Sunday, December 31, 2006

Godless bigots

Criticism of Islam is often held to be "hate speech". Even the most swingeing criticism of Christianity never is. How strange! Both are large and influential religions. The column below is by Christian philosopher Bill Muehlenberg and is a reply to a Christmas-day article by columnist Jill Singer in the Melbourne "Herald Sun".

THANKS, Jill Singer, for picking Christmas to launch your atheist jihad. You have not only offended millions of Australian Christians, but those of other faiths as well. By celebrating Richard Dawkins' new book, The God Delusion, you show how out of touch you are with the overwhelming majority of the world's population.

The God Delusion is a 400-page attack on religion. It is one of the most narrow-minded, intolerant and bigoted books I have read in a long time.

Singer claims she is concerned about religious intolerance. The real worry is intolerance coming from unbelievers. Singer and Dawkins are quite happy to offend and ridicule the majority of those who do not share their narrow atheistic crusade. Dawkins is contemptuous of all religions, so he is an equal-opportunity offender. But it is Christianity that he especially savages. He says the Bible is just plain weird and systematically evil. He speaks of God's acts as God's jealous sulk, God's maniacal jealousy, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Yahweh is simply a cruel ogre and a monster according to Dawkins.

So much for tolerance and open-mindedness. In Dawkins' view, and presumably Singer's, religion is the source of all evil, while atheism is the path of enlightenment, brotherhood and liberation. Never mind the millions of people killed in the name of atheistic utopias, be they Stalin's, Hitler's or Mao's.

And never mind that even non-religious academics, such as Prof Rodney Stark, have claimed with massive amounts of documentation that Christianity created Western civilisation. Prof Stark points out that most of the benefits of the West, such as freedom, democracy and prosperity, are largely due to the Christian religion.

Another secular author says that for all the slaughters in the name of religion over the centuries, there is another side of the ledger. Every time I travel in the poorest parts of Africa, I see missionary hospitals that are the only source of assistance to desperate people. God may not help amputees sprout new limbs, but churches do galvanise their members to support soup kitchens, homeless shelters and clinics that otherwise would not exist. Religious constituencies have pushed for more action on AIDS, malaria, sex trafficking and genocide in Darfur. Believers often give large proportions of their incomes to charities that are a lifeline to the neediest.

I am not aware of any hospitals or charitable works set up by atheists.

And never mind that many noted philosophers have pointed out that it was the Christian emphasis on reason that gave rise to modern science. Singer and Dawkins are way out of their depth, showing their ignorance about the gospel accounts in particular and theology in general. They really should keep silent on subjects they clearly know so little about. As one Marxist commentator put it, "This is why (atheists) invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince". The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be.

Singer says we should all worship at the altar of reason. That is just what the revolutionaries argued in the French Revolution when churches were ransacked and believers were sent to the guillotine. The truth is, a lot of open minds need to be closed for repairs. The nasty diatribes launched by Dawkins and Singer are examples of secular fundamentalism and intolerance. Indeed, they seek to make a sharp distinction between faith and reason, between religion and science. They claim that science gives us truth, but faith is simply myth. But more sober minds on both sides of the debate recognise these to be false polarisations. Faith, at least in the Christian religion, is informed by reason. It may at times go beyond reason, but it does not run counter to it.

And the scientific enterprise is also characterised by faith commitment. There are all kinds of unproven assumptions and presuppositions which may or may not be testable. The myth of complete scientific neutrality and objectivity has been countered by many important thinkers. Singer is free to engage in her simplistic thinking and crude materialism, in which only matter matters. But for billions, non-material things such as truth, beauty, justice, love and even God are very meaningful realities, which the narrow world of atheism will never fully enjoy nor understand.


The nuke train is getting up steam in Australia

Australians are more likely to be attacked by a shark or hit by lightning than die from a nuclear power plant disaster. In releasing a report commissioned on the viability of nuclear power in Australia, Prime Minister John Howard said there were no sound reasons to not go nuclear.

The final report from the Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy review board said the risk of implementing nuclear power is of an acceptably low level. The risk of dying in a nuclear disaster was below that of dying from smoking, driving, owning firearms, drowning, fire, electrocution and snake bites, the report said. There have been 31 direct fatalities from nuclear reactors since 1969 - including the Chernobyl disaster - compared to more than 25,000 fatalities in the coal industry. This did not take into account the estimated 4000 people who could eventually die from cancer caused by radiation exposure from the Chernobyl meltdown.

The report also stated that the particles spewed into the atmosphere by traditional forms of power generation resulted in an estimated loss of life expectancy of 8.6 months for the average European.

Mr Howard said the Government would respond quickly to the board's recommendations. "Nuclear power is part of the solution both to Australia's energy and climate change challenges," Mr Howard said. He agreed nuclear power was not a "silver bullet" and wasn't economically feasible at the moment. "It's not going to come immediately because it's not economic at present, but it will become increasingly economic as we clean up the use of coal," Mr Howard said. He said the Government would, in the short term, focus on the report's recommendation that skilled personnel for nuclear power and uranium mining industries be trained and recruited.

Federal Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd rejected the need for nuclear power and said Labor was committed to renewable sources. "We think the right way involves clean, green energy," he said. "Mr Howard's solution is too expensive, it's too dangerous and it's too slow to bring about real results on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the immediate term."

The review board, headed by former Telstra chief Ziggy Switkowski, was established six months ago to investigate nuclear power as an alternative to coal-fired power plants in the face of growing concerns about climate change. The country's demand for electricity is predicted to more than double by 2050.

Greens Senator Christine Milne said nuclear power would not halt the effects of climate change. "The Government is now scrambling to create a perception that it is doing something, knowing full well that nuclear power is too slow, too expensive and too dangerous to provide any answer to global warming," Senator Milne said.


The Australian environment needs a nuclear China

We walked west into a fiery red sunset in St. Kilda last night, on our way to pick up some yogurt for dinner. On our way back, the moon rose before us in the east, nearly as dark and orange as the sun setting behind us. We turned sideways with one celestial body on each hand and enjoyed the beauty and symmetry for a few quiet seconds, looking at the skyline of Melbourne in front of us, caught between a nuclear source of light and the dead moon reflecting it. Then we took off our poetry hat and put on our thinking beanie and our brain began to boil.

The Chinese are going to burn enough coal in the next fifty years to make every Melbourne sunset look like the end of the world. For instance just this week China's Huaneng Group launched the country's first 1,000 megawatt coal-fired power generating unit. A little info-mining tells us that a 500 mega watt coal-fired power plant provides about 3.5 billion kilowatt hours of juice per year. That's enough to power a city of 140,000 people and enough to consume about 1.4 million tons of coal.

Sit down for a second and consider the following. China's great migration or rural farmers to urban enclaves means relocating 400 million people into new or existing cities. Those people will live in buildings that need air conditioning and work in factories that use electricity and eat in restaurants that cook with electric appliances and refrigerate with electric freezers. Where will the power come from? If it comes from coal, China will have to build a staggering 2,857 500 mega watt coal-fired plants to meet the demand. This would produce-without cleaner-burning technology-around 10.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year. A 500 mega watt coal-burning plant spews nearly 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year.

We don't know what a ton of carbon dioxide looks like, or how you would carry it on your back. Neither do we know if it causes the earth's temperature to rise. But we do know that when you burn coal you also produce what are called particulate emissions. These include sulfur and nitrous oxides and other pleasant by products like lead, mercury, and arsenic.

We know that all this coal-burning must excite the Australian coal industry. But if China burns this much coal in the next twenty years, its neighbors in Japan and Korea are going to borrow a phrase from Australia and ask, "Where the bloody hell are you?" They'll ask because they won't be able to see each other through the thick pall of smog blown west from China.

Last night's orange moon didn't come from Chinese pollution. It came from bush fires and the normal pollution of hundreds of thousands of cars burning petrol on the way home to watch the beginning of England's second innings in the Adelaide Test of the Ashes. And atmospherically speaking, the jet stream probably prevents Australia from having to bear the brunt of Chinese energy consumption habits, at least directly. But what could Australia do about it if a big orange cloud descended from China? Would the border patrol try and turn it back? Would customs arrest it? Would A Current Affair find someone to blame?

Japan and Korea have complained bitterly to China about the black cloud, but with little effect. It wouldn't surprise us to see the Japanese build giant coastal fans, nuclear powered of course, to blow the smog back. But that wouldn't really solve anything. To solve this problem, we have to get at its root causes. One of the biggest causes is the aversion to nuclear power by the lunatic fringe of the political and environmental world.

You never hear anti-nuclear forces whinge about the sun. But by all rights, if they're being consistent, they should. After all, the sun's radiation causes skin cancer. And the sun itself is a giant nuclear fusion reactor, ceaselessly bombarding the Earth and the other planets in the solar system with heat, light, and energy that is stored in Earth's plant life. This fossilized plant life eventually turned into the oil and natural gas the industrial world has been living off of for the last 200 years.

Why not go straight to the source and nuclear? This would be good for cleaner for global energy needs, in addition to unleashing a "Uranium Rush" in Australia. Yesterday's report by the House of Representatives on Australia's nuclear future emphasized the economic benefits of expanded uranium mining. It also concludes that nuclear energy is the "only means" for cutting green house gas emissions. The 700-page report, which sits on ominously on our desk, is entitled "Australia's Uranium: Greenhouse friendly fuel for an energy hungry world."

And here is our main point. The nuclear debate in Australia isn't so much about Australia as it is about China and India. Australia, like every other major Western economy, ought to develop a safe, efficient, and clean nuclear industry for the day when conventional hydro-carbons like oil, coal, and gas, are no longer plentiful and cheap. That day is fast approaching, and is probably already upon us. But the main reason Australia ought to encourage nuclear power use is that if China and India don't go the nuclear route, the world will soon be a dirtier, sweater, and more dimly lit place. The sunsets might be romantic. But if you can't breathe, you won't be able to enjoy them all that much.

