November 29, 2011 | Graham

Slippery slopes of Church and State

One of the most frequent objections I heard to Peter Hollingworth’s appointment as Governor-General was that it was a breach of the doctrine of separation of powers. This was a nonsense argument as he was appointed in his secular persona, not as a priest, but many intelligent people made it.

It was also a self-serving argument because it gave the appearance of high-mindedness to what was really a partisan objection. Hollingworth was appointed by John Howard, and he was the first Governor-General after the republican referendum was lost. So enemies of Howard, and republicans more generally, had reasons for wanting to damage Hollingworth.

This is further borne out by the fact that I have seen no-one of any consequence raise the same argument about the appointment of The Hon Rev Peter Slipper, Chancellor of the Traditional Anglican Communion, to the position of Speaker of the House of Parliament.

You would have thought they would.

I think it is the first time that a working cleric has been appointed speaker, and it is unusual, although not unprecedented, to have active ministers of religion in parliament. I can only think of one other recent example in the federal parliament – Australian Democrat Senator John Woodley, who was a Uniting Church minister.

Brian Howe, a minister in the Hawke government was also a Uniting Church minister, but I think he had retired.

Added to this the church in which Slipper is a minister – the Traditional Anglican Communion – is a little eccentric. It is a splinter from the Anglican Church and appears to have just about as many bishops as it has priests – a very tiny splinter indeed.

One of the things that distinguishes the TAC from the Anglican Church is that it is opposed to the ordination of women, something feminists might like to note.

Its primate is Archbishop Hepworth who alleges he was sexually abused whilst studying in a Roman Catholic seminary in his 20s. The alleged perpetrator was named in the Senate by Senator Xenophon but has just been cleared by a Catholic Church inquiry. This doesn’t make the allegations wrong, but it does make the whole thing messy, and you wonder how Hepworth could possibly continue to carry out his duties.

In essence the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide has made a finding which implies that the leader of the TAC is a liar. It is a matter which really should have been referred to the criminal courts, yet Hepworth refuses to make a complaint to police. For a man leading a religious denomination to leave the matter unresolved like this would appear to me to be untenable.

Yet none of this appears to have rubbed-off on Slipper. It tells you something about public debate in Australia.

Posted by Graham at 7:23 am | Comments (4) |

November 26, 2011 | Graham

Who says we don’t all share in the mining boom?

One of the arguments put in favour of the MRRT (Mining Resource Rent Tax) is that it is fair that we all share in the benefits of the exploitation of our minerals.

This assumes that we don’t already share in the benefits of the exploitation of our minerals. This is nonsense, as can be shown by pointing to royalties paid to states, taxes paid to governments, facilities provided to communities and dividends disbursed to shareholders.

It can also be demonstrated by the multiplier effect where people not directly involved in the industry are indirectly supported by it.

I can think of three people of my acquaintance who are in this category. There is Donna, who used to work for me, whose husband lives in Brisbane some of the time, and flies-in to a mining camp the rest of the time. Then there is Paul who is in-house legal counsel for one of Queensland’s largest mining companies. He doesn’t fly-in anywhere, unless he’s driving a porsche into town these days. And finally there is Margaret. She runs the training operation of a mining services company and lives just around the corner.

I’m a beneficiary as well as we’re just in the middle of building a website for a gold miner.

But how do you quantify this knock-on effect of mining?

At a recent launch I went to Mike Ahearn claimed that 20% of people in Brisbane earn their living directly or indirectly from mining. That sounds a bit high.

This post by Peter Martin, gives another measure.  It is a report on a presentation by Treasury’s David Gruen.

There are two graphs – one shows that the biggest growth isn’t in mining at all, but in “mining-related services”. The second graph is even more significant. It shows that the jobs growth is being spread fairly evenly around the country.

That is not to say that the jobs are all in mining-related industries,  but there is a knock-on effect. The effect works like this – for every builder who is now working on housing for the mining industry, and who could have been fully-employed in house building, there is a person now in work filling his job who wouldn’t have been in work at all.

