Tag Archives: Australia

New research reveals the origin of Australia’s extinct flightless giants, the mihirung birds

The Conversation

File 20171010 4228 pdmrje.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A pair of Dromornis planei, an extinct mihirung bird from Australia, weighed a massive 300 kilograms. Brian Choo, Author provided

Trevor H. Worthy, Flinders University and Mike Lee, Flinders University

Australia’s living flightless birds – the emu and close relative the cassowary – once roamed alongside much larger birds that resembled dinosaurs.

These huge creatures are known as mihirungs, based on the Aboriginal term for “giant bird”.

The mihirungs not only reached much larger sizes than emus, cassowaries, ostriches, kiwis and kin (known collectively as ratites), but were much more intimidating in appearance. Unlike the small-headed ratites, they had massive skulls, with sail-like bills.


Read more: Tall turkeys and nuggety chickens: large ‘megapode’ birds once lived across Australia


Even the smallest of these mihirungs was as large as an emu, while others grew to the size of a horse, with males weighing up to 650kg. Despite their size, all were gentle giants, browsing on fruit and leaves of shrubs.

In a study published today in Royal Society Open Science, we looked at the origin of these mihirungs, which had been a mystery.

There have been repeated suggestions that they were related to waterfowl such as ducks and geese, but hard data was scarce.

A skeleton of Dromornis planei, an extinct giant mihirung bird from Australia, on display in Darwin. The enormous head and bill are only slightly exaggerated by camera angle. Michael Lee, Flinders University and South Australian Museum

Evolutionary trees and ancient ducks

We compared mihirungs (scientific name Dromornithidae) to a range of potential relatives, to work out a new evolutionary family tree of major bird lineages.

These included the gastornithids, such as Gastornis giganteus of North America and G. parisiensis of Europe, giant herbivores that went extinct about 50 million years ago.

We also included a selection of modern birds (including ratites, waterfowl and landfowl, and cranes) and key fossil taxa such as Vegavis (a diving bird that lived during dinosaur age) and flamingo-like ducks or presbyornithids.

We also included the largest bird from South America, the extinct Brontornis burmeisteri, and terror birds (Phorusrhacidae) such as Patagornis marshi in the analysis.

The branching pattern in the evolutionary tree we obtained revealed some intriguing relationships.

A simplified family tree of giant fowl showing how the ratite palaeognaths are the sister group of other modern birds. Among those, the Neoaves are the sister group to all fowl. The fowl include chicken and kin (Galliformes), waterfowl (Anseriformes), and the giant fowl (Gastornithiformes) including the mihirungs. The map shows the earth 60 million years ago and where the gastornithiforms lived. Worthy et al, Author provided

For a start, Vegavis was more primitive than currently thought. It was previously interpreted as a genuine duck (anseriform), with its great age (66 million years old) implying that modern birds diversified very early, deep inside the dinosaur age.

But our analysis shows that Vegavis is not a duck. Rather, it is a distant cousin of all fowl (ducks, geese, chickens, and so on).

This much more primitive position on the avian tree fits more with its geological antiquity – and has important implications for molecular dating, which has previously used Vegavis to calibrate an ancient age of ducks and therefore of all living birds.

Where do Australia’s giant birds come from?

A surprising result of the research is that the mihirungs of Australia were not particularly closely related to living waterfowl.

Rather, they grouped with giant flightless birds from the Northern Hemisphere, the gastornithids. We termed this previously unrecognised grouping the new order Gastornithiformes. This group is a distant relative of all fowl.

How did these large, non-flying birds move between Australia and Eurasia? They could hardly have walked across the ocean.

The most plausible scenario is that the early members of both groups were smaller flying birds, perhaps partridge-sized, which could traverse oceans and continents.

Flightless and gigantism then evolved separately in lineages which settled down in Australia and in Eurasia – perhaps around 60 million years ago, when there was a paucity of large herbivores due to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The evolutionary story of giant fowl thus parallels the ratites. Our collaborators have recently shown the closest relative of the New Zealand kiwi is the extinct Madagascan elephant bird, and the only plausible scenario there is that their immediate common ancestor was a widely dispersing flyer.

These giant mihirungs and gastornithids evolved along their own path and came to look nothing like typical land fowl or waterfowl. They all had an oversized head with a deep narrow bill.

The spectacular upper bill of Gastornis giganteus from North America also has blood vessels covering it like dromornithids. Trevor Worthy

An odd feature of this bill was that the horny covering (that typically covers the entire bill) was restricted to the biting parts. The upper half was covered in soft tissue and richly supplied by blood vessels.

It may have been used in courtship displays, and one sex might have been particularly brightly coloured.

Though the Australian mihirungs and Eurasian gastornithids are close cousins, they not related to giants from South America. That continent’s largest bird, Brontornis burmeisteri, was shown to be most closely related to the carnivorous terror birds (Phorusrhacidae).

Unlike its more slender relatives, Brontornis was likely a specialist scavenger and used its size to escape predators.

The last giants

In the immediate aftermath of the extinctions of the (non-avian) dinosaurs, the dawn of the age of mammals was actually the brief age of giant birds.

The niches vacated by dinosaurs were filled by the huge flightless birds: mihirungs in Australia, gastornithids in Eurasia and terror birds in South America.

Not long after, the familiar ratites also evolved separately on different continents, and even major oceanic islands such as New Zealand (moas and kiwis) and Madagascar (elephant birds).


Read more: A case of mistaken identity for Australia’s extinct big bird


Of this large flightless menagerie, only the ratites survive today. The gastornithids in the Northern Hemisphere became extinct 50-40 million years ago, and the terror birds of South America in the early Pleistocene about 1.8 million years ago.

But the dromornithids, after surviving as a group for more 60 million years in Australia until the Pleistocene, went extinct shortly after humans arrived within the last 65,000 years – when the last species Genyornis newtoni disappeared.

The ConversationIt is likely that these reminders of the dinosaur age could not withstand the new combination of habitat changes and predation, of both the birds and their eggs, wrought by humans.

Trevor H. Worthy, Associate professor, Flinders University and Mike Lee, Professor in Evolutionary Biology (jointly appointed with South Australian Museum), Flinders University

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

For whom the bell tolls: cats kill more than a million Australian birds every day

The Conversation

File 20171003 12149 22qzom
On the prowl in the outback. Hugh McGregor/Arid Recovery, Author provided

John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Charles Darwin University; Leigh-Ann Woolley, Charles Darwin University; Sarah Legge, Australian National University; Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University, and Tim Doherty, Deakin University

Cats kill more than a million birds every day across Australia, according to our new estimate – the first robust attempt to quantify the problem on a nationwide scale.

By combining data on the cat population, hunting rates and spatial distribution, we calculate that they kill 377 million birds a year. Rates are highest in Australia’s dry interior, suggesting that feral cats pose a serious and largely unseen threat to native bird species.


