Friday, December 22, 2006

Comrade Rudd is a closet Leftie

Kevin Donnelly examines the new federal Opposition Leader's record in the battle of ideas on education

Who are the authors of the following quotations?

l. "I have a plan... a national crusade for education standards representing what all our students must know to succeed in the knowledge economy of the 21st century."

2. "Our goal: to make Britain the best educated and skilled country in the world ... education, education education."

3. "We [need to] turbo-charge our national education system to create the knowledge base for the future of the Australian economy" and "We need to lift our vision and start to imagine an Australia where we turn ourselves into the most educated economy, the most educated society in the Western world."

The answers are: former US president Bill Clinton. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and new federal Labor leader Kevin Rudd respectively. It's significant that Blair and Clinton saw education as vitally important in their quest for power and as a powerful weapon in the policy arsenal of their governments. Rudd, in signalling education as a key issue in what he terms the "battle of ideas for Australia's future", is doing nothing new. As demonstrated by Blair and Clinton, concerns about education are central to aspirational voters. And calling for higher standards, accountability and a curriculum based on core knowledge resonates with the broader public.

As illustrated by the response to Mark Latham's hit list of non-government schools, taken to the last federal election, the old-style politics of envy and class war has outlived its usefulness and an essential element of the Third Way is for social democratic parties to seek the middle ground. Coupled with the destructive impact of ALP-inspired experiments such as outcomes-based education at the state level - witness the demise of Paula Wriedt as Tasmania's education minister and the slow political death of Ljiljanna Ravlich in Western Australia - it's understandable why Rudd and Stephen Smith, Labor's education spokesman, are so eager to mimic a conservative agenda on this issue.

Will Rudd be able to win the battle of ideas in education? One obstacle in copying the Howard Government's agenda on issues such as teacher accountability, defining educational success by measuring outcomes and supporting parents' right to choose non-government schools is that the ALP will antagonise its traditional supporters such as the Australian Education Union. At the 2004 federal election the AEU mounted a campaign, costing $1.5 million and targeting 28 marginal seats, to unseat the Howard Govern-ment. The AEU, evidenced by a series of speeches by the union's president, Pat Byrne, favours a cultural Left agenda in education and is opposed to the types of initiatives being put forward by team Labor.

Rudd's new-won adherence to a socially conservative view of education is also very much at odds with his track record as chief of staff to former Queensland premier Wayne Goss and his role as director-general of the state cabinet office. While it is true that during the Goss-Rudd partnership the premier argued against using the term "invasion" in relation to the arrival of the First Fleet, the period under the Goss government saw education in Queensland gain the reputation of being a bastion of the dumbed-down and politically correct approach to curriculum represented by outcomes-based education.

During the early 1990s, Queensland was given the task of writing the Keating government's national studies of society and the environment syllabus. In the words of Bill Hannan, a Victorian educationalist close to the ALP, the Queensland material was little more than a "subject of satire" and "a case of political correctness gone wild".

In 1996, after Goss lost government, I undertook a review of the Queensland Education Department for Bob Quinn, the incoming minister. The report concluded that during the Goss-Rudd partnership education in Queensland suffered from "provider capture", a situation where unions ran the agenda and schools were stifled by a rigid and insensitive centralised bureaucracy. The curriculum, as a result of educational experiments such as the new basics, critical literacy and drowning history and geography in "Studies of society and the environment", led to falling standards and to students becoming culturally illiterate.

While Rudd seeks to re-badge himself and the ALP, recently stating "I am not a socialist. I have never been a socialist and I never will be a socialist", three years ago he declared himself " old-fashioned Christian socialist". On reading his first parliamentary speech as Opposition Leader, there are elements of this socialist vision for all to see. He argues that "families are such a basic social institution that they deserve special protections" and that they should be "protected from the market".

Rudd argues, as does Byrne, that education is a public good. Those familiar with the campaign being waged against parental choice in education will understand that statist expressions such as "public good", that families deserve "special protections" and should be "protected from the market", are left- wing code for maintaining government control and denying families choice.

Ignored is the overseas evidence that charter schools, where local communities manage their schools and vouchers, where the money follows the child and more families are in a position to choose, lead to increased equity and social justice, especially among those less fortunate. While Rudd, in his parliamentary speech, seeks to differentiate himself from old-style Labor politics, the danger is that beneath the rhetoric about equity, sustainability and compassion and the argument that Labor has a monopoly over "a fair go for all, not just for some" beats the heart of Comrade Rudd.

