Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Crazy Green/Left Federal government wants to take river water away from irrigated farms and let it run out to sea as "environmental flows"

And even their chosen bureaucrat thinks it's destructive -- so has resigned

JULIA Gillard has declared the shock resignation of Mike Taylor as chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority won't halt the government's water reforms. The Prime Minister said the government would replace Mr Taylor, and did not share his concerns that the Water Act made it difficult to balance the environmental and socio-economic impacts of cuts to water allocations aimed at rescuing rivers in the basin.

Mr Taylor has written to Water Minister Tony Burke to say the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is not empowered to undertake the “entire complex task” of water reform and that “it is time for the government to reconsider the next phase”.

His resignation, to take effect at the end of January, comes amid growing controversy over government's plan to buy back water from regional irrigators.

The authority confronted widespread anger during a series of community consultations following the release of a draft guide to its basin plan, which outlined widespread cuts to water allocations. The authority was asked by Mr Burke to balance socio-economic impacts with the need to restore environmental river flows to the Murray-Darling Basin.

Mr Taylor said the draft guide, which advocated returns of between 3000-4000 gigalitres of water per year to the environment, was developed with full regard to the requirements of the Water Act, and in close consultation with the Australian Government Solicitor.

He said in a statement that “balancing the requirements of the Water Act 2007 against the potential social and economic impact on communities will be a significant challenge”.

But Ms Gillard today gave no indication the government would seek to amend the Water Act, despite the problems identified by Mr Taylor, and said basin reforms would stay on track.

“As Mr Taylor makes clear in his letter of resignation, he has a particular view about the meaning of the Water Act and the way in which the Murray-Darling Basin reforms should occur,” she said.

“Particularly he believes that the overriding outcome that should be sought from these reforms is the environmental outcome. As Prime Minister, my view is that we must optimise across the environmental, social and economic areas of work.

“That is the aim of these reforms - to ensure that we've got a healthy river, we've got food production and we've got viable regional communities. We want to optimise across those three areas.

“The government will continue to see these reforms with optimisation across these three areas. The government will appoint a replacement as chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and our reform program will stay on track.”

Mr Burke said the government was standing by its own interpretation of the Water Act. He also said that would ensure that Mr Taylor's resignation would not detract from the government's goal of “seeing healthy rivers, strong communities and continued food production”.

“It has been known for some time that there has been a difference of opinion between the government and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority over the interpretation of the Water Act,” he said in a statement. “The government stands by its interpretation of the Water Act, which was the view of the previous government when the Water Act was introduced by Malcolm Turnbull.”

But farming groups and the Coalition seized on Mr Taylor's resignation as evidence of a problem with the Water Act's focus on environmental requirements. Executive director of the Australian Farm Institute, Mick Keogh, said the Murray-Darling Basin Authority had always felt constrained by the Act because of the environmental requirements.

“I think the Murray-Darling Basin Authority made it quite clear very early on that they felt constrained by the Water Act 2007 in that it put a very high level of focus on environmental requirements and then only allowed consideration of socio-economic factors, subject to having met those environmental requirements or standard,” he told The Australian Online.

“They (the MDBA) actually published their understanding of the requirements of the legislation quite early in the piece. And Mike has maintained that line constantly.”

Mr Keogh said the resignation of Mr Taylor “highlights that the process was already in trouble and I think that's widely recognised”. “So it is going to take quite a deal of effort to put it back together and get some common agreement.”

Opposition water spokesman Barnaby Joyce repeated his call for an investigation into the Water Act and for any necessary changes to be made. “My concerns have obviously been confirmed by Mike Taylor,” he told The Australian Online.

Senator Joyce said there were clear differences in the legal advice received by Mr Burke in relation to the ability of the Act to take into account environmental and social considerations and what Mr Taylor's own understanding was. “I'll be looking forward to discussing with Mr Taylor and I understand the predicament he's in.”

Senator Joyce said that one of the next steps forward was to “come up with the proper changes (to the Act) if required to bring about a triple bottom line outcome.”

NSW independent Tony Windsor, who heads an inquiry into the impact of the social and economic costs of the proposed cuts to water allocations, did not advocate changes to the Water Act. He said parliament would have the final say on the shape of any cuts in water allocations and repeated his argument that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority had no real authority.

