South Australia’s Blackout and the Climate Debate.

Since September of last year, here in Australia, the debate regarding climate change and renewable energy has hotted up. First of all to give you all a bit of background.

On Wednesday evening, the 28th of September 2016, a severe storm system passed through South Australia causing a state-wide blackout. The storm of words and accusations that resulted focused on whether the push by the South Australian government to move towards renewable sources of energy was to blame. Premier Jay Weatherill was quick to point out that the latest blackout, which saw the entire state plunged into darkness, was a “weather event”, not a “renewable energy event” but it has drawn attention to issues with the state’s electricity network.

The state gets 40 per cent of its electricity from renewable energy but there are now concerns wind and solar will not be enough to provide reliable electricity. The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, weighed into the debate saying that several state Labor governments — not just in SA — had set “extremely aggressive, extremely unrealistic” targets for renewable energy use.

Mr Weatherill said the blackout appeared to be related to severe “almost cyclonic force winds” and 80,000 lightning strikes that battered the state about 3.48pm. The strong winds and lightning strikes damaged power transmission towers, mainly in the mid-north of the state. ElectraNet, which owns the transmission towers, said 23 towers appeared to have been damaged, including three out of the four transmission lines moving power between Adelaide and the north of South Australia.

The damage triggered an automatic cut at the interconnector, which as the name suggests, links South Australia and Victoria. It allows the states to share electricity, and acts like a large surge protector, which automatically cuts off supply if there is a fault in the system to protect the entire system from being damaged. South Australia gets its electricity from wind, solar and gas but no longer has coal power after Alinta’s Northern Power Station and Playford A station at Port Augusta closed in May.

At the time, Australian Energy Council chief executive Matthew Warren said the closure would mean the state would need to rely on renewable energy and the interconnector that provides electricity from Victoria for base-load power. “The reality for South Australians is that we’re in uncharted waters,” Mr Warren said in May. “There’s an increased level of risk that we really haven’t seen before anywhere in the world, so it doesn’t mean we’ll have more blackouts, hopefully if we’re smart we can sort out solutions so power supply can be the same as usual, but it’s an increased risk.”

ElectraNet acknowledged South Australia had relied on Victorian power for a long time. “We always rely to some extent on the Victorian interconnector, it’s been there for some 25-30 years, it is part of our supply mix,” an ElectraNet spokesman Paul Roberts told ABC at the time. “Many times other supply will kick in and there’s always stuff on standby, but in this case it may well have been the size of the load.”

The closures of the Port Augusta power stations was partly blamed on the rise of renewable energy sources and an oversupply of power in the National Electricity Market. Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said he thought that SA had become too reliant on renewables and independent SA Senator Nick Xenophon has called for an inquiry into what happened. But Mr Weatherill has blamed people’s “political agendas” for the “ignorant remarks”, noting that Mr Joyce hated wind farms. “I mean this is a weather event, not a renewable energy event, and the truth is this, when there’s a crisis people pull out their agendas.”

This issue was a concern for me as I believe that Climate Change due to human activity is a reality and renewable energy is the way to go. So I posted an article in our latest JPIC Newsletter in May of this year, 2017, entitled, “Clean Coal.” I used, as my source material, an article from the website of an organisation called, ‘The Australian Climate Council.’ The article I wrote read as follows:

When dug up and burned, coal pollutes the environment and damages our health. Burning coal for electricity emits toxic and carcinogenic substances into our air, water and land, severely impacting on the health of miners, workers and communities. The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering estimated coal’s health impacts cost taxpayers $2.6 billion every year.

More efficient coal plants labeled “ultra supercritical” (what the Federal Government calls “clean coal”) emit significant greenhouse gases. A new high-efficiency coal plant run on black coal would produce about 80% of the emissions of an equivalent old plant, while


renewables (e.g. wind and solar) emit zero emissions.  

So-called “clean coal” does not help Australia meet its obligations to reduce its emissions 26-28% by 2030 below 2005 levels.

Building new coal plants is far from the cheapest option for replacing Australia’s ageing, inefficient coal fleet. New wind and solar plants both in Australia and overseas are beating new coal, gas and nuclear plants hands down on price. AGL’s Silverton Wind Farm will deliver power to the grid at a price of $65 per MWh compared to new coal potentially costing as much as $160.

Also fossil fuels drive climate change, and
 that is bad news for all of us. It means more extreme weather events such as catastrophic bushfires, severe storms and deadly heatwaves. Climate change endangers homes, businesses, communities and us. It even led to an entire state being plunged into darkness when storms in South Australia took out over 20 transmission towers.

This is why the whole world is moving away from coal. They are shutting down existing coal-fired power stations, and embracing renewable energy.

