Fossil Fuel Subsidies and Free Market Hypocrisy

In an almost unbelievable report released on the 18th of May, the International Monetary Fund has shown that subsidies for fossil fuel companies have reached $10 million dollars a minute. The companies are benefitting from global subsidies of 5.3 trillion dollars a year, more than the total health spending of all the world’s governments. It seems that polluters have been failing to foot the costs imposed on governments by the burning of coal, oil and gas, which include the adverse environmental effects of climate change such as floods and droughts, and the harm caused to local settlements by air pollution.

Quoted in an article over at The Guardian, climate economist Nicholas Stern of the London School of Economics said that the figure was likely an understatement.

“A more complete estimate of the costs due to climate change would show the implicit subsidies for fossil fuels are much bigger even than this report suggests.”

The IMF’s projections for outcomes should the subsidies be cut are astounding. It has claimed that ending the subsidies for fossil fuels companies would cut global carbon emissions by a fifth, and slash premature deaths from outdoor air pollution by 50%, equivalent to some 1.6 million lives annually. Resources freed by ending the subsidies could also drive economic growth and reduce poverty through a redirection of the wasted funds into infrastructure, health and education.

A report from February 2015 by the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Global Subsidies Initiative of IISD found that “the removal of fossil fuel subsidies to consumers and to society could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by between 6-13% by 2050.”

So who’s doing all the subsidising? China comes in on top with around 2.3 trillion per year, with the United States trailing not far behind at around 700 billion annually. Other large contributors include India, at 277 billion, Russia at 335 billion, and Japan, with 157 billion spent every year on subsidies to fossil fuels. A quarter of the total costs result from climate change driven by emissions, amounting to 1.27 trillion per year.

The official response in the past to the skyrocketing figures has been typically blustery but without a great deal of effective action. World leaders called for an end to the subsidies at the 2009 G20 conference, but little progress has been made since. While there are economic factors at play, as well as the political influence of big business, governments committed to fulfilling their role as representatives for their citizenry should not balk at the prospect of taking a hard line with organisations harming those they have sworn to advocate for, in fact, it should ideally be their defining characteristic. Whatever short term losses Rio Tinto and Shell can threaten, they pale in comparison to the very real and likely irreversible costs of continuing to throw money at what ultimately amounts to a vehicle for our own extinction.

We are especially culpable, with Australia leading the world in per capita emissions at 28 billion tonnes of CO2 per annum and our political treatment of the issue ranging from toothless opposition to fervent bankrolled support. The president of the World Bank told the Guardian in April that it was ridiculous that governments were still driving the industry. He notes that fossil fuel subsidies effectively act as encouragement for unsustainable practices. “Fossil fuel subsidies send out a terrible signal: burn more carbon.”

With many detailed assessments showing that the world’s energy needs can be met adequately with existing renewable technologies, the cheap, paid-for-by-industry rhetoric of conservative governments is wearing paper thin. A study published by the University of Melbourne claims that Australia could be fully powered by wind and solar alone in around a decade by spending approximately 3% of GDP along the pathways outlined in the report, pathways which are predicted to create some 80,000 jobs. According to the study, the main obstacle to this is a lack of political will. To follow through with a project of this sort would be to join the ranks of Germany, the United Kingdom and Denmark among others in investing in a sustainable and healthy future for ourselves and generations to follow.

In addition to the progressive policymaking of the aforementioned nations, in 2014 almost 30 countries, including Indonesia, India and Egypt, had delivered some form of fossil fuel subsidy reform. Other countries that support the reform of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies are Costa Rica, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland.

As a nation, Australia has denied that it subsidises fossil fuels, however there is strong and compelling data demonstrating that this is not the case.

This 2010 report by the Australian Conservation Foundation suggests that the annual value of fossil fuel subsidies in Australia is currently valued at 7.7 billion, the largest of those subsidies being the Fuel Tax Credits program, which rebates fuel excise tax on diesel fuel consumption for many business users. It is worth 65% of total fossil fuel subsidies, or around 5 billion per annum. Other subsidies include tax concessions for “private use of company cars” and “car parking”, meaning that the people of Australia are effectively paying the travel costs of the wealthy in addition to propping up their failing businesses.

Now, granted, all these figures do seem shocking, but you’ll recall that so far I’ve only given them to you without any direct context. Here’s where your knuckles are going to whiten. This is costing you around a hundred and eighty two dollars a year. That money you probably needed for rent, food or bills is literally lining the pockets of someone who by any honest standard doesn’t need it, so they can continue to grow their personal fortunes with money that you’ll never see a cent of. As stated above, this isn’t even beneficial to you in a roundabout way, as the funds used to subsidise these industries and the people who profit from them could be redirected into services that would confer a tangible benefit to your everyday lives, whether from improved healthcare or simply better infrastructure.

Typically, businesses have been outraged at the notion that they may have to take part in the free markets they so commonly evangelise. The Minerals Council of Australia claims that government funding and tax breaks for exploration are not “subsidies”, which has obviously become a dirty word for corporations, but “legitimate tax deductions for business”. Innes Wilcox of the Australian Industry Group, a blatantly neoconservative organisation that seems to exist almost solely to legitimise illegitimate business practices, has called for subsidies to natural gas export facilities, stating that “the Commonwealth and the states took the decision to allow the eastern gas market to be linked to the high priced Asian and east Asian gas market. Government should not escape responsibility for the unintended consequences of that decision.” Apparently businesses should, according to Mr. Wilcox.

