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".


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

List of "banned" websites to be kept secret by Australia's own Geheime Staatspolizei

COMMUNICATIONS Minister Stephen Goering Conroy has agreed that greater oversight of which websites will be banned under the Government's mandatory internet filter is needed but has ruled out making the list public.

The Federal Government plans to introduce a filter aimed at blocking access to illegal material such as child pornography or content refused classification (RC) by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. But the blacklist put together by the communications watchdog has not been made public, raising concerns that governments can impose censorship without proper oversight.

Senator Conroy said conceded greater transparency was needed in terms of what was deemed RC material. "We have a discussion paper that we've issued calling for increased transparency measures," he said. The measures were needed to make sure governments could not slip things onto the list, he said.

However, Senator Conroy said making the list public would undermine what the internet filter policy was designed to achieve. "Out of all the issues in the filter (policy) this is the one that's caused me the most thought because a URL address is just that, it's an address," he told ABC Radio.

"When you publish a list of titles of books that are banned, or movies that are banned, you don't give access to the materials by producing that list. "The problem when you produce a list of URLs is you are actually giving the address of where to go and look."

Some of the world's largest providers of internet services, including Google and Yahoo, have criticised the Government's plans to introduce a filter, describing the move as heavy-handed.

Google said last week that while protecting the free exchange of ideas and information could not be without some limits, people should retain the right to freedom of expression.

The US administration has also raised concerns about the plan. A State Department official has reportedly said it was contrary to US foreign policy of encouraging open internet access and the spread of economic growth and global security.


Government-provided health insurance condemns man to death

ROBIN Stevens is dying of prostate cancer and he can no longer get the drug that was helping him. If he had breast cancer, he would still be eligible for Taxotere, a chemotherapy drug. His wife Angela says the powerful breast cancer lobby has ensured women have access to the "gold medal" treatment, but men don't have the same benefit.

His doctors have written to state and federal politicians, saying that without Taxotere, his cancer - which has spread to his bones - will "increase and overwhelm him".

His GP has written to federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon, asking her to review the case and allow further treatments. "Unfortunately, without this treatment of Taxotere, I fear that Robin's bony metastasis will increase and overwhelm him," he writes.

Mr Stevens' urologist says he has responded well to the drug and that it should be the main part of his therapy. Mrs Stevens says he received 10 shots of Taxotere, which is all men are allowed under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and then pushed to get three more. Another cycle would cost up to $30,000.

"We have . . . been advised that because the women's breast cancer lobby groups are very proactive and far more organised than men's lobby groups, they . . . have been successful in having unlimited access to the drug Taxotere," she wrote in a letter to politicians. "I would like for my husband to have every opportunity to have an extended quality of life."

Associate Professor Bogda Koczwara, head of medical oncology at Flinders Medical Centre, said the Government had to consider cost-effectiveness with every PBS listing. "There is often that sentiment . . . that some cancers have better advocacy," she said.

The Health Department said the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee used sound, evidence-based principles to decide which products should be subsidised, or restricted. The same requirements were used in all cases, to ensure consistency and fairness, a spokeswoman said.


Nursing cuts in South Australia endanger patients

COUNTRY hospitals are being ordered to slash frontline staff, raising fears patient safety will be put at risk, the state's peak medical body has claimed.

The Australian Medical Association told the Sunday Mail that the Health Department had written to regional nursing directors and instructed them to streamline nursing rosters under a major review of staffing levels.

The AMA claims the Country Health SA (CHSA) review, which affects 36 hospitals, is aimed at delivering savings of about $22 million from the country health budget.

The Sunday Mail has obtained the results of a health department review of staffing figures at the Port Lincoln Hospital that indicated it had about 130 "excess" nursing shifts per fortnight - or 13 full-time equivalent positions.

AMA western area representative and Port Lincoln GP Dr Sue Baillie said the review was accompanied by a letter to the hospital's nursing director stating the hospital was over-staffed and had to reduce staffing levels.

Dr Baillie said losing 130 shifts would be the equivalent to losing a quarter of the hospital's fortnightly roster and claimed doing so could force the closure of an entire ward.

"It will mean job cuts but the most critical thing is staffing-to-patient ratio is going to be dangerously low," she said, adding that other major country hospitals had been sent similar letters telling them to review their rosters.

"To achieve this target, they are talking about having three nurses on at night to cover accident and emergency and two wards . . . which is positively dangerous.

"We have had increased services and demand, and increased patient loads but staffing levels haven't changed in the 17 years I've been here, yet we are supposed to reduce them further."

Details of the review of nursing levels come as the Government and Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) are due to enter wage negotiations next month. As part of its claim, lodged on Thursday, ANF SA branch secretary Elizabeth Dabars said the union would be demanding an "increase not a decrease" in the workforce.

"It's up for negotiation but certainly we are not looking to reduce staffing levels," she said. "We don't necessarily object to the (review) process but we will be objecting if there is any impact on patient care.

"They are saying at this point there will be no change made, not at this point in any event, and no change without discussion; it's something we need to be diligent and vigilant with."

In an emailed statement, chief executive George Beltchev said CHSA was expanding hospital and community-based health services across the state, and was looking at the best way to manage demand and allocate funds.

"No recommendations have been made and the ANF will be formally consulted before any changes are made to staffing arrangements," he said. "To help with this, a working group has been set up with membership including senior nursing staff, the chief executive of CHSA and representatives of the ANF."

He said funding for country health services had grown 66 per cent since 2002, 663 extra nurses had been employed in country health, while the number of doctors had doubled.


Australia's refugee policy sunk by 100th boatload

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has reached an unwelcome milestone after the 100th boat carrying asylum seekers arrived under his watch. Yesterday's embarrassing century was immediately seized on by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who claimed Labor had lost control of Australia's borders. And with hundreds of boat people expected to arrive in coming months, the Government is bracing for a voter backlash when the election is held later this year.

Adding to the Government's concerns was yesterday's escape by three Chinese nationals from Sydney's Villawood Detention Centre. That takes to seven the number of escapes from the centre in the past month and eight for the year so far.

Anxious Government MPs admit voters are growing increasingly concerned about the breach of Australia's borders and many are demanding tougher action.

In the latest incident, two boats carrying a total of 85 asylum seekers were intercepted by naval vessels, one near Christmas Island yesterday and another near Ashmore Reef northwest of Western Australia on Sunday night. The refugees were last night on their way to Christmas Island.

With the election year less than three months old, a near record 32 boats have already arrived in Australian waters. They have carried 1574 asylum seekers - most from Afghanistan which has seen increased hostilities following the resurgence of the al-Qaeda-aligned Taliban.

The Rudd Government claims the surge in boat people arrivals is due to global factors, however the Opposition blamed what it called Mr Rudd's softer border policies.

Fresh from completing his weekend triathlon, Mr Abbott hit out at the Government for softening its immigration policies. "The Government plainly is at sixes and sevens over this," Mr Abbott said. "Today the 100th boat has arrived at Christmas Island since the Rudd Government abandoned the Howard government's border policies.

"We've had 89 asylum seekers transferred from Christmas Island to Villawood, allegedly for security reasons, and yet some are escaping. This really is a Government that has lost control of Australia's borders."

The Opposition reported that the hot button issue was causing major concerns in marginal seats, particularly in regional areas. It will run a tough election campaign arguing that Mr Rudd's decision to scrap the Coalition's tougher border-control measures had been a key factor in the increased arrivals.

Some Labor MPs are reporting an increase in community concern over the refugee issue. "It's not going to lose us an election but it is causing us grief," one senior Labor MP said.

But the Government is unlikely to revert to Mr Howard's tougher border protection measures, which included temporary protection visas and offshore processing under the so-called Pacific Solution.

The Government is now being forced to send planeloads of asylum seekers on to the mainland as it tries to prevent the Christmas Island detention centre from being clogged with new arrivals.

Apart from the 89 moved from Christmas Island to Villawood on Saturday, another 51 detainees were transferred to various mainland locations last week. The Immigration Department has a facility at Darwin on standby to take the spillover from Christmas Island but the Government is trying to avoid using this. Another transfer from Christmas Island is expected to be made today, with many of them granted visas.

Senator Evans has said the 89 already transferred to Villawood were on a "removal pathway" after having their claims for asylum rejected.


Monday, March 29, 2010

Even the Obama administration doesn't like Rudd's internet "filtering"

THE US has weighed into the row over the Rudd Government's plan to censor the internet, saying it has raised concerns about it with Australian officials.

The Obama administration wants to encourage an open internet to enhance global economic growth and security and is mounting a diplomatic assault on threats to the open web around the world.

