Australia ‘must meet Millennium Development Goals at home’

As Australia portrays itself as a champion of the world’s disadvantaged, critics point to the plight of its own Indigenous people.


This is Part Two of a two-part series. (Click here for Part One)

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

UN’s Millennium Development Goals, due to run out in just under three years, are an initiative designed to help the world’s poorest people.

As co-chair of a United Nations MDG Advocacy Group, Prime Minister Julia Gillard is supposed to be helping to ensure the goals’ success.

But there are critics of Australia’s performance on the MDGs.

And there are those who say Australia shouldn’t be portraying itself as a champion of the world’s disadvantaged when it has a poor record of looking after its own disadvantaged – notably its Indigenous people.

Back in 2000, 189 members of the United Nations, including Australia, committed to changing the world over the next 15 years through the Millennium Development Goals.

With that time nearly up, attention is already turning to what will come next.

The aid group, Save the Children, is promoting a new set of goals that it claims would ensure the elimination of world poverty forever.

Lynne Benson, from Save the Children, says as co-chair of the MDG Advocacy Group, Prime Minister Julia Gillard is in a strong position to be influencing the post-2015 goals.

“So we would just be advocating for Julia Gillard to use her position with the UN to really push for and advocate for the acceptance and support for the proposed goals that Save the Children is suggesting. It’s important that allof the world gets behind a shared agenda to help the less fortunate people of the world. The existing Millennium Development Goals have been partially achieved, and we need now to take it further.”

At a UN meeting back in September, Prime Minister Gillard acknowledged that attention was turning to the post-2015 world.

But she said she was focusing on what can be done to achieve the current MDGs, before 2015.

“We need to sharpen our focus on things that can be achieved in that remaining period of time, that there are things that can actually be achieved quite quickly, we can sharpen our focus geographically but we can also sharpen our focus on those things that can be achieved quite quickly. A lot of the discussion here at the UN is inevitably going to start to focus on the goals that will be set beyond 2015; the world needs to get this done, and we can’t just put to one side the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals because we’ve become so intrigued about what lies beyond. So whatever goals lie beyond they are built on the strongest possible platform.”

The eighth and final Millennium Development Goal promotes closer relationships between the developed and developing world.

It also asks nations to dedicate 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income to aid programs in poorer countries.

According to OECD statistics, in 2011 Australia devoted 0.34 per cent of its GNI to supporting this goal.

Archie Law, from the humanitarian organisation, ActionAid, says it seems that Australia will fail to comply with the MDG requirement.

“Australia made a commitment that it was going to provide 0.7 per cent of GDP by 2015 to support the Millennium Development Goals. This is then revised down to 0.5 per cent, in monetary terms. It just looks like that isn’t going to happen. I think Australia’s been an enthusiastic supporter with its words but not with its wallet.”

Thulsi Narayanasamy is the campaign co-ordinator for the monitoring group, AID/WATCH.

She says that Australia’s aid commitments are motivated more by self-interest than by trying to achieve the MDGs.

“There are quite a number of questionable items which fall under the remit of the aid budget which are not working towards the eradication of poverty or the MDGs at all, and instead they’re actually working to further Australia’s national and private interests which inflate the aid budget. Big businesses have hijacked the aid budget and we see the aid boomerang leave Australia to go overseas only to end up in the back pocket of rich Australian companies who benefit by being contracted to work overseas anyway.”

Thulsi Narayanasamy argues that Australia could easily increase its overseas aid, while still looking after its domestic problems.

But she says too often, federal governments have shown they’re prepared to squeeze the aid budget to fund programs in Australia.

“And there’s quite a long history of us doing this in Australia. Recently Bob Carr actually announced money would be going towards the detention of asylum seekers, again another far cry from poverty eradication and the goals that were created in 2000. We already don’t have a good record in terms of how much we’re spending on aid, and I think these cuts do reflect badly on us as a country.”

Most of the MDGs set targets for developing countries to achieve, like lowering infant mortality rates, and increasing the number of children getting a primary education.

Except for the target level of GNI for official development assistance, Australia and other developed countries aren’t measured for compliance with the MDGs.

Critics say this leads to incorrect assumptions that all citizens of developed countries must be enjoying high living standards.

