Category Archives: Journalism

Finding Safe Harbour

Published in the City Hub, 17/1/2018

Sydney Harbour’s reputation as one of the finest in the world owes everything to its superb geographical advantages. But a working harbour requires infrastructure, and from post-Invasion to post-reality, commercial shipping and recreational boaters depend upon the wharves and safe waterways that enable every aspect of maritime endeavour.

Ex-mayor of Leichardt and inner-West activist Maire Sheehan says that unhinged development is endangering the nuts and bolts infrastructure of Sydney’s working harbour, part of an agenda by successive state governments to gentrify the harbour into a purely tourism and residential amenity.
She says that this began with the staging of the Olympics in 2000, when pontoons and marinas were scattered around the harbour to facilitate wealthy visitors.

“Those pontoons were built for luxury super yachts whose owners were unlikely to be locals. The story at the time was that they’d be temporary but of course it’s not temporary, it’s permanent.”
Sheehan says that such creeping developments are marginalizing the essential services provided by established industries and pose a real risk to the continued viability of the working harbour.

Waterway Constructions in Rozelle Bay have been a part of that industry in Sydney for 25 years. They build and maintain wharf infrastructure around the harbour, as well as in other Australian ports. Employing 180 people around the country, they’re a vital part of the maritime community.
Mal Hiley, a founding director of the company, agrees that working wharves are vital to the functional capacity of the harbour.
“It’s an essential service and you need a location which is sufficiently close to the centre of the city for emergency response in the event that a ferry hits a wharf or whatever else. So there needs to be space for working harbour activities.”

Hiley says that government departments have generally been sympathetic to this requirement, but that it’s an ongoing task to ensure that vigilance.
“Development around the harbour is clearly reducing opportunities in the space for people like us, but we’ve been in consultation with the relevant government departments for many years and there would appear to be a good level of understanding of the requirements for waterfront contractors and working harbour activities. But there’s always a risk that people don’t fully appreciate the space that’s required, so there is a pressure and a concern. You can’t be complacent. It’s a question of being constantly vigilant and expressing our position.”

Sheehan says that the Urban Growth Development Corporation (UGDC), the group charged with ‘managing and securing the orderly economic development of five Growth Centres (including the Bays Precinct) across metropolitan Sydney’, has compounded risk.
The Bays Precinct comprises 5.5 kilometres of harbour frontage, including 95 hectares of mostly government-owned land and 94 hectares of waterways in Sydney Harbour.

UGDC’s online literature assures the public they’re carrying out their charter with all the highest environmental, public transport and business motives in mind.
Last year they instituted an online survey to canvas public opinion on the requirements for a responsible harbour development. They claimed the results would inform their impending ‘master plan’, but these have not yet been released and the website appears to be touting a well-formed and pre-approved vision for the future;
“The Bays Precinct will transform over the next 20 to 30 years into a bustling hub of enterprise, activity and beautiful spaces.”

Sheehan says UGDC’s vision for the Bays Precinct emphasises tourism and housing over the working harbour.
She’s been quoted as saying that the community have been finding UGDC’s data “inaccurate” and they’ve been left to make assumptions, such as whether or not there is a need for more schools and other facilities.
“What they talk about is turning the harbour into a tourist destination, a tech hub as the main focus and in various sites residential developments,” she told the City Hub. “They’re moving the fish markets to the head of the bay and their plan is for three or so residential towers there.
“It’s a shift from being a real working harbor, in terms of providing services, to becoming a recreational harbour.”

Sheehan says that community action is needed to support the work of industries such as Waterways, which are an integral part of the community infrastructure as well as the working harbour.
“Waterways has been part of the community for years. They have a respected apprenticeship programme and a history of collaborating with high schools in the area. They’re part of the community. They’re not an industry that blows in and blows out.
“Our working harbour has gradually been eroded. The last remaining parts of it are in Rozelle Bay, but they are the remnants of the old working harbour and Waterways are the longest standing.”

Concrete outcome in Glebe

Published in the City Hub 7/2/2018

Good news stories are rare when they mix a busy working harbour with a state government bent on constant profitable development. But the probable move of Hanson Concrete, a fifty year-old business based in Glebe, to the heavy industry facility on Glebe Island is a provisional win on many levels.It keeps the company, a significant local employer, in a viable location that cuts down operating costs and carbon emissions. That’s good for the environment, the community and the local economy.
But the onerous fact that all these factors were endangered by government-sponsored developments has raised the hackles of Sydney business leaders and Greens MP Jamie Parker.

Hanson Concrete submitted a proposal to move their premises to Glebe Island after their site on Bridge Road in Glebe was slated for redevelopment by the Urban Growth Corporation (UGC), the body charged with redeveloping Sydney’s urban landscape.
The UGC plan to build 2760 apartments on the site of Hanson’s current site, a development that could net them an estimated $5 billion in sales.

The initial problem with that move was the news that the Glebe Island facility too was in the sights of the UGC. Such prime waterfront property was a logical target for a corporation seeking to maximize tourism and residential amenity. But the potential damage to the viability of Sydney’s working harbour raised a public outcry.
UGC developments have already forced the migration of vital waterfront industries such as Waterways Construction, which build and maintain the wharves servicing the harbour.

Hanson Concrete supplies over a third of the vital building needs of Sydney’s CBD, in the middle of the biggest building boom since the 2000 Olympics. Its waterfront location means it’s close to customers, cutting down on road miles, fuel and its carbon footprint.
Before the Glebe Island option it seemed likely the company would have to move its operations to another port – be that Newcastle or Wollongong.

Such a move would have exponentially multiplied traffic on Sydney’s already strained road networks, as it’s estimated that a single ship-borne load of cement takes up to 2800 trucks off our roads.
If Hanson Concrete was forced to move to Wollongong it would incur significant extra costs in transporting material back to Sydney and be vulnerable to the serious issues plaguing the bottlenecked Port Kembla/Wollongong network.

A story in the Australian Financial Review featured a senior business figure calling the mooted closure of Glebe Island a ‘strategic disaster’ that would seriously impact on Sydney’s already overloaded roads and infrastructure.
Now Greens MP Jamie Parker has lashed out at the UGC for what he sees as purely profit-motivated development.

“Part of the problem with Urban Growth Corporation is that it’s the government’s glorified real estate agent and developer,” Parker told the City Hub.
“Their objective is to ensure that these areas that they call underdeveloped or in need of urban renewal are completed and the financial return to government is a major priority.
“What we say is they need to be looking at the needs of the city, the needs of employment, recreation and open space. The never ending search for profit from these sites needs to take a back seat to ensure that development or renewal of sites like this provide the kind of city that people want to live in, not just that profit can be made from.”

Parker said that the UGC’s planning is dictated by the needs of developers.
“Developers and the government are fetishizing residential development to the detriment of local jobs and environmental impacts,” he said. “While there’s always impacts on the community from working harbour activities, the environmental impact of trucking concrete across our roads to deliver concrete to building sites in the city is clearly undesirable.”

Parker insisted the NSW Government needs to work with local communities and councils to build an inner city community that isn’t focused purely on residential development.
“That means sensitive working harbour opportunities and retaining significant employers like Hanson where possible,” he said. “We’ve seen with Barangaroo where the cruise ship terminal was moved from its optimal location there to White Bay, to allow more and more retail and residential development. The cruise ship terminal at White Bay isn’t good for the local community or tourism.”

But while community involvement has staved off disaster in the working harbour, it seems constant vigilance is required to ensure good news into the future.
An Urban Growth Corporation spokesperson told the City Hub that Roads and Maritime Services and Hanson Cement are having commercial in-confidence discussions about the site Hanson occupies on Bridge Road, Glebe.
Hanson’s lease expires on 30 June 2018. Hanson have advised Roads and Maritime the company is exploring options to relocate from Blackwattle Bay as a result of the urban renewal of Bays Market District. One potential site they are considering is Glebe Island. The Department of Planning and Environment are the regulatory authority for development applications of this nature.


End of the line for Bronte bus

Published in the Sydney City Hub newspaper 14/2/2018

Bronte residents are fuming over a NSW Transport Department decision to axe their direct 378 beach-to-city bus service last year.

A petition begun by Bronte resident Gaby Naher, a literary agent who commutes daily to the city, has garnered over 550 signatures. It objects strenuously to the cancellation of the service, which leaves commuters with longer journeys fraught with dangerous interchanges.
The petition reads in part;
“Our children will no longer have a single bus trip to their schools in the inner city, our infirm will no longer have a single trip to St Vincent’s Hospital, our elderly will no longer have a single trip for shopping in the city and the convenience of being able to ride a single bus to work will for many of us be replaced by a lot of dead time at the Interchange.
“We call on our Local member, Bruce Notley-Smith, to reinstate Bronte’s own bus, the 378.”
Gaby Naher says that letters to the Department have been dismissive of her objections and those to local member Bruce Notley-Smith have been ignored. She said the decision has provoked anger and frustration from Bronte residents who foresee great difficulties and even tragedy in the wind.
“At the beginning of November my somewhat older neighbor spoke to me in some distress after hearing about changes to the bus service,” Naher told the City Hub. “I got on to the Transport NSW website and read about the changes and immediately called Notley-Smith’s office to say ‘it’s unacceptable to lose that public transport that has been operating since 1910’.
“The only reply I got was confirmation of the cancellation. I decided to start a petition in frustration because I thought if we didn’t act quickly changes would be made and there’d be no public outcry or discussion about it.”
Fellow Bronte resident Judy Ebner says the changes are ‘ridiculous’ and make her regular journeys dangerous.
“Since the buses have changed we have to catch the 379 bus, then to get the 440 to Broadway you have to change at Bondi Junction. However it’s not easy. You have to walk to the bus stop near the corner of Oxford St and Newland St. It’s a very dangerous crossing for the elderly or someone a bit slow going across. It’s a steep little hill up Newland Street to the lights at the intersection of Oxford St and of course cars are picking up speed, so the traffic is very fast and there’s going to be an accident one day there. I’ve seen some very close shaves.
“There’s also a lot of confusion on the part of tourists with the naming of 379. You see them get off on the corner of Bronte Rd and Birrell St and they think they’re somewhere near Bronte Beach, because it has the same number as the bus to North Bondi.
“It’s just crazy. Who has worked this out? Someone who’s sitting at a computer who doesn’t catch buses. To have two buses with two completely different destinations called the 379 is more than ridiculous.”
In response a spokesperson for Transport NSW said that last year it had altered some routes to ‘better reflect customer travel patterns and help improve the reliability of local services, including services to Bronte”.
Waverly Council estimates that there are between 75,000-80,000 people living in the 379 bus catchment area. It did not have a figure for how many people ride the buses, but Labor Councillor Paula Massella says she made this issue part of her election platform.
“I’m calling a meeting in the next couple of weeks of interested people who might want to join me in setting up a group to look at how we can bring back the 378,” she told the City Hub.
“Generally people are finding this new 379 service very unsatisfactory. There was huge demand for the 378 and it was extremely well used, as was the 440 when it went between Bondi and Bronte.”
Councillor Masella observed that the 440 service has been privatized and this could be seen as a worrying sign of the State government’s agenda to privatize other public transport services.
“If you have a look at the evidence you couldn’t be blamed if that’s what you thought. The 440 is part of Region 6 now and that’s part of the inner west Sydney privatization service. Also for example Transdev has been given $20million to run eleven trials, including one in the eastern suburbs for an on demand bus service, but there are issues with that because you can’t take prams on them.
“Why should people have to be pushed onto a private bus service and more to the point, why should people have to have twenty minutes added to their commute and be offered a service that’s inferior to what they had before?”
The Department of Transport spokesperson told City Hub that “the high frequency of bus services on Oxford Street, including routes 380, 333, 440, M40 and 352, ensures that transfer times at Bondi Junction are minimised. The decision by the NSW Government to put the contract to operate Region 6 bus services in Sydney’s Inner West out to competitive tender is not related to the delivery of services in any other areas.”
MP Bruce Notley-Smith told the City Hub;
“It is still early days for the new service, and I will continue to monitor its level of acceptance and reliability, and to alert the Minister for Transport to my constituents’ concerns.”
The Westconnex Direct Action group are organizing a public rally
to save NSW public transport. Interested parties can contact them on
0490 257 225.

