Monthly Archives: October 2015

On the Banks of the Tigris – a documentary that traces the forgotten history of Iraqi music

The Conversation

Robyn Sloggett, University of Melbourne

Decoupling people from their culture is a perennial tactic in war. The millions of Syrian refugees now seeking asylum across Europe retain little of their material culture, and within Syria cultural material is targeted for destruction. But people’s stories, songs and music do not need suitcases to survive, and it is worth being reminded that war is transient, regimes pass, but culture and identity are shared, enduring and powerful constructions.

In March, I was part of the audience invited to a screening of an extraordinary film, On the Banks of the Tigris (2015) – the product of 10 years of vision, belief, and sheer hard work by documentary filmmaker Marsha Emerman and Iraqi-Australian writer and actor Majid Shokor. The film chronicles Majid’s journey to reconnect with the music he loved as a child and which he heard in coffeehouses, on the radio and in the markets of Baghdad.

Last month, the film was awarded Best Documentary Film at the Baghdad International Film Festival. The award celebrates the resilience, in the face of relentless attack, of the people who create, nurture and preserve cultural identity.

On the Banks of the Tigris is, at its heart, the story of culture triumphing over regime. It presents Iraq as a significant multicultural centre, where Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions were welded together in a unique Iraqi culture that today appears almost utopian.

It explores the influence of Iraqi Jewish musicians in the cultural life of Iraq, charting their passage from Baghdad to Israel, from celebrity to anonymity. And it reflects on Majid’s own journey as a refugee from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, and the journeys of so many like him.

In Australia, the memory of the music of his childhood leads Majid to explore its history and to uncover the extraordinary truth that much of this music, still loved by Iraqis, was composed and performed by Iraqi Jews. This revelation takes Majid from Australia to Israel, Europe and Iraq to meet Iraqi-Jewish musicians, and other great Iraqi musicians, and to learn their stories.

Kawkab Hamza, one of Iraq’s most famous songwriters in the 1960s, explains how the then Vice President, Saddam Hussein, contrived to erase the names of Jewish composers and other musicians unsympathetic to the regime. Refusing Saddam Hussein’s “invitation” in 1973 to join a committee to “review Iraqi musical heritage”, Hamza fled the country, with devastating results for himself and his family.

Yair Dalal and Majid Shokor. Fruitful Films.

In Israel Majid hears acclaimed composer, violinist, oud player, and singer Yair Dalal. Born in Israel to Iraqi-Jewish parents, Dalal performs traditional Iraqi music as well as his own compositions and teaches Iraqi music to young Israelis. “Arab” music, once dismissed in Israel, is now all the rage, an irony not lost on Dalal or those students from Arab-Jewish backgrounds.

Ahmed Mukhtar master oud player. Fruitful Films.

In the UK, Majid meets master oud player Ahmed Mukhtar, a composer and recording artist, born in Baghdad but a political refugee in the UK where he teaches oud and Arabic music theory at the University of London.

Farida Mohammad Ali.

In the Netherlands, Majid watches Farida Mohammad Ali, the first woman teacher at the Baghdad Institute of Music and considered the greatest living interpreter of Iraqi maqam singing, perform with the Iraqi Maqam Ensemble.

The film culminates with a celebratory and jubilant concert at London’s Barbican Centre, thus realising Majid’s ambition to bring Iraqi musicians of all faiths together again.

Regimes dislike culture that is not theirs to own. They dislike the contradictions inherent in cultural production: the mercuriality and immutability of cultural identity, the recklessness and cautiousness of cultural activity.

Regimes also dislike culture that is presented in a language they cannot understand. This dislike often manifests in attacks on the people who create, nurture and protect culture: the murder of the great Chilean singer Victor Jara; of Oromo musician and poet Ebisa Adunya; or more recently of the traditional Syrian folksinger Ibrahim Kashoush, or the great Palmyra archaeologist, Khaled al-Asaad.

Baghdad Radio Orchestra. Fruitful Films.

Asylum and relocation are leitmotifs that run throughout the film. In the 1930s, Jewish Iraqis comprised a third of the population of Baghdad. By the late 1960s most had fled. As a young aspiring actor, Majid was forced to flee Saddam’s regime with his wife and two young daughters in 1995. In Australia singing songs from his childhood helped retain his links to the Iraq he loved.

