Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Hoddle Highway?

Hoddle Street beside Collingwood Town Hall
- just the other side of the Town Hall runs the Hurstbridge/Epping rail line
Each morning Hoddle Street is choked with traffic. The government has committed to a $5 million study “to investigate ways to improve the efficiency and reliability of all modes of transport along and across Hoddle Street from Eastern Freeway to just north of the M1 Freeway”.
Although the proposal is to improve "all modes of transport" the study is being conducted by VicRoads. The focus on Hoddle Street, separate from the other major transport routes with which it interrelates, suggests there will be a focus on cars and roads, rather than, for example, trains.
Close examination of the Project Description, which forms part of the Hoddle Street Study Scope document (downloadable from the home page of the Study) shows that the real purpose of this study is nothing other than roadworks. It is an engineering study to best carry out "grade separation" (ie flyovers and tunnels) along Hoddle Street:
Grade separating some of these junctions has the potential to improve the operation of Melbourne's central road system for cars, trams, buses and commercial vehicles.
The Government will allocate $5 million to commence engineering investigations to determine the feasibility of grade separating key junctions on Hoddle Street. A key element in these investigations will be to assess how disruption to traffic could best bee minimised during any construction works.
Rail will not be considered. Nor any other more imaginative options. It's just lots of road building. Disruption "to traffic" will be considered, but not to residents or parklands.
Each morning at peak hour Hoddle Street carries in total some 8000 vehicles. There is an average of 1.1 people per vehicle. Most of the traffic is heading into the city.
The best capacity roads can achieve is about 700 cars per hour per lane. Hoddle Street is already very close to that level of use, so the benefit from expensive grade separation is necessarily minimal.
Let's take a look at how people move in the area during the mornings at present:
People movement in Hoddle Street area
In addition to the 8000 cars along Hoddle Street, there are about 12,000 cars going along the cross streets. Along the cross streets, buses move about 4500 people at present. Trams move about 4200 people.
But the big people mover is rail. Trains in the vicinity of Hoddle Street move 80,000 people each morning. Whilst the cars sit in their traffic jams, fully loaded trains whisk by.
The train system has a lot of room for more efficiency - more frequent trains would get many more people into the city in less time. Those who have to travel by car would do so more easily.
Hoddle Street is crowded because cars are such an inefficient way to move people in numbers. The billions of dollars in upgrading Hoddle Street would be better spent upgrading the rail system.
And that's even before we've talked about peak oil or carbon emissions - or bicycles.
Residents certainly don't want this Hoddle Highway white elephant. It will mean using Yarra Park as a construction site for years, and major disruption to the local area. The Greens held a public meeting in the East Melbourne Library last week, with numbers overflowing the venue. The opposition was unanimous, well-informed and passionate.
We want imaginative solutions that deal with the real transport needs of Melbourne. The Greens' People Plan is a great start.
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Friday, 23 April 2010

Why are we fighting in Afghanistan?

Australian troops in Afghanistan

So Tony Abbott wants to send more Australian troops to Afghanistan. "Doing more would be a sign Australia was serious about its overseas responsibilities," he said today.

If we send more Australians to fight in Afghanistan, some of these young men will die. Others will be fearfully injured. We’d better be very sure it is worth putting our people in harm’s way.

Just what "overseas responsibilities" is Tony Abott referring to? He did not say, and this kind of vague jingoism will not do when lives are at stake.

It's just a year since Kevin Rudd announced he was sending another 450 troops to Afghanistan. He gave only two reasons: to prevent Australians dying from terrorism and to comply with our ANZUS treaty obligations.

Sending soldiers to occupy a foreign country far from our shores is no way to repress terrorism. If anything, the resentments created are apt to nourish terrorism and make us more of a target. The Taliban gain their traction from fighting foreign invaders and the al-Qaeda training camps are long gone anyway. The PM’s first reason makes no sense: getting Australians killed is no way to protect Australians.

As for Rudd's second reason, the ANZUS treaty imposes no obligation on Australia relevant to the Afghan conflict. The operative article provides:
The Parties will consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened in the Pacific.

The requirement is for consultation, not the sending of troops, and relates to threats in the Pacific -- a theatre which on no view includes Afghanistan. Of course, the US no longer respects any obligation to our neighbour New Zealand under this treaty anyway.

Why are we in Afghanistan at all? What really are the aims of this war? How will we even know when we’ve won it? Unless there are clear answers to these questions, our involvement is immoral.

Nine days after the 9/11 attack, President George W Bush demanded that Afghanistan “deliver to United States authorities all of the leaders of Al-Qaeda who hide in your land.” The demand was an ultimatum. President Bush said in his address to Congress “They will hand over the terrorists or they will share in their fate.