“Irrespective of the pros and cons of whether the Act does this or whether people in the authority agree with one another, any decision-making will be the parliament making decisions. “And so we can argue whether the Act's good or the Act's bad. At the end of the day the issue will be addressed by the parliament, because the authority has no authority to do anything.

“The authority has to work under the Act. That doesn't mean the parliament has to take any notice of the authority,” Mr Windsor said. “For the process, it's best to actually move forward. The parliament will make the decisions irrespective of what the authority does.”


Free speech for charities upheld

A High Court decision last week provided a big win for charities, and another big loss for the Tax Commissioner. At issue was whether an organisation can retain its charitable status and tax benefits while engaging in political debate. The High Court held that it could. This redefined what it means to be a charity, and provided a boost to freedom of speech.

The test case concerned Aid/Watch, a self-described "activist" group concerned with the relief of international poverty. It seeks to achieve its goals through unorthodox means for a charity. Rather than raising money for or engaging directly in anti-poverty initiatives, it campaigns for improvements in the delivery of Australia's overseas aid. It has been sharply critical of government, and has not been shy in proposing major reforms to aid policy.

Australian charities have tended to be wary of such advocacy. They have feared that engaging in public debate could jeopardise their charitable status, and so their entitlement to the income tax, fringe benefits tax and GST exemptions and concessions upon which their livelihood depends. This fear was realised in 2006 when the Commissioner of Taxation revoked Aid/Watch's standing as a charity.

Aid/Watch has spent four years seeking to have the decision overturned. Its legal battle has focused upon the meaning of the term charitable institution in federal tax laws.

In contrast to the modern practice of parliaments seeking to explain key terms with extraordinary precision, charitable institution is not at all defined. This leaves the courts to fill in an enormous gap in the law.

Fortunately, judges have a long history of working out what a charity is. As the High Court recognised, the "modern" starting point lies in the opening words of the Statute of Elizabeth of 1601 as distilled by a 1891 decision of the House of Lords. In that case, Lord Macnaghten found that "charity" in its legal sense comprises four principal divisions: trusts for the relief of poverty; trusts for the advancement of education; trusts for the advancement of religion; and trusts for other purposes beneficial to the community, not falling under any of the preceding heads.

The primary question in the Aid/Watch case was whether its public advocacy fitted into the fourth category as being for "other purposes beneficial to the community".

A majority of the High Court held that Aid/Watch did fit within the definition. The judges found that the group's generation of public debate about how best to deliver foreign aid was a beneficial purpose. Charitable status was not inconsistent with freedom of speech in matters of government and public policy.

The court reached this conclusion after recognising that, like other judge-made law, the definition of a charity can change over time to accommodate new thinking and new social needs. Of central importance was the fact that Australia's constitution provides people with a freedom to communicate about government and politics. This suggested that charities are also entitled to agitate for legal and policy change in pursuit of their goals.

The Aid/Watch decision is merely an interpretation of federal tax legislation. Parliament can change those laws to narrow the definition of what it means to be a charity. However, the High Court's reliance upon the constitution hints at a possible barrier. If the definition of a charity was altered to prevent bodies from engaging in public debate, this could run foul of the constitutional freedom of political communication and be struck down.

The Aid/Watch decision is a good outcome for democracy. It means that organisations such as World Vision, the Smith Family and the Cancer Council can take part in public debate with greater freedom and confidence.

Organisations dedicated to fighting poverty will be able to criticise governments where their policies are inadequate in areas like mental health and homelessness.

Organisations with years of on-the-ground experience of disadvantage, research and education have an important role to play in public debate. Having seen governments come and go, they can take a longer-term, non-partisan perspective on what needs to be done to fix problems and policy challenges. These bodies should not be muzzled by the threat that playing a public role could threaten their status as a charity.


Leftist rag going broke

Murdoch's "Herald Sun" offers a more balanced coverage so is getting more and more of Melbourne's readers

FAIRFAX Media's Melbourne broadsheet The Age will slide into the red next year. After losing $101 million in revenue and $68m in profit over the past five years, according to a confidential report obtained by Media.

The document -- The Age: a litany of decline -- has been prepared as the basis of a planned public vote of no confidence in Fairfax management. The campaign is being organised by a group of "concerned citizens", including several former Age executives, and is expected to be launched early next year in the form of an online petition calling for urgent action to save The Age.

