John Hewson and integrity in a post-truth world

Photo of John Hewson – Crawford School of Public Policy

Nobody can call out an errant politician better than former Liberal Opposition Leader John Hewson. In the 22 years since he resigned from politics, Hewson has become a respected academic, the darling of TV panel shows like Q&A, and a regular on the celebrity speakers’ circuit. Yesterday, Hewson was a keynote speaker at Griffith University’s two-day summit, Integrity20.

Who better to address the opening topic “Post-Truth, Trust and the Ethics of Deceit?” Hewson has been speaking out about fake news and the propensity of politicians to stray from the facts, long before Donald Trump made it a catch phrase. He is also an advocate for evidence-based public policy, often identifying where politicians have used models and commissioned reports to suit their version of the facts.

So to Hewson’s opening address yesterday, where he used the climate change debate to support his argument for ‘evidence-based public policy’.

“We had a very hard-line position as a response to the climate challenge back in the early 1990s. I was calling for a 20% cut in emissions by the year 2000 off a 1990 base. We are yet to know how we are getting the 5% reduction in emissions by 2020 off a 2000 base. And of course, we’re committed under the Paris Accord to cut emissions by 26% to 28% by 2030.

“What’s happened over that period is drift – the issues have been left to drift. Housing affordability’s been left to drift, the climate response has been left to drift and the final line of that drift is the mess we have in the energy sector. Electricity and gas prices are running away to the point where the average household is struggling to afford to pay its power bills.

“These are the outcomes of negligent government over a very long period of time.”

Hewson believes the situation can be turned around, but it will take some years to reverse the damage. He said what the country needed was an honest debate about leadership.

“And leadership is going to be about telling people honestly the way it is. To get good policy up we have to educate people to accept the magnitude of the problem.

“But we don’t have any debate now in this country – it’s all negative. One side puts its hand up and says let’s do X and the other side immediately says no.”

One in three voted for someone else

He said people had lost faith in the two-party system. In the last election, one in three people did not vote for one of the major parties. The protest vote was not just something that had happened only in Australia, he added, citing Brexit, the US, France and Germany as recent examples.

“It’s a longer term trend and it will get worse before it gets better.”

The path to restoring voter confidence, he said, was by focusing on the issues that affect people – the cost of living, health, housing, childcare and education.

But the main problem was that the ‘wrong people’ were in government.

“If you asked them why they went into politics, they’d say to make a difference and leave a better world for their grandchildren.

“And then they do the opposite.’

Hewson, who will be 71 next Sunday, had a distinguished career in politics. He was leader of the Australian Liberal Party and Leader of the Opposition between 1990 and 1994. Before and after politics he has worked as a senior economist for organisations, including the Australian Treasury, the Reserve Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

In this context, it seems uncharitable to recall that in 1991 he advocated an unpopular goods and services tax. He lost the 1993 election to Paul Keating over the “Fightback Package”, of which GST was a central element. Ironically, Paul Keating (who first advocated a GST in 1985), shamelessly exploited public opinion to thwart Hewson.

All that aside, Hewson at least clearly outlined what he was going to do in 1991-93 and stuck to it. He is known still as a straight shooter, a man who once said he lived in hope of ‘spin-free politics’.

Day one of the Integrity20 Summit was not just about politics and truth. ABC presenter James O’Loghlin chaired a panel discussion about solving the world’s problems through innovation.

Inventor and futurist Mark Pesce showed a short video of a robot working on a farm in Indonesia. He described it as just two wheels, an axle and a smartphone on the end of what looks like a selfie stick, collecting data and producing crop reports. These robots cost about $2,500 and can be shared around a farming community. He also demonstrated how 3D printers, aligned with a simple robot used in smart phone technology, can reproduce all the plastic parts to build another 3D printer. Eventually, robots will also be able to assemble the printers – and that’s just the edges of the innovations universe.

CSIRO scientist Stefan Hajkowicz said the impact of Artificial Intelligence on the future of work had been greatly over-stated. He thought there were many areas where robots and humans would work side by side – in hospitals for example. The robot would do the blood test and the nurse would soothe the patient’s concerns.

But it turns out robots are crap at irregular tasks we humans take for granted, A robot cannot tie your shoelaces, for example. And, as Hajkowicz added, they can’t fold towels. They tried to get a robot to fold a towel. It took 20 minutes and did the job badly.

Today I attended the final full-day session of Integrity20, hastily scribbling notes and pressing stop/start on my hand-held recorder. You may wonder how I met my deadline – marvel at my prowess.

M.Y Prowess (sub-editor): “Isn’t it time I had a byline?”

