Women at the height of their artistic powers present a powerful reckoning in SOUL Fury

Originally published on theconversation.com
Anida Yoeu Ali’s Lava Rising, The Red Chador: Genesis I
Studio Revolt/Photo: Masahiro Sugano

Review: SOUL Fury at Bendigo Gallery

From love, bitter becomes sweet … From love, fire becomes light … From love, fury becomes mercy.

So wrote the Sufi poet Rumi 700 years ago. Curator Nur Shkembi has used Rumi’s evocative words to frame her selection of art by 16 women artists who have cultural backgrounds in Islam as SOUL Fury, an exhibition running at Bendigo Art Gallery until October.

It is a telling title. It slips between the transformative power of these works with a reckoning if not of the soul, at least towards a sense of wonder, and the reality of the experience of artists. They live in a world oft-times “resistant”, as artist Cigdem Aydemir says, to their culture.

Read more:
Friday essay: why traditional Persian music should be known to the world

Heart and spirit

The entry to the exhibition is magical: golden circles, made by Shireen Taweel, are perforated with perfectly tuned patterns making arcs of light on the floor. A call to prayer recorded in the Australian outback resonates. Then the room finishes with a poem by Eugenia Flynn, a First Nations (Tiwi Larrakia) Muslim woman, half lit on the wall behind.

Shireen Taweel, tracing transcendence (detail) 2018–21.
AGNSW/Photo: Leon Schoots

The combination does what experiencing art in galleries alone can do: it brings down your heartbeat and raises your spirit at the same time. The clever staging of the whole show reminds us, even subliminally, of the easy slippage between static artworks, video, music, poetry and indeed the space of Islamic sensibility.

Islamic art, put simply, aspires to bring us closer to God. It transcends the trivia of our daily lives, in a process that encourages us to a purer state of mind. You don’t have to be a believer in an Islamic God to understand the power of much of the culture originally from the Middle East, or to appreciate its beauty or be swayed by its rhythms.

Think of Persian miniatures and the Taj Mahal, ghazals spoken and sung as well as the flourishes of calligraphic books, the turquoise and blue tiles of Isfahan and the wondrous spaces of the Haggia Sophia in Istanbul. It’s in the colours floating in the air in the Newport Mosque in Melbourne.

Many of the works in SOUL Fury reflect these traditions. Nusra Latif Qureshi’s precise and luminescent “miniatures” come from that traditional style and technique, but hidden within them is the sting of colonial and present day (often gendered) politics.

Shahzia Sikander’s hypnotic rhythms in her video Singing Suns, of exploding golden orbs, easily transcend our terrestrial humdrum. Bombshell, a video by Cigdem Aydemir, takes its name from the Marilyn Monroe footage of her dress swirling over an air vent. Here equally rhythmically billowing clothing surrounds the figure of an ethereally floating young woman, though her clothing is the heavy veiling frequently seen by those in the West to equate with oppression and restriction.

Read more:
Ancient rhythms: Shirin Neshat and the dream space that contemporary Persian art can unlock

Power and exclusion

SOUL Fury is about the culture that flows around this religion, as it is experienced by women today. Gallery director Jessica Bridgfoot says this exhibition is a “disruption of entrenched powers in public cultural spaces”. The placement of this exhibition in Bendigo, with its recent fragile history of Islamic relations around the building of a new mosque is understandable.

Shadi Ghadirian, Untitled from the Ghajar series 2000, printed 2007. © Shadi Ghadirian.

However, the success here is that while the visitor arrives aware of the issues, the overall result is to be inspired by the work and its stories. It’s about facing adversity head-on, if not with defiance but with strength, humour, and a refined sensibility of a greater humanity.

The filigree delicacy accorded Mehwish Iqbal’s personal accoutrements of refugees is an example. Another is the serious humour of Hoda Afshar’s unlikely photography: women in heavy veils sporting a blonde pigtail, or smoking a cigarette and very cool sunglasses. In the end people win, artists win, women win.

Read more:
Iran’s cultural heritage reflects the grandeur and beauty of the golden age of the Persian empire

The height of their powers

Half of the 16 women represented live in Australia, half of those born here. While artists from or living in Bangladesh, Somalia and Cambodia are included as well as those with a Lebanese background, the majority are from the Persian arc of influence: Iran and its cultural partner of Pakistan. Almost all respond to the immensely entrancing traditions of art coming from there, in technique (including miniature painting and intricate carving), style, content — or all three.

The image of women of Pakistan particularly in Western minds is one of subjugation and violence. But the work by many of the Pakistani artists here, including Shahzia Sikander and Nusra Latif Qureshi, comes from institutions in Lahore and more recently in Karachi run by women. Formidable artists-teachers-writers Salima Hashmi and Durriya Kazi have nurtured students there who have since gained enormous international reputations.

Nusra Latif Qureshi, Justified behavioural sketch 2002. © Nusra Latif Qureshi.

Most of the artists are in their 30s and 40s, at the height of their powers and making themselves and their views very clear. These are not artists on the margins of the art world.

Some of them, like Sikander, Qureshi, Hadieh Shafie, Shadi Ghadirian, Naiza Khan and Anida Yoeu Ali, have been included in the major exhibitions and institutions of our time, from the Venice Biennale to the British Museum, to the Queensland Art Gallery’s Asia Pacific Triennial.

Contrary to the stereotype of neglect, these artists are doing very well in the centres of art world power.

This important exhibition is a unique chance to experience webs of sympathetic communication weaving between great works in a specific cultural context. A tour-de-force experience, it really should be seen around the country.

