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BHP opens major WA gas plant

Resources giant BHP Billiton says its new US$1.

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5 billion gas plant will supply 20 per cent of the domestic West Australian market amid hopes of doubling capacity.

The first gas started flowing in August, almost three years after BHP gave the green light to develop the Macedon field, about 100 kilometres off the north west coast of Western Australia.

The Macedon plant includes four offshore production wells and an onshore gas treatment plant at Onslow.

It has a production capacity of up to 200 terrajoules of gas per day, making it the company’s largest domestic gas operation.

BHP Billiton’s global head of conventional oil and gas, Steve Pastor, said the Macedon project was expected to supply domestic gas for the wholesale market in Western Australia until at least 2033.

“The operation will supply 20 per cent of the state’s daily domestic gas supply for consumers and industry,” Mr Pastor said.

The facility builds on the company’s oil and gas operations in WA, including the North West Shelf project and the Exmouth Sub-Basin.

BHP has a 71.5 per cent stake in the Macedon joint venture, with Apache Northwest holding the remaining 28.5 per cent.

Gas from the Macedon plant will be exported to the Dampier-to-Bunbury gas pipeline for sale into the West Australian market.

Mr Pastor said the company was eager to double the future capacity of the plant to take advantage of a 400 terrajoule pipeline.

“If we’re successful with exploration and that’s economically viable then we could double our capacity at the current plant,” he told reporters after a tour of the newly opened Macedon gas plant on Friday.

He said WA consumers would soon feel the benefit of extra gas supply.

“It improves the supply demand balance and is inevitably is going to be of benefit,” he said.

BHP has also sought to allay environmental concerns due to the gas field’s proximity to the sensitive Ningaloo Reef and Exmouth Gulf, saying the project reflected a “deep commitment to environmental protection”.

At its closest point the Macedon pipeline is 3.9 kilometres from a nominated World Heritage Area, and 8.1 kilometres from the Ningaloo Marine Park Commonwealth Boundary.

The Macedon field was discovered in 1992 but only became commercially viable due to WA’s gas shortage and high prices.

Domestic gas supply in Western Australia has been dominated by the Woodside-led North West Shelf joint venture and Apache’s north west operations.

WA experienced a statewide gas shortage in 2008 when an explosion at Apache Energy’s Varanus Island plant knocked out a third of the state’s gas supplies for six months.

BHP also also has an interest in the Exxon-led Scarborough floating LNG remote offshore project in WA which is scheduled for a final investment decision next year.

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Guilt relief: how families can fight childhood obesity

By Helen Vidgen, Queensland University of Technology

As a dietitian and nutritionist for more than 15 years, the most common emotion I encounter in parents is guilt.

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And it’s little wonder – if you’re an Australian parent, you have a one-in-four chance of raising a child outside the healthy weight range.

The latest figures show that 25.1% of Australian kids aged 2-17 years are overweight or obese. The biggest “growth” in this statistic is in the obese category. That means that more children who were overweight are now obese, and those who were obese children are now more obese.

So why is this happening? It’s not that we’ve all suddenly become dodgy parents. Instead, the odds are increasingly stacked against us as parents trying to do the right thing by our kids.

Would you like fries with that?

Researchers, including the team I work with, describe the society we live in as “obesogenic”. That means that our environment makes it much easier to gain weight than stay healthy.

Unhealthy food is cheaper and more easily available than healthy food, leisure activities are increasingly about sitting in front of a screen, and our towns and cities are built more for cars than for pedestrians or cyclists.

You only have to look at the sponsorship at a sporting club sign-on day to see how directly junk food companies market to children. My 10-year-old daughter gets a McDonalds voucher with each of her swimming certificates. Those are just a few examples of many small things that add up to make it harder to keep kids within a healthy weight range.

How do I know if my child’s a healthy weight?

For children, healthy weight is defined as being below the 85th percentile for body mass index (BMI) for age. BMI for children is calculated the same way as it is for adults: weight (measured in kilograms) divided by height squared (measured in metres).

For example, let’s take a nine-year-old girl, who weighs 33kg and is 1.3m tall. The calculation is 33 divided by 1.69 (1.3 x 1.3 = 1.69). That equals 19.52. For a girl aged nine, that’s considered overweight.

For adults, there are set cut-offs for a healthy or unhealthy BMI. But for children, the bands or percentiles change according to age to account for growing bodies.

In most Australian states, those BMI charts would be in the Personal Health Record book you get when your child is born. (You can also calculate your child’s BMI based on their gender, age, height and weight here.

You probably haven’t checked up on their growth since they were a baby – but checking growth, just like checking teeth, vision, hearing etc, is good to do on a regular basis. We’re not used to thinking about weight in this way but for most health professionals, we think of it as just another health indicator that needs regular monitoring. There are tips on how to accurately measure your child here.

You are what you eat

Healthy eating and being physically active are the cornerstones of healthy weight. So the main tips for trying to keep a lid on unhealthy growth are to firstly try to keep to eating only the food serves recommended in this Australian Guide to Healthy Eating brochure. (You can read more at the federal government’s Eat for Health website.)

 

A sample meal plan for a 9-11 year old child. www.eatforhealth.gov.au

 

The right serving sizes vary by gender and age, but for primary schoolers it’s around 5 serves of vegetables, 2 serves fruit, 4 serves grains and cereals, 2½ serves of the meat group and 2½ serves of the dairy group. Try to stick to just eating this as much as you can, and your child will get all of the nutrients they need in the right amounts.

