The RMA is dead, long live the RMA: why NZ’s resource laws won’t change overnight after this election

RMA – three letters that have struck fear into a generation of farmers, developers, politicians and anyone building a house. Or so legend would have it.

Whatever its original goal of promoting sustainable management of natural and physical resources, the Resource Management Act (RMA) has long been dogged by claims of unnecessary and inefficient rules that strangle innovation and progress.

The subject of any number of reviews since its inception in 1991, the act was finally replaced in August this year with the Natural and Built Environments Act (NBEA).

This new law established a framework that replaces the RMA’s plethora of regional, city and district plans with a single, unified system. At the centre of it sits te Oranga o te Taiao, a concept taken from te ao Māori that is described in the official literature as:

[…] an intergenerational ethic that speaks to the health and wellbeing of the natural environment, and the essential relationship between a healthy environment and its capacity to sustain all life.

For the Labour government that introduced the NBEA, it is mission accomplished. But with the election campaign into its final weeks, there is still great uncertainty about what will happen if there’s a change of government. In short, is the RMA really gone?

Town and country

Labour’s main potential coalition partner, the Green Party, appears committed to the new legislation. But the centre-right and right parties have other ideas. National, ACT and NZ First all want the NBEA gone.

National and NZ First both want to resurrect the RMA as an interim measure while new legislation is developed. National promises to repeal the NBEA with some urgency, before its new regional planning panels are established.

One of National’s proposals is to split the management of built and natural environments into different laws. There is logic to this – the former is about improving quality of life for individuals and communities, while the latter addresses the sustainability of underlying biophysical systems within which we live.

Read more:
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Put another way, one enables us to live, the other makes life worth living. For example, long commute times and poorly designed dwellings degrade the quality of life for the people affected. But they don’t directly affect biodiversity or natural water quality. The two are related, but the goals are separate.

For its part, NZ First wants to “temporarily reinstate the RMA before replacing that with a Town and Country Planning Act modelled on legislation used by the Republic of Ireland”. This harks back to 1977 legislation of the same name, which created many of the problems the RMA was designed to address.

In fact, the Irish model quoted by NZ First is not dissimilar to Labour’s NBEA. Both avoid market-led decision making by developing national and regional planning frameworks. But “Project Ireland 2040” is far more ambitious, incorporating the United Nations sustainable development goals and seeking to integrate economic development and education within the planning mix.

Back to court

The NBEA and Irish policies represent a far more planned economy than we’ve become used to since the mid-1980s. Perhaps because of that, ACT simply promises to repeal the NBEA without resuscitating the RMA.

The party proposes separating urban development from environmental protection, and wants to focus environmental management on property rights. Changes to property should be allowed unless they directly affect others in some way.

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Trees, rivers and mountains are gaining legal status – but it’s not been a quick fix for environmental problems

The policy is reminiscent of 19th century laws and the reliance on a “tort of nuisance” for dispute resolution. Don’t like what the neighbours are doing? Take them to court – more specifically, a planning tribunal established to settle disputes and determine compensation when negotiations break down.

Theoretically elegant, this solution inevitably involves significant legal costs and would potentially pit individuals with limited resources against large corporations or city councils. (It’s also unclear who would speak for the trees and fish, who will struggle to get to the planning tribunal.)

In practice, such a policy could see some very upset property owners who find their neighbours building medium-density units or social housing. And in theory, without environmental laws and some rules in a city plan, it would still be a property dispute even if they planned a “harmless” waste dump.

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Freshwater quality is one of New Zealanders’ biggest concerns – water-trading ’clubs’ could be part of the solution

The once and future RMA

If there is a change of government, then, what might we expect? Firstly, it is worth remembering the bipartisan origins of the RMA. While it was instigated by a Labour government in the 1980s, it was National that saw the bill into law – with very little substantive change to the draft legislation.

Indeed, Shane Jones, now number two on NZ First’s list, was an architect of the original RMA during the law reform process at the time.

National in 2024 might also decide that unpicking the NBEA could achieve little other than to scratch healing scabs. If a National-led government opted to simply make changes at the margins, these might include re-configuring the composition of the regional planning committees to meet any concerns about co-governance from coalition partners.

But much of what is now in place under the RMA will keep ticking over anyway. The NBEA has a long transition period, with the Ministry for the Environment advising it will be ten years before it becomes fully functional.

Any new government will need time to develop new legislation if it wants to make significant change. In the meantime, environmental management will be business as usual under the RMA system, regardless of the election result. Complaining about it may well be the other constant. Läs mer…

Seals, swimmers, bat carers – exploring the world of the pale brown, oft-maligned Yarra River

Author Harry Saddler’s book on Melbourne’s Yarra River is an engaging account of his years exploring its native species and human communities. He acknowledges the river’s First Nations name of Birrarung, writing with a boyish enthusiasm. At times I felt his emotion jumping out of the pages, almost channelling David Attenborough’s passion for species and the environment.

Review: A Clear Flowing Yarra – Harry Saddler (Affirm Press)

The book’s major focus is on Saddler’s obvious fascination with native animals. He delights in telling us about his adventures finding them on, in, and near to the Yarra. It sometimes reads like a police drama as be describes “staking out” the habitat of an elusive species. Night after night, Saddler keeps going back to potential hideouts. At one point he watches eleven sugar gliders emerge from a hollow in a river red gum, only metres from townhouses.

Saddler had me hooked with his description of first encounter with a Yarra platypus:

We gawped and we gaped in mind-bent wonderment as a dark-brown platypus bobbed up to the surface of the pale brown Yarra and then dived again, disappearing instantly in the turbid water.

There are platypuses in the Yarra.
AAP/North Central Catchment Management Authority

One of this book’s themes is Melburnians don’t really think much about the Yarra River. And not just the locals. I’m ashamed to remember hearing unflattering jokes about the Yarra in my childhood in Sydney. They involved the muddy appearance of the river, that looked like it flowed “upside down”.

