08 May 2010

Head Porter

From Richard Evans on John Grenville in Cosmopolitan Islanders: British Historians and the European Continent (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2009) 129-130 -
John Grenville [known prior to migration as Hans Gubrauer], middle-class son of a lawyer whose fortune had been destroyed in the prewar inflation, left Germany in 1939 on a Kindertransport at the age of ten. After just over two years at a boarding school, where he learned English and became, by his own account, a passable slow left-arm bowler, Grenville, at the age of thirteen, was taken out of school by the children's refugee committee, who would not allow him to get an academic education despite his father's support for it, but expected him to enter a trade. His scientific education at the Cambridgeshire Technical School, another boarding institution, was not successful: he got chemical poisoning and was told to get an outdoor job to recover. So he became under-gardener at Peterhouse, where he read voraciously in History in his spare time. 'My request for permission to use the Peterhouse library', he wrote later, 'caused consternation. I was finally given permission, but only on condition that I would not attempt to enter Cambridge as a student'. The Master was sufficiently amazed by a College gardener reading books to arrange a weekly session over cocoa and biscuits at which they discussed what Grenville had been reading. At eighteen, Grenville was accepted to read History in evening classes at Birkbeck College, London: on hearing the news that he was leaving, the Bursar of Peterhouse told him that the Fellows would have liked him to stay because, as he said, 'you have the makings of a Head Porter'.
Grenville went on to become a Professor of Modern History.

07 May 2010

veil politics again

As we head towards the national election dogs all across town are pricking up their ears as politicians blow the whistles. Today it's Cory Bernardi (I'm waiting for Bananababy Joyce to escape from his keepers, after being remarkably silent for the past month or so) with a pronouncement that the burqa is "unaustralian". The Senator, among other things, is founder of the Conservative Leadership Foundation ("a not-for-profit, non-partisan education and training organisation" ... "Australia needs organisations like the CLF. Organisations that support and foster mainstream values and adherence to time honoured principles." etc)

On the ABC's Drum site he stated that -
In my mind, the burka has no place in Australian society. I would go as far as to say it is un-Australian. To me, the burka represents the repressive domination of men over women which has no place in our society and compromises some of the most important aspects of human communication.

It also establishes a different set of rules and societal expectations in our hitherto homogenous society.
Leaving aside the ahistorical nature of claims of cultural (or ethno-religious) homogeneity, perhaps surprising from someone whose 'non-Anglo' surname might remind us that people who weren't WASPs often faced discrimination in Australia's past, we might ask whether symbolic representations of the "repressive domination of men over women" are sufficient grounds for regulation.

One contact, who drew my attention to Senator Bernardi's statement, commented that if he's being consistent we should ban cardinal's hats, given that one arm of the Christian faith resolutely refuses to recognise the equality of women ("point me to the nearest female cardinal"). The delightful folk from the Jehovah's Witnesses (damn, women wearing headscarves as they go doorknocking-for-god) or from other protestant or quasi-protestant sects can also take a bow.

Bernardi goes on to state that -
there is a greater reason the burka needs to be binned.

Equality of women is one of the key values in our secular society and any culture that believes only women should be covered in such a repressive manner is not consistent with the Australian culture and values.

Perhaps some of you will consider that burka wearing should be a matter of personal choice, consistent with the freedoms our forefathers fought for. I disagree.

New arrivals to this country should not come here to recreate the living environment they have just left. They should come here for a better life based on the freedoms and values that have built our great nation.
Hmm, the freedom to be nasty to the people who came off the ship before you, and no nonsense about tolerance, diversity or human rights?

The burqa, it seems is "no longer simply the symbol of female repression and Islamic culture, it is now emerging as the preferred disguise of bandits and n'er do wells". Oh dear ... bandits, dole bludgers, people who vote for the Green candidate or slaughter kittens and goats in their backyard.

04 May 2010

Brand status

The London Times notes comments in the UK High Court by Lord Justice Laws that British law could not be used to protect one religion above another.

Laws indicated in McFarlane v Relate Avon Ltd [2010] EWCA Civ B1 that Christianity deserves no protection in law above other faiths. To privilege one religion would be "irrational, divisive, capricious and arbitrary". Going further, he commented that to give one religion legal protection over any other, "however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled and would give legal force to a subjective opinion, leading to a "theocracy".

His judgment features what the Times characterises as a "robust dismissal" of former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, who had warned that recent court rulings 'against Christians' could result in civil unrest. Carey's proposal for a specialist panel of judges to hear cases involving the practice of religious beliefs was "deeply inimical to the public interest".