More here

Landowners standing up for their rights in NSW

The natives are getting restless. On February 11 there will be a rally in Hyde Park to protest against the State Government's long-running assault on democracy and private property. At a meeting at Rouse Hill just before Christmas, about a dozen community groups decided to join forces for what they hope will be a big event. The political ramifications could be interesting. Some of the groups are small, but others have previously organised demonstrations of thousands of people in their own areas. They have a range of issues, but as a coalition they are calling for three things.

1. Fair compensation when government legislation, such as rezoning or native vegetation law, reduces the value of private property.
2. An end to developer donations to political parties.
3. Restoration of the planning powers of local councils, possibly by entrenching councils in the constitution of NSW.

Most members of the coalition are in one of three broad categories. The first opposes the way the State Government has taken planning powers away from councils to enforce urban consolidation on municipalities that, as the Herald's front page showed on Tuesday, are unsuited to it and don't want it. This category includes the Coalition Against Private Overdevelopment, which is fighting the replacement of the Royal Rehabilitation Centre at Putney with 795 flats.

The second category of groups is located in western Sydney, often representing people with blocks of land from two to 10 hectares, of whom there are many thousands, who are protesting not against urban consolidation but the way government is going about releasing more land on the fringe. One common complaint is that the process is being done to assist big developers and disadvantage smaller ones. Here, too, the State Government has crushed obstructions from councils. This category includes Hands Off Private Property in the north-west, formed last year when the Government proposed to turn properties zoned as awaiting urban development into green zones. The group managed to stop what would effectively have been the state theft of a big proportion of landowners' assets.

The third group involved in the rally are farmers, many of whom have seen their livelihoods and assets devastated by the State Government. The biggest cause of this is native vegetation legislation, which prevents farmers clearing even woody weeds. Farmers are, naturally, upset and this year have been blockading properties in western NSW to prevent officials from the Department of Natural Resources from entering to investigate suspected illegal clearing of woody weeds. (Officials have the right to enter properties at will.) Another big rural issue at the moment, as reported by Daniel Lewis in the Herald on December 16, is the Government's theft of water that irrigators have been promised and have paid for.

The legal situation regarding compensation for the state theft of property rights was considered in a 2003 paper by Bryan Pape, a senior lecturer at the University of New England's law school. The State Government is legally obliged to pay just compensation if it takes property, but has no obligation at all if it only goes halfway, as it were, and reduces a property's economic value by taking away some of the usage rights previously attached to it. These might be the right to remove scrub on a farm, or in the case of a heritage listing, the right to build another storey on a house (subject to council approval). Pape wrote that "there appears grounds for characterising an uncompensated taking as an unchallengeable tax. Such an implicit tax may be regarded as invalid."

One farmer who will be at the rally is Peter Spencer, who lost the use of about 90 per cent of his property because of native vegetation law. Backed by a new group called the Constitutional Property Rights Association, he is pursuing legal action against his council, because the rates it charges him are still based on the assumption his land is economically productive. He also hopes to take on the Federal Government in the High Court. Although native vegetation law is a state matter, Canberra contributed a great deal of the money used to implement it and now takes credit internationally because affected farms such as Spencer's are carbon sinks. The Federal Government is possibly more vulnerable to legal action than the states for uncompensated "regulatory takings", the term used for the modern version of what was once called the nationalisation of private property.

Regulatory takings have been the subject of successful counterattacks by the community in parts of the US, starting in Oregon, the home of urban consolidation, when landowners found the value of their properties under attack from restrictive rezoning by a state government in pursuit of the urban environmental vote. Some other countries, such as Britain, have long taken a much fairer approach: farmers are paid "stewardship fees" as compensation if they suffer financially in order to achieve an environmental outcome desired by the wider community.

It is the way of democracy that governments can get away with a hell of a lot, but eventually they go too far and the people turn on them. The big question is how far is too far. Turnout at the February 11 rally could provide an indication.

Here are the groups supporting the rally so far: the Aboriginal Housing Company, Alex Avenue Residents Action Group, Anti-Transmission Tower Action Group, Coalition Against Private Overdevelopment, Hands Off Private Property, Friends of Ku-ring-gai Environment, Keep Our Property Private, Land and Asset Protection Group, Marsden Park Schedule Lands, North-Western Railway Alignment Injustice Lobby, Property Rights Association (NSW), Rally Ku-ring-gai, Riverstone Release Area Scheduled Lands, Rouse Hill Heights Action Group, and Save Our Suburbs.


Saturday, December 30, 2006

Aunty's anti-Western bias is a dangerous political tool

Ignorant and ideologically biased ABC staff need re-educating. ("Aunty" is a common nickname for Australia's main public broadcaster -- The Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Those concerned about ABC bias may be disappointed in the ABC's new director of editorial policies, Paul Chadwick. "During the selection process I made it clear that if the ABC wanted a chief censor, I did not want the job," Chadwick said after news of his appointment last week. "The fact that it was offered and the fact I accepted reflected the understanding that this is not a chief censor role."

There has been hope among critics of ABC bias that the new director of editorial policies role, which attracts a salary of at least $280,000 a year, would redress fundamental concerns over ideological bias among ABC staff. But Chadwick's emphasis - indeed, his insistence - on the point that he will not act as a censor at the ABC raises the concern that such hopes are illusory.

Accusations of ABC bias are a problem that will certainly recur in 2007, if only because the partisans of one major political party or the other are unhappy with the broadcaster's coverage. I believe that ABC bias is one of the central problems in our national media. It is a problem I have observed both at close first hand and at the distance of consumption of ABC broadcasting products.

From both perspectives, the problem reveals itself as coming from the same source: the spiritual and metaphysical rootlessness of the tertiary-educated Australian middle class. I have always contended that dealing with this problem at its roots will require nothing less than the complete philosophical re-education of those ABC staff members engaged in intellectual tasks. Short of outright privatisation, this is the only way to arrest the endemic anti-Western bias which, at our ABC, expresses itself as partisan political passion, with the institutions and figureheads of Western liberal democracy as its principal targets.

The ABC represents the Australian intellectual class in miniature. The journalists, writers and artists who make up that class suffer broadly from the confused values that have characterised Western intellectual elites since the late 19th century. There is political passion without historical knowledge. There is philosophical scepticism, without the well thought-out metaphysical beliefs to make that scepticism useful. There is a nihilistic tendency that goes beyond the call of reason, and summons those afflicted with it to a fundamentalist rejection of the society in which they live, and which on the whole treats them very well.

This is the sort of problem that I talk about when I talk of ABC bias. It is not the problem of whether seven minutes or 12 minutes are given to Liberal and Labor spokesmen on the environment in the course of a tedious ABC interview. Much more important than such technical trivia is the question of the underlying and perhaps unconscious attitudes of those doing the interviewing, the editing and the production work on the program.

In a sense, the problem is not the creation of ABC culture as such. It is rather a problem of the Australian tertiary-educated middle class. As flag-bearers for that class, media workers naturally carry most of its baggage. In most social situations, this does not matter at all. A journalist riding the train or ferry to work in the morning is no more dangerous or offensive than another kind of office worker, or the person driving the train or boat. But once at work, ensconced in a position of command over the tools of mass communications media, the ideas at the back of a journalist's mind become more significant, and potentially threatening.

Where commercial market forces impose the disciplines of punchiness, topicality and brevity in news, the menace factor is correspondingly reduced. Where journalists in this country have the liberality to do their thing, as at a commercial-free ABC where ratings are irrelevant and the only professional issue of importance is the estimation of one's peers, the danger from their philosophical disconnectedness from society correspondingly increases. Given the attitudes of the Australian tertiary-educated class, ABC bias is the inevitable consequence of having a public broadcaster that does not operate on commercial principles.

Some say that the ABC board, with all its Howard Government appointees, ensures that the ABC cannot be biased. I have always contended that the ABC board is virtually irrelevant to the broadcaster's operating culture. The board could become, to a man and woman, more right-wing than Keith Windschuttle in his most right-wing moments. This will never affect the Monday-to-Friday newsroom thinking of an ABC journalist whose day-to-day contact is with other ABC journalists. If anything, the persistent stacking of the board with right-wing figureheads is likely to merely reinforce the crusader mentality of those excitable ABC staff members who have come to believe that their own positions, and perhaps the future of civilisation as they understand it, are under threat from the Howard Government.

Similarly I do not predict any great change in ABC operating culture as a result of the creation of any number of so-called opinion programs loaded with predictable voices from various spots on the ideological spectrum. Opinion programs, particularly if they are labelled as such (and one hopes they will be), are unlikely to carry much persuasive value one way or the other. The impact of the programs will depend entirely on the quality of work done by presenters. Like the opinion pages of newspapers, opinion programs on the ABC may provide a forum for the nation's salient political ideas. But in and by themselves, they will not change the content of any overwhelming bias that lies within the hearts and minds of our intellectual class.

Perhaps those making the coffee at ABC staff cafeterias may be excused from the need to learn the basic outlines of Western metaphysical discourse: the tension between utopian political ideologies and the doctrine of original sin, for example. But any staffer who is paid to write, record, edit or in any other way contribute to the production of verbal output through the media of ABC TV and radio should be trained to recognise the key elements in historical Western intellectual discussion. Re-education, leading to a broadened view of the traditions of Western civilisation itself, is the only way to counter the deep-seated anti-Western hostility that characterises our intellectual elites in the modern era.

Note: Just because Leftists use the term "re-education" in an Orwellian way, it does not mean that everybody does. Sometimes it means only what it says!