How South Australia turned the Feds energy policy on its head

The Australian energy landscape has undergone seismic changes in recent years, none more critical than the Federal Coalition’s October 17 party room consensus to dismiss a Clean Energy target and instead adopt the euphemistically titled National Energy Guarantee (NEG).

Backed by the Coalition’s hard right wing and the science-free zone of One Nation, this fossil fuel-heavy policy positions the Coalition in opposition to the empirical wisdom of market forces.

Australian energy industry insiders beyond the coal market are now almost unanimous in touting renewables as the current and future inevitability in the field.

The NEG was pre-empted by South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill’s initiative in abandoning traditional electricity generation in favour of a 100 percent renewables target. This direct challenge to the energy market was also a gauntlet thrown down to the conservative political power base and the confected gas crisis that has seen Australian power prices surge so relentlessly.

Just as South Australia’s reliance on wind turbines has already shown a correlation with decreasing prices, Premier Weatherill’s gamble has turned the Feds energy policy on its head.

The NEG is based on the premise that only coal and gas can deliver reliable dispatchable power to the grid. It specifically requires retailers to include significant percentages of coal and gas in their mix, thus fixing its success to their rapidly diminishing market viability.

Coal is un-investable

James Wright of the Future Business Council puts that position into perspective;

“The marketplace is saying that coal is un-investable. Gas is still regarded as an investment option but in the time frame we have, pure economics will play out. Wind and solar coupled with storage and with the right market rules, purely on an economic basis will be the most effective way to introduce new generation into the network.”

Renewables surging

Meanwhile the infrastructure of the renewable economy is surging ahead, with wind farm installations increasing by 513 per cent nationwide, solar 118 per cent and electric and hybrid car sales over 150 per cent on average. Consumer preferences are at the root of this demand, constant technological advancements making low emissions products increasingly cost effective.

The Future Business Council puts the sustainable business boom on a par with the technology revolution of the 1970’s that gave us the Walkman, mobile phones and personal computers.

If the Turnbull government’s internal political compass is too skewed to read the future, South Australia’s Labour Government under Premier Weatherill has grasped the banner of change and run with it.

Weatherill has put his political future and reputation on the line by investing in a radical renewable infrastructure profile that is transforming the energy landscape in South Australia.

In the face of determined efforts by the Coalition to derail his plans Weatherill has put his political future and reputation on the line by investing in a radical renewable infrastructure profile that is transforming the energy landscape in South Australia.

His $650 million dollar gambit will be shored up by nine new diesel and gas generators, providing up to 276MW of energy to safeguard against power blackouts.

With his bottom line secured by these generators, Premier Weatherill has embarked on what’s perceived as edgier terrain with the two significant other planks of his energy initiative.

Soar thermal plant at Port Augusta – 700 jobs just to start

The flagship of his plan is a solar thermal plant to be built in Port Augusta. Symbolically, it replaces the obsolete coal fired plant retired last year.

This plant will, when completed be the biggest of its kind in the world, delivering 700 jobs and 495 gigawatt hours, or five percent of SA’s daily electricity needs. Construction on the emissions free plant begins next year.

Elon Musk making good on his promise 

Construction is also half way through the 100-day deadline given by Californian entrepeneur Elon Musk to build the world’s largest lithium-ion battery in Jamestown, 216 km north of Adelaide – failing which he says he will complete it for free.

Paired with a 99 turbine wind farm, the battery will power 30,000 homes in the district, also providing emergency power in the case of blackouts.

The half way construction point on September 30 came propitiously at the one year anniversary of the 2016 storms that destroyed SA’s energy infrastructure, provoking a tsunami of criticism to which Weatherill replied that Malcolm Turnbull, mired in apparent thrall to the fossil fuel industry, was an “unfit” Prime Minister.

Mr Weatherill told reporters in March that SA would; “lead our nation’s transformation to the next generation of renewable storage technologies and create an international reputation for hi-tech industries”.

He said the state must act now, rather than wait for policy changes in Canberra.

“The sorts of timelines and decisions that need to be taken are much more urgent,” he said.

After NSW endured heatwaves in February 2017 that created a load shedding event similar to SA’s 2016 disaster, popular opinion began to turn, with the realisation that NSW’s reliance on its coal fired power stations had not saved it from climactic disasters.

Weatherill’s energy “intervention” suddenly became accepted wisdom, taking his reputation from that of a  laughing stock to national leader in energy politics.

James Wright of the Future Business Council agrees with the SA Premier that he’s pioneered an inevitable shift in energy infrastructure.

All the states are going to move this way whether we like it or not

“The grid is moving to support higher renewable content and South Australia has been at the leading edge of that transition. Longer term all the states are going to move this way whether we like it or not really, that’s how the world’s changing and we need to be more overtly getting on that program.”

Wright posits the point Australia needs to get to in renewables as a triangulation of reliability, cost and reduced emissions that he calls the trilemma.

“One of the reports that we put out last year was called the Smart Grid and it recommended that our energy market move into the 21st century so it would better accommodate a higher proportion of renewables, but also be better placed to optimise the trilemma,” he said.

The spirit of his declaration is backed by energy giant AGL, the company whose decision to shut down the coal fired plant at Liddell in NSW by 2020 put the Coalition’s muddled energy policy into such stark focus.

At the time AGL CEO Andy Vesey had outlined specific plans to commit to a low emissions energy strategy, emphasizing that planned wind power plants in NSW and Queensland would provide the bulk of the energy to replace that supplied by Liddell.

As Turnbull desperately tried to convince AGL otherwise, investors provided the fiscal spine to this outlook with 95.45 per cent support for Vesey’s remuneration report.

OneSteel can do baseline energy thanks to Zen Energy

That trend has been further validated by the October 31 announcement that clean energy company Zen Energy is to power the OneSteel steelworks at Whyalla in SA with a $700m, solar, battery and pumped hydro project, confounding the notion that industrial grade baseline power is beyond the generational power of renewables.

As heavy industry moves into a low emissions phase, gas and coal production will constitute a significant headache for the NEG targets, rapidly eroding Australia’s commitments to meeting the Paris Agreements.

Engineer Graham Davies pointed out in the Fifth Estate in February 2017 that the cost of emissions is not considered in models that do not use an emissions pricing scheme, which puts into question the entire climate change responsibility of the NEG.

Cherrypicking parts of the Finkel Report to support the NEG has created anachronisms that will come back to haunt Malcolm Turnbull and only serve to further debilitate the market, according to James Wright;

“Some of the recommendations in the Finkel Review that have been endorsed by government are on an unnecessarily slow timetable,” he observed.

“A great example of that is the ‘five minute rule’. The generation price is set by the last piece of generation that goes into the network.

“It leads to is higher prices because effectively it’s being set by peak load gas-fired generation and secondly it makes it harder for new generators to connect to that market.

“The operators indicate that they will move to a five minute

rule but it will take a couple of years to do. So there’s still some market rules which, on a national level, are impacting both on costs, reliability, source of generation and level of investment in generation.”

AGL’s 2017 statement on its future direction frames the facts shaping Australia’s sustainable energy future.

It observed that the downward trend of pricing in wind and solar is likely to continue, that their operating costs are considerably below those of coal and their total costs remain competitive with both coal and gas. Interestingly, its transition arc from baseline coal to renewables will skip baseload gas.

It has stated that its closure of the Liddell coal fired plant and the planned closure of its two other plants at Bayswater and Loy Yang A are part of a planned transition to invest in grid scale renewables and storage.

Significantly, it also framed storage cost as the lead indicator in its strategy.

As seen with Elon Musk’s Telsa projects, battery technologies are becoming exponentially more efficient, but they are compromised by the pollutant-intense mining of heavy elements such as lithium for their manufacture. The disposal of waste batteries will remain a contentious environmental issue.

But if storage is the key to the future of energy systems, as Dr Alex Wonhas of global engineering and infrastructure advisors Aurecon points out, it requires a complex and nuanced strata of different components to create a reliable source of dispatchable power.

Wonhas points to the 2200 potential hydro storage locations across Australia, identified by an new ANU report claiming that if completed, they would provide 1000 times Australia’s energy needs.

“I think the significance of all these projects is they are all existing plants that are being expanded and that’s often a cheaper way of creating new and additional storage capacity,” he said.

“There are many other forms of storage especially in the built environment, so for example through intelligent building control you can also optimise the energy consumption of a building and therefore effectively use the thermal mass within a building as an energy store.

“And the same applies for the residential sector. For example I have signed up with an electricity retailer that not only provides me with my electricity but also operates my swimming pool and by basically having control over my swimming pool it effectively works as an energy storage device.

“I think the key to success in the future will be to identify all of those opportunities where we have natural storage reservoirs that can help us shift energies, from the time when it’s produced to the time it’s actually needed by consumers.

