Burke unveils marine reserves

Environment Minister Tony Burke released the final plan for 44 marine parks, including the Coral Sea and the southwest coast of Western Australia, this morning.

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“It’s time for the world to turn a corner on protection of our oceans,” Burke said. “And Australia today is leading that next step.

“This new network of marine reserves will help ensure that Australia’s diverse marine environment, and the life it supports, remain healthy, productive and resilient for future generations.”

The network will increase the number of marine reserves from 27 to 60, expanding protection of creatures such as the blue whale, green turtle, critically endangered populations of grey nurse sharks, and dugongs.

Mr Burke told ABC radio the government’s created a national park system for the ocean with the Coral Sea as the “jewel in the crown”.

Commercial fishers will be compensated for losing access to the reserves, but Sunfish Queensland chief executive Judy Lynne believes the ban on commercial use will result in more foreigners fishing illegally.

Fishing, oil and gas exploration have been limited with the federal government introducing a world-first network of marine reserves around Australia.

Environment Minister Tony Burke released the final plan for 44 marine parks including the Coral Sea and the southwest coast of Western Australia on Thursday.

The new reserves will cover 3.1 million square kilometres, or a third of Australian waters.

The reserves will limit fishing and some oil and gas exploration.

Mr Burke unveiled the marine reserve maps at Sydney Aquarium on Thursday morning.

“This new network of marine reserves will help ensure that Australia’s diverse marine environment and the life it supports, remain healthy, productive and resilient for future generations,” Mr Burke told The Australian Financial Review beforehand.

The marine reserve announcement comes on the eve of the United Nations Rio+20 conference on sustainable development in Brazil and will give Prime Minister Julia Gillard a public relations boost.

Environment group Pew described the marine reserve plan as a “turning point” in marine protection.

Spokeswoman Michelle Grady said establishing large marine sanctuaries would lead to rapid growth in eco tourism and increased stocks of marine life.

“But critical areas remain vulnerable to the threat of oil spills, including the tourist mecca of Margaret River, the blue whale feeding grounds off South Australia’s Kangaroo Island and the extraordinary coral reefs at Rowley Shoals off the Kimberley coast,” she said.

The Australian Conservation Foundation chief executive Don Henry said the plan would make Australia a “global leader” in ocean protection.

“Although the reserve network bans oil and gas exploration in the Coral Sea, the northwest region has been left vulnerable to these threats,” he said.

Commercial fishers are set to receive compensation from the federal government.

“We’ve got an adjustment policy where we will work case by case with the different companies involved,” Mr Burke told ABC Radio on Thursday.

Psychopaths can ‘switch on’ empathy

An ability to empathise at will may partly explain the evil cunning of psychopaths, a study suggests.

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Scientists had thought psychopaths, such as movie serial killer Hannibal Lecter, could not feel compassion because of their brain wiring.

But new research indicates that although naturally unaffected by other people’s feelings, they can turn on the empathy when required.

“Psychopathy may not be so much the incapacity to empathise, but a reduced propensity to empathise paired with a preserved capacity to empathise when required to do so,” study leader Dr Valeria Gazzola, from Groningen University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, said.

The ability to “switch on” empathy may contribute to the famous social cunning of psychopaths, the scientists said.

On a more positive note, the fact that psychopaths had empathy potential raised the possibility of harnessing it as a form of treatment.

The research, reported in the journal Brain, involved 18 convicted criminal psychopaths and a group of ordinary individuals who watched movie clips of one hand touching another in loving, painful, socially rejecting or neutral ways.

At certain points the volunteers were asked to “empathise with one of the actors in the movie”.

Their responses, shown on brain scans, were compared with those seen when they engaged in similar hand interactions themselves.

The tests showed that when watching the film clips, psychopaths generally displayed a reduced level of brain responses linked to empathy.

But when explicitly asked to empathise, they were able to activate the circuits.

The study focused on the brain’s “mirror system” which helps us feel other people’s pain, almost literally.

The same brain regions that contribute to our own pain and distress are activated when we see another person suffering the same way.

In psychopaths, the mirror system does not seem to be a “default” mechanism but can be deliberately brought into play.

BSkyB extends TV deal with English soccer’s lower level

Sky Bet, the online betting arm of BSkyB, will also become the title sponsor of the Football League under the new agreement which runs until 2018.

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The Football League, made up of the 72 professional clubs below the elite Premier League, was only a year into its current three-year TV deal with BSkyB.

