The tragedy of Afghanistan’s war lurching toward defeat

CaptureIt is hard to believe people are now adults that weren’t born when the September 11 tragedy struck,  claiming 3000 lives in 2001. Memories of the day are so fresh in everyone’s minds old enough to remember, and it seems hard to believe 18 years has passed.

While the four terrorist incidents happened in the United States it was a tragedy of global consequence not least because more than 90 countries lost citizens in the attacks. It also led to the war in Afghanistan, a conflict that remains unresolved to this day, with Australian forces still in the country as they have been since 2001.

Chris Masters has written one of the few books that looks deeply into that involvement. No Front Line is a massive 600 page book (a story that resists abbreviation, as Masters notes) that looks into the role played by Australian Special Forces from 2001 to the book’s publication in 2017.

It is a story he says, Australians have been largely disconnected from despite the glorification of the Anzac legend through all the 100 year anniversaries of the First World War.

Australian governments have always justified involvement in Afghanistan by stressing that national security is greatly enhanced by denying al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups a haven, and that this is best done by helping to build a more secure and democratic Afghanistan.

That future seems as far away as ever, with the Afghan government – although elected – maintaining only a tenuous grip on the capital Kabul and outlying area while the Taliban forces, displaced in 2001, remain de facto rulers of much of the country. It is wild ancient country but the Toyota Hilux, cellular phones and the internet connect it with the 21st century.

The first Australian contingent in 2001 was 1 Squadron Special Air Service Regiment who arrived via Perth, Diego Garcia and Kuwait three months after 9/11 to find the Taliban rule had collapsed. While the Americans controlled the air, the Australians were “ground truthers” getting to know the lay of the land. Their role was to long-range patrols to “disrupt and degrade” remaining Taliban and Al Qaeda elements but there was an immediate sense the enemy was not routed but merely regrouping.

The Allies bombed the Tora Bora Caves into submission but Osama Bin Laden escaped into Pakistan and so did many of his and the Taliban’s fighters. Australia’s first casualty was a corporal who stood on a land mine in January 2002 blowing off his foot though he survived the blast.  Australia’s first battle death since Vietnam soon followed – Sgt Andy Russell killed when his Land Rover also hit a mine.

While the focus moved toward nation building with peacekeepers arriving from 18 countries, the Australians moved to Bagram in the North-east to help remove the large remaining stronghold. Here a force of Arab, Uzbek, Chechen and Taliban fighters offered the stiffest resistance yet before being pushed by superior firepower and survivors again slipped away to Pakistan.

Attention was moving to Iraq and Australia already stretched with peacekeeping missions in Timor Leste and the Solomons the end of the 2002 Afghan mission seemed like a natural end. In 2003 SASR was assigned to Iraq while major combat operations ended in Afghanistan and a stream of refugees returned. NATO took over the military role in Kabul but could not establish a force further than 60km from the capital.

Meanwhile Taliban leaders like Mullah Omar were regrouping in Pakistan and a training facility in Quetta prepared new soldiers for the war against the infidel. Inside Afghanistan the main tactic was intimidation against cooperation with the new government. It was effective enough to send all NGOs out of Kandahar by end 2003. The Taliban also began a bombing campaign in Kabul targeting foreign military.  NATO estimated they needed 80,000 troops to secure the south but due to Iraq they only had a fraction of that number.

Violence escalated in 2005 with 19 US Navy Seals killed in an ambush in Kunar province. America pressurised Australia to return and agreed to support the Dutch contingent in Tarin Kowt, capital of the dangerous Uruzgan province in the south. Their mission was to transition “the war off terror to nation building” but new president Hamid Karzai told Denense Minister Robert Hill Uruzgan was challenging.

Special Forces arrived ahead of the 2005 parliamentary elections, which the Taliban was determined to intimidate into failure. The Australians were to conduct long-range patrols as a show of force. While the election passed without incident but the patrols were subject to ambush. 2 Squadron was involved in a six-hour battle in the Khod Valley and they returned to base to find Minister Hill there who realised the nation-building project was “not far advanced”.

The political rhetoric was to characterise the mission as counter-terrorism though no Al Qaeda fighters had been encountered since 2002. The enemy was more nebulous, sometimes called Taliban, sometimes the Mujahideen and others anti-coalition militants.

On patrol the biggest danger was Improvised Explosive Devices which could be placed in culverts under the road and detonated from a distance. In towns suicide bombers and “green on blue” attacks were also dangers. The Special Forces based was named Camp Russell in honour of the soldier who died in 2002 and there they had to mostly sit out the bitterly cold winter.  The danger was increasing with the UN and NGOs departing in 2006 and only two of Uruzgan’s six districts considered safe.

Contact became more frequent. Australia suffered two deaths in quick succession, Pvt Luke Worsley to a rocket-propelled grenade and Sgt Darren through a round in the stomach. One American officer considered the cost of the war. “Considering the (Australian Javelin shoulder-fired weapon) each cost up to $100,000, I used to think we could go down there instead and buy every fighting age male”.

In 2006 the Coalition launched Operation Mountain Thrust, the biggest set-piece since 2001. The third rotation of Australian Special Forces landed in Tarin Kowt and were almost immediately in the fight in the nearby Chora Valley menaced by Taliban forces. In three months they cleared the valley only to be withdrawn and the area was quickly overrun again. This pattern would be repeated over again. Despite its firepower, the Australians were not a holding force so it was easy for the Taliban to take over the battle space aided by the local Ghilzai population who either supported the insurgency by choice or by intimidation.

A new rotation in 2007 was also sent to help the Dutch patrol the Chora Valley and ran into heavy Taliban firepower including mortars, rockets, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. IEDs made using palm oil containers, fertiliser and battery packs were increasingly used to trip vehicles whose movements were tracked on the bush telegraph. Battles lasted days on end, though very little of this was reported in media.

Although over 60,000 international troops were in Afghanistan in 2007, they all responded to their own leaders meaning there was no coherent plan across all campaigns. Or as Masters put it, the same war was being fought again and again. That year the second Australian soldier died. Trooper David Pearce killed when an IED took out his light armoured vehicle. A third, Matt Locke when a patrol was ambushed in a field.

The death toll rose rapidly in the years that followed as the Taliban confidence – and firepower – increased. Back at home the prime minister of the day and the opposition leader would solemnly attend the funerals as the bipartisan support for involvement continued. The battles that caused the deaths remains mostly outside the public eye.

Afghans were dying in greater numbers still. As one analyst put it “we can kill 20,000 and there are 300,000 in the madrassas in Pakistan being prepared”. The foreigners were increasingly seen as the occupiers rather than allies. In 2009 the new Obama administration called for a “stronger, smarter” strategy in Afghanistan. There was a troop surge and a counter insurgency strategy of “clear, hold and build” but it was undermined by Obama’s parallel announcement of a drawdown in 2011. The Taliban were elated, they could simply wait the enemy out. It was expressed in their saying “they have the watches, we have the time”.

The war dragged on into the 2010s with little or no change in the overall dynamic. The Australians pulled out of Uruzgan in 2013 leaving the field to the Taliban. When surge didn’t work it was followed by drawdown and when that didn’t work either there was another surge. No wonder Trump’s election promise in 2016 to pull America out of the middle east (including Afghanistan) was so electorally popular at home. The war was bewildering.

America is now negotiating directly with the Taliban in an effort to extricate itself from the conflict. American magazine Foreign Policy says after 18 years of war, thousands of lives lost, and hundreds of billions of dollars squandered, the United States has accomplished precisely nothing.

It says the Kabul government is irredeemably corrupt, the Taliban had sanctuary and support in Pakistan and the claim that it was necessary to deny al Qaeda a “safe haven” was increasingly dubious, especially once Osama bin Laden was dead and that terrorist group had spread to many other countries.

“Trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern, Western-style democracy was an act of extraordinary hubris, and all the more so when U.S. leaders told themselves they could do it quickly,” Foreign Policy said.

