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Warburton axed by Ten after string of shows flop

LACHLAN MURDOCH’S hand-picked chief for the embattled Channel Ten network, James Warburton, was sacked on Friday night after little more than a year in the role.
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The move follows a string of programming flops and persistent poor ratings for the network controlled by some of Australia’s richest people, including the latest season of MasterChef.

Ten has appointed a senior News Corp executive and former advertising agency boss, Hamish McLennan, to take on the chief executive role on March 18.

The former advertising executive Russel Howcroft will take charge as interim chief executive. Mr Howcroft, who was last year appointed to a senior executive role with Ten, is widely known for his regular appearances on ABC television’s The Gruen Transfer.

Since joining News Corp in 2011 Mr McLennan has effectively worked closely with Rupert Murdoch running the media company’s office of chairman. Before joining News Corp, he was global chairman and chief executive of advertising agency Young & Rubicam.

Ten chairman Lachlan Murdoch said in a statement: ”The board would like to thank James Warburton for his hard work and contribution during what has been a difficult period for the company and for the broader media sector.”

Ten poached Mr Warburton from the Seven Network, a move at the time that angered Seven’s key shareholder Kerry Stokes. He started in January last year.

The Ten network held a highly public round of job cuts last year, which it blamed on difficult trading conditions, the impact of the Olympics and its weak ratings performance that led to a $13 million loss for the year.

About 100 employees were let go, including prominent personalities from its news operations, which were cut extensively. Ten’s chief programmer, David Mott, fell on his sword in August, after shows including The Shire, Being Lara Bingle and Everybody Dance Now, failed to find audiences, leaving Ten trailing Nine and Seven in audience ratings and revenue. Even former ratings juggernaut MasterChef is now trailing Seven’s offering My Kitchen Rules.

The pressure now is on the incoming chief, Mr McLennan, to lure younger viewers back to the network with innovative programming.

Mr McLennan said Ten was a media business with a strong balance sheet and excellent staff. ”I look forward to leading Ten through a period of creative renewal and financial growth.”

Late last year Mr Warburton was effectively put on notice over Ten’s poor performance by Mr Murdoch and the broadcaster’s trio of billionaire shareholders. Each of James Packer, Win Television-owner Bruce Gordon and mining billionaire Gina Rinehart tipped in more funds as part of Ten’s $230 million shareholder raising.

At the time of Ten’s annual meeting in December, Mr Murdoch was critical of the broadcaster’s programming shortfalls.

Ms Rinehart also has an investment in Fairfax Media, the publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald.

Ten’s shares were trading above $1.50 a share in November 2010. On Friday they closed at 29.5¢.

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Whatever happened to the middle class?

Class act … John Cleese and the two Ronnies examined social structure. “One of the most important things …. is the extent to which intelligent working people … became themselves little capitalists” …. former Labor minister Dr Neal Blewett.
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Success story … members of the Australian workers Union are doing well says leader Paul Howes.

Just over a decade ago, researchers at the University of NSW set out to find where most Australians located themselves on the nation’s economic totem pole.

The results were startling.

The overwhelming majority of the survey’s respondents, some 92 per cent, thought they sat in the middle 60 per cent of households ranked by income – a statistical near-impossibility, as the survey ranged across all income groups. In reality, around a third of those surveyed had misjudged how far above or below the centre they really were.

”Most Australians have a greatly distorted impression of where their incomes place them relative to others,” the survey team reported, with some surprise.

In 2006 and 2010, the team at UNSW repeated its soundings. How much better informed had Australians become about their circumstances relative to those of everybody else? The answer, it seems, was barely at all.

”The vast majority of people still think they lie in the middle of the income distribution,” says the university’s Professor Peter Saunders, who is about to publish the team’s follow-up findings.

”Almost no one thinks they are in the bottom , and even fewer think they are in the the top 20 per cent.

”When you start talking about the middle, or inequality or distribution, these are relative concepts and most people have no idea … I have asked my colleagues, where do they sit, where does a university professor sit, and they too have no idea.”

This ignorance presents a clear conundrum for governments, particularly if, like Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan, you’re seen as planning an assault on so-called ”middle-class welfare” in the lead-up to an embattled budget. Because if everybody thinks they are in the middle, everyone gets nervous.

Economist and executive director of the Australia Institute, Richard Denniss, believes modern politicians have created a rod for their own backs, with a strategy that says ”no matter who you are, I feel your pain”. It has heightened voter expectations and created unnecessary political pressures.

”Even people on $150,000 people seem to feel poor,” he says. ”How on earth did we get to that?”

Saunders too believes that a constant pitch to a fuzzily defined middle has become a double-edged sword for Canberra. ”If middle Australia is portrayed as hurting or threatened in some way, then everyone thinks that’s them.”

Social researcher and author Hugh Mackay points out that ”average annual household income for the top 20 per cent of Australians is $330,000. This is not middle Australia. Yet there are people earning $300,000 a year, talking in a way that suggests a real sense of entitlement [to government benefits] and their kids are developing that too.”

Rebecca Huntley, of research company Ipsos, which publishes the regular social trends study Mind and Mood, recalls sitting down recently with a group who were on household incomes of $200,000 a year, living in expensive homes no more than five kilometres from the city centres of Sydney and Melbourne.

”What was so interesting,” she tells Fairfax Media, ”is that most of those people saw themselves as middle class. Some would say, ‘Well, we’re not rich’.”

And yet $200,000 a year puts them firmly within the top 5 per cent of all Australian households measured by income, according to Australian National University analyst Professor Peter Whiteford.

The flattening of income tax scales, which began under Bob Hawke in the 1980s but accelerated under John Howard and was perpetuated by Kevin Rudd, may have further clouded perceptions of what it means to be well off.

These days there are far fewer tax brackets and you have to be earning $180,000 or more before the top tax rate kicks in.

”The tax system no longer sends cues to high income earners that they have entered top earning echelons,” Denniss argues.

All the muddy political rhetoric and confusion about who sits where feeds into growing uncertainty about what constitutes middle class in today’s world. Once, as the famous British TV skit with John Cleese and the two Ronnies had it, the tall man in the bowler hat (played by Cleese) looked down on the man in the suit, who looked down on the man in the cloth cap.

The working class got its hands dirty at the bottom while the middle class toiled in white-collar jobs in the professions or middle management, and the upper class had the posh accents and most of the loot.

But in Australia, as in other advanced Western economies, those paradigms have been turned on their head. Today’s economy is very different from the 1950s, when nearly half the workforce was employed in manufacturing and agriculture, many in semi-skilled or low-skilled jobs. Now those two industries account for about one in 10 Australian workers.

At the same time the nexus between education, the social status of certain kinds of work and higher incomes has been weakened. These days a highly successful tradie with his or her own contracting operation in the western suburbs, employing others, is likely to exceed many professionals in income.

