Farewell 2015 — you could have been worse


It is common at this time of the year to reflect on what was, what could have been and how it all manages to fit into the ‘scheme of things’. This article is the 50th piece posted to The Political Sword in 2015 — and, if we didn’t have enough to do, late in January we changed the look and feel of our website as well as commencing a second site TPS Extra, where the concept is for shorter ad-hoc articles on issues of the day. Given that each Political Sword article runs for somewhere between 1500 and 2500 words, somewhere around 100,000 words have been written, coded and presented for you to think about. At the time of writing 45 articles have appeared on the Extra site — of varying lengths to address a current issue.

At the end of 2014, we started our annual reflection with the following:
It was a year in which we saw Abbott and his cronies trying to destroy the country and make us a paradise for the neo-liberals, the neo-cons and the economists that support them — and, of course, big business. We saw the worst budget in living memory and have, so far, only been saved from its full ramifications by the senate. We saw Clive Palmer appear with Al Gore to talk about the importance of climate change but, at the same time, cave in to support the repeal of the carbon price. We have seen Abbott, more through luck than design, deflect the budget issue and ‘bask’ in the glory of the world stage, taking on the Russian bear and alienating our closest Asian neighbour. He has ‘stopped the boats’ but also stopped government transparency in the process. He is undertaking more privatisation of government services and encouraging the states to do the same. Without openly saying so, he is pursuing a neo-liberal and economic rationalist agenda backed to the hilt by the IPA (and, as others have noted, he is, to a significant extent, following its ‘hit list’).
The criticism of Abbott started early this year on The Political Sword. By the time January was over we had looked back at 2012 where our esteemed blog master Ad Astra had correctly deduced Abbott’s character; and Ken offered to refund his assisted passage to Australia
He arrived here as a £10 pom and I will willingly refund his £10 (or $20 in real Australian money) if he takes the next boat home — perhaps we can spare him an orange life boat for the journey.
— as well as looking at his negativity, questioning if it was the right ‘sales pitch’ for someone who was supposed to be demonstrating that his government was a safe pair of hands.

During February, Abbott faced a leadership spill (as no one actually challenged him). The reality is that close to 40% of the members of his political caucus effectively ticked the ‘anyone but Abbott’ box by voting for a spill. Ken soon after assembled a catalogue of (lets be nice here — it is Christmas) exaggerations over the deficit that Abbott and Hockey claim they inherited from the Rudd/Gillard years, followed by 2353 looking at tax reform here and here.

During March, Ken looked at the reality of the ‘Presidential style’ of Australian leadership and suggested the ‘people voted for me’ claim that Abbott (as well as Rudd a few years earlier) was making was in fact bollocks. Jan Mahyuddin pondered why a number of political reporters were then publicly discussing Abbott’s character flaws, rather than before the election when the Australian people could have done something about it.

During March, the government released the fourth Intergenerational Report — which is a document that is supposed to look a few decades into the future, scan the risks and determine what plans we as a society need to have in place now to manage the transition. The Hockey intergenerational report was a complete farce, which you may remember Dr Karl Kruszelnicki later publically suggested he should have read prior to agreeing to advertise the document.

As the year went on we looked at the second Abbott/Hockey budget and determined that while it was somewhat softer than the 2014 version, the ideology behind it was the same. 2353 looked at the discussion on marriage equity in June, discussing the manoeuvres that Abbott was making to defer the process: followed a week later by Ken discussing the reality behind the ‘national security/terrorism’ concerns that Abbott frequently identified as his prime concern and found that Abbott was the one behaving like a terrorist by deliberately generating fear.

During August, we discussed the ‘concept’ of an increase in the GST rate, as floated by Mike Baird (NSW Premier) at the COAG Meeting, while suggesting that ‘we told you so’ (again) back in April when we published ‘Beware, there is a plan’. The government’s lack of ‘love’ for effective action to address climate change or progressive taxation (where everyone pays a fair percentage of their income) rounded out the month.

A traditional operating method for conservative governments is to hide their actions behind a cloak of secrecy or layer the whole process in quantities of red tape. Early in September, 2353 asked why is this so and determined that it was something to do with the conservative mindset. We also looked at how various governments had failed Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander Australians and how Abbott was never going to rectify the damage; as well as the increasing trend for people such as Abbott (a Catholic) to reduce the distance between state and religion, solely to push their own agendas. September was also the month that Abbott was defeated in a leadership challenge. Given that Menzies was overthrown in a leadership challenge in 1941 and Gorton voted himself out of office in the early 1970’s, you would think that there would be considerable ‘corporate experience’ in the Liberal Party for how the vanquished should act and behave. After giving Abbott around a month to demonstrate he meant the ‘right things’ he said; and finding he didn’t, The Political Sword discussed (here, here as well as here) the problems newly minted Prime Minister Turnbull would have in stamping his authority on the position while appeasing the ultra-conservatives who were being attracted to the lightning rod of Abbott, then sitting on the back bench. Turnbull is still attempting to find a path through the forest of competing claims and ideologies.

