There’s a lot we don’t know about the UK trade agreement we are about to sign

Originally published on

We’re being told about the new Australia-United Kingdom Free Trade Agreement, but not a lot about most of what’s in it.

After an in-principle agreement overnight, Australia released a five-page summary.

Australian farmers will benefit from tariff-free access to the UK for limited amounts of Australian beef, lamb, sugar and dairy products to the UK (but will have to wait ten years for the full elimination of tariffs). Australian consumers will benefit from immediate zero tariffs on products like UK whiskey and cars. Longer working holiday visas may be available for citizens from both countries.

It will take at least a month for the deal to be finalised and signed, and only after the signing will the Australian public see the full text and a parliamentary committee be given the right to inquire into it but not change it.

This secrecy continues what’s become something of a tradition — one that has attracted the ire of the Productivity Commission which in 2010 recommended the government commission and publish an independent and transparent assessment of future free trade agreements “at the conclusion of negotiations but before an agreement is signed”.

The parliament’s joint standing committee on treaties (the same one that will examine this agreement) began inquiring into the system mid last year and took many submissions, but still has not reported.

As many as 30 unseen chapters

The timing of the deal is driven by the UK’s post-Brexit desperation to sign one-on-one agreements and the greater prize of being part of the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) including Japan, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Mexico, Chile and Peru which the UK has applied to join.

Like the CPTPP, the Australia-UK Free Trade Agreement is likely to have as many as 30 chapters, some of which restrict the ability of governments to regulate in fields including medicines, essential services and data privacy.

UK Trade Minister Greg Hands.
Brian Minkoff/Shutterstock

UK trade minister Greg Hands said last month he wants the deal to include investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions of the kind excluded from the Australia-European Union current trade talks, and from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership recently signed with Japan, China, South Korea, New Zealand and the 10 ASEAN countries.

The provisions would allow UK firms to sue Australian governments in international tribunals over decisions they believed infringed on their interests in a way Australian firms cold not.

In return Australian firms could sue UK authorities in a way UK firms could not.

But UK companies are more frequent users of ISDS, having launched 90 recorded ISDS cases, the third most after the US and the Netherlands. Australian companies have launched nine.

Defending the idea in the House of Commons, Hands said the UK had “never lost an ISDS case”.

There are now 1,104, known ISDS cases with increasing numbers against health and environment laws, including laws to address climate change and to protect indigenous rights.

Australians remember that the US Philip Morris tobacco company used an obscure Hong Kong investment agreement to sue Australia for billions over our plain packaging law.

Read more:
Last to know: the EU knows more about our trade talks than we do

It took the international tribunal almost five years to decide that Philip Morris was not a Hong Kong company as it had claimed. Australia had to pay $12 million in legal costs.

ISDS rules in the Australia-UK treaty would give UK mining companies such as Rio Tinto the right to claim compensation for new laws to protect Indigenous heritage areas, and UK aged care companies such as Bupa the right to claim compensation for new regulations arising from the Aged Care Royal Commission.

Longer pharmaceutical monopolies

The UK has also said in its negotiating objectives that it wants to preserve its “existing intellectual property standards” which include rules that provide for longer data protection monopolies on medicines than Australia has.

The UK also supported this demand as a member of the EU before Brexit when it was published by the EU as part of the ongoing EU-Australia FTA negotiations.

Pharmaceutical companies already have 20 year monopolies on new medicines.

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Planned trade deal with Europe could keep medicine prices too high

The UK has an additional “data protection” monopoly of up to ten years before data is released enabling production of cheaper competitors.

The current Australian standard is five years. Adopting the UK standard would delay the availability of cheaper medicines, costing Australia’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

Unless the text is released before it is signed, we won’t know whether ISDS and longer medicine monopolies are part of the deal.

The Australian government should release the text for public scrutiny and independent assessment of its costs and benefits before it is signed, so that we are able to see what is being traded away before it’s too late.

Dr Patricia Ranald is an honorary research associate at the University of Sydney and the honorary convener of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network.

Let’s talk about what each uni does, but don’t make it a choice between teaching or research

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Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge has called on Australian universities to “start a conversation about how we can support greater differentiation and specialisation in the university sector. We have 39 comprehensive universities, which may not be an optimal model for the quality of teaching or research in this country.” This is a worthy aspiration, depending on what we mean by differentiation and specialisation.

At its best, seeking to differentiate and specialise can be a way to marshal talent and focus. At worst, such calls can be euphemism and set up a false dilemma of having a simple choice between teaching and research.

A recurring debate

The debate about greater specialisation in Australian universities is not new. As an opposition education spokesman and then Coalition government minister, Christopher Pyne made similar calls for specialisation in the system a decade ago. More recently it was discussed in the context of the 2019 Review of Provider Category Standards.

