Monday, June 13, 2011

Queen's birthday honours

Today is the official Queens birthday -- which, with good British eccentricity, is not her actual birthday. It is a holiday in Australia and it is also the time for the government to hand out "honours", mostly medals, to people whose lives and deeds are deemed worthy of official recognition.

Those honoured are however a strange bunch. There is a guy who spends most of his time climbing high mountains rather than doing anything useful and also a has-been centrist politician who was only ever a pretty face. And honouring the disastrous Mick Keelty, former federal police commissioner, is a strange decision indeed.

I could go on but when you are giving out a total of 376 honours, a lot of nonentities have to make the grade, I guess. Limiting the total to (say) 20 might make the awards mean something

OUTSTANDING Australians, including former politicians Natasha Stott Despoja and Bob Debus, cricketer Max Walker, Pat Cash's coach Ian Barclay, have been honoured for their contributions to our nation.

Mountaineer Andrew Lock was also among Australians honoured. Having scaled the globe's highest peaks, Lock is used to being on top of the world - but the feeling took an entirely new dimension as he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in the Queen's Birthday Honours yesterday.

And Hunter Valley-raised world motocross champion Chad Reed had a similar sentiment as he celebrated being made a Member in the General Division of the Order of Australia.

Some 376 Australians honoured in a list that includes a former deputy prime minister, a spymaster, a cricketing legend and an opera composer.

Former federal police commissioner Mick Keelty, ex-National Party leader John Anderson, former politicians Natasha Stott Despoja and Bob Debus, cricketer Max Walker, Pat Cash's coach Ian Barclay, Edinburgh Festival director and opera composer Jonathon Mills, and the head of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service Nick Warner were all recognised for their contributions to Australia.

Mr Lock, 49, is the only Australian to have climbed all of the world's 14 peaks higher than 8000m, and is a veteran of the monstrous mountains of Nepal - including the mighty Mt Everest. He has survived avalanches, falls down crevasses, had frostbite and been a tragic witness to the deaths of dear friends.


Labor party stalwart wants more diversity and democracy in the Labor party

A big ask for people whose basic instincts are authoritarian. But their big losses in NSW, Victoria and Western Australia plus their unpopularity in Queensland and Federally have unnerved them

BRISBANE Labor stalwart Cr David Hinchliffe has added his voice to a growing list of party faithful calling on the ALP to change or risk slipping into political obscurity.

Cr Hinchliffe, who has been a member for almost 40 years and an ALP councillor for 25, accused the party of being "tired and dumb" by refusing to embrace the 21st century and continuing to insist members speak and act uniformly in public. "Former PM Kevin Rudd has spoken forcefully of a 'cancer' within the Labor Party. You don't cure a cancer by ignoring it," he said. "Labor caucus members should be able to exercise a free vote on issues affecting their local area and should be able to do that without having to get 'permission' from their party."

The comments came as federal Labor backbencher and Caucus chair Daryl Melham argued that changing leaders would go no way towards lifting Labor out of its problems. "If people are talking about changing the current leadership of the Labor Party, then we're headed for certain defeat," Mr Melham told Channel 10. "Anyone who goes for that solution are kidding themselves and will be punished."

Cr Hinchliffe said Labor members should be able to exercise the right to vote as they saw fit. "The Queensland ALP conference next weekend has just such an opportunity to be the first Labor Party in Australia to enshrine such a principle in its platform," he said. "Will this get a hearing? If we're serious about addressing what Kevin Rudd calls a 'cancer', it should."

Cr Hinchliffe also backed Senator John Faulkner's call to open up candidate selection and free it from the grip of "factional warlords". "We should embrace those in the community who are Labor supporters but are not Labor members," he said.

Cr Hinchliffe urged the party to move forwards. "Of course we need to remember where we came from, but we also need to know where we're going in this ever-changing 21st century," he said. "Will Kevin and John as the elder statesmen of the Labor Party be heard? For the sake of progressive politics I hope they will."


Progressives who pander to old prejudices are a turn-off for voters

James A. Falk

AT the recent NSW election every pundit was surprised by the Liberal performance in the once safe left seat of Balmain. None of us working on the campaign were the least bit surprised.

