Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 - It may be over but it will never be forgotten.

Well, the time is almost here when we say goodbye to another year. How will 2011 be remembered?

As the year of disaster for Australia? With bushfires, floods and Yasi? Where people lost everything in a catastrophic turn of events that had the world enthralled and the nation on edge. Perfect strangers became friends and helping hands came from the most unlikely places. Where Anna Bligh became the symbol of Queensland, and for once we liked it, and pictures of Kevin Rudd lugging furniture through floodwaters remain indelibly etched in our minds.

Toowoomba faced a wall of water or ‘inland tsunami’ head-on and the horror we witnessed still makes for powerful memories. Entire communities underwater for weeks, food and supplies needing to be flown in and livelihoods ruined. Vision of Tully Heads, Cardwell, Dunk Island and Mission Beach minus roads, trees and buildings. Homes without furniture as it all washed out the back door in the storm surges. Boats piled high in the inlet at Cardwell. The fear that gripped us all as Yasi neared the Coast, a massive spiralling ball of chaos.

The entire country dug deep and helped ease the way forward for those who lost property but the loss of life in the floods and the life lost in Yasi was something that will never be forgotten, nor could it be compensated for.

Will this be the year remembered for its world news? The uprising of the oppressed the world over saw leaders toppled, throngs of protesters dancing in the streets and hope renew itself. It began with tear gas, bullets fired into crowds, family homes and businesses set alight and still they kept coming, an endless stream of protest and anger, until there were no options but to give the people what they wanted. Social media came to the fore, being credited with creating unity and organisation which allowed for a streamlined, relentless attack.

For the Occupy Movement, this has also been the gauge by which they are running their own campaigns. Beginning in a country which has unemployment as high as 20% in some areas and has suffered more than most from the affects of the GFC, the Movement has spread. It is fading from view somewhat, as the goal is not as defined, but I have no doubt that 2012 will bring about a renewed vigour in the cause. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

New Zealand and Japan suffered as the ground shook under their feet and lives and property were swallowed up. New Zealand lost historical buildings, entire suburbs and still continues to hold its breath each day as the ground continues to rumble. 181 men, women and children lost their lives in February, the largest disaster in human terms in New Zealand’s history. Australian’s, still feeling fragile and right in the middle of it’s own disaster ridden summer, still managed to dig a little deeper and contribute to funds allocated for the re-build of the city. It wasn’t enough, but it never is.

In Japan the earthquake itself affected only a small number of buildings. It was the resulting tsunami which caused us all to hang on to the edge of our seats at home as we watched the skyscraper of water approach, then swallow, huge swathes of landscape. The buildings can be re-built, the businesses can be reinvigorated in time. 15’844 people lost their lives. They cannot be replaced. The effect on the nuclear power stations along that section of coastline was also catastrophic. Renewing debate the world over on the safety of nuclear energy, this event has been linked to Russia’s decision to scale back it’s reliance on nuclear power.

Speaking of power, all over the world countries began the process of putting a price on carbon, taxing big polluters and investing heavily in renewable energy. As the world began to understand the full implications of global warming (or if you are a non-believer; the need to release ourselves from our reliance on coal based power) it became apparent that big changes were needed for future generations to enjoy liveable conditions on our planet.

A young girl and her right to privacy after she had lost her life became big news in the UK, with the phone hacking scandal making front page headlines in every developed country. The new age of technology has created a need to revisit and clean up existing laws so that news services can not be allowed to do this again. It started with one small child, and ended with an embarrassing few weeks for the Murdoch family, the end of an era with the News Of The World closing down and several celebrities joining the call to put a halt to the practice.

In Africa a famine was declared. The international community was slow to react, many believing it was a continuation of previous famines and unsure whether help could make any difference. It soon became clear that this was a whole new type of emergency. Somali's lining up in their thousands for shelter and scraps of food. Of proportions hard to fathom, finally we started to respond to the cries for help and money and aid trickled in. More is desperately needed though and this will continue into next year and possibly another few years after that.

Closer to home, ‘boat people’ continued to remain a hot topic. An SBS documentary on the subject ‘Go back to where you came from…’ received accolades and criticism, our politicians tried to outdo each other in finding a ‘solution’ to what is seen as a very big problem and online forums and newspaper opinion pieces kept the debate alive. Meanwhile, it was revealed that while less than 4’000 people arrived in Australia by boat this year, more than 55’000 have overstayed their Visas after arriving by plane. Next year we may be processing asylum seekers in Nauru, or Malaysia, or East Timor…..but it is almost guaranteed that it will not be on our shores.

