Bag Gladstone

6

Look every so often you come across something so mind-numbingly insane, so off-the-planet crazy, that you think you have wandered into a National Party conference by mistake, and in this case I probably have. Warning – some sporadic bad language may follow.

There was this state in Australia, see, a kind of a magical place. Had everything – mountains, sweeping plains, rich volcanic and alluvial soils, endless grasslands, tropical forests, more biodiversity than you could poke a shotgun at. You could run healthy cattle in huge numbers, and grow crops ranging from cool temperate grapes and vegetables to tropical fruits like bananas and mangoes.

And then, and then, it had a long coastline in tropical waters. Rainforest grew down to white sandy beaches, rivers fed by tropical rains flowed to the sea, mangroves grew in estuaries and on coasts. And the sea. Sparkling blue, warm, with astonishing diversity of marine life, especially since under the waters was the world’s biggest coral reef, and above the waters a chain of thousands of tropical islands. The seas provided abundant fish and crustaceans and molluscs, all healthy and unpolluted.

So people clamoured to buy the agricultural and marine food products from the state. And many more clamoured to visit the natural wonders of ocean, reef, forest and outback. Enjoying a lifestyle, if only briefly, found nowhere else on the planet, and looking in awe at the natural animal and plant wonders of sea and land.

Too good to be true? That’s what the developers and miners and corporations and their political friends thought. Queensland politicians. Bet you’d guessed that already. No point in distinguishing what kind of Qld politicians because it makes no difference at all.

Anyway these bastards got together and decided they didn’t want the state that had been provided to them by hundreds of millions of years of evolution and an incredibly lucky accident of geography. Decided they could care less about a lifestyle for its inhabitants that was the envy of the world, most of whom wanted to visit to sample it. Decided that although they and their friends had made millions out of showing off their lovely state and selling its excellent food products, this wasn’t good enough. Decided that if they wanted to make billions, and they did, they would need to start digging up and drilling for some rather nasty stuff that had lain underground for hundreds of millions of years. Dig it up quick, flog it off, get money. Simple equation.

Just two small flaws in this otherwise excellent cunning plan. Getting this ghastly stuff out from underground tended to pollute the farming country – soil, rivers, aquifers. And shipping it overseas meant shipping it down to the coast, into harbours, on to ships, and out through the amazing reef.

But none of the people who were going to become very rich, or their political enablers, gave, and here I resort to alliteration, a flying fuck about the flaws. In fact it seemed that the more damage they could cause the better – one in the eye for all those do-good hippies, and farmers and tourist operators and fishermen. Men? None of them real men. Not like miners and shippers and developers. Men so tough they were prepared to destroy a whole state and a 2000km long coral reef and millions of years of evolution and millions of years of ecosystem development just to prove their toughness. Only to be outdone in toughness by the politicians who thought the destruction wasn’t happening fast enough.

And here we are. Rich farming land being wrecked. Rivers, estuaries, bays being dredged, mangroves removed, ports enlarged, toxic waste dumped near reefs, massive increase in shipping, oil spills, animal collisions, dying fish and dugongs. From the south of the state through Gladstone (now focus of massive destruction) all the way up to Bathurst Bay (Bathurst Bay – if that doesn’t signal what is wrong nothing does). Ongoing and increasing damage to the marine ecosystem and the reef itself, already under great threat as climate change impacts the oceans through heat and acidity. Ongoing and increasing damage to terrestrial biodiversity, already under threat from rising temperatures and increasing storms through climate change.

But wait, there’s more. And this is the icing on the cake, the flag in the National Party lapel. This is the part that has me screaming at the tv “What the fuck do you people think you are doing? Yes Anna, that includes you.”

The nasty stuff they are digging up, drilling for, shipping off overseas? Carbon that when burnt will greatly worsen the climate change already affecting this state. You following me? Wrecking the state in order to send off stuff that will wreck the state even more, in a process the term “vicious cycle” could have been invented for.

I’d suggest that we should take Queensland away from the Queenslanders. Except, and this is where my story turns from anger to sadness, the other states are just as bad.

Many hands

4

At last a price on carbon. A lot of last minute flurry from the coal industry predicting the end of the world (no, not as a result of greenhouse gases, but of an attempt to slightly reduce the amount of coal being burned. I sometimes wonder what planet these people come from, and then I remember it is Earth, just like the rest of us). And a final word from Richard Branson about to launch commercial spaceflights (powered by eucalyptus trees I think but I may have misheard) who was of the opinion, an opinion treated like gold by the media, that no country should ever have a price on carbon until they all did.