This was always going to happen. All the talk of a two-speed economy is largely built on anxiety, and a misunderstanding as to how economies work.

Posted by Graham at 9:24 am | Comments (2) |
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November 24, 2011 | Graham

Nothing super about tax, government, opposition or commentary

No wonder voters are in despair about Federal politics. The Government passes its Minerals Resource Rent Tax, aka the Mining Super Profits Tax, and the Opposition, rather than concentrate on reselling the reasons for why this is a bad tax spends most of its time pursuing the government because it did a “secret” or “dirty late night” deal with the Greens to get it through.

Here are just a few of the reasons they should have been giving for opposing the legislation.

  1. As Alan Kohler points out it is a “deficit” tax. That is – it costs more money to implement than it raises. This is the second such tax this government has implemented, the first is of course the Carbon Tax. If every tax was like this the country would be broke. Passing this tax wasn’t about economics, it was about ego. The government didn’t want to lose face so spent what it had to, even if it didn’t have what it spent.
  2. There is no such thing as a super-profit. It is a theoretical concept subscribed to by some economists that bears no relationship to how the world actually works. There are profits, and there are larger profits. As long as a profit is not gained by milking a monopoly position or government rents it is legitimate, no matter how “super” it is. Many businesses achieve a 20% return on assets. Private businesses typically change hands on 3 to 5 times earnings, which means that it is the norm in the SME world. Banks make that sort of return.  Software companies like Microsoft do much better.
  3. Taxing “super profits” is not a smart thing to do. The Australian economy needs more companies making larger than average profits, that way the economy, and living standards, grows more quickly. Rather than taxing companies that make “super” profits we should be looking at ways to encourage them to locate here, and to encourage companies who are here to become “super” profit earners.
  4. If taxing mining “super” profits is a good idea this year, then why wouldn’t taxing bank, or software, or private company “super” profits be a good idea next year. If you have a profitable business this tax should make you very nervous next time the government needs money.
  5. Mining companies do make a contribution to the Australian economy. They pay royalties to Australian states, they pay company tax to the Australian government, and they pay dividends to shareholders, many of whom have the job of looking after the retirement funds of “working Australian families”. In a financial climate when investment returns have been negative, thank god there is an investment that can still make a positive return, but why would you add an extra tax to it?
  6. Miners do pay for their use of the minerals they mine. The payment is called mining royalties. They may also pay special levies on rail to transport their coal and be provided to pay money to improve community assets in the areas where they operate. When resource prices are high the royalties are even adjusted upwards. The “problem” for the federal government is that these payments go to the states because at federation it was decided that the states would retain the right to minerals mined within their borders. This tax is an act of expropriation from the states and is probably unconstitutional. We’ll no doubt find that out some time after it is passed and one or more of the states take the Commonwealth to the High Court.
  7. The mining tax is not about sharing the benefits of the mining boom – see point 4. It was originally about grabbing some money to prop-up the government’s bottom line from one of the few sectors that was doing well. It is now just about saving face for the government and the Prime Minister – point 1.
  8. We are not running out of resources. While Malthus may well prove to be right in the long  run, it is a very long run and generations will have passed before it arrives. So there is no sense that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to grab something for the common good before the resources run out.
  9. We are not in an absolute position of strength and if we leave the resources where they are they will not necessarily  be more valuable tomorrow. Until the industrialisation of China and India the real price of all metals was in a downward trend. That trend will probably reassert itself when those two countries evolve to a stage where they no longer need huge inputs of metals. The net present value of our mineral resources will probably be smaller in the future than it now, so putting barriers in the way of mining companies at a time when the resources are most attractive to them makes no sense.
  10. Mining is not a sunset industry, it is a sunrise industry. It is a tribute to Australian ingenuity and innovation that we are a world leader in mining. Our mining expertise is not only running mines in Australia, but all over the world. It was pointed out to me last week that PanAust, the largest mining company in Brisbane, doesn’t own a single Australian mine – they are all in South-East Asia and South America. Two other mining stars in Brisbane – Mincom and Runge – aren’t even miners at all, they are mining services companies, selling Australian know-how to other companies all over the world.

