Sunday, October 19, 2014

‘Degrees in activism’ put brake on growth

AUSTRALIA’S largest resources companies have warned green activists campaigning for an end to fossil fuels are ­destroying jobs and fast becoming one of the greatest challenges to growth.

Andrew Smith, the chairman of the Australian arm of Anglo-Dutch company Shell, yesterday led the debate against what he ­labelled university students with “degrees in activism”, arguing that they were spreading misinformation and manipulating communities to slow the pace of development.

“Challenging decisions will face more effective campaigns of public outrage, some of it based on confected outrage whipped up by university graduates armed with degrees in activism,” Mr Smith said. “But we cannot allow these dynamics to halt Australian progress.”

Activism courses are being taught in legal, politics and ­humanities departments at several universities and are often ­focused on political theory and understanding the role of activism in democracy.

Aidan Ricketts, a law lecturer at Southern Cross University in Lismore, runs a course named Public Interest Advocacy. Its blurb says it provides “skills for successfully advocating for public interest concerns”.

Mr Ricketts described it as an “advanced form of citizenship education”. The lecturer, himself an activist against the use of coal-seam gas, said it was “nonsense” to suggest that universities were preparing students to confect outrage and manipulate information.

“That is a cheap swipe at other people’s opinion’s that Shell don’t agree with,” Mr Ricketts said.

Rio Tinto’s energy chief executive, Harry Kenyon-Slaney, knows the impact activists can have on projects, after his company’s expansion of its Warkworth coalmine in NSW was halted by opposition groups, putting 1300 jobs at risk.

“This is a mine that has been part of the Hunter Valley community for 30 years and provides work for 1300 people, but we’ve spent five years so far trying to ­secure its future in the face of ­opposition from activist groups such as The Australia Institute,” Mr Kenyon-Slaney said.

“People at the extreme end of the debate who would like to see all coal exports cease are willing not only to destroy jobs here in Australia, but also the social and economic development that cheap and abundant energy brings around the world.”

Whitehaven Coal has been a constant target of green activists determined to frustrate the development of its Maules Creek coalmine in NSW. Its chairman, Mark Vaile, former head of the Nationals party, said activists had zero accountability for their actions.

“The information the green ­activists put out is never tested,” Mr Vaile said.

The Australian National University has come under attack after its recent decision to divest its holdings in seven companies — including Santos, Newcrest Mining and Iluka Resources — because it said the companies had a poor record on environmental responsibility. “What is the next thing that the so-called ethical investors and university funds withdraw from?” Mr Vaile said. “Are they now, if they stick to their principles, going to withdraw from all investment in the agricultural industries in Australia, as they are also significant emitters of greenhouse gases?”

Mr Vaile, who recently returned from South Korea, said Australia was now viewed with concern as an investment destination because of the uncertainty in terms of the timing of projects.

“Prospective investors are looking at the fact that approved projects are being challenged in court by some organisation who are unaccountable,” he said.

“We have the government promoting Australia as an investment destination, negotiating FTAs, yet at a state level you have regulations that can be used and abused by green activists.”

Ahri Tallon, a former student of Mr Ricketts, said that in ­addition to legal skills the course had taught him how to organise meetings and demonstrations and engage with the media.

“Real Australian progress is an active and participatory democracy where decisions are transparent, accountable and debated,” he said.


The value of economic education

I'm a firm believer in the value of economic education. An understanding of incentives, opportunity costs, supply and demand are as essential for making sense of the world as maps, history and periodic tables.

So I was alarmed when I read this week that economics education is not up to scratch. Griffith University's Professor Tony Makin and lecturer Alex Robson, reviewed the economics ­curriculum concluding the course needs to be re-written from scratch.

The author of the curriculum, Associate Professor Alex Millmow, of Federation University, responded that, "We didn't want to scare away primary school teachers. It's not an economics course".

The current course was introduced by former Minister for School Education Peter Garrett for years 5 to 8 or kids of around 10 to 14 years to: "equip the next generation of entrepreneurs, innovators and businesspeople to continue to grow the Australian economy as well as take advantage of the global business opportunities the Asian Century will bring."

Which means the author had to create a curriculum that could be taught by non-economists to children under 14 but nonetheless meet expectations that it be a serious preparation for becoming young entrepreneurs leading the country in a mighty trade incursion into Asia. No wonder the bloke who wrote it feels unfairly assessed. The job he was given amounted to spinning straw into gold.

