ACMA says telecommunications and media laws in Australia are broken

A new report by peak Australian communications body has said convergence has broken most of the media and telecommunications legislation it administers. The Australian Communication and Media Authority report is called Broken Concepts: The Australian communications legislative landscape. ACMA is the government body that administers 26 acts over half a century, accompanied by 523 regulation requirements. Their paper examined the impact of convergence on 55 pieces of legislation and found most wanting. The ACMA said they were either ‘broken’ or ‘significantly strained’ affecting regulation of video games, smartphones, tablets, 3D TVs, untimed local calls, community broadcasting, program standards, cable providers, universal service obligations, emergency calls, spam, media diversity and many others.

ACMA defined convergence characterised by five causes of change: 1. Technological developments 2. The development of a broad communications market 3. Increasing consumer and citizen engagement with the toolset 4. Regulatory globalisation 5. Government intervention (eg NBN). ACMA says digitalisation has broken the connection between the shape of content and the container which carries it. Legacy service delivery used service-specific networks and devices but digital transmission systems have made delivery mostly independent of technologies. Regulation of content based on delivery mechanism no longer makes sense as devices develop multiple functions.

ACMA found seven regulatory consequences of convergence. Firstly, policy and legislation no longer aligns with market realities, the technology or its uses. Secondly, there are gaps in coverage of new forms of content and applications. Thirdly, there is misplaced emphasis on traditional media (television) and communications (voice services). Fourthly, the blurring of boundaries is leading to inconsistent treatment of similar content, devices or services. Fifth, consumer safeguards are not keeping up with innovative services. Sixth, new issues are handled in piecemeal fashion reducing overall policy coherence. Lastly, convergence is causing institutional ambiguity with no one sure which agency is responsible for which regulation.The core acts that govern telecommunications in Australia are the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, the Radiocommunications Act 1992 , the Telecommunications Act 1997 and the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999. All were drafted before the Internet became entrenched. These acts have been added to by band aid solutions to newer problems such as spam and interactive gambling. ACMA says the Australian communications legislative landscape now resembles a patchwork quilt. There is no overarching strategy or coordinated approach to regulating communications and media in a digital economy.

The report said regulation gave undue weight to the influence of print newspapers and the ability to personalise media consumption magnifies and limits the influence a media service can have on an individual. Also the ability to access broadcast-like content through non-broadcasting services is running a hole through the Broadcasting Act’s promotion of diversity of content (honoured more in the breach by commercial broadcasters). There are 53 other areas of ACMA’s reach broken beyond legislative repair.

ACMA Chairman Chris Chapman said the report highlighted the strain on old concepts struggling with new technology. “The constructs for communications and media that worked 20 years ago no longer fit present day circumstances, let alone the next 20 years,” Chapman said. “These ‘broken concepts’ are symptoms of the deeper change of digitalisation breaking those now outdated propositions, including that content can be controlled by how it is delivered.”

The report dovetails with the federal government’s Convergence Review. The review panel is due to deliver its report in March. It toured Australia earlier this month hearing submissions and will continue to receive input until 28 October. Its framing paper acknowledges changes are required but appears to focus on broadcasting issues rather than the wider telecommunications issue. This new paper is a wake-up call to the seriousness of the problem. Technology and its uses will continue to evolve in unimaginable ways. The trick will be drafting legislation that does not fetter that growth while providing citizen safeguards against unscrupulous behaviour.

NewsStand up and running for a media inquiry

I got an email tonight from grass roots campaigners Getup advertising the existence of a new organisation called NewsStand. It is little surprise Getup would promote NewsStand; the newbie is moulded in Getup’s image (and uses former Getup staff) but with a narrower media focus. The purpose of NewsStand is to demand a parliamentary inquiry into Australian media and they want people to sign an e-petition. “We believe Australia needs a full Parliamentary inquiry to publicly scrutinise the media landscape as a whole: what’s working, what’s not and what we can do to change things for the better,” NewsStand said.

The site’s about page said it was inspired by the Murdoch hacking scandal in the UK. NewsStand was born out of the revelations of unethical and illegal practices which showed the “extent of the power and influence that individuals and companies can have over the news industry”. It quoted a Lenore Taylor article in the Sydney Morning Herald which mentioned NewsStand’s first market research showing 60 percent support for a media inquiry.

NewsStand’s board consists of five members. They are journalism professor and investigative journalist Wendy Bacon, Ben Brandzel who has done fundraising for Barack Obama and worked at, Australia Institute executive director, economist and Greens strategy adviser Richard Denniss, Centre for Policy Development executive director Miriam Lyons and communications consultant Nick Moriatis. They provide direction to a staff of two led by US political strategist Kate Walsh supported by former Getup campaign director Ed Coper.

