Category: Australian politics

Jimmy Barnes calls for kids to be removed from Nauru

The Australian rock musician Jimmy Barnes had some strong words for the Australian government ahead of a rally on the Parliament House lawn in Canberra to remove children and their families from indefinite detention on Nauru.

Tuesday’s rally saw the delivery of a petition of 170,000 signatures to the government by the newly elected member for Wentworth, independent MP Dr Kerryn Phelps.

Barnes pointed to his own heritage: “I’m an immigrant,” he said. “I came to Australia in a boat. We were running away from poverty and violence in Scotland, and what we fled was nothing compared to what these people have tried to get away from.

“We should be helping them. Taking these people and sticking them on an island, indefinitely, is not the Australian way.”

Since the launch of the Kids off Nauru campaign three months ago by refugee advocacy groups, around 110 of the 119 children and their families had been brought to Australia after five years in detention on the island.

The Asylum Centre Resource Centre estimated only 40 percent of Australians were aware children were being held in detention at the time the campaign was launched. Many had spent their entire lives on the island.

That figure has since been raised to 80 percent, boosted by medical professionals including Phelps and international charity organisations World Vision, Save the Children and Oxfam.

A statement from Save the Children, which was contracted by the Australian government in 2013 to provide education and welfare services to children on Nauru before its workers were removed and its role taken over by Transfield in October 2015, said the organisation had “seen first-hand the distress and hardship endured by children languishing indefinitely on Nauru”.

“One day in effective detention for a child is unacceptable; five years is a disgrace,” the statement said.

Barnes, one of 65 ambassadors for Kids off Nauru, said he had reached a point where he felt he had to stand up.

“You can’t blame governments because we’ve allowed this to happen. The government represents us,” he said.

“I am ashamed that our government has allowed this to happen. And I’m ashamed of myself, because the government represents us, and that’s all of us, and we have to stand up and demand that this be changed … This has to stop.”

Asked how he responded to the view that ending offshore detention risked putting people smugglers back in business, Barnes said: “I think that’s rubbish.”

“There’s got to be better ways to stop that. Let’s tackle that problem on the ground in Indonesia, or wherever. But holding people up as hostages to stop people smugglers, that’s not the way to do things. That’s like two wrongs making a right … This has to stop.

“Politicians have been spreading fear, saying if we’re letting in refugees we’re letting in terrorists. It’s not the truth. We’ve got to recognise the difference between terrorism and people who are refugees; people who are struggling.

“I hate fear politics. And if you look at the Victorian election, that didn’t work and I think the tide is turning, people are changing and they’re not going to fall for that one any more.”

Barnes has become active in humanitarian causes in recent years, especially since the release of his memoirs Working Class Boy and Working Class Man.

“I had enough of my own problems before,” he said. “I can see a lot clearer now, and I just don’t feel comfortable sitting around not speaking out and saying what I want to say. These are kids, these are families, and they’re people who need help … I can’t sit by any more.”

Asked how he would respond to those – hypothetically, home affairs minister Peter Dutton – who might tell him to stick to singing, Barnes said: “I wouldn’t give Peter Dutton any of my time. It’s a waste of time speaking to someone like him, because they just spread lies and propaganda. He doesn’t represent me, he doesn’t care about people, and I wouldn’t give him the time of day, to tell you the truth.”

First published in The Guardian, 27 November 2018

Midnight Oil: 1984

It was October 1984 and Peter Garrett, the frontman for Midnight Oil, should have been riding high. The band’s fifth album, Red Sails In The Sunset, had just topped the Australian charts – the band’s first number one.

Instead, he was restless and preoccupied. In his memoir, Big Blue Sky, he admitted he hadn’t contributed much by way of music to the album, recorded in Tokyo. When it was complete, he and his partner Doris visited Hiroshima.

