2014 university fee deregulation in review

Published in Hijacked on December 15 2014.

Hurrah, the parliamentary year has come to a close. But for those of you who switched off months ago in disgust or, much more likely, apathetic ambivalence, what are the main things you need to know about the year 2014 in Aussie politics?

2014 picked up where it left off and ended in a place all too familiar for anyone who tuned in to previous instalments of the farcical sitcom that our federal politics has become. A government unable to win public support or votes in the senate for key pillars of its policy platform, and a besieged Prime Minister slipping in the polls as leadership speculation begins on cue.

Meanwhile we said goodbye to a carbon tax and hello to a tough love budget that still refuses to completely go away. A senator of the rogue PUP decided to go rogue herself and proclaim independence, and debt was the buzzword of the year. But how exactly did students fare?

Fee deregulation’ are the two words that come to mind, and even if you lived under a rock, or had engineering contact hours, say, you would’ve heard of it. Whether you were hassled by the Socialist Alternative, stampeded by the student marches that swept the country in May, or even just turned on Q&A at the wrong moment, it was a topic that couldn’t be avoided.

The reforms threatened to remove the cap on tuition fees and allow the market forces of supply and demand to dictate what a student pays for their higher education. Fees could double, triple, and a degree could even hit six figures.

But while students labelled the proposals catastrophic, ultimately the debate was divided; removing the shackles to promote innovation within a stunted university sector, or simply a death sentence to fair and equal access to an education. Either side could point at the US for back-up, citing colossal student debt on one hand, or the world class quality of Ivy League schools on the other.

But regardless, Clive Palmer saved the day or played the villain, waking up one morning, shaking his magic eight ball, and deciding that perhaps this fee deregulation thing wasn’t too great, and another opportunity to stick it to Lord Tone was far too good to turn up. The changes were eventually voted down by the senate 33-31.

Like a turd that refuses to be flushed, however, old mate Pyne has promised a Round Two, but how he will ensure the sequel is a 22 Jump Street and not a Horrible Bosses 2 remains to be seen. What is known for sure though is a lot more than texting, chocolates, and red roses will be needed to bring Glenn Lazarus and other crossbenchers to the table next year.

Most likely some other changes will have to be dropped from the package to make the reforms more palatable, including the increase of the HECS repayment interest by coupling it to the 10 year government bond rate or cuts to funding. Otherwise Pyne will have to offer reluctant crossbenchers much more bang for their buck than carrots like the eleventh hour $400m Tasmanian higher education package.

Nevertheless, university students certainly found their voice this year, from forcing Abbott to cancel a visit to Deakin University to bringing the Melbourne CBD to a standstill. And although the extent to which the protests influenced Capitol Hill is debatable, Pyne is in for another grubbing if Round Two commences as promised.

Dispatch from the Public Hearing Into Children in Australia’s Detention Centres

Published in VICE on August 25 2014.

The audience was tense. Parliament House security were on guard outside Committee Room 2R1 and threatened to confiscate cameras or expel anyone who tried to take a photo. We were ordered to turn off our electronic devices—a futile demand to a room full of journalists and keen observers, all determined to record and tweet the fourth and hotly anticipated public hearing into children in Australia’s detention centres.

The president of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), Gillian Triggs, sat on one side of the hearing room and the Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, on the other. Their tables formed a square like a boxing ring between them. Morrison, in the blue corner, began his opening statement as expected. He called the commission’s attention to the alarming number of children placed in detention during the years of the previous Rudd/Gillard government.

“This is an inquiry into children in detention as you have stated. However, it could be more accurately described as an inquiry into children Labor put in detention,” said Morrison. “The predominant reason why there are children in detention today is because they arrived on boats under Labor.”

Gillian Triggs before the hearing.

Until Friday’s hearing, the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention had proved a PR nightmare for the current government, which has gone to great lengths to prevent the Australian public from knowing about asylum seeker arrivals and treatment. Then Morrison was summoned to appear. It’s not every day that a high profile minister is sworn to oath in such a public setting: a world away from the controlled press conferences held during Operation Sovereign Borders.

