Archive for November, 2018

Taxman gets access to documents in Family Court feud

Warring couples’ financial information could be accessed by the taxmanWarring couples may think twice about airing their dirty laundry in the Family Court after it ruled the Tax Office could use financial information filed in one dispute to audit the parties for potential tax evasion.

In a case decided this month, a three-judge bench of the Family Court gave the Tax Commissioner access to documents in a feud between a Mr and Mrs Darling, a Peter Pan-esque pseudonym given to the couple by the court.

It also released the Tax Office from an obligation not to use documents for a purpose unrelated to the original court case.

The Darlings settled their Family Court stoush in December 2010 but the commissioner was dogged in his determination to use the documents as part of a massive audit of Mr Darling’s tax affairs stretching over two decades, from June 1991 to June 2010.

The Tax Office wanted to know the value of “funds to support his lifestyle”, including worldwide assets and income.

The Commissioner applied to the Family Court for permission to use the documents. He was knocked back last year by Justice Kirsty Macmillan, who ruled there was insufficient evidence of “special circumstances”.

He successfully appealed that decision to the Full Court of the Family Court, comprising Justices Stephen Thackray, Andrew Strickland and Peter Murphy.

The court found the Tax Office had provided sufficient information about the purposes for which it wanted the documents.

Niv Tadmore, a tax partner at law firm Clayton Utz, said the case would make it easier in the future for the commissioner to argue the Family Court should grant access to documents.The decision is made on a case-by-case basis.

“The application [in the Darling case] was funded under the ATO test case litigation program, so the outcome of this case must have some precedential value in the mind of the Commissioner as to how he conducts audits in the future,” Dr Tadmore said.

“Having achieved the desired result, it is very likely that the Commissioner will be making more such applications.”

Among the factors that weighed in favour of granting access to the documents was that the Commissioner was conducting a “targeted, substantial audit” rather than a random exercise.

The secrecy provisions that bound the Tax Office would ensure the documents did not “venture into the public arena”.

The court said the decision was unlikely to create a greater disincentive for people to be forthcoming in Family Court cases, and they were under a “heavy obligation” to be frank.

“It is vital to recognise that there is already a disincentive to ligitants to be frank with the Family Court about tax evasion because … the court can (and does) refer such matters to the authorities for investigation,” it said.

A spokesman for the Tax Office said it did not expect an increase in the number of cases in which the Commissioner sought access to Family Court documents.

“The Commissioner in some limited number of matters will seek to obtain access to court documents in general for the purposes of assessing a person’s tax liability and capacity to pay a tax liability,” the spokesman said.

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Private eyes to probe public servants’ mental health claims

Workers who say their jobs have left them mentally damaged are increasingly being placed under surveillance to test their claims.

The federal government’s workplace insurer, Comcare, which is slowly going broke under the cost of ‘’psychosocial injury” compo cases, has warned it is going undercover to bust dodgy claims by public servants.

It follows the case of the National Australia Bank, which put private eyes on the trail of a former employee in Sydney who claimed workers’ compensation for a range of mental disorders allegedly caused by workplace bullying.

The case was keenly watched by insurers who have found if difficult if not impossible to disprove mental injuries, as opposed to physical fakers, who can be easily detected.

The claimant in the Sydney case, Hashem Azary, looked a mess when he gave his evidence to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal last month.

The former bank worker rocked in his seat, walked with a stoop, avoided eye contact and spoke in a child-like voice as he told the tribunal how bullying by his bosses at NAB caused his mental health problems.

The claimant’s wife told the tribunal that Mr Azary was “totally dependent” on her, that she had to help him shower, shave and dress, and how she had to put her husband’s food out in front of him and then coax him to eat.

He could drive, she said, but only in emergencies.

But private detectives hired by the bank  had observed him clean-shaven and neatly dressed as he drove his son to childcare, took his wife and daughter to McDonald’s, and then spent a few hours together in the city.

There was no rocking or stooping on the DVD shown to the tribunal.

A neuropsychologist also discredited Mr Azary’s claims of mental illness.

”[Mr Azary] endorsed a high degree of exaggerated, unusual and extreme symptoms atypical of bona fide clients, but more typical of individuals asked to feign mental disorders in simulation research,” Dr Thomas O’Neill told the tribunal.

