The body representing NSW councils has refuted the federal government’s claim that the abolition of the carbon tax will lead to savings that will adequately compensate their expected budget shortfalls.
Financial Assistance Grants (FAGs), which contribute significantly to council operating funds, will no longer be indexed to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). They are a target of the Abbott government’s harsh austerity measures.
After Local Government NSW (LGNSW) called for the CPI freeze be reversed, Nationals MP and deputy prime minister Warren Truss issued a press release and instead accused the media of misreporting their widely criticised policies and budget. The electorate was also blamed for its inability to understand the ‘strong action’ that was necessary to restore the budget.
Mr Truss’s media response to LGNSW said, ‘In the near hysteria that has ensued since the federal budget was announced, much has been misunderstood and misreported.’
‘The government is asking all sectors of the economy to contribute to repairing Labor’s debt and deficit disaster, and so it is only reasonable that local government should also make a contribution.’ He also claimed the CPI freeze would ‘be more than offset by the abolition of the carbon tax and the injection of infrastructure investment for local communities.’
But Local Government NSW president, Cr Keith Rhoades AFSM, told The Echo, ‘The freeze on the Federal Financial Assistance Grants will have a long-term impact on councils and communities, and will not be offset completely by the negligible savings made by abolishing the carbon tax or the ‘injection of infrastructure investment’.
‘Financial Assistance Grants are untied, which means councils can assess the individual needs of their community and put that funding into where it’s needed most. That could be infrastructure or services, other than that dictated by the federal government.
Grants stuck at 2013/14 levels
‘While populations continue to grow and the CPI continues to rise, the Federal Financial Assistance Grants will still be stuck at the same level as 2013/14. What’s more, the infrastructure funding Truss speaks about is time limited. Unfortunately, under the decision to freeze the Financial Assistance Grants, which are particularly important to regional and rural councils, [their level] will be permanently lowered.’
Of course Wayne thinks there is no ‘budget emergency’.
A real budget emergency was during the 2008 global economic collapse, when he was federal treasurer.
It’s Sunday and there’s a small crowd gathered in the Community Centre to hear Labor stalwart Wayne Swan talk – it was also the launch of his new book, The Good Fight, a memoir of his six years in perhaps the second most important job in Australia.
As expected, there was much ridicule of the current Abbott government.
‘It’s absurd that this government is out there with this language of “lifters and leaners,”’ he told the audience.
‘It’s straight out of an Ayn Rand novel! They are lunatics.’
Wayne’s main narrative of course centres around the measures implemented to stave off the 2008 global crash: guaranteed bank deposits and the stimulus packages to name a few.
Whatever was done, it worked because we were virtually unscathed while other western countries dipped into recession. Was Wayne just really, really lucky? While the mining boom could have been mentioned, Wyane reckons it was the first stimulus package that did it.
He briefly touches on his unwavering belief in Keynesian economic theory. ‘We went into deficit not because of the stimulus spending, but because of revenue write downs,’ he said. ‘You go into deficit; you spend and you restore confidence. Jobs come back, the economy starts to stabilise and then grow again.’
Of all the developed countries in the last 100 years, he said, ‘we have done a better job of matching economic growth with social equity.’
‘The attack that came upon us [in government from Murdoch and big business] is about dismantling that.
‘It’s about shifting the tax burden from the big corporates onto the average people. And in the middle of all that there’s not enough room to spend money on quality education and healthcare.
‘It’s incredible that we have a government that says it looks to America for its policy inspiration. The Americans are looking at Australia!’
Eating its own
‘There is a big battle going on,’ he says. ‘It’s for the soul of the country, and it’s also a battle internationally.
‘Lady Rothschild recently convened an “Inclusive Prosperity Conference” in London and the governor of the Bank of England said that capitalism is currently going through a period where it’s “eating its own”.
‘And the chairman of the IMF says policies for redistribution of wealth are absolutely imperative if capitalism is to be sustainable. And here? the government says “none of that, we need survival of the fittest”. The US model has hollowed out their middle class and produced the most amazing concentration of wealth, which in itself is a drag on their economic future.’
Australia’s only rare-earth company, Lynas, has told The Echo that last week’s article on the Greens Party, entitled ‘One rainy night in Mullum,’ contained ‘factual inaccuracies and misleading statements.’
Rare-earth minerals are the raw materials used for the manufacture of renewable energy items such as wind turbines, hybrid car batteries, solar panels, circuit boards and magnets.
