Where does all the water go?

With parliament about to go into its summer recess and an El Nino summer in the offing, meaning less rain (particularly in the eastern states) and raising the prospect of water restrictions in major urban areas, I thought it timely to have a look at what happens to water in Australia — how much we have, who uses it, who value adds to it and what the government is doing.

I think you all know about the ‘water cycle’. Basically our planet has a finite amount of water that has remained unchanged for millennia: the only thing that changes is the form that water is in. Taking a hypothetical 100-year life of a water droplet on our planet, as it is at the moment, it would spend about 97 years in the ocean, about 22 months as ice, around three weeks in lakes and rivers, and less than a week as water vapour in the atmosphere (which can become available as rain).

In other words, 96.5% of the earth’s water is in the salt water of our oceans: there is another one percent of saline water in groundwater and saline lakes. So we have about 2.5% freshwater but of that 1.8% is captured in ice and snow, and for human use our freshwater (in lakes and rivers, groundwater and in the atmosphere as potential rain) is only about 0.7% of the earth’s total water — but that still amounts to a lot of water, about 10.65 million cubic kilometres (although 10.5 million cubic kilometres of that is groundwater). There is 1000 gigalitres of water in a cubic kilometre and a billion litres of water in a gigalitre which means our estimated total freshwater resources are something like 10.65 million trillion litres — yes, mind boggling! Out of that only 2,120 trillion litres is readily accessible in rivers.

How does Australia fare in all this? — not very well but perhaps better than you think. Our rivers make up only 1% of the world’s river flows but, on the other hand, we have only 0.3% of the world’s population. In 2008‒09 we used 8,955 gigalitres of surface water and 380 gigalitres of groundwater, compared to 10,712 gigalitres and 448 gigalitres respectively in 2004‒05. (That was a period of drought and the 2008‒09 figures reflect reduced water availability as the drought lengthened — we subsequently had wet years in 2010 and 2011.) But in 2004‒05 we still received, across Australia as a whole, almost 2.8 million gigalitres of rain. So where did it all go? Well for a start most of it, about 2 million gigalitres, fell in the least populated areas, in north Queensland, northern Western Australia and the Northern Territory. In that year almost 90% of that rainfall disappeared in evaporation and transpiration — the latter being use by plants. Only 243,000 gigalitres was run off to replenish rivers and 49,000 gigalitres recharged groundwater. In addition we had 44,000 gigalitres stored in large dams for a total water stock of 336,000 gigalitres but that compared to a total water stock of 415,000 gigalitres in 1996‒97 before the drought. It is the norm that we have access to only about 10‒15% of our total rainfall which is at the lower end of such averages when compared to other countries.

It is all that rainfall in northern Australia that leads politicians to talk about ‘northern development’ but as CSIRO pointed out in 2009:
A lot rain falls on northern Australia, but its arrival is restricted in time and uneven in its distribution. Where and when it occurs is generally impractical for water resource development and there are large variations in how much comes year to year. There is little or no rain for three to six months every year … The landscape is generally not amenable to storing water and the climate is not conducive to keeping it.
So we have two major problems: the majority of our rain does not fall where the majority of people live and our rainfall is so variable. The latter leads to Australia having one of the highest storage to usage ratios of any country: our major dams generally provide from three to six years of usage whereas many countries store only one or two years’ usage, or in some cases less than a year.

Who uses the water we do have? For those of us — most of us — living in urban areas, you may be pleased to know that residential usage accounts for only about 9% of Australia’s total water usage (it has been as high as 11% in some years). That means that when water restrictions are in place it is not about the total amount of water we are using but the falling levels of our local water storage.

By far the majority of water use in Australia is for agriculture: around 65% (although it has fallen as low as 50% in drought years) and 90% of that is for irrigation of crops and pastures. In 2012‒13, agriculture used 12,780 gigalitres out of total water usage of 19,749 gigalitres (note that this is more than double the total usage in 2008‒09 when we were in drought and is more reflective of our ‘normal’ usage). You might think, yes, that is necessary — after all, we do need to eat.

Some of the bigger agricultural users of water were:
  • cotton, 3,285 gigalitres — 17% of our total water usage
  • dairy farming, 1,967 gigalitres — 10%
  • rice, 1,780 gigalitres — 9%
  • fruit and nut trees, 1,467 gigalitres — 7%
And then we add sheep, cattle and other grain crops (wheat, sorghum and so on) to make up most of the rest (about 17% of our total usage). It should also be noted that up to 80% of our total water usage occurs in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Mining and manufacturing each use about 3‒4% of our water: mining used 614 gigalitres in 2012‒13, and manufacturing 530 gigalitres. Mining in WA alone used 241 gigalitres or about 40% of the water used in mining.

