How a bee sees: tiny bumps on flower petals give them their intense colour — and help them survive

Originally published on

Scarlett Howard, Author provided

The intense colours of flowers have inspired us for centuries. They are celebrated through poems and songs praising the red of roses and blue of violets, and have inspired iconic pieces of art such as Vincent Van Gogh’s sunflowers.

Vase with Three Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh.

But flowers did not evolve their colour for our pleasure. They did so to attract pollinators. Therefore, to understand why flowers produce such vibrant colours, we have to consider how pollinators such as bees perceive colour.

When observed under a powerful microscope, most flower petals show a textured surface made up of crests or “bumps”. Our research, published in the Journal of Pollination Ecology, shows that these structures have frequently evolved to interact with light, to enhance the colour produced by the pigments under the textured surface.

A flower of Tibouchina urvilleana observed under a powerful scanning electron microscope shows a typical bumpy petal surface (left). In comparison, the opposite (abaxial) petal side, rarely seen by an approaching pollinator, shows a less textured surface (right).
Author provided

Sunshiney daze

Bees such as honeybees and bumblebees can perceive flower colours that are invisible to us — such as those produced by reflected ultraviolet radiation.

Plants must invest in producing reliable and noticeable colours to stand out among other plant species. Flowers that do this have a better chance of being visited by bees and pollinating successfully.

However, one problem with flower colours is sunlight may directly reflect off a petal’s surface. This can potentially reduce the quality of the pigment colour, depending on the viewing angle.

You may have experienced this when looking at a smooth coloured surface on a sunny day, where the intensity of the colour is affected by the direction of light striking the surface. We can solve this problem by changing our viewing position, or by taking the object to a more suitable place. Bees, on the other hand, have to view flowers in the place they bloom.

Bumblebee on a smooth blue surface, where the colour is affected by light reflection.

We were interested in whether this visual problem also existed for bees, and if plants have evolved special tricks to help bees find them more easily.

Read more:
Our ‘bee-eye camera’ helps us support bees, grow food and protect the environment

How bees use flower surfaces

It has been known for some time that flowering plants most often have conical-shaped cell structures within the texture of their petal surfaces, and that flat petal surfaces are relatively rare. A single plant gene can manipulate whether a flower has conical-shaped cells within the surface of a petal — but the reason why this evolved has remained unclear.

Past research suggested the conical petal surface acted as a signal to attract pollinators. But experiments with bees have shown this isn’t the case. Other explanations relate to hydrophobicity (the ability to repel water). But again, experiments have revealed this can’t be the only reason.

We investigated how bumblebees use flower surfaces with or without conical petal shapes. Bees are a useful animal for research as they can be trained to collect a reward, and tested to see how they perceive their environment.

Bumblebees can also be housed and tested indoors, where it is easier to precisely mimic a complex flower environment as it might work in nature.

Flowers cater to a bee’s needs

Our colleague in Germany, Saskia Wilmsen, first measured the petal surfaces of a large number of plants and identified the most common conical surfaces.

She then selected some relatively smooth petal or leaf surfaces reflecting light from an artificial source as a comparison. Finally, blue casts were made from these samples, and subsequently displayed to free-flying bees.

In the experiment, conducted with bumblebees in Germany, a sugar solution reward could be collected by bees flying to any of the artificial flowers. They had to choose between flying either towards “sunlight” — which could result in light reflections affecting the flower’s coloration — or with the light source behind the bee.

The experiment found when light came from behind the bees, there was no preference for flower type. But for bees flying towards the light, there was a significant preference for choosing the flower with a more “bumpy” conical surface. This bumpy surface served to diffuse the incoming light, improving the colour signal of the flower.

The results indicate flowers most likely evolved bumpy surfaces to minimise light reflections, and maintain the colour saturation and intensity needed to entice pollinators. Humans are probably just lucky beneficiaries of this solution biology has evolved. We also get to see intense flower colours. And for that, we have pollinators to thank.

Read more:
Plants use advertising-like strategies to attract bees with colour and scent

Adrian Dyer receives funding from The Australian Research Council.

Jair Garcia 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.

For too long, research was done on First Nations peoples, not with them. Universities can change this

Originally published on
Warlpiri person showing a honey ant after hunting. shutterstock

For too long, “research” was an activity done to or on Indigenous people; it was something imposed from the outside. This was especially the case for people who came from communities that were oppressed or marginalised in the colonialism of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Indigenous people throughout the world feel they have been the subjects of endless measurement, recording, and invasion of privacy with little or no apparent benefit except for the scholars who make careers out of it. Māori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith calls this approach “research adventures in Indigenous lands” in her book Decolonising Methodologies.

Our collaboratively edited volume, Community-Led Research: Walking New Pathways Together, represents a substantial step towards redressing power imbalances that continue to characterise much academic research.

The book asks how to move research done to and on people towards for and with people. It features both community and academic voices and reflects on research that foregrounds non-academic priorities.

Read more:
Indigenous scholars struggle to be heard in the mainstream. Here’s how journal editors and reviewers can help

Since the global Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and beyond, academic researchers have recognised the political and moral responsibilities we have to those impacted by our studies.

To meet their responsibilities to different communities, researchers have incorporated methodologies such as:

participatory action research, in which members of the community affected by the research actively participate in different parts of the project

public patient involvement, in which non-academic people work as employees or volunteers in organisations’ high-level work

community-based participatory research, which aims to equitably involve community members and others in research projects.

