Thursday, 27 May 2010

Equal Love

Sir Ian McKellen holds up part of a massive petition in support of same sex marriage before handing it to Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young at Melbourne's Equal Love Rally

Marriage is a public commitment between two people to a life-long relationship.

Maintaining that commitment is not always easy, and we need all the help we can get. So we have marriage ceremonies, where couples publicly announce their commitment, and their families and friends gather round them to express their support for them in that commitment.

The commitments made in marriage affirm hope. When we commit to another person, we cannot know all the changes in ourselves, in our partners, and in the world which will come in the years ahead. We cannot know, as a matter of practical reality, what that commitment will mean. And yet we make this commitment, and we are strengthened by the commitment of our partner.

The government establishes criteria for legal recognition of marriages, and this is important for security of the children, for the ownership and division of property, for pension rights, to enable spouses to make medical decisions when their partners are not able to do so, and in a range of other practical ways.

In 2004, just before the Federal election, the Commonwealth Parliament – with the support of the coalition and Labor - altered the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act to make explicit that it only relates to heterosexual relationships.

Since then the Greens have moved for equality in the Marriage Act, but Labor and the Coalition keep voting them down.

According to the famous Libertarian John Stuart Mill

The only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

How does this Labor/Liberal definition of marriage as only relating to heterosexual relationships prevent harm to others? In fact, it creates a hierarchy of relationships depending on sexual orientation, and this is undoubtedly harmful to those discriminated against.

Marriage and family take many different forms today. If a husband changes his sex to become a woman, does this mean the marriage which he entered into, and which he and his partner still respect, has no lawful force? Does this mean these two parents should no longer be recognized as such? Where a single parent forms a relationship with a person of the same sex, and they parent the children together, are they not doing work which society should value and praise?

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Australia is a party, commits Australia to the protection and promotion of the right to be free from discrimination based on sexual orientation (art 26).

Human rights are evolving. Fifty years ago there would be little question of a right to same sex marriage. But then, 150 years ago there would be no question of a right for women to vote.

The trend around the world is to recognize same-sex marriage. Several States in the United States now recognize same sex marriage. President Bush’s proposal to alter the US constitution to define marriage as exclusively relating to union between a man and a woman was resoundingly rejected in the Senate - unlike here. Numerous European states, including Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands, recognize same-sex marriage. Canada does, and so does South Africa. Here in Melbourne, thousands attended the same sex rally in May, and marched around the city. We shouldn't have to.

Young people, as they discover their sexual orientation and deal with all the issues that raises, should not be given messages from legislators that one form of sexual orientation is legitimate and another is not. Inevitably, some young people have internalized homophobia so as to believe there is something radically wrong with them. We have lost too many of these young people to suicide, but the fault wasn't theirs. It is ours, for allowing damaging homophobia to fester.

Maintaining long-term relationships – whether heterosexual or same sex - is good for our society. The law should recognize what the community already does.

External links

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Replace Hazelwood

Hazelwood - the dirtiest power station in Australia - and beyond

Per unit of power generated, the Hazelwood power station has been measured to be the most carbon polluting power station in the industrialized world. It produces 17.0 million tonnes of carbon dioxide pollution every year - over 5% of Australia's total. That's so much carbon pollution that Kevin Rudd could meet his paltry climate change target overnight just by closing Hazelwood.

Hazelwood burns brown coal - one of the dirtiest and least efficient means of generating electricity. In also uses a staggering 27 billion litres of water every year - water that could be returned to the struggling Gippsland Lakes system.

Due to its excessive carbon emissions, the station was, in 1992, scheduled to be decommissioned in 2005.

Knowing this, International Power nevertheless bought Hazelwood in 1996 for $2.35 billion.

When the time came to close the power station in 2005, in a move which shocked environmentalists, the State government extended Hazelwood's life until 2031. This is a measure of the government's commitment to serious action on climate change.

Peter Batchelor, the Minister responsible for extending the life of Hazelwood, had the temerity to blame the Greens for his refusal to replace Hazelwood!

Having reaped this windfall, International Power still wanted more, and lobbied hard against energy efficiency measures.

