Saturday, October 22, 2011

A thirst for knowledge of ancient history and religion in NSW schools

Rev. Peter Kurti

Rising levels of school retention rates have contributed to record enrolments for this year’s HSC exams, with nearly 23,000 students taking part.

But some interesting and surprising trends have emerged from these figures. While the sciences have held steady according to the NSW Board of Studies, some subjects are fading in their appeal.

Interest in geography has declined steadily since 1998; the same trend can be seen in modern history, economics and information technology, according to figures from the Board of Studies.

It seems that students are now reaching further back into the story of early human civilisation, with ancient history studies increasing in popularity. Only 6,740 students opted for the topic in 1995 – in 2010, that figure doubled to 12,269.

Religion has also surged in popularity with a mere 4,834 students sitting the exam in 1995. Fast forward to 2010 and that figure had risen to 14,182.

Not that The Sydney Morning Herald considered it necessary to mention this, let alone its significance, in a recent article about the changing mindset of students.

According to the NSW Board of Studies, ‘religion has been and is an integral part of human experience and a component of every culture,’ and the increased enrolments suggest students are increasingly aware of this fact.

Through the study of religion, students are gaining an appreciation of society and how it has influenced human behaviour in different cultures. And they seem to be thinking this through for themselves. Perhaps they have also grown weary of sneering secularism and the postmodern scepticism about religion in popular culture.


Backlash brews for plans for a massive expansion of wind farms in Queensland

THE war between farmers and energy companies has moved into a new phase with the emergence of plans for a massive expansion of wind farms in Queensland.

Some farmers in the South Burnett have already walked away from lucrative payouts from wind farm companies of $140,000 a year because of feared impacts on their health and their business.

While the struggle against coal seam gas, coal mines and underground coal gasification rages in other parts of the state, companies like AGL and Ratch (formerly Transfield) are pushing investment of about $3 billion in wind farm technology and getting support from farmers.

The Energy Users Association this week released a report showing Australia will need to spend about $30 billion on wind farms by 2020 to meet with the Government's renewable energy targets.

But there is also a backlash based on apparent impacts on the health of those living near similar facilities in South Australia and Victoria, as well as north Queensland.

Colin Walkden lives about 400m from the Windy Hill wind turbine, near Ravenshoe, in north Queensland, and is on medication for depression because of sleep loss allegedly caused by the constant noise from turbines.

"It's like no other noise you have ever heard," he said describing it as a strong whooshing sound that persists with a westerly wind. "That's about 90 per cent of the year."

South Australian farmer Andy Thomas lives near six turbines at Mt Bryan. In an affidavit in a case against the wind farm, Mr Thomas said the turbine noise was like a jet passing overhead.

"From my home, I can hear five or more turbines at the same time, so it is like having five or more jets overhead at once. At its worst it is like living next to a ball mill of the type used at mines to crush ore," he said.

AGL is now planning a $1 billion, 115 tower wind farm at Coopers Gap, in the South Burnett, while a second project at Kumbia at the base of the Bunya Mountains for about 50 towers has been stalled by farmer opposition. There is also a $1.5 billion plan for 300 turbines outside Mt Isa and other smaller proposals across the state.

Coopers Gap horse breeder Brian Lyons has rejected advances from AGL, despite a potentially big payout of $12,000 a year for each of the 20 turbines planned on his property.

"It's quite a good business for some of (the farmers), but I'm only going to live once," he said.

Despite his rejecting the approach, his neighbours are backing the scheme and it is possible Mr Lyons will still have turbines on his boundary only a short distance from his house.

He said there were at least four wind farm proposals in southern Queensland, with his own community faced with a large new industry that initially they knew very little about.

While the industry maintains the wind farms generate only a small amount of noise, several residents complain it is as loud as a jet engine and that the noise is directional, meaning some residents may not hear it while others will.

"I don't think a company with noise problems at its last operating wind farm should be treated any different to any other industry in Queensland," Mr Lyons said.

Local councillor Cheryl Dalton said low-frequency vibration was also an issue. "I don't understand why consideration hasn't been given to buying all the affected properties," she said.

As yet, there is no planning application before the South Burnett Council and there is confusion over whether it or the State Government will be the one who assesses the development.

