OPINION: When will we stop violence against women

Written by admin on 27/07/2018 Categories: 南京夜网

A WOMAN is killed almost every week in Australia by a male partner or ex-partner.
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Violence against women isn’t something that happens in isolation in developing countries, and more work needs to be done to protect females locally and internationally from sexual harassment and domestic violence.

In neighbouring countries such as Kiribati, Samoa and Papua New Guinea the instance of violence against women is at near-pandemic levels, yet the statistics are also frightening in Australia.

Nearly 20per cent of women have experienced sexual violence after the age of 15.

Aboriginal women in remote and rural communities are 45 times more likely to experience rates of family violence than non-Aboriginal women.

In NSW, 19 out of the top 20 local government areas for domestic assault are rural or regional.

That’s our backyard.

For those of us who have wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, nieces and female friends, this is a dismal reality.

Last week, the Newcastle Herald reported an aggravated sexual assault on a young unsuspecting woman out jogging in Warabrook in the early evening. This is simply too close to home to ignore.

The police caution women against walking alone in the early evening as a strategy to protect them from similar attacks.

We must be careful not to shift the blame for any assault from the perpetrator to the victim.

Hopefully, the police will identify and charge the offender, however it is abhorrent to suggest this young woman put herself at risk.

Recently we have seen the widespread reporting of violence against women, prompting open conversations about how it occurs and what can be done to end it.

The outpouring of emotion for Jill Meagher, raped and murdered in Melbourne last year, is an example of a necessary shift in attitude.

This is also evident globally, in the fallout from the gang rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old Indian woman in December last year.

There have been strong and sustained calls in India – where roughly half the female population think it’s justified for a man to beat his wife – for societal change so more women are not assaulted, harassed and mistreated based on their gender.

In order to break the cycle of domestic violence against women in our community, there needs to be a commitment to providing sustainable, effective assistance and support services to victims.

Assistance includes immediate and ongoing support for women who experience domestic violence, education programs for school children as well as adults and specialised training for police officers on how to respond to incidents of domestic violence.

Assistance costs money, and our government has supported many initiatives to help end violence against women. But the community must play a role as well.

March 8 is International Women’s Day and the global theme for 2013 is Ending Violence Against Women.

Money raised from official events will go directly to the Critical Services Initiative that funds projects in countries, including Australia, that need assistance in providing these important support services.

Attending these events is also an opportunity to learn more about the work being done all over the globe by organisations such as UN Women to bring about legislative and attitudinal change to gender equity, pay equity and domestic violence.

The Hunter’s official event is being held on March 8 at Wests Leagues Club New Lambton, and will feature guest speakers Terry Lawler and Helen Cummings.

Ms Cummings, herself a survivor of domestic violence and author of the bestselling e-book Blood Vows will share her story in a bid to make a difference.

For more information, go to www.unwomen.org.au

Belinda Smith is the chair of the Hunter Chapter of UN Women Australia

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OPINION: Reckless gambles threaten our future

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MINING has been part of this country from the ochre pits of the Aboriginals, the first coalmine at the mouth of the Hunter, the gold shafts at Hill End and on to the wealth coming from Cadia gold and copper mine, near Orange.
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It has made an enormous economic contribution to this nation.

As a specialist engineer I have spent most of my 40-year career working for major construction and mining companies on underground and open-cut mines, and in the disposal of the waste products of those mines.

I have worked, and continue to work, for most of the major mining companies and for the big construction companies in Australia and south-east Asia.

Until a few decades ago, mining in this country tended to be confined to relatively small areas.

So even if some mines had adverse impacts on land, water systems, and important environments – take the massive landslides in the Burragorang Valley and at Katoomba, the cracking of the Cataract River, and the draining of swamps on the Newnes Plateau – most impacts from these mines covered limited areas.

But with coal seam gas (CSG) extraction we are dealing with a new animal.

CSG extraction is a relatively new industry and a form of mining that covers very large areas very quickly. It has the potential to adversely affect groundwater systems over large parts of this state.

In order to extract coal seam gas, one first has to depressurise the groundwater in the coal seams and move it to the surface.

So the coal seams are, in effect, groundwater voids – the same as coalmines. But we are no longer talking about relatively localised effects. We are talking huge areas.

The enormous expansion of CSG mining has occurred in a poorly controlled manner over a very short period.

Large areas of our state will be affected by a relatively new industry where the science behind these impacts and the key hydrogeological parameters are poorly understood.

