What’s Australia’s first local Pfizer-style COVID vaccine? And when might it be in our arms? An mRNA expert explains

Penny Stephens/AAP

Archa Fox, The University of Western AustraliaAustralia has struggled to get enough Pfizer doses to meet Australians’ growing demand for COVID-19 vaccinations.

Australia has been producing doses of AstraZeneca since March, but this vaccine is no longer recommended for those aged under 60 because of the small but serious risk of clotting.

Now a research team at Monash University, led by Professor of Pharmaceutical Biology Colin Pouton, hopes to develop a new mRNA vaccine, which works by the same principles as the Pfizer vaccine, and could be manufactured locally.

So how would the vaccine work? What hurdles do the researchers need to overcome to make it a reality? And when could it become available?

It’s based on existing technology

Before COVID, the researchers were developing mRNA vaccines against a variety of viruses and diseases, and testing the technology in mice. After the pandemic hit, they pivoted their skills and technology and started work on an mRNA vaccine against COVID-19.

The vaccine is an mRNA vaccine, like the ones by Pfizer and Moderna. These vaccines prompt your body to produce the virus’ spike protein, to which your immune system makes antibodies against.

But the Monash mRNA vaccine is a little bit different, as it directs our cells to only make a small part of the spike protein, the “receptor binding domain”, which is the most important part allowing the virus to enter our cells.

The receptor binding domain, or tip of the spike protein, is also the part that’s quickly mutating to form the different variants of concern. Directly targeting this part makes sense to get the most variant-specific response.

How do mRNA vaccines work again?

MRNA vaccines work as instructions, telling our cells to make certain proteins. If these proteins are foreign to our bodies, our immune system will recognise them and mount an immune response. Over time, immune memory is developed, meaning when we encounter the virus, our immune system will clear it.

The researchers began modelling the vaccine off the original strain of the virus, first discovered in Wuhan. But they’ve since adjusted their sequence to model the shot off the Beta variant, first discovered in South Africa. This adjustment was made partly because the neutralising antibodies from patients infected with the Wuhan strain are least effective against the Beta variant.

Our current crop of approved COVID vaccines protect well against the Alpha variant, first found in the United Kingdom, and the Delta variant, first discovered in India. But because the Beta variant is good at evading immunity from vaccines, it’s more likely than most other variants to surge when vaccine protection begins to wane.

For these reasons, there’s a stronger clinical need for Beta variant vaccines.

This quick adjustment of the sequence demonstrates how flexible the mRNA technology is. It’s easy to change the sequence of the vaccine to adapt to new variants of the virus that have emerged, and might emerge in future. This ability to quickly change the sequence is similar for DNA vaccines like AstraZeneca, but harder for traditional and protein-based vaccines.

As with all other mRNA vaccines, the RNA will be broken down in the body over the course of a day or so. The vaccine doesn’t stay in your body over the long term. You gain immunity as your immune system learns how to respond to the short burst of proteins your body makes. When you get the second dose of mRNA vaccine, the immune memory is reinforced.

The group has tested this vaccine in mice, and says its results are really promising.

Based on these pre-clinical results, the Victorian government has given the project A$5 million. The money has come out of a A$50 million research fund earmarked to support local mRNA vaccine development.

The A$5 million will help pay for a manufacturer in Europe to make a sufficient amount of the mRNA for the phase 1 trials. This material will then be shipped via ultra-cold storage to Australia, and a local company is going to package the RNA into “lipid nanoparticles” which allows the mRNA to get into human cells.

What are the next steps?

Phase 1 trials to check the vaccine is safe in humans will begin in October or November this year, and will initially include 150 volunteers.

If the vaccine passes this trial, it will move to phase 2 and 3 trials which require tens of thousands of participants. The primary aim of these later stage trials will be to see if the vaccine can reduce the severity of COVID-19 disease, while also checking it’s still safe.

These later stage trials are quicker to complete if conducted in areas with (unfortunately) high community transmission. One reason we saw Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines approved so quickly was because trials took place in countries where the virus was rampant. If and when this vaccine goes to phase 2 and 3 trials, Australia will hopefully not be in a situation with widespread transmission. So the team may need to involve international partners and recruit participants overseas.

