Why Australia can no longer avoid responsibility for its citizens held in Syria



Detention camps in Syria hold about 100,000 Syrian and foreign family members of IS suspects.
Murtaja Lateef/EPA

Anthony Billingsley, UNSW

The small number of Australians being held in prison camps in northern Syria has been an ongoing, albeit low-level, challenge for the Australian government. There are believed to be eight Australian fighters for the Islamic State in captivity, along with around 60 Australian women and children.

Despite its reluctance, the Australian government may eventually feel obliged to bring many or all these people home.

So far, the Australian public seems to have accepted the government’s line that it’s too dangerous to extract them from Syria. As Prime Minister Scott Morrison succinctly put it:

I’m not going to put any Australians in harm’s way.

An increasingly untenable position

The government believes there are valid security concerns in bringing these people back to Australia. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has claimed some of the women are “hardcore” and “have the potential and capacity to come back here and cause a mass casualty event”.

Identifying these people, gathering evidence about their crimes and managing domestic fears would be a big challenge.

However, the government’s position on extracting them from Syria has become less tenable after the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in October. This followed US President Donald Trump’s announced withdrawal of the American military buffer in the region.

The invasion added uncertainty to an already fraught situation. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, who were central to the defeat of the Islamic State, were compelled to reinforce their forces on the border with Turkey.




Read more:
Western states must repatriate IS fighters and their families before more break free from Syrian camps


Many of their forces have been engaged in controlling prison camps in northern Syria, where about 12,000 men and boys suspected of Islamic State ties, including 2,000 to 4,000 foreigners from almost 50 countries, are held. Some camps also hold about 100,000 Syrian and foreign family members of IS suspects.

The invasion focused attention on the state of the camps, which are overcrowded, unsanitary and experiencing considerable unrest. There have been some escapes from the camps, and many fear they are close to collapse.

The situation increases the possibility that young people in the camps will be radicalised.

Last week, the US government, which has repatriated some of its nationals, offered to help allies, including Australia, rescue their citizens from northern Syria. On the same day, Turkey called on Australia to repatriate its IS fighters and their families in Turkish custody.

Groups like Save the Children and Human Rights Watch have also called for the repatriation of women and children in the prison camps.

In Canberra, shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally has also argued Australia has a moral obligation to repatriate the women and children who were taken to Syria against their will.

Al-Hawl camp in northern Syria where eight Australian IS fighters and some 60 women and children are believed to be held.
Tessa Fox/AAP

Barriers to bringing detainees back

While Australia has not joined the Dutch in outright rejecting the US offer, the Morrison government has shown no enthusiasm for the idea.

Its position has been further undermined by the actions of other nations with citizens in the camps. Kosovo, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, for example, have already repatriated hundreds of prisoners.

And Britain is considering options for repatriating its citizens. A government document reported on last month said,

While difficult, the practical challenges in arranging and implementing an extraction (of IS suspects) are likely to have solutions.

Australia, by contrast, has continued to focus on the difficulties of extracting its citizens from the area, rather than tackling the legal challenges associated with bringing them home. Our legislative framework is still not sufficiently robust to deal with returnees.

The government has had many years to figure this out. In 2014, the UN passed a resolution obliging all countries to adopt measures to deal with the issue of foreign fighters.




Read more:
Why is it so difficult to prosecute returning fighters?


There are ways to try those suspected of crimes committed in another country. The principle of universal jurisdiction, for example, would allow Australia to interrogate and prosecute those currently held in Syria.

Lower-level suspects who are desperate to escape from Syria could also be required to accept certain conditions, such as restrictions on movement and contacts and participation in re-education programmes. The Australian women in the camp have already indicated they are open to this.

But instead of looking at these options, Australia has endeavoured to keep out returning fighters and their families. Laws have been passed to strip some of their citizenship, running counter to several international conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And the temporary exclusion orders bill passed in July gives Dutton the power to bar Australian citizens from returning home for up to two years if they are suspected of supporting a terror organisation.

There are few other options

Some governments have suggested that IS captives in Syria should be transferred to Iraq, where trials of suspected IS members have already been held. The problem with this idea is that Iraq’s justice system is deeply flawed and has imposed the death penalty after some highly dubious trials.

For example, France sent some suspects there only for them to be summarily sentenced to be hanged.




Read more:
Preventing foreign fighters from returning home could be dangerous to national security


Equally unacceptable would be to allow the Australian prisoners to fall into the hands of the Syrian regime.

In coming months, as conditions in the camps deteriorate and Syrian government forces expand their control of the area, we can expect mounting pressure on governments like Australia’s to repatriate their citizens.