The brochure gives equivalents of what you can swap for what and still get roughly the same calorie and nutrient intake. “Discretionary foods” that are not in those main food group categories – such as cakes, biscuits, soft drinks and fast foods – are what will put on extra weight, and they’re easy to over-eat, so try to keep them to a minimum.

A recent survey showed that on average, Australian children get around 40% of their calories from those discretionary foods, which means they’re seriously missing out on food that’s better for them.

Try to make water and milk the only drinks. Drinking is a really quick way of taking in a lot of calories without feeling full and without knowing it. Low-fat milks are recommended for children over two, as they still have all the nutrients, but with less of the fat.

Aim to keep kids active for around 60 minutes a day and spend no more than two hours in front of a screen. Try to make the time you spend together active, such as swapping couch time for a pre-dinner family walk. And buy a bike for the next Christmas present instead of an Xbox.

Off the couch and into fun runs

In the late 1990s, Flinders University dietitians and researchers developed a healthy lifestyle program for families of overweight primary school aged kids, which they called PEACH (Parenting, Eating and Activity for Child Health).

Over the past 15 years, around 300 families in South Australia, New South Wales, and most recently Queensland have taken part in a PEACH program. A research trial, published in Pediatrics, found that participating in PEACH produced a relative weight loss of 10% in moderately obese children aged 5-9, which was maintained over a period of two years.

There have been some great individual success stories. For instance, the Innes family from Adelaide say they still eat healthier and lead more active lives than before they took part in the program three years ago. Last weekend, mother Fiona Innes and her son completed the 6km run/walk in a local city to bay fun run.

The program is run over a six-month period to help change behaviours of the whole family, with 10 group sessions where the parents and carers meet while their kids play, as well as three support phone calls and a handbook with tips and recipes. The idea is to give parents the skills they need to recognise the risks in our obesogenic society, and how to plan ahead to avoid them.

With funding from the Queensland and federal governments, our team from QUT is now rolling out the PEACH program across Queensland. It’s available free to Queensland families with a child 5-11 years old above a healthy weight for their age and gender, and over the next three years we hope to help 1400 children across the state.

Starting off life overweight is pretty uncomfortable as a child. But research also tells us that children who are above a healthy weight while young have a really high chance of staying that way as adults.

There are countless reasons why more of our kids are growing up overweight and obese, many of which are out of our control as parents. But as the Innes family show, the choices we make can make a crucial difference to our kids’ futures.

If you’re part of a Queensland family that wants to be part of the free program, you can register here.

The Queensland Government, through the joint Australian, State and Territory Government initiative under the National Partnership Agreement on Preventative Health, has contracted QUT to roll out the PEACH program across Queensland. Helen Vidgen is a member of the Public Health Association of Australia and is the national convenor of their Food and Nutrition group.

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Julian Burnside: Alienation to alien nation

By Julian Burnside

I had a conversation with Tim Costello some years ago which significantly changed my way of seeing things.

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He told me of a time when he was running the Collins St Baptist Church. A guy who had been sleeping rough for quite a while had turned up at the Church wanting a feed. Tim was talking to him. The guy said that that conversation was the first time in two weeks he had had eye contact with any other human being.

I can scarcely imagine what that must be like. That man had, at least in his own mind, completely disappeared.

I have thought about that conversation often. The idea of such alienation haunts me. But there are many people in our society who have, at least in their own minds, disappeared. These are the people who, because of mental health problems, or simple bad luck, find themselves nursing a grievance that no-one wants to hear about. The more they complain, the more they are ignored; the more they are ignored, the louder they complain. The louder they complain, the more they are avoided, viewed with suspicion. And once that cycle sets in, their problems become more and more real to them, less and less real to those around them.

These are the people who ring late night talkback radio and harangue the host until even the panel operators know to filter them out. They are the new outcasts.

My conversation with Tim came in useful during the first round of Australia’s recent panic about asylum seekers. Between 2001 and about 2006, a lot of Australians were persuaded to be anxious about boat people arriving here. After all, the Howard government had told us they were illegals; that they had thrown their children into the sea; that they had jumped a queue somewhere. And the struggle to prevent the country from being swamped by this tide of potential terrorists was paraded as “border protection”.

Howard recognised that there were votes to be taken from One Nation if only he could make us fear the alien horde and position himself as our protector. It worked.

There is a story that I have on fair authority which shows clearly what was going on. Howard was about to enter the House of Representatives to deliver his speech explaining the government’s response to the Tampa. Jackie Kelly approached him in the lobby. She said that a lot of her constituents were deserting to One Nation. Howard waved his speech in front of her and said: “don’t worry – this will fix it”.

As most people thought at the time, the government’s response to the Tampa was purely political. Of course, Howard had a great run of good luck in 2001. His government refused to let the Tampa put its bedraggled cargo of rescued Hazaras ashore on Christmas Island; he cobbled together the Pacific Solution while the court case about Tampa continued. The judgment at first instance in the Tampa case was handed down at 2:15 Eastern Standard Time, on September 11, 2001. The result was not noticed in the newspapers next morning, because a group of Islamic extremists had attacked America.

