February 10, 2016

You couldn't make it up… The Passports Saga part 2

Where were we? Ah yes. Both our passport applications had entered the system (see also, I never thought it would be easy, January 2016). We waited.

I was the first to get a call from the Passport Office. My photograph had been rejected. The facial recognition machines at (some) airports might not positively identify me because there was hair too close to one of my eyes. The Passport Office lady was helpful. If I went to the main post office in Brisbane – in Post Office Square, natch – 'they take a nice photo there'. Then all I had to do was walk two blocks to 150 Charlotte Street, up to the 17th floor, to hand in two new photos, which wouldn't need re-certifying. Bob's your uncle.

I also arranged with the Passport Office lady to collect our passports the day before our departure for the US in mid-Feb since, with the photo hiccough having stalled the process, there wouldn't be time for them to be posted.

I know it's probably hard to believe, but I was agitated waiting in line at the post office the next day. I knew what would happen: 'Just move your fringe out of the way'; 'lower your chin'; and the picture would be shite, whatever. There was an even more anxious lady behind me in the line: she needed an express queue (there wasn't one); then she had to fax things places; and she had to do all this yesterday. I was relaxed, by comparison.

I trotted off to Charlotte Street with the photos, which could have been worse but not much. The first hurdle: I couldn't find 150. Do you know why? The number is inside the building, not on the exterior. Helpful, right?

[I have a theory. I reckon it's pretty dull working in the Passport Office. The atmosphere is sombre and reverential: the employees are all-powerful; their clients fearful in case they put a foot wrong. So the powerful ones have come up with a game. Mostly, they process everything straightforwardly; but occasionally, if they're faced with a Pom or a non-native-English speaker, they decide to have some fun, by putting any or all of a series of hurdles before them to see if they crack. The game's called You want an Aussie passport? Let's see how much you want it.]

On the 17th floor a little man sat at a desk right outside the lift. I had to explain to him why I was there and he then directed me to the appropriate booth inside a waiting room full of apprehensive applicants. My queue didn't take that long, it being only for queries and delivery of additional stuff, not 'interviews'. The Passport Office lady on the phone had recommended I complete a stat dec requesting them not to put 'Stockport Third' as my place of birth. The man behind the glass accepted it and told me they would call me if there was a problem. I didn't doubt that. On my way out, the little man was asking another rather desperate-looking chap if he'd achieved whatever it was he was after. He put his head in his hands and scurried into the lift. Just as well the windows are non-opening on the 17th floor.

Two days later my friend received a phone call from the Passport Office: the photocopy of his birth certificate that the post office had made during his 'interview' wasn't legible. Could he photograph the original and email it to the Passport Office? He could and he did.

The next emails, rather confusingly, were headed 'YOUR PASSPORT IS COMPLETED', although the first paragraph said, 'Your passport is now being prepared'. I phoned up just to clarify, and to request collection on an earlier date than I'd arranged. I didn't want to turn up on the 9th and discover they were in the 'For collection on the 11th' box, did I? I checked again what I needed to take with me.

Yesterday was the day. I went to 150 Charlotte Street and, hey, there was no queue. It wasn't where I was supposed to collect the passports either, but no one had told me. I had to go to the main post office, where there was a long queue. To pass the time, I phoned my friend to joke about the misinformation, believing it to be the final twist in the story. I couldn't reach him.

Neither was it the final hurdle. When I got to the counter, and handed over my receipt of application for a passport, my friend's receipt of application, a stat dec from him authorising me to collect on his behalf, and my driving licence for ID purposes, the man said, 'And do you have your partner's driver's licence?'

I didn't. Because the frickin' requirements for collection given to me in that first phone call hadn't included it. I think it was at this point I came closest to tears. It had just been too difficult, and I was so near and yet still so far. Our passports must have been just over there; just beyond that screen. The man went to ask his supervisor if we could proceed without it. We couldn't. It was needed to verify my friend's signature on the stat dec: I might have forged it, you see. My friend's signature was on his passport, of course, but that was in a sealed envelope that I couldn't open for the man because he wouldn't give it to me because he couldn't verify my friend's signature authorising me to collect the envelope.

