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.