CIS research fellow Dr Jennifer Buckingham has noted what is sometimes called the 'Peter effect' -coined for the plea of Saint Peter to the beggar that he could not give him money that he did not have. A teacher cannot teach what the teacher doesn't know.

The former government's enthusiasm to add yet another 'essential' component to the national curriculum has meant yet another case of the curriculum being reduced to the level at which teachers can teach it, rather than being elevated to the level at which students can profit from it.

Many children will benefit from an economic education. But if kids are going to become entrepreneurs and conquer the Asian Century, it needs to be the sort of economics Professor Makin would like to see taught. Rather than simplifying advanced subjects for small kids, we'd be better off teaching small kids to read and count properly so that in high school they are equipped to study any advanced course effectively.

Splitting their primary years between a growing number of poorly taught add-ons is putting at risk the literacy and numeracy education on which the rest of their lifelong learning depends.


ANU decision to sell fossil fuel company holdings not enough: students

An Australian National University (ANU) decision to sell off about $16 million worth of its investments in seven fossil fuel companies does not go far enough, a students' group says.

ANU said it would divesting itself of shares in Newcrest Mining, Iluka Resources, Oil Search and Santos, among other companies.

Vice-chancellor Professor Ian Young said it was important that the university did not invest in companies that are doing some form of social harm.

"Essentially the criteria which we look at looks at their environmental emissions and any social issues associated with them," he said.

"For instance it many look at their position on Indigenous affairs and also the governance."

It is wrong for ANU to continue to profit from these industries that are responsible for the wreckage of the planet.

But Louis Klee from the group ANU Fossil Free said while it was a big achievement for the university, the decision did not go far enough.

He said the ANU still had major holdings in BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Woodside Petroleum.

"It is wrong for ANU to continue to profit from these industries that are responsible for the wreckage of the planet," he said.

However, Professor Young, who us an environmental researcher, said there was nothing wrong with investing these companies.

"These are major Australian companies, they're resources companies," he said.

"Resources are a major part of the Australian economy that underpins our whole society.

"This is not a case of simply saying the university will not invest in resources companies. We do.

"In fact, it would be very difficult to structure a meaningful portfolio in Australia that didn't."

Professor Young said there should be an orderly transition from fossil fuels to alternative energies.

"The reality is that this is a process that is going to take decades to occur," he said.

The University introduced a socially responsible investment policy earlier this year.


Let them divest, but not with taxpayers cake

The response to the Australian National University's decision to divest itself of holdings in certain  [fossil fuel] companies has been way out of proportion to the importance of the decision - and both sides of the debate are long on rhetoric and short on facts.

The argument has focused on whether the industries represented by the companies being divested are important for Australia's economy, especially the contributions from Infrastructure Minister Jamie Briggs and the Treasurer.

This argument is overdone. The ANU holds about $16 million in shares in the seven companies (disclosure: the managing director of one of the seven, Iluka Resources, is on the board of the CIS). That $16 million is about 1% of the university's total investment holdings, and the revenue from the entire portfolio was barely 5% of the university's total revenue.

The ANU's holdings represent less than 0.05% of the combined market capitalisation of those companies which approaches $40 billion.

These investments are not financially significant for the university or the companies, so the impact on the economy as a whole will almost certainly be negligible. Which makes the overreaction from politicians, up to and including the Prime Minister, puzzling. At a time when the government is trying to encourage greater financial independence among universities, it seems very odd to try and micromanage their investment decisions.

Unless the ANU's new strategy mentions an exciting new investment in magic beans, if it's not imposing greater costs on the taxpayers then it really shouldn't be the business of government.

The government's interest here is limited to protecting taxpayers by ensuring the ANU exercises due diligence and care with taxpayers' funds. In the absence of evidence that this investment policy will materially impact ANU's revenue the government should be cautious about interfering.

Divestment can be an expression of free speech. In fact it is one of the more valuable aspects of speech because people are a lot more honest with their money than they are with their slogans (as the failure of 'buy Australian' industry policy continually demonstrates).

The problem is when supposed social responsibility transfers costs to taxpayers. Too many non-government organisations and other rent-seekers want to have their public funded cake and eat their private progressive values too.

By all means, use your free speech to criticise industries you don't like and divest any shares you hold, but don't think this entitles you to extra taxpayer money if it leaves you out of pocket.


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