Saturday, 31 March 2012

Eels

I've just been reading a marvellous book by Tom Fort, fishing correspondent for the British Financial Times (the Financial Times has a fishing correspondent? I hear you ask) called The Book of Eels. 

I've always been aware of eels.  One of my early Australian memories is going with my family and some neighbours for a swim and picnic on the Logan River.  Us kids (I must have been about eight) were terrified to discover there was a large eel in the swimming hole, so our neighbour stuck a bit of sausage on the end of his fishing line and five minutes later the eel was writhing furiously in a bucket. 

Later attempts at eel capture were less successful.  My mates and I used to play down at Stable Swamp Creek behind the Sunnybank train station.  Once during the wet season when the creek was bulging with recent rains we saw a huge eel.  We were convinced it was four feet long.  They can actually grow this big, but it's also possible it grew in the telling.  We went back later with home-made spears to try and catch it but we never saw it again.  Perhaps it was lurking on the bottom, as eels do, munching on yabbies, or perhaps it had made its way down to Oxley Creek and the Brisbane River and eventually reached its breeding grounds  in the Coral Sea.

I still see them now, lurking under the bridge at Ekibin Creek waiting for scraps thrown to the ducks, or cruising the pond in the Botanic Gardens.  I've read a little about them from time to time with Rachel Carson's Under the Sea Wind giving me the first hint that there was something more to their life than mooching around in freshwater streams and ponds and exciting local children.  Fort's book, however, took my knowledge to a whole new level.

There are about fifteen species of freshwater eel in the world.  The ones I see are almost certainly the speckled long-finned eel Anguilla reinhardtii, like this one currently resident in Calamvale Creek just a little south of Stable Swamp Creek.  Fort, as befits an Englishman, focuses mainly on the European eel Anguilla anguilla and its North American counterpart Anguilla rostrata.  Not surprisingly for a fishing correspondent, much of his book is about the eel fishing industry and it opened up a whole new world to me.  Here in Australia we tend not to eat eels much, and we think of them mainly as lurking presences.  Yet in Europe and North America their status as a dietary staple goes back to prehistoric times, with the remains of neolithic fish traps still standing in British rivers.  The figures he gives for historic catches in the main European and North American eel fisheries are astounding, with literally millions of eels taken from rivers such as the Severn and Thames in England, the Loire in France, the St Lawrence in Canada and the Delaware in the USA, and lakes like Lough Neath in Northern Ireland and Commachio in Italy.  These huge catches have gone on year after year for centuries, with remarkably few changes to methods anywhere except France. 

The eel's life cycle is quite remarkable.  The eels we see in our lakes and streams are mostly maturing specimens - females mainly travelling upstream while the smaller males stay at the river mouth.  Yet after perhaps 15 or 20 years of quiet mooching, adult eels feel the call of reproduction and head downstream, transforming as they go into saltwater creatures and making the journey to deep-sea breeding grounds.  Anguilla and rostrata breed in the Sargasso Sea, that expanse of weed and calm water in the Altantic.  Australian eels have a similar ocean breeding ground in the Coral Sea near New Caledonia.  Presumably here the males and females mate and produce trillions of offspring.  I say presumably, because the detective work required to deduce this part of their lifecycle was onerous.  Adult eels are rarely caught at sea because they don't feed in this phase of their life and somehow elude trawl nets.  The breeding grounds were largely found by trial and error, with the redoubtable Danish ichthyologist Johannes Schmidt honing in on the Sargasso by following the trail of smaller and smaller larvae.  However, neither he nor his successors succeeded in observing adult eels in the act of copulation, nor in fishing up fertilised eggs.

Following their birth, the tiny eel larvae or "thin-heads" - little leaf-shaped fishes - ride the ocean currents back towards their freshwater homes, carried in huge numbers on the warm streams and growing slowly as they go.  As they approach the river mouths they transform, taking on the typical cylindrical shape, first of all as clear fishes known as "glass eels" and then gaining pigment as they swim upstream as "elvers" to find a home patch of water in which to mature.

It is during these two migrations - the autumn run of the mature "silver eels" downstream, and the spring "elver run" back upstream - that most eels are caught.  Historically they have migrated in huge enough numbers for fisherman to net and trap them in a frenzy and still have enough get through in each direction to maintain the species.  Mature eels and elvers are caught primarily for the table, glass eels primarily to stock fish farms.  No-one has yet succeeeded in breeding eels in captivity, but a rich fish farm diet and warm water can have them mature in two years instead of the natural 15, feeding the insatiable Japanese appetite for eel meat.

