Australian Politics 2015-04-30 15:47:00


WWF criticizes Australia's land-clearing record

The article below overlooks much.  For instance, big traditonal logging areas such as the Atherton tableland and  S.E. Queensland have been off limits to the timber mills for some time.  So Australia imports most of its timber from S.E. Asia, where environmental management is haphazard, to put it mildly.  So on a global scale what Australian Greenies have achieved is net harm to the world environment.

Secondly, most of the land clearing has been scrub, Brigalow, Mulga etc --  stunted trees of very little economic usefulness -- sometimes called woody weeds.  But their clearing has not led to any loss of green cover, Scrub has been replaced by pasture or economically useful forests.  And, as a result of cultivation, the green cover has in fact become more intense.

Opinions will differ on whether a loss of "native reptiles" (etc.) is important but their preservation can in any case be ensured by setting aside limited areas for their habitat, and that has largely been done already.  We don't have to lock up the whole of the landscape for the purpose

When we think about global deforestation, certain hotspots spring to mind. The Amazon. The Congo. Borneo and Sumatra. And… eastern Australia?

Yes, eastern Australia is one of 11 regions highlighted in a new chapter of the WWF Living Forests report, “Saving forests at risk”, which identifies the world’s greatest deforestation fronts – where forests are most at risk – between now and 2030.

The report uses projections of recent rates of forest loss to estimate how much we are on track to lose over the next 15 years. The estimates for eastern Australia range from 3 million to 6 million hectares. In particular, it points the finger of blame at recent and foreshadowed changes to environmental legislation. These changes have already removed protections for well over a million hectares of Queensland’s native vegetation.

The WWF scenario is, of course, just a projection. This future need not come to pass. We can decide whether or not it happens. And it turns out that Australia has already formulated an alternative vision of the future. This vision contrasts starkly with the gloomy projections in WWF’s report.

Rhetoric in the right direction

Australia’s Native Vegetation Framework, endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments in 2012, has five goals. Goal 1 is to “Increase the national extent and connectivity of native vegetation” – and according to the framework, we’ll do it by 2020. This turns out to be exactly what WWF is proposing: a goal of “Zero Net Deforestation and Forest Degradation” by 2020.

This seems perfectly aligned with Australia’s vision. So why is WWF putting Australia in the naughty corner?

Well, we are not yet practising what we preach. Australia’s rate of vegetation clearing still dwarfs our efforts to replant and restore bushland by much more than 100,000 hectares every year. This is mostly driven by vegetation loss in Queensland. And although these rates of loss were, until recently, slowing, recent reports suggest they have rebounded sharply.

In a recent article on The Conversation, we wrote of the alarming figures suggesting large increases in land clearing, which coincided with the changes to vegetation protections under the former Newman Government in Queensland. The state’s new Labor government is currently considering whether or not to revoke these changes. There have been suggestions that they may not reinstate the previous protections for native vegetation.

So to comply with our own national strategy, we have less than five years to turn around significant net deforestation, and actually start restoring more native vegetation than we clear – but the trend is in the wrong direction.

Land clearing the greatest threat

Australia’s Native Vegetation Framework recognises unambiguously the importance of native vegetation. It represents a clear, government-endorsed statement that halting the loss of native bushland cover is pivotal to sound environmental management.

Land clearing is the greatest current threat to Australia’s biodiversity, and is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, degradation and reduced water quality in waterways and estuaries, and dryland salinity.

For wildlife, land clearing means smaller and more fragmented populations, and such populations are more vulnerable to extinction. This is basic ecology. As habitat is lost, animals don’t simply move elsewhere or fly away. This solution was suggested in response to the impending loss of endangered black-throated finch habitat in Bimblebox Nature Refuge in Queensland as it is converted to a mine.

But where would the finches fly to? If there is other habitat left that is suitable, then chances are it’s already got its fill of finches. Simply put, less finch habitat equals fewer finches.

Even regrowth forest is critically important for many species. The iconic Brigalow woodlands of southeast Queensland can only be removed from the endangered list by protecting younger, regrowing stands.