Earlier in the week, Morrison had announced a surprising policy development: 150 children and their families currently detained inside Australia’s mainland detention centres will soon be released into the community on bridging visas. It is questionable whether this decision represents a genuine, long-term softening of the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy or a tactical move to bolster its defence against the inquiry. Either way, refugee advocates have since criticised the policy’s exclusion of children held offshore on Christmas Island and Nauru, and the policy’s arbitrary restriction to children under the age of ten who arrived before July 2013.

The first three AHRC inquiries had already heard damaging accounts from witnesses, including a pregnant asylum seeker who decided to have an abortion instead of raising her child in detention centre conditions on Nauru. The former director of a mental health service provider to detention centres also alleged the Immigration Department was covering up the extensive mental trauma of children in detention.

Scott Morrison speaking to press.

These human rights violations were less of a concern on Friday, where the main question hounded by Triggs and assisting counsel Naomi Sharp was whether the detainment of children is purposefully being used as a deterrent to future refugees considering seeking asylum in Australia. This sticking point led to one of the more fiery exchanges between Triggs and Morrison, as the former tried to stop the minister from dancing around the question.

“Children being detained in facilities has been a consequence of the policies that more broadly have been effective in securing Australia’s borders, ensuring the integrity of our immigration program, and stopping children dying at sea,” said Morrison diplomatically. “Then I’ll take that as a yes,” replied Triggs. Morrison’s temper flared. “Madam president, I don’t think it is reasonable to put words in my mouth. I have said what I’ve said, and I’m happy for what I’ve said to be on the record as being my response.”

Diplomatic politispeak was a common theme of Morrison’s appearance. Fewer boats have arrived since the Coalition took office, which means that children in detention are, in a way, just collateral damage from policies that have achieved the government’s desired end. “The results speak for themselves,” said Morrison.

Inside the hearing.

Then came the most heated moment of the hearing, when Triggs labelled detention centres as prisons. “On any analysis, it is locked detention or a prison, whatever word…” she began, before Morrison took the offensive and attacked with some questions of his own. “You would have been in many prisons, so are you telling me that the Phosphate Hill compound on Christmas Island is the same as Long Bay jail?” he asked. “I have been a practising lawyer since I was 22 years old, and I have been to many prisons. I know a prison when I see it,” quipped Triggs.

Other interesting moments included when Triggs pointed out that it takes on 20 minutes to access refugee statuses while on ships, but takes 12 months when you’re the Immigration Department. But even these fiery exchanges were only as expected. And except for the occasional projector slide of statistics that threw Morrison off guard for a few seconds, and a couple of objections from the crowd to his use of the word “illegal”, the inquiry went to script.

Overall, Morrison said the government was stopping the boats and threw blame at the Labor party and Greens. Ultimately, the public didn’t hear much it hadn’t already learned before. After his hour in the boxing ring, Morrison left Committee Room 2R1, fended off questions from the awaiting mob like usual, and walked away looking smug.

Dredging through the Great Barrier Reef debate

Published in Hijacked on March 15 2014.

The Great Barrier Reef has been a hot topic in the media due to a dredging saga that some claim is the beginning of the end for one of our greatest national treasures and tourist attractions. Depending on who you listen to, this claim is bang on the money or a merely unfounded exaggeration.

This divisive issue is the result of nine mega coalmines planned for the Galilee Basin in western Queensland which, if approved, would single-handedly double Australia’s coal output. Mining magnates Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer – surprise surprise! – both have a stake. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and where there’s money to be mined there’s probably Gina and Clive (coming soon toNetflix).

Just as important as mining the coal, however, is the infrastructure required to export it, which includes ports. And guess which coastline is closest to the Galilee Basin? This is where the Great Barrier Reef comes in. It’s unfortunately geographically caught between Australia’s next mining venture and the ravenous global resource market.

The major port of interest is at Abbot Point, which is right next to the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. There’s already one terminal at Abbot Point but in December federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt approved the addition of three extra terminals. This will increase the number of ship berths from two to eight to accommodate all the extra coal output from the Galilee Basin.

The most obvious environmental impact of the port’s expansion is the increased shipping traffic that it will lead to through this world heritage area. Yet an even more controversial side-effect is the dredging required to construct the new terminals.

What even is dredging?

It’s hard to deny the negative and emotive connotations of the word ‘dredging’. At first glance, it’s an ugly word that jumps out from headlines and conjures up thoughts of the industrial and the dirty. The word dredging is hardly an activity that many want associated with one of the seven natural wonders of the world. But what exactly does it mean?