In the long run, these are Australian citizens who should be entitled to the benefits that come from that, including due process of law. It is hard to see how the government can continue to deny their rights.The Conversation

Anthony Billingsley, Senior Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It’s hard to breathe and you can’t think clearly – if you defend your home against a bushfire, be mentally prepared


Danielle Every, CQUniversity Australia and Mel Taylor, Macquarie University

If you live in a bushfire-prone area, you’ll likely have considered what you will do in the event of a bushfire.

The decision, which should be made well in advance of bushfire season, is whether to stay and actively defend a well-prepared property or to leave the area while it’s safe to do so.

The emphasis in bushfire safety is on leaving early. This is the safest option.

In “catastrophic” fire conditions, the message from NSW Rural Fire Service is that for your survival, leaving early is the only option.




Read more:
How a bushfire can destroy a home


In other fire conditions, staying and defending requires accurately assessing the safety of your house and the surrounding environment, preparing your property in line with current best practice and understanding fire conditions.

It also requires a realistic assessment of not just your personal physical capacity to stay and defend but also your psychological capacity.

Why do people stay and defend?

Our survey of people who experienced the 2017 NSW bushfires asked what they would do next summer if there were catastrophic conditions. Some 27% would get ready to stay and defend, and 24% said they would wait to see if there was a fire before deciding whether to stay and defend or leave.

Animal ownership, a lack of insurance, and valuable assets such as agricultural sheds and equipment, are motivators for decisions to stay and defend.




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How we plan for animals in emergencies


If animal owners aren’t home they will often return to their properties when bushfire warnings are issued, contrary to official advice, to retrieve or protect their animals and physical assets.

Although these decisions are understandable they can also lead people who aren’t physically or psychologically suited to staying and defending to do so.

What if you’re not psychologically up to it?

The reality is that a bushfire is a threatening, high-risk situation. It’s hard to see, hard to breathe, noisy and hot.

These conditions can overwhelm our ability to think clearly and act calmly. People in the Sampson Flat Fire in South Australia in 2015, for example, experienced high levels of stress which caused them to:

  • change their plan at the last minute, including leaving late which is the most dangerous response to a fire
  • drive unsafely, especially speeding
  • forget to take important items (such as medication)
  • leave their animals behind
  • engage in unrelated tasks that took up precious time
  • ignore the threat (by going to sleep, for example).

This is one person’s account of how they responded as the fire approached:

[I] grabbed my son […] saw the smoke and […] went and got the boxes that I’d prepared which I packed when he was a baby. So I had stupid things in the boxes, like baby outfits. But I can’t freak him out […]

[I]n the back of my mind I’m thinking about what do I need to do […] I’ve quarter a tank of diesel, I’d better go get diesel. I also had a back seat full of books that I’d been tidying up [from] his room, so I thought op shop, better do that because I’ll clear the back seat. […]

Came in the house like a mad woman screaming for cats, nowhere in sight. I’ve got four cats and not one of them [is there]. Grabbed a bag and then started putting stupid amounts of clothes in like 20 pair of socks, and then basically I threw the dog in the car. […] So flat panic.




Read more:
Bushfires can make kids scared and anxious: here are 5 steps to help them cope


What’s going on with our thinking?

The spectrum of actions from frenzy and flight to freezing reflects the model of “affective tolerance”. When stress exceeds what we can tolerate, we can become hyper-aroused and may have racing thoughts and act impulsively.

Or we may experience hypo-arousal, where we shut down and feel numb and passive.

Our brains consist of three basic parts: the brain stem, limbic system and cortex. These are sometimes described as the primitive, emotional and thinking brains.

In most situations, our thinking brain mediates physical responses to the world around us.

But under high amounts of stress, this connecting loop between the more reactive emotional and physical parts of our brain and our thinking cortex becomes separated. University of California, Los Angeles, professor of psychiatry Dan Siegel describes this as flipping our lid.

Flipping our lid is an automatic response and, from an evolutionary perspective, it’s a highly useful one – we don’t have time to think about whether or not to run when our lives are threatened.

But in a bushfire, these automatic responses are often not the best way to respond and can prompt us to make unsafe decisions.

To survive a bushfire, we need to make complex and often highly emotional decisions in rapidly changing conditions.

How do you control the fear?

In an analysis of 33 people who survived extreme conditions in the Black Saturday bushfires, researchers tentatively concluded that the major contributor to their survival was their ability to maintain their mental focus. They could control their fear and keep their attention on the threat and how to respond.

In order to stay and defend safely, it’s vital to have the skills to re-connect the loop between the thinking and the automatic and feeling parts of the brain.

The AIM model, based on stress inoculation theory, suggests preparing before bushfire by anticipating, identifying and developing strategies for coping with stress:

  • anticipate: know how the brain and body responds in an emergency (and that these are normal)

  • identify: be aware that this response is occurring (what is happening in your mind/body that tells you that you are acting from the “basement brain”)

  • manage: have practised strategies for switching mindsets and re-establishing the brain loop.