Anthony Zwi is a professor of global health and development at the University of New South Wales.

He argues that in Australia’s case, the way the MDGs are assessed is hiding the true situation of its Indigenous people.

“Clearly within a country like Australia there are huge disparities and inequalities, and segments of the population – notably the indigenous population – have much poorer health outcomes and life expectancies than non-indigenous Australians. There certainly is an argument that the issues that have received focus through the Millennium Development Goals are as applicable within countries that are developed and have impoverished minorities and indigenous populations.”

Michael Mansell is the Legal Director of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.

He argues that a wealthy country like Australia should easily meet international development standards – but it’s failing to do so under the existing MDGs.

“Whenever the international community sets standards that countries should apply, they’re the sorts of standards that countries like Australia should easily be able to cope with. Australia is not complying with its own domestic standards and certainly is not complying with international standards.”

Jack de Groot, from the Catholic aid organisation, Caritas Australia, agrees.

He believes Australia must guarantee the goals are achieved not just in developing countries, but closer to home.

“Australia needs to make sure that those who live in extreme poverty in Australia are meeting the Millennium Development Goals. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities throughout Australia face extraordinary challenges particularly those questions of health and education and access to those fundamental rights so that they can live a life free of poverty.”

The Melbourne-based Lowitja Institute researches the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Chair of the Institute, Professor Ian Anderson, agrees that Australia and other countries with Indigenous disadvantage aren’t being held to account by the MDGs.

But he points out that governments can be sensitive about the plight of their Indigenous people being raised internationally.

“There is sort of a view on the global stage that nations like Canada, New Zealand and Australia don’t have issues of social disadvantage and that they are relatively wealthy nations. There’s been some reluctance for some nation states to actually open up issues of internal equity and indigenous issues and social disadvantage within their borders and their political jurisdiction.”

The United Nations has started meetings to discuss what should replace the MDGs after they expire at the end of 2015.

Archie Law from ActionAid thinks there are many areas the next generation of global goals could improve upon, some directly applicable to Australia.

“I think when it comes to a post-2015 agenda it’s time to really look at some of the issues that weren’t addressed in the MDGs as they are now: there’s no mention of human rights, there’s no universal goal for all so whereas you say indigenous Australians are counted in the new framework, where do they participate?

Ian Anderson from the Lowitja Institute agrees that Australia should have goals tailored to its unique characteristics.

“I think what we need here are a set of goals and strategies that really address indigenous people being a small minority in a relatively wealthy country in which we globally have political access to the resources needed to make a difference, but we have entrenched social disadvantage that needs to be addressed in a way that might be different than, say in Africa or South America.”

While some supporters may be enthused by Prime Minister Gillard being co-chair of the MDG advocacy group, Aboriginal leaders like Michael Mansell would like to see her focus more on the situation of Australia’s Indigenous people.

Whether or not a new set of international development goals is established, he doesn’t believe much will change for Indigenous Australians without support from the top.

“You can’t point to a Prime Minister in the last 15 years or more that has said look “Aborigines and their situation should be the highest priority for this country”, and until you get a Prime Minister who’s prepared to do that the situation of Aboriginal people cannot improve, because all of the resources and the ability to bring about change is not in the hands of Aboriginal people, it is in the hands of the politicians and Prime Ministers.”

Afghan shift is real workout

Exercise bikes, boxing gloves and power tools will stay.


But weapons and ammo are going.

Brigadier Andrew Bottrell has a big job on his hands and a tight deadline.

On December 31 the main Australian Defence Force base in Afghanistan will be shut down, with 1000 soldiers going home.

About 300 troops will remain for training and other roles based in in Kabul and Kandahar, while an ongoing role has yet to be set for Australia’s special forces.

An extra 240 experts have been brought in to help with the drawdown, which is being run by Brigadier Bottrell’s cryptically named Redeployment Fusion Cell.

“The manner in which we leave this country is the manner in which we will be remembered,” Brig Bottrell described the philosophy of the task.

Already about three-quarters of the camp has been taken apart or has been earmarked.

One of the most popular areas, a large gymnasium, will be left for the Afghan security forces, complete with electronic exercise equipment and boxing gear.

Brig Bottrell says finicky small items such as power tools will also be gifted.