If the US does finally withdraw so most likely will the 300 ADF personnel deployed there. It is sad news especially for Afghan women who face a return to second class citizens under a renewed Taliban government. But maybe it will give a country tortured by 40 years of war a chance to live and breathe.

The telegraph and the Victorian Internet

downloadThe first attempt to lay an Atlantic telegraph cable occurred over 160 years ago. On July 1857, the job of laying 2500 tons of cable across the ocean began. Though the attempt failed (and it would take another nine years for a properly working telegraphy link between Britain and America to function), it marked an important milestone in the coming of, what Marshall McLuhan called a hundred years later, “the global village”.

The story of the transatlantic cable and telegraphy is covered in English author Tom Standage’s 1998 book “The Victorian Internet”. Standage says the way the telegraph revolutionised the 19th century world is remarkably similar to how the Internet is doing the same thing a century and a half later. Both communication mechanisms initially proved immune to regulation while both also annihilated distance, revolutionised business, and gave rise to new forms of vocabulary, crime and romance.

Standage traces telegraphy back to a bizarre experiment zapping Parisian monks in 1746. French scientist Abbe Jean-Antoine Nollet dished out electric shocks to a line of 200 unsuspecting Carthusian monks each carrying 7.5 metres of iron wire. Nollet’s electrotherapy proved electricity could travel quickly over great distance and held out the promise of high speed signalling between remote places.

The first practical signalling device didn’t involve electric wires. Fifty years after Nollet, his compatriot Claude Chappe evolved a messaging system from coded black-and-white panels, synchronised clocks and a telescope. In 1791 he sent a message to his brother 16kms away, “if you succeed, you will be covered in glory”. Chappe called his new invention “le télégraphe” from the Greek words for far writer. Chappe eventually did away with clocks and used a regulating rotating arm with 94 code symbols. The French government saw the potential of the new invention and built a network of towers to ferry news between towns.

Napoleon was a firm believer in the telegraph and in 1804 ordered the construction of a line from Paris to Milan. Britain followed suit and by the 1830s telegraph towers were over Europe. But the optical telegraph was fundamentally flawed. Towers were expensive to build, anyone could see the signal and the process needed clear daylight to work. The race was on to build the prototype for an electric telegraph.

In 1820, Danish physicist Hans Oersted discovered an electric current produces a magnetic field to deflect a compass needle. The same year German Johann Schweigger (who also named the element chlorine) invented the galvanometer. With the electromagnet and the voltaic battery, the galvanometer was the foundation of a working electric telegraph. Two amateur scientists separated by the Atlantic Ocean and unknown to each other made it work: Samuel Morse in New Haven and William Fothergill Cooke in London. Both men patented their work in 1837.

Cooke’s English telegraph was greatly helped by Professor Charles Wheatstone who knew how to get signals to travel long distances. Wheatstone was an experimental scientist while Cooke was a go-getting entrepreneur. Together they successfully designed and patented a five-needle telegraph to allow for 20 letters (C, J, Q, U, X and Z missed out).

While Cooke and Wheatstone took a few months to perfect the telegraph, Morse spent five years getting his invention ready. His design was overly complex and he ran into similar issues in getting signals to travel long distances. He was greatly assisted by his partner Alfred Vail. They developed the code that bears Morse’s name based on long and short bursts of current. They also simplified the design to make a working telegraph. All they had to do now was sell it.

He had difficulty convincing sceptics of its use Morse failed to win over US congress and was equally unsuccessful on a sales trip to Europe. Cooke managed to get the Great Western Railway to run a 21km telegraph link between Paddington and West Drayton stations. But the railway lost interest and Cooke fronted up his own money to extend the line to Slough. By 1841 Cooke thought his new invention was foundering.

Morse eventually won government funding to build an experimental line. He ran a line alongside the 64km railway track between Washington and Baltimore. Before it was finished, Morse used the line to transmit the Whig Party presidential nomination in Baltimore 64 minutes before the news arrived in Washington by train. Three weeks later, on 24 May 1844, Morse inaugurated the line from Washington sending a quote to Vail in Baltimore from the Book of Numbers 23:23 “What hath God wrought.”

In Britain, the telegraph took off a year later transmitting news from Windsor Castle to London. Queen Victoria gave birth to her second son Alfred Ernest on 6 August 1844 and within 40 minutes, “The Times” announced the news on the streets of London “indebted to the extraordinary power of the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph”. It was soon impressing the police too when used to apprehend a killer. John Tawell murdered his mistress and absconded by train from the scene of the crime in Slough. Police sent his description on by telegraph ‘dressed like a Kwaker’ (in the absence of Q’s) and he was apprehended at the other end. The wires were lauded as “the cords that hung John Tawell”.

US congress remained apathetic to Morse’s version despite his Washington experiments. He teamed up with Amos Kendall who proposed to set up lines privately. They set up the Magnetic Telegraph Company and built lines to Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo and New York. Kendall advertised in the New York newspapers saying the fee for sending a telegraph was 25 cents for 10 words. The business quickly made profits.

Telegraph growth was explosive. By 1850, there was almost 20,000kms of wire in the US. It was used by bankers, merchants, government, police, business, shipping, courts and what one British writer called “messages of every character usually sent by the mail”. The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London had 13 designs for improvements on the telegraph. By 1852, Prussia had laid 2400 kms radiating out from Berlin. Austria and Canada nearly had as much and lines were laid in Italy, Spain, Russia, Holland, Australia, Chile and Cuba. Only France was obstinate, reluctant to abandon the optical telegraphy they gave the world 50 years earlier.

Messages were quickly dubbed ‘telegrams’ and sent by central telegraph offices to destinations and transcribed onto paper. Telegraph messenger boys, including Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie took the messages to the recipient.

Prussia and Austria signed the first interconnection treaty in 1849 but until someone could solve the problem of underwater cables failing due to the deterioration of rubber in water, Britain remained isolated. The solution was south-east Asian gutta-percha, rubbery gum hard at room temperature but malleable and soft in hot water. The first direct message was sent from London to Paris in 1852. Ireland was linked a year later. Deepwater cable-laying across the Atlantic was the next challenge

The first cable was laid in 1857 but snapped as did a replacement cable. A third cable did successfully cross the Atlantic a year later but was very slow and lasted just three weeks before extinguishing forever. Aided by the Scottish scientist William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) an enquiry into the failed cable demonstrated the conducting core was too small and the use of high voltage induction coils destroyed the cables insulation. In July 1866 the two continents were linked by a newer sturdy cable which was quickly duplicated and inventor Cyrus Field was hailed as “the Columbus of our time”.

By the 1850s congestion was a major problem for telegraph offices. Bottlenecks arose as messages were held up due to the enormous traffic. London solved the problem by using steam-powered pneumatic tubes to carry messages short distances. The idea was copied in other English cities and spread worldwide. In Paris the system was extensive enough to often avoid sending telegraphs at all. In New York the tubes were large enough to carry large parcels and on one occasion a cat was sent from one post office to another by pneumatic tube.

By the 1870s, the Victorian Internet was in place. Cables reached India, China and Japan in 1870, Australia a year later and South America in 1874. The world had over a million kms of wire and 48,000 kms of submarine cable linking 20,000 towns and villages. Messages went from London to Bombay and back in under four minutes. The newspaper named after the invention, the Daily Telegraph, proclaimed “time itself was telegraphed out of existence”.

Newspapers also worried it might put them out of business. But while telegraphs could quickly transport news, it could not easily distribute news to readers. So the newspapers formed networks of reporters who dispatched news from distant places. These networks became known as news agencies. The New York Associated Press began in 1848 and soon dominated the selling of news to newspapers. In Europe Paul Julius Reuter established his own agency, initially by carrier pigeon and eventually by telegraph.

