Monday, August 01, 2011


In his latest offering, conservative Australian cartoonist ZEG mocks the insincerity of Leftist "protesters"

For overseas readers, the mask in the toon is a caricature of John Howard, Australia's most recent conservative Prime Minister

Everybody forced to pay for flood insurance even though most are not in flood affected areas?

Insurance is already a major cost item for many -- and people living in flood affected areas get their houses very cheaply so surely they could afford to pay for their own flood insurance

EVERY Queensland household could be forced to pay higher premiums or taxes to subsidise insurance cover for people in flood-prone areas.

A federal insurance review panel - established in the wake of Queensland's summer of disasters - is set to recommend policyholders, taxpayers or ratepayers fork out more money to help make insurance more affordable for "high-risk" households.

The proposed hike comes as Premier Anna Bligh prepares to hand down the Holmes Flood Commission of Inquiry's draft report into the floods and Cyclone Yasi tomorrow. The twin disasters left Queensland with a $6.8 billion damage bill.

The head of the Federal Government's independent Natural Disaster Review Panel, John Trowbridge, admitted the proposal was unlikely to be popular.

"If it came all from insurance policyholders then basically you might have to pay $20 to $30 on top of your premiums to cover the risk for the high-flood ones," he said. "If it were ratepayers, then your council rates may be $20 or $30-a-year higher."

Asked how a proposal would be sold to the public, Mr Trowbridge said, "that's an interesting question. In a sense, that's a dilemma".

The review, to be handed to Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten by the end of September, was sparked after concerns about the availability and affordability of insurance following Queensland's twin flood and cyclone disasters.

"There needs to be a way of dealing with the high-risk properties and that's probably going to involve some form of discount to people with a higher-risk property, or at least some of the people," Mr Trowbridge told The Sunday Mail.

Households with flood-prone properties would still pay more for insurance than those in low-risk areas, but they would receive a discount to help make their premiums more affordable.

It could encourage households not to opt out of insurance and would leave taxpayers with a smaller damage bill after the next natural disaster.

"One of the challenges ... is to figure out when we say it's (insurance) affordable and where we put them (high-risk property owners) into the scheme," he said.


Church school bans lesbian partners

STUDENTS at a leading Perth girls school have launched a campaign for the right to bring same-sex partners to their school formal.

A group of more than 40 past and present St Mary's Anglican Girls School students have confronted school authorities and started a Facebook campaign to argue for better gay rights. But they say school bosses are refusing to back down and have told them that bringing a same-sex partner to the school ball is "inappropriate".

WA Equal Opportunity Commissioner Yvonne Henderson said the school could be breaching the Equal Opportunities Act by discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

Kia Groom, 24, who graduated from St Mary's in 2003 is leading the campaign. She said she formed the online group St Mary's Anglican Girls School Diversity this month. She said "there are students at the school who don't feel comfortable" and the school policy was "damaging".

Other former students claimed the school chaplain, who is a member of the Facebook group and supported acceptance of gay students, was fired for being "too different" and "open-minded".

St Mary's declined to answer questions when contacted several times this week.

Ms Groom said gay rights had been raised many times at the school and each year students had elected representatives to approach the principal about bringing same-sex partners to the formal. And each year they were denied. Students were now determined to change the policy ahead of the next formal early next year. "To me that is just unacceptable and it just shocked me ... there was no further explanation as to why," Ms Groom said.

"As a result, my school ball experience was fairly sub-par because I didn't get to spend the night with who I wanted to ... the whole thing was tarnished."

Ms Groom, who is bisexual, said coming to terms with her sexuality was made more difficult by the school. She said it tried to "nip lesbian behaviour in the bud".

Association of Independent Schools of WA executive director Valerie Gould said schools could make their own policies.

The Education Department said it supported healthy growth and development of students and ensured people were treated fairly in public schools.

But Ms Yvonne Henderson said though there were some exceptions for religious schools, anyone had the right to lodge a complaint if they felt they had been treated "less favourably". "Our stance is the Act and the Act makes it quite clear that it is unlawful," she said.

Gay and Lesbian Equality WA co-convenor Kitty Hawkins said other public and private schools had similar policies. Some public school students were required to meet school heads to "prove they were gay" or in a same-sex relationship before being allowed to bring a same-sex partner.

"I understand that many single-sex schools wish to foster environments where they are able to mix with other genders, but this is still an inadequate reason (to exclude same-sex couples)," she said. "Same-sex attraction and trans-genderism are not contagious and allowing one or two same-sex couples to attend a dance together will not insinuate that the entire year will then follow suit."

