July 22, 2012

Not a great week for Aussie blokes

So, gender inequality is alive and kicking in Asia Pacific.

First, we learned that the Japanese men's football team had flown business class to Europe for the Olympics while the much more successful – in fact, world champion – women's team travelled in economy. I wasn't surprised: Japan isn't exactly up there as far as women's rights are concerned, is it? I was shocked, however, when news broke of the Aussie men's basketball team (the Boomers) travelling in business, while most of the women's team (the Opals) flew premium economy.

Let's just take a moment to dismiss some of the rubbish put about in the wake of this news. First, legroom. Both the women's and the men's basketball players are tall: the average Boomer height is 200cm (6ft 7in) while the average Opal height is 183cm (6ft), but star Opal Liz Cambage is 203cm (6ft 8in), which is 20cm (8in) taller than Boomer Patrick Mills. Second, success. The Opals won silver at the last three Olympics and bronze in 1996; the Boomers have never won an Olympic medal. Third, satisfaction with travel arrangements. Head of team Australia Nick Green told the media in London: 'As I understand it, the women's basketball team were very comfortable with their travel arrangements'. The Age reported, however, that some of the current ladies team are frustrated because they've been lobbying for better treatment for some time.

Turns out the Opals are not alone in being treated as second-class sportspeople. The national women's football and cricket teams also travel in economy while their male counterparts travel business class. As in basketball, the women's football team has a much higher international ranking. Basketball Australia have seen the error of their ways and are to review their travel policy for players.

Much more iniquitous, however, is the utter cluelessness of Aussie lads' mag Zoo Weekly, which is searching for 'Oz's hottest asylum seeker'. It's hard to recall something quite as tasteless as this in a long while:
'Are you a refugee not even the immigration minister could refuse? Then we want to see you! ...if you've swapped persecution for sexiness, we want to shoot you (with a camera – relax!). Send [us] your pics and a short story about your tragic past.'
Obviously Zoo are being even more crass, offensive and sexist than usual. But the outrage here about ogling (or worse) female asylum seekers or refugees is tinged with extra awkwardness as a result of Australia's relentless drive to 'stop the boats' and rather ambivalent attitude to offering their occupants the safety and opportunity one might normally expect in a society such as this. 

I was searching in a newsagent's a couple of days ago for a magazine about birds, which makes me sound well twitchery. Never mind. Inevitably, I spotted the section of Zoo-like publications. When my children were little, I used to turn over magazines and gutter press with covers that might have given them the impression I found it acceptable to have images of naked women on garage forecourts and in convenience stores for all the world to see. In this particular shop the section was headed Men's lifestyle, the second word of which had been covered by 'restricted'. Not visually, unfortunately. 'Lifestyle' here didn't seem to include cars or fishing or DIY. In the light of the new depths to which Zoo Weekly has plummeted this week, Australia's womenfolk might like to suggest a few new subject headings. Gratification? Indulgence? Relish? If you'd like to leave your ideas in the comments box, I'd be happy to pass them on to the shop.

July 18, 2012

Newman hits defenders of the battlers

On Monday at least a couple of thousand public sector (PS) workers protested outside Parliament House in Brisbane. They are extremely concerned that more job cuts are in the offing – 20 per cent of the workforce in some departments, it is alleged. And this despite Campbell Newman's 'promises' before he was elected back in March that frontline services would be safe in his hands. On 30 June, the end of the tax year, about 3000 PS workers' temporary contracts were not renewed. According to Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney on ABC Radio yesterday, temporary contracts are just that, temporary, and have no guarantee of renewal. Some of the people who now find themselves unemployed had previously had their contracts renewed year after year, however. I worked for years in London publishing houses as a 'temporary freelancer': I had a certain amount of job security and they didn't have to pay the extra costs of permanent employees.

Once the LNP were in power in Queensland, they discovered a huge debt resulting from Labor's profligate spending (they said), but probably as least in part due to two big natural disasters that hit the state within months in 2011. Action-man Newman didn't waste any time cutting costs, from the small-scale, such as The Queensland Premier's Literary Awards and special-needs support groups, to large-scale, public sector jobs culls.

The former group includes the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), which helps individuals, community groups and conservation groups seeking to protect the environment in the public interest. This non-profit, non-governmental network of community legal centres has an office in every state, and two in Queensland (Brisbane and Cairns). Each office is staffed by one or two solicitors specialising in planning and environmental law. As well as advising and acting for individuals and community groups, the EDO has a role in the reform and formulation of environmental law and providing education (in the form of workshops, fact sheets and publications) that enables communities to participate more in decision-making about their environment.