Your government will protect you

More bureaucratic "child welfare" incompetence -- this time in South Australia

South Australian authorities did not investigate thousands of reports of suspected child abuse in the past year because they believed fewer than one in five could be substantiated. Figures obtained by The Advertiser also show that of the cases followed up, thousands were not investigated within set timeframes. Nearly 45 per cent of cases in which children were considered at risk of some harm and almost 10 per cent of cases in which a child was determined to be in immediate danger, were not investigated within the timeframes. Another 12,584 reports were deemed not worthy of any investigation.

The revelation has outraged child abuse advocates, social workers and MPs, but Families and Communities Minister Jay Weatherill and Families SA chief executive Beth Dunning yesterday defended the department's processes. "Of course, we still investigate the most serious cases urgently, but we are deliberately attempting to move our resources away from investigating all cases, to supporting families," [whatever that means] Ms Dunning said. "Child protection agencies around Australia are moving away from investigation and focusing on intervention."

The founder of volunteer organisation Children in Crisis, Nina Weston, said every report not urgently investigated could place a child's life at risk. "I am very concerned about that, obviously, because it means these children are not getting the help that they need because they are still at risk," she said. "If no one is seeing them, it is possible they are being re-abused."

Ms Dunning said less than 20 per cent of child abuse reports were substantiated. Investigations strained relationships among the department, parents and guardians found not to have abused their children. "When reports are incorrect, it often leads to families becoming less receptive to accepting help," she said.

Nearly 3500 cases in 2005-06, in which children were determined to be at risk, were not investigated within the target of seven days. The cases of 57 children considered to be in immediate danger were not started within the target 24 hours of notification. In 4228 other cases, families were contacted and invited to meet officials after it was determined the child was at low risk of harm in the short term.

Mr Weatherill supported Families SA's policy change, suggesting spending money on investigations could exacerbate problems. "Other states have gone down the path of pouring billions of dollars into investigations for no benefit in terms of keeping children safe," he said. "There's an argument to suggest it's actually made things worse."

Opposition families spokeswoman Vickie Chapman said she was appalled by the department's handling of child abuse cases. She blamed a lack of funding and resources for putting children's lives at risk. "Here we have a situation where even at the acute end of the cases, the Government is failing these children," she said. "They are not delivering on it. They are not supplying resources. They would rather build a tramline than look after children."

Family First MLC Dennis Hood called for mandatory investigations of all child-abuse reports. He said further funds were needed and shifting resources from one area to another was unsatisfactory. Independent MP Nick Xenophon said the emphasis on prevention would be "cold comfort" for children being abused. "It's also very disturbing so many cases are not being investigated on time," he said. "It has to be an absolute priority." The National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect state president Richard Bruggemann said the number of cases investigated promptly needed to improve.


Greenhouse gases 'not to blame' for Australia's partial drought

The drought gripping southeast Australia is due to natural variations in climate rather than the greenhouse effect. The finding, based on CSIRO research, undermines claims by South Australian Premier Mike Rann at a water summit in Canberra last month that Australia was in the grip of a one-in-1000-year drought. "It is very, very highly likely that what we are seeing at the moment is natural climatic variability," researcher Barrie Hunt told The Australian, saying the CSIRO's model of 10,000 years of natural climate variability put the current drought into perspective. "When people talk about it as a 1000-year drought, they haven't got the information. They don't understand that according to natural variability we could get another one in 50 years or it might be another 800 years, and there's no way of predicting it."

The CSIRO's global climate model incorporates measurements of air pressure, temperature and wind at different levels of the atmosphere, sea surface temperatures and rainfall. Mr Hunt's research focused on three 500 sq km sites in Australia: one on the Queensland-NSW border, going down to the coast; southeast Australia, which included Melbourne, Sydney and much of the Murray River basin; and southwest Western Australia, including the Perth region. He looked at the frequency of dry sequences lasting eight years or longer. "In each of those places there are about 30 occasions over 10,000 years where you get one of these eight or more years sequences," he said. "The longest sequence was 14 years in Queensland-NSW, 11 in the southeast and 10 in the southwest."

Mr Hunt said the Queensland-NSW area had had an 800-year period without an eight-year dry, "but there is another period of 462 years where you get five of these". Mr Hunt said the onset, duration and termination of the long dries could not be predicted because they were due to random processes. He said the current drought was an example of a dry sequence that began with an El Nino weather system. "It starts a drought and you get sea-surface temperatures flickering backwards and forwards a bit. The rainfall may go back to fairly near normal but it is still below average, and then you get another El Nino," he said. "This can go on for a decade. Eventually it breaks. You don't know why, it is a random thing. This is just part of the beauty of the climatic system."

Most of Victoria is in a 10-year dry sequence, the Murray River is in its sixth year of drought, while Brisbane and much of NSW are also experiencing a six-year dry.

"It is important that people realise that natural variability says it will break. It may not break next year, because one of these things went on for 14 years, but it will break," Mr Hunt said. Mr Hunt was previously leader of the CSIRO's climate modelling program. He said a problem in assessing droughts -- and giving them titles such as a one-in-1000-years drought -- was that Australia did not have extensive records. Mr Hunt said climate change due to increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere built on naturally occurring patterns and would be felt in the coming years. "At the moment I think natural variability dominates. Increasingly, over the next few decades you would expect to see the greenhouse effect start to dominate, particularly with things like temperature," he said.

Mr Hunt said the dry sequence in the southwest was different, with a decline over 30 years, which included the odd year of above-average rainfall. "It isn't violating what I am saying, but it is a very unusual sequence of events there," he said.



On Sunday night, 2006 will be farewelled with bells, whistles and more than a few drinks. It's what we do. The inclusion of a chosen tipple or two in our festive and year's end celebrations is the norm; to not down a few yourself or offer a drink to a guest on New Year's Eve is still considered unusual, even in this era of health concerns.

Alcohol has always been a part of our culture. We use it to celebrate achievements, mark milestones and when we are enjoying the company of friends. Our high-quality alcoholic products [wine, beer and rum] are world renowned. Alcohol adds to our economy and culture.

Why then are we so shocked when teenagers drink? For generations, sneaking and sipping has been the way of youth. For generations it was snickered about and older people shared a wink and a nod when a young one nicked a mouthful and got caught. But the red flag had been raised on teen drinking, as well it should.

Australian Secondary Students Alcohol and Drug Survey 2005 data released this month showed that while tobacco and cannabis usage were down on similar surveys on 2002 and 1999, anti-drinking ad campaigns had done nought. Teens' drinking behaviour in Australia has remained relatively unchanged since the 1990s. Almost all 16- and 17-year-olds have tried alcohol, with more than half of those surveyed describing themselves as current drinkers and revealing they had consumed alcohol in the week before the survey. Commonwealth Government statistics show one in 10 teens drink at harmful levels in Australia. About seven in 10 boys and girls aged 14 to 17 drink alcohol and a third engage in high-risk behaviour at least once a month after binge drinking. Oh, yes. Teenagers are certainly drinking.

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, underage drinking accounts for 20 per cent of all alcohol consumption in the US. It's hard to imagine the consumption would be very different here in the land of beer and booze-ups.

How to address this issue is complex and thorny, but what is startling in recent times is the propensity to see it as linear: blame the parents and blame the teens. Alcohol consumption by 17-year-olds during the Schoolies celebrations this year was blamed squarely on parents for providing their children with booze. Forget about context, or that most parents realised their teens would obtain alcohol and wanted to have a say in what was consumed; forget that most parents agonise over the drinking dilemma; or that by-and-large this generation of mums and dads have swung away from the autocratic approach of their parents and try to listen and be fair: Critics are quick to judge the parents of teens as bad, bad, bad.

It is clear drinking excessively is unhealthy and dangerous. The National Health and Medical Research Council says male teenagers should have no more than six standard alcoholic drinks on any one occasion and teenage girls should have no more than four. Go beyond these limits and the chances of being involved in drink driving, unwanted sexual advances and physical and verbal abuse increase. Their bodies suffer, too.

The solution to teenagers binge drinking or drinking alcohol at an age that is dangerous to their development and safety will not be found in blaming parents, or the teens themselves. The solution can only lie in making the whole of society take an interest. It is our social behaviour that feeds the problem, our embracing of getting "sloshed", our rules governing the promotion and advertising of alcohol, our inclusion of alcohol in everything special and important. We all must bear the consequences of our choices and we must share the load of responsibility for this problem.

Most of those who bellow loudest about the culture of underage drinking must not have adolescents themselves, as this is a group like none that has gone before. They are savvy, aware, bold and stressed: the way in which alcohol is pitched and presented could be just for them. The fact is that most teens, even if they do drink, are heeding the warnings. Most consume moderately and deliberately. Still, urban myths grow and one-off tales of alcohol abuse and teenage misbehaviour are expanded on to create the impression of a damned and dark generation.

In June, the Government launched its National Alcohol Strategy for the next three years. It said it was developed as a response to the prevalent high-risk alcohol consumption in the nation. Each year, about 3000 people die as a result of binge drinking and about 65,000 people are admitted to hospital. The annual cost to the Australian community of alcohol-related social problems was estimated to be $7.6 billion. All this and more could be waiting for some of our teens unless we take collective responsibility and get real about expectations. We need to get serious about offering real help instead just extending real judgment and real criticism.


Friday, December 29, 2006

Brisbane's "Green Bridge"

Rationality is in short supply in anything Greenies touch and the new "Green" bridge over the river in Brisbane (Queensland, Australia) is no exception. It has a cycle path, a pedestrian path and two road lanes that mostly empty buses trundle over but the road lanes are not open to cars. It is an anti-car bridge! Since there is little additional car-parking close to the bridge, it seems unlikely to be much used -- despite its cost to the taxpayer of $54 million.

The idiocies do not end there, however. It does not encourage pedestrians either. Have a look at the photo above and note the partial awning over the pedestrian path. It is situated on the South of the path but Brisbane is South of the tropic of Capricorn so the sun always comes from the North. So the awning is totally useless as a sunshade. And you can see that it is little use as a rain-shelter either. Someone must not have told the architect that the rain rarely falls straight down!