I think the man felt sorry for me. He suggested my friend photograph his licence and send me the picture to show the supervisor. I still couldn't contact my friend, either on his mobile or through his company's switchboard. I noticed I didn't have a signal so went outside to try, and fail, again. The man offered me the post office's landline. I reached my friend's desk phone through the switchboard but he didn't pick up.

I was beginning to conclude there must be something wrong with my phone. The man said he would only be there for another 20 minutes, and then I'd have to go through all this again with someone new. I'd tried phoning, text messaging, emailing (it wouldn't send) and WhatsApping. I had to give up. I wandered out into Queen Street, where I had a thought: I went into the Apple Store a couple of doors away to see whatsup with my phone.

It was then I learned that Telstra had gone into meltdown in most of Australia's state capitals.

A young greeter took pity on me. She tried bypassing Telstra – something I would happily do permanently – and Facetimed my friend using Apple's wifi. It didn't work. She then put me on a computer so I could use Facebook. I had doubts he would be on Facebook at work, but I sent a message anyway. I think Telstra must have sorted the problem at that juncture, for a moment later he phoned and a couple of minutes later I received the all-important photo evidence by text.

I raced back to the man in the post office in the nick of time.

February 6, 2016

Doolally decisions

It's been a week of mixed emotions. Some good news; some really bad and stupid. I would have to conclude I'm at the Mrs Bloody Angry of Balmoral end of the spectrum rather than the 'Hey, guys, we're making good progress'. And it's only the first week in Feb.

First up, on Tuesday, the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection granted Adani their Environmental Authority for the Carmichael Mine in the Galilee Basin. This was inevitable, because a state in big debt has to be seen to encourage wealth generation, even though the Indian company is far from securing finance for a project with much reduced estimates of jobs and royalties. The Minister for the Environment absolved himself of responsibility. On his Facebook page, Stephen Miles wrote: 'The decision to issue an Environmental Authority is not a political one. It is made by the environmental regulator in accordance with applicable legislative provisions. Under Queensland law I had no role in the decision-making process.'

Minister Miles is head honcho in his department, presumably, and could table new legislation if he saw fit. The approvals process is in dire need of reform*: hydrogeological and ecological research, for example, should not be left to those with vested interests. The fact that the EA comes with a raft of conditions, some of which in this case were handed down by the Land Court, brings little solace to environmental protectors who insist coal reserves must be left in the ground. Politicians always refer to lists of conditions in an attempt to mollify outrage. Conditions need to be followed through, and on many occasions previously monitoring and enforcement have been found wanting. The Department just doesn't have the resources to do the job properly. I have noticed in the Land Court proponents who are defending inadequate impact management plans try to divert attention with promises of how they'll rehabilitate enormous holes in 30 or 60 years' time. A century and a half's history of deficient, or even non-existent, mine rehabilitation in Australia doesn't instil confidence in those claims either.

There was great news from New South Wales, on the other hand. AGL Energy announced they were abandoning their controversial 330-well coal seam gas project in the stunningly beautiful Gloucester Valley, citing inadequate economic returns resulting from volatile commodity prices and long development lead times. The Groundswell Gloucester lobby group popped the champagne corks and basked in a tidal wave of relief. AGL are selling off a couple of their natural gas assets in Queensland, too.

Unbelievably, Mike Baird's response to AGL's announcement has been to offer new areas for gas exploration, in remote regions out west where opposition is likely to be less organised than in the east. He's also hoping to resurrect applications for gas exploration leases put in by the NSW Aboriginal Land Council. Mining is a deeply divisive issue among Indigenous groups. While some see it as a means to greater financial independence, others consider it anathema to their role as custodians of country.