We have very little empirical information about long-term impacts from CSG operations because the industry is so young.

What we do know is that the impacts will develop over many years – and that, if the impacts are substantial, they will be almost impossible to reverse.

The current NSW government listing of exploration licences for CSG totals 189,567 square kilometres, almost 19million hectares.

To this we must add 24,000 hectares in production leases for CSG and all the coalmining areas.

Together this comprises much of our populated area, our forested wilderness, our wetlands and rivers, and our productive agricultural land.

What we do with our water matters.

Rainfall is our primary water source and is subject to huge swings.

In times of plenty, our rivers flow, our dams fill, but most importantly our groundwater systems replenish.

Huge quantities seep into the Great Artesian Basin from the recharge zone along the east coast, into the porous and fractured rocks in the Sydney-Gunnedah geological basin that extends from Sutton Forest to Narrabri, and also into the older rocks west of the divide.

Apart from feeding bores, groundwater sustains the baseflows of our creeks and rivers, and our wetland systems.

Diminish those groundwater systems and you create a tendril effect of damage that extends from an individual vegetable farmer at Picton to a complete river system in the Yarramalong Valley, or at Gloucester.

CSG mining puts our groundwater under enormous pressure.

It is simply a matter of physics, not of opinion, that this depressurisation from CSG mining will adversely affect the whole groundwater system, because like the apple that fell on Isaac Newton’s head, groundwater is controlled by gravity and flows from zones of high elevation to zones of lower potential energy.

How long will it take for the changes to our groundwater to be substantial?

We don’t know.

How extensive will they be?

We don’t know.

One thing we do know is encapsulated by Dr Richard Evans, principal hydrogeologist of Sinclair Knight Merz

‘‘There is no free lunch here – every litre of water you pump out of the ground reduces river flow by the same amount.’’

I don’t believe as a society we should just let this process run helter skelter – a process whose consequences on our environment are not yet fully understood by scientists and engineers.

And we cannot rely on what is called “adaptive management”, because if monitoring of CSG does show significant impacts on water systems, there is very little that can be done to reverse the process once the damage is done.

Wisdom demands that the whole process of CSG extraction in this state be urgently wound back.

That may allow the science to catch up with the present rapacious desire to exploit a resource.

To allow CSG mining to proceed before more is done to understand its impact is a reckless gamble with our future.

Perhaps we can learn from past lessons involving asbestos, tobacco, thalidomide and Agent Orange.

Damage may be done that cannot be repaired.

Dr Philip Pells is a civil engineer who has spent four decades in geotechnical and groundwater engineering.

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Travel flies in the face of retail gloom

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We are all familiar with the depressed level of retail spending in Australia. From fridges to fashion, and televisions to toys, the picture of the typical consumer is one of short arms and long pockets.
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But even this sobering data has been distorted. Because these broad spending trends ignore the fact that Australians have been spending on travel – in particular overseas air travel.

The bad news is that once that is accounted for, it makes the other areas that make up retail sales look even worse.

When it comes to discretionary spending we are more inclined to take a holiday overseas than buy a flat screen TV – and here is another misconception – it is not all about the strength of the Australian dollar.

That’s part of it, but not the whole story. If it was all about the currency, the outbound travel market would be strong and the inbound markets weak. Both these segments are experiencing solid growth.

So why is this demand for travel not strongly reflected in the earnings from our major airlines, Qantas and Virgin?

In the first instance we are not only using these carriers. The liberalisation of bilateral agreements between governments has allowed more international carriers into Australia.

And secondly, while our local airlines are carrying more people, they are offering discounted fares, and thus are not getting the boost in their bottom line profits. Their market share of overseas travel (and this particularly applies to Qantas) is being eroded and so are the margins.

And it’s even a bit more complicated than this. There is the domestic travel side, which includes business and leisure (or holiday) markets, and then there is the international side.

There has been massive increase in capacity in domestic travel, which is the main reason both Qantas and Virgin reported weaker earnings over the past week.

Then there is international travel, which is particularly interesting. Over the long-term the cost of overseas travel has been coming down and becoming more affordable. This is part of a structural shift in the market. Overseas travel long ago moved to the middle-class market and away from the domain of the wealthy.

If you ignore the business market (which travels because it needs to and is less sensitive to price) the factors that influence overseas travel are just the same as any other purchase decision – price and therefore value.

In the immediate aftermath of the global financial crisis the Australian dollar rapidly appreciated, making offshore travel a far better value proposition.

