fourth estate journalism

Carbon fibre made in Australia

Australia for the first time has the capacity to produce carbon fibre from scratch and at scale, thanks to CSIRO and Deakin University.

The “missing link” in Australia’s carbon fibre capability, a wet spinning line (below), has been launched today in a ceremony at Waurn Ponds just outside Geelong.

Carbon fibre combines high rigidity, tensile strength and chemical resistance with low weight and is used in aerospace, civil engineering, the military, cars, and also in competitive sports.

Only a handful of companies around the world can create carbon fibre, each using their own secret recipe.

To join this elite club CSIRO and Deakin researchers had to crack the code.

Carbon fibre wet spinning line

Carbon fibre processing equipment longdesc=Carbon fibre processing equipment

In doing so, using patented CSIRO technology, they’ve created what could be the next generation of carbon fibre that is stronger and of a higher quality.

Director of CSIRO Future Industries, Dr Anita Hill, said the development was an important milestone.

“This facility means Australia can carry out research across the whole carbon fibre value chain: from molecules to polymers, to fibre, to finished composite parts,” Dr Hill said.

“Together with Deakin, we’ve created something that could disrupt the entire carbon fibre manufacturing industry.”

Deakin University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Jane den Hollander AO said the development is a great example of what Deakin and CSIRO could achieve together, for the benefit of all of Australia.

“Our two organisations share a long-standing and distinguished bond, one that our new Strategic Relationship Agreement (SRA) deepens even further,” Professor den Hollander said.

“Together, we’re conducting industry focused research with a profound and lasting impact, from the communities we serve, through to the world.”

The wet spinning line machinery takes a sticky mix of precursor chemicals and turns it into five hundred individual strands of fibre, each thinner than a human hair.

They’re then wound onto a spool to create a tape and taken next door to the massive carbonisation ovens to create the finished carbon fibre.

The CSIRO/ Deakin wet spinning line was custom built by an Italian company with input from the organisations’ own researchers.

The company liked the design so much it made another for its own factory and the CSIRO/ Deakin machine has been described as “the Ferrari of wet spinning lines”.

Assistant Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science the Honourable Craig Laundy MP officially launched the facility.

“This is a great example of how collaboration in the Australian research sector can accelerate research, lead innovation and provide new job opportunities,” Mr Laundy said.

“Geelong already has a global reputation for industrial innovation. Initiatives such as this enhance that standing.”

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Tilting at Windmills

The new adventures of Don Quixote played out this week on the ABC. Political Editor Chris Uhlmann joined in the Federal Government chorus laying the blame on South Australia’s wind turbines for the power outage when a storm brought down over twenty pylons of the electricity grid.

As photographs started to appear on social media of twisted towers lying on the ground reality reared its ugly head, but not for our Don Quixote. In his fantasy, severe damage to the distribution network is secondary. It was the replacement of coal fired power stations with a mix of power sources that include wind turbines that became his main target. This approach drew a storm of criticism from the South Australian Premier down.

Don Quixote hopped on his favourite hobby horse and charged.

One of the favourite targets of the anti-renewable brigade is the need for frequency synchronisation in alternating current (AC) power networks with multiple generators. Don Quixote sharpened his lance and probed with ”Wind power is asynchronous as its frequency fluctuates with the breeze, so it has to be stabilised by the give and take of other sources of demand and supply.”

There is only one problem, the Don missed the windmill with his lance. Wind turbines have a variety of methods to maintain constant speed and output frequency.
The basic one is varying the angle of the turbine blades so the wind turbine spins at the same speed even if the wind speed varies. This technology comes from propeller aircraft, including the heroes of the Battle of Britain in 1940, the Spitfire and Hurricane fighter aircraft. So variable pitch propellers, or turbine blades, are a well-proven concept.
There is a time lag between a gust of wind arriving and the blade pitch altering, producing slight variations in blade speed. Modern wind turbines use a variety of electrical systems to properly match the frequency and voltage of their output to the grid, such as the Doubly Fed Induction Generator (DFIG).
Engineers in wind turbine manufacturers are well aware of the needs of integrating wind turbines into a large scale electricity grid and develop engineering solutions to address the issues.

