At least two people were arrested during a protest in Brooklyn on the night of January 16-17 as demonstrators called for the firing of an officer who allegedly drew a weapon on protesters a few days prior, local reports said, citing police. The protest began at the Barclay’s Center. This footage shows the scenes on Tillary Street. Credit: @thizzl_ via Storyful
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“I knew at the time deaf people weren’t eligible, but I thought I’d test the system,” Mr Phillips said.
“It wasn’t my ability to comprehend or follow the process, it was not being able to have a 13th person in the jury room.”
It’s something the Victorian Law Reform Commission wants to change.
“We are not inquiring into whether people who are deaf, hard or hearing, blind or have low vision should have easier access, we are inquiring into how to give them easier access,” chair of the commission, Anthony North, QC, said.
“What we have recognised is firstly the need for equal treatment, but we’re trying to overcome a misconception these people are not competent.”
The commission is investigating how people who are vision or hearing impaired could have access to jury duty, either by way of changing the law to allow a 13th person in the jury room, or by allowing access to documents converted into braille and other communication technology.
The commission’s work is not unique.
In Australia, the Australian Capital Territory became the first jurisdiction to change its law to allow for a 13th person in the jury room. And in the United States, the UK, Ireland and New Zealand, deaf and blind people have served on juries.
Dr David McKee, a deaf studies teacher in Wellington, told the ABC that his jury duty in 2005 was facilitated by two interpreters who alternated and it “proceeded quite smoothly.” He was elected as the jury foreperson.
In Australia, there’s been several legal challenges that have so far failed to create a seismic shift.
Two NSW residents, Gemma Beasley and Michael Lockrey, took their case to the United Nations after they were blocked from serving. As a result, the UN called for Australia to change its discriminatory laws.
In Queensland, Gaye Lyons went to the High Court after her request for an interpreter was denied. The majority confirmed that a 13th person wasn’t allowed in the jury room to protect external influence, but the Law Reform Commission said the ruling left it open for state legislatures to determine whether interpreters should be allowed.
Former Sydney Law School dean Ron McCallum AO, the first blind person to become a professor in any field, said blind and deaf people could sit on most juries and the circumstances where they couldn’t, such as where the major evidence was eyesight identification, would be few and far between.
Auslan, Professor McCallum said, is a language already used in court proceedings and qualified signers are bound by confidentiality.
“I really don’t see any problem,” Professor McCallum said.
“A lot of people think, how can this be? How can we let people with disabilities sit on juries? Even some judges would probably be nervous. A lot of it has to do with not knowing persons with a disability.”
Mr Phillips, a senior executive manager with the National Disability Insurance Agency, said his exclusion from jury duty was disappointing and he welcomed the commission’s intent to reform.
He pointed to one of the fundamental principles of the justice system – that people should be judged by a jury of their peers.
“As deaf people, we’re very much a part of society,” he said.
“It’s time the justice system acknowledges that and makes various adjustments to include deaf people as jury members.”
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Tammy Mills is the legal affairs reporter for The Age.
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Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., were selected to serve on the House’s Financial Services Committee, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office announced Thursday.
Both “Squad” members were already chosen earlier this month to serve on the House Oversight Committee as well.
Fellow “Squad” member Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., was named to the Oversight and Reform Committee.
“In the election, the American people elected a Democratic House Majority that not only will ensure that our nation recovers from this historic pandemic and economic crisis, but will Build Back Better,” Pelosi said in a statement announcing the dozens of assignments to committees such as Armed Services, Education and Labor, Foreign Affairs and the Veterans Affairs Committee.
SPEAKER PELOSI NAMES REP. SWALWELL TO RETURN TO THE HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE DESPITE SPY TIES
She said the “outstanding Members” would be “relentless in leading Democrats’ work to combat disparities in our economy and country and to advance justice and progress For The People.”
Pelosi, 80, has been accused by Ocasio-Cortez, 31, and others of not bringing the younger members into leadership positions.
Last month, the New York congresswoman told The Intercept, “I think one of the things that I have struggled with — I think that a lot of people struggle with — is [that] the internal dynamics of the House has made it such that there’s very little option for succession if you will.”
PELOSI ANNOUNCES NEW ‘SQUAD’ ASSIGNMENTS TOHOUSE COMMITTEES
She said she thought it was time for new and younger leadership to take over for Pelosi and incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, 70.