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Once the Yarra was world famous for swimming: a long distance (three-mile) swim was held there for nearly 50 years up to 1964. It was once the largest open water swimming competition in the world. Perhaps this book might help address the Yarra River’s image problem. And remind people of its many values, from its rich biodiversity to providing 5 million people with much of their water supply.

It might surprise many the Yarra River is still popular for swimming. Saddler tells us of his amazement when on a hot March day near Warrandyte in 2017:

As if in a dream, I found there a remarkable sight: hundreds of people swimming and bathing in a wide sparkling stream.

The Yarra in Warrandyte at sunset.
Nils Versemann/Shutterstock

Just a word of warning though. As with many rivers affected by urbanisation and other human activities, water quality in the Yarra can be poor and hazardous to human health. As tennis player Jim Courier discovered, when he dived in the river after celebrating his 1993 men’s singles victory in the Australian Open and picked up a stomach bug.

As I read, I could not help myself. I looked up the latest water quality advice for swimming provided by the Victorian EPA. At the time of writing, they showed the river at Warrandyte had “good” water quality. This offered the only suitable swimming location on the river. The other three sites (Kew, Healesville and Yarra Junction) were all rated as “poor”.

Angelique Kerber repeated Jim Courier’s stunt, swimming in the Yarra the morning after winning the Australian Open women’s singles title in 2016.
Fiona Hamilton/AP/Tennis Australia

Read more:
A tale of 2 rivers: is it safer to swim in the Yarra in Victoria, or the Nepean in NSW?

Contrasting layers

This book is written in contrasting layers. Chapters alternate between exploring different native species found in the Yarra, and exploring how people interact with the river.

Native species that get their own chapter include the Powerful Owl, Brush-Tailed Phascogale, Short-finned Eel, Swamp Wallaby, Snakes, Rakali (the native water rat), Azure Kingfisher and Grey-Headed Flying Foxes.

Flying foxes get their own chapter.
Craig Dingle/Shutterstock

The Flying Fox chapter reveals a Yarra species, also commonly called fruit bats, that seems to attract very strong emotions. We are introduced to people caring for their welfare, such as Megan from “Friends of Bats and Bushcare”. She points out how vulnerable they are to stress in very hot weather, with sprinklers installed in the Yarra bat colony to help keep them cool during heat waves.

On the opposing side we are told about the removal of a colony that had settled along the Yarra in the Royal Botanic Gardens – dispersed using noise, smoke and lights. It also gets political. The book mentions an unnamed former politician who tried to have a colony of bats in his electorate removed.

Read more:
Not in my backyard? How to live alongside flying-foxes in urban Australia

Saddler describes how:

The biggest and most beautiful tiger snake I’ve ever seen was sliding out of the Plenty River onto broad, sunny rocks where that tributary joined the Yarra.

In case the reader still has any doubt about his feelings towards snakes, he states: “Snakes are great. I’ll tolerate no snake badmouthing here”.

For me, a major appeal is that along with celebrating the remarkable biodiversity of the river, Saddler explores the many groups and individuals who care about it: cleaning up litter, clearing the banks of invasive weeds. Dedicated people such as Daniella, who has lived near the river for 20 years. She has regularly picked up rubbish to help keep the river and its banks clean.

As I read, I wondered if Saddler would have written this book if a native Melburnian. He moved to Melbourne from Canberra about 20 years ago, where he lived far from the ocean. He grew up comfortable in fresh water: swimming in Lake Burley-Griffin and ACT rivers such as the Cotter, Molonglo and Murrumbidgee.

His book reads like an adventurous exploration of an unknown world. At least to him. And also, perhaps, millions of Melburnians. There is something about the excitement of exploring around the next bend of the river. Documenting unfamiliar landscapes, and discovering the home and habits of another species.

Apart from the playtpus, my other favorite species described by Saddler is Salvatore the Australian Fur Seal, who gets his own chapter. Salvatore became an unlikely star attraction living in the river during a very dark time for Melbourne, in 2021 during one of its tough COVID lockdowns. For thousands of people, capturing a sight of this unusual visitor provided a thrill.

Harry describes the thousands of teasing photos and videos of Salvatore on the internet. I felt his frustration growing as he cycled up and down the river, meeting crowds of people elated after an encounter with the famous seal. But he kept missing out. Until finally, one day, near the Gipps Street bridge, on the main Yarra trail, his patience was rewarded.

He dived, and sometimes disappeared for what seemed like minutes before resurfacing further upstream, or further downstream; in these moments people on canoes would occasionally paddle by and I shouted out warning to them: be careful, there was a seal here just a minute ago and he’s massive.

Affirm Press

Perhaps another edition of this book might have pictures. And I really would have loved a map or two. Still, it reminds me of the importance of providing safe access for communities to engage with waterways, perhaps helped by walking or cycling paths, parks and public transport. Even in highly modified urban settings we might be able to observe native species mostly hidden from the public gaze.

This book, while a love letter to the Yarra/Birrarung, might also remind those readers not in Melbourne a similar unexplored river or natural landscape likely exists right under their noses. Läs mer…

Government’s employment white paper commits to jobs for all who want them – and help to get them

The employment white paper, released on Monday, has outlined multiple measures the Albanese government will implement to assist the about three million people who want jobs or more hours of work.

They include making permanent a temporary measure allowing pensioners to earn more, smoothing the transition to work for people on welfare, and alleviating the disadvantage many of the unemployed face.

In the white paper, prepared by Treasury, the government commits to full employment, which it defines as “everyone who wants a job [being] able to find one without having to search for too long”.

It does not put a number on the unemployment rate this represents.

The government will make permanent the current work bonus measure for older pensioners and eligible veterans so they can work more without reducing their pension.

It will double the period during which many income support recipients can receive no payment, thus allowing them to keep access to social security benefits such as concession cards for longer when they first get back into work.