Then came the shocking news that CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) was laying off 350 researchers over the next two years, mainly from the departments observing and modelling climate change. According to chief executive Larry Marshall, a former venture capitalist in Silicon Valley appointed to the job last year, there's nothing to worry about: the question, is the climate changing?, has been answered, and now he wants to get on with 'putting the "I" back in CSIRO. Hmm.

Not everyone at CSIRO believes climate change research should be put on the back burner just yet, however, especially in the light of commitments Australia made at the Paris climate conference in December, to improve observations and investigate early warning systems. But a hundred of the jobs will go from units researching sea level rise, ocean temperature and acidification, and recording greenhouse gas levels. The last of these includes an air pollution monitoring station in remote northwest Tasmania, the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere, established in 1976 but now at risk. At Cape Grim on Tassie's tip, the air is as fresh as a daisy, having been blown across thousands of miles of ocean, and therefore a good candidate for 'average' air, for the study of its constituents.

The sky remains dark with chickens coming home to roost following the Abbott government's austerity budget measures in 2014.

It's reported that Malcolm Turnbull's cabinet has been working away at tax reform for this year's budget in May. I would love to think they've reviewed tax collection from international corporations and exceedingly wealthy individuals, but I doubt this was ever on their agenda. They could also sort out fuel tax anomalies that subsidise the resources and airline industries. More expensive flights might get the people thinking about inconvenient truths they'd rather ignore. They might even stop baying about cheaper electricity prices once increased tax revenues were diverted into the renewable energy industry. Now that would be good news all round.

* While attending the case brought against GVK Hancock's Kevin's Corner mine in the Land Court last October, I concluded: the existing approvals process is not sufficiently wide ranging in terms of scope, or sufficiently thorough – from baseline studies to impact management strategies – to adequately inform important decision makers; and decision makers who are already challenged in a transitional economy clinging to an obsolete free-for-all mentality, and on a continent at serious risk of climate change impacts and loss of biodiversity.

January 31, 2016

Summer in the city 7: A day in the D'Aguilar

While at Enoggera Reservoir the other weekend, we acquired a map of the D'Aguilar National Park, which stretches from The Gap in northwest Brisbane almost to Woodford in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland. My friend spotted the Range Road Forest Drive in the northern section of the Park, and it seemed a good candidate for an Australia Day excursion.

The weather forecast wasn't great, and we hit torrential rain just beyond Samford. We stopped for coffee at Dayboro, something of a habit, and from there took Mckenzie Street on to Lacey's Creek Road. We were clear where we were going on the National Park map, but we passed two No Through Road signs, always a tad worrying. Lacy's Creek Road was long and winding and we didn't want to have to turn back the way we'd come. But in the past we've tried to take shortcuts or more interesting off-road routes in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland that were on our Hema map but have been disappeared in reality, we suspect by property owners not well disposed to passers-by.

There were a couple of items of interest along the way.
Spot my shy companion
Just as I was anticipating the end of the road, which had become narrow and seemingly rarely used by this stage, we reached the entrance to the National Park. 
The track was rocky and steep beyond, with the occasional crazy dirt biker careening down even steeper slopes into our path. Maybe that's why there was this further up the hill.
There were tantalising glimpses of unspoilt hills stretching out west. The blue mountains looked like a summery sky behind the foliage.
The weather was closing in as we climbed higher up into the Range and the clouds.
The ethereal forest
Soon we came upon what claimed to be Kluvers Lookout. At first we could only find a phone mast with an impressive solar array and a handful of Red-browed Finches on a wire. Then the mist lifted enough to reveal a valley east of the Range.
Further on, it got more rainforesty. Then there were grass trees; and a fern-covered forest floor.
At the next junction we turned on to Peggs Road, and it wasn't long before we reached The Gantry day-use area. It looked familiar from a previous Australia Day trip – the day of the Mount Mee leech incident, when my friend learned to his cost that Australian leeches lurk in damp undergrowth, not water. We'd thought we might have lunch at The Gantry, but no chance: it was heaving and there was nowhere to park. It takes its name from this.
The enormous shed, built in the 1950s, housed the overhead gantry of a sawmill. The timber industry in the area dates from 1879.

