Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Your regulators will protect you

The abortion doctor Suman Sood, who continued to practise in NSW despite more than 30 complaints against her, was refused registration as a doctor by three other states and territories, the Medical Tribunal has heard. More than 18 months after starting proceedings against the doctor, who was last month convicted of performing an illegal abortion, the tribunal opened its hearing into 11 complaints yesterday. In a statement, the Indian-trained doctor yesterday admitted she was guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct and professional misconduct and declined to contest the hearing.

The complaints, by the Health Care Complaints Commission, cover the treatment of five patients, including the woman at the centre of the abortion case. The cases of three other patients, who cannot be named, were highlighted by the Herald under the names Louise, Nadia and Christine early this month. The commission also alleges Sood was not of good character, was dishonest, deliberately misled the NSW Medical Board at an earlier hearing, breached undertakings given in bankruptcy proceedings, made false medical notes and practised while suspended. Anna Katzmann, SC, for the commission, said all the complaints were so severe, the commission sought to prevent her from re-registering as a doctor "for a long period of time". "No other order is appropriate in order to protect the public," she said.

Sood had voluntarily withdrawn her registration at the end of last month, days after she was found guilty of illegally procuring a miscarriage and after the Herald revealed the litany of complaints against her.

The commission also alleges Sood misrepresented her standing before the District Court after being convicted of Medicare fraud, leading Judge Anthony Blackmore to talk of her "previous good record". "She clearly is a skilled practitioner whose services the community can ill afford to be without," Judge Blackmore had said. Sood is awaiting a retrial on these charges. The tribunal also heard Sood had applied for, and been denied, registration by the Medical Boards of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

It was unclear last night when or why she was rejected. A spokeswoman for the Queensland Medical Board only said Sood was refused registration "after action taken in NSW". The tribunal also heard Sydney Adventist Hospital contacted the medical board advising of three "incidents" with Sood, when she worked for the hospital in late 2003 and early 2004. The complaints by patients include two patients suffering a ruptured uterus, the illegal abortion, poor post-operative care, and a patient falsely told she had cancer.


Teachers forced back to school

Teachers will be made to undergo rigorous training on issues from bullying to obesity under a Federal Government plan to dramatically lift classroom standards. To be implemented by the states, the plan entails teachers taking time off from the classroom to undertake professional development courses in technology and teaching techniques. States refusing to adopt the plan would risk losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding, while teachers failing to participate would lose their teaching certificates.

Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop said the move was part of a drive to improve standards in the classroom. The courses would cover issues such as dealing with schoolyard bullying, helping gifted and talented students, identifying cases of child abuse and promoting healthy lifestyles to prevent childhood obesity. "What I don't want to see is 20th-century teachers teaching 21st-century students," Ms Bishop told The Sunday Telegraph. "As a result, I am currently considering implementing a compulsory professional development program, which will see teachers undertake a minimum amount of professional development each year in order to retain their teacher registration. "A federally mandated professional development program will also be evidence-based to ensure that all teachers across Australia benefit from a broad and comprehensive professional development program."

About 80,000 students move between jurisdictions each year, and Ms Bishop said the parents of those students needed to be assured that teachers in one state or territory were keeping up with teachers from other jurisdictions. "I want to ensure that teaching is treated just like any other profession and that includes requiring professional development that is of a high standard and uniform across the nation," she said. "If it's OK to make lawyers, doctors, dentists, accountants and architects do compulsory professional development then it's only proper that teachers also do compulsory professional development."

Only two states publicly report substantial spending on professional development. Queensland reports $40 million in the past year and NSW $144 million over four years. But the Federal Government is unsure how and where this money is spent.


Nukes the safest for Australia

Ask anyone what they most fear when going for a swim at the beach and they'll invariably say it's the likelihood of being eaten by a shark. Shark attacks are always newsworthy. Films featuring sharks, like Jaws, have a strange attraction. Not widely realised, however, is that more Australians die from box jellyfish stings than from shark attacks. The same quizzical phenomenon of fearing the lesser threat can be seen in the present and ongoing energy controversy, according to Western Australian Liberal MHR, Dr Dennis Jensen, a former CSIRO research scientist.

