Thursday, December 13, 2012

Social class discrimination to be penalized?

THE planned extension of anti-discrimination laws to cover "social origin" could give legal weight to a class system and threaten Australia's egalitarian spirit, the chairman of the NSW Community Relations Commission warns.

Stepan Kerkyasharian has joined a chorus of concerns about the federal bill and its potential to curb freedom of speech by making it unlawful to "offend" or "insult" - not only on racial grounds but in any area of potential discrimination such as sex, age and disability.

But Dr Kerkyasharian went further on Wednesday while hosting a debate: "Is Sydney more racist than Melbourne?" He revealed he had raised his fears with the federal Attorney-General about the inclusion of social origin among grounds for discrimination in workplaces.

"Is it a backdoor way of introducing and codifying social standing, or a class system, or a social strata?" Dr Kerkyasharian said.

He worried it had no clear definition; nor did another of the grounds for work-place discrimination, political opinion. "We need to ensure any legislation [does not harm] our egalitarian society and our very harmonious multicultural society."

Racial harmony, or the lack of it, was the subject of the debate. Dr Kerkyasharian apologised to anyone offended by the implied city ranking of racism in the title. But he said: "I think it is sometimes good to be provocative." The short answer was, yes, Sydney was more racist than Melbourne, based on the Scanlon Foundation's 2012 report, Mapping Social Cohesion. The long answer was more nuanced.

Presenting his research, Professor Andrew Markus, from Monash University, noted that negative feelings about Muslims ran at 28.5 per cent in Sydney against 15.2 per cent in Melbourne. Very negative feelings about immigrants from Lebanon ran at 12.1 per cent in Sydney and 5 per cent in Melbourne.

Possible reasons: Sydney's immigrants were highly concentrated in the western suburbs while Melbourne's were spread throughout the city. This may have led to xenophobia and flight from areas such as Bankstown and Fairfield by older people whose families had been in Australia for three or more generations. The cost of doing nothing to address these tensions would be "huge", Professor Markus said.

Professor Ien Ang, from the University of Western Sydney, took a "glass half full" view of Sydney's cohesion. She found the debate's headline unhelpful,.

So did Professor Jock Collins, from the  University of Technology Sydney,  who said the cohesion glass was "80 per cent full".

His research with young Sydney people from immigrant families revealed they had strong aspirations and were positive about their future. Many identified not as Australians but as "global citizens," he said, and yet this was the new reality for many around the world. "We should be relaxed about that."

Professor Collins took a shot at Julia Gillard, saying that when the Prime Minister announced her first cabinet, nobody had responsibility for multiculturalism. "It dropped completely off the agenda."


Discrimination against men in car sales jobs OK?

A MAJOR car dealership plans to advertise specifically for female staff in an effort to draw more women to their male-dominated workforce.

A.P. Eagers, which employs about 3000 people in dealerships across the country, plans to run the advertisements for female sales and service staff with a disclaimer declaring it an "equal opportunity measure" after it was knocked back in its bid for a formal exemption from anti-discrimination laws in October.

A.P. Eagers group human resources manager Michael Raywood said the company wanted to even out the gender imbalance in their workforce at a time when more women were in the market for a car.

"In our business we have 80 per cent male and 20 per cent female staff so we're trying to take some positive measures to redress the balance," he said.

Mr Raywood said the company was not trying to be controversial, but just to make their workforce more representative of their customers.

"It's not about whether women are better than men or men are better than women," he said.  "If we had a 50/50 split of male and female then we wouldn't have to do this sort of thing."

Mr Raywood said the ads would run only where they were deemed necessary, and the company would talk to general managers about where the need was greatest.

In dismissing the company's application for exemption under the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991, Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal member Susan Gardiner said while an increase in female employees at the company was desirable and "good for business", it was not essential.

"Here, Eagers staff is of both genders and both can fulfil the roles in the sales and service area," she said.

But she said an advertisement targeting female applicants would not be unlawful if the company could establish it would promote equal opportunity for women, and recommended including a disclaimer to indicate the company's position and pre-empt complaints.

University of South Australia anti-discrimination law expert Associate Professor Sara Charlesworth said formal exemptions from anti-discrimination law were usually given to help disadvantaged groups rather than for business reasons.

"Exemptions are regularly given where maybe a women's refuge or a domestic violence service specifically says they want to have women," she said.


Non-urgent surgery postponed at major Brisbane hospitals

Gillard has set up a big new Federal Health bureaucracy and funded it by cutting money to employ doctors and nurses in State hospitals

A REDUCTION in elective surgery is imminent for public patients in Brisbane's south.

Metro South Health CEO Richard Ashby told ABC radio non-urgent surgeries would be postponed at the Princess Alexandra, Logan, Redland and QEII hospitals.  "We will be deferring non-urgent surgery," he said.

Dr Ashby blamed "fiscal constraints" for the downturn, particularly a recent mid-financial year cut to Metro South Health by the Federal Government of $19 million.

"New category three patients we will be deferring creating booking dates until we are certain about the time-frame in which we will be able to operate," he said.

Category 3 patients are the least urgent but are recommended to be operated on within 12 months of them being placed on the elective surgery list.

