TIME Australia

Whale Collisions Spark Calls for Ship Speed Limits in Australia

A humpback whale breaches the surface by propelling most of its body from the sea in Hervey  Bay
A humpback whale breaches the surface off the East Coast of Australia on Aug. 7, 2006 Russell Boyce—Reuters

Instances of gruesome whale collisions have prompted a conversation about whether to impose speed limits for ships along Australia's coast

Right now, some 20,000 humpback whales are enjoying the warm waters of Australia’s East Coast, where they migrate every year during Antarctica’s winter to feed, breed and calve. They are the product of a wildly successful conservation program launched in 1979 that brought the humpback from the brink of extinction following decades of industrial slaughter.

The species’ recovery has also given birth to a thriving whale-watching industry that generates some $300 million and attracts 1.6 million people per year. From the beaches of Sydney, where surfers rub shoulders with the 30-ton mammals, to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, where a rare albino humpback called Migaloo was last seen, the whales are a symbol of Australia’s love for the ocean and how far it has come from the cruel, unsustainable ways of its past.

But the humpback’s stellar comeback has also led to increasingly frequent “whale strikes” — collisions with ships that cause gruesome propeller lacerations and even sever spines. It is part of a global phenomenon seen from such places as Sri Lanka, the Mediterranean and the U.S. Atlantic coast, where overlap between busy shipping lanes and whale habitats has left trails of mutilation.

In early May, a Norwegian cruise liner unknowingly dragged a dead sei whale, which had become caught on its bulbous bow, into the Hudson River. Three days later, another sei was found attached to a container ship docking near Philadelphia. In June, a humpback known as Max that had been visiting Alaska’s Glacier Bay for 39 years was found floating dead in the ocean with its jawbone nearly cut off. The discovery became the subject of a investigation by Alaskan wildlife officials to identify the ship that killed Max — a near impossible task given that most whale strikes by large ships go unreported or unnoticed. Cambridge-based International Whaling Commission, the world authority on the subject, has struggled to quantify the problem. It can’t provide any kind of accurate numbers but nevertheless holds that for some whale species and populations, strikes “may make the difference between extinction and survival.”

Whale strikes don’t currently pose a tangible risk to humpback populations in Australia. But a controversial government decision to expand a series of coal ports along the coast of the Great Barrier Reef — the humpback’s most important East Coast calving ground — is projected to massively increase sea traffic over the reef. And that will spell carnage for humpbacks, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which is calling for the introduction of 10-knot speed limits for large ships in two key humpback habitats near two of the largest ports.

“From our organization’s point of view, the killing of even one whale is an issue,” says IFAW campaign manager Sharon Livermore.“But from the evidence we do have of whales that have been found dead or stranded, we know the number of reported strikes represents a small number of the actual number being injured or killed.”

“Calls for speed limits are very much warranted,” adds Joshua Smith of the Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit. “We know humpbacks are already in conflict with shipping, and if you do the maths with these new megaports, you can see the problem is going to get much worse. A national whale-strike strategy is a sound precautionary principle.”

IFAW points to a similar initiative off the coast of the Georgia-Florida border, where 10-knot speed limits on large ships were introduced in 2008 to prevent collisions with critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Thirteen rights were killed as a result of strikes in the 18-month period before the speed limit went into effect, compared to zero fatalities reported in the six years that have passed since. And in New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf, the Port of Auckland has introduced voluntary speed restrictions to protect critically endangered Bryde’s whales after scientists estimated a 10-knot speed limit would reduce strike fatalities by 75%.

But Sheila Peake, a lecturer in ecotourism and environmental science at the University of the Sunshine Coast, says not enough is known about the humpback’s migratory routes in Australia to make speed restrictions effective.

“You can’t just say if we introduce speed limits for ships in one or two areas we will reduce whale strikes,” Peake says. “Not enough is known about the areas whales pass through to get there from Antarctica. And if you lay speed limits across the whole East Coast, it will have quite an impact on other industries and recreational fishing.”

Simon Meyjes, CEO of Australian Reef Pilot, a company that’s been guiding large ships through the Great Barrier Reef for more than a century, says 10-knot speed limits in front of coal ports will have next to no impact on reducing whale strikes because coal carriers steam at maximum speeds of 10 to 12 knots.

“I would say these slow ships account for two-thirds of the traffic on the Great Barrier Reef. The other third are faster container ships, livestock carriers and passenger ships that steam at 17 to 19 knots. They can’t be operated for long periods of time at 10 knots as the speed falls within those ship’s critical vibration range. It would risk major damage to their equipment and make it difficult to keep our supermarket shelves stocked.”

Meyjes also questions IFAW estimates that the number of ships passing through the Great Barrier Reef will almost double by 2020. “Shipping increases only as fast as the overall economy grows, so all these stories about huge increases are simply misguided,” he says. “In the last 10 years, traffic on the reef has increased an average of 3.5% a year.”

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority tells TIME it is liaising with IFAW and the shipping industry on the viability of speed limits, but that “given shipping is an internationally regulated industry … measures need to be linked to the strategic direction of the International Maritime Organization and supported by strong documentation.” In other words: Australia is unlikely to introduce speed limits until the movement to prevent whale strikes gains global traction.

In the sun-kissed Whitsunday archipelago 1,000 km north of Brisbane, Bill Hutchinson weaves and bobs his high-speed catamaran through waters literally heaving with humpbacks, carefully abiding to a local law that requires him to remain at least 300 m away from whales. In 44 years on the job, he’s never hit one.

“How do you avoid them? You can’t,” he says. “When the mothers are feeding their calves on the surface, they’re really docile. So we keep as far away as possible. But if it gets cloudy or the water gets choppy, visibility suffers. You can’t be watching out for whales all the time.”