Each of these are slightly different, and are used variously in different disciplines, but their increasing presence affirms that involving communities in research is crucial for good research outcomes.

However, we have found that approaches putting community at the centre of research beyond disciplinary siloes have not yet been documented in a comprehensive way. Our book builds on previous research by bringing together various community-led approaches, including from education and social work, health and medicine, and archaeology.

Stories, not blueprints

The chapters in our book reflect on community-led approaches to research in different spaces. They consider questions of identification of a community, appropriate protocols, and how to build positive collaborations.

The authors do not attempt to provide a template that can be applied in all research situations. Nor should they. As several chapters point out, there is a risk to “community-led” becoming another buzzword that ends up being appropriated for marketing or institutional propaganda.

We found community-led research must be built on a foundation of real relationships, mutual respect, and true reciprocity. We have all come into community-led research from different disciplinary perspectives and research experiences, as well as personal experiences.

As the editors of the volume, we were inspired by working with young people, Pacific Islanders and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Each of us has our own ideas about community-led research because of who we work with and where our interests lie. We reflect on our own work individually below to give a sense of different experiences in the field.

Rawlings: While young people clearly make up a large and important part of our community, they often don’t get a seat at the table, even when research is “about” them. They can be seen as not critical or sophisticated enough to partner in research, or as needing “protection”, where they are seen as too innocent to take part in research about sensitive issues.

Imagine, then, co-designing research with LGBTIQA+ young people about their experiences of self-harm and suicide. While some young people may baulk at participating in this kind of discussion, research shows they benefit from conversations about their distress and trauma, particularly when they feel it might benefit others.

We found this to be the case as we co-designed our research in partnership a youth advisory group. Not only did the young people benefit, but our research was higher quality, too.

Flexner: My first trip to Vanuatu, in 2011, was almost a parody of lost luggage, cultural and linguistic misunderstanding, and geographical disorientation in the remote southern islands of Erromango and Tanna.

However, that initial fieldwork experience proved formative. It taught me how to work with community through the chiefs, elders, and knowledge holders facilitated by the Vanuatu Cultural Centre filwokas (fieldworkers). It set up intellectual engagement with cultural traditions encapsulated by the Melanesian term kastom (which translates as customs or traditions).

After a decade of research in Vanuatu, I still find myself learning new things, and finding new ways to work with the people who call these islands home.

Riley: A huge concern in First Nations communities is in having no control over what research is undertaken or the right to veto the interpretation of data and findings. This is due to the fact much past research has helped to form government policies and practices concerning First Nations lives with little life improvement. This is clearly evidenced in current Closing the Gap statistics.

Often, First Nations peoples find they are called upon when the government and researchers arrive at an impasse and they do not know what else to do. Let us change this approach and ensure First Nations peoples are asked what research they want undertaken first and what benefits they want from the research.

That is, how can research improve First Nations people’s lives and enhance community development?

Read more:
Nigerian academics weigh in on the faults and frustrations of managing COVID-19

New pathways and old limitations

Although we are inspired by the contributions in Community-Led Research: Walking New Pathways Together, we also need to recognise and acknowledge the limits of what we do. Universities remain institutions that many people, especially Indigenous people, associate with colonialism.

Besides our work in the communities, one of our great challenges is how to make the places where we work as academics more welcoming, inclusive, and egalitarian. Further, there are very real differences that regularly map onto differences in class, nation, geographical region, and identities.

It is impossible to dismantle 500 years of history in a single project, no matter how much goodwill the researchers and community establish together. Community-led research is in part about changing academic research, but it is also about changing other kinds of relationships in the world we all live in.

There is great promise in so many new approaches people are taking in their research, and their understandings of the groups of people they work with both inside and outside of academia. Community-led research is, however, a type of research that is still developing and we do not believe our work is finished. Rather, our pathway is just beginning.

Victoria Rawlings receives funding from the Australian Research Council (DE210101619).

James L. Flexner receives funding from the Australian Research Council (DE130101703, DP160103578, LP170100048). He works for the University of Sydney.

Lynette Riley receives funding from NSW Aboriginal Languages Trust and an ARC Linkage Grant for SSESW, Research Centre for Children and Families. Lynette has also received past funding from SSESW, Research Centre for Children and Families.

Lynette is a member for the Labor Party, is a NAIDOC Committee member and is a board member for the Aboriginal Languages Trust.
Lynette is also affiliated with Aboriginal Affairs OCHRE Committee and is the chairperson for Yirigaa.
Yirigaa – Chairperson.

Barnaby Joyce scores dismal ratings in Resolve poll, while Berejiklian government easily in front despite NSW lockdown

Originally published on

Mick Tsikas/AAP

In the latest Resolve poll for Nine newspapers, the Coalition had 38% of the primary vote (down two since June), Labor 35% (down one), the Greens 12% (up two) and One Nation 4% (up one).

This is based on a sample of 1,607, conducted from July 13 to July 17.

Two party estimates are not provided by Resolve, but The Poll Bludger estimates 51.5-48.5 to Labor from these primary votes, which is a one-point gain for Labor.

Negative ratings for Joyce, Morrison and Albanese

Of those surveyed, 45% said they had a negative view of Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. Just 16% had a positive view, for a net likeability of -29. Former Nationals leader Michael McCormack had a 17% negative, 11% positive rating for a net -6 in June.

This poll suggests the ousting of McCormack in favour of Joyce could hurt the Coalition, as I wrote about last month.

