Environment


Last night on The Cutting Edge, a documentary entitled The Nuclear Comeback investigated the nuclear power option with respect to its costs, its benefits in terms of lowered carbon emissions, its safety, especially with terrorists attacks – infrequent as they are – at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and long-term effects such as waste storage. It was immensely interesting and I hope SBS publishes transcripts, videos possibly, and other information about it.

I wasn’t studiously taking notes unfortunately, but some of the facts and figures in the documentary, most of which came from the nuclear industry itself, are too amazing to forget.

More… 

I know I quite hyperbolically said I’d be gone for quite some time following the defeat of the Coalition by Labor under Kevin Rudd, but in our ecstasy, we forgot that pubs tend to, you know, close and stuff. So celebrations didn’t continue for as long as I’d imagined, meaning I’m now mentally competent enough to write a post.

By the end of last night, it was pretty clear that Labor had won about 86 seats out of a house of 150, giving them about a 22 seat majority, though there may still be some fiddling around when counting resumes tomorrow. There were a few high-profile losses for the Coalition, which notably included the seat of Longman, Mal Brough’s seat. Brough is, of course, the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, and was largely responsible for the mess that is the NT intervention. I won’t mourn him.

Another big loss for the Coalition was the Nationals-held seat of Dawson, which suffered a 3.7 percent swing against the incumbent De-Anne Kelly, and saw a mammoth 16.9 percent swing towards Labor, which levelled out to an overall swing of about 13.6 percent after preferences.

And possibly most surprising of all, the former Prime Minister John Howard may end up losing his blue-ribbon lower North Shore seat of Bennelong, to the former ABC journalist Maxine McKew. There was again, a mammoth swing towards Labor, at 16.1 percent, though it was largely due to Labor’s deflated primary vote of the last election in Bennelong (the number by which the swing is measured) when high-profile former ONA public servant turned Iraq whistleblower, Andrew Wilkie, ran for the Greens, and polled a surprising 16 percent of the primary vote. Wilkie also ran this election as the second Greens candidate in the senate in Tasmania, but failed to pick up a seat.

However, it hasn’t all been good news this time around, in fact it’s been quite devastating for some. Malcolm Turnbull was safely returned in the salubrious Eastern Sydney seat of Wentworth a seat he’s never really had to earn, as it was largely handed to him as a celebrity candidate back in 2004, much to the detriment of the then-sitting member Peter King, who suffered loss of pre-selection thanks to Turnbull’s tactics of branch-stacking.

I should point out though, that the Liberals don’t have a monopoly on this. Greg Combet, another celebrity fly-in, was basically handed the seat of Charlton this election when the Labor Party revoked pre-selection from Kelly Hoare, who had represented Charlton since 1998. The difference here is that Combet is great. Not only was Turnbull born with a diamond-encrusted silver spoon in his mouth, he’s barely done a skerrick of socially responsible work in his life. And to make matters worse, he gave the go-ahead for the Tamar Valley pulp mill, which should have hurt him in Wentworth more than it did.

Depressingly, it’s looking very likely that Kerry Nettle has lost her seat as the only NSW Greens senator. Nettle has been a very active and vocal senator over the past two terms, and often directly challenged the theocrat Tony Abbott, my local member, whenever he made some religious gaffe. A memorable moment for me was when Nettle wore a t-shirt to parliament to protest against Health Minister Abbott’s vetoing the use of the abortion drug RU486, claiming that Australia had developed an ‘abortion culture’. Her t-shirt bore the slogan Mr Abbott, keep your rosaries off my ovaries. Her presence in the senate will be sorely missed and I do hope she’ll stand again in the next election.

However, the Greens did manage to pick up senate seats in Western Australia and South Australia, and have retained Bob Brown’s seat in Tasmania, to bring the total number of Greens in the upper house to 5, which would mean that they will share the balance of power with both Family First’s Stephen Fielding, and the Independent Nick Xenophon.