Yet all is not well in the world of eel fishing.  After centuries in which the supply was seemingly inexhaustible, numbers have fallen away steadily in the last few decades.  Like the many ocean species whose decline Richard Ellis documents, numbers are collapsing, and the European eel is now listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The same body lists the American and Australian species as "not evaluated" which may mean no-one has yet cared enough to look. 

Unlike oceanic species such as cod and tuna, this seems a little more complex than a case of uncontrolled factory fishing risking the resource that sustains it.  Certainly there is some of that, with the glass eel fisherman of the Loire fishing longer hours with wider nets to catch the few remaining specimens and fish farmers desparately paying huge sums for a dwindling supply of larvae.  Yet other factors also play their part.  A parasite is spreading through world eel stocks, origin only guessed at.  The dams and hydro turbines serve as major barriers to eel migration.  In the 19th Century, Londoners' use of the Thames as a sewer made the river so toxic eels were unable to migrate through the estuary.  Changes to ocean currents may be preventing many eel larvae reaching their home river mouths.

Whatever the reasons may be the trend, and its similarity to the trends for so many species, is disturbing.  Eels are robust, adaptable creatures.  They are not fragile niche fishes vulnerable to the tiniest change in climate or habitat.  They live everywhere, they are are so common that we take them for granted.  They have seemed invincible for so long.  If they are endangered, what other creatures will follow?

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Not Even the Furniture

So, the weirdest of elections just got nasty.  Not only did the Queensland Labor Party lose the house (which was expected) they lost the furniture (which was always possible) and their clothes as well.  In an 89 seat house they look like they'll have a maximum of 9 members.  One of these, former Premier Anna Bligh, has already announced her resignation from Parliament.  Far from losing in Ashgrove and leaving the rabble to govern themselves, President-elect Newman won easily with nearly twice the swing he needed and now gets to lead the biggest rabble in the history of the Queensland Parliament.  Labor's deperate last minute plea to voters to provide a decent opposition and their reported tactic of pretending to be Greens and handing out how-to-vote cards with themselves as second preference were to no avail. 

Of course we've known for a long time that the Labor Government was on its last legs, but this is unprecedented.  I'd like to be able to say something witty and insightful about why, but honestly I have no idea.  It was pretty clear that the government had run out of reforming steam, that privatisation undermined much of their traditional support, and mistakes like the Queensland Health pay debacle created the impression that they were incompetent.  Still, they weren't that bad.  Despite former minister Gordon Nuttall ending up in jail, the government as a whole didn't seem corrupt, and they didn't attempt to cover for Nuttall.  Satisfaction with Bligh was down around 40%, not at zero.  Satisfaction with Newman never reached 60%.  Yet it happened.  The LNP now has at least 75 seats, no opposition, and so many new faces in parliament that it looks like a first year politics course.

So what will happen?  What are the LNP's policies again?  Will they actually implement them, or will they find excuses to put a lot of them off?  Will they slash and burn in the public service, or keep most things ticking over as normal?  Only time will tell.  Time for me to put my head down and finish that post about eels.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Losing the House, Saving the Furniture

The end is nigh for one of the weirdest election campaigns I have ever witnessed.  My poor sitting local member Simon Finn, who Anthony Green's Election Tracker says will narrowly lose his previously safe seat according to the March 16 Galaxy poll, must be exhausted after weeks of listening, acting and getting results.  To all appearances he has had to do it on his own, with the Labor Party presence on his flyers getting so small that it has disappeared from some of them altogether - like this one where his mock ballot paper does not show his party affiliation even though the real one will.  Still, someone must be footing the bill for all these flyers.


Meanwhile in another first in my 32 years as a Queensland elector, I can now tell you the result ahead of time because in a break with normal protocol, the Labor Party has officially conceded before election day.  The concession has come in the form of flyer addressed to my wife, which appears below. 


They know they're going to lose the house but still hope to save some of the furniture.  Although as it doesn't mention the Labor Party perhaps it should not be taken to be official just yet.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Who Wrote This?

Here's a little something which appeared in my letterbox this morning. 


It looks like an environmental flyer, doesn't it?  I'm not sure who it comes from because contrary to Section 181 of the Queensland Electoral Act 1992, it doesn't contain a name or contact details of the person who authorised it.  However, it does bear a few clues.

Firstly, one column talks about "Simon Finn and Labor", while the other talks about "Campbell Newman's LNP".  So which party is promoting the identity of its local candidates while trying to smear the man attempting to become President of Queensland?

