Saturday, September 17, 2011

Oh No! Not another Ord-type boondoggle

Sadly, politicians of all stripes are prone to spending taxpayer money on projects that sound good but are a waste of money. Julia Gillards's NBN is a classic example. John Howard's Alice to Darwin railway is another example -- though it cost only a small fraction of what Julia is wasting. Now, however, Tony Abbott is trying to get in on the act, with a vast project of dam-building in Australia's sparsely-populated North.

It would be a great idea if you could sell the crops that the dams are meant to irrigate but that is the difficulty. Thanks to agricultural subsides in most of the world, most farm-produce is in chronically glutted supply. Even the much smaller Ord river scheme (a 1970s boondoggle) has had great difficulty in producing anything saleable.

Abbott thinks that developmnent in Asia will provide the markets he needs but is apparently unaware that China is already a big food EXPORTER!

THE Coalition is developing an ambitious plan to double Australia's agricultural production by the middle of the century through a network of new dams in the Top End, which would open up millions of hectares of under-utilised land to food production.

A Coalition policy development taskforce headed by opposition finance spokesman Andrew Robb is eyeing projects across the Top End, including the third stage of the Ord River project in Western Australia and the Daly River in the Northern Territory, and developing dams that have been on the drawing board in far north Queensland on the Gilbert and Flinders rivers.

While Mr Robb said the policy was a "work in progress", it promises to reignite a development-versus-environment war in the north and further inflame tensions between the Coalition and the Greens.

Queensland's Liberal National Party, which is on track to win a state election due by next March, is already developing plans to greatly expand cropping and double food production from the state by 2040.

LNP leader Campbell Newman yesterday told the annual general meeting of producers' organisation AgForce that an audit of Queensland pasture and mine buffering zones would identify areas where more food could be produced.

"We are offering a new future for agriculture in the state," Mr Newman said. "We don't see agriculture as a shrinking industry."

Tony Abbott asked Mr Robb to lead the federal Coalition taskforce in January at the height of the Queensland floods as both a flood mitigation move and a means of boosting agricultural production.

The dams plan builds on a push by NSW Liberal senator Bill Heffernan for a dramatic shift in agricultural production to the north.

A government taskforce, established after Labor won office, found there was not enough water available to create a big new food bowl, but the finding was lashed by Senator Heffernan and other Coalition MPs, who accused Canberra of trying to lock up vast land tracts forever.

After meetings across every state, Mr Robb said Australia currently produced enough food for 60 million people, but a program to develop a "mosaic" of agricultural opportunities across the north could boost this figure to 120 million in two to three decades. "This is the century of food security," Mr Robb said.

"The biggest demand is probably likely to come out of the Asian region in terms of growth. "There really are millions of hectares, which, if you add water, you've got dramatically improved productivity and all sorts of agricultural opportunities open up that wouldn't exist.

"We are starting to form the view that, in the next couple of decades, we can materially develop the north and get to a point where we can feed not 60 million people but 120 million people."

Mr Robb said many dams could be developed by commercial interests and there were opportunities - particularly in Queensland - for hydroelectric projects to be attached to the developments. He said dams had become "persona non grata" during the past 30 years, and he lashed the Greens for opposing dam developments, thereby "knocking the stuffing out of regional communities".

Mr Robb said development had become a dirty word in some parts of the political debate and, in many cases, getting dams up and running was just a matter of "political will".

He said that even some farm dams faced potential delays of up to two years under current development regulations.

While dam approvals were largely a state government responsibility, federal government support could prove decisive in progressing developments and there would be a role for Canberra in facilitating the development of roads, rail and ports infrastructure.

"The role of government will be to ensure that the planning requirements are not onerous, that it doesn't collapse under the weight of regulation," Mr Robb said. "If major projects are identified, state and federal governments should work closely together to deliver the project and fast-track approval procedures.

"There needs to be a culture of development and backing our strengths." These included mining, resources, agriculture and education as the nation moved to take advantage of the Asian century.

Mr Robb said not all of the dams had to be massive developments and many could be developed commercially, backed by irrigation. He said the Coalition's dams policy taskforce had received 44 submissions and had found that a lot of local communities had sophisticated proposals that could be acted on quickly.