From that moment, there were no terrorists but Muslim terrorists. There were no boat people but Muslim boat people, and although it was never clearly stated, all boat people were suspected terrorists – our worst nightmare. For those who did not see through the political opportunism, boat people were aliens to be feared.

Of course, if the true facts were understood, our response would have seemed rather odd. It did not suit the politicians to acknowledge that boat people were not illegal, that there was no queue, that they had not thrown their children overboard, and that they were trying to escape the same extremists we were so frightened of.

 

The Tampa incident in 2001 marked a turning point for the asylum seeker debate in Australia. AAP/Wallenius Wilhelmsen

 

For my sins, I became involved in the issue. I was regularly asked to speak, at public events and private, about asylum seekers. It seemed to me that the key to the problem was to explain the facts. Naïvely I thought that most Australians would recoil at the idea of wilfully mistreating men, women and children who had done nothing wrong but try to escape to safety.

A couple of unexpected things happened. First, I got a few death threats. It surprised me that, having done a few pretty contentious cases in my career, I should receive death threats for going to court pro bono on behalf of people who were, self-evidently, voiceless and powerless.

And whenever I was quoted in the media saying something outrageous like “it is wrong to imprison innocent children and drive them to suicide”, I would receive a torrent of hate mail.

The anger and intensity of the hate mail astonished me then, and it still does. It struck me as remarkable that people would write to a complete stranger in such bluntly abusive terms. And the mail I got was seriously, vigorously abusive.

Since I had set myself the goal of converting all of Australia to understanding the facts, I decided to answer all the hate mail. After all, these people had self-identified as disagreeing with my views. My reasoning, flawed as it looks now, was that if only the people who disagreed with me could understand the facts, then they would come around to my way of seeing things. If enough people changed their views, the government policy would have to change. Clearly I did not know what I was dealing with.

Still, I resolved to answer all the mail I could. Mail that came by post was impossible to answer because, as a rule, people who use the postal service are a forgetful lot who did not include a name or address. But most of it came by email and, even if I did not know the sender’s identity, I could respond by simply hitting the reply button.

I sat up late at night answering emails: thousands of them, mostly abusive. Some of them all in capitals; lots of exclamation marks and lots of very rude words. I am no shrinking violet, but I was astonished by the rudeness of many of the emails I got. Unpopularity brings strange rewards.

Since their complaints fell into a few recognisable patterns, I had a few standard responses. Typically I would grit my teeth and say something like:

Thank you for your email. I gather you do not agree with me. But did you realise that…they do not break any law by coming here asking for protection; there is no queue…etc.

If I was surprised by the rudeness and vehemence of most of the emails, what followed was even more astonishing. Nearly all of them responded to my reply…and every response was polite. The responses fell into a few patterns, but typically they said “thank you for answering me, I did not expect to hear from you. The facts you sent me are all very well, but…”, and then they would set out other objections. I replied with more facts to answer those objections.

Over the course of thousands of bits of hate mail, I estimate that about 50% ended up saying, in substance: “Thank you for discussing this issue with me. I agree with you now”; and about 25% ended up saying, in substance: “Thank you for discussing this issue with me. I don’t agree with you, but it is good that you stand up for what you believe”. The other 25% remained entirely unconvinced and, I assume, continued to vote for John Howard.

What struck me in all this was the story Tim had told me. I guessed that the people who wrote to me – and who did not expect a reply – were so alienated from the community that their only means of expressing their anger and fear and resentment and confusion was by writing to someone mildly prominent.

It occurred to me then that the passion which drove their initial hostility was the mark of people who were alienated from the community: they were accustomed to being ignored, so they fall to shouting abuse as a way of getting attention. Just once listen to them, and they quickly fall back to observing the ordinary rules of civil behaviour.

This is not just an argument for good manners: I think it goes much deeper. Too many people in our community feel alienated from it and that alienation is unstable: it tends not to self-correct, but to amplify itself.

We are a prosperous country: most of us are genuinely lucky. But we are not good at sharing our luck, and we have a strange habit of thinking that those who are less lucky must be, in some way, responsible for their own misfortunes.

There are many reasons why members of the community become alienated from it. They may have been dealt a bad hand: they have been born poor, they have been badly educated, they have a mental or physical disability, they have bad luck in employment, they make bad choices which lead them into a hopeless life. Any one of these disadvantages can lead to a cascade of events which leave a person at the bottom of the pile. And when compassion turns to vindictiveness these people suffer twice for the disadvantages they could not avoid.

Because everyone, it seems, knows my name, address and occupation I get a lot of unsolicited requests for pro bono help. It has been interesting, not to say distressing, to see the sort of troubles that plague people in our community. I get a large number of requests for help. I make it clear that all I can do is offer pro bono advice. I have a group of talented interns who help me deal with the problems.

What is distressing is that the majority of people who write to me this way do not in fact have a recognisable legal or human rights problem. Typically they are people who have had some bad luck, have made some bad choices, and find themselves trapped in a spiral of disadvantage, distress, unemployment and mental instability. At that point, anything that looks like a legal or human rights problem prompts them to reach out for help. I imagine that medical clinics have a similar experience.

When I write to them with further questions, or with advice about what to do, it usually becomes clear that they have already been to just about every imaginable place for help: Legal Aid, a Community Legal Centre, government departments, their local doctor or MP. No-one can help them, because they have no single, clear problem apart from the fact that they feel alienated from everything. Part of their distress is caused by feeling so isolated.

