Category Archives: Journalism

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

https://www.thefifthestate.com.au/business/government/sustainability-struggles-for-its-place-in-the-queensland-sun

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

http://www.effa.org.au/news-articles-2016/2017/9/12/connection-to-country-mick-daley

“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.

Breakout.

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

https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/2017/09/09/policies-failing-the-homeless/15048792005184

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.

http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/desert-stars-aboriginal-rock-music-grounded-in-indigenous-culture-20170705-gx56in.html

 

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

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

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.

 

BREAKOUT

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?’”

 

Hanson’s Golden Mile

KALGOORLIE, MARCH 8, 2017

Pauline emerges from the Kalgoorlie Miner offices, sees the journo wolf pack and visibly shudders. Prim in a close fitting one-piece outfit and heels, she’s looking unnerved but breaks into a gracious smile. There’s whoops and whistles and horn blasts coming from the traffic along Hannan Street. Just around the corner is the Golden Mile, a superpit revealing one of the biggest gold mines in the world.

But Pauline Hanson’s after another form of gold here in Western Australia, where the divide between rich whities and the conspicuously dispossessed Indigenous people is as stark as that in their skin colour.

As she waits at the corner (Kalgoorlie traffic lights taking an inordinately long time to change), a car sidles into the kerb with a small dog hanging out the window and a woman waving and smiling while trying to take a photo at the wheel. Pauline grins back. She’s getting the feel of the place.

A young fella who’s pursued the pack from outside the pub asks her for a photo, tries to put his arm around her, gives the flashing cameras a devil-may-care leer and afterwards tells us his name is Ollie.

“I’ve been drinkin’ in the pub since six this morning. Got a cheque for three and a half grand here.”

But asked whether he’d vote for her he laughs.

“I dunno who I’d vote for. I just wanted to get a photo with her.”

More drive-bys with thumbs up and the cry of “Pauline you rock.”

Across the road and into the shade and it’s handshakes all round, smiles of recognition blooming on the faces of people out doing whatever business keeps them in baking hot Kalgoorlie.

All around us, oblivious to this short-lived hootenanny, Indigenous people are enacting their own long game, the parallel slow-mo existence that Hansonites will never understand.

A short, sturdy woman claims Pauline with arms wide, declaring; “About time you came here. I’ve already voted for you.”

Pauline shakes the hand of a young Indian man who had evidently said something complimentary, the redhead replying, “Thank you. That’s very nice.”

She is beguiling, friendly. As I walk alongside her I try to ask a question but I’m tongue-tied. She leans closer.

“Sorry, I didn’t understand the question?”

Then she’s crossing the road to the courthouse, her two minders trying to brush me aside. They’re a white bearded Scotsman, Robin Scott from the Mining and Pastoral Party and Richard Bolton, the local One Nation candidate who has no posters in town and who, according to everyone I’ve asked is not actually running a campaign. We’ve been here a week and certainly seen no evidence of one. It seems Pauline’s visit is the campaign.

We’re now outside the courthouse, torn apart in August last year in a spontaneous uprising by indigenous people grieving the killing of a 14 year old boy, by a white man who was only charged with manslaughter. Facebook had been alight with vigilante-style groups and vicious racist commentary before and after the boy’s death. On the personal pages of many of the group’s members, One Nation memes and devotion were common.

Pauline spots me again and asks; “I’m sorry I couldn’t hear you before …”

I stand at her side. Cameras are flashing. I ask if she’s aware of the killing of of Elijah Doughty and the ensuing grief and unrest in the town. She looks puzzled and says no, she doesn’t know anything about it.

Robin Scott interrupts, saying, yes he knows and will make comment about it later. He hurries his important charge on.

People are gathering, holding children aloft. It’s a fan club. They’re staring at Hanson like she’s the Pope, about to bless them. A lone black man in hi-viz cast-offs shuffles past, eyes downcast. Couldn’t have been better scripted.

A twenty something girl with platinum and purple hair and a kind of medieval frock vest puts her arm boldly around Pauline, grinning widely. Pauline is aglow. Despite the temptation to depict her as a monster, it’s impossible not to marvel at her magnetism. I have to keep reminding myself of the virulent racist subtext, ignorant policies-on-the-run and insular, overweening world-view.

“More and more people are following you,” says another short, fierce looking woman with pearls and a peach blouse. “And they can’t ignore it, no matter how hard they try.”

‘They’, I suppose, are the mainstream media and their lunch money – Labor and the Coalition. The Pauline fan club, consciously or otherwise, are echoing the Trumpists, seeing Hanson as our own Greatness Maker.

As Pauline talks to more people, the cameras are being arranged for interviews with the ABC and Channel 9 Perth. Guy Rundle is there, Crikey’s roving gonzo. His latest piece spoke of the dysfunction in One Nation’s Western Australia campaign, candidates displaying little concept of the standard apparatus of an election campaign. Internal feuding, litigation and failed candidates are daily news items.