We are now pretty accustomed to this and despite a number of fundamental reasons, economists said it would fall, but our currency has remained stubbornly high. This might explain some of our reasons for offshore travel. But it doesn’t account for why incoming travel to Australia is also pretty strong.

A Deloitte Access Economics report shows international visitor arrivals during the second half of 2012 accelerated strongly. International arrivals were up 5.8 per cent in December and 4.6 per up on the year. And it is expecting growth to continue at this annual rate over the next three years.

What is particularly interesting about these numbers is that the geographic source of visitors is also changing. It’s no longer about Europe and the UK – growth in international passengers is coming out of Asia. The trend is backed up by financial statements from Sydney Airport, which showed strong growth in passenger numbers.

Again it’s about supply and demand combined with geopolitical change and technology.

Put simply, there are more flights coming into Australia particularly from the emerging middle class areas of Asia. So on the supply side there has been some substantial expansion, which in the past year alone has included two budget airlines entering the Australian market, Scoot out of Singapore and AsiaAir X out of Malaysia.

The existing airlines are also adding capacity (rather than flights) by using larger planes, which are also more fuel and environmentally efficient.

On top of that the Chinese and the Indians are boosting the numbers of inbound passengers. There has also been some revival in traditional markets – including the US and Japan. Outbound travel that experienced a boost when the Australian dollar started its post-GFC rise is only now showing some signs of tapering off in terms of growth rates.

We are still growing outbound travel but the double-digit growth rates have eased, according to Deloitte. Air fares are still coming down but the adrenalin hit from the exchange rate is not as potent, as we have become more accustomed to a high dollar.

Deloitte suggests that this will continue to lose momentum as they expect the currency will depreciate over time. That remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the domestic leisure market remains subdued despite the fact that increased capacity has pushed down airfares. The area of increased activity on this front is derived from visits to family and friends rather than holiday travel.

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Qantas alliance may expand to support services

Written by admin on 29/08/2019 Categories: 南京夜网

Qantas noted that the two airlines’ flying operations might jointly look to buy services from other companies that offer ground handling, engineering and catering operations.QANTAS has left the door open to broadening its alliance with Emirates to include ground handling and support services, but is willing to exclude them from the present deal to allay concerns from unions.
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With just four weeks to go before the alliance is due to be launched, Qantas has sought to make clear that the focus of the alliance is on flying operations, and that the two airlines have not begun any talks or planning about operations such as ground handling, catering or aircraft engineering.

”There are no current plans for co-ordination [of non-flying operations] in Australia at this time,” it said in a submission to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

However, Qantas noted that the two airlines’ flying operations might jointly look to buy services from other companies that offer ground handling, engineering and catering operations.

Qantas’ catering operations include Q Catering and Snap Fresh, while Emirates’ associate Dnata owns Alpha Flight Services. The latter has about 1200 employees in Australia. As well as supplying their respective fleets, the catering businesses provide meals for other airlines that fly to and from Australia.

Qantas and Emirates said they were willing ”to exclude co-ordination between catering and aircraft cleaning operations” from their alliance ”in order to seek to allay issues” raised by trade unions such as the Transport Workers Union.

But it said that ”any potential co-ordination between the catering and aircraft cleaning operations would, if considered necessary at the time, be subject to a separate application”.

The long-haul pilots’ union and the TWU, which represents baggage handlers, have also raised concerns that jobs could be threatened by a ”narrowing of competition and a transfer of flying to Emirates” on services from Perth and Adelaide to Europe and Asia.

But Qantas said jobs would be ”more secure” with the deal, emphasising that it would be forced to cut more services to Europe if it did not go ahead.

The competition regulator has given a tentative nod of approval to the Qantas-Emirates alliance but will not make a final decision until next month. The airlines plan to launch their alliance on March 31.

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Australian economy on sound path: S&P

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Area of concern: Building activity slowed in the December quarter.AUSTRALIA’S housing market appears vulnerable to a downturn and its economy is becoming increasingly exposed to China’s business cycle.
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But the country’s strong fundamentals support its AAA sovereign rating and mean steep falls are “highly unlikely”, ratings agency Standard & Poor’s says.

A new report on Australia’s sovereign credit rating says the economy is likely to keep growing steadily, despite a forecast peak this year in mining investment and the related dip in economic activity.

It comes as Bureau of Statistics data shows building activity slowed in the December quarter because of a decline in the big-ticket engineering construction sector.

