Australian Politics 2020-09-14 15:52:00

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Africa comes to Brisbane

A man has died and another 10 people have been seriously injured after a violent brawl in Brisbane's north overnight involving knives and baseball bats.

A man, believed to be about 20-years-old, died at the scene, while 10 others were taken to the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital.

Detective Superintendent Tony Fleming said he believed the brawl involved two African groups. "We believe knives and baseball bats were used in that attack," he said.

"We know at least one young man has died and there are about 10 other people who have been hospitalised as a result of that incident. "Two of those people, I'm led to believe, are in a critical condition.

"I'm concerned this incident is the result of a retribution amongst these people for an incident that happened earlier this week in the western suburbs of Brisbane."

Detective Superintendent Fleming said he was concerned there could be further violence. "What we would ask is for the community to remain calm," he said.

"We are doing all we can to investigate this and hold people to account for the level of violence that happened. "We are active right across South East Queensland now to ensure we don't have a repeat of this."

Detective Superintendent Fleming says police are now stationed at a number of hospitals.

"None of that behaviour is helpful to those who've been injured and nor to others who are using the hospital," he said.

"We have, as I have indicated, police both at the locations where we think there might be trouble but also on patrol to make sure — or do our very best to prevent — any escalation."

He said it was still early on in a complex investigation.

"As I'm sure you can appreciate we've got a large number of people who've confronted each other ... the outcome of that is one young man is dead and a number of people are very, very, seriously hurt."

Detective Superintendent Fleming urged witnesses to come forward.  "Both for justice, for those who've been injured, but more importantly to make sure that we don't have any further trouble."

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Australia's race against China's 'rare earths weapon'

If you have a phone, a camera or an electric car, chances are that each of these devices is wholly dependent on key minerals that, at the moment, are processed only in China.

For much of the past two decades, this has been fine: a status quo that rewarded low-cost production in China with exports around the world. The global economy was growing, more smartphones were being sold than there were people and the electric vehicle market was burgeoning.

Now, as supply lines shrink, geopolitical tensions rise and the world's dependence on these minerals for everyday use surges, policymakers are coming to terms with a gaping hole in the world's development of rare earths that threatens to hit militaries as much as it does consumers.

There are 0.15 grams of palladium in an iPhone, 472 kilograms of combined rare earths in an F-35 fighter jet and four tonnes in a Virginia-class submarine.

"[With] some of these things, the government stockpile levels are very, very small in terms of weight," says federal Resources Minister Keith Pitt. "They are kilos compared to tonnes. That is how rare the element is."

Europium oxide, which is used to produce the colour red in household TVs, comes from a global europium stockpile of just 20 tonnes. Stock of ferro dysprosium, used in some magnets, is less than 500 kilograms.

But it is graphite, a key component of the lithium-ion batteries in phones, laptops, military and medical equipment and electric cars, that has sparked the most heated minerals race. Turkey, China, Brazil and Mozambique have the world's largest graphite reserves but only China has the technology and scale to purify the mineral into graphene and other battery anode compounds to make it useful.

"There is no other supplier in the world except China producing this material," says Andrew Spinks, managing director of EcoGraf, an Australian company set to become the first local processor of graphite in the country.

"It is the most electrically conductive mineral known. The next most conductive mineral is gold."

China has declared graphite a strategic mineral. It has 195 mining areas across 20 provinces that account for 70 per cent of the world's exports of processed graphite resources. Its dominance and proliferation-brand of state-linked companies has sharpened the concerns of governments that, in the event of a shortage or a military dispute in the South China Sea, the tap could be turned off.

"It does not matter if you are importing loaves of bread or anything else, if you only have one supply line, that is an increased risk," Pitt says in an interview in Canberra.

In the last few months of 2019, China had begun winding back its exports, well before its relationship with the US, Australia and Europe was pummelled by the coronavirus and China's crackdown in Hong Kong. From August to September 2019 alone, rare earths exports from China to the US dropped by 18 per cent.

Australia, which has historically focused on more common, highly profitable exports such as iron ore, is sitting on a graphite reserve in South Australia of 200 million tonnes.

"You are touching my nerves," says Professor Dusan Losic, the director of Australia's graphene research hub, which collaborates between five Australian universities, including the University of Melbourne and the University of Adelaide.

"We have very huge reserves just sitting down there," he says. "But nothing can be done with a lack of investment."

The government has committed $125 million to exploring two 2500 kilometre-long corridors in the hope of hitting another rare earths payload. One stretches from the Gulf of Carpentaria down to the border of NSW, South Australia and Victoria. The second runs from Darwin to the Great Australian Bight. The government has also invested $4.5 million in critical mineral research and development through the CSIRO and Geoscience Australia but industry figures say it is not enough. Losic says the cost of starting up a single graphite processing plant is $60 million.

Perth USAsia Centre research director Dr Jeffrey Wilson says Australia has abundant geology and technical capabilities, but the investment risk is higher than the private sector can manage.

"China holds a global monopoly on the production of rare earth minerals, which are used across the civilian and defence technology ecosystems," he says.

"With China applying trade sanctions to many countries in early 2020, there is a real risk the rare earths weapon may be deployed in the coming months."

Australia signed a strategic partnership in June that will allow for Australia to supply rare earth resources to India. Another deal with the US followed in July after Australian rare earths miner Lynas announced it would process the minerals at a Texas facility in partnership with the Pentagon. Australian resources company Syrah is also establishing a production line in the US state of Louisiana that will be the first to completely transform graphite into the active anode material used in electric vehicles outside China.

Pitt says: "We are being watched very closely internationally right now. I think every Australian will recognise how critical this is in terms of our nation. It is also about our strategic partnerships as well. That is why we are working very closely with South Korea and Japan and the US, Europe and a lot of other countries.

"They recognise it is in their interests to have a diverse source of materials into their countries, not just a single one."

Lynas says COVID-19 has heightened the focus on resilient supply chains and securing a diverse supply of critical minerals.

"It’s only when there is a risk that a component like rare earths will not be available that it comes to the attention of business leaders," a Lynas spokeswoman says.

One of the reasons for China's dominance in processing graphite is its use of highly toxic chemicals in the purification process, which other countries have been reluctant to replicate.

China's processors use hydrofluoric acid to remove impurities. The chemical is highly corrosive and discharges chemicals into surrounding land and water. Processing graphite also produces air pollutants that can cause respiratory illnesses.

Pitt says there is no intention to change any environmental controls to allow for more mining or processing. "If you work within that framework, you reduce the risk substantially," he says.

EcoGraf has spent the past three years developing an eco-friendly purification process that will avoid hydrofluoric acid and the discharge of air pollutants. Its new plant, the first graphite purification facility in Australia, is set to be established in Kwinana, Western Australia, after the company secured investment from Export Finance Australia and the German government to source graphite from a mine in Tanzania.

Spinks says the establishment of an Australian Critical Minerals Office, headed by Jessica Robinson, a former senior official in the Treasury and in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, is a sign of how seriously the government is taking the rare earths supply challenge. But he says more government support is needed to buttress the significant upfront costs of mining and processing the material.

"If we don't, we will just see battery minerals being shipped offshore for 1/100th of the price and then we have to buy it back," he says. "That just doesn't make any sense."

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Coal miner wins bid for injunction against activist

Environmental activist Benjamin Penning will be forced to cease his public attacks against mining giant Adani after the company won a Supreme Court injunction against him.

Adani and its Carmichael Rail Network claim Pennings’ ongoing campaign of harassment has cost millions of dollars, forced its insurance to skyrocket by 400 per cent, blown out its $1 million security bill to $5 million and cost millions of dollars in lost and renegotiated contracts.

Adani is suing Mr Pennings, an outspoken serial protester and former Greens mayoral candidate, who it claims has orchestrated a sustained campaign of harassment and intimidation against the company for almost a decade.

In addition to the damages lawsuit, Adani last week also applied for an injunction to force Pennings to remove previous online posts threatening the mine and its contractors and cease publishing any future posts relating to the mine on social media and websites including Galilee Blockade.

Adani alleges Pennings helped orchestrate an “infiltration campaign” whereby people were encouraged to leak the company’s confidential information, and a “Dob in Adani” campaign in which contractors were targeted by activists, causing a number of companies to cease relationships with the coal mine and its rail line.

This morning Justice Glenn Martin granted the mine’s injunction application, saying he was satisfied the evidence supported the conclusion that Pennings and others had “misused and will, unless restrained, continue to misuse confidential information with the purpose of frustrating or terminating the development of the mine and rail network”.

“The protest activity undertaken by the Galilee Blockade has led to at least three contractors withdrawing,” Justice Martin said.

“The information published on the social media accounts reinforces that the Galilee Blockade is determined to continue to obtain confidential information and to use it, and other information, to place pressure upon contractors to either withdraw from negotiations or to withdraw from contracts.

The evidence relating to the conduct of Mr Pennings and the Galilee Blockade allows for an inference to be drawn that, unless required to remove the statements complained of, they will remain on the social media accounts and will be acted upon by Mr Pennings and the Galilee Blockade.”

He said Adani had provided un-contradicted evidence that contractors and suppliers had been the subject of threats, some of which had been fulfilled through action being taken against contractors such as Downer Group, AECOM, and Greyhound Australia.

“The conduct alleged against Mr Pennings has, on the applicants’ case, resulted in a loss of many millions of dollars to the applicants,” Justice Martin said.

“Should they be successful in this matter then the potential size of an award of damages would, on the material, be beyond Mr Pennings. “There is nothing to suggest that an individual in his circumstances could make good the damage which is said to have been caused.”

Justice Martin said the balance of convenience “clearly favours” the granting of the injunction.

