A state actor has targeted Australian political parties – but that shouldn’t surprise us



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Prime Minister Morrison said there was no evidence of electoral interference linked to a hack of the Australian Parliament House computer network.
from www.shutterstock.com

Tom Sear, UNSW

The Australian political digital infrastructure is a target in an ongoing nation state cyber competition which falls just below the threshold of open conflict.

Today Prime Minister Scott Morrison made a statement to parliament, saying:

The Australian Cyber Security Centre recently identified a malicious intrusion into the Australian Parliament House computer network.

During the course of this work, we also became aware that the networks of some political parties – Liberal, Labor and the Nationals – have also been affected.




Read more:
‘State actor’ makes cyber attack on Australian political parties


But cyber measures targeting Australian government infrastructure are the “new normal”. It’s the government response which is the most unique thing about this recent attack.

The new normal

The Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) – which incorporates the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) – analyses and responds to cyber security threats.

In January ASD identified in a report that across the three financial years (2015-16 to 2017-18) there were 1,097 cyber incidents affecting unclassified and classified government networks which were “considered serious enough to warrant an operational response.”

These figures include all identified intrusions. The prime minister fingered a “sophisticated state actor” for the activity discussed today.

Cyber power states capable of adopting “sophisticated” measures might include the United States, Israel, Russia, perhaps Iran and North Korea. Suspicion currently falls on China.

Advanced persistent threats

Cyber threat actors with such abilities are often identified by a set of handles called Advanced Persistent Threat or APTs.

An APT is a group with a style. They are identifiable by the type of malware (malicious software) they like to deploy, their methods and even their working hours.

For example APT28 is associated with Russian measures to interfere with the 2016 US election

Some APTs have even been publicly traced by cyber security companies to specific buildings in China.

APT1 or Unit 61398 may be linked to the intrusions against the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and possibly the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Unit 61398 has been traced to a non-descript office building in Shanghai.

The advance in APT refers to the “sophistication” mentioned by the PM.




Read more:
How we trace the hackers behind a cyber attack


New scanning tool released

The ACSC today publicly released a “scanning tool, configured to search for known malicious web shells that we have encountered in this investigation.”

The release supports this being called a state sponsored intrusion. A web shell is an exploitation vector often used by APTs which enables an intruder to execute wider network compromise. A web shell is uploaded to a web server remotely, and then an adversary can leverage other techniques like privileges and issue commands. A webshell is a form of a malware.

One well-known shell called “China Chopper” is delivered by a small web application, and then is able to “brute force” password guessing against the authentication portal.

If such malware was used in this incident, this explains why politicians and those working at Australian Parliament House were asked to change their passwords following the latest incident.

Journalism and social media surrounding incidents such as these pivot on speculation of how it could be an adversary state, and who that might be.

Malware and its deployment is close to a signature of an APT and requires teams to deliver and subsequently monitor. That the ACSC has released such a specific scanning tool is a clue why they and the prime minister can make such claims.

An intrusion of Australian Parliament House is symbolically powerful, but whether any actual data was taken at an unclassified level might not be of great intelligence import.

The prime minister’s announcement today suggests Australian political parties have been exposed.

How elections are hacked

In 2018 I detailed how there are a few options for an adversary seeking to “hack” an election.




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If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: Australia should stay away from electronic voting


The first is to “go loud” and undermine the public’s belief in the players, the process, or the outcome itself. This might involve stealing information from a major party, for example, and then anonymously leaking it.

Or it might mean attacking and changing the data held by the Australian Electoral Commission or the electoral rolls each party holds. This would force the agency to publicly admit a concern, which in turn would undermine confidence in the system.

This is likely why today the prime minister said in his statement:

I have instructed the Australian Cyber Security Centre to be ready to provide any political party or electoral body in Australia with immediate support, including making their technical experts available.

They have already briefed the Electoral Commissions and those responsible for cyber security for all states and territories.

They have also worked with global anti-virus companies to ensure Australia’s friends and allies have the capacity to detect this malicious activity.

Vulnerability of political parties

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s response alluded to what might be another concern of our security and electoral agencies. He said:

… our party political structures perhaps are more vulnerable. Political parties are small organisations with only a few full-time staff, they collect, store and use large amounts of information about voters and communities.

I have previously suggested the real risk to any election is the manipulation of social media, and a more successful and secretive campaign to alter the outcome of the Australian election might focus on a minor party.

An adversary could steal the membership and donor database and electoral roll of a party with poor security, locate the social media accounts of those people, and then slowly use social media manipulations to influence an active, vocal group of voters.

Shades of grey

This is unlikely to have been the first attempt by a “sophisticated state actor” to target networks of Australian political parties. It’s best not to consider such intrusions as if they “did or didn’t work.”

There are shades of grey.

Adversaries clearly penetrated a key network and then leveraged access into others. But the duration of such a presence or whether they are even still in a network is challenging to ascertain. Equally, the government has not suggested data has been removed.

Recognition but no data theft may be a result of improved security awareness at parliament house and in party networks. The government and its administration have been taking action.

The Department of Parliamentary Services – that supplies ICT to parliament house – has improved security in “network design changes to harden the internal ICT network against cyber attack”.

This month a Joint Committee opened a new inquiry into government resilience following a report from the National Audit Office last year which found “relatively low levels of effectiveness of Commonwealth entities in managing cyber risks”.

Government response is what’s new

As the ASD and my own observation has noted, this is likely not the first intrusion of this kind – it may be an APT with more “sophisticated” malware than previous attempts. But the response and fall out from the government is certainly new.

What is increasingly clear is that attribution has become more possible, and especially within alliance structures in the Five Eyes intelligence network – Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States – more common.

Sometimes in cyber security it’s challenging to tell the difference between the noise and signal. The persistent presence of Russian sponsored trolls in Australian online politics, the blurring of digital borders with China and cyber enabled threats to our democratic infrastructure: these are not new.

