Unpacking Gillard’s green program cuts

January 31, 2011

All the focus right now is on the flood levy. Gillard’s announcement last week that for one year, Australians will pay a small amount to help fund rebuilding infrastructure in areas devastated by the recent floods is the topic of the moment.

The rural Independents want a promise of a permanent natural disaster relief fund in return for their vote. New South Wales Premier Kristina Keneally wants a special deal so her constituents pay less than the rest of the country. The Opposition is determined to vote against the levy. In an extraordinary display of patronising false humility, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott even volunteered to help Gillard find more things to cut in the budget if it was too hard for her. If his intention was to portray himself as willing to be helpful, it backfired horribly – instead, he created an impression of someone with a superiority complex patting the ‘poor little girl’ on the head. It didn’t help that, over the weekend, he said that voting on the flood levy might be the opportunity his Coalition needs to oust Labor and get back into government.

But while all this is going on, the rest of Gillard’s announced plans to pay for flood recovery are flying under the radar. There was some initial comment from the Greens and the media, but it was quickly lost in the wrangling over the levy.

So let’s have a look at what else is part of this flood recovery package.

Funds will be redirected from infrastructure projects. In her address to the National Press Club, Gillard indicated six roads projects in Queensland would be delayed by one to three years, providing $325 million. Premier Anna Bligh endorsed these delays the same day as they were announced.

Gillard said she would announced a further $675 million, sourced from delays to existing projects, in the coming days.
She also announced caps on a series of programs, including the National Rental Affordability Scheme and the LPG Vehicle Scheme. In education, the Capital Development Pool and the Australian Learning and Teaching Council will be discontinued. Some existing programs – the Building Better Regional Cities and Priority Regional Infrastructure Program – will have their funds redirected to rebuilding flood-damaged infrastructure.

There’s been little, if any comment on this.

It’s the third part of the package, though, that has the Greens in particular hopping mad.

A whole suite of so-called ‘green’ programs are to be either scrapped, deferred or capped.

The Cleaner Car Rebate Scheme (dubbed ‘cash for clunkers’ by the media), Green Car Innovation Fund and the Green Start Fund will be scrapped.

The Solar Hot Water Rebate, Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute and Solar Homes and Communities Plan will all have their funding capped. She explained that for some programs, the ‘cap’ was actually a reduction in the total funds available, as demand had not been as high as anticipated.

Finally, the Carbon Capture and Storage Flagships and Solar Flagships programs will be deferred.

It would be fair to say that much of Australia did a double-take when they heard this announcement. Although there is by no means ‘complete consensus’ on the effect of climate change on extreme weather, it’s safe to say the majority of people favour ‘greening up’, if only to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and tackle pollution. Add to that the facts that securing the Greens’ support was vital for Labor to form government, that the Greens will soon hold the balance of power in the Senate and look to be significant players in the upcoming New South Wales election – and Labor’s plan looks like political suicide.

At the very least, it seems to make no sense at all. Labor’s tried to position itself as serious about tackling climate change. Gillard’s rhetoric on the subject of a carbon price has an unmistakable ‘line-in-the-sand’ quality, and she has shown every sign of being willing to do whatever it takes to bring that about. Why, then, would she slash funds from programs linked to one of Labor’s avowed policy pillars??

The clue is in Gillard’s speech:

‘The key to these carbon abatement program savings is my determination to deliver a carbon price.’

All other initiatives, she asserted, flow from the establishment of a price on carbon. Indeed, the pressure of increased carbon costs practically guarantees investment in renewable energy.

Politically, this is a clear attempt to wedge the Greens. If they want programs to tackle climate change, they’ll need to support Labor’s eventual plan for a carbon price. It’s an incredibly risky move. Labor has to walk a fine line here to avoid alienating the Greens entirely, which could see us right back where we were under Kevin Rudd – with a hostile Senate pressuring the government from both the right and left.

Last time that happened, it brought down the Prime Minister. That Labor is willing to take that chance again may be a sign of Gillard’s confidence in her ability to sell something unpopular – or it may be a giant bluff.

This strategy may not have a formal name, but it’s familiar. It’s called ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’.

But politics aside, what are the practical consequences of the proposed cuts to these green programs?

By not going ahead with the Cleaner Cars Rebate, the government rids itself of a program that was unpopular from the start. Both the Opposition and the Greens rubbished the proposal, which would see car buyers given a modest rebate when they traded in old cars for newer, greener models. A similar program in the US suffered cost blowouts, and was widely seen to have done little to encourage drivers to choose energy-efficient vehicles. Although this program was part of Labor’s election promises, breaking it is unlikely to attract much criticism – especially given where the money will go.

And here’s a curious thing about that money – it was sourced, originally, from programs that included Solar Flagships and Carbon Capture and Storage. Both these programs are now slated for deferment as part of the flood recovery package.

