Friday, December 16, 2011

Another triumph of multiculturalism

Three would-be terrorists jailed for plotting Sydney army base attack

THREE would-be terrorists who plotted an armed attack on a Sydney army base remained defiant after they were jailed for 13 years today.

Justice Betty King told Wissam Fattal, 35, of Melbourne, Saney Edow Aweys, 28, of Carlton, and Nayef El Sayed, 27, of Glenroy they planned a horrific and evil attack on the Australian community. Justice King said it was troubling that none of the three had renounced their extreme Islamic views and they would remain a threat to the community even after they are released.

"None of you, not one, has recanted from any extremist view you held," said the judge. "The protection of the community remains a very significant factor."

In her Supreme Court sentence, Justice King said the planned attack on the Holsworthy army base would have resulted in the deaths of a number of innocent people.

Fattal, who has caused trouble consistently in court, had to be removed before the sentence commenced after he started shouting about "Jews, Palestine and Afghanistan". He was dragged out by security officers. At the end of the sentence El Sayed shouted "God is with us" as a woman wept hysterically in the public benches.

Justice King set maximum terms of 18 years. Almost a year after they were convicted, Fattal, Aweys and El Sayed faced justice.

Family members, friends and supporters of the trio packed the public benches and balcony of Supreme Court number three. As the men were led into court they laughed, waved and gestured to the supporters, looking completely unconcerned.

Their trial heard that Operation Martyrdom was planned to create mayhem at Sydney's lightly guarded Holsworthy army base, with the men using high-powered weapons to gun down as many army personnel as possible.

The Supreme Court jury, which convicted the trio but found two other men not guilty, deliberated for more than 45 hours after a marathon trial that lasted 12 weeks.

The jury heard the home-grown terror plot was designed to bring a fatwa down on Australia and it had its genesis in the seething anger among a small group of Muslim men, some of them refugees, over their belief Islam was under attack from the West. In secretly recorded conversations, the plotters, all of whom attended inner city mosques, talked of their contempt for Australians and their plans to take out "five, six, eight or 10" soldiers. Fattal was recorded saying:"If I find a way to kill the army, I'm gonna do it."

The men were found guilty of conspiring with each other and people unknown between February 1 and August 4, 2009 to do acts in preparation for, or planning a terrorist act or acts.

They were believed to be connected with the Somali-based terrorist group al-Shabaab, and it was alleged the group tried to obtain a fatwa, or religious decree, justifying the attack.

The jury viewed CCTV footage of Fattal taking a train to the Holsworthy base and walking along a perimeter fence and towards the blockhouse at the front gate. Fattal later told his co-conspirators: "The work is easy".


UQ vice-chancellor Paul Greenfield's relative hand-picked for medical school position despite not meeting requirements

NEW details have emerged in the enrolment scandal which will today cost University of Queensland vice-chancellor Paul Greenfield his million-dollar job.

A memo buried on the university's website has revealed how a "close relative" of Professor Greenfield was hand-picked for the prized medical course despite failing to qualify during the admissions process.

The relative, who is not named in the memo, was ushered in following a meeting last January 11 between the scholarships office, the Dean of Medicine and the then-acting vice-chancellor.

The meeting took place on the same day that southeast Queenslanders were warned of the massive floodwaters headed for the region, including UQ's St Lucia campus.

"The applicant had an OP1 ranking but did not have the requisite UMAT (Undergraduate Medicines and Health Sciences Admission Test) aggregate score or a score of at least 50 in each sub-category and was not the recipient of a scholarship," the memo says.

"The circumstances and consequences of this offer were the subject of an independent investigation and resulted in the Vice-Chancellor and Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor resigning from their positions at the university."

On November 5, The Courier-Mail revealed the scandal which struck at the heart of an institution receiving more than $800 million of taxpayer funds each year.

Prof Greenfield was permitted to stay on until midway through next year. Last week, UQ chancellor John Story announced that the vice-chancellor would relinquish control of the university today because he "could no longer fully discharge his duties in a way that either he would like or which the university could expect".

The memo from office of planning director Ken Richardson centres around UMAT - an independently run exam to test students who want to enter medicine without first obtaining an undergraduate degree.

The memo shows that when scholarship staff noticed some UQ vice-chancellor's scholarship holders had missed out on entry into medicine because of lower UMAT scores it was decided between the Scholarships Office, the dean of medicine and Professor Michael Keniger, who was acting Vice-Chancellor at the time, to make them special offers of places.

Three students of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent also were offered places under the university's alternative entry scheme. At that stage, the "close relative" of the Vice-Chancellor also received an offer of a place in medicine, the memo says. The memo continues that no student was disadvantaged.

The details come as UQ faces an embarrassing new crisis with medical school bosses threatening to discipline student doctors who used an anonymous email to taunt the student at the centre of the nepotism scandal.

