Friday, April 25, 2014

Starfish disease a hope for the Great Barrier Reef?

Even though seastars are the great enemy of the reef, the Greenies won't deliberately transfer the disease to Australian waters.  It would take away one of their scares.  But it could spread naturally.  We may get lots of yummy mussels out of it too.

Starfish have been mysteriously dying by the millions in recent months along the US west coast, worrying biologists who say the sea creatures are key to the marine ecosystem.

Scientists first started noticing the mass deaths in June 2013. Different types of starfish, also known as sea stars, were affected, from wild ones along the coast to those in captivity, according to Jonathan Sleeman, director of the US Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center.

'The two species affected most are Pisaster ochraceus (purple sea star or ochre starfish) and Pycnopodia helianthoides (sunflower sea star),' he wrote in a statement in December.

The sunflower sea star is considered among the largest starfish and can span more than a meter in diameter.

The most commonly observed symptoms are white lesions on the arms of the sea star. The lesions spread rapidly, resulting in the loss of the arm. Within days, the infection consumes the creature's entire body, and it dies.

Entire populations have been wiped out in Puget Sound off the coast of Washington state, in the Salish Sea off Canada's British Columbia as well as along the coast of California. The mortality rate is estimated at 95 percent.

'What we currently think is likely happening is that there is a pathogen, like a parasite or a virus or a bacteria, that is infecting the sea stars and that compromises in some way their immune system,' Pete Raimondi, chair of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology, at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told AFP.

Then, the creatures become more susceptible to bacteria which is "causing a secondary infection that causes most of the damages that you see.'

A barometer of sea health

The 2013 phenomenon has not been observed solely along the West Coast; a smaller outbreak also killed East Coast sea stars last year.

Previous cases were believed to be associated with warmer waters -- sea stars have sensitive skin and prefer cooler water -- but this was not the case in 2013.

And when the die-offs happened previously, the geographic span of the infections was much smaller, and far fewer sea stars were affected.

In 1983, an epidemic nearly wiped out the Pisaster ochraceus from tidal pools along the southern coast of California.

Another, smaller die-off in 1997 may have been caused by warmer waters in an El Nino year, scientists said.

Sea stars are important because 'they play a key role in this ecosystem on the West Coast,' Raimondi said.

Sea stars eat mussels, barnacles, snails, mollusks and other smaller sea life, so their health is considered a measure of marine life on the whole in a given area.

When sea stars decline in number, 'the mussel population has the potential to dramatically increase, which could significantly alter the rocky intertidal zone,' according to Sleeman.

While sea stars make up an important component of the base of the ocean food chain and are considered a top predator, they are in turn eaten by other starfish, shorebirds, gulls, and sometimes sea otters.

In an effort to find out what is causing the mass deaths, scientists are collecting reports from the public, taking specimens to the lab for analysis and doing genetic sequencing to find out whether a toxin or an infection may be to blame.


Raising tax revenue just to throw it away is no answer

From troubling deficit figures in recent budgets, to dire predictions of blowouts in health and ageing spending in the intergenerational reports, and Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson's warning of threats to our living standards, all signs are pointing to the upcoming budget as a crucial juncture for Australia's fiscal future.

It is now a cliche to say government must make "tough decisions" to solve Australia's short- and long-term budget sustainability problems. For many, such as former Treasury secretary Ken Henry, the Grattan Institute, and Greens leader Christine Milne, this is code for tax rises.

The solution to ending inefficient and wasteful spending is not to raise more money to throw away. It's to prioritise spending in the right areas and improve the efficiencies of government programs.

Indeed, raising taxes isn't a tough decision at all. There has hardly been a shortage of new or increased taxes in recent years. The previous Labor government introduced the mining tax and the carbon tax, increased the Medicare levy to help pay for the national disability insurance scheme and imposed an interim tax after the Queensland floods. It also increased excise on alcopops and tobacco.

Meanwhile, the Coalition won a solid majority at the last election despite supporting the NDIS levy and promising to raise company taxes to pay for its gold-plated paid parental leave scheme.

But raising taxes fails to address either the cause of the current budget deficits or the factors driving our future fiscal crisis.

Our budget problems have been largely caused by increased spending.