The seriousness of maintaining frequency was underlined only days before in Western Australia. A fault in a thermal power station caused a significant fluctuation in the network frequency, so the network shut down isolating about 13,000 customers in Perth.

The irony is that the anti-renewable brigade, including our Don Quixote, praise the ability of thermal power stations in maintaining network frequency,“thermal power is very good at delivering it.”

I am not sure if pointing out factual inadequacies in his story makes me one of the “pitchfork brigade”, but cherry picking facts is the mark of an activist, not a responsible journalist.

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America is moving to end its use of private prisons – should Australia follow suit?

Marilyn McMahon, Deakin University

For more than 30 years governments around the world have outsourced the management of prison populations. This trend has been enthusiastically adopted in Australia, which has a higher proportion of inmates in privately operated prisons than any other country.

Yet recent developments in the US – involving some of the same contractors who operate private prisons in Australia – suggest it might be time to rethink our commitment to these prisons.

In a major policy turnaround, the US Department of Justice recently announced it will immediately reduce, and ultimately seek to end, its use of privately operated prisons. The decision followed a review that concluded these prisons were less safe and less effective than other prisons and should be phased out.


Australian Prison

Why private prisons?

The first privately managed modern prison opened in 1984 in Tennessee. This development was a response to a surge in America’s prison population fuelled by the “War on Drugs” and harsh sentencing practices (including the extensive use of mandatory minimum sentences).

The consequent burden on existing prisons generated a demand for the construction and management of new prisons to hold these prisoners. State and federal authorities turned to the private sector, which promised quickly constructed prisons that would be more efficient and cost-effective than government-run facilities while still offering the same quality of service.

Despite some commentators expressing significant concerns about how for-profit companies would deliver effective staffing and rehabilitation programs, governments in Australia and elsewhere embraced the possibility of cheaper prisons managed by private corporations.

Australia’s first privately managed prison, at Borallon (near Brisbane), became operational in January 1990. It was managed by Corrections Company of Australia, a consortium equally owned by the Corrections Corporation of America, John Holland Construction Group and Wormald’s Security Ltd.

Private prisons in the US

From 1999 to 2010, the number of inmates held in private prisons in the US increased dramatically. While the overall prison population grew by 18%, the number of persons held in private prisons grew by a staggering 80%.

But a change in criminal justice and sentencing policies introduced in 2013 by the Obama administration resulted in a decrease in the federal prison population. Less harsh sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders as well as retroactive sentence reductions for some convicted drug offenders contributed to this decrease.

And despite the dire claims of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, the US is experiencing comparatively low crime rates.

A reduced federal prison population means government-operated prisons have the capacity to detain these inmates, with less reliance on private providers.

Immigration detention centres: a growth area?

The US Department of Justice’s announcement caused a significant drop in the share prices of the two main private prison operators, the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group. But their share prices soon rebounded.

The rebound is not surprising. These companies had already been diversifying into other criminal justice sectors, including electronic surveillance, parole and prison transportation.

Significantly, their activities extend to operating private prisons in other countries, including Australia. The GEO Group has been involved in running Australian prisons for more than two decades.

And, just like Australia, some of these companies are also involved in immigration detention. More people are detained in privately run immigration detention centres in the US than in federal prisons.

Operating immigration detention centres is a growth area for private providers. The US government recently entered into a US$1 billion contract with the Corrections Corporation of America to build and manage a centre in Texas to hold women and child asylum seekers from Central America.

Unsurprisingly, reform groups and immigrants’ rights organisations are agitating for these privately run facilities to be closed too.

What will the impact be?

The Department of Justice’s decision affects only 13 prisons in the US federal prison system, which hold about 23,000 prisoners.