At different times during the past century governments and university leaders have examined whether teaching and research in some areas should be limited to only a few institutions. From forestry education to legal studies, debate has been common about what is taught where and by whom.

Questioning the need for specialisation and diversity is welcome. Leaving for a moment what benefits it can bring, for some degrees a critical mass of students means it is impractical (and highly costly) to offer them at all institutions.

Not so similar, you and I

Despite Australia public universities often being labelled as “comprehensive”, there is already a lot of specialisation and differentiation in the system.

Medical education is one longstanding example. Only a subset of universities offer it. This is for numerous reasons, not least that it is tightly regulated and requires significant facilities.

Australia has a number of universities for which specialisation is core to their identity and mission. The University of Divinity, for example, offers scholarship in theology, philosophy and ministry.

The 11 colleges of the University of Divinity provide highly specialised offerings.
Michael Coghlan/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The idea of specialised institutions in Australia is not new either. The University of New South Wales began life as the New South Wales University of Technology in 1949. This lasted only a few years, though, before it became UNSW, gaining a law school and other faculties.

Yet discussion about greater specialisation and diversification can often be contentious. It can hit a raw nerve when “specialisation” is used as a euphemism for excluding some universities, especially from research activity.

What’s in a name?

The legal definition of an Australian university requires it to undertake research. Australia specifies what a university is and controls the use of the title “university” for good reason.

One case in point is the short-lived Greenwich University on Norfolk Island. In 1999 the quality of the newly established university came sharply into focus. The then education minister, Brendan Nelson, was forced to intervene to ensure it could not continue to offer sub-standard education.

The Greenwich case also hints at preconceived ideas in Australia about what a university should aspire to in terms of quality and offering. For most people this now includes undertaking research.

This is understandable; there are synergies between teaching and research. Students can benefit from their teacher’s research experience and being exposed to the latest research. They can witness an active research culture.

A false dilemma

When the debate is crudely framed, it can be easy to set up a false dilemma.

There are good reasons to specialise. For one, it makes programs with limited demand financially viable.

Equally, specialisation is not always appropriate for legitimate reasons. An important consideration is to ensure core teaching and research are located where local communities can access them.

There is nothing wrong necessarily with having only comprehensive institutions, if that best meets the needs of students, employers and the community.

There is more that unites Australian universities than divides them: they are all part of an international academic community and hold themselves to standards set by peers who are leaders in their fields.

Which is not to argue they all do (or should do) the same thing. Yet it can be easy to erroneously limit what specialisation means or, at worst, set it up as a proxy for debate about other things, such as prestige and privilege.

Gwilym Croucher does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Friendlyjordies producer arrest: what is the NSW Police Fixated Persons Investigations Unit and when is it used?

Originally published on

(YouTube: Friendlyjordies)

A producer for YouTube comedian Friendlyjordies was recently arrested for allegedly stalking and intimidating NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro, following investigations by the Fixated Persons Investigations Unit (FPIU) of the NSW police.

This unit, set up in the wake of the Lindt café siege, was created to monitor extremists and fixated persons who may not fall under Australia’s counter-terrorism laws but nonetheless pose a risk of serious violence.

At the heart of this case will be the charges of intimidation and stalking, but it also will raise questions around what constitutes a “fixated person” and when the use of this unit is appropriate.

À lire aussi :
Australia doesn’t need more anti-terror laws that aren’t necessary – or even used

Two alleged incidents

Kristo Langker, 21, produces videos for the popular YouTube channel Friendlyjordies, run by Jordan Shanks. At the time of writing, the channel has around 500,000 subscribers.

Shanks has appeared in videos alleging wrongdoing by NSW Nationals leader Barilaro, which Barilaro has strenuously denied. Lawyers for Barilaro say Shanks defamed the deputy premier in a number of “vile and racist” videos. The NSW deputy premier is now suing Shanks (and Google) for defamation.

Langker was arrested at a home in Dulwich Hill, Sydney, on June 4. The charges relate to two alleged incidents.

According to a Guardian Australia news report, the first allegedly occurred at a Macquarie University politics in the pub event. Langker and Shanks (who was dressed as Luigi from Mario Brothers) approached Barilaro and shouted “Why are you suing us?”. According to police, as reported in the Guardian, Shanks then left but Lankger stayed, repeating the question and allegedly “tussling with several persons in an attempt to get close” to Barilaro.

The second alleged incident involved Langker filming and speaking to Barilaro as he returned to his car after the funeral of rugby league player Bob Fulton. According to the same Guardian report, Langker asked the NSW deputy premier again, “why are you suing my boss?”. According to the report, this second incident allegedly occurred hours before Langker’s arrest.

Based on these alleged incidents, Langker was arrested by the FPIU and charged with two counts of stalking and intimidation. The offence attracts a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment, where someone stalks or intimidates another person with intent to cause the person fear of physical or mental harm.