It hopes to have a blog up and running soon to encourage conversations, assess the validity of sensationalist news, conduct interviews with experts and shed light on the inner workings of the media industry. This is laudable but it should have been up and running with the launch of the website. A blog desperately needs content to survive, not just promises. Like Getup, NewsStand is shilling for donations and is also attempting to harness social media. The @Newsstandau twitter feed has quickly built up 400 followers but disappointingly is following none of them back.

There is little doubt the Australia media is a poor shape. The flabby Murdoch empire will say or do anything to keep power. Just today artist Robert Crumb wrote an open letter to the Sydney Morning Herald saying why he was not coming to a Sydney festival. The fault belongs to the other Sydney rag, the Murdoch Daily Telegraph which published a shocker of an article bylined by Jesse Phillips which described Crumb primarily as a “self confessed sex pervert whose explicit drawings cannot be shown in Australia”. The article cited rent-a-quote moral crusader Hetty Johnson who gave the predictably juicy quote about the “depraved thought processes of this very warped human being”.

No effort was made to talk to Crumb or anyone who might have had a different view. The article was pure trollumnism. Crumb pulled the pin on the trip after the article and made pertinent observations in his SMH letter. “One can see in this example how skilled media professionals with low standards of integrity are able to mould and manipulate public opinion, popular beliefs and, ultimately, the direction of politics,” Crumb wrote. “The majority of the population in most places is not alert to this kind of deceptive manipulation. They are more or less defenceless against such clever ‘perception management’”.

A reminder why NewsStand wants a media inquiry is pertinent: “The inquiry must examine how to promote higher standards, protect people’s privacy while guaranteeing the freedom of the press, stimulate a more diverse media marketplace, and ensure that problems and complaints can be handled simply, fairly and effectively.” Watching the Telegraph at work, it’s no wonder the Murdoch publications don’t want a bar of it.

The fall of Muammar Gaddafi

“While it is democratically not permissible for an individual to own any information or publishing medium, all individuals have a natural right to self-expression by any means, even if such means were insane and meant to prove a person’s insanity” – Muammar Gaddafi, The Green Book

The Arab Spring has delivered a rich summer harvest. Libya is the latest domino to tumble joining Egypt and Tunisia. Syria and Yemen might be not be far behind, despite the grandstanding of long-standing leaders. With the exception of the regime and Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the world is rejoicing Gaddafi’s 42 year reign is over.
Gaddafi has been in power since man first landed on the moon, and of civilian leaders in the last century only Fidel Castro, Chiang Kai-Shek and Kim Il-Sung have lasted longer. His overthrow was supported by the left and the right though some on the left agonised over the NATO bombing campaign. That campaign now looks to be the crucial turning point. Gaddafi threatened to crush the rebellion in March. As matters drifted into a three month stalemate, NATO’s bombing of Tripoli in May proved the spark for the revolution. Gaddafi lost support on the ground, a mood the rebels sensed as they moved east.
Gaddafi was reasonably popular at home in the 1970s and 1980s and loved by the European left because he thumbed his nose at the western establishment. Few loved him for his eccentric political philosophies. Gaddafi’s Third International Theory was taken from the mishmash of aphorisms in the Green Book. The book fulminated on matters such as breast feeding and genetic differences and attempted to steer the country in a middle (or muddle) path between capitalism and communism.

His willingness to help resistance organisations such as the IRA and Red Brigades led to pariah status after the 1986 Berlin disco bombing and 1988 Lockerbie bombing. His power internally was never threatened. By the 2000s, he was making a remarkable international comeback. In 2008 200 African kings and tribal leaders pronounced him “king of kings” and African leaders and presidents (many of whom he trained in Libyan camps) made him head of the African Union in 2009.

The West also had a rapprochement with Gaddafi. Bush’s wars after 9/11 left America needing allies. Tony Blair killed two birds with one stone when he praised Gaddafi in 2004 for his support in the War while lobbying for a half billion dollar investment in Libya for Shell. The oceans of oil brought Gaddafi back in from the cold. The US normalised relations for the first time in 28 years under President Bush in 2008.

Though the west finally felt they could do business with Gaddafi, the Libyan public could not. One in five Libyans were employed as informants and surveillance was a normal part of every workplace. Military service has been compulsory since 1984. Gaddafi survived coup attempts in 1969 (two months into the job), 1975, 1977, 1985 and 1993 and having emerged from the military in a coup himself he abolished traditional military rank to avoid having to deal with a powerful leader caste.

Gaddafi made plenty of enemies. The Tunisian actions lit the fire and sparked a civil war. Rebels took the east easily but met sterner resistance near Tripoli. Gaddafi’s willingness to bomb his own people showed his tenacity to survive. But as Juan Cole notes, once enough of his heavy weapons capability was disrupted and his fuel and ammunition supplies blocked, the underlying hostility of the common people could again manifest itself, as it had in February. While his exact fate remains unknown at the time of writing, Gaddafi is a dead man walking. It is a triumph for NATO. The template for military action should now be used in Syria which has also turned its military against its own population.

The building of the Berlin Wall: 50 years on

On 3 August 1961, the leaders of the Comecon Communist bloc met in Moscow. It was the heart of the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs invasion failed a few months earlier, and in July President Kennedy requested a 25 percent increase in military spending. The East stood strong but had a soft underbelly: Berlin.

Divided by the Potsdam Conference after the war, scarred by the 1948 blockade and institutionalised by the founding of East and West Germany in 1949, Berlin remained a porous city. Over half a million East Berliners crossed daily to West Berlin to get their dose of capitalism. Many went shopping or to the cinema and discos in the West, 60,000 commuters even worked there. There was no need to defect. The east was cheaper and exotic frills of the west like pantyhose and tropical fruit were just a U-bahn ride away. Westerners also enjoyed the fruits of the border. West German Deutsch Marks were exchanged into East German DM at a rate of 1:4 and westerners got goods cheaply in the East.

However, East Germany was losing its thought leaders. The income gap was stark and anyone with ambition wanted to be in the west. Although some were stopped, hundreds of thousands made it across the border forever. By the 1960s, East Germany had lost 2.5 million trained professionals, 15 percent of its population. The Comecon decided this had to stop before the labour force was drained. At 4pm, Saturday 12 August 1961, East German leader Walter Ulbricht issued the order to close the border. At midnight Sunday, police and armed forces began bolting the city shut. They built the wall in a day and shut streets, the railway, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn. The pulsating heart of the city at Potzdamer Platz became a no-go zone. Trucks with soldiers and construction workers rumbled though the sleeping city and tore up telephone wires and streets to West Berlin, dug holes to put up concrete posts, and strung barbed wire across the border. The 100km wall wrapped up West Berlin. In the morning, there was widespread shock. Whichever side of the border you went to bed on 12 August, you were stuck there for decades. The wall captured the imagination, defining the Cold War.

The wall went through four transformations in its 28-year history. It started as a barbed-wire fence with concrete posts, but after a few days was replaced with a permanent structure of concrete blocks, topped with barbed wire. A third version in 1965 was a concrete wall, supported by steel girders. The fourth built in 1980 had 3.6m high and 1.2m wide concrete slabs with a smooth pipe across the top to stop people from scaling it. By 1989 there was a 91m No-Man’s-Land, an additional inner wall, soldiers patrolling with dogs, raked ground that showed footprints, anti-vehicle trenches, electric fences, massive light systems, watchtowers, bunkers, and minefields.

About 200 people were killed crossing this labyrinth and another 5000 escaped over or under it. The only people allowed to cross the border were foreign tourists, diplomats and military personnel. There were three crossing points: Helmstedt, Dreilinden and Berlin Friedrichstrasse. Helmstedt was called Checkpoint Alpha, Dreilinden Bravo and Friedrichstrasse was Charlie. When East German border guards at Checkpoint Charlie checked identification as western soldiers entered the Soviet sector on 25 October 1961, the Americans said the Allied right to move freely was violated. For 16 hours there was an imminent threat of war. The next day both sides withdrew as Kennedy and Khrushchev cobbled together an agreement.

While the 1989 revolutions were all startling in their speed, the fall of the Wall was the most stunning. On 9 November 1989, East German central committee spokesman Günter Schabowski made a surprise announcement: “Permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints between the GDR (East Germany) into the FRG (West Germany) or West Berlin.” “As of when?” asked an Italian journalist. Schabowski hesitated and improvised: “As far as I know … as of now.”

It was a shock to locals decoding his bureaucratic announcement to realise the border was open. The first East Germans approached tentatively and found border guards were letting people cross. Within an hour, people from both sides crowded to the Wall. Some brought hammers and chisels. Others hugged, kissed, cheered and cried. Schabowski, later imprisoned, said he remembered a Stasi agent telling him: “Comrade Schabowski, the border is open. Nothing to report.”

Now the Wall is mostly gone and the few remaining scraps are tourist attractions. The East and West are reunited though the East still lags. Germany is arguably weaker as a united country with a reunification bill of €1.3 trillion. Trabants litter the streets but few people are calling for the return of the DDR. The Berlin Wall was the supreme monument to the corrosive power of the old regime’s paranoia and distrust.