Same sex marriage became a huge topic for discussion all over the country. Religious groups began organising protests and picketing politicians as it became clearer that support for a change had grown. Recently, Queensland made available Civil Unions to those wishing to utilise them and the ALP has passed a recommendation that Same Sex Marriage become part of Party Platform. They also chose not to stand behind this new policy as a party and have decided instead to allow a conscience vote when the Bill is tabled early in the new year. This means it is highly unlikely to pass.

In Cairns, we enjoyed robust debate and community events centred around the need for a replacement for our aging theatre. The proposal for a CEP was met with distaste and joy in equal measure and it was only through the ongoing support of several Councillors and huge allocations of funding from other tiers of Government that it finally got the ok. Work will commence in 2012 on what will be the biggest piece of infrastructure this region has seen.

While our city was focussed on this, not many noticed that the flood mitigation work was completed in the city area, making Lake Street in particular better able to cope with our wet season. The hillslopes of our region were further protected over several Council meetings and developers will now have limited options when going ‘up’. As our mountains are iconic and the perfect frame for the city, this has been acknowledged as a very important step for Cairns.

In the South Side, K-Mart had a win and building began on the redevelopment and expansion of Mt Sheridan Plaza, much to the delight of sitting Councillor Rob Pyne and the many residents of the immediate area. Fretwell Park was successful in its application to increase its poker machine allocation, paving the way for an expansion that will feature a number of sporting and eating options.

The Edmonton Town Centre went back to the drawing board as the State Government impinged on its plans by compulsorily acquiring land for its future health facility. By the end of the year, it has been re-worked and recently passed its changes through Council Chambers. This means that Logomier Road can finally be completed.

The GP SuperClinic site sat idle all year with residents still clueless as to what will happen next. Sugarworld got it’s much needed re-fit. New slides for all to enjoy, opening just in time for Christmas. A lack of proper shade is still a problem and the car park requires some to walk a few extra metres but the crowds are enjoying themselves and those other tweaks can be easily fixed.

Curtis Pitt nagged his Government and managed to get funding to widen Wrights Creek Bridge, a much maligned section of road which has taken lives and injured many over the past decade. Work will begin on this in 2012. Work also began on the new highway upgrade, starting at the beginning of Ray Jones Drive. It’s a long way off but at least it’s begun.

Lastly, the Edmonton Leisure Centre. It was on again, off again and thanks to a significant donation from Dubai, it’s on again. Ian Lowth from Cairns Regional Council has promised consultation with all sporting groups (including baseball) and the final design should be ready in the first half of 2012.

Well, there you have it. 2011 in essay form. This year has been a tumultuous year. The ups and downs….and ups and downs, have made it a year for change. It was the year where people began to look outside their homes, toward their neighbours, and realise that there was more to life than what happened within their own 4 walls. It was the year we were tested, found to be strong, then tested again. It shook us up, flipped us on our heads and left us wondering whether we have any control over our lives at all. It was the year that we learnt not to sweat the small stuff, as the big stuff is much more important and needs our attention now.

It will go down (for me at least) as the year I began to realise that the best way to affect change is to be part of the solution.

In 2012 my life will be altered significantly as I am running for Council. I have no crystal ball so I don’t know what the outcome will be in March. What I do know is that my community is ready for things to kick up a gear and really start happening and I want to be part of that. Win, lose or draw…..(well, there is no draw option actually) it’s sure to be one hell of a ride.

To my readers, loyal and occasional, I wish you all the best for 2012. I’ve enjoyed the wild ride that was 2011 but I’m sure, like me, you are all ready and eager for a new year to begin. Bring it on!

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Alternative.

Here we go again......(I think I've said that before!) Next week will be the crucial vote on the Precinct (again) to decide once and for all what it's fate will be (again). Is anyone else getting bored of this?

Lets make it interesting!

Close you eyes (no wait, that won't work). Ok, leave your eyes open. Suspend reality and come with me on the journey I will call 'The Alternative'.

Next week has been and gone. The vote by the way, by just one, was in the negative. No Precinct.

Fast forward past the months of angry letters and online comments lamenting the lost opportunity to March 31st, 2012.

Ooh look, it's a new Premier for Queensland. Looks like 'Can do' actually did! After all that time watching proceedings from outside the building he can actually take a seat inside. Look, over there, it's Gavin King. Who'd have known. He made it too.

Excellent news for Cairns. We can dredge the inlet and build Plan B for the CEP. What was Plan B anyway? Does anybody know?