BW: Ghost writers should be read and not heard – and try using commas instead of dashes – please – some of my readers find it tiresome.”

Next week: Bryan Dawe on satire, media censorship and the global rise of populism.


Renewable energy vs climate sceptics

Renewable energy – Mount Majura solar farm, ACT (image courtesy Climate Council)

Have you ever noticed, after giving your dog a bath, how it will head straight for the nearest patch of renewable energy? Ours has a favourite sunny spot next to the dining room table where he will happily bask, while our solar-powered camping lamp, calculator and torches are recharging on the window sill.

Free sunshine – what’s not to like? As it happens, we have been preparing our little caravan for a weekend music festival in the bush. The 160 watt portable solar panel slides snugly under the bed. At $159, this has proved to be a worthy investment for our outback and bush music weekend adventures. It means you can keep topping up the caravan’s battery (if the sun is shining) and go to bed early if it’s not.

We are not expecting rain. No-one is expecting rain.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology has confirmed the winter just past was the hottest since records began in 1910. It was also the 9th driest winter on record. The average maximum temperature was almost 2 degrees above the long-term average.

Meanwhile, Texas is suffering unprecedented flooding courtesy of Hurricane Harvey, the reporting of which has somewhat overshadowed devastating monsoon flooding in South East Asia. So far, in the latter disaster area, 1,200 people have been killed and almost two million children were unable to get to school.

As we ironically say in the privacy of our own home – “Just as well there’s no such thing as climate change, then!”

Now all, some of, or only a small part of these extreme weather events could be ascribed to global warming/climate change, which, 97% of scientists agree, is mostly caused by human activity.

Despite this consensus on behalf of an apparently overwhelming majority of scientists, sceptics disagree. I happened to read that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott is set to deliver a speech, “Daring to Doubt,” at an annual climate sceptics group meeting in London on October 9.

You might remember Tony Abbott – his reign as PM at one year and 361 days (cumulative terms), was longer than that of Harold Holt and Billy McMahon, but not by much.  Abbott the Climate Change Sceptic is infamous in some quarters as the man who canned the government-funded Climate Commission as part of a Budget cost-cutting exercise.

The Climate Commission bounced back as the privately-funded Climate Council. A new report by the Climate Council concludes that the individual States are going their own way, with mixed results.

South Australia is a clear leader in the renewable energy field, the stakes raised by the government’s decision to replace ageing coal-fired power stations with a 150 megawatt solar thermal power plant.

FOMM foreshadowed this in 2014, when the SA government was trying to negotiate the future of the coal mine which fed its Port Augusta power stations. Now, after five years of lobbying and debate, the SA government is aiming to invest $650 million in renewable energy.

It hardly seems worth mentioning that 1,900 kilometres away, the Queensland Government, in a contrarian move, remains committed to the country’s largest Greenfield export coal mine. The Carmichael mine, which includes a dedicated railway line to take coal north to Abbott Point, is deeply unpopular among environmental groups because of the potential damage it could cause to the Great Barrier Reef, both by the number of ships traversing the narrow channels, and through coral bleaching as a result of human-induced temperature increases.

On the other hand, Queenslanders’ love affair with domestic solar panels is demonstrated by the fact that  32% of households are covered in 2017. Lobby group Solar Citizens (almost 100,000 members), welcomed last week’s decision by the Queensland Government to increase the regional feed-in tariff (FiT) program. This will allow solar systems up to 30kW to receive 10.1c per kWh – six times more than what was previously agreed.

Solar Citizens has an ambitious target of one million solar roofs by 2020.

“Queenslanders know a sensible idea when they see it – with 520,000 solar homes, our State has the highest rooftop solar uptake in the country,” a spokeswoman said.

However, critics of domestic solar energy say the flaw is that those who can afford to become self-sufficient do so, and those who cannot end up paying disproportionately more for energy.)

This week, the Climate Council presented its annual ‘state of the States’ renewable energy report. CEO Amanda McKenzie said the State survey showed a major step up from last year. All States and Territories (apart from WA), have strong renewable energy or net zero emissions targets. South Australia is building the world’s largest lithium ion battery storage facility, and over 30 large scale wind and solar projects are under construction across Australia in 2017.

“The good news is that many States are surging ahead and doing the heavy lifting for the (Federal) government.”

Last week, the Victorian government flagged new legislation which would increase its renewable energy target to 40% by 2025. There is also an intermediate plan to lift Victoria’s clean energy target to 25% by 2020.

So yes, it does seem as if individual States (and Councils) are setting their own renewable energy policies, in the absence of clear leadership at a national level.