But the cameras are waiting for Ashby, who’s stalking through the courthouse portico, on a succession of calls.

“I’m just the middle man,” he snarls. “Don’t fucken flog me.”

Then: “He wanted to be a candidate. Haven’t seen him. Been here in Kalgoorlie all morning.”

Finally Ashby sets up his own camera. He’s a one man media unit, the trash-texting Angel of Death for the 2011 Parliament’s disgraced Speaker Peter Slipper and Julia Gillard’s short-lived majority.

The ABC journo is being directed out of her light by a very professional Pauline. She speaks crisply about the unfairness of the GST levied on Queensland and Western Australia, the two states where her popularity is greatest.

Two overly protective security guards exceed their remit in attempting to aggressively block photographer Dean Sewell’s camera angles, one of them calling him a bloody idiot.

“You’re the one who’s waving your arms around,” he tells the florid faced woman, who’s very anxious to impress Pauline.

There’s been an attractive young couple hanging around the outskirts of the melee, trying to get a photo. Now the woman, a tall blonde wearing shorts and singlet is facing her partner, who’s trying to get her in shot with Pauline. She’s holding a sign on a piece of A4 paper.

Pauline glides over.

“Would you like a photo?”

“Yes, please,” says the woman, folding the sign up in embarrassment.

“What’s on the sign?” asks Dean.

“Oh, I don’t really want to …”

“Go on,” he yells.

She stands beside Pauline, unfolding the sign. Cameras flash. It says; “You Are The Worst.”

Pauline clocks it and says, “Oh.”

“I’m sorry, but I really don’t support anything you stand for,” the woman says. There’s a brief silence, but nobody’s really shocked. It’s all part of the show.

“Just the general racism,” the woman, who’s from Adelaide, and whose name is Kate Wilson, replies to a question from the ABC.

This minor piece of bravery is mostly noticed by the journalists, who swarm around Ms Wilson, Rundle plying her with questions. It doesn’t seem to bother Pauline at all. She’s happily at the centre of this swirling vortex of fame and emotion. Like Trump, she espouses simple pub politics, withholding the spiteful subtext of racism that’s well understood by her fanbase, the champions of White Australia and rule of thumb politics. They love her for it, the half-baked anti-vaccination theories, the Aboriginal-bashing, the Muslim baiting. She plays it with just the right amount of humility and glamour, giving credence to their rancour and they’re star-struck and grateful.

As Pauline’s entourage sweeps off on her way to do ABC radio, in her wake I overhear an overweight security guard on his phone;

“You’’ll never guess who I just shook hands with,” he says. “Pauline Hanson. Yeah. Had a bit of a yarn. I said ‘you’re doing an awesome job’.”

I can hear horns beeping, see people turning, looking over their shoulders and hear car horns trailing down Hannan Street. At the courthouse, people are still gathered, talking excitedly.

Last week we’d interviewed the Mayor of Kalgoorlie, John Bowler, who’d pooh-poohed Hanson’s chances in the WA elections this Saturday. “A souffle never rises twice,” he’d said, quoting Paul Keating. Like many in the political establishment he doesn’t see her relevance. Mind you, he also denies Kalgoorlie is more racist than anywhere else in Australia and scorns the relevance of social media to the real world.

Just as in Trump’s march to power, pundits have been divided on Pauline’s party’s electoral chances in Western Australia this Saturday, March 11. But, with Queensland predicted to follow suit later in the year, it seems likely they’ll win an unprecedented number of seats. And if Pauline’s popularity in Kalgoorlie is any indication, then it seems she just needs to get out of her own way.

 

Article on online mag The Big Smoke on Gomeroi people protesting Shenhua Mine

http://thebigsmoke.com.au/2015/10/15/gomeroi-nation-shenhua-mine-joined-blockade/

Traditional owners of our land set to join blockade of Shenhua Mine if approvals are met, writes new TBS contributor, Mick Daley.

Gomeroi traditional owner Mitchum Neave says he’s prepared to join the new Liverpool Plains Alliance in a blockade to stop the Shenhua Watermark Mine in NSW. Traditional lands and a rich agricultural sector are soon to be obliterated if final approvals are granted by Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt for a 35km square open cut mine in the heart of the Liverpool Plains.

“I won’t speak for other people, but I’ll join a blockade,” Mitchum said, in disgust at Federal Government inaction over alleged breaches of Shenhua’s Cultural Heritage Management Plan (CHMP).

The Gomeroi of Red Chief Local Aboriginal Land Council in Gunnedah say that Sections 9 and 10 of the CHMP have been sitting on Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s desk for two years. They say that breaches of these two sections will clearly show that mining cannot commence on their traditional lands.

Yet Minister Hunt gave approval for the mine to proceed in June 2015, without consideration of the CHMP breaches.

“We’ve had a gutful of the destruction of our culture; we’ll rally together and march on Canberra,” said Mitchum.