A large Australian study shows people who are better psychologically prepared for a bushfire:

  • have accessed information on what it means to be mentally prepared
  • have previous experience of bushfires
  • are mindful (have the ability to stay present)
  • use an active coping style such as the AIM model (anticipate, identify, manage)
  • have low levels of stress and depression.

Currently, the most accessible resource on developing mental preparedness is the Australian Red Cross RediPlan guide which includes preparing your mind based on the AIM (anticipate, identify, manage) model.




Read more:
Our land is burning, and western science does not have all the answers


The Conversation


Danielle Every, Senior Research Fellow in social vulnerability and disasters, CQUniversity Australia and Mel Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Organisational Psychology, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Putting homes in high-risk areas is asking too much of firefighters


Mark Maund, University of Newcastle; Kim Maund, University of Newcastle, and Thayaparan Gajendran, University of Newcastle

The impacts of the bushfires that are overwhelming emergency services in New South Wales and Queensland suggest houses are being built in areas where the risks are high. We rely heavily on emergency services to protect people and property, but strategic land-use planning can improve resilience and so help reduce the risk in the first place. This would mean giving more weight to considering bushfire hazards at the earliest stages of planning housing supply.

The outstanding dedication of emergency agencies such as the NSW Rural Fire Service and Queensland Fire and Emergency Service is obvious in their efforts to save lives and properties despite the increasing intensity of fires. However, strategic land-use planning could help reduce the risks by being more responsive to such changes in hazards.




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Comprehensive management of bushfire risk should include a strategic planning focus on reducing the pressures on emergency services and communities. We may have to rethink land-use planning approaches that prove inadequate to deal with the increasing intensity and unpredictability of natural hazards.

Strategic planning policies and practices provide the opportunity to be more attentive to changes in bushfire hazards in particular. Planning decisions that fail to do this may leave communities exposed and heavily reliant on emergency services during a disaster.

Planning to build resilience

The Australian government has identified land-use planning as a key step in managing natural hazards. In 2011, the Council of Australian Governments declared:

Locating new or expanding existing settlements and infrastructure in areas exposed to unreasonable risk is irresponsible.

The increasing intensity of hazards associated with climate change makes strategic planning even more relevant. Land-use planners could help greatly with building resilience by placing natural hazards at the top of their assessment criteria.




Read more:
Drought and climate change were the kindling, and now the east coast is ablaze


Coordinating land-use planning reforms is itself a challenge. Planning in Australia involves many policies, institutions, professions and decision-makers. Policies and processes differ depending on the state or territory.

Furthermore, planners must reconcile the demand for residential land from population growth and the need to protect the environment. Deciding where to locate housing is often fraught with complexity, so the process needs expert early input from relevant scientific communities and emergency services.

Anticipate risk to reduce it

Land-use planning offers an opportunity in the earliest phase of development to manage the combined pressures of population growth, urban expansion, increasing density and risks of natural hazards.

When rezoning land for residential development, many issues have to be considered. These include environmental sustainability, demand for housing and the location of existing buildings and infrastructure, as well as natural hazards. It’s a complex and intricate process, but clearly the strategic planning stage is the first opportunity to minimise exposure to bushfire risk.

Existing policy and processes may defer the detailed review of bushfire risk and other natural hazards to development stages after land has been rezoned. There’s a case for policy to increase the importance attached to bushfire hazards at this early stage.

Ultimately, strategic planners aim to locate settlements away from risk of natural hazards. However, bushfires continue to have disastrous impacts on people and properties. Ongoing demand for housing may add pressure to build in areas exposed to risk.

Settlements are pushing into undeveloped areas that are more likely to be exposed to bushfire risk. The role of strategic land-use planning then becomes even more critical. The devastation we have seen this month shows why this risk must be given the highest priority in land-use planning, particularly when zoning land as residential.




Read more:
Natural hazard risk: is it just going to get worse or can we do something about it?


Key steps to reform planning

The increasing intensity of bushfires points to a need to rethink planning processes and mitigation strategies to reduce exposure to such hazards before they arise. This will help ease the burden on emergency services of managing a disaster when it happens. We can’t ignore the opportunities to minimise the risks at the early stages of land-use planning. Key steps include:The Conversation

  • a policy review to mandate natural hazards, including bushfire risk, as one of the highest priorities in policy, with an objective framework for making land-use decisions
  • mandatory consultation with relevant science disciplines to model natural hazard risks when land is considered for rezoning
  • involve emergency services in the strategic planning phase to help minimise future risk.

