The changing face of Anzac Day

It’s time we stopped patriotic posturing by globe-trotting politicians and returned Anzac Day to its community roots.

Fifty years on: How we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings in 1965. PHOTO Australian War Memorial

Fifty years on: How we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings in 1965. PHOTO Australian War Memorial

Another Anzac Day is almost upon us, with its reminders of ultimate sacrifices on Gallipoli beaches and Flanders fields, and choruses of “we will remember them” and “lest we forget”.

Setting aside the mild irony about our use of these words, taken from patriotic poems written not for Australia but for Mother England, Anzac Day is a serious business. For many Australians, remembering our war dead each April 25 is a solemn and deeply personal matter.

About 60,000 young Australians were killed in four horrific years from 1914 to 1918, equivalent to over 300,000 today as a proportion of the national population. A far greater number were wounded, and an incalculable but undoubtedly huge number of young men came back traumatised.

That enormous casualty count had a devastating impact on lives back home. Farms, towns, regions – the whole country – were deprived of fathers, brothers and sons, stretching human resources to their limit and placing a near-intolerable burden on our women.

We need to acknowledge this, as we need to recognise war anywhere and at any time as a scourge. The best Anzac Day speeches, such as that of the late Tasmanian governor Peter Underwood in 2014, remind us of this undeniable truth.

The solemnity of Anzac Day was what Alan Seymour set out to get across in The One Day of the Year, a play first performed in 1960 looking at how Australians view our big day.

The play’s depiction of drunk veterans was said to show disrespect for the Anzac tradition. Seymour and the theatre companies brave enough to put it on had to endure a bomb threat in Sydney, and in Adelaide to have a police guard at the theatre door.

Opponents missed the point of the play. Far from attacking veterans, it recognises their sacrifices and evokes compassion for them and their families. But it does shine a spotlight on the futility of war and the complexity of our national response to it.

As a boy scout around that time, I marched on one or two occasions with the veterans in our town’s Anzac Day street parade. I had heard stories from an elderly uncle about trench life in France, but they were for a child’s ears. I learned nothing of its horrors.

For me at that time, Anzac Day was a simple affair – a very local event around our town’s cenotaph, in which politicians kept a low profile.

You get the same sense of simplicity from the typewritten list issued by then-prime minister Robert Menzies to mark the 50th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings in 1965 – a landmark Anzac Day by any measure.

Menzies’ program simply listed the main capital city events along with an MP or senator to represent the federal government at each, including a service at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra attended by Menzies himself.

There’s nothing to show whether Menzies made a speech; the website for official prime ministerial statements and speeches has no such record. It’s perfectly possible that he simply laid a wreath, which would fit with my own recollection of Anzac Day in those times.

Except for the odd address to troops on service, prime ministerial speeches at Anzac Day events were almost unheard of until 1990, when Bob Hawke travelled to Gallipoli to mark the 75th anniversary of the Anzac landings there.

That was also the first time a prime minister marked Anzac Day in a foreign land. Two years later, a recently-installed Paul Keating repeated the exercise in Port Moresby, in keeping with Keating’s preferred emphasis on the 1941-45 defence of Australia. He gave no other Anzac Day speeches.

Such restraint went out the window under John Howard. He delivered an Anzac Day speech for all but two of his 12 years as prime minister, mostly in Australia. He also gave Anzac Day speeches in Thailand in 1998, Iraq in 2004 and Gallipoli in 2000 and 2005.

Kevin Rudd gave two long Anzac Day speeches, in 2008 and 2010, both domestic. Julia Gillard spoke in Seoul in 2011 and Tony Abbott at Gallipoli for the 100th anniversary event in 2015.

Whatever else it represents, Anzac Day is now a televised platform for politicians who want to look like a leader. Tonight this will reach a zenith when prime minister Malcolm Turnbull opens the $100 million Sir John Monash Centre near Villers-Bretonneux in France.

As the multi-year centennial extravaganza winds down, we need to ask ourselves, where is all this heading? Other countries lost millions of soldiers on the Western Front, many times more than we did, but Australia alone invests this sort of money in national memorials there.

I feel uneasy about the way our Anzac traditions have been politicised and exported. I vote we refocus our attention back home, back where all this began in our local high streets and cenotaphs. And at our watering holes, with pokies ditched in favour of two-up games. Regulated, of course.

