LATEST ARTICLES

Protesters block Pine Gap road over Middle East war

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By ERWIN CHLANDA

Two protesters have locked themselves to a barrel blocking traffic to the US communications base Pine Gap.

Update 9.20am: Fire officers cutting the barrel to which two protesters are locked.

It provides intelligence for the military operations in the Middle East, according to protest spokesperson Nick (who would not give her surname).

She says some 30 Alice Springs locals are drawing attention to the conflict with Israel during which 20,000 people have lost their lives in Gaza in the past six weeks.

Personnel from the NT Fire Service had been attempting to “disassemble” the protesters from the barrel but had left to fetch tools.

There are several Pine Gap workers with their cars on the blocked Hatt Road.

Nick said this morning police are also present but no arrests have been made.

No permission had been given for the action which he described as peaceful.

UPDATE 10.40am: A media release from the group quotes Declan Furber Gillick, described as a local Arrernte writer: “My family resisted the installation of Pine Gap forty years ago. US militarism wasn’t welcome then and it’s not welcome now.

“Palestinians are being bombed relentlessly by a genocidal apartheid regime that uses military intelligence gathered on Arrernte Country and I won’t stand for it.”

Tommy (no surname) is described as “a social worker secured to the concrete barrel,” is quoted: “Pine Gap is committing war crimes. If I can block a road for a few hours to hinder the security operations of the US and Israel then I have achieved my goal.”

UPDATE November 29:

Police and Fire and Rescue Service say in a media release have been responding to “increased protest activity” in Alice Springs.

Quoting several spokespersons, they say: “Two women, aged 32 and 39, locked themselves to a 44-gallon drum filled with concrete.

“Police attempted to negotiate with the pair, who refused to stop blocking the road, resulting in diversions being implemented around the protestors to allow workers access to Pine Gap.

“Firefighters attended the scene and removed them from the concrete with specialised equipment.

“Both have since been issued notices to appear for summary traffic offences and are due to appear in the Local Court on February 22, 2024.

“The NT Police, Fire and Emergency Services have always respected the right to protest.

“We do not support protest tactics that involve committing offences that diverts emergency resources away from critical care and response.

“Six police officers were required to attend this incident and negotiate with the protestors, provide traffic control, not to mention the hours of work that go into issuing notices to appear and following up court proceedings.

“Four firefighters were required to attend the protest to remove the two women from a concrete block safely. These members can’t be quickly deployed to house fires, wildfires and car crashes.”

Making bore water fit for dialysis

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Making scarce and impure bore water in The Centre’s outback fit for use in medical dialysis has earned Alice local Michael C Smith (pictured) a Distinguished Alumni Award from Flinders University in Adelaide.

“I’m proud that one of my designs is working today in Kiwirrkurra, Australia’s most remote Aboriginal community,” says Dr Smith.

“It is keeping the fluoride out of the dialysis water and saving thousands of litres of water every week.”

He also acknowledged that “this project really required lots of other people to step up and put in the time”.

Dr Smith works in design and support of “robust desert-suitable” dialysis systems with greater water and energy efficiency.

As a teenager his dream was to work in international poverty relief. Later his mission has taken him across the world, working in remote locations on different continents.

After completing his PhD at Flinders in 2016, Dr Smith found his expertise and strong moral compass was needed closer to home.

His employer, Purple House, operates clinics and a mobile dialysis unit across the most remote parts of Australia where Indigenous people are up to 25 times more likely to suffer from kidney disease.

“Some places have trouble with designs, some with maintenance, some struggle to train and retain decent plant operators,” says Dr Smith.

Large numbers of people have no option but to relocate to access healthcare.

Contributed.

Four decades on the town’s fringe

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Text and painting by ROD MOSS

Edward Neil points an accusatory finger at the viewer. At the base of the ridge a group of dogs feast on a kangaroo carcass. The row of camp housing sits further back.

Forty years have passed and no substantial housing has replaced the “chicken sheds” and humpies. Three kilometres from the GPO, and still no connection to town power and water. A litany of promises by various shades of government remain unfulfilled.

From my perspective two changes at Whitegate stand apart from the constant dynamics. First, the rollover that killed Alphonse Hayes and ended the Johnsons’ residency. Only Arrenye and his sister, Eva, married to Patrick Hayes, remained. The Hayes moved in.

Demographics remained much as they had been, if slightly more. Forty or so with occasional increase from family visiting from afar.

Initiation ceremonies, footy carnivals, hospitalisation, diabetic treatment, court orders, the Show, and tellingly, funerals added stress to resources and were exacerbated when water piped from Hidden Valley was cut in 2014.

Then the momentous Intervention. Many of the younger mums who were my kids’ playmates in the early 1990s, reluctantly opted for commission housing in town or at the nefarious Hidden Valley camp, Ewyenper-Atwatye, serviced by Tangentyere.

Raising kids without essential services and getting them to school were a tough ask at Whitegate. If the many promises had been kept those mums would be back on their country in a flash.

Bypassing Council permission and regulations in April 2023, a company installed solar panels that draw fresh water from the air, storing it beneath the panels.

Firebugs, lightning burn 15,000 square kilometres

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By ERWIN CHLANDA

There were a number of deliberate ignitions, mainly on roadsides, however over the past week the majority of fires are the result of lightning strikes, according to Chief Fire Control Officer Tony Fuller.

On Friday we had at least 14 new fires as a result of lightning,” he says.

A number of staff from Bushfires NT are on a rolling secondment into Alice Springs.

“We have some volunteers from Darwin who are rolling through on deployment. Our Darwin office is running a skeleton crew now, supported by local Darwin volunteers as the weather threat in the Top End decreases.

“Our focus is now Central Australia,” says Mr Fuller.

“We have an enhanced presence of four NT fire staff and two volunteers on a weekly rotation to support Alice Springs.”

The number of Bushfires NT staff and volunteers fluctuates each day: “Our normal office of four staff is now staffed by anywhere between 10 and 20 staff depending on rotations.

Statistics by Rohan Fisher, CDU.

“All our fires are fought using a community response of all resources that are available at the time, this includes pastoralists, volunteers, staff, parks, police and so.”

No evacuations have been ordered by Bushfires NT but “some people may have self evacuated.

We asked Mr Fuller why no large water bombers are being used, and whether the four new 22,000 litre water tanks at the airport could be used to fill up the 15,000 litre bombers.

“They probably could,” says Mr Fuller. “But we don’t use 15,000 litre bombers and do not have any under contract.

“There is a national contract arrangement and aircraft are in high demand right across Australia.

“We have set the watering point up for use by the water bombers we use in Darwin and now here, using existing contractors.”

These aircraft carry only 3000 litres.

UPDATE November 15, 1pm.

CLC wants NT government to declare buffel grass a weed

The Central Land Council wants the government to take the “overdue step” of declaring buffel a weed, the “main fuel” of the bushfires burning all around Alice Springs. 

Elected members are feeling strongly “about the extremely destructive cultural, health and environmental impacts of this introduced species,” CLC general manager Josie Douglas says in a media release.

“On some days last week the air quality in Alice Springs was on par with some of the most polluted cities in the world.”

With an area five times the size of Tasmania already destroyed and more than 80% of the Territory predicted to burn this season, residents of remote towns and communities are facing threats “to our health, homes and critical infrastructure” as well as sacred sites.

Buffel is one of the main drivers of native species extinctions in Central Australia.

“Because it burns much hotter than native grasses it pushes our native plants and the animals that depend on them to the brink,” says Dr Douglas.

The CLC wants the NT government to follow the lead of South Australia, where the grass is already being managed as a weed.

Why I wrote the buffel essays: When enough people act, leaders will follow.

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COMMENT by MIKE GILLAM

Part four in a series of four.

I trust most readers of the Alice Springs News realise that advancing buffel grass is symptomatic of a much deeper malaise afflicting our society.

As a nation of colonists we’re inclined to excuse the excesses of the past 200 plus years by the all-encompassing attribution to ignorance.

But in truth, relentless environmental destruction escalates every day and remains the harsh reality of our future. While a degree of ignorance is always in play, the consequences of greed, self-interest and inertia among affluent societies are much more harmful and less forgivable.

So please let’s move ignorance down the scale of destructive human traits and take some responsibility for the present. Most corporates, bankers, fund managers, insurers, scientists and politicians are well aware of what we’re not doing and what’s at stake.

From beginning to end in this story, an absence of morality and ethics is surely the elephant in the room.

Many of us in the first world seem resigned to reports of global temperatures increasing by several degrees Celsius in our lifetime, (just turn up the air-conditioner).

The World Wildlife Fund reports on the impacts of the sixth extinction event underway: “Currently, the species extinction rate is estimated between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rates – extinctions that would occur if we humans were not around

“The sixth mass extinction is driven by human activity, primarily … the unsustainable use of land, water and energy … and climate change.”

Impacts on human societies of the Anthropocene or Holocene extinction event will be profound.

Politics has become our nation’s race to the bottom, a slow and tortuous performance, less about ideas and what is good for society and more about our team winning on the day.

Of course as victors we are subjected to a painful three or four years as our team squanders our great victory. How many Australians can look to the natural environment at the end of any political term and see actual improvement?

We hold our breath. What species extinctions will be sanctioned by the current government so a corporate can maximise their profits, extract and sell a commodity that is already available from other less destructive sources?

Polarisation, the talent of so many politicians, pits people and communities against one another, a corrosive feedback loop that furthers division and prevents even small changes from occurring in a timely and bipartisan spirit.

Polarisation provides great advantage to vested interests and political opportunists. This is also the preferred habitat of influencers, unable or unwilling to discuss complex problems, reliant on one liners that will deliver personal power or notoriety in a rhetorical flash.

Unfortunately, many in our passing parade of political leaders are risk averse and have little appetite for big issues requiring big effort. Action only seems possible if our leaders believe there’s a substantial number of votes in being brave and a greater personal risk if they continue to do nothing. When your government is in the thrall of corporates a scandal is often required to break the deadlock.

We obsess over choosing the right players for team sports but when it comes to climate change, the most urgent and dire contest the world is ever likely to face, we field a team that is numerically ponderous, utterly fragmented, patchy on merit and even ethically compromised.

Hope of improving our political culture is thwarted by many factors beginning with the reluctance of exceptional candidates to enter politics and squander their lives in a political swamp where they correctly assume any worthwhile change will be nigh impossible. Notwithstanding the existence of some exemplary politicians serving the interests of this country, maintaining the status quo is a predetermined outcome.

Tactics that confuse, stop or delay are the life blood of those who stand to benefit financially by a continuation of the status quo.

The champions of self-interest are adept at commissioning others to do their bidding and this becomes soft corruption that infiltrates our democracy at every level.

Strident public concern about climate change and the environment are not enough and have not changed the fossil fuel agendas of our political duopoly. In the US, industry pushback has led to some state governors seeking to financially boycott and punish any pension fund managers with a record of proactively disengaging from the fossil fuel industry.

State, Territory and National Governments must curb the huge levels of financial support for the fossil fuel industry and urgently prioritise the protection of the natural environment.

To address the perils of climate change and the environmentally negligent behaviours of land-use enterprise, existing EPBC (Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation) legislation must be vigorously applied and stronger legislation and severe penalties tailored to meet the challenges of the future. Compliance is paramount and public interest prosecutions should be pursued as a matter of course.

Australians are subjected to daily updates on stocks, shares and currencies, and there is a counterbalancing need for reporting on the status of our natural habitat, preferably before the sports results!

Why not report on the uptake of renewables, the health of rivers, the status of threatened species, feral animals, distribution of buffel grass, loss of old growth forests, and independent reporting on ocean temperature data, levels of green-house gases and glacial melt to name a few?

The virtual absence of such information helps to explain our national obsession with finance. A first world people, we’re addicted to buying the cheapest commodities while asking no questions about quality or the hidden environmental cost of our choices.

When we speak of falling living standards, sadly it’s mostly about money and what our citizens can buy.

Nature’s balance sheet is hugely in deficit and a future that’s focussed on need over greed, a passion for working within the framework and laws of nature, is long overdue and could actually lift up future generations.

Do no harm should be the mission statement of every business but it’s fast becoming: do not get caught while doing harm, and for politicians, how can I spin a given situation.

Accountability is one critical filter that is not delivering for our imperilled civil society. At a time when we need a fearless, vigilant and independent media, revenues in this sector have declined sharply, resulting in a major loss of oversight and investigative journalism. Invariably, the most “successful” media umpires rely on  a business model that attracts political and corporate patronage. Adopting a less critical eye helps.

Progressive Governments could ease these monumental failures in public trust by holding regular press conferences and giving public servants the freedom to answer questions from the press gallery.

In the absence of such accountability and honesty we must question the worth of our highly paid and privileged parliamentarians to represent our community. I return to my claim of lying by omission!

I live in a world where rare individuals seem to exercise more care and stewardship for the natural environment than whole government departments.

Above all these passionate and committed individuals are in a hurry.

They are not for sale and this leads to a clarity of decision making, informed by a thorough understanding of societal and environmental trends, thereby maximising cost benefits to advance their cause.

NGOs, always under-resourced, appear to attract the best and brightest, true believers unencumbered by corporate patronage and insidious agendas or the need to endlessly compromise for the sake of the biggest egos or political party unity.

From fracking to land clearing and the granting of exceptional water licenses, the frequency of contentious land use approvals in the Northern Territory has resulted in a string of scandals.

In a recent development, the Central Australian Frack Free Alliance, is challenging the validity of a ministerial decision in the Supreme Court.

Is the rise of whistle-blowers, taking dramatic personal risks, a warning that Government acting in the best interests of society is no longer believable? Has the democratic process become a means of distracting the masses while big business continues to reel in massive profits and pirates of the modern era leave a legacy of degradation in their wake?

Are the grossly inadequate bonds required by government for extractive industries (McArthur River Mine) or generous water licenses awarded to landowners (Fortune Agribusiness) simply a continuation of corporate welfare?

Of life’s priorities and great passions, most of my friends can be subdivided into two camps: those who are passionate about the sentient, or animate world, and others who revere subjects, inanimate.

Unfortunately, these differences can lead to a form of class stereotyping with elements on both sides calling out the other as greenies or rev heads!

Overlaps do occur and some rare individuals are equally passionate about the call of a frog and the roar of a V8. Parents of any persuasion naturally share their greatest passions with their children and patiently guide them along familiar pathways.

That’s understandable but we urgently need to make environmental literacy available to all as though our very survival depends on it.

Ecological understanding is of paramount importance unless you believe human ingenuity alone can solve all our problems, that the creation of more technology and “superior” digital worlds is enough.

The rise of social media and technological wizardry can be all-consuming and I believe this is leading to a harmful poverty of spirit in society, a condition that may be “treated” through a balancing exposure to nature if we can find a readily available source.

It’s important to acknowledge the increasing dislocation of people from the natural world. I‘ve read somewhere that an alarming number of Australians can identify more brands and logos than actual species, a gap that has grown in my generation.

Some might call this ignorance. I prefer the descriptor of “nature deprivation syndrome”.

Causes are manifold, including the comprehensive loss of wild places, the design and density of cities, the removal of large trees seen as a public liability hazard or an impediment to greater profitability, or both.

In Central Australia a huge loss of old growth trees is occurring and this can be attributed to the rampage of exotic grasses; a bit like pouring petrol on a fire.

From early childhood, majestic trees across the country best represent our enduring connection to nature, but will this hold true for future generations? As memories fade will we come to believe the treeless savannahs of Central Australia represent nature as it should be?

In the minds of Arrernte custodians, the old growth red gums in Alice Springs are sacred sites, totemic ancestors and links to family. Mature trees pre-date European settlers and I’ve witnessed the deep trauma inflicted on custodians when such trees are killed by fire.

Conversely the health benefits for Aboriginal people working on country, in land management roles and Indigenous Protected Areas are well documented.

Wherever possible, I believe we must embrace our differences and seek out the common ground that surely exists between people. Continuing failure to engage the mainstream and communicate effectively on environmental issues, predisposes our nation to ever more extreme forms of economic rationalism posing as leadership in the decades ahead. Examples loom large in the world around us.

There is little point blaming those in our midst who are unconcerned for the natural environment and its embattled life forms. This is more about the quality of information, the teacher and finding the very best opportunities for exchange.

Of course it doesn’t help that our own governments behave like hard-nosed corporates, conceal information and invest in so much spin. When I see our environmental educators of the future spending so much time, energy and their own savings to challenge the shortcomings of due process and the excesses of government I feel a mixture of sadness and hope.

That governments are so conflicted on their environmental duty of care, that such a huge disconnect exists between our leaders and its citizenry, begs analysis. As a nation of diverse peoples, education and lived experience, our appreciation of environment can be climatic zones apart.

Some see a cleared field of green, dotted with white sheep as a wasteland, others a picture of bucolic perfection and order. Polarisation grows when our differences are expressed in ways that exclude or disrespect others. Diversity is a strength of desert ecosystems but in human society it often leads to schisms and polarisation, a situation that is exploited endlessly by shallow leaders.

There are a great many sound scientific, cultural and ethical reasons why retaining our biodiversity should be regarded as sacrosanct. Life is not only about feeding the world, it’s also about survival of the human spirit and that of the next generation and the next.

I would argue the unique landscapes and biota of the Australian continent represent the core values of our nation. Demonstrating to our children that not everything is for sale, that some values are sacred would be a good place to start.

This is the ultimate form of altruism, for turning around our not so civil society, building cultural bridges and improving our chances of survival. I remind children that my favourite every-day experiences are free, courtesy of a garden brimming with wildlife and definitely more beautiful, spontaneous and variable than anything I can buy or create with pixels.

Perhaps there’s a philanthropic organisation with an interest in early childhood education out there?