The US State Department, America's foreign office, has publicly aired concern about the internet filtering plan championed by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.

Responding to questions about the filter from commentary website The Punch, US State Department spokesperson Noel Clay said: "The US and Australia are close partners on issues related to cyber matters generally, including national security and economic issues. "We do not discuss the details of specific diplomatic exchanges, but can say that in the context of that ongoing relationship, we have raised our concerns on this matter with Australian officials."

The Rudd Government has faced increasing criticism over internet filtering in recent weeks after it released submissions by companies including Google, Yahoo and Microsoft on how to improve its policy.

Many of the submissions were highly critical of the filtering plan. Concerns included that the scope of content to be censored was too broad, that the filter would be ineffective or slow internet speeds, and that the list of banned material could be leaked to the public.

Under the plan, Australian internet service providers like Telstra, Optus and iiNet would be forced to block access to a secret list of webpages containing refused classification material.


Patients' lives ebb in 'ramped' ambulances

PATIENTS with potentially life-threatening conditions are waiting more than 30 minutes in ambulances before being admitted to emergency departments, new figures show. At Logan Hospital on March 12, the average waiting time for Code 1 patients – those considered serious enough for paramedics to use lights and sirens to get them to hospital – was 50 minutes.

Documents obtained by the Queensland Opposition reveal the Nambour and Royal Brisbane and Women's hospitals have also recorded greater than 30-minute waits for Code 1 patients on separate days in the past five weeks.

The figures, obtained from the Queensland Ambulance Case Information Reporting database, show that for the whole of February the average wait in an ambulance before admission to the Logan Hospital for Code 1 cases was 41 minutes.

Ambulance union organiser Kroy Day said the Queensland Government should be ashamed. "The Government is consistently under-resourcing emergency departments for their demand," said Mr Day, of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union.

"There's four patients that we're aware of . . . that have died on stretchers waiting to get into a hospital over the past three years. "Whether they would have died anyway, we don't know. But for people to be waiting on an ambulance stretcher when they're already at hospital for an extended period is just unacceptable. It's appalling."

Mr Day said that when paramedics had to wait for lengthy periods outside EDs, they were unable to attend other seriously ill patients, compounding the problem.

Opposition health spokesman Mark McArdle said the leaked figures were damning, given Code 1 emergencies encompassed the highest-priority patients such as those experiencing chest pain, severe blood loss and people involved in serious car accidents. "Ambulance ramping has been a problem in Queensland for years. Now we can see for the first time the horrendously long waits seriously ill patients with life-threatening conditions are enduring," he said.

Australian Medical Association Queensland president Mason Stevenson said anything less than prompt treatment for code 1 patients was unacceptable. "Paramedics do a wonderful job. They are highly trained, especially to deal with life-threatening emergencies," he said. "But they don't have all the services, medications and specialist care that is available in our major public hospitals."

Queensland Health's acting Director-General Michael Walsh said the department was investing $145.2 million in ED upgrades in nine of the state's busiest emergency departments, including Logan. He said an expansion was already under way at Nambour.


Rudd on his own with "clean" coal

AUSTRALIAN taxpayers are the only financial backers for Kevin Rudd's $100 million-a-year global clean coal initiative, as world leaders have failed to match their resounding endorsement of the idea at the G8 meeting last July with a single dollar.

Praised by US President Barack Obama as a "significant" announcement, the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, which is charged with speeding the development and take-up of clean coal technology, has attracted more than 200 of the world's biggest economies and companies as members. But to date their only financial commitment is to guarantee $10 in the event the institute goes broke.

Last night, the Prime Minister's office played down the lack of financial support from other governments, saying the institute's board was responsible for capital raising but to date had been primarily focused on securing membership and conducting a global audit of the state of carbon capture and storage projects and research of the technology.

The opposition said it showed other countries believed CCS was costly and that a plant would not be commercially operating for at least 20 years.

Mr Rudd's spokeswoman said it was anticipated CCS technology would be discussed during the US President's mid-year visit to Australia. "The Australian government is pleased that the GCCSI is co-ordinating and helping fund international work to deploy and commercialise CCS," she said. "Investing in clean energy and energy efficiency remain key planks of the government's climate change policy, including our $4.5 billion Clean Energy Initiative."

Dale Seymour, the institute's senior vice-president of strategy, told The Australian: "The fact we've got 30-odd national governments and some sub-national governments as members is a great first-up indication that they support (the institute). "It's not about the money in the first instance. Someone had to come out and provide the leadership and the direction in the first instance and the Australian Prime Minister has done that."

Mr Seymour said one of the institute's medium-term agendas was "to create a value proposition sufficient that others will see value in investing in us".

"Their obligation to be a member was that they would promote and facilitate and actively engage in the acceleration of CCS projects and they've all agreed to do that," he said.

The institute expects this year to hand out $50m in funding in direct support for global carbon capture and storage projects around the world.

Mr Seymour said the institute had received about $500m in applications for the funding, which would be used to burst through barriers to their implementation. It is also commissioning detailed work on how to overcome financial, commercial, policy, regulatory and legal issues to enable projects to proceed.

Opposition energy spokesman Ian Macfarlane said the failure of world governments to make a financial contribution to the institute reflected the fact that "everyone from Rudd down knows there is not going to be one of these commercial plants commence for at least 20 years".

At the G8 meeting in L'Aquila last year, governments had been looking for an announcement that sounded great, but "everyone has done their sums" and the technology was too expensive, he said.

Mr Macfarlane said Mr Obama's announcement of $US8bn ($8.9bn) in government guarantees for nuclear power plants in the US, announced last month, showed the President's thinking. If the Australian government were serious it would look at nuclear power for base load electricity generation, he added.

Mr Macfarlane said Mr Rudd should have learned the lesson from the Howard government's involvement in the AP6 (the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate) where the Americans and other major countries had enthusiastically backed the plan but had not contributed substantial funds.

Mr Seymour said that, although the timing was "tight", he was confident the G8's goal of launching 20 carbon capture and storage demonstration plants by the end of this year could be met.

There were a significant number of large-scale proposals around the world being assessed in Europe, the US and Canada in addition to the $2.5bn CCS flagships initiative in Australia.

Mr Obama has announced a taskforce aimed at getting up to 10 plants up and running by 2016 and EU nations have $6.3bn set aside in order to develop CCS and renewable energy projects.


Don’t criticize call centres (?)

The writer below has obviously never called Telstra. The only time I ever get anywhere with them is when I start to shout -- and shout repetitively at that

Everyone loves to hate call centres, but it’s time to give them a break because they generally provide a convenient and effective service. If you’re foaming at the mouth right now thinking that the ten minutes you’ve just spent on hold being told “your call is important” was neither convenient nor effective, consider the alternative.

In many cases it’s a drive down to your local shops, a few minutes spent hunting for a parking spot and then a few more walking past shops before you get to the retail outlet where you want to conduct a transaction.

Once there, you’ll wait for a few minutes in a queue, then probably get sucked into a calorific impulse buy during the return journey.

Even if you get in and out as fast as possible you’re looking at 20 minutes to get something done at a local bank branch or Medicare office, plus the cost of petrol, parking and that snack you didn’t need.

Is that really so bad compared to a few minutes on hold?

But, I hear you saying, you are sometimes forced to drive to a retail shopfront because so many call centres these days use offshore worker and it is jolly hard to understand what they say.

Plenty of Australian companies recognise that the offshore call centre experience is not always great and they’re fighting back in two ways, one of which is bringing their call centres back to Australia because they recognise that while going offshore is cheap, they’ll make more money in the long term by providing good customer service.

Another is by working with offshore call centres to improve their workers’ accents, or moving work to countries where staff speak English that’s easier on the Australian ear.

Across the industry, meanwhile, the prevailing wisdom now suggests that if you want to save money, simple “offshoring” is great, but the way to customers’ hearts is great customer service.

This admission is typical of the call centre industry, which generally works very hard to provide good service.

I run a podcast for call centre managers and whenever I attend the conferences and seminars where they congregate, I’m amazed at how genuinely they care about doing a really good job and the big investments companies make to improve service. For example, I know of call centres that spend the winter making plans to cope with events like a deluge of calls after summer electrical storms.

Those plans use amazing technologies that can find anyone inside an organisation that has ever worked on the call centre and turn their desks in to an extra call centre extension during busy times.

I’ve also spoken to call centres that have devised new ways to improve the accuracy of predictions about when repair people will show up to repair problems that can’t be fixed over the phone. That creates better service on the phone and in the real world.