A world away in Israel, elderly diasporic Iraqi-Jewish musicians meet regularly to play this music for the same reason.

On the Banks of the Tigris is an extraordinary story of cultural resilience and identity. When war and conflict dominate the news, this film reminds us that real heroes play music, tell stories, and, in this case, make films.

On the Banks of the Tigris will screen in Sydney on November 8 and in Melbourne on November 12 and 15 as part of the Jewish International Film Festival. Details here.

The ConversationRobyn Sloggett, Director, Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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An atheist and a Muslim on reforming Islam

Sam Harris, an atheist, author and neuroscientist, and Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir who went on to found anti-extremist think-tank The Quilliam Foundation, have come together to write a book, Islam and the Future of Tolerance: a Dialogue.

In a discussion on the ABC’s Lateline, they confronted what they said was Islam’s failure to modernise and they challenged liberal left thinkers who they accused of defending extremism in the name of cultural tolerance.


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What ‘fair’ superannuation would look like

The Conversation

Rodney Maddock, Monash University

Australia is engaged in an ongoing debate about the fairness of the superannuation system. Those on the highest incomes are seen as extracting the greatest and an unfair advantage from tax benefits currently available. This problem of perception is inevitable in a system where contributions are made out of our pre-tax income.

To try to lessen the concern, the basic approach people have taken is to argue for restrictions on how much can be put into the system each year (on a pre-tax basis). There are also proponents of the view that there should be lifetime limits rather than annual limits. In a sense all these proposals are trying to make taxation of the savings system more progressive, basically driven by a desire for greater fairness. They all make the system more complicated.

Deloitte Access Economics is the most recent contributor. Its recommendation is a little different. It proposes we use the progressivity of the income tax system as our anchor point. This actually seems like a good starting point. The progressive income tax system is designed so that people with higher incomes make a greater contribution to funding society’s needs. It meets the basic requirement of being accepted as fair.

What is interesting with the Deloitte proposal however is that it suggests we all should have an equal discount off our marginal tax rates for our superannuation contributions.

While this too seems fair, it is not clear why we need to have any discount at all.

The common rationale is that we all need an incentive to compensate us because our savings are locked away for a long time. This is rather like a compensation for being compelled to do something. It is a bit odd though because the government compels us to do lots of things without any incentive payments. There is no incentive payment for driving on the left, or for paying one’s taxes. There is no obvious reason for the government to provide incentives for compulsory payments into superannuation. If you have compulsion you do not need incentives. It complicates the system unnecessarily.

A more subtle explanation for the incentive would be that savings should always be lightly taxed (as argued in the Henry review). This is to provide equity between savers and consumers – if I consume all my income today, but you save and then pay tax on your savings, you are paying higher taxes than I am. While this makes sense for voluntary savings, it is not relevant in the context of compulsory savings.

In a paper Stephen King and I wrote for CEDA we argued the sensible and fair approach is to require all payments to compulsory superannuation be made out of people’s after-tax income and there should be no discount at all. The progressive income tax system solves the fairness problem. Eliminating the incentives gets rid of an unnecessary complication and simplifies the system significantly.

The administrative savings would be substantial. Everybody simply pays x% of their after tax income into a compulsory superannuation fund. Get rid of all the limits and caps: get rid of the administrative complexity for once and for all. Compliance would be easy to monitor through the tax system.

People would probably save outside the compulsory system and these would be treated just as outside savings are now: no news rules would be required.

Once the savings are in the compulsory sector they would not need to be taxed further. Again this would simplify the system and reduce administrative complexity.

These changes would bring compulsory superannuation into a similar tax regime as people’s primary residence. In both cases assets are built up over one’s life, based on after-tax contributions, and not subsequently taxed. This might have other advantages of bringing the two systems into closer alignment since housing and superannuation are the two basic forms in which most Australian’s save.

Logic and fairness suggest superannuation and primary residences should both be included in assessing a retiree’s right to access government support in later life. This is an important issue but separate from the issue of providing fairness in the accumulation phase.

The ConversationRodney Maddock, Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at Victoria University and Adjunct Professor of Economics, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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How to protect authors after Google Books wins its ‘fair use’ case, again

The Conversation

Rita Matulionyte, University of Newcastle

Google’s efforts to scan millions of books for an online library have passed another legal hurdle with the United States appeal court agreeing earlier this month that the search-giant’s Google Books project does not violate copyright law.

The appeal judges’ ruling supports an earlier district court ruling two years ago. The case was brought by the Authors Guild, which argued that Google’s initiative constituted copyright infringement and could deprive authors of revenue.

But Google has successfully argued that its efforts could actually boost sales by making the text of books searchable, making it easier for people to find published works.

This latest outcome came without much surprise in the US, and the ruling is consistent with the earlier court rulings on fair use. The Authors Guild plans to appeal the case before the US Supreme Court but it is unlikely that it would succeed.

Google Books and Australia

The Google Books decision is based on a so called “fair use” doctrine which means that everyone can use copyrighted works free as long as the use falls under a particular definition of “fair”, including for “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research”. But such broad and flexible doctrine does not exist in Australia or in most other countries, including Europe.

Instead, Australian copyright law contains narrower and more specific “fair dealing” exceptions as well as a few even more narrowly defined specific copyright exceptions.

It is unlikely that the Google Books project would fall under any of these exceptions. This means that if Google is sued in Australia for the same Google Books project, it is likely to lose the battle. Due to much stricter European copyright laws, a few years ago Google lost a case on Google Books in France.

On the other hand, Australian laws are more flexible than French ones and Australian courts may be as well able to find in favour Google. In short: the legal situation of Google Book still remains uncertain in Australia.

How Google Books works

It is worth clarifying here that not everything that can be found on Google Books website was digitised and made accessible by Google for free and without the permission from the copyright holders.

If you can access chapters from a book, it means that Google has got permission from the publisher of the book to do so (and maybe agreed to remunerate the publisher – hence the author(s) – for this too).

It is only when Google does not have an agreement with the publisher, it takes a risk to digitise the book but then only show snippets of the text. This can be a few lines or a short paragraph where the search terms can be seen.

The US appeal court’s decision on Google Books confirmed that the use of snippets (but not chapters or full books) is fair use.

Google Books is an innovative and useful service but the question is whether Google should pay authors and publishers for its use of their work.

The Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) proposed last year that Australia follow the US and introduces a fair use doctrine.

Accepting fair use in Australia would mean that Google is free to digitise all Australian books for free, put the text in its search engine and allow users to view at least snippets from the books.

But Australian authors and publishers opposed strongly.

Australian authors argue that fair use would further worsen their financial situation that is already rather miserable. As a result, government has not shown any signs in taking up this proposal.

It is true that fair use doctrine has its own risks. For many it looks open, flexible and seems to welcome innovative services such as Google Books. On the other hand, it creates even more uncertainty for those who want to rely on it.

What use is fair? Each particular case needs to be checked in court, but Australian courts do not have years of experience in applying fair use, as US courts do.

Alternatives to fair use

If fair use is not a perfect solution, what could be a compromise? This is a question with no easy answer.

Instead of fair use, European academics suggest reviewing the existing copyright exceptions and adding one broader exception that could apply in “emergency” situations such as Google Books case.

The ALRC also suggested, in its report last year, an alternative to fair use; the consolidation and expansion of existing fair dealing exceptions. Maybe this could be a starting point for a discussion?

One of the problems Google Books faced was the difficulty in finding all the copyright holders of a work and signing a contract with each of them. The Google Book Settlement was meant to ensure that all copyright holders whose books were used in Google Books were remunerated.

This was proposed by Google but eventually rejected by the US court.

Wouldn’t it make sense to create licensing solutions that would make it easier for such projects as Google Books to get licenses and pay fees for millions of authors and publishers? Authors would then get paid and the global service would stay running for all to use.

The ConversationRita Matulionyte, Lecturer in Law, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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Health Check: what should you do if you’re bitten by a spider?

The Conversation

Maggie Hardy, The University of Queensland

This article is about spider bites in Australia, but doesn’t constitute medical advice. Always see a medical professional if you believe you’ve been bitten or stung by a venomous animal.

I work with spiders for a living, and I’ve never been bitten by one.

The author milking a tarantula.
@DrMaggieHardy/author provided

There are more than 45,000 species of spiders, but only a handful are potentially dangerous to humans.

