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The AFL's Indigenous Round and the innocent face of racism

Friday night’s AFL match between Collingwood and Sydney marked the opening of the code’s Indigenous Round. Yet the chance for the contribution of Indigenous footballers to the game – both past and present – to be recognised and celebrated was marred by a racial taunt from a young supporter at Sydney’s Indigenous star Adam Goodes.

The round of games aimed to recognise the contribution of Indigenous people and culture to the broader Australian society. While showcasing the unique talent and pride in culture of the Indigenous community, it simultaneously noted the struggle against racism that has accompanied the achievements of many Indigenous people in this country.

Probiotics cut respiratory tract infections in athletes

Athletes undertaking endurance training over the winter months could benefit from a daily probiotic drink to cut their risk of colds and other similar infections according to the results of a recent cliinical trial.

The term probiotic refers to foods or dietary supplements that contain beneficial bacteria which are normally found in the body. Fermented milk products such as yoghurt, sour cream, buttermilk and Yakult are examples of foods that may act as probiotics. Although probiotics are not considered essential to health, the microorganisms they contain may assist with digestion or help protect against harmful bacteria by improving the workings of the immune system.

Hope for peace in Syria fades as Russia backs away

There was a moment of hope, a week ago, that there could yet be a negotiated resolution to the Syrian civil war. That hope now appears ended, with key Syrian government ally Russia backing away from what could have been international agreement on the need end the war.

Instead, the Syrian war is increasingly spilling across borders, with the Lebanese-based Hezbollah militia openly siding with the Syrian government by joining in the attack on the town of Qusair, Syria shelling the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Jordan in particular buckling under the weight of more than 400,000 refugees.

The Syrian government’s attack on Qusair, near the border with northern Lebanon, is reported to be the heaviest artillery assault of the war. Anti-Assad regime forces still hold the town but are struggling, and its loss will put further pressure on the nearby hold-out city of Homs, also the scene of heavy fighting between Syria’s opposing forces.

Should Qusair fall, it will open a route for the Syrian regime between Damascus in the south and the sea ports at Al Hamidiyah and the Russian-based Tartus. The heavy fighting follows President Bashar al-Assad taking a hard line on the possibility of ending the civil war in an interview last weekend.

The fighting also follows the reporting drying up of weapons supplies to the anti-Assad forces. The reduced flow of weapons is a result of increasing concerns that they could fall into the hands of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Brigade and aligned factions, as well as as result of reports of atrocities on the part of both pro and anti-Assad forces.

Assad has said he will not negotiate with "terrorists", meaning forces arrayed against his regime, and says he plans to stand for "re-election" in 2014. Assad’s statement came a day after the US criticised Russia for supplying rockets to Syrian government forces.

Russia’s supply of the rockets was in apparent contradiction of the agreement between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry early in May, to push for a Syria peace conference in June. One reading of Russia’s position is that it will support peace talks in June, but only if it can strengthen the hand of the Assad regime ahead of such negotiations.

At this stage, however, Assad is not indicating that he will participate. Anti-Assad forces, meanwhile, see his resignation as a key condition for the talks to succeed. France has also said it will boycott the talks if Assad ally Iran is invited to participate in the talks process, which Russia is insisting upon.

With the anti-Assad forces now clearly divided between the Free Syrian Army and the al-Qaeda affiliates and Western support wavering, Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers are feeling increasingly confident of turning the tide in the war. It may be, however, that this is but another twist in an increasingly complicated, bitter and prolonged war.

Can lack of sleep make you fat?

Yet another clinical study has confirmed the growing body of evidence linking inadequate sleep to obesity.

One of the more surprising factors linked to weight gain is lack of sleep. More and more research studies are finding that poor sleep patterns and insufficient sleep are closely linked to weight gain and obesity.

The mechanism linking poor sleep to weight gain is not entirely understood, but is likely related to how signals from the brain which control appetite are altered by sleep restriction. Inadequate sleep can alter the levels of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin while reducing production of the fullness-feeling hormone leptin. This can lead to increased food consumption without a similar increase in energy expenditure.