Mitchum is a TO from the Breeza township, who was born and bred in nearby Gunnedah. He’s also a Senior Deputy Captain in the Regional Fire Service. He had been a consultant to the NSW Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) when they ordered Shenhua to conduct cultural heritage surveys of the proposed mine site. The Liverpool Plains hide many relics as well as massacre sites, according to Mitchum. But the Grinding Grooves represent spiritual values unfathomable to white culture – not to mention their patent historical value.

“The Grinding Grooves are a war memorial site. I told them at the Planning Assessment Commission meeting, this is our Gallipoli site,” Mitchum explains.

“You wouldn’t like it if I went to your war memorial and destroyed it. I’d be locked up.”

In their CHMP, Shenhua had recognised 55 Aboriginal archaeological sites, but determined that only 26 of them would be conserved. The Grinding Grooves, despite being identified as having high cultural value, would be moved.

“That’s just ridiculous,” snorts Mitchum. “You can’t move them. Some of those sites are the size of a double decker bus. There’s natural spring water runs through the sandstone. If you take it out of that wet environment it’ll dry out and disintegrate.

“I don’t care what rock doctor they get; as soon as they move it, you can’t put it back together.”

The Grooves are deeply scored into clumps of sandstone rock. They were rallying points for Gomeroi warriors prior to white settlement. Strategically placed along the ridgeline above the plains facing south, they look out to where marauding bands of Wiradjuri or Casuli tribesmen – or for that matter, white settlers – would appear.

These were focal points for the Gomeroi culture – sacred space where life is so close to the veil, where death and the unknown come close to this world. Today they are the last hope for the survivors of the Gomeroi people as they seek to preserve their heritage and the land that is as dear to them as life itself.

But this close to final approvals, it seems that Sections 9 and 10 of the CHMP will most certainly be ignored.

Sue Higginson, Principal Litigator for the Environmental Defender’s Office, is pursuing a case against Shenhua Watermark Mine on behalf of a Landcare Group protecting the large koala population there. But she says she has examined the Gomeroi people’s case and sees little hope for legal action on their behalf.

“Our cultural heritage laws are in bad shape. The tragedy is that there aren’t very many options when it comes to cultural heritage. It’s an absolute disgrace.”

It’s a sorry business indeed.

If Shenhua had conducted more thorough surveys of the sites, Mitchum says, they would have turned up hundreds of artefacts and sites.

Mitchum had accompanied their surveys as a consultant.

“When you do these surveys the transects are supposed to be done on foot. They done it in a four wheel drive, but the grass is three foot high – you can’t see anything.

“One of the criteria for their approvals here was they had to survey 17 percent of the country, but they only ended up doing two percent of it. But the mine people will just shop around ’til they find an archeologist who writes what they want.”

Like the other Gomeroi, Mitchum is utterly disillusioned with this process.

“I was told when I grew up, ‘Keep it to yourself. Two things the white man will do, they’ll sell it or destroy it.’”

Fed up with following normal channels, the Gomeroi people have now joined the Liverpool Plains Alliance. It’s a group that’s uniting farmers, townspeople, Lock The Gate and environmental groups including The Wilderness Society and 350.org.

The Alliance is exerting considerable political pressure on both State and Federal Governments. Legal actions are shortly to commence.

With the price of thermal coal plummeting and pressure mounting against extractive fossil fuel industries to curtail their global warming emissions, new coal mines are increasingly seen as very dangerous propositions.

Australia’s conservative State and Federal Governments are resisting mounting international pressure to dramatically reduce carbon output. Their determination to subsidise and promote coal over renewables has made this mine seem inevitable.

But if all else fails, the farmers of the Liverpool Plains and many members of the Alliance have pledged to blockade the mine site and refuse to allow construction to commence. Mitchum, Aunty Dolly Talbot and the Gomeroi elders are all for it. They’ve had enough of this sorry business.

“We don’t want to break the law, ‘cause they’ll paint you as the bad person, but we were trying to do the right thing and the Government has failed us,” said Mitchum.

“It’s time now to stand up for our culture.”

 

The Liverpool Plains Alliance is holding an awareness and activist training weekend, the Harvest Festival Against Shenhua, on the Liverpool Plains next to the proposed mine site, on November 6 to November 8, 2015.

See the Facebook site for more details.

Published 6/8/16 in the Saturday Paper as ‘Uneducated Guess’

In October 2015, an unconventional gas mining well head ruptured at Aliso Canyon near Los Angeles. It belched out a massive plume of methane – the most potent greenhouse gas. Overhead, a Hyperion spectrometer aboard a NASA satellite measured the equivalent of the yearly emissions from 572,000 cars surging into the overburdened atmosphere.

It’s no accident the Hyperion was aboard that satellite. Data from it was being crunched by NASA scientists as part of a continuing assessment of “fugitive emissions” from the leak-prone gas mining industry.

America’s Environmental Defence Fund estimates a quarter of anthropogenic global warming is caused by methane emissions. Almost half of that comes from fugitive emissions – leaking wells, pipes and compressors used in coal or gas mining.