Mark Maund, PhD Candidate, School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Newcastle; Kim Maund, Discipline Head – Construction Management, School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Newcastle, and Thayaparan Gajendran, Associate Professor, School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Government to inject economic stimulus by accelerating infrastructure spend


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government is responding to increasing concern about the faltering economy by accelerating A$3.8 billion of infrastructure investment into the next four years, including $1.8 billion for the current and next financial years.

Scott Morrison will outline the infrastructure move in a speech to the Business Council of Australia on Wednesday night, while insisting the government is not panicking about Australia’s economic conditions.

The government’s action follows increasing calls for some stimulus, with concern the tax cuts have not flowed through strongly enough to spending.

The just-released minutes of the last Reserve Bank meeting show the bank seriously considered another rate cut at its November meeting but held off, partly because it thought that might not have the desired effect. Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe has previously urged more spending on infrastructure.

Morrison is making appearances in various states to publicise the government’s infrastructure plans.

The infrastructure bring-forward over the coming 18 months is $1.27 billion plus $510 million in extra funding. Over the forward estimates, the bring-forward is $2.72 billion plus $1.06 billion in additional funding.

The government’s latest action means since the election it will have injected an extra $9.5 billion into the economy for 2019-20 and 2020-21. This comprises $7.2 billion in tax relief, $1.8 billion in infrastructure bring-forwards and additional projects, and $550 million in drought assistance to communities.

In his BCA speech, draft extracts of which have been released, Morrison is expected to say that “a panicked reaction to contemporary challenges would amount to a serious misdiagnosis of our economic situation”.

“A responsible and sensible government does not run the country as if it is constantly at DEFCON1 the whole time, whether on the economy or any other issue. It deals with issues practically and soberly.”




Read more:
If you want to boost the economy, big infrastructure projects won’t cut it: new Treasury boss


He will say that notwithstanding the headwinds, including the drought which has cut farm production, the economy has continued to grow, and is forecast to “gradually pick up from here” with jobs growth remaining solid.

“Against this backdrop, it would be reckless to discard the disciplined policy framework that has steered us through many difficult periods, most recently and most significantly the end of the mining investment boom, which posed an even greater threat to our economy than the GFC.”

The projected return to surplus this financial year would be a “significant achievement”.

Lauding the government’s legislated tax relief, Morrison will say. “Our response to the economic challenges our nation faces has been a structural investment in Australian aspiration, backed by responsible economic management.”




Read more:
Why we’ve the weakest economy since the global financial crisis, with few clear ways out


Morrison’s infrastructure bring-forwards follow his post election approach to the states asking for projects that could be accelerated.

As a result of this process we have been able to bring forward $3.8 billion of investment into the next four years, including $1.8 billion to be spent this year and next year alone.

This will support the economy in two ways – by accelerating construction activity and supporting jobs in the near term and by reaping longer run productivity gains sooner.

Every state and territory will benefit, with significant transport projects to be accelerated in all jurisdictions – all within the context of our $100 billion ten-year infrastructure investment plan.

This bring forward of investment is in addition to the new infrastructure commitments we have made in drought-affected rural communities since the election.

In his address Morrison is also expected to announce the first stages of the government’s latest deregulation agenda, aimed at enabling business investment projects to begin faster.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Chinese embassy says Liberal critics Hastie and Paterson should “repent”


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Chinese embassy has lashed out at two Liberal members of parliament, Andrew Hastie and James Paterson, saying they would need to “repent and redress their mistakes” before they would be welcome in China.

The attack came after the pair, strong critics of the Beijing regime, were refused visas to take part in a trip sponsored by the think tank China Matters.

In a statement late Friday regretting they had been refused entry, Hastie and Paterson said they were “particularly disappointed that the apparent reason why we are not welcome in China at this time is our frankness about the Chinese Communist Party”.

They added they would “always speak out in defence of Australia’s values, sovereignty and national interest.”

The embassy hit back, saying:

The Chinese people do not welcome those who make unwarranted attacks, wantonly exert pressure on China, challenge China’s sovereignty, disrespect China’s dignity and undermine mutual trust between China and Australia.

As long as the people concerned genuinely repent and redress their mistakes, view China with objectivity and reason, respect China’s system and mode of development chosen by the Chinese people, the door of dialogue and exchanges will always remain open.

Both Hastie and Peterson said on Sunday they would not be repenting.

China Matters has postponed the study tour, which was due to take place next month.

It said the goal of the tours it sponsored was “to facilitate free-flowing, off-the-record and informal discussions” with citizens in China.

In previous tours “no issues have been left unaddressed, including our concerns about the plight of Uighurs in Xinjiang and the ongoing protest movement in Hong Kong”. It was “unfortunate” the politicians’ names had become public before the visit, China Matters said in its statement.

