Australians have been betrayed

Note: This article was written for the Molong Express of June 13, 2019. Since it was published, the LNP Federal and Labor State government of Queensland have signed off on the Adani Carmichael coalmine and the consequent destruction of the Galilee Basin. This decision has sounded the death knell for the Great Barrier Reef and added another grave marker in the cemetery of dashed hopes of today’s youth. This coincides with the announcement that Norway’s “Oil Fund” is divesting itself of some $18 billion in fossil fuel investments.

Now that the election is over, we are being forced to face the fact that the winning side, bereft of many actual policies, snatched victory by riding a bandwagon of lies, half truths and the over-inflated ego of a self-proclaimed billionaire.

Some political commentators have even gone so far as to suggest that many of the government’s policy promises – and I use the word with caution – were laid as traps for an expected future Labor government.


The argument goes that on questions of border security and tax cuts, the Opposition would have to agree to many of the LNP’s promises for fear that it would be seen as “soft on security” and unsupportive of the “battler”, then, when elected, Labor would be faced with budget blowouts that the LNP could use as a cudgel with which to beat them.


Whether or not that is true has no bearing on this article, but what can’t be ignored is the simple fact that after years of growth, rising corporate profits and unprecedented expansion of the mining industry, Australia is no better off than it was prior to the boom years that began in about 2003.


During the recent election campaign, the LNP spent countless hours in trying to convince the voting public of their skill as economic managers, without any real evidence that they are. On the other side, Labor pointed to the fact that they steered the nation through the Global Financial Crisis, escaping with relatively few battle scars and little of the damage sustained by other countries.


Graphs by the score are trotted out to bolster the arguments of both sides but they all miss the point. They tell those who can read them how the economy fared over a given period of time but what they don’t tell us is how a nation’s people are feeling in themselves or, to borrow a marker from our cousins across the Tasman Sea, the wellbeing of the nation.


If we were brave enough to take a really close look at Australia and honest enough to describe what we were seeing, it’s a fair bet that we would describe ourselves as a nation in peril.


Governments ponder falling house prices and their effect on the economy, yet there is little discussion over a survey’s findings that in the whole of Australia, only two rental properties came within financial reach of someone on the Newstart allowance. Just two.


There is little concern expressed over reports showing that rents in Hobart are rapidly becoming the least affordable in the nation and that all over Australia the numbers of homeless people are growing, with mature-age women an increasing percentage of those numbers.


And perhaps that’s the trouble. This new generation of politicians sees the world in bottom lines, in spreadsheets and statistics, not as a living, breathing planet inhabited by people of all social backgrounds and capabilities, each as deserving of consideration as the next.


Using money and minerals as the yardstick, Australia is a rich country. From the first goldrushes to the diverse mineral extraction of the present, billions upon uncounted billions of dollars have been wrested from our ancient land to enrich the world’s industrialists.


Australian coal and iron have fuelled the phenomenal rise of China as an industrial power, just as our gold, wool and wheat enriched the masters of the British Empire.
Yet as a nation, are we any better off? Our public health system is under pressure, government schools are starved of funding, public housing stocks are the lowest in many, many years as homelessness rises and new apartments sit vacant, and wages are stagnant at a time when corporate profits are at an all-time high.


Public assets are flogged off to corporations who then increase the charges to their new customers while the sale proceeds are spent on pork-barrel projects that return a fraction of the original value to the community. Meanwhile the government offers tax cuts then tells voters there is no money to “waste” on social projects. And all the time, the nation’s resources are dug from the ground and shipped overseas at no great benefit to the people as a whole.


What happened to the billions in royalties paid into the “future fund”? It was squandered on tax cuts and handouts, the benefits of which have since evaporated.
It is said that one in every four bulk ore carriers plying the world’s oceans is carrying the Pilbara’s iron ore. Why then is Western Australia begging for a greater slice of the GST take?


Why is the Queensland Labor Government offering royalty freezes for miners if they contribute to community funds, while a former Federal Minister in the Liberal government, speaking for the mining companies, says he welcomes the offer but the LNP has a more attractive plan. What could be more attractive than billions of tax-free dollars in return for a few million spent on footy fields and community halls?
In 2018, Australia’s take from gas exports was expected to be $600 million, the same as is raised by the beer tax, while for the same period Qatar would reap $26.6 billion. We will soon eclipse Qatar as the world’s largest exporter of gas.


