Regurgitator get their roxx off

Regurgitator’s Quan Yeomans is, in his own words, doing the dad thing. “Your grandmother will be here in a second! Do you mind?” he scolds his one-year-old son Bowie, mid-conversation. He also has a four-year-old, Cassius.

Ben Ely, the band’s co-founder and bassist, is also a father to young children for the second time, with a new partner. After what Yeomans describes as their “midlife crisis record” Dirty Pop Fantasy, released in 2013, their ninth, Headroxx, finds them in a far more settled place.

“We were both in very weird headspaces, not as confident in our lives, and not in love,” Yeomans says of Dirty Pop Fantasy. “This record, we’re both married now, we both have young kids – again, for Ben – so it’s got that vibe about it.”

The exception is drummer Peter Kostic. “Got my kids once a week, sometimes for sleepovers … Take them to the zoo, maintenance not an issue,” he sings on Weird Kind Of Hard, before the song dissolves into a long, absurd scat section, the whole band cracking up laughing.

It’s typical Regurgitator, to make a joke of a serious situation. And Kostic’s personal circumstances aside, Headroxx is a joy to listen to, a concise blast of electro-pop, rock, hip hop and noise that often sounds like a return to the feel of the band’s early work.

Sometimes it sounds like Regurgitator are, to coin a phrase, almost literally returning to their own vomit – no more so than Party Looks, which sounds more like Prince than their best-loved hit, The Song Formerly Known As. Yeomans cheerfully admits he’s heard that comment a lot.

“I don’t know if it’ll get played as much,” he chuckles. “That song is based on the idea of being in a really, really loud disco and not understanding what the person next to you is saying, so the whole conversation just erupts into some bizarre abstract thing.”

Headroxx was made quickly, a reflection of the tight constraints the band works within. “The records that we do these days are kind of like thrown together at the last minute,” Yeomans says.

“What generally happens is Paul [Curtis, the band’s manager] says ‘Oh, you’ve got to do a record, we’ve got a tour coming up, let’s do it now’. And we’re like, oh god, OK! And we sit down and we kind of go through the motions sometimes, but this one was pretty fun.”

That risks making Headroxx sound like a slapdash affair, but it does an injustice to the results. The band turns 25 next year, and while Yeomans agrees they’re a part-time proposition these days, there’s a synergy between the unit that only comes from working together for a long time.

Distance is both a help and a hindrance, in terms of both their longevity and working relationships: Yeomans, after several years in Hong Kong, is now in Melbourne; Ely is in the band’s home town, Brisbane, while Kostic is in Sydney.

“We’re not the kind of band that gets together and jams now, because the distance between us is too prohibitive,” Yeomans says. “But we do work regularly enough to feel like we play well together, and we’re like a family when we get together … There’s no infighting between us.”

Some bands fade away, and come back on money-spinning reunion tours. Regurgitator never fully went away, kept making good records, and Yeomans can’t see them stopping anytime soon.

“It would be harder for us to stop I think,” he says. “[We’re] addicted to it, to a certain degree, because it’s fun. We’re still capable, I think, as a live band; we look after our bodies, we’re not falling apart. It’s not painful to play.

“I’m actually looking forward to being a really old band where we have to play in wheelchairs, with aged-care people around us. I don’t know if we’ll get that far, but we still get a good reaction from crowds, we feel the energy that’s still within us. It’s easy, it’s comfortable, and it works.”

First published in The Age (Shortlist), 1 August 2018

Words are easy, words are cheap

Down by the (supposedly) crocodile-free creek that runs alongside the town of Barunga, an Aboriginal community south-east of Katherine in the Top End, 24-year-old Yirrmal Marika – son of Witiyana, co-singer and clapsticks player for Yothu Yindi – is holding a large crowd in the palm of his hand as he furiously strums a familiar song solo on an acoustic guitar:

Words are easy, words are cheap

Much cheaper than our priceless land

But promises they disappear

Just like writing in the sand

His voice is high and wild, with a guttural edge, and he pushes himself to screaming point as he sings: “The planting of the Union Jack never changed our law at all!” before encouraging the crowd to chant the chorus with him.

“This is the place, Barunga, where they made a deal,” he tells me later. “Are we going to make a truth of it, or are we going to make a joke of it?”

Back in 1988, in the middle of the Bicentennial, former prime minister Bob Hawke visited Barunga for its annual festival. There, Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Wenten Rubuntja presented him with a 1.2 square metre sheet of bark painted by nine Aboriginal men. On it was a statement of 327 words.

It demanded Aboriginal self-determination, a national system of land rights and compensation for loss of land, respect for Aboriginal identity, an end to discrimination and the granting of full civil, economic, social and cultural rights.

And it concluded with a call upon the Commonwealth parliament to negotiate a treaty recognising the prior ownership of First Nations people and their continued occupation and sovereignty of the land. Hawke affirmed the statement, promising a treaty between black and white Australians.

Hawke’s promise remained unfulfilled. His last act as Prime Minister on 20 December, 1991 – exactly one minute before Paul Keating was sworn in as his successor – was to hang the Barunga statement in Parliament House. Only a few months earlier, Yothu Yindi’s leader Mandawuy Yunupingu (Galarrwuy’s younger brother, who died in 2013) had reminded him of his promise with a song that became a global smash.

This year’s Barunga Festival was not like the last 29, though there was no shortage of “talking politicians”, as Yunupingu called them. On the festival’s first day, the Northern Territory government, led by chief minister Michael Gunner, signed an agreement with the Territory’s four Aboriginal land councils committing them to a three-year process to develop a treaty.

