Racism hurts everyone

Photo Alisdare Hickson https://flic.kr/p/HDAcMK A lone Dover resident bravely leaves her home to confront a right wing anti-immigrant march

Scottish comedian Billy Connolly at one time waxed indignant about how political correctness was intruding into comedy.

“How dare they,” he fumed, on somebody’s talk-show. “Funny is funny.”

No Billy, not really. Not if you’re the butt of somebody’s bad taste joke, be it about religion, gays, people with disabilities, migrants from non-Christian countries or our indigenous people, who had the misfortune to be colonised in 1788 and not officially recognised in the Census until 1967.

What, you don’t think people make jokes about Aborigines? Try Kevin Bloody Wilson’s “Living next door to Alan”. I’m told this spoof song about a family of Aborigines moving in next door to Alan Bond, which in totality may be more about mocking big business than anything else, is a favourite amongst indigenous peoples in WA. But you can’t generalise like that, and herein lies the central problem with racism and xenophobia.

One cannot know the private thoughts of the racist who never verbalises or the indigenous person who feels persecuted but is too afraid/shy/humble to speak out.

In New Zealand, the Race Relations Commissioner, Dame Susan Devoy, launched the nation’s first anti-racism campaign. Her open letter asked Kiwis to tell their stories about ‘casual racism’ – to go beyond the 400 written complaints received last year.

‘That’s Us’ is the first campaign that asks people to start sharing their own stories about racism, intolerance and hatred.

In her letter Dame Devoy says the overwhelming majority of people never complain or go public when a car drives past and the people in it scream a racist obscenity.

She cites other casual or ‘quiet’ racist encounters “that never feel casual or quiet when you and your family are the ones being humiliated.”

Dame Devoy told The Guardian that overt racism is not as widespread as it is in, say, Australia, but she felt that New Zealanders need to reassert their position as a world leader in race relations.

“We just need to look around the world right now to see what happens when racial intolerance and racism is normalised. We think New Zealanders are better than that and we hope you do too.”

But returning to Billy Connolly’s assertion that ‘funny is funny’.

When I was growing up in New Zealand the most popular entertainment group was a Māori group, the Howard Morrison Quartet, closely rivalled by a Māori/Pakeha comedy duo, Lou and Simon.

The latter were known for parodying popular songs, e.g. West Side Story “I like to be in a Maori car” using gentle, self-deprecating humour.

The Howard Morrison Quartet had a hit in 1960 with ‘My old man’s an All-Black’ based on the Lonnie Donegan tune about a dustman. The song was a protest about the decision to exclude Maori rugby players from the 1960 tour of South Africa.

It contained comic asides such as:

“Fi fi fo fum, there’s no Horis in that scrum.”

Crikey, you wouldn’t get away with that today. The urban dictionary and others define ‘Hori’ as a racial slur, but it was in common use in the 1960s. I recall Dad cuffing my ear (as that generation of Dads were prone to do), saying: “Don’t call Māoris Horis – it’s disrespectful.”

I may have asked, risking another ear-cuff ‘Why do some Māoris call themselves Horis, then?’ and he replied that if a negro (before they were known as African American) called himself a Nigger, that was OK, but it was not OK for us to use the N word, its origins steeped in racial hatred, slavery and oppression.

Wikipedia defines ‘Hori’ as a derogatory, racist slur, but the term (like Nigger in the US) has to some extent been “reclaimed” within the community it was originally intended to insult. Like those epithets used by rappers and hip-hoppers – ‘Wazzup, Nigger?’ Hori is used today as a term of endearment amongst Māori or as a signifier of ‘keeping it real’.

Whatever age I was in 1960, that discussion led me to read To Kill a Mockingbird, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Black like Me, Go tell it on the Mountain and at least five of the 15,000 books written by or about Abraham Lincoln.

Meanwhile in the UK, present day, five 15-year-old boys and one 16-year-old boy have been arrested on suspicion of murdering a Polish man in Harlow, Essex. A subsequent assault on a Polish man in Harlow is being investigated as a hate crime, as is the murder a week earlier.

There was a noticeable rise in hate crimes after the June 23 Brexit referendum, with more than 3,000 allegations of harassment and threats filed with UK police.

Nothing on this scale to report in Australia, but the seeds have been sown and Pauline Hanson’s anti-Muslim rhetoric just shovelled a whole lot of fertiliser on that particular garden.