Social enterprises will be backed to address persistent labour market disadvantage. TAFE will be boosted, and the take up of “higher apprenticeships” in the priority areas of net zero, the care and digitisation will be accelerated.

In addition to nine immediate measures the paper looks to longer term policies to enhance people’s access to the labour market.

“The government’s vision is for a dynamic and inclusive labour market in which everyone has the opportunity for secure, fairly paid work and people, businesses and communities can be beneficiaries of change and thrive. We are working to create more opportunities for more people in more places,” the paper says.

The paper comes as the unemployment rate is at 3.7%, which is expected to tick up as the economy slows. This is very low for modern times but the white paper highlights constraints to higher employment.

“Inclusive full employment is about broadening opportunities, lowering barriers to work including discrimination, and reducing structural underutilisation over time to increase the level of employment in our economy.”

Commonwealth Treasury

Structural underutilisation is a mismatch between potential workers and available work. Reasons include workers’ skills not matching what the jobs need, workers and jobs being geographically apart, and barriers presented by disadvantage or discrimination.

“The government will take a broad approach to achieving sustained and inclusive full employment. This includes sound macroeconomic management to help keep employment as close as possible to its current maximum sustainable level in the short term. We are also committed to addressing the structural sources of underutilisation to increase the level of full employment that can be sustained over time without adding to inflationary pressures,” the paper says.

“We are taking comprehensive action, including improved education, migration and regional planning systems, and setting out reform directions to improve key enablers such as employment services, affordable and accessible child care, and housing. We are equipping the workforce with the skills needed for the jobs of the future, and enhancing the ability of individuals and businesses to adapt to the modern labour market”.

The report says increasing participation in work promotes social inclusion as well as boosting the country’s economic potential.

It notes the five regions with the highest long term unemployment make up 12% of all the country’s long term unemployed, although they have only 5% of the working age population.

Disadvantage can led to “intergenerational cycles of joblessness”, the paper says. Complex personal circumstances and discrimination compound local factors.

“Many people face multiple, interconnected barriers to employment such as a lack of access to services or secure and affordable housing.”

Unemployment particularly affects certain cohorts, including Indigenous people, people with disabilities and the young.

The paper points to the major forces that will shape the economy over coming decades. They are the ageing population, a rising demand for care and support services, the growing use of digital and advanced technologies, the global net zero transformation, and increasing geopolitical risk and fragmentation disrupting supply chains and making resilience more important.

“These forces are changing the composition of our industries, workforce needs, and the nature of work itself.”

The paper looks to renewable energy and digital technologies to improve productivity and says boosting productivity in industries such as care and support services will be increasingly important. “Rather than repeating previous waves of reforms, Australia’s productivity agenda needs to respond to current economic circumstances and identify modern strategies to advance enduring policy goals.” Läs mer…

Do blue-light glasses really work? Can they reduce eye strain or help me sleep?

Blue-light glasses are said to reduce eye strain when using computers, improve your sleep and protect your eye health. You can buy them yourself or your optometrist can prescribe them.

But do they work? Or could they do you harm?

We reviewed the evidence. Here’s what we found.

Read more:
Health Check: will I damage my eyes if I don’t wear sunglasses?

What are they?

Blue-light glasses, blue light-filtering lenses or blue-blocking lenses are different terms used to describe lenses that reduce the amount of short-wavelength visible (blue) light reaching the eyes.

Most of these lenses prescribed by an optometrist decrease blue light transmission by 10-25%. Standard (clear) lenses do not filter blue light.

A wide variety of lens products are available. A filter can be added to prescription or non-prescription lenses. They are widely marketed and are becoming increasingly popular.

There’s often an added cost, which depends on the specific product. So, is the extra expense worth it?

Read more:
How eye disorders may have influenced the work of famous painters

Blue light is all around us

Outdoors, sunlight is the main source of blue light. Indoors, light sources – such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and the screens of digital devices – emit varying degrees of blue light.

The amount of blue light emitted from artificial light sources is much lower than from the Sun. Nevertheless, artificial light sources are all around us, at home and at work, and we can spend a lot of our time inside.

Screens emit blue light. The lenses are designed to reduce the amount of blue light that reaches the eye.

Our research team at the University of Melbourne, along with collaborators from Monash University and City, University London, sought to see if the best available evidence supports using blue light-filtering glasses, or if they could do you any harm. So we conducted a systematic review to bring together and evaluate all the relevant studies.

We included all randomised controlled trials (clinical studies designed to test the effects of interventions) that evaluated blue light-filtering lenses in adults. We identified 17 eligible trials from six countries, involving a total of 619 adults.

Read more:
Does my treatment work? How major medical reviews can be ’gold standard’ evidence, yet flawed

Do they reduce eye strain?

We found no benefit of using blue light-filtering lenses, over standard (clear) lenses, to reduce eye strain with computer use.

This conclusion was based on consistent findings from three studies that evaluated effects on eye strain over time periods ranging from two hours to five days.

Read more:
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Do they help you sleep?

Possible effects on sleep were uncertain. Six studies evaluated whether wearing blue-light filtering lenses before bedtime could improve sleep quality, and the findings were mixed.

These studies involved people with a diverse range of medical conditions, including insomnia and bipolar disorder. Healthy adults were not included in the studies. So we do not yet know whether these lenses affect sleep quality in the general population.

Read more:
Booting up or powering down: how e-readers affect your sleep

Do they boost your eye health?

We did not find any clinical evidence to support using blue-light filtering lenses to protect the macula (the region of the retina that controls high-detailed, central vision).

None of the studies evaluated this.

Read more:
Macular diseases cause blindness and treatment costs millions. Here is how to look after yours

Could they do harm? How about causing headaches?

We could not draw clear conclusions on whether there might be harms from wearing blue light-filtering lenses, compared with standard (non blue-light filtering) lenses.

Some studies described how study participants had headaches, lowered mood and discomfort from wearing the glasses. However, people using glasses with standard lenses reported similar effects.