Lets pretend there is one, for arguments sake. We'll pretend that the land beside the Convention Centre is for sale.

53 million was promised in December for an alternative, now it's April 1st, SHOW US THE MONEY!

So, we buy the land at a cost of 30 million (we'll make it cheap) and the design for a smaller, 1000 seat theatre is complete. It's now November but who's counting. The cost is good, only 120 million. Exactly the amount Gavin mentioned numerous times as ideal. The facility will be good. A straight replacement for the Civic Theatre, no potential for a museum or any public space but the priority is the cost and the position. Both of which are great!

Alright, time to get those figures in order for this to go ahead. Margaret Cochrane, Mayor of Cairns (did I forget to mention that?) has promised a rectangular stadium but didn't mention an arts facility in her campaign material. Hmmm...... Now what?

January, 2013. After much consideration and deliberation it has been decided that Council will do a feasibility study into the new proposal, titled 'The Alternative'.

February, 2014. Feasibility study completed. It states that the new proposal has a few issues. With 30 million already spent on land, there is only 23 million left from the State contribution. The Feds have somehow come up with a 20 million dollar allocation but it must be spent before June and time is running out. With the 43 million promised from both other tiers of Government (a record figure for Cairns), the cost for Council will only come in at 77 million. Bugger!! That can't be right. 120 million, take away 43.........damn!

Notice that the Feasibility study also states that the ongoing cost will be the same as the old plan. That doesn't add up. Oh wait, I forgot that 'The Alternative' has no revenue streams aside from the theatre itself. Ok, moving on.

May, 2014. Cairns Regional Council makes the brave decision to give up the 43 million as the cost of 'The Alternative' is still too high and get to work immediately on the rectangular football field. The cost is the same for Council and the running costs are on par but everyone knows that sport is more popular than arty farty rubbish. It's a winner!

June, 2014. Letters start pouring in to the Cairns Post from angry residents who 'never' go to sporting events and don't want their rates to go to something that only beefy, uncultured fools will utilise.

----------------------The End--------------------------

Monday, December 5, 2011

As a matter of fract - CSG in Queensland.

Ten years ago, here in Queensland, nobody had even heard of Coal Seam Gas exploration. In the decade since, it has become a hot topic and has entered many conversations in curious places. Environmental and political concerns have become topics for more of the population as people begin to realise just how much power their vote has. It's a by-product from a hung parliament and the climate change debate.

Speaking of by products.......what about that CSG. Is it really as bad as Gasland makes out?

For those of you who haven't seen the documentary Gasland, I urge you to do so immediately, but the thrust of it is essentially a whole truckload, or 1150 truckloads, of information on why this relatively new industry is so very bad for us.

One particular part talks about a huge population of birds which dropped dead in a lake and the correlation between that and CSG wells. This part was proven incorrect almost a year before Gasland was released. The final report states that it was caused by a nearby coal mine and the run off from that facility.

The pictures and stories are laid out in a fashion which is highly emotive and over-dramatised which led me to ask more questions rather than take the film at face value.

This is what I found.

In Queensland our government has embraced the rapid influx of CSG exploration wells. They have approved huge numbers of new wells and it is estimated that by 2030 there will be AT LEAST 40'000 gas wells across the nation, a large portion of those in Queensland. With numbers that high, it is worth taking a look at the regulations involved.

One of the biggest concerns for farmers and the general community is the chemicals used in the fraccing procedure. For those down with the lingo but altogether unsure of what it means, fraccing is the process where a chemical/water and sand mix is used to fracture (or make a slight crack, most less than a mm in diameter) the rock well under the existing water level, to get at the gas which is stored below.

The chemicals used are reported by Gasland to be too numerous to count and highly secretive. I cannot guarantee that this is not true in America but here in Queensland the chemicals used are public knowledge. It's written in the EPA act that they must be revealed. An average of 12 are used with each well, differing according to the company and the conditions of the ground. Of those used, the ones which are of most concern are known as BTEX compounds (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes). These chemicals are naturally occurring in water in very small doses and the fear is that high doses of these chemicals will cause environmental problems. As a result, those chemicals are regulated. It is forbidden in Qld to add any of those to the fracturing liquid. This is not to say that it can't be guaranteed that the resulting waste liquid, which is stored on land, does not contain high amounts of these.

Storage of the waste fracturing liquid is also strictly regulated. It must be stored in a pond, pit or water tank that is lined with an impenetrable material such as steel. This water is then treated to make it safer but not much is known about storage times or the real safety of it over time. Nothing is mentioned about what may occur if the land is flooded and the liquid overflows. Perhaps it's not a consideration?

