Thursday, March 17, 2016


In his latest offering, conservative Australian cartoonist ZEG is laughing at the absurdity of "Harmony Day"

Good to see Zeg back on deck

Droughts and flooding rains: it takes three oceans to explain Australia’s wild 21st-century weather

It's not global warming after all!  Tim Flannery will be surprised.  He and many others have long attributed any adverse weather event in Australia to global warming

Australia is a land of extremes, and famously of “droughts and flooding rains”. That’s been truer than ever in the 21st century; since 1999 the country has see-sawed from drought to deluge with surprising speed.

There was the millennium drought, which lasted more than a decade and culminated in disasters such as Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. Then, in 2011, Cyclone Yasi struck Queensland and a large swathe of Australia exploded under a green carpet of grasses, shrubs and trees.

Filming of the movie Mad Max: Fury Road was moved from outback Australia to Namibia after the big wet of 2010-11, because Australia’s luxurious growth of wildflowers and metre-high grasses didn’t quite match the post-apocalyptic landscape the movie’s producers had in mind. In Alice Springs, the Henley-on-Todd Regatta was almost cancelled in 2011 because there was water in the normally dry river.

Globally, the big wet on land caused a 5 mm drop in sea levels as large amounts of rain were deposited on Australia, South America and Africa. This coincided with an unprecedented increase in carbon stored in vegetation, especially in arid and semi-arid regions of the southern hemisphere. The greening of Australia in particular had a globally significant impact.

Meteorologists have struggled to explain these wild variations in Australia’s weather. Dry years with disappointing crops have been linked to the Pacific Ocean’s El Niño phase (part of a cycle called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO)). But despite its huge influence, not even ENSO can fully account for Australia’s extreme rainfall patterns.

Our research, published this week in Nature’s Scientific Reports, offers an explanation. We found that conditions in the three oceans that surround Australia – the Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans – combine to amplify each other’s influences on Australian weather.

Extraordinarily wet and dry years occur when the ENSO phase is in sync with two other cycles, called the Indian Ocean dipole (IOD) and the Southern Annular Mode (SAM).

The three have been synchronised since 1999, which explains why things have been so volatile this century.
Weather engines

ENSO is the biggest driver of global climate and associated rainfall patterns – unsurprisingly, given that the Pacific is the world’s biggest ocean. The IOD is generated by a gradient in sea-surface temperatures along the equator in the Indian Ocean, while the SAM represents a north-south oscillation in Southern Ocean sea-surface temperatures.

By comparing sea-surface temperatures in the three oceans with rainfall data and satellite images of vegetation growth, we have shown for the first time that abnormally large fluctuations in rainfall across Australia are due to the synchronisation of these three ocean cycles.

For instance, both La Niña and negative IOD bring rain to Australia. When they co-occur, one amplifies the other. This is reinforced still further by a negative SAM, which helps to create the Continental Low, which can interact with the monsoon depression over a large area of the continental interior.

When all of this happens together, it results in extraordinarily heavy rainfall over large parts of Australia, transforming deserts into vast oases teeming with life.
Withstanding the switch

When the rain arrived in 2010, it was abrupt – coming straight after one of the driest years this century. In 2009, only 139 mm fell at the Bureau of Meteorology’s Territory Grape Farm station. The heart of the monsoon depression had been pushed north of Darwin, high pressure blocked rain from central and western Australia, and green plant growth was restricted to a small strip of land from Tennant Creek, in the Northern Territory, into Queensland.

Green plant growth across Australia, compiled via satellite observations. Nature Scientific Reports, CC BY

Too much or too little rain can each be problematic. When both happen in quick succession, it is hard to profit fully from the wet or to remain solvent through the dry. In natural ecosystems, bushfires become more likely as the plants swing between exceptional growth and subsequent drying and death, leaving behind huge amounts of fuel. Farmers may need to diversify their livestock numbers and crop types to provide extra resilience to the changing conditions.

Understanding how Australia responds to these extremes offers a barometer for emergency services, farmers and everyone else on the land who will need to adapt to Australia’s lean times as well as the times of plenty.


Safe Schools LGBTI program: Malcolm Turnbull faces backbench revolt

It promotes homosexuality to kids

Malcolm Turnbull faces further backbench revolt over the Safe Schools anti-bullying program, as conservatives within his party vow to push for a parliamentary inquiry into the initiative.

