Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The greatest moral conundrum of our time … until the next one

By Peter Costello

Last year, we were told, the most important issue for the country - for the planet - was greenhouse gas emissions. This meant the Senate had to pass the government's carbon pollution reduction scheme. It was so urgent it had to be legislated before the end of the year, and before the summit in Copenhagen.

We were led to believe if the Senate refused to pass the legislation there would be a double dissolution of Parliament. The Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull, warned this would lead to a humiliating election defeat for the Coalition. Kevin Rudd declared climate change "the great moral and economic challenge of our time".

Now the legislation has become less important than getting 30 per cent of the GST from the states so the government can rearrange financing in the hospital system. Can a momentous moral challenge fizzle out like this? Or are you beginning to suspect all the crisis was politically driven?

I was thinking about this on Saturday night during Earth Hour - when people are urged to turn off their lights to show they support reducing greenhouse gases and saving the planet. Four years ago newspapers ran front-page pictures of Sydney in darkness as people everywhere switched off their lights and contemplated the impending doom that fossil fuel electricity would bring upon us.

Earth Hour did not attract such prominent coverage this year. Most front pages ran with pictures of the formula one grand prix in Melbourne - a gas-guzzling, high-octane car race that is shown on millions of plasma screens guzzling electricity all around the world. It is hard to think of anything less devoted to renewable energy and carbon reduction. The Victorian and NSW governments are so concerned about gas emissions they are competing against each other with taxpayers' money to get future rights to host the event.

What amazes me is the way this greenhouse campaign can be switched on and switched off as quickly as the lights during Earth Hour. And for the moment the government has decided to switch it off so we can all get back to talking about health funding.

Our monthly Anglican newspaper broadly reflects the prevailing progressive left opinion. In the December issue, in the lead-up to the government's self imposed timetable for securing the emissions trading legislation, it ran four extensive articles on the need for action over climate change. It published no contrary views.

In fact, the Copenhagen summit was given more column inches than Christmas, which is quite an achievement for a religious newspaper. But the issue has hardly registered in the newspaper since. Even though nothing has happened, the urgency has gone out of the campaign.

The activists from NGOs who flew to Copenhagen to get urgent action on carbon emissions have gone back to their previous causes. This doesn't mean they are insincere - on the contrary. It's just that their enthusiasm can be heightened or lessened with adroit management from the political professionals running the government's election year agenda.

I watched this issue elevated in the lead-up to the 2007 election, when it was used to illustrate how the Howard government was old, tired and out of touch. It was brought to fever pitch late last year to wedge the Coalition.

Without any immediate political target, it lies dormant. But I expect it will be back for the election - probably in an attack on the Coalition's policy on direct abatement measures. Which is why the public is entitled to get a little cynical. You never hear Rudd arguing for an emission trading scheme as if he really believes it is "the great moral and economic issue challenge of our time". He raises it, he drops it, it comes and it goes - like all the other issues of the regular media cycle.

Those scientists who made exaggerated claims about the Himalayan glaciers undermined trust in the science behind global warming. And those politicians who made exaggerated claims about their policy proposals have undermined trust on the political issue. It would have been better to be honest enough to admit the uncertainties, and acknowledge the downside of their policy. As it is, Earth Hour has become an apt metaphor for their tactical approach - a time to spread darkness, rather than illumination.


More wasteful "stimulus" spending

And it took a very determined man to stop the rot

PROTESTING parents have hijacked plans to spend $3 million of taxpayers' money building a duplicate library and hall at a school in Kevin Rudd's electorate.

Nine months after Education Minister Julia Gillard told federal parliament that Holland Park State School was "delighted" with the "once-in-a-lifetime enhancement of its facilities", her department has quietly agreed to let the school swap the unneeded buildings for eight new classrooms.

The switch was made after lobbying by the school's Parents and Citizens Association, which warned the Prime Minister repeatedly last year about potential rorting of his government's $16.2 billion spending spree.

P&C president Craig Mayne - who has since quit the post - blew the whistle on cost blowouts last year in two letters to Mr Rudd and five phone calls to his Griffith electorate office.

"My issue is not with the program but how it is being implemented," he wrote in June. "We have a situation where the Queensland Public Works Department is proposing and implementing a system that is open to massive rorting."

Mr Mayne, a former civil engineer who oversaw the building of his school's hall for $200,000 under budget, said no other business would use the Queensland government's "design and construct" contracts to build nearly $2bn worth of halls, libraries, classrooms and covered learning areas in 1200 state schools. "What it will turn into is a `Do and Charge' process, with final costs blown out to match available public funds for the job," he wrote.

"We have sole operator project managers being paid $525,000 for six months' work."

Mr Mayne wrote to Mr Rudd again in August, complaining that his concerns were being "fobbed off" by the PM's electorate office and suggesting the Building the Education Revolution program would not deliver "bang for bucks".

Mr Mayne first aired his concerns a year ago in a letter to Senate president John Hogg in which he predicted that some of the "pre-qualified contractors" being used by the Queensland Education Department would "end up multi-millionaires out of all of this".

