Why Australia needs to admit to a frontier war and sign a makarrata

“Why not send asylum seekers to Australia? It sounds like an awful country, would be a great deterrent,” a Twitter response to Rudd’s PNG announcement on Friday.

aborignalReading Henry Reynold’s Forgotten War helps throw light on Kevin Rudd’s new boat people policy. Australia is a settler country with a massive insecurity complex and European-Australians like to tell people from other countries they can or cannot live here. But white Australia has never recognised how the land was won in the first place. The history of white invasion is everywhere. I found it easily when I went looking for local history for a “150 years of Roma” book we did last year. I also found the bloody story of the Maranoa conquest was not unique. The history of Queensland is of black oppression and is a tale repeated across the country whenever the British took possession of the land. The evidence, Reynolds said, spilled from the record “like blood from an open wound”.

That evidence is mostly dismissed as unimportant or contested. Australian history is painted as peaceful occupation of a continent. However while we are blinkered today, white people of the time understood the conflict. White “ownership” of Australia has always been a fragile flower. It is assertive but fearful. It is brash but insecure. It craves relevance and demands acceptance. This complex attitude found voice in Rudd’s ban on boat people without visas. The Tampa was brought up to date with a repetitive thud. Giving boat arrivals a lifetime ban for breaking the visa rule was not aimed at keeping refugees out of Australia. It was aimed at winning an election by neutralising the silly but powerful slogan “stop the boats”. Refugees will be banished to poor neighbours out of sight and out of mind. As left-wing commentator Tad Tietze says, Rudd is implementing this policy not because he is a racist but because it addresses an irrational fear in his electorate, worried about “invasion” by asylum seekers.

This fear has been part of the psyche of European settlement since its own invasion of Australia. The British were uninvited guests in 1788 and over the next 140 years they came in large numbers, fighting wars with their hosts who defended their land with vigour. In European eyes they were “wild blacks” who had to make way for towns, farms, sheep and cattle. The Europeans also wanted to stop other invasions coming after them. They legislated to stop the Chinese from sharing in the gold rush and kept Kanaka cane-workers indentured for decades until they were packed off home again. The 1901 White Australia Policy told the world the newly federated nation was for Anglo-Celts only. Feeling vulnerable at the bottom of Asia, Australia needed reassurance it was a Britain of the South.

According to the Australian War Memorial, Australian military history started in 1885 with Britain’s colonial expedition to save General Gordon in Sudan. Australia’s contribution was a handful of soldiers dying of disease. The War Museum ignores a more substantive and critical conflict on our own shores already 90 years old and still not ended in 1885. Six generations between 1790 and 1930 lived through border skirmishes costing thousands of lives as the Europeans wrested control from the blacks in a slow rolling contest for resources across Australia.

When the First Fleet arrived in 1788 they added 1373 people to a black population of 300,000 to a million already here. The new arrivals didn’t realise every part of Australia had local tribes and didn’t care. Phillip relied on Aboriginal help but believed the land was ownerless. Europeans got their legal and moral justification for this blatant theft from the concept of ‘terra nullius’ (land which belongs to no one).

Britain’s Navy understood the importance of possession. The island of Bedanug in the Torres Island was renamed Possession Island after Lt James Cook laid claim to all of eastern Australia there in August 1770. George Vancouver named a spot on the south-west corner of Western Australia “Possession Point” as he laid claim to the western side of the continent 21 years later. These claims were extravagant statements of intent aimed at discouraging other European claimants. They left the people who actually owned the landmass none the wiser they were dispossessed.

Cook’s statement of possession ignored countless palls of smoke he saw from the deck of the Endeavour as he sailed up the east coast. His naturalist Joseph Banks showed equal cognitive dissonance when he told a 1779 House of Commons Inquiry Botany Bay was a good site for a penal settlement because it was scantily populated. Banks knew New South Wales was a dangerous place. His 1770 diary recalls his first experience of warriors on the rocks “threatening and menacing with their pikes and swords.”