The prime minister initiated a review in February following earlier backbench unrest over which aims to stamp out homophobia and transphobia in students.

When the results of the review were presented to backbench MPs on Tuesday evening, specific concerns were raised about its terms of reference, which did not take into account the appropriateness of material linked to the program’s official content.

“The terms of reference have been substandard because they haven’t given the review enough scope or time,” LNP MP George Christensen said.  The scope of the review was designed “so a specific outcome could eventuate”, he said.

He called for the program to be radically altered to remove its “political agenda”, and a full parliamentary inquiry into its content.

Christensen will on Wednesday circulate a letter to fellow Coalition members to ask them to keep the pressure on Turnbull over Safe Schools. “I am confident that something has to happen on this,” he said.  Another Coalition member said: “This is not over; this is just the beginning.”

Some backbenchers are concerned that the review, which lasted just over a fortnight, did not visit enough schools that had undertaken the program, and did not interview any parents before reaching its conclusion.

A motion backed by several Coalition senators as well as two crossbenchers to immediately defund the $8m program will likely be moved in the Senate on Thursday.

The education minister, Simon Birmingham, is expected to release the findings of the review later this week.

Some members have privately criticised the minister for “completely misreading the depth of feeling” by conservative members on the program.

But ministerial colleague, Mitch Fifield, played down the discontent.  “Colleagues were very happy that Simon Birmingham initiated the review. We’ll see what the result is and then we’ll make a decision,” the communications minister told ABC Radio on Wednesday.

It is believed that Turnbull will not back a parliamentary review of the program, but Labor is calling on him to go further in slapping down conservatives in his party.

“Is he on the side of his education minister or is he going to bow to the incessant, relentless demands of the far right of the Liberal party and scrap the Safe Schools program,” the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, asked.

“It’s a voluntary scheme. Schools opt in to the Safe Schools program. Who is Mr Turnbull or the tin foil hat brigade in the right wing up in the Senate to start second guessing school councils, school principals and the administrators?”


Competition law: Malcolm Turnbull abandons opposition to proposed changes

Good in theory but maybe not in practice. Hobbling the people who supply most of our goods is pretty dubious

Malcolm Turnbull has embraced a plan to strengthen legal protections for small businesses and farmers against abuse of market power by big businesses – a change he is believed to have previously opposed – in a major win for the small business lobby and the National party.

The changes were advocated in a review of competition policy by Prof Ian Harper and are backed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, but split Tony Abbott’s cabinet to such an extent that they were deferred indefinitely.

Turnbull, along with the then treasurer, Joe Hockey, the attorney general, George Brandis, the trade minister, Andrew Robb, and the finance minister, Mathias Cormann, are understood to have argued against them at that time.

But on Wednesday he denied he had ever been opposed, saying he had “always taken a thoroughly open mind to this issue” and took a practical rather than “theoretical” approach.

While the Council for Small Business Australia welcomed the change, Catherine Livingstone, the president of the Business Council of Australia, expressed disappointment at the Coalition’s decision.

“If Australia wants to have an innovation-driven economy, this is poor policy,” said Livingstone. “We participated in good faith throughout the consultation process, and will continue to work with the government to minimise the risks and unintended consequences from changes to the law.”

Deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce said the National party held the effects test as an “incredibly important” part of the Coalition agreement.

Joyce said while large businesses could drive down costs in the short term, competition was the best result for consumers in the long term.

“What is better for consumers over the longer term is competition,” Joyce said. “We believe in competition and this brings about the agility and ingenuity to drive new people into the business field so that they do compete.

“Otherwise you can have a great position for a short period of time but a very much deleterious effect over the longer period of time because you have one person offering one price and if you don’t like it, bad luck.”

When Turnbull became prime minister he promised the National party the issue would return to cabinet but did not promise it would be adopted.

Intensive lobbying resumed, with companies including Telstra, BlueScope, Qantas, Coles, Woolworths, Wesfarmers and the Business Council of Australia lobbying to defeat the move, while the Council of Small Business, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the National Farmers’ Federation, the Australian Hotels Association, the Pharmacy Guild of Australia and the Nationals fighting to have it accepted.