Read more: Ferals, strays, pets: how to control the cats that are eating our wildlife


This has been a contentious issue for more than 100 years, since the spread of feral cats encompassed the entire Australian mainland. In 1906 the ornithologist A.J. Campbell noted that the arrival of feral cats in a location often immediately preceded the decline of many native bird species, and he campaigned vigorously for action:

Undoubtedly, if many of our highly interesting and beautiful birds, especially ground-loving species, are to be preserved from total extinction, we must as a bird-lovers’ union, at no distant date face squarely a wildcat destruction scheme.

His call produced little response, and there has been no successful and enduring reduction in cat numbers since. Nor, until now, has there been a concerted effort to find out exactly how many birds are being killed by cats.

Counting the cost

To provide a first national assessment of the toll taken by cats on Australian birds, we have compiled almost 100 studies detailing the diets of Australia’s feral cats. The results show that the average feral cat eats about two birds every five days.

We then combined these statistics with information about the population density of feral cats, to create a map of the estimated rates of birds killed by cats throughout Australia.

Number of birds eaten per square kilometre. Brett Murphy, Author provided

We conclude that, on average, feral cats in Australia’s largely natural landscapes kill 272 million birds per year. Bird-kill rates are highest in arid Australia (up to 330 birds per square km per year) and on islands, where rates can vary greatly depending on size.

We also estimate (albeit with fewer data) that feral cats in human-modified landscapes, such as the areas surrounding cities, kill a further 44 million birds each year. Pet cats, meanwhile, kill about 61 million birds per year.

Overall, this amounts to more than 377 million birds killed by cats per year in Australia – more than a million every day.

Which species are suffering?

In a related study, we also compiled records of the bird species being killed by cats in Australia. We found records of cats killing more than 330 native bird species – about half of all Australia’s resident bird species. In natural and remote landscapes, 99% of the cat-killed birds are native species. Our results also show that cats are known to kill 71 of Australia’s 117 threatened bird species.

Birds that feed or nest on the ground, live on islands, and are medium-sized (60-300g) are most likely to be killed by cats.

Galahs are among the many native species being killed by feral cats. Mark Marathon, Author provided

It is difficult to put a million-plus daily bird deaths in context without a reliable estimate of the total number of birds in Australia. But our coarse assessment from many published estimates of local bird density suggests that there are about 11 billion land birds in Australia, suggesting that cats kill about 3-4% of Australia’s birds each year.

However, particular species are hit much harder than others, and the population viability of some species (such as quail-thrushes, button-quails and ground-feeding pigeons and doves) is likely to be especially threatened.

Our tally of bird deaths is comparable to similar estimates for other countries. Our figure is lower than a recent estimate for the United States, and slightly higher than in Canada. Overall, bird killings by cats seem to greatly outnumber those caused by humans.

In Australia, cats are likely to significantly increase the extinction risk faced by some bird species. In many locations, birds face a range of interacting threats, with cat abundance and hunting success shown to increase in fragmented bushland, in areas with high stocking rates, and in places with poorly managed fire regimes, so cat impacts compound these other threats.

Belling the cat

What can be done to reduce the impact? The federal government’s Threatened Species Strategy recognises the threat posed by feral cats, albeit mainly on the basis of their role in mammal extinctions.

The threatened species strategy also prioritised efforts to control feral cats more intensively, eradicate them from islands with important biodiversity values, and to expand a national network of fenced areas that excludes feral cats and foxes.

But while fences can create important havens for many threatened mammals, they are much less effective for protecting birds. To save birds, cats will need to be controlled on a much broader scale.


Read more: The war on feral cats will need many different weapons


We should also remember that this is not just a remote bush problem. Roughly half of Australia’s cats are pets, and they also take a considerable toll on wildlife.

While recognising the many benefits of pet ownership, we should also work to reduce the detrimental impacts. Fortunately, there is increasing public awareness of the benefits of not letting pet cats roam freely. With such measures, cat owners can help to look after the birds in their own backyards, and hence contribute to conserving Australia’s unique wildlife.


The ConversationWe acknowledge the contribution of Russell Palmer (WA Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions), Chris Dickman (University of Sydney), David Paton (University of Adelaide), Alex Nankivell (Nature Foundation SA Inc.), Mike Lawes (University of KwaZulu-Natal), and Glenn Edwards (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) to this article.

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Senior Research Fellow, Charles Darwin University; Leigh-Ann Woolley, Research Associate, Charles Darwin University; Sarah Legge, Associate Professor, Australian National University; Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, and Tim Doherty, Research Fellow, Deakin University

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

1 Comment

Filed under Reblogs

Australian household electricity prices may be 25% higher than official reports

The Conversation

Bruce Mountain, Victoria University

The International Energy Agency (IEA) may be underestimating Australian household energy bills by 25% because of a lack of accurate data from the federal government.

The Paris-based IEA produces official quarterly energy statistics for the 30 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), on which policymakers and researchers rely heavily. But to provide this service, the IEA relies on member countries to provide it with good-quality data.

Last month, the agency published its annual summary report, Key World Statistics, which reported that Australian households have the 11th most expensive electricity prices in the OECD.


Read more: FactCheck: Are Australians paying twice as much for electricity as Americans?


But other studies – notably the Thwaites report into Victorian energy prices – have reported that households are typically paying significantly more than the official estimates. In fact, if South Australia were a country it would have the highest energy prices in the OECD, and typical households in New South Wales, Queensland or Victoria would be in the top five.

A spokesperson for the federal Department of Environment and Energy, the agency responsible for providing electricity price data to the IEA, told The Conversation:

Household electricity prices data for Australia are sourced from the Australian Energy Market Commission annual Residential electricity price trends report. The national average price is used, with GST added. It is a weighted average based on the number of household connections in each jurisdiction.

The Australian energy statistics are the basis for the Australia data reported by the IEA in their Key world energy statistics. The Department of the Environment and Energy submits the data to the IEA each September. Some adjustments are made to the AES data to conform with IEA reporting requirements.

But it is clear that the electricity price data for Australia published by the IEA is at least occasionally of poor quality.

The Australian household electricity series in the IEA’s authoritative Energy Prices and Taxes quarterly statistical report stopped in 2004, and only resumed again again in 2012.

Between 2012 and 2016, the IEA’s reported residential price series data for Australia showed no change in prices.

Yet the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ electricity price index, which is based on customer surveys, showed a roughly 20% increase in the All Australia electricity price index over this period.

Australia is also the only OECD nation not to report electricity prices paid by industry.

Current prices

This year’s reported household average electricity prices are almost certainly wrong too. The IEA reports that household electricity prices in Australia for the first quarter of 2017 were US20.2c per kWh.

At a market exchange rate of US79c to the Australian dollar, this puts Australian household electricity prices at AU28c per kWh. Adjusted for the purchasing power of each currency, the comparable price is AU29c per kWh.