Several different environmental groups have done the work on how we transition out of Hazelwood. There choices in doing this - including
  • whether to use gas as an interim measure,
  • which renewables to use,
  • how much to pay for the alternatives, remembering that if you commission even more renewables, you can take advantage of economies of scale; and
  • how long to allow for the replacement,
- but moving out of Hazelwood within two years is not hard to achieve.

Spain already produces more solar power than the output of Hazelwood power station - twice as much. Hazelwood has a net output of 1.47 gigawatts. Madrid is further from the equator than Melbourne, but with the smart use of gross feed in tariffs to give incentives for renewable energy, Spain now produces 3 gigawatts of solar power - and growing.

Spanish solar arrays

What's missing at the moment is the starting point: a political commitment to get rid of the Hazelwood dinosaur.

With fellow Greens Samantha Dunn and Colleen Hartland MLC at the "Replace Hazelwood" rally

External links

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Westlink, Schmestlink

Is there somewhere else we can squeeze a freeway?

Amongst the many freeway proposals the Brumby government keeps spruiking, the "number one priority project" is Westlink.

Westlink is a proposed six lane tunnel and freeway joining the Western Ring Road to Docklands. It is currently estimated to cost $5 billion, although that figure is climbing fast - it was just $3.5 billion two years ago.

Documents just obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Greens MLC Greg Barber show that Federal funding was rejected from this project because Victoria could show no net economic benefit for the project.

There is in fact no overall transport or environmental benefit either. Westlink will in peak hour deliver another 5,000 vehicles an hour - including trucks - into the Docklands area. This is hardly a way of removing congestion.

The proposal will also take money away from public transport - a far more efficient people-mover than any road. A normal road lane carries 700 cars an hour - tops - and in Melbourne each car carries an average of 1.1 people. But a peak our train whisks by in seconds with just as many people, and you can have several of them in an hour. A freeway lane in good conditions can carry 1500 - 2000 cars an hour. That's two trains. The proposed route of Westlink substantially follows rail lines all the way. For a fraction of the cost of Westlink, we could actually deliver an efficient rail service along that line.

And it's not as though there are not good proposals for removing the trucks from inner Melbourne. When the containers are unloaded from ships, they are stacked on the wharf and then loaded onto trucks which wait in queues before moving off. Every truck that has to carry a container must converge on the Port of Melbourne, and that is what causes the congestion.

Move the containers by rail from the Port of Melbourne to freight terminals on the outskirts of Melbourne at Laverton, Melton, Kalkallo and Dandenong, and let the trucks use these hubs to pick up the containers. That would bring considerable relief to inner Melbourne, and overall greater efficiency - at present many trucks queue for hours in the one big terminal.

Westlink is also the first stage in the Eddington East/West Tunnel proposal. We thought we'd won that struggle, but the documents obtained under FOI show that the government is quietly pressing ahead with it. In their submission to Infrastructure Australia in October 2008, the Victorian government said:
"following further expansion of the project [Westlink] there will be an east west link north of the CBD between the eastern freeway and the western ring road"

Compare this with the public statements of Minister Pallas at a joint press conference with the Premier John Brumby on 9 September 2008:
REPORTER: Is an east-west tunnel now more likely to be west-east tunnel that will start west and work its way back?

PALLAS: Oh, look, once again, that’s an issue of the priorities that government needs to set and we’re going to continue to work through those issues in a considered way.

REPORTER: But that’s a possibility?

PALLAS: Oh, it’s a possibility that it could be built west to east, but certainly the issues that are on the table need to be considered in a substantial way and a considered way. We’re not going to rule anything in or out.

The RACV openly states that Westlink only makes sense if it is part of the East West tunnel.

The East West Tunnel threatens several parks - the proposal had the freeway coming up in Royal Park and Holland Park for example. But it will also be part of the same old 1950s road-building mindset that has got us into this gridlock in the first place.

John Brumby's response to the furore over the stupidity of Westlink was telling. He just doesn't get it. He thought the only alternative to Westlink would be another road - whether on a bridge or bulldozed through suburbs. He is pressing ahead with Westlink despite the lack of any credible economic case. What he doesn't appreciate is that the real, rational alternative to his expensive white elephant is viable public transport.

