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

Midnight Oil: 1984

For those old enough to remember it, 1984 was a year full of dread and apocalyptic overtones. It wasn’t just the paranoia of George Orwell’s dystopian novel of the same name: in some ways, the current age of mass corporate/state surveillance and black-is-white propaganda makes 1984 feel closer at hand today than it did at the time. What’s easily forgotten is a fear that has only recently been truly reawakened: of nuclear terror (or error) and mutually assured destruction. The cold war could have turned hot and melted us all at any moment.

The mid-80s was also an interesting time in pop and rock music: everybody wanted to either rule the world or save it. Midnight Oil were very much in the latter category and 1984, a documentary by Ray Argall, focuses on a pivotal year in the band’s career. Their fifth album, Red Sails In The Sunset, was a continuation of the Armageddon-themed 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1: the cover featured a drained and cratered Sydney Harbour after a nuclear strike (with the Harbour Bridge and Opera House remaining eerily intact).

The album was released in October and became the band’s first No. 1 in Australia. At the same time, Peter Garrett was having his first tilt at politics, as a Senate candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in the federal election of 1984. He very nearly won a seat, only being squeezed out (after more than a month of counting) by a preference swap between Labor and the Coalition. Then-prime minister Bob Hawke was re-elected with a reduced majority.

Argall can count himself lucky to have joined the band on the road that year, shooting more than 28,000 feet (about 8,500 metres) of film. The results powerfully capture not only a great live band at their peak but a fascinating moment in Australian politics that anticipates many of the anxieties, ruptures and culture wars to come. The Labor government, entrenched in power with a charismatic leader, felt the pressure on its left flank. So too the Democrats, who did their best to “keep the bastards honest” before being supplanted by the Greens.

On the right and in the media, Garrett was attacked for being “emotional, naive and a rock star”, a sign of the inevitable attacks to come when he joined the Labor party, though by then the rhetoric had changed to “ageing rock star”. Within the band there was tension too: while the others backed Garrett’s charge publicly and privately at the time, they were unsure how or whether Midnight Oil could continue. Indeed, the Democrats called on Garrett to resign from the band if he were to fulfil his duties as a prospective senator.

The pressure on Garrett himself was enormous. Midnight Oil’s musical directors, guitarist, Jim Moginie, and drummer, Rob Hirst, give different perspectives: Moginie recalls the singer as being “on top of the world, alive and effusive” while Hirst describes the band being worried about how hard he was pushing himself – arriving to rehearsal with folders of notes, rushing off to meetings and media calls, playing punishing shows in the evening, finishing in a catatonic state and often wearing an oxygen mask, before doing it all again the next day.

Garrett also reflects – very briefly – on concerns about the impact of this schedule on his life, including his family. There’s a more personal as well as political story to be told here, but in typical Oils fashion, that’s not what we get. There’s no narration, and interviews are relatively sparing, interspersed with period news footage. Otherwise, you get a lot of the band in concert and, while the film is not overlong at 90 minutes, that’s something that works both for and against it. Viewers are left to read between the lines and draw their own conclusions.

Sometimes that’s frustrating. The live footage is as explosive as you’d expect, and it all looks and sounds great, but this is not a concert film, and sometimes it feels as though it wants to be. There were moments when, as a longtime fan of the group, I wanted it to be, too. But that comes at the expense of storytelling and holds the film back from being what it could be, particularly for those not already rusted on. The end result is something in between, which doesn’t quite fulfil its potential.

Michael Lippold, the band’s stage manager, identifies that this was no ordinary rock group. “They didn’t do drugs, they didn’t drink and they didn’t whore around,” he says bluntly. They were famous, and certainly became wealthy, but they weren’t only in it only for themselves. They were a conduit and, as their office manager, Stephanie Lewis notes, the audience saw themselves in the band’s music and lyrics. What 1984 does most effectively is encapsulate the band’s relationship with the audience who grew up and came of age with them.

For perhaps tens of thousands of young Australians, the band aided their political awakenings. In hindsight, most – including, surely, the band themselves – will be grateful that things worked out as they did: after the studio experimentation of Red Sails, Midnight Oil headed for the desert and created their most intimately Australian and yet internationally successful work, Diesel And Dust. No other band had as much to say about their own country and 1984 does well to document Midnight Oil’s place in our history.