Australia was an unknown quantity and it was easier to ship British criminals off to North America. But when Britain lost America and its ability to take prisoners, London was on the verge of anarchy with hundreds of rotting hulks incarcerating thousands in the Thames. Britain urgently needed a new dump for its riff-raff and Banks’s proposal was dusted off. The First Fleet was given orders to set sail to the end of the world without any idea what would await it.

In 1788 Phillip landed in Botany Bay and found it did not match the glowing descriptions. While he despaired over the landscape Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse arrived four days later. Phillip knew it was critical to get a toehold on the continent. Writing in 1928 Edward Jenks said there was some justification for saying England “won” Australia by just six days. It was true but a Eurocentric exaggeration. The Aborigines would have fought French colonists just as tenaciously and for just as long as they did the British.

Phillip respected the natives but had orders. On moving the settlement to Sydney Cove, he reiterated Cook’s sovereignty claim. He was captain general and governor in chief over lands from Cape York to the southern tip of Tasmania and west to the centre of Australia. With the Fleet clinging to Sydney and starving to death, this commission was a fantasy. But it was also a signal of ambition as well as God’s writ no court would challenge. In 1913, Australian High Court chief justice Isaac Isaacs called Phillip’s commission an “unquestionable position” and it remains so today.

According to English law, Cook and Phillip’s affirmations meant every conflict was a police matter rather than an act of war. If the whites brought cattle and sheep onto Aboriginal country and the natives reacted by spearing a beast, then they would be prosecuted under British law. If they went further and killed a white, then it would be treated as murder. If a white person then took revenge and killed a black, that too was murder.

But on Australia’s vast frontier civilised trappings like police, courts, priests and papers were non-existent. Settlers knew it was war not a police action and behaved accordingly. They were either petrified or took the law into their own hands and killed the blacks with impunity. The one time the law did try to enforce native rights, it backfired. In 1838 Governor George Gipps hanged seven white stockmen for the deaths of Aborigines at Myall Creek after a jury initially found them not guilty. Whites were outraged their own people were executed for doing what they had to do: kill or be killed. The lesson the settlers learned was not to stop killing but not to tell anyone about it.

The Government’s wishful thinking extended to farming. While promoting the cultivation of the land, Whitehall said colonial pastoral leases should not interfere with native hunting rights. In 1848, Secretary of State Earl Grey ordered NSW Governor Charles Fitzroy to give only “the exclusive right of pasturage in the runs, not the exclusive occupation of the Land, as against Natives using it for the ordinary purposes”. But pasturage was an exclusive occupation. Whites displaced Aboriginals from their camps, hunting grounds, sacred sites and water. Aborigines, weakened by European illnesses, retreated into guerrilla warfare using the knowledge of the land to pick off easy prey at the edges. Outraged whites responded with ferocity and modern weapons.

The settlers admitted what lawmakers would not. This was war and there could only be one winner. The newspapers supported settler rights. In 1870 the Rockhampton Bulletin justified as a “deplorable necessity” the death of Aborigines whenever they attacked European life and property. “They should be treated as enemies of the state,” the paper warned, “and shot down with as little compunction as soldiers shoot each other in battles among civilised men”. The Queenslander told its readers in 1884 whenever a black person was seen, he was “brutally shot down the same as a dingo and with about the same feeling of remorse”. Remorseless deaths continued across Australia as the conflict rolled on.

Queensland had the highest death toll of any colony thanks to the Native Police. White officers led “tamed” blacks from other regions on outings of “dispersals”. Dispersing was euphemistic language and meant exactly what the Rockhampton Bulletin and the Queenslander newspaper said: killing as many of a dangerous enemy as possible, without remorse and without telling anybody about it.

Without a written language, defeated indigenous people were pushed to the edge of the Australian story and forgotten about. Australian history became a story of a peaceful and productive takeover of land tamed by pioneers. Aboriginal status as non-people was confirmed at federation when the 1901 Constitution said “natives shall not be counted”. Aborigines were so low in the scale of social organisation in 1911 the Privy Council thought it was “idle to impute to [them] some shadow of the rights known to our law and then to transmute it into the substance of transferable rights of property as we know them.” Social Darwinism predicted they would soon die out.