‘Private trip’

China Matters describes itself as “an independent Australian policy institute established to advance sound policy and to stimulate a realistic and nuanced discussion of the PRC among Australian business, government and the security establishment.”

The government is trying to keep out of the controversy, saying it was a privately sponsored trip.

Labor frontbencher Stephen Jones told Sky:“I think because of the mismanagement of this government, we’ve got relations with China probably an all-time low”.

Concerns reinforced

Meanwhile Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the leak of top secret documents published by the New York Times showing the treatment of Uighurs and other minorities reinforced concerns previously expressed by Australia.

Some of the 400 pages of documents detailing the treatment of China’s Uighur minority leaked to the New York Times.
NYT

The New York Times reported that the more than 400 pages, leaked from within the Communist Party, “provide an unprecedented inside view of the continuing clampdown in Xinjiang, in which the authorities have corralled as many as a million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and others into internment camps and prisons over the past three years”.

Payne said: “I have previously raised Australia’s strong concerns about reports of mass detentions of Uighurs in Xinjiang.

“We have consistently called for China to cease the arbitrary detention of Uighurs and other groups. We have raised these concerns – and we will continue to raise them both bilaterally and in relevant international meetings.”The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Up the creek: the $85 million plan to desalinate water for drought relief


Lin Crase, University of South Australia

The deal to crank up Adelaide’s desalination plant to make more water available to farmers in the drought-stricken Murray-Darling Basin makes no sense.

It involves the federal government paying the South Australian government up to A$100 million to produce more water for Adelaide using the little-used desalination plant.

The plant was commissioned in 2007 at the height of the millennium drought. It can produce up to 100 gigalitres of water a year – enough to fill 40,000 olympic sized swimming pools. But has been used sparingly, operating at its minimum mode of
8 gigalitres a year, because of the expense of turning seawater into freshwater.

The Adelaide Desalination Plant.
Vmenkov/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Adelaide has continued to mostly draw water from local reservoirs and the River Murray, which on average has supplied about half the city’s water (sometimes much more).

But with federal funding, the desal plant will be turned on full bore. This will free up 100 gigalitres of water from the Murray River allocated to Adelaide for use by farmers upstream in the Murray Darling’s southern basin.

The southern Murray–Darling Basin.
ABARES, CC BY-NC

The federal government expects the water to be used to grow an extra 120,000 tonnes of fodder for livestock. The water will be sold to farmers at a discount rate of A$100 a megalitre. That’s 10 cents per 1,000 litres.

By comparison, the residential price for that water in Adelaide would be A$2.39 to A$3.70 per 1,000 litres.

The production cost of desalinated water is about 95 cents per 1,000 litres when there’s rainwater already stored, according to a cost-benefit study published by the SA Department of Environment and Water in 2016. That means the total cost for the 100 gigalitres will be about A$95 million.

So the federal government is effectively paying A$95 million to sell water for A$10 million: a loss to taxpayers of A$85 million.


The Conversation, CC BY-ND

What do we get for the money?

The discounted water provided to individual farmers will be capped at no more than 25 megalitres. The farmers must agree to not sell the water to others and to use it to grow fodder for livestock.

There are many different forms of fodder but livestock producers most favour lucerne hay because it is highly nutritious. But it is also more expensive than cereal, pasture or straw hay.

The amount of hay that can be grown with a megalitre of irrigation water depends on many things, but 120,000 tonnes with 100 gigalitres is possible in the right conditions.

In the Murray-Darling southern basin lucerne hay currently sells for A$450 to A$600 a tonne. That would make the market value of 120,000 tonnes of lucerne A$54 million to A$72 million.

It means, on a best-case scenario, the federal government will be spending A$85 million to subsidise the production of hay worth A$72 million to its producers.




Read more:
Australia’s drought relief package hits the political spot but misses the bigger point


The reality of farming

In practice farms and farmers are incredible diverse, so not all irrigators will necessarily grow lucerne. Alternative fodders such as pasture or cereal hay generally have much lower market values. Which meaning the value of the fodder produced may be much less than the best-case scenario.

It’s worrying that this policy shows such little regard for farming realities. It appears to have been crafted on the premise that every farmer has the same land, the same equipment and the same needs.

Dictating the water must be used for a single purpose runs counter to the needs of the agriculture sector. If farmers could put it to a more effective use, why not allow it?

In addition, it’s not clear how all the monitoring will be done to maintain compliance over such a restrictive regime.

What measures will prevent farmers buying the discounted water and then simply selling an equivalent amount of any carry-over allocation at the going rate of up to $1,000 a megalitre?




Read more:
Drought and climate change are driving high water prices in the Murray-Darling Basin


How will the government distinguish between the fodder grown with the 25 megalitres provided at low cost and any other fodder harvested on the same farm? How much will it cost to monitor and enforce such arrangements?