The Times reporter William Howard Russell was the world’s first war correspondent sending dispatches to London from the front line of the Crimean war. Russell was not allowed to use the Black Sea cable the British built for the war but his speedy missives highlighted military inefficiencies and made Florence Nightingale a national hero.

By the 1870s the dominant era of the telegraph was about to end. Most offices had automatic telegraphs capable of 400 words a minute – ten times faster than the quickest human operators. Duplex and then quadruplex systems carried four streams of traffic simultaneously. The technology changed telegraphy into a low-skill occupation. But the ‘harmonic telegraph’ had the greatest effect.

Harmonic telegraphs distinguish notes of different pitch by using reeds vibrating at different frequencies. Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell both worked on variations of harmonic machines capable of making more than telegraphy. In 1876 Bell filed a patent for a machine to transmit the human voice when he found out that Gray was working on the same goal. By the end of the year, the ‘telephone’ was ready. Initially seen as a speaking telegraph, it was an instant success going from 230 handsets in 1877 to 30,000 three years later.

Samuel Morse died in 1872, aged 81. The invention of the incandescent light bulb in 1879 was the final straw for the telegraph. Thanks to Edison, Tesla and others, it became the electric age and the telegraphic journals began to rename themselves. The Telegraphers’ Advocate became the Electric Age, the Operator became Electrical World, and The Telegraphic Journal became the Electrical Review. By the end of the century, the telephone reigned supreme.  The era of the telegraph was over.

Ludwig Leichhardt’s first expedition

Overland expedition to Port Essington by Ludwig Leichhardt ; laid down by Capt. Perry Deputy Surveyor General of New South Wales (State Library of NSW)

The speed at which Britain colonised the interior of Australia was greatly hastened by the work of the explorers. The continent was full of native peoples but to the Europeans who travelled away from the relative safety of Sydney, Australia was a blank canvas waiting to be “discovered”.

Whatever scientific motives inspired the explorers, the people who invested their money in their activities were interested in one thing only, productive farming land. From Cook onwards, the British were blind to Aboriginal stewardship of the land they owned. Aboriginal people were just natural obstacles like rivers, mountains and rough terrain that had to be tamed. Explorers like Thomas Mitchell and John Oxley were government men convinced in the job they were doing to serve their country. A more ambiguous case was the extraordinary German adventurer Ludwig Leichhardt, who received no sanction from suspicious British government officialdom but who was still helped by landholders keen to expand their private interests.

Leichhardt was born in Prussia in 1813 and studied in schools and universities in Germany, France and Britain. He was a polymath interested in philosophy and languages, then medicine and later botany and geology. However he received no formal qualification and with the threat of compulsory military service in Prussia looming, he used wealthy British friends to pay for a passage to Australia and arrived in 1842.

Leichhardt used the three month passage to learn celestial navigation. Under the influence of Alexander von Humboldt, the young man was desperate to explore the mostly unknown colony that was barely 50 years old. He was an intellectual oddity in a rough and ready land and a foreigner, but he was respected because of his wide-ranging education and his willingness to learn the new environment. His training in meteorology made him correctly surmise the hot winds from the west meant the centre of Australia was arid, when many still believed in the existence of an inland sea.

At the time Britain controlled narrow strips of coastal land near Sydney and the newly developing cities of Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide but the inland was a vast cipher. NSW Surveyor-general Thomas Mitchell had launched expeditions along the Murray-Darling system and hoped to travel to the newly established Port Essington outpost on the north coast in 1844. However Governor George Gipps declined to fund the trip.

Leichhardt, who had already done long field trips to the Newcastle, Moreton Bay and Darling Downs regions, was keen to join Mitchell. When that failed he decided to do his own trip to the north. It was an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking of three thousand miles. He would start from the Darling Downs frontier, head north across the ridges to Cape York then roughly follow the coast to Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula, all though lands no European had ever set foot in. Graziers footed Leichhardt’s equipment bill because they were keen to find out the potential of the land.

Several keen young men were keen to join Leichhardt on his adventure. He met botanist James Calvert aboard ship and he was 19. John Roper was 19, John Murphy was just 15. He had two Aboriginal trackers Charley Fisher and Harry Brown, a prisoner named William Phillips and a naturalist John Gilbert who paid his own way to join the expedition.

Gilbert was the only competent bushman in the party and assumed the role of second in command. Two more, Pemberton Hodgson and black American “Caleb”, joined in the expedition but left very early on. They had 16 cattle, 17 horses, 1200 pounds of flour, 80 pounds of tea, 20 pounds of gelatin and plenty of guns and ammunition.

Leichhardt was an unlikely explorer, with poor eyesight and a lack of bush skills but he had supreme self belief. The journey was difficult and dangerous, with Leichhardt underestimating the problems he would face along the way. “I had so accustomed myself to a comparatively wild life and had so closely observed the habits of the aborigines, that I felt assured the only real difficulties which I could meet would be of a local character,” he wrote in the introduction to his journal expedition.

In the introduction to 1996 edition of the journal, Les Hiddens is ambiguous about Leichhardt and his achievements. Hiddens admits he grew up thinking the German was a “a bit of a bumbling foreign explorer” with foreign being the key word in that analysis. He grudgingly admits it was the most ambitious exploration plan seen in Australia but reckons Gilbert may have provided much of the leadership and probably all of the botanic knowledge, which is immense in the journal. Hiddens makes the point also the expedition relied on the hunting and shooting ability of the two Aboriginal guides Fisher and Brown. But he admits Leichhardt was one of the few early explorers to supplement rations using local resources – a failure that had disastrous consequences for the Burke and Wills expedition 15 years later.

After their departure from the Darling Downs in October 1844, little was heard of Leichhardt’s party, and eventually they were given up for lost. Progress was slow in the early days out of Jimbour Station, west of what is now Dalby. It took two hours to load the horses and cattle and the latter often strayed leading to further delays. They followed the river systems. First the Condamine past what is now Chinchilla, then north to the Dawson system, across what is now named the Expedition Ranges and on to the Comet River he named for Comet Wilmot which he saw on 29 December 1844.

He named the Mackenzie and Isaac rivers and later the Sutter, Burdekin and Lynd, all for people who helped finance the trip. He followed the Mitchell River into Cape York. On June 25 the party finally began to head west picking up the River Nassau which flows into the Gulf of Carpentaria. Here on the night of June 28, an Aboriginal war party attacked them, most likely because Brown or Fisher interfered with one of their women.

Leichhardt said he was woken by a loud noise and cries for help from Calvert and Roper. He found ammunition for Fisher and Brown who “discharged their guns into the crowd of natives, who instantly fled.” Roper and Calvert suffered spear wounds and bruises from waddies. But Gilbert was killed instantly by a spear through his neck while leaving his tent. They kept guard through the night hearing the wails of the Aborigines who probably suffered losses of their own. Roper and Calvert recovered quickly and they continued their walk west on June 30. Leichhardt later named the Gilbert River in his honour.

They crossed through the crocodile country of the Flinders River on July 21, and a few days later the Norman and what would later be named the Leichhardt River (though Leichhardt himself would only name rivers for his benefactors and expedition members and not for himself). He greeted the first sight of the waters of the Gulf with “indescribable pleasure” optimistically thinking they had done the hardest part of the journey.

Whereever they went they were watched but there no further attacks. On July 20 Leichhardt asked Brown to discharge his gun to drive one mob away that had been following them. They moved a bit further away but stayed closed “shewing evidently that they expected no harm from us”, Leichhardt wrote. Four of them approached him and he gave them presents. The natives guided them futher on while admiring the animals they brought with them. On July 29 in saltpan country, they came upon a tribe fishing at a water hole and after some initial apprehension they met and talked. “Seeing my watch, they pointed to the sun; and appeared to be well acquainted with the use of my gun,” he said.

