September 15, 2016

Blogger's block

Bloggers blog with varying frequency: some may produce several short sharp bursts a day; others create infrequent measured treatises seemingly unconstrained by format or deadline.

I'd like to think I blog when I have something to say – recounting a road trip; outraging about an environmental violation; pontificating about grammar; calling politicians to account; or commenting on mores in my adopted country – rather than writing because of an intention I once had to produce five or six posts a month.

I constantly battle time. Editing photographs; fact-finding; tempering passionate beliefs into measured reporting; editing and reworking. All these gobble up time that could be spent lobbying the state or federal government; researching for my volunteer organisations; even studying hundreds of must-read articles and documents I have previously filed away until there was time.

Do I still have things to say?

A week or so ago I moved house (yes, again, for the fourth time in six and a half years). And then, unsurprisingly, I succumbed to a horrible long-lasting coughing bug that's doing the rounds. But for weeks I should have been writing about California's Joshua Tree National Park; drafting a letter to Queensland's Environment Minister Steven Miles on behalf of The Bimblebox Alliance; researching mangrove die-back in the Gulf for Protect the Bush Alliance; and reporting on two rallies in Brisbane, yet another visit to the Land Court, and a presentation by the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) about the abject failure of mining companies to clean up their mess.

Once there's a backlog, how do you prioritize topics, especially when there are stacks of removal boxes waiting to be filled, and then emptied? And where do you find the wherewithal to keep banging on about the same topics when, inevitably some days, you feel precious little progress is being made?

The first of the rallies was in support of the Palaszczuk Government's legislation – an election commitment – to amend the Vegetation Management Framework Amendment Act of 2013 which 'relaxed' vegetation laws that had been successfully reducing land clearing before Campbell Newman and the LNP came along. In 2014 alone, nearly 300,000 hectares were cleared, mainly to create yet more pasture. Queensland's poor land clearing record had been re-established.

The problem for Labor in passing their legislation was that, since the two Katter Party MPs had declared they would be voting against, the government was dependent on three remaining Independents to get the bill through. Unfortunately Billy Gordon also voted against. Many environmental organisations as well as Government ministers (Deputy Premier Jackie Trad, watched by assorted Cabinet ministers, preaches to the converted at the rally, top) had worked hard to bring the legislation to Parliament, so there was deep disappointment when it failed at the last hurdle.

On the day of the rally (and the vote), I spoke to Rob Pyne, who confirmed his commitment to support the bill. I phoned Peter Wellington's office: as Speaker, he might be called upon for a casting vote. A lady listened, and assured me she'd taken notes and would pass them on, as I made the case for leaving trees be. I rang Bill Gordon's office and left the same message, but in vain. His reasons for voting against were complicated, he explained to others. I suspect the prospect of jobs for young Indigenous men in high-value agriculture had more than a little to do with it.

Barely ten days later some of us were back at Speaker's Corner 'For the Love of Queensland'. This gathering was organised by Lock the Gate to celebrate everything Queenslanders love about their country, and to express concern about food-producing land, water resources and ecosystems at risk from unsafe coal and gas mining. Speakers included Peter Wellington, Rob Pyne and ex-Senator Glen Lazarus, as well as residents of the Western Downs whose lives have been blighted by the actions of unscrupulous mining companies.

Talking of which, I attended an EDO LawJam entitled 'Cleaning up after miners walk away: are you OK with footing the bill?' The speakers were Tim Buckley, Director of Energy Finance Studies (Australasia) at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis; Lock the Gate's Mine Rehabilitation Reform Campaign Co-ordinator, Rick Humphries; and Dr Peter Erskine, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation at UQ's Sustainable Mineral Institute.

If you're angry at the prospect of Santos developing 6100 new coal seam gas wells in the Surat Basin of South-Central Queensland that will, over 30 years, extract 219 billion litres of water, then you'll be furious when I tell you there are 50,000 abandoned mines across Australia, 15,000 of them in Queensland. Of those 15,000, not a single one has been 'relinquished', which I think refers to the surrender of the mining lease following adequate rehabilitation. According to Rick Humphries, in Queensland there is a coal industry financial assurance deficit of $3.2 billion. So who will fund a statewide clean-up?
Whether it's compelling miners to clear up their mess at the end of the extraction process, or, 30 years beforehand, enforcing sufficiently robust environmental conditions attached to an Environmental Authority (EA) before the excavators move in, it is highly questionable whether legislation drafted last century is up to the job today. The absence of a legislative framework that considers emissions reduction obligations, habitat loss and biodiversity extinction, comprehensive cost-benefit analysis, adequate hydrogeological modelling, practical offset management planning preceding mining, and so on, provides grist to the mill for environmental protectors and those defending threatened farmland, communities and areas of high conservation value.