Adding potash, if you will, is a new Essentials Media poll showing 49% of Australians support a ban on Muslim immigration. Economist George Megalogenis dug out some historical evidence that 58% of Australians were opposed to taking part in a worldwide plan in 1947 to resettle Jewish refugees from Europe. Just because a survey saying half the people apparently don’t want something to happen doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t.

The 1946 Census revealed that 35,000 Jews lived in Australia. Historian and author W.D Rubinstein said at least 17,600 Jewish survivors reached Australia between 1945 and 1954 – the largest single increase in Jewish numbers in the country’s history.  In 2011 there were 112,000 Jewish people in Australia, the vast majority residing in Melbourne or Sydney,

So then to the Australian Greens who this week urged me (via a ‘personal’ email from Richard De Natale), to support the party’s walk-out during Senator Hanson’s anti-Muslim speech.

I thought the Greens could have served us better if they had stayed. Despite the parliamentary tradition that it is forbidden to heckle or interject during a Senator’s maiden speech, the Greens could have done this (one by one), until all had been ejected.

What headlines would have ensued then? Nevertheless, they walked and this is what De Natale had to say:

“After we walked out on Senator Hanson’s racist speech, my office was flooded with hundreds of calls of thanks. Then in just a few short days over 11,000 of us signed a pledge to stand united against racism. This is an opportunity to bring our communities and voices together with a message of unity that cuts through the noise of parliament. It’s hugely ambitious but I think we could reach 50,000 by the end of this year.”

That seems a small target when the Race Relations Commissioner of a nearby neighbour has pointed out that overt racism is thriving in Australia, even if the NZ Commissioner admitted:

“We’ve always had a problem with racial intolerance in New Zealand – Māori New Zealanders know it is not new.”

Dame Devoy’s Australian counterpart, Tim Soutphommasane, waded into the debate this week.

The Race Discrimination Commissioner argued in a speech at the ANU that racism at its core is about an abuse of power. He appealed to Australians not to be complacent about racial intolerance being some kind of “initiation rite” for new arrivals.

“While we may never eradicate racism and bigotry, it isn’t good enough to say its targets must grin and bear it, or that there’s nothing we can do. Doing so amounts to normalising racism, to suggesting that it should be tolerated.”


Newstart or job-share?

https://flic.kr/p/5YepYQ Image by Dane Nielsen

There are times when I’m grateful my conventional working life is behind me and I can wait (patiently) for the next humble pension payment. My needs are small – I can sit on the front veranda with a cup of coffee made on our machine for about 15 cents, enjoy my banana toasty, share the crumbs with the birds and do the crossword. Some may call me a leaner, but I’ve done my share of lifting, mate.

Meanwhile, out there in the thrust and parry world of staying in work, where HR is a growth industry, workers are lobbying for their next short-term contract, working out how long their redundancy payment will last or (forgive me for thinking this), shafting a colleague so they can get a better-paid job. Some, who make life plans based on aforementioned contracts, find said agreements withdrawn without notice for budgetary reasons. Yep, the veranda is better.

For one thing, the pension is linked to wage increases, which is more than you can say for Newstart (Australia’s unemployment benefit), which is indexed to the CPI. The September indexation will be calculated at 0.18%, which, on the single/childless fortnightly rate, is less than $1.

Surveys have repeatedly told the government of the day that half the 700,000 Australians who rely on Newstart are living below the poverty line. A 2015 study found that on any given day there were fewer than 10 rental properties in Australia that were affordable for people on the allowance.

Australian Council of Social Services chief executive office Cassandra Goldie told New Matilda the Newstart payment ($527.60 per fortnight for singles without children), had not seen a real increase since the Keating years (1991-1996). The major parties seem disinclined to increase the allowance, even when prompted by the Business Council of Australia. In 2013 the Greens lobbied for a $50 per week increase but failed to find sufficient parliamentary support.

This is a shameful state of affairs, the iniquities of which were plainly stated by Asylum Seeker Resource Centre founder Kon Karapanagiotidis. He tweeted on a Q&A TV debate about welfare that what a politician could claim for one night for staying in Canberra for work was equivalent to an entire week on Newstart. The Conversation fact-checked this statement and found it to be fundamentally true.

