Grattan on Friday: Plenty of ‘rising damp’ in Turnbull government’s approach

Plenty-of-rising-damp-in-Turnbull-governments-approach On energy security, there is a distinctly “big government” 
approach by Malcolm Turnbull. 

The Liberals have a new duumvirate at the top of their organisation. Nick Greiner, one-time New South Wales premier, will be installed – in absentia, because he’s in Europe – as president at the party’s federal council on Friday night. Greiner is Malcolm Turnbull’s personal choice.

Andrew Hirst will be given the tick by the party’s executive as federal director. Hirst, who’s working with Crosby Textor, the firm that does the party’s polling, is a man of excellent survival skills, having served opposition leaders Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott, and then Abbott in government.

The two face character-forming challenges.

Greiner, whose credentials include his strong business connections, has to rake in money for a party seriously strapped. Once, the conservatives were usually flush with cash, while Labor cried poor. These days many companies don’t make political donations. Apart from that, a government on the nose doesn’t attract dollars.

Hirst must revitalise a campaign structure that’s much weaker than Labor’s, in an era when the dark arts of political persuasion approach the complexity of neurosurgery, voters are cynical or not listening, and many in the “base” are unimpressed with Turnbullism.

How much easier it would be to ask for money and activate the grassroots if, instead of the Coalition trailing in 14 consecutive Newspolls (the latest this week), it had had a string of commanding leads.

Polls drive today’s politics to an alarming degree, affecting the mood of a party, inside and outside parliament. If the Coalition were doing well, the critics in Turnbull’s ranks would have to be much more accepting of him. Popularity is a warm protective blanket for a leader.

Liberals point to Turnbull’s ascendancy over Bill Shorten as preferred prime minister, but that’s of limited comfort, because they know many voters are disillusioned with the leader they’d hoped would represent a new brand of politics.

As it attempts to limit vulnerabilities and confront pressing issues, the government is sending some confusing signals to the electorate.

There is the whole “Labor-lite” message.

Getting the needs-based Gonski 2.0 through parliament is a substantial achievement. It’s good policy and should limit, albeit not wipe out, Labor’s advantage on schools.

But the policy spends a lot, in tight times, after years of the Liberal schools story saying it wasn’t about more money. The government’s desperation to pass the bill was evidenced by its adding in this week’s negotiations $A4.9 billion to its initial extra $18.6 billion 10-year plan.

The exercise has also seen the Liberals shun their usual cultivation of the Catholic lobby, which has reacted aggressively.

In business and economic areas, the Turnbull government is also saying loud and clear that it is not in the usual Liberal mould.

Remember the old talk of “wets” and “dries” in the Liberal party? The “dries” – economic rationalists – gained dominance many years ago. Indeed both sides of politics dried out, and selling government-owned enterprises became the order of the day.

Now we’re seeing plenty of rising damp, not so surprising with Labor but more so from the Liberals.

The budget’s bank tax was driven by fiscal necessity. But the new rigorous governance regime for the banks – responding to some appalling behaviour – is notably intrusive and a change of tack. The Abbott government tried to unwind protections in the financial advice area.

On energy security, there is a distinctly “big government” approach.

Galvanised by a worsening power crisis and people’s deep concern about rising prices, the government is to use export controls to boost the availability of gas.

In the budget, it announced it wanted to buy out the NSW and Victorian shares in the Snowy Hydro, boosting the Commonwealth’s ownership from 13% to 100%.

It is also leaving open the prospect of helping to finance new clean coal generators.

Business is desperately looking for a coherent energy policy to provide certainty for investment. The Business Council of Australia has welcomed the Finkel report’s advocacy of a clean energy target, hoping this could be a path to a settled policy.

But the BCA this week warned: “Companies will only invest in new energy infrastructure if there is a stable policy framework, with minimal government intervention, that will outlast the government of the day… We strongly caution against using taxpayer funds to finance new electricity generation”.

The possibility of financing power plants goes to the Coalition’s commitment to coal. But it’s the outlook for coal that speaks strongly against such financing.

If so-called clean coal can’t attract adequate private investment, it will be because the long-term viability of such projects is considered poor. So it would be rash for a government to jump in with public funds or guarantees that could be rued as the years pass.

Despite the signals, that initiative is unlikely to come to pass. One Liberal says that if the government ever tried to invest in coal-fired power stations Turnbull would have “a riot on his hands”.

On Thursday the government received a fresh blast from the big end of town, after the South Australian budget followed the federal lead of garnering revenue from unpopular institutions by imposing its own bank tax.

The BCA blamed the Turnbull government for “letting the genie out of the bottle” and declared that “all of these ‘one-off’ government decisions, when taken together, have a chilling effect on business investment which is at its lowest level as a share of GDP since June 1994”.

The BCA claimed that “Australia is becoming a laughing stock of global investment circles as erratic governments – state, territory and federal – carelessly undermine and chop and change the rules of doing business”.

Of course a discount must be applied to the BCA comments – there is a lot of self-interest involved. It represents the country’s biggest companies, including in the banking and resources sectors.

Nevertheless it is business, particularly big business, that drives job creation and the angst does little for the positive mood the government is trying to encourage.

Greiner is likely to get some tough feedback as he moves round his business network, wearing his new Liberal president tag.

This article was written by:

Michelle Grattan

Michelle Grattan – [Professorial Fellow, university of Canberra]






This article is part of a syndicated news program via

Three charts on: the NBN and Australia’s digital divide

NBN-and-Australias-digital-divideThe NBN’s multi-technology 
mix seems unlikely to deliver the same internet quality to everyone.

The National Broadband Network (NBN) is widely considered to be failing Australians, but it isn’t failing them equally.

Our research, undertaken at the Centre for Research Excellence in the Social Determinants of Health Equity, seeks to address health inequities by looking at the geographical distribution of infrastructure, including digital technology.

Examining the rollout of NBN technologies as of December 2016, our preliminary analyses suggest areas of greatest socio-economic disadvantage overlap with regions typically receiving NBN infrastructure of poorer quality.

