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 surveymonkey.com 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.

‘Ag-gag’ Laws Backed To Hide Animal Cruelty

Published in New Matilda on June 3 2014.

Out of sight and out of mind, the Australian meat industry benefits from keeping consumers in the dark about what happens behind the closed doors of factory farms and slaughterhouses.

It is unsurprising then that agricultural lobby groups, including Australian Pork Limited, are currently advocating the introduction of a new set of legislation, termed ‘ag-gag’ laws, that will essentially censor investigations that expose animal welfare abuses in Australian agriculture. It is worrying, however, that several politicians are now adding the laws to their agenda on Capital Hill.

The laws are inspired by legislation already enacted in several states of the US that, under the guise of protecting the welfare of livestock, primarily seek to prohibit evidence of animal cruelty and malpractice being brought to the attention of the media and the general public.

In Australia, undercover footage of animal abuse in factory farms is the main modus operandi of activists, such as Animal Liberation, who have exposed the horrific conditions of 15 piggeries and led to the closure of two, including the controversial Wally’s Piggery that sparked public outrage in 2012.

Wally's Piggery in Murrumbateman, NSW... the subject of a major scandal in 2012.

Wally’s Piggery in Murrumbateman, NSW… the subject of a major scandal in 2012.

But although these tactics are illegal, publishing the material is entirely aboveboard. UNSW law academic Tara Ward points to a case in 2011 where the High Court ruled that the ABC be permitted to broadcast undercover footage obtained from inside the slaughtering facility of a possum abattoir.

Meanwhile, Emma Davies of the Animal Defenders Office ACT explained that the footage, even if illegally obtained, can also be accepted as evidence in a criminal trial.

“Trespassing is an offence in itself, which means entering private property without permission to record activities may attract criminal and civil liability,” Davies said. “The use and/or installation of audio or visual surveillance devices may, however, amount to an offence in itself in some jurisdictions, such as NSW, even if it does not involve trespass.

“It is also important to note that courts may permit surveillance materials to be admitted as evidence in criminal proceedings, even if it was obtained by unlawful means.”

As such, a key feature of the ‘ag-gag’ laws being considered in Australia is the requirement that all footage of animal abuse in factory farms be turned over to police and relevant authorities within, at most, 48-hours. All evidence must be turned over, none of which can be given to the media or published by any other means.

Western Australia Senator Chris Back is an outspoken supporter of ‘ag-gag’ laws and argues that the provisions allow appropriate authorities to immediately investigate breaches of conduct, instead of footage being exploited to misinform the public and fuel inflammatory campaigns. In particular, he compares activists’ tactics to withholding evidence of child molestation.

“Any person with a keen interest in animal welfare, if they came upon information or vision that appeared to be of undue cruelty to animals, there should be no motivation for them to do anything other than present that material to authorities as quickly as possible, to have the issue addressed,” Back told The Australian Dairyfarmer last July.

“It would be unacceptable to the community that any person would withhold that footage for any length of time, for whatever the purpose, before they made it public.”

But opponents to ‘ag-gag’ laws see things differently. US journalist and author Will Potter specialises in animal rights and environmental movements, and presented a lecture series around Australia throughout May to raise awareness of the danger of ‘ag-gag’ laws, using the experience of the US as a dire warning.

“By eliminating that release to the media, it prevents the public and consumers from knowing what’s happening, which is the point of these ‘ag-gag’ laws,” Potter explained.

“But also turning over that footage so quickly is an attempt by the industry to say an incident is just an isolated case, rather than allowing an investigation to be built over a period of weeks or months. This way, they can pretend that it’s just a few bad apples, a few bad workers, rather than taking proper responsibility.”

Animal Liberation fights for the right of the Australian public to make up its own mind regarding the treatment and welfare of livestock.

“The public has a right to know what is happening to animals raised in factory farms. The industry knows as well as we do that if the general public become aware of their practices… they would be condemned by much of the Australian public,” Clare Atkinson of Animal Liberation ACT said.

“In regards to these matters being resolved by the police, much of the cruelty and abuse shown in footage is completely legal and considered standard industry practice. However when incidents occur that are illegal Animal Liberation ACT will refer footage on to the authorities, as was done in the case of Wally’s Piggery in 2012.”

The Australian public has a fundamental right to know how the food we consume ends up on our plate, a right that is being threatened by the proposed ‘ag-gag’ laws that purposefully keep consumers unaware, while strangling open and transparent debate and discussion.

While pressure from consumers and retailers can force much needed change within the industry, such as the phasing out of sow stalls, as long as footage is withheld, the public is kept clueless and it is ‘business as usual and as brutal’ for the meat industry, profits unharmed.

Dredging through the Great Barrier Reef debate

Published in Hijacked on March 15 2014.