The interview almost coincided with the 6 month “anniversary” (anno does mean year, doesn’t it?) of the Queensland floods. Much reminiscing about how people had just turned up, spade in hand and begun helping the people whose homes had been flooded. Later it was organised, but that initial activity was just spontaneous. Occurred to me to wonder what Branson’s role would have been had he found himself in Brisbane at the time. Logically he would have said “Well, I’m not going to help until I know everyone is helping” and encouraged all his neighbours to think the same.

In Branson World no community action could ever take place because everyone would be waiting to be sure everyone else was going to take part otherwise it wouldn’t be fair. But we don’t live in that world. We see something that needs doing and get on with it. I am sure that every single one of the volunteers in Brisbane got a spade and went out that day with no thought as to what others were doing, would have done what they could even if they had found themselves working alone tackling a big black mountain of mud.

Same with reducing greenhouse gases. Each country has to examine its own collective conscience and get down to work without waiting for others. It is already perilously late in the day to be starting. But we are doing it very gradually, plenty of smokos, meal breaks, pauses for chats. Clear a bit here, a bit there, and before you know where you are, mountain cleared. Other countries seeing us all at work will hopefully start to work on their own black mountains.

In later years we can all look back and say “there, that wasn’t so bad, many hands really do make light work”.

Mr Branson needs a bit of a rethink about how we deal with greenhouse gases. And about his plans for commercial space flights powered by eucalyptus oil. Sometimes I think he might be living on a different planet. The interview also coincided with those images of vicious winds blowing down 100 year old trees in the Blue Mountains, yet another taste of how weather patterns are changing and becoming more destructive. Plenty of clean-up there too.

Fishing up the moon

10

The other day, apparently one of the most urgent things that the new O’Farrell government in NSW had to rush to get done after all those years of Labor government in the state was … well, let me see if you can guess. Was it do with hospitals, roads, schools, trains, regional needs, police, aged care? No, wrong, the rushed through legislation was to put a five year moratorium on new marine parks in NSW. Puzzled? Well, yes indeed. Hadn’t Barry O’Farrell talked about using science to decide what marine conservation measures would be needed? Apparently so. Why then would you lumber yourself with a five year moratorium? What if, or rather when, marine biologists come forward in a year or two and advise the government that some species or marine ecosystem is now in big trouble? Do you turn around and say “Tough luck, no protection for at least 5 years?” Watch happily while a species reaches extinction in that time? And how long before demand comes to start removing existing parks?

So why would you rush through something so potentially damaging? Well, because you have a political party in the upper house who, along with Fred Nile, you are relying on to get all your legislation through parliament, and this was one of their demands it seems. This is a party whose members never saw a fish they didn’t want to spear through the mouth and drag on to land to die slowly of asphyxiation. Their need to kill fish is apparently so strong that they demand that no restrictions of any kind be placed on this need. That if they choose to take so many of a species that it goes extinct, well then, so be it. If there is a patch of coast that they like to fish in, well then, they demand the right to fish there even if by doing so they may tip other species over the edge into extinction.

I was going to say that the sad thing about this story is that Mr O’Farrell doesn’t think he can tell these people to take their outrageous demands for damaging the environment and shove them. Show some character. But while it is indeed sad that not only doesn’t he tell them to go and take a cold swim but jumps to do their bidding before even he gets going on his own agenda, there is something even sadder, and more frightening.

On almost the same day that this piece of nasty legislation was being passed came the release of a report from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean who found that “Life in the oceans is at imminent risk of the worst spate of extinctions in millions of years due to threats such as climate change and over-fishing”. The report found “Over-fishing is now estimated to account for over 60 percent of the known local and global extinction of marine fishes” and that “We now face losing marine species and entire marine ecosystems … within a single generation.”

Pollution, and ocean acidification caused by greenhouse gases are major factors, but overfishing is even more important.

Right at the time when our marine ecosystems are most in need of protection, NSW has prevented its marine scientists from protecting them in the next 5 crucial years and probably beyond.

Sad eh?

You can leave your hat on

4

Just a short sharp jab this morning. Not sure where to begin. How about the announcement by Bob Katter that he was starting a “new political party” called (perhaps Rupert Murdoch has aquired naming rights to the new party, just as corporations acquire naming rights to sport’s stadiums) “The Australian Party”. The media was all over him of course – here we go again I thought, Pauline you are so yesterday’s new political party (she quickly endorsed good old Bob). The media will promote style over substance every day of the week. And they will promote right wing parties, no matter how miniscule, until the cows get a vote, while heaping abuse or simply shutting out left wing parties no matter how popular.