Read more:
Health Check: what causes headaches?

What about other benefits or harms?

There are some important general considerations when interpreting our findings.

First, most of the studies were for a relatively short period of time, which limited our ability to consider longer-term effects on vision, sleep quality and eye health.

Second, the review evaluated effects in adults. We don’t yet know if the effects are different for children.

Finally, we could not draw conclusions about the possible effects of blue light-filtering lenses on many vision and eye health measures, including colour vision, as the studies did not evaluate these.

Read more:
Curious Kids: why are people colour blind?

In a nutshell

Overall, based on relatively limited published clinical data, our review does not support using blue-light filtering lenses to reduce eye strain with digital device use. It is unclear whether these lenses affect vision quality or sleep, and no conclusions can be drawn about any potential effects on the health of the retina.

High-quality research is needed to answer these questions, as well as whether the effectiveness and safety of these lenses varies in people of different ages and health status.

If you have eye strain, or other eye or vision concerns, discuss this with your optometrist. They can perform a thorough examination of your eye health and vision, and discuss any relevant treatment options. Läs mer…

Labor and Albanese recover in Newspoll as Dutton falls, but the Voice’s slump continues

A national Newspoll, conducted September 18–22 from a sample of 1,239, gave Labor a 54–46 lead, a one-point gain for Labor since the previous Newspoll, three weeks ago. Primary votes were 36% Labor (up one), 36% Coalition (down one), 11% Greens (down two), 6% One Nation (down one) and 11% for all Others (up three).

While Labor’s primary vote improved at the Coalition’s expense, the drop for the Greens should have cost Labor preferences. Rounding appears to have contributed to Labor’s gain after preferences.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s ratings were 47% satisfied (up one) and 44% dissatisfied (down three), for a net approval of +3, up four points. He returns to net positive approval after falling into net negative for the first time this term in the previous Newspoll.

Here is a graph of Albanese’s net approval in Newspoll.

Albanese net approval in Newspoll.

Liberal leader Peter Dutton’s net approval fell nine points to -20. This is his worst net approval, beating a -19 net approval in April. Albanese led as better PM by 50–30 (50–31 three weeks ago).

While Labor and Albanese improved and Dutton fell, the Voice’s slump continued, with “no” now ahead by 56–36, out from a 53–38 “no” lead in early September. Newspoll figures are from The Poll Bludger.

This Newspoll is the second to be conducted by Pyxis after it was previously conducted by YouGov.

The referendum on the Indigenous Voice to parliament will be held on October 14. I have updated the 2023 Voice polls graph with Newspoll and Redbridge (see below).

2023 Voice polls.

Since June, every pollster has released worse results for “yes” in their most recent poll than in their prior poll. The history of Labor-initiated referendums shows they have been defeated heavily when held as standalone referendums, with closer losses when held with a general election.

Read more:
While the Voice has a large poll lead now, history of past referendums indicates it may struggle

It’s clear from the polling that it was a blunder to hold this referendum as a standalone vote rather than with a general election.

Voting in the referendum is compulsory, but not everyone will vote. A question on likelihood to vote in The Australian’s report found 91% of “yes” supporters and 90% of “no” supporters would either definitely or very likely vote.

There is a large gap in “yes” support by educational attainment, with university-educated people voting “yes” by 54–40, while those with TAFE/college are voting “no” by 59–34 and those without tertiary education are “no” by 66–25.

Dutton’s negativity on the Voice may be affecting his ratings, and Labor may be benefiting from better perceptions on the economy. Morgan’s consumer confidence index has been below 80 for a record 29 successive weeks or almost seven months, but it was barely below 80 at 79.8 last week.

In last fortnight’s federal Resolve poll, the Liberals extended their lead over Labor on economic management from 33–32 in August to 36–30. For the first time this term, the Liberals led on keeping the cost of living low, by 28–27, reversing a Labor lead of 30–26 in August.

Referendum court case, Morgan and Redbridge polls

United Australia Party Senator Ralph Babet challenged the Australian Electoral Commission’s decision, based on longstanding legal advice, to count ticks as formal “yes” votes but crosses as informal. The federal court last Wednesday ruled in the AEC’s favour. With “no” so far ahead in the national Voice polls, it’s very unlikely this issue will affect the result.

A national Morgan poll, conducted September 11–17 from a sample of 1,234, gave Labor a 54–46 lead, a 1.5-point gain for Labor since the previous week. Primary votes have not been provided.

The Daily Telegraph reported Sunday that a Redbridge national Voice poll, taken “last week”, gave “no” a 62–38 lead, a slight widening from a 61–39 “no” lead in early September.

Victorian Redbridge poll: Labor far ahead

A Victorian state Redbridge poll, conducted August 31 to September 14 from a large sample of 3,001, gave Labor a 56.5–43.5 lead, from primary votes of 37% Labor, 34% Coalition, 13% Greens and 16% for all Others. There are detailed breakdowns by gender, age, region, education level, household income and home ownership status.

This is the first Victorian Redbridge poll. The last Victorian Resolve poll, conducted in July and August, also gave Labor a large lead. Läs mer…

Is it ethical non-Indigenous people get to decide on the Voice? Is it OK for one group to have rights others don’t? An ethicist weighs in

Australians will soon be asked to vote on whether we should “alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice”.

Two philosophical concerns have been raised about this proposal.

First, is it appropriate for members of one group to decide what rights members of another group get? Why should non-Indigenous Australians get to decide if the First Peoples of Australia are granted an institutional Voice?

Second, is it appropriate to give members of one group rights that members of another group lack? Isn’t our system of government based on the idea we are all equal and therefore we should all have the same rights?

I’ll explore the ethical and philosophical basis of each question here.

1. Should one group get to decide for another group?

An analogy is often made between the same-sex marriage plebiscite and the Voice referendum. Given evidence about the harm the debate surrounding the same-sex marriage plebiscite had on the LGBTQIA+ community, it’s reasonable to ask whether that plebiscite should have occurred, given parliament could have legislated same-sex marriage without the plebiscite.

