Friday, February 04, 2011

Latham slams Gillard's childlessness

Latham could have a point, despite the derision below. He is a devoted parent himself and you don't get to be leader of the ALP unless you have a few brains. Character is another matter of course

If we were armchair psychologists, we might think Mark Latham had issues with women. In particular, women in power, and even more in particular, the woman who outraced him in talent and tenacity to become Prime Minister. It's never a good look to follow a trend set by Bill Heffernan, but alas, that is what Latham has done, by relating the Prime Minister's perceived deficiencies directly to her childlessness.

In his latest assault on journalism, the former Labor leader takes issue with Julia Gillard's leadership style, in his column "Latham's Law", published by The Spectator Australia. Reading it is like watching someone have a fit - you wince because you know it's going to get much worse before the ordeal ends. Latham opines that Gillard appeared wooden when interacting with locals after the Queensland floods. He says she is "not a particularly empathetic person - displaying, for instance, noticeable discomfort around infant children".

OK, you think, fair enough, but then he delivers this portent of doom: "The femocrats will not like this statement but I believe it to be true … " And so you brace yourself. "Anyone who chooses a life without children, as Gillard has, cannot have much love in them," he concludes. As opposed to Latham, of course, who is known as a great spreader of love and a favourite of little children.


A Green ivory tower inhabitant

Ian Lowe is President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Professor of Science, Technology and Society and former Head of the School of Science at Griffith University

Prof. Ian Lowe has let the cat out of the bag. He makes a telling statement in arguing for renewable energy instead of nuclear energy in Why vs Why: Nuclear Power, Pantera Press, Sydney, 2010.

He claims that the 2030 energy demand can be met by wind (50%), solar (40%), hydro, tidal, and geothermal (10%). He then states:

“Altogether, the area needed for energy supply would be about 1.3 % of the Earth’s land area.”

Doesn’t sound much, does it? Trouble is, this amounts to almost 200,000 sq. kilometres! To put this in perspective, this amounts to covering every square inch of VICTORIA with renewable energy collectors.

This is bigger than many nation states. And this would be based on putting the best case forward for renewables, so the real amount would be much larger.


Solar power fail in South Australia

Difficult to maintain

A SOLAR power station in the state's Far North has been idle for more than a year. The station has been out of action for four of the past seven years.

The Government-owned $3.7 million power plant at Umuwa, in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands, was upgraded in 2008, but was switched off just over a year later because of safety concerns.

Originally built in 2003, it also was shut down in 2005, for three years, before receiving a $1.2 million taxpayer-funded upgrade.

The 715MW hour station was built to cut the community's dependence on diesel and was supposed to save 140,000 litres of diesel and 400 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year.

Opposition MP Steven Marshall, who is a member of the Aboriginal Lands Committee, said the Government needed to fix the problem before "moving on to the next photo opportunity".

"This is an example of complete ineptitude, wrong priorities and tokenism ... combining to leave Aboriginal people at a disadvantage," he said.

Uniting Care Wesley indigenous policy officer Jonathan Nicholls said he had been "frustrated" a request for information on the project's status last year from Aboriginal Affairs Minister Grace Portolesi had been unanswered. "We accept it is difficult to repair and maintain certain things in remote communities, but we are not comfortable with this sweeping things under the carpet," he said.

Ms Portolesi said the plant had been out of action because of "complex issues relating to meteorological conditions," including electrical storms and wind-blown dust. She said maintenance of the plant had been the responsibility of a private company which went into administration about a year ago.


Dam management needs to be weather-savvy

By Andrew Dragun, an adjunct professor at Griffith University and the editor of The International Journal of Water.

With cyclones now queuing to get into Queensland, it is timely that the Premier reminds us that "preparation is our best defence".

Certainly it makes sense to batten down the hatches and move vulnerable people away from potentially dangerous locations. Hopefully, with such proactive initiative, no one will be hurt and with a bit of luck the storms will abate early. Clearly, positive preparation is a good way to manage a potentially catastrophic situation.

While the present spate of cyclones is thankfully sparing already flood-ravaged southeast Queensland, it is the case that the effects of weather over the past six months have been more severe in the southeast than in most of the state. The Bureau of Meteorology confirms that the intense La Nina weather pattern will persist for a few months yet; just because the present cyclone track is a bit further north does not mean the southeast should become complacent.