The United States has had an enormous, largely unregulated gas extraction industry since the 1950s. Known as shale gas in the US, the industry accounted for 40 per cent of natural gas production as at 2014 and is on the rise, having generated 1.7 million new jobs, while drastically lowering the cost of domestic gas.

“The political sensitivities are real. It would be surprising to me if it had no effect.”

Despite this employment and revenue boom, and in a political climate coming to terms with the realities of climate change, the Obama administration has been bankrolling concerted fugitive emission research projects. In May, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new rules specifically aimed at curbing gas-mining emissions.

That’s a startling contrast with Australia’s pro-coal seam gas (CSG) Coalition government. The government’s studies of gas fields in Queensland have been funded largely by the Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance (GISERA), a joint project between the federal Department of Industry, Innovation and Science and big mining companies. GISERA provided $14 million for a study that found fugitive emissions to be negligible.

The department declined to comment on the issue.

However, Dr Michael Borgas, formerly a principal research scientist and head of the staff association at CSIRO, has observed how government cuts impair serious research.

“We’re losing some of that capability to be able to do proper measurements and monitoring of those sorts of emissions … and to make sure it’s done in a publicly funded, transparent way, so that the knowledge is better trusted,” Borgas told The Saturday Paper.

The government’s scientific body, the CSIRO, has had 1300 jobs cut in two years by successive federal budgets – 150 of them from climate research, according to Borgas. It is as yet unclear what to make of this week’s announcement by new Science Minister Greg Hunt that the CSIRO should refocus on climate change science.

Borgas has lodged a case with the Fair Work Commission for unfair dismissal from his CSIRO position.

“The reason given in my case was reduction in the need for near-field particle analysis. So … they wanted to remove capabilities related to air quality and the exposure of humans to toxic chemicals.

“There’s a contention about whether the decisions [on job cuts] were made on factors like union membership. That came to the fore on the basis of emails that were released to the senate inquiry.”

Federal subsidies to the fossil fuel industry are estimated to be about $7.7 billion annually. The Coalition and Labor between them have received $3.7 million in donations from fossil fuel companies since the 2012 election.

A Sydney Morning Herald investigation found 24 ministers or advisers moving into high-level industry jobs after careers spent facilitating mining projects. A former adviser of New South Wales Premier Mike Baird is the current CEO of the NSW Minerals Council, and Baird’s draconian protest laws were promised to the mining industry at a pre-election dinner in 2014.

The prevailing message from ministers and lobbyists has been that Australia needs CSG to forestall an energy crisis. Yet The Sydney Morning Herald investigation revealed how Australia is essentially giving away liquefied natural gas (LNG) resources to multinational miners while claiming a shortfall in gas supplies.

The new federal minister for the environment and energy is Josh Frydenberg – a confirmed proponent of CSG as a means of ensuring Australia’s domestic gas supply.

In this political environment independent scientists struggle for funding research of fugitive emissions.

Professor Isaac Santos is a researcher at the National Marine Science Centre in Coffs Harbour. An expert in greenhouse gases, he has worked all over the world, from Antarctica to China.

Since 2008, Santos has been the beneficiary of 14 Australian Research Council (ARC) grants worth $4.5 million. But he says that when it comes to getting funding for CSG studies in Australia, he has hit a brick wall.

“I applied for nine research grants in 2013,” he says. “I got five. The four I failed are CSG related.”

Santos is quick to assert he’s not a coal seam gas activist.

“I just believe in science,” he said.

In 2012, he and a team of Southern Cross University scientists made a submission to the government’s now defunct Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency on fugitive emissions from gas fields in south-west Queensland. Using a cavity ring-down spectrometer, the baby cousin of the Hyperion, they demonstrated hugely elevated leakages.

“It took us one day driving a car to obtain more on methane in Australian CSG fields than has been made available in over 10 years,” Santos said.

That report provoked a savage response from ministers and industry. Santos and his colleagues were pilloried for not having a baseline study with which to compare their findings. That would mean having data on natural methane emissions before gas mining infrastructure was introduced, in order to prove that these elevated emissions were directly caused by industrialised gas fields.

But no gas fields in Australia have baseline studies – energy companies were not required to have these before they were given exploration licences in the late-20th century.

Santos and his team were vindicated when the paper was peer-approved, meaning their methodology and results were found by the scientific community to be impeccable.

However, without adequate funding, he says that research into gas field emissions can never match the findings made by US scientists.

“What you’re really missing in Australia now is the landscape scale. You can do this bottom-up approach of adding up a bunch of wells, or we could fly over and get the gas fields as a point source. But we don’t have that capacity here.

“The Americans have those models but they are flying. We should be flying but it’s a money issue. We’re 10 years behind the Americans in that respect.”

The University of Melbourne’s Professor Peter Rayner, one of Australia’s foremost carbon cycle and climate researchers, says that while the ARC is well insulated against political interference, other funding avenues are more vulnerable.

“The political sensitivities are real. It would be surprising to me if it had no effect, particularly on direct government funding.”

