Bogong moths and Greens in Canberra


The state apparatus tries to kill moths but wipes out birdlife instead

Bob Gould

The Bogong moth is a fat, substantial, nourishing, flying insect that swarms every spring in many parts of eastern Australia, particularly on a massive scale in the high plains around the inland capital, Canberra.

Australian Aboriginal tribes, particularly in southern NSW and the Victorian alps, used to regard the moths as a particularly nutritious delicacy, and for hundreds of years they held an annual regional gathering of tribes near Canberra, where they combined cultural interaction with feasting on the moths, which have a nutty taste when roasted.

As most Australians know (with the exception of Keith Windschuttle and a few others) the Aboriginal tribes around Canberra were largely wiped out in the course of white settlement, and the other tribes that used to attend this important cultural event were vastly depleted, so it ceased.

The natural ecological balance between the Bogong moths and the human species was disrupted, and they are now regarded as a bit of a pest in Canberra when swarming.

The Australian ruling class, via the mechanism of the state in Canberra, apparently decided that the swarming of the moths would be an embarrassment during the visit of the US imperial ruler, Bush, and the Stalinist leader from China.

A discrete but, we are now told massive, program of extermination with dangerous insecticides was used in an attempt to kill the moths.

Well, I can tell you from my own experience and that of the thousands of other demonstrators who marched around Canberra against the visit of the reactionary leaders, the spraying of the moths wasn’t particularly effective. The vast clouds of Bogongs around Canberra’s dusty spring hillsides gave the demonstration a nice Canberra feel.

Apparently, however, dangerous insecticides being what they are, the spraying was very effective against Canberra’s birds. The currawong is a medium-sized native bird a bit like a magpie or a crow, mostly black with a bit of white under the wings. Around Canberra it actually competes for the same ecological niche as magpies. New Parliament House in Canberra is designed to blend into the landscape and is actually built into a hill, according to Walter Burley Griffin’s original occult plan for the city. For many years the currawongs and the magpies have been a pleasant feature of the Parliament House, often being fed on the lawns by civil servants at lunchtime.

Hundreds of currawongs have now turned up around Parliament House and indeed all over Canberra, dead from the insecticides, and the magpies, wise birds that they are, have disappeared from the environs of Parliament House.

There’s some dispute as to whether the currawongs were killed directly by the insecticide, or whether they ate some of the moths carrying the insecticide in their systems. The centrist Democrats in the Australian Senate have become very angry about this mad poisoning of the environment, and are making a considerable fuss about the question. More power to their elbow!

Meanwhile, in the absence of the vanished Canberra Aboriginal tribes, the Bogong moths still swarm in plague proportions, despite the insecticides. Some adventurous Canberra residents still catch and eat Bogongs, much as the Aborigines did. I’d advise them to lay off the Bogongs for a while, because of the insecticides.

Laborites defend Greens’ right to protest in the Senate

A small but important debate played out in the Australian Senate this week.

As the immense popularity of the Greens’ parliamentary protest against Bush became apparent across Australia, it obviously set the smarter minds in the Labor Party thinking about future electoral and governmental perspectives.

The two shrewdest minds in the parliamentary Labor Party are both in the Senate. John Faulkner, the Labor leader in the Senate, is a major left faction leader. Robert Ray, his deputy, is the leader of the Victorian right, and is regarded by all as a most accomplished ALP factional operator and headkicker.

Obviously both these men are trying to come to terms with the possibility of a Labor electoral victory, with the Greens dramatically increasing their vote. This has two aspects. To win government, Labor needs Green preferences. Secondly, a Labor victory in this framework, with Green preferences, will deliver to the Greens the pretty well total balance of power in the Senate.

The following speeches by John Faulkner and Robert Ray, give some insight into their current thinking. You can almost hear their minds, particularly that of Robert Ray, ticking over as they grapple with both the dangers and the possibilities, for them, implicit in the forward march of the Green monster.

The Senate, October 28, 2003

Senator BRANDIS (Extreme right-wing Liberal): “And I intend to continue to call to the attention of the Australian people the extremely alarming, frightening similarities between the methods employed by contemporary green politics and the methods and the values of the Nazis.”