SOUL Fury is at Bendigo Art Gallery until October 24.

Alison Carroll 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.

Australia’s housing laws are changing, but do they go far enough to prevent pet abandonment?

Originally published on theconversation.com


New South Wales recently became the latest state to end blanket bans on pets in apartments, joining Queensland and the ACT.

Other housing regulations on pets are also shifting nationally, with Victoria last year following the ACT with reforms that prevent landlords from unreasonably restricting pets, and the Northern Territory following suit this year.

But while some laws are changing, there is still too much uncertainty across the housing system. As a result, pets are often the victims when people need to relocate and can’t take their dogs or cats with them.

With close to 2.5 million Australians now living in apartments and a third of Australian households renting their homes — and rising — there is an urgent need for consistent, equitable and pet-supportive housing policies across the country.

Read more:
Can I have a pet and be housed, too? It all depends…

Pets are ‘part of the family’

Australia is a nation of pet owners, with over 60% of households including a pet. In most of those households, pets are part of the family.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, our pets have become even more important. They have helped us adjust to the stresses of lockdown and been vital companions when we cannot get out and see friends and other family.

The benefits of pets within communities are well established. Dogs, in particular, act as ice breakers, helping neighbours to get to know one another and building a sense of community.

Dogs have also been shown to increase average rates of daily exercise across all age groups.

Despite this, pet bans in apartment buildings and the rental sector have been widespread in Australia until recently. As a result, around half of households that live with pets believe their future housing options are limited, and renters who have pets have reported feeling insecure about their housing.

Read more:
Australians love their pets, so why don’t more public places welcome them?

Are the new laws fair?

NSW’s reforms relate to strata title — a form of housing in Australia that enables owners to buy an apartment “lot” in a larger complex (or rent from owners). Until recently, many strata titles included a blanket pet ban.

Compared with other states and territories, NSW has traditionally had the most comprehensive, yet complex, regulations regarding pets and strata title. The new reforms provide insights that can help other states and territories follow suit with their own laws. But do the reforms go far enough?

Broadly speaking, the new rules are bringing strata living in line with community expectations. They give apartment owners greater power to make decisions about what they do in their own homes.

With these rights, however, come responsibilities. The NSW government has said owners corporations can still refuse an apartment owner to keep an animal if there is

repeated damage of the common property, menacing behaviour, persistent noise and odour.

Owners corporations will also have the right to set conditions about how pets are kept, such as requiring they are supervised on common property or while entering and exiting an entrance or lift.

The government says these conditions must be “reasonable”, but there are yet to be guidelines on what this might mean.

In the past, apartment by-laws in Australia have been highly variable. While most banned pets outright, others had perverse rules requiring they be carried through common areas regardless of size, or limiting the size of dogs.

The latter restriction sounds sensible, but in reality, such a rule makes it difficult for apartment residents to have larger dogs, many of whom are quiet and well-suited to apartment life.

A report prepared as part of the NSW legislation review suggests these types of requirements would be unreasonable. However, this is not specified in the law that was passed.

Read more:
Speaking with: Emma Power and Jennifer Kent about why Australian cities and homes aren’t built for pets

Renters — and their pets — are left out

One group is left out of the newly introduced NSW rules. Renters will still require landlord permission to keep pets in strata title apartments — and that can be hard to come by.

These restrictions are exacerbating an animal welfare problem. In our research, we found an unacceptably high number of animals are taken to welfare agencies across Australia every year. And we found that just over half of the households that had to give up pets were renters.

The RSPCA alone reported receiving 112,530 animal relinquishments in 2019–20.

The organisation estimates between 15% and 30% of animal surrenders nationally are from pet owners who could not keep their pets when moving into a new rental property.

A brighter, pet-inclusive future

New strata laws in NSW, Queensland and the ACT show the way toward housing policies that respect the right of households to make their own decisions about how they live – and who they live with.

Yet, these laws are only effective when they are consistent for owners and renters, and across all housing types and every state and territory.

Inconsistent policies are making it difficult for households that include pets to move from one rental home to another or from public housing into the private rental sector. They also make it difficult for households to move between housing types – for instance, from a detached house into an apartment.

Times are changing in Australia. Many people would like to keep pets, but find themselves unable to due to onerous restrictions and out-of-date laws. It is time housing regulations across the country catch up and recognise the benefits and joys that pets can bring to people’s lives.

Emma Power currently receives funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) and has previously received funding for the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI).

Wendy Stone receives funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) and Homes Victoria (HV).

The government is determined to keep National Cabinet’s work a secret. This should worry us all

Originally published on theconversation.com

Earlier this month, the Morrison government introduced a bill to parliament that would amend the Freedom of Information Act to allow meetings of the National Cabinet to receive the same exemptions from releasing information to the public as the federal cabinet.

The protection would be considerable. The bill would expand the definition of “cabinet” in the act to include the National Cabinet or one of its committees, and would redefine “minister” to include state ministers.

The exemption would also cover not only National Cabinet meetings themselves, but a host of other bodies associated with it under the convoluted architecture for intergovernmental relations in Australia. This chart shows just how confusing it gets.

The bill has been referred to a Senate committee, which is due to report on October 14. There is a lot at stake. The bill certainly should not pass in its present form.

Read more:
The national cabinet’s in and COAG’s out. It’s a fresh chance to put health issues on the agenda, but there are risks

What’s this all about?

The bill is a response to the decision of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) in a case brought by Senator Rex Patrick to force the government to release certain National Cabinet records.