Talks are under way about the use of the permanent buildings and armoured sleeping quarters.

The entire camp is likely to remain a security precinct, rather than a hospital or school because of the type of facilities that they are.

Brig Bottrell says taxpayers’ money will be saved by not having to take some things apart and ship them out.

“And it gives the Afghanis some robust infrastructure,” he says.

The military logistical expert says Afghan forces have learned to stand on their own two feet after “a lot of blood, plenty of tears and exceptional work”.

Defence says there are no plans to hand over weapons, ammunition or body armour to the Afghan security forces. These will either be destroyed or returned to Australia.

Most of the equipment will be returned by air from Afghanistan to the United Arab Emirates and then by sea from the port of Jebel Ali.

Some containers will be sent by road through Pakistan and then by sea from Karachi. But there’s a catch with road transport.

The Afghan government is reneging on a deal not to tax truck contractors and plans to charge an “export fee”.

Senior Defence sources say the tax grab is “not considered a significant issue”.

But a US audit in May found contractors supporting operations in Afghanistan had been hit with almost $US921 million in potentially inappropriate taxes and penalties from the Afghan Ministry of Finance since 2008.

N Korea carries out tests for missiles

North Korea has conducted motor tests to improve its long-range missiles after a failed launch in April, a US think tank said Monday after reviewing new satellite images.


Since the embarrassing flop in April, the communist regime appears to have carried out at least two tests of large motors needed for rockets and worked on a launch platform, the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said.

The institute examined commercial images of the Sohae satellite launch station between April and September and found that 34 fuel tanks had been moved and vegetation appeared to be burned, next to a flame trench stained with an orange residue.

Such fuel tests would boost development of engines for the Unha-3, the rocket which North Korea unsuccessfully launched in April, or what seemed to be a new, longer-range missile displayed at a military parade the same month.

Some analysts believe that a North Korean rocket, if successfully developed, could eventually reach the range to hit the United States.

Nick Hansen, an expert on imagery analysis, said that North Korea may step up action after elections in both the United States and South Korea, the regime’s two primary foes.

“In the aftermath of the US and South Korean presidential elections, Pyongyang may embark on a new round of activities in the first half of 2013, including rocket and nuclear tests that will contribute to further development of its nuclear deterrent,” he wrote on the institute’s blog, 38 North.

South Korea’s defense minister, Kim Kwan-Jin, said last week that North Korea had completed preparations for another nuclear test and long-range missile launches.

However, 38 North in September reported a work stoppage at a new launch pad for intercontinental missiles — possibly due to rain — that could set the project back by up to two years.

North Korea defiantly went ahead with the rocket launch in April, saying it was trying to put a satellite in orbit, but it disintegrated just two to three minutes after blast-off.

The test put a halt to the latest international effort to engage the isolated state, with the United States calling off plans to deliver badly needed food assistance.

Athletes arrive at Olympic Village

The Olympic Athletes’ Village opened its doors to the first competitors as the logistical operation to handle the arrival of thousands of athletes and officials shifted into a higher gear.


London’s Heathrow Airport was expecting to handle a record number of passengers, with the Olympics arrivals swelling numbers to almost 237,000 at the west London hub, compared to 190,000 on an ordinary day.

The first priority ‘Games Lane’ went into operation on the M4 motorway leading from Heathrow, to allow athletes and officials to be whisked to their destinations without being delayed by London traffic.

It emerged that nine police forces have had to deploy extra officers to help with security for the Games, a week after the government was forced to draft in 3,500 troops to meet a shortfall in private security guards.

At Heathrow, where passengers have complained of being stuck in passport queues for several hours in recent weeks, the addition of extra border officials appeared to have eased the process.

There were few complaints from spectators or athletes, who were greeted by more than 500 volunteers as they landed.

The Netherlands women’s beach volleyball team flew in from Amsterdam in a blaze of orange tops and said they were impressed by the setup.

One of the players, Marleen van Iersel, 24, told AFP: “From the moment we walked off the plane there were people helping us straight away. It is very well-organised.”

A large US contingent also arrived at Heathrow, including members of the sailing teams.

But experiences of the early arrivals were mixed, with two-time world 400 metres hurdles champion Kerron Clement claiming the bus ferrying him and his US teammates from Heathrow to the Athletes’ Village had taken four hours.