Some did their best to accelerate that prediction. In 1928 the battle for control of Central Australia ended in the Coniston Massacre across a wide area of south-western Northern Territory. Kamalyarrpa “Bullfrog” Japanangka murdered dingo trapper Fred Brooks for stealing his wife. Acting on native law, Bullfrog speared Brooks then cut his throat with a traditional stone knife made of chert flakes. The killing caused outrage. A reprisal party armed with 1920 Lee Enfield rifles “dispersed” at least 60 people in 10 engagements across the territory in revenge for Brooks. In this group punishment, they missed Bullfrog.

Despite a board of inquiry neither Bullfrog nor the revenge party were ever charged with murder. History’s silence helped governments implement paternalistic assimilation policies that tore black families apart. Those that didn’t live in shanties at the edge of towns were sent to internment camps like Woorabinda and Barambah while others were farmed off to white families or donated as slave labour to church and other institutions. A “Stolen Generation” spent their days putting together the jigsaw puzzle of their lives.

By the 1960s the worldwide anti-colonial movement was affecting Australia. The Aborigines had not died off as predicted and many tapped into the worldwide black consciousness. The White Australia Policy was gradually ditched and the 1967 referendum meant blacks were finally counted. The softening continued in the seventies and eighties under Whitlam, Fraser and then Hawke. Aborigines still lived on the margins and Australia never apologised or admitted there was a war.

In 1979 a committee was set up to promote a treaty and after three years it took a list of demands to Canberra. They wanted a makarrata, a Yolgnu (NT) word meaning “the end of a dispute and the resumption of normal relations”. A makarrata was a covenant to protect indigenous culture, restore land rights, access mining royalties and the right to control their own affairs. The Government resisted compensation requirements and would not budge on land rights. The makarrata was rejected. It took the 1992 High Court Mabo decision to overturn terra nullius and give retrospective validity to traditional land tenure. The courts left the politicians scrambling to catch up.

Paul Keating’s Redfern speech that year remains the closest an Australian prime minister has come to admitting dispossession. His speech celebrating the coming year of the World’s Indigenous People in 1993 talked about a test “which so far we have always failed.” Keating said Europeans had brought only devastation and demoralisation to Aboriginal Australia and their plight affected everyone. He recognised whites did the dispossessing and their germs and their culture killed Aboriginal people. Yet while he diagnosed what happened, he didn’t say how it happened. Keating mentioned ‘war’ three times in the speech and each reference was about European conflicts not the Australian one he came close to defining.

His successor John Howard wanted white Australia relaxed and comfortable and rejected the idea of war. Making Australia’s story shameful, Howard said, would only make people apprehensive and despairing about the future. He only would admit to a few “black marks” in an otherwise happy history.

Howard had to deal with the fallout from the 1997 Wik Judgement. While neither Mabo nor Wik tackled Cook’s statement of possession, the landmark court cases swept away 200 years of white pastoral leases dominating native title. These leases covered nearly half the country, much of it National Party heartland. Facing insurrection from his own Coalition partners, Howard’s ten point plan allowed “pastoral activities” to continue without interference from native title.

Howard was also convulsed by the response to the Bringing them Home report. People held “sorry ceremonies” across the nation and expressed regret for the Stolen Generation though Howard refused to join in. He preferred “practical reconciliation” that led to the NT Intervention.

Kevin Rudd made a big deal of his sorry speech but like Keating and Howard, he couldn’t mention the war. His focus was on the child-removal policies and he said nothing about violent dispossession. Rudd wanted a truce in the history wars not a treaty. In 2009 introducing Thomas Keneally’s Australians: Origins to Eureka, Rudd rejected the view Australian history lacked sufficient colour, movement and drama despite having “no revolution, civil war and ‘rivers of blood.” Rudd’s truce was to pretend the war never happened.

Last month Michael Anderson of Sovereign Union said assimilation projects were still alive and well. Anderson compared Aboriginal imprisonment in reserves with the “illegal immigrants” locked away today in detention centres. Like immigrants in Christmas Island, the Aborigines were fed, but “all our civil and political rights were taken away.”