 

Former prime minister John Howard used harsh treatment of asylum seekers to his political advantage in the early part of the 2000s. AAP/Julian Smith

 

The most distressed, and distressing, group are people who are probably paranoid schizophrenics. One person who writes to me quite often is convinced that the police, and other government agencies, are spying on him all the time and that they have a secret control order against him. He is intelligent and well-educated. He sends video footage of ordinary street scenes, at the traffic lights, in shopping centres, in suburban streets and he asserts (and no doubt believes) that various people captured on his videos are in fact plain clothes operatives – stalking him, watching him, keeping him in a kind of open prison.

This person points out, rationally enough, that such conduct is a serious breach of his human rights. And if the innocuous scenes he sent showed what he sees, he would be right. But they do not show what he sees. They prove nothing at all. He insists that the Commonwealth government have a secret control order against him: but he can offer no explanation how a control order can work, if it is kept secret from everyone.

The difficulty with people like this man is that they cannot be convinced that their view of the facts does not line up with reality. And it is hard for a lawyer to tell a would-be client that he needs psychiatric help.

The end result is that people like him get pushed from pillar to post but rarely if ever get the help they actually need.

There are only a couple of bright spots in this dismal tale.

The first concerns a lady who turned up in my chambers one lunchtime, quite distressed and wanting to see me. We chatted for a bit, but the long and short of it was that she had been receiving treatment for paranoid schizophrenia, her treatment had been interrupted; she became convinced that her treating doctor was trying to kill her with the medications he had prescribed, so she decided not to take it any more. She wanted me to take possession of the diary she had been keeping because she was confident that she would soon be killed and she wanted me to have the evidence which would identify the guilty party.

We spoke for some time. Somehow I managed to persuade her to go to a new doctor – someone who could not possibly know or conspire with her treating doctor – and agree to take whatever medication he prescribed. In the meantime I would protect her diary.

About two months later she turned up again. She had been to another doctor. She had taken the medication he prescribed. She was feeling a lot better, and realised that she had misjudged her original doctor. In the circumstances, she did not need me to look after her diary any more.

How odd that one of my few successes in the field of human rights should result from a modicum of medical knowledge and a bit of common sense.

The second bright spot is this. Most of the people who write asking for pro bono help have simply not got a legal problem. While they may have had a genuine legal problem in the past, typically it is buried in history and statute barred years or decades before. The real problem is that their lives have gone off track, and they no longer feel any connection to the society which has let them down so badly. A surprising number of these people seem to benefit from having their problem taken seriously, from getting a written advice in response to their letter, or from being listened to for half an hour.

It is a powerful reminder of just what great work the Community Legal Centres do. Underfunded and under resourced, they exist in order to help people deal with legal problems, but in many cases the real help they give lies in the fact that they extend the simple dignity of listening to a person’s distress. They help rescue the alienated. I am hugely impressed with Community Legal Centres. They deserve to be better funded and better recognised for the work they do.

Of course, there are plenty of people in the community who have genuine legal problems who cannot afford legal representation. People who face minor criminal charges but cannot afford a lawyer; people who have a good civil claim to make, or a good defence to a civil claim brought against them, and cannot afford legal representation.

Access to Justice is a cornerstone of any democracy. Access to Justice must include the right to participate meaningfully in the legal system.

The legal system in Australia is an adversary system: competing parties advance evidence and arguments, and the court sits as an impartial umpire to decide the dispute. The adversary system assumes that both parties are competently represented: that is its most basic assumption. If that assumption fails, the system fails. Our system struggles to work properly when one party is unrepresented. But litigation is expensive, and many people can’t afford it.

Legal Aid is the government’s way of making good the political promise of Access to Justice, but Legal Aid is already underfunded, and cuts to Legal Aid guarantee that for many people Access to Justice is nothing but a political slogan.

The government is spending increasing amounts on police and Public Safety Officers. Their increased numbers result in more citizens being brought before courts. Those people need legal representation, but the government refuses to fund Legal Aid properly.

Thousands of self-represented litigants come before courts every year. This imposes unreasonable strains on judges, and it makes cases longer and more difficult than they should be. It often leads to mistakes. 25% of all appeals involve unrepresented litigants. It wastes vast amounts of judicial and other resources.

People who face a court unrepresented suffer an immediate disadvantage. Only by good luck will they get the result they might have got if they had been represented. And even assuming the court reaches the right decision it is likely that the unrepresented litigant will have understood almost nothing of the process and will leave with a rankling sense of injustice. With some justification, those people will leave court feeling that the system is not working, at least not for them. They become aliens in their own land.

But they are not alone.

Since 2001, Australian politicians have won electoral popularity by taking a tough line on asylum seekers.

During the past 15 years, asylum seekers were somehow hoisted to a position of public hatred which made it politically possible for the Howard government to treat them with increasing harshness, and made it politically necessary for Kim Beasley’s Labor opposition to support these measures. Without any protest from the press or the public, the Howard government succeeded in establishing, in the courts, that the central elements of its deterrent policy were legally valid.

Not enough people know the case of Ahmed al Kateb. He came to Australia and sought asylum in late 2000 or thereabouts. He applied for a visa and was refused. He found conditions in Woomera so intolerable that he asked to be removed from Australia. Eighteen months later he was still here because, being a stateless Palestinian, there was no country where he was entitled to be and no country was willing to receive him.