Empathy and concern for the splendour and struggles of the natural world does follow exposure and familiarity. While the mental health of people can hugely benefit from this contact, the planet will also benefit from a rise in human understanding, advocacy and care.

I firmly believe that environmental awareness, community wide, will help to unify our population and build a stronger democratic nation.

I’ve come to realise the critical importance of matching the right people with the challenges we face. Put simply we need landowners who are committed to working with the country and ministers for the environment who do much more than keep the seat warm.

When old growth trees are on fire we should appreciate that having some-one who cares deeply about their value, on the end of the fire hose, is just as important as technical training.

We are gripped by a plague that seems to afflict both the natural environment and the quality of government. If more people could find the courage to act on issues impacting biodiversity, then less aggravation would fall on the heads of a minority of activists. When enough people act, leaders follow and we certainly need Governments to function honourably if we are to meet the challenges of climate impacts on biodiversity.

I highlight the example of wilderness photographer and campaigner, Olegas Truchanas. In 1965 Truchanas placed himself in a “difficult position with his employer (Hydro-electric Commission of Tasmania), gave a series of audio visual lectures at the Hobart Town Hall … aimed at publicising the environmental losses that would follow the flooding of the lake [Pedder]”. (Dictionary of Biography.)

The words of Truchanas resonate in the Northern Territory where environmental conquest is a growing threat to biodiversity and our quality of life: “If we can accept a role of steward and depart from the role of conqueror, if we can accept that man and nature are inseparable parts of a whole, then Tasmania can be a shining beacon in a dull, uniform and largely artificial world.”

For those silenced bureaucrats of the Northern Territory I can thoroughly recommend photography, video, visual and performing arts as a source of inspiration and political absolution.

Buffel ballet, anyone?

PHOTOS by MIKE GILLAM. FROM TOP: Western myall and chenopods • Emu scat with quandongs • Lilies, South Australia • Kites and fire.

Earlier essays about buffel by MIKE GILLAM

ESSAY THREE Privatise the buffel profits, socialise the costs

ESSAY TWO Buffel: South Australia leading the way

ESSAY ONE From grass castles to fiery ruins

Big water bombers still on the ground

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By ERWIN CHLANDA

Big water bombers still cannot be used in Alice Springs which is again surrounded by wildfires.

Two light aircraft each capable of carrying just 3000 litres of water are now in fire fighting use but according to Bushfires NT they can extinguish just “20 to 30 square metres” in one drop.

The fire front is estimated at 72,000 metres in the blaze north-east of the town. An exact figure of the fire front length is not available.

Preparations for the use of large fire bombers carrying 15,000 litres, including Boeing 737-300 aircraft, are locked in a Catch 22 situation: The NT is part of a national system for the use of such aircraft but “they are ineffective given the location,” says Tony Fuller, of Bushfires NT.

Why? “We don’t have the facilities.”

The Alice Springs airport certainly does its part, providing water in excess of 3960 litres per minute.

At this flow rate the 15,000 litre tanks of the large bombers would be full in around five minutes.

But without that equipment that the Government or Bushfires NT need to provide, the planes would need to be loaded interstate, the cost would be $200,000 per sortie and in any case the load, including a retardant, would “settle in flight” and become useless, according to Mr Fuller.

Of course, none of that would be the case if the large aircraft could be based and loaded here. Flight time to the fires would be a mere few minutes.

Four 22,000 litre water tanks have been installed at the airport to load the small aircraft but are apparently not suitable for the large bombers.

Mr Fuller says the small planes can also lay down a 500 metre “wet line” alongside fire breaks to reduce the risk from embers blown across.

He said yesterday the current fires are at “multiple locations”.

Related reading, including Mike Gillam’s essay on the fight against buffel.

West Macs fire mitigation critically inadequate: scientist (February 7, 2019)

West Macs blaze: questions and sorrow (February 11, 2019)

Bushfire fighting up in the air (February 19, 2019)

Fire threat: where are the big water bombers (September 20, 2019)

Increased fire preparedness: not the NT government (December 16, 2019)

Not ready for savage bushfire threat (March 1, 2023)

Top risk level blaze in farm area, fire fighting assets lacking (March 24, 2023)

Fire bombers, buffel and planned burning (August 15, 2023)

PHOTO AT TOP: Fires burning and burnt country north-east of Alice Springs which is in the bottom left of the image. The image was supplied by Dr Rohan Fisher, Charles Darwin University, North Australia Fire Information (NAFI).

Privatise the buffel profits, socialise the costs

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By MIKE GILLAM

Part three in a series of four.

Given such a horrifying political landscape, where only one of five affected States and Territories have taken action, what is the future of biodiversity in the 70% of Australia that invites buffel grass invasion?

For hopeful answers we must look to Queensland where varieties were first introduced in the 1920s. The state government there is still protecting buffel pastures from a mealybug. That bug could be the very species to fight Central Australia’s flora scourge.

It’s a biological truth that monocultures are prone to disease, to peaks and eventual declines. (The same is often said of great civilisations).

Agricultural enterprises are beset with problems and some such as salinity are well understood but the downside of buffel is more difficult to articulate especially given the shameful history of Government marketing and patronage. The absence of biodiversity, much more difficult to restore than protect, can lead to disastrous consequences for all.

A number of pathogens offer promise for buffel grass control and I’m hopeful that CSIRO are well advanced with contingency plans to put biological control measures into action. A PIRSA information bulletin suggests that the buffel grass seed caterpillar (Mampava rhodoneura) is the only documented major insect pest. Ralph Folds, an Alice Springs News reader has alerted me to others that I was unaware of including the fungal pathogen Pyricularia grisea and the ergot fungus, Claviceps spp. Thank you!

The hero in my essay is the invertebrate pest known as pasture mealybug, Heliococcus summervillei that causes buffel grass die-back.

While the signs of dead grass are widespread and pronounced in Queensland it seems possible that patches are being overlooked in the vast leases of the Northern Territory. It must already be obvious to Territory pastoralists that the pressure of responding to devastating wildfires, largely fuelled by the spread and density of buffel grass, is eroding the benefits.

Repeated over time this burning regime threatens the long term viability of their stocking rates because it’s a factor driving pasture “rundown”. Essentially a buffel grass monoculture benefits those pastoralists who intend to profit in the short to medium term and sell before the music stops. Other beneficiaries include seed merchants and allied service industries from scientists to transport companies.

Generous Government grants and subsidies to the agricultural sector are further enhanced by a dazzling raft of scientific expertise including a biosecurity focus for the insect pests that attack exotic pastures. Meat and Livestock Australia have funded research by Queensland University of Technology (partnered with Queensland Biosecurity) that confirms “this is the same mealybug that caused pasture dieback in Queensland in 1926 and the 1930s, in New Caledonia in 1998, and currently in Barbados and Puerto Rico”.

Kalka, SA, roadside buffel.

Lead Researcher, Associate Professor Caroline Hauxwell of QUT also recommends adding phosphorous to depleted soils.

The following excerpts come from an online research publication produced by a private research organisation Ahr (Applied horticultural research), for their client, Meat and Livestock Australia. MLA is funded by producer levies and receives matched funding from the Federal Government: “In 2018-19 MLA invested $170m in a range of research, development and adoption programmes” (from their website).

This amount towers over the 2023 funding by SA Government of $2.2m to assist the Alinytjara Wilurara Landscape Board (AWLB) “that has led the fight against buffel grass in remote parts of the state for more than a decade. The State Government’s Landscape Priorities Fund and AWLB will jointly contribute … to a multi-agency buffel grass program”.

BHP has been monitoring and eliminating the weed around Roxby Downs since 2000 and recently provided $82,000 donation to AWLB in recognition of their efforts.

For the record I can see no comparable effort further north, in the major watercourses of the Lake Eyre Basin. As I write, buffel has now established on the main access road to Coober Pedy, fringing the wonderful mosaic of plants on the nearby flats where hovering kestrels may be seen hunting on any day.

I think of the advertising mantra “he first law of marketing is break the pattern” and feel sure tourist destinations like Coober Pedy have a great incentive to protect and manage natural advantages.

Keeping this invasive grass out can only benefit the wellbeing of the town’s residents and equally those visitors wanting to visit a truly unique desert community. But the town of 2,000 has little status in the eyes of a remote and aloof South Australian Government and we know that buffel thrives on Government neglect and inertia.

A review published online was conducted by Ahr research scientist, Dr Jenny Ekman for project partner, Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) in 2019. Online reference: Pasture Dieback in Queensland – a review of relevant literature v7.docx ”Section 1.2 Areas in Queensland currently affected by dieback may also be affected by pasture rundown, with losses of 50% productivity in buffel pasture reported compared to when the pasture was first established. In 2011 it was estimated that the economic impacts of pasture rundown would be $17 billion over the next 30 years.

Red tailed black cockatoos.

“Buffel grass dieback [was] first observed in the Baralba district, south-west of Rockhampton, during the drought years of 1993-4. However the dead areas did not recover after the following wet seasons, but continued to expand. By 1997 patches of dead grass were appearing over wide areas”. p.5-6

Mealybugs and dieback symptoms. 3.1.5 “found that the roots of buffel grass with dieback were stunted with soft, sunken regions. They also lacked smaller feeder roots when compared to healthy plants. Although no mealy bugs were recorded, this damage appears consistent with the necrotic lesions that can be caused by mealybugs injecting saliva, feeding on sap and suppressing the plant defences (Figure 24)”. p.39

An updated document, citing a research duration of 2021-2022 was provided by Ahr: “MLA Buffel Grass Dieback. Summary: Pasture dieback is causing major feed losses in Australia. Because of this there is an urgent need to develop strategies to provide feed for livestock while a solution for the disease is being developed.”

This update attracted media attention. Article: ABC RURAL – Mealybugs identified as cause of mysterious pasture dieback costing graziers billions in Qld, NSW. Posted Wed 12 April 2023 by Abbey Halter: “For more than a decade, graziers across Queensland have been baffled … as their lush green pastures turned yellow and died. With a crime scene between 40,000 and 4.4 million hectares in size, researchers struggled to identify the culprit … the suspect is four times smaller than a five cent piece …The first signs of a problem in Queensland’s pastures was discovered in 2011 and since then it has spread through central and southern areas and into northern New South Wales.

“Gympie’s [grazier who] used to take pride in his ‘great pasture’ …has reduced his breeding cattle by one-third due to lack of feed, and as a small stud it has been a significant loss … a member of the Meat and Livestock Association’s (MLA) oversight committee working to tackle pasture dieback. The committee estimates the economic hit to productivity because farmers cannot use their paddocks exceeds $2 billion.”

The incoming El Niño might buy us some time. Moist years are optimal for mealy bugs to establish and spread and the following dry years, may be best for killing the already stressed buffel. Regardless, the application of mealy bugs should be fast tracked for riparian systems and areas of vulnerable old growth trees, for biodiversity hotspots and to safe-guard native seed banks. Concurrently, a variety of herbicides need to be urgently applied while buffel is still actively growing to control the critical spread along roadside and river corridors.

South Australia is making a valiant effort to plan strategically and coordinate agencies in the battle against buffel but more is needed fast. They regularly use vehicle mounted boom sprays and have even experimented with a helicopter spray unit.

Multi-state cooperation, strategic planning and resourcing is essential but this requires the Northern Territory to admit some responsibility in this great debacle and stop sitting on the fence.

Given its central role in the promotion, development and establishment of buffel grass the Federal Government must urgently and ambitiously, step up. I was dismayed to find the biggest, most terrifying tussocks growing unmolested, in the grounds of the recently abandoned CSIRO Research Station in Alice Springs. The landlord must be appalled.

The myriad organisations, communities and individuals trying to retain biodiversity have been left with no remedy for this unwanted invasion. They have been abandoned by Government and industry, expected to accept immense losses and, totally unsupported, shoulder the impossible future that is imposed by buffel’s spread.

By creating such a shocking imbalance of winners and losers, the use of buffel by agriculture certainly makes a lie of the cooperative theory of multiple land use. I do wonder at the outcry if the choices, causes and consequences were reversed and the pastoral industry were asked to take this outrage on the chin.

Pastoralists anticipate increased yields from a developing buffel monoculture and this coupled with the granting of water licenses is possibly driving a surge in property prices over the past decade. The Crown (Pastoral Lands Act) uses formulae that appear very generous by business standards, given that some properties are achieving market values of $10m or more.

Oak parakeelya.

Annual Pastoral Rent (PLR) is based on several factors as defined by the Pastoral Land Act but principally on “the estimated carrying capacity expressed in animal equivalents as determined by the Agency under section 54.” Of great significance to the buffel story, “the determination must be made based on the unimproved native pasture on the land and ignoring any improved pasture on the land.” This could mean that a property routinely carrying 6,000 head on a buffel “improved” pasture might be paying for a carrying capacity of only 3,000 head at $3.26 each.

In my humble opinion this formula should be reversed so that pastoralists are greatly rewarded when they strive to maintain native pasture, ie. contribute to biodiversity and are charged a premium when pasture “enhancement” using exotic species is in play.

The latter scenario would clearly anticipate higher profits but at the nation’s expense ie. causing potential damage to the natural environment! Perhaps a review of this rental charge, based on stock numbers that are sometimes difficult to verify, could be modified to include a charge for turn off, for each beast when they’re trucked to market. I should note that most but not all 99 year leases in the NT have been converted to perpetual leases, ushered in by the Pastoral Land Act of 2016.

Polluter pays model

In the absence of resolute Government action and prohibitions on the deliberate spread of exotic grasses such as buffel, positive change will progress much more slowly. As dieback accelerates pastoralists have a couple of options. Having enjoyed times of plenty, of elevated production, they could allow declining exotic grasslands to revert back to more resilient native plant communities. Hopefully this will accelerate, when biological controls are established.

Recognising inescapable trends of the future and wishing to benefit from financial incentives, pastoralists may become actively engaged in spreading pathogens to hasten the control of buffel grass and regularly re-seed and refresh their pastures with native species.

The Pastoral Lands Act exposes the nation to compensation of owners for infrastructure improvements but there appears to be no avenue for compensation to the nation for ecosystem degradation due to exotic grasses and a history of grazing impacts.

Obviously, any use of “refresh” buffel should be strictly forbidden beyond its current areas of distribution and seed merchants audited. In the extreme example that buffel exemptions are provided by Government, the seed of approved strains could be heavily taxed to provide some revenue for buffel control programmes and habitat restoration.

From: New pasture plants intensify invasive species risk, Don Driscoll, J.Catford, (Deakin University) 04-12-2014: “The vast majority of agribusinesses, including government agencies and private companies, do not manage the environmental weed risk of taxa they promote … Why is this the case?… Agribusiness … is not financially liable for environmental impacts or control of pasture taxa that invade natural areas … Instead the public pays to manage environmental weeds that have escaped from pastures … The risks for agribusiness are minimal, and therefore there is little incentive to address potential environmental impacts … Insurance or environmental bonds may be practical mechanisms for linking the risk of environmental impacts with commercial responsibility … following the well-established polluter pays principle … motivate agribusiness to pursue strategies that reduce environmental risk.”

Red gum fire.

Is it too much to ask that environmental agencies and communities battling buffel receive similar funding, to that provided by the Federal Government to MLA? Funding is urgently required to protect the natural estate from the accidents and excesses of the agricultural industry and dare I say a diabolical failure, orchestrated and encouraged by Governments.

When I review the impressive scientific and support staff working at Applied Horticultural Research I find myself wishing for equivalent expertise and resourcing in the fight against buffel. Do conservation landowners have legal recourse for the loss of biodiversity?

Certainly the plethora of Government subsidies to commercial land use endeavours from mining to agriculture versus the survival needs of biodiversity conservation, the money story, needs proper analysis. “Providing independent research and advice to Government on economic, social and environmental issues affecting the welfare of Australians” the Productivity Commission would be a good place to start.

While I wait for a glacial Government response I dream about a favourable mealy bug laden wind from the east or perhaps waves of contaminated Territorians returning from holidays in Queensland with a bevy of hitch-hikers. I am torn because the mealy bug is an exotic pest that will likely affect other grasses but …

PHOTO at top: Emu incinerated in bushfire. All photos MIKE GILLAM.

Essays about buffel by MIKE GILLAM

ESSAY THREE Privatise the buffel profits, socialise the costs

ESSAY TWO Buffel: South Australia leading the way

ESSAY ONE From grass castles to fiery ruins

Buffel: South Australia leading the way

10

By MIKE GILLAM

Part two in a series of four.

The insurance industry is doubtless already measuring the fire risk to regional towns and numerous isolated hamlets surrounded by a sea of buffel and with barely a garden hose at hand.

In Alice Springs flood premiums escalated sharply in response to the sale of the Government owned Territory Insurance Office (TIO) to the private sector. In an age of climate crisis and looming natural disasters this was surely an appalling decision by the previous Country Liberal Party.

Once more the citizens of Central Australia will pay dearly because of Government failure to plan for the future. To raise my own morale, I turn my vehicle south down the Stuart Highway.

South Australia’s decision to declare buffel grass a weed has received strong support from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Their September 2023 assessment report on invasive species and their control “… recognises buffel grass’s potential to completely take-over arid ecosystems, forcing out native plant and animal specie.

“The IPBES is a global science-policy body tasked with providing the best available evidence on biodiversity issues to governments and decision-makers. The assessment report was developed over more than four years by 86 experts from 49 countries, drawing on more than 13,000 scientific articles and government reports … included significant contributions from indigenous peoples and local communities, making it the most comprehensive assessment ever of invasive alien species around the world.”

Given the enormity of the environmental threat posed by buffel, efforts by the state Government of South Australia to combat the spread of this pest seem aspirational and ad hoc.

Meanwhile, buffel continues to expand, a toxic flow from the NT, into both SA and WA; surely a case for legal remedy by affected states, given government responsibility for highway management, a major conduit for its spread.