Read more:
What if I can’t get in for my second Pfizer dose and the gap is longer than 3 weeks?

However, there may also be alternative metrics to measure how well a vaccine is working. Researchers can look at study volunteers’ blood to see how many, and the type of, antibodies they’re producing. This could work as a proxy for measuring efficacy. But it’s not clear if Australia’s drug regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, would approve the vaccine without the traditional exposure model.

The team will also compare their mRNA vaccine directly with Pfizer, in a side-by-side comparison, to see how stable it is and how well it elicits antibodies against the virus.

So when can we get it into our arms? It’s uncertain how long the full suite of trials will take, but probably not for a couple of years. It’s possible the vaccine will not make it past phase 1 or 2 trials, although with the similarity in methodology to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, both of which are safe, this is less likely.

Why we need Australian-made vaccines

This is an important step in developing Australia’s sovereign capacity for mRNA vaccine production, and for the newly developing Australian RNA biotechnology sector as a whole. It’s likely we’ll need booster shots for some years to come, so we need to develop local manufacturing capability.

I sincerely hope it’s successful, but even if it’s not, it’s creating a pipeline for onshore mRNA vaccine development.

What’s more, mRNA vaccines are the new gold standard and the next generation vaccine technology. It’s likely we’ll see more pandemics and novel viruses in future, so that adds to the argument for having local mRNA vaccine capacity.

We don’t know how much the federal government paid for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, but it’s likely to have been much more costly than making it here. If we can make it ourselves more cheaply, we’re at a real advantage.The Conversation

Archa Fox, Associate Professor and ARC Future Fellow, The University of Western Australia

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

What is COVAX-19, the most advanced of Australia’s remaining local COVID vaccine candidates?

David Mariuz/AAP

Paul Griffin, The University of QueenslandAustralia’s current crop of COVID-19 vaccines consists of a shot by American biotechnology company Pfizer, which we import, and the vaccine by British-Swedish multinational AstraZeneca, the bulk of which we manufacture onshore in Melbourne under license.

We don’t currently have a locally-made COVID vaccine at our disposal, though this week the Victorian government announced funding for a Pfizer-style mRNA vaccine developed by Monash University. It will move to phase 1 trials in October or November.

However, the most advanced of our local COVID vaccines in development is a shot called “COVAX-19” by South Australian based biotech, Vaxine.

It’s great to see another Australian group at the forefront of COVID-19 research and particularly vaccine development.

The candidate has just started a phase 2 clinical trial in Iran, collaborating with local biotech CinnaGen.

We’re yet to see the published results of the pre-clinical animal studies or the phase 1 human trials, though Vaxine says it has submitted research papers and is awaiting acceptance.

At this point in time, there’s unfortunately not enough information to comment on the safety and efficacy of this locally developed vaccine, though it’s potentially promising.

Further information, particularly the results of the clinical trials, is eagerly awaited.

What is Vaxine?

Vaxine was founded in 2002 with the aim of developing new vaccine technologies.

Researchers at Vaxine have focused for some time on adjuvants, which are substances added to vaccines to enhance the response of the immune system. They’ve developed their own adjuvant named “Advax” which is based on Inulin, a starchy product derived from many plants.

This adjuvant has been used safely and successfully in human trials for many viruses including influenza and hepatitis B. However, it hasn’t been included in any licensed vaccine to date.

What kind of vaccine is it?

Vaxine scientists began work on a COVID-19 vaccine in January 2020. They describe developing a number of different types of vaccines, but eventually settled on a “recombinant protein-based vaccine”.

The goal of any vaccine is to train our immune system to recognise something found on the surface of a pathogen, in this case the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Having a vaccine means if we encounter that virus, we’ll have antibodies and other immune cells ready to protect us.

In the case of COVID-19, most of the vaccines in use and under development target the spike protein, as this is the part of the virus that binds to human cells to get in and cause infection.

Vaxine’s COVAX-19 is no exception and does this by making the spike protein in the laboratory using “recombinant technology”, which is where proteins are artificially manufactured.

Other similar vaccines include those made by Novavax and the University of Queensland.