The politics of social media

“Corporations and politicians worldwide have latched onto social media to advertise their brand and get the message out. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election was supercharged by Facebook and social networking, which became the ultimate tool for gauging public opinion and speaking to the masses. But working with social media can fast go horribly wrong. US Congressman Anthony Weiner’s recent fall from grace was brutal and should be a lesson to all who merge online networking with real-time power chasing. Social media holds power potential for those who play the game correctly. But if you don’t know what you’re doing, hire someone else to do it right. And always keep your pants on.” Paul Barry, The Power Index
Hot on the heels of British plans to shut down social networks to stop rioting, comes news they have already been beaten to it by the US. Demonstrators in San Francisco had planned a protest to condemn the shooting death of Charles Hill. Bay Area Rapid Transit police officers killed Hill on 3 July 3 after they responded to complaints about a drunk man at a station.
A week later protesters shut down three BART stations and planned a second protest last week. This time BART interrupted wireless service for three hours at some BART stations, to “ensure the safety of everyone on the platform.” They claimed they asked providers to stop service, but later admitted they did it themselves as it is allowed to do under its contracts with the providers – Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.
The move prompted hacking group Anonymous to hit back. They have planned Operation BART which they said was “meant to teach BART a lesson about the dangers of censoring people…and is supposed to be an educational experience for the operators.” Yesterday, they defaced BART affiliated websites and released user info for the website saying they “are just warmed up.”
Anonymous compared the San Francisco moves to government censorship in the Arab Spring. “In Egypt and Tunisia, we saw people struggling to make their voices heard,” Anonymous said. “We have seen companies such as Telecomix delve into the nastiness of political corruption in an attempt to free those censored individuals from their prisons of silence.”
Whatever the truth of that comparison, the Arab regimes remain suspicious of social networks. This week, an Egyptian has been charged with using Facebook to incite violence. The Egyptian Military Prosecution arrested activist and blogger Asmaa Mahfouz, 26 for defaming the junta and calling for armed rebellion. The court said Mahfouz used Facebook to call for the assassinations of Supreme Council of Armed Forces members and judges. “If justice is not achieved and the justice system fails us, no-one should feel upset or surprised if armed gangs emerge to carry out assassinations,” Mahfouz wrote. “As long as there is no law and there is no justice, anything can happen, and nobody should be upset.”
Mahfouz and others may be helped by the Telecomix site mentioned in the Anonymous post about BART. Telecomix is an international organisation “dedicated to informing the public about internet freedom issues”. Telecomix member Peter Fein likens it to guerrilla informational warfare. “We’re kind of like an inverse Anonymous,” Fein said. “We operate in a very similar way to Anonymous not just IRC (Internet Relay Chat ) but also the non-hierarchical structure. Except they break things and we build them.” When Egyptian authorities cut off the internet and telephones, Telecomix filled a a need for internal communication. “Not for people to be able to talk on Facebook or Twitter to the world, but amongst themselves … so there were a number of tools, mesh technology and so on — that we tried to help people figure out,” Fein said.
The experiences learned in North Africa may need to be re-applied to the Western world. British Prime Minister’s knee jerk “kill switch” proposal for social networks may sound idiotic and undemocratic but that does not mean it will not be tried if he thinks there are votes in it. Cameron’s statement to MPs said they were working with police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services “when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”
People will plot violence regardless of the availability of social networks. But as the current Australian Government has shown with its internet censorship plans, moves to limit free speech are justified using tropes such as “not acceptable to civilised society” and protecting “young children”. China too has successfully mastered internet censorship with its Golden Shield (though 30 second Internet response times are throttling innovation). As Electronic Frontiers Foundation says of the Australian proposals, successful technology isn’t necessarily successful policy. “We’re still yet to hear a sensible explanation of what this policy is for, who it will help and why it is worth spending so much taxpayer money on,” said EFF.
Yet it is hardly surprising politicians are so wary of the technology. Most social media widely used today are still in their infancy and remain difficult to understand their use and potential effects. Yet as the Paul Barry quote illuminates, there is a coming of age of online political engagement, According to researchers Jim Macnamara and Gail Kenning (E-electioneering 2010: Trends in Social Media Use in Australian Political Communication) three-quarters of Australia’s federal politicians had a Facebook presence in 2010 while 57 per cent of citizens would like opportunities to comment on policies online and 36 per cent are interested in communication with their MPs online. But old habits die hard. Macnamara and Kenning found most politicians used social media primarily for one-way transmission of political messages, rather than citizen engagement or listening to the electorate. Maybe that will change as the technology matures, but equally likely it will be shackled to ensure powerbrokers keep their pants on.

