October 29, 2012

Julia Gillard and that speech

Australia has recently won a place at the top table; a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Since ex-PM Kevin Rudd first suggested it five years ago, $25 million dollars have been spent on diplomatic whizzing and lobbying. (The irony of chocolate koalas in goodie bags is not lost on me!) Australia yearns to be an important player on the world stage and, more importantly, be recognised as such.

But their Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has done more for Australia's international reputation in the last few weeks than networking diplomats, although you'd never know it from the media here. She voiced what hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women have been thinking but didn't like to say: that sexism is alive and kicking in Australia, especially in politics and the media. Australia has been lauded in countries far and wide; not as a military ally, or a carbon-pricing example-setter, or even a sometimes sporting giant, but for speaking out against an 'entrenched prejudice against women' – the new definition of misogyny. Who would have thought that Julia Gillard, who'd finally maxed out on sexist bullying by the Federal Opposition, would have struck a chord that reverberated around the world?

The details of exactly how Ms Gillard's outburst was triggered on the day hardly seem relevant. And whether or not you like her or her government's policies are side issues. She has been on the receiving end of sexist comments – some trivial, some cutting deep – since she became Labor leader. I come from a country where pollies describe their combatants as being 'economical with the truth' rather than liars. I was shocked and appalled in 2011 when Opposition Leader Tony Abbott appeared in front of television cameras at an anti-carbon-pricing rally with a placard behind him describing the Prime Minister as 'Bob Brown's bitch' (Bob Brown was leader of the Greens, who support Gillard's minority government).

Fellow Parliamentarians, political and other commentators, and ill-mannered LNP supporters phoning talkback radio have commented ad nauseam about the fact that Julia Gillard is not married, has no children and lives with a hairdresser; they deride the cut of her jacket, the size of her bottom, and her voice. Her ousting of Kevin Rudd and her carbon pricing U-turn have not been tolerated as they would have been under her male predecessors. After she lost her father a few weeks ago, a right-wing shock-jock proclaimed that he'd died of shame. On the day of Ms Gillard's sexism 'rant', Tony Abbott came within a whisker of the same degree of bad taste.

In fact, it's much much worse than any of this: see http://annesummers.com.au/speeches/her-rights-at-work-r-rated.

The moment Ms Gillard finally had enough ricocheted around the world. The Guardian in the UK featured the implications of the event for a couple of weeks, including an editorial. It took the Australian media the same amount of time to realise they'd completely underestimated its impact. Polls since have recorded an increase in the PM's popularity, although Labor would not be re-elected if there was an election tomorrow. I have heard Australian women say that they will now vote for Gillard as a direct result of what she said. But there are women who have been well schooled by their Aussie men folk and think they should quietly get on with their lives as wives and mothers rather than shouting about inequality and sexism.

I recently learned that only in 1970 were women no longer excluded from drinking in public bars in Queensland. And only in 1969 was the ban on married women working in the Queensland State public sector lifted. Progress in some areas of women's rights therefore came very late, it's worth remembering.

I think Julia Gillard was entitled to hit back at her sexist detractors. And maybe she's made a good few women think about issues they've been sweeping under the carpet for too long; and not just here in Australia. Good onya, girl.

October 17, 2012

Days of Jacaranda

In spring, Brisbane bursts into purple. Jacaranda mimosifolia has been widely planted in parks and streets, and many of the trees are mature, reaching up to18 metres and arcing beautifully against the blue.

The tree is a native of Brazil but thrives here. It's deciduous, losing its leaves in the dry season and then producing new ones after the flowers and during the wet. Apparently, you shouldn't prune a Jacaranda. If you do, it sends up vertical shoots and the tree loses its elegant umbrella shape.

There's a dash of purple around every corner, popping up between buildings, dotted along the river and offsetting other wonderful spring colours. And New Farm Park is just full of Jacaranda.

This post was last edited on 11 November 2012

October 15, 2012

Bimblebox 6: October update

I haven't written about Bimblebox for weeks. Not because there isn't anything to say, but because I've been holding my breath, and it's not easy to be creative when so constrained. (Also, our Lock the Gate sign went missing off the balcony and I thought it might be an omen.) A couple of times, immediately after I've published a Bimblebox update, there's been a significant development, decision or incident that I've missed by hours: and I'm concerned that Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke, having pronounced on the Alpha Mine in the Galilee Basin, its rail link and new coal terminal at Abbot Point, will turn his attention to China First. So, I'm scared.