The Taliban rulers of Afghanistan asked for evidence to demonstrate Osama bin Laden’s involvement in the September 11 attacks. If such evidence warranted a trial, they offered to handle the trial in Afghanistan.

The US refused to offer any evidence. They made no request for extradition. There was no pretence of legal process. Like the leader of a Southern lynch mob, Dubya was sending in his boys to do rough justice on Osama bin Laden and wasn’t going to let legalities get in the way.

On 7 October 2001 the invasion began with a large-scale bombardment. The stated purpose was to capture Bin Laden, destroy al-Qaeda, and remove the Taliban regime for harbouring them. For thousands of years, conquering armies had come to Afghanistan because of its strategic position at the crossroads of empires. Now it was invaded because it was a dead end backwater where a fugitive was hiding.

The US and its allies missed Osama bin Laden, so the rhetoric for the war changed. It was really, we were told, all about restoring democracy (often coupled with restoring the rights of women).

If this is the reason Australia sent troops to Afghanistan, it hasn’t worked. Sure, there now is a vote in Afghanistan for those where Kabul’s writ runs and that is something. But without more it does not amount to democracy. It is the essence of democracy to respect the rule of law and to listen to different voices. To go to war rather than go to law, to use force rather than negotiation, is the antithesis of the democratic ideal. Far from spreading democracy, the invasion has undermined it. At the same time, the new regime in Afghanistan has proved almost as oppressive to women as the Taliban. More than eight years after the invasion, the Taliban remains a growing force precisely because of the western military presence. Tension with Pakistan and throughout the region has spread.

The grisly stories of US special forces killing civilians keep surfacing. There is no official record of civilian casualties, but the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan lists 2,118 Afghan civilians killed by armed conflict in 2008 alone. The civilians killed in Afghanistan now far outnumber those killed in the US on 9/11.

Afghanistan has been a sorry place for invaders. In 1839 the British amassed their huge Army of the Indus, which stretched for 30 miles when it marched. They invaded Afghanistan, engaged in regime change, but an insurgency slowly built up around them. When they finally retreated in 1842, only one man made it out to the British garrison at Jallalabad. More recently the Soviets, with far larger forces than those currently occupying the country, were eventually driven out.

"Remnants of an Army" by Lady Elizabeth Butler, depicting the last British survivor reaching Jallalabad in 1842

Sending more troops to Afghanistan only exacerbates the folly of our involvement in the first place. Far from sending more troops, it’s time to bring our young men and women home.

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Thursday, 22 April 2010

Holding the Line

Tony Fitzgerald QC hands over his report into corruption in Queensland

I came into contact with Carl Williams a number of times. I was usually appearing for the police in relation to subpoenas and other technical issues involving his murder trials. I never quite got used to his boyish good looks and cheerful demeanour, which seemed surreal in the sobre atmosphere of the Supreme Court.

Recently, following the murder of Carl Williams in his "high security" prison, there have been calls for inquiries into police corruption. Court orders prevent me explaining why people have supposed there might be any connection, but it is sufficient to say these calls follow the murders of several informers who were to give evidence against allegedly corrupt police.

Carl Williams behind glass in court

Premier John Brumby has dismissed calls for a Royal Commission, saying that Carl Williams was a serial killer and a royal commission into his death would be a waste of taxpayers' money.

The Premier misses the point. A proper independent inquiry (it need not be a royal commission) is not about Carl Williams - it's about us. It's about our values. It's about whether murders (even of criminals) might be occurring in order to cover up corruption by some police - who have been given special powers to exercise on our behalf. Corruption of those in whom we entrust power is very dangerous, and can metastasize through the whole body politic. We must be vigilant about it - for our own sake.

The problem of police corruption is not new and it is not confined to Victoria. If we are to deal with it, we must be prepared to learn from the past and from interstate and even overseas experience.

The 1989 Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption in Queensland was responsible for a complete change in the culture of police and politics in the State. Lest we have to undergo our own Royal Commission here, we must be prepared to learn the lessons of the Fitzgerald Inquiry. We have a long way to go.

Three weeks before the 2006 state election the Victorian government entered into a secret written deal with the Police Association (the union for police officers) in order to secure their electoral support. Both the premier, Mr Bracks, and then police minister, Tim Holding, signed the six-page document, the existence of which did not publicly emerge until after the election.

