Saturday, December 02, 2006

Labor Party Corruption

Centenary House, the notorious Canberra office building leased by Labor to a federal agency in a massively inflated rent deal brokered by the Keating government, has been re-let for a third of the previous rate. The 15-year lease over Centenary House, which was negotiated in 1992 and has been the subject of two royal commissions, expires in mid-2008, ending a scandal estimated to have cost taxpayers $42 million more than the market rate.

The current owner of the building, Brisbane-based Cromwell Corporation, has negotiated to lease the property to long-term government tenant the Australian National Audit Office frommid-2008 at $385 per square metre - less than a third of the $1300 per sqmrate charged under the original ALP contract. Centenary House was built by the Labor Party for $22 million and leased to the ANAO under a deal that guaranteed rental rises of 9 per cent a year, regardless of market value. The ANAO is currently paying about $1100 per sqm to lease 90 per cent of the building in the suburb of Barton, and that figure will rise to about $1300 per sqm by mid-2008.

Cromwell Corporation bought Centenary House for $35.5 million last year, ending a 13-year thorn in the side for federal Labor. Cromwell national asset manager Paul McDonnell said the group understood when it bought Centenary House that it would be unable to continue charging the ANAO those "well over-market" rents after mid-2008. "We were aware when we bought the property there was going to be a large rental flow for a period of time, and then that would cease when it went back to market levels," Mr McDonnell said in Canberra yesterday.

The original agreement has been the subject of two royal commissions amid Coalition accusations that Labor was fleecing the public service tenants and in turn the taxpayers. Both times Labor was cleared of any wrongdoing, despite royal commissioner David Hunt calculating that the 15-year lease was more than $42 million above market rates.

In a twist to the story, yesterday's Centenary House lease will leave the ALP searching for a new headquarters. Under the new leasing deal, the ANAO will lease all of Centenary House for 10 years, forcing out the ALP which currently leases about 570sqm, or 8 per cent of the building, on a contract that expires mid-next year. Mr McDonnell said the ALP had the option to extend its current lease by one year to mid-2008, but the party had not been given the option of extending that lease further.

ALP national secretary Tim Gartrell said yesterday the party no longer owned the building, but he would not comment further. At the 2004 inquiry into the Centenary House scandal, former ALP national secretary Bob Hogg said the ALP had not received a windfall on the $68million deal. He said high interest rates in the early 1990s led the ALP to lock in a 10-year fixed interest rate deal with the banks at 13 per cent, so the party was unable to renegotiate the rent with the ANAO.


Mainstream clergy often prefer Greenie faith to God

By Christopher Pearson

Last Saturday's column was devoted to eco-fundamentalism, the new deep-green religion. It may have come as a surprise to some readers who had imagined themselves sceptical agnostics or atheists to learn that they were in the grip of an essentially religious enthusiasm. Some have written in to deny it and others have wondered whether I may have been carried away by a metaphor or trying to taint the greenhouse hypothesis by associating it with superstition.

To answer the last point first, I'm not remotely anti-religious and use the term fundamentalism in a diagnostic rather than a dismissive way. There is a vast gulf fixed between the sceptical, rational approach and a religio-magical view of the world. The crucial distinction is that scientific propositions have to be falsifiable, to be capable of being proved wrong. Religious conceptions of what is true come from one or other form of higher authority (gods, prophets, the zeitgeist) and have to be accepted at face value, without question. They are, by definition, unfalsifiable.

The conviction that greenhouse gas-induced global warming is about to endanger mankind's survival is an article of faith rather than an assertion of science. The parallels with previous apocalyptic movements are readily apparent in Norman Cohn's classic, The Pursuit of the Millennium. That the greenhouse scaremongering is endorsed by so many people with science degrees says more about the state of contemporary scholarship than anything else. For, as Nigel Lawson so powerfully reminds us, the science is not settled and it is dishonest to pretend otherwise. Not only is it dishonest; it's also a betrayal of the West's tradition of reason and tolerance and a retreat into irrationality and dogmatic thinking.

How is it that people with no conscious sense of religious convictions should find themselves enthralled by unexamined and, prima facie, outlandish beliefs? It happens quite easily over time if most of your friends and family take what they see on television or learn at school for granted. Anyone beguiled by ingratiating invitations to help save the planet has a primary responsibility to reinforce the fear that, in one way or other, it's at risk.