“Why does AOC complain that you have not been grooming younger people for leadership?” “60 Minutes” reporter Lesley Stahl asked the speaker in an interview that aired last Sunday.
Pelosi responded, “I don’t know. You’ll have to ask her — because we are.”
After Stahl called Pelosi’s answer “dismissive” of the congresswoman, Pelosi that wasn’t her intention, adding that Ocasio-Cortez is “very effective, as are others — many other members in our caucus that the press doesn’t pay attention to. But they are there and they are building support for what comes next.”
PELOSI GETS ‘SHARP’ WHEN ASKED ABOUT AOC DURING ’60 MINUTES’ INTERVIEW
Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Californian who Republicans have asked to step down from the House Intelligence Committee over his past ties to a suspected Chinese spy, will also return to the Homeland Security Committee.
He previously served on the Homeland Security Committee during his first term in Congress, from 2012 to 2014, which was before the FBI had briefed him on alleged Communist spy Fang Fang’s activities.
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After that, he cut ties. He has not been accused of wrongdoing, but critics have demanded he step down or be removed from the Intelligence Committee as part of standard counter-intelligence risk-management practices.
Former House impeachment manager Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., will join Swalwell on the Homeland Security Committee.
Here’s the complete list of appointments announced Thursday:
Agriculture Committee: Reps. Cindy Axne, Iowa; Cheri Bustos, Illinois; Salud Carbajal, California; Lou Correa, California; Angie Craig, Minnesota; Josh Harder, California; Ro Khanna, California; Ann McLane Kuster, New Hampshire; Al Lawson, Florida; Sean Patrick Maloney, New York; Tom O’Halleran, Arizona; Chellie Pingree, Maine; Stacey Plaskett, Virgin Islands; Bobby Rush, Illinois; Gregorio Sablan, Northern Mariana Islands; Kim Schrier, Washington.
Armed Services Committee: Reps. Stephanie Murphy of Florida; Jimmy Panetta of California; and Marc Veasey of Texas.
Education and Labor Committee: Reps. Joaquin Castro of Texas; Mark Pocan of Wisconsin; and Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey.
Financial Services Committee: Reps. Alma Adams of North Carolina; Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania; Chuy García of Illinois; Sylvia Garcia of Texas; Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York; David Scott of Georgia; Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
Foreign Affairs Committee: Reps. Jim Costa of California; Vicente González of Texas; Juan Vargas of California.
Homeland Security Committee: Reps.Nanette Barragán of California; Yvette Clarke of New York; Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri; Val Demings of Florida; Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey; Al Green of Texas; Elaine Luria of Virginia; Tom Malinowski of New Jersey; Kathleen Rice of New York; Eric Swalwell of California; Dina Titus of Nevada; Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey
Natural Resources Committee: Reps. Ed Case of Hawaii; Diana DeGette of Colorado; Debbie Dingell of Michigan; Chuy García of Illinois; Donald McEachin of Virginia; Michael San Nicolas of Guam; Darren Soto of Florida; Nydia Velázquez of New York.
Oversight and Reform Committee: Reps. Danny Davis of Illinois; Mark DeSaulnier of California; Jimmy Gomez of California; Hank Johnson of Georgia; Robin Kelly of Illinois; Brenda Lawrence of Michigan; Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts; John Sarbanes of Maryland; Jackie Speier of California; Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida; Peter Welch of Vermont.
Science, Space and Technology Committee: Reps. Don Beyer of Virginia; Sean Casten of Illinois; Charlie Crist of Florida; Bill Foster of Illinois; Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania; Jerry McNerney of California; Donald Norcross of New Jersey; Ed Perlmutter of Colorado; Brad Sherman of California; Deborah Ross of North Carolina; Paul Tonko of New York.
Small Business Committee: Reps.Judy Chu California; Antonio Delgado of New York; Dwight Evans of Pennsylvania; Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania; Scott Peters of California; Brad Schneider of Illinois
Veterans Affairs Committee: Reps. Colin Allred of Texas; Lauren Underwood of Illinois; Gregorio Sablan of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Fox News’ Michael Ruiz and Edmund DeMarche contributed to this report.