Clement tweeted: “Um, so we’ve been lost on the road for 4hrs. Not a good first impression London.

“Athletes are sleepy, hungry and need to pee. Could we get to the Olympic Village please.”

However, the hurdler later tweeted to praise facilities at the athlete’s village, located in the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London.

“Eating at the Olympic village,” he wrote. “Love the variety of food choices., african, caribbean, Halal cuisine, india and asian and of course McDonalds.”

London Mayor Boris Johnson shrugged off the incident, joking that it had given the athletes “even more of an opportunity to see even more of the city than they might otherwise have done.”

Competitors and officials will be accommodated in 2,818 apartments across 11 residential blocks, each built around a courtyard offering athletes space to relax.

Organisers could do nothing though about the grey skies and persistent drizzle in London as athletes got a first taste of their home for the next three weeks.

The Australian team have already taken over several balconies of one block, with a banner reading “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie; Oi, Oi, Oi” draped across them.

The furore over the giant private security firm G4S showed no signs of abating, despite ministers’ insistence that the Games would be secure. G4S has insisted that the extra police drafted in should be able to withdraw in the next few days.

“This situation is being rectified over the coming days, which should lead to the withdrawal of police officers from those roles assigned to private security,” a G4S spokesman said.

In a heated parliamentary debate on the security issue, Home Secretary Theresa May said it was “untrue” that ministers knew last year that there would be a shortfall in the numbers of security personnel they had been promised.

“G4S repeatedly assured us that they would overshoot their targets,” she said.

Shares in the company, which says it is likely to lose £50 million (about AU $76 million) over the debacle, dived 10 percent in early trading in London before recovering slightly to close down 6.66 percent.

What is billed as the biggest anti-doping operation in Olympic history also got under way on Monday.

Half of all competitors will be tested, with a team of 150 scientists taking more than 6,000 samples between now and the end of the Paralympic Games on September 9.

Explainer: what is depression?

By Philip Batterham, Australian National University; Amelia Gulliver, Australian National University, and Lou Farrer, Australian National University

Many people know what it’s like to feel sad or down from time to time.


We can experience negative emotions due to many things – a bad day at work, a relationship break-up, a sad film, or just getting out of bed on the “wrong side”. Sometimes we even say that we’re feeling a bit “depressed”. But what does that mean, and how can we tell when it’s more than just a feeling?

Depression is more than the experience of sadness or stress. A depressive episode is defined as a period of two weeks or longer where the individual experiences persistent feelings of sadness or loss of pleasure, coupled with a range of other physical and psychological symptoms including fatigue, changes in sleep or appetite, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, difficulty concentrating or thoughts of death.

To be diagnosed with major depressive disorder, individuals must experience at least one depressive episode that disrupts their work, social or home life.

Depression is common in the community, with 12% of Australians experiencing major depressive disorder in their lifetime. More than 650,000 Australians have this experience in any 12-month period.

Because it’s highly prevalent and can be significantly disabling, the World Health Organization reports that depression is the third highest cause of disease burden worldwide, with a greater burden on the community than heart disease. There are also high levels of overlap between depression and other common mental disorders, including anxiety and substance use disorders.

Unfortunately, only 35% of people with symptoms of mental health problems seek help. This may be because of difficulties identifying depression in the community due to a lack of knowledge or accessing care, and stigmatising attitudes towards depression.

Depression prevention programs that provide accessible treatments, increase knowledge and change negative attitudes are an important way to increase access to treatment and reduce the burden of depression.

Causes and risk factors

There’s generally no single reason why an individual becomes depressed. There’s a constellation of risk factors, including physiological, genetic, psychological, social and demographic influences.

Biological risk factors include having a family history of depression, suffering a long-term physical illness or injury, experiencing chronic pain, using illicit drugs or certain prescription medications, chronic sleep problems, or having a baby. Having experienced depression in the past is a risk factor for a further depressive episode.

Psychological risk factors for depression include having low self-esteem, or having a tendency to be self-critical. Demographic and social influences include being female (women are almost twice as likely to suffer from depression than men), stressful life events (such as relationship conflict or caring for someone with an illness), experiencing a difficult or abusive childhood, or being unemployed.

