Australian budget 2017 ignores the energy problem

poweThe word budget has a long association with money. It comes from the Latin “bulga” which became Old French “bougette”, as a diminutive of “bouge” which was a type of leather bag.  The word originally described a pouch or wallet and later by metaphor its contents. In the mid 18th century, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, in presenting his annual statement, would “open the budget” and only in the last 150 years would the term be extended to other finances.

According to the Merriam Webster definition of the word, the government definition is merely an example of the fourth meaning, namely  “a statement of the financial position of an administration (as of a nation) for a definite period of time based on estimates of expenditures during the period and proposals for financing them.”

Merriam Webster’s lack of attention on the government aspect of the budget is due to its American focus, where the budget is not the centrepiece of the political administration but rather administered by Congress. Australia, which follows the Westminster tradition, has kept the budget as a government tool even if unlike Britain it has dispensed with the “bougette”.

Though budgets are ephemeral things subject to huge variation and change within a short period of time, they are analysed to great extent as a health monitor of the government. Australia has been running a current account deficit since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and no government has been able to rein in spending within its means since.

The Rudd-Gillard budgets of 2008-2013 had to deal directly with that crisis, though it was helped by a motoring Chinese economy. Labor were continually castigated by the right-wing commentariat casting doubt on the “credible return” to surplus which Treasurer Wayne Swan would conveniently place in the fourth and last year of forward estimates.

One of Tony Abbott’s many memorable fear campaigns against that government was the “debt and deficit disaster” (swapping three words for alliteration). Labor spending was planting a “debt bomb”, Abbott and his supporters said, which would explode at some future time. This was stealing from the future, which was correct, but which would have had a lot more credibility had Abbott too not stolen from the future by taking a wrecking ball to carbon pricing.

Abbott was eventually turfed out of office as incompetent but those that followed have a lot to do to repair his damage. There is still no price signal in carbon and its lack was the elephant trading scheme in the room of Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison’s second budget last night.

The media has dubbed it a “Labor lite” budget, spending big on health care, education and infrastructure and paying for it by taxing the banks.  But its failure to understand the role of carbon in our economy is hobbling Morrison’s equally Labor-like promise the budget was a “credible path back to surplus”. Like Swan, Morrison predicted this would happen in four years but given Turnbull’s recent public commentary against an ETS it is just as difficult to believe about 2021 as 2016.

The fact is that since white occupation, Australia has been the lucky country, living beyond its means. It did that through the wool market and convict labour for the first 50 years , then plundering mineral wealth thereafter while subsidising agriculture with cheap Indigenous labour.

Australia’s last budget surplus was when the price of iron ore, and to a less extent coal, went through the roof. Though the prices for both have increased in the last 12 months, even the government says it is “prudent to assume” neither will return to massive revenues in the future – especially coal -unless they can somehow deal with carbon emissions.

A day before the budget, ABC Four Corners program exposed the energy crisis as a failure in public policy. But a night later its budget analysts in Canberra more or less ignored the issue.

But from talking to small and big businesses I know energy reliability and cost is becoming the single biggest burden on the Australian economy.  Government plans such as Snowy 2.0 and putting a reserve price on gas will barely scratch at the surface. Cyclone Debbie was seen as a one-off disaster but one of the predictions of climate change is for stronger and deadlier storms so another Debbie, Yasi or worse in the coming years is hardly out of the question.

Solar and wind barely merited a mention in the budget but they will surely be the key to solving the “debt and deficit disaster”.  Australian coal is the best in the world but it must remain in the ground for now. Similarly gas is also just a short to medium term solution and is unlikely to expand out of Queensland given the social licence issues which the government ignores in its mantra to “produce more gas”.

Funding ARENA – the Australian Renewable Energy Agency  -and putting over $3 billion of debt and equity to support low emissions projects through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation are great initiatives out of the leather bag. But they merely set the framework. The budget mechanism is carbon trading and until that is brought back Abbott’s zombie energy policies continue to walk the land.


Easter rising: The Rwandan genocide 25 years on

“When I came out, there were no birds, said one survivor who had hidden
throughout the genocide. There was sunshine and the stench of death.”