That’ll do me for this morning. Ten good reasons to oppose the tax, yet yesterday I didn’t hear the Opposition raise one of them. Nor for that matter did I hear the mining industry, nor a single journalist, with honourable mention of Alan Kohler.

Posted by Graham at 7:10 am | Comments (19) |
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November 23, 2011 | Graham

Has Wikileaks paved the way for Climategate 2.0?

Wikileaks might be threatening to go into hibernation because of lack of cash, but it seems that the Internet as a tool for dumping documents that are embarrassing to people in positions of power and influence is only just starting.

In fact Wikileaks, quite unfairly in my view, gained a lot of applause for doing what other organisations, or individuals, had been using the Internet to do for quite some time.

A case in point is the original 2009  Climategate emails which were discussed in the blogosphere long before they eventually seeped into the MSM. Contrast that to the  red carpet coverage that Wikileaks got for their dump of intelligence documents which told us mostly what we knew already – “a diplomat is a man who is paid to lie for his country”.

Well, it seems that Climategate is back in a sequel confusingly being called Climategate 2.0 (no, it’s not interactive, just a second tranche of embarrassing emails).

I’m not sure whether they tell us any more than the original emails – that is that some individuals at the centre of climate change science are quite corrupt and will destroy evidence or colleagues which contradict their positions even though at the same time they have considerable doubt about those same positions themselves.

I first found out about this new controversy, which is only a few hours old, courtesy of this post to our forum referencing information on a blog called TallBloke, which led me on to Business Insider, and hence to the climate blogs BI references.

That my best initial information came from the mainstream, not blogs, shows how much Wikileaks has changed the MSM. But it shouldn’t have taken Wikileaks to do it.

It also shows how the Google algorithm appears to be marginalising blogs in favour of MSM. Business Insider is not a noted authority on climate, yet it ranks better on the search term “climategate 2.0 Tallbloke” than the blog TallBloke which I was trying to find and which was one of the sites actually breaking the story.

It’s hard to make a living online when Google helps your much larger rival to scoop your scoop!

Posted by Graham at 6:40 am | Comments (2) |
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November 22, 2011 | Graham

Can the Commonwealth be a niche UN?

According to Michael Kirby the Commonwealth of Nations faces an existential threat to its existence, which is the reason it needs to adopt the recommendations of its group of eminent persons, of which he is one.

I must admit that when I first heard of the proposal, amongst others, to institute a Commonwealth Human Rights Commissioner I wondered why we needed yet another body overseeing human rights when we don’t pay particularly much attention to those we have at the moment.

What is the point of replicating something internationally that the United Nations already does?

Listening to Kirby yesterday I turned my musings on their head and wondered whether the UN in fact faces a larger existential crisis than the Commonwealth and whether the Commonwealth reforms might actually force change on the UN.

While the UN is undoubtedly better than the League of Nations, it is still an ineffective body. Unless some other organisations, like NATO, or the US in some sort of  ad hoc  alliance, decide to enforce its will for it, it is little more than a talking shop.

I think it is always destined to be primarily a talking shop. By aspiring to represent every nation on earth it must tend over time towards the lowest common denominator.

Further, as democracy and good governance are not the international rule, and as each country member gets an equal vote, it tends to give the numbers to the worst, not the best. And even if states were given votes in proportion to their populations, it still wouldn’t make the organisation much more, if any, representative of democracy.

But even as a talking shop it is not particularly effective.

Which is probably why we have a plethora of other international organisations of a regional, economic etc nature to fill the various needs that we have as countries to be involved in dialogue and joint action.

In which case, perhaps there is a niche for an organisation like the Commonwealth to fill some of the needs that the UN seeks to fill, but as it is acting in a smaller universe with more commonality of purpose between its members, it might actually fill the role more effectively.

Just as we often have different accreditation organisations in other areas of life, perhaps there is room for more than one that guarantees that its members are good global citizens.

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November 19, 2011 | Graham

There is no Weather of Mass Destruction

Auntie ABC published this article today, wholly sourced apparently from Reuters. It says the IPCC says that extreme weather is set to increase because of global warming. It can’t be squared with this article from The Australian which says that extreme weather won’t be affected for decades, again using an IPCC source.