A good friend of mine, and a one-time student in formation with the Passionists, Steve McDonald, with whom I often have great debates over these issues, received a copy of the newsletter (which incidentally can be accessed through this blog as with all back issues of the JPIC newsletter). Steve is quite passionate about the need for hard science in this debate as opposed to what he sees as propaganda. He wrote me of his concerns, on reading it, so I sent him a link to the Australian Climate Council website from which I sourced the material. Having been a scientist myself before joining the Passionists, I do respect his views. So below is his well considered response, which I offer you, the reader, to consider your own opinion on this matter:

Hi Ray,

Interesting article.…. It has many errors, is internally inconsistent and frequently uses emotive language to promote it cause, sounds a lot like propaganda to me. And unfortunately such propaganda prevents us from moving to a less carbon intensive economy as quickly as we could because it scares away rational investment.

Just a couple of things to note about it:

  • It blames the storm for the power outage in SA and coal because it is responsible for the storm. Are they seriously suggesting we didn’t have storms like this in the early 20th century? because I would bet the weather records show quite a few.
  • They claim coal is no good because it relies on a big distribution grid, well unfortunately so do Hydro and Wind and even Solar today because battery storage is as yet uneconomical for the average suburban household.
  • They argue that coal is dangerous and therefore not secure, frankly this is grasping at straws, from what I can see we have very successfully run coal powered plants for over 100 years with a very high degree of security, in fact much more than SA just experienced depending on wind.
  • They promote greater interconnection as a solution to energy security and stability – unfortunately this requires the grid which they have just argued is a problem we have with coal fired plants.
  • They of course promote battery storage but batteries in large part depend on lithium at the moment its a very expensive metal mined at concentrations of 1% – 3% in ore which means you move a massive amount of waste to get a tonne of ore which then contains around 30kgs of lithium. This is expensive and uses lots of energy to mine and process, there is also only a relatively small amount of know lithium reserves in the world so it would be interesting to work out how much electricity we could actually store in batteries if we mined it all, I would bet a lot less than we need. I’m all for battery storage it makes renewable energy much more useful but lets look at the whole equation not present it as an answer to everything without adequate research. You can also use lead acid batteries but the environmental aspects of that are pretty horrible as well.
  • The $65Mwh they quote for the Silverton project is based upon what they sell it to the grid at not what the real cost is. This project claims Large Scale Generating Certificates and sells them on the market to subsidies this number. This is basically a dishonest comparison to a coal cost which they note at $80Mwh, the certificates trade at a varying rate which has been between $80 – $90 per Mwh over the last year hence the real cost at Silverton is likely to be around $145Mwh. I think this more than anything else shows you that this is an article that is designed to hide the truth not reveal it.
  • They then go on to say that coal could cost $160Mwh which is directly contradicted by their own words when they say it is currently costing $80Mwh. Of course they speculate this as a future cost but all energy sources are likely to go up in price over time so this is just plain scaremongering.
  • The Mundine article I sent you uses a far more reliable measure of the relative cost of energy generation called the Levelised Cost of Electricity Generation (LCOE) you will note that these figures are pretty consistent with my calculations above, though wind appears to be cheaper at $103Mwh which suggests that AGL will make a killing at Silverton.
  • It quotes the anti Coal climate institute as an authority on coal generation, this would seem like preaching to the converted to me, and the figures it quotes don’t line up with the costs that they themselves have quoted of $80Mwh.
  • It says that because coal will become obsolete we shouldn’t use it now, well from what I can see lots of technologies become obsolete and that doesn’t stop us using them while they aren’t obsolete. Quite simply if coal fired power stations can be replaced by renewables I would support the government buying them out when that situation exists, unfortunately it doesn’t at the moment and to pretend it does is dangerous.
  • It claims the government has to phase out coal by 2035 to meet its targets, not sure where they get that from but its certainly not what the government is saying.
  • They also claim Victoria will require “Demand Management” what this means is that they will have to have planned blackouts or rationing to large businesses, particularly the aluminum smelters. It will work but I think they are using soft sounding words for something people would not support, again being less than truthful.
  • As the article I sent you yesterday shows the world is not generating less electricity from coal and isn’t likely to for a very long time. There are countries like China that are closing old dirty plants and opening newer cleaner coal plants, I think this is a good thing but it doesn’t mean that they are depending less on coal than they currently are.
  • The claim that Ultra Super Critical Coal won’t help Australia meet its greenhouse targets is just plain illogical if you generate the same amount of electricity but generate less carbon doing it then it will lower Australia’s overall carbon emissions, I can’t figure out how anyone could conclude anything else.
  • Finally their list of authorities is pretty thin quoting selectively from various authorities many of whom seem to be other green lobby groups and even the ABC on one article but conveniently ignoring the fact that the ABC published several articles on the SA blackout that said the primary reason for it happening was the high dependence on renewable energy.

Sorry to rant at you again but it upsets me greatly when people use very selective “facts” to support their own argument and refuse to look at things in a logical and scientific manner. The great pity about this is that it causes us to go backwards not forwards in our search for a low carbon economy because only certain solutions are “acceptable”, this is a very poor scientific process at least as I understand it.

On another front there is a very interesting article on the ABC today about a potential advance in the use of Hydrogen from the CSIRO, this would be excellent news if it can work on a commercial scale and I trust the CSIRO much more than I do the Climate Council, however, currently this would be expensive and only a solution for first world countries which isn’t really where the carbon emissions growth is unfortunately.