Rayner says that CSIRO scientists in Australia are doing serious research and postulates a midpoint between their findings and those of Santos.

“There’s only one truth out there and at the moment we’re seeing different aspects of it. It’s worth remembering that [fugitive emission] doesn’t have to be very serious before it cancels out much of the climate benefit of the gas [in comparison with coal].”

While acknowledging the integrity of individual scientists, Santos questions the CSIRO findings. He says they are compromised by the nature of their funding body.

“The data that’s come out in the past two or three years is … cherrypicked,” Santos says.

“They’re not measuring the worst wells, because they’re being guided by the industry. There are a thousand wells in the catchment, so they give them a list – can you please choose 50 for me?”

Rayner also says that the inability to conduct proper research means that scientists are missing another crucial contributor to gas field emissions.

“The sleeper issue is the geology in these CSG areas,” he said. “There might be evidence … to be concerned about whether the geology … is conducting methane to the surface.

“There’s evidence of that in the US – hotspots of methane where they’re not extracting anymore. While worrying about the infrastructure we might miss the slow-burning percolation of methane through the soil that could change the overall picture.”

In mid-July Borgas had a hearing over his case for unfair dismissal from the CSIRO. He has been directed to further negotiate with the institution.

“There are up to 30 people, maybe more, that have claims that their redundancies are not valid,” he says.

“The current minister [Christopher Pyne] was an advocate for improving air quality in Australia as a national priority, so whether or not he brings that to the new direction [of research priority] remains to be seen.”

 

Cause of Action

The morning Sue Higginson invites me to court, she is there to hear the decision on a New South Wales Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) case disputing Chinese coal company Yancoal’s bid to expand operations in the Hunter Valley town of Camberwell.

Higginson is principal litigator and lately chief executive of the defenders office which, in this instance, had represented widowed octogenarian farmer Wendy Bowman’s property against Yancoal.

In the courtroom, a bewigged justice read the verdict.

“I dismiss the appeal,” he uttered dryly, “with costs.” And with that, a landmark case against Big Coal was won.

“We’ve got a political system that has privileged the rights of these multinational corporations over the top of community and environmental rights.”

It was another in a series of astonishing victories for the legal centre. Higginson and her outfit have a formidable record, having been responsible for a series of victories against multinational corporations.

“We’re very small and we punch way above our weight,” Higginson observes. “But change is slow in a system as big as ours.”

The legal centre suffered an enormous blow in December 2013, when then prime minister Tony Abbott pulled vital federal funding. The following year the NSW government also reduced state funding.

But Higginson and the EDO are nothing if not resilient. Since then, they’ve undertaken ambitious fund-raising drives that have helped facilitate recent wins over Japanese whalers, the Indian Adani corporation and its massive Carmichael coal project in Queensland, and now Yancoal at Camberwell.

Higginson’s is an amazing story. In 10 years, she’s risen to become head of an institution that is on the front line of environmental advocacy in Australia.

In an age of potentially disastrous global warming crises, women such as Higginson have formed the vanguard of Australia’s environmental protection. From Indigenous spokeswomen to corporate warriors, they are bringing the fight for survival from the fringe of activism to our mainstream courts and stock exchanges.

With up to 90 per cent of Australia’s landmass under exploration or mining licences, many of these issues directly relate to mining and the extraction of fossil fuels.

Sue Higginson’s story is particularly germane, as her role means she is directly involved in legal battles across the spectrum of environmental issues. It’s a role she relishes, one she’s been working towards since she came to the struggle in her mid-teens, while at school in Melbourne.

“I picked up that in NSW we were logging old-growth forest and that there was very little left. And as an inquisitive young person I kept looking for the sense in that,” she says.

She left home for northern NSW, where she joined the North East Forest Alliance. “It was an organisation that had a plan, and I need a plan,” Higginson says. “I’m not just an emotional operator, I need to operate on the basis of scientific evidence and most importantly within a context.”

Higginson spent years on the remote front line of forestry campaigns, negotiating with loggers and police at often-volatile blockades. After the forest alliance won seven landmark court cases and successfully stopped old-growth logging in NSW, she found herself sitting across from government ministers, helping carve out the deals that created the forest reserve system that stands today.

“I found myself having to master all these skills. I learnt a lot about the legal system, about social movements, and I saw a very clear line in that you do it through science and evidence,” she says.

“So I got myself into university and I could see all the way from day one that the law was going to be the tool to further the actual purpose that I was put on the earth to do, and that was to protect the environment.”

Graduating with first-class honours, Higginson began working in private practice. Three years later, she took a job with the Environmental Defenders Office. After seven years, she became principal solicitor. In 2015, she became chief executive.

“I’ve become an expert in public interest environmental law, and the best vehicle in this country to assist the community is the organisation I work for,” she says. “Becoming CEO means that I can have a seriously committed attempt at keeping this organisation the best it can be.”

That is a very high standard. The office has operated with remarkable success for 30 years, so well that it has made very powerful enemies.