According to one source, Australia’s effective tax rate on its gas resources is 21 per cent, while that on the reserves held by the North Sea nations (which include some Scandinavian countries, Germany and the Netherlands) is 35 per cent and more. What is more, our petroleum resource rent tax allows companies to offset the costs of exploration and claim tax credits for future decommissioning of plants.


While eastern States energy prices increase at about six times the rate of wage earner income, record amounts of LNG are shipped overseas to countries whose people pay less for the gas than we do. Interestingly, very little of that gas is reserved for the domestic market – it was all given away to the miners; those same miners who tell us that if they were allowed to extract gas by fracking priceless agricultural land, we would get our domestic supply much cheaper. To add insult to injury, tax and royalty arrangements “negotiated” by governments have ensured that it will be years before the country sees any benefit.


Both miners and politicians seem to forget that it is the nation’s gas and miners should pay for the privilege of extracting and marketing it.


In 2014–15, Australian exports of gold earned about $16 billion; royalties paid during that period were about $317 million. It’s hard not to conclude that governments have given the cake to the miners – and other interests – while the nation is left only the crumbs on the floor. All this is in stark contrast to the situation in Norway, a Scandinavian country of some 5.3 million inhabitants.


In 1990, Norway established the Government Pension Fund Global, popularly known as the Oil Fund and established to invest the surplus revenue from the petroleum sector, both State and privately owned, that exploits the Norwegian sector of the North Sea oilfields.


By 2018 it had about $AU1.5 trillion in assets – $AU280,000 per citizen – assets of which 1.3 per cent are held in global stocks and shares, making it the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund and the largest single investor in European commerce.


The fund only invests in companies that it considers to be environmentally and ethically responsible; tobacco companies and those found to be environmentally irresponsible are not considered, for example. It regularly votes in meetings of stockholders, hoping to influence decisions around environmental and ethical issues.

The fund is kept aside against future eventualities and should not be confused with the Pension Fund. Set up in 1967, its investments are in Norwegian companies only and, as its name implies, is a State controlled superannuation fund.

I suppose it’s never too late to introduce a good idea, but I think the Australian horse has well and truly bolted. The miners – and other corporations – now have such a stranglehold on much of our Parliament that any legislation offering even the remotest perception of a threat to the privileged position that large corporations hold in this country would never see the light of day.

A small matter of water, and headless chooks

Grey box (Eucalyptus microcarpa) woodland, an increasingly scarce ecotype.
Photo Ecolink/Colleen Miller

THERE WAS a revealing interview on ABC Radio’s RN Drive recently. On Friday 24, May, presenter Patricia Karvelas spoke to James McTavish, the NSW Government’s Regional Town Water Supply Coordinator, about the deepening crisis facing towns throughout the State. Mr McTavish told those of us who don’t already know it that towns as far apart as Dubbo and Tenterfield, Bourke and Molong, are facing real problems as water supplies rapidly diminish and restrictions bite deeper.

He told listeners what some of the problems are – the drought figuring significantly – but unfortunately was a bit light on any long-term solutions. To be fair, he was fronting for a government and, generally speaking, state and federal governments have never been too keen on long-term planning that might affect their election prospects.

There was the usual mention of new dams and the sinking of bores to augment water supplies. Carting in water to some places was also mentioned, but as James McTavish pointed out, carting water to a place like Tenterfield would be inordinately expensive and at best a stop-gap measure.

Mr McTavish also reminded listeners that not only farmers and rural towns are affected; industries in the regions are also at risk. He cited the case of Cobar, a mining town that relies on water pumped from the Bogan River at Nyngan. The mines are the largest user of water in the town and both the mines and township will face severe downturns if the supply is restricted.

Strawberry growers around Stanthorpe, a town in the “Granite Belt” just north of Tenterfield and over the Queensland border, are facing financial hardship as water becomes scarcer. During a recent interview, one grower said a solution was to grow the berries hydroponically under cover, a method that uses, and wastes, less water. However, he noted that present returns on the crop don’t justify the expense of such infrastructure. “People will pay $6 for a Big Mac,” he said, “but if the price of a punnet of strawberries goes above $3, they won’t buy them.”

However, neither the grower nor the interviewer mentioned that the horticultural industry regularly ploughs-in or dumps hundreds, sometimes thousands of tonnes of crops if market prices are low.

Just days later, Sydney Water announced that the NSW capital’s water supply – or rather lack of it – was cause for concern.

Again, the bulk of the problem was laid at the feet of the drought. Of course, there is no denying that we are in drought, and for farmer and townie alike it is hard to see past the lack of rain when you are being forced to de-stock or your cherished garden is dying. But is it just the drought and are there solutions, long-term ones?

