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Sights set on price gougers in wake of carbon tax

By Julie Clarke, Deakin University

In the lead-up to the introduction of the carbon tax on July 1, there has been considerable focus on the potential for price gouging – inflating prices beyond the cost increases reasonably attributable to the tax.

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In recent days, this has been fuelled by a letter sent to small business from the opposition, urging them to place flyers in their shops apologising for any carbon-tax related price increases.

What business can and cannot claim following the introduction of the carbon tax

Businesses are generally free to increase or lower their prices as they choose. In the context of the carbon tax, there are no specific laws preventing price gouging. However, the law does prohibit false or misleading claims regarding the cause of any price hike. For example, if a business reasonably estimates that its costs have increased by 5% as a result of the carbon tax then:

• it can increase prices by 5% and advise customers that the increase is attributable to the carbon tax;

• it can increase prices by more than 5% provided it does not attribute the additional increase to the carbon tax;

• it can not increase prices by more than 5% and advise customers that the increase is attributable to the carbon tax.

Consequently, a business wishing to increase prices after July 1 may do so in two ways. First, they may claim that they have raised prices (or will raise prices) because of the tax. Second, they may simply raise their prices following the introduction of the tax. If they adopt the first method, and their claims are false, they run the risk of detection and enforcement action. If they adopt the second method, the ACCC will have no action against them.

The ACCC’s powers

The ACCC’s role is not to stop price increases which occur following introduction of the carbon tax; rather, it is to ensure that businesses do not make misleading claims when they attribute any price increases to the carbon tax. The prohibition relied upon by the ACCC is s 18 of the Australian Consumer Law, which prohibits misleading and deceptive conduct.

Where such conduct occurs, the ACCC has the power to issue warning notices, infringement notices (imposing penalties of up to $66,000 for listed companies) and substantiation notices (requiring business to substantiate any carbon price increase claims). It can also ask the Federal Court to impose penalties of up to $1.1 million per contravention and adverse publicity orders. However, to obtain this penalty the ACCC must bring legal action before a Court; the Court must be satisfied that the corporation engaged in false or misleading conduct in contravention of the Act; and the Court must be satisfied that a penalty of $1.1 million is appropriate ($1.1 million is the highest penalty available and not likely to be imposed frequently).

It is more likely that the ACCC will make use of its power to issue warning, substantiation and infringement notices, which are faster and can effectively “name and shame” offenders.

To assist in identification of false carbon claims, the ACCC has recently established a hotline for customers to report any concerns.

Price gouging in the lead-up to the tax

Despite the carbon tax not yet being in force, the ACCC has received hundreds of complaints which have led to approximately 20 initial investigations, with several cases currently being looked at more seriously. Some of the complaints have included allegations that the carbon price was responsible for the increased price of: a slab of beer; the cost of constructing a swimming pool and other building work; petrol; taxi trips (reports of “carbon levies”); wedding costs (charging a $5 per head “carbon tax fee” for a post July 1 wedding).

Some businesses have also encouraged customers to “buy now” or lock into long term contracts to avoid the carbon price. Solar panel companies have also been scrutinised for exaggerating likely energy price increases to attract custom.

Will the ACCC be effective?

The experience of the ACCC following the introduction of the GST is instructive. Although the ACCC’s powers in relation to price gouging were more extensive for the GST, the ACCC concluded that there had been no evidence of “significant opportunistic pricing by business” to increase margins. More importantly, they concluded that most infringements that were identified involved some form of misleading conduct.

In addition, in relation to most goods and services, the market will provide a competitive discipline on any attempt to price-gouge over and above the real cost of the tax. Businesses that operate without competitive discipline may already increase their prices. Although the carbon tax might provide them with increased incentive to do so in the short term, it is not something that should be regulated for the long term; this should be left to market forces.

It is, however, appropriate to investigate false and misleading conduct surrounding the introduction of the carbon tax, and enhanced investigation and enforcement powers under the Australian Consumer Law mean that the ACCC is well placed to pursue offenders.

Julie Clarke does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Comment: The market won’t stop China’s polluting state industries

By Philip Andrews-Speed, National University of Singapore

When officials in the northern Chinese province of Hubei recently declared their dedication to cleaning up air pollution by giving up smoking, few were impressed by their grasp of the problem.

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But China has demonstrated it is taking steps to tackle air and wider climate change-related pollution, most recently by rolling out an emissions trading scheme (ETS) in its industrial heartlands.

China accounts for more than 20% of the world’s emissions of carbon dioxide generated by energy use, just ahead of the USA at 18%. Its carbon intensity – the quantity of carbon dioxide emission per unit of GDP in purchasing power parity – is more than twice that of both the USA or India, and 80% higher than that of South Korea.

China’s high carbon intensity arises from a combination of an economy dependent on heavy industry, the predominance of coal, which accounts for 70% of primary energy consumption, and the inefficient nature of much of the industrial plant. Nevertheless, it must be recognised that some 30% of the country’s carbon emissions derives from the manufacture of goods which are exported.

China’s government has pledged to reduce carbon emission intensity by 40-45% between 2005 and 2020. This will require an equivalent reduction in energy intensity. Between 2005 and 2010 the government achieved considerable success in reducing energy intensity by 19% against a target of 20%. The intensity of carbon emissions from energy fell by a similar amount. This was accomplished principally through greater regulation of the mainly state-owned heavy industries such as steel, cement and chemicals.