A few weeks ago a claim was made that one company was directly pouring their treated fraccing liquid leftovers into the water source which feeds the Murray-Darling Basin. This is currently being investigated but the company involved has not issued any press releases to deny it, which is interesting but open to too much conjecture.

Moving on to the gas explosions. These have been reported all over Qld, the US and the UK. They are usually contained quickly and within a week, those living more than 200 klms from the site have forgotten about it. They are methane explosions and are considered more of a risk to people standing nearby but facts are showing that these explosions are further 'fracturing' the rock below with the potential that the mine wells will collapse and cause contamination as has happened overseas.

Interestingly, in instances where water contamination has been reported in the US (we have yet to reach that point here, they have 80 years of CSG to build up issues) it has been noted that the EPA over there does not consider methane to be harmful, so high levels of that found in water supplies, causing it to bubble like soft-drink, is not of any concern to authorities.

As for other chemicals being found in drinking water over there, apparently rigorous testing has found low levels of everything harmful but all within ranges they would consider to be harmless for human consumption. There is yet to be a study on whether 'minuscule' amounts of potentially harmful chemicals, combined together, would have a negative impact on mankind. They are only studying levels of each chemical, on it's own. As if it isn't in there with several others.

Recently a CSG company admitted in the UK that the process of fraccing caused minor seismic developments in the region. Many tiny earthquakes are caused every day by this process. This is more common in the new, cleaner procedure, which uses gas instead of chemicals, sand and water. The pressure required to push the gas down and cause a small crack in large quantities of rock, is enough to cause a tremor. Albeit a minor one.

Yet another by-product of fraccing is large quantities of salt, estimated to be 30 million tons over the next 30 years, another substance which requires storage. This is also heavily regulated in Qld but the concern on this is more about the places to store it and the fact that this area will fill up with storage containers very quickly.

It is also estimated that 300 gigalitres of groundwater will be drawn every year for use in CSG extraction placing pressure on our water reserves which are already being depleted by the cotton industry, cane industry and many other irrigation uses.

The APPEA (Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association) states that "In 2004, the US EPA completed a 5 year study of coalbed methane fraccing envoronmental risks which concluded: 'the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into coal-bed methane wells pose little or no threat to underground drinking water.'

Fair enough. It's the 'little risk' which is of concern. Not to mention no testing has been carried out regarding potential run off and here in Qld we have very high levels of rain fall, every year.

What I found interesting, though completely expected, were the sources of information. The industry itself is very quick to defend it's practices, which you would naturally expect. The Qld Government has pages of information as it is obviously working hard to convince people that the money made is worth the possible environmental impacts. Even going as far as to offer a new education program, similar to a trust fund, for every child born after 2012, from the massive profits made.

Gasland and every Australian environmental body were not painting a rosy picture of the future of this industry, or the land used to extract the gas. The doom and gloom of the contaminations, the explosions, the tremors, the chemical storage made for some pretty dismal reading.

So, where are we now? At the Federal level a Senate committee released a report into CSG in Australia last week. It has proposed the following;

That all CSG permits be denied where the land is considered 'prime agricultural land'.

That a National Regulatory Framework and water management plan be undertaken prior to any additional permits being granted.

That all CSG projects along the Murray-Darling Basin be halted immediately, pending Queensland Government and scientific investigations.

That gas companies be legally liable for any environmental or human damages for an indefinite period. (This was brought about due to the fact that in the US, several wells have collapsed, 80 years after being decommissioned, causing serious contamination for which no one is being held legally or financially liable)

That CSG companies be forced to prove that their mining was not at fault if any aquifer becomes depleted.

There are 24 recommendations in total, those listed are just those directly affecting environment and population.

Will this industry be forced to slow down? Will the studies be conducted in a transparent and water tight manner? If this is deemed to be too much of a risk as an industry, will the State be liable if they are forced to shut down?

So, we wait. While the Senate report is studied, to see if anything will come of it.

They could shut down an entire industry immediately because people didn't like the pictures of animal cruelty overseas yet here we have an industry which has the potential to destroy large amount of the land and make drinking water a chemical cocktail and we wait.......

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Labor Conference - exit to the Left.

This weekend was lauded as the progressive reform event of the year. It was going to save Federal Labor from significant losses in membership by bridging the gap between those who have a say and those who do not, getting 'back to basics' and ironing out the wrinkles in a party which is seen to have lost it's way.