Drought has our attention because it’s an obvious factor, but there are other things driving the water shortages. Sinking bores to augment water supplies may bring immediate, temporary relief, but in the long term will cause more problems. Most groundwater sources require flooding rivers and good rainfall to replenish them, and they have always been scarce and unreliable commodities in Australia, a continent with the world’s most erratic climate. Groundwater used now may take decades – perhaps centuries – to replenish even if used sparingly. Given the now irrefutable effects of the worsening climate crisis, we have no guarantees either way.

River systems everywhere are suffering badly from misuse, over-extraction and downright mismanagement over the decades and the result is now plain for all to see. What floods do occur are mostly sudden and violent, but long, dry spells are becoming more the norm. The “Bradfield Scheme”, a much-discredited plan to dam tropical rivers and divert their waters into the deserts, is again getting air time – as are proposals to tap “fossil aquifers” in the tropical north.

The lush, sub-tropical north of NSW was in drought until recently, and over the Top End, this year’s monsoon was almost a non-event; This at a time when Darwin authorities are expressing concern over the depletion of groundwater supplies in parts of the city. Our “southern” monsoon has never been as reliable as the rains further north, and even those are now becoming more erratic. In fact, there are fears that changes in Himalaya ice cover and other factors will eventually lead to the failure of the northern monsoon, with catastrophic results for a sizeable chunk of the world’s population, not to mention the global economy and migratory pressures on other regions.

The pity is that the writing has been on the wall for decades, but those who tried to draw attention to it were at best ignored and at worst pilloried and ridiculed. If Australia – and the world – had begun action thirty years ago, then the task ahead would have been easier and the costs spread over a longer period, but that window has closed. Action is required now, and nations are going to have to cooperate as never before in human history. What can Australia do?

The irrigation industry obviously needs an overhaul, along with regulation of the crops grown. It his hard to argue a case for growing crops requiring vast amounts of water – crops such as almonds, wine grapes, cotton and rice – in marginal country on a continent that sits mainly in the Tropic Arid Zone. Yet we do, and in huge quantities. Sadly, the huge increases in plantings of almonds, and to a lesser extent, wine grapes, are, like the national obsession with coffee, in response to a created demand.

Irrigation on the scale at which it is now practiced is unsustainable in this country; dryland cropping and grazing are really the only viable alternatives when it comes to broadacre farming. Aided by scientific research and a growing acceptance of Indigenous land-management techniques, Australia’s farmers and graziers have made an enormous contribution to alleviating, and in some cases almost reversing, the damage done in the past.

Governments at all levels also need to step up; farmers cannot be expected to address the problems of over-clearing and land degradation alone. Reforestation is of vital importance to future drought management strategies and to combat the climate crisis. Remediation projects on an imaginative scale should be viewed as infrastructure projects that would employ many thousands of people. Rather than stigmatising such national efforts as “work for the dole” schemes, they should be promoted as works of national importance.

If we rely on our dryland farmers to produce exports and feed the nation, then insurance must be looked at. Insurance providers are already factoring in the climate crisis and governments must enter into dialogue to ensure our farmers are equitably treated. Funding to the CSIRO must be restored as a matter of national urgency, and the BOM must be adequately resourced.

 And while we wring our hands over dwindling water resources and the plight of farmers, governments continue to issue exploration permits for coal-seam gas exploration and other extractive industries that disrupt or render unusable the water resources on which our agricultural and pastoral industries rely. Political parties praise our “clean green” agriculturalists, weep crocodile tears over the “bush battlers” and “pray for rain” at every photo opportunity, then chide groups such as the Knitting Nannas and Lock The Gate Alliance for trying to protect the resources on which agriculture depends.

The water from town treatment plants needs to be utilised. Adelaide’s “Green Belt” has long been sustained by recycled water, and this is something that should be repeated all over Australia – and not only in the capitals. Smaller centres could be assisted in establishing combined aquaculture and horticulture enterprises based on waste water and other imaginative projects.

Politicians are now carping over the costs of mitigating the climate crisis: “We must reduce emissions but not at the expense of the economy”, is often repeated. If we don’t act now, all else becomes irrelevant. The crisis we are facing is far-reaching and real. Most politicians were silent about the costs of following the USA into Vietnam and Iraq – futile exercises of absolutely no benefit to anybody except perhaps the warlords who control the military-industrial complex – yet it seems that the climate crisis is of lesser importance than the whims of US Presidents.