”One of the most important things that hasn’t been given enough attention is the extent to which intelligent working people or intelligent skilled tradesmen became themselves little capitalists,” former Hawke cabinet minister Dr Neal Blewett says. ”A lot of them in the past would have been active unionists. Now they are contractors, employers of labour. And as the trade union movement broke down there has been more and more opportunities for contractors to get in on the act.”

Huntley says when she surveys these people, they will ”call themselves tradies but they will also say, ‘Well I’m really running my own business and doing my own BAS every three months”’.

Leader of the powerful Australian Workers Union, Paul Howes, acknowledged this week most of his members were doing very nicely, despite their traditional blue-collar designation. He told the Financial Review that his members tended to be older, mid-40s, and ”middle to high income depending on your definition”.

”The reason why workers get high money is not always education,” Phil Ruthven, founder of business analysis and forecasting firm IBISWorld, says.

”It can be driven by labour shortages, industries experiencing fast growth or union hegemony. The old ideas of where the money came from are pretty well gone.”

A social researcher in Sydney’s west, Dr Kate Huppatz of the University of Western Sydney, has heard similar stories from the women she has been speaking to for a recent book on gender and class.

One student had been working as an exotic dancer to fund her studies at an eastern suburbs university. She coveted the greater respectability that would come from working as an occupational therapist once she graduated. At the same time, she was loathe to give up the greater income she earned as a stripper.

Despite the fact many of her interviewees came from what once would have been described as a working-class background, Dr Huppatz says most prefer to identify as being middle ”because they see middle as average”.

”That’s how middle is used in political rhetoric. You don’t see politicians saying middle class, they say middle Australia because we are uncertain of this term ‘class’ and perhaps even resent it.”

Social scientist Dr Keith Hancock, of Flinders University, also believes the numbers who wear the working-class label with pride are much diminished. ”That’s consistent with the dramatic fall in trade union membership (now around 18 per cent of the workforce) and maybe also the fall in membership of the Labor party,” he said.

Sensitivity around class is why some commentators are questioning Julia Gillard’s reversion to labels such as ”blue collar” in her recent pitch to manufacturing workers with an industry package aimed at shoring up the sector.

”Modern Australia”, she declared in a speech a week ago, could have a ”great blue-collar future”.

To some, this was a reversion to old class-speak.

”I think its very dangerous for any politician on either side to start talking class, or using code that seems to imply class,” Mackay warns. ”Its a kind of ghost, a fantasy figure, its not about bringing Australians together or saying something visionary about who we are.”

He draws a contrast with the Labor rhetoric of the Hawke and Keating years, particularly Hawke’s emphasis on consensus and reconciliation.

”Labor’s golden years in Australian politics in the mid ’80s to mid ’90s were all about a radically new paradigm. This [blue-collar talk] is about the old paradigms. We seem to have reached the point where the message is, ‘Don’t forget what we used to stand for, don’t forget the unions etcetera’. Well the more that is emphasised, the better the faithful will feel and the more the rest of the electorate will drift off.”

Blewett partially agrees. ”Gillard’s is, I think, a fairly desperate strategy because it has the danger of alienating whatever the middle class is, and I’m not sure how attractive that is given the weakness of the working class.”

Huntley says when she conducts focus groups among electricians, or garbage collectors or maintenance workers ”they have never described themselves as blue collar”.

”If blue collar is about physical work that is relatively low paid, you’ve got women, often migrant women doing that work, they are in cleaning and jobs like that. But it’s not unionised. It doesn’t really fit.”

Gillard has been on safer ground talking about ”working families” or more recently ”modern families” though the latter, Blewett feels, is ”an attempt to encompass both the working family and the middle family”.

She has also talked occasionally of ”everyday Australians”.

Blewett says her pitch ”is, of course, very strongly against a narrow upper class, the sort of $150,000 to $200,000 people” but the great mass of Australians may not read the rhetoric that way.

”I think she has been [hinting at] cuts in upper-class welfare or the very well-off segment of the middle class but as with all these things, it resonates further down the chain,” Blewett says.

Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University, believes the term middle class has been largely drained of meaning other than as a way of denoting income.

”In an earlier era, the middle class was defined much more by cultural features than by financial ones; by education, say, or how you lived, the professions, the things that you valued culturally,” he says.

”There was quite a close parallel between the amount of cultural capital you owned, and the amount of financial capital you owned. That’s been washing out over the last 30 years, meaning it’s hard to find any criterion of middle classness other than a financial one.”

Lower down the middle bands, Huntley listens to her focus groups talking about what they think ”middle classness” means, and how they can attain or hold on to that place on the totem pole.

”I’ve sat in groups in the last 18 months, with people talking about the middle class being squeezed, and not being what it used to. They say things like, ‘We consider ourselves middle class but we don’t know if we can afford to keep the second car’, or , ‘We’re thinking of having a third kid but not sure about whether we can put a third through private school’.”

She adds ”They do recognise that part of [their anxiety] is escalating expectations, around things like travel, education, possessions, technology and all the rest, its driven by their own and society’s expectations of what the middle class should look like. But generally they are saying that for certain people to stay in that middle-class bracket, its becoming harder for some, even though both parents are educated and working.”

Such anxiety is real, but perhaps driven more by apprehension about an uncertain global economic future than by the reality of what most Australians have experienced over the past 15 years, the ANU’s Whiteford says.

The increase in household incomes in Australia since the middle of the 1990s was the second highest in the developed world at every level, from the poorest to the highest, he points out.

”The middle in Australia has had about the biggest increases in Australian history” while ”the richest 10 per cent of Australians have had the largest increase … around 60 per cent over the last 15 years”.

Despite this, Whiteford remains cautious about any attempt to cut middle-class welfare at the top of the mid-echelons.

”It depends how you define middle class and it depends on how you define welfare,” he argues. ”But if you just look at our social security payments and our family payments, Australia has the lowest middle-class welfare in the OECD … And if you look at the top 20 per cent of households, we give them a lower share of spending on social security than any other OECD country.”

On the other hand, he concedes that tax concessions on negative gearing and super are skewed to upper income groups . ”So it depends on how you define welfare.”

Professor Saunders believes that, while muddled, the escalating debate about middle-class welfare might force some clearer thinking about the levels of income above which people should not receive direct government assistance.

”Perhaps it should be the opposite of a poverty line. Perhaps an affluence line,” he suggests. ”If you are above that line, you shouldn’t get anything.”

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Labouring under old ideas as the ‘great divide’ disappears

Changing trend …. professionals have outnumbered labourers since the 1980’s.THE language of class lives on in Australia’s political debate thanks to cliches such as ”class warfare” and ”middle-class welfare”.
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But terms such as ”middle class and ”working class” emerged when the economy was very different.