Read more:
Labor regains Newspoll lead as COVID crisis escalates; is Barnaby Joyce an electoral asset?

Also in the Resolve poll, 46% (up six) gave Prime Minister Scott Morrison a poor rating for his performance in recent weeks and 45% (down three) a good rating. Morrison’s net -1 rating is his first negative rating from any pollster since the COVID pandemic began, though Resolve’s ratings are harsher than other pollsters.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s net rating fell three points to -16. Morrison continued to lead Albanese by 45-24 as preferred prime minister (46-23 in June).

On COVID, voters thought lockdowns and border restrictions should be gradually eased over the coming months as more people are vaccinated by a margin of 54-19%. By 54-19%, they thought fully vaccinated people should be given more freedom, though they believed (45-34%) this should not occur until everyone has had an opportunity to be vaccinated.

On economic management, the Liberals and Morrison led Labor and Albanese by 41-25% in July (43-20% in June). On COVID management, the Liberals led by 37-25% (40-20% previously).

Essential voting intentions, and anti-vaxxer sentiment

The Essential poll no longer publishes voting intentions with each poll. Instead they release them every few months for all polls they conducted during that period. Essential’s voting intentions numbers include undecided voters.

Last week’s Essential report gave Labor a 47-45% lead with 8% undecided. If undecided voters are removed (as other pollsters do), Labor led by 51-49.

Read more:
Labor gains clear Newspoll lead during Sydney lockdown, but will the economy save the Coalition?

This is a slightly different result from early July when Labor led by 48-44 (52-48 without undecided). They have led by two or four points since April. The Poll Bludger said applying last election preferences instead of respondent preferences to the current poll gives Labor above a 52-48 lead,

With the Sydney and Melbourne lockdowns, anti-vaxxer sentiment has dropped. In Essential, 11% (down five from early July) said they’d never get vaccinated, and 27% (down six) said they’d get vaccinated but not straight away. In Resolve, 21% (down eight since May) said they were unlikely to get vaccinated.

The federal government had a 46-31 good rating for response to COVID in Essential, slightly better than 44-30 in early July, but a long way below the 58-18 rating in late May, before the Victorian and NSW outbreaks. 54% (down three) gave the NSW government a good rating.

Morgan poll and BludgerTrack poll aggregate

A Morgan poll, conducted over July 10-11 and 17-18 from a sample of over 2,700, gave Labor a 52.5-47.5 lead, a 2% gain for Labor since mid-June. Primary votes were 39% Coalition (down 2.5%), 37% Labor (up 2.5%), 11.5% Greens (down 0.5%) and 3% One Nation (down 0.5%).

With polls from Newspoll, Resolve, Essential and Morgan, the Poll Bludger’s BludgerTrack aggregate of recent polls has Labor ahead by 52.0-48.0, from primary votes of Coalition 39.8%, Labor 37.3%, Greens 10.7% and One Nation 2.9%. Labor has been gaining during this year.

NSW Coalition retains large lead in Resolve state poll

In a Resolve NSW poll for The Sydney Morning Herald, Berejiklian’s Coalition had 43% of the primary vote (down just one point since May), Labor 28% (steady), the Greens 12% (steady) and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers 1% (down three).

This poll was conducted at the same time as the federal June and July Resolve polls from a sample of 1,100. While the July poll was conducted during Sydney’s lockdown, the June poll
occurred after Jodi McKay was ousted in favour of Chris Minns as Labor leader, owing to a disappointing result in the May 22 Upper Hunter byelection.

Read more:
Coalition has large lead in NSW as Nats easily hold Upper Hunter at byelection

The Sydney Morning Herald’s poll article says the Coalition’s position was worse in July than in June. With NSW’s optional preferential voting, the Coalition would lead by around 55-45 from these primary votes. Incumbent Gladys Berejiklian led Minns as preferred premier by 55-16 (compared to 57-17 vs McKay in May).

In questions on the outbreak (only asked of the July sample), 56% thought Sydney was too slow to go into lockdown and 52% said the government should have been more proactive in urging people to get vaccinated. Almost half (46% agreed) the state has handled the outbreak well.

In Essential, 44% of NSW respondents (down seven since early July) thought NSW had moved at about the right speed to enforce lockdown restrictions. But 44% (up five) thought NSW was too slow, and 12% (up two) too quick.

Other states were unsympathetic to NSW, bringing the national figure to 56% for too slow, 34% for about right and 10% for too quick.

Labor easily holds Stretton at byelection

A state byelection for the Queensland Labor-held seat of Stretton occurred on Saturday. It was caused by the death of the previous member, Duncan Pegg.

With 73% of enrolled voters counted, the ABC’s results currently give Labor a 63.8-36.2 win over the LNP, a mere 1.0% swing to the LNP from the 2020 election. Primary votes are 56.6% Labor (no change), 32.7% LNP (up 2.5%) and 6.5% Greens (down 2.2%). The anti-vaxxer Informed Medical Options Party won just 2.5%.

Parties defending seats at byelections normally suffer from the loss of the previous MP’s personal vote. State Labor has held government since 2015, so this is a good result for them. 62% of Queensland respondents in Essential gave their government a good rating on dealing with COVID.

Adrian Beaumont 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.

How people and plants can live together sustainably, a live-streamed event

Originally published on
Micro-X-ray fluorescence map of an Australian native legume at The University of Queensland 2020 Maggie-Anne Harvey, Peter Erskine, Antony van der Ent, Lachlan Casey, University of Queensland

Stories of plants and people are connected in countless ways. Humans have always needed and loved plants, but we have also caused untold destruction on natural environments around the globe.

