Monday, November 10, 2014

A great myth

That looks like defeated Australian Leftist leader Julia Gillard in the toon -- but I don't think she ever did ask that question

The squeeze on free speech in Australia

Britain's Tim Black interviews The Australian’s Chris Mitchell

It’s fair to say that the engagingly gruff, gravel-voiced Chris Mitchell, editor-in-chief of the Australian and a journalist of some 40 years standing, is concerned about the state of press freedom in Australia.

‘The two recent Labor governments, under prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, posed quite a serious threat to press freedom’, he tells me. ‘As those two governments got themselves into increasing trouble - internally, too, given two prime ministers were overthrown in internal coups - they became increasingly determined to hold inquiries into media freedoms, to try to limit them. And they did so for pretty venal political reasons.’

These ‘pretty venal political reasons’ are not difficult to fathom. An increasingly embattled government wanted to have a pop back at its press-based critics. It wanted to blunt the barbs, curb the criticisms, and, ultimately, exert a greater degree of control over its public image. That seems to have been the familiarly authoritarian motivation behind the Convergence Review, launched in 2010 to explore the regulation of the media as a whole, from broadcast to newer online media.

But here’s the surprising thing, the development that makes the Convergence Review look positively principled. In 2011, Gillard’s Labor government launched a second review, the Independent Media Inquiry (IMI) led by a retired judge Ray Finkelstein – think Lord Justice Leveson, but without charisma. And what was the prompt for this second inquiry, which, like the Convergence Review, was effectively exploring press regulation? It must have been something big, something that implicated Australian journalism, right? Wrong. Incredibly, it was the phone-hacking scandal in, er, the UK, which prompted Gillard to launch an inquiry into the Australian press.

Yes, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which owned the News of the World, the paper at the centre UK phone-hacking scandal, also owns several Aussie papers, including the Australian, but they are still completely different staffs in completely different countries, with completely different readerships. Mitchell still sounds angry about what amounted to naked opportunism on the part of Gillard’s administration: ‘[The government] wanted to harness ill feeling towards News Corp after the phone-hacking inquiry in the UK. They wanted to gain some sort of public sympathy for media regulation in Australia on the pretext that phone hacking could be happening down here, too.’

And was it? Mitchell is dismissive. ‘Of course there never was phone hacking here for very easy technical reasons - the telephony regime is very different in Australia to that of the UK.’ In other words, it just wouldn’t be feasible.

Mitchell is in no doubt of the government’s motives: ‘The Finkelstein Inquiry and the subsequent regulatory system was a naked political grab for more power over the media.’ And here’s the irony: the Finkelstein Inquiry proved far more effective than the Leveson Inquiry in securing a new, more restrictive system of press regulation, complete with a revamped, souped-up Australian Press Council. According to one commentator, the Chinese Communist Party looked on with envy when Finkelstein released his recommendations. ‘So even though there was phone hacking in the UK, you guys didn’t end up with as tough a regulatory regime as we did’, says Mitchell.

So what has been the result of the Labor-sponsored spate of inquiries into the media? ‘We ended up with an unsatisfactory regime of third-party complaints against newspaper companies. It’s opened the doors to activist groups who don’t like certain kinds of stories but are not directly affected by those stories to lodge complaints which will be adjudicated upon - complaints which wouldn’t be heard under the British regime.’

This system of snitching to the state, or rather its press-council proxy, is especially evident on the issue of climate change. As Mitchell and his paper, the Australian, discovered to their cost in July, it is now possible for a group of climate-change alarmists to use the Australian Press Council to challenge the Australian over its coverage of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s assessment of global temperature rise. Even more absurdly, the Press Council also reprimanded the Australian for not giving an environmentalist’s retort due prominence on its letter pages. As Mitchell puts it, ‘There’s a view in Australia that this newspaper in particular shouldn’t report on climate change in any sceptical way. We tend to run a lot of stories on climate change, most of them fairly conventional, but we also open our pages to those who take a different view. And there’s a lot of people on the conventional side who would censor us on that.’

The result of the steady onslaught against the press Down Under seems to be increasing conformism, a case of tell the ‘right’ story, or else. And what’s interesting is that this conformist push is coming not from right-wing autocrats, but from those who tend to think of themselves as liberal and progressive. Think for example of the case of Andrew Bolt, the columnist-cum-provocateur. In September 2010, nine people complained about three columns Bolt wrote criticising the phenomenon of white people bigging up their ethnic ancestry, or ‘blacking up’, to further their political careers. In September the following year, a court decided that Bolt had contravened Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. That is, Bolt was found guilty of expressing the wrong opinion.

Things did look up for a while following Labor’s election defeat at the hands of the Liberals in 2013, and the subsequent appointment of the seemingly principled George Brandis as new prime minister Tony Abbott’s attorney general. Brandis not only promised to reform the Racial Discrimination Act, but, in conversation with spiked editor Brendan O’Neill in April, spoke of his love of Voltaire and John Stuart Mill and the true measure of free-speech credentials: ‘Defend the right of people to say things you would devote your political life to opposing. That’s the test.’

