April 12, 2014

The shouty people

You deliberate about many things when choosing where to live. A key consideration is often proximity to bus routes, train stations and ferry terminals; to shops, supermarkets, schools, sports grounds and other recreational attractions. Can you gauge what the neighbours might be like? Are there yapping dogs or squealing children; dead white goods, rusty utes, or random piles of building materials in their yard? Are their rubbish bins in evidence 24/7 or right near your dividing fence (important during a Queensland summer, believe me)? If you value peace and quiet, you wouldn't choose the bank of a river large enough to accommodate whizzing show-off jet skis or rowing teams on pre-dawn training. And look out for motorbikes and hoons' cars with parcel shelves or other sticky-out bits, coloured wheel caps and, inevitably, one or more modified exhausts.

How much greenery and open spaces are there in the area? Do commuters or school-running parents use your road for parking? Some of this research might involve numerous visits and lengthy observation periods, but it's worth the investment. When we last moved we were pleased to see a park less than a minute's walk away from the house. What we didn't do beforehand was come round on dark autumnal evenings and listen out for noises other than squabbling bats or wailing curlews.

So on a future list of requirements I would now add 'absence of shouty people'. I'm talking about footy players. That's Aussie Rules. The shouty season started a few weeks ago and unfortunately runs until the end of September. There is shouting every weekday evening between 6.30 and 9.30, and high bright floodlights detract from the city skyline beyond and beam into my living room.

It's 4 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon as I write, and the shouting has been going on since well before midday. Several games must have been played by now. The siren seems to go much more frequently than at the beginning and end of every quarter. And we won't get a break tomorrow: Sundays are not shouty-people-free.

I assume they're shouting instructions to their team mates. It's not possible to decipher most of the noise. Some shouts may be macho grunts of encouragement and confirmation of mateship, but I don't remember hearing quite so much shouting during (proper) football or rugby matches, ever. Trouble is, there seem to be at least a hundred people on the pitch in Aussie Rules. Shouting with such guttural volume must sap energy I would have thought. What I know for sure is that after several hours, every day, it is extremely intrusive and irritating for residents round and about.

And it's clearly not the large crowd making all that noise.

April 9, 2014

The Land Court has spoken

The Land Court was established in 1898 (by the Land Act 1897) as a court of record of the State of Queensland, and has a wide remit relating to land and resources. It deals with compensation claims relating to the compulsory acquisition of land; appeals against decision-making by ministers and departments under a long list of acts; and disputes in connection with mining activities.

During its first half-century the Court arbitrated mainly in disputes arising out of the Crown leasehold system. Gradually it acquired further roles, and today some 45 State Acts confer jurisdiction on the Court, including the Mineral Resources Act 1989, the Environmental Protection Act 1994 and the Water Act 2000.

The Land Court's website says:

The Land Court hears and determines matters in a manner similar to the Supreme Court and District Court with some variations, as the procedure of the Court is governed by equity and good conscience and the strict rules of evidence do not apply. Land Court Members are judicial officers appointed by commission and have many of the powers of a Judge of the Supreme Court in exercising the Court’s jurisdiction.
I observed the Land Court's modus operandi in the capable hands of Member Smith when attending Hancock Coal Pty vs Kelly & Ors last year (see Farmers vs Big Coal and The Big Issue posts, September 2013, and Meanwhile, back in Court, October 2013). He pointed the way to cattle graziers representing themselves in the face of legalistic objections by Hancock Coal's slick lawyers, and patiently explained procedural subtleties.

Yesterday we returned to Brisbane Magistrates Court to hear his judgement.

The big issues of the case were the risk to farmers' groundwater from drawdown by nine proposed mega mines in Central Queensland's Galilee Basin; the threat to biodiversity by their construction; damage to the Great Barrier Reef by the further dredging of coal ports and increasing numbers of coal carriers; and the contribution of carbon emissions from the products of huge mining operations to climate change.

Member Smith's recommendations were 'in the alternative', which is unusual I believe, and means he gave the ministers responsible for the Mineral Resources Act and the Environmental Protection Act two options: first, that they refuse the mining lease application by Hancock Coal; or that, in the case of the MRA, the mining lease be granted but subject to Hancock obtaining water licences so that 'all concerns pursuant to the precautionary principle are resolved'; or alternatively in the case of the EPA, that the mining lease be granted subject to Hancock obtaining the water licences as above, as well as providing three additional water level monitoring points (on each of the objecting landowners' properties) to produce 12-hourly water level data readings, and entering into make-good agreements with each landowner within 12 months or before mining activities begin, whichever is the sooner. 