In Queensland, the EDO's funding comes from the Commonwealth and – until 30 June – State community legal service funding programmes. In addition, there used to be small amounts of money from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) project funding. The EDO relies on donations, however, for public interest legal work, and is also supported by members and private donors. It will be much more dependent on the latter from now on.

State Attorney General Jarrod Bleijie explained on 10 July to ABC Brisbane's Steve Austin that funding for all community legal centres in Queensland comes from Legal Practitioners Interest on Trust Account Funds (LPITAF). According to Mr Bleijie, trust account funds have not accrued as much since the GFC because of fewer house sales, and there are no longer the funds available to give to the EDO. So, the cut has absolutely nothing to do with Campbell Newman's avowed intention to cut 'green tape', making it easier for the resources industry to gain approval for their projects, thus speeding up production and ultimately the receipt of royalties into Treasury coffers? Really and truly? Because weeks ago, when I first read about the noble efforts of the EDO, I predicted that they would soon be in the Premier's sights.

Reading Rich Land, Wasteland: How Coal is Killing Australia by Sharyn Munro, it's hard to imagine that certain sectors of the resource industry need further help with approvals. The book is a heartbreaking catalogue of lost farmland and homes that have been in families for generations; of health impaired by dust, 24-hour bright light, audible noise, the much more insidious low-frequency noise, and stress; of disappearing water courses and contaminated creeks and swamps; of fighting spirits broken in the face of all-powerful coal and gas companies that can march in, procure, destroy, break promises, expand, and fail to monitor their impact or adhere to conditions attached to approval.

Increasingly over the last 18 months to two years the EDO's solicitors have advised landholders and communities in their battles against the increasingly foreign-owned coal and gas companies: individuals and groups that lack the money to engage lawyers; country people who do not necessarily support one political party or another; who are not against the mining industry per se, but whose lives have been turned upside down and whose livelihoods are seriously at risk; and who need a fair go to defend themselves. The EDO provides outreach legal services to help such people mount a challenge in the absence of support from local council or state government; if necessary, to go to court; to lobby for conditions attached to approvals. The EDO have a unique role in building awareness and broadening knowledge of rights and laws and planning processes, which must help those managing the conflict between resource exploitation and environmental protection. But the EDO are not only concerned with the impacts of mining: they are just as likely to advise those trying to have their say in the felling of trees or the widening of roads or the development of mega quarries (like that planned for the Kerry Valley, top).

EDO funds have been halved at a stroke, when six month's notice should have been given. The first casualty is their invaluable publication The Community Litigants Handbook, in its third edition but unlikely to be reprinted. In the pipeline, but now dependent on a lot more donations for its completion, is the Community Mining and Coal Seam Gas Legal Handbook. With mining leases covering a large proportion of this state, such a publication is likely to be of use to increasing numbers of communities. If you would like to help make this possible, or support the EDO by becoming a member, go to http://www.edo.org.au/

July 12, 2012

G20 in Brisbane

When I announced in 2009 that I was moving to Brisbane, most friends and colleagues were excited for me and many were envious – of my prospect of endless sunshine, best beaches, extraordinary wild places and overall great Australian adventure. I wondered, however, how many of them knew precisely where it was. Could they have accurately stuck a pin in a map? Did they realise it was in Queensland? Did they care? 

Once I was here, one of my first friends, a native of Melbourne but recently arrived from living in Perth, curled her lip slightly as we walked together along the riverbank. 'Brisbane is a small town pretending to be a big city,' she pronounced, as if the river were throwing up an unpleasant odour. She was not impressed by the city's self-affixed label 'Australia's New World City'. 

PM Julia Gillard has been on a week-long tour of Queensland to bolster Labor support and persuade people that carbon pricing does not mean the end of the world as Australians know it. In Brisbane yesterday, she smilingly announced that the G20 Summit was coming to town in 2014. Most people seem to agree that this mega-event will put Brisbane on the map. (Did you know where Los Cabos was before June?). And, for a nation that continually claims to punch above its weight in the global arena while failing to sound totally convinced itself, it will provide a chance to show off both city and state (Finance Ministers will convene beforehand in a different regional centre). Ms Gillard summed up:
'Hosting the G20 in 2014 provides an invaluable opportunity for Australia to influence the global economic agenda... With Queensland a driving force behind the nation's economy, there could be no better place to welcome the world's leaders than Brisbane.'
Needless to say, not everyone is as enthusiastic. It's a bit tricky for State Premier Campbell Newman. Previous Premier Anna Bligh jumped at the opportunity when the Commonwealth first asked for expressions of interest, but a lot of water has flowed under Brisbane's bridges since then, and Mr Newman is naturally reticent about the huge costs involved in playing host to the G20 leaders, estimated at getting on for $400 million. He cannot appear churlish, however, in the face of such an opportunity to put Brisbane on the lips of millions across the globe. 3000 media are expected as well as 4000 delegates.