How did these different stories come about?

Well, The Australian’s story is apparently based on a leak of the “draft summary” while it appears that the ABC story is based on the official release. The Australian notes:

This [the fact the IPCC summaries often misrepresent the science which is in the report and they are supposed to be summarising]…may help to explain why details of the draft summary of the global analysis of the influence of climate change on extreme weather events were leaked to media outlets this week.

The official summary was due to be released in Kampala last night after IPCC delegates had spent the week analysing it to decide on an agreed text. If there are significant changes between the two documents a fierce debate about the politicisation of the IPCC process can be expected.

Cursory reading suggests that there are significant differences, and the ABC has some explaining to do as to why it is recycling official media releases already recycled by Reuters when it should have known there was an issue with them.

Interestingly both The Australian and the ABC feature photos of Bangkok’s recent floods. With no caption in the ABC version one assumes it is to support the proposition that the flood is a result of global warming, even though we know from the leak that this could not be true on the basis of the IPCC consensus.

This is spelled out in The Australian where the Thai flood photo has the caption:

A man walks through floodwaters at a closed market in Bangkok earlier this month; a review of the science suggests it is premature to link extreme weather events with climate change.

When are “they” going to own up that AGW has no Weather of Mass Destruction?

Posted by Graham at 3:53 pm | Comments (1) |
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November 14, 2011 | Ronda Jambe

Under the Moruya Moon (11)

Our travels are well behind us, and the busy and troubled world of Europe seems to far away, even though the news reminds us of it daily. Here on the southern NSW coast life and the weather have a different flow.

There is time to watch the kangaroos feeding with their joeys off the deck, and to spot a baby echidna. Milly, a truly muddle headed wombat, has been sent to a wombat resort and rehab in the Araluen Valley. Our former tenants were glad when she returned, bigger and so heavy, but still wanting to snuggle. Her shovel-like paws quickly defeated our attempt to confine her to a shed until they arrived to whisk her away. In a few minutes she had burrowed her way out again.

Men with machines are the order of the day here. Busy-ness comes a calling, and development has demands. We returned to find the dam cleaned up and full of water, a sight I’d longed for since we bought the property:

But the dam is far away, another problem to solve. Having a garden plan on a big sheet of paper is one thing. Locating and bringing in soil and arranging for water for plants is quite another. While there was lots of rain in the spring, extra could be collected off the back porch, sufficient to keep me going for a few days, as hauling tank water from the one tap around the back is not fun.

Here you can see the purple plastic tub, along with the pink tape that marks where some cement and tiles might create a sense of arrival off the back end of the shed. A closet for the Wellingtons and outdoor gear will be built to fit unobtrusively under the curve of the shed, and a bench on a pad to the left. One of my better inspirations:

For months, my little plants remained trapped in pots, only placed in soil last week:

I’ve joined a local community garden that has a commercial orientation. They grow heaps, share skills and run workshops, and it seems very well run. The Saturday Moruya markets are also a treat, with lots of local veggies, fruit, jams and bread, along with the usual craft items. It feels good, and the people are friendly.

Then there is the Council, considered by many to be a thorn in the side of those who want to develop land or business. No one is more supportive of environmental preservation than myself, but accommodating sensible plans shouldn’t be so hard.

To subdivide our block we are going through endless development applications, consultant reports, and now an architect. If the long, drawn out process of the new Local Environment Plan comes to a close as expected, we might not be able to put an extra house on our biggest 10 acre block. The Council staff dismissed my proposal for a small eco-village, but at least an extra house should be possible.

For the first time, after so much renovating in Canberra and here, we are working with an architect. Good fun, and it gives purpose to our plans here. Between all the organising, I’m getting better at table tennis, and I love walking at dawn, taking snippets of pelargoniums for my eventual garden. Ducking through the fence where the new drive will be cuts 5 minutes off the walk to the beach.