No doubt you will try and convince me that my views above are incorrect on Saturday, I look forward to it!

Regards, Steve




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A Human Face on Asylum Seekers

The global refugee crisis could not have come at a worse time for them given the current fears fuelled by the recent terrorist activity world-wide. Indeed, earlier this week, One Nation Leader Senator Pauline Hanson wrote to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to call for a return to policies from the Second World War for internment camps to be set up for those on terror “watch lists” who should be interned to neutralise their possible threat. While Australia does not have a specific ‘terror watch list’ there are ongoing terror investigations.

Last month Senator Hanson attempted to link terrorism to Middle Eastern refugees. She quizzed ASIO’s Director-General of Security, Duncan Lewis, asking, “Do you believe that the threat is being brought in possibly from Middle Eastern refugees that are coming out to Australia?” Mr. Lewis responded, “I have absolutely no evidence to suggest there’s a connection between refugees and terrorism.”

Amidst the fear that terrorist attacks ferment, the tragedy is we lose the human face of those who seek asylum in Australia or other countries around the world. In last month’s JPIC newsletter I shared the story about how Australian singer and song writer, Missy Higgins, was so moved by the story of 3-year old Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body, still in red T-shirt and shorts, was found lying face down on a beach in Turkey in September of 2015, that she wrote a song as an awareness raiser. The boy was among 23 migrants who Turkish naval officials said had set off in 2 small boats from the Bodrum peninsula in a failed attempt to reach the Greek island of Kos, where thousands of migrants had arrived in those weeks.

It appears that his family may have been trying to reach Canada. In the June of that year, newspapers reported, Aylan’s family had been desperately trying to get permission to emigrate to Canada where the boy’s father, Abdullah’s sister lived in Vancouver, but their refugee application was rejected by Canadian authorities.

Missy Higgins first saw the photos while in her living room, nursing her newborn son. She was deeply shocked and overwhelmed by emotion, and realised she wanted to write about it. She wrote a song that tells the story of Aylan and his family’s escape told from the perspective of his father. The song, “Oh Canada,” and film clip are easily accessed on Youtube. Missy Higgins donated the profits from the song to the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre.

David Peter Folkes, an ex-Passionist from our province, on reading this story in our newsletter, wrote to me and shared with me a story he told on an ABC Darwin morning show, later it rebroadcast on ABC’s national Kathy Kelly show. He told this story on the ABC program wanting to put a human face on one refugee family in the hope that it might be a pebble into the pond of public opinion:

“It was in 2012, and I was visiting one of the Detention Centres each day.  St Vincent de Paul had a contract with the Federal Government Immigration Services to do humanitarian visits to a family detention centre, euphemistically called “The Darwin Airport Lodge.”  Eventually certain asylum seekers from that Centre were allowed to be accompanied to events in the community, like to attend church, concerts, cultural events and even Saturday market.

I had permission to accompany an Iranian family—father, mother, son (15) and young daughter (6) on a Saturday morning. We headed off to the Parap Market, where I hoped they would meet fellow Iranians, or at least other Persian or Arabic speakers. I described where we went and what we saw to the son, whose English was quite good, and he translated for the parents. They all loved seeing the rich variety of cultural life and food at the market, and the little girl was delighted to see the pretty beads and flowers.  She took my hand and danced along, jabbering excitedly all the time, as if I understood. She captured my heart right then and there. 

From there we went to the beachfront.  We all got out and looked back across the bay to the City of Darwin, on a beautiful crystal clear day.  The little girl played hopscotch (in Persian), and the parents sat on a rock under a tree quietly talking.

Then I saw the young boy, hanging his arms and torso over the fence, looking out to sea, quiet for a long time. I hung over the fence beside him, and eventually he pointed out to sea and whispered, “there are people in there.”  

I asked what he meant. 

“My Nephew is in there.”  Long pause. 

“When we left Malaysia, my mother’s family, two sisters, husband and four children were on the next boat. Three days ago they went down in a storm, and all were lost.  My nephew was 15.”  

“My closest friend is in there.” 

We hung some more.  I shoulder-hugged him, and we moved on.

On the way back, they wanted to look at a new car lot. Each posed for photos with their favourite, laughed and shared their dreams.

Last Summer, my fiancé and I travelled from our home in America to Australia, and spent quite some time in Darwin.  The camps were closed.  No more men.  No more women and children.  No more slivers of hope for the young families who must look for safe harbour on other shores.

Most mornings we walked to the beach, and looked out to sea, where—in too many places—too many people had been lost. It was, and is, unfathomable. But I can save room in my heart for one little family, four human faces, the imprint of a day that turned out to be the best day of my life.”


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The Price of Palm Oil

If you look up Wikipedia for general information on palm oil, it explains that it is an edible vegetable oil derived from the reddish pulp of the fruit of the oil palms, primarily the African oil palm. Along with coconut oil, palm oil is one of the few highly saturated vegetable fats and is semisolid at room temperature. It is a common cooking ingredient in the tropical belt of Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of Brazil. Its use in the commercial food industry is widespread because of its lower cost and the high oxidative stability (saturation) of the refined product when used for frying. Palm oil is a commodity in massive demand for its use in a wide range of basic products from ice-cream and chocolate to shampoo and toothpaste.

