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Comment: WikiLeaks and the senate candidate who isn’t here

By Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Julian Assange faces many challenges as a senate hopeful.

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AAP/Kerim Okten

One of the most interesting aspects of Julian Assange’s bid for a Victorian Senate seat is who will be his running mate.

If Assange happened to fluke a win – which electoral experts say is a very long shot – and then survived any legal challenge to his eligibility, he would face an intractable problem, assuming he was still ensconced in the Ecuadorian embassy when the new Senate met some time after July 1 next year.

The constitution provides that a senator loses his or her place if they don’t turn up for two consecutive months, unless a vote of the upper house gives them leave. Historically, only one senator has forfeited his place (in 1903, through illness). Leave periods have been granted, but never indefinite leave.

While the WikiLeaks party was unrepresented on the floor, the conservative side of politics would benefit in the senate numbers.

When there is a casual vacancy, the ex-senator’s party nominates a replacement, who is formally appointed by the parliament of the relevant state.

John Shipton, Assange’s father, who is getting together the WikiLeaks party, to be launched in Melbourne on Saturday, says he is negotiating with a potential running mate, keeping in mind this person could become the accidental senator.

Assange’s bid has ramped up to another level with the appointment of the politically-experienced Greg Barns and the party’s formal launch. Barns will run the campaign while Shipton, 68, concentrates on building the party.

Barns, who now works as a barrister, was an adviser to John Fahey, former finance minister in the Howard government. He was campaign director for the Australian Republic Movement’s 1999 referendum campaign. Later he was disendorsed as a state Liberal candidate in Tasmania after he criticised the Howard government’s tough policy on boat people.

He became interested in the Assange issue through his involvement in the progressive-oriented Australian Lawyers Alliance; he was then approached for the campaign. “I think Julian’s values are pretty consistent with mine, [in terms of] the rights of the individual vis-a-vis the state”. He will be fulltime on the campaign from June.

UMR polling in September asked people how likely they would be to vote for Assange for a Senate seat – in Victoria he polled 30 per cent.

New polling is about to be done, which will provide a more realistic test now the Assange candidacy is firm and the election closer.

While Assange’s stellar support in UMR polling (including an earlier survey it did) won’t be reflected in a real life vote, it would seem to put him at least in the mix for the sixth Senate place, given that tiny votes have elected former Victorian senator Steve Fielding (although he was installed by a preference deal with Labor) and current DLP senator John Madigan, also from Victoria.

But ABC election expert Antony Green rates Assange’s chances as minimal. He will be competing with the Greens for the last seat. “If Labor and the Greens have 43 per cent of the vote, there’s no room for Assange to be elected”, Green says.

“His best chance of getting elected would be if Labor gave him preferences ahead of the Greens”.

But, despite the falling out between the ALP and the Greens, why would they? The government has been highly critical of Assange.

In practical terms, says Green, “the only way he could get elected is to get the preferences of a lot of [micro] right-of-centre parties”.

This would appear difficult, although the Wikileaks party’s negotiating power on preferences would be boosted if the new polling found his support still high. Barns said he would be disappointed if Assange couldn’t pull in 6 per cent to 7 per cent of the vote in the election adding, on the question of preferences, “I’d be surprised if people didn’t come and have a talk”.

Barns says Assange draws support from across the political spectrum; yesterday he had offers of help from a former Liberal staffer and a former Nationals staffer. But in terms of primary votes, Assange obviously would need to attract some Green and left Labor voters.

The issues on which the Wikileaks party will campaign will include accountability, greater transparency in decision making and the role of the Senate as a house of review, as well as the increase of security powers since September 11, 2001.

The party, which will also run a Senate team at least in NSW and possibly elsewhere, will make some decisions about tactics at its meeting in Melbourne on Saturday. One is how much to use online versus old media for campaigning. For Assange personally, holed up in the embassy, video and online campaigning is obviously the only way to go. Shipton estimates that the campaign will need $100,000 per candidate to run.

Apart from other points of attack, Assange’s opponents will have an obvious killer argument against him: “Why think of voting for a man who won’t be able to take his seat?”

If ever there was a tilting-at-windmills bid, Assange’s is surely it. But then the Senate does see some strange contests – and a few unexpected results.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Dark days spurring Souths skipper Sutton

On the cusp of delivering South Sydney their first major trophy in more than 40 years, Rabbitohs captain John Sutton hasn’t forgotten the dark times when wooden spoons were the norm.

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Souths will battle it out with arch-rivals Sydney Roosters for the minor premiership on Friday night – an honour the Rabbitohs have not earned since 1989 – when Sutton was just four.

There was no prize to show for the minor premiership back then, with the JJ Giltinan Shield only awarded to the regular season champion from 1997.

Prior to that the massive shield was handed over to the premiers – an image only the oldest of Souths fans can recall with any fondness.

Through good times and bad, the Rabbitohs have been judged on the run of outs since 1971 – Sutton desperate for the current crop to leave their mark.

“We’re just trying to create our own little history here by just wining games,” Sutton said.

“It’s great to be a part of the club at the moment.”

Great times indeed, with the Rabbitohs set to compete in back to back finals series for the first time since 1986-87.

But things didn’t always look this good for the Rabbitohs, or Sutton.

The club collected the wooden spoon in two of his first three seasons.

He played one finals game in his first eight seasons with the club.

By contrast, halves partner Adam Reynolds has known nothing but success since bursting onto the scene last year, having won 35 of the 50 top grade games he has played.