TIME Australia

Malaysia Airlines Ukraine Crash: Australia Mulls G-20 Putin Ban

Tony Abbott
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, right, attends a service for victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 at St. Mary's Cathedral in Sydney on July 20, 2014. Peter Parks—AFP/Getty Images

But it's unclear if Australia can unilaterally bar the Russian leader

The giant Létourneau pipe organ at Sydney’s St. Mary’s Cathedral sounded particularly somber Sunday morning as Prime Minister Tony Abbott and other Australian dignitaries joined hundreds of mourners at a service to commemorate victims of the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was most likely hit by a missile before crashing in eastern Ukraine on Thursday.

“Sister Philomene Tiernan was one of our teachers and she was killed in the crash. It has really hit our school hard,” said Kasey Brassel. Brassel was one of dozens of students from an exclusive all-girls Catholic school, Kincoppal Rose Bay, who had come to commemorate the Australian nun listed among the 298 passengers lost in the disaster. Choking back her tears, she added, “[But] we came to remember all the victims, each one of them individually.”

However, Bishop Peter Comensoli, who led St. Mary’s Sunday morning sermon, was less restrained. “The downing of MH17 was not an innocent accident. It was the outcome of a trail of human evil,” he told the packed cathedral.

Comensoli’s sentiments mirror Australia’s stern diplomatic rebuke of Russia as the country’s national death toll rose from 28 to 36 after it was revealed eight additional passengers aboard MH17 were permanent residents of Australia. “Russian-controlled territory, Russian-backed rebels, quite likely a Russian-supplied weapon. Russia can’t wash its hands of this,” Prime Minister Abbott told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation during a televised interview this weekend.

Adding fuel to the fire are reports that bodies, valuables and wreckage from the crash site are being carted off by Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists. Those separatists are also reportedly blocking inspectors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe from accessing the site, though reports Sunday indicate the rebels have recovered the Boeing 777′s black boxes and will turn them over to European aviation officials.

“No one is really in charge,” Abbott said, referring to the Ukrainian crash site. “It’s absolutely chaotic.”

Abbott has dispatched his Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, to U.N. headquarters in New York to seek a binding Security Council resolution that would ensure Russia facilitates an independent investigation into the downing of MH17. But with Moscow holding veto power over the council and pointing the finger at Ukraine, Bishop will have her work cut out for her.

“Australia has a seat on the Security Council at this time, so it is a good opportunity for Australia to communicate its unhappiness on this matter,” says Dr. Nick Economou of Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry. “But the diplomacy will be quite difficult.”

It’s still unknown if Russia supplied the sophisticated Buk missile believed to have downed MH17, or if the rebels who allegedly shot it secured the weapon from a Ukrainian military depot. Nevertheless, Australian enmity for Russia is heating up, with widespread calls to ban Russian President Vladimir Putin from attending November’s G-20 summit in Brisbane. Australian Greens leader Christine Milne outright supports blocking Putin, Opposition leader Bill Shorten says a Putin ban should be considered, while Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss says it will be “difficult” to welcome Putin to Australia. Abbott stopped short of adding his voice to the chorus, but says Australia must ensure visitors “have goodwill to this country.”

However, Mike Callaghan, director of the G20 Studies Centre at Sydney’s Lowy Institute for International Policy, questions Australia’s right to ban Putin from attending.

“The G-20 is an informal economic forum. There are no rules on membership or revoking membership. So any decision has to be made on consensus, and it is questionable if it is up to (the) chair to say who can and can’t come. It would be very different to Russia’s expulsion from the G-8, when all seven other member nations acted together.”

Callaghan adds that a ban on Putin at the G-20 could spark a no-show from other BRICS, a loose association of five major emerging economies – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — which expressed serious concern in March when Australia’s Foreign Minister Bishop suggested Putin’s barring from the G-8 could be extended to the G-20.

“The G-20 is meant to be an event that brings together the largest developing economies in the world with the largest emerging economies,” Callaghan explains. “So if BRICS don’t come, what is the point of the G-20?”

Monash University’s Economou concurs, saying banning Putin from the G-20 or simply refusing him an entry visa into Australia would prove counterproductive for the G-20, as well as the investigation into the downing of MH17 and for broader global cohesion.

“Our anger with Russia must be communicated,” he says. “But with such a big and powerful player like Russia, you’re better off having them inside the process than outside it. And that will be the big dilemma for Australia further down the track.”

TIME Australia

Australia Grieves After 28 Nationals Die in MH17 Crash

Malaysia Airlines plane crashes in eastern Ukraine
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaks about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine during a press conference in Canberra, Australia on July 18, 2014. Alan Porritt — EPA

Canberra summons Russian ambassador Vladimir Morozov for an explanation

Grief and shock rippled through Australia after news broke early Friday morning that 28 of its citizens had been aboard the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was allegedly shot down by a surface-to-air missile in southeastern Ukraine on Thursday.

Flags flew at half-mast in Canberra as Prime Minister Tony Abbott addressed the nation’s parliament on Friday morning. “The reckless indifference to modern life does not have any place in our world,” he said.

The Russian ambassador to Australia, Vladimir Morozov, was summoned following myriad reports that the plane was downed by weaponry fired by pro-Russian separatists in southeastern Ukraine. Kiev has long claimed the rebels are being supported by Moscow.

“I asked him for Russia’s explanation as to how a commercial plane could come down from that altitude over eastern Ukraine,” said Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

“[Morozov] assured me Russia would do what it could to find those responsible.”