People differ greatly in the amount or type of risk factors they’re exposed to or experience. And having several risk factors alone is not enough to trigger depression.

A combination of risk factors and the experience of stressful or adverse life events may prompt the onset of depression. The greater the number of risk factors that a person experiences, the more vulnerable they are to developing depression when stressful life events occur.

In contrast, those exposed to fewer risk factors are somewhat buffered, and may only develop depression when exposed to extreme levels of environmental stress.

Treatment and prevention

There are a number of effective treatments for depression. The most effective and widely used are cognitive-behavioural therapy and antidepressant medications.

Cognitive-behavioural therapy is a talking therapy that primarily aims to reduce negative thinking patterns, while antidepressant medications target brain chemicals thought to be implicated in depression.

There’s also evidence that low-intensity cognitive-behavioural therapy combined with education about depression can prevent individuals from developing depression. To widen the reach of such prevention programs, internet therapy programs have been developed and shown to be effective in preventing depression. Australian researchers are at the forefront of developing e-mental health platforms to reduce the prevalence of depression and other mental disorders.

There is some evidence that lifestyle changes can also help to prevent depression in some people. Engaging in healthy behaviours, such as getting adequate sleep, avoiding substance use, taking vitamins or fish oil supplements, engaging in physical activity and healthy diet, have all been shown to have associations with reduced depression symptoms. But research continues to examine whether making changes in these areas can lead directly to the prevention of depression.

Future research

There are a number of promising research areas that are currently being explored. Researchers are investigating ways to make cognitive-behavioural therapy more effective through better understanding of the processes involved in recovery. And technology has improved the availability of online, mobile and computer-based treatments, so that people at risk of depression in under-served areas such as rural locations or developing countries can access evidence-based services.

Population-based research is leading to a better understanding of risk factors for depression and improvement in its early detection. Research on the biological and genetic bases of depression is resulting in continual refinement of physical and pharmacological treatments.

A more nuanced understanding of the treatment options that work best for specific individuals has great promise for allowing an individually tailored approach to treating and preventing depression.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support, beyondblue 1300 22 4636 or SANE Australia for information.

Philip Batterham receives funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Amelia Gulliver and Lou Farrer do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

Factbox: Successes and failures in past Mars attempts

Fewer than half of the attempts by global space agencies to reach Mars have succeeded since 1960, with the United States in the clear lead.


Here is a list of past key Mars missions:


DEC 1971: The Soviet space agency’s Mars 3 lander reaches the Red Planet’s surface but its instruments stop working after 20 seconds, likely due to massive dust storms at the time of landing.

JULY/AUG 1976: US space agency lands two probes, Viking 1 and 2, the first to send images and perform chemical analysis of the soil on the Red Planet.

SEPT 1997: NASA’s Mars Pathfinder succeeds in the first deployment of a lander and small free-ranging robotic rover on the Mars surface.

JAN 2004: The US space agency’s rovers Spirit and Opportunity land successfully on Mars. Opportunity continues to send back data today.

MAY 2008: NASA’s Mars Phoenix works for 155 days in the planet’s arctic region.


NOV 1960: Soviet space agency launches Sputnik 22, an attempted Mars flyby mission, but it disintegrates after entering Earth’s orbit.

NOV 1971: Soviet space agency’s Mars 2 crashes on Red Planet’s surface.

MAR 1974: Soviet space agency’s Mars 6 goes silent before landing.

MAR 1974: Soviet space agency’s Mars 7 is lost before entering Mars’ orbit.

NOV 1996: Russian space agency’s Mars 96 fails at launch.

DEC 1999: NASA’s Mars Polar Lander crashes on Mars.

DEC 2004: European Space Agency’s Beagle 2 attempts Mars landing but contact is lost before touchdown.

There have also been multiple attempts to send orbiters to circle the Red Planet or do flybys. Today there are three orbiters in operation around Mars, two US-launched (Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) and one European (Mars Express).

Most recently was Russia’s failed attempt to launch its Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, a $165 million spacecraft designed to travel to the Martian moon of Phobos, scoop up soil and return the sample to Earth by 2014. Mission control lost radio contact with the craft hours after the November 2011 launch, and in January the 13.5 ton vessel plunged into the ocean.