We beat a hasty retreat from the hordes and headed off down the Western Escarpment Forest Drive. One thing we love about drives such as this is the ever-changing forestscape, from open dry eucalypt to rainforest. The variety continued around the Escarpment circuit.
And roughly halfway, after slow progress along a rocky trail, was the Somerset Lookout, with more skinks than you could shake a stick at and an extraordinary caterpillar, as well as the view.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable trip that engendered thoughts befitting of Australia Day*.
* See also That day at the end of Jan, January 2016
This post was last updated on 1 February 2016

January 30, 2016

That day at the end of Jan

Every year since we came to live in Brisbane, we've taken advantage of the public holiday on the 26th of January to explore wild places within 100 kilometres or so of the city. We soon learned that many Queenslanders leave town for their favourite haunts. They make an early start, to bag parking space, barbie and picnic bench. They don't seem to mind being close to many others doing the same thing in the same place: the herding instinct appears quite strong.

We're the opposite. We want wild places to ourselves. We're basically antisocial, but mainly it's because we want to be able to hear birds call and animals rustle.

The first year, we made a leisurely start down the Cunningham Highway, marvelling at how little traffic there was. By the time we reached Lake Moogerah it was rammed. Watery places will always be so.

With each passing January, it has seemed more and more appropriate to find as remote a spot as possible to appreciate the land more like it was when the original Australians lived without foreign intervention. A time before timbergetters and miners and farmers who tried to impose alien practices on harsh country. One reason is that the thing about Australia we celebrate most is its landscape and fauna and flora – from unspoilt beach to unforgiving desert – and I spend a lot of my time advocating for their protection and conservation. But the second and more important reason is that I feel increasingly uncomfortable celebrating a past event that is remembered from a totally different perspective by those here ab origine. And that discomfort is greater now we are citizens ourselves.

Of course, we use trails I suspect were originally cut by loggers and are now enjoyed by off-roaders.
How and when 'Australia Day' should be celebrated has become a much hotter topic of late; opinions more polarised. The best things about Australia vary from one individual to another; from one time of year to another. While more and more people acknowledge that 26 January was 'Invasion Day' and massive wrongs still need to be fully acknowledged and atoned, there are those who believe Kevin Rudd's apology* in 2008 was enough, and we should all move on. How convenient.

Those who remain to be convinced that there's a lot more work to be done to achieve reconciliation should listen to Stan Grant's speech** during an Iq2 (Intelligence Squared) debate on racism last October, but only released the week before Australia Day, rather provocatively some say. His words came directly from the heart, not pages of text. Take note of the comparative figures of premature death and juvenile incarceration. Observe the faces of the audience, which speak further volumes. They know how much more there is to do to truly make Australia the country of the fair go.

I am aware how much effort is required. I felt uncomfortable in Alice Springs in the face of widespread evidence of disadvantage: I visited the wonderful Desert Park, but saw nothing of the Indigenous town camps. They are the last places travel or government sites recommend you go. In Yulara and Uluru, I bought beautiful Indigenous wooden artefacts but they were sold to me by white distributors. As was the art we purchased in The Alice. What would I have said or done had it been otherwise? I only think of this now, but I was probably subconsciously relieved at the time. 

I am ashamed of the fact that in six years I have only had two meaningful conversations with Indigenous people. The problem is, I have no idea what to do for the best. But not celebrating the 26th of January with champagne and fireworks seems to be a very small step in the right direction. 

January 28, 2016

Where to from here?

