August 27, 2013

'Save our Reef'

Hans Poertner is Professor of Marine Biology at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven in Germany. He has just co-authored a new study, Inhospitable Oceans*, in which he concludes that the increase in acidity of Earth's oceans is occurring ten times faster than ever before in the planet's history. Sea water is naturally slightly alkaline but it absorbs carbon dioxide from the air. More greenhouse gas emissions means greater acidification. Species that build shells made of calcium, such as corals, are increasingly at risk: warm-water corals are the most threatened.

Scientists studying climate change are currently focusing on the role of oceans. Warm surface water is circulated to lower depths, and this is believed to be a key factor in global climate systems. Next month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is due to publish its first report since 2007, and oceans are expected to figure large. Heat absorption by sea water may be one reason why the rate of global warming has slowed slightly in the last 15 years.

There has, not surprisingly, been very little mention of climate change in the build-up to the Australian Federal election. You may think the campaign started months ago, but the LNP officially launched theirs on Sunday, at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane. The self-financing of each party's campaign follows their official launch; prior to that, campaigners travel around at the taxpayers' expense. Labor launch on 1 September, just a week away from polling day, which is farcical, if you ask me. 

While Tony Abbott performed among the party faithful, across the Brisbane River a couple of thousand** demonstrators were making their feelings felt about the risks to the Great Barrier Reef from the expansion of existing coal ports and proposals for new ones up and down the Queensland coast. This is another topic that's failed to make it on to an election platform, although feelings were running high where I was. Many like-minded people marched together, some of them affiliated to GetUp, Lock the Gate Alliance, Greenpeace, the Greens, Friends of the Earth,, Six Degrees, Beyond Zero Emissions, Sea Shepherd, Wilderness Society and the Australian Marine Conservation Society, but most of them just ordinary people worried about a wonder of the world. The potential destruction of the Reef would be everyone's loss, not just those in Australia and Oceania. 

Many people don't want more coal ports: there are too many already; they're too big; their operation necessitates too much dredging, hence damage to ecosystems; and then oversized bulk carriers follow narrow channels through coral islands instead of going round the Reef. It's not just environmentalists that don't want any more coal mined and exported; it's fishers and farmers and tourism operators and tourists and walkers and twitchers and off-roadies and lovers of the natural world. Do you fall into any of those categories?

Below are pictures of people who take Australia's global responsibility to look after the Reef very seriously. Have you made your voice heard yet?

Whether you are in Queensland or Quebec, call Andrew Powell, State Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection, on +61 7 3239 0844 (email, and Mark Butler, Federal Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, on +61 2 6277 7920 (
* published in the peer-reviewed Nature Climate Change, and based on five key components of ocean ecosystems – corals, echinoderms, molluscs, crustaceans and fish
** estimates of numbers range from 1000 to 4000

August 20, 2013

Why do Australians hate the Greens?

I heard a joke on the radio this morning: the Palmer United Party (PUP) has second-preferenced the Greens.

First, for anyone baffled by the Australian preference voting system, it works like this. Over to the Electoral Council of Australia (you can stop reading at the end of the second sentence if you prefer):

'...preferential voting systems are majority systems where candidates must receive an absolute majority, 50% plus 1 of the total formal votes cast, to be elected. The term "preferential voting" means voters can indicate an order of preferences for candidates on the ballot paper, ie. who they want as their 1st choice, 2nd choice and so on. Full preferential voting [means] the elector must show a preference for all candidates listed on the ballot paper. In some electoral systems which use full preferential voting, the voter can leave one box empty if the voter's intention with regard to the other preferences is clear. The empty box is treated as the voter's last preference, eg: voting for the Victorian Legislative Council and Assembly. [With] Optional preferential voting, the number "1" preference must be shown and other preferences may be indicated, eg: voting for the NSW Legislative Assembly. [With] Partial preferential voting the elector must show a minimum number of preferences as set out on the ballot paper. eg: voting for the Tasmanian Legislative Council.
In a Federal election for the House of Representatives, full preferential voting is used. Senators are elected by proportional representation: half of them are elected at each Federal election for a 6-year term. By the way, a ballot paper that has been incorrectly filled in or not filled in at all is called an 'informal' vote. Informal votes are weeded out and set aside before any counting of 'formal' votes begins. See for an explanation of the distribution of preferences (votes).