Gidyea drainages northern SA.

Spanning 50 years, I’m a regular visitor to Coober Pedy, where I spend time writing, taking photographs and drinking tea or moonshine in the company of old and new friends.

It’s my habit to leave Alice Springs in the dark so I can enjoy the pre-dawn transition. Unless budgerigar murmurations or other distractions intervene, I’m likely to reach the famous opal mining town 680 km distant, in the mid-afternoon.

With the sublime Waterhouse Ranges catching the first rays of the morning sun on my right, I pass over the once appealing Orange Creek. Involuntarily I grimace, noting the red gum woodland shows minimal recovery after an apocalyptic fire event in 2011. A decade later I’m not surprised the river still looks trashed.

A critically important field note published in 2021 by Charles Darwin University’s Christine Schlesinger & Erin Westerhuis gave a grim analysis of the impact of buffel fuelled wildfires on old growth trees. “Large old trees are keystone structures of terrestrial ecosystems that provide unique habitat resources for wildlife. Here we report on the impact of a single wildfire on large river red gums … arid riparian woodland invaded by buffel.

“In 2018, 266 trees with more than 80cm equivalent trunk diameter were mapped at six sites to provide a pre-fire baseline. Within a year the sites were impacted by a large … wildfire that burnt an area of 660 square kilometres in 15 days. Sites were resurveyed in 2019 to assess the fate of the trees … 54% of the trees exposed to the fire were destroyed and the remainder lost on average 79% of their canopy.” Fire ecology 17, Article number: 34 (2021).

Given the recent history of accelerated fire behaviour in Central Australia, it seems certain the entire red gum woodland in Schlesinger’s baseline study area will vanish after successive fires, perhaps in as little as 20 years, notwithstanding one or two isolated trees perched in the middle of a sandy river might survive longer.

South of the ranges, the country becomes progressively flatter as altitude reduces from 545m around Alice Springs to 193m above sea level at Coober Pedy and plummets to minus nine meters below sea level on the shoreline of Lake Eyre.

Over this distance the wide Eucalypt lined river channels gradually transition from thirsty red gums to hardier coolibahs ultimately replaced in the minor drainages by Acacia woodlands of gidyea, or red mulga.

I stop to drag and relocate a roadkill roo so that hungry wedge tailed eagles don’t share its fate. The view of the immediate roadside invades my thoughts. Exploiting roadside disturbance, buffel reaches out to colonise patches higher in nitrogen, notably within the leaf litter zone beneath mallees and other shady trees and shrubs.

South of Alice Springs, in “disturbed” areas routinely impacted by offroad vehicles, buffel has now encircled a great many desert oaks and I instinctively check magnificent stands on the approach to Erldunda. Predictably, roadside stops and campsites are still begging for buffel control but the desert oaks are clear for now.

Seven hundred years ago Lhere Pirnte, the ancestral Finke River flowed to Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre) but this connection became blocked as the climate turned progressively arid.

Crossing the Stuart Highway just south of Erldunda, Karinga Creek is an important palaeo-connection to a westerly chain of salt-lakes that culminate in the dramatic expanse of Lake Amadeus just north of Uluru.

Recent rain is evident in the ephemeral “wetlands” of Karinga Creek and I fly the drone in the distressing knowledge this mosaic of fringing Melaleucas, sedges, chenopods and native grasses may not prevail.

Fertilised by Government inertia and taking root in the windrows and road verge, invasive buffel grass continues its relentless march down the Stuart Highway.

From the roadside it has swept along ephemeral watercourses of the Lake Eyre Basin, choking the Marryat, Agnes and Indulkana Creeks, all three are tributaries of the Alberga River, flowing on to the Macumba and then to Lake Eyre. Clearly, in these watercourses buffel is now a major peril.

Reflecting on the value of the riparian old growth woodlands downstream, the budgerigar breeding hollows and the rich native oat grass flats beyond, positive images fade from my mind.

Budgies in northern SA

Now it’s an unfolding crime scene, because what I’ve seen of the properties in this border country, De Rose Hill and Tieyon, they seem well managed and the oat grasses, vitally important to the rich biodiversity of this area, are also vital to pastoral enterprise.

One of several rapacious invaders taking advantage of a wet La Nina, buffel has been assisted by a post Covid 19 surge of tourists travelling through the inland. With names celebrating carnage and conquest, caravans and camper vans are ruggedly engineered and detailed in steel and shiny aluminium checker plate.

Heavily sprung and appointed it’s little wonder that city refugees ignore the official rest areas, banal at best and venture hundreds of metres off road in search of amenity.

Unfortunately the convoys of campervans carry with them a lethal cargo of buffel grass seed lodged in the mud underneath mudguards, springs and chassis. The unspoiled landscapes that attract so many 4X4 tourists must bear the consequences of seeds, both good and bad that drop into wheel ruts.

Of potentially greater threat are the road upgrades; the dozing of detours and the creation of worker encampments, machinery laybys and other transgressions.

While effective cleaning of vehicles beforehand would make a difference, equally, follow up of roadside disturbance sites and spraying of any weed infestations should be a mandatory part of these “nation” building and tragically, environmentally destructive projects.

Typically, the arid region south of latitude 27 degrees is characterised by ancient and impoverished soils that are acidic, nutrient depleted and low in phosphorous.

Given the magnitude of the buffel tsunami, low rainfall (about 160mm per annum) and a corresponding high evaporation rate of 2.5 metres, is a further blessing.

These deficiencies of soils and rainfall, combined with high summer temperatures, offer strategic advantages over the MacDonnell Ranges at latitude 23 degrees.

Here in the country that is close to my heart, the Alice Springs bioregion is in a state of ecological collapse, official news from our national Government in Canberra, something that was patently obvious to most Centralian residents 15 years ago!

The spread and vigour of this subtropical grass has massively increased the intensity of wildfires leading to the calamitous loss of old growth trees and with myriad environmental, social and economic impacts.

Political awareness might finally arrive in the NT given the 2023 disaster in Hawaii where exotic grasses (a legacy of European colonisers) including buffel, fuelled devastating wildfires that resulted in a shocking toll of lives and property.

In favourable contrast, the gaunt country surrounding Coober Pedy is less than optimal for buffel expansion, not a firm geographical barrier but definitely worth acting upon.

With modest investment to combat invasive buffel grass I’m sure we can buy this country time, hell decades of it, until such time as enlightened governments and responsible corporates invest in biological control and critical land management.

South Australia provides examples of foresight, diligence and strategic actions, both novel and traditional, that are attempting to stem the spread of this terrifying pest.

Realising that buffel was following the railway line, (a corridor of ground disturbance), lateral thinking land managers set up a herbicide spray tank on a flat car at the rear of a train and proceeded to efficiently spray hundreds of kilometres of infected rail corridor.

I was given the train example in the past year but my memory has misplaced a critical detail from the hundreds of conversations that have informed the writing of this story. Sadly, I’m now unable to verify the source and confirm this innovative action actually happened.

Perhaps it’s a case of wishful thinking, whatever the case, it’s a great idea and I hope that buffel strategists will put it into practice without delay. I’ve been through the country around Tarcoola and certainly patches of buffel are evident along the railway corridor so maybe a slow trip and targeted spraying is needed right now.

The politics of buffel are accelerating in the Northern Territory, sadly outpaced by the damaging impact of buffel-fuelled fires.

In addition to the NT Government appointed buffel grass Technical Working Group (TWG), the Arid Lands Environment Centre based in Alice Springs have greatly expanded their collaboration with stake-holders and buffel campaigners across the arid zone.

Meanwhile, the NT Labor Government, a great spin factory on methods of deflecting environmental concern and neglect, has cancelled the Party’s annual conference. Is this the latest attempt by Government to control the environmental narrative?

Western myall woodland in the Kingoonya area

Failure by the NT Government over decades to declare buffel grass a weed and failure to regulate, prevent and discourage the ongoing release of other exotic species is another example of inept governance and crisis management.

Resistance to this unprecedented frenzy of land use development has unified and aligned a broad church of environmentalists with the heavily impacted Aboriginal defenders of cultural and sacred sites.

The South Australian Government has acted on the science and declared buffel a weed although the available funding fails to acknowledge the seriousness of the task and the enormous consequences of failure. Resources from the federal Government and the private sector are surely available but the will and a sense of urgency seems to be missing.

Several very prosperous mining companies, each employing environmental officers, need to step up. The private mining haul roads are potential conduits for weeds. With corporate investment, weed management on haul roads could be scaled up with employment offered to local people to map and plan strategic controls and urgently spray roadside infestations in areas beyond the mining leases.

It would be a travesty to do nothing and ignore the impacts of this subtropical grass and its many naturalising variants.

Unless we spray the roadsides diligently, buffel will enter and devastate watercourses and old growth stands across most of the inland. If it reaches the wetlands of Bon Bon reserve, a mere 180km south of Coober Pedy, conservation managers will need to quadruple budgets to hold a line which will eventually fall as ecological gem after gem succumbs to this botanical curse.

I’m gutted by the thought of buffel invading the western myall woodlands, rich in Eremophillas, Solanums and Quandongs. Emus are abundant and southern hairy nosed wombats are also present in small numbers in the ecotonal zones bordering palaeo-channels.

There are stark differences and a few similarities between the desert dwellers of the Northern Territory and South Australia. On matters of strategy and organisation the NT Government can benefit greatly from the experiences of South Australia and readily apply methods, procedures and use existing publications on buffel identification and control.

From Primary Industries and Regions (PIRSA) where policy is set, through to Department of Environment and Water (DEW) that coordinates on the ground actions by eight dedicated landscape regions and their boards, multiple departments are addressing the buffel threat.

With inadequate resources, the landscape regions have been holding the buffel line for years but expansion over recent wet years has proved overwhelming. A recent boost to funding will however see improved strategic planning and coordination with resources on the ground, including mines, road and rail that are seen as key players.

Strangely neither PIRSA or DEW have a permanent presence in Coober Pedy, a community and geographic location that seems critical in the buffel grass war.

This absence matters greatly because the District Council of Coober Pedy appears completely distracted by financial difficulties and its rapidly growing debt. Against a conspicuous backdrop of opal mining and a reputation built on dystopian stereotypes the residents of this famous opal mining town exhibit a surprising level of environmental awareness, passion and concern.

Buffel hillside east of Warburton, WA

Buffel grass action however is piecemeal, with a few dedicated locals, mostly aged over 60, keeping buffel at bay in small areas important to them. This is how it began in Alice Springs, now it’s a community wide obsession.

As I conclude this essay, the nightly news is full of fast moving grass fires in Queensland and NSW, of lives, homes and livelihoods lost. Paddocks, roadside grasses, and understorey tussocks setting trees and shrubs ablaze.

Some of these grasslands look suspicious, do they incorporate exotic species, even buffel, I wonder? Where is the federal Government in this accelerating disaster that impacts vast areas across five states and Territory’s?

Predictably, the Coober Pedy Country Fire Service are trying to recruit volunteers and from this ageing community, fire-fighters are responsible for outlying areas from Anna Creek to Mt Willoughby.

With the spread of buffel, their role will be stretched further, the difficulty of attracting volunteers more acute, the work more dangerous and increasingly futile.

PHOTO at top: Karinga Creek ephemeral wetland south of Erldunda. All photos by MIKE GILLAM.

Essays about buffel by MIKE GILLAM

ESSAY THREE Privatise the buffel profits, socialise the costs

ESSAY TWO Buffel: South Australia leading the way

ESSAY ONE From grass castles to fiery ruins

From grass castles to fiery ruins

9

By MIKE GILLAM

Part one in a series of four.

“Grass castles” of the new pastoral era vaporise and reform as fiery tornados. Nine hundred degrees C at the core of a buffel grass fire, heat rises quickly, carrying a blizzard of blackened twirls of grass and leaves and even fire.

Scores of fork tailed kites power glide back and forth to catch lizards fleeing the fire-front. Competition for prey is fierce, a frenzy of kite wings beat rapidly, rising above the flames to win a flying grasshopper. Small items are eaten on the wing, kite heads bowed, legs thrust forward and talons clenched.

Belching into the sky, destroyed pastures rapidly form into blackened clouds that block out the sun. As fuel reduces, the sun returns as a fiery disc, waxing and waning from orange to red.

Collateral damage and loss of old growth trees and biodiversity is immense. Post-fire, exotic buffel grass and its many hybrids are re-energised, outcompeting native vegetation; consolidating and expanding with successive fires. Green shoots of buffel return within weeks.

Repeated over decades, this cycle hastens pasture “rundown” and some agricultural scientists are now recommending that cattle producers add phosphorous to soils and plant legumes to restore nitrogen in depleted buffel pastures.

In the interests of honesty and disclosure perhaps scenes of wildfire destruction should accompany those glossy images, frequently used to promote properties for sale, showing fat contented cattle wading through waist high green grass.

We might also add some facts. That a monoculture of buffel will likely deplete soil health to a point where pasture productivity is halved. In addition to combating pasture “rundown” there are many hidden costs in maintaining buffel pastures long term. These include the need to invest in re-seeding areas with severe dieback.

In the short to medium term the high biomass of buffel can increase stocking capacity. For pastoral investors the trick is always knowing when to sell, hopefully before the music stops.

Majestic river tree destroyed in buffel fuelled blaze.

The well documented impacts of buffel, a pest that invariably spreads beyond pastoral leases, poses ethical questions. Given the destructive realities, how can Governments ignore their responsibility to biodiversity, society, the national park estate and indigenous protected areas?

What about the cultural imperatives of many small enterprises, visual artists among them, that depend on wild places to inform their work, not to mention the future of their subjects, the native plants and animals that are crushed by this plague?

I suppose Governments traditionally favour the bigger is better doctrine, and are simply blind to the significant financial ecosystem that underpins community life in Central Australia and collectively represents jobs, jobs, jobs!

Do our decision makers still view working on the land through a traditional stockwhips and open cut lens? Biodiversity supports and informs the indigenous art movement, ceremony, literature, art, craft and nature therapies, film making, photography, land management and tourism.

Collectively this enterprise ecosystem, many of its elements truly sustainable, poses no tangible threats to other land based industries. Moreover these small enterprises are less likely to walk away from a hollowed out landscape and expect the public to pick up the rehabilitation tab.

In contrast, all of these creative and service industries are threatened, some profoundly, by the buffel grass plague and yet no remedy is offered by Government or those industries responsible for the spread of buffel. Glaring issues of public safety will become a major factor in political life only when some of those who are travelling in the bush or living in remote communities, lose theirs.

Traditional owners and custodians from Uluru, Watarrka and the Peterman Ranges recently met in Alice Springs. Supportive of a proposal by national park’s staff to re-introduce locally extinct species to Uluru, Aboriginal people also wanted buffel grass issues to be part of the equation. Clearly the failures of habitat had to be addressed if reintroductions were to have any chance of success beyond a managed compound.

Those present were unanimous on the buffel grass crisis and decided to draft an edict and a plea for their country: “Since the time of living in the healthy abundant country … the children witnessed country … in its glory, before the arrival of buffel grass. There were … a multitude of wonderful species. Our people lived very contentedly when it was like that. But now we are contending with an issue that brings us great sorrow … It’s choking up the land …blocking the natural processes of the country.

“We didn’t bring it here and our people are at risk. We are calling on Governments … to recognise the impacts and threats that buffel grass has on we, the first nations people of desert Australia. For too long we have been pushed to the side when making decisions about this tjanpi kura (bad grass).

“We need serious action taken to … manage this dangerous weed that is taking over the deserts. We call on federal, state and Territory Governments to do what is needed to stop the march of this weed across our country. We stand together with desert people across Australia.”

I’ve spent days searching the literature for papers focussed on buffel grass as a threat that can profoundly alter landscapes, degrading not only biodiversity but also the productivity of rangeland pastures.

Cattle truck

Frustratingly, the science, much of it undertaken by Government funded researchers working for the agricultural sector, is skewed in favour of buffel grass as “saviour”; a successful means of restoring severely degraded rangelands. This speaks volumes about the influence and priorities of capitalism eclipsing our pre-eminent role as caretakers of the natural world.

Clearly the use of graphic images to compare scalded ground with the vivid addition of plant cover, the “saviour” model is engaging but what deeper truths will be revealed over the longer term?

Perhaps it’s too early in this unfolding story to know the big picture definitively and yet, by waiting how can we prevent the collapse of whole ecosystems? Given the pressures already imposed on natural ecosystems and those still increasing with climate change, the time for action was twenty years ago but today will have to do.

My probing in Central Australia revealed the spectre of oxalate poisoning, of a high incidence of still born calves, when cows were grazed on a buffel grass monoculture. The cattle producers, small in acreage by Northern Territory standards were duly advised of causal factors by Government veterinary staff.

Curiously, the autopsy results and the broader implications for Central Australian graziers were never published. In rangelands, calf losses can easily go unnoticed and I firmly believe this is indicative of a trend still unfolding across the inland.

Imbalances in the scientific literature are steadily correcting however, and from the USA to Australia, conservation land managers are unanimous in their condemnation of the severe threats to biodiversity that buffel grass poses.

Equally vehement are indigenous communities who are observing the rapid displacement of culturally significant plants and animals. Indeed rangers and staff working for Indigenous Protected Areas are at the forefront of buffel grass eradication and management.

It’s a fact of life that a great majority of jobs on offer in the natural sciences lie within Government but few University lecturers prepare their science students for the full, unvarnished realities of this. Unfortunately, most science professionals who come to understand the full horror of buffel grass, will be muzzled by political considerations or worse, pressured into acting against the public interest.

Those with strong convictions will experience coercion that can quickly manifest as bullying from senior colleagues. While some, from park rangers and planners to fire-fighters, have spoken to me privately, most appreciate anonymity.

Chewings Range, a jewel in the crown of The Centre’s tourism assets.

