Monday, 20 October 2014

Friedrich Heinz

Friedrich Wilhelm Heinz

7 May 1899 – 26 February 1968


December 1940 - Major

1943 - Lieutenant Colonel


Heinz was a writer, a soldier and an intelligence officer.

In 1938, through his contacts in the Abwehr (military intelligence), Heinz was placed in charge of a raiding party which was to escort General von Witzleben and arrest Hitler upon the outbreak of war with Czechoslovakia.

However, Heinz (who favoured restoration of the monarchy) had ideas of his own, and he intended to have Hitler shot.

With the help of Hans Oster, chief of staff of the Abwehr, he had a squad of picked men transferred to his command. Oster supported Heinz’s plan to kill Hitler.

With his team of 20 to 30 heavily armed officers secreted in houses around the Reich Chancellery, Heinz awaited instructions to move. 

Hitler's negotiations with Chamberlain appeared to have failed, and by late September Britain and France had partially mobilised and war seemed inevitable. 

At 2 pm on 28 September 1938, Hitler's final deadline was to expire, and he was expected to order the invasion of Czechoslovakia. As soon as he did, the coup would be launched. 

Inside the Reich Chancellery, Erich Kordt opened the heavy security doors behind the sentry in order to facilitate the raid. Hitler had no special security precautions in place.

General Witzleben was on duty at his headquarters, ready to move troops to surround the Chancellery, arrest Hitler, and take over the city.

Major General Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt held his elite Potsdam division ready to swoop into the capital.

General Hase waited to move his division. 

As the Army's Chief of Staff, Colonel General Halder later wrote: 
There was no possibility of a hitch. All that was needed for a completely successful coup was Hitler's presence in Berlin.
Then the unexpected occurred: Mussolini rang Hitler and asked for a 24 hour delay in the deadline. With less than an hour to spare, Hitler agreed to the postponement. The conspirators were not sure how to act. Should they launch the coup anyway? The decision teetered on the brink.

Then, to the dismay of the conspirators, Hitler was driven out of the Reich Chancellery to fly to Munich. He was beyond their reach.

Next day Mussolini, Chamberlain, Daladier and Hitler met in Munich to discuss the future of Czechoslovakia. The Czechs were not invited.

Hitler won the Sudetenland without bloodshed, and the conspirators knew their chance to act against him was lost.

In 1939 there was a further proposed coup - this time far less developed - and Friedrich Heinz was also ready to act.

Heinz was at the Bendlerblock on 20 July 1944, but his role in that coup was relatively minor.


Following the failure of the July Plot, Heinz managed to cover his involvement for some time, but when further information about his past involvement came to light, he was forced into hiding in November 1944, and survived the war living underground.

After the war he worked as a writer and became a key figure in the West German intelligence establishment.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Rudolf-Christoph Freiherr (Baron) von Gersdorff

 27 March 1905 – 27 January 1980

General Gersdorff

Rudolf-Christoph von Gersdorff was a German staff officer in the Second World War, who in April 1945 achieved the rank of Major General. He was a prominent member of the German resistance to Nazism.

The son of a general, Gersdorff was from a Silesian family that traced its heritage back for over 1000 years. He held strong religious beliefs, and was deeply opposed to the Nazi regime. He was a career soldier who was married with one daughter. A fine equestrian, he was horse mad all his life.

Gersdorff met the anti-Nazi conspirator Henning von Tresckow in 1940 – before the invasion of France. Gersdorff was immediately impressed with Tresckow, whom he thought radiated ‘powerful authority’. He unhesitatingly accepted Tresckow’s invitation to work with him if the occasion arose.

In April 1941 Gersdorff was posted to Tresckow’s staff at Army Group Centre (for the invasion of Russia) to serve as its intelligence liaison with the Abwehr (military intelligence) – part of the cadre of anti-Nazi officers Tresckow built up around him.

Many years later, Gersdorff wrote ‘In the course of my lifetime I have come to know many important or notable people, but to this day I have never met anyone whose mental calibre and strength of character were comparable to those of Henning von Tresckow.’

Gersdorff took an active hand in opposing Hitler’s ‘Commissar Order’ (by which Hitler ordered the summary execution of political advisers serving with Soviet troops) and, along with Tresckow, sought to have Field Marshal Bock tell Hitler that it would not be obeyed. Bock confined himself to a vague and indirect protest.

In his role as an intelligence officer, Gersdorff obtained the captured British timer fuses and clam bombs used by Tresckow and Schlabrendorff for the ‘cointreau’ bomb placed on Hitler’s aircraft on 13 March 1943.

The following week, on 21 March 1943, ‘Heroes Memorial Day’ – an annual commemoration for fallen soldiers – was to be marked with a ceremony at the glass-roofed Zeughaus (Armoury) in Berlin. Hitler was to attend. Army Group Centre had compiled an exhibition of captured Russian weaponry for the occasion, which Hitler was to inspect.

