The Great Barrier Reef can repair itself, with a little help from science

 How the Great Barrier Reef can be  
helped to help repair the damaged reef. AIMS/Neal Cantin

The Great Barrier Reef is suffering from recent unprecedented coral bleaching events. But the answer to part of its recovery could lie in the reef itself, with a little help.

In our recent article published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, we argue that at least two potential interventions show promise as means to boost climate resilience and tolerance in the reef’s corals: assisted gene flow and assisted evolution.

Both techniques use existing genetic material on the reef to breed hardier corals, and do not involve genetic engineering.

But why are such interventions needed? Can’t the reef simply repair itself?

Damage to the reef, so far

Coral bleaching in 2016 and 2017 took its biggest toll on the reef to date, with two-thirds of the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem impacted in these back-to-back events. The consequence was widespread damage.

Picture of coral bleaching
Bleached corals on the central Great Barrier Reef at the peak of the heat wave in March 2017. Most branching corals in the photo were dead six months later. Neal Cantin/AIMS, CC BY-ND

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will dampen coral bleaching risk in the long term, but will not prevent it. Even with strong action to tackle climate change, more warming is locked in.

So while emissions reductions are essential for the future of the reef, other actions are now also needed.

Even in the most optimistic future, reef-building corals need to become more resilient. Continued improvement of water quality, controlling Crown-of-Thorns Starfish, and managing no-take areas will all help.

But continued stress from climate change – in frequency and intensity – increasingly overwhelms the natural resilience despite the best conventional management efforts. Although natural processes of adaptation and acclimation are in play, they are unlikely to be fast enough to keep up with any rate of global warming.

So to boost the reef’s resilience in the face of climate change we need to consider new interventions – and urgently.

That’s why we believe assisted gene flow and assisted evolution could help the reef.

Delaying their development could mean that climate change degrades the reef beyond repair, and before we can save key species.

What is assisted gene flow?

The idea here is to move warm-adapted corals to cooler parts of the reef. Corals in the far north are naturally adapted to 1C to 2C higher summer temperatures than corals further south.

This means there is an opportunity to build resistance to future warming in corals in the south under strong climate change mitigation, or to decades of warming under weaker mitigation.

There is already natural genetic connectivity of coral populations across most of the reef. But the rate of larval flow from the warm north to the south is limited, partly because of the South Equatorial Current that flows west across the Pacific.

The South Equatorial Current splits into the north-flowing Gulf of Papua Current and south-flowing East Australian Current off the coast of north Queensland. This means coral larvae spawned in the warm north are often more likely to stay in the north.

So manually moving some of the northern corals south could help overcome that physical limitation of natural north-to-south larval flow. If enough corals could be moved it could help heat-damaged reefs recover faster with more heat-resistant coral stock.

We could start safe tests at a subset of well-chosen reefs to understand how warm-adapted populations can be spread to reefs further south.

Picture showing artificial coral growing
These two-year old corals reared in AIMS’s National Sea Simulator are hybrids between different species of the genus Acropora. They are the results of artificial selection under experimental climate change and show tolerance to prolonged heat stress expected in the future. Neal Cantin/AIMS, CC BY-ND

What is assisted evolution?

While assisted gene flow may be effective for southern or recently degraded reefs, it will not be enough or feasible for all reefs or species. Here, we argue that assisted evolution could help.

Assisted evolution is artificial selection on steroids. It combines multiple approaches that target the coral host and its essential microbial symbionts.

These are aimed at producing a hardier coral without the use of genetic engineering. Experiments at the Australian Institute of Marine Science are already making progress, with results yet to be published.

First, evolution of algal symbionts in isolation from the coral host has been fast-tracked to resist higher levels of heat stress. When symbionts are made to reengage with the coral host, benefits to bleaching resistance are still small, but with more work we expect to see a hardier symbiosis.

Secondly, experiments have created new genetic diversity of corals through hybridisation and researchers have selected these artificially for increased climate resilience.

Natural hybridisation happens only occasionally on the reef, so this result gives us new options for climate hardening corals using existing genetic stocks.

The danger of doing nothing?

The right time to start any new intervention is when the risk of inaction is greater than the risk of action.

Assisted gene flow and assisted evolution represent manageable risk because they use genetic material already present on the reef. The interventions speed up naturally occurring processes and do not involve genetic engineering.

These interventions would not introduce or produce new species. Assisted gene flow would simply enhance the natural flow of warm-adapted corals into areas on the reef that desperately need more heat tolerance.

Risk of increasing the spread of diseases may also be low because most parts of the Reef are already interconnected. A full understanding of risks is an area of continued research.

These are just two examples of new tools that could help build climate resilience on the reef. Other interventions are developing and should be put on the table for open discussion.

This article was co-authored by:





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#LstTxt&Tstmnt: an unsent text message can count as a will, in the right circumstances

An unsent text message can be a will,  
an Australian court has decided. Dragon Images/Shutterstock

The unsent text message read:

“Dave Nic you and Jack keep all that I have house and superannuation, put my ashes in the back garden with Trish Julie will take her stuff only she’s ok gone back to her ex AGAIN I’m beaten . A bit of cash behind TV and a bit in the bank Cash card pin ….
My will”

Based on those few sentences, a Judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland recently decided in Re Nichol that the property of a deceased man should go to his brother and nephew, rather than his widow.

Of course, the man’s text was not a conventional will, and it certainly didn’t meet the formalities traditionally required by law.