"Frankly, it scares me witless to see the potential waste if normal EQ practices are employed," the letter said. "I hope my many concerns are taken seriously and that procedures are put in place to ensure that BER funds get to where they are needed, and do not get lost along the way, due to bureaucracy on one hand and profiteering on the other." Senator Hogg replied with an email stating "Thanks Craig".

Mr Mayne also raised his concerns with the former director-general of EQ, with Queensland Attorney-General Cameron Dick and with the education policy adviser to Premier Anna Bligh.

A senior official from Mr Rudd's Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet responded in September, explaining that state education departments were responsible for BER projects in government schools. "I am advised that the (Queensland Department of Public Works) have sent all projects under BER to tender," the letter, signed by Office of Co-ordinator General assistant secretary Andrew Jaggers, states.

But Queensland Education Minister Geoff Wilson revealed this week that $490m of BER work in Queensland had never gone to tender. A spokesman for Queensland Public Works Minister Robert Schwarten yesterday said 20 per cent of the P21 program was not publicly tendered.

An EQ spokeswoman said Baulderstone Queensland Pty Ltd was managing the Holland Park State School project. Documentation for a new block of eight classrooms was being finalised, she said, and its construction would be put to tender soon. The school has also won approval for $200,000 worth of electronic whiteboards.


Student doctors not learning anatomy

This is incredible. Anatomy is utterly basic

MEDICAL students at some universities are receiving minimal training in anatomy, undergoing as little as 56 hours in a five-year course - 10 times less than their counterparts at other institutions.

A comparison of anatomy tuition at 19 medical schools found enormous variations in teaching time, ranging from 85 up to 560 hours across some six-year courses, and as low as 56 hours among five-year degree programs - even though four-year courses managed to offer at least 75 hours.

The research - triggered by recent controversies over newly graduated doctors' shrinking anatomical knowledge - also found most staff who taught anatomy were not senior doctors, but instead non-clinical staff who included physiotherapists and even other medical students.

Further, more than half of Australia's medical schools did not set a minimum level of achievement for their students in anatomy and did not separately mark it. Several universities admitted this meant students could do "very poorly" in their anatomy studies, but could still progress and graduate if they did well in other disciplines.

The study's lead author, Steven Craig, a recent medical graduate, said he could recall fellow students not bothering to revise anatomy in the lead-up to barrier exams that would decide whether they continued in their course, knowing that poor knowledge of the topic would not jeopardise their place on the program.

"We believe consideration should be given to developing undergraduate learning goals or guidelines for anatomical teaching," the authors wrote in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery.

"A standardised national curriculum and perhaps even a standardised national examination to assess anatomical knowledge prior to graduation may be needed to ensure all graduates attain at least some minimum acceptable knowledge base in gross anatomy."

The findings mark the first attempt to gauge how much anatomy tuition Australia's medical schools are providing, after The Australian in 2006 reported growing concern among senior clinicians and academics that many medical schools had cut anatomy teaching to potentially unsafe levels to make way for other topics. Some experts have attacked the priority given to non-medical topics such as communication, ethics and cultural sensitivity.

The medical colleges for surgeons, anaesthetists and pathologists, which train specialist doctors and oversee standards, said the findings vindicated their longstanding concerns and called for all medical schools to properly assess students' knowledge of anatomy and other basic sciences.

John Quinn, executive director of surgical affairs for the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, said "a large variation" in anatomical knowledge was already apparent among recently graduated doctors.

Those with poor understanding of anatomy ordered more tests, including X-rays and CT scans that exposed patients to potentially harmful radiation, when these might not be necessary. "I think it would be reasonable to have a national minimum standard of teaching (anatomy)," Dr Quinn said.

Ross Roberts-Thomson, president of the Australian Medical Students Association, said no student should be able to graduate without being tested on essential topics such as anatomy.

But he rejected calls for a national curriculum or exam, and said students at medical schools that delivered less formal anatomy tuition might be learning in other contexts not captured by the figures. "If you are learning about heart attacks, you learn about the anatomy of the heart during that assessment," Mr Roberts-Thomson said.

Jim Angus, president of Medical Deans Australia and New Zealand, said he was concerned at the claim some students appeared to believe anatomy could be safely left out of exam revision. "Game-playing should not occur - I don't like the sound of that at all," Professor Angus said. However, he rejected the call for national standards.


Greens versus blacks

THE Kimberley's peak indigenous body has attacked the "disgusting" tactics of green groups and out-of-town celebrities opposed to industrial development near Broome, accusing them of fundamental dishonesty and abusive, dirty politics.

The Kimberley Land Council also said the Wilderness Society and Save the Kimberley environmental groups were "pitting family groups against each other" in a bid to undermine traditional owners, who have made the tough decision to back a job-creating multi-billion-dollar gas hub at James Price Point on the Dampier Peninsular, 60km north of Broome.