Introduction to Leave None to Tell the Story

I don’t get much time off at Easter but I’ve always enjoyed the time. Four days off is a reasonable time to plan something, whether a resurrection or a holiday.  I like it too as a moveable feast whether it is the spring of the north or the autumn of the south. One Easter I decided I needed to understand why the massacres in Rwanda happened. And so 13 years ago an Easter that started as a holiday for me changed into something else.  I decided to lock myself away and devour a dry Human Rights Watch 900-page explainer in the Easter of 2005 to see if I could understand why. I had printed it off in the office, on two sided-copy four pages up, still 100 sheets of dense A4 reading to get through, when the weather was probably nice outside.

But what I wanted, weather could not provide. 2005 was when I no longer wanted to work in IT but hadn’t yet figured out what to do. So I learned widely. Through a love of history, Aboriginal studies was the subject that compelled my return. What happened here when the neolithic era met European naval might and germs from Malaysia was inevitable, though the spoils less inevitably went to Britain. If the Arabs had worked out the Australian coast the same way they worked out the winds, it would have happened earlier. Or else China would have peeked up just over the horizon. But there remains no firm evidence of any European landing before the Dutch in Queensland.  There meetings set the tone and the template for European human behaviour over the next 300 years. It was a topic I would return to again and again. This is the unacknowledged theft of a continent and the categoric rejection that it was genocide that enabled it.

Around that time, Hotel Rwanda was released at the cinema in memory of the killing in that country just over a decade earlier.  It was the story of Paul Rusesabagina, the son of mixed Hutu/Tutsi parentage, caught up in the killing,  as a relatively powerful position of a conscierge in an exclusive white hotel.  The Hôtel des Mille Collines shared its name with the thousands of hills that dominated the capital Kigali but its picturesque setting belied astonishing violence. As the Europeans fled Kigali Rusesabagina turned the hotel into a refuge and the story tells how he and his refugees narrowly avoided the slaughter.

But a slaughter it was. Genocide was certainly possible in Australia in the 19th century,  it was possible in Europe in the 1940s and now we were seeing it was still possible in Africa 50 years later. No convention of human rights could stop it nor police nor courts.  The name of that report I began reading on Good Friday told the moral: “Leave None to Tell the Story”. The killers knew the more they killed, the less would be around to inform on them. Tens of thousands influenced by fear, hatred, promotion or money, made the choice to kill quickly and easily.

But that barely began to explain what was happening in Rwanda between April and July 1994. In Australia the battleground is identity politics (foolishly forgetting Australian politics has always been about identity). In Rwanda the battle was for real,  your identity could kill you. Over half a million people were killed either for being labelled a Tutsi or for being a Hutu who tried to protect Tutsis. Given Hutus grossly outnumbered in Tutsi in Rwanda, it was this latter action that spread widespread fear.

Yet it was a bogus distinction, they are the same people. Hutus and Tutsis had for centuries shared a single language, a common history, the same ideas and cultural practices. They intermarried, they looked alike. Today they are no longer different save arbitrary classifications based on birth.  The ancient kings of Rwanda were Tutsi and when the Germans, and then the Belgians ruled, it was convenient for the colonisers to keep the Tutsi elite and marked anyone Tutsi as an elite – as long as they kowtowed to European bosses. But when a gusty democracy was in the air in the Africa of the 1950s, the Belgians saw the numbers and switched sides. From independence in 1963 the Hutus ruled with implicit support of the French who replaced the Belgians as the regional hegemon. The French were happy to deal with a Hutu government and looked away while many Rwandan Tutsis were exiled or killed in the years that followed.

Long-term leader Juvénal Habyarimana was not easily identified as a Communist or capitalist so Rwanda was a powerful pawn in the Cold War, and tactically important to the east and west. Hutus still ruled Rwanda in 1994 but the collapse of the Soviet Union and a surge from a confident Tutsi-refugee army in Uganda (the Rwandan People’s Front or RPF)  threatened to change the balance of power again. Habyarimana was in power for over 20 years, increasingly unpopular and facing multi-party elections for the first time. He was increasingly useless to the west and like all unpopular leaders he played to far-right fear. He egged on a Hutu Power group, and drumming up hatred and suspicion of Tutsis by exaggerating the threat of the rebels.  State-controlled radio played a crucial role in getting that message out. Habyarimana backed up his talking with violence with several massacres of opponents in the years leading up to the genocide.