In 2012 the Minerals Council’s chief executive, Stephen Galilee, accused the EDO of a “deliberate campaign of economic sabotage” and the next year lobbied for punitive measures from attorney-general George Brandis and then NSW premier Barry O’Farrell, who later stood down over evidence given to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Indeed, two Labor and 12 Liberal MPs have been dragged before ICAC over corruption allegations related to the approval of coal and coal seam gas mining projects in recent years. Nonetheless, Higginson’s outfit lost most state and federal funding.

Private funding by tax-deductible donations is also endangered, as the Coalition has sought to revoke the office’s charitable status.

“It’s times like that that I have a rare moment of questioning the effectiveness of what we’re doing,” Higginson confides.

“We’ve got a political system that has privileged the rights of these multinational corporations over the top of community and environmental rights.”

In 2013, the office represented the citizens of Bulga, a small town in the Hunter Valley, against the extension of an open-cut mine owned by Rio Tinto. The office won the case, at which point O’Farrell changed legislation so the miners could appeal. After a second loss, and O’Farrell’s disgrace, the Baird government has amended its rules in a third attempt to force the mine expansion.

“So that’s the other thing, you’ve gotta be a fighter in this job,” Higginson says. “The sense of injustice is just horrific when that happens.”

Such injustice has provoked considerable civil unrest as citizens, many of them farmers, are becoming aware of the power that multinational miners hold over their country.

“Now we’re seeing this massive growing movement throughout NSW and Queensland. Farmers who have never protested against anything before are standing up to say, ‘Enough’,” Higginson says. “When I started my foray into environmental protection, there was a lot of polarised conflict. It was loggers versus greenies or farmers versus greenies.

“But in the last five years, traditional National Party voters are seeing reason in what the greener side of politics is speaking.

“You throw in the very serious issue of climate change and you’re getting a very complex alliance of people.”

This first manifested when farmers, assisted by the Environmental Defenders Office, began mobilising against massive coal and CSG projects in Queensland. It came into its own in the Northern Rivers of NSW, where a coalition of farmers and townspeople combined to see off speculative CSG mining company Metgasco.

More recently on the NSW Liverpool Plains, a similar alliance has vowed to stop Shenhua’s planned 35-square-kilometre open-cut mine in some of the finest agricultural land in the country.

In the Pilliga Forest, where mining company Santos seeks to drill more than 800 CSG wells in the recharge area for the Great Artesian Basin, farmers from all over north-western NSW are joining activists to blockade drilling rigs.

“The clients that I work with…” Higginson says. “It’s hard to explain just how dedicated and committed these groups and individuals are and the burden that they carry, in most cases on behalf of all Australians, of generations that haven’t yet come.”

This workload takes a heavy toll on Higginson, as she commutes between work in Sydney and family in Lismore. But she is resolute that the sacrifices she makes are more than compensated for by the importance of her work and of the law centre.

“I know this office really well. When I say this office, I’m talking about an institution that has developed over 30 years and needs to be here, not just in the next 30 years but as long as we have a civil society that is governed by a legal system. This office is fundamental.

“Some nights, when it’s hard to sleep because I’ve got a massive case the next day, I long for the day when somebody taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘My turn,’” says Higginson.

“But at the end of the day I know that seeking environmental justice is not about one case. This is a lifetime engagement and it will go beyond my years.”

 

A gathering storm

http://aidanricketts.com/the-perfect-storm-shenhua-and-the-liverpool-plains/

The softly spoken Andrew Pursehouse is a well-known man on the Liverpool Plains. Patriarch of a long established farming family, a prominent businessman, a respected regional elder. He’s brother-in-law to former Independent MP Tony Windsor and a founding member of the Caroona Coal Action Group (CCAG), representing over 400 landholders and local businesses, the longest running opponents of the Shenhua Watermark mine.

Finally approved in July 2015 by Environment Minister Greg Hunt, this would allow a massive 35km square open cut mine in the middle of the finest agricultural land in Australia.

The mine is now awaiting final approvals from the NSW government, whose leader Mike Baird, Nationals leader Troy Grant and local member Kevin Anderson all made pre-election assurances to the members of CCAG that they would oppose the mine.

Pursehouse and a majority of farmers across the State, in a new alliance with other concerned groups have vowed to fight this mine to the end – ‘whatever it takes’. As Tony Windsor famously said, they consider it to be the wrong mine in the wrong place.

But with the federal Government attempting to strip Australians of their right to contest mining proposals through gutting the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC), a perfect storm of dissent is looming.

Andrew Pursehouse points to the dining room table of his house, just above the Mooki River, the life blood of the Liverpool Plains.

“Before the election Baird made a commitment at that table right there. He said ‘I’m going to take this on personally’. We’ve never heard from him since. So them being here was an election stunt.”

There were plenty of witnesses. The members of CCAG present, conservative farmers all, were Fiona Simpson (former president, NSW Farmers), John Hampersum, Juanita Hampersum, Jim McDonald, who used to sit on the Independent Expert Scientific panel, Susie Lyall and political lobbyist Tim Duddy.