The agreement was extraordinary. It was made without the knowledge of the Commissioner of Police - Christine Nixon at the time - and it undermined her position for negotiating an enterprise bargaining agreement with members. It directly trespassed into operational areas, such as the provision of weapons, which were her responsibility. It also committed the government to reimbursing the Police Association for legal representation costs incurred in defending members being investigated by the Office of Police Integrity.

A Commissioner of Police is entitled to expect that she will be the voice of the police speaking to government. In this case, her capacity to do so was seriously undermined.

The Fitzgerald Report emphasized that curbing police corruption required avoiding any direct link between the government and the police union, so as to enable the Commissioner to carry out the duties of properly running the police organization.

The secret deal with the Police Association was precisely the kind of arrangement the Fitzgerald Report warned against. It strengthened the hand of the Police Association, and weakened the Police Commissioner, in a way that is detrimental to the police service and to all Victorians.

Another lesson from the Fitzgerald Report concerns Police Media Units. Tony Fitzgerald warned about the potential use of media by

police officers and other public officials who wish to put out propaganda to advance their own interests and harm their enemies. (report at p 141)

Media units, including the police media unit, have a legitimate function to perform, but it is a function that can all too easily be abused. Instead of informing the public, the media unit can be used to spin a line which is deceptive, or even use their position to trade influence.

Fitzgerald warned that government media units in general could be used:

to manipulate the information obtained by the media. Although most Government-generated publicity will unavoidably and necessarily be politically advantageous, there is no legitimate justification for taxpayers’ money to be spent on politically motivated propaganda. (report at p 142)

If media units do not result in citizens being better informed about government and departmental activities, Fitzgerald argued that “their existence is a misuse of public funds, and likely to help misconduct to flourish” (p 142). Fitzgerald urged the introduction of guidelines to govern their activities and the establishment of an all-party parliamentary committee to scrutinise the cost and operation of ministerial media staff and units.

Currently in Victoria there is inadequate oversight of such units, in relation to the police media unit or in relation to government media units generally.

The Victoria Police has a very large media unit. It is much larger than that of the Prime Minister of Australia. Inevitably, the media unit will have access to information of great sensitivity, and it will have significant power in the dissemination of information. Independent oversight of this Police Media Unit, with clear protocols as to the appropriate limits to its conduct, and publicly available information as to its work, are essential to curb potential abuse by that body.

We ought never be complacent about police corruption – or indeed corruption in general. Where power is entrusted to people, some will abuse that power. Vigilance and independent oversight are required to ensure that we keep a system which is as beneficial as it can be.

External Link

Fitzgerald Report

Human Rights denied

The Eureka Flag

Yesterday the Rudd government announced that it will not give us a Human Rights Act. In the same week that the government reopened the cruel Curtin Detention Centre, it is a tragic missed opportunity.

The Government engaged in a National Human Rights Consultation, under the leadership of Father Frank Brennan AO. It was the most extensive public consultation in Australian history receiving and considering over 35,000 submissions - an unprecedented number, and overwhelmingly in support of a Human Rights Act.

The Report of the Consultation found that human rights are insufficiently protected in Australia and recommended a Human Rights Act.

"Doc" Evatt

On 10th December 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An Australian - Dr H V Evatt - presided over the United Nations for the passage of that historic declaration. After the passage of the Universal Declaration, the UN passed other great human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. Australia ratified both these charters.

It is one thing for Australia to sign onto these treaties. It is another thing to put them into force as part of the domestic law of Australia. Until that is done, they remain largely aspirational, and without real force in the life of our nation.

Alone among all western democracies, Australia has never legislated to recognise and protect the rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The ACT enacted a Human Rights Act in 2004. Victoria enacted a Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act in 2006. These are welcome first steps, but national leadership was required to give effect to these rights across our nation.

No one is suggesting a US style Bill of Rights entrenched in the constitution. What is proposed is an Act of Parliament, under which Parliament remains sovereign, but which directs the courts to consider and apply human rights principles. The courts will not be able to strike down legislation, but will be able to draw Parliament's attention to legislation which runs counter to human rights principles. Parliament may leave the legislation as it is, but may also amend or repeal the legislation to correct the problem. This is known as the "dialogue model", and is the kind of model used in the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand.

Some argue that we don't need a Human Rights Act because totalitarian regimes like the old Soviet Union had bills of rights, and they proved ineffective to protect anyone. Legislated human rights protections in countries like the old Soviet Union, or Zimbabwe today, have no force because the rule of law has no support in such places. None of the laws have real effect because they are states governed by tyrannical regimes. But Australia is not like that. Our courts and police and public service have a culture of abiding by the law. No one can seriously suppose that if the parliament passed a law here it would be given no effect by the courts or those required to administer it.