A couple of days ago I attended the Land Court, where the Aldershot and District Against Mine (AADAM) community action group are trying to prevent the Colton Mine from going ahead two kilometres from their homes near Maryborough. Counsel for Colton glibly declared that conditions attached to its EA embraced the precautionary principle; and its expert witnesses unanimously agreed that thousands of litres of waste mine water discharged into the beautiful Mary River – which flows into the Great Sandy Marine Park and the Great Sandy Dugong Sanctuary – would not present a threat to aquatic ecosystems. He pointed out that the duty of the Court was to consider factual evidence, not 'concerns'.

I have concerns till they're coming out of my ears. That the recently re-elected Turnbull government (how did that happen?) is proposing to cut funding to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, and Labor is not opposing the idea – because they accept donations from the fossil fuel industry, too.

That August was the hottest August on record, as was July. And that neither Australia nor the UK have ratified the Paris climate treaty yet.

That, if it weren't bad enough that Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party has four representatives in the Senate, one of them is a climate change denier with a loud mouth. And it is still possible that Donald Trump could become the next President of the United States.

The blogger's block seems to have been eased. Where to from here? Back to California… perhaps.



August 21, 2016

If you go down to the woods…

Lamington National Park lies on the Lamington Plateau, part of the McPherson Range on the Queensland-New South Wales border. There are two sections: the Green Mountains Section, centred on O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat; and Binna Burra Section, where we had stayed once before, in Binna Burra Mountain Lodge. Their Sky Lodges are well-designed, built of slate, stone and wood, and nicely furnished, with stunning views. They're cosy, with efficient heating if the wind is whipping up the valley.

We escaped Brisbane for a night and a day on the city's Ekka public holiday. Everyone should experience the Ekka, but once is probably enough (see The Ekka, August 2011). These days, I would get upset about the innumerable plastic show-bags all over the showground and beyond, as well as wild birds in small cages.  

We left town late Tuesday afternoon. It should take about an hour and a half to Binna Burra, either via the Pacific Motorway or the Ipswich and Beaudesert roads and Mt Lindesay Highway as far as Jimboomba. We chose the latter, but many sets of traffic lights in the rush hour and then winding roads up the mountain in the dark extended the journey beyond two hours.

The early morning light created blue landscapes from the balcony of our beautiful Sky Lodge. And the Gold Coast was lapped by a burnished ocean.
After breakfast and a quick visit to the Ranger station to check the walk we'd chosen (from many in Lamington), we started out from the trailhead along the Border Track at about 10, heading ultimately for Dave's Creek Circuit: 13 kilometres return; walking time 4-5 hours; Class 4. This is regarded as one of the more interesting walks in terms of variety of vegetation. Along the Border Track there is warm and cool subtropical rainforest, where the trees are descendants of the rainforests of Gondwana. There are fine examples of buttress roots, Strangler Figs, epiphytes and, in damper patches, Picabeen Palms.
After you turn off for the Circuit, 2-3 km down the Border Track, there is a small area of Antarctic Beech, believed to survive here in a cool pocket. There are increasing tracts of dryer, more open eucaplypt and casuarina woodland until eventually, on the top of Dave's Creek ridge, there is mallee woodland and then heath. As ever, backlit greens and filigree ferns were irresistible.
Beyond the woods were lookouts – to border country, ocean and valley. There was Molongolee Cave and the aptly named Surprise Rock, a volcanic dyke made of erosion-resistant trachyte.
 
Not far from the Rock was another lookout, over a beautiful variation of montane (above the tree line) heathland, where we had lunch and spent time with a bold Grey Shrike-thrush. He relished muesli-bar crumbs that fell by chance.
There's nothing quite like gazing to the sky via the trunk and spreading crown of an ancient forest dweller. There's something perspective-providing and calming about it. Brisbanites are fortunate to have such forests close at hand in which to lose themselves for a few hours. I found myself wondering, however, how well these giants will adapt to a more challenging climate. And I worried about the fate of millions of trees not park protected from clearing and awaiting the success or failure of imminent vegetation management legislation in the Queensland Parliament.


August 15, 2016

A security nightmare

And I'm not talking about disaffected youth with grudges, religious mania or a right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment.

