All posts by Michael Burge

Journalist, artist, author, designer, digital publisher and mentor

Heresy in the High Country for #NewEnglandVotes

“To turn this region into a true believer, New England voters need to decide if we want fossil fuel extraction in the energy plan.”

WHEN state member for the NSW seat of Northern Tablelands Adam Marshall put pen to paper in favour of renewable electricity generation in mid-2018, the news made barely a ripple in a media landscape apparently hungry for stories about alternatives to burning coal.

In his opinion piece for the local Fairfax Media weeklies, Mr Marshall ramped-up the religious rhetoric, calling renewables a “miracle” and himself an “agnostic” on the issue.

AGNOSTIC ADAM Adam Marshall, NSW Member for Northern Tablelands.

He also made a bold prophecy: that the NSW New England region — an agricultural heartland — could become a net exporter of renewable energy. Jobs, local economic boosts, and low-cost energy would be the outcomes of change the state minister claimed was driven by community sentiment in a Climate Institute survey.

Heady stuff, especially considering Mr Marshall is a National Party MP in a region more clearly associated with its federal counterpart, coal-loving conformist Barnaby Joyce, who calls renewables “a religion”.

Lest Mr Joyce try to claim credit for Adam Marshall’s renewables pilgrimage — he’s not above attending photo opportunities at renewable project sod-turnings in the region — it’s time to consider what this identity crisis for New England Nationals means for the federal election.

True Believers

After working in rural media in the United Kingdom, North America and Australia I moved home to the New England region in 2017. One of the greatest surprises of my return were the regular sightings of wind turbines and solar arrays.

As I soon learned, the locals all know about our Chinese-backed renewables miracle even if the Canberra press bubble doesn’t join the dots and ask Barnaby Joyce about it. If you ever get around to driving to Inverell from Glen Innes along the Gwydir Highway you’ll see some of the most iconic grazing land in the region, with an increasing number of wind turbines and solar panels hiding in plain sight of some very high-profile renewables naysayers.

Perhaps the real miracle is that this stretch of country has given hope to those who believe the links between pollution of the soil, air and water and global warming.

But to turn this region into a true believer, New England voters need to decide if we want fossil fuel extraction in the energy plan, and someone is prepared to ask us: newly-announced independent candidate Adam Blakester wants to know what constituents think, in fact he’s prepared to create his policy platform on our views.

It’s an unexpectedly abstract start to what may prove to be a refreshing campaign.

Sacred Ground

Without ruling out extractive industries, Adam Marshall, who also serves as NSW Parliamentary Secretary for Renewable Energy, stated: “I’m all for a sensible energy mix,” in his 2018 piece.

Agnostic, yes. Renewables purist, no; although his plan for the region to export renewable energy hints at the New England doing its fair share of heavy lifting in national electricity generation in years to come. If we punch above our weight with wind turbines and solar panels, surely that means we won’t have to allow more coal and coal seam gas (CSG)?

INDIE ADAM Independent candidate Adam Blakester.

Mr Blakester has sat at the table with Mr Marshall in this space, whereas Mr Joyce is firmly on the record as pro-fossil fuels. In 2018 he headed an inquiry into the mining sector aimed at increasing community benefits. As recently as the Wentworth by-election he was calling for the Snowy Hydro 2.0 project to be scrapped and the savings used to fund new coal-fired power stations.

Apart from publicly defending prime agricultural land at threat from the Shenhua Watermark project’s plan to mine coal on the Liverpool Plains, Mr Joyce prevaricates on how much extraction should be allowed in New England. A public spat with former independent member for New England Tony Windsor during the 2016 election campaign was fought around accusations about mining affiliations.

So the sacred centre ground on fossil fuels is available for Mr Blakester to occupy, although he’s waiting to see if New England voters will lead him there.

Energy Battleground

The city of Tamworth had strong leadership on energy innovation well over a century ago when it embraced a new form of power. The town was the first in Australia to generate electrical street lighting, in 1888, replacing gaslight with a municipal power supply. Advocated by mayor Elizabeth Piper, that push was bitterly fought through a local media war fuelled by vested interests.

We’re back on similar battle lines, although the benefits of new energy generation are only just starting to show. Community grants have been rolling out of the wind farm projects, and a recent NSW Valuer-General’s report attributed a 3.5 per cent increase in residential land values for the Inverell Shire area to increased demand due to wind farm projects in the region.

However, the more pressing issue for New England right now is the ongoing drought.

Pray For Rain

On what seems to be an unfolding tour of the region to launch his campaign, Mr Blakester will be unable to avoid climate talk. From the ranges above the Northern Rivers in the east, to the Western Slopes and Plains, we’re seeing local mass fish deaths and intense bushfires during such a severe lack of rain that it’s hard to find consensus on whether conditions signify the new normal or just business as usual in a dry spell.

Still, it’s positive to see our electoral options expand since country Labor announced its candidate Yvonne Langenberg in June, 2018 and Barnaby Joyce was preselected unopposed.

Adam Blakester’s public-vote approach to leadership is innovative, although starting with a blank policy canvas is a high-stakes move.

The non-executive Lock The Gate director has a track record in the sustainable governance and worked extensively on the New England Sustainability Strategy (NESS) with the company he serves as executive director of: Starfish Initiatives.

But what happens if this region’s voters tell him we want to extend our faith to, say, CSG?

This week, at Inverell, combined churches are eschewing earthbound leadership by praying for rain. With decisions due on the Shenhua Watermark project in 2020, New England voters are yet to see if we’ll get a federal candidate willing to speak what some would call heresy on the climate change benefits of renewables, while excommunicating fossil fuel extractors once and for all.

At the end of the day, a leadership drought during a big dry might result in business as usual at the ballot.

North Star artist set to shine

“It was such a relief to finally be able to devote most of my time to painting.”

ART lovers at Inverell’s town gallery noticed a vibrant new palette in two popular 2018 group shows: the colourful, highly organic work of Kate Owen.

One of her bold abstract canvases took home an Inverell Art Prize award, and another was acquired by the gallery during its contemporary exhibition. Yet despite this flush of attention it’s been a long journey back to the canvas for this North Star artist.

And now, she’s about to open her first solo exhibition at The Makers Shed, Glen Innes, as the centrepiece of the High Country Handmade Showcase.

“I have always been ‘arty’ as have my two sisters,” Kate said.

“We all created art from a young age and I did art all the way through high school, earning the art prize in my senior year in 1988.

“I went on to do fashion design at college in Sydney and work in the industry for quite a few years before opening my own business in Moree designing and making bridal gowns and special occasion clothing.”

Not long after the turn of the millennium, Kate embarked on large-scale oil paintings, but admits to putting the brushes down when she “got busy with children”.

Her creative outlet as a young mother was through running gift, homewares and café businesses at Goondiwindi.

“I have always done something with a creative bent, however, I knew one day I would get back to my art,” she said.

“Along the way I did a few workshops here and there, mostly in acrylics in order to teach myself how to use them as the practical side of me liked the fact that they dry fast and are easy to clean up!

“A few years ago I made a promise to myself that I would get back to painting when my youngest son went away to boarding school and I no longer had children at home.”

That was at the start of 2017, and ever since Kate has devoted as much time to her art as possible in order to improve and evolve her work.

“It was such a relief to finally be able to devote most of my time to painting, if only to free my mind of all the stored up ideas and express them on the canvas,” she said. 

Life of its own

When asked about her painting technique, Kate said she leaves a lot to happenstance.

“I try hard not to concern myself with the final outcome before starting, because ultimately it is the process in getting there that creates the outcome which is never apparent to me from the start,” she said.

“Some paintings have many layers beneath which gives the final work more complexity, especially when glimpses of previous layers are left.

“I also love collage, I never throw away any bit of painted paper that could just be perfect at some stage for a particular work.”

Kate admits to being inspired by French painter Henri Matisse, a master at fluid form and bold use of highly-saturated colour. She’s also long been a fan of American illustrator Eric Carle’s The Hungry Caterpillar.

“When I want to create a body of work that has a particular theme I print pictures of photos I have taken and choose images that have particularly strong shapes,” she said.

“I look at these then put them away and then go to work on the canvas with just the memory of what I’ve seen.

“This is a technique I learned from Catherine Cassidy who I greatly admire. I was lucky enough to do a workshop with her in Sydney last August.”

COLLAGE COLOUR ‘Oasis’ (detail) by Kate Owen.

A particular inspiration for Kate is Elisabeth Cummings, the multi award-winning and highly collectible Australian artist.

“Her use of colour, line, texture and scratching back creates incredibly in-depth work,” Kate said.

“She states: ‘When I get going the painting has its own life and starts demanding certain things of itself’.”

