Thursday, March 24, 2011


In his latest offering, conservative Australian cartoonist ZEG comments on the "No Carbon Tax" rally and is amazed that Leftists call for civility -- in the light of their own appalling track record in that department

Freedom of speech risks being silenced by NSW Crime Commission

They are after people who have blown the whistle on their improper practices

Should journalists be free to write articles critical of government agencies and keep confidential their sources? The highly secretive NSW Crime Commission thinks not. It is fighting an investigation by the Police Integrity Commission into its operations.

Two journalists at The Sydney Morning Herald, Linton Besser and Dylan Welch, wrote articles critical of the Crime Commission and its dealing with criminals, which the paper published. The commission wants to seize the reporters' mobile phones and SIM cards, presumably to discover their sources and to deter further disclosure. If they fail to co-operate, the reporters face being in contempt of court and run the risk of going to prison.

Freedom of speech has no meaning if governments and their agencies are above public criticism and being accountable. To be credible, criticisms must be soundly based. This involves journalists investigating the matter, speaking to a range of people, collecting information, cross-checking the information, drawing reasonable inferences and forming an experienced view, often within a short space of time. No self-respecting journalist or media organisation wants to publish anything that is not soundly based.

In the real world, few can afford to be disclosed as whistleblowers. For most the toll on their lives, careers and family is too great. But off-the-record conversations with journalists, which are not in breach of the law, may lead to a line of inquiry that reveals or confirms the truth. Such sources need to be kept confidential, otherwise they will dry up.

The recently enacted Federal Evidence Amendment (Journalists Privilege) Act provides for disclosure of a source if a court is satisfied that having regard to the issues to be determined in the proceedings before it, the public interest in the disclosure of the identity of the source outweighs:

(a) any likely adverse effect on the source and anyone else; and

(b) the public interest in the communication of facts and opinion to the public by the media and the ability of the media to access the sources of facts.

The act is totally unsatisfactory. The disclosure exception is too broadly based and lacks any certainty. A source gets no comfort from knowing that disclosure depends upon a court ultimately deciding whether disclosure is in the public interest. The source is not even a party to the court proceedings - how can he or she be effectively represented (and who pays for that)?

The act should be amended immediately to provide that disclosure should only be ordered where national security is at stake.

At the end of the day journalists write an article which may be published in part or whole by the media. The article is in the public domain and everyone is able to examine every sentence, every word and every comma. Then, under our freedom of speech, everyone is free to state publicly whether the article is inaccurate, misleading or unfair.

It is no mean feat to criticise publicly government agencies, such as the NSW Crime Commission which probably, as a result, has a secret dossier on the journalists concerned. The commission is immensely powerful with extraordinary powers, including phone-tapping, collecting information and searching your home without you ever knowing. It wants to know everything about anyone it selects, including their family and friends.

While the commission wants to investigate and know everything about everyone else, it wants the public to know little or nothing about it. Justifying its secretive position and extraordinary powers as necessary to protect us from "them", it takes only a short time before there is an apprehension that we need protection from it.

In addressing accountability of such government agencies, the first question is whether its extraordinary powers are necessary, and to the extent any is, what conditions should be met before being exercised (unless this is addressed first, any form of accountability is frequently too limited and too late). Having first contained any problems in this way, it is necessary to address the culture of the agency and to get that right on an ongoing basis. Once those two things are done, you can address the most meaningful form of accountability for the agency concerned.

The media is and will remain a most effective means of accountability. Journalists play an essential role in the freedom of speech. If you silence them by silencing their sources, you silence freedom of speech, and thereby seriously jeopardise the rule of law in Australia.


'Real' surgery waiting lists may grow worse

Barry O'Farrell warned yesterday that the waiting lists for elective surgery in hospitals are likely to be much longer under a Coalition government because of the "dishonest" benchmarks the Labor government uses.

The Opposition Leader promised to reveal the true number of people on the waiting lists and provide an extra 13,000 operations over four years if the Coalition is elected on Saturday. He said a Coalition government would axe the directive that stops doctors listing people who will wait more than a year for treatment but, in the short-term, that was likely to mean the waiting lists are longer.

"We want to ensure that we have certainty about the numbers, certainty about how long they're waiting, so that we can ensure that every taxpayer dollar going into the health system is spent wisely," Mr O'Farrell said.

The opposition health spokeswoman, Jillian Skinner, said she had "no idea" of the real waiting list figures. "Labor doesn't even count everybody," she said.

Mrs Skinner said the Coalition could be provide figures that were worse than expected. "In the short-term, yes [the list] may go up if we uncover lies that have been perpetrated to the public by Labor because they pretended those people don't exist," Mrs Skinner said.