Even pastoralists who spoke candidly about the dramatic landscape changes they had seen over decades, of life-stock burned to death, trapped against fencing, are shy about going on the public record. Therefore on matters of huge importance to the nation, we appear to suffer from an epidemic of lying by omission.

Tourism operators are more forthright about their concerns because no glossy brochure can truly brag about a wilderness experience that is so thoroughly degraded, a reality that most tourists do not appreciate until they arrive.

Opinions are divided In every community and pastoral managers are no exception. Some Australian beef producers vociferously promote buffel, doubtless spurred on by neighbours invested in an optimistic and possibly, short term outlook.

Others appear to take a pragmatic view: basically I can’t stop buffel and I want to believe it will be OK in the long term. I suspect those who still regard properties as an inter-generational asset and legacy are watching on in abject horror as their country is overwhelmed by this super grass. They remain silent however, out of concern for a community that is by now heavily invested in this great pastoral myth. I must add, there is a strong financial disincentive for most, if not all landowners, to admit that buffel poses a problem and invite devaluation of their asset.

Over time stock losses from future wildfires combined with pasture rundown and oxalic poisoning might well change the financial equation that drives pastoral enterprise across inland Australia.

Certainly, the pastoral leases are vast and it would be uneconomic to adopt the recommendations of Ag scientists advising beef producers, on smaller properties in Queensland and NSW to re-seed areas of buffel dieback, plant legumes and add phosphates to depleted soils.

From public servants to pastoralists, a shutter of silence is endorsing inertia, mis-shaping policy and contributing to ignorance within society. Gross complicity is also killing in numbers that are beyond our comprehension.

While we can well imagine the burnt corpses of cattle or kangaroos, we know nothing of life forms that are hiding under rocks or in a burrow, protected from the flames perhaps but asphyxiated as buffel consumes available oxygen. There can be no graphic images to show the destruction of the native seed bank, locally more devastating and complete than any drought on record.

Without management and biological interventions, events will run an inevitable and horrifying course. Tragically climate change will hammer more profoundly those arid zone ecosystems already compromised and made vulnerable by the elevated severity and incidence of fire.

Moreover, buffel fires with a shocking capacity to destroy woodland trees will contribute further to the carbon bomb that is driving climate change.

The Northern Territory is a bread and circuses kind of place, with the scale of Government spin and hyperbole, the only “boundless possible” that I can see. Recently (2023) the NT Government has responded to mounting pressure from residents by appointing an advisory committee to kick the can down the road.

In July this year the NT Cattlemen’s Association contacted members with a buffel grass survey containing the following misleading assertions: “As you may be aware, the NT Government has established a technical working group to consider declaring buffel grass a class B weed. This would require land managers to control the growth and spread of buffel on their properties.”

The terms of reference for the NT buffel grass Technical Working Group (TWG) do not predict, foreshadow or mandate a class B listing for buffel grass on pastoral lands. If there is a blanket Class B outcome – “it is necessary to prevent the growing and spreading of the plant” – approved by the Minister, it seems likely that exemptions and a variation of conditions are possible and the word “control” seems over-stated. Based on existing precedents of established pasture species later declared a weed eg. gamba grass in the Top End and buffel grass in South Australia, a Class (B) declaration is still quite flexible.

Obvious caveats must be applied to speculation I offer here. Softer “controls / requirements” would probably be applied to existing areas of buffel persistence and incidental spread, a declared Class B weed, on pastoral lands.

Roadtrain carrying cotton.

Deliberate seeding with buffel however, an undesirable act for the region’s biodiversity, would not be permitted unless the relevant Minister has given an exemption. The devil is always in the detail.

Usually a weed management group is appointed to determine the design and application of a weed management plan, following declaration. TWG terms of reference as follows:

Purpose: The NT Buffel Grass Technical Working Group has been formed to: 

• Analyse the “issue” of buffel grass and how it is being managed in the Northern Territory.

• Consider and evaluate existing and alternative management approaches; and

  • Make recommendations to the Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Water Security about the best management approach or approaches.”

I can only draw one conclusion for misrepresenting the TWG’s terms of reference: That NTCA’s newsletter is more about push polling its members than conducting an objective survey. That’s a shame because I feel certain a great many pastoralists, by virtue of the extended time they spend living in the bush, are regretful and anguished about the collateral damage that is happening to some of their favourite places.

Throughout the Northern Territory, the pastoral industry has a great many friends in business from aerial mustering and transport, motor vehicle sales and auto repairs, stationary engine and pump retailers, fuel, tyres and parts, yard builders, civil engineering, fencing contractors, stock agents, stock feed, buffel seed, herbicide and chemical vendors; so it goes on and on.

In post La Nina conditions pastoralists can anticipate spending much more on the labour intensive and costly business of fire-fighting such as hiring grader operators and contractors to cut fire breaks.

True to form, I feel certain that vested interests broadly will bring significant pressure to bear on the NT Government to delay or more likely dilute the listing of buffel grass as a weed. Are there senior public servants on lucrative contracts who are relied upon to double guess their political masters and keep troublesome true believers in check? The truth has a habit of reaching the surface.

Certainly, there is abundant evidence of rapidly growing dissent and activism, of a mass revolt by ordinary people who are challenging the Northern Territory’s autocratic style of government and environmental neglect. A lack of government honesty, oversight and compliance on mining, fracking, water licenses, cotton and buffel have stripped NT Labor of the last vestiges of environmental credibility.

The investors, not the corporate kind but those who actually care for the natural world, who live in the far flung towns, communities and hamlets of inland Australia have had enough. From Alice Springs to the bush communities, twenty five years of fighting buffel has generated a lot of anger.

Notwithstanding a sharp rise in people power, it’s the insurance actuaries who will probably lead the way. Ultimately the insurance industry will raise premiums to cover the prospect of more frequent and devastating wildfires and attendant risks to livestock, people and infrastructure.

This may encourage some banks to look more closely at the true value and risks of buffel infested rangelands.

A previous Labor government presided over the loss of 50% across Tjoritja / West MacDonnell Ranges National Park that was burnt out in 2019. Water bombing aircraft were never deployed but the spectacular “Territory Events” budget remained buoyant!

To the best of my knowledge, national park managers have received no increased funding of significance to assist with managing buffel grass or fighting the intense fires that now occur. Already this year another 20% of Tjoritja was burnt out in a single March wildfire with several more fires occurring in the past six months. Collectively, losses in 2023 must be approaching 50%.

The various strains of this super grass, genetically altered or naturalised, are the greatest threat to biodiversity facing inland Australia.

The buffel grass plague was developed, promoted and released by our national Government with enthusiastic support from states and Territories since the 1920s in Queensland and more recently in the NT. Used like a giant petri dish and exposed to numerous buffel strains, the Alice Springs region is now experiencing widespread ecosystem collapse.

For those invested in the life-force and future of this place, I search in vain for an analogy to capture the shocking scale of this catastrophe. The plague is killing our spirit, the beauty, history and promise of our country and our federal Government is withholding an array of biological (“vaccines”) remedies.

Interstate, in Queensland and New South Wales, buffel pastures (the plague) are receiving life support including generous investments in agricultural research from the Federal Government of Australia.

Essays about buffel by MIKE GILLAM

ESSAY THREE Privatise the buffel profits, socialise the costs

ESSAY TWO Buffel: South Australia leading the way

ESSAY ONE From grass castles to fiery ruins

101 homes unaccounted for

2

By ERWIN CHLANDA

How much does it cost to build a three-bedroom home? No more than $195,000, according to service.com.au, a national firm founded in 2014 to link up tradies and businesses.

If the job’s out bush let’s add another 10% for transport. That makes it $214,500 per house, around $1500 a square meter.

So, when the NT Government forks out $30m of taxpayer’s money, awarding a three year period contract to a local company (Pedersen NT, in this case) then we can expect to get 139 homes, with a bit left over, right?

Wrong.

The number of this contract is 20 new homes and “upgrade and refurbishment of 18 homes” without giving any details of their extent.

A media handout by ministers Selena Uibo and Chansey Paech on October 24 leaves us largely in the dark.

We are told it’s all part of a “massive achievement … reducing overcrowding, improving health and social outcomes, and supporting local economies,” Ms Uibo tells us.

And Mr Paech is over the moon about his government’s great work: “It’s always exciting to see how happy families are to receive the keys to their new homes, and how much decent housing has improved the lives of people in the bush.”

But where are those 119 homes unaccounted for? Or 101 if we count the upgrades and refurbishments as total write-offs? The NT Government does not answer that question.

The housing land for the project across Luritja and Pintubi country, of course, doesn’t need to be bought. It’s owned by the Aboriginal people who live there, land they gained under the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act or on town leases in Alice Springs, adding up to roughly half the total land mass of the Territory.

Ministers usually don’t answer questions. They fob news media off to their departments which then continue in the role of giving no answers.

At the same time nothing much happens without hand-on-heart commitment to jobs, jobs and jobs. What are the project’s requirements for local employment and (apparently five) five apprentices?

MINISTERS: For specifics about local employment and Aboriginal employment targets that apply to all remote housing contracts please contact the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics DIPL media team.

NEWS: There is a minimum requirement in the contract for the number of apprentices and trainees. How many? For what periods? What trades?

DIPL: A contractor is required to employ and train or maintain [as] a contractual obligation and will be managed in accordance with standard NTG contract management principles.

NEWS: Are these principles online? If not please email them to me. (They didn’t.)

DIPL:  As part of their tender response, Contractors submit an Indigenous Development Plan which is monitored throughout the life of the contract, including employment.

NEWS: Please provide a copy of that plan.

DIPL: They didn’t.

NEWS: Will the progression of those apprenticeships be monitored, and if so, how? What will be the consequences if and when apprenticeships are terminated ahead of their terms (by the employer and/or the apprentice)?

DIPL: No reply.

NEWS: Please describe the new buildings – square metres, materials, numbers of bedrooms, toilets, bathrooms and provide a plan drawing of a typical dwelling.

MINISTERS: DIPL media should also be able to assist with a description of buildings.

DIPL: The new homes will be block work or steel frame depending on further consultation with the community.

NEWS: What does upgrade and refurbishment of 18 homes involve? Just a new bedroom window, perhaps, or a leaking tap? Please specify type of work and cost.

DIPL: No answer.

NEWS: There is going to be site servicing and yard works. Please specify type of work and cost.

DIPL: No answer.

Chimes in Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney, in the handout: “The Albanese Government is … getting on with the job of delivering for Indigenous Australians and driving progress on closing the gap.”

Is this really desert?

11

By MIKE GILLAM

“Is this really desert?” The 1970 entry in the visitors book at old Andado homestead, framed by towering red dunes to the east and west, caught my eye.

The confusion expressed by a random tourist, looking for the desert of their expectations and dreams, was understandable. Conditions were dry at the time and the rangelands enroute were yet to encounter the buffel grass tsunami of 2000-1, both high rainfall years.

Annual average rainfall in the Simpson is half that of the range country of Alice Springs to the north and yet the vegetative cover seems to treble as we leave the more fertile pastoral lands behind. We begin to understand the confusion of visitors.

Typically a road trip from Alice Springs to this remote corrugated iron homestead, travelling from latitude 23 to 25 degrees South, takes four to five hours depending on driving conditions, scenic distractions or both.

In the second hour, my ancient four wheel drive vehicle frequently lunged and wallowed through deep wheel ruts filled with powdery fines known as bulldust.

Between rains the roadside mulga invariably acquires a layer of dust turning its grey green foliage to a lifeless rusty brown. This was pastoral country and it was a dry year. Sometimes the deepest accumulations of bull dust would rise up; an impressive bow wave hurled over a speeding vehicle before crashing onto the roof with a thud.

A year later the road ruts of bulldust would fill with water and unsuspecting four wheel drives would struggle through the wheel sucking bog.

Extending several hundred metres into the sky, plumes of rotating dust dance across the pale bare scalds that scarred woodlands of grey green mulga, ironwood and witchetty bush. Our wide eyed tourist would doubtless notice the small knots of lean cattle huddled in dark pools of shade; even wondering aloud how the denuded semi-arid grasslands could possibly provide them with adequate sustenance.

Two hours south east of Alice Springs (545m above sea level), the high country of the nearby MacDonnell Ranges (1000 m) and its dolomite outliers give way to low sandstone outcrops and ranges of striking beauty.

Fiery orange, purplish brown and the deep red of dried blood, depending upon the angle of light. Muscular red gums line the banks of dry watercourses, spindly coolibahs crowd the desert flood-outs and high above, gestural white gums cling precariously to rocky ledges and fissures.

In pastoral production terms this country is still rich, occasional droughts notwithstanding while the country immediately south is unequivocal desert and certainly less viable for grazing.

So why, immersed in the Simpson Desert 300 km South of Alice Springs, are tourists so confused by the health, vigour and delicate beauty of the native plant communities at Australia’s heart?

The explanations are complex, a mixture of confused marketing, of desert generalisations and cliched imagery. Expectations of a sand dune desert not only misrepresent Saharan realities but blur examples of agricultural degradation with notions of wilderness.

Ever more complex, unique and in places almost pristine, the Simpson Desert seems to defy vernacular explanation and so myth making enters our national psyche.

Passing through a sandstone portal in the Rodinga Range we abruptly enter the Simpson Desert proper, its parallel dunes of fine red sand, crashing into and in places summiting the southern flanks of this upland barrier.

Munga-Thirri (big sandhill country) exhibits the defining fundamentals of a desert: low rainfall (average of 125 mm per annum), high evaporation rate (about 3600 mm per annum) and rare availability of surface water. By these very definitions, some consider Antarctica the most arid continent on earth, its abundant freshwater unavailable and locked up in ice.

Perhaps climate change and glacial melt will lead them to abandon these polar desert theories as familiar deserts vanish and new ones take shape or expand. Words like variability and unpredictability also resonate although the prevalence and severity of droughts in Australia are not confined to the semi-arid and arid regions.

Droughts more often follow El Nino events triggered by rises in ocean temperatures in the Pacific and may be broadly continental in their impact. In the early days travelling through Munga-Thirri I encountered a widely held belief that Aboriginal people avoided this waterless realm, a myth dispelled when I first viewed a stone arrangement on a parched claypan in the heart of the desert.

In wet years, low lying depressions can be under water and I could well imagine desert nomads enjoying the divine transformation in this, the far reaches of their country, before returning westward to the permanent waterholes of Lhere Pirnte, the Finke River.

This was the same stone circle described by Rhodes Scholar, polar explorer and Geologist Cecil Madigan, during his ground survey to define the desert he named after Allen Simpson, President of the Royal Society of South Australia and expedition financier.

Madigan is best remembered as meteorologist for Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic expedition 1911-14. His interests in the geology of Central Australia focussing on the MacDonnell Ranges and Simpson Desert culminated in the 1936 book, Central Australia, Crossing the Dead Heart published in 1946 is a narrative account of Madigan’s 1939 crossing of inland Australia’s great sand dune desert.

Somewhere in the lengthening shadows of Mount Rodinga, on the northern edge of Munga Thirri, a clan of white dingoes have made their birthing den. Once I managed an underwhelming image of a white adult male crossing the dirt track. I followed his tracks deep into the sandhills, hopeful of locating the all-important den.

After walking several kilometres I paused and looked back to study and remember my outward path. Bare crests of countless linear dunes do stir memories of the ocean, the pull of the moon and rhythmic tides. I try to remember the words of European explorer Charles Sturt who in 1845 was the first European to enter and describe this immense landscape that straddles the borders of Northern Territory, South Australia and Queensland.

“Ascending one of the sand ridges I saw a numberless succession … rising above each other to the east and west … A kind of dread came over me … It looked like the entrance to Hell.” (Sturt 1884:73-74).

Context is clearly everything. For me in a well provisioned four wheel drive, this country is heaven, not hell and an escape from civilisation for a couple of weeks not years! For Sturt, with horses and carts, his health and that of his men failing, wracked with scurvy, the experience was gruelling.

He finally admitted defeat at a point north of Birdsville noting in his diary: “I had no hope to whatever quarter I turned my eye – a country utterly impracticable, a creek from which it was vain to expect a supply of water … I determined … that no exertion of mine would enable me to cross this heartless desert …”

From August 1844 to Nov 1845, a dogged Sturt had endured; his party of oxen and horses often choking for water and at one desperate stage, saved by a fortuitous rain. Sturt’s oceanic optimism is best exemplified in his decision to haul a whale boat overland during the early stages of his quest.

An astonishing inland sea, surpassing Sturt’s wildest imagination, had once existed across much of inland Australia. One hundred million years earlier, the Eromanga sea had already receded, surviving as an archipelago of wetlands, shallow lagoons and watercourses. “…This process was probably repeated at least four times during the … Cretaceous, a geological period that lasted from about 145 to 65 million years ago …” (Wikipedia).

Captain Charles Sturt was observant and I feel sure he must have noticed various fossils as he traversed the ancestral sea beds and lakes of the interior. Sturt crossed dune fields and stony plains searching for his fabled sea and his name persists in Sturt’s Stony Desert, Sturt’s desert rose and the striking red blooms of (Ngooringa) Sturt’s desert pea.

Google offers an unedifying series of artworks that depict Sturt in military garb peeing on desert peas. In an age of celebrated colonial explorers, Sturt broke with tradition and called the country that broke him, the Aranda Desert, in recognition of the southern Arrernte who travelled into the great sand dunes of Munga-Thirri.

The endless sand ridges that defeated Captain Sturt with his entourage of horses and ox drawn carts, were better navigated in winter using camels. Pastoralist Ted Colson and his Antakurinya companion, Peter Ains, departed Bloods Creek with five camels on May 24, 1936, and arrived at Poeppel’s corner on June 11, crossing 1,000 dunes on their journey.

