Saturday, March 12, 2011

How about some REAL tolerance?

Hint: Why is it a shrieking horror to criticize Muslims but perfectly OK to say the vilest things about Christians?

YOU consider yourself enlightened and tolerant. Deep in your heart you hold a compassion for others that comforts you. If others knew your heart, surely they would think highly of you, they'd admire your humanity, your sense of international responsibility and your acceptance of all races and religions.

But how to demonstrate this? How to allow others to see inside your heart? There is, of course, a standard but ill-advised method for parading these virtues and in parliament, recently, independent MP Andrew Wilkie adopted it. He attacked. "I stand today," he said in the House of Representatives, "to condemn the racism that eats at the Liberal Party."

Yes, you are a politician and you need to make your mark. You want constituents, media and contemporaries to admire and respect you. So to display your worthiness you attack someone you can brand as a racist. "Australia's history is littered with politicians peddling hate," peddled Wilkie as he detailed his now widely publicised claims of racism and religious intolerance against Liberal MPs Scott Morrison and Cory Bernardi.

Wilkie even found time to read to the chamber, and into Hansard, a 2004 letter given to him by an unquoted source, to an unnamed Asian woman, from someone who, apparently, was a supporter of Pauline Hanson. The letter was vile and racist. But why, all these years later, was it shared with the parliament? Was this the proof Wilkie needed that Australia is a racist nation full of "hate crimes" that are egged on by conservative politicians?

This was the shame of Wilkie's rant, the moral vanity that sees divisions highlighted, denunciations cheered, sensible debate stifled and individuals incensed. Few people will condemn words such as these from the independent MP for fear it invites a similar spray.

If Wilkie and progressive commentators wanted to turn their attention to those who denigrate other religions, from Catholicism and the Brethren to Judaism and Hinduism, we could take them more seriously. Examples aren't hard to find. ABC favourite Catherine Deveny wrote this about her return to church: "Entering the cathedral of misogyny, deception, manipulation, chauvinism, hypocrisy and bigotry, all wrapped up in 'if you don't swallow this hook, line and sinker you're going to hell', felt like coming home.

"Time for communion, when bread and wine is turned into the actual flesh and blood of Christ by the priest. Because he's special. They call it transubstantiation; I call it bullshit."

Or another ABC regular, David Marr, interviewed about Christian churches: "All of the demonisation of homosexuality from these churches is essentially aimed at keeping erect the authority of marriage and sexual guidance for heterosexuals. And it is wicked. Wicked."

These comments are highly provocative, but most of us likely would agree that in our pluralist society they are tolerable as part of robust debate. If so, then the issues of democratic freedoms and the rights of women and homosexuals within other religious cultures are also worthy of discussion.

Perhaps we should be able to have a similar level of debate and show a similar tolerance for irreverent discussion of Islam. And maybe it is not too much to ask that we avoid being impolite, abusive or offensive.

We last saw a major public overreaction to poorly expressed insecurities during the era of Hansonism. The strident condemnation of Pauline Hanson helped turn her from a none-too-bright deselected Liberal candidate into a national political phenomenon.

So with federal politicians talking about racism and Hanson announcing another tilt at politics through the NSW upper house on March 26, there could be no better time to remember what her previous incarnation taught us. It is that the perception of a double standard in the public debate fuels resentment rather than eases it.

And that when opportunists parade their own virtue by making shameless, intolerant attacks on others, no one wins.


The carbon tax mess

Gillard has painted herself into a corner

THE enthusiastic applause in the US couldn't drown out the angry clamour at home. While Julia Gillard was making her address to congress, Tony Abbott was making a visit to a steel factory in Gillard's Victorian electorate.

No policy nuances necessary. The Opposition Leader knows that for all the government talk of "doing the right thing" with its carbon tax, the public is hearing a very different and much more disturbing message.

The key message is one of electricity costs jumping even more sharply than they are already. And to achieve what, exactly? Few people, even within the ALP, sound quite so convinced of the logic or the timing any more.