In that decision, the AAT rejected the government’s claim that National Cabinet documents were exempt from release under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. The tribunal did so on the basis that a forum in which heads of Australian governments meet is a completely different kind of body to a cabinet.

Read more:
Nowhere to hide: the significance of national cabinet not being a cabinet

A cabinet comprises ministers in the same government, who are elected to the same parliament, to which they are accountable and collectively responsible.

By contrast, a meeting of National Cabinet comprises the leaders of nine separate jurisdictions, with cabinets, parliaments and lines of accountability of their own.

The government decided not to appeal the AAT decision, but has moved to amend the FOI Act instead.

There have been meetings of heads of Australian governments since before federation. For around 100 years, these were known as the premiers’ conference. In 1992, the name was changed to the Council of Australian Governments, or COAG.

COAG today has ceased to exist — National Cabinet has replaced it. It is, however, essentially the same body with a new name and some altered procedures to respond to the pandemic.

What the current bill would do

None of these bodies was set up by legislation. Over the almost 30 years of its existence, however, COAG came to be mentioned in passing in a lot of legislation dealing with federal, state and territory government relations.

This explains the title of the current bill: the COAG Legislation Amendment Bill.

Interestingly, the first two sections of the bill (“schedule one” and “schedule two”) amend a host of acts referring to the old name, COAG. None of the amendments, however, uses “National Cabinet” as a substitute. Instead, for example, the COAG Reform Fund would become the Federation Reform Fund and references to COAG alone would become First Ministers’ Council.

Against this background, the amendments in schedule three to the FOI Act — and many other acts — seem even more peculiar.

Here, National Cabinet is referred to by name, and the amendments define the federal cabinet to include “the committee known as the National Cabinet”. This begs the question: known by whom? If the answer lies in the terminology used by the prime minister, what other bodies might this bill ultimately cover?

How confidential should National Cabinet be?

The bill raises an important question of the extent to which decisions of National Cabinet should be available to parliaments, the media and the public.

The need for transparency and accessibility is pressing. Over the course of the pandemic, the National Cabinet has made a host of significant decisions about how public power will be exercised, when and by whom. Its decisions have dramatically affected the lives of all Australians for almost two years.

In many ways, the National Cabinet’s effectiveness relies on public cooperation and trust. The only publicly available information about its decisions, however, comes through bland press releases, discursive remarks at Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s press conferences, and the occasional leak to selected journalists.

The lack of public knowledge about what goes on in National Cabinet cuts across all the principles and practices of representative democracy — at the Commonwealth level and in each of the states and territories.

There may well be a case for keeping some aspects of what goes on in National Cabinet confidential. The decisions are difficult and negotiations may be tense. Outcomes are sometimes unpredictable and public opinion can be febrile. It’s also in the public interest to encourage frank exchanges between political leaders and innovative thinking about solutions.

These considerations suggest there may be a case for the confidentiality of some aspects of the National Cabinet and preliminary working documents.

There is no comparable rationale, however, for withholding information about the decisions that have been made, any finalised documents on which they are based and understandings about the action expected to be taken.

These matters would be exempt under the bill. They should be in the public domain.

Compounding the confusion

By enshrining the words “National Cabinet” in legislation, the bill also entrenches the foolish and inappropriate name that was adopted without apparent deliberation as the pandemic began to unfold.

Perpetuating this way of describing the a forum of heads of government puts at least two of our most basic principles of government at risk.

Read more:
Will national cabinet change federal-state dynamics?

One is federalism. It is bizarre to describe the meeting of heads of Australian government as a subcommittee of the cabinet of one of its members (the federal government).

This could be destructive to healthy relations between federal, state and territory governments in the future.

The second risk is to the idea of a “cabinet” itself — and, by extension, responsible government.

The concept of a cabinet is hard enough for people to understand. It depends almost entirely on constitutional convention, reinforced by the logic of the relationship between government and parliament.

No doubt the frequency with which the term is used gives observers some general understanding of what a cabinet does. But if the understanding is muddled by applying the term “cabinet” to a body of an entirely different kind, the potential for confusion is magnified.

This comes with considerable loss to our democracy, and no gain.

Cheryl Saunders has in the past received funding from the Australian Research Council

Why a domestic NZ COVID ‘passport’ raises hard questions about discrimination, inequality and coercion

Originally published on theconversation.com


With COVID-19 causing extraordinarily intrusive and expensive lockdowns, vaccine “passports” or certificates are increasingly seen as key to getting out of them. Decision-makers and gatekeepers – from border guards to maître d’s – will have a means of knowing who can safely engage with others.

To that end, the New Zealand government aims to have one in place by year’s end. But vaccine passports have also prompted riots and protests overseas, and there are as yet unanswered questions about their use domestically.

A central concern is that they will cause or exacerbate inequality because access to a passport relies on access to vaccines, and access to vaccines has been unequal.

Internationally, citizens of some countries are more likely to have access to vaccines – and so to vaccine passports – than citizens of other countries. And within countries, some individuals and groups are more likely to have access to vaccines than others.

Furthermore, these inequalities track familiar and ethically troubling fault lines: New Zealand has struggled to lift Māori vaccination rates to match those of European New Zealanders, though Māori are more at risk.

And vaccine passports could compound existing inequalities, as those with them return to work and other activities while those without remain trapped.

A recent protest in Marseilles, France, against the introduction of mandatory vaccination certificates.

Inequality and discrimination

But there are reasons to think these legitimate concerns don’t automatically mean vaccine passports are unethical.