I've never been one for New Year's Resolutions. In Australia, they seem even more doomed to failure since everyone's on the biggest holiday of the year. There's no change of behaviour required of climate activists or environmental protectors, however. Regroup and make plans; the issues haven't gone away during the summer.

Following the excitement of the Paris Climate Conference at the start of December – and if you believe all remaining coal reserves should stay in the ground then it was not a good outcome – the focus now becomes this year's federal election here. Australia's poor climate-action rating in the planetary scheme of things, charted in the Sydney Morning Herald on 8 December (below), was exemplified by the December 2015 quarterly emissions report (to June 2015) released extremely quietly on Christmas Eve, always a good day to bury bad news. It showed Australia's emissions rose by almost one per cent 2014-15, compared with the previous year*.
Things are unlikely to improve unless there is a change of government. Minister 'for' the Environment Greg Hunt has recently been sitting in his office striking out conditions previously attached to coal mine approvals, making it easier for proposals to get off the ground and for resource companies to make profits. Wouldn't his energies be better employed working out how to make mining companies ultimately responsible and accountable for the rehabilitation of their mine sites? This is a huge problem in this country, and the public should pressurise the federal government to make polluters pay.

Clive Palmer's Queensland Nickel refinery is a fine example of how companies extricate themselves from their environmental obligations, if we are to believe the Australian Financial Review**. As QN totters on the edge of the precipice, taxpayers in this cash-strapped state are least likely to be able to pick up the bill when 'financial assurance schemes' prove massively inadequate. (See Post script below.)

There are more than 50,000 abandoned mines across Australia, where, in the early days, mining companies just upped and left when profits dried up. Has anything changed? When a company obtains an approval to mine these days, it pays a woefully inadequate rehabilitation security and the terms of clean-up are woolly and protracted. Stringent measures are required to ensure that pollutants cannot contaminate land or water; that the landscape is stable and safe for grazing animals and cropping; and that land is rehabilitated sustainably.

In mid-December, the environmental ministers of those states beholden to the coal industry – namely Queensland and New South Wales – ensured that Australia's National Clean Air Agreement did not embrace World Health Organisation clean air recommendations. Victoria and the ACT independently adopted WHO's pollution guidelines, but it doesn't look likely that we'll be getting covers for coal trains trundling through Southeast Queensland any time soon. That fight continues.

Last November, an Asian partnership won the tender to build a gas pipeline across the Northern Territory from Tennant Creek to Mount Isa in Queensland. This will serve the NT's shale gas industry, bringing fracking to the region and constructing a pipeline across 622 kilometres of arid lands where, so far, no ecological field surveys have been conducted. Job opportunities blind state governments to conservation concerns.

The pipeline plan is in addition to the Queensland government offering 11,000 square kilometres of Channel Country for exploration by international oil and gas companies (in May last year), allegedly without prior consultation with Traditional Owners of the land. Native title rights cannot be swept under the carpet in the pursuit of profit. Neither should limited and ephemeral water supplies be compromised. Water, in fact, must be placed at the top of the list of priorities across all economic sectors.

Despite a poll last October than indicated the Australian public had got a sense of perspective about the coal industry and its environmental damage†, a poll published last Friday showed that PM Malcolm Turnbull's popularity has increased against that of Opposition leader Bill Shorten††, despite Turbull's lack of action – apart from smugly smiling, that is.

So, I'm opening my election campaign with this thought. I know the Australian Labor Party and the LNP are almost indistinguishable when it comes to transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables, and I support neither for this reason alone. But I believe Labor will be quicker than the self-aggrandising Liberal Coalition to grasp that we have no alternative course of climate action.
Post script 29 January 2016. I wake this morning to a report in The Guardian about an opportunistic 'mining minnow' buying an Anglo American cast-off (the Callide mine in Queensland's Bowen Basin) for a pittance. The $640,000 question – that's a saying, the cost of rehabilitating the mine would be at least $120 million – is how will they raise sufficient funds to clean up? This will present an ever larger and more widespread problem as coal becomes an ever dodgier commodity. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jan/29/coal-giants-abandon-unprofitable-mines-leaving-rehabilitation-under-threat?CMP=share_btn_tw