The Conversation co-hosted an online panel discussion exploring the interconnections between the human and natural worlds on June 14 2021, presented in partnership with the State Library of Queensland.

Panellists Eddie Game from The Nature Conservancy, Tanja Beer from the Queensland College of Art, Prudence Gibson from UNSW and Laura Skates from the University of Western Australia, discussed people’s interactions with plants across social, emotional, scientific and creative endeavours.

This discussion was presented to accompany Entwined: plants and people, a free exhibition at the State Library of Queensland that celebrates and explores the complexity and beauty of plants. It is open until November 14 2021. Watch it below.

Australia must get serious about airborne infection transmission. Here’s what we need to do

Originally published on


Australia is now in the grip of its second winter marred by the pandemic, with crippling lockdowns in multiple cities.

Earlier this month, the federal government announced a four-stage plan to bring the country back to something resembling normality. Acknowledging it will be impossible to eradicate COVID-19 completely, the plan focuses on a variety of steps — most notably vaccination — to enable the country to live with the virus.

However, if we want this plan to work, there’s one crucial control measure yet to be considered: protection against airborne transmission of the infection in public indoor spaces.

We need to modernise our indoor environments to protect Australians from respiratory infections, and more broadly, from all indoor air hazards. This includes indoor exposure to pollution originating from outdoors, such as bushfire smoke.

The evidence is in

The body of scientific evidence pointing to airborne transmission as the key route by which SARS-CoV-2 spreads is now overwhelming.

Put simply, over the past 18 months, we have come to understand most people become infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 by inhaling it from shared air. The risk is predominantly indoors.

Consequently, every public building should have control measures in place to provide adequate ventilation.

But this information hasn’t been communicated to Australians — many of whom remain focused on hand washing and cleaning surfaces. These are good practices, but because SARS-CoV-2 spreads predominantly through the air, they likely provide only a marginal contribution to infection control.

Surfaces don’t appear to be a major source of SARS-CoV-2 transmission.

While the World Health Organization has recently released a roadmap to improve indoor ventilation in the context of COVID-19, many Australian public spaces are significantly under-ventilated.

We don’t know exactly what proportion of infections would be prevented by improving ventilation in public places, but the evidence indicates this could drastically reduce the risk.

Read more:
Australia has a new four-phase plan for a return to normality. Here’s what we know so far

So how do we do it?

Appropriate building engineering controls include sufficient and effective ventilation, possibly enhanced by particle filtration and air disinfection systems. It’s also important to avoid recirculating air, as well as overcrowding.

We have the technology to make these changes, and these are things that can often be implemented at low cost. But for this to happen, Australia must first recognise the significant contribution these measures make to infection control. I propose the following solutions.

1. Establish a national regulatory group for clean indoor air

This is an issue that will require co-operation across various areas of government. The establishment of a national regulatory group — led by the federal government working with the states and territories through the national cabinet — would provide a platform for the relevant ministries to cooperate on this matter.

The key goal should be the explicit inclusion of protection against indoor air hazards (including airborne infection control) in the statements of purpose and definitions of all relevant Australian building design and engineering standards, regulations, and codes.

Read more:
The pressure is on for Australia to accept the coronavirus really can spread in the air we breathe

2. Provide financial support

It will be important to establish a national fund enabling the rollout of indoor environment modernisation measures addressing both immediate emergencies, such as COVID-19, as well as a long-term transition process.

Over a period of years, all new buildings would ideally be designed to ensure good indoor air quality, while existing buildings would be retrofitted with the same objective.

3. Create a communication campaign

The Australian government should set up a communication campaign to educate people on the risks of shared air, and on how to improve ventilation.

Steps people can take themselves to improve ventilation include opening windows, and raising the issue with those responsible for the space if they feel ventilation is inadequate.

Opening windows is one way to improve ventilation.

Yes, it might sound daunting. But it’s possible

At first, it may appear to be a huge task to ensure clean indoor air to the entire country. Is it possible?

Perhaps the same questions were asked by Britons when in the 19th Century, Sir Edwin Chadwick was tasked by the British government with investigating clean water supply and centralised sewage systems.

His recommendations in 1842 changed the approach to sanitation in Britain, and ultimately the world, creating enormous public health benefits and corresponding economic dividends through health-care savings.

We cannot imagine now what it would be like to live without clean water flowing from our taps.

What we need is a similar “revolution” in Australia regarding clean indoor air — one that future generations will rightly regard as a baseline standard for the built environment.

Australia already has sophisticated building infrastructure and public health regulatory frameworks to support the required advances. These will require modernisation, but it’s far from a case of building from nothing.

Read more:
How does bushfire smoke affect our health? 6 things you need to know

Numerous expert Australian colleagues and myself would be pleased to offer our assistance to make this dream an Australian reality.

Importantly, in this crucial period while we wait for high levels of vaccination, addressing ventilation could be the difference between recurring lockdowns or enjoying a COVID-free life.

Lidia Morawska 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.

Morrison government orders Pfizer ‘boosters’, while hoping new ATAGI advice will warm people to AstraZeneca

Originally published on

While still struggling with a current shortage of Pfizer, the Morrison government announced it has secured 85 million doses of that vaccine for future “booster” shots.

This will be made up of 60 million doses in 2022, and 25 million doses in 2023. Delivery will start in the first quarter of next year.

