Monthly Archives: March 2019

Swiss Franc surge puts strain on WHO’s $US4b budget

The World Health Organisation is feeling the rising salary costs at its Geneva headquarters. Photo: Denis Balibouse Health workers carry the body of an Ebola virus victim in Kenema, Sierra Leone. The WHO’s board adopted a set of reform proposals last month after criticism on its Ebola response. Photo: Umaru Fofana
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After a year in which it was battered for its handling of the Ebola outbreak, the World Health Organisation is facing another rising threat: the Swiss franc. Switzerland’s currency has gained 12 per cent against the euro this year, increasing salary costs for a United Nations agency that employs almost 1900 people at its Geneva headquarters. The WHO is revising a proposed budget of more than $US4 billion ($5.1 billion) in total for 2016 and 2017 and its executive board discussed an increase to adjust for the strength of the franc at a meeting last month, according to Sarah Russell, a spokeswoman. No consensus was reached, she said by e-mail. The rising costs are complicating the WHO’s efforts to convince donors that the agency represents value for their money. The side effects of the surge in the franc, which has prompted profit warnings and job cuts at Swiss banks and manufacturers, is also rippling out through Geneva’s cluster of UN agencies and aid organisations. If the franc trades too closely to parity with the euro, there’s a risk for an exodus of jobs, said Yves Flueckiger, the vice rector of the University of Geneva and a professor of economics. “It will indeed create an incentive for international organisations and NGOs to remove part of their activities to other places,” he said. That would “reduce the level of employment in Geneva quite strongly.”

Costs foreseen

The WHO’s estimates for its next two-year budget range from $US4.17 billion to as much as $US4.38 billion, including a special adjustment for salaries, according to document published last month. The WHO doesn’t expect to go beyond the higher amount, Russell said. The Swiss National Bank abruptly ended the cap on the exchange rate with the euro on January 15, leading the franc to reach its strongest level since the common currency’s 1999 debut. The WHO receives contributions denominated in francs of 220 million francs ($300 million) a year and has expenses of 400 million francs in that currency, exposing it to an exchange rate risk for about 180 million francs, Russell said. Last year, the WHO started charging member nations half their annual fees in francs instead of dollars to reduce the currency risk. A decline in the US dollar against the franc between 2000 and 2011 reduced the WHO’s purchasing power for payroll costs by 34 per cent, according to a 2012 report. The agency has been cutting jobs and has moved about 100 positions to Malaysia. The WHO’s board also adopted a set of reform proposals last month after the criticism on its Ebola response. Headquarter staff

The agency plans to complete the budget review by April so the financing can be approved in May, the spokeswoman said. The WHO has more employees in Geneva than any UN body besides the United Nations secretariat. As of July 2014, 1888 WHO employees were based at its headquarters, about a quarter of the total. The franc has given up some of its gains against the euro since rising beyond parity last month, a development that may save the city from losing too many jobs, the University of Geneva’s Flueckiger said. Some international organisations based there are already seeking ways to cut costs. Unicef, the UN agency that works on children’s rights, said last week it will cut costs by setting up a services center in Budapest employing about 200 people. Still, others aren’t as worried. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which spends about $US4 billion a year fighting the world’s three biggest infectious killers, said all its funds are raised and disbursed in US dollars, and less than 10 per cent of its costs are in francs.

‘Waiting for the dust to settle’GAVI, which last month raised $US7.5 billion to fund vaccinations in developing countries, said about 3 per cent of its costs are in francs. Because of hedging measures, the SNB’s action “will not have any significant impact” on its finances, said Rob Kelly, a spokesman. The International Committee of the Red Cross receives most of its income in foreign currencies, but has its budget in francs. The organisation appealed for an additional 132 million francs in October to cover its 2014 budget of 1.3 billion francs as it faces increased costs associated with humanitarian responses in South Sudan, Ukraine and Syria. It’s too early to measure how the organisation’s funding will be affected by the strong franc, said Red Cross spokesman Alexis Heeb. “We will of course be affected in some way but are remaining calm and are waiting for the dust to settle.”  Bloomberg

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Meet Ruby, Australia’s newly discovered seadragon

‘Mesmerising beauty’: The ruby seadragon. Photo: Western Australian Museum ‘Mesmerising beauty’: The ruby seadragon. Photo: Western Australian Museum
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Say hello to Ruby, the seadragon that until recently no one knew existed.

A bright red, black-eyed bony beauty, it is only the third species of these peculiar Australian marine creatures ever discovered.

All the time, it was drifting right under scientists’ noses.

The ruby seadragon is believed to live in dark waters beyond normal scuba diving depth, and so escaped attention, unlike its relatives, the leafy and weedy seadragons.