With peak oil approaching, and with dangerous climate change now looming as a serious worldwide threat, we can no longer afford this kind of dull, old thinking. Smarter transport solutions are needed - and they are not roads.

As Albert Einstein said:
The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.

External Links

Friday, 21 May 2010

Planning requires a Plan

Artist's (optimistic) impression of the Lombard Tower in Travancore - now under construction

Sitting between Mount Alexander Road Flemington, and CityLink, it is an environmental disaster, and it's on sale now. The brochure gushes with hype, describing the building as "elegant", and referring to the "Kandinsky-inspired sky garden". I think of it as a symbol of the failure of planning in Victoria today.

The site was a factory and warehouse, which burnt down in 2004. It stood right next to the "Melbourne Gateway" and over the freeway from the proposed Commonwealth Games village.

The owners wanted to redevelop the site quickly, and made significant donations to the Labor Party. They joined in the project with the Benson Group, whose chairman, Elias Jreissati, counted Premier Steve Bracks as a friend, and wined and dined the Bracks family at his penthouse apartment. He was involved in fundraising for Labor.

The developers received red carpet treatment. Steve Bracks visited the site the day after the fire, and "called in" the proposal from Moonee Valley Council. It would be the State government which made the key decisions for the site - not the community's local representatives.

The government fast-tracked the process, granting a permit within just six weeks.

They approved the building of the initial lower height stages of the development, but returned the decision in relation to a 21 storey "office tower" to the Moonee Valley Council.

Despite concerns about conflict of interest, one of the Council's town planners left work for the Council and moved across to work for the developer. Such transfers of key personnel with sensitive information are all too common in the planning world.

The Moonee Valley Council rejected the proposal.

The developers appealed to VCAT. The developers easily out-resourced the Council, and the community objectors had no right to be heard at all. The process, and the outcome, was a travesty.

The VCAT member approved the development. The reasons given illustrate why the community has no faith in VCAT's planning decisions. The building is out of scale, and not in an activities centre where higher buildings might be expected. The VCAT member said that although 2030 discourages intensive development outside such centres the "net benefit" of the building outweighed this. He merely identified the financial contribution the developers would be required to pay to Council as the "net benefit". There is no benefit to the community identified at all. And this for a building which dwarfs the neighbourhood, and which will contribute 1000 more cars on already crowded roads every day.

The tower was originally to be 21 storeys, but has slowly grown through various discretionary decisions to be 25 storeys. It was also to be an office tower, and all the planning took place on that basis. Then it was changed - after approval - to a residential tower, something that radically alters the character of the building. Where will the bins go? Where will residents dry their laundry?

The trouble with planning in Victoria is that there is no plan. It's rafferty's rules, with anything going if you have the right influence, and with the community having no secure say at all. We need a prescriptive plan, so that, for example, height rules are not discretionary, but are rules. The Windsor Hotel is in an area with a height limit of 23 metres, but Justin Madden approved a building 27 storeys tall. This is not planning.

We need prescriptive and binding planning rules, and clear community involvement in making those rules, and in decisions made under those rules.

Proposals should not be permitted to morph and change during and even after the approval process - as they are now. The community has a right to know exactly what is planned in advance. This case, with its growing height and drastic change of use, is a case in point.

The law should be changed so that it is regarded as corruption for a Council planning officer to accept a job with any organization on whose application such an officer has deliberated.

VCAT is a failure. It has no community respect, and will not regain it. Procedure there is arbitrary, excessively favourable to well-resourced developers, and unpredictable.

Developers use their money to buy influence. It's not overt bribery, but it has the same cancerous effect on the body politic, with Labor and Liberal politicians courting them for donations.

What sort of city do we want? At present, our city is being delivered to us by big money developers on an ad hoc basis - without coherent, consistent, long term planning. It is a recipe for chaos. The Lombard Tower - out of place, out of scale, and out of the hands of the community - is a symbol of what's being forced on us.

At a recent public meeting, one nearby resident said to me: "I've seen the sun rise from my home for the last time. From now on it will rise behind this ghastly tower."

Saturday, 15 May 2010

What is our "own country"? The Nystrom Case

It was my first inkling that the election of the Rudd government might not signal any serious change in the attitude to human rights.