It won’t affect the vast majority of the 2.2 million people imprisoned in the US, who are mainly held in state prisons and local jails. Thus, the number of prisoners directly affected is miniscule.

The decision also won’t deal with the grave concerns about how these corporations manage the immigration detention centres for which they are increasingly being given responsibility. It seems concerns about safety, security and cost-effectiveness – the drivers of the decision to end private prisons in the federal system – are not as significant when the detention of non-US citizens is involved.

So, it is unlikely this marks the beginning of the end of private prisons in the US. But it provides further evidence that privately operated prisons are not necessarily more cost-effective than those managed by governments. This marks a significant reversal of policy and may re-ignite debate about whether private corporations have a legitimate role in the detention and incarceration of people.

As evidence mounts about human rights abuse in privately operated detention centres in Australia, it’s a debate we should be having.

The Conversation

Marilyn McMahon, Associate Professor in Law, Deakin University

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

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Community or economy

The current right wing neoliberal Governments in Australia suggest the people exist to serve the economy rather than the economy serving them.

The neoliberal aim is to reduce the role of democratically elected Government in society and replace it with privately run businesses.

Democratic government is the agency of the common people. Small government means less democracy.

Sometimes they cloak their radical agenda as “conservative”. But    instead they seek dramatic change rather than the true conservative ideal of maintaining our current values and institutions

Growth and profit from transferring community assets to the private sector is the underlying paradigm of the neoliberal. Community values and quality of life for the common people are meaningless terms.

The neoliberal justification for restructuring society to favour the very rich is they will then use the extra wealth to generate growth in the economy with more jobs and extra tax generated by the extra activity, also known as trickle-down economics.

Trickle down economics basically is  feeding the scraps from the table of the rich to those who build their wealth on the sweat of the masses.

The Australian concept of helping your mates when they are in trouble  seems inconsistent with the neoliberal philosophy of self-reliance. This  translates into everyone out for themselves and exploitation of the weak and vulnerable.

In a country  with a large area and a small population it is hard to generate enough local capital for large infrastructure projects. Often the only Australian organisations with the financial capacity to invest in infrastructure are  governments, representing the combined resources of the population.


Directly elected leaders

Voters feel more in control when they directly elect the head of a governing body. These can range from a national government down to a local municipal council.

Then there are other systems where there is a directly elected leader either a national president, party leader or local council Mayor.

However, in governance systems informed by the Westminster system,  the practice is choosing the leader from within the governing body, who can command a majority of votes from the elected representatives.

This is often ignored by mass media at during elections where they concentrate on the leaders of the groups hoping to have enough members to govern. This creates the impression in the voter’s minds that they are voting for the leader rather than the candidates on the ballot paper.  Then there is a disappointment for these voters when groups change leaders between elections.

The advantage of the Westminster system is the Government controls the main chamber of the  legislature and if it cannot then it is no longer the government.

Where the leader is directly elected there is no guarantee that they have control of the legislature and can effectively run the government.  No system is perfect but directly elected leader systems can end up in a deadlock where the leader and the legislature diagree.

This occurs in the United States.  The directly elected President and his public service have trouble getting money bills through the elected Congress to conduct normal day to day operations of the Government.

In the United Kingdom the directly elected leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbin, does not have the support of many of the other Labour Members of Parliament. Often, the leader of the party is chosen by the party’s MPs without reference to the rank and file membership. This is not the case the UK’s Labour Party where a mixture of  MP’s, Unions and ordinary party members elect the leader. Its seems Labour MPs  are expending more energy in fighting internal battles than scrutinising the actions of a Government in disarray.

Closer to home some of the local Tasmanian municipal councils are having issues with a conflict between the directly elected Mayor and their Council and General managers. Although they are the nominal leaders, the popularly elected mayors have to rely on the separately elected council to make decisions on policy and council by-laws. Then the General Manager is responsible for implementing the wishes of the council. The general managers are hired and fired by the full council, not the Mayor. Naturally, they respond to the wishes of the full council and not the Mayor.

