Defending our sovereign borders – Hoo-ah (0oRah)

US Marine convoy NTI was sitting outside a remote Northern Territory roadhouse in the sun, enjoying a Mars bar, musing on the whys and wherefores of life when I was somewhat startled by the appearance of a troupe of US Marines. I know we’ve been out of touch for a while, but surely this was a ‘friendly’ force…
They had stopped off at the Victoria River Roadhouse to buy snack food, use the latrines, saying y’all and howdy and that. She who reads Facebook when she can’t buy Newspapers said she encountered a few Marines coming out of the ladies loo. Neither of us was aware there were women in the US Marines, but there was the evidence right in front of us, wearing attractive salmon pink fatigues, faces already pink from the relentless northern sun. It wasn’t the first convoy of the day. A variety of road vehicles rumbled by, including a low loader carrying a grader, supply trucks and several armoured vehicles which I lack the technical know-how to accurately identify and describe.
The locals say the US Marine presence is building up. Private Nonamenopackdrill (Ms) from Oklahoma told our investigator they were bound for Bradshaw. Our reporter said “I don’t know where that is” and the private replied “Neither do I” and they both laughed – having a moment.
The Bradshaw Defence Area, 8 kms west of Timber Creek, is a training camp owned by the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The Bradshaw Defence Area is what Kevin McCloud would call ‘vast’. The ADF bought Bradshaw Station from private owners for $5 million and generously allowed the former owner to keep his cattle, on the proviso that he cleared the 990,000ha property of livestock. So Bradshaw then became a defence asset, sprawling 8,700 square kilometres in all directions, with rivers on two sides and pastoral properties on the other boundaries.
The first thing the ADF did when it bought Bradshaw was to spend $10 million building an all-weather bridge across the Victoria River.DSCN3138 Citizens are not permitted to cross the bridge, although it is quite the photo stop on the route that takes in historic monuments like explorer Augustus Gregory’s monument and a big old Boab tree thoughtlessly carved with the dates it was “discovered” by white explorers.
Most of the information about Bradshaw comes from the US-based Nautilus Security Institute, which keeps track of all things military. The Nautilus Institute says it is used by Australian, US, and forces and those from other countries (including Singapore) for infantry and armoured formation manoeuvres, ground and air live firing and bombing.
We got a bit more personal run-down on Bradshaw on a sunset river cruise 35 km down the 800 km long Victoria River, while being expertly piloted by skipper and tour guide Neville Fogarty, a long-time resident of the nearby town of Timber Creek, population 300, including four Aboriginal communities. This is one of the longest permanent rivers in Australia, named after a then newly crowned Queen of England, after Captain J.C Wickham sailed up the river on the HMS Beagle in 1819.
On our three-hour sunset cruise Neville regaled us with stories of crocodiles taking on Brahman cattle when they come down to the river to drink. Even though Bradshaw was destocked, about 40 head of unbranded cross-breed cattle, descendants of those that were shipped elsewhere, still run wild on the property. Apparently a bold croc will lie in wait, just under the water, and then lunge, grabbing the beast by the nose, dragging it into the water. The drowned beast is left to decompose some and then ripped up later by one or more crocs. Lovely.