A lot can change in twelve months. Abbott’s removal as prime minister in late 2015 was bookended by Queenslanders taking back ultra-conservative Premier Newman’s large majority in January and Canadians removing ultra-conservative Stephen Harper from their prime ministership in October. The replacement leader in Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and in Canada, Justin Trudeau, were both considered to be write-offs only months prior to the election results and both seem to have chosen methods miles apart from the ‘traditional’ loud, nasty politics to gain and retain leadership. While the Conservative’s David Cameron was re-elected in the UK election, subsequently the UK Labour Party (in a democratic process) chose a new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who is (in the words of Yes Minister) ‘courageous’ and has stated he wants to take the UK Labour Party back to the days of a kinder and gentler society.

Palaszczuk, Turnbull, Corbyn and Trudeau seem to demonstrate a need for a ‘kinder and gentler’ politics and as a result there is certainly less intensity in the political discussion. Maybe we all do get sick of ‘he said/she said’ and those with the loudest or most outrageous voices winning. As a US General Election and an Australian Federal Election are both due in 2016, it could be interesting to see how the ‘kinder and gentler’ pans out.

Life does not revolve completely around politics and during the year The Political Sword took a look at some issues that at times begged the question why won’t our politicians do this as well and at other times had little to do with current politics at all.

2353 went ethical early in February (a recurring affliction for which we are assured he is getting help), looking at some of the research into why people treat those with differences as physical and intellectual inferiors. In March, he was questioning if social media influences politics and by April was discussing the fallacy of the ‘trickle-down effect’ as popularised by US President Reagan, British Prime Minister Thatcher and of course Australian Prime Minister Abbott.

Ken discussed the change in perception within Australia from helping those less fortunate to economic rationalism, asked if the budget papers are just a waste of paper and tried to justify claiming the term ‘budget trickery’ from Bill Shorten after the federal budget.

Around the same time as the Australian Budget was handed down (giving little to those that need a hand), 2353 looked at the experience in Utah where a Republican (conservative) governor authorised a long term plan to help banish poverty from his state; including literally giving the homeless a home. The social benefits have been overwhelming, as those who have a fixed address find it is easier to interact with government departments, employers and other aid groups, they feel part of a community and sooner or later, most of them are (to use Joe Hockey’s misadvised words) lifters, not leaners on society.

2353’s ethical meme surfaced again when he discussed why our immigration policies over the past couple of centuries seemed to reflect our prosperity as a nation as well as discussing the ethics of profit over human suffering, and why successive Australian governments have supported the apparent inhumanity experienced by those who are transported to Christmas Island, Manus Island and Nauru.

At the same time, Ken gave us a few valuable history lessons with his mini- series on the Westminster System (Part 1 and Part 2), health funding (Part 1 and Part 2), neo-liberalism and discussing the politics of water availability in Australia.

So 2015 really wasn’t that bad. This time last year we were hoping that Abbott didn’t ‘destroy the joint’ before he was evicted kicking and screaming from Kirribilli House; some other ultra-conservatives have been voted out; and we now have some optimism that kinder and gentler politics is possible across the world with a recognition that the environment and society is important.

In the spirit of optimism that seems to have broken out across the UK, Canada and Australia, please enjoy this (non-festive season) music clip as a final comment on 2015



What do you think?
Our publication schedule over the break is an article scheduled for New Year's Day and potentially one in mid-January. The site will remain open and moderated throughout the period. Apart from that, the people behind The Political Sword hope you enjoy your ‘Christmas break’ in the way in which you feel comfortable. Have a safe and happy holiday period, look after yourself, your families and those around you.


Lords and Ladies, a new morality tale for a new time


The spruiker

Lords and Ladies, I beseech of your time as I come before you to continue the tale of the kingdom wherein resided Tiny-er-er O’penmouth. I beg of you to bring to mind my last tale when, although no more than a lowly jester, he created himself anew as Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth, creating visions of his own grandeur which triggered unease among the Lords and Ladies of his land. Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth dreamed of setting his aim higher, of placing his new majestic self above his Lords and Ladies, something they could not countenance but nor could they speak of it except in the concealed comfort of their great halls; so instead they stealthily spread tales of revolting peasants in Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth’s own green great hall.