By contrast, the independent review of the Victorian energy sector chaired by John Thwaites surveyed the real energy prices paid by customers, as evidenced by their bills. In a sample of 686 Victorian households, those with energy consumption close to the median value were paying an average of AU35c per kWh in the first quarter of 2017. This is 25% more than the IEA’s official estimate. At least part of this difference is explained by the AEMC’s assumption that all customers in a competitive retail market are supplied on their retailers’ cheapest offers. But this is not the case in reality.

Surveying real electricity and gas bills drastically reduces the range of assumptions that need to be made to estimate the price paid by a representative customer. Indeed, as long as the sample of bills is representative of the population, a survey based on actual bills produces a reliable estimate of representative prices in retail markets characterised by high levels of price dispersion, as Australia’s retail electricity markets are.


Read more: Baffled by baseload? Dumbfounded by dispatchables? Here’s a glossary of the energy debate


Pointing to a reliable estimate of Victoria’s representative residential price is, of course, not enough to prove that the IEA’s estimate is wrong. It could just as easily mean that Victorians are paying way more than the national average for their electricity.

But the idea that Victorians are paying more than average does not stack up when we look at the state-by-state data, which suggests that Victoria is actually somewhere in the middle. Judging by the prices charged by the three largest retailers in each state and territory, Victorian householders are paying about the same as those in New South Wales and Queensland, less than those in South Australia, and more than those in Tasmania, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory.

Residential electricity prices. Author provided

The IEA can not reasonably be blamed for the inadequate residential data for Australia that they report, and the nonexistent data on electricity prices paid by Australia’s industrial customers. The IEA does not do its own calculation of prices in each country, but rather it relies on price estimates from official sources in those countries.

An obvious question that arises from this is where Australia really ranks internationally if we used prices that reflect what households are actually paying.

This is contentious, not least because prices in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia increased – typically around 15% or more – from July this year. We do not know how prices have changed in other OECD member countries since the IEA’s recent publication (which covered prices for the first quarter of 2017). But we do know that prices in Australia have been far more volatile than in any other OECD country.

Assuming that other countries’ prices are roughly the same as they were in the first quarter of 2017, our estimate using the IEA’s data is that the typical household in South Australia is paying more than the typical household in any other OECD country. The typical household in New South Wales, Queensland or Victoria is paying a price that ranks in the top five.

It should also be remembered that these prices are after excise and sale tax. Taxes on electricity supply in Australia are low by OECD standards – so if we use pre-tax prices, Australian households move even higher up the list.

The ConversationThere are serious question marks over Australia’s official electricity price reporting. Policy makers, consumers and the public have a right to expect better.

Bruce Mountain, Director, Carbon and Energy Markets., Victoria University

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

Stuck in traffic: we need a smarter approach to congestion than building more roads

The Conversation

Marion Terrill, Grattan Institute and Hugh Batrouney, Grattan Institute

The equation doesn’t look pretty. Traffic congestion costs us billions of dollars each year – so we are told – and population growth is not letting up. When road rage meets large economic costs, it’s little wonder our politicians are desperate to do something.

The trouble is, too often that “something” is a great big new freeway. Building more roads isn’t the best answer, because the roads we have are mostly up to the job – if only we could make better use of them by spreading traffic out beyond the morning and evening peaks.

Instead of focusing on freeways, governments should change the way we pay for urban roads and public transport. To work out how best to do this, the Grattan Institute has looked at several million Google Maps estimates of travel times in Australia’s largest cities. This analysis reveals both the extent of the problem in Sydney and Melbourne and its city-specific characteristics.

For many, the problem is minor

The truth is, for a lot of people, road congestion doesn’t matter much. This is because most people work in a suburb close to where they live.

Chart 1 shows congestion delays for Sydney’s 146 most-common commuting trips.

Chart 1: For many Sydney commuters, congestion is very modest

Additional minutes compared to free flow

The horizontal black line in the coloured bar is the median of all journey-to-work routes, weighted by the number of people who used a car to travel to work on those routes in the 2011 Census reference week. Trip times were estimated by assuming all travel between suburbs was between representative addresses for each suburb. Routes with fewer than 400 such commuters are not included. Grattan analysis of Google Maps, and ABS (2011)

The average delay is small: an average commute at the busiest time of day takes around three minutes longer than the same trip in the middle of the night.

While some commutes are delayed for much longer, it is unusual for trips to take more than ten minutes extra in peak periods.

Congestion is a problem in the CBD and inner suburbs

Unsurprisingly, the story is different, and worse, in and around central Sydney and Melbourne. Add in all the trucks and vans, students and tradies, shoppers and people going to appointments, and typical delays for travel on CBD-bound journeys are substantially greater (Chart 2).

Chart 2: On commutes into Sydney’s CBD, the average morning-peak delay is 11 minutes

The horizontal black line in the coloured bar is the median of all journey-to- work routes, weighted by the number of people who used a car to travel to work on those routes in the 2011 Census reference week. Trip times were estimated by assuming all travel between suburbs was between representative addresses for each suburb. Routes with fewer than 400 such commuters are not included. Grattan analysis of Google Maps, and ABS (2011)

The trends are similar in Melbourne. Travel on CBD-bound journeys is much more delayed than to non-CBD locations.

Chart 3 also shows that delays are noticeably larger in the suburbs that immediately surround Melbourne’s CBD.

Chart 3: Travel in suburbs surrounding the Melbourne CBD is highly delayed

Increase in travel time relative to free flow travel time

Average delay is calculated as the ratio of trip duration at each point throughout the day to the minimum trip duration observed for that route over the sample period. Based on travel time of representative route samples collected via Google Maps. Weekends and public holidays excluded. Grattan analysis of Google Maps

Some commutes are frustratingly unpredictable

Most travellers don’t just care about how long a trip usually takes. How long it could take also matters.

Chart 4 shows that Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway/Hoddle Street corridor has not only some of city’s worst delays, but also some of the least-predictable travel times. Motorists from suburbs to the north-east have to juggle these less-reliable travel times more than those travelling similar distances from other directions.

Chart 4: Travel on routes to Melbourne’s CBD that rely on Eastern Freeway and Hoddle Street are noticeably delayed and unreliable

Increase in travel time as a proportion of free-flow travel time, weekday morning peak, commutes into Melbourne CBD

For travel departing between 7am and 9 am. Excludes weekends and public holidays. The boxes cover the 25th to 75th percentiles. The vertical line in each box lies at the median for each city. The ‘whiskers’ on each side of the boxes extend no further than plus or minus 1.5w where ‘w’ is the box width. Observations beyond the lines are plotted as dots. Grattan analysis of Google Maps

New roads are not the whole answer

Congestion tends to be worst in the most built-up parts of Sydney and Melbourne, where it would be most costly to construct new roads. This means that even crippling levels of congestion might not justify the construction of astronomically expensive infrastructure.