Another reason to appreciate call centres is that the industry is huge. I’m told by Dr. Catriona Wallace at analyst house that more than 300,000 people work in the industry in Australia, and that growth outpaces the rest of the economy.

Plenty of those jobs are part time or work-from-home, so call centres offer a lot of flexible work for Australians.

Australia is also very good at providing call centre services, so much so that last year an Indian company acquired a local call centre company because it wanted its smarts. The Indian company now plans to more than double the workforce here in Australia – and some Aussies will probably end up taking calls from overseas as offshored call centre agents.

That’s a man-bites-dog story if ever there was one, but the mainstream media ignored it because call centres generally only get a run when the news is bad.

Not every call centre is excellent and not every interaction with the good ones ends well. But don’t let the bad apples and the occasional thorny problem make you think that the people running call centres don’t care.

It’s just not easy to take a few tens of thousands of calls a day and get everything right, every time. Most try as hard as they can to provide a service that’s more convenient – and cheaper - than the alternatives, and we should all appreciate that by being kinder to our call centres.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Radical Islamic elder preaching hate in an Australian suburb

There can be little doubt that this is incitement to violence (which conventionally falls outside free speech protections) but officialdom seem to be sitting on their hands. If you laugh at the Koran, however, they will be down on you like a ton of bricks. And critics of Islam are "far-Right white supremacists" who must be silenced as engaging in breaches of "Racial and Religious Tolerance". The guy below certainly seems to be in breach of religious tolerance

A RADICAL Islamic elder who praises the Taliban and preaches violent jihad to a band of keen followers is being investigated in Perth by WA and Federal police. Sources confirmed the joint-agency investigation after The Sunday Times revealed to police that the newspaper had infiltrated a group in which the sheik described armed jihad as the "top" ideal for Muslims and likened the Taliban to "angels".

Muslim community members said they warned police weeks ago that the Middle Eastern man was recruiting disaffected young Muslim men at a Perth mosque and spreading dangerous messages - about armed jihad, or holy war, against those fighting Islam; and that he claimed to know, and have trained with, Osama bin Laden. They stressed that mainstream WA Muslims did not share the views and were concerned police had not acted on their tip-offs. They alerted The Sunday Times as a last resort "before something really bad happens . . . before this poison spreads".

In an undercover investigation, The Sunday Times obtained information from meetings at the sheik's northern suburbs home where, before a group of young men, he promoted armed jihad as the highest ideal for Muslims, praised the Taliban and said he had fought in Afghanistan against Soviet forces.

In other meetings, he praised bin Laden - and even Hitler, justified the actions of suicide bombers, claimed that US presidents were priests and said that Allah would "get" the US and Jews for their actions.

The man, an Australian citizen whom The Sunday Times has not named under police advice, also said that though Islam forbade killing, people who had tried to stop those bringing the religion to others in the past were killed so that people could receive the word of God.

Muslim community members said they feared police were waiting for the man and his followers to do something "terrible", so they could make a dramatic arrest and then point to "home-grown terrorists" as justification for repressive police measures and surveillance of all Muslims.

But sources confirmed an investigation was under way because of earlier information received. It involved both the WA Police State Security Investigation Group and the Australian Federal Police.

Last Saturday, in front of five men and youths, the man said that jihad, at its "top" end, was to fight those who fought against Islam, and that going into battle and "putting your life on the line" for Islam was the highest ideal. "I'm not afraid to say that if angels walk this earth, they are the Taliban," he said.

In the same meeting he told one youth that he had fought in Afghanistan during the Soviet conflict.

On another occasion he said that people could say Osama bin Laden "is no good . . . but he helped a lot of people when they are needing help, he built hospitals, he built schools, he give food when people was hungry".

He said Allah would punish Jews for their wrongdoings and of Hitler he said: "He enjoyed art, and he enjoyed music, that means he had some softnesses (sic) in him. He looked after his people".

The man also said that suicide bombers were the result of bombing by the US and its allies. "In Iraq, (a man) come home, he find his wife leg there, head there, his children (in) three pieces and his father (in) five pieces and the home is gone," he said. "What do you expect from this person? "I make myself pieces to at least kill (those) who killed my father, who killed my wife."

When The Sunday Times contacted the elder yesterday, he denied encouraging jihad anywhere, or any wrongdoing, and said he was a loyal Australian, but that the Koran said "jihad is top of the worshipping because this is (a believer) risking his life".

Asked about his views that Allah would punish the US and Jews, he said: "Allah (is) not punishing anyone doing the right thing."

He said he had met bin Laden when working for a relief agency in Afghanistan in 1980-81 and had "asked him for some donation for some people" as part of that relief work. He denied claiming he had trained and fought alongside him.

Yesterday he agreed he had said the Taliban were like angels. "Compared to what we are seeing from the other side when the killing coming (sic) or the bombarding happening, I said we can consider Taliban like angels for that, because they are not attempting to hurt the people, but the war is happening there," he said.

WA Police would not reveal any details of its investigation, but a spokesman said officers worked collaboratively with Federal Police and the Australian intelligence community on such issues. A Federal Police spokeswoman said the AFP did not "comment on who it may or may not be investigating".


Australian intelligence agency sinking under "asylum-seeker" workload

AUTHORITIES were last night preparing for another mass transfer of asylum-seekers from Christmas Island, as Australia's intelligence watchdog warned ASIO was struggling to cope with the deluge of security assessments on boatpeople.

The warning from the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Ian Carnell, came as the authorities on Christmas Island readied for the arrival this morning of a Qantas Boeing 737, the third and largest charter flight to arrive on the island in four days.

Yesterday, Coalition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison declared the transfer, the latest in a growing number of flights, marked the "end of universal offshore processing". "This is a significant departure of policy," Mr Morrison told The Weekend Australian. "They are implementing their plan to abolish universal offshore processing and that is a consequence of their failed policies on border protection," he said.

The arrival of today's jet, which seats about 190, comes after Customs delivered a further 68 people from two boats to the jetty yesterday. The charter is the latest in an increasing number of flights from Christmas Island, which is desperately overcrowded because of the surge in boat arrivals.

Today's charter follows a jet that took detainees to Perth on Wednesday, and another yesterday that delivered eight Indonesian crew and 51 asylum-seekers without visas into various forms of mainland detention in Brisbane and Melbourne.

It came as Mr Carnell told The Weekend Australian the number of complaints against ASIO has more than quadrupled, after a blowout in processing times for asylum-seeker security checks. And he warned ASIO had been forced to transfer skilled staff from other visa security screening categories to cope with the surge.

The Immigration Department said those transferred on Thursday were considered "vulnerable", meaning they were unaccompanied minors, family groups or crew. Those aboard today's flight will join more than 250 asylum-boat passengers and crew already on the Australian mainland.

The growing number of boatpeople detained on the mainland without visas has prompted the opposition to accuse the Rudd government of using the transfer to relieve the overcrowding on Christmas Island, a claim rejected by the government.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans has denied there is anything unusual about the transfers, noting that the Howard government also flew people at risk to the Australian mainland.

The stoush came as Mr Carnell said there had been a "major" increase in complaints against ASIO over the time it was taking to perform security checks.

Speaking to The Weekend Australian, Mr Carnell said this financial year alone his office had received 670 complaints. That compared with just 157 for all of 2008-09. "There's obviously a surge of work there," Mr Carnell said. "ASIO generally treat detention cases as priorities. To the extent they can, the Christmas Island cases have priority." One consequence of that priority was that ASIO had had to divert resources from other visa categories, such as onshore migrants, Mr Carnell said.

Writing in a parliamentary submission, the intelligence watchdog said: "It also seems that there has been an impact from the diversion within ASIO of resources to deal with increased numbers of irregular arrival cases. The large majority of irregular cases must, under the current criteria, be assessed from a security point of view."

But Mr Carnell defended the agency, saying the number of complaints was "not high" when set against the large number of assessments it was not required to perform.

And, in a parliamentary submission on the subject, he suggested asylum-seekers from one unnamed country might be making vexatious complaints against ASIO on the instructions of migration agents.

"It is notable that a large proportion of the recent complaints come from visa applicants in one particular country, and one possibility is that some migration agents are routinely advising clients to make a complaint after a visa application is made."

Mr Carnell said the surge in asylum checks presented a "conundrum" for ASIO. "The resources really sit in-house," he told The Weekend Australian. "For the complex cases you can't just recruit people off the street."

Yesterday, ASIO said the reason for the surge in complaints lay outside its control. But a spokeswoman for the agency refused to say if the demands posed by the surge in boat arrivals had forced ASIO to pull staff from other duties.