Unfortunately, we are in the wettest month of the year, February, when there have been twice as many floods in southeast Queensland since 1840 than in January. Heavy weather systems seem to ambush the region from every direction and are compounded by sea surges and king tides.

Being prepared in such uncertain and risky circumstances would seem to be good defence and proactive policy, as Anna Bligh has suggested. The management of Wivenhoe Dam surely fits into this box.

Risk management of a large dam should be a dynamic consideration, so it is important to consider how circumstances have evolved and been managed over the past nine months or so as weather systems and supply levels have changed. This allows us to focus on the main risks confronting dam management at this time.

Wivenhoe Dam reached a low of about 15 per cent in August 2007 during a long dry spell dominated by El Nino-type weather systems. This implies a high risk of running out of water and no risk of flood. Subsequently, after several years where the Southern Oscillation Index was mildly positive for lengths of time, Wivenhoe reached full supply level of 98 per cent in March 2010. Hence there was a low risk of running out of water and a low risk of floods. The dam was, however, maintained at FSL despite advice from the BOM that a very strong La Nina had been established as early as July 2010, which meant there was low risk to water supply and increasing risk of floods. The dam was held at FSL following three minor flood events in October and December 2010, when there was a low risk to supply and a high risk of floods. The dam levels were not reduced in the week before the Brisbane floods, despite public warnings of a heavy rain incident in southeast Queensland from the BOM and an increasingly high risk of floods.

There was no release of water from the dam in the early phase of the flood, leading to the need to dump the 645,000ML on January 11, which may have been the biggest contributor to the flood. This at a time when there was no risk to supply and exceptionally high risk of floods. Following the flood and with the phase of king tides over, there has been no move to reduce water in the dam, even though the threat of further heavy rain has not diminished: that is, there is a low risk to supply and moderate risk of further floods.

Over time it is obvious that the risk of running out of water abated while the risk of flooding increased dramatically. However, the management of the dam has remained the same throughout, despite radically different weather outlook, supply situation in the dam and flood outlook.

Since the dam managers say they have managed by the book, it should come as no surprise to find that the operating manual for the dam does not contain guidance to managing risk, there is no calculus for determining the FSL and there is no methodology for taking into account changing weather.

The flood monitoring and forecasting system at the dam takes account of river and rainfall data collected from a radio telemetry network of 100 field stations within the catchment and predicts scenarios of dam inflow based on forecast and potential rain in the catchments. That is all. Simply put, the operating manual enables the operator to respond to actual changes in the Wivenhoe Dam level according to exact measures of those changes in the prevailing weather incident.

To put this in context, a cyclone heading into Brisbane from the east may be halfway up the Brisbane River before it begins to make an impression on the Wivenhoe catchment, which is then picked up by the radio telemetry. Presumably the forecasts and potential rain then kick in to yield a prediction that the dam might begin to fill. But until the scenario heights get triggered the dam stays shut.

And then it really begins to rain on Brisbane, as it can do. The dam is filling rapidly and big dollops of water need to be released to save the dam. Of course the cyclone is also causing a sea surge and a king tide is running. Unfortunately, the dam release takes about 36 hours to get to Brisbane and out to sea.

And it is too late to be proactive and take precautions with the next Brisbane flood. The dams may be gone and Brisbane could be transported out to Moreton Island.

So why take the risk? At this stage the risk profile of Wivenhoe Dam and the Brisbane region can be summarised as follows. There is a high risk of cyclones, rain and flooding on the Queensland coast for the next couple of months. There is a high risk of being ambushed by heavy weather systems from all directions. There is a high risk of sea surge with coastal cyclones. There is a high risk of king tides after February 17.

There is no risk of drought next week, or even much of one this year. There is no risk of running out of water for about five years, even if there is no rain. All the regions' dams are full to overflowing. The regional grid is operational. An additional capacity of 200,000ML has been added at Hinze, and the new desalination and water recycling infrastructure has been commissioned (to be immediately mothballed).