The S&P report said Australia remained on a ”sound path”, with strong institutions and low public debt and a financial system that “appears sound”.

But it reiterated concerns that the country’s housing market appeared vulnerable to a downturn and that high household debt levels could make people’s finances less resilient to economic shocks.

“The sustainability of high household debt levels has not been tested in an environment of high unemployment for a long time,” the report warned. “[And] Australian house prices, relative to household incomes, are also elevated.

”While there has not been a build-up of aggregate excess supply, the housing market continues to appear somewhat vulnerable to a downturn, in our view.”

The report is more positive than past updates and praises Australia’s relatively high national savings rate – about 25 per cent of GDP, compared with the average for advanced economies of 19 per cent.

It comes a week after Britain became the latest Western economy to lose its triple-A rating, as Moody’s lowered its rating to double-A1, with a stable outlook, citing the country’s commitment to austerity policies and the likely dampening effect they would have on the economy.

Bureau of Statistics data released on Wednesday showed building activity slowed in the December quarter of 2012, declining by 0.1 per cent, a figure slightly worse than market expectations, which were for 1 per cent growth overall.

But economists said the result was better than it looked because the decline came from a 1.3 per cent fall in activity in the big-ticket engineering construction sector.

When isolated from the rest of the data, private building activity rose by 2.5 per cent in the quarter, the fourth straight month of growth.

“Dissecting [the] report reveals signs of life in the domestic private building industry through last year, signs that were a little more noticeable in the second half,” NAB senior economist David de Garis said.

“Private residential activity overall through last year netted 0.8 per cent growth, [which is] not what you’d term ‘rapid’ but something positive anyway.”

Australia is one of just a few countries with a triple-A rating and a stable outlook from all three major ratings agencies.

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AGL works to counteract twin hits

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AGL is facing pressures on two fronts in its core gas business – producers are seeking to raise prices while heavy losses are likely after losing access to prime gas reserves in New South Wales.
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The energy utility disclosed on Wednesday it may write off up to $250 million on its exploration reserves in NSW following a decision by the state government to restrict exploration for coal seam gas, which could ”sterilise” the extensive reserves it holds. The state government has banned coal seam gas drilling within two kilometres of urban areas.

AGL is in arbitration with its gas suppliers, seeking to prevent price rises before the expiry of long-term contracts in 2016 and 2017.

The disclosures came as the group posted a record December half net profit of $364.7 million, well up from $117 million a year earlier, thanks to the inclusion of earnings from the Loy Yang A power station it acquired last year.

Revenue rose to $4.97 billion from $3.6 billion, with earnings per share reaching 66.5¢ from 24.5¢. Underlying earnings rose 20 per cent to $279.4 million, it said, after booking a loss on the change in value of financial instruments.

The interim dividend has been raised to 30¢ a share from 29¢. Investors reacted positively to the profit lift, with its shares rallying 68¢ to $15.87.

AGL said it was spending ”millions on arbitration” in a bid to resolve the gas supply issues. It sources a large part of its supplies from Esso-BHP in Bass Strait, with its initial contracts to expire from 2016 and the balance the following year.

The company sought to deflect the pressures by pointing to the continued growth in retail customer numbers in NSW in particular, which more than offset weakness in other markets. Customer numbers rose by more than 60,000 in NSW.

AGL has spent $325 million on coal seam gas exploration in the Hunter Valley and at Camden, south-west of Sydney, which is at risk with the government’s decision. At the same time, the prospect of higher gas prices that will flow from this decision could lift the worth of the company’s prospects around Gloucester, north of Newcastle.

”There is likely to be a significant charge in the second half,” said AGL chief executive Michael Fraser, of the government’s abrupt policy shift.

”There are a lot of grey areas to the government’s announcement”, which will make it difficult to decide sooner on the extent of the write-downs. Mr Fraser refused to be drawn on talks under way for AGL to buy government-owned power generators in NSW, which are for sale.

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Marketing outfit shows value but triggers are tricky to find

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STW Communications
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THE iconic advertising and marketing group remains part of a shrinking group of value stocks in Australia. Earlier this month the company reported a solid 6.5 per cent increase in earnings a share (EPS) for the year to December 31. Analysts are now forecasting STW (ASX code SGN) can earn 13¢ a share for the 2013 year and pay a fully franked dividend of close to 9¢ a share. This puts the stock on a price-earnings multiple (P/E) of 10.4 times and a fully franked yield of approximately 6.5 per cent.

