Monday, February 22, 2010


In his latest offering, conservative Australian cartoonist ZEG is backing John Howard to head up international cricket

Government dental care at work: Desperate senior citizen takes takes pliers to his teeth

WHEN pensioner Baxter O'Brien was told he would have to wait more than a month to see a public health dentist for an aching tooth, he went looking for some pliers. The 75-year-old, from Babinda, south of Cairns, opted to extract the tooth himself, not prepared to go through Christmas and New Year in pain. "It was very, very painful. I couldn't bite on it or chew on it or anything," he said. "I got my bent nose pliers and pulled the tooth out myself. "There was no anaesthetic or anything. How do you describe pain? It was about a nine, I suppose, out of 10."

Mr O'Brien said he took matters into his own hands after being told the public dentist at Innisfail would be unavailable from December 4 to mid-January. "I don't want to make a hero or a brave man out of myself. This is to show how pathetic this bloody health system is," he said.

Figures released by Queensland Health last week revealed that in the last three months of 2009, more than 111,000 people were waiting to see a public dentist. The median wait for a check-up was 712 days and for a toothache so bad it kept you awake at night, such as Mr O'Brien's, it was 31 days.

Australian Dental Association Queensland president Ian Meyers, who resigned as the state's chief dentist late last year, said QH did not have sufficient dentists to meet the huge demand. "You've got about half the Queensland population that's eligible for care in the public sector, which has only about 15 to 20 per cent of the workforce," he said. "Unfortunately, there has been . . . pay inequity over the years and the remuneration that hospital dentists get is not in the same vicinity of the private sector. "There isn't the career path to keep them going."

Dr Meyers said QH had been investigating new models of care designed to reduce public dental waiting lists. "I think the Government is certainly keen and eager. They're ready for reform," he said. But any changes were likely to be delayed in the lead-up to the next federal election, expected later this year. "Obviously, the State Government is not likely to implement a whole lot of new changes just to have them changed again at a national level."

In a report to the Rudd Government seven months ago, the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission called for a $3.6 billion-a-year Denticare Australia scheme that would offer universal access to dental care. Dr Meyers said Denticare was an "option that should be explored".


Rudd's ineffectual dealings with the healthcare issue makes him vulnerable

If VOTERS have cooled on the issue of climate change since the 2007 election, health has, if anything, intensified as one of their big concerns – especially in NSW. Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott are both gearing up to make it a major battleground. This week the Senate will again debate the means test on the private health insurance rebate that was announced in the budget. The opposition is committed to knocking out the measure, worth nearly $2billion over the budget period, for the second time.

This gives the government a double-dissolution trigger on health, something it is anxious to get in place, even though the election won't be until the second half of the year. The revised emissions trading legislation has been given a lower priority so that the means test is dealt with quickly.

Abbott judges that Rudd is vulnerable on hospitals policy. Last weekend the Opposition Leader threw out a morsel of policy to increase the pressure, pledging a Coalition government would impose local boards, including clinicians and people with corporate expertise, on NSW and Queensland hospitals.

Rudd's timetable for advancing hospitals reform has slipped, although he already has an expert report and the government has done about 100 consultations with professionals and community groups (some 20 of them conducted by the Prime Minister himself). Now state elections are complicating things: nothing can be sorted with the states before the Tasmanian and South Australian elections on March 20.

Rudd has said that if the states aren't willing to shape up in a satisfactory reform deal, the Commonwealth would have a vote at the coming election for a federal takeover. But the Prime Minister clearly prefers a compromise. He did campaign in 2007 promising co-operative federalism – a big stoush with recalcitrant states just before the 2010 poll would be a bad look. This probably strengthens the hands of the states, although Rudd also needs to looks as though he is in control of the issue, so the politics is complex and unpredictable.

The Liberals are making hospitals part of a wider narrative about Rudd's failure or tardiness on delivering promises. The challenge for Rudd is to use his hospital announcement, belated though it will be, to get back on the front foot. When he was health minister in the Howard government, Abbott was itching for a national takeover of the hospitals but John Howard would have none of it. Not that Abbott wanted federal bureaucrats running hospitals; he envisaged a contracting-out system. But now he has stepped back from a national takeover – while criticising Rudd for shying away from one.