Tresckow, who had arranged the exhibition, insisted that Army Group Centre’s Intelligence Officer, Colonel Baron Rudolph-Christoph von Gersdorff, attend.

Gersdorff was a committed member of the resistance.

Tresckow summoned Gersdorff, speaking to him with ‘the utmost gravity’ about the situation and the ‘absolute necessity’ of saving Germany from destruction. He asked Gersdorff to assassinate Hitler during the weaponry inspection. Gersdorff would probably be killed. Gersdorff reflected, then agreed. Tresckow took Gersdorff on a long walk, and said: ‘Isn’t it a monstrous thing, that here are two German General Staff officers, conferring together about the best way to kill their commander-in-chief? But it has to be done. It is now the only possible way to save Germany from her downfall. The world has to be set free from the greatest criminal of all time. He must be struck down dead like a mad dog who threatens all mankind.’

Gersdorff flew to Berlin on 20 March 1943, and spent the remainder of the day investigating assassination possibilities. He looked at the whole set up, and slowly realized that there was nowhere to plant a bomb, and the only way would be for him to set off a bomb on his own person.

That evening, lawyer and fellow officer Schlabrendorff delivered clam mines to Gersdorff at his hotel. These were of the same kind as had been used for the Cointreau bomb the previous week. Gersdorff had brought with him two of the ten-minute silent fuses.

Only when he was alone in the evening did the significance of Gersdorff’s plans bear in on him. He did not shut his eyes for the whole night.

During the ceremony, Gersdorff swallowed a Pervitin amphetamine tablet[1] Tresckow had given him.

Hitler (right front) with other German leaders, at the Zeughaus on 21 March 1943

The ceremony started an hour late. Hitler spoke briefly. The Berlin Philharmonic played the first movement of Bruckner’s 7th symphony. Then Gersdorff moved into position for the start of the inspection. When Hitler and his entourage (including Göring, Himmler, Field Marshal Keitel and Admiral Dönitz) walked over to the exhibition, Hitler called on Field Marshal Bock to accompany him. While attention was distracted, Gersdorff, his right arm raised in the Hitler salute, reached into his left pocket (a risky gesture) and squeezed on the fuse, activating it. He had another clam mine in the right pocket of his overcoat, but counted on the detonation of the first bomb setting off the second.

Gersdorff would need to remain close to Hitler after he had activated the fuse. He knew that Hitler had allotted ten minutes to inspect the weapons – the approximate length of the timer.

But Hitler paid almost no attention to the exhibits, walking at an ever-accelerating pace, until he was almost running through the display. Gersdorff struggled to keep up. Hitler showed no interest in Gersdorff’s explanations. Even an old Napoleonic standard, unearthed in a riverbed by German engineers, did not interest the Führer.

The ceremony was broadcast live by radio. Tresckow and Schlabrendorff, at Army Group Centre in Russia, were following the events as they happened. Again, Olbricht stood ready to move troops to key parts of Berlin. Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a party to the plan, spent the time singing motets with friends, all the while eying the telephone.

The radio report indicated that about two minutes after entering the exhibition, Hitler left[2]. The Führer suddenly ducked out of a side door. He went out to Unter den Linden, where he saw a captured Soviet T34 tank. He then spent some time clambering over it. Gersdorff could not accompany him outside. He could do no more.

Gersdorff had a live bomb in his pocket, with the timer well on the way to exploding. He rushed to the nearest toilet, locked himself into a cubicle, fumbled the bomb out of his pocket, and ripped out the fuse.

Another assassination attempt had come to nothing.

Gersdorff made his way to the exclusive Union Club nearby, hoping to have it to himself. He ran into an old acquaintance, the banker Baron Waldemar von Oppenheim, who stunned him by saying ‘I could have murdered Adolf today. He came riding slowly along Unter den Linden in his open car, right in front of my first-floor room in the Hotel Bristol. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to toss a hand grenade across the footpath and into his car.’

The following month, Gersdorff discovered the mass graves of Polish officers shot by the Soviets at Katyn.

From September 1943 he was transferred to the Führer reserve, and later assigned to the staff on the Western front, in preparation for the expected Allied landing.

He played a critical role in extracting German forces from the Falaise pocket after the Allied breakout in Normandy – for which exploit he was conferred with the Knight’s Cross – Germany’s highest decoration for bravery in the Second World War.

Gersdorff continued to be active in the German opposition.

He met Claus von Stauffenberg only once, in early 1944, in Schlabrendorff’s apartment. Tresckow and Freytag-Loringhoven were also present. It was the last time Gersdorff would see Tresckow. He described being tremendously impressed with Stauffenberg’s ‘extraordinary personality’ and ‘boundless willpower’.
After the failure of the July Plot, Gersdorff expected to be arrested at any time  - but the Gestapo never discovered his involvement in the plots.