Dr O’Neill said there was an 81.8 per cent chance Mr Azary was faking it.

Two other psychiatrists on the case, Thomas Newlyn and David Bell, backed away from their diagnoses after they saw the covertly filmed footage and read Dr O’Neill’s findings.

Another two psychiatrists saw the footage and did not alter their view that the former home loan salesman was sick, but they could not explain how he looked so healthy on the DVD and  acted so unwell when he went to the doctor’s office or to the tribunal.

Everybody agreed it was curious that Mr Arazy spent four days in a psychiatric hospital, took anti-psychotic drugs and underwent electro-shock therapy but the tribunal held that none of those activities proved the claimant was sick.

Tribunal members Jill Toohey and Michael Couch found Mr Azary and his wife to be ”unreliable witnesses”, rejected their evidence and threw their case out.

The failed claim could be a watershed for bosses across the nation, particularly in the public sector, beset by a rising tide of mental health claims.

Comcare, which has been hit hardest by the rise in mental health claims, would not comment on the individual case but confirmed that it used covert surveillance in certain cases.

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Malcolm Fraser: An unlikely radical

Unlikely radical: Malcolm Fraser fishing in Yaringa Harbour, south-east of Melbourne, last month. Photo: Simon Schluter SMS Post-coup cuppa: Fraser shares some tea with his wife, Tammy, in Canberra on November 12, 1975 – the day after the dismissal of the Whitlam government.

Old boys: Former Prime Ministers Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser in 1992. Photo: Fairfaxsyndication苏州美甲培训

Cut US military ties or risk war with China, warns Malcolm Fraser

Everyone is familiar with the political movement of youthful leftists to the right. The alternative drift – of conservatives to the left – is far less common. As I read Malcolm Fraser’s new book on Australian foreign policy, Dangerous Allies, which advocates nothing less than the end of the Australia’s military alliance with the United States, the career of the towering 19th-century British Liberal, William Gladstone, came to mind.

Gladstone began his political life arguing that the great parliamentary Reform Act of 1832 “threatened to change the form of the British government and ultimately to break up the whole frame of society”. He ended it, more than half a century later, almost tearing his party and his country apart by his determination to end the centuries-long British oppression of Ireland. Fraser’s political metamorphosis has been no less dramatic.

When Fraser lost the prime ministership in 1983, he had few friends on either the right or left of politics. The right spoke contemptuously of Fraser’s failure to introduce the deregulatory and supposedly small-government policies associated with the neo-liberal revolution pioneered by his fellow conservatives, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. As the Fraser government had taken power several years before either Thatcher or Reagan, the right was effectively accusing him of failure to be wise (or perhaps unwise) not after but before the event.

The left’s hostility to Fraser was simpler. Fraser could not be forgiven for the role he’d played in the “coup” of November 11, 1975: governor-general John Kerr’s dismissal of the Whitlam government. Nor could he be forgiven for defending the US war in Vietnam or, especially after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, for reinstating in Australia the hardline, US-led, anti-communist policies of what became known as the Second Cold War.

But in the second half of 1990s, something strange began to happen to Fraser. As the centre of gravity of Australian politics moved rightwards under the Howard government, Fraser became associated with values and policies of the left. The most conspicuous early examples occurred in the areas of ethnicity and race. Fraser strongly supported the movement towards reconciliation with indigenous Australians that the Howard government subverted. He stood firmly against the attack on Asian migration and multiculturalism of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. And he opposed the cruelty of Australia’s asylum-seeker policies: indefinite mandatory detention and then the so-called Pacific Solution, tow-backs to Indonesia and offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island. Somewhat less conspicuously, he also began to question the foreign policy trajectory of the US and its super-loyal ally, Australia, following the end of the Cold War: NATO’s bombing of Serbia, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the licence given to acts of dubious legality in the war on terror.

Fraser customarily explains his movement from right to left by arguing it is Australia and the world that have changed, and not he. Concerning matters of racial equality, this is probably correct. By the early 1960s, at a time when his leader, Robert Menzies, openly sympathised with white South Africa, Fraser was notable within the Liberal Party as a principled opponent of apartheid. As prime minister, Fraser’s government championed multiculturalism and brought tens of thousands of Indo-Chinese refugees to Australia.