The death of 28 of the nation’s citizens is the largest loss of Australian lives during a terrorist incident — if that is indeed what it is — since the Bali bombings in 2002. Out of the 298 people killed on Thursday, approximately 100 people were also en route to Australia to attend the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne.

Security analysts say the incident will likely have immediate repercussions within the country’s security circles.

“Australia cannot afford to ignore the problems of the world, because they come back and affect us in the most horrible of ways as we’ve seen today,” said Rory Medcalf, security program director at Australian think tank the Lowy Institute.

“This reminds us that what’s happening in Ukraine has now become everybody’s business. It’s affected our security in the most awful, direct way.”

Out of the country’s population of 23 million, approximately 1 million are abroad at any given time — making Australia an unusually integrated country in global affairs despite its geographic isolation, explains Medcalf.

One such person was Perth management consultant Nick Norris, who was travelling on MH 17 along with his grandchildren, Mo, 12, Evie, 10, and Otis, 8. One acquaintance remembered Norris as an integral member in his community.

“Nick has been an important part of the club and an active member — as were his grandchildren,” David Harries, the South of Perth Yacht Club general manager, tells TIME.

The club issued a statement praising Norris as a “well loved and respected” member of the club. It said that members were “shocked by this tragic, senseless loss of family members and club members. It will have a lasting impact on the club and members.”

Others among the 28 who perished on Thursday included a nun from Sydney and a couple coming home after touring Europe.

Blowback to the tragedy was immediate as people began canceling reservations with Malaysia Airlines, which is suffering from the loss of its second plane in over four months after its Flight 370 inexplicably vanished over the Indian Ocean in early March.

“We have had several cancellations of clients booked to fly on Malaysian Airlines,” said Penny Spencer, managing director of popular agency Spencer Travel. “But because this has happened twice now it is going to make things a whole lot more difficult for Malaysia Airlines to get over this.”

TIME New Caledonia

Is a Vast Marine Sanctuary Any Use if You Can’t Police It?

New Caledonia, Atoll, Amédée Lighthouse
New Caledonia's Amédée Lighthouse marks the entrance to its coral reef. DEA PICTURE LIBRARY—De Agostini/Getty Images

Tiny New Caledonia relies on a handful of French ships to patrol a marine reserve twice the size of Texas

Correction appended, July 1, 2014

For the first half of June — until the U.S. declared an even bigger one — the tiny, French semiautonomous territory of New Caledonia boasted the largest nature reserve on earth.

Covering a vast 1.3 million-sq-km region of the South Pacific, the Natural Park of the Coral Sea was established on May 28 to protect the world’s second largest coral reef and its attendant lagoon. Already safeguarded in parts by a UNESCO World Heritage listing, this wonderland is a nursery for 25 kinds of marine mammals (including sea cows and humpback whales), 48 species of shark and five different marine turtles. It also spawns vast numbers of pelagic fish, 3,000 tons of which make it into the Pacific every year – an important food source for tens of millions, and a source of employment for thousands of people living in the region.

But before most people had even heard of the creation of the Natural Park of the Coral Sea, U.S. President Barack Obama went one better by using his executive powers to create an even larger marine park in the south-central Pacific on June 17. Known as the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, it protects 2 million sq km of ocean and a smattering of islands and atolls between Hawaii and American Samoa from commercial fishing.

Obama’s announcement made world news, while New Caledonia’s barely received a mention. Perhaps that’s because the U.S., while sketchy on the details, has the hardware and manpower to enforce the no-take rule at the core of any national park. New Caledonia, however, has no navy of its own and relies on a handful of French ships to patrol an area twice the size of Texas and three times the size of Germany. What, in the end, is the meaning of its marine sanctuary if it cannot police it?

“This is supposed to be a World Heritage area, but look around you. Where are the patrols?” asks Manu Hernu, an eco-tour operator in Bourail, a popular surf beach on the west coast of New Caledonia’s largest island, Grande Terre. “There is no one here to stop people from fishing but me. I have to be the sheriff because the government isn’t here.”

A similar picture emerges in the micro-state of Kiribati, the halfway point between Hawaii and Fiji. Two days before Obama’s announcement, Kiribati banned commercial fishing in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, which, at 400,000 sq km, is nearly equal in size to California. But with only 100,000 people and no defense budget to speak of, Kiribati has no means of enforcing the decree. It wants other nations already doing the heavy lifting in the area — like Australia, France and the U.S. — to provide ships and new technology to protect its massive mid-ocean wilderness.

New Caledonia’s lofty ideals must also be measured against its unremarkable environmental record. Home to a quarter of the world’s known nickel reserves, the archipelago is said to be “made of nickel.” The foreign dollars earned from nickel mining and smelting account for more than 90% of all exports. It’s the reason New Caledonia is so much better off than the aid- and tourism-dependent nations it counts among its neighbors in the South Pacific.

But that wealth has come at a price. In the highlands of Grande Terre, strip mining has turned great valleys rust red in color and sliced off entire mountaintops. Most of the damage harks back to the start of the mining boom in the 1970s, when rehabilitation of the landscape — once nickel had been extracted — wasn’t mandatory. Environmental protection standards for mining are relatively high today but accidents continue to dog the sector. In May, a mine owned by Brazilian giant Value leaked 100,000 L of acid-tainted effluent into a river that flows into a World Heritage zone. It follows another accidental spill of 40,000 L of sulfuric acid in 2009 and another in 2008 that turned a river green.

“We must do better for our marine resources than we did for our terrestrial resources,” World Wildlife Fund’s New Caledonia bureau chief Hubert Géraux tells TIME. He commends the announcement of the Natural Park of the Coral Sea but says it’s just a framework and the real work is yet to be done. “The first stage has been realized, but now it is necessary to ensure the success of the next step and implement a management plan for the rezoning of the park,” Géraux says. “People are quite supportive, but it’s too early to tell.”