Australia is not immune to the new immersive information war. Digital border protection might yet become an issue in the 2019 election. In addition to raising concerns our politicians and cyber security agencies will need to develop a strong and clear strategic communication approach to both the Australian public and our adversaries as these incidents escalate.The Conversation

Tom Sear, PhD Candidate, UNSW Canberra Cyber, Australian Defence Force Academy, UNSW

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

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Huawei or the highway? The rising costs of New Zealand’s relationship with China



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New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meeting with the Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China Li Keqiang during last year’s ASEAN summit.
AAP Image/Mick Tsikas, CC BY-ND

David Belgrave, Massey University

Until recently, New Zealand’s relationship with China has been easy and at little cost to Wellington. But those days are probably over. New Zealand’s decision to block Huawei from its 5G cellular networks due to security concerns is the first in what could be many hard choices New Zealand will need to make that challenge Wellington’s relationship with Beijing.

For over a decade New Zealand has reaped the benefits of a free-trade agreement with China and seen a boom of Chinese tourists. China is New Zealand’s largest export destination and, apart from concerns about the influence of Chinese capital on the housing market, there have been few negatives for New Zealand.

Long-held fears that New Zealand would eventually have to “choose” between Chinese economic opportunities and American military security had not eventuated.




Read more:
New Zealand’s Pacific reset: strategic anxieties about rising China


But now New Zealand business people in China have warned of souring relations and the tourism industry is worried about a downturn due to backlash following the Huawei controversy.

China’s growing might

During Labour’s government under Helen Clark (1999-2008) and under the National government with John Key as prime minister (2008-2016), New Zealand could be all things to all people, building closer relationships with China while finally calming the last of the lingering American resentment over New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policies. But now, there are difficult decisions to be made.

As China becomes more assertive on the world stage, it is becoming increasingly difficult for New Zealand to keep up this balancing act. Two forces are pushing a more demanding line from Beijing. One is China’s move to assert more control over waters well off its coast.

For decades, Beijing was happy to let the US Navy maintain order over the Western Pacific to facilitate global trade with China. As China’s own economic and military abilities have grown, it has begun to show that it is willing to protect what it sees as its own patch. Its mammoth island building in the South China Sea is a testament to its new-found desire to push its territorial claims after decades of patience.




Read more:
Despite strong words, the US has few options left to reverse China’s gains in the South China Sea


China’s stronger foreign policy is testing what is known as the “rules-based order”, essentially a set of agreed rules that facilitate diplomacy, global trade, and resolve disputes between nations. This is very concerning for New Zealand as it needs stable rules to allow it to trade with the world. New Zealand doesn’t have the size to bully other countries into getting what we want.

Trump-style posturing would get New Zealand nowhere. A more powerful China doesn’t need to threaten the rules-based system, but the transition could create uncertainty for business and higher risks of trade disruption. It is vital for New Zealand that an Asia-Pacific dominated by China is as orderly as one dominated by the US.

Tech made in China

The other force challenging the relationship is China’s emergence as a source of technology rather than simply a manufacturer of other countries’ goods. Many Chinese firms like Huawei are now direct competitors of Western tech companies. Huawei’s success makes it strategically important for Beijing and a point of pride for ordinary Chinese citizens.

Yet, unlike Western countries, China actively monitors its population through a wide variety of mass surveillance technology. Therefore, there is a trust problem when Chinese firms claim that their devices are secure from Beijing’s spies. New Zealand’s decision to effectively ban Huawei components from 5G cellular networks could be the first in many decisions needed to ensure national security.

Chinese designed goods are becoming more common and issues around privacy and national security will get stronger as everyday household goods become connected to the internet. Restrictions on Chinese-made goods will further frustrate Beijing and will invite greater retaliation to New Zealand exporters and tourist operators.

In more extreme cases, foreign nationals have been detained in China in response to overseas arrests of prominent Chinese individuals. As many as 13 Canadians were detained recently in China following the arrest of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver at the request of US prosecutors.




Read more:
Australian-Chinese author’s detention raises important questions about China’s motivations


Declaring the limits of the relationship

If New Zealand is to maintain a healthy relationship with China, it needs to be clear on what it is not willing to accept. It is easy to say individual privacy, national security and freedom of speech are vital interests of New Zealand, but Wellington needs to be clear to its citizens and to China what exactly those concepts mean in detail. All relationships require compromise, so Wellington needs to be direct about what it won’t compromise.

New Zealand spent decades during the Cold War debating how much public criticism of the US the government could allow itself before it risked its alliance with the Americans. New Zealanders wondered if they really had an independent foreign policy if they couldn’t stand up to their friends. Eventually nationalist sentiment spilled over in the form of the anti-nuclear policy.

New Zealand is now heading for the same debate as Kiwis worry about how much they can push back against Beijing’s interests before it starts to hurt the economy. Now that the relationship with China is beginning to have significant costs as well as benefits, it’s probably time New Zealanders figured out how much they are prepared to pay for an easy trading relationship with China.The Conversation

David Belgrave, Lecturer in Politics and Citizenship, Massey University

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

As Australia’s soft power in the Pacific fades, China’s voice gets louder



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China is broadcasting to more than 1 billion people in several different languages, while Australia sits on its soft power reviews.
Screenshot/YouTube

Helen Vatsikopoulos, University of Technology Sydney

This week, Department of Communications and Arts secretary Mike Mrdak told a Senate hearing our Pacific neighbours will soon experience “the full suite of programs available on Australian networks”. This means the region will see some of our most highly rated reality shows such as Married at First Sight and The Bachelor.

This is all part of the government’s Pacific pivot and the A$17 million package to broadcast commercial television throughout the region announced by the prime minister last year. It’s also part of Australia’s “soft power” strategy, a branding that enables it to influence other countries and have its voice heard.