Concerning America’s international behaviour and Australian foreign policy, however, the idea of the world’s change and Fraser’s continuity of conviction is less credible. As minister for the army and then defence in the late 1960s, Fraser was as committed to the American alliance and to the Vietnam War as any member of the Liberal Party. As prime minister, no Western leader responded with greater alarm to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Fraser told journalists that the world might be at war within days. In Washington, he tried to convince the Americans to establish a new naval base at Fremantle and later accepted the idea of Darwin as an airbase for US B-52 bombers.

Fraser’s foreign policy thinking shifted fundamentally, although gradually, at the end of the Cold War. In an interview in 1994 he still defended the Vietnam War as “right”, adding that “failing in an enterprise does not make the attempt dishonourable or wrong”. Later, he came to think of it as a disaster. More generally, Fraser, the most pro-American of all Australia’s leaders during the latter stages of the Cold War, began to question, with a critique no less withering than that of his former enemies on the left, the character of almost every aspect of America’s international behaviour: its narcissistic self-image as the light unto the world, its imperial arrogance, its systematic abuse of military power.

All this eventually brought him to question aspects of the political culture of Australia. In 1994, Fraser still described the criticism of Australia as a dependent nation as “ludicrous” and a symptom of a “massive inferiority complex”. “Australia has never lacked a sense of independence,” he said. “I don’t know how ignorant of Australian history people can be.”

Perhaps because of the unprecedented pro-American sycophancy of the Howard government following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Fraser altogether changed his mind. He came to believe that a long-standing, deep-seated and self-crippling “craving” for dependency on a great and powerful friend is to be found at the very heart of what he calls Australia’s “national psyche”.

A diagnosis of the roots of that national psyche, and its consequences for the future of his country, form the subject of Dangerous Allies. Last month, I spent two afternoons in his Melbourne city office, discussing with Malcolm Fraser the most radical book ever to have been written by a former Australian prime minister.

I begin by suggesting his book would be welcomed by the team at The Australian. Although we chuckle, both of us realise there is a very serious issue here. Because of the uncritically pro-American bias of the US corporation that owns almost 70 per cent of the metropolitan press in Australia, we have lost the capacity to debate some of the most serious issues concerning our future. Fraser recalls the time when Menzies bewailed US ownership of four provincial radio stations.

He knows, of course, that his book will be controversial. His publishers had approached the former Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans for a commendation. On the cover we learn that Evans believes the book represents “a major contribution to the debate Australia has to have”. Fraser tells me that while Evans supports a less supine Australian foreign policy, he disagrees with Fraser’s advocacy of the end of the US military alliance.

I ask Fraser whether he had begun his research with that argument in mind. He had not. It was the facts and logic of the situation that led him to this conclusion. Between the present military alliance and full independence, he could find no “halfway house”.

For Fraser, the roots of the national psyche of dependency began before Federation. The federal fathers looked to the Royal Navy for protection. They did not even consider that Australia needed to form its own foreign policy. Our relations with the world were to be managed from London; our relations with London through the Colonial Office. At most, Australian patriots like Alfred Deakin sought to enhance Australia’s influence within the formal structures of the Empire.

It was a hopeless cause. Fraser quotes the prophetic warning of early 20th century High Court justice Henry Bourne Higgins that the price for British protection would be paid by Australian soldiers sent unquestioningly to fight in imperial wars. He is dismayed that Gallipoli has become Australia’s sacred soil; nations ought not to feel the need to be born in blood. Rather, the progressive social legislation that once made Australia “the working man’s paradise” would provide a sounder myth of foundation. I ask Fraser whether as PM he had visited Gallipoli. No, he had not: “People would have said Fraser is wasting his time.”

Fraser did not find any British Empire policy that Australian politicians had influenced either before or after World War I. Only one Australian prime minister, Billy Hughes – in Fraser’s view, our worst – managed to throw his weight around successfully, mainly in a harmful manner, like demanding the removal of a racial equality clause from the League of Nations preamble. Australia at first declined the offer of independence in 1931 under the Statute of Westminster; conservative politicians feared that it might dilute Britain’s commitment to defend Australia.

