Wednesday, November 29, 2006

"National identity" trumps "multiculturalism"

The term "multiculturalism" is out and "shared identity" is in under a new framework for Australian society. The Federal Government yesterday moved to redefine what it means to be a nation that accommodates people from many ethnic backgrounds and different parts of the world. In an address to the Australian National University, parliamentary secretary for immigration Andrew Robb said the term "multiculturalism" which had loosely defined Australia's ethnic policy for the past 30 years was vague and open to misinterpretation and abuse. "Some Australians worry that progressively the term multicultural has been transformed by some interest groups into a philosophy, a philosophy which puts allegiances to original culture ahead of national loyalty, a philosophy which fosters separate development, a federation of ethnic cultures, not one community," he said.

The Howard Government has long been a critic of so-called "mushy" multiculturalism. But this is the first time an alternative doctrine has been articulated. It is part of wider debate on Australian values and the failure of some Muslim immigrants to integrate, including a proposal by Opposition Leader Kim Beazley to make all new arrivals in Australia sign a values pledge. Fuelling the debate was the universally condemned statement last month by Australia's leading Muslim cleric, Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, comparing immodestly dressed women to uncovered meat.

Mr Robb said shared values - not a shared homeland - should be the "glue that binds" Australians. "A shared identity is not about imposing uniformity. It is about a strong identification with a set of core values, whilst permitting a large measure of personal freedom and 'give and take'." Mr Robb said said simply "co-habitating a space" was not a strong basis for a cohesive, trusting society. "A community of separate cultures fosters a rights mentality, rather than a responsibilities mentality. It is divisive. It works against quick and effective integration," he said. "Those who come here should unite behind a core set of values, a shared identity."

Labor's citizenship spokeswoman Annette Hurley said changing a word would not improve a sense of shared identity. "I think the public is looking for some action," she said.


Sex-offender doctor still allowed to practice

What government mismanagement of medical training leads to

A Tasmanian doctor who sexually assaulted female patients will be practising again by June next year after the Medical Complaints Tribunal factored the state's general practitioner shortage into his punishment. The tribunal last month found Dr Ulhas Lad guilty of professional misconduct over his dealings with two female patients between April 2003 and July 2004. Dr Lad, 61, from Blackmans Bay, was yesterday suspended from practising until June 2007 and ordered to see only male patients when he resumes.

Medical Complaints Tribunal chairman David Porter, QC, said one of the factors the tribunal considered was "the regrettable situation that exists in this state in relation to general practitioners". Should an order to deregister Dr Lad be made there would be no little difficulty in filling the void, Mr Porter said.

Dr Lad's suspension and restriction to male patients arose from a complaint by a woman identified by the tribunal as AB. Mr Porter said Dr Lad's professional misconduct when dealing with AB involved a serious breach of trust and a gross violation of the doctor-patient relationship. Dr Lad sexually assaulted the woman at his surgery on a number of occasions, Mr Porter said. He said Dr Lad fondled his patient's breasts and buttocks, and had her separate her buttocks while she was bent over.

Dr Lad also performed a sex act in front of her at his surgery one night when she went there for pain relief. Mr Porter said the sex act was outrageous behaviour and a serious affront to the patient's dignity. He said Dr Lad's sexual assault of another female patient known as YZ3 was seen by the tribunal as previous relevant conduct.

The tribunal had also taken into account the overwhelming level of support for Dr Lad from the general and professional community, Mr Porter said. Dr Lad's lawyer Ken Procter, SC, presented the tribunal with 32 character references for his client. "We note all that has been said on behalf of Dr Lad," Mr Porter said.

Dr Lad was also fined $1000 for his professional misconduct in relation to a separate complaint by a second female patient known as CD. The woman said Dr Lad required her to undress to be weighed and made inappropriate comments when she saw him for antibiotics for the flu. Mr Porter said Dr Lad's behaviour towards CD was thoroughly inappropriate and his remarks were offensive. The $1000 fine imposed by the tribunal was one-fifth of the maximum amount it could impose, he said.

During the hearing seven more former patients came forward to complain about Dr Lad after reading reports of the case in the Mercury. Dr Lad denied the allegations against him. But the tribunal found it preferred the evidence of patient AB to that of Dr Lad, whose evidence was deemed "not at all convincing".

Dr Lad refused to comment as he left the Federal Court in Davey St, Hobart, yesterday. But his daughter Aparna said her father was innocent. Patient numbers at the surgery operated by her father and mother Dr Geeta Lad had not dropped since the women's complaints were made public nor since the tribunal's guilty finding, she said. Dr Lad's son Anoop said his father could rest easy because he had a clear conscience. The family would be looking at appeal options, he said.


Students dumbed down and left out

No wonder our school students are culturally illiterate. If NSW Education Minister Carmel Tebbutt can't tell the difference between Australia Day - which marks the arrival of the First Fleet on January 26, 1788 - and Federation, which marks the federation of Australia as a nation on January 1, 1901, then it is hardly surprising three-quarters of Australian teenagers don't understand the significance of Australia Day, the responsibilities of the governor-general or the symbolism of the Union Jack in our flag.