“The built environment will play a huge role, being one of the largest consumers of our electricity. There are interesting things that can be done through passive design to reduce energy consumption and actually makes it more amenable to the output profile of the renewable.

“If that gets coordinated across a whole precinct you can get significant amounts of storage that can help stabilize the electricity grid.”

Andy Chambers of Seed Consulting Services (overseeing many of SA’s large sustainable infrastructure projects) emphasises that changes in consumption patterns are equally as important in managing energy demand.

He observes that the SA government has funded an Energy Productivity Program to help large energy users find savings in demand rather than in consumption.

“Whenever equipment fires up and uses a large amount of energy it puts demand on to the electricity network,” he said.

“From a sustainability perspective, if you can reduce demand before you start looking at any other form of energy replacement that makes a lot of dollars and cents to people in business, so we’ve got big projects at the moment going around demand management and the decisions that find those demand savings.”

Chambers says that the SA government is encouraging businesses to provide analysis and initiative in tackling the state’s energy future.

“There are a large range of venture businesses undertaking energy audits to understand how they consume energy, what parts of the day they consume energy and how it aligns with the demand at the peak period of the day.

“So in that peak period when people go home and turn their air con on, whenever people can reduce that demand during that period then that’s going to result in savings for those businesses.”

Chambers maintains that a careful and clear-headed assessment of such nuanced variables will contribute to the long-term stability of a renewables energy market.

South Australia’s issues are a taste of what’s to come elsewhere

“What we have seen here in South Australia is probably a taste of what’s to come interstate. I mean, how do you value the security of your network? When you have an aged asset like the coal fired power station that’s been removed, then you need to replace that energy into your network.

“You’re going to see governments and industry looking at what presents the best cost-benefit in business investments. We’ve reached the stage where renewables are on a par with current costs around coal and looking at the projections they’re clearly going to get cheaper and cheaper. So getting in early with those investments enables the grid to have more security. Being ready for a high percentage of renewables I would have thought is more of a far sighted investment into the future rather than relying on coal, that clearly doesn’t have a space any more, when you look at where we’re at with climate change.

“There’s a responsibility factor for government that goes beyond the next election cycle. That has to be about investing in future benefits that are not tied into coal.”

James Wright points to the 2020 deadline AGL has named for the closure of the Liddell power plant as the crucial horizon for SA’s energy planning to take effect.

“The economic pendulum will have swung in favour of those renewable technologies in that time frame,” he said.

“I think we’re closer to the end than the start and it’s clear that the generation industry recognise where this is headed and that will become the accepted wisdom in that time horizon.

“In the medium term our reliance on gas as an electricity generation source will come off as well, when the economics aligned around solar coupled with storage and or pumped hydro (become) a reliable and cost effective way to add to our generation capacity.

“So there’s a number of alternatives that are economically compelling that would solve our trilemma, whilst reducing our reliance on fossil fuel.”

But as the Feds continue to pressure the states to increase coal and coal seam gas developments, embattled South Australia stands firm on its commitment to a wholesale embrace of a renewable energy-powered grid.

Even as the Coalition’s NEG attempts to starve renewables of oxygen, it would seem that a strategy which ignores market forces and factors out realistic emissions reductions is not a guarantee at all, but rather a forlorn political hope. Being inextricably tied with the party’s right wing and the fortunes of Tony Abbott, the success of a Coalition policy based mainly on coal seems about as likely as Abbott’s own desired return to power.

But while Premier Weatherill faces the political threat of Nick Xenephon’s challenge at next years SA elections, for now at least he seems to have provided the crucial leadership required in the vacuum of Federal energy policy.

Street Fighting Man

Published in Sydney’s Neighbourhood paper November 2017

Lanz Priestly was ‘the Mayor of Tent City’, the leader of the Martin Place occupation by the homeless of Sydney. He’s ready for the next battle.

Lanz Priestly’s office has one of the best views in Sydney. Sydney Harbour occupies the foreground, to the left the Coathanger and a massive cruise ship; to the right, the colliding shells of the Opera House.

There are no walls, windows or wi-fi, but it does have natural air-conditioning. Poised above Circular Quay it also has a view of the Sirius Building, which Priestly eyes speculatively from his berth beside the humming Cahill Expressway.

“We’re not necessarily looking at buildings as the solution that we’re gonna put on the table,” Priestly says of his plans for Sydney’s homeless, after their Tent City in Martin Place was shut down by the state government in August Correct.

“There’s a couple of ferries being made redundant, we’re making overtures about those. There are other wasted commercial spaces; car parks, train stations they’re so keen to sell off. But here we are discussing options and we’re looking straight at the Sirius building over there. I could take you there right now and show you entire streets of empty houses that are owned by the state government. There’s all this social housing and no explanation as to why we can’t use it.”

Priestly, dubbed ‘the Mayor of Tent City’ by the Daily Telegraph, is homeless himself; since Tent City was moved he’s chosen the Quay as his chief residence.

He received a lot of negative press after coming to public attention as a self-appointed leader of the homeless. The Australian newspaper published a story revealing his colourful past including violent criminal charges, jail time and allegations raised about his previous employment claims.

If some of his stories can seem far-fetched, the fact remains that he’s become a viable and radically creative advocate for the homeless in an environment that previously held little hope for change. The standoff at Tent City forced the NSW government and Sydney City Council into public dialogue about homelessness that elevated the issue –and Priestly, sometimes known as Priestley – into front page headlines.

While the NSW Government claims a record investment of $1.1 billion to tackle homelessness in its 2017/18 budget, the demand for homelessness services has risen by 30 percent in the past three years. Rental stress is affecting over 75 percent of lower income households in NSW, as NGOs scramble to cope. The terrible truth is many families, and older women with unsecure incomes are only one economic crack away from falling into life on the streets. Mostly people just try to get on with life and hope it won’t ever happen.

Priestly scoffs at the business models of major homelessness charities, part of what he scornfully calls ‘the poverty industry’. “The organisations involved are too endemically attached to the problem,” he says. “Their vested interest is to grow their businesses.”

He cites CEO sleep-outs designed to convince the heads of large corporates to donate more. “They’re supposed to be pretty hard-nosed businessmen but every year they’re told ‘the problem’s getting worse, so we need more funding’ and every year they buy it. Imagine if they ran their businesses like that.

“We need to hit the existing methodologies on the head,” Priestly says. “We need to say, ‘If the problem’s getting bigger, if we’re not looking for a zero problem solution then your solutions aren’t working.’”

‘The Office’, as Priestly calls the Circular Quay bench he sleeps on, has a power connection so he can charge his phone; the instrument with which he coordinates a not-for-profit 24/7 homelessness survival operation of (quote?) some influence and reach..

Back in March 2017 I spent my first day with him (at Tent City) (in the CBD – this prior to Tent City) and was astounded by the variety and breadth of his networks, the respect he was accorded by social workers, nuns and police. Today, months later, in the aftermath of the Martin Place occupation, he’s planning further autonomous solutions to a problem that no amount of money, NGOs or government bodies seem able to deal with. His methodologies are challenging perceptions about the nature of homelessness, the way problem is being handled and even the homeless themselves.

“On the Thursday night before we shut Tent City down there were 35 people that got up in the morning and went to work,” he says. “Over three days I counted 58% of the people living there worked full time.”

By contrast, the City of Sydney’s (most recent) registry survey for 2015 found that of 516 homeless people surveyed only nine per cent were employed.

But Priestly, a former construction project manager who still does maintenance work and organises teams of rough-sleeping furniture removalists, says the first misconception about the homeless is that they’re shiftless and lazy – the second being that they’re lost and lonely causes.

“In eight months we had over 800 people through Tent City. We had a churn rate of as high as 20 percent a week, so it wasn’t like people were settling in. A lot of them were people we’d never seen before. And they tend to be the people you get off the streets really quickly.

“They knew exactly where the cracks were that they fell through and guess what? They fixed it up themselves. They didn’t need any input from us. There was food, shelter, somewhere they could leave their things in safety. They had all those things in one place, which frees them up to go and get themselves out of the shit.  A lot of those people are coming back to help too.

“The reality is without Tent City or a replacement people simply don’t have anywhere to get these resources and help themselves.”

Priestly maintains that a sense of community was integral to the formation of Tent City and the ongoing activities he oversees. “There’s no committee, but people have shared concerns. I can’t possibly do all the stuff myself. If I put it out there; this is what needs to be done, people put their hands up.

“Even today, I’m sitting here talking but there’s furniture being moved to homes we’ve found (for homeless people). Two of the guys are couriers, one has a delivery business, they ring me and say where they are and ask what we have that needs picking up that can go to their next destination.

“By the time today’s over, since we shut Tent City down, we’ll have furnished 97 houses, as far north as Woy Woy, out Maroubra way, Campbelltown… On Sunday I did one in St Marys, another one in Revesby today, so it’s all over the place.”

In the wake of Tent City Priestly claims his community has housed 212 people while the Department of Housing found accommodations for about 136, but failed to create the sense of community that sustains viable living arrangements.

Organising community barbeques is one of the communal activities Priestly has instigated to help stabilize rehoused individuals and families. “The BBQs are just one part of it,” he says. “In some of the estates where there are a reasonable number of children we’re looking at breakfast programmes in conjunction with homework assistance for kids that have problems with school work. That’s not hard to put together.”

He cites the example of his own daughter, who he says lived for seven years on the streets alongside him while attending an elite private school. She now has, he says, her own family and manages a medical centre from home in the eastern suburbs.

Priestly is concerned that despite such success stories, any work he does is a temporary fix. “What we’re doing is dealing with (homelessness) after the fact. In order to stop it, we actually have to reach behind and turn off the tap. What we need to be looking at is taking housing out of the commodities basket.

“People would be shocked to hear me quoting Menzies but in his time as (Liberal) Prime Minister he took housing home ownership from 25 percent for people over 20 to 75 percent when he retired as PM and he did that all through social housing. Social housing, in his mode,l encouraged people to buy and Singapore liked his model so much that they copied it and their model today is one of the best in the world.

“Today I wonder just how different people who are renting are from people who are homeless.

“Most people who are renting don’t know whether they’re gonna be able to stay there for more than six months, whether they’ll have to move house at the whim of their landlord. Last time I did the math I worked out it cost about $4,000 every time you moved.”

“The power of the free market puts people in a position where they have to work two full time jobs just to keep themselves housed – that keeps people far too busy to engage in community, too busy to engage in their family. But if we want to fix the things that society finds problematic then we need to do it as a community.