This is not only because Gillard's personal credibility is badly frayed given she is going back on her election commitment that no government she led would adopt a carbon tax. The larger problem of policy credibility extends well beyond that. Increasing numbers of voters don't comprehend why Australia is proceeding in this direction when its main trading partners, competitors and much larger emitters are backing away. The vague hopes of an international agreement at Copenhagen, always overblown, have become a sharp-edged mirror recording the lack of any such advance for the foreseeable future.

And for those still wanting Australia to "do the right thing", it is obvious that a national contribution of 1.5 per cent of the world's emissions will hardly tip the balance in limiting climate change if the scales are so weighted the other way.

That's one reason the Gillard government has abandoned Kevin Rudd's emotional rhetoric about climate change being the great moral challenge of our time. Instead, the 2011 focus is that the urgent imposition of a carbon price is in Australia's national interest. That makes it even more vital to be able to persuade the public that pricing carbon is a worthwhile reform that will benefit the Australian economy. So far Labor is going backwards in making that argument.

Abbott's logic is precisely the opposite. He argues that imposing a carbon tax will harm Australian consumers, jobs and economic growth while driving carbon-emitting industries offshore. His "direct action" plan to reduce emissions by the same amount - 5 per cent of 2000 levels by 2020 - may not persuade any economists or even most of big business that it will work as promised. But that audience was never his goal.

His goal is to win the public debate by attacking Labor's new tax as deceptive, damaging and unnecessary. The Newspoll last week showing Labor's dramatic fall in support told how effectively this tactic was working.

The Liberal approach is backed up by the fact it is closer to the position the Obama administration has been forced to adopt, given the backlash in the US to carbon pricing.

Commercial talkback radio, the bugbear of the government, was quick to point out the Prime Minister didn't mention action on climate change in her call to the US to be bold.

Yet the Gillard government seemed curiously unprepared for the public's reaction. The most optimistic view at senior levels was that the announcement had given a dispirited party some larger unifying purpose and a reform worth fighting for, along with the fervent hope that this approach would gain momentum through time.

"It's early days yet," one minister said reassuringly. Another was less sanguine. "One leader or the other will lose their job over this," he declared. He didn't say which one. And with opinions hardening so rapidly, recasting them will be even more difficult no matter how many more detailed reports there are from Ross Garnaut or the government's climate change commission.

Even those committed to the strategy of carbon pricing struggled to justify the tactical blunders that meant Gillard's initial press conference to trumpet this year's version was upstaged by the Greens. The Newspoll showing a slight rise in support for the Greens re-enforced the reality that Greens get the credit for Labor's shift while Labor gets the blame from those - a larger number - who don't like it.

The government also was blamed for not having enough detail to counter what it dismisses as the opposition's "scare campaign". But, of course, announcing the detail upfront was hardly going to win applause either. Climate Change Minister Greg Combet, sounding uncharacteristically sensitive about the dilemma, said people couldn't have it both ways.

The government was condemned for insufficient consultation over its surprise announcement of the resources super profits tax last May, he said. In trying to avoid a repeat by only putting out an outline on carbon pricing initially, it is criticised for lack of detail. True, but still badly handled. And it just shows how hard it will be to climb back out of the hole. The new political reality in the Senate after July 1 means Labor must do deals with the Greens or the Coalition to get its legislation passed. The government was gaining very modest traction by accusing the Coalition of being wreckers, against everything.

The carbon tax gives Abbott the perfect excuse. Gillard has the much harder task of trying to cobble together a deal with the Greens that won't completely alienate business and all those households in marginal seats feeling so squeezed by cost of living pressures, like power bills. Good luck.

Nor will there be a quick end. Big business is split but the mean is definitely moving further away from Labor's position. Those who were always against a price on carbon as a threat are more antagonistic as they look at their position against that of their trade competitors. Business leaders who supported the concept of carbon pricing last time were badly burned by the Rudd government's backflip. Their doubts about the level of compensation available are greater given the need to get agreement from the Greens. Then there's the very large question of the government's competence to handle a complicated scheme. Even previously reliable allies such as Heather Ridout from the Australian Industry Group are sounding far more cautious, especially given the altered international climate.

Labor could withstand this better with strong public support for action on climate change. But the mood has changed dramatically. The notion of another tax further limits the Prime Minister's leeway to convince sceptical voters that Labor's agenda can deliver for them. It doesn't make it any easier that her key economic argument is one that can only be proven in the negative: what will happen to electricity generation and power supplies if there is no carbon price.