The use of palm oil in food products has attracted the concern of environmental activist groups as the high oil yield of the trees has encouraged wider cultivation, leading to the clearing of forests in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia to make space for oil-palm monoculture. This has resulted in significant losses to the natural habitat of the orang-utan, of which both species are endangered (one of these, the Sumatran orang-utan, has been listed as critically endangered).

Currently, Amnesty international is conducting a campaign to raise awareness that the reason for its lower cost is that the palm oil industry uses child labour and exploits its workers. Children as young as eight are doing back-breaking work to produce palm oil for household brands that we use everyday. In fact, some of the world’s best known companies, including Nestlé, Colgate-Palmolive and Kelloggs, are using palm oil from Indonesian plantations where child labour is the norm and workers suffer from hard labour and long hours

These big brand producers source palm oil from Wilmar International, one of the largest Indonesian palm oil plantation owners. Most of these companies will tell you that the palm oil they use is ‘sustainable,’ meaning that it is environmentally friendly and that workers are treated fairly. But an investigation by Amnesty International has uncovered some disturbing exploitation of plantation workers including:

  • Children as young as eight are doing hard labour which can cause physical damage. A 10-year-old boy told Amnesty investigators that he works six days a week. He doesn’t go to school and he carries the sack with the loose fruit by himself but can only carry it half full. He reported that he does this also in the rain.
  • Women are forced to work long hours under threat of pay cuts, and are paid below minimum wage – earning as little as $2.50 USD a day in extreme cases.
  • Workers labour for long hours to meet high targets with tasks that are physically demanding, such as cutting fruit from 20-meter-tall palm trees.

The abuse of workers on these plantations is clear – yet these producers are failing to do even basic human rights checks on their supply chain. Something is wrong when six companies turning over a combined revenue of $325 billion in 2015 won’t do something about the abuse of palm oil workers earning a pittance.

The list of companies that Amnesty International names as implicated include:

  • Ben & Jerry’s – in their Chocolate Peppermint Crunch ice cream;
  • Unilever – a Dutch-British transnational consumer goods company co-headquartered in Rotterdam, Netherlands and London, United Kingdom. Its products include food, beverages, cleaning agents and personal care products.
  • Colgate – in its toothpaste;
  • Kelloggs – in their breakfast cereals;
  • Dove – in its soap products
  • Magnum – ice cream;
  • Pantene – in its shampoo;
  • Nestlé – in many of its food products;
  • Head & Shoulders – shampoo;
  • Covergirl Australia – in its cosmetics.

This campaign by Amnesty International is current, so if you want to do something about this issue, go to Amnesty International’s website. It will give you options such as signing petitions, which also can appear of social media such as Facebook and Twitter; sending messages via Facebook or Twitter directly to the companies listed above; or making a donation towards this campaign.

Such exploitation is rife in developing countries because, though the Free Market Economy is touted as the fairest system, with its trickle down economics ideology, the scam is that this is only true in a perfect world where there is total employment. In such a world, say you have 40 people employed in the palm oil industry getting paid $3.00 a day, and 3 companies want to attract workers, they would have to offer more pay or better working conditions to be able to do so. So this means that things continue to improve for workers.

In the real world there is no 100% employment. So in a situation where 20% are fully employed, 30% partially employed, and 50% not employed, and 3 companies want to attract workers, they can offer what they want, as for those unemployed poor wages are better than no wages. So instead of a perfect world where it becomes a race to the top, without 100% employment, in the real world it becomes a race to the bottom.

As a member of ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans) I have a particular interest in this issue as it is a perfect environment for the abuse of slave labour as well. Please join me in supporting this campaign by Amnesty International to stamp out exploitation of children, workers, and the conditions that fuel human trafficking and slave labour.

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Power Over Justice

As members of the Passionist Congregation of the Province of the Holy Spirit, which takes in Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and Vietnam, I can confidently say that my Province has been greatly heartened by the efforts of Pope Francis to put our Church back on track to implementing the reforms of Vatican II. The more traditional elements of our Church have had a good run in holding things back, which, while disappointing for us, can be understood. It is normal to grieve for something that has been part of your life for so long and now you are asked to let go of it. It is also to be expected that they will put up a resistance to the forward direction that Pope Francis is driving. But when that resistance includes holding back the reform of the Church in the area of protecting minors from clerical sexual abuse, that is where they cross the line of justice that cannot be accepted.

On the 1st of March of this year, Marie Collins, an Irish national and one of two survivors of clergy sex abuse who had been appointed to serve on Pope Francis’ Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, resigned from that position. She wrote the following statement for the National Catholic Reporter about her decision:

“The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has had difficulties to overcome in its three years of existence.

Obviously I intend to respect the confidentiality of my former colleagues on the Commission and the work they are doing, but some of the main stumbling blocks that I can mention have already been detailed by Commission members who gave testimony Feb. 23 to Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

These stumbling blocks include: lack of resources, inadequate structures around support staff, slowness of forward movement and cultural resistance. The most significant problem has been reluctance of some members of the Vatican Curia to implement the recommendations of the Commission despite their approval by the pope.

In her testimony, Kathleen McCormack, the Commission’s Australian member, summed up the struggles and emphasized the need to keep hope. “Like water on a rock,” she said, “we’ve just got to keep at it.”

I have come to the point where I can no longer be sustained by hope. As a survivor I have watched events unfold with dismay.

During our first year we had to go forward without an office or staff. Then finding a method by which the Commission could enter into dialogue with Vatican dicasteries was difficult for a very prolonged period.

This was eventually overcome in 2016 when liaison persons for each Vatican department were appointed to be available to interact with the Commission but there was a long delay in this very important area of communication and cooperation.

The Commission’s recommendation for a Tribunal to be put in place whereby negligent bishops could be held accountable was approved by Pope Francis and announced in June 2015. Yet it was found by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as Baroness Sheila Hollins stated to the Royal Commission, to have unspecified “legal” difficulties, and so was never implemented. 

With his motu proprio “As a Loving Mother,” Francis followed up last year with another accountability initiative. This would not only cover negligent bishops but also negligent religious superiors. It was to come into effect Sept. 5 but it is impossible to know if it has actually begun work or not.

The Safeguarding Guidelines template developed by the Commission, intended to be used by bishops’ conferences around the world as a basis for drawing up their own policy documents has not yet been disseminated. The dicastery which has the responsibility for reviewing existing bishops’ conference policy documents and which has its own template is refusing to cooperate with the Commission on the combining of the work.

In his testimony to the Royal Commission, member Bill Kilgallon from New Zealand, who is the Chair of the Guidelines working group, used the analogy of government to understand how this sort of resistance can come about. He spoke of “how jealously government departments guard their own domain and there can be some pushback about taking advice from others.”

The reluctance of some in the Vatican Curia to implement recommendations or cooperate with the work of a commission when the purpose is to improve the safety of children and vulnerable adults around the world is unacceptable.

Is this reluctance driven by internal politics, fear of change, clericalism which instills a belief that ‘they know best’ or a closed mindset which sees abuse as an inconvenience or a clinging to old institutional attitudes?

I do not know the answer but it is devastating in 2017 to see that these men still can put other concerns before the safety of children and vulnerable adults.

The last straw for me, on top of the refusal to cooperate on the Safeguarding Guidelines, has been the refusal, by the same dicastery, to implement one of the simplest recommendations the Commission has put forward to date.

Last year at our request, the pope instructed all departments in the Vatican to ensure all correspondence from victims/survivors receives a response. I learned in a letter from this particular dicastery last month that they are refusing to do so.

I find it impossible to listen to public statements about the deep concern in the church for the care of those whose lives have been blighted by abuse, yet to watch privately as a congregation in the Vatican refuses to even acknowledge their letters! It is a reflection of how this whole abuse crisis in the Church has been handled: with fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors.

When I accepted my appointment to the Commission in 2014, I said publicly that if I found what was happening behind closed doors was in conflict with what was being said to the public I would not remain. This point has come. I feel I have no choice but to resign if I am to retain my integrity.

I know my former colleagues on the Commission will forge on and I hope in time succeed in overcoming the difficulties and bringing the real change that is needed. 

There is still a survivor member in the group, though he is on leave of absence. I do not know if when his term of office ends another survivor will be brought on board. I do hope in whatever way things go forward that a survivor’s voice will be included.

In the past three years I have never had the opportunity to sit and talk to the pope but if I had I would ask him to do three things: 

Give the Commission the responsibility and the power to oversee implementation of the recommendations when they are approved. No matter how much work is put into the recommendations given to the Holy Father and no matter how much he supports them they must be properly implemented to have any effect.
  • Give the Commission an adequate, independent budget to do its work without having each item of expenditure go through the internal Vatican approval process.
  • Remove the restriction on the recruitment of professional staff from outside the Vatican.

                                                                                                   Despite everything I have said, I do believe there is value in the Commission continuing its work. The members are sincerely putting every effort into very important projects with the intention of moving things forward.

Notwithstanding recent disappointing news on the reduction of sanctions for convicted perpetrators, I believe the pope does at heart understand the horror of abuse and the need for those who would hurt minors to be stopped.

Although I do not agree with them, as far as I am aware none of his actions have put a perpetrator back into a position where children would be at risk. If they did I would have a very different view.

Those who appeal to his commitment to mercy in these cases do a disservice to all, including the man himself, who I feel does not appreciate how his actions of clemency undermine everything else he does in this area including supporting the work of the Commission.

I wish my former colleagues well as they go forward. The issue of improving safety of children and vulnerable adults is so important it has to continue no matter the stumbling blocks in its path.”

Marie Collins statement was taken from, and was an exclusive statement given to the NCR for publication.

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Conflict-Minerals Unchained

On the 9th of February of this year, through one of the internet news sources I follow from the USA called, ‘Reader Supported News’ (RSN), I was dismade to read about a leaked Trump Presidential memo that would free US companies to buy ‘Conflict Minerals’ from Central African Warlords. According to the report, Donald Trump was expected to sign trumpthis Presidential Memorandum within days. In effect it suspends a 2010 rule that discouraged American companies from funding conflict and human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo through their purchase of  “conflict minerals.”

I have written on conflict minerals on my Blog a few times in the past. In March of 2015 I published an article entitled, “The Curse of Coltan.” Coltan is short for Columbite Tantelite, which is a dull metallic ore found in major quantities in the eastern areas of The Congo. When refined, Coltan becomes metallic tantalum, a heat-resistant powder that can hold a high electrical charge. These properties make it a vital what_is_coltan_bigelement in creating capacitors, the electronic elements that control current flow inside miniature circuit boards. Tantalum capacitors are used in almost all cell phones, laptops, computers, iPads, flat screen TV’s, pagers and many other electronics.

Coltan is classified as a ‘Conflict Mineral,’ because the global demand for Coltan has fueled a bloody civil war in central Africa; one that has claimed six million lives to date. A UN report claims that all parties involved in the Congolese civil war have been involved in the mining and sale of Coltan. The multimillion-dollar trade of Congolese Coltan and other warnatural resources by foreign armies, rebels, and militias fuels the conflict by motivating armed groups to wage war, and by providing them with cash to do so.

This blog article has received over 500 views since first published and so in March of 2016 I published a follow up article entitled, “Coltan Update.” Then in October of 2016 I published an article entitled, “Cobalt and Congo,” which explained how Cobalt, while not classified as a conflict mineral, is also part of the equation due to its value for the electronics industry and its part is slavery intensive supply chains. Finally, in February of this year I published an article entitled, “Modern Slavery in the Electronics Industry,” which looks at the issue of human trafficking and modern day slavery in the supply chains of the electronics industry.

The leaked memo (document-final), distributed inside the administration, and obtained by The Intercept, directs the Securities and Exchange Commission to temporarily waive the requirements of the Conflict Mineral Rule, a provision of the Dodd Frank Act (the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010), for two years. The reason given in the memo, and which the act allows for, is national security. The idea militiabehind the Act in the first place, which had bipartisan support at the time, was to drain militias of revenue by forcing firms to conduct reviews of their supply chain to determine if contractors used minerals sourced from the militias.

As the RSN reported, human rights advocates, who had celebrated the conflicts rule as a major step forward, were appalled. “Any executive action suspending the U.S. conflict minerals rule would be a gift to predatory armed groups seeking to profit from Congo’s minerals as well as a gift to companies wanting to do business with the criminal and the corrupt,” said Carly Oboth, the policy adviser at Global Witness, in a statement responding to a Reuters article that first reported the move. “It is an abuse of power that the Trump administration is claiming that the law should be suspended through a national security exemption intended for emergency purposes. Suspending this provision could actually undermine U.S. national security.”

Firms such as Intel, Apple, HP, and IBM use advanced chips that contain tantalum, gold, tin, and tungsten – elements that can be mined at low prices in the DRC, where mines are often controlled by militias. American tech companies, such as Intel, lobbied directly against the rule when it was proposed. But since passage of the Act, tech firms have largely used third party business groups to stymie the rule. Trade groups representing major U.S. tech firms and other manufacturers, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, attempted to block the rule through a federal lawsuit. In 2014, a federal court struck down a part of the rule that forced firms to reveal DRC conflict minerals on their corporate websites.

So we can speculate on why Donald Trump wants to suspend the act for reasons of ‘National Security.’ Perhaps the leveling of the playing field, which the rule has produced, has equally disadvantaged those sides in the conflict supported by the US intelligence agencies as well as those opposed by these agencies. Or perhaps ‘National Security’ is the wool being pulled over our eyes, designed to garner favour, or at least a blind eye, from donald-trumpAmericans fearful of terrorism, to allow US companies to increase their profits at the expense of innocent African lives. While we’ve seen this before – US governments for whom the end justifies the means – it should concern us just how low the Trump administration will go to erode all the advances in human rights made over the last 100 years.

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Modern Slavery in the Electronics Industry

The business world most often comes into contact with modern slavery where there are complex global supply chains. Business owners, of course, are primarily motivated by finances. They wish to make a profit – that is to at least cut costs and overheads so as to make their product as cheaply as possible so as to maximise profit. Obtaining the raw materials as cheaply as possible will be most attractive, thus opening the business up to nike-sweatshopssupply chains that involve exploitative labour. Businesses may enter wittingly or unwittingly into the use of supply chains that are not slavery proof.

It is Governments and consumers who are increasingly aware of issues of bonded labour and human rights in supply chains who support, if not demand, that businesses act to implement ethical sourcing programs. It is in the interest of businesses to comply as they can otherwise suffer damage to their reputation and risk losing consumer confidence and market share if they are found to be sourcing from suppliers who use exploitative labour. They may even face legal sanctions if their suppliers are involved in illegal conduct. Businesses obviously wish to avoid these negative consequences which negatively affect their profits. So a good track record of acting ethically can encourage investment and consumer confidence.

Modern slavery affects over 29 million people around the world (Walk Free Global Slavery Index, 2013). The term ‘modern slavery’ describes exploitation so severe that people are not able to leave their place of work. ‘Slavery’ refers to the condition of treating another person as if they were property – something to be bought, sold, traded or even destroyed. People in modern slavery are essentially ‘owned’ by their employers, and are controlled slave-th5lg0r38jthrough a variety of means including massive recruitment debts that they are unable to pay off, and threats of harm if they do try to leave. All work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.
(ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (no.29)). Tragically, more people are in slavery today than when it was legal.

The evidence suggests that the risk of slave labour affects almost every industry – electronics and high tech, steel and automobiles, agriculture and seafood, mining and minerals, garments and textiles, and shipping and transportation. The evidence also suggests that, while modern slavery is illegal in every country in the world, it still occurs in every country in the world.

In previous articles in my blog I have written about Coltan (Columbite Tantelite) and Cobalt, metallic ores used in the electronics industry and mined with slave labour in central Africa. But modern day slavery does not solely exist at the beginning of the supply africachain. One-third of migrant workers in the Malaysian electronics industry, which produces goods for some of the world’s best-known brands, are trapped in forced labour according to new research.

A report by Verité, an NGO working on supply chain accountability, found that forced labour is present in the supply chains of a wide cross-section of household electronics brands, which use Malaysian factories to produce billions of pounds worth of goods every year. The NGO interviewed more than 500 workers and concluded that debt bondage and the illegal confiscation of passports and documents were the main drivers of this “systemic” forced labour, which traps workers in low-paid jobs and prevents them from returning home.

Verité’s investigations found that workers were forced to live in cramped and dangerous accommodation, that female workers experienced sexual abuse by their supervisors, and MDG :  Electronics industry in Malaysia : Women employees on factory line at Flextronicsmigrants were forced to work excessive overtime under the threat of losing their jobs, which would leave them saddled with large debts they couldn’t pay off.

A large number of multinational companies from the US, Europe, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea use Malaysia as their manufacturing base. Thousands of people from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Vietnam and other countries travel to Malaysia every year for work. According to a 2010 Amnesty International report, many enter the workplace at least $1,000 in debt, after being charged high fees by recruitment agents. The interviews or workers conducted by Verité also revealed that although it is gi_78491_veriteillegal under Malaysian law, more than 90% of workers had their passports taken by managers at their place of work or by recruitment agents, with most saying they were unable to get them back.

This year the US state department downgraded Malaysia to the lowest tier of its Trafficking in Persons report, which ranks countries on efforts to end modern-day slavery. In the report, the state department criticised Malaysia for widespread abuse of its 4 million migrant workforce.

Business, however, has the power to end modern slavery in supply chains within a generation through three basic actions:

  • Understanding and commitment – All organisations should understand modern slavery and require their leaders to commit to taking a proactive role in ending it. Government and the private sector should work to make the business environment intolerant of slavery, to drive slavery out of procurement and ‘slavery-proof’ supply chains.
  • Leadership on auditing –
Organisations should reframe their understanding of auditing from a ‘risk and reputational management’ measure, driven by PR teams, to an ethical imperative and essential operational measure driven by Chairpersons, CEOs, CPOs. Organisations should engage reputable, independent auditors to undertake rigorous audits of their supply chains and encourage effective worker/management dialogue.
  • Accountability – Organisations should be accountable for business relationships and work to eliminate vulnerabilities in supply chains. Where modern slavery or other human rights abuse is identified, organisations should take corrective action and work together with suppliers and business partners. The private sector should be transparent about actions taken and lead by example

So how can you take action? Well, like I said at the beginning of this article, it is Governments and consumers who put the pressure on businesses to motivate them to act ethically. If you buy phones, electronics or clothing then there’s a very good chance those products were made in part by forced labour. So you have to take some initiative. You have to go to the brands you like and encourage them to come out of the shadows and deal with 1200x630bfthis issue… If you as consumers tell them that you’re interested in hearing what they have to say about this particular problem it will encourage them to be more open and more transparent. One easy way to do this is to download the ‘Good On You’ app from the Apple App store or from Google play. You can then ask a question of the brand in the Good On You app. The Your Voice feature allows you to send a message to brands urging them to do better on the issues you care about.

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Backward Step on Climate Change

The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency has certainly had an impact on those of us concerned about the environment and Climate Change. Trump has stated that he does not believe Climate Change is actually taking place and has said, “unless somebody151122-donald-trump-smiling-956a_6d624dc0061bbd1233cc33461649ea73-nbcnews-fp-1200-800 can prove something to me, I believe there’s weather.”

The chorus of those expressing concerns include world leaders who were attending the United Nations Conference on Climate Change this year. Throughout the second and final week of COP22, the tenor at the annual conference continued to reverberate with reaction to the U.S. presidential election.

“It is essential that the United States, the greatest economic power in the world, the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, respects the commitments it has made,” cop22_hollandFrench President François Hollande said in his address to gathering in Marrakech, Morocco. “It is [in] their interest.”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a press briefing that he had spoken to Trump since his election, including on climate change, and that his hope is Trump “will really hear and understand the seriousness and urgency of addressing climate change,” and reevaluate campaign remarks now that he is president.

