Open for business

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NSW govt approving uranium exploration; Qld opposition to dump Wild Rivers legislation; Victoria trying to get cattle into high country; South Australia downgrades renewable energy; Tasmania demanding to continue forest destruction; NT wanting crocodile “hunting”; WA prescribed burning big areas of forest. CSG, seal culling, duck shooting, flying fox culling, wood chipping, land clearing, estuary dredging, salmon “farming”, blocking wind farms.

What do all these things have in common? Activities by state governments, Labor and Liberal, that have, or will, cause enormous damage to their respective states. Nothing much in common, these state premiers, not much similarity between the different states, but time after time, often within days of winning an election, away they go with an announcement welcoming some destructive program. Usually with the identical words “We are open for business”, as if they have just set up a used car yard.

Something else one of the premiers and a soon-to-be-premier have in common is the bright idea of adding the “cost of the carbon tax” to electricity bills. See, this is clever because this will make people hate Labor when they see this extra cost go on the bills. But, hey, guys, you gonna do that, we need a bit of balance. You must also add to the bills the increasing CO2 levels, the rising temperature levels, the cost of lost production as a result of droughts and floods and storms. What’s that, those costs would greatly exceed the few dollars from a carbon price? Good heavens, really, hadn’t thought of that. You know, I understood that the costs of years of infrastructure neglect and privatisation of power companies had added far more to the bills than carbon price, but hadn’t thought about the costs of climate change. Don’t suppose you guys had either, eh?

Same with “open for business”. It’s always billions to be made here, and thousands of jobs over there, and export markets and infrastructure, oh, and did I mention billions of dollars? All put on the plus side of the public ledger, trumpeted by the media. But what they don’t add, to balance the ledger, is the ultimate costs to the state of cleared land, polluted ocean, dried up rivers, lost biodiversity, extinction of species, air pollution. Nor even of more direct costs in poor human health, imbalance of the economy, infrastructure costs, depletion of resources. Pretty nasty business all of it.

So, state premiers, you want to play businessman “running a state like a business”? Good, go for it. But remember real businessmen, and businesswomen, prepare real balance sheets for the balance as a whole. And when costs outweigh profits it’s time to reconsider.

Quite a lot of cost being imposed on states these days. And largely illusory profits.

Government for Dummies

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It is not just the media which aims at the lowest common denominator these days, and not just politicians (notably Abbott), but government itself.

The stupidity and ignorance of the limits placed on wind farms by the new Victorian and NSW governments is only exceeded by the stupidity and ignorance of the people whose “opinions” they are responding to. Both in turn exceeded by the cynicism and viciousness of the people manipulating the useful idiots.

Whether it’s water in the Murray, prescribed forest burning, smart meters, speed cameras, cattle in high country, phone towers, sharks, and now wind farms, whatever the complex issue requiring research, analysis, specialist scientific knowledge, and a modicum of common sense, governments instead rely on the yobbo in the street informed only by shock jocks, think tanks, religious nutters, and astroturfers, working on behalf of vested interests.

The planet is in great peril, we need great wisdom to stave off disaster. At a time like this why would political leaders seek the advice of the most stupid in society?

Government of the dummies, by the dummies, for the dummies.

To tax and to please

Another NSW state budget, they seem to roll around quicker than ever these days. All follow the same pattern – all budgets that is, not just NSW. The Leader/Treasurer, after massive pressure from International Monetary Fund, big business, some economists, radio shock jocks, choose a permitted figure for total budget expenditure in a year. Divide it up between your ministers. pass it down. Each minister has a lump sum. Divides it up between portfolio areas depending on who argues best and which electorates are marginal, pass it down. In each portfolio area departmental heads decide which institutions and programs have the most forceful public servants, pass it down. Heads of institutions and programs decide which underlings they like best, pass money down to their activities. Sort of a trickle down effect from top to bottom. By the time it gets to the bottom, the actual people who do the work, the operations that provide services, have a sum of money to work with that bears no necessary relation to the work they need to do.

Country towns in particular find themselves the victims of this age-old process, and so schools are shut down, hospitals have few services, bridges decay, railway lines are closed, as public servants try to pull up blankets to cover the chin while leaving the feet to freeze, or vice versa. Services move from country town to cities, people follow them out, jobs are lost. It’s a process 100 years old or more.