Solar Flagships was scheduled to fund two large-scale solar power stations in 2011. This will now be delayed. Gillard has not said for how long, but confirmed that the project was not scrapped. The effect of the delay is difficult to calculate; it’s unknown how much time it would take to build the stations and get them connected to the national grid. Clearly, any further dependence on coal-fired power than is necessary presents a problem, however.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is an initiative fraught with problems. Apart from being a technology which seems increasingly unviable, with limited – if any – application in Australia, there are now indications that existing installations are now leaking dangerously. Greens Senator Christine Milne noted back in 2008 that the problems with CCS could lead to increased costs for Australian taxpayers, since the government would be liable for any leaks.

Deferring funding to the Carbon Capture and Storage Institute gives the government a bet each way. If the technology does indeed prove unviable, there can be no claims of waste. If, on the other hand, the Institute starts making real headway with CCS, the government can re-allocate funding in the future. Either way, there are few practical problems associated with re-directing money from this program to flood recovery.

The Green Start program is another millstone around Labor’s neck. Set up to replace their failed Green Loans program, Green Start had already been largely scrapped over a month ago. Gillard’s announcement at the Press Club was really only the final nail in the coffin. Funding was set aside to compensate businesses who might be adversely affected by the closure of Rounds 1 and 2. What little remains will now go towards flood recovery.

The Green Cars Innovation program has had real problems. Widely seen as supporting the automotive industry at the expense of ‘real’ action on climate change, money already granted to companies has seen little in the way of results so far. Of only four cars supposed to be manufactured with the help of the program, only one (the hybrid Toyota Camry) is on the road. The others are due to roll out some time this year. The program has already had its funding lowered due to lower than expected demand, and came in for serious criticism from the Greens.

The capped programs, whose funding pools are to be reduced guided by lack of demand, are still in place. Expected uptake for the Solar Hot Water and Homes and Communities plans did not eventuate. It’s arguable that demand may increase, especially in the areas affected by floods. As things stand, however, the money is unspent and some is able to be re-directed. Unless installation of solar hot water skyrockets in the near future, there will still be rebates available. The government also leaves the way open for raising the ceiling at a later date if demand does increase.

So these cuts to green programs boil down to scrapping two programs that was unlikely to have much beneficial effect on emissions, scrapping another that would have closed down in a month’s time, lowering the ceiling on programs whose uptake was lower than expected, and deferring funding for an initiative fraught with technological problems. As noted above, the effect of deferring Solar Flagships is unknown.

Other ‘green’ programs remain in place. These include school solar funding, the Renewable Energy Venture fund, money for getting renewable power generators connected to the grid, tax deductions for business that improve their energy efficiency rating, new mandatory standards for vehicle emissions and power stations, and a substantial Green Building fund.

Whatever the real situation as regards these proposed program cuts and caps, the problem is that they look bad. The government needs to do a lot more to sell this part of its flood recovery package to parliament and the public alike. They could do worse than start by giving people the information they need to truly assess the effect of these changes.

But then again, asking a government to treat its people as intelligent human beings with a right to know the facts of any given situation has always been a big ask. And we’re all culpable in this – we’ve let our elected representatives get away for too long with giving us only half the facts. This needs to change – and this is as good an opportunity as the current government is ever likely to get.

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A reality check on the flood levy

January 28, 2011

The preliminary costs to rebuild the infrastructure destroyed by the floods is estimated by Treasury to be $5.6 billion over the next four years, the bulk of which is needed for Queensland alone. This figure only takes into account such public infrastructure as public transport, ferries, ports, rail and roads; it does not include the costs to private businesses and individuals, which are still being estimated. It’s a staggering amount – and that’s without factoring in the likely effects on both state and national economies, which may drop our expected Gross Domestic Product figure by as much as 0.5%.

Under longstanding national disaster arrangements with the states, the federal government pays 75% of that $5.6 billion. Given that the budget is in deficit, there are really only three ways to find that money – borrow it, take it from other programs or institute a levy. Gillard absolutely ruled out borrowing, calling it a ‘soft option’. Instead, the government proposes to combine the other two approaches, bringing in a flood levy and cutting and capping programs.

On the face of it, there are a lot of numbers and it all gets confusing pretty quickly, so I want to deal with these two proposals in separate posts. Let’s start with the one that’s provoked the most hysterical rhetoric so far – the levy.

This will be raised over the 2011-12 financial year. Those earning between $50,001-100,000 per year will pay 0.5% on their taxable income, while those who make over $100,000 will pay 1%. Low income earners – under $50,000 – and those affected by the floods will be exempt.

Gillard absolutely ruled out extending the levy past the 2011-12 financial year. So Australians are being asked to pay a set amount, once, to help offset the cost of rebuilding infrastructure around the country.

According to Treasury’s fact sheet, that means someone earning $80,000 will pay $149.76, or $2.88 per week. That’s a little more than half the price of a decent latte that you might grab on the way to work. On a salary of $55,000, the amount drops to $24.96, or 48c per week – about the price of an apple.