Firstly, the need to contain COVID-19 justifies the significant restrictions of important liberties in lockdowns. But to the extent that vaccines work, that justification doesn’t apply to someone who has been vaccinated. The justification for curtailing liberties has gone (or at least, given the possibility of breakthrough cases, been considerably weakened), so for the vaccinated the curtailment should go too.

Secondly, distinguishing between people on the basis of their COVID immunity may be discrimination, but it’s not obvious it is unjustified discrimination.

Read more:
Vaccine passports are coming to Australia. How will they work and what will you need them for?

Whether someone is vaccinated or not is arguably legitimate grounds for discrimination. The unvaccinated (for whatever reason) pose a greater risk to others than the vaccinated. They are also more likely to suffer severe symptoms if they get COVID-19.

Thirdly, one reason to tolerate inequality is that sometimes it improves the position of the disadvantaged. We might tolerate doctors’ high incomes, for example, if the promise of a higher income led people to study medicine and we believed a good supply of doctors benefited the worst-off members of our community.

Vaccine passports might work the same way. They help get the economy going, so the government can support those still locked down. They’re also an incentive to vaccinate, and high vaccination rates are good for everyone — perhaps especially the unvaccinated.

An offer you can’t refuse

But the use of vaccine passports as incentives poses some real issues. How they are used is crucial. Under some proposals, vaccination passports are (like conventional passports) essentially another international travel document.

Increasingly, however, countries (including New Zealand potentially) are proposing their use to control access to a significant range of domestic activities, such as returning to work in person, dining out or going to concerts and sports events.

Read more:
Do vaccination passports take away freedoms? It depends on how you frame the question

In this context, it’s clear some incentives can be coercive: they might be an offer you can’t refuse.

There are some people desperate to travel overseas, perhaps for good family reasons. But most of us can still decide whether the incentive of the IATA Travel Pass is enough to motivate us to travel.

Justified coercion?

Many people, though, will simply not be in a position to refuse the incentive of a domestic vaccine passport. Getting back to work and a pre-COVID life will not be a discretionary matter. For them, domestic vaccination passports are likely to be coercive.

For now at least, the government insists vaccination will not be mandatory. But effectively it will be for those who have no choice but to get a vaccine passport to work or have access to non-discretionary domestic activities.

And that coercion will not apply equally. There will be much greater pressure on those who are already socially disadvantaged and less able to make a genuine choice.

Coercion is sometimes justified, and perhaps the threat posed by COVID-19 warrants it. However, we should be wary of accepting kinds of coercion that are discriminatory and inegalitarian.

Read more:
Why we need to seriously reconsider COVID-19 vaccination passports

Governments need to be clear

So what should we do about vaccine passports and vaccine incentives?

We could restrict them to more discretionary activities, such as international travel, concerts and restaurants. That would be an offer anyone could refuse, especially the already disadvantaged.

But this use of passports might be insufficient incentive — too many people might refuse to get one. That’s a problem if we think trying to increase vaccination rates is justified.

So we think governments have a choice: they should address concerns about vaccine passports by avoiding uses that are coercive, discriminatory and inegalitarian. Alternatively, they should acknowledge their position that COVID-19 justifies coercion, and make vaccination mandatory.

The second option would be less discriminatory, and seems less likely to threaten trust and co-operation than the surreptitious and uneven compulsion provided by wide-ranging requirements for domestic vaccine passports.

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Doctors and farmers turn up heat on Morrison ahead of Glasgow

Originally published on theconversation.com

Multiple doctors’ organisations, led by the Australian Medical Association, and a major farm lobby have called on the federal government to boost Australia’s climate change ambition, as pressure mounts on Scott Morrison and Barnaby Joyce to finalise a deal ahead of the Glasgow conference.

In an open letter to the Prime Minister, the AMA, Doctors for the Environment Australia and many of the country’s medical colleges say: “Medical leaders across the country are calling on your government to urgently take much greater action to avert a further deterioration of the current climate crisis”.

Meanwhile, a report from economic consultants Ernst & Young commissioned by Farmers for Climate Action, which says it has more than 6000 farming supporters, lays out a pathway to zero emissions by 2040 without shrinking Australia’s agriculture, the cattle herd or the sheep flock.

The calls come as Morrison prepares to visit Washington next week for the meeting of the QUAD – leaders of the US, Japan, India and Australia – which will focus on security issues.

While there, Morrison will have a bilateral meeting with President Joe Biden at which climate change and the Glasgow conference would be expected to figure prominently.

Australia is under strong pressure from the US to embrace a net-zero by 2050 target, and to improve its short term ambition.

Morrison and Joyce are in negotiations about what Australia can put forward for Glasgow. But these are not expected to reach an outcome before Morrison leaves for Washington, according to sources.

The doctors’ letter says that with the conference weeks away, “Australia must significantly lift its commitment to the global effort to bring climate change under control in order to save lives and protect health”.

The letter is pointed in saying: “Australia must talk less about aspiration, and focus on firm and binding commitments that are aligned with the science”. The AMA and other medical groups are mapping a path towards emissions reductions in their sector.

“As doctors, we understand the imminent health threats posed by climate change and have seen them already emerge in Australia,” the letter says, referencing the 2019-20 bushfires, saying “that climate disaster” took more than 30 lives as a direct result of the fires.

The doctors’ organisations called on the government to:

commit to an ambitious national plan to protect health by cutting emissions this decade, including “significantly increasing Australia’s Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Agreement … in line with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

develop a national climate change and health strategy to facilitate planning for future climate change health impacts

establish a national Sustainable Healthcare Unit to support environmentally sustainable practice in healthcare and reduce the sector’s own significant emissions.