The Migration Act provides that a person who comes to Australia without papers must be detained, and they must remain in detention until either they get a visa or they are removed from the country. When the Keating government introduced those measures in 1992, one supposes that parliament suspected that either of those two outcomes would be available in every case.

They had not allowed for the anomalous case of stateless people. You might think that a government which had paraded itself virtuously as committed to family values and a fair and decent society, might quickly amend the law to account for these few anomalous cases. But what the government did, in fact, was to argue all the way to the High Court that al Kateb, even though he has committed no offence in Australia, can be held in detention for the rest of his life. The High Court agreed.

Parallel with the al Kateb case was the case of Behrooz. That case tested this question: if the conditions in detention are as harsh as human ingenuity can devise, does the harshness make any difference to the lawfulness of that detention. The answer is No.

Al Kateb and Behrooz were decided together in 2004. Between them, they stand for the miserable proposition that indefinite detention, even for life in the worst conditions imaginable, is lawful. A third case decided that year held that the provisions apply equally to children.

The Rudd government in 2008 introduced significant changes in the treatment of asylum seekers. They were welcomed by those of us who felt that the values of the nation had been betrayed by the Howard government. In retrospect, it may be that Rudd could afford to be nice to asylum seekers because none were arriving. Things changed in 2009, after Tony Abbott had won leadership of the Coalition and started talking tough about asylum seekers.

The recent election saw the major political parties engaged in a competition to outdo each other in their promises to mistreat boat people. The theory is that this will deter others from seeking protection here.

Promising to treat innocent people badly is not usually a vote-winner. In most cases it would be seen as a mark of depravity.

But the argument starts at the wrong place. It starts with the Coalition’s oft-repeated statement that boat people are “illegals”. It starts from the language of “border protection” and “queue-jumping”: language calculated to make the public think boat people are undesirables, people to be feared, people we need to be protected from.

 

New immigration minister Scott Morrison has promised a ‘harder line’ on asylum seekers. AAP/Penny Bradfield

 

The fact is that boat people do not break any law by coming here the way they do. Over the past 15 years, 90% of them have ultimately been assessed as refugees entitled to our protection. Their arrival rate over the last 12 months has been much higher than the historic average, but even now it represents only four weeks’ ordinary population growth. While an estimated 25,000 boat people arrived in Australia in the 12 months to June 30, 2013, we received 168,685 new permanent migrants and over six million visitors came to our shores in the year ended December 2012. Boat people do not present a demographic problem for Australia.

Spooked by tabloid scare-mongering, both major parties have chosen deterrent policies: treat them harshly, push them off to small, impoverished Pacific neighbours. The low point of this is the recent Coalition promise to bring in the military to deal with the “emergency”.

The spectacular cost of these measures passes without complaint because it is seen as a kind of protection. While it is difficult to separate out the various components of the cost, indefinite detention costs, on average, around A$160,000 per person per year as of 2011-12. The actual cost varies: metropolitan detention is cheapest. It gets more and more expensive as the place of detention is more remote. On current estimates, we will spend about $4 billion each year brutalising people who have committed no offence and have done nothing worse that ask for protection.

It is not easy to understand how this has happened. Those of us who think Australia is better than its behaviour suggests now feel like aliens in our own land: bewildered at how quickly the country has lost its moral bearings.

Australia has constructed a myth about itself which cannot survive unless we forget a number of painful truths. We draw a veil of comforting amnesia over anything which contradicts our self-image.

We forget that boat people who come here to ask for protection are not illegal in any sense – they are exercising the right which every person has in international law to seek asylum in any country they can reach.

We forget that the greatest number of unauthorised boats to arrive in a single day got here on January 26, 1788.

We forget that the first white settlers in this country were true illegals: sent here by English courts for a range of criminal offences, and the soldiers sent to guard them, and the administrators who, following London’s instructions, stole the country from its original inhabitants who, if possession is nine points of the law, had the backing of 40,000 years of law to justify calling the white invaders “illegals”.

And we forget, too, the line in the second verse of our national anthem. For those who come across the sea there truly are boundless plains to share. For refugees locked away in remote detention centres, that line must cast light on the frontier which delusion shares with hypocrisy.

We forget how different it was for 85,000 Vietnamese boat people 30 years ago. They were resettled here swiftly and without fuss, thanks to the simple human decency which Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam showed, and which Abbott and Rudd so conspicuously lack. We forget how hideously we scarred Vietnam; how we showered them with Agent Orange and trashed their villages and disfigured their people. Just as we forget the effects of our collaboration in Iraq. But if we knew back then why people flee the land of their birth, we seem to have forgotten it now.

When today’s refugees wash up on our shores, politicians speak with concern about the boat people who die in their attempt to get to safety. But their concern is utterly false. Instead of attacking the refugees directly, which is their real purpose, they attack the people smugglers instead. Because, aren’t people smugglers the worst people imaginable, the “scum of the earth”? They forget that Oskar Schindler was a people smuggler, and so was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

 

Oskar Schindler ‘smuggled’ many Jews to work in his factories during World War Two. Noa Cafri

 

And so was Gustav Schroeder, captain of the ill-fated MS St Louis which left Hamburg in May 1939 with a cargo of 900 Jews looking for help. He tried every trick in the book to land them somewhere safe, but was pushed away. He ended up putting them ashore again in Europe, and more than half of them perished in concentration camps. Captain Schroeder was a people smuggler, but was also a hero and if the world had not been so harsh he would have been a saviour.