In 2012‒13, agriculture generated about $3 million of production for each gigalitre of water used. [from ABS Data Cube here, open Monetary tables and then Table 7.] That compared to $191 million per gigalitre for mining and $192 million for manufacturing: or to convert that to litres, agriculture creates 0.3 cents of product per litre of water compared to about 19 cents per litre for manufacturing and mining. That doesn’t mean we should get rid of agriculture but it does raise questions about what we are achieving for the use of all that water. I am aware that water efficiency has improved in the agricultural sector, that even rice growers in Australia use about half the world average amount of water for each kilogram of rice, and that irrigation channels are being improved and enclosed to help reduce water loss. Despite that, the fact that we earn only a third of a cent for each litre of water used leaves a lingering doubt as to the agricultural sector’s overall efficiency.

What about the rest of us sitting on our suburban blocks? — what do we do with that 9% of water we use? For a start we actually use about 40‒44% of it outdoors, in our gardens and washing cars and structures. Indoors the shower is the biggest user of water accounting for about 20‒25%, then our toilets, around 10‒15%, and only around 8% for essential drinking and food preparation. Plus it is estimated that we lose about 4% in leakages. Those figures are my estimates from considering a number of sources as there are significant variations between Australian cities and, of course, in times of drought when outdoor use may be subject to restrictions.

Using the 2012‒13 household consumption of 1,851 gigalitres those percentages translate to approximately the following amounts of water:
  • outdoor use, 780 gigalitres
  • total indoor use, 1,070 gigalitres, including
  • shower and bath, 430 gigalitres
  • toilet, 260 gigalitres
  • drinking and food preparation, 150 gigalitres
So every person in Australia, in their homes, uses in total only 56% of the amount of water used by the cotton industry, and slightly less than the dairy industry and slightly more than the rice growers.

We have more than enough water for everyone but most of it is not where most of us live. From what is available for most of the population, we use two-thirds of it for agriculture. The 9% of the water we use in our homes is less than 0.5% of our total water stock while agriculture uses about 4%. Overall, Australia uses around 5% of its water stock each year. Some countries, with more reliable water resources, use as much as 20% of their water stock each year.

Governments across Australia are very conscious of water issues. The National Water Initiative (NWI) was agreed at COAG in 2004 and the National Water Commission was established to oversee its implementation. Some of its aims included:
  • effective water planning across all jurisdictions
  • nationally compatible and secure water entitlements
  • conjunctive management of surface and ground water, recognising the connectivity between them
  • resolution of over allocation and overuse
  • open water markets
A review of the NWI in 2011, while finding that much had been achieved, also called on all governments to recommit to the NWI and that they ‘must resolve to stay the course on their reform commitments’. That implies that some governments were backtracking or, at the least, not continuing to pursue the reform agenda. And in 2014, for the tenth anniversary of the agreement, the Chair of the National Water Commission was still writing:
Some important actions from the initiative remain unfinished. These will only be achieved if governments stay the course on their water reform commitments.

Although the full extent of the National Water Initiative’s aspirations is yet to be fully realised, we have a framework that 10-years on, is proven and robust.
Having made those comments, the National Water Commission was abolished in June 2015 (that was when the Act received assent although the announcement was originally made late in 2014). Its role of reviewing the implementation of the NWI was passed to the Productivity Commission. Initially water issues, and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, remained with the Department of the Environment.

There is a lot of research being undertaken by the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM), the Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) and the CSIRO. The ABS also produces an annual ‘Water Account’ and the BoM produces annual statements of water assets and water liabilities.

So there is a lot of data out there, even if it is not always compatible, enough for governments to be making key decisions about water usage, including social and environmental considerations.

But when Turnbull became prime minister, what happened? The Nationals insisted, as part of the new coalition agreement, that water become a responsibility of the agriculture minister: the department is now the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority was transferred so that it reported to the agriculture minister. Even national sewerage agreements were transferred.

What is clear is that the Nationals see water primarily in terms of agriculture, which already uses 65% of our water. With that level of water usage in the sector, there is perhaps an argument that the minister for agriculture should have the responsibility but does it also mean that any attempts to reduce that consumption, by increasing environmental flows, will be opposed because it may be of detriment to the agricultural sector? The Murray-Darling Basin Authority takes environmental flows into consideration but it is now reporting to the agriculture minister which means its recommendations will be weighed more heavily against the water requirements of the agricultural sector rather than environmental factors.

An example of the conflicting requirements has occurred at Menindee Lakes this year. A major cotton farm, that can produce up to 70,000 bales of cotton a year, is not putting in a crop this year because it has no water. The Menindee Lakes have virtually run dry and nearby Broken Hill also has a water supply problem. Some are blaming it on a 300 gigalitre release of water early in 2013 to help the Murray River — to ‘move sediment and salt out of the system’. The Broken Hill City Council described the release as ‘excessive and unnecessary’. Locals are not convinced that the environmental benefits outweighed the economic costs. The Menindee Lakes, however, have similar problems to those mentioned by the CSIRO for northern Australia — in hot weather the large, shallow lakes can lose up to 10 gigalitres of water a day in evaporation. How will the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources evaluate those conflicting requirements in the future?