And yet now, with the federal government’s decision to ditch its plans to reform the Racial Discrimination Act, even that flicker of promise has been extinguished. The conformist net of liberal-progressive opinion is being drawn ever tighter. It is this that seems to undergird the drive for greater state controls on the press, the sense that the media must espouse the right-thinkers’ worldview - or at least that of the Guardian. ‘Yeah’, says Mitchell, ‘there is a general tendency among those people who are at home with public broadcasters or traditionally progressive newspapers to think of themselves as having higher moral values than the rest of society. And they have tended to use the push for press regulation to impose judgements upon the media that are contestable.’

But conformism backed up by a tougher regulatory regime is not the only threat to press freedom as Mitchell sees it. There is also the growth of the PR industry, which ‘exerts control over what journalists can and can’t write’.

‘I think that this manifests itself across science reporting, across reporting on the share market, and so on’, he says. ‘For example there’s a very strong regime now to stop company directors from talking to journalists on the grounds they might influence the share prices of their companies, etc. So this gives the corporate spindoctor a great deal of power over the investigative journalist in the financial sector. And in government, it’s far worse than it is in the sciences or the financial sector. In government we now have a situation where the number of people involved in federal bureaucracy - they’re not civil servants, they’re people attached to political staff - is about 700 while the number of journalists working in that area is probably less than a third of that. So for every working journalist reporting on federal politics there’s about three spindoctors trying to hide the truth from that person.’

Mitchell is clear-sighted about what is really at stake in the debates and arguments over press freedom. That is, when a campaigner for press-regulation complains about the influence of a section of the media, what they are really complaining about is a section of the public. ‘What’s happened in the UK and here is that there is a left-liberal revulsion against the ordinary man or woman in the street. There’s a sort of morally self-satisfied view that our media is better than your media, and that there is nothing quite so shocking as a popular newspaper. I would say that the view that has emerged in our country and in the UK during the phone-hacking furore has allowed the progressive left to espouse policies that are quite draconian and anti-free speech under the guise of having better and more acceptable values.’

So the liberal suspicion of the press is underpinned by a liberal suspicion of the public, I suggest. ‘I think that’s right. It is inherently anti-democratic’, Mitchell says. ‘A long time ago, one of most successful Labor prime ministers in history, Bob Hawke, used to say that the electorate never gets it wrong and that the electorate always works you out. And I think that’s pretty much right. In my 42 years as a newspaper journalist, I’ve only rarely seen an election where I’ve thought they’ll turn harshly next time because it’s gone a bit wrong. Generally, the wisdom of crowds works well and it’s something elite opinion isn’t comfortable with. Elite opinion isn’t comfortable with the wisdom of the crowds — it’s comfortable with elite opinion.’

Trust in the wisdom of crowds is one very good reason for a more raucous press, not a more regulated one.


Adoption lag needs to be addressed

In 2012-13 there were 339 adoptions in Australia with more than a third of these adoptions from overseas. In 1971-72 there were 9,798 adoptions. That is a decline of 96.6% in the number of adoptions in the last 40 years. This dramatic decline has meant that Australia now has one of the lowest rates of adoption in the developed world.

At the same time there are nearly 40,000 children in out-of-home-care. Nearly 27,000 of these children have been in out-of-home care for more than two years after having been removed from their birth parents because of physical, sexual and emotional abuse or neglect. These children desperately need the kind of stable and permanent home that can be provided through adoption into a loving family.

So why is adoption apparently so difficult in Australia?

Women's Forum Australia's latest research report, Adoption Rethink, has found a range of reasons including broader acceptance of single mothers and increased access to welfare support, increased use of the foster care system, institutional hostility from some in academia and welfare departments who influence adoption policy, access to legal abortion, negative attitudes in Australia arising from past practices and the emotional and financial costs involved.

Based on the evidence from this research, Women's Forum Australia firmly believes that the optimal outcome for women and their children is when children are raised in a safe, loving and stable household with their birth parents. Sadly this is not always possible and the evidence suggests a large percentage of children passing into care away from their birth parents spend extended periods in that care.

There are long-term damaging consequences for children and society when children are left to flounder through the foster care system, in some cases for years, while waiting for the courts to resolve their future. The outcomes for children in institutions, foster care and other out of home care are far inferior to adoption. The cost to society and governments in caring for these children and mending the traumatic consequences of their situation is enormous. By contrast, adoption, appropriately managed, can provide better outcomes for all involved - birth parents, adoptees, adoptive parents and the broader community. Adoption enhances stability, a sense of security, belong and firm attachments.