It took Sutton 105 games – almost six seasons – to win his 35th game.

“To be captain and winning games – when I first started there were a couple of wooden spoons here and there, it wasn’t the best of years,” Sutton recalled.

“But since Madge (coach Michael Maguire) has come along, he’s changed the culture around and it’s just great to be a part of this.

“I’m just looking forward to the next few weeks of footy – it’s going to be exciting.”

Asked if he had to remind some of his newer teammates about just how far the club has come, Sutton said:

“Most of the boys who’ve been around footy a long time sort of know where the club’s been and how it used to be.

“Since Madge has come along it’s pretty much done a full 180.”

Even Reynolds, who wasn’t even born the last time the Rabbitohs were minor premiers, is aware of the journey the club has been on.

“The club wasn’t going too well at a stage there,” Reynolds said.

“The fans stuck loyal, it’s just good to reward them these days.”

And the players too, but Sutton isn’t getting caught up in the hype.

He knows the JJ Giltinan Shield would be nice, but it is the newly renamed Provan-Summons premiership trophy the club really wants.

“It is a big game, we’re not going to deny that,” Sutton said of Friday night’s ANZ Stadium blockbuster.

“But like we’ve been doing all year, we just have to concentrate on what we have to do here at Souths.

“Our preparation has to be spot on this week – the Roosters have had a couple of losses lately, I’m sure they’re going to be coming out fired up.”

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Yothu Yindi and the Yolngu culture: dreaming of a brighter day

By Samuel Curkpatrick

Only a few decades after radio, popular music and electric guitars spread through Arnhem Land in the 1960s, Yothu Yindi rose to take a prominent and celebrated place in Australian culture.

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Forming in 1986, the band was soon making a number of international tours and their hit songs Treaty from 1991, blazed its way up the Australian pop charts.

Treaty not only became the first song in an Indigenous Australian language, Gumatj, to gain widespread attention but it also became the unofficial anthem for the reconciliation movement: “Now two rivers run their course, separated for so long. I’m dreaming of a brighter day when the waters will be one.”

Composed in collaboration with Paul Kelly and Midnight Oil, this song protested the lack of action taken by then Prime Minster Bob Hawke’s on his 1988 promise of a treaty with Indigenous Australia.

Two halves

Yet the significance of Yothu Yindi goes much deeper than the band’s phenomenal success as a popular music group. The very name of the band asserts a fundamental tenet of indigenous ancestral law. This principle of yothu-yindi or “child-mother” underpins the entire Yolngu world, the cultural and linguistic group to which the band and its musicians belong.

The Yolngu world is divided into two halves, or two moieties, known as Dhuwa and Yirritja. Everything in nature, society, language and ceremony belongs to either one of these two halves. To anyone born in the Yolngu world, your mother always belongs to the side opposite yourself: if you are Dhuwa, your mother will be Yirritja and vice versa.

This system governs important rights such as land ownership, shapes regional parliamentary gatherings and determines the particular songs and dances that are your duty to sing and maintain.

Yothu-yindi is an expression of unity in diversity, a relationship of difference (child-mother) out of which stems good society. Yothu-yindi is about the reciprocal responsibilities of caring for country and family.

Yothu Yindi’s recently deceased lead singer, who was also the first Aboriginal school principal in Australia, carried the notion of yothu-yindi into his tireless advocacy for a “two-ways” bi-cultural approach.

His 1993 Boyer lectures advocated relative autonomy, where Yolngu people, law and culture exist side by side with the rest of Australia. He was also named Australian of the Year in 1992.

Just as salt water meets fresh to create brackish water, yothu-yindi concerns productivity amid difference. This ancestral law extends into the very music that Yothu Yindi plays. As the singer told Rolling Stone magazine: “I’m using white man’s skills, Yolngu skills and putting them together for a new beginning.”

Narratives from public Yolngu ceremonies and tradition are carried by the new musical forms, contexts and instruments of Yothu Yindi. Like the colourful artwork that comes out of Arnhem Land, popular music continues to be used as a means of telling ancestral stories in the present.

Sunset dreaming

Another ARIA winning Yothu Yindi song, Djäpana: Sunset Dreaming, imagines the red sinking sun that, as the vocalist sings, “takes my mind back to my homeland, far away.” It is a song of worry and homesickness sung at funeral ceremonies. The design being painted onto the chest of a boy in the film clip shows clouds on the horizon forming out to sea. The sunset glows, reflected on the clouds and water.

Like other Yothu Yindi songs, Djäpana: Sunset Dreaming uses lyrics taken directly from the age-old ceremonial repertoires belonging to the Gumatj and Rirratjingu clans. The characteristic sound of the didjeridu (yidaki) and clapsticks (bilma) that can be heard in rock music from Arnhem Land also stem from tradition. These instruments are at the heart of ceremonial dance (bunggul) and complement the band’s rock style, creating rhythmic drive and groove.

Yothu Yindi’s performances across the country and globe are, first and foremost, an assertion of the relevance of Yolngu law today. They are a demonstration of the Yolngu ability to bring their ancestral narratives into contemporary expressions, asserting their legitimacy as they share them in an ever-changing world.

Truly Australian music

Touring through the 1990s and into the 2000s, Yothu Yindi have continued to achieve success as a widely recognised group representative of truly Australian music. Embracing popular sounds and media, they have given Australians a fresh and positive perspective on Indigenous culture. Their music exudes hope for a brighter future.

The band’s high profile gigs, such as the closing ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, are matched by their workshops with Indigenous bands across Arnhem Land. The Yothu Yindi Foundation’s annual Garma Festival at the homeland Gulkula, continues what Yothu Yindi started, bringing people together to discuss ideas of reconciliation and to share traditional culture.

With great energy and colour, Yothu Yindi sing in celebration of the great traditions of their ancestral homelands, allowing their voices to merge with mainstream Australia in hope for our shared future.

The lead singer of Yothu Yindi has not been named or depicted in this article out of respect for Yolngu cultural protocols.

Samuel Curkpatrick does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Comment: the silence surrounding Prisoner X

By Felix Patrikeeff, University of Adelaide

When Melbourne man Ben Zygier, an alleged agent of Mossad, or perhaps a double agent, died in December 2010, his end was barely perceptible.

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He had been held anonymously in solitary confinement at a high-security prison in Israel. A notice of his death appeared on the Internet, and then promptly disappeared. His name was not made known at the time.

It had to be secured by Australian investigative journalists. Australian authorities were informed of the death, and the unfortunate man’s body was returned to his family in Australia, but leaving behind his wife and children in Israel.

Ben Zygier (also known as Ben Alon, Ben Allen and Benjamin Burroughs) was supposed to have disappeared quietly, and neither Australia nor Israel seemed in a hurry to shine any light on the incident.

Ben Zygier had been locked in the high-security Ayalon prison for ten of the eleven months after the much-publicised death of a senior Hamas figure, Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, in Dubai on 19 January 2010. The timing is most important, as Zygier was reportedly taken into custody a month later.

Hamas members at a memorial for slain senior military commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. It is suspected that his assassination was carried out by Mossad agents. AAP/Ali Ali

Al-Mabhouh’s assassination had been organised for Israel by 26 agents of its external intelligence agency, Mossad. The majority of these had travelled on UK or other cloned European passports. Four had fake Australian passports. Their cover was blown by Dubai authorities, who relatively quickly amassed a great deal of evidence, including CCTV footage of the agents following Al-Mabhouh to his hotel room.

In the maelstrom of press coverage that followed Dubai’s revelations, the third-party countries whose passports had been counterfeited raised very vocal protests against Israel for the unconscionable use of false passports to perpetrate covert action.

Australia’s then Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, generally a taciturn politician, was in important ways quite blunt and certain in his views on the situation, emphatically stating that “no government can tolerate the abuse of its passports, especially by a foreign government”. A member of the Israeli Embassy in Canberra (presumably the resident Mossad agent) was expelled. And then silence.

The use of counterfeit passports dominated the airwaves. In the year before the Al-Mabhouh killing, there had been other Australian press investigations going on regarding the use of our passports, but at that time the focus was on dual citizens and a technically legitimate use of the passports (through name changes).

Zygier was caught in that particular net, but protested vehemently that he had nothing to do with a covert role. The question is, where did the leads that allowed our journalists to pursue the story come from? They came from our own “intelligence sources”.

What all of this suggests is that our agencies (both news and, presumably, security) had been working hard on the use of passports by dual citizens. This may have extended to breaking the cover of one such user, Zygier. Normally, such an action will not result in the measures taken against “Prisoner X”, as Zygier became known, after being detained by Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security agency). An agent whose cover has been blown becomes all but useless to the agency they work for, and, if they have been working deep in cover in hostile areas, potentially endanger themselves.

Incarceration in Ayalon Prison was not to protect Zygier, and, as it has been pointed out by authoritative commentators, the way in which he was dealt with by Israel was really quite unusual.

But equally so, one could argue, was the “hands off” approach adopted by Australian authorities in a case where an Australian citizen had been deprived of his identity, held in a maximum-security prison, investigated and tried in camera, but whose wife had known where he was, brought in an Israeli lawyer seasoned in the human rights area, and, it would seem, have urgently pressed for something to be done concerning her husband’s plight.

Ben Zygier may well have been “turned” by Australian intelligence after his involvement in procuring passports for Mossad agents. ABC/Foreign Correspondent

Did she also contact the Australian Embassy in attempting to exhaust each and every possible method of exerting pressure on the Israeli Government? Presumably that did happen, but there was a general silence about that.

In a recent Parliamentary Committee hearing, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade gave an entirely plausible explanation as to Zygier’s case and why it had not appeared on its radar: the files were being investigated by our intelligence agencies, and, presumably, not by DFAT itself. But would Zygier’s wife not have tried to deal with the Australian authorities here regarding her husband’s desperate situation? There is general silence on that question too.

We know from what the Israeli government has said that opening up this case could cause considerable embarrassment, but it did not say for whom specifically: Israel itself, or Australia.

We have also heard the conjecture that one of the reasons why Zygier found himself in such a situation was that perhaps he could no longer bear the crisis of conscience of having his morality challenged by what he was instructed to do, or alternatively what he saw done, by Mossad, and therefore blew a whistle.

These aside, there is, of course, another potential explanation, and that is that Zygier had been a double-agent, but a very well concealed one until, presumably, his name became known to journalists, and, by extension, to the general public. If this was the case, who might his other “masters” have been?

The Zygier case has been remarkable in that, even with the scant information that has emerged since the story broke, it has provided tantalising insights into intelligence agencies both here and in Israel. However, and as so often happens, clandestine agencies, and governments, have a habit of relying on deep and stubborn silence to obliterate the sensations that emerge in such cases. If it does here, we can only conclude that the Israeli and Australian governments would prefer to have the matter buried with Zygier. The reasons why remain intriguing.

Felix Patrikeeff does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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A dying art: Chan Shaw’s work showcased in Sydney

An exhibition has opened in Sydney featuring the work of one of Australia’s most remarkable fashion designers.

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From a Chinese migrant family, Vivian Chan Shaw’s hand-knitted garments have for decades attracted international attention.

Chan Shaw’s unique attention to detail led to a lifetime’s work and it all started casually.

“Somebody wanted somebody in a fashion shop. I thought, I might just sort of stick my nose in and see what I can do,“ the fashion designer recalls.

More than stick her nose in, Chan Shaw became a trailblazer of Australian fashion in the ’70s and ’80s. Propelled by necessity, as a single mother of four children.

“But when I got into it, more and more and more, I loved it, it was sort of like second nature,” she says. “I thought, I am home, this is it!’

Her family had been here a while. Migrating in the Gold Rush in 1860, but she was born in Hong Kong, then raised in Sydney – as a fashionable child. Her mother owned a clothing boutique and her grandmother taught her how to knit.

As a designer, she pioneered working with artisan hand loomers and innovative and experimental knit-wear became her trademark.

“It’s sort of like a dying art, because it’s very hard to do and very time consuming,” says Chan Shaw. “It’s not as easy as say running up a garment on a sewing machine, so that’s the difficult part.”

Chan Shaw’s daughter, designer Claudia Chan Shaw, works with her mother, and says it’s not just the designs that are unique, but also the way they are made.

“To find something hand made in Australia, let alone Sydney – you know everything these days is made in China and India and Bangladesh – it’s very, very unusual,” says Claudia. “Sometimes you’ll have Australian designers having little capsule collections made in Australia, but it’s very, very rare for an Australian designer to have the complete collection – every single piece, including jewellery, all made here.”

Chan Shaw approached America and Europe with a single focus and the oldest sales and export technique.

“We used to take what we call a ‘trunk show’ over, which means you take a whole lot of garments, put them in a bag, and have a showing,” she says. “We usually sold the whole lot. We would come back without any.”

The secret: her distinctive process.

Each handmade garment is valuable because they couldn’t be copied en masse. Like her daughter’s wedding dress, worn once, and now in the Powerhouse Museum.

It all helped Australia’s fashion image. Before Vivian, Australia’s only fashion image was of Drizabones and swimwear.

“Vivian opened doors in those famous American department stores that were so tough,” says fashion luminary Leanne Whitehouse. “And to sell to those department stores – you didn’t sell a collection of knits – you sold a top, and there was a buyer for the tops, and there was a buyer for the skirts and a buyer for the dresses, and to have a cohesive collection sitting in one of those department stores was like winning the lottery.”

Through four decades of Vivian Chan Shaw’s designs, a distinct and unwavering style has endured, remarkable in the fast changing world of fashion.

She puts her longevity down to this uniqueness.

“We are different. We aren’t for everybody, therefore we have a selected sort of clientele,” says Chan Shaw. “If they love us, they love us forever. Really, they have grown old with me, together.

Vivian Chan Shaw designs to her own rhythm; she’s not a slave to fashion. Her elegant flounces, unique colouring and hand-made detail inspire intense loyalty from her life-long customers – local and international.

A special design commissioned for Barbie’s 30th birthday is attracting wearers such as Dionne Warwick and Margaux Hemingway.

At 78 and still working, Chan Shaw has surprised even herself with the way it all turned out.

“I was thunderstruck,” she says of walking through her own retrospective. “I thought, God – is that what I’ve been doing for the last 40 years? I mean – I must have!”

Vivian Chan Shaw – 40 Years, A Retrospective is on display until 13 February in Sydney.

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Comment: Change at the top – what next for BHP Billiton?

By Tim O’Shannassy, RMIT University

The board of BHP Billiton Limited today announced the retirement of chief executive officer and inside director Marius Kloppers.

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Dr Kloppers is a 20-year veteran of the company, serving 12 years as a senior executive. He was appointed CEO in October 2007. Dr Kloppers’ retirement from the CEO role will be effective 10 May 2013, and from the group effective 1 October 2013.

BHP Billiton chairman Jac Nasser praised the efforts of his retiring CEO in today’s board announcement. Mr Nasser drew attention to Dr Kloppers’ steady stewardship of the company in the global financial crisis environment, driving new investments, and delivering strong shareholder returns during his tenure, with the group outperforming its peers.

The decision has been taken that Dr Kloppers will be succeeded by Andrew Mackenzie, currently BHP Billiton’s chief executive non-ferrous.

Dr Kloppers described working for BHP Billiton as a “privilege”, paying tribute to current and former colleagues, in particular former chairman Don Argus and former CEOs Paul Anderson and Chip Goodyear.

Media reporting in recent weeks has focused on the need for the group to rework its strategy. The commodity price boom encouraged strong spending from mining companies to increase productive capacity. Federal Minister for Resources and Energy Martin Ferguson is on the record in 2012 as saying the mining boom is over, so times have changed.

Big miners such as BHP Billiton set the tone for strategy in their industry. In 2012, BHP Billiton communicated to the market that their strategy focus for the current year is on reducing operating costs and non-essential expenditure. There has been suggestion of a slowdown or stop of some development programs, closure of higher cost operations and a significant targeted cost reduction program across the group. However, there have been few specifics provided to the investment community on details of this cost-cutting program.