But despite the fact there are already reports of mental harm to First Nations people, considerations of whether or not we need this public vote do not apply to the Voice. The Voice, as a form of constitutional recognition that many (but not all) Indigenous people are seeking, can only occur via a referendum.

And there is actually nothing unusual about citizens and their elected representatives making decisions about what rights and entitlements others have. This is the very nature of democracies.

But this raises a more fundamental tension within our liberal-democratic political system. The tension lies between the “liberal” element, which seeks to secure the rights and liberties of all individuals, and the “democratic” element, which seeks to enact self-rule by the people.

This tension generates a problem known as the “tyranny of the majority”. This is where a democratic majority is able to violate the rights of a smaller minority.

In both the same-sex marriage and Voice votes, there is a large majority with the power to decide the rights of a minority.

Democracies typically guard against a majority mistreating a minority, in part, by enshrining foundational rights and liberties in a constitution that is difficult to change democratically.

This puts an imperfect, but practical, check on the exercise of that tyranny. The rights and entitlements set out in a constitution stipulate the fundamental terms of cooperation within a political community.

For example, the Australian constitution sets out that our political community is based around a Commonwealth with legislative, executive and judicial branches, as well as granting several explicit rights (such as the right to vote and the right to trial by jury) and implied rights (such as the freedom of political communication).

Enacting a constitutional change serves both a symbolic function, by expressing that something is part of the foundational framework of our political community, and a practical function of partially insulating it from changing democratic whims.

One argument against the Voice is that it would give one group something others don’t have.
AAP/Richard Wainwright

2. Should one group get something others don’t get?

This leads to the second issue, whether there is something undemocratic about members of one group having different rights to members of other groups.

But this is not necessarily problematic (although it can be).

Members who belong to one group, such as the citizens of Queensland, have rights that members of other groups, such as the citizens of New South Wales, do not have, such as being entitled to elect representatives to the Queensland parliament.

Something similar would apply to the Voice, with First Nations people having the right to elect members to the Voice that members of other groups would not have.

But surely not every group should have its own constitutionally enshrined Voice? On what basis should we grant the First Peoples of Australia such a right?

There are at least two obvious bases.

First, as a rectification of past injustices. For example, if someone steals a painting from you, then you are entitled to have your property back or to receive restitution. This can apply cross-generationally.

If the Nazis stole your great grandfather’s painting, then you are entitled to have it returned to you or receive compensation if the painting emerges many years later, even if your great grandfather is long deceased.

First Nations people of Australia have suffered specific and significant injustices that other groups have not, such as the loss of sovereignty over their traditional lands, and they are therefore entitled to redress, which could (in part) take the form of a Voice.

The second basis is to rectify a specific disadvantage. As Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka puts it:

we match the rights to the kinds of disadvantage being compensated for.

For example, Australians with a disability are entitled to certain rights, such as disability support, that members of other groups are not.

On a range of measures, from health to education and wealth, Australia’s First Nations people face significant disadvantages, and it’s therefore reasonable members of that group receive specific rights to counteract the specific forms of disadvantage they experience.

Read more:
Your questions answered on the Voice to Parliament

Neither of these questions are the important ones

In democracies, majorities are asked to vote on what rights a minority has and members of different groups can have different rights.

Rather than focus on whether a Voice would “divide us by race”, we should focus (among other things) on the substantive issues of whether the proposed changes will be effective in helping to rectify past injustices or to counteract specific disadvantages, and whether any such changes should be embedded in our Constitution.

Inclusion in the Constitution would serve as an enduring expression of their foundational role in our political community, and would partially insulate them from democratic meddling.

Read more:
7 rules for a respectful and worthwhile Voice referendum Läs mer…

Are fish oil supplements as healthy as we think? And is eating fish better?

Fish oil, which contains omega-3 fatty acids, is promoted for a number of health benefits – from boosting our heart health, protecting our brain from dementia, and easing the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

But what exactly are omega-3 fats and what does the evidence say about their benefits for keeping us healthy?

And if they are good for us, does eating fish provide the same benefit as supplements?

What are omega-3 fats?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid. They are essential to consume in our diet because we can’t make them in our body.

Three main types of omega-3 fats are important in our diet:

alpha-linoloneic acid (ALA), which is found in plant foods such as green leafy vegetables, walnuts, flaxseed and chia seeds
eicosapentanoic acid (EPA), which is only found in seafood, eggs (higher in free-range rather than cage eggs) and breast milk
docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is also only found in seafood, eggs (again, higher in free-range eggs) and breast milk.

Omega 3s are key to the structure of our cells, and help keep our heart, lungs, blood vessels, and immune system working.

Eating fish vs taking a supplement

The initial studies suggesting omega-3 fats may have health benefits came from observational studies on people eating fish, not from fish oil.

So are the “active ingredients” from supplements – the EPA and DHA – absorbed into our body in the same way as fish?

An intervention study (where one group was given fish and one group fish oil supplements) found the levels of EPA and DHA in your body increase in a similar way when you consume equal amounts of them from either fish or fish oil.

Eating fish might have other benefits that supplements can’t give.
Unsplash/CA Creative

But this assumes it is just the omega-3 fats that provide health benefits. There are other components of fish, such as protein, vitamins A and D, iodine, and selenium that could be wholly or jointly responsible for the health benefits.

The health benefits seen may also be partially due to the absence of certain nutrients that would have otherwise been consumed from other types of meat (red meat and processed meat) such as saturated fats and salt.

So what are the benefits of omega 3 fats? And does the source matter?

Let’s consider the evidence for heart disease, arthritis and dementia.

Heart disease

For cardiovascular disease (heart attacks and stroke), a meta-analysis, which provides the highest quality evidence, has shown fish oil supplementation probably makes little or no difference.