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Seeing reality clearly and truthfully is fundamental to our capacity to do anything. By monetizing and commodifying attention, we’ve sold away our ability to see problems and enact collective solutions. This isn’t new. Almost any time we allow the life support systems of our planet or society to be commodified, it drives other breakdowns. When you commodify politics with AI-optimized microtargeted ads, you remove integrity from politics. When you commodify food, you lose touch with the life cycle that makes agriculture sustainable. When you commodify education into digital feeds of content, you lose the interrelatedness of human development, trust, care, and teacherly authority. When you commodify love by turning people into playing cards on Tinder, you sever the complex dance involved in forging new relationships. And when you commodify communication into chunks of posts and comment threads on Facebook, you remove context, nuance, and respect. In all these cases, extractive systems slowly erode the foundations of a healthy society and a healthy planet.
Shifting systems to protect attention
E.O. Wilson, the famed biologist, proposed that humans should run only half the Earth, and that the rest should be left alone. Imagine something similar for the attention economy. We can and should say that we want to protect human attention, even if that sacrifices a portion of the profits of Apple, Google, Facebook, and other large technology corporations.
Ad blockers on digital devices are an interesting example of what could become a structural shift in the digital world. Are ad blockers a human right? If everybody could block ads on Facebook, Google, and websites, the internet would not be able to fund itself, and the advertising economy would lose massive amounts of revenue. Does that outcome negate the right? Is your attention a right? Do you own it? Should we put a price on it? Selling human organs or enslaved people can meet a demand and generate profit, but we say these items do not belong in the marketplace. Like human beings and their organs, should human attention be something money can’t buy?
The covid-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and climate change and other ecological crises have made more and more people aware of how broken our economic and social systems are. But we are not getting to the roots of these interconnected crises. We’re falling for interventions that feel like the right answer but instead are traps that surreptitiously maintain the status quo. Slightly better police practices and body cameras do not prevent police misconduct. Buying a Prius or Tesla isn’t enough to really bring down levels of carbon in the atmosphere. Replacing plastic straws with biodegradable ones is not going to save the oceans. Instagram’s move to hide the number of “likes” is not transforming teenagers’ mental-health problems, when the service is predicated on constant social comparison and systemic hijacking of the human drive for connection. We need much deeper systemic reform. We need to shift institutions to serve the public interest in ways that are commensurate with the nature and scale of the challenges we face.
At the Center for Humane Technology, one thing we did was convince Apple, Google, and Facebook to adopt—at least in part—the mission of “Time Well Spent” even if it went against their economic interests. This was a movement we launched through broad public media-awareness campaigns and advocacy, and it gained credence with technology designers, concerned parents, and students. It called for changing the digital world’s incentives from a race for “time spent” on screens and apps into a “race to the top” to help people spend time well. It has led to real change for billions of people. Apple, for example, introduced “Screen Time” features in May 2018 that now ship with all iPhones, iPads, and other devices. Besides showing all users how much time they spend on their phone, Screen Time offers a dashboard of parental controls and app time limits that show parents how much time their kids are spending online (and what they are doing). Google launched its similar Digital Wellbeing initiative around the same time. It includes further features we had suggested, such as making it easier to unplug before bed and limit notifications. Along the same lines, YouTube introduced “Take a break” notifications.
These changes show that companies are willing to make sacrifices, even in the realm of billions of dollars. Nonetheless, we have not yet changed the core logic of these corporations. For a company to do something against its economic interest is one thing; doing something against the DNA of its purpose and goals is a different thing altogether.
Working toward collective action
We need deep, systemic reform that will shift technology corporations to serving the public interest first and foremost. We have to think bigger about how much systemic change might be possible, and how to harness the collective will of the people.
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US President Donald Trump acclaimed that his only goal was to ensure the integrity of the vote and “defend American democracy” as he expressed that he was “outraged by the violence, lawlessness and mayhem” during yesterday’s Capitol riots.
One day after Twitter imposed a temporary ban on his account, the US President posted a video message saying he immediately deployed the National Guard and federal law enforcement to expel demonstrators who thrashed the complex.
In the statement, he asserted “America is, and must always be, a nation of law and order. The demonstrators who infiltrated the capital have defiled the seat of American democracy. To those who engaged in acts of violence and destruction, you do not represent our country. And to those who broke the law, you will pay.”
It was already known that the nation has been through a very rough and “intense election”, Mr Trump said that he had “vigorously pursued every legal avenue” to contest the results, but that tempers must now “be cooled and calm restored”.
He even added “My only goal was to ensure the integrity of the vote. In so doing, I was fighting to defend American democracy. I continue to strongly believe that we must reform our election laws to verify the identity and eligibility of all voters, and to ensure faith and confidence in all future elections.”