Many are outraged Rudd has eroded rights for people coming here from other countries. But few have made the comparison with black Australia. Rudd’s immigration solution is the flipside of 220 years of oppression to Aborigines. We will never feel safe about our borders until we properly acknowledge the damage done within our realm. Australia needs a makarrata to formally end a war blacks have not forgotten.

Lynton Crosby’s clients are trouble for his political paymasters

British Tories’ Australian election strategist Lynton Crosby is under the spotlight due to potential conflicts of interest from his lobbying firm Crosby/Textor. Prime Minister David Cameron has defended Crosby over his links to the tobacco industry after the Government’s decision to delay a decision on plain packaging; a decision Cameron denies is related to Crosby. Environmentalists say Crosby/Textor’s representation of Australian oil and gas lobby group APPEA encourages more shale gas development in Britain.

How much is due to Crosby/Textor lobbying is a moot point and probably oversold. But the agency has been a major force in Australian, and now British politics. Crosby and Mark Textor were instrumental in John Howard’s four election wins and this is not the first time their activities have prompted calls of conflict of interest. Among their Australian clients are Qantas and as Howard headed into the election year of 2007, Crosby/Textor aggressively campaigned for an $11b takeover of Qantas by Airline Partners Australia. Company spokesman John Kent brushed off media concerns saying “we never talk to anyone about anything about clients” but APA wanted their insider status when they hired them as lobbyists.

Lobbying is at the heart of Crosby/Textor’s business which has been closely associated with the conservative side of politics since 2003. According to their blurb Crosby/Textor offers “an unmatched pedigree combining comprehensive experience in market research, strategic communications and campaign execution”. Mark Textor leads the Sydney operation while Lynton Crosby runs the London offshoot Crosby Textor Fullbrook.

Lynton Crosby rose through the Liberal Party and became Federal Director in 1997. John Howard appointed Crosby as campaign director for his second victory in 1998. Crosby is known for his mastery of dog whistle politics and was responsible for the 2001 wedge campaign which promoted fear and hatred of refugees in the Tampa crisis. His ruthless targeting of key marginal constituencies with highly localised campaigning kept Howard prime minister for 11 years.

Mark Textor cut his teeth in his native Northern Territory successful Country-Liberal Party’s election campaign committee in 1994. Buoyed by success, he masterminded the strategy behind the 1996 Liberal federal victory. He became principal Liberal pollster for the next three elections.

Textor and Crosby had immediate success in 2004 when they ran the Liberal federal re-election campaign. In 2005 the Crosby/Textor machine was behind another Howard election campaign, this time for Michael Howard leader of Britain’s Conservative Party. Crosby was criticised for bringing Australian divisive tactics on immigration, asylum seekers, gypsies, law and order and abortion. Although Howard lost, blemishing Crosby-Textor’s perfect record, the previously hapless Tories gained 36 seats to put them within reach of Government for the next election.

After John Howard lost to Rudd in Australia, Crosby returned to British politics for the May 2008 London Mayoral campaign. He masterminded Conservative candidate Boris Johnson’s victory over Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone. Last year he repeated this success as Campaign Director for a second term in “Back Boris 2012” despite a large nationwide swing against the Tories in the British council elections.

This success brought him to David Cameron in November last year. The hope among supporters, as expressed by Iain Dale was Crosby would bring a sense of direction and strategy in a year that was “a complete shambles for the Conservative party.” Opponents saw it as a shift to the right and a sign Cameron’s supposedly more caring image was a sham.

When the Queen opened parliament in May, the media picked up on the shelving of crackdowns on tobacco and alcohol. The Mirror noted Crosby/Textor had the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia as a client. While the paper couldn’t say whether UK offshoot represented any drinks firms, it was mud they could legitimately throw. Whether it sticks remains to be seen.

King Leopold’s Ghost still haunts Congo

Over 30,000 people have fled eastern DR Congo into Uganda after a rebel group attacked a border town this week. Ugandan rebel group Allied Democratic Forces, driven into the jungle after a violent campaign in the late 1990s, overran the town of Kamangu on Thursday. The ADF are one of many foreign proxy groups causing mayhem in eastern Congo for over 20 years.