The tale continues: the Lords and Ladies strike back

The Lords and Ladies secretly send their envoys into Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth’s green great hall, to speak in muffled tones among the jesters, clowns and goblins gathered therein: he is frightening the peasants, they whisper; they are abandoning their fields and forges; if this continues the peasants will revolt and storm the castle walls, burn the great halls to ash; then there will be no need for clowns and jesters — the goblins, however, may yet prosper in a chaotic land, they hint. The clowns and jesters anxiously survey the goblins among them: they always feared whether they could be trusted and now the emissaries fan the embers of internal discord.

The jesters, clowns and goblins mutter among themselves. What can be done? How can the peasants be returned to their fields, despite the rising waters and the seemingly endless fires, despite the demonic tales of the tree monks? They murmur and plot. They whisper and plan. And the Lords and Ladies, with their whispering crusade, adroitly prepare the way for their man, Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull.

Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull is a man of substance, not an inept jester. Although not a lord, he possesses his own castle, grander even than those of some of the Lords and Ladies. He gained his name from the legend he could turn a charging bull at 30 paces with his withering smile, that he could quiet raging peasants, even lull them into sleep, with his three hundred mellifluous words — whereas Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth was limited to three words. The Lords and Ladies were confident he could charm the peasants into working harder and longer without them even noticing.

The ghostly heralds of the Lords and Ladies glide like wisps of wind among the jesters, clowns and goblins of the green great hall and slowly but surely their stories spread and take hold: they tell the clowns, jesters and goblins they can keep their places in that hall only if Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull replaces the upstart Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth. The thread of mutiny knits itself quietly into a golden gown. And it is ‘quietly’ until Mal C’od-turn-a-bull strides confidently, defiantly to the centre of the great hall and declares he will now be ruler of that edifice. Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth asserts he is still master of the green great hall but, by then, the clowns, jesters and goblins have succumbed to the whisperings, have come to believe the tales that Mal C’od-turn-a-bull will restore tranquillity to the kingdom — and allow them to continue feasting and debauching in the green great hall.

Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth has now disappeared into his paper castle, where some still protect him but their cause is now lost — or perhaps lost only for now. He retains a place, now isolated, sulking in a dimmed nook of the green great hall, no longer its possessor, but still with a remnant of goblins who surround him and chatter excitedly of the dreams he and they had dared. They sometimes prattle among themselves but, as yet, can do nought to undo the prodigious smile of Mal C’od-turn-a-bull.

The Lords and Ladies are well pleased. The parvenu jester is replaced with a man of (almost) their own class, a man who appreciates their desires and wants, who is cognisant they require seclusion within the shelter of their castle walls and ignorance among the peasants so as to pursue their artful, gold-making dealings. Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull well understands such artfulness for he has practised it himself.

Almost immediately the peasants are calmed. They like the timbre of his words even if they do not fathom them. He tells them only he can conquer the rising waters and endless fires — but he does nothing. His words alone are enough for now, convincing some that this illustrious man empathises and will eventually quell the waters and the flames. Behind the castle walls, the Lords and Ladies smirk in relieved delight. Already their man has won over the peasants, just as they had foreseen, his endless numbing words and glowing smile working their mesmerising spell on the ignorant, unwitting peasants.

Mal C’od-turn-a-bull moves among the peasants, among the impoverished and outcast and pronounces that no longer will the knights and yeomen ride against them but still the peasants with the matches in their ragged coat pockets are covertly watched, sometimes furtively whisked away to fetid, windowless dungeons.

He rides slowly by the peasants in his own imposing coach.

‘What about Godwin’s coach?’ a ragged, mud-clad peasant shouts from the throng.

Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull does not like being reminded of the time when he thought the coach of another prominent rival, Kev de Flick O’Hair, had been plundered goods. As it transpired, it was the peasant Godwin spreading falsehoods. That was a mistake in his past that he desires be left there. But this peasant, who, indeed, must be hiding matches in his pocket to bring forth such a matter, has not forgotten. How many others out there also remember? Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull ponders that question but continues by without bothering to pause or answer. His flowing words cannot simply decree that incident to invisibility. But as he moves genially onward, his hand moves almost imperceptibly at the coach window, and the yeoman guard spirit that peasant away with barely a soul noticing and, if they do discover the matches in his pocket, he may never be seen again.

The tree monks are also not convinced. They harangue the peasants: ‘Until he does something about the rising waters and endless fires, you should not be deceived by his milky words. Demand he walk with you here in the mud and rising waters. Demand he confronts the fires himself. Then challenge what he is willing to do.’

