Paralysed man feeds himself using thoughts

A paralysed man in the US has fed himself mashed potatoes for the first time in eight years, aided by a computer-brain interface that reads his thoughts and sends signals to move muscles in his arm.

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The research, published in the journal Lancet, is the latest from BrainGate, a consortium of researchers testing brain-computer interface technology designed to give paralysed individuals more mobility.

Prior tests of the technology allowed paralysed people to move a robotic arm or a cursor on a keyboard just by using their thoughts.

The team at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation Center used the brain-computer interface and an electrical stimulation system that allowed Bill Kochevar, 56, to control his own arm.

To achieve this, the team implanted two sensors, each about the size of a baby aspirin, loaded with 96 electrodes designed to pick up nerve activity in the movement centres of the brain.

The sensors record brain signals created when Kochevar imagines moving his arm, and relay them to a computer.

The computer sends the signals to the electrical stimulation system, which directs impulses through about 30 wires implanted in muscles in Kochevar’s arm and hand to produce specific movements.

Kochevar, who was paralysed below his shoulders in a cycling accident eight years ago, first learned to use the system to move a virtual reality arm on a computer screen.

For the movement phase of the trial, Kochevar had to go through 45 weeks of rehabilitation to restore muscle tone that had atrophied over the years of inactivity.

Using the brain interface system, he can now move each joint in his right arm individually, just by thinking about it.

To accomplish tasks like drinking through a straw, or scratching his face with a dry sponge, Kochevar is aided by an arm support, a device he also controls with his thoughts.

Kochevar said the chance to do simple things for himself has been “better than I thought it would be”.

’18C debate heading down a dark and dangerous path’, says Dastyari

Senator Malcolm Roberts on Tuesday told the Senate section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act silenced citizens from reporting terrorists and instances of pedophilia.

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“We want to be able to call out Muslim drug dealers, child mutilators, hate-preachers, terrorists and perverts,” Senator Roberts said.

However Senator Dastyari told SBS the government had to take some responsibility for Senator Robert’s comments, because he said it started political debate around the Racial Discrimination Act.  

Senator Malcolm Roberts on 18C

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“What we have had now as a nation is a debate over several weeks over how much more racist we should be as a society, and I think it is, and it was always going to, lead down some dark and dangerous paths,” Senator Dastyari said.

“Frankly the government has to take some responsibility for creating a debate about racism that we didn’t need and don’t want.”  

Senator Dastyari said One Nation was in a “downward spiral” of trying to be as “offensive as they can be”.

“I think they are very dangerous and hurtful comments, but fundamentally they are also a little bit unhinged,” he added.

During a Senate debate regarding changes to 18C on Wednesday, One Nation leader Pauline Hanson said she had been the victim of racism and had chosen to not let it affect her.

She recalled an incident meeting with Aboriginal elders in 1996. 

“When I approached the elders, they called me ‘white trash, a pig in mud’ and I was abused. So I just turned and walked away,” she said. 

Watch: “There is reverse racism in Australia”: Hanson on 18C

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‘Where is it going to stop?’

Adel Salman, vice president of the Islamic Council of Victoria, said it was extremely concerning comments like these were becoming common in the public discourse.

“The dial keeps moving every day towards more and more extreme and outrageous speech. Where is it going to stop?” he told SBS.

“What more needs to be said to shock the rest of Australian into saying ‘enough is enough’? This type of speech is not appropriate for a society like Australia.”

Mr Salman said he believed One Nation was responsible for creating more social disharmony in Australia towards Muslims and encouraging public hostility and harassment.

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“In the past they (comments like this) were seen as fringe, extreme and they were dismissed … But now these extreme hateful views are part of the mainstream public discourse,” he said.

Tasneem Chopra, chairperson of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights said she was increasingly concerned about the tone of the political discourse.

“It is disappointing we aren’t seeing a stronger counter-response from leadership,” she told SBS.