While the current valuation and circa 10 per cent earnings should give investors comfort it is more difficult to identify a catalyst to buy the stock. The first buy trigger could be a pick-up in marketing spend as 2013 unfolds following lower interest rates. Advertising lags other parts of the economy and can take up to a year to respond.

A second opportunity to buy the stock could be the long-awaited sell-down by the group’s major shareholder, global advertising outfit WPP. The UK-based WPP currently owns about 20 per cent of STW and with the recent uptick in the Australian sharemarket there is an increasing chance the stake could be sold.

AtCor Medical Holdings

AT THE micro end of the market one of the better results this season came from AtCor (ACG), a medical device company that specialises in early detection of cardiovascular disease. The company posted a half-yearly profit of $2.3 million, well ahead of forecasts.

AtCor is highly unusual for an Australian medical development company with no blue sky embedded in the valuation. Refreshingly, the company has recently cut costs and states it will only ramp up expenditure when revenue is secured. This effectively means there will not be a major cash burn that is typically associated with other medical development outfits.

AtCor has a market value of $14 million and net cash on the balance sheet of $2.1 million. The first-half profit was boosted by a $700,000 grant and analysts are expecting a break-even result for the second half. Despite this, it is only trading at about seven times earnings.

The company supplies product for the clinical trials and research markets. Its devices measure central aortic blood pressure non-invasively for blood pressure and arterial stiffness.

There have been a number of recent encouraging signs for AtCor, including the US approval of the new SphygmoCor System Excel device. Not only is the device a quantum improvement in terms of functionality but it has also been granted a reimbursement code for clinicians. The addressable market is estimated at $US100 million a year. On this segment alone the firm could easily be valued 50 per cent higher at 22¢ a share.

Webjet Limited

IT IS dangerous to stand in the way of a runaway bus, or on this occasion a jet plane. However, closely scrutinising the dynamics of a business and questioning the share price should be a daily occurrence when playing the sharemarket.

Online booking group Webjet (WEB) has enjoyed a staggering 33 per cent surge in its share price since raising $25 million to buy rival Zuji last December. The acquisition was highly accretive given Webjet only paid 4.6 times earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) for the Asian-based operation.

There are some concerns and a lot of blue sky baked into the share price today. Webjet’s traditional online business has slowed significantly over the course of the past year, and only price rises saved the group from anaemic growth in the December half. The price increases, though, did not disguise poor operating cash flow for the period and no explanation was given in the commentary.

Not only has the company hit a poor cash flow period, it also continues to capitalise software costs and amortise them over 25 years, a strange decision given that software rarely lasts 25 years in any business. If we cost the software development the company is trading on a hefty 33 PE multiple and about 50 times current operating cash flow.

If cash flows and earnings are disappointing at the June 30 results, it could be better to look elsewhere.

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NZ police open fire as shark attacks and kills lone swimmer

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Scene of an ugly death … Muriwai Beach, where the fatal attack took place. Some of the witnesses.
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NEW ZEALAND police opened fire on a shark that killed a man at an Auckland beach on Wednesday afternoon.

Inspector Shawn Rutene said the man, in his 40s, had been swimming alone from Maori Bay to Muriwai Beach, several hundred metres from shore, about 1.30pm local time, when a four-metre shark struck.

It took police and lifeguards – who knew the victim – about 30 minutes to recover the body as two sharks circled.

Inspector Rutene said a police officer fired at the two sharks.

”We don’t know whether he hit it, but it rolled off and disappeared,” he said.

Police were unable to confirm the species of shark, but the Department of Conservation confirmed great whites had been spotted in the area as recently as last weekend.

Beaches north of Manukau Harbour were to be closed for the next two days and helicopters will patrol the area until Thursday.

Fisherman Pio Mose said he had seen a man swimming. ”All of a sudden … we saw the shark fin and, next minute – boom – attack him, then blood everywhere on the water,” he said.

Mr Mose called emergency services while a friend went for help. ”He was still alive, he put his head up, we called him to swim over to the rock to where we were,” he said.

”He raised his hand up, and then while he was raising his hand up we saw another attack pull him in the water.

”He came back up, his head was on the water … then we noticed he was already dead.”

He heard the police then fire shots from their helicopter, and also heard a few shots from a lifeguards’ boat. ”I don’t know if they got the shark, killed the shark or not,” Mr Mose said.

There have been 14 known fatal shark attacks in New Zealand since records began about 1837, said the department’s shark expert, Clinton Duffy.