He survived the war.

Following the German surrender, Gersdorff was held in custody by US forces until November 1947. His wife had committed suicide during the war, leaving Gersdorff to care for their daughter – something he was unable to do while in custody. His role in the resistance came to light with the publication of Schlabrendorff’s account, and Gersdorff was shunned as a traitor by his fellow officers in custody. 

When high-ranking Nazis were released before he was, the US officer in charge told him ‘You see, throughout his military career General Engel has demonstrated that he will always – and only – carry out the orders he has been given. He will put up no resistance to us in civilian life; therefore, he is of no danger to us. But you have shown that, if necessary, you’ll follow your own conscience; and then, perhaps, you will not obey our decrees. Therefore people like you … are dangerous to us. That’s why we need to keep you in custody for a while longer.’ 

Gersdorff replied that under those circumstances, it was an honour for him to remain in captivity.

After his release, Gersdorff’s beloved Silesia was no longer part of Germany, and he could no longer readily visit.

He remarried, divorced, and married again.

He worked for a time in cold war intelligence, assisting Reinhard Gehlen. He then took up a career in publishing.

He was instrumental in restoring the German Order of St John, which had a long history of charitable work and first aid training. 

A riding accident in 1967 left him paralysed.

In 1979 he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit - one of Germany’s highest civilian honours for service to the community.

He wrote an account of his experiences – Soldat im Untergang (Soldier in the Downfall). It is one of the finest inside accounts of the German resistance.

This is an edited extract from my book TREASON: Claus von Stauffenberg and the Plot to Kill Hitler

[1] Known as ‘tank chocolate’, these amphetamines were widely used by German troops in combat throughout the Second World War

[2] Gersdorff naturally felt it was several minutes longer.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

sinking debate

What has Australia come to, that we can treat asylum seekers so cruelly, while claiming to do so from compassion?

How can we tolerate crocodile tears for drownings at sea from politicians who demonise the very people who have died?

What future have we in our region when we demand our neighbours take from us the burden of responsibilities we are treaty-bound to assume ourselves?

What of our reputation when we impose harsh requirements on poor client states to do what they do not want to do – take on the politically embarrassing refugees who have come seeking our help?

What madness is it when an opposition leader is praised for his mantra of ‘turning back the boats’ when he could not do so even if this were a desirable end?

How can we take seriously those who talk of ‘the people smugglers’ business model’ as if this desperate movement of people were somehow workshopped at a Harvard MBA school?

By what folly have we permitted the term ‘border protection’ to insinuate itself into our discourse about those coming to our country seeking our protection – as if by crossing our borders to ask for our help they compromise the borders whose protection they invoke?

And how is it that those who call for compassionate treatment of asylum seekers are all but accused of murdering them at sea?

The current debate on asylum seekers has seen a new nadir in the Australian body politic. Not only are the arguments callous, they are  detached from evidence and logic, swamped by calculations of political advantage, and it seems the vast majority cannot see or does not care what this is doing to our country.

Let us go through the current position. 

Low numbers

About 6000 people currently come to Australia by boat each year seeking asylum. 

These boat numbers are (for the 90% accepted as genuine refugees) part of our humanitarian intake. In 2010-11 our humanitarian intake accepted just 8971 people from overseas, and 4828 people already here (ie 13,799 in total). The budgeted figure for 2011-12 is 14,750. The figure has now increased to 20,000, something which asylum seeker support groups and the Greens have been seeking for years.

Australia has a total annual migrant intake in excess of 110,000 per annum, so the numbers coming by boat are a very small fraction.

Compared with other nations, our intake is tiny. For example, Canada in 2010 granted asylum to 23,160 refugees, and in the same year France granted asylum to 47,790. We had 6,535 boat arrivals in 2010, but Greece had 46,015, and Italy 82,248.

Australia can easily absorb the numbers who come. The hysteria that politicians and others have been able to generate about these small numbers plays on deep-seated fears in our community. We have never properly acknowledged that we dispossessed others who were here before us, and we in our turn fear those who come by boat. We always have. It has nothing to do with objective difficulties to our nation. After all, as we proclaim in our national anthem:

For those who've come across the seas
We've boundless plains to share

Why are we tying ourselves in knots over a problem that we should be able to handle with comparative ease?

Political Imperatives

At the time of writing, Labor wants to get asylum seekers off the front pages, because the issue is doing them harm. The Coalition want to keep that issue there, because it helps them. Labor has been prepared to offer anything to the Coalition to get rid of the issue.