But what works for a limited number of energy-intensive enterprises is unlikely to be effective across the whole economy, not least because of the sheer number of enterprises, many of which are privately-owned. So the Chinese government has had to introduce economic carrots and sticks tackle the problem.

Emissions trading and carbon tax

The Draft Law on Addressing Climate Change, published in March 2012, includes both cap-and-trade-style emissions trading schemes and a carbon tax. In April this year the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) announced that seven pilot emission trading schemes would be launched this year, with a focus on energy intensive industries such as petrochemicals and power generation. The even more energy-intensive and polluting industries such as steel and cement do not appear to have been included, probably because they are critical for the construction sector and employ so many people. The pilot schemes are to be held in seven industrial cities and the first was launched in Shenzhen in June.

The Xinhua Press announcement of the government’s plan to introduce a carbon tax in February referred to an earlier Ministry of Finance suggested rate of 10 Yuan (US$ 1.6) per tonne of carbon dioxide rising to 50 Yuan (US$ 8.0) per tonne by 2020. The proposed carbon tax was to be only one component of a package of tax measures aimed at energy and resource consumption and environmental damage.

This proposed tax package implies the direct involvement of the Ministry of Finance, apparently in opposition to the National Development and Reform Commission’s proposed emissions trading scheme. Running both tax and trading scheme together for the same emitters would be unnecessarily complex, but nothing more has been said on the matter since February.

Institutional constraints

Whilst China’s ambition to introduce such economic instruments is to be applauded, implementing them in such a way that they are effective will face a number of serious obstacles. First, the major energy users are large state-owned enterprises which have significant political and market power, soft budgetary constraints and a low cost of capital. Additionally they are protected from hostile take-overs or bankruptcy, which would require government approval.

Second, the limited capacity and authority of the governing agencies may restrict their ability to monitor and administer the scheme, or impose penalties on offenders. Antagonistic local governments are likely to find ways to undermine central government initiatives, for example by compensating local enterprises for financial losses arising from these schemes, removing any economic impetus to change.

Finally, most energy prices are still subject to direct or indirect government control, and Beijing is reluctant to allow the price of energy and industrial products to rise too rapidly.

In the terms of institutional economics, there’s a profound mismatch between the emissions trading scheme and carbon tax on the one hand, and the prevailing institutional inertia and the manner of governing the heavy industry sectors on the other. Essentially, this means that where the state dominates ownership and price controls, such instruments based on market forces are unlikely to have any significant effect.

Until the state releases its grip on major energy producers, energy consumers and energy prices, the aim of reducing carbon emissions may best be achieved by further regulation and by allowing energy prices, for everyone, to rise.

Philip Andrews-Speed does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Israel press bemoans price of peace talks

As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators head to Washington for the resumption of peace talks, most Israeli newspapers hit out at the decision to free 104 prisoners in return.

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“The murderers will go free,” was the top-selling daily Yediot Aharonot’s front-page headline after the cabinet agreed to release the veteran Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners, many of them convicted militants.

In a tense session lasting more than five hours, ministers on Sunday endorsed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to release the 104 prisoners imprisoned before the 1993 Oslo peace accords as a gesture to the Palestinians.

Media reports say that many of them have Israeli blood on their hands and that while the vast majority are Palestinians, a few are Israeli citizens.

The names of those to be freed have yet to be officially published, or even revealed to cabinet ministers, but Israeli and Palestinian groups have published their own lists of those in prison for more than 20 years.

They include petrol bombers whose attacks on buses killed Israeli women and children, perpetrators of fatal stabbings on city streets and the makers of bombs planted on buses and in the main Jerusalem produce market.

Yediot columnist Nahum Barnea compared the release to the October 2010 exchange of 1,027 prisoners for the freedom of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

“The early release of terrorists is disturbing to any decent person,” he wrote.

“The images of remorseless murderers celebrating on the way to the bus are a humiliating, agonising, infuriating sight.

“The Palestinians did not give anything this time, except the willingness to hold talks on holding talks. It does not take much imagination to guess what Netanyahu would have said about this, had someone else been prime minister,” Barnea added.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were to meet in Washington later on Monday, along with US officials, after months of dogged shuttle diplomacy by US Secretary of State John Kerry secured a resumption of talks after a three-year hiatus.

“Here we go again,” the Jerusalem Post headlined over an analysis by its diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon.

“These murderers will be hailed as heroes in Hebron and Ramallah and Jenin,” he wrote.

“Parades will be held in their honour, flowers thrown at the bus carrying them home, poems written about their ‘glorious’ exploits.

“If the Palestinians are indeed serious about the upcoming round of talks, they need to make that apparent to the Israeli public,” he added.

“One way to do this is not to celebrate the release of terrorists who threw petrol bombs into buses and incinerated innocent men, women and children.”

Maariv analyst Shalom Yerushalmi shared the general media sense of outrage.

“As always, the government has chosen the worst option,” he wrote.

“Prior to going to the negotiations in Washington, the Israeli government made a decision to free terrorists who have committed terrible crimes against innocent civilians, many of whom were teenagers and children.

“This tears at the heart of each one of us, regardless of political views.”

The left-leaning Haaretz daily grudgingly welcomed the cabinet decision.

“The Israeli government bumped into reality on Sunday,” diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid wrote.

“Like a drunk driver heading for a wall at full speed only to get a grip on himself at the last moment and hit the brakes, most government ministers came to their senses and voted in favour of releasing prisoners in order to enable the renewal of talks with the Palestinians.”