The Great Barrier Reef has been a hot topic in the media due to a dredging saga that some claim is the beginning of the end for one of our greatest national treasures and tourist attractions. Depending on who you listen to, this claim is bang on the money or a merely unfounded exaggeration.

This divisive issue is the result of nine mega coalmines planned for the Galilee Basin in western Queensland which, if approved, would single-handedly double Australia’s coal output. Mining magnates Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer – surprise surprise! – both have a stake. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and where there’s money to be mined there’s probably Gina and Clive (coming soon toNetflix).

Just as important as mining the coal, however, is the infrastructure required to export it, which includes ports. And guess which coastline is closest to the Galilee Basin? This is where the Great Barrier Reef comes in. It’s unfortunately geographically caught between Australia’s next mining venture and the ravenous global resource market.

The major port of interest is at Abbot Point, which is right next to the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. There’s already one terminal at Abbot Point but in December federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt approved the addition of three extra terminals. This will increase the number of ship berths from two to eight to accommodate all the extra coal output from the Galilee Basin.

The most obvious environmental impact of the port’s expansion is the increased shipping traffic that it will lead to through this world heritage area. Yet an even more controversial side-effect is the dredging required to construct the new terminals.

What even is dredging?

It’s hard to deny the negative and emotive connotations of the word ‘dredging’. At first glance, it’s an ugly word that jumps out from headlines and conjures up thoughts of the industrial and the dirty. The word dredging is hardly an activity that many want associated with one of the seven natural wonders of the world. But what exactly does it mean?

Dredging is the removal of sediment from the bottom of bodies of water to maintain or increase the depth of channels or berthing areas for ships. In the Great Barrier Reef, dredging will remove debris from the seabed to create a suitable depth for coal ships to approach the shore and berth at the Abbot Point port, so they can pick up their precious cargo.

Removing the sediment isn’t really the issue: the debate really centres on where it should be disposed. As a major shock to many environmentalists in January, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) approved the dumping of this dredge soil in the boundaries of the protected marine park.

This approval is contingent on 47 strict conditions, including confining the disposal to an area free of coral and seagrass beds around 40km from the nearest offshore reef. Disposal will also be restricted to a four-month window outside of any coral spawning and seagrass growth periods, and can be halted at any time if unexpected oceanic conditions cause adverse effects.

GBRMPA Chairman Russell Reichelt recently defended the authority’s decision in The Conversation and tried to act all Mythbusters on comments that it will lead to toxic sludge or slag waste. “The reality is that disposal of dredge material of this type in the Marine Park is not new. It has occurred off nearly all major regional centres along the reef’s coastline before now,” says Reichelt.

“The material itself in Abbot Bay is about 60 per cent sand and 40 per cent silt and clay, which is similar to what you would see if you dug up the site where the material is to be relocated. In addition, testing by accredited laboratories shows the material is not toxic, and is therefore suitable for ocean disposal,” he says.

Unsurprisingly, Reichelt and the GBRMPA’s decision is still sparking outrage from environmentalists both domestically and abroad. In late January, 233 scientists lobbied the GBRMPA to reject the proposal by co-writing a letter to Riechelt that clearly stated their objection to threatening the reef with dredge disposal.

“The best available science makes it very clear that expansion of the port at Abbot Point will have detrimental effects on the Great Barrier Reef. Sediment from dredging can smother corals and seagrasses and expose them to poisons and elevated nutrients,” reads the letter.

One of the letter’s signatories, University of Queensland scientist Selina Ward, told 3AW that 3D modelling and recent research of Gladstone Harbour show that dredging soil is a threat to ecosystems outside of its immediate vicinity. “When you place a large amount of sediment in the water like this, it’s not going to sit still. It’s very likely that it will move considerable distances,” she said. According to Greenpeace spokeswoman Loiuse Matthieson, these “muddy plumes” can spread as far as 80km from the original dumping site.

Remarkably, this was the same concern raised by the GBRMPA last year in documents obtained by an FOI request by Greenpeace. The uncovered executive draft assessment indicates substantial internal concern that dredging disposal would be a major threat to the fragile reef.

“The GBRMPA believes that the proposal in its current form should be refused a Great Barrier Reef Marine Park permit…The proposal to dredge and dispose of up to 1.6 million cubic metres of sediment per year…has the potential to cause long-term, irreversible harm,” reads the draft assessment.

In particular, the GBRMPA highlighted the “sub-standard and possibly under representative modelling” used to predict the area affected by suspended sediments. In their eyes (at least at the time) there was a gross underestimate on the dredging’s effects that failed to take into account the degree to which suspended sediment might disperse. According to Reichelt, these views were only a working draft that did not take into the “strictest conditions that we have ever imposed on such a project”, without which the project would have most likely been declined.