Opponents of a Human Rights Act make the dire warning that it would be a "lawyer's picnic". Lawyers often have a poor reputation, but a Human Rights Act will not give them a "picnic". Bob Carr ran an Op Ed in the Australian on just this theme - warning that "Lawyers are already drunk with power". I have done a great deal of human rights work over the course of my career, and such work is usually for people with little or no resources - the powerless in the community - and it almost never pays.

The enactment of human rights legislation in other jurisdictions has not seen an explosion of litigation - in fact, almost no increase at all. Most of the effect of the charter has been out of court, in relation to decisions made by public authorities to better reflect their obligations to human rights. Typical examples have been allowing a gay surviving partner to take over the lease of a public housing unit, or preventing the separation of an elderly couple into different nursing homes after decades of marriage. Such litigation as has occurred has usually been in the context of giving an extra argument in cases that would have proceeded anyway. There is no lawyer's picnic in a Human Rights Act.

"Ah!" say the opponents of human rights, "A Human Rights Act transfers power to unelected judges." What utter nonsense this is. A Human Rights Act does not give power to unelected judges, but rather gives power to unelected citizens. Is it seriously proposed that people with human rights grievances could take them before Parliament? The suggestion is preposterous, and would abandon the powerless to the vagaries of political expediency.

Judges are unelected, it is true. They have to be to keep them clear of the political fray. They must decide contests between citizen and State. A Human Rights Act will direct them to consider particular criteria - namely human rights - in determining such disputes. Parliaments direct the courts to consider particular criteria in determining cases all the time. For example, section 15AA of the Acts Interpretation Act 1901 directs courts as follows:

The Human Rights Act would perform exactly the same kind of work, asking judges to apply human rights, and defining what those rights are. This is entirely in conformity with the usual arrangements between parliament and the courts. Far from transferring power to judges, this tells judges how to exercise the discretion they already have.

The opponents of a Human Rights Act generated hysteria about it which was baseless. They did not shrink from fabricating accounts of overseas experience, often persisting in erroneous stories of cases even after the facts had been pointed out. Former NSW Premier Bob Carr, in particular, was shameless about this. The Australian ran articles which were often mendacious to the point of absurdity.

As Philip Lynch, director of the Human Rights Law Resource Centre has written:

A Human Rights Act would build a greater Australia. The government's craven submission to a scare campaign diminishes us all.

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Sunday, 18 April 2010

Indigenous Rights

Over twenty years ago, anthropologists in the Northern Territory accompanied local indigenous people when they went fishing. Drifting well out to sea, with the shore only visible as featureless mangrove swamp on the horizon, they noticed the canoeist suddenly move the boat. When asked why, he replied that this was “other man’s country”.

This happened repeatedly, and in the end, the anthropologists began mapping these boundaries. When they compared these boundaries to a map of the sea bed, they found that in all cases the boundaries corresponded with underwater features – ridges or valleys often as much as 90 metres underwater. The local indigenous people could also pinpoint sacred sites far underwater – places that had not been dry land for over 10,000 years.

The conclusion to which the anthropologists were compelled was breathtaking: this people had retained a cultural memory of the ice age geography of their lands.

A few years ago a friend of mine was staying with the Pitjanjatjara people when two elders returned to their country after a visit to Melbourne. It was their first visit to a big city of any kind.

My friend expected tales of freeways and skyscrapers and aeroplanes – but these things made almost no impression on the elders. Instead, what made an overwhelming impression on them, and the one thing they talked about was the number of unrelated people in Melbourne - people who were not part of any clan. “There are a lot of lonely people in that big city.”

We whitefellas have an immense amount to learn from indigenous culture.

Indigenous policy in Australia represents 200 years of political failure. We have lurched from segregation, to assimilation, then integration, then from ATSIC to “mainstreaming” and now the "intervention".

It is tempting to despair, but the problems of the relations between indigenous Australians and white Australians are human-created problems, and they are capable of solution by humans.

For years we justly criticised the apartheid system in South Africa. We said that the black people there should be given a vote, and boasted that Aboriginal Australians had the vote.

But with Aboriginal Australians making up a tiny minority of our population, it cost the majority nothing to give them the vote. We whitefellas will continue to control things because our majoritarian system means that whoever gets the numbers can dictate government policy.

Our Constitution still contains some alarming provisions, like s 25:
For the purposes of the last section, if by the law of any State all persons of any race are disqualified from voting at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of the State, then, in reckoning the number of the people of the State or of the Commonwealth, persons of the race resident in that State shall not be counted.