No book or documentary, he said, could have prepared them for the photos and testimonies when they got to the site where the the first atomic bomb was dropped. “It’s literally a searing experience that leaves its imprint on you and never quite leaves,” Garrett said.

“We met with the Hibakusha, who are survivors and friends and families of the survivors of the initial detonation, and seeing the wreckage at first hand, hearing people’s accounts about what happened and what it meant to them subsequently, really brought it home.”

The experience left him questioning the line between activism and direct political involvement. “I was pretty energised and agitated by the politics of the time, and wanted to be useful – and how useful are you in a rock band?” he asked himself.

In December 1984 Garrett took his first tilt at politics in the federal election, joining the newly formed Nuclear Disarmament Party and heading the New South Wales senate ticket. He fell just short of a seat – squeezed out, ironically, by Labor preferences.

It was a fascinating chapter in Australian political life, as well as the life of Midnight Oil, dramatically captured by filmmaker Ray Argall’s documentary, Midnight Oil: 1984, which was filmed against the backdrop of the Cold War.

Argall’s film had been a long time in the making. That year, Garrett had joined the band on tour, shooting thousands of hours of footage. The film is fleshed out by period news footage and contemporary interviews with the band and associates.

It also captures a driven man running on what seems like combination of adrenaline and fumes. Garrett would arrive at rehearsals or soundchecks with folders full of briefing notes – between his meetings and interviews – before playing high-octane shows in the evening. Then he’d wake up the next day and do it all again.

“When I looked at the film rushes it did come flooding back,” Garrett said. “I guess my strongest sense was the sense of solidarity of the band, who were essentially signing off on the extracurricular activity of their singer.

“My memory of it is more about this upwelling of energy that was driving us, which meant when you got on stage at night – even though you’d been up really early in the morning and going on morning telly – there was still a lot of juice in the tank.”

It was a sliding-doors moment for the iconic singer. Could the band have continued? “I think probably we could have,” Garrett said, before conceding that maybe they would have gone into hiatus “like they did 15 years later and played surf music” – as several members of Midnight Oil did with the band, the Break, after Garrett eventually joined the Labor Party and left the band in 2002.

That move saw Garrett labelled a turncoat by many activists, but he pointed to the many gains made by the disarmament movement as evidence of its incremental success. He says Midnight Oil: 1984 captures a sense of the energy of that movement in its earlier days.

“There were a bunch of different actions and actors breaking out of the conventional narrative,” he said. “At the beginning, of course, we were dismissed as silly fringe-dwellers, and then there was the attempt to completely destabilise us and dirty us up.

“And yet through all of that, there was this other energy – this other, younger Australia saying well hang on a sec, this is something that is important to us. It was idealistic … But they’re ideals that I was proud of and I’m still proud of them.

“If you consider the international campaign against nuclear weapons now, and the ICAN [International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons] group who won the Nobel peace prize last year – some of those people were people in the Midnight Oil audience.

“Is it naive? I don’t think so; I think we’re closer to resolving that issue than we’ve been for a very long time, with a new treaty [on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons] getting ratified around the world.

“It’s not as though the issue just disappeared from sight once we’d done our bit, everybody else has picked it up and done fantastic things since.”

As for Midnight Oil, who reformed last year for their first tour since 2001, Garrett said they would be reconvening soon, and while there were no firm plans, it seemed likely the band would work together again.

“I think we were pretty blown away by the Great Circle [tour] and the level of response both here and overseas, and even though people have sort of scattered to the four corners, we’re all coming back, so that in itself is a positive sign.

“I’d like to think we can do some more songs. I know I’m writing; I suspect the other boys are writing. At this stage of the game you just literally thank your lucky stars that you can be in a band like this.”

First published in The Guardian, 1 September 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

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.

Open letter to the Queensland Premier re voluntary euthanasia

This is an open letter to the Premier of Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk, the health minister, Steven Miles, and MP for Maiwar Michael Berkman (mylocal member). The letter was written last Monday; I am posting a slightly edited version here. The original letter was also sent to the state opposition leader Deb Frecklington and shadow health minister Ros Bates.