He had his supporters. As well as the loyalty of a large standing army, Habyarmina also trained up a young militia, some with guns, but mostly with machetes, and called them “Interihamwe”. Interihamwe was a Rwandan pun meaning “those who stand together” or in a more apt context, “those who attack together”.

Habyarimana had released a demon he could not control. He was growing weaker in his own organisation. There was no longer a Soviet Union to play off against the United States. Worse still the JPF was winning the war. Habyarimana agreed to a peace settlement on their terms. This antagonised Hutu Power who picked up the internal anti-Tutsi spoils. When Tutsis in next-door Burundi decided to overthrow its Hutu president for a Tutsi, Hutu Power decided to act in case Rwanda was next. It decided on large-scale massacres of Tutsis and “sympathisers” to derail the peace process and get the country behind them.

They started at the top. On April 9 Habyarimana’s plane, which he shared with Burundi’s new Tutsi president was gunned down near Kigali Airport killing all aboard. The culprit for this attack was never identified (nor the likely European support it received) but it left his lieutenants free to enact the planned massacre.

Enter Colonel Théoneste Bagosora. Bagosora led the Presidential Guard, other troops and militia in a murder frenzy of Hutu government officials and opposition leaders. The death spree created a power vacuum which Bagosora and his clique filled. The spread of the killing was tacitly condoned and other soldiers and militia also began systematically slaughtering Tutsi as well as Tutsi and Hutu political leaders across the country.  Within a day Bagosora’s government was accepted as fact by the army which was now on a war footing again, as the RPF had used Habyarimana’s death to launch another invasion.

The rest of the world looked away. The UN were ordered to withdrew to their posts leaving the local population at the mercy of assailants. Opposition forces appealed to the three colonial powers, France, Belgium and the US not to desert Rwanda. Bill Clinton’s US still smarting from their humbling experience in Somalia in 1993 did nothing. But all a joint European force of French, Belgian, and Italian troops did was evacuate the foreigners, and then departed. The Belgians were also cowarded into withdraw their troops from the UN peacekeeping force after 10 were killed in clashes with Hutu Power.

Bagosora recruited administrators and political leaders for the killing campaign, getting support first from Habyarimana loyalists and then from administrators and local leaders from the other parties who were predominant in central and southern Rwanda. By April 12 state radio stressed partisan interests must be put aside in the battle against the Tutsi enemy across the nation.

By April 17 the last few administrators opposed to the killing were removed and often killed.  Radio was used to ridicule and threaten those preaching calm. With no sign of foreign intervention the new government was ready to act. The processes were now in place. As well as the army, the administrators and the militia, a fourth movement sprung up dedicated to a “civilian self-defense” program which put a useful euphemism to the killing task.

Zeal to that task took on more significance than rank: subordinates could prevail over their superiors if they showed greater commitment to genocide. This encouraged ambition and initiative for those willing to trade in lives. In the early days killer systematically targetted opponents’ names and houses but this was not quick enough so a new strategy became driving Tutsi out to public sites, to be then massacred in large-scale operations. Towards the end of April, authorities sensitive to what little international condemnation there was, declared “pacification,” another dangerous euphemism. This was not an end to the killing but greater control over killing.

Like the Nazis the Hutu leadership was too distracted by genocide to ensure its own survival. By mid-May, the RPF were advancing through the country yet the genocide continued into its final phase: tracking down the last surviving Tutsi such as those hidden. or women and children who had been spared so far, or those protected by priestly or medical status. The rush was on to eliminate survivors who could testify to the slaughter.

But history is written by the winners. The RPF overthrew the Hutu leadership later that year and turned the country into a dictatorship under Paul Kagame. Many of the hardlines in the Interihamwe and military did what the Tutsi rebels did and continue the fight from exile. Some like Bagosora were caught and sentenced to prison but the majority slid back into obscurity. A few like Rusesabagina also stayed in exile because only there was it safe from Kagame’s wrath to say that Rwanda itself had not learned the lesson as it was subsequently turned into a nation governed by and for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis.

The rest of the world was culpable too, wary of interfering in a war-torn country with few resources and dependent on foreign aid. So no one cried “never again” and the conditions for massacre were allowed to fester. If there is a lesson from the Rwandan genocide to the Australian one it is that sometime in the future it will be denied that it ever happened.

On April Fools and fake news

My dodgied up 1859 map of Queensland. The border is accurate though there was no Mount Isa or NT at the time.