“When you don’t see that strong counter-response, you basically say to racists its open slather with impunity.”

One National leader Pauline Hanson has called for the Muslim faith to be banned.Twitter

When One Nation leader Pauline Hanson called for a ban of all Muslims entering Australia, after the attack at Westminster in London earlier in March, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said her comments were “dangerous”.

“The object of the terrorist, the Islamist terrorist, is to get the broader society to turn on Muslims at large,” Mr Turnbull told 3AW radio at the time.

“Inciting hatred against any part of the Australian community is always dangerous. It undermines the mutual respect that we have in our community”. 

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Eyes on rising rivers amid Debbie’s deluge

Cyclone-battered Mackay won’t know until after high tide if it has escaped the threat of flooding from rising river levels.

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Cyclone Debbie, which is now a rain depression, has dumped vast amounts of water over coastal and inland catchments in north Queensland, and the region is on alert for flooding.

The Pioneer River in the Mackay region is rising but authorities are confident no homes in the town are under immediate threat.

The Clark Range in the Pioneer River catchment area has recorded over 340mm of rainfall in the past 24 hours.

Mackay Regional Council mayor Greg Williamson said some streets in the township of Mirani, on the upper reaches of the Pioneer River, had flooded.

Mr Williamson said water level monitors along the river were being carefully watched and while serious flooding isn’t anticipated, residents will be alerted and evacuations ordered if it was necessary.

“We’ve got a really good system of early warnings along the river system so if the waters are rising to a dangerous level we should know very quickly,” Mr Williamson told AAP.

“We’re as prepared as we can be.”

Mr Williamson said the key time for Mackay would be Wednesday’s high tide at 1.30pm AEST.

“The high tide’s going to be a little test,” he said.

“The good thing with the Pioneer River is it is a short river system, so if we do get floods they tend to be short-lived.”

At 8.10am the Pioneer River was at 6.6m and rising.

The river is expected to rise towards 8m and a moderate flood level later on Wednesday but isn’t forecast to reach 9m – the level which would flood homes in the town.

Authorities are also watching the Fitzroy River at Rockhampton, with a vast amount of water flowing into the Connors and Isaac rivers that feed it.

The latest warning from the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) showed the Isaac River at Yatton was at 7.31m at 8.20am AEST and rising.

Authorities expect the river to exceed the major flood level of 16.50m at that point sometime between Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

At this moment the BoM doesn’t believe the Fitzroy will break its banks at Rockhampton although heavy forecasted rainfall will have to be monitored.

“The system is starting to move south, bringing a lot of rain with it and that’s heading towards the Rockhampton area now, and their catchments,” meteorologist Adam Blazak told AAP.

“I’d expect those catchments are going to take a bit of a deluge today.”

Moderate flood warnings are also in place for the Don and Proserpine Rivers, and the lower Burdekin River.

The Don River, which flows through Bowen and was only a trickle early on Tuesday, has now broken its banks but is not believed to have affected any homes.

And a flood watch is current for coastal catchments between Ayr and the NSW border, extending inland to parts of the Central Highlands and Coalfields, Central West, Maranoa and Warrego, and Darling Downs and Granite Belt districts.

George and Charlotte told about Diana

The memory of “Granny Diana” is being kept alive for Prince George and Princess Charlotte by their father who regularly talks to them about his mother.

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George, who celebrated his fourth birthday on Saturday, and two-year-old Charlotte are growing up with Carole Middleton as their only grandmother.

But Prince William is determined his children should also have Diana in their lives through the stories he tells them about the Princess.

He explained in a TV documentary, Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, about how he keeps the memory of his mother alive for his children.

“I think, constantly talking about Granny Diana, so we’ve got more photos up round the house now of her and we talk about her a bit and stuff.

“It’s hard because obviously Catherine didn’t know her, she cannot really provide that level of detail.”

But William stressed he regularly talks to George and Charlotte about Diana when putting them to bed to remind them “there are two grandmothers in their lives, so it’s important they know who she was and that she existed”.

