I visited the Townsville campus of James Cook University on Tuesday, meeting with the Vice-Chancellor and also with office bearers of the Student Union. The continual dramatic evolution of the university sector is undoubtedly going to continue. One issue which I wasn’t aware of that is causing some budgetary concerns has been an unexpected decline in the growth of overseas student numbers. It’s not clear if that will continue or not, but it will certainly require some significant adjustments if it does.
The Student Union on Townsville campus is a relatively rare example of a student association that supports the Government’s Voluntary Student Unionism plans. We acknowledged our differing positions, but I was still interested in their perspective on what services may be affected. Townsville is a fairly large campus and has a refectory and bar that is currently fairly profitable, which could give them more flexibility than smaller campuses. It’s fair to say it is unclear what services may be affected – my biggest concern with all campuses is that immediate personal support services such as legal, financial, accommodation and counselling help may reduce. I think the most crucial role is assisting and representing students having trouble with the University for some reason or other, which is a task a University itself cannot reasonably fulfil.
I also met with the local Conservation Council. They won’t be directly affected much by the federal Government’s punitive cutting of grants to environmental advocacy groups, as they already receive very little. However, the ‘parent’ body, Queensland Conservation Council, will be dramatically affected, which will have flow on effects around the state. The very least the federal Minister should do is provide the usual grant for the current financial year to give the groups a small amount of time to adjust.
One of the most under-rated achievements of the Democrats in the last decade was our role in dramatically strengthening the federal environment laws (the Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act). These laws can still be stronger, but we made a huge advance on what was there previously. One pleasing thing from discussion with the local Conservation Council was that the very presence of the federal Act had been sufficient to stifle a few highly undesirable developments –despite the federal government being fairly negligent in enforcing its own law. However, there are still plenty of threatening activities around which need more attention, which is something I’ll try to give more time to now I can spend more time focusing on Queensland.
After another informal evening meeting, I headed off in the morning to drive to Mission Beach. On the way, I made a brief detour to Lucinda and Dungeness, across the channel from the southern end of Hinchinbrook Island. Lucinda has an exceptionally long sugar loading jetty – one of the longest in the world (local literature says the world’s longest, but they might be defining the criteria to ensure they get the title).
I also passed through the Port Hinchinbrook development, which is at the northern end of the Hinchinbrook channel, just before Cardwell. This development has been controversial for over ten years. It is basically a housing estate and marina, and it had far more houses built than I expected, although there was also a huge number of For Sale signs on vacant blocks of land. There are plans to expand this development further, which continues to generate concerns about the potential environmental impact.
Hinchinbrook Island looms very large just across the passage, green and mountainous, capped by misty clouds. Even in April it is quite humid, but it is an incredibly beautiful region. The mountains on the mainland are often close to the coastline and much of it is in the wet tropics World Heritage Area. All the ocean is in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (also a World Heritage Area), although the reefs are mostly a little way out to sea.
There are many rivers, gorges and waterfalls in amongst the mountains, including Australia’s highest single drop waterfall, Wallaman Falls, with the widest, Millstream Falls, a bit further north. Today many of the green mountain peaks were swathed in cloud, which is a look I always like, although driving in the occasional rain which accompanied them was not quite so much fun.
Sugar cane is omnipresent, and many of the towns in this part of the state remain quite dependant on it. Ingham and Tully are two of the better known ones I drove through. Mission Beach township is actually a long narrow strip of partially connected settlements, straddling the Cardwell and Johnstone Shires – a bit reminiscent of the shape of settlement on the Gold Coast about 30 years ago before it turned into massive urban sprawl. It goes from South Mission Beach to Wongaling Beach to Mission Beach and on to Clump Point, Bingil Bay and Garners Beach.
Whilst it will never sprawl in the way the Gold Coast has, housing, hotel and resort development is a major threat to the environment here – not to mention a proposed marina. Much of the place abuts World Heritage Area, which is also habitat for the cassowary, a fascinating but very endangered bird. It is just one more example of how Queensland really hasn’t learnt much from the coastal development disasters of the 1980s under Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
I will write more detail about the specific dangers to Mission Beach soon, but for now I will just say I spent a few hours with some wonderful volunteers, including a woman named Brenda who has lived in the area for 45 years. Her love of her local community as well as her endangered local environment was very clear.
I drove on through Innisfail and Babinda (and more sugar cane) and into Cairns. I had another informal meeting with some locals, where I heard, among other things, about the major pressures on housing services for those at risk of homelessness. I have done a bit on this issue in the Senate recently, with the looming renewal of the funding agreement between the states and federal government providing another example of inter-government bickering while those who are meant to be assisted get left on the sidelines. It is always good to get real world, on the ground examples of people who are directly affected by these debates.
Hearing about issues at local level is always valuable and it is the best part of being able to travel around. The worst part is being away from my daughter, and the second worst part is falling behind on my emails, so I will stop my descriptions for now and say more on Mission Beach another time – 120 emails await me.
Some good news. In checking my emails, I came across this media release from Ergon energy saying they would re-open the Birdsville geothermal power plant soon! I wrote about the plant in describing my recent Birdsville visit. It’s interesting to see that the release is dated the Friday when the conference was on, especially as the Ergon people there at the time weren’t certain what was happening with the plant.