My previous post about the bridge was on December 17th (scroll down).

Australian government tackles Islamic bigotry

The Howard Government is to roll out a pilot program in schools in Muslim areas of western Sydney that will address the compatibility of Islamic and Australian values and the wearing of religious attire, including headscarves. The $1 million federally funded three-year program to improve understanding of other faiths and cultures will be run at schools in the suburbs of Lakemba, which has a large Muslim population, and Macquarie Fields, the site of youth riots last year. The move comes amid broader efforts to reshape Australia's ethnic affairs policies to put a greater emphasis on integration and English-language skills.

The pilot, which will run in up to 16 schools, aims to "reduce isolation and alienation felt by some students" and to "support Australian Muslims to participate successfully in the broader Australian society", according to a government-issued request for tenders to establish and manage the program. Education Minister Julie Bishop said the pilot, to be rolled out next year, would investigate the "challenges facing students in a range of school environments, and will seek to establish best practice which will help us to further encourage tolerance and social cohesion through school education". "It is important to help all Australian schools educate our children about values which support our democratic way of life and our capacity to live in harmony with each other, regardless of individuals' circumstances, backgrounds or beliefs," she said.

But some Islamic community leaders said they were concerned that some of the material being developed for the pilot could create negative sentiment about Muslim students wearing headscarves and other religious attire. Controversy about the wearing of headscarves by young girls has raged throughout Europe since the France banned public school students from wearing them in 2004. Belgium adopted a similar ban and Germany and Denmark banned public school teachers from wearing them. In October, the debate flared when British Prime Minister Tony Blair described full-face veils as a "mark of separation". Several Liberal MPs have indicated they support banning headscarves in local schools.

Material being developed for the pilot includes questions about whether religious/cultural attire creates challenges in schools. The material developed for the pilot must also "identify a series of challenges faced by Muslims and non-Muslims in schools, i.e. the compatibility of Islamic values with Australian values and cultures ... gender relation issues and cultural/religious attire," the request for tender said.

Islamic Friendship Association spokesman Keysar Trad, who is based in the Lakemba area, said he was concerned that debate about religious attire would be reignited as a result of the pilot. "I am worried that this could result in greater fears rather than something constructive or positive -- the last thing we need is to reinvent the wheel when it comes to religious attire in schools." Ameer Ali, former chair of the Prime Minister's hand-picked Muslim Reference Group, said the program should have pilots in each state rather than just in Lakemba and Macquarie Fields.


Global cooling in Queensland

If an unusually hot summer in London proves global warming, surely an unusually cool summer in Brisbane proves global cooling!! Or don't the colonies count?

It still hasn't broken the drought, but more good soaking rain across much of the state yesterday seemed to wash away our concerns - at least for a moment or two. As a southerly air stream brought more record cold December temperatures and unseasonal drizzle, many swapped the traditional post-Christmas day at the beach for a rare stroll in the rain....

There were smiles too on the Darling Downs, where the light drizzle was just enough follow-up to storm rain a fortnight ago. Graingrower Frank Stenzel said the 8mm of light rain that had fallen since Christmas Day at his Greenmount property, 25km south of Toowoomba, was a welcome boost for his 120ha crop of sorghum. But Mr Stenzel said he would need a further 100mm in coming weeks to ensure a reasonable harvest. "The cool weather has allowed the rain to soak in and hopefully well get more by the weekend," he said.

The bureau has forecast cloudy skies and patchy rain for today in a band from the northwest to the southeast of the state, slowly clearing northwards. Tomorrow, rain is expected to ease and clear northwards, with temperatures climbing but still generally below average. The highest rainfall recorded yesterday was 29mm at Baralaba, 200km southwest of Gladstone.

Bureau senior forecaster Geoff Doueal said record low December maximums had been recorded at several places, including Brisbane Airport (19.1C), Toowoomba (13.9C), Ipswich (18.4C) and Oakey (15.5C). Emerald's maximum of 16.7C was the lowest December maximum for a century. The previous lowest December temperature was 18.3 in 1907.

More here

And it is indeed a remarkably cool summer here in Brisbane. There is a distinct nip in the air at night. Usually, at this time of the year, I am accustomed to having a warm shower by turning on the cold water only!

Another defence equipment bungle

Days after the Defence Department launched an inquiry into fears that criminals have gained access to army shoulder-fired rocket launchers, the Auditor-General has found it cannot adequately account for inventory and "repairable items" worth $3.9 billion. An annual investigation of government agencies by the Australian National Audit Office concludes that Defence has breached federal financial management controls.

The Auditor-General, Ian McPhee, also criticised the $8.7 billion Defence Materiel Organisation, the body responsible for managing defence equipment. The audit office found the DMO had opened and operated foreign bank accounts without official approval and had "inadvertently" allowed one such account to go into the red. The DMO had also "artificially fixed" the exchange rate when buying equipment for Australian troops overseas, a practice that caused the value of projects to be "misstated". The value of one such project, the Australian light armoured vehicle capability, was overstated by $23 million. The project was subsequently transferred from the DMO back to the Defence Department. The practice has since ceased.

The ongoing problems with Defence accounts follow two recent controversies involving the possible theft of specialist military equipment. Defence Minister Brendan Nelson last week called in ASIO and the secretive Defence Security Authority to carry out a security audit, after concerns that criminals may have gained access to shoulder-fired 66-millimetre rocket launchers from army stores.

The audit office's conclusions on defence accounts are contained in its yearly review of the financial statements of government businesses and agencies, which was released just before Christmas. The auditor says Defence has made some important improvements in its record-keeping and accountability during the past year. But the audit office warns that despite recent improvement, which has seen Defence accounts cleared as "true and fair" apart from the inventories of general and repairable items, there is still much that should be done. "Notwithstanding the significant reduction in uncertainty over some Defence balances in 2005-06, there remains significant uncertainty in relation to the two material line items within the Defence financial statements," it says. The audit office says Defence will need to maintain its current commitment to improving accountability in order to secure a clean bill of health.


Brits flocking to Australia

Amusing the reason given below: Sun and sand. No doubt that is a factor but might it not be that escaping high taxes and the high rate of black crime are important too?

Australia welcomed more than 130,000 immigrants in the last fiscal year, most of them swapping the cold of Britain for sun and sand down under. Figures released by the Department of Immigration show Australia welcomed about 8000 more immigrants than the previous year, with the majority choosing to settle in New South Wales.

While many of the new settlers arrived and stayed in Sydney, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said immigrants were finding it easier to settle outside the city. "A network of support services has now been established in regional NSW and throughout Australia and this has made it more attractive for migrants to live and work away from the big metropolitan centres of Sydney and Melbourne," she said.

The biggest increases in immigration were in South Australia and the ACT. South Australia welcomed 9099 new immigrants, an increase from 6364 in 2004-05, while the capital territory became home for 1372 new Australians, up from 1217. A building boom, low unemployment and the aesthetics of Canberra were all behind the ACT's attractiveness, Senator Vanstone said. "The Canberra community is to be congratulated for welcoming these people into their lives so readily and willingly." [Really! Poms are a universal feature of Australian life. Completely unremarkable]


Thursday, December 28, 2006

Labor Party to get tough on welfare

Australia's new Leftist leader would be a "blue dog" Democrat in the USA. And the comparison with Britain is even more amusing. Not only is Rudd to the Right of the British Labour government but he is also to the Right of Britain''s nominally "Conservative" Opposition

Kevin Rudd is pledging to push welfare change harder than the Howard Government if elected next year by encouraging many of Australia's 700,000 "forgotten" people on disability pensions to find work. In a move expected to enrage welfare groups, federal Labor is planning to keep tough criteria for new disability pensioners introduced by the Government in July. Opposition workforce participation spokeswoman Penny Wong signalled Labor would go further than the Government, saying she wanted to create thousands of new training positions so people on disability pensions could find work.

Under the Government's tightening of eligibility for the disability support pension, people will no longer get the payment if they are judged able to work 15 hours a week - a halving of the previous 30-hour limit. The 700,000 people on the DSP before July are not affected by the revised work-hours test. The Government's welfare changes outraged welfare groups including the Catholic Church, the Brotherhood of St Laurence and Uniting Care Australia because they considered the measures too harsh.

Labor wants to provide incentives to existing DSP recipients whom it believes would work if given a chance. According to Labor, these people have been neglected by the Government as too hard to handle politically, and because involving them in work programs could bring an unwelcome boost to unemployment figures. Senator Wong said Labor wanted to be known as a "work-first" party and not one of welfarism.

While the policy was formulated during Kim Beazley's period as Opposition leader, Senator Wong, a member of the party's Left, continues a trend adopted by Mr Rudd. Since being elected to the Labor leadership this month, Mr Rudd has moved to reposition the party on a raft of issues to cast it as economically responsible and avoid being wedged on contentious left-wing issues. Mr Rudd has signalled there will be no repeat of Mark Latham's disastrous Tasmanian forestry policy, and Labor's immigration policy will encourage learning English and getting a job, with integration into Australian society emphasised over cultural diversity. Campaigning on federal-state reform, Mr Rudd has called for an overhaul of responsibilities between the commonwealth and states to improve services in health and education.

Senator Wong said Labor supported moves to cut the DSP rate further, although she confirmed the party's approach would not force people off pensions. Rather it would lure them off benefits by offering training places. "We think those who can work should work," she said. "If we can further reduce welfare payments and get people into work, it'sbetter for everybody. We are and should be a party that understands the value of work. We want to reduce the numbers of people who are long-term welfare-dependent."

The number of people on DSP benefits rose by 21 per cent over the past five years to 700,000. But according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, their labour market participation rate is just 46.5 per cent, compared with 70 per cent in most OECD countries.