On the first day of Turnbull’s leadership, National party senators Bridget McKenzie, John Williams and Matt Canavan crossed the floor to support a Greens motion advocating the change and two Nationals ministers abstained from the vote – in a clear signal of the depth of the party’s opposition.

The Turnbull government did not announce a stance on the issue when it unveiled its response to the rest of the Harper review late last year, instead deferring consideration.

The change is opposed by Labor. Instead Labor proposes a mechanism to help small businesses which would mean they would not necessarily have to pay an opponent’s legal fees if they took unsuccessful legal action. Labor’s plan was backed by the BCA.

Under the government’s proposed changes to section 46 of the Competition and Consumer Act a small business would be required to prove that the action of a bigger business had the “effect” of substantially lessening competition, instead of being required to prove that the action had been done with that “purpose”.

The change would also remove a section forbidding a big business from “taking advantage” of its market power. The BCA says this would significantly widen activities that might be caught by the act and could push prices up.

Supporters insist the change would encourage, rather than diminish, competition and say the claim that it would force price rises is a “furphy”.

“Congratulations to the cabinet for showing gumption,” said the chief executive of the Council for Small Business, Peter Strong. “They resisted BCA and Wesfarmers and the like.”


An open invitation to corruption

Labor hands unions veto power over who gets work in the ACT

The ACT Labor government has signed a secret deal giving all the unions in Canberra the right to veto tenderers for government goods and services, including in the building industry, identified as a hotspot of union corruption and standover tactics.

All ACT government agencies have been told to “decline to award a tender proposal for ACT government works or services” if the tenderer does not undertake to meet a list of union demands, including examination of company records, the names and addresses of workers and the right of entry for ­unions to recruit members.

Unions are also to be supplied with the names of companies and contractors tendering for business before any contract is let, to ­“advise the government” if the tenderer fails the union test and can ask for a contract to be cancelled if the company breaches the union requirements.

The department responsible for procurement is also required to give the unions a list of employers who breach the agreed government-union conditions.

Last night federal Employment Minister Michaelia Cash said the deal was “deeply disturbing” ­because the ACT government had “outsourced” its business to the unions. “It is clear from the text of the MOU that UnionsACT have ­effectively been given a veto over who the ACT government does business with,” Senator Cash said.

“Clearly, deals like this do not promote transparency and ­accountability and the deal is reminiscent of the worst types of behaviour revealed by the Heydon royal commission.”

The previously undisclosed memorandum of understanding between ACT Chief Minister ­Andrew Barr and UnionsACT was signed a year ago and declares that the understanding is not just about an exchange of information.

“Consultation means providing relevant information to Unions­ACT and/or the relevant unions as identified by UnionsACT. It means more than a mere ­exchange of information,” says the agreement, a copy of which has been obtained by The Australian.

“For consultation to be effective, the participants must be contributing to the decision-making process, not only in appearance but in fact.”

The executive director of the Master Builders Association in the ACT, Kirk Coningham, said his members had heard the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union was “going around with a document signed by the Chief Minister” to force people to sign union enterprise bargaining agreements.  “It (the document) confirms our worst fears,” he said.

“The CMFEU-pattern EBA in the ACT includes embedded business interests. These are the direct commercial interests of the union under which they sell insurance and training, and other commercial services.  “The embedded businesses raised $1.2 million in direct profit for the union in the ACT in 2013-14 alone.”

The “whole of government” agreement also would cover the government’s proposal to build a $430m office block to lease back for ACT politicians and bureaucrats, to be built by 2018. One tenderer for the block is Cbus Properties, the superannuation investment arm of the construction industry.

ACT Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson said last month that the government was considering “a sweetheart deal for Labor mates”, given Cbus’s connection to the union movement.

ACT Liberal senator Zed Seselja, said: “Labor is outsourcing its procurement to its union masters”.

The revelation of the deal, which may have been in force up to 10 years in some form, comes after a slew of disclosures and charges over union corruption in the ACT arising from the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption and contentious links between Labor ministers and CFMEU leaders.

The inquiry’s investigations have led to a former CFMEU organiser and previous president of an ALP Canberra sub-branch, Halafihi Kivalu, pleading guilty to two charges of blackmailing a subcontractor over a residential site in Yarralumla.

Then-police minister Joy Burch was forced to resign after the details of a confidential briefing with ACT police on union activities, including right-of- entry rules, was given to the CFMEU.

