Rail link promises are back, as they are every election year. Is this one any different?

Sometimes you have to wonder if politicians really do think voters are a pack of gullible fools with memories that would do a goldfish proud. It’s hard not to come to this conclusion when they behave in such a gobsmackingly cynical manner as the Victorian Government did in handing down their budget last week.

Struggling in the polls and facing the prospect of the being the first one term administration since The Cain Government was destroyed by the Labor split in the mid 50’s, Victorian Treasurer Michael O’Brien unveiled a blockbuster document laden with goodies aimed at enticing back disillusioned voters. The centre piece was a suite of major transport infrastructure projects that the Government claimed would provide a ‘generational change’ for the state’s public transport system. So what were these ground-breaking projects? What were these political circuit breakers designed to flummox the Labor Opposition and lift the Coalition to a second term?

The Metro Rail Tunnel and a rail link to Tullamarine Airport!

What’s that? You’ve heard these promised before? Yes of course you have, because they have been promised before, by the very same government who are promising them now. The Napthine Government’s supposed, game-changer designed to revitalise their flagging fortunes is not some stunning left field gamble or quixotic windmill tilt, but simply the reheating of two projects it was elected to build four years ago, but has done stuff all about since .

To be fair, the metro rail plan the Government has committed to in this budget is a different project to the one that has been talked about since the release of Eddington Transport Plan in 2008. The original tunnel would’ve run all the way from Footscray in the west to Caulfield in the inner south east, passing through Parkville and the CBD in between. More recent versions have been trimmed down to starting in South Kensington and finishing at the Domain. The route announced in the budget will bypass the city altogether, simply travelling from the Domain to Southern Cross Station via a new stop called Montague which is positioned suspiciously close to Crown Casino.

And, thrown in like a set of steak knives, is the rail line to Tullamarine Airport which has now been tied in with Metro tunnel under the one banner of Melbourne Rail Link. New name and design it may be, but the fact remains the Government is seeking to be re-elected on the back of projects it has already promised and failed to deliver. It’s an approach which relies upon the electorate being stupid, forgetful, apathetic, or all of the above.

Of course the Victorian Government hardly alone when it comes to cynical politics that treats voters with contempt. But for sheer chutzpah, this latest gambit puts them right up there with the best.

At the 2010 state election where the Liberals came to power, then leader Ted Baillieu (hey remember him?) pledged to finally build a whole host of public transport projects that had been languishing for years despite their obvious need. Among them were the Doncaster Rail Link, the Rowville Rail Link and - you guessed it - the Metro Rail Tunnel and a rail line to the Airport. The Liberals pledge to finally build these long mooted projects was a key reason behind their unexpected victory, yet nearly a full term has expired and these projects have either been put on the backburner or turfed altogether. Instead the Government has spent its time promoting the East West Road Tunnel, a monstrously expensive project it deliberately ruled out prior to being elected. Only now, after well-deserved criticism that it is neglecting public transport in favour of roads and with a difficult election in the offing, has the Government remembered what it was elected to do and rediscovered its enthusiasm for public transport.

Even if we put this recent history aside and take these announcements at face value, a look at the fine print hardly inspires confidence that this project will ever see the light of day. Construction is not expected to begin until the end of the decade and it’s not expected to be fully operating will be until 2026 – beyond the likely lifespan of this and possibly the next Government.

Then there is the question of design. The most contentious aspect of the Melbourne Rail Link is the decision to bypass the CBD where most people want to go and the hospital and university precinct at Parkville which is not currently serviced by rail. The Government’s justification is that the original metro rail plan would’ve created too much disruption in the city centre, given it relied on ripping up Swanston Street which happens to be the busiest tram route in the world. After all, who can forget Premier Napthine describing the original plans, which would’ve seen Swanston Street closed off for two years, as being the equivalent of the ‘Berlin Wall’.

Instead the revised plan is to divert the tunnel via a proposed Montague ‘transport node’ which will service the yet to be built suburb of Fisherman’s Bend. The problem is that the proposed Montague Station is nowhere near Fisherman’s Bend, it’s far closer to Crown Casino and Southbank, let alone Southern Cross Station, just over the river. The new route will also see passengers from Melbourne’s South East having to change trains in order to get into the CBD, something that even the current antiquated system doesn’t require them to do.

One advantage in the re-gigged plan is that it will allow the Airport rail link to be built at the same time. However Victorians are entitled roll their eyes at yet another government pledging to build this mythical project, given that every one of their predecessors have promised and failed to deliver it since Tullamarine Airport opened in 1970. The case for the link is so certain there is said to be an underground railway station sitting underneath the airport waiting for a train from the city to eventually arrive. Under the Government’s new plan that train will arrive via a detour in Melbourne’s western suburbs, with the airport line connecting with the existing Sunbury line at Albion station, meaning the trip will still take up to 30 minutes – about the same length of time it currently takes on the Skybus departing from Southern Cross. Tourism Victoria will also have their work cut out selling a train route that passes through the Tottenham Rail Yards as a scenic entrance to the city.

All of this, we’re told, will cost somewhere between 8 and 11 billion dollars and be funded entirely from state coffers. Unlike the many other policy backflips he’s performed since coming to office, Prime Minister Abbott is so far sticking fat to his pre-election pledge that his government would stick to their knitting and only fund road projects and not urban rail. This is has already led to public transport projects interstate being downscaled and is assumed to be one of the reasons why the original metro plan has been scrapped in favour of the Melbourne Rail Link. It’s also why both stages of the East West Link Road Tunnel are much more likely to become a reality because they come with benefit of federal money. Don’t be surprised if the Liberals are returned to power in November if the rail plans are once again placed back in the filing cabinet under ‘Elections’ where they’ll sit for another four years. Sadly it’s an approach which has worked before.

Published in Weekly Email

One of the more common reactions to the Abbott Government’s Commission of Audit (CoA) report is that it is all part of a clever strategy to make their intentions appear worse than they are. As Dragonista said on Twitter this morning:

You do realise the more you hyperventilate about the #CoA, the more you are playing Abbott's game?

CoA has many roles, but one is to make the Budget's decisions look less bad, and for us to be relieved.

Ross Gittins ran a similar line in his Fairfax piece:

Don’t be too alarmed by the startling proposals by the National Commission of Audit. Few of its recommendations will make it into the budget on Tuesday week. They were never intended to.