The Current EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) projects page of the Queensland Government's Department of State Development, Infrastructure and Planning still says what it's said for months; the status of China First – the coal project that will obliterate Bimblebox Nature Refuge – is that a Supplementary report to the EIS (an SEIS) is being prepared by the proponent, Waratah Coal. But what is actually happening? Are Waratah's environmental scientists busy waffling an ostensibly workable plan for the translocation of the Black-throated Finch to somewhere other than Bimblebox? Is Clive Palmer waiting to see how his old mate Gina Rinehart sorts out the conditions of approval of her Alpha Mine (see also A little bird, August 2012)? Is he fretting about China's continuing economic downturn and wondering whether he would have done better to cosy up with an Indian company such as GVK, like Gina did? Has he lost interest and got busy instead with plans for his big boat (Titanic 2) and even bigger resort on the Sunshine Coast? And – my dearest wish – will Tony Burke, given the falling price of coal on the commodities market and having approved the Alpha project, decide not to give the go-ahead to China First and thus spare Bimblebox?

Last week I was discussing the Alpha Mine approval. My points about the fate of the Squatter Pigeon and whether or not flood plain analysis and modelling in Hancock's (Rinehart's company) SEIS adequately addressed local farmers' concerns about rail lines crossing the Belyando River flood plain seemed to be subsumed by the Indian people's need of Australian coal in order to keep their lights on. Call me cold-hearted, but not at the expense of Australia's already excessive carbon footprint or her magnificent landscape. There are other ways, and other issues; and a lot of people have to learn to live with a lot less.

Burke's approval last week of a new coal terminal at Abbot Point, so coal can be shipped to Asia from the Galilee Basin, had 60 conditions attached to it that, the Minister claims, will protect the Great Barrier Reef from coal dust and increased shipping. So that's the final hurdle overcome by Hancock and its Indian partner GVK: the mine and railway corridor were approved in August, and now the Abbot Point expansion. Greenpeace claim to have got hold of documents under freedom of information law that reveal GVK/Hancock had not shown the Federal government a crucially important report on the international significance of the Caley Valley Wetlands, close to the new terminal. Thousands of birds use the Wetlands, many of them migratory and some of them threatened species. Mr Burke responded by drawing attention to the condition of approval that insists upon a management plan for the Wetlands. Shouldn't that have been drawn up before approval was given? And how will it be monitored once it is in place?

Another condition calls for the offsetting of seagrass beds that will be destroyed by dredging prior to construction. According to seagrass expert Professor Michelle Waycott of the University of Adelaide, this offsetting of tropical seagrasses (eaten by dugongs and turtles) would be a first in tropical waters off Australia, and underwater offsets have not been particularly successful overseas. She claims much more research is necessary, probably taking years. Professor Waycottt believes planting seeds is more likely to be successful than transplantation. Appropriate areas would have to be identified followed by a lot of trial and error on the ground. All in all, there is a high degree of uncertainty surrounding the whole idea. Again I say, why make seagrass offsets a condition if you don't know for sure it can be done?

During September, a dozen or so artists of various disciplines went to camp and create at Bimblebox for a week, capturing the essence of this semi-arid woodland refuge. How I wish I could have joined them and sat in quiet contemplation of the desert uplands. Let us hope the artists' efforts do not become a record of yet another large tract of Australian landscape totally disfigured by mining.

In Brisbane, we have our own Bimblebox artwork in the form of a traffic signal box decorated by artist Frida Forsberg in the city's west (top of page and below). Motorists sitting at lights at the junction of Croydon Street and Milton Road in Toowong can ponder these animals' fate.
Other environmental news in September was the Queensland government's announcement that its plan for a new shipping channel in Gladstone Harbour – 16 metres deep, nine kilometres long and at a cost of $400 million – has been given 'significant project' status. The commercial fishers of Gladstone as well as environmentalists are already unhappy about diseased fish in Gladstone Harbour that they claim are the victims of nasties disturbed by current dredging practices. Deputy Leader Jeff Sweeney's call for public submissions (by 5 November) will hopefully engender a vigorous response that will form the basis of the 'rigorous environmental assessment' he has promised.