The country survived two devastating wars after the Rwandan genocide and Rwanda still backs rebel leader Laurent Nkunda and his RCD-Goma faction. The ongoing eastern conflict since 2006 is destabilising this large, underdeveloped and fractious country.

The fact it is a country at all is the fault of a megalomaniac European who never visited it. Congo was created out of nothing 120 years ago by the greed of one infamous energetic monarch: King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold was responsible for the death of ten million Congolese as he built his private empire. The story of Congo and Leopold is told in Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost” published in 1998 and released in 2006 as a greatly condensed film.

The story starts with a different king: a black one. King Afonso I was ruler of Kongo (western Congo and parts of Angola) in the 16th century. Afonso was influenced by Portuguese traders bringing in European ideas including the church, literature, medicine and trade skills. Afonso didn’t want European rule of law nor mineral prospectors invading his lands but could not prevent the slave trade for coffee plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean.

When Afonso died, Kongo’s power diminished. In 1665 the Portuguese beheaded his successor though European domination was slow to grow. For 200 years, the vast inland remained mostly off-limits to white eyes. The only route through the thick malarial jungle was the fearsome Congo River. Most of the river lies 300 metres high on the African plateau. It descends to sea level in 350 kms tumbling down 32 waterfalls.

The white man who crossed this natural barrier was born John Rowlands in Denbigh, Wales in 1841. Rowlands was an orphan who grew up in the workhouse. He was a good scholar fascinated by geography. Aged 16, he sailed to New Orleans where he used his wits to get a job. Rowlands also changed his name to Henry Morton Stanley. He reinvented his past and passed himself off as a native-born American.

Stanley signed up for the Confederates in the civil war but Union soldiers captured him after two days at the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee. To escape a disease-ridden POW life, Stanley enlisted with the Union Army and then the Navy until deserting in 1865. He found his metier as a journalist covering the Indian wars for a St Louis newspaper. His vivid reports caught the eye of New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett Jr.

Bennett sent him to cover the British war in Abyssinia. Stanley was resourceful and bribed a Suez telegraph clerk to give his reports priority, scooping his rivals with news of the conflict. In London, Stanley thirsted for more success. Bennett gave him a new brief: find David Livingstone.

Livingstone was a Scottish missionary driven by anti-slavery zeal whose wanderings took him across Africa for 30 years. He looked in vain for the source of the Nile, found Victoria Falls, preached the gospel and denounced slavery. In 1866 Livingstone went missing on a long expedition and hadn’t been heard from in three years. It took Stanley two years to get a 150 man party together and then another eight months before he found his man near Lake Tanganyika. Stanley supposedly greeted him with the immortal four words: “Dr Livingstone I Presume?

We have to take Stanley’s word, as Livingstone died shortly afterwards. Stanley’s version became history and made him an American hero. His book “How I found Livingstone” was an international best seller and one man in Brussels eagerly read every piece of news about Stanley’s African adventures. That man was 37-year-old Leopold II.

Leopold had travelled across Europe, Egypt, India and the Dutch East Indies whetting his appetite for empire. When he became king in 1865 he was determined Belgium would take part in Europe’s colonial adventures. He convened a conference in Brussels which founded the International African Association. It purported to be dedicated to African exploration and the exposure of the slave trade but was a front for Belgian expansion in Africa. It tried to buy an African colony but none were for sale. It had to claim its own.

Stanley was also hunting for further African glory. In 1874 Bennett and the London Telegraph sponsored him to cross Africa east to west. His expedition set off from Zanzibar and arrived at Buma at the mouth of the Congo in 1877. His second best seller “Through the Dark Continent” described the great arc traversed by the Congo River that took in both sides of the equator. The arc exposed the river to a continuous rainy season that contributed to voluminous water flow.

Leopold avidly followed Stanley’s journey. He was especially interested in descriptions of Congo rich in rubber and ivory. On Stanley’s triumphant return to Europe, the king lured him to Brussels. Leopold signed Stanley onto a five year contract to lead a Belgian expedition to the Congo and navigate the river. They would construct a road to get past the fearsome rapids and establish trading posts inland.