The push is gaining momentum at state level. On June 21, the Victorian government passed legislation intended to establish a framework for a treaty; the New South Wales Labor opposition has also committed to begin a similar process if it wins government. Negotiations in South Australia ceased with the election of Steven Marshall’s Liberal government in March.

Labor leader Bill Shorten is at Barunga, along with Western Australian Labor senator Pat Dodson – who helped craft the words that made up the statement – and Linda Burney, the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. From the Coalition, minister for Indigenous affairs Nigel Scullion stands in for Malcolm Turnbull.

The first Barunga Festival was held in 1985. Normally a closed community owned by the Bagala people, Barunga opens itself up to the world on Queen’s Birthday weekend in an annual celebration, a rolling maul of music, sport (including a full Australian Rules carnival, played in baking daytime heat), traditional arts and cultural activities.

There are also cross-cultural collaborations, such as between R&B sextet B2M (Bathurst to Melville, a name honouring the band’s Tiwi Island heritage) and the Bunun Taiwanese children’s choir. The Bunun are an Indigenous Taiwanese people known for their polyphonic harmonies. The combination, presented on the final night’s concert, is heavenly.

This year, the political element is inescapable, with treaty talks hanging over all of it. But there’s also a theme: of growing confidence and pride, of which Marika is the most extroverted example. “You’ve just got to push yourself,” he says, a huge grin on his face. “If that’s your passion, you have to open your heart and let everyone in.”

Michael Hohnen, former manager and producer of Dr Gurrumul Yunupingu (who died in 2017) and creative director of Skinnyfish Music, says that the Warumpi Band’s singer George Rrurrambu Burarrwanga stressed to him the importance of this. “He used to say we need more people who are not scared to be really bold … [Marika] embodies so much of what is possible.”

Rrurrambu is gone too, having died in 2007. He was a charismatic performer, the polar opposite of Gurrumul, whose shyness was such that he quit Yothu Yindi for another group, the Saltwater Band, based on his island home of Galiwin’ku. Gurrumul’s original intention was to stay there, before becoming a worldwide sensation as a solo artist.

The festival presents an annual award in Rrurrambu’s name for the best community band. Last year it was won by Black Rock Band, from the community of Jabiru, further north in Kakadu National Park. Formed in 2015, they’re already playing the event for the third time, after shows in Sydney and Melbourne and an appearance at Tasmania’s MONA FOMA.

Ritchie Guymala, the band’s singer, has mild cerebral palsy, and the resulting contortion in his left arm only adds to his commanding on-stage presence. “It means a lot, playing at this one, and we feel really proud of ourselves, [although] we’re missing our families back home,” he says.

“A treaty, it’s got meaning, you know. That will make our people feel a bit more confident, and with the Uluru Statement from the Heart – if we have a voice in the parliament house – it will really make us feel like we’re part of something. And we are part of something, but I think our voices need to be heard, that will make our people feel strong and proud.”

Women, too, are stepping forward and pursuing the same theme. Ripple Effect are a seven-piece from Maningrida, a full 10-hour drive and a number of river crossings away, on the north coast of the Arafura Sea. They started in 2006 as a school band originally called the Frontstreet Girls, a cheeky play on the Backstreet Boys.

“We [wanted] to inspire women out there to feel confident and to love themselves,” says singer Marita Wilton. In 2006, the band won best high school band at the Garma Festival, ahead of another Maningrida group, Crazy Boys. “Race you, boys!” Wilton laughs, adding she’s not sure what became of them. “I don’t know; maybe they retired.”

But the band’s drummer, Tara Rostron, says bigger Maningrida groups like Sunrise Band and the Letter Stick Band also inspired them to start an all-female group. “It was really important for girls to see us on the stage and [playing] an instrument,” she says. The band has an EP coming out in July, recorded with celebrated electro-pop producer Paul Mac.

Jodie Kell, the band’s white guitarist, is from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and has made her involvement in the group part of her PhD project. She returned to Maningrida to rejoin Ripple Effect, which performs its songs in six languages: Burarra, Kune, Ndjébbana, Kunwinjku, Na-kara (which only around 20 people are known to speak fluently) and English.

Kell says many of the women face challenging social situations, and life is not easy, but that “the land is such an important part of their identity and their culture, and when they go out on country they come alive. They speak to the country, they have an incredibly deep knowledge of their culture, and all their Dreaming and Songlines are attached to country.”

In between the music, the politicians keep talking. Nigel Scullion won’t use the word treaty but tells the crowd: “Thirty years ago was really a moment in our history. And there’s been some commentary around what wasn’t achieved and what was achieved, but I can tell you, it wasn’t in vain completely.”

He quotes Turnbull, who says the festival commemorates “a striking moment in the life of our nation, affirming the dignity, strength and the resilience of Aboriginal people and their long and proud custodianship of this land.” He calls it an opportunity to reflect on how we can all advance greater enrichment and understanding between all Australians.

Shorten stops short of renewing a call for a treaty, but not by much. “I say to the people who fear the concepts of agreement-making, of an Indigenous voice [to parliament], of treaties, I say to those people: you have nothing to lose. You still will be able to play football on the MCG; your backyard Hills Hoist will not be part of any claim. The chickens will still lay eggs.”

But in the following speech, he is pulled up by John Christophersen, deputy chair of the Northern Land Council. “We’re not custodians, we’re not caretakers,” he says. “We weren’t looking after [the land] for somebody else to come and take away.