He concluded that he is now focusing on ensuring a smooth and seamless transition of power as he declared this moment as one that calls for healing and reconciliation.
FILE PHOTO: A Boeing 737 MAX 7 aircraft lands during an evaluation flight at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, U.S. September 30, 2020. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo
December 29, 2020
By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said Monday it would reform how it certifies new airplanes in line with legislation passed by Congress after two fatal Boeing 737 MAX crashes that killed 346 people.
Lawmakers approved sweeping reforms in legislation signed into law Sunday by U.S. President Donald Trump that boosts FAA oversight of aircraft manufacturers, requires disclosure of critical safety information and provide new whistleblower protections.
The FAA said in a statement it “will work to implement the changes as directed by Congress. The FAA is committed to continuous advancement of aviation safety and improving our organization, processes, and culture.”
Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican who chairs the Commerce Committee, said in an opinion piece Monday the law “will take steps to protect against manufacturers placing undue pressure on employees during the certification process.”
Wicker added the law “should help restore the safety culture in the FAA.”
An FAA survey released in August found some safety employees reported facing “strong” external pressure from industry and raised alarms the agency does not always prioritize air safety.
The FAA lifted the 20-month grounding of the 737 MAX last month. The MAX is set to resume U.S. commercial passenger flights Tuesday, when American Airlines begins flying the MAX on a Miami to New York flight.
The legislation requires an independent review of Boeing’s safety culture.
Boeing, which faces an ongoing criminal investigation into the MAX, has not commented on the new law.
The FAA must report to Congress on implementation of recommendations issued after the 737 MAX crashes.
“You can’t legislate cultural change, but we’re darn sure going to try to increase the safety goals,” Senator Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, said in an interview.
The law repeals rules allowing FAA employees to receive bonuses or other financial incentive based on meeting manufacturer-driven certification schedules or quotas.
“We’re not going to pay people at the FAA to move planes faster,” Cantwell said. “This is about getting safety right.”
The law authorizes civil penalties against aviation manufacturer supervisors who interfere with employees acting on behalf of the FAA, authorizes new resources for FAA to add key technical staff and requires it to review pilot-training.
The United States has not had a fatal U.S. passenger airline crash since February 2009 and only one fatality due to a U.S. passenger airline accident in that period. The FAA credited the decline in fatalities in part “because the FAA established robust information-sharing programs throughout the aviation industry that encouraged openness.”
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Stephen Coates)
In September this year, India passed three farm laws amidst parliamentary uproar. The laws have been met with much resistance, eliciting protests from farmers who have marched to New Delhi from the states surrounding the nation’s capital. Notwithstanding the optics, India’s farm laws bring about long anticipated and much needed agricultural reforms. However, the Modi government’s commitment to farmers’ welfare will be tested in its ability to communicate and build bridges with the Indian farmer. And ultimately, the success of the farm bills will be determined by the existence of a conducive agricultural ecosystem.
The new laws usher in long awaited reforms that have been part of the agricultural reform thinking for two decades, when the Shankarlal Guru Committee first advocated for a more liberal agricultural marketing structure. The earlier laws created structural problems and led to market distortions which are now finally being addressed.
The prior laws disincentivized private participation, for example. The listing of agricultural commodities under the ECA prevented their bulk procurement. Since the ECA applies uniformly to the supply chain, it has disincentivized private entry into agriculture due to unpredictability of regulations and threats of stockpile expropriation while creating a grey market of middlemen. Stockpiling limits also create a significant risk to the agriculture food processing industry and achieving economies of scale in agriculture.
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They also led to poor investment in storage infrastructure. Due to frequent stock limits, there has not been adequate investment in storage infrastructure. India’s storage ecosystem is inadequate, its cold storage infrastructure is nascent, fragmented, and unorganized, and there is widespread wastage of food.
Furthermore, the prior laws thwarted exports. Products under ECA were subjected to a number of restrictions, including banning export of such commodities.
And lastly, they created a restrictive market. Under the prior laws, farmers were required to sell their produce only to the registered traders in Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs).
The farmers’ concern surrounding these new laws is centered around fears of doing away with government procurement or the minimum support price (MSP) regime, corporatization of agriculture, and the collapse of the APMCs. There are significant vested interests that may be anxious of changes to the status quo, which includes states like Punjab and Haryana which are leading the protests and are major beneficiaries of revenues from APMCs. But the farmers’ fears also have some legitimacy.