Lawson says: "It is not difficult to understand the appeal of the conventional climate change wisdom. Throughout the ages something deep in man's psyche has made him receptive to apocalyptic warnings: 'The end of the world is nigh.' Almost all of us are imbued with a sense of guilt and a sense of sin, and it is so much less uncomfortable to divert our attention away from our individual sins and causes of guilt, arising from how we have treated our neighbours, and to sublimate it in collective guilt and collective sin."

There is a further refinement of bad faith that is worth mentioning here. Those most inclined to assertions of collective guilt and sin are usually those with the least to reproach themselves about. So they can enjoy the catharsis of self-denuciation and the inner certainty of being relatively blameless.

Lawson points out the role of weather in religious meta-narratives from the flood onwards. "In primitive societies it was customary for extreme weather events to be explained as punishment from the gods for the sins of the people, and there is no shortage of examples of this theme in the Bible either, particularly but not exclusively in the Old Testament. The main change is that the new priests are scientists (well rewarded with research grants for their pains) rather than the clerics of the established religions, and the new religion is eco-fundamentalism. But it is a distinction without much of a difference. And the old religions have not been slow to make common cause."

How, you may be wondering, could the old religions and Christianity in particular, make common cause with a pagan apocalyptic cult? Are they not completely antithetical? Where even 30 years ago the answer to that question might have been a resounding affirmative, Australian Christianity has undergone a sea change. Readers looking for a timely account of matters should get themselves a copy of Michael Gilchrist's Lost! Australia's Catholics Today (Freedom Publishing). It is especially instructive about the process by which fashionable add-ons such as socialism, environmentalism and feminism have come to colonise Catholicism's religious orders and eventually the church at large. Gilchrist's analysis is also sufficiently broad-brush so that it can be applied pretty much across the board to the other denominations.

Considering the same phenomena, I'm inclined to an explanation that is rather more radical than Gilchrist's. Where he sees mostly bewilderment and educational or leadership failures, I see an explicit collapse of faith. There has been a problem, at least since the Enlightenment, of ostensibly Christian priests and teachers who - with varying degrees of furtiveness - shared a gnosis, a hidden understanding. Their secret conviction was that Christianity wasn't ultimately true and that the best that could be done was to turn it into an engine of political change, redistribution of wealth and even revolution.

The theological modernists the Vatican tried to suppress at the turn of the 19th century went underground until the 1950s. The de-mythologisers in the Protestant churches were far freer to pursue the modernist project, especially in the groves of academe. It wasn't until the "God is dead" ructions in the '60s that it became suddenly clear how many senior theologians in all the churches no longer believed in the resurrection but still thought themselves entitled to their benefices and to speak in the name of the church on anything that took their fancy.

Apart from those Catholic and Anglican bishops who decline to affirm the Nicene Creed when asked, I have no way of knowing which of them are wolves in sheep's clothing. The charitable thing to do is to assume the best. Perhaps the conversion of so many of them to eco-fundamentalism betokens nothing more than theological lapses, scientific ignorance, susceptibility to pagan superstition or the zeitgeist and perhaps the frailties of age.

It is in these terms, rather than bad faith, that we ought to view last year's position paper on climate change on behalf of the Catholic bishops. It was endorsed by archbishops John Bathersby and Adrian Doyle and bishops Christopher Toohey, Christopher Saunders, Eugene Hurley and Patrick Power. It began with a false assertion: "Rapid climate change as the result of human activity is now recognised by the global scientific community as a reality." It concluded that the least the federal Government could do was to sign the Kyoto Protocol.

Had the bishops considered Australia's national interest and the relative equity of Kyoto's allocated emissions targets? Had they pondered the possibility that Kyoto may have capriciously or corruptly favoured some classes of nations at the expense of others? Had they reflected on the almost entirely symbolic character of signing up in the face of general non-compliance? We can safely conclude that in each case the answer was in the negative and that they were carried away by posture politics. More recently Bathersby told a Brisbane Walk Against Warming rally: "I don't think we can be Christian unless we are ecologically converted." In terms of sheer fatuity and presumption, it was on par with the former Anglican primate Peter Carnley announcing that he didn't think it was possible to be a Christian and a conservative.

The Anglican communion has no shortage of eco-fundamentalists, but the most egregious is the Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, George Browning. The bishop, who was obliged to resign his see over a sexual affair but was in short order forgiven by a broad-minded diocese where matters of that kind are nowadays deemed not so serious, is, if anything, even more sanctimonious than he was before his lapse became public. In early November he wrote to John Howard and Kim Beazley, telling them that "Australians could not morally vote at next year's federal election for a party that did not have a comprehensive policy on climate change. This is the most serious issue facing global humanity ... We desperately need leaders who can act on this imperative with courage, vision and passion ... We now know that what we are doing is harming the Earth; our living is tilting the balance against life with catastrophic and immediate consequences. We have no mandate to ruin what does not belong to us and our actions are nothing short of apocalyptic." If this is how the bishops talk in public forums, just imagine how much twaddle the average family in the pew must have to endure from younger and less educated clergy.