And we forget that, without the help of people smugglers, refugees are left to face persecution or death at the hands of whatever tyranny threatens them. Let Rudd or Abbott say publicly that, in the same circumstances, they would not use a people smuggler if they had to.

Many recent boat people are Hazaras from Afghanistan. They are targeted ruthlessly by the Taliban, who are bent on ethnic cleansing. The Hazara population of Afghanistan has fallen dramatically over the past decade, as Hazaras escape or are killed. The Taliban want to get rid of all of them. We have forgotten that we are locked in mortal combat with the Taliban. When our troops pull out of Afghanistan at the end of this year, the Taliban will declare open season on Hazaras. It will be a bloodbath, and some Hazaras will end up seeking protection here.

How will we respond? Coldly, it seems.

So here we are: Australia in 2013. We have forgotten our origins and our good fortune, we are blind to our own selfishness. In place of memory we cling to a national myth of a generous, welcoming country, a land of new arrivals where everyone gets a fair go; a myth in which vanity fills the emptiness where the truth was forgotten.

During the election campaign, many of us watched aghast as both major parties promised mistreatment so harsh that it would act as a deterrent; mistreatment so unpleasant that it would seem more attractive to stay home and face down the Taliban rather than flee for safety.

It is painful to recognize that we are now a country which would brutalise one group with the intention that other people in distress will choose not to ask us for help.

The sight of the major parties competing to promise greater cruelty to boat people is new in Australian politics. We have never been perfect, but this was something without precedent.

But some of us remember how things once were, some of us see how things could be.

And we grieve: aliens in our own land.


This piece is based on the Tim Costello Lecture, delivered by Julian Burnside on September 18.

Julian Burnside is patron of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

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WA Premier firm on call to raise GST rate

West Australian Premier Colin Barnett is continuing to put pressure on Tony Abbott to increase the GST despite the prime minister having ruled it out.

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Mr Barnett says he continues to believe the rate at which goods and services are taxed should be raised.

“For Western Australia, the key issue is a fairer distribution of the GST,” Mr Barnett told reporters at the opening of a gas plant at Onslow on Friday.

He said there were many weaknesses with the tax, which suffered from online purchases.

“I respect what Tony Abbott says. I hope he respects what I say.”

Privately, other coalition MPs supported an increase, he said.

A higher GST would lead to better living standards, Mr Barnett said.

Opposition treasury spokesman Ben Wyatt said Mr Barnett’s call to Mr Abbott to increase the GST rate came across as an acknowledgment “that he’s not expecting Abbott to provide any balance or change to the way GST is distributed”.

Mr Wyatt said: “Ultimately, there’s only one bargaining position that WA has left: to hold out on any increases in the rate of the GST until the distribution is fixed,” Mr Wyatt told AAP.

“And now he’s just capitulated on that and handed that to Tony Abbott.”

Mr Wyatt said Canberra-bashing was a typical response from an under-pressure Premier, one who is seeking to distract voters from WA’s credit rating downgrade to AA+ this week.

“As soon as he’s under pressure, he attacks Canberra,” Mr Wyatt said.

He said Mr Barnett was panicking, desperately looking for revenue sources, and trying to distract from fierce debate about the credit downgrade.

The Premier also declined to outline the details of any potential asset sales, revealed after the ratings slip.

It’s known that energy and water utilities, port assets and land are all being looked at for sale.

“There will be a significant number of asset sales,” Mr Barnett said.

“I don’t believe they’ll be controversial.”

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Is the Apple zealotry waning?

For years, Apple has instilled in devotees a kind of zealotry previously restricted to the most diehard sports fans.

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Every year they diligently queue for hours in the cold to be among the first to get the company’s latest gizmo.

On Friday morning in Sydney, they queued for new models of the iPhone – the 5S and 5C.

But early signs suggested the retail launch might not garner the same fervour as previous years.

When Apple unveiled the new phones 10 days ago, critics reacted with a shrug at what they saw as marginal advances.

Shares dropped and many said they were not prepared to shell out the asking price.

“Wow, $1,129 for an iPhone 5s here in Australia. That’s simply insane,” tweeted one fan, Bill Hutchison, about the 64GB model, which has a faster processor and a fingerprint sensor.

Early signs from the flagship store in Sydney’s CBD likewise pointed to subdued interest among fans.

Jimmy Gunawan, 33, was surprised when he turned up at midday on Thursday to find himself alone at the front of the queue.

The graphic artist told AAP he turned up around the same time last year for the launch of the iPhone 5 to find at least 20 people already waiting.

But by the time the doors opened at 8am (AEST), about 600 people had joined Gunawan in a line snaking several blocks.

Apple was quick to reassure watchers that the queue wasn’t any smaller than last year’s.

Two long-time Apple fans, Dennis Darocha, 45, and Tibor Csapo, 38, said they had queued several times for Apple products in the past.

They said the line was “about the same” as it has always been.

“I don’t think it’s as exciting as it used to be,” Darocha said.

“But I don’t think it makes that much of a difference. People are still buying their products.”

If anything, they said, Apple was the victim of tall poppy syndrome.

Dr Christine Satchell, a technology expert at Melbourne University and mobile phone designer, wasn’t in the line but downplayed suggestions that fans were less interested than in previous years.