What now of our future?

This was written for my weekly page in the Molong Express of 23rd May, 2019. It reflects my own views and not necessarily those of either the Molong Express or any other person associated with that paper

Lake Nanine, Western Australia. Once rich in fish and birdlife, the climate crisis and overuse have taken their toll on Nanine – and most of WA’s lakes

Well, the election is for the most part done and dusted and the country is awash with recriminations and back-slapping, with gloating and the gnashing of teeth. The most surprising thing about this election is that the outcome was in large part decided by three very rich, very selfish men whose views on the distribution of wealth just happened to coincide with those of their front man and now the elected Prime Minister. But there are no winners.

Clive Palmer may have achieved his goal of blocking a Labor victory and at the same time guaranteeing he will gain approval for a vast coalmine in Queensland, and the father-and-son team who have all but total control of Australia’s media may have once again proved to themselves and their hangers-on that they are among the world’s most powerful men and answerable to no-one, but they still find themselves in the same leaky boat to which they have likely condemned the rest of us.

Australia has been sentenced to another three years of inaction on the crisis now facing the world. Even if the new government goes to the polls early – over the past 25 years the average time between elections has been 27.5 months – time that could have been spent in mitigating some of the effects of global heating will have been wasted. Time we can ill afford.

The Coalition has already wasted six valuable years, six years spent in argument among its members. The Biblical brigade fought the more progressive bloc over same-sex marriage; members of all factions fought over the climate crisis; the coal at all costs Lignites argued against renewable energy while we experienced the hottest summers on record, rivers ran dry and ordinary citizens donated to farmers whose lives were being crushed by drought. And in the eight months leading up to the election, the People’s House sat for less than a month, largely so the government could avoid scrutiny according to many commentators.

And nothing has changed. The climate crisis has slipped back down the agenda – not that either of the two main parties were really serious about it in the first place – and the government will soon be back to blaming the “latté-sipping city dwellers” for alarming their beloved “battlers”. This conveniently ignores the fact that voters in most blue-ribbon seats would fall in the former category and the latter will continue to be denied penalty rates, meaningful training and, for the unemployed among them, an increase in the unemployment allowance – benefit is too generous a word.

Nationally, we must get our head out of the sand. All the legislation in the world becomes meaningless if the climate crisis is not addressed but this is unlikely to happen. The Coalition seems hell bent on following the lead of the USA in allowing a noisy minority of climate change deniers and born-again Christians, aided and abetted by the very forces that have pulled the rug out from under the “middle classes”, to dictate policy.

A US political commentator once said that when America doesn’t have a war it needs to start one, so great is the political influence of the military-industrialists. Donald Trump seems to be drooling at the prospect of a stoush with Iran, and if he plunges the US into yet another futile conflict, then it’s London to a brick-on that our government will follow him. And it’s not only the industrialists who will celebrate. Fundamentalist and evangelical Christians all over the world, Australia included, would rejoice at the approaching “End Times”, the end-vision of Christian Dominionism made real.

If there is an invasion of Iran, there will be another exodus of refugees at a time when the world is awash with the displaced and desperate. Someone once said that communism flourishes where there are empty bellies. To this I’d add that terrorism flourishes where there is despair and injustice. When the ranks of those displaced by war are swollen by those uprooted by the climate crisis, it will be almost too late to act; governments may be all but powerless against the tide of human misery unless they all join in cooperation, and given the present mood, there seems little likelihood of that happening.

The climate crisis must be addressed now, yet already we see that the government cannot act on any of its election promises until the new financial year. Financial legislation will dominate Parliament for weeks or months after that and it will be another six months at best before our most pressing emergency is even mentioned.

We are in danger of alienating our young people even more than we already have. Worldwide they are demonstrating by their actions that they fear the future they are being left, and soon they will become angry.

And who could blame them?

An apology to Australia’s youth

About fifty per cent of Australia’s adults – if I dare call them that – have just sent you a message: they have told you that your future and the future of the planet on which you live are unimportant. They have told you that their concern for their own wellbeing and way of life overrides any concerns you might have about future employment, education, and a place to live.

They have told you that being able to spend their remaining years on the deck of a pleasure launch – assisted in part by a handout from taxpayers – is more important than contributing to your education and healthcare; more important than fighting to mend the earth you will inherit, an earth so badly damaged by previous generations that your very existence is threatened.