She said the waiting lists for elective surgery tended to be the longest at major tertiary hospitals. Westmead experienced the longest wait, although the situation was not confined to the city. "The current [official] list is around 66,000," she said.

Mrs Skinner said waiting lists were important planning tools to help hospitals meet demand.

"By publishing the real waiting lists and real waiting times, hospital managers and clinicians will be able to more effectively plan how often operating theatres need to be available, how many theatre staff are needed and how many intensive-care and ward beds are required," Mrs Skinner said.

Prominent surgeon Denis King said the method of calculating waiting lists needed to be more transparent. "I think, in a number of instances, we should be better assessing waiting times," Dr King said.

Mr O'Farrell and Mrs Skinner were at St George Private Hospital where they promised $72 million in funding to allow 13,000 extra operations to be performed.

Later, Mr O'Farrell addressed Italian senior citizens at a concert in Burwood. Using Italian words for police, schools and trains, Mr O'Farrell received a rousing reception after his attempts to converse in Italian with the compere, who congratulating him on an improvement on last year's attempt.


Stalinist hospital statistics in NSW

Completely unreliable

MASSIVE discrepancies in how public hospitals account for patients needing less urgent elective surgery have prompted a review of the rules for allocating people to politically sensitive waiting lists.

Half of all patients having less urgent surgery at Campbelltown Hospital receive their operation the same day they join the waiting list, according to official figures that critics say undermine the integrity of hospital performance statistics.

At Royal Prince Alfred and Concord hospitals, which until January fell under the same administration as Campbelltown, 28 per cent of the so-called category 3 patients - who may safely wait up to a year for their operation according to government guidelines - spent less than 24 hours on the waiting list, dramatically reducing the hospitals' average wait time.

But the proportion was negligible at comparable large hospitals, with 2 per cent or less of category 3 patients being admitted within a day at St George, Westmead, Nepean and John Hunter hospitals.

A deputy director-general of NSW Health, Tim Smyth, said the difference was attributable to operations performed in multiple stages - such as cataract treatment, in vitro fertilisation or the insertion and removal of bone pins - where the patient needs to recover from the first surgery before having the second.

Dr Smyth said there were inconsistencies between hospitals in whether such patients rejoined the waiting list. At Campbelltown, Royal Prince Alfred and Concord, Dr Smyth said, a software default meant many patients were not relisted until the day of their subsequent surgery. As well, Dr Smyth said, individual hospitals and surgeons varied in how soon they deemed a patient ready for their next procedure.

The effect of the variations is evident in average wait times for category 3 patients, which range from just 14 days at Royal Prince Alfred to 184 days at Nepean and 205 at John Hunter.

Dr Smyth said he was satisfied "it's not manipulation of the statistics in order to reduce median wait times, though it does have the effect of doing that". He said the department would now develop a new waiting list policy for staged operations.

Diane Watson, the chief executive of the Bureau of Health Information, which analysed the figures, said they represented "an evolving story, and we're still trying to understand it". Dr Watson said she had insisted on a detailed explanation from NSW Health, "given their history on waiting times", and in future would publish staged surgery figures separately, so they did not distort overall category 3 waiting times.

But Brian Owler, the chairman of the hospital practice committee of the Australian Medical Association's NSW branch, said staged surgery alone could not explain the discrepancies.

Associate Professor Owler said there was a risk funding decisions could be based on spurious performance data. "It doesn't give us a good idea of how resources should be allocated and it's unfair to other hospitals that do the right thing," he said. "We should not be rewarding people for gaming the system rather than doing the procedures efficiently."


Sperm donors worried over identity law change

MICHAEL LINDEN was a 26-year-old student in the spring of 1977 when he walked into a fertility clinic in Melbourne and donated his sperm. A friend had told him about the process, but he had not put any serious thought into it.

"I should have known better, really," the 59-year-old retiree said. "It was just a bit of a lark … They paid you $10, which was a little bit of money in those days." He thought little of it until 2001, when he was contacted by what he calls his "donor daughter".

Anxious men who donated sperm anonymously many years ago began contacting fertility clinics yesterday, sources said, after a Herald story on a legislative amendment by the state government allowing it to request identifying information about donors.

Furious doctors have called on whichever party wins the state election this week to rescind the amendment to ensure the privacy of the donors.

A spokeswoman for the Health Minister, Carmel Tebbutt, said the amendment would remain, as it did not violate the privacy of anonymous sperm donors. "The privacy of donors and offspring is not compromised by the amendment because the director-general [of the Health Department] cannot release or disclose the information except with the consent of the person whom the information identifies," the spokeswoman said.

The Greens MP David Shoebridge said anonymous donors would feel threatened by the department forcibly obtaining their details. "The fact that this happened without any consultation … remains a real concern," Mr Shoebridge said.