But if allowed to mature for more than 30 years, these stands support bird species similar to those of remnant brigalow that has never been cleared. The abundance of native reptiles is also boosted by allowing brigalow regrowth to mature. In the most overcleared landscapes, regrowth vegetation contributes to the critical functions of maintaining soil integrity and even buffering against drought.

Time to choose our future

Most of the nations highlighted in the WWF report, such as Papua New Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are in a starkly different economic situation to Australia. At least some deforestation will be an inevitable part of their economic and social development.

Arguably, it is the responsibility of wealthier countries to help such nations to follow more-sustainable development pathways – though we will face many challenges in doing so. But should Australia, as a wealthy, developed economy, continue to rely on deforestation for our own development, we can hardly ask differently of others.

It is time to think about the end-game of land clearing in Australia, and what we are willing lose along the way. If we genuinely want to achieve a reversal of deforestation by 2020, then we need to see significant policy changes. And they need to happen now sooner rather than later.

So which future for us? Will we choose the path endorsed by Australia’s Native Vegetation Strategy, with the tradeoffs it requires, but also the lasting rewards it will bring?

Or will we sacrifice environmental sustainability for short-term gains, as underscored in the alarming projections of the WWF report? These are vital decisions with starkly different futures, and we can only hope that our state and federal governments make the right choices.


Idiocy and Free Speech

By JAMES ALLAN, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland

No one disputes fired SBS soccer reporter Scott McIntyre's right to display his ignorance for all the world to see -- making a goose of yourself is, after all, a fundamental freedom. His defenders, however, are deplorable hypocrites, given that few if any saw fit to go to bat for Andrew Bolt

Let me start by being blunt.  I think the tweeting SBS soccer/football reporter Scott McIntyre is an idiot.  He describes the US move effectively to end World War II by dropping two atomic bombs on Japan as ‘the largest single day terrorist attacks in history’.  But that elides a criticism, a wrong-headed and sophomoric criticism by the way, of how a war is conducted with a description of people who do evil, vile things outside the confines of a war.

On top of that, McIntyre doesn’t know his history, or he would realise Little Boy and Fat Man may well have ended the war while causing fewer overall deaths than if the Allies had been obliged to fight their way into Japan inch-by-inch.  Those were the only two choices, unless the Allies wanted to call it a day and not defeat the Japanese. That sort of cost-benefit analysis is a wholly valid consideration in fighting a war, especially one that was triggered by the other side.  Of course you can agree with how the Americans opted to end the war, or you can disagree, but likening it to  a terrorist operation — you know, someone who goes into a school, separates the Muslims from the Christians, and then slaughters the latter — is idiotic.

So, at a risk of vulgarity, McIntyre doesn’t know his arse from the off-side rule on that one.

Then he tweeted about ‘widespread rape and theft’ committed by Anzac soldiers, and from the context he meant in both world wars.  Now the adjective ‘widespread’ here is bizarre. I know of no respected historian making that claim, nor of there being a scintilla of evidence for such a claim.  So, Scott the Tweeter, given that you’re referring to two world wars, how much raping and thieving would be needed for it to constitute ‘widespread’ in your view? Tens of thousands of incidents?  Thousands?  Again, this is a man who can’t distinguish a handball from a header.

Then there’s his cheap shot at ‘poorly read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers’.  He seems to wonder whether, on a day devoted to remembering Australia’s war dead, this category of people might also ‘pause to consider the horror that all mankind suffered’.  I suppose McIntyre’s point is that non-Australians suffered in these two wars too, indeed in all wars.  But does McIntyre honestly think white drinkers and gamblers are too dumb to realise that?  Does he think they don’t care?  Maybe it’s just that he reckons this demographic doesn’t care much for ‘the world’s game’ anyway, which is the only team sport on offer via the taxpayer-funded SBS, so no harm done in insulting them.  If he does think this group thinks soccer is boring, I have to confess I’m with all those drinkers and gamblers.