If you can appreciate the analogy, amphibious apex predators patrol the banks of the river, making sure no rogue beasts cross their borders, while on dry land thousands of soldiers play war games, ostensibly for training purposes, but ready to repel boarders.
There is a long tradition of border patrols up here in the Territory. After the Japanese bombed Darwin and other NT locations, an Army unit, nicknamed ‘The Nackaroos’ kept vigil, patrolling the northern shoreline on horseback, aided by local aboriginal guides. It seems a futile task, given the vast expanse of shoreline across the top of WA and the Territory. Nevertheless, the Bradshaw pastoral lease is doing its bit to protect our sovereign borders. US Marines took part in exercises last year that involved the strange-looking Osprey, a tilt rotor aircraft with both a vertical take-off and landing and short take-off and landing capabilities. It is a bit hard to bring aircraft like that into the remote NT without people noticing.
The 2011 decision to allow a US Marine battalion to set up camp in northern Australia raised fears that it makes us more of a target than we were when it was just Pine Gap and other US-linked bases around the country. Nautilus says the main reason the ADF chose Bradshaw is the abundant space, a long, long way from large-scale human habitation. Despite the growing popularity of the Kimberley as a tourist destination, the area around Bradshaw is sparsely populated, not counting the 2,500 single accommodation units on Bradshaw.
US Marines last ‘invaded’ this part of the world back in September last year for full-scale military exercises. There is much speculation that exercises will be held earlier this year, with September in the Territory maybe a bit on the hot side for the Americans. Now most of you would know that there is a battalion of US marines permanently based in Darwin. It was controversial at the time and it still ought to be. We can put this one down to Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard cosying up to the latest Sheriff of Washington, but we doubt Tony Abbott has plans to change this arrangement any time soon.
As the latest batch of marines milled about in the hot noon-day sun at Victoria River Roadhouse, a tall black man with the bearing of someone in charge shouted something that sounded like “H’okay. Move’m out.” The response was a chorus of “Hoo-ah” or maybe OoRah, a common Army and/or a US Marine response to command which apparently means “anything and everything except no”. “Hoo-ah” is also said to date back to the 19th century British army acronym for Heard, Understood and Acknowledged. Again, it could have been an appropriated from Indian (ie American First Nations’-ed.) chant.
On the other side of the Victoria River from the Bradshaw Defence Area lies the vast (there’s that word again) Auvergne pastoral holding, once owned by the listed Australian Agricultural Company and now owned by a British group. I once had shares in AAC but sold them after discovering the extent of that company’s involvement in live cattle export. In that sense, a big wide river separates our ability to stop funding something on ethical and moral grounds, while on the Bradshaw side of the river, our tax dollars ($29.2 billion 2014-2015) are put to work, with no right of veto.