In any case, new roads often take years to build and can fill up with new traffic of their own.

New roads are important, however, in new suburbs.

The rule for our policymakers should be: build a road whenever the community will gain more from the new road than it will cost, and whenever the new road is a better option for the community than extracting more from the roads we’ve already got. But do not think of new roads as congestion-busting.

So what should be done?

Changing the way we use our existing infrastructure through pricing needs to be at the top of the agenda. This mean charging motorists for the congestion they cause.

Sydney and Melbourne need to consider introducing a congestion charge. That doesn’t mean more toll roads – it means charging people who drive at peak times on congested roads a small fee.


Further reading: Road user charging belongs on the political agenda as the best answer for congestion management


Because some people wouldn’t think it worth paying the charge at the busiest times of day, those who did pay would get a quicker and more reliable trip. People who can travel outside of the peaks would not have to pay, because there would be no congestion charge when the roads are not congested.

The increased cost to drivers could be offset by cuts to car registration fees. And any extra money raised by the congestion charge could be spent improving train, tram, bus and ferry services.

International examples show that introducing a congestion charge need not amount to political suicide. An initially sceptical public came quickly to accept, value, the reform when it was introduced in London and Stockholm.

The ConversationThe congestion equation for Sydney and Melbourne is only going to get more ugly as both cities continue to grow. We need more sophisticated policymaking to ease drivers’ road rage and frustrations.

Marion Terrill, Transport Program Director, Grattan Institute and Hugh Batrouney, Senior Associate, Grattan Institute

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

Plonk: a language lover’s guide to Australian drinking

The Conversation

File 20170719 13534 1hfi3j
Here’s cheers: Australians have developed a lot of slang phases for alcohol and drinking. Shutterstock

Howard Manns, Monash University

The hard-drinking Aussie is the stuff of legend and lore. But there’s little proof Australians drank more than other colonials and by some accounts they drank less (points made in Sidney Baker’s The Australian Language).

But, of course, we do enjoy a drink – at times a little too much – and a rich bevy of terms suggest we do it in Australian ways: merrily, tongue in cheek and with a shout or two.

Plinkity plink, let’s see how we drink – or rather the words Australians have used to do it throughout history.

Plonk, chardy and the goon of fortune

Plonk is perhaps Australia’s best-known word for alcohol. It originally meant cheap, fortified wine but over time came to mean any cheap alcohol.

In terms of origins, lexicographer Bruce Moore notes that one account links plonk to the range of sounds the liquid might make hitting the bottom of your glass (plinkity plink, plinkity plank, plinkity plonk).

A more likely story, conveyed by Moore among others, views plonk as a malapropism used by first world war diggers who misheard or had some fun with the French vin blanc “white wine”. The diggers also called or spelled white wine point blank and vin blank. And, of course, these days we drink chardy and champers, lest we give French its full due.

Australian drinkers are known to have a bit of fun with French. Last year the new edition of the Australian National Dictionary (AND) welcomed chateau cardboard to its pages, a tongue-in-cheek reference to cask wine, using chateau for a wine-producing estate in an ironic way.

Australians invented boxed wine and celebrate its invention through games (Goon of Fortune was another addition to the AND) and a rich array of words, including boxie, box monster, Dapto briefcase, Dubbo handbag, red handbag, goon, goonie, goon bag, goon juice and goon sack.

Goon is mostly likely a shortening of flagon, but might also be linked to the Australian English goom, itself linked to an indigenous word gun, meaning “water” in the south Queensland languages Gabi-gabi, Waga-waga and Gureng-gureng.

And then, of course, there’s grog, eponymous with Admiral Edward Vernon who ordered his sailors’ rum to be watered down. Vernon was known as Old Grog because of his grogram-fabric coat, and so this watered-down rum also came to be labelled.

Full as a raging bull

Australians might get on the grog or hit the grog, but there are also many other things we might get or hit. For instance, we hit the piss, slops or turps (short for turpentine) or get on the tiger, get a drink across our chest or get a black dog up ya.

The result of our hitting or getting is to be full “drunk” and there is an even longer list of things we might be full as, including a bull, a bull’s bum, a footy final, a goog, the family pot, a pommy complaint box or a seaside shitter on a holiday weekend.

The important thing is to have lively fun, or a rage with your mates, who might themselves be ragers. Rage and rager were the choice words for lively parties and revellers from the 1970s. These are probably unrelated to the obsolete homophone rager, meaning “an untamed and aggressive bull or cow”, but it’s fun to note the overlap in light of the party animal.

Before the 1970s, Australians called lively parties shivoos. Some thought shivoo was Australians having a bit of fun with French (from chez vous “your place” or shivaree “a serenade of rough music”). Others linked it to British nautical slang, and a word meaning a drunken ruckus or punch-up.

Shivoo’s most likely origin is a British dialect word (by some accounts Yorkshire or Cornwall) shiveau (with the sometimes Frenchified spelling of chevaux).

Of course, some choose to drink alone. Such drinkers are said to be dry hash, Jimmy Woodser, Jack Smithers, drinking on my Pat Malone or drinking with the flies. Pat Malone is merely rhyming slang (for alone) and it’s never quite been clear if a Jimmy Woods or Jack Smithers ever existed.

Lambing down till the horse jumps over the bar

One thing’s for sure: if you drink with mates you’ll probably be expected to shout a round or two (or alternatively stand, sneeze, carry the mail, wally grout, wally, bowl, sacrifice).

If you don’t, you might find yourself accused of an American shout, Chinaman’s shout, Dutch shout, Yankee shout or Yankee. Moreover, people might say of you (s)he wouldn’t shout if a shark bit her (him).

On the other hand, the best kind of friend is a captain, or someone who lavishly spends on drinks for themselves and their mates, perhaps at the behest of a lambers down, a pub owner who encourages people to drink lavishly (or lamb down).

Failing a captain, you’ll probably have to run a tab, or tie a dog up or chain up a pup. But after time, the publican might want to settle the score or mad dog “unpaid credit”.

A publican who wants a tab paid might point out that the dogs are barking, as this publican did in a 1937 advertisement (from Sidney Baker’s, The Australian Language):

He particularly requests that all dogs tied up at the hotel be released. This reservation specially applies to Kelpies, Alsations and other large breeds.

The ConversationIf you don’t have the cash to pay the publican, you might have to jump a horse over the bar, which is what one did when all they had left to pay with was their horse.

Howard Manns, Lecturer in Linguistics, Monash University

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

Australia’s electricity market is not agile and innovative enough to keep up

The Conversation

Hugh Saddler, Australian National University

On the early evening of Wednesday, February 8, electricity supply to some 90,000 households and businesses in South Australia was cut off for up to an hour. Two days later, all electricity consumers in New South Wales were warned the same could happen to them. It didn’t, but apparently only because supply was cut to the Tomago aluminium smelter instead. In Queensland, it was suggested consumers might also be at risk over the two following days, even though it was a weekend, and again on Monday, February 13. What is going on?

The first point to note is that these were all very hot days. This meant that electricity demand for air conditioning and refrigeration was very high. On February 8, Adelaide recorded its highest February maximum temperature since 2014. On February 10, western Sydney recorded its highest ever February maximum, and then broke this record the very next day. Brisbane posted its highest ever February maximum on February 13.

That said, the peak electricity demand in both SA and NSW was some way below the historical maximum, which in both states occurred during a heatwave on January 31 and February 1, 2011. In Queensland it was below the record reached last month, on January 18.

Regardless of all this, shouldn’t the electricity industry be able to anticipate such extreme days, and have a plan to ensure that consumers’ needs are met at all times?

Much has already been said and written about the reasons for the industry’s failure, or near failure, to do so on these days. But almost all of this has focused on minute-by-minute details of the events themselves, without considering the bigger picture.

The wider issue is that the electricity market’s rules, written two decades ago, are not flexible enough to build a reliable grid for the 21st century.

Vast machine

In an electricity supply system, such as Australia’s National Electricity Market (NEM), the amount of electricity supplied must precisely match the amount being consumed in every second of every year, and always at the right voltage and frequency. This is a big challenge – literally, considering that the NEM covers an area stretching from Cairns in the north, to Port Lincoln in the west and beyond Hobart in the south.

Continent-sized electricity grids like this are sometimes described as the world’s largest and most complex machines. They require not only constant maintenance but also regular and careful planning to ensure they can meet new demands and incorporate new technologies, while keeping overall costs as low as possible. All of this has to happen without ever interrupting the secure and reliable supply of electricity throughout the grid.

Until the 1990s, this was the responsibility of publicly owned state electricity commissions, answerable to their state governments. But since the industry was comprehensively restructured from the mid-1990s onwards, individual states now have almost no direct responsibility for any aspect of electricity supply.

Electricity is now generated mainly by private-sector companies, while the grid itself is managed by federally appointed regulators. State governments’ role is confined to one of shared oversight and high-level policy development, through the COAG Energy Council.

This market-driven, quasi-federal regime is underpinned by the National Electricity Rules, a highly detailed and prescriptive document that runs to well over 1,000 pages. This is necessary to ensure that the grid runs safely and reliably at all times, and to minimise opportunities for profiteering.

The downside is that these rules are inflexible, hard to amend, and unable to anticipate changes in technology or economic circumstances.

Besides governing the grid’s day-to-day operations, the rules specify processes aimed at ensuring that “the market” makes the most sensible investments in new generation and transmission capacity. These investments need to be optimal in terms of technical characteristics, timing and cost.

To borrow a phrase from the prime minister, the rules are not agile and innovative enough to keep up. When they were drawn up in the mid-1990s, electricity came almost exclusively from coal and gas. Today we have a changing mix of new supply technologies, and a much more uncertain investment environment.

Neither can the rules ensure that the closure of old, unreliable and increasingly expensive coal-fired power stations will occur in a way that is most efficient for the grid as a whole, rather than most expedient for individual owners. (About 3.6 gigawatts of capacity, spread across all four mainland NEM states and equalling more than 14% of current coal power capacity, has been closed since 2011; this will increase to 5.4GW and 22% when Hazelwood closes next month.)

Finally, one of the biggest drivers of change in the NEM over the past decade has been the construction of new wind and solar generation, driven by the Renewable Energy Target (RET) scheme. Yet this scheme stands completely outside the NEM rules.

The Australian Energy Markets Commission – effectively the custodian of the rules – has been adamant that climate policy, the reason for the RET, must be treated as an external perturbation, to which the NEM must adjust while making as few changes as possible to its basic architecture. On several occasions over recent years the commission has successfully blocked proposals to broaden the terms of the rules by amending the National Electricity Objective to include an environmental goal of boosting renewable energy and reducing greenhouse emissions.

Events in every state market over the past year have shown that the electricity market’s problems run much deeper than the environmental question. Indeed, they go right to the core of the NEM’s reason for existence, which is to keep the lights on. A fundamental review is surely long overdue.

The most urgent task will be identifying what needs to be done in the short term to ensure that next summer, with Hazelwood closed, peak demands can be met without more load shedding. Possible actions may include establishing firm contracts with major users, such as aluminium smelters, to make large but brief reductions in consumption, in exchange for appropriate compensation. Another option may be paying some gas generators to be available at short notice, if required; this would not be cheap, as it would presumably require contingency gas supply contracts to be in place.

The most important tasks will address the longer term. Ultimately we need a grid that can supply enough electricity throughout the year, including the highest peaks, while ensuring security and stability at all times, and that emissions fall fast enough to help meet Australia’s climate targets.

The ConversationHugh Saddler, Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

It’s time to focus on an endgame for tobacco regulation

The Conversation

Kathryn Barnsley, University of Tasmania

New comprehensive research shows smoking imposes a heavy economic burden throughout the world, gobbling up almost 6% of global health spend and nearly 2% of the world’s GDP. In 2012 this amounted to US$1,436 billion (A$1,898 billion).

This is particularly evident in high income jurisdictions, like Australia, North America and Europe. Each year, smoking kills an estimated 15,000 Australians, and costs Australia A$31.5 billion in social (including health) and economic costs.

New initiatives in tobacco control are urgently needed. Plain packaging has been a success, but required steely determination by ministers to ensure continuity.

Smoking rates are declining in Australia, although the rate appears to be slowing. And there are still worryingly high rates of smoking in some populations and jurisdictions, such as the Northern Territory. In 2009 Australian researchers predicted smoking cessation rates would need to double to ensure Australian smoking prevalence dropped to the policy target of 10% by 2020.

Over a decade ago leading tobacco control expert Derek Yach, a Yale Professor and former senior World Health Organisation (WHO) executive, warned against complacency in tobacco control, and urged greater action. In 2016 Ruth Malone (former editor of the journal Tobacco Control) was still emphasising the point, highlighting current measures will not achieve an end to the tobacco pandemic. She asked,

Will caution and inertia shape another century of public health catastrophe?

Anti-science ideology

We are currently experiencing a crisis of public confidence in expertise, knowledge and evidence. The new US Vice President Mike Pence once famously wrote that “smoking doesn’t kill”.

New ways of thinking emphasise individual responsibility and de-emphasise population measures that regulate corporations. This is also having an impact on our health, and has led University of Melbourne’s Rob Moodie to call for change, saying:

The only evidence-based mechanisms that can prevent harm caused by unhealthy commodity industries are public regulation and market intervention.

Related to these global sentiments, the cigarette industry has some strategies in play. Big tobacco presents public arguments to counter reform, using terms that soften the need for regulation such as “nanny state” and “free choice”, and more recently “unintended consequences” and “sensible regulation”.

The tobacco industry is also actively evolving, for example through taking over e-cigarette production and sales.

Reform through endgame strategies and charismatic ideas

The tobacco endgame concept moves thinking away from the mere control of tobacco towards plans for ending the tobacco pandemic, and foresees a tobacco-free future. The unifying term “endgame” includes those policy approaches which orient researchers and decision-makers toward this goal.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan championed endgame strategies in 2013 and urged a focus on precision, impeccable science, feasibility and realism.

Innovative strategies and “charismatic” ideas have also been proposed to counter an innovative tobacco industry. These ideas are canvassed below.

Reduction in retail outlets

In New Zealand, modelling undertaken at the University of Otago predicted reduction in retail outlets would modestly contribute to an endgame goal.

Others have suggested an increase in distance from home to the nearest tobacco retailer, or lowering density of outlets could assist quit rates.

Simply reducing access to cigarette retail outlets could lower smoking rates. thomashawk/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

A tobacco-free generation

This idea was first proposed in Singapore, and followed up in Tasmania. It’s a supply-side measure that would, from January 2018, prohibit the sale of tobacco products to any person born after the year 2000.

It has drawn criticism from the tobacco industry, but has 75% community support, and even 72% among smokers.

More broadly, Australian smokers do want the government to regulate the industry more heavily, as they believe the tobacco industry is partly responsible for the predicament they find themselves in.

Regulation of markets and cigarette engineering

The regulated market model proposes the tobacco market be controlled by one agency, which tenders to manufacturers for tobacco products and then distributes to retailers. This would, in effect, make tobacco a controlled substance, like methadone.

Reducing palatability of tobacco products, and the banning of filter ventilation and other elements of cigarette engineering have been proposed in Australia for some years. The idea of reducing addictiveness by lowering nicotine content is attractive, particularly as it would assist existing as well as beginner smokers.

The federal government contracted two consultants to provide reports on cigarette palatability and engineering in 2013. Late on Friday 27 January 2017 the heavily redacted documents were released under FOI. However, it is possible to see the extent of comprehensive research that has been undertaken.

One document includes the disclaimer:

No regulatory decisions have been made by the Department of Health or the Australian Government about potential new tobacco product content regulation controls or revised disclosure requirements for tobacco products.

There is no independent regulatory oversight or quality control on the content of cigarettes themselves, and no recall provisions.

The ‘sinking lid’ – an idea from New Zealand

Another supply-side reduction proposal is to require regular reductions in the amount of cigarettes made available for sale and to increase prices. This is the “sinking lid” idea. Strong border controls and geographical isolation are prerequisites in order to reduce the potential for smuggling. Therefore island nations and states are ideal places to experiment with this proposal. Considerable support exists for this approach.

Together, these endgame proposals to lower tobacco use should be actively explored and implemented as appropriate by governments around Australia. The economic and social costs of tobacco smoking remain enormous, and it’s time to take action.

The ConversationKathryn Barnsley, Adjunct researcher, University of Tasmania

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

Trump’s arrival means it’s time for Australia to review our relationship – and perhaps learn to say ‘no’

The Conversation

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is discovering the political cliché “change the government, change the country” might have bigger implications for Australia’s relationship with the United States than anticipated.

We might re-engineer the cliché to read “change the government, change its foreign policy”, and thus how America manages its relationships with friends and foes alike.

If it has not already dawned on Turnbull and his foreign policy advisers then it should have: a new American administration like no other in recent memory will require a rethink in how Australia calibrates its relations with Washington.

Not since the Gough Whitlam’s Labor government of 1972-75 has such a potentially awkward relationship existed between Australia and its principal ally, or to use another description, custodial power.

Whitlam parted company with his predecessors in his testy interactions with the Richard Nixon White House. Whitlam felt under no obligation to espouse a “pro-American” perspective on matters relating to the war in Indo-China in particular.

Many Australians found this refreshing.

While it was inevitable that a moment would arise when Australian and US interests would find themselves out of kilter, it has perhaps come more quickly than anticipated, driven by the arrival in the White House of a man untethered from principles that have guided American foreign policy for generations.

In Trump’s Inauguration speech there was one passage that should have given Turnbull and his advisers pause, even if these words might be dismissed as a rhetorical flourish:

We assembled here today are issuing anew decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land, from this day forward, it’s going to be only American first, America first.

He added:

Protection will lead to greater prosperity and strength.

The latter observation could hardly have been more antagonistic to the free trade principles and practice on which Australian prosperity rests, or for that matter be regarded as anything more than an affront to America’s own history.

In 1930, Congressmen, Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Willis C. Hawley sponsored legislation that raised punitive tariffs on some 900 imports, and in the process added poison to the well of slowing global trade, as The Economist put it.

Smoot and Hawley did not cause the Great Depression or add significantly to it, but the legislation represented a populist response to political anxiety.

Nearly a century later, an American president appears to hold the view that an “America first” approach – or a form of isolationism – will serve his own country’s economy well and those of its friends.

This view, even if you accept that the trade liberalisation pendulum has swung too far, is not sustainable if economic growth globally is to be nurtured.

Otherwise, disaster beckons, including a global entrenchment that will serve no-one’s interests, including America’s.

Trump’s stroke-of-a-pen end to America’s involvements in the liberalising Trade Pacific Partnership gave expression to his antagonism towards trade deals generally and spelled a pause in American leadership of a laborious process of opening markets and reducing trade barriers.

From the establishment of the General Agreement on Tariffs Trade, to the formation of the World Trade Organisation, to progress towards open markets under the Uruguay Round – alongside a plethora of bilateral trade deals – an era of liberalising trade has underpinned global prosperity.

So, the question becomes: how should the Turnbull government respond to these new circumstances in a way that serves Australia’s interests, and in an environment in which the world is in disarray? And it is likely to become more so if the early stages of an idiosyncratic Trump administration is any guide.

Policymakers need to think outside the narrow confines of what has been regarded as “America first” policy postures that have dictated Australia’s foreign policy choices, to consider what might be regarded as a less dependent relationship on our security guarantor.

None of this is an argument to weaken Australia’s commitment to the ANZUS alliance, nor our alignment with what we have always regarded as America’s better angels. But the time has come for a reassessment.

Trump’s ascendancy to power reminds us there is no such thing as permanent alliances, simply permanent interests.

Australia is not obliged to make a choice between its security in the form of its treaty arrangements with the US and its commercial interests, namely with China. But it does need to move to a position where it gives itself more flexibility in addressing its security and other challenges.

In other words, arguments for greater self-reliance – including defence preparedness – grow by the day.

How Turnbull achieves such a shift will prove a test of his diplomatic and leadership skills, and indeed his understanding of our country’s history. After relying on great and powerful friends for our security, we may be entering a new and distinct phase.