The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 states that in the case of a dispute, farmers and traders can approach the subdivisional magistrate, with appeals being referred to the additional collector or collector. Here, there is some merit in the farmers’ demand for keeping dispute resolution within the purview of the judiciary rather than the executive. Farmers are also concerned that these reforms could lead to a repeal of the MSP floor pricing. These specific legislative reforms do not alter the MSP regime, but due to misinformation or future reform considerations, the status of MSP has been included in the list of grievances. Also, disparities between different farmers could increase with these legislative changes. Some proactive farmers will modernize under these new rules and take advantage of a more flexible system, while other farmers prefer to stick with the traditional model they know well, even if it becomes less remunerative.
There have been voices within the government that want to do away with the MSP regime as the government ends up procuring more than it needs for consumption and the benefits of the regime are availed by merely 6 percent of the farmers. Similarly, some degree of corporatization of agriculture may be a necessity to improve agricultural productivity. India’s agricultural scenario is not very encouraging with about 55 percent of the total workforce engaged in agriculture and allied sectors while the contribution to the country’s gross value added (GVA) is merely 16 percent. The Indian farmers’ average land-holding size is less than 2 acres and contract farming can increase land holding and ensure some part of the currently engaged workforce migrates to other sectors of the economy.
Communicating these bitter truths that may, in the short-term, inconvenience some farmers is not an easy task. But the government also did its share to raise suspicion through the manner in which it implemented these reforms. The government passed the bills in the parliament in September through a mere voice vote amidst parliamentary uproar, it refused to refer the bills to parliamentary committees, did not engage farmers’ group in consultations, and initially ignored the farmers’ protests. Thus, it is unsurprising that there is a trust deficit between the protesting farmers and the government.
The Road to Reconciliation
One way to address the trust deficit and overcome the present deadlock is to provide assurances, even if it means amending the present laws. Assurances can ease farmers’ fears without diluting the agricultural reforms. For example, providing a written guarantee of MSP procurement by creating a new law may be cumbersome or even unnecessary but signals a willingness on the part of the government to meet the protestors half way. Similarly, the dispute resolution mechanism in the existing laws can be brought within the ambit of the judiciary – either directly or by creating an agricultural disputes tribunal. The government has signaled it is willing to make changes within the laws and provide reasonable assurances. However, it has not necessarily taken any concrete steps in that direction.
Finally, while the farm bills are positive, the government must not lose sight of the fact that no reform is a magic bullet. Ultimately, the success of these reforms will be decided by the agricultural ecosystem and how receptive it is to the new reforms. Reforms will yield fruits when they are accompanied by large scale investment in agricultural infrastructure – both public and private. Farmers will reap the benefits of contract farming and competitive markets when they have enough bargaining power by being organized into farmer producer organizations. A competitive and free market will be established when there is adequate market density with private markets emerging alongside the existing APMCs.
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Mahatma Gandhi famously said that you cannot achieve durable reform by becoming impatient. The government may genuinely have the farmers’ interest in its heart, but this needs to be communicated to the farmers who are the main beneficiaries of these reforms. Being patient with the Indian farmer and making accommodation to alleviate her fears is one way the government can successfully instrument key reforms within Indian agriculture.
Kriti Upadhyaya is a research associate for the CSIS Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies, where she specializes in Indian federal economic reforms and maintains CSIS’s India Reforms Scorecard. Full bio here.
Proposition Might Put Australia A Leader In Online Safety
A new social media reform proposed by the federal government to mandate internet service providers and social media companies such as Facebook to be blocked if they do not remove harmful content on time.
This proposition is currently under consultation up until February next year and would require platforms to remove severely harmful, abusive or bullying content within 24 hours, or else face restrictions within Australia. As of the current law, extractions of said contents are within 48 hours.
Should websites or apps be found negligent on taking down notices for sensitive contents, legislation with the government authority over search engines, like Google and app stores like iTunes, to remove access to service.
This bill specifically supports a fortified protection for adults, which includes giving Australia’s eSafety commissioner the power to reveal identities behind fake or anonymous profile targeting vulnerable users and spreading harmful content.
In a statement by the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, it reads. “The internet has brought great social, educational and economic benefits. But just as a small proportion of human interactions go wrong offline, so too are there risks online. By establishing proper protections to help keep Australians safe online, we can in turn help Australians to realize the substantial benefits that come from using the internet.”
