Archive for March, 2019 | Monthly archive page

Port to vote for funds to ‘fight’ merger plan

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

FIGHTERS: Port Stephens councillor Paul Le Mottee, mayor Bruce MacKenzie, and deputy mayor Chris Doohan, who all oppose the merger. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

PORT Stephens Councillors will vote on whether to spend $150,000 on acampaign to fight the proposed merger between it and Newcastleat an extraordinary meeting on Tuesday night.

If they go ahead with the plan –and it’s expected that they will –the council would engage consultancyfirm Morrison Low to prepare a “comprehensivesubmission”which would makethe council’s final pitch for avoiding the merger.

The money would also fund a public information campaign which, among other things, would “provide to the community of Port Stephens relevant information and data on the impacts of the proposed merger”.

Port Stephens deputy mayor Chris Doohan said the council was gearing up for a fight.

“Until it’s written in blood that the merger is going to happen, I’m going to fight it,” he said.

“It’s a crap deal for the people of Port Stephens, and so many people in the community have said the same thing to me.”

The council is required to pass a vote to spend the money because of a state government guidelinethat councils undertaking a public information campaign should have the matter “approved at an open council meeting”.

Port Stephens Council was found Fit for the Future by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal, and as such it said in its staff report that“in the preparation of the Quarterly Budget Review there was no provision made for undertaking a public information campaign or preparing further submissions”.

For that reason if it is approved, the $150,000 will be allocated from the council’s underlying surplus, something Cr Doohan said was “extremely frustrating”.

“We were told so many times by so many people in the government we wouldn’t be touched, and now we’re having to reach into our back pocket,” he said.

“That’s money that could be being spent fixing roads.

“But from where I stand it’s money that needs to be spent, and it’s well worth it if it helps to fight this.”

While most Port Stephens councillors oppose the merger, Newcastle’s Labor majority hasbeen more welcoming of the plan, and lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes wants to set up a joint committee of elected councillors to help steer the transition.

However Mr Doohan said he wasn’t “in the headspace” to entertain that idea.

“I understand where Nuatali is coming from, but of course she would say that because it’s a great deal for Newcastle but a crap deal for Port Stephens,” he said.

“I’m still in fight mode on this, I don’t need to be making friends and rubbing shoulders.

“Once it is written in stone and there’s no getting around it, then it would make sense for us all to come together and map out a way forward, but at this stage it’s still just a proposal and that’s how I am treating it.”

Last week the Newcastle Heraldrevealed most of the financial benefit from the mergerwould come from employee “redeployment”.

Turnbull government’s plan to make cities cooler and greener

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

Urban heat islands can significantly increase temperatures in cities, research shows. Photo: Paul Rovere Environment Minister Greg Hunt is in Paris for the talks. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

If you’ve been broiling in an asphalt jungle over the past few weeks, rest assured: the Turnbull government has a plan to cool you down.

The federal government wants to increase tree cover in big cities to dial down the heat and improve health and quality of life as part of its new focus on the lives of metropolis-dwellers.

Acting Cities Minister Greg Hunt is on Tuesday expected to outline a plan to work with cities to set goals for each decade to 2050 to increase “urban canopies”, or overall tree coverage.

Mr Hunt last month took on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s pet Cities portfolio following the resignation of former minister Jamie Briggs.

In a speech to the Sydney Business Chamber on Tuesday, his first since assuming the role, Mr Hunt is expected to emphasise the susceptibility to extreme heat of people living in large cities.

Urban development pressures can lead to treeless streets that amplify the “heat island” effect on hot days.

“Extreme heat place[s] the most vulnerable people in our cities – including the very young and very old – at high risk, and contributes to a number of deaths each year,” his speech notes say.

As well as decade-by-decade goals to develop urban canopies, the government will “look at building rooftops with green cover”.

Mr Hunt will warn that the public purse cannot fund the infrastructure needed to keep up with rapid growth in capital cities, and will point to flexible financial arrangements being considered by the government.

These include “value capture” – finance models that aim to capture the gain in land value that property owners enjoy when public infrastructure is built nearby.