It looks to be a no-brainer, really. All the risk looks to be on the flood side of the ledger and it is hard to see the value of a few hundred thousand more megalitres of supply water in Wivenhoe at this stage of a dire rainfall-heavy weather cycle

The lack of action in these circumstances is difficult to fathom. It may be that changing operating conditions on the dam now may be considered an admission of error and thus too risky, given the potential for class action suits arising from the January floods.

Preparation is our best defence and a little political leadership to get down Wivenhoe Dam to manageable levels would be a proactive and low-risk step in saving the Brisbane Valley from another devastating flood.


Labor party tax claims deceptive

Julia Gillard is facing a make-or-break year. This is the last year of leeway before the federal budget has to be in surplus. In 2012-13 the Gillard government has to budget for a surplus, and deliver it too.

Gillard gave a rather strange speech to the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia this week. She made all the usual noises: world-class education and Australia's a great nation and so on. She also claimed her government was a low-taxing government and that in 2011-12, this coming fiscal year, commonwealth revenue as a share of gross domestic product would be lower than for every single year of the Howard government era.

While the literal meaning of Gillard's words is true, the meaning of her statements is fundamentally misleading. Treasurer Wayne Swan has been telling anyone who will listen that government revenue has collapsed due to the effects of the global financial crisis. The Rudd-Gillard government has been "low-taxing" because its efforts to be high-taxing have more or less failed; revenue sources dried up during the GFC.

The then Rudd government did promise in its first budget to keep taxation as a share of GDP below the 2007-08 level.

But for the "small" problem of the budget deficit, it looks like the Rudd-Gillard government has met that promise. Budget deficits are deferred taxation - the money will have to be paid back at some point through increased taxation.

The Howard government tended to run budget surpluses, which are either deferred spending or deferred tax cuts. A government that runs a surplus is taxing too much, while a government that runs a deficit is spending too much or, perhaps, taxing too little. Of course Gillard would have us believe the Howard government generally spent too little, although not even Rudd, who famously said, "This reckless spending must stop", thought so at the time.

In order to compare like with like, it is necessary to adjust the revenue figures over time, taking into account over-taxation and under-taxation.

To that end I had a look at commonwealth receipts as a percentage of GDP and subtracted surpluses and added deficits. It quickly became apparent the current and deferred tax burden under the Gillard government in 2011-12 will be higher than in any year during the Howard era. Debt and deficit is being used to claim superior economic management when the increased tax burden has simply been shifted to future years.

Yet Gillard couldn't resist the temptation to pillory the Howard government for excess spending in its last term of office. Indeed it was high, and the Gillard government has committed to a spending cap of about 2 per cent growth. Yet we are invited to believe that the Rudd-Gillard government has been disciplined in its spending.

Over the life of the Howard government spending grew, in real terms as measured by CPI, by 3.54 per cent on average each year. The equivalent figure for the Rudd-Gillard government, including over its forward estimates, is 3.32 per cent. When I look at real spending in non-farm GDP deflator terms, Howard government spending grew only by 2.9 per cent while the Rudd-Gillard government equivalent is 3.3 per cent.

We can't even conclude they're as bad as each other. The Howard-era data is historical; most of the Rudd-Gillard-era data is forecasts. If the Gillard government is as disciplined as it hopes, it will be as bad as the Howard government was. But fiscal discipline has been foreign in Australian public finance for some time.

Why is this year particularly difficult? This coming fiscal year requires the federal government to cut spending in real terms (as measured by CPI). All governments like to decrease the rate of spending and claim that as a budget cut. That won't be enough this time. Tax receipts are more or less at the long-term average while spending is way above the long-term average. A claim that the government is low-taxing is clearly the start of a campaign to butter up the electorate for increased taxes. We have already seen the flood levy, and the carbon tax and a bank super-profit tax are not far behind. These taxes will breach the Rudd government's first budget promise.

Government spending over the past few years has been undisciplined. Rather than being timely, temporary and targeted, the spending has gone on too long and too indiscriminately.

Swan, who foolishly promised that "come hell or high water" the budget would be in surplus in 2012-13, needs to deliver. Given the original promise of a cap on tax receipts, the surplus can only be achieved by spending cuts. We will know on budget night whether he can deliver - anything less than real cuts of about 1.1 per cent of GDP will indicate yet another broken budget promise.


No comments: