Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Is Singapore the world’s education laboratory?


The city-state’s education reforms could be a window into the future.

Andrew MacIntyre takes a look at how an ageing population and slow growth is driving dramatic education reform in Singapore – with fascinating results. 

Governments in many countries are talking about reforming their education systems to better equip graduates seeking work and to provide business with the skilled labour force for which it cries out.
Whether in Australia or Britain, India or Indonesia there are earnest declarations about the pressing need to ensure education systems serve social and economic imperatives more effectively.

In most cases, the rhetoric is not matched with consequential reform action.

Singapore is a fascinating exception. It has launched a dramatic drive to reshape its post-secondary education system.

The reform push is not a passing thing: Singapore is taking these bold policy steps because it is being squeezed by demographic decline and sustained weak economic growth.

More on this: The ABC of Singapore's educational achievements


The demographic challenge is severe. Singapore is very rapidly becoming a ‘super-aged’ society. Other countries are grappling with the problem of an ageing society, but the change in Singapore is coming about very much faster than elsewhere. And strong public opposition to large-scale immigration means that simply importing more foreign workers is not an electorally tolerable option.

These demographic pressures have been brought sharply into focus by the country’s uncharacteristic encounter with prolonged sluggish economic performance. Last year GDP growth was at its lowest and the unemployment rate was at its highest since the global financial crisis.

This amalgam of pressures, supplemented by the universal concerns about technological disruption and anti-globalisation, has yielded remarkable governmental focus and resolve.

In March, a top-level task force – the Committee on the Future Economy – delivered a comprehensive set of strategies, including education policy, to reposition the economy. It is an extraordinarily ambitious exercise in national planning.

Exceptionally high investment in support of elite universities has been a distinctive feature of Singapore’s education strategy for many years but what is striking about this reform is its emphasis on applied education and skills training.

A new super-entity – SkillsFuture Singapore – has been created to guide people at all stages of their career with targeted education and skills programs, and to work closely with industry bodies to ensure alignment.

Applied universities and polytechnics have been given a major boost. There is a shift in emphasis from exhorting people to pursue academic distinction, to encouraging work-relevant learning and the need for continual reskilling.

And all Singaporeans over 25 have been given a S$500 credit to support the pursuit of (approved) programs.

Many academic institutions around the world resist the idea that the core role of a university is to prepare students for employment. But in Singapore, this idea is being given a sharper edge.

I take a keen interest in this because my university has a very long-standing commitment to Singapore. But anyone interested in future trends in higher education should pay attention because Singapore provides a window on the future.

Simply put, Singapore is now at the forefront of education policy innovation. Arguably, it has become the world’s leading ‘laboratory’ for bold education policy experiments.

Will this push work? Certainly, Singapore has the political capability and budgetary resources to launch a systematic campaign of this sort. But after listening to a visiting senior Singapore official outline the changes, I found myself mulling on several questions.

Will, for example, the parents of school leavers look past traditional considerations of academic prestige?

How will students off all ages and stages respond to these sweeping plans and inducements?

And how will universities and other education providers, along with employers themselves behave?

Stay tuned. And watch the policy experiment play out.

This piece was first published by Andrew MacIntyre on LinkedIn.




This piece was first published at Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and opinion. Read the original here: https://www.policyforum.net/singapore-worlds-education-laboratory/

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

A brief comparison of Australian and Turkish universities: The case of RMIT and METU

Image via @metu_odtu on Instagram

By Aylin Turgut-Ecevit
As a part of Erasmus+ International Credit Mobility staff mobility program, and thanks to an exchange agreement between my university (Middle East Technical University [METU], in Ankara, Turkey) and RMIT, I’ve had the great opportunity of spending two weeks on Melbourne City campus.
My first impression about RMIT before coming here was how big it was. But soon after I came, I realised that it is beyond my estimations.
As I am working full-time as a part of the press office at METU, my main goal was picking the brains of the central Communications team. Thankfully, they welcomed me as soon as I arrived and they helped me gain insight into RMIT, linking me to other communications and marketing units across the University, and giving me the opportunity to present on the higher education system in Turkey and at METU.
My journey started with a brief City campus tour and it really impressed me a lot. Bringing different architectural styles together without crowding each other out, aesthetic usage of shapes and colours, especially in recreational and study areas created and designed for students – those are the physical elements that fascinated me.
I have learnt about how things are done at RMIT related to marketing and communications, and thanks to various marketing teams within different departments had some useful ideas about improving METU’s strengths in these areas.
Overall, as far as I can see, there are differences as well as similarities between the two universities. If we start with the student populations, we are nearly half the size of RMIT, comparing the main campuses. (We have a graduate school campus in the Mediterranean region of Turkey, namely Mersin/Erdemli and an overseas campus in Northern Cyprus other than our main campus in Ankara.)
Second, we have a totally different system in the area of domestic recruitment. We have a central exam system, and school leavers in Turkey choose on the basis of the scores they get in a national two-stage exam. If their score is enough to be enrolled in one of their choices, they are placed in a university and program by the central system. So, we can’t recruit our domestic students on our own.
Another difference is on the operational side. METU has a central communications office. Each and every department is in contact with this office. In other words, we don’t have different communications or marketing offices that handle work locally.
Instead, they’re sending their requests about making a video, designing a poster for an upcoming event, submitting press releases, etc. to our “Corporate Communications Office”.
In short, instead of every department operating their own marketing and communications, everything is centralised.
This isn’t to criticise, because both systems have their own pros and cons (for instance; decentralisation provides more creativity and independence, a central body ensures corporate brand management).
One other difference depends on the completely different education sectors. Our higher education system is still nearly completely free. If you are an undergraduate student, and if you finish your degree within the normal time-period (four to six years according to the Department of Higher Education) you pay nothing in tuition.
You need to pay a nominal fee only if you prolong your study period. So, our university needs to generate income by other means in order to provide a better service for the students. We do this through collaboration with industry and other sources of research funding. At METU, research revenues account for more than 35 per cent of all university expenditures annually (including all payroll costs).
To sum up, due to the distinctive features of both secondary and higher education systems in the two countries, there are various approaches to domestic recruitment and communications. They both have their own strengths and weaknesses. Observing different kinds of applications within similar institutions, as I did here in the RMIT, can provide in-depth analysis and allow us to identify possible progress for both systems.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Australia must get better at the business of human rights

Why the government needs to support its only transnational body charged with redressing alleged human rights abuses by businesses overseas
Australia’s only government body charged with hearing complaints of human rights abuses by Australian businesses abroad needs greater support, Kristen Zornada and Shelley Marshall write.

The Australian government is currently lobbying to win one of two seats on the UN Human Rights Council. But, as our foreign minister woos would be voters abroad, we would do well to look at our human rights efforts back home – particularly when it comes to the little known Australian National Contact Point (ANCP).

Never heard of the ANCP? You are not alone.

It is one of the Australian government’s best-kept secrets that it houses a transnational human rights mechanism in the Department of Treasury charged with hearing cases under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises – non-binding principles and standards for responsible business conduct across the globe.

Australian companies now operate all around the world in mining, manufacturing, finance and other industries. Sometimes this is through wholly owned subsidiaries; sometimes they invest in joint ventures or part shares. At other times Australian businesses procure parts through supply chains.
But, what happens when these operations negatively impact the lives of local communities or workers overseas? Who can communities turn to when they are displaced by a mining operation without fair compensation, their lands are polluted and made infertile or workers are exploited? Though in principle, communities can take their claims to local police and courts, in many countries that Australian businesses operate, corruption, bias and long waits often makes legal remedy impossible.

Furthermore, company structures make it difficult to hold the parent company or a lead company in a supply chain responsible, even though that business may be calling the shots.

As a workaround, these communities and individuals can lodge claims with the ANCP. But, tucked away in Treasury and barely resourced, the human rights body turns away most of the communities that come to it seeking help. Simply put, the ANCP is failing.

Our new report, published this week as part of a joint project of universities and civil society organisations has found that the ANCP is falling well short of its mandate. The report, The Australian OECD National Contact Point: how it can be reformed, assesses the performance of the ANCP and finds that it is barely functioning as intended under the Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

Instead, the ANCP has all but abdicated its workload. It has rejected or transferred to another national contact point two-thirds of all complaints made. With only one exception, the remainder of accepted complaints were closed without resolution, as the ANCP was unable to bring the parties to mediation and unwilling to issue a determination against the company the complaint was made against. In fact, in the more than 10 years since its establishment, the ANCP is yet to make a single determination against a company the subject of complaint.

Given its central role in the Australian human rights landscape, it is vital that the ANCP offers effective redress. Indeed, if it functioned as intended, the body could provide access to mutually beneficial outcomes that may not be achievable through complex and expensive judicial mechanisms.
The ANCP’s designers envisaged affordable, timely and responsive redress of breaches of internationally agreed norms. Mediated outcomes, arrived at with the assistance of government, could be great for both Australian business and communities – far better than being embroiled in a lengthy and expensive court case, for example, or exposure by the media. And far better than doing nothing.

So why is ANCP failing? The simple answer is insufficient staffing and resources. But at a time when Australia is seeking to strengthen its human rights mechanisms as part of its bid for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, and when a parliamentary inquiry is investigating how modern slavery taints the supply chains of Australian businesses and businesses operating in Australia, it is essential that the ANCP be strengthened.

Fortunately, as our report outlines, this can be achieved with three key measures. First, improve the ANCP’s independence and properly resource it. Second, improve the processing of complaints, particularly those that impact admissibility. The ANCP’s high rejection rate appears to be based on the taking into account of criteria irrelevant to admissibility under the OECD Guidelines. Even where cases are accepted, uncertainty clouds the process, with timeframes for resolution having blown out over the past few years.

Third, increase transparency and outreach. The ANCP must provide details on its website about how to submit a complaint, and reports on all of its findings. Better outreach could be achieved by following up and offering assistance for cases which it transfers to foreign NCPs, as well as conducting training and providing education on the Guidelines for government departments, business communities, civil society and any other relevant stakeholders.

Rumour in the corridors of Treasury is that the government is about to call a review of the ANCP. This could be a fantastic opportunity to move the mechanism out of Treasury, strengthen its independence and functioning, and properly resource it.

We wait with bated breath to see how seriously the government takes this opportunity to be a champion for human rights and earn a place on the United Nations Human Rights Council.


This piece was first published at Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and opinion. Read the original here: https://www.policyforum.net/australia-must-get-better-business-human-rights/

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Three charts on: Australia's declining taste for beef and growing appetite for chicken


Beef cattle in the Australian outback.
Elizabeth Taylor, RMIT University and Andrew Butt, La Trobe University

Australians were once world champion beef-eaters but now you’re much more likely to find chicken than steak on Australian dinner tables.

Total meat consumption per capita in Australia has been stable since the 1960s, at around 110 kilograms per person per year. But the type of meat consumed has changed significantly, with chicken and pork both now far outstripping beef, mutton and lamb, according to historical data from researchers Wong et al and more recent data from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES).



(The apparent spike in beef consumption in the late 1970s is linked to Australia’s beef export trade crash and much of this spike was thought to have gone to pet food and by-products rather than the dinner table).

Whereas chicken was once a rare meal, eaten on special occasions, today the Australian chicken industry produces around 600 million chickens a year. Most are consumed domestically.

The per-capita annual consumption of chicken meat in Australia increased ten-fold from 4.6 kilograms per person in 1965 to 47 kilograms in 2016. The industry projects growth to 49.2 kilograms a person by 2019–20.

From the 1960s on, public health messages steered people away from red meats. There was also a rapid proliferation of fast food franchises selling chicken - notably the entry of Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1969.

Similarly, pork consumption has been bolstered by re-marketing. Once considered a red meat, pork was reinvented as “the other white meat” through a marketing campaign categorising pork as lighter and healthier, alongside chicken (and due to changes in breeding, pork meat really has lightened in colour over recent decades). While not as steep an increase as chicken, pork consumption in Australia has nearly tripled since the 1980s.

However, a major driver of these changes has been price, linked to massive changes in production.



After adjusting for inflation, chicken per kilo costs less than a third of its price than it did in the early 1970s, while real prices for other meats have been comparatively static. The Australian Chicken Meat Federation, which represents chicken producers, reports that over the five years to 2014–15, chicken meat was on average 50% cheaper than pork, 59% cheaper than lamb and 65% cheaper than beef.

Since the 1960s, most Australian chicken and pork production has become rapidly industrialised and automated in large intensive indoors operations. Piggeries and broiler farms have typically become specialised, intensified, high technology factory farm complexes. Intensification of chicken production has increased efficiency, in turn steadily decreasing the retail price of chicken. Around 70% of chicken meat is supplied by two privately owned processing companies, the Australian Chicken Meat Federation says.

Chicken farms in Australia have increased markedly in size and intensity. Our research on planning disputes shows farms of the 1970s housed around 10,000 chickens. Now, while nearly 600 million broiler chickens were slaughtered in Australia in 2014-15, there were only around 750 broiler farms, a decline from the 1990s. The average chicken farm now has nearly 120,000 chickens at any one time and some run into millions. The number of pork farms has also dropped, consolidating into larger operations.



Global meat consumption continues to rise rapidly as more countries – notably China – increase their consumption of meat and dairy products. Australia imports very little meat due to strict quarantine, but is a major exporter of beef, sheep and goats.

Sheep and cattle farms are more extensive, more common, and produce fewer animals than pork or chicken farms. There were over 66,000 cattle farms and around 39,000 sheep farms in Australia in 2015-16. Cattle farm numbers and the overall cattle herd declined slightly, although this belies the formation of two extremes: at one end large and export-focussed grazing, while other areas have seen a proliferation of sub-commercial, small-scale, scattered “hobby” grazing. The national sheep flock also declined, and is transitioning away from wool production to meat and dual-purpose breeds.
These transitions in production and consumption of meat result in some rural and semi-rural landscapes shifting to expansive, remotely-managed holdings in areas with declining population.

Closer to cities, hobby farmers and amenity migrants sit in often uneasy proximity to industrial scale production.

The ConversationAs other countries take up Australia’s traditional fondness for meat, global as well as domestic forces continue to change the nature of farming and Australian rural landscapes. That, in turn, also affects the price and type of meat Australians consume.

Elizabeth Taylor, Vice Chancellor's Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, RMIT University and Andrew Butt, Senior Lecturer in Community Planning and Development, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

A Federal Charter of Human Rights: Would it make any difference?

                  Left to right Helen Metzger, Veronica Snip, Brigette Rose, Frank Aloe, Luke Fowler


In 2016 the Centre for Innovative Justice was approached by the Human Rights Commission to conduct a project exploring and evaluating the impact that a federal Charter of Human Rights would have had on the outcomes of significant Australian cases and laws. Below the students reflect on their time working on this fascinating project:

Our task
We considered the potential impacts of a federally legislated Human Rights Charter by assessing how such a Charter would have affected the determination and outcomes of significant Australian cases and laws.

What it involved
Our initial brief was to take the Victorian Charter (Charter Of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006) as the basis for designing a ‘model’ Charter. Ultimately, influenced by other human rights instruments (for example, the ACT Charter and the UK Human Rights Act) we expanded the Charter to include federally relevant provisions, the right to commence legal proceedings against public authorities on the basis of the Charter alone (which differs from the Victorian Charter in which another cause of action is also required to attach the Charter arguments to), and to seek remedies. Encouraged by our mentors, we decided it to draft our model Charter, in order to test it fully. You can view our model Charter at Appendix 1 of our report.

Once the Charter was drafted, we applied the tests within it to the decisions and legislation we had been given to consider, by placing ourselves in the shoes of the Parliament, public authorities (who make decisions in accordance with legislation) and the Courts.

For example, when standing in the shoes of Parliament, we had to apply the following test to the legislation under consideration:

  • the nature of the right being limited; 
  • the importance and purpose of the limitation to that right; 
  • the nature and extent of the limitation; 
  • the relationship between the limitation and its purpose; and 
  • any less restrictive means reasonably available to achieve the purpose of the limitations.

Our mentors, David Manne and Emily Howie, offered insight about how the laws might be applied by a court, urging us to consider international jurisprudence on the scope of particular rights and human rights principles. So while this exercise was an imaginative one, it was grounded in legal theory and precedent, albeit from outside domestic law.

Benefits of participating
Frank Aloe: I don’t think that I can rate the benefits of this experience highly enough. It provided us the unique opportunity to contribute to a national conversation, and have that contribution be recognised and supported by leaders in the field. All of which seemed well beyond our reach as law students at the beginning of this project.

The project has re-shaped my understanding of my ability to create tangible outcomes through the law. I think that these sorts of projects are genuinely transformative and I recommend anyone with the chance to get involved in a similar opportunity to do so.

Helen Metzger: In summary, the project was an exercise in: drafting legislation, networking, application of law, human rights, political responsiveness to the law, judicial reasoning, and an extreme process of teamwork. To work with selected students is the best group work one can hope for. Our ability to recognise each other’s strengths and encourage them while working together was great. I came away from the project with absolutely hands-on experience – working with industry professionals, guided by extraordinary mentors, legal skills sharpened and inspired. As with my other placement with the CIJ, the project has changed the direction of my JD and aspirations. I can’t recommend the placements through CIJ highly enough. To be able to properly experience the legal sector before one is graduated is a gift and an opportunity.

Effectively, the Charter asks for transparency, justification, and evidence-based laws. What struck me in the project was how simple that is, and how resistant politics and the public can be to that. For some people, it seems ‘human rights’ are a dirty word - deeply ‘unpopular’ as a concept, despite them being what most of us would expect makes the basis for a valuable and happy life.

Luke Fowler: I was quite surprised at how the introduction of the Charter would not only improve human rights protections for Australians, but also how it would improve transparency and accountability in the law making process. This, in turn would allow the Australian public a clearer understanding of the laws that are being enacted in their name.

This project has shown me that the introduction of a Charter would lead to clearer and less ambiguous laws, which in turn would make it easier for the Courts and public authorities to interpret and administer the law, leading to fewer disputes and fewer lengthy and expensive court cases.

Brigette Rose: Launching the Charter was fantastic. Professor Gillian Triggs, President of the Human Rights Commission, explained how vital a Charter is to Australia. She had everyone at the launch imagine Australia with explicit human rights protections, rather than an Australia that has to be informed by another country, PNG, that Australia’s asylum seeker detention policies are illegal and breach the right to liberty.

The launch of our federal Charter offered an opportunity to celebrate the wins of the current Victorian Charter, and to emphasise the difference that could be made to everyday Australians if a federal Charter was in place. It was a great day to both congratulate ourselves on the report that we produced, and to strengthen our resolve about why this and other pieces of work like it are so important.

Veronica Snip: Participating in this project was a really worthwhile experience, way beyond the research and academic skills I gained. This was group work on steroids, and taught me to communicate, debate, assert myself and acquiesce when need be. Not only have we been able to make our mark on the human rights landscape in this country, but we were guided there by inspiring and brilliant leaders in the field. This report was a gargantuan task that we somehow managed to complete, and now makes me sound pretty impressive when I casually slip it into everyday conversation with friends/relatives/strangers. I loved going to the CIJ every week and debating human rights with 4 fellow law nerds and have taken much more out of this than I put in.

The report was launched by Emeritus Professor Gillian Triggs on Friday 12 May. You can listen to a podcast of the launch here.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Budget 2017: government goes hard on gas and hydro in bid for energy security


Gas infrastructure and exploration attracted the lion’s share of new energy announcements in the 2017 Federal Budget. 

Hugh Saddler
, Australian National University; Alan Pears, RMIT University; Roger Dargaville, University of Melbourne, and Tony Wood, Grattan Institute
The budget contains several measures designed to boost energy security, including: The Conversation
  • A$90 million to expand gas supplies, partly through increased unconventional gas exploration
  • a potential Commonwealth buyout of an expanded Snowy Hydro scheme
  • up to A$110 million for a solar thermal plant at Port Augusta
  • monitoring of gas and electricity prices by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
Below, our experts react to the measures.

Gas price problem far from solved


Roger Dargaville, Deputy Director, Melbourne Energy Institute, University of Melbourne


The budget contains a broad range of funding in energy-related areas, with a significant focus on gas resources, making A$78 million available for onshore unconventional gas exploration and reform in the gas markets, and A$7 million for studies into new gas pipelines to South Australia, from both Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Interestingly, there is A$110 million in equity available (but not guaranteed) for a solar thermal plant in Port Augusta. And most notably, the government has proposed purchasing the Snowy Hydro Scheme from the New South Wales and Victorian governments, ensuring that the scheme stays in public hands.

The budget also includes A$13 million for CSIRO to improve energy forecasting tools, and A$8 million for the ACCC to investigate consumer energy pricing issues.

Overall, the budget highlights the government’s desire to do something about gas prices, but offers little to make a significant difference to a very difficult problem. Gas market reform and new pipelines are unlikely to reduce the exposure of the domestic market to price rises driven by international exports.

Importantly, there is little new funding in the budget directly relating to reducing carbon emissions and meeting the pledges made in the Paris Agreement (a 26-28% emission reduction relative to 2005 levels by 2030). Also noteworthy is the removal of funding for research into carbon capture and storage.

‘On energy this budget is small fry’


Tony Wood, Energy Program Director, Grattan Institute



The budget does little more on energy than endorse the government’s deal with Senator Nick Xenophon on corporate tax cuts, complemented by modest commitments to energy security, more gas and better regulation.

Government facilitation of gas development and beefing up the energy capability of the Australian Energy Regulator and the ACCC are simple logic, and the one- off payment to pensioners to help with electricity bills will be welcomed by them.

Major public funding for further feasibility studies is a little more questionable. If the gas crisis can’t galvanise support from pipeline companies and gas consumers for pipelines, why would governments reach a different conclusion?

And finally, one can only speculate as to why the federal government is contemplating buying out the NSW and Victorian governments’ share of Snowy Hydro. Presumably it is because the feds are concerned about securing support for the proposed expansion.

In summary, on energy this budget is small fry ahead of major policy decisions that rest on the forthcoming Finkel Review of the National Electricity Market next month, and the climate change policy review later in the year.

A step towards radical energy reform?


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



Few announcements in the budget speech are more emblematic of complete policy reversal than the announcement that the Commonwealth would buy the shareholdings in Snowy Hydro Limited of the governments of NSW (58%) and Victoria (29%), to add to the 13% currently owned by the Commonwealth. This comes almost exactly 11 years after Prime Minister John Howard, responding to vociferous public opposition, pulled the plug on plans by all three governments for a public float of their entire shareholdings. What is more, Treasurer Scott Morrison has now announced that, once owned by the Commonwealth, Snowy Hydro would remain in public ownership.

This announcement of course accompanies the government’s Snowy 2.0 proposal, for a fivefold increase in the Snowy scheme’s current 500 megawatt pumped storage capacity (at Talbingo). This was used, after commissioning in 1974, to allow inflexible coal fired power stations to operate with constant output levels day and night, but is now almost never used. This presumably reflects commercial decisions by Snowy Hydro, as it trades in the National Electricity Market.

The rationale for Snowy Hydro 2.0 is to facilitate operation of a grid with a high share of renewable generation, by smoothing out variations in wind and solar supply. Does this announcement mean that the government envisages moving away from a strictly commercial approach to using the assets of the Snowy scheme? Is this a first step towards radical restructuring, or even dismantling, of the National Electricity Market?

Stronger legislation needed


Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University



The detailed A$265 million energy package includes a number of useful measures to strengthen the weak regulatory culture of the energy sector that has allowed our energy crisis to evolve. But it is still limited: strong legislative reform and active support of emerging competitors will also be needed. It is a modest investment compared with recent multibillion-dollar energy cost increases. If it is successful, it will deliver vary large net benefits to the economy by limiting energy price increases. Unfortunately, past efforts to fix the energy situation have largely failed to deliver real outcomes: we need clear objectives for outcomes, and a mechanism to implement contingency strategies if they are not achieved.

In a context of increasing urgency for stronger action on climate, and the reality that the global “burnable carbon” budget is very limited, investment to encourage more gas development seems misplaced. More emphasis on energy efficiency, renewables and smart energy systems would make much more sense. Energy efficiency already saves billions on energy costs and could save much more, while renewable energy is becoming cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives. They also help to achieve our climate targets. And fossil fuels are responsible for almost three-quarters of Australian emissions, so we need strong action to meet our international obligations.

The extension of the A$20,000 tax write-off for small business spending on equipment is a measure that, at least for small businesses, offsets a significant barrier to investment in energy efficiency. Firms will also be able to continue to claim the write-off to improve the economics of investments in on-site renewable energy and storage. Of course, the problem still remains for spending over A$20,000 by small businesses, and for larger businesses.

The energy security plan, which includes funding for ACCC to police energy industry behaviour is only a small step towards fixing the disastrous failures of energy policy and a transition to a 21st century energy policy framework. Much more will need to be done.

Hugh Saddler, Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University; Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University; Roger Dargaville, Deputy Director, Melbourne Energy Institute, University of Melbourne, and Tony Wood, Program Director, Energy, Grattan Institute
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Higher-density cities need greening to stay healthy and liveable


Adelaide. Getty image.

Melanie Davern, RMIT University; Alison Farrar, University of Melbourne; Dave Kendal, University of Melbourne, and Lucy Gunn, University of Melbourne

Access to high-quality public open space is a key ingredient of healthy, liveable cities. This has long been recognised in government planning policy, based on a large body of academic research showing that accessible green spaces lead to better health outcomes. The Conversation

However, cities are home to more than just people. We also need to accommodate the critters and plants who live in them. This includes the species who called our cities home before we did.

Greening cities that are becoming denser is a major challenge. Green spaces and density are both good for health outcomes when designed well. However, higher-density development can place added pressure on green space if not well planned and managed.

The South Australian government is leading the way in the design of public green spaces in denser cities by bringing together the multiple actors needed to create change. This includes the Heart Foundation, Departments of Health and Ageing, Environment Water and Natural Resources, Office for Recreation and Sport, the South Australian Local Government Association and the Office of the Chief Architect, as well as researchers from RMIT University and the University of Melbourne.
This is the new shift required for urban greening practice – led by practitioners with support from research evidence provided by (and in collaboration with) academics.

In Victoria, Planning Minister Richard Wynne has called for the suburban backyard to be maintained in the refreshed Plan Melbourne 2017-2050. This policy recognises the importance of private green space by establishing minimum garden areas in new developments.

Another major challenge is increasing urban heat and climate change. Some tree species we know and love will no longer be viable in cities that are several degrees warmer than they were.
Suitable species for future climates need to be selected, as the City of Melbourne has recently demonstrated. Increasing temperatures and the resulting loss of old trees will have adverse consequences for public health, ecology and biodiversity.

Understanding how best to achieve these benefits, and the trade-offs involved in delivering them, is particularly important today. Our cities are growing rapidly. We are seeing increasing populations, greater housing density, rising temperatures, growing rates of obesity, diabetes, stress and depression, and declining native biodiversity.

Why is greening on the agenda?


Urban greening is now recognised as a public health issue. New research has found its benefits include:
Ecological research also shows that urban green spaces can support many kinds of birds, bats, bees and plants. Urban greening has even been found to lead to safer neighbourhoods.
Australian urban planning and policy need to embrace these findings. Multiple government portfolios must work together to better plan for green cities that achieve maximum impact for economic, environmental and public health outcomes.

What do we mean by green space?


Green spaces are areas of public and private land covered with vegetation. This includes most areas we traditionally see as public open space: parks, gardens and sports ovals.

Green space also includes other areas of public land: street trees and streetscapes, nature conservation reserves, community gardens, school grounds and public buildings with green walls, facades and roofs. On private land, green spaces include residential gardens, golf courses and greening on and around private buildings.

All these green spaces together provide multiple benefits. The Heart Foundation and South Australian government recently commissioned an evidence review of how quality green space is supporting health, wellbeing and biodiversity. This report shows that green spaces can be designed to provide multiple benefits.

These benefits are delivered by including features that are known to influence physical activity, mental health, social, cultural, environmental and biodiversity outcomes. For example, planting trees in parks, gardens or streets can have many benefits:


Greening solutions aren’t simple


The benefits green spaces provide are also influenced by local context: climate, inequity and social disadvantage, culture, or resident/user age and gender.

However, if green spaces are well designed with community input, these local factors can provide opportunities to maximise impact. For example, green space can be more beneficial when provided in areas of social disadvantage with limited existing green space, and trees provide more cooling benefits in hotter cities.

There are no magic bullets. If green spaces aren’t well designed, for example, trees can:

  • reduce the area available for some active sports;
  • shade rooftop solar panels;
  • reduce flower, fruit and vegetable production;
  • create mess through fallen leaves; and
  • create unsuitable habitat for other kinds of plants and animals.

These complex interactions highlight the need for academics and practitioners to work collaboratively across disciplines and sectors. These should include urban planning, public health, urban ecology, urban forestry, engineering, community development and economics. Knowledge needs to be shared and translated into action.

Our green cities of the future need to be designed to benefit human (and non-human) residents equitably. We need to move beyond a reliance on backyards and parks that were designed according to 19th-century principles (and using 19th-century species).

Cities need green spaces that are well designed, creatively delivered, accessible to all, and managed and maintained with appropriate resources to ensure long-term quality and availability.

Further reading: How urban bushland improves our health and why planners need to listen
Melanie Davern, Senior Research Fellow, Healthy Liveable Cities Group, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University; Alison Farrar, Research Assistant, School of Ecosystem & Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne; Dave Kendal, Research Fellow, School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences and the Clean Air and Urban Landscape hub of the National Environmental Science Program, University of Melbourne, and Lucy Gunn, Research Fellow, Community Indicators Victoria, McCaughey VicHealth Community Wellbeing Unit, University of Melbourne
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, 28 April 2017

We must plan the driverless city to avoid being hostage to the technology revolution



John Stone, University of Melbourne; Carey Curtis, Curtin University; Crystal Legacy, RMIT University, and Jan Scheurer, Curtin University

Trials of autonomous cars and buses have begun on the streets of Australian cities. Communications companies are moving to deploy the lasers, cameras and centimetre-perfect GPS that will enable a vehicle to navigate the streets of your town or city without a driver. The Conversation

Most research and commentary is telling us how the new machines will work, but not how they might shape our cities. The talk is of the benefits of new shared transport economies, but these new technologies will shape our built environment in ways that are not yet fully understood. There’s every chance that, if mismanaged, driverless technologies will entrench the ills of car dependency.

As with Uber and the taxi industry, public sector planners and regulators will be forced to respond to the anger of those displaced by the new products the IT and automobile industries will bring to the market. But can we afford to wait?

Three competing interests


Three distinct groups are giving form to the idea of driverless vehicles. Each has its own corporate proponents and target markets, and its own, often competing, demands on citizens, regulators and planners. Each will make its own demands on our streets and public spaces.

First, the traditional car makers are adding “driverless” features to their existing products. They have no compelling interest in changing the current individual ownership model. Their target consumer is someone who values private vehicle ownership and enjoys driving.

These carmakers’ challenge is to win over drivers sceptical about “their” car doing things they can’t control, whether that is behaving differently in traffic or performing unescorted journeys. But, if successful, these new cars will make driving easier and so encourage more travel and ever-expanding suburbs.

Second, cashed-up IT disruptors like Google and Uber see new types of vehicles and new patterns of ownership as the basis for new transport economies. They want lightweight, utilitarian “robo-taxis” owned by a corporation and rented by the trip. Travellers will use phone apps or their next-generation successors to do this. This, in the jargon, is “mobility as a service”.

These companies’ ambition is to carve out a large niche in competition with private cars, taxis, conventional public transport and even non-motorised transport. Fleets of shared vehicles in constant circulation can reduce the number of individually owned cars and, in particular, the need for parking.
In some circumstances, this may support more compact urban forms. But while sustainability or social objectives might be part of the pitch, the profit motive remains dominant.

Third, public transport operators can see opportunities and challenges in driverless technologies. Already, Vancouver reaps the benefits of lower operating costs for its driverless elevated-rail system.



In Vancouver, the train pulls into a station with no driver on board.

Savvy operators understand that new vehicle technology is only valuable if it is integrated with traditional public transport services and with cycling and walking. This means central coordination.

Vitally, it also requires control of the information platforms needed to provide multimodal mobility.
Such levels of planning and regulation conflict with Google’s “disruptive” free-market ambitions.

European operators, who are in a more powerful position in economic and social life than their Australian counterparts, are already mobilising for this contest.

Whatever the technology, transport needs space


Many claims for the benefits of driverless technologies rely on the complete transformation of the existing vehicle fleet. But the transition will not be smooth or uniform. Autonomous vehicles will face a significant period of mixed operation with traditional vehicles.

Freeways are likely to be the first roads on which the new vehicles will be able to operate. Promoters of these vehicles might join forces with the conventional car lobby to demand extra lanes. This would dash the hopes of many that driverless cars will lead to reduced space for mass movement of cars.

After the freeways, the next objective will be to bring driverless cars, trucks and buses onto city streets. This will require complex systems of sensors and cameras.

The ambition is to allow all users to share road space much more safely than they do today. But, if a driverless vehicle will never hit a jaywalker, what will stop every pedestrian and cyclist from simply using the street as they please? Some analysts are predicting that the new vehicles will be slower than conventional driving, partly because the current balance of fear will be upset.

Already active travellers are struggling to assert their right to the streets of Australian cities. Just imagine how much worse it would be if a dominant autonomous-vehicle fleet operator demanded widespread fencing of roadways to keep bikes and pedestrians out of the way.

The presence of driverless cars cannot alter the fact that space for urban transport is severely constrained. For travel within and between compact urban centres, we will need more and better high-capacity mass transit as well as first-class conditions for walking and cycling.

The integration of conventional public transport networks with shared autonomous vehicles, large and small, offers many opportunities for a much improved service. But that will happen only if this objective is the major focus of investment, innovation, planning and regulation.

Researchers and policymakers need to move rapidly to gain a holistic and systematic understanding of the multiplicity of driverless-vehicle scenarios and the potential harm that some might contain. The technologies are not an unalloyed good, and governments will need to do more than just be “open for business”.

John Stone, Senior Lecturer in Transport Planning, University of Melbourne; Carey Curtis, Professor of City Planning and Transport, Curtin University; Crystal Legacy, Australian Research Council (DECRA) Fellow and Vice Chancellor's Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University, and Jan Scheurer, Senior Research Fellow, Curtin University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

How do we restore the public's faith in transport planning?






This is the third article in our series Making Cities Work. It considers the problems of providing critical infrastructure and how we might produce the innovations and reforms needed to meet 21st-century needs and challenges. The Conversation



Opposition to proposed road projects has become a feature of state and federal elections.

In Western Australia, protests against the Roe Highway Stage 8 escalated just before Christmas 2016. On the eve of the state election, Main Roads WA contractors (acting at the behest of the then Liberal-National government) pushed forward with the destruction of the environmentally significant Beeliar wetlands.

This happened despite considerable community opposition. The Labor opposition, now the newly elected government, declared it would halt the construction if elected.

Politics as usual puts planning under a cloud


In our recently published paper, we compared road projects in Melbourne (East West Link), Sydney (WestConnex) and Perth (Perth Freight Link). Based on observational, policy and media analysis, we found growing antagonism between the state governments and their residents.

Roe 8 is just the latest freeway battle in Australia, following those in Sydney and Melbourne, where the Labor government cancelled the East West Link.

To the casual observer, these protests, and promises by parties in opposition to scrap contracts if elected, could be seen simply as “politics as usual”.

However, normalising politics in transport can veil the deficiencies and shortcuts that undermine planners’ ability to act in the public interest. For this reason, it is critical that we examine what dynamics are at play, and how planning serves and/or exacerbates these.

Professional planning bypassed


In the case of Roe 8, good planning was circumvented.

Not only is this undermining efforts to reduce car dependency and invest in public transport – goals adopted in these three cities’ metropolitan strategic plans since at least the 1990s – it is undermining professional planning practice.

The evasion of due process in planning has recently come into sharp focus. Reports by the Australian Auditor-General on the WestConnex project in Sydney and by the Victorian Auditor-General on the East West Link in Melbourne are severely critical of processes taken. The report on the East West Link concluded that the Victorian government lacked “a sound basis for the government’s decision to commit to the investment”.

In the case of Roe 8, Main Roads WA documents provided to the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development were recently released under FOI after a two-year court battle to keep them secret. These show a rushed and partial assessment of the transport case for the road was put to Infrastructure Australia.

The latter, in its own assessment, alerts us to concerns about inadequate analysis:

A rapid BCR (benefit cost ratio) was completed for the preferred option only … [and] a rapid BCR was not completed for additional options to determine if the preferred option provided the greatest net benefits.

Traffic planning is only one part of the process. A Freight Network Review commenced in 2001 and concluded in 2003 found that Roe 8 was not needed. There is no publicly available report stating why this sound planning was set aside.

In addition, proper planning process has been bypassed. The previous WA government argued that the Roe Highway had been reserved in the Metropolitan Region Scheme (MRS) since the 1960s and that this was good long-term planning. However, the detailed road alignment falls outside this reserve at three locations.

This triggered the use by the WA Planning Commission of a “Planning Control Area” (PCA), the purpose of which is to protect land until “proper planning” can take place. After this, an MRS amendment must be initiated and advertised for public comment.

Construction began before any public consultation on the MRS amendment. Was this to avoid public scrutiny?

Public consultation is an important part of any good planning process. It was undertaken for other 1960s major road reserves. These were reviewed against current knowledge and policy, and in some cases deleted (the Stirling Highway, for example).

Public input into the planning process provides an opportunity for governments to bring the community with them through both owning the planning problem and arriving at a solution that the public can support.

Risks of politicisation are high


Large transport projects are likely to attract opposition from affected communities. Construction is disruptive and the visual, noise and amenity changes are significant.

These projects are also transformational. They lead to profound city-wide, and even region-wide, changes to the environment and the working of a city.

For these reasons, planning for transport projects must be a process of careful consideration. It requires sound professional planning based on reasoned justification drawing on the best available evidence. This process must be transparent to all.

When politicians choose a different course to planning advice, this must be on their own account and again transparent. We need a strong discussion on professional ethics and the need for clear separation of planners’ independent advice from elected politicians’ decisions.

In the case of Roe 8, are we to assume that the analysis and conduct of the planning process we see revealed reflects what planners at Main Roads WA and the Western Australian Planning Commission believe is sound professional practice? Or are they simply building a case for politicians?

Without clear and transparent documentation, planners leave themselves open to criticism and bring the profession into disrepute.

Room for improvement


Based on our research, we assert the need to recognise that the gap between strategic planning and project planning needs to be filled by a more community-oriented decision-making process.

We must challenge “urgency” – when governments aim to sign contracts before we have had sound planning analysis and community input.

Long-term planning does not mean that a project like Roe 8, which was first mooted more than 50 years ago, must be built today. We need to take into account new knowledge and current views on our future. We must place equality and environmental and economic sustainability in balance, as weighed by community values.

The political process is one place where those values must be considered holistically. This is immensely important, but it should not undermine transparent and sound planning.



This article draws on a research paper by the authors in a new special issue of the international journal, Urban Policy and Research, on critical urban infrastructure. You can read other published articles in our series here.

Crystal Legacy, Australian Research Council (DECRA) Fellow and Vice Chancellor's Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University; Carey Curtis, Professor of City Planning and Transport, Curtin University, and Jan Scheurer, Senior Research Fellow, Curtin University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Homophobia is harmful to workers and businesses




Raymond Trau, RMIT University

Homophobia is costly to workers and the businesses that employ them, research shows. Unfortunately, it’s still prevalent in Australia and the latest lobbying from 34 business leaders for marriage equality emphasises the need for it to be addressed both within and outside the workplace. The Conversation
It’s little wonder some of Australia’s leading companies called on the government to get on with the job of legislating for marriage equality. Businesses increasingly recognise that homophobia and transphobia limit their organisation’s ability to attract and retain a high calibre workforce and is hurting their bottom-line.

As CEO of Deloitte, Cindy Hook, stated
I believe in fairness and inclusion for all and my overriding aim is for every one of our people at Deloitte to reach their full potential, which includes choosing who they marry.
Smart employers know that diverse and inclusive workplaces are more profitable, innovative and have employees who are more engaged, and have a higher level of staff retention.

Homophobia is prevalent and costly


Research tells us that close to one in two LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) Australians hide their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status in the workplace for fear being “out” could damage their careers.

And despite Australia having some of the most inclusive anti-discrimination protections in the world for LGBTI people, most LGBTI employees in Australia have witnessed or heard of homophobic incidents at work.

Those experiencing homophobia and transphobia are likely to have decreased well-being and negative work attitudes, suggesting that homophobia and transphobia (including not recognising LGBTI relationships) can hurt the quality of work life and the general well-being of LGBTI individuals.

LGBTI individuals face barriers even before they start a job. The probability of gay and lesbian applicants being selected for a job interview is lower than it is for their heterosexual counterparts. This is especially true for those residing in areas lacking legal protection such as Texas in the United States and working in male or female-dominated industries.

Homophobia and transphobia can also have a detrimental impact on productivity and profitability. In Australia, lesbian and gay marketing specialist firm Out Now estimates the financial benefits associated with encouraging closeted workers to come out could be as much as A$285 million per year. This includes an 11% increase in staff retention and 30% improvement in the productivity of closeted workers.

Research from the US shows companies that adopt LGBTI-supportive policies achieve higher productivity and profitability resulting in a greater growth in their share price. This is compared to companies that are not supportive of their LGBTI employees. So LGBTI inclusion makes good business sense.