I’m writing to you in relation to the issue of assisted dying/voluntary euthanasia in Queensland.

On Sunday I visited my mother Sue in her aged care facility. Sue is 70, and is in the final stage of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, which initially forced her to take stress leave (and eventually, her resignation) from her position at Queensland Health in 2002, 15 years ago. She was formally diagnosed with her illness in late 2011, nine years after developing discernable symptoms, though they were not recognised for what they were at the time.

Sue had considerable expertise in the field of dementia beyond her own lived experience. She spent over a decade in the senior levels of the department, writing and administering aged care policy, and many years before that working with elderly people in the community in the employ of Blue Care.

Last Sunday I sat with her for an hour. She is now bedridden and unable to move independently; her muscles are so rigid she is being administered morphine, as moving is painful for her. She was not cognisant of my presence in the room. She grinds her teeth involuntarily, her face is contorted, she has no control of her bodily functions (in the time I was with her she soiled herself twice in 20 minutes), and though she retains some power of speech, she is unable to communicate effectively.

I can tell you with absolute certainty that this indignity and pain is not what my mother wanted. This incredibly bright, capable, compassionate, outgoing woman, who remains much loved and did so much to improve health outcomes for elderly Queenslanders in particular, has seen her worst nightmare – as she often described it to us before her illness – visited upon her.

I have long since lost count of the number of times my mother has expressed her wish to die, at a time when she was fully aware of the horrors that awaited her, and which she is now enduring, as we all are with her. I can also tell you that she has previously asked both myself and my brother to help her to achieve her wish.

Allow me to express that as frankly as my mother intended: she was asking us to kill her. While that is not a request she would have made while in full command of her faculties, I ask you to imagine the terrible distress she was in to have made it, and the anguish that it caused for us.

Of course, we have no legislation providing for assisted dying/voluntary euthanasia in Queensland, as has recently been passed in Victoria.

My brother and I were lucky to have secured power of attorney to make financial and legal decisions on behalf of Sue, and also an advance health directive. However, even if we lived in Victoria, Sue’s legal lack of capacity to make decisions after her diagnosis, despite the fact she retained insight into her condition until very late in the piece, would have meant she did not qualify for assistance under that legislation.

This was contrary to the advice of Alzheimer’s Australia (Victoria), which made the following key recommendations:

  1. That limiting eligibility to a prognosis of days or weeks remaining prohibits people with progressively deteriorating cognitive impairment from accessing voluntary assisted dying.
  2. That a decline in quality of life or function is a better indicator of eligibility for people with a degenerative illness.
  3. That psychological suffering be recognised in the legislation in addition to physical suffering.
  4. That the term ‘mental illness’ should be clearly defined as distinct from cognitive impairment.
  5. That people with degenerative disorders should have the right to make enduring requests for voluntary assisted dying in an advance care plan.
  6. That family members are included in assisted dying decision-making, with the person’s consent and with proper protections for the person.
  7. That the person with dementia’s right to be fully informed is upheld and that medical practitioners are appropriately trained in dementia care.

I naturally appreciate this is a difficult and sensitive issue. However, it’s a conversation that Australians need to have – and it isn’t going to go away. Dementia is now the leading cause of death for women in Australia and the second leading cause of death overall with more than 425,000 sufferers nationwide.

The estimated cost of dementia-related illness in 2018 is $15 billion. The toll it exacts on families and communities – including the knock-on health effects – is perhaps less measurable, but I can tell you the impact on myself and our family has been profound. I do not say this is to classify anyone with a terminal illness as a burden, but to consider the escalating financial and mostly hidden emotional cost of prolonging unnecessary suffering, often artificially, and against the will of individuals and their families.