"It is time for the facts of The Age's plight to become known publicly," the report states. "Those who value media diversity and the role The Age plays in the Victorian community should be aware of the situation facing the paper so that every effort can be made to pressure the Fairfax board into making urgent changes to ensure the 156-year-old newspaper remains in Melbourne."

The authors of the report insisted on anonymity but plan to be identified when a campaign is launched next month. They are likely to weild considerable clout based on previous community campaigns for The Age and will look to draw on previous participants. A public campaign in 1988, spearheaded by former prime ministers Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser, led to a charter of independence for The Age editor. That was followed by "Maintain Your Age" campaigns in 1997 and 2005 aimed at shoring up the paper's position in the face of proposed government media reform.

"We're in the organising stage at the moment and we are getting solid indications of support," one of the authors told Media. "On all the key performance indicators -- circulation, readership and revenue -- The Age is performing poorly," the report says. "From being in a strong commercial position five years ago it is now dangerously close to the tipping point, where it could potentially go out of business, leaving Melbourne as a one-newspaper town."

Faced with such a predicament -- a loss of $101m in revenue and $68m in profit, as well as massively declining sales and readership -- the normal reaction of management and a board would be swift and in some cases, brutal. "This has not happened at The Age, partly because the real story of its decline has been kept quiet and unpublished. The Fairfax board and even analysts would not be aware of the deep-seated problems facing the masthead. Age management is in denial.

"The accelerating rate of decline cannot be blamed merely on changing reader habits and increased online use. Current Age management appears to have had only one strategy over the past three to five years: reducing costs. "Radical surgery is urgently needed. There needs to be an aggressive growth and investment strategy to rebuild revenues and relationships. There is an urgent need for a total overhaul of the paper's management team."

The report plots the decline of circulation, readership and revenue, highlighting the predicament of the Saturday edition. Sales are down from 301,000 in June 2007 to 273,700 in September this year on audited figures, but the report says the "real number" is now in the 260s, with bumper editions and promotions artificially inflating the reported number. "Age management has always operated on the basis that 300,000 is the tipping point in the masthead's financial model and if the circulation falls below that number the ability to retain the Saturday profits falls away with it," the report says.

Readership of the Saturday edition is down 76,000 on last year, according to Morgan Research figures, contributing to an "alarming" loss of 79,000 AB readers over the past three years. The Age has traditionally boasted of its strength with upmarket AB readers.

"The Saturday edition is the only one to make a profit, but with the circulation and readership falls, the tipping point predictions are coming true," the report says. "While it is true most papers are losing circulation and readership as readers migrate online, the rate of decline and loss of market share is significant. By any measure The Age is now one of the worst-performing papers in Australia. The story on revenue is even worse. "In just five years The Age revenues have shrunk from $326m a year to $225m -- a loss of $101m.

"In five years, classifieds have declined by $76m. Alarmingly, The Age's profit has crashed from around $90m in 2007 to $22m today -- a loss of $68m. "At a recent meeting, The Age's CEO admitted that EBIT (earnings before interest and tax) had dropped to $20m and that the paper was in crisis."

A spokesman for the dissident group said: "At these rates of decline, The Age will be in loss next year. It seems Fairfax's Sydney management has either turned a blind eye to The Age's performance or they don't comprehend the seriousness of the situation."


Get your fracking facts right

No energy extraction process is without problems

Hydraulic fracturing - fracking (Herald style), or fraccing (used by the natural gas industry) - represents a potential goldmine for Australia. It is the key to developing energy resources potentially much bigger than the natural gas deposits off Western Australia that have been part of the resources export boom that protected Australia from the global recession and is beginning to change the entire economy.

The natural gas fields off the coast of Western Australia have enough energy to sustain all of Australia's baseload needs for hundreds of years, and slash greenhouse emissions in the process, yet these reserves are exceeded by what lies below much of NSW and Queensland, trapped inside enormous reserves of coal, according to the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association. All up, with natural gas we are sitting on another Saudi Arabia.

But we are also being told that much of this is destructive energy, that the process of hydraulic fracturing, which is how coal seam gas is extracted from coal beds, can only be achieved by an unsustainable level of water depletion, and an unacceptable risk to ground water tables.