I tell Fraser a story he has not heard before. In 1939, the Australian deputy high commissioner in London was accidentally sent the minutes of a chiefs-of-staff meeting that made it clear that if trouble arose in Europe and the Pacific, Britain might not be able to send a fleet to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. The deputy high commissioner was begged not to send the minutes to Canberra. Astonishingly, he agreed. In any other context, this would have been regarded as treason – the unsent information provided the key to the future security of Australia. Fraser’s ears prick. I ask him whether he is disquieted by the wording of Menzies’ announcement in September 1939 that because Britain had declared war on Germany, “as a result” Australia was also at war. “Oh, you’ve got to be. You’ve got to be.”

During World War II, Australia began its move from dependency on Britain to dependency on the US. There was only one moment when an alternative history was possible – Dr H. V. Evatt’s foreign policy leadership under the Labor government of Ben Chifley. Evatt, one of the architects of the United Nations, thought of Australia as an independent Western middle power, and though he has long been pilloried by conservatives of Fraser’s generation, he is the unlikely hero of Dangerous Allies. I ask Fraser what killed off the kind of future for Australia imagined by Evatt. Although Fraser doesn’t believe that Menzies, in so many ways a man of the past, was blameless, he thinks the main explanation lies with the coming of the Cold War.

There is a contradiction in Fraser’s current view of the Cold War. In general, he praises the US policy of containment. The Soviet Union truly was what the Cold War warriors claimed – an aggressive and expansionist power. In particular, however, he is now deeply critical of several American actions he once enthusiastically supported. In Vietnam, he now believes, the Americans did not understand that the communist movement was the bearer of the nationalist idea. They did not understand the geopolitical implication of the Sino-Soviet dispute; that communism was no longer “monolithic”. Much of the US’s behaviour was lawless, like the assassination of the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, and its leaders systematically ignored the pessimistic CIA analyses showing that victory in Vietnam was increasingly unlikely.

Australia was complicit in the Vietnam folly. We were keen to involve America in the western Pacific. We did not realise the irrelevancy of our encouragement. Great powers, Fraser insists, invariably follow self-interest. He now describes Australia’s slavish support for America in Vietnam as a “case study of the perils of blind strategic dependence”. He is only slightly less critical of the American and Australian response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, where military support for a floundering Marxist government was interpreted as a bid for world power.

Fraser was minister for the army and later defence minister during the Vietnam War, and the highly excitable prime minister at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Although he is not temperamentally inclined to breast-beating, his reappraisal of US and Australian Cold War behaviour over Vietnam and Afghanistan also involves open and unambiguous self-criticism, a quality of character not to be found in any postwar Australian PM before or after him.

This quality matters. Fraser joined the Menzies ministry at the time of one of the greatest political catastrophes of the 20th century, the brutal mid-1960s massacre of perhaps one million Indonesian communists, leftists and Chinese. I raise this question with him. Fraser doubts that accurate intelligence on the massacre reached Australia. But he does not doubt the reason why. After the Indonesian Army came to power, there was in Australia “a sigh of relief … don’t look too closely at how it happened”. Unlike many other anti- communists of his (and my) generation, he has no desire to defend the indefensible. Indeed, in our conversation, he turns to other instances of wilful blindness. Cold War warriors did not want to know that before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, Cuba had been ruled by “a tyrannical dictator in bed with big business”. Why, in 1973, did they feel the need to rid themselves of Chilean president Salvador Allende, a left-wing social democrat? Once self-criticism begins, it is difficult to know where it will lead or when it will stop.

Fraser tells me he was once convinced the swift and peaceable end of the Cold War would create a better world. Ruefully, he concedes he then did not believe it possible that the hope of a new world order powerfully articulated in March 1991 by George Bush snr – of international co-operation under the rule of law – would be so swiftly and comprehensively squandered.

