Terror:

“Alex” writes: Re. “Terror edition of The Australian was on the streets at 1.30am” (yesterday, item 1). Why are the media not questioning this matter? Because when it comes to police and security matters, they behave like tarts. They also want to be players in the game and the police, who are master manipulators, use the media to make themselves look good.

The AFP are notorious for leaking information on planned raids so they can be on camera and look gung ho. They did it again in Melbourne this week when the AFP leaked to The Australian who had the raid up on their website at 1.30am, hours before it started. There is no love lost between the State police and the AFP— in fact they hate the AFP. The Staties are real police while the AFP are just glorified security guards, mainly chasing dope peddlers.

On the matter of these “dangerous terrorists”, just how much of a threat were they? Real terrorists actually do something, they carry out their attacks. What were these guys doing for the last five months? Planning to infiltrate an Army base. Big deal. It seems these guys are Muslim versions of David Hicks, seriously misguided incompetents who are no real threat to anyone.

I spent 25 years in the ADF and later in an area connected to national intelligence, holding the highest level of security clearance. We have be prepared for some form of terrorism in Australia but these arrests of low level amateurs should not attract the overblown publicity that the AFP and their sister incompetents, ASIO, seek.

Niall Clugston writes: Re. Yesterday’s editorial. Your editorial states “Our counter-terrorism laws are already draconian enough without unaccountable security agencies being given the right to prevent the press doing the critical job of scrutinising their activities”. But what the Australian was doing was the very opposite of scrutiny. It was sensationalist reporting of information leaked from those same “unaccountable security agencies”.

The “public interest” would not have been harmed if the media had waited for the suspects to be charged. In practice, however, the media has very interest in following these stories through, much less “scrutinising” them.

Godwin Grech:

Martin Gordon writes: Re. “Turnbull’s ego is at the heart of ute-gate backfire” (yesterday, item 10). It’s fairly predictable that the Labor Government will string out the so-called utegate affairs into a personal attack on Malcolm Turnbull and claim vindication from the Auditor-Generals report. It will claim poor judgement by Turnbull (and possibly corrupt political practices with the fake email — although that is hard to claim).

Meanwhile in Queensland (Rudd and Swan’s home state) the Labor Party is embroiled in an ever expanding scandal of favours for money and mates (sounds like utegate!). As an auditor I know the Auditor-General’s report will really say nothing, because it can’t comment on the politics and irregularities involved in Treasurers intervention in a case, and in particular the extraordinary fax volumes to his home (on average 10 everyday).

While the media keeps the ALP-line focus on the Opposition, the Labor Party cronyism will continue unchallenged and unnoticed. The ALP has approved $6.4B of discretionary grants of taxpayers’ money in the first six months of this year ($35m a day, or about twice aged care spending per day), a rate about five times that of the Coalition per day when in election mode, or about nine times that over the 2002-2007 period. One ALP classic nearly $3m for a Labor Party shrine at the Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine.

Mungo MacCallum writes: Bernard Keane is right as far as he goes but he does not take his argument to the obvious conclusion. There are times in politics when the only sane course of action is to eat a shit sandwich — all other possibilities lead to disaster. Malcolm Turnbull insists that he was an honest victim, he just believed what he was told. Does he really really plan to present himself to the electorate as alternative Prime Minister under the banner: “Vote for the mug who was conned by a loony named Godwin Grech?”

Ken Dousha writes: Re. “Godwin Grech: an incomparable disaster for the public service” (yesterday, item 2). This Godwin Grech email case greatly disturbs me. Not that a senior public servant has done this, as political ties between senior public servants politicians often occur e.g. Max the Axe. What disturbs me is that a senior public servant who has obvious mental problems has been promoted to a position where he can deal with politicians and the media.

What action is being taken against those who selected the mentally unstable Mr Grech? Are there other public servants suffering mental problems in positions of influence and power? Is this selection of mentally unstable staff for promotion just in Finance or common in the APS? I think that Crikey should look into the mental capacity of all senior public servants! This affects the operations of our whole Government!