"We are unable to make comment on matters relating to operational requirements of the organisation," the spokeswoman told The Weekend Australian.

All told, there were 1966 people on the island yesterday, leaving just 74 spare beds. But another 130 people from three intercepted boats this week were on their way.

On board yesterday's charter flight were two families without visas - the department has increasingly used its discretion to transfer selected young people and families who are deemed to be vulnerable and close to receiving visas to the mainland.

Two babies and a young boy clutching a teddy bear were among the asylum-seekers who arrived at Christmas Island yesterday on board Customs vessel Triton. They were from boats intercepted near Ashmore Reef and Adele Island off the Kimberley coast and had undergone initial health checks aboard Triton. [Healthy parasites are welcome, apparently]


Negligent government railway bureaucracy ignores basic safety procedures

The line concerned winds its way up a mountain range so has always had safety problems but you would never know that from the actions of Queensland Rail. Bureaucrats don't give a stuff about anything. Their jobs will never be at risk

Seats in the Kuranda tourist train's VIP carriages became flying missiles during Friday's terrifying landslide crash because they were not properly secured to the floor, rail union officials say.

In a series of potentially deadly safety breaches, up to 80 lounge seats in the train's two Gold Class carriages were not anchored and could be moved around by passengers, who paid an extra $45 to ride in the luxury section.

Other unsecured items such as water coolers and public address systems were also sent flying when the train carrying more than 220 passengers derailed about 16km into the journey from Cairns to Kuranda when it ploughed into a landslide shortly after 10am on Friday.

Five people, including a two-year-old boy and a 62-year-old woman, were taken to Cairns Base Hospital and treated for minor injuries.

The Sunday Mail can also reveal that a routine test run by a 4WD scout vehicle was not carried out before the train left Cairns, despite assertions by the rail union that the 9.30am train should never have left the station because of the inclement weather.

A test run is supposed to be completed before every service [because of the known dangers -- dangers which materialized in this instance] and one was done before the first train of the day left for Kuranda at 8.30am.

Rail, Tram and Bus Union spokesman Les Moffitt said its members had been instructed not to work in the Gold Class carriages until the safety issues are rectified.

"The seats in the Gold Class section are just like you would have in your loungeroom, you can pick them up and move them around and it's just unbelievable the train was allowed to operate with seats that weren't anchored," Mr Moffitt said.

"Queensland Rail's engineers surely should've known you just don't put loose items like that on any train, let alone a popular tourist train with hundreds of passengers that can get up to 60km per hour." he said.

"Trains have been cancelled for less intense weather before and it's unbelievable that a test run was only carried out before the first train left."

A Queensland Rail spokesperson said the issue of unsecured seating would be included in the crash investigation and confirmed a test run was not carried out ahead of the 9:30am service.

QR said it was too early to say when the line would reopen. Salvage crews planned to return to the crash site on Sunday in a bid to get the locomotive back to Cairns for repairs.


Rudd’s "Yes Minister" hospital plan

The most telling part of the Health debate this week was when a journalist questioned Kevin Rudd about the fact that what was desperately needed (and not in his shiny new plan) was more hospital beds.

Rudd responded in classic bureaucrat-speak, asserting that “the funding that we’ve provided already, the 50% increase in the grants to the hospitals of the States, is the equivalent of 5,750 hospital beds”.

That might be so Mr Rudd, but where’s the evidence that even one actual real bed has been created? Patients can’t sleep on an “equivalent bed” that exists only in the accounting world – they actually need the real thing.

This is a classic example of how bureaucratic aims and actual outcomes are often wildly divergent.

It’s reminiscent of the classic Yes Minister episode where the Minister visits the most efficient hospital in Britain, only to find it has no actual patients. “Yes, but that’s what makes it so efficient Minister” asserts the process-driven public servant.

No one questions the Rudd Government’s ability to create a new policy, and for that policy to be articulated with effective political spin so as to give the impression of a “monumental change”.

No one questions the Rudd Government’s ability to spend taxpayer funds on grandiose ideas. But what should be questioned is their ability to actually deliver real, tangible outcomes that represent value for taxpayer funds. And no where is that more vital than in our public hospital system.

Rudd’s hospital plan, as far as I can tell, creates a new large bureaucracy and changes the funding mix from 40% Federal, 60% State to a 60% Federal, 40% State mix. It’s hard to see how this will improve accountability, let alone “end the blame game”.

And while there is not an extra dollar in health funding until 2014 in Rudd’s plan, when the responsibility of increased funding does fall to the Commonwealth, the question must be asked – will we get value for money? Will we see the desperately needed extra hospital beds, doctors and nurses, or will it be more about political outcomes?

The Australian people have a right to be sceptical about Labor’s ability to deliver. Who would have thought that a seemingly simple Government program to give away free home insulation could be so mismanaged as to result in 4 deaths, scores of houses catching fire, thousands of homes under safety threat and endless stories of rorting and rip-off?

Speaking of which, the $16 billion funding for school halls is a debacle of growing proportions. Some estimates predict that the Government will receive only about $7 billion worth of building works for their $16 billion. Not surprising considering they paid more than 10 times commercial rates for some buildings.

So that’s $9 billion of taxpayers’ money utterly wasted. Gone. Ostensibly it’ll be in the ledger as an investment in “Education” – but there is absolutely nothing to show for it. I wonder how many real hospital beds (as opposed to Mr Rudd’s “equivalent” ones) could have been purchased with that wasted $9 billion.

If Labor can’t run a program to give away free pink batts, and they can’t run a cost-effective program to build school buildings, then why should you trust Labor to deliver a practical over-haul of the public hospital system?

It’s a fair question - one that should be legitimately asked without being met with faux indignation and accusations of “negativity”.

Mr Rudd’s own bureaucrat-speak about “equivalent” hospital beds confirms that he is more interested in what figures can be presented by the bean-counters, rather than the number of patients actually being treated and the quality of the care they receive.

But that’s no surprise – the Rudd Government has been a triumph of spin over substance. Why should this new “latest, greatest, monumental” policy be any different?


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Anti-Islam rally under threat in Victoria

No free speech allowed? Let me see if anything happens when I am critical of Islam: "I think Islam is the Devil's mockery of Christianity". I would be at great risk from the authorities if I said that in Victoria

POLICE are monitoring a group linked to far-Right white supremacists who are planning an anti-Islam march on state Parliament. The march, scheduled for next month, threatens to further damage Melbourne's reputation, already battered by attacks on Indian students.

A group linked to far-Right white supremacists has set up a Facebook page promoting a mass rally against immigrants and Islam. There are fears it might descend into a Cronulla-style riot. "Listen Aussies, it's time to harden up, close the gate, look after our own and keep our country as our country," the Facebook page says.

Premier John Brumby slammed the rally, and said the matter had been referred to police. "Racism is unacceptable in Victoria and will not be tolerated," he said. "It is highly distressing when people seek to abuse their right to freedom of speech."

The president of the Islamic Friendship Association, Keysar Trad, condemned the rally. "It's their democratic right to rally against anything they like, but it gives a very bad image of Australia to our neighbours, and doesn't do much for internal cohesion," he said. "The organisers should realise the majority of Australians do not share their view and can see the benefits and contributions Muslims have made to Australia.

"My message to the community is that Australians will not buy into this type of action. "We've moved on from Cronulla, and they need to realise that."

The Facebook group has gathered about 40 members and has received support from interstate.

Some posting messages have criticised the event. "Cronulla comes to Melbourne. Another sad day for Australian history," one message says.

Police are concerned about the event and have warned organisers not to break the law. "A police response will be decided on once all of the information and intelligence is assessed," a spokeswoman said. "Police will be in touch with the organisers of the event in the near future. "Victoria Police will not tolerate any breach of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act."

A man listed on the Facebook page as being behind the rally said he had no connection to it. However, his own Facebook page links to several white supremacist groups.


Parents revolt over bureaucratic waste

But the light of publicity brings a rapid backdown

ALMOST half the population of a tiny NSW town blockaded its school's gates yesterday to prevent builders and managing contractor Bovis Lend Lease from entering the site to perform works under the Rudd government's Building the Education Revolution program.

The small primary school in the NSW Hunter Valley town of Cassilis had been slated to receive a toilet block and a covered outdoor learning area for a combined cost of $250,000 under the schools building program.

After learning that construction costs had blown out so much that the COLA had to be scrapped, the toilet block downsized and that the drinking fountains were not going to be replaced, parents decided to take matters into their own hands. About 40 of the town's residents created the blockage yesterday.