“We need to get over the idea that getting government to do anything will ever work.”

Priestly’s ideas may be contentious; he’s accused by of inciting ‘class war’ and his latest passion is the Disrupt 2017 movement, which aims to create “media stunts and antics across Australia to expose the corporate profiteers abusing human and animal rights, creating war and destruction across the planet”.

But the facts are on his side. Funnily enough, so is Jenny Smith, CEO of the peak NGO body, Homelessness Australia – at least to an extent. Smith says that amidst wage stagnation and the massive inflation of capital city rents, many low-income earners are paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing, while one in every 85 Australians are now homeless.

“At the Federal level we’re not seeing the leadership that we need,” she told the Neighbourhood. “While the government is talking about the problem absolutely nothing is being done. There is still no plan and we still haven’t had any additional investment in housing or homelessness from the Federal government.”

A Family and Community Services (FACS) spokesperson told the Neighbourhood that claims that the NSW Government is not invested in reducing homelessness are inaccurate and unfair. In fact, the spokesperson emphasised the agency’s role in attempting to mitigate the problem, which was attributed to “domestic violence, unemployment, mental illness, family breakdown and drug and alcohol abuse”.

But an increase of 35 percent in homelessness services clients over the past four years in NSW does seem to underscore Smith and Priestly’s observations that external economic factors could well be the root cause, rather than the symptoms which FACS attributes it to.

Smith says that only fundamental policy change can shift this intractable issue. “It’s very clear the federal government needs to change its taxation settings in relation to capital gains tax and negative gearing. We treat investors better than we treat people on low incomes.”

She chuckles at the suggestion that autonomous movements can provide a solution. “Things like Tent City are protests and I don’t think anybody is proposing them as a viable alternative, but they bring to the public’s attention the inexorable fact that more and more people every day are finding themselves without a home. Just in the last year nationally 23,000 more came to our services looking for help. We’re turning away hundreds of people every day.”

Priestly, however, maintains NGOs are part of the problem.

“There’s a place called The Station (a government-funded drop-in centre) that barred me because of Tent City. The CEO said we were trying to undermine their business, but they shut at three in the afternoon and we were trying to provide all the services they don’t.”

Priestly is equally scathing about groups such as Bill Crews’ Exodus Foundation. “He originally set up in Ashfield as the destination to … suck up all the homeless out of the city. Didn’t work then and it’s not going to work now.

“We need something that’s a maximum of a ten-minute walk from the city circle railway stations. That transport link [is] absolutely vital. People who become destabilized and without a roof over their heads, a lot of those people have jobs that could be anywhere. The travel time added for most people to get to work is eliminated if we put it in the city.”

In the meantime, Priestly says there has been “zero meaningful engagement” from Council or government over the fate of the evictees from Tent City. “The level of engagement that we’ve seen is just them trying to ascertain what we’re up to,” he says.

Priestly claims he spoke to Clover Moore in person just prior to the forced eviction of Tent City. “She made a commitment to find (a permanent site for a homelessness community). No particular building or even a particular location was discussed,” he says of that meeting. “The opportunity to reach that point in those discussions was to a certain extent preempted by Berejiklian bringing in those laws with the speed she brought them in.

“Clover Moore then announced that the council would spend $100,000 and the state government also put up $100,000. In the wider scheme of things, $200,000 that’s catering to 100 people – how does that work? Where was she gonna put it? In a matchbox?”

That promise is yet to be fulfilled, while the homeless camp at Wentworth Park in Glebe is reportedly in imminent danger of being cleared out. Priestly says that this kind of uncertainty and prevarication is having an immediate impact on rough sleepers.

“There was an almost immediate increase in the number of homeless guys that have been bashed and robbed, including a guy who was hospitalized and nearly killed.

“One of the things I’m seeing is people really run down, just by virtue of having to carry their gear everywhere with them. It’s one of the important unseen things. I‘ve been on at [Sydney] Council for fifteen years to establish decent lockers, so that the guys can leave their gear there and go about doing things that enable them to get off the street. Doesn’t exist.”

In the absence of government action, Priestly says he has no option but to carry on with autonomous solutions. “Through social enterprise we’re now starting to see disruptive models emerging,” he says. “People in that space understand the concept of vanishing point models and that we should be setting up structures that have a vanishing point aim.”

He has specific ideas about what form this will take.

“There are people from some religious organisations I’m quite happy to work with. When we open our new centre there will be groups that helped out at Martin Place that will be part of that.

“The area we’re looking at is parts of Surry Hills that fit the picture. The building configurations there are more what we need. Not that we can’t fit into a skyscraper if we have to. We need outdoor space but it’s not hard to find a few metres of outdoor space in a high rise.”

In the meantime he’s getting on with a rigorous daily schedule.

“At the moment it’s very mundane. It’s about maintaining the guys that are on the street, it’s about getting furniture into houses. We’ve got nine vehicles running around today picking up furniture, taking it from those that don’t want it to people that do.”

Priestly consults his phone, a clear message that it’s time to wind up.

“Well, in two hours nothing’s gone wrong,” he says. “It’s usually people can’t find places, or washing machines can’t fit in buildings… there’s always something.

“At this stage we’re low key. We’re getting a footprint out there and everything we do is crowd sourced, y’know? So there’s an element of the community that is aware of what we’re doing and are supporting it. Let’s see what happens from there.”

“My end game is to go fishing,” he says, “problem solved. And I don’t have to do this anymore.”

Sustainability struggles for its place in the Queensland sun – published September 18 in The Fifth Estate

Queensland – sustainability superpower or developer’s dream?

Google ‘Queensland’s future’ and you’ll be inundated by government and soft media sites promising a sleek, modern sunshine state.

You’ll find the ‘Queensland Plan’, a 103 page aspirational document whose 30-year sustainability vision is based on startling growth projections and climate change challenges.

You might linger over the Department of Energy and Water Supply’s target for One Million Rooftops to have solar installations by 2020. Or marvel at the Chief Scientist’s forward-looking appraisal of appropriate urban design and integrated floodwater management.

If you pay their digital subscription fee there’s a feast of features in the (Murdoch-owned) Courier Mail, breathlessly enthusing over how Queensland’s burgeoning population are being funnelled into carefully planned suburban corridors guaranteeing security and prosperity for all.

The Palaszczuk Government has ordained its Advance Queensland initiative as a $420 million driver of economic growth, employment and innovation projects. It seems a carefully calculated agenda; a big push across political divides to promote Queensland and Brisbane in particular as a glamorous flagship for sustainable developments and planning responses to climate change.

Such a concerted online presence invariably sets journalist’s alarm bells ringing. It prompts an analysis of what comprises an authentic drive for sustainable modernity and what might go the way of Tony Abbott’s desire to be the ‘infrastructure’ Prime Minister.

An opulent example is the planned $2.5 billion entertainment precinct at the Roma St Railyards, the brainchild of entrepreneur Harvey Lister. It’s a high-profile embrace of hi-tech, hi-life futurama, but amidst this big-spending optimism Greens councillor Johnathon Sri sounds a warning note;

“The problem with this whole construction boom is the profits are only flowing to a fairly small class of people, so ordinary Brisbanites aren’t really benefitting. The same goes for a lot of the infrastructure projects, where private companies are getting overpaid to deliver infrastructure.”

Queensland is certainly faced with formidable challenges. It’s set for massive growth, with the population at 6.14 million and rising. South Brisbane’s population is expected to treble as it welcomes 18,000 newcomers by 2031. It’s not alone.

Ipswich’s Ripley Valley will swell to 76,637 by 2031, with Ipswich itself doubling in size to 520,000 residents by 2041, to almost the size of the Gold Coast. Satellite towns like Logan and Moreton Bay will also double their populations by 2031, while Greater Brisbane’s will rise to 2.95 million.

The massive suburban developments are expected to be big employers, with 20,000 new jobs promised for the Ripley Valley building boom. But while the developments go up, Queensland’s extensive coastline and tropical climate will remain vulnerable to the worst outcomes of climate change.

The entire state is effectively in a cyclone belt, prone to storm surges and intense rainfall events. The 2011 Brisbane flood showed how much havoc the subtropical monsoon, amplified by warming oceans and inland drought, can wreak.

Scientists from the University of Queensland warn that new research shows a high likelihood of further such events, requiring mitigation planning of a sophisticated order.

Climate Scientist Andy Pittman of UNSW warns of the dangers of new constructions that aren’t future-proofed.

“When a category 5 storm comes through the Gold Coast it will be catastrophic. That’s not a climate change signal because they’ve been through before, but we haven’t built the Gold Coast to be resilient to cyclones.”

Brisbane, like any modern Australian city, is a vast construction site, constantly under development. Brisbane Lord Mayor Graham Quirk told the Courier Mail it’s in the process of redeveloping a massive “world-class transport infrastructure” including a new $944 million metro system and “90 congestion-busting road projects’’.
This big spending is emblematic of the state’s bustling economy, which earned $62.6 billion dollars in exports in 2015-16, becoming the nation’s highest export earner. A 23 per cent boom in domestic tourism delivered another $75 million to the local economy.
Another corollary is that Queensland’s public service is the fastest growing in the country, with public sector wages double those across the rest of Australia.

As planners takes steps to establish Brisbane’s international reputation alongside Sydney and Melbourne, they’ve issued a Brisbane City Centre Master Plan. The grandest feature of this (non-statutory) guideline is its aesthetic for new buildings in the CBD, emphasising an embrace of the subtropical climate. Eschewing traditional air-conditioned ‘eskies’ it emphasises the sustainability benefits of opening up walls and windows, using vertical and rooftop planters to create a ‘lush urban environment that attracts investment and tourism, celebrates our lifestyle and stimulates economic activity’.

It has its exemplar in the ambitious ‘building that breathes’ envisioned by top design firm Architectus at 443 Queen St, where ‘clusters of screened pavilions forming fluted columns’ will be embedded in Brisbane’s skyline by 2020.

These kinds of constructions fit the bill for a New World City glowingly described by Courier Mail columnist Greg Clark, an author and globalization expert, in a recent op-ed.

He emphasizes the role of exponential technologies to host future business sectors in agri-tech, sustainable energy, digital media, smart systems and urban design.

In short it’s an endorsement of the Palasczcuk’s Government’s bid for leadership in the New World City pecking order, a euphemism for muscling in on the Sydney-Melbourne rivalry, the throwdown of the new kid on the block.