The Court’s acceptance of this “document” shows that the law can keep up with technology. But it shouldn’t be cause for complacency, especially among generations who are already unlikely to write a will or, indeed, to write anything down on paper at all.

Will do it later

Most people are familiar with the notion of will: it sets out our wishes about who should inherit our property, or who will take on certain responsibilities after we die. For instance, who will bury our body or take care of our pets? In law, these are called your testamentary intentions.

Figures vary about how many Australians have a “valid” will, but it’s estimated that 45% do not. Older people are also more likely to make one than younger generations.

Given that young people are used to recording their thoughts and wishes in electronic form, they are potentially less likely to leave behind a formal written will, at least in a conventional format.

According to the traditional rules on inheritance or succession law, people without wills die “intestate”.

If you make a will, it could save a lot of time and trouble. timyee/Shutterstock

The problems with intestacy

The rules relating to the division of assets and duties following a death intestate are formulaic and usually dictated by how close blood relatives are to the deceased.

This can lead to conflict, particularly for those whose close relationships aren’t always recognised by the state, like same-sex couples.

Sometimes people die intestate because they didn’t make a will in the right legal form. So to avoid intestate contests, all Australian states and territories have introduced some form of “dispensing” legislation.

This allows the court to accept a document that states the testamentary intentions of a person to be a valid will – but only if the court is satisfied that the person really intended that “document” to be a will, among other factors.

Australian law has been relatively good at keeping up with changes in the way we document things. In Queensland, for instance, when a law refers to a document, it is taken to include:

any disc, tape or other article or any material from which sounds, images, writings or messages are capable of being produced or reproduced.

The Queensland Supreme Court has previously led the way, holding that a note written on an iPhone can be a “document” for the purposes of making a will.

In Re Nichol, it continued this trend by holding that an unsent text message can also satisfy the definition of “document”.

When an SMS is a will

A written but unsent text message could simply be a partial thought, or something we haven’t committed to sending. So how could an unsent text operate as a will?

To work this out, a few things need to be scrutinised: the language, its contents, and the context. In other words, whether the person writing it had the capacity and intention to make it their will.

In Re Nichol, the immediate implication was that because the text was not sent, the deceased didn’t want it to operate as a will.

However, the deceased had concealed his decision to commit suicide, but had kept the mobile phone with him containing the draft message so that it would be discovered when he was found. The Court considered that he deliberately didn’t send it because he didn’t want anyone to know what he was about to do.

In other words, there was a legitimate explanation for the text being unsent.

Digital is not always better than analogue

The result in Re Nichol does not mean there’s no need to make a formal will. The surviving family may have to go through a lot of stress if all they have to rely on are electronic communications stored on your phone, computer or in the cloud.

There is one more question about electronic communications that has not yet been fully considered: what about the possibility of fraud or alteration to the message?

The old-fashioned ritual of signing a will in front of witnesses was a useful bulwark against fake wills, or the will being changed without the testator’s knowledge. In the future, the courts must require high levels of proof that the will is genuine and “un-hacked”.

Elise Histed, an expert in succession law, contributed to this article.

If this article has raised concerns for you or anyone you know, call Lifeline 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800.

This article was written by:
Brendan Gogarty – [Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Tasmania]





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Grattan on Friday: Turnbull close to finalising energy package but can he sell it?

A stoush with Tony Abbott would be a bad  
distraction when Malcolm Turnbull needs the attention to be on what 
he is delivering.

The Turnbull government can dither no longer, and it knows it. To use the political jargon, it now has to “land” its energy policy very quickly.

With parliament resuming on Monday, the backbenchers are wanting clear lines. With business further confused after the government this week effectively walked away from a clean energy target (CET), it is demanding to know “what now?”

And with an early Queensland election on the cards, the Liberal National Party in that state needs a federal energy policy in place.

The Turnbull government, incidentally, is very worried about its own support in Queensland, a state that will be vital to it at the next federal election. Monday’s aggregated July-to-September Newspoll had the Turnbull government behind Labor there 46-54%, a complete turnaround from the 54-46% lead at the 2016 election.

On Wednesday cabinet’s energy committee was at work on the policy. The committee includes Malcolm Turnbull, Barnaby Joyce, Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, Treasurer Scott Morrison, and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. (Bishop was leaving for overseas and so not present. Industry minister Arthur Sinodinos, also a comittee member, is on sick leave.)

Joyce’s concentration would have been tested at the meeting, with half his mind inevitably on the High Court hearing that was underway to determine his (and others’) parliamentary status. Still, the Nationals had already had a win on energy, with the CET’s demise.

The energy package, said to involve an “innovative approach”, is set to go to the Coalition party room in the coming sitting fortnight, after cabinet considers it. The aim is, if possible, to get it to cabinet on Monday, and the party room on Tuesday. (Maybe one should add the caveat: assuming no early and adverse High Court decision on citizenship which caused havoc).

Given the watering down that’s been taking place since the release of the Finkel report, which had a CET at its heart, Turnbull shouldn’t have much trouble in the party room. The dissidents when the issue was discussed there in June were those who didn’t like the Finkel plan. Even in its first, relatively halcyon days, the CET never had a hope of being implemented in its pure form. It’s unlikely there will be a militant group angry at the retreat from it.

The question is whether Turnbull and Frydenberg can sell, outside the party room, the policy the government comes up with. That means to the public, who vote, and to the business sector, who invest (or fail to).