Dredging is the removal of sediment from the bottom of bodies of water to maintain or increase the depth of channels or berthing areas for ships. In the Great Barrier Reef, dredging will remove debris from the seabed to create a suitable depth for coal ships to approach the shore and berth at the Abbot Point port, so they can pick up their precious cargo.

Removing the sediment isn’t really the issue: the debate really centres on where it should be disposed. As a major shock to many environmentalists in January, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) approved the dumping of this dredge soil in the boundaries of the protected marine park.

This approval is contingent on 47 strict conditions, including confining the disposal to an area free of coral and seagrass beds around 40km from the nearest offshore reef. Disposal will also be restricted to a four-month window outside of any coral spawning and seagrass growth periods, and can be halted at any time if unexpected oceanic conditions cause adverse effects.

GBRMPA Chairman Russell Reichelt recently defended the authority’s decision in The Conversation and tried to act all Mythbusters on comments that it will lead to toxic sludge or slag waste. “The reality is that disposal of dredge material of this type in the Marine Park is not new. It has occurred off nearly all major regional centres along the reef’s coastline before now,” says Reichelt.

“The material itself in Abbot Bay is about 60 per cent sand and 40 per cent silt and clay, which is similar to what you would see if you dug up the site where the material is to be relocated. In addition, testing by accredited laboratories shows the material is not toxic, and is therefore suitable for ocean disposal,” he says.

Unsurprisingly, Reichelt and the GBRMPA’s decision is still sparking outrage from environmentalists both domestically and abroad. In late January, 233 scientists lobbied the GBRMPA to reject the proposal by co-writing a letter to Riechelt that clearly stated their objection to threatening the reef with dredge disposal.

“The best available science makes it very clear that expansion of the port at Abbot Point will have detrimental effects on the Great Barrier Reef. Sediment from dredging can smother corals and seagrasses and expose them to poisons and elevated nutrients,” reads the letter.

One of the letter’s signatories, University of Queensland scientist Selina Ward, told 3AW that 3D modelling and recent research of Gladstone Harbour show that dredging soil is a threat to ecosystems outside of its immediate vicinity. “When you place a large amount of sediment in the water like this, it’s not going to sit still. It’s very likely that it will move considerable distances,” she said. According to Greenpeace spokeswoman Loiuse Matthieson, these “muddy plumes” can spread as far as 80km from the original dumping site.

Remarkably, this was the same concern raised by the GBRMPA last year in documents obtained by an FOI request by Greenpeace. The uncovered executive draft assessment indicates substantial internal concern that dredging disposal would be a major threat to the fragile reef.

“The GBRMPA believes that the proposal in its current form should be refused a Great Barrier Reef Marine Park permit…The proposal to dredge and dispose of up to 1.6 million cubic metres of sediment per year…has the potential to cause long-term, irreversible harm,” reads the draft assessment.

In particular, the GBRMPA highlighted the “sub-standard and possibly under representative modelling” used to predict the area affected by suspended sediments. In their eyes (at least at the time) there was a gross underestimate on the dredging’s effects that failed to take into account the degree to which suspended sediment might disperse. According to Reichelt, these views were only a working draft that did not take into the “strictest conditions that we have ever imposed on such a project”, without which the project would have most likely been declined.

Interestingly, the draft assessment also proposed an alternative to dredging: lengthening the port’s trestles. This would basically make the pier longer so ships can berth further out to sea, where the water level is already naturally deeper and thus the reef requires minimal dredging or none at all.

Jon Brodie, a Senior Principal Research Officer at James Cook University, supports disposing the sediment behind a retaining barrier called a ‘bund wall’. Even Greg Hunt, in his initial announcement of the Abbot Point expansion, highlighted the importance of using the material not for dumping but land infill and land reclamation disposal although, following the GBRMPA’s approval, the government jumped on board.

The disposal of dredging soil in the GBR may damage the ecosystem or it may have no effect at all. The science is, at best, debatable. What is outrageous is that an authority would experiment with risky industrial processes with unforeseeable impacts that may irreparably damage a reef that it’s supposed to protect… especially when there are known alternatives available.

Until the science is clear, a line needs to be drawn on the sands of the coral sea in Queensland. Don’t mess with our reef.