Medical colleges signing the letter were: The Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists, The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, The Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, The College of Intensive Care Medicine of Australia and New Zealand, The Royal Australasian College of Medical Administrators, The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists, and the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine.

Signatories to the AMA letter.
AMA, Author provided

The Farmers for Climate Action group says in a statement that “farming families do not want to miss the opportunities good climate policy presents for them”.

The consultants’ report includes methods of reducing net emissions such as improved pasture management, selective breeding, feed supplements which reduce stock’s methane output, and “carbon and biodiversity” crops.

“Much of what needs to be happening – planting trees and ground cover on non-productive land and within productive systems, adopting best practice grazing management – is already underway. We just need to scale it up,” the group says.

A case study in the Queensland region of Maranoa (where deputy Nationals leader and agriculture minister David Littleproud has his seat) found an extra 14,000-17,000 jobs and $2 billion to $2.4 billion could be added to the local economy over the next decade while agriculture reduced its net emissions.

Farmers for Climate Action is urging:

expanding payments to farmers for biodiversity work into a nationwide program

funding research and development for methane emissions reduction technologies

strong emissions cuts across energy and transport this decade, to allow all the abatement pathways to achieve their full potential.

Australia has about 83.000 farm businesses.

The group notes research by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) showing climate change is already costing the average Australian farming family nearly $30,000 a year.

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.

Podcast with Michelle Grattan: Christian Porter’s anonymous money pot

Originally published on theconversation.com

As well as her interviews with politicians and experts, Politics with Michelle Grattan now includes “Word from The Hill”, where she discusses the news with members of The Conversation politics team.

In this episode, politics + society editor Amanda Dunn and Michelle discuss Christian Porter’s extraordinary “blind trust” – where generous benefactors (assuming there’s more than one) are helping out with his legal bills in his now discontinued ABC defamation case. Porter, it seems, doesn’t know who he should be thanking because the donors are anonymous.

Amanda and Michelle also canvass Gladys Berejiklian’s on-again-off-again media appearances, and Scott Morrison’s trip to the US next week, which is likely to include some interesting exchanges with President Biden on climate policy.

Additional audio

Gaena, Blue Dot Sessions, 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.

Is Salman Rushdie’s decision to publish on Substack the death of the novel?

Originally published on theconversation.com


Email newsletters might be associated with the ghost towns of old personal email addresses for many: relentlessly accumulating unopened updates from organisations, stores and services signed up to and forgotten in the distant past. But over the last few years they have experienced a revival, with an increasing number of writers supplementing their income with paid newsletter subscriptions.

Most recently, Salman Rushdie’s decision to use the newsletter subscription service Substack to circulate his latest book has sparked conversation around this platform and its impact on the world of publishing.

What is Substack?

Launched in 2017, Substack allows writers to create newsletters and set up paid subscription tiers for them, offering readers a mixture of free and paywalled content in each edition.

Substack has thus encroached on the traditional territories of newspapers, magazines, the blogosphere – and now trade publishing. Though it is worth noting that until now it has been most enthusiastically adopted by journalists rather than authors.

Rather than monetising the service via advertising, Substack’s profits come from a percentage of paid subscriptions. Substack’s founders see the platform as a way of breaking from the ‘attention economy’ promoted by social media, allowing a space for more thoughtful and substantial writing that is funded directly by readers.

Read more:
Substack isn’t a new model for journalism – it’s a very old one

Not a radical disruption

Rushdie’s decision to publish via Substack signals a surprising inroad into one of the areas associated with trade publishing – literary fiction – and certainly makes for a good news story. He is the first significant literary novelist to publish a substantial work of fiction via the platform and Rushdie himself talks jokingly about helping to kill off the print book with this move.

However, the novella that Rushdie is intending to serialise will almost certainly be available in a more conventional format at some point in the future, given all Substack writers retain full rights to their intellectual property.

Other experiments with digital self-publication by prominent fiction authors, such as Stephen King’s novella Riding the Bullet (first published independently as an eBook), and the fiction first generated on Twitter by writers like David Mitchell and Neil Gaiman, have made their way to traditional publishers.

Neil Gaiman has also experimented with digitally distributed fiction.

While this movement provides excellent publicity for Rushdie and the Substack service, it’s perhaps better understood as a limited term platform exclusivity deal than as a radical disruption of the literary publishing ecosystem.

Potentially more interesting is what the “acquisition” of Rushdie by Substack illustrates about their operation as a digital service. Throughout its history, Substack has offered advances to promising writers to support them while they cultivate a subscriber base.

This practice has now been formalised as Substack Pro, where selected writers, like Rushdie himself, are paid a substantial upfront fee to produce content, which Substack recoups by taking a higher percentage of their subscription fees for their first year of writing.

The exact sums paid vary between writers, but it is not dissimilar to a traditional advance on royalties. When coupled with some of the other services that are available to writers with paid subscriptions – like a legal fund and financial support for the editing, design, and production of newsletters – Substack can be seen as operating in a grey area between publisher and platform.

They pursue promising and high-profile writers, generate income, and provide services in ways that parallel the operations of trade publishers, but do not claim rights or responsibilities in relation to the content that is produced.

Although Substack do not see themselves as commissioning writers it could be argued they do play an editorial role in curating content on their platform through not terribly transparent Substack Pro deals and incentives.

The evolution of Substack

Recently Jude Doyle, a trans critic and novelist, has abandoned the platform. They note the irony of how profits generated by the often marginalised or subcultural writers who built paid subscriber bases in the early days of Substack are now being used to fund the much more lucrative deals offered to high-profile right-wing writers, who have in some cases exploited Substack’s weak moderation policy to spread anti-trans rhetoric and encourage harassment.