Same-sex couples: Smarter, richer and growing

There were 33,700 same-sex couples in Australia in 2011, a 32 per cent increase since the 2006 Census, representing 1 per cent of all couples in the country.

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17,600 were in male same-sex couples, 16,100 in female. Interestingly, the age difference of those people in same-sex relationships was greater than that in opposite-sex relationships. The age gap for female same-sex couples was an average of 4.8 years, while for males that difference was 6.5 years. The gap average for opposite-sex relationships was 3.7 years. Furthermore, in around a quarter of male same-sex relationships, there was an age difference of 10 years or more. More same-sex couples are also having children, with 6,300 kids living with same-sex couple families, up from 3,400. The ABS says people in same-sex relationships tend to be more highly educated, have higher labour force participation rates, and have higher personal incomes than opposite-sex couples. Around 67 per cent of male same-sex couples, and 58 per cent of female same-sex couples had a combined household income of $2000 or more per week, compared with 42% of opposite-sex couples. The ACT had the highest rates of both male and female same-sex couples of any state or territory, but in terms of number, 32 per cent of the nation’s same-sex couples live in NSW. The top 10 suburbs for male and female same-sex couples were all in inner Sydney. Of all couples living in Darlinghurst, 17.9 per cent were in male same-sex relationships, 17.8 per cent in Potts Point, 17.3 per cent in Surry Hills, 16.3 per cent in Elizabeth Bay and 14.5 per cent in Redfern. Female same-sex couples, form 6 per cent of all couples in St Peters, 5.7 per cent in Newtown, 5.4 per cent in Erskineville, 5.3 per cent in Enmore and 4.2 per cent in Lewisham.

Chiefs pip Crusaders to reach Super final

The Chiefs delivered more playoffs heartbreak for the Crusaders on Saturday night, setting up a second successive Super Rugby home final with a thrilling 20-19 win in Hamilton.

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Outplayed in the first half and trailing 9-3, the home side produced an inspired second spell to mirror last year’s 20-17 win over the same opponents in the same fixture.

Seventeen points in the first 17 minutes of the second period – including tries to winger Asaeli Tikoirotuma and five-eighth Aaron Cruden – set up victory over a Crusaders side who dominated most facets.

The visitors had crushed all before them in their previous five games, including a 43-15 hammering of the Chiefs in Christchurch on July 5.

Chiefs coach Dave Rennie was in no doubt why his team had improved so much in three weeks.

“While you don’t want to talk about those things at the time, our attitude (in Christchurch) wasn’t quite right and maybe we weren’t quite as desperate because we had qualified for the playoffs,” said Rennie.

“It was a massive effort in the second half. We’re really proud of the effort but we need another one next week.”

The seven-time champions lost their nerve when it counted to continue a dreadful recent playoff run.

They have reached the semi-finals in each of the last five seasons but have failed to add to their trophy cabinet. Four exits have come at the semi-finals stage.

Blackadder admitted to a sinking feeling of deja vu.

“The Chiefs showed real pride and guts and courage, and we didn’t nail our opportunities,” he said.

“The fact that we didn’t quite take them – I don’t think it’s the reflection of a bad team.”

Crusaders five-eighth Dan Carter landed three penalty goals to Cruden’s one in the first half, reflecting the visitors’ early superiority.

It was all Chiefs throughout the third quarter as Cruden’s second penalty was followed by a try to Japan-bound Masaga, who powered through the heart of the Crusaders pack from a standing start 15m out.

Cruden put the Chiefs 11 points clear with an intercept try, gleefully collecting a blind pass from centre Ryan Crotty and scooting 50m.

Crusaders fullback Israel Dagg hit straight back with a brilliant solo try, defeating the Chiefs’ front-line and cover defence with two memorable outside swerves.

Carter’s sideline conversion, followed by his fourth penalty with six minutes to play, set up a classic finish.

However, Carter’s second missed dropped goal attempt of the game was the closest they came to regaining the lead.

The Chiefs will host the final next Saturday against either the Bulls or Brumbies, who meet in the second semi-final in Pretoria on Sunday morning (AEST).

It will be the Chiefs’ third final. They lost to the Bulls in Pretoria in 2009 but won last year at home to the Sharks 37-6.

Blog: South Sudanese return to homeland

Since South Sudan gained independence in July 2011 many south Sudanese Australians have returned to their homeland.

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And whether it’s because of a love for their country, cultural ties, or a sense of duty of it’s been a very challenging experience of many of them.

By Santilla Chingaipe, SBS

On July 9th, 2011, I was fortunate enough to cover the Melbourne celebrations of South Sudan’s independence. Even though many of the South Sudanese Australians at the celebrations were thousands of kilometres away from their homeland, it was just as significant celebrating here as it must have been in the capital Juba. The pride that filled them all as they sang their national anthem in public for the first time, waved their flag and could finally – as it seemed at the time — identify with a particular place. No longer were they just refugees who’d fled the war, they now had a place they could proudly call home. Many of the South Sudanese Australians I spoke to told me about their need to go back and help build the new nation.

A few months later, in January of this year, I travelled to South Sudan and met some of them that had indeed gone back after independence. What I later discovered was just how complex Australia’s South Sudanese community is. Despite being just nine months independent, many still struggle with their ‘identity’. Some were not even born in Sudan, but instead in refugee camps around East and North Africa. To some, calling Australia home added an even more confusing and often confronting view of what it means to be a South Sudanese living in the diaspora.