"Back to the future" for Queensland houses

I have owned many "old Queenslander" houses and have a special affection for them. I still live in one.

THE old "Queenslander" is set to regain its place as the state's preferred architecture. A landmark statewide planning guide to be released today encourages a resurgence of the old style of housing favoured by pioneers, based on its ability to better handle major floods.

The Australia-first planning guide will affect new commercial, residential, mining and agricultural developments across the state for the next generation. It will suggest to councils that development can continue on floodplains, provided new homes are on stilts. [Only a Southerner would call them "stilts". We call them "high blocks"]

The guide is set to play a key role in helping the state's flood inquiry develop recommendations about building codes and practices.

Premier Anna Bligh, who will release the draft Planning for Stronger, More Resilient Floodplains today, said the slab-on-ground approach was found wanting in heavy weather.

"We got it right 100 years ago with the design of the Queenslander," she told The Courier-Mail. "There's no reason we should be building unsuitable homes in flood-prone areas in 2011 and beyond."

Master Builders executive director Graham Cuthbert said the lesson of the 1974 floods had been forgotten as people turned to cheaper low-set homes. "Suddenly everyone was building-in down below with the rumpus room or another bedroom," he said.

While the style cuts the risk of more serious flood damage, builders warn the soaring cost of timber will make the Queenslander more expensive to build.

But Wayne Cook, head of Colonial Building Company which specialises in Queenslanders, said the style gave owners at least a 2.5m buffer. "That's the amount of space below that owners of Queenslanders have to spare when it comes to floods," Mr Cook said.

Insurance claims for Queenslanders hit by flooding were for substantially less than claims for low-set homes, he said.


Julia turning to conservatism?

It's probably just words. Individual choice is normally the last concern of Leftist governments

JULIA Gillard has sought to reposition Labor within the political mainstream, rejecting the Greens as "a party of protest" and vowing to focus her party on preserving individual choice and opportunity.

The Prime Minister has also committed her party to embracing small business and enterprise, and continuing to apply "expectations of personal responsibility" on welfare recipients.

Yesterday, Ms Gillard laid out a platform for reform of her party, including the trialling of US-style primaries to select candidates, in a speech to the Chifley Research Centre at Old Parliament House in Canberra.

Since Labor's failure to win a majority in last year's election forced it into an alliance with the Greens, the government has found itself bouncing between their left-wing policy priorities and its own need to reassert its standing with mainstream voters.

The Prime Minister used yesterday's speech to place Labor's traditional commitment to collective action through unions and pursuit of social reforms, such as the introduction of Medicare, into the modern political context of a society in which she said technology was promoting new levels of choice and individualism.

She said Labor concepts of collective action, solidarity and unionism had driven the party's successes, empowering people to embrace new opportunities and demand greater choice, while also ensuring that the disadvantaged had not been left behind.

"Today, our ethos of collective action must respond to individual needs and demands for choice and control," she said. "Social democrats, with our understanding of social solidarity and our sympathy for individual freedom, are best placed to respond to the needs of today."

Ms Gillard said that for a long period, the labour movement believed lifting incomes and ending poverty would lead to a better life for all, but now understood that for the disadvantaged, welfare of itself was not enough. "Of course, ensuring people have life's basics is necessary, but change only comes by marrying a requirement for personal effort and responsibility with the customised supports that give people a hand up and out of poverty and dysfunction," she said.

"For a long period of time, our great movement believed that the highest aspiration of working people was for a decent job. Now we understand it can be to run a decent small business.

"Protecting rights at work will always be central, but building skills, rewarding enterprise, encouraging the embrace of risk, helping people be their own boss, is part of the dream . . . too. Australians want to make their own choices and control their own lives. But this can only happen if the power of collective action, in creating opportunity, sharing risk and not leaving anyone behind, is joined to meaningful individual empowerment, joined to personal choices and control."


Green bullies on the warpath

DEEPLY questionable tactics by environmental activists are taking away choices for consumers and business. The coupled collapse of trade barriers in developed countries and the globalisation of supply chains, creating export opportunities for developing countries, has understandably driven consumer awareness of the impact their purchasing has had on the world's poor during the past 20 years.