Over the past 10 years, real spending has outgrown gross domestic product by approximately 15 per cent, while real health spending alone increased by nearly 70 per cent in the decade to 2011-12.

We've also seen a steady increase in benefits for middle-class families through family tax benefits, childcare payments and education support.

In addition, the previous government committed to expensive new programs (such as the disability scheme and Gonski reforms) beyond the forward estimates.

Much of the recent increase in spending has been inefficient – for example, the pink batts fiasco – while wasteful spending in other areas, such as the billions provided in corporate welfare, has proceeded mostly unchecked.


Curbing this rampant government expenditure is even more important in the longer term. The burden of financing the increasing health costs of our ageing population will fall on a smaller proportion of workers.

Raising taxes on those workers only exacerbates the pressure on the system and further slows innovation and productivity growth.

Beyond the economic costs of higher taxes, increasing the tax take without bridging the intellectual chasm between the ever-increasing demands on government and what people are willing to pay for can only ever be a stop-gap arrangement. The solution is not getting people to pay their fair share but determining what the role of government should be.

The European experience of debt and deficit makes clear that a broad-based entitlement system cannot be funded by taxes on millionaires and the super-rich alone. It is the middle class that bears the increased tax burden and, according to the attitudes towards taxation measured by the 2012 Per Capita tax survey, the middle class have no desire to pay more tax.

Roughly half of respondents with a household income between $40,000 and $80,000 felt they paid too much tax, while 40 per cent said they paid about the right amount. For those with a household income between $100,000 and $150,000, more than 60 per cent felt they paid too much tax. Almost no one (1.2 per cent) thought they paid too little tax.

Yet there is also incredible resistance to reducing middle-class welfare, as objections from Labor, the Greens and others to recent proposals to introduce a modest Medicare co-payment show.

This suggests the real problem of the age of entitlement is not the truly needy but rather the relatively well-off who believe they pay too much tax, yet are owed government support.

Australia can maintain a welfare safety net for the truly needy and have the benefits of a low-taxing small-government system that encourages continued economic prosperity.

However, we can't do both and have an interventionist government providing widespread middle-class welfare. That isn't merely undesirable, it is unsustainable.

Instead, the path to sustainable government involves ending taxpayers propping up higher living standards for the relatively well-off.

This year's budget will be a success only if it starts this difficult process to save the nation's finances. Calling for tax rises instead is taking the easy way out.


No tears shed for backward taxi industry

Low cost 'taxi' service a danger to the public, furious taxi council says

Would you pay a random person to taxi you around? I did and this is what happened

The biggest business story today isn’t on the business pages. (Well, it wasn’t until now.) It’s Ben Grubb’s coverage of Uber’s disruptive technology threatening the very powerful, very well-connected taxi industry and the predictable reaction from those with billions of dollars to lose.

Following Grubb’s coverage of how Uber allows people to circumvent the highly regulated taxi monopoly with its layers of rent-seekers, the next step will be a test of the New South Wales Government’s integrity: will the new premier side with the consumer, competition, innovation and improved productivity  – or the vested interests of the industry incumbents and the government’s own existing revenue streams?

A very large amount of money is at stake. Using Deloitte Access Economics figures prepared for the Taxi Council (and therefore in keeping with the rich tradition of such commissioned consultants’ reports), there were 5,647 plates just in Sydney last year with each plate worth the better part of $400,000. Call it $2.2 billion. Then there’s Cabcharge, the biggest of the networks, with a market capitalisation of $480 million. Deloitte says annual NSW taxi revenue is $1.3 billion, there are 17,500 direct equivalent full time jobs and the industry generates $1.15 billion “in total value added” to the NSW economy. It also notes that the NSW government itself is the biggest lessor of taxi licenses with 600 under lease, providing the treasury with $20 million in annual revenue.

But it’s not just the money – it’s the connections. The taxi industry around the nation has specialised in ingratiating itself with both sides of politics. As a small public example, the industry’s heavyweight champion, Reg Kermode’s Cabcharge, donated generous six-figure amounts to Labor and Liberal alike, as has the Taxi Council. Cabcharge board and management appointments have had the occasional government flavour - Neville Wran the most obvious when he became a director with a gift of 250,000 shares. Coincidentally, Cabcharge has received gifts of effectively free taxi plates from the NSW government.