One man I met in South Sudan, Akoc Manheim, moved there just before independence to witness the occasion first hand. He is the former director of the Lost Boys Association in Australia and left behind his family in Melbourne to work at the Passport and Nationality office in Juba. He said it was a dream of his to come back and help his people, and he found that he was more ‘useful’ in South Sudan than in Australia. He talked about the frustrations he faced after moving back to South Sudan and how difficult the first few months were transitioning back to life there. But in spite of this, he strongly believed that if he didn’t go back and help, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself. I asked him if even with the small salary he received (he told me it was around $200), was it still worth making such a commitment? He said he believed he was doing the right thing. He has plans of coming back to Melbourne and considers Australia to be his second home.

I met Gabriell Agur and Awan Kwet by chance while grabbing a coffee after meeting with Akoc. They were both friends from Melbourne who had come back to South Sudan for the first time in many years. Gabriell said that he couldn’t stay back for so long after independence without seeing his new country. He also came to see his brothers and sisters who had stayed behind during the war. Thirty-seven-year-old Awan Kwet also said that he came back to see his family, including his mother whom he hadn’t seen in 21 years! They both expressed their views of returning again and helping their country build from the ground up.

In Melbourne, I met a Nyadol Nyuol, a young woman studying law at Melbourne University. She expressed her frustrations with aspects of her culture and identity that make her question who she really is. Unlike most of those I spoke to, Nyadol was born in Ethiopia, and as a result of the war there in the early 90s, she was forced to flee to Kenya were she sought refuge until coming to Australia in 2005. She said she felt she had a complicated relationship with South Sudan. Although she’s returned a few times, she said she felt more Australian than she did South Sudanese. Perhaps her biggest frustration with her culture was with what she believes are certain standards and expectations that are required of women within the South Sudanese community. She said because of this, she didn’t really feel like she would ‘fit in’ in South Sudan because her views on some of the traditions were completely different to what was expected.

David Vincent works at the Brotherhood of Saint Laurence in Melbourne’s Fitzroy suburb, where he oversees programs mainly dealing with migrants and refugees settling in the community. He fled with his father to Ethiopia at the age of seven, and when the war broke out in Ethiopia, he was forced to return to Sudan. Upon returning, he joined the army at a young age to fight in the war. He wasn’t conscripted, but says it was what happened at the time, when most people were fighting for an independent state. When the war broke out again, he fled to Kenya were he stayed before being granted a humanitarian visa. He said he felt more Australian than he did South Sudanese simply because of the privileges Australia has afforded him. However, he says he won’t be abandoning Australia and does travel back to assist in many areas.

Archangelo Madut Nyuol Paul also lives in Melbourne and he’s the father of two little girls. He said he plans to move back permanently to South Sudan later this year, and his young family will join him at a later stage. He said after what he experienced as a child soldier and what he witnessed during the war, seeing people being killed, women raped, villages razed, a part of him strongly feels and obligation to give back to his homeland and he could not live with the guilt of knowing that he hasn’t at least tried to make a difference in South Sudan.

Adut Akec is a 20-year-old woman from Geelong. She was born in Egypt and has never been to Sudan or now, South Sudan. She does however have plans to visit South Sudan later this year. Tradition and culture are very important to her and going back to see South Sudan for herself is significant.

Despite the complexity, and often times harrowing accounts of these South Sudanese Australians experiences during the war and what they went to, what was interesting to see was how they’ve all managed to carve their own idea of what being South Sudanese means — which has at times not been by choice. After many years of associating themselves with an ethnic group, to suddenly having a national identity brought many questions into focus. Some continue to travel back to find these answers, others choose to stay. But whatever the decision, the journey of being a South Sudanese Australia is more than skin deep.

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Broncos pip Cowboys with late Hodges try

Brisbane centre Justin Hodges orchestrated a crucial 18-16 win over North Queensland on Friday night to keep the Broncos’ slim NRL finals hopes alive.

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Hodges put on the winning try with just under seven minutes to go and veteran five-eighth Scott Prince cooly slotted the conversion to seal a dramatic comeback victory in Townsville.

The Queensland and Test centre’s influence in the lead-up to the four-pointer was also pivotal.

His cut-out pass down the left edge to Corey Oates – a combination which led to the 18-year-old winger scoring a 14th-minute try – released the pressure on Brisbane after a half of sustained pressure by the Cowboys.

In a game crucial to both teams’ seasons, the Broncos went up 12-0 in the first 15 minutes thanks to tries from Ben Hunt and Oates.

North Queensland winger Kalifa Faifai Loa put his team back in the contest four minutes before the half-time break with a crucial try and the Cowboys dominated after the break.

It was a cliched game of two halves and after being under the pump for most of the opening half, a 52nd-minute try to Gavin Cooper and some vintage Matt Bowen magic six minutes later gave the Townsville team the lead for the first time.

But just when the Cowboys looked set for a victory which would have kept their season alive, Hodges stepped up and delivered his team the win.

It wasn’t all positive for the Broncos – Oates was perhaps unlucky to be put on report for a high tackle on Cowboys halfback Michael Morgan, who appeared to fall into the contact.

North Queensland lock Dallas Johnson, who this week announced his retirement from the game at the end of the season, went off with an injured knee after falling awkwardly in a second-half collision.

Brisbane coach Anthony Griffin said the defensive effort down the middle in the second half kept them within four points and it proved the difference.

“They had us by the throat there for probably 30 minutes of that second half and to their credit, Thurston and Bowen just wouldn’t let us out,” Griffin said.