Josefin Stiller, a marine biologist at Scripps Institution in California, led research that first uncovered the ruby seadragon, and described it as a new species of “mesmerising beauty” in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

The discovery of the first new seadragon species in 150 years was “highly unexpected,” Ms Stiller said.

Teasing out the genetics of the two better-known species, she was sent a tissue sample from a Western Australian Museum specimen, thought to be a common seadragon, but found to have clearly different DNA.

Ms Stiller, her Scripps colleague Greg Rouse, and the Western Australian Museum’s Nerida Wilson then checked on the actual specimen, which had been trawled off the Recherche Archipelago in WA in 2007.

It was a male, brooding young, as male seahorses do, about 24 centimetres long and still a vivid red when it was photographed on the research ship.

It was intact except for the waving appendages that keep seadragons hidden in their surroundings, both from predators and the tiny shrimp prey they suck up through straw-like mouths.

The scientists then scoured Australian collections and turned up several other rubies, all of them different anatomically from the leafy and common species.

“The red colour of the ruby seadragon helps to camouflage it at depth, as red light does not penetrate very deep,” Ms Stiller said. “So anything that is red is effectively black.”

She said the discovery underscored two things: how important long-term museum collections were, and how many more secrets still waited to be uncovered in the sea.

The ruby seadragon was found at a depth of 51 metres, just a few kilometres off the Austalian coast.

“Even at relatively shallow depth, which is much better explored than other parts of Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, we still find new species,”  Ms Stiller said.

“This particular new species is relatively large, brightly coloured and charismatic – and so it is all the more remarkable that it escaped recognition until now.

“It is a sign of how much more there may be to find in shallow and deeper waters of Australia.”

The team gave it the scientific name Phyllopteryx dewysea, naming it after  Mary “Dewy” White, an American benefactor of seadragon conservation and research.

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Gallipoli’s ratings fail highlights Australia’s inferiority complex

Artful: Gallipoli’s is an accomplished production but is failing to draw in viewers. Kodi Smit-McPhee in Gallipoli.
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One hundred years after the Gallipoli campaign was marked by terrible casualties, the Channel Nine mini-series is also suffering extensive losses. Gallipoli launched last week with a strong capital city audience of just more than 1.1 million, but on Monday night for the second of seven episodes the audience was virtually halved, down to 580,000. The ultimate indignity? It was beaten in the ratings by Ten’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! which drew 600,000 viewers earlier that evening.

“If you didn’t see ‘GALLIPOLI’ tonight you are truly out of your mind. Yes, it’s dark, violent, and bloody. But it is SENSATIONAL”, tweeted actor Lachy Hulme, who has a supporting role in Gallipoli as British military commander Lord Kitchener, on Monday night. And he’s right. This is a benchmark Australian television drama that captures the horror of a nation-defining moment with evocative writing, artful direction, strong performances and accomplished production values.

This actually is must-see TV, but the public doesn’t appear to be responding. The possible reasons why begin with an unwieldy timeslot – Gallipoli is screening at 9pm on Monday nights, although any show that airs after a major reality show tends to have a less than faithful relationship with its advertised starting time. And that lead-in on Nine, The Block Triple Threat, isn’t quite the ratings powerhouse of previous years. It’s been monstered by Channel Seven’s ratings behemoth My Kitchen Rules.

Interest in the Gallipoli centenary was expected to be high – there are several other television series in the can that now have highly nervous producers – but you could argue that the show’s qualities are better suited to the ABC, where it could have found an earlier slot on a Sunday night. The ABC did a good job of finding an audience for the last standout Australian drama, The Slap, in 2011.

But if a series is good enough, and having seen the first four episodes I know Gallipoli is, then surely the quality should transcend network logistics. The problem could run deeper, in that while the Gallipoli campaign has become a touchstone for Australians, it’s more of a symbol than a clearly defined reality. What Gallipoli makes clear, with its bloody hand-to-hand combat and no man’s land carpeted with Australian and Turkish dead, is the unchecked carnage behind the reassuring mythology.

The series is harrowing because it values reality over jingoistic sentiment and that’s not been the recent norm for Australian drama offerings. The successful diet offered by broadcasters has been a melodramatic confection of billionaires and their adversaries, led by multiple Kerry Packer offerings (including two where he’s played by the aggrieved Hulme). Channel Nine itself has only just finished serving up the overly ripe House of Hancock, a show whose pulpy appeal evaporated after a repetitive scene or two.