Read more:
What is Novavax, Australia’s third COVID vaccine option? And when will we get it?

Novavax’s candidate uses their own adjuvant and this month announced impressive results from phase 3 studies.

The University of Queensland candidate used a “molecular clamp” which, unfortunately, caused some participants who received the vaccine in trials to have false-positive HIV tests. Because of this, the vaccine isn’t going to progress beyond phase 1 clinical trials.

Read more:
How did the University of Queensland/CSL vaccine fail due to ‘false positive’ HIV tests? A vaccine expert explains

Is it safe and effective?

Vaxine’s website states its COVAX-19 vaccine has been shown to produce an immune response in a number of animals including mice, macaques and ferrets. The data is not published, so I can’t confirm this.

For results to be published, it means they have been carefully analysed and presented as well as undergoing a robust peer review process. While results from press releases and pre-print articles can tell us exciting results might have been obtained, we really need to see them published in reputable peer-reviewed journals to be certain they’re of sufficient quality to draw reliable conclusions from.

However, the company’s founder and research director, Nikolai Petrovsky, said it has submitted a paper on its mice and ferret studies and is awaiting acceptance.

Based on this unpublished pre-clinical work, this vaccine was assessed in a phase 1 human trial that started June 30 last year.

Clinical trials normally go through three phases:

  • phase 1 trials are the first trials in humans, typically small and predominantly focused on safety
  • phase 2 trials are a little larger, still mostly focused on safety but we start to look a little more at how well it actually works
  • phase 3 are larger studies, looking still at safety but focused mainly on how effectively the vaccine reduces infection or disease.

In Vaxine’s phase 1 trial, 40 participants aged 18 to 65 were included, with 30 people receiving the active vaccine and ten getting a saline placebo.

The company’s website says preliminary data of this phase 1 study demonstrated the COVAX-19 vaccine is safe, well tolerated and produces an immune response, though its data on this trial isn’t published.

Petrovsky said this data has also been submitted and is awaiting acceptance. He said the company’s main focus is on advancing the clinical trials and preparing to produce hundreds of millions of doses, if successful.

He added “we just don’t have the luxury of lots of surplus bandwidth to be writing and publishing papers at the same time”.

The phase 2 clinical trials started on May 30 in Iran, with 400 volunteers injected with either a placebo or the first dose of the vaccine candidate.

This is a step in the right direction. But even if the published phase 1 results confirm the safety and efficacy, given the phase 2 trial has only just commenced and large phase 3 trials are still required, it will unfortunately be some time before we know whether it’s a safe and effective vaccine.

How quickly the vaccine could be available is also likely to depend largely on Vaxine’s ability to scale up manufacturing, which takes considerable investment and quite a long period of time.The Conversation

Paul Griffin, Associate Professor, Infectious Diseases and Microbiology, The University of Queensland

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

COVID impacts demand a change of plan: funding a shift from commuting to living locally

Conventional transport infrastructure planning has been based on wholesale commuting to and from the city centre.
Taras Vyshnya/Shutterstock

Benjamin Kaufman, Griffith University

Long-term planning has delivered mass transit systems to cater for high-patronage, hub-and-spoke transport systems. Unfortunately, this has left many city residents without basic access to public transport services. And we could never have planned for the impacts of COVID-19.

Our previous plans were based on the best available data at the time. Today, these plans must be critically reviewed using new data that properly represent the world and our transport needs as they are now.

Read more:
If more of us work from home after coronavirus we’ll need to rethink city planning

Important facts to keep in mind

1: Fewer people commute to work.

The work-from-home transition is well under way. Our current transport networks (except for roads, which have rebounded to traffic equal to or above pre-pandemic levels in some cities) are operating far below previous levels, even allowing for social distancing. This may not be the best time to break ground on major infrastructure projects planned under previous assumptions of population and demand growth.

Read more:
With management resistance overcome, working from home may be here to stay

2: Disadvantaged populations lack access to opportunities.

Public transport is key to enabling everyone in a population to be a productive member of society. Many disadvantaged groups cannot drive or afford car ownership. However, they also lack access to public transport, particularly in the outer suburbs.

Unfortunately, coronavirus impacts will hit the disadvantaged the hardest. If we want everyone to be able to participate in the economic recovery, we need to promote basic levels of access regardless of an individual’s circumstance.

Read more:
Why coronavirus will deepen the inequality of our suburbs

3: Population growth will not meet projections.

Migration bans will greatly reduce short-term growth. Current projections show a population up to 4% smaller in 2040 than it would have been in a non-COVID world. This will further decrease demand for urban transit services as well as demand across many sectors of our society. These trends are important because much of our planning is based around these population growth metrics.

Read more:
1.4 million less than projected: how coronavirus could hit Australia’s population in the next 20 years

However, our suburbs still lack basic public transport services. If we want to increase patronage, we need to bring services to more people by improving coverage of our sprawling, low-density cities.

Over 80% of the population of our biggest cities live in the outer and middle suburbs, yet this massive majority have limited to no basic public transport service. Across our five largest cities, Infrastructure Australia reports, “public transport disadvantage in outer suburbs is significant”.

Populations living in inner, middle and outer suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide
Estimated resident population by suburban classification, as count and proportion of city population.
Infrastructure Australia: Outer Urban Public Transport: Improving accessibility in lower-density areas

Households’ access to jobs and services gets much worse with increasing distance from the city centre. Development of suburban and regional mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) offerings could promote better access in these “harder to serve” areas.

Read more:
For Mobility as a Service (MaaS) to solve our transport woes, some things need to change

Moving the country forward

Job creation will be an important aspect of economic recovery. Yet too often we look to large construction projects as the answer. There is plenty of other job-creating work to be done in our communities.

We could, for example, increase the miserly funding for our piecemeal walking and cycling networks.

We could also expand on-demand services to suburban and rural residents who lack basic public transport access. On-demand transit does not follow fixed routes or timetables. Riders book a trip for a cost similar to a bus fare.

Passenger waiting to board a Bridj on-demand bus service.
Bridj is one of the operators that is expanding on-demand services in Sydney and other cities.
Bridj Transit Systems/Facebook

Read more:
1 million rides and counting: on-demand services bring public transport to the suburbs

These options will encourage local spending to support small businesses. These are an important piece of our social fabric and improve livability in our communities.

We need to look locally

A focus on localised investment in the many neglected communities across the country will deliver major benefits. Money already committed to large projects that are under way represents sunk costs that may be too deep to renegotiate. However, future plans using public funds must be re-examined.

Investments should target disadvantaged groups and broaden access to transport networks, encouraging new potential users. For many, assistance in gaining access to the necessities of life will be invaluable during the coming economic recovery. Guaranteed access to groceries, medical services, work opportunities and recreational activities must not be reserved for the elite.

We need better localised public transport and we need it for the majority of citizens, not just those who live in the inner suburbs of our capital cities. Most regional populations lack even rudimentary public transport coverage at reasonable frequency.

Increasing services in these areas will create valuable jobs that will stick around, unlike large one-off construction projects. The money will stay local, going into the pockets of operators who live and work in their own community.

While our long-term planning is not to blame for our current situation, we need to develop for the future, not the past. The financial costs of building and maintaining our current infrastructure are not going away. However, we can no longer refuse to invest in many of our underserved communities.

It is time to ensure everyone, regardless of their income or where they grow up, has the basic services they need to be a productive member of society.The Conversation

Benjamin Kaufman, PhD Candidate, Cities Research Institute, Griffith University

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

We should listen to coronavirus experts, but local wisdom counts too

Makeshift hospital beds at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne during the influenza pandemic of 1919.
Museum Victoria

Matthew Kearnes, UNSW; Brian Robert Cook, University of Melbourne; Declan Kuch, UNSW; Joan Leach, Australian National University; Niamh Stephenson, UNSW; Rachel A. Ankeny, University of Adelaide, and Sujatha Raman, Australian National University

Public health messages about COVID-19 have been inconsistent and changed rapidly. Many have called for a unified source of expertise to guide responses to the crisis.

However, with the federal, state and local governments, as well as international bodies, offering different advice, it is no simple task to “listen to the experts”.

In uncertain situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic, biomedical and public health experts contribute facts and their own judgements about risk to our collective thinking and decision making.

The public also have important contributions to make. In response to the spread of coronavirus, community groups are setting out to care for elderly neighbours. People are remembering the importance of nurturing community connections and developing an understanding of the structural burdens placed on women in times of crisis.

Alongside traditional kinds of expertise, this kind of “real time” expertise and leadership at the local scale will be invaluable in coming weeks and months.

Read more:
Uncertain? Many questions but no clear answers? Welcome to the mind of a scientist

Expertise is political

Expert judgements don’t exist in a vacuum. They arise from specific social and political contexts. To understand them, we need to acknowledge the tacit assumptions embedded within expert knowledge claims, especially assumptions concerning how publics respond to expert advice.

In recent weeks there has been much debate about the federal governments’s decision to keep schools open, which has only been made more uncertain by disagreements between experts over the role of schools in the transmission of COVID-19.

Similarly, in the Ruby Princess “debacle”, different governments and agencies have attempted to blame each other and drawn on expert knowledge claims to justify their actions.

These examples demonstrate how expertise is entangled with questions of political judgement and anticipated societal responses.

For publics, it can be hard to distinguish between health experts working for the government and those criticising the government. Experts tend to look alike, sound alike, and “advise” alike, leaving publics to navigate the cacophony.

In this situation, deciding which experts to listen to can become a nearly impossible task. Little wonder many people have been slow to change their behaviour.

Understanding public responses

As recently as two months ago, during Australia’s catastrophic bushfire season, publics were seen as resourceful and resilient. That image has quickly been replaced by a characterisation as vulnerable, easily spooked, and panicking in the face of uncertainty.

However, we can understand buying food, cleaning products, face masks, toiletries, and medication for asthma and fevers as reasonable responses to questions that experts themselves are trying to address in real time. For example, medical anthropologist Christos Lynteris has argued that face mask buying sprees are a reminder we should think of epidemics “not simply as biological events but also as social processes”.

Read more:
Stocking up to prepare for a crisis isn’t ‘panic buying’. It’s actually a pretty rational choice

Science studies scholar Brian Wynne has said the idea of public trust in expertise is too simple. The relationship between publics and experts is complex and ambivalent, he argues, and qualified by “the experience of dependency, possible alienation, and lack of agency”.

Public responses to COVID-19 are not as simple as a mass panic, but they signal something more worrying. The public lacks confidence in public health infrastructure and its ability to contain the virus. “Toilet paper panic” is the response of a population for whom expert advice is one factor among many that affect their feelings of security and wellbeing.

For experts seeking to contribute to public decision making, researchers have empirically demonstrated the productive value of collaborative approaches. For example, sociologist Steven Epstein has documented how collaborations between researchers and broader “lay experts” during the AIDS/HIV epidemic in the 1990s played a key role in the public health response to the disease.

Engaging public expertise, even in times of crisis

But how do we achieve meaningful engagement between publics and experts? Broadening our understanding of expertise would be a start.

Expertise might include the outpouring of creative expression prompted by
COVID-19, or the surge in creation of mutual support groups.

Likewise, efforts to translate health warnings are essential for engaging vulnerable communities. These networks of varied expertise are likely to prove invaluable when existing governance is over-stretched or breaks down.

Diverse, diffuse, and local initiatives are likely to continue during periods of chaos, with the added advantage of feeding further expertise from the ground back into the knowledge system.

The need for a diversity of expertise is already being recognised in responses to COVID-19. The WHO recommends risk communication strategies should “promote a two-way dialogue with communities, the public and other stakeholders”.

The ABC’s Coronacast podcast is one such two-way channel that responds to public concerns and questions. Scientists are also seeking volunteer researchers in the effort to address COVID-19, and many viral social media threads sharing notes on patients’ experience of triage and care have been important sources of information for healthcare workers.

Attending to the dynamism and diversity of expertise does not diminish its invaluable roles in society.

Understanding that the crisis of COVID-19 is also a social one should raise questions of how our traditional reliance on expert advice relegates local expertise to the sidelines.