I'd had the same email address for donkey's years, provided by a British telco company. I kept it when I moved to Australia so that old work contacts would still be able to find me to offer employment. (In fact, that's only happened twice in more than six years.) Long after I no longer had a telephone line or internet with the telco, they began to charge for my email, but only about £1.20 a month, which was acceptable. A few months ago however, without warning or explanation, they increased that charge by more than 300%. I thought that was a bit rude. The Direct Debit Guarantee (UK) stipulates that you must be notified in advance of any changes to the amount, date or frequency your of direct debit. I never received such a notification, but that doesn't mean it wasn't sent.

When I was in the UK a few weeks ago, I phoned them. I had to hang on for 15 minutes before I got through to a real person. There was no apology; nor an explanation of the size of the increase; only that I wasn't on a contract so I had to pay more. A contract for an email? Were they serious?  I could be on a contract for £1.80 – still a 30 per cent increase – or non-contract for little short of £6.

Then we got cut off. So I was cross as well as outraged. I went online banking and cancelled the  direct debit immediately.

Before I returned to Australia, I called them again. I'd decided it was time to start using my other, dormant email. I offered to pay the telco for three months, to give me time to let everyone know of my 'new' address, and asked if I could then close the account online. No, I would only be able to cancel by phone. Call from Oz with the hang-on waits the company is famous for? I don't think so. The woman said she would transfer me to billing, but I couldn't face another lengthy wait.

I returned with the intention of getting the new address up and running right away, but there were distractions and more urgent jobs to do. Two weeks later my email stopped working. Of course, I assumed it was because I hadn't paid them. I frantically sent out notifications of the alternative address to my contacts, and started working my way through a long list of organisations who either email me or use my email as ID.

All went smoothly at first. Some updating processes were more straightforward than others.

Recently, I have observed increased sensitivity – some would say over-sensitivity – to perceived security breaches. Twitter, for example, frequently sends an email telling me they've 'noticed a recent login attempt from an unusual device or location'. This usually follows me accessing Twitter on my mobile rather than my computer! They recommend a change of password, which I ignore.

Then one day, they locked my account (see top). I had to change my password to 'secure' my account before I could access Twitter again. You can probably guess what's coming. Once you start the process they have to send you an interim password, to the email address they have on file, the one I could no longer use. Believing there must be a way to solve the problem, I spent hours going round in circles but always coming back to the dead end, my unusable email. I sent Twitter 'Support' three, increasingly desperate, messages. I explained that I do not use my account for frippery; to follow celebrities, friends or sporting idols; but to further my environmental research for the blog or my volunteering. I explained that my email address had been terminated for me, not by me, and that contacting the provider was unlikely to achieve a result for a number of reasons.

Twitter don't care to use discretion, however; to consider a plea for reinstatement on its merits. This was their final over-and-out, you're on your own, mate, response, after which they went deathly quiet. (Click to enlarge.)
Having built up a number of followers, starting up a new account wasn't an option. My followers' details were locked away in my current account. I didn't believe that phoning the UK telco would get me anywhere if they'd terminated me.

I beat my head against a brick wall for a few more days. I was stumped. I missed tweeting, and checking the latest enviromental news via trusted followees.

There was no alternative: I had to phone the telco; throw myself at their mercy; throw money at them; plead my case for reconnection; anything, to get Twitter back.

There was such a narrow window, at the beginning of the UK working day, 5pm in Oz, to avoid hanging on to the point of financial ruination. The first time, I spoke to a helpful chap, but he was puzzled because my account had not been 'restricted'. He concluded that I would have to speak with the email team. I had already seen in online chat rooms that the email team waits were particularly lengthy and problematical. So, I tried a couple of times to 'chat' online with an advisor. They confirmed what the first man had said.

I summoned up all my strength and wherewithal and rang the number they gave me. I was convinced, even if I reached a real person, that all attempts to reconnect my old email would be thwarted. But, surprise, I got through quickly, and discovered they hadn't annihilated me. Without further ado, the lady gave me a temporary password and talked me through restoration.

So, a result, and easier than anticipated. But I could have so easily been condemned to Twitter silence forever more. I have yet to tackle the same problem with LinkedIn, which I am living without much more easily.

The most pertinent issue remains, however. According to Twitter's so-called support, these almost insurmountable hurdles, aka account verification requirements, are in place to protect accounts and private user data. But if the measures lock out the account holder to the extent they prohibit any course of action, then data protection is a secondary issue. Security hoops are held ever higher and they're flaming: it is time to introduce flexibility and discretion into the madness. An end to faceless 'support' would also be helpful.