”In the last 20 years we have been averaging two shark incidents, where the shark actually bites someone, a year,” Mr Duffy said.

”Those are generally on swimmers and generally result in fairly superficial flesh wounds.”

The last death was in 2009, when a kayaker was mauled by a great white in Coromandel waters – although whether he drowned before the shark found him is still disputed. Before that the last death was in 1976.

Shark attacks around the world have increased every decade since 1900. Last year’s tally of 12 fatalities, with three in Australia, was almost three times the average of 4.3 from 2001 to 2010, according to the International Shark Attack File.

Fairfax NZ News

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Brethren behind the scenes

Written by admin on 29/07/2019 Categories: 南京夜网

Freemasons aims to show that there is more to the organisation than arcane rituals.IN A bold move to embrace the modern age – and a desperate bid to avoid extinction due to dwindling membership – Freemasons Victoria is breaking with a 300-year-old tradition of secrecy and humility to launch a promotional series on community network C31.
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According to host Wes Turnbull, a Freemason since the age of 19 and a regular on Melbourne radio station 3AW, even the acknowledgment of philanthropic activities goes against the organisation’s strict moral code.

”It was felt that charity that you go telling other people about is less meaningful, perhaps less sincere,” he says. ”Now, if you don’t tell people what you’re doing, not only will they not know, but they’ll possibly be a bit suspicious about what’s going on.”

In an effort to address centuries of bad to non-existent PR, the program promises to reveal throughout 26 half-hour episodes, the historical meanings of the strange symbols and bizarre rituals, and some of what goes on between the men who meet behind firmly closed doors. It should come as no surprise that this ”inside story” produced in-house focuses on the positive aspects of modern Masonry, with stories about Black Saturday fund-raisers and interviews with new members extolling the virtues of what they describe as a men’s support group. If the first episode is any indication, the myth-debunking is likely to be limited to architecture and paraphernalia, rather than the more sinister public perception of the organisation as a silent but influential force at work in government.

Grand Master Bob Jones, the self-professed ”judge and jury” of the editing suite, says a regular vox-pop segment by the membership manager of Freemasons Victoria, Lena Way, one of several women permitted to join the organisation in supporting roles, is designed to air such issues.

As an orphaned 19-year-old ”crazy ratbag” from Melbourne’s western suburbs, Jones found in the sacred men’s space the sort of anchor he believes every young man should have.

”We find that what’s bringing young men to Freemasonry now is that tradition that young people are seeking,” Jones says. ”They see a moral void in the world. Within Freemasonry, you know you’ve got good men, men who like to do things for the community.”

While membership was once attained only through personal introductions, aspiring members can now apply online – provided, of course, that they are male and believe in a supreme being. While traditionally comprised of Jewish and Christian men, Jones says the brethren have expanded to include Muslims.

On the subject of diversity of sexuality, Jones and Turnbull allude to a culture of ”don’t ask, don’t tell”, although Jones says he knows of one openly gay Freemason.

Turnbull says: ”There’s something about an organisation when men of all faiths in this day and age can come together in a lodge meeting and simply share the ideals of improving themselves and doing good for other people regardless of their religion.”

Apart from, of course, continuing to exclude women, who Turnbull insists are not missing out on the ”trivial” private aspects of Freemasonry.

”The main point of the secrets of Freemasonry is a test of integrity,” Turnbull says.

Needless to say, there will be no demonstrations of secret handshakes on the show.

”If you really want to know what the handshake is,” Jones says, ”Google it.”

Freemasons: The Inside Story starts on Monday at 8.30pm on Channel 31.

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American dreams gone with the wind

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Hopes of prosperity on the land were shattered by never-ending drought and ferocious winds that ravaged the US in the 1930s.Show of the week: The Dust Bowl, Friday, SBS One, 8.35pm
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FROM the opening frames, we know where we are. There are the sepia photographs of arresting and haunting beauty, the wistful sounds of a fiddle, the unadorned voices and the weathered faces to which they belong recounting poignant stories of endurance and tribulation.

Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball) is a master of long-form documentaries that have chronicled largely untold and alternative social histories of the US. He forages through archives to find photos and footage, fragments of letters and discarded mementoes to illustrate his topics. His accounts of the US’s past are grounded in meticulous research and the perspectives of common people, but what we’re most likely to take away from them are romantic visions of hope, resilience, loss and transcendence.