It might not seem like much, but after September 20 (next Tuesday), Newstart recipients will lose the twice-yearly $105.80 “income support bonus” added by Labor as part of its “Spreading the Benefits of Boom” package. In 2013, the Coalition announced the bonus would be scrapped from a range of benefits as Labor had funded it through the minerals resource rent tax (which the Coalition has since abolished). The Palmer United Party agreed to the bonus being scrapped on the condition it stayed until after the (July 2016) election. So rather than increasing this egregiously low payment, the Coalition is (let’s use a Tele headline word here), slashing it an amount which for a single person on Newstart provided a choice between a bacon and egg burger, a subsidised prescription, a pot of beer or an escapist video to watch after the Saturday ritual of circling jobs in the newspaper that by Monday will have already gone.

The ABC reported yesterday that Australia’s unemployment rate had dropped from 5.7% to 5.6%, but the rate of part-time work remains at an all-time high.

Since December 2015 there are now 105,300 more persons working part-time, compared with a 21,500 decrease in those working full-time.

In this country, part-time employment is defined as people in employment who usually work less than 30 hours.

The Australian (owned by an expatriate billionaire well-known for expecting senior employees to work long hours for a fixed salary), wrote that part-time work was ‘good for the over-40s’.

Economist Jim Stanford of the Australian Institute’s Centre for Future Work told the ABC in July the proportion of Australians working part-time has now reached a record 31.9%.

“Australia’s part-time employment rate has surged 4 percentage points since the GFC (2007) and is now the third highest in the OECD,” he said.

There are a few questions we should be asking about part-time work, chiefly: can you live on part-time income? If you are working part-time, is it by choice, or is that all you could find? Inter alia, did you know if you are on Newstart, and have found a part-time job as dish pig at a local café, you can earn up to $104 per fortnight before the allowance is affected? Break out the wine cask.

Let’s just imagine life on Newstart (equivalent to a night’s claimable accommodation for a working politician, remember?)

You are a 40-something male that has been “let go” – the latest in a succession of jobs that did not work out. You’ve spent your payout and your second wife has booted you out. You spend all day in the public library job-hunting, playing Solitaire and scribbling calculations on how you can live on $263.80 a week. A mate has rented you his caravan down the end of the paddock for $140 a week. Bargain. That leaves $123.80 for food and petrol (did I mention the caravan is 16 kms from town?)

Meanwhile, the rego is due, there was a letter in the mail with a photograph of you doing 122 kms in a 110 kms zone and then there is the dentist, who reckons you need two crowns and two root canal treatments.

You buy a packet of Panadol max and wash a couple down with the last lukewarm stubbie in the 20-year-old caravan fridge. Life’s great, isn’t it?

Australian society seems sharply divided between those who’d feel sorry for this fictional fellow’s plight and donate money to Lifeline and the hard-liners who’d say he’s a leaner who brought it all on himself (and how come he can afford beer?)

We need, if I may use a corporate weasel-word, a new paradigm. A UK think tank, the New Economics Foundation, proposed a utopian scenario for Europe that envisaged a society where those who can work are engaged for 20 hours a week. Anna Coote of NEF said there would be more jobs to go around, energy-hungry consumption would be curbed and workers could spend more time with their families. The model already exists in Germany and the Netherlands, the latter topping the OECD chart for part-time work. Coote mused about the rationale around jobs and growth and whether aiming to boost (insert country of choice) GDP growth rate should be a government’s first priority.

“There’s a great disequilibrium between people who have got too much paid work and those who have got too little or none.”

The Guardian’s Heather Stewart cited Keynesian economist Robert Skidelsky, who co-wrote a book with his son Edward: “How Much Is Enough?’ Skidelsky said the ‘civilised’ solution to technological change and fewer jobs is work-sharing and a legislated maximum working week.

There’s much need for a quantum shift/new paradigm, with youth unemployment at 13.2% in the UK and between 25% and 50% in seven Eurozone.countries.

It would not take much imagination to export these Eurozone ideas to Oceania (where youth unemployment is running at 13.5%).

Unhappily, Canberra’s politicians seem entirely lacking in imagination and worse, bereft of social conscience.

All 225 Federal politicians and Senators should think about this social issue on September 20, particularly if they are claiming overnight accommodation. Do claimable expenses run to the mini bar?


Skip the small change

Small change (got rained on)

A week ago a patient teller at our local bank dealt with one of my occasional visits to deposit a bag of small change. Yes, I raided the piggy-bank again, and in case you don’t believe me, there it is (left), handed out free by Macquarie Goodman at the grand opening of the Metroplex on Gateway industrial estate at Murarrie in 1998.