“This resonates with me completely as often I feel that the painting controls me and not the other way around.”

Kate Owen’s solo exhibition The Happenings opens at The Makers Shed, Glen Innes, at the High Country Handmade Showcase, March 3.

Feature image by Grace Cobb.

Aussie tales told with a passion for diversity

“I love to start a conversation, not just about my stories but about Australian stories generally”

AUTHOR Kim Kelly is renowned for diving into the historical details behind her popular novels, and as Glen Innes is soon to discover she loves visiting country towns in pursuit of inspiration.

“I often think I only write novels as an excuse to ferret through piles of ephemera and social trivia,” Kelly said.

“My head is an historical hoarder’s junkyard. I once bailed up a local historian at Gulgong’s Pioneer Museum to interrogate him about early washing machines.”

Kelly’s 2018 title Lady Bird & The Fox is a Victorian-era novel set in the NSW Central West, where she resides.

“I was definitely always going to tell a Gold Rush tale,” she said.

“And as scary as it was to contemplate, I was probably always going to write a sparklingly smart and wonderful Aboriginal heroine.

“I grew up at La Perouse, in Sydney, where the Aboriginal community is vibrant and diverse; the girlfriends I made and the education I received there were an enormous influence on me, and still are. Annie Bird from the novel is in many ways a tribute to those women who have had such an impact on my life.”

As she was gathering inspiration for the book, Kelly came across a newspaper snippet about an Aboriginal bushranger known as Mary Ann Bugg.

“The story sparks began to fly and the voice of Annie Bird emerged – pulling on her knee-high boots and ready to go,” she said.

“But I can’t write an Aboriginal character, can I? That was my first fear. I have no right to take on the voice of someone so culturally and historically different. For a couple of years I wrestled with the question, but Annie just wouldn’t leave me alone.

“She deserved a handsome hero, I supposed – as most of my stories involve some kind of love story, not just romantic love, but partnering, nourishing love, love that leads to all kinds of discoveries.

“Jem Fox is one of my favourite characters so far. Apart from being a very naughty boy and therefore fun to write, in so many ways he represents my own search for my Jewish heritage – and there was a flamboyant rake or two in that lot.”

Kelly describes the search for her Jewish forebears as “a trip like no other” that led to discoveries about the prejudice and difficulties they faced, and the contributions they made to colonial business and industry.

“Those Jews of the gold rush era gave us our first Australian-born governor-general, Sir Isaac Isaacs, and our most famous soldier, Sir John Monash, both born during those ‘wild west’ days – and, eventually, me!” she said.

Publishing savvy

Kim Kelly is a ghostwriter and book editor with over twenty years’ experience in the Australian publishing industry, yet she still makes time for talking to readers in country libraries.

“The most common reaction I receive at book talks is appreciation that I’m telling Australian tales,” she said.

“Often, there’s interest in my publishing background, too, so I tend to get a few questions about the nuts and bolts of writing and how to get your work out there.”

Kelly is what’s known as a ‘hybrid author’: one who has titles traditionally-published and who also self-publishes.

“All of my novels except for Lady Bird & The Fox and my forthcoming, Sunshine, were originally traditionally-published,” she said.

“My new, independently-published titles and republished backlist are produced by a team I’ve put together myself – editor Alexandra Nahlous, designer Alissa Dinallo, and publisher Joel Naoum.

“It was really important to me that I employ experienced and respected industry professionals if I was going to go out on my own.

“It began as a bit of an experiment, just to see what was possible and what I might learn, and has far exceeded my expectations – not just financially, but in terms of publishing pleasure.”

Despite studying literature and history at Sydney University and the University of New England, it took Kelly a long time to summon the courage to write a novel.

“It wasn’t until I lucked out landing a job at Random House as a book editor that the world of writing possibility opened up for me,” she said.

“Working with so many different authors, from Miles Franklin winners to the big names in romance, taught me so much and dared me to make my secret storytelling dreams a reality.

“Wherever I go, I love to start a conversation, not just about my stories but about Australian stories generally. Sometimes the chat is quite lively, and whenever we go over time, or I hear readers still chatting as they leave, it gives me such a high.

“All of my novels take a moment in Australian social and political history and explore it with that sense of wonder and curiosity, as well as a deep love and gratitude for this amazing country we call home.”

Author Kim Kelly in conversation at The Makers Shed, Glen Innes, for the High Country Handmade Showcase, March 3.