Speaking in the documentary, which will be screened in the UK on Monday, William joked about the havoc his mother would have caused at his children’s bath times if she was alive.

“She’d be a nightmare grandmother, absolute nightmare. She’d love the children to bits, but she’d be an absolute nightmare.”

“She’d come, probably at bath time, cause an amazing … scene, bubbles everywhere, bath water all over the place, and then leave.”

Speaking about the ongoing influence of his mother on his parenting William explained.

“I want to make as much time and effort with Charlotte and George as I can because I realise these early years particularly are crucial for children, having seen what she did for us.”

Walesa urges Poles to protect democracy by ‘all means’

The measure, which opponents say imperils the independence of the judiciary, has already drawn a threat of sanctions from the European Union and massive street demonstrations.

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“Our generation succeeded in putting Poland back on track and ensuring the separation of powers,” the former president said in the northern city of Gdansk. “We cannot allow anyone to destroy that.” 

The 73-year-old, who recently underwent cardiac testing, said “despite my health, I will always be with you.”

“In 1989 we gave you a democratic Poland. You must fight for it with all means,” said Walesa who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 for leading Solidarity, the Soviet bloc’s only free trade union. 

Early on Saturday Poland’s senate approved the reform, which gives the government power to select candidates for the court. The lower house of parliament backed the measure in a vote on Thursday.

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In order to become law the reform would need the signature of President Andrzej Duda and he is closely allied with the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party.

The head of state has 21 days to sign the document, veto it, or, if in doubt, submit it to the constitutional court.

The opposition and protesters are all calling on Duda to veto the reform, as well as two other measures recently adopted which they say increase the control of the executive branch of government over the judiciary.

The opposition argues the measures amount to a “coup d’etat” but the PiS says the reforms are essential to rationalise the judicial system and fight corruption.

The PiS, which began making judiciary changes after coming to power in late 2015, has argued resistance to the initiatives is a case of the elite defending their privileges.

Under the current system, candidates for the Supreme Court are selected by an independent body consisting mainly of judges but also including a few politicians.

The European Commission has warned against the changes, threatening to halt Poland’s voting rights in the 28-nation bloc further down the line — a so-called “nuclear option” that the EU had never invoked.

William, Harry talk candidly about Diana

Prince William has admitted speaking openly about his mother for a new documentary about her life was “daunting” at first but the process has been a “healing” one.

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William described the 90-minute TV program as a “tribute” to Diana, that will remind the public – especially those too young to remember her – of the “warmth” and “humour” of his mother.

But the ITV documentary, to screen in the UK on Monday, will be the first and last time he, and Prince Harry, will speak candidly about their mother.

“We won’t be doing this again – we won’t speak as openly or publicly about her again, because we feel hopefully this film will provide the other side from close family friends you might not have heard before, from those who knew her best and from those who want to protect her memory, and want to remind people of the person that she was.

“The warmth, the humour and what she was like as a mother, which probably hasn’t come across before in many other pieces and from other people.”

William is interviewed extensively with Harry for the program, Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, which also features the Princess’ brother Earl Spencer and friends like Elton John.

Explaining his reasons for speaking candidly about Diana, William said: “Twenty years on Harry and I felt that it was an appropriate time to open up a bit more about our mother.”

The 20th anniversary of her death will be marked with a statue of Diana erected in a place she knew well, the public gardens of her former home Kensington Palace.

“Harry and I feel very strongly that we want to celebrate her life and this is a tribute from her sons to her, and we want her legacy to live on in our work and we feel this is an appropriate way of doing that.

“To remind not only people who knew her, but also you have to remember this is 20 years ago now she died and there are people who don’t even know about her.

“And I think it’s been quite cathartic for us doing it. It’s been at first quite daunting – opening up so much to camera…but going through this process has been quite a healing process as well.”

Soft opening for the ASX on Monday

The Australian stock market is expected to fall around 25 points or 0.