Senator FAULKNER (NSW Leader of the Opposition in the Senate): I listened enraptured to Senator Brandis’s contribution. What a wonderfully pretentious speech that was. All the Rumpolian rhetoric was rolled out by Senator Brandis. There was all this overblown self-importance, so pompous, so bombastic. There was an argument made for 20 minutes that Senator Brown and Senator Nettle are not representatives of the Australian Greens in the chamber but really, underneath it all, they are Nazis. That is what we have heard from Senator Brandis. it is not of concern to the government to provide a soapbox to the Australian Greens senators. What Senator Brandis was about was his own soapbox. We have had 20 minutes from him of his rather creative and eccentric analysis of the political position of the Australian Greens.

Senator Andrew BARTLETT, Democrat (whose party looks like being wiped out by the Greens):

“What the Senate is probably in danger of here today from Senator Brown’s opening comments and Senator Brandis’s even more ferocious rejoinder is both sides saying they are standing up to fight to defend the integrity of the parliament and, in doing so, throwing so much mud at each other that the entire parliament looks even sadder and sorrier than it did at the start of the debate. The Democrats do not want to enter into that whole scenario.”

Senator Robert RAY, Labor: “You mongrel umpire, let them fight! That is my attitude today: let the Greens and Liberals fight it out. What, really, has this got to do with the opposition? There are some more substantial issues that we should address. The first one is: why wasn’t this motion declared formal and voted on in the normal way? Because the Liberal and National coalition got a bit self-indulgent today. Their more gung-ho characters said, “We really want to come in here and get stuck into the Greens. Therefore we’ll declare it not formal and we’ll have a fully-fledged debate.” “A lot of people here today have criticised the Greens’ behaviour. They have implied that minority groups and the Greens are opportunists. So they are, so what? They are good opportunists. They like publicity. Senator Brown has never found a bad microphone yet — and good on him. That is one of the skills of politics. It is not a skill I have, but it is a skill he has, and that is greatly resented by those opposite for some particular reason. The fact is that what happened last time will happen next time. We will hear all the bleats from those over there.

The 110 year old Bulletin, which incorporates the Australian edition of Newsweek, had as its cover story this week, an article about the Australian Greens and its leader, Bob Brown. Below are some extracts.

You’ll scream, you’ll die of fright! Bob Brown is the Green Monster

He saved the Franklin. He took on the US President. Why everyone’s afraid of the Greens.

By Tony Wright

It was a defining moment in Australian politics, a simple plea to the president of the planet’s most powerful country: hands off our citizens. Enter Bob Brown, Green champion and now the de facto opposition leader.

As Bob Brown waited for his plane out of Canberra last Friday night, he found himself shunned in the crowded airport lounge reserved for politicians and senior public servants. MPs from both major parties, seething at his antics the previous day when he interrupted US President George W. Bush’s speech in parliament and then threatened to disrupt Chinese President Hu Jintao’s appearance in the same forum, had sent him to Coventry. There was a seat or two beside him but no one would take them. He was poison. Then some wag called out: “Hey Roscoe, why don’t you sit beside Mr. Green over there?”

Roscoe turned out to be Ross Lightfoot, the right-wing Liberal Senator from Western Australia who had managed to get an elbow into Brown’s solar plexus during the brief melee that erupted as Bush left the House of Representatives. And so two politicians who might have come from different planets found themselves perched side by side, politely ignoring each other, while colleagues all around sniggered and muttered into their gin and tonics.

Shortly after, as Brown settled into his allotted pew right down the back of a jet heading to Melbourne, a steward called out to him, loud enough for all the other passengers to hear: “Terrific, Bob Brown, well done, you’re standing up for us.” A fellow steward chimed in, chuckling indulgently: “Oh, you mustn’t say that; he’s been a bad boy.”

When the plane landed at Melbourne airport, five or six young men from a sporting team spotted Brown as he walked into the gate lounge. “Good on yer, Bob,” they chorused. A large section of the crowd in the lounge suddenly began applauding.

“It has never been like this, not even during the Franklin,” Brown says, referring to the heady years of the early 1980s when he led the fight to save Tasmania’s Franklin River. During the weekend in his home state of Tasmania, Brown, along with the leader of the Tasmanian Greens, Christine Milne, wandered into Hobart’s popular Retro Cafe in Salamanca Place. The crowd rose, cheering and clapping. A similar reaction followed him through the streets. Even a Hobart petrol-station owner filling Brown’s tank told him she was a Democrat who moved in conservative circles but she now supported him. “In the old days, someone would be sure to kick you in the shins as well,” he says. “It’s not like that this time.”

