The Australian Light Horse Part 2 – Lawrence of Arabia and the caliphate

Australian Light Horse and walers in the desert campaign.

Australian Light Horse and walers in the desert campaign.

What would the great Arabologist TE Lawrence  have made of ISIS, I wonder? Lawrence would no doubt have seen them as a brutal rejection of every 18th century European enlightment value he believed in, though he would probably have admired their strength in Arab brotherhood. And although a fervant servant of Empire, he would have been honest enough to wince at Britain’s long duplicity in the region for its own aims. He would also surely have acknowledged his own major part in creating the conditions necessary to enable ISIS’s leader to make his extraordinary claim to the caliphate. He would have recognised the new caliph’s call for a jihad against infidels because it is exactly what he was confronted with in December 1915 in the days after Gallipoli was evacuated.

Lawrence was working as an intelligence officer in Cairo at the time and he would have heard the latest news from Constantinople. The emboldened Sultan, flush from his victory in the Dardanelles,  had just used his dual role as caliph to urge his Islamic people to launch jihad against “the infidel”.  It was an act of hypocrisy. These infidels did not count the Sultan’s own German military advisers but Lawrence recognised the power of the call, particularly to restive Arabs, to proclaim a Muslim brotherhood against the Allied invaders at their Egyptian and Iraqi borders.

Lawrence was a gifted analyst and filled with his own ambitions for Arabia, as well as Britain’s. He came up with a new plan to end the war in the east. His bold strategy insisted the Sultan had to be stripped of his powers as caliph, a central role in Islamic society. The prophet Mohammed was the first caliph and the dispute over the decision for his successor split Islam into Sunni and Shia sects.  The Caliphate became a Sunni institution passed on to dominant Arab and later Turkish leaders. The caliph was an ecclesiastic role which for centuries had kept Constantinople at the centre of the Arab world, despite its crumbling power. By passing the caliphate to a non-Turkish Muslim leader whom Britain would support, Lawrence thought, would undermine Turkey from its religious heart.

Lawrence said the caliphate should pass to the Arab leader Hussein, Sharif of Mecca. Hussein was currently in the pay of the Turks but believed he could be bought out. Lawrence also needed to cut the Hejaz railway line which linked Turkey with Arabia. He reasoned the Arabs would support this because the railway enabled Turkish administration which hampered Arab collection of tolls and taxes in the region. Lawrence wanted to see the rule of many small Arab nations which would all rely on Britain for support, though he also knew of the secret Sykes-Picot pact to split the region between Britain and France. A British double cross, he thought, was worth the risk to ensure victory in the war and he went on to strike a productive partnership with Hussein.

But Lawrence also knew he could do little without conventional military might to defeat Turkey’s own defences. The most vital part of that strategy was the role of the Light Horse. The fight would take take place over a vast area of Egypt, Sinai, Palestine and Arabia. The Light Horse would be shock troops in a wide ranging war where trenches weren’t a problem. Harry Chauvel also saw the likelihood that the Light Horse would now be sent to Arabia, which presented him a dilemma. He wanted an assignment in France but he also saw the opportunities if he stayed with the horses. The likelihood was he would be made a leader of one of the Australian divisions under Birdwood. Chauvel became commander of the mounted divisions, committing him to war in the Middle East.

Once again he would turn a blind eye to his soldiers playing up in the bars and brothels becuase he knew what they would do under fire. But the pressure to step increased in March 1916 with the fall of the Iraqi city of Kut. Situated 160km south-east of Baghdad, the city was as far as the Mesopotamian campaign would get on its journey up the Shatt Al-Arab and the Tigris river. A British force was surrounded by Turks at Kut leading to a siege. Worse still the Turks were threatening Sinai and the Suez Canal, which was Britain’s lifeline to India and Australasia. While Lawrence was sent to Kut to bribe the Turks to free the British (he failed), Chauvel and the Light Horse were thrown into the battle to save the Suez for empire.

Chauvel knew horses would be vital for the task and would need a strong remount depot. He turned to an old schoolfriend who could be trusted to do the job: the renowned horse whisperer Banjo Patterson. The pair had met at Sydney Grammar, both were from military stock and both wanted to join up. Patterson resigned his commission after the Boer War but he signed up again in 1914 hoping to be a war correspondent but ending up in a veterinary unit. He returned to Australia to re-recruit in a remount unit breaking in horses and it was here that Chauvel renewed acquaintance with his old school pal.