There’s a telling paragraph about the ambitions of Queensland’s growing regional capitals in the Department of Energy’s blurb for its ‘Solar 150’ initiative;

“During the 21st century no other state will have as many large cities as Queensland. Sure, more people will continue to live in Sydney and Melbourne than in Brisbane. But Queensland dominates with more cities in the nation’s Top 20.”

Certainly its solar initiative has tangible successes, boasting that Queensland has the highest number of installations in Australia. You have to ask how many of the 425,000 households already connected did so despite the Federal and state government’s disinclination to support renewables while publicly endorsing coal-fired energy.

This enthusiasm for renewables seems a little disingenuous when set against the Palsczcuk Government’s fervent backing of the controversial Adani Carmichael project, which financial analysts have decried as untenable. The Climate Change Council of Australia has stated that the project will put the 2,300km-long ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef at extreme risk of extinction and will create billions of tonnes of pollution, use billions of litres of groundwater and push Australia’s carbon budget to its limit.

While the Queensland Plan is upfront about many of Queensland’s future trials, it’s rather light on detail as to exactly how these will be addressed. It discusses planning frameworks and long-term focus but remains a speculative public relations document whose aspirations to sustainability are not shared by resident’s action groups.

Elizabeth Handley of Brisbane Residents United says that the free market approach to development means there is a regulatory failure where developers have a free hand.

“The government would say that they have looked at climate change but you’ve just got to look at some of the developments they’re approving. For instance Queens Wharf, where one of the proposals is for building out into the river further. The Brisbane River is a serious river, when it floods it floods very badly. So the last thing you would think that any responsible government would do would be allow a narrowing of that river.”

Steve MacDonald of the Redlands 2030 group says the absence of governmental oversight means that the proposed Toonda Harbor development in Redlands is;

“… revisiting something that might have been possible in the 1960s. This sort of development has been banned in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania.”

The project would mean building on mangroves in Moreton Bay, removing natural defenses that stop storm surges and flooding inland, as well as providing vital reservoirs of biodiversity and nesting grounds.

“There was no cost benefit analysis done, the land involved is acid sulphate soils, it’s a RAMSAR (wetland of international importance) area and a residential community,” says Macdonald.

He maintains it’s a legacy from the Newman government that’s been worsened by the current regime.

“The Newman government introduced Priority Development areas and councils were allowed to nominate projects that had been caught up in red tape. They planned about 800-1000 units on the land. After the change of government a new framework for development was struck where it allowed 3600 apartments.”

Elizabeth Handley contends that the new planning legislations remove any community input or right of redress from dodgy developments.

“Whatever the council decides, that’s it, you just have to live with it. So they’ve removed the rights of people commenting on a development but they’re approving developments that don’t comply with the codes. That’s a planning system that is really out of whack.”

Greens Councillor Johnathon Sri says some of these glamorous, high-end developments are deleterious to Brisbane’s inner city communities.

“I think the Queens Wharf Casino is probably one of the best examples of what’s going wrong with Brisbane’s idea of progress. This is a huge project on twelve hectares of river front land that’s been given over to several thousand new apartments, a couple of thousand new hotel rooms, poker machines and table games, so the whole business model revolves around problem gambling.

“In contrast that land could have been developed as river front parkland or a new education precinct. It’s almost like the political establishment don’t have a vision of how to develop Brisbane sustainably in a way that doesn’t revolve around giving more power and profit to multinational corporations.”

Peter Skinner, the Head of Applied Research and Design at Architectus stresses that there are always going to be growing pains with a major city, but that there are ways to bring the community with you.

“I understand the development in the city creates concern and people who have a house and lifestyle are eager that they remain unchanged, but change is necessary because our cities in Queensland are sprawling way too far.

“We need to find ways to reconfigure our middle ring suburbs to enable more people to live there, so they’re in striking distance of work and shops. It’s now possible to double or treble the population in those suburbs and to improve the transport systems and green space. My interest is how to do that well.”

Skinner’s concern is that Queensland’s Housing codes and emphasis on speedy development are ruining Brisbane’s green amenity.

“In all the recent development proposals you’ll see the area available to building is increasing, the areas available to cars is increasing and the area that remains for trees and people is diminishing very rapidly. The Queensland housing code does nothing to protect open green space,” he says.

“By contrast the NSW medium density design guidelines insist on planting areas on every private block of land, at the back and the front. Often 40 per cent of the site is open space, the rear is twenty metres from the building across the way. If these guidelines were applied in Queensland they’d provide a much better urban environment. Our codes have no restriction on the floor area of buildings, no setback requirements and ludicrously small open space requirements. This all adds up to the fact that building codes are encouraging the death of green space in the city.”

Between the macro and micro ends of the sustainability scale there is some room for agility by business innovators. Environmental Upgrade Agreements (EUA’s) are a means of funding sustainability upgrades tied into deals on council rates. Incorp, who have had successful EUA’s with corporations like Westpac and Vodafone, are currently in a deal with the Queensland government over its 13,000 square metre tenancy for its Department of Environmental and Heritage Protection at 400 George Street in Brisbane.

There is anecdotal evidence, particularly coming from the Sunshine Coast and Whitsundays of councils stepping up to meet sustainability challenges. The Sunshine Coast Council have been working hard to lift the bar in their own footprint by building a 15MW solar farm and implementing world leading waste systems. There’s a sense of a commitment to mastering smart city technologies and become more efficient in planning, mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change.

Striking a balance between development and sustainability needs to be more than an aspiration of the Queensland Plan. If a government is pushing for better outcomes then industry generally goes with them and developers have shareholders that seek to hold them to account. It seems like it’s starting to dawn on industry in Queensland that there’s a desire to do better. But in such a large scale project it’s vital to strike a balance. To urbanize, not to ostracise.

Bernard Salt, a social commentator and columnist for The Australian and Herald Sun, threw down the gauntlet in a recent op-ed in the Courier Mail.

“The doubling of our population base requires visionary planning. If we are moving towards a bigger Australia, and it very much looks like we are, then the planning and the thinking and the visioning horizon needs to lift a notch.”

Johnathon Sri believes that the vision needs to lift more than a notch. He cites the South East Queensland Regional plan which provides for a growth in population of two million people over 25 years. Sri claims it concentrates far too heavily on Brisbane and urban areas, and does not allow for the decentralization that would assist sustainable population growth.

“We should be looking at developing new regional nodes where there are good job prospects and high quality of life in regional towns.

“For that to work we also need proper investment in things like regional broadband and telecommunications infrastructure and rail that’s affordable. But the Palasczcuk Government are focusing too heavily on Brisbane, so we’re going to see overcrowding and associated problems with rapid urban compaction.”

You won’t find that analysis in the first 20 pages of a Google search.


Review of ‘Connection to Country’; Film by Tyson Mowarin. For Aust Environmental Film Festival

“I wanna tell you a story about why this country means so much to us blackfellas and why it should mean something to you, too.”

Through a drone’s eye view of the spectacular Pilbara country of Western Australia, this is the introduction to the timely documentary Connection to Country, from filmmaker and multimedia innovator Tyson Mowarin.

It’s an upbeat and light-filled production that examines the physical and spiritual bond of Aboriginal people with their traditional lands. The stories and living histories that animate its rocks, rivers, plants and animals are indivisible from the skin groupings that determine proper human behaviour.

Partly narrated in Ngarluma language by Mowarin’s Aunty Jean Churnside, it’s a family affair also featuring his daughter Charlia and cousin Patrick Churnside, a Tjaabi (traditional song) performer. His simple message; “You got to learn to have a balance – look after the country and in return the country will look after you”, eloquently sums up an Aboriginal world view.

The film also tackles grim truths about the provenance of our ‘lucky country’. Mowarin, a Ngarluma man undertakes a forensic but heartfelt examination of the arid interface between white society’s economic demands and the traditional cultural beliefs of the most venerable society on earth. Measured optimism and impeccable cinematographic technique maintain a steady emotional temper that never tips into pathos.

Without rancour Mowarin addresses a malignant secret at the heart of Australia. The antiquity of Australian Aboriginal’s unbroken cultural heritage eclipses that of any other civilization. Yet in their own country they are treated as third class citizens.

He depicts the deliberate destruction of the artefacts of Aboriginal civilization by successive federal and West Australian governments hell-bent on facilitating the demands of mining companies.

In the Burrup Peninsula west of Roeburne we’re shown thousands of rock carvings of animal petroglyphs far older than the Egyptian pyramids. Many thousands more have been relentlessly destroyed by mining company Woodside.

Mowarin’s graphic history lessons demonstrate how the slaughter and exploitation of indigenous tribes throughout white settlement was matched only by the dismantling of their sacred artefacts.

The closure of 150 Aboriginal communities by Tony Abbott’s Coalition Government in 2015 for what he sneeringly called ‘lifestyle choices’ is of a piece with the steady erosion of Indigenous rights. According to anthropologist Nic Green, owner of a most photogenic hat, there’s been a ‘whittling down of cultural heritage values’ to make an easier path for approvals for mining.

The Department of Aboriginal Affairs is notorious for deregistering heritage sites overnight, as Mowarin discovers when he talks to gnarled Aboriginal cattle man Ricky Smith, who shows him the location of registered site 7092, a ceremonial man made structure that’s been destroyed by local Shire council workers.

Greg McIntyre SC, a native title barrister observes that the WA government gives ministers the discretion to destroy sites of extreme significance. He also notes that Aboriginal heritage sites are designated less significance than a Perth sewage pipe from 1910.

There are vibrant scenes forecasting a dynamic future, such as the 2014 revival of the Yule River Bush meetings, rallying points for tribes-people who have been amongst the most politically active in Australia. The interaction between countrywomen and Indigenous man Ben Wyatt, WA’s newly elected Treasurer and Minister for Finance, Energy and Aboriginal Affairs in Perth is a showstopper from a wily filmmaker.

A buoyant soundtrack by David Bridie, with contributions by Indigenous musicians such as Stephen Pigram in no way diminishes the film’s sobering message. Rather it depicts the courage and optimism of Aboriginal people who have after all, survived over 50,000 years of adversity

While the plundering of WA’s traditional lands continues apace – the last Coalition government removed over 1300 Aboriginal Heritage sites by stealth – the overall sense of Connection to Country is that the spirit of the land is living and breathing still.

Cattlemen Reg Sambo and Ricky Smith, artist Allery Sandy and Tjaabi singer Patrick Churnside demonstrate that spiritually and physically it remains an essential part of the identity of Aboriginal people.