Adoption can also provide an alternative to abortion for women facing a difficult or unplanned pregnancy. Adoption, appropriately managed, can work out well in by far the majority of circumstances and should be a realistic choice for birth parents who are unwilling or unable to parent their own child.

It is clear from the evidence that adoption is a viable alternative for women, children and families in need. A new legislative approach from State and Federal Governments, the involvement of Non-Government Organisations in providing adoption services and a change to the hostile attitudes towards adoption that have developed within the various bureaucracies in recent years is necessary. This must be underpinned by a comprehensive evidence-based education campaign to inform the community about the benefits of adoption for women, children and families, particularly in comparison to other arrangements.

Australia needs an adoption rethink.


Courage is needed right now to fix childcare

Peak childcare services body Early Childhood Australia this week released a report claiming that increasing quality standards are "not the only driver" of rising costs in childcare.

The report claims that the quality rating a service receives bears no relation to the fees that service charges. Instead, rent - which is obviously higher in the inner suburbs than on the suburban fringe - plays at least as much of a role in costs. It's doubtful anybody collapsed in shock at that information.

However, what cannot be categorically denied is that the burden of the National Quality Framework on providers' operating costs comes mostly from the increases in mandatory minimum standards.

The quality ratings assessment process, while time-consuming and a bureaucratic burden for many providers, sits on top of mandatory minimum standards. It is complying with these new minimum requirements in the areas of staff-to-child ratios and staff qualifications requirements that has the biggest marginal impact on providers' operating costs.

My new report released this week, Regulating for Quality in Childcare: The Evidence Base, canvasses the available evidence from Australian and overseas studies that specifically examine the links between structural 'inputs' such as staffing arrangements, the quality of service actually being delivered, and children's real outcomes.

It finds that in Australian studies, the only links that exist between structural inputs and child outcomes are for staff-to-child ratios, where smaller groups of children being looked after by a single carer have a small impact on their socio-emotional and behavioural outcomes.

By contrast, neither staff-to-child ratios nor higher staff qualifications had an impact on their socio-emotional, behavioural, or cognitive outcomes. Only one Australian study showed a link between staff qualifications and improved behavioural outcomes for older children (which is more likely to be a preschool effect than a childcare effect).

The overseas evidence is similarly inconsistent. One study suggests that staff-to-child ratios increased the quality of relationships, but only for younger children. Similarly, only a single study suggested higher staff qualifications resulted in improvements. Several other studies showed no statistically significant effects.

This is hardly a rock-solid evidence base on which to build an expensive policy. It certainly does not, as many like to claim, represent an 'investment' that yields clear benefits for all Australian children.

There have been reports that the Productivity Commission has stepped away from its initial recommendations to ease these staffing requirements. This is a mistake. The government should take a long, hard and sceptical look at whether there's evidence of benefits that justify the costs.


Australia’s Most Brilliant Young Maths Minds Shine in Global Competition

Most of whom were Han Chinese by ancestry, presumably

In a new record, 34 Australian secondary school students have taken out honours in one of the world’s largest mathematics competitions. The presentation ceremony for the annual Australian Mathematics Competition (AMC) sponsored by the Commonwealth Bank, which takes place in a different Australian state each year, will this year be held in Queensland at Government House, Brisbane, on Friday 7 November. His Excellency the Honourable Paul de Jersey AC, Governor of Queensland, will present the awards to the medallists from around Australia.

Following the ceremony, the students, their parents and teachers will be treated to a celebratory lunch at which one of the medallists, William Hu, a 13 year old internationally award-winning pianist from Perth, will perform. Another medallist from Sydney, Seyoon Ragavan, who also won a medal at this year’s International Mathematical Olympiad in South Africa, will be one of the speakers.

An Australian initiative which commenced in 1978, the AMC is now one of the world’s largest school-based mathematics competitions with more than 14 million entries since it began. It is a fun 30-problem competition with many problems set in situations which show the relevance of mathematics in students’ everyday lives.

Hundreds of thousands of students of all levels of ability from almost 4000 schools in more than 30 countries entered this year’s competition, including from around 2000 schools in Australia. Each year AMC medals are awarded to secondary level students for performances which are outstanding, both within their country and overall in the competition. Medallists represent the top 0.03% of entrants and this year, two Australian medallists also obtained a perfect score. In 2014, a significant number of students achieved scores worthy of a medal. The number of medallists grew from 67 last year to 77 globally.

Adjunct Professor Mike Clapper, Executive Director of the not-for-profit Australian Mathematics Trust that runs the AMC and a range of other mathematical enrichment programs, said, ‘It is a positive sign that the number of medallists from Australia has increased from 25 in 2013 to 34 this year, a record number for Australia, and many of them are first time medallists.’

‘In addition to the AMC, the Trust conducts workshops around the country for both students and teachers as part of a recently introduced outreach program. Our work is not only about the AMC, but also about connecting with students and teachers to better enable them to enjoy and benefit from what the study of mathematics offers’, he added.


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