Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Alan Jones makes apology on air over Lebanese comments

The comments were of course too sweeping and extreme to be universally true but they were clearly just a statement of opinion, not an academic thesis, so deserved free speech protection.  But there is little such protection in Australia, particularly where that most sanctified of groups  -- Muslims -- is concerned, of course

What is not in  doubt is that Sydney police have a Middle Eastern  Organised Crime squad, with Lebanon being the particular part of the Middle East principally concerned.  So Jones had some basis for his views, to put it cautiously.  Some very recent shooting deaths  would appear to involve the Lebanese Muslim community

Controversial broadcaster Alan Jones has apologised on air over comments he made in April 2005 describing Lebanese Muslims as "vermin" and "mongrels".

The Administrative Decisions Tribunal (ADT) had ordered Jones to apologise on his 2GB radio show between 8am and 8.30am (AEDT) any day this week.

On Wednesday just after 8am he did so, saying his comments were in breach of the Anti-Discrimination Act.

The apology comes two months after Jones lost a lengthy legal bid to overturn the 2009 decision, which found he "incited hatred, serious contempt and severe ridicule of Lebanese Muslims".

The case was taken against him by Sydney-based Lebanese-born Muslim leader, Keysar Trad.

The complaint related to comments Jones made on April 28 about a Nine Network current affairs story reportedly showing young men of Lebanese origin taunting police.

"If ever there was a clear example that Lebanese males in their vast numbers not only hate our country and our heritage, this was it," Jones said.

Referring to the men as "vermin" and "mongrels", he added: "They simply rape, pillage and plunder a nation that's taken them in."


Solar industry faces squeeze after review

Australia's nascent solar power industry is likely to face fresh obstacles after an independent federal agency backed further reductions in incentives for the sector although large-scale generators applauded the overall recommendations.

The Climate Change Authority today released its final report on its review of the Renewable Energy Target, which sets a goal for the electricity industry to draw 20 per cent of its power from renewable sources such as wind and solar energy.

As expected the agency left the target for large-scale generators unchanged at 41,000 gigawatt hours per year by 2020, a goal that has fostered a surge in investment in renewable energy. As overall demand for power drops, the 41,000 GW-hour figure would amount to about 26 per cent of the sector by 2020.

Stability in the overall target would "provide a degree of certainty and predictability to investors in renewables", Bernie Fraser, chairman of the Authority, told a media conference.

Large generators of renewable energy applauded the recommendation to leave their target unchanged.

Securing investor certainty "has been the key problem of our industry," Miles George, chief executive of Infigen Energy, said. "The recommendations in the final report will help enormously to reduce that regulatory uncertainty."

The main changes - if adopted by the Gillard government - will come for the small-scale renewable energy scheme (SRES), such as roof-top solar photovoltaic panels.

Groups such as the Australian Solar Council say that proposed changes to how much roof-top solar can be installed on buildings such as shopping centres and school will only add to uncertainty for that segment of the market.

Household costs

The CCA recommended a number of measures to contain SRES costs. All up, the renewable energy scheme will add between $12 and $64 a year to household bills - or 1 per cent to 4 per cent of the total - between now and 2020, Mr Fraser said.

"One (change) is to lower the SRES eligibility threshold for small-scale solar photovoltaic units below its current level of 100 (kilowatts) to, say, 10kW to reduce the risk of a surge in solar PV installations on commercial buildings driving up costs," Mr Fraser said in a statement.

Generous feed-in tariffs offered by state governments and tumbling prices for PVs have seen almost 1 million Australian homes take up solar power. The roll-back of incentives, though, has seen the industry's growth slow and attention shift instead to potential commercial customers.

"The Authority recommends that the Australian government consult with stakeholders to determine an appropriate revised threshold; units above this threshold would be included in the capped large-scale scheme," the statement said.

“This is one step forward, one step back for solar” John Grimes, Chief Executive of the Australian Solar Council, said.

“The proposal to move solar systems above 10 kilowatts into the Large-scale Renewable Energy Target will significantly undermine investor certainty and lead to business plans being ripped up," he said. "We need to encourage larger power users to invest in solar and this will be a backward step."

Not enough

The government and the Coalition have said they back the 20 per cent RET goal. The Greens and environmental groups have called for the target to be raised.

“I hope the Climate Change Authority stands firm in the face of fossil-fuel lobbying,” Greens leader Christine Milne said on Tuesday. “What we actually need is to shift to 100 per cent renewable energy as soon as possible, so we should set a minimum goal of 50 per cent by 2030.”

The Australian Conservation Foundation called on the government to reject the CCA's "weak recommendation" that Australia not set a 2030 renewable energy target until after a review in 2016.

“A business-as-usual response to the urgent problem of climate change is not good enough,” Claire Maries, ACF climate campaigner, said in a statement.

“In the last few weeks scientific authorities and famously conservative institutions like the World Bank, Bloomberg Businessweek and the International Energy Agency have confirmed that a status quo approach will see us heading for a world that is hotter and more dangerous by the end of this century," Ms Maries said.

“That’s a world where heat-related deaths are much more common, where there are more catastrophic bushfires, more floods and more frequent droughts."

The recommendation not to increase the RET target "is emblematic of a systemic failure to take the threat seriously."

Some nations are seeking more ambitious targets for renewable energy, such as Scotland’s goal of sourcing half its power by 2020 from renewable activities.