Sydney's nose has been put well out of joint. What on earth does the Prime Minister think she's doing, insulting the world's most powerful leaders by sending them to such a provincial outpost when everyone knows that Sydney is Australia's real new world city. Indignant New South Wales Planning Minister Brad Hazzard is convinced it is a purely political move and Sydney should win based on any criteria. Like it's congested airport that regularly delays visitors (both my inbound and outbound flights a couple of weeks ago)? And its convention centre that will be closed for three years of refurbishment from 2013?

Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre has been rated in the world's top three (by the International Association of Congress Centres) at least three times since it opened in 1995, and regularly hosts thousands of conference attendees. Next month, for example, more than 5000 International Geological Congress delegates will rock up. It can accommodate more than 40 concurrent sessions; and has a high security component, being very close to the CBD yet in its own precinct that can be locked down. And Brisbane will, in a matter of days, have a brand-spanking-new airport link to whizz visitors into town: its construction was the reason my friend and I came to this city. Below is a highly complex junction where the airport link connects with the Clem7 Tunnel and the Inner City Bypass.
My first instincts were that G20 will be good for Brisbane and Australia. While I am hugely cynical about the tangible results of such conferences, global issues will be highlighted in a country that is geographically isolated, at times politically reclusive and largely environmentally backward. There will undoubtedly be protesters, and so there should be, as long as they are peaceful. They would do well to know what they'll be up against, however, in the form of police and security forces. The scale and nature of Australia's, and particularly Queensland's resource boom and development, with its potential impact on global climate and the Great Barrier Reef, may combine with anger and frustration about the world's financial shortcomings, economic hardship, corporate greed and political ineffectuality to create a potentially explosive situation.

Will I still be in Brisbane?