“We were the owners,” he says to applause. “And occupiers. And custodians. And caretakers.”

On the day the Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the NT government and the four land councils, Galarrwuy Yunupingu provocatively said a treaty meant nothing to him. “And in actual fact, he’s right,” Christophersen says. “It doesn’t mean nothing, unless you dig into the word, what does a treaty mean?

“If it’s empty, then you’ve got nothing. If it’s got escape clauses where people can run away from it and neglect it and ignore it, then we have nothing.”

Words are easy; words are cheap.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum), 29 June 2018. I was a guest of Skinnyfish Music

In the Top End, footy’s not a religion. It’s more than that

On a sports oval in Barunga, an Aboriginal community south east of Katherine with a permanent population of a few hundred people, a fierce footy match is unfolding. It’s the grand final of the Barunga Festival football carnival, and the game is being cheered on by hundreds of spectators. A small colony of flying foxes provides additional commentary and special comments while hanging upside down from a fig tree in a corner of the ground.

The carnival has gone for the full three days of the festival, and for the third year in a row the Ngukurr Bulldogs win, defeating the Gurindji Eagles 4.7 (31) to 3.3 (21).

Don’t let the low scores fool you, though. In searing heat, there are just 10 minutes per quarter. The games are played at relentless pace, with little regard for the defensive structures and zones that constrict AFL games. They just play the game, one might say, as it should be played.

Helping coordinate the teams is Paul Amarant, who updates the crowd in between games. Ngukurr’s win is no surprise. It’s a remote community on the banks of the Roper River in southern Arnhem Land. It has 1200 residents and eight individual footy teams, making Melbourne’s old suburban VFL and VFA competitions look cosmopolitan by comparison.

“Whenever there’s a footy game on, everyone comes out – old people, young people, they all sit on top of the hill all around the oval and the noise is so deafening it’s like you’re at the MCG,” Amarant says.

“They treat the game so seriously – every kick, every tackle is watched and barracked for. This is where these kids learn the art of playing footy. They’re dodging and weaving or they get tackled into the ground. If you had city kids playing like this they’d be crying, running to mum!”

He notes, though, that the players are mostly lightly built, agile and very quick. “The contests are hard, but people bounce off each other because there’s no big, hulking bodies throwing them in the turf.

“Down south it’s more structured, it’s big bodies on bodies at stoppages. Whereas in the Territory it’s all pace, high marking, what football should be, good goal kicking. They kick goals from all angles and in the AFL they can’t kick goals from straight in front, and at Etihad they can’t even use the wind as an excuse because they’re kicking with the roof closed!”

As he speaks, with the game over, I watch a kid practising kicks from the boundary about 25 metres from goal as we speak, dribbling kicks through as casually as shelling peas, rarely missing.

A carnival like this isn’t easy to organise. Julie Hunter, the AFL’s regional development coordinator for Katherine, says sometimes teams simply don’t show up. But allowances need to be made.

For southerners, it’s hard to get your head around how big the Top End is, let alone the Territory as a whole, and how much harder it is to get around. For example, the trip from the coastal community of Maningrida – 500 kilometres east of Darwin on the edge of the Arafura Sea – takes 10 hours, much of it on dirt roads, with a few river crossings thrown in.

Try that in a bus with a trailer attached to the back. “So if buses break down or if there’s been sorry business [a funeral], or things happen in communities, that mean the community’s shut down, those are things that we obviously need to be respectful of,” Hunter says.

“So we’ve got a draft fixture ready, and as the teams rock up we confirm them in a slot and away they go. There’s going to be teams come in late, mostly for travel reasons, so we grab the teams that get here first, they get the first couple of games and we move forward from there.”

Representatives from Hawthorn were here on Friday doing reconnaissance; this is part of their Next Generation Academy zone. “They know how much talent there is up here and the only way to get them is to actually make AFL accessible to them at that elite level,” Hunter says.

But making elite football accessible doesn’t mean even the most talented players can make the required adjustments. Cyril Rioli, for example, boarded at Scotch College in Melbourne from the age of 14, giving him time to settle into life in the big smoke.

Amarant mentions a player from Ngukurr drafted by a big Melbourne club who rang him, begging: “Get me out of here.” Disadvantage and intergenerational trauma play a big role. If you’ve been shuttled between aunties and grandparents and are used to sleeping on floors in the Top End, sleeping in beds in a cold Melbourne winter is another kind of culture shock.

Women’s football is developing, too. “We tried probably 70 or 80 girls over the course of the two days here, and the Katherine comp started up last weekend, so we’ve got regular football for girls now.”

One thing that can’t be escaped is the heat. Simple things like lights at the Barunga ground would make a huge difference, meaning games can be scheduled in the late afternoon and evening. But resources are scarce, and in every community priorities need to be made.

In the southern and central Northern Territory, football is played in the dry season, but in the Top End, it’s played in the wet. The NTFL comp starts during the mind-melting humidity of October and November, the “build-up” before the rains come.

In Darwin, the grounds drain well, but “you take somewhere like Lajamanu where they’ve got a red dirt oval, put that with the wet season and they’re running around in red mud, basically,” Hunter says.

“But the reality is we’re playing in the Top End. It’s hot footy and they tend to struggle more when they go down south and they’ve got to play in the winter.”