Once I had a Bundaberg rum bottle filled to the lip with one cent coins. The label was signed by WA blues musician Matt Taylor, after Taylor’s band Chain performed at a venue managed by me and a team of volunteers. Matt signed “To (as yet-un-named son) – you ain’t even born yet.”

Later, when we were moving house, the rum bottle was accidently kicked over, smashing on the terracotta tiles, spilling 789 one cent coins across the floor. By this time the Reserve Bank had scrapped one cent coins and was working on ridding the country of two cent coins as well. The Royal Australian Mint removed one and two cent coins from circulation in 1991-1992. The Reserve Bank decided in 1990 that 1c and 2c coins had to go as inflation had rendered them worthless. Or to be more precise, the cost of minting them far outweighed their face value.

The Royal Australian Mint, however, has produced mint sets of one and two-cent coins for collectors in 1991, 2006 and 2010. I was surprised to read that one can still present one and two cent coins as legal tender and they can be banked. They can also be sold as collectables.

Trivia alert: Some of the small change was melted down to make the bronze medals presented to athletes at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Other countries abandoned their one and two cent coins around the same time, citing inflation and the increasing cost of bronze (an alloy of copper with minor amounts of tin and zinc). Ireland ditched its small coins last year, in line with six other Eurozone countries

The end result of axing 1c and 2c coins is a process called ‘rounding’ which means if something is priced at $1.98, you pay $2. If it costs $1.93, you pay $1.95. Who knows what the rounders will do when they scrap the five cent coin – and trust me – it is not far away.

One of the main arguments for doing away with five cent coins is the increasing use of pay wave for small transactions.

What can you buy with five cents anyway? The Northern Star newspaper based out of Lismore asked its readers just that. The answers included ‘lollies at some shops’, ‘20 five cent coins from the tooth fairy’, ‘lemons or limes at the fruit stall’ and my personal favourite – ‘the best things ever to scratch a scratchie’.

In 2014, a Senate Estimates Committee hearing was told the five cent coin cost 6c to manufacture (it’s now closer to 7c). The cost is partly due to the combination of copper and nickel, but also the labour involved in handling and distribution. Yet the 5c coin, with an echidna on one side and Queen Elizabeth on the other, it is still with us, weighing down pockets and purses, wearing holes in the lining of jackets and trousers, disappearing down the sides of sofas and car seats.

One way you can find creative uses for those pesky five cent coins is to donate them to charity. Agencies have been hoarding 1c and 2c coins for years, using the money collected for people in third-world countries. For the past 25 years they have been focusing on 5c coins.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported last December that Australian charity Y-GAP, Y-Generation Against Poverty organised a fundraising campaign which collected 10.9 million individual 5 cent coins.

Then there’s those foreign coins one inevitably brings home from abroad. My cache of foreign shrapnel includes $5.90 in New Zealand coins, a Kiwi $5 note and a one euro coin. If you’ve noticed, some airlines encourage you to deposit foreign coins in an envelope and leave it in the seat pocket of the aircraft as you disembark. Several charities collect these coins and use the proceeds for impoverished children. UNICEF, assisted by the Commonwealth Bank and BankWest, has amassed more than $260,000 in small change since 2009. Small amounts of First World cash go a long way in Africa or India. One UK penny will provide a child with clean drinking water for a day; two Canadian dollars (Loonies) can provide a malnourished child with enough therapeutic super food for one day; in India, 220 rupees (about $4) can buy someone a mosquito net.

The subject of money was being raised at one end of a long table in the local pub on Sunday where members of our community choir had adjourned after a performance. I was at one end of the table and two of the women at the other end were talking about the design of the new $5 note. I set my hearing aids to ‘noisy room’ but still their lips moved and no words came out.

“I’m sure it will make an excellent FOMM,” I shouted, “Once I figure out what you are talking about.”

It transpired they were adding to the dissent and disappointment over the design of the new $5 note. The anti-royalists jumped on to social media posting hastily photo-shopped memes. There are many versions of the $5 polymer note where the Queen’s image has been variously replaced with Tony Abbott eating an onion, Tony Abbott wearing cyclist’s sunnies, Dame Edna looking dashing, Kathy Freeman looking like an Olympic legend and a few odd ones like Pluck-a-Duck, Shane Warne, Delta Goodrem and a jar of Vegemite.

Why did we need a new $5 note at all, you might ask? This one has enhanced security, we’re told.