And while rare-earth min- erals are also used to manufacture parts for cruise missiles and iPhones, their extraction is known to be associated with highly toxic materials such as uranium and thorium.
Lynas’s executive vice- president of corporate affairs, Alan Jury, said that contrary to the statement that Lynas was forced to shift its operations to Malaysia owing to opposition from ‘all political parties’, Lynas possessed regulatory approvals to build its refining operations in Australia and received support from the major parties.
He said, ‘Lynas decided to locate its refining process in a Malaysian industrial park owing to access to the abundant supply of electricity, water, relevant technical expertise and chemical inputs for the refining process that were not readily or competitively available in the Western Australian desert.’
Mr Jury also said that senator Ludlam’s statement that Lynas’s rare earths are ‘radio-active sludge shipped in plastic bags’ was misleading.
‘The radioactivity in Lynas’s rare earths is so low that it is prevented, by transport regulations, from applying a radio-active placard to the load.
‘If every product that was radioactive required similar treatment, then bananas, stone benchtops and garden fertilisers would require similar signage.’
Regarding public opposition in Malaysia, Mr Jury said the company had been ‘active within the community,’ and cited various meetings with local community groups, NGOs and academics.
He maintains that the Malaysian plant poses no health risks and that natu- rally occurring radiation in the waste will be reduced to almost zero and made into roadfill, fertiliser and the like.
‘Waste that doesn’t get used ends up in temporary storage ponds next to the plant,’ he said. ‘These have leak detec- tors and are lined and raised. It’s not a simple “pond”.’
Anti-Lynas seats won in Malaysia
Yet ABC reported last year that candidates ‘running on an anti-Lynas platform won a raft of seats around the plant, in the May general election’.
Bloomberg listed Lynas as the worst performer this year among its index of 11 rare- earths producers and explorers and it lost more than $107 mil- lion last financial year. Lynas’s processing plant in Malaysia started producing late last year, according to Mr Jury.
With the Bentley outcome a fresh momentary victory, the great big Green event, held at St John’s Hall in Mullumbimby last Saturday night, was a celebration of grass-roots activism.
The Echo asked questions of three Green MPs before their appearance, and the night’s bill included federal senator Scott Ludlam (WA), senator Larissa Waters (Qld), and NSW Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham.
What’s your bet on a double dissolution if the budget is blocked?
MP Ludlam: There will most likely be a series of blocked bills that will just pile up month after month until these lunatics produce others. As long as Labor hold, we’ll be sending them back.
At some point they have to decide whether to abandon this disastrous budget or come and talk to us.
What’s your take on Clive Palmer and his ideas on taxation – do you agree that abolishing expected corporate tax earnings would inject billions into the economy?
MP Ludlam: Palmer’s whole policy platform is tax evasion for his mining companies. He ran on that platform, and his cleverness is being able to disguise that while saying he is standing up for mums and dads. That’s real political artistry. But you don’t know what’s policy and what’s been made up on the spot. There’s still an element of genuineness in there that is obviously resonating with people and we shouldn’t ignore that. My prediction is that they won’t last a year once Abbott tries to buy his senators from him with various bribes and break the parliamentary block.
Palmer’s policies have an interesting element of social justice – if he calls a press conference on the treatment of children on Manus Island, we’ll go and stand by him be cause he’s absolutely right. And he’s already proposing to block things in the budget.
Do you know why we don’t have domestic protection for oil and gas reserves like they have in America and WA?
MP Buckingham: What we don’t have in Australia is a national interest test. There’s no question asked by the government and the exporters about the triple bottom line: economic, social and ecological interests. [Mining company] Santos was recently exposed in one of their strategy documents when they were considering exporting. One of the things they recognised early on was that when they went to export they had parity to international prices. They could leverage their conventional gas off that export and get higher prices domestically. So what’s underpinned their business model from day one was higher domestic prices. They say more gas will put downward pressure on prices – well you can do that but it won’t make it cheaper.
Are you all fans of rare- earth mining, which produces solar panels, magnets and computer chipboards as well as considerable toxic waste? Australian rare-earths mining company Lynas moved their processing plant to Malaysia after all political parties rejected their application to operate here.
MP Ludlam: We met a number of times with Lynas, but they’re just going for the dollar. What Lynas tried to do was to export the high value jobs from their processing plants. They do the bulk mining in WA, then ship this radioactive sludge from Fremantle, which is very heavily populated, in plastic bags and it contains a lot of thorium.