It could be argued Substack Pro is evolving into an inversion of the traditional (if somewhat idealised) publishing model, where a small number of profitable authors would subsidise the emergence of new writers. Instead, on Substack, profits generated from the work of large numbers of side-hustling writers are used to draw more established voices to the platform.

The founders of Substack have been unapologetic about their policies, considering the “unsubscribe” button to be the ultimate moderation tool for their users. They do, however, acknowledge Substack’s free-market approach may not appeal to all and anticipate competition from alternatives.

Ghost already exists as a non-profit newsletter platform with a more active approach to moderation, and Facebook’s Bulletin provides a carefully curated newsletter service from commissioned writers.

At this stage, the use of newsletters for literary fiction is an experiment, and it remains to be seen if it will be sustainable. As Rushdie puts it: “It will either turn out to be something wonderful and enjoyable, or it won’t.”

Julian Novitz 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.

ASIC, now less a corporate watchdog, more a lapdog

Originally published on theconversation.com


The implosion of Australia’s corporate watchdog, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, under the federal government’s new directions, has gone from tragedy to farce.

ASIC was described as “weak, hesitant and timid” in a 2014 Senate review of its performance. To be fair, that was before ASIC’s current leadership. Now any assessment could add “dazed and confused”.

Last week we got a dose of that in the doublespeak of ASIC’s new chair Joseph Longo and deputy chair Sarah Court in their “first significant media interview” — with the Australian Financial Review.

The pair were asked about ASIC’s commitment to the “why not litigate?” approach recommended in 2019 by the Hayne royal commission into misconduct in the financial services industry.

Following the litany of revelations where the corporate regulator had failed to take action against illegal behaviour, royal commissioner Kenneth Hayne made it clear that when ASIC saw a law broken, its obligation, in deciding on a response, was to first ask itself “why not litigate”?

“I love litigation,” Longo told the AFR. “It’s what I used to do and Sarah is an expert at it.”

But in the same interview Court — ASIC’s head of enforcement — said the why-not-litigate strategy “has had its day”.

Regulatory doublespeak

Confusion is to be expected when a regulator is told to both enforce and refrain from enforcing the law — which is effectively what the federal government did last month in the “statement of expectations” it handed ASIC.

The previous statement, issued in 2018, began with acknowledging “the independence of ASIC and its responsibility for market conduct regulation”.

The new statement begins by saying ASIC is expected to “identify and pursue opportunities to contribute to the Government’s economic goals”.

Read more:
Frydenberg’s directions to ASIC throw the banking royal commission under a bus

ASIC accepted the banking royal commission’s why-not-litigate recommendation in 2019. But the federal government’s view of this was underlined last Friday when Longo fronted the House of Representatives’ standing committee on economics.

The committee’s chair, Tim Wilson, slammed the “why not litigate” approach as binary, wrong-headed and farcical. He also disputed that ASIC was too close to regulated companies, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Return to enforceable undertakings

The answers Longo and Court gave the AFR also suggest ASIC is backing away from the Hayne royal commission’s recommendation on “enforceable undertakings” — by which transgressors negotiate a settlement without an admission of wrongdoing.

A regulator might think using enforceable undertakings was better than taking a company to court, Commissioner Hayne said in his final report.

But that view cannot be formed without having first given proper consideration to questions of deterrence, both general and specific. A regulatory response to a breach of law that does not deter, generally and specifically, will rarely be a more effective regulatory outcome.“

Court, however, told the AFR:

My own view is that an enforceable undertaking can be completely appropriate in the right circumstance. Infringement notices can be completely appropriate.

Royal commission’s fading influence

The impression gained is of an attempt to pay some lip service to the royal commission but also demonstrate fealty to the federal government.

The federal government repeatedly resisted the royal commission, then backed away from its commitment to act on all the recommendations. What has changed since the royal commission? Not much.

Read more:
Ideology triumphs over evidence: Morrison government drops the ball on banking reform

Last week the Federal Court fined Westpac A$10.5 million for deceptive behaviour towards members of the Westpac-owned BT Superannuation Fund – a ruling stemming from litigation initiated by ASIC in 2016. This is the same BT ordered two weeks ago by the Australia Prudential Regulatory Authority to advise about 500,000 members of its Retirement Wrap fund that they should leave the fund, so bad have their returns been.

In his judgement, Justice Michael O’Bryan criticised Westpac for failing to fix its compliance failures, tardiness in compensating customers and lack of apology: “Westpac has not expressed regret for the conduct, does not appear to have taken steps to remedy the compliance deficiencies and has been tardy in progressing a remediation plan.”

At least, though, ASIC litigated against Westpac — successfully pursuing an appeal when it lost its first case. What chance would there be of achieving a fair outcome for consumers from a “no-regrets Westpac” had it not gone to court? Not much.

Australia’s battered and bruised financial consumers have every right to say to the regulator, and the government: enforce the law, or get out of the way.

Andrew Schmulow is the founder & CEO, Clarity Prudential Regulatory Consulting, Pty Ltd, he is an Associate Partner, Senior Advisor & Thought-Leader on Financial Services to DB & Associates, a joint Australian-South African Consultancy, he is a member of the Independent Committee of Experts convened by the South African National Treasury for the drafting of the Conduct of Financial Institutions Bill, a Secretariat member for the All Party Parliamentary Group for Personal Banking and Fairer Financial Services, House of Commons House of Lords, a member of the European Banking Institute (EBI) research work-stream on EU financial supervisory architecture, and an independent consultant to Luis Silva Morais/Sérgio Gonçalves do Cabo – Law Firm, for the jurisdictions of Australia and South Africa. He has received funding from various universities, associations and think tanks, most notably CGAP (a division of the World Bank) and the Banking Association, South Africa. He is affiliated with ACAC and the Accountability Round Table. He serves on the Boards of two charities.