Ms Tebbutt's embarrassing gaffe aside, the results of the civics and citizenship test, reported in The Australian yesterday, reveal extensive gaps in the knowledge of national history in our schoolchildren. Worse, the news is simply the most recent in a long line of incidents and stories demonstrating the parlous state of our education system. While state and territory education ministers describe their schools as "world's best" and argue that standards are on the rise, the opposite is the case.

Why has this been allowed to happen? The first thing to realise is that those responsible for our education system argue that there is no crisis. At two forums organised this year by the Australian Curriculum Studies Association, concerns about falling standards and the politically correct nature of the curriculum were dismissed as a conservative backlash and a media beat-up.

Alan Reid, an Adelaide-based academic in favour of the much-condemned outcomes-based education model, argues: "We have a conservative backlash in the media which is really pushing us back to fixed syllabuses and a more didactic curriculum which conservative government forces are helping to promote."

At the second ACSA invitational conference, held in August and made up of the usual suspects, one of the educrats reportedly said: "It is all about politics and the influence of parents, lobby groups and media hype that sells papers."

Not only do state and territory curriculum bureaucrats argue there is no problem, the overwhelming majority also believe that process is more important than content and that teaching subjects such as history andliterature is secondary to developing generic competencies and skills, such as being futures oriented and valuing diversity.

While evidence of content-free education could be found at this year's history summit, where the argument was put that "you learn from doing history, not by being taught it" and the intention was to design a curriculum in terms of open-ended questions, it's important to understand that the curriculum has been under attack for years.

In 1975, the Whitlam government's Commonwealth Schools Commission sought to radically change the way teachers taught by arguing: "There is no reason to assume that the traditional subject fields, or high culture, are the only avenues through which thought might be developed or basic skills learned."

In opposition to the belief, as argued by US academic Jerome Bruner, that students must be taught the "structure of the discipline", the schools commission argued: "The skills of assembling evidence in logical argument may be developed through any content about which people care enough, or might be brought to care enough, to exert themselves to use them."

Never mind that skills and competencies do not arise intuitively or by accident and that they are best taught within the context of established disciplines such as English and mathematics. It is also true that not all content has the same value or complexity: Henry Lawson's The Drover's Wife is different from a mobile phone text message.

Since the early 1970s, the new age approach to teaching also has become embedded in teacher training. Georgina Tsolidis, an academic at Monash University, describes the role of teachers: "We were to go into classrooms to teach students, not subjects. We were to instil in our students feelings of self-worth premised on the value of what these students already knew and the value of what they wanted to learn, rather than the intrinsic worth of what we wanted to teach."

The most recent manifestation of education lite - in which, as argued in Shelley Gare's recent book The Triumph of the Airheads and the Retreat from Commonsense, "two generations of experimented-upon young Australians have emerged unable to read, write and think" - is Australia's adoption of outcomes-based education and the vague, generalised way the curriculum is written.

Instead of being given a clear, concise road map of what is to be taught, teachers are told that students, in the words of the West Australian curriculum, must be able to "describe and explain lasting and changing aspects of Australian society and environments", "construct a sequence of some major periods and events" and "categorise different types of historical change".

Memorising important facts, dates, events and the names of significant figures is also attacked as "drill and kill" and the argument is put that the curriculum must be open-ended, as teachers must be free to teach what their students are most interested in.

The flaws in such an approach are manifest. Not only are students disempowered as a result of leaving school culturally illiterate, thus disenfranchised in terms of the public debate, but the common ground on which democracy depends is left untilled.


Alternative cures under microscope

Alternative medicines, which are bought by up to 75 per cent of Australians, face their toughest scrutiny yet under an investigation commissioned by the Federal Government. Alternative or complementary medicines have been dismissed as a "great dupe" by a medical leader, although in some cases they have been found to be more effective than pharmaceuticals. They are believed to account for more than $1 billion in sales a year in Australia. The National Health and Medical Research Council will oversee a $5 million project to investigate the use and effectiveness of hundreds of pills, potions and therapies that mostly have little standing in conventional medicine, the Health Minister, Tony Abbott, has announced.

The funding follows an unprecedented meeting last week between the alternative therapy lobby and the council and has been welcomed by advocates and critics of alternative medicines. "There is no reason why any therapy offered to the public should not be evidence-based," the chief executive of the research council, Warwick Anderson, said. Professor Anderson said the targets of the research would depend on what projects won funding. There was increasing interest among medical researchers and the Australian move followed the development of a special research centre by the National Institutes of Health in the United States, he said. The project flows from the inquiry triggered by the Pan Pharmaceuticals crisis in which hundreds of products were withdrawn from sale because of manufacturing irregularities.

The executive director of the Complementary Healthcare Council, Tony Lewis, said he was not concerned by the possibility that research would undermine the claims for alternative medicine. "If a therapy does not work, let's get the results to show that. But I think most results will be quite positive." The shark fin extract, glucosamine, for instance, had been found in a US study to be more effective than Celebrex for the treatment of osteoarthritis. Among the biggest sellers in the complementary medicine range were multivitamins and multiminerals, fish oil for cardiovascular conditions and glucosamine, Dr Lewis said.

A former chairman of the Australian Divisions of General Practice, Rob Walters, described most alternative medicines as "a great dupe.. . they just don't work". While most did no harm, some did have harmful reactions when people were also taking other drugs, he said.


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