Up to a point. Plenty of talkback radio callers would clearly love to give Brown a kick in the shins and a bit more besides. Letters-to-the-editor pages have been crammed with correspondence that veers from reverence to hatred. Newspaper columnists have damned his behaviour during Bush’s speech as boorish, juvenile, cynical and opportunistic. Commentators have accused Brown of being “all care and no responsibility” and have speculated that he could have put at risk billions of trade dollars if he had managed to personally affront Hu. Democrats leader Andrew Bartlett has been quoted as calling Brown “a sanctimonious prick”. Brown himself admits there have been a couple of anonymous death threats among the calls that have jammed his phone lines.

He seems unconcerned. This is, after all, a man who during his environmental battles in Tasmania was shot at, jailed and roughed up by experts. Years ago, as a young medical intern in Canberra, having admitted to himself that he was gay, he spent a long night staring at the waters of Lake Burley Griffin, finding their dark depths too easily inviting and choosing instead to live as he was made.

Besides, he is quite sure that within all the babble — and beyond Canberra’s cloisters there are plenty of new recruits for the Green vote. Oscar Wilde might have been speaking for the leader of a minor party on the make when he quipped that the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about. Brown’s take on the matter is simpler. “My experience is that the public supports human rights more than good manners,” he told The Bulletin.

Brown’s adviser, Ben Oquist, says his office has been deluged by emails: almost 3000 had been received by Saturday, the phone had been ringing off the hook and the fax machine had kept running out of paper. About 80 per cent of these contacts had been positive. “The same thing is being reported from Greens offices all around the country,” he says.

If this is so, the consequences for the Greens and the major parties — and in particular, Labor — at next year’s election could be profound. There have not been many galvanising moments in Australian politics in recent years.

Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech to parliament in 1996, when she spoke of Australia being swamped by Asians, was one. John Howard’s declaration during the 2001 election that “we will decide who comes to Australia, and the circumstances in which they come”, was another. Both these events polarised public opinion, and both were seriously detrimental to the electoral fortunes of the ALP: Hanson stripped large numbers of traditional working-class Australians from Labor, and Howard grabbed them from Hanson.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Bob Brown’s Greens have been quietly burrowing into Labor’s environmental and social justice left support base for several years. Until now, it has been done without the flash of a galvanising moment.

A couple of weeks ago, the Newspoll published by The Australian found that primary support for the Coalition had dipped significantly. Normally, this would mean Labor’s vote had gone up. It hadn’t; it had fallen a percentage point. The leakage in major party support had flowed to the Greens, whose support had grown to 8 per cent, making it by far the most consequential minor party in the country. Commentators some years ago were near meltdown when Hanson’s One Nation achieved a similar figure.

Much was made of the Newspoll finding that Labor had gained a winning position over the government on a two-party preferred basis. But this is not as clear as it may appear. Newspoll uses the last election to assume how preferences might flow; about 75 per cent of Greens preferences have in the past gone to Labor, bolstering the ALP’s final position. But with the near demise of the Democrats since that election and the potential for a more disparate array of voters to start voting Green, this is no longer quite so assured. And what if Green candidates actually start winning some inner-city seats from Labor?

Indeed, when Michael Organ won the NSW south coast seat of Cunningham for the Greens in a by-election last year — a seat previously held by Labor for 50 years — he became the first member of a minor party to enter the House of Representatives since World War II (Hanson helped create, and became leader of, One Nation after being elected but she originally stood for her seat as a disendorsed Liberal).

In the late 1990s, after West Australian Senator Dee Margetts bowed out, Brown was the only Green in federal parliament.

Early this month, when the Australian Greens held their national conference in Canberra, a dinner was held at a restaurant called the Bamboo Hut for Green parliamentarians and their staff members. More than 40 people attended, and 17 were MPs: three from federal parliament, five from Western Australia, four from Tasmania, three from NSW and one each from South Australia and the ACT.