If you are as exciting a person as I obviously am, you sat with heart in throat as the Barr-Wong Amendment came up for debate. You listened with open mouthed dismay as the argument against voting on block regarding same sex marriage seemed to sway and the argument against changing the platform of the party to recognise the right of same sex couples to be allowed marriage in this country gained strength.

The vote has gained significant airtime so those who didn't watch are probably aware that one got up, the other didn't. Both rallying sides (the Christian Right and the Gay Lobby) were unimpressed with the result. It means nothing in the end. Yes, same sex marriage is now in the party platform......yes, if you are an MP in the ALP you may vote against it. Not really very progressive or brave is it?

Then we moved on........ The minority issue gave way to the bigger issues for our country and for the world. Not much coverage for these ones, the lobby groups are obviously a lot smaller.

Another day of voting and slack jawed amazement from those watching who were promised so much. Here we are at the end of it all, apparently no better off.

Asylum Seekers. Should they be processed offshore? According to the PM, yes! How did the Conference vote? Yes! Very progressive.

Live animal exports. Should they be phased out? According to the ALP this weekend....NO! Should there be measures put in place to offer some sort of protection, perhaps compulsory stunning? .....No? Really? Is that your final answer?

Ok then, what about Uranium? We've watched the chaos in Fukushima. We have agreed to start a tax system which will support strong growth in sustainable power sources while moving away from Nuclear, brown coal and gas. Obviously the answer will be no, we won't send uranium to India.

Well, actually, the answer is YES!

What? You can't be serious!

Alright, last ditch effort to do something brave, something progressive, something that won't be detrimental to our health, our land or our people.

This time it's about the Party. We've heard that membership is falling. We know that a reform package was presented courtesy of Bracks/Faulkner and Carr. It held idealistic notions that would encourage a greater say in policy and in delegate and candidacy appointments. It would give power back to the grass roots. The members. The ones who are being asked to defend all of the decisions you have just made over the weekend. So, will members at local level now have a greater say?

No. The answer, is no.

After all that, after the national coverage in unprecedented levels, the promise of reforms and progressive new policy, I sat there, for two whole days.....for nothing.

So, this leads me to the next question. Has the Federal ALP made the right moves for their membership? Well, yes. They have certainly made the RIGHT moves. As for whether it will gain them any new members. I can honestly say that if it does, they will be the RIGHT kind.

What happens now then? I've taken a nice long look at the alternatives this weekend.

We have the Greens on offer. At least you know what you are going to get. A little thin on economic policy which is a worry. They have a leader who is also exactly what he says he is so again you know what you are going to get. Something tells me that this party will be the winner from this weekends debacle.

The Coalition? Well, as far as I can tell, what you get here is the right faction of the ALP, plus an extra, far-right faction. Their leader is a bit of a goose and really needs to say something positive soon, even if it's about his own policies. Definitely not a viable alternative.

Moving on to the Katter Party. He has announced his team for Queensland but we are yet to see whether that will be taken to the Federal level. I assume it will depend on the upcoming Qld election. This is the one party which I think many are underestimating. They will do well here. Very well. Why?

Because voters want to know what they are getting when they make their choice at the ballot box. Yes, Katter is slightly mad. Yes, he bangs on a bit about Coles and Woolies. Yes, he's a terrible singer. The thing is, none of that will change. He is what he is. You get what you vote for. That's pretty appealing to most people.

At the moment, with the ALP, you'd be hard pressed to know exactly what you were voting for. Perfectly happy to fight for a Carbon Tax and a Mining Tax. Willing to invest heavily in a long overdue National Disability Scheme. But where is the balance? Where is the progression beyond that?

How can a party make such incredibly brave decisions and fight for them, yet shy away from doing the same at a policy conference? One which does not make laws, or introduce Bills. It simply decides what the ALP stands for.

That being the case, Federal ALP stands for offshore processing, of people and animals. Has 'friends' who are gay but doesn't want them to get married, or maybe it does, or doesn't. It's confused. It stands for giving away resources which have the power to kill and maim while causing environmental disasters because it will supply a few more jobs and a nice fat surplus. Lastly, it stands for telling the members what policies they have to get excited about and who their representatives are, without giving them any say.

I wonder if the Left faction will at some point break away from the party and form a new one. One with good social reforms and great economic reforms. One with environmental policy that will work, a civil rights focus along with equality and one which has the only thing that all of the parties are missing (except perhaps Katter's), a leader with charisma.

I'd vote for that.