What should business do?


Over the past decade, companies have made significant progress towards creating more inclusive workplaces for LGBTI employees. And this is having a pay-off for all employees, as a recent review of LGBTI studies shows.

Research shows that inclusive leaders play a critical role in unlocking the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace. Having an inclusive leader who is a member of a minority group may reduce unconscious bias towards this minority group.

So it follows that having visible LGBTI senior leaders in an organisation could help to reduce homophobic and transphobic attitudes and demonstrate a more inclusive culture within the organisation.

Research in social psychology has also found that clear instructions to avoid stereotyping can be an effective way to reduce unconscious bias. Therefore, a firm and consistent message on LGBTI inclusion from supervisors, managers and executives, may minimise unconscious bias and stereotyping towards LGBTI employees.

Companies can also create an LGBTI-inclusive workplace by developing and implementing specific LGBTI-inclusive policies and practices. Examples of this include providing information and support to LGBTI employees (such as establishing a LGBTI network) and also making the support of LGBTI inclusive initiatives visible to all their employees, business partners and the community.

Businesses can also create diversity champions, employees who model inclusive behaviour and positive attitudes towards LGBTI employees. These champions can create a safe space for LGBTI individuals. This practice is increasingly common in sports.

Homophobia is costly to individuals, businesses and the community. Unfortunately, it is still prevalent and needs to be addressed both within and outside the workplace. Leaders, organisations and the community should work together to tackle homophobia and achieve equality.


Cathy Brown contributed to this article. She is the Policy and Research Manager at Diversity Council Australia and is also an Authorised Marriage Celebrant.
Raymond Trau, Lecturer, RMIT University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Gas crisis? Energy crisis? The real problem is lack of long-term planning

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The long view: energy policy needs to stay firmly focused on the horizon. Mattinbgn/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA




If you’ve been watching the news in recent days, you’ll know we have an energy crisis, partly due to a gas crisis, which in turn has triggered a political crisis. The Conversation

That’s a lot of crises to handle at once, so lots of solutions are being put forward. But what do people and businesses actually need? Do they need more gas, or cheaper prices, or more investment certainty, or all or none of the above? How do we cut through to what is really important, rather than side details?

The first thing to note is that what people really care about is their energy costs, not energy prices. This might seem like a pedantic distinction, but if homes and businesses can be helped to waste less energy, then high prices can be offset by lower usage.

The second thing to note is that energy has become very confusing. A host of short- and long-term problems have developed over decades of policy failure, meaning that there is no single solution.
Take gas prices, which were indirectly responsible for South Australia’s blackouts last month. Last week, SA Premier Jay Weatherill responded by unveiling a A$550-million plan including a new state-owned gas power station, while Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull claimed to have secured a promise of secure domestic supply from gas producers.

Short-term thinking


It is crucial to keep the ultimate goals in focus, or else our short-term solutions could exacerbate long-term problems.

For electricity, we want to avoid blackouts and limit prices and overall costs. We need to do this in ways that allow us to meet our climate constraints, so we need solutions with zero or very low greenhouse emissions.

For gas, we need to ensure enough supply for local demand, at reasonable prices, and give large consumers the opportunity to negotiate contracts over reasonable time frames.

This means we need to allocate more of our gas to local consumers, because increasing overall gas production would just add to our long-term climate problems.

Peak gas and electricity prices are entangled. In our electricity markets, the most expensive generator needed to maintain supply in a given period sets the price for all the generators. So if an expensive gas generator sets a high price, all of the coal and renewable energy generators make windfall profits – at the consumer’s expense.

So either we need to ensure gas generators don’t set the price, or that they charge a reasonable price for the power they generate.

Quick fixes


Demand management and energy storage are short-term fixes for high peak prices. Paying some electricity or gas consumers to use less at peak times, commonly called “demand response”, frees up electricity or gas, so prices don’t increase as much.

Unfortunately, policymakers have failed to introduce effective mechanisms to encourage demand response, despite the recommendations of numerous policy reviews over the past two decades. This is a serious policy failure our politicians have not addressed. But it could be fixed quickly, with enough political will.

Energy storage, particularly batteries and gas storage, can be introduced quickly (within 100 days, if Tesla’s Elon Musk is to be believed). Storage “absorbs” excess energy at times of low demand, and releases it at times of shortage. This reduces the peak price by reducing dependence on high-priced generators or gas suppliers, as well as reducing the scope for other suppliers to exploit the shortage to raise prices.

The same thinking is behind Turnbull’s larger proposal to add new “pumped hydro” capacity to the Snowy Hydro scheme, although this would take years rather than weeks.

Thus South Australia’s plan, which features battery storage and changes to the rules for feeding power into the grid, addresses short-term problems. Turnbull’s pumped hydro solution is longer-term, although his handshake deal with gas suppliers may help in the short term.

The long view


When we consider the long term, we must recognise that we need to slash our carbon emissions. So coal is out, as is any overall expansion of natural gas production.

Luckily, we have other affordable long-term solutions. The International Energy Agency, as well as Australian analysts such as ClimateWorks and Beyond Zero Emissions, see energy efficiency improvement as the number-one strategy – and in many cases, it actually saves us money and helps to offset the impact of higher energy prices. Decades of cheap gas and electricity mean that Australian industry, business and households have enormous potential to improve energy efficiency, which would save on cost.

We can also switch from fossil gas to biogas, solar thermal and high-efficiency renewable electricity technologies such as heat pumps, micro-filtration, electrolysis and other options.

Renewable energy (not just electricity) can supply the rest of our needs. Much to the surprise of many policymakers, it is now cheaper than traditional options and involves much less investment risk. Costs are continuing to fall.

But we need to supplement renewable energy with energy storage and smart demand management to ensure reliable supply. That’s where options such as pumped hydro storage, batteries and heat-storage options such as molten salt come in.

This is why the crisis is more political than practical. The solutions are on offer. It will become much more straightforward if politicians free themselves from being trapped in the past and wanting to prop up powerful incumbent industries.

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.