At the time of the meeting, the union’s construction division and its ACT head, Dean Hall, were being investigated by Australian Federal Police following the royal commission inquiries.

Yesterday a CFMEU statement said the case against Mr Hall would no longer be pursued by the Director of Public Prosecutions as it now fell outside the statutory time period. Charges against CFMEU organiser John Lomax were dropped last year.

The investigation of Mr Hall involved allegations of intimidation of a Worksafe inspector on a Claxton construction site in Canberra in 2013.

The national secretary of the union’s construction division, Dave Noonan, said yesterday the investigation should never have happened. “These actions seem to be designed to create a storm of negative publicity for the union without amounting to anything,” he said.

The final report of the Heydon royal commission found CFMEU officials had taken the view it was “compulsory to have a CFMEU EBA in order to do construction work in the ACT” and that “officials may be prepared to abuse rights of entry” to achieve that outcome. The inquiry also found evidence suggesting CFMEU officials were pressured to achieve membership targets.

Mr Coningham said the CFMEU was pressuring businesses to sign its EBA.  “We’ve told our members that this time you really do have a choice ... A large number of Canberra commercial builders are choosing not to sign the EBA, hence the extraordinary pressure now.”


Dick Smith says Ruslan Kogan can repair damage to the brand

AUSSIE entrepreneur Dick Smith says he’s “very happy” his namesake electronics store has been rescued by Ruslan Kogan and is confident the damage done to the brand will not be permanent.

The Belarusian-born online electronics pioneer announced this morning he had bought the Dick Smith brand and online operations from receivers Ferrier Hodgson for an undisclosed sum.

Kogan, who made his fortune selling cut-price private label electronics 10 years ago, intends to continue running the Dick Smith store as a stand-alone operation but will leverage his expanded bargaining position to negotiate better terms with suppliers.

Speaking to, Mr Smith, who founded the electronics chain before selling it to Woolworths in 1982, said he had spoken to Mr Kogan yesterday and gave him his blessing.

“I’m very happy. I don’t know him but I understand he’s very ethical and I think his formula is good,” he said. Mr Smith said he believed Kogan could repair the damage to the brand.

“I’m hoping he can turn what I consider to be a very short period of total lack of ethics with Anchorage [Capital Partners] back into ethical business again. I don’t think it will take very long at all.”

Mr Smith has publicly blamed the private equity firm for the collapse of the company. Anchorage bought Dick Smith from Woolworths for $20 million in 2012 and floated it on the stock market for $520 million 18 months later.

“It’s just common sense. If something is worth $90 million one moment, it cannot be worth $500 million 18 months later when there’s been no change,” he said.

“There have been people stopping me in the street to say, ‘Isn’t it terrible what Anchorage did to the company?’ It has been called the greatest private equity heist of all time and I would agree with that.

“I believe Dick Smith would have still been in business if they hadn’t in effect milked $400 million out of it.”

But Anchorage managing director Phillip Cave spoke out earlier this month, telling The Daily Telegraph that the firm had made “a significant investment in staff, stores, marketing and the operating systems” before floating the company.

Mr Smith said Kogan’s online-only model and focus on private-label products was the “way of the future”, and in many ways was going back to the brand’s roots.

“Before we had the 50 shops, that’s where I made a lot of the initial money,” he said. “We were very big in mail order and made a fortune.

“My prediction is that the prices of consumer electronics will keep coming down, and I don’t know how the bricks-and-mortar shops will be able to make enough money to cover the overheads.

“I think his formula is the one for the future. As long as he sticks to being 100 per cent honest and ethical he’ll do very well.”

But Harvey Norman shouldn’t be worried just yet, he added. “I think Gerry Harvey is the best retailer in the world without a doubt,” he said.

“While Gerry is alive it will be hard for anyone to compete with him. That’s why I think Ruslan Kogan’s idea is really brilliant — don’t get out and compete with Gerry Harvey but compete in low-overhead, web-based sales.”

Receivers for the Dick Smith chain failed to find a buyer for its bricks-and-mortar stores, the closure of which is expected to result in nearly 3000 job losses.

While some customers welcomed the news, others pointed out the jobs were still going. “Going online. Rescued everything but the staff. Congrats,” Steve Dunkley wrote on’s Facebook page.


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