Delivering a Council of the National Interest special lecture on energy in Perth, he outlined how provision of nuclear-generated electricity was far and away the safest option. He demonstrated this point by focusing upon a huge unit of measure known as the terawatt year. Now, the terawatt is best comprehended by firstly defining the watt - named after the Scottish engineer James Watt (1736-1819) - as a unit of power that equals one joule of energy per second. To get to the terawatt one firstly multiplies a watt by 1,000 which is a kilowatt. Next multiply that kilowatt by another 1,000 and you have a megawatt. Now, if you multiply the megawatt by another 1,000 you have a gigawatt. To attain a terawatt you must multiply this gigawatt by yet another 1,000. What this means is that the terawatt you now have is a trillion - one followed by 12 zeros - watts.

When grappling with all these zeros, keep at the forefront of your mind that a 500-megawatt power station is considered worldwide as a sizeable base-load generating unit. Consequently, a station whose output was one terawatt would be equivalent to 2,000 such 500-megawatt stations, something that does not exist anywhere in the world.

Dr Jensen said that engineers and statisticians used the output of one terawatt of power over a year as a unit to compare the safety levels of different types of power stations - coal-fired, hydro-generation, gas fired, LPG and nuclear. He said: "I'll quote figures in terms of normalised deaths per terawatt year. In other words, if you generate one terawatt of energy for one calendar year, how many deaths can you expect in the industry?"

"For coal-fired power stations, there are 342 fatalities per terawatt year which are predominantly related to coal-workers actually extracting the coal. "However, this number would be far worse if the figures where there were fewer than five fatalities per incident were included. "With oil, it is 418 fatalities per terawatt year. "With natural gas, it is somewhat lower - 85 fatalities per terawatt year, and this refers to workers as well as the public. "Incidentally, LPG-related fatalities are extremely high - 3,280 per terawatt year of electricity generated.

"With hydro-electricity - a method that some opponents of nuclear energy favour while some dislike - there are 883 fatalities per terawatt year which predominantly involves the public due to collapsing dams. "Now we come to nuclear energy, with 31 fatalities per terawatt year. This is the lowest of all electricity-generation methods." Dr Jensen said this low fatality figure included Chernobyl's deaths and fatalities in the mining of uranium.

"I know some people might like to point to Chernobyl," he said. "According to the OECD, there have been 56 fatalities as a result of Chernobyl, due to thyroid cancer and the immediate deaths of the workers at the time - the major medical problem was radiation exposure. "The problem with Chernobyl, apart from anything else, was that it had inadequate containment. "But, as can be seen, nuclear energy is actually a very safe option - and it's inherently safer these days with Generation IV reactors. "Western containment has been far better.

"Regarding safety, nuclear power is demonstrably the safest form of power generation. "Consider the thousands of annual coalmining deaths and the probable millions who have died as a result of respiratory ailments due to coal-fired power," Mr Jensen said. "Consider the fatalities resulting from gas or hydroelectricity production, and it becomes clear that nuclear energy is very safe, even when you look at the history and take into account a sub-standard Soviet RBMK reactor."

He said he believed Australia could use Generation IV reactors, which are inherently safe. "These reactors cannot melt down because of the physics of the design of the reactor, not due to fail-safes appended to provide safety," he continued. "Most Generation IV reactors also don't need enriched uranium, so reserves of uranium would last about 50 times as long as it's assumed they will last for conventional reactors. "It is significant that Generation IV reactors, which will be modular in design, will allow small reactors to power smaller population centres and multiple modules to be joined together at the site of larger power demand.

"The economic side is put by some as a criticism. In fact, when you look at what is being considered, the economic argument is not a strong one. "What Parliament needs to consider is whether to legislate to allow nuclear power generation. "Economics should be left to power utilities which choose whether to use it or not. "Interestingly, the fact that many nuclear opponents push this line so strongly indicates that they are concerned that the economics of nuclear energy do stack up."