Gillard says business needs the tax because it needs certainty. The underlying problem is that at present no one is willing to invest in adequate large-scale electricity generation to meet coming demand. Given the years it takes for such investment, time is running out.

But reinvestment in the power industry has been inadequate in recent years, not helped by state governments happily helping themselves to dividends from state-owned power stations. It is clearly unpopular and commercially dubious to build a new coal-fired power station. Yet it is also risky to invest in the more expensive gas option for baseload power without knowing about a carbon price.

According to Keith Orchison, former chief of the Electricity Supply Association of Australia, there is general agreement a carbon price of $20 to $40 a tonne would be needed to encourage substitution of coal for gas. But that additional impost would push up prices for users, by estimates ranging from 25 per cent to 40 per cent. That is when prices are already escalating because of the need to pay for much-neglected distribution infrastructure and to meet the cost of the government's renewable energy targets. Consumers seem to be already getting more "price signals" about the cost of power than they want.

The imposition of a carbon tax, morphing into an emissions trading scheme, provides greater certainty in theory.

In practice, the ground would remain slippery despite the easy talk about Australia's clean energy future. But Abbott's pledge to repeal any tax in government makes the idea of business, or households , relying on this to occur even more absurd. Politics has eaten policy and given everyone indigestion.


Being Black Is Bad For Your Health

According to
Being born black in Australia is as much of a health risk as being a regular smoker or drastically overweight.

Many of us start planning a Friday night pub session, with alcohol, cigarettes and junk food… your lifestyle choices take years off your own life. And here is a sobering thought – Indigenous Australians face a similarly shortened life span even from birth.

What nonsense. Being aboriginal does not automatically make you unhealthy or shorten your lifespan.

The story has an interactive thingy (which I couldn’t get to work) which purports to show how much fatty food and alcohol you would need to consume, and how many cigarettes you would need to smoke, to reduce your lifespan to that of the ‘average’ indigenous person.

They have unwittingly hit the nail on the head. It is not being born black, white or purple that makes you unhealthy. It is your lifestyle choices.

Incidentally, this is another argument against socialised medicine (in addition to inefficiency of service provision and the massive additional cost of the bureaucracy required to administer it). That is, as long as people know that someone else will pay if they get sick, there is less incentive to make positive choices about food, alcohol, smoking, exercise, etc.

Indigenous Australians are not less healthy because of the colour of their skin. Like everyone else, their health depends largely on the choices they make.

To suggest that this must be somone else’s fault, and therefore someone else’s responsibilty to fix, is effectively to claim that indigenous people are not able to make responsible choices about their own lives. That is racism.

It is also to condemn them to continuing, paralysing, victimhood.

At the moment, of course, many do not make responsible choices.

But the answer is not to pat them on the head and say ‘Oh dear, it’s all our fault, let us fix it for you.’

Nor is it to continue to spend vast amounts of money trying to repair damage already caused by those lifestyle choices:
COAG calculates $40,228 is spent on indigenous people per head of population compared with $18,351 for non-indigenous Australians.

That cost is for total services provided, not just health services. No one would mind this expenditure if it was making a difference. But it is not.

Nor is clear what can be done. The welfare management system that applies to vulnerable people in the Northern Territory ensures that up to 50% of welfare payments is quarantined – set aside for use on essentials like food and clothing.

It is possible to get off the scheme by demonstrating you can manage your own affairs responsibly. More than 75% of the people who have been able to do this are white.

Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda says this shows the scheme is racist. Withdrawing or managing people’s benefits is ‘punishment’. What he says is needed is rewards, incentives, for people to send their children to school, to behave in ways that will help them stay healthy.

But for heaven’s sake. If people need to be promised rewards before they will send their children to school or stop using the grocery money on alcohol and gambling, then no government programme, and no amount of government spending, is going to affect health or educational outcomes.

Indigenous Australians taking responsibilty for their own choices will make a difference. Until that happens, nothing else will.