Langker has been released on bail under very strict conditions. He is even prohibited from possessing images or caricatures of the deputy premier, or “commenting on his appearance or behaviour”.

The Fixated Persons Investigations Unit

The FPIU was established in April 2017, shortly before the NSW coroner released his report into the Lindt café siege.

In announcing the new unit, NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller referred to people who are “obsessed about issues, ideals or individuals” and are “plotting acts of violence” or “capable of acts of terrorism”.

The unit comprises 17 detectives and government mental health workers. It is based on similar units established previously in the UK and Queensland.

The FPIU is a specialist unit that performs risk assessments of people with obsessions, grievances or ideologies that may lead to serious violence. It can access a suspect’s medical records to assess the level of risk they pose.

People monitored by the FPIU include a man who bombed a couple’s car following months of online abuse, and another who was charged with terrorism offences after threatening Sydney police with a knife.

The NSW coroner supported the unit’s creation, calling it a “commendable” step towards improving terrorism prevention. He believed there was a clear gap in the identification and management of “lone-actor terrorists or fixated individuals”, who could fall through the cracks despite repeated warning signs of violence.

In response to questions from The Conversation, NSW Police said the FPIU investigates “fixated persons”, which is defined as someone who

has an obsessive preoccupation, pursued to an excessive or irrational degree with:

a public office holder or internationally protected person, or

other person/s nominated by the commissioner of police, or

a cause influenced by an extreme ideology (a “cause” is an intensely personal and idiosyncratic grievance or quest for justice).

Police might argue Langker fits under the first of these grounds, if the content and conduct towards Barilaro could be classed as obsessive and excessive. Langker’s lawyers have argued Langker’s arrest and bail conditions “strike at the core of our democracy”.

At trial, the issue will be whether the charges of stalking and intimidation can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, but the case may also set a precedent about what is fixated behaviour and an appropriate use of the FPIU. If that bar is set too low, there will be a serious risk to free speech and democracy. Of course, everything will turn on the evidence at trial, so we should watch this case closely.

Keiran Hardy ne travaille pas, ne conseille pas, ne possède pas de parts, ne reçoit pas de fonds d’une organisation qui pourrait tirer profit de cet article, et n’a déclaré aucune autre affiliation que son organisme de recherche.

In neglecting the National Archives, the Morrison government turns its back on the future

Originally published on

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Why didn’t the federal government increase funding for the National Archives of Australia in its recent budget?

We know it wasn’t because of budget discipline. Money was splashed around on all sorts of worthy causes. And the emergency funding to save film and magnetic tape recordings from disintegration was modest: A$67 million over seven years.

Nor was it because a scorn for history is in the Liberal Party’s DNA. The party’s founder, Robert Menzies, was a history buff. His library, which is the centrepiece of the newly established Robert Menzies Institute at the University of Melbourne, is full of books of history and biography.

Moreover, his government established the precursor of today’s institution, the Commonwealth Archives Office, in 1961 so the records of the past could help guide the future. Prominent Liberals like Paul Hasluck and David Kemp have written histories, as has John Howard in The Menzies Era.

There are plenty of distinguished Liberal-aligned historians, and historians across the political spectrum supported the open letter to the prime minister, spearheaded by journalist Gideon Haigh and academic Graeme Davison.

Read more:
Our history up in flames? Why the crisis at the National Archives must be urgently addressed

Some commentators have seen the failure to provide the archives with emergency funds as a skirmish in the culture wars against an intellectual and cultural left purported to be obsessed with identity politics. This, the argument goes, is of a piece with the government’s apparent hostility to universities, its increase in fees for humanities degrees and its parsimonious treatment of the arts.

But was it that deliberate? Perhaps it was just careless philistinism in a budget designed for a forthcoming election. It was a budget addressed primarily to groups of voters rather than to national problems, and the users of archives will never swing a marginal electorate. Last week, The Australian ran an editorial on the issue, which concluded: “Failure to fund the NAA properly is an oversight that must be corrected.”

Embracing history is in the Liberal Party’s DNA – its founder, Robert Menzies, was a history buff.
Daniel Pockett/AAP

The government is wrong to think it is only professional and academic historians who use the archives. So do family historians, as the archives include personal records of hundreds of thousands of Australians. They are especially relevant to those of non-Anglo descent who had to apply to government authorities for various exemptions and entry permits. These include Indigenous Australians, Chinese living in Australia or displaced persons wanting to immigrate.

Haigh has pointed out that Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s defence last year of his eligibility to sit in parliament depended on a document in the archives – the certificate of exemption from the provisions of the Immigration Act for his mother, then a seven-year-old girl deemed to be “stateless”.

The National Archives sit in the attorney-general’s department. Queensland Senator Amanda Stoker, who is assistant minister to the attorney-general as well as assistant minister for women and industrial relations, defended the government’s failure to provide the recommended emergency funding with the facile claim that “time marches on and all sources degrade over time”.