Lastly, Andrew Bartlett, despite being one of the most active senators this last term in office, will lose his Queensland senate seat to one or other of the major parties, having polled only 2 percent of the primary vote, half as much as even the Terminatrix Pauline “She’ll be back” Hanson, whose preferences appeared to have delivered Labor the last seat ahead of the Greens. Bartlett’s loss, in conjunction with Lyn Allison’s defeat and the retirement of both Natasha Stott Despoja and Andrew Murray, means that the Australian Democrats no longer have any representation in parliament. That is indeed a devastating result, and I would like to congratulate Senator Andrew Bartlett on his career in office, and thank him for the focus and attention he’s given towards indigenous affairs, something that until recently had been largely ignored by both major parties. I also wish him the very best for the remaining 8 months of his term before the newly elected senate is sworn in. You can also read Bartlett’s own remarks on his blog.

So overall, it has been a rather bittersweet victory. On one hand we’ve punished a hubristic, arrogant, highly conservative government, and have replaced it with a slightly less conservative opposition, and quite resolutely so, but we’ve also lost a minor party in the process. For the most part, I think the country voted correctly for the first time in a long time, for as long as I can remember, as a matter of fact. Now, all that’s left is to hope the senate will be strong enough to keep the Labor government in check, but that’ll be difficult when the senate is so tightly balanced.

All in all, I’m very much looking forward to the next three years.

~

<update>
News of Rudd’s win has already filtered into the podean linguabloggosphere, with Language Log’s Bill Poser pointing out that at long last, we have a non-monolingual Prime Minister, as Rudd speaks Mandarin quite fluently. Of course I wrote about this back here.

If only he spoke an aboriginal language, he’d be perfect.

I couldn’t agree more. May I suggest Wagiman?
</update>

As if it weren’t bad enough that the Borroloola community was denied justice by the Territory government in a decision to retroactively change the legislation that prevented Xstrata and McArthur River Mine (MRM) from turning the McArthur River zinc mine site into an open-cut operation.

As if it weren’t bad enough that the bill was passed almost unanimously, the only dissenters being the indigenous Labor and independent MLAs (an indigenous opposition member abstained from the vote).

As if it weren’t bad enough that the bill was passed on the day of the funeral of the man who was the spokesperson for the community and the most vocal person in their fight to protect their country, to protect 5 odd kilometres of the McArthur from being diverted to accommodate the open-cut mine.

As if that weren’t all bad enough, and now the Kurdanji people have been prevented from performing a ceremonial dance on a patch of their land that has been forcibly leased to Xstrata and its subsidiary company, McArthur River Mine.

Remember what Clare Martin said? “We’re doing this with the greatest respect for everyone involved.”

Nauseating.

If I was even slightly superstitious, any mention of drought-breaking rainfall predictions I’d avoid like the plague. But in all honesty, it’s difficult not to get excited when you see articles like this, which go as far as to predict a La Niña effect to start later this year.

I hope the Southern Oscillation Index doesn’t swing too far into positive territory though, because it will mean higher chance of flooding on the East-coast and higher chance of drought in South America, or such is my rudimentary understanding. We are sustained by a tight balance of conditions and the planet’s ability to cope with extraordinary circumstances is only so powerful.

I also hope that drought-breaking rain isn’t attributed to the government’s policy on water management, if that happens they might be able to go into the election campaign claiming they’re on a mission from God!

Posted to the Herald’s letters page on Thursday.

~

Thursday’s editorial on the budget and tertiary education overlooked a serious point. The estimated $304 million annual harvest will be divided up among the universities at the government’s discretion.

Under past Ministers such as Nelson and Kemp, funding for tertiary programs have gradually moved from quality research in worthy areas, such as the anthropological and linguistic documentation of Australian and international cultures, an area in which I am heavily involved, towards those areas that are ‘commercially applicable’, those that generate immediate monetary return for their investment.

I would think that if the Howard government were re-elected later this year, we may see this trend continue with a further bias towards, say, pharmaceutical research and development, which would ordinarily be privately sponsored, at the expense of programs that are vitally important, yet are not immediately profitable.

In an era that is witnessing the most rapid loss of indigenous language and culture, among other areas, than any other time in history, I seriously question whether this is the right way to go.