Surprisingly, given that one argument for installing Turnbull was that he was seen as a good persuader, the Turnbull government has been poor at communications. In today’s 24-hour news cycle we’ve never heard a prime minister and ministers talking so much, but the message is often messy.

Reflecting on the Hawke-Keating government in his just-published memoir, Incorrigible Optimist, former Labor minister Gareth Evans writes that “Hawke and Keating [were] both outstanding communicators, and Paul, in particular, absolutely remorseless in his determination to ensure that the major opinion moulders knew what we were trying to do, why and how”.

Too often this government thinks it can sell a policy or win an argument simply by media blitzing. Its approach tends to be arrogant and ineffective. Keating, when dealing with some really hard policy sells as treasurer, put in an enormous amount of grunt work, including using policy experts on his staff to background the media.

Business will need to be convinced the energy policy is credible and the government is committed to it. But if, as expected, the government is set on a path that will accentuate the differences with Labor, this will deeply disappoint business, which has an eye to the opinion polls suggesting a Shorten government next term is more likely than not.

The public will welcome the policy’s emphasis on containing price and ensuring reliability.

But people know appearance is not necessarily reality: the government needs them to believe there actually will be downward pressure on their bills – and that will be a judgement for later. Also, downward pressure doesn’t necessarily mean smaller bills.

“Reliability” will be first tested by whether there are power shortages and blackouts this summer. And if there are, who will win the blame-shifting argument?

Some Coalition MPs are worried the government is in the energy space at all, rather than leaving it as a state matter. One says: “We’ve managed to take ownership of the problem – but can we solve it?”

It’s generally thought that when the policy emerges, there will be significant overlap with what Tony Abbott has been advocating, most recently in this week’s controversial speech in London.

Although Abbott goes further than being anti a CET – saying for instance the RET should be frozen, the government should build a coal-fired power station, and the ban on nuclear power should be lifted – there is likely to be enough commonality to present the former prime minister with a dilemma. Does he welcome or criticise where the government finishes up?

There’s general agreement that as far as the Coalition is concerned, Abbott made a pest of himself this week. But suggestions that Turnbull should man up to the man who’s trying to bring him down are shortsighted.

For one thing, it would create a distracting row, just when Turnbull needs the attention to be on what he is delivering.

Second, a substantial number in the Coalition would agree with much of what Abbott is arguing, while disagreeing with what he did. It’s an important distinction.

One government man puts it more starkly: “Abbott’s support base for what he says is greater than his support base to be leader”.

For Turnbull “the Abbott factor” can be neither managed nor despatched. Individual points Abbott makes should be dealt with, and inconsistencies with his past statements and actions pointed out. But a full-on stoush would only elevate Abbott and be a sign of Turnbull’s weakness, rather than a demonstration of his strength.

Anyway, Abbott is about to have a loss, on an issue he has made one of his own. All the signs are that the same-sex marriage ballot will deliver a strong Yes vote. That will be seen as a blow to the former prime minister and a good outcome for Turnbull.

This article was written by:

Image of Michelle Grattan

Michelle Grattan – [Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra]





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Australian consumer law is failing beer drinkers

 Do you know where your beer comes from?

If you’ve bought a “foreign” beer lately you might have noticed it wasn’t actually brewed in the country associated with the brand. Instead, it may have been brewed “under supervision of” or “under license from” the original creator, often using “imported and local ingredients”.

Yet, the branding often emphasises the link to other countries and traditions, such as the famous “Anno 1366” on a bottle of Stella Artois. This means very little when it is brewed and bottled in Australia. In fact, such references can be rather misleading.

This is more than a little quibble about branding, as major ingredients like yeast and water taste differently in different places. Can beer truly taste the same when it is brewed in Australian instead of, for example, Germany, Belgium or Japan?

How do you know what you are buying?

When you buy beer in a shop, you can theoretically see where it has been brewed. But this is not always clear, and is often overwhelmed by branding.

For instance, some years ago I bought a carton of Asahi beer. The text “Japan’s No. 1 Beer” appeared prominently on the box, and at two different locations was written: “Imported by Asahi Premium Beverages a division of Independent Distillers (Aust) Pty Ltd”.

Taken together, these two statements will most likely lead an ordinary consumer to believe the beer in question was brewed in Japan. But a quick check of the Asahi website shows the company has breweries in numerous countries, including Thailand, Malaysia and China.

Once the box had been opened, the fine print on the bottles revealed that the beer was brewed in Thailand under licence from Asahi. So, yes, it was imported as the box promised. But not quite from the place I expected.

The problem is worse when it comes to ordering beers at a restaurant or pub. The likes of PeroniHeineken and Carlsberg are often listed as “imported beers”, even when they are brewed in Australia.

When the beer is on tap, where is the fine print to read?

What about consumer law?

In theory, Australian law contains several provisions that should resolve the issues described above. Most importantly Section 18 of the Australian Consumer Law states that a “person must not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive”.

And section 29 of the Australian Consumer Law seeks to tackle, among other things, situations where a person “make[s] a false or misleading representation concerning the place of origin of goods”.

In addition to these classical provisions, Australia’s Country of Origin Food Labelling Information Standard commenced in 2016. These are meant to give consumers more information about where products are manufactured and where the ingredients are sourced from.

But in practice, these rules don’t always work so well. And the country of origin labelling standards do not apply to restaurants and cafes.

I even lodged a complaint with the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) in relation to my Asahi experience. I argued that the labelling on the box was misleading and deceptive (Australian Consumer Law s. 18) and constitutes a misrepresentation under the Australian Consumer Law (section 29). The result? Nothing whatsoever.