The financial result presented today was in line with analyst forecasts, but a little disappointing. First half total revenue was down 14% at US$32.2 billion with net profit down 58% at US$4.24 billion.

Against the backdrop of these announcements there has been some media and shareholder chatter on succession planning at BHP Billiton in recent months.

Not all media commentators have seen Dr Mackenzie as a clear choice for the prized position of BHP Billiton CEO. Names including Marcus Randolph, Alberto Calderon and Michael Yeager have been suggested in the Fairfax media, with the view that a CEO with a strong operations background may be best suited to the role.

Dr Mackenzie has occupied a variety of roles in oil and gas, petrochemicals and minerals with organizations including BP and Rio Tinto, as well as enjoying a distinguished academic career. Dr Mackenzie joined BHP Billiton in 2007.

Dr Mackenzie will join the BHP Billiton board in May. BHP Billiton pride themselves on succession planning, though none of the contenders for the CEO succession currently are on the board of the world’s biggest miner. A small number of quality inside directors balanced by a strong chair and a majority of outside directors can make a strong and sound contribution to organisation strategy. Such an environment can also help to prepare senior executives for succession.

Looking to the future, the challenge for BHP will be to reduce costs, develop the right growth assets, and deliver strong returns to shareholders. Investors have become more vocal on the need for mining companies to improve their yield to investors, which are a fraction of what financial services companies can deliver.

Tim O’Shannassy does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Pigs and pollution: China ‘can’t keep ignoring the environment’

By Yanshuang Zhang

In a joke currently circulating on China’s most popular social media, Sina Weibo, a Beijing resident boasts about his happy life in the badly air-polluted capital, saying that every morning when he opens the window he can enjoy a free smoke.

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A Shanghai resident sniffed:“Bah! Every time we turn on the tap, we get free pork soup.”

Hilarious, but grim. Deadly air is shrouding most big Chinese cities and thousands of dead pigs have been found in the Huangpu River: things are bad enough that China’s normally compliant Parliament has begun to protest.

By last week, more than 6,000 rotting pig carcasses had been cleaned up from Huangpu River, which supplies tap water to Shanghai. These dead pigs were mostly dumped by nearby pig breeders in Zhejiang province. They don’t have the capacity to do biosafety disposal of sick animals, nor can they get compensation from the government for such losses from disease due to a lack of insurance and compensation mechanisms in the industry. Traces of some common pig viruses have been found in some of the animals floating in the river.

Experts from the central government claimed the issue had been appropriately solved, ruling out the possibility of major threat to public health. They further clarified no sick animals had been butchered and sold for meat in this case. However,one would expect the rumours to continue because many similar cases have been reported in the past several years.

The tip of the iceberg

The dead pigs of Shanghai are just a piece of the jigsaw puzzle. In recent years increasing numbers of “cancer villages” in China have been revealed, mainly on social media sites and blogs where activists and environmental experts raise public awareness of soil and groundwater contamination. In these polluted areas, soaring rates of diseases like stomach cancer are believed to be caused by drinking contaminated water containing hazardous chemicals disposed of by local industries.

In February, Deng Fei, a former investigative journalist and now an influential activist, initiated a campaign, inviting Chinese “netizens” to take photos of polluted rivers in their hometowns and upload them to Weibo. Meanwhile, in coalition with journalists and environmental activists, he launched a “China Water Crisis Independent Investigation” which regularly releases information on Weibo about water quality nationwide. His call received thousands of responses from net users, and for the first time provoked a national debate on groundwater safety.

Based on an insider source, Deng further revealed on Weibo the truth about a recent water dispute that arose in Weifang prefecture, Shandong province. Some local companies are believed to have discharged underground pollution for years, severely contaminating ground water and giving the area one of the highest rates of stomach cancer in the world. However, during the investigation the local government tried to cover up and even block media coverage.

Outrage over pollution has widely spread among ordinary Chinese people, and even attracted attention on social media channels throughout the world.

Jimmy Palmiotti, the famous inker of Marvel Comics expressed his condemnation of water pollution in China. Twitter

Some Chinese media have also joined the crusade against water pollution. Event People’s Daily, the Party’s mouthpiece outlet, has stepped in and issued a series of appeals on its Weibo account. They warn “enterprises shouldn’t poison the public to chase higher profits; government agencies shouldn’t loosen their regulations for the sake of their work performance”, “we want a GDP that won’t kill the next generation, and from the government to the public, we should all trumpet the cause of water pollution control and preserve clean water sources for a beautiful China”.

According to the China Geological Survey, 90% of underground water has suffered different degrees of contamination, with more than 60% suffering severe contamination. Also according to statistics released by Xinhua News Agency, in 118 Chinese cities only 3% of the underground water is considered moderately clean.

Chinese netizens take to the internet with their grim humour as a way of revolt.

A no-win situation

Furious public opinion has made it hard for the authorities to ignore these crises. During the annual National People’s Congress and China People’s Political Consultative Conference which has just ended, the questions around water quality as well as other environmental issues in China were frequently raised on the urgent agenda. The new elected government has pledged to tackle the growing health crisis provoked by environmental degradation.

There are appeals to speed up environmental legislation to improve environment quality and push for a strict time-line for solving environmental problems. The new leadership has effectively announced several new laws and standards on environmental protection over the last two months, including a detailed implementation framework from the Ministry of Environmental Protection. It seems the new leaders have been gradually living up to their promise to establish an effective service-oriented government which draws a clear line between itself and the old.

Keeping the balance between economic growth and environmental protection is a critical challenge for the new government. China is still on a course of seeking maximum economic growth. Unless the whole nation gets down to pursuing a sustainable development, there will never be a win-win situation in the relationship between human and nature.

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

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Thousands of fans celebrate Wanderers in Western Sydney

The Red and Black mob was celebrating a near-perfect start to the A-League, with plenty to be proud of: winning the regular season, setting new records with 10 consecutive wins and selling out stadiums.

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“We didn’t miss any game,” said a fan. “We went to Newcastle, to the Central Coast, to Campbelltown, we didn’t go to Melbourne. Just anywhere we could drive, we went”.

Skipper Michael Beauchamp says Western Sydney will extract a silver lining from their A-League grand final defeat in the form of renewed focus next season.

The Wanderers went down 2-0 to the Central Coast in front of over 40,000 fans at Allianz Stadium, ending an astonishing maiden season with their first loss since January 6 when, ironically, they went down to the Mariners by the same scoreline.

They entered the title decider on the back of a 13-game unbeaten streak – which included a record 10 consecutive wins – and as minor premiers having created Australian sporting history as the first start-up club to clinch silverware in their first year.

Accomplishments made even more remarkable when you factor in it was all achieved under a first-time head coach, 39-year-old Tony Popovic, who was in charge of a side that had been hurriedly thrown together just weeks before the season started.

But with the championship trophy the only thing to elude them, Beauchamp feels it now gives them a focus for next season. “It definitely hurts and that’s going to be a factor next season – we don’t want to feel that again,” he said on Monday.

“So come that first day of pre-season that’s going to be our goal to be a part of the grand final again and be on the winning side.”

The Wanderers had fielded several players on Sunday, including Aaron Mooy, Jerome Polenz, Kwabena Appiah-Kubi and Shannon Cole, who either weren’t regular starters or had just comeback from injury.

Popovic conceded maybe they weren’t “match hardened” and “weren’t as sharp as they could have been”. He said he now had an appreciation of how the Mariners feel to have lost three grand finals in the last seven years. “Losing a grand final is not easy,” he said.

“I know the Mariners have done it three times and I can see now what that feeling is like. It’s not nice.

“But you have to look at the positives.

“There’s a lot of hunger in this club to be the best we can be and we feel we can be even better next year. “Although things have gone well, there are a lot of things we’ve learned along the way.

“Everything is new for us and in every key area we want to do things a bit better. “So come the pre-season we’ll set some new goals.” Popovic acknowledged the tremendous supporter-base the club had. “I have a lot of football experience overseas,” he said.

“But it was something I’d never seen where after a big game like that and a defeat for your club, all your fans hang around for a good hour after the game. “That’s true support.”

Meanwhile, several players are out of contract – including Dino Kresinger, Joey Gibbs, Tarek Elrich and Tahj Minniecon. Popovic said he would asses things this week before deciding on their futures.

“Once we sit with the players this week … we’ll take the next step and have a look at which areas we want to improve on and whether we need to bring in some players or not.”

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Explainer: what are algal biofuels?

By Kirsten Heimann

The problem we face with fossil fuels being ultimately a finite resource has exposed our need for renewable fuels.

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But research is underway on new and more environmentally-savvy ways to fuel our growing planet – among them algal biofuels.

The situation is made more challenging with expected global population growth, increased pressures on food production and higher demand for energy and fuel.

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Third-generation biofuels, such as algae, are created without interference with human food production or land use, and are the subject of current investigations for capture and use.

This is particularly important for Australia, as only 6% of our continent’s surface is cultivatable.

Algae are the ideal crop to address all these issues – often simultaneously.

Hang on … what are algae?

Algae are aquatic organisms inhabiting freshwater and marine environments. They range from microscopic single cells called microalgae (visible with the aid of a microscope), to macroscopic, multi-cellular organisms (macroalgae).

Irrespective of size, these organisms convert carbon dioxide using the sun’s energy into organic carbon, just like plants.

Algae. Travis S.

Algae evolved when the surface waters of Earth were highly enriched in nutrients and trace elements. Algae, like plants, require nutrients and trace metals from their environment for growth – a process known as fertilisation.

Algae can absorb and store high levels of metals such as iron, copper and manganese, and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, often more efficiently than plants.

Therefore algae are ideally suited to remediate metal and nutrient-rich waste waters.

What’s happening now?

The algal biofuels industry is still in its infancy and it is yet to be confirmed whether the technology can consume emission and produce substantial volumes of bio-fuel.

As is the case in other countries, Australia is doing its bit to develop algal biofuels and provide the leg up to help the industry mature.

A pilot project site at Tarong in Queensland is the first of its kind, testing and providing insights into the operating potential of algal synthesiser technology when attached to industrial power plants.

The pilot site in Tarong, Queensland. Image/ Kirsten Heimann

It is a vital pilot program that will help to shed light on automation, harvesting and processing options for the biomass. Testing and improving the technology is paving the way for more efficient, large-scale and low-labour carbon abatement operations.

Research into algal biofuel conversion to look into the potential of macroalgae – macroscopic, multi-cellular organisms such as seaweed – has been supported by funds from ARENA.

Specific funds have been earmarked for the development of renewable aviation fuels.

Aside from government funding, oil companies, airlines and aircraft engine manufacturers are joining Australian federal and state funding schemes to accelerate the development of algal biofuels nationally and globally.

What are algal synthesisers?

Algae synthesisers are vessels used to cultivate algal biomass. There are various types of systems technologies. These are classified as open, closed or hybrid systems, with initial costs being lowest for open system, and highest for closed systems.

Open systems are more prone to invasions by unwanted organisms compared to closed systems. Invasions present a challenge for the newly developing algal industry as they can be detrimental for target end product quality.

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In all of these systems, carbon dioxide is converted to biomass carbon using the energy from the sun.

All these different systems tailor features of the operation depending on the end products of choice, the characteristics of the algal strain being cultivated, and the environmental conditions at a site.

Kirsten Heimann works for James Cook University. She receives funding from the Advanced Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre for research and development relating to biomanufacturing using microalgae and methane remediation from underground coal mine ventilation air.

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Blog: Under close watch in China

Whenever we Australian representatives of the Fourth Estate come to China, there are always a few little signs that they’re keeping an eye on us.

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For starters, it’s wise to assume the hotel rooms are bugged and that if we leave electronic equipment lying around, it soon will be too. We’re advised to carry our laptops and tablets with us and not leave them unattended.

In some hotels, we are housed in rooms one under the other — presumably because that makes the cabling easier. In other places, lots of helpful staff come to the hotel room door to deliver things or check on things or fix things not reported broken and don’t always observe the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign. (And they’re just the ones who come while you’re actually in the room.)

Here in Sanya, we’ve been ably assisted at breakfast by a very cheerful chap with an Anglo name – let’s call him George – who speaks some English and is terribly helpful, considering our collective Mandarin is mostly lousy (with the exception of those correspondents actually based here).

George always seems to be around when we need something. We were amused to note that in a big, fancy hotel with hundreds of staff, it happened to be George, having assisted us at breakfast at 7am, who materialised to take our orders and serve us dinner in a different part of the hotel at 8pm that night. Now that is good service.

And incoming phone calls to our mobiles always seem to register as some weird number.

So far on this visit, I’ve received two incoming calls from Australia (we communicate mostly by email – also presumably being monitored).

The first came up on my phone as being from the number +019661101. The second one a few hours later registered as coming from +019661102. Good to know someone’s keeping count.

On the whole, the surveillance thus far is not terribly intrusive and goodness knows what secrets they hope to uncover. Mostly, our conversations have been about our own deadlines, the logistics of the trip and how humid it is here in Sanya.

Having said all that, notwithstanding the usual heavy security which goes with staying in hotels involved in big international conferences (there are scuba security officers scouring the ocean just off the beach), the hotel staff are all super friendly and surely can’t all be spies. Surely.

Of course, there are a lot of people in China so they do have the capacity to do a very thorough job at any labour-intensive task.

And there goes the doorbell again now…

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Blog: Brutal simplicity tells story of war dead

The Prime Minister has concluded her visit to Papua New Guinea, paying her respects to Australian soldiers who died there during the Second World War.

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She’s visited a war cemetery on the outskirts of Port Moresby, the Bomana war cemetery, from where SBS Correspondent, Richard Davis filed this blog.

The Prime Minister paused at the headstone.

“Wow” she said, “just 28”.

Surrounded by thousands of soldiers’ graves, she read the inscription.

“Corporal John French VC, age 28.”

Corporal French was posthumously awarded a VC for extreme courage under fire during the Kokoda conflict. It’s said that during the Battle of Isuvara, he killed 30 Japanese soldiers, firing his Bren machine gun from the hip before he was killed by a sniper’s bullet.

After touring the cemetery of more than three thousand gleaming white headstones, Julia Gillard shared her thoughts with journalists.

‘The tropical setting – the lush setting – is such a stark contrast to the headstones behind us, so the brutal simplicity of it really brings the message home very clearly .“

She paid tribute to the sacrifice and heroism of Australian forces who stopped the Japanese from reaching the strategically important city of Port Moresby.

“We are really commemorating the sacrifice that made our nation the safe place that it is today”, she said.

The manager of the cemetery, Jason Daniels says it’s the largest war cemetery in the Pacific, and has the highest number of Australian war dead buried anywhere in the world.

And it’s growing slowly.

The remains of many Australian soldiers are still missing, and every now and then they are found and new graves are dug.

Before she left the cemetery, the Prime Minister paused to write in the visitors’ book.

She wrote, “we remember and marvel at the courage and sacrifice”.

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Agent Orange still a problem in Vietnam

Nearly 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, its youngest victims are still in their infancy.

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Across the country, some babies are still being born with defects as a result of their parents’ exposure to dioxin found in in the crop-killing herbicide Agent Orange.

Three year old Dang Hong Dan was born with a cleft lip, and deformities in one hand and foot.

His mother, Oanh, told UNICEF workers in Vietnam she had a difficult pregnancy.

“I was sent to the hospital twice because of heavy bleeding,” she said.

“After Dan was born, the doctor did some tests and told us that the cause of his disability was Agent Orange.”

Both of Dan’s parents work as hired labourers, taking work where they can get it.

“We take any job we can but the work is unstable,” says his father, Phong. “We don’t earn enough money to look after Dan properly.”

(Image: Truong Viet Hung, courtesy UNICEF)

The family now receives assistance from a pilot scheme in An Giang province, where they live. The program, supported by UNICEF, aims to train local officials in basic social work and counselling skills.

This week, a team from UNICEF in partnership with AusAID travelled to Da Nang in Vietnam to launch their annual report on the State of the World’s children, which focuses on children living with disability. AusAID Director Peter Baxter visited young victims of Agent Orange in Da Nang.