As a political circuit breaker, they appointed the 'Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers' which has now submitted its recommendations - based on the terms of reference it was given.
The panel recommended that the Humanitarian Program be increased to 20,000 places per annum - a positive.

However, the panel also recommended processing in PNG, Nauru, and Malaysia, as well as a ‘no advantage’ principle to ensure that no benefit is gained through circumventing 'regular migration arrangements'.

Legislation very rapidly cobbled together after the report was delivered has now passed both houses of the federal parliament, with the Greens the only party to oppose it,

That legislation goes beyond the recommendations of the expert panel. It denies asylum seekers basic human rights. In particular, the legislation explicitly states that asylum seekers are to be denied natural justice, it explicitly states that 'protections' to asylum seekers are not legally binding on the government, and it removes the role of the Minister as guardian of unaccompanied children - thus removing his (or anyone else's) accountability if he does not act in the best interests of the child.

"Queue jumpers"

By definition, a person cannot seek asylum as a refugee unless they have fled their own country. There is no queue in Iraq or Afghanistan to take them. They must get out as best they can, and then find somewhere to live. Some are able to be assessed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but even then they are not guaranteed resettlement – many who have taken boats to Australia have already been assessed to be refugees by the UNHCR. Some have no opportunity to be assessed before they take a boat to Australia.

As the UN has pointed out, queue jumping is a myth.

By all means let us establish orderly mechanisms for refugees seeking to invoke our protection to come to Australia, but until we do, it is frankly dishonest to use the term ‘queue jumper’ because for most who come by boat there is no queue to jump.

"Border protection"

We all want our borders protected. After all, the term implies invasion by some foreign military force after which our borders may be redrawn and we lose part or all of our country. We don't want that.

But that is nothing to do with the case. People coming here by boat as asylum seekers do not threaten our borders. They invoke the protection of our borders. It is as foolish to use the border protection paradigm as it would be to speak of a mediaeval person seeking the sanctuary of the church threatening the church's jurisdiction.

Crossing the border to seek our protection does not threaten our borders at all, and it is folly to use the term. The only threat to our borders comes from politicians who have excised large parts of Australia from the so-called 'Migration Zone' where the usual rights and legal protections no longer apply. That really does threaten our borders, because it creates a large zone which is not fully accepted as part of Australian jurisdiction.

International relations

Australia was one of the first countries to sign the Refugee Convention in 1954. This followed the disgrace of the world failing to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe, and was an attempt to ensure that this would not happen again.

We have obligations under that convention, obligations we have undertaken before the nations of the world. 

It is our obligation to assess whether a person claiming asylum here is a genuine refugee. We have an obligation of 'non-refoulement' - ie not forcibly returning refugees to the country from which they have fled. It is our responsibility to accommodate those who have come here seeking protection.

How can we expect our most important regional partners, Malaysia, Indonesia (curiously not mentioned in the experts' report) and Thailand, to agree to take on new and heavy responsibilities to thousands of desperate people seeking asylum when the starting point for negotiations is that we won’t? They will expect billions of dollars to be thrown in, but they will despise our attitude.

We are left with offshore processing in poverty-stricken client states like PNG and Nauru, pending the outcome of patronizing, protracted and indeterminate negotiations with Malaysia and other similar nations. That is, the Pacific Solution and all its attendant dangers and damage.

Unless Australia is willing to undertake its fair share in dealing with this problem - starting with the obligations we have publicly undertaken - we will damage our international standing. 

We need good relations in our region. We need to be a good neighbour so we can ask for help when we need it. This roughshod shirking of our responsibilities is doing our nation long term harm.

Psychiatric harm

We already know that the mandatory detention of asylum seekers - including in offshore facilities like Manus Island and Nauru - causes serious long term psychiatric harm. 

The longer detention now contemplated will cause more harm. It is unconscionable for a government to contemplate causing such harm to people, especially those who have already suffered and have come seeking our help. The dehumanizing involved in holding people in such institutions with inadequate facilities, no proper access to legal assistance, no definite end to their incarceration, is damaging to those held, but it also brutalises our nation. How can we do this to people and not expect this cancer to metastasise through our body politic?


One of the most insidious aspects of the current debate is expressed as concern for the safety of asylum seekers. Safety as a value cannot be criticised. Everyone's in favour of it. And there's no doubt that the losses of asylum seekers at sea are tragic.

Pardon me for saying so, but much of this concern for the safety of asylum seekers is frankly hypocritical. The coalition have made much of their reputation for being 'tough on asylum seekers', and they have boasted at the toughness (lack of compassion) in their policies. It is hard to see anything sincere about their concern for the safety of asylum seekers. If that were a genuine concern, why do they not also care about the mental harm mandatory detention policies have done to so many? 