The plain facts

Andrew Pursehouse is under no illusions as to the damage such a mine would cause on the Liverpool Plains.

“It’s not just the water issue and potential damages to the aquifer, it’s the salt and the dust on 270 degrees around it, what that can do to our agricultural products, the koalas, the Aboriginal heritage.

Fiona Simson, former president of the powerful NSW Farmers group, is adamant that the farming community will never allow this mine to be built.

Simson’s focus is on Shenhua’s passing the fit and proper person test that was put in place by this government last year. Shenhua currently has four senior executives under investigation for corruption.

John Hamparsum, whose farm lies very close to the immediate impact zone of the mine site, is rather more blunt:

“The people’s resolve is such that there’ll never be a bulldozer on that country.

“The gloves would be off and it’d be civil disobedience at a level that the government hasn’t seen in NSW. Tempers are that point now that people want action, they want blood.”

CCAG have already launched 27 anti-mining court cases.

In 2008 they first opposed BHP with a blockade at Breeza led by the octogenarian George Clift, who famously stated that he’d meet them at the gates with a shotgun before he’d let them mine the Liverpool Plains. That 635 day blockade effectively discouraged anyone from attempting to mine here till 2011, when 100 farmers blockaded Santos from exploratory drilling for coal seam gas.

Andrew Pursehouse warns of a politically ruinous anti-mining campaign, if Hunt elects to pursue this course.

“We’ve got good grounds for further legal action and we’ve got the support of the Australia Farmers Fighting Fund, because this is of national significance. We’ve already spent round about a million bucks fighting this.

“So we’re not afraid to put money where it counts. But if all else fails we’ll stand up for our rights and invite whoever wants to be here and stop this nonsense. Don’t underestimate what a farmer can do.”

A national concern

The Shenhua Watermark mine has been been mired in controversy since corrupt former Labor minister Ian McDonald first sold an exploration license to the Chinese on the misconception that it was further south in the Hunter Valley.

Now the structural price of thermal coal is steadily falling and Chinese coal imports have dramatically dropped away as their sluggish domestic economy, concerns over pollution and increasing reliance on renewables start to bite.

As national attention has focused on the Liverpool Plains it has become clear that the negative impacts of coal mining are becoming critical in the national consciousness.

An online petition garnered over 50,000 signatures, while an independent Facebook group with hundreds of members is pledging to launch a citizen’s blockade.

Gunnedah’s Namoi Valley Independent newspaper held an online poll that showed 97% of 4,700 respondents to be against the mine.

And a new crowd-funded TV campaign from citizen’s advocacy group Lock The Gate is spearheaded by Alan Jones, who in it declares that “the latest move by the Abbott government puts at risk not just our environment but our very democracy”.

That notion of democracy hinges upon a belief in the sanctity of its iconic bellweathers. Besides food and water security two other salient issues here are Aboriginal cultural heritage and the koala population.

Mitcham Neave, a traditional owner (TO) of the Gomeroi people claims that while the entire Plains are sacred there are special sites, known as the Grinding Grooves, which absolutely must be protected.

Neave says they are an important war memorial site, where warriors used to sharpen spears for conflict with marauding Casula or Wiradjuri tribes – and white settlers.

“This is our Gallipoli site right here,” he says. “You wouldn’t like it if I destroyed your war memorial, I’d be locked up.”

He says they cannot be safely moved.

“Some of those sites are the size of a double decker bus. I don’t care what rock doctor they get, as soon as they move it you can’t put it back together.”

He and his fellow TO’s, who have followed all the processes within the law to this point, are fed up with being ignored. Neaves says he’s now ready for more direct action.

“I won’t speak for other people but I’ll join a blockade. We’ve had a gutful of the destruction of our culture, we’ll rally together.”

Sue Higginson is principal litigator for the Environmental Defender’s Office (EDO), who are representing the Upper Mooki Landcare Group in a public interest case on behalf of the koala populations of the area.

“They’re alleging that when the PAC made their decision they have failed to properly consider the impacts the mine is going to have on koalas,” she said.

“Essentially there’s a requirement that questions is this mine likely to place a local population at risk of extinction? Never did they answer that question. And that’s what it comes down to.”

Higginson says that the government is proceeding in non-compliance with the laws surrounding mining developments, just as they did in Queensland, where Adani’s case was defeated after Environment Minister Greg Hunt failed to take into account the fate of two threatened species in his approval of the Carmichael mine.

The head of the Landcare group is Nicky Chirlian, a speech pathologist and farmer who lives well clear of the mine site.

“My initial reaction is these bears are just going to die,” she says.

“Shenhua’s translocation plan effectively means the koalas have to get down from the trees and run away from the bulldozers in the first instance. The Koala Foundation has warned very clearly that translocation of koalas had a very high mortality rate of 90-100%.”