The pain of a Greenie judge

Justice Nicola Pain's ruling that the NSW Government must consider the greenhouse gas impacts of all new developments before approving them will be recorded as one of the most ill-considered decisions of the state's Land and Environment Court. When she took up her appointment to the bench in 2002, Justice Pain brought with her baggage stacked with green credentials. The judge's background is as an environmental activist lawyer. She was the principal solicitor with the non-government Environmental Defender's Office, effectively the green movement's legal wing, from 1987 until 1992 and a member of its board for seven years up to 2001. When former premier Bob Carr appointed her to the court, Justice Pain was the EDO's acting director. The move made headlines within the international green movement. This is not the first of Justice Pain's rulings that appear to defy common sense. In September, she approved the development of a brothel in western Sydney despite police evidence that one of the brothel's managers was "unfavourably known" to them. The judge said that "the reputation of a person seeking development consent is not generally a matter for the court to consider in an application of this nature".

On Monday, Justice Pain laid her green credentials on the line in a ruling that could prove devastating for the state's coal and many other industries and pose a giant headache for the Iemma Government in the countdown to the March 2007 election. In a far-reaching decision, the judge found that the director general of the NSW Department of Planning had erred in accepting the environmental impact statement for a new mine proposed for the Upper Hunter. This was because the EIS did not consider the greenhouse impact of burning the 10,000 million tonnes of coal expected to be extracted from the mine each year. Justice Pain fell short of rejecting the application for Centennial Coal's Anvil Hill mine. But in an extraordinary move she then proceeded with a landmark ruling that means all planning approvals in NSW may have to include an assessment of a development proposal's future greenhouse emissions. The court's review of the EIS approval followed a challenge by Newcastle student Peter Gray, a member of the climate change group Rising Tide. Mr Gray's applied to the court to overturn the director-general's approval on the grounds that there was no consideration of the mine's climate change effects.

Justice Pain's ruling is problematic from whatever angle it is examined. Does the judge really imagine that one iota less coal will be burned around the globe or one gram less carbon emitted into the atmosphere if her decision makes it harder for NSW to open new coal mines or expand existing operations? Indonesia, one of the fastest-growing exporters of thermal coal in the world, or South Africa will happily fill any contracts Australia is unable to supply. Recognising this reality, the International Energy Agency has reported that fossil fuels will still be the dominant source of world energy in 2030, with global consumption of coal, oil and gas predicted to increase by about 1 per cent a year. Even more concerning is Justice Pain's apparent use of her judicial authority in what looks like an attempt to dictate government policy from the bench. Climate change is a serious global issue exercising some of the brightest minds of governments, industry, science and environmental experts. The debate has long since advanced from alarm to finding solutions to complex problems. Narrow ideological decisions of the kind produced by Justice Pain aimed at closing down the coal industry mine by mine, pit by pit, contribute nothing to finding the solutions.


Australian wheat sales to Saddam were no scandal

If anything, the Cole inquiry has shown that our diplomats, far from being crooks, are heroes, writes foreign editor Greg Sheridan

What a load of nonsense this whole non-scandal about AWB [The Australian Wheat Board] is. The Howard Government deserves serious criticism for its one real mistake in this business: setting up the Cole inquiry. That is no criticism of Terence Cole. He has conducted his inquiry forensically and thoroughly. But the process of a commission of inquiry meant that a minor matter became conflated into the greatest scandal in human history.

Let's get a few basic facts clear. The UN Volcker inquiry into the oil-for-food program found that 2250 companies from 66 countries paid commissions to Saddam Hussein's government as part of the program. Much of this has been characterised as corruption. But those very few individuals around the world who lost their jobs over it were accused of real corruption; that is, illegally putting money in their own pockets as part of the scam. No one in Australia has been accused of this.

Not one other country of the 66 named has set up a full, open, judicial inquiry into the goings-on of its corporate and government entities involved. At one level, as The Wall Street Journal editorial page has pointed out, this reflects well on the Howard Government. Alternatively, it could suggest the Government was profoundly ill-advised to set up Cole.