As is my wont at this time of year I published an April Fool’s story  on our North West Star newspaper website on Saturday April 1 . Headlined “Mount Isa to return to Northern Territory in border revision plan” it was a story by “Alan Border” purporting to reveal a plan seen by the North West Star where the westernmost part of Queensland from the Gulf to the South Australian border could return to the NT. Needless to say, the story was false. There is no such plan and those that followed the plan’s link in the story were rickrolled.

Many other details were false or invented. There is no journalist Alan Border. There is no such Professor “Hugh Jerar” (a huge error, surely, though I drag the good prof out regularly as a credible source each April 1) or is there any “Grating Institute”. There is no plan to rename Mt Isa to NT Isa and there is no constitutional crisis over Queensland’s western border (though the bit about the west being added to Queensland in 1862 three years after the rest in 1859 is true). The map we printed where Queensland’s step-like western border is turned into a straight line was semi-false – it was the original 1859 map but it was dodgied up (with five minutes of poor Paint skills). However the giveaway is Queensland and the NT agreeing to the proposal. It’s hard to imagine two governments agreeing on anything.

At the end of the day, I added an editor’s note. “Sorry/Not Sorry” it read, and a clarification. “This article was not written by the cricketer. He is ‘Allan Border’”. Our fake news was patently ridiculous but funny and while the serious tone (or reading the headline only) fooled some, almost everyone enjoyed the joke.

The grain of truth was the story of Queensland’s birth and how its border was revised in 1862. I’ve told that story on this blog before. It is based on the Peter Saenger book “Queensland’s Western Afterthought”. The trigger for Queensland taking the unclaimed land west of the 141st meridian was the search for the missing Burke and Wills in that region in 1861. The Queensland governor assured the Colonial Office his colony would protect settlers in the area as long as the western boundary was redrawn to include the Gulf of Carpentaria.

However I changed the 1859 map to show a fictional Mount Isa (it wasn’t founded until the 20th century) in an equally fictional “NT” (it was still part of NSW at the time). I believe it was this map shown the Facebook excerpt for my story that hoodwinked a lot of people who read no further.

However no more like that. Fake news is fraught with hazard especially in 2017. Last year Macedonian youths made a lot of money when they invented shocking stories to gain large advertising revenue. They were exposed within days but millions believed the fiction. Donald Trump profited from that fiction then turned fake news on its head when he attached it to media giving him a hard time. The fake fake news practice has quickly spread across the world as a way to dismiss news you don’t like. Even truth itself has become muddied by “truthiness” and “alternative facts”.

So despite a long tradition of newspapers writing April Fool stories, I was concerned how people might react to my deliberately false piece. Looking at the Facebook feedback I needn’t have worried.  One reader told me “I was really taken in by the border story! Whoever came up with this deserves a pat on the back. I love starting the day with a smile!” Many others were highly amused with many people picking out different favourite lines from the piece. There was hardly any negative remarks and even those who were fooled accepted their fate with good grace.

The story was shared over 300 times as people who got the joke then tried to fool their friends. There were those who while understanding the joke, still grappled with the issue: “If there are to be any border changes it should be new border along the Tropic of Capricorn to create the great state of North Queensland,” said one. Others though moving north west Queensland to NT was a good idea. Another said “It actually makes me sad this is fake”.

All in all, I’ll call it a viral success – at least in our remote part of the world. But it’s worth handling with care. I’ll stick to reporting the truth – at least until April 1, 2018.

Martin McGuinness is dead

Martin McGuinness 1950-2017. Getty Images

Former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has died, aged 66. Along with Ian Paisley, McGuinness was one of the two key figures in making the Northern Ireland Good Friday peace agreement work. The partnership of Paisley, a hard-line Unionist preacher and McGuinness, a former-IRA leader was unlikely but somehow worked in a relationship that was so friendly at the end the pair earned the nickname The Chuckle Brothers. These tribal warriors both surprised us as men of peace and brought the province back from the precipice of deadly conflict and made it boringly normal.