The main argument from those who would see subsidies continued or even expanded is that the practice “supports jobs”. The subsidies are deemed necessary because because if it were not paid, and here comes the kicker, the industry would fail. Ironically these same supporters of what are, in effect, welfare payments to failing businesses from the population of the country they do business in, are also the biggest critics of government intervention. Gina Rinehart, owner of Hancock Prospecting, has argued for Australia to cut it’s “entitlement” mentality. Penning a piece of surrealist fiction Dali would have been proud of, Rinehart claims that “Australians have to… work harder and smarter to pay [the bill created by welfare payments].”

In a remarkable display of cognitive dissonance, Rinehart points out that “we are living beyond our means” and that “we all have a role to play in mitigating the thinking that’s not helping our country’s future, including the entitlement mentality of individuals, companies — and our leaders.” These statements came not six months after Rinehart suggested that parents buy their children books from the likes of Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, two historical supporters of free market ideology that would have looked down their noses in disgust at the hypocrisy of a woman who preaches the ideals of free market capitalism yet owes her success and fortune to the parasitic relationship she has forged with the Australian government.

Technically speaking, a free market economy is free of subsidies by definition. A subsidy introduced to a previously free market transforms it into what is known as a mixed economy. The authors that Rinehart and her contemporaries cite as major influences would argue that subsidies unnecessarily distort markets and divert resources from more productive uses to less productive uses. Conveniently, the leaders of business in this country and abroad have managed to characterise these arguments as product of scheming leftoids and “greenies”, and it seems no-one in our media or government has the stones to point out how dishonest a statement that actually is.

So what could possibly motivate such staunch supporters of free market ideology to bat for the opposing team? I think this short statement says it all:

“To the extent subsidies raise the profits of those receiving beneficial treatment, a new political incentive is created to lobby for the subsidy even after its usefulness runs out. This potentially allows political interests and business interests to create a mutual benefit at the expense of other taxpayers or competitive firms.”

That mutual benefit seems to be the driving principle behind government relations with fossil fuel companies in Australia, and it stands out like a sore thumb despite bungling efforts to minimise its visibility to the public. In 2013, Barnaby Joyce claimed that Gina Rinehart fronted the cost of a flight to Hyderabad for the wedding of the granddaughter of Rinehart’s business partner. Another story from the Sydney Morning Herald shows Rinehart meeting a small group of Coalition members in her private hotel suite, including Speaker Bronwyn Bishop and Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi. I’m sure there is an infinite stream of spurious justification just waiting to dribble forth from the maws of their respective supporters, but I fail to see how secretive meetings between the captains of industry and the leaders of government can result in anything but a conflict of interest.

One of the world’s leading public intellectuals, MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, has spoken at some length about the relationship of the idealist notion of free markets and their real world counterparts. Chomsky states in his talk, Free Market Fantasies, that the overarching political rhetoric of our age is that the poor and needy must learn responsibility through exposure to the pressures and forces of the free market, while the rich demand a nanny state to protect them from market discipline, minimise competitive risk and maximise profits. What Chomsky notes is that when something goes wrong in the affairs of one of these large businesses, the state intervenes using tax dollars to “bail out” the corporation. According to Fortune magazine, not a single one of the top one hundred transnational corporations missed out on such beneficial state intervention. Here’s a short excerpt from his talk:

“Well “subsidy” is another interesting word, kind of like reform. It’s a subsidy if public funds are used for public purposes. That’s called a subsidy. It’s not called a subsidy when they go to private wealth. That’s reform. So they’re cutting down subsidies for public transportation. Well, that’s just a tax. If you pay 20 percent more for getting on the subway, that’s a tax. Same if you pay higher tuition at City College. And that’s a highly regressive tax. So, who rides the subways, and who goes to City College?

So what they’re doing is shifting- is cutting taxes for business — for the rich, and increasing taxes for the poor, which are going to compensate for that. And that’s called fiscal conservatism, and cutting government. Well, so it is across the board. Take a close look at the things that are called cutting government, and you notice that they quite characteristically have this property.”

So what are we going to do about this? There are numerous avenues for interested persons to organise and present a united front against these practices. 

On the side of politics, the Australian Greens count among their principles the notion that “subsidies to the fossil fuel sector, including funding for research and development, should be transferred to the renewable energy, energy efficiency and sustainable transport sectors.” There are other minor parties that support an end to fossil fuel subsidies and run on a platform including other targets for sustainable and renewable energy practices.

For a more direct approach, non-governmental organisations such as 350.org and Market Forces offer ways for the average citizen to get involved and take direct action to affect change in business and government.

Finally, simply talking about the issue with friends and family can be an invaluable way to spread awareness about the reality of our situation with regards to fossil fuels. Social media groups and online communities are a great way to network with likeminded people and organise activism in your local area.

Although the situation seems grim, and it is, all hope is not lost. We are at a point in the history of our species where our access to information is as free as it has ever been, where democratic structures exist and can be used for their intended purpose with enough popular support. We have thrown off the shackles of the church and hereditary leadership, and made enormous progress in securing the rights of marginalised sections of the human population. We have been to space.

I have no doubt that an informed and motivated citizenry can bring about radical change despite moneyed opposition from big business. We are an incredible phenomenon of life. Let’s not let the least of us snuff that out.

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Snowy Hydro, Neoliberalism and the NSW Government: The Ugly Visage of Privatisation Rears Again

Hazelwood power station in Victoria's LaTrobe Valley

Hazelwood power station in Victoria’s LaTrobe Valley

Australia’s energy policy is subject to regulatory and fiscal influence from all three levels of government, however only the State and Federal levels determine policy for primary industries such as coal.