Could we try it back to front, upside down please – not trickle down but grass-roots up. The citizens of a town say what services they need to make the town livable and viable. They tell the local service providers, who work out what money will be needed to provide those services in health, education, transport. They pass the results up through the department, the ministry, and on to the Treasurer who adds them all up and passes to the Leader of the government. “So” he says, “this is the amount we need to run this state/country in a decent way for its citizens. Right, let’s see where we can find the money.” The two of them set about the task of making the sums add up (helped greatly by the fact that more people will remain in employment), working to the principle that those who can most afford it contribute the most. Also to the principle that big business, taking advantage of all the public services provided, and using up non-renewable resources (especially in the case of mining), will contribute the most.

At the end of the day the two columns reach the same total. The leader, knowing that the next year the process will be even easier as all regions of the state, all parts of the economy, begin to thrive equally, gives a little cheer and asks the Treasurer – “Do you want to tell the shock jocks or will I?” The Treasurer, remembering that they have increased the Shock Jock tax by introducing a cost per word, says “No, you do it”, and both of them have a beer to celebrate a job well done.

Oiling the wheels

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Did you see the results of a study the other day from a Victorian Road Safety group that found that speed cameras had made a significant reduction in road toll? The TV interviewer I saw had to struggle with the story because her channel (and all the others) had been constantly running the line that speed cameras were just “revenue raisers” and here was someone giving all the wrong answers, based on actual research instead of crass populism. Furthermore the result of the campaign by a small number of people, outraged “victims” of speed cameras, amplified by the media who just love “outraged victims” who put ministers on the spot, has been that among the very first, most urgent actions of the O’Farrell government in NSW (beaten only by reducing protection for the marine environment, and hammering unions) was to get rid of a whole lot of speed cameras in Sydney.

Once upon a time politicians would try to deal with the interests of the community as a whole. There was praise from the likes of conservative John Howard for the “silent majority”, contempt for the “noisy minority” who were seen as long haired greenie radicals. Now the position has totally reversed and conservative oppositions make all kinds of promises to noisy minorities of the far right, conservative governments fulfil those promises. The squeaky wheel gets oiled. The recent “convoy” to Canberra was a visible reminder of who these small noisy groups are, as was the noisy and shameful protest, led apparently by Ms Mirabella, where Anthony Albanese was screamed at and jostled because he had dared to say that a noisy demonstration by a few hundred people was “inconsequential”. He should have referred to the silent majority and the wheel would have turned full circle.

Of course people have a right to protest, have their say, try to influence the political process. But governments have to weigh up what those people represent on a particular issue, and where the interests of the whole community rest. Getting rid of speed cameras, putting chaplains in schools, blocking wind farm development, supporting poker machines, reducing marine parks, dropping the mining tax, bringing back live animal trade, mandatory sentencing, cattle in high country, offshore processing of refugees, native vegetation clearing, late closing hours for pubs and clubs, changes to family law, are all the result of governments not looking at evidence and not considering the general interests of the community. They are also the results of small groups with a bee in the bonnet, or a financial interest to protect, generating sufficient noise, amplified by the media, to scare a government into racing to do their bidding. The long term effects of these knee jerk reactions are of no concern – before they become too evident the politician concerned will be long gone (as is the case with John Howard and the Pacific mess he created).

Could we please have a premier, some ministers, who when faced with a small group of people holding posters, or a barrage of form letters, or a radio shock jock holding forth, has the courage to say – “thank you for your opinion, I will take it into account alongside all the opposing opinions, and the relevant scientific evidence, you will see my decision in due course”. And then to make a considered decision and stick by it. Call Mr Squeaky Wheel in and say “No, it is clear speed cameras save lives when the evidence is considered. May save your life or the lives of your family members. I won’t be getting rid of speed cameras, in fact I have asked for suggestions as to where new ones could be added. Good day to you.”

Having a laugh

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Barry O’Farrell (Premier of New South Wales) is now under pressure it seems from both the far right (Fred Nile and the Shooters) and the right (federal minister Martin Ferguson). The Shooters and Fishers have already put a stop to protecting marine life (a ten year moratorium not just 5 years as I thought when I wrote about this before) and have begun putting on pressure to see every child in the state armed to the teeth and shooting guns at school. Fred Nile is said to have had a chat with Barry demanding that all teachers in public schools be replaced with chaplains approved by him (Fred), and that there be none of this teaching of “ethics” which apparently is incompatible with religion. Now Martin is demanding that NSW end all resistance and have every part of the state explored for uranium deposits, so Barry is faced with three demands all of which would have toxic legacies for generations to come for the citizens of this proud state.

I am reminded of a comedy sketch I saw years ago, the comedian now forgotten (see comments), in which Walter Raleigh comes back from America having discovered tobacco and is trying to sell its benefits to the British government whose response is incredulous – “And then they do what Walter? They stick this tube of paper full of leaves of a nasty weed into their mouths and then they set fire to it? Right, we’ll give that a miss Walt, thanks for asking.”