Many politicians have demonised asylum seekers, a fact not lost on the UN, which has repeatedly criticised Australian politicians for doing so. Scott Morrison, for example, has said that they “bring disease … wads of  cash … and large displays of  jewellery”. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, knowing the claim to be false, continues to refer to asylum seekers as 'illegals'. The media only rarely challenge him for the lie. 

When such men proclaim their grief for the people they continue to demonise it is hard to take them seriously. Beware the confected grieving of powerful men. There is often a deeper and uglier agenda beneath.

And in this case the agenda is justification of harsh measures against asylum seekers 'to deter them'. 

The conventional wisdom has been that John Howard stopped the boats, and he did so by harsh measures. But the Pacific Solution coincided with the Norwegian sponsored peace agreement in Sri Lanka - during which time there were no Tamils fleeing from that country. It coincided with the shocked quiet that initially followed the invasions respectively of Afghanistan and Iraq. Weighing up John Howard's policy in order to determine whether to come to Australia, if it happened at all, was low on the list of asylum seeker priorities.

An ugly feature of this argument has been vilification of those who oppose offshore processing as 'supporting people dying at sea'. There are many examples of this particularly vile rhetoric. The twittersphere has recorded tweets such as 'Greens support profiteering from people dying at sea' and 'I prefer to support people dying at sea so we can feel good while eating our tofu at expensive fundraisers'. It is not just asylum seekers who are being demonised now. Those who call for their humane treatment are accused of supporting their deaths. This represents a new low in our national debate and is the kind of hyperbole apt to divide a country.

People who get on boats to come to Australia do so knowing it is dangerous. They are fleeing from tyrannical regimes. If they wait for resettlement in refugee internment camps they can wait all their lives. Coming here by boat is not a lifestyle choice. And we think we can deter them? We can only do this if coming to Australia is less attractive than facing down the regime they want to flee.

They are Hazaras fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Tamils fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka, people who have reached the point of desperation. As the panel has noted, they are genuine refugees - 90% are found to be so after they arrive.

To pursue deterrence as a policy in this area is to choose a dangerous moral position: we will cause harm to someone who has committed no crime in order to make some other unspecified person decide it's not worth it to come. Holding or hurting someone who has committed no crime in order to make someone else act in a different way is in my view immoral - it is the same moral choice as taken by the extortionist. 

Having chosen the path of deterrence, any effective deterrent must make the option of coming to Australia nastier than the option of remaining to be persecuted by a tyrannical regime. 

Is that the kind of country we want?

'Protecting people' from the risks of boat travel to Australia has as its counterpart leaving them exposed to the risks they seek to escape.

Making people wait on Manus Island or Nauru for years will not save lives, and there has been no credible case made that it could - but we know it will cause detainees long term harm. 

I do not believe that this is genuinely about saving lives at all. I do not believe that has been the guiding principle for action by government of either stripe on this issue. It's about giving refugees a hard time so the government can claim to be tough on boat people.

This demeans Australia. The world will rightly despise us for such behaviour.

No advantage

The expert panel on asylum seekers has recommended a ‘no advantage’ principle to ensure that no benefit is gained through circumventing regular migration arrangements. In practical terms, it is hard to know what this will mean.

As Julian Burnside puts it so well: 
What are the dynamics of all this?  Sending people to Nauru or PNG and resettling them at the time when they would otherwise have been resettled is obviously intended as a deterrent (or ‘disincentive’ as the report calls it).  Same for turning boats back.  The point is to make coming to Australia less attractive.  There’s a couple of problems here.  First, how do you determine when a person would otherwise have been resettled?  Do you measure the average time in an African camp?  Do you look at the average time the same person would have spent in Malaysia or Indonesia?  That will throw up a different answer. It’s going to cause problems. The average time for resettlement can range from 5 years to 40 years. Let’s take 5 years to keep the maths simple. A boat person will get a ‘5-year penalty’.  Presumably they will be held in Nauru or Manus Island during that time, before being resettled somewhere (the report does not say where they might be resettled).  If this year’s boat people number (to August) is used as the annual average arrival rate, then Nauru (or Manus Island) will have to accommodate 35,000 boat people while the principle of ‘no advantage’ plays out. That would involve the population of Nauru increasing by 540%, or the population of Manus Island increasing by 81%.  (If they came to Australia, the population would increase by 0.002%).  Has this been run through the common-sense filter?

The policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers, and even more so the policy of offshore detention, costs our nation billions of dollars. It's as if money is no object on this issue. Which is scarcely surprising, because the policy is not driven by reason.

Compromise and being reasonable

The Greens have been criticised for not compromising on this issue. They are not realistic. They are not 'players'. They are 'out of touch'. Often, compromise is a very good thing, and the Greens have demonstrated a capacity to compromise on issues and work through them again and again. 