Getting all the ducks in a row to build a house is almost like work, and rewarding, mostly because it gives me more opportunities to design spaces. And by and large, they have worked out well, like this grand ‘shed’, that is so easy and pleasant to live in, and good when we have guests.

Is it sad or marvellous to think of plants as friends? Either way, many people think like I do, and the ‘magic pudding’ dimension of cut and come again is such an affirmation of nature’s bounty. Some plants have travelled with me from house to house. What could be nicer than leaving a trail of raspberries?  Too bad for the weeds; I relish tearing them out by the roots, even though they are inoffensive and often interestingly different from those in Canberra.

As I attack them with my little spade, I can imagine them saying what Colonel Gaddafi said when they found him hiding in a drain: ‘What have I done to you?’

I am no more merciful than those soldiers were. Nor were the Italians when they ousted Berlusconi. surely he should have been weeded out at the last election.

But I liberate plants, too, like this old pal that had been trapped too long in a pot. I am after some chain-of-hearts that vaguely remind me of decadent times long ago in Sydney, but til then this related tangled fine vine will do, growing up a yet to be installed trellis:

Such are the musings under the Moruya moon. Comfortable and relaxed it may be, but I have already started to look for groups that will let me speak to them about climate change. Lady Bla Bla is armed with a new presentation from the climate congress a few weekends ago in Melbourne. Time to talk about resilience, food security, adaptation. Al Gore now only refers to it as ‘the climate crisis’, and perhaps the citizens of Bangkok would agree.

Does anyone doubt that floods are a powerful harbinger of climate change? There is so little time before we all agree.

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 3:35 pm | Comments (3) |
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November 13, 2011 | Graham

One place that still honours Westminster traditions

This time last week I received a bewildering email from the Chancellor of the University of Queensland (who I had a few days met for the first time at the launch of Queensland Speaks one of Peter Spearitt’s online history projects) telling me that the Vice-Chancellor was going to resign because of something someone else did.

The university must have sent the email out to all of its alumni, perhaps to pre-empt the media coverage.

What apparently happened was that entry standards were changed to allow a relative of the Vice Chancellor, Paul Greenfield, to enter the medical faculty as an undergraduate student, but the Vice Chancellor apparently had nothing to do with it. He was in fact on leave at the time and Professor Michael Keniger was acting in his position. Keniger apparently had nothing to do with it either.

Yet, despite the fact that apparently neither of these could have known until after the fact that the wrong-doing had happened they accepted responsibility for it and resigned.

This is the way that ministers of the crown are supposed to behave when wrong-doing occurs while they are in charge – that’s the Westminster way – but when was the last time this happened?

For example, in Queensland we’ve had an ongoing debacle over health where health workers have not received their proper pay for months because of the botched implementation of a new payroll system. This debacle and the aftermath has been overseen by a number of ministers, none of whom has resigned, even though by Westminster standards they should have.

Likewise, the revelations from the Australian Wheat Board scandal should have seen a ministerial resignation, but didn’t as should the Pink Batts affair.

In fact, the last minister that I can recall being called to the Westminster standard of account was David Jull, who resigned after a problem was revealed in the travel accounts of some parliamentarians even though he had done nothing to facilitate the irregularities.

Until last week I thought that the remnants of the Westminster theory of responsibility had probably been interred with David Jull who died in September this year. Apparently not – the University of Queensland still honours them.

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November 11, 2011 | Graham

Author 4001 on 11/11/11

Today is the day for unique numbers.  It’s the only time all the ones will add up on the date, and it’s a new millenium for On Line Opinion as we post an article from the 4001st person to send us an article for publication. It is also what differentiates us from all the other online news sites in Australia. As I said in our daily email this morning:

Today On Line Opinion publishes it 4001st author, John Burnheim. Yesterday we published our 4000th James Wight. These two speak more eloquently about what makes OLO unique and important than anything else I can think of.

Burnheim is a former Professor of Philosophy at Australia’s oldest and most prestigious university – Sydney. You don’t get much more erudite or abstract than a professor of philosophy. Wight, is a science student at Macquarie, one of Australia’s younger universities. He’s in his earliest career as a writer. Both of these authors sought us out as a good place to publish.