Over the past 50 years Australia’s industrial base – a big employer for those traditionally labelled working class – has gradually declined as a share of gross domestic product and of employment.

In the Australia of 1933 labourers, farm workers and miners outnumbered professionals and managers by more than two to one. But by the early 1980s that had reversed.

The last census underscored this trend with the ”professional” employment category growing more quickly than other occupations. One in four workers in Sydney are now professionals. The city’s proportion of technicians and tradesmen fell from 12.7 per cent to 12.2 per cent between 2006 and 2011. Only about one in 12 Sydney workers are now in manufacturing.

Global economic forces, including a reduction of trade barriers and the rise of new manufacturing powers such as China, have contributed to these changes in the complexion of the workforce.

Consumer preferences and technical innovations have also played a part. Consumers and businesses now demand far more services in areas such as recreation, travel, education, finance and health. A raft of new services, such as communications and IT, has burst into being.

A relative decline in low-skilled jobs has been accompanied by a shift towards a better educated workforce and more high-skilled occupations. This has coincided with a dramatic increase in educational attainment. Retention rates to Year 12, for example, more than trebled between 1968 and 2010, from 23 per cent to 78 per cent.

The flood of married women into the workforce has also shifted the distribution of wealth and perceptions of economic status.

IBISWorld’s Phil Ruthven says the growth in workforce participation of married women – noticeable from the late 1960s – created a dynamic new cohort of double- income households. Many families vaulted from average incomes into what Ruthven calls the “well-off”.

The proportion of income accruing to the richest 40 per cent of Australian households grew markedly thanks to the influx of women.

“Its just silly to call that group middle-income,” he says. For him “middle income” households are those in the middle 20 per cent on the income distribution – that is, below the richest 40 per cent but above the poorest 40 per cent. However, that grouping accounts for only one sixth of household income in 2010, and an eighth of household wealth.

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The secret world of anorexics

Eating Disorders Foundation of NSW estimates that there are more than one million pro- anorexia web sites. Advocate for a ban on pro anasites … Federal Labor MP Anna Burke.
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Woman standing with her arms crossed

Ana can be highly emotional and empathetic. She craves attention, although she often hides behind others. And she can be a complete bitch.

”Get back on track, you ignorant f—.

Lose it, Chub. Lose it. Now.

Cut and starve and drink.

This is who you are now.”

– Ana

”Ana” is not a real person but an identity, adopted as self, friend and foe, the embodiment of anorexia. Her speech is the self-talk and self-hate that typifies a condition that is all about internalising how you look – or think you look – on the outside, and clinging to the conviction that salvation lies in getting ever thinner.

Ana (short for ”pro ana” – pro anorexia) and her lesser known sibling Mia (or ”pro mia” – pro bulimia) are the subjects of countless posts on social media and dedicated websites, blogs and forums. In 2008, the Eating Disorders Foundation of NSW (now Butterfly Foundation) estimated there were more than a million such sites.

Pro ana is dedicated to encouraging and supporting those who identify with the community. There are tips on grim topics such as how to make yourself vomit (known as ”purging”, one involves dental floss and a lifesaver). There are images of skinny models, celebrities and users’ own ”selfies” (called ”thinspiration” or ”thinspo”). And there are heartfelt posts describing good days and bad, and real-time messaging from Ana ”buddies”.

Those who participate in the subculture appear to be overwhelmingly teenage girls and young women – although online it is impossible to be sure – using handles such as ”anything2bethin” and ”beautifulbones”. The tone of the sites combines the language of support groups and their cycles of hope, commitment, breach, despair and recommitment, with a slightly childish emo folksiness (poetry in scratchy fonts, artwork of waifs wearing knee socks) and a rather more grown-up pride in their perversity.

Coffee and smokes

and cold Diet Cokes,

That’s what pretty girls are made of.

Its manifest catharsis is profoundly shocking.

Emma, 21, has struggled with an eating disorder for five years (her surname has been omitted to protect her privacy). She has starved herself (”restricted”) for up to eight days at a time (”No food whatsoever and zero-calorie drinks. And I end up a mess after it. I do really want to stop it.”). She has seen a range of psychologists, counsellors, dietitians and support groups to help her break a cycle of fasting and bingeing, and deal with her related anxiety and self-harming.

While still at school, Emma told her friends about her messed up behaviours, but, after that one tearful night, they were never mentioned again. She feels lonely and isolated. She has to force herself to leave the house other than to go to work, and she avoids talking on the phone.

Having always done a lot of research online, Emma stumbled into the pro ana community at the beginning of the year.

”It’s actually nice to read,” she says. ”It makes me feel like I’m not alone, like other people are going through these things and people understand.”

Intelligent and articulate, Emma is ambivalent about the subculture. ”I go through stages where I think pro ana is a fantastic idea, and I get right into it, I read about it and I look for buddies. Then all of a sudden I’ll binge and then I’ll be, like, obviously, restricting isn’t a realistic plan for me.”

Her life is dominated by the disorder, she says, every day an exhausting struggle with whether she will try to eat normally or fast.

”Even if I try and eat normally, because I’ve developed a habit of bingeing, I’ll still binge. If [that] happens many times, I feel like I can’t do it any more, I need a break. And so I’ll go back to restricting. Pro ana is sort of there for when I can’t fight any more,” she says.

Yet she is clear-eyed about pro ana’s hazards. ”It does scare me too,” she says. ”I [was] talking to someone on there once … and she was 13 or 14, and that just breaks my heart. I feel like saying stop, don’t get into this mess, get out of it while you’ve got the chance.”

Most eating disorder specialists and support groups are unequivocal about the sites’ dangers.

”I absolutely hate them,” says Christine Morgan, the chief executive of the Butterfly Foundation, the national support group for sufferers and carers. Those with long-term eating disorders don’t want to get well, she says. ”That’s one of the most horrific aspects of the illness.

”The sites say that [people] have chosen this as a lifestyle. We know that’s not true, that it’s a very serious psychiatric illness. Then they encourage them to remain true to behaviours that are doing them harm. I can’t see anything positive in that from any perspective.”

Two million people in Australia will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime, the foundation estimates. Disorders last an average of 15 years, and about 20 per cent of sufferers never recover. It estimates the health costs at about $100 million last year, with an effect on national productivity of about $15.1 billion.

Physical damage can include anaemia, osteoporosis, an increased risk of infertility and kidney failure. The foundation estimates last year about 1828 sufferers died. Beyond the mortality rate and physical impairment, experts in eating disorders argue the behaviours must be understood as a mental illness because of the huge distress they cause.

Chairwoman of mental health at the University of Western Sydney, Professor Phillippa Hay, likens eating disorders to depression. ”In the course of human experience, it will be normal to feel low in the same way as someone with depression feels low. But for someone with a mental illness, [it] becomes overwhelming and prevents them from living full and happy lives and relating to other people. It’s the disability from the behaviour and emotion that constitutes an illness.”