Tony Windsor, former Independent member for Tamworth and New England, sees behind these emotive issues a clear legal disconnect. He’s well placed to comment on the issue, being the man who effectively negotiated the ‘Water Trigger’ bill through the Senate in 2013, ensuring that coal seam gas (CSG) and coal mining projects cannot proceed until independent scientific advice concludes they won’t damage water resources.

“My viewing of the tea leaves is that this mine won’t happen,” he said. “Part of that will be because of public resistance, part will be because of the breach of process from both Hunt and Baird.

“I believe it can be shown that Hunt, Baird and Barnaby Joyce haven’t abided by their own processes of the law. In fact by circumventing the bio-regional assessment process they’ve removed the very evidence that’s required to determine the longer term scientific implications of this mine.

“All of those things will eventually get explored in the courts, that’s one of the reasons why Abbott was on about the environmental vigilante stuff. They talk about Adani but it’s just as much about this mine and the Chinese Free Trade Agreement as anywhere else.”

“It’s the most complex issue that I’ve ever dealt with in politics and it’s the easiest one to create politics out of.”

An Alliance is formed

Now CCAG have entered into a Liverpool Plains Alliance with other groups – including traditional foes in environmental groups such as The Wilderness Society.

Instrumental in forming this alliance has been Naomi Hodgson of the Wilderness Society. She has earned the respect of north western NSW farmers for her staunch campaigning in the Pilliga forest, where some 18 local landholders have been arrested striving to prevent Santos from establishing a proposed 800 CSG wells.

“This issue has sparked a raw nerve throughout the populace,” she said. ““People who’ve never before felt strongly on coal mining issues can see that we must draw a line against the industry’s perpetual expansion, digging up some of our best food producing country for coal is a proposal that crosses that line.”

The Alliance has created a major social movement on the Plains, abetted by the emergence of the Liverpool Plains Youth, comprising the sons and daughters of local farmers with perhaps less of the ingrained resistance to green groups as their forebears. They’re planning an activist training weekend in November to prepare against potential police confrontation.

This continues a phenomenon begun at the anti CSG blockade at Bentley in northern NSW, where hundreds of conservative townspeople and farmers aligned themselves with environmental groups and activists to stop that proposal.

The Bentley effect

Aidan Ricketts is a legal academic from Lismore, close to Bentley. A veteran forestry activist, he was instrumental in the conduct of the Bentley campaign. In the emergence of this Alliance he sees a similar catalyst for widespread community dissent.

“The Liverpool Plains really cracks open the agriculture versus mining issue.

“The Plains is a whole grab bag of signifiers – China and the Free Trade factor, indigenous heritage, the koalas, Tony Windsor and water, even this Pacific leader’s forum. Each one’s capable of igniting a different constituency and where you have this grand alliance coming together it all rises up and boils over. Once that happens the system as a whole becomes far greater than the sum of its parts and that’s where the Bentley effect comes in.

“It’s a bear trap for the National Party as well. They couldn’t have picked a worse place to try it on.”

Phil Laird, an ex-farmer himself and president of public advocacy group Lock The Gate, points out that following their corruption scandal, Shenhua are dramatically curtailing their capital expenditure in overseas markets. He says that detailed market analyses show a pronounced downturn in Chinese interest in Australian coal.

“Shenhua don’t necessarily want this mine. Probably if it wasn’t approved by Greg Hunt they would have quietly welcomed the decision. They don’t want to build any new greenfield sites. Their focus is going to be on brown fuel sites inside China.

“China produces about 4.5 billion tonnes of coal a year. Australia produces about 450 million. They’re reducing their production by about 10% a year so they’re effectively reducing their production by the entire Australian production. Now they’ve been stuck in a situation they don’t want. They’re looking for a face saver of some kind.”

The new landscape

Andrew Pursehouse is pinning his hopes on a political solution. In the light of a new political landscape he says there may well be a change of heart on this matter. Prime Minister Turnbull owns two farms in the Hunter Valley and he and his wife visited the Pursehouse property three years ago.

“Turnbull has been a water minister so had a pretty good understanding of the delicate water systems we have here. So he’d be more of a friend than Abbott.”

More recently, Independent MP Jacki Lambie attended an anti-mine tractor rally on the Plains and stayed two nights at the Pursehouse residence.

“In the senate recently she exposed large political donations from four Chinese names connected to Shenhua ,to Labor, Liberal and the Nationals,” Pursehouse said.

“So we’re looking at changes in that sphere, but if all else fails, well, the people that did the Maules Creek blockade are looking for a new camp, they want to come here.”

He points to the nearby town of Breeza, where Murray Dreschler, the founder and stalwart of the Maules Creek mine blockade, has established a weekend camp, on invitation from the Breeza Progress Association.

“So it’ll be more than just farmers, it’ll be the so-called green element. The passionate professionals, along with the general community. If all else fails it will come to that, but this is last resort stuff.”

Mike Baird’s office was approached for comment on Andrew Pursehouse’s claims. His press officer declined.