The Pittsworth Solution

Afghan Mosque Alice Springs
Afghan Mosque, Alice Springs

Here’s a radical plan to help rejuvenate small-town Australia and send a message to the world that yes, we do have compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves. The Pittsworth Solution (I just picked a small town at random), calls for all 2,017 detainees on Manus Island and Nauru to be re-patriated to Australia to live in rented houses in small, affordable towns like Pittsworth. This is not an ideological plan; it is about economics, humanity and giving people a fair go.
In March, Australian management firm Transfield Services won an A$1.2 billion contract to run the country’s two troubled Pacific island immigration detention centres. The centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island together house about 2,107 asylum seekers (January 2013 figures). Transfield’s contract runs for 20 months, which works out to a weekly bill of $13.86 million, or about $6,600 per person per week. About eight times the cost of keeping someone in jail in Australia. The offshore detention model demonstrably does not work: it is broken and should never have been created in the first place. Nothing happens in these centres except boredom, despair, riots, suicides, mental illnesses, assaults and abuse. If this was a town of 2,107 people in mainstream Australia, the government would have declared a Federal Intervention by now.
My back of an envelope scheme envisages about 200 detainees repatriated to 10 small towns throughout Australia to live in rented houses, paid for by the Federal Government. The former detainees would receive the Asylum Seeker Allowance, (a fortnightly payment not unlike the dole, which lasts until the asylum seeker’s claim is heard and assessed). The Government would pick up all the basic costs, rent, bonds and utilities. After the maximum two-year period has elapsed, those whose claims have not been heard are automatically given a two-year visa extension with the same conditions. Once the asylum seeker’s claim has been assessed, he/she is either sent back to the country of origin, or given permanent resident status. Free market rules apply from that day on.
This subject was expertly canvassed in The Age last month by prominent barrister and human rights advocate Julian Burnside. I concur with his summary that the alternatives are more effective, humane, and less expensive than our present approach. The regional solution, as Burnside calls it, should restore our reputation as decent people – “something which has been tarnished and degraded by our behaviour over the past 13 years”.
The best part of any such regional solution is that the Federal Government money invested in a more humane scheme would be spent in local communities. While Burnside does not name specific rural towns, the National Farmers Federation says there are more than 90,000 unfilled jobs in rural areas. Asylum seekers would no doubt pick up work and everyone would benefit, if such a scheme was ever approved.
Even with a proportion of these small communities resenting the new Australians, it is surely a better option than locking up people who have not been charged with an offence or proven guilty of one. The 200 or so temporary residents moved to each of the towns would spend their allowance in local shops and, good grief, some of them might go to English language lessons and work on their plan for permanently settling in Australia.
Last time I looked, a lot of rural towns were doing it tough. A scheme like this could contribute about $6.5 million a year to struggling local economies – the kids could go to local schools, and if jobs were not readily available, the Asylum Seekers could be offered a scheme not unlike Work for the Dole, which would get them out into the community.
Now that Iraq has once again flared as a world trouble spot, there will be people saying that we don’t want religious zealots in our country, stirring up trouble. From what I read, the people stirring up the trouble don’t want to go anywhere else – they just want to run their own country according to their religious and political beliefs. The asylum seekers are the people who don’t want to know about sectarian violence; they want a better future.
This is not so different to the people from Belfast, Killarney and Carrickfergus who fled Ireland during the Troubles to settle in Australia. The Pittsworth Solution (or the Maleny Solution if we want to be even-handed about it), has a bit more going for it than the current model, which is to “Stop the Boats”, incarcerate the ones who got this far outside our sovereign borders, then sit on their hands and wait for the next government to come up with something better.
It is hard to believe that a year has passed already (July 19) since the Abbott government introduced Sovereign Borders. Shame on the Labor Opposition for failing to vote in the affirmative to close Nauru and Manus Island.
This issue has been clumsily handballed by governments of all creeds for far too long. It’s time to show some compassion and at the same time breathe some new life into rural communities.
It all comes down to one thing: what are we afraid of and how can we overcome our apparently entrenched xenophobia? Take a wander through any suburb that has been tagged “ethnic” and you will find a colourful slice of life that deserves to be shared by all. Here in Alice Springs, where I’m finishing two of these essays to email before we set off into the NT/WA outback, there is an Afghan Mosque. It is not so surprising (though not widely known), that Alice Springs has an Islamic Society. It dates back to the pioneer days of the 1880s when thousands of cameleers from Afghanistan and Pakistan served as the railway of the outback. The Afghan Mosque is a modest building, nestled in a corner of the suburb of Larapinta with the McDonnell Ranges as a backdrop. It looks like it belongs there.