More so, the eSafety Commissioner will have a better website blocking power, which could be utilized in the surfacing of a crisis event where violent or terrorist material is being spread online.
Enshrined in the law will be a set of core basic online safety expectations. If this bill is passed, this will be considered as the world’s first.
As the department pointed out, “It is the primary responsibility of the digital technology industry to create products and services that Australians can use safely. However, experience has shown that many platforms lack the built-in safety features required or fail to appropriately enforce their terms of service. “
Hence, the Government established the eSafety Commissioner in 2015 to serve as a safety net for instances that platforms fall short in the safety of their users. This comes in a bid to make Australia a world leader in online safety regulations.
Regional Victorian families who have lost children to suicide are speaking out about the state’s “broken” mental health system and the need for more acute care outside of the city.
The final report of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, due in February, will come too late for the Farrell family from Willow Grove in the state’s east.
Bryce Farrell died by suicide on November 5, 2018, aged 28.
His death came after multiple visits to a regional hospital mental health ward, day clinics, and regular telephone contact with a community mental health service.
When her son was in crisis, Dianne Farrell said she spent a day ringing every psychologist’s office east of Melbourne but could not get in to see anyone.
“He had nowhere to go where he felt valued and respected as a human being,” she said.
Bryce Farrell’s mental health
Mr Farrell was about to finish his honours degree in psychology when he fell into a deep state of depression and anxiety.
He was a talented musician, skateboarder, he counselled youth in the Latrobe Valley, and his regular message was “go easy on yourself”.
In November 2017 he was admitted for the first time to Flynn, Latrobe Regional Hospital’s acute mental health ward, after his family found a note indicating he was contemplating suicide.
He spent a week in the Flynn ward and his family says he used the time to reflect.
“It was a calm, quiet place. Staff befriended him, they had time. There were other people in there, not too many,” Mrs Farrell said.
However, the second time was different. Mr Farrell was admitted after reaching crisis point in March 2018.
According to Mrs Farrell, he quickly became terrified of patients who had been admitted for drug dependency. She said he was too scared to leave his room, even when his parents came to visit.
“It was horrific, absolutely horrific. Someone with a mental health condition is busy keeping themselves safe. They don’t need to be keeping themselves safe from other external forces,” Mrs Farrell said.
“I hated leaving him there, really I did. I would cry. It was just terrible.”
After leaving Flynn, Mr Farrell dropped out of his university course and took up a job with a friend’s business.
A few months later, his mental health declined. His parents believe his experience in Flynn made him feel as though there was nowhere he could turn for help.
“I didn’t realise he was reaching crisis point again … One day he came out and started yelling and saying ‘I’ll never go back there again [the Flynn mental health ward], I’ll never go back there again’,” Mrs Farrell said.
“He was shaken, it shook him a lot, he was wrecked.
On a particularly bad day, Mrs Farrell was able to get her son into a mental health day clinic in Warragul, where he saw a psychologist he really connected with.
“This guy got some pretty dark thoughts out of Bryce … what came out of that poor boy’s mouth was just heartbreaking,” Mrs Farrell said.
The next time he reached crisis point, Mrs Farrell was told by the receptionist their address — 30 kilometres outside of Warragul — prohibited them from attending the clinic because they were not in the right catchment area.
McGorry says acute mental health wards challenged
Patrick McGorry, chair of the expert advisory committee to the royal commission said, like other acute mental health wards in Victoria, Flynn did not offer the therapeutic care needed to properly treat patients like Mr Farrell.
In the months leading up to Bryce Farrell’s death, he was on a suicide watch list. He was in contact with a psychiatric nurse based at Latrobe Valley Community Mental Health Services who would ring him to check in.
When they rang, Mr Farrell said he was fine and was busy with work. His family believe he would have been better served by a regular face-to-face service.
“His face would have told you he is not well,” Mrs Farrell said.
“He put on weight, his face rounded up, his eyes became glassy and vacant and so he was gearing up for suicide.”
Professor McGorry said adequate treatment was not available, regardless of whether patients had supportive parents, like the Farrells.
“I think that even if you’ve got incredibly supportive parents, and a good family and a treatable illness, currently, you can’t get the treatment that you need,” he said.
“That doesn’t happen for any other condition apart from mental illness.”