Posted in Australian politics, leadership | Leave a comment

Australia has its own way of throttling science

Malcolm Turnbull’s government is showing us there’s more than one way to kill off scientific research.

Emma Johnston addresses the National Press Club, 14 February 2018. PHOTO Science & Technology Australia

Emma Johnston addresses the National Press Club, 14 February 2018. PHOTO Science & Technology Australia

While rolling back existing US climate measures, Donald Trump’s administration is busily rewriting the science of climate change to match its own version of events.

The Environmental Protection Agency is instructing its employees to emphasise the uncertainty of our knowledge of climate change, a direct contradiction of multiple surveys of climate change science including the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Human influence on the climate system is clear,” says the IPCC. “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.”

At the same time, the EPA is planning to loosen vehicle fuel-efficiency standards introduced as a carbon-cutting measure less than a decade ago.

The Washington Post also reports that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has advised staff not to include information about climate “known to be related to divisive political issues”. For “divisive political issues” read: the science behind human-induced climate change.

And Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has been caught on video apologising to the CEO of a mining company complaining about federal “impediments” to his business. The company is involved in large-scale contamination in the Rocky Mountains with a clean-up bill of tens of millions of dollars.

This is the United States, where politics has been poisoned, I hear you say. Things are not like that in Australia. But is that really so?

Unlike Trump and his cabinet, the Australian government has not directly confronted scientists. But over the past five years funding for science has steadily declined, and since last December it has not been represented in the Turnbull cabinet.

In 2015 the new Turnbull government recognised a “critical” role for science in delivering new sources of growth and economic prosperity. Yet in that same year its own spending on science told a different story: 0.04% of the federal budget – third last among the world’s 18 richest countries.

Australia’s overall research spending record is at best mediocre. Latest OECD figures (for 2016) show that from a high of 2.25 per cent of gross domestic spending in 2008 it had dropped to less than 1.9 per cent, well below the OECD average of 2.4 per cent.

Then there’s the cabinet table. Science had had cabinet representation for 87 years in a row until Tony Abbott removed it from the list of portfolio responsibilities in September 2013.

It was back in cabinet when Ian Macfarlane became science minister in December 2014, followed by Christopher Pyne, Greg Hunt and from January last year Senator Arthur Sinodinos. But when Sinodinos took sick leave nine months later, the wheels again started to come off.

A pre-Christmas cabinet reshuffle saw science removed from cabinet titles. Its only formal mention now is in the title of a junior (non-cabinet) minister, Senator Zed Seselja. The claim of his boss, Senator Michaelia Cash, that she was “the minister responsible for science” has no formal basis.

If the government really believes its own message about science’s critical role, this is a very strange way of dealing with it.

Science and Technology Australia represents 70,000 Australian professionals working across all scientific disciplines. During parliamentary sittings each year since 1999 it has organised a “science meets parliament” event at Parliament House, Canberra.

At this year’s event STA president Emma Johnston told a National Press Club audience, including Seselja, that Australian scientists saw “the future that is barrelling towards us” and were gravely concerned: “We know the heat is rising, and like many of you, we wake in fright.”

Johnson warned that a strong, independent Australia depended on science. She called for a whole-of-government plan for long-term investment in “a world-class research infrastructure”, and for policy-makers and decision-takers to understand what it really takes to succeed in research.

Big breakthroughs happen on the back of decades of research and development, she said. Science investment and job security has been hit by “short-termism” in government: “Australia needs a powerful and secure Minister for Science to rise above the short-termism and instability.”

Whatever Seselja thought about Johnson’s pointed criticism of government, including his own, wasn’t recorded, but it wouldn’t have mattered much. We can’t expect this most junior of ministers to have any impact on a cabinet that has so consistently rejected and devalued scientific advice.

Donald Trump’s administration openly defies science. Malcolm Turnbull and his ministers, who don’t like being a target, do their damage through neglect. But the effect is much the same.

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A scientist warns of ‘unthinkable’ disaster

In the face of unfolding calamity, politicians continue to play games with coal power.