Secondly, you may notice that we are not explicitly urged to vote for any particular candidate - not, for instance, Greens candidate Libby Connors whose properly authorised flyer also arrived today.  So this is clearly not a Greens pamphlet.  It is certainly not a piece of LNP advertising.  We are, however, not very subtly encouraged to give our preference to Mr Finn.

Thirdly, you will notice that "Simon Finn and Labor" receive five ticks, while "Campbell Newman's LNP" receive five crosses.  This is not the usual approach of environmental lobby groups, who in addition to telling you who they are, generally attempt to be a little more even-handed with their praise and criticism.

I don't want to accuse anyone unjustly.  Perhaps this is the work of a feral Labor supporter.  Still, my suspicions are aroused.  The funny thing is, I was planning to do just what it recommends, but now I'm having a few doubts.

Postscript: The day after I posted this story, Mr Finn called me (in response to an e-mail I sent him) and explained that yes indeed this does come from his office, and that a photocopying error cut the authorisation off the bottom of the flyer - future distributions will have his authorisation clearly displayed along the bottom!

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Human Faces of God

Thom Stark's The Human Faces of God is a sustained critique of the concept of Biblical inerrancy, particularly as outlined in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.  Stark is a young Bible scholar whose origins lie in the Stone-Campbell movement, a 19th century church reform movement which led, among other things, to the creation of the Churches of Christ.  Those who have had anything to do with members of this branch of the church will know them as conservative Evangelicals with a strong congregational ethos and (at least theoretically) a focus on ecumenism.  Stark was brought up on the idea of inerrancy, so in a sense this book is his "coming out".

He cites many of the problems with inerrancy that will be familiar to readers of this blog.  He finds it impossible to read the Bible without seeing its mutiple points of view, its variants on the same story, its factual discrepancies.  The early chapters of this book focus on these questions, and the internal contradictions within the Chicago Statements themselves.  His conclusions are similar to mine, although his research is a lot more thorough.  Inerrancy forces you to read the bible superficially, to be blind to the arguments and tensions within scripture and ultimately to moral and theological immaturity.

The Human Faces of God is mostly about this moral dimension.  Its most powerful chapters, in the middle section of the book, outline by way of illustration five key themes in the Old and New Testaments.

First of all, he outlines how the earliest accounts in the Old Testament see Yahweh as a member of a pantheon, a son of the supreme god El who battles his way to a position of dominance.  He points to a number of strands of evidence which show that the early Israelites had a fundamentally polytheistic world view.  They did not worship Yahweh because he was the only God, but because he was their god.  Hence the Song of Moses in its earliest version says "Praise, O heavens, his people, kneel before him all you gods" (Deuteronomy 32), and the Song of Miriam can ask "Who is like you, O Yahweh, among the gods?" (Exodus 15).  When in Genesis 6 the Sons of God have sexual relations with the daughters of men, the most natural reading is that these are junior deities.

More explosive, though, are Starks' second and third issues.  Many of the Biblical writers accept the logic of human sacrifice and frequently seem to endorse its practice, and they advocate and defend genocide.  In his reading, human sacrifice is always seen as an exceptional, extreme measure.  Israelites are encouraged to substitute an animal for their firstborn children, as Abraham was eventually allowed to do for Isaac.  However, when the Moabite king Mesha sacrifices his son and heir in the face of impending defeat at the hands of the Israelites and Edomites it works - a great wrath breaks out over the Israelite armies and they are driven back (2 Kings 3).  The sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter is portrayed as a tragedy, but once Jephthah has made his vow, he is obliged to go through with it (Judges 11).  And Israel was founded on the sacrifice of the firstborn of Egypt.

The link between this and genocide is actually closer than it seems.  When whole cities were destroyed, with their women, children and livestock, they were seen as "devoted to God".  Hence genocide can be seen as a form of human sacrifice on a grand scale.  In a lengthy exposition, Stark first shows that parts of the Bible - in particular, the Deuternomic History which forms the core of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges and 1 and 2 Samuel, defend and indeed urge on the genocide of the non-Israelite inhabitants of Palestine.  He then ruthlessly demolishes both the reasons given in the Biblical accounts for this genocide (the evil of the people themselves, and their potential to corrupt the Israelites) and the contortions of inerrantist biblical scholars who try to reconcile their belief in inerrancy with their clear understanding that genocide is an atrocity of the highest order.

For Stark, texts like these are the biggest problem with inerrancy.  An inerrantist has two choices.  One is to accept that God is the monster portrayed in these stories.  But then what are they to do with the God of grace and love, and loving our neighbour as ourselves?  Otherwise, they are forced to explain away the texts through special pleading or convoluted interpretations - in which case they become inerrantists in name only, maintaining the concept of inerrancy by doing violence to the text itself.