“I thought we obviously had the run of the first 20 to 30 minutes but I thought they then had the next 30 to 40.

“If we’d leaked any more than 16 (points) I think we were gone and that’s the story of the night for us.”

It was Brisbane’s first win in four starts and captain Sam Thaiday said he was proud of the effort to stay in the game after going behind.

“It’s been a few weeks since we’ve celebrated a win as a team but to really hang in there and fight for one is a good step forward into the next couple of weeks,” he said.

Under-pressure Cowboys coach Neil Henry said his right edge, down which all three Broncos tries were scored, had been hurt by Hodges and Oates and they had been made to rue missed opportunities.

“It’s a bit of a heart-breaking loss really, to get back into the game and dominate field position for large parts of the second half,” he said.

“And to not get on a loose ball or lose a bit of possession to them and we pay the price.”

Comment: Rest up! Too much exercise could send you to an early grave

By Adrian Elliott

Exercise is said to foster better health and well-being as well as increasing life expectancy.

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But you can have too much of a good thing, it seems, as evidence shows that there may an optimal level of exercise and exceeding it may be harmful.

Even 15 minutes of exercise a day is said to increase life expectancy by three years. So it seems odd that research published in PLOS ONE last week shows that less active female mice have a longer life expectancy.

In the study, researchers examined a genetic variant in mice (the t haplotype) that they predicted would express a personality trait, characterised by a shy, less explorative and less active nature. Previously, mice with this genetic variant have been shown to live longer.

They found the mice were indeed less active, less exploratory and tended to consume less food.

So should you hang up your training shoes in favour of a less active lifestyle? Well, no. But there is a growing body of evidence suggesting there may be an optimal amount of exercise for improvements in health and life expectancy.

Wearing yourself out

Research shows that people who exercise vigorously can reduce their risk of early death by 40% with up to approximately 50 minutes a day of activity. Beyond this, there appears to be little additional benefit from exercise.

Similar findings reported elsewhere from large-scale studies suggest people who exercise at moderate intensity and duration may experience greater health and survival benefits than keen athletes who exercise daily at high intensities for much longer.

If you are following exercise guidelines (30 minutes a day, five days a week), it’s unlikely that you will see any negative consequences.

But excessive exercise (such as completing a marathon or ultra-endurance event) places a significant load on the heart that can result in temporary reductions in function.

While this decline is often reversed within one week, the long-term effects of repetitive high-intensity exercise may counteract the benefits of moderate physical activity for your heart.

Studies have shown a high incidence of cardiac fibrosis in older, life-long elite athletes, compared to their younger or non-athletic counterparts.

And the prevalence of a common disturbance in heart rhythm (atrial fibrillation), is considerably higher in athletes, particularly in those who have taken part in more than 1,500 lifetime hours of endurance sport practice.

If you follow exercise guidelines (30 minutes a day, five days a week), it’s unlikely that you will see any negative consequences. Image from www.shutterstock.com

A greater danger

Despite these findings, the advantages of participating in physical activity are considerable for the majority of the population who choose not to participate in regular extreme endurance events, or in any exercise at all.

It is well documented that sedentary time, whether it be the number of hours sitting or watching television, is independently associated with poorer life expectancy.

The World Health Organization predicts that physical inactivity is responsible for the same number of global deaths per year (over five million) as smoking.

An intriguing series of recent studies has examined the potential metabolic and cardiovascular benefits of interrupting prolonged sitting time (such as during work hours) with short (approximately two minutes) bursts of mild exercise.

They draw attention to more achievable improvements in physical activity levels in the more sedentary parts of the population.

What about the mice?

But what should we understand from the PLOS ONE study on mice? Well, it aimed to evaluate how animal personality relates to behavioural differences, which is quite a different concept to examining how humans approach health and longevity in the 21st century.

While decreasing activity and saving energy may be beneficial for rodents in the face of potential predators or a reduction in food availability (or both), neither tends to be an issue for the modern human in a developed country.

And while the study suggests there’s greater life expectancy with the genetic variant that made the mice timid and sedentary, it wasn’t actually measured.

Finally, a number of additional behavioural differences (lower food consumption, for instance, and a less explorative nature) potentially contributed to improvements in their life expectancy – less movement and activity may reduce the chances of a rodent being detected by a predator.

Associations are one thing, cause and effect is quite another. Just because two things are observed together, doesn’t mean one causes the other or vice versa. So the lower levels of activity in mice may not be the cause of their increased longevity.

Increasing physical activity for both healthy people and those suffering from a chronic disease is undoubtedly beneficial, providing the approach is sensible and within recommended guidelines.

Although there’s a growing trend for greater participation in endurance events such as the marathon, you should consider how prolonged engagement in such activities may negatively impact your health.

For now, stick with the wise words of Dr James O’Keefe and Dr Carl Lavie:

run for your life….at a comfortable speed and not too far.

Adrian Elliott does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Explainer: quantum computation and communication technology

By Howard Wiseman, Griffith University

What is a quantum technology?

Quantum mechanics is the branch of physics that explains the behaviour of matter and energy at the atomic scale.

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So does “quantum technology” just mean technology based on very small things? Is it just a cool-sounding synonym for nanotechnology.

No! Quantum mechanics is certainly needed for designing a nanotechnology such as flash memory, but a quantum technology is something different.

It is a technology that makes use of the weirdness of quantum mechanics in a fundamental way – a technology whose operation makes no sense if you don’t understand quantum mechanics.