It can include property taxes, parking levies or giving property development rights to transport operators.

“One of the fairest ways to fund new infrastructure investment is for the beneficiaries of that infrastructure to contribute to the cost,” Mr Hunt will say.

The government will also seek to increase the number of jobs in residential areas, to limit commute times.

Mr Hunt’s speech notes praise the “20 minute city” model proposed in Melbourne where, through changed land-use mix, every suburb would be a short commute to jobs, schools, shops and leisure facilities.

He is expected to hail the emergence of the Greater Sydney Commission, the new organisation charged with overseeing planning and development across Sydney. It is led by the Prime Minister’s wife Lucy Turnbull.

Mr Hunt will flag a potential expansion of that model to other cities, saying it shows how all levels of government can work together to “plan for how our cities will grow”.

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Australians conservative and gloomy about job prospects in digital age: report

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

Robert Holt and Shoukry Marzouk agree their university educations did not prepare them adequately for working life in the emerging digital market. Photo: Luis AscuiYoung Australians are more risk-averse, more pessimistic about their job prospects and have less confidence in their skills than their counterparts in some of our major economic competitors, according to a new report.

The report, Amplifying Human Potential: Education and Skills for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, was based on a survey of 9000 young people in nine countries including the United States, Britain, Germany, France, India and China. It underlines the challenge the Turnbull government faces in its bid to stimulate a more risk-taking economy with its innovation policies.

One thousand Australians aged 16 to 25 were surveyed for the report, which was commissioned by IT consultancy Infosys.

Australians were the most negative about their employment prospects, with only half saying they were optimistic or very optimistic about getting a job in the future. Forty-three per cent of Chinese respondents felt “very optimistic” about their job prospects compared to just 13 per cent of Australians.

Australians also had the lowest level of confidence in their job skills, with just half saying they are confident they have the necessary skills compared to 75 per cent in Brazil and India.

Fewer than 20 per cent of Australians have a strong interest in computer coding or developing mobile apps – among the lowest of any country surveyed.

Less than 4 per cent of Australian respondents said they want to work for start-ups – the sector at the centre of many of the government’s innovation initiatives. Most would prefer to work for established businesses with a long corporate history.

“The findings presented here reinforce wider trend research, which highlights a conservative mindset and risk-aversion among young people today,” the report states.

“Despite public hype and discourse around start-ups and a generation of successful self-starting entrepreneurs, the reality is that young people gravitate towards larger companies that are perceived to offer greater stability, opportunities for development and structured progression.”

Australia also had a high gap in technological competence between men and women, with 48 per cent of men rated as highly competent, compared to 28 per cent of women.

Engineer Shoukry Marzouk, 25, said the job market was “daunting” for many young Australians.

Mr Marzouk, who helped organise the first Australian trial of driverless car technology last year, said it took him three months to find a job after finishing university.

“For graduates it can be hard to find work,” he said. “Companies are usually looking for someone with experience rather than wanting to train someone.”

Mr Marzouk said he was glad his employer has allowed him to undertake postgraduate study while working so he could keep developing his skills.

Innovation Minister Christopher Pyne said the survey showed the government was on the right track with its policies to improve the teaching of digital literacy and expand opportunities for women in science, technology, maths and engineering (STEM).

“However, the Government can only do so much,” he said. “If we are to want to lift the ambition of young Australians, there needs to be a cultural shift, an embracing of taking a chance on creative ideas and lifting the profile of STEM in the community.”

Matt Garbutt, chief of staff at the Business Council of Australia, said the report showed Australia’s education system needs to be more practical with more internship opportunities for students.

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Bengalla coal mine dam overflow makes it three spills under EPA investigation

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

Section of Rio Tinto’s Warkworth sediment dam that gave way during the early January big rains. Photo: John Krey, via Newcastle Herald Dragline at the Bengalla coal mine in the Hunter Valley. Photo: Anthony Hoy

Environmental regulators are investigating an overflow from a dam at the Bengalla coal mine, making it three recent mine spills in the Hunter under review.