On the ground it was clear the Green-Left had embraced policies that isolated them from the interests of the broader community. They tried to minimise that disconnection by hiding behind the word progressive, as if it were a magic label that could make up for incompetence and for regressive policies divorced from ordinary people. We can see exactly the same failures and propagandising at the federal level.

Except now Labor figures such as Senator John Faulkner and Rodney Cavalier claim that the ALP needs to build policy that its members support, and to engage more closely with left-wing intelligentsia. Which is the exact opposite of the lessons of the NSW election.

During the Balmain campaign Green and ALP stump speeches were long on labour history and alarmist, intelligentsia-driven claims. There were even references to Gough Whitlam and H. V. Evatt, relevant a mere 40 or 60 years ago.

But their grand rhetoric of values and history simply wasn't matched by the quality of their contemporary policy, management and delivery.

And it cannot be, because the policies both the Greens and Labor membership consider central cannot deliver what ordinary people need.

That's why long-term Labor voters thanked me for talking about how to get our unskilled workers into paid employment, and about how to maintain the possibility of social welfare in the face of fiscal limits. And why NGOs providing disability and family services were vehement in their support for getting the public sector out of the way.

All these constituents were scathing about the Green-Left's policy inertia and focus on old battles and irrelevant questions. Rather than providing answers to these long-term problems, the Greens and the ALP have delivered little in NSW except managerial incompetence and gestures pandering to the faddish views of exactly that class Faulkner wants to empower.

This has continued in the failures of the Gillard government, the political tin ear of the Greens and the ludicrous preaching of the Cate Blanchett enviro-ad. The progressive mindset is sliding further and further from the practical concerns of ordinary voters.

Incompetence hits at the heart of progressive claims. Contrary to Green-Left spin, government waste is a social equity issue. Every government dollar wasted is a dollar we can't spend on early intervention in learning disabilities, or respite care, or social housing.

Progressives consistently claim that addressing this waste somehow hurts the poor. But it is the waste itself that is most damaging to those who rely on government, because it reduces what government can do to make a real difference.

And there is nothing compassionate about failing to deliver the housing, health services or child protection that people need, and then failing to take the hard decisions to fix things.

This progressive resistance to innovation in government is regressive in the extreme. It privileges old-school means over the end of delivering opportunity for all.

Ironically, it is a blind conservatism that strangles our capacity to deliver services to the people who need them. Above all else, ordinary voters are directly hurt by grand progressive gestures designed to meet the momentary fads of upper-middle income earners. Too often the progressive gesture is paid for by the poorest of our society to the benefit of some of the richest.

That is especially true of Green subsidies and regulations, most visible in our rising electricity prices. As former Labor senator John Black found, inner-city Greens voters are by far the highest income earners of any of the major parties.

Fairfax columnist Elizabeth Farrelly writes that policy must diminish our standard of living and if it doesn't hurt, it won't work.

If it's in the Green cause, it is clear that the financially comfortable are quite happy pulling up the ladder of opportunity behind them. According to Faulkner, Bob Carr, Steve Bracks, and others, ALP troubles arise from any of poor spin, the NSW power sale, internal conflict, the influence of machine men, or inadequate internal democracy.

Conspicuous by its absence is the admission that their core agenda already responds to the ideological interests of a progressive class.

That class is contemptuous of suburban values and aspiration, embraces green conventional wisdom about the evils of industry and capitalism, and is willing to sacrifice the opportunities of the less-connected to the false certainties of 1950s class conflict. These failings are why the Liberals gained all of the swing away from Labor in one of the safest Green-Left seats in the country, and why we won the Balmain primary vote at the last state election for the first time in history, and why the Greens gained virtually nothing.

Until progressives realise that too many voters view their policy mix as pandering to old prejudices and to a wealthy minority, all the internal reform and celebrity advertisements in the world will make no difference to their long-term decline.


Aptitude tests show benefits

IQ rediscovered

APTITUDE tests for school-leavers have proven their value as a way into universities for clever students who would have no prospect of making it on their final exam results, a trial has shown.

A report on uniTEST, released yesterday by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, concludes the assessment facilitated the admission of students who "otherwise would not have received a place, and that these students performed on par with their counterparts who gained entry through other means, most commonly through Year 12 scores".