In particular, quantum weirdness allows for impossibly fast computers and unhackable communication, which will be some of the defining technologies of the 21st century.

What’s so weird about quantum mechanics?

In everyday life, we usually have a good sense of intuition regarding how the physical world will behave. Drop a glass and it will smash on the floor. Punch a concrete wall and your fist won’t go through it.

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But in the world of the ultra-small – atoms, electrons, even very dim light ­– none of the normal rules apply. Instead particles follow quantum rules that are quite baffling.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle says that if you are sure how fast a particle is moving, you won’t be able to predict where you would find it if you look for it. And if you are sure where the particle is, you won’t be able to predict the value you’d get for its speed if you measure that instead.

Moreover, quantum theory says that this is not due to any limitations on our experimental abilities – the world itself is uncertain!

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The really disturbing thing is that, according to quantum theory, there is nothing to stop this intrinsic uncertainty about microscopic matter growing into intrinsic uncertainty about everyday objects.

This is illustrated by the infamous Schrödinger’s cat paradox, which says that a cat in a box could end up in a state where it’s impossible to say whether it’s alive or dead. It’s not just that we are ignorant of whether the cat’s alive or dead – until we open the box to look, it’s neither.

Or both. Even quantum physicists disagree about how to describe it.

Ultrafast quantum computing

Quantum computing is Schrödinger’s cat put to work. By building a computer out of quantum particles, it’s possible to make the entire memory of the computer intrinsically uncertain, just like the health of the cat. This allows the computer to carry out astronomically many different computations in parallel.

The real trick is to bring all those computations together at the end to give the single answer you want. But if this could be done, a relatively small quantum computer could solve mathematical problems that couldn’t be solved with all the present computers in the world running for a million years.

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The first useful quantum algorithm – a piece of software for a quantum computer – that managed this trick was discovered in the 1990s.

The far greater challenge is to build the quantum computer hardware that will work reliably enough, and is big enough, to run this software.

Worldwide there is a huge experimental effort to do just that. In Australia, the Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T) is a world-leader in two of the most promising types of hardware for a quantum computer: photons (particles of light), and the electrons of phosphorus atoms embedded in silicon.

Ultrasecure quantum communication

The other principal application of quantum technology is to make a message secure against any sort of hacker, no matter how powerful their computer is – even a quantum computer!

The basic idea is simple. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle implies that if you find out one property of a particle you necessarily create uncertainty in other properties. That is, quantum particles are disturbed by measurements. Because of this, an eavesdropper trying to read a secret message encoded on photons can be detected before they have a chance to obtain any real information.

Quantum communication protocols were first developed in the 1980s, and there are short-range systems in commercial operation in many countries, including an Australian one developed by CQC2T researchers.

The grand challenge, which is being tackled worldwide, including in CQC2T, is to extend the range of the communication. Because quantum messages cannot be copied, this requires other weird quantum effects, such as quantum teleportation.

The ultimate goal is to network quantum computers all over the globe, creating a global quantum internet.

As of now, we can only speculate about the scientific and other uses we will find for that, should it become a reality.

Howard Wiseman is the Director of the Centre for Quantum Dynamics, Griffith University, and an Executive Research Leader in the Centre for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (an Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence). His research group is also funded by the ARC through Discovery Projects, by the Templeton Foundation, and by the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (Canada). He has no other relevant affiliations, funding sources, or financial interests.

Finnish education guru Pasi Sahlberg In Conversation: full transcript

By John Hattie, University of Melbourne

John Hattie: Welcome to The Conversation.

南宁桑拿

My name is John Hattie from the University of Melbourne and I have here today, Pasi Sahlberg from the Department of Education in Finland.

It’s certainly exciting to have you here and we look to your country all the time. What’s it like to be in the top five education league tables?

Pasi Sahlberg: You know, most Finnish people don’t think like this, unless you remind us that we are there but most people don’t really care about where we are. But I think it’s like always when you’re on the top of the hill, it’s windy, it’s busy and in a way, it’s not a comfortable place to be.

In Finland, we say it’s easier to ski behind somebody else, you have the track and you know where to go. But if you’re the first one, you don’t see anything, it’s just snow and white.

We have been a little bit in this type of situation where we have to choose which direction where to go and people are asking these questions – so I would much rather be number five than number one.

John Hattie: In terms of what we want to do here in Australia, our Prime Minister has aspirations to be in the top five [internationally]. Any sense of what we need to do here? That’s a horrifically large question but given your experience of what you’ve done in Finland, and we want to get there soon, we’re not going to wait for 30 or 40 years, so what would you say to us?

Pasi Sahlberg: When I read the Prime Minister’s goal, which is a kind of ambitious goal to have, [I don’t see it] literally to be number five but it’s kind of like a metaphor that you want to improve. So it doesn’t matter if you’re number five or number eight or number three, it’s a call for improvement.

And as I see Australia… you’re doing pretty well. That you are already on the map of the world’s best education systems, so I don’t see this as a situation, like in many other countries, where you have a much longer way to go, many of the basic issues are in place here.

John Hattie: But do you get the sense though that when you go to countries that are 20th and 30th, and we’re more like 10th and 12th, often I think the mood in Australia is like we’re 20th or 30th. It sounds like there’s a crisis going on because we’re not in the top five.

Pasi Sahlberg: What I hear here is much more of very pessimistic, critical views on what you’re doing. And as an external observer, and I’ve seen most of the OECD countries up close, I can say that things are much better here – here and in New Zealand – when I meet with principals and teachers.