The Bengalla coal mine dam began to spill last Friday but there was no failure of the dam wall, according to mine operators, Rio Tinto.

This month walls at two other sites – Rio’s Warkworth mine and Peabody Energy’s Wambo mine – collapsed during heavy rains in the region, potentially spilling millions of litres of sediment-laden water into nearby rivers.

As late as Friday, water from the dam was still leaving the Warkworth mine site, the NSW Environment Protection Authority said in a statement. A spokesman for Rio, however, said the release of water from the dam had ceased on Friday.

The EPA said it remains unclear how much sediment material left the three mines sites.

“EPA officers are continuing to carry out site inspections, conduct interviews and review information from the companies … to determine if any breaches of licence or environmental legislation occurred,” a spokeswoman said.

The Hunter River suffered a sharp drop in its water quality after the recent rains but the EPA said it is unlikely the low oxygen levels are related to the mine spills.

Last week, the agency noted that about 40 km of the Hunter from Hinton to Fern Bay had suffered a “blackwater event”, in which oxygen levels fell dangerously low for much of the wildlife in the river.

Stuart Khan, a water expert at the University of NSW, said the blackwater event was the result of a combination of factors, including the flushing of a lot of vegetative material such as leaves into the river after a dry spell, and the arrival of a heatwave that accelerated decomposition.

Dr Khan also noted that EPA officials had described some of the dam sediment water from the Wambo mine as containing grass.

“Grass is just perfect for bacteria rapidly decomposing” and lowering oxygen levels in the water,” he said.

With the likelihood of extreme weather events increasing in frequency and intensity with climate change, planners need to review the resilience of key infrastructure such as dams, Dr Khan said.

‘Trashing the environment’

Greens mining spokesperson Jeremy Buckingham said the slumping coal price meant that miners were “cutting costs and trashing the environment almost with impunity”.

The latest incidents follow two others at mines in the Blue Mountains, including at Centennial Coal’s Clarence Colliery that spilled many tonnes of coal fines into the Wollangambe River last July.

The clean-up, some of which has involved helicopters, has totalled 178 tonnes of coal fines from 4.85 km of the river alone as of Monday, the EPA said..

“Three coal mine dam failures in the Hunter, in addition to two major spills at other coal mines in the last six months indicates there is a systemic problem with the environmental standards being applied by the industry,” Mr Buckingham said.

“Without strong regulations and independent monitoring to prevent pollution incidents, the decline of the coal industry represents a toxic threat to the environment and community.”

Low dissolved oxygen levels

Under healthy conditions, rivers and estuaries have dissolved oxygen levels of between 70-100 per cent, depending on water quality and temperature, the EPA said.

Samples taken by the Office of Environment and Heritage from along the Hunter catchment showed dissolved oxygen levels are extremely low – at 1-2 per cent – in rivers for several kilometres upstream from their confluence with the Hunter River, the EPA said.

Dissolved oxygen levels started to increase in upper stretches of the Hunter River upstream of the Williams and Paterson rivers and had reached 45 per cent at Morpeth.

“Oxygen levels are in fact higher near the collapsed dam wall sites, ruling out any connection between the dam wall collapse incidents and the fish kill,” the EPA said.

“It’s not surprising that fish aren’t surviving in such low [dissolved oxygen] conditions,” Gary Davey, EPA’s Director North, said  “This new data tells us that this is one of the most severe blackwater events the Hunter has seen in recent years.”

“Unfortunately, it also means that it will be still some time before the impacts of the blackwater event dissipate and the river starts to return to normal,” he said.

“The community is reminded to continue to exercise caution around the river and any stagnant waters.”

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Australian Open 2016: a good place, but not to start

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

The Australian Open on Monday looked like a good place. Photo: Cameron SpencerLondoner Chris Kermode, head of the ATP, was blissfully unaware of the curse he was calling down on himself and all of tennis. “I think it will be seen,” he said, “that tennis is in a very, very good place”. Good place? Very good place? James Hird, 2013: “When the truth comes out, I think I’ll be in a very, very good position, and so will this football club.” The echo fairly was ear-splitting.