In NSW, campaigning on hospitals should maximise the extent to which the federal Liberals can reap benefit from the extensive community criticism of the state government's performance on hospitals, and the never-ending stream of horror stories.

In terms of his experience, Abbott should be well placed in the health debate. To have been a minister in an area is helpful; a lot of detail has already been absorbed. (Abbott has the same advantage of experience in workplace relations, which is going to be one of the most challenging of issues for him.) On the other hand, his experience means he also has a past; the government keeps throwing up negatives from his ministerial days.

The rebate is a much simpler issue than the hospitals. The government's argument is that with the ageing population the money is needed for health reform – that between now and 2050, the means test would save $100billion. It only hits high-income earners (singles over $75,000; couples on $150,000 plus) so it is a fair impost. The opposition argues that it will undermine health insurance and so put pressure back on to public hospitals, and Rudd is breaking a promise.

A recent Nielsen survey showed more than four in 10 were in favour of the means test and one-third were against. The opposition is vulnerable on the question of the money. A few weeks ago, on one of his very frank days, opposition finance spokesman Barnaby Joyce suggested the Coalition should keep an open mind on the rebate, given the large dollars involved. But Abbott was having none of that. Apart from anything else, Abbott's default position on issues is to just say no. That way, the battle lines are kept simple.


Desperation places credentialism under attack

Fast-track teachers to get six weeks training. And they certainly need no more than that. I taught High School successfully without one second of teacher training. Requiring a four-year degree is bureaucratic madness. The "new" idea is obviously inspired by the "Teach for America" program, which has been operating since 1990 and does seem to produce better teachers

TEACHERS could take charge of the most challenging classrooms after just six weeks training under a controversial strategy being considered by the Queensland Government. People with professional qualifications will be sent to teach in disadvantaged schools to plug a shortage of specialist teachers under the Teach for Australia program, The Courier-Mail reports.

But unions have slammed the strategy – which aims to attract high-performing professionals and graduates from fields including law, economics, engineering, science, mathematics and English – as disrespectful to teachers and a Band-Aid solution.

Teach for Australia chief executive Melodie Potts said research shows similar models overseas produce more effective teachers. Education Queensland assistant director-general Craig Allen confirmed the program was being considered and talks were being held with Teach for Australia.

The program involves six weeks of intensive training for six days a week at university, with teachers then placed in disadvantaged secondary schools where it is hoped they will inspire children. Their university study continues part-time for two years and includes a mentor and adviser before they graduate with a Postgraduate Diploma in Teaching.

Mr Allen said the department was "exploring the potential of Teach for Australia" to attract and retain "high quality individuals in teaching". The teachers are given a reduced workload to help concentrate on their part-time study.


The arrogance and folly of unchecked good intentions

Good intentions are not enough, says David Burchell, in a meditation inspired by a pipsqueak Green/Left politician who has done a lot of harm -- killing four people and endangering many others

PERHAPS the most beautiful and disturbing meditation ever voiced on the tragic character of modern politics, Politics as a Vocation, was delivered almost a century ago in another world from ours, among the bare whitewashed walls, wide-eyed Byzantine icons, slender Moorish windows and dusty sunbeams of the University of Munich, then consumed in the death-throes of World War I. Pressing on the great sociologist Max Weber's heart as he spoke was an agonised awareness of the great catastrophe already unfolding in Germany: the great tragic ballet in which the far Left and the far Right, locked in their fatal dance of mutual hatred, dragged the entire civilisation of Europe down into the flames.

Attempting to understand why so many people were willing to draw Europe into the abyss for the sake of imagined utopias they didn't seriously believe in, Weber was moved to compare the visionaries of his day to the early followers of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount or Moses' tablets, believers in an absolute ethic that brooks no compromise and focuses only on ultimate ends. To the followers of this creed, "if an action of good intent leads to bad results", the responsibility must lie with the world, or with the stupidity of others.

By contrast, Weber suggested, mature political leaders have to be content with an ethic of responsibility, one that takes into account the "average deficiencies of people" and holds itself responsible for its mistakes.

At our best we may manage to combine both ethics, so that the grand cause and the steps along its way are equally visible to us. Most often, though, the final goal is shrouded in life's moral mist.