~

I haven’t attempted writing to the Herald in a while, and when I do they rarely get published. Then, if they do, they’re usually edited for space constraints. But since 300 editorial staff have gone on an indefinitely long strike over the sacking of 35 people as of today, editing letters may not be their priority right now.

<update>
It got in. Yay.
</update>

Tonight is Federal Budget night in Australia, and as expected “mums and dads” around the country will be better off (but not my mum and dad, I can assure you). There have also been leaks from Canberra that several other areas will enjoy increased funding in the coming financial year. One commentator this morning claimed that ‘all sectors would receive a boost’.

Aboriginal housing, health and education will receive an extra billion dollars, which I applaud in particular, I just hope it finds its way to the people that need it most. But I suspect something that won’t receive much extra will be the difficult to categorise area of language research, documentation and revitalisation.

A quick Google search shows that the revitalisation of indigenous languages in Australia falls under the scope of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, as a part of their ‘cultural heritage’ department. But a brief perusal of their website fails to return any pages related to indigenous languages dated any time after 2001, apart from the odd reference in non-related pages. Has cultural heritage been shifted to another department since 2001?

I’m asking this earnestly. I have no idea which department represents my interests in indigenous languages in Australia, and I think I should know.

Sadly, this is an election year. I think we can expect a huge amount of money being spent on tax-cuts and other such electoral sweeteners, we’ll also see extended rebates for the installation of solar panels and perhaps some other measures designed to tap into the populations concern over climate change. But I don’t think we’ll see a great deal of extra funding for things that aren’t quite as prominent in people’s minds such as the rapid and irreversible loss of languages and culture in Aboriginal Australia.

~

<update>
May 9: Did anyone notice anything conspicuously missing from the budget speech? Is it just me or was there a marked absence of any announcements relating to that leaked extra billion for Aboriginal housing, health and education?

I thought at first that Costello just neglected to mention it. Cooper raised the issue in an email as well, and then I saw this report, which points out that there doesn’t seem to be anything in this budget for the indigenous population beyond token gestures. And this is straight after a World Health Organisation report that Australia’s Aboriginal population are experiencing living standards not seen in the west in one hundred years.

This government needs to work on priorities.
</update>

There’s been a further development to the saga of Xstrata and the McArthur River, which I wrote about earlier in the week.

I missed this when it came out last night, but Clare Martin’s legislation, which prevents traditional owners from launching legal action to stop Xstrata from diverting the river and basically digging the world’s largest zinc and lead mine on their land, was passed by the Northern Territory parliament, 17 votes to 5.

The only people to vote against this Bill – which heralds the return to European domination of indigenous peoples through the courts¹ – were two independents and three indigenous Labor MLAs, Member for Macdonnell Alison Anderson, Member for Stuart Karl Hampton and Member for Arnhem Barbara McCarthy.

Barbara McCarthy was most vocal in parliament last night, taking the floor during the final reading of the Bill as a last-ditch effort to thwart the legislation, futile as it was.

She said the people of the Gulf Region are mourning the death of a prominent leader, and to pass the Bill in the middle of sorry business is the worst sign of disrespect to them.

‘The worst sign of disrespect’. That’s a cruel understatement. This is blatant disregard of the Kurdanji people’s home, land and culture and no commercial need for lead or zinc is quite strong enough to override that. I gave this quote from Martin in my last post on this, but it seems more relevant here, especially when juxtaposed against Barbara McCarthy’s sentiments about the disrespect:

We’re doing this with the greatest respect for everyone involved.

You can stick a noxious weed in a bucket of dirt and call it a flower, Ms Martin, but it don’t make it so.

~

¹Sorry for editorialising, but it really infuriates me that short term economic advantage from mining companies can trump not only the imperatives of the environment, that doesn’t surprise me anymore, but also the cultural considerations of the rightful owners and custodians of the land. This is not the sort of thing that makes people proud and patriotic, flag-waving, happy little vegemites. I, for one, am increasingly ashamed to be an Australian when I hear stuff like this.