While the intention of involving people directly in the leadership choice is to be more democratic, the result can be dysfunction. The Westminster system evolved to ensure that the government of the day could govern with mechanisms to resolve deadlocks and has proven to be resilient and adaptable to a changing world.

Philip Northeast


That was the week – Public or Private


News items this week reminded me of the constant debate about private or public provisioning of basic infrastructure.

The ideologues have fixed views favouring either all private or public endeavours. These fixed viewpoints rely on the inflexible application of dogma rather than a pragmatic assessment of the needs of individual projects. In Australia, it is not unusual for the answer to be a partnership between public and private investors.

While the initial investment and implementation may be publicly funded there is often space for private endeavours within or using the public infrastructure.  Another approach is creating overarching public regulatory and taxation structures to facilitate discrete private efforts that contribute to an overall system. (more…)

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First week back blues

The first week of the newly elected  Australian Federal Parliament proved interesting for a Government hanging on by their fingernails.

The high point, or low point, depending on  your political point of view, came at the end of the parliamentary sitting week for the House of Representatives. A number of Government Members of Parliament decided to leave early on Thursday night to get a head start on the weekend.

Was this an example of old habits formed during the last Parliament where the Government had a comfortable majority in the lower house? Then some MPs could get an early start to their trip home  without any consequences, but not now. This time, the Opposition struck and had the numbers to defeat the government in votes for a number of motions.

The Government rallied enough numbers to defeat the Opposition’s attempt to pass the  bill to form a Royal Commission into Australia’ s banking system.  The bill had already been passed the Senate. If had passed both of the houses then it would have been embarrassing for the Government that has resolutely resisted pressure calls for a Royal Commission into the finance sector.

Although the Government averted the immediate danger, the underlying crisis is unusual in  modern Australian politics. An important principle of the Westminster system is the Government is formed by a group that controls a majority of votes on the floor of the house. When a Government  loses a vote  in Parliament it casts doubt on its legitimacy. (more…)

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Did the Census really suffer a denial-of-service ‘attack’?

Mike Johnstone, Edith Cowan University

Tuesday night, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) closed the 2016 Census website. No explanation was given at the time, except for a message on the page saying “the system is very busy at the moment”.

Next morning, the ABS’s head statistician, David Kalisch, announced that the site had been brought offline by four distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.

The minister responsible, Michael McCormack, later qualified these statements by stating the site was not “attacked”, per se. While this is a semantic quibble, it is accurate in the sense that a DDoS “attack” in itself is not an attempt to gain access or subvert information. (more…)


Pay doctors to keep patients healthy rather than just for treating illness

emergency entrance e

Peter Sivey, RMIT University

While Australia’s health system compares well internationally, costs are rising. So are chronic diseases related to unhealthy lifestyles, such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. Health policy experts are becoming increasingly concerned about how the fragmentary nature of our health system can cope with the challenges of the 21st century. The root of these concerns lies in the antiquated fee-for-service payment system for doctors.

One chink of sunlight is the Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) hospital funding deal signed between the Commonwealth and the states in April. The governments are committed to developing models for better coordinated care and reducing avoidable readmissions to hospital. This includes trialling a new model of Health Care Homes, where patients sign up to one GP clinic for all their care needs. (more…)

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The electricity market’s not doing a great job – here’s how to improve it


Alex Fattal, University of Technology Sydney and Nicky Ison, University of Technology Sydney

The past three weeks have seen considerable discussion of Australia’s wholesale electricity market, driven largely by severe price spikes in South Australia. Hugh Saddler, writing last week on The Conversation, and the Climate Council, in a report released yesterday, have each done a good job of busting the myth that this is all because of SA’s relatively large share of wind energy.

After outlining the growing lack of competitiveness in the SA electricity sector, Saddler called for “a fundamental rethink” of the National Electricity Market (NEM). What would this involve? (more…)