The Farrells hope better services will be available for people in Gippsland after the royal commission delivers its final report.
Hospital makes submission to commission
In a written response, Latrobe Regional Hospital executive director of mental health Cayte Hoppner did not answer specific questions about conditions within the Flynn ward.
Ms Hoppner acknowledged the number of people who suicided in rural and regional Victoria was higher than metropolitan areas and said she was proud of the work her staff did daily in “what is often a complex and challenging environment”.
She said she hoped the royal commission would result in a better model of care.
“LRH has provided an independent submission to the royal commission recommending an investment in the implementation of a ‘stepped model of care’ that supports early intervention, prevention, community treatment and alternatives to hospitalisation.”
Recommendations outlined in the commission’s interim report released in November support a residential mental health service, designed and delivered by people with lived experience.
An expansion of follow-up care for people who had attempted suicide has also been recommended, which the commission’s chair Penny Armytage said needed urgent attention rather than waiting until 2021.
“Hopefully something will come of it and eventually they’ll have something separate just for people suffering mental illnesses,” Mrs Farrell said.
Gavin Scurr, the managing director of Piñata farms, which grows strawberries, raspberries, bananas, pineapples and mangoes across farms in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Tasmania, says he is short of workers “at all of our sites”.
In October, about 1,000 tonnes of strawberries were left to rot across Piñata’s farms in Queensland because there was no one to pick them.
The labour shortage affecting Piñata is symptomatic of a crisis rumbling through Australia’s fruit industry, after border restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic kept backpackers – traditionally the dominant picking workforce – out of the country.
The industry has already counted fruit crop losses worth more than $22m and predicts continued wastage if it can’t secure 26,000 more workers by March.
But it’s not just this year. The immediate crisis points to longer term structural problems in an industry where workers report low wages and underpayment, and large retailers are blamed for driving down farm-gate prices. Retailers in turn say consumers will not wear higher prices.
So what can be done to improve the conditions of those who produce Australia’s summer fix of cheap, abundant, top quality fresh fruit?
Can local workers fill the gap?
Scurr says most locals who have applied for work at his farms find “the reward of getting paid is not sufficient for them to continue with the constant work”.
He says he has inducted and trained several local workers in recent weeks who then left after realising how demanding picking work was.
“Once they get to the field they maybe stayed for five minutes, and then they walk to their cars and drive off.
“The bulk of locals who have come here don’t make it through their first day,” he says, although some workers from the local area who joined during the pandemic have continued working for three months.
Michael Rose, a research fellow at the Australian National University who has studied fruit picking in Australia, says the industry has always relied on people travelling for work.
“This whole idea that Australians are too lazy is a judgmental myth. The reality is that immigrants and mobile labour have long picked our fruit.”
Before the pandemic, two main types of foreigners picked fruit in Australia. Pickers on the government’s seasonal worker program typically come from Pacific countries, with accommodation provided by government-sanctioned growers for guaranteed stints of up to nine months.
Rose says the program is successful because it provides attractive wages, given the cost of living in the pickers’ home countries, as well as certainty for workers that they will be moved to other farms once a harvest ends. Many workers return each year to the same growers, he says.
Some pickers on the program have either remained in Australia throughout the pandemic or have been allowed to enter the country in smaller numbers.
The much larger category is working holidaymakers – often backpackers – who must complete 88 days of regional farm work to extend their visas for a second year. Rose says these workers are generally suitable for shorter harvests of fruit, such as berries, as they aren’t looking for year-round work.
Australian Bureau of Statistics data on the industry’s pre-pandemic workforce shows of the 65,000 harvesters working around the country in 2019, 52,000 were on working holidaymaker visas, while 8,000 were on the seasonal worker program, and only 5,000 were Australian citizens and permanent residents.
Michael Rogers, chief executive of the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance, acknowledges the shortfall of younger, temporary workers and believes government incentives must be made much more specific to target younger, fitter and “adventurous” Australians who are in a position to relocate temporarily.
In the first six weeks of the government’s scheme offering up to $6,000 in accommodation and transport to relocate for picking work, just 253 Australians took advantage of the scheme.
“We’ve got to have an open conversation about this,” Rogers says. “Someone living in Melbourne or Sydney is unlikely to move for any kind of work but particularly for work that is temporary … fruit harvests can be as short as six weeks.