Assad’s moment of truth or dare

The Syrian city of Hama remains defiant despite a week-long assault by President Bashar al-Assad’s troops. On Thursday Syrian forces took Turkish journalists around the city to show they were back in control. While the government claimed it was ridding Hama of “terrorists”, residents had a different story. They told of told of indiscriminate army shelling, snipers aiming at civilians and corpses piling up in the streets. Human rights groups say 1700 people have died in the crackdown with casualties highest in Hama.
(photo of Hama July protest:Wikipedia)
Hama has long been a hotbed of anti-Ba’athist activity. Shortly after the Ba’athists seized power in Syria in 1963, Islamic groups in Hama rose against the new secular regime. That rebellion was crushed as was another in 1982. Tens of thousands were killed in the Hama Massacre and parts of the city were flattened.
There were echoes in July when 136 people were killed in Hama in the “Ramadan Massacre”. Syrian forces attacked demonstrators using tanks, artillery, and snipers. Hama and Homs were the earliest city to join this year’s Arab Spring but the two biggest cities Damascus and Aleppo (home to half the country’s population) have been quiet. New reports from Al Jazeera say north-east Damascus is the focus of a major government offensive.
As one protester puts it, the regime is feeling time is against it after strong international reaction against the crackdown. The security forces want to end anti-Assad protests within weeks.Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect which has ties to Shia Islam. Alawites are 12 percent of Syria’s 22 million people but hold a vastly outsized portion of high-ranking positions in the government and the military. Sunnis consider them heretics.
When the French ruled in the early 20th century, they granted the Alawites their own state. In 1936 the French rejected calls from Sulayman Al Assad against union with Syria. Since then, the Assad family has built its power in the Alawite political movement in Syria. When Hafez Al Assad seized power in 1970, the Alawite community lined up behind him. Hafez authorised the 1982 Hama massacre. Bashar al Assad absorbed the lessons well after becoming president in June 2000 on his father’s death.

Bashar was an accidental president. When his father died, it only took hours for the Syrian parliament to vote to amend the country’s constitution to allow al-Assad to become president lowering the age of eligibility of the president from 40 to 34. Elder brother Basil was originally groomed as Hafez’s successor, and was chief of security. Bashar studied medicine in Britain, receiving a degree in ophthalmology, and headed the Syrian Computer Society. But in 1994 Basil was driving his Mercedes to the airport at high speed during a fog. He slammed into a roundabout and died instantly. Bashar rushed home from London to rejoin the army.

The army remains Bashar’s greatest ally and most of the top brass are Alawite. Assad’s brother Maher controls key military units packed with Alawite soldiers. One security expert told Reuters the regime had been careful about placing Alawite loyalists in all key positions. Sunni officers have risen to high ranks but have very little power to command troops.

If pressure is to be brought to bear, it must come from outside. The US added to its sanctions on Syria on 10 August to blacklist telco Syriatel and the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria and its Lebanon-based subsidiary, Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank. They add to existing sanctions including freezing assets and bans on business dealings, personal sanctions on Assad, as well as Syria’s vice president, prime minister, interior and defence ministers, the head of military intelligence and director of the political security branch. As the Economist puts it, the savagery of the regime’s response has convinced protesters the movement has to continue or face revenge of unimaginable proportions.

Of Nika and Basmati Rice: another twocents worth on the London riots

“Cameron aims to ‘address a broken society’ with more CCTV, less social media, battering rams, water cannons and maybe the army” – @abcnewsintern
In 532 Constantinople was besieged by the worst riots in history. Known as the Nika riots, they resulted in the destruction of half the city and 30,000 deaths. It started when a member of a popular elite sporting group was arrested for murder and quickly got out of hand. But there were wider issues. Emperor Justinian was negotiating peace over an expensive war in Persia and there was simmering resentment over high taxes. Three days after the murderers sought refuge in a church, the angry mob turned its resentment on Justinian at the Hippodrome races. When it looked like he would be chased out of the city, he bought out half his opposition and his army slaughtered the other half.

I was thinking of Justinian as the notion takes hold the British riots exist in a thuggish vacuum. According to the papers lowly scum have risen up in some mysterious “now” that pays no attention to anything that has gone before. It seems the chavish untermensch are incapable of collective memory nor is it possible to admit they might have grievances. Thugs are thugs because “they have nothing better to do”.

Whatever the motivation to cause mayhem and smash other people’s property, the idea the government, the media or the police are trusted institutions to deal with the problem were smashed long before the first pane of glass. The suspicious death of a black man was a spark, but the tinder was bone-dry and sooner or later there would have been an excuse for conflagration. An army of brooms sweeping Kristallnacht 2011 under the carpet won’t stop the disenfranchised coming back for more.

