Monday, January 04, 2010

Hundreds rally for hunger-striking farmer

More than 300 people have rallied outside Parliament House in Canberra in support of hunger-striking New South Wales farmer Peter Spencer. Mr Spencer has spent 43 days without food on top of a tower on his property at Shannons Flat near Cooma, in protest against state laws which stop him from clearing vegetation on his land. He wants the Commonwealth to compensate farmers whose land has been used as 'carbon sinks'.

Mr Spencer's daughter, Sarah Spencer, told the rally her father will not give up his hunger strike until he meets with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. "He has strong resolve. He will hold true to his word," she said. His son, Kahn Spencer, says his father has lost a lot of weight but he has not lost his mental resolve. "He's short of energy, he hasn't got as much energy as he normally has and things like that," he said. "But he appears to be hanging in there."

Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce also addressed the crowd, calling for a Royal Commission into vegetation laws. He said farmers across Australia have been unjustly divested of their land. "It might have been legally possible but it was totally unjust," he said.

Some of the protesting farmers are now travelling to Mr Spencer's property to offer their support.


Modern green romanticism is misanthropic

By John Cox

The start of the modern environmental movement is often taken as the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which described the excessive use of pesticides in the US. The first page of this book was dedicated to Albert Schweitzer and quoted his words: "Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth." Carson was very much influenced by Schweitzer's philosophy of "reverence for life", which has been described as Jesus Christ's ethic of love and compassion between humans widened to all living beings. There is a case, therefore, in arguing that Schweitzer was the father of the modern environmental movement.

If this is so then I must be counted as one of the first environmentalists in Australia, having been influenced during the late 1950s by this reverence-for-life philosophy in my university days. I immediately gave up my sporting life of hunting kangaroos, foxes and rabbits in the mid-north of South Australia and pledged, like Schweitzer, to work in developing countries.

Schweitzer and Carson were children of the Enlightenment, which emphasised the progress of civilisation through the primacy of reason. Schweitzer's philosophy was an attempt to find a rational ethical basis to lead Western civilisation away from the tragedies of the first half of the 20th century. Carson's book was a well-argued, scientific study of the effects of pesticides on various aspects of nature, particularly birds.

Today, however, I find myself nearly always opposed to the viewpoints taken by the modern greens who seem to trace their roots back to the 19th-century romantic period, which was a reaction against the scientific rationalism of the 18th century. Emotions, nature mysticism, intuition and a sense of the whole being more important than the parts were considered more important than a clear-cut view of nature's laws that could be analysed and used for human progress. This was evident in the music, literature and lifestyles of this romantic period and can be expressed best in the words of Goethe: "All theory is grey, dear friend; Green is the golden tree of life".

This romantic view of nature has lead to the pervasive influence of an ecocentric rather than an anthropocentric life view in today's world and was manifest in the Traveston Dam decision to put the possible effects of this dam on a few species ahead of the interests of hundreds of thousands of human beings. Other decisions such as this seem to be a radical wish to return to a primitive, animistic, anti-technology, Jean-Jacques Rousseau-inspired agrarian society so as to avoid any possible harm to nature.

Having worked for more than 20 years on transport projects in Southeast Asia to help raise human beings from their poverty, I find this ecocentric view to be immoral in many ways. I consider that India and China have been morally correct in their decisions to put present economic growth and the elimination of poverty ahead of possible future environmental benefits. In my transport field I find myself coming up against environmentalists who cannot see the economic and environmental benefits of putting more traffic on freeways that have 30 per cent less fuel and greenhouse emissions, 50 per cent less particulate emissions, 70 per cent fewer crash fatalities and 30 per cent lower economic vehicle operating costs than on stop-start arterial roads.

I also find myself up against public transport advocates who cannot admit that the motor car has given people the freedom to work, travel and live where they want. They cannot admit that the car is the most equitably distributed form of transport that Australia has seen and that it was a major instrument for the promotion of gender equity in the 20th century. It has allowed women to do what they want to do because they can now make chained trips to work, shop, drop children off to school and make social visits, trips which are not possible in any other form of transport.