Ostensibly, the commission wants to reverse the tide of a century of federal-state relations, substantially dismantle Medicare, crack down on the age pension while leaving superannuation tax concessions unscathed, reduce Medicare to something mainly for the poor, hit middle-income families and make the treatment of welfare recipients much harsher.

Don’t believe it.

...In this case, the audit report is softening us up for the budget by raising the spectre of a much tougher budget than we’re likely to get. It’s Joe Hockey getting ready to leave unsaid: See, I let you off lightly.

Of course, the argument has some merit: governments always try and manage expectations by manipulating public opinion.

But the idea that therefore we should not get publicly angry about something like the Commission of Audit report, that we are somehow playing the government’s game by “hyperventilating” about it, is bullshit.

Consider the alternative implicit in such comments.

What message do you think the government will take away if we follow this advice and say nothing? What conclusion do you suppose Mr Abbott and Co. will reach if our reaction to their attempt to rebuild the country on the model of some Ayn Rand fantasy is muted in the way these commentators suggest?

He will, of course, take such complacency as acceptance, or at least, tolerance, for his radical propositions.

In other words, the less pushback the government gets, the more emboldened they will be to do their worst.

Honestly, how does staying quiet do anything other serve the government’s agenda?

So let’s be clear: the idea is NOT for the Commission of Audit report to make what they do in Budget look tame by comparison.

The idea is for it to push policy discussion far to the right by giving credibility to ideas like slashing the pension and dismantling Medicare, so that, over the long term, they shift the centre of our politics.

Yes, it is true that maybe only a few of the mooted changes will actually be enacted in the upcoming Budget (as if that isn’t bad enough), but in the meantime, the debate is no longer whether we should do certain things (introduce a Medicare co-payment, cut the minimum wage) but by how much.

In this way, the once unthinkable becomes “common sense”.

Frankly, I don’t think we should care how uncool we look in objecting to this Commission of Audit report. We are not playing into their hands by objecting to what they are trying to do. We are standing up for what we believe in.

Faced with such a document, “hyperventilating” is completely rational and completely necessary.

Published in The Shout
Thursday, 20 March 2014

Polite resistance is futile

The biggest victory the right has won over the left in recent decades is to convince them that strikes, protests, pickets, blockades and all the other forms of confrontational public action are unacceptable. In a misguided attempt to ingratiate themselves to the right’s version of “middle Australia”, to live up to some mythical notion of “civility” and “reasonableness”, the left has unilaterally disarmed in the class war that has been at the centre of the right’s agenda forever and that is being pursued with new vigour by the Abbott Government. So while right-wing commentators, business leaders and politicians reserve for themselves the right to attack, insult, and misrepresent facts and positions at will, many on the left wring their hands, cowered into inaction. It’s about time the cowering stopped.

One of the most consistent things about conservative/ right-wing/ libertarian/business attacks on the conditions of Australian workers - on all aspects of egalitarian Australia - is how unswayed they are by reality. It doesn’t matter how low the level of industrial disputation is, or what the figures say about productivity, or what the figures say about wage levels relative to profits, the Abbott Government, the right-wing think tanks, and the various business peak bodies still insist that pay and conditions for average workers must be slashed.

In other words, the labour movement - including the Labor Party - has been bending over backwards for decades to deliver a less quarrelsome, more productive, less strike-inclined workforce and it hasn’t made the slightest bit of difference to the demands of those on the right.

Every concession is met with the same ultimatums to give more away, and in fact, it is easy to imagine that even if Gina Rinehart got her wish and turned us into the poverty-wage nation she of which she fantasises, there would still be a bevy of spruikers explaining to us why yet more sacrifice was needed.

Put simply, the left has been suckered into laying down their swords, while those on the right have gone nuclear.

The essence of this suckering is that the right, largely through the power of the conservative media, has been very successful at defining left-wing protests of any kind as uncivil. The tactic has left progressives cowering.

You can see the timidity that has become standard on the left in articles like this one by Simon Copeland. Protesting won’t do any good, he says. Attacking the Abbott Government is counterproductive. Far better to sit down quietly somewhere and figure out some other ideas. Incredibly, the left is counselled to “lick its wounds”, become passive, and the leave the aggressive stuff to the right:

Instead of licking our wounds and creating an alternative approach, we have focused on tearing the government down, and using whatever arguments and tactics we can find to do so. After years of hammering Abbott for this brand of politicking, one could ask why the left is following suit – it seems like a rather hypocritical move.

I actually agree with a lot of Simon’s analysis - especially his comments about the way the left (Labor in particular) has lost its social base. But the idea that fighting fire with fire is “hypocritical”, and the implicit suggestion that “building a sustainable social base” can be done without taking to the streets (and other forms of protest) is to fundamentally misunderstand the way power works.

We heard very similar things from left-wing commentators when the various “Occupy” protests launched a couple of years ago. There was much mockery (from the left!) of the lack of focus, the inexperience, and the failure by the Occupiers to articulate clear, fully worked out alternatives. Worse, barely a whimper was raised from these “progressives” when the police started clearing protesters from city streets. Go and learn some economics and political theory, some sneered as the protesters were carted away.

It was a classic case of how some amongst the educated left seek mainstream approval and legitimacy by distancing themselves from nascent movements that actually have the potential to reinvigorate the progressive grassroots.

As I argued at the time: “...[T]he Occupy movement (and now March In March) is happening in an environment where other forms of public discussion are so dominated by elites and special interests that occupying public space is just about the only option left to those who want to have alternative views heard.”

I am certainly not saying that the left should adopt the anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-reality tactics of the right. In fact, I would strongly suggest that a commitment to reality-based campaigning is central to a successful progressive movement. But I am saying the left shouldn’t let itself be outmanoeuvred by the right’s strategic deployment of civility and be scared off public argument just because many in the media will vilify and misrepresent them. Progressive shouldn’t be afraid of stirring things up on an ongoing basis. Pissing off Andrew Bolt and his ilk is a bonus, not something to shy away from.

Union leader Tim Lyons made a similar point in a recent speech:

We need to remember that “partnership” has its limits – that the interests of our members are different to the interests of their bosses and that bosses causes most of the problems people have at work.

And we must be unafraid of conflict and controversy. We have a media environment that both thrives on conflict and is horrified by it…. We can’t buy into this. If we do we risk sterilisation. We anaesthetise ourselves if we don’t accept the reality of conflict and talk about power. Put another way, it’s ok to want a decent pay rise, and RDOs, and it’s OK to go on strike if the boss will not give it to you...