"Enough is enough," Cassilis P&C association spokesman Phillip Morton said. "We want to stop the project. And the reason we want to stop it is we believe if we do that now, we can incorporate the facilities we need into the building. But if we wait till it's complete, it's only going to be harder to extend, and it will cost taxpayers more."

Under the original plans, provided to the school in May 2009, Cassilis was allocated $140,000 for the construction of the COLA.

A further $110,000 was budgeted for a seven-core toilet block, which included a girls' bathroom of six cubicles, a boys' bathroom of three cubicles and a triple urinal, as well as a separate staff toilet and a disabled access toilet.

So in the first week of this school year, when Cassilis was suffering through a heatwave, builders demolished the shed and removed the bubblers.

But just a couple of weeks later headmaster Ross Craven was advised by the NSW Department of Education and Training that due to a blowout in costs the toilet block was being downgraded to a one-core facility, with no staff toilet, no disabled toilet, a single urinal and only three cubicles. With no drinking fountains.

Then about a fortnight later came the news that there would be no COLA either, as that smaller toilet block was projected to cost $279,000. To add insult to injury, the school was then informed it must pay to replace the drinking fountains.

"It's just craziness. It was the middle of summer," Mr Morton said. "The only other option if kids want a drink is to use handbasins next to the old toilets, which is obviously unhygienic. And they're the sort they did away with in most schools because the taps are low and kids knocked their front teeth out trying to get their mouths underneath."

Just how costs could overrun to such an extent also remains a concern. The school asked for a budget breakdown, but none has been provided.

What it does know, however, is that the 8m x 7.3m COLA (which never eventuated) would have cost just $15,300 to construct and supply if the school had self-managed the project. A quote was obtained from a local supplier but the principal was advised by the NSW DET to use Bovis Lend Lease.

Mr Morton also notes that the assessment of the school's needs was conducted in February last year, when the school's population was the lowest in more than 100 years at 16 students.

However, the school's population is now 23, an increase of nearly 50 per cent in a year. And with two new mines opening up within 20 minutes' drive, which are estimated to provide up to 800 jobs, the demand for schools is expected to increase further still. "If they'd consulted with us properly we'd never have been in this position," Mr Morton said.

The decision to blockade the school gates was approved, after consultation with police, at a meeting on Thursday night. The protesters arrived at 6am, and stayed until 9am.

After The Weekend Australian put questions about the case to the relevant state and federal departments yesterday, authorities last night reversed their position and agreed to pay for new drinking fountains. The school can also keep its old toilet block as well as receiving a new one.


Getting black kids to go to school is the first challenge

But it is one that is not nearly being met

SOMETIMES I just cannot understand how governments think when it comes to setting indigenous policies. Two of the five goals that all Australian governments are now striving to close the gap on indigenous disadvantage concern education.

It is probably useful to distil a complex policy agenda down to a handful of key goals, because some of these dashboard indicators can capture whether or not progress is being made across a broad policy range and gaps are closing.

But I have problems with the policy reasoning underpinning the two educational goals.

First the goal of doubling the year 12 completion rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is strange. Of course secondary school completion rates are important, but in a strategic sense there other more fundamental prerequisite policy goals which, if solved, will automatically result in higher year 12 completion rates.

The strategically important goal is closing the gap on literacy and numeracy achievement by indigenous students. You solve this problem, you solve the year 12 completion rate problem.

There is a strategically important prerequisite to closing the gap on literacy and numeracy, and that is school readiness and attendance. You can't close the gap on literacy and numeracy unless you first close the gap on school readiness and attendance.

So if I were the policy-maker, I would establish school readiness and attendance as the target goal. And I would set a very brief timeframe for achieving it. School attendance is not rocket science: surely governments and indigenous communities can close this gap in short order.

The good thing about school readiness and attendance is that it is a tangible, actionable goal. What is needed to be done is clear. The benefits and flow-on effects of achieving school readiness and attendance are plain and palpable. Governments, educators and communities can't hide behind the elusiveness of a goal such as year 12 completions, which really describes the desirable outcome rather than a strategic goal.

You can hold people accountable for performance on school readiness and attendance in ways that you cannot hold people to account for an outcome such as year 12 completion rates.

Bureaucrats, politicians and communities are therefore let off the performance hook. They can say they're working on lifting year 12 completions while doing nothing decisive on school attendance and readiness.

Which brings me to my problem with a second education-related goal set by the Council of Australian Governments. They have established the goal of halving the gap in indigenous reading, writing and numeracy within a decade.

In many ways this is an obscene goal. It accepts a level of educational under-achievement that is unnecessary and avoidable. It condemns indigenous children to educational failure when better outcomes are achievable.

Given the social injustice that flows from educational under-achievement - low employment rates, higher rates of poverty, higher rates of social problems, higher imprisonment rates, poorer health and, ultimately, lower life expectancy - you would think that Australian governments committed to closing the gap on indigenous disadvantage would not adopt any policies that were needlessly low in their expectations. And yet, this is what they have done.


Being a boy is no walk in the park in Australia today

Teenagers have never been given much respect but never have they seemed quite so marginalised as they are today. Strangers are all too willing to think the worst of the next generation of taxpayers they will expect to support them in their old age. This is especially true for boys.

It's a harsh world for a teenager, more violent and forbidding than for their parents' generation, an anti-child culture with restrictions and rules for everything and adults who are too preoccupied to give them the attention they pretend not to need. The automatic assumption if something goes wrong is it's the teenager's fault.

Take 15-year-old John, who was set upon and bashed with four friends at a park in Gordon on the upper north shore this summer. The boys had been to see a movie in Hornsby and were due home by 8.30pm.

When they arrived at Gordon station at 7.30pm they still had half an hour until sunset. One of the boys had a ball so they trooped over to the park to play touch footy before going home. Bad luck for them, a group of thugs wanted their phones and wallets. They escaped, but one boy suffered a black eye and split lip.

When they arrived home, upset and dishevelled, John's mother, a nurse, patched them up and took them to the police to report the assault. She was surprised by the attitude.

“It was like they had done the wrong thing. The police said 'What were you doing in the park? You shouldn't have been there.' Apparently this park is renowned [for bashings]. So kids can't even go to a park and throw a ball round any more? It's all their fault. They're good boys but no wonder they have a bad attitude to police.”

Since when is a suburban park a no-go zone in daylight? If this is the experience of well-behaved boys from caring families, less emotionally advantaged teenagersfare far worse.

The obvious reaction is to rail against inactive police who allow crime hot spots to flourish, empowering thugs with their reluctance to confront them, while applying the full force of the law onto citizens guilty of nothing more than minor traffic misdemeanours or being young and male.

But we are seeing stabbings, bashings and escalating violence among ever-younger children, which indicates something more profound is wrong with the nurturing instinct in our increasingly disconnected communities.

You can see it in everyday vignettes which show emotional advantage doesn't necessarily correlate with socio-economic status.

There is the well-heeled mother at the hairdresser having hair extensions attached while her bored seven-year-old does his best to amuse himself with pen and paper for hours. Every time he wants to show her his drawing or whine about how long it's all taking, she snaps, determined to have her scalp massage in peace, or update her Facebook on the laptop she brought along. “This is Mummy's relaxation time,” she says, shooing him away. It's hard to imagine the child gets more attention at home.

In a technological age it is too easy for adults to become engrossed in selfish personal pursuits which eat into time that should be spent connecting with their children, and children are so easily occupied by their own digital entertainments they are less likely to complain about being ignored.

This is a form of modern neglect which the psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg calls “Tamagotchi parenting”, with no supervision, limits or boundaries. He describes children growing up in Australia today as the “most vulnerable generation in our history”, lacking the “social and ritual protective factors” of cohesive societies, from stable institutions to neighbours who look out for each other. Binge drinking, anxiety and violence are just symptoms.

James Pitts, CEO of the Odyssey House McGrath Foundation, sees what happens to the most vulnerable children, when low self-esteem, anxiety and a dearth of role models lead to serious drug addiction.

By the time young men get to Odyssey House's residential treatment centre in Campbelltown, their lives are out of control. They must have had nine previous drug treatment attempts to qualify for a highly structured, peer-dependent program which uses stable male role models and team sport to teach social skills.

For 60 per cent of the males, their biological fathers have been absent since they were seven or eight. But even in intact families, says Pitts, we have become, "narcissistic in our pursuit of happiness. Parents don't have the kind of time to devote to children; kids have to fend for themselves."

Equally important is that, outside of home, few people know who they are or care whether they are up to mischief.