Whatever judgements might be made about the likely trajectory of a Trump administration, early days suggest that what he said on the campaign trail will guide his actions in office.

So when he talks about a form of isolationism summed up by the phrase “America First” he must be taken at his word, until demonstrated otherwise.

This poses obvious challenges for Australian policy. Do we gravitate towards the sort of world defined by Trump – with its risks of a return to a 1930’s isolationism or perhaps a form of 19th century mercantilism – or do we assert our own separation from such a worldview?

Are we seeing the end of “pax Americana”, in which the US proved to be the indispensable cornerstone of global security in the rebuilding of Europe, the containment of the Soviet Union, and a security presence in Asia post the Korean war that has enabled an extraordinary economic transformation in our own region to our advantage?

Turnbull needs to ask himself whether it is in Australia’s national interest for institutions like the United Nations, World Trade Organisation, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to be weakened.

Is it in Australia’s interests for there to be a confrontation between the US and China on trade, or security in the South China Sea?

Or a return to a ground war in the Middle East that would demand a larger commitment from Australia with unknowable consequences?

Lessons might have been learned from an earlier disastrous intervention.

Finally, Turnbull should resist pressure from his the right wing of his party, salivating over the arrival of an authoritarian in the White House.

Turnbull was derided over his initial response to Trump’s decision to abandon the TPP, in which he said China may wish to fill the gap as if, reflexively, he needed to fall in line with Washington.

While the TPP may be dead, Turnbull and his ministers shouldn’t be blamed for trying to keep alive an idea that would have provided a basis for a liberalising trade and investment zone in the Asia-Pacific.

Contrary to the views of its critics, the TPP was always about more than simply a trade liberalisation mechanism. It was also aimed at providing a framework for further action in counterpoint to China’s growing dominance.

Finally, Turnbull might consider the example of former Canadian Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who politely declined when he came under pressure to join George W. Bush’s cavalry in the invasion of Iraq.

Chretien, as leader of a country that shelters under a US security umbrella and is a fellow NATO member, said “no”, or “non” in his native Quebecois.

Last time we checked the sky had not fallen in for Canada.

The ConversationTony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

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

1 Comment

Filed under Reblogs

Parrot pie and possum curry – how colonial Australians embraced native food

The Conversation

Blake Singley, Australian National University

The relationship between European settlers and native Australian foodstuffs during the 19th century was a complex one. While the taste for native ingredients waxed and waned for the first century of European settlement, there’s ample evidence to demonstrate that local ingredients were no strangers to colonials’ kitchens or pots.

British settlers needed to engage with the edible flora and fauna of the continent almost immediately upon arrival. The journals of First Fleet officers record not only their reliance on native food, but the relish with which they enjoyed it. For example, First Fleet surgeon George Worgan noted in his diary a feast held to celebrate the King’s birthday:

We sat down to a very good Entertainment, considering how far we are from Leaden-Hall Market, it consisted of Mutton, Pork, Ducks, Fowls, Fish, Kanguroo, Sallads, Pies & preserved Fruits.

S. T. Gill’s sketch of a ‘Butcher’s Shamble’ from 1869.
State Library of Victoria

But despite the colonists’ reliance on native ingredients to supplement their diet, they were regarded with deep suspicion. Cooks – mainly women – relied on traditional British methods to transform these raw materials into something that they deemed culturally recognisable and appropriate.

Journals and other written accounts record these efforts. Kathleen Kirkland, a migrant who settled in Australia in the 19th century, wrote about the kangaroo soup, bush turkey and parrot pie she prepared for New Year’s Day 1841. She also praised the wild mushrooms from which she made a ketchup.

A contemporary of Kirkland, Louisa Meredith, describes eating kangaroo, wattle bird and echidna, although admitting that her tastes were not shared by all. But at least enough agreed with her that Phillis Clark, who was born in Tasmania in 1836, could compile a manuscript cookbook of recipes copied from other books and newspaper clippings. This personal collection contained a number of dishes featuring native ingredients like kangaroo, as well as detailed instructions for butchering the animal.

Kangaroo steamers

These examples notwithstanding, the settlers went to considerable trouble to maintain British food habits, in order to maintain a British identity.

Mrs Allan Macpherson, who settled in northern New South Wales in 1856, recounted that a dish of rock wallaby had a “very close resemblance to the hare” specially when cooked the same way and eaten with currant jelly. This application of European cooking techniques made it impossible to “distinguish them apart”.

Frontispiece of The English and Australian cookery book : cookery for the many, as well as for the upper ten thousand, by an Australian aristologist. National Library of Victoria

Suspicion extended to traditional Aboriginal food practices such as using cooking vessels made from from bark or tree gnarls and wrapping food in leaves. They were disdained entirely, even if the ingredients used by Indigenous Australians were not.

It is in this manner that native ingredients appear in Australia’s first cookbook, The English and Australian Cookery Book, written by Tasmanian politician Edward Abbott and published in 1864.

In a section dedicated to game meats, Abbott featured recipes for kangaroo, emu, wombat and other native fauna. There were a number of recipes for “kangaroo steamer”, a dish that had been popular for at least almost half a century across the colonies.

Kangaroo steamer was a colonial adaptation of the traditional British dish of jugged hare and involved slowly cooking kangaroo meat with bacon and other seasonings. The dish would be cooked in a glass jar or earthenware vessel and sealed so it could be stored for an extended period.

Engaging with Indigenous food methods

One of the few cookbook writers to fully engage with Aboriginal people and their food methods was Wilhelmina Rawson. Born in Sydney, Rawson spent long portions of her life in northern and central Queensland.

State Library of NSW

It was here that she began gathering the recipes that would appear in her first cookbook, Mrs Lance Rawson’s cookery book and household hints, first published in 1878.

This book holds the distinction of being the first cookbook written by a woman in Australia. From the outset, Rawson noted the abundance of edible native ingredients that her readers could rely on such as kangaroos, bush turkeys and bandicoots. She urged her readers not to think of these foods as ingredients of last resort but rather, to consider them as a “sumptuous repast” not far from their kitchen.

Rawson’s adventurous palate extended beyond fauna and included such things as wild mushrooms and the young shoots of the rough leaved, fig tree which had been pointed out to her by Aboriginal informants.

In her 1895 book The Antipodean Cookery Book, Rawson noted that “I am beholden to the blacks for nearly all my knowledge of the edible ground game” and that “whatever the blacks eat the whites may safely try”.

Rawson’s relationship with Aboriginal people was complex and nuanced. Demonstrating an understanding of the dispossession of land occurring in Queensland at the time, she wrote sympathetically of

The lessons white men should learn from the blacks before the work of extermination which is so rapidly going on has swept all the blacks who possess this wonderful bush lore off the face of the earth.

Here she was voicing common sentiments about the predicted demise of the Aboriginal race. Rawson’s long periods of living in remote rural locations throughout Queensland had most likely placed her in closer contact with Aboriginal people than cookbook writers who lived in towns or cities.