[I]n an environment where powerful forces are challenging the basic role of trade unions and the legitimacy of an organised worker voice...accommodation is not possible. Frankly, any concession we make will be pocketed and they will resume their fight. We can’t make a concession that will make them stop, although you might get a pat on the head.

A-fucking-men to all that.

For too long, the left, the Labor Party in particular, has been actively seeking that pat on the head, and in the process they have given away ground that is going to be almost impossible to recover. What Bob Hawke once called “consensus politics” and Kevin Rudd called “bipartisanship” has turned into nothing more than capitulation. On everything from the mining tax to asylum seekers, Labor has bipartisaned itself into irrelevance.

And as the left has become more “flexible”, as it has tried to make itself attractive to people who will never vote for it anyway - by compromising on core values, by shying away from fights, by trying always to be the reasonable ones - the right has become more partisan, more tribal and more ruthless.

Listen to Tony Abbott speaking the other day. Despite all his promises before the election to run a “no surprises” government, he is now running around asserting his right to fundamentally change the country:

But you’ve got to understand that incoming governments do very much want to place their stamp on the economic policy of the country and that’s exactly what we are doing … That’s a very, very big change and we expect everyone in the system to be working enthusiastically with us as we reshape our country.

Polite handwringing against such opponents is not an option.

Published in Weekly Email
Thursday, 20 March 2014

Tale of 3 Treasury Heads

It’s not a fun time to be a public servant in Canberra. Mounting pressures from an ill-considered hiring freeze paired with squabbles over the merging of different departmental workplace agreements and office space are making it difficult for bureaucrats to keep a clear head, let alone give frank and fearless advice.

Yet three former (or soon to be former) heads of the federal Treasury have reminded us in the past week what a valuable public service bureaucrats can make when they dare to be forthright and bold.

Wombat fancier and tax reform aficionado Ken Henry attracted most of the media spotlight, speaking nearly a fortnight ago to a low-key gathering on competition policy reform at the ANU and then leveraging that engagement into broadsheet column inches and an appearance on the ABC’s flagship current affairs program 730.

Henry’s intervention was considered to be a big deal. Aside from being the Treasury secretary that helped PM Rudd and Treasurer Swann guide Australia through the global financial crisis, Henry worked in different capacities for PMs Keating and Howard with an eye constantly fixed on the changes needed to repair and modernise Australia’s dilapidated taxation system.

Even after he was successful in helping the Howard government implement the GST, Henry identified a raft of remaining reforms for the Rudd government that in his view were still necessary. Rudd famously ignored most of the Henry Review’s findings and botched the implementation of the only recommendation he did accept, which was to establish a resource rent tax on the mining industry.

With the Abbott government promising another review of the taxation system – including consideration of the GST - Henry now seems on a mission to bring his 2010 review back into play.

Much of what Henry had to say about tax reform in the past week or so – such as the need to increase the GST and look at the cost of disability welfare payments – would have been music to the government’s ears and likely seen by any interested observer as a strong objective endorsement of the government adopting such measures.

And yet with honesty and assertiveness can also come difficult and inconvenient messages. During his 730 interview Henry was blunt about Abbott’s shabby treatment of current Treasury head, Martin Parkinson, who will ‘voluntarily’ leave his post sometime after the May budget:

No government has ever thought it appropriate to remove the head of the Treasury and put in someone who is ... of a more comfortable political character.

Henry added that if that is what Abbott intended “that would be a very disappointing move and quite a historic one.”

Parkinson is the same Treasury secretary who boldly issued a media release during the 2013 federal election campaign refuting the basis upon which PM Rudd and his ministers claimed to find a ‘black hole’ in the Coalition’s policy costings. During Senate Estimates proceedings, Parkinson also bolstered the new Abbott government’s case for raising the debt ceiling and defended gloomy economic forecasts in the government’s first MYEFO from claims of political interference.

Even so, Parkinson is far from an acquiescent bureaucrat, recently dropping some timely truth bombs on the counterproductive nature of merit systems for gender equality in the workplace. Parkinson’s observation that men use the merit principle to hide their own biases would have rung uncomfortably true with not only his business audience on the day but a broader cohort of political participants and observers.

To complete the troublesome triumvirate of Treasury heads, former Treasury Secretary and Reserve bank Governor, Bernie Fraser, also delivered some unwelcome facts to the Abbott government in the past week.

In his role as chair of the soon-to-be-abolished Climate Change Authority, Fraser took a break from spruiking industry superannuation schemes to reject extremes at either end of the climate change debate and call for an “informed and mature public dialogue, [as] a necessary precursor to building a broad political and community consensus for climate change policies.”

Acknowledging that his comments may constitute a career-limiting move, Fraser specifically called on governments to initiate this discussion:

… you can’t rely upon the market to deliver cleaner environments and to meet emission reduction targets. They’re things that governments have to do. So it really should be in the interests of governments to bring about, initiate, engineer a more informed, a more mature discussion of these issues. Not carry on with the kinds of assertiveness we’ve seen all around the place on these issues.

So in the past week or so, purely by happenstance, three esteemed former public servants (in the truest sense of the term) have delivered three frank and fearless messages on fundamentally important issues to the Abbott government and Australian voters.

Serendipity aside, the tale of the three (former) Treasury heads reinforces the importance of such objective and independent advice being not only sought but also heeded by political decision-makers.

As funding cuts, departmental amalgamations, and staff losses make the remaining public servants more susceptible to politicisation, role models such as Henry, Parkinson and Fraser remind us all why an independent and forthright public service is so important.

Published in Weekly Email
Thursday, 13 March 2014

Whither away LOTO?

Another instalment from The King’s Tribune special investigative reporter, who braved the dangers of the untamed Canberra streets in search of truth.

It began with rumours. Lurid whisperings and wild speculations shared among the insiders of Canberra. Dark murmurings at Aussie’s Café. Friends of friends of friends who swore blind it was true and their cousin’s neighbour had seen it themselves. Nothing concrete, just a swirling maelstrom of scuttlebutt and insinuation.

As a journalist, I felt compelled to dig deeper, to find out if there was anything behind these rumours, or if it was simply the ephemeral smoke of parliamentary gossip. Was it true? Was there, indeed, stalking the streets of Canberra, a mysterious creature known as “the Opposition Leader”? Or was it a tissue of fictionalities? I girded my journalistic loins and set forth to find out.