First published in The Guardian, 10 May 2018

Rock in hard places

It’s Good Friday in Brisbane and most of the city is dead quiet, with pubs and clubs not opening until midnight due to Easter trading laws. In the inner suburb of West End, however, something very noisy is stirring.

On a makeshift stage in a large room, a three-piece band called Hexmere is playing a raucous, raw brand of grindcore punk to a small crowd. There’s another gig planned for the following night, with many more people expected.

These all-ages shows are being sporadically staged by the Outer Space art collective, which won the Brisbane city council’s tender to operate this 300-capacity venue for two years, rent-free. The space needs work. But it represents an experiment, a gamble and a new hope for the city’s youth culture.

The fact that the city council chose to make the space available is important. Despite a rich history, live music in Brisbane, as in so many other cities around the world, struggles to survive against the pressures of gentrification, regulation and competition.

The music industry’s inextricable links to alcohol and bars has left a dearth of venues accessible to under-18s, raising concerns about how the complex ecosystem that sustains a vibrant local music scene – comprising everything from record shops to independent labels to public radio – will reproduce itself without engaging audiences from a young age.

Live from Outer Space is an attempt to buck that trend in Brisbane. Coordinator Alex Campbell watches Hexmere as sound technician Hannah buzzes around the room, checking noise levels and sonic balance. Campbell says she has encouraged women and non-binary people to get involved in the male-dominated space of sound engineering especially.

In the crowd tonight are the three members of the Goon Sax, back home in Brisbane after seven months in Berlin. Their 19-year-old frontman, Louis Forster, is the son of the Go-Betweens’ Robert – less than half a mile from the venue, the Go Between Bridge spans the Brisbane river. But surfing the city’s next wave hasn’t been easy, even for a band with such pedigree.

While the Goon Sax’s members were under 18, the venues they played required them to be accompanied by a parent and to leave immediately after their set, while their friends were unable to attend.

“It’s cool something like this has opened up,” says Forster. “I know my sister’s psyched about it – she’s 16 and she’s coming tomorrow night. I was pretty frustrated by it when I was a kid growing up. I remember going to soundchecks and standing outside venues and listening, stuff like that.”

“There were all these shows, and you could never go to them,” says Riley Jones, the band’s drummer. “You could go to the [radio station] Triple Zed car park shows sometimes, and that was a nice treat, but it was very frustrating.”

Brisbane takes some pride in its musical past – another international export, the Saints, are the subject of a mural celebrating their achievements on the other side of the river, and the band’s guitarist Ed Kuepper has a local park named after him. But the council’s decision to back Outer Space represents a recognition of the need to invest in the city’s cultural future.

“There’s all these young kids who don’t have any places to go,” says Louis Whelan, who is director of Outer Space’s all-ages live-music programme and also plays in his own band, the Mouldy Lovers. “Most events are really alcohol-focused. Playing somewhere where people are just going to get wasted, it’s not the same thing as playing where people want to see music.

“If there’s a whole new generation of people who are much more engaged with the arts and music, then when they get out and they have disposable incomes, they’re going to go to galleries, to venues, to buy local bands’ music and start their own labels. I think there’s a lot of value in it.”

It’s not just kids who are struggling to find places to play. In Sydney – once a live-music Mecca to rival London or New York – bands now struggle to play at all, with venues under pressure from soaring real estate prices, noise complaints, punitive regulations and a cosy relationship between government and developers. The city’s longest-serving live venue, The Basement – which, over 45 years, has hosted artists from Dizzy Gillespie to Prince – closed last week, though its owners are hopeful of finding other premises.

The situation has become so difficult that the state of New South Wales is now holding a parliamentary inquiry. Dave Faulkner, singer and songwriter of enduring Australian garage band the Hoodoo Gurus, told the inquiry that live music was treated like the sex industry, “as something to be shunned. We employ so many people, we generate incredible amounts of money throughout the economy – and yet we’re treated so badly.”

Faced with similar issues, music scenes around the world have been forced underground, into house parties or often illegal warehouse gigs, accessible only to those in the know. “It starts to get a bit worrying when kids are in those scenes,” says Emily Collins, managing director of the government-funded advocacy body MusicNSW.