Don’t Drink the Water

Bob Obi Obi flood 2011Australia’s fickle weather can pick you up one day and dump on you the next; months of drought can turn in a heartbeat to flooding rains that ruin crops, damage property and erode the land. Rainfall can be prodigious – notoriously wet places like Tully in far north Queensland or Springbrook and Maleny (south east Queensland), can receive 100mm in 15 minutes and some of those places have recorded up to a metre of rain in a week or two. Unhappily for farmers in the arid interior who depend on water to grow food and sustain livestock, much of this precious water runs out to sea. Some is captured in dams, but Australia’s notoriously high evaporation rate together with the country’s growing population (not to mention industry), soon enough sucks the water level down to normal, then low. Authorities impose water restrictions, although the constraints are usually self-imposed. If the Toyota Prado’s been out in the bush, the owner is probably going to wash it, water restrictions or not.
We all waste water, alas, even those of us who claim to be conservationists. Washing dishes – run the tap until the water turns hot, and then put the plug in. You just let four or five litres run away down the storm drains. When brushing their teeth, most people let the tap run. There are so many ways in which first world householders waste water. Think of impoverished African villagers making the daily trek to the well to cart a bucket of not very clean water. Much about how we manage water comes down to common sense and having an unselfish attitude to this most precious resource. Without water, everything dies.
So we need to share it around. As Nelson Mandela once said: “Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.” This nicely distils life’s necessities into one terse sentence.
Water is becoming big business in Australia’s agriculture sector where big global investment groups like Kidder Williams (not to mention a few mainland Chinese companies), are buying up water rights – legislated water allocations for farmers and irrigators.
It is not difficult at all to find registered water brokers, whose job it is to stitch up irrigation entitlements for landowners.
Meanwhile, the United Nations estimates that 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water. By 2030, 47% of the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Environmental Outlook to 2030 report The OECD says water scarcity will worsen, due to unsustainable use and management of the resource as well as climate change. The number of people living in areas affected by severe water stress is expected to increase by another 1 billion to over 3.9 billion by 2030.
“Do Something” – a community organisation which tries to raise awareness about environmental issues, says that while Australia has the luxury of quality tap water, Australians have developed a habit of buying bottled water. According to <>, we spend more than $500 million a year on bottled water. In 2009, Australia produced 582.9 million litres of bottled water, and these figures would only have increased since then. In most cases, a litre of bottled water costs as much or more than a litre of petrol. Moreover, the manufacturing process of producing, packaging and selling bottled water is not environmentally sustainable.
This subject came to life for me again while driving through South Australia. The Murray River provides 40% of the State’s water, which probably explains why South Australians get twitchy about irrigators upstream in other States tapping into an ever-diminishing resource. In South Australia, a network of above-ground water pipelines keep people focused on the fact that they live in one of the more arid parts of a dry continent. We followed one such pipeline 143 kms from Keith, a prosperous grain growing centre not far over the border from Victoria, to Tailem Bend. That particular pipeline was built in the 1960s, including 800 kms of branch mains, so someone had a long-term plan. Fifty-plus years on, a lot of one and two-term governments faced with crippling drought opted for expensive, power-hungry desalination plants. SA has one of those now too, but it gets mothballed when it is not needed, which raises all sorts of questions about the cost of water conservation. As we trekked northwards to Port Augusta, we followed another water pipeline, which brings water from the Murray River at Morgan to Port Augusta, Whyalla and Woomera. This too was built years ago to provide water security to remote, arid towns.
We lived through a lengthy period of dire water restrictions in south east Queensland when a combination of drought and over-use saw the major dams dwindle to below 30%. It was amazing how quickly the conscientious among us adapted to collecting shower water in buckets, restricting hand-held garden watering to our allotted days/hours and driving around in dirty cars. But once the crisis was past and torrential rain had filled the dam, we tend to lapse back into our wasteful ways.
A study by Rheem Australia found that almost half of Australians spend six minutes or more in the shower and 26% of Australians have two or more showers a day. When one is in a caravan and winter temperatures remain in single figures through the day, one sometimes forgets to have a shower at all. Here in Coober Pedy we have to stump up 20 cents for a three-minute shower – the morning is looking good!
We have all developed middle class, first-world attitudes to water – we expect it to be of pristine quality, and if it isn’t, then off we go to the supermarket to buy a 10 or 15-litre carton. I confess to buying a lot of bulk spring water last time we went to the outback; it doesn’t take long for our treated city water stomachs to start heaving with frequent changes in water quality as we travel. Bluegrass band Uncle Bill recorded a song called “Don’t drink the water” which resonates loudly in the outback where aquifer water often smells so much like unleaded petrol you don’t want to believe that after boiling it is OK to drink.
On this outback trip, after filtering local water and finding it unpalatable, I went into a local Coles and bought 20 litres of spring water for $10. Hypocrite? Maybe, but I feel less queasy already.