A few days later they had to use a gun when they saw natives approach the camp loudly and swinging their spears. After the visitors discharged a pistol they went quiet and cowered to the ground but escaping to the river and crossing it. The river was the Albert, which they crossed on August 6 and Leichhardt named Beames Brook on August 19 for Walter Beames of Sydney, who provided “liberal support”. He named the Nicholson River a day later for the English family which supported him in Europe and paid for his passage to Australia.

Passing into what is now Northern Territory Leichhardt named the Calvert, Robinson and Macarthur Rivers. Their rations dwindled and their clothes became worn and threadbare, the loss of Leichhardt’s hat in a fire, was hard-felt in the hot sun. By mid October – a year into their journey – they found the Roper River and crossed into Arnhem Land. The dogs and bullocks were dying and they jettisoned all but unessential supplies. With no spare horses, the remainder tired quickly and became weak. Charley’s ability to shoot ducks, wallabies, emus, flying foxes and other game was keeping them alive.

Into November they crossed the difficult country of the high tableland overlooking the South Alligator River. On November 25 barely a hundred miles from their destination they met an armed tribe who were not hostile. One had an English shawl and handkerchief and pointed in the direction of Port Essington when asked where he got them. They were surrounded for days by tribes who were curious and friendly.

By December they had arrived on the Cobourg Peninsula and met natives who spoke words of English “Commandant!”, “come here!”, “very good!” and “What’s your name?” They called white people Balanda, or “Hollanders” and they helped them find water. The amount of English spoken increased the closer they got to the end. There was a couple of days delay crossing the East Alligator River. They were distressed with boils and a prickly heat, while horseflies plagued the horses and the end could not come soon enough.

Finally on December 17 with the help of native guides the bedraggled came upon a cart road and followed it around a hill to see European gardens, white houses and a row of snug thatched cottages. “We were most kindly received by Captain Macarthur, the commandant of Port Essington, and the other officers who with the greatest kindness and attention supplied us with everything we wanted,” he wrote.

Leichhardt’s men were fortunate a schooner landed a month later and by March 29, 1846 they were back in Sydney to a heroes’ welcome. They had been given up as dead but Leichhardt brough back intelligence of a great inland that others following in his path would exploit.

Leichhardt himself was restless for more adventure and after failing due to sickness and ill-health in a second expedition east to west to the Swan River from Jimbour, he tried again in 1848 this time leaving from further west near the modern town of Roma. Neither he nor his expedition was ever heard from again. Leichhardt went from history into mythology. The land he crossed went quickly from Aboriginal to European hands.

Dark Emu Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident

CaptureBruce Pascoe is one of the most confronting Aboriginal writers active. I support his cause of re-evaluating the legacy of pre-invasion Australia but I was a little annoyed by a previous book Convincing Ground (2007), which was mainly about the way the land was stolen in Victoria. I have no arguments with his history (Convincing Ground is a massacre site near Portland) but the frequent editorialising and sarcastic anger (however understandable) got in way of his important message and diluted its impact. So while I’d heard a lot about his later book Dark Emu (2014), I’d resisted it until this year.

While the tendency is still there in Dark Emu, Pascoe has kept his anger, sarcasm and moralising mostly in check and instead compiles a well-researched and persuasive account about the little known building activities of humans in Australia before 1788. This account is important because a subtle (and sometimes blatant) racism still exists in Australia predicated on the notion there was no civilisation or agriculture on the continent before Europeans arrived and the land was “there for the taking”, terra nullius or not.

Dark Emu looks at the evidence that proves this was nonsense. Pascoe is inspired by two books written since he published Convincing Ground: Rupert Gerritsen’s Australia and Origins of Agriculture (2008) and Bill Gamadge’s The Biggest Estate (2011).  Both works challenge the stereotype Indigenous Australians were all nomadic hunter-gatherers, Gerritsen through his study of food production and Gamadge through his study of fire management regimes.

Pascoe explored the journals of explorers and early colonists who invariably believed in British superiority and the right to occupy supposedly empty lands. They downplayed the significance of what they saw. But the evidence from their journals seeps out in repeated references to dam and well building, the planting, irrigating and harvesting of seed, storing surpluses, and building warehouses, homes and even cemeteries, none of which fit the stereotype of the hunter-gatherer.

Settlers were at pains to disguise the war by which they took possession of a land and it suited them to deny the existence of a prior economy, so it has been written out of the Australian story.  But it remains in explorer Thomas Mitchell’s diaries. While travelling in the Darling Basin in the 1835 he saw how the Bagundji people harvested native millet: “the grass had been pulled and piled in hayricks, so that the aspect of the desert was softened into the agreeable semblance of a hayfield … we found the rick, or hay-cocks, extending for miles.” Nearby, Mitchell saw large village huts “made of straight rods meeting at an upright pole in the centre” which housed a thousand people.

Similarly in Western Australia explorer George Grey found a village on the Gascoyne River “built of large-sized logs”. Grey found huts which were plastered over with clay and turf, as well as deep wells and land planted with yams. He described it as the result of hard manual labour “I could not believe it in the power of uncivilised man to accomplish”. Yam daisy or murnong farming was spread across Australia with First Fleet captain John Hunter saying people in Sydney were dependent on them and “Protector” GA Robinson seeing women digging for them in Victoria.

But their techniques of good soil management were ended by war and occupation and yam farming disappeared in a generation. Settler Isaac Batey noted “another factor of destruction in the soil becoming hardened with the continuous trampling of sheep, cattle or horses”. Ethnobiologists have found pre-colonisation yam farming techniques included a systematic tilling process which aerated the soil, loosening it for seed germination and incorporated ash and compost material.

Grains were also a crucial staple. White bushie Walter Smith noted how Central Australians would carefully spread grains by hand, then spread dirt and wait for the rains to come. Domesticated grains were a precious commodity traded with others in sealed parcels. There is evidence at Cuddie Springs near Walgett of seed grindstones 30,000 years old which Pascoe says makes “these people the world’s oldest bakers by almost 15,000 years”.

Another native plant used for food was nardoo. Burke and Wills died because they did not know how to use it but nardoo was crucial in inhospitable areas because it could grow on the beds of shallow lakes. Aboriginal people swept the seeds in stockpiles and processed it into flour stored in vermin-proof vessels. The bush tomato became dependent on Central Desert people for its propagation and spread, promoted by selective burning near campsites. Surplus was ground to a paste and rolled into balls and could last a year or more. For thousands of years Aboriginal people have harvested rice known for its drought-surviving qualities and its ability to be planted in brackish water.

Irrigation is another Australian staple. Walter Smith remembers seeing Aboriginal people build a dam and irrigation trenches. People would dig in a line and scoop out the earth to form a bank, before trampling the clay base and using ant nest material to firm it up further. One dam on the Bulloo River in Western Queensland was 100 metres long capable of holding 700,000 litres of water. Explorer Ernest Giles found a 1.5m high dam in the Nullabor capable of watering seven men and 22 camels for a week.

Aboriginal people also targeted kangaroos sometimes with 2000 people driving game 30kms to a dispatch point using netting and kilometres of fences and walls. They were herded into holding pens with narrow apertures which could direct the males to be slaughtered and others to escape. Firing techniques were also used to herd roos.

Pascoe also looks at two large-scale aquaculture projects at Brewarrina in NSW and Lake Condah in Victoria. The Brewarrina fish traps may be the oldest human structures on earth, possibly up to 40,000 years old. Witnesses who saw it in operation in the 1800s were astounded by the efficiency of the trap, the number of people involved and the enormous harvest. The rocks were arranged into patterns and fish were herded in through small openings. The stone locking system with arch and keystones was engineered to fix the trap to the stream bed. Breeding stock was allowed to pass through and families managed each pond in an integrated and sustainable way.

At Lake Condah, the main catch was eels. The fish traps there are 8000 years old. The systems comprises of hundreds of metres of excavated channels and dozens of basalt block dam walls. Nets and weirs were used to impound fish for a largely sedentary population. At Condah there is evidence of eel smoke houses. Condah and Brewarrina both supported large populations, but similar smaller scale fishing systems existed across Australia, even in parched areas like the Strzlecki Desert.