One lesson here is clear. If your email is 'compromised', act quickly, otherwise problems will quickly escalate and your stress levels head off the scale.


August 6, 2016

Adani in court again

An environmental authority (EA) was granted for Adani's Carmichael mine on 2 February 2016. This followed a recommendation by the Land Court of Queensland, on 15 December 2015, that it be granted. The decision, by Member Carmel MacDonald, had conditions attached relating to the monitoring of the impacts of the mine on the by-now notorious Black-Throated Finch (BTF), whose core population, the case had evidenced, lives on the proposed mine site.

The Land Court case had been brought by conservation group Land Services of Coast and Country, who objected to the Carmichael mine on the grounds of its potential impact on groundwater and groundwater-dependent ecosystems, and on biodiversity; the contribution of the mine's vast output to global carbon emissions and subsequent harm to the Great Barrier Reef due to climate change; and the dubious economic viability of the mine. Evidence was presented between March and May, 2015: see several blog posts during that time, starting with Another Little Bird, from 1 April, 2015.

Member MacDonald did not address any of the above issues, therefore, except one aspect of the biodiversity.

The case revealed the same concerns expressed during previous cases brought against other proposed mega mines in the Galilee Basin: that not enough is known about the hydrogeology of this arid region  to be able to guarantee no impact on precious artesian water supplies to farmers and communities. And that the economic modelling required by an environmental impact statement is inadequate for a realistic assessment of the costs to and benefits for communities (local and wider) of such a huge mine.

Coast and Country went to the Supreme Court in Brisbane yesterday for a judicial review of the granting of Adani's EA on the grounds it was unlawful under the state's Environmental Protection Act 1994 (EPA). In particular, it failed under Section 5 of the EPA which places a duty on decision makers such as Member MacDonald 'to exercise their power in the way that best achieves the ecologically sustainable development object [objective] of the Act'. Coast and Country were represented by the Environmental Defenders Office Queensland. The picture at the top shows EDO CEO Jo-Anne Bragg and Derec Davies of Coast and Country walking into the Supreme Court.

The whole day's evidence revolved around sections 3 and 5 of the EPA, and what the legislature intended when they worded the Act as they did. Section 3 says:
The object of the Act is to protect Queensland's environment while allowing for development that improves the total quality of life, both now and in the future, in a way that maintains the ecological processes on which life depends (ecologically sustainable development).
EDO's QC argued that Section 5 was specifically created so that a decision maker would consider whether their decision furthered the object of the Act. The section's purpose is not aspirational: the language is unambiguous. It has work to do with regard to a decision maker's function and power.
If, under this Act, a function or power is conferred on a person, the person must [my italics] perform the function or exercise the power in the way that best achieves the object of this Act.
Furthermore, she argued, Member MacDonald had not engaged with the question begged by the object of the Act when she recommended approval of Adani's EA. She had not fulfilled her obligation under Section 5 and asked herself the ultimate question: would the Adani project be ecologically sustainable?

Damian Clothier QC, for Adani, defended Member MacDonald's reasoning for recommending the EA be granted. In order to achieve the best possible of outcomes, she attached additional conditions (for BTF monitoring) to the draft EA before her, but otherwise considered it consistent with her findings in the Land Court, which is what she considered to be her obligation. She did not regard any other considerations to be significant.

I have sat in a number of Land Court and higher court cases, and conservationists winning against big coal are as rare as hen's teeth. That doesn't stop me hoping, however. No indication was given of when a judgment will be handed down, but it is highly unlikely that the Queensland government will in the end have to rescind Adani's EA. They may not believe that the Carmichael coal mine will ever become a reality, but they're relying on the market making sure it doesn't happen rather than rising to the challenge of rescuing Queensland's biodiversity and investing in renewables for jobs.


July 31, 2016

Hiatus

I haven't written in a while.

I went to Europe; principally the UK but also the Balearic island of Mallorca. I've been back in Bris for a couple of weeks, but went to Victoria for five days.