Stefan Nystrom was born on 31 December 1973 in Sweden. His parents lived in Australia for several years before he was born, and were permanent residents. His older sister was born here. Stefan’s mother (who had been born in Finland and moved to Sweden as an adult) took a brief trip back to Sweden when she was pregnant to visit family members, and then realized it would not be safe for medical reasons to make the return journey. She remained in Sweden for the birth.

When he was 25 days old, his mother left with him to return to Australia, arriving here on 27th January. Since then, Stefan Nystrom has never known any other country. His parents separated and divorced when he was five and there has been almost no contact with the Swedish relatives, whose names he did not know. He does not speak Swedish.

Stefan’s parents did not apply for citizenship for him, although he would readily have qualified. He did not know he was not a citizen and had never had occasion to turn his mind to it. He had never sought a passport to travel overseas.

During his childhood he was in trouble, and was a ward of the State for a time. The State did not apply for citizenship for him.

As an adult he was in more trouble, and has served a number of prison terms. After he had been out of trouble for some time, in 2004 the Immigration Minister cancelled his visa, on the grounds that he failed to pass the character test.

Stefan appealed the decision all the way to the Full Federal Court which overturned the decision. The majority held:

He is only an 'alien' by the barest of threads. However, if the decision under challenge here stands he will be deported to Sweden and permanently banished from Australia. That result causes us a … sense of disquiet … [Mr Nystrom] has indeed behaved badly, but no worse than many of his age who have also lived as members of the Australian community all their lives but who happen to be citizens. The difference is the barest of technicalities.[1]

The Minister then appealed to the High Court. On technical grounds, the High Court upheld the appeal, and the way was open for Stefan to be deported.

His last avenue of appeal gone, Stefan was taken into custody (it is not clear why – he had been out of trouble for some time and had properly attended whenever required) and held in the Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre for some months until he was deported on 29th December, arriving in Sweden on 31st December – his 33rd birthday.

Mr Nystrom’s elderly mother was dependent on Stefan. She has little money and cannot afford to visit him in Sweden. In a gratuitously cruel twist, she was not permitted to see her son off, possibly for the last time, from Melbourne Airport. Nor were other family members.

No one met Mr Nystrom in Sweden. He had no resources, no Swedish language, and no understanding of the culture. Australian authorities did nothing to organize accommodation, food, money or language training, or any emotional help for a person separated from his family.

Having been deported on character grounds, the law will not permit Mr Nystrom to return to Australia – even to visit his mother and sister.

Article 12(4) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which Australia is a signatory) provides that:

No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.

But what is one’s “own country”? Citizenship gives one guide, but it is not the only one. For all practical purposes, Mr Nystrom was entirely a product of Australia. He had lived in the country for all but the first 27 days of his life, had been educated here, and had even been under the care and protection of the State for some of his childhood. All his bonds are with this country. He would have been entitled to citizenship from a very early age had his parents known to apply for it.

Australia’s decision to treat Mr Nystrom in this way, after he had already served terms of imprisonment for his crimes, is harsh and arbitrary. It also represents a failure to take responsibility for problems we have created. To push our problems onto Sweden (or any other country) creates poor international relations.

I led the team acting for Stefan and his family in applying to the United Nations Human Rights Committee for redress. Decisions of the Human Rights Committee are not binding, but governments are to respect them as part of our treaty obligations. You can only apply to the Human Rights Committee if you have exhausted all domestic appeals.

We made our submission - careful and detailed - before the 2007 election. In May 2008, six months after the change of government, and only a few months after the apology and shortly after the 2020 summit, Australia replied. Would they signal a change in policy, and a reversal of the Howard government decision?

The reply had been approved at a ministerial level, but its heartlessness showed no change of attitude with the change of government. None of the substantive human rights issues were dealt with. It was a tawdry border protection narrative which trailed our poor human rights credentials before the world. It was a bitter disappointment.

It remains to be seen how the Human Rights Committee will resolve the complaint.

Mr Nystrom is not the only person being treated in this way by the Australian government at present. With scarcely credible cruelty, the Australian authorities are dumping people it does not want in other countries and washing their hands of responsibility. Hopefully the Human Rights Committee will provide a human rights framework for more humane consideration of these cases in future.