We have an international track record for that, did you know? Australia was the first country to produce polymer banknotes (in 1988), largely as a response to an increase in counterfeiting. Prior to the launch of polymer notes (created by the CSIRO, the Reserve Bank and Melbourne University), a group of enterprising lads from Melbourne made pretty good copies of the (paper) $10 note. The forgeries were so good some were still in circulation when polymer notes were first introduced.

The new $5 note has a clear plastic strip down the middle, apparently un-forgeable. It also has tactile features to help the vision impaired differentiate between a fifty and a five. The new note is the first of five denominations to be rolled out by Reserve Bank of Australia (at a total cost of $29 million) over the next few years.

Curious, I went to the bank yesterday, ready to trade 100 five cent coins for one of the new notes. Alas, our local teller said she had not spied one in our town and the local supermarket told me the same story. Apparently there’s still 34 million $5 notes in circulation. You will be relieved to know that I have extracted the only necessary fact from this Reserve Bank of Australia technical article about the life-cycle of banknotes: the median life of a $5 note is 2-3 years.

Good luck finding a new one, then.



Simple as ABC Part 2

ABC HQ South Bank Brisbane

If journalists tend to have a universal blind-spot, it is their inability or disinclination to follow up on a story. When it comes to writing about budget cuts at the ABC, I plead guilty to said offence.

It is almost two years since I wrote about the Federal Government’s edict to the national broadcaster to trim $254 million – 20% of its then $1.22 billion operating budget – over five years. The media in general was having lots to say about this in November 2014. Petitioners were petitioning, GetUp was getting up; the ABCFriends group was lobbying and raising funds. They should have seen it coming.

A Senate Estimates hearing in February 2014 asked ABC managing director Mark Scott a hypothetical: if, given funding cuts, could he guarantee he would not have to cut services to regional Australia.

Scott said inter alia that nothing would be spared from that kind of review, and he could give no guarantee that any services would be spared, including rural services.

“But I am not expecting that, because a clear commitment was given to maintain the ABC’s funding.

The above was gleaned by what is known in the trade as fact-checking, also a reminder that the ABC’s renowned fact-checking unit was one of the casualties of the internal review that followed. We turn to the ABC itself to report on this story, because that is what bloggers do – they research and cite the work of others. Not that we’d suggest the axing was an ideological ploy, but it was Kevin Rudd’s government who provided $60 million over three years to fund ‘‘enhanced newsgathering services”. In the May 2016 budget, this funding was cut to $41.4 million over the next three years.

If you have faith in my calculations, this means the ABC has to trim $2.039 million a year from its ‘enhanced newsgathering’ budget over the next three years. This is when managers start eyeing their underlings, looking for value for money, identifying functions they could live without.

The end result is redundancies – that is, abolishing positions or roles and making people who occupy them eligible for a payout.

ABC redundancy payments totalled $9.33 million in the year to June 2015 (annual report, notes to the accounts P.172)

In 30 or so years working in the Australian media, inevitably I know people who work for (or used to work for) the ABC. Not so many decades ago it was a job for life and I know a few who have survived under successive managerial identities (the latter known by some as ‘carpet strollers’). But the Liberal government’s insistence that Mark Scott cut that very large number from his operating budget has, over the last two years, seen redundancies, early retirements, centralisation of news and the scrapping of high-profile units like The Drum and the ABC Fact Checking Unit and the closure of ABC Shops.

If you did not know what the unit did, it included checking the accuracy of politicians’ public comments, tracking election promises, along with other historical and statistical investigations. Labour-intensive work, naturally. But despite being shortlisted for a Walkley Award in 2014, the ABC Fact Check team was chopped.

As ABC news director Gaven Morris said in May, Unfortunately, having a standalone unit is no longer viable in the current climate.”

As it happened, The Conversation, an online news and commentary portal operated and funded by Australian universities and its readers, started its own fact-checking unit.

There has been a paucity of follow-up stories on the closure of the ABC Fact Checking Unit since the story broke in mid-May. The Australian had a stab at globalising the story, citing Duke University’s censuses of international fact-checking units. More than 100 sites are operating in 37 countries, Duke said. The Australian implied we are falling behind.