Yes, the tree monks are invigorated by his presence. He does not denounce them as bellicosely as Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth once did. He smiles benignly upon them, promises a few more trees that they may scramble upon, but passes them by as if his passing alone should satiate their exclamations of doom.

“There will be changes”, Malcom Co’d-turn-a-bull tells the carefully assembled peasants and lingering tree monks. ‘If I think what I’m doing or not doing is not working well, or if working well could be done differently, be done in a better way … but I will only change those things that need to be changed, that aren’t working well, or aren’t getting the results I … the Lords and … the results you want, or good results that help you or make life easier for you, or help you get more done in less time, or even the same time, but more … We live in an exciting time and we can …’

Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull has much more to say (he has not yet reached his three hundred words), and does say much more, but it is somewhere about that point in his oration that peasants begin slumbering or returning to their work: yes, even work is more interesting than this, even scrabbling in the deepening mud.

Deep within the living soul of Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull dwells the certain knowledge that the Lords and Ladies are masters of this world and he hovers deliciously close to them. Unlike the uncouth jester he replaced, he is welcomed at the dining tables in the halls of the Lords and Ladies’ castles, is accepted into their company, where he exchanges pleasantries, where the Lords and Ladies deviously suggest the peasants do not actually require very much to be happy. ‘That is the way of the world’, they entice him, offering another goblet of wine, another pheasant’s egg topped with caviar from a distant kingdom. Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull dips his silver spoon into the black fish roe. ‘You must beguile them. Another wine? You must fulfil your duty to your own.’ Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull appreciates that, has always believed in the privileged right of the Lords and Ladies to fashion their money-making ways.

‘We will need more wood for the forges so they can burn longer and produce more horseshoes, barrel hoops, sickles and scythes, swords and axes, and all our other useful tools of metal. There will be more work for the tree-fellers and the carters carrying the wood. We will all be better off,’ Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull announces to the peasants.

‘That means felling more trees,’ the tree monks lament. ‘That means more smoke hanging over your homes during the still winter nights, veiling your vision on the roads, making your children cough,’ they add. Some peasants nod their heads knowingly but the yeoman guard keep their watchful gaze upon them.

‘Tree monks will be left more trees’, Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull promises somewhere through the long distance of his discourse but nimbly fails to reveal where. The Lords and Ladies have determined they will be on vastly separated knolls at the kingdom’s far edges, where tree monks can do no damage — only the most ardent fire-threatening peasant will travel that far merely to consult a tree monk or be influenced by their heretical teaching.

‘And you on the farms, you will be able to till more soil, grow more food for your families and neighbours who all will have more work. And they can choose their work’ but Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull conceals that most of the increased produce of the fields will fill the tables of the Lords and Ladies (and the next tier below them, people of his own ilk — he will do well from this extra work and all he has to do is entrance the peasants to do it).

‘There is no longer any need to be afraid. We are a kingdom of opportunities for all’, but especially the Lords and Ladies (and me), he mutely continues. ‘Take heed of the greatness of … of our … of your kingdom and how much greater it can be if we all work together, if we each work as hard as we possibly can, if we contribute …’ Blah, blah, blah! Yes, again, somewhere around this point peasants begin to nod off or wander back to their dank fields and smoky forges.

There is certainly more work being done if only because the peasants do not well endure Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull’s prolixity, the myriad words, his phantasmagoria of words.

For now the kingdom glows, reflecting the boundless, unceasing smile of Mal C’od-turn-a-bull but dangers lurk. There are goblins with spittle-laden words hissing that the peasants are simply lazy, avoiding, when they can, their labouring duties to their Lords and Ladies, that the peasants must be left with no choice other than the dank fields and the cough-inducing forges, and there is no reason to stem the fires and rising waters. The Lords and Ladies do not discourage such hateful words but sit by idly, taking satisfied account and awaiting their next opportunity.

There are goblins who yet believe Tiny Napoleon O’penmouth is their true leader and still believe in his word. They could yet turn against Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull. And the clowns and jesters cannot be relied upon. Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull just smiles his beatific smile, and no-one yet knows whether that will be enough.

For now, the Lords and Ladies delight in the emerging new shape of their kingdom.

For now, the future seems clear but more smoke rises, more eerie night fogs descend, and more muted thoughts choose another time for expression.

What do you think?
To understand some of the references in this tale, we encourage you to read the earlier ‘Lords and Ladies’ tales linked at the beginning of the piece.

Will Mal Co’d-turn-a-bull continue to lull and charm the peasants? Will Tiny-er –er O’penmouth continue idly accepting his fate? How long will the Lords and Ladies continue to delight in their newfound wealth? Come back in 2016 when the tale continues.

Next week 2353 sums up the year as we saw it on TPS.


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?’.