Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Conservatives hit carbon tax again

The opposition has accused the government of crying false tears over the struggling aluminium sector by pointing out that economic modelling by the Treasury forecasts a price on carbon will erode the industry by more than 60 per cent by 2050.

With the fate of 600 aluminium workers at the Alcoa plant in Victoria at the centre of the debate over the economy and manufacturing, the Prime Minster, Julia Gillard, met workers and union representatives yesterday to assure them her government was following the situation closely.

Amid a now frequent stream of job loss announcements, Alcoa has said it is reviewing the future of the plant, citing the high dollar and low international metal prices as factors. It is not blaming the carbon tax, which begins on July 1 and for which the aluminium industry will be generously compensated.

In Parliament yesterday, the opposition attempted to link the present decline in manufacturing to the impending carbon impost, saying it would make a bad situation worse.

The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, noted that Treasury's modelling showed aluminium production in Australia risked falling by 61.7 per cent by 2050.

Ms Gillard accused the opposition of misrepresenting the modelling and criticised Mr Abbott for exploiting potential job losses as part of his campaign against the carbon price.

The Victorian Labor Opposition Leader, Daniel Andrews, conceded there was not much the federal government could do to help Alcoa. Its problems were largely the realm of the state Liberal government and included such assistance as power price subsidy, payroll tax deductions and co-investing in a new plant to increase efficiency.

The fight came as the latest Newspoll showed the Coalition ahead as preferred economic leaders. This was despite the government feeling the economy is its greatest strength and Ms Gillard's declaration the economy would be at the core of political debate for this year.

Last week, the Coalition floundered when trying to explain when it would return the budget to surplus if elected. The national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, Paul Howes, hit back at critics who argued taxpayers should not subsidise struggling industries. He said they would recover once the dollar dropped to parity or below.


Indian group plans Qld's biggest coal mine

Indians are not embarrassed about using coal

An Indian conglomerate is planning to build Queensland's biggest coal mine, west of Rockhampton in the state's central region, including a new town, runway, railway and port facilities.

The Adani Group has proposed a new open-cut and underground mine, mostly on the Moray Downs cattle station, about 100 kilometres north of Emerald.

The cost of construction is expected to be at least $6 billion and the mine would produce about 60 million tonnes per year, with a mine life of more than a century.

If the project goes ahead, Adani says it would be the largest investment by an Indian company in Australia. The company is also planning to establish a new town to deal with the Carmichael mine's remote location. It says it would also build an airstrip for fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers, along with new railway and port facilities at either Abbot Point or Hay Point.

Adani says exports would predominantly service the Indian domestic power market. Adani officials are talking to the Federal Government about special visas to fill jobs with overseas workers.

Queensland Mining Minister Stirling Hinchliffe says he would prefer the company to use locally-sourced labour. "I have given a very clear message to the companies involved, including Mr Adani directly, that we have a very high expectation about the role that Queenslanders will play in these projects," he said.

Mr Hinchliffe also says there is not sufficient infrastructure in central Queensland's Galilee Basin to cope with the major new mining project.

He says Alpha is the closest town to a number of proposed new mines and its urban infrastructure cannot support them. "Alpha has a population of about 500 people - the reality is that on one of the three or four mines that are being worked up in the Galilee Basin, the construction workforce for a period at the beginning of the development of the mine would be in the order of 5,000," he said.

Mr Hinchliffe says the project is still in its early stages. "It is a massive project, a massive development - there is a long way to go in terms of regulatory and environmental approvals," he said.

However, AgForce president Brent Finlay says the rural lobby group is concerned about the sale of grazing land for mining. "Any change of ownership or any change of land use, particularly when it's very good agricultural land, is a concern to us," he said.

"Whether the whole area's going to be taken out of agricultural production or whether only a small area will be and the rest still used for agricultural production, we'd like to know as soon as we can."


Foreigners are not going to take Australia's food

Dr Stephen Kirchner

The debate over foreign investment in Australian agricultural land has seen the merger of capital xenophobia with the age-old myth that the world is going to run out of food. The suggestion is that we need to lock down our agricultural land to secure future food supplies.

The merger of food security and xenophobia as an issue has a long history. Sir William Crookes’ 1898 ‘The Wheat Problem’ predicted not only that the world would run out of grain but that ‘the great Caucasian race will cease to be foremost in the world, and will be squeezed out of existence by races to whom wheaten bread is not the staff of life.’