Funding is not the cause of indigenous educational failure

But better teaching would make a difference

MY School confirms that funding is not the cause of indigenous educational failure. Take two schools in very remote Australia, 20km apart: in 2009, the indigenous school received recurrent funding of almost $33,000 a student, while the mainstream school received about $21,000 for each student.

Despite the 50 per cent additional funding, the indigenous school's Year 5 National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy reading result (typical of all of its results) was a failure rate of 92 per cent. The nearby non-indigenous school had a failure rate of 12 per cent.

These rates are representative of the higher funding but dramatically lower literacy and numeracy performance of indigenous schools.

School size is also not the reason for educational failure. Many small non-indigenous schools perform well and some of the worst performing indigenous schools have large enrolments. For example a very remote indigenous school with more than 420 students (with recurrent funding of $25,600 a student) had reading failure rates of 96 per cent in Year 5 and 89 per cent in Year 7. In 2009, only one of their students completed senior secondary school; no student was awarded a senior secondary certificate.

More than 150 indigenous schools (with more than 80 per cent indigenous students) dominate the lowest literacy and numeracy results for Australia's 9500 schools.

They are mainly in the remote homelands and townships of NT, Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia. Few of the students in these schools achieve the minimum NAPLAN literacy and numeracy national standards.

They leave school early, unable to read, write or count, and without the other skills necessary to get a job. Few of those who stay on through Year 12 learn enough to be able to get a job or to go on to further education.

In some 40 NT homeland learning centres, with a total enrolment of about 1000 students, classes do not even have qualified teachers five days a week. Few of their students could read the NAPLAN questions, let alone pass the tests.

Their parents receive Commonwealth Assistance for Isolated Children payments as compensation for the Territory not providing a school for these children. The continuation of these pretend schools is shameful for Australia.

Some states are responding to poor NAPLAN results. The Queensland Department of Education is a partner in Noel Pearson's Cape York Partnership academies in Aurukun, Coen and Hope Vale. These academies implement rigorous "direct education" in the classroom. This is combined with after-school cultural, sporting and other "club" activities. The Cape York Family Responsibilities Commission is supporting these schools.

While it is too early to see the results in NAPLAN tests, the academies have achieved a remarkable rise in attendance in response to improved classroom teaching.

The Northern Territory Department of Education has the worst literacy and numeracy results in Australia. Yet it continues to protect its own schools by refusing to approve qualified independent schools. The Territory receives large amounts of additional commonwealth funding, which it spends on fashionable feel-good programs that have no effect in the classroom. Until it focuses on improved classroom teaching, including phonics, the gap between its indigenous schools and mainstream Australian education will continue to widen.

Indigenous attendance continues to be a difficult issue while sub-standard schools and poor teaching methods remain in place. In remote communities, the lack of role models and the absence of jobs lead to the view that education does not matter.

The absence of jobs and decent houses leads to high mobility that is a principal cause of low school attendance.

The commonwealth is trying to improve attendance by penalising welfare recipients whose children do not attend school, but the Territory's attendance rhetoric, blaming parents for not sending their children to school, is not matched by results.

The most important contributor to low attendance is the absence of good teaching. Where effective schools operate, attendance is high. Schools such as Coen on Cape York are achieving full attendance; independent Djarragun College in Queensland and independent indigenous schools in the Territory have consistently high attendance.

The many indigenous parents in remote Australia concerned about their children's education have known for years that their children are not learning to read, write and count or acquiring the other skills they need to get a job.

Their fears have now been confirmed by the revamped My School website, although few remote indigenous parents can read it. These parents - although they are themselves the victims of the absence of schooling - know that like indigenous health and housing, throwing taxpayers' money at indigenous education is not a substitute for reform.

Whatever costs and benefits the My School website has created for mainstream schools, for indigenous education My School data are critical to fixing schools in indigenous communities.

The absence of literacy, numeracy, humanities, social and natural sciences and other life skills that mainstream schools teach, are a key contributor to the dysfunction of remote communities. A meaningful job and decent housing are the right of every Australian. They are not achievable without a mainstream education.


Note: I have two other blogs covering Australian news. They are more specialized so are not updated daily but there are updates on both most weeks. See QANTAS/Jetstar for news on Qantas failings and Australian police news for news on police misbehaviour

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