Tony Abbott shares a moment with Kevin Andrews. PHOTO ABC

Tony Abbott shares a moment with Kevin Andrews. PHOTO ABC

Every so often I reach a personal tipping point. It happens when I encounter one too many of those blithe ministerial statements on another motorway extension, or think-tank arguments for more corporate freedom, or company proposals for yet another extractive venture.

At times like these I dip into the sobering world of people like Andrew Glikson. You could say Glikson is an Australian version of James Hansen, who has been warning US politicians since the 1980s that they ignore emissions from burning oil and coal at everyone’s peril.

Except that Glikson, a senior earth and climate scientist at the Australian National University, is very much his own person, on a professional and personal quest to investigate Earth’s climate and alert people – students, politicians and anyone else prepared to listen – of its parlous state.

Tipping points on a planetary scale concern Glikson a lot. In 2015 he warned the level of carbon in the atmosphere was rising at an unprecedented rate. The increase of 3.05 parts per million in 2015 was over three times the increase in 1959 and faster than any observed in the geological record.

The rapid accumulation of atmospheric carbon is driving an equally rapid increase in global warming. Scientists accused of being “warmist”, says Glikson, feel obliged to underestimate the consequences of this, because “many cannot bring themselves to look at the unthinkable”.

He says their caution – Hansen called it “dangerous scientific reticence”– has led the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to repeatedly underestimate rates of future continental ice sheet melting, permafrost melting, methane release, sea level rises and wildfire occurrence.

Rising emissions pushing the temperature up 1.2C (1.5C over the continents) since 1880 have put us in uncharted territory. Glikson warns that past climates have shown that once a temperature threshold is breached, amplifying feedbacks can trigger sudden, devastating events.

Last February, normally the Arctic’s coldest time of the year, temperatures reached about 20°C above average. Northern Greenland saw its yearly average of hours above freezing more than trebled within a few days. And sea ice began to shrink at a time when it should be growing.

Glikson has identified many Arctic tipping points, including a rapidly warming, increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean; a fast-rising rate of methane release from Arctic permafrost; and accelerated melting of Greenland’s ice-sheet creating a pool of cold Atlantic surface water. That in turn cools Europe and North America, opening a door for icy blasts like the recent “beast from the east”.

The global reinsurance giant Munich Re has another indicator. It reports that over decades up to the early 1980s, extreme events (the insurance industry calls them “loss events”, for obvious reasons) were typically below 400 per year globally. Since 2015 they have topped 1000 a year.

Things seem to be reaching some sort of crescendo in the United States. Its disaster relief spending just for last year – a total of $306.2 billion – was about the same as the country had previously spent over three decades, from 1980 to 2010 (CPI-adjusted).

While the incidence of fire and flood in Australia is apparently on the rise and wildfire seasons are lengthening, signals here are not quite as clear-cut – until you take a look at our coastal seas.

Warming waters are putting the Great Barrier Reef under threat as never before. South-eastern Australian and especially Tasmanian waters are already near or at crisis point. Aquaculture losses are bad; loss of vast areas of coastal kelp forest to invading warm-water species is much worse.

Glikson, Hansen and many other eminent scientists around the world have been warning for decades of the reality of dangerous climate change. Peer-reviewed studies have consistently found that above 95 per cent of practising climate scientists share their concerns.

Confronted by overwhelming evidence of unfolding calamity, last month Glikson lamented the “wilful ignorance” of powerful political figures “in promoting carbon emissions and allowing the devastation of large parts of the habitable biosphere”.

Among federal politicians this month, wilful ignorance has turned into high farce. A new conservative faction has emerged calling itself the “Monash Forum” on the presumption that World War I hero John Monash would today have supported a new public-funded coal power plant.

Aside from the absurd claim about Monash – supporting brown coal power as he did in the 1920s is a world away from doing the same 100 years later – this is also a slap-down of science’s finding  that greenhouse pollution is a clear and present danger to life on Earth.

Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews, Barnaby Joyce, George Christensen, Craig Kelly and other MPs have determined that they, with no scientific training, know better than those who have dedicated their lives to understanding planetary processes.

They are like little boys playing games with deadly weapons. We need that like a hole in the head.

Posted in Arctic, Australian politics, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, climate politics, climate sensitivity, climate system, coal-fired, contrarians, extreme events, extreme events, future climate, mining, palaeoclimatology, science, temperature | Leave a comment