The Chaser:

Courtney Gibson, Executive Head of Content Creation, ABC, writes: Re. “Tips and rumours” (yesterday, item 8). For the record, and contrary to the item in Tips and Rumours yesterday, I was not the executive in charge of production for the Make a Realistic Wish episode of The Chaser’s War on Everything and neither the script nor the finished segment were upwardly referred to me.

Sectarianism reborn in Crikey:

Ray Cassin writes: Re. “Rundle: Turnbull is dead” (Tuesday, item 2). Guy Rundle wrote: ”Like many of a certain type of Roman Catholic, and Turnbull is the same, Abbott is a man without a soul who outsources its provisioning to the most dependable outfit around — and one that, unlike Protestantism or Islam, doesn’t demand that you make much of an effort to change your nature.”

If ”a certain type of Jew” were to be substituted for ”a certain type of Roman Catholic” in the above sentence, it would be seen immediately as the piece of sectarian bigotry that it is. Would Crikey have published it?

The line betrays Guy’s wilful ignorance as well as his prejudice. He is well read in the history of Western culture, and ought to know that the central objection to Catholicism put forward by Luther, Calvin and other 16th century Protestant reformers is the opposite of what he states. Their view was that it is impossible for people to ”change their nature”, because only the grace of God can do that. They rejected the Catholic teaching that people have the capacity, and therefore the obligation, to cooperate with that grace.

So apparently, in the Rundle world view, Catholics are to be reviled for their supposed adherence to a teaching that is not theirs, and which is offered as explanation for the misjudgements and character flaws of two politicians who happen to be Catholics. This is intellectually shoddy as well as offensive, and Crikey shames itself by publishing it.

Microsoft:

Sam Varghese writes: Re. “eCrime: the bad guys pwn the internet” (Tuesday, item 15). Just wondering why Stilgherrian with all the right geek language (pwned etc), did not provide the one piece of insightful data that even a third rate security practitioner like me knows to be true — that Microsoft Windows is at the heart of most of these problems. And, without insulting the gentleman’s intelligence, it has nothing to do with the fact that Windows is the most widely used computer operating system.

I just hope that this omission has nothing to do with the Microsoft ads and sponsorship that Crikey often receives. Just hoping, you know.

Facebook:

Michael Cordover writes: Re. “Tips and rumours” (yesterday, item 8). Regarding your tip on Facebook being the most visited site at Morningstar Global, this may be a trick of the light. Due to the Web 2.0 nature of Facebook and their liberal use of a technology known as AJAX, simply logging in will generate about 100 requests, all of which will show up in the proxy server logs.

Googling Morningstar Global generates three while loading Crikey generates around 65. Keep in mind too that Facebook automagically refreshes every minute or so. You can really prove anything with statistics.

Petratherm:

Terry Kallis, Managing Director, Petratherm, writes: Re. “Tips and rumours” (Tuesday, item 8). Just a quick email to address the tip in Crikey that Australian Ethical had “removed itself” as a substantial investor in geothermal energy company Petratherm. This is incorrect.

Australian Ethical has in recent months increased its shareholding from about 2% of the issued capital of the company to about 5% or 4.4 million shares as of July 31, 2009. In the past week, 2.5 million options in Petratherm were exercised, which effectively diluted the percentage of shares in the company held by Australian Ethical — but NOT the quantum of its shares, which I am pleased to report remains at about 4.4 million.

Climate change and the Pacific:

Michael James writes: Re. “Special report: In the Pacific, they’re not waving, they’re drowning” (yesterday, item 6). While Katherine McGrow is correct that some of these Pacific atolls are drowning, like all things in this field, it is devilish difficult to ascribe the phenomenon to climate change. Especially at Tuvalu as sea-level rise simply is not enough — though the stats are also in contention because of conflicting data from older versus newer instrumentation.

After adjusting for the subsiding of the actual site of the gauges (an older one of the University of Hawaii; a newer one by Australia’s National Tidal Centre), John Hunter, a climatologist from the University of Tasmania, found a rise of about 1.2mm per year, consistent with the global average reported by the IPCC. And not near enough to account for such dramatic flooding. It may be frustrating but the experts say “We’re going to be waiting around for a fair while before our estimates of sea-level rise become statistically meaningful.” Just like global temperature rise.

As was discussed several years ago (A sinking feeling, News Feature, Nature, 440:734-736, 2006) in the case of Tuvalu, and probably by extension in many similar environs around the Pacific, the inundations are most probably a combination of several man-made effects. Most notable is the mining of off-shore stone and corals for building materials as the people have changed from temporary huts — made from coconut palm etc — to more solid permanent structures. Combined with trash-filled lagoons this “beach mining” disables the protective effect of the fringing reefs against king tides.

But, despite the dramatic video the TV news reports love to show of the tide flooding in from the sea, actually the most damaging flooding with sea-water comes from the inside out. It percolates up through the porous limestone inland. This may be due to over-exploitation of groundwater and subsequent ground subsidence. (Lest we get too judgmental of the Pacific Islanders, something very similar is what has caused the sinking of Venice: dredging deep channels for giant cruise liners to come right into the Venice lagoon — allowing the king tides much greater ingress — and massive over-pumping of groundwater in the highly industrialized areas around the mainland edge of the lagoon causing the entire Veneto to subside. Americans are trying hard to do the same in parts of Florida.)

On top of these man-made issues are the normal coming-and-going of such sand and coral atolls. The causes are complex and the solutions even more uncertain, and in the end Climate Change may be not be their main concern because their fate will in all likelihood be determined well before then.

Tamas Calderwood writes: Katherine McGrow concludes her special report on Global Warming and the Pacific saying “by 2050, the International Organisation for Migration says, we can expect around 200 million people to be displaced by the effects of climate change. And that’s really not so far away.” No, but what is far away is any connection between these scare stories and some actual global warming.

The UAH data shows global warming has mostly occurred in the Northern Hemisphere in the past 31 years (a trend rise of 0.58C) while the temperature of the Southern Hemisphere — scene of the catastrophe so vividly described by Katherine — rose only 0.18C in the past 31 years. If the same trend holds (and it won’t, because the Earth is now in a cooling phase) the South Pacific will be a terrifying 0.23C warmer by 2050 and Earth will be an unbearable 0.5C warmer.

To help visualise this crisis, here is a chart I have made showing the 0.38C trend rise in Earth’s temperature over the past 31 years:

Patenting:

Bruce Graham writes: Re. “Patenting “mungbeanium” will never prevent research on mung beans” (yesterday, item 15). Glen Gordon’s comments on patent law must strike a chord with many of his clients. I see the same mountain from a different side.  It was fashionable for many years to point out that countries with strong IP laws had a higher economic growth rate than those without. That particular lobby has become silent since China took over as the leading light of the world economy.

One of the most successful industries for the past 20 years is computer software. It is notable that the fastest growing section of that in the last 10 years has been “open source”, which is based on licences that deliberately turn copyright inside-out, guaranteeing freedom to copy and modify, and requiring that such freedom be passed on to all subsequent users. Open source has not been the most profitable, but the software produced is proving to be the most secure. Do we want innovative productive and secure software for all, or a profitable software industry? As a net software importer, might not the “creative commons” approach of open source provide more economic benefit to Australia?

On matters of health care, it seems clear that countries where a pure profit motive is dominant (such as the USA and some third world countries) provide inferior health care at higher cost, than those with mixed systems (including most other western countries). There is substantial concern that the pure profit motive has become very problematic in drug research — leading to high stakes drug development and concomitant incentive for large scale corporate fraud.The trajectory of COX II inhibitors such as rofecoxib (VIOXX(tm)) is one of many examples.

Intellectual property law (both patent and copyright) has for almost all of its history been in the thrall of those who see knowledge as property which can be owned. The success of this approach has waxed and waned — the “first”‘ American patent rush of the early 19th century is a famous failure. Claims that patenting genes is good, or claims that the idea of testing a specific gene for a specific disease should be patentable, deserve to be viewed with an understanding of these contrasting possibilities.

Gene testing is one of the new health care “infrastructure” issues. Much disease (and its ideal treatment) has genetic basis. Ownership of a test, is ownership of the health that derives from that test. The social cost of providing such tests to some, but not others, is unacceptable. Pure public ownership, or public-private-partnership, are viable models. Private first-come-best-dressed monopoly is not. Patents for all gene tests might be compulsorily licensed on a cost plus basis, with public funding.

Alternately, the development of gene testing (like the development of roads) needs not so much innovation, as systematic and predicable funding by public tender. It might be that a liberalisation of the compulsory licensing provisions would have an effect which would find acceptable, but I doubt if Mr Gordon’s clients would agree. Mr Gordon asserts that preventing patents on genes per se would have little practical effect.

This ( if true) is all the more reason that the industry should find it painless to let go of that clearly very emotive property right. He is correct to say that patents per se cannot prevent pure research, but seems disingenuous in failing to acknowledge that well resourced owners of IP use the threat of marginally plausible litigation to discourage even clearly legal activities. Perhaps the industry might consider funding a public interest litigation pool to protect against this. (Or perhaps not — such idealism is thin on the ground).

Since commercial research can be prevented, and since all researchers at least hope that somewhere something they do might be worth something to somebody, the “pure research” safe harbor provides almost no shelter. This is a practical reason genes themselves should not be patented.

There are benefits to treating knowledge as property. The present trajectory of law is, however, in direct conflict with those who wish to share knowledge about health freely for common good. Does Australia want a health industry, or a health service? And if we want an industry, will we help it by creating arbitrary protections with high stakes for the first (rather than the best) answers?

Simon Wilkins writes: I am concerned that in the debate between Patent Attorney Glen Gordon and the Cancer Council’s Prof Oliver, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Most importantly, with regards to academic research, lawyers are perfectly capable of finding ways to show that ANY research program has a commercial component. This has already happened in the US, where academic researchers have been prosecuted for “patent infringement”, on the basis that publication of research papers and awarding of research grants was argued to be a commercial interest (i.e. the “business” of running a University department, attracting fee-paying students, etc.).

This should serve as a caveat for our own system. It is no mere coincidence that the same country that accepts academic research is a commercial enterprise is also the country with some of the highest costs for medical treatment.

Lipton:

Unilever Australasia’s Corporate Responsibility & Communications Manager Sarah Clarry writes: Re. “Tea time: not so green, Lipton” (Tuesday, item 25). Tim Wallace’s article yesterday (reprinted from an April post on his blog) raises some questions about Unilever’s motivation for seeking Rainforest Alliance certification for its Lipton tea brand, and quotes international union websites alleging poor treatment of workers in Unilever Pakistan’s tea factory.

I will address each of Tim Wallace’s concerns in turn.

To provide a backdrop to Unilever’s decision, the tea industry has been in decline for around three decades. Tropical forests have made way for a single-series monoculture, prices have been falling, crop quality and therefore production levels have declined, and there have been concerns about workers’ pay and conditions. Unilever realised that in order to have a sustainable tea industry into the future, far-reaching changes needed to occur across every aspect of tea production.

1) Full certification of tea

Unilever sources 12% of the world’s black tea supply, or 300,000 tonnes. In Kenya alone, where more than 10% of the population is involved in tea growing, there are more than 400,000 small holders producing tea. Certifying all of these estates takes a vast amount of time and resources. They need to be visited, audited and have recommended improvements implemented before certification is granted. It is not feasible that Unilever would be able to achieve 100% certification within two years (the announcement about the Rainforest Alliance certification was made globally in 2007). As it stands, the stated commitment to have all Lipton teabags globally certified by 2015 is an enormous undertaking.

2) Worker conditions in Pakistan

It is correct that Unilever Pakistan employs 22 full time workers at the Khanewal facility, as well as a number of workers that are employed through third party service providers, consistent with local employment law and practice. Unilever Pakistan is in no way unique for having outsourced some of its packing and non-core business operations in this way.

The company has taken steps to ensure that its service providers comply with all statutory requirements under the terms of their agreement with Unilever, including minimum wage, social security and retirement contribution requirements. It also offers canteen, safety, uniform and other welfare facilities at par or superior to local practice. Contrary to the allegations in Tim Wallace’s article, Unilever has recognised the rights of its employees to join a trade union and has been proactive in supporting the legitimate rights of those workers who are hired by its service providers.

The company has entered into a dialogue with local trade union representatives to discuss the issues of outsourcing in the Pakistani market and seek to agree a possible way forwards that can allay the concerns of all involved. Unilever has a long track record of operating responsibly and with integrity in the many countries in which it does business, and objects to the characterisation of Unilever as portrayed by the FNV. The company has prepared an extensive statement in response to the FNV document ‘Adding Insecurity to Life’, which fully explains its point of view. This is available on the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre website as well as Unilever’s website.

3) The choice of Rainforest Alliance for certification

Rainforest Alliance is an independent NGO with more than 20 years experience in developing and promoting sustainable standards in forestry, agriculture and tourism. Unilever chose Rainforest Alliance’s certification program for a number of reasons. First, Rainforest Alliance has already demonstrated through its work in the banana and coffee industries that it has the ability to help move whole industries, and this is consistent with what Unilever wants to achieve within the tea industry.

Their certification program sees sustainability in the widest sense, encompassing ethical, environmental and economic criteria — all the elements Unilever considers important in assessing the sustainability of its tea plantations. Rainforest Alliance’s certification standards guide farmers toward sustainable farm management and give concrete measures by which to evaluate social and environmental improvements. Its standards protect the environment, the rights and welfare of workers and the interests of local communities.

4) A cheaper certification choice for Unilever

Experience from other industries that have worked with Rainforest Alliance on certification programs (notably coffee and bananas) suggests that farmers will be able to command a premium for their tea, thereby reaping significant economic benefits from certification. Globally, the program will benefit up to two million people in Unilever’s supply chain. Globally Unilever expects to be paying €2M more for its tea by 2010, increasing to €5M by 2015. Unilever deemed Rainforest Alliance most appropriate for Lipton in this instance; however we have also worked with Fair Trade, the Marine Stewardship Council, and other credible certification schemes on other brands.

5) “The Rainforest Alliance scheme is often referred to as Fair Trade-lite”

Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance have different objectives. Both schemes have their strengths and weaknesses. They’re complementary, and both further sustainable development, but in different ways. For tea, Lipton decided the Rainforest Alliance’s approach was the most appropriate one to address the issues we face in the tea industry, and to stimulate change and sustainability on a large scale. Because the Rainforest Alliance’s approach is focused on how farms are managed, it was a good fit with the experience that Unilever has gained over the past 10 years with its own sustainable agriculture program.

Fair Trade was founded as an alternative marketing system designed to give disadvantaged, small-scale farmers a guaranteed price for their products. Rainforest Alliance engages with all the types of farms from which Unilever sources — from small cooperatives and family farms to large estates owned by large corporations — as a means of promoting change at many levels and of ensuring that all agricultural workers are well treated.

Unfortunately some people see certification schemes as a zero-sum game — if Rainforest Alliance wins, then Fair Trade loses. This is doing a disservice to both schemes. Consumers are better served by focussing on the difference between credibly certified and non-certified goods.

Both are members of ISEAL (www.isealalliance.org). The ISEAL Alliance is an association of leading voluntary international standard-setting and conformity assessment organisations that focus on social and environmental issues, including Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade, Forest Stewardship Council, IFOAM (organic) and the Marine Stewardship Council. ISEAL Alliance members collaborate to build international recognition and legitimacy for their programs.

While it’s important that people are able publicly scrutinise the claims of consumer goods companies such as Unilever, it is equally important that information presented under the guise of independent reporting be an accurate reflection of the facts.

Send your comments, corrections, clarifications and c*ck-ups to [email protected]. Preference will be given to comments that are short and succinct: maximum length is 200 words (we reserve the right to edit comments for length). Please include your full name — we won’t publish comments anonymously unless there is a very good reason.

Peter Fray

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