Monday, March 08, 2010

Jurors to hear prior crimes of people on trial in South Australia

Long overdue. Juries should have ALL the evidence available to them -- and "form" is a very important type of evidence

JURIES would hear the criminal histories of people on trial under a planned new law that sweeps away legal tradition. If he is returned by voters on March 20, South Australian Premier Mike Rann has promised to amend the 1921 Evidence Act to allow juries to hear a suspect's prior crimes in cases involving violent crime and sex offences.

However, civil libertarians say the reform would undermine the basis of the judicial system. Mr Rann denied he was throwing out the principle of innocent until proven guilty, saying the legal system was "stacked in favour of criminals". "It's about making sure that juries have all the facts before them," he said. "There'll be a big fight over it, there always is when we try to toughen up criminal law, but this is about doing something for the victims. In particular we're concerned with serious repeat sexual offenders such as paedophiles, where it's just a revolving door."

Civil libertarian George Mancini said there was no demand in the legal community for such radical reform and questioned the motivation. "This is designed to cause prejudice to the accused and deflect juries from the proper task of deciding whether the accused did the crime," Mr Mancini said. "No one else in Australia is considering anything like this. It seems to be just another law and order action to make people look like they're tough on crime."

Adelaide barrister David Edwardson QC said common law already provided for prior convictions or criminal conduct to be presented to a jury in certain cases. "I presume Mr Rann himself wouldn't want innocent people or people who didn't commit a crime, even if they've committed crimes in the past, to be wrongly convicted or imprisoned," he said. "It certainly undermines what I understand to be a democratic and fundamental right, that is the presumption of innocence." [Rubbish!]

The Opposition did not rule out supporting Mr Rann's proposal, with legal affairs spokeswoman Vickie Chapman saying the Liberals would look at the policy closely if more detail was offered. "All this today is without any detail and to make it look like they're tough and as if they're going to keep people in prison," she said.


Grassroots conservatives are fired up by Tony Abbott

It is Tony Abbott’s 93rd day as Leader of the Liberal Party and he’s being cheered as a hero. He’s just arrived at the Mosman RSL, one of the few affordable venues in the richest suburb on Sydney’s ultra-conservative North Shore, and the member for Warringah is not among friends but fanatics. If Abbott is trying to argue that it’s a marathon not a sprint, and that the party has a lot of work to do ahead of polling day, tonight is not the night for such dispassionate political cliché. It feels like a dress rehearsal for a victory party. Every single person that I speak to on the night not only believes that the Libs can win, many are saying they will win.

It’s been an unusual week. Buoyed by the humiliation of Kevin Rudd over the insulation scandal, the Opposition Leader headed bush on the last such trip he will take before the election, and what for one tragicomic moment looked like the last trip he would ever take anywhere as his party got lost for five hours in the middle of nowhere.

Friday has been more sedate, at least by Abbott’s standards. There were no quad bikes or out of control road trains, but he did start the day by walking 30km from Palm Beach to Balmoral to raise funds for charity. Now, he’s walking up the turquoise-carpeted stairs at the Mosman RSL, past the house band playing Dancing Queen, past a framed portrait of his beloved Queen Elizabeth, to deliver what’s called the Sir Robert Menzies oration at the 65th birthday celebrations for the Mosman Liberals, the oldest branch in the land.

Oldest in terms of longevity, and possibly also in the age of its membership. There are a couple of beehive hairdos here that put Bronnie Bishop to shame, and more pearls than in Broome. But the age profile has been lowered on the night by the presence of several tables of younger members from the Lindsay branch, from the western suburb of Penrith, where the Howard era started in triumph with Jackie Kelly’s thumping 1996 by-election victory and ended in farce with the fake Islamic pamphlet scandal just days before the 2007 poll.

One couple are so excited about what Abbott insists should not be described as the Abbott juggernaut – "Mate, mate, mate, please don’t call it that whatever you do" – that they’ve flown over from Perth just for the night.

But if Abbott is trying to talk things down he’s talking to the wrong people. "Tony is doing a terrific job, you can just feel the energy," says Ann Youl, an elegant retired lady who is straight out of North Shore central casting. Mrs Youl and her husband, a retired navy commodore, lived in India, Singapore and the UK before returning to Sydney where she joined the Mosman Liberals in 1990 "when the country was going to ruin under Mr Keating with massive unemployment and high interest rates".

Melanie Mattherson and Ann Youl, who loves Abbott but didn't care for the witchetty grub. Melanie Mattherson and Ann Youl, who loves Abbott but didn't care for the witchetty grub. ‘It’s terrible what Labor has done to Australia again," Mrs Youl tells The Punch between sips of her champagne. "We were the envy of the world, we had weathered the economic problems which had befallen Asia, we had a booming surplus, we paid $96 billion off the debt, and in two years just look at what Mr Rudd has done." "I have no doubt that Tony can win. He’s a down to earth Aussie, he is having a go. But I must say I was a bit upset about that witchetty grub I saw him eating on television, and I told him that (his wife) Maggie wouldn’t kiss him when he got home."