Finally, through the agency of his daughter Charlia’s budding interest in filmmaking, Mowarin reminds us that the future of Aboriginal people and indeed that of Australia lies in properly educating children to take on the responsibilities of looking after our country, so that it can look after us.


Most Australians would consider Mowarin’s hometown of Roeburne to be impossibly remote. Yet it’s the centerpiece and focal point of a one-man cultural industry that has generated a stunning array of multi-media productions.


Mowarin’s made a Welcome to Country app, a card game based on Indigenous skin groups (Who’s Your Mob?) and an album of songs in five indigenous languages. He’s also filmed and produced fifteen documentaries about the people of the Pilbara region.






Homeless Truths – published in The Saturday Paper 9/9/2017

This is my, longer version.

Mayor of the Mean Streets

Mick Daley ©2017

Lanz Priestly, de facto Mayor of the mean streets of Sydney’s homeless, is a former building project manager. He organizes trucks and teams of tent dwellers to do house removal jobs, performs domestic violence interventions and maintains a roster of free kitchens across the CBD. He became the voice of the homeless in their stand off with the NSW Government in Martin Square in August.

He says Australia’s approach to the problem of homelessness is flawed.

“If we have a problem in project management we identify a point in time where we don’t have a problem and become redundant. We identify a methodology to get there and a diminishing cost structure along the way. But NGO’s and government … work the other way. Every year they say, ‘oh the problem is getting bigger, so we’ve gotta pour more money into it’. Doesn’t that mean that the methodology they’re using isn’t working? Throw it in the rubbish bin.”

Priestly is a hard man to keep up with. He constantly patrols the streets, keeping tabs on individuals and organisations.

“The fundamental problem is the government and NGOs do not look at it as a problem,” he says. “If you were the CEO of Mission Australia, would you seriously want to be the guy who put up his hand to say ‘I dried up the rivers of gold’?

“Their aim is to grow their business. Bureaucrats are incentivized to grow their departments so it grows their career path. There’s no zero problem end game.”

Priestly has been working on Sydney’s streets for thirty years. He knows them intimately. He knows the secret camping hideouts, the stashes, the coffee shops that will give a homeless person a free cuppa.

He took me on a tour through his Sydney. The streets dominated by traffic and office workers seem different from this perspective. Pushing a trolley loaded with sleeping bags, talking to workers at various shelters, drinking coffee with long term street sleepers, you start to see the homeless more and more. They’re everywhere.

NSW Homelessness peak bodies claim an increase of over 35% in homelessness from 2015 onwards. Priestly interprets those figures in rather more graphic terms.

“We’re seeing another 15 people a night that we’ve never seen before. Counting people that are sleeping in their cars with or without families, we’re seeing about another 25 a day.”

Priestly has worked these mean streets from both sides. He points out major buildings throughout the CBD that he has project managed to completion.

“I saw my role as the person that’s responsible for the delivery of quality to the end buyer. They’re depending on what I’m signing off on to tell them that they’ve bought a quality product. Well guess what, I haven’t seen a quality product go up in the last 22 years.”

“They have builder’s warranties that run out in seven years and there are a lot of materials that have an 8-12 year life. Part of the reason for that is it makes the property management more lucrative and therefore people will pay more for the property management rights, because they know in eight years time the tiles are going to go and then in nine years time it might be the seals on the windows and in ten years it might be the waterproofing on the garden beds and showers that go.”

Priestly sees that ‘free market’ approach to building as a perfect metaphor for the attitude of government to homelessness. It’s underscored by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s decision to bypass an amicable solution and instead send in the police to evict the homeless in Martin Square.

It’s an observation shared by some senior NGO’s.

“Social inequality is expressed through the housing market,” observes Dr Heather Holst, of Melbourne’s Launch Housing service.

“Our rental tenancy acts are geared more to the rights of the owner who has an investment than, as it is in other countries, it is geared to the rights of the tenant. There’s a basic issue.”

Dr Holst points to socially conservative governments such as that of Menzies, the idol of the Right, who ensured that by 1966, 75% of Australians owned their own home.

“So there have been settlements in Australia which meant that there was no effective homelessness. But when you just let the market rip on housing then inevitably you get more homelessness.”

Karyn Walsh, CEO of Brisbane’s Micah Projects have adopted the Housing First approach.

First trialled in Los Angeles in 1988, this aims to provide permanent housing and support services for the homeless.

It’s been particularly successful in Canada, where Alberta Human Services deliver for less than $35,000 per person per year, as opposed to the $100,000 required annually to keep a chronically homeless person alive on the streets.

“There’s recognition that there is cost benefit in the justice system, to the health system. We get kids in school and the parents work-ready,” says Walsh. “That’s recognized all over the world.”

Except Australia. Malcolm Turnbull’s outwardly rational appeals to Australia to place its trust in his economic management skills are based on the notion that they will trickle down to the poor and downtrodden, elevating them to work-ready status, presumably able to pay hyper-inflated rents.

His Coalition government is wrangling heavier penalties for unemployed people who fail to adhere to demands from private employment agencies – notwithstanding the $41 million found to have been rorted by fraudulent claims from such agencies in 2016. NSW University of Technology studies show one in four people on benefits have been forced to beg on the streets, as housing has become a major stress on the unemployed.

The Coalition under Tony Abbott axed all funding to peak advocacy body Homelessness Australia. Jenny Smith is the CEO of both Homelessness Australia and the Victorian peak body CHP (Council to Homeless Persons).

“There’s no doubt that investment in social housing hasn’t grown since Kevin Rudd’s injection into nation building around the global financial crisis,” she observes.

“That was 2008-9 onwards. Done. We don’t actually have a template about how to do what is required across the public/private philanthropic investment space at all. There’s not even a back of the envelope plan.”

“It is very sobering that we’re currently facing a federal term of government without those policies in place. Our sector has got $115 million that is still uncertain, from the end of (last) financial year.

“And that’s just making the wheels go round to keep supporting people.”

Lanz Priestly has seen the wheels come off. He worked through the Occupy movement in 2011, where his teams were feeding up to 450 people a night. The O’Farrell government was then ordering police to arrest homeless people.

“If a homeless guy was asleep on the street, provided he didn’t have a blanket they’d leave him there, but if he used a blanket or tried to do anything to take shelter they’d take it off him. You’re allowed to sleep in the streets as long as you don’t use a blanket. What sort of logic drives that?”

Priestly’s solution is to trust in individuals or small independent groups.

“We’ve got 38 outfits which service Martin Place independently. If we set up a single delivery structure something can take that outfit out and that’s that whole service gone.

“Whereas if any of those outfits go down the others can continue to operate. Some are church groups, some are family groups. There are Muslim groups, Hindus.”

Priestly sees these grassroots movements as far more effective means of welfare distribution.

“What’s in the best interests of the NGO isn’t always what’s in the best interests of the target constituency,” he maintains.

“When I look at the NGOs, I can’t say the CEO isn’t doing their job, but it might be a different thing to what the public assumes. They allow for broadsheet accounting where they can say ‘oh we spent that on the homeless’, but when you unpack it the money was spent on a brochure promoting a fundraiser.

“I’ve got firsthand examples of how 15 million dollar contracts end up with $1.5 million hitting the streets.

“Ultimately the most marginalized people in this conversation are the donors and the taxpayers. They don’t look under the hood to see what’s happening and they don’t stop to think that the problem’s actually getting bigger.”




Desert Stars

Desert Stars

Mick Daley ©

A heavily edited version of this story was published in the Sun Herald, Sydney on July 9, 2017.


Moonrise on spinifex grass in the West Australian desert, at the northern extremity of the Nullarbor Plain.

Aboriginal musician J. Minning is describing traditional life as he prepares a freshly shot kangaroo for a Pitjantjatjara barbeque – roasted whole in a freshly dug open earth oven.

“It’s about doing things right way,” he says carefully. “For people growing up in the bush, country comes first. The land, that’s your home y’know?

J. is singer and songwriter for the Desert Stars, the most remote rock and roll band in the world. They’ve just released an album, Mungangka Ngaranyi? and are planning a nationwide tour.

Their music is unashamedly influenced by their favourite band, globe-straddling giants AC/DC, to the extent that they’ve been nicknamed ‘Blackadacca’. They’ve played sellout shows from Kalgoorlie to Alice Springs. But their roots are firmly in their ancient homeland.

We’ve been hunting with Desert Stars bassist Justin Currie and driver Ethan Hansen, head of land management group the Spinifex Rangers. They live at the community of Tjuntjuntjara in the Great Victorian desert, 700 kilometres from the remote town of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia.

This is the homeland of the Pitjantjatjarra people known as the Pila Nguru (Spinifex People), whose southernmost community is immortalized in the Desert Stars’ song of the same name, Tjuntjuntjara;

I’m watching that moon rising,

Waiting for the shooting star

To make a wish that I was home

with the desert plain and the kataya trees

Tjutjuntjara, that’s where I wanna be

J.’s infusing a mess of intestines with dung squeezed from the entrails.

“It’s nothing but grass,” he assures me, as he lays them on a platter of kataya leaves, before roasting them as an entree.

Life at Tjuntjuntjara is interwoven with such connections to country. It operates on finely nuanced laws developed over millennia for the survival of small groups in harsh terrain.

The community is designed around clusters of close family, but everyone is indirectly related, in the dualistic Aboriginal way where your cousins are sisters, your biological parents operate as distant aunts and your uncle is called Dad. Despite this there are certain people you walk past without acknowledgement – mother-in-laws for instance.

It’s a sturdy domestic architecture that encourages traditional practices such as hunting kangaroo to provide food for elders. As Ethan and Justin expertly dismember the cooked kangaroo they describe how it will be distributed.

“We gotta share it out,” Justin says, his arms smeared with blood. “Some for the uncles and aunties, some for the tjamu (grandfathers). Next time when they go out we’ll get some too.”

“Justin does this nearly every day,” adds J. “Five tjamu, he got to feed them all.”

“Yuwah! (that’s right),” says Justin.

The hunt was a spectacle. Ethan was driving, expertly whipping around trees and rocks at great speed to keep us inexorably on the trail of the sprinting kangaroos. Justin’s the shooter, leaning into the swerving vehicle, lining up a roo for the final deadly shot.

Racing through spinifex grassland, the Desert Stars’ CD was clanging through the truck. Listening to the record in that context is like being suddenly able to understand Pitjantjatjara. The music has all the menace and compressed power of AC/DC, leavened with the lyrical tenderness of J.’s reverence for his country.