In response, there has been a push by global activist groups for consumers to voluntarily demand, and business to adopt, "ethical" regulations reflecting the environmental, social and economic impact of producing a product. Consumers can then identify these products through a recognisable logo certifying that from the extraction or production of the basic commodity ingredients through to their final retail sale, they have met non-governmental organisation-defined "ethical" standards.

The first mainstream scheme was the 1980s incarnation of Dutch group Max Havelaar's Fairtrade. The scheme targeted coffee and encouraged consumers to pay voluntarily a few extra cents a cup, on the understanding the mark-up would be passed through to growers in higher commodity prices.

At the time growers faced low prices because of a global oversupply from developing world producers allowed to grow the sought-after commodity following the collapse of international regulation that locked them out.

The merits and efficacy of the scheme continue to be debated. But it wasn't long before Fairtrade's voluntary appeasement of the conscience of coffee aficionados became a political tool.

In 2005 Oxfam International's Mugged: Poverty in Your Coffee Cup report advocated that Fairtrade certification for coffee should become mandatory. It didn't succeed and the market has corrected itself as farm consolidation and increased consumer demand have delivered higher coffee prices.

Oxfam's effort to create NGO-endorsed regulation is being replicated with the Forest Stewardship Council and the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, using far more subversive tactics.

Allegations of collusion by green activist groups to push businesses into certification schemes have traditionally been a speculative, connect-the-dots exercise. But the recently published book Good Cop/Bad Cop: Environmental NGOs and their Strategies toward Business shows green groups are gloating about their collusive efforts.

The head of research for Greenpeace, Kert Davies, wrote in his chapter about his employer that "Greenpeace is willing to play the role of good cop or bad cop in partnership with organisations". In particular, Davies argues that Greenpeace's "reputation for radical actions positions it particularly well to play the bad cop that can drive organisations to partner with [environmental] groups that seem more middle-of-the-road".

It certainly has been the experience of Australian and US businesses targeted over the products they stock. A report, Empires of Collusion, by a US-based consumer group, last year found bad cop NGOs, including Greenpeace, targeted office-stationery retailers through the media and political action about the paper they stocked for sale and its origins. The bad cops argued that stopping criticism required stocking only Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper products. Faced with sustained attacks, targeted businesses complied by then partnering with middle-of-the-road good cops such as WWF, which signed businesses up to stock only products approved by the certification schemes they founded and effectively own. In the process WWF also regularly licenses its logo's use on products and collects royalties for the honour.

Once a business has been pushed into these schemes, the obligations on it progressively rise, and with them so do costs, with no real avenue to leave.

The strategy works. Another chapter in Good Cop/Bad Cop by one of WWF's senior program managers outlines how in the "uncommon case where [certification] commitments have not been met [WWF has] expelled a company from its programs and publicly shared its concerns".

And the role played by the good cops is no less insidious. According to WWF analysis, it is actively targeting the full supply chain, having identified that "100 companies control 25 per cent of the trade of all commodities . . . affecting around 50 per cent of all production" and it is much easier to target them than to change the habits of six billion consumers. WWF's objective is to have "75 per cent of global purchases of WWF priority commodities sourced from WWF priority places".

And that won't occur voluntarily; government regulation is the next step.

Recent legislative experiences in Australia show progress is already being made. There are two bills before the federal parliament that legally require products be certified to avoid discrimination if imported into Australia.

A bill supported by South Australian independent senator Nick Xenophon, the Greens and, oddly, the opposition, sought to require the commonly used oil from the fruit of the palm tree to be labelled separately from vegetable oils. Before its passage through the Senate, the bill required that ingredients certified by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil be labelled differently, to shame manufacturers from using the non-certified variant. At least the bill still allows business and consumers choice.

By comparison, the government-sponsored Illegal Logging Prohibition Bill compels the certification of the origin of imported wood into Australia, effectively requiring compliance with Forest Stewardship Council standards.

These examples highlight a worrying trend.

Activist NGOs are targeting the global supply chain and forcing businesses to adopt standards that increase prices to avoid public criticism, taking away both business and consumer choice.


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