Next generation of robots to help manufacturing

Amid the gloom about the prospects for manufacturing in Australia — and the difficulties facing an economy dominated by small businesses (nearly 90% of Australian manufacturing capacity) — there is some cause for optimism.


A new generation of lightweight, assistive robots looks to provide small to medium enterprises (SMEs) with new options to improve their competitiveness and meet the challenges of high costs and a shortage of skilled workers.

The news is good for workers, too. Robotic “smart tools” offer a means of removing danger and monotony from the work environment and, in striking contrast to conventional beliefs, provide a way to retain the existing workforce for longer.

Studies have shown that robots can boost productivity, but this productivity dividend is dependent on a human workforce able to set them up, maintain them, and make creative decisions about how best to complete work tasks. In a US case study of Marlin Steel, introduction of robots not only boosted quality of company product, but increased employee remuneration.

The manufacture of robots is a growing source of employment. A 2011 report commissioned by the International Federation of Robotics found that 150,000 people worldwide are already employed in the engineering and assembly of robots.

This report also identifies use of robotics in SMEs as essential to win back manufacturing from countries with low labour costs. In this case, the introduction of robots is capable of maintaining the viability of manufacturing in developed countries – and preserving manufacturing jobs.

Assistive robotics offer a high-productivity solution that could also help Australian manufacturing integrate into regional value chains, as recommended in the recent Asian Century white paper.

Lightweight robots can be integrated into the Australian workplace as assistants to workers in three ways.

The first is as “intelligent tools”, which work together with human workers. Mobile assistants, manipulators, “smart” picking, lifting and handling systems, and robotic welders, gluers and assemblers enable automation of short-run production processes, and provide a flexible solution to increase efficiency of production.

Secondly, robots can also be used as tools to augment the abilities of human workers in manufacturing processes. Powered exoskeletons enable workers, regardless of age or gender, to lift and manipulate heavy loads safely. Wearable machine vision systems can alert workers to workplace hazards in real-time, including hazards which can’t be detected visually, such as radiation and high temperatures. Mobile assistive robotic trainers and tele-immersive training systems enable experienced staff to remotely mentor workers who are new to a work environment.

The third way is as “smart” field tools, which enable human workers to manufacture items under hazardous or challenging conditions. Tele-operated mobile tools and vehicles are already in use in the mining industry, enabling work to be supervised remotely in an environment that is safe and comfortable for workers. Rigs which facilitate micro-manipulation and micro-assembly enable workers to conduct micro-assembly of complex items without strain to eyesight. Virtual and augmented reality systems allow workers to manipulate tools while remote from the factory floor, therefore reducing risks of work-related injury such as repetitive strain and injuries from use of tools.

So why is robotics changing? Conventional industrial robots — such as those used in automotive manufacturing — are heavy, programmed for one task, fixed in place on the factory floor, and expensive to buy, install, program and maintain. They are also potentially hazardous to humans, so workers are usually excluded from the robot workspace. But the next generation of lightweight robots is different.

A number of technological advances have made this new generation of lightweight robots possible.

First, the next generation of robots can “see” the workplace using advanced vision systems (including stereo and infrared cameras and multi-modal imaging), high precision sensors and perception algorithms.

Secondly, the new generation of robots is mobile. They know where they are and can navigate within the workplace thanks to navigation, localisation and mapping technologies – such as Wi-Fi localisation, beacon-based navigation, simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM), and accurate 2D or 3D modelling.

Importantly, human workers are now able to easily communicate with robots via voice and visual gesture recognition. Sophisticated human-robot interactive interfaces allow shared autonomy and human supervisory control. Additionally, augmented and virtual reality robotic systems allow workers to work remotely in hazardous or physically demanding working environments and to tele-operate and tele-supervise remote equipment. Emerging global high-speed wireless communication systems such as the NBN provide the required infrastructure for these technologies.

Manipulation technologies, including force-amplifying exoskeletons (frameworks worn by workers to provide mobility and lifting assistance), dexterous manipulation (grasping and moving complex objects using robotic “fingers” or claws), and multi-robot cooperation make for a working environment that is safer for the workforce and enable any worker – regardless of sex or age – to effectively perform physically onerous or dangerous tasks in complete safety. Robotic tools similar to existing micro-surgery rigs enable workers to perform miniature component manufacturing and assembly tasks with precision and dexterity – without risk to their health.

Finally, the new generation of robots would not be possible without smart fabrication. Miniaturisation and smart and lightweight materials make for small, light, smart robots. These robots can move rapidly around a workplace, respond to commands to fetch tools, rapidly shift stores of materials and finished product, and complement human activities.

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

Blog: Getting to know our neighbours

Defining ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ has been the subject of some debate since the release of the Federal Government’s White Paper in October last year.


But how much do we know about the neighbourhood we are calling our own?

Yassmin Abdel-Magied takes a closer look.

Last month I found myself in the hot and humid Malaysian city of Kuala Lumpur with five other ‘cultural exchange’ participants and a diplomatic entourage. I was a guest of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and our mission was to learn as much as we could about this nation’s rich tapestry in one week.

Malaysia is often seen as an exemplary model for Muslim countries around the world; a country with a Muslim government where halal food is abundant and hijab fashion shops sit comfortably next to Chanel and Hermes.

For me, the opportunity to delve beneath the surface was an experience that offered much to reflect on, particularly for a migrant Muslim who calls multicultural Australia home.

A country of primarily three ethnicities, Malay (60.3%), Chinese (22.9%) and Indians (7.1%), the Malaysians have an interesting political landscape. Curiously, what it means to be Malay is embedded in the constitution of the nation; someone who is born to a Malaysian, who professes to be Muslim, speaks Bahasa Melayu (the Malay language) and adheres to the Malay customs.

The comfort with religious identity that seems prevalent in Malaysia is in stark contrast to the strongly secular environment in Australia. The promotion of pro-Bumiputra policies (affirmative action policies for ethnic Malays designed to create opportunities and increase their share of corporate wealth) are also an accepted part of the nation’s landscape – at least by the Malays that we spoke to.

The policy has definitely created a strong Malay middle class, so in that sense it has worked. However, it has created a sense of resentment among people of other ethnicities, which feel discriminated against in their own nation.

The Chinese and Indians seemed frustrated at the fact that they are essentially relegated to second-class status. For me, this brought to the fore issues around personal and national identity and how policies are implemented, however well-intentioned.

As Australians it seemed natural to be shocked at a policy that discriminates based on racial identity, but we would do well to remember the Northern Territory Intervention. We too applied policies that discriminated based on race and ethnicity for a particular socio-economic objective.

It is interesting that both the Australian and Malaysian governments have been comfortable in continuing such policies, particularly when there have been such strong expressions of disapproval in both nations.

A week in Malaysia barely scratched the surface of this complex country, but it was apparent that Australians should not strive to change our neighbours, or that we should change to suit their ways, but that we become cognisant of the fact that our practices and make-up are different and that difference should be respected.

As neighbours we should focus on understanding the perspectives of our fellow Asia Pacific nations and realise the importance of history in their actions. Rather than always viewing them through the prism of an Australian lens, we must appreciate that there is more than one set of lenses to be worn.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied is an Australian Muslim who was born in Sudan and grew up in Queensland. She is a mechanical engineer by profession and is the founder of Youth Without Borders. Yassmin was the Queensland finalist for Young Australian of the Year in 2011.

Moon mining a step closer with new lunar soil simulant

By Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation

Australian researchers have developed a substance that looks and behaves like soil from the moon’s surface and can be mixed with polymers to create ‘lunar concrete’, a finding that may help advance plans to construct safe landing pads and mines on the moon.


Valuable rare earth minerals, hydrogen, oxygen, platinum and the non-radioactive nuclear fusion fuel Helium-3 (He-3) are abundant on the moon. NASA and other space agencies have shown interest in lunar mining but the US is yet to ratify a 1984 treaty that would strictly regulate moon resource extraction.

However, even if moon mining was allowed, lunar conditions are so different to Earthly conditions that new machinery may have to be invented to develop resources found there.

Furthermore, the cost of transporting materials made on Earth would be prohibitive, forcing scientists to come up with ways to build certain equipment using material only found on the moon’s surface.

A research team led by Dr Leonhard Bernold, Associate Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of New South Wales, has created a new lunar soil simulant that closely resembles samples brought back by the Apollo astronauts.

Dr Bernhold said such a simulant is essential to test lunar mining systems on Earth and may help researchers develop ways to create a waterless concrete using lunar dust, a component of the moon surface material known as regolith.

“We now know a lot about the mechanical properties of the regolith on the moon so we can create something that simulates it. We have tried to match it as close as we can,” said Dr Bernhold.

Dr Bernold’s lunar soil simulant is made up primarily of very fine basalt particles taken from a quarry in Kulnura on the NSW Central Coast.

“These particles are a byproduct of crushing the basalt to serve aggregates for making concrete or asphalt, but are too tiny to be useful and have to be thrown away,” said Dr Bernhold.

“On the moon, those small particles are abundant, having being created by small meteorites hitting the lunar surface at high speed over millions of years, thus breaking larger stones down into tiny particles.

As well as providing a substance on which Earthly mining techniques can be tested, the simulant soil can also be mixed with polymers to create a lunar concrete, said Dr Bernold.

“So, for example, we can find ways to create an in-situ resource utilisation material to build a landing pad for rockets on the moon. When rockets are landing, they blow away fine soil and it’s like a sandblaster blasting everything around,” he said, adding that a proper landing pad on the moon would reduce the dangerous sandblaster effect.

“Everything we ship from Earth will cost a lot of money, so we want to do as much as we can from the material that’s available there on the moon in abundance.”

Dr Bernold, who said NASA had shown interest in his findings, is presenting his simulant this week at the Off Earth Mining Forum hosted by UNSW.

Professor Andrew Dempster, Director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) at the University of New South Wales said a lunar soil simulant would help researchers better understand the properties of moon dust.

“The main value in this work is to do with the soils on the moon being so different to the type of soil on the earth and the type of soil most mining machinery is dealing with,” he said.

International treaties and special space laws would be needed to work out who had ownership rights to material mined from the moon, said Dr Dempster.

“I understand there’s an environmental argument around it too but if you were to mine the moon or an asteroid or other planets, there’s not going to be the environmental impact that local mining would have on the local biosphere. It’s a way of mining such that the mining process itself doesn’t produce any negative environmental impact,” he said.

“Obviously, however, you need to produce a lot of energy to go and do it.”

Students working with Dr Bernold are studying methods for harvesting and storing solar heat energy on the moon in a ‘lunar battery’ using materials found on the moon.

Greens leader Milne a political survivor

Australian Greens leader Christine Milne is a survivor.


In February 2011, six federal MPs stood in the Prime Minister’s Courtyard in Parliament House to announce the details of Labor’s forthcoming carbon tax.

Julia Gillard, Greg Combet, Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor and Bob Brown have exited federal politics, but Milne remains.

Milne, a former high school teacher, was elected to the Senate for Tasmania in 2004.

She took over the Greens leadership from Brown – who had been the public face of the party since its formation – in April 2012.

As leader, Milne has been a key figure in delivering Labor’s Clean Energy Future legislation, putting the spotlight on coal seam gas development, banning the super trawler and standing up for the rights of asylum seekers.

She also ended the Greens agreement with Labor – signed after the 2010 election to deliver a minority government – citing the poor design and low revenue earnings from the government’s mining tax.

Gillard’s reaction to Milne’s decision was a curt: “Thanks, righto …”

But such a dismissal denies the importance of the Greens to Labor’s prospects for re-election.

Labor will rely heavily on the minor party (which scored 11.8 per cent of the vote in 2010) for preferences in the race for Senate spots and inner-metropolitan lower house seats where the environmental vote is highest.

The Greens will also continue to hold the balance of power in the Senate until June 30, 2014, making a strong working relationship between the leaders of the key parties crucial to the passage of legislation.

Milne has vowed to recontest the Greens leadership after the election, which is spilled automatically after a poll.

She says the Greens party has “big things to deliver” in the coming term, including making the big banks and miners pay more tax, support for renewable energy and a better deal for the unemployed and refugees.

Marriage equality is a personal issue for Milne who has a gay son, Tom.

Unlike Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Milne doesn’t face re-election in 2013 because her Senate term has another three years to run.

And the 60-year-old Milne, a veteran of the Franklin River campaign in 1983, is not one to shirk a fight.