Born in Derry in 1950 McGuinness grew up in a city with a long history of sectarian violence. He was educated in Catholic schools but it was Unionists and the British that made him a republican not the Christian Brothers. Derry was predominately Catholic but ruled by Protestants in a gerrymander across provincial and local council boundaries. He spent school holidays on his grandmother’s small farm across the border in Co Donegal and the difference was palpable. “Even at a very young age, I could never understand why, when you went over that line, you were supposed to be in a different country,” he said in a 1998 interview. “Coming back to the North again was always like coming back under a big black cloud.” When aged 15, he was interviewed for a job in a Protestant-owned firm and he said it came down to two questions. “What’s your name? What school did you go to? And out the door.”

Derry Catholics suffered discrimination in other ways. They lived in crowded and inadequate housing and suffered massive unemployment. Decades of resentment blew up in the seminal rebellion year of 1968. A new breed of charismatic leaders like Bernadette Devlin and John Hume demanded change and universal civil rights. Derry was the focus of groups such as the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and the Derry Housing Action Committee aimed at fixing sectarian injustice. However many Protestants saw them as a front for republican organisations and many marches were banned. By the end of the decade tensions in Derry had broken out into violence with the 1969 Battle of the Bogside one of the key starting points of the Troubles. McGuinness, then 19, would later admit that Battle had hardened his republican attitudes.

McGuinness did get a job as an apprentice in a Catholic-owned butchery but butchery elsewhere convinced him his service lay elsewhere. By then he had joined the Provisional IRA though they were not very active in Derry. Most violence in the early days was between soldiers and stone-throwing youths. Matters escalated in 1971 when a British Army soldier was killed when his vehicle was petrol bombed in the Bogside. When two rioters were shot dead in July it was the cue for an IRA campaign in the city. The government introduced internment without trial in August 1971 directed almost exclusively against republicans and 21 people were killed in three days of rioting across Northern Ireland.

McGuinness worked his last day at the bacon counter on 8 August 1971. As internment began he went on the run rarely sleeping in the same bed twice. By 1972, he was second-in-command in the city as Bloody Sunday unfolded in the city. He always denied claims he was involved in bomb handling on the day and the 1990s Saville Inquiry found “he did not engage in any activity that provided any of the soldiers with any justification for opening fire”. Regardless “the Butcher’s Boy” gained notoriety while the Provos bombed Derry commercial centre methodically, with far less civilian casualties than Belfast.

McGuinness was never convicted of any offence in Northern Ireland but served time in the Republic. In 1973, he was convicted by the juryless Special Criminal Court, after being arrested near a car containing 110 kg of explosives and 5000 rounds of ammunition. Like many republicans, McGuinness refused to recognise the court but declared his membership of the Provisional IRA : ‘We have fought against the killing of our people… I am a member of Óglaigh na hÉireann and very, very proud of it”. He was sentenced to six months imprisonment at Port Laoise.

He claims to have left the IRA when he was released in 1974. He joined the IRA’s political wing Sinn Fein eventually becoming its best-known face after Belfast boss Gerry Adams. He was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont in 1982. He did not take his seat but was involved in irregular contact with the British government. As the war dragged on towards an unsatisfactory stalemate the Army used its intelligence unit to infiltrate the IRA in Northern Ireland but the Republicans continued to have success with its operations on the British mainland. The bomb with the largest economic impact was the 1992 attack on the Baltic exchange in the City of London. Three people died but the £800m damage bill eclipsing by £200m the entire damage of the conflict to date and raised the prospect of devastating the British economy. The British made coded messages to the IRA that if they were prepared to call off the violence, anything might be possible.

In 1997 McGuinness was elected to Westminster as the MP for Mid Ulster and in April the following year he was Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator in the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, ending years of violence. Following its agreement he was nominated by his party for minister for education in the power-sharing executive. Suspicions between republicans and unionists dogged the new body with many talks failing. However when McGuinness helped secure IRA arms decommissioning in 2005 a significant roadblock to peace was achieved. His success helped him lead negotiations during talks that paved the way for the 2007 St Andrew’s Agreement. It resulted in the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, a new Northern Ireland Executive and Sinn Fein’s support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, courts and rule of law.

In May 2007 McGuinness became deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, with former Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley elected first minister. While the disagreements about the status of Northern Ireland never went away, the pair forged a remarkable partnership successfully bringing investment and business confidence back to the province and a sense of optimism.  When Paisley died, McGuinness held back the tears as he said “Over a number of decades we were political opponents and held very different views on many, many issues but the one thing we were absolutely united on was the principle that our people were better able to govern themselves than any British government.” McGuinness, like Paisley, proved to be just as astute in peace as he was in war.