Comparing NBN technology with inequality

To determine socio-economic disadvantage, we used the Australian Bureau of Statistics’s (ABS) socio-economic indexes for area (SEIFA) and its index of relative socio-economic advantage and disadvantage (IRSD) from 2011.

Across Australia, we found only 29% of areas with a SEIFA decile of one (the lowest-scoring 10% of areas) had fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) – considered the best broadband technology solution available – or fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) connections. So far, around 71% of the NBN technology available in these areas involves inferior options, including hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC), fixed wireless or satellite technologies.

On the other hand, 93% of areas with a SEIFA decile of 10 (the highest-scoring 10% of areas) had FTTP or FTTN.

This result tells a similar story to an early analysis by Sydney University’s Tooran Alizadeh of 60 NBN release sites that were announced in 2011. She found some of the most disadvantaged areas of Australia were not gaining equal access to the new infrastructure.

If we look only at major cities in Australia – where the level of fibre technology is higher overall – areas with the greatest disadvantage, while exceeding similarly disadvantaged areas nationally, still received significantly less FTTP and FTTN: 65% of areas with a SEIFA decile of one had FTTP and FTTN, compared with 94% of areas with a SEIFA decile of 10.

Of course Australia is a large, sparsely populated country, which makes the business case for rolling out fibre difficult in some regions. Nevertheless, inequitable access to NBN technology appears even when controlling for the remoteness of the location.

If we look at outer regional Australia where fibre is less prevalent, the pattern looks worse. Only 12% of the most disadvantaged areas with a SEIFA decile of one received FTTP and FTTN, compared with 88% of the most advantaged outer regional areas with a SEIFA decile of nine.

Receiving FTTP or even FTTN may still be better than receiving HFC, fixed wireless or satellite technologies. While HFC may be able to match maximum speeds of FTTN, this is unlikely to happen during peak times when the increased number of users sharing the same data capacity will slow service considerably. And, similar to FTTN, these technologies provide fewer opportunities to upgrade capacity to meet future demand.

However, given only a limited data set was made publicly available in December 2016 by the NBN company, it is difficult to determine exactly which services are currently installed where. For example, the data set we used does not differentiate between FTTP and the lesser FTTN connection.

It also aggregates some NBN technology into an “other” category, making it impossible to distinguish between HFC and satellite service.

The NBN Network
Author provided

The NBN company offers a “check your address” search for its most up-to-date rollout information including technology type, but was unable to share this information with us in a single, usable data set.

A NBN spokesperson said the network was being rolled out across Australia regardless of any socio-economic mapping.

“Determining the sequence is a complex process of weighing up factors including the location of construction resources, current service levels, existing broadband infrastructure, growth forecasts and proximity to nbn infrastructure such as the transit network,” she said in an email. “Only 8 per cent of premises in Australia are not in the fixed-line footprint.”

Internet access and social inequity

A faster internet connection is increasingly central to people’s social connections, education opportunities, employment prospects and ability to access services.

This was raised in a 2011 report by the parliamentary Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications. It emphasised the potential role of the NBN in enhancing greater equity in digital access to services in regional and rural areas.

The Committee heard that, due to the ‘digital divide’, many of the Australians who could benefit the most from broadband currently have the lowest levels of online participation … The extent of accompanying measures implemented by governments will determine whether the NBN narrows or widens this digital divide.

Previous research has also found that people from lower socioeconomic groups are already restricted in their use of digital information and communication technologies. This can limit their access to a range of social determinants of health.

When populations already facing disadvantage receive poorer quality digital infrastructure, those with the greatest need will continue to slip farther behind.

Equity must be at the forefront of the NBN company’s considerations as it continues to roll out across Australia. Further entrenching social inequities through digital infrastructure is not the NBN anyone dreamed of.

This analysis was co-authored by:
Image of Ashley Schram
Ashley Schram -[Research Fellow, School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian National University];


Image of Fran BaumFran Baum – [ Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor, Foundation Director, Southgate Institute for Health, Society & Equity, Flinders University];


Matt Fisher – [ Research Fellow in social determinants of health, Flinders University];
Image of Patrick Harris
Patrick Harris – [Senior Research Fellow, University of Sydney];


Image of Sharon Friel

Sharon Friel – [Director, School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) and Professor of Health Equity, ANU, Australian National University] and


Image of Toby FreemanToby Freeman – [Senior Research Fellow in Health Equity, Flinders University] 






This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation






Land clearing on the rise as legal ‘thinning’ proves far from clear-cut

Land ClearingA ‘thinned’ landscape, which provides far 
from ideal habitat for many species.

Land clearing is accelerating across eastern Australia, despite our new research providing a clear warning of its impacts on the Great Barrier Reef, regional and global climate, and threatened native wildlife.

Policies in place to control land clearing have been wound back across all Australian states, with major consequences for our natural environment.

One of the recent policy changes made in Queensland and New South Wales has been the introduction of self-assessable codes that allow landholders to clear native vegetation without a permit. These codes are meant to allow small amounts of “low-risk” clearing, so that landholders save time and money and government can focus on regulating activities that have bigger potential impacts on the environment.

However, substantial areas of native forest are set to be cleared in Queensland under the guise of vegetation “thinning”, which is allowed by these self-assessable codes. How did this happen?

Thin on the ground

Thinning involves the selective removal of native trees and shrubs, and is widely used in the grazing industry to improve pasture quality. It has been argued that thinning returns the environment back to its “natural state” and provides better habitat for native wildlife. However, the science supporting this practice is not as clear-cut as it seems.

Vegetation “thickening” is part of a natural, dynamic ecological cycle. Australia’s climate is highly variable, so vegetation tends to grow more in wetter years and then dies off during drought years. These natural cycles of thickening and thinning can span 50 years or more. In most areas of inland eastern Australia, there is little evidence for ongoing vegetation thickening since pastoral settlement.

Thinning of vegetation using tractors, blades and other machinery interrupts this natural cycle, which can make post-drought recovery of native vegetation more difficult. Loss of tree and shrub cover puts native wildlife at much greater risk from introduced predators like cats, and aggressive, “despotic” native birds. Thinning reduces the diversity of wildlife by favouring a few highly dominant species that prefer open vegetation, and reduces the availability of old trees with hollows.