So what would Stark have us do?  He rejects four of the solutions common in the church.  He does not believe that these texts should be excised from scripture, because they are woven into its fabric and need to be acknowledged.  Metaphorical or allegorical interpretations, popular throughout church history, seem to him to be a cop-out, evading the issue by talking about something else instead.  He also rejects the canonical approach - that the important thing is the final form of the Bible as endorsed by the historical church, not its component parts.  His grounding in non-conformism is too deep for him to take this option seriously.  Finally, despite his own strong leanings towards liberation theology he has little sympathy for the notion of "subversive readings", where for instance the tales of genocide are seen to superficially endorse genocide but at a deeper level to undermine it through exposing it to the light of critique.  Once again, Stark is too well schooled in reading the plain meaning of the text to admit such subtleties.

Stark's own view is that we should treat such texts as a kind of alcoholic uncle.  Whether we like it or not, he is part of the family.  We could bar him from family weddings, but he is still part of the family.  He should not be hidden out of sight.  Much better to intervene, acknowledge his problem and place strict conditions on his behaviour.  We need to acknowledge that genocide and human sacrifice are part of our religious heritage, be firm in our critique of this heritage, and use this critique to further our own faith.

I enjoyed this book, and find it both insightful and illuminating.  However, I have two bones to pick with Stark.  The first is the way he both rejects his heritage, and is bound by it.  He is no longer able to believe in inerrancy, yet he is so steeped in the historical-grammatical way of reading the Bible that other approaches don't make sense to him.  Hence, great riches remain untapped.

Secondly, like Greg Jenks and so many other progressive theologians, he is long on critique and short on alternatives.  I long for a treatment of this subject which provides a coherent spirituality.  Perhaps one day Stark will write that book, but I note that his forthcoming publication is about "what the Bible doesn't say about the divinity of Jesus" so it seems he is still some way from moving beyond critique.

Friday, 9 March 2012

The Perils of Presidential Campaigning

It's two weeks until the Queensland Election and the contest is an interesting study in contrasts.  In the blue corner we have perhaps the most Presidential campaign in Australian history.  Campbell Newman, the LNP leader, is not even a member of Parliament, trying to gain a 7% swing in Ashgrove as well as lead his party to success.  The campaign is all about Newman.  The LNP campaign slogan is his nick-name, "Can-Do", usually said in a slightly ironic tone.  His party is not bidding to be the government, it is bidding to make him the Premier.

Meanwhile in the pale pink corner, beyond the daily media grind the Labor campaign is just the opposite.  Premier Anna Bligh is all but invisible in local campaign material, the focus firmly on the local candidates.  This is most obvious in the seat of Ashgrove, where Newman's bid for a seat is opposed by the "Keep Kate" campaign.  Labour MP Kate Jones quit her cabinet post almost a year ago to devote herself to keeping her seat in the face of Newman's challenge and if you click on the link you will notice that Anna Bligh and Labor do not appear on the Keep Kate website.

The tactic appears to be working.  A recent poll in Ashgrove shows Jones with a slight lead over Newman.  The Labor Party is banking on her local popularity trumping the profile of Newman, who is still relatively popular across Brisbane despite his two terms as Lord Mayor.  He is possibly not quite so popular in Ashgrove.  Neither is Anna Bligh apparently, but unlike Newman she doesn't need the people of Ashgrove to vote for her, just for Kate.

It raises an interesting question.  The LNP will never admit it, but one of the reasons they focus so strongly on Newman is that they don't have a lot else to offer.  The LNP is an uneasy merger between the city-based Liberals and the rural Nationals, and rivalries are always close to the surface.  Just before this election got under way, we had a senior ex-National lobbying publicly for some of his ex-National Party mates to be included in the ministry.  The party clearly has little capacity to vet candidates.  It has now lost two Gold Coast candidates to various scandals and has another one accused of hosting a porn website.  Meanwhile, they are frantically releasing policies but not their costings, suggesting that perhaps they might be making it up as they go along.

So this can go three ways.  Newman could win his seat and his party could win government.   In this case, he will have to somehow coax the rabble he leads into forming a workable government and getting on with the job instead of acting like idiots.  I guess it's possible.

The second possibility is that Newman could fail to win his seat, but his party could win a majority anyway.  In this case, the LNP, not to mention the State, will be in trouble.  Having run a presidential campaign but failed to get their president elected, they will have to turn back to one of the unispiring people they passed over a year ago in promoting Newman.  Kate would be delighted but the rest of us would be left feeling rather hollow.