What you need, other than a clear understanding that you are well on the right of the political spectrum (your heart in the right place wherever your head is), is a gimmick or a series of gimmicks. Bob Katter of course has his hat – all hat and no policy, isn’t that the phrase in Texas? Pauline had Queensland; red hair; supposed sex appeal; fish and chip shop; a staggering lack of knowledge of history, political history, society, culture; a willingness to do media-friendly stunts; and a willingness to be extremely nasty about any Australian who was unlikely to vote for her.

In this, as in so much else, we are running parallel to America, where Sarah Palin (Alaska; moose shooting; supposed sex appeal; a staggering lack of knowledge of history, political history, society, culture; a willingness to do media-friendly stunts; and a willingness to be extremely nasty about any American who was unlikely to vote for her) was running around the country, media in tow, in one long media stunt, endlessly garbling history (Paul Revere was “warning the British”, apparently).

But the media loves “mavericks” like Palin, Hanson, Katter, and this unrequited love affair propels such people into stardom and keeps them there, providing a constant corruption of real political discourse. It is already clear that, just as with the other two, Katter, merely by wearing a funny hat and saying incomprehensible things, will receive millions of dollars of free publicity over the coming years, more than enough to get his party moving and keep it there as an apparently serious force.

Continuing, loosely, on this theme, I began reading Lindsay Tanner’s new book “Sideshow” today. There is a nice quote in the Introduction “The two key rules that now govern the practice of Australian politics re: (1) Look like you are doing something; and (2) Don’t offend anyone who matters.” Although he doesn’t say so, what Lindsay really means here is “The two key rules that now govern the practice of Australian politics by the Labor Party are …”. For both the “mavericks” and the “Abbott Liberals” those rules are reversed (an excellent summary of the Abbott approach to politics is here).

Indeed I would describe the difference (in both America and here) between the major parties this way: The Labor Party tries hard to avoid annoying its enemies. The Liberal Party succeeds in pandering to its supporters. The latter is the successful strategy.

Depressing prospect? Yes indeed. One day Katter will fade away, the last thing being visible will be the hat. But there will be another right wing maverick to replace him. And the inexorable movement to the right of both the major parties will continue. Which means almost endless rule by the neocons – the real right wing parties are always much better at it than the pretend ones. Republicans and Liberals have hats and cattle.

Rolling on the river

1

The recent Queensland floods (as do most disasters) brought out the best and worst in politicians. Let’s get the worst out of the way. There were some remarkably silly responses to the floods, and I have picked four from across much of the political spectrum to show my fairness. First, and as usual so quick off the blocks that the rain was still coming down, was Barnaby Joyce (speak in haste, repent in leisure, that’s our Barnaby, although I doubt he does much repenting). “Build more dams” “build more dams” came the cry, a demand that seems to be so ingrained in the National Party psyche that they could repeat it in their sleep. Barnaby seemed to simultaneously want dams kept empty to await a new flood event, and kept full to please the irrigators. Perhaps he is a dam half full kind of guy. The name “dam” is short for “damage” Barnaby, they destroy river ecosystems, and they wouldn’t have prevented the flooding. Destroying a river in order to save it seems an odd strategy.

Then came Bob Katter who seems to think that “climate change” only means one kind of change. He huffed and puffed about how those environmentalists couldn’t make up their minds, one day blaming drought on global warming, the next day floods. Bob, of course, blames nothing on global warming, so I guess he doesn’t think anything is changing, even as he surveys the rural wreckage left by record high temperatures, record long droughts, record high rainfalls, record flood events. The key, Bob, is in the word “record” – quote Dorothea McKellar all you like, the issue isn’t that Australia has had floods and droughts before, of course it has, the issue is the extent of those events. More heat in air and sea and land can add more water vapour in the air and less in the soil, and more energy to weather systems. So yes, Bob, climate change can result, at different times, in both severe droughts and floods. We are starting to see the effects of adding all that CO2 to the air.

Tony Abbott, never missing a chance to say “great big new tax”, said that there was no need for a levy to deal with the unprecedented events, that we should just get rid of the broadband network, oh and sell off another public asset, Medibank, as well. Selling off family silver to pay for a disaster seems to me an odd way to manage your affairs, but then I’m not a Liberal. Tony has a very mentally impoverished vision for the future of Australia, but he might have resisted using a disaster like this to yet again promote it.

