Tuesday, November 20, 2012

50 more Sri Lankans turned away from Australia

A FURTHER 50 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers have been forcibly sent home as the government struggles to cope with record boat arrivals.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen yesterday confirmed the largest involuntary transfer to Colombo to occur since Labor's tough new processing regime took effect on August 13.

"This latest group takes to 282 the number of Sri Lankans returned involuntarily," a statement from Mr Bowen read.

"The men were advised of their status and that they were subject to removal from Australia."

This year there has been a dramatic spike in the number of Sri Lankan arrivals, resulting in the continued returns to Colombo.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare last night confirmed two new boat arrivals, with a combined 195 asylum-seekers on board. A third boat, carrying 53 asylum-seekers was intercepted on Saturday.

The vessel brought to 247 the number of boats to arrive in Australian waters this year, carrying 15,504 passengers, according to Customs. Detention centres continue to be swamped by detainees.

Last night 2224 asylum-seekers were being housed on Christmas Island, well over the planned capacity of 1500.

The Australian understands tents are being used at the facility for recreational purposes, but no asylum-seekers are sleeping in the makeshift accommodation.

Mainland detention centres are also near or at capacity, with tents also being used for recreational purposes.

At the tented facility on Nauru, tensions are continuing to escalate with another asylum-seeker being admitted to hospital as part of a hunger strike. Last week an Iranian asylum-seeker by the name of Omid was transferred to Nauru hospital after more than a month of voluntary starvation.

The Refugee Action Coalition's Ian Rintoul said an Iraqi had been admitted to hospital yesterday after eight days of starvation and kidney failure.

A total of 387 asylum-seekers are being housed on Nauru, with the latest transfer occurring last Monday.

Labor says transfers to Papua New Guinea's Manus Island will occur "shortly".


Backlog at Forensic and Scientific Services leaves justice on hold

HUGE workloads and staff shortages at the state's forensic testing facility are causing chronic delays in the criminal justice system and compromising community safety.

Despite ongoing denials of a backlog by Queensland Health, new evidence obtained by The Courier-Mail under Right to Information laws shows scientists from Forensic and Scientific Services are warning that the state's most dangerous sex offenders are at risk of re-offending because the scientists are unable to meet court deadlines.

Reports show chiefs from the facility, formerly known as the John Tonge Centre, held regular high-level meetings to try to deal with the backlog.

"MKE and GG met with [FSS senior director] Greg Shaw to discuss the current stats/backlog and what we are doing to combat the backlog," minutes of a meeting between FSS managers for May 29 state.

Minutes from another meeting state: "The workload in clan labs remains at an unsustainably higher level. Situation will get worse as a result of (a) number of staff taking long service leave."

When The Courier-Mail asked about the backlog in May, Mr Shaw denied one existed. The Queensland Health documents show in toxicology alone, 600 cases were outstanding as of February this year. Of those, 123 were older than three months and 28 were older than six months.

"Turnaround times have been increasing since June 2011 due to the loss of four experienced staff," minutes from an inter-departmental working group committee meeting chaired by Coroner Michael Barnes on February 15 state.

In September, the State Government axed 74 jobs at FSS.

That was six months after FSS team leader Mark Stephenson warned staff shortages were causing a delay in confirming drug testing.

"Not meeting court dates and leaving offenders in the community, especially those from the Dangerous Prisoners and Sex Offenders program, is a high risk which could lead to negative media attention," he wrote in a business case recommending the appointment of more forensic toxicology staff in February this year.

The forensic toxicology laboratory tests for drugs, alcohol and poisons in deceased people, and also tests samples of drug and drink drivers, along with people on parole or in jail.

Mr Stephenson said workloads for urine drug testing of samples had increased three-fold from about 4500 to 12,000 since 2003.

"In this time permanent staffing numbers have remained essentially constant," he wrote in the submission.

"This increase is mainly due to the expansion of the standard testing program as well as the introduction of random community drug testing by Probation and Parole."

Mr Stephenson said temporary technicians had been brought in to help but it wasn't enough. "These temporary appointments were based on figures from 2007; current numbers are double those of 2007."

Chief Justice Paul de Jersey and the Queensland Police Union complained of delays in forensic testing in recent months but Health Minister Lawrence Springborg this week said there were no backlogs, despite the documentation.


Attack on the confessional is stupid

Waleed Aly

WHO says politicians can't sing in unison? This week we have seen the full array of politicians - Green, Labor, Liberal and independent - lining up to dismantle the Catholic Church's institution of sealed confession. The idea that a priest could hear another priest's confession of child sex abuse, and fail to report it to the authorities is, says Attorney-General Nicola Roxon, "really abhorrent". New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell "just can't fathom" it. Independent Nick Xenophon brands it "a mediaeval law that needs to change in the 21st century".

No freedom-of-religion argument can succeed against this. The secular liberalism that defines our public culture simply won't accept it for one simple reason: religious freedom ends where harm to other people begins. And it's a rare kind of harm that is more horrific than children being raped.

The church can argue all it likes that the confessional seal is "inviolable". But what obligation does the secular state have to canon law? What interest does the state have in ensuring people can receive absolution? The church simply has no answer to this. Hence the spectacle of practising Catholics such as Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne jumping on the anti-confessional bandwagon. There's just no politically viable alternative.