My first port of call was Australian Labor Party headquarters, where the receptionist gave me a shifty look, mumbled something into a phone, and then disappeared under her desk. A few seconds later I was met by Shufti Amberson, general undersecretary of the ALP super-federation of sub-branch commissions. Amberson greets me amiably, but becomes terse when I mention the “Opposition Leader”.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” he snaps, attempting to distract me with a dancing marionette in his left hand. “I’ve never heard of this so-called Opposition Leader!”

I press him. “There are reports that the Opposition Leader has been seen in this very building, Mr Amberson,” I begin, but before I can get an answer Amberson hurls a smoke pellet to the floor and vanishes.

Labor Headquarters would seem to be a dead end: they’re sealed tighter than a blackmailed oyster. I need to find someone more forthcoming. In a dark Canberra alleyway I hand over fourteen cartons of Winfield Blues and am told by a small figure in a black cape that I should “follow the cat”.

I have no idea what this means, so instead I head to the Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, where I meet with the PM’s chief of staff Peta Credlin in a midget submarine kept in the Parliament House basement.

Credlin tells me that the Opposition Leader is an urban legend. “Credulous peasants will believe anything,” she laughs imperiously. “If there was an Opposition Leader, don’t you think we’d have caught him by now?”

I tell her the theory I have heard, that the Opposition Leader is a master of disguise and lives in a cave in the hills outside Canberra, where civilisation has yet to penetrate. She laughs again. “It’s very easy to make up stories about mythical beasts, isn’t it?” she asks. There is an awkward pause until I realise she is waiting for an answer.

“Yes?” I venture.

“Exactly!” Credlin exults. “Anti-government forces would love it if there were an Opposition Leader out there, uniting their resistance. But sooner or later people have to realise that nothing will save them from this government. This legend is just a red herring. Here, I’ll demonstrate.” She hands me a red herring, and shows me out.

Fish in hand, I pound the pavements of the national capital, searching for just one clue that can conclusively confirm or refute the existence of the Opposition Leader. At a dank, ramshackle bar in the rough part of town, I find a one-eyed hunchback who tells me that he once saw the Opposition Leader standing atop Black Mountain Tower, howling at the moon. He shows me a photo on his iPhone, but it’s a photo of his penis and sheds little light on the matter.

I am just about to give up on the search when I receive a telegram. “COME TO THE WAR MEMORIAL AT MIDNIGHT STOP MEET BESIDE THE CANNON STOP BRING SNACKS STOP”. Suddenly my reporter’s blood is alive and fizzing like lemonade. This is it! But what “it” is I couldn’t say. Questions fill my mind. Is the Opposition Leader real? Who am I going to meet at the War Memorial? How do you even send a telegram, and why was it delivered to me on a bus? I hope all the questions will be answered.

At midnight I am at the appointed place, shivering in the Canberra chill and feeling the foreboding presence of the cannon looming beside me. Was it I who would be in the firing line? Of course not, that’s silly, the cannon is clearly non-operational, what the hell was I talking about? Investigative journalism can make a lunatic of a man.

Just when I was convinced my mysterious correspondent would not be showing up, he, to put it bluntly, did. A shadowy figure in a bright red trenchcoat and enormous sombrero, he sidled up in the moonlight and rasped in my ear, “What do you know about the Opposition Leader?”

I explained that I knew nothing, but had only heard the stories: how he moved like a ghost in the night to work his mischief against the government; how he commanded the Labor caucus via a special intercom on the desk he kept in his underground lair, a desk carved from the bones of Jack Lang; how sheep and goats had been discovered drained of blood in and around Canberra; how Bronwyn Bishop was said to be surviving on a diet of nothing but Sard Wonder-Soap; everything.

The strange man listened, and when I was finished, removed his flamboyant hat with a flourish. “Behold!” he cried in a dread voice. For a moment I was silent, stunned by just how anti-climactic the reveal was. Finally I found my voice.

“Excuse me?” I said politely.

The man gestured wildly at me. “You fool! I am the Opposition Leader! I am he who stalks Abbott! I am he who plagues the corridors of power! I am he who holds all in power to account!”

I couldn’t believe it. Could this strange, banana-shaped fellow, with a face like a cereal box and hair like a peccary hide, really be the source of all the wild mythology? A million questions flooded my brain, but one was shouldering its way to the forefront, longing to be asked.

“What’s your position on aviation deregulation?” I gasped.

Five hours later I was alone, as the cold fingers of dawn crept over the horizon, the red trenchcoat fading into the fog. I stood, amazed, more knowledgeable about aviation deregulation than I ever had been. But more than anything, I was suddenly grateful. Grateful that somewhere, out there, unseen by the public, unnoticed by the media, unobserved by anyone who actually matters, there is someone fighting for people like me, for the ordinary voter who simply wants a fair go and decent representation from a man whose identity they have only the haziest conception of. Long may he continue to hold the government accountable in ways which nobody is aware of.

For more information on Opposition Leader mythology in different cultures, visit your local library.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 05 March 2014

Crushing Solar Optimism

Despite the best efforts of the Abbott government, developments in renewable energy, particularly solar power, will inevitably become part of Australia’s energy mix.

I will admit to moments, even days, of despondency since September, watching the Abbott government destroy the suite of painstakingly prepared climate change policies and programs. But one thing has kept my spirits up and offers a light at the end of what might only be a three-year tunnel.

Photovoltaic solar is going to crush everything.

The obfuscation and outright destruction of the new government is really only making a bit of hay while the sun shines. Trends all over the world indicate that even once the subsidies are removed, fossil fuel power plants can’t compete with renewables. And it is only going to get worse for them.

The price of solar panels, and the soft-costs of installation and maintenance, are all trending down and have done for some time. Panel prices have fallen by 20-30% in 2011, 2012 and looked set to in 2013. Any forecast using figures even from the beginning of 2013 is now incorrect. In Australia, Solar Choice maintain a record of installed prices across the country, trending down from about $2.50/watt installed in August 2012 to $1.5/watt in some places now. These figures include renewable energy credits, which, if removed, would put those prices up by about 20%, depending a little on the location. If credits are removed tomorrow, prices have still fallen 30% in 18 months. These trends are being mirrored in other countries too, with installed prices roughly halving between January 2011 and the end of 2013.

And they will continue falling.

The panels currently being installed on roofs in Australia operate at between 15%-17% efficiency, comparing the electricity produced with the solar energy being delivered. As this figure shows (and this is my favourite image on the internet) we have a long way to go up that curve. Restricting ourselves to single-crystal silicon we can still go up another 10 percentage points, almost doubling the output per metre squared. Add to that potential developments like perovskites currently at about 16%, with some suggesting these will cost about half as much to manufacture as silicon cells. To really get your heart pumping, consider that the US military has cells in operation closer to 40% efficient.