It is critical that we recognise how local expertise is filling the gaps in government policies and expert advice, and is likely to continue to do so in crises such as the recent bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have an opportunity to appreciate that community responses are characterised by their own expertise. We ought also to listen to those experts.The Conversation

Matthew Kearnes, Professor, Environment & Society, School of Humanities and Languages, UNSW; Brian Robert Cook, Senior Lecturer, University of Melbourne; Declan Kuch, Research Fellow, Environment & Society, School of Humanities and Languages, UNSW; Joan Leach, Professor, Australian National University; Niamh Stephenson, Associate Professor in Social Science, UNSW; Rachel A. Ankeny, Professor of History and Philosophy, and Deputy Dean Research (Faculty of Arts), University of Adelaide, and Sujatha Raman, Associate Professor, Australian National University

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

Instead of rebuilding stadiums, the NSW government should focus on local sport and events

Chris Gibson, University of Wollongong

The New South Wales government’s argument for spending A$2 billion rebuilding stadiums is that Sydney is losing flagship events to other state capitals, leading to fewer tourists and less media exposure. But large investments in transportation and venues are a significant drain on the public purse, often for economic returns that rarely break even.

Our research suggests that the NSW government should invest in smaller community events and sporting organisations that make use of existing facilities. We tracked 480 community events across Australia and found that they generated A$550 million in revenue.

These events also contribute more than A$10 billion a year to their local communities, support 100,000 jobs, and help build local business networks and skills.

Parkes Elvis Festival.
John Connell and Chris Gibson (2017) Outback Elvis: The story of a festival, its fans & a town called Parkes. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing

The benefits of grassroots events

In contrast to major, one-off events that require large infrastructure and marketing budgets, there are thousands of small community events across Australia every month. Each might only attract a few hundred people, but the revenue adds up.

Places that have consciously fostered grassroots community events, such as Ballarat and Hobart, enjoy healthy visitor numbers year-round, without overwhelming the local infrastructure.

Smaller community events make good use of existing facilities such as RSL clubs, showgrounds and parks. They tend to hire labour, PA systems, portaloos and catering from the local community, keeping dollars in circulation locally.

In contrast to mega-events that subcontract management to large firms, community events integrate more participation from their local communities. This not only improves local business networks, but also enhances local skills and leadership.


The economics of large events doesn’t stack up

The evidence also overwhelmingly shows that public investment in major events isn’t worth it. Promised benefits are often exaggerated, and in the words of a recent review of the international research:

…any increased economic activity resulting from the event is routinely dwarfed by additional public budgetary commitments.

Read more: Suspended reality: the ins and outs of Rio’s Olympic bubble

Sydneysiders may have enjoyed the experience of hosting the 2000 Olympic Games, but increases in tourism and business investment failed to materialise. Rio de Janeiro is struggling with recession in the wake of its 2016 Summer Olympics. The money spent on the Olympics would probably have been better spent upgrading hospitals and other infrastructure.

This is partly why cities are backing away from hosting major sporting events. When the International Olympic Committee opened the bidding for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games, all but two cities – Paris and Los Angeles – withdrew their bids.

The fact that no other city was prepared to bid shows that the justifications for lucrative mega-events are wearing thin, both financially and politically.

Misleading numbers

The NSW government recently defended its plan to rebuild stadiums by arguing that the revenue generated by major sporting events will easily pay for itself within a few short years. Economists beg to differ.

Such estimates are typically based on conducting visitor surveys at events and asking punters to estimate their total spending. This is not good research methodology.

For one, people are consistently inaccurate at estimating their spending on the spot, only discovering the actual amount when they open their credit card statements.

It can also be hard for visitors to differentiate between money spent while at a specific event, and their spending elsewhere on their holiday.

Visitors complete surveys at the Daylesford ChillOut Festival.
Chris Gibson

We also need to subtract all of the money that would have been spent whether or not a major event takes place. This includes spending by people who live in the area, those who rescheduled travel plans to coincide with the event, and those who would have done some other activity (also known as “time-switching”) instead of going to the event.