Coal, natural gas and oil-based products are currently the primary sources of Australia’s energy usage, despite the fact that 38% of Australia’s total greenhouse emissions stem directly from the coal industry. In the year 2000, Australia was the highest emitter of greenhouse gases per capita in the developed world.

After the Second World War, New South Wales and Victoria began integrating the formerly small and self-contained local and regional power grids into state-wide systems, run centrally by public statutory authorities. Workers were able to confer with one another and pass legislation with the consent and input of the public through these statutory authorities.

Enter the Snowy Mountains Scheme: a hydroelectricity and irrigation complex in south east Australia, sixteen major dams, seven power stations, pumping station and 225 km of tunnels, pipelines and aqueducts. It was largely constructed by European immigrants and is seen by many as “a defining point in Australian history, a symbol of multicultural, resourceful, independent Australia.”

A map of the Snowy Mountain Scheme, not Canberra, top right, and Thredbo, bottom left.

A map of the Snowy Mountain Scheme, note Canberra, top right, and Thredbo, bottom left.

The Scheme generates 67% of all renewable energy in the mainland National Electricity Market and provides approximately 2100 gigalitres per annum to the Murray-Darling Basin, providing additional water for an irrigated agriculture industry worth around $3 billion, representing more than 40% of the gross value of the nations agricultural production

Workers inside tunnels making up part of the Scheme

Workers inside tunnels making up part of the Scheme

The project at the time of it’s implementation was rumoured to be unconstitutional, and eventuated in the deaths of 121 workers. This excerpt from a discussion paper on the Scheme goes into some detail around the political concerns at the time of development and planning:


“Perhaps more daunting than the engineering challenges were the political ones… [then Prime Minister Ben] Chifley saw in the Australian Constitution a simple solution to the bickering that was occurring between the States. Each State wanted the greatest benefit to lie, understandably, within their own borders… There was one ready made solution for the Prime Minister, to invoke the 1909 agreement made between the Commonwealth and NSW, however that would still leave Victoria and South Australia to deal with. However, lurking in the Constitution was a solution, and that was to make the Scheme a national defence issue.

A conversation related by the Governor-General between himself and the Prime Minster summed up the attitude of the day;

McKell – The Snowy is a national work and as Prime Minister I think you should do it as a national work,
Chifley – Yes, but you know I haven’t got the constitutional authority.
McKell – I know you haven’t, but do it. Go ahead and do it. And let’s see what will happen. Don’t forget this Ben, under this Scheme we are going to build generating stations thousands of feet under the earth.
Chifley – What are we going to do that for?
McKell – So the bombs can’t get at them. This is a defence job. This is for the defence of Australia.

Indeed, the Act was introduced into the Federal Parliament under the Commonwealth’s defence power. It was fortunate that the validity of the Act was never challenged, as it would very probably have proved to be unconstitutional. It was not until 1959, ten years later, that the Act was underpinned by appropriate State legislation, with the Snowy Mountains Agreement becoming effective from the 2nd of January 1959. It was during this time of constitutional limbo that the Australian Workers Union secured more favourable working conditions under the threat of a constitutional challenge to the Authorities validity.”


From the same document:

“7. Degree of Public Interest

The possible level of public controversy over the Scheme would be examined under this heading, as well as the possible generation or maintenance of social inequity.”


This is relatively unsurprising except for the obviousness of the language. Statements like these can be found scattered through reports generally only read by rich men whose interests are covered within them.

Tumut 3 Generating Station

Tumut 3 Generating Station

The Scheme, despite being rated by the American Society of Civil Engineers as being a “world class civil-engineering project”, is in the process of being considered for privatisation. In December 2005, the NSW government announced it would sell its 58% share in Snowy Hydro, a publicly unlisted company that operates the Scheme, expecting to yield a billion dollars. This proposal was effectively vetoed by the Federal government in June 2006, by an announcement that the Federal government would no longer sell its 13% stake in the project, which forced the states to follow suit. Interest in privatisation was renewed in Feb 2014, when the National Commission of Audit recommended in its Phase One Report that the Commonwealth sell its interest in Snowy Hydro.

The National Commission of Audit was a commission formed by the Abbott Government on 22 October 2013 as an independent body to review and report on the performance, functions and roles of the Commonwealth government. The Commission has recommended slowing in the increase of the aged pension, an increase in retirement age to 70 by 2035 and the inclusion of the family home in new means testing from 2027. The commission was behind the recommendation of the Medicare copayment, also suggesting cuts to Newstart, NDIS, carers allowances, foreign aid, students, and homeless funding.

In this article over at The Guardian, states that the NCoA’s “few recommendations that affect revenue would pit states against each other with an ultimate aim of further reducing tax revenue in the hope that there will need to be more cuts to services similar to what has happened in the US over the past 30 years.”

These policy recommendations rest on a foundation of abject mythology. Baseline assumptions in the reports include: Australian governments have a lot of debt, that we are a high taxing country, with big spending from government and large deficits. In reality, Australia’s debt levels are historically small, out of 30 OECD countries only six have a lower net debt to GDP, on top of which we are the fourth-lowest-taxed country, paying around 26 percent in tax. We spend around 25% on average of the GDP, and our budget balance, according to this SMH article, is “around the middle to low end of observations elsewhere in the world at 1.8 per cent of GPD.’


SnowyHydro Discovery Centre

SnowyHydro Discovery Centre

So who are Snowy Hydro?

The mission statement at Snowy Hydro reads: “To deliver superior financial returns by being the preferred supplier of risk management products; developing our people, utilising and developing our water resources, physical assets and dual fuel capabilities, and exceeding customer and stakeholder expectations while demonstrating best practice in safety and health, asset and environmental management.”