It is also not well known that cars are a more sustainable form of transport than public transport as the cost of a car trip, including externalities, is lower than a public transport trip including government subsidies.

The anti-motor car ideologues remind me a little of the duke of Wellington who was opposed to the development of railways because they allowed "the masses to travel needlessly".

I also find myself in the camp of the sceptics with respect to anthropogenic global warning. Not, it must be said, in the right-wing camp but in the geological scientists' camp, having researched the formation and engineering properties of the deltaic clays in Southeast Asia. The rise in temperatures of more than 6C and the rise in sea level of 130m during the past 15,000 years, without any anthropogenic emissions, show me that the forces in our solar system are much larger than our puny efforts in affecting climate change.

It may be that humans are rebelling against a purely intellectual approach to life and are cleaving to a more emotional, romantic view of an organic, holistic world. Rationalism does not, however, have to kill what it dissects, and there are many of us who still cling to the concepts of rationalism, a web of being and reverence for life that still leave human beings as important members of this world.


Scepticism stems from a worthy spirit of inquiry

By Greg Melleuish

WE are truly living in a strange world when the word sceptic, as in the term climate sceptic, has come to be used as an insult. It used to be the case that there was something honourable about being a sceptic. It meant one did not merely take things on trust; that one insisted on a rigorous examination of both evidence and argument before exercising one's judgment on a particular matter.

Even then a good sceptic would recognise that this judgment was only provisional, as more evidence or a better explanation could emerge. Human beings are fallible creatures; none of us can claim to have a monopoly on truth. Be it physics, history or even climate science, there will always be competing explanations.

Attempts to impose a single model or explanation will always be doomed to failure. I recently read Ross Honeywell's Lamarck's Evolution, in which he discusses the career of Australian biologist Ted Steele. Steele has defied the Darwinian consensus and argues for a more Lamarckian view of evolution. Despite much opposition from within the scientific community, the evidence has emerged to support Steele's position.

A democratic society can only flourish if it allows a range of ideas and views to thrive. Some of these ideas will turn out to be wrong; the price of openness is to allow both the sensible and the ratbags to have their say. Open societies work. Failed ideas can be discarded and replaced by better ones rather than congealing into dogmas and ideologies. Scientific ideas, like historical interpretations, are never settled. There will always be challenges as new data comes to light.

What does it mean then when supporters of one interpretation of climate change claim that those who do not support them are deniers, not really scientists and therefore not worthy of a hearing? It can only mean one thing. One group of people has attempted to turn its particular interpretation into a dogma that is beyond challenge. It has become a form of absolute truth. This is not a form of scientific activity but a political act.

It can be quite difficult to move from the messy world of science, its provisional explanations and need for revisions, to that of public policy in which governments take action. Definite action requires certainty. The science cannot be open to question. There is a real conflict here between the provisional nature of scientific and academic activity and the need for governments to take clear-cut and definite action. They cannot be reconciled because those engaged in the world of ideas and science will always find qualifications and possible objections to any theory.

However, we now have a generation of scientists and academics with a desire to have an impact on the world. They are willing to create dogmas so governments will act according to their wishes. This represents the triumph of political over academic and scientific values.

I was struck recently by the similarity between the present debate on climate change and the referendum on the republic held in 1999. On that occasion I asked some of my academic colleagues their views on the effect of changing the wording of sections of the commonwealth Constitution. They told me they had not looked at the proposed changes. They would simply support the case for a republic on trust.

It seems to me that we are now in an analogous situation. Many people are supporting the case for climate change simply on trust. The scientists have spoken and they are happy to accept what they have said.

What is odd is that many of those who are willing to accept climate change dogma are well educated. They have been educated at universities that are supposedly devoted to encouraging rigorous analysis and respect for a diversity of intellectual views.

Why are climate change advocates so willing to accept so much on authority and not use their critical faculties? There is an obvious answer. Their education has taught them that the political is more important than the intellectual. Political action trumps rigorous intellectual investigation. This attitude is no longer confined to the humanities and the social sciences; as climate change dogma indicates, it has also infected the so-called hard sciences.