The Howard Government reneged on one of its core welfare reform promises, to provide a guaranteed 4000 places for disabled people in its Welfare to Work programs. Senator Wong said Labor would offer places to anyone on the pension who wanted them. Welfare recipients could study at TAFE or university courses instead of having to look for work. The changes would apply to people receiving the disability support pension or the sole parents' pension, and who are considered capable of working between 15 and 30 hours a week.

The only training they can now undertake as part of their mutual obligation requirement is short-term and must be run by a member of the JobNetwork or an organisation approved by the agency. Instead of work-for-the-dole projects, eligible welfare recipients could do training, vocational or tertiary courses, as long as they could prove this would increase their chances of work, Senator Wong said. Labor's concession to the welfare lobby will be to ensure that while the disabled and single mothers wait for jobs they receive higher rates of support through boosted welfare payments.


Australian government points out the high cost of "green" power

THE switch to "clean green" energy sources will cost households up to 40 per cent more on their power bill, Federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane has said. Mr Macfarlane said it was inevitable there would be "big jumps" in power bills, but said most people were unaware of the looming increases. "I don't think the consumers fully understand the price tag associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions," he told The Courier-Mail in an exclusive interview. "There is no doubt that if we are going to lower greenhouse gas emissions then electricity is going to cost significantly more - for consumers it will be anywhere between 20 and 40 per cent."

Mr Macfarlane said the price rise would occur during the next decade as the nation moved to cleaner, but more expensive energy sources such as clean coal technology. His estimate of a jump of up to 40 per cent in power bills is at the high end of industry expectations. But with the average annual household electricity bill in southeast Queensland about $1300 to $1400, a 40 per cent price rise would add more than $500 - or $125 a quarter - to the average power bill.

Last month, nuclear advocate Ziggy Switkowski said the increase in power bills would probably "not be noticeable" for consumers. But Mr Macfarlane said the cost of electricity production from coal-fired powered stations would almost double from $35 a megawatt-hour to more than $60 as gas emissions were cut. Coal is the main source of electricity and delivers 90 per cent of Queensland's power.

Labor's climate change spokesman, Peter Garrett, yesterday accused the Government of failing to take action on global warming and said it was impossible to make predictions about future energy prices. "In the absence of any targets, timelines and any certainty in greenhouse gas reductions the Government effectively leaves the issue of prices up in the air," Mr Garrett said. Prime Minister John Howard has refused to ratify the Kyoto agreement that sets targets for cutting emissions but earlier this month set-up a taskforce to examine a global emissions trading system.

Mr Macfarlane angrily rejected the accusation the Government has failed to act and said more than three years ago it began pursuing technology-based solutions. He believes it is time for a detailed debate about the impact of cutting emissions and is highly critical of those who promote wind and solar power as a potential solution to future energy needs. He said solar power was four to five times more expensive than electricity from coal and that wind power was twice as expensive - even though it was heavily subsidised. "While the energy source is free, converting that to electricity is expensive," he said of wind and solar power. The Government believes nuclear energy can be a future source of clean energy, but Labor has ruled it out as too dangerous.

All nations, including Australia, are under pressure to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions as a blanket of carbon dioxide around the earth and is blamed for heating up the atmosphere. Labor's industry spokesman Kim Carr says the longer the nation waits to change energy sources the more it will cost.


Government "Child Welfare" abuse never stops

A woman who lost her job after her husband was wrongly accused of child sex abuse says she will continue to fight for justice despite waiting nearly a decade for the Beattie [Queensland] Government to act on recommendations she be compensated. The former family day care carer and mother of three has spent $117,000 on legal costs and faces losing her family home. But she wants to be compensated for the loss of her carer's registration and for the pain and suffering caused to her and her husband. The woman said she wanted to know why the Government would not implement the Ombudsman's compensation recommendations. "Justice will prevail. It must," she said.

The Courier-Mail first wrote about the woman's plight in 1998, when it reported the former Families Department had illegally shredded child abuse investigation documents, after her husband had been wrongly swept up in abuse allegations involving a child she was looking after.

Opposition Leader Jeff Seeney said the family deserved better treatment. "It's hard to imagine why the Government has not acted on the Ombudsman's recommendations," he said. "There is a case to be looked at here to ensure justice is done."

Her fight for justice has involved some of the state's most senior bureaucrats and politicians, including Peter Beattie who, in September 1998, as fledgling Premier, declared himself an "honest broker" in ensuring a "speedy resolution" of the matter. Deputy Premier Anna Bligh also was involved as then families minister. After a 3 1/2-year investigation, former ombudsman Fred Albeitz found "there were severe deficiencies in the management of the case" by the Families Department. Then departmental director-general Allan Male accepted the agency should enter into "meaningful negotiations ... to achieve an acceptable compensation package".

The woman later received an "unreserved" written apology from Mr Male's successor, Ken Smith. But the woman said little or no negotiations eventuated and, after her lawyers activated a Supreme Court writ which they advised was necessary to protect her legal right to claim damages, she was "frozen out". The woman's Supreme Court application seeking leave to proceed with her case was unsuccessful, as was a 2003 appeal, with the State Government engaging Queen and Senior counsels to fight the case.

The woman said she was continuing to pursue the matter with Linda Apelt, the Director-General of the new Communities Department, which has taken over the old Families Department files.


Chaplains must not preach religion???

What a nutty idea. It can't last

School chaplains will have to sign a code of conduct that prevents them from touching students and bans the preaching of religion, under a controversial $90 million government scheme. Chaplains who refuse to sign the code will not be allowed to take part in the National School Chaplaincy Program, which provides grants of up to $20,000 a year for public and private schools to run chaplaincy services.

The code states that school chaplains must avoid physical contact with a student unless it is "strictly necessary", such as if the student is injured. Chaplains must acknowledge that proselytising is not appropriate, and avoid using theological language that "assumes people have the same beliefs". The details were released last week by the federal Education Minister, Julie Bishop, who said chaplains were "an invaluable service to the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of school communities".

The guidelines state there must be extensive consultation with the school community, especially parents, about the need for a chaplaincy service, and the religious affiliation of the chaplain. Schools are required to provide information to students and parents, such as through newsletters or handouts, emphasising use of a chaplaincy service is voluntary.

Public school teachers and principals have strongly criticised the federal scheme. The Australian Education Union believes it will subsidise the work of private schools, while the Australian Secondary Principals Association described it as inflexible and "fundamentally flawed". The union's Victorian president, Mary Bluett, said the Government should instead target the funding to public schools, and make the money available for all types of welfare workers - not just chaplains. "It's discriminating against those school communities who believe that a chaplain is not the best resource for their community."

Existing child protection regulations for schools in NSW already prevent teachers from inappropriately touching students. The president of the NSW Secondary Schools Principals Council, Jim McAlpine, said the scheme was a waste of public money which could be spent targeting counselling services for schools. "I just see it as another way of John Howard transferring taxpayer money to private schools," he said. The deputy president of the NSW Teachers Federation, Angelo Gavrielatos, said the chaplains policy was "misguided and divisive".


Wednesday, December 27, 2006


Police in Melbourne fear the emergence of militant street gangs of young African refugees who have served in militia groups in their war-ravaged homelands. A growing gangster mentality among young African men is worrying community leaders, who blame boredom, unemployment and drugs for turning young immigrants living in Melbourne's inner north towards violence and crime. Police sources have told The Australian that while gang-related activity had not reached epidemic proportions, "it is a serious concern".

Young African leader Ahmed Dini said some Somali, Sudanese and Eritrean men, predominantly aged between 16 and 25, felt disconnected from mainstream society and were either forming or joining ethnic groups for protection and also for a sense of belonging. He said they mainly lived in housing commission estates in the city's inner north - Flemington, Ascotvale and north Melbourne - and some had trained with heavy-duty military weapons while they were serving in militias overseas. "Some of them have used rocket launchers and grenades," said Mr Dini, who is chairman of the community-based youth network Saygo.

He said the migrants were haunted by childhood images of killings, torture and rape, and were constantly on edge. "Violence is not something new for these young people," he said. "And sometimes memories trigger them to do stupid things. "Sometimes they do some bad things ... like probably pick on other people, other groups, pick fights (with other ethnic groups). "They pick fights with Turkish, Lebanese, even with the African communities. "You have the Somalians from Flemington usually pick on Somalians from Carlton, so it's like a territorial kind of thing."

Mr Dini said some of the young men wielded baseball bats during the brawls. "They do have bats and stuff like that, and when they do hear there's a fight they turn up with their bats." He said while he was not aware of any structured African community gangs in the city's inner north, he was aware young Sudanese men from the western suburbs were becoming more established and organised in their gang activities.

But a police source told The Australian the street gangs were not usually structured or organised. "There isn't necessarily a leader and so on." The source said the hierarchy and leadership often comes into play when the gang is faced with some kind of adversity such as a territorial brawl. Mr Dini, who set up Saygo with 12 other young African leaders in September to tackle unemployment, education and criminal issues being faced by his community, said the state and local governments were largely responsible for the street gangs. This was because they had for years ignored the problems of unemployment and the lack of facilities, failing to devote enough resources and initiatives towards alternative activities. "There's no service-providers that help out the young people in the area," he said. "And the population of the youth is growing. And the more boys you have doing nothing, just hanging out, the more likely you're going to have problems that are going to arise."

Mr Dini warned that gang and crime-related problems within the African communities would eventually lead to "race riots" similar to those in France if governments continued to ignore the problem. "It could lead to deaths," he said.


"Civil liberties" perversions

Last week the Victorian Court of Appeal ordered a retrial of Jack Thomas on terror charges. The judges found the interview Thomas gave to ABC television's Four Corners could be used in evidence, as it potentially incriminated him. But here's the bizarre part. A number of civil libertarians were reported as being appalled at the ABC for showing the interview. "They must have known they shouldn't do it," said a past president of Liberty Victoria.