What to do about it

It is of course possible to argue that the foreign beer brands that have their products brewed in Australia take sufficient steps to make their beer taste similar enough to the original product. And if the beer tastes the same to the average beer drinker, what is the big deal?

However, even if the taste is the same, the place of origin still matters. If you buy an expensive Swiss watch, surely it matters that it was made in Switzerland and not in China. Can’t we feel the same about beer?

On a practical level, the answer may be to only drink the beers of Australian brands as you essentially will be drinking Australian beer anyhow. But as far as the law goes, we need clearer guidance and stronger enforcement of consumer rights. To achieve that, those charged with enforcing our consumer rights may need more resources.

The difficulty is to design regulatory responses that actual help consumers make informed decisions, without unnecessarily burdening the industry.

One idea would be to insist on clearer labelling – such as a prominent standardised sticker – indicating when beer is brewed under license. This could be combined with requiring similar markings on drinks menus. Such an approach seems to fit nicely with the move towards a clearer Country of Origin Food Labelling Information Standard applied to food in some circumstances.

This article was written by:
Image of Dan Jerker B. SvantessonDan Jerker B. Svantesson – [Co-Director Centre for Commercial Law, Bond University]





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How Melbourne activists launched a campaign for nuclear disarmament and won a Nobel prize

The prize comes after ICAN played a pivotal role in an historic UN treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. The treaty was adopted in July by an overwhelming vote of 122 to one. ICAN was the driving force behind it, working closely with governments to get it over the line.

The treaty’s significance lies in its power to influence governments: those that actually support nuclear disarmament will sign it; those that don’t will be shown to be insincere in their disarmament rhetoric.

From little things…

Malaysian obstetrician and former co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) Ron McCoy first proposed the idea of ICAN in 2005.

McCoy put out a call to colleagues through IPPNW advocating “lateral thinking and a new approach to nuclear disarmament”. He wrote:

We can call it an International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, with the acronym ICAN. Let’s start working on this right now.

The idea struck a deep chord in Melbourne among colleagues active in the medical, peace and nuclear-free movements.

We hatched a plan to build a broad campaign coalition of diverse partner organisations around the world with a clear compelling goal – one that is working for biological and chemical weapons, cluster munitions and landmines: a comprehensive, binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons and provide for their elimination.

We knew that it needed to be global, to engage young people, and to be rooted in the unacceptability of nuclear weapons – the catastrophic indiscriminate consequences that would inevitably follow any use.

We needed to include and provide a platform for the courageous voices of survivors of nuclear weapons use and testing. They tell the human story of lived transgenerational suffering of people under the mushroom cloud, and they are the most compelling advocates that what happened to them must never again happen to anyone, anywhere.

And we needed money. At the first meeting with the Poola Foundation in early 2006 in Leicester Street, Carlton, they could see merit in an idea that seemed wildly optimistic to many, and their confidence in us was empowering.

Our co-founder, Bill Williams, sadly passed away before he could celebrate the wonderful developments of this year with us. But it was Williams who so eloquently summed up our brief, saying:

We need a determined worldwide movement to outlaw and abolish nukes. To get there in this generation, we need to build the wave of public opinion into a mighty crescendo: a massive, surging, irresistible force which carries us all the way to absolutely zero nukes. Without it, even the most inspirational of leaders will falter on the way.

Bill Williams speaking at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl just prior to the launch of ICAN. Supplied

Building a movement from the ground up

From the outset we were up against the harsh reality that none of the nuclear-armed countries were serious about fulfilling their binding obligation to disarm. In fact, they were doing the opposite.

Many of these countries were arguing that conditions were not right to disarm, and they were investing more than US$100 billion per year in modernising their nuclear arsenals, making them more accurate, deadly and “usable”.

So, a game-changing breakthrough needed to come from the countries without the weapons. Most of them were despairing and frustrated about being indefinitely held under a nuclear threat by governments that refused to fulfil a legally binding disarmament commitment they made under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which had been in force since 1970.

Governments that don’t possess nuclear weapons can’t eliminate them. So what’s the most feasible significant step they could take? Fill the legal gap that sees the worst of all weapons, the only ones that pose an existential threat to all humanity, the only weapons of mass destruction not yet outlawed.

With or without nuclear-armed and dependent countries, they could ban nuclear weapons under international law. Thus, by 2010, ICAN strategy had sharpened around a nuclear weapons ban treaty as the next best step that could be taken.

Taking it to Europe and beyond

Towards the end of 2010, an office was established in Oslo. In the same year ICAN secured an initial grant from the Norwegian government to establish an international campaign office in Geneva, reaching out to the Middle East and Africa.

Through ICAN and partners across the globe, survivors’ voices were joined by the many voices of those who would not have their suffering happen again – medicos, scientists, legal experts, artists, witnesses, thinkers, campaigners, spiritual leaders and defence experts.

When a majority of the world’s governments came together earlier this year to negotiate the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, ICAN campaigners across the globe stood strong alongside the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent movement and other partners to ensure the formation of the strongest treaty possible.

The signing ceremony for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at UN headquarters in New York. Darren Ornitz/ICAN, Author provided

When that treaty opened for signature on September 20, 2017, many of us here in Australia sat up late into the night watching the ceremony live-streamed from the UN. And now, just weeks later, the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize has swept the work into high profile and sharp focus.