Commencing in 1929, the desert was formally defined through aerial surveys directed by Geologist Cecil Madigan and supported by the RAAF. Madigan later crossed the Simpson Desert in June / July of 1939 with a party of nine, including a biologist, botanist, photographer, radio operator and importantly 19 camels.

Setting out from Andado, Madigan’s party reached Birdsville 558 km to the east, crossing 743 sandridges in 25 days. He named the Desert, the traditional lands of the Wangkangurru Yarluyandi, after A. A. Simpson, President of the Royal Society of South Australia and expedition financier.

While long parallel dunes are visually dominant, Munga-Thirri is layered and variegated. For instance, rich ecotonal environments that share and merge the values of neighbouring habitats are prevalent and the country defies rigid definition.

Underlying stony plains are often exposed between the perched dunes and these act as catchments harvesting rainfall across subtle and incremental gradients and focussing the proceeds into claypans or minor drainages. Such environments are representative of the stony deserts that predominate further south and so I’ve left a detailed examination for a future essay.

Ahead, the dingo trotted effortlessly between parallel dunes, leaving only shallow marks in the swale; then without slowing, its tracks pressing deeply, the male crossed over the loose bare crests of several more. Alerted by the rustle of a lizard, I saw where he circled around a patch of tussock grasses, pouncing onto vegetation with forepaws splayed hoping to flush or pin down its prey before moving on.

It was a hot summer’s morning and I tilted my modest water bottle to determine its volume and then scanned the ocean of sand ridges. I looked ahead to the western horizon and then north where orange dunes met the purplish red range and still there was no sign of my quarry. My enthusiasm slowed, as did my pace. Sensibly, I resisted the mesmerising rhythm of the carnivore’s tracks and turned back to where I’d hurriedly parked the vehicle on a shade-less stretch of the roadside.

At this point, a rational reader might query my decision to visit the Simpson Desert in January and eschew the comforts of winter travel. Yes, the daytime maximums can be taxing and the quest for a campsite with some faint breeze to aid sleep is often unfulfilled but in good seasons this desert truly comes alive in summer.

The promise of rain had clinched my decision. Ahead, the remnant clouds of a north west trough still linger, adding a vertical drama of stacked and at times, boiling thunderheads to the undulating landscape. Here and there the sand is dark where localised showers have drifted through and a faint petrichor fills the air.

Continuing south, weaving between “parkland” desert oaks and flanked on long straight stretches by parallel dunes, I’ll drive through plant communities of indescribable complexity and beauty.

It’s no wonder that visitors from the northern hemisphere raised on a diet of desert clichés would find inland Australia confusing. Dramatic changes can occur every hundred metres, a place of interzones and pulses, of subtle variations within plant communities that shift in often sharp response, to moisture, soils, nutrients, fire or chance.

Between the perched sand dunes, underlying clay soils are expressed in delicate patches of mulga with an understorey of short grasses, Senna’s and Eremophilas.

On one occasion I stopped to examine a large clump of yellow flowering Crotalaria eremaea and became engrossed in the myriad bees, ants, beetles, butterflies and wasps in frenetic attendance. In the sand beneath the plants overlapping tracks of lizards, pop-holes of hopping mice, the sign of beetles and centipedes told a similar story of nocturnal abundance.

On a nearby dune crest, thousands of native bees were emerging from their burrows, energetic aggregations of fighting, mating and burrowing individuals in the space of perhaps 10 square metres. Below, in the dune swale a blush of parakeelya in bright magenta, a remarkable succulent that will flower for months, demands my attention. Even during dry times when the parakeelya has ceased flowering, it’s difficult to reconcile such conspicuous biodiversity with notions of desert landscapes as places of emptiness and desolation.

Swathes of dense Mitchell grass meet the road shoulder, dominating the heavier clay soils in natural depressions that gather sheet-flow from the stony rises of the nearby Mac Clark (Acacia peuce ) Conservation Reserve. At a maximum height of some 17 metres, the reserve’s emblematic stands of trees provide yet another unexpected anomaly for tourists.

The rare waddy wood trees also occur at Boulia and Birdsville. With a lifespan of 500 years these are long lived Acacias and the presence of “petrified” wood highlights their link to ancestral stands where water birds once nested on the margins of inland lagoons.

With hot sun streaming into the vehicle, I crack the driver’s side window and pinch my hat brim at the top, using the hat to provide shade and deny further nourishment to the new cancer scabs expanding on the west side of my face. These long drives are the closest I’m ever likely to venture into the realms of meditation and I allow my brain to roam, to remember and yes, to dream.

I recall a time one hot summer, rehydrating on the foot-slope of a stony plateau when I noticed a couple of large flightless gibber hoppers, sharing my shade, immovable as the stones they were born to resemble. Moving slowly I took an orange from my backpack, peeled it and bit one of the segments in half which I offered to my new friends.

Curiosity and my deep love of the farcical was rewarded when both large females came suddenly to life, sucking and chewing enthusiastically at the flesh of the orange and soon I was sharing another portion with a diminutive male nearby. The gibber-hoppers, there is really no visible grass to hop through, are enchanting.

ALL IMAGES copyright Mike Gillam.

The best laid plans

9

By ERWIN CHLANDA

Canberra spent millions encouraging voter enrolment for the Referendum but the splurge failed to increase the usual poor numbers at the ballot box in Lingiari.

Barely half of the 80,061 people enrolled in the huge electorate turned up to vote in the Voice poll, just 44,476 of them.

Voter turnout thus fell way short of enrolment, which, at 91.7% the Australian Electoral Commission boasted was a record, up from 89.8% at the 2022 Federal election.

But more people voted in 2022 than on October 14 and via post, notwithstanding that the Referendum, seeking support for an advantage for Indigenous people in terms of recognition and a Voice to Parliament, was particularly relevant to Lingiari which has an Indigenous population of some 25%.

Yes voter and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, with Opposition support, funded “a comprehensive communication campaign for the referendum – as we do for every electoral event we conduct,” according to Geoff Bloom, Territory Manager of the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).

“It is a multi-million dollar campaign in total with all Australian voters as the target audience but segmented of course into focus areas like youth, Indigenous Australians, Australians in remote communities, culturally and linguistically diverse Australians etc.”

Mr Bloom did not disclose the amount spent, despite a request from the News.

The urban centres in Lingiari have a significant proportion of Indigenous residents, while voters served by the remote polling teams would have been overwhelmingly Indigenous, and certainly in the remote areas the Yes vote was in a clear majority.

The AEC did not provide details by community of remote area enrolments, nor for the votes recorded by 22 Remote Mobile Teams which provided polling places in 23 locations. The News is seeking further information.

All we could work out so far was that 12,177 people voted at Remote Mobile Teams locations, 8948 (73%) Yes and 3229 (26%) No – virtually the reverse of the national figure.

Yes campaigners claim Aboriginal voting was high.

Why Lingiari enrolments overall didn’t translate into corresponding number of votes being cast remains a question still looking for answers.

“Part of our communication included community visits and education sessions run out of our Indigenous Electoral Participation Program,” says Mr Bloom.

“This is an ongoing body of work as part of a program that has been around for 10 plus years, rather than event-specific.

“In addition to communication, we also looked at our direct enrolment processes to see how this could be expanded further into remote communities, and it was.

“Forms of identification were also expanded to include Medicare to make online enrolment more accessible to people without a driver’s license or passport.

“All this work has been very successful with estimated enrolment of Indigenous Australians being more than 90% for the first time in Australia’s history.”

These were the votes in Alice Springs (Yes and No, respectively, so far):- Town Council 687/765), Mbantua Building (2746/3414), Braitling (274/402), Gillen(378/679), Ilparpa (58/105), Larapinta (172/272), Sadadeen (297/302).

PHOTO AT TOP: The Yes campaign in Alice Springs bombed. Yes23 online promotion.

UPDATE 7am October 28

While in the burbs the voting behaviour from polling station to polling station dominates BBQ chats, the situation out bush is much less clear.

The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) does not have access to how people vote (yes/no) at a community level, according to Geoff Bloom, the commission’s Territory Manager.

“This comes as a result of Remote Mobile Teams using the same ballot boxes as they travel between communities. There is no way to verify where each yes or no vote originated from.

“The most detailed level of information on yes/no numbers is at the ‘team’ level, and this information is available via the Tally Room.”

There were 20 Remote Mobile Teams (RMTs) in Lingiari taking votes in more than 200 locations.

Remote Mobile Team 10, for example, visited nine locations, including Lajamanu, Kalkiringi, Dagaragu, collecting 388 votes (266 Yes, 119 No and 3 informal).

Team 12 visited 13 locations, including Yuendumu, Papunya and Hermannsburg, collecting just 408 votes (299 Yes, 108 No and 1 informal).

The Simpson, part of deserts stretching 2000 km

9

By MIKE GILLAM

From Alice Springs (545m elevation) to Lake Eyre at (90m below sea level), remains of the fallen mark the roadside especially during periods of drought. I stop to photograph one such carcass. A yellow ear tag helps to animate the desiccated cow, almost frolicking through the yellow flowering Sennas of the afterlife, a case of art distorting the very likely hard death it suffered.

The arid zone setting at old Andado is comparatively lightly grazed and much of the surrounding erg or dune sea holds little interest for cattle. Drilling programs from the 1960’s accessed artesian water and an array of man-made dams and tanks were strategically placed but time and grazing have not completely subjugated this desert’s vigour or vastness.

Comprised of aeolian sand Simpson Desert (Munga-Thirri) is an erg, that is a sand sea or dune sea formed during extended periods of aridity. Viewed from satellites it’s clear that the distinctive parallel alignment of the Simpson Desert dunes are part of an anti-clockwise continental whorl shaped by prevailing winds over many thousands of years. Core samples have revealed dates reaching back 600,000 years with a notable period of dune building at 20,000 years before present day.

Steve Morton summarises the dune building events of the late Pleistocene: “Dunes first began forming 70,000 years ago and stabilised in the interglacial phases (when climate was characterised by higher temperatures and moisture) as greater plant growth mitigated the wind’s power. The dunes are striking reminders of the inconsistency of climate, most recently moving across the cold terrain 10,000 years ago but now barely active.”

While the bright red dune crests are often windswept, the flanks are well vegetated. Zygochloa (cane grass) dominates with low hardy shrubs such as Thryptomene and taller Acacias and Sennas, interspersed across a delicate and fabulous mosaic of native annuals that peak after rain. Certainly, this sand ridge desert does not compare to the visual standards set by the starkly bare ergs that occur in the Sahara. The dunes of the Simpson attain a maximum height of some 90’ (30m) whereas the more mobile dunes of the Sahara reach a staggering 300’ (100m).

There are some similarities in the geological description of both but the percentages of area differ greatly. Principal landforms of the Sahara desert shares certain characteristics with the Simpson, and like the Simpson there is a spectrum of land forms more or less vegetated, ergs (dune desert), regs (stony desert), hamadas (mesas).

Indeed the Saharan dunes that dominate our imagination, also obscure a reality that regs (stony plains) comprise 70% of this geographically defined area.

Perhaps the Simpson Desert more closely resembles the Kalahari: “The first thing that strikes you about the Australian deserts is their continental scale: from east to west, more than 2,000 kilometres across. Collectively, they form the largest arid region in the southern hemisphere, covering some three to five million square kilometres of desert uplands, stony desert, sand plain, and dune-fields: about 70% of the Australian landmass. Like the Kalahari, these deserts are well vegetated and only moderately arid.” Mike Smith and Paul Hesse in 23 deg. S. Archaeology and Environmental history of the southern deserts (2005).

Transformation of the Sahara from a vegetated mosaic that once attracted elephants, to a hyper arid desert was triggered by changes in the tilt of the earth’s axis. “Climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, explained that around 8,000 years ago, the tilt of the Earth’s orbit changed from around 24.1 degrees to the present day 23.5 degrees … The changes in the Earth’s orbital tilt and precession (or the wobbling motion) occur because of gravitational forces emanating from other bodies in our solar system.”

“This tilt changes between roughly 22 and 25 degrees … every 41,000 years … recent research is suggesting that the effects of global warming – particularly the oceans – could cause a change in the Earth’s axial tilt. Scientists from NASA’s jet Propulsion Laboratory say that the current melting of ice in Greenland is already causing the tilt to change at a rate of approximately 2.6 centimetres each year. They predict this change could increase in the years ahead. Given the very strong dependence of vegetation on water availability, the end of the “Green Sahara” came about quite suddenly around 5,500 years ago. Thus a very slow change in the orbit (led) to an abrupt collapse in that ecosystem.”

Coincidentally or as a consequence of dwindling game, the region’s hunter gatherers turned progressively to animal husbandry and land use impacts such as over grazing by goats and cattle are implicated in desertification and the nature of the Sahara we know today. There is much speculation, conjecture and debate concerning the processes at work in the Saharan landscape. Single cause and effect is possible but a combination of factors seems more likely.

In a reversal of climate change fortunes, some scientists are predicting that climate change may even result in a “greening” of the Sahara, ushering in an age when a preponderance of losers will surely outnumber the world’s winners.

A world away, in Alice Springs, there are predictions of temperature rises assuaged by possible increases in frequency and intensity of rainfall, courtesy of the subtropical monsoon. My friend, Botanist ecologist, Peter Latz, predicts the likely rise of “woody weeds”, native Acacia’s for the most part, as shrubs take advantage of the elevated carbon in the atmosphere and replace stressed grasslands.

In Australia, maintaining the cliché of wind sculpted desert dunes is a long standing obsession of professional image makers despite the obvious difficulties and an overwhelming body of contradictory evidence.

Marketers, publishers and documentary film-makers have invested many decades striving to achieve the Saharan ideal for desert landscapes in Australia. In his landmark 2022 book, Australian Deserts, ecologist Steve Morton recounts a conversation with a film director, jubilant after securing his prized footage, a desert sequence finally made possible after the film crew removed all the vegetation from a Centralian dune to match the expectations of their intended and unsuspecting audience.

Like most photographers who are drawn to Munga-Thirri I have wandered the tallest dunes and studied red crests looking for graphic images, though more in the style of Death Valley than Namibia.

It’s amazing what you can do with a wide angle lens to expand the apparent size of sculpted features and the textured patterning of rippled sand but Sahara it is not. The most barren dunes in my experience are the crescent or horse-shoe dunes associated with the ancestral flows of the Finke River.

Recalling a time when the river ran wider and deeper, wind and floods over the aeons have transported the finest sands from the old palaeo-channels and thrown these up to form perched dunes well above and beyond the influence of active river channels and wetlands.

Depending on the light, these crescent dunes are pale yellow or cream and support very little vegetation though it must be said they occupy relatively small areas, measured in tens of hectares rather than square kilometres. Similar situations on a larger scale occur in Western Australia (eg. Eucla and Ooldea) where highly mobile dunes even threaten local infrastructure such as roads. Some examples are about geography and others a combination of factors including destructive land uses and erosion.

Much of the perennial vegetative mantle of Munga-Thirri while impressive in biodiversity and biomass is of little value to pastoralists intent on the traditional grazing of livestock. In good seasons, desert annuals enhance native pastures but availability to grazing stock is the exception rather than the norm and the vagaries of weather are an unforgiving and difficult host.

Feral camel herds with their capacity to subsist on minimal water and graze taller shrubs and trees are rapidly multiplying and pose a threat to the future of these de-facto wilderness regions.

Infertile soils and low rainfall are undoubtedly the greatest assets of Australia’s arid regions simply because these “deficiencies” mostly lock out big agriculture, in the form of intensive grazing and with it, widespread land clearing and degradation.

These natural defences also provide some protection against weeds and are further enhanced in the Tanami, Gibson and Great Victoria deserts where the unpalatability of spinifex is a saviour of inland Australia, much of it virtually unmanaged wilderness and existing outside the protections of the conservation estate. More recently the declaration of Indigenous Protected Areas have stepped into this management void and in the process offered ranger jobs in regions where employment options are sparse.

These great deserts, long considered self-protecting by virtue of comparative isolation and a low density of humans are facing expanding threats from feral animals such as camels, invasive buffel grass and the fracking ambitions of mining companies that threaten aquifers and water dependent ecosystems.

Wildfires that sweep across the country are perhaps the most serious threat, one that can only be remedied through greater investment in mosaic burning as practiced traditionally by Aboriginal people and now a more likely scenario that includes the aerial deployment of incendiaries at optimal times.

The light aircraft approached old Andado in the late afternoon. The parallel dunes were boldly defined with low angled light casting wide and deep shadows on the opposite side to the setting sun. A linear cloud lies parallel to the horizon. A breath-taking view of Munga Thirri.

Where self-help is a way of life

1

The NT and the Feds have directed “an assessment of boarding school options and capacity for First Nations students in Central Australia” – likely to be the usual convoluted process seeking public money.

This is “consistent with the approach we are taking in our plan for A Better, Safer Future,” Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney is quoted as saying, and Federal member for Lingiari, Marion Scrymgour: “It’s really important we work through the boarding needs and views from the local community.”

But Alice Springs identity TREVOR SHIELL is proposing a shortcut to writing submissions for a government handout. Retired in the Alice Springs farm area, he is the writer of 243 comments pieces in the Alice Springs News – so far.

 

In a distant part of Fiji – once my world – a relative of my wife came into town proclaiming that in his region of four Fijian villages and three Indian communities there was a need for a secondary school. The nearest secondary government school was 120km away.

The community already had a primary school for Fijians [#2 on the photo above] and one for Indian kids [3]. The community approached the government and got a negative response because the government had no money.

Dreketi was a subsistence area of the country, so they decided to build a junior secondary school themselves.

The women sold roadside produce and the men cut and milled their own timber.

I recall the men mixing 20 tonnes of concrete BY HAND for the septic system (design taken from the UNESCO handbook) and digging two km of drain by hand to get water.