Just as well I ‘m not Premier, because I wouldn’t have been able to keep a straight face as these similar propositions were paraded through my office by apparently serious people. “Really, armed schoolchildren learning fundamentalist religion with no ethics whose job prospects are in uranium mining, in a state whose environment is being wrecked? Sorry, that’s a bit of a cough I have developed, my secretary will show you out, don’t call us we’ll call you.” But I am sure Barry, a much nicer and more polite man than me, will have listened to all this nonsense attentively, taken notes without laughing, and politely seen them to the door. Ushered in the next lot of ideologues demanding cattle in high country, the sale of all public assets, an increase in tree clearing, private operators in National Parks, and the destruction of the union movement in the state.

There seems to be a view from some political commentators, far less astute than yours truly, that you have to do deals with all these mad-brained people in order to get through your own agenda, which I had understood to mean catching up on years of neglect by the Labor Party (hampered by its own right wing nutters) of areas such as infrastructure, transport, hospitals, schools. Are these people beating a path to your door really going to block you on these electorally popular moves if you don’t go along with their hare-brained agendas? What if you were to discuss stuff with Labor and the Greens and isolate Mr Nile and friends in their own little world? I reckon you are a smart enough politician to rack up achievements in the next four years without giving the state a terrible case of addiction to crazy ideology with endless harmful effects. Good start with standing firm on ethics.

But do try to keep a straight face.

Fishing up the moon

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The other day, apparently one of the most urgent things that the new O’Farrell government in NSW had to rush to get done after all those years of Labor government in the state was … well, let me see if you can guess. Was it do with hospitals, roads, schools, trains, regional needs, police, aged care? No, wrong, the rushed through legislation was to put a five year moratorium on new marine parks in NSW. Puzzled? Well, yes indeed. Hadn’t Barry O’Farrell talked about using science to decide what marine conservation measures would be needed? Apparently so. Why then would you lumber yourself with a five year moratorium? What if, or rather when, marine biologists come forward in a year or two and advise the government that some species or marine ecosystem is now in big trouble? Do you turn around and say “Tough luck, no protection for at least 5 years?” Watch happily while a species reaches extinction in that time? And how long before demand comes to start removing existing parks?

So why would you rush through something so potentially damaging? Well, because you have a political party in the upper house who, along with Fred Nile, you are relying on to get all your legislation through parliament, and this was one of their demands it seems. This is a party whose members never saw a fish they didn’t want to spear through the mouth and drag on to land to die slowly of asphyxiation. Their need to kill fish is apparently so strong that they demand that no restrictions of any kind be placed on this need. That if they choose to take so many of a species that it goes extinct, well then, so be it. If there is a patch of coast that they like to fish in, well then, they demand the right to fish there even if by doing so they may tip other species over the edge into extinction.

I was going to say that the sad thing about this story is that Mr O’Farrell doesn’t think he can tell these people to take their outrageous demands for damaging the environment and shove them. Show some character. But while it is indeed sad that not only doesn’t he tell them to go and take a cold swim but jumps to do their bidding before even he gets going on his own agenda, there is something even sadder, and more frightening.

On almost the same day that this piece of nasty legislation was being passed came the release of a report from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean who found that “Life in the oceans is at imminent risk of the worst spate of extinctions in millions of years due to threats such as climate change and over-fishing”. The report found “Over-fishing is now estimated to account for over 60 percent of the known local and global extinction of marine fishes” and that “We now face losing marine species and entire marine ecosystems … within a single generation.”

Pollution, and ocean acidification caused by greenhouse gases are major factors, but overfishing is even more important.

Right at the time when our marine ecosystems are most in need of protection, NSW has prevented its marine scientists from protecting them in the next 5 crucial years and probably beyond.

Sad eh?

Little house on the prairie

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I was reminded the other day by a television programme not only repeated but revisited and rewound of the architect Walter Segal and his “self-build” homes. In one of those moments of serendipity, I read, the day after the NSW election, the following “Mr O’Farrell says the state’s population is set to reach nine million in 25 years and he will fix the population pressures on Sydney by growing regional New South Wales. “Instead of Sydney, which is currently home to two thirds of this state’s population becoming home to three quarters, we are going to engage in whole of state growth,” he said “We are going to engage in a regional development act to decentralisation, to ease Sydney’s growth pains and offer to people in this state … the services that they have in the cities.”” Let us leave aside the moment the idea that we should just sit idly by as passive observers as more and more people are packed into the state, and accept the proposition that there are inevitably, whatever the exact figure, going to be more people. I am not sure how he is going to find the money to do so much regional development of services in the light of the other things he wants to spend money on like rail links within Sydney, but it seems to me that you might well attract people to regional centres by the prospect of decent but very affordable housing.