Saving the Great Artesian Basin

gab-mapOne of Australia’s greatest hidden gifts to the life that colonised it is an enormous water resource far below the ground. Spanning four states and territories over a fifth of the continent and continuing out into the Gulf of Carpentaria it is the Great Artesian Basin, and is the largest and deepest artesian water basin in the world. In some places it does resemble a basin, but it is mostly solid rock with water stored in the pores.

The GAB’s water is ancient, falling as rain or leaks from rivers west of the Great Dividing Range over a million years ago. That water takes a slow journey of one to five metres a year percolating through cracks in sandstone sheets (aquifers) held together under pressure from the impermeable stones (aquitards) above and beneath. As well as heading roughly west the water also trickles down under gravity.

Over time water is stored in vast quantities. It emerges to the ground naturally under pressure through springs and geological faults. Native plants and animals relied on springs in parched landscapes, particularly in the south-west where the Basin is shallower. Humans arrived on the continent 50,000 years ago and quickly fanned out to every corner. It is likely they swiftly found this precious resource. Burial sites 20,000 years old showed evidence of trading posts alongside artesian springs. Use of bore water dramatically increased with the arrival of Europeans into central Australia.

The first bore in 1878 found water 53m below the surface at Killara in north-west New South Wales. Within ten years, substantial finds were made at Cunnamulla and especially Barcaldine, both in Queensland. The Barcaldine bore pumped 700,000 litres a day unleashing a drilling boom and pastoral settlement in the central west. By 1900 there were more than 500 bores in the Basin thought it wasn’t easy to find water and not all were successful.

Enough reliable water was pumped out to support 120 towns and hundreds of properties in Outback Australia. Initially the pastoral industries took the most water but more recently water release by oil and gas has caught up. Mining of copper, uranium, coal, bauxite and opals also depends on water, much of it artesian, while tourist spas are also an intensive user of Basin water.

Human activity will unlikely ever dry up the Basin. In 120 years of bores about 0.1 percent of the total water was extracted from the Basin. But what it has done is lower the pressure declining the flow of water, sometimes by 80%. A third of bores have stopped flowing altogether. The springs have been severely damaged by excavation, stock and humans while exotic pests degrade the area around springs.  Early bore technology was flawed too with many leaking and most were uncontrolled in their discharge of water, and 95% of the water ended up into open drains.

Diminishing flow was recognised as early as 1912 when New South Wales introduced licensing of bores and eventually vested groundwater to the state. They also brought in bore construction standards. In 1990 governments agreed on a Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative (GABSI) to cap and pipe bores. Across Australia capping programs rehabilitated free-flowing bores and replaced drains with pipes but the majority of the 3000 uncontrolled bores and 34,000km of open drains remain in place.

A Strategic Management Plan was put in place in 2000 and agreed by the Council Of Australian Governments.  But just like the Murray Darling (river) Basin plan,  the issue of licences and multiple jurisdictions means the issue is inescapably political. The jury remains out on the impact of the extraction of large use of water for mining, especially coal seam gas mining.  Graziers have to be convinced capping and piping will help them decrease their operating costs as well as increasing the pressure of the water and the reliability of its supply.

In Queensland the GAB is managed by a 10-year-plan which expires in June this year. Queensland’s government wants to cap and pipe all its uncapped bores and bore drains in the next 10-year cycle. It is, as the government policy maker I spoke to told me, “an aspirational target” but it helps show the state is serious about the problem. The new draft plan (now out for community consultation) allows for action if a licence holder fails to comply with conditions.

There are estimated to be more than 25,000 bores tapping the Queensland GAB, taking 315,000 ML a year. A diagram from the draft plan I saw at a Mount Isa community meeting showed that in 2016 around 90,400 ML was accounted for in losses through seepage and evaporation from uncontrolled bores and open bore drains. This exceeds the amount extracted by stock and domestic of 66,000 ML and the oil and gas industries 64,000 ML with other uses accounting for 93,000 ML.

Since 1989 almost 1000 bores have been rehabilitated under government-funded program but an estimated one in five uncapped bores in Queensland remain untreated while 28% of bore drains have yet to be replaced with pipelines. Under the plan all stock and domestic water users will be required to deliver water through water-tight delivery systems by the time the plan expires in 2027. Stock and domestic licences that permit free flowing bores or bore drains will require a bore management plan outlining what steps will be taken to deliver a water-tight delivery system.