In 2005 the Federal Government held up the council controlling Wadeye Community as a prime example of “a successful collaboration between Indigenous people living in a remote community and the three tiers of government (Federal, Territory and local) to establish a functional regional council.” A year later the same community was notorious worldwide as a shocking example of a community where violence and sexual abuse were out of control.

Whatever else may be said, this demonstrates the profound gulf between government policies and the reality on the ground.

Tragically, the abuse and violence is not new, nor is it confined to Aboriginal Australia.

Care must be taken when speaking of Aboriginal Australia – we are discussing many diverse communities, language groups and cultures. Where there are problems, the causes and effective solutions will often be widely differing.

Sexual abuse usually involves ‘one on one’ crimes that often occur in a close relationship or dysfunctional family context. The World Health Organisation has identified overcrowded living conditions, resultant high levels of stress, and poverty as key risk factors associated with child abuse. In the case of Wadeye, where over 2,500 people share just 148 dwellings, and where government expenditure is significantly lower than for other Territorians, all these risk factors are present.

In Wadeye the traditional owners play host to members of many other communities who live with them, a recipe for tension. The local elders have in fact called for more police for years – with no appreciable success. The government said there was nowhere to house them.

Federal leaders insist that parents send their children to school. There are low attendance rates at school in many Aboriginal communities, for a variety of reasons. How have we shown that education is really worthwhile for Aboriginal Australians? Will the education be relevant to their needs? Will attendance earn jobs for them? Aboriginal unemployment is at astronomical levels. And is there proper educational infrastructure anyway? In the case of Wadeye, there were not enough desks or even pencils for the young children in the community.

Traditional Aboriginal customary law in no way condones domestic violence or sexual abuse.
Former Prime Minister John Howard asserted that Aboriginal problems arose because the courts have applied misguided notions of customary law rather than Australian law - and banned courts from considering customary law. This approach reinforces racist stereotypes which do further violence to the harmony of our community.

The Australian Law Reform Commission recently reported on the importance of traditional law in the lives of Aboriginal Australians, and recommended recognition of traditional law. But sadly Kevin Rudd has announced that the ban on considering traditional law will continue.

When courts impose sentences, they must – under Australian law – take account of all the personal circumstances of the offender. That includes cultural factors. Courts can make mistakes, and there is an appeal process to minimise this. Equality before the law does not mean treating unequals equally – that merely perpetuates inequality. To require that Aboriginal offenders (unlike white offenders) should not have their personal cultural factors considered in sentencing is to doom the criminal justice process to the same kind of irrelevance as the former Federal Government’s praise for the Wadeye Council.

Recent calls for an end to cultural sensitivities in sentencing of Aboriginal offenders should be seen for what they are – calls for longer jail terms for indigenous peoples. It is as if we have learnt none of the lessons from the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission.

We are not the only nation to confront these difficulties: the post-colonial world has had to confront the tension between indigenous peoples and more recent arrivals repeatedly. We can learn from the experience of others. That shared wisdom is embodied in the great UN human rights instruments.

The right of all peoples to self-determination is prominent in the UN Charter and has pride of place in the human rights covenants. Self-determination involves different levels of political emancipation. It can involve complete political independence (“external self-determination”) - as with the separation of Slovakia from the Czech Republic. However, in the vast majority of cases it involves different levels of recognition within the framework of the State - “internal self-determination”.

Despite scare-mongering by some political leaders, self-determination does not require political dismemberment of a nation.

In order to be able to exercise the right to self-determination, the UN has noted that a community must have adequate resources to do so. The UN Human Rights Committee has also held that extinction of inherent aboriginal rights is incompatible with this right.

When it imposed the Northern Territory intervention, the Howard government suspended laws against racial discrimination. It failed to adopt the recommendations of the "Little Children Are Sacred" report (which it used to justify its actions), or consult its authors, or indeed the indigenous communities themselves.

Most of us took it as a matter of course that the intervention would be ended - or at least brought into line with human rights principles - when Kevin 07 assumed office. But that did not happen.

This year the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, has examined the Northern Territory Intervention, and consulted persons affected, and sought all available evidence. His conclusion was clear: the intervention is in breach of our international human rights obligations, and "involves racial discrimination". He identified several ways in which the intervention impaired the rights of indigenous persons. He reported that indigenous people repeatedly told him that the measures - including the requirement to produce their bright green "basics card" in order to shop at the supermarket - were demeaning and humiliating.

In response, Minister Jenny Macklin proposed to extend the interventionist measures to other communities. Ben Schokman, senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Resource Centre said the proposals did not restore the Racial Discrimination Act, and described them as "farcical".