Professor Joshua Cinner of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University agrees that just calling something a national park does not equate to protection.

“But I would not be cynical enough to believe a government would do something like this as a public relations exercise,” he says. “It’s being done in the kind of top-down manner which I really don’t believe in. But it could be part of a longer strategy that puts a framework in place for protection of marine resources on an absolutely massive scale.

“Either way, it’s always good to see governments talking about conservation,” he adds. “It creates intrinsic value just by just telling people that it’s there.”

Correction: The original version of this article misstated the name of an eco-tour operator. He is Manu Hernu, not Manu Hemu.

TIME Australia

Animal-Welfare Groups Hopping Mad Over Canberra’s Kangaroo Cull

Eastern gray kangaroos graze near Canberra Élodie Raitière—AFP/Getty Images

The Australian Capital Territory wants to reduce the number of kangaroos hopping about town for environmental reasons. But animal-rights groups are challenging the cull in court, saying the science isn't conclusive just yet

The old cliché about kangaroos hopping down the streets of Australia happens to be true in the national capital Canberra. Set 150 km from the east coast, among vast eucalyptus forests that are heavily prone to drought, the city’s parks, gardens, golf courses and sports grounds have proved irresistible to the iconic marsupial that is featured alongside the emu on Australia’s coat of arms. In fact, some of Canberra’s nature reserves boast the highest densities of kangaroos on the continent.

“Seeing kangaroos in urban areas is one of the best aspects of living in Canberra,” says Tara Ward, a legislative drafter with the Department of the Environment. “It’s one of the top things tourists want to see here because they don’t have to go for long drives to see our native animals.”

Yet interactions between humans and kangaroos can easily turn sour. In 2009, a kangaroo crashed through the window of a Canberra home, terrorized a family and gouged holes in their furniture until it escaped through an open door. In 2010, a footballer was knocked unconscious when he ran into a kangaroo in a Canberra park, while another man received deep gashes to his legs last year when he collided with one on a front lawn during his morning jog. “We both got a nasty fright — and of course when kangaroos are startled they lash out,” the victim, the capital territory’s minister for territory and municipal services Shane Rattenbury, said at the time.

In seeming contradiction to the philosophies of the Australian Greens party he represents, Rattenbury is now spearheading Canberra’s controversial kangaroo cull. Introduced in 2008 to prevent overgrazing, this year’s shoot puts over 1,600 eastern gray kangaroos in the cross hairs. “The primary goal of the conservation cull is to maintain kangaroos at sustainable densities to minimize the impact of heavy grazing on other native fauna and flora,” explains the Territory and Municipal Services website. “High numbers of kangaroos can eat down the ground-layer vegetation so it is no longer able to provide food and shelter for small animals.”

Australian National University conservation expert Professor David Lindenmayer says the science behind the cull is solid. “These woodlands were designed to have major predators like Tasmanian tigers, dingoes and Aboriginal hunters that were the key processes of population regulation,” he says. “And now we have significant amounts of extra water and grass, so it’s a double whammy.”

He adds, “Herbivore overpopulation is not just happening here, but in the U.S. and Patagonia with deer and with other species in different parts of the world. So for animal-welfare groups to say there is no evidence of it happening is like people saying there is no evidence of climate change. The data is very strong.”

Yet one of those welfare groups, Animal Liberation ACT, has thrown the demand for evidence-based environmental management back in the Establishment’s face. Earlier this month, the group’s lawyers, the Animal Defenders Office, persuaded a judge to grant a stay against the kangaroo cull on the basis that the government has failed in its duty to prove the kangaroo cull had improved biodiversity over the past six years.

“They have not collected any baseline data or monitoring data on the conditions of other species on the reserves they say they are saving,” says legislative drafter Ward, who moonlights as a volunteer with the Animal Defenders Office. “If the government wants to go and kill more than 1,600 healthy wild animals, we have to be clear that the science is impeccable before we let them do that.”

“And remember, those 1,600 deaths don’t take into account the joeys that have to be brutally dispatched by shooters after they’ve killed their mothers,” she says. “Part of the applicant’s contention is that it is impossible to carry this out without cruelty being involved.”

David Nicholls, a 70-year-old farmer who spent his whole life working in the bush — two years as a “roo shooter” — agrees. “You try to get clean head shots but it’s difficult because kangaroos are very jumpy — the slightest noise or change in the wind startles them,” he says. “You tell me which Olympic shooter can achieve 100% clean shots every time, even in perfect conditions? The clean-head-shot theory is a myth.”

The hearing to indefinitely end Canberra’s kangaroo cull commences on Thursday and concludes on June 2. In a bid to cool tempers, Rattenbury’s office has announced plans to use the drug deslorelin to neuter 500 eastern grays on a trial basis — the largest neutering drive ever performed on kangaroos. But with costs projected at $830 per animal — three times what it costs to shoot them — and data showing deslorelin can cause cancer, the trial isn’t expected to go mainstream anytime soon. “And even if it does work, those nonbreeding animals will continue to eat large amounts of food throughout their lives,” says Lindenmayer.

“The reality is this debate is not about science or the environment. It’s about people’s value sets,” he says. “Some people look at the world from a purely utilitarian viewpoint; others have a strictly bioethical position.”