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4 of a per cent when it opens on Monday due a decline in the oil price and weakness in the European and US markets.

CommSec chief economist Craig James says the 2.5 per cent drop in the oil price, due to investors cashing in on the week’s strong gains, will weigh down the energy sector on Monday but overall the ASX is performing well despite last week’s slightly softer results.

“You have these ebbs and flows over time,” he said.

Looking ahead, the release of the Consumer Price Index figures for the June quarter on Wednesday is data investors should watch out for.

Mr James said he expected to see continued soft inflation figures.

“We’re looking for half of one per cent growth.”

It’s likely the headline inflation rate will be 2.2 per cent and the underlying rate around 1.7 per cent once volatile items, such as petrol prices, are stripped out.

This is edging into the Reserve Bank’s target band, Mr James said.

“So the Reserve Bank would look at that and say inflation is still not a problem.”

But investors should keep an eye on the results as an increase beyond these figures may indicate inflation is starting to trickle through and coupled with Australia’s strong economic data, it may lead the market to assume the Reserve Bank is about to increase interest rates.

“So that figure on Wednesday certainly does have the potential to move markets,” Mr James said.

A soft reading on inflation will result in the Reserve Bank taking no action and cause the Australian dollar to fall back, but a reading of 0.6 or 0.7 of one per cent growth will show inflation is higher and the economy is doing well.

This could kick the Aussie dollar up even higher, he said.

Corbyn, Sanders not my influences: Shorten

Labor has put inequality at the centre of its election pitch but leader Bill Shorten is emphatic he’s not channelling Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn with his rhetoric.

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Following a landmark speech he gave on Friday, Mr Shorten says people have lost confidence in the government and growing inequality is at the heart of that.

“This is a government whose only economic recipe is to give more help to the people already at the front of the queue, who are already well off,” he told ABC TV on Sunday.

“My party is taking a different attitude.”

Mr Shorten lamented what he sees as a two-class tax system.

“For most Australians we’re now at the end of July and many of them will have filled in their tax returns and they’ll claim a couple of vanilla deductions, maybe a salary sacrifice motor vehicle if they’re lucky and maybe some work costs,” he said.

“But then there is another tax system where if you have enough money, you can basically choose to opt out of many of the taxes.”

Labor already plans to end negative gearing, overhaul capital gains tax and limit the amount of accountant fees people can claim as tax deductions and Mr Shorten said the opposition would soon announce further tax policies to take to the next election.

Some of his rhetoric has echoed that of left-wing US presidential hopeful Mr Sanders and UK Labour leader Mr Corbyn, whose popular versions of socialism garnered more support than many expected.

But Mr Shorten says he’s not totally rejecting trickle down economics and the foreign leaders haven’t influenced his thinking.

Rather it was the thousands of conversations he’s had with people in supermarkets, town hall meetings and workplaces that influence him.

He respects wealth, but the people who make lots of money aren’t what get him out of bed.

“The people that I want to help are the people for whom the link between hard work and rewards seems to be fraying,” Mr Shorten said.

“The fact of the matter is that the most likely predictor of whether or not you’re going to be able to buy a house at the moment is to have rich parents. That isn’t good enough.

“That’s not the deal which we promise our kids, that’s not the deal we promise Australians for working hard.”

Senator condemns cannabis as a scourge

As Canada moves to legalise recreational marijuana, Australia may still have a while to wait before it can enjoy similar highs.

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The Canadian government has announced it will be introducing legislation next month to legalise the drug by 2018.

But the issue still polarises politicians in Australia.

“The simple fact is that cannabis is a scourge,” Liberal senator Eric Abetz told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday.

“It is linked with a lot of mental issues within the community and therefore to describe it as recreational underestimates the real damage it can do.”

He hoped Australia wouldn’t follow Canada’s path.

Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm, who supports legalising marijuana, said there were a number of states in the US that had successfully done so – without the sky falling in.