The difficulty of answering these types of questions is precisely the reason why countries in the former eastern bloc failed to adequately provide for their populations. Telling people what crop to grow, when to grow, how to water the crop and how it should be consumed has not worked in the past. Farm businesses that respond to prices and use inputs, including water, in a way that suits their long- term commercial needs are generally better off.

It seems a long way from the type of national drought policy Australia needs. It’s hard to see how a policy of this kind does anything other than waste a large amount of public money and disrupt important market mechanisms in agriculture in the process.The Conversation

Lin Crase, Professor of Economics and Head of School, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New research shows Chinese migrants don’t always side with China and are happy to promote Australia



Australian media coverage of China can feel alienating to Chinese migrants, but most still hold a positive view of their adopted country.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Wanning Sun, University of Technology Sydney

The Australian government has indicated that “diaspora communities” are crucial to Australia’s public diplomacy mission to promote the country abroad. It has also identified online and social media as essential “public diplomacy tools”.

But in terms of projecting an attractive image of Australia to potential tourists, students and investors in China, the task is not that simple.

Too often, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s earnest soft power goals are undermined by various political agendas and concerns over foreign interference and national security.

As for the media, the ABC has attempted to connect with Chinese audiences by offering some of its online content in Mandarin. But the ABC’s coverage can still feel alienating to Chinese migrants. This stems from a feeling that much of its reporting conforms to a pre-determined narrative of the danger of China’s rising influence in the country.




Read more:
How Australia’s Mandarin speakers get their news


What Chinese migrants think of Australia

The role of Chinese migrants in public diplomacy, meanwhile, is little understood.

Earlier this year, we conducted a survey of more than 800 Australia-based, Mandarin-speaking social media users as part of a study of Chinese-language digital and social media in Australia.

Our aim was to determine how Chinese migrants view both Australia and China, how news coverage of both countries shapes these views, and whether they feel they have a role to play in promoting either country.




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We asked participants whether they have generally positive views about their experience of living or studying in Australia and how often they share these views with potential Chinese visitors or migrants to Australia.

Perhaps surprisingly, our survey respondents answered with a resounding “yes”, despite the alienation they sometimes feel from English-language media and a sense their allegiance to Australia is regularly being questioned.

When asked how often they share positive stories about Australia via Chinese social media platforms, 72% of respondents said they often or sometimes shared such information.



A similar level of pro-Australian sentiment was evident when participants were asked how often they share negative stories about Australia from the local Chinese media or English-language media. (For example, stories about the high cost of living, racism against Chinese or the boring lifestyle.) Nearly 77% said they rarely or never share such stories.

When asked with whom they share positive or negative stories about Australia, nearly two-thirds said “Chinese people living in China”, while 28% said Chinese immigrants living elsewhere in the world.

Interestingly, our survey participants’ willingness to promote Australia to Chinese people worldwide did not mean they had negative views about China. Nearly 80% said they would also be willing to promote China to Australians as a tourist destination or potential place for business opportunities.

Not overly pro-China on sensitive issues

This speaks to the ability of Chinese migrants to sustain dual loyalties to Australia and China, without much apparent conflict between the two.

Our respondents also showed a considerable degree of sophistication in their views on China–Australia relations and issues the Australian media typically present in a polarising manner. When asked whether they sided with China or Australia on these issues, we saw an interesting split.



For example, a significant number of participants said they sided with China in relation to disputes over Huawei (73%) and the South China Sea (79%). However, support for China was dramatically lower in relation to China’s influence in Australia (40%), trade disputes (38%) and, perhaps most surprisingly to many Australians, human rights (just 22%).

Even though they didn’t back China on these last four issues, participants didn’t give their unambiguous support to the Australian viewpoint, either. The number of respondents who chose “not sure” on these four issues ranged between 32% and 45%.

Human rights was the only issue where more respondents sided with the Australian viewpoint rather than China’s (46% compared to 22%).

Negative news on China leads to unhappiness

Similarly, when respondents were asked how they felt about negative news about China or the Chinese government in the Australian media, they expressed a range of opinions.



Respondents were nearly equally split on the fairness of such reporting, with 27% saying they felt the Western media portrayed China in an overly negative light and 22% saying they felt such reporting allowed them to know the truth about China.

The most popular response, however, was telling: 35% of participants said they felt unhappy because of the hostility of the Australian media to China, regardless of whether or not the reporting was truthful.

This suggests that while most Chinese-Australians are generally supportive of Australia, the mainstream media’s narrow focus on China’s influence seems to impact negatively on their happiness and overall feeling of connectedness with Australian society.