TIME Australia

Australian Child Protection Accused of Repeating Sins of ‘Stolen Generations’

Members of Grandmothers Against Removals protesting against the overrepresentation of indigenous children in the child-protection system on the steps of the Parliament House of New South Wales in Sydney on Feb. 13, 2014
Members of Grandmothers Against Removals protesting against the overrepresentation of indigenous children in the child-protection system on the steps of the parliament house of New South Wales in Sydney on Feb. 13, 2014 Ian Lloyd Neubauer

While social services deny targeting Aboriginal families, the statistics of children in out-of-home care paint a disturbing picture

In 2008, then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made history when he issued a formal apology to the “stolen generations” — Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island children forcefully removed from their families for placement in institutions and homes where they were put to work as laborers, farmhands and servants.

“The injustices of the past must never, never happen again,” Rudd said of the 19th century policy born out of the eugenics-based view that blacks were morally inferior and couldn’t properly care for their offspring. Once removed, children could be brought up “white” and assimilated into broad society so that in time there would be no more indigenous people left in Australia.

On that account, it failed. However, by the time forced removals were stamped out in the 1970s, the policy had extinguished the kinship connections, land titles, language, customs, spirituality and identity of an estimated 50,000 Aborigines and islanders. Trapped between two cultures but fitting into neither, members of the stolen generations suffer poorer health, worse housing, shorter life spans, higher unemployment and higher incarceration rates than other indigenous Australians.

But now, child-protection systems that err on the side of caution, coupled with the legacies of the stolen generations, are allegedly replicating the cruel dynamics of Australia’s colonial past. The situation is far from clear-cut, however, and many of those involved in child protection — both nonindigenous and indigenous staff — strenuously deny any such heavy-handedness exists today. Nevertheless, in the state of New South Wales (NSW) nearly 6,300, or 10% of indigenous children, are wards of the state. In comparison, only 1.6% of nonindigenous children in NSW live in out-of-home care.

“I cried on the day of the apology because my grandmother, who was taken to a Catholic mission when she was 5, didn’t get to hear it and because my grandson was taken that same year,” says Mary, an Aboriginal woman from the central coast of NSW, whose real name cannot be revealed because of laws banning the identification of wards of state. Adds her daughter: “They said sorry to Aboriginals for the stolen generations, but they are still doing it today.”

The court order authorizing the removal of the boy cited lack of hygiene, the threat of domestic violence, based on the father’s protracted criminal record, and neglect. Defined by the NSW Department of Family and Community Services (FaCS) as a failure to provide things needed for proper growth — a nutritious diet, dental care and supervision — accusations of neglect are present in 40% of indigenous-child removals, whereas sexual abuse and physical abuse are present in only 5% and 10% of cases respectively.

“Depending on the degree, neglect certainly is a cause for removal as it impacts on a child’s ability to attend school, to make friends, their health and general well-being,” says Raeleen McKenzie, a psychologist working in child protection in the state of Victoria for more than 25 years. “In NSW there have been several cases in the past where children who needed intervention weren’t removed and died. So when a child is severely at risk, something has to be done.”

Yet critics argue FaCS assessments of neglect are often made on spurious grounds that fail to take Aboriginal culture into consideration. “The classic example is the way Aboriginal children are raised not just by a nuclear family but collectively by grandparents, uncles and neighbors,” says Paddy Gibson, senior researcher at the University of Technology, Sydney. “Just because Aboriginal kids are on the streets at night doesn’t mean they aren’t being watched.”

Gibson says a lot of FaCS decisions are opinions based on hearsay or the assumption of neglect. “And once those decisions are made,” he adds, “FaCS is under no obligation to prove it in court because the standards of evidence that apply in criminal court do not apply in children’s court.” A severe lack of resources for families trying to get their children returned only compounds the issue. “Either they don’t have a lawyer or they get a public defender who doesn’t have time to properly prepare their case,” says Gibson.

Frank Hytten, CEO of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, says the “decision to remove indigenous children is often made in the context of beliefs rather than facts.” Officials stick fast to rules rather than applying them in the context of the needs of particular children, he adds, citing, “an ideological context where the general population still believes they’re lazy bastards who don’t deserve any better.” The bottom line is “colonization is still having an effect on Aboriginals and disintegrating their families,” says Hytten.

There are also widespread allegations that FaCS is removing indigenous children without first explicitly warning parents that loss of custody is imminent unless conditions improved — allegations that contradict the department’s own charter and regulations.

Mary says her grandson was removed “without warning” and “out of the blue” six years previously by a group of 15 to 20 policemen. Earlier this month, a member of the stolen generations from northern NSW contacted TIME claiming a tactical-response squad raided his home at night and removed all eight of his grandchildren using excess force after his youngest grandchild succumbed to sudden infant death syndrome. “To see all of this reoccur, it really breaks your heart,” he said. Detective inspector Gavin Rattenbury confirms police assisted FaCS caseworkers removing the eight children, but denies excess force was employed.

“If children are removed without waning, you have to assume we found very alarming abuse that might actually endanger the life of a child,” Pru Goward, the NSW minister for family and community services, tells TIME. Of course, “It’s a terrible trauma for a parent to lose a child, even they have been neglectful,” she adds.

According to Wal Browne, a solicitor from Walgett in northwest NSW who works closely with the local Aboriginal community, speaking about a new stolen generation is an exaggeration. “Three or four years ago some pretty horrendous things happened. But the FaCS office here in Walgett have changed their processes a lot,” he says. “They’re not nearly as likely to disrupt families as they were before. I have also heard some good stories from [the town of] Mudgee where FaCS have been very easy to deal with, very switched on and handled some very difficult cases.”

Sally King, an indigenous FaCS caseworker based in Kempsey on the Mid North Coast region of NSW, is better placed than most to judge current trends. “My father was part of the stolen generation, and my grandmother’s brothers were taken away,” she says, “simply because they were Aboriginal.” Today, by contrast, she says her organization aims to protect children no matter their color, race or religion. “We as frontline staff are doing this by engaging families, putting in support services and doing everything we can to ensure families remain together,” adds King. “When that’s not possible, we take action to keep their children safe from harm.”