“There is only so much excitement that can actually be generated by a new mobile release,” she said.

The new launch was consistent with Apple’s long-term strategy of unveiling incremental advances that don’t confuse users, she added.

Of the unusual zealotry Apple products inspire, she said it was simple: “They’re sexy and nice to use”.

But one long-time fan left disappointed.

Alan, 28, who didn’t disclose his surname, said he was about 80th in the queue when he arrived at 5am.

But about half an hour before the doors opened he took an ill-timed bathroom break and missed out on one of the claim checks handed out by Apple staff along the queue.

When he returned, he was told he’d have to go to the back.

He walked up York Street, saw the end of the line in the distance, turned, and went home.

Perhaps the zealotry is waning after all.

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US urges UN action, Syria sees stalemate

The US has called for a binding UN resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons next week, as a senior Syrian official said the country’s conflict has reached a stalemate.

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A “definitive” UN report has proved that the Syrian regime was behind an August chemical weapons attack, US Secretary of State John Kerry said.

“Now the test comes. The (UN) Security Council must be prepared to act next week. It is vital for the international community to stand up and speak out,” he added.

Syria’s deputy premier, meanwhile, said Damascus believes the conflict has reached a stalemate and would call for a ceasefire if long-delayed peace talks in Geneva were to take place.

“Neither the armed opposition nor the regime is capable of defeating the other side,” Qadri Jamil told Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

Asked what his government would propose at the stalled Geneva-2 summit, he replied: “An end to external intervention, a ceasefire and the launching of a peaceful political process.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in an interview Wednesday with US television network Fox News, insisted his country was the victim of infiltration by foreign-backed Al-Qaeda fighters.

“What we have is not civil war. What we have is war. It’s a new kind of war,” he said, alleging that Islamist guerrillas from more than 80 countries had joined the fight.

The president’s television appearance came as UN envoys debated a draft resolution that would enshrine a joint US-Russian plan to secure and neutralise his banned chemical weapons.

Assad insisted in the interview that his forces had not been behind an August 21 gas attack on the Damascus suburbs that killed hundreds of civilians, but vowed nevertheless to hand over his deadly arsenal.

After last month’s barrage of sarin-loaded rockets, which the West says was clearly launched by the regime, US President Barack Obama moved to the brink of punitive military strikes.

However, military action was put on hold after an agreement between the US and Russia aimed at neutralising Syria’s chemical stockpile.

That plan will face its first big test on Saturday, the one-week deadline announced by Moscow and the US for Assad to provide a list of his chemical facilities.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday he was confident but not 100 per cent sure that Syria would carry out its commitments.

“Will we manage to carry it through? I can’t say 100 per cent, but all that we have seen recently, in the last few days, inspires confidence that it is possible and that it will be done,” Putin said at a meeting in the Novgorod region.

Meanwhile, Kerry urged China to play a “positive, constructive” role at the UN on the planned resolution.

Away from the diplomatic front, fighters allied to Al-Qaeda tightened their grip Thursday on a town on the border with Turkey.

And a bomb attack on a bus in the central province of Homs killed 14 civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding to the more than 110,000 casualties of the 30-month conflict.

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Palmer on track for parliament seat

Billionaire Clive Palmer is on track to win a seat in federal parliament, as the end of vote-counting in the Queensland seat of Fairfax nears.

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Mr Palmer was 111 votes ahead of his Liberal National Party rival Ted O’Brien on Friday afternoon, with about 570 votes left to count on Saturday morning.

Once the count is finished, the seat’s returning officer will determine whether a recount is needed.

The tourism and minerals magnate has already warned he’ll challenge the result in court if he loses.

Mr Palmer could join four other MPs on the House of Representatives crossbench and may also secure a Palmer United Party senator, former rugby league great Glenn Lazarus, for Queensland.

Two other lower house seats remained close on Friday.

Labor MP Rob Mitchell was 319 votes ahead of the Liberals’ Donna Petrovich in McEwen, with almost 2000 votes left to be counted.

And in the NSW seat of Barton, the Labor candidate Steve McMahon was trailing the Liberals’ Nic Varvaris by 489 votes, with just under 800 votes left to count.

Winners have been formally declared in 22 seats, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Sydney seat of Warringah, with dozens more seats to be declared next week.

The coalition is likely to hold 90 seats to Labor’s 55.

The first Senate results will be finalised next week, starting with Tasmania on Thursday.

The Northern Territory result is also set to be declared early next week.

But other states and territories are not expected to finalise their results until early October.

As counting continued on Friday, Labor was likely to hold two seats in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland, one each in the ACT and the Northern Territory and one in WA and SA.

The coalition was on track for three senators in NSW, Queensland and WA, two in Victoria, Tasmania and SA, and one each in the NT and ACT.

The Australian Greens are likely to retain Senate seats in Tasmania, WA and SA and pick up an extra seat in Victoria.

Other crossbench parties in the Senate could include the Liberal Democrats (NSW), Palmer United Party (Queensland), Nick Xenophon (SA), Family First (SA), Australian Sex Party (Tasmania), Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party (Victoria) and the Australian Sports Party (WA).

But the final result will depend on preference flows.

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Petero to lead Fiji at league World Cup

Former Australian rugby league star Petero Civoniceva was named Friday to lead Fiji at the World Cup starting next month in England and Wales.