July 8, 2012

Four days in Sydney

The first of the four was short, and shorter still thanks to air traffic control at Kingsford Smith, Sydney's airport, and interminable shuttle-bussing. Having quickly checked in to our hotel in York Street, we taxi-ed to Surry Hills, arriving at twilight, which, on a clear, sliver-of-a-moon evening, was lovely, but not long enough to photograph this up-and-come part of town south of Darlinghurst. Crown Street was thronged with people, including rugby fans making their way home from a Wallabies-Wales clash. We walked up and down, admiring smart pubs, stylish homeware and vintage shops, delis and wine bars, stopping for a glass in Mille Vini. For dinner, we were headed to Bodega Tapas Restaurant, a five-minute walk away on Commonwealth Street. The queue outside waiting for the 6pm opening was an indication of the quality food to come, including the best home-made chorizo and a remarkable yet scarily expensive Argentinian Malbec.
Next morning, the battle for bus tickets began. You can't buy a ticket on some Sydney buses, you see, but visitors struggle to identify which. So, it's as well to buy in advance, from a Bus TransitShop (few in number) or convenience stores. Unfortunately, early on a Sunday morning, the latter were inconveniently closed and the TransitShops in the wrong direction from the bus stop we needed. We bought some tickets from a machine in St James station but they turned out to be for trains only. We therefore had to take a train that crawled north to Circular Quay then south to Town Hall before heading east to Bondi Junction, where we waited a while for a bus to the Beach. Lonely Planet East Coast Australia also warns:
'Sydney buses run to most places but not frequently... Bus routes starting with an X indicate limited-stop express routes: those with an L have limited stops... Many bus stops lack basic route and schedule information.'
Bondi looks better these days, I think; greener. On a wonderful winter's Sunday morning in Bondi Beach, we were fortunate to bag a table at Trio Cafe on Campbell Parade: their Breakfast Sundae (strawberries, banana and toasted muesli swirled with honey yoghurt) went down a treat. We were in Bondi for the Eastern Beaches Coastal Walk to Coogee Beach – about five kilometres. It starts at the southern end of Australia's most famous beach by the Bondi Icebergs swimming club. What used to be called Bondi Baths became the Icebergs' home in 1929: their name comes from the tradition of placing a tonne of ice in the pool at the start of their season – winter! Membership demands dedication. Fitness generally is taken especially seriously in Bondi, and the coastal path was crowded with runners. I'd say they were a pain at times on the narrow path, but Brisbanites may well feel the same about me down by the riverside on a Sunday morning.  
The sandstone cliffs provided stunning banding, colours and jagged sculptures along the walk. From Mackenzies Point you can look back to Bondi and ahead to the southern beaches. First up, Tamarama, a small beach with a reputation for glamour, although why you would want to bare all when so overlooked by walkers is bemusing, but perhaps I'm missing the point. I couldn't fail to notice the extensive list of rules on many of these beaches: 'killjoys' was the word that sprang to mind. We continued on to beautiful Bronte, which I've always preferred to Bondi.
Another favourite with surfers, Bronte's beach is backed by just as big a green sward, in contrast to Bondi's concrete. Stop for a coffee or lunch at the cafes on the south side. Beyond Bronte there followed stunning water colours, rock formations and views to die for. I have read that famous Australians, from poets to pollies, are buried in Waverley Cemetery. If you'd rather be buried than burned, then the 'location, location and location' factors make this pretty unbeatable.
The rest of the walk revealed more stunning sandstone, lots of steps, picturesque boats and coastal heath remnants in the aptly named Clovelly, but not-quite-so-charming beaches at Gordons Bay or Coogee, where we hopped on a bus (we had return tickets!) back to the city, for more walking, around rather different Rocks.
The next day was a Habour day, and the fulfilment of a long-held wish to visit Rose Bay, an eastern harbourside suburb some seven kilometres from the CBD. I caught a ferry from Circular Quay – something that always thrills me. I snapped away like a newbie to Sydney – just can't resist the same-old. 
The ferry went as far as Watsons Bay, almost at The Heads, before bringing me back to Rose Bay, named after a British Treasury official in the 1780s rather than beautiful blooms. I walked round the Bay from the ferry terminal towards the marina, where I sat in warm sunshine, enjoying a flat white, observing a tame Lorikeet entertaining his audience and working out how best to capture this pretty bay with its far-from-the-madding feel.
I continued along the busy New South Head Road to Double Bay. I kept catching glimpses of the Harbour and secluded little baysides. I talked to an elderly lady who used to swim here (below) when she was younger and allowed to take her dog into the park, now frequented by yummy mummies and offspring. The building to the right is a library: imagine working in the corner office with its beautiful aspect.
Settlement at Double Bay goes back to the 1780s: fishermen used to shelter here. There are two bays, separated by Point Piper, and they're pleasant enough, but I didn't linger as the girls and boys came out to play. I climbed steeply up and over Darling Point into Rushcutters Bay, originally a swamp covered with rushes that early settlers cut for thatching. Now it's a highly desirable part of town, with glistening water, myriad bobbing boats (it's Sydney's yachting centre), bayside parks and covetable houses. I sat in Yarranabe Park and ate my lunch before trying to reach Darling Point ferry terminal by walking round the tip of the Point. Posh waterfront pads barred my way; so I walked back through Rushcutters Bay Park and climbed up to Elizabeth Bay to catch a bus back into the city, where I shopped until I very nearly dropped in the QVB. That evening we ate splendid homemade pasta and shared the most delicious puddings* in a long while at Uccello at on-trend Ivy on George Street. Save your pennies and go there next time you're in Sydney.
On my last day I returned to Paddington. The weather was not as it should have been. I trudged along Oxford Street's north side, dashing from awning to awning – I had packed in Brisbane four days before for cold, not rain. I sought refuge in the Max Brenner Chocolate Bar, but a dark hot chocolate doesn't last long on a cold, wet miserable morning. The owner took pity and gave me an umbrella left behind weeks ago. I must have cut an eccentric figure, its several broken spokes protruding at angles. But at least I could head out for Five Ways, a shopping hub at the heart of Paddington's Victorian terraces (see also Sydney rocks 2: Paddington, June 2011). I balanced the umbrella on my head as I held the camera, trying to keep water droplets off the lens. I took shelter in The Corner Shop in William Street – a good excuse, eh? There is nothing to add that the photographs cannot.
Heavy rain again stopped play, and it was somewhat of a relief to catch a bus from Oxford Street back to David Jones. Weirdly, I couldn't face the sales racks and collapsed in the ladies rest rooms with my book until it was time to head back to Kingsford Smith and Brisbane.

* Chocolate hazelnut slice with a marsala chocolate glaze and caramel ice cream, and rhubarb strawberry tiramisu with almond praline
This post was last updated on 8 July 2012