Scott Morrison said on Sunday this was “prudent future proofing”, although there is still not definitive advice on when boosters will be needed.

Meanwhile the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) has liberalised its advice on AstraZeneca.

It said in a statement on Saturday all people aged 18 and over in greater Sydney, including those under 60, “should strongly consider getting vaccinated with any available vaccine including COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca”.

This was on the basis of the increasing risk of COVID and “ongoing constraints” of Pfizer, the advice said.

Last week Scott Morrison said the government was constantly appealing to ATAGI to review its advice on AZ according to the balance of risk. Many people have shied away from AZ, supplies of which are plentiful, after ATAGI’s caution about it for younger people because of rare blood clots.

Asked about some general practioners being reluctant to give AZ to people under 40, Morrison said he certainly hoped GPs “would be very mindful of the ATAGI advice”.

ATAGI is presently considering whether children between 12 and 15 years old should be vaccinated against COVID, with the government expecting advice in mid-August.

As the crisis continues in Sydney, on Sunday NSW reported 141 new locally acquired cases and two deaths, including a woman in her 30s. This followed Saturday’s report of 163 new cases in the previous 24 hours.

Victoria on Sunday reported 11 new local cases, and is on track to end its lockdown soon, as is South Australia.

Morrison again stressed the lockdown was the primary weapon in fighting the Sydney outbreak.

“There’s not an easy way to bring these cases down. And it’s the lockdown that does that work. The vaccines can provide some assistance, but they are not going to end this lockdown. What’s going to end this lockdown is it being effective.”

But NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who tried unsuccessfully to get the vaccination program refocused on south west Sydney, the centre of the outbreak, has a different emphasis. “Please know that what will get us through this outbreak is a combination of our restrictions, but also of more people being vaccinated”.

Morrison has refused to alter the focus, saying this would “interrupt the rhythm of the national vaccine program”.

The federal government has found 50,000 extra Pfizer doses for NSW. Asked where these came from, Morrison said: “There are small variations in supply and delivery, which from time to time may ensure that there’s tens of thousands of doses that might be free at any given time.”

Morrison condemned Saturday’s Sydney anti-lockdown demonstration attended by thousands of people, which saw violence, dozens of people charged, and more being pursued where they can be identified.

He said it was not just selfish. “It was also self-defeating. It achieves no purpose. It will not end the lockdown sooner, it will only risk the lockdowns running further,” he said.

Asked about Queensland Nationals MP George Christensen, who attended a rally in Mackay, Morrison said: “As for other parts of the country that aren’t in lockdown, well, there is such a thing as free speech, and I’m not about to be imposing those sorts of restrictions on people’s free speech”.

Christensen said on Facebook, “Civil disobedience eventually becomes the only response to laws that restrict freedom. This is what we’ve seen in Melbourne today.”

Pressed on this, Morrison said: “The comments I made before related to an event that took place in Queensland where there are no lockdowns”.

The Prime Minister told the Liberal National Party state council in a virtual address on Sunday: “After a difficult start, the vaccine program is now making up lost ground, and quickly”.

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.

Not declaring the Great Barrier Reef as ‘in danger’ only postpones the inevitable

Originally published on


After much anticipation, the World Heritage Committee on Friday decided against listing the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger”.

The decision ignored the recommendation of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre — a recommendation based on analyses by Australian scientific experts of the reef’s declining condition.

In many ways, the outcome from the committee was expected. The Australian government fought very hard against this decision, including lobbying all the committee members, as it has done in previous years.

There was consensus among most of the 21 committee members to not apply the in-danger listing at this time. Instead, Australia has been requested to host a joint UNESCO/IUCN monitoring mission to the reef and provide an updated report by February, 2022.

This decision has only postponed the inevitable. It does not change the irrefutable evidence that dangerous impacts are already occurring on the Great Barrier Reef. Some, such as coral bleaching and death from marine heatwaves, will continue to accelerate.

The reef currently meets the criteria for in-danger listing. That’s unlikely to improve within the next 12 months.

Read more:
The Barrier Reef is not listed as in danger, but the threats remain

Political distractions

Last month, the World Heritage Committee released its draft decision to list the reef as in-danger, noting the values for which the reef was internationally recognised had declined due to a wide range of factors. This includes water pollution and coral bleaching.

The draft decision had expressed concerns that Australia’s progress:

has been largely insufficient in meeting key targets of the Reef 2050 Plan [and the] deterioration of the ecological processes underpinning the [Reef has] been more rapid and widespread than was previously evident.

A photo depicting two threats to the Great Barrier Reef: coal ships anchored near Abbot Point and a flood plume from the Burdekin River (February 2019); such plumes can carry pollutants and debris to the Great Barrier Reef.
Matt Curnock

In response, the government claimed it was “blindsided”, and said the UNESCO Secretariat hadn’t followed due process in recommending the decision. It also suggested there had been undue interference from China in making the draft recommendation.

These were political distractions from the real issues. During last night’s debate, one committee member strongly refuted the claims about interference from China and expressed concerns the dialogue had become unnecessarily politicised.

Following the draft decision, the intense campaign to reverse the decision began, with environment minister Sussan Ley undertaking a whirlwind visit to numerous countries to meet with ambassadors.

Read more:
The Great Barrier Reef is in trouble. There are a whopping 45 reasons why

The government even hosted international ambassadors from 13 countries and the EU, taking them on a snorkelling trip. And it reported an increase in coral cover over the past two years as good news, ignoring the fact the assessment had cautioned the recovery was driven by weedy coral species most vulnerable to future climate impacts.