But I think, of course, there are things that you need to do and I think you’re in a much better situation here in Australia today than in most countries ten years ago when you didn’t have this experience and evidence from the [Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)] and other things. So if you take a close look at what the well-performing countries have done, and what the countries who have been able to climb up this education performance pyramid, you have much more choices to make.

Some of the things you are already considering here include: how do you spend the money? How do you fund your education system? I think a very important question is: what do you do with the teachers? How should you prepare them? How can you provide them with more professional development? [There’s] the leadership issue.

And then finally one of the critical issues here is, if you compare Australia to the other high-performing education systems, is the question of equity.

John Hattie: Let’s just go back through those, on funding we actually spend more funding per student than you do in Finland by a long way.

Pasi Sahlberg: You do spend, if you use the current statistic a little bit more than Finland. But I think, this is because of your massive funding for structures…

John Hattie: The Building the Education Revolution…

Pasi Sahlberg: Yes, but if you take that away, and compare what Australia was spending three years ago, you have a significant gap between Finland and Australia, in favour of Finland, so we have been spending more.

John Hattie: Now, in terms of teacher quality – that’s the catch-all all the time. The message that often comes through from that is that the teachers need to improve, they’re not good. What have you done in Finland on teacher quality?

Pasi Sahlberg: We decided when we started to build the current education system 40 years ago, we realised that if you have a system that is aiming to be not number one, but equitable so that every child will be having opportunity and pathways to be successful, that requires teachers that are better educated and better education not just for some teachers but for everybody, all of them.

John Hattie: And certainly at the beginning they have to be at least a masters to get in?

Pasi Sahlberg: Many other countries have probably done a different way. But in Finland, we decided that early childhood development and primary teachers, pre-school teachers and primary teachers are the key. And that’s why we require they will have an academic higher degree before they can teach.

John Hattie: But once they’re in, how do you keep their education, their professional development going, because we spend an enormous amount of money on that.

Pasi Sahlberg: On professional development?

John Hattie: Oh, yes.

Pasi Sahlberg: Well, education is very decentralised in Finland, so it’s very much up to the school, individual teachers, municipalities who are running the schools to make sure that teachers who are in service there have access to professional development. But I would say that this kind of systematic way of focusing on highly trained teachers and building a profession during the course of the last 30-35 years has created a system where becoming a primary school teacher is in very high demand in Finland.

Because many young people when they look at what the primary school teachers do with a high quality academic master degree that they earn in our universities, they see pretty much what the medical doctors, or lawyers or engineers or anybody else with a similar degree are doing, with their autonomy, independence, respect, professional collective nature of work.

And that’s why I think they are going there. Not only because the university degree is kind of a competitive degree but the image of being a primary school teacher is pretty close to how you would describe a medical doctor’s work.

John Hattie: So then, the temptation for me to say is for the way that we could do that and improve things and make sure our money is spent well, is tie it to the performance of children and look at the whole test accountability notions to make sure we’re spend in the money the right way.

Pasi Sahlberg: Well, this is your way to think about these things but the culture in this respect is very different in Finland. We are putting much more emphasis in Finland on well-being, happiness and health of children. So everybody is healthy and ready to develop themselves and to take the responsibility of their own learning.

What I hear from foreign visitors to Finland, and we have a massive number of people coming, many of them they are surprised to see how much responsibility for learning in Finnish schools is with the pupils. So they are driving the learning and development, not the teachers and if you have this type of system, where the responsibility of learning and development is primarily with the learners themselves. You cannot rely on numbers and testing.

Of course, we do that as well, but I think the difference between our countries is that in Finland we tend to rely much more on the numbers, the assessments and tests that are made by teachers and schools and trust the numbers that they show are real.

John Hattie: And you have a nice index of that such as PISA, and so what you’re telling me is that you’re using a lot more about student assessments, capabilities of the students rather than inflicting tests as we tend to try to do.

Pasi Sahlberg: Absolutely, and I think if you use the English terms like assessment for learning, which is not at all a Finnish invention. So we are relying on the research and ideas from Australia, from England, the United States, in this respect. But I think for example, this student assessment for learning is something that we have, we have caught the international idea and we have put it into practice in our schools.

Like we have done with many other innovations in Finland. There are very few original Finnish ideas in pedagogy and teaching.

John Hattie: Not completely true, the words “respect”, “responsibility”, “trust” certainly have come out of the Finnish system very strongly.

Pasi Sahlberg: Sure, but I’m talking about if you look at the educational literature on pedagogy, of teaching methods, or assessment ideas. Very few of them come from Finland. So what I’m saying is that our skill is not to invent, our skill is to implement and understand what ideas work.

John Hattie: If I’m listening to you now, and I’m saying, “well, how would I interpret it in Australia?” Then I come up with my magic word, the word that is used all the time, “autonomy”. We’d give the teachers autonomy, we’d give the schools autonomy, and that comes then with choice and whether parents should have choice etc.

In your high schools in Finland, do the parents get a lot of choice in terms of the kind of schools they can send them to? Do the students get a lot of choice about the kind of subjects? How early is that choice?

Pasi Sahlberg: Well, what we have done in Finland is that we have delayed the parental choice to upper-secondary school which is when our kids are about 16 years of age and when you have a 16-year-old Finn very few parents anymore have anything to say about their choice, this is the end of the compulsory education. So together with the responsibility for their own learning they also have the responsibility and freedom to choose where they want to go.