As the Murdoch scandal showed, the British media are part of the problem. The BBC’s contemptuous treatment of an old black man speaking truth to power and the wall-to-wall newspaper coverage of thugs and scum reveals a frightened press desperate to hang on to privileges in the old order. Politicians too, needing to speak reassuring words of toughness to scared constituents, retreat behind paeans to law and order. There is a magical belief this will keep the disaffected off the streets.

The glue that holds communities together is losing its stickiness. Family bonds are harder to keep. Education works only for the wealthy. Religion is irrelevant. Culture is complicated and foreign. International capitalism is a stinking corpse bloated by greed and selfishness. Big business is venal, politicians are corrupt and police are inept. The cult of individualism is rampant, neighbours don’t talk to each other and everyone is suspicious of “the other”. Racism is endemic, the climate is going to hell in a hand basket and no one seems to care. A Norwegian goes berserk and tries to wipe out a political generation. But rather than examine all that, the media is besotted only by the daily minutiae of two useless royals.

Thirty years after the riots of her making, Thatcher has been proved right: There is no such thing as society. Why should the rioters behave? What’s in it for them? A fat pile of nothing, and there is no deterrent. If people will commit a crime for $2 of basmati rice then the slim prospect of jail time or a criminal record is not going to stop them. The criminals at the top end of the scale get away with their crimes, why shouldn’t the small fry try too? Their looting is caught on camera but the liars that run the business world put their hands in the back pockets of millions without youtube evidence.

It is sad for the small businesses that suffered across Britain in the last few days – no doubt Constantinople’s unfortunate merchants paid an equally high price in the Nika Riots. They are on the frontline of a civil war that has a long way to go and like any soft target, will be picked on again. Cameron is no Justinian, nor is the equally ineffectual Ed Miliband. Britain must wait for the reliable rain to relieve the riots, not its robotic politicians.

Birdsville and Lake Eyre – Part 2

(See part 1 here) It was an early and dark start on Saturday for the trip to the lake. With Birdsville as far west as you can go in Queensland, it wasn’t until 6.45am that the first rays of light sneaked over the horizon. We were already on the road to the airport to check out the six-seater Cessna 182 we would be taking to Lake Eyre. Josh, our young pilot from Central Eagle Aviation told us we had time to go to the bakery for an early morning coffee. Then at 7.30am we were up and away. I was banished to the back seat this time as Greg sat up front for pilot talk with Josh. But with no one in the seat next to me, I had great uninterrupted views to the left and right as we flew down the Diamantina floodplain into South Australia.
Like Roma, the Diamantina River is named for the wife of Queensland’s first Governor, Lady Diamantina Bowen (née Roma). Like the Cooper Creek, the Diamantina meanders in many channels. Also like the Cooper it feeds into Lake Eyre after joining up with the Warburton River to the west. 80km south of Birdsville lies Goyder Lagoon, a 1300 km2 swamp on the junction with Eyre Creek.
The Lagoon is named for George Goyder, South Australian Surveyor-General from 1861-1893. Goyder became famous for his SA “Line of Rainfall” which set the limits for drought-free land considered safe for agriculture. The Lagoon that bears his name is a large ephemeral swamp but is still teeming with water after summer floods in the channel country.
The Birdsville Track is on the eastern side of the Diamantina floodplain. The track is 520km long from Birdsville to Maree, SA. Legendary outback postman Tom Kruse (who died recently aged 96) used to have corrugated iron sheets stored along the track to help him get his truck through very soft sand dunes. At times it would take a day or more to travel 10kms. These days the track is easier and a constant stream of 4WDs wind their way up and down during the winter months. The older Birdsville Inside Track in the middle of the floodplain is the original track used by drovers but is now impassable after rains.
More lakes appear near Lake Eyre in the gap between the Simpson and Strzelecki Desert. The river plain becomes wider as we arrive at the mouth of Lake Eyre two and a half hours into the flight. The browns and greens give way to blue. The watery channels take a long time to coalesce and evaporation and the shallow depth mean the lake is getting smaller by the day. There is still plenty of room for someone to emulate Donald Campbell and his Bluebird world land speed record attempt.
Eventually there is clear blue water. We fly over the west and the south of Lake Eyre North (the bigger of the two Lakes Eyre) and then east to the mouth of the Cooper Creek. That mouth remains closed though not for much longer. The water from the north is taking its time to fill in the smaller lakes near the entrance. It should spill over into Lake Eyre in the next few weeks giving it a fresh top-up.
We follow the Cooper east to where it bisects the Birdsville Track. There is a diversion 10km east where a free ferry takes vehicles over the creek. Then we crossed the barren Strzelecki Desert looking to the massive Moomba gas fields to the south east. Our first stop was back across the dingo fence in Queensland at the Burke and Wills Dig Tree.
The 1860-1861 Burke and Wills expedition to traverse Australia south to north was a fiasco. Arrogant Europeans knowing nothing about the tough country set off with camels and a grand piano taking two months to get to Menindee, NSW when a stagecoach could do it in a week. At Bulloo Bulloo Waterhole at Nappa Merrie, just inside the Queensland border, they established a depot at Camp 65. Burke, Wills and King made a dash to the Gulf telling the others to wait three or four months if they could.
They waited at Camp 65 for 4 months and 5 days from 16 December 1860 to 21 April. They left provisions under a tree marked “Dig” (now worn away by age) found by Burke, Wills and King when remarkably they arrived back later that day. Too weak to chase them they set out for a SA property but failed and returned to the dig tree. The original party sent a scout back but found no sign Burke was there and they left again without leaving a sign of their own. Burke and Wills died horrible deaths but King was nursed back to health by local Aborigines.
It was not hard to feel the magic of this beautiful spot and the tragedy that befell the men here – even if it was their own making. We hopped back in the plane for the short 10 minute flight to Innamincka for lunch. Burke died just to the east of here and a plaque marks the site. Innamincka township did not exist until 1890 and remained a tiny settlement until oil and gas was found by the South Australia Northern Territory Oil Search (Santos) in the 1960s. The welcoming pub does a roaring trade in tourist traffic and we enjoyed a great lunch before flying back to Birdsville.
I wasn’t expecting much from the final leg of the journey but it was perhaps the most spectacular. We went through the magnificent world heritage Coongie Lakes. The Lakes system is recognised for its unique environment of desert plants and animals. Wading birds are plentiful, and the surrounding bush is full of desert bird species and is a watchers’ dream. The smaller lakes scar the landscape as far as the eye can see and all were teeming with floodwaters. The last hour back to Birdsville passed by in the blink of an eye.
Getting back at 3pm we had to immediately get back into Greg’s plane and do the final one hour leg east to Windorah. This small town was unremarkable though the 150kw Solar Farm near the airport was impressive and the rodeo grounds were packed out for the annual campdraft and rodeo. We stayed in the pub which had the delightful name (for me anyway) of the Western Star. It was back to Roma on Sunday to my own Western Star with plenty of memories and photographs of a great hidden part of Australia.