At first glance it is fair to think that higher efficiency might not lead to lower costs, as the new cells may be more expensive to manufacture, but this paper shows that the increase in efficiency has been outstripping the increase in cost and so cost per unit of electricity is falling. Further, there are advances on the horizon worth getting really excited about.

Much of the cost in solar panels is in the silicon wafers and, more importantly, the manufacturing equipment required to make them. This has typically meant that only the really big players can afford to build a plant, thus limiting the number of people who can compete to lower production costs. The growth in organic/printed/emerging technologies is principally about working on the capital costs and lowering the barriers to entry in the market. More manufacturing means greater competition, innovation and lower costs. These organic cells use the same manufacturing technology as organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs), an industry which already has more manufacturing capacity installed than the whole solar power industry. So once they sort out the chemistry things could change very quickly.

Again though, there is a degree to which the price doesn’t matter. Residents like solar and have shown in the past they are prepared to accept longer payback periods than commercial entities. Most comparisons of generation cost assume that it’s business versus business. But what if the businesses want 4-year payback, and better, on their investment, where residents are happy with 10+ and sometimes don’t even bother working it out?

We already have in the order of 3GW of solar capacity in Australia, installed across about 1.4 million roofs. That’s about 8-10% of total generation capacity in Australia, on about 17% of the available houses. We’ve risen to 3GW from 180MW since 2009, an installation rate of about 600MW a year. For people who are not familiar with the units, a big coal plant is about 1GW, and there is about a dozen of that size in Australia right now. Every year half a coal plant of capacity lands on people’s roofs and the business case for running a coal plant gets harder.

Baseload! I hear, shouted, echoing around an empty room. Residents and the commercial sector don’t care about baseload and nor should they. They want electricity from 8am until 6pm or so and a little bit after hours. The only end-users who really want baseload are in manufacturing and they can sort out their own electricity with onsite generators and cheap off peak power. Solar provides very cheap electricity during daylight hours and the proportion supplied by solar is only going to increase. Annual electricity use has trended down for nearly 5-years now, while solar rises, leaving a smaller piece of the pie for coal generators each year.

Where does this end? What does a grid do once everyone has solar?

We can see solar is shaving off the peak during the day, and I expect will flatten it completely in 5 years. What’s left then is generators competing for the right to supply electricity overnight. From 6pm until 8am, when most coal generators are losing money because they bid in negative to ensure dispatch, will be the most hotly contested time. Coal is utterly unsuited to meeting this load, requiring in excess of 12 hours to bring a boiler up to full load. Gas turbines and hydro typically meet these peaky loads and I expect this to continue. There comes a point where solar is so cheap there is a huge excess of supply during the day, and this will be bought by the existing and future energy storage devices to supply overnight. This is where the Snowy Hydro and Bendeela Pondage will really make their money and I expect they can’t wait for solar to really take off.

Leaving the coal burners to complain on the sidelines, utterly sideswiped by a revolution everyone else saw coming.

Published in Weekly Email

The ACCC has been directed to monitor the reduction of electricity prices when the carbon price legislation is repealed. This would be fine, if the ACCC actually understood what the carbon price is and how it works.

Rod Sims, the Chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, did an interview with Fran Kelly on Radio National Breakfast on Tuesday morning. He was discussing the federal government’s direction to the ACCC to ensure that the savings from scrapping the carbon price will be passed on to consumers.

As Kelly said in the interview, Tony Abbott promised that axing the tax will provide a 9% savings on electricity bills and a 7% saving on gas bills, delivering a savings to the average household of about $550 per year. The ACCC has been directed to ensure that this saving is passed through when and if the carbon price legislation is repealed.

There are a number of concerns with this, not the least of which is that the ACCC has already proven its inability to understand or manage the price gouging that occurred with the carbon price was introduced. From Sims’ interview on Tuesday, it doesn’t appear that they’ve improved their understanding a great deal since then.

Sims started with the not unreasonable proposition that the first thing they need to do is work with the retailers to determine the carbon price component of electricity bills under the current regime and then ensure that this component is removed as soon as the carbon price is abolished. Or at least, it would be reasonable if the carbon price was actually a tax, like the GST, which has a straightforward charge on every unit sold. But it isn’t, it’s a levy imposed on large scale emitters, who may or may not pass the cost through, at whatever rate they see fit. And the units are not sold simply, like loaves of bread.

The electricity market is highly complex, retailers buy the wholesale product from a number of sources – the spot market, the futures market and in medium to long term contracts with generators. The carbon component in those various forms of purchase is sometimes a clearly defined separate pass-through, but is more often an inextricable component of the total price.

For example, Retailer A might have negotiated a three year contract (known as an OTC contract) with Generator B to buy electricity at $40 a megawatt hour (MWh) as a carbon inclusive price. That is, the carbon component is not a defined separate charge, it is included in the total price. Generator B may have discounted the carbon component built into that $40 because they were given government assistance to cover the levy on carbon emissions, or were reducing prices to be competitive, or were offsetting higher carbon pass-through on other contracts or any number of other reasons. The point is that there is no way to identify how much of that $40 is the cost of carbon.

Some OTC contracts may include a separate carbon price pass-through calculated (as recommended by AFMA) by multiplying the average carbon intensity of the National Electricity Market (~0.9 tonnes of carbon for every MWh) by the carbon price set by the Federal Government. The carbon price was set at $23 per tonne of carbon for 2012/3, so the price of carbon would be 0.9 x $23 = $20.70 per MWh across the NEM. This formula was used in most OTC contracts, regardless of the actual carbon intensity of the specific generator.

Somewhere between a third and a quarter of the electricity traded in the NEM is bought through the futures market on the Australian Stock Exchange, where carbon is included in the price per unit. Again, because it is a carbon inclusive price rather than a clearly defined separate tax, no one can be sure exactly how much carbon increased the total price.

However, it is instructive to consider the price path for the 2013 Fin year electricity futures in Victoria as shown on the graph below (from data published by the ASX). The horizontal axis shows the date the futures were settled, i.e. in May 2010 you could buy electricity for Fin13 at $55/MWh.

electricity future prices

The carbon price was announced in February 2011, and you can see the corresponding jump at the red line. The detailed package was released in July 2011 (purple line) and the legislation passed in November 2011 (green line) so you can see the market response to all the announcements in the pricing. Interestingly though, the overall increase from the announcement to the passing of the legislation was only about $15/MWh. Not the $20/MWh claimed and charged by most of the retailers.