At a time when children are trying to spread their wings and join society, they are greeted with hostility, resentment and indifference. “That protective resilience within your own community doesn't exist nowadays,” says Pitts. The concept that “it takes a village to raise a child” has been lost.

Meanwhile, strong male role models and authority figures such as police and teachers have been disempowered, fearful to exert discipline in case they are accused of assault or intimidation and dragged through punitive procedures.

Then there is the uber-violence of movies and games which influences boys just when they are learning how to be men.

The popularity of the recent Ultimate Fighting Championships at the Acer Arena, the world's fastest-growing “sport”, suggests increased appetite for barbaric spectacles.

“Young people these days are ... much more sophisticated, more in-your-face, more vocal, verbal and visual than past generations,” says Pitts. “They are a big challenge for parents and teachers."

Yes, they are a lippy, assertive generation, but they are a challenge worth rising to. After all, we reap what we sow.


Friday, March 26, 2010


In his latest offering, conservative Australian cartoonist ZEG is disgusted at the way the Rudd government panders to China

Australian Immigration Blamed For Huge Population Surge

Australia's growth rate is 2.1% p.a., compared to 0.7% for the UK and 0.9% for the US, making Australia one of the fastest growing countries in the world. Lucky old Australia! Thank the Leftist Rudd government for Australia's shortage of affordable housing, its packed commuter trains and its ever more congested roads!

Australian immigration is once again being blamed for a hefty rise in the population of Australia as figures rose above 22 million. The figures released today, show that the population topped 22 million in September of last year. The actual figure is 22,066,000. Many critics of the Australian migration program are blaming immigrants to Australia for the rise.

Overseas migration for the year ending 30 September 2009 was 297,400, more than half of the overall increase for that year. This keeps the growth rate at 2.1%, compared to 0.7% for the UK and 0.9% for the US, making Australia one of the fastest growing countries in the world.

Western Australia, currently experiencing a mining boom and are actively recruiting migrant workers to fill skilled shortages, recorded the largest percentage gain at 2.9% whereas Tasmania had the smallest gain at 1.0%.

Critics argue that such a fast growth spurt could have devastating consequences for the economy as it struggles to support such a population surge. Environmentalists too are concerned on the impact of Australia’s fragile ecosystem and have urged population growth to be listed in the federal environmental laws as a threat to biodiversity.

This is all in contrast to Kevin Rudd’s plans for a “big Australia” as outlined in October of last year when he announced plans to sustain such a huge population growth: “This Government is building for the future – we call it nation-building for the future. But let’s be optimistic about the fact this country’s growing, so many around the world are heading the other way.” “I actually believe in a big Australia I make no apologies for that. I actually think it’s good news that our population is growing.”

Back then Mr Rudd was criticised for not having any sustainable plans for water infrastructure, the protection of the environment and maintaining quality of life and prosperity.

Former Premier of New South Wales Bob Carr has urged the government to slash the Australia immigration program by half and Federal Labour MP Kelvin Thomson has said that the figures are “a recipe for environmental devastation.”

The Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship have already tightened the immigration program, putting a cap on general skilled visas, raising the criteria for English language skills and overhauling the skilled occupation list.


The Green Left want to fire the broadcasting boss who questions global warming

The usual Fascist intolerance of dissent and would-be thug tactics evident in the article from "GreenLeft" reproduced below

Journalists at the ABC have come under strong pressure from the organisation’s chairperson to give more weight to the views of climate change deniers.

In a speech to 250 programmers, journalists and executives at the ABC’s Sydney headquarters on March 10, chairperson Maurice Newman warned of “group-think” and “a collective censorious approach” in media reporting of climate change.

The issue, he said, was one where “contrary views have not been tolerated, and where those who express them have been labelled and mocked”, the March 12 Australian said. The previous day, the newspaper had said Newman “warned ABC staffers that he would not tolerate anyone suppressing information”.

Newman’s allegations were interpreted as an attack on the integrity and professional judgement of ABC news staff. Journalists at the Sydney meeting rose to their feet to express shock and anger.

A spokesperson for Friends of the ABC later described Newman’s criticisms as “extraordinary and inappropriate”, saying his comments looked to be “an attempt to influence ABC programming to be more favourable to global warming scepticism”.

The ABC, it is fair to say, has a one-person anti-environment pressure group in its top official. A former stockbroker and businessperson, Newman is a friend of former prime minister John Howard, who appointed him in 2007.

Newman claims to be “agnostic” on climate issues, but sources quoted in the Australian describe him as “a passionate climate-change denialist in private”.

His unsubtle message adds to crude pressures on the ABC to report climate questions in a vein that (in the view of mining executives, at least) befits the country that is the world’s number-one coal exporter.

The usual charge leveled against the ABC has been of flagrant green bias on climate issues. Writing in the March 16 Spectator, former Australian opinion editor Tom Switzer argued: “With honourable exceptions, such as Chris Uhlmann, [ABC journalists] actively campaign for an alarmist cause.”

Analysis of the ABC’s reporting, though, reveals a quite different pattern.

Early this year, the ABC followed the herd of the commercial media in failing to debunk the claims of British climate change denier Christopher Monckton during his Australian tour.

Climate writer Clive Hamilton, in a January 28 post, related the dismal story of Monckton’s interview with ABC journalist Fran Kelly: “He compared climate scientists…to the eugenicists of Nazi Germany and to the Soviet scientific fraud Trofim Lysenko….

“Fran Kelly allowed Monckton to present himself as a credible scientific voice, and … did not ask him what his qualifications were.

“She did not ask him why he lied about being a member of the House of Lords, or why he claims to be a Nobel laureate.

“She did not ask him about his preposterous claims to have won the Falklands war or to have invented a cure for Graves’ disease, multiple sclerosis, and HIV.”

On March 11, reported on a Media Monitors count of references to Monckton since the beginning of the year, comparing them with references to renowned US climatologist James Hansen, who at that point was close to the end of his own Australian tour.

Monckton, with training in classics, mathematics and journalism, had received 455 mentions across the media; Hansen, only 21.

For the ABC, the ratio was almost as lopsided. Monckton, the narcissistic crank and impostor, rated 161 references; Hansen, the doyen of US climate scientists, just nine.

If the ABC has any bias on climate change, it is not in the direction alleged. If its journalists are “alarmists”, they practice a rigorous self-censorship.

When Monckton out-references Hansen by 161 to nine in ABC coverage, it is plainly not climate deniers within the organisation who are having to watch where they tread.

The implication that a different “balance” is needed, meanwhile, begs the question: what is to be balanced against what?

Science is not about opinions, but findings that other researchers, through observation and experiment, can reproduce. If the “science” of the denialists can’t meet these criteria, it is not science but speculation and has no place in news reporting.

Where does demanding “balance” in the reporting of science lead? To requiring that evolution be balanced with creationism, modern medicine with leech therapy, and astronomy with the signs of the zodiac?

Newman’s speech and interview, meanwhile, provide insights into the thinking of senior business figures that rely for their “understanding” of climate change on diligent reading of the Murdoch press.

Again and again Newman’s “facts” are plain wrong, as when he maintains that “growing numbers of distinguished scientists [are] challenging the conventional wisdom with alternative theories and peer-reviewed research”.

The last serious effort to pose an alternative, “natural” cause for global warming, Henrik Svensmark’s theory of the effects of cosmic rays on cloud formation, was disproved years ago.

If Newman were merely an ignoramus on climate change, that would not matter, provided he worked to guarantee journalists the ability to gather information freely, and to relay it without pressures or harassment.

But that is not the situation. Instead of defending his staff, Newman is adding to their already substantial problems.

Journalists and the public in general should demand to be rid of him.


More Greenie deceit on Australia's major public broadcaster

Sydney’s Geoffrey Cousins, the former adman, tells the gullible 7.30 Report why Tasmanian cannot have Gunn’s planned pulp mill:
It isn’t world’s best technology at all. It doesn’t use totally chlorine-free technology - that’s world’s best practice. It is going to use native forests, not plantation timber, certainly in the first period. And it is going to put significant amounts of dioxins into Bass Strait. Now, if all of those things were cleared away, fine.