Only two spiders in Australia are of medical concern: funnel-web spiders (in the family Hexathelidae) and redback spiders (Latrodectus, in the family Theridiidae).

A review of 130 confirmed white-tail spider bites showed no cases of flesh-eating ulcers or confirmed infections, so those spiders are not considered dangerous to humans.

Most “spider bites” that doctors see are actually skin and soft tissue infections.

The myth that spider bites cause secondary infection has also been busted, although – as for any wound – disinfecting and cleaning is necessary.

In the course of your life you’ll see many spiders (and there are many more you won’t see), but only if they feel threatened will they bite you. Generally a spider tries to warn you, but unfortunately you might not always see (or hear) the spider.

Please, do not do this to your pet tarantula. Most spiders don’t want to bite you.

Venoms are energetically expensive for the animal to make, and the spider doesn’t want to waste venom if it’s not needed for defence or to catch its food.

Funnel-web spider venom is one of the few that is lethal to humans (and other primates). It’s deadly because of a single component (δ‑hexatoxin‑Hv1a) out of the hundreds of different molecules in the venom.

The three-dimensional structure of the vertebrate-active toxin from funnel-web spider venom. The red lines indicate the molecular bonds that confer extreme stability to the peptide. @DrMaggieHardy using PDB structure/author provided

Redback spiders are the most commonly encountered spider of medical concern, but less than 20% of all bites cause significant medical symptoms. While unpleasant, the symptoms (which may include muscle pain, vomiting and sweating within 12 to 24 hours) are generally not lethal.

Bites from funnel-web spiders are also rare and, again, the amount of venom injected is not always enough to cause significant medical symptoms.

After the antivenom was created in the early 1980s, recovery from nonfatal bites changed from several weeks to one to three days, and no one has died since.

Symptoms of exposure to a lethal dose of funnel-web spider venom include tingling around the lips, tongue twitching, salivation and muscle spasms, which may lead to convulsions. Subsequent high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat and respiratory distress are why the venom is potentially lethal.

When a funnel-web injects a lethal amount of venom, without the antivenom, death can occur within an hour.

Know your spiders

Tarantulas can climb glass and plastic; funnel-web spiders cannot. Funnel-web spiders have a classic strike pose to threaten off predators, in which they rear up on their back legs.

The author, milking a funnel-web spider. This spider is being handled by an expert for research purposes; do not try this at home.

Despite the distinctive look of a funnel-web spider, a number of spiders look similar. Male and female funnel-web spiders are large (on average body length of one to five centimetres), with a brown or black body. The front of the body is glossy and may be covered in some dark hairs; the spinnerets at the back of the abdomen are easily visible.

All these spiders are potentially dangerous, but only two are funnel-web spiders. Clockwise from top left: male Sydney funnel-web spider (Atrax robustus); male mouse spider (Missulena bradleyi); female mouse spider (Missulena spp), and female Blue Mountains funnel-web spider (Hadronyche versuta). Photos from the Australian Museum.

Redback spiders are small (1cm for females, 0.4cm for males), and are black or sometimes brownish in colour. Females have an obvious orange or red stripe (which may be vaguely hourglass) on the underside of the abdomen. Males have similar, but less distinct, markings.

Step 1: Don’t panic

If a spider bites you, keep a cool head. Treat each bite as though it could be deadly, since it takes an expert to tell a funnel-web spider from any of the other large, black spiders found in Australia.

See a medical professional immediately if you think you may have been bitten.

For funnel-web and mouse spider bites, experts recommend using a pressure-immobilisation bandage before seeking medical help, to slow the progress of venom into your circulatory system and around the body.

Proceed immediately to a medical professional who can monitor your symptoms and determine whether the antivenom is required (most hospitals stock it).

There is no proven first aid treatment for redback spider bites. However, according to Associate Professor Julian White, a clinical spider bite expert at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in North Adelaide, the immobilisation method is not appropriate for redback spider bites.

You should go immediately to a medical professional who can monitor your symptoms and determine whether the antivenom is necessary.

Step 2: What bit you?

If it’s safe to, collect the spider. If you don’t want to collect it, try to get a clear photo of the spider’s face, and another of its body from above; try to realistically remember the size of the spider.

Not all spiders live everywhere, so an expert is needed to identify which spider you’ve encountered.