The importance of the Paterson-trained horses was increased after German planes began bombing raids in Sinai in May 1916. Once the alert was sounded, riders and their horses would rush into the desert and stay as still as possible. Thus camouflaged by scrubs and palms they were difficult to spot from the planes despite flying low.  While Chauvel’s men were being frustrated by endless patrols, Lawrence was making headway. He could not stop Kut from falling but he met Arab leaders in Basra where he made dangerous promises of Arab freedom to chose their own leaders. Lawrence was setting in train a desert campaign with the Arabs that would dovetail with the British Army campaign in Palestine.  It would be 1917 before Chauvel or Lawrence would achieve any sort of success in their plans.

October 1, 2014 at 4:13 pm Leave a comment

The Australian Light Horse – part 1

Australain Light Horse march in the town of Laidley (Derek Barry)

Australian Light Horse march in the town of Laidley (Derek Barry)

Yesterday the streets of Brisbane marked another one hundred year anniversary of the First World War. As the city prepared to celebrate River Fire, a bunch of men and women and their horses paraded from Victoria Park to the Story Bridge. One hundred years ago on 23 September 1914, the newly trained second light regiment, then all men, rode through Brisbane to Pinkenba docks where ships would take them to the war in Europe. Many of the men would never come back and none of their horses did.  Roland Perry does a good job of telling their story in his book The Australian Light Horse.

At the beginning of the war most commanders believed that cavalry would be a crucial factor in securing victory. Mobile warriors on horses had proved decisive in conflicts for hundreds of years. In 1914 Germany’s strategy was contingent on a swift victory over France while Russia slowly mobilised. That meant avoiding France’s defences by invading through neutral Netherlands and Belgium. At the last moment, the Kaiser decided he needed a neutral Netherlands so his invading forces had only a narrow strip of Belgian land with which to enter France. For three months it was swift-moving war where horses played a role. But the narrow front, stubborn resistance from the Belgians, and last ditch defence by the French at the Marne stopped the offensive and the war slowly developed into battles of attrition across trench lines where defences were favoured. It was no war for horses and the many Australians that rode them would have to wait for other campaigns to show they still had merit.

Horses had been a core part of the Australian colonial experience since 1788 and one of the key reasons why white settlers were able to defeat Aboriginal resistance. Even with the advent of the trains, the horse remained the quintessential pioneer accoutrement up to 1914. Many country kids rode to school every day while others like Harry Chauvel rode enormous distances to boarding school in the bigger cities. By the time Chauvel left Toowoomba Grammar in 1881 he was an accomplished jockey and bushman. His father and grandfather were soldiers so it was only a matter of time before Harry too enlisted. Chauvel’s first “battle” was against fellow Australians when the military were called to Western Queensland to put down the 1891 Shearers Strike. Chauvel and his men arrested strike leaders and faced down an angry crowd without a bullet being fired. Afterwards Chauvel gave his men emu feathers to put in their slouch hats as a reminder of their courage.

Chauvel fought in the Boer War where he was concerned about the maverick reputation of Australian soldiers. The lack of a class system meant Australians had to be treated with respect but discipline was crucial. Chauvel married and had family as his career slowly advanced in peacetime Australia. In faraway England First Lord of the Admirality Winston Churchill, inflenced by Shell founder Marcus Samuel had declared oil to be of supreme importance to the Navy and set about releasing Kuwait from the thralls of the dying Ottoman empire. In early 1914, Churchill had his eyes on ancient Mesopotamia, the three Ottoman vilayets Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. He gained 50% control of an oil company to exploit Mosul oil. With the Germans beating the war drum in Europe and Africa it seemed only a matter of time when conflict would emerge that would drag in all of the British Empire.

The catalyst was Sarajevo and the Serb Black Hand assassination of Franz Ferdinand. A chain reaction, fed by Kaiser Wilhelm’s bloodlust brought all the European powers to war. Chauvel, who had already been called to London, was on the high seas when he found out, and was relieved he and his family made it safely to Liverpool. Now 49, he was immediately appointed commander of the 1st Light Horse Brigade, meaning he had to wait months for his troops to arrive. His first decision was to abandon the waterlogged Salisbury Plains as a training ground and instead ordered the ships to disembark at Egypt. Mounted units were formed all over Australia, with their ‘waler’ horses (originally New South Walers) sired by English thoroughbreds from breeding mares that were often partly draught horse. With genetic input from brumbies and Welsh and Timor ponies, the walers were tough and had stamina, vital for arid Australian conditions.