There was a coal seam gas conference in Brisbane at the beginning of October. Lock the Gate wanted to attend but they weren't allowed, even though their 100+ groups represent thousands of people whose lives are being blighted by this and the coal industry. Adding insult to injury, delegates at the conference were told that protests were little more than 'background noise', since many Queenslanders welcome the creation of jobs and wealth for the state.

Other snippets of environmental madness include the announcement by Western Australia premier Colin Barnett of 'shark mitigation strategies'. In the wake of five fatal shark attacks in the last 12 months, the new policy allows the fisheries department to track and kill sharks that might attack swimmers. Great Whites are a protected species in Australian waters, but apparently not if they present an 'imminent threat to people'. This is a matter of human rights, of course. Do we have the right to pre-emptively kill a magnificent creature, ultimately to safeguard tourism? (There is, on average, just over one fatal shark attack in Australian waters every year.)

And in England final preparations are being made in Gloucestershire and Somerset for a badger cull. Badgers carry bovine tuberculosis and the government intends to kill 100,000, a third of the national population, to reduce a £90 million compensation bill for farmers who've lost cattle to the disease. But more than 30 experts in animal disease have denounced the policy as 'mindless' and not the answer to the problem: only 14 per cent of the badgers who died in the last cull had TB. Even the government's chief scientist refuses to back the cull. Unsurprisingly, the mass slaughter of one of Britain's favourite wild animals has caused a public outcry.

A couple of weeks ago I visited Spicers Peak Nature Refuge high in the Scenic Rim southwest of Brisbane. I found myself wishing Bimblebox was as safe as this refuge appears to be from any threat to its existence. Nowhere in this vast country is completely protected, however, so no one can rest easy; more's the pity.

October 11, 2012

Great Barrier Reef: the final warning?

                                         Australian Institute of Marine Science
There's been another health report on the Great Barrier Reef, and the prognosis isn't good. Between 1985 and 2012, at 214 reef sites surveyed by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) in Townsville, the coral cover – by which the wellbeing of the Reef is judged – halved, from 28 per cent to 13.8 per cent. Two-thirds of that loss happened since 1998; only three of the sites exhibited no coral cover reduction.

Almost half the coral lost was as a result of tropical cyclones (48%). Since we've lived in Queensland there's been one severe (category 5) tropical cyclone to hit the coast, in 2011. Cyclone Yasi was a massive system a long way north of Brisbane: it came ashore on Mission Beach, where we spent an idyllic couple of days on our roadtrip the previous year. There were category 4 or 5 cyclones in 2006 and 2008, the latter wreaking massive havoc on the Reef as it tracked along the coast rather than crossing it. The impact of such an event on land is visible immediately, but the damage done beneath the ocean's surface receives less attention until a Reef report like this is published. AIMS scientists compiled The 27-year decline of coral cover on the Barrier Reef and its causes* for publication by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in the US. The two images below show the MacDonald Reef before and after a cyclone (courtesy of Katharina Fabricius, AIMS).
Only slightly less damaging (42%) to the Reef than cyclones were Crown of Thorns Starfish (top of page). These native creatures fluctuate in numbers, exhibiting 'outbreaks' every few years that have a devastating impact on coral reefs. With as many as 21 arms and a diameter of up to 45 cm, COTS have few predators as they are covered with spines containing a virulent toxin. They feed on live coral: one starfish can consume ten square metres of coral a year. Outbreaks occur about every 14 years, and the last one was in the late 1990s. It has been suggested that human activity could be exacerbating these outbreaks. COTS larvae feed on plankton that thrives if increased nutrients are available. This happens following big rains that carry agricultural products into rivers and hence the ocean. The photographs below show the Horseshoe Reef before and after a COTS invasion (courtesy of the AIMS Long-term Monitoring Team).
Ten per cent of coral loss was due to 'bleaching', which is a sign of coral under stress. Corals are minute marine organisms that secrete calcium carbonate to form a protective shell. These polyps can catch fish and plankton to eat but mostly obtain nutrients and energy from algae (zooxanthellae) that live within the coral tissue and are thus protected also. They provide food for the coral and give it its colour. Environmental stress causes a breakdown of this symbiotic relationship: the corals expel their zooxanthellae, leaving the colourless calcium carbonate skeleton. Stressful conditions are created by higher or lower sea temperatures than the norm; higher or lower light levels (zooxanthellae are photosynthetic); an inundation of fresh water; or pollution. Bleaching tends to occur on specific occasions, known as mass coral bleaching events. AIMS has been studying such events for 30 years: the summer of 1997-98 was one of the hottest last century, and aerial surveys of 650 reefs revealed bleaching in 21 per cent of offshore reefs and 74 per cent of inshore reefs. Another hot one in 2002 brought about just as much bleaching.