I am therefore calling on your government to consider opening formal discussions regarding the potential development of assisted dying legislation in Queensland. The establishment of a parliamentary committee of inquiry, taking submissions from the community, would be an obvious first step. It could then make recommendations which could lead to the possible introduction of legislation in the next term of parliament.

I also request that due consideration be given to provision being made for the hundreds of thousands of sufferers of this terrible and terminal illness, and to their families, who suffer with them, in the event of such legislation being introduced.

First published on my Patreon page, 9 February 2018; reprinted by Brisbane Times

Mixed environmental messages in Queensland

On Friday, 3 November, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk dropped what sounded like a bombshell. Palaszczuk, at the tail of the first week of a desperate re-election campaign, said she would veto a $1 billion loan to Adani from the federal government’s Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) after it emerged that her partner, Shaun Drabsch, had assisted the Indian conglomerate’s application for the loan in his role as a director for PwC.

Palaszczuk said she was acting to remove any perception of conflict of interest over the loan, intended to fund the construction of a rail line from Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine to its terminal at Abbot Point, north of Bowen. The response was immediate. The next day’s Courier-Mail went with a screaming headline: “Mine shaft”. Queensland’s only statewide newspaper claimed thousands of jobs were at risk.

It’s a well-worn trope. The newspaper has long followed the Adani line that as many as 10,000 jobs would be created by the mine, despite the group’s expert witness, Jerome Fahrer, admitting in court in 2015 that the number was fewer than 1500. Buried at the bottom of the copy was an admission: under the caretaker convention, Palaszczuk needed the support of opposition leader Tim Nicholls to veto the loan. Needless to say, she wasn’t about to get it.

In the interim, there’s nothing to prevent the NAIF from issuing the loan, enabling Palaszczuk to say her government gave it no active assistance. When Liberal National Party leader Nicholls described the premier’s threat as a “stunt”, he wasn’t wrong. Since her government’s unexpected ascension to power, Palaszczuk’s minority government has been walking a tightrope between its urban base and regional Queensland over the mine.

On the same day as Palaszczuk’s unexpected announcement, news broke that should have sent a real chill through the muggy climes of north Queensland. The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecast the possibility of a third consecutive bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef this summer. Its modelling predicted the southern section of the reef, which had hitherto escaped relatively unscathed, was at greatest risk.

The NOAA was careful to note that its forecast was early, and therefore at the limit of its technical capacity. Nonetheless, the potential gravity of the situation can’t be underestimated. Last summer, the worst-hit section of the marine park was in the tourist-clogged area between Cairns and Townsville. It resulted in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority engaging in talks with the tourism industry to help it redirect visitors to relatively unaffected areas.

The Barrier Reef is the elephant in the room of the state election. It was certainly a bigger issue in 2015, when the then Labor opposition pledged that no taxpayer funds would be used to fund Adani’s mine. “The reef was much more prominent in discussions at the last Queensland election, but it’s in a much more dire situation now, so the need for action’s even greater,” says the World Wild Fund for Nature’s Sean Hoobin.

The Labor government has released two substantial policies to shore up its credentials on the management of the Barrier Reef. The first was the reintroduction of land clearing legislation, which failed to receive the support of crossbenchers in 2016 after an estimated 400,000 hectares had been felled in the preceding 12 months. Forty-five per cent of the increase in clearing had been in Barrier Reef catchment areas.

The second, released on the eve of the election being called, had the government belatedly following through on its 2015 commitment to ban the loading of coal ships at sea in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The government also has a target of 50 percent renewable power generation by 2030. Earlier this year, it held a carbon farming summit, with the intention of providing a road map for the growth of the nascent carbon offset industry.

But the government has struggled to gain any clear air to spruik its environmental credentials in the shadow of the Carmichael project, with the premier’s campaign itself being shadowed by anti-Adani protesters. Support for the mine within the government’s ranks is soft, and Adani’s brand is positively toxic in urban electorates of Brisbane, but with Labor ruling out any possible deal with One Nation, it is desperate not to alienate regional support.