Goward agrees there are too many indigenous children being removed in the state, but “that does not mean we are wrongly removing children; there are people who say we do not remove enough Aboriginal children,” she says. “It means the conditions in which many Aboriginal families live are unacceptable,” referring to the tin shanties on the outskirts of towns like Lightning Ridge and Wilcannia. There, Aborigines live in Third World conditions without electricity or sanitation — hotbeds for alcoholism, petrol sniffing, depression and domestic violence.

“We don’t remove children lightly. We only remove them when they are living in homes where there is extreme violence, where there is drug and alcohol abuse,” says Goward, who is also the NSW minister for women. “If someone is drunk or stoned, what do you think are the chances of them getting up in the morning, washing their children, feeding them and getting them to school? I met a little boy in Wilcannia who could not form sentences — not because he had suffered a cognitive loss, but because no one had ever spoken to him in sentences. All he had ever heard was abuse and shouting.”

Goward highlights that in the three years preceding her center-right Liberal-National coalition win at the polls in 2011, the number of indigenous children in out-of-home care in NSW increased by an average of 495 annually. But in Goward’s first year in office, only 217 indigenous children were removed — half of whom have been placed in either kinship care or with other indigenous families. “We have the highest rate of conformance to Aboriginal placement principles in Australia,” she says. “That tells you we are trying very hard to make sure Aboriginal children stay in touch with their country, their background, their culture and history.”

Crucially, Australia has failed to alleviate the grinding poverty that is the root cause of the indigenous overrepresentation in child protection — not just in NSW but across every single state and territory in the country. Prime Minister Tony Abbott admitted that much while delivering this year’s Closing the Gap report on indigenous disadvantage to Parliament on Feb. 12. “We are not on track to achieve the more important and the more meaningful targets,” he said, pointing to statistics that show little to no improvements in indigenous health, education and unemployment.

To its credit, the current NSW government has made significant progress in reining in FaCS heavy-handedness. But that comes as small solace to successive generations of First Australians robbed of the company of their children. “My son needs to be with me,” says Mary’s daughter, who is now raising a healthy and happy 1-year-old girl and hopes her firstborn will be returned soon. “I am his mom. Only I know how to give him the love that he needs.”


Australia Will Keep Detaining Refugees Indefinitely, Whatever the World Thinks

Christmas Island Detention Center Continues to Grow
An Iranian detainee walks back to her room after hanging up her laundry at the center used for younger men, and women and children, on Christmas Island, Australia. Paula Bronstein—Getty Images

Canberra says it's a matter of security and deterring people smugglers, but detainees pay a heavy price

In 1992, Australia introduced a mandatory detention policy for non-citizens entering the country without a valid visa. It was intended to be a risk-management tool, enabling the health and security status of refugees and illegal immigrants to be checked while preventing such arrivals from simply vanishing into the general population.

While that sounds reasonable on paper, the reality is that there are today around 10,000 men, women and children detained indefinitely, without hope of release unless they agree to return to the countries they risked their lives to flee in the first place. Just under half that number are being held in squalid detention centers in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the South Pacific island of Nauru that are breeding grounds for rape, rioting, malaria and mental illness, and that bear the look and feel of concentration camps.

“If a liberal democracy decides a group of people, depending on where they come from, can have their liberty placed in jeopardy without the ability to defend themselves, then the consequences are very dire – not only for that specific group but for everyone in that country that supposedly lives under the rule of law,” says David Mann, head of the legal team at Melbourne’s Refugee and Immigration Legal Center. “It casts a very dark shadow over Australia’s commitment to human rights and fundamental respect for human dignity.”

The government’s view is that Australia’s security must come first. “Security assessments are an important part of ensuring the safety of Australians,” the Attorney-General’s office told TIME.

The authorities also say that holding asylum-seekers in places like PNG deters people smuggling. “The Government’s offshore processing policy is designed to prevent people smugglers sending illegal boats to Australia, which over the last five years has resulted in the deaths of over 1,100 people at sea and more than 15,000 people in camps around the world being denied resettlement in Australia, as their places were taken by people who arrived illegally by boat,” a spokesperson for the Ministry for Immigration and Border Protection said. “These policies are proving to be highly effective, with 75 days having passed without a successful people smuggling venture to Australia.”

Critics however point to the harsh and often dangerous conditions of the camps. Last month, at a detention center on PNG’s Manus Island, a 23-year-old Iranian national, Reza Barati, was found dead with a blunt force trauma to the head, and 76 others refugees were shot or otherwise wounded, after local security guards responded to a protest by the 1,100 predominantly Middle Eastern asylum seekers kept there.

The bloodshed sparked hundreds of candlelight vigils across Australia, including a 4000-strong protest in front of Sydney’s Town Hall. Hunger strikes took place at a number of other detention centers, and widespread condemnations were made by respected figures such former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who oversaw the successful integration of thousands of Vietnamese refugees fleeing war in the late 1970s. Numerous social media campaigns have also surfaced to vent disapproval, including the website sorryasylumseekers.com where Australians post selfies taken while bearing placards reading “Not in my name.”

In Tehran, Australia’s Ambassador Paul Foley was summonsed to demand changes to his government’s treatment of asylum seekers. In Beijing, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Li Baodong questioned the legality of repatriating asylum seekers to third countries and detaining children. And in PNG, Manus Island Police Chief Alex N’Drasal has called on Australia to address poor conditions inside the detention center, while local Catholic bishops this week released a joint statement demanding the center be closed.