The work of ICAN isn’t over

ICAN was always intended to be a coalescing, not a reinvention. From the first use of nuclear weapons in 1945 to today, millions of people have worked to eliminate them.

The hard work of pushing for the elimination of nuclear weapons must not only continue but ramp up. The new treaty provides a powerful tool in this work, and the opposition of the nuclear-armed and dependent countries to the treaty is the strongest evidence that the treaty matters and cannot be ignored.

The Nobel Peace Prize shines a bright light on the urgent unfinished business of getting nuclear weapons off the table. It is a huge shot in the arm, and encouragement for governments to sign and ratify the treaty and then implement it, and for people around the world to press their governments to do so.

It could not have come at a better or more urgent time.

ICAN campaigners in front of the Central Park skyline in New York. ICAN/Ralf Schlesener, Author provided

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Tilman RuffTilman Ruff – [Associate Professor, International Education and Learning Unit, Nossal Institute for Global Health, School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne]
Image of Dimity HawkinsDimity Hawkins – [PhD Candidate, Swinburne University of Technology]






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The Hanson effect: how hate seeps in and damages us all

The Hanson Effect A client whose hair she had been cutting for  
20 years came in as usual, and then, without any prompting or preamble, 
launched into a tirade against Muslims. 

Such hair as I have is cut from time to time by Mrs E, who runs a one-chair salon in my neighbourhood.

She has been in business there for 40 years. She knows all about the history of the street and many of her clients have been coming to her for half a lifetime. The salon is shut on Mondays, when she cuts the hair of the elderly and disabled in various local institutions.

Mrs E is a petite woman with a cloud of brown hair, a bright smile and that empathetic personality that fits so many hairdressers for their parallel occupation of informal counsellor. Under her hairdresser’s smock she wears a dress or a blouse and trousers.

She came to Australia as a child from the Balkans, grew up, married, had two sons. Australia is home and a place where she says she has always felt welcome, until the other day.

A client whose hair she had been cutting for 20 years came in as usual, and then, without any prompting or preamble, launched into a tirade against Muslims.

Mrs E heard her out. As a rule, like most sensible businesspeople, she resists being drawn into conversations about sex, religion or politics.

But eventually it became too much. “I’m a Muslim,” she told the client, “and I very much regret that after 20 years I must tell you I will no longer cut your hair”.

The salon contains no outward sign of her faith: nothing in her appearance or in the room itself gives it away. For her, it is something private; nothing to do with her professional life.

It happened that I came in about a week later. Mrs E and I often talk in general terms about what’s going on in the world. She knows I am a journalist and academic and I think she feels safe pushing her conversational boundaries slightly.

She told me this story and as she did so, the hurt was written all over her face.

And after nearly a lifetime in Australia, she said she felt just that little bit less welcome.

So this is how it goes.

Hate speech becomes part of the currency of national debate and is exploited for political purposes. In 1996, Pauline Hanson delivers her notorious maiden speech in which she says Australia is being “swamped by Asians”. John Howard, as prime minister, dog-whistles that this is all about free speech.

In 2001, the so-called Tampa election occurs. Boat people – overwhelmingly Muslim – become the butt of Howard’s assertion of national sovereignty:

We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.

There are votes in this and both sides of politics pile on. In the midst of the 2013 election, Labor’s Kevin Rudd – the same man who claims Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an inspiration – slams the door on asylum seekers by striking deals with Nauru and Papua New Guinea that Australia is still living with.

In 2014, the federal government tries to weaken the Racial Discrimination Act in what is said to be the interests of free speech. Attorney-General George Brandis asserts that “people have a right to be bigots”.

In 2015, research conducted for the Melbourne Social Equity Institute finds that the single most important driver of negative attitudes toward asylum seekers is religious prejudice, sometimes expressed as concern about the “Islamisation” of Australia.

In August 2017, Hanson wears a burqa into Senate question time. Brandis discovers where bigotry can lead and assails her for an “appalling stunt” disrespectful of the Muslim faith.

Eventually, the political licensing of racism and religious intolerance seeps into the fabric of society. It might take a generation or it might take longer. But when it does it stains and rots that fabric, eating away at people’s sense of belonging, undermining the Australian multicultural project, and in a small suburban hair salon, a middle-aged woman feels emboldened to vent her prejudice, doing harm and hurt to someone who has been tending her person for 20 years.

This article was written by:
Image of Denis MullerDenis Muller – [Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne]






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Why is the US trying to shut down Russian security company Kaspersky Lab?

 Eugene Kaspersky. Wikimedia

The Wall Street Journal has published allegations that the Russian government stole highly sensitive information from a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA) with the aid of antivirus software from the Russian company Kaspersky Lab.

The source of this allegation was “people familiar with the matter”. The same, or other, “individuals familiar with the matter”, talked to the Washington Post and further elaborated the story. The NSA employee (not contractor as reported by the WSJ) was a US citizen working with the Tailored Access Operations, the group involved with developing hacking tools for the NSA. He had taken code and other classified material home on a laptop in 2015.

Allegedly, the Kaspersky antivirus software that was running on the employee’s laptop identified the software as malware and sent it back to Kaspersky for analysis, something that is actually not unreasonable for the antivirus software to do. The reports claimed that it was the Kaspersky software’s actions in quarantining the malware for analysis that alerted Russian secret services of the presence of secret NSA material on this employee’s laptop. Armed with this information, the Russians hacked the laptop and stole all of the other information on it.