Noel Cornish on his yacht

Noel Cornish on his yacht

BlueScope Steel’s former Australian and New Zealand steel manufacturing businesses chief executive Noel Cornish is now Interim Chairman of the Board at Snowy Hydro. Cornish is currently on the board of directors for AIG, or the Australian Industry Group, the purpose of which is to represent business interests. It has ties to the mining industry in the form of a partnership with MESCA, the Mining and Energy Services Council of Australia.

Innes Wilcox

Innes Wilcox

Its chief executive Innes Willox penned an opinion piece on the “bogus scourge of job insecurity”, proposing that the situation does not exist and that it is some kind of concerted effort by “misguided” academics, the Greens and labour unions to pursue restrictions on business. It is clear that Willox, and Cornish, subscribe to a neoliberal ideology and that workers rights are, in their minds, considerably less important than the rights of employers.

“Manufacturers in particular are facing considerable headwinds due to the combined impacts of the strong dollar, intense competition from the emerging economies, a legacy low productivity growth, relatively high unit labour costs and considerably higher energy prices. “While there are very exciting opportunities – particularly in the growing markets of Asia – taking advantage of these will require a new phase of investment and innovation,” Mr Cornish said.

In effect this is a stement that rising pay rates for workers and competition from worker run businesses are considerable challenges to the interests Cornish represents. He seems to advocate moving manufacturing to cheaper third world economies in Asia, undercutting the “relatively high unit labour costs” here in Australia. This seems like business speak for moving jobs offshore until Australian workers are prepared to work for third-world pay at third-world conditions.

It seems that the corporation has sought legal indemnity from any “liabilities” incurred by their members:

Consolidated Financial Report for the Reporting Period 30 June 2013 to 28 June 2014, Page 6, Indemnification of Officers and Auditors:

“During the financial year, Snowy Hydro paid a premium in respect of a contract insuring the directors of the Company (as named above), the company secretary and all officers of the Company and of any related body corporate against a liability incurred by a director, secretary or officer to the extent permitted by the Corporations Act 2001(Cwlth). The contract of insurance prohibit disclosure of the nature of the liability and the amount of the premium.”

Even if there was unethical or illegal conduct going on in the upper levels of Snowy Hydro, it seems in my opinion that there would be no way to prosecute those involved, or to legally request details about the offences.

Snowy Hydro was involved in a court case with the Australian Energy Regulator over claims that the company had contravened aspects of the National Electricity Rules. On the 12th of February 2015 the Federal Court of Australia declared that Snowy Hydro had breached clause 4.9.8(a), “A Registered Participant must comply with a dispatch instruction given to it by AEMO unless to do so would, in the Registered Participant’s reasonable opinion, be a hazard to public safety or materially risk damaging equipment.”

The Court declared by consent that the company had breached these rules on nine occasions in 2012-13, by failing to comply with dispatch instruction issued by the AEMO. On each occasion Snowy Hydro generated more power than the dispatch instruction required.

From aer.gov.au:

“The Australian Energy Market Operator issues dispatch instructions to generators, based on offer prices and other market conditions. AMEO’s instructions ensure supply and demand is safely balanced every minute of the day… Compliance with dispatch instructions is essential to maintain power system security. Market outcomes may also be distorted if these instructions are not followed. Where a generator is advantaged by not following dispatch instructions, one or more other players may be financially disadvantaged.”

It seems, in my opinion, that Snowy Hydro have been testing the waters to see how much they can distort the market without attracting suspicion.


A view of the Snowy Mountains from Perisher

A view of the Snowy Mountains from Perisher

What effect could this have on the environment?

The Snowy Scientific Committee is a key body set up through legislation to advise the governments on how to achieve the greatest benefits from the environmental water. The committee’s existence has come under threat from the NSW government, which wants to reform it into an advisory committee funded by Snowy Hydro. According to Environment Victoria, a document published by the NSW government critiques the SSC for being independent from government (which is, in fact, it’s legislated role), for it’s “inflexibility”, and lack of broad expertise. The report also singled out the single source of the committee’s funding and the focus of the committee on environmental issues as being problematic. This is despite the same report admitting on the first page that “projected water recovery entitlements have been achieved, some substantial environmental releases have been made and the Snowy River is showing signs of improved river health.”

The reshuffled committee would boast, instead of it’s current chair who according to Environment Victoria has expert knowledge of aquatic environments, a chair appointed by the NSW Minister for Primary Industry. It seems to me that this is a way to increase industry influence and potentially drown out environmental concerns about development of the region that stem from the public and it’s representatives.

It is clear from the actions of NSW Premier Mike Baird, who has authorised fracking programs that are likely to not only poison the water supplies that feed into major urban areas of NSW, but also permanently contaminate the enormous artesian well underneath the state, that environmental and public safety are not high on the priority list of the current government. There have been reports of children suffering nose-bleeds in towns and suburbs where the fracking has been implemented. Narelle Nothdurft, a farmer hailing from Queensland, in statements to the ABC, said that “I have 11 children and the little children have nose bleeds along with headaches and a metal taste in their mouth all the time and the noise is horrendous.”

It seems unlikely that a NSW government plan for the Snowy River Scheme will result in much more than expanded profits for corporations and further public health and safety risks for the majority of residents.

Choosing to Lie About Indigenous Australia: Why Tony Abbott Should Do More Than Just Apologize

Tony Abbott has, yet again, demonstrated his appalling lack of knowledge on even the most basic aspects of our society with comments made last week that claimed the problems Aboriginal people face are a result of “poor lifestyle choices”.