Watching Environment Minister Peter Garrett's other-worldly television performances last week amid the dying fall of the government's home insulation program, I found Weber leaping to my mind. Here, after all, is the minister who best lays claim to our contemporary Sermon on the Mount: the preservation of the planet, seen as the overarching political good. Here is a man who incarnates the notion that a good conscience can overcome all political ills; the conviction that "from good only comes good, but from evil only evil follows", in Weber's words.

And yet here, at the same moment, is a man who seems constitutionally incapable of accepting any personal responsibility for one of the great public policy follies of the past decade and who seems, to all appearances, strangely emotionally detached from its human consequences. If there was ever an example of how an unquestioned good heart and political irresponsibility of the most abject kind can travel hand in hand - like two heedless child-lovers out of a Medieval chivalry romance - surely this is it.

It is humbug to suggest - as Garrett continues to suggest - that his scheme has been laid low by the machination of shonky operators or the negligence of half-trained operatives. Patently, there would have been no fly-by-night insulation firms and no army of semi-trained labourers in the first place but for a decision to throw billions of dollars of public money, holus-bolus, towards the creation of a new and for all practical purposes unregulated industry without any apparent concern for the consequences.

Nor is it credible to blame the existing safety standards of state governments when their creators could hardly have imagined the industry would grow 30-fold within a few months.

Curiously, in his interviews Garrett neglected to mention that the proposed replacement scheme will be subject to a rigorous independent assessment. But then, signalling a belated return to good governance might amount to a confession of error. And for our granite-faced modern Moses, that would never do.

By the normal measures of prudent governance it ought to have been obvious that the business of combining our largest ever stimulus package with a vast wish-list of public infrastructure programs and improvised environmental remedies was laden with peril.

As a stimulus package it is probably too large and too lengthy, because of the competing policy demands generated by it and because of the impossibility of cutting off the fiscal tap once so many undertakings have been given. At the same time, as a public infrastructure program it is too improvised, too spontaneous and too nakedly political. To save the planet, fill up schoolyards with new buildings, prime the pump and lock in the electoral support of Ute-Man all at once is a virtuous circle of vertiginous complexity. In the end, it is an invitation to irresponsibility.

Of all the grand literary creations of Old Labor - the romantic, quixotic Labor of the 1970s, with its endless litany of self-justifying mythologies - none is more elegiac or more eye-opening than Graham Freudenberg's classic biography of Gough Whitlam, A Certain Grandeur. Penned in the mordant, sententious tones of Roman imperial historians, it relates the fall of Whitlam as a kind of grand tragedy, replete with heroic but flawed characters and the inscrutable hand of fate.

Writing about the notorious loans affair that finally brought Labor to the abyss, Freudenberg conveys the impression that the disaster had only two causes: the grand but sadly flawed personality of Labor's minerals and energy minister Rex Connor and the diabolical malignity of Labor's enemies. On the question of whether a federal minister ought to secure a personal budget line by borrowing billions on the security of the Reserve Bank through a dubious business intermediary, in the ignorance of most of his colleagues and against the furious opposition of Treasury, Freudenberg is elegantly silent. Indeed, he does not even trouble to tell the reader what the Middle Eastern loans were supposed to be for, let alone whether they were necessary. All that matters was Connor's goal of building a great nation. This is the Sermon on the Mount reduced to a farce.

From this seemingly forgotten low-water mark of Australian public policy, I'd suggest we can infer the following moral. When you abandon the ethic of responsibility for a troubling and unstable combination of high moral rectitude and low political cunning, you expose yourself to the dizzying prospect of the abyss. And once you begin to fall, there are no handholds.

At present - in parts of its infrastructure planning, several of its environmental programs, much of its pseudo-support for hybrid automobiles and more or less the entirety of the National Broadband Network - contemporary federal Labor is tiptoeing close to the edge. It's time to step back again on to economic terra firma.



Paul said...

Three weeks of computer booting, and three weeks of firearms handling. Voila! Teacher in six weeks.

rloader said...

I have been rendered speechless by all of the machinations of the Labor Govt and their spectacular failures. Rudd reminds me of the "Nero fiddles while Rome burns" analogy with his inane comments on Sunrise and the ABC. Bring on the elections and let us hope that sufficient Australian people still retain enough brain power to send these Trade Unionist cum Politicians into oblivion! Don't vote for the Greens sas you will get Labor back!