Coral can recover from bleaching events, given time, by 'recruiting' coral from neighbouring reefs. Whether or not it can acclimatise to permanently increased water temperatures is another matter. When too many starfish invade, they will eventually die from lack of food, and again the coral may recover. But if invasions occur more frequently than natural cycles, recovery is unlikely. 

And if you add additional pressures into the mix, the odds are against coral's recovery from the losses reported by AIMS last week and, ultimately, the Reef's survival. Ocean acidification research is relatively new, but so far has indicated that, as the warming of the ocean increases carbon dioxide absorption and the water therefore becomes more acidic, the formation of coral by calcification is impeded. The reef grows more slowly and is less robust, which makes it more prone to erosion, such as during storms, the incidence of which will increase in a warmer world. The impact of tourism (more than 800 operators and 1500 vessels according to Science in Public) and commercial fishing is hotly debated, and terrestrial run-off even more so. The cane growers of Northern Queensland claim to have reduced amounts of harmful pesticides and other agricultural residues reaching the ocean, but are pleading for even more Reef Rescue** funding from the Federal government to bring about further practice change. And then there's the dredging of resource-exporting ports and shipping lanes that causes further reductions in water quality.

The loss of coral is not evenly distributed. North of Cooktown and on the outer Reef there's practically no loss, but further south and on the coastal fringes of the mainland, there's practically no coral. The scientists, as usual, state the facts and apportion no blame or responsibility (apart from that of the Federal government). On the ABC's The World Today, in a debate about saving the Great Barrier Reef, Professor Terry Hughes of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University was more forthright:
'What we're seeing now for the first time is that the capacity of the Barrier Reef to cope with recurring cycles has been diminished and that reduction in its ability to bounce back is caused by human activity.'
The major Reef issues cannot be resolved overnight, but much more serious debate must begin now. Any decisions should be taken by the Federal government, not the states: the care of a world heritage site and the repercussions of climate change require the implementation of extraordinary legislation at the highest level. The GBR needs help PDQ.

Professor Hughes again:
'At the moment Reef Rescue basically tinkers at the edges. I think we should be asking big questions, questions that are very difficult to answer, and I don't claim to be an expert in many of them, but I think we should be asking whether, for example, we need a sugarcane industry, whether or not we should in the 21st century be contemplating opening new coal mines, whether we need new coal ports. Those are bold questions that need to be asked.'
I can imagine the peaking of eyebrows all over Queensland, if not interstate. These are indeed bold questions. But they are only the first of many.
** The Reef Rescue programme is a five-year (2009-13) Federal government investment of $200 million in the improvement of land management practices. $146 million of that is allocated to Water Quality Incentive Grants

October 8, 2012

The Scenic Rim and a tale of two Gaps

Indigenous Australians found their way through Queensland's Main Range in the western Scenic Rim long before European settlers did. But the two groups didn't compare notes. There had been a colony of convicts and settlers in Moreton Bay for three years before any attempt was made to breach the daunting upland barrier to exploration and travel to and from Sydney.

Having already explored 'inside' (ie, west of) the Great Dividing Range in the early 1820s and discovered the Darling Downs, botanist and explorer Allan Cunningham walked with packhorses north from Sydney for six weeks in 1827, looking for a route to connect the Downs with the Bay. He approached from his campsite in Swan Creek, nine kilometres southwest of Spicer's Peak Plateau, which was as far as he got. He named peak and plateau after Moreton Bay Colony's Superintendent of Convicts, Peter Spicer, and took compass readings of a number of mountains, including Mt Warning further east. His party and animals were exhausted and the route rocky, so he gave up until the following year, when he approached from the east. This time he was successful. By the early 1840s a single horse track allowed settlers along an arduous route through Cunningham's Gap to the Darling Downs.