Occurrence record map of funnel-webs (left, spiders from the family Hexathelidae) and redbacks (right, spiders in the genus Latrodectus).
Maps from the Atlas of Living Australia.

Once experts identify which spider is responsible for the bite, doctors can determine what treatment is needed.

Step 3: Treatment

Spider venoms are complex chemical cocktails consisting of hundreds of different components. Each component has a unique role to play in the venom, and the activity of each individual component is very specific.

The individual components in spider venoms that are responsible for most of the activity are small proteins, or peptides, that contain a specific, highly structured three-dimensional scaffolding. We call those structured peptides toxins.

Antivenom is designed to neutralise the individual venom components that are dangerous. The antivenom consists of purified immunoglobulins, which bind the venom toxins while they circulate in your blood.

Because the antivenom is designed to bind the toxins, not to treat by age or weight, the amount administered will be the same regardless of the size or age of the patient.

Be prepared

Try to avoid being bitten in the first place. In the case of redbacks, learn to recognise and avoid their distinct webs.

This video outlines the finer points of redback spider web design.

In the case of funnel-web spiders, be alert during their mating season (November to February) when males are likely to be out of their burrows. Their burrows also have a distinctive web, and generally you’ll be able to detect a funnel shape in the above-ground part of the web.

A funnel-web spider burrow on Fraser Island. @DrMaggieHardy/author provided

If you are planning a trip and are concerned you’ll be in the same environment as these beautiful and rare animals, consider completing a first aid course for remote situations.

For more information about spider bites and clinical toxicology, visit

The ConversationMaggie Hardy, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Alan Finkel to be Australia’s new Chief Scientist

The Conversation

Tim Dean, The Conversation

Engineer, entrepreneur and philanthropist, Dr Alan Finkel, is expected to be declared Australia’s new Chief Scientist.

He will take over the role once the sitting Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, finishes his five-year stint in the job on December 31 this year.

Finkel was most recently Chancellor of Monash University, a post he has held since 2008. He is also the President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE).

Finkel is an outspoken advocate for science awareness and popularisation. He is a patron of the Australian Science Media Centre and has helped launch popular science magazine, Cosmos.

He is also an advocate for nuclear power, arguing that “nuclear electricity should be considered as a zero-emissions contributor to the energy mix” in Australia.

The Australian Academy of Science (AAS) President, Professor Andrew Holmes, has welcomed the expected appointment of Alan Finkel to the Chief Scientist’s role.

“The Academy is looking forward to the government’s announcement, but Professor Finkel would be an excellent choice for this position. I’m confident he would speak strongly and passionately on behalf of Australian science, particularly in his advice to government,” he said.

“The AAS and ATSE have never been closer; we have worked together well on important issues facing Australia’s research community, including our recent partnership on the Science in Australia Gender Equity initiative.”

Professor Holmes also thanked outgoing Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, for his strong leadership for science in Australia, including establishing ACOLA as a trusted source of expert, interdisciplinary advice to the Commonwealth Science Council.

“Since his appointment, Professor Chubb has been a tireless advocate of the fundamental importance of science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills as the key to the country’s future prosperity, and a driving force behind the identification of strategic research priorities for the nation,” Holmes said.

This story was edited at 4:25pm AEDT to reflect that the government has yet to make an official announcement of the appointment of the new Chief Scientist.

The ConversationTim Dean, Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Poker machines and the law: when is a win not a win?

The Conversation

Cristy Clark

If I took all of the money out of your wallet, you’d probably feel as though you’d lost something – wouldn’t you? Now imagine instead that I only took 80% of your money. Would you feel as though you had “won” the remaining 20%?

What if I tried to convince you that you had actually benefited from this transaction by playing happy music and letting off a few firecrackers?

This thought experiment might help you to get your head around a proposed legal action by law firm Maurice Blackburn that plans to use Australian consumer law to argue that poker machine operators are engaging in misleading and deceptive conduct to entice gamblers into using poker machines.

Misleading and deceptive conduct is prohibited by Section 18 of the Australian Consumer Law. The central test for this is whether the conduct is likely to mislead or deceive consumers having regard to all the circumstances. To apply this test, you need to identity both the “conduct” and the “relevant class of consumers”.

In this particular case, the class of consumers might be “gamblers”. Or, it might focus more specifically on “novice gamblers” or “problem gamblers”.