Ms Hawkins said same-sex couples and trans-gendered students were bullied and teased, which often led to mental illness, self-harm, substance abuse and even suicide. "Schools public or private have an obligation towards their students to ensure that they are able to learn within an environment that is safe, respectful and accepting," she said. "To bar same-sex couples from a dance sends a strong message. For a young person in such an environment, this can be devastating."


Grazing and farming land taken over to offset carbon

FARMERS fear a new rush of environmental plantings for biodiversity and carbon offsets will accelerate the loss of land for food production.

In an emerging trend, carbon traders are starting to buy farms to generate carbon credits for sale under voluntary schemes or - assuming legislation clears the Senate - the federal government's Carbon Farming Initiative.

Storing carbon dioxide through reforestation and other techniques such as soil carbon opens up a potentially vast new market opportunity for rural Australia. The president of the NSW Farmers Federation, Fiona Simson, said while farmers supported the CFI, "carbon farming with a focus on forestry plantations is just another land-use conflict that's going to take land away from food production".

The first acquisition linked to the CFI occurred last week. The federal government and R.M. Williams Agricultural Holdings combined to pay $13 million for Henbury Station in the Northern Territory outback, to be transformed into the world's largest carbon farm.

In NSW the value of land bought by carbon traders for carbon offsets in 2010-11 was tiny: the Herald has confirmed one sale last year, of a 1700-hectare sheep and grain farm, Lorraine at Tullamore, in the state's far west, to the stock exchange-listed CO2 Group and utility ACTEW Corporation.

The chief executive of CO2 Group, Andrew Grant, said the property was marginal farming land and had been planted with blue leaf mallee eucalypt, a species endemic to the region. Reforestation was a priority for combating dry land salinity and restoring catchment health.

Mr Grant said his company, which managed 16,000 hectares across three states - almost half the 40,000 hectares under carbon forestry nationally - did not set out to own land and only bought when it had offset contracts to honour. "We don't prospect, we don't land bank," he said.

Robert Gill, who sold Lorraine, said he was nearing retirement age and his son was entrenched in another career. He had his merino sheep and cereal farming operation on the market for a few years before getting an offer near market price from CO2 Group. "There were not too many buyers about. I felt if I let these people go I might not find another buyer for a while."

However, Mr Gill said the farm was still productive and he was sad to see it go under trees after spending his "whole lifetime cleaning it up". "I'm very sceptical about the whole thing, to be honest," he said.

Where mining projects threaten endangered species, governments can require mining companies to buy land with biodiversity value to offset any impact. These acquisitions, worth almost $33 million, were a significant portion of the Herald's review of land sales in 2010-11.

In February, the Rio Tinto subsidiary Coal & Allied paid $23.4 million for a 9956-hectare stretch of land between Merriwa and Cassilis in the Upper Hunter, including the St Antoine grazing property owned by the cattleman Tony Maurici's Castlebar Holdings. Coal & Allied has confirmed these acquisitions would not be mined but were bought as biodiversity offsets as a condition for expanding mining in the Hunter.

In a presentation to investors last week the company said it had spent $40 million this year on offset acquisitions linked to its proposed Mount Pleasant coalmine near Muswellbrook. The Swiss miner Xstrata has also joined in, paying more than $8.4 million through the property agent Brunskill Pty Ltd for a series of farms in the Muswellbrook area, totalling 4419 hectares.

This payment was omitted from the Herald's Saturday story which reviewed mining purchases across the state; its inclusion pushes mining purchases above $120 million.


Values in dispute: secularism and tolerance in Australian education

By theologian Joel Hodge

Religious education in schools remains a vexed question for our society that no longer knows what to believe - or perhaps knows too well what it believes (or at least, certain sections of the population do), particularly as some turn towards more activist forms of agnosticism and atheism. For example, in Victoria, certain groups, including The Age, continue to protest against religious education in its present form (e.g., The God Complexity, The Age, 24/7).

These "secular" or atheist groups are arrayed against religious education for various reasons. Some of these reasons coalesce around certain arguments, particularly to do with tolerance and secularism. Since these groups and The Age rarely define tolerance and secularism in any depth, it might be worth reflecting on the use of these terms for the current debate. I will give a succinct rendition of these arguments, and analyse the problems with these arguments.

Firstly, tolerance: it is argued that Australia is a multi-religious, multicultural society that should not impose certain religious beliefs on people, but should be tolerant of different beliefs, with the implication that different religions should be studied alongside each other. The first point that one should note about this argument is that it is a belief: tolerance is a belief and value that structures how we see and behave toward each other. No-one can scientifically prove tolerance to be a valid or fool-proof way of running a society. Certain facts can be argued in its favour, but in the end, it can only be believed as a good and fruitful way of relating and acting (as it is in the West, though not necessarily in other places). I personally believe that tolerance can be a positive force in some circumstances, though it is not enough to have a successful society. Tolerance often sounds more like forbearance to me, rather than real acceptance of and engagement with the other.