Some religions are more equal than others

A Melbourne Catholic schoolteacher has attempted to use Victoria's racial and religious vilification laws to protest against a school history textbook's biased treatment of the Catholic Church. John Morrissey from News Weekly attended the hearing at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT)

An attempt to use Victorian law to defend the reputation of the Catholic Church from bias and caricature recently came to a dead end at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). A Melbourne Catholic schoolteacher, Bob Mears, recently complained that a Year 8 history textbook Humanities Alive 2 vilified the Catholic religion by misrepresenting the role and actions of the medieval Church. But he was told by VCAT, at a hearing on Monday, August 7, that the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 was not intended to restrict free speech, but to prevent the incitement of violence against people "among us here today" on the basis of their race or religion.

(Last year, VCAT, under the terms of the same Act, found two Christian pastors of Catch the Fires Ministries guilty of supposedly vilifying Islam by quoting from the Koran).

All of Mr Mears's complaints about inaccuracy, omission and selective use of evidence in the textbook were dismissed as of no relevance to the court and its interpretation of the Act. Although the Act mentions "severe ridicule", VCAT made it quite clear that inciting "hatred or contempt" did not - in the intention of the legislation - mean making another feel offended, nor was redress under the Act possible for anyone wishing to ventilate a concern. The complainant's matter for concern was thus consigned to what the public rationale for the Act calls "trivial comment, impolite remarks or legitimate discussion".

Humanities Alive 2 is a colourful and expensive ($51.95) publication prescribed in a great many government, Catholic and independent schools. Its historical content is superficial and the contents of its accompanying CD-Rom disk are both banal and trivial. Sweeping unsupported generalisations about the Church's oppressive behaviour over a period of perhaps 700 years are relieved by scarcely any mention of her role in sponsoring hospitals, welfare and progress, or any mention of great figures like St Francis of Assisi, beloved of all Christians.

As Mr Mears wrote in April this year, in a letter to Victorian Labor Premier Steve Bracks, the textbook violated the state's religious vilification laws by "seriously lampooning Catholic clergy and, by gross selectivity and calumnies, giving children the false impression that, in the main, medieval Catholic clergy were murderously oppressive, avaricious, licentious, corrupt and that medieval Catholics were non-thinking, uninspired and having a blind religious obedience".

Comments in the national press earlier this year have already publicised this textbook's extraordinary distortions of the Crusades, characterising them as equivalent to modern terrorism. It is also curious that Martin Luther is presented uncritically, while the Catholic Church at the time of the Protestant Reformation is smeared relentlessly. On the CD-Rom accompanying Humanities Alive 2 is a coloured illustration depicting the burning at the stake of Joan of Arc. Featured in the picture is a crucifix; but, with a sweep of a computer mouse, this symbol - sacred to Christians - is transformed into a witch's broom. Thus an officially sanctioned textbook invites Year 8 schoolchildren to desecrate a sacred icon as part of their education.

On educational grounds alone, Humanities Alive 2 fails every criterion of presenting objective history; but especially when prescribed in Catholic schools, it does nothing to strengthen the already fragile faith of young people in the religion both of their baptism and to which their schools ostensibly belong. For the wider community, the textbook regurgitates the old bigoted stereotypes about Catholicism which were common 50 years ago and which have received new impetus in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

The Victorian Government denies that its Act is "law only for racial and religious minorities", but it is reasonable to ask whether Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or any other smaller religious grouping in Australia would have had its history distorted and caricatured with impunity.

The fate of the two Christian pastors of Catch the Fires Ministries, whose audience - unlike children of compulsory school age - attended their function voluntarily, suggests that the Act has been designed to work in just this way. The legal loophole, entirely up to the interpretation of the court, lies in the words "reasonably and in good faith". But, as George Orwell expressed it in Animal Farm, "All ... are equal, but some ... are more equal than others."


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