Sunday, November 12, 2006

Police friendly with suspects in killing

An inquest into the death of Queenslander Dianne Brimble aboard a cruise liner is about to probe links between police and the ship's operator, P&O. A detective who first investigated the 42-year-old's death will be quizzed this week about his previous connections with the company and relationship with ship security staff.

Mrs Brimble, a mother of three, from Redcliffe, died naked on a cabin floor of P&O's Pacific Sky from an overdose of the date- rape drug GHB. also known as fantasy. Witnesses at the inquest will include Detective Senior Constable Erdinc Ozen, one of two Sydney water police officers flown to meet the ship in Noumea on September 26, 2002 - two days after Mrs Brimble's death.

They were dubbed "the dancing detectives" by NSW Deputy Coroner Jacqueline Milledge after revelations earlier in the inquest that they partied with key witnesses in the ship's disco but took up to four more days to interview them. It was one of several aspects of the handling of the initial investigation by police and ship security which have been criticised during the inquest and led the coroner to ask the homicide squad to take over the inquiry.

Mrs Brimble's family is understood to be unhappy about delays by police in responding to subpoenas to hand over documents. Det Sen-Constable Ozen is due to give evidence on Thursday and will face questions about a possible conflict of interest after revelations he was previously given a free cruise on the Pacific Sky by P&O. The company told the inquest in September that six police were on board during schoolies cruises in 2000 and 2001. P&O paid for their accommodation and meals but the officers were not paid a fee. The officers, who had NSW Police approval, were in plain clothes but passengers were told they were aboard. "We believed that providing cruise accommodation to police to deter anti-social behaviour and to investigate any crime was small expense for the assurance we received from their presence," P&O said.

The above article appeared in the Brisbane "Sunday Mail" on Nov. 5th, 2006


The Murray-Darling basin is in the midst of a long-term drought similar to that experienced at Federation - not the worst in 1000 years. River and climate experts disagree with the one-in-1000-years call by South Australian Premier Mike Rann this week. Murray-Darling Basin Commission general manager David Dreverman told the water summit hosted by John Howard on Tuesday that the inflow into the Murray last month was so low as to be classed as a one-in-1000-year event.

National Climate Centre meteorologist Blair Trewin said the current drought was "in a similar ball park to the Federation drought" of 1895-1903. He said 2006, as an individual drought year, was the second-lowest year for rainfall in the basin. "One of the things that intrigues me is that by and large 1914 was a worse year for rainfall than 2006, but the inflows are lower this year," Dr Trewin said. The low inflows could be due to more farm dams, increased use of groundwater, tree plantations and even regeneration after bushfire.

Water Co-operative Research Centre chief executive Gary Jones said drought was part of the natural cycle of the river. "But this is a pretty big drought and we do have to expect there will be some die-offs," Professor Jones said. He said wetlands and billabongs were important drought refuges for native fish, plants and animals, and there would be severe consequences if, as the Prime Minister suggested at the summit, they were drained. "If it gets to the point where people are desperate for drinking water, of course we are going to give them the drinking water, but we have to understand the consequences," he said.

Droughts earlier this century regularly stopped the Murray River flowing, with current flows only sustained by modern management and a network of water storages. Murray-Darling Basin Commission water resources manager Andrew Close said if the Murray still had its natural flow, it would have probably stopped flowing this year, as it did in 1914, 1915 and 1923, while the Darling River dries up more frequently. "It stopped all three of those times in Swan Hill," he said. "It would have stopped in 82-83 and probably would have stopped this year." Between 1885 and 1960, the Darling River stopped flowing at Menindee 48 times. In 1902-03, during the Federation drought, it stopped flowing for 364 days.

The summit commissioned the CSIRO to look at the contentious issue of sustainable yield. Professor Jones personally believes two-thirds of the natural flow should be maintained. "Once you start to get below two-thirds, you are really getting significant stress, and at one-third you are into severe stress," he said. Under the current water allocations in the Murray, in an average year the river's mouth gets 27per cent of its natural flow. The mouth has only been kept open for the past five years by constant dredging. More than 90 major storages have been built along the Murray. They hold back water when it naturally flows in later winter and spring, and release it in summer and autumn when it is required by irrigators, and year-round for towns.

Basin commission chief executive Wendy Craik said the Murray had record low inflows this year. "The long-term average inflow into the Murray is about 11,200 gigalitres. The last decade, inflows have been averaging about 4500-5000GL. Our previous minimum-inflow year to date was 1000GL and this year, it has been 550GL." More than 4000GL are licensed for irrigation, but only half will have water this year.

A member of the Wentworth Group of concerned scientists, Peter Cullen, argues it could be a return to the 1900 to 1950s period "which was significantly drier than the 1950s to the 1990s". Professor Cullen said he preferred to call it a drying climate, rather than a drought. "As soon as you talk drought, they say it is going to break, and I think Australia has got to get used to using less water."