Maurice Blackburn seems to have identified a range of potential conduct that it would like to target in its action. One that particularly stands out is the technique known as “losses disguised as wins”. This is where a poker machine enables players to bet on more than one line and a minor win on one of these lines sets off a graphics and sound display that indicates a “win” when, in fact, the player has lost most of their money.

Applying the law to poker machines

The nice thing about consumer law is that it relies on fairly common-sense questions. So, the court would basically ask: if a poker machine displays a series of flashing symbols and music associated with winning and makes a chiming sound indicating that it is counting up winnings, would an ordinary and reasonable (novice) gambler be misled or deceived into thinking that they had won something despite having actually lost money?

Further inquiries or closer attention to detail that could enable a person to discover their error is not particularly relevant to this test. Also, the literal truth can be legally misleading, because the law recognises that humans do not behave rationally and tend to form an opinion in response to their overall impression of conduct.

In this case, for example, it might be argued that gamblers pay more attention to the flashing symbols and music than they do to their credit balance.

Previous cases give some idea of how the courts have applied this test. In ACCC v TPG Internet in 2013, the High Court found that TPG Internet had misled consumers by advertising “Unlimited ADSL2+ for $29.95 per month” when this price was available only to customers who bundled broadband with a home phone service.

The important detail was that TPG’s advertisements actually contained an explanation of this condition, but it was displayed less prominently than the advertised deal.

The High Court found that the attention given to advertising material by an ordinary and reasonable person may well be “perfunctory” and, therefore, many will only absorb the “general thrust”. The court also emphasised that it was enough if consumers were sufficiently misled to engage further with the company, even if they subsequently understood the true nature of the offer and chose not to purchase anything.

The TPG case was followed by the Federal Court in ACCC v Coles Supermarkets in 2014. In this case, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) successfully alleged that Coles had misled consumers by advertising its reheated frozen par-baked bread with the words, “baked today, sold today” and “freshly baked”. This finding was made despite par-baked bread being able to be truthfully described as having been “baked”, and that Coles had detailed its par-baking method on its website.

Once again, the court emphasised the importance of considering both the context and the dominant message of the conduct.

Forming an argument

So, how could Maurice Blackburn possibly prove that gamblers might be misled by the “losses disguised as wins” technique?

It might draw on recent Canadian research which found that the flashing symbols and music that accompany “losses disguised as wins” trigger similar arousal levels in novice gamblers as real wins do – and that arousal is a key reinforcer in gambling behaviour.

In short, research seems to have demonstrated that novice gamblers do pay more attention to flashing symbols and music than they do to their credit balance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these bright, loud messages appear to dominate.

The ConversationCristy Clark, Lecturer in Law

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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15 things you should know about Australia’s love affair with pokies

The Conversation

Francis Markham, Australian National University and Martin Young

  • Poker machines were legalised in New South Wales in 1956; the ACT in 1976; Victoria and Queensland in 1991; South Australia in 1992; Tasmania in 1997; and the Northern Territory in 1998. They are banned in Western Australia, except in the casino.
  • There are 196,900 poker machines in Australia; 95,012 are in NSW, with a further 46,663 in Queensland and 28,860 in Victoria. In comparison, there are just 16,440 pokies in New Zealand and 97,161 in Canada.
  • Australia has the most poker machines per person of any country in the world (excluding gambling destinations dominated by the casino industry like Macau and Monaco), with one machine for every 114 people.
  • In 2013–14, Australians lost A$11 billion on poker machines in clubs and hotels. A further A$1.5 billion is estimated to have been lost on poker machines in casinos. That’s a total of around A$700 per adult per year.
  • Australians lose more on gambling than any other nation, mostly because of poker machines. In 2014, Australians lost more than US$1100 per capita, compared with less than US$600 in New Zealand and the US, and less than US$500 in Canada and Britain.
  • In 2013–14, state and territory governments raised A$3.2 billion in taxes on poker machines in clubs and hotels – that’s 5% of state-levied tax revenue.
  • Between 20% and 30% of Australian adults play poker machines at least once a year (except in Western Australia). The 4% who play weekly are conservatively estimated to lose an average of A$7000 to A$8000 per year.
  • It’s easy to lose A$1500 per hour playing poker machines at their maximum bet size and maximum speed. Because poker machine returns are unpredictable over the short term, gamblers playing in this way could lose a greater or lesser amount.