Dr Jennifer Schafer, head of the MBBS program, and Malcolm Parker, associate professor of medical ethics and law, wrote to all medical students warning them they faced "serious misconduct" charges for ridiculing a student in an email.

It also follows confirmation from the Crime and Misconduct Commission that it had not closed the books on the enrolment scandal. The CMC is waiting on the university to respond to a new series of questions and says the case is far from over. But it declined to reveal any new lines of inquiry.

A university spokeswoman confirmed the existence of the memo on the UQ website but refused to give any further explanation of the close relative's admission.

Asked if it was hypocritical of the university to discipline students for unacceptable behaviour when they complain about the university's admitted unacceptable procedures, she said any misconduct was dealt with according to rules posted on the UQ website.


Australian Schools steer clear of Christmas

CHRISTMAS greetings, nativity scenes and carols are under attack in a growing number of Australian schools, kinders, businesses and organisations.

As our cultural diversity increases, more people are trying to secularise the holidays or appeal to a broad range of faiths, rather than just Christians celebrating Christmas.

After 39 years of nativity plays and carol-singing, Albert Park Preschool no longer celebrates Christmas. It is having an End of Year Concert rather than a Christmas concert, and there will be no nativity play or Christmas carols.

The final newsletter to parents does not mention Christmas, instead wishing parents a "happy holiday season" and a "count down towards holidays and a variety of celebrations".

"We are a community kindergarten and our community is very mixed in terms of a variety of cultures and beliefs," teacher Melissa Popley said. "I believe - and I have had to convert others about this - that to focus on just one religion is not inclusive of our kinder community."

Ms Popley said children chose to sing non-carol Christmas songs at the concert, including Jingle Bells and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. The only Christmas decoration is one tree made of tinsel and decorated with children's hand prints, she said. Ms Popley said the new approach was a reflection of the new teaching framework that requires preschools to "show respect for diversity".

Kerrimuir Primary School in Box Hill is wishing its students "Happy Holidays" rather than Merry Christmas on its
website this year.

Other schools to opt for "Happy Holidays" include Sandringham College and Bright P-12 College. Hundreds of Victorian companies are also now using Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas in messages.

Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Helen Szoke said people shouldn't feel shy about celebrating Christmas. "If employers with a diverse work force want to tailor additional greetings then they could do so," she said.


Speech cannot be free in a net of regulation

STUART Littlemore, QC - commanding, eloquent and, in the words of one senior journalist to me, overweeningly arrogant - took his seat at the independent media inquiry.

"The previous woman is wrong," he opened, referring to an AAP representative. "She mistakes error for defamation." It had taken just seconds for his pugnacity to assert itself.

In Littlemore's testimony could be found a snapshot of the cultural fault-line defining the inquiry. Crudely, it divides journalists and media proprietors from those who conceived and administer the inquiry - the federal government and judges and lawyers. (Inquiry head Ray Finkelstein's deputy, Matthew Ricketson, is, however, a former journalist and current journalism academic.)

It's a fault-line defined by rival professional instincts - free speech and self-regulation on one side, and reform and regulation on the other.

Jonathan Holmes, host of the ABC's Media Watch, put it to me this way: "Ray Finkelstein is contrary to the basic instincts of those appearing. I think the media are basically anti-regulatory, and the judiciary are regulatory by nature." Holmes added that it would be "primeval", for instance, to begin issuing "media licences".

Littlemore's opening line about mistaking error for defamation struck at the heart of most journalists' testimonies: that common and criminal law, combined with a cultural sense of propriety and market competition, is sufficient regulation and provides those mistreated by malicious or inaccurate stories with vindication or compensation.

"The brutal reality," Littlemore said, "is that if a case is settled, lawyers get less money. The reality is, lawyers keep cases going too long … Plaintiffs can't afford to sue, mostly."

It's a difficult point to ignore: if we argue that the law provides for those injured by journalistic excess, we must also accept that there are serious hurdles to accessing said justice.

The competing professional reflexes of the media and the judiciary are not the only fault-line of these proceedings. A deep lack of trust is, also.

I spoke to Margaret Simons, media writer for Crikey, author of Journalism at the Crossroads and a witness at the Sydney hearings; Errol Simper, the 33-year veteran media writer at The Australian; and Jonathan Holmes - and none was in any doubt as to the motivations of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy in establishing the inquiry. "It's clearly politically motivated," Simons said. The rest felt the same. "Who is Ray Finkelstein?" Simper asked. "Why was he appointed? Is he mates with Conroy?"

Contradictions abound. The media inquiry hasn't piqued passions here in the way the Leveson inquiry has in Britain, and for good reason: the industrialised corruption and sordid nexus of police, politicians and press men in Britain hasn't been replicated here.

"Not yet," some say, as a way of arguing for press regulation, while others argue that it's absurd and offensive to pre-emptively compare our press with Britain's. This is just one of many irreconcilable tensions.