Both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post ignored the more obvious question as to why the employee had taken classified information home on his laptop. They state that he did this for an unspecified reason but that he wasn’t intending to share this information with foreign governments. The reports provide no information about how an NSA employee’s laptop could be hacked so easily, nor why it took a year for the hack to be disclosed.

There is equally no evidence given of Kaspersky Lab working directly for the Russian secret service. The only evidence of Eugene Kaspersky’s ties with the Russian secret service are that he was a member of the Communist Party and that he attended a technical university run by the KGB and worked for military intelligence for 4 years after that, leaving in 1991 to form what would become Kaspersky Lab.

The news reports from the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post come after a recent vote by the US Senate to ban Kaspersky software from use by the US government and its agencies. This move has been led by Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen who has made the blacklisting of Kaspersky Lap her cause célèbre. Shaheen wants classified information about Kaspersky Lab to be released to the public.

Needless to say, Eugene Kaspersky has denied all collusion with the Russian government and has reiterated that they have been open about how their software works.

Other countries have not followed suit with a ban of Kaspersky Lab software even though allies would have had access to some, or all, of the information known to the NSA. The French army is considering reducing its reliance on Kaspersky but this was happening before the US ban.

Making claims of links between Russian companies and the Russian Government is nothing new. Another Russian company in the spotlight of US media is one referred to by the media as the “Internet Research Agency”. It was allegedly behind the purchase of USD 100,000 worth of political ads on Facebook. Facebook, removed references to Russia when it published a report on the use of its platform to disseminate fake news and ads during the US Presidential election. This was because it felt it did not have sufficient evidence to make the link.

The Internet Research Agency first came to the media’s attention during the military dispute between Russian and Ukraine. In 2014, media site Buzzfeed had received documents and emails from an anonymous source detailing how the agency was going to mount a campaign of bloggers and commenters to post pro-Russian comments on western media sites and socialise them through Facebook and Twitter. Much of the subsequent media coverage on the Internet Research Agency however has come through interviews with disgruntled ex-employees especially Lyudmila Savchuk has waged a campaign against the company for the past 2 years.

In the case of Facebook’s report of the ads purchased from an entity in Russia, again, there is no evidence linking it back to anyone in particular. The motives for the fake posts other than as an effort to sow social division are not clear. The amount of money spent is relatively small and so the effectiveness of the ads has to be questioned. The amount pales into insignificance compared to the US 11 million spent on Facebook ads by all US campaigns during the election for example.

It is not possible to dismiss the possibility that Kaspersky Lab is somehow aiding Russian secret services through the use of its software. Making these claims on the basis of anonymous sources and the fact that the software is from a Russian company seems to be stretching credulity. The absence of facts may not help Kaspersky Lab however and it is increasingly likely that it will become a casualty of the US media’s ongoing search for the smoking gun proving that Russia meddled with the US Presidential election.

This article was written by:
Image of David Glance
David Glance – [Director of UWA Centre for Software Practice, University of Western Australia]






This article is part of a syndicated news program via

Let’s face it, we’ll be no safer with a national facial recognition database

 Many more faces to be added to a  
national database, but will it make us any safer?

A commitment to share the biometric data of most Australians – including your driving licence photo – agreed at Thursday’s Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting will result in a further erosion of our privacy.

That sharing is not necessary. It will be costly. But will it save us from terrorism? Not all, although it will give people a false sense of comfort.

Importantly, it will allow politicians and officials to show that they are doing something, in a climate where a hunt for headlines demands the appearance of action.

Your biometric data

Biometric data used in fingerprint and facial recognition systems is indelible. It can be used in authoritative identity registers, featured on identity documents such as passports and driver licences.

It can be automatically matched with data collected from devices located in airports, bus and train stations, retail malls, court buildings, prisons, sports facilities and anywhere else we could park a networked camera.

Australia’s state and territory governments have built large biometric databases through registration of people as drivers – every licence has a photograph of the driver. The national government has built large databases through registration for passports, aviation/maritime security and other purposes.

Irrespective of your consent to uses beyond those for which the picture was taken, the governments now have a biometric image of most Australians, and the ability to search the images.

COAG announced that the governments will share that data in the name of security.

Sharing data with who?

Details of the sharing are very unclear. This means we cannot evaluate indications that images will be captured in both public and private places. For example, in retail malls and libraries or art galleries – soft targets for terrorism – rather than in streets and secure buildings such as Parliament House.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has responded to initial criticism by clarifying that matching will not involve “live” CCTV.

But the history of Australian surveillance law has been a matter of creep, with step-by-step expansion of what might initially have been an innocuous development. When will law enforcement agencies persuade their ministers to include live public or private CCTV for image matching?

We cannot tell which officials will be accessing the data and what safeguards will be established to prevent misuse. Uncertainty about safeguards is worrying, given the history of police and other officials inappropriately accessing law enforcement databases on behalf of criminals or to stalk a former partner.

The sharing occurs in a nation where Commonwealth, state and territory privacy law is inconsistent. That law is weakly enforced, in part because watchdogs such as the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) are under-resourced, threatened with closure or have clashed with senior politicians.

Australia does not have a coherent enforceable right to privacy. Instead we have a threadbare patchwork of law (including an absence of a discrete privacy statute in several jurisdictions).

The new arrangement has been foreshadowed by governments over several years. It can be expected to creep, further eroding privacy and treating all citizens as suspects.