Foreign affairs: Defence spending down, more aid and spies

From the industry reaction to Australia's overseas aid budget, one might have thought Canberra's cruel bean-counters are intentionally starving Third World orphans. The budget announcement of keeping foreign aid at around 0.35% of gross national income, or almost $5.6 billion, reflects a stepping down from a forecast increase in aid to 0.38%, but still represents an overall 4% increase in available funds.

In an era of broad budgetary restraint, this not unreasonable outcome reflects commitments given by Australia in order to secure its seat on the UN Security Council last October. It also reflects a shift away from the "hard power" of Defence, with the Iraq war drifting into history, Timor-Leste no longer active, Solomons concluding and Afghanistan looking to an end. The security emphasis now is on "soft" and "secret" power, with diplomacy drifting.

In order not to further alienate Labor's Left, the government has capped aid funds allocated to housing asylum seekers at 7% of the aid budget, at $375 million. Australia's commitment to the UN's millennium development goal of 0.5% of gross national income by 2015 has now been "deferred" to 2016-17. This target will now require an extra -- and improbable -- $1 billion a year for the next four years.

Of the more aspirational commitment to the OECD's 2002 Monterey Agreement to allocate 0.7% of GDP to foreign aid by 2015, only Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands have met that goal. Australia is outside the top 10 OECD aid providers by GDP. There is, however, some small comfort in still being well ahead of Japan and the United States.

Australia's aid recipients are unlikely to protest about the deferral of intended aid increases. Indonesia -- Australia's largest aid recipient -- does not care too much about Australian aid in any case. For some in Indonesia, Australian aid is viewed through a paranoid lens as a mechanism for some vague ulterior agenda. From Australia's perspective, aid simply helps secure a seat at Indonesia's diplomatic table.

Papua New Guinea is more concerned about Australian aid, mostly because it so poorly manages its domestic budget and needs all the help it can get. Some less critical Australian aid programs to Timor-Leste have been deferred, which otherwise remains high on Australia's aid priority list.

Tightening has hurt Australian diplomacy through funding of Australia's embassies. DFAT's departmental appropriations have survived this budget with a minor spending increase of $43 million to just under $1.5 billion. But this will come as cold comfort to many Australian diplomats, given the reduction in spending over recent years.

Australia's two new African embassies, in Dakar, Senegal, announced in the last budget, will be further funded by closing the embassy in Budapest. Given the critical role of exports, the Australian Trade Commission will have to do more with a little less, its budget down $13 million to $319 million.

Defence has, as was earlier known, taken a hit, losing just over $2 billion to $22 billion, reflecting Australia's shifting security focus. That less visible branch of Australian security, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, received another healthy budget increase, of more than 11.7%, from $211 million to almost $248 million. It is, it seems, a good time to be a spy.

Government take a punt on rubbery forward estimates while ignoring tax reform agenda

This year's budget represents an absolutely critical one for Australia as it makes especially visible the underlying structural deficit that has faced Australia now for many years.

When assessing some of the assumptions underpinning Wayne Swan’s 2013 federal budget, two things spring to mind: the Henry Tax review and the notorious inaccuracy of forward estimates.

History shows it might be foolhardy to rely on the accuracy of forward estimates. And meanwhile, the repercussions of failing to undertake structural economic reform by amending our taxation system will continue to weigh on our economic fortunes.

So what is the link between the Henry Review and the forward estimates? One was timely but ignored; the other has time against it.

 Read full article at The Conversation:

Creatine loading: not just for athletes

Use of the popular sports supplement creatine has shown promise in a small-scale clinical trial in helping people with diabetes get their blood sugar under control.
 
Creatine is a popular nutritional supplement widely used across many sports. Creatine occurs naturally in the body, and is found mostly in muscle tissue. Creatine is a normal part of the foods we eat, but meat, fish, and poultry are the only foods with any appreciable amounts.