My photographer/author mate Giulio Saggin was one of the casualties of the ABC cutbacks, with his position as ABC online photo editor made redundant, along with two other positions at the Brisbane headquarters. He’d held the job since 2007. Fortunately, Giulio is versatile and has been free-lancing long enough to cope with its feast or famine cycles. The redundancy coincided with the launch of his third book – a manual, if you like, for free-lance photo-journalists.

What might worry ABC fans more is speculation that ABC Classic FM may be in danger of more cuts and structural changes.

Former Senator Margaret Reynolds has already started an ABCFriends campaign.

One of the key issues with the ABC is the perception, rightly or wrongly, that it caters to intellectual snobs. This attitude can be encapsulated in two observations I made in my 2014 piece.

“Hopefully they will axe Upper Middle Bogan and It’s a Date” I wrote, intellectual snobbery exposed for all to see. So I was wrong. It’s a date is into season two this year and season three of Upper Middle Bogan starts in October. ABC management appears to appealing more to the mainstream, putting up with shots across the bow from those who find such shows cringe worthy.

In 2014-2015, the top ABC episodes by peak viewing were headed by the Asian Cup Australia v Korea (2.137 million people watched a game of soccer), followed by Sydney’s New Year Fireworks (at midnight), 2.075 million.

Of the top 20 TV shows commanding an audience of 1.32 million or more, only three could be described as news and current affairs. Q&A, despite a huge social media profile, did not make that list.

So people prefer New Tricks, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries or Dr Who? Well, TV is escapism at best, so why the hell not?

Whatever else ABC management tinkers with next, they ought not to rock the boat too hard with Radio National or Local ABC Radio, lifeline to people in the bush and those with vision impairment.

I attended the funeral of an old mate last year; he’d struggled with various levels of blindness for the previous 20 years or so. His son told me his Dad had a radio of one kind or another in every room in the house, even the laundry. They were all tuned to radio national.

Vision Australia estimates there are 357,000 people who are either blind or have low vision. For many of these people, radio is literally the only way they can keep in touch with what’s going on in the world.

I don’t actively listen to radio in the house, but I’m always tuned in when driving. I’ve made about 20 trips to Brisbane and back these past two months and it has become apparent what I am missing by not having RN on at home. This apparently makes me one of the 17 million Australians the ABC reaches across all platforms.

The ABC’s new managing director, Michelle Guthrie, a corporate lawyer with experience working for News Ltd and Google, has an ambitious target: she wants to increase the ABC’s reach from 71% to 100%. Just how she will do that remains to be seen, but as Margaret Simons writes in The Monthly, one of the early pointers is an internal memo that states Guthrie wants 80% of the budget spent on content and only 20% on administration.

Carpet strollers beware.





Singing the feral cat blues

Feral cat fredy mercay
Feral cat and Phascogale credit Fredy Mercay

Cat-lovers look away now. Land management and wildlife conservation groups have been increasingly concerned about the escalating feral cat population, particularly in northern Australia, where wild cats have few predators and vast swathes of unpopulated territory to scour for food.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) estimates there are 15 million feral cats in Australia, with each killing an average five animals a night.

These figures are conservative and already two years out of date. Consider this: an average cat has one to eight kittens per litter and up to three litters per year. A single pair of cats and their kittens can produce as many as 420,000 kittens in just seven years.

Whatever the numbers, they are truly, as Grand Designs host Kevin McLeod might say – “vast”.  So far the control of feral cats has fallen to commercial hunters and rangers (using humane traps and rifles), trapping and monitoring and baiting programs. The Federal Government has in recent years been trialling a new feral cat bait ironically dubbed Curiosity, specially formulated to cull feral cats and minimise the incidental deaths of other natives species. It is hoped the new poison will replace Eradicat (1080-based bait).

Yes, yes, I know – this is reminding you of a Little River Band song, (‘Curiosity killed the cat.’) I dimly recall interviewing John Farnham for a student newspaper and asking if he was going to perform the song that night. Farnham, who was lead singer with LRB from 1982 to 1986, admitted he had not yet learned the song. That’s a fair digression from the original subject, although now you’ve got the bloody tune stuck in your head, right?

Curiosity ® was the subject of a 2013 trial at Roxby Downs in South Australia, to trap feral cats in a trial area and monitor their survival using radio transmitting collars before and after baiting. Native wildlife species were monitored to determine whether or not the baits led to a decline in population size at the site. Here are the results.