They have told you that education should be only for those who can afford it, as it has been for all but a few years of the last several centuries; that first-class health care is only for the wealthy, and that the environment doesn’t matter. They have told you that self-interest is more important than the good of the nation and the health of our beautiful, ancient land.

They have told you they believe they are more worthy than you.

In a few months’ time, I shall be 79 years old, an age that is beyond your imagining – I know this, because I remember what it was to be young – and I have seen and done a lot of things. Some things I am not proud of, but I don’t regret them; regrets are futile, mistakes are lessons. But one constant in my life has been my love of people and the love of my country.

I love people because they are human, and being human means that they are all different with a different story to tell. One of my grandfathers, a man named George Hamilton, once told me to “never look at the colour of someone’s skin”. That worried me until I was old enough to understand what he meant.

When I was growing up, Australia was a country frightened of difference. The indigenous peoples were different and, having at last become ashamed of our efforts to exterminate them, we tried to change them. We tried to make them whiter by regulating who they were allowed to marry, and when that didn’t work, we used other laws to regulate their lives. The general public just ignored them for the most part.

We were frightened of the Chinese who came to Australia during the great goldrushes and so passed into law the “White Australia” policy. We were frightened of the Italians and Greeks who came here in large numbers after World War II. We were frightened of the “Balts”, the peoples of Eastern Europe who were allowed in as refugees.

Did you know that before these migrants came to Australia, zucchinis, tomato paste, capsicums, egg plant, salami, and a thousand and one other now everyday foods were unheard of? That olive oil was sold in tiny bottles and used as a medicine? It’s true, I know; because it was in my lifetime.

But our country grew up during the 1960s and ‘70s and we became accustomed to different faces and customs. And we came to love different foods and new celebrations. We rejoiced in our diversity.

A Prime Minister named John Howard changed all that. In his time in office, he fought hard to send attitudes back to the 1950s, a trend that continues to this day and has now been reinforced. And like John Howard, many politicians hate the changes that have been made and want us to be frightened of everybody who is not “us”: they want us to demonise people born in Africa and Asia and to mistrust anybody who is a Muslim, regardless of their ethnicity. They would prefer it if we were all white and Christian and certainly not gay or vegetarian.

Conservative governments have always used this fear of “the other” to divide us to their own advantage. But “the other” has broadened. It now includes the unemployed, the less wealthy and those people for whom life has never been easy. For a brief time, the “fair go” was an Australian certainty, it is now a myth.

When the Indigenous peoples indicated that they would like to see a First Nations committee set up to advise government on formulation of any policy affecting them, they were given a blunt refusal. It would, the government said, amount to another Chamber in Parliament. They had become “the other” again; more than 60,000 years occupation of this continent apparently doesn’t entitle them to a voice in government.

When next you attend an Anzac Day ceremony, bear in mind that the men and women whom politicians glorify as wonderful and heroic Australians – particularly those veterans of the two World Wars – are the same people whose votes gave us the benefits that conservative governments are now bent on taking away. Votes for women, health care, free education, pensions, and numberless other things we once took for granted but no longer can. They have become “privileges” not entitlements.

These same politicians are fond of telling you how much they “love Australia”, but what they are saying is that they love it for what they can get out of it, not what it does for them. They really have no concept of the land itself, that mysterious “thing” that sustains both their mental and physical health. They don’t feel its heartbeat through the soles of their feet, for they “have no time to grow; they have no time to waste”*. If they did, they would be in Parliament today and every day, addressing the biggest crisis to face this planet and all creatures that rely on it since the day a hominid first picked up a burning stick.

The people who voted against your future have benefited most from programs put in place by more enlightened governments and it seems those benefits have shortened their memories and made them selfish.

But there is hope. When brave young Greta Thunberg made her appearance on the world stage, my heart lifted; she is, or should be, an inspiration to us all. The door will only be open for a very short time before the processes our politicians ignore become irreversible, and because fifty per cent of your elders – and sadly it seems, some of your contemporaries – refused to put the interests of the nation ahead of their own, this huge burden is now on your shoulders.

Be strong.

My generation and the one just after seem to have forgotten that we took to the streets and stopped a war; we took to the streets and ended apartheid in South Africa; we took to the streets to help our Indigenous brothers and sisters in their fight for dignity. Young people were jailed – and in some countries, the USA among them, killed. But they won. In the end they won. And you can win this fight, you must win, there is no alternative worth contemplating. Fifty per cent of us will be behind you as best we can, but it will be your energy and determination that will save our planet and your future from the barbarians.

*From A B Paterson’s Clancy of the Overflow