Many sufferers are unable to work, have a relationship or live independently.

Internationally, there has been momentum in several countries to ban or attach warnings to pro ana sites, including France, Britain and the Netherlands. In Australia, the federal Labor MP, Anna Burke, called for legislation banning pro ana sites in 2008.

But how much harm do they cause? Emma says pro ana’s virtual solidarity is something she hasn’t been able to find in real-world support groups: She likes not being seen, and the ability to have text conversations when she needs them.

She prefers their support to that of professionals she has consulted. ”I’ve never liked the idea of paying to have someone to talk to. It feels like they’re only doing it because they have to.” Pro ana, on balance, has been more good than bad, she says.

Last year, a ground-breaking study of the personal experience of pro ana bloggers was published in the journal Health Communications. It found bloggers experienced positive effects of self-expression, catharsis and social support in coping with a stigmatised disease. They also experienced negative consequences: fear of disclosure and of encouraging disorders.

Researchers Daphna Yeshua-Katz and Nicole Martins concluded that, in light of the poor results of conventional treatments for eating disorders – those treated for anorexia have less than 50 per cent chance of recovering within 10 years – further investigation of the prevailing treatment protocols were warranted.

”Instead, the young [pro ana] women themselves are blamed for sabotaging their own recovery,” they argue. ”Our results suggest … the moral panic about the websites might not be appropriate.”

Parallels with pro ana can be found in the fat acceptance movement, which aims to change social and medical prejudices about those with large bodies. Both are trying to break down stereotypes that looking a certain way makes people bad, moral or aesthetic failures.

Like Gay Rights, Women’s Lib or Deaf Culture, these are arguably all identity movements that aim to recast as diversity those traits condemned as disease or disability and used as the basis for discrimination. If fat acceptance rightly seeks to de-stigmatise the large bodied, why couldn’t the same be true of pro ana? Because unlike obesity, the experts say, anorexia is a mental illness. The categorisations of mental illnesses, however, are not like the laws of physics. ”Disordered” behaviours can move in and out of the medical/psychological spectrum over time: homosexuality, notoriously, was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1986.

Ethicist Stacy Carter, who works at the University of Sydney’s school of public health, says if anorexic behaviour has its roots in damaging experiences, it is legitimate to question ”whether that person is in a position to make good judgments about how to live a flourishing life.

”If the very nature of being anorexic is the state of being constantly miserable, then it would make more sense to do whatever you could to [intervene],” she says.

But if young women are attracted to pro ana websites, that immediately suggests they need a community they can identify with, she says. ”So shouting at them about it being bad to be anorexic and trying to shut down the sites seems to miss the very purpose of their engagement with the sites in the first place. Maybe a better way to think about it is, how can we provide that?”

Hay says a ”counter culture” of therapeutic applications that seek to do just that are emerging, including chat rooms and ”therapies that can be delivered ethically over the internet”.

But it is not just the technology that enables pro ana. It is also its uncensored, unsupervised nature.

In the weeks after interviewing Emma, I regularly check her activity on her favoured pro ana site. She’s back there most days but hasn’t posted a comment asking for, or offering, support since I first contacted her via the site.

I feel my anxiety about her is well intentioned. But I suspect she feels she’s being watched.

For help and support call 1800 334 673 or email support@ thebutterflyfoundation.org.au

For 24-hour help call Lifeline 13 11 14

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Henderson homes in on shot at national title

It’s a far cry from racing in front of 20,000 at an Olympic Games, but Canberra mountain biker Bec Henderson is still excited about competing at the national championships at Stromlo this weekend.
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Henderson is looking to defend her national women’s under-23 cross country mountain bike title on her home track, in front of family and friends.

It is her final year as an under 23 before she steps up to open class.

She was hoping the nationals would kick-start a big year, which will culminate at the world championships in Austria in September.

But first she wants to add another national title to her resumé´ on Saturday.

”I’m really happy to have a nationals back here at Stromlo because it’s my home town and all your friends and family are here to watch,” Henderson said.

”It’s not going to be the 20,000 spectators that we experienced in London, but it’s home ground and we know the course really well.

”It’s still good vibes and a really good atmosphere.”

Six months ago, Henderson and boyfriend-coach Dan McConnell were Australia’s sole mountain bike representatives at the London Olympics.

Henderson is not the only member of the couple defending a title on Saturday. McConnell is also the reigning Australian champion, but he broke his hand in October which forced him off the bike for three months. He’s only been back in training for 3½ weeks.

He’s hopeful it has been long enough to get his form back.

But he admits the Oceania Championships in Tasmania in March might be a more realistic goal – especially since he wants to peak for the world cups in Europe in May.

”I haven’t done a lot of racing lately … it’s not ideal, but I’m probably in the best shape I can be for the preparation I’ve had,” McConnell said.

”I’m not in great form, but I’m hoping it will be enough to get me through. I’m trying not to get too worked up about it. It’s not ideal and I’m far from my best.

”I’ve just got to try and have the best race that I can, and if that’s the win great, if not I can still look forward to a big year.”

In contrast, Henderson said she ”couldn’t complain” about her preparation, which included winning the elite women’s national series event at Thredbo two weeks ago.

”January was a bit up and down with organising a race and illness, but nothing serious and I’ve had consistent training,” she said.

”Thredbo, the last national round, went better than I could have imagined so it was a surprise to have better form than I thought.”

MOUNTAIN BIKE CHAMPIONSHIPS

At Stromlo Forest Park

Saturday: 9.30am: Cross country – Elite and under-23 women; 12:30pm: Cross country – Elite and under-23 men; 5pm: Downhill seeding runs – Men and women

Sunday: 10am: Cross country eliminator – Men and women; 4pm: Downhill – Men and women.

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Whatever happened to the middle class?

Class act … John Cleese and the two Ronnies examined social structure. “One of the most important things …. is the extent to which intelligent working people … became themselves little capitalists” …. former Labor minister Dr Neal Blewett.
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Success story … members of the Australian workers Union are doing well says leader Paul Howes.

Just over a decade ago, researchers at the University of NSW set out to find where most Australians located themselves on the nation’s economic totem pole.

The results were startling.

The overwhelming majority of the survey’s respondents, some 92 per cent, thought they sat in the middle 60 per cent of households ranked by income – a statistical near-impossibility, as the survey ranged across all income groups. In reality, around a third of those surveyed had misjudged how far above or below the centre they really were.

”Most Australians have a greatly distorted impression of where their incomes place them relative to others,” the survey team reported, with some surprise.

In 2006 and 2010, the team at UNSW repeated its soundings. How much better informed had Australians become about their circumstances relative to those of everybody else? The answer, it seems, was barely at all.

”The vast majority of people still think they lie in the middle of the income distribution,” says the university’s Professor Peter Saunders, who is about to publish the team’s follow-up findings.