The men had volunteered gladly, fired up like their European counterparts by patriotism and a sense of adventure. Of the 12,000 Aussies that served in the earlier Boer War only 231 died in action, though fewer remembered the same number dead to disease. Still, at 1 death in 25, they thought the odds were good for survival with the big worry being the war would be over by the time they arrived. Churchill meanwhile had put in place his Mesopotamian plan and had already taken Basra from the Gulf. Now it was a natural progression to attack the Ottoman capital Constantinople via the Dardenelles. This war was unknown to the troops that landed in Cairo in late 1914. Chauvel commanded three regiments in a 1500 man brigade as well as looking after 8000 walers.

The Aussies and Egyptians warily sized each other up. The locals were amused by the feminine touch of the emu feathers but wisely said nothing. The Aussies thought they were ‘filthy Arabs’ but were not above using their women as prostitutes, with 3000 Anzacs contracting syphilis. As Chauvel worried about discipline, the war was moving dangerously close to them as the Turks attacked the Suez Canal. Churchill’s plans to take the Dardenelles by naval power alone was defeated by Turkish mines making a land invasion necessary. But the narrow ridges of the Gallipoli Peninsula was no terrain for horses and Chauvel told his men they would be going in on foot, though not as part of the initial contingent.

It took only three days after 25 April to realise an easy taking of Constantinople was an impossibility. The wards in Cairo were already filling up with dead and injured troops and Chauvel’s men were deployed in early May, with orders for just 50 left behind to look after the horses. Of those 25 disobeyed orders and were smuggled aboard, with Chauvel turning a blind eye. They arrived to a nightmare. “Things were pretty warm,” wrote Chauvel to his wife, laconically downplaying matters. His men had orders to hold the Monash Valley, an 800m narrow cleft of land along the cliffs connecting two battlefronts, just 15m from Turkish trenches and open to sniper fire from above. The constant noise was deafening and the stench was intense with dead men and animals rotting in the Mediterranean heat. The subterranean life of trench warfare was alien to the horsemen but they quickly learned or died doing so.

For months on end, their lives would be dominated by attack and counter-attack. On June 13 Chauvel wrote ‘The Light Horse are now cave dwellers and I am living the life of a rabbit”. he knew instinctively they no chance of breaking free of the mountain but he was scolded by superiors for a negative attitude. While some wanted him relieved of command for his pessimism, there was no doubting his courage. He was evacuated to Egypt for six weeks diagnosed with pleurisy but returned in August in time for the Suvla Bay offensive. Like most attacking offensives in this brutal war, Suvla Bay failed with the defences ready for everything the Allies could throw at them. At the Nek, British commanders butchered two regiments of Light Horse sending them over the top to their deaths in a futile attack. For the next few months it was a matter of grim survival before the British mercifully called a halt to the invasion.

Chauvel and his men that survived went back to the welcoming embrace of their walers in Egypt. But the war to end all wars had barely begun.

September 28, 2014 at 12:09 pm Leave a comment

Alternate realities: Tony Abbott speaks out on climate change

abbottIt was inspiring and refreshing to hear Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott address the world on the great challenge of our time: global warming caused by human actions. Abbott was in New York to address the UN Security Council on the challenge which he called “the weightiest of matters” and saying those who opposed action were a death cult.

“Countries do need to work together to defeat it… and every country is a potential target,” Abbott said.

Abbott pointed out the destructive work of those who have opposed action on the matter.

“It’s hard to imagine that citizens of a pluralist democracy could have succumbed to such delusions – yet clearly they have,” he said.

“The Australian Government will be utterly unflinching towards anything that threatens our future”.

Abbott congratulated Barack Obama on the broad coalition he had formed to take action on climate change.

“The West can’t solve this problem alone – and won’t have to,” he said.

“Our goal is not to change people, but to protect them; it’s not to change governments, but to combat (global warming)”.

But Abbott remained optimistic.

“Even in what seem to be darkening times, there are grounds for hope,” he said.

“The (denialist) horror has generated all-but-universal revulsion.”