In ‘Tjukurpa Wiru’ (Good Story), he sings in language of a romantic dilemma;

This is a story about a young man and a girl.

Even though they are of the right way marriage group, he is not in love with her but has fallen in love with her stories.

Such references to traditional life manifest throughout J’s songs, as in the art of his parent’s generation, the last to emerge from a nomadic desert lifestyle.

The sacred dot paintings of these world famous artists illustrate the interface between Dreamtime (Tjukurpa) and desert terrain. The painters, many in their eighties, boast of having met the Queen and Gough Whitlam. Their works fetch enormous prices, establishing their reputation as elite painters in their field.

One of these virtuosos, the aloof Mrs Simms is often to be seen towering majestically on walks around the community, surrounded by a retinue of fierce dogs. Other elders, playing cards in the dust or sitting silently at strategic locations, give no indication that their transcendent canvases are feted around the world’s fine art enclaves.

The paintings document evidence of 600 generations of continuous habitation of their land. They were instrumental in establishing the connection to country that earned their successful Native Title claim in 2000. It marked their return from an exile sparked by British atomic bomb testing in the 1950’s at Maralinga, in the heart of Pitjantjatjara country.

I thought I heard a thunder near Maralinga

I thought I seen a serpent man

Feel my spirit running


A day earlier I’d sat in the shade of a tin shelter talking to

three elders – Mr Grant and Mr Hogan, with Betty Kennedy interpreting their stories. Betty, who’d been six at the time of the nuclear blasts, told how some of the fleeing desert people had been picked up in trucks.

But for many it meant a brutally long walk through the desert without water.

Mr Grant and Mr Hogan are senior lawmen and painters. They greeted me politely, their camp dogs growling with frank suspicion.

Mr Grant began passionately orating in a mélange of language, English and sign, using sweeping gestures to indicate routes taken to avoid the atomic apocalypse. That exodus has become embedded in cultural memory, an event perhaps as momentous as creation stories.

Betty told with great sorrow of the people left behind. Entire families perished, poisoned by the nuclear fallout or blinded by the explosion. Some like the Rictor family disappeared into the desert till 1986, the last nomads to emerge into white-influenced civilization.

The Pila Nguru had become among the world’s first nuclear refugees. The survivors established a makeshift community at J.’s birthplace, Cundeelee Mission, till water shortages forced another move south. But Cundeelee remained in J’s memory as a lost paradise.


You’re hidden away in my memory, only stories can be told

Cundeelee you’re always on my mind

Secret Hideaway


In the early 80s the elders grew restless and many walked back into country, ending up at Yakatunya, not far from where our kangaroo is roasting. J. grew up there in the traditional way. But he was constantly on the two-way radio to Justin at Cundeelee, raving about their shared passion for music.

As a result his songs are steeped in two profoundly disparate elements. The first is connection to country. The second is rock and roll.

“When I learned music it was from cousins drinking at their fires, cassette tapes playing AC/DC or Warumpi Band,” says J.

“We was out at the edge of the community with air guitars and cardboard drums, dancing and singing along. Kids gotta stay away from drunk people. They’re bush people and it’s rough.”

Drinking was one of the biggest problems for Aboriginal people fresh out of the desert. The ravages of alcohol fragmented social ties evolved over millennia.

Along with the horrors of the Stolen Generation there was a less documented ‘lost generation’ of men and women who succumbed to drink driving, a diabetes epidemic and other afflictions of white provenance, leaving a massive hole in their genealogical DNA. Orphaned or neglected kids lost to petty crime and substance abuse are as plentiful in the towns as men in their fifties are few.

Desperate to escape the ravages of civilization, the old people pressed on to Tjuntjuntjura, which was declared a dry area. They had been awarded compensation for the Maralinga bombings and have been settled there now for 30 years. It’s an oasis for lives scarred by drugs and alcohol in the city.

These scourges still plague those who travel to Kalgoorlie, where incarceration rates are high – one in 27 Aboriginal men are jailed in Western Australia, usually for minor civil infractions.

Everyone in the band’s been arrested – their drummer recently did some time. J’s last stretch was for stealing a policeman’s hat.

In Gravel Road he invokes a rock and roll outlaw in a high speed police chase.

Blazing red, flashing blue lights, here they come,

I’m on my way to the gravel road

Catch me if you can

The fire is dying down and a strident full moon has clambered up over the desert. The stars are colossal, intense. As the butchered kangaroo is wrapped in kataya leaves we chew on choice morsels of kidney and stomach.

Justin plays country licks on J.’s guitar. He’s good, but Derek Coleman, who’s away on traditional law business, is lead guitarist.

Ethan listens silently, a stoic figure in the star-lit dusk. As head of the Spinifex Rangers, Ethan, with four other men constantly patrols 5.5 million hectares of country.

They set firebreaks and hunt feral camels and cats, which threaten the delicate ecology of the bush. Songs used to tell of nomads feasting on brush-tailed possums at the right time of year. Now they are no more.

The Rangers eradicate vegetative plagues like African buffel grass. They also map and maintain sacred sites, including traditional water rock-holes.

Ethan explains; “People ask ‘how long you been doing this job for?’ But my people been doing it for thousands of years, and I’ve been doing it all my life.”

I ask J. if his songs serve the same purpose as the dot paintings, reminding younger generations of this ancient matrix of land and spirit. He nods emphatically.

“That’s why we gotta keep on playing this music,” he says. “Young people, they like raging and all that. I see ‘em watching, playing air guitar just like I did. We keep on reminding them that this is the real story and we’re doing it by rock and roll. They learn something from the Desert Stars, every time they see us.”

Next morning I’m out looking for the band members. We’re booked for a drive up north to Illkurka station. But time is a fluid concept, here in the desert where Dreamtime remains a potent influence. J. eventually appears, chewing on a chunk of kangaroo neck.

“Let’s have a sit down,” he says.

We’re soon joined by Justin, guitarist Derek who returned in the early hours, and a squadron of camp dogs angling for a piece of kangaroo. They’re ready for a full band interview. J. nods and I produce the ‘conversation’, as he calls my recording device. I ask Derek how he gets his scorching Pink Floyd guitar sound.

“Just press that silver button. Distortion. Yuwah!”

His eyes mist up as he describes the ecstasy of being on stage.

“Too much energy. Like another spirit jumps into me, then when I get off stage I’m back to myself.”

J. likes to sing in Pitjantjatjara but explains how that medium is limited when it comes to certain concepts.

“Don’t have words in language for some things. No word for ‘guitar’, no word for ‘drum’, no word for ‘shake it up’,” he laughs.

Justin talks of Warumpi Band and Ilkari Maru, two other Pitjantjatjara-based desert-rock bands that made it onto the national stage.

“They mix up country and rock and roll, singing in language,” he says. “We was always listening, thinking, ‘we wanna be the same as them’.”

But J. is signaling to turn off the ‘conversation’. It’s time to head for Illkurka.

On that drive we visit an ancient rockhole, out of which the Spinifex Rangers recently pulled a dead camel. Zebra finches and budgerigars are now drinking in vast, swirling green and blue flocks. We pass the scarlet flowers of Sturt’s Desert Pea as we careen over great sand dunes, glimpsing snakes and a lumbering goanna.

On the return journey the 4WD’s pull over when camels are spotted. Justin handily shoots four of the enormous animals. Ethan’s happy, describing the havoc these creatures wreak on the desert with their vast appetites and blundering feet.

The Desert Stars album rings out across the desert, boasting of the restorative powers of living on country. In Wati Youngapalla J. sings of a young man who’s learned to avoid the temptations of drugs and alcohol.

He just likes being around his grandfather’s place because he feels stronger and stronger with each visit.

It’s exhilarating stuff, hunting with the wardens of our ancient country. They inhabit a richly textured tapestry of music and art that invokes scientific principles of ecology, astronomy and quantum physics.

They are the direct descendants of people that thought nothing of walking naked through stony desert without water, carrying all their possessions, babies and immense libraries of oral knowledge, with ancestral songs providing navigational maps.

They abide strictly by ancient laws more stern than any Biblical proscription. Yet their music and art is as vital as you’ll find anywhere in the world.

They survived the bloodthirsty British Empire, nuclear blasts, smallpox and generational kidnapping in some of the harshest terrain on earth.

They are the Pila Nguru, latest in a long line of desert stars.


The Desert Stars album Mungangka Ngaranyi? is available now through Sugarrush Music.

Terror Nullius


On October 5 2015, a 17 year-old Sydney student was arrested by police after posting a threat on Facebook to burn down Merrylands police station.

He was from the same school as 15 year-old Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar, who had earlier shot and killed NSW Police accountant Curtis Cheng in a terrorism inspired attack. It was evidence that Australian police take terrorist threats on Facebook seriously, in line with counter terrorism laws that state:

“A ‘terrorist’ act is an act, or a threat to commit an act, that is done with the intention to coerce or influence the public … to advance a political, religious or ideological cause, and the act causes; death, serious harm or endangers a person.”

Yet in the twin towns of Kalgoorlie-Boulder in the goldfields of Western Australia, a slew of racist threats and provocations on Facebook preceded the killing of 14 year-old Elijah Doughty by a middle aged white man. The teenager had allegedly stolen a motorbike.

His death ignited deadly tension in this baking hot desert town, the seemingly premature charge of manslaughter mirrored by the incipient racism on social media.

On April 28, 2017 the accused is seeking to have his trial held in Kalgoorlie, presumably in the hope that a jury of his peers would be well disposed towards his plight.

The charge of manslaughter indicates police were satisfied that his crime was conducted without malice aforethought – a judgement disputed by Aboriginal inhabitants of Kalgoorlie. They say that the perfunctory police investigation of the crime scene was of a piece with the racist attitudes that are an everyday fact of their lives in these West Australian towns.

It underscored the implicit understanding among indigenous people that there is one rule for white people and another for them.

For months before the killing, individuals and groups from the Kalgoorlie-Boulder area had been regularly posting inflammatory material on Facebook in the form of racist memes, jokes and commentary. These were mostly centred around discussions on the high crime rates in the twin towns, where hard drug use is endemic and transient and town-based Indigenous people drink on the streets. Fights and petty crime are common.

“I’ll run them over for ya buddy if I see them”, had said one Facebook post, in a racist thread, on May 24.

“Need to shoot them, sniper style”, said another on July 31.

A comment on August 27 boasted “There is going to be revenge of some sort very soon.” It had 13 ‘likes’.