Australia’s soft power attraction in the Asia Pacific has been in free fall for the past few years. The government is sitting on two major reviews. First is the Soft Power Review – a strong recommendation of the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper – for which the consultation period ended in October 2018. Second is the Review of Australian Broadcasting in the Asia-Pacific, the consultation period for which ended in August 2018.

The second review was established in 2017. This was the first time the government addressed the issue of soft power in the Pacific since axing the ABC’s Australia Network in 2014. The Australia Network broadcast to the region with redistribution partnerships to 30 countries.

The ABC charter states it has responsibility “to transmit to countries outside Australia broadcasting programs of news, current affairs, entertainment and cultural enrichment” that will “encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs”.

In other words, the ABC is already enabled as Australia’s soft power tool. Despite this, the government is giving money to commercial televisions to do the work. At the Senate hearing this week, Mrdak denied this was in breach of the ABC charter because it did not involve broadcasting but purchasing content made by Australia’s commercial broadcasters for distribution to regional broadcasters.




Read more:
Lost in transmission: the Australia Network, soft power and diplomacy


The government must move quickly with its reviews and their recommendations, and articulate its policy responses before the next election, if Australia’s standing in the region is to be restored. Because other powers, especially China, are fast filling the gap we’re leaving behind.

The importance of soft power

Soft power is a term coined by Harvard Professor Joseph S. Nye in the late 1980s. He referred to soft power as the ability of a country to gain influence and power through attraction and without coercion. Soft power leads to nation branding or the reputation a nation enjoys in the world.

This is what business academic Yin Fang defines as:

… the total sum of all perceptions of a nation in the minds of international stakeholders, which may contain some of the following elements: people, place, culture/language, history, food, fashion, famous faces (celebrities), global brands and so on.

The 2018 Soft Power 30 Report showed Australia had fallen four places in four years. The report is a measure of the influence of international nations. We are 10th in the overall soft power index but are marked as moving downward: 7th in culture, 6th in education, 9th in government and completely absent from the top ten in the areas of digital, enterprise and engagement.




Read more:
Soft power and the institutionalisation of influence


In the alternative, and hipper, Monocle Soft Power Index, Australia sits at number 8. But the report also warns it “… is in need of a shakeup if it is to remain an attractive proposition”.

It praises the country for committing to an official review of its soft power but adds “it’s unclear if that will now be a priority”.

In addressing a seminar on the future of Australia’s broadcasting and soft power in the region, veteran broadcaster and former head of the Australia Network Bruce Dover said:

Where once Australia was a brand in Asia, people knew what the Australia Network was, they knew what Radio Australia was, it’s lost – it’s gone…

He then added that the axing of the Australia Network by the Coalition government “… was for more political reasons about whacking the ABC than a considered view on the worth of soft diplomacy or having a voice in the region”.

The ABC isn’t entirely free from blame. It abandoned the most needy of its audience in Asia and the Pacific by switching off its shortwave radio service in 2017. Citing outdated technology, the ABC was trying to make the most of its severe funding cutbacks by prioritising digital services. And that’s when China moved in and took over the shortwave frequencies.

So, what’s China doing?

The government’s Pacific pivot is about waking up and finding China has expanded into the region, and not just in infrastructure projects but in broadcasting. A recent ABC investigation reported China’s Central Global Television Network (CGTN) is broadcasting to 1.2 billion people in Chinese, English, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic and is expanding to create 200 international bureaus by 2020.




Read more:
Soft power goes hard: China’s economic interest in the Pacific comes with strings attached


This may be, as the ABC suggests, “informational warfare”, where the soldiers may actually be Westerners working for the other side. This year alone, more than 2,200 people lost their jobs in the Australian media.

Edwin Maher was one of the first Australians to work for CCTV, as CGTN was then called. He was a weatherman when I worked in the ABC’s Melbourne newsroom in the late ’80s, but for over a decade he has been a presenter on China’s television. There will be more like him in future.

China is actively recruiting Westerners to front its programs. Australian faces will likely present news on on CGTN, while Australian voices broadcast in English to Pacific Islanders on shortwave.

In the competitive world of nation-branding and soft power, who will know the difference? The new Edwin Mahers will be telling the same stories as Australia, but with a China focus. In 2016 President Xi Jinping announced that the media must serve the party and directed them to tell China’s stories that reflect well on the ruling party and its policies.

This is the reality of informational warfare. The Morrison government must release its two crucial soft power reports and announce a policy framework that will determine our standing, influence and power in the region.

Vanuatu’s Daily Post has welcomed the news Australia will provide entertaining programs to the Pacific. But the opinion piece also says:

Pacific islanders aren’t likely to be very fussy about how that comes about. But if the goal is helping Pacific islanders know more about Australia — and helping Australians know more about the Pacific – then a different approach is needed.

Australia’s soft power is too important to be determined by vengeful payback to the ABC, or by currying favour with commercial television barons. It is about statecraft.The Conversation

Helen Vatsikopoulos, Lecturer in Journalism, University of Technology Sydney

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

Julie Bishop to quit parliament at the election


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Julie Bishop has announced she will retire from federal parliament at the election.

Bishop’s statement to Parliament late Thursday confirmed the widespread expectation she would not seek another term, although she had repeatedly said she planned to recontest.

The exit of Bishop – the best-known Liberal woman and highly popular with voters – underlines the Liberals’ “woman problem”. It comes after the decision of cabinet minister Kelly O’Dwyer to leave at the election.

Bishop told parliament she believed the Coalition would win the election.

“And on that basis, I have reconsidered my position as the member for Curtin.”

She said she had been contacted by a number of “talented, indeed
extraordinary, people, including women” who had indicated that if she did not recontest, they would seek preselection from her seat of Curtin. “It is time for a new member to take my place,” she said.