Crookes would have been astounded to know that the world’s population would quadruple in the following century, that world incomes would increase by a factor of 20 and yet real commodity prices, the ultimate measure of resource scarcity, would decline. This was in part due to a tripling of agricultural productivity during the twentieth century.

This increase in productivity has seen a decline in land under cultivation, not least because of the shift from carbohydrates to hydrocarbons as a source of fuel. Even since 1960, almost all of the increase in demand for grains has been met through increased yields rather than land under cultivation. It is productivity growth and global free trade and investment that underpins food production, not ownership of land.

Capital intensity is the key to agricultural productivity, and foreign investors have capital in abundance. Much of the foreign interest in Australian agriculture is in agribusiness rather than land. Foreign investors see Australian agribusiness as an ideal way to gain exposure to growing Asian markets via Australian exports. Foreign investors want Australia to become an even bigger food producer and exporter.

It is not hard to imagine extreme scenarios such as war, natural disasters, or a collapse in world trade that could threaten food security. In extreme circumstances, the Australian government could impose export controls on food, subsidise domestic consumers and producers to buy food in world markets, and expropriate foreign investors. Even the most strategic and mercantilist of foreign powers would find their investments in Australian agricultural land of little use in such circumstances.


The Japanese attacks on Darwin in WWII were disastrous

IT is not hard to make the case that when war came to our shores with the bombing of Darwin on February 19, 1942 - 70 years ago next Sunday - Australians behaved abominably. There was panic, looting, cowardice, desertion and a stampede south to get out of harm's way.

Yet we could ask ourselves today: if you were under attack from waves of Japanese aircraft dropping more bombs than fell on Pearl Harbor, were unprepared, had not received any training drills, had no warning, had no leadership and feared imminent invasion, might you have behaved in the same way?

It took many years for the awkward truth to emerge about the panic and abject failure of leadership following the bombing. By any analysis, it was not a good look. Yet the negative truth masked other, equally true, stories of courage and heroism among soldiers, sailors and civilians alike.

An embarrassed official wall of silence sprang from John Curtin's government's belief that the less the public was told, the better. The reasoning was that the truth would have rocked national morale, eroded the nation's will to fight, caused fear and possibly panic in the populated south and harmed the war effort.

This is probably true. Australians had been shaken by the speed of the Japanese advance through Asia. The supposedly impregnable British fortress of Singapore had fallen just days earlier, the northern parts of New Guinea were occupied, and suddenly the war was on our doorstep.

The government decided that news of the Darwin disaster would have a devastating impact on morale in this hour of great peril.

But suppressing the news was also in the government's interest. Any understanding of the devastation caused would have shown the failure of the government to anticipate or prepare for attack, the shameful incapacity of the military to react with any skerrick of leadership and the bungling and confusion of the Northern Territory's bureaucracy.

Yes, events after the bombing were shameful. But they were not the people's shame. The bombing raids were carried out by the same Japanese carrier-based taskforce which had launched a surprise raid two months earlier on the American Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor. This "day of infamy" brought America into the war.

The first wave of bombers was spotted passing over Bathurst Island to the north of Darwin half an hour before the first bombs fell. News of the sighting was radioed to the RAAF operations centre in Darwin, but was ignored by officers on duty because they believed the aircraft were American Kittyhawks returning to Darwin.

No air raid warnings were sounded in Darwin until seconds before the first bombs exploded. This led to many deaths. Even a couple of minutes' warning would have allowed many civilians to take cover in slit trenches.

The first aircraft pattern-bombed the city and airfield, and they were followed by dive bombers and Zero fighters, which targeted ships in the harbour. Eight ships were sunk and many others set on fire. The munitions ship, Neptuna, was tied up at the inner wharf when it copped a direct hit. It exploded with the loss of at least 45 lives. Men were blasted into the sea, burning with fuel oil: some were rescued in acts of extraordinary bravery, but many others perished.

The first wave of the attack lasted 40 minutes. An hour later, the second wave began with high-altitude bombers pummelling the RAAF base at Parap, site of the present Darwin airport. At least 22 aircraft were destroyed, including two Catalina flying boats.