The Dust Bowl, the latest Burns opus to arrive on local screens, is no exception, though its underlying theme of human agency in an environmental catastrophe also makes it prophetically timely for Australian viewers today.

The four-part series, to quote the voice-over narration read by actor Peter Coyote, is ”about the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, when the irresistible promise of easy money and the heedless actions of thousands of farmers, encouraged by their government, resulted in a collective tragedy that nearly swept away the bread basket of the nation”.

The disaster is the decade-long drought and furious dust storms of the 1930s that destroyed the Great Plains – pull out an atlas and find the region where Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma meet – the seeds of which were planted decades earlier when migrants settled in what was considered uninhabitable land.

The native Indians understood this patch of land. Despite the paucity of rain – less than 50 centimetres a year – the natural prairie grasses held moisture and could support herds of buffalo. After the Indians had been resettled into reserves, homesteaders moved in and began ploughing the land. Congress expanded the land earmarked for farming, triggering real estate syndicates, railroads and even ”fake science” reports arguing that the removal of prairie grass would allow more rain to penetrate the soil.

The great plough-up of the 1920s, as it was called, led to homesteads being turned into vast tracts of wheat fields, and the emergence of ”suitcase farmers”, ”which no longer represents the idea of homes at all, but just parts of a potential factory for the low-cost production of wheat”.

But whatever damage the various boom-and-bust cycles of wheat prices did to the farmers was mild compared with the furious dust storms – evidenced here via photos and newsreels, the very sight of which leaves one gagging for oxygen – that swept through the region in the 1930s.

The wind picked up the loose soil and moved it; the locals could tell where the dust came from by its colour.

The Dust Bowl is a cautionary tale of economic bubbles and the consequences of mankind pushing against nature, descriptions that unfairly paint it as an exercise in revisionist dogma, which it clearly isn’t.

The old-timers (not all survived the many years it took Burns to make his crafted film, we learn at the end) who share their own and their families’ experiences of living in the Great Plains here are clearly not ideologues who have been awakened by Al Gore or the Occupy Wall Street protesters.

Salt-of-the-earth farmers who represent cherished American values of self-sufficiency and resilience in the face of unimaginable hardship, their memories speak to universal traits of endurance and hope.

”If it rains” and ”things will change” was their mantra. It didn’t rain and only occasionally did things change.

We learnt slowly, we tried harder with the same things that did not work, says one of the witnesses to the drought and depression, words that resonate for farmers in another part of the world in a different era.

There is a happy ending of sorts to the series. Three-quarters of the population stayed and would eventually benefit from New Deal programs and new methods of farming.

This time around, Burns has a wealth of material to work with. As well as the survivors, there’s frontier woman Caroline Henderson, whose articles in The Atlantic Monthly are eloquent portraits of life on the plains, and the iconic photographs taken in the ’30s by Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott and Dorothea Lange, who were hired by a government agency to demonstrate its efforts to fix the nation’s problems.

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Abbott pledge to free up unis

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OPPOSITION Leader Tony Abbott will pledge to reduce the regulatory burden on Australia’s universities if elected and will encourage them to push further into the provision of virtual education.
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The promises are part of a seven-point plan to be unveiled on Thursday at a higher education conference in Canberra.

Speech notes obtained ahead of the address suggest an Abbott-led Coalition government would also emphasise stability in government policy and incentives to ensure universities maintained their academic standing to protect the status of degrees obtained by students.

”First and most important, we will be a stable and consultative government … we understand that stability and certainty are important to everyone, including universities,” he will say.

”We will encourage universities and institutes to ensure that their research work is world-class, effectively delivered and well targeted.”

There will also be an emphasis on ”reducing their regulatory and compliance burden”. ”Outside officials shouldn’t be trying to micro-manage universities or bury them in reporting requirements,” he will say.

But it is in the area of online learning that Mr Abbott wants universities to move more aggressively, such as their development of the increasingly popular Massive Open Online Courses or ”MOOCs”.

MOOCs are large-scale university courses in which vast numbers of people from around the world can participate.

They usually have different assessment methods from traditional university courses but can be useful in promoting the prestige of the university offering them.

”These have obvious potential to make higher education more widely available but, equally obviously, also pose a challenge to established methods and institutions,” Mr Abbott will tell the sector.

■Foreign Minister Bob Carr has called for an overhaul of state-federal relations, saying the states should be given more power and that the Council of Australian Governments should be radically changed.

”Let’s get serious, let’s strip the COAG agenda right back,” he said. ”Let’s focus on six things. Let’s give the states something meaningful to do.”