Curtin is one of the safest Liberal seats in the country. It has been said widely that Bishop wanted to delay an announcement about her future to give her maximum influence over who would be her successor.

She was known to want to keep Attorney-General Christian Porter from moving from his marginal seat, although he had said he did not want to do so.

Her speech reinforced the message that she believes the seat should go to a woman.

Bishop, 62, was Liberal deputy for 11 years, from 2007 until last year, and foreign minister for five years, from 2013 to 2018.

She was Australia’s first female foreign minister. In that role she travelled constantly and was a popular figure on the international stage. She was thrown into the international spotlight after the downing of MH17, in which 38 Australian citizens and permanent residents were killed. Australia was on the United Nations Security Council at the time.

After the coup that ousted Malcolm Turnbull, Bishop – who stood
in the leadership ballot but received only a handful of votes – told Scott Morrison she did not wish to serve on the front bench.

Bishop, who is very close to Turnbull – although they had some ups and downs in earlier years – is on the moderate wing of the Liberal party.

It was speculated after she went to the backbench that if the Liberals were in opposition after the election, Bishop could become leader, although this did not seem a likely prospect.

Turnbull tweeted: “Thank you @JulieBishopMP for your service to our nation and our Party and, above all, your friendship over so many years. You have been our finest Foreign Minister – eloquent, elegant and always courageous advancing our national interest in these challenging times”.

Since she left the frontbench Bishop has become quite outspoken, including saying there needed to be bipartisanship on energy policy.

Bishop told parliament she was “proud of the fact that I am the first woman to contest the leadership ballot of the Liberal Party in its 75 year history.”

In the House Morrison described Bishop as an “incredibly classy
individual”, and invoked the Biblical phrase “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

In a statement, the Prime Minister said she was “a giant of the
Liberal Party and she has been a ground breaker for women in public life.

“Julie was one of Australia’s truly great foreign ministers. In the Liberal Party she will take her place alongside the greatest foreign ministers of our history: Casey, Hasluck and Downer,” Morrison said.

Bill Shorten said: “It is the end of an era.”

He paid tribute to Bishop’s handling of the aftermath of the MH17 downing – her calm, composure and kindness to the families.

“It was real. It was authentic. … I remember the service in
Melbourne at St Patrick’s and she really was a leader. But I also saw her steely determination in international forums to pursue justice and she was very strong”.

O’Dwyer tweeted: “@JulieBishopMP You have been an outstanding leader in our Party, an incredible trailblazer and a beautiful friend. You’ve made us proud for all you have done and all you have achieved. We are forever in your debt. With love.”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.

Everyone can be an effective advocate for vaccination: here’s how


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Listening to people’s concerns is important when talking to someone who is hesitant about vaccination.
From shutterstock.com

Jessica Kaufman, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and Margie Danchin, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has named vaccine hesitancy as one of their top 10 threats to global health for 2019.

Last week, the wife of an NRL footballer made national headlines after posting on Instagram that the couple did not plan to vaccinate their children.

Indeed, there’s rarely a time vaccination isn’t a hot topic of public debate. What’s important to note is that anyone can use evidence-based communication techniques to be an advocate for vaccination – you don’t need to be an expert in the field.

Conversations between peers can be very influential, because our behaviours are shaped by social norms, or what other people in our network value and do.




Read more:
Why people born between 1966 and 1994 are at greater risk of measles – and what to do about it


Who do we need to talk to?

While the current measles outbreaks in the United States and Europe are concerning, much of the reporting has over-simplified the issue, with sensationalised headlines placing the blame almost solely on “anti-vax” parents.

In reality, the vast majority of people whose children are missing some or all doses of the recommended vaccines are not “anti-vaxxers”, and labelling them as such is unhelpful.

The ability to register for vaccination exemption based on conscientious objection was removed in 2016, but it was last recorded in December 2015 as affecting only 1.34% of eligible children.

Current childhood vaccination coverage in Australia is between 90.75-94.67%, depending on age.

This suggests that missed opportunities and access barriers, such as parents being unable to get to the GP or a council immunisation session, are much more substantial contributors to under-vaccination.

Under-vaccination is regarded as a threat to global health.
From shutterstock.com

Communication about vaccines is unlikely to impact the behaviour of firm refusers and those facing access barriers. However, communication has enormous influence when it comes to the 43% of parents who have some questions or concerns about vaccines.

Aggressive or dismissive language can make people less likely to vaccinate, while open, respectful discussion with a trusted individual can encourage hesitant parents towards vaccination.




Read more:
Want to boost vaccination? Don’t punish parents, build their trust


Tips for discussing vaccination

Many people struggle with how to discuss vaccination when confronted with a friend, relative or acquaintance who expresses hesitancy.

Simply providing lots of facts or dismissing their views is not effective.

Instead, these are some tips everyone can use when talking about vaccines, drawing from evidence-based communication techniques. Studies in the United States and Canada have trained healthcare providers to use techniques like these to increase uptake of adolescent HPV vaccination and infant vaccines, and more studies are currently underway.

Ask about, and listen to, people’s concerns: not everyone is driven by the same issues or experiences. Find out what specifically is concerning the person. Is it safety? Effectiveness? Side effects?

Acknowledge their concerns: remember, everyone loves their children. No one is refusing to vaccinate because they want their child to get sick, or because they wilfully hope other children will get sick. Acknowledging that you see where someone is coming from can go a long way in establishing trust.

Provide information to respond to their concerns: share what you know, and try to provide reliable sources for your information. Be careful not to debunk myths too aggressively, as this can actually backfire.

Share personal stories: emotive stories tend to have more impact than facts. This is one reason stories of rare vaccine adverse events can seem to carry more weight than overwhelming safety figures. Share your own stories of positive experiences with vaccines, or better yet, discuss your experience with the diseases they prevent.