The Japanese encountered little resistance. A lone Kittyhawk managed to meet the incoming fighters but was quickly shot down. Anti-aircraft gunners fought hard but with little effect. They had received no training.

The raids left Darwin stunned. Chaos, bordering on anarchy, reigned. Civilians looked to the government-appointed NT administrator, Aubrey Abbott, for instructions but he dithered, expecting the military to take control. Almost immediately, word spread of an imminent invasion. Civilians began a southward rush by any means available. The panicky exodus became known as the Adelaide River Stakes, as people packed whatever possessions they could manage and took cars, bikes - even the council sanitary cart - or walked towards Adelaide River, 10km to the south. The exodus may have been chaotic, but a civilian rush to leave a battlefield is hardly a cause for shame. Instead, the finger of shame can be pointed at the military.

After viewing the total destruction at the airfield, the RAAF station commander ordered his men to meet at a kitchen station half a mile down the main south road and half a mile into the bush. This order was passed on by mouth and was inevitably corrupted. Some men went three miles down the road; others seven. Some men simply took to the bush. Four days after the bombing, 278 RAAF personnel were still missing. One made it to Melbourne in 13 days.

Meanwhile, administrator Abbott had called on army provosts - military police - to assist civilian police. They were a motley bunch who declared themselves to be in charge. There were reports that the MPs, drunk and waving pistols, instigated the looting which followed the bombing.

At Government House, Abbott was busy organising civilian police to help him remove liquor from the cellar and to pack the official crockery so it could be shipped south. The lamentable lack of leadership up north was also evident in Canberra. The government was stunned by events.

First newspaper reports said there had been "considerable damage" in Darwin, but later stories told of minimal impact.

Two deaths, said one report, when the real figure was at least 243. Japanese bombs ineffectual, said another, when the truth was that Government House, the police station, the hospital, the post and telegraph offices, half the city and the entire airfield had been flattened.

On March 3, the government appointed judge Charles Lowe of the Victorian Supreme Court as a commissioner of inquiry to investigate the raids. He left by plane at 1.30am the next day, and began hearings on March 5.

The next day he cabled Canberra saying Darwin in its present state could not be defended and urgent supplies and reinforcements were needed. Lowe's inquiries continued almost around the clock for five days. Dozens of witnesses were cross-examined.

On March 10, the commission adjourned to Melbourne, where hearings resumed on March 19 for a further five days. On March 27, Lowe presented his first report to government, but it was not made public until 1945, when it was tabled in parliament and all but ignored by politicians, the military and the press. The awkward truth was still too raw to be dealt with.

Lowe used temperate language in his report, but there was no mistaking his meaning. He blasted top RAAF brass for a lack of "competent leadership", which had led to "deplorable" outcomes. He said the quality of the men was not unsatisfactory, but they had been failed by a lack of training and a lack of leadership.

Many of those military men who absconded into the bush had not been trained in the use of rifles, had only a few rounds of ammunition, and were unwilling to "hang around to be massacred by the Japanese."

Lowe rebuked Abbott for failing to plan for an air attack and for dithering before handing power to the military. But he refused to criticise him for removing liquor and crockery that otherwise would have been looted.

He also acknowledged the "many acts of heroism" during the raids, with special mention of nurses at the bombed-out hospital and a prisoner, "Sinclair by name", who was released from Fanny Bay jail during the raid and who "performed magnificent service" in providing first aid to the injured before reporting back to jail. Lowe recommended he be pardoned.

While Lowe made his recommendations for increased defences for Darwin - including four fighter squadrons - air attacks continued. Between February 1942 and November 1943 there were 64 bombing raids on Darwin, and others on Townsville, Katherine, Wyndham, Derby, Broome and Port Hedland.

For decades, the debacle of Darwin lay submerged in the national consciousness. But, just as it took decades for the importance of the Kokoda Track battles to become recognised, it has taken many decades for the true impact of the Darwin raids to be understood.

Last November, US President Barack Obama visited Darwin and told assembled troops: "It was here, in Darwin, where our alliance was born - during Australia's Pearl Harbor.

"Against overwhelming odds, our forces fought back, with honour and with courage. The days after Darwin were tough. Some thought Australia might fall. But we dusted ourselves off. We picked ourselves up. We rebuilt. "And thanks to the extraordinary generation of troops, we went on to victory - in the Coral Sea and at Midway and at Milne Bay."


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