In relation to education, this means that the initiatives guaranteed to turbo-charge the system - benchmarking curriculum to ensure that it is world's best, freeing schools from provider capture and giving more parents the right to choose - will be ignored and, while on the level of rhetoric the arguments are appealing, little of substance will change.

The above article appeared in "The Australian" newspaper on Saturday, December 16, 2006

Beware the ecosexual

I'm not sure whether to blame it on the Stern report on climate change or Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, but being green has never been more fashionable nor annoying. The competitiveness by some to be an eco-warrior is so out of control that it now extends to the world of dating and the birth of the "ecosexual". Good looks, a sense of humour, education and high income count for zilch these days if you don't eat organic, wear organic and recycle. To get lucky, you have to think globally and act locally in your day-to-day living.

But while being ecosmart may "turn on" the ecosexual, don't presume that slipping between the allergy-free sheets with one will mean happy ever after with loads of children. Oh no, because if you truly live by the Three Rs (reduce, reuse and recycle) you should also belong to the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, a group of people dedicated to phasing out the human race in the interest of the health of the Earth. I kid you not. They exist and their slogan is "May We Live Long and Die Out" (apologies for not knowing the Latin translation). To think I have been congratulating myself for separating my rubbish.

The movement's American founder Les Knight, who had a vasectomy in the 1970s when he was 25, believes humans are inherently dangerous to the planet and inevitably create an unsustainable situation. "As long as there's one breeding couple, we're in danger of being right back here again," he says. How's that for logic?

But while VHEM and its members may be the extreme fallout of global warming, there are plenty of ecofriendly people bordering on the obsessive. As one friend recently lamented after a blind date from hell: "Give me a man who loves a beer and a steak any day." She went out (once) with Mr Blind Date after mutual friends sold him as Mr Long-Term. But her summary of him the morning after was very different to the guy they had talked up the week before. His first mistake was mentioning his ex-wife within the first five minutes - then referring to her about another 10 times over the course of the evening: Always a turn-off. His second was the revelation he was a non-drinking vegan. Carnivores, it seems, are a dying breed. But the third cross against his name, and which seemed to be the clincher, was the fact he lived in a cave for a year after his divorce - something about getting back to nature.

Meanwhile, a colleague told me last week of a friend who broke up with her boyfriend when she discovered he didn't recycle his newspapers. She felt she couldn't continue to see a man who didn't realise we all have a responsibility to the environment. Another has a mate who was dumped by a farmer because of the drought. How can you compete with an act of God, she asked. A raindance perhaps? In hindsight the stresses of "the drought" may have been a furphy, given it's now worse than ever and the farmer has found himself a Russian "friend" he met over the internet.

The true ecosexual is a frightening evolving breed who mainly resides in the city and not surprisingly uses the internet to meet like-minded "sexy-conservationists". In the US, there are sites for vegans wanting more than just to exchange tofu recipes such as Earth Wise Singles, which promises to help "green-living and environmentally responsible adults" meet their "soulmate". There's also Green Passions, which is particularly popular on the West Coast, where it seems being green is an obsessive trend like aerobics was in the '80s.

It also doesn't take long to come across horror testimonials from people who claim to have been led up the organic garden path by fake ecosexuals. San Francisco designer Rachel Pearson, 33, who owns a successful line of children's clothing made from organic cotton writes: "For a while I was happily dating a film producer from Los Angeles who I thought was definitely on my eco-wavelength. But one morning we went out for breakfast and he ordered an all-meat meal and doused his coffee with several packets of Equal. "I was dumbstruck. I think I ate my entire meal in silence. Pork plus NutraSweet? That was definitely our last date."

Another, a stockbroker-turned-acupuncturist, revealed his dark secret of dating a woman who once admitted to eating half a chocolate cake for dinner. "Not exactly a mindful way to eat," he wrote, before warning others "that's a red-flag". While it's good to know that there are people out there doing their bit to try and stop the melting polar ice-caps, it's disheartening to discover that perhaps love can't conquer all. That if you eat meat, or occasionally wear nylon, or buy takeaway in plastic disposable containers, you are destined for a loveless life. I do however, take solace in the fact that groups such as the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement really are a dying breed


PROGRESS? The ABC now has a regulator who refuses to regulate!