“Even if you’re unemployed, if you’re offered a temporary retail job that’s in your city, it’s a fairly rational decision to take the retail job over moving to pick for a few weeks,” he says, noting it’s unrealistic to expect people to break leases or pay rent in a city while temporary relocating for harvesting jobs.
The produce alliance, which includes giant Costa Group and other members responsible for half the fruit and vegetable industry’s annual turnover of $9.1bn, is pushing for a new “harvest work visa” to bring in 10,000 foreign workers for shorter harvests and fill the gaps between longer-term seasonal worker program visa holders and the dwindling supply of backpackers completing their regional stints.
Rogers is also exploring virtual reality training sessions in capital cities to prepare potential pickers for the harsh reality of harvesting. He hopes this will help convince those attracted to the type of work and weed out those unprepared to commit to a full harvest.
‘Centrepiece for exploitation’
It seems logical that paying higher wages for fruit picking might help attract more local workers. But unions, growers, industry analysts and the government are at odds over the significance of the role of wages.
This week the Australian Workers’ Union put forward a proposal to secure a $25 an a hour minimum wage for casual pickers after a report it commissioned found workers on some blueberry farms were earning as little as $3 an hour on piece rates – pay based on how much they pick.
The report savaged the rise of labour-hire firms in supplying harvest workers to farms, with the national secretary of the AWU, Daniel Walton, describing the industry as the “centrepiece for exploitation in this country”.
The union’s proposal would still allow employers to pay piece rates but only if the amount earned exceeds the proposed minimum of $25 an hour.
On Wednesday, the agriculture minister, David Littleproud, said he was “not against what [the AWU] are putting forward” but criticised the union’s legal push for allegedly misrepresenting how widespread underpayment is, and suggested its tone might discourage Australians from picking fruit.
“They’re generalising the fact that there is a minority that have cut corners and have done the wrong thing and they should be weeded out; they are a cancer within agriculture that need to be weeded out,” Littleproud told Sky News.
Earlier, he told Guardian Australia “seasonal workers can make very good money under the existing award rates that farmers are legally required to pay”.
Lower prices come at a cost
Asked about the relationship between supermarket prices and the true cost of fruit production, Littleproud said he’d “long been concerned about how supermarkets wield their significant market power and of course I support any measure that delivers a fairer and better farm-gate price back to our farmers”.
Questions about supply chain pressures on fruit prices were raised by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission last week.
The report it issued after a three-month inquiry into perishable agricultural goods recommended new fair trading laws to address harmful practices arising from bargaining power imbalances.
Specifically, the report found “some suppliers who seek a cost increase from a supermarket” risk “commercial retribution”.
The ACCC’s deputy chair, Mick Keogh, told Guardian Australia farmers’ limited ability to demand higher prices from supermarkets, to reflect the true cost of harvesting, affected the wages they could pay.
“A farmer can’t say ‘look, $6 a box for these apples just isn’t covering my wage bill, I’m going to need $8’ … They’re not in a position to say that,” he said.
“Your apples are perishable and once they’re picked you’re at your weakest position … If you need to move your produce you take what the market is offering.”
Keogh said that throughout the inquiry there had been multiple examples of fruit suppliers who had direct contracts with supermarkets (as opposed to selling to wholesalers at markets) and reported “absolutely reprehensible behaviour”.
“The supermarket might contract a supplier for 100 tonnes of whatever, and they bargain them to their lowest possible prices. The supplier agrees but then the supermarket turns around and says they’ve changed their minds and only want half the order but still want to pay the same lower price.
“What choice do you have as a supplier in that situation? You’ve got 100 tonnes of perishable produce you need to get rid of. It’s tough to say no.”
Woolworths, Coles and Aldi all say they strive for certainty and fairness for their suppliers.
A Woolworths spokesman said “we’re open to contributing to sensible, fit-for-purpose policy development if it can help provide greater certainty to suppliers”.
A Coles spokeswoman said the company was “committed to dealing fairly with our suppliers” and Aldi said it “enjoys strong, long term partnerships with its suppliers that drive value for both parties”. An Aldi spokesman said there was no evidence supermarkets’ bargaining power was negatively affecting picking wages.
Michael Rogers, from the produce alliance, says there is one further element influencing prices that is hard to shift – the fruit-buying public.
“Consumers see fruit and vegetables as a necessity so there’s real price sensitivity,” he says.
Raising prices might just have the effect of reducing sales, he argues.
“Consumers expect fruit and vegetables to be cheap.”