Climate explained: how much of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels and could we replace it all with renewables?

Originally published on theconversation.com

Shutterstock/Tsetso Photo


Climate explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

How are fossil fuels formed, why do they release carbon dioxide and how much of the world’s energy do they provide? And what are the renewable energy sources that could replace fossil fuels?

Fossil fuels were formed over millions of years from the remains of plants and animals trapped in sediments and then transformed by heat and pressure.

Most coal was formed in the Carboniferous Period (360–300 million years ago), an age of amphibians and vast swampy forests. Fossilisation of trees moved enormous amounts of carbon from the air to underground, leading to a decline in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO₂) levels — enough to bring the Earth close to a completely frozen state.

This change in the climate, combined with the evolution of fungi that could digest dead wood and release its carbon back into the air, brought the coal-forming period to an end.

Oil and natural gas (methane, CH₄) were formed similarly, not from trees but from ocean plankton, and over a longer period. New Zealand’s Maui oil field is relatively young, dating from the Eocene, some 50 million years ago.

Read more:
Climate explained: why carbon dioxide has such outsized influence on Earth’s climate

Burning buried sunshine

When fossil fuels are burnt, their carbon reacts with oxygen to form carbon dioxide. The energy originally provided by the Sun, stored in chemical bonds for millions of years, is released and the carbon returns to the air. A simple example is the burning of natural gas: one molecule of methane and two of oxygen combine to produce carbon dioxide and water.

CH₄ + 2 O₂ → CO₂ + 2 H₂O

Burning a kilogram of natural gas releases 15kWh of energy in the form of infrared radiation (radiant heat). This is a sizeable amount.

To stop continuously worsening climate change, we need to stop burning fossil fuels for energy. That’s a tall order, because fossil fuels provide 84% of all the energy used by human civilisation. (New Zealand is less reliant on fossil fuels, at 65%.)

Wind energy is one of the renewable sources with the capacity to scale up.

There are many possible sources of renewable or low-carbon energy: nuclear, hydropower, wind, solar, geothermal, biomass (burning plants for energy) and biofuel (making liquid or gaseous fuels out of plants). A handful of tidal power stations are in operation, and experiments are under way with wave and ocean current generation.

But, among these, the only two with the capacity to scale up to the staggering amount of energy we use are wind and solar. Despite impressive growth (doubling in less than five years), wind provides only 2.2% of all energy, and solar 1.1%.

The renewables transition

One saving grace, which suggests a complete transformation to renewable energy may be possible, is that a lot of the energy from fossil fuels is wasted.

First, extraction, refining and transport of fossil fuels accounts for 12% of all energy use. Second, fossil fuels are often burnt in very inefficient ways, for example in internal combustion engines in cars. A world based on renewable energy would need half as much energy in the first place.

The potential solar and wind resource is enormous, and costs have fallen rapidly. Some have argued we could transition to fully renewable energy, including transmission lines and energy storage as well as fully synthetic liquid fuels, by 2050.

One scenario sees New Zealand building 20GW of solar and 9GW of wind power. That’s not unreasonable — Australia has built that much in five years. We should hurry. Renewable power plants take time to build and industries take time to scale up.

Other factors to consider

Switching to renewable energy solves the problems of fuel and climate change, but not those of escalating resource use. Building a whole new energy system takes a lot of material, some of it rare and difficult to extract. Unlike burnt fuel, metal can be recycled, but that won’t help while building a new system for the first time.

Research concluded that although some metals are scarce (particularly cobalt, cadmium, nickel, gold and silver), “a fully renewable energy system is unlikely to deplete metal reserves and resources up to 2050”. There are also opportunities to substitute more common materials, at some loss of efficiency.

Building a new system will require energy and resources.
Shutterstock/Jacques Tarnero

But many metals are highly localised. Half the world’s cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of Congo, half the lithium is in Chile, and 70% of rare earths, used in wind turbines and electric motors, are in China.

Wasteful consumption is another issue. New technologies (robots, drones, internet) and economic growth lead to increased use of energy and resources. Rich people use a disproportionate amount of energy and model excessive consumption and waste others aspire to, including the emerging rich in developing countries.

Read more:
Renewable energy can save the natural world – but if we’re not careful, it will also hurt it

Research analysing household-level emissions across European countries found the top 1% of the population with the highest carbon footprints produced 55 tonnes of CO₂-equivalent emissions each, compared to a European median of 10 tonnes.

Scientists have warned about consumption by the affluent and there is vigorous debate about how to reduce it while preserving a stable society.

One way of turning these questions around is to start from the bottom and ask: what is the minimum energy required for basic human needs?

One study considered “decent living” to include comfortable housing, enough food and water, 10,000km of travel a year, education, healthcare and telecommunications for everyone on Earth — clearly not something we have managed to achieve so far. It found this would need about 4,000kWh of energy per person per year, less than a tenth of what New Zealanders currently use, and an amount easily supplied by renewable energy.

All that carbon under the ground was energy ripe for the picking. We picked it. But now it is time to stop.

Robert McLachlan 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.

Flattening the COVID curve: 3 weeks of tougher lockdowns in Sydney’s hotspots halved expected case numbers

Originally published on theconversation.com

In a pandemic, you expect that as new public health measures are introduced, there’s an observable impact on the spread of the disease.