And then there was Julia Gillard, completely unable to cut through all the nonsense and say “listen guys, Queensland is a mess, the disaster wasn’t predicted, but obviously we need to help people get back into homes, get infrastructure repaired, help businesses and farmers get back on their feet. The magnitude of the disaster is so great that I am delaying, by a year, the purely arbitrary aim of budget surplus in 3 years. There was never any real reason for picking one year rather than another, so the delay doesn’t matter at all. On the other hand if we leave the Queensland economy as a basket case it is going to have a terrible impact on the budget bottom line. So I am being prime ministerial here and making a decision in the interests of the country”. Did she say that? No she didn’t, the budget surplus year was, it seems, sacrosanct, so in order to pay for the disaster she would cut expenditure elsewhere. It was the same short-sighted and foolish approach as Tony’s.

But there were two good politicians in all this, and again, to be fair, one from each side of Queensland politics. Anna Bligh, a premier I had previously little regard for, rose to the occasion as if her whole life had prepared her for just such a moment. She seemed to work 24 hours a day, she was calm, efficient, empathetic. A great performance. And there was John-Paul Langbroek, opposition leader. Did he carp and criticise and complain in a glass half empty kind of way? He did not, he congratulated Anna on doing a good job. He also rose in my estimation as a result.

An enquiry into the floods is essential – land use and land clearing and vegetation removal from rivers and development approvals all need consideration. Levee banks seem to have been a success in places and redirect water without environmental damage. Re-vegetating water catchments and creeks would be a good longer term strategy. As would reducing global warming. Politicians with vision might start exploring the ways in which human activity contributes to “Mother Nature” disasters, and how it can be used to lessen the impacts. Not much vision from Joyce, Katter, Abbott and Gillard last week I’m afraid.

Snake oil salesmen

Another day, another oil spill on the barrier reef. Ho hum. We all know the dance routine. The Queensland (beautiful one day, oily the next) premier will appear on tv looking serious. Everything is under control/not acceptable, emergency crews, taking it seriously, oil dispersal, ship probably won’t break up, this is not acceptable, stiff fines, will get to the bottom of this, not acceptable, throw the book at them, blah blah. There will be demands by those pesky environmentalists for better control of these floating potential unacceptable disasters which will be dismissed because we are waiting for the results of inquiry which of course we wouldn’t want to pre-empt. Photo opportunities for politicians, tropical junkets for reporters. A week/fortnight/month later the ship will have sunk/broken up/been towed away, the oil will have washed ashore/be coating the reef/be settled on the sea bottom by dispersants, the coal will be all over the sea bed/adding to global warming. Tens of thousands of sea birds, fish, crabs, sea snakes, mussels, coral organisms will be dead. Television presenters will be on to their next assignment, politicians working to the next news cycle. Everything will be so quiet that calls for better control of shipping in the Barrier Reef can be safely ignored/dismissed/described as the result of extreme greens/got to be careful not to upset Chinese coal importers. Until the next time.

All a long way from Yass I know, particularly as jumpers and coats and long underwear come out of cupboards for another grim winter on the southern tablelands. But the grim media and ecology dance on the Barrier Reef should sound warnings to us all, anywhere in Australia. Development, especially development involving the excavation and movement of large quantities of noxious materials, seems to have returned to the days before environmental impact statements were even thought of. One loophole is that once a development is underway, has some time depth to it, environmental impact is the last thing on the minds of politicians. Instead of first thoughts being “prevent damage” and “what would be the consequence of human error/natural disaster/equipment failure?”, first thoughts are “how much money can be made out of this?” Once something is underway then you can just keep adding more and more coal trains/ore carriers/holes in ground/roadworks, with no sense that the damage being caused is cumulative and the chances of disaster happening are being multiplied every day. What is a slight risk for one shipment of oil or coal becomes a certain catastrophe when there are thousands of shipments a year.

Both Bligh and Rudd responded immediately to the Shen Neng 1 wreck by saying that nothing was more important than protecting the Barrier Reef. So why did this ship go aground, why did the Pacific Adventurer spill Ammonium nitrate drums and then a massive amount of oil last year, why did an oil well on the other side of the continent leak oil for weeks in another sensitive marine area? Three major marine polluting events in less than a year. If the most important thing was “protecting the Reef” then the photo opportunities (sorry, that should read political opportunism), (sorry, that should read sincerely concerned politicians) would ensure, before a hole was drilled or a ship loaded, that everything that needed to be done to prevent the utterly predictable effects of human error, greed, carelessness, stupidity, ignorance, were all covered. In that famous Richardsonism “Whatever it takes” – whatever it takes to protect the environment must be done first. A few thousand dollars to put a pilot on a ship with a cargo worth millions? Shouldn’t be a question. Tracking devices with alarm systems? Of course. Ships inspected for security of cargo, seaworthiness of ship? Whaddya reckon? Oil and gas wells with built in double fail safe mechanisms, ready made protection against spills, emergency teams with equipment available with a few hours? Is that even a question?