For the next five years, Stanley was Leopold’s man in the Congo. It took two years to haul boats and equipment to the top of the plateau before sailing inland. Stanley was a hard taskmaster and treated Africans with contempt. When he arrived at the opening in the river later called Stanley Pool (now Malebo Pool), he was shocked to find the French had beaten him and had signed a deal to take the lands north of the Pool. Count Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza had landed north of the river and made his way inland. That land became French Congo and is now the Republic of Congo with the capital Brazzaville.

Stanley redoubled his efforts on the south bank of the Congo where he signed deals with 450 Congolese chiefs. Each “treaty” gave away sovereignty of their lands to the International African Association. The treaties also committed their people to “assist by labour or otherwise” any “improvements” the Association might suggest. When Stanley was finished bargaining in 1884, he had a million square miles for Belgium. Leopold needed the world to recognise the claim.

The king pulled American strings to lobby President Chester Arthur. Arthur was vice president to James Garfield who was assassinated six months into office in 1880. Arthur was in poor health and ill prepared for the job. He was flattered into recognising the International African Association’s ownership of Congo. The European powers rubberstamped the takeover in the Berlin Congress of 1884. Leopold sent Stanley as his representative to the congress where the explorer was the star attraction. Leopold got his way on the assumption the Congo became a free trade zone.

The new empire was 76 times the size of Belgium. Leopold called himself the “King Sovereign” of the Congo and by royal decree he renamed his asset the Congo Free State in 1885. It was a private asset which Leopold controlled outside the Belgian parliament. All profits went to him alone.

Leopold sent Stanley back to Africa on another mission. The governor of Sudan’s southernmost province, Emin Pasha, asked Europe for help against the threat of a Muslim fundamentalist group known as the Mahdists. Despite his exotic title, Pasha was a German Jewish doctor born as Eduard Schnitzer and a white hero in Africa. Stanley’s relief mission went from Leopold’s Congo through unexplored rainforest. By the time they reached Pasha, the crisis was over and Pasha was no longer eager for help.

Leopold’s empire slowly consolidated. He established military bases along the river and sent Belgians to administer his new kingdom and tap into the rubber trade. It relied on slavery and shot villagers if they didn’t obey orders. By the 1890s, American historian George Washington Williams condemned Leopold’s colony as an “oppressive and cruel government” guilty of crimes against humanity. But Williams was black and his warnings were ignored.

Leopold declared “all vacant land” in the Congo as crown property. He ignored the free trade edict and his administrators collected tariffs along the river. They conscripted porters to carry ivory past the treacherous rapids until the railway was built to the port. Thousands died of overwork as white overseers enforced discipline with the dreaded chicotte (sjambok) – a hippopotamus hide cut into a sharp-edged corkscrew whip.

When a curious 32-year-old Polish seaman named Konrad Korzeniowski visited the Congo in 1890, he sailed up the river to see the horrors first hand. The visit shattered his belief in Leopold’s ennobling mission. He spent six months in the Congo and transformed it under the pen-name of Joseph Conrad as the scene of his great short novel “Heart of Darkness”. Conrad’s unforgettable portrait of the deranged Kurtz was based on Belgian overseers.

Matters worsened for the Congolese in 1890 after Belfast-man John Boyd Dunlop invented the pneumatic tyre. It set off a craze for bicycles and the world developed an insatiable appetite for rubber. Wild rubber vines were abundant in the equatorial rain forests of the Congo and Leopold partnered with rubber companies to extract the sap.

The rubber boom gave impetus to construction projects and Leopold finished the railway up the rapids adding to the state’s wealth and power. But it also exposed his empire. Missionaries spoke of the price locals paid for Leopold’s enormous wealth. The king denied these claims. But he was undone by someone who noticed something was wrong, from thousands of miles away. His name was E.D. Morel.

Morel was a clerk in Antwerp for British trading company Elder Dempster. He noticed the only trade into the country was arms while all the material coming out was hardly ever paid for. He realised only forced labour could account for this. Morel became a full-time advocate against the slave trade in the Congo. He set up his own newspaper the West African Mail to expose the problem.