Adroit use of fire is another underestimated trait of Indigenous Australians. Early pre-historians assumed the firing of the bush was a simple method of providing green pick to attract game but more recently it is being seen as wholesale land management. Low-level burns were done in mosaic patterns with better soils used for production while inferior soils were left for forest. Aboriginal people burned land in a rotating mosaic at a time of year dependent on the weather, the type of country and its condition. They avoided certain plant growing seasons and advised neighbouring clans of planned burns.

Gammadge wrote fire shaped the land and note the park-like conditions early settlers observed. But when Aboriginal people were prevented from their usual practices the countryside was overwhelmed with understorey species and what had been productive agricultural land became scrub in a decade. Pascoe says infrastructure like buildings, fences and power lines complicate the adoption of similar methods today “but does not prevent it”.

Pascoe says Aboriginal architecture, agriculture and aquaculture remains stubbornly outside Australian folklore. The determination of colonial Australia to discount Aboriginal achievements has passed into contemporary society.  It suits too many people to claims that they were “nomads” who had no concept of land ownership. But they did own the land, using the natural conditions – no matter how harsh – and developing endemic grains and tubers. They farmed, they lived in villages and built houses, they harvested cereals, managed complex fisheries and led sedentary agricultural lives most Australians still imagine was not possible before 1788. As we descend further into climate emergency, we need to cast aside this structural racism. We must proudly embrace this startlingly ingenious ancient culture and learn what it has to offer about how to survive in this land for millennia.




Moving to prosperity without growth

downloadThe idea that growth is essential to prosperity is almost holy writ in modern market economies. Growth leads to higher incomes and increased choices and an improved quality of life. This is measured globally by Gross Domestic Product per capita, where GDP is a crude measure of economic activity. Increasing GDP still makes some sense for the three billion people in the very poorest countries (though even then only if GDP growth outstrips the population growth) but is it still relevant for rich countries where more consumer goods add little to material comfort?

That’s the question posed by Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity Without Growth (written in 2008 and updated in 2017). Jackson challenges the assumption that consumption growth without equity and sustainability can deliver global prosperity. Our society is hooked on growth but it places us in a dilemma between economic stability and the need to remain within ecological limits.

Introducing the 2008 edition of the book, former UN commissioner for human rights and president of Ireland Mary Robinson refers to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which set a “common standard of achievement” to measure the progress of nations. Our world has failed to meet that standard in economic and social rights with the number of people in chronic poverty and daily insecurity as high as ever, women and children suffering disproportionately.

Jackson begins with a definition of prosperity, things going well “in accordance with our hopes and expectations”. This is a hope things get (and stay) better not just for individuals but for all around them. But he says our technologies, economy and social aspirations do not align with that fundamental expression of prosperity. The continual expansion of material wants is untenable and Jackson’s book seeks to find other ways of flourishing within ecological limits.

Jackson says we tend to think of limits as inconvenient or even illusory. Ronald Reagan once said “there are no great limits on growth because there are no limits on the human capacity for intelligence, imagination and wonder.” These things inside us may well be limitless but the idea we can overcome all external material limits is foolhardy. Reagan’s quote was in response to the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth (1972) which looked at how affluence was curbed by the physical limits of the planet. As resources decline, it becomes more costly to extract them and the “energy return on energy invested” equation becomes untenable. Much of this thesis was dismissed as scaremongering, or wished away like Reagan did, but it has never been seriously undermined. Peak oil may have been delayed by the discovery of unconventional resources but still exists as a concept and so far our intelligence, imagination and wonder does not seem to want to push us far enough away from fossil fuels fast enough.

As Bill McKibben says we will run out of planet before we run out of oil. The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is accelerated by human activities and the ability of the climate to assimilate these emissions within temperature rise limits tolerable to human existence is fading, as each IPCC report after report shows.

With these problems in mind, Jackson redefines prosperity to include greater well-being and social cohesion and also reduce the material impact on the planet. Jackson borrowed from Amartya Sen’s three concepts of prosperity: opulence (the quantity of material satisfaction), utility (the quality of material satisfaction) and capability for flourishing (how well we can flourish in any context).

He also questions whether economic growth is a necessary condition for lasting prosperity. He notes the importance of income (opulence) which is played out through relative effects. We compare our income to those around us to establish our social standing. Being at or near the top helps individual health and prosperity but does not add well-being to the nation. He quotes the book The Spirit Level which shows inequality has damaging impacts across the nation as a whole, though he acknowledges social logic locks people into positional competition. He also acknowledges de-growth is unstable and can lead to rising unemployment, falling competitiveness and a spiral of recession.

Writing ten years ago, Jackson spruiked the Green New Deal, an idea that foundered for a while but is now getting a second run with some Democratic candidates in the 2020 US presidential election. If that the public sector is spending money to invigorate the economy it should be on technologies to address 21st century resource and environmental challenges. This could be in labour-intensive industries investing in energy efficient buildings, the electricity grid, renewable energy and public transportation.

The idea foundered after the GFC with governments preferring other stimulus measures aimed at high-street spending with few low-carbon outcomes. Jackson suggested green bonds linked to low-carbon investments to pay for the stimulus rather than increasing national debt. This would need to be supported by governments investing in energy assets and what he called “ecological tax reform”.

Stabilisation of the economy could be achieved by working less hours and sharing jobs or introducing universal basic income. As well as lowering growth and reducing it would reduce unemployment and poverty without compromising economic stability or climate change targets.

But to end the cleavage between the economy and the environment, the social logic of consumerism also needs to be addressed. This will not be easy given how material goods are woven into the fabric of our lives. There are never enough material things to make us satisfied and the need to avoid social shame, the “keeping up with the Joneses” drives demand forward ceaselessly. Jackson says two structural changes are needed to shift values and behaviours. The first is to dismantle perverse incentives to constantly improve social status and the second is to establish new structures to allow people to flourish in less materialistic ways. The latter will need more policy attention to what flourishing means and must address social alienation and anomie. That involves reducing social inequality – which is on the rise in most western societies.

Jackson doesn’t pretend that introducing an ecologically-literate macroeconomics and changing the logic of consumerism are easy challenges. Together they are possibly the biggest ever faced by human society. Writing after the GFC he was right to say the current model has failed us, but memories are short and 10 years on, it’s business as usual at the bourses and banks. Jackson says the transition to a sustainable economy must begin by establishing the resource and environmental limits.  That means identifying greenhouse gas emission caps and reduction targets and taxing carbon. He sees the need to shift the burden of taxation from economic goods like incomes to ecological “bads” such as pollution. There needs to be funding mechanisms so that poorer countries can still grow which still investing in renewables, low-carbon infrastructure and the protection of carbon sinks such as forests. Jackson also says financial markets need to be reined in by outlawing short-selling, reducing executive remuneration packages, protecting against consumer debt and incentives for savings.

How all these things happen in a runaway executive salary market with almost negative interest rates and with Trump and other populists rampant, Jackson probably could not foresee. But he offers a useful economic perspective on the problems of capitalism. He understands the dangers of novelty and how it drives consumption while undermining our sense of common endeavour. A better and fairer social logic lies within our grasp, he says. “Neither ecological limits nor human nature constrain the possibilities…only our capacity to believe in and work for change”.












My interview with Bob Katter

bob katterLast week I posted a live Facebook feed of my sometimes heated interview with Bob Katter. We sat down on the steps outside the steps of the Mount Isa pre-poll centre and chatted for 25 minutes. Thanks to issues with my technical skills and a dodgy selfie stick, the feed came out in Facebook on its wrong side, first 90 degrees to the screen and then in portrait mode instead of landscape. Nonetheless there was a lot of interesting material in the interview and 4000 words spoken, mostly by Bob, so here it is for posterity.