Mrs Youl’s friend Melanie Mattherson chips in: "People are responding to Tony because he’s a real person, he’s not a plastic person."

Adding to this love-in atmosphere is a bloke by the name of John Winston Howard, glass of red in his hand, who’s being back-slapped by all-comers over his appointment as president of the International Cricket Council. "I always thought being prime minister was the best job you could have, but I was wrong," Howard jokes.

For a man who always cautioned against hubris in office – if ultimately succumbing to it by holding onto the prime ministership for so long – John Howard is having a bit of trouble containing his excitement at the speed at which his progeny has turned Liberal fortunes around. "I don’t think Tony has put a foot wrong," he tells The Punch. "He’s given real heart and hope to the Liberal Party."

Mr Howard is even more effusive in his introductory remarks for the Leader. By this stage the crowd has been well whipped up and is in virtual victory mode. MC and Liberal Party member, John Mangos from Sky News, introduces Mosman branch President David McLean, who notes that dinner guests are arriving late after being "stuck in NSW Labor traffic". McLean also describes NSW Opposition Deputy Leader Jillian Skinner as representing "the incoming Liberal State Government" even though the election won’t be held until next May.

When John Howard takes to the podium he gives a typically direct appraisal of what he sees as Tony Abbott’s three greatest strengths over Kevin Rudd. The first two are predictable enough. He says Mr Abbott is a man of high intelligence – "We could always rely on Tony to give an authentic middle-of-the-road point of view," he deadpans about his boisterousness in Cabinet. He says Abbott is "possessed of great compassion," citing his sitting in a filthy humpy with two impoverished Aboriginal men in the Territory last week with Abbott asking: "Do you sleep here every night?" "I think that was touching, it was genuine, and it resonated with the Australian people," Howard says.

Thirdly, and most interestingly, Mr Howard cites Mr Abbott’s capacity for self-deprecation as his greatest political strength. He says that when he was PM, he would deliberately say that the two most important jobs in Australia were prime minister and captaining the national cricket team, as his way of telling the public that he didn’t have tickets on himself.

In a pointed sledge at Mr Rudd, Mr Howard says: "Tony does not take himself too seriously, and I really don’t know who else I have in mind when I say that. I can’t possibly think of who I have in mind. Australians like their leaders to have a bit of self-deprecation. They want them to be dignified, they want them to be strong, but they want them to be able to relate to the man and woman on the street."

Howard then notes that there has only been one one-term government since Federation – "Even Gough Whitlam lasted two terms" – but says there is a chance that the Rudd Government can become the second (after the Scullin Labor Government which was punted after just two years during the Depression.)

"Australians want someone at the top who really believes in something," Howard says in closing.

By the time Abbott takes the stage, with a projected image of Robert Menzies as his backdrop, he looks almost embarrassed with the adulation, and possibly even unnerved by the optimism. Perhaps as a result he gives a pretty dry speech, with more of an internal message in his well-established capacity as a chief spear-carrier for the party’s conservative faction, where he disputes the revisionist assessment of Menzies as a small-l liberal who may have baulked at aspects of the party’s modern ideology.

Abbott says this interpretation of Menzies stems from his quote that "we take the name Liberal because we are determined to be a progressive party." Abbott suggests that Menzies had been verballed, noting that in the full version of the quote he concluded that he did not mean "small-l" liberal in the American sense of the word. Abbott then draws a parallel between Menzies at the 1949 election where he was campaigning to stop bank nationalisation and to end petrol rationing, and the position the post-Turnbull Liberals have adopted against Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme.

Sheepishly and with one eye on his mentor, he gets to the question of whether he can win. "Well, John," he says, "it would be a historic boilover for the Rudd Government to be only the second one-term government since Federation. "But it just might happen."

As the applause finally dies down, Abbott concludes by drawing on a Liberal Leader from the unheralded end of the party’s spectrum, Billy Snedden, who famously talked proudly of leading the Opposition to a magnificent loss. "Most of all I want to say to you that I am playing to win," he says. "Ladies and gentlemen there is no such thing as a magnificent loss and I don’t intend to preside over one."

After his speech Abbott tells The Punch that he is "having a great time" in the new job but that he doesn’t want to get ahead of himself and is taking it one day at a time. He asks about the traffic on his Punch piece on Friday about his Top End visit and is pleased to hear that it’s had a couple of hundred comments, even if much of it is abuse. He’s less pleased to hear that it got fewer comments than the shirts-off photo gallery comparing him to another political man of action, Vladimir Putin. "You should do a gallery comparing Rudd to Yeltsin," he says, adding that at least Yeltsin was often pissed so he had an excuse.

