minister Penny Wong said the AI Group supported a market mechanism, as it had the most potential to deliver least-cost abatement. "The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme is the only market-based solution being put forward by any party," she said.

Opposition climate action spokesman Greg Hunt said Australia's key business groups were distancing themselves from the Rudd government's ETS, which was looking "increasingly friendless".


Phonics to be enforced as part of literacy teaching throughout Australia

Ideology replaced by what works

ALL states and territories will be forced to follow a set program for teaching reading under the first national English curriculum, which stipulates the letters, sounds and words students must learn in each year of school. The curriculum, obtained by The Australian, dictates what students from kindergarten until the end of Year 9 are expected to know and be able to do in English, history, science and maths.

The English curriculum, to be released for public consultation next week, enshrines the importance of teaching letter-sound combinations, or phonics, giving examples of the sounds and words to be taught from the start of school. Students in their prep year will learn to sound out simple words such as "cat", recognising the initial, middle and end sounds; by Year 1, they will have learned two consonant sounds such as "st", "br" and "gl".

The national curriculum ends the piecemeal approach to what is taught in schools, with state curriculums emphasising different course content and teaching it at different stages of school. The new curriculum is a detailed document that provides specific examples and is longer than many existing state syllabuses, some of which are a couple of pages long for each subject.

The curriculum for the senior years of school, from Years 10 to 12, will be released separately by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority later this year.

The English curriculum places a strong emphasis on the study of grammar, from learning different classes of words such as verbs and nouns in the early years through to the difference between finite and non-finite clauses in high school. In a speech to the National Press Club yesterday, Education Minister Julia Gillard welcomed the "strong appearance" of grammar in the national curriculum. Announcing its release next Monday, she said the curriculum set out the essential content for each year of learning as well as the achievement standards students should be expected to perform.

"This will not be a curriculum `guide' or a supplement to what states and territories currently teach," she said. "It will be a comprehensive new curriculum, providing a platform for the highest quality teaching."

Ms Gillard also outlined the next phase of Labor's education revolution, including the external assessment of schools and the introduction of student identity numbers to enable parents and schools to track a child's individual progress through school.

After the speech, a spokesman for Ms Gillard said the government would investigate different systems for assessing school performance in coming months, including a form of school inspectors and the method used in Britain, where the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills conducts detailed inspections of schools and publishes its findings. "The government believes that some external inspection or assessment of schools would be an additional way of ensuring that our schools are providing the best possible education for our children." the spokesman said.

Ms Gillard said the government would examine "how every school can get the right support and scrutiny to make sure it is performing well and improving in the areas where it needs to improve".

The idea of external assessment of schools was mooted by the national teachers union for public education, the Australian Education Union, in a charter of school accountability reported by The Australian in December. The AEU proposal advocates a system of regular assessments against a set of standards by a panel of principals, teachers and education experts, and then working with struggling schools to lift performance. AEU federal president Angelo Gavrielatos said yesterday teachers wanted to see the detail of the government's proposal on school assessment before giving their support, although they were still committed to the principle of accountability and external review.

"But the government must consult with teachers," he said. "We're seeing announcement after announcement without consultation and the Rudd government has to realise that it needs to consult with the profession. "Ultimately, we're the ones who implement education policy." Mr Gavrielatos said the union was also not opposed in principle to the idea of student identity numbers and welcomed moves to improve the measure of student progress than that currently used on the My School website.

Tony Abbott said students already had unique identifiers in the form of names, and questioned why their results could not be tracked using their names.


Australia sets spies on people smugglers

Australia is setting its domestic spy agency on people smuggling, handing the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation greater powers and allowing it to operate overseas.

The Government in Canberra is also boosting co-operation with Malaysia - another key link in the people-smuggling chain - improving intelligence-sharing, immigration controls and the interception of smugglers' operations.

The moves emerged yesterday as Attorney-General Robert McClelland introduced new laws that will widen ASIO's brief and introduce tough new penalties, and as Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor met Malaysian counterparts in Sydney. The Government's drive to clamp down on people smuggling has been pushed by a new wave of boats carrying asylum seekers from Indonesia, straining detention facilities on Christmas Island and raising a political storm in Australia.

The Opposition claims the influx has been sparked by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's relaxation of the tough regime imposed by conservative Liberal predecessor John Howard.

But introducing the new laws to Parliament yesterday, McClelland said a global surge in asylum seekers was being driven by conflicts and turmoil in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Sri Lanka. He said the most recent report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated there were 42 million forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2008, including 15.2 million mandated refugees and 827,000 asylum seekers.

The new laws will enable ASIO to specifically target people smugglers and other serious border threats, and will change the definition of "foreign intelligence" to allow the organisation and other national security agencies to collect people-smuggling intelligence overseas. ASIO is at present not able to directly act against people smuggling and can only use and pass on information it has indirectly obtained as part of its counterterrorism operations. The new legislation will allow it to specifically work against people smugglers, supported by extended interception and surveillance powers and the ability to collect foreign intelligence.

The gathering of foreign intelligence under present laws is restricted to information relating to foreign Governments and political organisations relevant to the defence of Australia or the conduct of the nation's international affairs. "This position no longer adequately reflects the contemporary threats to Australia's national interests," McClelland said. "In an increasingly interconnected global community, activities such as people smuggling are usually undertaken by non-state actors, and [the new law] will enable information about foreign individuals or groups operating without Government support to be collected."

The legislation also introduces a range of new offences, including providing material support for people smuggling, which will carry a maxi-mum penalty of 10 years' jail and/or a fine of A$110,000 ($123,563).


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