Electricity is also traded on a spot market through a wholesale pool, again prices are carbon inclusive so it is difficult to know exactly what how much the carbon component is worth. The Wholesale Electricity Price Index (WEPI) is another product calculated and published as one of the data services provided by the ASX. It tracks the pricing of the spot market over time. So this is current pricing of the day, not futures. The graph of the Victorian WEPI below shows a jump of about $10/MWh at the introduction of the carbon price in July 2012, but this was a mere blip in comparison to the massive price spike in 2007 which was attributed at the time to water shortages caused by drought.


It’s worth pointing out again, that all these trading options where the carbon component is included in the purchase price are not excluded from the carbon cost the retailers “pass through” to their clients. E.g.: Retailer A above who bought electricity at $40/MWh has already paid a carbon cost because the price was carbon inclusive. Then they add a carbon cost on top of that when they calculate the final price for their customers – the $20.70 outlined above. This has been going on since the introduction of the carbon price, the ACCC is aware of it and has not taken any action.

There is a well-known variation in the average carbon intensity of electricity generation in each state. Victoria, because it is so depended on brown coal, has much higher carbon emissions from electricity than Tasmania, which primarily used hydro generation. But the NEM is one big grid and electricity retailers in the NEM buy a mix of contracts from many different sources. Retailers selling electricity in Victoria may well be buying it from Tasmania, and vice versa.

Even this quite complex explanation is a huge simplification of the wholesale electricity market. Because of these complexities, the retailers operating in the NEM (QLD, NSW, ACT, Vic, SA and Tas) were passing the carbon cost through to consumers at the national average price of around $20 - 22/MWh, because calculating their actual carbon costs and allocating that to individual or even state specific customers was unfeasibly complicated.

Futures prices have been falling as repealing the carbon price seems more likely, and it seems logical that the same thing has been happening in the OTC market, but until we know that the legislation will be repealed and the effective date of the repeal, retailers will continue to purchase some form of carbon price in contract they already have and may have to negotiate over the next year or so.

If (and it’s a very big “if”) the Abbott government is able to get the repeal through the new senate in July 2014, the retailers will not be able to immediately or simply strip the cost of carbon out of our electricity bills. They will still be carrying contracts for carbon inclusive prices that cannot be changed, they will still own carbon inclusive electricity futures that cannot be changed and they will not reduce their prices by 9% overnight.

Sims said in the Radio National interview that he would expect prices to drop by the estimated 9% across the board within one or two months after the carbon price is repealed. He also said that he expected state based variations because of the varying carbon intensity of each state. The concerning thing about this is not just that it’s not possible, but that it demonstrates that the person in charge of ensuring the reduction in energy costs (the sole justification for removing the carbon price) is passed through to consumers doesn’t actually understand the market he is supposed to be monitoring.

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Catholic compassion and asylum seekers

Could the asylum seeker issue give the Catholic Church a way to establish itself as a force for compassion and save Australia’s politicians from themselves?

In 1795 Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave a series of lectures on ‘Liberty and Truth’ that so incensed the fury of the aristocrats and triggered the unruliness of their press gangs that he found himself fearing whether “the good I do is proportionate to the evil I occasion”. He persisted regardless, and in the Bristol lecture said this about the benefits of privilege and abundance:

The purifying alchemy of education may transmute the fierceness of an ignorant man into virtuous energy, but what remedy shall we apply to him whom plenty has not softened, whom knowledge has not taught benevolence?

Seven years before Coleridge gave the Bristol lecture, in 1788, a fleet of British boats arrived in Australia, and were followed by more boats for many years as those in power unburdened their cities of uneducated and impoverished trouble-makers by sending them to a far-away place.

Today, many of the world’s boat people flee their homes to seek freedom from poverty, starvation and brutality. In one of many northern hemisphere incidents last month, as the weather improved and the seas calmed on the Mediterranean, the Italian navy rescued 1,100 people in leaky boats off the coast of Lampedusa, at a time when boats coming from Africa were reported to have increased ten-fold. Thousands of desperate people have died at sea in recent years, attempting the trip to Italy. If such a thing as a queue existed, most would not have had time to look for it.

A relatively small number of people on boats seek refuge by taking a less well-worn but distant and dangerous voyage south to Australia. For those that take the southern option, no safe haven awaits. Instead they risk everything to attempt arrival in a country riven by a different type of desperation. For more than a decade now, the two major political parties have frantically striven to outdo each other in displays of pathological aversion towards outsiders arriving by boat, including outsiders escaping from regimes whose conduct Australia officially denounces. Australians are being told, and many tell themselves, that we are being over-run by boat arrivals because we’re a soft touch. But the issue is not new and we are just one of many destinations.

How does a misunderstanding of such proportion come about? Governments of civilized nations tend to become repressive by iteration. Hubris develops step by step and often must astound those who exercise unhindered power, as much it does those who groan under it. The powerful might wonder at times how they get away with it, but as they do, they become bolder until no lie is too big to tell.

When Hannah Arendt wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem in the 1960s she asked whether evil arises from fanatical extremism or is the product of mere thoughtlessness. In the end, she leaned to the latter view. If ordinary people tend to conform to mass opinion, readily obey orders or are passive when unspeakable things are happening around them, then Adolf Eichmann could rightly defend himself by claiming he was just an ordinary citizen doing his job. While Arendt entertained that defence and lost friends for doing so, she also agreed that Eichmann’s refusal to share the earth with fellow human beings, Jewish and others, was reason enough to justify his conviction.

There are those for whom a defence of ordinariness does not work. The Pope in Rome is one of them, as are his cardinals and archbishops who are looked to around the world for moral and spiritual guidance. Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy recently revisited the vexed issue of Eugenio Pacelli, known also as Pope Pius XII. Causing unease to this day was Pacelli’s silence when Jewish refugees were being rounded up around Europe and taken away in trainloads to unknown locations. An authority on the history of Christianity, Professor Duffy reluctantly accepts that Pacelli was a sophisticated diplomat and that he judged, with some justification, that a papal denunciation would have made matters worse for those detained, little knowing at the time that on the scale of savagery that secretly prevailed, matters could not have been made much worse.