The government had nothing to be embarrassed about, she said, even when she was reminded Prince Charles had expressed his alarm at the threatened loss of records. Judging from her silly remarks, she seems to have given the subject little thought. The aim of the letter is to bring the archive’s budgetary neglect to the attention of the prime minister and his senior ministers.

Read more:
Jenny Hocking: why my battle for access to the ‘Palace letters’ should matter to all Australians

While I do not think the neglect of the archives is a deliberate move in the culture wars, it is evidence of the Coalition’s truncated temporal imagination. This is in part an occupational hazard of politicians with their eyes on the electoral cycle. But it is also evident in the difficulty too many of the Coalition have in understanding what climate scientists have been telling them about the future, so they focus on present costs as if future costs will never arrive.

To understand the value of archives, we have to think not just about the past but about the future, when the present will be well and truly over. As the open letter says, the National Archives’ “most important users have not yet been born”, and we do not know what questions they will want to ask.

Thinking about time is difficult, wrenching oneself out of the dramas and routines of the present to fully imagine worlds that were and will be different, confronting our transience and our mortality.

Historians are experts in temporal imagining. They spend their days reading the words and examining the objects of the men and women who walked the world before us. We hope the prime minister will heed our words on the future’s desire for a memory bank of Australian life as full and rich as it can be.

Judith Brett is a signatory to the open letter to the prime minister.

The debate over transgender athletes’ rights is testing the current limits of science and the law

Originally published on

The petition presented to parliament last week calling for trans women to be excluded from women’s sport is simply the latest round in a difficult and volatile global debate.

Organised by Save Women’s Sport Australasia, the petition challenges Sport New Zealand’s “draft guiding principles for the participation of transgender players in sport” for failing to consult widely enough.

Despite the draft principles covering community-level sport, not international competition, former Olympians and elite athletes supported the petition in an open letter to Minister for Sport and Recreation Grant Robertson.

The controversy comes not long after New Zealand transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbard’s Pacific Games victory was criticised due to her alleged physical advantage, and not long before the Olympic Games open in late July.

Overall, this polarising issue is likely to keep dividing people. Consensus looks increasingly difficult to achieve. With both sides claiming discrimination, can existing laws and principles provide a way forward?

New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard competing at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.

Sports participation as a human right

The wider relationship between sports and human rights is complex and often contradictory. No explicit right to participate in sport exists in international law. However, a number of core human rights are relevant:

the Universal Declaration on Human Rights says everyone has the rights to freedom of association, health, rest and leisure, and to participate in cultural life

the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says everyone has the right to freedom of association; its sister treaty, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognises the rights to health and cultural life

the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child identifies the rights to rest, leisure and participation in cultural life, which include participation in sport, as does the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

UNESCO’s International Charter of Physical Education and Sport identifies sport as a fundamental right, as does the International Olympic Committee.

Recognising trangender athletes

As with all human rights, the right to participate in sport is underpinned by the right to be free from discrimination on grounds of sex, gender or other status. That includes gender identity and the right of trans people to be free from discrimination.

This broad principle informs much of the thinking on the issue. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, for example, has said the participation of girls and women in sport should not result in the arbitrary exclusion of transgender people.

Read more:
How high school sports became the latest battleground over transgender rights

The rapporteur has also asked for a consensus by all international sporting bodies and national governments, in consultation with transgender organisations, with subsequent policies ideally reflecting international human rights norms.

The UN’s Independent Expert on “protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity” has highlighted the negative impact of exclusionary practices in sport, and noted the value of inclusive programs.

The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women calls for equality between men and women in sports and includes gender identity among the forms of potential discrimination.

The devil is in the detail

Beyond these areas of broad agreement, however, the issue quickly becomes more complex.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, the Human Rights Act 1993 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of “sex” and “sexual orientation”. These prohibitions have been interpreted to encompass the legal right of trans people to be free from discrimination.

Read more:
Hostility to elite trans athletes is having a negative impact on participation in everyday sport

However, the act also says it is not discriminatory to exclude people of one sex from participating in any competitive sporting activity in which the strength, stamina or physique of competitors is relevant.

Unfortunately, this is where the arguments run into the limited help offered by science. There is still strong disagreement about whether transgender athletes have a competitive advantage or not.

The limits of science and the law

Research focusing on testosterone levels to justify the exclusion (or inclusion) of trans athletes has been criticised as an inappropriate oversimplification.

Whether testosterone even provides a competitive advantage is disputed, and commentators point to other factors that may be at play.

One study of the available literature concluded that a consensus could not be reached due a lack of data. That finding was itself challenged, but both sides agreed more research was required.

Read more:
Do naturally high testosterone levels equal stronger female athletic performance? Not necessarily

In the meantime, we need to recognise the limits of science and the law when it comes to setting demonstrably balanced guidelines for trans athletes’ participation in sport.