Carey had given a witness statement in support of Gary McFarlane, who unsuccessfully sought permission to appeal against an Employment Appeal Tribunal ruling [txt] that supported his dismissal by relationship counselling service Relate Avon in 2008. McFarlane, a solicitor and member of a Pentecostal church, had lost his job after difficulties in dealing with gay clients. Relate Avon's Code of Ethics requires therapists to avoid discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. The organisation's equal opportunity policy requires it to ensure "that no person ... receives less favourable treatment on the basis of characteristics, such as ... sexual orientation". McFarlane expressly signed up to that policy as part of his employment contract in August 2003. After dismissal he claimed discrimination on the ground of religion or belief, harassment, unfair dismissal and wrongful dismissal. He complained to the press that -
If I was a Muslim this would not happen. They would find a way to make the system work. But Christians seem to have fewer and fewer rights. Relate needs to be forced to work through stuff like this.
Carey claimed that there was a -
disparaging attitude to the Christian faith and its values. In my view, the highest development of human spirituality is acceptance of Christ as saviour and adherence to Christian values. This cannot be seen by the Courts of this land as comparable to the base and ignorant behaviour. My heart is in anguish at the spiritual state of this country.
Anguish perhaps fed hyperbole, with Carey going on to claim that -
It is, of course, but a short step from the dismissal of a sincere Christian from employment to a 'religious bar' to any employment by Christians. If Christian views on sexual ethics can be described as 'discriminatory', such views cannot be 'worthy of respect in a democratic society'. An employer could dismiss a Christian, refuse to employ a Christian and actively undermine Christian beliefs. ... I am concerned that judges are unaware of these basic issues on the Christian faith; further it is difficult to see how it is appropriate for other religions to be considered by the Judiciary where the practices are further removed from our traditions. ... The Judges engaged in the cases listed above should recuse themselves from further adjudication on such matters as they have made clear their lack of knowledge about the Christian faith.
Lord Justice Laws stated that -
Lord Carey's observations are misplaced. The judges have never, so far as I know, sought to equate the condemnation by some Christians of homosexuality on religious grounds with homophobia, or to regard that position as "disreputable". Nor have they likened Christians to bigots. They administer the law in accordance with the judicial oath: without fear or favour, affection or ill-will.
In reinforcing that point he commented that -
In a free constitution such as ours there is an important distinction to be drawn between the law's protection of the right to hold and express a belief and the law's protection of that belief's substance or content. The common law and ECHR Article 9 offer vigorous protection of the Christian's right (and every other person's right) to hold and express his or her beliefs. And so they should. By contrast they do not, and should not, offer any protection whatever of the substance or content of those beliefs on the ground only that they are based on religious precepts. These are twin conditions of a free society. ...

[T]he conferment of any legal protection or preference upon a particular substantive moral position on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled. It imposes compulsory law, not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion. This must be so, since in the eye of everyone save the believer religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence. It may of course be true; but the ascertainment of such a truth lies beyond the means by which laws are made in a reasonable society. Therefore it lies only in the heart of the believer, who is alone bound by it. No one else is or can be so bound, unless by his own free choice he accepts its claims.

The promulgation of law for the protection of a position held purely on religious grounds cannot therefore be justified. It is irrational, as preferring the subjective over the objective. But it is also divisive, capricious and arbitrary. We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion — any belief system — cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic.
He explained that it was appropriate to address the comments by the former Archbishop because of Carey's seniority in the Church, "the extent to which others may agree with his views, and because of the misunderstanding of the law which his statement reveals".

03 May 2010

Registering suspected arsonists

In 'Burning With Indignation: Arson, Law and the 2009 Victorian Bushfires', 15(1) Local Government Law Journal (2009 35-45 I expressed concern about the problematical nature of calls for special penalties regarding bushfire arson and the fuzziness of much of the data on which legislators were ostensibly relying in characterisations such as 'the bushfire arsonist'.

It is clear, for example, that much of the suffering in the recent Victorian bushfires was attributable to 'acts of nature' (or inefficiencies in the maintenance of powerlines) and to land use policies (poor decisions about the location of building in fire-prone areas and about the capacity of roads for evacuating people when serious fires occur) rather than 'pyromaniacs'. The latter may not use a calculus of offence, detection and punishment, therefore not being susceptible to deterrence.

Such concerns have not been embraced by the Commonwealth government, which today announced at the second annual National Forum for the Prevention of Bushfire Arson that it would be "establishing a centralised national database of convicted and suspected arsonists". The basis for inclusion on that register (how suspect is 'suspected') and its use (exclusion of suspected arsonists from service with volunteer bushfire brigades? information shared around town? information mandatorily drawn to the attention of local/state government when the suspected offender moves interstate?) is unclear.

The event "demonstrates the ongoing commitment of Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments to work together to prevent and deter arson through a coordinated and nationally agreed framework". The Commonwealth initiatives are similarly promoted as "important and practical initiatives to promote national collaboration in combating bushfire arson". They include "investing in the development of a 'Bushfire Arson Investigation Course' to build the expertise of arson investigators across the country" and "launching a 'Bushfire Arson Prevention Manual', developed by the Australian Institute of Criminology, to help local communities develop strategies to prevent arson". The latter should be interesting, given the AIC's recognition of the need to be cautious in dealing with figures that result in Ministerial claims that "up to half of all bushfires [are] being deliberately lit or starting in suspicious circumstances".

The new offender/suspected offender database is -
A centralised national database of arsonists will provide local authorities with access to up-to-date information on arsonists which may be used to direct intervention strategies at times of high risk.
The scope of that intervention is unclear. 'Lockem up'? Park a patrol car at the front gate in the hope that Pete the Pyro won't scarper over the back fence with his incendiary toolkit? Quarantine the bored schoolkids?