Another meta-analysis found for every 20 grams per day of fish consumed it reduced the risk of coronary heart disease by 4%.

The National Heart Foundation recommends, based on the scientific evidence, eating fish rich in omega-3 fats for optimal heart health. Fish vary in their omega-3 levels and generally the fishier they taste the more omega-3 fats they have – such as tuna, salmon, deep sea perch, trevally, mackeral and snook.

The foundation says fish oil may be beneficial for people with heart failure or high triglycerides, a type of fat that circulates in the blood that increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. But it doesn’t recommend fish oil for reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases (heart attack and stroke).

Read more:
Omega 3 supplements don’t protect against heart disease – new review


For rheumatoid arthritis, studies have shown fish oil supplements do provide benefits in reducing the severity and the progression of the disease.

Eating fish also leads to these improvements, but as the level of EPA and DHA needed is high, often it’s difficult and expensive to consume that amount from fish alone.

Arthritis Australia recommends, based on the evidence, about 2.7 grams of EPA and DHA a day to reduce joint inflammation. Most supplements contain about 300-400mg of omega-3 fats.

So depending on how much EPA and DHA is in each capsule, you may need nine to 14 capsules (or five to seven capsules of fish oil concentrate) a day. This is about 130g-140g of grilled salmon or mackeral, or 350g of canned tuna in brine (almost four small tins).

Eating fish also leads to improvements in arthritis, but you’d need to eat large quantities.


Epidemiological studies have shown a positive link between an increased DHA intake (from diet) and a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia.

Animal studies have shown DHA can alter markers that are used to assess brain function (such as accumulation of amyloid – a protein thought to be linked to dementia, and damage to tau protein, which helps stabilise nerve cells in the brain). But this hasn’t been shown in humans yet.

A systematic review of multiple studies in people has shown different results for omega-3 fats from supplements.

In the two studies that gave omega-3 fats as supplements to people with dementia, there was no improvement. But when given to people with mild cognitive impairment, a condition associated with increased risk of progressing to dementia, there was an improvement.

Another meta-anlayses (a study of studies) showed a higher intake of fish was linked to lower risk of Alzheimers, but this relationship was not observed with total dietary intake of omega-3 fats. This indicates there may be other protective benefits derived from eating fish.

In line with the evidence, the Alzheimer’s Society recommends eating fish over taking fish oil supplements.

Read more:
Are there certain foods you can eat to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease?

So what’s the bottom line?

The more people stick to a healthy, plant-based diet with fish and minimal intakes of ultra-processed foods, the better their health will be.

At the moment, the evidence suggests fish oil is beneficial for rheumatoid arthritis, particularly if people find it difficult to eat large amounts of fish.

For dementia and heart disease, it’s best to try to eat your omega-3 fats from your diet. While plant foods contain ALA, this will not be as efficient as increasing EPA and DHA levels in your body by eating seafood.

Like any product that sits on the shop shelves, check the use-by date of the fish oil and make sure you will be able to consume it all by then. The chemical structure of EPA and DHA makes it susceptible to degradation, which affects its nutritional value. Store it in cold conditions, preferably in the fridge, away from light.

Fish oil can have some annoying side effects, such as fishy burps, but generally there are minimal serious side effects. However, it’s important to discuss taking fish oil with all your treating doctors, particularly if you’re on other medication.

Read more:
Can supplements or diet reduce symptoms of arthritis? Here’s what the evidence says Läs mer…

We need urban trees more than ever – here’s how to save them from extreme heat

Australians are bracing for a hot spring and summer. The Bureau of Meteorology has finally declared El Niño is underway, making warmer and drier conditions more likely for large parts of the country. And we’ve just watched the Northern Hemisphere swelter through their summer, making July 2023 Earth’s hottest month on record.

We studied the effects of extreme heat on urban trees in Western Sydney during Australia’s record-breaking summer of 2019–20. So we hold grave concerns for the survival of both native Australian and exotic species in our urban forest. These stands of trees and shrubs – along streets and in parks, gardens, and yards – play vital roles in our cities. Trees improve people’s mental health and wellbeing, lower energy use, and reduce temperatures through shading and evaporative cooling.

In previous research, we compared the heat tolerance of different species. Our new research, published in the journal Global Change Biology, assessed their water use. Most of the trees we measured lost more water on hot days than models predicted.

Much like sweating in humans, trees lose water to keep cool. If there’s not enough water, dieback or tree death occurs. This means access to water will be crucial for the survival of our urban forests during the hot summer ahead.

London plane trees in western Sydney lost leaves during the hot, dry 2019-20 summer.
Renee Prokopavicius

Read more:
Climate change threatens up to 100% of trees in Australian cities, and most urban species worldwide

Trees during heatwaves in Sydney

During December 2019 and January 2020, Western Sydney had 12 days over 40℃. The city’s record maximum temperature of 48.9℃ was set on January 4, 2020.

We measured carbon uptake and water loss from urban tree leaves on these hot summer days.

We found some species had low heat tolerance. Those most vulnerable to heatwaves included both native Australian and exotic species. Some trees died, including red maple (Acer rubrum), tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), coast banksia (Banksia integrifolia) and water gum (Tristaniopsis laurina). Others did not die but suffered to such an extent they were later removed.

In contrast, Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia) and ash (Fraxinus excelsior) avoided excessive dieback or death, as did the native weeping bottlebrush (Callistemon viminalis) and kurrajong (Brachychiton populneus).

Large, thin maple leaves are particularly vulnerable to damage from heat.
Renee Prokopavicius

Read more:
Without urgent action, these are the street trees unlikely to survive climate change

Why are some species more vulnerable?

Some species are inherently less heat and drought tolerant. For example, species with large, thin leaves are particularly vulnerable. Large leaves have thicker insulating boundary layers and so release heat more slowly. Thin leaves are less able to buffer against overheating on hot, sunny days when the wind lulls.

But it can be hard to predict how individual trees will respond to heat stress. That’s because access to water is important, but changes over time.

