Category: Australian politics

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.

When sorry is the hardest word

The federal health minister Greg Hunt, human services minister Alan Tudge and assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar are lucky men. The three have been spared contempt of court charges after issuing a grovelling, if belated apology to the Victorian appeals court, chief justice Marilyn Warren and her colleagues Stephen Kaye and Mark Weinberg.

The apology was reluctant: only last week the two ministers and Sukkar, via solicitor-general Stephen Donaghue QC, expressed half-hearted regrets for making potentially prejudicial remarks about an appeal that was before the court. They accused the judges of being “hard-left activists” who were “divorced from reality”. Hunt accused the court itself of being a forum for “ideological experiments”.

Only when Warren warned the trio there was a prima facie case of contempt against them did they withdraw their remarks, which were published on the front page of the Australian, and apologise unreservedly. As is so often the case, sorry is the hardest word to say.

Most reasonable people would regard an apology as more effective and more sincere when it’s not said under the very real threat of jail time, the end of one’s career and bringing down a government all at the same time. But let’s step away from this unusual case and consider the predicament of the human services minister, Alan Tudge, who might be thinking about whether he owes a second apology.

Tudge and the social services minister Christian Porter have presided over the roll-out of Centrelink’s automated debt collection system, otherwise known as robo-debt. The manifold failings of the system have been exhaustively documented. The massive #notmydebt social media campaign precipitated a Senate inquiry, which released its findings on Wednesday night, and a critical report by the commonwealth ombudsman.

Let’s recap briefly some of the system’s most egregious flaws. The income averaging method, which wrongly assumed recipients of welfare benefits to be working all year. The reversal of the onus of proof onto often vulnerable individuals to prove they did not have a debt, often necessitating hours or days spent searching for documents so old they were no longer legally obliged to have kept them even for tax purposes.

The rapid unleashing of debt collecting agencies onto those effectively accused of welfare fraud, often before individuals had been correctly contacted. The automatic imposition of a possibly unlawful10% debt recovery fee. The psychological trauma experienced by people slugged with often large debts they had no idea they owed (and in many cases did not owe).

Not to mention the overwhelmed and intimidated who paid up regardless, just to make the whole thing go away.

Then there’s the trauma experienced by equally overwhelmed Centrelink staff, whose agency has been cut to the bone by job cuts. For those in need of assistance, it means lengthy waiting times caused by inadequate resources. For those whose unfortunate job it is to eventually answer their calls, it means dealing with stressed, frightened and understandably angry people. All day.

Porter is on record as saying this debacle is not a matter for apology. “What we have is a responsibility to the taxpayer to make sure that we are paying people exactly what it is that they are dutifully required to receive and no more and no less,” he said. No reasonable person would dispute this. Unfortunately, the automated system has ensured no such thing, often seeking to take far more than the government is owed.

How much more? The Senate inquiry heard that in New South Wales alone, $18m of incorrectly calculated debt has been waived so far, out of 42,750 claims that are being reassessed. That is some stuff-up.

Any one of the many thousands of taxpayers who have been issued with a false debt notice – who have felt threatened, destabilised, stressed or depressed; who have had their time wasted; who have been made to feel like criminals for having the gall to fall back on a safety net that is designed to support them in times of genuine need – might reasonably feel they are owed an apology by an system that let them down by seeking to extort money they didn’t owe.

The former Queensland premier Peter Beattie made an art form of the political apology, deploying it as a tool of first rather than last resort to defuse the many scandals that dogged his government. This willingness to concede error kept his approval ratings high enough to allow him to eventually hand over power (some might say a hospital pass) to Anna Bligh. Before then, Beattie won three elections handsomely.

Apologies make us better people. Acknowledging and owning our failings gives us the chance to learn from them and grow, and it helps people we may have hurt to at least feel heard and understood. This applies to governments and nations as much as it does to individuals: witness the Rudd government’s apology to the stolen generations of Indigenous people.

If Tudge and Porter lack the empathy to examine their own consciences, a simple reading of the politics might help them understand why an apology might be in order. The government is well behind in the polls. Robo-debt has made victims of tens of thousands of Australians. Going after pensioners, many of whom comprise the “base” which the Coalition has endlessly pandered to, is an especially bad idea.

For now, Tudge, Hunt and Sukkar can be thankful the court of appeal has accepted their apologies and, in so doing, spared their jobs and with them their government from an ignominious demise. If Tudge and Porter remain determined not to give the people they have wrongly accused the same courtesy, they may not find them so forgiving at the ballot box.

First published in The Guardian, 24 June 2017

Duck, duck, Brolga, duck

Almost every day in October for the past 33 years, Richard Kingsford has climbed into the passenger seat of a single-engine Cessna to count the waterbirds of eastern Australia. The aircraft buzzes the wetlands from 50 metres above the ground while Kingsford, the director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales, barks into a recorder the numbers and species of startled ducks and other waterfowl – herons, ibis, spoonbills, cormorants and magpie geese.

It’s one of the largest and longest-running fauna surveys in the world, with Kingsford racking up 100 hours of flying time over 2000 wetlands across Queensland, NSW, Victoria and South Australia. Each of the 10 transects are 30 kilometres wide. The northernmost, Band 10, runs from the Whitsunday Islands all the way to the Queensland–Northern Territory border. Band one extends from Seaspray, in Victoria’s far east, to Warrnambool.

The reason for covering such a huge area, Kingsford says, is because “nobody owns the ducks”. In a land of droughts and flooding rains, waterbirds fly enormous distances in rapid response to the prevailing conditions: the ducks of Victoria are as likely to turn up in the Lake Eyre Basin or north Queensland. In dry years, most of the birds are sucked southwards, into the perennial Victorian swamps that provide refuge as the lakes and lagoons of northern and central Australia evaporate.