Within a year they had a junior secondary school for 320 kids. No help from government, thank you, and they took pride and ownership of it.

Within a year they also built a dormitory as some of the kids were walking six km through the rainforest to get to school.

Again it was theirs and they took ownership. My wife and I had the privilege of starting the school over four years with books donated from Australia and in retrospect that was the most rewarding period of my life.

I live for the day when the Indigenous communities in Central Australia would follow the same model and accept responsibility for their own welfare rather then wait for government to do everything for them and then ignore the responsibility of owning and maintaining them.

The same applies to housing and accepting some responsibility for their own welfare.

That school is now a regional education centre, originally called as the Dreketi inter racial school. It served that purpose well.

Now renamed, it has produced some great people – a diplomat, a magistrate, a deputy police commissioner and several high level government administrators from a humble beginning.

It troubles me that the large financial reserves here in Australia are not channeled into an Indigenous development bank like the Asian Development bank which spawns many business ventures in the Pacific or the Fiji Development bank which services Indigenous Fijian enterprises.

It seems to me that the rest of the world will not pause while our Indigenous entrepreneurs catch up. And all for the lack of money.

The money is there in trust but there is little incentive to use it for self development.

Google Earth IMAGE at top: [1] the secondary school built by the village; [4] where the women sold produce to raise money and [5] the principal’s residence. On its western side is a pine wood plantation [photo above] started when the secondary school was built and that now assists to guarantee the financial independence of school.

A puzzle in the night sky

6

By ERWIN CHLANDA

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) will not comment on multiple observations by several people of a brightly lit object in the controlled airspace of Alice Springs, over a period of several months.

Anyone flying in that space is subject to clearance from air traffic control and the absence of that would increase the risk of collisions and aviation fatalities. 

The airport does not have a radar.

The unexplained object, sometimes accompanied by a second very bright light on the ground, was drawn to the attention of CASA, “a government body that ensures the safety of aviation in Australia,” by the Alice Springs News.

We had been contacted by Hollis Taylor (pictured), an internationally know musician living in Alice Springs. She is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, a faculty member of the Sydney Conservatorium, and a member of the Sydney Environment Institute.

Dr Taylor spends most nights in the town’s bush vicinity, recording the songs of butcherbirds. The songs are being incorporated in musical compositions by her and her husband, Jon Rose.

Dr Taylor’s observations are shared by an Aboriginal woman unconnected with her, who has had two encounters with the mysterious object, and with another author, Matt (he asked for his surname not to be published) who was researching in the field with Dr Taylor two nights ago. He is an humanities academic.

Up to this point Dr Taylor had always been on her own when she made the observations, dating back more than a year.

“There is something going on out there,” she says. 

“Matt could not believe it. He was shocked.”

The sightings are always to the east of Alice Springs, at various heights in the night sky and usually still visible when all the stars are already gone from view at dawn.

Dr Taylor says she and Matt saw the object on the Ross Highway two days ago, near the Williams Well outstation, 48 km east of the town.

The outstation is about a kilometre south of the highway, near where there was another very bright object on the ground.

“We didn’t hike in. We thought we needed more people.

“It’s not a drone, it’s not a balloon, it’s like completely using energy to do something – and that makes me very nervous.”

It could not have been a car.

“There has not been any traffic in the days and nights I’ve gone out there or even come back in.”

Dr Taylor makes her recordings at around 2am.

A woman who lives in Alice Springs but has connections to people out east, and has asked not to be named, told the News during one encounter with the object early this year “the light was coming close and then long distance and then close again” – as close as 30 metres. 

It was like a car “with a lot of high beams on”.

Was it two lights or one? 

“Biggest mobs and then it just disappeared. When it was long distance from you it looks like one big one.”

Would it have been as a big as a house?

“From behind us it was bigger than a car.”

How high up was it?

“Same level as us.”

The object was following them. 

“And it just disappeared as we got close to Jessie Gap. No more light. Nothing in sight. Just went dark.”

The second encounter was “about a month ago”.

She saw the object for about five minutes.

Her partner was with her in the car, and his brother, another brother and a niece.

“We all saw it at the same time, thinking what it was.”

The bright light alternated with sudden and complete darkness.

“You don’t see that light at all. It just disappears. And you wait. Does it come back on? Nothing.”

How do you know that it wasn’t a car?

“I thought it was a car but the other people in the car thought it wasn’t a car, it was something. They live there all their lives and when they were kids they never saw that before. And now they are parents and grandparents.”

Did it make a noise?

“We had the music on loud.”

She says another family member saw the light from a lookout on Undoolya Road, leading east, “in the same direction we’ve seen the light, they’ve seen a pretty light out there, too”.

Matt told the News he and Dr Taylor were driving east on the Ross Highway, 48 km from town: “There is was. It seemed to be moving lower and closer and then moving higher and east.

“Initially it seemed we were passing it but it moved higher and further away.

“It definitely moved, but not in a consistent way. It seemed to be at the mercy of the wind to some extent.

“There was also a bright light on the ground at the base of a hill, not far from the road.”

What did you think?

“I didn’t know what to think. Your brain is trying to rationally think through what is was but at the same time you have your hair standing up at the back of your neck.

“I know there are scientific balloons that go from the airport but they are registered and they are enormous and they happen earlier in the year with predictable weather.”

What size was the object?

“It’s hard to tell because of the distance. It must be smaller than a hot air balloon but bigger than a regular drone.

“Someone should go out and investigate the light on the ground, between 3 or 3.30.”

Are you going to have go?

Laughs. “I reckon you would have to take a few people. The light on the ground is bizarre. What it might be and why it’s so bright? It is not immediately apparent.

“I’m a researcher and an academic but I also write fiction including science fiction, I don’t know whether that lends credibility or takes it away, but I’m certainly not someone who’s running around claiming to see this sort of thing, until today, when I did.”

CASA’s no-comment answer included the suggestion to “ring Defence”. We are going to invite Airservices Australia to comment, as suggested by CASA.

IMAGES: Photo at top by Dr Taylor taken on September 28 at 4.30am on the Ross Highway. Above: Sections of the controlled airspace surrounding the Alice Springs airport and (in red) the areas from which the object has been observed.

The bush voted Yes

20

COMMENT by FRANK BAARDA

Politicians will adjust their policies in relation to Australia’s First Peoples in the aftermath of the referendum’s No vote.

Their priority is likely to be how the referendum will affect their chances of re-election rather than what is best in the Nation’s interest. That is not new.

In the remote communities our political clout is minimal and relies much on how we are perceived and on goodwill.  I therefore think the bush’s Yes vote is of great importance.

Almost lost in the wide ranging angst ridden or victorious reportage on the No vote there was an article in The Guardian about Senator Jacinta Price: “One thing we do know is the way in which Indigenous people in remote communities are exploited for the purpose of somebody else’s agenda,” she said.

“I think we probably need to look at the way the Australian Electoral Commission … conduct themselves when it comes to remote polling at elections and referendums.

“I think we should take away those who come in with their how-to-votes, unions that come in and overpower vulnerable Aboriginal communities.

“There is a lot that goes on in remote communities that the rest of Australia doesn’t get to see. If we had cameras in those remote communities, at those polling booths, Australia would see what goes on in within those communities. There’s a lot of manipulation.”

Asked if an allegation was being made against the AEC, Mundine intervened, shouting, “you know what, people are committing suicides in these communities.

“People are being raped and beaten and this is the questions you come up with!?

“We had a vote tonight that said Australians want to get things done,” he said.

Mundine urged the media to “stop talking about all this other nonsense and start talking about kids … who are as young as nine and 10 who commit suicide in their communities and those kids who get raped”.

Apart from these allegations being offensive and insulting to myself and my community, they are simply not true, and need to be debunked.  Untruths are also called lies or deceptions.

There were 18 mobile polling teams deployed to remote NT.  In contrast to the rest of Australia, remote Australia voted Yes, only Remote Mobile Team 4 voted No (49% Yes 51% No), the 17 other remote team results ranged from 52.1 to 92.1% (median 76.7%) Yes.

When I voted in Yuendumu, 300 kms north-west of Alice Springs, there were three people who had bothered to drive out from Alice Springs to support the Yes campaign. 

They were sitting outside of the polling place at a respectful (and legal) distance offering Yes campaign material. 

At no time did I see them cajole voters. Many voters went to have friendly conversations with these visitors and most didn’t need campaign material. 

Voting yes or no is not exactly rocket science. When I voted there was no one there from the NO campaign.  I suspect they didn’t bother to come out because they realised that there aren’t enough votes in the bush to turn the tables.

A friend of mine sent me this: “It is not possible within financial constraints for polling booths to be open in every remote community and outstation on the Saturday that polls open in the city and larger regional towns.”

Instead in the fortnight leading up to election day the AEC sends out “Mobile Voting” teams of AEC staff to remote and far remote communities to enable people to register their votes.

AEC Staff travel to most voting places by 4-wheel-drive, some remote polling locations are visited by AEC staff in light aircraft or by chopper.

Whichever way they travel they take with them portable voting booth bins that are lockable.

At the opening of a remote location polling session the booths are unlocked and they remain unlocked for however long the polling place is open, which in most places is for a couple of hours.

Voters place their ballots into the booth’s bin. At the close of the polling session each bin is locked and each lock is protected by a unique seal that is applied.

The AEC team then move to their next polling location where the seals are inspected to ensure the bin contents have not been tampered with, the locks are removed and the bins opened for the next session and the next batch of voters to lodge their ballots.

For the purposes of my information herein a session is that period between when a remote voting booth is opened for voting on a community and when the booth is closed.

That is what the AEC staff do, I know because I have witnessed them doing it in my role as an official scrutineer at six different elections.

I followed the AEC staff in my own vehicle and was present as an official scrutineer at the unsealing and opening of a ballot and at the locking and sealing of each bin.

The AEC staff I witnessed never once engaged in handing out electioneering material such as how to vote cards.

They never once engaged in any form of electioneering.

The AEC staff remained quietly at their posts, they assisted people with general inquiries, but never suggesting who to vote for.

My experience is limited to the NT. The parties are permitted to send scrutineers, the booths I attended as a scrutineer were always attended by two or more CLP scrutineers. Note Jacinta Price is a member of the CLP.

Also note that during the time a booth is open for voting, scrutineers set themselves up according to AEC regulations and offer how to vote cards out to people arriving at the polling place to vote.

At each polling booth I attended all of the party supporters handing out how to vote cards behaved politely and cordially with supporters of opposition parties and with AEC staff and especially with the people arriving to vote.

I did not witness anyone attempting to “overpower vulnerable Aboriginal communities”.

I am absolutely certain that had anybody attempted to overpower anyone the AEC officer in charge at the polling place would have intervened very quickly and put a stop to it.

We are very lucky in Australia that we have the independent Electoral Commissions to oversee and conduct our election and referenda ballots.

I think Jacinta Price has been rather careless with the truth here.

That was my friend. Now to Warren Mundine’s allegations: That wasn’t the first time Warren evoked child rape. Millions of dollars were spent by the AFP during the first five years of the Intervention investigating Mal Brough’s alleged paedophile rings. 

They didn’t find any.

Long ago we stopped talking about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.  I wish people like Warren Mundine would have the decency to stop talking about alleged community dysfunction and depravity.

AT TOP: Senator Jacinta Nampijimpa Price with Opposition Leader Dutton. The Guardian photo.

UPDATE 10:10am: The unnamed friend in the article who kindly provided the description of how remote community polling takes place in the NT is Forrest Holder.

Voice – yes or no? Two days to go.

1

By ERWIN CHLANDA

The impact of Territorian votes on the referendum result will be infinitesimal because of our tiny population, and because the NT will not be counted as a state, a majority of which will be needed for the Yes case to succeed.

Yet, by head of population, we have about 10 times the nation’s Indigenous population, several Indigenous languages are alive and well, and Aboriginal people have freehold possession of half the “state’s” land.

Our two Senators are Aboriginal but on opposite sides. The NT was the birthplace of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. However, two lots of research by the Alice Springs News indicated that randomly approached Aboriginal people on the ground have little understanding of what the Voice means.

Yet a disproportionate part of the Yes campaign by prominent activists took place in The Centre, attracting far more non-Indigenous people than Indigenous ones.

Below are the headings, with links to the articles, reporting as well as comments, of the major pieces in the Alice Springs News. 

They reflect the passions and conflicts of this controversial period in our public life.

Google our newspaper site for more.

The clout of the Voice

Uluru Statement: A year later the debate goes on

Understanding this No, voting Yes

One Voice for On Country and one for the city

The Voice not an issue in the big bush

Voice: People decide, then Parliament fills in the details

Pushing the Voice in 1.3 million square kilometres

What Uluru Statement?

The flea in the Voice vote

Voice ‘not based upon any overseas precedent’

Voice to Parliament: Scandinavia can do it, why not Australia?

Voice to respect ‘my country’ rules

Voice: Voters want chapter and verse now

Voice: A rebadged ATSIC for the Constitution?

Voice row is getting louder

A Voice for everybody

Voice campaigner cut her teeth in the Alice

News readers are vocal as Opposition abstains from Voice vote

People with ‘minimal claims to Aboriginal ancestry’ drive Voice campaign

PM second guesses Australian people: No to Indigenous Voice to Parliament

PHOTO at top: Crowd at a Voice function during the Writers Fest in June.

Yes to two worlds thriving

11

LETTER TO THE EDITOR

Arguments that proclaim that the Voice will be divisive and is affording one group special privilege are gaslighting on a grand scale. They are charging the afflicted with what they suffer from.

The Voice has been envisaged in order to respond to the existing undeniable division between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and to help alleviate Indigenous underprivilege.

No one in Alice Springs, my hometown, needs convincing of the existence of a division in socio-economic terms or what that looks like. 

We know well that the prison, hospital, rehabilitation centres, public housing estates and the Centrelink office are predominantly occupied by Indigenous people despite them being only 25% of the town’s population. 

We know that the detainees in our juvenile detention centre are, almost 100% of the time, exclusively Indigenous. 

The shocking fact that Indigenous people are the most incarcerated people on the planet comes as, tragically, less of a shock in our context. 

If we wish to evaluate the legitimacy of the Voice in economic terms, that is, to consider the fairness of a tax-payer funded advisory group for one group alone, we should also consider that the tax-payer is already funding the costly fall-out of our system failing that same group. 

Is stopping short of having a formal body for hearing what that group thinks may help their people really the point at which we need to cut costs and draw the line? 

People in Alice Springs also know well the cultural divide. There are numerous languages spoken as a first language, and it is not uncommon for English to be the 3rd or 4th language held. 

There is ancient law, lore, kinship systems and a set of social values that are unwavering regardless of the contemporary cost of adhering to them.  

People here see newly initiated men, still covered in ochre, return to town from secret ceremonial practices.

We are aware there are “sacred sites”, dotted around the land, that are believed to be ancestral beings of the “Dreamtime”, and that songlines connect vast stretches of land. 

There is a way of living that, if you are proximate enough to it, allows you to begin to understand what is really meant by “walking in two worlds”.

The comprehension of the existence of these other worlds (“worlds” plural, as the hundreds of Aboriginal Nations that exist in Australia have different histories and experiences) gives way to the realisation that the task of reconciliation is not just addressing the legacy of trauma left by our brutal colonisation, but also imagining and building a society that provides fertile ground for the two worlds to thrive together. 

The Voice gives us an opportunity to grow, heal and learn, and with those lessons, challenge our modern nation’s oldest tradition that only Aboriginal people should be the ones to adapt and compromise. 

Rainer Chlanda

Alice Springs-born youth worker and winner of the Fitzgerald Youth Award – NT Human Rights Awards 2018. Also by Rainer Chlanda: Youth crisis: broken window of tolerance

PHOTO at top by Lisa Stefanoff: Rachel Perkins facing reporters at a Yes rally in Alice Springs yesterday.

Alice solar shining bright

4

By ERWIN CHLANDA

One square kilometre, just 1.2% of the municipality’s vacant crown land, could accommodate all the solar panels needed to meet the entire electricity demand of Alice Springs – 100% of it.

And this is not counting the large number of solar systems already on top of residential and commercial buildings in the town.

At the moment just 10% is solar and the target is 50% by 2030.

This provides food for thought as the local Future Grid report is due to be released later this month, according to Jimmy Cocking, CEO of Desert Knowledge, whose “flagship project” the $12.5m study is, initiated by the Roadmap to Renewables Report in 2017.

After six years of studies there are still fundamental questions to be answered: All will be revealed in the “imminent” Future Grid paper, according to Mr Cocking.

The town and its council, if they can muster the political will, are clearly set to play their local role in the global movement to fight climate change.

Perhaps even more significant will be wresting the immense powers that come from controlling energy production from a handful of corporations, odious dictatorships, individuals such as Vladimir Putin, and at home, the government’s PowerWater being much used as a pawn in elections by either party.

In place of these controls, there are likely to be billions of independent power producers around the globe, with their fuel – sunshine – delivered free of charge to their solar panels every day.

What’s more, The Alice is better positioned in that movement than most.

According to the Bureau of Metereology, the town has nine hours of annual average daily sunshine.

In 2021/22 Alice Springs used 197 billion watt hours (GWh) of electricity. One watt hour is the equivalent of the energy supplied if electrical power of one watt is maintained for one hour. No more jargon from here – promise.

The standard price of a 415 watt solar panel measuring 1.7 by 1.1 metres (1.87 square metres) is $150. Let’s call that a standard panel.

In Alice Springs, with its abundance of sunshine, a standard panel produces 1.5 million watt hours (MWh) a year, the formula being 415 x 365 x 9.

That means to meet the town’s demand we’d need 130,054 panels that would cover 243,200 square metres. That’s less than a quarter of a square kilometre, namely 24.3 hectares.