In reading this reaction I was reminded of the contrary opinions of the great English legal and moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham. This is the man who was largely responsible for the first Reform Bill of 1832 that vastly expanded the voting system; Bentham lobbied for such a broadening of the democratic base for many years. He also pushed for prison reform and was a progenitor of the John Howard Society (that's the prison reform group named after the long-dead Brit, not a fan club of the Prime Minister).

Bentham, who lived from 1748 to 1832, also played an important role in advancing the cause of women's voting rights. But my point is only this: Bentham had impeccable 18th-century reformist credentials in all sorts of important areas that affected real people. And yet he had a near pathological dislike, indeed loathing, of what we today would call civil libertarians.

Here's how Bentham saw it. This crowd of people forget that criminal trials are basically about getting at the truth. What is needed is a way to determine if an accused person actually did what the police are accusing him of. So relevance and truth are the key factors in any set of procedures. Yes, we'd all be better off opting to have a system that deliberately lets 10 or even 100 guilty persons go free rather than convicting one innocent person. That's why, contrary to the way newspapers often portray things, a not-guilty verdict does not in any way equate to an innocent verdict. Many guilty people are acquitted. It's the price we all willingly pay to keep the innocent out of jail, as much as is practically possible. But notice how you can admit all that and still believe that the point of a criminal procedure system is basically to find out the truth. That's certainly how Bentham saw it.

The problem with the civil libertarian mind-set is that any desire to find the truth -- to convict people who actually did what they are accused of -- seems to get brushed aside in the headlong rush after moral abstractions. Bentham caustically portrayed such thinking as a sort of fox-hunting game. Their goal, he said, was to ensure convicting accused criminals resembled a jolly good day of hunting. That means you can't catch too many. You'll need lots of irrelevant rules which will be sure to trip up the police on occasion, to make sure a few foxes get away. And you want to make sure these rules don't have anything much to do with determining guilt or innocence. The goal is always to keep the game nice and entertaining, with a fox here and there slipping away for the sake of the game itself.

Bentham went further. He saw the mind-set that, say, would exclude evidence when it clearly and undoubtedly points to guilt as part of a typical lawyer's world view, one where a person can be earning a huge salary and yet see himself as doing God's work. It's fox-hunting without any blood on one's hands; nice work if you can get it.

Now let's go back to Thomas. He either did or did not accept cash from al-Qa'ida. If he did not, or if the jury has a reasonable doubt he did not, then he should be acquitted. But if it is clear that Thomas did what he is accused of, then how, precisely, is there any injustice done if this is proved through his own words on an interview he freely gave to the ABC?

There is no obvious rationale for saying our criminal procedures should ensure the stupid don't get convicted. Nor are there any immediate grounds Lfor saying that the press should cover up admissions. Even if the ABC had promised not to show the interview until after the trial, I cannot see why that should stop the police from forcing the public broadcaster to hand over the tapes of the interview.

Confessions are sometimes suspect because we know as a matter of experience that innocent people sometimes confess to things they did not do. In other words, we're worried about the truth of the confession and fear coercion and pressure. We only should accept a confession after it's plain the confessor is telling the truth. But those civil libertarians last week weren't worried about truth. They were worried about the conduct of the ABC (not an obvious candidate for Right-wing monster organisation, truth be told). And they worried about Thomas's legal representation. You see, a smart person wouldn't have admitted anything, and so a smart lawyer would have ensured he shut up.

And so on and so forth. Not one iota of concern for whether the system works reasonably well in getting at the truth and actually takes off the streets dangerous people who do bad things: some of whom, luckily for all of us, are just plain dumb. Maybe Liberty Victoria should have its members read a little Bentham.


What Greenie dam-hatred has achieved in Australia

Water restrictions have cut consumption by Australian households to 1950s levels, but a chronic failure by state governments to invest in infrastructure will force further crackdowns on use in 2007 unless the nation receives significant rain.

Research by national water utilities has found water consumption per head has been driven down to 1950s levels by the tough restrictions. Up to 20 per cent of the cuts in household consumption were reported since 2001, when severe restrictions were implemented as rainfall in the catchment areas began to drop. This is despite a doubling in the average size of houses, with more bathrooms and increased numbers of swimming pools.

According to Water Services Australia, in 1955-56 Sydneysiders used 343 litresper person per day, while Melburnians used 330L. In 2005-06, people in Sydney used slightly less -- 339L per person per day -- while Melbourne residents used 331L. Usage peaked at about 500L in the 1980s. But in the same period, the populations of the cities on the eastern seaboard have more than doubled while investment in water infrastructure has failed to keep pace.

After a post-war boom in developing new dams and water storage, investment in new dams has fallen sharply in the past decade, with little investment in alternative technologies such as recycling and desalination -- with the exception of Perth. The water spokesman for the Australian Council for Infrastructure Development, Graham Dooley, said Australia had enough water but was unable to manage it because of chronic infrastructure failures. "We have a supply crisis and we have an infrastructure crisis. We don't actually have a water crisis," he said. "It's in the wrong place and the wrong quality. It's either seawater or stormwater or sewage, not drinking water." The problem, he said, was under-investment in infrastructure. "You can solve all of these problems by being cleverer."

State governments have continued to take the profits from their water utilities rather than reinvesting in new infrastructure, taking $659 million in 2004/05 from urban water authorities. A report by Marsden Jacob Associates found the capital city water businesses had not increased capital expenditure significantly "and certainly not increased it to the levels required to have avoided the current shortfall in supply". Instead, the water authorities have relied on increasingly severe restrictions to manage supply, as dams fall to unprecedented lows. Only Hobart and Darwin are exempt from the national crisis. Sydney's Warragamba dam is at an unprecedented low of 36.7per cent. Only huge transfers of water from the Shoalhaven system this year have kept the Warragamba above the desalination trigger point of 30 per cent.

Southeast Queensland's Wivenhoe dam is in a worse position, and is now 23 per cent of capacity. "We've never seen it this low in all the time we've been coming here," Ipswich resident Steven Ryder said during a visit with his wife Carla. Melbourne's Thompson dam is at 40 per cent. The city will get more severe restrictions on January 1, but what worries water managers is the possibility of bushfire in the dam's catchment. Mr Dooley said Adelaide had even more severe problems because of its heavy reliance on dwindling inflows to the Murray River for water supplies. "Adelaide is basically stuffed," he said. "Adelaide has no option but to recycle or desalinate." Mr Dooley said Perth was the only city to have a thorough water strategy, although its dams received only a third of the inflows they got before 1974. "They have done everything possible, and even so they haven't got enough, and that is because it is the best example in the world of climate change," he said.

Water Services Association chief Ross Young said bringing back consumption to 1950 levels "is an outstanding achievement if you compare it to electricity, gas or ... petrol, which have all risen substantially over that period".


Education bureaucrats try to stymie religion classes

A controversial new religious instruction form that was to be completed by parents of Queensland state school students next year has been pulped. Education Minister Rod Welford has intervened to ditch the form amid accusations it was being used by the Government to drive faith-based teachings out of state schools by stealth. The highly ambiguous form - drafted by Education Queensland bureaucrats - appears to make parents "opt in" to their religion of choice. This comes despite the Government insisting it would maintain the long-standing "opt out" policy following outrage from church leaders at a planned overhaul of religious education earlier this year.

Mr Welford conceded the new form was "all over the shop" and needed changing. "Obviously it is a bit unclear and I have asked the department to redraft the form so it is consistent with our policy," the Minister said.

The decision to ditch the form came after concerns were raised with The Courier-Mail by one of Queensland's veteran religious instruction teachers. Wondai Baptist Church reverend John Lane said the Government was trying to achieve through policy what it could not through legislation. "I think they are trying to make it as difficult as possible for churches to continue with religious education," Rev Lane said. "I think, and I may be wrong here, that there is a whole anti-religion push behind this." Rev Lane, who has taught in schools for 36 years, said he was determined to continue despite having to submit a detailed curriculum for the first time.

The template form, which was sent to some schools in November, was to be completed by parents of all new enrolments. It asked parents to agree to send their child to religious education classes and gave them the option of the faith of their choice, if available. It gave parents the option to withdraw, but only children who identified with a religion being offered would be sent to the classes if the form was not completed.

Coalition education spokesman Stuart Copeland said the Government had been "caught out". "It certainly looks like they were trying to confuse the issue and hope RE falls over," he said. However, Mr Welford said parents were supposed to be told about their ability to withdraw children from RE, but this had not been happening in many schools. He said parents would receive a new form through the school which would clarify that they could withdraw their child from RE with a written request. "All children will stay in religious instruction unless the parent requests for them to be withdrawn," Mr Welford said.


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Immigrant farmer to be deported because of drought

If you are a welfare-dependant Sudanese you can stay as long as you like, of course

A DROUGHT-hit migrant market-gardener is to be deported because he is not producing enough tomatoes and zucchini. John Lai, from Taiwan, and his wife Su-Mei and three children have lived in Australia for nine years. But the Department of Immigration has ordered them out by January 5. A Migration Review Tribunal decision last week gave Mr Lai just two weeks to leave the country because he wasn't meeting the department's strict criteria, including a minimum business turnover.

The cruel decision comes despite an extraordinary display of support from people in the Lais' home town of Cowra, New South Wales, including 100 individual letters and petitions with hundreds of signatures. Cowra Council development manager Graham Apthorpe said he hoped Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone would overturn the decision. "We want him to stay," he said. "And the people want him to stay. "He has always paid his way, he is no drain on taxpayers, he sends his kids to the local Catholic school and pays the fees."

Mr Lai owns his own block of land and his market garden business would be on track if not for the drought, Mr Apthorpe said.

Mr Lai arrived in Australia in 1998 on a long-stay business visa that required him to employ people and use technology. But the drought has cut into his organic farming enterprise and the dam on his little farm has no water.