Those Victorian wetlands are currently host to a bottleneck of hundreds of thousands of waterfowl, locked in by the strongest El Niño in nearly a decade. In the last drought of 2008 and 2009, the Labor government led by Steve Bracks called off the annual duck season. Today, however, the state’s 26,000 licensed hunters are being actively encouraged into those wetlands by Premier Daniel Andrews and the minister for agriculture, Jaala Pulford, for the opening of this year’s 12-week shoot.

It’s a contentious call, because Kingsford’s most recent survey data – distributed annually to the state governments of Victoria, South Australia, NSW and Queensland – recorded several historic lows. The Wetland Index, representing total available habitat, was the lowest on record, as was the total waterbird count. Game duck abundance was the second lowest on record, at just 30 per cent of the long-term average. There was little evidence of breeding.

And the long-term trend across 33 years is inexorably downwards. “We’re looking at 60 per cent-plus declines in total numbers,” Kingsford says.

While the decision has angered segments of the Victorian ALP, Greg Barber, the leader of the Victorian Greens, says the party is running scared of the hunting lobby. “A lot of shooters are blue-collar boys who typically would vote Labor, except they’re scared about the socialists coming to take their guns away,” he claims. “And so there’s been a long-term project in Victoria by the Labor Party to woo the shooters back into the fold.”

Pulford’s office did not respond to inquiries from The Saturday Paper. She has previously stated that hunting, while “not everyone’s cup of tea”, was an important recreational activity that contributed close to $440 million to local economies each year, supporting more than 3000 jobs. Barber scoffs at the figures, which he says assume the money wouldn’t be spent at all if it couldn’t be blown on a weekend killing native wildlife.

Labor’s decision to go ahead with this year’s hunt was based on advice from the Game Management Authority (GMA), established in 2014 by the former Liberal government led by Denis Napthine. Based on Kingsford’s report, the authority recommended that bag limits be reduced: hunters are allowed to take eight birds on opening day, down from 10, and four birds, down from five, on every day thereafter. One of the eight usual game species, the Shoveler, has been excluded due to its low numbers.

Barber has accused the GMA – which is chaired by former National Party leader Roger Hallam and includes on its nine-member board two former senior office holders with Field and Game Australia – of being a taxpayer-funded front for the hunting lobby. Minutes obtained by the Greens under freedom of information show that the authority’s CEO, Greg Hyams, wrote to Victoria Police after hunters complained about their treatment by officers. The minutes also recommended a review of all game reserves “to determine by exception why all legal game and best animals cannot be hunted”.

Barber says this shows the authority was promoting hunting, in conflict with its statutory role as a regulator. A spokesperson for the GMA rejects this, saying functions conferred to the authority include, but are not limited to, promoting sustainability and responsibility in hunting, and that all activities are conducted in accordance with its legislative powers.

The GMA also received submissions from Field and Game Australia, which has called for a five-year moratorium on further restrictions on hunting. General manager David McNabb said that this would “standardise the inputs” in order to get a clearer picture of the actual impact of duck hunting. “The critical issue is habitat and access to habitat,” he says, “which all people interested in conservation of wetlands and management of our native wildlife have an interest in.”

In other words, duck hunting has negligible impact on duck numbers. “Our ducks have this fantastic survival instinct, and when there’s good weather events that create nice new habitat, they’ll get up and move and they’ll use their wings to be able to do that.” McNabb says Kingsford’s survey is “a good dataset for what it is, but it’s not comprehensive”. Field and Game Australia has called for Kingsford’s survey to be extended to the Northern Territory, Western Australia, and uncovered areas of South Australia.

Public opinion is not on the hunting lobby’s side. Polls have consistently shown that the majority of Victorians want duck shooting banned. Trust is also low after a notorious incident at Box Flat, near the township of Boort, on the opening of duck season in 2013. On that occasion more than 1000 birds, many of which were not ducks at all, were killed in a free-for-all involving up to 150 hunters. No one was charged; a heavily redacted government report indicated all present had closed ranks.

BirdLife Australia, which has condemned the decision to go ahead with this year’s hunt, has expressed concern that the state’s small population of Brolga could be caught in the crossfire of opening weekend. Pulford responded: “I don’t think there’s any risk of any hunter mistaking a Brolga with a duck.” No one accused those present at Box Flat of mistaking the local ibis, swans, grebes, avocets and egrets for ducks, either.

The GMA said duck shooting was a legitimate recreational activity with a long history in Victoria, and it brought benefits to regional towns and communities. It said it worked collaboratively with Victoria Police and undertook intelligence-driven compliance operations to apprehend illegal shooters. “We seek to promote sustainable and safe practices,” a spokesperson said, “and help ensure that the laws of the state are being respected by all.”

The Game Management Authority estimates the total harvest from the 2015 season, based on hunter diaries, was 203,934 ducks – 53 per cent of the long-term average of 382,447. An estimated 80,610 were shot on opening weekend. But those figures do not include illegally killed non-game species, the injured, or birds that could not be recovered. Richard Kingsford said the majority of ducks killed are juveniles, victims of their own inexperience.

“You’ve got a lot of adult birds just trying to hang on, and not a lot of fat,” he says. “We’ve got declining populations anyway, so it would be prudent to try to hold off in these dry times. It worries me, because part of this is about the long-term sustainability of duck hunting. They’re shooting themselves in the foot, if you like, by getting stuck into the capital.”

First published in The Saturday Paper, 19 March 2016