As there would need to be some space between the panels – which could be used for horticulture – let’s call it a square kilometre.

The percentage of vacant Crown Land within the Alice Springs Municipality (map at top) is about 26%, an aggregated area of 84 square kilometres. 

At present much of that land is used for illegal dumping of rubbish.

The money numbers are equally surprising: The total cost of the panels, with a life span of 25 years, at $150 each would come to less than $20m.

The racks can be estimated at $15m. SBP Electrical promotes its racks costing just over $200 each, capable of holding three panels each.

The installation work could be farmed out – in fact the entire project could be set up as a patchwork of individual commercial leases.

At the moment the two biggest solar farms in town are owned, respectively, by the Alice Springs Airport (bottom of the page) and Uterne, by South Korea’s Korea Zinc.

At left: Image from Korea Zinc website. The batteries can be incorporated into a household system.

As Mr Cocking admits “there is a lot of work to be done”, the public will be looking to the report for answers.

  • For the interim period until 100% or even just 50% solar, have issues of gas and solar co-existing been resolved? In earlier statements Future Grid chief Lyndon Frearson has spoken about the split-second responses needed for switching from one to the other.
  • How will massive red tape be cut?
  • The use of the wires – the town’s grid, owned by the government via PowerWater: At the moment people not using it also have to pay for it. PW will have to get used to much of its gear becoming stranded assets. Self-sufficient members of the public would take a dim view of having to pay for services they don’t want and would regard being forced to as a desperate attempt by PW to retain some control. 
  • Can there be savings by having brief, scheduled brown- or blackouts and will users have hysteric break-downs and threaten to unseat governments if that happens? (It’s one of those your grandchildren’s future vs destructive climate change issues.)
  • How can consumers be made to shift power usage (such as heating water, washing clothes etc) out of the high consumption time-slot of late afternoon and early evening?
  • What arrangements are planned for shared battery use, at the convenience of the consumer not of some government authority, so long as safety issues are taken care of? 

UPDATE October 12: An announcement this morning is an example of politicking with  electricity. “Important cost of living relief is here,” trumpet Chief Minister Natasha Fyles and Treasurer, Eva Lawler.

“The Territory Government provides hundreds of dollars worth of savings each year for Territorians and their families.

“Together with the Federal Government we are funding a joint $23m package of further power prices relief – this is on top of $124.1m worth of savings we provide all Territorians,” they say in a media release.

“Supporting Territorians and small businesses is front and centre for our Territory Labor Government.”

Humbugging a step up from begging

1

ROD MOSS

Aboriginal artists approach shoppers touting for customers with hastily painted small canvases. It’s referred to as humbugging and is an admirable step up from begging.

This low-end of the art trade is a feature of Alice Springs street commerce, gratifying tourists’ desire for authentic souvenirs and photo shoots. The pieces are produced in hope and desperation of rapid turnover to provide drink and food. Money is always short.

From the left are, Roxanne Neal, Jeffrey Waco, the late Albert Namatjira, Stephanie and Ronnie Webb. Beyond the mall is the country as it presented during Namatjira’s life (1902-1959), taken from his watercolor of Heavitree Gap.

Populariser of the central Australian landscape tradition, Albert, literally casts no shadow. Metaphorically though, his influence stretches across the works of his descendants and countless non-indigenous painters inspired by his template.

Watercolour landscapes are still made as evidenced with Therese Ryder’s cover of the Arrernte dictionary. But since the late 1980s the dotted acrylic canvases flourishing in desert communities, aided by vigorous marketing, have superseded them.

Many if not most artists find security working for community-run art centres. Some, when in town and cut from their regular source, resort to street trading and risk damaging reputations they may have built through their community associations.

PAINTING by ROD MOSS: Custodians of Distant Landscapes, 2018.

Gallery consultation confusion

11

By ERWIN CHLANDA

Claims by the planners of the National Aboriginal Art Gallery that they are guided by the native title organisation Lhere Artepe are categorically denied by its CEO, Graeme Smith.

Sera Bray, senior director of the project, addressing a poorly advertised “public” meeting of about 60 people on Tuesday, mentioned Lhere Artepe about half a dozen times when people in the audience raised issues of inadequate consultation with Aboriginal people.

But Mr Smith says he has made it clear to Ms Bray’s predecessor, Tracy Puklowski, and to Ms Bray about two weeks ago, that Lhere Artepe does “not want to be dragged into consultation”.

He told the Alice Springs News today: “It is not our project. I’ve made our position clear, the gallery has nothing to do with native title, zero. It’s a government project, nothing to do with us.”

Mr Smith says Lhere Artepe’s participation is limited to holding two of the 11 positions on the project’s National Reference Group, occupied by Benedict Stevens and Vicky Lindner.

(The other members are from Darwin, Canberra, Tasmania, two from Sydney, the Kimberley and North Queensland, another two from Alice Springs. The Reference Group’s website also appears to name Muriel Williams as representing Lhere Artepe but this is not correct, says Mr Smith.)

Sacred sites issues in relation to the gallery’s Untyeyetwelye / Anzac Hill location were in the hands of the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) – also mentioned by Ms Bray several times.

Mr Smith said the land does not have native title. It was owned by the Town Council and now belongs to the NT Government.

Ms Bray’s assertions about Lhere Artepe were also drawn into serious doubt when Shane Franey, a board member early in the gallery planning phase, took to the floor at the end of Tuesday’s meeting.

He said: “We were not happy about what was going to happen. We were given the opportunity of talking to the traditional owners. The ladies came forward. They were spoken to about that women’s site [and] they said no.” A location south of The Gap was preferred.

Then compulsory acquisition came up: “Hello, they are going to take it away from us anyway. Your native title ran out. You don’t have any claim to it,” said Mr Franey.

“The government took the land.”

This was followed by an “if you can’t beat them, join them” phase.

“As Lhere Artepe we thought let’s get in on the action. This is where we can help our people. Employment. Have a say on what’s going to be built. Some of us didn’t agree with us, but that’s what is now going to be put in place.

“Inside this building we get to have what we want. Let’s make our own businesses. Art studios. A bit of culture. A place for ceremonies. People from overseas can see what we’ve got. A showcase of our culture, in beautiful Alice Springs.”

If the purpose of the gallery is to bump up the sale of cappuccinos in Todd Mall cafés then its $149m will be spent badly: The Gallery will have a coffee shop of its own.

It will also have a posh top floor restaurant. Those unable to afford five star priced meals need not worry: Mall market style food vans will be “encouraged” to operate on the grounds.

The upstairs-downstairs character of the “box design” is significant: The galleries will be from the second floor up because the ground floor is expected to flood.

“We had to get these galleries off the ground” to protect artwork worth “perhaps millions of dollars,” Ms Bray told the meeting, held at Witchetty’s in the Araluen Centre – feared to become a loser in the ranking as the premier local arts destination, now 40 years old, built with massive local support.

Much of Tuesday’s crowd looked like they had something they wanted to get off their chests, and come question time, they did.

Sculptor Dan Murphy leapt to his feet, asking if the gallery’s planners had spoken with senior women custodians (apmereke artweyes and their kwerterngerles) after the controversial choice to plonk the gallery next to Untyeyetwelye / Anzac Hill – their sacred site.

Mr Murphy recalled a lengthy meeting when these custodians and Mparntwe families “gave a unanimous and emphatic no” to the site. Has there been a meeting again with that family, Mr Murphy asked.

Big applause from the audience but, sorry, wrong question.

Tuesday’s meeting clearly was meant to be a gathering such as the recent members-only AGM of Tourism Central Australia, attended by 130, at which it was Ms Bray who got the accolades, according to CEO Danial Rochford.

Ms Bray stressed that she’d been on board only since November. She has previously worked in construction in Australia and overseas – no project mentioned – as well as at the Central Land Council with “economic aspirations” of TOs. 

As a newcomer to the project although an Alice local, she says: “I can’t talk about what’s happened in the past.”

That was a repeated theme of the meeting: The people deeply involved in the scandalous early development of the project were not present to answer questions.

“What I can speak to is that those traditional owners have voluntarily put themselves forward to be part of this project.

“We all know projects cause divisions.”

All’s good with race relations, Ms Bray insisted repeatedly: Lhere Artepe is fully on board, she claimed, and the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) has cleared the site.

“My focus is now to restore and put back and protect those sacred sites that have been damaged through loose agreements back in the day when culture existed in that site.”

The meeting had got off to a bad start when the audio volume of a visual presentation could not be turned up.

Was it on purpose? Official silence in answer to any hard questions has been a character of the project since it got cracking in earnest in 2017.

There was much discussion about the size of the building relative to Anzac Hill: “It doesn’t block out Anzac Hill,” stressed Ms Bray.

That was yet another example of the absurd secrecy engulfing the project. A drawing was put on the screen at the meeting showing the outline of the gallery building in front of Anzac Hill. “It doesn’t block out anything” is clear fabrication – it blocks out about half.

That drawing is presumably shown at all presentations but it was denied to the Alice Springs News. Why? “Unfortunately, we can’t share the image … as it is an architectural drawing not for public distribution.”

The project has been about 10 years under discussion but really hit the road in 2017 and now, six years later, has reached just 15% of completion with “more work ahead of us”: Working on initial scoping reports, initial strategies, gross regional product, visitation, can the gallery attract people to stay longer. Crunching data. Economic boost … and so on without any lucid detail.

“In 20/21 there were reports to consider, there was a business case to consider. We started to see the vehicle getting into first gear.”

The report from “Auntie Hetti [Perkins] and Brother Phillip [Watkins]” was a diligent work, causing major uproar when it was first not released, then sidelined. It proposed putting the gallery in the Desert Park. Ms Bray recorded it as having Anzac “identified by the NT Government and legally and formally acquired from the Alice Springs Town Council”.

SPEAKER IN THE AUDIENCE complaining about “this monstrosity” at one of the town’s most beautiful sites.

BRAY: “I appreciate your opinion … The site has been acquired by the NT Government legally and now I’m telling you the project is going forward.”

FROM THE AUDIENCE: The present cultural precinct, 40 years old and the result of community pressure to have it built, Desert Mob, the Namatjira collection – what will be happening to them? (Applause.)

BRAY: Working in partnership with the gallery, encouraging visits to art groups in regional centres out bush. Not working in isolation. “It’s not about taking away any art and putting it into the gallery.” It’s another place for Desert Mob to help. “Why can’t we have one Desert Mob at Araluen and one over there. In town.” Desert Mob can be better and bigger.

FROM THE AUDIENCE: What conversation is there between Araluen and the gallery?

BRAY: Sharing expert art staff, exchanging programs, joint up-skilling people. “Both ways. Absolutely.”

“Materials” including the outside skin of the building are still a work in progress: “I can’t talk about materials yet.” The outside “skin” material, which may be transparent, will need to cope with heat.

FROM THE AUDIENCE: Why was the location changed from south of The Gap?

BRAY: Led by the NT Government, mainly to reactivate the CBD. “I wasn’t around when the decision had been made.”

FROM THE AUDIENCE: Let’s scrap this site and start again.

BRAY: “I’ll take that on notice.” 

Is this not the final design? According to the official time line, construction will start in April or May next year and “gallery construction complete March 2027”. But this is a “forecast project schedule subject to change”.

FROM THE AUDIENCE: “It just seems crazy” to build the gallery where it is exposed to flooding.

BRAY: “Thank you for your comment.”

That’s about when Ms Bray remembered she had a flight to catch.

IMAGE AT TOP: Sara Bray and Shane Franey at Tuesday’s information meeting.

Movie buffs in reversed ute, beneath a star-filled sky

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By ROD MOSS

The Hayes and my son, Raffi, are pictured at Alice Spring’s Starline drive-in on the highway immediately south of the Ilparpa Range.

Video technology heralded the demise of the Starline in 1988. Pity.

For all the convenience of lounge room comforts, they pale in comparison to cuddling in my reversed ute in front of the big screen, beneath a star-filled sky. Distractions aplenty.

Patrick Hayes Snr implores grandchildren Stephan, Adrian and Darren to look at the movie, Mad Dog Morgan on the big screen. They’re engrossed in their own Western theatrics.

Patrick insisted on having a photo of himself wearing the head dress. Not that this fitted my intents, but we took a snap anyway. He looked superb; a chieftain as in his favoured Western movies.

Dennis Hopper as bushranger Dan Morgan and David Gulpilil as offsider, Billy, are the leads in Phillip Mora’s film. Morgan, killed by police in 1860, exemplified C19th frontier brutality.

It’s no coincidence that Mora’s statement emerged during the cinematic revisionism of the frontier saga in 1970s.

IMAGE: Movies is Magic, 1996.

Town blows $14m on pokies, not counting Alice’s biggest gambling place

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By ERWIN CHLANDA

Gamblers playing the pokies in Alice Springs clubs and pubs lost almost $14m in 2022-23.

This doesn’t include the poker machines in Lasseters Casino whose data “cannot be provided due to commercial-in-confidence,” according to the Department of
Industry, Tourism and Trade.

That is clearly a huge multiple of the disclosed figure.

Meanwhile Indigenous punters are more than five times as likely to have a gambling problem when compared to non-Indigenous gamers.

At 2pm yesterday the News visited the casino. It was Friday, a working day. I saw about 100 people in the gaming room, some 80% of them Aboriginal.

Venues can have up to 55 machines if they have a club liquor licence.

Pubs, namely Gapview Hotel and Todd Tavern in Alice Springs, holding a hotel liquor licence, can now have 20 pokies – a number doubled on June 21, a decision now under appeal by the No Pokies in Mparntwe group.

Since purchasing Lasseters Casino in Alice Springs in 2021, Iris Capital has added almost 150 pokies to the venue, bringing the total number of machines there to 400 (Google Search, June 6). 

The government is setting no limits on the number of the pokies the casinos here can install: “Gaming machines in the NT’s two casinos are not included in the cap limit,” says the department

That means the casino now has 10 times as many machines as the two pubs put together yet the losses of Lasseter’s clientele are a secret.

What’s the point of telling the public, to the accuracy of one, the losses outside the casino – $13,887,055 last financial year – while hiding the losses in by the vastly biggest gambling place of the town? That is something that Minister Chancey Paech may like to explain.

Aboriginal gamblers were significantly more likely to experience problem gambling, with 5.3% classified as experiencing a problem, compared with 0.9% for non-Indigenous gamblers, according to Philip Timney, Director of Gaming Machines.

The Alice Springs News is seeking comment from Iris Capital.

AT TOP: Image from an unauthorised video taken about 10 years ago in the Alice Springs Casino and published in the Alice Springs News.

Offers of jobs, not jail for young joy riders

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Young car joyriders likened the adrenalin rush from car theft to the effects of drug or alcohol use.

Some noted, yet often disregarded, fears of death or injury as the result of a car accident.

And the prospect of gaining, or losing, a job is a stronger motivator than incarceration for joyriders.

These are some of the findings by the Australian Catholic University in a study of north Queensland teenagers who engaged, or were considered at risk of engaging, in car theft. 

The resulting report is delving more deeply into suggested remedies that in Alice Springs are often limited to curfew or lock’em up and throw away the key.

ACU criminology lecturer Shannon Dodd was one of the architects of the six-week course in Townsville designed for people aged 13-17 and with a specific focus on at-risk First Nations youth, according to a media release.

Is says giving young offenders something to lose – such as a job – can be a more effective than jail time.

Dr Dodd says participants dismissed the spectre of police charges as a deterrent and instead were motivated to change unlawful and unsocial behaviour by the prospect of paid employment.

“Rehabilitation also encourages young people to see their potential for the future,” she says.

Participants attended weekly sessions beginning with educational talks from experts in medicine, policing, or psychology, together with talks delivered by crime victims.

There were additional hands-on recreational activities, such as panel beating workshops, designed to channel participants’ interest in cars in a positive, safe, and legal manner.

Participants typically reported they were not under the influence of drugs or alcohol while joyriding. 

It can increase a young person’s perceived social status and provide an opportunity to “show off” to their peers.

Participants were “mostly dismissive” of the idea that the thought of getting in trouble with their parents or police would deter young people from joyriding.

Although de-identified for ethical and privacy reasons, participants’ interview responses were recorded in the report.

When asked if having a job would make a difference to the likelihood of re-offending, one participant said: “If I had a job, then that’s something for me to look up to as well. I can be my own role model.

“If I keep doing [joyriding] then I won’t be my own role model.”

Dr Dodd says youth crime is a “complex and acrimonious topic but calls to get tough on offenders failed to address the root causes.

“These young people are often not engaged in education, come from volatile environments, have had negative experiences with police and they feel powerless.

“Do we want to help them towards a safer, happier life? Or are we intent on throwing the book and entrenching them further into the criminal justice system?”

PHOTO from the report: Car damaged through joyriding awaiting repair.

Understanding this No, voting Yes

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By KIERAN FINNANE

Two prominent Aboriginal men from the Centre, one speaking to a deeply felt No on the Voice, based on his utter distrust of government, the other speaking to a passionate Yes, based on his faith in the possibility of shaping, with other Australians, “a better nation”.

Together, and with responses from other Aboriginal people in the room, they teased out a central Australian perspective on the question: “Do all First Nations people support the Voice?”

This is one of the four questions preoccupying most people in the “town hall” gatherings that the Yes 23 campaign has been organising around the country. It dominated the exchange of views from the floor in the Alice Springs Town Hall, held at the Convention Centre last week.

Ned Jampijinpa Hargraves made a searing case for No, speaking from the front of the room, alongside the Yes 23 panel members.

Ned Jampijinpa Hargraves (file photo)

Rachel Perkins, co-chair of the campaign, knowing his stand, had invited him to take his place there. She set the tone for accepting a diversity of views at the outset: “It is reasonable that people don’t know what this is about, people have got other things to worry about in their lives … Everyone’s views should be respected in this conversation, we’re happy to have conversations about No, Yes or undecided, whatever, we are all here to have a respectful discussion.”