Freight train, freight train

Oversize truckNow that we are traversing the country’s highways, cruise-controlling along at 95 towing a small pop top caravan, we become very aware of semi-trailers. I can see a couple right now in my extending wing mirror, closer than they ought to be and itching to go faster than the 100 kms they pressed me to attain on the Great Western highway between Melbourne and Adelaide. A passing lane appeared and I gratefully ducked into it, still doing 100. They soared past like I was nailed to the ground.
We have been using our GPS planner to pick out routes which will get us to where we want to go and avoid major roads wherever possible. It takes a little longer but the pressure eased as we skirted through Maryborough and Avoca via the Pyrenees Highway. A pleasant country road and not a truck in sight, although there are many signs saying to beware of kangaroos for the next 25-45 kms. On the first leg of our trip from Brisbane to Warwick, every second vehicle on the Warrego Highway was a truck, a semi-trailer or a B-double (a prime mover and two trailers) and much of this traffic cluttered up the Newell Highway heading south. As all Grey Nomads know, as you move into the interior, B-doubles become triples and, in some places a prime mover and four trailers. produced a scale drawing which shows 13 cyclists alongside a B-triple, so you’ll get the picture.
To be absolutely fair, the number of truck drivers who drive responsibly and pass when it is safe to pass far outnumber the tail-gaiters and those who cut back in too quickly, their rear trailer swaying and almost taking the front bumper bar with them. The wide and over-size loads (pictured) are well telegraphed by escorts so no real problem there unless you are not paying attention. I sometimes watch a show called “Outback Trucker” and sympathised with the truckie who found himself stuck behind Mavis and Bill doing a steady 80 kmh in their Prado 4×4 towing a 20-foot van. In their defence, a lot of outback roads are sealed, but the bitumen is a narrow strip with soft dirt shoulders sloping away into the scrub. Many a Nomad has found themselves upside down in a paddock, their dream of spending a year doing the big circuit cut short.
Over the years spent writing for newspapers I have taken something of an interest in the various schemes to build new railways to carry freight across this vast land. The road transport and distribution businesses that send fleets of trucks out on our highways day and night might not like the idea, but there would still be business for them in distributing goods from rail ports to local destinations. But it would end the realm of the long-haul truckie, freeing the nation’s highways for domestic traffic. There would be fewer pile-ups and roll-overs, much less wear and tear on the roads and truckies, re-deployed to deliver local freight within a city’s boundaries, could spend their nights at home with family.
Company director, railway pioneer, seniors’ advocate and fundraiser Everald Compton, 83, published his memoirs earlier this year. City Beat columnist James McCullough reported that Compton, a long-time advocate of inland rail, felt he should simply put his life into some sort of record before he forgets it all.
He printed 400 copies off his 350-page book Tracks to Somewhere to give away to family and friends. Compton is a friendly, intelligent old character I have met on numerous occasions. In 2008 he proposed an inland railway from Melbourne to Darwin, linking with other inland rail links (Toowoomba to Moree, Toowoomba to Gladstone). Compton has to be credited with putting the concept of long-haul inland rail freight on the agenda and he has kept hammering away at it for years.
In 2008, the Federal Government asked the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) to assess the feasibility of a proposed Melbourne to Brisbane inland railway and to identify the optimum route. Preliminary analysis by ARTC showed that the cheapest version of the inland railway would allow freight to be moved from Melbourne to Brisbane in just over 27 hours. Running from Melbourne via Albury to Cootamundra, Parkes, Narromine, Dubbo, Werris Creek and Moree to North Star near Goondiwindi in Queensland, new track would then have to be laid from North Star to Toowoomba and on to Brisbane.
The Australian Logistics Council now says the $4.7 billion inland route could achieve transit times between Brisbane and Melbourne of 20 hours over 1,700 kilometres, seven hours faster than the existing coastal railway. The route would be more competitive on transit time, reliability, availability and door-to-door freight prices, compared to road transport using the Newell Highway. Mayors of inland New South Wales and Queensland towns have started serious lobbying to make sure the rail passes through their town. One option is for the route to pass through Warwick via the Cunningham Rail Link on its way to Bromelton/Beaudesert and the Port of Brisbane. The alternative is Toowoomba//Brisbane via the new, privately owned airport at Wellcamp and Toowoomba’s industrial suburbs.

Echuca paddle steamer We were mulling the rail versus road traffic debate as we spent a couple of chilly days in Echuca, on the border of New South Wales and Victoria. Echuca was a wealthy town in the late 1800s and early 1900s, built on the monopoly of steam-powered river traffic. Fortunes were made carrying wool from distant pastoral properties down the Murray River to Echuca and then on to Melbourne and foreign ports.
The great depression of the 1890s, combined with rail being extended into NSW killed off the river boat freight trade by the 1920s. A handful of paddle steamers from that era survive to take curious tourists on a brisk one-hour trip down the Murray, recalling the days when paddle steamers, powered by a seemingly endless supply of red river gum, dominated freight and distribution.

Fast forward to 2014 and the continually rising cost of fuel, together with the immense cost of expanding and maintaining the country’s main road freight corridors, is putting immense pressure on the Federal Government to commit to an inland rail freight system. Given that road freight is expected to double by 2030 and triple by 2050, they’d best get on with the job of building the alternative rail infrastructure. The Abbot Government found $300 million to spend on the rail study, so what’s another $4.4 billion? (Sounds like a huge sum, but it’s only $176 each, folks). Clearly Mr Abbot has a thing about transport infrastructure. Taking responsibility for building this railway network could be his lasting legacy