The elements aren’t about to put off kids walking around in Eddie Betts and Cyril Rioli shirts. “Ngukurr’s got a field that’s got bindis all over it that stick to the ball,” she says. “But they just love footy, it’s their life. I know we talk about footy being a religion. Up here it’s more than a religion, it’s a way of life.”

First published in The Age, 16 June 2018

The great broken promise of the Great Barrier Reef

Tourist cities are built on a promise. When you step off the plane into the soupy air of Cairns in Far North Queensland, you cross the tarmac into a long corridor leading to the exit lounge, filled wall-to-wall with images of World Heritage-listed tropical rainforest and, especially, of the state’s crowning glory: The Great Barrier Reef.

They are stills of the postcards and documentaries of our childhoods. A blooming underwater botanic garden, except that the corals are animals, living in hopelessly co-dependent relationships with each other. And everything living there depends on them too: the giant eels lurking in crevices; the anemone fish, now forever known in our imaginations as Nemo.

But what if the promise was broken?

In 2016 and 2017, the northern and central sections of the 2300km-long reef were devastated by coral bleaching caused by heat stress. Nearly a third (30 percent) of the coral died in the 2016 event alone. A confronting new report released by the Climate Council last Thursday claimed that by 2034, the reef could be hit by similar bleaching events every two years.

Around 75 percent of that mortality occurred in the waters from Port Douglas to Torres Strait. Owing to its remoteness, this was previously the most pristine section of the marine park, the least affected by other threats to its health: mainly soil run-off from agricultural communities further south. The additional nutrients in the water smother the inshore reefs and promotes infestations of predatory crown-of-thorns starfish.

During the heatwave, the corals simply cooked. It’s what leads the Climate Council’s acting CEO Martin Rice to describe the federal government’s recent awarding of $444 million to little-known NGO the Great Barrier Reef Foundation – with the immediate aims of improving water quality and culling starfish – as the equivalent of putting “a bandaid on a severed limb”.

“Unless you address the root cause of bleaching and the biggest threat to the reef itself, climate change, then these programs on water quality and so forth are going to have very little impact,” Rice says. “The future of coral reefs around the world depends on how quickly and deeply we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years.”

According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than half a billion people around the world depend on coral reefs for food, income (via fisheries and tourism) and coastal protection from cyclones and storm surges. Other estimates place the number at closer to a billion.

The NOAA has also warned that without urgent action, the earth’s coral reefs may be obliterated by 2050.

Until it warms in my wetsuit, the water is unexpectedly cold. I’m on the outer reef offshore from Port Douglas, on the edge of the worst-hit section of the marine park. This is where some of the best of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series was filmed in 2015 – before the bleaching – and in it the great broadcaster declared the natural wonder as being in grave danger.

Along with a group of enthusiastic tourists, I follow the guide from the boat across the corals. Near the surface are plate-like structures, which readily absorb sunlight. Lower down are boulders textured like giant brains. The boulders have clearly fared better than the plates, but it’s been close to 30 years since I last visited the reef and I’m not entirely sure what to look for.

Our guide dives to point out a staghorn coated with a thin film of algae, and draws her finger across her throat. Then she points to another and raises her thumb. Some of the staghorns are brilliant blue or purple: a sign of stress. Others have crumbled to the seafloor and are settling upon the sand.

But the picture is not entirely gloomy. She finds us an anemone and sure enough, Nemo appears within its fronds. I can almost hear the sucking in of oxygen from half a dozen snorkels, a collective inhalation of delight. A green turtle flaps past. “Hamish”, a metre-long hump-headed Maori wrasse clearly used to visitors, hangs off the boat.

We tour three locations, all within a couple of nautical miles. In between, another guide gives us a talk which acknowledges the challenges facing the reef. Not all tourist operators do this. She explains the symbiotic relationship between coral and zooxanthellae, single-celled organisms that live within the coral and photosynthesise to produce its nourishment.

Under heat stress, though, this co-dependent relationship turns literally toxic. The corals expel the algae, which have transformed from a food source to a poison, leaving the white calcium carbonate skeleton exposed. Unless the water cools sufficiently quickly for the corals to take the algae back, they starve.

The guide struggles to find a balance between the scale of the struggle taking place below the surface and positivity. She tells us the reef is doing OK, that’s it’s not dead, and that healthy corals are seed-banks, which will spawn and travel to regenerate those that have declined.

But she also tells us about soil run-off, and starfish, and increased cyclones, as well as bleaching. It is, she says, a death of a thousand cuts, but that we shouldn’t fret, and that there’s plenty we can do, including reducing our plastic waste — water bottles, straws, coffee cups, and single-use bags.

Which is all true, but none of these things reduce the cause of bleaching: the rising temperature in the atmosphere and the oceans.

Someone asks her about Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin further south. She says it’s hard to answer, but that overall, it’s not a good thing, and that we should be investing in renewables. That many things are reducing the reef’s resilience, and the mine is just another of those thousand cuts.

As we’re coming back to shore, I speak to Doron, who asked about the mine. He’s 50 and here with his family from Melbourne. “I think I had negative expectations, because everyone’s talking about coral bleaching, and I thought I was going to see a lot of dead coral,” he says. “But it exceeded my expectations. It’s probably some of the most beautiful coral I’ve ever seen.”

He describes their day out as “extremely satisfying, so rewarding. I saw sea turtles out there; I saw a shark. How much more exciting can it get?”

Nicole, a middle-aged woman from Florida is also here with her family. She’s previously snorkelled at home and in the Bahamas. Compared to that, she says, the Great Barrier Reef is “just spectacular. It’s in so much better condition that I thought it was going to be, based on all the press, but the variety and amount of coral and different species of fish, I was really pleased.”