While I accept that agriculture is an important industry, I do have doubts when it uses 65% of our water to produce only a fraction of one cent’s worth of product for every litre used. Our farmers are working to become more water efficient but when rice and cotton alone use 26% of our water, we could save 5,000 gigalitres a year without them — that is enough water for two-and-a-half years of domestic usage or more than enough to increase environmental flows and maintain inland wetlands, even to provide more water for other crops. At the least, I think the size of our cotton and rice production could be reduced in acceptance that we actually live on a dry continent where trying to grow water-intensive crops is not efficient.

As urban consumers of water we are being encouraged to reduce our 9% usage but at our own cost —we pay for more efficient shower heads, dual flush toilets and water efficient washing machines — but farmers are subsidised to improve their water efficiency:
The $626 million On-Farm Irrigation Efficiency Program (the programme) is assisting irrigators within the southern connected system of the Murray-Darling Basin to modernise their on-farm irrigation infrastructure while returning water savings to the environment. The southern connected system for the programme encompasses the New South Wales Murray, Victorian Murray, South Australian Murray, Campaspe, Murrumbidgee, Goulburn, Broken, Loddon and the Lower Darling (south of Menindee Lakes) river catchments.
And with a Nationals minister now in charge of water resources, that looks set to continue.

It appears that the Nationals have been waging their own quiet war to overcome the ‘greenies’ and make sure that agricultural water use dominates government water policy. In my view, there is little doubt they were behind the abolition of the National Water Commission and with the election of a new Liberal leader they were handed the opportunity to complete their ‘water coup’ and gain control of national water policy.

Politicians are meant to make decisions based on balancing competing interests and when water issues were divided between the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Environment there was an opportunity for the competing agricultural and environmental water requirements to be fully evaluated. Now, however, there appears less opportunity for those competing interests to be taken into consideration.

Water use in Australia is a vexed issue but placing control of water policy in the hands of those whose primary interest is agriculture isn’t going to help.

What do you think?
With our limited water supply, shouldn’t Australia be giving much greater consideration as to the best uses of that water? How much for agriculture? How much for the environment? — noting that maintaining the environment is also necessary to maintain agriculture, which most farmers already know. Surely governments should realise they need to balance those requirements for now and for the future.

Next week, in our penultimate piece for the year, Ken returns to his ‘Lords and Ladies’ saga and introduces a new character, Mal C’od-turn-a-bull, in ‘Lords and Ladies, a new morality tale for a new time’.

Entitlement makes up for lost production

Joe Hockey was fond of talking about the end of the age of entitlement, basically meaning that people should not expect support from government and should buy their services in the market — including health and education services if he had had his way. There are, however, various good reasons why government should be fully involved in welfare and the delivery of services. I will look at one of them, one that we do not often think about.

Early this year in his pieces on tax reform, 2353 pointed to the fact that couples with young children may look to government for financial support because the children are non-productive members of the family. The question is whether that is a legitimate claim on the government. Joe Hockey would likely have said not but, historically, I believe it is because it is government, and society in general, that has played the major role in creating that situation by regulating access to the labour market.

The economic role of children has changed as society has changed. In hunter-gatherer societies children of both sexes from a very young age assisted in the collection activities of their mothers — they actually learned by being involved. As the boys got older, they would join their fathers, uncles and other males in the hunt and learn to track, pursue and kill game.

In agricultural societies (and even on modern farms), children also contribute from a young age. In Australia in the 1800s, after schooling became widespread, it was still common in rural areas for school attendance to drop significantly at harvest time as the children’s first priority was to help on the farm, and that applied to both female and male children. As an example, in 1870 at a place then known as Moorwatha in south-western NSW, a regular school attendance of over 40 dropped to fewer than 20 at harvest time.

In the early years of the industrial revolution, children as young as 7 or 8 worked in factories and mines but, even in Britain from the 1830s, the government changed the rules to limit the hours children worked and the age at which they could.

From the 1930s to the 1960s in Australia it was common for male children, usually around 12 to 14, to work as paperboys on city corners or walk suburban streets selling their newspapers, or to see them assisting with the daily delivery of milk or bread. (Who remembers milk and bread deliveries?)

So it can be argued that until about the mid 1900s children were not unproductive members of a family but were essential economic contributors. It was only the wealthy who had unproductive children (and, as much as I would like to, I won’t get into the argument that they also became unproductive adults).

We also made formal education for children compulsory and gradually increased the years of schooling that we thought necessary. Early on it was normal for children to leave education at the end of primary school (aged about 11 or 12): then 14 was made a compulsory age for schooling, and then 15. We now encourage everyone to complete Year 12 (aged 17 to 18) — some, but not all states have made 17 the new minimum age for leaving school — and then to undertake further tertiary education at TAFE or university so that ‘children’ now may not complete their education until they are at least 19 or 20, if not older, in effect giving up from 5 to 10 years of productive work.