Progress will only come through listening to both sides in the short term, but broad support for the required research is also needed in the longer term.

Ultimately it is in everyone’s interests that this hugely complex issue is resolved properly. Given it goes to the heart of human identity, the potential benefits are not confined to the sporting world.

Claire Breen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Boris Johnson overstates Morrison’s climate ambition, as Australia-UK trade agreement reached

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson put Scott Morrison on the spot when he told their joint news conference he thought the Australian PM had “declared for net zero by 2050”.

When Johnson made the statement a journalist interjected to point out Morrison’s policy was to get to net zero “preferably” by 2050.

Johnson pressed on to say this was “a great step forward when you consider[…] the situation Australia is in. It’s a massive coal producer. It’s having to change the way things are orientated, and everybody understands that.

“You can do it fast. In 2012 this country had 40% of its power from coal. It’s now less than 2%, going down the whole time. […] I’m impressed by the ambition of Australia. Obviously we’re going to be looking for more the whole time, as we go into COP26 in November.”

The net zero moment came as the two stood together to announce they had reached an in-principle agreement for a free trade deal between Britain and Australia – the first such deal the United Kingdom has done post Brexit.

Johnson had been asked whether he wanted Australia to go beyond its present 2030 emissions reduction target.

Morrison has been under strong pressure from both Johnson and United States President Joe Biden to embrace the 2050 target. But he has so far not done so, despite edging towards it. His position is to get to net zero “as soon as possible, preferably by 2050.”

Formally embracing the target would threaten a fight within the Nationals that could destabilise the party’s leader Michael McCormack.

Nationals Senate leader Bridget McKenzie warned this week:

“There is no agreement with the second party of this Coalition government on any target date for zero emissions. In fact it would fly in the face of the Nationals public policy commitment.”

The planned free trade agreement, which still has details to be finalised, would reduce barriers on the mobility of workers between the two countries as well on trade in goods and services.

The deal would promote more exchange of young people, allowing them to stay and work in each country for three years instead of two. This arrangement would apply to people up to age 35 rather than 30, as at present.

The federal government says Australian producers and farmers would “receive a significant boost by getting greater access to the UK market” while Australian consumers would “benefit from cheaper products, with all tariffs eliminated within five years, and tariffs on cars, whisky, and the UK’s other main exports eliminated immediately” the agreement started.

Australia would within five years place less onerous conditions on British backpackers, who presently have to spend a set time working in agriculture, or other sectors of labour shortage in regional Australia, to get an extension of their visa.

A separate agriculture visa would be established for UK and Australian visa holders, to get more two way traffic (for example, of shearers) in the agricultural sector.

Over 10 to 15 years the UK would liberalise Australian imports of beef and sheep meat, with shorter periods for sugar and dairy products.

The agricultural sectors in both Britain and Australia expressed concerns when the agreement was being negotiated. In Australia farmers have been worried about the possibility of losing labour if the conditions on backpackers were scrapped.

Johnson said the deal would be good for British car manufacturers and the export of British financial and other services, and he hoped for the agricultural sectors on both sides.

On agriculture “we’ve had to negotiate very hard. […] This is a sensitive sector for both sides, and we’ve got a deal that runs over 15 years and contains the strongest possible provisions for animal welfare.”

The removal of the farm work requirement would make it easier for British people and young people to go and work in Australia, he said.

Morrison said the deal would open the pathway to Britain’s entry into the The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Morrison and Johnson discussed the final points of the agreement in principle over a dinner meeting at 10 Downing Street. Their talks also included climate change.

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

Word from The Hill: the Biloela Tamil family, G7 and the upcoming parliamentary fortnight

Originally published on

As well as Michelle Grattan’s usual interviews with experts and politicians about the news of the day, Politics with Michelle Grattan now includes “Word from The Hill”, where all things political will be discussed with members of The Conversations’s politics team.

In this episode, politics + society editor Amanda Dunn and Michelle dive into Tuesday’s announcement that the Bioela Tamil family will now live in Perth while their court proceedings are underway, after being incarcerated on Christmas Island since 2019. They also discuss Scott Morrison’s meeting with US President Joe Biden, and Michael McCormack’s sitting in the PM’s parliamentary chair this week.

Additional audio

A List of Ways to Die, Lee Rosevere, from Free Music Archive.

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

Biloela family to be released into community detention – what happens now?

Originally published on

Federal immigration minister Alex Hawke has exercised his power to allow the Murugappan family from Biloela to live in the Perth community.

The Tamil asylum seeker family was previously held in an “alternative place of detention” (APOD) on Christmas Island. Residence determination, also known as “community detention”, was introduced in 2005 an alternative to held detention. As of April 2021, there were 536 people in community detention, including 181 children.