But compromise is not an end in itself. If the compromise leads to an amelioration of harm, or an increase in good, it is worth doing. But if there is no improved policy outcome to be gained from compromise, sometimes all that remains is the simple dignity of standing firmly for what you believe in, bearing witness that at least someone was prepared to oppose an evil.

Time will tell, but I believe the Greens will be vindicated for their stand.


We are not seeing the kind of leadership Australia needs on this issue. We have leaders advocating cruelty to vulnerable asylum seekers for their own political advantage. Our leaders make no appeals to any great vision of what Australia should and could be. We have no inspiring declaration of independence from our founding fathers to which they can look for guidance. Our leaders do not invoke the great principles of human rights, in relation to which Australia once took a lead. When the UN Human Rights Committee criticises our asylum seeker policies and particularly mandatory detention, Australia petulantly ignores the rebukes.

Where there are no great principles invoked, all too often we are left with self-interest.

And indeed we see a debate which is self-serving, dishonest, divorced from facts and logic, and which gives licence to treat vulnerable people cruelly. When we regard it as acceptable to mistreat the vulnerable, we are doing long term harm to our nation, for we diminish what it means to be Australian.

We Australians think that the kind of divisions we see in other nations cannot happen here. But they can happen anywhere if leaders are not astute to keep our community healthy. The recent debate on asylum seekers, and the decisions to which it has given rise, carries with it the danger of fraying the fabric of our community.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Rare Trees

Flower of Eucalyptus recurva - one of the oldest and rarest plants on Earth

We keep discovering more about the Australian bush.

Once we had the tallest trees on Earth.  We have our Wollemi pines, survivors from the age of the dinosaurs, discovered in the 1990s to the astonishment of the world.

High on the slopes of Tasmania's Mount Read, beside the small glacial Lake Johnston, there is a patch of huon pine approximately 1 hectare in extent. At an altitude of 1000 metres, it is the highest occurrence of huon pine recorded.

In 1995 (the same year as the discovery of the wollemi pine), researchers were astonished to find not only that all the trees in this stand were male, but that DNA tests showed them to be genetically identical. They were clones of the one tree, evidently spreading as branches made contact with the soil and a fresh trunk sprouted. Huon pine pollen samples from Lake Johnston's sediments were dated at 10,500 years.

The oldest individual trunk in this colony may be 2000 years old, but the lonely male organism as a whole is in excess of 10,500 years old, probably having become established before the last glacial period, maybe as long ago as 30,000 years.

Perhaps the rarest eucalypt is Eucalyptus recurva - discovered in the 1980s and also known as the Ice Age Gum or the Mongarlowe Mallee. It is a mallee, with many stems sprouting from a single lignotuber (underground root ball).

The species is known from only four sites on the southern tablelands of NSW - three of the sites having just a single individual, and the other having two. Some of these five individuals are genetically identical.

The oldest of these plants, near Windellama, south east of Goulburn, is considered to be 13,000 years old and a relic of the ice age. It is possibly the oldest plant on Earth.

Because of the plant's extreme rarity, the exact locations of each known specimen is a closely guarded secret - although all are on private property.

Another particularly rare mallee - this time in Western Australia - is the Meelup Mallee (Eucalyptus phylacis). It was also discovered in the 1980s and is currently known from a single clonal population comprising 27 genetically identical individuals over a range of .09 hectares in the Shire of Busselton. The distance between the ramets (i.e. clonal individuals) suggests that this plant is also very old, and the estimate is between 6,380 years and 6,660 years. Its lignotuber extends for some 40 metres.

Eucalypts are difficult to classify. Species seem to blend into each other, and often different species can appear quite similar, and the same species can have very different appearances. Scientists now recognise three distinct genera of eucalypts: Angophora, Corymbia and Eucalyptus.

There have been many new species of eucalypt described to science in recent years, such as the Wollemi stringybark (as distinct from the pine), named in 2011, or the two species of eucalypt from northern NSW first described to science in 1999 - Eucalyptus quinniorum and E. oresbia, just two years after five new species were discovered in the same State. In 2001 a further species was discovered in NSW - E. boliviana - confined to a small stand near the crest of a single hill.

In 2009 scientists at Kew Gardens in London announced they had identified two new species of eucalypt from Western Australia. And more seem to be discovered all the time.

Often these new species are identified in small, isolated clumps of trees. Historically, and into the present day, many such clumps have been routinely cleared or logged, and in the process we have lost unguessed riches from our land's biodiversity.

We whitefellas are newcomers to this land, and have not yet learned all that it has to offer. The rare and wonderful secrets it is gradually revealing encourage us to treat it with profound respect.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

My father's fungi

Tarra Valley Archway by Jason Green

When I was a young boy, our family stayed in Tarra Valley in Gippsland.

