Wednesday, February 15, 2012

One-sided climate lessons

LIBERAL senator Cory Bernardi has questioned why a national scientific program for children appears to be teaching only one side of the climate change debate.

During a Senate estimates hearing today, the South Australian senator quizzed the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) about the content of its Carbon Kids program.

Senator Bernardi said the program contained a note for teachers which said climate change was a complicated topic many found "daunting and confusing" and could be controversial, leading to many different opinions. "Yet the information that is produced and distributed to schoolchildren appears only to present a single opinion about what is driving climate change," he said.

"How can you explain that given that the explanatory note for teachers says it leads to many different opinions?"

He said the material contained a number of statements which lead to a single conclusion, that carbon dioxide was virtually solely responsible for driving climate change and presented a range of "apocalyptic scenarios".

The CSIRO's deputy chief executive for operations Mike Whelan said he had not personally seen the material, but envisaged that the program would be consistent with comments made to teachers. He told the senate committee the program had only become his responsibility three weeks ago, but he would examine the material.


An expensive coverup

MORE than $400,000 has been spent since September trying to hurry up the probe into allegations against Labor MP Craig Thomson's but the report is still at least a month away.

Directors of Fair Work Australia, which has been running the probe for more than three years, today admitted there were "legitimate questions" as to why the inquiry has taken so long.

And they told consultants KPMG would be holding an independent review of the investigation and the "unreasonably long time" it has taken.

They tried to speed up matters late last year. About half of the $900,000 the inquiry has been billed by the Solicitor-General for assistance in the inquiry went to attempts to hasten finalisation of the report. The admissions of tardiness are certain to be raised by the Opposition in Parliament.

However, directors of FWA told a Senate estimates committee the inquiry was unprecedented and part of the delay was that one respondent to the inquiry has not yet replied to a draft report. The directors said they were unable to name any of the respondents for legal reasons as the inquiry was still underway.

Since April, 2009, Fair Work Australia has been investigating claims, including alleged misuse of credit cards, against Craig Thomson when he was national secretary of the Health Services Union.

The Opposition is keen for a report to be finalised as an adverse finding could lead to charges against the Labor member for Dobelle, and a conviction force him out of Parliament. The Opposition also would consider a vote of no confidence against the Government he was a member of, based on an adverse finding.

The political sensitivity of the issue has added to pressure on FWA. "I'm of the view that on the face of it the investigation has taken an unreasonably long time," said FWA director Bernadette O'Neill today. "And that that raises legitimate questions as to why it has taken so long."

Ms O'Neill said, "These investigations are unprecedented in terms of size and scale and complexity and are unprecedented and only a very small number have been undertaken. So I do think there are inevitably lessons to be learned about the conduct of the investigations."

Another FWA director, Terry Nassios, acknowledged to the committee that the investigators had indicated late last year the final report would be ready in January. "As at mid-October...I was working on a timeline that by mid-November those letters (to respondents) would have been sent out," said Mr Nassios.

He had thought the investigation would be over by November-December. But he had "misjudged the quantity of material" needed for the letters. One person still has not responded and has until March 5 to do so. He expected a final report in March, because "obviously there is some interconnection between those responses and the final response".

Mr Nassios said the failed deadline became clear in early November. "Half of the cost of this investigation has been expended from September onwards in an attempt to finalise this as quickly as possible," he told the committee. "That is the expenditure with the Australian Government Solicitor.


Long wait for justice by the Chamberlains

"Inconclusive" coroner's finding to be overturned?

THE Northern Territory Coroner Elizabeth Morris is expected to make an early finding on February 24 on the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain, and might possibly make an announcement the same day, following written submissions about the propensity of dingoes to attack children.

The submissions focus on attacks on children, particularly on Fraser Island in Queensland.

Michael Chamberlain will be present with his lawyer, Stuart Tipple, who represented him at the time of the second coroner's inquest 30 years ago. Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, who lives in Western Australia, is expected to attend with her husband, Rick Creighton.

Azaria disappeared on August 17, 1980, from a tent at Ayers Rock. Then coroner Denis Barritt found 31 years ago that a dingo had taken the baby. But the finding was quashed in 1982 following scientific evidence that there had been foul play.

Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of murder, and her husband Michael of being an accessory after the fact later that year. The couple were exonerated after a royal commission found in 1987 that much of the scientific evidence was seriously flawed.

There is not expected to be any examination of witnesses on February 24. Ms Morris, who is operating under revised guidelines for coroner's inquests in the Northern Territory, has studied the 1995 finding of the third coroner in the case, John Lowndes.

Mr Lowndes said that although there was "considerable support for the view that a dingo may have taken Azaria, the evidence is not sufficiently clear, cogent or exact to reasonably support such a finding on the balance of probabilities".

The coroner also was "unable to be satisfied on the balance of probabilities that Azaria Chamberlain died at the hands of Alice Lynne Chamberlain" or that Michael Chamberlain had any involvement.

The finding was unsatisfactory to the Chamberlains, who believed there had always been evidence to support the dingo attack scenario, and they vowed to keep fighting to have the final piece put into place that will clear their names forever. Ms Morris is expected to be relatively brief in reasons for her decision.


A third of illegal boat arrivals in Australia to get visas

A THIRD of asylum seekers arriving by boat will be living in the community on bridging visas next year under a policy shift, the Immigration Department has revealed to a Senate hearing.

The department expects to save $400 million by moving asylum seekers out of detention centres and into the community, where bridging visas will require them to find accommodation and seek work. So far, only 257 bridging visas have been issued because the program only ramped up in December and January. Immigration Department deputy secretary Jackie Wilson said it is expected 6 per cent of asylum seekers would be released on bridging visas this year.