”Almost no one thinks they are in the bottom , and even fewer think they are in the the top 20 per cent.

”When you start talking about the middle, or inequality or distribution, these are relative concepts and most people have no idea … I have asked my colleagues, where do they sit, where does a university professor sit, and they too have no idea.”

This ignorance presents a clear conundrum for governments, particularly if, like Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan, you’re seen as planning an assault on so-called ”middle-class welfare” in the lead-up to an embattled budget. Because if everybody thinks they are in the middle, everyone gets nervous.

Economist and executive director of the Australia Institute, Richard Denniss, believes modern politicians have created a rod for their own backs, with a strategy that says ”no matter who you are, I feel your pain”. It has heightened voter expectations and created unnecessary political pressures.

”Even people on $150,000 people seem to feel poor,” he says. ”How on earth did we get to that?”

Saunders too believes that a constant pitch to a fuzzily defined middle has become a double-edged sword for Canberra. ”If middle Australia is portrayed as hurting or threatened in some way, then everyone thinks that’s them.”

Social researcher and author Hugh Mackay points out that ”average annual household income for the top 20 per cent of Australians is $330,000. This is not middle Australia. Yet there are people earning $300,000 a year, talking in a way that suggests a real sense of entitlement [to government benefits] and their kids are developing that too.”

Rebecca Huntley, of research company Ipsos, which publishes the regular social trends study Mind and Mood, recalls sitting down recently with a group who were on household incomes of $200,000 a year, living in expensive homes no more than five kilometres from the city centres of Sydney and Melbourne.

”What was so interesting,” she tells Fairfax Media, ”is that most of those people saw themselves as middle class. Some would say, ‘Well, we’re not rich’.”

And yet $200,000 a year puts them firmly within the top 5 per cent of all Australian households measured by income, according to Australian National University analyst Professor Peter Whiteford.

The flattening of income tax scales, which began under Bob Hawke in the 1980s but accelerated under John Howard and was perpetuated by Kevin Rudd, may have further clouded perceptions of what it means to be well off.

These days there are far fewer tax brackets and you have to be earning $180,000 or more before the top tax rate kicks in.

”The tax system no longer sends cues to high income earners that they have entered top earning echelons,” Denniss argues.

All the muddy political rhetoric and confusion about who sits where feeds into growing uncertainty about what constitutes middle class in today’s world. Once, as the famous British TV skit with John Cleese and the two Ronnies had it, the tall man in the bowler hat (played by Cleese) looked down on the man in the suit, who looked down on the man in the cloth cap.

The working class got its hands dirty at the bottom while the middle class toiled in white-collar jobs in the professions or middle management, and the upper class had the posh accents and most of the loot.

But in Australia, as in other advanced Western economies, those paradigms have been turned on their head. Today’s economy is very different from the 1950s, when nearly half the workforce was employed in manufacturing and agriculture, many in semi-skilled or low-skilled jobs. Now those two industries account for about one in 10 Australian workers.

At the same time the nexus between education, the social status of certain kinds of work and higher incomes has been weakened. These days a highly successful tradie with his or her own contracting operation in the western suburbs, employing others, is likely to exceed many professionals in income.

”One of the most important things that hasn’t been given enough attention is the extent to which intelligent working people or intelligent skilled tradesmen became themselves little capitalists,” former Hawke cabinet minister Dr Neal Blewett says. ”A lot of them in the past would have been active unionists. Now they are contractors, employers of labour. And as the trade union movement broke down there has been more and more opportunities for contractors to get in on the act.”

Huntley says when she surveys these people, they will ”call themselves tradies but they will also say, ‘Well I’m really running my own business and doing my own BAS every three months”’.

Leader of the powerful Australian Workers Union, Paul Howes, acknowledged this week most of his members were doing very nicely, despite their traditional blue-collar designation. He told the Financial Review that his members tended to be older, mid-40s, and ”middle to high income depending on your definition”.

”The reason why workers get high money is not always education,” Phil Ruthven, founder of business analysis and forecasting firm IBISWorld, says.

”It can be driven by labour shortages, industries experiencing fast growth or union hegemony. The old ideas of where the money came from are pretty well gone.”

A social researcher in Sydney’s west, Dr Kate Huppatz of the University of Western Sydney, has heard similar stories from the women she has been speaking to for a recent book on gender and class.

One student had been working as an exotic dancer to fund her studies at an eastern suburbs university. She coveted the greater respectability that would come from working as an occupational therapist once she graduated. At the same time, she was loathe to give up the greater income she earned as a stripper.

Despite the fact many of her interviewees came from what once would have been described as a working-class background, Dr Huppatz says most prefer to identify as being middle ”because they see middle as average”.

”That’s how middle is used in political rhetoric. You don’t see politicians saying middle class, they say middle Australia because we are uncertain of this term ‘class’ and perhaps even resent it.”

Social scientist Dr Keith Hancock, of Flinders University, also believes the numbers who wear the working-class label with pride are much diminished. ”That’s consistent with the dramatic fall in trade union membership (now around 18 per cent of the workforce) and maybe also the fall in membership of the Labor party,” he said.

Sensitivity around class is why some commentators are questioning Julia Gillard’s reversion to labels such as ”blue collar” in her recent pitch to manufacturing workers with an industry package aimed at shoring up the sector.

”Modern Australia”, she declared in a speech a week ago, could have a ”great blue-collar future”.

To some, this was a reversion to old class-speak.

”I think its very dangerous for any politician on either side to start talking class, or using code that seems to imply class,” Mackay warns. ”Its a kind of ghost, a fantasy figure, its not about bringing Australians together or saying something visionary about who we are.”

He draws a contrast with the Labor rhetoric of the Hawke and Keating years, particularly Hawke’s emphasis on consensus and reconciliation.

”Labor’s golden years in Australian politics in the mid ’80s to mid ’90s were all about a radically new paradigm. This [blue-collar talk] is about the old paradigms. We seem to have reached the point where the message is, ‘Don’t forget what we used to stand for, don’t forget the unions etcetera’. Well the more that is emphasised, the better the faithful will feel and the more the rest of the electorate will drift off.”

Blewett partially agrees. ”Gillard’s is, I think, a fairly desperate strategy because it has the danger of alienating whatever the middle class is, and I’m not sure how attractive that is given the weakness of the working class.”

Huntley says when she conducts focus groups among electricians, or garbage collectors or maintenance workers ”they have never described themselves as blue collar”.

”If blue collar is about physical work that is relatively low paid, you’ve got women, often migrant women doing that work, they are in cleaning and jobs like that. But it’s not unionised. It doesn’t really fit.”

Gillard has been on safer ground talking about ”working families” or more recently ”modern families” though the latter, Blewett feels, is ”an attempt to encompass both the working family and the middle family”.