Brooke and Dean are a young couple from Texas. They say the reef has been the highlight of their Australian visit. They’d been told to see it while they could.

“My dad was like, ‘The reef is dying! You’ll have to go, see it while you’re out there!’” Brooke says.

“It’s been a pretty extraordinary day,” Dean says. “It was pretty, what we saw … I got to swim with a turtle, and that’s going to stand above, for me.”

“And I got to see Nemo, finally,” Brooke says.

For them, the promise has been kept.

John Rumney, managing director of non-profit organisation Great Barrier Reef Legacy, shakes his head in frustration. “If you go out there and talk with the tourists that come off the boats, they will say, ‘That’s the best thing I’ve ever done!’” he says. “They just don’t know what they’re missing.”

Rumney has been working on and studying the reef for 40 years, operating Eye-To-Eye Marine Encounters with his wife Linda. He’s acutely aware of the necessity to mobilise the tourist industry in support of its own livelihood. “If we say the reef is dead, tourism is dead, then there’s no money for saving anything,” he says.

Let’s be clear, then. The Great Barrier Reef is not dead. But the figures are dire: in 2012 the Australian Institute of Marine Science estimated it had lost 50 percent of its coral cover in the previous 27 years, with 48 percent of the loss attributed to storm damage, 42 percent to predation by crown-of-thorns outbreaks, and 10 percent to bleaching.

That was before the bleaching events of 2016 and 2017, which may have killed off as much as half of what remained. But the figures, as sobering as they are, don’t paint the full kaleidoscopic picture of what you see up close when you’re in the water.

It’s easy to think of the reef, which stretches from the top of Torres Strait to roughly Bundaberg in south central Queensland, as a contiguous mass of coral. It’s not. Rather, it consists of nearly 3,000 individual reefs and hundreds more islands, atolls and cays, ranging from close inshore to mid-shelf, out to the edge of the Coral Sea.

Dr Dean Miller, director of science and media for Great Barrier Reef Legacy, says it’s home to up to around 450 species of corals, 1,500 species of fish, and 4,000 species of mollusc. It also hosts a variety of reptiles, including sea turtles and snakes, and provides breeding and nursery grounds for migrating minke and humpback whales during the winter and spring.

“It’s an extremely complex environment, and we don’t even understand how all those complexities work, so trying to unravel how we can save the reef is quite difficult, because we’re only just learning now the mechanisms of bleaching itself,” Miller says. “We need to maintain that diversity if we are going to save the Great Barrier Reef as we know it.”

Rumney describes the impact of the gradual decline of the reef on those who have spent their lives on it: “We’d have crown-of-thorns [outbreaks], we’d have a cyclone, and it would recover … And then we had the first big bleaching event in 1998, and that was a bit of an alarm bell – wake up! – but we still only had minimal mortality, 5 percent.

“But the 2016 [bleaching] was shocking. You came out here and those reefs that you’d loved and been visiting for all those years were just white … It was incredibly emotional to see something that you’d spent thousands and thousands of hours immersed in changed so radically.

“By 2017, many of us who had been out here for decades … Basically we went through a depression. I don’t know that there’s any comparable thing that people can experience on land, unless it’s a bushfire.

“What’s really important to remember is that there’s still pockets of healthy reef, and if we manage our emissions, then the reef will survive. If we keep putting CO2 into the [atmosphere] and the water temperature keeps rising, then what escaped last time may not escape next time.”

The next day I’m back out on the water with the same tourist operator and one of the same guides, visiting the exact same location. Hamish the wrasse is waiting for us again. This time, though, I’m with Rumney and Miller, as well as the Climate Council’s Martin Rice and professor Lesley Hughes, an ecologist from Macquarie University.

With them, I see things I didn’t notice the first time around. Some of the plate corals have broken off and begun to collapse. There are also things I don’t see: for example, I can’t find a single anemone. Or Nemo.

Broken down to its millions of constituent parts, suddenly the fragility of this enormous living structure is exposed. “Their skeletons stay there for a while, but they gradually become brittle over time, just like people growing older,” Hughes says. “They get much more susceptible to storms and wave action or people hitting them with flippers, and eventually they crumble and fall over.”

Hughes (no relation to the James Cook University professor Terry Hughes, arguably the most prominent scientist to document the bleaching phenomenon) says that this is her third visit to this particular reef in three years, and that “there’s a lot less fish here than I’ve seen in the past”.

“The coral not only provides food for lots of things, it provides a really complex habitat, and within that habitat there are a lot of different niches, and all of those other things – be they sea urchins or sea cucumbers or starfish – you just can’t see any of them,” she says.

The Climate Council’s report says that coral mortality has reduced the availability of habitat for fish. At Lizard Island, further north off Cooktown, there has been a 40 percent decline in juveniles.

She speaks of the ramifications. “That has flow-on effects on tourism obviously, but also on people around the world that gain their protein from reef fish, especially in developing countries, which is a huge part of their diet. So not only is it a tragic loss of environmental amenity, it’s also a loss of human amenity.

We move on to another healthier site, less than 15 minutes away. When we get in the water, it’s like a miracle has been revealed to us. The plate corals are stacked high like enormous piles of dishes. There are hundreds more fish of every discernible hue, munching on the coral. The staghorn forests are healthier, neither white nor fluorescent but filled with the simple greenish-brown of the zooxanthellae inside them. A turtle, seemingly bored by our curiosity, rests idly on the seafloor beneath our reach. It can hold its breath down there for hours.