DB: Hi I’m talking with Bob Katter. Bob thanks for talking to the North West Star. Bob, we’re here live outside the Mount Isa pre-poll centre. Bob, we’re about a week out from the election, what’s your take on it so far.

BK: Well you said, it’s the first time we’ve seen you in Mount Isa for the election campaign and that is right. In traditional electioneering you leave the biggest centres till last and you do the smaller centres first and that’s exactly what we’ve done in this election –

DB: Bob I –

BK – so that’s two days I’m here now in what is still the biggest voting area in the electorate. The biggest booths are in Cairns, very sadly, you know their population, but it’s still the biggest voting area so you leave that till last so here I am.

DB: Fair enough and I understand it is a big electorate, I guess what prompted my question before we started taping about was this your first visit was I accused you of snubbing the north west and you hit back at me saying that wasn’t true, and as far as I know you haven’t done a campaign launch in this part of the world.

BK In actual fact I haven’t done a campaign launch at all, and I have to say that’s just incompetence on our part, but then again we’ve been so busy attacking and fighting to try and get the leverage we need. When you say, I must perform and I must deliver or you should boot me out. That’s the way it should be always. Now, I could spend my time, I love electioneering, a big elongated pub crawl. And no one can criticise me because I’m electioneering. Sometimes in the Overlander (Hotel in Mount Isa) where I was last night in the bloody bar. It’s the one time I can justify it and I enjoy myself. But you must deliver. Now the Prime Minister Scott Morrison would not come out to North West Queensland with the disastrous suffering that we had and endured with the death of all these cattle –

DB Hang on surely he would have come out –

BK Stop, stop,

DB Anyway –

BK Stop, Stop Stop. He had the floods on in Townsville. And these weren’t cattle dying these were people dying from disease caused by the flooding. And one of the people related to our staff was in very serious trouble. I know a number of people in Townsville that got these desperate diseases. He also had two other situations with the fires down south so we had people hit by this, a very small number of people, might be 400 or 500 people, you know, the floods and fires, there’s 200,000 people living in Townsville. But when I went down and spoke to him, I pulled some heartstrings, and I suppose said some things that would not have been entirely proper, and I convinced him to come out here. Now the difference between him coming out here and not coming out here, if he doesn’t come out here we get two hundred million, if he does come out here –

DB – So you said Bob,

BK: Stop, stop

DB – No I think I am going to interrupt you at this point.

BK – Right

DB – You said you were instrumental in getting $2 billion, surely that’s not (true), How –

BK – I’m explaining that to you. I’m explaining it. I’m saying 200 –

DB – All you are saying is you met him.

BK No, please let me complete what I’m saying. What I said is that if I could get him to come out, it was my belief we’d get a thousand million, and if I couldn’t get him to come out here we’d get two hundred million and I reminded him his family, the Gilmores part came from out here, Dame Mary Gilmore is the great-aunt and he worked out here as a young bloke . But he sees these people with their suffering and the massive numbers of cattle dead. It will be of enormous benefit. That’s what we want from our Prime Minister-

DB Nobody’s arguing –

BK – That they care about people –

DB – The Mayors of the area have done as much as you have

BK Absolute rubbish. Absolute rubbish. They had absolutely nothing to do with it. I walked in to see him, demanding to see him, because I was in a position I could demand and he said no he couldn’t go. And he didn’t have to explain to me. He’s got mobs of Liberals trying to stab him in the back, he is trying to pull the party together to go into an election, he’s got the ALP savaging him from across there, he’s got the fires down there where hundreds of thousands live, up in Townsville there’s 200,000 people with this dreadful flooding and people dying in the aftermath. Half a million cattle compared to those things, probably not so serious. So I pulled the heartstrings and in 25 minutes I convinced him to go there. The mayors had absolutely nothing to do with it. Two of them hate me with a pathological hatred, they’re entitled to, because my figures shamed their figures.and they’re entitled to hate me and they hate me.

DB Bob –

BK They had nothing to do with him going up there.

DB You say there was no-one else involved. Nonetheless this was the cattle industry which was extremely important to North West Queensland which was on its last legs because we had half a million cattle dead, he understood, and everyone understood, that you had to do something, and something large and whether you were there or not he was going to do that.

BK Derek, you know nothing about politics and the way that it works, absolutely nothing, my friend. And you can rave on to your heart’s content and be the mouthpiece for a couple of mayors, and we’ll judge them upon their performance. We had a flood in which we lost half a million cattle. The southern two-thirds of Queensland have had a drought in which they have lost almost similar figures. They have got nothing and my area has got two thousand million. Now what is the difference, they’ve got a dozen mayors down there  who make two mayors up here look like idiots. Complete non-performing monkeys compared with what you’ve got down there. Well not many of them are monkeys but compared to them they do not rate. Now, there were 12-15 mayors fighting the battle down there, they got nothing so how come we got it? I’ll tell you how we got it because my personal friendship and support and good rapport I have with the Prime Minister and because, infinitely more importantly I had the leverage.I had the power. I had the balance of power.

DB Well –

BK And I used it ruthlessly. I expected to get two hundred million. The minute I knew he was going, Derek, I thought I’d get a thousand million and we got two thousand million. And if I wasn’t there, you wouldn’t have got it. And you can say what you bloody well like but I’ve got 50 years of experience standing behind my statements you’ve got no experience at all standing behind yours.

DB – Okay…

BK Except as a journalist.

DB Okay well we’ll move on. I’m not on the ballot paper, Bob, but, you know, the locals mayors, I’m talking about the six north west mayors (Editors note 1: nine actually) who put one a six point plan that (shows) we’ve been shamefully neglected now you’ve been the MP in this area for over 20 years, haven’t you been asleep at the wheel if that’s the problem? The fact we’ve got no services, bad infrastructure, poor transport, poor telecommunications –

BK – Does this area include Hughenden?

DB It doesn’t (editor’s note 2, it does, and I later apologised for my mistake to Mr Katter)

BK It doesn’t include Hughenden alright, The Hann hwy got the first federal government special allocation for a special road to my knowledge in Australian history. I did not believe I had a tinker’s chance in hell of getting that highway but we got it. Now, I got two thousand million in assistance, I’m the member of parliament for the area, even if I had nothing to do with it but I’m the MP when it came so my good luck. But it was not good luck. My chief of staff was at the meeting and she’ll give you a statutory declaration that when we went to the PM, he said he couldn’t do that and I knew he’d say that because I knew his situation and I didn’t think it was unreasonable and we sat down and discussed what would convince him.

Derek – Bob,with all due respect the Hann Hwy is not part of this area (editor’s note 3, it is. See note 2).

BK The Hann Hwy is Georgetown –

DB – I’m talking about Mount Isa, about Cloncurry, I am talking about Normanton, Burketown, Julia Creek.

BK – Right-o, let’s go further west. You of all people Derek know the delicate situation that we had here concerning one of the mines and I have to choose my words very carefully. CopperString is worth $45m benefit to just one mining operation in this area.

DB – That’s if it comes off Bob

BK – And

DB – It hasn’t been delivered yet

BK And

DB I’m talking about what you you done in 26 –

BK and. And –

DB – years you’ve been an MP?

BK Will you shut up and listen to me for a minute

DB I have been listening to you all along

BK I’m losing my cool here, right? I’m not allowed to complete a sentence. You cut me short when I was talking about Scott Morrison and getting two thousand million

DB Bob –

BK And that’s nothing for the area

DB Bob, that’s one of the issues that people have with you, you go on –

BK It’s a very simple proposition. You said to me, what had I done for the area?

DB Okay

BK Well I got the Prime Minister to come out here and he gave us two thousand million

DB He didn’t come out to Mount Isa.

BK Aw, well. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. He didn’t come out to Mount Isa? Well, I didn’t know Mount Isa had any dead cattle

DB Mount Isa is the heart of this area. With 20,000 people. It’s gone from 30,000 to 20,000 in the last 20 years under your watch, Bob.