On Monday August 29, the day of the killing, a Kalgoorlie resident, in response to a provocative thread asked another individual: “Are you planning a murder?”

The response: “Hardly. But you can bet your bottom dollar somebody is. … My money is on it happening Real Soon Now.” (sic).

After Elijah’s death the racial taunts and vilification continued, with posts that same day reading;

“Good hope the kunt (sic) died” and;

“About time someone took it into their own hands hope it happens again.”

WA Police posted a warning against provocative remarks on their Facebook Page. “We remind everyone that comments made on social media that are considered racially motivated or that incite violence are being monitored by police and will be investigated.”

Two sites were closed down but to date no people responsible for these posts have been arrested or cautioned.

The following day, police announced that the accused in the death of Elijah Doughty had been charged with manslaughter, indicating that the death was to be treated as an accident. A cursory inspection of the crime scene, 120 metres away from a main road, indicates that such a charge deserved at least closer investigation. Aboriginal locals say they have photographs of tyre marks that clearly show where the accused’s speeding vehicle struck the motorbike from behind then ran over it and Elijah, its momentum carrying it another twenty metres further. This on a crime scene that police had not bothered to tape off or guard till late on the afternoon of the killing. (See breakout)

It sparked a spontaneous street march by angry Indigenous people that erupted into violence when riot police armed with shields, batons and dogs began arresting teenagers. The courthouse and police cars were then attacked and mainstream media labeled the incident a ‘riot’.

“It wasn’t a riot,” said Deborah Carmody, manager of the local Tjuma Pulka radio station. “If it was a riot they would have smashed the whole street. It was an expression of grief. An uprising fuelled by frustration and anger. There was a very somber, heavy mood. One of our beautiful young boys had been killed.”

Kalgoorlie-Boulder has a history of simmering racial tension, erupting into full-blown ‘anti-European’ race riots in 1916, 1919 and 1934. People died violently in these events.

May 2017 will be the 50th anniversary of the 1967 national referendum, in which white Australia voted overwhelmingly to include Aboriginals in the census and create laws specifically concerning them. Kalgoorlie was a notable exception, with 28% voting no.

Acting for the family of Elijah Doughty, lawyer Stewart Levitt cited the ‘incendiary atmosphere generated by social media’ as well as a racist undertow that has prevailed in the town since colonial times. Levitt successfully defended the Indigenous community of Palm Island in Queensland in relation to events surrounding the 2004 death of Palm Island’s Mulrinji (aka Cameron Doomadgee) in police custody.

At an earlier hearing in the Doughty matter on April 15, Mr Levitt observed that the Crown’s position was largely based on security issues and appeared to have the view that the indigenous population had a ‘propensity to riot’. He said that the Crown had not taken the social climate prevalent in the white community into account.

“The social media aspect was covered extensively in our affidavits but was not addressed at all by the Crown.

One would argue that the Crown should have put this evidence before the court, but there is not much precedence for this sort of matter and we need the judge to allow us discretion for us to be heard and put these matter before the court,” he said.

Kalgoorlie-Boulder Mayor John Bowler says the history of racial problems is irrelevant to Elijah Doughty’s death.

“Those people (in the race riots) were dead two generations ago, so to link it is stupid. It’s a bit like saying in Sydney they used to hang people. The world’s moved on.”

But these problems aren’t historic. In terms of race relations, not a whole lot has changed.

It’s a hardboiled mining town in an arid, waterless region whose white population are conspicuously affluent. Aboriginal populations are divided into ‘townies’ who are usually locally born and transient populations from desert tribes. Though these groups largely keep to themselves a common factor is relative poverty. Few Indigenous people work in the mines. Some transient families live in squalid ‘camps’ in marginalised land under the shadow of the 3.5 km long gold mining ‘superpit’ that’s estimated to be worth up to $US1.4 billion.

Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines claims to donate $46 million to the local community each year, but, like most ‘’trickledown’ economics, this doesn’t seem to make it to the original owners. For many Aboriginal residents, poverty and disadvantage is intergenerational, young children being raised in squalid conditions with poor diets and education.

For others in suburban Kalgoorlie or Boulder, low self-esteem and shame at their family’s low economic status breeds a culture of depression and suicide rates are abnormally high. Nationwide, for Aboriginal people aged between 15-35, suicide is the leading cause of death.

A 1981 report by the WA Commissioner for Community Relations found that racial discrimination was widespread throughout Western Australia and ‘the rights of Aboriginal people are infringed in practically all aspects of their daily lives”.

In February 2008, a Coronial inquest described the living conditions for Aboriginal people in the Fitzroy Crossing area of WA as “a national disaster with no disaster response”.

Amongst a litany of recent deaths in custody, three examples demonstrate the human rights accorded Aboriginal people in WA.

In 2007 a Mr Ward was found dead in a non air-conditioned prison van in Kalgoorlie after having been transported 400km by police through brutal summer temperatures. He was to face a drink driving charge.

In January 2011 a Mr Phillips was found dead in a Kalgoorlie jail cell. He had been picked up on a drunk and disorderly charge but was in good health before the incident.

And in 2014 a 22 year-old Aboriginal woman, Ms Dhu, had died while in police custody in Port Hedland, north of Kalgoorlie. Imprisoned for failing to pay fines, she was filmed being manhandled extremely roughly by police officers, who refused to respond to repeated calls for help even after she had remained immobile for hours.

Any one of these would have engendered national headlines and investigations were their victims to have been white.

Nobody would deny that the Aboriginal community in Kalgoorlie-Boulder has its problems. The streets of Boulder in particular are dangerous at night. Gregarious Aboriginal drinkers congregate in parks and at street corners. Their noisy disputes often end in violence. Whites also drink heavily, but tend to do so in pubs or at home.

There has been a spate of motorcycle thefts in the area over recent years. Young Aboriginal men have been conspicuous in police investigations that engendered much racially charged commentary on Facebook groups.

The methamphetamine epidemic that has engulfed so many rural Australian towns has had an impact here too, with many teenagers said to be taking the drug, despite its expense. Crime statistics are in lockstep with the ravages of drugs and alcohol.

The Kalgoorlie Miner newspaper for March 1, 2017 showed that in the Goldfields crime was up 17% from March last year. A three-month police operation on drugs drew a direct line between rises in burglary and theft and the purchase of drugs. Chief of these were methamphetamines, with over $1million worth seized and 20 people charged over 47 drug-related offences.

Kalgoorlie Police declined to answer any inquiries into operational matters in the district so we are left to speculate on the distribution of crimes amongst the white and black population.

What’s certain is there is a culture of imprisonment for Aboriginals in Western Australia, with incarceration rates at nine times the rate of Apartheid South Africa and five times those of the US – widely regarded as the top dog in jailing its citizens. Aboriginal people are 15 times more likely to be charged for swearing or offensive behaviour than the rest of the community. With victims of the Stolen Generation being twice as likely to be arrested as their peers and formidable cultural barriers to negotiating complex legal processes, it’s little wonder that this heinous legacy is directly impacting Aboriginal kids.

Amnesty International cites figures showing that Indigenous children in Western Australia are 53 times more likely to be jailed than non-indigenous kids. This stacks up when you consider that WA is the only state in Australia where mandatory minimum sentences of detention apply to young people.

Mayor John Bowler estimated that there are over 150 government, non government and community organisations charged with administering Indigenous funding and yet there is little community infrastructure or proper facilities for youth recreation. There is nowhere for these kids to go, nothing for them to do.

A summit called by WA Pemier Colin Barnett in Kalgoorlie in November 2016 has, according to Mayor Bowler, determined to build a Youth Centre at some indeterminate date. The Mayor, while claiming to be an avid proponent of the Centre had prior to the Summit seemed to be more concerned with gaining government funding for the city’s exclusive golf club.

He had earlier been quoted as saying that each generation of Aboriginal children was worse than the last.

Mr Bowler insists Kalgoorlie is no more racist than any other town in Australia. He attributes the Facebook dialogues to harmless gossip.

“The squeaky wheels get on there, there might be a dozen out of 33,000. They like the sound of their own voice a lot, get the feedback, pat each other on the back. I don’t think the events there paint a true picture of what our community’s like.”

But at a white barbeque in Boulder I heard Aboriginals described in virulent racist language. According to some of the people present, Aboriginals were without exception thieves and degenerates. The best place for them, we were told, was buried deep down the many mine shafts surrounding Kalgoorlie.

These were not people we had encountered on Facebook. They were unconnected individuals who were pleasant and helpful to white journalists. The hateful racism these and other white people expressed to me in Kalgoorlie indicated that Facebook commentators there are not merely a frosting on top, but the very tip of the racist iceberg.



Jacqueline Spurling is an Aboriginal language high school teacher and local candidate for the Greens in the WA elections of March 2017. She believes that the police investigation into Elijah Doughty’s death was poorly executed and inadequate.

After hearing news of Elijah’s death Spurling had been distraught and left work. She decided to go down to Gribble Creek, where Elijah had been killed that morning. The site is some 120 metres from a tar road in suburban Boulder.

“We … pulled in close to 12pm. No police were there, it was completely open. The police had been down there in the morning and had not cordoned the place off. People had put flowers there and we could clearly see where (Elijah) was hit and about ten metres away (where) the body would have landed. You could see skid marks in the ground where the car had gone over the body and wound up over by a tree.

“There were women driving 4WDs over the crime scene. We had parked our car on the road and walked into the site but they were driving right over it.

“Then it became like a touristy thing, other people in a 4WD drove over the whole area where the car skidded. This is before forensics had been there.

“We went back down to place some flowers about 330-4pm. I was with about twenty kids, all good mates of his. The police were there and said ‘you can’t go across there’. There was still no police tape up.

“And then a bloke comes from the other side of the street, walking his dog straight over the crime scene while we’re held back. The police made no move to stop him. We’d just seen all these death threats to Aboriginal kids on Facebook and I was overwrought. I said ‘I couldn’t care less any more, arrest me’, and I walked across.

“The young fellas were saying ‘put some police tape up. We watch CSI, you blokes can’t do your job’.

“So finally they put some tape up at 5.09pm, going from photos on my phone. By this stage it’s raining. The forensic van pulls up, the guy gets out, he’s there five minutes. He walks over the scene, takes no photographs, gets back into the car, says ‘yep, you’re right to go’.”

Spurling says the murder and subsequent racial attacks on Facebook have left the Aboriginal community in fear. Many parents will not let their kids out to play on the streets.

“I feared for my life and my children’s life. I thought, ‘how am I going to protect my children?’”