In 2014 Environment Minister Greg Hunt appointed Gregory Andrews as Australia’s first Threatened Species Commissioner. The Commissioner’s role is to develop priority actions to prevent extinctions and halt the decline of Australia’s most threatened species. The Commissioner will oversee the next stage of Curiosity, which Mr Hunt said was showing promise as ‘an effective and humane approach to the problem.’

Curiosity comprises a meat-based sausage containing a small hard plastic pellet filled with toxin. Feral cats do not chew their food so will reliably swallow portions of the sausage including the pellet. Most native animals nibble and chew their food so will reject the pellet.

“The Curiosity bait for feral cats uses a new toxin called para-aminopropiophenone, or PAPP, which is considered best-practice world-wide and is analogous to putting the animal into a sleep from which they do not wake up,” Mr Hunt said.

Feral cats, which are notoriously difficult to trap and appear to be less interested in baits than live prey, have forced 20 species into extinction and are putting 124 others under threat.

In July RMIT University began a research project into the extent of feral cat control across Australia and to estimate the number of cats removed from the environment each year.

Research director Richard Faulkner told FOMM the aim of the survey is to see how (as a nation) we are measuring up against the Threatened Species commissioner’s strategy/target – a cull of two million by 2020. Mr Faulkner was surprised by the strong participation rate.

“When we launched the survey six weeks ago we were not sure how it would go. We anticipated that 500 participants would be good – we are now at 3,400 and counting!”   

The national survey aims to gather responses from rural and remote regions of Australia as well as suburban areas.

In 2014, Greg Hunt, confronted with damning evidence from the CSIRO, called for an eradication program including development of a biological control. The CSIRO study found that mammal extinctions were 40% higher than previously estimated and feral cats ranked higher than climate change as the primary cause.

While advocating measures including “island arks” and biological controls, Hunt warned that the latter could be worse than the problem if not properly controlled.

The ‘island ark’ concept – where pests are removed from a fenced reserve or island which is then re-stocked with endangered species – has worked well in New Zealand. Predators including cats, possums, rodents and mustelids (ferrets, stoats and weasels), were removed from Tiritiri Matangi and Kapiti Island, both now havens for native birds (and bird watchers).

Meanwhile the vast northern Australian landscape has become a happy hunting ground for feral cats. Arnhem Land covers 97,000 square kilometres and has a human population of 16,000 or so. If you discount the probably rare moments when a feral cat goes down to a river to drink and becomes croc food, cats are free to roam and multiply.

Some of the newer baiting proposals include ecologist John Read’s “grooming trap” which sprays toxic gel on the cat (which licks it off when grooming).

There is also a project dubbed ‘Toxic Trojans’ using live prey to attract and kill cats.

There are arguments against biological controls, baiting and trap-alter-and-release programs and you will find most of them outlined here by animal rights group PETA.

Some of Australia’s feral cats are domestic moggies gone astray, but they are not the dingo-sized beasts seen in Arnhem Land and the western deserts. Many of Australia’s feral cats are believed to be descendants of those brought by Dutch explorers as early as the 1600s.

“Most of the cats we’re talking about are really wild animals that don’t engage with humans,” Richard Faulkner says.

Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) manages more feral cat and fox-free areas on mainland Australia than any other organisation. The largest areas are Scotia in western NSW (a feral predator-free area of 8,000 hectares) and Mt Gibson in WA (7800ha). Larger still, Newhaven (65,000ha in the Northern Territory), is under construction.

My contribution to this subject was a dark song written after a few weeks travelling in the NT outback where we saw a feral cat cross the Stuart Highway in the middle of the day. His was an arrogant, purposeful trot, as if this cat knew its scant risks of being killed were limited to sparse road traffic and wedge-tailed eagles (the latter probably more at risk of being run over as they scavenge road-kill).

Sometimes at night, when I’m taking the wheelie bin up to the road (trying to beat my PB), I hear a tinkling bell. This would probably be the neighbourhood cat, alerting night critters to its whereabouts by a bell attached to its collar. Good move that, and it makes puss easier to find when the owners want to lock her away for the night.

“So keep your cats locked up at night while you’re sleeping,

Make sure they wear a bell,

Out in the desert they’re quietly creeping, just how many it’s hard to tell;

In Arnhem Land we sit around the campfire, singing the Feral Cat Blues,

While descendants of our long-lost cats make the cover of the NT News,

The cover of the NT News.”

Listen: https://soundcloud.com/thegoodwills/feral-cat-blues

Independent journalism, commentary, satire and droll humour, posted here on Fridays.