BK Who’s fault is that? No, no I’m asking you whose fault? I’m asking you the question you can answer it or say no I’m not going to answer it. Who’s fault is it?

DB – I guess its, I’m not on the ballot paper Bob, you know, it doesn’t matter what I think whose fault it is. I’m asking you whose fault it is.

BK I can tell you exactly whose fault it is.

DB Tell me then

BK It was Tony McGrady, the Mines Minister

DB – So you are blaming the state –

BK Who abolished, stop interrupting, who abolished the ban on fly in mining.I was the minister in 1990 (Editor’s note 4 Katter was mines minister until December 1989 when Labor won the state election). The town has 32,000 people then, the minute we lost the battle – there were huge meetings held there – 300 and 400 people at the meetings. We lost the battle, the state government had the power to allow fly in mining and the state government allowed fly in mining. It’s very simple. Now have we been able to get it back? No we haven’t and I feel and I think the criticism is valid that I as the federal member should have found some way to beat McGrady but his popularity here was twice mine so I have little chance of beating him here in Mount Isa. So he won, I lost, And this town lost. We lost (to) fly in mining. You are well aware of the letter I wrote to the paper when McGrady, one of his spokesmen, attacked Robbie Katter for removing one job in Cloncurry and I’d pointed out the jobs that he’d lost here. Well I’m sorry he won, I lost. But it wasn’t for the want of fighting. But you think you should vote for the bloke that took all the jobs away, or you should vote for the bloke that wants all the jobs here, that’s your choice.

DB Can we move on to another issue. People would say –

BK I want to answer your question. You asked me a question what have I done for this area. I don’t know because there is no specifics in the budget yet on how much money we have got in the greater Mount Isa Cloncurry area for the highway coming out from the coast, onto Tennant Creek, a couple of hundred million, I don’t know but I don’t know where they intend to spend it and I can’t get it out of them. I’ve had a number of meetings with Scott Buchholz the minister to plead the cause for all of these roads but I’ll be honest and said to you Chillagoe two three thousand people along that road, it’s still a dirt road, in our area they get 40-50 inch rainfall. That’s an appalling reflection upon me so I’ve got to fight for that and also the Flinders Hwy in my opinion is not bad between here and Cloncurry but the rest of it is falling to pieces and I’ve got to try and get some money in it but then I’ve got a one lane highway going to Normanton. You say the North West, well Normanton is the north west. And people are getting killed, one of my closest friends the mayor of Georgetown, not Georgetown the neighbouring shire got killed on it. (Editor’s note 5 he meant former Croydon mayor Jack Pickering) I was with him two weeks before he was killed. Obviously it is a very high priority for me. And I’ve got to go where I can get things to happen. But remember this, Hughenden irrigation is the prototype. It is the template. I would have never got Hughenden except in the context of getting Cloncurry, Normanton and Julia Creek. And Richmond has done a lot of good hard work. And getting all of those projects going which had to start somewhere. But Hughenden irrigation is as much about Cloncurry and Richmond as it is about Hughenden. It is a program for the development of the water resources of North West Queensland, if you like, I like to say the Far West, the Mid West and the Gulf.

DB One of the issues raised and it came really up at the top of the list when it came to election issues of our readers was the high cost of flights. You don’t seem to have done anything in that regard, Bob?

BK: I have had seven meetings called with the AWU in Townsville. Now, he wouldn’t give me the meeting.

DB Who wouldn’t?

BK, the AWU boss. I cannot do this without the power of the unions behind me and the AWU is the major union whether I like it or not, and I’m a member of the CFMEU so they are not particularly friendly towards me but I have to work with them, he comes from Mount Isa the senior boss. But I eventually got a meeting the sixth meeting that we called but he wouldn’t go to the meetings. The sixth one we agreed to go to the attend and he didnt attend so I went around twice to AWU HQ and they said he wasn’t there. So there was a seventh attempt. Now Robbie Katter believes he’s got a way of doing things differently – that is not the way I want to do it – he believes we can get another operator in here at a reasonable price. I believe we have to call for tenders and it cannot be done without the cooperation, and I had some initial discussion with the mayor (of Mount Isa) a fair while ago now but I don’t want to be going to her every 10 minutes about it because principally it’s my headache, I agree with you on that and I can tell you it’s not for the want of doing work on it. I have met with recently, and they did not disagree they could do the job for $400, there and back $500 to Townsville and also Robbie leans a bit more heavily on flights to Brisbane. But last time I spoke to him he said, ‘I’m beginning to think we are going to have to look at your approach’, so all I can say to you is that I agree with your criticism of myself, it hasn’t been done. It’s my fault and I accept that responsibility but I’ve got to say it is my belief, and I want to say this bluntly that I cannot do this unless I get the state government agreement, because most flights in and out are state government, unless I can get agreement of the major mining operations there because we’ve got to guarantee 72 percent uplift so you’ve got to be able to say that every flight on average has 72 percent of seats taken. I can’t do that without getting the mines and the state government to come in. It is my belief that that at the state election at the end of next year Robbie Katter and his team, the KAP will get the balance of power and he will be able to deliver the state government and if he’s able to deliver the state government I’m certain – not certain – I’m guardedly confident the mining companies will come in on it and I’m guardedly confident that we can get in under $600 return to Townsville. Now, I hope I don’t have to eat my words this time next year if I’m reelected but your criticism in this case is quite valid and I take it. You don’t get paid in my game for trying, you get paid for accomplishments. I’ve not accomplished it and I want to say bluntly unless I get the cooperation of the unions I will not be able to fulfill this. I do not have sufficient leverage to do that.

DB Bob, you’ve made a big deal out of your relationship with the prime minister Scott Morrison but all the polls seem to suggest Labor are going to win this election, you may lose that leverage?

BK I enjoy very good relationships with a number of senior ministers in the current government. I have a very good relationship, he’s still a very good friend of mine, with Kevin Rudd and also John Howard. I helped these people at various times. A person like myself in the position I’m in can be very helpful indeed.They can’t do things within their own party but I can do things for them from outside. Now I want to say I probably don’t enjoy good relationships with Bill Shorten comparable with my relationships with previous Labor PMs but I’ve got a lot of friends in the Labor party, a lot of friends, remember I’ve got a very close relationship with the CFMEU as I should have, I represent miners, people that work in the mines, and I should be, every MP should be close to their unions, they are good unions that represent their people and represent them properly, so I have a good relationship them and they are very powerful within the Labor Party so I’m not without teeth in the Labor party, so it’s a good question and a good criticism as well.

DB: Bob you don’t think you are too old for the job?

BK:: You know I’ve got the press ringing me saying you are the most energetic person running for parliament, where do you get the energy from. I don’t want –

DB Where do you get the energy from?

BK I dont want to put Robbie Katter down but he didnt get the best player for North Queensland and signed for the Cowboys and I 40 years older than him beat him over 25m a few weeks ago and he reckons I cheated so we had a rerun and I beat him again so I’m not doing too bad for 74 (Editors note 6, Bob turns 74 May 22 six days after the election) and an 80 hour week and a sinus condition and a breakdown of health, three days (indistinguishable) but obviously I’ve done it. But if you’ve worked an 80 hour week on average since Christmas you are going alright. And if you want to know where I am I am in Mount Isa today, I’m in Mareeba tomorrow and you know it gives me no joy to say this but Mareeba is now over 24,000 people and we are down below 20,000 here and this is my homeland and I take full responsibility but if the people of Australia vote for people that want to destroy us all I can do is fight like a tiger and threaten and my threats are not idle, not idle at all. I don’t want to tell you how I brought down a deputy prime minister or a premier or the most powerful person in the Labor Party or a prime minister, I’m not going to dwell on that but people know that is what I have done and fear is a very powerful weapon that I have, but that doesn’t mean I win all the time. My task has been to keep the mines open here and you might make very small beer of Copper String and you might say it’s never going to happen, well, people said that about Burdekin Falls Dam, people saying that even after Bjelke-Petersen announced it and they started work. All I can tell you the money has been budgeted in the budget for the amount of money that the planners and initiators and owners of the project have advised is all they need to move forward with the project. The project stands on its own merits. They just need the five million to complete the engineering work. That’s all they need. They get that, the project is going ahead.Now the mining companies involved have also informed that the project is going ahead. That’s the best I can do for you but I can tell you in this case I had to have I think four meetings with the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who I enjoy a very good relationship, but you know I like to think Tony Burke, I enjoy a very good relationship, Albanese I enjoy a very good relationship, there’s half a dozen on the Labor side. We don’t all like each other down there but you know there are people that like me on that side and on the other side and there are people that hate on both sides. Yeah all right.