Trees with enough water can usually tolerate high temperatures. Microscopic pores in the leaves called stomata open up, allowing water vapour to pass through. This cools the plant down.

In drought, trees conserve water by closing these pores. This causes tree leaves to heat up. When hot days occur during drought, tree leaves can reach lethal temperatures above 45℃.

Our research found most urban tree species –- even those under drought stress –- opened their pores to cool leaves on hot summer days. This results in rapid water loss but may help prevent tree leaves from scorching.

Renee Prokopavicius uses a thermal camera to measure leaf temperature.
Laura Dillon

Why is water so important during heatwaves?

As part of the latest research, we grew seedlings in a glasshouse to test how access to water affected heat tolerance. We kept half the plants well watered and exposed the rest to drought conditions.

We found water loss was higher than predicted during heatwaves for all plants.

For well-watered trees and shrubs, water loss was 23% higher than predicted. This kept leaves nearly 1℃ cooler than the air temperature.

Thirsty plant leaves were more than 1℃ hotter than the air temperature.

In urban trees, leaves reached lethal temperatures of 49–50℃ for species with the lowest rates of water loss. But when species with low rates of water loss had access to water, there was little heat damage or scorched leaves. For trees that lost foliage due to overheating, their recovery took multiple years after the end of drought and return of average temperatures.

Western Sydney University student Nicholas Spurr collecting leaf temperature data on a hot day in Penrith.
Renee Prokopavicius

Preserving our natural air conditioners

Our research shows access to water is crucial for the survival of urban trees during heatwaves.

That means urban greening programs need to find ways to provide trees with enough water when rainfall is unreliable.

It’s worth exploring new techniques such as passive irrigation storage pits and raingardens. Passive irrigation pits capture and store stormwater in underground trenches. This both decreases runoff during storms and provides water for trees. Raingardens also naturally reduce stormwater runoff and use plants to filter pollutants from rainfall.

Providing trees with the water they need to keep cool on hot summer days will not only improve their chances of survival, but also protect people. Cities need trees now more than ever, as these natural air conditioners take the edge off the extremes.

Read more:
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How to manage exam season: don’t forget to take regular breaks and breathe

Around Australia, Year 12 students are heading into the final stretch of study before exams start in early term 4. This is typically seen as a very intense period of preparation. But, as our research shows, it is also important to rest during this time if you want to maximise your performance.

Intuitively, we understand breaks are important. We can take rest breaks across different times in our lives. They include sabbaticals, gap years and holidays, weekends and nightly sleep.

But rest breaks can be beneficial on even shorter time frames, during study sessions and even during exams themselves.

Read more:
Self-compassion is the superpower year 12 students need for exams … and life beyond school

Firstly, try and get some sleep

Use an old-school alarm clock, so you are not tempted to mindlessly scroll through TikTok before sleep.
Oladimeji Ajegbile/ Pexels

Students may be tempted to stay up late, trying to cram for an exam the following day. The big risk here is that lack of sleep can do more harm than good.

Sleep plays an important role in a range of brain functions, including maintaining attention and consolidating memories. So getting a poor night of sleep before an exam may mean the topics you’ve tried to cram aren’t well-formed in your long-term memory. Even if they were, the brain fog from lack of sleep means you may not recall what you’ve learned under the pressure of exam conditions.

In the lead-up to your exams, here are some specific things to consider:

try and keep all screens out of the bedroom: people often struggle with sleep because they’re tempted to check their phone at bedtime.
screens also emit blue light: this can interfere with your body’s circadian rhythms. Blue light during the day enhances attention, but too much of it in the evening can interfere with sleep quality.
so don’t use a smartphone as an alarm: get an old-fashioned alarm clock instead.

For more information about sleep, the Sleep Health Foundation has specific advice for high school students.

You need study breaks

When we study, we’re using our working memory (processing of small amounts of information, needed for things like comprehension and problem-solving). This builds our understanding of a topic. We then want to encode that understanding into long-term memory for use later, such as in an exam.

Without breaks, over time, these working memory resources become depleted and we notice it’s harder and harder to concentrate.

In our 2023 study, we found that a short (five minute) break following a period of difficult cognitive work (solving mental arithmetic problems) made a substantial difference to how much students learned during a lesson on a mental mathematics strategy.

Students who took a “do nothing” break performed 40% better than the no-break students on a subsequent test. Students who watched a first-person perspective video of a walk in an Australian rainforest for five minutes also performed better (57%) than the no-break students.

This suggests building in short rest breaks during study can help you learn.

How do you build in breaks?

Here are some specific strategies to help you get the rests you need:

when you plan your study schedule build in short breaks: drawing on the Pomodoro time management technique, we recommend using a timer (but not one on a smartphone). Aim to take a five-minute break after 25 minutes of study.
again, don’t use a smartphone: many of the features of a phone are purpose-built to capture and keep your attention, which you need for studying! These short breaks could take many forms: getting a cup of tea, playing with a pet, getting some sun outside, doing some star jumps to wake yourself up, or some breathing exercises (I explain these below).
longer breaks are important too: following the Pomodoro technique, aim to take a longer break (15-30 minutes) after four rounds of 25 minutes study/five minutes rest. Use at least some of these longer breaks for your physical and mental health away from your desk (and screens) – such as exercise, meditation, or a 20-30-minute nap.

Have regular breaks as part of your study timetable.
Anh Nguyễn/ Unsplash

Also take breaks during exams

It’s reasonable to think we should be using every minute of an exam for answering questions. But just as rest breaks during study can help restore attention, breaks during exams themselves may also be helpful.

Breaks are a common part of exams for students with disability provisions, but with some planning, all students might benefit from breaks.

A common strategy you can use to prepare for Year 12 exams is to complete past exam papers. When you do this, use the same “short break” study strategy described above. When it seems like a good break point (for example, in between finishing one section of the paper and starting another), stop for a few minutes and practise taking a short break.