The LNP, for its part, has given its unqualified backing for not only the Carmichael mine but the construction of another coal mine in far north Queensland. At the same time, shadow environment minister Dr Christian Rowan said an LNP government would maintain all currently allocated state funding for reef protection, and that when last in government it had invested $35 million a year to help farmers reduce sediment runoff into reef catchments.

But the focus on water quality ignores the other elephant in the room. The northern section of the park, which was so ravaged by bleaching in the summer of 2015-16 that up to 67 percent of the coral died, was previously regarded as the most pristine and undisturbed section of the reef – that is, the least affected by soil runoff, the proliferation of crown-of-thorns starfish and other factors affecting the reef’s overall health.

The cause of the catastrophe was simple: the coral was cooked by above-average water temperatures due to a combination of climate change and an accompanying El Niño. The bleaching was repeated the following year, even after El Niño’s abatement. The combined impact left a full 1500 kilometres of the reef badly affected.

“There’s a kind of cognitive dissonance that we have now where political leaders are signing on to the [Adani] mine while at the same time talking about wanting to deal with climate change and save the Barrier Reef,” says Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, deputy director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. “You can’t have both.

“You think about the idea that this ecosystem that has been with us for thousands of years and is so much loved, and we’re contemplating its disappearance … We are in extremely worrying times, because these things are coming faster, much faster than we thought. My predictions in 1998 were that we’d see this sort of thing happening in 2030, 2040. It’s happening now.”

For this election, the LNP has also pledged a further $300,000 to support the “Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef” initiative, which according to a policy statement aimed to “raise awareness and funds to protect the Great Barrier Reef now and for future generations”.

Pushed for detail, Rowan said: “Protecting the reef is too important to leave to one organisation or local group. The LNP’s Great Barrier Reef Alliance will work closely with the federal government, [an] independent expert panel and Reef 2050 advisory committee and other key stakeholders to deliver real, independently measurable outcomes.” He also said, “We need to get the balance right on clean energy targets, as highlighted in the Finkel review.”

That’s despite the federal government declining to adopt the clean energy target recommended by Finkel. And the opposition, like the government, is doing some mixed messaging of its own: while Rowan says the LNP will follow the recommendations of the Great Barrier Reef Water Science Taskforce, on October 1 Andrew Cripps, the spokesman for natural resources and mines and northern development, ranted against those recommendations in a piece for Queensland Country Life.

In the meantime, neither party seems to regard investing in new coal-fired power generation as in any way incompatible with the future of the Barrier Reef – or is willing to admit it. As for One Nation, Pauline Hanson and then-senator Malcolm Roberts famously made a trip to the decidedly unbleached Great Keppel Island off Yeppoon in November 2016, held aloft a piece of coral, and declared that everything was fine. Roberts is now running for the state seat of Ipswich.

Earlier this year, a Deloitte Access Economics review valued the reef at $56 billion. An earlier Jacobs review – co-written by a partnership between the Queensland Farmers’ Federation, the Queensland Tourism Industry Council, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators – concluded that if the reef was treated as a piece of infrastructure of similar value, it would receive up to $830 million a year in funding.

All of this, to say nothing of the estimated 65,000 people whose livelihoods depend on the Great Barrier Reef, suggests its ongoing health is far from just an environmental or moral challenge. But in this election campaign, with everything filtered through the muddy waters of Adani and a resurgent One Nation, it’s a challenge that neither of the major parties is game to face.

First published in The Saturday Paper, 11 November 2017

Postscript to this story: With the narrow re-election of the state Labor government, Premier Annasticia Palaszczuk has followed through on her promise to veto the NAIF loan to Adani. One Nation won only one seat in the poll, with Malcolm Roberts, after being disqualified by the Senate by the High Court, failing to win the seat of Ipswich. The LNP’s Andrew Cripps also lost his seat of Hinchinbrook.