Read more:
Biloela family moved to Perth in holding decision by Immigration Minister Hawke

Community detention allows people to transition out of detention into the community with appropriate supports. The family will have to live at a specified address and are legally still “detained”. They will not be under any physical supervision and will have the ability to live in the Perth community and engage with local support networks, and the children will be able to go to a local school. However, the requirement to live at a particular place means they are not free to leave Perth and return to Biloela in Queensland, unless the minister allows them to.

Immediate health and mental health a priority

Families in community detention are provided with support services from local community based organisations contracted by the Department of Home Affairs under the Status Resolution Support Service . The Murugappans will be given accommodation, health and welfare services as well as casework support. A small income is provided to allow them to pay for food, clothing and utilities, but the parents will not be allowed to work.

The Biloela family’s plight was brought to the head by their youngest daughter Tharunicaa being hospitalised with a serious illness.

Much has happened in recent days. Physical and mental health must be a priority. There is a strong body of evidence to suggest people’s health deteriorates significantly in immigration detention, with a clear association between time in detention and rates of mental illness. Anxiety, depression and traumatic stress experiences are commonly reported. Length of time in detention is associated with severity of distress. There is evidence that mental health improves shortly after release, although results have shown that the negative impact of detention can be ongoing.

After years in detention, the family’s situation has been brought to a head by their youngest daughter, Tharunicaa, being transferred to hospital in Perth with a serious blood infection. Medical experts have advocated for the family to be reunited as the little girl recovers.

Read more:
View from The Hill: the Morrison government has escape hatch in Tamil family case – if it wants to use it

What are the legal options now?

The family’s future remains uncertain. Hawke said:

I will consider at a future date whether to lift the statutory bar presently preventing members of the family from reapplying for temporary protection, for which they have previously been rejected.

The parents came to Australia by boat without visas, so the law classifies them as unlawful maritime arrivals. Their children, although born in Australia, are also classified as unlawful maritime arrivals. This means they are not allowed to apply for any visa in Australia unless the immigration minister personally allows it under section 46A of the Migration Act.

Read more:
As a young child is evacuated from detention, could this see the Biloela Tamil family go free?

The minister has previously allowed the father, Nades, to apply for a protection visa. The mother, Priya, has also applied and included the older daughter in her application. All had applied for protection visas, claiming they would face persecution if returned to Sri Lanka. Their claims were not successful and they were then detained in 2018.

Attempts to remove them from Australia were stopped by an injunction issued by the courts on the basis that the youngest daughter had not had the opportunity to apply for a protection visa.

The minister may allow them to apply for any visa under section 46A, or alternatively allow the family’s claims for protection to be reassessed under section 48B.

Section 48A of the Migration Act allows the minister to personally allow a person to apply again for a protection visa where they have previously been refused if he considers it in the “public interest” to do so. The minister’s guidelines state he can exercise this power if he considers there are “exceptional circumstances”, including new information, or where there is a significant change in the circumstances of the case.

In the case of the Biloela family, this could include a change to the circumstances of their case that has arisen since they last applied, which are known as sur place claims. In May 2021, an asylum tribunal in the United Kingdom issued new country guidance addressing the risk of persecution for Sri Lankan nationals. It sets out the risk of persecution as a result of sur place activities that are (or perceived by the government to be) in opposition to the government of Sri Lanka.

This is important in the case of the Biloela family, as they are clearly identifiable due to the large amount of national and international media coverage, which has included references to their previous asylum claims.

Read more:
It’s time to give visas to the Biloela Tamil family and other asylum seekers stuck in the system

The immediate need for a trauma-informed response

Community detention is an appropriate compassionate response and a step in the right direction. However, the failure to exercise a discretion either granting the Murugappans a visa or allowing them to apply again leaves the family in limbo.

Prolonged uncertainty and ongoing trauma can have devastating impacts. There is a well documented body of evidence that when people are traumatised and at the same time feel trapped by their circumstances, it becomes increasingly difficult to make decisions, sustain healthy, satisfying relationships or manage life’s uncertainties. Efforts must be made to reduce that uncertainty. A trauma-informed approach is essential to reduce ongoing distress and prevent retraumatisation.

Specialist support for both parents and children are essential. How children experience traumatic events, how they express their distress, and what actually helps, depends in large part on the children’s age and stage of development. It also depends on the circumstances of the entire family. The goal must be to restore certainty to these children’s lives and the lives of their parents.

Mary Anne Kenny has previous received funding from the Australian Research Council and sitting fees from the Department of Home Affairs.

Nicholas Procter has previously received grant funding and sitting fees from the Department of Home Affairs. This article is part of a series on asylum seeker policy supported by a grant from the Broadley Trust.

Climate explained: could biofuels replace all fossil fuels in New Zealand?

Originally published on

Aleksandar Malivuk/Shutterstock


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Could biofuels replace all fossil fuels in New Zealand? What are the economic and climate benefits and costs of biofuels, compared to other low-carbon solutions, such as hydrogen?