British settlers, especially those living away from metropolitan centres, consumed native ingredients both out of choice and out of necessity for most of the 19th century.

However, this consumption was mediated by deeply held cultural prejudices. The transformation of native ingredients into recognisable British dishes can be regarded as part of the broader colonising process taking place.

The ConversationBlake Singley, Curator, Australian National University

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

Why bad housing design pumps up power prices for everyone

The Conversation

Wendy Miller, Queensland University of Technology

Whether you’re a boatie or not, everyone realises the importance of keeping the water on the outside when you go sailing or fishing. The less leaky the boat, the less you have to rely on devices like bilge pumps to stay afloat.

What does this have to do with houses? Well, Australia’s homes are notoriously “leaky” – allowing the uncontrolled flow of heat into and out of the building. Our answer has been to put in more and more pumps, in the form of air conditioning. This is often promoted as a feature, rather than an indication of a poor-quality building!

Air conditioning is promoted as a feature rather than a design flaw. Wendy Miller

This creates problems for everyone.

We all know that some houses are hotter than others in heatwaves, and that well insulated and designed homes cost a lot less to operate throughout the year because they don’t rely heavily on air conditioners or heaters to provide comfort.

But did you know that relying on air conditioners to stay cool on hot summer days affects the price of electricity for everyone, all year round?

Pumping heat from one place to another takes a lot of energy, which makes air conditioners particularly power-hungry appliances. The more leaky the house, the more heat needs to be pumped out. On hot days, when lots of aircon units are operating at the same time, this creates a challenge for the electricity infrastructure.

It costs money to build an electricity network that can handle these peaks in demand. This cost is recovered through the electricity unit cost (cents per kilowatt hour). We all pay this cost, in every electricity bill we get; in fact the cost of meeting summer peak demand accounts for about 25% of retail electricity costs. This is more than twice the combined effect of solar feed-in tariffs, the Renewable Energy Target and the erstwhile carbon tax.

A house that has been well designed for its tropical climate. Wendy Miller

This means that people living in houses that are built to handle their local climate are effectively subsiding those who live in poorer-quality buildings and relying solely on the air conditioning to stay cool. Perhaps even less fairly, those who struggle to afford air conditioning and have to cope with overheating are also paying this subsidy via the electricity they do use. All this is because many people still live in leaky, poor-quality buildings.

Does this mean that air conditioners are evil and should never be used? Of course not – there is a role for very efficient air conditioners (heat pumps) in extreme weather events. But it does raise some interesting questions. Can we design and build homes that are great to live in and don’t cost the Earth to run? And, if so, why aren’t these homes the norm, rather than the exception?

You get what you ask for

The good news is that comfortable, quality homes that put minimal strain on the electricity grid are certainly possible. What’s needed is a combination of design that takes account of the local climate, appropriate building materials and quality construction practices. Some homes consume less than a quarter of the energy of their contemporaries in the same climate – it’s just frustrating that they aren’t more common.

In the past, the housing industry would say that it’s simply building the homes that people want – that Australians are mainly interested in size and location, not energy performance. Recent research, however, seems to indicate that the perspectives of real estate agents and other property practitioners could be limiting how, or if, they promote energy efficiency and other sustainability features to potential clients.

Are Australians still mesmerised by the surface bling of granite benchtops, a theatre room, or automatic gadgets? Are we starting to consider weightier issues such as operation costs, resilience and comfort? Or are we waiting until the first heat wave or the first electricity bill to realise just how good or poor our purchase decision was?

Some savvy buyers – before they sign a contract – are starting to ask about insulation, but not the more fundamental questions, like “how hot does this room get?” or “can I afford to run this house?”.

The housing sector seems to assume that if you don’t explicitly ask for something, it is not important to you. They also seem to assume that the building regulations set the standard – despite the fact the building regulations are minimum requirements, not best practice for comfort and value.

Some also actively lobby for lower standards, arguing that energy efficiency has “questionable benefits” and that requiring information to be passed on to consumers is an “unnecessary burden”.

Buyer beware – you’re on your own

What does this mean? When buying a used car or a new phone, it’s relatively easy to get the information you need – and there are quite a few consumer protection laws in place. But when we inspect a home for sale or rent, we can see the number of rooms, test the taps and light switches, and measure how far it is to the shops or school or work, but there is a huge amount we can’t see and are not told.

A real estate agent is not acting in the prospective buyer’s interest (or even necessarily in the seller’s). The seller wants the highest price in the shortest time, and the agent wants the biggest commission for the least effort. And contrary to practices in the European Union, no one is obliged (in most parts of Australia) to tell prospective buyers or renters about the home’s running costs.

There have been successes and failures in state government attempts to ensure that home buyers and renters have access to information about comfort and running costs at the time of purchasing or renting. Queensland’s Sustainability Declaration, introduced in 2010, was very short-lived, with an incoming government declaring it “useless red tape”.

In contrast, the ACT government has required an Energy Efficiency Rating for the sale or rent of residential properties since 1999, with multiple reports showing the benefits to property value and to reduced running costs. New South Wales plans to introduce a voluntary disclosure scheme in 2018, and to make it mandatory in 2020.

These schemes not only make it easier to identify homes that cost less to run, but can also drive demand for energy-efficient renovations and put downward pressure on electricity prices.

The distribution of information about housing in Australia is flawed. Real estate agents, valuers, financiers and electricity industry operators are making decisions based on very little or no information about how the quality of houses impacts on their clients, their business processes and electricity infrastructure investment.

Most importantly, owners and renters are not being informed about the quality of the houses they are buying or renting, and the impacts that particular dwellings will have on their health, comfort and wallets.

What can you do?

So is the housing sector right? Do you care about the quality of the building you live in? What is a sensibly designed and well-constructed house worth to you? What dollar value do you put on your health, safety and comfort? What value is there for your family to able to cope with heatwaves, or to pay off the mortgage sooner because of the money you save on power bills?

Which house would you buy in this suburb? Wendy Miller

You don’t need to wait for government to act. If you are looking at buying or renting a new home or apartment, ask to see the energy certificate for the dwelling. Such a certificate would have been created
as part of the building approval process.

It could also be useful to ask for a thermal imaging report and air leakage report. These are tests the builder can have done to prove his quality of construction.

Is the insulation properly installed? Wendy Miller

For existing homes, you can ask the seller for a Universal Certificate, or a copy of their energy bills, or evidence of features they have installed to enhance the comfort of the house (such as receipts for insulation or window tinting).

And next time you’re visiting a friend or neighbour with heat radiating from the walls, windows and roof, and the aircon cranked at full blast, enjoy the nice cool air – because you’re helping them pay for it.

The ConversationWendy Miller, Senior Research Fellow, Queensland University of Technology

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

1 Comment

Filed under Reblogs