Don’t pass judgment: people may discuss vaccination many times with many different people before they decide to vaccinate, especially if they are very hesitant. Your goal should be to establish yourself as a trusted, non-judgmental person with whom they can share their questions and concerns. Berating them won’t convince them to vaccinate, but it will convince them never to speak to you about vaccines again.




Read more:
Australians’ attitudes to vaccination are more complex than a simple ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ label


These communication tips can help support discussions about vaccines with someone who is hesitant, but open to discussing their position. If, however, you find yourself publicly debating a “vocal vaccine denier”, the WHO has developed a toolkit to help guide your responses.

In such a situation, your intended audience is not the vaccine denier themselves, but the public who may be watching or reading your debate.

The techniques used by a vaccine denier could include referring to conspiracies, fake experts, selective or misrepresented evidence, or impossible expectations (such as 100% safety). The WHO recommends you identify the techniques the denier uses and then correct their content.

If you’re a strong supporter of vaccination, you can become a powerful ally in the effort to sustain high coverage rates in your community. Listen and share your views respectfully, build and maintain open and trusting relationships, and yours may be the words that encourage another person to vaccinate.The Conversation

Jessica Kaufman, Postdoctoral researcher in vaccine acceptance and communication, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and Margie Danchin, Senior Research Fellow and General Paediatrician, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute

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

View from The Hill: Minister who watches the nation’s credit card overlooks his own


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Mathias Cormann’s 2018 family holiday in Singapore is costing him a good deal more than the $2780.82 he belatedly paid for airfares booked with Helloworld travel company’s CEO who happened to be the Liberal party treasurer and a mate.

Cormann, Government Senate Leader, says he gave his credit card number to Andrew Burnes in July 2017 and assumed – until a media query this week – the transaction had gone through. He received no reminders about the outstanding payments.

He also says he had nothing to do with handling a contract his Finance department awarded a subsidiary of the company around the same time.

In his explanation for not noticing he hadn’t been charged, Cormann told a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday he travelled a lot and many travel-related expenses went through his card.

It’s reasonable to take Cormann at his word about missing that the charge hadn’t been processed. Even accepting this, however, the affair looks bad for Cormann, who failed the “Caesar’s wife” test.

He should not have booked through the CEO, given the man is a
political and personal associate, and the company has a commercial relationship with Cormann’s department.

If he wanted to use that company, he should have gone to the normal booking service. It would have been more prudent to have used another travel agency.

Helloworld’s chief financial officer Michael Burnett says, in a letter Cormann produced on Tuesday, that the flights were never intended to be free. But Burnett provided an odd explanation for no reminders. “Because we held your credit card details at the time of the booking, payment reminders were not sent to you, even though the amount remained listed as ‘Outstanding’ on our internal system”.

You’d expect the company would have either processed the payment or sent a reminder.

Scott Morrison’s aggressive reaction – accusing Labor of going “to the bottom of the chum bucket” – when the opposition asked if Cormann had any conflict of interest, given the contract, doesn’t help the government. The public’s default position is scepticism when it comes to politicians’ conduct.

Giving Cormann the benefit of all doubt, the matter smacks of cosiness and cronyism – a politician using his connections to smooth his way (just as that famous picture of Joe Hockey and Cormann smoking cigars sent a signal of complacency and came to haunt both of them).

This is one more setback for Cormann, who has seen his reputation badly dented in the last few months.

His decision in August to throw his lot in with Peter Dutton and
declare Malcolm Turnbull had lost the confidence of the Liberal party sealed the fate of the former prime minister, with all that followed, including the Coalition being plunged into minority government.

There were multiple players in Turnbull’s downfall, not least Turnbull himself, but Cormann was a major one.

Cormann’s judgement was also off beam in his belief that he could muster the necessary crossbench votes last year to pass the government’s tax cuts for large companies.

His commitment was a factor in the government’s clinging to this
measure for too long, to the detriment of Turnbull.

Earlier this year it was revealed Cormann used a defence plane, at a cost of $37,000, to fly from Canberra to Perth so he could drop into Adelaide to lobby (unsuccessfully) a couple of Centre Alliance senators to support the cuts.

His spokesperson said at the time: “Use of the special purpose
aircraft was approved in the appropriate way to facilitate official business in Adelaide in transit from Canberra back to Perth in between two parliamentary sitting weeks”.

Cormann, obsessed with trying to rustle up votes, didn’t stop to consider how over-the-top this would look to most people, who would say “find a way to fly commercial” or “have a video call”. After Bronwyn Bishop’s helicopter flight, politicians should automatically hit a pause button before ordering up expensive transport.

It is obvious from Cormann’s demeanour that he is very aware he’s politically diminished. His reputation was as one of the government’s best performers, but he is not out in the media as much these days.

Another cabinet minister, Michaelia Cash, embroiled in the court case about her office leaking an imminent police raid on the AWU, has almost disappeared from public view.

This week’s Senate estimates hearings have been damning for the embattled Cash.

The Australian Federal Police gave evidence on Monday that Cash and former justice minister Michael Keenan had declined, despite at least two requests, to provide “witness statements” about media leaks. Rather, they responded by letter.

Morrison defended the two ministers’ behaviour. “I’m advised that both ministers did, in fact, cooperate with that investigation on a voluntary basis,” he told parliament on Tuesday. “I’m advised that neither minister received any further requests for information after they responded to the AFP’s initial invitation to provide information”.

On Tuesday night, Cash was put through the wringer during a Senate estimates hearing. Amazingly, the minister said she had not read the AFP’s Monday evidence. Asked why, she said, “because I haven’t”.

Taxpayers, incidentally, are currently up for $288,812 for Cash’s legal representation.