We Australians have a proud tradition in the field of human rights. Australia helped pioneer so many advances - the eight hour day, free universal education, women's suffrage - and it was an Australian Attorney-General who presided over the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the United Nations.

But we are trashing that record. On 13th September 2007 the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 143 countries voted in favour, and only four countries voted against - one of them being Australia.

There are no quick or easy solutions to the problems of Aboriginal Australia. And the best strategies will vary from community to community. However, there are ways forward.

The international human rights framework has near universal acceptance. That framework represents a sharing of world wide experience in upholding the dignity of the human person, and it will be a very helpful guide along the way.

We should look to the leaders of indigenous communities for solutions, but we should also find ways to partner them with those in the whitefella community who have specialist skills they need.

White Australia would be enriched if we listened to Aboriginal Australia. And we will be larger as a community when we take the steps necessary to uphold the dignity of Aboriginal Australians.

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Monday, 12 April 2010

Why are we logging our water catchments?

Forest in the O'Shannessy catchment

Melbourne’s water supply is seriously compromised by the continued logging in Melbourne’s water catchments. At a time of water shortage, this cannot be justified.
Once, our water catchments were sacrosanct – and the public are still excluded. However, for the past 30 years, loggers have been permitted into our water catchments.
Around 12% of Melbourne’s total forest catchment is available for logging. 340 hectares can be harvested each year – approximately 170 MCGs.
Clearfelling occurs in five catchments which supply approximately 40% of Melbourne’s water needs.
The logging of native forest has a marked and well-documented impact on the water yield from the forest logged. As new growth establishes itself on the logged landscape, the new plants transpire much more water, and this reduces yield from the logged area. Yield drops to about 50 % of what it was, and it takes up to 200 years for the water yield to reach its former levels. In the meantime enormous quantities of water are lost.
As Vertessy, Watson and O’Sullivan (all attached to the Cooperative Research Centre for Catchment Hydrology in Canberra, but also respectively from the CSIRO, California State University and Monash University) express it in their 2001 study:
Set out below is the well-known Kuczera curve which shows the position graphically.

Once the mature forest is logged, the water yield drops by up to 50%, only returning to normal after an average of 150 years - and up to 200 years.
There are no generally accepted figures for the amount of water we currently lose from past logging in our catchments. However, stopping logging now will save us at least 15 gigalitres of water per annum between now and 2050, or enough water to fill 6000 Olympic-sized swimming pools every year.
Twelve Melbourne councils have now passed motions calling for logging of our catchments to stop.
The timber on this public land belongs to the public, but the royalties received do not cover the costs of facilitating the logging: we are effectively subsidising the destruction of these forests.
There is no sound policy reason for continuing to log Melbourne’s water catchments: it makes neither economic nor environmental sense.
Logging of Melbourne’s water catchments should end immediately. No consideration should have been given to the north south pipeline or the desalination plant while we continue to compromise the primary source of Melbourne’s water.
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Saturday, 10 April 2010

Sinking Human Rights

The MV Tampa waiting off Christmas Island in 2001

At the 2001 Federal election the Liberal Party festooned polling booths with bunting displaying John Howard's face, and the infamous words: "We will decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come". (In other words, we will not be bound by our international obligations towards refugees, nor listen to the pleadings of the international community already dealing with far larger numbers of refugees, but we will simply suit ourselves).

We had just had the arrival of the Tampa, and the cruel Pacific solution (with its name eerily echoing another, far worse "solution") improvised to prevent the political embarrassment of having refugees land on our soil. We in Liberty Victoria took proceedings in the Federal Court to challenge the government's treatment of those on board. Bob Brown immediately and publicly condemned the Howard government - in an act of courage which many thought at the time would amount to political suicide. Kim Beazley, who led the Labor Party, refused to take a stand, and lost the 2001 election.

John Howard ruled Australia for a further six years. In that time the modest amelioration of the asylum seeker policy came not from any pressure applied by Labor, but from the Liberal Party's own back bench.

With the change of government in 2007, we thought at first things would be better. The Rudd government did get rid of the Pacific solution, as well as the harsh temporary protection visas, which denied refugees any access to services here. Processing of claims became more streamlined.

But there were ominous signs:
  • the new government did not roll back John Howard's excision of Australian territory to deny ordinary legal process to asylum seekers arriving by boat;
  • the new government did complete the large and expensive - and out of the way - prison for asylum seekers on Christmas Island;
  • the new minister, Senator Chris Evans, rapidly developed a reputation for refusing any of the many asylum claims which required his ministerial discretion to be exercised.
The opposition turned up its xenophobic rhetoric about boat people - in reality only a very small trickle - and the Rudd government went to water.

