Bee populations in Australia facing threats from weather to pesticides and disease

Published in the District Bulletin on September 10 2014.

Australia is facing a major biosecurity threat from a parasite known as the Varroa mite. Of most concern is the crippling effect the parasite may have on Australian agriculture, with bees responsible for the pollination of, by number, 65 per cent of crops, including canola, apples, and cherries.

The Varroa mite is a devastating threat to the European Honey Bee, the main bee species used in plant propagation and honey production in Australia, and the Asian Honey Bee, native to many neighbouring countries and islands. The parasite first emerged in the 1950s in Japan and Korea before spreading throughout Europe, America, Africa and parts of Asia, but of most concern to Australia is its recent presence in New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

Symptoms include reduced weight, impaired flight, lower foraging capability, and wing deformation, that colony-wide cause harsh population reduction and scattered brood nest. The danger to Australia is the parasite spreading through the transport of infected hives, as well as the mite being inadvertently carried here in the mast or other parts of container ships.

Local bee expert Scott Williams, owner of Bees R Us in Braidwood, warns that the Varroa mite is the biggest threat to not only bees, but Australian agriculture, and it is only a matter of time until Australia is no longer isolated from the threat.

“Australia is the only country in the world without Varroa but it won’t stay that way forever,” said Williams. “Not if but when Varroa hits it will have a devastating effect on agriculture country wide.”

According to Williams, commercial beekeepers and hobby framers in the local region would be impacted by the spread of Varroa mite into the country.

“Crops are affected in a big way without pollination from bees, it’s called the shock factor,” Williams explained. “There are a lot of farms around that would be affected without bees, [including] apple orchards, lucerne crops, and lavender farms, among others.”

Independent South Australian senator Nick Xenophon has introduced a senate investigation tasked to address these threats to Australian bee populations, named the Inquiry into the Future of Beekeeping and Pollination Services in Australia. The deadline for submissions has now closed, but the senate will release the details of the inquiry in mid-June.

“Protecting Australia’s beekeeping and pollination services is crucial to Australia’s food production. The cost of failure is huge,” Xenophon stated in a recent media release on his website.

“The potential damage to Australian agriculture could run into the billions if there’s a biosecurity breach of a Varroa infestation. “The Europeans have been doing the right thing to protect their bees and crop propagation – why can’t Australia’s biosecurity system?”

My predictions for ANU’s student elections (with help from a controversial survey)

Published in Hijacked on August 28 2014.

If you’ve ever been a student, then you’ve been harassed by a student politician.

Here at the Australian National University, student elections have come around once again. For the entire week, you’d be well advised to avoid Union Court, where – only a stone’s throw from Capital Hill – there’s currently colourful t-shirts, buzzwords and endless schmoozing.

This year, it’s even more of a shit fight, with eight tickets contesting the presidency, including three major tickets named (quite snazzily) Connect, Fetch and Fling.

Out of curiosity – aka a lot of time on my hands after deferring from university for a semester – I set out to poll this rabble. My choice was an informal, online poll through that simply asked respondents to name who they voted for in all six major positions in the ANU Student’s Association.

The survey was limited to one per computer, and spread through my own Facebook and Twitter. By the end of the third day, it had accrued 350 responses.

The haphazard method obviously has a questionable reliability and the results have to be taken with a lot more than just a pinch of salt. What the experiment did provide was an insight into student politicians and the lengths to which polling results are purposefully manipulated.

It looks like the major tickets spread the survey far outside the university, presumably to pump support for their candidates. Tracking the IP addresses showed a huge number of interstate responses, including one from Victorian parliament. This was reportedly caused by my survey being posted on the Facebook page of a federal political party youth group.

This was only as expected, and throws the accuracy of the survey out the window. At this stage, it’s a better indication of a ticket’s organisation and mobilisation, rather than how students were set to vote on the ground.

But it didn’t stop there. It was discovered that multiple responses could be entered from the same computer while on incognito mode or an equivalent. One ticket used this to their advantage to take a lead in the polls and give their candidates a morale boost. Another was happy to lag slightly behind to ensure their representatives campaigned as hard as possible.

For obvious reasons, the poll was closed a day early. Could anything at all be salvaged from it?

With a bit of tweaking, all responses done by incognito mode were removed, as were all responses where the same ticket was chosen for every position. That leaves us with 76 responses, which can all safely be assumed to be devoid of any manipulation.

It’s not the greatest sample size, but it represents around 5 per cent of students who generally vote in the university’s student elections each year. Importantly, it gives the best possible indication of who might win the six major positions on the ANUSA executive.

Unsurprisingly, none of them go to a ticket outside the three big players, but a mix between tickets is very much on the cards. This hasn’t happened at the ANU since before 2010.

Here are my predictions:

President: Ben Gill of Connect
Vice President: Clodagh O’Doherty of Fling
General Secretary: Ella Masri of Fling
Social Officer: Jack Gaudie of Fetch
Treasurer: Sophia Woo of Connect
Education Officer: Jock Webb of Fling

Even the data is extremely tight, which reflects the impression of any campaigners I’ve asked about the election. Without a doubt, most of these key positions are going to come down to preferences and every ticket will wish they had had Glenn ‘Preference Whisperer’ Druery on their side.

So in short, student politicians will seemingly resort to anything. Meanwhile, polling, even at university level, is still best done in person. The student newspaper Woroni correctly predicted the 2013 ANUSA President by polling face to face, albeit the race was much more one-sided than they originally thought.

The counting begins tomorrow.

Dispatch from the Public Hearing Into Children in Australia’s Detention Centres

Published in VICE on August 25 2014.

The audience was tense. Parliament House security were on guard outside Committee Room 2R1 and threatened to confiscate cameras or expel anyone who tried to take a photo. We were ordered to turn off our electronic devices—a futile demand to a room full of journalists and keen observers, all determined to record and tweet the fourth and hotly anticipated public hearing into children in Australia’s detention centres.

The president of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), Gillian Triggs, sat on one side of the hearing room and the Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, on the other. Their tables formed a square like a boxing ring between them. Morrison, in the blue corner, began his opening statement as expected. He called the commission’s attention to the alarming number of children placed in detention during the years of the previous Rudd/Gillard government.

“This is an inquiry into children in detention as you have stated. However, it could be more accurately described as an inquiry into children Labor put in detention,” said Morrison. “The predominant reason why there are children in detention today is because they arrived on boats under Labor.”

Gillian Triggs before the hearing.

Until Friday’s hearing, the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention had proved a PR nightmare for the current government, which has gone to great lengths to prevent the Australian public from knowing about asylum seeker arrivals and treatment. Then Morrison was summoned to appear. It’s not every day that a high profile minister is sworn to oath in such a public setting: a world away from the controlled press conferences held during Operation Sovereign Borders.

Earlier in the week, Morrison had announced a surprising policy development: 150 children and their families currently detained inside Australia’s mainland detention centres will soon be released into the community on bridging visas. It is questionable whether this decision represents a genuine, long-term softening of the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy or a tactical move to bolster its defence against the inquiry. Either way, refugee advocates have since criticised the policy’s exclusion of children held offshore on Christmas Island and Nauru, and the policy’s arbitrary restriction to children under the age of ten who arrived before July 2013.

The first three AHRC inquiries had already heard damaging accounts from witnesses, including a pregnant asylum seeker who decided to have an abortion instead of raising her child in detention centre conditions on Nauru. The former director of a mental health service provider to detention centres also alleged the Immigration Department was covering up the extensive mental trauma of children in detention.

Scott Morrison speaking to press.

These human rights violations were less of a concern on Friday, where the main question hounded by Triggs and assisting counsel Naomi Sharp was whether the detainment of children is purposefully being used as a deterrent to future refugees considering seeking asylum in Australia. This sticking point led to one of the more fiery exchanges between Triggs and Morrison, as the former tried to stop the minister from dancing around the question.

“Children being detained in facilities has been a consequence of the policies that more broadly have been effective in securing Australia’s borders, ensuring the integrity of our immigration program, and stopping children dying at sea,” said Morrison diplomatically. “Then I’ll take that as a yes,” replied Triggs. Morrison’s temper flared. “Madam president, I don’t think it is reasonable to put words in my mouth. I have said what I’ve said, and I’m happy for what I’ve said to be on the record as being my response.”

Diplomatic politispeak was a common theme of Morrison’s appearance. Fewer boats have arrived since the Coalition took office, which means that children in detention are, in a way, just collateral damage from policies that have achieved the government’s desired end. “The results speak for themselves,” said Morrison.

Inside the hearing.

Then came the most heated moment of the hearing, when Triggs labelled detention centres as prisons. “On any analysis, it is locked detention or a prison, whatever word…” she began, before Morrison took the offensive and attacked with some questions of his own. “You would have been in many prisons, so are you telling me that the Phosphate Hill compound on Christmas Island is the same as Long Bay jail?” he asked. “I have been a practising lawyer since I was 22 years old, and I have been to many prisons. I know a prison when I see it,” quipped Triggs.

Other interesting moments included when Triggs pointed out that it takes on 20 minutes to access refugee statuses while on ships, but takes 12 months when you’re the Immigration Department. But even these fiery exchanges were only as expected. And except for the occasional projector slide of statistics that threw Morrison off guard for a few seconds, and a couple of objections from the crowd to his use of the word “illegal”, the inquiry went to script.