“In this area of Vietnam, there are about 5000 dioxin victims,” he says. “This is a real challenge for the government of Vietnam and the education authorities to ensure that these people have opportunities.

“The most common types of disabilities people suffer from, particularly children, are related to their mobility, to their intellectual development and to their hearing.”

There are about 1.2 million children living with disabilities in Vietnam. An estimated 150,000 of those are believed to be victims of Agent Orange. The US military sprayed around 12 million gallons (44 million litres) of the substance over the country from 1961 to 1971 as part of a program of chemical warfare.

Last year, the US government agreed to assist in clean-up efforts of Agent Orange, after a long period of bilateral discussions with the Vietnamese authorities.

Australia is not involved in the clean-up effort, but through AusAID is funding programs to help those affected by the substance as well as other children with disabilities.

Peter Baxter says Australia’s historical link to Vietnam through its participation in the war was not an influence on the decision to allocate aid money there.

“We don’t look at it through that lens, we look at it through the lens of it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s a smart thing to do to ensure that the human resources that are available in developing countries are actually used to benefit those societies.”

A UNICEF review of 14 developing countries found people with disabilities “more likely” to experience poverty than those with disabilities.

“If you look at global poverty, and you look at 20 per cent of the world’s poorest people, you’ll find disproportionately that people with disabilities are represented in that group, so if you’re going to tackle global poverty, you have to tackle the issue of people with disabilities,” says Baxter.

Through its partnership with UNICEF, Australia provides $2.7 million in funding for programs in Vietnam in Bhutan.

“What we’re trying to do is ensure that all of the programs AusAID supports, whether we do them directly or whether we do them through our partners like UNICEF, that disability inclusiveness is part of the design of those programs.”

Part of the funding will go towards training teachers to be better equipped for working with children with disabilities.

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Q&A: The future of cyber attacks

SBS reporter Rhiannon Elston talks to computer systems expert Suelette Dreyfus from the University of Melbourne.

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Suelette, thanks for joining us. Can you explain to us exactly what’s happened here? Essentially what’s happened is that there’s an international non-profit organisation called Spamhaus in Europe. Their role is to track spam operators – people who send you junk mail in your email box and to provide protection to ISPs and people who provide your emails from that spam. And someone or some group of people have done a ‘denial of service’ [or DDoS] attack on Spamhaus.

What that means is that all of the internet pipes going to and from Spamhaus have been completely clogged up. The attacks on Spamhaus have actually caused something of a slowing of connectivity, particularly in Europe. It’s less likely to have an impact on individuals and consumers here in Australia. It might have a very small impact on large transfers of data between organisations.

The key thing that happened here wasn’t the fact that it happened at all, but the scale of how many were impacted by it. Why did it affect so many?

Well if you throw a large wad of gum into the pipes, if you think about the internet that way, you are likely to reduce the amount of material that can flow through the pipes. And that’s what’s sort of happened here. If you overflow them with a lot of information requests, then you will not have so much room for the legitimate information.

Is it concerning, the fact that this happened to a large computer organisation, presumably run by people with a high degree of computer literacy? Those of us who don’t know that much about computers might be wondering, shouldn’t they have been able to fend that off, and if they can’t – what does that mean for the rest of us?

Well, yes and no. It’s a little bit of a tricky question. You can do a number of things to improve the likelihood that you will not suffer attacks by hackers or other sorts of attacks. It’s a little harder to defend against a DDoS attack, because it’s sort of external to the organisation. So an average consumer can run a security software, that’s sometimes helpful. They can do sensible settings on their machines, not making access public, that sort of thing.

However, there’s always a trade-off. And it’s a bit like free speech, really. If you have free speech on the internet, there’s going to be a small bunch of people who are really noisy and saying really obnoxious things. There’s not much you can do except largely ignore them and wait for it to pass, and focus your time and energy somewhere else. But at the same time, you could have a system where you clamp everything down and it’s centrally controlled and there’s none of that annoying rabble and no DDoS attacks, but it comes at a cost of choices and freedom.

Does this sort of behaviour show that cyber attacks are becoming more sophisticated?

They are. With a DDoS attack what typically happens, and what probably happened in this case, although I don’t think the details have been worked out yet, is that an organisation, for example a spamming company, will go and somehow get access to a botnet. A botnet is a group of computers that have basically been infected by malware, by a rogue computer program or virus or whatever, and they’ll sit quietly on all those machines, and then one day they’ll activate. And they’ll say, ok, all 10,000 machines, let’s all try and connect to this one company. And when you do that, you flood the pipes that are going into the company and nobody else can get to that company – as an example. That’s a simplified version, but that’s kind of how it works.

So the nature of those attacks and the idea of getting more and more botnets – so more and more of these clusters of computers — they’re called actually zombies. That is actually getting more sophisticated. And you can now sort of buy on the black market a cluster of 1,000 or 2,000 or 10,000 of these machines, that are just people’s everyday machines but they might have this backdoor software in it that turns them into zombies and a botnet.

How far could these cyber attacks go? Is it possible, for example, for a really large-scale attack to take out the internet entirely?

I don’t think that’s the future of these cyber attacks, and the reason is because of the beauty of the internet’s design, and what really is quite a beautiful design, is that it is so decentralised. There are so many pieces of it all over the place that you can always do a workaround. So, if one connection between you and I is broken, there’s another path, or 100 other paths we could use to get to each other.

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