If you’re lucky enough to earn $300,000, you’ll pay $2250.04 – the equivalent of replacing your 12-month-old MacBook Pro, or a big family meal at KFC every week.

Cue the aforementioned hysterical rhetoric.

It’s ‘grossly unfair’, according to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. It’s ‘unprecedented,’ shouted Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey. It’s ‘unnecessary,’ according to any Opposition MP or Senator who could secure air time.

Abbott warned that ‘flood victims and volunteers’ would be hit with the tax. Hockey railed about how terrible it was to ask people to donate money and time to help flood victims and then slug them with a tax they had no choice about paying. Both tutted about the unfairness of bringing in this levy ‘on top of the mining tax and the carbon tax’, and said there was more than enough ‘fat in the budget’ to pay for the rebuilding – the government simply hadn’t looked hard enough.

Finally – and most egregiously – the Opposition claimed that because of the levy, people would be less likely to donate to disaster relief appeals in the future. Instead, they’d simply wait for a levy that they were forced to pay.

Reality check.

Anyone in receipt of a Disaster Relief Payment is exempt from the levy. Abbott says this is unfair, because unless your home was pretty much destroyed, you can’t get that payment. Take a look at the qualifying conditions from the government’s Disaster Assist website, however. Yes, you’re eligible for that payment if your house was destroyed, someone was injured or someone was killed. What Abbott failed to mention was that you are also eligible if you were stranded or kept out of your house by floodwaters for 24 hours, lost power for 48 hours due to floods or your sewage backed up for the same amount of time.

So if your power stayed on and you need to have your carpets cleaned, possibly replace a few pieces of furniture – you’ll have to pay the levy. Otherwise, you’re exempt.

What about the idea that this is ‘unprecedented’? Queensland Premier Anna Bligh pointed out that the idea of a levy is nothing new. She cited four from recent years. To fund the Guns Buy-Back Scheme after the Port Arthur massacre, the Howard government increased the Medicare levy by 0.2% in 1996, lifted in 1997. In 2000, the Howard government placed a levy of 11c per litre on milk to help fund deregulation of the dairy industry that was only discontinued after 2008. When Ansett Airlines – a private company – collapsed in 2001, the Howard government raised a $10 per airline ticket levy to help pay entitlements for the laid-off workers. That levy was abolished in 2003. Finally, a levy of 3c per kilogram of sugar to help fund restructuring for growers, was instituted in 2003 and lifted in 2006.

The only thing ‘unprecedented’ about the Gillard government’s flood levy is that it will be used to fund rebuilding national public infrastructure after natural disasters – not prop up or bail out failing industry.

As for the claims of ‘more fat in the budget’ – this is speculation at best, nonsense at worst. When asked, Abbott’s only response to ‘where else would you get money from?’ is to point at the NBN. Get rid of that, and apparently all our problems would be solved. I’ve already covered the consequences of scrapping this major infrastructure work-in-progress. Needless to say, those sorts of details don’t factor in Abbott’s condemnation of the government’s levy.

And then there’s the idea that a levy will make people less likely to donate. I’m disgusted to say that I’ve seen a fair few people posting around the net that they intend to withhold potential future donations on the basis of this levy. Worst of all was the call for people to ask for their donations back from the Premier’s Appeal, or to cancel cheques and credit card payments. ‘Why should I have to pay twice?’ was the substance of their reasoning.

I hardly know where to start.

First, no one ‘has’ to pay twice. Those who chose to donate to the Premier’s Appeal did so voluntarily – and deserve thanks for doing so. But it was their choice.

Second, this isn’t some kind of ‘double-dip. Money collected from the voluntary appeal is earmarked for individuals hit by flood damage – the ‘Mums and Dads’, to use Bligh’s phrase. The levy is purely for rebuilding public infrastructure.

But what’s behind this incredibly mean-spirited sentiment?

The idea that we should just ‘wait for the tax’ undercuts the entire rationale for giving money to people in need. Public funds are already spent to help homeless people and those with major disabilities – does this mean we should therefore stop giving to St Vincent de Paul or Vision Australia? We send millions of dollars overseas in aid – should we no longer donate to World Vision or Care Australia? And how about all those kids, who are covered by Medicare? Surely we don’t need to donate to the Good Friday Appeal?

The whole notion is patently absurd.

Or is this about visibility? Is it just that people want to be seem to be voluntarily giving up their money to help others? What a repugnant idea – that we should only give when we can tell others we’ve done so.

I’d like to think it’s not about the fact that donations are tax deductible, and a levy is not.

Is there something ideological at work here, something that says it’s fine for us to donate to privately run charities or through businesses such as Coles and Woolworths, but not through the government that is directly accountable to us? This is particularly nonsensical. If a government rips us off, we have recourse. We can find out where the money has gone. Prying that sort of information out of charities and businesses is considerably more difficult, if not outright impossible. Ultimately, we can even vote out a government if we find it’s screwed around with that money. We can’t demand that a charity cease to operate unless we can prove criminal acts – see my earlier point about getting that information.