Under exam conditions, you’re more limited in what type of break you can take. But simple controlled breathing routines such as “box breathing” or the “4-7-8 method” can help you refocus.

Box breathing.

These routines can also activate the “relaxation response” – the opposite of the “flight-or-flight” response we experience under stressful conditions (including exams).

An even shorter form of breathwork to reduce stress in the moment is the physiological sigh – two inhales, followed by an exhale.

When it comes to the actual exam, you’ll be using the reading time to plan how you’ll complete the various sections. Take this time to also think carefully about when you’ll take some short breaks. When the exam begins, you might even write “take a two-minute break now” at suitable points in the exam booklet.

There is so much to think about in the lead-up to and during exams. If you schedule in and practise taking breaks, you will get better at doing it and give yourself and your brain a really important rest.

Read more:
How to beat exam stress Läs mer…

America’s leaders are older than they’ve ever been. Why didn’t the founding fathers foresee this as a problem?

The US Congress has had no shortage of viral moments in recent months. Senator Dianne Feinstein seemingly became confused over how to vote. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell experienced two extended “freeze episodes” during press conferences. And several members of Congress mistook TikTok for the name of a breath mint (Tic Tac).

The world’s oldest democracy currently has its oldest-ever Congress. President Joe Biden (80 years old) is also the oldest US president in history. His leading rival in the 2024 presidential race, former President Donald Trump, is not far behind at 77.

Biden and Trump are both older than 96% of the US population. Unsurprisingly, they are both facing widespread questions about their ages and cognitive abilities.

How did we get to this ‘senior moment’?

America’s increasingly geriatric political leadership is not a surprising phenomenon. As the authors of the book, Youth Without Representation, pointed out earlier this year, the average age of US members of Congress has consistently risen over the past 40 years.

Some of this shift can be attributed to actuarial realities: much like the ageing US electorate, American politicians are living longer and fuller lives in old age than they did before, particularly compared to the time of America’s “founding fathers” (many of whom were under the age of 40 when the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776).

Some of this may also be attributed to older Americans being far more likely to vote than their younger counterparts. In 2016, for instance, nearly three-quarters of eligible voters over the age of 65 reported they had voted, compared to less than half of those aged under 30. And those older Americans may prefer electing politicians closer to their age range.

Yet lifespans have increased around the world and the ageing of US politicians still stands out compared to other developed nations. The average age of government leaders in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has actually decreased since 1950 – and today is nearly 25 years younger than Biden.

Florida governor and Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis said the country’s founding fathers would “probably” implement maximum age limits on elected officials if they “could look at this again”. But this raises the question of why they didn’t do it the first time.

Read more:
Yes, Joe Biden is old and has low approval ratings, but this is why he’s still confident of re-election

What did the founding fathers think about term limits?

The founding fathers fiercely debated term limits for both presidents and members of Congress and even included them for members of the Continental Congress in the first Articles of Confederation. However, they ended up not being written into the Constitution.

As much as Americans cherish the idea of the nation being founded on a constitution and laws instead of traditions and monarchy, the founding fathers ultimately did not legislate any term limits. Instead, they largely assumed custom, tradition and democratic elections would dictate the terms of office.

In fact, the first president, George Washington, helped begin the custom of a president not seeking longer than two terms in office.

Mirroring Cincinnatus, a Roman leader who became legendary for being given dictatorial control over Rome during a crisis but then voluntarily relinquishing control once the crisis was over, Washington left the presidency after two four-year terms.

George Washington was 57 when he was inaugurated.
Wikimedia Commons

For more than a century after that, US presidents adhered to Washington’s convention (which historians contend that Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president, in reality ended up setting) and did not serve a third term in office.

The first to break that tradition was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who won four terms in office, including a third just before the second world war. After he died in office at the age of 63, Congress ratified the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution that limited presidents to two four-year terms.

While US presidents have faced term limits for most of the past century, members of Congress continue to serve as long as they like. (There are currently 20 members over the age of 80. Feinstein, the oldest at 90, has served six terms as a senator from California.)

Dianne Feinstein returns to the Senate Judiciary Committee following a more-than-two-month absence as she was being treated for a case of shingles.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Part of the reason for this omission may be that the founding fathers and early American leaders did not expect members of Congress to stay in office as long as they now do. In the years after the Constitution was ratified, members of Congress simply did not seek re-election as frequently.

For example, the average length of service for US senators has more than doubled from about 4.8 years back then to 11.2 years today.

The price of elected office and who can afford it

Beyond demographics and changing habits of US politicians, one underestimated contributor to America’s increasingly elderly political leadership is that running for political office in America is more expensive than ever.

The 2020 election was not only contentious, but it was also the most expensive in US history. It cost more than US$14.4 billion (A$22.5 billion) for the presidential and congressional races – more than double what was spent in the 2016 elections.

The 2022 elections also broke a record for spending in a midterm election at US$8.9 billion (A$13.9 billion).

On an individual level, the average winner of a House of Representatives race in 1990 spent around US$400,000. By 2022 that had risen to US$2.79 million. The average winner of a Senate race in 1990 spent nearly US$3.9 million, compared to US$26.5 million in 2022.

Read more:
Why do voters have to pick a Republican or a Democrat in the US?

It should come as no surprise that the ten most expensive House and Senate races in US history took place in the past five years.

Those with the resources necessary to afford such expensive campaigns are more likely to be older than not. Whether it be independently wealthy business owners or well-established politicians with extensive fundraising networks, the high cost of admission for political office undeniably favours the old.

In an era of extensive polarisation, it can often seem like Americans cannot agree on much. One area of agreement, however, is that their politicians are simply too old.

Yet while a majority of Americans may tell pollsters that, most still consistently end up voting for a candidate who is considerably older than them. That will very likely be the case again in the 2024 presidential election. At least one of those probable candidates (Trump or Biden), though, will be barred by term limits from being on the ballot again in 2028. Läs mer…