This wasn’t the first time Australia has undertaken significant levels of diplomatic lobbying of World Heritage Committee members to gain support for its position.

In 1999, Australia also strongly opposed the recommended in-danger listing of Kakadu National Park, following the Jabiluka mine proposal. This led to an extraordinary meeting of the committee being convened in Paris, specifically to discuss this matter.

Australia is expected to hand in an updated report on the reef in February 2022.

More focus on climate change

During its current meeting, the World Heritage Committee approved the draft UNESCO Climate Action Policy, which will guide the protection and conservation of World Heritage sites.

This policy will be ratified at the UN General Assembly later this year, but the fact it’s still a draft was one of several excuses the Australian government made as to why the reef should not be “singled out”.

The reef is one of the most iconic marine protected areas on the planet. Given Australia continues to have one of the highest per capita emission rates in the world, and has more capacity to address climate change than most other countries, it makes sense for the spotlight to be on Australia’s actions.

Marine heatwaves and water pollution are major threats to the Great Barrier Reef.

Not surprisingly, climate change was the central issue during the committee’s debate last night. UNESCO is now more focused on climate change than ever before, recognising the “window of opportunity to act” is now.

The delegates broadly agreed climate change remains the most serious threat, not just to the Great Barrier Reef but also to many other iconic World Heritage properties. Venice, for example, also dodged a potential in-danger listing at this meeting.

Rather than making challenging decisions now, it’s clear the committee is simply kicking the can down the road.

Some committee members remarked during the meeting about the need to “maintain the credibility of the Convention” and acknowledged that the world is watching. The spotlight on the reef, and on Australia, will only intensify in coming years.

The government’s own report from 2019 shows many of the values for which the reef was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1981 have declined in recent decades. Yet every delay weakens Australia’s claim it is doing all it can to protect the reef.

Later this year, the next major international climate summit will be held in Glasgow, Scotland, where even more attention will be placed on Australia’s inadequate actions.

An in-danger listing is not a punishment

It’s important to remember that throughout the meeting, UNESCO and the committee made it clear an in-danger listing is not a sanction or punishment. Rather, it’s a call to the international community that a World Heritage property is under threat, thereby triggering actions to protect it for future generations.

Now, more than ever, it is important to expand efforts to reduce the locally manageable impacts, such as poor water quality, while rapidly accelerating action on climate change.

These efforts must occur locally, nationally and globally. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is critical to stop the worst of the impacts now unfolding, not just on the reef, but on all the world’s natural and cultural heritage.

Read more:
Is Australia really doing enough for the Great Barrier Reef? Why criticisms of UNESCO’s ‘in danger’ recommendation don’t stack up

Jon Day previously worked for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority between 1986 and 2014, and was one of the Directors at GBRMPA between 1998 and 2014. He represented Australia as one of the formal delegates to the World Heritage Committee between 2007-2011.

Scott Heron receives funding from Australian Research Council and NASA ROSES Ecological Forecasting.

Terry Hughes 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.

Very genki, slightly kitsch, occasionally compelling: the Olympic opening ceremony put humanity in centre frame

Originally published on

The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

The rising of the Japanese flag and the singing of the national anthem is the first moment of stillness. Devoid of external commentary, before a sea of empty stadium seats, it is a stark reminder of the pandemic.

More than any of the previous symbols of the “apart but not alone” theme, this image reinforces the optimism (misplaced for some, hopeful for others) of continuing with the games despite the obstacles wrought by the pandemic.

Olympic opening ceremonies come with certain expectations: large-scale choral movement, overhead camera work (Busby Berkeley on steroids) and fireworks. This year’s ceremony ticks all these boxes. According to the commentators, there are 694 fireworks in the opening moment alone.

The Tokyo artistic program is an eclectic mix of animation, live-action and pre-recorded performers. Stylised virtuosic performers combine with regular folk doing regular movement.

Heavy with symbolism, Channel Seven’s commentators leave little room for the viewer’s imagination. From the opening image of a blossoming seed, every symbol is explained.

Unmistakably Japanese

Performed under stadium-spectacular lights and music in front of a giant glowing effigy of Mount Fuji, the program is a series of discrete sequences.

For an “in memoriam” that references both the Israeli delegates murdered at the 1972 Munich games and those lost to COVID, dancer Mirai Moriyama epitomises the power of one individual.

From this sombre reflection we are abruptly transported to a representation of life in Japan’s Edo period. A stylised ensemble routine of building accompanied by a traditional work song morphs into a troupe of tap dancers.

An integration of ancient and contemporary, and the interplay between the individual and the ensemble, reverberates throughout the ceremony. A single violinist tuning up is gradually joined by other musicians to become an orchestra.

It is a fitting parallel to the coming together of the world’s athletes to create the Olympics.

Read more:
Forget the medals, the real game of the Olympics is soft power — and the opening ceremony is key

The parade of athletes is a sweetly shambolic affair. 205 nations later, the artistic programme resumes with its diverse snapshots.

Here’s an ensemble of clowns portraying the world’s media; now here’s some dancing children moving colourful boxes. Look up in the sky, there’s a ball of 1824 drones of light transforming into a rotating globe! Now, here’s some children, representing Asia, singing the Lennon/Ono classic Imagine.