The second point that one can notice about modern tolerance is that it is a belief that subjects other beliefs to it. In other words, it equalises different beliefs or social forces by subjecting them to its form of belief. In the case of "religion", it subjects the more prevalent forms (such as Christianity) to itself in order to control them, and then, equalise them with smaller forms. It may just to give smaller belief systems a chance to profess what they believe. This is not what modern tolerance is only about, however. It involves a power-play by the dominant elite to subject those social movements and beliefs to itself.

This second point, then, leads to my third point: tolerance is usually not real tolerance in our society, and because of this, we apply tolerance selectively for particular gain. For example, in the realm of sport, we allow many different sporting expressions in Australian society, however we do not reduce the more dominant forms, such as AFL, to the level of the less popular forms, such as bowling or synchronised swimming, by giving them the same media exposure or forcing children to learn and play them, out of tolerance. If we did, we would probably have widespread civil unrest. Real tolerance is not subjecting everything to the same playing field, but allowing different religious and cultural forms to exist in their own way. Do we really do this in Australian society? Do we really allow different religio-cultural forms, such as New Zealanders, or Hinduis, or Arabic cultures, to exist in their own form? No, because there's an existing culture, language, belief system, and way of life in Australia to which other cultural forms adapt themselves.

Therefore, for the religious education debate, the argument about tolerance can be seen as a ruse to subject a certain dominant belief system (Christianity) to another, atheist secularism. Modern secularism has no great respect for different religious forms, but wishes to equalise and subject all of them to its agenda. This does not mean that "religion" can't be studied in some form in schools. I think it should, but we should be clear what religion is: it is not just Christianity or Islam, but involves studying all belief systems that structure how we think about ourselves and how we act toward each other, which could include forms of modern secularism, nationalism and sport.

Now to the second term that is used widely in the "religious education" debate: secularism. We are repeatedly told that we live in a secular society and that our education system is secular. Yet, the term "secular" is rarely defined. Often it is used to mean "anti-religion" (which really means certain forms of religion such as Christian) or "anti-sectarianism". Professor Peter Sherlock has given a short and insightful history of the debate over Christian education and secularism in Victoria schools (on the ABC religion & ethics page) that might help some to have a better appreciation of the complex history of this debate.

The way that secular is used in modern Australia usually means the exclusion of religion, specifically Christianity. Yet, the problem with this argument is that there is no way to properly define religion to the exclusion of other belief systems, such as nationalism, capitalism or sport. Furthermore, secular has not always meant "anti-religion". In some sense, it has meant the carving out of a space in which politics and religion are separate. However, we should note that in modern times the state took on particular powers in doing this, and over time, this has meant other incipient belief systems have taken over education and culture, such as forms of nationalism.

The final point to make in regards to this "secular" push is that it sees itself as defending a certain secular legacy against religious aggressiveness, which should not be allowed in the public realm. For example, the Christian educators in schools are made out by certain media agencies to be radical proselytisers imposing their beliefs on children. While this can happen, this kind of argument is unjust to the ordinary people trying to positively contribute to Australian society by affirming that children are loved, not just by imperfect humans but by their maker, God. Furthermore, it is a straw argument constructed to make out religious people as aggressors and secular people as righteous defenders. This kind of conflictual dualism is unhelpful to the debate and should be abandoned.

The defensiveness of certain groups in the religious education debate seems ultimately to do with the beliefs and values underlying Australian society. Each side to this debate has beliefs and values they wish to put forward, and we should be honest about this. Though this is not always the case, one of the problems with the state education system, as John Howard intimated, can be the lack of coherent and consistent beliefs and values that provide a foundation for children and society. This problem is an element in this debate that people often ignore (and contributes to the defensiveness of some). Christian churches (and others) have defined values that they offer, to which many parents are increasingly attracted as is shown by the growth in Christian schools and support for religious education (which, by the way, makes The Age's argument about moderate Christians turning against religious education dubious).

Nevertheless, some of the fear of Christian beliefs should also be better dispelled by Christians because, while Christianity does provide an over-arching framework for understanding our lives, it is not (and should not be) a closed system. God is often taken as the final answer, but God is just the beginning of a journey into the mystery of existence; one that Christians profess has to do with an open and affirming love which can orient us, but not control or overwhelm our freedom.

Therefore, we need to examine our beliefs in this debate much more deeply and not use smokescreens to cover our real intentions and agendas. In this way, we might be able to find common ground.


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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