There is talk of fines in this case for captain and owner. The maximum was a million dollars. Anna Bligh seems to think this would show them they couldn’t mess with her Reef. Nonsense. If a fine is $1 million and a company can increase its profit by $1 million and one dollars by taking an illegal short cut, saving money on maintenance, hiring cheaper unqualified crew, not having back up emergency equipment available, then that’s exactly what it will do. But in addition, the fine is just an arbitrary amount of money. It bears no relation to the damage done, which in most, perhaps all, cases, is beyond price. Smash a line of coral several hundred metres long that took hundreds of years to grow? Priceless. Pour oil all over beaches and rocks leaving them polluted for decades? Priceless. Produce an oil sick hundreds of kilometres long through a marine national park? Priceless.

Still, this will obviously be the final wake-up call for politicians, right? From now on, prevention better than cure? Chinese told to sort it out or buy elsewhere? Sea snakes protected at all costs? You think?

And if politicians are willing to risk such damage to such obviously sensitive and important areas, is anywhere safe? Is Yass?

Beautiful one day

2

Imagine, for a moment (it isn't hard to do), that Australia, in addition to the hard graft states like NSW and Victoria, had a state which was perfect one day and even more perfect the next. A state that made Camelot look like inland South Australia. Picture a postcard with gleaming white beaches, extending forever, sparkling blue seas, two thousand kilometres of a reef known as one of the wonders of the world, rich and diverse rainforests with ancient species found nowhere else, luxurious mangroves providing spawning ground for millions of fish, hundreds of tropical islands each one a perfect gem. If you and I lived in such a fabulous place we would I think make sure it was conserved both for ourselves, and our children's children's children, and for visitors from all around the world, leaving places that are less than Camelot-like to spend a little time in paradise, perfect day after perfect day.

Impossible to imagine that people responsible for governing such a place would not set up a system of advisers  – the very best ecologists, marine biologists, oceanographers – to give advice on potential threats to, well, let's call it something royal, like, oh I don't know, Queensland. And having received the advice, would establish the most stringent regulations to prevent damage occurring. A kind of global war on ecological catastrophe.

The advice would cover all kinds of threats. Would warn of the dangers of silt run-off (containing fertilisers and pesticides and herbicides) into rivers or directly into the sea from farms built on cleared rainforest; would point out that global warming was already damaging coral species; would note that fish stocks were under threat from over-fishing; would observe the extensive clearing of mangroves and rain forests and sand dunes for development; would sound warnings about the movement of shipping through the reef and close to beaches, and point out that tropical storms were likely to result in damage to such shipping and the release of oil and toxic cargo. And once such warnings were received the government would swing into action, perhaps declaring no-fishing zones; perhaps regulating pesticide and fertiliser use; perhaps putting a hold on coastal development; perhaps stringently monitoring the safety standards on ships, reducing the number of shipping channels in use, and greatly limiting ship movements during major storms.

The public would rise up to support such action and demand ever more application of the precautionary principle, recognising that it only takes one major incident to undo thousands of years of evolution and ecology. And knowing that anything involving human action also involves human fallibility, and that short cuts and money saving and greed can and will lead to mistakes, risk taking, equipment failure. Will be supported in their concern by all interested parties such as fishermen, sugar cane farmers, ship owners, developers, miners, Labor and National Party politicians; all working together to look after the future of this amazing northern corner of the continent. Oh sure, I'm a realist, I know that every barrel of mangoes can have a bad one that spoils the rest, I know that greedy and foolish and short-sighted and ignorant people can be found in tiny minorities everywhere. And they will demand unlimited fishing, unregulated development and commerce, self-regulated farming, unrestricted shipping movements. But they will be howled down by the rest of the Queenslanders, who are certain they don't want to wake up one morning to discover, say, 60km of white beaches now black with oil, and nitrates dissolving into clear blue seas. Couldn't happen of course (can you imagine!), just a conservationist's nightmare, but we all need to stay alert. Prevention is always better than cure, as they say.

What a pity Australia doesn't have a state like that.

All David Horton's earlier writing is here.