Although Cormann’s tickets affair is very different from the issue involving Cash and Keenan, the message from the behaviour of all three is one of elitism – politicians thinking they don’t have to do things the way ordinary people do.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.

Regional Australia is calling the shots now more than ever



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Regional Australia is no longer a desolate place when it comes to parliamentary representation.
from shutterstock.com

Andrew Beer, University of South Australia

Governments change priorities all the time. Some argue governments will focus on developing regional areas at one point in time and then refocus on major cities at another.

Our research shows that there are cycles in how much priority governments attach to regional issues. But these fluctuations are overshadowed by a larger, long-term trend towards greater involvement with regional communities.

Our findings show that regional Australia matters more today than it has at any other time since the 1940s.

Cycles of regional commitment

Inattention to particular constituencies can be costly. Victoria’s Kennett government lost office in 1999, when regional communities such as Ballarat and Bendigo became disillusioned with what they saw as a Melbourne-centric government.

This was a time when governments in other states, and nationally, were paying more attention to regional voters, with the Howard Coalition government nervously watching One Nation as a growing political force. In Queensland, the pressure was more acute, with a few regionally focused conservative politicians claiming seats in parliament.




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Appointing a minister with regional responsibilities is one clear marker of intent in the government of the day. John Sharp, the Howard government’s first minister for transport and regional development, released a budget statement with 19 major investments in regional areas. These included money for drought assistance, rural roads, and counselling and support services for young people and families.

Sharp said:

The Coalition government has not simply sat idly as regional Australia continued to suffer from neglect.

There are now six ministers and one parliamentary secretary for regional development in Australian parliaments. Bridget McKenzie (federal), Michael McCormack (federal), Tim Whetstone (South Australia), Jaclyn Symes (Victoria), John Barilaro (New South Wales), Alannah MacTiernan (Western Australia) and Mark Shelton (Tasmania) are the most recent expression of a trend that started almost 30 years ago.

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Our research

We examined all state and Australian government gazettes from 1939 to 2015 to find out how many “regional” ministers were in place over time. Our criteria were for the term “regional” to be in the title and for the representative to have responsibilities associated with improving the well-being of rural and remote communities.

We then used our data to develop an index, in which we gave a score of 1 for each month in the year where an identifiable regional minister held office.

For each jurisdiction the maximum possible score in any year was 12. For Australia, with six states and one federal government, the maximum possible score was 84.

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Our results, in the table above, came as a surprise. It is clear that political engagement with the regions has grown rapidly since the late 1980s.

Previous research has suggested the 1940-1960s period was one of strong governmental commitment to the regions. This was reflected in announcements on the need to “decentralise” the population.

But our data suggest the notion of a “golden era” of regional policy and government support prior to the 1970s is misplaced.

Nation-wide policies in support of agriculture, mining or infrastructure development supported regional communities. But the well-being of these places was not the primary goal.

From 1972 to 1975, the Whitlam government was committed to addressing inequalities associated with where people live. This brought fresh enthusiasm for regional portfolios in state governments, but that tide quickly waned as the political climate changed.




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Australian governments did not begin to appoint regional ministers as a matter of course until the late 1980s. This was a period linked to the end of old-fashioned, class-based politics and the rise of our more complex political landscape.

The trend has continued since and the presence of the six regional ministers and one parliamentary secretary in the halls of political power means there has never been a better time for regions to lobby governments.

There are now more ministers than ever before ready, able and willing to receive delegations and advocate for country towns, rural industries and remote Australia.
This means regional leaders have an opportunity to be heard in the run-up to the NSW and federal elections. The challenge is to determine the key messages and how they should be delivered.The Conversation

Andrew Beer, Dean, Research and Innovation, University of South Australia

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

After the floods come the mosquitoes – but the disease risk is more difficult to predict


Cameron Webb, University of Sydney

We’re often warned to avoid mosquito bites after major flooding events. With more water around, there are likely to be more mosquitoes.

As flood waters recede around Townsville and clean-up efforts continue, the local population will be faced with this prospect over the coming weeks.

But whether a greater number of mosquitoes is likely to lead to an outbreak of mosquito-borne disease is tricky to predict. It depends on a number of factors, including the fate of other wildlife following a disaster of this kind.

Mozzies need water

Mosquitoes lay their eggs in and around water bodies. In the initial stages, baby mosquitoes (or “wrigglers”) need the water to complete their development. During the warmer months, it doesn’t take much longer than a week before they are grown and fly off looking for blood.

So the more water, the more mosquito eggs are laid, and the more mosquitoes end up buzzing about.

But outbreaks of disease carried by mosquitoes are dependent on more than just their presence. Mosquitoes rarely emerge from wetlands infected with pathogens. They typically need to pick them up from biting local wildlife, such as birds or mammals, before they can spread disease to people.




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Mosquitoes and extreme weather events

Historically, major inland flooding events have triggered significant outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease in Australia. These outbreaks have included epidemics of the potentially fatal Murray Valley encephalitis virus. In recent decades, Ross River virus has more commonly been the culprit.

A focal point of the current floods is the Ross River, which runs through Townsville. The Ross River virus was first identified from mosquitoes collected along this waterway. The disease it causes, known as Ross River fever, is diagnosed in around 5,000 Australians every year. The disease isn’t fatal but it can be seriously debilitating.

Following substantial rainfall, mosquito populations can dramatically increase. Carbon dioxide baited light traps are used by local authorities to monitor changes in mosquito populations.
Cameron Webb (NSW Health Pathology)

In recent years, major outbreaks of Ross River virus have occurred throughout the country. Above average rainfall is likely a driving factor as it boosts both the abundance and diversity of local mosquitoes.