DB: Bob, thank you very much for talking to the North West Star.

BK: Good call on your part

The Lafcadio Hearn Japanese gardens of Tramore

The Lafcadio Hearn Gardens, Tramore Co Waterford.

Lafcadio Hearn is little known these days but he was one of the 19th century’s most colourful literary figures. His writing on Japan and New Orleans reflect a wide background and he was known as the “interpreter of two worlds“. Hearn’s story has a strong Irish element and a connection to County Waterford which lasts to this day.

Hearn (1850-1904) was born on the Greek island of Lefcada, who accounts for his unusual first name. His mother Rosa Antoniou Kassimatis was a Greek noblewoman who married Surgeon-Major Charles Bush Hearn in a Greek Orthodox ceremony.  Hearn senior was a doctor in the British 76th Foot Regiment stationed in Corfu in 1848 (where Queensland’s first governor George Bowen also met his Greek wife Lady Diamantina Roma). Hearn was an Irishman though sources differ on whether he came from Offaly or Armagh. Either way his wife’s family did not approve of the match.

In 1851 England withdraw part of its forces of occupation from Corfu and Charles was assigned to duty in the West Indies. His new post in Grenada provided no accommodation for his wife and child, and with Rosa still estranged from her family he sent them to his aunt ,Sarah Brenane, a rich widow, of Rathmines in Dublin. Charles was her favourite nephew and she wished to make Lafcadio, whom she called Patrick, heir to her fortune if she could take charge of his training and educate him in the best Roman Catholic schools.

Meanwhile Rosa’s health began to falter, and in 1853 Charles was sent home to Dublin to recuperate after contracting Yellow Fever. A fellow officer told him his first lover Alicia was now a widow, and still living in Dublin. Charles and Alicia had wished to marry seven years earlier, but Alicia’s family felt Charles social status was not suitable. Charles took Lafcadio to visit Alicia, but Sarah discovered the reunion and ordered the child never again to be taken near that woman.

In 1854 Rosa was pregnant with Lafcadio’s brother James, before Charles was ordered to the Crimean War. James was taken into the Hearn family and Lafcadio only ever saw his younger brother once. When Charles returned 18 months later, he and Rosa split and she moved to Malta never to see her husband or children again. Charles married Alicia in 1857 and was transferred to India taking her children – but not his children – with him He sent letters back to Lafcadio, but eventually dropped out of his life.

Sarah became his permanent guardian and she divided her time between Dublin, Bangor in north Wales, and her late husband’s estate at Tramore in County Waterford. The closest thing he had to a mother was a nanny, Catherine Costello, who took him on summer days to the big beach at Tramore (from the Irish Trá Mhór, meaning “great strand”). Like fellow American writer Raymond Chandler, pleasant memories of boyhood days in county Waterford remained though his life. According to Elizabeth Stevenson’s “The Grass Lark: A Study of Lafcadio Hearn” it was on Tramore’s wide sands Hearn learned to love the sea “with a broad sky full of clouds and winds”. Here too he listened to local fishermen and their stories of shipwreck and adventure. It was also the last place he met his father.

Sarah educated Hearn in France and Durham but when she went bankrupt in 1867 due to the misdealings of financial adviser Henry Molyneux, the 17-year-old was cut loose in London. There he drifted for two years spending days at the British Museum. Two years later Molyneux had recovered enough to send Hearn a one way ticket to the US with instructions to seek Molyneux’s sister and husband in Cincinatti. They had little to offer but he eventually found a job at the Cincinatti Enquirer.

Hearn established a reputation as a teller of lurid stories covering murders in Cincinatti and became the paper’s top journalist. In 1874, aged 23, he married Mattie Foley, a 20-year-old African American, in violation of Ohio’s anti-miscegenation law. Local clergymen complained about his anti-religious views while politicians were embarrassed by his satirical writing forcing the Enquirer to fire him, citing his illegal marriage as the excuse. He went to work for rival newspaper The Cincinnati Commercial. Hearn and Foley divorced in 1877 and he moved to New Orleans where he lived for almost 10 years.

In the deep south his vivid writing boosted the circulations of his papers and his reputation grew within the industry, though his name remained unknown to wider audiences. He helped create the reputation of New Orleans as a culture more like Europe and the Caribbean than America. Hearn also published in Harper’s Weekly, who sent him to the West Indies and he lived in Martinique for two years.

In 1890, Hearn was sent to Japan as a newspaper correspondent. Though his contract quickly ended, he found a new home in Japan and his greatest inspiration. British Japanologist and professor of Japanese at Tokyo Imperial University Basil Hall Chamberlain. Chamberlain helped Hearn get a teaching position in Matsue, in western Japan. The Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum and his old residence are still two of Matsue’s most popular tourist attractions. He married Koizumi Setsu, the daughter of a local samurai family, and they had four children. He became a Buddhist and a naturalised Japanese, assuming the name Koizumi Yakumo. In 1894, he became a journalist with the English-language Kobe Chronicle, and in 1896, he began teaching English literature at Tokyo Imperial University and later was a professor at Waseda University, where he died of heart failure aged 54.

Hearn and his wife Koizumi Setsu.

Japan was a mostly unknown concept to the west at this time but its styles and aesthetics became popular around the turn of the century, particularly in Paris, and more so again after its victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. As the world flocked to writings on Japanese culture, Hearn’s 15 books about Japan were rediscovered, offering the West some of its first descriptions of pre-industrial and Meiji Era Japan.   

Hearn’s 20th century reputation initially waxed before waning.  His works stimulated the imagination of Albert Einstein who visited Japan in 1922 and Charlie Chaplin a decade later. In his 1964 autobiography Chaplin wrote, “I had read a book about Japan by Lafcadio Hearn, and what he wrote about Japanese culture and their theatre aroused my desire to go there.” But the Second World War had changed romantic views of Japan and Hearn fell into disfavour.

It wasn’t until 2014 that the first museum in Europe for Lafcadio Hearn was inaugurated in Lefkada birthplace. The Lefcadio Hearn Historical Centre contains early editions, rare books and Japanese collectibles.  A year later the Lafcadio Hearn Gardens opened in Tramore in a ceremony attended by Hearn’s great-grandson Bon Koizum and the Japanese ambassador to Ireland. Inspiration for the garden came from a visit by Koizum to Tramore in 2012 and the project was spearheaded by the Tramore Development Trust. The one hectare garden’s Japanese-theme reflect Hearn’s journey from west to east.

The gardens follow Hearn’s life, first through the Victorian Garden, then to the American and Greek gardens, ending in the Japanese gardens with its bridges, porticos and azumayas (gazebos). The facility is as an educational garden of Teagasc (the Irish Agricultural Authority), Kildalton Agricultural College and the Waterford Institute of Technology. The development is also aimed at deepening cultural relations between Ireland and Japan, after Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Ireland in June 2013 and a return visit by Taoiseach Enda Kenny six months later.

Tramore was a fitting location for the memorial. Up until his final years Hearn always remembered his Tramore summers. “I found myself thinking of the vague terror with which I had listened, when a child, to the voice of the sea,” he wrote. “And I remembered that in after years, in different coasts in different parts of the world the sound of the surf had always revived the childish emotion.”