Oh, McIntyre also characterises World War I, and the attempted attack on the enemy’s southern flank at Gallipoli, as ‘an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation that Australia had no quarrel with’.  Isn’t that just about the most moronic thing you’ve ever read?  Does this soccer buffoon know that the Ottoman Empire was in the war at the time?  That it was on Germany’s side, not ours?  That it was in no sense at all an imperialist invasion, no matter how you cut it, even using the sharpest deconstructionist knife you can find?  In war you attack the territory of the other side, especially if they initiated aggression and you are fighting back.

Basically, McIntyre’s four tweets are what you’d expect from someone steeped in hard left, hate-the-West, post-modern journalism.  Having them in the public domain, all things considered, is a good thing because it lets the rest of us know such shallow, ill-informed, despise-the-West attitudes are flourishing, and flourishing in taxpayer-funded broadcasters.

Okay, so that’s how I’d begin to reply to McIntyre.  You take issue and you argue.  And in case the above isn’t clear enough, let me make it clear that I don’t think the man has two brain cells to rub together.

But leave wholly to one side the question of whether McIntyre is right or wrong and turn to the issue of free speech.  We can notice at least three things as regards how the plight of McIntyre, ‘that poorly read, largely white’ soccer reporter, relates to free speech.

Point One: Almost all the people now defending McIntyre are hypocrites

mcintyre mug resizedbolt mug resizedLet me generalise.  Virtually none of the people I’ve been seeing coming out in defence of McIntyre rallied to defend Andrew Bolt’s freedom of speech.  Almost none of them.  For all I know it might actually be none at all.  Bolt had to face litigation under the egregious Section 18C hate-speech law that Tony Abbott won’t even try to repeal.  So where were all those defenders of free speech when Bolt was under attack?

Ah, they all said back then: ‘But Bolt got some of his facts wrong’.  So say, just for the sake of argument, that Bolt did get some facts wrong.  Didn’t McIntyre ‘get some facts wrong’?  Why defend McIntyre and not Bolt?

I have a lot of time for the miniscule number of people now defending McIntyre who also went to the wall defending Bolt.  I just don’t think many of the former were in fact anywhere to be found when the latter was under attack.  And that’s in a world where Bolt was under assault by the law, and so from the power of the state.  McIntyre was not, and is not, under any threat of being dragged before the courts for what he said; nor did a judge tell him he can’t legally publish these tweets again.  No, McIntyre was and remains legally free to say what he likes.  It’s just that he was fired from his job.

So it is hardly any sort of a stretch to say that the ranks of those now defending McIntyre are chock full of the worst sort of hypocrisy.  Give me a call when any of you poseurs decide to lobby for repeal of Section 18C.  Till then, stop embarrassing yourselves with cheap, bumper-sticker moralizing about free speech.

Point Two: Free speech is about keeping the government from banning speech you don’t like, not your employer

It goes without saying, or should do, that the notion of free speech has nothing to do with words and speech that is wholly uncontentious.  If someone is saying you’re the greatest person going, you’re not going to enact a law to silence that person.  People mouthing ‘Coke commercial’ sentiments of harmony and love to all, don’t get silenced. Even in North Korea there are plenty of things you can say, such as any improbable compliment you might concoct about the Great Leader’s golf game, leadership skills and commitment to the revolution. You might want to be careful, though, complimenting his food-production insights, his haircut, or the way he manages his immediate family. These might be considered sarcastic, a deadly sin in places without real free speech.

So the only reason a society needs a doctrine of free speech is to deal with words and speech that lots of people do not like, sentiments that offend, annoys and infuriate them.

It is here that the defenders of McIntyre have things right.  His words are precisely the sort that the John Stuart Mills of the world want protected against government. But, of course, McIntyre’s idiotic tweets are protected here in Australia against civil or criminal court actions. You see, Caucasian gamblers and drinkers, even ex-servicemen, don’t fall within the aegis of Section 18C.  So these groups can’t claim to be the victims of race hate.  Funny that.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think gambling, boozed-up ‘whiteys’ should get to invoke some hate speech law and drag McIntyre through the courts using a process that, whatever the outcome, is the punishment.  But then I don’t think anyone should get to do that to McIntyre or Bolt or Mark Steyn or anyone – not whites, not blacks, not gays, not Asians, not anyone.  Tony Abbott and George Brandis used to agree with me on that core point, back when they had convictions and backbones.