Flooding across Victoria over the 2016-2017 summer produced exceptional increases in mosquitoes and resulted in the state’s largest outbreak of Ross River virus. There were almost 1,700 cases of Ross River virus disease reported there in 2017 compared to an average of around 300 cases annually over the previous 20 years.




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Explainer: what is Ross River virus?


Despite plagues of mosquitoes taking advantage of flood waters, outbreaks of disease don’t always follow.

Flooding resulting from hurricanes in North America has been associated with increased mosquito populations. After Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, there was no evidence of increased mosquito-borne disease. The impact of wind and rain is likely to have adversely impacted local mosquitoes and wildlife, subsequently reducing disease outbreak risk.

Applying insect repellent is worthwhile even if the risk of mosquito-borne disease isn’t known.
From shutterstock.com

Australian studies suggest there’s not always an association between flooding and Ross River virus outbreaks. Outbreaks can be triggered by flooding, but this is not always the case. Where and when the flooding occurs probably plays a major role in determining the likelihood of an outbreak.

The difficulty in predicting outbreaks of Ross River virus disease is that there can be complex biological, environmental and climatic drivers at work. Conditions may be conducive for large mosquito populations, but if the extreme weather events have displaced (or decimated) local wildlife populations, there may be a decreased chance of outbreak.

This may be why historically significant outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease have occurred in inland regions. Water can persist in these regions for longer than coastal areas. This provides opportunities not only for multiple mosquito generations, but also for increasing populations of water birds. These birds can be important carriers of pathogens such as the Murray Valley encephalitis virus.




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Giant mosquitoes flourish in floodwaters that hurricanes leave behind


In coastal regions like Townsville, where the main concern would be Ross River virus, flood waters may displace the wildlife that carry the virus, such as kangaroos and wallabies. For that reason, the flood waters may actually reduce the initial risk of outbreak.

Protect yourself

There is still much to learn about the ecology of wildlife and their role in driving outbreaks of disease. And with a fear of more frequent and severe extreme weather events in the future, it’s an important area of research.

Although it remains difficult to predict the likelihood of a disease outbreak, there are steps that can be taken to avoid mosquito bites. This will be useful even if just to reduce the nuisance of sustaining bites.

Cover up with long-sleeved shirts and long pants for a physical barrier against mosquito bites and use topical insect repellents containing DEET, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Be sure to apply an even coat on all exposed areas of skin for the longest lasting protection.The Conversation

Cameron Webb, Clinical Lecturer and Principal Hospital Scientist, University of Sydney

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

A peace agreement in Afghanistan won’t last if there are no women at the table


Susan Hutchinson, Australian National University

Over the past weeks, the US government has been in peace negotiations with the Taliban. It has been 17 years since US and allied troops first deployed to Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and support a democratically elected government.

The current peace negotiations have progressed further than any other attempted during the conflict. But they have two serious problems. Firstly, they have have not included the democratically elected government of Afghanistan, led by President Ashraf Ghani. Secondly, they have failed to include a single woman.

The situation so far

Peace negotiations can take many forms. At their most basic, they cover ceasefires and division of territory. But they often go further to address underlying causes of conflict and pave the way for durable solutions. They include extensive informal discussions before any formal agreement is signed.

In 1996, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. It banned women from attending school and denied them their most basic rights. The Taliban provided safe haven for those responsible for the attacks against the US on September 11, 2001.

The US is keen to withdraw its remaining troops. But they want to secure a commitment from the Taliban that Afghanistan will not be home to terrorist groups planning attacks against the United States.

The most recent reports show the Afghan government controls 56% of Afghan districts, or 65% of the population. The Taliban controls 15% of the districts, with 29% remaining contested.

Peace negotiations are often fraught with tension about who is allowed at the table. So far, the Taliban has refused to allow the government of Afghanistan to participate in the current negotiations. The chief US negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been briefing the Afghan government on the progress of negotiations taking place in various Gulf States.




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Khalilzad is under pressure from US President Donald Trump to move the negotiations forward. But excluding the government is problematic. It could indicate the likely failure of negotiations, end up making the government look even weaker than it is and/or pave the way for a return to deeply conservative religious rule for Afghanistan.

It is often tempting for power brokers to prioritise the participation of armed groups in peace negotiations. But it’s important to ensure broader participation of civil society.

Research examining every peace agreement since the Cold War shows the participation of civil society makes a peace agreement 64% less likely to fail. The key reason is the peace process is perceived as more legitimate if civil society is included. But including civil society also ensures the concerns of the broader community are accounted for and that those who carried arms do not receive positive reinforcement by monopolising the benefits negotiated in the agreement.

What about the women?

Afghan women are angry about being excluded from the peace negotiations. The country’s leading women’s rights group, the Afghan Women’s Network, released a statement calling for “the full, equal and meaningful participation of women” in the negotiations.

Life for women in Afghanistan remains hard. The latest Reuters Poll said Afghanistan was the second most dangerous country to be a woman, down from the most dangerous five years earlier. The country still makes the top of the list for violence against women, discrimination, and lack of access to health care.

But significant progress has been made in the past 17 years.
Data from the UN Development Program show gender inequality dropped by ten percentage points between 2005 and 2017.

Women have strengthened their political, economic and social presence through efforts to advance their status and respect for their rights. Girls have been able to go to school. Women have become members of parliament, governors and police.




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Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution includes a hard won provision that enshrines the equality of men and women. But the Taliban is calling for a new constitution and it is highly unlikely if this was agreed, such a provision would survive.

Research drawing on extensive quantitative and qualitative data has shown that the way a country treats its women is the best indicator of its peacefulness. This is a better indicator than wealth, ethnic and religious identity or democracy.

We also know that women’s participation in peace processes makes for a more effective outcome. A peace processes is 35% more likley to last at least 15 years if women are at the negotiating table, have observer status, or participate in consultations, inclusive commissions or problem-solving workshops.