Dr Ashby said a new plan to combine all hospital waiting lists in the area would reduce wait times.  "We are going to amalgamate the waitlists for common conditions, it is not acceptable that a person should have to wait for two years or three years at the PA Hospital but be able to have that surgery done at the Logan in six weeks' time," he said.

Health Minister Lawrence Springborg has laid the blame for the elective surgery reduction in Metro South to a federal budget cut across all of the state's 17 health service districts of $103 million.

Mr Springborg told the ABC $41 million of that had already been paid, and was now coming directly out of hospital budgets starting last Wednesday.

"That's what's having this particular impact. We're seeing the practical manifestation (of that budget cut) by having an extended shutdown of elective surgery over Christmas," he said.

"It's an enormous impact.  "It's hard to adjust to these cuts being imposed by the Commonwealth."


Feds hitting Victorian hospitals too

Some hospitals may also be set to lose organ transplant services to other hospitals so the state can cut costs and streamline the system.

Some hospitals may also be set to lose organ transplant services to other hospitals so the state can cut costs and streamline the system. Photo: Glenn Hunt

ELECTIVE surgery waiting lists are likely to "explode" due to funding cuts at Victorian hospitals and no patient will be spared longer waits, including children and cancer patients, surgeons warn.

Some hospitals may also be set to lose organ transplant services to other hospitals so the state can cut costs and streamline the system.

The shake-up in coming months is likely to be controversial for specialists who pride themselves on working in centres of excellence, but it is unlikely to reduce the number of transplants being done.

The chair of the Victorian regional committee of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, Dr Robert Stunden, said although every health network would deal with budget cuts differently, previous experience showed the first thing to go was elective surgery.

The paediatric surgeon at several Melbourne public hospitals said semi-urgent or category two elective surgery lists could be cut in half over the next six months, meaning people who should be operated on within three months could expect their wait to at least double to six months.

Category two patients are defined as those with "some pain, dysfunction and disability" and include people waiting for hip or knee replacements and vascular surgery.

Dr Stunden said that although urgent surgery was likely to still be done on time, no surgical specialty, including cancer and paediatric care, would be immune from cuts, meaning many patients could expect to wait longer in pain.

"We are expecting to have major cutbacks in lists over the next six months … waiting lists will explode," he said, adding that it was "terrible" for patients. "The quicker we can manage these patients, the better it is for them."

Dr Stunden said some hospitals were considering delaying new programs in the new year while others were discussing the streamlining of "super-specialised services" such as transplant surgery, so instead of three hospitals doing liver transplants, for example, only one would. This would cut the cost of having three hospitals set up for the procedure.

While this would upset some doctors in the field, Dr Stunden said it did not mean the number of procedures would be cut back.

"There will have to be some give and take in the major institutions for the benefit of the community as a whole," he said.

Most transplants are currently done at Monash Medical Centre and the Alfred, Austin and Royal Melbourne hospitals.

Victorian Health Minister David Davis last week told hospitals to plan for multimillion-dollar budget cuts over the next seven months. He blamed the federal government for refusing to back down on plans to slash $106.7 million from Victorian hospital budgets this financial year.

Mr Davis said the federal government's recalculations of its funding were based on flawed population data. However, the federal government disputes this and says funding to the state is still increasing compared to last year.

On Tuesday, the Australian Medical Association and the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine condemned the budget cuts, saying public hospitals were already overwhelmed.

"The cuts must stop - the public hospital system has nothing more to give," said AMA president Steve Hambleton.

Elective surgery waiting lists have increased in Victoria over the past two years. At the end of June, 46,131 people were waiting for surgery - up from 37,194 in June 2010.


Attorney General announces Queensland senior lawyers to return to Queen's Counsel title

IN a move expected to spark a national trend, Queensland's senior lawyers will return to the title "Queen's Counsel".

Attorney General Jarrod Bleijie is announcing the move, flagged several months ago in The Courier-Mail, at the Supreme Court’s annual Christmas Greetings event in Brisbane on Wednesday morning.

Mr Bleijie said replacing Senior Counsel (SC) with Queen’s Counsel (QC) would eliminate confusion.

"The feedback I have received raised concerns that SC was often mistaken for the term Special Counsel, which many law firms have taken to using for solicitors," Mr Bleijie said.

While the Newman Government move will be seen as supportive of the Monarchy in the dying days of the Queen's Golden Jubilee year, Mr Bleijie says there are also commercial considerations at play.

“QC is also more widely known and understood by the public as a mark of professional distinction at the Bar and this move will make the distinction much clearer," he said.

“It is important that Queensland silks are competitive internationally particularly in Singapore and Hong Kong where the use of QCs is preferred."

Mr Bleijie said Asian countries employed QCs from as far as the United Kingdom.

He said the change would give Queensland leverage over other Australian states, which maintain the SC title, competing for a share of this market.

Current Senior Counsel will be invited to have their title amended should they wish and all new appointments will now be given the title of Queen’s Counsel.

The Newman Government has received widespread support from the Queensland Bar Association and the legal profession to revert to the traditional title.

“I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate Jenny Hogan, Philip Looney and Dean Morzone who were recently selected for appointment as Senior Counsel," Mr Bleijie said.

Mr Bleijie will be writing to all current Senior Counsel shortly to invite them to make an election if they wish to be commissioned as a QC.

Those who do not apply to have their title changed will remain as Senior Counsel and their seniority will not be affected.


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