The Australian government's treatment of Stefan Nystrom has been cruel and unprincipled. Given the professed support for human rights by the Rudd government before its election, it has also been hypocritical.

[1] Nystrom v Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs [2005] FCAFC 121 (1 July 2005) [1] (Moore and Gyles JJ).

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Blue Wedgie

Port Phillip Bay near the Rip - photo by Greg Blair
In 2006 the Blue Wedges coalition approached the Victorian Supreme Court to challenge the legality of the government’s “trial” dredging of Port Phillip Bay. Blue Wedges alleged that the dredging was in breach of the government’s own laws, because it was being conducted without any environment effects statement. The law required that “no works” be carried until such a statement has been completed. These trial works involved 5% of the overall works, and moving 1.7 million cubic metres - enough earth to make a structure stretching from Melbourne to Sydney. The claim by Blue Wedges had, at the very least, real prospects of success.
A challenge like this takes months to be given a full hearing by the Supreme Court. By then the dredging would have been finished, and there would be no point in the Court ruling on the case.
Blue Wedges coalition asked the court for an injunction to prevent works until the issue could be fully argued.
In such cases it is usual for the party who seeks an injunction to give the court an undertaking to pay any damages caused by the delay in works if the court ultimately rules against the legal challenge. If you want a court to stop something so you can bring a case, you must (usually) be prepared to cover the loss caused if you fail.
In this case, the prospective damages from a delay in the dredging was said to be some $32 million, accumulating at over $300,000 a day. There was no prospect of a community group honestly giving an undertaking to pay such a vast sum, and they sought to be excused from the requirement.
Justice Mandie refused to excuse Blue Wedges from this requirement, and accordingly would not grant the injunction. The merits of the case were never heard. (There were subsequent cases brought by Blue Wedges, but they were tangential, relying on Commonwealth legislation, and were never as strong as this challenge.)
Whatever you think of dredging Port Phillip Bay, the Blue Wedges case highlights an important gap in our rule of law. If the government was acting unlawfully in this trial dredging, surely the rule of law requires that it be held to account. But how?
Justice Mandie approached the case with a conventional view: the common law assumes that private individuals take court action only to protect their private interests. The common law also assumes that the only party who approaches the courts to uphold the public interest is the Attorney-General. Both these assumptions are outdated and wrong.
The common law model does not take account of community groups approaching the courts not for any financial interest, but for the public good. It is not unusual for community groups to be in stark conflict with the Attorney-General of the day in doing so. When Liberty Victoria approached the Federal Court seeking relief for the asylum seekers on the Tampa they did so in spite of strong efforts by the government of the day, including the Attorney-General, to oppose them. But if Liberty Victoria, (and other concerned members of the public) had not approached the court, there would have been no one to speak for the asylum seekers whose rights were being overridden.
And yet, when the courts consider cases brought by such community groups, they generally apply rules designed for a different situation – namely for those who come to court to defend their private interests.
The safeguard of relying on the Attorney-General to protect the public interest is no longer enough. It is true that the Attorney-General may intervene in any case as of right, and may give his “fiat” for an issue of public interest to be litigated by another person. But what if the Attorney-General is himself party to the conduct in question?
In the Blue Wedges case, the Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls was also at the time the Minister for Planning, who administered the environment effects process. He made public pronouncements in support of the trial dredging. He was not to be regarded as a genuinely independent law officer who would defend the public interest in this matter despite his own political interests.
Whether in Victoria or elsewhere, this is the reality with Attorneys-General in Australia today. They are no longer independent of the political fray, and our reliance on the Attorney-General to uphold issues of public interest is unrealistic and ignores the political pressures to which they are subject.
Access to justice is critical for the rule of law. There is no point having the law if members of the community are not able to approach the courts to obtain remedies to enforce it. It is an affront to the rule of law to leave anyone – especially the government – free to break the law because no one can afford to challenge them.
Where issues of public interest are raised, particularly by non-profit groups acting for what they perceive to be the public good, it is no longer enough to assume that such matters are only for an Attorney-General to pursue. Rather, courts should ensure that the real issues in claims of unlawfulness by government authorities are determined as soon as possible.
It is time for a comprehensive approach to giving community groups a hearing in the courts. New procedures are needed. Where non-profit groups approach the courts in order to uphold the public good, in a proceeding with real prospects of success, generally they should not have to pay costs, they should not have to give security for costs, and they should not have to give undertakings as to damages.
Upholding the rule of law requires us to give the community a hearing.
Turbidity Plume from channel deepening
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Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Filtering Free Speech

Senator Scott Ludlam - leading the defence of the internet

Amid all the backflips being performed by the Rudd government, there's one backflip they refuse to perform: abandoning their failed internet filter policy. As recently as last week, the government confirmed it was "committed" to the policy.