Software and hardware providers will be delighted: there’s money to be made by catering to our fears. But we should be asking some hard questions about the regime and questioning COAG’s statement.

Let’s avoid a privacy car crash

Will sharing and expansion of the biometric network – a camera near every important building, many cameras on every important road – save us from terrorism? The answer is a resounding no. Biometrics, for example, seems unlikely to have saved people from the Las Vegas shooter.

Will sharing be cost effective? None of the governments have a great track record with major systems integration. The landscape is littered with projects that went over budget, didn’t arrive on time or were quietly killed off.

Think the recent Census and Centrelink problems, and the billion dollar bust up known as the Personally Controlled Electronic Health Record.

It won’t be improved by a new national ID card to fix the Medicare problem.

Is the sharing proportionate? One answer is to look at experience in India, where the Supreme Court has comprehensively damned that nation’s ambitious Aadhaar biometric scheme that was meant to solve security, welfare and other problems.

The Court – consistent with decisions in other parts of the world – condemned the scheme as grossly disproportionate: a disregard of privacy and of the dignity of every citizen.

Is sharing likely to result in harms, particularly as the biometric network grows and grows? The answer again is yes. One harm, disregarded by our opportunistic politicians, is that all Australians and all visitors will be regarded as suspects.

Much of the data for matching will be muddy – some street cameras, for example, are fine resting places for pigeons – and of little value.

As with the mandatory metadata retention scheme, the more data (and more cameras) we have the bigger trove of indelible information for hackers. Do not expect the OAIC or weak state privacy watchdogs (which in some jurisdictions do not exist) to come to the rescue.

As a society we should demand meaningful consultation about official schemes that erode our rights. We should engage in critical thinking rather than relying on headlines that reflect political opportunism and institutional self-interest.

The incoherent explanation and clarifications should concern everyone, irrespective of whether they have chosen to be on Facebook – and even if they have nothing to hide and will never be mistaken for someone else.

This article was written by:
Image of Bruce Baer Arnold Bruce Baer Arnold – [Assistant Professor, School of Law, University of Canberra]






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When it comes to the NBN, we keep having the same conversations over and over

 Another day, another report. 
Will it change Australia’s NBN? CommScope/Flickr

The Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network (NBN) released its first report on Friday, just as most people on the east coast of Australia headed into a long weekend, complete with two sporting grand finals.

The release on a Friday afternoon, sometimes referred to by the media as the “Friday news dump”, is generally what governments do when they want the published report to gather dust.

In fact, its hundreds of pages actually included two reports from the one committee. The dissenting report, supported by its Liberal Party members, including the committee’s chair Sussan Ley, contradict many of the conclusions of the first, which was backed by the Labor Party members and Australian Greens, among others.

One ironic benefit of the report is that whatever your political view, there will be something that you’re likely agree with. But is that the way to create good internet policy?

What did the report say?

The report is from the latest committee, formed in September 2016, to inquire and report on the rollout of the NBN. It replaced the Senate Select Committee on the NBN that operated between 2013 to early 2016.

The report makes 23 recommendations. These range from recommending that the NBN cost and plan for a switch for all remaining Fibre to the Node (FTTN) connections to use Fibre to the Curb (FTTC), through to recommending that the government measure and report on “digital inclusion”.

Many of these recommendations are dismissed or ignored in the Chair’s dissenting report.

As political and business commentator Alan Kohler summarised in The Australian:

Like so much of Australian public policy over the past 10 years, the NBN has been hopelessly politicised, so that anything that comes out of any politician’s mouth on the subject can be ignored as most likely unreliable twaddle.

The challenges of the process

Given the political nature of the process and the desired outcomes, in my view, there is a bias built into the process from the start.

This is both in how facts are interpreted and presented in the report, and how groups, companies and individuals with specific vested interests use committees as a means of stating their claims.

The report claims for example that FTTC is a “future-proofed technology” whereas FTTN is not, but little evidence is given to back up the claim.

It appears “future-proofing” is simply a term for the fact that FTTC would theoretically cost less to upgrade than FTTN, but complete data is not offered.

In another case, the report discusses complaints made to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman about connection delay issues, citing a “slight decrease” in the number of complaints relative to the number of activated premises.

The decrease is not entirely insignificant: for example, complaints made about 0.98% of total new connections in quarter three of 2015-16 dropped to 0.56% in quarter two of 2016-17.

The rate of fault complaints about NBN services has also dropped slightly over time and is running at 0.15% of premises activated (2,460 complaints made out of 1,652,564 premises activated over time in quarter two of 2016-17).

Another key problem with committees of this sort is that during the time it takes to investigate, write and publish the report, events have overtaken the process.

The report recommends that the NBN cost a plan to substitute FTTC for FTTN. This has already happened after a fashion, with NBN Co presenting costing to the NBN Co board and to the government. The proposal was apparently rejected because it would have been too expensive and not kept NBN Co’s funding within the A$49 billion limit.

History repeating

Much of what is included in the report are issues that have been discussed by previous committees, but also more widely in the public sphere. We have seen the same topics, arguments, paucity of data and overreliance on anecdote time and again.

Given the government’s “Friday news dump”, a more general question to ask is whether making submissions to these committees is worth the time and effort?

I personally attended an expert session in Parliament held by the previous committee in early 2016. The same issues and questions were asked then and by and large the same types of responses were given. Nothing came of that and this report largely rehashes the same conversation.