~

<update>
May 8: Last night The 7:30 Report carried this story, outlining the history of the case, of the mine, of the community’s protest of the mine’s expansion. They also spoke to Barbara McCarthy about her strong opposition, not only to the legislation, but the timing of it – two days before the funeral of the man who most vigorously fought Xstrata. Transcripts and video available on this page (contains footage of the deceased).
</update>

It’s been a busy week in Borroloola and there’s little chance things’ll slow down soon.

The week started brilliantly as legal action by the Kurdanji people against the Xstrata mining company successfully put a stop to their plan to expand a current underground zinc mine into an ‘open cut’ operation. Such an expansion would have required the diversion of five and a half kilometres of the McArthur River.

The jubilation of the traditional owners was echoed by the Northern Land Council, who rightly point out that “you simply can’t trample over the rights of traditional Aboriginal people”. But Xstrata, who had previously promised to leave the territory if this court case didn’t go their way¹, said they were disappointed and would ‘consider the judgement carefully’. Translation: ‘find a loophole’.

Tuesday was pretty quiet.

Today though, was a serious blow for the Kurdanji people, as Clare Martin, Chief Minister of the territory, made it clear that they would effectively ignore Monday’s decision. It seems Xstrata didn’t have to do much searching to find that loophole; the government will just make one:

Ms Martin says the Government will change the original legislation² that governs the mine to allow it to have an open-cut operation.

This is despite the fact that it was the NT government’s fault for giving Xstrata the go-ahead for the expansion when the original agreement never said anything except ‘underground’ – it was never put to the traditional owners that this mine would eventually become an open pit on their land.

That’s where the title of this post comes in. The Northern Territory Minister for Mines, Chris Natt, was downplaying the legal battle today with this:

It’s just one small word – the word ‘underground’ has provided a situation where we’ve got to amend the situation.

The Kurdanji people are suitably pissed off about this, not only because they weren’t told, but also because Xstrata and the NT government are disregarding entirely some of their most sacred sites, the Rainbow Serpent dreaming, some of which will be disturbed by the diversion of the McArthur. But in spite of this, Clare Martin maintains that “we’re doing this with the greatest respect for everyone involved.”

What a sad day for the rights of indigenous people in this country.

~

¹Never trust a mining company to keep a promise.

²Emphasis added.

I noted back here that the Bureau of Meteorology had included on their website a page called Indigenous Weather Knowledge, that describes the annual weather patterns known to Aboriginal people in a given area. Since then, the BOM have included another group, the Brambuk from the Gariwerd / Grampians National Park in Victoria.

This morning I was browsing the ABC news website and cam across this report (transcript and mp3 both available) on The World Today, of yesterday (ironically). It says that the Bureau “is now posting Indigenous weather information for the Northern Territory and Victoria.” The weather information takes the form of correlations of natural processes, such as the onset of the blooming period of certain plants signifying that the time is right to start fishing from the river, or that Black Cockatoos flying around herald coming rain.

The Brambuk information page differs from the others (Wardaman, Jawoyn, Walabunnba and Yanyuwa) in that, unfortunately, it doesn’t contain any such information couched in the traditional languages, which, I understand, are Djapwurrong and Jardwadjali.

~

On a considerably less positive note, the World Health Organisation reports that Australian Aboriginal healthcare lags behind the rest of the country. This came from PM yesterday, transcript and mp3 available here.

Indigenous babies born today can expect to live only as long as people in Australia 100 years ago. The Aboriginal people are dying at the same kinds of rates that people did 100 years ago in Australia.

Diseases long-forgotten in the developed world, such as leprosy, tuberculosis and rheumatic heart disease, still afflict Aboriginal people in Australia at alarming rates. 106 years of federation, 40 years of Indigenous rights, and we still have an awfully long way to go.

Are we making any progress?

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I smell a new euphemism wafting out of Canberra.

A report came out this morning in which it was argued that a 25% renewable energy target for 2020 would in fact financially harm consumers less than business as usual, and would create jobs, contrary to popular belief.

The Minister for the Environment (apparently) Malcolm Turnbull was predictably playing down the report’s conclusions and at one point addressed the difference in current price between green energy and coal. Except, when he was due to say ‘coal’, he paused, um‘d and ah‘d a couple of times, then came out with this gem.

He refered to it as “conventional grid electricity”.

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