The law should be rescinded, he said. "People need to have some certainty in their lives when they make important personal decisions like becoming a donor, and this certainty is lost if governments later decide to change the law retrospectively".

The Opposition spokeswoman on health, Jillian Skinner, did not provide the Herald with her position on the law.

After the contact with his donor daughter, Mr Linden discovered he had fathered five children. Three of them remain unknown to him - one to a couple in north-east Melbourne, another to a family in the inner suburbs, and a third to family from NSW. "My three lost daughters," he calls them.

But despite a positive relationship with one of his donor children, and the belief that donor data should be freely available, Mr Linden believes sperm donation should be illegal. "It's still a very fraught situation. You've had kids who have met their donor and the whole thing has gone sour," he said. "Even in the increasingly open climate that we've got now, it's still not an ideal way to bring children into the world."


Council foreign forays face axe

A NSW Coalition government plans to take action against councils on Sydney's "inner west bank" that dabble in foreign policy by pursuing boycotts against Israel.

Opposition local government spokesman Chris Hartcher told The Australian yesterday that, if the Coalition won government, he would use his discretionary powers to "call councils to account" over the issue.

His comments came as a storm of controversy developed around Greens candidate Fiona Byrne, who is favoured to oust NSW Deputy Premier Carmel Tebbutt from the inner-west Sydney seat of Marrickville on Saturday.

In January, Ms Byrne, as Mayor of Marrickville, supported a wide-ranging boycott of Israel. She has been unable to explain the discrepancy between recorded comments in February, in which she said she intended to push for a statewide boycott, and her statement last week on the Greens website denying she vowed to introduce the ban.

Ms Byrne said in February: "I would suggest that the NSW Greens would be looking to bring (a boycott) forward at state parliament if we were elected."

Federal Greens leader Bob Brown stood by Ms Byrne yesterday, as she faced mounting criticism from supporters of Ms Tebbutt and voters on the streets of Marrickville.

Senator Brown dismissed the controversy as "a bit of a spat between a journalist and a candidate for the state parliament who's doing extremely well".

Ms Byrne did not retract her accusations that The Australian's original report on the story was "misleading", "factually incorrect" and a "misrepresentation". "I did not say I would introduce the boycott and divestment strategy," she said yesterday. "The meaning of my statement at the press conference in February was unclear, and has been misinterpreted."

Asked in a farcical ABC radio interview yesterday why she had changed her position, Ms Byrne replied five times: "I have no plan or intention to introduce the global boycott and divestment strategy in state parliament."

Mr Hartcher said the role of local councils was to deliver services to ratepayers. "Australia's foreign policy is a matter for the federal government and not a matter upon which local councils should be spending ratepayers' money," he said.

"We will not tolerate it. Our estimates are that Marrickville council spent up to $40,000 in officers' time in developing this anti-Israel policy and we regard that as outside their statutory function. "If we are elected on Saturday, Marrickville council can expect close scrutiny."

Mr Hartcher's views reflected those of voters on the streets of Marrickville. "It's not the council's territory," said Avril Rimes, a Labor voter who is considering voting Green. "It can only be divisive here in the local community."

NSW Jewish Board of Deputies President Yair Miller said that if Green MPs pushed for a boycott across the state they would have to explain to taxpayers "why NSW would not be getting access to cost-effective . . . Israeli-made products currently used in NSW".


Student stabs teacher in class at Nightcliff Middle School in Darwin

This is where the Leftist hatred of discipline has got us

A RELIEF teacher was taken to hospital after a 14-year-old Darwin student allegedly stabbed him a number of times in front of his class. The 60-year-old Nightcliff Middle School teacher was taken to Royal Darwin Hospital about midday after a classroom altercation ended in the boy allegedly pulling a knife, the NT News said.

It is understood the relief teacher's name is Michael Bell, and that he was in his first week at the school. School management was tight-lipped - principal Sarah May refused to talk about it.

But the NT education union boss Matthew Cranitch is concerned and says it reflects an increase in behavioural problems across Northern Territory schools.

A number of Nightcliff Middle School sources said the student had heated words with Mr Bell during class, then went back to his desk and pulled the knife. Police said the boy punched Mr Bell in the face before stabbing him in the arm and once in the leg.

Sources said the boy had a history of "concerning" behaviour at Nightcliff Middle School.

One upset parent said the kid "lost the plot" in front of the class. "It all happened pretty much in front of their faces," she said. "The kid was attempting to stab the teacher in the stomach but got him in the arm instead." "It isn't the first incident that he's been involved in ... he's apparently smashed windows and thrown chairs around the room before."

It's understood Mr Bell received stitches for his wounds at hospital.


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. New posts on both today

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