I ask Miller how there can be such a dramatic difference between two reefs so close together. He points to the crashing waves of the ocean behind us, just beyond the reef’s fringe. “We’ve got a big gap into the Coral Sea, right there,” he says. “I’m guessing as the water floods on an incoming tide, and pushes in here, it cools things down.

“Whereas it misses that other site, so it just sits there and stagnates and cooks. You get some sites that are spared through the biogeography and the physics of the water. So you’ll have some reefs, even parts of reefs, that are in quite good condition and other parts that get absolutely nailed.”

John Edmondson, owner of Wavelength Reef Cruises – the longest-running reef tourism operation in Port Douglas – says the reef’s patchy nature can confuse visitors: “With a cyclone, you can move your mooring maybe 100 metres and the reef in one area has been flattened by waves … Further around the corner it’s just fine.”

He says the tourism industry liaises constantly with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the statutory body tasked with protecting the reef and advising the government about its health, to ensure visitors still have the best chance of experiencing the wonder promised by the postcards and tourist brochures.

But there is intense competition, and only so many sites where operators can moor their boats. “It’s more difficult with bleaching, because the effects might be much more widely spread,” he says. “It’s not yet got to the stage where we we’ve had to sort out people relocating moorings en masse, but that would be really difficult.

“Basically, if you went out to the reef five years ago it would generally be good and you’d find some bad patches. Now it’s generally not very good, but you can find some really good patches. If you had all the different operators wanting to pick a few good areas, it would obviously be really complicated how to manage them.”

The Great Barrier Reef directly employs 64,000 people, contributing $6 billion annually to the Australian economy.

“If you have a site that you have heavy bleaching on and that is your only tourism product, then you’re going to have to move or you’re not going to have a very good product,” Miller says. “If tourism operators are to adapt with the conditions, they’re going to have to get ready for altering what they do.”

The tourism industry is only just beginning to flex its considerable economic muscle over the imminent threat to its livelihood. Up to now, it’s been reluctant. The grim and sometimes inaccurate picture painted by the media has created mistrust. “If you’ve got millions of dollars invested in boats and buses and you need to keep taking people to the reef, then you’re going to be quite hesitant about speaking up,” Miller says.

“And because it is so patchy on a local scale, you can have one operator that has a really badly impacted site and another that doesn’t. So can you talk about a region generically? As tourism operators it’s important that we speak as one voice, and I don’t think there’s anyone out there that doesn’t now agree that we do have a problem on our hands.”

John Rumney puts it in starker terms.

“Imagine you have your favourite forest, just colour it 50 percent dead,” he says. “Or say you go out in your garden and all of a sudden everything’s turned white and 50 percent of it dies – you go, oh, something’s wrong, I’d better call somebody to fix this, I’d better learn something about this.

“We’re on the verge of an ecological system failure. What does that mean for our food security? It’s a major social issue. People are going to be starving, there are going to be refugees.

“That’s why we need the science, but we need the community embracing the science and going, that’s my Barrier Reef, let’s save it, and in so doing we’ll save the reefs of the world. Like, this is the canary in the coal mine.

“We need to wake up, or we’re going to have the collapse of the food chain for a billion people. It symbolises the collapse of our ecosystems, which I hope people wake up and realise. Conservation is longer a luxury, it’s part of our health budget.”

First published in BuzzFeed, 9 July 2018. The Climate Council paid for flights and some costs.

How did the Great Barrier Reef Foundation “win lotto”?

It was a classic piece of public relations. A week before the budget, the federal government announced it was committing half a billion dollars to the ailing Great Barrier Reef, with the immediate aims of enhancing water quality, culling outbreaks of invasive crown-of-thorns starfish and boosting scientific research funds that might aid the reef’s “resilience”.

There was no mention of climate change. That should not be surprising. The Turnbull government remains at war with itself over climate and energy policy, with many of its own members openly derisive of climate science and questioning Australia’s commitment to the Paris Agreement to keep rises in global average temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius.

That cohort predictably includes former prime minister Tony Abbott and his backers.

Publicly, the government is still supportive of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine, and remains roiled over the future of AGL’s Liddell power station, with pro-coal MPs urging Malcolm Turnbull to change competition laws to force the company to sell the station.

Turnbull and his environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, are walking a tightrope: trying not to poke the bear on the party’s right flank by reassuring regional Queensland of its continuing support of coal, while confronting the dire state of the reef and the many more jobs, and seats, which may be in peril on the basis of current trends.

In the last few days, we’ve found out where the government’s money to aid the reef is being directed. It’s not going to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the statutory body that’s entrusted with the reef’s custodianship and advises the government on its care and protection.

Nor is it going to the Australian Institute of Marine Science, or the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. Instead, it’s going to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a body with six full-time staff and five part-time staff, which generated a turnover of less than $8 million last year.

The body is focused on business cooperation. By its own description, the foundation “started with a small group of businessmen chatting at the airport while waiting for their flight, wanting to do something to help the Great Barrier Reef”. When asked, the government was not immediately able to say who these businessmen were.

The move to direct more than $443 million to this small foundation was so left-field it caught even its beneficiaries off guard. The foundation had not applied for the funds. “It’s like we’ve won lotto,” chief executive Anna Marsden told Fairfax’s Peter Hannam. “We’re getting calls from a lot of friends.”

Marsden said the organisation was seeking advice on how to cope with the sudden influx of funds.