Read more: Sydney’s stadiums debate shows sport might not be the political winner it once was

In other words, take all the Sydneysiders, casual visitors and time-switchers out of calculations of, say, weekly NRL game revenue at the Olympic or Sydney football stadia. The actual amount of “new” revenue for Sydney is much less impressive.

This is why a sober analysis of the true costs and benefits, and actual revenue numbers, are needed before governments rush to invest in major sports and event infrastructure.

The ConversationIf NSW truly wants to foster the events economy, the evidence suggests that money would be better spent on local community events and sporting organisations.

Chris Gibson, Director, UOW Global Challenges Program & Professor of Human Geography, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Votes for corporations and extra votes for property owners: why local council elections are undemocratic

File 20170912 11499 1pd83w2
Undemocratic voting systems in local council elections are not limited to the City of Sydney.
AAP/Daniel McCullough

Ryan Goss, Australian National University

Imagine, for a minute, an undemocratic political system. Imagine a voting system in which someone has more votes than you because they own property. Or a voting system in which corporations have a vote – and maybe even more votes than regular people. A voting system in which, as a result, the power of your vote could be diluted by votes cast on behalf of corporations.

This voting system isn’t something from Britain during the Industrial Revolution, or America’s Deep South in the 1950s. Instead, as my recent paper outlines, this way of voting is a reality at local council elections in five of Australia’s six states.

It’s time for this to change.

Not just a Sydney problem

In recent years journalists have often discussed voting rights in the City of Sydney, which gets attention because of the high profile of its council and because of its unusual voting laws. Not only do property-owning corporations get two votes in the City of Sydney, but voting is compulsory for them.

But this type of undemocratic voting isn’t confined to the City of Sydney. It’s not even confined to New South Wales. In every state except Queensland voting rights at local council elections include voting rights based on owning or leasing property, votes for corporations, and various forms of plural voting (ways in which one person can have more than one vote).

In other contexts, Australia’s most senior judges have described plural voting or property-based voting rights as “conspicuously undemocratic” and “anachronistic”, and said that such systems would be unconstitutional if done at federal elections. Such a system enshrines inequality by giving some people more of a say than others.

These days our local councils perform a wide range of government functions. If we don’t accept undemocratic voting rights at state or federal elections, we shouldn’t accept them for local council elections.

Time to catch up with Queensland

Queensland reformed its law on all of this in the 1920s. Alfred Jones, a Labor member of Queensland’s upper house, put it this way when advocating the change in December 1920:

We must recognise that local government is a form of government which affects every citizen within the particular local authority area; and I believe that all governing bodies should be elected on the broad franchise of one adult one vote. Probably Australia has led the world in connection with the adoption of that principle.

Surely what Queensland recognised in 1920 can be recognised in the other states in 2017.

And so, as my paper explains, in Queensland today you get to vote at local council elections if you can vote at state and federal elections. It’s that simple.

Essentially, this means you only get to vote for the local council that runs the area you live in, you only get to vote once, and there are no special voting rights for corporations or property owners. It’s the same at council elections in the Northern Territory.

Queensland hasn’t always been the torchbearer for Australian democracy. But at least voting rights at Queensland local government elections are designed to reflect basic democratic principles.

A kaleidoscope of different laws

The other five Australian states have different ways of deciding who gets voting rights at local council elections. British and Australian history has shaped these voting systems, and the relevant laws have often evolved slowly over time.

In some states, for example, non-citizens can vote if they are resident in the area; in other states residents must be citizens to vote. In some states, voting is compulsory at local council elections; in others it is voluntary or compulsory only for some voters. The detail of the laws is complex.

Nevertheless, there are some rules common to many of the problematic laws in these five states. Being enrolled on the state or federal electoral roll in a local government area will generally entitle you to vote at council elections in that area.

Owning or occupying property in a council area will generally entitle the owner or occupier to vote in that area, especially if the owner or occupier is not also a resident. This also means that, where the owner or occupier is a corporation, the legislation will provide a process by which someone can vote on behalf of the corporation. Where someone owns or occupies multiple properties in a particular council area, or where they live in an area and also own or occupy another property in the area, the law will provide some sort of limit on the number of votes available to that person.