If the present running sore of boats and refuge-seekers in Australia can be traced to the Tampa incident in 2001, the decade that followed has been marked by escalating iterations to such an extent that the only way one of the two major political parties can now demonstrate it is more resolute than the other is to display greater degrees of pitiless insensitivity than its rival.

Maybe the recent Manus Island incident will be a turning point, maybe it will now be clear to all that we are on journey of no return and it’s not a journey a civilized nation wants to be taking. Against such a view are the cheerleaders at News Corp, such as Greg Sheridan, who helpfully reminds the nation that “the Manus Island disturbances are part of the serious battle of wills that the Rudd and Gillard governments so dismally failed”. Therefore, to preserve its manhood, “the Abbott government must mobilise whatever level of resources is needed to make Manus work”. You don’t have to believe that News Corp is calling the shots on this to conclude that the present Government is determined not to blink, or at least not to be seen to blink.

In a virtually all-male cabinet, rather than act as a circuit breaker Manus Island will be a test of strength. There will be no one to say, “We’ve gone far enough. Let’s go back to first principles and look for another way.” The impulse will be to show some balls, to turn the screw another notch.

To fulfil its purpose, escalation must take things to a new brink. The last escalation required boat arrivals to be called ‘illegals’ by their handlers, who were also to call them by number and not by name. Whatever the next escalation might be, it would likely be taken, secretly at first, with the ostensible purpose of deterrence – a supposed higher good - and require the enlisting of a compliant tabloid press and a continuous monitoring of the public appetite for brutality with each turn of the screw.

The Australian government is well aware that that the vast majority of boat arrivals are found to be genuine refugees, yet research last year reveals that nearly six out of ten Australians think people arriving by boat are not refugees and should be treated more severely. Neither the Government nor the Opposition attempts to correct such misunderstanding. On this issue we have a bi-partisan agreement to fail the test of leadership.

The US provides an instructive contrast to Australia. Successive administrations offer amnesties to immigrants who have entered the country illegally through the heavily guarded southern borders. Like Australians, the popular view among American citizens is that these immigrants should be treated mercilessly. But the country’s leaders take the view that people who demonstrate the degree of determination, courage and resourcefulness to succeed in gaining entry are the type of people that have made America great. Accordingly, and against popular opinion, America’s leaders from both sides of politics grant regular amnesties.

By contrast, the failure of secular leadership on boat arrivals in Australia is a toxic stain on our polity and reputation. Itcan be traced through successive leaders in Howard, Beazley, Rudd, Gillard and now Abbott, the latter having made audacious promises, militarized the issue, aggravated our powerful neighbour, Indonesia, and dug the nation into a hole.

Business leaders largely keep out of it, and media outlets are methodically kept in the dark. There is no reason to suppose that anything will change unless both political parties, and the Government of the day in particular, were to come under considerable pressure from a key constituency.

In recent times the Catholic population in Australia has not been tested, or not at least since the hey-day of B.A. Santamaria and Daniel Mannix. There are roughly 5.3 million Catholics officially living in Australia, or about 25 per cent of the population. They include the leaders of both political parties and a significant proportion of the Abbott cabinet ministers, 47 per cent of whom are nominally Catholic.

While the official Catholic Church has so far remained mute on the boats question, the Pacelli defence of silence is becoming increasingly incongruous. Although the question has an insistent spiritual and moral dimension, the national secular debate, to the extent there is one, is framed around the merits of functionality and capability, and so increasingly focused on ‘operational matters’.

Under the present Pope, there appears to be a more enlightened and compassionate papacy in Rome that may look favourably on an apostolic intersession for a worthy cause on an issue with far-reaching international implications. And in the wake of unremitting sexual abuse allegations world-wide and its disturbing complicity in child stealing as revealed in the movie Philomena, the Church could do with involvement in a cleansing cause.

Australia’s Cardinal George Pell is a case in point. Although the Sydney Archbishop does not head up the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and is about to become a resident at the Vatican, he is presently the most senior Catholic prelate in the country, and the one most closely identified in the public mind, rightly or wrongly, as the church’s Australian spokesman. Could the Australian Catholic Church rehabilitate its standing as a voice of compassion and in so doing save our politicians from themselves? It might be a long shot but it’s a chance. No doubt, it would take vision, courage and ingenuity to find an effective voice that speaks with authority on the humanity of boat people. But it’s worth a shot. As a parting gesture to the standing of Australia as a civilized nation, what about it, Cardinal Pell?

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Police unions and anti-union protests

The federal government is gearing up for a war against unions. When the inevitable protests happen, governments will ask one of the most unionised work forces in the country to enforce their anti-protest legislation.

In the final scenes of V for Vendetta, thousands of masked Londoners march toward Parliament and the soldiers and tanks guarding it. Without an order to fire upon, or even to stop the marchers, the military commander and his men step aside and let them through.

His decision is a moral rather than an administrative one, however, and it goes deeper than the professional soldier’s unwillingness to kill unarmed civilians. As the commander looks toward the advancing marchers, it’s easy to see him thinking, given the central theme of the film, “Maybe they’re right. And even if they’re not right, maybe they have the right.”

He lets them through, they march toward Parliament, it blows up, and everyone is free again. We feel better about the triumph of the human spirit over tyranny (even though in reality the human race seems largely attuned to embracing tyranny than rejecting it).

The NSA, internet filters and Scott Morrison aside, we don’t live in V’s world. But there is more than enough bad law, bad government, bad behaviour, bad corporations, bad men, bad women, bad whatever to go around, no matter what your political/social beliefs. And (for now) you can march in protest, or picket your workplace, or put up a sign.

If you feel the need to protest a Carbon Price or a funding cut or Israeli settlements or Misogyny or Misandry or the fact that abortions are too easy or too hard to come by, there’s one agency that’s going to stand between you and the organisation you want to yell at, however: the Police.

Tim Dunlop describes the current anti-union push perfectly here:

The mooted Royal Commission is nothing more than the state declaring war on the right of workers to organise in their own interests. It is an attack on unionism itself, and the idea is to discredit the unions (and the Labor Party) to such an extent that they will never again be able to mount the sort of defence that they did against WorkChoices.

In light of this, it’s important to remember that Police Forces and Services are among the most-heavily unionised workforces in existence. Victoria’s Police Association, for instance, claims 98% membership; this coverage plays no small part in the Association’s relative success at Enterprise Bargaining time, not just for the united stance of the workforce, but for the funding and resources thus available to the union.

So what will it mean if (or more likely when) unionists around the country start marching and/or striking and picketing in response to the Royal Commission and whatever other measures are taken against them?