When the UN set up oil-for-food, it understood that the Iraqi government would get some money out of it. The UN could have set up a system in which it took Iraq's oil, sold it internationally and used the money to provide Iraq with humanitarian goods. But Saddam would not wear such a system. He was happy for his people to suffer under international sanctions unless the system allowed his government to get some money. So the UN set up this system in the full knowledge that the Iraqi government would cream off some money. As Jeremy Greenstock, the former British ambassador to the UN, put it: "It was realised that a certain amount of misbehaviour on the Iraqi side was going to happen if they were going to accept this. But the Iraqi government had to agree or it wouldn't work."

The primary responsibility for vetting the contracts under the program lay with the UN. All of which illustrates that too intimate an involvement with the UN is inevitably corrupting. As the war clouds gathered, nobody, on any point in the Australian political spectrum, suggested we should sacrifice our wheat trade with Iraq. This was not an immoral position. The public thought there was nothing inherently wrong about selling wheat. And if we didn't sell the wheat someone else would, therefore our wheat farmers might as well participate in the market as anyone else. This was an entirely pragmatic, sensible approach, utterly characteristic of the Australian people and not remotely anything to be ashamed of. That 2250 other companies from 65 other countries also paid commissions to the Iraqi government suggests it was nearly the universal method of doing business there. Therefore the Howard Government should have referred the matter to the Australian Federal Police to see if any Australian laws were broken and left it at that.

So far the damage to Australia from the AWB scandal has been slight. We have opened up an opportunity for cynical American politicians, themselves the progenitors of almost infinite corruption of the global wheat market (this is another common use of the word corruption, to mean in effect selling subsidised wheat into our markets) to have a shot at Australia. It is highly unlikely that this will amount to anything concrete. Australia has also lost its traditional position in the Iraqi wheat market and AWB has lost some of its share value. But all of this damage has come from the hysteria and wild allegations surrounding the Cole inquiry (which is of course not the fault of commissioner Cole) and not from the actions of AWB itself in the oil-for-food program.

It is important that the Howard Government not rush to structural change of the wheat market in this atmosphere of political hysteria. The fact Labor dropped off AWB after just a couple of questions in parliament yesterday shows the issue has really run its course. The Government should move slowly, deliberately and carefully in reforming wheat marketing arrangements and not let a confected scandal produce bad policy.

Much of the analysis of this business has been wildly unrealistic and often internally illogical. There are many parts of the world where companies cannot do business without paying some form of local commission. Australian companies are obliged to obey Australian law and the laws of the countries in which they operate. It is an extremely bad principle for countries to legislate beyond their jurisdictions.

Would we like the European Union, say, to make it law that European companies operating in Australia must not co-operate with the Australian Defence Force because of its role in stopping refugees from coming here? It's an unlikely scenario, I agree, but it's a truly rotten principle to legislate for other peoples' countries.

The most mistaken comments of all have concerned the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Over 30years in journalism I suspect I have had as much experience with DFAT as just about anybody. I find them to be an almost universally dedicated bunch. The policy people are nearly uniformly workaholic, obsessively informed about their areas, and the consular people are authentic heroes. As bureaucrats go they are reasonably well paid and they work hard for it. They often work in dangerous and difficult circumstances and I've hardly ever met a career DFAT officer not dedicated to promoting Australia's interests. Think of Lyndall Sachs in Beirut getting nearly 5000 Australians evacuated in a fortnight. Think of the mid-rank Bali consular officer coping with the second Bali bombing, working frantically all night to get Australians evacuated, to make sure they got medical attention, to help in any way he could. Think of the former Australian ambassador to Jakarta, John McCarthy, taking a bullet in his car as he drove around Dili picking up stranded Australians, then not making a diplomatic incident out of it but phlegmatically continuing with his work.

Cole exonerates DFAT. DFAT had every reason to believe AWB was a reputable company behaving properly. DFAT is not an investigative, law enforcement agency. What do the critics really want: that DFAT should pre-emptively investigate in minute detail every Australian company operating anywhere in the world before it gives them any support?

The Howard Government has erred in leaving DFAT grievously understaffed and overworked, and in abolishing too many of the thinking positions within the department, which makes it harder to offer creative policy advice. At a petty level, DFAT can drive you mad with bureaucracy (try getting a single page of a publication from a section of DFAT not involved in its production), but while it's unfashionable to say so, overall DFAT is a magnificent national resource. Slandering it over AWB is absurd. But then this whole AWB saga has been theatre of the absurd from the first. Mercifully, the performanceis now over.


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