She has also talked occasionally of ”everyday Australians”.

Blewett says her pitch ”is, of course, very strongly against a narrow upper class, the sort of $150,000 to $200,000 people” but the great mass of Australians may not read the rhetoric that way.

”I think she has been [hinting at] cuts in upper-class welfare or the very well-off segment of the middle class but as with all these things, it resonates further down the chain,” Blewett says.

Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University, believes the term middle class has been largely drained of meaning other than as a way of denoting income.

”In an earlier era, the middle class was defined much more by cultural features than by financial ones; by education, say, or how you lived, the professions, the things that you valued culturally,” he says.

”There was quite a close parallel between the amount of cultural capital you owned, and the amount of financial capital you owned. That’s been washing out over the last 30 years, meaning it’s hard to find any criterion of middle classness other than a financial one.”

Lower down the middle bands, Huntley listens to her focus groups talking about what they think ”middle classness” means, and how they can attain or hold on to that place on the totem pole.

”I’ve sat in groups in the last 18 months, with people talking about the middle class being squeezed, and not being what it used to. They say things like, ‘We consider ourselves middle class but we don’t know if we can afford to keep the second car’, or , ‘We’re thinking of having a third kid but not sure about whether we can put a third through private school’.”

She adds ”They do recognise that part of [their anxiety] is escalating expectations, around things like travel, education, possessions, technology and all the rest, its driven by their own and society’s expectations of what the middle class should look like. But generally they are saying that for certain people to stay in that middle-class bracket, its becoming harder for some, even though both parents are educated and working.”

Such anxiety is real, but perhaps driven more by apprehension about an uncertain global economic future than by the reality of what most Australians have experienced over the past 15 years, the ANU’s Whiteford says.

The increase in household incomes in Australia since the middle of the 1990s was the second highest in the developed world at every level, from the poorest to the highest, he points out.

”The middle in Australia has had about the biggest increases in Australian history” while ”the richest 10 per cent of Australians have had the largest increase … around 60 per cent over the last 15 years”.

Despite this, Whiteford remains cautious about any attempt to cut middle-class welfare at the top of the mid-echelons.

”It depends how you define middle class and it depends on how you define welfare,” he argues. ”But if you just look at our social security payments and our family payments, Australia has the lowest middle-class welfare in the OECD … And if you look at the top 20 per cent of households, we give them a lower share of spending on social security than any other OECD country.”

On the other hand, he concedes that tax concessions on negative gearing and super are skewed to upper income groups . ”So it depends on how you define welfare.”

Professor Saunders believes that, while muddled, the escalating debate about middle-class welfare might force some clearer thinking about the levels of income above which people should not receive direct government assistance.

”Perhaps it should be the opposite of a poverty line. Perhaps an affluence line,” he suggests. ”If you are above that line, you shouldn’t get anything.”

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Labouring under old ideas as the ‘great divide’ disappears

Changing trend …. professionals have outnumbered labourers since the 1980’s.THE language of class lives on in Australia’s political debate thanks to cliches such as ”class warfare” and ”middle-class welfare”.
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But terms such as ”middle class and ”working class” emerged when the economy was very different.

Over the past 50 years Australia’s industrial base – a big employer for those traditionally labelled working class – has gradually declined as a share of gross domestic product and of employment.

In the Australia of 1933 labourers, farm workers and miners outnumbered professionals and managers by more than two to one. But by the early 1980s that had reversed.

The last census underscored this trend with the ”professional” employment category growing more quickly than other occupations. One in four workers in Sydney are now professionals. The city’s proportion of technicians and tradesmen fell from 12.7 per cent to 12.2 per cent between 2006 and 2011. Only about one in 12 Sydney workers are now in manufacturing.

Global economic forces, including a reduction of trade barriers and the rise of new manufacturing powers such as China, have contributed to these changes in the complexion of the workforce.

Consumer preferences and technical innovations have also played a part. Consumers and businesses now demand far more services in areas such as recreation, travel, education, finance and health. A raft of new services, such as communications and IT, has burst into being.

A relative decline in low-skilled jobs has been accompanied by a shift towards a better educated workforce and more high-skilled occupations. This has coincided with a dramatic increase in educational attainment. Retention rates to Year 12, for example, more than trebled between 1968 and 2010, from 23 per cent to 78 per cent.

The flood of married women into the workforce has also shifted the distribution of wealth and perceptions of economic status.

IBISWorld’s Phil Ruthven says the growth in workforce participation of married women – noticeable from the late 1960s – created a dynamic new cohort of double- income households. Many families vaulted from average incomes into what Ruthven calls the “well-off”.

The proportion of income accruing to the richest 40 per cent of Australian households grew markedly thanks to the influx of women.

“Its just silly to call that group middle-income,” he says. For him “middle income” households are those in the middle 20 per cent on the income distribution – that is, below the richest 40 per cent but above the poorest 40 per cent. However, that grouping accounts for only one sixth of household income in 2010, and an eighth of household wealth.

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The secret world of anorexics

Eating Disorders Foundation of NSW estimates that there are more than one million pro- anorexia web sites. Advocate for a ban on pro anasites … Federal Labor MP Anna Burke.
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Woman standing with her arms crossed

Ana can be highly emotional and empathetic. She craves attention, although she often hides behind others. And she can be a complete bitch.

”Get back on track, you ignorant f—.

Lose it, Chub. Lose it. Now.

Cut and starve and drink.

This is who you are now.”

– Ana

”Ana” is not a real person but an identity, adopted as self, friend and foe, the embodiment of anorexia. Her speech is the self-talk and self-hate that typifies a condition that is all about internalising how you look – or think you look – on the outside, and clinging to the conviction that salvation lies in getting ever thinner.

Ana (short for ”pro ana” – pro anorexia) and her lesser known sibling Mia (or ”pro mia” – pro bulimia) are the subjects of countless posts on social media and dedicated websites, blogs and forums. In 2008, the Eating Disorders Foundation of NSW (now Butterfly Foundation) estimated there were more than a million such sites.

Pro ana is dedicated to encouraging and supporting those who identify with the community. There are tips on grim topics such as how to make yourself vomit (known as ”purging”, one involves dental floss and a lifesaver). There are images of skinny models, celebrities and users’ own ”selfies” (called ”thinspiration” or ”thinspo”). And there are heartfelt posts describing good days and bad, and real-time messaging from Ana ”buddies”.

Those who participate in the subculture appear to be overwhelmingly teenage girls and young women – although online it is impossible to be sure – using handles such as ”anything2bethin” and ”beautifulbones”. The tone of the sites combines the language of support groups and their cycles of hope, commitment, breach, despair and recommitment, with a slightly childish emo folksiness (poetry in scratchy fonts, artwork of waifs wearing knee socks) and a rather more grown-up pride in their perversity.