Why did this happen? Fraser places most of the blame on the post-Cold War leadership of the sole remaining superpower, the US. Bill Clinton had no feel for foreign policy. At the end of the Cold War, having served its purpose, NATO should have been wound up. Fraser is bitterly critical of the war of humanitarian intervention fought by NATO over Kosovo: its support for the terrorist Kosovo Liberation Army; its prolonged bombing of civilians in Serbia; its signing of a treaty, the Kumanovo Agreement, it had no intention of fulfilling. Even though Dangerous Allies was written before the present crisis over Crimea, it contains a prophetic passage about the dangers of Clinton’s expansion of NATO eastwards to the borderlands of Russia.

The rise of the neo-conservatives in Washington during the 1990s was, however, an even more important catalyst for Fraser’s journey from former Cold War warrior to Australia’s most prominent critic of US imperialism. These people are, he tells me, true believers in some of the oldest and most dangerous tendencies in American thought: American “self-righteousness” and “exceptionalism”; the existence of a God-given “manifest destiny” to bring redemption to the world. He explains the potential perils of the neo-con world view like this: in the same way that Stalin believed the USSR would not be safe until democracy was destroyed, the neo-cons believe the US will not be safe until democracy is universally triumphant. They have no understanding of the madness of their ambition. They vastly overestimate the political efficacy of military power. They are extraordinarily ignorant of other cultures.

After 9/11, the neo-cons were critical to George W. Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq and to hand to the US president geographically and chronologically unlimited war powers, including the right to unleash drone attacks on people living in countries with whom America was not at war. In Dangerous Allies, Fraser describes drones as “the weapons of terrorists”. I ask Fraser whether he believes the influence of the neo-cons passed with the 2008 election of Barack Obama or whether it remains in the ether of Washington. “In the ether,” he replies.

Fraser is alarmed about the American response to the rise of China. One half of their policy invites economic co-operation; the other half – the so-called pivot into the western Pacific – suggests a renewed round of military containment. The Chinese he meets tell him they are puzzled. Fraser believes a new policy of containment is wrong and dangerous. Unlike the expansionist Soviet Union, the Chinese pose no military threat. Their energy is absorbed in economic growth. They rely as greatly as the Americans on the freedom of the oceans. They have always opposed what they call great-power “hegemonism”.

The US, however, cannot abandon the expectation of “supremacy” across the globe, including in the western Pacific. North-east Asia is becoming increasingly unstable. The greatest danger, in Fraser’s view, is a clash, beginning perhaps over disputed territories, between China and an increasingly militaristic Japan with nuclear capacity and supported by its ally, the US. In such circumstances, what should Australia do?

This brings us to the reason he wrote this book. Fraser is appalled by the trajectory of Australian foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, beginning under Howard but extended under Labor. “The policy of dependence has got worse since the breakup of the Soviet Union,” he tells me. “We’re more dependent on America today than we ever were on Britain, and more dependent on America today than we ever were during the Cold War.” Why so? He believes the answer lies in the intimacy of our contemporary military relations.

Fraser cites four examples. In 2012, a serving Australian officer, Major General Rick Burr, was appointed as Deputy Commander of the 60,000 strong US Pacific Army. Few Australians even know. At present, HMAS Sydney spends several months each year sailing with the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, including in the waters of north-east Asia. In 2011, President Obama announced that Darwin would become a US Army base; Fraser tells me that it was “an absolute disgrace” that this momentous decision was scarcely debated in Australia. He also thinks it disgraceful that we allowed President Obama to announce the US decision for its pivot into the western Pacific while on Australian soil. This symbolises for him the willing abdication not only of our independence but, more deeply, of our sovereignty.

Most important for Fraser, however, is the US communications base at Pine Gap. During his time as prime minister, Pine Gap was used exclusively for surveillance. As a result of technological change, it is now an integral part of the US “offensive war machine”. Pine Gap would be used, he believes, to target China’s nuclear arsenal in case of war. It presently provides information for the drone strikes killing Islamist fighters (and unlucky bystanders) in the “war on terror”.

This leads Fraser to his conclusion that, given the current US-Australian military relationship, we will inevitably become part of any military action in our region that involves the US, no matter what our government might think or wish to do. According to Fraser, we have arrived at a fundamental paradox. Traditionally, we looked to great and powerful friends for protection. At present, the only national security threat we face arises from the nature of our military relations with one of these great and powerful friends, relations that have developed as a consequence of an unthinking policy based on instinct and drift.

Fraser expresses the essence of his policy recommendation in these words: “To make sure that America does not have a capacity to force Australia into a war which we should well and truly keep out of.”

What then should be done? Fraser thinks we should at once withdraw our commander from serving with the US Pacific Army and stop HMAS Sydney from sailing with the Seventh Fleet. We should inform the US that within a year the Darwin military base will be closed down, and that within five years the communications base at Pine Gap will follow.

What would be the consequences of such radical acts? Would we miss the kind of signals intelligence we now receive as part of the “five eyes” agreement struck at the end of World War II? Fraser tells me that he cannot think of one major decision his government had taken as a consequence of signals intelligence from the US. In jest, I remind him of the American intelligence that led the Howard government into the invasion of Iraq. “Well, it was all a lie.”

What about the protection provided by the ANZUS Treaty? Fraser thinks ANZUS was never more than an agreement to consult in time of military danger. The US would never support Australia in a conflict with Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim state. Great powers do not reward loyalty; that is the abiding illusion on which our defence policy has been based for more than a century. The US will do whatever is in its interests.

As a close and trusted ally, might we not be able, as ANU academic Hugh White suggests, to influence the dangerous drift of the US’s China policy? Fraser is sure our words will fall on deaf ears. The US, in his experience, has no capacity to listen to other countries. Indeed the only thing that might give Washington pause for thought, he tells me, is if we withdrew from the military alliance.

Our conversations are over. I mention to Fraser the comparison with Gladstone that has come to mind. He reminds me that Gladstone retired as prime minister when he was 84, the age he will reach next year. After three hours of intense conversation, Fraser seems as full of energy and good humour as when we began.

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The tree whisperer

Change agent: Tony Rinaudo’s ideas have revolutionised thinking around forest regeneration. Photo: Angela Wylie New shoots: Tony Rinaudo with Manuel Da Silva and some of his children near Aileu in East Timor. Photo: Angela Wylie

An East Timorese farmer inspects land that has become barren due to unsustainable practices. Photo: Angela Wylie

In 1983, a young Australian driving along a sandy track in the wilds of Niger in west Africa stumbled on a revelation that would transform his life and the fortunes of millions of Africans. Tony Rinaudo had spent three exhausting and dispiriting years trying to bring God and sustainable agriculture to poor, famine-plagued village communities on the southern fringes of the Sahara Desert. His efforts to help replant forests in one of the harshest climates on earth had been met with suspicion, hostility and failure. Then came what many of Rinaudo’s faith would count a miracle, or at least a road to Damascus moment, in the desert. Stopping briefly before heading into a particularly rough section of track, Rinaudo paused and, while pondering his misfortune, gazed at some small shrubs growing nearby.

“I had a trailerload of trees in the ute and I stopped to let pressure out of the tyres to go through the sandy track better,” he recalls. “It dawned on me how useless it all was. In every direction there were no trees. And here I was with this piddly little trailerload of trees and I knew the farmers weren’t going to look after them and most of them would die. But these shrubs caught my eye and I saw very quickly that this was the same leaf structure as some of the existing trees. I suddenly realised this wasn’t a shrub but a tree trying to regrow.”

Bauhinia reticulata is a tough hardwood mostly used for firewood. Fast-growing, it produces abundant foliage for fuel and fodder, enhances soil fertility and crop yields, and allows farmers to plant crops right up to the trees’ trunks. What Rinaudo realised that day was that Bauhinia reticulata and many other native tree species had not, as people thought, vanished over the decades after being relentlessly felled for firewood or to make way for agriculture, torched by marauding herdsman and ostensibly killed off by the extremes of climate. Instead, many of the trees were simply dormant beneath the ground, their vast root systems still alive – in some cases a century or more after the trees had gone.

What was needed to bring back the forest vegetation of Niger was not replanting but regeneration – protecting the first regrowth from the old root systems, from grazing livestock and from human plunder, then carefully pruning to encourage growth and guarding the reborn trees from premature harvesting. The methods Tony Rinaudo pioneered to achieve that end become known as Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR).