Through murder, starvation, disease and plummeting birth rate, Congo was the killing fields of the 1890s and early 1900s. Belgian soldiers launched punitive expeditions and massacres were commonplace. Thousands were held as hostages and many died of starvation. Smallpox and sleeping sickness killed many more and the birth rate dropped considerably. Morel exposed it all.

In 1903, his cause was helped by Irish diplomat Roger Casement. Casement travelled to the Congo as British Consul to understand the problem. He spoke to overseers, missionaries and natives and documented his findings in a parliamentary report. The report showed abuse, slavery and murder were commonplace. Belgium put pressure on an embarrassed British government to delay publication of the damaging report. Morel kept up the pressure on Britain to act. The world’s press turned on Leopold and sexual indiscretions lost him popularity at home.

Leopold launched a massive counter operation using a network of paid spies, politicians, businessmen and journalists. But when his effort to bribe a US congressman was exposed by Hearst’s New York American newspaper, his rule began to crumble. Under pressure, Leopold launched an independent Committee of Inquiry which issued a damning 150-page report into the colony.

Leopold negotiated for the state to take the indebted and scandal ridden colony off his hands. In 1908 it was renamed “Belgian Congo”. Leopold died a year later, unmourned and booed at his own funeral. He never set foot in the colony he ruled despotically for two decades. Forced labour in the Congo continued under the civil administration though there was some improvement. Belgium tried to brush Leopold’s misdeeds under the carpet.

The winds of change blew in the 1950s as black Africans began building tribal political bases. In 1960 Congo won independence. Patrice Lumumba, the country’s new leader, wanted a national non-tribal approach. But his words threatened western interests in the country. US President Eisenhower regarded him as a “mad dog” and CIA chief Allen Dulles authorised his assassination. They used Belgians in the Congolese army to support an anti-Lumumba faction and he was arrested, beaten and shot dead in 1961.

After a few years of chaos, the CIA installed army chief Joseph Desire Mobutu as Lumumba’s replacement. The anti-communist Mobutu renamed the country to Zaire and installed a cult of personality while hiving off billions to his Swiss bank accounts. Mobutu was helped by the Organisation of African States’ charter that stated the borders at the end of colonialism would be maintained and he curried favour with American presidents.

His importance to the US ended when the Cold War ended in 1991. His corrupt rule was undone by hundreds of thousands Rwandan Tutsis who fled across the border to avoid the Hutu genocide. It led to the bloody revolution of 1997 supported by Uganda and Rwanda. Mobutu fled the country with $5 billion he had embezzled. Congo descended into eight years of wars involving all of its neighbours and four million people died. It remains one of the poorest countries in the world with 45,000 deaths a month. A Congo peace deal signed in Ethiopia in February by 11 countries remains the best hope of exorcising King Leopold’s ghost.

The rising price of gas

One of the Santos GLNG  gas compressor plants under construction near Roma.
One of the Santos GLNG gas compressor plants under construction  in the Surat Basin near Roma.

More indications arrived this week the price of Australian domestic gas is likely to double or triple after 2014 – though not for the reasons people in the industry are spruiking. Research from the Australia Institute says the current wholesale price of $3 a gigajoule would likely go to $9 in three years. Increases of this magnitude will put pressure on manufacturing businesses, mostly in Victoria dependent on gas. But that is the likely outcome once the eastern seaboard gas market becomes connected with the world.

This is not the only recent research that predicts this. Geologists always knew about gas in the coal seams of Queensland and NSW but it was too expensive to drill for in comparison to natural gas trapped in conventional chambers. Higher prices in Asia, suddenly made that CSG more valuable. The three big companies and their backers are spending $60b to extract the gas, and to build pipelines and the LNG plants for export to Asia.

Those export plants are on Curtis Island off Gladstone where US-construction giant Bechtel is building three massive facilities for Santos GLNG, Origin APLNG and BG Group’s QCLNG  next to each other. Rolling out in 2014, the plants will have a combined capacity of 20 million tonnes of LNG a year. They will take methane gas from the coal seams of the Surat (west of Toowoomba) and Bowen (west of Mackay) Basins and supercool it below minus 160 °C so it condenses into liquefied natural gas compressed for shipping.