Coffee and smokes

and cold Diet Cokes,

That’s what pretty girls are made of.

Its manifest catharsis is profoundly shocking.

Emma, 21, has struggled with an eating disorder for five years (her surname has been omitted to protect her privacy). She has starved herself (”restricted”) for up to eight days at a time (”No food whatsoever and zero-calorie drinks. And I end up a mess after it. I do really want to stop it.”). She has seen a range of psychologists, counsellors, dietitians and support groups to help her break a cycle of fasting and bingeing, and deal with her related anxiety and self-harming.

While still at school, Emma told her friends about her messed up behaviours, but, after that one tearful night, they were never mentioned again. She feels lonely and isolated. She has to force herself to leave the house other than to go to work, and she avoids talking on the phone.

Having always done a lot of research online, Emma stumbled into the pro ana community at the beginning of the year.

”It’s actually nice to read,” she says. ”It makes me feel like I’m not alone, like other people are going through these things and people understand.”

Intelligent and articulate, Emma is ambivalent about the subculture. ”I go through stages where I think pro ana is a fantastic idea, and I get right into it, I read about it and I look for buddies. Then all of a sudden I’ll binge and then I’ll be, like, obviously, restricting isn’t a realistic plan for me.”

Her life is dominated by the disorder, she says, every day an exhausting struggle with whether she will try to eat normally or fast.

”Even if I try and eat normally, because I’ve developed a habit of bingeing, I’ll still binge. If [that] happens many times, I feel like I can’t do it any more, I need a break. And so I’ll go back to restricting. Pro ana is sort of there for when I can’t fight any more,” she says.

Yet she is clear-eyed about pro ana’s hazards. ”It does scare me too,” she says. ”I [was] talking to someone on there once … and she was 13 or 14, and that just breaks my heart. I feel like saying stop, don’t get into this mess, get out of it while you’ve got the chance.”

Most eating disorder specialists and support groups are unequivocal about the sites’ dangers.

”I absolutely hate them,” says Christine Morgan, the chief executive of the Butterfly Foundation, the national support group for sufferers and carers. Those with long-term eating disorders don’t want to get well, she says. ”That’s one of the most horrific aspects of the illness.

”The sites say that [people] have chosen this as a lifestyle. We know that’s not true, that it’s a very serious psychiatric illness. Then they encourage them to remain true to behaviours that are doing them harm. I can’t see anything positive in that from any perspective.”

Two million people in Australia will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime, the foundation estimates. Disorders last an average of 15 years, and about 20 per cent of sufferers never recover. It estimates the health costs at about $100 million last year, with an effect on national productivity of about $15.1 billion.

Physical damage can include anaemia, osteoporosis, an increased risk of infertility and kidney failure. The foundation estimates last year about 1828 sufferers died. Beyond the mortality rate and physical impairment, experts in eating disorders argue the behaviours must be understood as a mental illness because of the huge distress they cause.

Chairwoman of mental health at the University of Western Sydney, Professor Phillippa Hay, likens eating disorders to depression. ”In the course of human experience, it will be normal to feel low in the same way as someone with depression feels low. But for someone with a mental illness, [it] becomes overwhelming and prevents them from living full and happy lives and relating to other people. It’s the disability from the behaviour and emotion that constitutes an illness.”

Many sufferers are unable to work, have a relationship or live independently.

Internationally, there has been momentum in several countries to ban or attach warnings to pro ana sites, including France, Britain and the Netherlands. In Australia, the federal Labor MP, Anna Burke, called for legislation banning pro ana sites in 2008.

But how much harm do they cause? Emma says pro ana’s virtual solidarity is something she hasn’t been able to find in real-world support groups: She likes not being seen, and the ability to have text conversations when she needs them.

She prefers their support to that of professionals she has consulted. ”I’ve never liked the idea of paying to have someone to talk to. It feels like they’re only doing it because they have to.” Pro ana, on balance, has been more good than bad, she says.

Last year, a ground-breaking study of the personal experience of pro ana bloggers was published in the journal Health Communications. It found bloggers experienced positive effects of self-expression, catharsis and social support in coping with a stigmatised disease. They also experienced negative consequences: fear of disclosure and of encouraging disorders.

Researchers Daphna Yeshua-Katz and Nicole Martins concluded that, in light of the poor results of conventional treatments for eating disorders – those treated for anorexia have less than 50 per cent chance of recovering within 10 years – further investigation of the prevailing treatment protocols were warranted.

”Instead, the young [pro ana] women themselves are blamed for sabotaging their own recovery,” they argue. ”Our results suggest … the moral panic about the websites might not be appropriate.”

Parallels with pro ana can be found in the fat acceptance movement, which aims to change social and medical prejudices about those with large bodies. Both are trying to break down stereotypes that looking a certain way makes people bad, moral or aesthetic failures.

Like Gay Rights, Women’s Lib or Deaf Culture, these are arguably all identity movements that aim to recast as diversity those traits condemned as disease or disability and used as the basis for discrimination. If fat acceptance rightly seeks to de-stigmatise the large bodied, why couldn’t the same be true of pro ana? Because unlike obesity, the experts say, anorexia is a mental illness. The categorisations of mental illnesses, however, are not like the laws of physics. ”Disordered” behaviours can move in and out of the medical/psychological spectrum over time: homosexuality, notoriously, was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1986.

Ethicist Stacy Carter, who works at the University of Sydney’s school of public health, says if anorexic behaviour has its roots in damaging experiences, it is legitimate to question ”whether that person is in a position to make good judgments about how to live a flourishing life.

”If the very nature of being anorexic is the state of being constantly miserable, then it would make more sense to do whatever you could to [intervene],” she says.

But if young women are attracted to pro ana websites, that immediately suggests they need a community they can identify with, she says. ”So shouting at them about it being bad to be anorexic and trying to shut down the sites seems to miss the very purpose of their engagement with the sites in the first place. Maybe a better way to think about it is, how can we provide that?”

Hay says a ”counter culture” of therapeutic applications that seek to do just that are emerging, including chat rooms and ”therapies that can be delivered ethically over the internet”.

But it is not just the technology that enables pro ana. It is also its uncensored, unsupervised nature.

In the weeks after interviewing Emma, I regularly check her activity on her favoured pro ana site. She’s back there most days but hasn’t posted a comment asking for, or offering, support since I first contacted her via the site.

I feel my anxiety about her is well intentioned. But I suspect she feels she’s being watched.

For help and support call 1800 334 673 or email support@ thebutterflyfoundation.org.au

For 24-hour help call Lifeline 13 11 14

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Henderson homes in on shot at national title

It’s a far cry from racing in front of 20,000 at an Olympic Games, but Canberra mountain biker Bec Henderson is still excited about competing at the national championships at Stromlo this weekend.
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Henderson is looking to defend her national women’s under-23 cross country mountain bike title on her home track, in front of family and friends.