Let’s look at just one of those claims for starters - the one I’ve highlighted. Here’s the real amount of dioxin that Gunn’s says the mill will release:
The mill will therefore discharge a combined total of only 0.111 grams of dioxins and furans in liquid and gaseous emissions each year… The total yearly emissions of dioxins and furans to air and water from the mill will therefore be approximately equal to the volume of a single grain of rice…

The likely concentration of dioxins and furans in the pulp mill liquid effluent is estimated to be 3.4 pg dioxin equivalents per litre… The 3.4 pg per litre expected concentration in effluent is the equivalent to the concentration of salt after one salt grain has been put in a volume of water occupying 70 Olympic sized swimming pools…

As another example, the average concentration of dioxins and furans in human breast milk in Australia is approximately 340 pg TEQ of dioxins and furans per litre.

I think the adman tried to panic us about nothing.


Yet another official computer stuff-up

Vic Police halts criminal database overhaul. When will bureaucrats learn that the more "capable" (complex) they make their system, the more likely it is to fail? A simple legacy database program would probably do all they really need anyhow

A multi-million-dollar overhaul of the Victoria Police criminal database has been suspended over potential cost blow-outs and ongoing problems.

The state's Law Enforcement Assistance Program (LEAP) database has been getting a major overhaul since a 2005 ombudsman report called for scrapping the system amid repeated allegations it was being misused.

The system has been slowly replaced since late last year with LINK, a Canadian-based computer program used by about 90 police agencies worldwide, in the state's $59 million database replacement program.

But Victoria Police announced in a statement on Friday that "after much consideration" the project was being suspended for six months over technical problems and potential budget concerns.

"A detailed analysis has indicated that, based on the current approach and utilising existing resources, integrating the 20-plus systems that need to be joined with LINK will be a more technically challenging and costly process than was envisioned in the original business case," Victoria Police IT director Michael Vanderheide said in a statement.

"The project will therefore be suspended for around six months while independent experts work through these complexities to determine the most cost effective way forward." Mr Vanderheide stressed that LEAP "remains adequate" and police administration will work quickly to resolve the problems.

"We are committed to finding a solution that allows us to move forward without needing to invest significant funds," he said. The exact funding amounts already spent on the LINK project are not known.

The move comes after another state computer system was rolled out despite continued problems.

Victoria's myki public transport ticketing system was due to be rolled out by March 2007 but is currently used only on trains and is at least $350m over budget.


Note that my QANTAS/Jetstar and Queensland Police blogs are still getting frequent updates

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Australia's asylum spike bucks world trend: UN report

The number of refugees seeking asylum in Australia jumped by almost 30 per cent last year despite global numbers remaining steady, challenging Kevin Rudd's claim that instability abroad is behind the surge in refugee boats.

As Border Protection command yesterday intercepted two more asylum boats, the third in as many days, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released its annual report on global asylum trends.

Yesterday's boats, which were carrying a total of 79 people, will push Christmas Island well beyond its official capacity of 2040 unless detainees are moved en masse to the mainland or the centre is once again expanded to house the growing population of detainees.

The UNHCR's report showed virtually no change in the number of people seeking asylum in the industrialised world, with 377,200 asylum applications last year compared with 377,100 in 2008.

But in figures that have fuelled claims the Rudd government has encouraged people-smugglers by softening Australia's refugee policies, the UNHCR reported a 29 per cent increase in asylum claims in Australia last year.

In a further complication for the government, Indonesian officials yesterday expressed concern at the growing number of its citizens who are incarcerated in Australian jails for crewing asylum boats.

Speaking to The Australian, a spokesman for the Indonesian embassy in Canberra said most of those caught were poor fishermen with no knowledge of the fate that awaited them once in Australian custody.

"Most of the Indonesians detained in Australia in connection with the arrival of boatpeople are poor traditional fishermen, lured by the promise of money (sometimes as little as $US150) from the organised people-smugglers to carry a boatload of passengers who originally come from as far away as Afghanistan," the spokesman said. "These fishermen are the boat crew and not the masterminds of people-smuggling."

Yesterday's figures provoked a statistical jousting match, with the opposition claiming the UNHCR's report put the lie to the Rudd government's claim that so-called "push" factors were behind the rising tide of boats.

But the UNHCR's regional representative, Richard Towle, said they showed nothing of the sort. Citing a 45 per cent increase in the number of Afghan asylum-seekers - the main group arriving in Australia by boat - Mr Towle said violence in source countries was to blame. "If you look at Afghans globally, there are striking increases of Afghans, particularly in Europe," Mr Towle told The Australian. "I wouldn't say that what's happening in Australia bucks the trend at all. I would say it's entirely consistent."

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the UNHCR's report made it plain the Rudd government's softened policies were drawing asylum-seekers to Australia's shores. "Afghanistan is hardly a regional neighbour of Australia," Mr Morrison said. "People are coming here because they believe they're going to get the outcome that they want as a result of the policies the government is pursuing."

While the number of Afghans seeking asylum worldwide increased, the number of Sri Lankans climbed by a modest 4 per cent, undermining government claims that an exodus of Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka was one of the reasons for the surge. The Rudd government has repeatedly blamed the fallout from Sri Lanka's bloody civil war for the rise in boat numbers.

Despite the concern over unauthorised boat arrivals, the UNHCR numbers showed most asylum claims lodged in Australia were made by Chinese with 1186 claims made last year. Afghans comprised the next biggest category (940) followed by Sri Lankans (533) and Zimbabweans (344).

Broken down by region, Europe experienced a 1 per cent increase in asylum claims last year, while North America had a decline of 5 per cent.

Mr Towle cautioned against comparing Australia's numbers with regional blocs. "If you want to disaggregate it you could look at Australia versus Greece or Australia versus Finland and Norway and you'd get completely different answers," he said.

Mr Towle added that Australia accounted for less than 2 per cent of asylum-seekers seeking refuge in the industrialised world. The US received 49,000 asylum claims, more than any other industrialised country. The US was followed by France (42,000), Canada (33,300) Britain (29,800) and Germany (27,600). This compared with Australia which received 6170 protection applications in 2009.

While an increase on 2008, last year's figures remained well below the high-water mark of 2000 when 13,100 people sought protection in Australia.

Yesterday, Border Protection Command intercepted two boats in two hours off Ashmore Reef and Adele Island. The first boat was carrying 19 passengers and three crew and the second was carrying 55 passengers and two crew.

According to the Immigration Department, there are 2008 people on Christmas Island. But the figure does not include the 79 intercepted yesterday or the 22 picked up on Sunday.

It is likely some desperately needed space will be cleared today when a regular charter plane comes to the island to collect staff, asylum-seekers who have been granted visas and possibly asylum-seekers who are deemed to be on "a visa pathway" and close to receiving refugee status.


Australian shares beat developed world over past 110 years

Forget the carnage of 2008 and early 2009, Australia has been the best performing developed sharemarket over the past 110 years, according to funds manager Fidelity International. Gerard Doherty, managing director of Fidelity’s Australia business, says the Australian share market has posted a real return of 7.5 per cent a year since 1900, outperforming the US by 1.6 per cent and Britain by more than 2 per cent a year.

Next best after Australia was South Africa and then Sweden, with the US -- the world’s biggest economy and reserve currency -- bringing in the fourth best annual real return, The Australian reported.

But the annualised returns are in local currencies, meaning the US’s annual return of 5.88 per cent would look pretty good in Australian dollar terms when the Aussie falls against the US, as it did last year to a low of US62.5 cents in February.

Doherty claims $1 invested in the Australian market in 1900 would have been worth $2844 at the beginning of this year. The market levels were provided by the London Business School, which used the major indices of the day over the 110 years.


China sends a message and Rudd obeys

STERN Hu's confession in a Chinese court to allegations of bribery has exactly the same moral and forensic credibility as the confessions captured journalists make in Taliban custody. The confession itself tells you absolutely nothing about Hu's conduct. If I had been in a Chinese jail for nine months and had the prospect of earlier release with a confession or later release without one, I'd confess to anything. It's probably as near to a plea bargain as you'll get in the Chinese system.

But in modern Chinese communist culture, confessions have long had a big part. The classic work on Chinese prisons was by a French Chinese, Jean Pasqualini. His Prisoner of Mao details an astonishingly gruesome experience that included, among other things, 15 months of interrogation leading to a 700-page confession.

China has changed since Pasqualini's experiences of 35 years ago. But it hasn't changed altogether. The hardest heads in the Australian system understand what the Hu business is all about. Beijing has sent a message to Australia: tremble and obey.

The Hu case changes the context for all Australians doing business with China, whether commercial or political. Former treasurer Peter Costello captured this most clearly when he remarked soon after Hu's initial detention last June: "Since Stern Hu is now in detention, someone else will have to lead Rio's negotiations with the Chinese steel mills. My guess is they will not push the negotiations as strenuously as Hu." The manner of iron-ore price negotiations is changing substantially, but Costello's broad point is certainly correct.