“There have not been people lying in the streets with drug addled brains. It has been a very positive move,” he told reporters.

Senator Leyonhjelm said most parliamentarians were back in the dark ages when it came to drug policy.

“It’s idiotic,” he said. “The prohibition policy has never worked on anything.”

Consensus over medical marijuana has been easier to find in Australia, with trials taking place in NSW and Victoria, and the federal government legislating in February to allow its legal importation.

Independent senator Derryn Hinch said he had never smoked marijuana but supported its legalisation in Australia.

“I think it’s ridiculous watching big burly cops with guns on their hips arresting plants,” he said.

He said opponents should consider potential economic benefits.

“Look at the tax money being brought into California and Colorado,” he said.

“We could get rid of the budget deficit in two minutes by legalising marijuana.”

Labor senator Louise Pratt was a member of the West Australian parliament in 2001 when possession of small amounts of marijuana was decriminalised.

Those laws were later overturned by the Barnett Liberal government.

“These laws are questions for the states,” she said.

Consumer confidence decline halted

Consumer confidence rose last week, ending a run of three straight weekly declines, despite weakness in wage growth and a rise in unemployment.

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The ANZ-Roy Morgan Australian Consumer Confidence Survey shows that consumer confidence was up 1.6 per cent at 113.8 points for the week ending March 26, well above the 100-point level separating confidence and pessimism.

Households’ views on the 12-month economic outlook rose 2.7 per cent, following a 3.3 per cent slump the previous week.

ANZ senior economist Felicity Emmett said the result was reassuring in light of recent local market falls and US political events.

“The broad-based improvement in confidence last week is encouraging, particularly given the fall in domestic equity prices early in the week and uncertainty surrounding US policy,” she said in a statement on Tuesday.

“(But) stepping back from the weekly numbers, confidence has been trending down since late January and is now back close to its long-run average.”

A weak outlook for wages growth – including slated penalty rate cuts – and a rise in unemployment, to 5.9 per cent, had contributed to recent weaker consumer confidence, Ms Emmett said.

She added that high household debt levels, persistently low wages growth and spare capacity in the labour market meant households risked losing confidence in the medium-term outlook.

Households’ views about their current finances fell 0.9 per cent last week while the future finances index gained a solid 3.0 per cent.

Slightly more people thought now was a good time to buy a house-hold item, with that sub-index rising 0.5 per cent, building on the 1.7 per cent gain over the previous two weeks, and is now close to its long-term trend.

Inflation expectations ticked up, partially reversing the previous week’s fall, with the four-week average sitting at 4.4 per cent.

Venus all smiles after straight sets win

“I was still in braces, it’s been a long time,” she said in a post-match interview.

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The 36-year-old delivered exquisite shot-making during a rally on match point to eliminate the twice major champion Kuznetsova.

Her next opponent Kerber was barely tested in her 62-minute match, feasting off her opponents’ serve, while second seed Karolina Pliskova also reached the quarter-finals as she beat 15th-seeded Czech compatriot Barbora Strycova 6-1 6-4. Pliskova cruised through the first set in 22 minutes and looked ready to wrap up a quick victory when she went ahead 5-2 in the second but Strycova found life late in the match breaking Pliskova then holding at love. Pliskova recovered to take the final game. French Open champion Garbine Muguruza retired from her match with Caroline Wozniacki after dropping the first set. The sixth seed took a medical timeout after dropping the first set 7-6(1) to Wozniacki and decided she was unable to continue.

“I started normal, and then like at 3-3 or something like this I started to feel headache, pain in my stomach,” Muguruza said. “And then it kind of went more and more during the match. “When I was getting to the 5-4, something like this, I started to feel a little bit dizzy. I think it was the heat? The heat affected me suddenly like that.” Wozniacki has now advanced to her sixth quarter-final in seven 2017 events. In other women’s matches, third seed Simona Halep overcame Australian Samantha Stosur 4-6 7-5 6-2, and former Czech world number five Lucie Safarova beat Slovakian fourth seed Dominika Cibulkova 7-6(5) 6-1 to reach the last eight. For unseeded Safarova, who is on the comeback trail from a bacterial infection that hampered her for parts of the past two seasons, the win marked her first top-10 victory since 2015.