It is a sad state of affairs. For a democracy to flourish, it needs also to be an open society in which a variety of viewpoints can jostle for public attention. When the term sceptic becomes a term of abuse, and there is willingness by many to demonise those who do not agree with them, then one must be concerned about the future of our democracy.

What is particularly worrying is that those who are leading this drive away from discussion and debate towards a passive acceptance of climate change dogma are often very well educated. What has happened to their spirit of open inquiry?


Abbott takes aim at a PM all at sea

The Opposition Leader is steeling himself for a fight over the Prime Minister's flawed strategy on asylum seekers. PRACTICALLY the first thing Tony Abbott did upon snatching the Liberal leadership a little over a month ago was vow to lead an Opposition that would exist primarily to oppose rather than support the Government.

While this might have seemed like the bleeding obvious (isn't that, after all, what oppositions are supposed to do?) Abbott's statement was calibrated to send three very loud messages – to his party, to the public and to the Government.

First there was the heavily implied criticism that under his predecessors, the Liberals had ceded their identity by broadly supporting an emissions trading scheme. The criticism was aimed squarely at Malcolm Turnbull and to a lesser extent Brendan Nelson, both men whose moderate views had always rendered them somewhat confusing figures, lacking in political definition, among traditional Liberals. Abbott was effectively drawing the curtain on what many conservatives viewed as a “failed experiment” whereby politically ambiguous “outsiders” had been allowed to run the Liberal Party.

Second, Abbott wanted to scream from the rooftops that he was in town for a fight and that voters should pay attention – right now.

Finally, he wanted to immediately wrong-foot a Government which still believes that sections of the Liberal Party could support its legislation for a carbon pollution reduction scheme when it is introduced to Parliament for a third time in February.

Turnbull's demise and Abbott's rise blindsided Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, his deputy Julia Gillard and the Government's most senior political strategists. For they were convinced that Turnbull would secure sufficient amendments not only to win Senate support for their climate change legislation but also to remain leader at least until this year's election. Which is exactly how they wanted him. They were even willing to pay a hefty dividend for Turnbull's support on the carbon reduction scheme, having factored in that his authority – and thereby, perhaps his poll ratings – would be enhanced if he stared down the climate change sceptics in his party. Wrong.

It seems most unlikely at this stage that the Government will win sufficient support for the legislation when it is again presented to Parliament next month.

Between now and then Abbott must formulate a policy to reduce Australia's carbon production that is not based on the emissions trading model he so opposes. It's no easy task. He must convince voters that the Liberals under a big-C conservative leader such as himself can be genuine advocates for “green” measures to reduce our carbon output. Such green measures, of course, depend largely on heavy regulation – and government regulation is the enemy of both progressive and conservative Liberal-ism.

On human-made climate change – about which Abbott is something of an avowed sceptic – he is proposing what one Liberal colleague describes as “a type of progressive conservatism”. The Government will come out all guns blazing to discredit whatever policy he unveils as an alternative to the carbon reduction scheme come February. Abbott's climate change policy will, however, be primarily about contrasting himself with both Rudd and the Government.

Rudd's low public profile since Abbott took over and his calm and measured approach to a new adversary belies a distinct uneasiness within Labor about how Abbott should be dealt with. Labor tacticians recognise Abbott as an adversary who is capable of setting and running agendas and of determining the direction of public debate where his two immediate predecessors were not. This makes them distinctly uneasy because Rudd has set the agenda, first from opposition after he became Labor leader in late 2006, and then firmly as Prime Minister since November 2007.

While Rudd exercised his prime ministerial right to a spot of commentary from the box at the MCG on Boxing Day, Abbott has, true to his word, popped up in his electorate office and at home to niggle and oppose. On the last day of 2009, he aimed squarely at Rudd's most critical policy vulnerability – his deeply flawed strategy to deal with asylum seekers.