Interestingly, the draft assessment also proposed an alternative to dredging: lengthening the port’s trestles. This would basically make the pier longer so ships can berth further out to sea, where the water level is already naturally deeper and thus the reef requires minimal dredging or none at all.

Jon Brodie, a Senior Principal Research Officer at James Cook University, supports disposing the sediment behind a retaining barrier called a ‘bund wall’. Even Greg Hunt, in his initial announcement of the Abbot Point expansion, highlighted the importance of using the material not for dumping but land infill and land reclamation disposal although, following the GBRMPA’s approval, the government jumped on board.

The disposal of dredging soil in the GBR may damage the ecosystem or it may have no effect at all. The science is, at best, debatable. What is outrageous is that an authority would experiment with risky industrial processes with unforeseeable impacts that may irreparably damage a reef that it’s supposed to protect… especially when there are known alternatives available.

Until the science is clear, a line needs to be drawn on the sands of the coral sea in Queensland. Don’t mess with our reef.

Activism changing, not dying

Published in The Australian on February 21 2014.

The National Union of Students held a Day of Action last week, championing demonstrations and marches in every major city to protest against proposed $2.3 billion cuts to federal funding of tertiary education.

It sounds impressive, but there’s a reason the rallies went mostly ­ignored; nationwide, only 1500 students turned up.

The pouring rain obviously played a part, but to put that ­figure in perspective, there are more than one million university ­students studying in Australia.

Indeed, last week’s effort pales in comparison to the demonstrations in eras gone by where ­students realised the effects of government decisions on their education and readily took to the streets to communicate their ­dissent.

So is student activism dead in Australia?

NUS Canberra branch president Tom Nock doesn’t think so. He reckons students are still ­politically engaged but take to alternative mediums to voice their views and concerns.

“Students have always been known for having strong opinions without the fear to express them. But I think the change is that you’re more likely to find their opinions in a Facebook comment than on a placard.”

Students may be just as engaged in and educated about politics today, but there is certainly a pervading sense of cynicism and defeatism surrounding the merits of protesting. When a Labor government proposes steep cuts that are supported as soon as a Liberal government takes office, it’s not surprising that students are not too sure where to turn.

In 2012 more than 1000 students at the Australian National University attended a march against major cuts to their school of music. Today, students are largely ­ignored and their opinions ­dismissed, so what’s the point? NUS education officer Sarah Garnham says it comes down to the fact if university students don’t protest cuts to their education, who will? Although universities are a vital investment in Australia’s future, it is up to students to take up the fight against cuts because no one else is going to do it for them.

“Students need to stand up for themselves. If students are going to have any chance of defending the principle of quality education (as opposed to education for the sake of profits) they have to be prepared to stand on their own two feet and try to build public support around our right to ­education.”

Regardless, half the battle for student activists these days seems to be dealing with their apathetic and cynical peers to inspire some kind of passion and fight that is ultimately in their best interests.

Does student activism need a different direction, because whatever is being done now is obviously not working. At ANU, only 50 students turned up to the Day of Action.

“The days of effective marching, shouting student demonstrations are long over; protests, petitions and posters are no longer the best methods to protect students’ educational rights — in fact, they weaken the cause when poorly executed,” says ANU graduate Yasmin Masri.

Masri points to alternative means of engaging the wider community, and this is where social media comes in. Social media has become the key method of mobilising students through events and pages shared via Facebook. Yet, as evidenced last week, its effectiveness in getting students to the streets is underwhelming.

The one-dimensional approach of using social media only for advertising is under-using a valuable resource while even being detrimental to the cause.

A significant hindrance is a recent phenomenon known as “slacktivism”, where political activity becomes simply the act of liking a post or sharing a video withoutever having to leave your computer screen or think more deeply about the issues.

A classic example is Kony 2012 by Invisible Children, a campaign embraced on social media.

The video it centred on became the most viral in history, hitting 100 million YouTube views in six days. But when it came to spurring action the campaign fell flat; 18,700 people clicked attending an Invisible Children Facebook event based in Sydney, but only 25 people showed up. In a similar vein, only one-fifth of Facebook attendees to the ANU National Day of ­Action turned out.

The use of social media in student activism needs to expand far beyond the simple advertisement of protests. It needs to be used innovatively and creatively to capture the attention of students, to inspire change by educating and raising awareness rather than driving people on to the streets with placards. That said, the days of demonstrations aren’t necessarily over, they just have to be considered one element of a campaign, the success of which is not measured by protester numbers ­

“Talking to people face to face about why a campaign is relevant to them is much more compelling than the impersonal reach that ­social media has and most people that get involved in activism ­attribute it to the fact that they were convinced by someone who they spoke to in person,” says Garnham.

Student activism in Australia is not dead, it is merely in a period of adjustment, exploring the ­potential of social media and technology as a new means to the same ends that have been fought for by students for generations.