(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, additional reporting by Jahmal Corner, Editing by Steve Keating/Peter Rutherford)

Limp wages growth souring confidence

Australians have become steadily more gloomy since the first few weeks of the year, faced with a weak wage growth outlook and a rise in unemployment.

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While the ANZ-Roy Morgan consumer confidence index did rise 1.6 per cent in the past week, ANZ senior economist Felicity Emmett says it has been trending down since late January, posing a risk to the household spending outlook.

She expects at least some of the recent decline in consumer confidence relates to the weak outlook for wages growth, including the mooted cut to penalty rates, as well as the rise in unemployment.

“There is a risk that households are becoming less confident about the medium-term outlook for income growth in an environment of high household debt,” she says.

A separate analysis by Commonwealth Bank economist Kristina Clifton suggests people may have to wait until 2019 before wage growth gets back to some sort of normality.

Annual private sector wage growth has been in decline since early 2011, skidding to its lowest level in some 20 years at just 1.8 per cent.

There are a number of explanations for the decline, including heightened job security concerns as unemployment remains relatively high at 5.9 per cent, low inflation and a decline in commodity prices from a 2011 peak.

The underemployment rate, which measures people that have a job but would like to do more hours, has also risen to a record high of 8.7 per cent.

“The combination of underemployment and job security concerns means that people are unwilling to push their employers for a pay increase,” Ms Clifton says.

CBA is forecasting a gradual decline in the both unemployment and underemployment rates from here.

Its modelling shows a drop in the underemployment rate to around seven per cent in early 2019 would see wages growth returning to its 10-year average of three per cent.

“It would take a sharp drop in the underemployment rate to around five per cent from its current value of 8.7 per cent to see wages return to a three per cent growth rate this year,” she says.

The latest Essential Research poll found over a quarter of respondents saying the government should be doing more to address unemployment as one of its main priorities.

However, just three per cent believe cutting the company tax rate should be a priority while nearly a third thought the government should ensure big businesses pay their fair share of tax.

The Senate will voting on the government’s 10-year company tax cut plan this week.

Lazy Cyclone Debbie to pack punch: expert

It’s the lazy cyclone that is travelling more slowly than the top speed of a waddling Emperor Penguin.

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But experts say that slow speed that could make Cyclone Debbie one of the most destructive.

The Bureau of Meteorology on Tuesday said Cyclone Debbie was travelling towards the coast at just six kilometres per hour, meaning it is expected to make landfall at around 2pm (AEST) on Tuesday.

Professor John Ginger, who is the Research Director in the Cyclone Testing Station at James Cook University, said the sluggish advance means destructive winds of up to 260km/h would batter homes for a longer period.

“The longer the duration is the more stressed building systems become and the more potential for more damage than with a fast moving cyclone,” Prof Ginger told AAP.

He said most buildings erected post-1985 were designed to withstand high winds as they adhered to standards introduced after Cyclone Tracy destroyed Darwin in 1974.

But Prof Ginger said the long-lasting winds in a slow-moving system put more stress on vulnerable flashings and fixtures like gutters and downpipes, which could easily be torn from buildings.

“The longer the cyclone persists, the more danger of windborne debris,” he said.

Prof Ginger said one of the other biggest threats to homes and buildings was the storm surge, which is where the low-pressure system, wind rotation, and high tides combine to push the ocean level higher and into low-lying areas.

Bureau of Meteorology weather services manager Richard Wardle said the slow movement of the system would mean more rain and flooding as it crosses the coast.

“It’s sitting there picking up moisture from the ocean, it’s sitting out there blowing those onshore winds to the south and that’s obviously going to potentially bring a lot more rainfall,” he told AAP.