Senator Carr’s suggestion would be a significant overhaul as COAG has more than 60 items on its agenda.

Senator Carr made similar comments when he was premier of New South Wales. They echo statements made earlier this week by another former NSW premier, Nick Greiner. Mr Greiner said COAG was ”grossly overburdened” and needed to focus on fewer issues if it wanted to achieve meaningful reform.

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Winners don’t care what they wear

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The advent of coloured outfits and the display of sponsor logos upset many cricket purists.Newspapers disregard sport at their own peril, particularly in Australia, the most “sport mad” nation in the world.
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This was the considered opinion of the respected journalist-editor and author Rohan Rivett, and he was prepared to compare reader news values in Australia against other nations.

In America, he said, crime came first, followed by sex and then sport. In Britain, the Fleet Street newspapers were expected to put sex first, followed by crime and sport. But in Australia, he believed the order was sport, then crime with sex last.

No matter that he was speaking 70 years ago as the editor of an afternoon newspaper in Adelaide – today there would be little argument that most Australians would place sport above the other two categories, and probably a few more of the “serious” ones.

Sport has been covered in the Herald since its birth in 1831, but not always with the prominence it got from 1977 when a redesign gave it a home of its own on the back of the second section of the paper. From next week, in the new weekday compact format, its stocks will go up even further when it moves to the back of the one-book production.

Today’s page includes a Test cricket photograph produced from a glass negative. It was taken in Melbourne in 1937 by Herald photographer Herbert Fishwick who, tired of taking pictures of dots in the distance, had special lenses ground for a barrel-like extension on his camera. He shot from high in the stands to remove background clutter, and the results caused a sensation in other newspapers. His emulators, with their cannon-like lenses, have become a regular sight at all big sporting events. The marks on the photograph are his suggestion for the most effective crop for publication.

Herald sport photographers down the years have won international and national awards. At least two of the photographs have reached iconic status: Russell McPhedran’s exclusive shot of a hooded terrorist during an attack on athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and John O’Gready’s picture of mud-covered opponents, Norm Provan and Arthur Summons, coming together at the end of the 1963 rugby league grand final.

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Contract spending up as state jobs go

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Despite describing it as “frivolous spending”, the NSW government has increased the amount it pays contractors at the same time that it sheds up to 15,000 public servant jobs.
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The government has increased the amount it spends on labour hire in the public sector from $468,057,260 in 2010-2011 to $492,270,285 in 2011-2012.

The Department of Transport is the biggest spending agency, having paid $100,506,398 for contract workers in the 2011-2012 financial year.

Information obtained by the Public Service Association under freedom-of-information laws shows the number of contract staff has increased from 11,976 in 2010-2011 to 15,943 in 2011-2012.

However, the number of hours worked has decreased from about 7million in 2010-2011 to 6.8million in 2011-12.

The increased spending comes at the same time the state government is shedding 15,000 public servants.

When asked in January last year about the money being spent on temporary staff, the Minister for Finance and Services, Greg Pearce, said it was “yet another display of frivolous spending under the previous Labor government with no net benefit to taxpayers”.

“The NSW government will ensure where any savings can be achieved that we actively do so to rein in the former government’s 16 years of fiscally irresponsible governance,” he said.

The general secretary of the Public Service Association, Anne Gardiner, said the union was concerned that “extravagant use of labour hire and short-term contract workers in the NSW public sector is continuing to grow”.

“At the same time the NSW government is announcing cutbacks of 15,000 public sector workers, it is engaging 16,000 contract staff each financial year,” she said.

“The NSW government is the biggest employer in the state. It is doing the wrong thing by employees, putting them out of permanent work, and the wrong thing by taxpayers, hitting them with the cost burden of expensive private sector contracts.”

Mr Pearce said the government contract figures “are remnants of the process developed under the previous Labor government”.

He said that under Labor’s scheme, firms went through a costly tender process that could take up to 18 months.

“After wading through hundreds of pages of documents, there was no guarantee of any work. Some requirements included exorbitant professional indemnity and public liability insurance costs,” he said.

The government introduced last month a new approach to hiring temporary workers that would achieve savings, he said. It would simplify contract terms and conditions. The changes would reduce professional indemnity and public liability insurance costs and open the scheme to new suppliers.

Suppliers would no longer be charged the management fee imposed under the Labor government, saving millions of dollars, he said.

However, Ms Gardiner said the new system was less transparent than the previous one.

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