Many native birds and animals can only survive in vegetation that hasn’t been cleared for at least 30 years. So although vegetation of course grows back after clearing, for native wildlife it’s a matter of quality, not just quantity.

Land clearing by stealth?

Thinning codes in Queensland and New South Wales allow landholders to clear vegetation that has thickened beyond its “natural state”. Yet there is little agreement on what the “natural state” is for many native vegetation communities.

Under the Queensland codes, up to 75% of vegetation in an area can be removed without a permit, and in New South Wales thinning can reduce tree density to a level that is too low to support natural ecosystems.

All of this thinning adds up. Since August 2016, the Queensland government has received self-assessable vegetation clearing code notifications totalling more than 260,000 hectares. These areas include habitat for threatened species, and ecosystems that have already been extensively cleared.

Map of tree clearing in Queensland


Locations of tree felling

It may be that the actual amount of vegetation cleared under thinning codes is less than the notifications suggest. But we will only know for sure when the next report on land clearing is released, and by then it will be too late.

Getting the balance right

Vegetation policy needs to strike a balance between protecting the environment and enabling landholders to manage their businesses efficiently and sustainably. While self-regulation makes sense for some small-scale activities, the current thinning codes allow large areas of vegetation to be removed from high-risk areas without government oversight.

Thinning codes should only allow vegetation to be cleared in areas that are not mapped as habitat for threatened species or ecosystems, and not to an extent where only scattered trees are left standing in a landscape. Stronger regulation is still needed to reduce the rate of land clearing, which in Queensland is now the highest in a decade.

Protecting native vegetation on private land reduces soil erosion and soil salinity, improves water quality, regulates climate, and allows Australia’s unique plants and animals to survive. Landholders who preserve native vegetation alongside farming provide essential services to the Australian community, and should be rewarded. We need long-term incentives to allow landholders to profit from protecting vegetation instead of clearing it.

Our research has shown that Australian governments spend billions of dollars trying to achieve the benefits already provided by native vegetation, through programs such as the Emissions Reduction Fund, the 20 Million Trees program and Reef Rescue. Yet far more damage is inflicted by under-regulated clearing than is “fixed” by these programs.

Imagine what could be achieved if we spent that money more effectively.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of April Reside 
April Reside – [Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland];
Image of Anita J CosgroveAnita J Cosgrove
Research Assistant in the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland
Image of Jennifer Lesley SilcockJennifer Lesley Silcock
Post-doctoral research fellow, The University of Queensland


Image of Leonie SeabrookLeonie Seabrook
Landscape Ecologist, The University of Queensland


Image of Megan C EvansMegan C Evans
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Environmental Policy, The University of Queensland






This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation


Labor takes a political risk and opposes government’s tougher citizenship legislation

Labor-opposes-governments-tougher-citizenship-legislationPeter Dutton says changes to citizenship 
legislation are a modernisation that would bring Australia in line 
with other countries

The government has finally found an issue it can cast in terms of “national security” on which it can get a fight with Labor.

Bill Shorten usually sticks leech-like to bipartisanship on anything with even a whiff of “security”. But now the opposition has said “enough” on the proposals to toughen the criteria for people seeking citizenship.

In political terms, the question is whether the government can turn this into an effective wedge against Shorten, claiming he is “soft” on citizenship. Labor’s challenge is to keep the debate as one about what are reasonable conditions to place on aspiring Australians.

The government believes it is in tune with the mainstream; its eye to the politics was obvious when Malcolm Turnbull went out of his way to make a statement on the matter at Tuesday’s news conference on his latest energy security initiatives.

“The Labor Party does not value Australian citizenship enough to say, as we do, that it must be more than simply the outcome of an administrative tick-and-flick form-filling process,” Turnbull said. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton invokes national security and claimed Shorten has been “mugged by the left of his party”.

The proposed legislation requires potential citizens to have a higher English proficiency than at present. Additionally, the applicant will need to have lived in Australia as a permanent resident for at least four years (just one at present).

There will be a defined process to assess a person’s commitment to Australian values, helped by the longer residency requirement; people will have to show what they’ve done to integrate into the community.

The immigration minister will acquire the power to override decisions of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal on citizenship, subject to a court appeal.

Labor is opposing the bill as a whole; it wants it referred to a Senate inquiry, and says that then, if it considers there are parts worth supporting, it would ask the government to bring them back in separate legislation.

Aware Labor is treading on potentially dangerous ground, citizenship spokesman Tony Burke is trying to fireproof it. “Don’t lie and pretend something is national security when it is not,” he said.

The opposition is challenging in particular the longer qualifying period and the harder English test.

The government has a case with the former; comparable countries make residents wait between five and eight years before applying for citizenship. It is on more dubious ground on English testing, where the standard is to be raised to “competent”.

This is a level where the person has “an effective command of the language despite some inaccuracies, inappropriate usage and misunderstandings. They can use and understand fairly complex language, particularly in familiar situations.”

Burke pointed out that the questions now asked of those seeking citizenship are in a test “which is written in English. If you can’t speak English, you can’t pass the test.”

He warned the new requirement would “guarantee there will be a group of permanent residents who live here their entire lives and are never invited to take allegiance to Australia and are never able to be told by the Australian government: ‘you belong’. That is a fundamental change in our country.”

While it is desirable, not least for their own benefit, to have aspiring citizens acquire good English, people can also be excellent citizens even though their English language will always be poor. Many of us know people like that.

One motive for upping the English requirement might be fears about inward-looking communities. But insisting on the proposed level of English proficiency makes for a very un-level playing field, discriminating against those from certain countries.

Immigrants should be encouraged to become citizens – surely that is likely to be a positive for national security because it promotes a more unified nation. A “two-class” situation in the migrant/refugee population, where some can’t make the cut because of the language issue, is not what we want.

Dutton dismisses Labor’s concerns about the longer qualifying period and the harder language test.