On his way to the prime minister-ship Rudd let it be known that he, like Howard, would be tough enough to turn away asylum seekers including by pointing their vessels back out to sea. In Government, amid a temporary decrease in asylum seeker numbers, Labor scrapped the contentious Pacific solution for off-shore refugee processing and the temporary protection visa program. The boats, predictably perhaps, began returning in great numbers.

In mid-October, the Prime Minister called Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He asked the President to get his navy to intercept a boat, the Oceanic Viking, carrying 260 mainly Sri Lankan asylum seekers heading to Australia. At that point Rudd began talking tough on "illegal immigrants". "I make no apology whatsoever for adopting a hardline approach when it comes to illegal immigration activity," he vowed. "And I make no apology whatsoever having a hardline and humane approach to dealing with asylum seekers."

Hard line? Humane? What on earth was he talking about? If he knew, nobody else did. Nonetheless, as the crisis involving the Oceanic Viking deepened, the Prime Minister kept walking both sides of the street, promising that his Government would be both “tough” and “humane” in relation to asylum seekers. It was meaningless babble that highlighted the Prime Minister's absence of conviction on what is both a thorny moral and a practical security issue. It also highlighted the Government's absence of a well-formulated policy.

Bad policy makes for bad government. And as the Prime Minister floundered in Parliament with his confusing rhetoric while the Viking remained in Indonesian waters, he looked vulnerable for the first time since November 2007. Turnbull sensed this. But he lacked the authority to capitalise on Rudd's weakness. Meanwhile, Rudd's backbenchers – under continuing pressure from constituents to articulate a policy – remain deeply concerned about the Government's untidiness on this issue.

Abbott has now moved decisively to capitalise on Rudd's indecision and consequent vulnerability on asylum seekers. Having already highlighted Rudd's hypocrisy in purporting to be tough and humane when he has been neither, Abbott has vowed to turn refugee boats back out to sea if he becomes prime minister. On the last day of 2009, Abbott was quoted in The Australian: “If the circumstances permit it, you've got to be prepared to turn the boats around. John Howard was fiercely criticised for this. Nevertheless Kevin Rudd said he would be more than tough enough to turn boats around were he prime minister but he singularly failed to show any steel whatsoever since becoming our leader.”

Abbott has highlighted another point of great contrast with Rudd. While the proposition of sending asylum seekers back into dangerous seas may represent a return to the past that many voters will view as deeply distasteful, Abbott appears resolute compared with Rudd. Abbott said: “I think it has been a significant issue in terms of illustrating the comparative weakness of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister.”

Many Labor MPs would concur that Rudd has lacked “steel” on this issue. They do not, of course, want him to start turning the boats away. Rather, they want him to expend some of his considerable political capital on radically increasing the quotas of migrants it takes from the war-torn source countries that are producing so many asylum seekers willing to risk their lives to reach Australia informally. That, they say, would show genuine humanity and true leadership on one of the most vexing, not to mention morally and politically challenging, issues of our time.

Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser presciently closed 2009 with his recollections about how Australia came to resettle 220,000 Vietnamese refugees. “One of the problems was a lot of the people fleeing Vietnam were doing so in boats that ... were totally unsuitable to survival at sea. Therefore it was essential to try to establish centres they could get to without making the journey longer than it had to be,” he recalled.

Fraser noted the obvious parallel between the Vietnamese refugee crisis and the problem Australia now faces. “Politicians would be surprised how much support a political party would get if it truly stated the case for asylum seekers and refugees and explained the circumstances from which they are fleeing. It shows a lot of courage to leave everything behind to try to get a better future for your family.”

Call it courage or call it steel. There's not much of it about in the Government on this issue. And Tony Abbott knows it.


1 comment:

Paul said...

I disagree with the SMH article on one thing. I do not think Abbott has to formulate a carbon reduction policy. Instead he needs to formulate a sensible environmental preservation policy and a sensible energy conservation policy, with incentives rather than penalties as the centrepiece of both. Rudd's policies are full of punitive sanctions and tax increases disguised as fee hikes, and what incentives there are are functionally useless, which I suspect is no accident.