That’s what OLO is about: bringing new and established together in a place that reaches out to all Australians, no matter who they are or where they come from. We are not an exclusive coterie of the same old writers, but a broad canvass of as much of current thought and discussion on politics and current affairs as we can be; giving due respect to those who are established and reaching out to those whose name is yet to be made.

Some argue that politics is more divisive now than it has ever been, but On Line Opinion demonstrates that it is possible to bring diverse views together and have a (sometimes heated) conversation. Every now and then we even see someone change their mind as a result of these conversations.

These two writers are the latest in a line which includes every current and former Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition since 1999 when we first published, as well as a string of academics, activists and average Australians.

On Remembrance Day it’s important not just to remember those who died, but what they died for.  We think there is something quintessentially egalitarian, Australian and democratic about our site, and we’re proud to be part of the national legacy left by the efforts of others.

Posted by Graham at 11:00 am | Comments (2) |
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November 10, 2011 | Graham

“Right side of history” must test better than “wrong side of truth”

Julia Gillard sent me an email yesterday headed “The right side of history”. You may recall she recently accused Tony Abbott of being on the wrong side of history to which he responded that she was on the “wrong side of truth.

I haven’t heard Abbott use the phrase again, but the fact that Gillard has put it in the subject line of an email almost two months after she first made the claim suggests that focus groups are telling her it is a good line.

One of the problems for the government since well before Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd is its inability to package messages simply enough to achieve cut through. Perhaps on this one she has, and that might go some way to explaining the improvement in her polling figures from 26% on September 16 to 32%  now.

Mind you, objectively speaking, and based on this email, Abbott’s accusation has a lot to commend it. Here is the text with my comments in square brackets:

After two decades of debate about action on climate change, the Labor Government’s Clean Energy Future legislation passed through Parliament today [This makes it sound like Labor, and the PM, have been fighting for this legislation for 20 years, when in fact it only became a basis for partisan debate in the 2007 election]. For the first time, we will have a law that cuts the carbon pollution [carbon emissions cannot be called pollution, anymore than you could call a flood “water pollution”] which causes climate change.

We all share in marking this historic day. The Government would not be able to pass this legislation if it wasn’t for Party members and supporters, especially those from the Labor Environment Activists Network, who have worked towards this goal for such a long time.

Labor has fought hard to do the right thing [including ditching the fight when Rudd was deposed?].

Together, we’re protecting the environment for our children and our grandchildren [only very marginally true given the contribution of Australia’s emissions to those of the entire world and only if you accept there is an environmental threat in the first place]. Importantly, we are doing it in the proudest of Labor traditions; by supporting jobs [on any objective assessment this is wrong, an increase in our cost structure relative to other countries will destroy jobs, no matter what you think of the environmental consequences] and helping families [they are “helping families” only be compensating them for the first tranche of price increases, which are the reason help is necessary in the first place]. In time, the scaremongering by Tony Abbott and the opposition [pass conceded on this politicians all indulge in hyperbole as this email more than amply shows] will prove to be just that.

Future generations will judge that we are on the right side of history and that by acting now, we were able to lay the foundations of a clean energy future.

With a price on carbon pollution, I see a future where companies will be more environmentally friendly; Australians will get a better deal because clean-green choices are cheaper [hydro-power might be cheaper, but every other form is more expensive, that’s why she is being forced to “help” families] and more competitive than polluting ones [see my earlier remarks on pollution, and this can only be true if she taxes the hell out of carbon emitting industries and restricts the claim to domestically based industries]; and new industries are created with high-paying, skilled jobs for the future [the only way these jobs will be high paying is because they are supported by the tax payer, not because they can stand on their own feet, and there is nothing particularly “skilled” about installing new solar panels and most of the other jobs that go with solar and wind.]

It’s possible for both Gillard and Abbott to be correct of course, but the real test that worries them isn’t history at all, it’s the next election, in which case, expect that most of the early “high-paying, skilled jobs” will be in market research and communications.

Posted by Graham at 4:42 am | Comments (4) |
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