I hadn't known what to expect of the decision. I had been encouraged, during Member Smith's summing up in October, by his inclination to be guided by the precautionary principle. Now I was hearing the phrase again, with reference to possibly the most vital concern: whether or not the geology of the Galilee's aquifers is sufficiently well understood for groundwater modelling to adequately predict the risks of mining to the region's water sources; and whether the cumulative impact of the water demands of so many extremely large mines should be assessed before any excavators get to work.

The feeling among the objectors and their supporters was that Member Smith's recommendations were the best they could have hoped for. Coast and Country Association of Queensland left court with a spring in their step (top). One supporter was so pleased she felt like dancing on the table. And so she did.

Unfortunately, Member Smith's recommendations are not binding, and the fates of all parties in the case are back in the hands of the Queensland Government. Back in 2012, when UNESCO expressed serious concern about the Great Barrier Reef as a result of planned coal port expansion, Premier Campbell Newman infamously explained, 'We are in the coal business'.

Newman's ministers would surely be foolhardy to completely ignore the Land Court's pronouncement. It will take time to resolve 'all concerns pursuant to the precautionary principle'. And in the meantime thermal coal prices may continue to fall ($140 a tonne to $80 in the last two years). The financial viability of mining the Galilee is not likely to improve in a world (excluding Australia) increasingly inclined towards renewables.

I was greatly encouraged by the Land Court's recommendations in this case. Now I hope for 'equity and good conscience' on the part of two Queensland government departments. I cannot overstate the magnitude of that responsibility.

This post was last edited on 10 April 2014

April 4, 2014

Meet me on the corner

Last Saturday I met my MP on a Community Corner in Hawthorne. On a flyer in my mailbox he invited me to share my views with him in one of five locations dotted around the local area. If I couldn't make it, he listed eight issues and asked me to identify the top three of concern to me and return the survey to his office. The issues were: cost of living; tackling crime; improving public transport; protecting the local environment; improving schools; providing better health care; helping small businesses; and long-term infrastructure planning. All worthy.

I went to meet him, however, because the issue that concerns me – probably more than all the others put together – is the government's, all governments', failure to adequately tackle climate change. As I explained that I was there because he'd missed the most important thing off the list, his smiled faded a little.

He started to explain what he'd done for the environment locally – planting trees, for example. Was he deliberately confusing a life-threatening global issue with local beautification? His reluctance to acknowledge the subject we'd brought to the corner per se prompted my friend to ask if he believed in anthropogenic climate change. He didn't appear to be familiar with the term meaning 'originated by humans'. Avoiding the affirmative, he wittered on about there always having been climate change, which no one disputes. Oh dear.

Looking as if he'd been caught on the hop, he asked how my concern could be addressed at local level. Let's start with renewable energy, shall we? Making it easier, not more difficult, for people to install solar panels. I expressed my disappointment at the demise of the solar feed-in tariff due to take effect from 1 July. Then came more predictable guff about those without solar subsidising those with it. I contested this (see Solar Blindness, March 2014), as I did his next claim, that domestic solar energy producers will be free to negotiate feed-in rates with the power companies. Why would a fossil-fuel-based energy retailer make it easy for solar users? That's a bit like turkeys voting for Christmas.

A clean-energy economy should be the government's imperative, in Brisbane and Canberra. Thousands of Australians are already doing their bit, and energy ministers should be helping them, not thwarting them. With incentives to meet renewable energy targets.

My MP and I had to agree to disagree.

By now he was glancing over my shoulder to the next constituent waiting, clearly hoping for a more comfortable topic next. We took our leave, having requested that he take our subject on board. Maybe he should start with the IPCC's recently published Fifth Assessment Report, kindly unpacked* by the Climate Council, an independent, non-profit organisation (funded by public donations) that rose out of the ashes of the Climate Commission, abolished by Tony Abbott's government soon after they came to power. I think I'll send it to him. I'll send it to Abbott, too, while I'm at it.

My MP was elected in 2012, by a mere 74 votes. Community Corners are a great idea but I think his listening skills need work and he should do his homework. No prizes for guessing which party he belongs to.


March 30, 2014

Two days in Melbourne

I'd forgotten how much I like Melbourne.