It’s easy to lose around $1500 an hour on poker machines.
AAP/Dan Peled

  • The average poker machine in clubs and hotels makes A$56,000 per year. Some machines are much more profitable, with pokies in several venues in Victoria making more than A$200,000 each.
  • Poker machines have minted a select few super rich, such as James Packer (net worth A$6,080 million), Len Ainsworth (net worth A$1,840 million), Bruce Mathieson (net worth A$1,160 million), Arthur Laundy (net worth A$310 million) and the Farrell family (net worth A$275 million).
  • Poker machines are concentrated in Australia’s poorest suburbs. In Western Sydney’s relatively impoverished Fairfield, each adult lost an average of A$2340 on the pokies in 2010-11; in wealthy Ku-ring-gai and Willoughby, poker machine losses were just A$270 per adult.
  • In 2010, the Productivity Commission estimated that there were around 115,000 “problem gamblers” in Australia, who account for 40% of losses on poker machines. People who live closer to poker machine venues are more likely to experience gambling problems.
  • Around 30% of people who play poker machines weekly are problem gamblers or are “at risk” of becoming problem gamblers. In WA, where poker machines are only allowed inside the casino, the rate of problem gambling is one-third of that in the rest of the country.
  • Aside from banning poker machines outside casinos, the most promising harm-minimisation measures include reducing maximum bet limits and requiring gamblers to set a limit before they begin playing (pre-commitment).
  • Poker machine reform is popular in Australia: 70% of people agree that gambling should be more tightly controlled and 74% agree that people should be limited to spending an amount they nominate before they start gambling.

This article is part of our special package on poker machines. See the other articles here:

Bright lights, big losses: how poker machines create addicts and rob them blind

How real are claims of poker machine community benefits?

The ConversationFrancis Markham, PhD Candidate, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and Martin Young, Associate Professor, Centre for Gambling Education and Research

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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A dissenting economist on GST: we should charge more on beer and smokes

The Conversation

Harry Bloch, Curtin University

Recently, 49 prominent Australian economists were polled by the Economic Society of Australia on the issue of GST reform.

Each member of the panel was asked whether they agreed with the following statement:

Increasing government revenue collected through the Goods and Services Tax (GST) by removing exemptions (such as food, health and education) is better than achieving the same extra revenue by increasing the GST rate while retaining the existing exemptions.

Respondents were given five choices ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”. The comments were highly varied, but a slight majority of respondents, 54%, chose “agree” or “strongly agree”.

I was among the 11% who chose to strongly disagree.

Among the respondents was Professor John Freebairn, an expert on tax policy. John focusses on the efficiency and equity aspects of the proposed removal of exemptions, arguing that “A broader base and lower rate reduces distortions to the mix of spending choices”.

Not surprisingly, he strongly agrees with the statement that exemptions should be removed, albeit subject to concerns about how the extra revenue is spent including possible compensation for low income groups on equity grounds.

My own comment in strongly disagreeing with the removal of current exemptions is that “it is appropriate for different categories of consumption to be discriminated for (food, health and education) or against (alcohol and tobacco) based on their considered contribution to social well being.”

The design of the GST, including the range of exemptions, was the outcome of a political compromise. In spite of the hyperbole that accompanied the political arguments of the time, the end result did arguably represent the will of the people.

Were people who favoured a GST with exemptions over a tax without exemptions poorly informed or misguided about the efficiency benefits of a broad-based tax over a discriminatory tax (in that it favoured some items of consumption over others)?

Many economists would answer yes to this question, but not me. Critical to my dissent is my view on the proper method for evaluating the benefits society derives from the goods and services consumed.

The standard method in economics for evaluating societal benefits from this consumption is to add up the benefits to each and every individual from their own consumption. Exceptions are allowed where a consumption activity has clear impact on others, such as smoking in an enclosed area. Otherwise, the method implies that government interventions that change the composition of what people consume are distorting in the sense of lowering overall benefits.

Sound good? Fortunately or unfortunately we live in a highly interdependent society. The consumption activities of each of us impact on our family, friends, neighbours and even the society at large. Although these impacts are usually very small, they do add up over large groups.