But while that might have been the case in Melbourne’s second wave last year, the highly contagious Delta variant is different. In Sydney’s current second wave, none of the increased restrictions seemed to directly decreased the spread of COVID-19. Until now.

Our modelling shows the curfew with the other restrictions introduced on the August 23 in the 12 local government areas (LGAs) of concern has worked to halt the rise in cases.

And this wasn’t due to the level of vaccinations achieved so far. It suggests other LGAs with rising case numbers should not rely solely on vaccination to cut case numbers in the short to medium term. They may need to tighten restrictions to get outbreaks under control.

What are the tighter restrictions?

Restrictions across Sydney have been in place in various forms since June 23. But daily case numbers only plateaued in the 12 LGAs after the latest round of restrictions were introduced on August 23.

These included:

a curfew from 9pm to 5am, to reduce the movement of young people
restricting public access to hardware, garden supplies, office supplies and pet stores to click-and-collect only
closure of face-to-face teaching and assessment in most educational institutes that remained open
limiting outdoor exercise to one hour a day.

These came on top of the existing restrictions in these 12 LGAs: only four reasons for leaving home (work/education, care/compassion, shopping for essential supplies, and exercise), 5km travel restrictions and the closure of non-essential shops.

Read more:
A tougher 4-week lockdown could save Sydney months of stay-at-home orders, our modelling shows

What impact did these restrictions have?

There was a marked and significant decrease in the growth of the outbreak in the 12 LGAs of concern, starting a week after restrictions were introduced.

The expected growth rate of the Delta variant, in the absence of any controls, has a R0 between 5 and 9. This means one infected person would be expected to pass the virus on to five to nine others.

In the 12 LGAs, the Reff — which takes into account how many others one infected person will transmit the virus to with public health measures in place — reduced from 1.35 to 1.0. That means one case currently infects just one other person.

Cases numbers went from doubling every 11 days to case numbers being constant.

Without the additional restrictions introduced on August 23, the outbreak would have continued with close to an exponential increase (see the dashed orange line in Figure 1 below).

Burnet Institute

Without these stricter measures we expect about 2,000 cases per day by now and about 4,000 per day by the end of the month instead of the 1,000 per day currently in these 12 LGAs.

It’s not possible to assign which specific part or parts of the restrictions package were important, or how they functioned. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see a direct association of restrictions and impact on COVID-19 cases.

Vaccination rates have risen, but that’s not the reason

Vaccination rates have steadily risen in the 12 LGAs of concern. Currently, 74-86% of those aged 16 and over have had least one dose, and 34-42% have had both doses.

These vaccination levels have increased substantially in the past month from about 45% with at least one dose and only 22% fully vaccinated.

Read more:
Pfizer vaccinations for 16 to 39-year-olds is welcome news. But AstraZeneca remains a good option

However, taking into account that it takes about two weeks for vaccination to be fully effective, we calculate that from August 23 to September 9, the increased vaccination rates will have only reduced the transmission of COVID by about 9% in the these LGAs. This is nowhere near enough to account for the dramatic change in the case numbers.

Interestingly, outside these 12 LGAs, there was a gradual slowing of the growth rate that very closely matched the decrease in growth expected from increased vaccine coverage – but no sign of the abrupt change seen in the 12 LGAs of concern.

Burnet Institute

What does this mean for other parts of Sydney?

The gains associated with the more stringent restrictions are readily reversible. If they are lifted before vaccination can permanently reduce growth, COVID-19 cases could rapidly increase again in these 12 LGAs.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases outside the 12 LGAs of concern continue to grow strongly. With the current restrictions in place, cases in the rest of Sydney will soon overtake the cases within these 12 LGAs.

Having slowed the growth in the 12 LGAs of concern, it would be devastating if the strong growth in the rest of the state resulted in hospitals being further overloaded and a substantial increase in severe disease and deaths.

It may be necessary to impose greater restrictions — such as curfews and restricting retail outlets such as hardware stores to click-and-collect only — in at least in some of the LGAs with higher growth rates to curb this growth.

Why we need a vaccine-plus strategy

Increased levels of vaccination remains both crucial and urgent to prevent death and severe disease from COVID-19. But we are some way from vaccination levels that can allow us to relax.

While the national plan aims for 70% and 80% initial vaccination coverage it’s not yet clear how vaccination levels will impact on case numbers, given we still don’t know how well vaccines reduce transmission of the Delta variant.

Our ability to keep case numbers in check will be highly dependent on the efficiency of ongoing public health measures such as the contact tracing.

Read more:
What is life going to look like once we hit 70% vaccination?

As low case numbers remain a crucial component of a safe exit, “lockdown” restrictions will be important for some time yet to maintain these lower levels in NSW and Victoria.

States and regions that have no community transmission should fiercely protect that status until vaccine levels reach very high levels or else they may also face stringent restrictions.

But lockdowns are clearly not sustainable in the long term. At best, they give health services a temporary breathing space until we get high levels of vaccine coverage.

The Burnet Institutes receives funding from the NSW Government for COVASIM modelling. Brendan Crabb receives funding from state and federal government for other projects. He is a member of the National COVID-19 Health and Research Advisory Committee research advisory committee and OzSAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies).

Mark Stoové is a recipient of a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Senior Research Fellowship and has received investigator initiated research funding from Gilead Sciences and AbbVie, and consultant fees from Gilead Sciences, for activities unrelated to this work. He has also received funding to support research and program activities from the Commonwealth and Australian jurisdictional governments.

Allan Saul 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.