Noosa Mayor Tony Wellington did not miss an opportunity to talk up his region’s commitment to solar panels. Noosa Shire, which de-merged from the larger Sunshine Coast Regional Council (SCRC), claims 9,000 households in Noosa Shire have solar installations, which is better than the State average. Cr Wellington told the Sunshine Coast Daily Noosa’s goal was to be ‘carbon neutral’ by 2050.

Not to be overshadowed, the SCRC opened a 15 megawatt solar farm in July. The SCRC was the first local government in Australia to offset 100% of its electricity consumption with energy from a renewable source.

But what can humble citizens do, as pro-coal lobbyists clash swords with the solar and wind farm warriors? The go-it-alone mentality arises from a failure on the part of our Federal Government to stimulate investment in the renewable sector. Australia has already promised, under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% on 2005 levels by 2030. But Tony Abbott’s call as PM to reduce the renewable energy target (and now he advocates scrapping it altogether), was unhelpful.

Whatever way you judge it, a former PM addressing the Global Warming Policy Foundation is not a good look. The last Australian PM to do so was John Howard in 2013 (when he claimed global warming had stalled and was sceptical about the possibilities of an international agreement on climate change).

There have already been reports in the UK media which seized on old quotes by Mr Abbott referring to climate science as ‘bullshit’ and recycling his coal is ‘good for humanity’ comment. 

As readers will know, we spent a week out at Carnarvon Gorge in July, a time of year when it is common for the temperature to dip below zero at night. We packed accordingly, then spent four nights kicking off the doona and keeping each other awake as the mercury stayed above 15.

It should be cool at night for the Neurum Creek Folk Festival, but I packed my shortie pyjamas, just in case there is such a thing as climate change.

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Bushfires burning hot and early

Bushfire threatens Coolum, January 2017, photo by Rob MacColl

If you drove to Caloundra today you’d still smell the acrid smoke from last week’s rampant bushfire, which at one stage saw 34 fire appliances and 80+ firefighters on the scene. The smoky odour lingering around Bell’s Creek and Corbould Park Racecourse is a reminder of how quickly a grass fire can get out of control.

Hot westerly winds fanned tinder dry grasslands as the rapidly escalating fire torched trees in seconds. The smoke and flames closed the Bruce Highway, threatened houses in a new residential estate and an industrial park, prompting evacuations.

The blaze was intense – “fireball after fireball about seven storeys high” resident Brendan West told the Sunshine Coast Daily.

The fire was brought under control overnight, but not before Sunshine Coast residents were made aware of how quickly an emergency can arise.

In January, police briefly declared a state of emergency as a bushfire at Yandina threatened Coolum homes, Residents were evacuated as firefighters struggled to contain the fire, which burned for days. Even two months later, Yandina and Coolum residents reported smoke rising from peaty marshlands.

Photographer Rob MacColl sent up a drone to check out the Coolum fire (above and left).

Bushfires are a fact of life in rural Australia. If you’re a landowner, you either join the rural fire brigade or at least work with them to establish fire breaks, carry out controlled burns and establish contingency plans.

Canada, Portugal and Spain also on fire

British Columbia, which is having another bad wildfire season, evacuated almost 40,000 people from the western province in mid-July as 159 fires added to the 188,000 hectares burned out during the fire season. The Canadian government sent in the military and Australia sent 50 fire fighters to lend a hand. Australian fire fighters are prized for their experience and are often exported to fight wildfires in Canada or the US.

No casualties were reported, which is probably more down to good management than luck.

Those who browse the Internet or listen to Radio National will know that southern Europe has also suffered a series of wildfires in (their) summer. Hot, dry conditions and a lack of rain led to disastrous wildfires in Portugal, where 64 people died. There have also been extensive wildfires in Spain and Italy.

As we say in the privacy of our own home, sarcasm dialled up to 99: “Just as well there’s no climate change, then!”

Closer to home, Queensland, supposedly the least-affected Australian State, is starting to chalk up an invidious track record for bushfires. The high fire danger in Queensland is August to October (compared with December to March for the bushfire-prone states of NSW and Victoria).

Weekly bushfire frequencies in Australia increased 40% between 2008 and 2013, according to Be Prepared: Climate Change and the Queensland Bushfire Threat by Professor Lesley Hughes and Dr David Alexander.

The report prepared for the Climate Council says Queensland is experiencing an increase in hot days and therefore an increasing number of days with high fire danger. More than 50% of Queensland’s extreme fire days from 1945 to 2007 have occurred since 1990, most prevalent in the southeast of the state.