She said by 2012-13, the department expected 20 per cent of asylum seekers to be in community detention where the department provides housing and support; 30 per cent released on bridging visas; leaving just half of boat arrivals behind wire in detention.

The department has projected asylum seekers will arrive by boat at Christmas Island at a rate of 450 a month in 2012-13 in its budget figures. This figure was ridiculed by Liberal Senator Michaelia Cash. Immigration Department secretary Andrew Metcalfe admitted to the Senate committee that, in fact, about 1000 people arrived by boat in November 2011, and 693 arrived in December.

The Immigration Department's budget has continued to blow out due to the federal government's mandatory detention policy for boat arrivals, which has resulted in people being held for years in remote locations while they await the outcome of refugee claims and legal appeals. The department's contract with the private company that runs detention, Serco, is now worth $1 billion over four years.

After the parliamentary impasse on offshore processing Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced in October that mandatory detention would be retained for security, identity and health checks, but bridging visas would increasingly be used. The Immigration Department said yesterday it anticipated a transition period of six weeks when asylum seekers released from detention on bridging visas received support in the community, accessing 89 per cent of the welfare payment, paid by the Immigration Department.

Asylum seekers on bridging visas would have work rights and "the bulk of the group will be able to sustain themselves over time", said Ms Wilson.

The government has failed to gain the agreement of the opposition or Greens to pass its bill designed to overcome a High Court ban on the Malaysia refugee swap.

Independent MP Rob Oakeshott yesterday introduced to Parliament his own offshore processing bill, which he said could be a "circuit breaker". The bill would allow the transfer of refugees to countries that are members of the Bali Process, a regional forum on people smuggling.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the government would examine Mr Oakeshott's bill and seek legal advice before finalising its position.

But opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said Mr Oakeshott's bill was "a carbon copy of the government's bill", lowering expectations it would gain Coalition support.


An instructive episode showing again the folly of total reliance on computerization

When car electronics go wrong and lock you in -- It's primitive but carrying a tomahawk within reach may save your life

They can make modern motoring more comfortable, but electronics also have the potential to endanger lives. Modern cars may be more comfortable, cleaner and connected than ever, but they also have the potential to cause significant inconvenience, major traffic jams - or even endanger your life.

This morning an Audi A8's entire electrical system shut down while it was travelling south in the Eastern Distributor. It took two tow trucks to move it and caused extensive traffic jams.

Two years ago I discovered how badly things can go wrong with the electronics in modern cars when I was stuck in a $400,000 Porsche that locked me and my family in the parked car.

What turned out to be electronic interference with the transponder key caused by signals from the TV and radio towers near Artarmon on Sydney's north shore shut down all the electronics for the then-new four-door flagship.

Windows up, no air-conditioning and a car that refused to start. After 45 minutes of a cabin fast heating up - and calls to the police and Porsche's assistance line - it quickly turned into a frightening experience. Especially with a none-too-impressed wife and a newborn baby on board.

It ended when a window was smashed from the outside, allowing us to exit via the front passenger window.

It then took two tow-truck drivers 90 minutes to get the stricken Porsche on to a tow truck, battling with releasing the electronic handbrake and locked steering. Porsche has since instigated a worldwide fix to eliminate the interference.

The experience gave me a first-hand understanding of how badly things could go wrong in the event of complete electronic failure. Had there been a fire or if it was a hot day, it could have been a lot worse. And had we not been in mobile phone range, it would have amplified the panic.

Owner's manuals in modern cars aren't always helpful in fault-finding. Ironically there's a push to make them electronic, with some cars already offering both options, while others tuck them away in the boot.

And smashing a car window is almost impossible without something sharp or heavy - like a brick or hammer. Hardly the things you'd be carrying around - nor should you, given the injuries they could cause in a crash.

Car makers have managed to reduce vehicle theft significantly - particularly opportunistic theft such as joyriding - but at the same time they have uncovered a new threat.

Of course, what happened to my family is an extreme example and one that highlights a near worst case scenario.

But it's an example of how far electronics have come in the operation of modern cars. From fuel delivery systems, engine operation, airbag inflation and audio systems to internet and smartphone connectivity, crash avoidance systems, self-parking systems and even door-closing motors, modern cars rely on electronics for most parts of their operation.

Electronics are also the source of many gremlins that will likely require a tow truck and diagnostics computer to fix them. Gone are the days of popping the bonnet and having a tinker yourself.

Car makers set higher standards for fault-free running than consumer electronics such as phones or computers because reliability and durability expectations are higher in cars than they are in most other products. But faults still can - and do - happen, as appeared to happen this morning.

Increasingly, car makers are noticing that issues with fit and finish or mechanical failures are being overtaken by electrical problems.

Ford in the United States learnt the impact of electronics when it fitted the Microsoft-developed Sync voice-operated connectivity system to many of its cars. A respected JD Power Initial Quality Survey found that Ford's ranking dropped from fifth to 23rd, largely due to customer complaints about Sync.

The survey also found that problems with new electronic technologies was increasingly cause for complaints in new cars.

Whether it's complete engine failure, unwarranted warning lights, failed smartphone connectivity or an electronic handbrake refusing to release - as appears to have been the case in this morning's traffic chaos - the impact of electronics on trouble-free motoring is taking its toll.

What to do if you get locked in your car

* Check the owner's manual. Many cars have ways to override electronic systems, even when they fail.

* Call the car company head office for help. Many have roadside assistance with phone numbers, usually on a sticker on the windscreen or in the owner's manual.

* If the car is heating up or you're panicking, phone the police on triple-0.

* If you're out of mobile phone range, smash the window; don't bother with bare hands because you'll need something hard, heavy or sharp. One reader suggested removing the headrests and using the metal supports.


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