Australians have been eager adopters of the prestigious American cable drama series, with laudatory debates about whether The Sopranos is better than Breaking Bad and aficionados proudly boasting about being an early adopter of The Wire. But while those shows are among the medium’s very best, there’s also a part of us that bow down to imported acclaim and refuses to believe that we can make truly great television drama in this country. Presented with a worthy Australian program some television consumers prefer to wait online in case a new Game of Thrones trailer drops.

One of Gallipoli’s story strands is how the Australian military was a misused tool of wasteful British generals, and while we bowed down to the British a century ago our empire of choice now is American. Gallipoli’s falling ratings tells us that Australia’s sense of cultural inferiority is as strong as ever. If you didn’t see “GALLIPOLI” tonight you are truly out of your mind. Yes, it’s dark, violent, and bloody. But it is SENSATIONAL @Gallipoli9 — Lachy Hulme (@LachyHulme) February 16, 2015This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Mike Baird labelled a ‘coward’ by Senator Sam Dastyari for not attending parliamentary inquiry into electricity privatisation

Senator Sam Dastyari, flanked by independent Jacqui Lambie and the Greens’ Lee Rhiannon, criticised Mike Baird for not attending the public hearing into asset recyclling on Wednesday. Photo: Daniel Munoz Senators Jacquie Lambie and Sam Dastyari with protesters before the public hearing. Photo: Daniel Munoz
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A NSW Senator has accused Premier Mike Baird of gagging senior bureaucrats and preventing them from attending a parliamentary inquiry into his centrepiece election policy of privatisation.

“Mike Baird is a coward for refusing to show up to the inquiry today,” said Sam Dastyari, a federal Labor MP. He also accused the government of gagging its economic bureaucrats. “NSW Treasury was coming today; they have been told by the government that they couldn’t attend”.

The former NSW party boss was appearing with fellow senators Lee Rhiannon of the Greens and Tasmanian independent Jacqui Lambie at a Senate inquiry into asset sales held at the state library Wednesday.

A spokesman for the NSW Treasurer, Andrew Constance, said Treasury was unaware of any invitation to attend the inquiry, which he dismissed as a “collection of Canberra’s weird and wacky identities”.

“Any outcome from this inquiry would no doubt reflect their weird and wacky views,” the spokesman said.

The issue of privatisation is set to feature prominently in next month’s state election. It involves the federal government because it has promised to make cash payments to states that sell assets, such as Mr Baird has promised to do with half of NSW’s “poles and wires” or electricity distribution networks.

But that money has stalled in the federal parliament, where legislation is locked in a stalemate, leading to calls for Mr Baird to revise downwards estimates of how much money the sale would reap.

Wednesday’s inquiry featured testimony from several critics of privatisation including economist John Quiggin and the Australia Institute think tank.

Federal treasury bureaucrat Chris Legge said the federal government had determined to pay the states up to 15 per cent of the money spent on infrastructure funded through privatisations; a figure arrived at by negotiation.

Members of the Labor-dominated committee questioned why those incentives needed to be tied to privatisations. Mr Legge said it reflected federal government thinking that the states would have little money to spend on projects otherwise.

The federal government has promised about $6 billion in such incentives if they sell off assets.

But the Senate has blocked about $3.5 billion of that, which the Abbott government had planned to take from education funding. The bill to release funding has now stalled in the federal senate.

That could have serious implications for NSW: if the federal scheme does not go ahead, it could take more than $2 billion out of the $20 billion windfall the state government promises will be netted from its sell off, according to Infrastructure Partnerships Australia.

“Premier Mike Baird is promising to deliver a $2 billion federal sweetener for his poles and wires sell-off from a federal fund that that doesn’t exist,” said NSW Greens MLC John Kaye. “The Premier should be honest about his privatisation balance sheet and cut his infrastructure inducements by at least $2 billion”.

Dr Kaye accused the state government of further inflating its expected revenue from privatisation by claiming it will earn $5 billion in interest on the sale alone.

A spokesman for the Premier said he was confident the federal government would deliver the scheme in full. “We are outlining a $20 billion infrastructure plan and we’ll be delivering it.”

A Commonwealth bank analyst, William Allott, told Fairfax on Wednesday the assets may even be valued at more than the forecast $20 billion. He projected the market could pay up to $25 billion for the lease.

Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie dismissed the payments as a “bribe”.

“Once you decide to sell it’s all over red rover,” Ms Lambie said of infrastructure sales.

The Tasmanian senator warned that a re-elected Baird government that sold off electricity assets would be, like its federal Liberal counterpart, “living on borrowed time”.

The NSW Labor party is gearing up for a negative campaign on the issue of privatisation, after a similar proposal turned voters in Queensland off a sitting conservative government.