Abbott said he was delighted to attend the world leaders meeting on combating climate change which he said had major ramifications for Australia as well as the world.

“As President Obama made clear, it’s not often that they have a leader-level Security Council meeting,” Abbott said.

“I was happy to accept the President’s exhortation to attend, because this is a very important domestic issue, as well as being a critically important international issue.”

Abbott said he wanted to remind the world of what a good global citizen Australia has been.

“It’s absolutely imperative that at all times, and in every way, our government remains vigilant,” he said.

Abbott praised President Obama’s speech where he pledged America’s support to fight climate change.

“It was a really outstanding speech by President Obama. It was uplifting. It was honest. It was challenging. It was a fine, fine speech. It was the speech of a great leader, and to his credit, President Obama has been measured and considered here. He hasn’t rushed in. He hasn’t been quick to reach for the gun. He has carefully weighed the situation as it has developed and he has acted to prevent genocide,” Abbott said.


Abbott then went home to Australia to focus on his Energy Green Paper 2014, a plan which throws all the nation’s resources into renewable power.

September 26, 2014 at 9:42 am Leave a comment

Indyref is for all of us

The #Indyref is over and it has become a referendum for the ages, wherever we came from. The question of Scotland concerns everyone and the “yes” vote has won even if, as most polls, pundits and most importantly bookies, are still predicting it falls short. Devolution is catching on and Scotland has won big out of this election no matter the result. Indyref has been a tranforming argument which forced Scotland to look at the possibilities of the future as well as the fears. It was of course the fears the no argument appealed to saying independent Scotland would be worse off on defence, the pound, pensions, taxation, the national health and the banks. The best positive argument they could come up with was that the United Kingdom was “better together” But maybe it was just the English who felt they were better together and many Scots had other ideas. The yes campaign forced forced Scottish to confront their own identity on many layers and made them wonder whether they had the “right stuff” as a natio to solve the myriad problems separation would bring.

This was a dangerous argument but also exciting in its possibilities. The media simplified this appeal to nationalism by endless re-runs of American-Australian Mel Gibson in a make believe movie about Scottish legend William Wallace rousing his troops to fight the English. But Indyref is a lot deeper than Hollywood remanticism of buttock-weaving Bravehearts. Modern Scotland has the potential to be an important independent bulwark in northern Europe and an antidote to the American-centric stridency of London. That the English media and its paymasters don’t like this possibility was shown by George Monbiot who noted that almost “the entire battery of salaried opinion” was against the yes vote. That was also reflected in the desparation of English political leaders in the final days of the campaign when the polls tightened to 50-50. Prime Minister David

Cameron staked his leadership on “no” when that result looked comfortable and was forced to eat humbie pie of “don’t divorce us” and offer more powers to Holyrood in return for a “win”. Cameron’s arrant hypocrisy mixed appeals to British nationalism with fears of what might  happen and threats if he did not get his way. It’s Cameron’s own fault for allowing the referendum question to be the simple “Should Scotland become independent?” it left Scots forced to make a stark choice which is why it is hard to feel any sympathy for his “you can’t undo this” stance this week. As I pointed out in 2012, only 30% of Scots wanted independence but 60% wanted more taxation powers for the Edinburgh parliament they have already got. Half f these did not want independence, but with that option not on the referendum, the question is how many of those wanting more devoluted Scottish powers will vote “yes”.

Cameron’s opponents in Westminster have even more to lose. Politically Scotland has a left-leaning history, a fact that alarms Labour if it lost 80 seats in a general election. North Brit Gordon Brown has been wheeled out to continue the illusion the Scottish working class have a say in Whitehall. You can be Scottish and British, Cameron and Brown say (for different reasons) but no one mentions the one word behind all of it: “the English”.

England was the premier power in the initial 1707 Act of Union and although the Scots punched well above their weight since then, England, or to be more precise London, is where the action is. Scotland may be looking to Ireland as an example of how an English-speaking nation thumbs its nose at its imperial master and survives, if not thrives, in the shadow of Westminster. And indeed Ireland exudes a lot of soft power, particularly through its vast diaspora. But Ireland’s governance is poor and reeks of corruption so an independent Scotland would look to east not west for a more better inspiration. Norway is not part of the EU but like Scotland has vast oil and gas reserves. Norway has gone down the social democrat path of establishing a secure future fund out of its resource super profits (something that many Australians look on with envy and perhaps why PM Tony Abbott spectacularly intervened in indyref) and Salmond’s SNP government would look kindly on a similar scheme.