“We’d much rather them be in venues where we can make sure it’s safe and they can learn to love music in a safe and supporting environment. At warehouse parties there are no security guards, there’s no regulation, no one monitoring alcohol consumption. And they’re more focused on over-18 activities anyway – not that anyone is checking ID.”

All-ages shows have a twofold benefit, says Collins: they foster a self-sustaining community of audiences and performers that in turn helps nurture a creative city. The sticking point, particularly in Australia, is breaking the nexus between music and alcohol.

Venues, already under severe financial duress, are reluctant to put on events where no money is coming over the bar and the regulatory environment is forbidding. “There are multiple bodies that need to be satisfied, so there is considerable complexity, high costs and red tape in running a compliant venue,” says Julian Knowles, chair of MusicNSW and a professor of music at Macquarie University.

“There is no agent of change law in New South Wales that puts the responsibility on developers to soundproof new developments near music venues. If new residents make noise complaints, the venue is held accountable and must meet acoustic treatment costs, so it’s very risky for venue operators. At best, it erodes business confidence and at worst it can shut down venues entirely.”

The introduction of controversial lockout laws in 2014, imposing curfews on venues in a bid to curb alcohol-related violence more associated with nightclubs than live music events, have been relaxed to some degree, but otherwise only worsened the operating environment.

Against this backdrop, MusicNSW offers funding to promoters and venues to stage all-ages shows, but Collins says applications are few. “People say it’s too hard as a venue – $15,000 won’t cut it.”

Often bands are paid literally out of beer takings. “They’re basically saying: the more heavy drinkers attend your gig, the better you’ll get paid,” says Ray Ahn, bass player of another longstanding punk band, the Hard-Ons. “With that kind of a working model, it’s harder to organise all-ages shows. Where’s the money going to come from?”

The parliamentary inquiry underlines what a cautionary tale Sydney has become. Dave Faulkner said the city’s culture was dying. “When people come to Sydney they don’t just come to see the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, they also go to have a night out and to see music – it’s what I do when I go to London or New York. But Sydney has been doing everything it can to destroy those places of entertainment and turn them into apartment buildings.”

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, hundreds of pubs and clubs throughout the city and suburbs kept artists busy, with major Australian bands such as Midnight Oil honing their live skills by playing upwards of 200 shows a year.

From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, Ahn says, the Hard-Ons would often play an all-ages show in the afternoon and another for over-18s in the evening. Now, they might have played one all-ages show in Australia in the last 10 years. When the band tour Europe or Japan, though, it’s a different story.

“A lot of the shows we do in Europe are in purpose-built halls that have the bar on the outside,” Ahn says. “Inside, there is no bar – it’s like a flat-ceilinged room with a massive PA and volunteers running around everywhere. So where are they getting the money from? They’re getting it from the city council.”

The environment in Germany was more easygoing, says Louis Forster, even when he was younger. “I spent a lot of time there growing up, and I could always get into venues – it was never a problem. Parents would bring their kids to shows, which was really fantastic.”

In Australia, Melbourne actively promotes itself as the live-music capital, and with good reason. A Deloitte study in 2011 valued the sector’s economic contribution at over half a billion dollars, with small venues providing the bulk of revenue and employment. Though many venues have closed in recent years, the value of investing in the live-music sector at grassroots level has long been recognised.

The Push, a not-for-profit youth music organisation, has been operating in Victoria since 1986, providing a launch platform for countless bands. As well as all-ages shows, it puts on mentoring programmes and skills workshops.

Shaad D’Souza, a music journalist who used to coordinate all-ages events for the organisation, notes that it is a cultural investment as well as a financial one. “Lots of kids, when they grow up they’ll only really go to big festivals or big arena shows because that’s all they’ve had access to,” he says.

“Whereas if you’re investing in all-ages shows, they develop a relationship with venues, they develop a relationship with artists, and then they know: ‘I want to support my local scene.’ They want to go to smaller venues; they don’t just want to go to arena shows or festivals.”

At the end of the night, Alex Campbell’s band, Bad Bangers, will launch their EP. The band are in their 20s now. “But that’s kind of why we started this – because there weren’t many all-ages spaces when we were younger.”

First published in The Guardian (UK), 10 April 2018