Avaaz, an activist organisation that claims 250,000 Australian members, gave testimony at the Sydney hearings. I expected Jacobin zealotry, but listened instead to a young, polite and well-spoken young man. Still, I gritted my teeth as I listened to his anaemic mantra: "We need more diversity."

It was put to him that the internet provided an increasing spectrum of independent news and opinion sites, but this was dismissed. "We don't think it's enough." He didn't have any suggestions, really, about how to compel this into existence.

I would have also put it to our young man that the media mogul is a phenomenon in decline, and that if he feels not enough Australians are reading "intelligent" sources, I would remind him that it is not the job of government to corral people to "approved" news sources or to legislate for people's intelligence or political interest.

It's also true to say that a concentration of ownership does not equal a concentration of opinion. There are more thoughtful arguments, though, for press regulation.

Only yesterday did a friend say to me that you don't hear engineers boast that if their industry wasn't up to scratch - if a lack of professional standards meant that any building you occupied could collapse - that society, like their shoddy workmanship, would fall apart.

They don't say this - and it might be ridiculous if they did - but it is undeniably true. The same applies to doctors and nurses and so many other professions.

"Journalism," Stuart Littlemore said, "is not a profession. There's no accountability whatever. It may be a craft, but it is not a profession. I feel very strongly about this. There are no enforceable professional standards."

He's right. But does it matter? The media is arguably no more important than doctors or nurses or pilots for a safe and stable society, and, however noble the defence of free speech by journalists, it is an arrogance and a sense of exceptionalism that promotes it above all other principles. It's an axiom, too, that free speech must be accompanied by responsibilities.

But free speech is a principle different to, say, engineering integrity, in that it's a principle best served by an absence of regulation. This seems to me to be a reasonable philosophical basis for media exceptionalism.

The thoughtful Jay Rosen, in a recent piece for The Drum, detailed a troubling culture in News Ltd - and one that's been echoed to me by former News journos - but if you read Rosen's piece through, he could not come up with any regulatory solution, just the suggestion of more external and internal criticism. Fine.

And here's the rub: to state that you find Today Tonight or The Australian or 2GB repugnant is not clever or useful, however deep your conviction. If there are problems, then the road to regulation is a difficult one, delicately balancing freedom of speech with protections of the individual. This requires a sobriety and a humility that have been sorely lacking.


Private schools all but vanquished from top 10 list

Select your pupils on academic ability and then find that those students outperform students who are not selected that way? Not much of a surprise!

THE stellar performance of students at NSW selective high schools continues apace with only one private school, Moriah College, making the top 10 of the Herald's annual list of top-performing schools as judged by HSC results. Sydney Grammar (ninth last year, now 12th) and SCEGGS Darlinghurst (13th) both dropped from the top 10 this year.

James Ruse again topped the rankings, based on HSC subject scores of more than 90 compared with number of students. Among the elite academic schools, North Sydney Boys produced particularly outstanding results, moving from eighth to second place.

Yesterday 71,415 students began accessing their HSC results from 6am; this morning from 9am those who hope to enter university will learn their ATAR university entrance rank.

There were 31 non-government schools in the Herald's top 50, including Wenona, with its results helped by Madeleine Pulver, the Sydney schoolgirl who had a fake collar bomb chained to her neck at her home in August. Madeleine scored more than 90 in advanced English.

A slim majority (52.3 per cent) of the 16,420 students on the Distinguished Achievers List - those with a result of more than 90 in a subject - are from non-government schools. Some 36.7 per cent are from independent schools and 15.6 per cent from Catholic systemic schools.

The principal at North Sydney Boys', Robyn Hughes, said selective schools would "share the love". "The selective school principals are an incredibly collaborative network," she said. "We meet on a regular basis through the year and we share in each other's successes."

But Ms Hughes rejected any suggestion her school was an "academic hothouse". "It's not about that coaching culture; it's about the holistic development of these young men, really getting them engaged in a wider world and seeing beyond themselves.

"This group of young men have done a lot outside of just pursuing academic excellence and that's what I think is the secret of their success. It's a balancing act, but that's where they get joy and engagement and, ironically, the busier they are the more organised they have to be with their study."

Julie Greenhalgh, the principal of Meriden, which rose from 53rd to 18th, said the improvement was the result of strong departmental leadership and changes at the school. "I think we're seeing the fruit of some very, very good programs in our junior school and our junior secondary years, really focusing on the quality of teaching and learning," she said.

Hunter Valley Grammar School leapt from 199 to 51. The principal, Paul Teys, said it was the school's best result on record. "We've been on a journey the last few years to lift our performance so these kids have been part of that strategy and they are the beneficiaries of the whole school effort in lifting the HSC performance," he said.

That strategy included a focus on individual or small tutorials, examination technique and information days, but he said the most effective was the relationship between the staff and students and students' involvement in their school. "We've got a young group of people who are really committed to their school and that's the most significant feature of these results," Mr Teys said.


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