Read more:
Megaphone diplomacy is good for selling papers, but harmful for Australia-China relations


What this means for public diplomacy

Overall, Chinese migrants in Australia are spreading a positive message about the country voluntarily. They do so without any support from the Australian government, and despite the often negative reporting about China in the Australian media and hyperbolic public aspersions cast on them.

Based on our findings, it would behove the Australian government to try and find ways to harness this largely bottom-up, pro-Australian, word-of-mouth energy in the service of public diplomacy.

This is especially important now, given the dire state of diplomatic relations between our two countries.The Conversation

Wanning Sun, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia must engage with nuclear research or fall far behind



Nuclear power will likely remain part of the global energy mix.
ioshimuro/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Heiko Timmers, UNSW

Much is made of the “next generation” of nuclear reactors in the debate over nuclear power in Australia. They are touted as safer than older reactors, and suitable for helping Australia move away from fossil fuels.

But much of the evidence given in September to a federal inquiry shows the economics of nuclear in Australia cannot presently compete with booming renewable electricity generation.




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However, international projections predict nuclear power will stick around beyond 2040. It is forecast to reduce the carbon footprint of other nations, in many cases fuelled by our uranium.

To choose wisely on nuclear power options in future, we ought to stay engaged. Renewables in combination with hydro storage might fail to fully decarbonise the electricity sector, or much more electricity may be needed in future for desalination, emission-free manufacturing, or hydrogen fuel to deal with an escalating climate crisis. Nuclear power might be advantageous then.

What reactors will be available in future?

All recent commissions of nuclear power stations, such as the Korean APR-1400 reactors in the United Arab Emirates, or the Chinese Hualong One design, are large Generation III type light water reactors that produce gigawatts of electricity. Discouraged by investment blowouts and considerable delays in England and Finland, Australia is not likely to consider building Generation III reactors.

The company NuScale in particular promotes a new approach to nuclear power, based on smaller modular reactors that might eventually be prefabricated and shipped to site. Although promoted as “next generation”, this technology has been used in maritime applications for many years. It might be a good choice for Australian submarines.




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NuScale has licensed its design in the United States and might be able to demonstrate the first such reactor in 2027 in a research laboratory in Idaho.

These small reactors each produce 60 megawatts of power and require a much smaller initial investment than traditional nuclear power stations. They are also safer, as the entire reactor vessel sits in a large pool of water, so no active cooling is needed once the reactor is switched off.

However the technical, operational and economic feasibility of making and maintaining modular reactors is completely untested.

Looking ahead: Generation IV reactors and thorium

If Australia decided to build a nuclear power station, it would take decades to complete. So we might also choose one of several other new reactor concepts, labelled Generation IV. Some of those designs are expected to become technology-ready after 2030.

Generation IV reactors can be divided into thermal reactors and fast breeders.

Thermal reactors

Thermal reactors are quite similar to conventional Generation III light water reactors.

However, some will use molten salts or helium gas as coolant instead of water, which makes makes hydrogen explosions – as occurred at Fukushima – impossible.

Some of these new reactor designs can operate at higher temperatures and over a larger temperature range without having to sustain the drastic pressures necessary in conventional designs. This improves effectiveness and safety.

Fast breeders

Fast breeder reactors require fuel that contains more fissile uranium, and they can also create plutonium. This plutonium might eventually support a sustainable nuclear fuel cycle. They also use the uranium fuel more efficiently, and generate less radioactive waste.

However, the enriched fuel and capacity to produce plutonium means that fast breeders are more closely linked to nuclear weapons. Fast reactors thus do not fit well with Australia’s international and strategic outlook.

Breeding fuel from thorium

An alternative to using conventional uranium fuel is thorium, which is far less useful for nuclear weapons. Thorium can be converted in a nuclear reactor to a different type of uranium fuel (U-233).

The idea of using this for nuclear power was raised as early as 1950, but development in the US largely ceased in the 1970s. Breeding fuel from thorium could in principle be sustained for thousands of years. Plenty of thorium is already available in mining tailings.

Thorium reactors have not been pursued because the conventional uranium fuel cycle is so well established. The separation of U-233 from the thorium has therefore not been demonstrated in a commercial setting.

India is working on establishing a thorium fuel cycle due to its lack of domestic uranium deposits, and China is developing a thorium research reactor.

Australia’s perspective

To choose wisely on nuclear power and the right technology in future, we can stay engaged by:

  • realising a much-needed national facility to store waste from our nuclear medicine
  • making our uranium exports competitive again
  • driving the navy’s submarines with nuclear power, and
  • possibly reconsidering the business case for a commercial spent fuel repository.

Australia has already joined the international Generation IV nuclear forum, a good first step to foster cooperation on nuclear technology research and stay in touch with reactor developments.