The complex provisions underpinning these voting rights stand in stark contrast to the simple terms of the Queensland law. But while they are complex, their result is clear. In different ways, as the paper shows, these laws allow for voting rights based on property ownership or occupation, voting rights for corporations, and allow individual people to cast multiple votes.

All of this dilutes the voting power of individuals, and runs the risk that local governments may become distracted from what is in the interests of their local community.

Local councils can’t fix this themselves

These laws are quirks of history that have no place in Australia’s 21st-century democracy. So what should be done?

Fixing the laws that govern local council elections is the responsibility of the states. From time to time, state governments and state parliaments consider the possibility of making local council voting rights more democratic.

The ConversationThe good news is that there’s an easy way to make the change: NSW, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania can simply follow Queensland’s lead. It’s time for state parliaments to act.

Ryan Goss, Senior Lecturer, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Bible Apps in the Pew

The link below is to an article that reports on the increasing use of tablets, smartphones and other gadgets in the pew during church services as modern technology impacts at the local level.

Do you use a digital version of the Bible during church services? If so, what do you use? Please share in the comments.

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Suspected Islamists Burn Down Two Homes in Ethiopia

Two thatched-grass structures belonged to evangelist who received threats.

NAIROBI, Kenya, April 21 (CDN) — A Christian near Ethiopia’s southern town of Moyale said suspected Islamic extremists on March 29 burned down his two thatched-grass homes.

Evangelist Wako Hanake of the Mekane Yesus Church told Compass he had been receiving anonymous messages warning him to stop converting Muslims to Christ. The Muslims who became Christians included several children.

“Inside the house were iron sheets and timber stored in preparation for putting up a permanent house,” said Hanake, who is in his late 30s. “I have lost everything.”

The incident in Tuka, five kilometers (nearly three miles) from Moyale in southern Ethiopia’s Oromia Region, happened while Hanake was away on an evangelistic trip. A neighbor said he and others rescued Hanake’s wife and children ages 8, 6 and 2.

“We had to rescue the wife with her three children who were inside one of the houses that the fire was already beginning to burn,” said the neighbor, who requested anonymity.

Church leaders said neighbors are still housing Hanake and his family.

“The family has lost everything, and they feel fearful for their lives,” said a local church leader. “We are doing all we can to provide clothing and food to them. We are appealing to all well wishers to support Hanake’s family.”

Hanake said he has reported the case to Moyale police.

“I hope the culprits will be found,” he said.

An area church leader who requested anonymity told Compass that Christians in Moyale are concerned that those in Tuka are especially vulnerable to a harsh environment in which religious rights are routinely violated.

“The Ethiopian constitution allows for religious tolerance,” said another area church leader, also under condition of anonymity, “but we are concerned that such ugly incidents like this might go unpunished. To date no action has been taken.”

Tuka village, on Ethiopia’s border with Kenya, is populated mainly by ethnic Oromo who are predominantly Muslim. The area Muslims restrict the preaching of non-Muslim faiths, in spite of provisions for religious freedom in Ethiopia’s constitution.

Hostility toward those spreading faiths different from Islam is a common occurrence in predominantly Muslim areas of Ethiopia and neighboring countries, area Christians said, adding that they are often subject to harassment and intimidation.

Ethiopia’s constitution, laws and policies generally respect freedom of religion, but occasionally some local authorities infringe on this right, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

According to Operation World, nearly 40 percent of Ethiopia’s population affiliates with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 19 percent are evangelical and Pentecostal and 34 percent are Sunni Muslim. The remainder are Catholic (3 percent) and ethno-religious (3.7 percent).


Jimma Violence

In Jimma Zone in the country’s southwest, where thousands of Christians in and around Asendabo have been displaced as a result of attacks that began on March 2 after Muslims accused a Christian of desecrating the Quran, the number of churches burned has reached 71, and two people have reportedly been killed. Their identities, however, were still unconfirmed.

When the anti-Christian violence of thousands of Muslims subsided by the end of March, 30 homes had reportedly been destroyed and as many as 10,000 Christians may have been displaced from Asendabo, Chiltie, Gilgel Gibe, Gibe, Nada, Dimtu, Uragay, Busa and Koticha.

Report from Compass Direct News