We’ll find out soon enough if Salmond has that opportunity. It will ultimately come down to Glasgow, who declare their result with Edinburgh later this afternoon Australian Eastern Standard Time. Catalonia, Kurdistan, Lombardy and Quebec will all be watching closely – but so will everyone else. Scotland has tapped into deep politics of identity that profoundly affect us all. Nationality may be an imagined identity, but its consequences are real.

September 19, 2014 at 11:34 am Leave a comment

Ian Paisley: from demagogue to democrat

Ian Paisley (image via Eurofree3)

Ian Paisley (image via Eurofree3)

My earliest memory of Ian Paisley is on the news of a black and white television set. It was the early seventies, the height of Northern Ireland’s war, conveniently rebadged for public consumption as the “troubles”. Paisley was one of the chief trouble-makers and a daily presence on the screens of Irish news. Grainy footage would show him appearing in front of a  of union flag waving protestants. Paisley wthrongould grab the mic and with a lantern jaw, rosy-red cheeks and forbidding glasses shout out with unerring steeliness and swagger in a sharp Ulster accent: “No surrender! No Surrender!”  His simple negative but rhythmic message, spoke at a visceral level to an ancient sense of threatened privilege and was greeted with huge cheers and a dogged sense of resolve by his working class Protestant audience.

To my young eyes Paisley was incomprehensibly strange. His ever-present dog collar marked him out as a man of god, but he didn’t talk like any preacher I knew. Nor were many Catholic priests backed up by a well armed paramilitary force. While I found Paisley’s fierce emnity to Ireland and Catholicism unfathomable, I wasn’t afraid of him – it was just television after all. But if this was the rapturous reception his dour Ulster Scottish presbytarianism and hatred of all things Catholic and Nationalist got in Belfast, then I didn’t want to have anything to do with the Paisleyites and their part of Ireland. I tended instinctively to agree with my paternal grandmother who wished a set of scissors would cut off troublesome Northern Ireland from the rest of the country and let it drift away as it pleased.

Over the years my ideas on the north changed as I understood more of its complex history and my opinion on Paisley himself softened. He may have remained a firebrand anti-popish folk devil but that was also making him a sour figure of fun. His ultra-Calvinistic “Wee Free” Presbyterian domination (which he co-founded in 1951, aged 29) seemed a Pythonesque puritan outcrop of an increasingly pointless religion dedicated to keeping gays illegal and pubs and playgrounds closed on Sundays. His steadfast hardline Unionist politics was also irrelevant to me as my own sense of Irish nationalism diminished.

While Paisley’s mix of religion and politics seemed silly in the semi-secular 1970s and 1980s, it was arguably prescient. The Ayatollah Khomeini would show in 1979 how to be a politically successful theocrat. Back in Ireland, Paisley kept up the rhetoric as years passed to decades and.he was a thorn in the side of English as well as Irish leaders. He successfully sabotaged Ted Heath’s Sunningdale Agreement in the 1970s, brought down Thatcher’s Anglo Irish Agreements in the 1980s, opposed Tony Blair’s Good Friday Agreement in the 1990s and was deeply suspicious of the IRA’s truce in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But despite his obstructionism there was evidence the public tirade was increasingly a charade. Behind the scenes, there was a different man. The private Paisley was a charming man to all creeds and he and his wife Eileen would entertain Northern nationalist leader John Hume and his wife for dinner.

This news would have been disquieting to his supporters if they ever found out. They preferred the bluff blustery Paisley and “No Surrender” was a simple and effective message to sell to worried Protestants. But behind the scenes, it was clear Paisley might indeed consider some form of surrender when the time was ripe. While always personally popular, he initially struggled to command a majority with his own Democratic Unionist Party over the more moderate Official Unionist Party. But Northern Irish opinions hardened on both sides as the ballot box replaced the bullet in the late 1990s. Hume’s peace-talking SDLP was replaced by Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein while Protestant seats fell to the DUP. By the mid 2000s Adams and Paisley were dominant, and the time was ripe for talks on Paisley’s terms.