In the past few days of Senate estimates hearings, more serious questions have been raised. There was no competitive tender process, and thus no opportunity for the government’s own scientific agencies to apply for the funds.

As Labor senator Kristina Keneally summed up: “I am trying to understand how [the] greatest single contribution from the government to the Great Barrier Reef in Australian history went to one foundation without a tender process, without advertising, without a competitive process and, it would seem, without an invitation from the government to the foundation to apply.”

To that end, Labor has lodged a Freedom of Information request. Others have pointed to the foundation’s links to corporate Australia, including fossil fuel behemoths BHP, Shell and Peabody Energy, as well as key banking figures.

“God help the Barrier Reef,” was the blunt response of the Professor Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, who has been indefatigable in his scorn for untested scientific solutions such as sun-shields, underwater fans and anything that fails to address the core issues of global warming and immediate decarbonising of the economy.

Similarly, acting chief executive of the Climate Council, Dr Martin Rice, described the focus on water quality and culling starfish as “a golden Band-Aid solution, because it’s not really getting to the root cause of the problem with the bleaching, and that’s climate change.

“When you look at emissions, we’ve had three years of emissions rising in Australia, and any true test of effective climate policy comes down to whether our emissions are going up or down. So there is no credible energy or climate policy in Australia … [Our] emission reduction targets of 28 percent are woefully inadequate; they’re not aligned with the science,” he said.

“If the world was to go with Australia’s Paris commitments we would be on target for a three-to-four degree [increase in temperature] and that’s devastating. We’re not going to see our iconic Great Barrier Reef survive that. And that’s not just an environmental issue; it’s an economic one.”

But not everyone is in agreement about the foundation’s ability to deliver. Its website lists the CSIRO, the Smithsonian Institute and many of Australia’s sandstone universities as research collaborators, and its International Scientific Advisory Committee also includes GBRMPA chair Russell Reichelt.

Also on the committee is Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a professor of marine science and director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland. As far back as 1999, Hoegh-Guldberg predicted that the Barrier Reef would lose most of its coral cover by 2040, a claim that caused considerable controversy at the time.

“The shock to me of having predicted in 1999 that the reef was in trouble was to actually live it over the last three years, and it’s not only the reef that we should be worried about,” he says. “It’s the impact that we’re now seeing across ecosystems which we depend on. There’s real questions about food security.”

Ten days before the government’s announcement, the scale of the threat to the Great Barrier Reef – and the calamity it has already experienced – was brutally spelled out in a new paper published by Nature, which The Atlantic described as “a kind of autopsy report for the debacle”.

Terry Hughes was the lead author of a team of 16 international researchers. The paper reported that over the course of the summers of 2016 and 2017, the reef experienced bleaching so severe that one in two of the corals had died. Usually, this happens slowly. When subjected to heat stress, coral species expel the algae which both provides them with their colour and with nourishment. If the algae doesn’t return quickly to recolonise the corals, they starve.

In the waters around and north of Port Douglas, previously the most pristine section of the park, the water was so hot that the corals died almost instantly. “They cooked,” Hughes said.

“You could say it has collapsed. You could say it has degraded. I wouldn’t say that’s wrong,” Hughes told The Atlantic. “A more neutral way of putting it is that it has transformed into a completely new system that looks differently, and behaves differently, and functions differently, than how it was three years ago.”

Hoegh-Guldberg doesn’t disagree with any of that, but he says that such a dire situation calls for outside-the-square thinking. “The downturn in the reef’s health has been rather dramatic, so we’ve got to start to do things differently,” he says. “I think it’s a welcome addition to what we need to do to solve this problem.”

Hoegh-Guldberg has an edge of desperation in his voice when he speaks to me. I put this directly to him. “That’s a very fair reading,” he agrees.

Hoegh-Guldberg is one of Australia’s most respected marine biologists. He is quick to point out that he sits on the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s advisory committee. But while political questions remain over the funding, and why it was directed to this small body, he argues the urgency of the situation means the reef’s defenders must work with what they have.

“I think it’s wake-up time. This is not some sort of green-washing exercise by industry. I would not be associated with this if it was. People who are not involved may be sniping, and scientists are very good at that, so I think we just have to have a level mind here. This is an unusual time that is needing a very unusual solution.

“What we have to realise is, there’s no way we’re going to solve this problem by not involving industry. We’ve got to turn this ship around by going into the helm and working with all players, and if we have the right governance then I don’t think that the things people are fearful of will eventuate.”

Hoegh-Guldberg is also positive about scientific approaches to anything that could help get the reef through while the climate might be stabilised. “I think there’s some really serious interest in whether or not you can introduce gently, over decades, heat-tolerant corals, and the jury’s out on whether that’s going to work and we need to know whether that can be done.

“The normal way science would go would be, ideas would be bubbling to the surface, then PhDs would be done. Then scientists would eventually write papers and it would be maybe five to 10 years before you had ideas in place to design technical solutions and so on. We don’t have that time.”

Reichelt also looked for a positive angle on the funding. He issued a press release saying it was a “game changer”. Alongside the $443.3 million going to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, his authority is getting the balance of $42.7 million over the next six years for its joint field management program.

“This is a hugely positive outcome for the Great Barrier Reef and comes at a critical time after back-to-back mass coral bleaching triggered by the increasing pressure of global warming,” Reichelt said.

“We’re delighted to continue working with the Great Barrier Reef Foundation as they explore the possibilities this funding provides, including opportunities to seek co-funding from investors to add to this investment.”