A representation of Japan’s Edo period morphs into tap dancing.
Kyodo via AP Images

But wait, beamed in from some heavenly white void now they’re joined by Angelique Kidjo representing Africa, then Alejandro Sanz for Europe, John Legend for the Americas and finally, Keith Urban for Oceania.

Less of a linear narrative than previous opening ceremonies, this is a series of isolated, discrete sections. Less a celebration of the host country (although it’s unmistakably Japanese in tone and style) this eclectic mishmash of styles and performances becomes a durational performance where you can wander in and out.


The official speeches prior to the formal opening reference “the unifying power of sport”, the inclusion of refugee athletes and the adaption of the International Olympic Committee’s motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger” to include the word “Together”.

“Together” speaks to a world lingering in the residue of COVID-enforced separations. Given the austerity of the times the ceremony is relatively subdued, but the optimism of the speeches is matched by the overriding exuberance of the performers. Not drowning, but waving (and there is lots of waving).

There’s no room for cynicism; only high-pep energy. The ceremony is very genki (a Japanese word without a direct English translation, roughly meaning “energy” or “pep”), slightly kitsch, but presents a surprisingly diverse representation of contemporary Japan.

The brightest spot in the post-parade section is an animated performance of pictograms depicting fifty sports. Moving the pictograms from two to three-dimensions via a kind of human-puppetry meets real-life stop-motion animation, it is equal parts hi and lo-fi and totally camp.

Its complete weirdness makes it un-look-away-able, as minor human errors show it for what it is: real people in real time, operating within a framework of precise choreography smashed up against the reality and vagaries of live performance.

It is completely compelling.

Then, just when you think they couldn’t add any more eclectic ingredients to the mix, enter performers from that most Japanese of ancient art forms Kabuki, paired with an embodied performance from contemporary Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi.

Unexpected and inspired

Beginning with the requisite video collage tracing the journey of the torch from Greece, we watch it enter the stadium and hand over person to person to the sounds of Ravel’s Bolero. There’s a moment’s respite from the slick technology and choreography when it lands with Japanese baseball legend and octogenarian Sadaharu Oh.

In this human moment, we are forced to slow down and experience the world in his tempo, giving a true sense of what it means to be alone together.

If a performance needs a big ending, then this one delivers with the appearance of tennis player Naomi Osaka to light the cauldron.

As explained by Kumi Taguchi in Channel Seven’s commentary, the choice is particularly significant because of Osaka’s hafu status (literally the Japanese word for “half”) as a person of mixed heritage. For this reason, Osaka has not always been accepted in Japan’s notoriously homogenous society.

Another significance ringing in the air around Osaka is the worldwide attention she recently received for speaking about the impact media scrutiny has had on her mental health and the vitriol which she has been subjected to as a result.

The ceremony ends spectacularly with Naomi Osaka lighting the Olympic flame.
The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

These factors all contribute to making Osaka an unexpected and inspired choice.

As the symbolic Mount Fuji opens up and she ascends its internal staircase to the cauldron, Osaka lights the fire around which we can all gather for the next 17 days. And so, with yet another human moment, the games begin.

Leah Mercer 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.

Radicalism mixed with openness: how Desmond Tutu used his gifts to help end Apartheid

Originally published on

AAP/EPA/Nic Bothma

This piece is part of a new series in collaboration with the ABC’s Saturday Extra program. Each week, the show will have a “who am I” quiz for listeners about influential figures who helped shape the 20th century, and we will publish profiles for each one. You can read the other pieces in the series here.

A court in Colombia has recently been working to uncover the dread secrets of a long and bloody civil war. But rather than identifying perpetrators for death or imprisonment, it seeks reconciliation of the estranged and restoration of a torn social fabric.

Like many similar processes around the world over recent decades, this Special Jurisdiction for Peace was inspired by the most prominent such court, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Desmond Tutu.

This last public role for the Anglican archbishop embodied what made him the most influential figure of the new South Africa after Nelson Mandela, and a world religious leader comparable only to Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and Pope John Paul II in recent times.

Proud of his black African identity and culture, Tutu is an advocate of radical social change and a staunch proponent of non-violence. A pious Christian, he is at home with people of other faiths as well as those of none. His capacity to reconcile opposites and his unflagging hope about the human capacity to change has been influential in his country, his church and the world.

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Desmond Tutu’s long history of fighting for lesbian and gay rights

Early struggles

Desmond Tutu was born in 1931 to parents from Xhosa and Tswana backgrounds. He grew up in Sophiatown, a slum later demolished to make way for a whites-only suburb near Johannesburg. Their circumstances were not prosperous; his father was a teacher and his mother a laundress and then a cook.

His family were people of faith, but his most important religious influence in childhood was Trevor Huddleston, an Oxford-educated monk and priest then working in the slum. Tutu recalled Huddleston as the first white man he ever saw lifting his hat to his mother; in a place where white boys would taunt his educator father, this was striking. When Desmond came down with tuberculosis at 14, Huddleston brought books and conversation to him for months, which also had a lasting impact. Tutu would name his first child Trevor.

Like his father, Tutu first trained as a teacher, entering college in 1950 just as the National Party’s new apartheid laws were biting. After marrying Leah Shenxane, he began training for the Anglican priesthood in 1956, the same year Huddleston was ordered by his monastic superiors to leave South Africa to avoid arrest. The older priest’s memoir and exposé, Naught For Your Comfort, brought the Apartheid regime to wider international attention the same year.