Media and Political Transformations in the Arab Spring

On  Wednesday (15 May 2013) I had the honour of  introducing a documentary  film ‘Words of Witness’ as it premiered as part of the Human Right Arts and Film Festival (HRAFF).   The documentary was made  during the Egyptian uprising, by  filmmaker Mai Iskander and follows Heba Afify, an online journalist reporting from the frontline of the revolution. I was asked by the Festival organisers to introduce the film and provide the audience with some updated reflections on the current political situation in Egypt and across the Arab Spring countries.

Racially defining Malaysian politics

Three factors are emerging from the post-election shake-out that will shape Malaysian politics for the foreseeable future. Although Malaysia's opposition came closer to government, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN -- National Front) coalition has secured government not just for another five years but may be in a position to retain power beyond the 2018 elections.

The vote has sharply delineated Malaysian politics along racial lines, with the BN’s ethnic Chinese partner, the Malaysian Chinese Association, losing two-thirds of its seats. The Chinese vote has, instead, swung dramatically behind the opposition Pakatan Rakyat’s (PR) ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP).

The opposition’s Malay Partai Amanat Se-Islam (PAS -- Islamic Message Party) lost two seats, with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Partai Keadilan Rakyat (PKR -- People’s Justice Party) losing one seat. The PR has thus become much more Chinese in representation, while the government’s BN has become increasingly Malay.

This then leads to the second factor, with the ethnic coloration of the government and opposition set to create further tensions in difficult and sometimes factious Malay-Chinese relations. The PR has only just been able to exercise discipline around the unity of its three component parties.

The PAS is divided between more accommodationist Malay Muslims and those who can barely tolerate their Chinese partners. The more radical wing of the party is now threatening to either splinter or to shift wholesale across to the government. The government is, meanwhile, holding out a welcoming hand to these disenchanted PAS members, replicating a policy employed by the BN for the past four decades by buying off vulnerable elements of the opposition’s ranks.

This could effectively kill the PAS as an effective component of the opposition, concentrating power in the hands of the opposition’s Chinese majority (Malaysia’s ethnic minority). From this position, it would be next to impossible to win the next elections. It would also cast doubt over Anwar Ibrahim’s leadership of the opposition, given his former balancing role between the PAS and the DAP.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Najib Razak will be watching his back, with his predecessor having been dumped for an election result that was not as bad as the loss of a 10 further government seats.

The third major factor of the 2013 Malaysian elections was that rorting of the electoral system reached almost breathtaking levels. On the latest count, the government won by 22 seats in a 222-seat Parliament, but with just 47.38% of the vote, while the opposition received 50.87% of the vote. This result has in large part been attributed to the gerrymandering of the Malaysian electoral boundaries, which favour rural Malay voters. However, what has alarmed observers is that although both the government and opposition pushed to get the vote out on Sunday, resulting in a record 80% turnout for the voluntary elections, the number of new voters spiked in a number of marginal seats, in one case to over 60%. There were 25% or more new voters across 90 of the Parliament’s 222 seats.

Added to this were some voters being told their vote had been cast before they had voted, claims of multiple voting, the mass government registration of non-Malaysian guest workers and the old stand-by of simply paying for votes.

The Malaysia government has scraped back into office on the basis of these electoral rorts. With a possible split in the opposition’s ranks, it may now have bought itself an extension to its guaranteed unbroken 61 years in office.

The Persistence of Objectification and Stereotyping in Public Debates about 'Islam and Muslims' in Australia

 
Increasing cultural and religious diversity does not and should not have a detrimental effect on social cohesion. Diversity should not be linked to a loss of a sense of collective action,   but rather to a stronger community bonding and mutual trust. And under no circumstances, should  cultural diversity be invoked to justify infringements on domestic laws and accepted norms of human rights. Indeed, cultural diversity should be employed as a key lever to engendering  intercultural understanding in our increasingly multicultural society.  Yet this is not always the case as recent events have shown.

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