Paisley was 80 years old by the St Andrews Agreement of October 2006 but still the dominant force in Loyalist politics. The Agreement was an astonishing document of compromise which put forward new models for government, the police and the courts. Two sworn enemies would form a Coalition government. The Unionists led by Paisley would be major partners with the erstwhile “terrorists” Sinn Fein who were the front for the IRA. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was a bridge too far, having served years in Belfast’s The Maze prison but crucially the Unionists decided they could work with Adams’ deputy Martin McGuinness. McGuinness was, like Adams, an IRA leader, but never served time in a Northern Irish prison. His two criminal convictions (for being near an explosive-loaded car and being a member of the illegal IRA) were both across the border in the Republic of Ireland. In those cases, McGuinness refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the Irish court, a view possibly shared by Paisley himself. Paisley established a warm rapport with McGuinness just as he did with Hume. Always seen laughing together in public, they became known as the Chuckle Brothers.

There was a serious side to the chuckling and both men seized a genuine change to effect devolution to Northern Ireland on their own terms. That McGuinness and Paisley’s ultimate aims were radically different didn’t matter, this was genuine power now and both men were determined to make it work. Paisley’s relentless negativity when in opposition, suddenly softened to something much more malleable when in government. Aged 81, he was Northern Ireland’s first First Minister, and like Mandela in South Africa in the 1990s he steered a path towards a workable democracy before retiring in 2010. The extent of Paisley’s success can be judged by the length of the government he set up. To this day, the DUP and Sinn Fein remain in unlikely partnership. Paisley was not an easy man to forgive for the way in which he destroyed hopes of peace for 20 years. But his eventual path from demagogue to democrat while astonishing in the exterior, shows a cunning calculation to determine a path of his choosing. It also shows a person of enormous calculation and imagination. I found myself surprisingly saddened to hear Ian Paisley had finally surrendered to his maker on Friday aged 88. His legacy is mixed but Northern Ireland has lost a giant of a man in many ways.  His bile was vile but the wisdom and spirit of his compromise was second to none.

September 14, 2014 at 11:35 am Leave a comment

Crossing the Ngunitiji: Clarence clear water

Clarence River at Yamba (photo: Derek Barry)

Clarence River at Yamba (photo: Derek Barry)