Tarra (rhymes with 'Yarra' - it is not pronounced like Scarlet O'Hara's home) Valley is a remnant of the magnificent forests which once covered the Strzlecki Ranges. It was a wonderful experience for four brothers - roaming freely through this rain-soaked wonderland of old growth forest, with tree ferns taller than a two storey house, massive trees, fallen logs fermenting back into the oozing soil, lyre birds and leeches in abundance, and many places to become lost.

We stayed with Karamoana Healey (to us, always 'Mrs Healey' - she was part Maori, and her first name has that origin) in her house in the forest. It was on land now part of the national park, but then adjacent to it. Mrs Healey was ranger (called 'caretaker' at that time) of Tarra Valley National Park (as it was then called - now Tarra-Bulga National Park). She had no electricity, and the walls were lined with newspapers. I slept in a room made by closing in one end of the verandah - a room which boasted the exotic extravagance of a harmonium. Her extended family often visited, and we enjoyed meeting them. Mrs Healey was a woman with immense energy, and she loved Tarra Valley and knew what all its lyrebirds, animals and insects were up to.

In 1990, 30 years since we had stayed there, Sally and I went back with my parents. We looked for the old house. It had been in a large clearing, and we knew where it should be, but couldn't seem to locate it. Finally we noticed a shelf half way up the side of a road cutting - perhaps that was the remains of her drive after the road was widened? We climbed up, and walked through the bush. My father walked ahead, and called out. He had found hydrangeas, and knew we were in Mrs Healey's garden. Soon, to our great excitement, there was the house itself.  Rain was getting in and the veranda had already collapsed. It wasn't going to stay upright for much longer. I looked at a rusty hurricane lamp on a post outside, and tore a small strip of the 1930s newspaper from the wall to keep as a memento. It was the classified section, and houses were selling in Canning Street Carlton (where Sally and I then lived) for 150 pounds.

How had we come to this enchanted place to holiday in the first place?

My father, Neville Walters, worked for the CSIRO's Division of Forest Products in South Melbourne. His office looked out on the underside of the King Street Bridge - and if he were there today he'd find, instead of his quiet laboratory, the echoing cacophony of Crown Casino.

Dad was a mycologist - he studied fungi. He spent decades building what is now Australia's major collection of fungi, named after him, and which is housed today in the National Herbarium of Victoria adjacent to Melbourne's Botanic Gardens.

This short clip from Gardening Australia (you have to go down the page and choose the item 'The Fungi Collector' to view it) describes the collection he built up.

Dad had collectors all round Australia sending him fungi.

Several of them came to visit us, including Jim Willis, H J Cann and the one who gave him more specimens than anyone else - Mrs Healey. After a long correspondence with my father, and after visits from him for field trips from time to time, she invited us all to come and stay.

My father was English, but the turmoil of the war tossed him up on the shores of Australia, where he met my mother. He loved the Australian bush, and knew a good deal about it - more than most who have grown up here. He studied botany at Melbourne University post war, and soon specialised in his beloved fungi.

Whilst a childhood highlight for us was going for family outings to magical bush places, we struggled to take in the Latin names for the various plants - and especially fungi - which Dad would carefully recite for us.

Meanwhile his collection of fungi was building, and today stands as an important baseline for the fungi of Australia as we confront the challenge of climate change. It is a significant legacy, but perhaps more is the legacy of family and friends with an intense appreciation of the forests and bush he loved.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Bob Brown

Address at the Greens dinner on Friday 22nd June 2012 to thank Bob Brown on the occasion of his retirement from the Australian Senate

My fellow Greens,
A few years ago, Bob and I spoke at an event in Orange in New South Wales.

On the way back to Canberra, we detoured to drive through Trunkey Creek. There’s nothing flash about Trunkey Creek. It’s a modest settlement that hardly deserves even the name of village. There’s a pub – called the ‘Black Stump’ - an old and now disused general store, a cemetery, and a brick police station with an attached house built in 1879. Bob’s father was the Trunkey Creek policeman, and this is the house where Bob spent his early years. It has cells where, I have it on good authority, Bob’s father, perhaps training his son for bigger things to come, once incarcerated him.

We drove around the settlement, Bob sharing warm memories of what was a pretty normal rural upbringing.

Bob’s background is completely ordinary.

And yet, on that foundation Bob has, by the alchemy of clear-sighted decisions, and being prepared to swim against the tide, built an inspiring contribution to this Earth and to all of us here tonight.

In 1976 Bob, by then a GP in northern Tasmania, was walking down a street in Launceston when a forester named Paul Smith approached him. Paul invited Bob to join him in rafting down a remote river called the Franklin - a river which Bob had never heard of until that conversation. When Bob and Paul paddled down from the Collingwood bridge, disappearing from sight around a bend in the river, they were venturing into a largely unexplored area of Tasmania. On that journey, which opened magic places of remote wilderness to him, Bob named several of the features of the river. At Propsting Gorge he and Paul went into an HEC hut where they saw plans for a series of dams up the river. The rest, as they say, is history.