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Australia could deepen such research involvement by, for example, developing engineering expertise on thermal Generation IV reactors here. Such forward-looking engagement with nuclear power might pave a structured way for the commercial use of nuclear power later, if it is indeed needed.The Conversation

Heiko Timmers, Associate Professor of Physics, School of Science, UNSW Canberra, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The milk, the whole milk and nothing but the milk: the story behind our dairy woes



A dairy cow grazes on the lawns in front of Parliament House in Canberra in 2015, as part of an industry event.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Andrew Fisher, University of Melbourne

The plight of Australia’s dairy farmers is on the political agenda this week, after One Nation leader Pauline Hanson narrowly failed in her Senate bid for a minimum milk price. But getting fair payment for their goods is far from the only challenge dairy farmers face.

Pressure has been mounting on the industry for the past decade. Existing milk alternatives are growing their market share, helped by a rise in veganism and public concern around animal welfare. The agriculture sector is under pressure to reduce its contribution to climate change, and technology advances mean milk may one day be produced without cows at all.

All this has been compounded by devastating and prolonged drought. So here’s the full story of the hurdles farmers face, now and in the future, to get milk into your fridge.

Dairy cattle at milking time at a farm in Rochester, Victoria.
AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Fluctuating farm gate price

The rate at which processors pay farmers for milk is known as the farm gate price. The prices are not regulated and are set by market forces.

In 2016 the milk price crashed when Australia’s two largest dairy processors, Murray Goulburn and Fonterra, lowered the price they would pay from about 48 cents a litre to as low as 40 cents.




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This dramatically cut the incomes of milk suppliers. The number of dairy farmers in Australia fell by 600, or 9% over four years. This exit has been exacerbated by drought.

Since then, the farm gate milk price has increased and in 2019–20 is expected to be 51 cents per litre, due to a weaker Australian dollar and demand from export markets. But forecast global prices for butter, cheese and whole milk powder this financial year remain below that of previous years.

Methane, and milk alternatives

Methane and other livestock emissions comprise about 10% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear in its land use report in August, changes must be made across the food production chain if the world is to keep global warming below the critical 1.5℃ threshold. For beef and dairy livestock, this means changes such as land and manure management, higher-quality feed and genetic improvements. Meeting this challenge cost-effectively, while improving productivity, is no small task.




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Technology may help in curbing greenhouse gas emissions from cows, but it also threatens to replace the dairy industry altogether. Advances in biotech may enable liquid analogous to milk to be produced through bioculture systems, without a cow in sight.

Elsewhere, the rise of plant-based alternatives derived from soybeans, almonds, oats and other sources threatens traditional milk products. This can partly be attributed to increasing numbers of people adopting a vegan diet.

Farmers must overcome a host of challenges to deliver milk to consumers.
Paul Miller/AAP

Taking calves away from cows

For a mammal to produce milk, it must usually become pregnant and produce offspring. Female calves generally go into a farm’s pool of replacement animals, while male dairy calves are sold.

Pure-breed male dairy calves do not naturally lay down a lot of muscle and so do not generally make good beef livestock. Many are sent to the abattoir for slaughter, typically between 5 and 30 days of age. This practice has prompted welfare concerns and means the industry must carefully manage the handling and transport of vulnerable young calves.

Potential solutions include artificial insemination of cows using only semen that will produce female calves. The use of this technology is limited because it reduces conception rates.

There is also growing public concern about the separation of cows and calves not sent to the abbatoir. The calves are typically taken within the first 12-24 hours and reared together in a shed, where they are fed milk or milk replacer. This is thought to maximise the amount of saleable milk and minimise disease transfer from cow to calf, particularly Johne’s Disease. However, recent research has found little evidence to support these practices.

Research has shown that calf-cow separation in the first day of life causes lower distress than abrupt separation at a few weeks of age or older, when the bond is stronger. This is not to say that early separation is not a concern. Rather, in the face of consumer demands for certain ethical standards, simple fixes may be hard to implement.

Topless animal welfare activists protest in Melbourne in February 2019 to raise awareness of what they claim is cruelty within the dairy industry.
Ellen Smith/AAP

The message for consumers

Challenges to the dairy industry will take time and effort to address. Some, such as drought, are out of farmers’ control. Dry conditions and high cost of water, fodder and electricity have forced farmers to cull less productive dairy cows, leading to a decline in production.




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The pressures, and associated debt, create intense stress for farmers, increase family tensions, and have negative flow-on effects throughout rural communities.

Putting aside the political push for a regulated milk price, the key message for dairy consumers is clear. If we want our milk produced in a certain way, we must pay a fair market-based price to cover the costs to farmers of fulfilling our wants.The Conversation

Andrew Fisher, Professor of Cattle & Sheep Production Medicine, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.