Significant questions remain about the Turnbull government’s motivations and its processes. The funding allocation remains deeply curious. Again we see the federal government outsourcing what would normally be the work of a government agency to a private body. It is likely the Great Barrier Reef Foundation will be spending its newfound money before we know why it was chosen to receive it. But for at least some of scientists involved, that may be a good thing.

Response to Queensland Theatre’s Twelfth Night

“If music be the food of love, play on!”I remember the first time I heard those words. It wasn’t in high school or university, but in a song from 1987 called Eat The Rich, a song written by the British heavy metal band Motörhead specifically for the film of the same name.

The song was full of double entendres and cheap innuendo. “They say music is the food of love / Let’s see if you’re hungry enough!” were the opening lines, gargled by the late Lemmy Kilmister, whose lyrics deftly trod Spinal Tap’s famous fine line between clever and stupid.

I’m not sure how I have managed to almost entirely avoid Shakespeare, despite a life devoted to words and music. The sum total of my experience was a reading (not a performance) of Hamlet, in year 11. It is, frankly, an embarrassing gap for a writer.

When Queensland Theatre invited me to respond to their production of Twelfth Night, I was intimidated, and my instinctive response was ‘no’. Then I realised I was being offered a challenge and a belated opportunity to engage with something beautiful.

The other selling point was musical: Tim Finn, whose early work as a member of Split Enz had been forever imprinted on my brain, would supply the food of love for the play, composing music for Shakespeare’s old verses as well as a suite of original new songs.

These songs draw mainly on two musical forms: English folk and, in the play’s second half, stomping glam rock – particularly its most androgynous purveyors, David Bowie and Roxy Music, both clear influences on the work of Split Enz.

That androgynous element is important, for Twelfth Night is especially resonant today. It’s a romantic farce, full of suggestion and double entendre, and its comedy rests on multiple mistaken identities and cross-dressing, as well as delicious wordplay.

Beneath the laughter lies deep melancholy. The shipwreck that separates twins Viola and Sebastian, and the loss of Olivia’s father and brother, creates a sense of mourning: Viola (as Cesario) warns Orsino that Olivia is “so abandoned to her sorrow” that she fears she will not be admitted into her court. Orsino is insistent, telling Cesario to “be clamorous and leap all civil bounds, rather than make unprofited return.”

In one of Tim’s songs written to complement the original text, he compares their love to an abandoned building: “No one lives there anymore”. Yet Orsino, Viola and Olivia are all stricken with unrequited longing for those whose hearts are set on others. In Viola’s words, they love “with adoration, fertile tears, with groans that thunder.”

The heart wants what it wants, and “love is love” are words we have heard many times in these last 12 months. As we have grappled with the concept that gender and sexuality might not be fixed identities, but exist somewhere on a spectrum, so Twelfth Night was ripe for reinterpretation.

On this theme, Tim makes one of his finest contributions, Keeping Up – a song sung by Feste, Olivia’s resident court jester, after he may, or may not have identified the male Cesario as the female Viola:

Once upon a time it was clear

Who I was and how I got here

Now I’m not so sure anymore

The new normal

Seems a bit queer

The song acknowledges the temporary social seasickness caused by rapidly changing social mores. I found myself wondering if some of our most conservative commentators have ever asked themselves Feste’s question: “Am I confused, or simply annoyed?”

Feste himself is not quite the fool he appears: he understands that ch-ch-changes could end up leaving men like him behind. Mostly, though, he is too busy enjoying himself to be annoyed by anything – unlike Malvolio, Olivia’s insufferably pompous steward.

Here lies this production’s most provocative twist: Malvolio is re-cast as Malvolia. Her pursuit of Olivia gives Twelfth Night another layer, not just of same-sex attraction but also tension and, ultimately, betrayal: “she hath been notoriously abused,” Olivia says.

Her star turn, singing Lady Ho Ho, is the play’s most outrageous moment. Quivering with pent-up desire in her yellow cross-gartered stockings, her over-the-top attempt to seduce Olivia is doomed by Olivia’s disinterest as well as by Maria’s cruel device.

Tracy Grant Lord’s set design depicts the fictitious land of Illyria as an island under a celestial night sky, revolving through different exterior and interior landscapes that are like chambers in the hearts of the island’s occupants.

Australia is an island, too: “Beneath our radiant Southern Cross, we’ve boundless plains to share” – or so our anthem says. Our debates can be petty and mean-spirited. As a people, though, I don’t believe we are, at least not when given the chance to be our best selves.

Australia’s LGBTIQ community made clear they felt deeply betrayed by last year’s postal survey on marriage equality.

Having long been victims of notorious abuse themselves, they were subjected to a national vote that struck at their core as human beings. They saw it as another cruel device to prevent them from loving who they pleased as equals under the law.

Yet, presented with no alternative, Australians rallied behind them, resulting in marriage equality being signed into law before Christmas of 2017. It was a significant moment in our polity which showed the public to be far ahead of party-political games.

In the process, leaders and heroes emerged on our national stage. Some, you might say, were born great; some achieved greatness; while others duly had greatness thrust upon them.

Twelfth Night is a joyous play. Everyone is searching and longing for love and companionship. Even Malvolia, after vowing vengeance “on the whole pack of you”, is entreated to a peace. And music, being the food of love, ultimately binds them all together.

So, let’s see if you’re hungry enough. Play on!

Responding artist’s note to Queensland Theatre’s Twelfth Night, 2 May 2018