One of few advantages of long gaps between visits to the home country is that you look around with fresh eyes that provide pleasant surprises. I was struck by the grandiose Victoria and Albert Museum and the postcardy streets of Kent country towns. I admired commonplace red brick and hung tile house construction in Surrey; and marvelled at green-tunnelled narrow lanes near home.
It was almost seven years since I'd been to Mallorca, and I had forgotten how beautiful are the streets of Pollença hill town and the narrow ways through flowers and fincas (large inland properties) along the pretty route to the Pollença Bay and Puerto de Pollença.
Even London surprised. I had expected noise and dirt and overcrowding. Instead, I found the place invigorating. We revisited the familiar: from Waterloo Bridge my friend counted 42 cranes. We noticed that St Paul's is more lost then ever in a heavy towering skyline. In contrast, The Shard is barely there and at times almost ghostly. I explored some new. I met a dear friend I hadn't seen for five years one warm sunny day. We talked long and serious over a Greek lunch at Limonia on Regent's Park Road – where among individual shops was the best display of rosés I've ever seen – and then sat and stared from the top of Primrose Hill. It was as if I'd seen my pal only last week: that's what friends are for.
 
Despite my former employer, London's Evening Standard, declaring more than a year ago that the hipster was finally dead*, Gordon Ramsay's Union Street Cafe in Southwark still sported one or two. The food was far from awesome, and overpriced. I left hungry. Our waiter continually topped up the glasses – the oldest trick in the book – so that several bottles of equally extortionate wine made for a scarier bill than any of us intended. The next evening, Buenos Aires in Reigate seemed enormously good value by comparison. The carefully tailored Argentinian steaks, chubby chips and chimi churri sauce were delicious, filling and didn't break the bank. As we left, a beautifully Turneresque sky reminded me of what I probably miss most in Queensland – late light summer evenings. (Spot the passenger jet headed for London Gatwick.)
Another food experience I hadn't realised I missed so much was shopping in Waitrose (a supermarket, for the uninitiated). Oh, the joy of being able to buy wine or beers as well as food; sustainably sourced fish; fresh pasta shapes other than long thin or filled varieties; several options of Cheshire cheese; rich and chocolatey mini chocolate rolls; mini Melton Mowbray pork pies; delicious freshly made pastries; and generally high-quality stuff. Even cut-price Robert Harris novels. I looked for excuses to visit daily.

In Pollença, the Sunday morning market was just as ever it was.
Politically, these past weeks have been a nightmare. On 23 June, 17 million citizens of the so-called United Kingdom voted in a referendum for their country to leave the European Union: 16 million of us voted to remain a part of Europe. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say I was devastated. Dumbfounded. In shock. It took until the following day for anger to set in. It's still there. I cannot bear to go into the details of this extraordinarily selfish, short-sighted and stupid exercise, or explain why and how it came about, except to say that the complexity of the issue of whether to go or stay was way beyond the intellectual capacity of vast numbers of voters, and should never have been reduced to a one-liner on a referendum ballot paper. 

I am a European first and foremost: always have been; always will be. I will not now work towards or support a long, tedious and expensive process of extraction that will be detrimental to my children's and my children's children's future; not to mention my return.
Two days prior to this day of disaster, I went to Australia House to vote ahead the federal election on 2 July. Postal voting ballot papers had not been printed before I left Australia for London, and I was not going to rely on two directions of unreliable postal service, with time limits. It was a rather pleasant experience, and an education, it being the first federal election in which I was eligible to vote. In my youth, I remember Aussies I shared houses and work spaces with having to do this periodically. Never did I imagine I would be grappling with the concept of above- and below-the-line choices of candidates, and voting papers more than a metre long. I was surprised to see enthusiastic canvassers outside the 'polling station', handing out 'how to vote' leaflets just like they do here.
I wonder if such pamplets might have educated Brexiters so that they hesitated before picking up their pencils to cast my home country adrift after 42 years of EU membership. Of course, the results of the Australian election weren't good either. They trickled through painfully slowly, and even though it looked like a hung parliament for a while, too many Aussies voted for more of same-old Mr Smarm. But only by one seat, I have learned today, as the final recount saw Labor claim the former Liberal stomping ground of Herbert in Queensland. Mr Smarm therefore achieved nothing by calling a double dissolution election (for the House of Representatives and the whole of the Senate): he will have exactly the same problems getting unpopular policies through as he did before.

All that remains is for the US to vote Trump into the White House for the world to spin off its axis. This last week, Hillary Clinton has won the Democratic nomination. I dare to hope that an even greater catastrophe than Brexit can be averted in November.

It takes time to readjust to being back after weeks away. You miss family, friends, animals; and the unique characteristics of the place. This was a new friend I made while gardening. It's a good job Eric doesn't spend much time in the garden these days.