Three decades on, FMNR is transforming the landscape not only of Niger but also vast areas of Africa and Asia. More than five million hectares, or half Niger’s farmland, has been regenerated through FMNR, and substantial tree regeneration has also been achieved in Ethiopia, Ghana, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mali. Rinaudo, who joined World Vision Australia after returning from Niger in 1999, is now driving FMNR programs in 11 African and five Asian countries, including East Timor, and is about to start work in Haiti. Chris Reij, a senior fellow with the non-profit World Resources Institute, has described it as “probably the largest positive environmental transformation” in all of Africa.

Tony Rinaudo grew up in Myrtleford, northern Victoria – once the tobacco-growing capital of Australia – one of six children in a devout Catholic family. The environmentally-destructive farming practices of the 1950s and ’60s had a powerful impact on the boy. “At that time they were using planes to spray the crop,” he remembers. “It would kill fish in the stream. They would clear-fell the native bush, which I loved, and replace it with a monoculture of pines. I would see little kids in India or Africa going hungry and it didn’t add up that we were putting so much effort into these things that seemed to be destructive, and children over there just needed food. Something clicked in my heart.”

After studying agricultural science at the University of New England in Armidale in northern NSW, where he met his wife, Liz, Rinaudo joined Serving in Mission, a missionary society with a substantial presence in Africa. He wanted to go to English-speaking Nigeria or Ghana, but Serving in Mission had other ideas and sent him to Francophone Niger, one of the poorest and most environmentally-challenged nations in west Africa.

The southern third of Niger was once covered with dense dryland forest teeming with elephants, giraffe and buffalo. “For generations the trees had served all of the people’s needs; it was their pharmacy, their supermarket, their hardware store,” says Rinaudo. That began to change radically around the 1970s, when severe drought hit the Sahel, the semi-arid region that spans sub-Saharan Africa from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. Niger, once home to more than 50 species of trees, saw massive deforestation and the disappearance of most forest diversity. Successive droughts killed many trees and resulted in many more being cut down by people desperate for income from firewood.

In 1960 Niger’s population had been about four million. By 1980 it had doubled and has now redoubled to about 16 million. “As the population grew, so did the cities,” says Rinaudo. “There was a significant market for wood for fuel and timber. In the past, famine might strike in west Africa every 50 or 70 years. In the 1970s they started to occur more frequently and more recently; big famines have been happening about every five years.”

That reality confronted Tony and Liz Rinaudo when they arrived in Niger in 1980 with their six-month-old son, Ben. They would stay for nearly two decades, raising another son and two daughters. The mission station they were assigned was a farm school in a village near Maradi, Niger’s second largest city. Rinaudo was tasked with running a project planting windbreaks and woodlots. “It had been born out of the 1975 famine. There was a little money left over and the missionaries asked to use that for tree planting. Most community members weren’t interested at all. Everything was so hard: the climate, the people, the work, and I thought, ‘Why on earth am I here?’ ”

By 1983, Rinaudo began experimenting with FMNR. Well aware that Australian gum trees coppiced when cut (a process whereby the stumps regenerate with new shoots and stems), Rinaudo says he had been blind to that possibility in Africa. “Other organisations – USAID, World Bank-funded projects, the Niger government – were planting trees, so there was a certain mindset: have desert, will plant. Even in the face of failure, you just worked harder. And it still didn’t work.”

Even after Rinaudo realised the potential to regenerate the forests, he struggled to persuade the village farmers. “People’s hearts weren’t in it. They were more concerned to earn money or grow food and not many people saw the link between deforestation and declining soil fertility and crop yields.”

the turning point came in 1984, when another devastating drought swept the Sahel. In Niger there was almost no rain and total crop failure, which triggered one of the worst famines recorded. Official estimates were that 100,000 people died across the Sahel but Rinaudo believes the toll was higher. “Suddenly people started to think that maybe there was something wrong with cutting all the trees down,” he says.

Rinaudo turned his limited famine relief funds into a food-for-work program that pressed villagers into compulsory tree-management projects. Over 12 months his mission raised about $500,000, purchased 1800 tonnes of grain and helped 50,000 people – provided they agreed to manage the regenerating trees.