Education failure: Kids don't know even the basics

Jokes about softening of education standards would be funnier if they weren't so true, writes Shelley Gare

A Tasmanian reader writes to a newspaper column, describing what happened when her husband tried to hire a car at Sydney airport. Given his credit card and driver's licence, the clerk punched several computer keys fruitlessly before asking helplessly: "Is Tasmania in New Zealand?" A university lecturer discovers that of the 33 students in her class, not one has heard of Chairman Mao. What's more, they get irritated when she expresses astonishment. "How would we know that unless we'd studied Chinese history?" they demand of her.

The lack of general knowledge among so many of us is now so mind-bogglingly obvious that it has become part of the culture to swap funny stories. But this is an ignorance that has been learned. And too many of us stood by and let it happen. The crisis is not confined to Australia. When British playwright Alan Bennett was rehearsing his young actors for his recent play The History Boys, about a government grammar school in the 1980s, he told journalist James Button he discovered they had no idea who the poets A.E. Housman and W.H. Auden were. Later, he realised one of the actors didn't know what a plural was.

The trouble, as always with airheads, is that we don't take their nonsense seriously at first and then it's too late. Who would have believed 20 years ago, that one day we might seriously debate whether correct spelling really mattered? Our thinking processes have been addled by postmodernism, with its insistence that nothing is better than anything else.

What the Right and its belief in the free market have done to our value systems in the past 30 years, insisting money is the be-all and end-all, the Left merrily - or, playfully, as the postmodern crowd may prefer to say - has done with knowledge, learning and education at the same time. Our value and belief systems have been turned upside down.

The circuitous theories of French philosophers Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes arrived on our shores in the '70s and '80s to be widely misunderstood and misinterpreted. Soon they were being applied in even more half-baked form to teacher education and then to teaching in schools. The effect on young brains has been roughly the same as what would happen to an assembly line of Rolls-Royces if you poured glue into all the door locks. Two generations of experimented-upon young Australians have emerged unable to read, write and think with the skill and clarity they should have been able to assume would be theirs.

Too often, under the postmodern influence, schooling has turned into a hatchery for baby airheads unable to think for themselves or communicate clearly. But as journalist and editor Luke Slattery has questioned in an essay on the all-encompassing belief in postmodernism and its theory: "How did a minor tradition within continental philosophy come to dominate, to the point where it would brook no dissent, in both teaching and research in the English-speaking humanities?"

Whatever the original worth and intention of the movement, postmodernism, with its insistence that there are no such things as objective truths, knowledge or values, gave licence to far too many to take the easy way out. A host of behaviours that generations had taken for granted as being normal and/or necessary - from swotting up French verbs, to slogging at understanding a poem, to receiving grades, to being ticked off for being lazy or careless - were suddenly on a verboten list because they interfered with our creativity, originality, freedom, happiness and rights. And particularly our self-esteem.

Funnily enough, the behaviours newly banned are the ones that also require rigour, resources and a sense of reality, all of which, in our new airheaded world, have become more and more difficult to find and muster. How convenient is that?

American academic Susan Ostrov Weisser, a professor of English, points out in an essay on college classroom culture, published in US journal Academe, that the study of literature increasingly comes down not to expertise and knowledge but to feeling. Instead of a student and teacher discussing, perhaps, the biographical, historical and social contexts in which Charlotte Bronte wrote, and researching the evidence, they talk about how the student reacts to the novel, what it personally does or does not mean to them. "No one can then agree or disagree with you because it's all about you," Weisser says.

Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, remarked recently that the term postmodernism is on its way to meaninglessness. Maybe, but postmodernism flushed through the system in the '80s and nothing will be quite the same again. People say political correctness is finished. That's not true either. Postmodernism and political correctness don't have to be in our faces any more: they are embedded in our culture.

An English professor recalls wistfully when his field was regarded as a discipline. Now, he says, just the word discipline is frowned on because it sounds too, well, disciplinarian. Disciplines have disappeared into a kind of "cultural stir-fry" so that department letterheads can list a range of studies. An English department probably won't be called English any more either, but some amalgam that makes you ponder just which bit of it would signal that if you drilled down in that spot, you might be lucky enough to find a palely loitering Keats.

There have been several attack dogs on the traditional notions of learning. Deconstructionism seeks to reveal the concepts and influences (patriarchal, racial, elitist) that may have led to the creation of a work so that less attention is paid to the piece - its effect, its beauty, its sweep, its passion, its ability to take us out of our own world - than to who created it and why. I've done my best with deconstructionism and, every time, I keep thinking that call-girl Mandy Rice-Davies said it better in 1963. Told that Lord Astor denied her allegations about sex at his racy house parties at his country estate, Cliveden, she defended herself cogently: "He would, wouldn't he."

Meanwhile, constructivism argues that learning is a journey and that education has to be done in the context of the student's experience, with the teacher a "co-explorer". Everything must relate back to the student. Everything must be relevant, a word that here has all the charm of a vice. The real message: don't aspire, think small. Let the child's existing knowledge be the yardstick of everything he or she is to be taught in future; and then, to top it off, like a monstrous shiny artificial cherry on a cake of fake cream and off-the-shelf sponge, let children be the judge of their own progress and let them be measured by their own ability.

Such theory is behind the much vaunted outcomes-based education that now flourishes in Australia and other "new" countries such as Canada, New Zealand, the US and South Africa. Not that it flourishes in France. There has been no deconstructionist or constructivist pawing over of the French school system. You can be sure that Jean-Louis in Lyons is getting his daily dose of maths, grammar and all the other basics. Trust the French to realise that postmodernism and all the other theories were never supposed to be taken so seriously that you'd apply them to your precious children.

Kevin Donnelly, a former secondary school teacher of English and history in Melbourne, who started his own company, Education Strategies, writes frequently on the iniquities of the modern education system. He escaped his working-class Broadmeadows background through education and says he'd still be there if he'd been subjected to going on a personally relevant journey at school. He was actively involved in the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association for 10 years but was appalled by the moves that brought in continuous assessment where, before, a child's marks had mostly been determined by a final exam. For him, the change was always going to favour kids in comfortable backgrounds who had parents who "could pay for a tutor or even do the kids' work themselves". Kids from poorer homes with less well-educated parents suffered.

In the mid-'80s, Donnelly saw what he believed was "the Left taking the 'long march' through the institutions", referring to a conscious effort on the part of people who were politically active on the Left to change society by changing the institutions of society, especially in education. Left, for Donnelly, in thiscontext, means not the Left of social concern, compassion and humanism but the radical, social-engineering Left. Reading, that skill that allows a human being to operate as a member of a civilised, democratic society, withequal ability to question and, even better, to imagine, became the first casualty.

Cognitive scientist Max Coltheart left Australia in 1969. By the time he returned, two decades later, the public education system had been turned on its head, the traditional methods of schooling that had worked for centuries had been virtually outlawed except in a band of select and selective schools, and university entrants were so ill-prepared it was not unusual for them to have to take courses in how to spell and write before they could start to study and prepare essays. He discovered that trainee teachers knew little about how to teach reading, writing and spelling. At first, he thought it was an aberration; then he realised that it had hardly been on their curriculum.

Worse, the educationists in charge, Coltheart says, were preaching something called the whole-word method, and that learning to read was the same as learning to speak. It came instinctively to children, they argued, and all teachers had to do was aid and abet the process, providing what they called a "reading rich" environment. There was no need to teach the alphabet or explore letter-sound relationships. It was a kind of natural magic, like little children unconsciously picking up foreign languages. Coltheart asks now in exasperation: "If everyone can learn to read naturally, why is most of the world illiterate? Learning to read is artificial. We have to be taught."

By April 2004, he had had enough. He and 20 other distinguished academics, researchers, psychologists, linguists and educators wrote to then federal minister for education Brendan Nelson stressing their concerns about the way reading was typically being taught in Australian schools: "The ability to read is a complex learned skill, which requires specific teaching." The education establishment retaliated, digging into a grab-bag of statistics that claimed to prove Australia has among the most literate children in the world, quoting results from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development program for international student assessment. But as The Australian Financial Review columnist Peter Ruehl pointed out acerbically, "PISA tends to be one of those New Age life skills tests, where students are not corrected for faulty grammar, spelling and punctuation. What are you going to do? On your job application at Merrill Lynch, write: 'Look how good I done on the PISA test'?"

Spelling, of course, is not supposed to matter any more, which is stiff cheese for those of us who can spell and who see in it the same sense of security that comes with, say, knowing that cars drive on roads, not pavements. Now, correct spelling is seen as something put on only for special occasions, like people wearing hats and gloves in the '50s. A NSW secondary school teacher, Ryszard Linkiewicz, wrote a piece in August 2005 for The Daily Telegraph: "The brutal fact is that the standards have been lowered to such an extent that children who, in former times, would have been regarded as sub-normal are now regarded as well within normal range. No longer are students penalised for errors in spelling and grammar. Any response, no matter how incoherent or insouciant, must get a mark." (Linkiewicz's piece proves that there are many teachers, usually older ones educated in more formal times, who are worried about what's happening, but there are penalties for speaking out and so most don't.)

Education was once felt to be a kind of "moral transaction" between parents and children. Educating by the late medieval period was supposed to be one of the duties of human beings. But what we're seeing now feels like a full-frontal attack on the notion of education. In 1979, American critic Christopher Lasch wrote in his book The Culture of Narcissism, "In the name of egalitarianism, they preserve the most insidious form of elitism, which in one guise or another holds the masses incapable of intellectual exertion."

At least the letter from Coltheart and his colleagues to Nelson helped towards the national inquiry into teaching literacy. The education minister announced its findings on December 8, 2005, and recommended the use of a phonics-based teaching method for reading. As Coltheart pointed out on an ABC Life Matters program in late August 2005, the phonics method where children are taught to associate sounds with letters has been working very well since 1570.

The people who now steer education often use the phrase rote learning disparagingly in articles and commentary when they're talking about the past. There is much hoo-ha, for instance, about why students should be looking at Shakespeare not through his language but via the messages he sends about race, gender and so on. In an opinion piece for a Sydney newspaper, Melina Marchetta, a teacher and the author of Looking for Alibrandi, wrote that when students have "meaningful debate on issues of inequity based on race, class and gender", they are acquiring valuable skills "of comprehension, evaluation and synthesis in order to participate meaningfully in an increasingly complex world".

The Sisters of Mercy who took me through Othello and The Merchant of Venice back in the '60s could never have expressed it quite like that. But while we studied and appreciated Shakespeare in the traditional way, for his language and vision and plotting, we too considered the place of Othello the Moor in a white society, Portia, a woman, playing lawyer and the depiction of Shylock, the Jewish money-lender. If the nuns at a not particularly prominent convent school in Perth were broadminded enough to discuss such issues in 1968, I think we can be assured that the present crop of teachers did not invent this particular wheel.

The truth is that too much of today's debates is airheaded tosh that covers up the fact kids are not getting the teaching and acquiring the knowledge they deserve. Worse, Donnelly believes that what we have seen so far is only the beginning, especially now that the teachers going through training grew up in this theory-driven system. He says, "At least now I think it's beginning to change because it's out there in the public arena." In the meantime, if you'd like your child to get a good education, there's always France.


Mother love defeats bureauracy -- but at a cost of $200,000

This Aussie infant was born with a $200,000 price tag and three mothers -- two of them on the other side of the world. Infertility and strict Australian surrogacy laws forced her mother to visit a revolutionary baby factory in California, where she hand-picked her egg donor and the woman who would give birth to her baby. The business transaction made her dream of a second child come true.

"She is a miracle -- what price do you put on a miracle," said the commissioning mother, Nadia, who did not wish to be identified. "Her creation was approached in a very business-like manner, but she is my baby."

A handful of Los Angeles-based mothers, including two Australians, formed egg donation and surrogacy agency Miracles Inc in response to the increasing number of childless couples who turn to surrogacy for their chance at a family. They charge almost $20,000 for an egg and more than $50,000 to carry a child to full term. The commissioning parents cover all other costs, which can take the bill to $200,000.

While Australia is unlikely to commercialise surrogacy -- where donors and the surrogate can charge for their services -- the nation's attorneys-general met yesterday to discuss uniform laws across the states. The call came after Victorian Labor senator Stephen Conroy and wife Paula Benson's daughter, Isabella, was born to a surrogate mother on Monday. The couple had to go to NSW for the procedures as surrogacy is illegal in Victoria. They are now facing up to five years of paperwork to formally adopt their daughter.

For Nadia, who is in her early 40s, searching overseas for a surrogate mother was a costly but simple process that took 18 months and $200,000. She joined the swelling ranks of women advertising for egg donors, but soon realised she would be relying on the goodwill of strangers because the "archaic" Australian laws make it illegal to profit from surrogacy. "I gave it two months and then I decided I'd never get anywhere. I had cut out an article I read in the newspaper about surrogacy clinics in America so thought I would try there," she said.

Nadia and her husband, whose sperm was used in the process, sifted through 200 profiles before choosing an egg donor and then a separate surrogate. In California, where the process is legal, the egg cost them $19,500 and the price for pregnancy was $52,000. "Although the cost is enormous, the component that goes to the surrogate and donor is minuscule compared to the overall cost," Nadia said. Legal bills, insurance, travel costs, drugs, IVF bills that were not covered by Medicare and astronomical American hospital bills added up to a $200,000 figure that the couple were not expecting. "We didn't truly appreciate the cost until it started, but we were in the privileged position of being able to keep going," Nadia said. "Now, when I look at her I don't think of dollars, or what we went through to get her -- she is just my child."

Still in close contact with the surrogate mother, Nadia helped deliver her daughter and stayed in the same hospital room as the surrogate for the days after the birth. Now back in Sydney, where her child will grow up, there are times when Nadia forgets her daughter's first nine months were spent in another women's womb. "She does something which is very characteristically me and I forget I didn't actually give birth to her," Nadia said. "You are just so caught up in being a parent, and I just love her so much."


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