The Premiers of Western Australia and Victoria – both Liberal – endorsed the levy. Abbott, however, just goes right on raising meaningless objections and pandering to the pettiness of the mean-spirited.

It’s worth repeating: this levy is tiny. It requires almost no sacrifice from the majority of Australians – and what little it does ask is surely worth it. That money will help Brisbane and other flood-affected areas return to something like business as usual, with knock-on benefits for the entire country. Even aside from the economic benefits, the simple humanity of helping out others is something to be desired.

To end on an encouraging note: many people have already signalled that – although they earn well under the levy threshold – they would be happy to pay the levy. At least one said last night that they would donate more money to the Premier’s Appeal (besides their initial donations), and make public statements to the effect that this because they were exempt from the levy, but wanted to contribute anyway.

That’s certainly something I plan to do. And maybe if enough people do likewise, it will send a message to Abbott and the Opposition that Australians are both capable of compassion and able to see through spin and rhetoric to the heart of an issue.


Hello, new readers

January 27, 2011

Just a quick note to say ‘welcome!’ to new subscribers to The Conscience Vote, and to thank everyone who’s been reading, commenting, and sharing links to the various articles here.

A particular shout-out goes to (name withheld), who sent a message to this effect: damn you, I never used to care about politics before I started reading what you write.

You – and all the rest of you – are why I do this.

And if there’s ever anything you’d like to see covered – not necessarily breaking news, but some aspect of Australian politics – please, leave a comment. I’d love to know what people are interested to read, but aren’t seeing.


Tony Abbott’s economic opportunism

January 20, 2011

First, Senator Bob Brown displayed astonishing insensitivity by using Australia’s flood disasters to bash the coal companies and promote the mining tax. Then, Shadow Minister for Innovation Sophie Mirabella played fast-and-loose with the facts about Wivenhoe dam and exploited people’s suffering to espouse a climate change denial argument.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott apparently felt it was time for him to have a turn on the ‘Capitalise on Disaster’ ride.

We had some warning of the thrust of his argument – he mentioned it last week (while the Brisbane River was rising to its peak). At the time, it didn’t get much media attention, which is understandable given the situation. Evidently that was unacceptable to Abbott, because he repeated and expanded on his initial remarks in a media conference in Sydney on January 18.

Abbott has a solution to the problem of how the government can assist the people of Queensland in flood recovery and bring the budget back to surplus in 2012-13 as promised. It’s a simple one – scrap the NBN and so-called ‘cash for clunkers’ programs and redirect unspent stimulus funds.

It may be that Abbott thought his solution would seem like a stroke of economic brilliance. In keeping with the Coalition’s ‘stop the waste’ mantra, apparently compassionate to people’s suffering and great for Australia’s economic position? What more could the people want?

Well, some actual thinking might help.

Abbott would have us believe that scrapping a multi-billion dollar initiative like the NBN is easy. Just shut it down, right? What he failed to mention is that the NBN is not a proposed program, but one in the process of being rolled out across the country. The first stages are already in place, tenders granted, people employed, contracts signed. These things can’t be unravelled with the stroke of a pen. At the very least, backing out of those contracts would open the government up to a potential mountain of litigation, with accompanying costs.

To trash the NBN now would likely cost money, not to mention the knock-on effect of hundreds of NBNCo employees suddenly unemployed, construction materials lying around unused, etc.

It’s a no-brainer that Abbott would then lead the charge in crying, ‘White elephant!’ Never mind that such waste would be the direct result of the government taking his advice. The Coalition would hardly be likely to pass up another opportunity to bash Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Communication Minister Senator Stephen Conroy.

And that’s the real point of Abbott’s announcement – opportunism. The floods are just another way for Abbott to reframe what he’s said all along – that the NBN is too expensive and unnecessary. Of course, he’s not going to say that. No, this is about saving the taxpayers from being hit with a levy to help pay for the massive cost of rebuilding much of Queensland. This is about helping the poor people who lost everything.

The subtext is clear: it’s irresponsible and insensitive of the government to build the NBN when people are suffering. We all ‘know’ that the NBN is not necessary – why, just look at how well the internet helped out during the floods. We didn’t have the NBN then, so that just proves we don’t need it at all. This is just another way for Labor to spend your money, because that’s what they like to do – spend, spend, spend. And now, look! They want to have their cake and eat it too. They’ll build this ‘unnecessary’ NBN, and they’ll tax you, the working families, to get money to do what they should be doing anyway – helping Queenslanders. You shouldn’t have to pay for their inability to manage the economy.

It’s a fatuous argument, riddled with holes.

Let’s take the most ridiculous of Abbott’s assertions – that the role played by internet users during the floods proves we don’t need an NBN. It’s an absolute fact that websites and social were hugely important. Police and emergency services used Facebook and Twitter to make announcements and quash rumours. People went out and took photos of encroaching floodwaters, and advised when they found roads cut. When scam artists decided to pose as charity collectors, Twitter exposed them and warned others. People were able to contact loved ones when phones failed, call for help (as did the Fairfield RSPCA, prompting a huge response from people willing to foster animals) and keep informed in an unprecedented way.

Nonetheless, users reported that their browsers often slowed to a crawl or locked up altogether, that their wireless servers dropped out in the severe weather, and they found their bandwidth choked as thousands all tried to find out what was going on. These are inherent problems with wireless – and yet Abbott would have us believe that we need nothing better.

Then there’s his argument that it’s unfair to ask the taxpayer to foot the bill for flood recovery. This is not only disingenuous – no matter whether the money comes from the NBN or a levy, it’s still coming out of taxpayers’ pockets – but sells the Australian people short. We might begrudge a tax hike to bail out a bank, give politicians a pay rise or prop up a failing industry, but when it comes to helping out those who have suffered through disasters, we’re happy to pay a little more. We’ll donate to appeals, take part in charity auctions, pay a bit more at tax time, give our time and labour, and go through our possessions to see what we can give. Sure, we might grumble at paying a bit more for our vegetables, but we do it.

That’s because the Australian people understand what Abbott apparently doesn’t – that the people in need are our neighbours, our friends and our families. That we know we can depend on each other.

In running this argument, Abbott has displayed nothing but rank opportunism and a woeful inability to understand how people respond to disaster. He tried to evoke the spectre of unfair treatment and oppressive government, but succeeded only in exposing himself as willing to use disaster and devastation to promote the same old political rhetoric.

And, coming from a man who was vocal in his criticism of Bob Brown’s calls for a mining tax to pay for flood recovery, Abbott showed himself to be as big a hypocrite than his parliamentary colleague Sophie Mirabella.

As a final observation, there have been two politicians whose behaviour has been above reproach during this crisis – and both could easily said to have been ‘on the nose’ with the public before. One is Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, who has shown commitment, determination and compassion – even to the point of announcing a full and transparent inquiry into causes of the floods and what might be done to mitigate future disasters.

The other is Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd. From being discovered in a Brisbane street wading through flood waters to help people evacuate, to interviews with the media, he has focused entirely on the people of Queensland. He’s refused to be drawn on political arguments like budgets and alleged state government mismanagement, and won’t comment on the kind of arguments advanced by Brown or Abbott. At every turn, he’s talked about helping people recover, rebuild and deal with the trauma they’ve undergone.

Curious, isn’t it? Bob Brown, Sophie Mirabella and Tony Abbott should take some time to look back at media coverage of Bligh and Rudd – and learn a few lessons about tact, appropriateness and simple humanity.


The difference between foot-in-mouth and exploitation

January 19, 2011

Bob Brown isn’t the only politician putting his foot in his mouth when it comes to the floods currently besieging large parts of Australia, it seems. In The Punch today, Shadow Minister for Innovation Sophie Mirabella decided to give us her considered opinion – complete with a characteristically crass swipe at Brown’s comments. Her words, however, go far further than Brown’s ‘make the coal industry pay’ remarks.

Floods are ‘natural’, she wrote. What short memories we silly humans have. Why, every week it seems we have a ‘one in 200 year’ flood, but if we really looked we’d see that floods have always been with us.

Having set a fairly patronising tone, Mirabella settled in to what appeared to be the real object of her article – a diatribe against those who believe that climate change contributes to extreme weather events. She singled out climate activist and academic Professor Tim Flannery as the ringleader of this ‘alarmist’ group, who are apparently so powerful and persuasive that they can make people believe things that simply aren’t true – like the idea that our actions can affect global weather patterns. With scorn fairly dripping from the page, she derided as ‘arrogant’ the very notion that humans could be such ‘all-powerful weather makers’.

See what she did there? This is actually a very sneaky and clever strategy. We tend to think we are fairly powerless in the grand scheme of things (whether harming the planet or influencing an election outcome) – and in the face of natural disasters such as these floods, that idea is exacerbated. You only have to spend a little time reading and listening to the words of those in the Lockyer Valley to get a sense of just how helpless and overwhelmed people feel. Mirabella capitalised on that shamelessly. The barely-concealed subtext is, ‘How could we possibly be powerful enough to do such mighty things? The mere notion is ridiculous!’

It’s a technique often used by those who argue that climate change is either (a) not happening or (b) nothing to do with us. It looks humble, but it’s a false humility. Humans can, and have affected the planet via everything from wholesale deforestation to nuclear accidents and bombs. To pretend otherwise is its own special brand of arrogance, and one Mirabella embraced with enthusiasm.

She followed up with the classic climate change denial argument: ‘… these cyclical weather patterns, with random extreme events, have always been part of our nation’s and indeed our planet’s history. They are not new. They are not more ferocious. They are not “payback” for the Queensland Coal Industry … They are not nature’s way of punishing modern man for his sins. They are simply natural events.’ Actually, it’s not an argument – it’s a series of assertions designed to shut down debate. Mirabella offered no evidence other than to list dates of past floods, and relied on misdirection and blatant misstatements to obscure the gaping hole in her arguments. While Brown’s comments were ill-advised at best, at no time did he say that the floods were some kind of ‘payback’ from a vengeful Mother Nature – but it served Mirabella’s purpose to suggest otherwise.

(As an aside, it’s curious to see such blatant denial rhetoric from Mirabella – especially since her party has a stated policy on the need to reduce carbon emissions. At the very least, it poses questions for the Liberal Party as to its position on climate change – have they returned to the days of ‘absolute crap’ and Nick Minchin’s Senate tirades about hysterical pseudo-science?)

The misstatements kept coming. Mirabella’s explanation for why the floods were so back hinged on her ability to obscure a few basic principles of flood mitigation. It’s all about Wivenhoe dam, she said. If those operating the dam had kept to its ‘original purpose’ and not ‘ignored the lessons of the past’, the water levels would not have been dangerously high when the ‘big wet’ arrived. She ended her article with a pious exhortation not to forget ‘the lessons of history’ in our ‘shock and grief’ over the devastation of the floods.

Mirabella relied on people’s basic ignorance of the rather specialised area of dam management. Yes, levels were high, but water releases had been taking place since November 2010. Wivenhoe was never at capacity – ‘100% full’ does not mean there is no more room, but refers to the drinking water level (about 1.1 cubic kilometre of the total 2.6 cubic kilometre storage). There is a further 115% storage available for flood mitigation before the dam is in danger of overtopping. Before it reaches that level controlled releases are made to reduce stress on the infrastructure.

She also misstated the dam’s ‘original purpose’. Though originally considered in response to the 1974 floods, Wivenhoe was never intended to be purely for flood mitigation. It was also constructed to supply drinking water to south-east Queensland, and even serves to supply storage for Wivenhoe hydro-electric power station.

None of that matters to Mirabella, apparently. She seemed content to capitalise on another predictable consequence of natural disasters – the need to find someone to blame. By lying, she exploited the sense of hurt and outrage growing in those who suffered from the floods.

Herein lies the contrast between her article and Bob Brown’s comments. Nothing Brown said was a lie.

Certainly, one can argue as to how much the coal industry – by virtue of supplying the fossil fuel – contributes to climate change, but even the Coal Association itself doesn’t deny there is an effect. Mirabella, however, ignored clear, well-known facts for the sole purpose of discrediting the idea that human contributions to climate change need to be addressed. She didn’t confine herself to attacking Brown, either – which would have been politically understandable given his comments about the floods – but struck out indiscriminately.

In doing so, she politicised the suffering of people around Australia in an unconscionable way. Her criticism of Brown for taking the opportunity to link the floods to climate change was disingenuous at best, hypocritical at worst. Given that she had plenty of time to consider her position in light of the reception given Brown’s comments, the latter seems more likely.

And there is just no excuse for smearing those in charge of Wivenhoe dam, nor for misleading and panicking people. Mirabella’s lies and rhetoric callously exploited people who are suffering, who have lost everything and face disruption to their lives for perhaps months to come – all in the name of scoring dubious political points.


Open mouth, insert foot: Bob Brown on the floods

January 17, 2011

In the last week we saw three-quarters of Queensland devastated by floods, with 20 lives lost and possibly more bodies still unrecovered. New South Wales and Tasmania were also hit, and Victoria is currently in the grip of its own flood crisis in the north and west of the state. Even Western Australia saw some flooding.

The damage bill is likely to be enormous – much of Queensland’s infrastructure will need to be rebuilt, and that’s without even taking into account private home repairs and rebuilding. Disruptions to industry will affect food production and export, as well as mining revenue.

During this time, politicians are taking care to watch their words very closely. Anna Bligh, Queensland’s Labor Premier, shows herself to be a competent and compassionate leader, completely on top of the situation and showing her empathy for the people of her state. As Liberal Party strategist Grahame Morris noted somewhat wryly, ‘It’s just as well for the Opposition that there isn’t going to be a state election any time soon.’

By contrast, Prime Minister Julia Gillard appears to periodically undergo personality suppression. Delivering announcements about monetary assistance from the Commonwealth, she looks robotic and aloof, especially comparing to Bligh. Nonetheless, she says all the right things – even if they do come off sounding a little like platitudes.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott sounded a bum note when he visited Brisbane late last week. Interviewed by Sky’s Kieran Gilbert, Abbott made a point of saying how important it was to have a healthy budget surplus to deal with crises like the floods. In itself, that skated right up to the point of political commentary – but he followed it up by saying this (presumably the floods) was why he had always been skeptical of the current government’s ability to bring the budget back to surplus. It’s probably just as well for Gilbert that he couldn’t see the Twitter feed at that point, which exploded with advice that boiled down to, ‘You’re standing on a balcony, toss him over!’ No one, it seemed, wanted to hear political spin while the Brisbane River was flooding the streets of Queensland’s capital and lives were being lost.

Later, Abbott was heard to quote a Bible verse in which the writer observes that God makes it rain on both the good and evil alike. Perhaps he meant it philosophically. It sounded flippant.

But the Foot-in-Mouth Award in the current situation really has to go to Senator Bob Brown, leader of the Greens. During an interview, Brown delivered a truly stunning argument that went something like this. Burning coal puts greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases warm the ocean – its temperature is demonstrably going up. When this happens, the weather gets more extreme. More extreme weather = the kind of floods going on right now. The solution? Institute the originally-planned mining tax right now, and make the coal mining companies pay for rebuilding the infrastructure.

Let’s leave aside the whole ‘is-the-climate-changing-and-is-it-our-fault’ debate right now, because that’s not really the point. It’s not about the truth or otherwise of Brown’s assertions. It’s about what many saw as – at best – an incredibly tactless comment, and at worst as a blatant political act devoid of compassion.

Brown’s motives were surely well-intentioned. After all, if you’re looking for a way to drive home the dangers of unchecked climate change, the floods are a perfect example. It’s difficult to deny that something extraordinary is going on. Perhaps if he’d simply observed that the terrible toll taken by the floods showed how important it was for us to address climate change to avoid the same kind of disasters in the future, he would have gotten a better reception.

By going further and suggesting what was obviously designed to be punitive action against the coal industry, Brown undermined his own message. Suddenly it wasn’t about dealing with current and future crises, but about sticking it to one of the Greens’ perceived ‘enemies’. He unwittingly confirmed every hysterical stereotype of the ‘greenie’ – more concerned about the ‘environment’ than human lives, seeing ‘global warming’ at every turn and willing to use tragedy to prove a political point and bash big business. At that point, any truth contained in Brown’s original message becomes lost – and the way is open for others to claim the moral high ground.

Ralph Foreman, representing the Coal Association, appeared on PM Agenda this afternoon to do just. Now wasn’t the time for ’emotional’ and ‘off-the-cuff’ rhetoric, he suggested. We don’t know that these floods are caused by climate change – we should let the scientists do their work. After all, the coal industry supports the idea of action on climate change – they’ll ‘work with anyone’ on a carbon price – but Brown’s comments are ‘not the sort of irrational thinking that we want to see introduced into this debate’.

Foreman went on to point out how much his industry would suffer as a result of the floods. It will take weeks to pump out the mines and an unknown time to make infrastructure repairs. All the time the companies will take ‘a substantial hit’ to their revenues – Queensland’s state revenues will be affected by the loss of royalties. Nonetheless, coal companies are already contributing ‘substantially’ to the Premier’s Flood Relief Appeal, and expect to give more money.

In that one interview, the coal industry managed to position itself as a rational and mature participant in the climate change debate, as well as a victim of the floods doing its best to pitch in and help everyone else recover. Brown – and by extension, the Greens – were successfully painted as callous and out of touch with reality.

Andrew Bolt and his ilk must have been fairly dancing for joy when they heard Brown’s comments.

Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that Brown is the kind of mindless hippie fanatic certain news outlets like to suggest he is – far from it. But in calling for a tax clearly designed to punish the coal mining industry, Brown played into the hands of those very people. It was an extraordinarily naive thing to do, and I can only speculate as to what prompted it.

Maybe he was shocked at the extent of the floods. Maybe it was frustration – he looked at something that might have been much less dreadful if climate change had been tackled earlier. Maybe he was tired. Or maybe it was just a case of his mouth running ahead of his inner media advisor in the heat of an interview.

Whatever his reasons, Brown and the Greens now have to quickly move into damage control mode. They need to be out there doing the rounds of the media clarifying his remarks – and taking the hits. Brown needs to acknowledge that what he said was at least ill-advised, and show that he is mindful of how the floods nearly crippled one state, and badly disrupted others.

The Greens have made a huge tactical error. The coal industry has already capitalised on it – and when the time comes to look at the mining tax and carbon tax in Parliament, the odds are good that the Coalition will do the same thing. Abbott has a perfect opportunity to position his party as more ‘humane’ than the Greens – they care about people, not making cheap political points. (Yes, yes, I know, but how often have we heard that?) There’s real potential for central reforms of the Gillard government to be fatally undermined. The Coalition have already signalled their unwillingness to come to the negotiating table – the last thing the Greens should do is provide them with a justification for doing so.

Right now very few people want to hear theories about La Nina, or climate change, or whether more flood mitigation dams might have saved Gatton and Grantham from being virtually wiped out. People have been killed, lost their homes, their livelihoods, and whole communities are gone. Queensland in particular has only just begun to count up the cost of rebuilding. Some people at this point don’t know where they will live. In such situations, people want to hear that their elected representatives understand what’s happening and are doing everything they can to make things better. They’ll punish anyone who takes their pain and turns it into a political point, no matter what party they belong to or what they believe.

The human face of this disaster is what was lost when Brown started to talk about climate change and mining taxes – now he needs to bring it back.


Judging a man by his bookshelf

January 10, 2011

By now, almost everyone is aware of the mass shooting in Arizona yesterday. Six people lost their lives: Christina Anne Green (aged 9), Dorwin Stoddard (aged 76, a pastor at a local church), Dorothy Murray (aged 76), Phyllis Scheck (aged 79), Federal District Court Judge John Roll (aged 63) and Gabriel Zimmerman (aged 30, aide to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords). Fourteen other people were wounded, include the Congresswoman, who was shot in the head. The shooter, Jared Loughner, was subdued by two men after a woman tried to grab the gun as he tried to reload.

Naturally, everyone wanted to know just what the deal was with this Loughner guy. Is he a right-wing extremist? A lefty loony? A paranoid schizophrenic? A frenzy of internet searching commenced. The fact that Congresswoman Giffords is Jewish, female and a relatively conservative Democrat who supports the right of citizens to own guns was fuel to that fire.

In short order Loughner’s MySpace page, YouTube channel and a bunch of other sites were uncovered. Cue the amateur pundit/pop psych analysis, much of which centred on Loughner’s favourite books.

His favourite book is Mein Kampf! This proves he’s a right-wing nut.

His favourite books are The Communist Manifesto and Animal Farm! This proves he’s a lefty loony.

Of course, the carefully-constructed ‘telltale books’ arguments carefully failed to mention Loughner’s other favourite books – such subversive tomes as The Phantom Tollbooth, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.

What’s appalling about this kind of approach to uncovering the motivation of a guy who committed six cold-blooded murders is that it wasn’t just people in the Twitterverse or on Facebook. It was also major media organisations. Fox, of course, made much of the presence of Karl Marx on Loughner’s bookshelf. CBS zeroed in on Hitler. Here in Australia, Sky forgot to mention Hitler or Orwell. The ABC, at least, mentioned both ends of the political spectrum. On the basis of a single book, media started to build their profile.

To be fair, once other information surfaced, it was incorporated (like the fact that Loughner had tried and failed to join the Army) – but the damage was done. Taking their cues from mainstream media, people chose a side and launched their attacks. Very quickly, Loughner the person was obscured by Loughner-the-construct.

The absurdity of this quasi-analysis should be obvious. I’m fairly sure I could make a persuasive case for the idea that Loughner was delusional, based on his preference for fantasy books that dealt with surreal, utopian worlds. It would be as ridiculous as assuming that a man who reads Mein Kampf is a supporter of totalitarian, racist ideologies.

For that matter, take a look at your own bookshelves. A quick perusal of my non-fiction reveals books from both left- and right-wing authors, FBI sexual homicide crime classification manuals, treatises on cryptography, gnostic theology, English grammar, Hebrew lexica and Schopenhauer. And that’s just a sampler. From this, I’ve no doubt someone could construct a picture of me as – for example – a right-wing Israel apologist or a left-wing conspiracy nut. It all depends on which texts you select – and when you start cherry-picking texts to support your pre-existing theory, you’re operating from a very unsound basis.

It’s only natural that people should want to seek reasons for why terrible things happen. At the very least, we like to feel there’s something we can point to and say, ‘There! That’s what made him do it.’ What happened with Loughner, though, wasn’t about discovering the truth. It was about creating an assassin in the image of a political ideology.

Worse, it was about exploiting the deaths of six people and the attempted assassination of a federal political just to score points off political opposition. And left and right were as bad as each other.

Meanwhile, six families are in shock and only just beginning to mourn. Giffords and some of the other injured are fighting for their lives in hospital. Post-traumatic stress is setting in for the victims and witnesses, even those who were lucky enough to escape injury. Jared Loughner, who looks increasingly as though he’s suffering from schizophrenia, faces the death penalty and may never receive a fair trial, let alone treatment for his illness.

It seems that, yet again, the media isn’t about to let the facts get in the way of a good story. And it is a good story, no matter whether it’s the tale of a left-wing long-hair who struck out at the Democrat who’d disappointed him, or the right-wing bastard child of a hate group and the Tea Party who ‘punished’ a Jewish woman who had the nerve to be a liberal politician.

The horror of a little girl’s death should not be co-opted serve a political agenda. Equally, it should not be obscured by media trying to generate sales by pushing half-assed pop psychology designed to appeal to ideologues.

Her life, and the way she died, are far too important for that.


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