Women can negotiate with the Taliban

Even so, men and people from the international community often believe the struggles faced by Afghan women mean they are not in a position to negotiate with the patriarchal Taliban.

But Afghan women like Palwasha Hassan have been working for years to pursue peace with the Taliban. Hassan sits on the country’s High Peace Council and has seen how women across the country have already negotiated with local Taliban leaders. She says “the international community is failing to value what we have achieved together and the progress we have made so far.”

She conducted a workshop in 2010 with women across local communities. Stories included one woman who had negotiated to keep a local girls’ school open by arguing that educated girls could do better in Islamic studies, including learning to read the Quran. She also guaranteed to her Taliban interlocutors that a prayer space in the school would be reserved strictly for women and girls only.

Another woman explained how she and others negotiated the release of hostages being held by the local Taliban commander. She appealed to Islamic values of life and justice, and persuaded the captors that the hostage was being held unjustly.

International agreements

The importance of women’s participation in international peace and security was codified by UN Security Council resolution 1325 nearly 20 years ago.




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Seventy-nine countries, including Afghanistan, have National Action Plans to guide the resolution’s implementation and the subsequent seven Security Council resolutions on Women, Peace and Security.

In October 2017, the US became the first country in the world to pass a Women, Peace and Security Act, signed off by President Trump himself. It was passed explicitly to

ensure that the United States promotes the meaningful participation of women in mediation and negotiation processes seeking to prevent, mitigate, or resolve violent conflict” across the world.

Democratic Senators have urged the Trump administration to ensure Afghan women’s involvement in the peace negotiations. But so far no one has invoked the new law.

There are few who wouldn’t hope for peace for Afghanistan, but as Palwasha Hassan says, the negotiations “have to include women, both to protect our rights and also to ensure the durability of the peace that follows.”The Conversation

Susan Hutchinson, PhD Candidate, Australian National University

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

Health check: will eating nuts make you gain weight?



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Nuts contain “good” fats.
From shutterstock.com

Elizabeth Neale, University of Wollongong; Sze-Yen Tan, Deakin University, and Yasmine Probst, University of Wollongong

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend we eat 30g of nuts – a small handful – each day. But many of us know nuts are high in calories and fat.

So should we be eating nuts or will they make us gain weight?

In short, the answer is yes, we should eat them, and no, they won’t make us gain weight if eaten in moderate amounts. The fats in nuts are mostly the “good” fats. And aside from that, our bodies don’t actually absorb all the fat found in nuts. But we do absorb the nutrients they provide.




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Dietary fat: friend or foe?

Nuts do contain fat, and the amount of fat varies between nut types. For example, a 30g serving of raw cashews or pistachios contains around 15g of fat, whereas the same amount of raw macadamias contains around 22g of fat.

There are different kinds of fats in our diet and some are better for us than others. Nuts contain mainly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These types of fats are known as “good fats”. They can help lower cholesterol when we eat them in place of saturated fats.

The type of fats present varies between nuts. For example, walnuts are rich in polyunsaturated fats, whereas other types of nuts such as hazelnuts and macadamias have more monounsaturated fat.

What the evidence says

Even if the type of fat in nuts is good for us, they are still high in fat and calories. But this doesn’t mean we should be avoiding them to manage our weight.

Studies that looked at people’s eating habits and body weight over a long period have found people who regularly eat nuts tend to gain less weight over time than people who don’t.

Nuts are a healthier option for a snack than many processed alternatives.
From shutterstock.com

We see a similar pattern in clinical studies that asked people to include nuts in their diets and then looked at the effects on body weight.

A review of more than 30 studies examined the effects of eating nuts on body weight. It did not find people who ate nuts had increased their body weight, body mass index (BMI), or waist circumference, compared to a control group of people who did not eat nuts.

In fact, one study found that when people ate a pattern of food aimed at weight loss, the group of people who ate nuts lost more body fat than those who didn’t eat nuts.




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Let’s nut this out

There are several possible explanations for why eating nuts doesn’t seem to lead to weight gain.

  1. We don’t absorb all of the fat in nuts: The fat in nuts is stored in the nut’s cell walls, which don’t easily break down during digestion. As a result, when we eat nuts, we don’t absorb all of the fat. Some of the fat instead is passed out in our faeces. The amount of calories we absorb from eating nuts might be between 5% and 30% less that what we had previously thought.

  2. Nuts increase the amount of calories we burn: Not only do we not absorb all the calories in nuts, but eating nuts may also increase the amount of energy and fat we burn. It’s thought this may partially be explained by the protein and unsaturated fats in nuts, although we don’t yet know exactly how this occurs. Increases in the number of calories burnt can help us maintain or lose weight.

  3. Nuts help us feel full for longer: As well as fat, nuts are rich in protein and fibre. So, nuts help to keep us feeling full after we eat them, meaning we’re likely to eat less at later meals. Recent studies have also suggested providing people with nuts helps improve the overall quality of the types of foods they eat. This may be because nuts replace “junk foods” as snacks.

  4. People who eat nuts have healthier lifestyles in general: We can’t rule out the idea that eating nuts is just a sign of a healthier lifestyle. However, randomised controlled trials, which can control for lifestyle factors like eating habits, still find no negative effect on body weight when people eat nuts. This means the favourable effects of nuts are not just the result of nut eaters having healthier lifestyles – the nuts themselves play a role.




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Overall, the evidence suggests nuts are a healthy snack that can provide us with many of the nutrients our bodies need. We can confidently include the recommended 30g of nuts a day in a healthy diet, without worrying about the effect they will have on our waistlines.The Conversation

Elizabeth Neale, Career Development Fellow (Lecturer), University of Wollongong; Sze-Yen Tan, Senior Lecturer in Nutrition Science, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University, and Yasmine Probst, Senior lecturer, School of Medicine, University of Wollongong

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