The future of the Great Artesian Basin is exciting if it is managed properly. GAB water has a future as an energy source. Birdsville already has a geothermal power plant and other towns such as Winton are looking to copy it. It will make water available for future development and social and cultural activities that depend on water, including for the aspirations of Indigenous peoples in native title areas. It is crucial it is not destroyed in the same way humans are destroying Australia’s other natural wonder: the Great Barrier Reef.


Pixilated: A night at the Pixies in Brisbane

When I was planning a long weekend in Brisbane, I asked my up-with-the-music-pulse mate Muddy were there any interesting bands playing the city that weekend. Well, he said, the Pixies are playing the Thursday night and a few mutual friends were going. That was enough for me. Though not a huge fan, I did have a Pixies album in my collection (admittedly it’s a “best of” but whatever,). I was also aware of their reputation as one of the most influential bands of the 90s, though I missed them at their peak. Importantly there were still tickets available and with my credit card still smoking from the cost of the flights from Mount Isa, I forked out another $100 there and then to join the fun.


The gig was on in the Riverstage, a new venue for me and on the Thursday night the meeting point was the Buffalo Bar before a pleasant walk through the Botanical Gardens. Just outside the Riverstage venue was this Polo with the personalised plates “Pixi35”. The car was empty but we presume there was a big fan nearby somewhere.


Then it was inside the venue which was far from packed on the night. The venue holds 15,000 but there was only 3000-4000 or so inside. Yet the queue for the bar was a mile long so it was a dry concert for us. The other annoying fact was the 10pm curfew, crass stupidity imposed by Brisbane City Council. Given there are no homes for at least 500m in any direction, perhaps they are worried we’d keep the fruit bats awake. Dumb.

pixies11I took a photo on my phone of the foursome I went with but Muddy and Hugh have disappeared into the gloom while JD is visible but engrossed in his phone. That made the photo all about Joe, who at least looks happy to be here.


Muddy and I took a spot towards the front. Hugh claims they were only a row or so behind us, but that’s a quantum difference in moshpitness. In any case, it’s lights on and excitement building as the band is about to come to the stage around 8.15pm.

pixies7Finally the band take the stage and blast into their set without too much formality. As the Brisbane Times reviewer said, the Pixies don’t leave time to draw breath with 28 songs in 90 minutes. And it wasn’t long before I was dancing along with their pounding rhythm. The other comment I made to Muddy was that I like a band that does the old-fashioned thing of putting their name on the drums.pixies10

Singer and lead guitarist Black Francis didn’t interact much with the crowd preferring to let the music do the talking for him. I was surprised how many songs I knew Veloria, Where is My Mind, Monkey’s Gone to Heaven, Here Comes Your Man, Debaser and finishing up with Into the White. Plus several more I’ve forgotten.


Paz Lenchantin has been the bass player since 2014 replacing original female bassist Kim Deal. She was ace and sang a couple of songs too.pixies6

The Pixies were wrapped up and encored out by 9.45pm (at least plenty of time to find another pub). Wouldn’t rush to go back to see them again but they have a great catalogue and entertained with their performance. They were a tight outfit on stage and the drummer/bass combo was top notch. Yeah Blank Frank’s bantz was a disappointment but there is an undoubted aura of something special.


For a far more musically considered take on the Pixies – and better photos – check out Muddy’s blog piece with links to other reviews. While I admitted took it a bit for granted on the night, reading the reviews reminds me of their importance in the scheme of things and it was a privilege to watch them play.  When I got back to Mount Isa and told people I was at a big concert in Brisbane on the weekend, the usual response was, “oh, did you enjoy Adele?”


The Bengal Lion

Dev Patel  in a scene from the Australian film Lion

I hate to admit it but I shed tears while watching the new film Australian film Lion. I’ve always hating crying at the movies ever since I was kid and used to laugh at my mum when she cried at the drop of a hat in any emotional scene of a movie, no matter how silly the premise. “Stop it, you” she would say to me while drying her tears, her anger at me betrayed by a smile. Mum has been dead ten years now but I remembered her and her tears as I watched the first meeting of a man and his mother in 25 years at the end of Lion. I was annoyed at myself, knowing full well my emotions were being played on by the filmmakers but like my own mother all those years ago, I could not help myself. My eyes are capable of betraying me again at the memory the following morning.