The senator from NSW dismissed a report by consultants Ernst and Young, comissioned by the Baird government, that found privatisation had led to a drop in retail electricity prices in Victoria.

“They were then awarded [another government] contract,” Mr Dastyari said. “That’s the kind of thing you see in the Mugabe regime”.

Treasurer Andrew Constance also cites research from other sources such as the Grattan Institute and Frontier Economics in support of the claim.

ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said he believed privatisation would lead to lower prices in an August speech but in its submission to Wednesday’s inquiry the watchdog warned against structuring any deal to maximise sale proceeds to the detriment of competition in the market.   

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Fiftieth anniversary re-enactment of freedom ride goes north to fight discrimination against Aboriginal people

An original member of Australia’s freedom rides is farewelled before boarding the bus for the 50th anniversary of the original ride promoting social justice for Aboriginal people. Photo: Peter Rae Original freedom riders ready to go. Photo: Peter Rae
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Freedom ride committee, 1965 – John Powles, Charles Perkins, Patricia Healy and Jim Spigelman.

Anniversary a celebration and reminder

When the first freedom ride left Sydney University to fight discrimination against Aboriginal people in 1965, it did so without Wednesday morning’s fanfare, without the university’s support and without official speeches marking the occasion.

In those days, there were no Aboriginal flags fluttering above the quadrangle, they hadn’t even been designed yet, and there were only two Aboriginal students on campus.

On Wednesday morning, the 50th anniversary re-enactment left in a flurry, with two buses carrying media, and some of the original freedom riders including Eileen Perkins, the widow of the late Aboriginal politician and activist, who initiated the original ride with Bill Ford, who had come back from the freedom rides in the United States inspired to bring about change in Australia.

With a new generation of 29 students on board along with some of the original freedom riders, the four-day bus trip will retrace much of the original route to northwest NSW, including Dubbo, Walgett, Kempsey and Moree. It will hold community forums, meetings and concerts.

As well as this week’s re-enactment of the original ride, Sydney University will mark the 50th anniversary of the freedom rides – a group of 30 students who took direct action to highlight discrimination against Aboriginal people in swimming pools, clubs and restaurants across NSW – with a new scholarship fund and a promise to lift the number of Indigenous students 65 per cent by 2016.

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“When the (original) freedom riders set out, the university wasn’t exactly the most supportive institution,” said Shane Houston, the deputy vice-chancellor, indigenous strategy and services. The1965 bus trip had been inspired by the American freedom riders in the deep south. The Australian students headed to the deep north, with the goal to “expose segregation and the shameful treatment of Aboriginal people.” The original freedom ride was led by Sydney University student Charles Perkins, who was to make history the year after the freedom rides by becoming the first Aboriginal man to graduate from an Australian university.

“The freedom ride really was a remarkable contribution to social consciousness in Australia,” said Mr Houston. It had brought Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues into the public gaze over a sustained period of time for the first time ever, he said.

“Up until that time, it was out of sight, out of mind largely (for Aboriginal people).”

One of the original riders who will join the 2015 bus ride in Moree this week is Jim Spigelman, now ABC chairman and a former chief justice of the NSW Supreme Court. He was 19 and a student at Sydney University when he left to fight racial discrimination that he knew firsthand from his parents and brother’s experience as Jews at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.

This week he recalled it was the first time that Aboriginal issues had ever been on the front page for a continuous period.

What the students uncovered across rural NSW was a shock to them and to many Australians. “We did not know before we got there that a number of local government councils had formal resolutions on the books prohibiting Indigenous Australians from swimming in the pools. We had heard that there were some kinds of discrimination in one or two places, but we didn’t know it was as formal as that. And a number of Australians didn’t know they (these racial bars) existed, ” Mr Spigelman said.

Mr Houston said the new freedom ride scholarship fund had been designed as a flexible fund that could be used to support and retain Indigenous students. In addition, the university had implemented a range of new policies to address institutional racism.

“A lot of people don’t understand that there are different forms of racism. Everyone gets the blatant acts,” he said, citing a time when he was banned from the front bar of a pub in Burke and told to ring a cowbell from out the back to order. “But what they don’t often get is the institutional racism, often unintentional, where we construct a way of behaving or a set of rules that has an unintended consequence that it disadvantages a group of people.”

To address this less obvious racism, the university had made thinking about and serving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders part of its core business affecting every part of the university. It was reviewing how it taught every subject, and it had made cultural competency a priority for every part of the university.

“If the Uni of Sydney could do what it is doing, there is no excuse for any other university. “

There are currently 383 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at the university. And he said the goal of increasing that number to 600 was ambitious but the university was hungry for change.

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