As Alan Kohler remarked, public policy shaping the NBN has been marked by political motives and to a far lesser extent, economic or social ones. For that reason, data is not being given proper weight, and is often shaped to support a political perspective.

Given the situation, we are perhaps fortunate to have made the progress we have.

This article was written by:
Image of David GlanceDavid Glance – [Director of UWA Centre for Software Practice, University of Western Australia]






This article is part of a syndicated news program via

Grattan on Friday: Keeping the community safe requires keeping the society united


 Federal and state leaders endorsed  
another set of counter terrorism measures at a special meeting on Thursday.

After Martin Bryant massacred 35 people at Port Arthur in 1996, the federal government and the Australian community had exactly the right tangible response. It might have been hard politics for the Coalition to bring in a tough gun control regime, but it got done, to John Howard’s credit.

In contrast, the general opinion is that this week’s Las Vegas attack, in which 58 victims died, will not be a catalyst for the American government to act on guns, any more than multiple earlier horrific incidents have been.

While we have many things in common with the US, the Australian policy reaction in 1996 and the American inaction over years serve to remind us of big differences between the two societies.

Howard faced angst from special interests but he was able to prevail; in America an incredibly powerful gun lobby and a mindset that says the right to widespread gun ownership is more important than the danger it poses combine to hold a country hostage seemingly forever.

The policy response to Port Arthur showed how functional our polity can be, even if in recent times we have come to despair when we see so many examples of its dysfunction. The apparent impossibility of curbing guns in the US, with its gun culture underpinned by the constitution and its fractured society, shows politics at its worst.

From what has come out so far, US killer Stephen Paddock was not motivated by any political or religious beliefs. Murder in the name of politics or a god – modern terrorism – is as horrendous as deranged random violence, or more so, but it has identifiable roots and so is at least easier to understand.

The terrorist threat has led, in Australia as elsewhere, to a transformation of our laws.

This week has seen federal and state leaders, at a special meeting of the Council of Australian Governments on national security, endorse another set of counter terrorism measures, including to give police the right to hold suspects for longer without charge. At present, only in NSW can they be detained for up to 14 days – this will now be the national regime.

Ahead of COAG, Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin argued the extra holding period was needed because with counter-terrorism “we don’t have the normal luxury to watch, to wait, to collect evidence before we act – we have to act to disrupt. That puts police in a position where we need more time to gather the evidence that we need to put people before the courts”. The new detention regime would have court oversight, as present arrangements do.

The states have also agreed to provide the Commonwealth with driving licence photos to make for a comprehensive national facial recognition system to help in identifying “people who are suspects or victims of terrorist or other criminal activity”. While the licence photos can presently be accessed, the process is not instantaneous.

“It shouldn’t take seven days to be able to verify someone’s identity or seek to match a photograph of somebody that is a person of interest. It should be able to be done seamlessly in real time,” Malcolm Turnbull told the post-COAG news conference.

In the past three and a half years the federal government has passed nine tranches of national security legislation. This is on top of earlier legislation that followed the events of September 11, 2001.

There is no doubt that these measures collectively have substantially and progressively rolled back individual rights, liberties and privacy. Over the years, we seem to have become used to this – one has the impression there’s less outrage now than once.

In the main the public have accepted that the world has changed, justifying altering the balance between security and rights, although there is still argument over precisely where lines should be drawn. And some people fear a slippery slope – how a new law could be extended, or the way it could be used in the future.

It’s true that one thing can lead to another. That’s not automatically a case against doing the first thing, but it is an argument for robust safeguards – judicial and other oversight, as much transparency as possible, and of course ensuring data is kept secure.

The Greens came out firmly against the latest measures, with their justice spokesman Nick McKim saying the leaders had “abjectly failed to make the case” for what they were doing. But Labor premier Daniel Andrews said while some had the luxury of being able to have a “notional debate” about “the notional reduction in people’s rights and liberties”, “those of us in positions of leadership do not have that luxury”.

The creeping (at times galloping) extension of security laws has been one of the few areas of bipartisanship in an age of hyper-partisanship.

To be cynical about it, in political terms Labor can’t afford to appear soft on terrorism. But to be fair, Labor isn’t soft on terrorism.

Also, security legislation has routinely gone to a well-operating parliamentary committee, where the opposition has obtained refinements. Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said of the latest changes: “On the face of it, these measures appear sensible”, while waiting for the detail, and noting they will go to the committee.

Passing often harsh laws is the easier part of the battle against terrorism. Most challenging is detecting and countering the radicalisation that leads to it. That involves both “hard” and “soft” operations by ASIO and police. The laws facilitate the former; the latter need more complexity and subtlety.

The government says that over the past three years 74 people have been charged as a result of 31 counter-terrorism operations.

The security agencies have sought tough laws, but they are also vocal about their need to have the Muslim community’s co-operation. This means winning trust, so people are willing to pass on information to the authorities – information that sometimes might be about members of their own families. It’s revealing that ASIO and police chiefs often sound more understanding of how the Muslim community feels than some of our more strident politicians.

A mostly harmonious, multicultural society has been one of Australia’s great achievements, as has our egalitarianism. The glue that sticks our community together across ethnic and income differences is considerably stronger than in the much more divided and malfunctioning American society.

Keeping that glue strong requires constant awareness and action on multiple fronts, from fostering an inclusive approach to avoid ethnic ghettos to guarding against inequalities that could eventually breed a resentful underclass.

It also requires maintaining and improving the health of our political system, so that when we do face the really big moments there is the will and capacity to deal with them.

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





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