According to Oquist, membership of the Australian Greens has risen from about 2000 to 7000 in just two years.

Several decisions were taken during the national conference — almost entirely unreported — that are likely to transform the Greens into a more professional and organised political force as the next federal election approaches. The WA Greens decided to abandon their independence and join the central body, and the various state groups chose to throw in their lot — and their money — to establish a national election campaign committee. It is likely there will be about $1million initially available for the campaign, part of which will be used to setup an internet Vote Green website.

The website may seem a mundane enough initiative — everyone has one these days — but it is likely to be the key to much more money and slicker organisation. The Greens have had their own people in the US studying the extraordinary use of the internet by the Democrat presidential candidate Howard Dean, who has pioneered email and other high-tech systems to raise tens of millions of dollars — often over the space of a few days — for his campaign. The Greens are putting the finishing touches to their plans to transpose Dean’s techniques to Australian conditions, not just to raise money but to organise volunteers and campaigns in every seat in the country. Major targets will be inner-city seats held by left-wing ALP members.

The decision by Brown, then, to confront Bush can be analysed not simply as a theatrical gesture by an ideologically driven politician, but a moment designed to galvanise part of the electorate in the interests of a party itself in the process of metamorphosis. When The Bulletin suggested to Brown that some critics believe he should adhere to the agenda that made his name — the environment — he became annoyed. “People who say things like that would love us to stick with the trees because it would marginalise us. If I was just about the environment I would have stuck with the Wilderness Society. The single-issue tag went when we took our stand over the Tampa. The Greens core issues globally are social justice, democracy, peace and the environment.”

The back-to-back appearances in the Australian parliament of the world’s two most powerful men — Bush from the West, Hu from the East — were the most momentous two days in Australia for years, at least in symbolic terms related to Australia’s place in the world. Brown and the Greens are antipathetic to both leaders. They see US-style capitalism as rapacious to the environment, unsympathetic to social justice and reliant on war as a diplomatic tool. They regard the Chinese government as a dictatorship that has carried out near-genocidal activities against Tibetans and imprisons thousands of its own citizens as a hammer against any form of dissidence.

Brown, searching for a suitable subject with which to make a point to Bush, settled on the issue of the US holding two Australian citizens — David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib — after the ABC’S Four Corners program screened the BBC investigation of the treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay. It was extremely high risk — there is little sympathy in Australia for either man. Hicks fought for the Taliban and Habib is suspected of being a terrorist sympathiser.

Brown simplified the message to its barest bones: Australia should deal with its own citizens, not the US. He says he did not know if he would have the nerve to interrupt Bush’s speech to make this point until the moment he did it. “My heart felt as if it was going to burst,” he said. The impact was instantaneous, even if Brown’s words were indecipherable.

The agonised efforts of some Labor MPs to protest against Bush — some wore peace badges, one wore a white armband, some refused to applaud, some sat while others stood, an antiwar letter was handed over to Bush’s National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice — were overshadowed immediately. Simon Crean had made a sophisticated speech stating Labor’s view of the Australian-American relationship, papering over the glum divisions in the ranks behind him. His speech would disappear into thin air.

John Howard, having been told for the second time by the world’s most powerful man that he was a “man of steel’; looked as if he had been bit with a crowbar. Howard soon rallied with an improvised wedge, introducing Bush to the Labor frontbench to force handshakes all around, and calling Kim Beazley down from the backbench to introduce him to the president, as if Beazley not Crean, was the leader.

Brown’s colleague, NSW Senator Kerry Nettle, overplayed the moment by also interrupting Bush with an inane plea to save Australia’s farmers and pensioners from a free-trade agreement, but it hardly mattered. Brown had stolen the day, and he and Nettle would be saved from doing it all over again with Hu (while broadcasting their views anyway) when they were banned from the House for 24 hours.

Hardly surprising that Brown found himself in Coventry in the airport VIP lounge; the MPs from the major parties knew what he had done. Oquist explained it perfectly later. “We’re a party on 8 per cent,” he said. “If we’ ve got half the country supporting us and half against us, we’re doing pretty well.” With an election no more than a year away, it is hardly surprising the power of a simple message from a party that will never be inconvenienced by the complexities of governing causes dread in a VIP lounge when it can win a standing ovation in a trendy cafe.



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