Right now, three and half weeks before the Federal election, the two main parties are recommending who to vote for as a second choice. In effect, they are strategising to prevent minor parties from winning seats and being wooed into a coalition in the event of a small-majority win by either of the biggies. The LNP fails to mention the fact that it is, by definition, a coalition of the Liberal and National parties. You often hear them claim that the last government, a coalition of Labor and a handful of Independents and Greens, was a disaster. In fact, a huge amount of legislation was passed, considering. This was in no small part due to Julia Gillard's negotiating skills throughout her three years in office and despite Tony Abbott's constant campaign to undermine her efforts by calling no-confidence motions.

Over Australia as a whole, the Greens probably present the biggest threat (to the big guys) of all the small parties. In the 2010 election, they got 13 per cent of the Senate vote, the highest ever for a minor party. They won a seat in every state; another first. With nine senators in all, they held the balance of power. The Greens also won their first seat in the House of Reps. According to the polls this time around, however, their support has fallen away.

In hard times, or, more accurately, times that are perceived to be hard by Aussie 'battlers', voting is bound to be more conservative, that is, allied to traditional parties. Voters who think their jobs in the mines or the forests are under threat, are unlikely to support candidates who focus on sustainability and environmental protection. In addition, Australians appear reluctant to become proactive about climate change. They resent carbon pricing because of its potential impact on their household bills (in fact, they're being subsidised); and they are isolationist enough to get petulant when a United Nations agency in Paris criticises their stewardship of the Great Barrier Reef. Care of a wonder of the world, however, carries responsibility 
internationally. Finally, rather like in the United States, there is prevailing attitude here that Australia has a god-given right to exploit its natural riches. Anyone standing in the way of that, motivated by conservation or limiting growth, is likely to be reproached.

I have never come across such vitriol and bitching among politicians and in a Parliament as I have witnessed in Australia. In Europe, the Greens are respected as genuine believers in a cause that many voters sympathise with even if they don't actively support. Greens may sometimes be the recipients of 'protest votes' by disgruntled mainstream voters, but they are seldom considered to be subversive, extreme-left-wing loonies with a hidden agenda, and vilified as they are in Australia. There is even an 'I hate Australian Greens party' Facebook page.

I thought it was a spoof therefore when I heard that the Greens had reached agreement with Clive Palmer's rookie political party; but then I am struggling to grasp the subtleties, if that is an appropriate word in this context, of the second-preferencing free-for-all. Can they be serious? Palmer is the mining investor responsible for the proposed development of what former Greens leader Bob Brown has described as 'an obscene giant coal mine in central Queensland'*. Apparently it's all a ploy to boost the re-election chances of a couple of key Greens in South Australia and the ACT with the help of PUP's second preferences. In return, the Greens will second-preference PUP ahead of Labor in constituencies in Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland.

Fortunately, it doesn't matter how many second-preference deals the parties strike or however hard they try to justify their strange choice of bedfellows to the electorate. It is entirely up to you how you list your votes in order of your preferences. 

I wouldn't be surprised if you were confused after the muddying of the waters during this last week of electioneering. I couldn't elucidate better than this:
* the inappropriately named China First Project in the Galilee Basin

August 19, 2013

Outback: where is Longreach?

So, Longreach then. What does the name conjure up? Weather maps, the Stockman's Hall of Fame, Qantas, a long way west, Akubra hats and other cowboy clobber? Maybe you've never heard of it?

Longreach isn't where I thought it was. It isn't up Mount Isa way, but 650 kilometres to the southeast. It isn't in northern Queensland; it's due west of Rockhampton, on the Tropic of Capricorn. It may be nearly 1200 kilometres from Brisbane but it's fewer than 700 kilometres from the sea. The name derives from the long reach of the Thomson River. In 2010, millions of locusts invaded the town – more than there'd been for decades, according to locals – following two good wet seasons.

After where we'd been, Longreach seemed huge: its population is around 3000-4000, massive by Outback standards. There are several sizeable motels, peopled by large numbers of workers, not just grey nomads and tourists. There were extensive beautification works ongoing along Eagle Street, the main drag. Many road trains trundle along the Landsborough Highway which more or less cuts the town in two. All in all, much more bustle than we'd seen for a while.
click on pix to see them big
When you plan a trip, you can only do so much research beforehand; talk to so many people; then ultimately you have to choose where to go and what to do based on no direct experience. Inevitably, you'll later wish you had an extra day here; or fewer days there. I'd say Longreach was in the latter category. Having been in the middle of nowhere for days, we didn't fancy the usual kind of tourist stuff with lots of other people: museums, stagecoach rides, river cruises with dinner, helicopter rides, yee-har Outback shows. The Stockman's Hall of Fame was the exception.