It is her final year as an under 23 before she steps up to open class.

She was hoping the nationals would kick-start a big year, which will culminate at the world championships in Austria in September.

But first she wants to add another national title to her resumé´ on Saturday.

”I’m really happy to have a nationals back here at Stromlo because it’s my home town and all your friends and family are here to watch,” Henderson said.

”It’s not going to be the 20,000 spectators that we experienced in London, but it’s home ground and we know the course really well.

”It’s still good vibes and a really good atmosphere.”

Six months ago, Henderson and boyfriend-coach Dan McConnell were Australia’s sole mountain bike representatives at the London Olympics.

Henderson is not the only member of the couple defending a title on Saturday. McConnell is also the reigning Australian champion, but he broke his hand in October which forced him off the bike for three months. He’s only been back in training for 3½ weeks.

He’s hopeful it has been long enough to get his form back.

But he admits the Oceania Championships in Tasmania in March might be a more realistic goal – especially since he wants to peak for the world cups in Europe in May.

”I haven’t done a lot of racing lately … it’s not ideal, but I’m probably in the best shape I can be for the preparation I’ve had,” McConnell said.

”I’m not in great form, but I’m hoping it will be enough to get me through. I’m trying not to get too worked up about it. It’s not ideal and I’m far from my best.

”I’ve just got to try and have the best race that I can, and if that’s the win great, if not I can still look forward to a big year.”

In contrast, Henderson said she ”couldn’t complain” about her preparation, which included winning the elite women’s national series event at Thredbo two weeks ago.

”January was a bit up and down with organising a race and illness, but nothing serious and I’ve had consistent training,” she said.

”Thredbo, the last national round, went better than I could have imagined so it was a surprise to have better form than I thought.”

MOUNTAIN BIKE CHAMPIONSHIPS

At Stromlo Forest Park

Saturday: 9.30am: Cross country – Elite and under-23 women; 12:30pm: Cross country – Elite and under-23 men; 5pm: Downhill seeding runs – Men and women

Sunday: 10am: Cross country eliminator – Men and women; 4pm: Downhill – Men and women.

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Food’s goodness lost in message

480 kj …. one serve of Kelloggs Nutri-grain: 30 grams. 533 kj … one serve of Thins Original potato chips: 25 grams.
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224 kj … one serve of Bayview crumbed chicken breast nuggets: 22 grams.

More than enough … how one serving as recommended by its maker looks on a dinner plate.

More than enough … how one serving as recommended by its maker looks on a dinner plate.

ON the eve of updated national dietary guidelines being released last week, the peak body representing the food industry launched its own website, Together Counts, which it described as ”a nationwide program to inspire active and healthy living”. The new National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines contain clear messages: limit added sugar. Avoid saturated fats. Energy drinks and vitamin waters are not healthy.

But the Together Counts program – sponsored by the likes of Sugar Australia and PepsiCo – uses terms like ”energy balance” in its campaign, with words such as fat and sugar not rating a mention.

With so many messages from different sources being targeted at consumers, the nutritionist Rosemary Stanton says the new government guidelines risked being ignored or lost in the mass of advice, despite being based on the latest scientific research.

”Most people are unaware we even have national dietary guidelines,” Dr Stanton says. ”The main reason for that is there is so much confusing information around about what to eat that people have no idea what is true. We also now have lots of misinformation from people writing books and blogs, who are often trying to get publicity for themselves or sell a product.”

Listings of the daily intake percentage of food components, such as fat or sugar, were also confusing, she says. The daily intake [DI] percentages listed on food labels are created and implemented by the food industry, as opposed to the recommended daily intake [RDI] of nutrients outlined by the national guidelines.

”People assume that the intake percentage on foods is a government regulation when, in fact, it is a food industry initiative based on their own guidelines,” Dr Stanton says.

Portion sizes are also leading people astray. The updated dietary guidelines state there is now ”strong evidence of a positive relationship between portion size and body weight”. Consumers can find meals in what appear to be convenient single-serving sizes. But when they read the fine print on the back of the package, they may find it is actually intended for multiple servings, with one portion considered a quarter of the packet.

A 2011 report from the George Institute for Choice compared the daily intake and portion sizes of Australian foods and found serving sizes were vastly different between products, even from the same manufacturers.

”Consumers will find it difficult to identify healthier choices for food products using the daily intake scheme,” the report concluded.

The Institute found a single packet of Thins Original Thin and Crispy Potato Chips weighing 45 grams was labelled as one serving. But the same product and brand in a multipack had a labelled serving size of 19 grams.

Jalna Premium Vanilla Yoghurt had a 200 gram serving size in a single tub, compared with their one kilogram tub, with one serving size labelled at 100 grams.

Serving sizes also differed greatly from brand to brand, the report found. The frozen meals category was particularly wide, ranging between 225 and 440 grams per serve.

A professor from the school of sport science, exercise and health at the University of Western Australia, Simone Pettigrew, led a study that looked at how well consumers understand the energy content of foods. Respondents to a survey vastly overestimated the energy content of fast foods such as hot chips and soft drink, the research, published in the latest edition of the journal, Nutrition and Dietetics found.

It suggests that consumers know fast foods are unhealthy, but are confused by the concept of food energy and how much certain foods contribute to their overall intake.

That is perhaps understandable, Pettigrew says, given food companies prominently feature healthier components of their products on labels, like calcium and protein, without emphasising the high sugar and therefore, calorie content.

”We know consumers are confused by the numbers, they see the energy content and it’s not a tangible figure to them that they can put into context,” she said.

”People also don’t know if they should be measuring in calories or kilojoules.”

For this reason, the updated guidelines placed an emphasis on consuming whole foods like fruit, vegetables and lean meats, she said, which are less likely to come in packaging.

”But the other issue is that despite understanding the importance of fruit and vegetables, we all like foods that are bad for us,” Pettigrew said.

So how can people hoping to follow a sensible diet follow the national guidelines with ease, given such confusion around what is in food – on top of the fact that for many, junk food just tastes plain good?

A leading Australian public health expert, Professor Mike Daube, says additional steps are needed in conjunction with the guidelines to ensure they will have the much-needed affect of reducing overweight and disease.

”Guidelines are only as good as number of people that read and see them,” Daube, who is the director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute in WA, says.

”What we now need is a strong public education program, and serious constraints on the food industry’s promotion of junk food. It’s hard to go past logic that says if the National Health and Medical Research Council are so concerned about sugar to include restriction of it in their guidelines, then the government should do something about curbing its promotion.”

The guidelines were meticulous, commonsense and based on science, but were not a public health strategy, he says.

”It is now up to the government to implement that strategy.

”You need hard-hitting education to get through to consumers, not soft stuff about energy balance that doesn’t even tell you to keep away sugar, which is the approach of the Food and Grocery Council.”

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