A quick look at the numbers suggests New Zealand would have enough land to produce biomass energy to replace the nation’s current fossil fuel use. But this doesn’t mean we have the technology or could do so economically — nor in ways driven by people’s choices.

The Climate Change Commission’s final advice to government, tabled last week, runs the numbers on costs, benefits and alternatives but has no realistic scenario suggesting a complete switch to biofuels would be feasible. After considering submissions, the commission found biofuels and other alternatives, including green hydrogen, could replace more fossil energy than its first estimates suggested.

New Zealand’s current demand for fossil fuels is about 570 petajoules (PJ), which breaks down into 70PJ of coal, just under 200PJ of natural gas and just over 300PJ of liquid fuels. Forests covering about 11% of New Zealand’s land could produce this much energy.

For comparison, the pastures covering about half the country produce 700-900PJ of energy livestock can metabolise. This drives exports of dairy, sheep and beef products.

The pros and cons of biofuels

Some insights spring from efforts to compare different forms of energy. Even when converted into the same units, fuels and energy are not easily interchangeable.

It may help to put energy into more familiar terms. A dinner serving is around 1 megajoule (MJ), a billionth of a PJ. Compare that to 38MJ of energy content in one litre of diesel fuel — which converts to approximately 10kWh of electricity, worth two or three dollars on a home electricity bill. The electricity is convenient at home, but hard to take with you like a litre of fuel.

Liquid biofuels are convenient for transport but harder to produce. And combustion engines waste 65-75% of their energy as heat, regardless of whether they burn fossil fuel or biofuel. Also, any new biofuel production that isn’t from waste usually means we stop producing something that previously had value.

Biofuels can be produced from waste streams, including forestry slash, or by growing fuel crops on land currently used to grow food.

The conversion of biomass to biofuels also loses a significant amount of energy, and the commission therefore expects biofuels to remain relatively costly. Battery electric vehicles have changed all this, because they are about 90% efficient, making the same energy go three times further than liquid petrol or diesel.

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Move over, corn and soybeans: The next biofuel source could be giant sea kelp

Many biofuel feedstocks have environmental impacts, from nitrous oxide emissions and soil carbon loss from crops to methane emissions associated with tallow, which is produced as a meat byproduct in sufficient quantity to offset about 2% of liquid fossil fuel use. Forestry slash and waste are even more plentiful and should have lower impacts, aside from possibly contributing to erosion.

Saving energy

The most beneficial solution is energy conservation. The commission suggests current policies will reduce coal and gas demand to just over 40PJ and 100PJ by 2035, respectively. But growing demand for energy in the transport sector means liquid fossil fuels are expected to increase to a plateau of 400PJ before slowly declining after 2035.

The commission produced a demonstration path, which reduces fossil coal, gas and liquid energy use to 25PJ, 80PJ and 270PJ by 2035, respectively, greatly cutting emissions and the need for new renewable energy.

A good example comes from replacing the use of coal for process heat with wood, most importantly in dairy factories that dry milk.

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Climate explained: could the world stop using fossil fuels today?

After conservation, increasing the use of renewable electricity can play a big role. In addition to electric road transport, short regional flights could also be electrified. But batteries and efficient electric motors require mining for lithium and energy and are far from impact-free.

Impacts of biofuel production

If produced in quantities that exceed current waste streams, biofuels would need land that produces economically valuable agricultural or forest products. Using land for biofuel also limits its use as a forest carbon sink, although new forests planted for biofuels are a temporary carbon sink as they grow. Thus, the costs and benefits of biofuels depend very much on where and how they are produced.

Wood pellets can replace fossil fuel to heat industrial boilers.
Aliaksei Charapanau/Shutterstock

Growing, transporting and producing biofuels would have some visible impacts, just as today’s fossil fuel production has a footprint that includes mining, drilling, refining, storage and transport. Depending on the location, new forests might change local landscapes and economies, with specific effects such as lower river flows.

In 2018, Scion estimated that converting 30% of transport fuel to biofuel would require an area three times the size of Stewart Island and use 55 truckloads per hour.

The idea of a biofuel economy is both fascinating and uncertain because it could have dramatic effects on land use, across large areas, with potential benefits such as reduced nitrate leaching or erosion.

Future environmental effects are hard to predict because biofuel technologies are still developing, and the future costs of energy and emissions are uncertain. But so are the costs and benefits of many alternatives.

Ideas and debate continue to develop regarding the use of hydrogen as a fuel, either in transport or to augment batteries, if efficiency can be improved, or for combustion where it could even be added to natural gas. But hydrogen is only green if it is produced with clean, renewable power.

Troy Baisden receives research funding from the New Zealand government and is affiliated with Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre of Research Excellence in Networks and Complexity. He also owns shares in the renewable electricity sector.