The irony of a rich, Catholic white male lecturing a people who have routinely been consciously disadvantaged by government after government after government in this country is palpable.

Anglo-saxon relationships with the indigenous people of Australia have been consistently poor, to understate the matter, since our cultures first crossed paths. The response of our “noble forefathers” to the presence of what they considered to be savages was to engage in mass killing, in genocide, to allow easier access to the land and it’s resources.

There are no Tasmanian aborigines left.

Just think about that for a moment.

Imagine what it must be like to know that from an indigenous perspective, to understand that the white man has since the beginning been a force of slaughter, of death, of discord to your people.

Imagine then what it must feel like to hear one of these white men telling the nation he leads that it is the fault of the Aboriginal people that their living conditions rank among the worst in the developed world, that white police officers murder them in custody, that mining magnates such as Lang Hancock, Gina Rinehart’s father, have proposed they be sterilised.

In short, Tony Abbott is blaming the victims, and he’s not apologising for it.

“I’m not going to concede that. I accept people have a right to be critical of me, but I’m certainly not going to concede that.”

This statement made by the prime minister in response to journalists remarking that his framing of indigenous living conditions as a choice may have been a poor choice of words, demonstrates that this monkey in a suit has even less understanding of the situation than he does empathy towards it.

Was it a “lifestyle choice” that resulted in children of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders being forcibly removed from their families for over a century?

Does the prime minister believe that these human beings are choosing to live seventeen years less than non-Aboriginal Australians?

This behaviour, from the man who is supposed to represent Australia on the world stage, is despicable. It alone is reason enough to oust Gina Rinehart’s praetorian guardsman and ensure he never holds a position of power in this country again.

For those wanting to learn more about Aboriginal Australia and the horrifying disparity between indigenous people and the rest of the populace, head on over to youtube and watch John Pilger’s excellent film, Utopia.

You can find it here.

Jake Bilardi and the Helen Lovejoy Approach to Justifying War

Front page news in todays Herald Sun:

“PLOT TO BOMB US”

“Jihadi Jake’s plan to attack Melbourne”

The photograph of an eighteen year old boy stares back at us from the right of the headline. The article describes his blog posts, which detailed the boy’s fantasies of bombing Melbourne and carrying out grenade and knife attacks as “chilling”, and states that “chemicals” were found in the boy’s home. Jake Bilardi is now dead, allegedly as part of a suicide bombing which resulted in the deaths of ten or more people.

How hysterical has the media become to trot out this story as if it were proof of an existential threat to Australians everywhere?

In between lazy appeals to the public’s fear of ISIS, the article mentions that Jake Bilardi was intensely interested in world politics, and prior to his ‘radicalisation’ was an atheist. In a blog post Jake penned some weeks before his death, he states that he was “growing tired of the filthiness and corruption of Australian society” and that his research into the war on terror led him to form a “complete hatred and opposition to the entire system Australia and the majority of the world was based upon.”

We can all agree that the path Jake took was not an exemplary one. He chose to side with a group of fascists responsible for horrific crimes against humanity, an act that we must condemn wherever it occurs and whoever it involves.

But why, when context is so key to understanding these complex issues, is the Herald Sun not asking important, difficult questions?

The question we should be asking ourselves as a country is, what could we have done differently to prevent this from happening? We can blame ISIS until we’re blue in the face, the fact of the matter is that in doing so we are accomplishing nothing except for currying a feeling of moral, cultural and nationalistic superiority. Whether this is grounded or not, it confers no benefit to us as a community.

Jake’s mother had died several years prior to his involvement with ISIS, and friends and family point to this as a turning point for the boy, leading an already quiet young man to withdraw even further into himself. Where were the support services this human being needed? Where was the funding that could have provided those services, services which may have prevented his eventual death in a foreign land at the hands of sick old men? It was being spent on fighter jets and defence.

It’s true that we each have personal responsibility for the choices we make, and that as adults we bear the consequences for our actions. But Jake was not an adult. He was eighteen years old, a vulnerable, seemingly confused but intelligent young man looking for a sense of meaning and belonging in a world that had painfully wronged him. Why did we, as a people, not provide that for him? What is it about our culture that makes that search for meaning lead to the ranks of a bizarre quasi-religious militia on the other side of the world?

To use this child’s death as grist for the war mill is despicable behaviour, and the editors of the Herald Sun should be ashamed of the tone of the articles they allowed to be published this morning. We could have used this as an opportunity to ask ourselves what each of us can do to fix the endemic social problems here at home, and in doing so create a society so vastly preferable to religious extremism that it would be next to unthinkable to leave it to engage in such chaotic violence. We could have fostered some empathy with the real victims of this situation, the ten or more innocent human beings who lost their lives because of our inability to constructively criticise our own nation and implement support networks for those most in need, or perhaps with his family, who no doubt will experience vilification and hatred from the strikingly ISIS-like neoconservatives calling for a nuclear genocide in the middle east.

Mark Knight’s cartoon depicts Jake at his computer, surrounded by shadowy figures with culturally incorrect facial hair and overemphasised features, disturbingly reminiscent of antisemitic propaganda from the second world war. The caption reads, “you’re never alone on the internet.” A statement that is all too true, but that applies not just to the violent extremists overseas, but equally to their equivalents in our own parliament.

The Herald Sun’s comment:

“President Barack Obama may have to put American boots on the ground to stop the slaughter.”

Are we so afraid of the spectre of terrorism that it has become an acceptable behaviour for the mainstream media to sell war using the death of a child?