Due to the crush of party faithful chatting to Abbott before his speech, and the presence of Howard who has been virtually mobbed by young Liberals and old ladies, the night has gone an hour over schedule.

The vote of thanks falls to Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, a formal Turnbull loyalist who crashed and burned in last December’s leadership ballot only to watch Abbott skate through the middle by just one vote. The briefest speech of the night is also the best. Despite being a believer in climate change Hockey succinctly explains why a pro-ETS Opposition was never going to make any inroads against a pro-ETS Government. "We were effectively Kevin Rudd’s human shield," Hockey says. "Those days are over."

As the night ends with a fundraising auction for the Lindsay campaign – the framed signatures of John Howard and Robert Menzies fetch $3000 – it’s unclear whether Abbott’s obvious ability to energise the party’s base will also extend to swinging voters. Clearly it has started to turn around – the published polls show an average three-point reversal in Labor and Liberals vote over the past few months, with Abbott also gaining on Rudd as preferred PM.

The Libs could be looking at conservative re-run of 1998, where Kim Beazley clawed back so many traditional Labor voters that he won the popular vote but not enough seats. They could also be looking at victory. As Abbott said – and has Kevin Rudd himself has warned Caucus – it just might happen. The man who is most determined to keep a lid on things, and to make sure that the Libs don’t lapse into their time-honoured "natural party of government" cockiness, is the man who most wants to be our next PM.


NSW workers face pay cuts of up to $370 a week under Rudd government workplace reforms

The usual "one size fits all" Leftist approach at work

TENS of thousands of NSW workers face pay cuts of up to $370 a week under sweeping Rudd Government workplace reforms. In a major election-year challenge to Labor, truck drivers, funeral workers, bar staff, aged care nurses and clerks are furious at award changes. Union leaders claimed the Government had breached its promise that no worker would be worse off.

And the ACTU has warned "unscrupulous" bosses would exploit the new industrial framework to rip off workers and cut pay and conditions. Nearly 50,000 NSW truck drivers stand to lose up to $200 weekly because they will come under a new national award scheme from July 1. They now plan to take their protest direct to Canberra with a 1000-strong convoy organised for June.

While the Prime Minister and Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard promised no worker would be worse off under their industrial reforms, a Daily Telegraph investigation reveals this declaration to be another Rudd Government broken promise. As the ACTU yesterday launched a new assault against Opposition Leader Tony Abbott warning he would bring back WorkChoices and individual contracts Labor's reforms also carry serious consequences.

The loss of pay and conditions is a result of the Government's plan to condense the numbers of national and state awards - from more than 2000 to 130. As secretary of the Funeral and Allied Industries Union of NSW, Aiden Nye went to the barricades to oust John Howard and his dreaded WorkChoices. Now the 35-year industry veteran is fighting to ensure his members are not short-changed. "Mate, it's terrible. And we can only see it getting worse," Mr Nye says. "At least a couple of thousand" of funeral sector workers will be hit by award changes from July 1, including embalmers, who the union boss said would be stripped of up $370 a week.

Ms Gillard defended the Award Modernisation and said workers could apply to Fair Work Australia to ensure their pay was not cut.


Most States in revolt over Federal health plan

KEVIN Rudd faces growing distrust among premiers over his proposed health funding shake-up, reducing the chance of a negotiated agreement on a federal takeover of public hospitals. With Western Australia and Victoria already openly hostile to the Prime Minister's plan to seize 30 per cent of state GST revenues to bankroll the move, Queensland hardened its attitude yesterday by linking its co-operation to a major increase in funding for aged-care services.

Amid indications that NSW bureaucrats were livid over Mr Rudd's lack of consultation on the issue, Tony Abbott accused the Prime Minister of purposely alienating the states for political reasons. He pointed to Mr Rudd's refusal to reveal to premiers details of other health reforms such as boosting bed and doctor numbers but expecting them to embrace his plan.

Mr Rudd was unmoved last night, demanding state leaders back his plan in the public interest. "It's time to get on with it," the Prime Minister said.

Last week, Mr Rudd proposed to take 30 per cent of GST revenue from state governments to bankroll a commonwealth takeover of 60 per cent of the funding responsibility for their public hospitals. He promised to improve hospital efficiency by creating local boards to deliver the services and said if states disagreed he would take the issue to the people via a referendum at or before this year's federal election.