We spent our first morning mooching along Eagle Street. Some shops look old-established, but aren't; others are genuinely of a bygone era; many fulfil a need for Outback paraphernalia.
Then it was time to get out of town, to Lily Lagoon, a 15-minute drive on the Winton (Landsborough Highway) and Muttaburra roads. It's a temporary waterhole created by the Thomson River system after good rains. It obviously wasn't the lily season, although I did find one still in flower. Some claim this lily is only found here. The Lagoon is an important refuge for birds, and I've never seen so many Cormorants congregating. There were also Darters, Egrets, Ducks and – not on the water – White-plumed Honeyeaters. Unfortunately cattle were trampling the shoreline: do they get everywhere?
On the way back to to town, Longreach Saleyards caught my eye. This is cattle country – and there were lots of patterns. Sheep are also big business in the region, and, increasingly, tourism.
The Thomson River was a little disappointing after others in the region. Apex Park turned out to be a huge overcrowded caravan park, so I looked in the other direction. A normally skittish White-necked Heron stayed remarkably poised as we walked past him over the footbridge.
The railway reached Longreach in 1892. Outback train stations seem to have become my latest obsession. Trains pass through Longreach only every few days, but when I turned up to photograph the station, I was told there was one due in 15 minutes. So I sat on the platform and waited like a passenger. But it wasn't a passenger train. At least the wagons were covered.
It was a beautiful evening. We ate in our motel restaurant, which was surprisingly good.
Next up was the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre  – to give it its full name. The building's design is empathetic with its well-presented content, the history and culture of rural life in Australia. Outside stands The Ringer (stockman or cowboy) with the inscription: 'He loved every minute it brought him, This beautiful outback so fine'.
Inside there are five themed galleries that describe the geological formation of the Australian continent to its first inhabitants and explorers; the pioneers who followed the explorers, and the first pastoralists; the struggle of settlers on difficult land in a harsh climate; the development of townships and all aspects of outback life, including the valuable roles of Aborigines and women; and a detailed insight into stockmen at work and at play. Exhibits are punctuated with stories of famous characters, homesteads and companies; accounts of unsung heroes whose experiences and effort typified their era; audiovisual presentations; reconstructions of settlers' cottages, bullock wagons, homestead kitchens and a flying doctor plane; and thousands of artefacts, photographs and artistic interpretations of a much-celebrated way of life.
We could have spent a lot longer. I wish two things: that there was more light on the exhibits. I found myself peering at info panels in half light, but maybe it's supposed to make you feel as if you're back in time. Of greater disappointment, however, was the absence from the bookshop of a weighty tome including all the information and images we'd been engrossed in for four hours. There used to be one, we were told.

That evening we returned to the Stockman's Museum site, to the Cattlemen's Bar and Grill for supper, largely for one reason – so I could eat damper. Damper is traditional bush tucker, bread made from flour and water, and cooked in the ashes of the camp fire. It was an explorer's staple food among meagre rations. When expeditions stretched into years, it was often the only food. It's supposed to be hearty and, in photographs from way back when, it's always round and dense-looking. Mine was round but there the similarity ended. On cutting, it was light and insubstantial, full of air and holes and wouldn't slice; what we'd call a cob back home; an overgrown bread roll, basically. What a disappointment; good job the rest of the food was good. There was a yee-har show if you wanted to combine it with dinner in a deal. We didn't.

The following morning we were off at first light to our final destination of the trip, Carnarvon Gorge National Park. We had arrived in Longreach in the dark, so I made sure I snapped the welcome sign as we headed east on the Landsborough Highway.
In Longreach all the streets are named after birds: those running east to west are for the most part named after water birds; and north-south after land birds. This was a bit perplexing at times. Hundreds of noisy Little Corellas (below but one) were in a tree in Galah Street.
Other favourite photos of Longreach – which grew on me after a couple of days – included these.
The only good Cane Toad is a squashed one, I imagine they say in the Outback.