In Japan customers will pay $15 a gigajoule for LNG. When you take away the $6 a gigilitre cost of liquefaction and transportation, what’s left is the netback price. Australian producers could charge a netback price of $9 a gigajoule and still find a Japanese buyer. With Gladstone available, why would local producers continue sell to local customers at $3 a gigajoule?  The domestic price is bound to find equilibrium with the export netback price as domestic supply drops. Given the size of the world market, the equilibrium will be mostly in the direction of the current world price.

Gas availability is not the issue. The Government’s BREE (Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics) says adjustment would depend on “consumers sensitivity to changes in gas prices.” Origin recently agreed to supply Santos with 365 petajoules of gas from 2015. This will make it hard for domestic gas buyers on the east coast to secure supplies beyond 2014. Queensland will be worst hit. Santos and Origin did not reveal the price but said it was linked to the oil market. At $100 a barrel of oil, that already pushes the gas price up to $7 a gigajoule, twice as expensive as the domestic market.

The gas companies admit price rises are coming but try to turn the argument. They say domestic supply problem could be solved by more drilling and blames the campaign waged by the anti-coal seam gas protesters for driving up prices. It ignores the huge facilities at Gladstone changing the rules of the game. These facilities would not have been built if Queensland didn’t identify CSG as a power source. Huge new infrastructure will link us to the world market regardless of how much we produce.

There is only way to keep the price down – set a reserve price. That’s what they do in Perth for Western Australia’s offshore industry. WA is behind Queensland in the production of CSG but has huge conventional sources. These produce 60% of Australia’s gas (twice as much as the eastern seaboard). WA’s gas network is not linked to the east but is linked by LNG plants to the world market – with more to come. Yet WA has a gas reserve which insists a quota of 15% is kept for domestic use. It creates a guaranteed market that cushions it from the higher world gas price though it is more expensive than the eastern seaboard.

The eastern jury is out on the reserve issue. Analysis by law firm Minter Ellison shows different parliaments have different ideas. The Commonwealth is against but federal Liberal have not revealed their position. Also against are South Australia, Tasmania and the territories. The NSW Government has recommended one but not actioned on it yet. Queensland is different again. It has a loose reservation clause in law. They could require every tenement holder to set aside 15% for domestic use but no contract has this proviso. Energy Minister Mark McArdle calls it a last resort.

Though not explicitly endorsing it, the Australia Institute sees no reason a reservation price should not happen. It said a reserve would create two markets, one for domestic and one for international. Since producers extract sufficient gas to supply Australia at a low price, they could still earn healthy profits by selling additional gas at the world netback price. The gas reserve policy would not act as a disincentive to further investment in new gas production. With four states and one territory involved, getting an eastern seaboard reservation price would be more complicated than the one in WA, the Institute said.

The gas industry is against a reserve, saying the cheaper local price would prevent investment in new supply.  Industry peak body APPEA denounces “the folly of providing industry-specific assistance and using subsidies to resist structural economic shifts”. APPEA’s eastern region chief operating officer Rick Wilkinson (not Williams as The Australian and other media called him) said rising gas prices were something NSW may have to get used to unless the industry could “get on with developing NSW gas resources”.

The Grattan Institute agrees, calling a reserve domestic price protectionism that “inequitably shifts economic benefit from producers to some consumers”.  It quotes BREE which says a reserve would lower gas prices. However it would also increase lobbying costs, reduce investments and decrease supply as it lowers the incentive to drill.

Reserve price or not, the introduction of CSG has made gas more profitable. The companies want to drill for more, particularly in NSW where the gas lies in more populated regions. But rather than attack the NSW Government for imposing restrictions, industry advocates like Wilkinson prefer to influence public opinion by blaming the protesters. “For this (rising prices), they have local anti-CSG activists to thank,” Wilkinson told The Australian.

Blaming protesters is designed to turn public support against restrictions and increase pressure on the State Government to remove them. The Gladstone LNG plants will set the price not production flow and only reserve price intervention will change that.