Tutu with his wife Leah in 2014.
AAP/EPA/Nic Bothma

Tutu had embraced the Anglo-Catholic sacramental ethos and its pastoral heart shown to him, but was not yet drawn into activism or public witness, even as Nelson Mandela was responding to the new racial laws with boycotts.

After a few years of parish work, Tutu was sent for postgraduate study in London, focusing on Islam in Africa. This openness to learn about and from those who differed from him was a hallmark throughout his life. He returned from the UK to teach trainee clergy, but finding racism more markedly expressed in law galvanised his commitments.

He dipped his toe in the waters of protest – in characteristic ways, via prayers and sermon – at the student demonstrations in Fort Hare in 1968, driven by the black consciousness movement of Steve Biko (at whose funeral Tutu would preach in 1977).

Read more:
World politics explainer: the end of Apartheid

After more time away working with the World Council of Churches, where he was exposed both to Latin American Liberation theology and the Black theology emerging in the United States, Tutu became head of South Africa’s peak ecumenical church body, then successively bishop of Johannesburg and archbishop of Cape Town.

His criticism of Apartheid become more voluble and wider-known. He earned the wrath of white leaders for urging sanctions, famously saying in 1983:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

Desmond Tutu with Nelson Mandela in 1994, two of the towering figures of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.
Jerry Holt/AP/AAP

While his opposition to Apartheid was admired, his insistence on rejection of violence did not satisfy some. The African National Congress found other religious allies like reformed theologian Allan Boesak, yet Tutu’s voice and influence grew stronger, in part because of his distance from the factions of the anti-Apartheid movement. His radicalism had emerged not merely as a religiously modulated version of contemporary politics, but something different.

Tutu was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1984 for his part in ending Apartheid.

After his retirement as archbishop, this same mixture of radicalism and uncompromising openness to others made his contributions to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission controversial as well as effective. He was criticised for conciliatory moves towards both former prime minister P.W. Botha and Winnie Mandela. After the work of the commission concluded, his uncompromising support of gay and lesbian rights in an Anglican Church still globally riven over the issue became his most celebrated cause. Here he has proved similarly inspiring as well as hard to pin down to factional positions.

Tutu’s contribution to the end of Apartheid has been so remarkable in part because of its strong grounding in his faith. Tutu’s work suggests every culture and tradition may dig deep for what it brings to present divisions, and that the way to address oppositions based on identity may be to embrace our own. That way, we can understand that others can be embraced and listened to as well.

Read more:
Do truth and reconciliation commissions heal divided nations?

Andrew McGowan 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.

Pfizer doses to be spaced out in NSW crisis, but state fails to get change in vaccination program

Originally published on

AAP/Mick Tsikas

Pfizer doses in NSW will be spaced out to enable more first jabs to be administered quickly, as the Berejiklian government on Friday declared the Sydney COVID crisis a “national emergency”.

But the plea by the state for Pfizer doses to be diverted to Sydney as part of a refocusing of the national vaccine program has fallen on deaf ears.

Scott Morrison indicated if any extra Pfizer supplies became available they would be directed to NSW – but he made clear there would be no change in the national vaccination program.

“Where there is a potential to put more vaccines into NSW, even beyond what we’re already doing, well, of course, we will seek to do that. But we are not going to disrupt the vaccination program around the rest of the country,” he said after a meeting of the national cabinet.

Vaccines are distributed on a population basis, although NSW was recently given a special allocation of 300,000 doses, half AstraZeneca and half Pfizer.

Morrison also said suppression was the key immediate means of stopping community transmission and getting on top of the outbreak that is concentrated in south western Sydney. “Suppression is the primary tool to achieve that, and vaccines can help that.”

Earlier, General JJ Frewen, who is in charge of the vaccine rollout, was dismissive of the suggestion supplies be diverted.

“Vaccines are only one part of a response to the outbreak like this,” Frewen told a Senate committee.

Other states made it clear they would not give up any of their Pfizer supplies.

Morrison said extending the time between Pfizer doses – normally three weeks – to six weeks was within the advice of The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI). This would be done in NSW vaccination clinics.

He also said there was “agreement amongst the national cabinet that we need to continue to lean in to AstraZeneca, particularly in NSW”.

Australian Medical Association President Dr Omar Khorshid on Friday called on ATAGI to review its advice on AstraZeneca in response to the growing risks posed by the outbreak of the Delta variant in NSW.

“As we don’t have enough Pfizer to use in a targeted rollout, the only option is AstraZeneca. It will save lives and help see life return to some normality in Greater Sydney,” Khorshid said.

ATAGI has preferred Pfizer for those under 60, although it recently qualified its advice in light of the Sydney outbreak.

As NSW on Friday reported 136 new cases in the 24 hours to 8pm Thursday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said “Sydney is on fire with this virus and we need a ring of steel put around Sydney”.

But Morrison said that at national cabinet Berejiklian had spelled out “in very specific detail the extensive lockdown” the state had in place.

“There’s nothing light about the lockdown in New South – in Sydney, I can assure you. My family are in it,” he said.

At her news conference on Friday morning, Berejiklian said Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant and her team “advised us that the situation that exists now in NSW, namely around south-western and now western Sydney suburbs, is regarded as a national emergency.”

She appealed for the vaccination strategy to be redirected to south western Sydney, particularly to younger people who had to perform essential work such as the production of food.

She said there was a very young population in the affected communities, “and we need at least more first doses of Pfizer.”

Meanwhile figures given to the Senate COVID committee showed only 47.2% of residential aged care workers had had a first vaccine dose and 27.8% had received their second dose.

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.