The COVID-19 lab-leak hypothesis is plausible because accidents happen. I should know

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Chen Jimin/China News Service via Getty Images

At the conclusion of the G7 summit yesterday, leaders called for a fresh and transparent investigation to determine how the COVID-19 pandemic began.

I welcome the renewed interest in the potential “lab-leak” origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It wouldn’t be the first time an infectious pathogen was accidentally released from a research laboratory.

I know from personal experience. Back in 1994, on my first day of a fellowship at Stanford University, I picked up a damp courier parcel at reception and took it back to the lab. My professor put on latex gloves immediately. The parcel contained a vial with an HIV-infected lymph node.

The dry ice used to pack the sample had evaporated, soaking the cardboard. There I was, someone who had not worked with HIV before, with hands damp from handling a box containing live virus.

I didn’t get infected. But the experience left me acutely aware of how easily accidents happen. A 2018 review found 27 cases of laboratory-acquired infections between 1982 and 2016 in the Asia-Pacific region alone. The list of pathogens included everything from the virus that causes dengue fever to the SARS coronavirus.

Read more:
Fifty-nine labs around world handle the deadliest pathogens – only a quarter score high on safety

The American Biological Safety Association (ABSA) maintains a searchable database of reported laboratory-acquired infections. It documents “leakage from the plastic bag in the negative-pressure transport chamber” and exposure to “droplets when cleaning a spill”, among many other examples.

From a scientific perspective alone, it is important to investigate the lab-leak hypothesis because, if true, we have to tighten safety procedures to prevent future leaks.

Two lab-leak hypotheses

When the virus was first reported from Wuhan almost 18 months ago, people have raised the possibility that it emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where research on SARS coronaviruses was underway.

This lab-leak hypothesis comes in two flavours. First, the virus could have jumped from an animal (or animal tissue) infected with a SARS coronavirus as part of the research. The infected person subsequently infected others in the community.

The transfer of a pathogen from an animal to people is called a zoonotic transmission. This process also occurs outside of laboratories, perhaps when there is close contact with infected animals or they are eaten.

The second hypothesis suggests a purposeful genetic modification of a coronavirus that gave rise to a more infectious and human-transmissible variant, which then leaked into the community. This type of genetic modification is called gain-of-function, because the engineered virus acquires new biological traits.

It is unfortunate these hypotheses have been miscast as somehow equivalent, and often portrayed as alternative to the “natural origins” hypothesis.

When I and other computational biologists think of origins, we think about evolutionary ancestors: a virus’ evolutionary line of descent. If SARS-CoV-2 had evolved without human intervention from an ancestral variant found in one or more hosts, it is quite possible that such a host animal, or a sample from an infected host animal, was the subject of study in a lab.

Through some unfortunate misadventure, it is plausible that someone in that lab became infected.

Why an investigation is important

Arguments for or against these hypotheses are often couched in terms of likelihoods. In February, the World Health Organisation (WHO) listed four scenarios in its global study of SARS-CoV-2 origins: direct zoonotic transmission, indirect zoonotic transmission through an intermediate host, transmission through cold/food-chain products and accidental laboratory release.

Indirect zoonotic transmission through an intermediate host was deemed “likely to very likely” and accidental lab release “extremely unlikely”. The WHO panel rejected deliberate gain-of-function manipulation because it “has been ruled out by other scientists following analyses of the genome”.

But that wasn’t the last word, because the exact origin of the COVID-19 virus remains a mystery.

Read more:
The COVID-19 lab leak theory highlights a glaring lack of global biosecurity regulation

Genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 has shown the virus is related (about 96%) to a strain found in horseshoe bats. Although this seems like a high level of similarity, it implies that SARS-CoV-2 diverged from this strain several decades ago. Therefore, it remains unclear if the spillover was directly to humans or through an intermediate species.

In any case, such evolutionary analysis cannot distinguish between transmission in or outside a laboratory.

The WHO panel considered a lab-acquired infection as extremely unlikely because of the Wuhan laboratories’ strict biosafety protocols. But the ABSA database lists accidental infections happening even in labs with the highest biosafety accreditation, and these include SARS-coronavirus infections.

Read more:
The next pandemic is already happening – targeted disease surveillance can help prevent it

In its arguments for and against accidental lab release, the WHO report noted the Wuhan laboratories moved to a new location near the Huanan market in early December 2019, but “reported no disruptions or incidents caused by the move”. There is no reason to distrust the WHO panel’s conclusions, but it is nonetheless true that lab relocations present opportunities for error.

The lab-leak hypothesis is at least plausible and it’s therefore important to investigate it. If it were related to the operations of the lab, or its relocation, we need to re-examine safety protocols. For relocations, we may want to require independent monitoring and pre- and post-move quarantine of essential personnel.

Allen Rodrigo does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.