Declaring Aborigines the first conservationists, KLC executive director Wayne Bergmann said it was "distressing" that Aborigines were being vilified as "developers" by green groups and said opponents needed to understand the damage they were doing to local indigenous people.

"Save the Kimberley and the Wilderness Society are pretending to champion the indigenous cause in order to bolster their own position and credibility," Mr Bergmann said. "They're not helping Aboriginal people. Our future does not lie in a contrived alliance with bogus green groups; our future rests with Aboriginal people stepping up and taking control."

Celebrities such as John Butler, Midnight Oil drummer Rob Hirst and Missy Higgins have joined retired Federal Court judge Murray Wilcox in pushing to stop the gas hub, accusing the Barnett government of riding roughshod over the rights of local Aborigines.

The KLC says the development, which will service the offshore Browse basin gas fields, will bring jobs. "The Jabirr Jabirr people are the only people who can make this decision about their country, and their decisions need to be respected," Mr Bergmann said in a speech late last week.

"The Kimberley Land Council works for and takes instructions from traditional owners. The KLC does not make decisions for traditional owners. We support the decisions of our people and their right to make those decisions."

Aborigines needed to use their land to create wealth and jobs, as 75 per cent of the indigenous population was between 16 and 26, and unemployment, suicide and crime rates were far beyond those of white Australia, he said.

Taking exception to suggestions green groups knew more about looking after their land than Aborigines did, Mr Bergmann said the KLC was examining other conservation and job-creating initiatives, including setting up a carbon trading scheme.

"Is it too much to ask that our children have opportunities for their future, have a safe environment where they can learn about their culture, language and become well-educated, that they go to school and that they can function as active participants in our society? That we put an end to poverty and disadvantage?" he said. "The actions of Save the Kimberley and some elements of the Wilderness Society, in particular, show they have no real respect for Aboriginal traditional owners and their responsibility for their land and sea country."

Save The Kimberley refused to comment, but the Wilderness Society's Peter Robertson said divisions within indigenous groups had been caused by both state and federal governments imposing "highly destructive and risky projects on Kimberley communities and the region's unspoiled environment".

"The reason there is a rising level of tension in parts of the Kimberley is because governments, in their reckless haste to approve the project, are placing communities under enormous pressure," Mr Robertson said.

"For example, WA Premier (Colin) Barnett continues to threaten traditional owners with the compulsory acquisition of their land if they do not agree to the LNG project (and) this was publicly described by the Kimberley Land Council as `negotiating with a gun to your head'."


Arrogant and bungling Federal cops again

THE Australian Federal Police has been criticised by a Supreme Court judge for bungling a two-year investigation into three men who sent funds to the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers separatist group, including improperly arresting a suspect and abusing his rights.

The AFP's mistakes occurred during its 2007 arrest and questioning of Arumugam Rajeevan, one of three men who will be sentenced in the Victorian Supreme Court today for providing money to a terrorist organisation.

Federal agents arrested Rajeevan at gunpoint despite having no legal basis to do so, refused requests from a barrister and lawyer to speak to him during his five-hour voluntary interview, and subjected him to questioning described by the Victorian Supreme Court's Justice Paul Coghlan as "really well over the top" and "outrageous".

The AFP, which sustained heavy criticism over its handling of another terrorist investigation into the Indian doctor Mohamed Haneef, said it could not comment on the case until the men had been sentenced.

However, it is believed the AFP has already made changes to deal with the problems that arose during the Tamil Tigers investigation.

Last year Australian prosecutors withdraw all terrorism charges against Rajeevan, Aruran Vinayagamoorthy and Sivarajah Yathavan.

In December they pleaded guilty to a lesser charge under the charter of the United Nations Act, a federal law that makes it a criminal offence to provide an asset to a terrorist organisation proscribed by either the UN or the Australian government.

In pre-trial comments in January last year - which could not be reported at the time - Justice Coghlan said federal agents had "abused" the rights of Rajeevan.

He said the manner in which Rajeevan was questioned by a federal agent, Patricia Reynolds, was "beyond any training a proper investigator can have" and a "fundamental departure from the [proper] principles".

After his criticism, the prosecution decided not to use Rajeevan's interview as part of its case.

Justice Coghlan queried why the AFP did not give Rajeevan access to lawyers while police were questioning him. He also described as "frighteningly high-handed" Rajeevan's arrest at gunpoint in 2007 by federal agents and warned police they risked incriminating themselves by testifying about the potentially unlawful arrest.

After the arrest, police realised they did not have enough evidence to arrest him and told him he would be "unarrested", a notion which Justice Coghlan described as "bizarre".

The prosecution described the arrest of Rajeevan as "a fairly grave mistake".


1 comment:

Paul said...

Our Doctors not learning anatomy is just to bring us into line with overseas trained doctors who don't appear to actually learn medicine, and locally trained nurses who don't learn nursing but can tell you heaps about critical theory sociology.

(Honestly you must think I'm so jaded sometimes)