Kumbia cattle farmer Paul Newman rallied local residents to a community meeting which overwhelmingly rejected a plan by Next Wind for a 53-turbine farm nearby. His compensation offer was worth about $140,000 a year, but he considered the project just as intrusive to his neighbours and the local community as that of a mine or an industrial development.

"Money is not the solution to everything," he said. He said that to live in a rural community you had to consider your neighbours and how a future project might hurt them.


Global recession the last nail in carbon tax coffin?

Christopher Pearson tries out his crystal ball

THERE now seems to be an even chance that there will be a global recession by the middle of next year.

More than any other consideration, the expected contraction in the national economy is likely to determine the timetable of Julia Gillard's departure from the prime ministership and the annointing of her successor.

I'll be surprised if Gillard survives the next six weeks, because her replacement will need all the time he can get to try to refresh the government before going to an election around Easter. Even if Stephen Smith's poll ratings were not worse than Gillard's, the timing dictates that Rudd -- the once and future king -- is the only realistic option.

It is a given across the political class that, even if the government goes to the polls with its aspirations to a surplus more or less intact, it won't be re-elected in a recession. Federal Labor's hope will be not to win but to minimise the losses by going early.

Rudd will become unstoppable, in spite of the Right's faction leaders who fear retribution, because there are so many members on slender margins who otherwise expect to lose their seats.

At the moment, as many as 40 seats are considered at risk. Gillard has been making a lot of unforced errors and everyone in caucus knows it. It will be a case of "to the life boats, every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost".

Rudd has another advantage because the troubled economic times will suit him. Deservedly or otherwise, he's been given most of the credit for negotiating Australia's path through the global financial crisis Mark I, rather than Wayne Swan, who is a hopeless salesman. Rudd's return would guarantee Swan's departure from the Treasury, because the prospects of them being able to work together are negligible. Swan has been looking very haggard of late, as though he's just begun to understand the predicament he's in and would be glad to be relieved of his responsibilities.

Who would Rudd want as his Treasurer? Chris Bowen has a claim, having been his numbers man and having economic portfolio experience, although his star is scarcely in the ascendant after the Malaysian fiasco. On the principle of keeping your friends close and your enemies even closer, it might be Bill Shorten, the Assistant Treasurer, who helped precipitate the last palace coup. Another contender, simply on the basis of competence, is Greg Combet, currently Climate Change Minister.

There are some commentators who think it would be mad for Rudd Redux to defer the carbon tax, let alone allow the public to vote on the issue before introducing it and provide the Coalition with the chance to claim they have a mandate to junk the tax. But to read the politics of the issue in this way seems to me wrong-headed. Half the reason for Gillard's dire predicament is betraying a categorical assurance and then imagining she could get away with bare-faced lying about the promise.

A global recession would be the ideal vehicle for deferring the tax, because it is going to have a contractionary effect on the economy and deprive major export industries of their competitive advantage. Combet, who is more economically literate than most ministers, would be the ideal person to sell a change of policy while retaining his bona fides as a carbon tax advocate.

On the theme of outposting, there have been reports that Gillard has vowed to vacate her seat if she loses office.

If this were intended to discourage the back bench from drifting to Rudd, it's an empty threat. Even if the worst came to the worst, parliament could rise early and the government could continue in office. Gillard's seat of Lalor is safe enough so that she could be replaced at a by-election before parliament resumes in February.

However, the prospect of her removal raises the interesting question of what her other options are. Rudd wouldn't want her in his cabinet at any price, but could she bear the humiliation of demotion to the outer ministry -- in a scaled-down Social Inclusion ministry, Veterans' Affairs or some such -- or would she prefer to go to the backbench?

It is a measure of how much trouble Gillard is in right now that her main rhetorical thrust in the past week has been to try and persuade people that Tony Abbott neither could nor would want to repeal the carbon tax if it comes into force before the next election.

It is a curious line of attack, in that it reminds everyone who opposes the tax of the way it's been foisted on them and feeds into popular resentment of the democratic deficit involved.

It doesn't matter what she or Swan say now about Labor's determination to oppose the repeal of the tax to the bitter end. They aren't likely to be around then, and even if they were to be in opposition after the next election, would anybody in a smaller caucus be listening to them on the basis of their performance in leadership roles in the past four years?

Even if the caucus consisted mostly of senators in the first and second spot on each state ticket and people in safe seats with a sentimental attachment to the carbon tax, would they be silly enough to oppose repealing it and risk a second defeat at a double dissolution?

They might be, I suppose. But it would be a very expensive folly. No doubt Abbott will turn the next election into a referendum on the tax. A major party that chose to disregard the result could expect a second, more painful lesson to underscore the point that politicians do so at their peril. It's also worth noting that a double dissolution election needn't take long to procure. All it takes is legislation being defeated twice.

There is no need to wait for the newly elected senators to take their places in July of the following year. The whole process could be completed in less that a year. No one who knows Abbott well doubts his determination to deliver on his promise to defeat the carbon tax.


Health boss dodges facts on surgery wait lists

THE WA Health Department has hit back at revelations that increasing numbers of public patients are waiting too long for surgery - including those with cancer and heart problems.

As revealed on the PerthNow iPad last night, the number of people waiting for Category One elective surgery longer than clinically prescribed times, rose a whopping 52 per cent - 134 as at June 30, 2011, compared with 88 at the same time last year.

The figures were in the Metropolitan Health Service Annual Report, tabled in Parliament on Tuesday.

Category One includes patients needing operations to remove their prostate, uterus and gall bladder, those who need cystoscopies, which check for cancer, and also coronary artery bypass graft patients.

People waiting too long for Category Three elective surgery, such as operations to replace knees and hips, also increased in number, with 238 as at June 30, 2011, compared with 160 at the same time the previous year - a rise of 49 per cent.

But WA Health Department director-general Kim Snowball quoted a monthly elective surgery wait list report when responding to the annual report figures, and used percentages to respond to the raw figures in the PerthNow iPad report.

"The percentage of metropolitan patients waiting for elective surgery longer than the clinically desirable time was lower in June 2011 (11 per cent) compared to June 2010 (12.1 per cent)," he said.

He also used state-wide figures rather than metropolitan ones to discuss the metropolitan elective surgery figures when saying: "There was an increase state-wide in the number of cases admitted from the wait list, for example 7,016 admissions in June 2011, compared to 6,933 in June 2010.

"There has been an increase state-wide in the number of surgeries performed in 2009/10 -- 76,195 cases, to 2010/11 - 80,270 cases, which is an overall increase of 5.3 per cent," he said.

The annual report also said that emergency department patients waited too long for treatment, with the proportion of triage Category Three patients seen within the prescribed time of 30 minutes, falling from 48.4 per cent of the total in 2009-10 to 43.2 per cent in 2010-11.

The percentage of Triage Category Four patients seen on time (60 minutes) fell from 58.4 per cent in 2009-10, to 57.5 per cent in 2010-11.

The proportion of Triage Category Five patients treated within the prescribed time of two hours decreased from 88.8 per cent in 2009-10 to 85.6 per cent in 2010-11.

Mr Snowball said: "In the face of an 11.6 per cent increase in Emergency Department presentations in the metropolitan area, we are continuing to see 98.8 per cent of the most urgent (category one) patients immediately".

"It is not unexpected that we have seen a slight reduction in our performance for the less urgent category three and four patients, and we are looking at what we can do to improve this," he said.

"Overall, our patients are spending far less time waiting in emergency departments thanks to the ongoing success of the Four Hour Rule program."

The annual report also showed that the survival rate of stroke patients aged 60-69 in public hospitals also decreased significantly in 2010, with 89.7 per cent surviving, compared with 92.5 per cent in 2009.

Opposition health spokesman Roger Cook said the Barnett Government had been the recipient of "many millions of dollars from the Commonwealth Government" to increase the number of patients operated on for elective surgery.

"What these numbers indicate is that the WA Government has comprehensively failed in that objective and that many people, particularly in the Category One most urgent elective surgery cases, are waiting longer than is clinically recommended," Mr Cook said.

"Category One would be things like cancer operations, it would be some acute orthopaedic operations. That is an acutely unwell patient that needs to be operated on as soon as possible or urgently, and the fact that we've seen a blow out in those patients' waiting time is of great concern."

A spokesman for peak doctor's group, the Australian Medical Association WA, said the AMA was very concerned about "any indication that waiting lists are blowing out or that people are waiting too long for operations".

"As one of the wealthiest states in Australia, we must do all we can to make sure that patients receive the appropriate surgery as soon as possible," the spokesman said.

"Time spent waiting is very often time spent in pain and this is inappropriate.

"We will be studying the annual report and seeking more detailed information as quickly as possible from the Health Minister."


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