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The 21-man squad contains 15 NRL players – including Melbourne’s Sisa Waqa, Wests Tigers winger Marika Koroibete, Cronulla back-rower Jayson Bukuya and the three Sims brothers, Tariq, Ashton and Korbin – as well as two plying their trade in Europe.

Coach Rick Stone said three more players would be added to the squad and confirmed he was in talks with Parramatta’s Jarryd Hayne and dual Australian international Lote Tuqiri.

Tuqiri announced two weeks ago he had signed with top Irish rugby union side Leinster while Hayne will only commit to Fiji if he fails to earn a recall to the Australian side.

Fiji finished fourth in the 2008 World Cup, won by New Zealand, and former Newcastle coach Stone is optimistic his new squad can do better.

“The squad has a lot of experience among them as the majority play their rugby overseas and having Petero in the squad is a real boost going into the World Cup,” he said.

“Most of the players in the Australian and New Zealand squads, our boys play them week in and week out so they know how to play the big boys.”

The Fijian-born Civoniceva, 37, played 45 Tests for Australia, 33 State of Origins for Queensland and 309 NRL games, mainly for Brisbane, before retiring from the top flight late last year but still turning out in the lower-tier Queensland Cup competition.

Fiji squad: Petero Civoniceva, Daryl Millard, Wes Naiqama, Sisa Waqa, Kevin Naiqama, Marika Koroibete, Semi Radradra, Ilisavani Jegesa, Aaron Groom, Apisai Koroisau, James Storer, Alipate Noilea, Kaliova Tani, Tariq Sims, Korbin Sims, Ashton Sims, Kane Evans, Jayson Bukuya, Junior Roqica, Tikiko Noke, Eloni Vunakece

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Injuries hit Australian cycling team

The Australian men’s elite team have the firepower to continue their strong form at the world road cycling championships, despite losing key riders to injury.

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Cadel Evans, the 2009 world champion, and Richie Porte will be the Australian medal hopes on September 29 in the road race.

The hilly course in and around Florence, Italy will suit their strengths.

Evans returned to form earlier this month with a stage win in the Tour of Alberta and Porte has enjoyed a stellar season.

Australia had a rider on the men’s road race podium every year from 2009-2011 and Allan Davis was sixth last year.

Simon Gerrans and Michael Rogers would have been among the first riders selected in the nine-man road race team, but event crashes in the past few weeks put them out of action.

Ironman Adam Hansen, who incredibly has completed the last seven-straight Grand Tours, also ruled himself out of the road race.

Another big name out of the Australian team because of injury is Rachel Neylan, who scored a breakthrough silver medal last year in the women’s road race.

Neylan has finally overcome a persistent knee injury, but lacks race condition.

The absence of Gerrans and Rogers and the retirement of Stuart O’Grady will mean a new-look men’s road race team for the titles.

Shooting star Rohan Dennis has come into the team and will also join Porte in the individual time trial.

Another big change is the men’s team director, with former star Brad McGee making his debut in the national role.

McGee was appointed following the dismissal of Matt White, who confessed late last yeat to doping during his career.

McGee’s role is crucial, as he has to bring together high-profile riders who spend most of the year competing against each other in their professional teams.

“I’m really keen to see how that comes together three years out from the Olympics with Brad at the helm now,” said Cycling Australia high performance director Kevin Tabotta.

“I’m confident Brad will put that together quite well with those guys.”

The main elite women’s chances for Australia will be Shara Gillow, who will also ride the time trial, and Tiffany Cromwell.

Under-23 sensation Caleb Ewan might not be a standout on the hilly course, but Tabotta said he could still be a factor.

“He’s not a kid who you say ‘you can’t do it’,” Tabotta said.

Campbell Flakemore and Damien Howson are rated solid chances in the men’s under-23 time trial and WA rider Robert Power is showing strong form heading into the junior men’s road race.

The championships open on Saturday with the men’s and women’s team time trials.

They are the only two events at the week-long championships that are based on professional, not national, teams.

Orica-GreenEDGE and their women’s team Orica-AIS are solid medal chances.

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No gender quotas in parliament: Goward

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s male-dominated cabinet shows why mandatory gender quotas shouldn’t be imposed, according to NSW Family and Community Services Minister Pru Goward.

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Speaking at a women in leadership luncheon in Sydney on Friday, Ms Goward touched on the criticism directed at Mr Abbott for including only one woman in the coalition government’s new cabinet.

“Let me tell you that, as a minister, you need to be sure that your premier or your prime minister backs you – and you can be sure of that when you know you have been appointed to that job on merit,” Ms Goward said.

The minister, who is under pressure in the NSW parliament over state caseworker numbers, said that the percentage of women in full-time work had barely changed in the past 40 years.

“We have gone from 28 per cent of women in the full-time work force to 36.”

She said this presented one of the biggest challenges to gender equality in the workforce because part-time work does not provide the promotional opportunities and experience needed at a senior executive level.

Rather than enforcing mandatory quotas, Ms Goward wants to boost the number of women in full-time work and their participation in non-traditional jobs including trades.

“So long as women are seen to be employable in only a few occupations and sectors, we will never see women as capable of doing any job that comes up, including leadership jobs,” she argued.

“I certainly don’t think that any woman in the NSW parliament would like to say they were there as a result of a quota, as a result of their gender.”

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