The first time when parents really can choose or students can choose between one school and another comes at the age of 16. And I think this is one of the things that I see in many other high-performing countries that they postpone and delay the parental choice as late as possible.

John Hattie: We have a big choice here, the whole debate about private and public, and choosing schools, and there’s religious schools that you can choose from. We stream the kids, is there streaming in Finnish high schools?

Pasi Sahlberg: High schools sure, yes, we have two very different types of high school, upper secondary school options – occasional school and general school they lead to very different…

John Hattie: That’s before 16?

Pasi Sahlberg: That’s at the age of 16. Not before then, there’s nothing.

John Hattie: There’s a lot of that here.

Pasi Sahlberg: This is the main idea of Finnish education system, we try to keep children in the similar school all the way until they are 16 and leave the compulsory school. And this is what many, actually, all of the high performing countries are trying to do the same. So they are not really opening education to the free market type of choice before the students sit in PISA.

John Hattie: Yes, and it’s quite different here.

Pasi Sahlberg: If you technically wanted to build a strategy to be high in the PISA rankings, this is one thing that you should consider – to manage and delay the parental choice to later stage that would improve equity and enhance the quality. But of course, it’s never simple like this.

John Hattie: And that’s the other question, I want to ask you: equity. Australia is reasonably high-performing but not so high on equity. And what I’m hearing you say here is that one way is to delay parental choice until at least 16.

Any other ways to address equity? You must have low-socioeconomic schools do they have the dramatic differences like we do in this country?

Pasi Sahlberg: Australia is doing a little bit better than the OECD countries on average in equity. So if we organise countries, rank order them in term of equity, Australia is …

John Hattie: We are nowhere near Finland.

Pasi Sahlberg: You know there are countries, all the Scandinavian countries are very strong in equity and that’s why. It’s not only the school issue, particularly with the equity issue we have to look at many other things, like what the health system and social protection and early childhood development are doing.

But I think one thing that is probably standing taller than anything else in Finland in terms of this is how we understand and organise special education, the education for children with special needs.

And that’s a different way to do this thing than here and in many other countries because we have a much more sensitive lens through which we are looking at our classrooms and students. And that’s why we have many more students who are categorised as special needs students than, for example what we have here.

John Hattie: And you separate them?

Pasi Sahlberg: No, it’s inclusive, it’s an inclusive principle. But this means that we also have many more individuals in our basic school system, our grade one to nine system who are receiving individualised support and help. They normally receive it early on, rather than when the problems are already there.

So if I had to pick up one thing that Finland is doing particularly systematically and well to enhance equity, it’s the special education system. It’s very pricey, it’s very expensive. But when we do our economics of education, we also calculate that the cost of not doing that would be much higher later on.

So that’s why we want to invest early on and make sure that everybody is treated as an individual and will receive the basic support and help and then try to make sure everyone can succeed.

John Hattie: So the obvious question from that is, that you, therefore, have very low class sizes?

Pasi Sahlberg: No, we don’t, if you walk in to a urban classroom in primary school today, you would probably see the same number of kids that you would see here and in New Zealand. Internationally we are very similar in this respect.

John Hattie: So what I’m hearing about what we should think about here in Australia is worry about giving more of the responsibility and the trust to the teachers and as a consequence, looking at the equity issues of health and well-being as well as academic outcomes, and make teachers responsible for that.

But what I’m not quite understanding is how do we know that as taxpayers that we’re getting our return?

Pasi Sahlberg: From your school system?

John Hattie: Because we know, I’ve been a kid through school, not every teachers perfect, how are you going to make sure we do make sure these desirable things are in place?

Pasi Sahlberg: One thing that we are doing, I’m not saying that you could do this right away or that you should do this at all, is that we are relying on schools as communities to report these things back to the communities and parents. This is one thing.

Then the other thing, of course, is the overall idea of leadership, a localised, kind of community based education that we have. Finland doesn’t have a kind of centralised system where the government is running the things, it’s all within our communities and parents are, of course, very much…

John Hattie: Are responsible to the community?

Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, but you know, if in Finland if we want to know how things are going we do exactly what the OECD is doing when it wants to know how the countries are doing, we are taking samples of schools and pupils and teachers and we are measuring and assessing and evaluating them just like any other research would do.

And you know, probably because of this trust that we have in our system, this seems to be enough to convince politicians, authorities, parents that things are going well. Of course, we have bad teachers or poor teachers who are not performing to the level that they should in Finland, like in every country. But we don’t think that just by collecting numbers of every single classroom or school you can…

John Hattie: The community can speak?

Pasi Sahlberg: Yeah, so I think Finland is probably a little bit different in that way, we have a very strong sense of kind of collective doing things in our communities. Typically if you have a school where there are one or two teachers who are not performing as they should, I think the first thing to help these teachers is the collective professional community rather than waiting for the authority of somebody else to come and say what to do.

This is the first thing we try to do and if it doesn’t help, then some other measures will step into the picture.

John Hattie: Pasi Sahlberg thank you very much, I think we’ve heard a tremendous amount about the trust, the cooperation, the collaboration, the way in which the community is involved and I really love the way in which you are able to express it in the manner in which you do. We have a tremendous amount to learn.

So welcome to Australia and we look forward to having you back.

Pasi Sahlberg: Thank you so much.

This article is an edited transcript of an interview between Pasi Sahlberg and John Hattie. You can watch the full video here.

John Hattie has received funding from the ARC.