Mr Lai's children, Ray and Howard, aged 16 and 15, have grown up in Australia, and the third child, Angel, nine, was born here. Mr Apthorpe said the Government should show compassion and review its policy on special visas. "There's got to be some facility to decide on who stays here, rather than leave it right to the death knock."



SEVEN-YEAR-OLD triplet Tabitha Burgess will eat her first Christmas lunch today after the removal of a five-cent coin that had been stuck in her throat for most of her life. Born with a defective oesophagus, Tabitha spent the first six years of her life breathing through a tracheotomy and being fed through a gastrostomy peg. The Hobart girl had been expected to be able to eat soft food at age two, but for unknown reasons could not swallow without regurgitating.

It was not until March this year that doctors at Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital identified a foreign object in a throat X-ray. The object had been missed in an X-ray at the same hospital 3« years earlier. Tabitha's father Bruce Burgess, of Blackmans Bay, said the coin was clearly visible in the first X-ray, done in 2002 during a pneumonia check, but doctors assumed it was a piece of medical equipment. "Because it was near the tracheotomy, they assumed that another doctor had put something else there," he said.

The coin was spotted when Tabitha returned to the hospital for the removal of her tracheotomy. "The doctor called me in and showed me the X-rays on the board and asked me what it was," Mr Burgess said. "I said I had no idea, so they did surgery. Her throat had grown over the coin, so they had to cut it out. "When the doctor came out, I asked if they'd found gold but it was only five cents."

The removal of the coin has seen a dramatic turnaround in Tabitha's health. While she still has the gastrostomy peg, she is enjoying different foods for the first time and is looking forward to today's feast. "Most other Christmases she has been in hospital and unable to eat," Mr Burgess said. "This Christmas she will be able to sit down and eat with us and eat what we eat."

It is not known how long the coin was in her throat, but given her inability to swallow at the age of two Mr Burgess suspects it may have been there more than five years. While he could not believe how long it took to identify the problem, he said he was not planning legal action. "Do you sue the hand that feeds you?" Mr Burgess said. "We do have the legal right to sue them up to seven years from now, but we are just grateful to have her."

The coin exacerbated a rough childhood for Tabitha health-wise. The day after her birth she was flown by helicopter to Melbourne to be treated for oesophageal atresia, a birth defect that causes the oesophagus to end in a blind-ended pouch rather than connecting normally to the stomach. It was a year before Tabitha returned to Tasmania and another nine months before she went home from the Royal Hobart Hospital. She has had about 20 operations and in 2002 her life was threatened by pneumonia.


Eat, drink and be merry

By Christopher Pearson

Health ministers, state and federal, are of one mind on the question of obesity. Lack of exercise and poor diet (known in the trade as the Big Two) are to blame. Recent articles in the International Journal of Obesity tell a different story.

Pathways, an obesity prevention program associated with the Johns Hopkins school of public health, ran a three-year study on Native American children. Improved diet and more exercise did not lead to any significant difference in body mass index between the youngsters who participated in the program and the control group. As well, there's a marked paucity of experimental evidence to support the proposition that lack of exercise and too much junk food cause obesity. Not for the first time, medical science has been artlessly assuming that which had to be proved.

The trailblazing IJO article (by S. W. Keith, D. T. Redden et al) concludes that: "Undue attention has been devoted to reduced physical activity and food marketing practices as postulated causes for increases in the prevalence of obesity, leading to neglect of other plausible mechanisms and well-intentioned, but potentially ill-founded, proposals for reducing obesity rates." They suggest no fewer than 10 other possible causes.

Given that being overweight is usually attributed to the sins of gluttony and sloth, these are tidings of comfort and joy just when we needed them, on the eve of a protracted period of feasting. If you've been feeling guilty in advance about all that succulent ham on the bone, roast pork with extra crackling and Christmas pudding with brandy butter, forget it and let your joy be unconfined. Thanks to the IJO, those of a fuller figure can confidently tell the Fat Police to mind their own business and eat to their heart's content. I've been doing so for years now, on the grounds that it's not what you eat or the exercise you miss out on for the festive season but year-round habits that make the difference. But this Christmas there'll be 10 more strings to my bow.

The first blameless cause of obesity is lack of sleep. The evidence from the First World is that since 1960 the average amount of sleep we get has declined by about 90 minutes The researchers say unhealthy sleeping habits potentially have as much effect on our body weight as junk food. There's solid evidence to demonstrate the connection between lack of sleep and BMI, not only in rats but in human beings. Levels of leptin, the hormone that tells the brain that the stomach is full, decrease in the sleep-deprived, and ghrelin, the hormone that prompts hunger, increases. If you want to lose weight, the trick might be not to engage in strenuous exercise but make sure you get a good eight hours of shut-eye.

Another blameless and well-established cause of obesity is man-made poisons that have found their way into the food chain. One indicator the research identifies is polybrominated diphenyl ether. Apparently it almost doubled every five years in Swedish mothers' breast milk between 1972 and 1998. DDT, which is known to increase the fatty tissue in laboratory rats, is also a contender, known to affect human hormone systems.

Natural hormonal changes are responsible for puppy fat in young children and for post-menopausal women's weight gains. There are also various medications that can drastically affect fluid retention and BMI. If you've put on weight recently, it may well have been because of new drugs for diabetes, blood pressure, depression, allergies or oral contraceptives. If, like a good many middle-aged people, you suffer from more than one of those afflictions, it's quite likely they compound the weight problem. Beta-blockers induce a mean weight gain of approximately 1.2kg. One study of oral contraception estimated a mean weight gain of 5kg after two years.

If taking medications is an example of blameless weight gain, then giving up smoking must surely count as conspicuous virtue. Yet there is no surer way to put on weight. Nicotine is a powerful appetite depressant. The best estimate on offer is that between 1978 and 1990, stopping smoking was responsible for about a quarter of the increase in the prevalence of overweight in men and about one-sixth of the increase in women.

Another factor contributing to obesity, in which none of us has any say, is the age at which our mothers bore us. A study of 10-year-old girls found that the odds of obesity increased by more than 14 per cent for every five-year increment in maternal age. Sociological factors such as the propensity to spoil late-arriving children may play a part but there's a biological correlation in sheep between maternal age and fat deposition related to uncoupling protein levels. The mean age of mothers at birth has been inexorably increasing globally since 1960. Another cause for increased obesity levels in the US lies in changes in the distribution of ethnicity and age. "Compared with young European Americans, middle-aged adults, African-Americans (when comparing women only) and Hispanic Americans have a markedly higher obesity prevalence." The increase of Hispanic American adults as a proportion of the population from 5 per cent in 1970 to about 13 per cent in 2000, and a 43 per cent increase in adults aged between 35 and 44 over the same period, argue for a small but statistically significant factor.

Air-conditioning is one explanation for the obesity epidemic, which is very much a late 20th-century First World phenomenon. Exposure to ambient temperatures either above or below the comfort zone "increases energy expenditure, which, all other things being equal, decreases energy stores that is, fat". If you've ever felt that extremes of hot or cold were enervating and left you hungry, that's why.

The most obvious of the blameless components to stoutness is heredity. The heritable component "is well supported by animal breeding studies and human twins, family and adoption studies with an estimated heritability of approximately 65 per cent". There is also a compounding factor over the generations. There's evidence that fatness is associated with greater reproductive fitness, which leads to natural selection of obesity-disposed genotypes.

Last but not least, Father Ephraem Chifley, sometime food reviewer at The Adelaide Review, has drawn my attention to another IJO article (S. D. Vangipuram, M. Yu et al). The human adenovirus Ad-36 causes obesity by reducing leptin expression and secretion and increasing glucose uptake by fat cells. As Chifley remarked: "The moral vanity of the authoritarian and lean is far from being the answer to obesity. It is gratifying for some to think that the fat problem can be solved by boot camps and by the stigmatisation of the overweight. The idea that you might be able to catch obesity as easily as you can the common cold should give us all pause for thought."


Monday, December 25, 2006

A conservative foreign policy: The thinking of one of the world's longest-serving democratic leaders -- John Howard

Conservatives are guided by circumstances and basic values rather than ideology (See "Inside Right" by Britain's Ian Gilmour) and Australia's Prime Minister embodies that well. One summary below from a journalist who has monitored Howard for many years

When John Howard came to power 10 years ago he was a foreign policy amateur, yet imbued with deep foreign policy attitudes, and the story of the past decade is how he revised his policy but kept his attitudes untouched. There is a multitude of criticism of Howard's foreign policy but little analysis of what he tried to achieve, a bizarre omission.

The answer to this question is that Howard aspired to give effect to his foreign policy attitudes. Rarely articulated in his early years, such attitudes have always been the key to his policy. From the start Howard believed that the US would grow only more influential in the world and that our bond with the US was a prized national asset, an unconventional view at the time. He believed the foreign policy establishment was wrong in its reliance on a faltering multilateralism and that the UN's utility had been exaggerated. He saw foreign policy as being about state-to-state relations and was sceptical about regionalism, whether in Europe or Asia.

Howard believed that Japan was our best friend in Asia, China was our greatest opportunity, Indonesia was a flawed giant that should not monopolise our attention and Israel should be defended for its values and its history. He believed that globalisation was a golden moment for Australia, that a strong foreign policy depended on a strong economy and that Australia's world reputation would be determined by the quality of its economy and society, not by moral edicts from the human rights industry.

There was never any grand plan to Howard's policy. It was a case of trial and error and, at the start, there were many errors. But Howard had a framework. He sought an ongoing synthesis between realpolitik or the national interest and being a values advocate seeking a populist domestic affirmation for his foreign policy. It was a task loaded with tensions. And what were his values?