Galvanized by the imminent threat to this last great wild river, Bob overcame intense shyness to speak with spell-binding force at rallies all around Australia, including our own large rallies here in Melbourne.

In the Franklin blockade, Bob was arrested at the end of 1982. The offence, on conviction, carried a $100 fine, and yet Bob was jailed for weeks because he refused to sign the unreasonable and, as it was later held, unlawful bail conditions which were imposed.

Then, as new year 1983 came in, Norm Sanders resigned from the Tasmanian parliament to run for the senate, knowing that on a recount, Bob would be elected. Bob came out of prison to be declared the new member for Denison that day. Later that same year, the High Court, in one of its most important constitutional judgments, upheld the regulations of the Hawke government which made the Franklin Dam illegal, and the river flows free to the sea to this day.

I say – thanks to Bob, but Bob has always eschewed the role of hero over the Franklin campaign – although he inspired so many. He points to all those who were involved in this campaign. For Bob, his leadership has never been about self-aggrandizement, but always about community.

When Bob stood for election in the Tasmanian state parliament in 1982, the Robin Gray led Liberal Party held a rally in St David’s Park in Hobart. There they released hundreds of balloons adorned with the message ‘Brown is a Green queen’.

I have never seen anything other than magnanimity and equanimity from Bob in dealing with this kind of homophobic reaction to his sexuality. Coming out was an act of grace and courage which was done to help others who were coming to terms with their own sexuality. In the face of the kind of intolerance he faced, Bob never succumbed to it himself.

One of the striking features of Bob Brown’s contribution has been his courage. Bob has been beaten, shot at, had cars firebombed, had a bulldozer drive at him when he was under its scoop, and been frequently arrested - to say nothing of being repeatedly vilified.

He has also showed remarkable compassion. He has travelled to countries like Mexico and Colombia to negotiate the release of kidnapped Greens, and contributed $100,000 of his own money (taking out a bank loan to do so) to arrange freedom for Nigel Brennan, the Australian photojournalist kidnapped in Somalia.

In 2001, when the Howard government sent troops onto the Tampa to prevent, at gunpoint, asylum seekers approaching the courts to secure their rights, it was Bob Brown who spoke out against it immediately. It is worth recalling the political context. An election was due at any time, and Bob faced imminent electoral defeat. Both Labor and Liberal had announced they would preference against him. The Howard government’s action was very popular with many voters.

Bob’s reaction was not to hide, but to call a press conference and state his opposition to this capitulation to Hansonism. Indeed at first it was only Bob who took a stand. It took the Democrats 24 hours to condemn the Howard government. Kim Beazley remained resolutely irresolute – trying to make himself a small target right up to the time he lost the election.

Many pundits predicted that Bob’s reaction was electoral suicide, but it was Bob’s very willingness to put himself on the edge which saw the Green vote go up a gear at the election in November 2001. We jumped from 2% nationally to 5% nationally. Bob was able to achieve election in Tasmania without the preferences of Labor or Liberal. And under Bob’s leadership, how far we have come since then? A national vote in excess of 10% and the balance of power in both houses.

We have seen Bob speak out again and again – addressing the huge rally here in Melbourne on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, and who can forget Bob standing up in Parliament to confront George W Bush about the treatment of Australians in Guantanamo?

Bob likes starting things. Not just the Wilderness Society – which formed at his home in Liffey - but also the Greens, which he built in Tasmania and then across Australia with numerous meetings, and in 1991 when he won the Goldman Environmental Prize (the Nobel Prize for Greenies), he used the prize money to found Bush Heritage Australia, which now manages 1 million hectares of Australian land for its biodiversity and employs over 70 staff, with an annual budget of $20 million. Last year Bob donated his beloved Liffey to Bush Heritage Australia.

Anyone who has spent time with Bob, or read his writings, knows that the fine detail of nature brings out the best and most lyrical in him. With my family I walked with him to Mt St Gwinear in the Baw Baws once. Bob was very steady and present to the bush around him – sometimes stopping to photograph tiny details, alert to all around him and taking in all it had to offer.

How do we thank you, Bob, for a lifetime of service?

I first met Bob in Hardware Lane 33 years ago. Bob’s been there all my adult life – a figure so often able to express what is right even while I’m still struggling to find it. A moral compass for our nation. A beacon for the planet.

Our small thanks tonight cannot augment the sparkling gifts you have given to the Earth and to us all in your career, Bob. But we offer it, and we are inspired by your example to serve the Earth and our fellow beings to make this world a better place.

Please charge your glasses, and let’s drink a toast to our Bob Brown.