The man responsible for ensuring ABC programs adhere to editorial standards of fairness says he does not intend to be a censor at the public broadcaster. ABC managing director Mark Scott yesterday announced the appointment of former Victorian privacy commissioner Paul Chadwick as the ABC's inaugural director of editorial policies. Mr Scott created the position to coincide with the adoption of revised editorial policies in October. Mr Chadwick, 47, a former journalist and lawyer, won a Walkley award for outstanding contribution to journalism in 1997 and pioneered the use of freedom of information laws in the 1980s. He also helped revise the code of ethics for Australian journalists in the 1990s.

Mr Chadwick vowed yesterday not to use his new role to censor ABC content, and said criticism of the broadcaster by conservative commentators and politicians was nothing new. "I made it clear I didn't want this job if the job involved a role akin to a chief censor," Mr Chadwick said. "The ABC is nearly 75 years old and any student of its history will know that there's been criticism of it for almost all that time." Mr Chadwick said he wanted to administer ABC editorial policies, foster understanding of the revised guidelines and promote the benefits of self-regulation. "The reason that matters to all of journalism is that failures of self-regulation lead to cries for statutory regulation that's harmful to freedom of expression," he said.

Friends of the ABC spokeswoman Glenys Stradijot welcomed Mr Chadwick's appointment. "He . . . understands journalistic practice and the issues that would be involved, and we have confidence in somebody of Paul's standing," Ms Stradijot said. [In other words, he will let the rot continue]

Mr Scott said Mr Chadwick was an ideal candidate for the new job. "Mr Chadwick's experience as a journalist and as a lawyer in public policy development and as a thinker on key ethical issues affecting the media made him the ideal candidate to take up this position," he said. "His role will be to work with editorial staff and management on the consistent application of editorial policy across radio, television and online." The ABC was committed to "courageous and ground-breaking" journalism, Mr Scott said. Mr Chadwick will take up his position on January 8.


Harmed in NSW public hospitals: 500 errors a record

Almost 500 medical errors in NSW public hospitals either seriously harmed patients or could have done so in 2005-06 - the highest number in the three years the statistics have been collected. Problems with diagnosis, treatment and specialist referral topped the list of incidents judged to be in the most serious category, followed by 137 suicides that occurred outside hospital within a week of the person having been seen by a mental-health professional. Birth problems and avoidable falls also figured prominently, and 36 operations or X-rays were either performed or planned for the wrong person or part of the body. Instruments were left in the body after 11 operations. There were four serious problems with medication or intravenous fluids in the reporting period to June 30.

In a separate notice distributed to area health services in April, the Health Department informed doctors and managers of a "near miss" involving the leukaemia drug vincristine, which is intended for intravenous injection and is almost always fatal if injected into the spinal canal.

The Minister for Health, John Hatzistergos, said the increase - to 499 serious incidents from 429 the previous year - did not mean hospitals were less safe, and instead reflected an increased willingness by health workers to record incidents they witnessed. As well, the reporting program had been extended to the ambulance and prison health services.

Cliff Hughes, the chief executive officer of the Clinical Excellence Commission responsible for analysing the cases, said the increase in reports "tells us the system has a desire to improve". "The aim is to be proactive in preventing serious adverse events from harming our patients," he said. The reports demonstrated health workers' confidence in bringing dangerous incidents to light in a no-blame environment, he said, and represented "a huge culture change".

The commission was formed as a supervisory body for public hospital treatment standards after a group of nurses at Camden and Campbelltown hospitals revealed numerous medical errors. Its analysis found policies and procedures were to blame for a quarter of the errors and near misses. These included inadequate training requirements for some staff. Another quarter were attributable to communication problems, particularly when patient care was handed over to a different medical team or between shifts. Incompetence or outdated skills were behind almost 100 cases, and inadequate ratios of medical staff to patients, or rostering of junior doctors into senior roles, was at the heart of about 70 of the problems. Equipment failure was much less common.

Some improvements could be made by basic changes to practice, Professor Hughes said. Hospital infection rates had been reduced after the provision of bedside alcohol-based gels for cleaning hands, instead of requiring health workers to go to the sink to wash. New protocols were being developed to identify people most at risk of falls - the over-65s and those taking multiple medications - so they could be given extra assistance in hospital.

But Mr Hatzistergos said a certain level of human and system error was unavoidable. "We haven't reached a stage where we have infallibility or perfection in medical science," he said. The collection of data would be further expanded to take in private hospitals in NSW, which perform the majority of colonoscopies and some other procedures.


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