There is a long history of police, at an individual or local level, refusing to move protesting workers, for instance:

…I once saw a police sergeant refuse to clear a crowd of supporters of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) out of the lobby of a hotel in the midst of a labor dispute. He told the owner, “We enforce the criminal law, not labor law.”

Victoria’s police went on strike in 1923. It was the first and only time an Australian police force has taken such action and it resulted, predictably, in chaos, three deaths, and the sacking and replacement of the entire force. The strike was initiated by twenty four Constables in the Russell St headquarters walking off the job in response to, they claimed, “spies” put on them by management.

After the Royal Commission and the employment of a new workforce, Victoria’s police force were the recipients of new, far more generous pay and conditions. It is arguable that police unions and management, as a result, now engage in negotiations on the basis of Mutually Assured Destruction: neither side will push too hard, given the disastrous consequences for all.

It is this reliance on order, on chains of command and accountability, as well as the (on average) more conservative politics of the police men and women themselves, that means police are able to block protestors and break picket lines. Police are used to being the only visible, human face of The Man when they’re on the barricades, and it is easier to defend their post when they know the protestors are seeing them that way: Senior Constable Smith may not give two shits about the building or the politician she’s there to protect or even the commanding officer who told her to stand there, but while she is being pushed and shoved, she’ll damn well stand her ground and back her colleagues.

When the protest is mostly peaceful however, and protestors make the effort to engage individual cops, things sometimes go a long way from what the powers that be may have envisaged when they called in the Riot Squad.

Conscientious Objectors don’t generally have long careers or much support in your average police force though, and the Occupy protests worldwide were eventually squashed with varying degrees of force. The concept of the 99%, however, remains.

I think most cops know, deep down, that while they may hate Hooligans and rent-a-crowds and are sick of being blue punching bags, that they owe their job security and benefits to their union membership. And they owe their right to unionise in the first place to all those hooligans and rent-a-crowds who smashed down barricades a hundred and more years ago.

It’s very likely that under the current federal and most state governments, workers’ rights to organise are going to be drastically curtailed. And if that happens, it’s guaranteed that there will be protests.

How many of the cops manning barricades, and their commanders, are going to take pause, think a little about their own situation and the oath they swore and why they swore it in the first place?

Published in Weekly Email
Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Building Australia

Commenting to the assembled media on this week’s fatal Manus Island detention centre riot, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young started to say "all Australians would be horrified by what happened". The she corrected herself to say "most Australians".

That’s because some Australians would not particularly care; their insecurity and xenophobia has been twisted into something so hateful and ugly by successive governments and oppositions that they now want asylum seekers to be treated more harshly.

Those who ARE horrified – at the events as well as the callousness of their fellow Australians – struggle to understand how everyday pressures brought on by strained government services and infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals can manifest as such bigotry.

Both the Government and Opposition understand – the former having mostly crafted the prejudice during the Howard government and Abbott opposition years, and the latter with Gillard and Rudd having capitulated to it in order to woo back marginal seat votes.

So while the harsh treatment of asylum seekers continues to secure votes from mainstream Australia – yes, even when riots and gunshot injuries and violent deaths are involved – it appears neither of the major parties will shift from the horror that is of their own making.

Yet a circuit-breaker is within their reach.

The most superficially attractive solution to stopping the boats is to essentially open the borders by scrapping the limit on the number of refugees Australia accepts each year.

In a practical sense this would lead to crowding in the already strained major population centres. Half the people who migrated to Australia between 2006 and 2011 settled in either Sydney or Melbourne. This is a long-term trend that has placed pressure on the local housing markets as well as access to ageing, insufficient or deficient roads, schools and hospitals.

But lo, we now have a political leader who wants to do big things on the infrastructure front. Tony Abbott pledged to be an ‘Infrastructure Prime Minister’ if elected, offering a grocery list of federally-funded road-works to assuage the frazzled urban denizens facing gridlock on a daily basis.

And during one of the Labor leadership debates, contender Anthony Albanese also admitted to a similar ambition. Surely that makes infrastructure spending a bipartisan issue, particularly now that Albanese is opposition spokesperson for the portfolio.

But seriously.

Good roads are vitally important to this vast nation, but so are affordable housing and well-equipped and -staffed schools and hospitals.

It’s been reported that $2 billion will be spent on offshore processing over the next four years. Millions more have been allocated to the Australian Crime Commission, ASIO, ASIS and the AFP to spy on and disrupt people smugglers; to Defence and Customs to ‘protect’ our borders; and to Health and Human Services to reintroduce Temporary Protection Visas.

An open border policy would allow much of that revenue to be repurposed and added to the $17 billion already earmarked for infrastructure projects.

Dedication of those funds not only to roads but also to the other infrastructure and services needed by a growing population would go some way to alleviating the animosity urban dwellers feel about new Australians, whether they be asylum seekers or not.

That’s not to say job insecurity is an unimportant driver of antipathy. The unemployment bogeyman stitched together and brought to life by Labor and the Coalition now follows them both everywhere, leaving no place to hide as each accuses the other of being job wreckers.

But if managed properly by government, population growth from increased immigration can drive economic growth and create jobs. More roads, homes, schools and hospitals mean more construction jobs, more teachers, doctors and nurses, and a larger services sector to support them. Targeted schemes could encourage additional job seekers to settle where they are needed instead of congregating in high-density regions or other places with stretched resources and/or high unemployment.

Since Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley created the Department of Immigration and launched a large-scale immigration program in 1945, 7 million people have migrated to Australia. According to the 2011 census a quarter of all Australians were born overseas. This makes us one of the most multicultural nations in the world, accruing not only cultural benefits from such diversity but economic advantages too.

The major parties are jointly complicit in using terror tactics to dissuade asylum seekers from trying to reach Australia by boat. By simultaneously enflaming and kow-towing to voter expectations that the boats will be stopped, by whatever means necessary, the Coalition and Labor have drawn supportive voters into a web of complicity from which it is almost impossible to escape.

Instead of vowing to be even more resolute in response to anguished asylum seekers, the government and opposition could treat the fatal riot on Manus Island as a turning point. They could say enough is enough, concede that the asylum seeker menace is a chimera created purely for political gain, and that the physical and psychological price since extracted from asylum seekers has negated any moral claim to an electoral advantage.

The only thing stopping us from a humane solution to the asylum seeker ‘problem’ is political courage.

Open the borders. Build the infrastructure. Let them all come.

Published in Weekly Email