Whatever the answer to that question may be, we can be sure of one thing: if Obama puts American boots on the ground, the last thing we’ll see is an end to slaughter.

Privatisation: Just Who Is It For?

New South Wales is following Canberra’s lead in adopting what the Abbott government is referring to as “asset recycling”, which in practice translates to privatisation, securing 2 billion dollars under the deal.

Abbott’s five billion dollar scheme encourages states and territories to sell assists to fund infrastructure development.

The Baird leadership intends to funnel the money garnered from leasing 49% of the state’s electricity network into road and rail projects, though it is unclear as to whether this will actually take place and if it does, whether the decision is in the public interest.

Proponents of privatisation describe it as conferring a multiplicity of benefits to the public by boosting the efficiency and quality of remaining government activities, reducing taxes and shrinking government. The argument rests on the presumption that the profit seeking behaviour of private sector managers and owners will produce ever more efficient, cheap and customer focused services.

We mustn’t forget that the raison d’être of a business is to provide profit. People do not start up or buy a business for the sole purpose of serving the public, that sort of behaviour is more likely to be found in a monastery than in McDonalds. This basic profiteering function of business is primary in capitalist society, and we often see that rather than being customer or human centric, the businesses that make it to the big time cut corners when it comes to ethics and the treatment of their employees and customers.

It is not unreasonable to assume that the same profit hungry managers and owners the evangelists of privatisation refer to may have no second thoughts about implementing practices that make service unaffordable to large segments of the citizenry. Profit seeking organisations may decide that spending on the disabled or the poor is money wasted, and those affected may find it far more difficult to seek accountability than they would were the services government owned.

It is worth noting that efficiency is not the only goal of services like electricity, healthcare and water. One must also take into account quality, ease of access and sustainability when building a picture of what a successful service should look like.

Privatization was billed under Jeff Kennett’s Victorian government as leading to a more efficient and productive industry, passing on the savings to consumers. Despite Kennett’s comments to the contrary, electricity prices in the state have remained consistent with non-privatised states, only falling below the mean between 2004 and 2008.

There is evidence that companies running Victoria’s electricity services increased prices by up to 175% for “off-peak” periods, a decision which affects a sizeable portion of the populace who conduct their business during those times, perhaps the most notable example being agriculturists and farmers.

The notion that productivity would increase under privatisation has fallen apart, with the industry becoming an anchor on national productivity since the turn of the century. The private sector’s tactic of employing a higher percentage of managers and salespeople has contributed to further bureaucracy rather than having the intended effect of streamlining the industry.

Selling off government assets is typically coupled with the promise of the revenue being funnelled into new and needed infrastructure such as roads and rail networks, however the promise does not always carry through to reality. Economist John Quiggin noted that investment in infrastructure did not occur in Queensland under Bligh’s leadership despite almost ten billion dollars being made from the sale of government assets.

A 1991 report from the Harvard Business Review raised three key conclusions on the issue of privatisation that may help us frame the issue a little better:

1. Neither public nor private managers will always act in the best interests of their shareholders. Privatisation will be effective only if private managers have incentives to act in the public interest, which includes, but is not limited to, efficiency.

2. Profits and the public interest overlap best when the privatized service or asset is in a competitive market. It takes competition from other companies to discipline managerial behavior.

3. When these conditions are not met, continued governmental involvement will likely be necessary. The simple transfer of ownership from public to private hands will not necessarily reduce the cost or enhance the quality of services.

There are hidden costs of privatisation rarely spoken of by the politicians and their friendly counterparts in business. When a public service is privatised, much of the time employees are paid less on average and lose their existing benefits. On the surface this seems like a saving, but the costs of poverty and ill health must fall somewhere, and it seems it’s generally into the waiting arms of another state agency. The profits increase for those at the top of the pyramid, and those underneath carry an ever-increasing burden to support them.

It is also unclear as to whether privatisation actually does save governments money, with a study by the Project on Government Oversight finding that in 33 of 35 occupations, using contractors cost the United States Federal Government billions of dollars more than using government employees.

This seems yet another example of cosy relationships between politicians and businessmen taking priority over the wellbeing of the public. A more thorough, nonpartisan investigation into the history of privatisation in Australia, a cost benefit analysis and a public debate over the issue would go some ways to clarifying the relationship of privatisation to the people it affects.

Offshoring Our Future: Sinking Australian Jobs and the Great Barrier Reef

In spite of government lamentations about rising rates of unemployment, the NSW government is considering a plan to outsource around 240 human resources, IT, finances and payroll jobs to India.

The positions likely to be sent offshore belong to ServiceFirst, a company providing the above services to several government departments including the Office of Finance and the Treasury.

The irony of the situation is palpable. To the public, the government is styling itself as a stalwart defender of the livelihoods of its people, fighting to keep jobs in the hands of needy Australians, and curbing immigration because, as South Park so succinctly put it, “they took er jerbs!!!”

In reality, the government is seeking to cheapen its expenditure by moving those jobs to poor second and third world economies. This is not only reprehensible in a patriotic sense, leaving hardworking Australians to fend for themselves, but also in an ethical sense. The pay rates and working conditions of workers in India are some of the worst in the world, with nationals in the country working on average 8.1 hours a day as of 2011, with 191 minutes of that spent on unpaid work.

Call centre workers make on average 15,000 rupees, or 300 USD per month, which is about thrice that of employees in other sectors.

Over 94% of India’s workforce in considered unorganised, meaning unlicensed, self-employed, or unregistered economic activity such as rural traders and hand loom workers. This sector offers low productivity and lower wages. Even though it accounted for ninety four percent of workers, the unorganised sector created only 57% of India’s national domestic product in 2006, or around nine times less per worker than the organised sector.