"While the evidence is limited, both uniTEST and control group students appeared to report similar levels of academic engagement as well as learning and skill development," the report found.

UniTEST was developed by British company Cambridge Assessment and the Australian Council for Educational Research, which also conducted the pilot study. Six universities participated across three years, and while the report does not reveal which ones, the study's lead author, ACER's Hamish Coates, said the Australian National University, Macquarie, Flinders, Deakin and Monash universities were among those who had taken a keen interest in the issue.

During the pilot, almost 1500 people sat the uniTEST, with about 400 gaining admission. The report concluded at least 165 who might have missed out on entry via normal channels had been admitted.

"Scores appear to be particularly helpful for students from historically under-represented backgrounds, and have been shown to be less influenced by important characteristics like socio-economic status," it said. It concluded uniTEST scores combined with achievement scores were an improved predictor of grade point averages during the first two years of university.

Dr Coates said Australia was "drunk" on achievement data including admissions scores such as the Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks. While higher education had grown strongly during the past three decades, there had been no commensurate change in the admissions system and well-designed aptitude tests were part of the answer. "[Not only can we] get people in the door, but once they are there we know they have the intellectual capacity to succeed," Dr Coates said.

The need for a transparent and efficient means of admission was crucial as the system moves to uncap enrolments from next year, and in light of the Bradley target of 40 per cent participation.

Macquarie University vice-chancellor Steven Schwartz supported the uniTEST study, which captured students who might otherwise not qualify for university yet were perfectly capable of succeeding. "We need an admissions system that can find hidden talent that is not revealed by ATAR scores," he said.

However, DEEWR said low uptake in the pilot program meant the department had not drawn any definitive conclusions about the value of uniTEST. "While the report recommends the national implementation of uniTEST, the government does not intend to direct universities to undertake specific enrolment practices," it said.

University of Melbourne expert Richard James, the lead author of a paper on tertiary admission for the Victorian government in 2009, wrote part of a chapter in the current report. "Aptitude assessment deserves a higher profile in university admissions than is presently the case," said Professor James, director of the university's Centre for the Study of Higher Education.

"But aptitude assessment will not be appropriate for all institutions and for all courses. We are likely to see admissions criteria and practices diversify as we move into a more deregulated environment and aptitude assessment ought to be part of the mix."


A most learned priest becomes a bishop

WHAT gifts do princes of the church receive for major birthday milestones?

Among other goodies, including a London newspaper dated June 8, 1941 -- Trinity Sunday -- Australia's Cardinal George Pell, who turned 70 yesterday, scored an extra pair of hands. Last night at St Mary's Cathedral he ordained a new auxiliary bishop for Sydney, Peter Comensoli, who at 47 is Australia's youngest bishop.

Bishop Comensoli, who said he was looking forward to "30 years of hard work upfront and centre" was a priest of the Wollongong diocese.

He was ordained in 1992, after studying at Manly Seminary.

Previously, he worked in a bank, studied economics at the University of Wollongong and played the violin in orchestras, but switched to theology when he felt called to the church.

A few days ago he returned from Scotland, where he finalised his doctorate in theological ethics at Edinburgh University on the subject of recognising the rights and dignity of the intellectually impaired.

The doctorate dealt with controversial issues such as the increasing tendency to abort foetuses with Down Syndrome and emerging arguments in some quarters overseas that dementia and Alzheimers patients were fair game for euthanasia.

Bishop Comensoli also has a Master of Letters in moral philosophy from St Andrew's University, Scotland, and studied moral theology in Rome.

Bishop Comensoli said the biggest challenge of his new role would be teaching the faith at a time when many were indifferent to religion and "the Lord is often forgotten or even rejected".

In his sermon, Cardinal Pell said a bishop's task was to "teach and explain" that Jesus was divine as well as human because "no mere man" could redeem us.

"Surveys show that even some priests, and certainly more people, Catholics too, are unsure about the bodily resurrection of Jesus and even of the virgin birth, (and) of Christ's divine fatherhood," Dr Pell said. "This must mean that their faith in the divinity of Christ is under extreme pressure."


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