Mr Rudd also foreshadowed further health reforms to be released later to lift hospital bed numbers, expand primary care, increase the supply of doctors and nurses, and improve preventive health programs, aged care, mental health and dental health. [And mend broken hearts, no doubt]

In a messy interview on Melbourne's 3AW radio last week, Health Minister Nicola Roxon did not deny that the details of reforms such as setting maximum waiting times for hospital surgery had already been finalised. But Ms Roxon refused to make them public, saying she first wanted to deal with financial governance.

Mr Rudd backed that position in an interview with The Australian on Friday. Yesterday, Queensland Health Minister and Deputy Premier Paul Lucas said the Bligh government agreed with the principle of a commonwealth takeover of hospitals. But, he added: "It's not reasonable to expect us to sign up to the detail of things when we haven't actually seen them." Mr Lucas said his state was under extreme pressure on aged care and would link extra funding to Queensland's support for Mr Rudd's health proposal at the Council of Australian Governments meeting.

While Mr Rudd had delivered on promises to provide more temporary aged-care beds to take the frail elderly out of hospital wards, Queensland faced a critical shortage of long-term aged-care places. "I am extremely concerned that the aged-care sector has been surrendering bed licences, not taking up new licences," Mr Lucas said. "Root-and-branch reform of aged care, including paying providers more, is as crucial to healthcare reform as healthcare reform is of itself."

Victorian Premier John Brumby said Mr Rudd should simply return to the old 50-50 split on hospital funding with the states. "In Victoria's case, that would mean close to $1 billion a year extra for our state from the commonwealth," Mr Brumby said. "The reality is, I think as all the independent commentators have observed, the heavy lifting and the extra effort in health in the last decade on health has been done by the states. "The Prime Minister is probably frustrated. I think he is frustrated that he has announced a major health reform and, to be honest, he hasn't got too many supporters out there."

NSW Premier Kristina Keneally, who wrote to Mr Rudd last week seeking more details on his plans, said she had genuine questions about funding arrangements and service delivery, and was awaiting answers. While Ms Keneally said she was positive about the opportunity for historic reform, senior NSW government figures told The Australian they were livid over Canberra's handling of the issue. "The first we knew something was imminent was during the week beginning 22 Feb, when a set of bilateral meetings of officials on health reform was cancelled without notice or reason," a source said.

West Australian Premier Colin Barnett, who last week ruled out handing over his state's GST, hardened his criticism, describing parts of the proposals as not having been thought through. "I think the federal government is trying to pull together the detail now, quite frankly," he said.

Mr Abbott, speaking in Adelaide, said Mr Rudd should be more honest with the states. "I think Mr Rudd knows this is going to be rejected," Mr Abbott said. "It's about the appearance of action rather than real action."

Mr Rudd said he had announced what areas were set for further reform. "In terms of hospitals, beds, doctors, nurses, aged care, dental health, mental health, let me just say this: we now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get hospital reform right. Doctors want reform of our hospitals to happen, nurses want it to happen, working families who can't find a place with elective surgery want it to happen."

Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett and South Australia's Mike Rann, both fighting re-election campaigns, endorsed Mr Rudd's proposals.


Is atheism promoting intolerance?

It wasn’t so long ago that most atheists kept their non-belief of a God or other deities largely to themselves. They lived in a world where most people believed - and continue to believe – there is a God or some other spiritual being that is at the controls of everything around us - even if some people can’t put their finger on who or what this Force is.

But now a new strand of atheist is emerging. Independent thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are prepared to speak out publicly and condemn established religious beliefs, accusing the "God followers" of having a dangerous influence on society.

Is this new atheism at risk of causing a new battlefront of conflict and division in society? Monash University Professor and Anglican priest Dr Gary Bouma seems to think so. He told the Studies of Religion in Focus conference in Sydney today that atheists or people without a specific faith are fuelling sectarian conflict and creating problems for interfaith tolerance in Australia.

According to ABC News, he aimed his criticism at groups that vilify or deny the right to build mosques and those who say that religious voices should be driven out of the public policy area or that religion shouldn’t be in schools, etc.

The battlelines between atheism and religion appear already to have been drawn in New Zealand at least. Last month, atheists who wanted to run an advertising campaign on buses across the Tasman proclaiming "There is probably no god, now stop worrying and enjoy your life" were blocked from doing so by one major company.

While Christianity remains the most dominant religious faith in Australia, there are also signs that this country is becoming a more diverse society. At the same time, the 2006 Census identified 18.7 per cent of Australians claiming they had "No Religion", a percentage that has been steadily increasing.

As many of the newly-arrived and long-established faiths seek to co-operate in creating a more tolerant nation, the strand of atheism that expresses hostility towards all religious belief and seeks to convert the world to one of non-belief threatens to destabilise that process.

Contrary to what some atheists believe, the world would not be a better place without religion.


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