There are reprehensible ethical issues in this sector, including debt bondage, where labour is forced from outstanding debt (otherwise known as slavery), and child labour to the tune of nearly five million children according to a 2009-10 nationwide survey.

For a government that counts human rights among it’s strongest priorities, this behaviour is woefully hypocritical.

The Public Service Association of NSW general secretary Anne Gardiner, in statements published in the Sydney Morning Herald, said that up to 30,000 of the state’s 400,000 public servants perform similar corporate service work to that targeted for outsourcing, leaving the future employment of many Australians hanging precariously in the balance.

Unemployment in the region is at a six year high, and this proposal seems to show that the government has no solid plans to turn those figures around, despite their blustering to the contrary.


In a continuance of this fine form, the Australian government has invited journalists worldwide to participate in an all expenses paid trip to the Great Barrier Reef (or should we say, areas of it that haven’t been utterly destroyed by corporate greed) in an obvious attempt to bribe the media to keep the Reef off the Unesco world heritage committee’s “in-danger” list.

It seems our government is prepared to sit on its laurels with regard to doing anything about the Great Barrier Reef other than allowing it to earn the coveted title of “understated problem of the century”, for which literally no expense is being spared.

An article by Guardian Australia reports that journalists from Germany, France, the Phillipines, Japan, India and Portugal are being flown in for a week long stay, where they’ll get to see the reef and meet “officials” who will “explain” Australia’s conservation efforts. How it’ll take a week to explain a literal absence of those efforts is beyond me.

The trip is being organised by the “Great Barrier Reef Task Force”, an organisation established not to actually prevent damage to the reef, but to prevent damage to those damaging the reef by keeping it off the Unesco “in danger” list. The government argues that it’s efforts on this front are necessary to counter “misinformation” about the state of the reef, a phrase which seems to mean any actual video footage, photography and scientific data that might jeopardise the business partnerships of government officials.

Let’s put this into perspective. One of the world’s most lucrative sources of tourism based income, a natural phenomenon that can be seen from space and that has taken at the least 10,000 years to form, is being reduced to a cloud of silt to line the pockets of men who will probably die of their cholesterol before 2030.

Rio Tinto is Moving Towns, Literally

A small town in rural New South Wales faces relocation after a bid by mining company Rio Tinto to extend the Mount Thorley-Warkworth mine.

The proposed move should be given “serious consideration” according to a New South Wales government review. What exactly can be taken seriously about the prospect of an entire town being shunted to the side to fulfil the desires and fill the wallets of companies routinely involved in poisoning just about every surface they touch is a mystery. It seems patently absurd.

The toll of Rio Tinto’s operations in the area is already disturbingly high.

The mine runs all night and throughout the day, disrupting the sleep patterns of residents. Ancient dunes to the west of the mine, the last known such landform of their kind on the planet, have been progressively destroyed. Now only 13% of the original 465 hectares remain. Endangered native fauna living in this environment is at high risk of being wiped out entirely.

This is despite the permit issued to the corporation, which stipulates that it’s activities must never destroy historic and precious landforms. It seems the focus is on the timeframe allowed for operations, which extends to 2021, rather than any legitimate ethical or environmental concerns. It seems that Rio Tinto’s regard for this contract mirrors its regard for the land it is pillaging, now wanting operations in the area to continue until at least 2032.

The New South Wales government stands to gain an extra $680 million in royalty payments from the additional coal that the mine would produce. It’s little wonder then that the decision seems likely to go ahead.

The relocation idea has not been canvassed with residents during the five years of debate over whether the mine extension is a viable option. Disconnect between governments, corporations and the people their decision affect is unfortunately the norm, but when the scale of the decision involves uprooting the contents of an entire postcode, it almost beggars belief that the populace hasn’t been informed.

It’s likely that many residents will be forced to make do with smaller properties and inadequate recompense, due to the size and sparsity of their existing homes.

A spokesman from Rio Tinto, in statements made to Guardian Australia, said that “We have followed due process at all times”.

This glib comment seems to indicate that due process to the mining giant literally equates to doing “whatever the fuck we want to.”

Censors, Censures and Campus Cops

Justice Minister Michael Keenan today elucidated new changes to the controversial “Schools Security Programme” that would involve the employment of security personnel to oversee campuses at fifty four schools across the nation.

“It’s a commitment that we made prior to the last election to make sure that we were partnering with schools that might be at particular risk of intolerance”, the Minister stated in his address to the senate.

The program has existed since 2007, however until now the legislation has excluded the use of security personnel, limiting the available avenues of spending to stronger fencing, CCTV surveillance and anti-ramming devices.

Schools receiving the $18 million include 22 government/independent schools. 29 out of the 54 are located in New South Wales, with the majority in western Sydney.

Despite increased security in American schools since the events at Sandy Hook in December 2012, there has been almost no reduction in the number of school shootings in the United States. Measures similar to the ones proposed under the new Schools Security Programme, including CCTV surveillance, stronger fencing and security personnel seem to have made no impact on the frequency and severity of the killings, raising the question as to why the Coalition believes the measures will be successful if implemented here.

A 2013 report on the Impact of Security Measures on Students, by the U.S. National Association of School Psychologists, regarding potential impact of security measures in schools, stated that: “There is no clear evidence that the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or guards in schools is effective in preventing school violence, and little is known about the potential for unintended consequences that may accompany their adoption.”