On the eastern edge of the Great Dividing Range, near the border between NSW and Queensland, a small stream quickly gathers pace as it slithers down the mountains. It is an area of good rains and picks up lots of tributaries in the Dorrigo Plateau. By the time it reaches the valleys, it is a large and broad, the widest Australian river to enter the Pacific. At its estuary the river is a majestic one kilometre wide. The ferry from Yamba in the south to Iluka in the north takes 30 minutes to negotiate its dangerous channels, islands and sandbars. To the Yaegl and Bundjalung people (collectively known as Yaygirr) that lived in this valley the river was called the Ngunitiji. The Yaygirr had a good lifestyle for at least 6,000 years, so much so they could afford to set up roots and live in bark huts with woven vines. At nighttime they gathered around told the story of the old woman Dirrangan who was swept down the river during a flood holding on to a fig tree. But it was the Yaygirr who would eventually be swept away when newcomers coveted the river and its fertile land. These ghostly white people were initially slow to see its insignificance. Cook missed it on his 1770. Matthew Flinders did find the bark huts when he landed at the mouth of the Ngunitiji during his second voyage in 1799. He called the area Shoal Bay but was unimpressed by the shifting sandbars and failed to see he was at the mouth of a major flow calling it “a small opening like a river”. For the next 40 years, the river remained invisible to white eyes. John Oxley missed it in his discovery of the Tweed River in 1823 as did Henry Rous in the same area five years later. Rous would even called Oxley’s Tweed the ‘Clarance’ but that name didn’t stick. In the decade after Oxley, rumours persisted of a Big River in northern NSW especially after convicts started to escape south from Moreton Bay penal colony. In 1830 one escapee “Sheik” Jack Brown made it as far as Yaygirr country where he lived with locals for two years. When he finally returned to Moreton Bay he told of a great river which “abounds with fish.” Its land was abundant in “emus, kangaroos, and wild fowl in all directions” and “pine, oak, gum and other trees of use” were growing there. Brown excited the imagination of would-be settlers looking for easy pickings among the apparently friendly natives. Captain Alexander Butcher took the Eliza into the estuary and sailed 200km up the river, mapping it as he passed. It was his report that finally got Sydney’s attention. Explorer Joseph Hickey Grose decided to verify Butcher’s findings the following year and he reported back to deputy-surveyor Samuel Perry about “the future opening of the country on the banks of the river”. The schooner Susan also left Sydney in 1838 with a party of sawyers looking for cedar.  It was not a good wood for building houses or boats so the men lived in tent-huts, surviving on beef, flour, tea and sugar. Three times a year they went to the new settlement at what would become Grafton where there was complaints about their drunken behaviour. Though the cedar was quickly exhausted, many stayed to try their hand at farming. By now the Ngunitiji had a white name. The master of the ship King William, Captain Francis Griffin urged Governor Gipps in Sydney to name it “with a title somewhat more clear than the Big River.” Perhaps it was the name of Griffin’s ship as well as well as loyalty to the crown that caused Gipps to go with Rous’s name for the Tweed in honour of the recently deceased King William IV, previously known as the Duke of Clarence. As word spread in Sydney, there was a rush of cedar-cutters, squatters and selector farmers into the Clarence’s fertile valley. The Yaygirr people watched apprehensively as strangers poured into their territory. Initially there was cautious co-existence but the trickle of Europeans became a flood and took black lands and waterholes. Once they started locking up land for cane growing, the Yaygirr were forced to steal back to survive. They killed white stock and attacked isolated settlements. In 1847 Thomas Coutts took revenge as he poisoned 23 Gumbaynggir people with strychnine in their flour. Five died in agony but Coutts avoided prosecution as there was not enough evidence. There were two documented massacres, one at Green Hills near Red Rock where mounted native police drove natives off the headland, the other at Station Creek. Oral histories also tell of killings at Minnie Waters, Cassons Creek and Tyndale in the early 1840s. By the 1900s massacres and disease had weakened the black population and land dispossession was complete. There were few left who could speak the Yaygirr language.  Their journey back from the precipice of non-peoplehood began with the 1967 Referendum.  They were then remembered in the naming of the Yuraygir National Park declared in 1977. Though widely dispersed today, the area’s traditional owners still proudly call out their links to the region. The Bundjalong gave their name to the national park north of the Clarence. To the south, the Yaegl and the Gumbaingirr trace common descent through the female line. Their land councils and totems are important, indeed the Bundjalong won the first Aboriginal land grant in NSW in 1985 at Evans Head. But it is the mighty Clarence, the Big River, the Ngunitiji that still speaks loudest. The Europeans have moulded it in their own industrious image with breakwaters and ports. But the ghost of Dirrangan still haunts its wide waters.

September 7, 2014 at 8:52 pm Leave a comment

The news of the otherworld: Wrecking the RET

A sure sign the Warburton Review into the Renewable Energy Target was flawed was the lavish praise for it in yesterday’s editorial in the Weekend Australian. It was the second of two editorials with the main one bemoaning the lack of decision making in the “national interest” which in the Weekend Oz’s case is code for “Murdoch’s interest”. Murdoch’s interest applauds the Abbott Government for its foreign affairs stance, fiscal consolidation and market-based reforms but castigates it for the way it sells its economic messages, as well as taxing high earners, introducing a “gimicky” medical research fund and bringing back knights and dames. Rupert Murdoch, after all, remains doggedly republican.

It doesn’t mention climate scepticism but it is no secret Rupert is not convinced of the science. Like me, his pride and joy The Australian is now 50 years old – a month younger than me – and we are both seriously showing our age. I’m reasonably confident I’m still in control of my faculties but I’m not so sure about the Oz / Woz. This sorry excuse for a broadsheet is becoming more unhinged by the day, especially when it comes to dealing with climate science. Take, for example, the page 5 exclusive yesterday from “environment editor” Graham Lloyd. The quotes inside “Records detail heat that ‘didn’t happen'” are a giveaway that it is climate change the Oz headline writers think “didn’t happen”. The story itself is muddled junk which took forever to get to its debatable point the BOM are fudging their figures to over-egg increasing temperatures. Lloyd’s sole “proof” is old written records of the weather at Bourke in northern NSW. There is also a dubious-looking graph which show local temperatures are heading downwards over 150 years. The graph seems to ignore its own spikes in the last 20 years. The lede is buried in the last sentence from a man who rescued the old records: “At the moment they (BOM) are saying we have a warming climate but if the old figures are used we have a cooling climate”.