All parents are concerned about the kinds of images which their children can access on the internet. It seems wrong. There are a range of commercial filters available, but the Rudd government proposes a mandatory filter of the whole internet system when accessed in Australia.

The Rudd filter will be largely ineffective. Filters can be circumvented readily, and much of the deeply offensive material in the internet - such as child pornography - won't be touched at all because this lurks in chat rooms or direct communications - not on sites which would be targeted.

This filter is likely to lull parents into dropping their guard - potentially causing more harm.

The government has carried out some pilot testing of its filter, but that testing is flawed. It was never tested at speed, and failed to meet the government's own criteria.

The filter will be expensive - $44.5 million is currently budgeted. This money could be far better spent on
  • educating parents and children on internet communication, on
  • policing illegal content - especially in the peer-to-peer networks which would not be touched by this proposal, and on
  • co-operation between ISP providers, police and government in targeting child sexual material.
Or parents could decide on their own filter arrangements at the computer itself.

The internet is now a vital medium of communication. We are all the writers, editors, publishers and readers. It is our post office and our film studio - and much more. It is a powerful force for democracy because it gives such unprecedented access to so many people to wide communication. Freedom of expression requires letting the internet function without the government setting up a system to vet it and control it.

No other western government has adopted a mandatory filter like this. We would be joining Saudi Arabia, Iran and China in a repressive approach to internet communication, and we are setting a very poor international example of respect for free speech. The US ambassador has strongly attacked Australia's proposed internet filter.

The government plans to filter out websites - but citizens will not know what websites are on the government's blacklist. We will never know what it is that government is keeping from us, and that means the power being exercised is unaccountable and open to abuse.

One of the perennial problems with this kind of proposal is "function creep". We set up a structure for one purpose, but then it is used for other things. Look at your driver's licence: once a simple piece of paper authorising you to drive on the roads, it is now equipped with a photo and signature, and used as identification for a whole range of purposes, including obtaining a passport. Let's assume a government is filtering the internet now with good intentions. What's to stop someone using this power in future with bad intentions? They could, for example, filter out political views with which they disagree. We would have no means of knowing, because the blacklist is secret.

The Rudd government's internet filter is a grave threat to free speech. It's not as though free speech is protected in Australia in other ways. We are alone among all western nations in not having legal recognition of the right of free speech, except in a few very limited circumstances. The government is pressing forward with its internet filter at the very time they have buckled to pressure not to pass a Human Rights Act, which would have given legal recognition to the right to freedom of expression.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam has been leading the charge in parliament against the internet filter, backed up by several community organisations. Electronic Frontiers Australia has published a useful set of answers by Senator Conroy (the Minister responsible for the filter) to questions by Senator Ludlam.

Without open speech, there is no real democracy, because democracy depends on the free exchange of ideas and opinions - in any medium. Once you limit free communication between citizens, the powerful will manipulate public opinion, and we will lose the enrichment and greater wisdom that comes from communication with each other.

Let's keep the internet free.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Orange Roughy

orange roughy - only a mother could love 'em

Orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus) was first discovered to live in deep waters off Tasmania in the 1980s.

It is an orangeish red fish, reaching a length of slightly less than 50 cm. The skin is poisonous to humans and its oil is powerful enough to be used as a degreasing agent.

Orange roughy are a long-lived and slow growing species. They take 20 to 25 years to reach reproductive maturity. They live for 100 years or more - with good evidence of ages over 150 years.

The meat of orange roughy, although not very tasty, has been found to survive freezing and packing particularly well, and there is strong demand throughout the world for orange roughy processed in that way. It is often marketed as “sea perch”. Orange roughy attracted good prices in the early 1990s.