The new TV agreement will be worth between 85-90 million pounds per season when it starts in 2015, according to a source close to the talks, up from 65 million pounds under the current deal.

BSkyB will show 148 live matches, an increase from the 111 it shows at present.

The sums involved pale in comparison with the one billion pounds a year that BSkyB and BT are paying for domestic TV rights to the 20-team Premier League.

“It’s the biggest deal the League has ever done,” said Chief Commercial Officer Richard Heaselgrave.

Heaselgrave had told Reuters earlier this year that the League planned to make an early start on contract renewal talks to capitalise on the growing sporting rivalry between BSkyB and BT.

Telecoms provider BT is launching new sports channels in August, having bought a share of the Premier League rights as a second broadcaster alongside BSkyB.

BT wants to use sports rights to maintain its leadership of the market for broadband services, with many consumers now looking to buy bundles of pay TV, telephony and broadband.

BT underlined its challenge to BSkyB on Wednesday when it did a four-year deal to screen the FA Cup, the leading domestic knock-out competition in English football.

The Football League, which has former champions Nottingham Forest and Leeds United in its top tier, had been looking for a sponsor after German owned energy company Npower dropped out at the end of last season.

(Writing by Keith Weir; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)

Q&A: Julia Gillard’s national security strategy

The Prime Minister today outlined a national security strategy that aims to build closer links with Asia and toughen Australia’s cyber security defences.

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At the same time Ms Gillard warned that the budget for domestic security will only get tighter.

SBS reporter Rhiannon Elston asks Peter Jennings, Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, what the new strategy will mean for Australians.

This speech is really the first time we’ve heard Julia Gillard make a definitive address on the issue of national security – is this report overdue?

It’s been in the offing for several years to be honest; Prime Minister Rudd in late 2008 tabled a national security statement in parliament and said that this was going to become a regular thing. Since then there’s been nothing until the Prime Minister’s speech today and the release of her national security strategy, so it has been a long time in the making.

There was much mention of building stronger links with Asia, of maintaining strong links with the US and at the same time of the need to get ‘value for money’ from the national security budget. How difficult is it going to be for the federal government to balance these outcomes?

The budget issue I think is the most critical thing here because it’s clear from the Prime Minister’s statement that there’s going to be, as she describes it, a period of austerity in coming years for spending in the national security area, and frankly I think this is a problem. We’re sort of hearing in some ways mixed messages here. One the one hand, a message that the strategic environment is becoming more complex and more difficult, and on the other a message that there is no more money.

And, in fact, that there’s less money into the national security parts of government and this is a problem. I think the fact that the national security statement doesn’t really deal in precise terms with funding issues is a disappointment. And in a sense what that points to is the enormous difficulty that the government has in making decisions about what the right spending priorities should be.

The PM identified effective partnerships, cyber security and regional engagement as the biggest priorities for national security today. Are these the right priorities for Australia, in your view?

They’re all pretty obvious things. When she talks about effective partnerships I think she’s talking about a more effective integration of different parts of the public service and the national security community working together and these reflect in some way I think quite obvious priorities, but no less important for that.

Julia Gillard has certainly set her sights on cyber security in recent weeks and it was a big topic in today’s national security announcement. How serious is the threat of cyber-attacks for Australians?

It’s a real threat. I think it needs to be taken very seriously and what you see here is that clearly the government has seen a change between the Rudd statement of a few years ago and now. So I think that it’s appropriate more emphasis is given to cyber security. Of course with these things, the devil is in the detail. It’s not completely clear what this new cyber centre is going to do, whether it’s actually going to be involved in the nitty-gritty of cyber security — which is actually performed by a number of Australian agencies already — or if it has some sort of higher policy function than that. But on the face of it, it seems like a sensible initiative.

Have there been specific incidents that may have prompted more action in cyber security?

There’ve been a number, it is publically known for example the parliamentary computer network early last year had been infiltrated, and in the private sector I think there are many, many attacks against Australian companies, Australian banks, the resources sector; and government departments (who) regularly find their cyber security tested by maligned cyber activists seeking to infiltrate government systems. So yes, it’s a constant risk and it’s something that I think is only going to become more of a problem in coming years.

If we look at international comparisons, are there any cyber safety initiatives around the world that Julia Gillard might be looking to emulate?