Queensland’s tropical and sub-tropical climate protects the State from the high cost of bushfires events in dryer zones, which costs Australia $322 million a year. There is only a 1% chance that a bushfire event will cause an annual residential loss of greater than $14 million. But climate change is significantly increasing the potential for higher costs in the future.

The report says Queensland is experiencing an increase in extreme heat. Seven of the State’s 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1998.

The Caloundra grass fire came after the hottest August day since 2009. Temperatures reached 31 degrees in Brisbane and at the Sunshine and Gold Coasts – eight degrees above normal. In the western residential suburbs of Logan and Ipswich, the mercury soared to 33 degrees. This record hot August day was followed by strong westerly winds.

Meanwhile, rural fire brigades and landowners are out conducting controlled burns, with the aim of reducing fuel hazards around structures. Controlled burning is not always popular with people living in urban areas as the smoke may linger for days. But the deliberate torching of grass, leaf litter and fallen branches is essential for removing potential fuel that can intensify forest fires.

As is now well-known, Aborigines used fire to carve tracks through dense bush, maintain a pattern of vegetation to encourage new growth and encourage useful food plants. Forest fires can also tease dormant seeds back to life.

Many fires are started by lightning strikes and there’s not a whole lot one can do about those random events. However, most statistics on bushfires/wildfires indicate that half of them are started by human actions, including vehicle accidents, sparks from ride-on mowers hitting rocks, angle grinders and welders, careless disposal of cigarette butts and errant campfires. Sadly, some are deliberately lit by people who get a buzz out of starting fires.

Meanwhile, Australian fire services are preparing for an early start to the bushfire season as Sydney is again shrouded in smoke from hazard burning. Academic researchers writing for The Conversation say new modelling warns that conditions in August 2017 are similar to the 2013 period where unseasonal warmth and low rainfall led to destructive bushfires in Victoria and NSW.

Authors Matthias Boer, Rachael Helen Nolan and Ross Bradstock took a Bureau of Meteorology project that maps water availability levels and combined the data with NASA satellite imagery. This allowed them to develop new tools for mapping and monitoring moisture levels of different fuels in forests and woodlands. They modelled fuel moisture levels during bushfires between 2000 and 2014 and compared those predictions to historical bushfires.

“Our research has identified critical dryness thresholds associated with significant increases in fire area. Rather than a gradual increase in flammability as forests dry out, when dead fuel moisture drops below 15%, subsequent bushfires are larger.”

Bushfires become more intense when dead fuel moisture drops below 10%. The researchers found that moisture content of live and dead fuel is tracking well below 2013 values.

“If warm dry weather continues (we) could reach critical levels before the end of August,” the authors concluded.

“It’s clear that much of the Sydney Basin is dangerously primed for major bushfires, at least until it receives major rainfall.”

Check out your own place now

I’ve been doing an audit of our half-acre bushland allotment, which intersects with other ‘battle-axe blocks’ closer to town than anyone realises. The pest inspector already suggested we collect and burn fallen timber as it encourages termites. It also reduces the amount of potential fuel should a fire start on your land or elsewhere.

So is it safe to make a fire pit and burn excess timber on your own property? It depends on local fire bans, whether your hoses reach that far and, if neighbours take exception.

Image by R. Simcocks, Eukey.

As preventative measures go, that’s a fair step behind this landowner on the Granite Belt, appropriately kitted out while selectively burning off grass and leaf litter. It does make you think.

Postscript: Rural Fire Services director Rural Fire Services area director Gary Seaman, inspecting the aftermath of the Caloundra blaze, told the SCD it was a “major, major fire”, and abnormally large for winter. I drove down Bell’s Creek Road and took a photo, which shows minimal damage as the fire corridor ran out of fuel close to a new residential suburb.


If it doesn’t rain soon, mate

Baroon Pocket Dam March 8, 2017 (Photos by Bob & Laurel Wilson)

Conversations in the street of any Australian town often involve the weather, which over the past four months has been bereft of rain or “dry” (pronounced “droy.”

Tim: “How’s things, Harold?

Harold: “Droy, mate!”

Tim: “Got 10 points last night – hardly worth measurin’.”

Harold: “How’re dams holdin?”

Tim: “Nothin’ but mud and mosquitos.”

Mrs Harold: “If it doesn’t rain soon, mate, we’re gonna move back to the town.”

The latter is the narrator’s refrain from one of my songs; the laconic farmer, chin up as usual, watching the ABC. He’s being harassed by the banks, making do with pumpkin scones and home brew and tells the wife that if she must pay bills, pay the one with the lawyer’s letter – today.

Australian farmers are well-used Continue reading “If it doesn’t rain soon, mate”