That is why the short word used for hydraulic fracturing is essentially becoming synonymous with environmental vandalism. Now exploratory drilling for coal seam gas is about to begin within Sydney itself, in St Peters, because Sydney is sitting on the sort of coal beds that can yield commercial coal seam gas.

You would certainly believe this was bad if you had seen the new film Gasland, a horror movie in documentary form. You would also hate fracking if you believed the Greens. Having killed off the Rudd government's proposed emissions trading scheme, the Greens are now busy clogging the development of the technology which represents transformative change in reducing greenhouse emissions - natural gas, nuclear power, and now coal seam gas, the energy source extracted by fracking.

The chief executive of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, Belinda Robinson, says: "The Greens have described climate change as 'the greatest threat to our world in human history', yet their political response is to oppose, at every turn, the development of Australia's gas industry." In contrast to this view, every possible argument to the development of coal seam gas in Australia can be found in Gasland, an American documentary now showing in some Australian theatres and on Qantas long-haul flights.

I enjoyed Gasland. How can one not be moved by claims that a relatively new technology, hydraulic fracturing, poses an innate threat to ground water supplies wherever it is used? The film features some wild images, such as when Mike Markham turns on the kitchen tap in his home in Colorado, puts a lit lighter to the flowing water, and the water bursts into flame. This, we are told, is what fracking does to your water supply. It makes you sick. It makes your home dangerous.

Gasland also features stark images of entire communities that have become sick after their water supply was contaminated by natural gas. It features despoiled landscapes. It also features a brace of scientists.

The scientists are important because the maker of Gasland, Josh Fox, is not a scientist. He is a good filmmaker, but he is also a polemicist, intent on revealing what he believes is a vast conspiracy of silence.

He also may have trouble with the truth. Large factual holes can be found in Gasland. Yes, Markham's kitchen water caught on fire, but the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission had already conducted a study of his property before Gasland was made and concluded that his water was contaminated by natural gas - it's impossible to miss - but the gas was naturally occurring, not the result of nearby coal seam gas mining. The film simply ignores this, as it does with several other similar findings in properties used as other examples.

This is the inconvenient truth that Gasland skirts. If you live above coal seam beds, your wells have a chance of natural contamination. It doesn't require coal seam gas mining for this to happen, but Gasland blames mining every time. It prefers the dramatic to the accurate, such as this claim: "[The process] blasts a mix of water and chemicals 8000 feet (2438 metres) into the ground. The fracking itself is like a mini-earthquake . . . in order to frack, you need fracking fluid, a mix of over 596 chemicals."

But nearly all the fluids used are a mixture of water and sand, along with a handful of chemicals - not 596 - most of which can also be found in household items, such as emulsifiers in ice cream. Numerous other bald claims made in Gasland are simply untrue. I downloaded eight pages of scientific material debunking the film.

No energy extraction process is without problems. But the idea that fracking is run by secretive cowboys, largely beyond the bounds of environmental oversight, is wrong on every count. Gasland, in other words, is like the Greens: it spouts far more hot air than strictly necessary.


Still problems with national schools curriculum says NSW Government

THE New South Wales Government says it will refuse to roll out a substandard national schools curriculum. Federal, state and territory education ministers will meet tomorrow to discuss the content of the curriculum, which was meant to be rolled out around the country in 2011.

NSW Education Minister Verity Firth today said that she was not going to compromise on quality. "The advice that I have from the NSW Board of Studies ... is that the draft curriculum in its current form is not ready," she told ABC Radio. "I'm not going to rush it. I'm going to take the advice of my board about quality and I think that's the responsible thing to do."

Ms Firth said the states had until 2013 to implement the national curriculum anyway. "Tomorrow's meeting was never going to be the be-all-and-end-all, the absolute sign off of a finished and perfect curriculum," she said.

There were still three main problems with the document, she said.

Ms Firth said more consultation with teachers on the syllabus was needed, while the structure of the curriculum needed to balance the amount of content with the time available to study it.

A new syllabus must also cater for all students, from those with learning difficulties to gifted and talented, she said. "There needs to be a broad spectrum in the curriculum, especially from special needs teachers there is a sense that there really isn't."


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