Possibly wearing a focus group on his sleeve, he says: “The Australian public wants to see an increase in the English language requirement, they want to see people meet Australian laws and Australian values”.

There have been mild concerns in Coalition ranks about people who are about to qualify for citizenship under current rules but will face waiting longer. Dutton has told colleagues to bring him any particular cases.

If the government is playing politics with its citizenship move, Labor will have its eye on what might be opportunities on the ground.

These changes won’t be popular with some in ethnic communities, where Labor seeks votes.

On the other hand, some of those who’ve entered the citizenship tent can be less than sympathetic to aspirants.

The government may get the legislation through regardless of Labor’s stand, via the crossbench. If so, the opposition would have to decide whether it would undertake to alter the law if it won the election, or just move right on.

This article was written by:
Michelle Grattan
Michelle Grattan – [Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra]






This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation

Blasphemy is still a crime in Australia – and it shouldn’t be

Blasphemy-is-still-a-crime-in-Australia The crime of blasphemy is about  
protecting God and Christian doctrine from scurrilous commentary, 
and Christians from offence.

The crime of blasphemy has had a bit of publicity lately. British comedian Stephen Fry was recently reported to police in Ireland on accusations of blasphemy, for comments made on TV about what he would say to God if he had the chance.

Jakarta Governor Ahok was recently convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy in Indonesia.

You might also find yourself reported to police or sent to prison for blasphemy in Australia, where is it still a crime.

The crime of blasphemy

Blasphemy is a crime against the common law (the body of judge-made law we inherited from England). Only Queensland and Western Australia have abolished it. But it continues to exist in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, the ACT and Norfolk Island.

The crime of blasphemy is not about vilifying or inciting hatred against people on the basis of their religion. Some states have separate laws against that.

The crime is about protecting God and Christian doctrine from scurrilous commentary, and Christian religious sensibilities from offence.

The Federal Court has described the elements of the offence of blasphemy as follows:

The essence of the crime of blasphemy is to publish words concerning the Christian religion, which are so scurrilous and offensive as to pass the limits of decent controversy and to be calculated to outrage the feelings of any sympathiser with or believer in Christianity.
A temperate and respectful denial of the existence of God is not an offence against the law, which does not render criminal the mere propagation of doctrines hostile to the Christian faith. The crime consists in the manner in which the doctrines are advocated. Whether in each case this is a crime is a question of fact for the jury.

In other words, it is a crime to “outrage the feelings” of Christians in respect of their religious beliefs.

Blasphemy has a loose similarity with Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful (but not a crime) to offend someone on the basis of their race. Federal Liberal MP and former human rights commissioner Tim Wilson has said that extending 18C to cover religion would amount to a “national anti-blasphemy law”.

The crimes legislation in NSW and the ACT both set out identical minor limitations on blasphemy prosecutions:

No person shall be liable to prosecution in respect of any publication by him or her orally, or otherwise, of words or matter charged as blasphemous, where the same is by way of argument, or statement, and not for the purpose of scoffing or reviling, nor of violating public decency, nor in any manner tending to a breach of the peace.

In other words, it’s a crime in NSW and the ACT to outrage the religious feelings of a Christian, but only if you’re intending to scoff at Christianity. Blasphemy can be committed by speech, writing, art or other form of communication.

The crime of blasphemy is only about Christianity. You are legally free to blaspheme against any other religion.

There have been no recent prosecutions in Australia. The most recent NSW conviction was of William Jones in 1871 who was sentenced to two years’ prison for blasphemy. In 1919, Robert Ross was sentenced to six months’ prison under old federal postal laws for attempting to send blasphemous material about communists ransacking Heaven through the post.

However, in 1997 George Pell tried unsuccessfully to get a court injunction to prevent the National Gallery of Victoria from displaying the Piss Christ artwork on the basis that the artwork was blasphemous.

Why blasphemy laws are bad

The crime of blasphemy is wholly inconsistent with a secular and religiously diverse Australian society.

The crime of blasphemy gives official preference to Christianity over other religions, since it is lawful to outrage the religious feelings of adherents of non-Christian religions. The law should not play favourites among religions.

It also involves the state enforcing religious orthodoxy (correct belief) and religious orthopraxy (correct behaviour) and threatening people who do not conform with criminal punishment. This is not a proper role for the law.

Blasphemy laws are also contrary to international human rights norms, which Australia is supposed to uphold. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has said in its General Comment 34, outlining its official interpretation of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, that:

Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights].

When might the crime of blasphemy be abolished?

New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English recently promised to abolish the crime of blasphemy after he was told it still exists in NZ, but has said there’s no urgency to do so.

In 1994, the NSW Law Reform Commission recommended abolishing the offence of blasphemy in NSW. The commission also noted that every law reform commission that has considered the offence of blasphemy has recommended it be abolished. Due to lack of political will, NSW has never acted on this recommendation.

Abolition in Australia might occur soon. A federal parliamentary committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the right to freedom of religion or belief. I recently appeared before that committee and suggested that the committee recommend that federal parliament use its constitutional power to implement Australia’s international human rights obligations to abolish the crime of blasphemy throughout Australia.

As yet there is no indication of when the committee will hand down its recommendations. Let’s hope those recommendations include abolishing the crime of blasphemy.

This article was written by:
Image of Luke BeckLuke Beck – [Senior Lecturer in Constitutional Law, Western Sydney University]






This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation


What we know, don’t know and suspect about what causes motor neuron disease

Motor neuron disease Some types of MND start with a 
loss of grip. But what causes this?

Since 2014, the ice bucket challenge, which involves people pouring a bucket of icy water over their heads, has raised awareness and much-needed research funds for motor neuron disease. While research for a cure is underway, first we need to know what causes it.

MND affects two per every 100,000, or approximately 420,000 people worldwide. It occurs in all countries of the world, and does not discriminate based on race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.

MND is the name given to a group of diseases in which the motor neurons that control muscles progressively die. Motor neurons are cells in the brain and spinal cord that allow us to move, speak, swallow and breathe by sending commands from the brain to the muscles that carry out these functions.

Motor neurons can be divided into either upper motor neurons, which live in the main brain region and project into the brainstem and spinal cord, or lower motor neurons, which reside in the brainstem or spinal cord and directly innervate muscles.

Image of iced water being poured over a willing victim
The ice bucket challenge went viral all over the world, spreading awareness of MND. NBA Yao school/AAP

Normally, upper motor neurons transmit signals to lower motor neurons, directing them to make movements. The lower neurons then signal the muscles themselves, controlling normal movements. When the signal is disrupted at some point in the pathway, it affects the ability of muscles to contract and move.

MND is classified, in part, by whether the upper or lower neurons are the ones degenerating and dying. In amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease, the most common type of MND, both upper and lower motor neurons are affected. Other types of MND may just affect one or the other, and each condition has slightly different symptoms.

Disease of the upper motor neurons causes stiffness of muscles (spasticity), muscle weakness and exaggerated tendon reflexes, such as knee jerks. But if the lower are primarily affected, muscles no longer receive innervation, causing them to weaken and waste away (atrophy), while also developing uncontrollable twitches (fasciculations) and losing their reflex responses.

Image of Lou Hehrig
US baseballer Lou Gehrig was diagnosed in his 30s, and his specific type of MND became known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Wikimedia Commons

If both are affected, symptoms usually start mildly with a loss of grip, a slurred word or stumbling while walking. The disease then spreads as motor neurons continue to die, affecting all skeletal muscles, which are under control by the central nervous system. This leads to muscle weakness and atrophy on both sides of the body.

Muscles become spastic, spasm and display uncontrollable twitches. In 75% of individuals, muscles of the face and throat that control speech, swallowing and chewing also become weak and waste away, leading to slurred or nasal speech and difficulty eating. Over time, the disease spreads to muscles of the diaphragm and chest, leading to an inability to breathe without mechanical support, and eventually, death.

Symptoms of MND can vary from person to person, and the rate of progression can also differ widely between individuals. However, it does progress in all cases. For the majority of people, this period of disease progression is quite rapid, with most living two to five years after the onset of symptoms. Only 20% of patients live for five years, 10% for ten years and 5% for 20 years or more. One famous notable exception is the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who was first diagnosed at age 21 and is now 75 years old, meaning he has lived with the condition for over 50 years.

The cause of most cases of MND is currently unknown, although multiple hypotheses have been put forward. This is currently an area of major research throughout the world.

Genetic causes

A small number of cases of MND (5-10%) are inherited from family and can be attributed to a specific genetic mutation, or an alteration in the sequence of DNA. It’s estimated that, currently, about 60% of the genes associated with familial MND have been identified. For most MND genes, an individual only needs to inherit one copy of the mutated gene to cause the disease.

The first gene mutation to be discovered in MND was one called “SOD1”, in 1993. SOD1 mutations account for about 10-20% of cases of familial MND (and 1-2% of sporadic cases). While it’s unclear exactly how changes in this gene lead to MND, it’s thought that it takes on a toxic property, leading to damage in the brain cells and, eventually, death of motor neurons.

Another important gene implicated in familial MND is “C9orf72”, which was found in 2011 and is known to be the most common genetic cause of MND. Mutations in this gene account for 25-40% of familial MND (and 7% of sporadic cases). This gene has also been shown to account for 25% of cases of another neurodegenerative disease, a type of dementia called frontotemporal dementia.

This gene contains abnormal repetitions in the DNA code, called repeat expansions. While healthy individuals have up to 30 of these repetitions, individuals with MND, frontotemporal dementia or both can have hundreds or even thousands of repeats. But it’s still a matter of debate how this could lead to the development of the disease, with several potential mechanisms put forward, and further research needed.

In addition to these two major genetic discoveries, several other genes have been implicated (NEK1, TDP43, FUS and UBQLN2) that appear to play a smaller role in the number of cases of MND they cause.

It’s important to remember, though, that genetic mutations play a small role in most cases of MND. While 5-10% of cases are familial, with a clear genetic link, the other 90-95% of cases are sporadic and are likely to be due to a complex interaction of genetic risk factors and environmental variables.

Age and gender

Non-genetic factors that may contribute to the development of MND have been extensively studied over the years, with several potential causes emerging. One of the major risk factors for MND is advancing age. MND is rare before the age of 40, with an average age of onset of 58-63 years for sporadic MND and 40-60 years for familial MND.

Males are also more likely than females to have MND, but we don’t know why.

Lifestyle causes

A number of lifestyle risk factors for MND have also emerged. Smoking is known to increase the risk of MND, with one study indicating smokers were 42% more likely to be diagnosed with MND, while former smokers had a 44% higher risk.

Certain dietary factors, such as higher intake of antioxidants and vitamin E, have been shown, at least in some studies, to decrease the risk of MND.

Interestingly, increased physical fitness and lower body mass index (BMI) have been shown to be associated with a higher risk of MND. The diagnosis of baseballer Lou Gehrig led scientists to theorise that strenuous physical activity and excessive use of muscles could contribute to the development of MND.

While evidence for this has been inconsistent, an increased risk for MND has been demonstrated among professional soccer players, and MND patients have higher levels of vigorous physical activity compared to individuals without MND. Other factors, however, may account for this relationship, such as repeated head injuries, another purported cause of MND.

Image of Neil Daniher
Former AFL footballer Neale Daniher suffers from MND and campaigns for more funding and awareness. Julian Smith/AAP

A number of occupations have also been found to be associated with increased risk of MND, including electrical workers, farmers, house painters and military personnel. Other individuals exposed to electromagnetic fields, certain chemicals, pesticides and heavy metals, such as lead, manganese, iron and selenium, during the course of their work are also at risk.

But it’s still unclear how exposure to these toxins may lead to the development of MND, and not all studies in this area have been consistent in demonstrating increased risk. Another issue with these toxin exposure studies is that many rely on self-reports, with individuals having to recall their past exposures. This can lead to recall bias, where people with the disease are more likely to report a past exposure, leading to an over-inflation of risk.

Other illnesses

Exposure to viruses has also been cited as a potential cause of MND. Polio virus, for example, can infect motor neurons, and may be linked to later weakening of these neurons.

Retroviruses, such as HIV, have also been shown to be potentially linked to the development of MND.

In addition to viruses, other medical conditions may also be linked to an increased risk of MND. Type I diabetes has been shown to be associated with a threefold increase in risk (although, interestingly, Type II diabetes was associated with a lower risk for MND).

Consistent with other neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, increased inflammation has also recently gained attention as a potential cause of MND. One study showed that, in MND, inflammatory cells called macrophages can ingest motor neurons.

What makes treatment so complicated?

Despite decades of research, there is only one treatment currently approved for MND, a drug called riluzole (Rilutek), first approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1995. This aims to reduce the release of the neurotransmitter glutamate from motor neurons, which was once thought to drive the death of these neurons. But the drug doesn’t reverse nerve damage or muscle weakness caused by the disease, and only prolongs life for about three months.

Aside from riluzole, most current treatments such as muscle relaxants or physical therapy attempt to maintain patient quality of life.

In May 2017, the US approved the first new treatment for MND in 22 years, a drug called Radicava (edaravone), which is expected to be on the US market by August 2017. This drug, originally developed for the treatment of stroke in Japan, was approved in 2015 for the treatment of MND in Japan and South Korea.

The drug aims to prevent damage of neurons, and the company that developed it reports it can slow the physical decline of MND patients by 33%.

The drug, which is not a cure and only slows disease progression, is stunningly expensive, costing nearly US$150,000 a year. And patients in the last stage of the clinical trial that led to approval in the US were only followed up to six months, so the long-term benefits of the drug are unknown. The drug is not yet approved for use in Australia.

The causes of MND are many and complex. This is further complicated by the fact we don’t know what ultimately causes the death of motor neurons when someone has MND. If we could find this out, then we may well be on the way to developing more effective, and perhaps even curative, therapies for the disease.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Lyndsey Collins-Praino
Lyndsey Collins-Praino – [Senior Lecturer in School of Medicine, University of Adelaide] and
Image of Viythia KatharesanViythia Katharesan – [Lecturer in the School of Medicine, University of Adelaide]






This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation

‘The way they manipulate people is really saddening’: study shows the trade-offs in gig work

Uber Gig workers saw their work as  
flexible but also with its risks. Reynaldo Vasconcelos/Newzulu/AAP

Uber driver Michelle, thinks her job is fantastic when she’s only after part-time hours. But she’s given it a couple of months and she says she’s not getting anywhere.

To be able to earn A$800 she has to actually pull in A$1,500, averaging 70 hours a week. The money per hour can be good, but only when it really picks up. Looking at the current job market, she doesn’t want to do two full-time jobs to make the same amount of money that she used to earn in an office, working half the time.

She feels exhausted. She used to think people in Melbourne were good drivers, but now that she’s been driving all day, she sees a fair amount of aggression. Six weeks ago she was trying to merge into traffic and a man in a ute next to her showed her a crowbar.

Her latest day off she spent sleeping because she was so tired.

Michelle (not her real name) was one of our study participants. We interviewed 60 ridesharing and food delivery workers like her. And the reality of their experiences is far more nuanced than others make out.

Work in the “gig economy” is often depicted as flexible by businesses and those who run the platforms that offer work, or as exploitative by labour activists and commentators.

A key finding is that gig workers arbitrate between the costs and benefits of gig work. Many interviewees preferred their gig work over other forms of low-paid work (most commonly cleaning, hospitality, retail) because of abusive bosses, underpayment, and underemployment. In comparison, gig work is seen by these workers as providing a more appealing work environment.

While some rideshare drivers note they need to work long hours to earn the equivalent of a full-time wage, they also emphasise their enjoyment of their rideshare work. One food delivery worker summed it up:

It is more flexible. You can do whatever you want. You are on the street talking to the people enjoying. You can do exercise as well on the bicycle. And, it is good money.

Despite these workers’ sense that there are opportunities in gig work – their experience was not overwhelmingly positive. There was a group of workers who felt marginalised, had few choices, and the gig work was a last resort.

These workers saw gig work as a stopgap measure while they looked for “real” jobs. In these cases they were doing it because it got them out of the house, to supplement their income or before starting their own business.

Social versus isolating

The workers in the study saw social interactions as part of their gig work as one of the more enjoyable aspects. What varied between rideshare and food delivery workers was how these interactions took place.

Food delivery drivers often end up crossing paths during their shifts and informally waiting together. As one worker summed up:

You end up knowing most of the riders, because you see them pretty often. You kind of speak with each other, and there is a social club.

By contrast rideshare drivers noted that their work could be quite physically isolating. Some drivers engaged in online forums with other drivers but would never meet up with them. Despite limited social interaction with other drivers, rideshare drivers reported that this is where they derived most of their job satisfaction.

Freedom versus control

The drivers we interviewed expressed a sense of freedom and flexibility because they had “no boss, no set hours”. However, the flip side of this was a sense of limited control over work. As one food delivery worker described:

I currently fit my life around their work…obviously I have to work around busy times – lunch and dinnertime.

Both delivery riders and rideshare drivers – found that only particular pockets of time across the day were profitable. This was usually lunch and dinner times, especially weekends for food delivery, and weekends and evenings for rideshare drivers. So while their options to sign on or off the app (the platform that employed them) were flexible, realistically their productive working hours were determined by patterns of consumer demand.

Both the rideshare and food delivery platforms also unilaterally changed the terms and conditions of engagement, which directly affected earning potential. Both groups of workers expressed particular concern about the periodic increases in the commission taken by the platform, reporting cuts to earnings of up to 15%. One driver lamented:

The way they [the platform] manipulate people….is really saddening.

Ridesharing workers were also concerned about being financially over-committed due to the cost associated with purchasing and running a vehicle. This financial burden, coupled with continued changing rules of game, and the capacity for these platforms to arbitrarily “deactivate them” led to anxiety and frustration. One worker described this:

It used to be good before they did all the price cuts and started treating their drivers like trash. We have had 30% cuts since I came on board whilst demand hasn’t matched supply. I make around $10 an hour.

Best of a bad lot

Our emerging findings suggest gig workers often understand the trade-offs between the positive and negative features of their work but see this as a reality of their position within the labour market.

A number of our interviewees felt exploited and/or would prefer better paying “real jobs”, validating the concern on regulation, pay and conditions in this industry. But, gig work allows these workers to meet their immediate needs and gives them a sense of being their own boss.

The gig workers enjoyed the high levels of autonomy in their work, and many of them saw their gigs as the best in a market characterised by low paid jobs.

This article was co-authored by:





This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation

A quarter of kidney donors are living: what you need to know to be a donor

Kidney donors People undergoing dialysis would  
have a better quality of life if they had a kidney transplant. 

At any one time, more than 1,400 Australians are on an organ transplant waiting list. The most common organs in demand are kidneys, followed by the liver and lung.

While the number of deceased organ donors in Australia has doubled since 2009, rates of live donor transplantation – where a person donates one kidney or, rarely, a portion of their liver – are relatively static.

In 2016, 265 Australians donated a kidney to a friend or relative, making up about a quarter of all kidney transplants. Live donor liver transplants are rare (only two occurred in Australia last year) and often donated from a parent to a child.

Who needs a kidney?

Kidneys filter toxins from the blood and regulate fluid balance. When kidneys are functioning so poorly a person needs dialysis to do the work for them, we say the person has “end stage kidney disease”.

In 2015, there were nearly 12,500 Australians undergoing dialysis. End stage kidney disease often occurs gradually and is commonly a result of diabetes, high blood pressure and types of autoimmune kidney disease called glomerulonephritis.

Many patients with end stage kidney disease would live longer and have a better quality of life following a kidney transplant compared to staying on dialysis. But the shortage of donor organs means preference is given to those likely to have better outcomes and reasonable life expectancy after transplantation.

Australian guidelines require patients have an 80% likelihood of survival at five years after transplantation to be eligible for the wait list. Tests are done to ensure the potential transplant recipient has acceptable heart health to undergo the operation, and that there are no cancers or infections that will be made worse by medications that suppress the immune system (“anti-rejection drugs”).

The donor’s kidney function is assessed, and the risk of them developing a kidney disease in future is evaluated. This is both to ensure the donor enjoys good kidney function after removal of their kidney, and that the recipient receives a well-functioning kidney. Donors also routinely undergo psychological evaluation.

Image of kidneys filtering
Kidneys work by filtering out toxins from the blood and regulating a person’s fluid balance.

Where do donors come from?

A potential recipient is encouraged to ask friends and family if they would be willing to donate a kidney. If not, the potential recipient can go on the deceased donor list to wait for a compatible kidney.

People often donate organs to their blood relatives, but it’s also possible to give a kidney to someone who is not related, such as a spouse or close friend. Some people use social media to solicit organ donations, and some have been successful. Specific matching sites also exist in countries such as the US, with the aim of getting healthy volunteers to altruistically donate a kidney.

But methods of acquiring a donor who is previously unknown to the recipient are controversial and generally discouraged in Australia for ethical reasons. In Australia, a person could donate a kidney altruistically to someone on the waiting list. In this situation, the donor and recipient do not find out each other’s identity.

The Australian paired-exchange program allows greater numbers of live donor transplants to occur through paired kidney donor swaps. For example, if Jane’s potential donor John is unsuitable to give her a kidney because of matching issues, and Bob’s potential donor Barbara is unsuitable to give him a kidney, Barbara can donate a kidney to Jane, and John can donate a kidney to Bob.

Last year, an altruistic donation kicked off a domino chain of six paired-exchange donations, with the final kidney from a paired exchange donor going to a patient on the deceased donor waiting list.

Live donors must be over 18, but it’s preferable if they are over 30 as older age at donation minimises their chance of developing an unexpected condition that threatens their kidney health down the track.

Do you need to be a ‘match’?

Different people have different combinations of proteins on the surface of their cells that allow the immune system to determine what is part of the body (self) and what are foreign agents (non-self). These proteins are determined by genes called human leukocyte antigens (HLA).

The immune system is designed to recognise self HLA so it doesn’t target its own tissues. It is advantageous to have high degrees of HLA match (also called tissue match) between a donor and recipient, but it’s not absolutely necessary. A closer degree of HLA match means the immune system is less likely to reject the kidney.

Image of blood relatives
Blood relatives are most likely to donate an organ.

Usually people need to be the same blood group to donate a kidney. But some living donor transplants can occur across different blood groups. These are called ABO incompatible transplantation. For this to happen, the recipient must undergo plasmapheresis – a process in which antibodies (proteins that attack foreign invaders) are removed from their blood and they are given strong medication to suppress the immune system.

Only people with end stage kidney disease can be listed for deceased donor transplantation. But living donor transplants can be “pre-emptive”, taking place before the need for dialysis.

This has advantages, such as not having to take time away from work or study to do dialysis. People who undergo pre-emptive transplantion have a lower risk of death and loss of kidney transplant function compared to people who spend time on dialysis before getting a transplant.

Are there risks to donors?

Kidney donors usually remain in hospital for a few days after surgery, which is usually conducted as “keyhole surgery”. This involves a camera and instruments being inserted through a small incision and the kidney being pulled out through it.

Full recovery time is around six to eight weeks. Complications, such as bleeding or blood clots, related to the operation are rare. There is a very small risk of death around the time of the operation, estimated at 3.1 in 10,000 donors, or 0.031%. Although the patient populations differ, this is less than for other minor operations such appendicectomy (estimated in a recent study at 0.21%).

There is no long-term increased risk of death or heart disease. Donating a kidney is likely to cause a slight increase in blood pressure over time.

After donation, the remaining kidney increases its capacity to filter blood, and kidney function usually returns to 70-80% of the previous level. This is adequate, and does not result in any symptoms related to kidney disease.