Interestingly, there’s family history for Premier Baird in those free Cabcharge plates. When his father, Bruce Baird, was Transport Minister in the Greiner government, he refused a department recommendation to gift the plates. When the Carr government was elected, they were handed over with all the attendant windfall profit.

Uber’s model of internet-enabled “ride sharing” threatens a lot of investment. Cabcharge’s share price has already been on the slide thanks to the snail’s-pace change to its 10 per cent surcharge on credit cards. (Another example of the industry’s power? The card companies – Visa, Mastercard, American Express – haven’t been game to take action over that unjustified surcharge after the Reserve Bank of Australia empowered them to do so.)

It’s predictable that the first reaction is to have taxi drivers complaining about unfair competition, but as various studies, such as Professor Alan Fels’ Victorian review have shown, the drivers are people most exploited by the industry structure. If there was greater clarity about where Uber intends to take its system, there’s every chance taxi drivers would be better off outside a system that’s constructed primarily to justify the price of the artificially created and maintained government licences.

Someone briefly wanting to hire a driver with a car should be a simple and reasonable basis for a business transaction, but it’s been turned into an inflated monster. I’m sure Deloitte’s effort for the Taxi Council didn’t mean to paint a picture of stuffed system, but try this:

“The NSW taxi industry operates under a co-regulatory model, where the NSW Government sets the standards, stipulates maximum fares, and issues licences and accreditations. The networks monitor and assist the Government in enforcing industry standards for operators, drivers and vehicles. The NSW Government also has a team of inspectors in the field monitoring compliance.”

And the government decides how many plates are issued, in consultation with the industry, of course.

Cabcharge and others who have taken the risk of investing in licences and a market that exists at the whim of government are far from alone. Google is one of the investors in Uber, putting US$250 million into the company last year as part of a transaction that valued it at US$3.6 billion. Google of course has played a major role in disrupting another old industry – newspapers. New technologies do that – but newspaper publishers can’t go running to governments demanding protection from that change.

Cutting out the layers of middlemen and women in the personal transport business would represent a considerable productivity gain. Those gains would come at the cost of the incumbents. Stopping Uber’s evolution would come at everyone else’s cost.

Standby for sob stories about people who have bought taxi plates and now risk losing some of their capital due to competition and new technology. If anyone cares, there are sob stories about people who invested in video rental shops, in lawn mower repair businesses, in newspapers. Anyone expecting to make a profit from an investment has to accept that there is a risk that they won’t.

The industry claims there are risks for drivers and passengers stepping outside its stranglehold, but there are risks staying in it.

So what’s the call, Mike Baird? Make a stand on free market principles and what’s best for the state and consumers, resisting the power of the taxi industry as your father did – or serve the vested interests of a powerful minority?

The comments piling up beneath Ben Grubb’s story appear a reasonable reflection of what the electorate thinks.


All power to the outsiders

Australians are increasingly making it clear that the major parties need to do better. To make their voices heard they have employed a very useful political resource — minor parties and independents.

While most adults competent to vote are not single-issue fanatics or extremists of any sort, many will admit that every now and then they vote for a minor party or an independent “to send a message”.

Voting for a minor player in this way is a valuable form of political speech. It tells your preferred party you’re unhappy without defecting to their enemies. And depending how the minor party vote is distributed, this form of protest can be quite articulate.

Thanks to our system of preferential compulsory voting few votes are wasted. Unlike the great democracies of Britain and the US, in Australia a vote for a third, fourth or even 20th candidate is not throwing your vote away. Like salmon swimming home against the tide, most votes will eventually find their way back to a viable candidate or group.

Occasionally a small party will win a seat, leading to cries of “unrepresentative” and demands to reform the voting process. There will be outraged examples given of this or that candidate being elected on some amount less than 1 per cent of the vote. Nobody will point out how few first-preference votes are cast for the individuals on a major party senate ticket. Or how few people can even name all the members of the major party upper house ticket they voted for.

Indeed, many senators and upper house members are placed directly by their parties without facing the electorate at all. Casual vacancies for these positions are decided by a handful of political insiders without any consultation with the voters whose “quota” they are exercising.