Jampijinpa’s distrust is not just of the government of the day, but of the whole system and the record of its relationship with First Nations.

His face and voice and articulate rage became known to Australians around the country during the trial and acquittal of Constable Zachary Rolfe for the killing 19-year-old Kumunjayi Walker.

The shooting happened in Jampijinpa’s home community of Yuendumu, where, as he said after the acquittal, “the police and government rule over us and treat us as enemies on our own land.”

Justice was not served by the trial and its outcome, he argued: “Justice means getting back yapa control of our community” – yapa meaning Aboriginal person in Warlpiri.

Yet for him the Voice could not deliver that.

For one: “The government will dismiss it. It’s the same thing as ATSIC,” he told the audience of mostly ardent Yes supporters.

He was referring to the Howard Government’s 2005 controversial disbanding of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, one of successive Indigenous ‘voice’ bodies, the most powerful and longest-lasting, to be dissolved by governments over the years.

No, no, interjected facilitator Jon Faine. Unlike ATSIC, this Voice will be in the Constitution, “so it’s there forever, that’s the whole idea.”

This was echoed by Ken Lechleitner, a senior man of Western Aranda and Anmatyerre descent, fluent in those languages as well as Warlpiri and English. He had risen to his feet earlier, speaking in Warlpiri, to counter Jampijinpa’s deep suspicions, saying: “I’m here as well and I represent my people too.”

Ken Lechleitner (file photo)

He had urged Jampijinpa to accept the good faith of supporters of Yes, the majority of whom, of necessity, are non-Indigenous: “They want to support our culture, this is why they are here, this is why they are saying Yes, we want to recognise yapa as the longtime people living in this country.

“They want to work with us, they don’t want to rubbish us, they want to look after us, they want us to also lead the charge. So, this is our journey, this is our once in a lifetime opportunity to get it right, to set a whole new direction with us driving the bus, not being prescribed what to do, we’re being part of the future.”

Jampijinpa was unpersuaded: “We don’t need to go into the Constitution, because we have our own … you know that.”

He was referring to his Jukurrpa – Warlpiri law and custom.

“We don’t want to lose that,” he said. This risk was making him really “really really uncomfortable” about supporting the Voice.

His fear is not unfounded: It reflects not only Aboriginal experience in the long history of colonisation but in the NT Intervention, initiated in 2007 and in many ways ongoing. Among its many impositions of mainstream supremacy, it forced the NT judiciary to turn its back on accommodations with Aboriginal customary law even for the purposes of sentencing and bail applications. This remains the case.

Mr Lechleitner understood exactly where Jampijinpa was coming from: “In 2007, our culture was being wiped out, with the package of laws that were introduced.”

But he sees the present moment differently: “This is an opportunity to have representation in the Constitution, so we can say, hey look, let’s make the two laws work. There’s no chance of having it any other way.”

Jampijinpa just doesn’t believe it: “It’s not going to change because it’s still going be the same, we are talking about the people that are going to be on the Voice. I don’t want that person, I don’t want this person here (pointing to a member of the audience) to tell me my Jukurrpa … because he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know! Right?

“I feel real, real worried about that, really confused, because it’s not the way.”

John Faine at the lectern, Jampijinpa on the microphone, Pat Ansell Dodds, Rachel Perkins.

As the discussion moved on from the exchange between Jampijinpa and Mr Lechleitner, each of them speaking in Warlpiri to one another and shifting almost seamlessly to English for the benefit of most of the audience, Ms Perkins underlined the importance of what had just occurred.

“That’s why Ned’s up here too, because he’s got a different view … So I wanted to make sure that he felt respected to be up here as well and that you can hear the discussion, because these are discussions that are happening in the Aboriginal community, you know. And they’re good respectful discussions as you saw then from two significant men talking about this issue. That’s what it’s all about.”

Without wanting to discount what Jampijinpa had said, she went on to put the case contra, referring to the unanimous support for Yes from the Northern Territory’s land councils, which represent communities across the NT, as well as the support from numerous other land councils interstate.

She also referred to the surveys done by Reconciliation Australia, in their Australian Reconciliation Barometer reports, showing “an overwhelming consensus of support” for a Voice amongst First Nations people. (See the 2022 Barometer here; support for the Voice covered on p 26.)

But “there will always be divergent views,” she said.

Facilitator Faine asked Pat Ansell Dodds for her thoughts. A senior woman of Central Arrernte and Anmatyerre descent, she has been a strong local Yes campaigner.

“I can understand what Ned’s saying,” she said. “We all have different areas and different cultures and to us that’s most important that we never lose that … And when you look around the Country, it’s a voice to us, of our Old People, to tell us that’s our Country, hey Ned?”

He murmured his assent.

“They talk to us, you [non-Indigenous people] don’t understand that, but we feel it, that’s our culture, that’s our Country and it’s never going to change. We learn this from our Old People and we’re not stopping …

Pat Ansell Dodds (file photo)

“Because I can remember living in the bush, out Undoolya where I come from as well. I lived part time there and part time in town with my father, my mother, because I had to go to school. This is back in the ‘50s, but in my head even today I am still out there.

“I went ‘round the world on different conferences but in my head it’s still red dirt, that’s who I am and I know what this man is saying.”

Mr Faine suggested the meeting move on, but Ms Perkins wanted to stay with this exchange a little longer. She asked Owen Cole if he wanted to say anything. He’s a prominent local businessman of Warramungu and Luritja descent.

“Look,” he said, “I appreciate and respect Ned and Pat and Kenny, what you are saying is absolutely correct. Law, culture has got to be protected. But the view I’ll put is that I’ll place my faith in the Voice giving advice to the government to ensure that law and culture is protected rather than in the hands of the bureaucrats and the politicians like it currently is.

“They will need to listen because it’s enshrined in the Constitution. I agree wholeheartedly but will back the Voice, the Aboriginal Voice, above all the other structures that are in place that are delivering the really poor outcomes that we currently face with Indigenous Australia.”

After some commentary by Kerry O’Brien, the veteran broadcaster, about the way divergent views are part and parcel of our democratic system, and asking why we would expect Indigenous people to not also have differing views, a woman standing at the back of the room, raised her hand.

Mr Faine asked her to introduce herself: “I understand you’re a TO.”

“I’m not a TO,” Elaine Peckham said firmly. “I’m a custodian of Mparntwe Alice Springs, there’s a difference in that.”

She went on: “Mr Lechleitner … he was right in what he had to say. Owen, I support Owen wholly on what he said, and Jampijinpa, yes, I’m with you all the way because of the struggle we have been through, with the Intervention …

“ATSIC was taken away and John Howard brought the Intervention in 2007 and that’s where we are today. That’s why a lot of people are confused of whether to vote Yes or No in this referendum.

“We’ve still got our voices out there with the Intervention, we’ve actually put out a book of 16 years of the Intervention, it has not stopped our voices being out there, and I’m one of them.

Elaine Peckham with her sister Doris Stuart, Mparntwe custodians (file photo)

“I’ve lived in Alice, born in Alice, I lived in the days when we were assimilated and still survived and to go back on my mother’s Country and live out there when the land rights came into power.

“Yes, we thought we had a good life going back on our land, and then the Intervention stepped in, so here I am back in Alice, still speaking up on basic human rights, and that’s what I’d like to say.”

So, a powerfully expressed No had been countered by four eloquent Yes’s. On October 14, referendum day, a tally will be what it’s all about, but in that room that night it wasn’t the numbers that mattered. The Aboriginal No and Yes were on the common ground of the Aboriginal relationship with non-Aboriginal Australia, its often bitter history and the need to set that right.

The Voice proposes one way of working towards that. If the referendum fails, that work will remain.

Photo at top: Rachel Perkins addressing the ‘town hall’ gathering, Pat Ansell Dodds to her right, Lawson Broad, Kerry O’Brien to her left • Below: Audience as Ken Lechleitner stands to speak.

Voice campaigner cut her teeth in the Alice

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By ERWIN CHLANDA

On the day the Prime Minister has announced the date of the referendum, in Alice Springs it’s fitting to consider the thoughts of Professor Marcia Langton who honed her incisive activism in part when she lived in this town during the late seventies.

Her inaugural NAIDOC Week keynote lecture at the University of Queensland on July 7 is a snapshot of her views as a leading Yes campaigner and a shaper of the Uluru Statement.

Prof Langton (pictured), associate provost, University of Melbourne, was preaching to the converted. They required little encouragement from MC Lisa Jackson Pulver, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sydney, to embrace Prof Langton like a cult figure.

UQ Vice Chancellor Mark Scott provided balance by encouraging the audience, in his thank-you speech, to “welcome the debate, welcome the divergent voices, seek out the truth through all the rhetoric and all the noise and come to a place where we make an informed gracious response to the gracious overtures that’s been made to us”.

Prof Langton focussed on the injustices and brutalities Aboriginal people suffered at the hands of the invaders, suggesting they are continuing to the present day, perpetuating an “existential risk”.

We need to “end colonial exclusion of Indigenous people from the fabric of the nation”.

She said the Constitution formulated by whites can “cause us detriment” and relegates Indigenous people to being “ghostly figures”.

She mentions three Sections, urging people to read them. 

• Section 51 (xxvi) was amended by the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) 1967, and previously referred to making special laws for “people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”.

Post the 1967 referendum it now reads “the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”.

• Section 25:  “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 that race resident in that State shall not be counted.”

This is considered to no longer have any significant legal effect, as the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) would prevent the States from discriminating against people on grounds of race. Nevertheless, section 25 ‘recognises that people might constitutionally be denied the franchise on the ground of race’.

• Section 127: “In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.” This was removed in 1967.

Prof Langton in her speech provides no analysis of the massive financial effort in the recent past to assist Indigenous people, the benefits of native title and land rights, especially in the Northern Territory, half of whose landmass is now Aboriginal freehold owned.

Prof Langton does not, in this speech, look at commercial opportunities – except in an oblique way.

She quotes US President Lyndon Johnson’s concept of “racism of low expectations”.

Yet she offers no answer to the “loss of languages, ceremonies, rules of approaching places, closing the gap reports,” including the one commissioned by former PM Julia Gillard.

Prof Langton calls for “enterprises in communities”.

She gives “health, housing, education and lowering the incarceration rates” the standard mention, but without exploring self-help opportunities.

Protocols visitors to Mparntwe once observed no longer exist

3

By ROD MOSS

Mr Moon’s grimacing mouth at Luna Park is a metaphor for the challenges confronting the children.

Born as many Arrernte are, into extreme disadvantage and enduring daily racism in the form of snobbery or strident hostility, I’ve witnessed their spontaneity snuffed when entering mainstream schools and meeting the challenges of a curriculum at odds, or even denying their history, culture and place in the town.

Hence the importance of The Children’s Ground’s programme.

How would I adapt to a foreign power taking control of my finances, learn its language, operate under its laws, and told where to live.

Struggles with cross-cultural communication have been amplified by numbers of Alywarr, Anmatyerr, Pintubi, Pitjantjatjara, Walpiri, and Kaiditch gravitating to town from remote communities consequential to the Intervention.

Protocols these visitors to Mparntwe once observed no longer exist.

I’ve seen too many men and women die, many, in their thirties and forties, felt the bitterness at grave sites as we lowered their casks and tossed dirt on their lids.

Some were good friends, a dozen or so who’d been my children’s playmates. All were hard to bear and the direct result of conditions mainstream Australians would find intolerable.

Catastrophic conditions.

At top: The Great Ingester, 2018

St Mary’s news just for a few

27

By ERWIN CHLANDA

The NT Government is still silent about its intentions with the former children’s home St Mary’s – at least so far as the public is concerned.

Treasurer Eva Lawler is applying selectively her government’s much touted transparency: A lucky few were taken into her confidence at a Chamber of Commerce function in Alice Springs last Friday.

She told the 30-odd guests that her government will buy the land south of The Gap from the present owner, the Anglican Church.

The News spoke to three people who were at the gathering and confirmed this.

Ms Lawler would not deny nor confirm it.

When the home came on the market last year former residents expressed concern and distress that the history of the facility – where they had spent some of their childhood – may be forgotten. And they asked that some parts of the complex be preserved.

 

A Voice for everybody

15

COMMENT by ERWIN CHLANDA

The debate about a Voice to Parliament for Aboriginal people is reaching its crescendo. This may be a good time for the rest of the population to join them on the barricades.

Marion Scrymgour and Malarndirri McCarthy (at right) are representing the Northern Territory in the Canberra halls of power, in the House of Representatives (the seat of Lingiari) and the Senate, respectively. Both are Indigenous and committed Yes campaigners.

The Alice Springs News sent the following email to them 50 hours ago: “According to media reports two Australian warships are in the contested South China Sea for a joint exercise with the armed forces of the Philippines from August 14 to 31.

“Why has your government sent these ships?

“What has been the process of decision making for this action?

“Is the ships’ presence in that area likely to increase the risk to people in the NT given the build-up of foreign military forces in the Top End and Pine Gap continuing to be a first strike target, in the view of experts?”

When after 48 hours neither had replied we followed up with phone calls.

Ms Scrymgour (at left) did not respond but a minder did. This is what he had to say: “Your request is best put to the Minister for Defence. Marion as a local member is not involved in decision making of the Australian Defence Force.”

A staff for Senator McCarthy, in response to our follow-up call today, said: “It would be worth going to Defence for this enquiry.”

So now, 52 hours after our initial request, we’re still no wiser what these two representatives of the people in the Northern Territory know about or were doing about an issue of life or death.

Yet they are members of the Parliament which is expected to listen to the Voice, if it becomes a reality.

IMAGE AT TOP: A Philippine military resupply vessel being hit with a water canon from a Chinese Coast Guard cutter. AFP Photo. The US Naval Institute publication, where the photo appeared, yesterday reported that growing tension with China requires more surveillance off the Philippines. The United States, Japan, Australia and India, operating as “the Quad,” an informal economic and security arrangement, announced the maritime domain awareness program in May 2022.

Tourism: Need to turn figures from target to real

1

By ERWIN CHLANDA

It’s enough to make your heart beat faster: Dollars and visitor numbers graphs shooting skywards, heading for $5.3 billion (yes – with a “b”) in earnings from 2.7 million visitors. Wow.

Before your blood pressure too goes through the roof, note that the numbers are demand targets, as operators were told by the Department of Tourism last week, in an update of what’s snappily called the T2030 Strategy.

How those targets will be achieved isn’t very clear. Alice Springs and MacDonnell, which includes The Rock, in 2022 had 303,000 visitors spending $340m.

Adele Labine-Romain, from Deloitte, told the 30-odd people attending the briefing in The Alice, that at the end of 2030 “we could be” at 919,000 visitors forking out $967m.

Both figures are a three-fold increase over the next seven years. Wow.

Interstate tourism is about half our business. Intrastate tourism (within the NT) is substantial, about half as many as interstate.

If we judge the importance of tourism by the amount of money it attracts from outside the NT, taking out the intrastate tourism business would leave quite a big hole.

Tourism Central Australia CEO Danial Rochford said he is fond of optimistic predictions. The National Aboriginal Art Gallery (NAAG) is tipped to increase visitation by 50,000 – “product development is critical” – but where will the rest come from?

A few things “would have to align” for this to happen, he said.

The industry has returned roughly to the levels before the pandemic during which the focus was intra-Territory marketing, including a voucher program to support local businesses.

The following were the other T2030 “key achievements” since 2019. Mr Rochford is commenting to the Alice Springs News.

These initiatives are slotted to carry on in one way or another but detail is sparse: If you’re looking for three new wilderness lodges in the West MacDonnells and two in the East, don’t hold your breath.

• Launch of the “Different in every sense” brand platform. Mr Rochford: “We’ve seen an increase in visitation in 2022. That is very positive.”

• Secured funding for the sealing of the Mereenie Loop Road to link Alice Springs to Kings Canyon: “132km are to be sealed. The Outer Mereenie Road has not yet been worked on, but that project is now fully funded. It is a Project of Regional Significance. We’re in the government’s hands on the timeline but we’re hopeful it will start next year and finish later in the decade. The corridor between Uluru and Alice Springs via Watarrka (King’s Canyon) is critical to the industry, the opportunity to re-connect to Alice Springs, like it used to be.”

• A Qantas Embraer 190 Qantaslink staff base in Darwin: “Narrow body jets give us fewer seats but more frequency. We need to encourage greater competition and look for carriers in addition to Qantas.”

• Engagement with local councils and government officials: “We need to hunt as a pack. We are collaborating but still need to do more.”

• The Aboriginal Tourism Committee (ATC) was established: A woman from Parks NT, who declined to answer questions from the News, told the meeting that negotiations were still under way between the land council and traditional owners about the Red Centre Mountain Bike Trail.

• A business events bid fund: “Business events have been impacted by Covid. This is a marathon not a 100 metre sprint.”

Steve Shearer said “skinny aeroplanes” fill up quicker, yet it costs you more to fly in them: “That’s great for airlines but not so good when you’re on the ground,” he said.

“However, we should encourage more and more of it because aside of two flights to Darwin and two flights to Adelaide a day during summer you just go down to one.”

He said it is extremely expensive “if you want to get out of town quickly”.

What would the NT need if the T2030 Update target figures are achieved?

• Aviation: 1,825,905 inbound seats or 340,205 additional interstate seats will be required from 2019 levels, this translates to 5.2 additional narrow body interstate flights per day.

• 10,290 tourism jobs will need to be filled or 3,390 additional tourism jobs compared to 2021-22, taking into account productivity gains.

• Over the next seven years to 2030, the equivalent of five new 250 room hotels at 75% average occupancy.

PHOTO at top: Uluru Field of Light, for people thinking the Rock sunset just isn’t good enough. Graph above: T2030.