There have been many reports over the last few years of the deadly and damaging effects of climate change that are already being felt around the world. Certainly in Australia in the last year there have been worrying developments that have been linked to Climate Change:

Coral Bleaching

Queensland scientists confirmed that this year’s mass coral bleaching has resulted in the largest die-off of corals ever recorded. What is coral bleaching? Many types of coral have a special symbiotic relationship with a tiny marine algae (zooxanthellae) that live inside corals’ tissue and are very efficient food producers that provide up to 90 per cent of the energy corals require to grow and reproduce.

Coral bleaching occurs when the relationship between the coral host and zooxanthellae, which give coral much of their colour, breaks down. Without the zooxanthellae, the tissue coral-bleachingof the coral animal appears transparent and the coral’s bright white skeleton is revealed.

Corals begin to starve once they bleach. While some corals are able to feed themselves, most corals struggle to survive without their zooxanthellae.

As the climate changes, coral bleaching is predicted to become more frequent and severe. Sea temperature increases and coral stress from other impacts may increase corals’ vulnerability to bleaching.

Thunderstorm Asthma

The “thunderstorm asthma” event in Melbourne, which killed eight people, has also been attributed to climate change. Associate Professor Hew said “thunderstorm asthma” thunderstormsevents, which are caused by strong winds stirring up pollen and other irritants in the air, tend to happen every five to 10 years. The recent event has been attributed to Climate Change in terms of the extreme weather that results from raised global temperatures.

Bee population

A steadily warming climate, combined with habitat loss and the increased use of pesticides, is causing bee populations to collapse at an alarming rate.

Bees are crucial to the environment. There are over 20,000 known species of bees, many of which are not just crucial pollinators for wild plants but for the agriculture industry as well.

In Australia, it is estimated that around 65 per cent of agricultural production is 7872372774_b399f5039f_zdependent on pollination by European honeybees.

According to a 2015 study by Nature, rising temperatures near the southern parts of Europe and North America is causing the natural range of some bumblebee species to move north by as much as 300 km.

The decline in Bee population, if it continues, could have a devastating impact on our own and world food supplies, which added to increased damage to crops by drought and storm damage due to increased extreme weather events, all paint a bleak picture for the future in terms of food security.


The World Health Organisation (WHO) predicts the transmission of infectious diseases is “a likely major consequence of climate change”. Dr Peng Bi, and epidemiology and population health expert from the University of Adelaide, told ‘The New Daily’ a warmer anthrax_qtp_848x480_736888387663and more humid climate provided the ideal breeding conditions for mosquitoes, which can carry diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.

We are also seeing the re-emergence of diseases such as anthrax in Siberia, where thawing permafrost exposed anthrax-infected reindeer carcasses spread to the nomadic peoples who inhabit that region.

Food security failures could lead to war

Climate warming is making extreme drought conditions more common and as a result is having severe effects on crop yields, threatening global food security.

Professor Tim Flannery, the Climate Council’s chief councillor, says the quality and seasonality of crops are “increasingly being affected by climate change with Australia’s future food security under threat”.

“Australia’s food supply chain is highly exposed to disruption from increasing extreme drought-crops-istock_000013388258weather events driven by climate change, with farmers already struggling to cope with more frequent and intense droughts and changing weather patterns.”

A United Nations report forecast that by 2050, the world may not be able to produce enough food for its growing population, which could lead to an increase in civil unrest, war and terrorism.

Ocean acidification

Ocean acidification is proving to be a major challenge for the fishing industry, with the potential to decimate shellfish populations.

Shellfish are hurt by climate change because increased carbon dioxide (CO2) levels from a oysterswarming climate causes oceans to become more acidic – as more atmospheric CO2 is absorbed by the world’s oceans, the pH level of seawater drops to make it more acidic. This is bad for shellfish because it makes it harder for the organisms to grow and maintain their shells.

Natural disasters

The Climate Council published a 2015 report that explained how climate change was causing natural disaster events such as bushfires and heatwaves to become “hotter, longer and more frequent”.

Mr Flannery, of the Climate Council, explained that “record hot days have doubled in Australia in the last 50 years and 2016 is likely to be the hottest year on record globally for heat_wavethe third year in a row”.

“These longer, hotter and more intense heatwaves and more frequent and severe heatwaves are in turn driving up the likelihood of very high bushfire risk, particularly in southeast and southwest Australia,” Mr Flannery said.


So far, 112 countries representing nearly 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions have ratified the universal climate deal, with the United Kingdom the latest to do so.

In his own message to COP22 delegates, Pope Francis called them to “the grave ethical and moral responsibility to act without delay, in a manner as free as possible from political and economic pressures” in their efforts to combat climate change.

“The Paris Agreement has traced a clear path on which the entire international community is called to engage. … It affects all humanity, especially the poorest and the future generations, who represent the most vulnerable component of the troubling impact of climate change,” Francis said.

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