Lion tells an incredible true story and it has been turned into one of the best Australian films in years. Saroo Brierley was born in 1981 in a small village near the Central Indian city of Khandwa. His father had left home and the desperately poor family relied on the money his mother made from carrying rocks from a quarry. Saroo’s older brother Guddu supplemented their income by stealing coal from trains to sell for food and would take the five-year-old Saroo with him on adventures. One night Guddu and Saroo travel to a nearby city on a train where Guddu earned money working as a sweeper. The pair get separated and Saroo falls asleep on a train. When he wakes up his brother is gone and the train was moving.

Saroo could not escape from an empty locked cabin and his calls for help at stations at were unheeded. After two days the train ended up in faraway Calcutta – 1500km from Khandwa. At the station Saroo escapes into the throng but is lost in a strange city where no one speaks his native Hindi. Sleeping rough, he narrowly avoids being kidnapped at night into child slavery and according to the film he meets a woman who befriends him and takes him home (in real life it was a male railway worker) .

But Saroo becomes suspicious of her intentions when she invites a man over who checks him out and he distrusts their promises to help him find his family. Saroo escapes once more until he befriends a man, who takes him to the police station. The illiterate Saroo tells police he from “Ganatelay” but no one knows of a place of that name.

Saroo is placed in an orphanage but ads in the Calcutta paper fail to locate his family. Eventually he agrees to be adopted by a Tasmanian couple and he flies alone to Tasmania, where the Brierley couple played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham take him home. They fill his life with love so he is happy though he is affected by a second Indian adoption into the family a year later. The second boy is less happy and practises self harm but they get on with life regardless.

The timeframe moves forward from the late 1980s to 2008 when Saroo Brierley is now an Australianised young man, played by Dev Patel. Saroo moves from Tasmania to Melbourne to learn hotel management and becomes involved with an American student (Rooney Mara). They are invited to a meal at the house of an Indian couple where the sight of traditional Indian food stirs long hidden memories in Saroo. He tells them his story of travelling two days on a train to Calcutta and all he can remember is a train station with a water tank. Someone suggests he work out how fast Indian trains travelled in the 1980s and to use Google Earth to find his home.

It was a massive undertaking but it was a search that was to obsess Saroo. Working out in a 1500km radius from Calcutta he finally found landmarks in Google earth that matched his childhood memories: a waterfall where he played as a boy, the quarry where his mother worked, a train station with a water tower and a town called Ganesh Talai. This was his hme town he garbled as “Ganatelay”. From memory he followed the route to where he believed his house was and knew he had found his home.

In 2013 Saroo flew to Ganesh Talai. To his disappointment the old house was long abandoned and turned into an animal compound. With his Hindi long forgotten, he had difficulty making people understand his quest. Finally he told an English-speaking local he was born here and the man took him to meet an old woman. It was Saroo’s mother, who instantly recognised her son. The proof was a bump on the head from a long-forgotten accident when he was run over by a bike while carrying a watermelon and the melon smashed against his head.

After many tears of happiness (theirs and mine), Saroo asks about his older brother. he was dead, he was told. There were tears of sadness soon replaced with more tears of joy when his mother told him a younger sister was still alive. The film closes with the real Saroo bring his real Tasmanian mother to India to see his real real Indian mother. The end credits tell three important facts. Firstly Saroo’s brother Guddu died the night he went missing, after being struck by a train. Secondly Saroo’s mother never gave up hope of finding her other boy and deliberately stayed in the same village so that she would be easy to find. Lastly, Seroo found out that not only did he pronounce the name of the town wrong, he also pronounced his own name wrong. He was Sheru, not Saroo. In Hindi Sheru means Lion.

The New Yorker was right to say the second half of the film was a slow and muted affair after “the Dickensian punch of the first” but the story of Saroo’s disappearance and rediscovery remains remarkable. It also throws necessary light on the fact that over 90,000 children go missing in India each year, something authorities prefer to ignore, with public officials complicit in the problem.  According to children’s rights group Bachpan Bachao Andolan 10 times that number are trafficked, and forced to beg or work in farms, factories and homes, or sold for sex and marriage. The tears of Lion are nothing compared to the thousands of innocent young lives destroyed every year for profit.