**  http://www.afr.com/business/mining/clive-palmers-qld-nickel-cut-287m-set-aside-to-clean-up-toxic-sludge-20160118-gm8pt6
† http://350.org.au/news/majority-of-australians-agree-coal-is-bad-for-climate-reef-and-health/
†† http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/jan/22/turnbulls-popularity-soars-over-summer-as-shortens-suffers-poll-shows

January 24, 2016

Summer in the city 6: Enoggera Reservoir

The D'Aguilar National Park lies northwest of Brisbane, roughly between Wivenhoe and Samsonvale reservoirs. The North D'Aguilar Section includes what used to be called Mount Mee State Forest; and the South D'Aguilar Section was formerly Brisbane Forest Park. In the extreme southeast corner of the Park, just 12 kilometres from the centre of Brisbane, is Enoggera Reservoir, part of an SEQ Water estate. It is accessible off Mount Nebo Road in The Gap, via Walkabout Creek Visitor Centre.

'Venture diversely', says the Queensland National Parks Discovery Guide to the D'Aguilar. We were looking for birds as we walked the Araucaria track (5 km return) around a small proportion of the indented Reservoir. By the way, I don't know why it's not called Enoggera Dam. We chose a Saturday afternoon in the summer holidays, and the car park was still rammed at 3. There would be more spaces except that some of them are double length, for boat trailers. Lots of people had parked on the access road.

First we had a cuppa in the Green Tree Frog Cafe, which is very pleasant, with a deep-in-the-forest feel to it.
Initially, we weren't optimistic about finding birds, the noise from the 'beach' being loud and screamy.
Fortunately for us unsociable, peace-and-quiet types, the path soon heads around a mini-inlet, out of earshot of the fun-loving shouty people. Immediately, some birds appeared. By the end of our relatively short walk we had seen two types of Fairy Wren (Red-backed and Variegated), Brush Turkeys, Pacific Black Ducks, Dusky Moorhens, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Ibises, Honeyeaters (possibly Lewin's), Magpies, a gang of four juvenile Torresian Crows, and possibly a Spangled Drongo. Heard but not seen were Eastern Whipbirds and Bell Miners (to us, aka Tink Tinks). Plus a couple of unidentifiables.
Mama Moorhen
Moorhen chick trying to catch up
The forest didn't appear to be particularly out of the ordinary, but I don't think we've ever been on a walk in Australia when we didn't find something interesting. Today, there were carpeted lilies; brilliantly coloured bark; and striking reflections and contrasts.
We passed a couple of walkers at one point who told us there were two koalas (I thought they said) round the corner. In fact, they'd said goannas, which we came across instead, much to my disappointment. The goannas redeemed themselves by tree-climbing, which always seems such an extraordinary feat for them, and these were big.
Goannas are large monitor lizards and were so called by early settlers who were reminded of South American iguanas. There are more than 20 species of monitor lizard in Australia, which all look much the same but differ in size. The largest is the Perentie, which we didn't see, unfortunately, but were hoping to, on our last Outback trip.

Towards the end of the afternoon, the track was popular with runners. It's a manageable distance with a few up-and-downy bits to improve stamina. If you search online, you'll find references to a much longer walk, all around the Reservoir, but there isn't an official track, and you'd need a decent map (topographic map available at the Visitor Centre) to find your way along management roads before joining a shared trail (horses, cyclists and walkers) along South Boundary Road and then Payne Road to get you back to Walkabout Creek.

If you don't want to walk at Enoggera Reservoir, you can do beachy things, kayak (only paddle craft allowed on the water), or mountain bike, and all of it in Brisbane's backyard.
Dam and the back of Mt Coot-tha