After initial minor catches, orange roughy was first commercially fished off Tasmania in significant quantities in 1989.

The fish were taken in greatest quantities whilst spawning during the winter months, and the major spawning site in Australian waters is located east of St Helens at an underwater feature known as the St Helens Hill. This is a 400 metre high pinnacle (or "sea mount") rising from a depth of 1000 meters. During spawning, the fish form a "donut" ring around the sea mount.

When aggregated, orange roughy can be taken in large quantities in a very short time. In the early 1990s, when the St Helens Hill area was first fished, fish were at times reported to enter nets at the rate of one tonne per second. At these times, the species concentration was such that almost no other species of fish were to be found with the orange roughy.

For the rest of the year, orange roughy are sparsely spread over large areas of deeper waters off southern Australia. There are some other areas where they are now known to aggregate (mostly outside Australian waters).

Catching these fish is technically challenging, as it requires trawling at great depth near a sea mount which can entangle gear - but once mastered, the rewards were large.

Many of those engaged in fishing orange roughy systematically and dramatically underdeclared their catches, so that they could continue fishing beyond the limits the regulators imposed. Often several truckloads of fish would go unreported for each boat trip. The quota system was rendered useless.

A large number of fishermen were caught at this and several were prosecuted, and some jailed. I spent long periods in Hobart in the late 1990s and early 2000s prosecuting these frauds in the Tasmanian courts.

But it was too late.

By the late 1990s - just a few years after the fishing commenced - orange roughy were commercially extinct in Australian waters and the commercial fishery had collapsed.

Because of the slow maturing rate and low reproduction rate of these fish, the stock will take an extremely long time to recover from overfishing.

Fishermen saw big profits with the orange roughy. Their fear was that if they did not overfish, others would, and they would lose their short term profit.

This pattern is all too familiar. We move from one species of fish to another as we deplete stocks, and cause untold damage to underwater biota.

There are countless other examples, including the once very plentiful cod, shark (or flake), and the recent failure of CITES to properly protect blue fin tuna - to say nothing about whales. These are all tragic losses, and an indictment of both the fishing industry, and the governments who should regulate the industry.

So don't order that sea perch if you see it on the menu: you are likely to consume an animal older than your grandmother. And let's try to choose sustainable fish.

At the political level, we need substantial "no catch" zones so that fish can have a chance to shelter and recover from fishing, and we also need to ensure that fishing regulations are properly enforced across the high seas, and not only within national fishing zones. The loss of fish stocks anywhere is a priceless loss to the planet we share.

External Links

Sunday, 2 May 2010


Henry David Thoreau

The writings of Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862) have been a major inspiration for the world wide Green movement. This week (on 6 May) sees the anniversary of his death at the comparatively young age of 44.

Famously, Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay taxes that might be used to fund the Mexican war. His treatise "Civil Disobedience" grew from this experience, and was an important influence on both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Non violent protest action today traces its roots to Thoreau's writings, and the worldwide peace movement also looks to his voice of passionate integrity.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

In 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson bought 14 acres of woods at Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts. The following year, his friend Thoreau, just 27 years old, having been dismissed as a teacher because he refused to administer corporal punishment, moved there and built a small cottage to live in.

Thoreau wished to engage in an experiment of “simple living”, and he remained at Walden for two years.

He lived alone at Walden, but not as a hermit. Amongst his regular visitors were several famous writers, including the Emerson family, the Alcotts, and the Hawthornes. He wrote of the “regular salutes of laughter” in his home when his friend the poet Ellery Channing visited.

Thoreau explained he went into the woods "to suck the marrow out of life."

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

While at Walden, Thoreau wrote several of his best remembered works, including the first draft of his masterpiece Walden. He wrote: “It is the sum of all wisdom not to do desperate things. The great mass of mankind lead lives of quiet desperation.”


Thoreau ranges far and wide in Walden, much as a modern blog might. It is often quoted. You may have heard, for example: "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes," and "In wildness is the preservation of the world," or "What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?"

He is not afraid to question conventional wisdom, and frequently reaches heights of inspiration. Near the end of the book, he discusses what he has learnt from his time in the woods:

The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths that the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.

I learned this, at least, by my experiment, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favour in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

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