Evidence that the Chinese intimidation has worked is sadly mounting up. As this newspaper revealed last Saturday, the government made a secret commitment to the Chinese that neither Kevin Rudd nor Julia Gillard would see the Dalai Lama on his visit to Australia last December. This was a change in policy, as Rudd had seen the Dalai Lama in opposition and said he would be happy to see him in government.

Similarly, I have learned that the government has pretty much decided that no Australian minister will visit Taiwan during the Rudd government's the first term. This is a big change of policy and a big act of appeasement of Beijing.

Australia follows a one-China policy that recognises a notional Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. At the same time, Australia opposes any threat or use of force by Beijing to change Taiwan's status, which is de facto independent.

Consistent with the one-China policy, Australia has for many years sent ministers to Taiwan to support Australian trade. In truth these visits also recognise the political achievements of Taiwan.

Taiwan represents every single political value Australia admires: democracy, a free press, a pluralist society, respect for human rights, equal rights for women and a productive and economically successful society that provides for the wellbeing of its own people.

A spokesperson for Foreign Minister Stephen Smith says the Rudd government has not made a formal undertaking to Beijing that no minister will visit Taiwan during the first term of the Rudd government. But no Rudd minister has visited Taiwan so far and the spokesperson confirms that there is no plan for a visit.

This will be the first time at least since the Hawke government that a whole parliamentary cycle has gone by without such a visit. If the opposition were not such a complete political and moral vacuum on these issues you might have expected it to have had something to say. It is a signal act of cowardice and appeasement on Australia's part. For a long time we sent a minister to Taiwan every year, but Alexander Downer was weaker on China issues than John Howard and the practice slipped a bit, but certainly we never went a whole term under Howard without a ministerial visit. This is just another way in which China policy is worse, more cowardly and less effective today than it should be.

The world has watched the Hu case. And one lesson is that if you rely on the moral courage of the Australian government or opposition, you are relying on nothing at all.

Could it be that the Vietnamese government, which is preventing two Jetstar executives from leaving Vietnam, drew lessons from the Hu matter ?

Rio Tinto has produced a wonderfully convenient investigation that clears the company of all wrongdoing but leaves Hu's guilt or innocence as a matter on which it cannot pronounce.

Of course it is remotely possible that Hu, like millions of others in China, paid or received a bribe, although there is no reason to think so. But Beijing's decision to prosecute him, and the ostentatiously contemptuous manner in which it has dealt with the Australian government, was taken to intimidate Australia. In this, Beijing seems to have succeeded.


A firm friendship forged over time

By Daniel Mandel (Daniel Mandel is director of the Zionist Organisation of America's Centre for Middle East Policy)

While the current diplomatic overtones may suggest a thawing of the close alliance between Australia and Israel, a recap of that relationship over the past 61-plus years shows that the friendship, like most, has ebbed and flowed

Australia and Israel have experienced a relationship both strong and supple over 60-plus years, but it would be a mistake to regard it as a given, as being somehow the inevitable product of a community of values or interests. If the relationship is warm and stable, as these things go, it is fair to say that it has not always been so - that it has been occasionally marred by tension, and that it has served as the object of internal politics.

The Australian Labor Party, which can be credited a role in Israel's emergence into the community of nations in the late 1940s - courtesy of its deputy prime minister and external affairs minister, H. V. Evatt - has often been split on the relationship, especially since the new Left became a factor in Labor politics in the late 1960s.

The conservative side of politics cannot claim to have had a deep interest in Zionism until after it became an established fact, nor has it ever been entirely free of a constituency more interested in trade with Arabs than friendship with Israelis.

At a particular conjuncture of local politics and international developments, the relationship - warm, honoured, secure - can seem suddenly cool, fraught, uncomfortable. Those who remember some episodes during the prime ministership of Gough Whitlam need no reminder of this. It is also undoubtedly something that Australia's supporters of Israel experienced in recent weeks, when a diplomatic spat erupted without warning over the use - it is alleged by Israeli intelligence - of skillfully forged Australian passports by those who eliminated a Hamas operative in Dubai.

Within days, Israeli Ambassador Yuval Rotem had been called in to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for a brow-beating, and a few days later - though a connection with this event cannot be proved - Australia abstained on a United Nations (UN) vote regarded as hostile to Israel, on which it might have been expected to vote against. To say these things is not to understate the liberal and generous impulses that have nourished the Australian end of the relationship, but rather to speak of the brittleness that affects even the most secure of Israel's foreign relations.

It has never escaped the understanding of Arab states that Israel's foreign relationships can be made fraught and even frayed by campaigns of comprehensive hostility that entangle Israel's friends in complications with other states. It was thus in Jerusalem 60 years ago, when the Arab world (save Jordan) took up the Vatican cry to internationalise the city. The government of Ben Chifley, needing every Catholic vote and facing the December 1949 election that consigned the ALP into the wilderness for 23 years, supported internationalisation over Israel's strenuous objections.

The successor conservative government of Robert Menzies showed little interest in the country until 1956, when Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, leading in time to the Suez War, at which point suddenly Israel was recognised as a friend of the Anglosphere. Otherwise, Israel remained largely a non-issue - a very minor trading partner - until the 1967 Six-Day War converted Israel in a good deal of the public's mind from plucky defendant to contentious conqueror. The 1973 Yom Kippur War intensified the sea change.

Israel had been lucky with Australia to that point in having a generally well-disposed Australian public, one whose servicemen in two world wars had found hospitality and the kinship of war among the Jews of pre-state Israel. Its servicemen had been led by generals such as Harry Chauvel and Thomas Blamey, who were well-disposed towards Zionism, indeed whose most famed Australian colleague, John Monash, was himself a Jew and exponent of Zionism. After 1973, such historical legacies could be seen to matter less.

Even so, the relationship proved lucky in the individuals managing it. Elements of the ALP Left purported to discern liberation from colonialism in Arab supremacist movements, such as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), but for every leftist firebrand Bill Hartley, there proved to be a centrist Bob Hawke, who worked hard to prevent recognition of the PLO on Whitlam's watch.

With the eviction of the Whitlam government from office in December 1975, the Liberal-National Country Party government of Malcolm Fraser proved a warm friend, even if individual ministers, such as then National Country Party leader Doug Anthony, were not. When the Egypt-Israel peace treaty was signed in 1979, it was the Fraser government that dispatched Australian peacekeepers to join in supervising the demilitarisation of Sinai.

It was in this era that Australia often joined what had sometimes become a minority of three supportive votes for Israel in UN conclaves - the other two being the United States and Israel itself - the UN having already long been the instrument of tyrannies of all stripes.

Although that record flagged somewhat when Hawke became prime minister, the passionate sincerity of Hawke's affection for the country led to the relationship being bolstered in other ways - not least in the 1986 Australian parliamentary resolution repudiating the UN's Zionism-is-racism libel. It was also Hawke who made strong prime ministerial efforts to bring about the release of captive Soviet-Jewish dissidents in the last years of the Soviet Union. In these efforts, a wide bipartisanship predominated.

Indeed, the two major parties have normally made a point of stressing the depth and warmth of the bilateral relationship, epitomized nowhere better than in Hawke's successor, Paul Keating. Keating headed swiftly to Jerusalem to attend Yitzhak Rabin's funeral. His eventual successor, John Howard, castigated him for not having included him among his entourage for the occasion. Upon succeeding Keating, Howard made a point of strengthening Australian support for Israel in international forums, evident for example at the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, which turned into an organised campaign to delegitimize Israel and promote anti-Semitism.

Howard also proved exceptional in rejecting the language of triangulation that reigned worldwide when Yasser Arafat died three years into the Oslo war he had launched: Howard frankly scolded Arafat for having rejected the peace settlement offered by Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton. When Israel's defensive barrier appeared on the West Bank landscape in the wake of Arafat's terror offensive, the Howard government opposed the attempted lynching of Israel in New York and The Hague.

By and large, the tenor and, mostly, the substance of the relationship have abided under Kevin Rudd, even if some individual UN votes have altered. It was Rudd who moved a motion honouring Israel's 60th anniversary in 2008, seconded by then opposition leader Brendan Nelson. "It's good as a nation that we speak as one on something like this," said Rudd, cognisant of the fact that such bipartisanship on Israel is not to be taken for granted, even among democracies. In short, Israel has enjoyed an often lucky relationship with the "Lucky Country", one in which the animosities of individual diplomats and politicians has mattered ultimately less than the support of a Hawke or a Howard.

From Australian Jewish News, March 5, 2010