In our modern society, students can find part-time work from age 15, particularly in the retail and fast food industries, and still remain in education. In that regard, there is still some scope to contribute economically but it is now more limited.

If society and government have changed the rules so that children can no longer contribute economically to their families as much as in the past, then who has the responsibility to make up for that lost production?

In many early societies, elderly people were acknowledged as the repository of wisdom, of experience, life skills and knowledge of the world in which a community operated. Even if they were no longer physically productive, they may know the best foods, the best places to search for food. They retained the knowledge of the medicinal qualities of plants. They were sought out and valued for that knowledge. That changed with the means of retaining knowledge in books, then those books being printed and becoming widely available. Now we have computers, the internet and the knowledge explosion. Older people are now often seen as ‘behind the times’ but that doesn’t mean they still don’t have extensive knowledge of life skills, of the informal rules that operate in their communities and emotional knowledge and understanding.

In some societies elders were (and still are) given additional status by the practice of ancestor worship. As the elderly approach the time at which they will join the ancestors they are cared for by the living to ensure that they continue to contribute to their descendants’ good fortune after they pass over.

Pensions were introduced partly to meet the needs of a growing population. It was a way of providing for people when they became too feeble to work. In the 1800s in England, older people often ended their days in ‘workhouses’ and later ‘alms houses’. A growing population meant it was cheaper to provide pensions and allow elderly people to support themselves rather than build many more alms houses. Australia never had a system of workhouses, so aged pensions were introduced, initially at the state level, some years before they were in the UK.

The other argument, based on Australia’s lead in social welfare, was that after people had worked for over 50 years, originally from age 12 or 14 to 65, they had made their contribution to society and deserved an adequate retirement. (It was a similar argument used to justify long service after each ten year period of service.)

Then came the baby boomers. Long term projections at the time raised the prospect that when the baby boomers entered the workforce there would not be enough jobs. There are two means by which the size of the available workforce has traditionally been managed: by lengthening the period of education and/or lowering the retirement age. To ensure enough employment would be available for the baby boomers, Australia relied mainly on lengthening the period of education, thus allowing time for more of the then existing workforce to retire before the baby boomers entered. We also allowed early retirement in some cases without changing the official age of retirement. In the current climate, with fears of a smaller workforce as the baby boomers retire, we have focused on increasing the retirement age rather than lowering the age for compulsory education. In Europe, facing a similar problem, many governments initially lowered the retirement age and are now increasing it again.

On the other hand, much modern work is information based, rather than relying on physical labour, and there is no good reason why older people cannot continue in such work. They would often be the keepers of corporate knowledge. With the knowledge explosion, we seem to have forgotten the old adage about learning from the past and not repeating its mistakes. In Australia people who lose a job when they are over 50 have considerable difficulty finding new work and often become long-term unemployed. Their life-time skills and knowledge are disregarded as irrelevant in our modern world.

I have a personal example when a young woman from another government department suggested her department had a ‘new’ idea for Aboriginal affairs. I informed her that it had been tried over 15 years previously and not worked: if it was to work, it required acceptance of higher costs and the government had not then, nor when we spoke, been prepared to accept those costs. I might say that without my corporate knowledge a mistake would have been repeated. Why such corporate knowledge is now seen as ‘old fashioned’ is a mystery to me.

Although the government in recent years has been encouraging people to remain longer in the workforce and offering incentives for employers to retain older people, it does not yet appear to be happening to any significant degree. The government allows the market to determine what it does and employers are not taking up the opportunities that changes in government policy are providing. So there is much lost productivity, for individuals, their families and the economy.

Longer periods of education are justified not only in terms of managing the size of the workforce but because more knowledge is available for learning and many jobs in the new economy require higher level skills. Hockey and his fellow neo-liberals have been keen to increase university fees on the basis that graduates will have access to higher incomes — that may be true but comes in return for giving up years of potential earning. That lost earning capacity comes at a cost not merely to the individual but to their family — which is one reason why participation of lower socio-economic groups in higher education has not improved as much as expected.

The point is that it is actually the government that is determining the period when people can be economically productive members of society.

Despite governments having over the years made the rules that reduced the productive activity of children and the elderly, the likes of Hockey, and other believers in the neo-liberal agenda, suggest that services for the young and old should be provided by the market — rather than alms houses we now have privately owned retirement villages and the encouragement of private schools. Can you see the inconsistency in that approach?

How can the young and the elderly purchase in the market when the government has put in place rules that restrict them from earning in the market? They are left with only two options: reliance on the earning capacity, and support, of the productive members of their families or reliance on government assistance, whether in cash or services. To the extent that the changes have reduced the total productive activity of families, by removing the young and the elderly, then surely it is logical that government meets the costs of the changes it has made.

I am not suggesting that we should turn back the clock to the worst of child labour, or elderly people working until they drop, but we need to acknowledge the historic changes that have taken place in our society, that have changed the economic contribution of the young and the elderly, and consider who bears the responsibility.

If it is government, as the political representative of society, that has changed the opportunity for effective economic productivity for children and the elderly then why shouldn’t it be government that accepts the cost? The argument becomes a market-based argument, not a welfare argument — which should be acceptable to Morrison, Hockey and their ilk: as a society we have, even if for good reason, removed the right of children and the elderly to participate in the labour market and therefore we, as a society, through our government, have an obligation to make up for that lost production for the individuals and their families.

What do you think?
As Ken has presented a very different and unusual argument supporting government provision of welfare and services, we will be very interested in your reaction. Does Ken’s historical argument stand up?

Next week, as the weather forecasters are predicting a severe El Nino this summer, Ken takes a look at the state of water in Australia and some of the politics involved, in ‘Where does all the water go?’.

The year of morals and ethics

It is likely that 2015 will be remembered around the world as the year when morals and ethics overcame deception and greed. There are a number of examples that could be given with regard to investment funds, rorting allowances and living circumstances as well as just corporate greed. Let’s just confine ourselves to a few.

In August this year, Fairfax and the ABC reported on a joint investigation into the chronic underpayment of wages to employees of 7-Eleven franchisees. According to Fairfax, 7-Eleven has 620 stores in Australia, predominately on the east coast. The joint investigation discovered that there were significant differences between the payroll records and the actual working hours of a number of employees — mostly overseas students in this country on student visas (which have restrictive work conditions).

The results of the investigation were reported by Fairfax on 29 August and broadcast by ABC on its Four Corners program on 31 August 2015. By 2 September, there were moves to call the 7-Eleven franchisor to appear before a Senate committee.

While the owners and operators of 7-Eleven may not be appreciating the attention at the moment, it seems that Fairfax and the ABC have reported fairly and accurately on a systemic failing of a large company. The company concerned is not denying the allegations, rather it has set up an ‘independent panel’ to assess the claims of affected employees (who are paid through the franchisor’s office) and to work with the Fair Work Ombudsman in the prosecution of a Sydney franchisee. The chairman of 7-Eleven Australia for many years, Russ Withers, as well as the General Manager Operations, Natalie Dalbo, have subsequently stood down.

Michael Smith, former Director of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and iiNet, was installed as Chairman of 7-Eleven with a brief to fix the problem and repair the reputation of 7-Eleven. He was reported as commenting:
7-Eleven was the tip of the iceberg for wage exploitation of young and foreign workers in Australia, adding: "We have a problem in this country."
Similar staffing accusations have been made against Australia Post contractors and United Petroleum franchisees which adds some veracity to Smith’s claim.

Clearly there is an issue. Unfortunately, the issue of deception is not limited to Australia. Around the world there are various regulations surrounding the emissions that motor vehicles are permitted to pump into the air. Some Volkswagen vehicles in the United States were discovered to be emitting up to 40 times the volume of some chemicals than they should have been. You can read about how the deception was discovered here and how VW organised it here.

After a number of high ranking VW employees ‘falling on their swords’ over the last month or so, the new CEO of Passenger Cars, Dr Herbert Diess, claimed the company ‘did some things that were wrong’. Surely an understatement from a moral point of view.

In the case of both 7-Eleven and VW, while the morals may be questionable, the objective was clearly to cut corners and enable a larger return to those that have a financial interest in the company. As a result of the reaction to the publicity regarding wage underpayment, the 7-Eleven franchise system in Australia has been altered to give those that actually operate the stores more than the previously contracted 43% of the store’s profit, and VW will be working out how to retrofit something like 11 million cars around the world so that they perform and emit the quantity of chemicals, as originally specified in the glossy brochure, with oversight from various countries that do care about emissions levels. (It is a telling point that in Australia, the ACCC is the agency investigating VW, not for the excessive emissions but for a breach of advertising standards.) In either case, there was short term financial gain with, one suspects, a fair degree of long term financial pain ahead.

While we could claim money is a motive for large companies to attempt to deceive, when governments do the same thing you have to ask why.

Days after the 2013 election, then PM Abbott and then Immigration Minister Morrison announced ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ where Abbott effectively said that he would implement his ‘no more boats’ slogan — whatever it takes. One of the early actions was to withdraw information from the public, claiming ‘operational security’. In their submission for the 2014‒15 federal budget, the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce argued:
In 2013-14 Australia will spend almost two-thirds as much locking up in detention a few thousand people seeking asylum, as the entire UNHCR spend in the last financial year assisting tens of millions of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide. This is a grossly disproportionate amount of money and is unjustifiable waste in terms of both the financial and human costs; with men, women and children being held in inhumane conditions in detention camps offshore.
In addition:
The publicly known allocations to offshore processing alone for the Department of Immigration for 2013-14 thus far are in excess of $3.28 billion. This figure excludes other associated costs which have been earmarked as commercial in confidence and not released, costs for these operations borne by other departments or arms of government, and other significant incentives offered to those countries in order to gain agreement with these operations.
For reference:
Yet by comparison, in 2013 the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that its annual budget (composed primarily of voluntary donations) had reached a ‘new annual high of US$5.3 billion’ at the end of June 2013. The UNHCR has staff of more than 7,600 people in over than 125 countries and helps tens of millions of people.
In the 2014 budget the Abbott/Turnbull government was attempting to introduce a $7 ‘co-payment’ for consulting with a medical practitioner in Australia and ensuring that those under 30 who were unfortunate enough to be unemployed would have to wait six months to receive help from the social security system. Those measures were justified as helping to ‘repair’ the ‘budget emergency’. The same people were spending $3.28 billion of your and my money on fulfilling an election policy that is inherently xenophobic and of little value to Australia.

In addition to the extravagant waste of money that could have been spent helping those in need or creating infrastructure (after all Abbott claimed he was to be the ‘infrastructure Prime Minister’), Australian military units breached Indonesian territorial waters on several occasions which created a gulf in the bi-lateral relations between Australia and Indonesia. Towing back boats is also probably illegal:
International maritime law prohibits Australia from interfering with boats that fly the flag of another country on the high seas for the purpose of preventing their entry into Australia. Prohibited interference on the high seas includes transferring passengers onto Australian vessels or “towing back” the vessel.
For those who managed to evade the ‘tow back to Indonesia’ option, the Australian government has another form of torture for the innocent refugee. These ‘lucky’ people are flown off to detention centres in Nauru or Manus Island — part of PNG — to fulfil the ‘promise’ that ‘boat people will never live in Australia’. The treatment of those sent to Nauru can be summed up by the story of a Somali woman, allegedly raped by security guards on the Island, flown to Australia for an abortion and returned to Nauru before the procedure, apparently just prior to legal proceedings occurring to prevent the woman being returned to Nauru. While the Government claimed the woman had changed her mind about undergoing the abortion (a claim disputed by her legal team), an academic writer has suggested that the actions of the Australian government are similar to the ‘extraordinary rendition’ process practised by the USA during the war against Saddam Hussain:
Extraordinary rendition depended on the CIA’s ability to exert de facto control over its allies while remaining at arm’s lengths from the dirty work they performed.

Australian refugee policy works in the same way.

“People who are in the regional processing centres are the responsibility of either the Nauruan government or the PNG government,’ Dutton told Emma Alberici on the ABC’s Lateline program earlier this month.

Of course, Nauru was formally administered by Australia until 1966, just as PNG was until 1975. Both nations are heavily dependent on Australian aid. When they were asked to host detention centres, the suggestion was, as Marlon Brando might put it, an offer they could not refuse.
Until February 2014, the Salvation Army had been providing recreational and mental health services to refugees on both Nauru and Manus Island in PNG. The contract with the government was cancelled late in 2013 by then Immigration Minister Morrison. Morrison danced around the reason for the cancellation as well as refusing to discuss who would take over the provision of humanitarian services:
“I wouldn't be making any comment on those matters at this stage, only to say that the contract arrangements for our offshore operations are in the process of being determined with a view to improving our operational effectiveness at all of those centres based on everything we've been gleaning for the past 13 weeks since we've been in office," he said.

When told the Salvation Army had confirmed the contract termination, Morrison refused to say whether another provider would be brought in to provide the services, saying: "I provided the answer I'm giving today."
Could it be that the reason for the cancellation was actually in the same news report?
In the past, Salvation Army workers have blown the whistle on harsh conditions at both Manus and Nauru.
Roll forward to October 2015 and nothing has changed. Fairfax reported:
Charities working in immigration detention centres were asked to pay multimillion-dollar bonds that could be forfeited if they spoke out against government policy, as the Coalition sought to maintain secrecy over border protection.

In what critics say is the latest evidence of the government's determination to control information about its immigration detention program, aid agencies including Save the Children and the Australian Red Cross were asked to offer "performance security" — in one case, of $2 million — during negotiations over contracts relating to work caring for asylum seekers and refugees.
Without trying for a Godwin, are the Governments that were led by Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and Turnbull so concerned about the uproar that evidence of the true conditions on Manus and Nauru would bring, they tried to deny culpability? It didn’t work in Nazi Germany, it didn’t work for 7-Eleven, it didn’t work for VW so why on earth does the Australian government believe it’s going to work for them?

There has been one Australian journalist permitted to visit Nauru in the past 18 months and he comes from The Australian, an outlet that is usually friendly to the Liberal/National Government. This Guardian article reports on the lack of journalists going to Nauru, the $8,000 non-refundable application fee is apparently a significant disincentive!

There is still a month or so left in 2015: wouldn’t it be nice if the (forced) re-discovery of morals and ethics in the corporate world extended to the Australian government? Both 7-Eleven and VW have admitted error and claim they are working to correct the failures of the past. While it may all be smoke and mirrors, there are certainly processes in place to watch the two companies’ new-found honesty and credibility. Various governments around the world are certainly watching VW’s rectification process as the Fair Work Commission is watching 7-Eleven.

If the Australian government came clean on ‘offshore processing’, our budget position would be close to $5 billion better off; the refugees held in what are reported to be sub-human conditions in Nauru and Manus Island would be allowed to come to Australia (along with others in refugee camps around the world) to prove their credentials, with the potential to be re-settled in a kind and humane manner; our culture would be enriched (as the various waves of immigration over the past 40,000 years have done); and the Australian government wouldn’t have to tie themselves in knots defending the indefensible. It’s logical, honest and needs to happen, so that next time we sing the national anthem, we actually mean the fifth and sixth lines of the second verse.
For those who've come across the seas
We've boundless plains to share
What do you think?
Oh what a tangled web we weave! When large corporations are held to ethical standards and own up to their breaches, why can’t we expect the same of governments? Have we become so cynical of politics, of election lies, of ‘core and non-core’ promises, that we no longer expect ethical behaviour of our politicians? If that is the case, we have indeed reached a sorry state in which politicians have woven their own web of deceit far removed from ethical standards.

Next week Ken presents a very different take on the reasons why government is obliged to provide welfare and services in ‘Entitlement makes up for lost production’.

You can't patent ethics

Recently you may have missed the news that Yvonne D’arcy won her case in the Australian High Court. D’arcy had been involved in legal action against Myriad Genetics, a US biotech firm that developed a test to determine if people have a predisposition towards breast cancer. This was ground breaking stuff — and showed that, at least sometimes, the human will overcome corporate goals.

To discuss why this result is so important, we need to go back to the early years of the 21st century — 2003 to be exact. A quick disclaimer is required here. My medical training is limited to occasionally being able to get a ‘band-aid’ to remain where I want it for a period of more than a couple of hours: so the explanation of why this court case and its implications are important isn’t full of medical English.

In 2003, scientists completed the mapping of the human genome: in essence humans could now read and manipulate the biological codes written in the 3 billion building blocks of who we are and how we exist — our genome (or DNA). The formal project took 13 years. Although DNA had been identified 50 years prior to the finalisation of the Genome Project, and some items of DNA were worked on prior to ‘the project’, it took a while to work out what the 3 billion building blocks actually did. While it took 50 years to gain the understanding, now that we have it, those with the knowledge can compare what is in your body to what is expected to be there and identify a treatment for you, rather than for the average person of your age, gender, weight and so on, which leads to less adverse side effects and the better use of resources.

U.S.News reported:
Genomic medicine may help determine a person's risk of developing several specific medical conditions, including:
Cardiovascular disease
Neurodegenerative diseases
Neuropsychiatric disorders

Researchers are actively investigating the genomic and genetic mechanisms behind — and developing predictive testing for — such diverse medical conditions as:
Infectious diseases, from HIV/AIDS to the common cold
Ovarian cancer
Cardiovascular disease
Metabolic abnormalities
Neuropsychiatric conditions, such as epilepsy
Adverse drug reactions
Environmental exposure to toxins
It is possible to ask your general practitioner to arrange for your DNA to be mapped to identify potential problems. Before you go rushing down to see your doctor, however, consider this: if you discover that you have a predisposition for a form of cancer, you would have to disclose that information to your partner, your family as well as potentially those that make a business decision to insure you. In addition, in a similar way to saying those that live in Southern Tasmania are less likely than Queenslanders to acquire skin cancer, while you may have a predisposition it doesn’t necessarily follow that you will acquire the particular cancer. In May 2013, actor Angelina Jolie decided to undergo a preventative double mastectomy due to family history of breast cancer, supported by testing that revealed she carried mutated BRCA1 and BRCA2 proteins — indicators of a predisposition towards acquiring breast cancer. She had no signs of breast cancer when she underwent the operation and while the probability is that she would have developed the condition, it’s not a certainty.

Those who have, or have seen those close to them, endure cancer treatment over the years would be aware that medical advances, such as better testing, have meant that treatments for cancer are more effective and less debilitating now than they were 10 or more years ago. While in the past, it was common for people to lose their hair and be incapacitated for days after treatment; it is a far less common occurrence today. To an extent, this is an outcome of personalised medicine; the science has identified the correct targeting and dosage of the medicine to reduce adverse side effects while still being effective.

Medical science could now go from ‘taking a punt’ on a standardised dose of medicine having a beneficial effect to creating medicine based on the person it is meant for. Personalised medicine is still in its infancy — there seems to be a lot of potential for further advances. As you would expect however, some of the testing and development for the processes to be used is expensive. And here is the point of this article.

Some companies will develop a process, be it for medicine, software or vehicle safety (as examples) and patent it. According to IP Australia (the Government body that registers patents in Australia), a patent is:
… a right that is granted for any device, substance, method or process that is new, inventive, and useful. A patent is legally enforceable and gives you (the owner), exclusive rights to commercially exploit the invention for the life of the patent.
Others may determine that the invention is so important to humanity or their reputation that they decide not to profit directly from the invention. You sometimes hear of ‘open source’ computer software — it is software that is developed by a group and freely available for use by anyone. The theory is that others will improve further on the developed software, to the benefit of all.

Some things cannot be patented: again according to IP Australia:
You cannot patent human beings or the biological process for their generation, artistic creations, mathematical models, plans, schemes or other purely mental processes.
The Human Genome Project has identified that a piece of protein known as BRCA1 and BRCA2 suppresses tumours in breasts and other organs by trying to fix damaged DNA or destroy what it can’t fix. A company in the USA called Myriad Technologies developed a test to determine the ‘health’ of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 protein and patented the mutated ‘indicator’ proteins that it identified during its research.

Myriad Technologies launched their product that would test for the mutated BRCA1 and BRCA2 protein in 1996. Myriad, a spin off from the University of Utah and others, had a business practice of ensuring exclusivity for its testing product to allow a return of the money that investors placed into the company. Myriad, which commenced operations in 1994, employed around 2,000 people, was publically traded and boasted revenue of USD723.1 million in 2015

After Myriad had sent a number of research bodies ‘cease and desist’ letters in regard to the identification of mutated BRCA1 and BRCA2 protein, the US Association of Pathologists as well as some researchers took Myriad to court over the patenting of ‘non-patentable material’. After a prolonged period and a number of court cases, the plaintiffs won the final avenue of appeal in the US court system, thus invalidating the patents.

Yvonne D’arcy — assisted by a well-known legal firm — was going through a similar struggle in Australia. After an appeal to the High Court, she won the case, which ensures that others can supply test kits for the proteins in question. A legal precedent has now been created, making it more certain that the court system will not entertain future claims of a similar nature.

Unfortunately it was not the first time that a company that commercialises medical research had relied on exclusivity to gain a return on their investment. In 2004, a subsidiary of the Mayo Clinic in the USA commenced offering testing for some auto-immune diseases where the drug dosage had to be managed to ensure benefit to the patient, rather than buying the ‘test kit’ from Prometheus, who licenced the technology embedded in the tests from a Montreal hospital. Prometheus sued the Mayo Clinic subsidiary in the California District Court and lost. The case was appealed through the US Court system leading to the patent being invalidated.

Medical research is expensive and has to be done correctly. That is why it is so expensive. When the product has an unintended side effect, the results can be deadly. Thalidomide was ‘invented’ in 1957 and was routinely given to pregnant mothers in the late 1950s and early 1960s to overcome the effects of ‘morning sickness’ across various countries, including Australia. Unfortunately, the drug caused a large number of birth defects and miscarriages. While the drug is still in use, regulators across the world introduced controls over the development and usage of drugs as a result of the shortcomings surrounding the inappropriate use of that drug early in its life.

So where to from here? We now have the technology to determine at a human protein level what is needed to sustain a healthy life — and the technology to individually treat people to rectify mutated or defective DNA on a personal level. Unfortunately the research and development of these options is not cheap. Our society operates on the basis that we are all entitled to receive reward for our labour — regardless of the type of labour. By the same token, the cost of research and some profit for the drug development company could preclude the availability of the drug for those without sufficient income.

Yvonne D’arcy and her legal team have made a stand that suggests that companies that go from nothing to over USD700 million in revenue in a period of about 20 years is not equitable or fair to those that cannot afford the testing that is potentially life saving. As a result, the testing for the ‘breast cancer’ DNA should be a lot cheaper due to competition. In contrast the medical development company would suggest to you that they need to make money ‘while the sun shines’ as the next project may cost tens of millions and then be a complete failure at the final hurdle before release.

While no one would want another Thalidomide tragedy, the cost to government of health care in Australia is increasing rapidly. There is a need for proper research, development and testing — all of which costs money. While former Treasurer Hockey’s claim that ‘The starting point is if our health and welfare and education systems stay exactly the same, Australia is going to run out of money to pay for them’, might be overblown, there has to be a point where the ethics of trying to provide a reasonable quality of life for people and the cost of doing so can balance.

If there were no legal way to protect the investment made in researching, developing and commercialising a test or drug that contains human proteins — and is therefore not able to be patented — would the test or drug come to market? There are other options to commercialise the product and retain some control but they would reduce profit margins. Would that be acceptable to the company shareholders? The dilemma is profit versus human condition. It’s a shame that (in Australia anyway) only ethics towards shareholders is legislated.

What do you think?
The world of medical research and new drugs and tests is a complex one. As 2353 explains, attempts to patent genetic material have been overturned in US and Australian courts but will that slow down essential research if companies cannot protect their ‘discoveries’? There are many conflicting issues involved that need to be guided by medical ethics but do profits or ethics come first?

Next week 2353 continues looking at ethics when he compares the ethical behaviour of some corporations and our government in ‘The year of morals and ethics’.