Germany aims for 35 per cent by then and a reduction in energy consumption by 10 per cent, although a report out overnight suggests current policies will see achievements fall short of those goals.


A dumbed down debate, but those tests still hold some lessons

Alan Reid (Professor Alan Reid is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia.)

The release of the international TIMSS (maths and science at years 4 and 8) and PIRLS (reading at year 4) test scores last week unleashed a wave of commentary bemoaning the state of Australian education.

Unfortunately, much of it was hyperbole and misinformation that distorted the results as well as the subsequent public discussion.

Once again we have missed the opportunity to use comparative information garnered from the tests to assist our thinking about teaching and learning. When commentators misuse the data by removing many of its subtleties and complexities and by making simplistic and superficial claims, education debate is dumbed down. This has happened in several ways.

First, using results from just two year levels in only three areas of the curriculum, claims are made about the quality of Australian education. The fact is that although reading, maths and science are important, they tell us nothing about outcomes in other crucial curriculum areas such as the arts, history, civics, health and PE. Nor do we get any sense of how students are faring in such critical domains as problem-solving, inquiry, creativity and inter-cultural understanding. At best, the results present a narrow picture of student progress. The information is too limited to legitimise the kinds of sweeping judgments about the quality of education in Australia that have been made recently.

Second, the commentators took the test results at face value, without questioning the nature of the tests themselves. There are several issues associated with the construction of the tests, not the least of which is how a curriculum-based test can assume that students from every test country at year 4, for example, have covered the same material to the same depth and in the same sequence.

This would be hard enough to engineer across Australia let alone across the 50 countries that participated in the tests.

More than this, given what we know about how students read texts, the question of how test material can present as culturally neutral is another important consideration.

Unless students are taking the same test under the same set of circumstances and with the same preparation, its results must be treated with caution.

Third, the commentators invariably read the test results in isolation. In maths at year 4, Australia's mean score was significantly higher than 27 countries and below 17 countries; but by year 8 the mean score was below just six countries. Similarly in science at year 4, Australia's mean score was significantly higher than 23 countries and below 18 countries; however by year 8 we were below just nine countries.

Now, there could be any number of reasons for the improvement from year 4 to year 8, including that the foundations for study are being well laid in the primary years. But commentators can't cherry pick results to make their point. Taken together, and adding results from PISA (an international test of 15-year-old students in maths, science and reading), the international tests regularly place Australian outcomes in reading, maths and science in the top 10 countries. This does mean there is room for improvement, but it is hardly the stuff of which educational crises are made.

Finally, commentators have tended to accept the test outcomes as presenting a problem and immediately advocate strategies to address it. A favourite tactic is to propose following the policies of those countries that are in the top five of the league table.

There are problems with such an approach, including the differences in contexts between countries. In Singapore, for example, there is a concern that although students are successful in tests, their creativity is being stifled. Clearly it is useful to share information between countries, but importing policies and practices from other countries is fraught with danger.

Another tactic is to use the ''problem'' as a springboard for advocating a predetermined position. In the past week, various commentators have proposed such disparate strategies as greater school autonomy, revamped teacher education programs and voucher systems to enable school choice - all as means to improve Australia's standing in international tests.

The problem with these approaches is that they jump from an apparent problem to solution without some important intermediate steps, such as gathering and assessing the evidence, clarifying the problem, and explaining causes.

The test results should not be dismissed - and I am not suggesting Australian education can't improve - but I believe superficial readings of international test data are more likely to impede than advance the quality of education in this country.

Rather than misinterpreting the data, we would be better served by focusing on some of the issues the test results do highlight. These include the unacceptable differences in educational outcomes between students from affluent backgrounds and those who suffer educational disadvantage.

Progress in education can only be made if we respect evidence, recognise complexity, and are willing to inquire and investigate, rather than manufacture crises. A quality education system can only be achieved in the presence of quality public debates about education.


Shambolic NSW hospitals:  That pesky Dutchman blows the whistle again

He has been the nemesis of inefficiency and waste in NSW since 2006

A MILLION-DOLLAR doctor, thousands of unpaid bills and debts that exceed assets: that's the financial shape of NSW hospitals says the Auditor-General.

Six employees earned more than half a million dollars over the past three years, and one was paid more than $1 million in overtime and call-backs over three years.

The Auditor-General, Peter Achterstraat, said he found it astounding that one person could earn so much overtime.

The opposition health spokesman, Andrew McDonald, who is a doctor, said it was dangerous. The report found local health districts are struggling to meet goals on the cost of care, with the majority not meeting the first activity based funding targets.

In future, federal funding will be tied to targets.

It found all but one health district had debts that exceeded assets, nearly half were over-budget and long-standing unpaid bills were increasing. The NSW Ministry of Health bailed out some districts with $73 million in extra funding.

Dr McDonald said the Health Minister, Jillian Skinner, had "outsourced risk" to hospital districts without providing resources to meet demand.

Ms Skinner said it was normal for the ministry to provide extra funding, particularly in peparation for activity-based funding.

"We've got two years to roll this all out so we've got a bit of time for the districts to get a better understanding of what they have got to do better," she said.

She said that the overall health budget would still balance.

She denied that the doctor who earned a million dollars in overtime was necessarily putting patients at risk.  She said overtime payments were "complicated" and could involve payments for short periods of time.

"Nevertheless, a lot of the districts are now working hard to reduce overtime," she said.


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