The order will require Mr Ben Pennings to remove online posts and campaigns remove any online material related to the Dob in a Contractor campaign, remove content from online channels that encourages the collation of confidential material about our business, and to stop what Adani alleges is threatening behaviour towards its contractors and employees.

“The plaintiffs have a good case against Mr Pennings and there will be no prejudice to him should orders be made which, effectively, require him to act in a lawful way,” he said.

“The injunction sought will have no financial repercussion for Mr Pennings but, if they are not made, the losses to the applicants will be very substantial.

“The injunctions sought do not seek to, nor would they, have any effect on any business or undertaking of Mr Pennings, nor do they restrict his right, or any other member of Galilee Blockade, to participate in lawful protest.”

Outside court, Mr Pennings said while he would comply with the court order, the “global movement” would not be deterred by the lawsuit. “Adani claims their legal strategy is not about inflicting hardship on me,” Mr Pennings said.

“Despite this successful injunction, Adani is still undertaking court action that could bankrupt my family. I shouldn’t have to sell our suburban family home to make a multi-billionaire even richer. So long as Adani threatens my family and the environment we all share I will do everything lawfully in my powers to stop them.”

“The global movement to stop Adani’s coal mine will not be deterred by the cold-hearted bullying tactics of a billionaire’s mining company targeting one individual.

“The Australian public will continue to oppose Adani’s destructive climate wrecking mine.”

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Sydney's new building sheriff is cracking down

Like the wild west, Sydney's high-rise residential building sector has been home to plenty of cowboys. They have run amok, employing substandard design and building practices. But the new building sheriff just got his badge. Operators who have been having a free run at transferring the risk and cost of defects to consumers have reason to be nervous.

Over many years, I have witnessed severe shortcomings in the regulations that were supposed to protect consumers who buy into high-rise residential buildings. It's now a pleasure to see effective regulatory reform under way.

The NSW Building Commissioner, David Chandler, has put in place two key planks of reform. First, new inspection powers to hold the serial offenders and escape artists to account. These powers came into play on September 1. Second, after July 2021, new mandatory minimum design documentation will be required before concrete is poured rather than after.

Over the years, so-called "design and construct" contracts have lowered the bar on building quality in Sydney. These contracts reduced the input of professional designers such as architects and engineers to such an extent the building process became "construct then design". Minimal documentation at the start of construction meant that builders had to make it up on the run. With little chance of being brought to account, many developers exploited the regulatory shortcomings. They forced future owners to pick up the repair tab on the faults that came out of this chaotic process.

Ahead of September 1, the commissioner signalled that this situation was coming to an end, with new auditing procedures designed to send a message to the industry: you won't get away with substandard work.

In an early test run of the new inspection procedures, I was part of an audit of a large development for the commissioner, in excess of 200 units, which was one week away from completion. We found 16 major areas of non-compliance. Rather than wait for the rectification order that was certain to be issued after September 1, the developer began work on the replacement of hundreds of shower areas that were assessed as highly non-compliant and likely to have significant defects in future. Planter boxes are also being rebuilt and roof membranes are being redone where inadequate. Millions of dollars of future defect repair costs are being nipped in the bud. We hear on the grapevine that all certifiers in Sydney are watching this particular project with great interest.

We inspected a separate smaller development also nearing completion in Sydney’s inner west. It had identical types of defects in the bathrooms and roofs. Rectification orders under the new regulations are expected to be issued. Many stone-clad bathrooms will need to be replaced to prevent future water leaking and ponding issues. Roof membranes and roof-top planter boxes will also be redone.

Developers and certifiers are watching these audits closely because, in the event of an unsatisfactory audit, the commissioner can withhold the all-important occupation certificate. Those of us in the waterproofing and building defect repair industry have not seen impending regulations being taken this seriously by the industry in decades.

While audits are critical to catching problems that have emerged, the game is also changing on the prevention side of things.

From July 2021, the Design and Building Practitioners Act kicks in. Developers will be required to have qualified and registered architects and designers produce critical design documentation. Complete designs will be needed for all of the important features of a building – fire safety systems, waterproofing, load-bearing elements, and services such as mechanical, electrical and plumbing.

During construction, builders will have to get the same registered designers to sign off on variations and performance solutions. At the end of the project, builders will have to testify that they’ve completed all work in accordance with the declared plans. These are big changes and will move the sector back to a design-first-then-construct approach.

To beef up the standard with which designs must comply, a collaboration between a wide range of practitioners and building industry groups is looking at improving key clauses of the Building Code of Australia with regard to damp and weatherproofing. Participants all sense this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the mistakes of the past.

It's quite simple. Architects and engineers like to be able to undertake a design without the developer deciding halfway to transfer the process to someone else, usually less qualified, to finish the design more cheaply. Builders like to start with a completed design so they know what to allow for. They like to know that everyone else is complying with the same standard and cannot undercut them on price by skimping on that standard.

The sheriff's badge is still new and shiny, but there is quiet optimism among the town folk that he is doing what is needed to support law-abiding operators and drive the scoundrels out of town.

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 Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here