Lloyd didn’t interview anyone who might gainsay that remark. Instead his only expert quote is from another sceptic “Queensland researcher” Jennifer Marohasy who agreed temperatures were warmer earlier in the century. Lloyd doesn’t menion that Marohasy’s views are not widely shared. Lloyd has form with kooky climate theories and his employers are only too delighted to push them prominently. Dissenters to climate science interpretation like Marohasy and Bjorn Lomborg are always likely to get a good run in the op eds. Not so, those who push the need for climate change action. On Friday many such bodies and companies reacted negatively to the results of the RET review released a day ealier. Whether their complaints were legitimate or not, there were  completely absent from the Weekend Oz news pages. There was not a single article on RET nor was there any op eds, leaving the only discussion to His Master’s Voice in the editorial.

The editorial began by attacking fvourite enemy Christine Milne for her petulence in throwing the review in the bin ( I agree it was stupid amateur dramatics) before calming down calling the review a “balanced, rational assessment”. Those looking for proof of this would be disappointed to find that most of what followed was a direct copy and paste from the review itself. This did mean, however, that the Woz had to admit that the review was very positive about the RET. As Lenore Taylor emphasises, the RET did exactly what it was designed to do: it pushed investment from fossil fuels into renewables.

The Woz skirts around this problem by saying it was too expensive and heavy subsidies were ultimately lowering productivity and national income. But the key statement in the review was picked up by Peter Martin which was the RET was helping the “transfer of wealth among participants in the electricity market”. This line is pure Dick Warburton, who led the four-person review and a man of commerce who prefers the hands of the market to move invisibly.

Warburton was the perfect choice to lead the review to a particular outcome, a successful businessman who doesn’t think climate change was caused by humans. When appointed chair of the review in February, Warburton told the Australian’s Sid Maher he was not a climate sceptic. Because the Australian was willing to give him the balance of that doubt, we never find out if Warburton believes climate change is real and if so, what is causing it and what we should do about it. Either way, he would have been unlikely to have any sympathy to this particular kind of market intervention. As Taylor said, the result of the review only made sense if the intention was to deny the problem it was trying to solve.

The Australian quotes the review’s statement that the jobs the RET created were at the expense of other industries. It claimed removing “inefficient subsidies” would free up investment for research into more efficient renewable energy sources. But with no carbon tax or any other market mechanism to support it, it would just as likely lead to more investment in fossil fuels. The RET exceeded its 20% target, generated a large surplus of electricity and lowered prices which all sounds like good things but not if the Review and the Woz are to be believed.

The scheme would cost $22b to its end point in 2030 (less than $1.5b a year or about 15 Super hornet planes) which sounds like a small tax price to pay for for a good outcome. But the review didn’t see it that way. It was “distorting investment decisions” (again, doing what it was designed to do). the low prices were “artificial” while the cost of the scheme meant it was still adding 4% to those prices, though that figure was trending to negligible. By that logic the Warburton Review said it was not generating any new wealth just transferring it to other players in the market. As Martin picked up, the big losers are the mining companies who backed Abbott’s axeing of both taxes (carbon and mining).

The RET helps reduce carbon emissions by an additional 300 million tonnes by 2030, the equivalent of 100,000 cars taken off the road. But cars aren’t coming off the road, they are increasing as is the impatience of those who rely on them, paying an increased price in transport and electricity. Warburton said the cost of abatement was too high but that cannot be proven. The Government’s response the increasingly hollow sounding “Direct” action has no modelling or explanation how it might achieve its (low) targets. It is also unlikely to pass an increasingly feisty Senate that Abbott has managed to alienate, despite it containing many philosophical fellow travellers.

Abbott was able to “axe the (carbon) tax” but not do much else other than clear the cupboard. He dismantled the Climate and Science ministries, gutted CSIRO and abandoned the Climate Commission. Removing the hated RET is simply the next step in the ideological agenda that undersells the problem of climate change and leaves dim-witted Australia well behind the eight ball in solar, wind and geothermal research. Murdoch’s rags are only too willing to help to put the boot in as it calls in commercial and political favours. The Government meanwhile continues its brutal search and destroy mission of all legislation enacted between 2008 and 2013. If this is evidence of the “adults in charge” then for god sake bring back the children.

August 31, 2014 at 11:54 am Leave a comment

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