But here's the problem: the whole issue of the confessional seal is a monstrous red herring. This becomes clear once you pay attention to the way politicians are talking about it. Xenophon recounts the story of a 10-year old boy who told his story of being abused to a priest at a confessional, only to be told that he is the sinner and he needs to repent.

If that's the full story, then Xenophon is right to call it "sickening", but it simply has nothing to do with the confessional seal. There's no confession from the abuser to reveal. The child is perfectly entitled to take his story to the police and the priest is perfectly entitled to help him do it. This case isn't about confidentiality. It's about a priest with a septic morality. I would want that priest fired. I would want the church to apologise, help prosecute the abuser, compensate the victim and make sure it never happens again. And breaking the seal of confession doesn't help any of that.

Demanding laws that require priests to break the confessional seal sounds good. It sounds tough, uncompromising, common-sense. But it's also the kind of thing you do when you don't understand the problem you are trying to solve. That's what we are witnessing here: irreligious people trying to address a religious problem with brute secular force. That might make perfect intuitive sense to the staunchly secular mind, but we need more than intuition and declarations of secular supremacy here. What matters is what works. And taking an axe to the confessional box won't work. It might even make things worse.

The anti-confessional argument rests on an assumption that the confessions are taking place. Even if that's true - and there's little evidence of it - there's no reason to assume they will keep coming. When people confess, they do so with a guarantee of confidentiality. Do we really think people will continue to confess if we take that guarantee away? And if the confessions stop, does that really help at all?

The confessional seal means the priest cannot reveal the identity of the paedophile. But he can encourage the paedophile to turn himself in to the authorities or get psychiatric treatment. He could recommend the paedophile resign from his position. He can even warn a third party that a particular child is at risk of abuse, provided he doesn't say from whom. Sure, that's not as satisfying as taking a sledgehammer to the abuser. But it's surely better than nothing, which is probably the alternative. I would rather the confession take place confidentially than not at all.

But suppose I'm wrong. Suppose a paedophile's desire for forgiveness and absolution is so strong that they are prepared to take the risk and confess anyway. Then what? Canon law prohibits a priest from revealing a confession even under the threat of his own death. Should we expect him to buckle under the threat of a prison sentence? Here it's essential to understand that any priest who violates the confessional seal faces excommunication.

That might mean nothing to you. You might even see this as the threat that underpins a dangerous fairytale. But you are not the one hearing the confession. What matters is what this means to priests and, in Catholic terms, excommunication is as serious as it gets - far more serious than any prison sentence. This leaves us searching for a very strange creature indeed: someone devoted enough to enter the priesthood, but not devoted enough to care about eternal damnation. And we need lots of them. We're betting on a team of rogue priests. That doesn't sound like a plan to me.

You can't legislate away people's religious convictions, however much you might want to. And you can't ignore them simply because you hold them in contempt. What matters here is the stuff outside the confessional box: the lame responses to abuse that seem calculated to protect paedophile priests rather than their victims; the legal manoeuvring to avoid paying compensation; the failure of police to follow through on investigations. These are the things we should be pursuing relentlessly. This should be the focus of our desire for justice. Let's not dilute that by getting lost on some doctrinal excursion it's clear we don't understand.


A good idea for little-used pools

EVEN as a kid taking a dip in a friend's swimming pool, Derek Spielman would think about how it would be much better if it was full of turtles. Now his own backyard swimming pool is one of 50 on Sydney's north shore that have been turned into ponds, saving thousands of dollars on power and water bills.

There are no turtles, but Dr Spielman's pool at his home in Gordon is swarming with native fish, such as empire and spotted gudgeons and Pacific blue eye. It's noisy with a chorus of frogs and full of water lilies and other aquatic plants, attracting native birds, dragonflies and bees.

There's not a mosquito in sight (or sound) because the gudgeons eat the mosquito wrigglers. And the mosquito species that live in water deeper than 30 centimetres don't bite humans.

"I wanted to turn our pool into a pond for years," said Dr Spielman, adding that it took some time to convince his wife.

After realising that the family of four used the pool only six times in one year, they decided to turn it into a pond.

"It was costing us a lot of time and money, and nobody used it," he said.

Most people who don't use their pools think they have only two expensive options: chlorinate or fill them in, said Peter Clarke, the co-ordinator of Ku-ring-gai Council's "wild things" program. Few realised if they turned off the power, and stopped chlorinating the water, it would slowly turn into an inexpensive "giant rainwater tank without a lid", Mr Clarke said.

Ku-ring-gai's program is special because it actively encourages households to do something good for the environment with their unused pools. Mr Clarke is used to countering arguments from naysayers who presume these pools are dirty breeding grounds for mosquitoes and bacteria.

"When you look at a disused pool, you presume it must be a danger to health. The leaves gather, it is dark on the bottom and you see mosquito wrigglers," he said. But random tests for ecoli and other bacteria by the University of Sydney on eight pools converted to ponds found all were within the guidelines for primary water contact.

They're also fine for a quick dip, as Callan Spielman, 23, showed Fairfax Media.

"We've seen pools not looked after for years and years, and the water is always clear," Mr Clarke said. These conversions are also reversible.

In some cases, households are using the ponds as biobanks, stocking native fish.


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