Overall, Morrison said the government was stopping the boats and threw blame at the Labor party and Greens. Ultimately, the public didn’t hear much it hadn’t already learned before. After his hour in the boxing ring, Morrison left Committee Room 2R1, fended off questions from the awaiting mob like usual, and walked away looking smug.

Student says ANU let her down after sexual harassment episode

Published in The Canberra Times on August 7 2014.

A Canberra student who alleges she was sexually harassed at an on-campus dormitory says the university’s botched response will leave her $6000 out of pocket.

The woman says the May incident left her feeling so unsafe and anxious that she had been forced to seek counselling and move out of Toad Hall, based at the Australian National University’s Acton campus.

She has now asked the ANU to help cover rent and treatment costs, which she says will cost her more than $6000 this year.

The ANU says the request is under consideration. The university admitted staff had botched the protocols set out to deal with allegations of sexual harassment.

The woman reported the incident to Toad Hall authorities but they failed to follow set procedures. An ANU review in response to the complaint found Toad Hall head Dr Ian Walker’s response to the allegation had been slow and flawed. An ANU investigation into the incident is now under way.

The woman said Toad Hall’s bungled probed made her feel her only options were to drop the case and move out. She left Toad Hall during the semester break after the student against whom she made the complaint had been allowed to stay.

The university agreed to make special arrangements to help find the woman accommodation. But rent on the woman’s new home costs an extra $41 each week, a figure she has asked the university to help her cover. She also requested ANU refund six weeks’ rent she paid to stay at Toad Hall during the inquiry.

An ANU spokeswoman said the university had already accepted there had been a delay in the initiation of its investigative processes.

“Whether this delay resulted in financial hardship for the student concerned is being considered – whether any financial support can be provided to the student concerned will be determined in the course of the next week,” she said.

“The allegations made by the student remain under investigation and the university must stress that statements concerning the financial matters are separate to the investigation into the incident itself.”

The student said that money would also help pay for treatment for anxiety problems caused by the incident.

“The university doesn’t realise what the cost is to me,” she said. “The process was so arduous… They were very happy to get me out of the college, but weren’t interested in investigating it or actually solving the problem.”

Gunning down renewables and starving ‘direct action’

Published in the District Bulletin on June 15 2014.

Millions of dollars have been cut from environmental programs, including the $2.55 billion funding towards the Emissions Reduction Fund, the key feature of the Coalition’s direct action policy, which will now be spread over ten years instead of four.

Research into carbon capture and storage will be cut by $460 million over three years, almost $100 million will be reduced in solar energy funding, and the rebate scheme aimed at installing a million solar rooftop systems across Australia, costing $500 million, has been dumped.

Of most significance, however, is the proposal for the $2.5 billion Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) to be abolished and absorbed by a separate industry department, saving the budget bottom line $1.3 billion. The plan hinges on the repealing of legislation that will have to pass the senate.

Renewable research at universities cut

ARENA invests in small green technology development projects around the country unable to attract private finances, including research undertaken by the University of NSW, the ANU, and CSIRO. Budget changes, however, will not affect 181 projects, worth around $1 billion, committed to by ARENA and already underway.

ARENA chairman Greg Bourne condemned the cuts, which will severely hinder Australia’s shift to renewable energy, required to be 80 per cent of all energy output by 2050 to keep global warming in check following the advice of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“If we actually throw away options, a fear for me is that the energy mix that we currently have just gets ossified,” Bourne told the ABC.

Infrastructure is hospitals, infrastructure is schools, but infrastructure is also the energy system that you have within a country and without the energy system, your overall system begins to grind to a halt.

Professor Andrew Blakers, director of sustainable energy systems at the ANU, warns that cuts to renewable energy industries will also have a negative impact on jobs in regional areas, such as the solar industry which alone employs 15,000.

Wind and solar jobs for the regions

Large wind and solar installations are not in the cities. “They go in the rural areas and farmers benefit from hosting these wind and photovoltaic installations because they get paid a rent for their land and they continue farming. It’s like a second cash crop,” Blakers told the ABC.

Other jobs include earth movers, road builders and people who install and maintain the wind or solar systems all in rural and regional areas – “increasing the supply of renewable energy is ARENA’s main mission.”

Luke Osborne, a local wind farmer near Bungendore, is likewise worried about the effects of the spending cuts to Australia’s renewable energy sector.

“We are a strong and wealthy nation because we have embraced science and technology and we should keep doing that. We shouldn’t walk away from either of those things,” he told  the ABC.

“We need to invest in renewables.  I think we’ve got plenty of resource here and we should be making use of that, ahead of importing oil and ahead of things we know are damaging our environment.”