Who will have access to the database? Will 'suspected' arsonists be able to gain a correction if data is faulty, or signal that they contest the accuracy of data, or even be alerted that inclusion on the register has taken place?


Having missed World Homeopathy Awareness Week (yet again) I'm reading the UK Commons Science & Technology Committee's 275 page report [PDF] on its Homeopathy inquiry.

The Committee comments that -
that the NHS should cease funding homeopathy. It also concludes that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) should not allow homeopathic product labels to make medical claims without evidence of efficacy. As they are not medicines, homeopathic products should no longer be licensed by the MHRA.

The Committee carried out an evidence check to test if the Government's policies on homeopathy were based on sound evidence. The Committee found a mismatch between the evidence and policy. While the Government acknowledges there is no evidence that homeopathy works beyond the placebo effect (where a patient gets better because of their belief in the treatment), it does not intend to change or review its policies on NHS funding of homeopathy.
In releasing its report it stated that -
The Committee concurred with the Government that the evidence base shows that homeopathy is not efficacious (that is, it does not work beyond the placebo effect) and that explanations for why homeopathy would work are scientifically implausible.

The Committee concluded - given that the existing scientific literature showed no good evidence of efficacy - that further clinical trials of homeopathy could not be justified.

In the Committee's view, homeopathy is a placebo treatment and the Government should have a policy on prescribing placebos. The Government is reluctant to address the appropriateness and ethics of prescribing placebos to patients, which usually relies on some degree of patient deception. Prescribing of placebos is not consistent with informed patient choice-which the Government claims is very important-as it means patients do not have all the information needed to make choice meaningful.

Beyond ethical issues and the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship, prescribing pure placebos is bad medicine. Their effect is unreliable and unpredictable and cannot form the sole basis of any treatment on the NHS.
The Committee chair stated that -
It sets an unfortunate precedent for the Department of Health to consider that the existence of a community which believes that homeopathy works is 'evidence' enough to continue spending public money on it. This also sends out a confused message, and has potentially harmful consequences. We await the Government's response to our report with interest.
Oliver Wendell Holmes - the essayist and doctor (1809–1894), not his son the jurist - more pungently commented in Homeopathy & Its Kindred Delusions: Two lectures delivered before the Boston Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (1842) that -
It may be thought that a direct attack upon the pretensions of Homeopathy is an uncalled-for aggression upon an unoffending doctrine and its peaceful advocates. ... Such is the pretended science of Homeopathy, to which you are asked to trust your lives and the lives of those dearest to you. A mingled mass of perverse ingenuity, of tinsel erudition, of imbecile credulity, and of artful misrepresentation, too often mingled in practice, if we may trust the authority of its founder, with heartless and shameless imposition. Because it is suffered so often to appeal unanswered to the public, because it has its journals, its patrons, its apostles, some are weak enough to suppose it can escape the inevitable doom of utter disgrace and oblivion. ... If it should claim a longer existence, it can only be by falling into the hands of the sordid wretches who wring their bread from the cold grasp of disease and death in the hovels of ignorant poverty.
I note the Trustees of the Prince of Wales' Foundation for Integrated Health - an organisation vigorous in spreading the word about alternative medicine - have "decided to close the charity" after a spot of misbehaviour within the Foundation. they explain that "Whilst the closure has been planned for many months and is part of an agreed strategy, the Trustees have brought forward the closure timetable as a result of a fraud investigation at the charity."

02 May 2010

Quokkas away!

Amid the usual brouhaha about how WA is being monstered, exploited, ripped off and otherwise badly treated by Canberra - and should therefore secede ("Western Australia's iron ore producers have come out in force as fears of a possible federal resource rent tax spark talk of the state seceding from Australia") - I'm reading 'The Western Australian Secession Movement' by Thomas Musgrave in 3 Macquarie Law Journal (2003) 95-129 [PDF] and Greg Craven's Secession: The Ultimate States Right (Melbourne: Melbourne Uni Press 1986).

Musgrave indicates that -
This article examines the growth of the secessionist movement in Western Australia, which culminated in the referendum of 1933 and the presentation of a petition to secede by the government of Western Australia to the British Parliament. The attempt by Western Australia to secede from the Australian Federation remains important today because it illustrates the problem which perennially arises with regard to secession in democratic federations. This problem involves the two defining elements of a democratic federation, viz. the democratic process and the federal structure. There are two competing alternatives in such situations. On the one hand, there is the view that the expressed will to secede of a majority of the electorate with a constituent part of a federation should be given effect, by virtue of the legitimising force of the democratic process. On the other hand, there is the view that such decisions represent only the expressed will of a minority, by virtue of that electorate being considered in relation to the entire population of the existing federal structure. The attempted secession of Western Australia, and the response of the Joint Select Committee of the British Parliament, shows how this problem was dealt with in the context of the Australian Constitution.
Meanwhile Derridian's passed on a question from one of his contacts: What's a henry and why are we reviewing it? A small prickly marsupial that lives near Rottnest Island and eats mining magnates?