Birdsville and Lake Eyre – Part 1

I got a message on Wednesday to contact a friend in Roma who has a pilot’s licence and his own plane. The message was simple “Greg wants to take you over Lake Eyre”. Greg popped into the office later that day to confirm the plan. He was taking three people out to Birdsville on Friday and onto the Lake on Saturday and there was a late cancellation. Last time we spoke I had expressed an interest in getting out west in his plane so he asked was I interested? With the Lake reputedly full after the floods earlier this year, I agreed on the spot and got excited as Friday approached.

On the Friday morning we gathered at Roma Airport. Greg’s plane is a Cessna 172 four seater and the other two passengers squeezed into the back. I sat next to Greg as “co-pilot” though I what I knew about flying planes could be written on a matchbox. I could read maps however and enjoyed following the route on the charts on Greg’s ipad. Greg allowed me to steer the plane for 10 minutes or so while he consulted charts, something I did with a mixture of elation and terror.

We set off southwest towards Cunnamulla and got there after a hour and a bit. We weren’t stopping there but enjoyed the flyover view of the town and the Warrego river slowly ambling south towards the Darling. Our first stop was Thargomindah another hour west.

We followed the path of the Adventure Highway past Eulo and beautiful Lake Bindegolly National Park. We stopped in Thargomindah and Greg had to deal with a vicious cross wind that almost dragged us off the runway on landing. After that excitement, there was the more mundane task of refuelling and a packed lunch at the deserted airport.

Then it was back aboard, heading northwest to Birdsville. Greg took this circuitous route because he reckoned the Channel Country was more spectacular this way. The Cooper Creek stretched out like the Nile Delta cutting the brown landscape with a magnificent swathe of green. Durham Downs station, a huge property just to the west is often cut off for months at a time when the Cooper is in flood.

On the other side of the Cooper, a huge lake bore into view to the north. We diverted to take a look at Lake Yamma Yamma (formerly called Lake Mackillop). Yamma Yamma seldom sees water but was full now feeding off the waters of Cooper Creek with claypans etched into the landscape.

Then it was briefly across the border into the moonscape of northern South Australia below Haddon Corner before angling back into Queensland for the descent into Birdsville. Perched precariously at the edge of the Simpson Desert, Birdsville survives on the infrequent waters of the Diamantina River, which like every other system in Queensland is flowing freely at the moment.