Studies comparing kidney donors to equivalently healthy non-donors found kidney donation increases risk of end stage kidney disease about three- to five-fold. But the risk is very low to begin with (around 0.06% for a white US man and 0.04% for a white US woman).

The kidney donation experience is usually positive. In one study, 95% of kidney donors in the US rated their experience as good to excellent. They reported an improvement in their sense of meaning in life and self-esteem. But a degree of psychological stress related to donation was common, and 20% reported a financial burden.

The Australian government gives A$4.1 million to run the Supporting Living Organ Donors program. This scheme includes reimbursing employers for sick leave for those who donate an organ, as well as other initiatives that aim to remove financial barriers to organ donation.

This article was written by:
Image of Holly HuttonHolly Hutton – [Nephrologist, PhD candidate at Centre for Inflammatory Diseases, Monash University., Monash University]


More information about living kidney donation is available at Donate Life, Kidney Health Australia, and the Supporting Living Organ Donors program.






This article is part of a syndicated news program via the Conversation

SIR DONALD BRADMAN (Australian Cricketing Legend)

Sir Donald George Bradman was an Australian Cricket Player who many both peers and fans believe to be one of the greatest cricket players of all time, and definitely one of Australia’s most popular sporting heroes.

Bradman born on 27 August 1908 in Cootamundra, NSW, was the youngest son of George Bradman and Emily (Whatman) Bradman. Five children in total, a brother Victor, and sisters Islet, Lilian and Elizabeth May. At the age of two and a half years, the family relocated to Bowral, NSW.

As a youngster, Bradman became known for his obsessive practice, often hitting a ball repeatedly against a wall for hours upon hours, using only a cricket stump.

After a brief taste of tennis, he decided to dedicate his life to cricket, playing with the local boys before attracting sufficient attention at the age of eighteen to be drafted in grade cricket in Sydney.

Within a year he was representing NSW and three years after that he was making his Test debut. After receiving some criticism in the first Ashes series in 1928-29, Bradman worked constantly to perfect his game by targeting his weaknesses head on.

Despite occasional battles with illness, Bradman continued to dominate world cricket throughout the 1930’s. Bradman was so dominant that the English team resorted to ‘bodyline’ bowling on the Australian tour of 1933.

It was the time of the ‘Great Depression’ when cricket provided Australian’s with a few hours of relief, raising the spirit of a nation, until war intervened.

During the war, Bradman initially volunteered for the RAAF, but was later persuaded to join the army. In 1941, Bradman became ill and was diagnosed with fibrositis (an inflammation of fibrous connective tissue typically affecting the back and causing stiffness and pain), He was immediately discharged, and he would go on to suffer from this illness thoughout his life.

When the war ended, and approaching forty years of age (most players are retired by their mid-30s), he returned to play cricket, leading one of the most talented teams in Australia’s history. His final tour would be held in England in 1948.

Despite his less vigorous powers, he still managed to score 11 centuries and 2,432 runs on tour. The Australians won the tour 4-0. In the last test at Lords, Bradman went out to bat with an average of 101. Bradman left the ground with a standing ovation as he headed towards the famous Lords pavilion. On the occasion of his last international innings, Bradman needed four runs to be able to retire with a batting average of 100, but was dismissed for “a duck” by spin bowler Eric Hollies. England lost by an innings and he never batted again.

Over an international career spanning nearly 20 years from 1930 to 1948, Bradman’s statistical achievements were unparalleled. He broke scoring records for both first-class and Test cricket; his highest international score (334) stood for decades as the highest ever test score by an Australian. It was then equalled by Mark Taylor, who declared with his score at 334 not out in what many regard as a deliberate tribute to Bradman. In 2003 it was once more equalled then surpassed by another fellow Australian, Matthew Hayden, who fittingly went on to gain the highest score in Test cricket (380) up to that time.

For decades, Bradman was the only player with two Test triple centuries in a career. He was joined by West Indian Brian Lara in 2004; Lara broke Hayden’s record, and recorded the first Test quadruple century in history, in the process of joining Bradman in this exclusive club.

After retiring from cricket, Bradman went back to working as a stockbroker and remained a great ambassador for the sport.


He was awarded a knighthood in 1949, and a Companion of the Order of Australia (Australia’s highest civil honor) in 1979.

He was also famous for answering innumerable letters from cricket fans across the world, which he continued to do until well into his eighties.

In his private life, he married his childhood sweetheart Jessie and they went on to have two children, John and Lorraine.

Bradman was an intensely private person, probably because of the intense media scrutiny he suffered throughout his career. He also penned several books on cricket technique and tactics, which are now regarded as classics.

To sum him up, in the words of Prime Minister John Howard, “Bradman was the greatest living Australian”.

Listen To older Voices : Fred Woods – Part 1

Listen To Older Voices

Welcome to Listen To Older Voices, a program produced by Rob Greaves for Wesley Mission Victoria and podcast through the Toorak Times.

Listen To Older Voices presents the stories, views and opinions of our older citizens. It is predominantly in a life & times format, with interviewees reflecting upon their lives from earliest memories. An underlying principal of the program is to promote the concept of positive ageing, reinforcing the principle that older people have & continue to make a valuable contribution to both their local & wider community.

This is part 1 of a 2-part program on Fred Woods. Originally aired in January of 2005, part 1 of the story of this then 87 year old deals with his early life. Having been bought up in the bush we learn how this led to him devoting his life to the timber industry. Fred commenced work as a feller at the age of 14 and he paints a vivid picture of life as a timber worker in the early 1930’s, and relates many wonderful as well as tragic stories including deaths.

Image of timber cutters
Victorian timber cutters circa 1930

Even Fred’s social life was outdoor based, revolving around hunting and fishing and both his working and personal life tell a story of a time when things were so different from today and yet, remind us that we have a great debt of gratitude to pay the this generation that has now largely passed

Click  to hear Fred Woods – Part 1

Previous LTOV Programs can be accessed clicking on this icon –

[Listen To Older Voices receives funding from the Commonwealth Government through the Commonwealth Home Support Program Program]