Melbourne Park on Monday looked and felt like a good place. Sunshine, sun tans, glowing good health. Courts and concourses teeming. Bright colours, expensive labels, smart cuts, a feel of comfortably off. Out there, every sinew strained, every bead of sweat expended. Everyone was trying their lungs out. You could see it, and you just knew it, because as if anyone wouldn’t, in such a very good place?

Sport, you know just by looking at it, is a good place. It’s not like banks, or Canberra, or those smoky old Underbelly-ish pool rooms in Carlton. Then again, Essendon in mid-2012 looked like a good place. The London Olympics that year looked like a good place. Right now, the Big Bash League looks like a very good place. So why would you want to look any closer?

But some did look closer, and Essendon on closer inspection turned out not to be such a good place as it seemed, and so did the London Games, and cricket always has had its dark places, and tennis players are as venal as any other sportspeople, and arguably more than any others exposed to temptation. It’s a rich sport, always dangerous. It’s diffuse: matches are played here, there and everywhere around the world, all the time, so who knows where to look at any one time, and for that matter, who cares that much? It’s the cricket template, multiplied and squared.

People care about the majors, of course. Specifically, they care about the major players. But even at Melbourne Park on Monday, who really was dwelling on whether the Austrian or the Argentine won on court eight, or the Brit or the Bosnian on the court next door at the same time, dwelling as they will dwell on Richmond and Carlton across the footbridge three months hence?

The backcourt boys had plenty of watchers, but few fans in the true sense of the world. This is both the Open’s great success and essential failing, that they would be there anyway. They come for the event, not in these early days the competition. In Sopot, Poland, in 2008, where this whole thing first came to light, did anyone care whether a Russian or an Argentine won? Isn’t that the point? And unlike in soccer, for instance, or cricket, it only takes one player to make a workable fix.

But in this good place, who wants to contemplate, let alone believe, bad? “In its investigations, the tennis integrity unit has to find evidence, as opposed to information, suspicion or hearsay,” said Kermode, explaining why the Sopot probe washed up. “This is the key here, that it requires evidence.” In other words, they found smoke so black, dense and asphyxiating that it has not cleared yet, nearly 10 years later – but no fire.

It would be interesting to know what constituted the difference between information and evidence, but the media briefing was snapped off long before it got to that question. Move along, nothing to see here, not through all that smoke.

Nigel Willerton, who heads the the TIU, said that corruption was difficult to detect, even more difficult to prosecute, and the TIU was not a law enforcement body anyway. But is this not what Essendon, WADA and CAS have taught us so very recently, that when it comes to safeguarding the integrity of sport, it is better not to be a law enforcement body, but to be free to make your own laws and enforce them?

The last allowable question was an ageless one about the inherent contradiction in tennis’ formalised links with betting agencies. The answer also was ageless. “The distinction to make is that betting itself is not an illegal pastime,” said Kermode. “Many people bet on sport.” Here, resounding down the years, was Australian cricket’s justification for accepting the lavish sponsorship of Benson and Hedges. More smoke, still no fire. Smoking was legal, but cigarette company sponsorship never was compulsory. Ditto betting now.

Somewhere along the way, the 2016 Australian Open began, and in the wash of results, no one retired inexplicably, and although someone probably lost from a set and a break up – now identified as the Davydenko threshold – no suspicions were raised, because this was Melbourne and a major sporting event, the very definition of a good place.

But the good place that is sport in general and Melbourne in particular has been shaken badly in recent times by all sorts of revelations – about the AFL, about FIFA, about the IAAF, about Russia – and somewhere in the men’s draw here, it was now revealed, are eight players about whom tennis harbours documented doubts, and so there was a shadow across this day, even a pall. You couldn’t see it, and most ticketholders on their yearly pilgrimage wouldn’t have known it, and authorities didn’t admit to it, but it was there all right.

Tennis and the Open was still a good place, because you had to believe that most out there were in deadly earnest, but it was also a world-weary good place, because some at some stage might not have been for real, even in this tournament, a haunting thought.

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