The town was founded in the 19th century to collect tolls from the droves of cattle moving interstate. Originally called Diamantina Crossing, it was given its current name in testament to vast amount of birds who call the place home. Many of them were perched over the runway making descent difficult and forcing Greg to keep the nose of the plane up on landing so if they did hit us, they would do less damage to the undercarriage. No drama eventuated and we got out to see the iconic Birdsville Hotel handily placed just across the road from the airport. The racecourse was further away on the other side of the river and that will be full for the annual races at the start of September.

The town was quiet enough, though there were plenty of caravanners making the pilgrimage up or down the famous Birdsville Track into SA or into the Simpson Desert. We made the short walk to the caravan park to find our cabins and then to the impressive tourist office to pay for the charter over the Lake tomorrow. Greg decided he would rather be a passenger than a pilot for this leg so he could enjoy the scenery.

Then it was onto the Birdsville Bakery (which in typical outback style is licensed to serve alcohol) for a coffee and a camel burger (which I was assured was genuine dromedary – though someone at the pub later told me was beef). A walk around the well spread out town found the ruins of the Royal Hotel, the old hospital turned into a museum and Blue Poles gallery owned by the remarkable Wolfgang John.

John is a German who has made Birdsville his home for 18 years. His mother escaped Eastern Germany ahead of the Soviet army in 1945 and he was brought up in Bremerhaven and then in southern Germany. But he found his true home in the Australian outback. The gallery is full of magnificent paintings of the desert he so clearly loves. The gallery is named not for Pollock’s famous painting but more prosaically for the blue poles on the veranda outside the gallery.

All this playing the tourist made me thirsty and it was time to finally check out the pub where I rejoined my aircrew. Everyone went outside to catch the last rays of the sun disappear behind the airport before packing out the restaurant for a lovely dinner. Then it was back to the cabin for a coffee and an early night with the big Lake Eyre expedition to follow at 7.30am in the morning.

Australia puts high speed rail back on track

Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, invoked the spirit of a wartime Prime Minister when he announced a new report into high speed rail in Australia today. “I wonder what one of our most revered leaders, Ben Chifley a former train driver would make of high speed rail?” Albanese asked. “As one of the greatest nation builders of the 20th century, I am confident he would have seen its potential and the possibilities it could bring.” As a topic around for decades, Albanese said he looked forward to the national conversation. “It’s a conversation the Government wants to have with the community,” he said.

The report for phase one is part of a two phase strategic study into a high speed rail network (HSR) on the east coast of Australia. The study looks at potential routes from Brisbane to Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, as well its economic viability. It talks about corridors, options for station locations, high level costs, and forecasts about patronage, and comparative analysis of potential social and regional development impacts. Albanese has asked for feedback on the report in the next two months. The Executive Summary (pdf) says the study is divided into two phases. The first looks at costs, corridors and demand while a future phase two will look at financial feasibility, best route alignment, patronage and cost estimates, and potential financing options. The total cost of the project is anything from $61 billion to $108 billion depending upon the corridors. The costs include land acquisition, stations and city access, maintenance and stabling facilities, power infrastructure, civil and rail infrastructure and IT and ticketing systems. They exclude management costs (add another 15%) and operating costs. The four corridors considered are Brisbane to Newcastle via the coast, Newcastle to Sydney, Sydney to Canberra and Canberra to Melbourne. Urban access would be by tunnel and stations would be in the central business district of each city.Regional stations would be at Gold Coast, Tweed, Coffs Harbour, Gosford, Wollongong, Mittagong, Wagga, Albury and Shepparton. The Newcastle to Brisbane link is by far the most expensive leg probably due to the mountainous Scenic Rim on the NSW-Queensland border.

The report said people made over 100 million long distance trips on the east coast of Australia each year, set to grow to 264 million over the next 45 years. By 2036 54 million people may use an HSR network each year. The study showed inter-city non-stop running times could be around three hours between Brisbane and Sydney and Sydney and Melbourne, 40 minutes between Newcastle and Sydney and one hour between Sydney and Canberra. The network infrastructure would be a double-track standard-gauge electrified line with maximum operating speed of 200 km/h in the cities and 350 km/h outside. Services would be operated by eight car sets moving to 12 or 16 depending on demand.

The report identified five key issues for resolution in phase 2. These are 1. Overcoming the topographical and environmental constraints of the Sydney to Newcastle leg 2. Determining if the Sydney station is in the CBD (more costly) or in Homebush or Parramatta (reducing patronage) 3. Fitting in the Illawarra despite geographical challenges 4. Determining if Melbourne Airport will be on the route 5. Determining if Canberra is on the main line or on a branch.

The next phase is a Phase 2 report, due in 2012. If approved, services may be running between Sydney and Newcastle by 2020 and Melbourne and Sydney by 2025.