Which takes us back to Walter Segal. He designed a house that could be not only built cheaply from cheap materials, but that could be built by amateurs (with some level of supervision) who had never even used a hammer before. So ideal for a cooperative arrangement where families don’t have sufficient capital to buy a house but can compensate for that by donating their own labour. The houses have other advantages: the design means that the internal arrangements are very flexible so families can customise the arrangement of internal walls to suit their needs; the designs incorporate energy saving features in windows and roof; the cooperative approach to building (people work on each other’s houses as well as their own) means that a community is being established well before people move in; building your own house and those of your neighbours means there is little chance of people damaging or vandalising their own work later; people in the scheme are learning many skills which can potentially help with finding jobs later; the individual houses on pieces of land are much better for children and families than the giant tower blocks which are commonly used to provide community housing.

I don’t know that the Segal house, specifically designed for England, is exactly what we want here. For one thing it would need to be modified significantly to allow for bushfire protection, and to be even better equipped to save energy and water. I also think that the particular cooperative scheme featured on Grand Designs wasn’t perfect. The people involved took an awful long time, working a few hours per week in between paid employment, to finish their houses, and when they did they didn’t own them but simply rented them from the Coop. All of that could be improved with more professional help, and with a purchase not a rental scheme at the end. So a job for Australian architects to design an Australian easy-build house, and for economists to work out an equitable scheme for low income earners to be able to pay off the houses they build.

But in general the introduction of such ideas into the affordable housing question in NSW, and its adoption in country towns such as Yass as a way of attracting people from Sydney and giving them the chance to build a new stake in a community, would be well worth the new government looking into, rather than just following the well worn paths of the past. Paths littered with failures. In addition, as well as other low income earners, such schemes would be a way of attracting new migrants to regional areas, and helping them settle in and learn new skills.

Over to you Mr O’Farrell, time for a new start in public housing in the country?

Disturbing the peace

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I was very disturbed the other day (am I more easily disturbed these days, or is there just more to be disturbed about?) by the actions of Craig Knowles. The recently appointed chairman of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has refused to express confidence in his fellow board members. Knowles said he asked the board, “bluntly”, to consider whether they were, “so much perceived as being part of the problem that they couldn’t be part of the successful future”. This followed of course the resignation of the original chairman, Mike Taylor, in the face of the refusal of the government to support him and the board. Which in turn followed the virulent and vicious protests from some irrigators following the release of the draft report from the Authority.

The pattern is clear. The people who investigated the terrible state of the rivers carefully and scientifically, and made recommendations about the minimum amount of water that needed to be returned in order to keep the ecosystems of those rivers functioning are to be treated as pariahs, forced out if possible. Legislation is to be changed. Political responses to loud mouthed bullies (book burning in Australia? I never thought I would see that) to ensure that the environment is once again to be the last thing considered not the first. That “jobs not frogs” (as one mindless, but at least honest, sign said in the protests) would be again the order of the day as they have been for 50 years. That the approach which has already nearly destroyed the environment of the rivers will again be the order of the day, business as usual.

This is an increasingly common pattern. Scientific research, or even just personal observation and a bit of common sense, shows that some activity is gravely damaging the environment. Efforts are made to prevent or at least reduce the damage. Small numbers of people with a financially vested interest in that activity, or an ideological objection to its restriction, protest noisily with the support of some parts of the media. Government responds by reinstating the activity, ignoring the protests of the scientists, turning a blind eye to the damage. Sometimes, as is the case of Craig Knowles and the Murray Darling, the turnaround can occur even before the proposed restrictions come into effect, the protesters seen as heroes, the scientists seen as villains to be punished. Sometimes after many years of battling vested interests a government manages to introduce some laws to restrict environmental damage. A new government, either because of its own ideology, or that of minor parties it has an obligation to, can instantly overturn such protections in the blink of an eye, nothing easier. It will take many years, if at all, to get the protection back, and by then it will be too late.


With the recent conservative landslide in New South Wales we seem doomed to see cattle back in the high country, national parks infested with trail bikes, four wheel drive vehicles, horses, and men with guns, killing animals (outside national parks too). We also are likely to see land clearing reach higher levels, no reduction in water extraction from the rivers, the end of marine parks, relaxation of any restrictions on development, relaxation of rules about pollution, no action on climate change. It is not by the way that I think Labor was good on such things, Mr Knowles was, after all, a Labor minister, it is just that they have a slightly greater disposition to be influenced by science. A disposition that conservative parties appear to totally lack.

I am afraid we may be heading back 100 years in environmental protection. And this time round we would be trying to rebuild it in a countryside in a considerably more disturbed and damaged state than it was 100 years ago, and in the face of global warming. So while I’m sure I have made you all as disturbed as I am, just being disturbed won’t be enough I’m afraid. There must be out there among my readers a number of you who are second cousins, or great aunts, or nephews, or godfathers of Barry O’Farrell, or who even just have some Irish ancestry. Write Barry a letter, give him a call, invite him to a family reunion, a St Patrick’s Day party, whatever, but let him know you expect him to be a better man than Mr Knowles, stand firm against the demands of those who want to turn back the environmental clock. Let your local member know too.

Good guys can be just as noisy (though more polite) as bad guys. Create a disturbance. Get Barry’s attention, give him no peace. Maybe Mr Knowles will listen too.

Dear Barry

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In just three months you will be Premier O’Farrell, running the state of NSW, with a massive majority and a big risk of hubris, so I thought I had better write to you now, sound a still small voice of warning before all the hoopla begins. See I thought a recent story out of Victoria where your Liberal colleagues romped home illustrated the kind of thing I think you really should try to avoid. Honey Bees cause great environmental damage in native forests, not just to native bees and other nectar insects, but to birds and small mammals and indeed the vegetation itself, and so apiarists are restricted in where they can place hives and are kept out of national parks and wilderness areas. With recent droughts and then floods the apiarists of Victoria have been demanding access to nature reserve areas, and with the election of a conservative government they saw their chance. Sure enough the incoming Liberal minister announced that restrictions would be removed. It seems more generally that whenever a conservative government is elected anywhere in the world they have a high priority of removing environmental protections, encouraging environmental damage. The conservative government in Britain for example recently announced it would be selling off all state-owned forests to private enterprise to do with them as they wished. Newly elected Republicans in the US will get rid of Obama’s feeble attempts to reduce greenhouse gas production. When Colin Barnett was elected as Liberal premier in WA he summed up the approach nicely. The state, he announced proudly, immediately the election result was known, was now “open for business”.

You are going to be faced with all kinds of demands to allow open slather on the world we live in. Not just from beekeepers but from people wanting to clear trees; dam rivers and remove all their water; bulldoze sand dunes; build highways; extend suburban sprawls; sell off all national parks and/or allow open access for trail bikes, shooters, 4 wheel drives, horses, developers of tourism ventures; remove pollution controls; get rid of the EIS requirements; end fishing restrictions, and so on and on. These people will be beating a path to your door, donations will be promised, shock jocks will demand action, the far right in your party room will make impassioned speeches and barely veiled threats.

It will be so easy to give in. You see yourself (I guess) as a free market kind of person, a liberal who believes in every cell of his body in pure capitalism, someone who thinks regulation is bad, small government good. You aren’t an ecologist, not even a scientist, so when you see reports, or more likely summaries of reports, outlining the environmental problems that will occur when such restrictions are lifted, it is easy to see these as just a contribution from yet another special interest group, to be weighed up, in a purely political set of scales, against the aforementioned donations, demands and threats.

Look you know I’m no supporter of conservative political ideology, and I think that a Liberal-National government in NSW is going to cause a lot of damage to our society (although I’m hoping you don’t really believe that cutting taxes is going to lead to increased employment) in all kinds of ways as you set out to favour the private interests of the rich against the public interests of the rest of us. But I accept that you are going to get elected by voters who presumably understand that that is your agenda. The changes that result in say the health and education systems, or in infrastructure, will swing things one way and can be swung back another when the Lib-Nats are finally voted out again in 2023. But the damage to the environment that can be caused when you open the state for business is permanent. You can’t bring back extinct species, restore lost habitats, bring forest or marine ecosystems back to health. Not too many among your party who wouldn’t say “so what?” to those effects, but I just have a sneaking suspicion, based on little more than gut instinct (and the Dharawal decision), that you aren’t one of them.

So start by saying no to all these self-serving demands before you are overwhelmed by the pent up development desires of your wealthier supporters, irreversible damage can happen so quickly at the unthinking stroke of a Premier’s signature. Give yourself some breathing space while you put in place a serious advisory committee of ecologists who can warn you of consequences, can help you leave the environment of the state in a better condition than you will find it in (the Labor Party of course having had exactly the same political involvement with developers all these years). Will let you have car number plates saying “NSW The Green State” not “NSW The Developer’s State”

I’m always here too. Any time you have doubts about some request, need a quick response, give me a call, send me an email. I think I can instinctively see dangers ahead, and can help you develop your instincts. It’ll just be between the two of us.

Conservationally yours