For Howard, Australia is part of the Western liberal tradition. He assumed no conflict between our cultural heritage and our Asian geography. He presented himself to the region and to the nation as a cultural traditionalist and asserted that this was the foundation for Australia's relations with the world. It was his deepest instinct and a break from Paul Keating. It meant Howard's Asian engagement was based on shared interests and different values.

Values became the instrument Howard used to tie foreign policy to domestic politics, a technique he refined with more success than any PM since R.G. Menzies. It was on display in Howard's judgment that Asia's financial crisis confirmed the superiority of British-derived systems of governance (such as Australia's) and his unswerving belief that 9/11 was an attack not just on the US but on the liberal values that Australia also embodied. Yet such cultural rigidity was often the cause of trouble; witness his appeasement of Hansonism, his rhetoric on regional pre-emption and his miscalculation in allowing theUS "deputy sheriff" line such oxygen.

Howard is best grasped as a foreign policy response agent. He is a classic counter-puncher. He saw foreign policy not as an exotic art form but as an exercise in professional political judgments. His distrust of much academic foreign policy analysis was visceral. The world altered fundamentally on Howard's watch, presenting him with vast opportunities not available to many of his predecessors.

Consider these changes: the Asian financial crisis decisively altered regional views in Australia's favour; the China boom reached an intensity that compelled far closer bilateral ties; the demise of president Suharto led to a democratic Indonesia and the chance to change East Timor's status; the arrival of George W. Bush and the 9/11 attack enabled Howard to realise his goal of a closer strategic nexus with the US; and the failed state syndrome in the region saw Howard reinterpret Australia's role as a regional leader. He was ever an opportunist.

The most contentious of his decisions was his realignment towards the US. This was radical because he embraced the revolutionary Bush doctrine in the invasion of Iraq (though Howard unlike Bush was never a revolutionary) yet remained traditional in that Howard upheld the unbroken Australian practice of going to war alongside the US. Howard's view of the alliance is based in long-range calculation. He is convinced of two things: that in 100 years the US will remain the pre-eminent global power and that Australia gains far more by being closely associated with the US rather than by keeping its distance. Staying aloof from Iraq would have defied Howard's values, instincts and character. It was never going to happen.

The Iraq legacy, however, is unavoidable, a debate about whether in the 21st century a new alliance bargain is needed that rejects Australia's automatic participation in US-led wars, given Australia's growing neighbourhood and regional responsibilities. It was tempting at stages over the past decade to think that Howard and Alexander Downer were trashing the Australian foreign policy tradition. Tempting but false. With a decade's perspective it is apparent they have altered priorities and adapted policy to radical new events (it would be amazing if this had not happened) but that they did not change the underlying strategic basis of Australia's policy.

This is apparent from Howard's 1996-97 decision that sound relations with China were necessary for a successful foreign policy, his acceptance ofAustralia's entry into the East Asian Summit, his successful engagement with a changing Asia defined by an assertive Japan, a democratic Indonesia, an emerging India and a China whose power is transforming theregion. It was tempting a few years ago to argue the essence of Howard's policy was realignment towards the US. But this is no longer accurate. The essence of Howard's policy is obvious: to move closer to the US and Asia simultaneously. This reflects the Australian tradition.

Howard's main legacy as a pro-US conservative leader may become the entrenchment within the Liberal Party credo of a pro-China stance. This reflects an independent Australian perception of China, different from the US's, along with an optimistic belief in Australia's ability to reconcile its US alliance and its China engagement.


Update: I should have noted that well-known American conservative Russell Kirk also stressed that conservatives are guided by circumstances and basic values rather than by any ideology. The Gilmour book I quoted seems to be out of print but Gilmour was a prominent Conservative in the British parliament. He was in fact at one time Lord Privy Seal under Margaret Thatcher.

Dame Edna's Christmas message

Every year as Christmas approaches my phone rings and, more recently, my Blackberry bleeps. "It's Lil," comes the girlish yet cultured voice. It's a voice I wish Julia Gillard would at least try to emulate when someone tells her that Labor Party is two words. "Lil" is, of course, the Helen Mirren lookalike Lillibet, my friend, the Queen. Sometimes I wish the monarch would not lean on me so heavily or seek my advice and nurturing about practically everything.

"Do you think it might happen next year?" asks the anxious yet assured voice. I know she's referring to the republic. Poor lamb, she has been praying for Australia to become a republic for years, and so have all the other royals. She hates the trip out, the boring speeches and the grovelling wives of our rough-hewn politicians and civil servants. I have to disappoint her. "Royalty has never been more popular, Lillibet," I tell her, bluntly yet tactfully. "Princess Mary of Tasmania is regarded as a saint, and her face on the cover of women's magazines sells almost as many copies as yours."

"Princess who?" she queries, with that wonderful sense of humour that Rolf Harris' portrait abysmally failed to capture. "Help me with my message to the nation PUL-EESE Edna!" she begs, and I know by the way she says "pul-eese" that Kath & Kim is a big favourite on the home entertainment system at Balmoral.

Naturally, I agree to write her Christmas message for the umpteenth time, but I think to myself: What about my message to Australia? Shouldn't that be my priority. With the Queen on the phone I'm struck by a brilliant idea that could make the New Year a landmark in troubled Anglo-Australian relations. I recall my mother telling me that during the war, our home in Moonee Ponds was a Fat for Britain depot. All the neighbours used to fill old jars and tins with dripping and we shipped it off to England. It was an Australia-wide campaign and tonnes of the scrumptious congealed fat deposits from the Sunday roast went across the oceans to nourish our pale and famished Pommy cousins.

Occasionally, a Jap torpedo intercepted the precious shipments, and I believe there are still nooks and crannies of the Pacific bearing a historic dripping slick: the greasy residue of a million roast lamb, potato and five veg Sunday lunches. We never got a word of thanks for all that dripping, and I even heard that a lot of people in England threw it away in disgust just because there might have been a few bits of charred parsnip embedded in that wholesome Australian fat.

So when the Queen asks me what I want for Christmas I think - typically - of the needs of others. "What we need is water Lillibet - and lots of it! Could you organise a Water for Australia campaign? Your subjects could leave bottles and other receptacles at Buckingham Palace. I will arrange collection at this end. It doesn't even matter if it's grey water from English nursing homes. We can use it to make Earl Grey tea," I add whimsically but wittily.

The Queen loves the concept. "Done deal, Edna! I'll fire off a royal command pronto and you'll be flooded by the response. The British love Australia, particularly icons like you, Rolf, Bindi, Kylie and Tassie's Brant and Todd." For a woman who, apparently, hasn't even heard of Princess Mary, the Queen then shows that she has her finger on the pulse and her ear to the ground in other respects.

"Will Shane and Simone get together again?" she enquiries caringly. "And Schapelle. Will she be publishing another riveting volume of her memoirs?" Above all, she anxiously asks: "Has that nice Naomi Robson saved little Wah-Wah yet? Or will he be replacing the turkey and mince pies at his family's Christmas dinner in New Guinea?"

I put down the phone, a bit tearful and emotional. It's a long time now since my husband Norm passed away and I recall our last Christmas in his private suite at the Dame Edna Memorial Prostate Foundation. Together we decorated his ducting with holly and fairy lights. My wonderful new mega-production, Back With a Vengeance, is dedicated to Norm's memory and I want to take this opportunity to invite all of those brave firefighters and their loved ones to be guests at my show. It's a tiny token of gratitude for their bravery and dedication. I wish all of my possums everywhere a joyous Christmas and a very wet New Year.



By Bettina Arndt

The battle was supposed to be won more than 30 years ago when the women's movement pushed for the right to make informed decisions about their health care.... Women emerged determined to no longer be passive recipients of over-medicalised health care, particularly during childbirth. But those of us old enough to remember those days are blown away by what's happening in today's obstetric care.

Recently a 50-something Sydney midwife spent a few days working in a Sydney private hospital. She was amazed that of the 30 to 40 new mothers she cared for, only a handful had vaginal births and many chose elective caesarean with no medical indication. How can so many women have been hoodwinked into thinking that a caesarean is the best option for them and their babies?

What's happened is the doctors have been burnt. There have been some major payouts for medical negligence over cases where it was argued obstetricians should have done a caesarean, or done one sooner. The result is obstetricians are fast losing the skills to handle the difficult cases.

This all gives the impression that caesareans are a safer method of delivery, for women and their babies. Yet, a recent French study suggested caesarean delivery more than triples a woman's risk of dying in childbirth compared to vaginal delivery. Luckily these risks are small, but they rise significantly with each caesarean. These babies are more likely to suffer respiratory distress; labor prepares babies for breathing by massaging respiratory organs and aiding elimination of mucus from their systems.

Yes, there are horror stories but many women are being conned into thinking caesareans offer an easy way out. Even the broken coccyx I experienced during my son's natural birth was nothing compared to the ordeal of recovering from my two caesareans. For every mother on the internet claiming the caesarean was a breeze, there are others talking of horrible post-surgery pain, the problems looking after a new baby with a painful scar, difficulties with healing, long-term complications.

It's hardly surprising there is evidence caesarean births mean mothers are more likely to have early parenting difficulties and post-traumatic stress. Yet our caesarean rates are soaring. The caesarean rate hit close to 30 per cent in 2004, increasing to 38 per cent for women in private hospitals, according to figures released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. If these figures keep rising, it may spell the end of normal vaginal births. There simply won't be the skilled obstetricians or midwives available to help if the going gets tough.

And more mothers and babies will die as a result. Countries like Brazil, which have already gone down that route, are showing increases in maternal and child mortality. In affluent areas of Brazil, there are hospitals with more than 80 per cent caesarean rates. Across Australia, maternity hospitals are already feeling the strain, as elective caesareans add to the burden on theatres, surgical and nursing resources.

Women contemplating elective caesarean, without good medical reasons, need to understand the risks to themselves and their babies. The majority of Australian women believe women's bodies were made to give birth without a knife.