The report goes on to highlight the potential for these programs to increase criminality in students and to strengthen “street culture with its emphasis on self protection”. It also highlights the inherent implication of guilt on behalf of the student that accompanies the use of CCTV surveillance.

This is a situation that is not only likely to distract children from learning, but may also foster paranoia and self-censorship. The nature of school shootings is unpredictable, with often little to no warning that the events were going to occur until after the fact. It is unlikely that employing security guards to act as a bulwark against violence in schools will accomplish anything but a militarisation of our learning environments, colouring the social environment of our schools with an authoritarian palette.

We need to ask ourselves whether measures that have failed to deter the crimes they are established to prevent in other nations are worth the potential destabilising effect on our own school communities. Are we really so afraid of the spectre of terrorism that we are willing to surround our children with armed guards?

I sincerely hope the answer to that question is a resounding “no”.


As of approximately 1pm today, Attorney General George Brandis was censured by the senate, with a motion of 35-32, in regards to his actions towards Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs. The motion was proposed by Senator Penny Wong.

Senator Penny Wong's censure motion.

Senator Penny Wong’s censure motion.

Christine Milne, Greens party leader, in sympathy with Wong, stated that “We do not believe he is fit to hold the office of AG and not only that, his behaviour has demeaned the senate and the parliament.”

Milne says the government should have focused on the situation for children in detention rather than attacking Triggs

Labor senator Jacinta Collins has drawn attention to the fact that the Forgotten Children report is not, as Ian McDonald lazily alleged last week, a partisan affair, it features criticism of both sides of politics and also focuses the amount of time children are in detention.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon has proposed a royal commission into children in detention, a suggestion most Australians will likely agree with. He does not believe Brandis is unfit to hold office, however believes that the Attorney General has erred “significantly” on his handling of Gillian Triggs. He supports the first four parts of the motion but not the last.

It seems that this is only the second time in our political history a censure motion has been successfully passed against an Attorney General, the first being on the 4th of April, 1973, where Senator Lionel Murphy was apparently censured “because of certain actions connected with alleged Croatian terrorism in Australia and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.”

The “Croatian terrorism” mentioned refers to concerns over local Utasha groups plotting to assassinate the Yugoslav Prime Minister during his visit to Australa. The Utasha was a Croatian fascist movement that had allied itself with Germany in World War Two and had active cells in Australia at the time.

The then Attorney General raided ASIO headquarters on March 16th, 1973, ordering police to open sealed filing cabinets due to concerns about ASIO’s failure to respond adequately to the aforementioned threats, finding that the security organisation had little information on the threat to the Yugoslav Prime Minister and confirming public perceptions that they were neglecting a key security issue. The Utasha group had been involved in several bombings in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane during 1972, causing no deaths but damaging property and injuring members of the public.

There is little solid information available about the censure and the events leading up to it. Opinion seems to be split about whether the raid was necessary or an overreach of political power, with this scathing article by conservative magazine Quadrant opting to bat for the latter position, while this article by Andrew Zammit aligns with the former.

What is clear is that Murphy supported legal measures to strengthen the public’s ability to access government information, to remove censorship and to implement a Bill of Human Rights. Amongst the reasons for drafting the bill, the Attorney General stated that, “in criminal law, our protections against detention for interrogation and unreasonable search and seizure, for access to counsel and to ensure the segregation of different categories of prisoners are inadequate. Australian laws on the powers of the police, the rights of an accused person and the state of the penal system generally are unsatisfactory. Our privacy laws are vague and ineffective. There are few effective constraints on the gathering of information, or its disclosure, or surveillance, against unwanted publicity by government, the media or commercial organisations”.

Considering the rumours of CIA involvement in the sacking of Gough Whitlam in 1975, one year after his establishing the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security which served to investigate ASIO’s activities, condemning many and leading to reforms, and their strong links to ASIO, it seems odd that two prominent Labour politicians who had spoken out against the organisation were removed from power so soon after their criticism of the security organisation.

In the senate today, George Brandis refused to comment on the allegations that the secretary of his department conveyed an offer of a specific role to Gillian Triggs at their meeting in Sydney on the 3rd of February, telling parliament that “There is nothing more to say.”

Whether the Attorney General is telling the truth remains to be seen, and with secrecy in the Coalition at an all time high, one thing we can be sure of is that gathering reliable information on the internal affairs of our government will be painfully hard for anyone outside of the party itself.


Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison, two likely candidates for the Prime Minister’s role should leadership concerns continue, have allegedly been using Wickr, an app which allows “private, encrypted and self destructing data” to be electronically shredded to leave no trace of messages, to communicate to one another over the last few weeks.

The irony of the situation is palpable, and a perfect demonstration of the hypocrisy in those who routinely ask us to surrender our privacy for our own safety.

If the ministers have nothing to fear, why are they hiding?

A bipartisan report released on Friday backed the government’s proposed data retention scheme, but demanded more certainty about the customer details that would be stored and the agencies that would be permitted access.

Although the report was tabled in the House of Reps, apart from the Chair, Deputy Chair and the Government Whip, no extra debate was permitted.

The lack of debate on a piece of legislation which, if passed, will undermine the basic right to privacy of every Australian citizen seems to be contrived in the interests of opacity. I believe the only honest, reasonable way forward with regards to metadata retention and the broader role of government surveillance in the lives of the citizenry is total transparency.

There must be a national debate on the issue of surveillance and privacy, and in order for the conversation to be meaningful, the public must have access to information that concerns them, namely the agencies responsible for collecting data on the public, the systems, programs and techniques used to do so, the timeframe of these activities and details as to the involvement of foreign states in assisting and overseeing these activities.