Well I think within Australia’s closest defence partners the US, the UK and Canada to a slightly lesser extent, these are the countries which probably reflect best-practice in terms of cyber defence systems. In many ways both those countries have been investing more deeply in cyber – as we have — over the last few years. So this is a trend. I think increasingly now Asia Pacific countries are looking to do the same thing. If last decade was the national security decade, as Julia Gillard described it, maybe this decade will become known as the cyber security decade.

The federal opposition also made note of government cuts in this area.

Well I know the opposition has been making those comments, but they too are declining to make any commitment to increasing expenditure in the national security space. I would say both to the government and to the opposition that strategy without dollars attached to it is really wishful thinking. I think we have a right to expect better from both. The government and the opposition need to think harder about just what the right priorities should be for the national security budget in the coming years.

You mentioned earlier Kevin Rudd’s statement on this topic back in 2008. One issue the then PM targeted was climate change – something we also saw US President Barack Obama mention in detail in his inauguration speech yesterday. Do you think it’s significant that Julia Gillard has not referred to it here?

There may be other political reasons which is driving the Prime Minister’s approach on that. What I can say is one doesn’t need to describe the causes of climate change to realise the impact of climate change is one which does require a national security response. Be that domestically through bushfires and floods and through the region, it does look as though we have to deal with the consequence of an increasing number of extreme climate events and that’s going to be a cost to not only defence, but to state police and emergency management services. And if one sees that as part of the national security approach, then clearly this is something that has to be factored into funding and planning for the future.

Opposition defence science spokesman Stuart Robert also made a point of noting asylum seekers were not mentioned today. To what extent do asylum seeker issues constitute a national security threat?

Well I think partly the politics of asylum seeker issue has turned it into a national security threat, because the challenges and the costs of maintaining that naval and customs capability to track vessels is obviously highly expensive. It may well be that there are other more cost-effective ways with which we can deal with that particular issue. But certainly at the moment I think it’s fair to say that it has been cast as a national security problem.

What was missing from Julia Gillard’s national security strategy presented today?

Money. It’s big talk, but where are the dollars to make it happen? What’s clear is that the government is actually giving a lower priority to national security and you can tell that by tracking what’s happened to the budget in that area over the last few years. So it’s a bit of a tricky sell for the PM to, on one hand, state how just critical this is but at the same time deal with the fact that spending in this area has been reduced significantly in recent years.

Australian navy search for missing asylum boat

Australian authorities were Saturday scrambling to locate an asylum-seeker boat feared to have sunk off the remote Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island, officials said.

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The Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordinating the search, said a navy vessel and two merchant ships along with three aircraft were searching the area about 65 nautical miles northwest of Christmas Island following a tip-off from customs and border protection officials on Friday morning.

“They advised us that there was a potential vessel there,” an AMSA spokesman said. “It is believed to be an asylum-seeker vessel.

“We had a warship out yesterday, didn’t find it. And today there are three aircraft conducting searches and also three vessels… (which) happened to be passing by,” the spokesman told AFP.

“We don’t have any information to suggest it’s sinking now… but there is a belief that it may have.”

AMSA said the search may last until Sunday in the area off Christmas Island, a remote territory closer to Indonesia than the Australian mainland and home to the country’s main processing centre for boatpeople.

“When we are in situations like this we do seek medical advice about the survivability of people in the water. At the moment, there’s a significant search underway, they will review that at the end of the day,” the spokesman added.

Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare confirmed through a spokesman that the search for a “possible foundered vessel” was underway.

No details were available on the number of people onboard the boat, but vessels carrying asylum-seekers are regularly overcrowded with scores of people.

Australia is facing a steady influx of asylum-seekers arriving by boat, many paying people-smugglers for passage from Indonesia on leaky wooden vessels after fleeing their home countries.

Hundreds have drowned at sea over the past few years while trying to reach Australia, with about 90 thought to have died when a boat carrying about 200 people capsized in June 2012. About 50 were killed in a horrific shipwreck on the cliffs of Christmas Island in December 2010, including 15 children.

Late last month, Australian authorities found an unexplained batch of life jackets washed up on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands off Western Australia state, a discovery that prompted fears that another asylum-seeker boat had struck trouble while making the journey. No evidence of a vessel was found.

Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition said he had no details on the latest missing boat, but that vessels were arriving regularly, with more than 10,000 people landing by boat with the aim of seeking asylum in Australia since the beginning of this year.