The proposal by ALP president Jenny McAllister to allow party members to choose the Senate and upper house tickets directly as the Greens do would be a major improvement for democracy.

At the moment the tickets for both Labor and Liberal are determined by a smaller group of people than vote for the Sex Party. Claims by the ALP party office that 800 conference delegates choose the party’s candidates are disingenuous, given the recommended order of candidates on the ballot against factional and seniority con­sid­erations is subject to intense negotiations before the conference. So while some micro parties are utterly unrepresentative, candidates from the major parties can be just as much of an unknown quantity to voters.

As the majors whip up concern about micro parties and independents in Western Australia, we should be sceptical that they have our best interests at heart. It may seem silly or even anti-democratic to allow sports lovers and sex enthusiasts a seat at the table but whatever the talent, ideas or philosophy of these minor players, they do one job much better than the majors: they provide a place to park your vote when you’re sick of being taken for granted. By themselves, it’s true, most of these candidates can’t claim to represent more than a small number of voters. But the combined votes of all these small parties and candidates add up to a lot of people who don’t feel like endorsing the government or opposition.

It has been said the collecting together of all these diverse minor candidates’ votes through preference deals makes any resulting winner suspect because of the tiny number of first-preference votes. Maybe so. But it’s still true a large number of voters have been clear that they don’t want to endorse business as usual.

While it has been pointed out by some commentators that independents provide an excellent receptacle for a protest vote, it’s less often celebrated that independent members can make a strong contribution to good government.

As a policy adviser, I worked regularly with independents in the NSW parliament to secure their votes for bills. I also dealt with them daily as assistant to the leader of the house. I found independents Tony Windsor, Peter Macdonald and Clover Moore courteous and intelligent, and committed to their electorates.

Over 10 years in the house I worked with Shooters including the gentlemanly John Tingle, an MP committed to A Better Future for Our Children, an Outdoor Recreator, country independents and Christian Democrats.

While not all were candidates for Australian of the Year, most were the equal of their average major party adversaries.

In some cases the independents even outperformed their major party colleagues in delivering value for NSW. Under the Greiner government independents had a balance of power.

John Hatton, Moore and Macdonald negotiated four-year parliamentary terms, a referendum on independence of the judiciary, the creation of a parliamentary estimates committee and whistleblower protection for public servants.

Hatton led the campaign, supported by Labor, for the royal commission into the NSW Police Service exposing corrupt elements in the force including Chook Fowler, Trevor Haken and “the laugh”.

Like most people, I struggle to see Wayne Dropulich in the shoes of Hatton. It’s also true that Hatton, like Moore and Macdonald, had a large popular vote so the kinds of changes that would exclude the Sports Party would likely not deny the world another Hatton. But that depends entirely on how the reforms are done.

Following the so-called “tablecloth ballot” of 1999, NSW parliament created laws to make it much harder to form a minor party.

One can argue a group of people should genuinely represent a large group before they run a candidate. But it’s also true that under these rules more members will be part of a block of party votes and fewer will be voting issue by issue according to research and conscience.

As a staffer I spent hundreds of hours talking to independents, trying to win their support for particular bills on the merits. For Labor, Liberal and the Greens I met the single representative who would instruct their party colleagues how to vote.

Many of the independents were eccentric but fewer than you might think were lazy, stupid or out of touch with community attitudes.

Their presence promoted intellectual and ethical discipline because they ensured there was always a handful of votes that had to be won with argument and community endorsements.

Changes to the current rules will likely not be designed to raise the bar intellectually or ethically but to protect the existing oligarchy.

This oligarchy, of course, now includes the Greens, who have reportedly complained about micro parties “gaming” the system.

It makes me recall Bob Brown’s comment: “We’re not here to keep the bastards honest — we’re here to replace them.”

The political oligopolists accuse the little guys of dirty tricks and maybe they’re not undeserving of all criticism. But we need to keep a close eye on how the incumbent political class set the rules for their competitors.

The Greens themselves grew from small beginnings as a micro party. Pirates and Liberal Democrats represent significant constituencies in other countries and may one day have a legitimate future here too.

That should be for voters to decide — not the present political elites.


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