“But at the end of the famine,” he says, “when their crops came in and we discontinued the food aid, of the 500,000 trees that were pruned and on our books, two-thirds were immediately cut down for fuel or cash. Many people were ticked off that I had required them to protect the trees on their own land when they were not convinced of the benefits, but one-third of the farmers said, ‘No, Tony’s not completely mad. We still got a crop and, in fact, the crop did very well and we had some extra firewood that we wouldn’t have had before and there’s fodder, so we are going to try this.’

“Before the famine, the project had been working in just 10 villages. It intensified and expanded during the famine to 100 villages, then would have scaled back a bit after that, but the message was the same: food or no food, this is a good thing to do, the right thing to do economically, biologically and environmentally. People who had lost hope and were leaving for the cities were content to stay. They started to dream.”

And the word spread. “We trained some of the Care International people and other non-government organisations and we sent farmers to other parts of the country to show them what we were doing.” In search of hardier species to withstand the droughts, Rinaudo also promoted some species of Australian acacias, a traditional food source for Aborigines. “The nutritional profile is quite astounding. The seed contains about 20 per cent protein, 40 per cent carbohydrate and 6 per cent fats. Many of these species thrived under the conditions in west Africa.”

World Vision Australia is exploring the food and fodder potential of about 40 species of acacia. But Rinaudo – and many Africans – are already convinced. “There are villagers in Niger who love that food. They have dances and songs about it. The guys tell me, ‘If you eat this stuff you can see further and you are stronger, you can work harder, and you are better in bed as well.’ ”

It wasn’t until he was back in Australia in 2004, five years after he returned from Niger, that Rinaudo discovered how profound the impact of FMNR had been. Now with World Vision Australia, he returned to Niger to explore a new resource management project. There he met Chris Reij, a human geographer then working at Vrije University in the Netherlands who had just completed a national forestry survey.

“He said, ‘There is something amazing happening here.’ He did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and said there had been more than a million hectares of regeneration. He banged his pen down and said, ‘It’s time to stop researching. This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on 苏州美甲培训.

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Michaela McGuire, Marieke Hardy take Women of Letters to the world

Michaela McGuire (left) and Marieke Hardy. Photo: Simon SchluterLaunching their Women of Letters project on the world stage and securing performers such as Martha Wainwright, Edie Falco and Moby would have been a hell of a lot easier for its creators, Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire, if they would just let the thing be recorded.

The literary salon and letter-reading event, in which participants pen a missive to a set topic, has become a firm favourite in Melbourne, but it seems to fit equally well with foreign audiences.

”Agents kept telling us to just record one show so they could show talent and get them on board, but it completely misses the point of being in the moment and having this experience that you will never have again,” says Hardy, who has just returned from a whirlwind set of dates in the US, England and Ireland.

This sense of the ephemeral is, she says, what keeps the event special.

Actor Edie Falco, best known for her roles in The Sopranos, Nurse Jackie and Oz, told McGuire the reason she read her letter, ”A Letter to the Last Time I Ever Drank”, is because she knew it wasn’t being recorded. And it’s not just the readers who appreciate the lens-free nature of the events.

”Audience members enjoy that they don’t have to have their camera phones up and they can just enjoy,” she says.

Hardy, who is a regular on ABC TV’s The Book Club, and McGuire, who writes for publications includingThe Monthly, met in 2009 and put on the first Women of Letters at the Bella Union in March 2010.

”We really got lucky with this concept,” says Hardy. ”We had an idea and it has worked from the very first show, and even when we go to cities that have never heard of us … it always comes together, and it’s like a show in Melbourne. The audiences have the same reactions and the readers share the same personal experiences.”

It’s something this writer can attest to, having been invited to read a letter at an event in May 2010.

On the recent tour the pair ran 10 shows in six weeks in Los Angeles, New York, Texas, Chicago, London and Dublin, with actor Yael Stone, Rookie magazine editor Tavi Gevinson and How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor.

Despite the show taking up most weekends, neither Hardy nor McGuire are paid, instead putting the money towards Edgar’s Mission, a sanctuary for lost or hurt farm animals.

”Michaela’s got her second book coming out in June [Last Bets, about Crown Casino] and I write TV, and that means I can do Women of Letters for free, and that means it can be a true altruistic passion project,” Hardy says.

Women of Letters returns to Melbourne on Sunday at the Regal Ballroom in Northcote.

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