But leave that aside and notice where the defenders of McIntyre go wrong.  Being fired by SBS is not an outcome where the State has acted to silence you.  McIntyre can make those same tweets as many times as he likes and there will be no case for dragging him through the courts.

Ah, they say, but he was fired.  Yes, he was.  If you worked for McDonalds and spent each tea break in front of the store with a sign proclaiming ‘this food sucks’ you would be fired too.  Or if, like me, you think the ABC is a disgracefully biased broadcaster pointedly ignoring its statutory obligation to be impartial and yet, to the amazement of every sentient being in Australia, Mark Scott decided to give you a job fronting next year’s Q&A, and you kept tweeting that the ABC was a one-sided, lefty joke, well then you’d be fired. And rightfully so.  Taking the job involves tailoring your speech to limits your employer can stomach.  Don’t like those limits?  Then quit and say what you like.

McIntyre’s defenders just don’t seem to see this distinction, quite possibly because they don’t want to acknowledge the distinction.  Of course, it’s a wholly different question whether McIntyre did in fact damage the SBS brand in a way that justifies his employer getting rid of him.  Given SBS’s mandate, I’m not so sure.  Personally, I would shut down SBS tomorrow and save the taxpayer wads of money.  But if you’re going to have a broadcaster like that, whose mandate is to bring to the table all sorts of extremely minority tastes, well McIntyre’s tweets certainly do that.  It’s not clear how they cut against what SBS was set up to do.

We all suspect that, in reality, SBS fired him not because he undermined its core broadcasting mission but because its brass was worried that this spineless government might actually grow a backbone and take steps against them if they did nothing.  Hands up everyone who thinks that’s why SBS acted?  I certainly do.  If that’s correct, is that a valid ground on which SBS might sack someone?  Probably.

Point Three: Regardless of anything else, there’s a benefit to society in giving views such as McIntyre’s an airing

J.S. Mill was right.  There’s a benefit to all of us in hearing views we think are dumb, wrong-headed, ill-informed, even hurtful and hateful.  First, it makes us sharpen our own contrasting perspectives.  Second, it is a good thing to know views like that are out there.  How does society gain when they are driven underground?

Now Mill was aiming his ‘let people talk’ against government over-reach, not against private employers or clubs.  That distinction matters.  But Mill’s point is so powerful that I confess I have sympathy for those people – the very few who are in fact out there – who defend McIntyre and Bolt and all speakers.  I have in mind the sort of American Civil Liberties Union type thinking, a left of centre group I might add, that has no equivalent here in Australia because, alas, virtually no Aussie lefties seem to me to be full-blooded defenders of speech the way the ACLU is.

However, to any of you out there with those ACLU-like attitudes, let me say that I salute you.  I respect you.  We may differ here and there but that sort of commitment to the free speech principle is wholly admirable.

Alas, the defenders of McIntyre I’ve seen so far appear to be no better than mere hypocrites.


Welders not lawyers: Business Council warns Australia needs to prepare for future jobs

A key business leader is urging policymakers to shift their focus from specific policies to developing broad plans for the future economy.

Speaking at the National Press Club, the Business Council of Australia's (BCA) national president Catherine Livingstone warned that many of the jobs of today will not exist in the future as robots and computers take over.

"If 47 per cent of total US employment is at risk of being automated using artificial intelligence, we need to move urgently from a discussion about protecting the jobs of today, to creating the jobs of the future," she argued.

With 400,000 young Australians neither in study or work, and unemployment overall currently above 6 per cent, Ms Livingstone said the nation does not so much have a participation problem as a failure to match skills and training with current and future employment demand.