In this sense, there is a social impact of individual behaviour that often diverges from its private impact. Economists tend to downplay the difference between social impact and private impact, partly because we tend to be believers in individual liberty (“small l” liberals) and partly because economics lacks proper tools to deal with the difference.

So far I have dealt with general concepts; now let us turn to the specifics of the exemptions allowed under the current GST arrangements. Big exemptions, in terms of GST revenue foregone, are for health, education and most food consumed at home.

Using standard economic analysis of supply and demand, exempting these goods and services from GST means we have a healthier and better educated population that spends more time eating at home than would be the case with a uniform rate of GST. Is this good or bad for Australian society?

My fellow economists who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement posed by the ESA think the distortion of individual consumption choices through the GST is bad. Some explicitly mention the use of other methods to achieve socially desired results, but that involves reinterpreting the statement posed by the ESA. I evaluate the implied outcome of more education, more health care and more food at home directly on its merits and I think it is good for Australian society.

This is based partly on my own preferences about the type of society in which I live and partly on my understanding of how education, health and home life contribute to social cohesion. I’ll stop here, for the analysis of social cohesion would take me beyond the usual boundaries of economic analysis and the limits of my own expertise.

The ConversationHarry Bloch, John Curtin Distinguished Emeritus Professor, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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PM’s Prize for Science for revealing nature’s solar power

The Conversation

Tim Dean, The Conversation

Humans have only just begun dabbling with solar power, but other organisms have been converting sunlight into energy for more than three billion years. In fact, we’re only just beginning to understand how they do it.

So it is for his groundbreaking work in helping us humans understand the process of photosynthesis that Graham Farquhar has today received this year’s Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.

Graham Farquhar in his lab.
Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/WildBear

Graham is Distinguished Professor of the Australian National University’s Research School of Biology and Chief Investigator of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis.

When he started out studying photosynthesis, Graham found that researchers from disparate fields within biology and biochemistry all had their own narrow views on how photosynthesis worked. But few were able to link together all the pieces of this complex puzzle.

So Graham brought his experience as a biophysicist to the problem and worked to describe how the components of photosynthesis connect in a mathematical way. He was particularly interested in how the process operates under different environmental conditions, such as when water is scarce. This is useful, because if we can understand this, then we can breed plants that can better withstand drought.

“All these things start with equations,” he says. “They’re just a rough approximation of reality, but in this case they were good enough to be able to point us in the right direction to select plants for water use efficiency.”

Graham’s models have also revealed some very interesting things about how plants function, such as how they carefully balance the trade-off between growing more and losing more water.

He also found that plants can actually affect the weather itself.

“About 70% of water that falls on land is evaporated, most of that through vegetation,“ he says. “That evaporation cools the leaves, and over a sufficient area, that affects the local weather and climate.”

He is also interested in how plants are responding to climate change. In fact, he suggests that our carbon emissions have already changed agriculture.

“My reckoning is that if we could get rid of all the anthropogenic carbon dioxide emitted since the industrial revolution, then agricultural productivity would drop by 15%,” he says.

However, climate change also poses new challenges for plants and for agriculture, such as how the plants cope with higher temperatures and different rainfall patterns, which is also an area Graham is researching.

As for receiving the award, Graham says is was something of a shock, for more than one reason.

“I was actually in Glasgow when the Chief Scientist Ian Chubb rang me at what should have a nice time of day, but it turned out to be half past three in the morning,” he says.

However, he’s honoured to receive the prize, but hastens to acknowledge the input from all his colleagues and other researches in his field.

“The system tends to make individuals heroes by minimising the recognition of what their colleagues have done and exaggerating the success they’ve had. That’s happened to me too,“ he says.

“Part of me is thrilled, but also cautious of accepting recognition of something I’ve shared. It’s a team effort and we all build on each others’ work.”

The 2015 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science were awarded today in Canberra. The full list of prize recipients is below:

Prime Minister’s Prize for Science
Graham Farquhar
ANU, Canberra

Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation
Graeme Jameson
University of Newcastle

Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year
Cyrille Boyer
University of New South Wales

Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year
Jane Elith
University of Melbourne

Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools
Ken Silburn
Casula High School, NSW

Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools
Rebecca Johnson
Windaroo State School, Qld

The ConversationTim Dean, Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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