The government's first major step backwards was categorizing "people smuggling" as a security issue. They have made people smuggling (which of course is code for boat people) something which ASIO and other security agencies must now target.

Can anyone seriously contend that a few people arriving in leaky boats to flee situations of dire personal danger somehow constitute a threat to our way of life, our systems of government, or the integrity of our nation? Any leader who peddles such a ludicrous proposition really does place our country at risk, because they cannot tell a genuine danger from an ersatz one.

And now the Rudd government has decided to freeze consideration of asylum claims for Afghan and Sri Lankan refugees until after the election. This is a display of moral cowardice.

First, it is not true that the situation in those countries is stable and that there is no longer any threat to people fleeing them. Of course, the regimes in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka - each with poor, if not terrible - human rights records, insist that none of their citizens is at risk. Almost no one familiar with the situations in those countries would agree. If the countries of origin really are so safe, why not process asylum seekers now and prove it before the relevant tribunals?

Secondly, each claim should be considered on its own merits. The same approach will not work for everyone fleeing from a country: their circumstances will vary.

Thirdly, to keep human beings locked up behind razor wire to suit a party's political convenience is an act of inhuman cruelty, and it diminishes Australia as a civilized country. Suffering human beings are not political pawns.

Fourthly, the government's actions are in clear breach of our international obligations under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees - which Australia has ratified, and which we helped draft. So our actions also show us to be an unreliable international partner.

The Rudd government could have stood up to the shock jocks and the talkback panic merchants, and they could have swatted away the schoolyard name calling of the opposition - and they would have taken Australia with them. Australians do not want to be racist, to be bad neighbours, or to deny basic humanitarian care.

But the government has lost that chance now. And they have lost far more. They have lost their moral standing as a government, and they have lost any claim to leadership on this issue.

And they have shamed Australia in the eyes of the world.

External Links

White v South Australia

Beverley Uranium Mine Plaintiffs outside court after their historic win

In May 2000, several groups converged on the Beverley Uranium Mine to support the local indigenous people and to oppose mining. On 9th May about 70 people walked quietly and peacefully onto the land constituting the uranium lease.

Police reacted with violence.

They drove cars into retreating protesters.

They beat protesters with batons - including protesters on the ground.

They sprayed fleeing protesters with capsicum spray, and sprayed people who had already been brought to the ground. In one case, for no good reason, they sprayed into the rear of a cage car and left the three young women occupants, one of whom was an asthmatic, in the sun for over an hour. They sprayed an 11 year old indigenous girl - who was legally entitled to be on the land.

STAR force officers (ie riot squad) with helmets and shields and batons, used wedge formations to drive into retreating protesters and attack them with shields and batons, even though they were leaving the land and obviously behaving peacefully.

The police targeted anyone who was filming. This included the channel 7 cameraman, and Lucinda White, who had not been on the land at all, but stood outside the fence to film police conduct.

The police then locked 30 prisoners in a shipping container even though they had no legal basis for arresting them in the first place. They held their prisoners for up to 8 hours, giving them no food and virtually no water in that time.

The Police Complaints Authority recommended disciplinary charges against police, but no disciplinary proceedings were launched.

Not having seen the police made accountable in any other way, ten plaintiffs sued for assault and for false imprisonment. They included Jamie Holland, the Channel 7 cameraman, who was locked in the shipping container, and Helen Gowans, the 11 year old indigenous girl who had been sprayed by police.

Senior ministers in the South Australian government publicly attacked the plaintiffs, calling them "ferals" and "anarchists" and accusing them (falsely) of having put the lives of police at risk. They also implied that they had deliberately provoked the police response in order to claim damages. They publicly stated that they would not settle the claim.

The trial lasted four months. All the plaintiffs gave evidence and they were cross examined at great length by Senior Counsel for the State of South Australia. All the police gave evidence. At no stage did police apologize for their conduct.

Yesterday, 9th April 2010 - 9 years and 11 months after the incident - the Supreme Court of South Australia awarded the plaintiffs a total of $724,560 damages, together with costs yet to be assessed.

The judge was scathing about the comments of the senior ministers involved - Kevin Foley and Michael Wright. He said that he had increased the damages because of those unjustified comments.

We give the police special powers. We give them equipment which it would be an offence for anyone else to possess - such as capsicum spray. Where we give people this power, they must be accountable for any abuse of that power.

In this case the police, supported by senior government ministers, abused that power and broke the law.

Our system of government relies on the separation of the judicial, executive, and parliamentary arms of government, so that each can bring the other to account. It is a tribute to the effectiveness of that system that in this case the judiciary has called the executive arm of government to account and required it to pay substantial damages for its severe wrongdoing and for the harm caused to citizens.

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Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Water Wars

The State government has announced an easing of water restrictions. What a relief. I guess that must mean, in the run up to the election, that the water crisis is over.

Melbourne’s storage reserves have fallen from near 100% capacity in 1996 to 33.9% capacity in April 2010. According to the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, within 10 years, climate change, continued population growth and drought could result in shortfalls of drinking water of approximately 100 billion litres per year for Melbourne alone.

And of course, there is no escaping the impact of the climate crisis on our water shortage. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, Victoria is now 1 degree hotter than it was in 1950. For each degree of temperature rise, we lose 15% of stream flow. We've now had 13 years hotter and drier than the long term average, and we've never had a run like this before. We are way out of our historical experience.

Faced with these challenges, the State government has
They have failed to offer the leadership we need in this crisis.

Premier Steve Bracks said on 13th November 2006, in the lead up to the last State election:

Recycling and conservation will secure Melbourne’s water supply ... The energy generation [of a desalination plant] is enormous, the intrusion on the community is enormous and, of course, it’s extraordinarily expensive ... really, what a hoax it is. We’re into long term solutions.

Despite this assurance, the Victorian government has committed to an unsustainable, high carbon intensive desalination plant. The Kilcunda desalination plant will produce 150 gigalitres per annum at a cost of over $4 billion and an additional 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 to Victoria’s annual greenhouse emissions. Water bills will double to pay for it.

Site of the proposed desalination plant at Kilcunda

For half of the cost of the plant, and a fraction of the carbon emissions, we could instead implement a 5 point plan for water:
  1. Stop logging Melbourne's water catchments. The cost of stopping this is just a few million dollars. Stopping logging now won't recover what we've lost, but will save us at least 15 gigalitres per annum in lost water between now and 2050, or enough water to fill 6000 Olympic-sized swimming pools every year.
  2. Introduce stormwater capture, treatment and use, saving 50 gigalitres of water, and even more with proper storage facilities.
  3. Upgrade the existing Eastern Treatment Plant to Class A water, giving us an additional 72 gigalitres per annum
  4. Government replacement of existing single flush toilets in Melbourne with dual flush, saving 15 gigalitres per annum
  5. Introduce a 50% subsidy on water tanks, saving 25 gigalitres each year.
Rather than using the same kind of energy intensive solutions that got us into this mess in the first place, why don’t we try to be smart, innovative and sustainable, so Melbourne has enough water for the future, and doesn’t suck the rest of the State dry?

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Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The Last River

Rainforest at the Mitchell - photos by Robert Merkel at Larvatus Prodeo

I've just spent Easter at the Mitchell River - camping with three other families as we do each year. It is a very special time at a very special place.

In the whole of southern mainland Australia, there is only one major river not dammed anywhere along its length - Gippsland's Mitchell River. Eight rivers contribute to the Mitchell's flow, and it runs through a magnificent gorge before flowing out onto the rich river flats near Bairnsdale. The gorge and surrounding areas are now protected in the Mitchell River National Park.

The Mitchell has patches of rainforest, giant kanooka trees, and plenty of rapids for canoeists. It has many spectacular features, including the cliffline of the Amphitheatre and the numerous magic tributaries - all different - that flow into the gorge. The rich wildlife of the Mitchell includes kangaroos, emus and goannas. Koalas were once common but now are gone. There are some introduced animals - notably goats and deer. The birdlife is varied: last Monday we saw lyre birds, and also six cormorants drying their wings at the mystically beautiful pool where we swim.

In the 1870s gold prospectors dotted each bend along the river, and the packhorse supply trail now forms a wonderful walking track between Angusvale in the north and the Den of Nargun in the south.

In 1890 there was an attempt to dam the Mitchell near Glenaladale, but the structure was badly damaged in a flood before it could be completed, and the works were abandoned. The large unfinished stone walls still sit there with a gaping hole between them, and a powerful rapid formed by the shaped blocks which fell into the water.

In 1980 the Hamer government decided to dam the river at Angusvale, and built an expensively engineered road to cope with the heavy traffic. On its election in 1982, the Cain government opted to "defer indefinitely" the construction of the dam.

Today there are rumblings from Andrew Bolt and even some coalition politicians that damming the Mitchell would be a good idea - although why this is so when we can't find enough water to fill the dams we already have, who can say.

The Mitchell River is a precious legacy, and we should let it run free.

The Mitchell River near the Den of Nargun