So the rare-earth minerals themselves aren’t radioactive, but they tend to co-exist with toxic ones. When it arrives in Malaysia they immediately throw all the thorium and radioactive sludge away into these tailings dams next to the refinery.
And in Malaysia, they have had a real horror show with the rare-earth minerals.
They have basically been tipping the radioactive sludges into the fields. So that sparked a very substantial counter-movement in Malaysia and we’ve been doing everything we can to support them.
I’m not opposed to rare- earth mining, but that doesn’t mean your company should get a free pass on your social and environmental obligations.
MP Buckingham: Our view is that we need them, and we introduced a bill into the NSW upper house called the Responsible Mining Bill.
It recognises we need to keep making some steel and coked coal in the short term, but we need to be smarter about how we produce it.
And there’s certain areas where mining is just too much of a risk.
Meet one of only two politicians who doesn’t wear a tie in the federal senate: Tasmanian Greens MP Peter Whish-Wilson.
The scruffy economist, environmental campaigner, surfer and ex-wine maker replaced Bob Brown last year and was in town last week, meeting with marine conservation groups and trying to ‘tempt’ former NSW Greens MP Ian Cohen out retirement to help with the cash for container campaign.
‘Ian’s done a lot on this topic in the past and his help would be very valuable,’ he says.
Cash for containers
As an environmental campaigner, Whish-Wilson has focused his passion for the ocean on its preservation.
He says the biggest threat to marine life is our rubbish, and the way to address it is to go to the source.
Back in the 80s and 90s, Australia had the scheme in place; aluminium cans and bottles were returned to a depot for cash.
Fast forward, or perhaps rewind, and South Australia and the Northern Territory remain as the only states that recycle drink containers.
The container deposit scheme (CDS) has attracted a lot of recent alternative media traction; mainstream media recently refused to screen an advertisment which highlighted the destructive effects of plastic on marine life.
But at the heart of this battle are retail lobbyists who are desperate to maintain a somewhat twisted narrative: they say returning to a national container recycling scheme would be ‘inefficient and inequitable’ despite it being successful in two states.
Whish-Wilson says the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) lobby group represents special-interest groups Coca Cola, Lion and Schweppes and is the most vocal in opposing it.
Needless to say, Whish-Wilson says these lobbyists have never come to see him.
Instead he’s been working closely with the Boomerang Alliance (www.boomerangalliance.org.au) to get their message through about recycling the estimated eight billion containers produced nationally every year.
‘If you put a value on rubbish, it no longer becomes rubbish. What we are asking for is to add ten cents to a bottle’s price, then when recycled, the ten cents is returned. It’s a no -brainer that would decrease litter and create instant jobs.’
A senate inquiry he initiated on November 7 last year examined the connection between cash for container schemes and lower levels of marine plastic pollution.
According to the Boomerang Alliance, the inquiry ‘unanimously reported that the AFGC research was based on “weak methodology and poor data.”’
‘For example the Council assumed the ten cent deposit would not be redeemed by any consumers (when 80 per cent redemption is common) and that all beverage prices will rise by 20 cents (despite this never occurring in either state).’
The Alliance also claims the CSIRO mapped plastic debris and ‘reported there is far less plastic bottle litter coming off SA shores.’
Not all lobbyists are necessarily bad, but many are very close associates of politicans. Often they attended university together or have work-related connections. Many are former advisers or MPs.
And as Whish-Wilson says, ‘They wear out the carpets in politician’s offices.’
There are 595 registered lobbyists listed with www.lobbyists.pmc.gov.au, and they all operate under the Lobbying Code of Conduct.
Its preamble states, ‘The Lobbying Code of Conduct is intended to promote trust in the integrity of government processes and ensure that contact between lobbyists and government representatives is conducted in accordance with public expectations of transparency, integrity and honesty.’
The most powerful lobbyists in Canberra, Whish-Wilson says, are from the mining, pokie and beverage industries. ‘The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) is also very influential’, he says, ‘obviously campaigning against same- sex marriage… but perhaps the slickest I’ve seen yet is the Food and Grocery Council, who primarily represent both Coles and Woolies.’
When asked if their duopoly would ever be addressed, he says that without a strengthened Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), there will be no changes.
It’s the ‘special interest effect’ that determines many political outcomes, he says.
‘A politician weighs up what will eventuate if they go with, or against, a lobbyist’s wishes.
‘It’s called the “special interest effect”, which also depends on “rational ignorance”.
‘That’s another term that refers to the public’s ignorance on a topic.’
Photo by Jeff Dawson