A few years later, in 1847, a stockman, Henry Alpen, found a slightly easier route, through Spicer's Gap, a few kilometres south of Cunningham's. Convicts were used to build a road that became the preferred route for many years. In an all-too-familiar story, over the next decades most of the ranges around Killarney, Emu Creek, Swan Creek, Cunningham's Gap, Mt Mistake and Goomburra were heavily logged. The Main Range National Park was declared in 1909, and most of it was included in the World Heritage Site Gondwana Rainforests of Australia in 1994.

Only in 1949 did the Cunningham Highway make the crossing relatively easy. Today the road carries a lot of heavy traffic and was badly affected by over two metres of rainfall during the summer of 2010-11. Landslips opened up huge clefts in the road. Reconstruction work is only just nearing completion (estimated date November 2012) and will have cost $60 million dollars.

We stayed in Spicers Peak Lodge on the Plateau, in the middle of a 3650-hectare cattle station that includes 2430 hectares of Nature Refuge. The Refuge protects ten regional ecosystems including Brigalow, Ribbon Gum (tall open forest), Iron Bark and Forest Red Gum ('Koala tree') woodland, Mountain Coolibah, and Stringy Bark, Grey Gum and Yellow Box open forest. Unfortunately, we didn't see any koalas but we did see these Red-necked Wallabies...
...and a Whiptail Wallaby.
Our late-afternoon walk to the northern lookout also revealed a shy White-necked Heron by a lake full of reflections as well as waterlilies. And, we think, a Nankeen Kestrel.
Opened in 2004, the Lodge is 1100 metres up a steep rough track in a haven of silence (apart from the Currawongs) and stunning mountain views. The design emphasises natural materials and is understated, clean and pleasing. This is, however, a special-treat destination.
I mentioned the views, right?
Above, to the right, are mounts Cordeau and Mitchell, guardians of Cunningham's Gap.

The next day we planned to drive to Mt Barney via Spicer's Gap Scenic Drive. We had an out-of-date map and didn't realise that you can no longer drive through the mountains via this ancient pass. As we tried to find the western approach, I was put straight by a couple of locals in a petrol station: so the only way to go was through Cunningham's Gap with its scary trucks, slow caravans and impatient idiots. And still the road work continues. We were relieved to turn off on to a deserted Lake Moogerah Road 10 km before Aratula.

We followed Spicer's Gap Road, a narrow track climbing through forest, as far as the Governor's Chair. People used to make the difficult journey to this north-facing lookout on the Scenic Rim: Sir George Bowen, Queensland's first Governor, came here from Brisbane town regularly in the 1860s. Unfortunately the sun had deserted us and the famous panorama was blue-grey. There was a stale smell of burning and some blackened vegetation – and at least two cigarette butts.
Beyond this point you can only walk a heritage trail, intended to protect what remains of the 19th-century road-building. We still had Mt Barney in our sights, so we didn't walk the walk.

The Scenic Rim is a spectacular arc of mountains stretching from Mt Mistake in the west to the Springbrook Plateau in the east, much of it the result of volcanic activity 25 million years ago. It has craggy peaks and cliff-edge escarpments; open eucalypt woodland and remnant ancient rainforest; and a remarkable variety of fauna and flora that include many rare and endangered species.

We hugged the northern edge of it as we drove east, heading for Mt Barney National Park: many of the roads are little more than gravelly tracks in this part of the world. We were constantly distracted along the way and progress was slow. We stopped by Carney's Creek so I could photograph one of my favourite subjects, only to hear the most extraordinary birdsong and see Scarlet Honeyeaters darting among same-coloured Banksia flowers.
Along Burnett Creek Road we approached the remote southwestern corner of Lake Maroon. There was more evidence of recent bushfires, as well as something rather unexpected.

We picnicked on the lakeshore in the grey and marvelled at just how many different birds we could see – egrets, coots, ducks, grebes, cormorants, darters, jacanas, black swans, pellies and a drongo. The partly drowned landscape had a surreal feel in the dead light.
By the time we reached Mt Barney it was even gloomier and the mountain top was shrouded in cloud. It was too late in the day for a strenuous three-hour walk to the Lower Portals. We sussed where to come next time and headed for home up the Mt Lindesay Highway.