“Detaining people against their will in PNG, even if it works as a deterrent, is not a just solution worthy of a great nation otherwise proud of its human rights record,” the bishops stated, saying they encouraged Australia “to find a more humane solution to people seeking asylum in their country.”

Also drawing fire is the fate of 46 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka and Myanmar recognized as refugees by Australia, yet who remain in indefinite detention after receiving negative security assessments from the country’s chief spy agency ASIO. Details on how those assessments were reached have been withheld from the accused, creating a legal black hole legal experts are comparing to the incarceration of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay.

“The comparison is valid because in both cases there are very serious procedural irregularities preventing people from getting a fair hearing and effectively challenging the accusations against them,” says Dr Ben Saul, a professor of international law at the University of Sydney. “Of course there are differences – the refugees are not being tortured as was the case at Guantanamo and the conditions under which people are detained in Australia are undoubtedly better.

“But they are being subjected to the next worse thing which is indefinite detention, in some cases for as long as five years,” he says. “If you are stuck in there forever not knowing when if ever you will be released, it inflicts and aggravates extreme mental illness. That’s why so many of these detainees have attempted suicide.”

The UN’s Human Rights Committee agrees. In August of last year, it described Australia’s arbitrary and indefinite detention of asylum seekers as “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” and set a deadline for Australia to release the 46 individuals into the community and the payment of compensation under its obligations as signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. The deadline expired last week, with the office of Australia’s Attorney-General’s saying that it was still considering its response.

Despite the legal and humanitarian shortcomings of Australia’s tough stance on asylum seekers, a recent poll by MUR Research shows 60 percent of Australians want the government to “increase the severity” of its treatment of asylum seekers as a means to combat the dangerous people smuggling business that in recent years has flourished in Indonesia.

Even a portion of those who’ve been detained by Australia think the policy is necessary. “If I were in charge, I would do the same,” says a former asylum seeker from the Middle East who refused to give his name it case it imperiled his new status Australia. “This country has borders and laws and I agree people do not have the right to enter illegally.

“But while saying that,” he continues, “most people in detention did not have a choice and they did not come for financial reasons. They were forced into the situation because they could not come here legally and they had nowhere else to go.

“People living in a good country like Australia could never imagine what it’s like living in a war zone, or to have their safety and the safety of their children constantly threatened by violence and persecution,” he says. “They will never understand what it means to live under danger unless they have experienced it themselves.”

TIME climate change

Is Drought Becoming the New Normal for Australia?

A dead tree stands in front of shallow water and a dried-up area of Lake George, located 50 km (31 miles) north of the Australian capital city of Canberra May 13, 2013
A dead tree stands in front of shallow water and a dried-up area of Lake George, located 50 km (31 miles) north of the Australian capital city of Canberra May 13, 2013 David Gray—Reuters

With farmers and Outback towns fighting desperately to survive, Australia is reeling from a long-term lack of water

The lucky country hasn’t had much luck with its weather of late. Following the warmest winter on record, a summer heatwave where temperatures topped 49.6°C and a volley of wildfires that destroyed hundreds of properties and homes, vast swaths of Australia are now being devastated by drought. The situation is especially dire in Queensland’s interior, where the driest year on record has prompting a few towns to plan for all-out evacuations.

“I have lived here for 50 years, and I can never recall anything as serious as what we’re going through now,” say Tony McGrady, Mayor of Mount Isa, a mining town of 24,000 people. “If we don’t get a good dump of rain by the end of the monsoon season in March, we’ll be in a serious pickle.”

Australia’s highly populated southeast and southwest corners are also feeling the pinch. Residents there have only just recovered from the longest dry spell on record — the Millennium Drought of 1995-2012, which changed the way Australia managed its water resources, prompting massive spending on desalination plants, grey-water recycling and rebates for home owners who installed water tanks. The rapid return of drought conditions in the south, and the failure of the life-giving rains of the tropical monsoon in the north, have led many to wonder whether drought is the new norm.

“It’s too early to say if another Millennium Drought is on the way because rainfall is much more difficult to predict than heat,” says Amanda McKenzie, CEO of the Climate Council, a non-government provider of climate change facts. “Yet over the past 30 years there have been clear long-term drying trends in the southeast of Australia and in the southwest where rainfall has declined 15 percent.

“But what’s happening in Queensland is different,” she adds. “We don’t really understand it, but are keeping our fingers crossed that it won’t have such huge implications as the Millennium Drought did for Australians.”

The drought in Queensland, a key beef-producing and agricultural region, may have dire implications for food security, however. Dry conditions that saw the culling of 8.6 million of Australia’s 27 million head of cattle last year have driven beef future prices to long-term highs, with patties now trading at a record $4 per kilogram.

Then there’s the human toll. In the past year, 16 graziers and farmers have taken their lives in Queensland as a result of drought-induced financial and emotional distress. They include a man who, after being told his 400 cattle were too emaciated to go to market, shot his entire herd before turning the gun on himself.

“There is going to be no alternative other than mass closures of farms,” says Scott Armstrong, a cotton producer in the town of St George, 390km west of Brisbane. “There’s been a chronic shortage of rainfall over not a great length of time but absolutely no relieving showers for 18 months. People are completely out of feed, and when you run out of feed you stop farming.”

A lengthy run on farm closures could have a far-reaching implications for Australia’s future prosperity. According to a report published by Deloitte in October, Australia is in a unique position to capitalize on the Asian middle-class’ growing appetite for protein. Agribusiness (along with gas, tourism, education and wealth management) stands to be become one of Australia’s top-five growth sectors, worth an additional $226 billion over the next 20 years, if things go well.