The third possiblity, of course, is that people's disillusionment with the Labor government will be overwhelmed by the realisation that the LNP is even worse, and Labor will be returned, no doubt with the slimmest of majorities.  This seems unlikely, but in this case, we know that Anna Bligh will almost certainly still be there to lead them, representing as she does one of the safest Labor seats in the State.

Personally. I don't find any of the alternatives that exciting.  I've never voted for the conservative parties in my life and am not about to start now.  However, the reforming zeal has long since departed from Queensland Labor, leaving them to manage the results of past reforms - and that none too competently.  The Queensland Health pay fiasco goes on and on, while on the relatively minor matters on which I deal with the government the wheels seem to be be stuck fast.  Something has to change, but I don't think President Newman is the answer, and a Newman-less LNP is even less so.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Australian Politics, American Style

In the rush to congratulate Julia Gillard on the coup of enticing Bob Carr to take on the role of Foreign Minister, no-one seems to have noticed that this is another sign of the Americanisation of Australian politics.  Even conservative critics are lauding the choice of Carr, one of the most able and intelligent men in Australian politics.  They are also, albeit sometimes backhandedly, expressing admiration for the fact that Gillard was able to assert her authority, over some apparent cabinet resistance, to make it happen.


Here in Queensland we are in mid-election, and the man most likely to become our next Premier is not even a member of the current parliament, running a Presidential campaign which, almost as a sidelight, includes the need to win his own electorate.  I've been whingeing about this issue for a while, so let me do so again in relation to Carr's appointment.

The issue is not whether Carr will make a good Foreign Minister.  Chances are he will, although he may not get to be one for long.  The point is that this is not how our political system is meant to operate.  The Westminster system which we have largely borrowed from our Bristish forebears is substantially different to the American presidential system.

The Americans have, in effect, two electoral processes.  One elects a set of local and state-based representatives to sit in Congress and vote on legislation.  The other elects the Head of State, the President, who then appoints the executive - the Secretaries of State (equivalent to our Ministers) who oversee the various departments and policy areas involved in running the country.  These secretaries are hand-picked by the President and can come from anywhere, it's entirely up to him.  However, they are accountable to congress in that all legislation has to be approved there.

In the Westminster system, of course, we don't elect our Head of State, she inherited that role from her father and will pass it on to her son if she ever gets around to dying.  However, these unelected leaders essentially play a cermonial role, and the actual decision-making is vested in the parliament.  After each election the majority in Parliament gets to form a government, including appointing some of their number to be Ministers of State including the Prime Minister.  The Executive is not separate from the parliament, it is a subset of it. 

The key to this is that it is a 100% representative process.  Ordinary voters elect local members of parliament and State-based senators.  These in turn elect their leaders.  Until recently the Labor members of parliament elected the ministry, with the leader then allocating the portfolios.  It was Kevin Rudd who demanded this be changed in 2007 to allow him the right to choose his own cabinet.  Rudd's hazy grasp of democratic decision-making was a key reason his Labor colleagues ousted him in 2010, so it has been ironic to watch Rudd promise to restore the right of Caucus to elect ministers during his leadership challenge, and then Gillard spend the week after her re-election recruiting a senior minister from outside the parliament.

Gillard is of course exploiting a loophole.  The surprise resignation of Mark Arbib from the Senate opened up a vacancy.  Casual vacancies in the Senate are not filled by election, they are technicaly filled by the government of the state that Senator represented.  Following the flagrant but legal abuse of this process in Queensland by Joh Bjelke-Peterson in 1975 the law was clarified to ensure that the replacement came from the same party as the retiring Senator.  This means that in reality the NSW Labor Party gets to appoint Arbib's replacement. 

Yet Carr's nomination by NSW Labor is a fiction.  It is President Gillard who has approached Carr with the offer to become Foreign Minister (oh and by the way, also NSW Senator since Ministers have to be members of parliament) and imposed her choice on the NSW party and on her own Cabinet colleagues.  Although Steven Smith, who wanted the job himself, aparently complained bitterly, in the end they all let her do it because they couldn't afford to embarrass her so soon after her thumping re-election as Labor leader.  In doing so, they have allowed her to step so far outside the bounds of her authority that it is absurd.

I often joke about these things, but actually I find it depressing.  First, neither our leaders, nor our media, nor apparently most voters, seem to really understand how the system is supposed to work.  Secondly, they don't seem to care.  Elections, representation, accountability?  That's not real leadership!