"Precision welders and robotics mechanics will be more useful in the growing advanced manufacturing sector than yet more law graduates for whom there are no jobs," she added.

In order for young people to gain practical experience and be more employable, Ms Livingstone argued that Australians must move away from the notion that work is something begun after a long period of study to a system where it is integrated with learning.

"Here, the philosophical shift is to move from a system which has a rigid discontinuity between education and work, to one which is more of a continuum, enabling simultaneous engagement in education and work for all from Year 11," she suggested.

"The discontinuity between education and work was perhaps relevant when, for most, formal education ended at age 15, only 10 per cent of students went on to university and degrees were three years in duration.

"It is not helpful now, with over 30 per cent of students at university and degrees of four and five years."

In addition, Ms Livingstone said that there needs to be greater emphasis on science, technology and maths education, given the likely jobs of the future.

She argued that computer coding, computational thinking, problem solving and design thinking must be taught alongside more traditional subjects.

"As it stands in Australia, however, the gap between the digital literacy of our young people and that of our competitor nations is increasing," Ms Livingstone warned.

"If we want increased productivity and participation, we need urgently to embark on a ten-year plan to close that gap.

"This will be essential to tackling structural youth unemployment."


Concerns over Australia’s credit rating are bogus

As it stands now, all three major ratings agencies have Australia at the top rung: AAA with a stable outlook. This is a fairly unique rating: Standard and Poor’s only rates another 11 economies up there with Australia.

There is good reason for our top rating. Just on the metrics, the country compares well, even with regard to other countries on the upper rung. For instance, Australia’s gross public debt is around 40 per cent, with a net debt position of 20 per cent. The average gross position for the G20 is around 110 per cent. Other AAA nations have figures much higher than ours: Britain at 90 per cent, Canada at 85 per cent, Germany at 70 per cent. It’s a similar story with the net figures as well, which are often double (or quadruple) Australia’s figure.

The budget deficit could be in better shape, there is no doubt about that. At around 3 per cent, it’s above many other AAA-rated nations. Switzerland and Sweden have small deficits of either 0.5 per cent or 1 per cent, and quite a bit worse than Germany, which has a modest surplus of about 0.5 per cent. Then again, it’s not a disastrous position — it’s still less than the UK and only a little above Denmark’s and Canada’s.

That’s not to suggest that the budget is in great shape. If the bureaucracy and our politicians were even remotely competent it would be much lower. It should be much lower. It wouldn’t be hard to achieve if the will was there.

Yet even if the deficit was held steady at 3 per cent for the next decade, that still shouldn’t affect the credit rating or its outlook given our very low public debt and the way other nations are rated.

Quite simply then, there are no grounds for Australia to either lose its credit rating or to be given a negative outlook. Any such action would merely expose the relevant rating agency to accusations of incompetence, or even corruption.

Recall that many of these same agencies were brought into disrepute during the GFC for failing to accurately rate the risk associated with some financial products. Worse were accusations that in compiling ratings, agencies used modelling provided by investment banks — the very ones who were then bringing these products into the market.

The bigger issue is whether it would even matter if we lost AAA status. Think about it: what good has it done the country? Even with a AAA rating, Australia has one of the highest bond yields in the developed world. So at this point, the yield on the Australian government 10-year yield is at 2.6 per cent. This is higher than Italy’s at 1.5 per cent with a BBB- and Portugal with a yield of 2.1 per cent (and a credit rating of BB).

Then there is Japan. With gross government debt at about 250 per cent of GDP, net debt at around 130 per cent and a budget deficit that is around 6-7 per cent of GDP — the 10-year government bond yields just over 0.3 per cent. The country is practically insolvent — the Bank of Japan has been printing money for nearly 20 years — and S & P still reckons it’s a high-grade investment at AA-.

It’s a crazy world, and no one should even care if a ratings agency was foolish enough to try and imply that the nation’s credit risk had deteriorated. Think of what happened when Standard and Poor’s downgraded the US sovereign back in 2011: one month on and the US 10-year Treasury yield dropped about 60 basis points to 1.98 per cent.