“What you always do battle with when it comes to drought policy is making the wider public aware of how problems in remote areas will affect the rest of the country,” Minister of Agriculture Barnaby Joyce tells TIME.

As deputy leader of the National Party, the minor partner of the center-right coalition that swept to power last September, Joyce is calling for $6.35 billion in drought assistance for farmers. In Mt Isa, Mayor McGrady is calling for an injection of state funds to build a third dam he says is essential for the survival of the town and hundreds of farms and cattle stations in surrounding areas.

“Talk of evacuation might grab a headline, but I don’t think it does the community good,” he says. “It’s time for a national summit between all levels of government on how to overcome water shortages so we we won’t have to face this problem again.”

TIME indonesia

Should Schapelle Corby Really Be Paid $2.7 Million for an Interview?

Convicted Australian drug trafficker Schapelle Corby. with her head covered, sits in the Denpasar Parole Board Office following her release from Kerobokan Prison in Bali on Feb. 10, 2014 Jason Reed / Reuters

A convicted Australian drug smuggler has been released on parole from a Balinese prison to lavish appearance fees and luxury villa accommodation. The locals aren't impressed

Australia has always had a soft spot for villains. From war criminal Breaker Morant to bushranger Ned Kelly, to hit man Mark “Chopper” Read, the nation has a penchant for casting aside inconvenient historical facts and elevating its most notable killers and thieves into folk heroes a la Robin Hood.

The newest addition to this pantheon of larrikin lawbreakers is 36-year-old Schapelle Corby. A former beauty-school student from Queensland’s Gold Coast, Corby hit the spotlight in October 2004 when she was arrested by Indonesian custom officials attempting to smuggle 4.2 kg of high-quality hydroponic cannabis into the holiday island of Bali.

Since that moment, debate has raged in Australia over the relentless claims that Corby was the innocent, unintended victim of corrupt baggage handlers. Much has also been said over the severity of her sentence handed down in 2005 — 20 years in a filthy, cockroach-infested prison. Then there’s the colorful sideshow surrounding Corby’s paparazzo-punching sister Mercedes. In 2008, she successfully sued a tabloid-style current-affair show for implying she was a drug dealer. She also stripped for a men’s magazine.

The Corby bandwagon reached fever pitch on Monday when Schapelle was released on parole, after serving nine years, in an anarchic scene reminiscent of the media circus that plagues a Miley Cyrus or Harry Styles. Protected by dozens of Indonesian police officers, with her face concealed behind a shawl, Corby was forced to run a raucous gauntlet of paparazzi outside Bali’s Kerobokan Prison who then pursued her on motorbikes as she was driven to a corrections office to sign her release papers.

(MORE: Frenemies: The Indonesian-Australian Relationship Nears Its Nadir)

Corby will reportedly collect a $2.7 million fee for a forthcoming interview with an Australian TV station that has put her up in a private villa in the upscale beach town of Seminyak. The first clear (and obviously stage-managed) photograph of Corby drinking a beer inside the villa was sold to Woman’s Day on Tuesday for a cool $18,000.

This follows a never-ending conga line of magazine articles, an autobiography that sold 100,000 copies, a second book by an investigative journalist that claims Corby took the fall for her late father who had a history with drugs, and a half-baked telemovie that aired nationally in Australia the night before her release.

Yet the question begs: Why has Corby attracted so much sympathy at home, while fellow Australian drug smugglers serving protracted sentences overseas — including members of the heroin-smuggling gang known as the Bali Nine, two of whom are awaiting execution in Bali — remain virtually unknown?

Sydney-based celebrity reporter Josie Gagliano says Corby’s girl-next-door good looks and white-picket demographic have played a crucial role in her stardom. “She’s a young, attractive, free-spirited woman with the world at her feet — an everyday person that could have been any of us or our daughter or sister who suddenly ends up in jail overseas,” Gagliano says.

Andrew Hughes, an academic who researches emotional responses to marketing at the Australian National University’s College of Business and Economics, says Corby’s fame lies in the uncertainty of her guilt. “She is one of those polarizing figures where one camp is convinced she’s innocent and the other thinks she’s guilty as all hell,” he says. “She’s like the white-collar criminals on The Wolf of Wall Street. We know what they’re doing is wrong, but we can’t stop watching.”

(MORE: Australia and Indonesia Find It Hard to Make Up)

Meanwhile in Indonesia, where Corby is viewed as a common criminal, her release has received only negative attention.

“The general Indonesian community don’t care, they don’t even know who she is,” says Ross Taylor, president of the Perth-based think tank the Indonesia Institute. “They’re far more concerned with volcanoes erupting and forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes. When this story has gained a mention, it’s been over concern Westerners are getting favorable treatment in the Indonesian legal system compared to young Indonesian drug traffickers serving life sentences.”

For time being, Corby would be advised to keep a lower profile. Kerobokan Prison governor Farid Junaedi has already warned that it would be “stupid” for Corby to give interviews while on parole. A local backlash is also building over the extravagance of her fee and the luxurious nature of her postprison accommodation. Many on the island believe she should be living at the home of her Balinese brother-in-law, who is her parole guarantor.

Corby must remain in Bali for another three years as a condition of her parole. If and when she does go home, she could be pursued by the Australian government under laws that prevent its citizens from profiting from crimes. But that won’t stop the continuation of Australia’s decadelong obsession with a beauty-school dropout who took a terribly wrong turn on the road while holidaying overseas.

“Interest in Corby may wane a little, but we’re still going to want to learn about her parole interviews, about her boyfriends and whatever else she’s doing,” says Gagliano. “And in 2017 when she’s free to leave Bali, then a whole new frenzy will start again. Corby is going to command more and more attention.”

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser