Tuesday, 1 June 2010

What do you make of the mining super tax?

Back in Israel, political debates were everywhere. Part of the reason people there communicate by shouting at one another is to do with half their communications being fierce political debates. If you stay with an Israeli in the same room for more than ten minutes, chances are you would know what their political opinion is on everything from the Arab-Israeli conflict to acupuncture. Alternatively, you can look at Facebook: Many of my Israeli friends have posted comments regarding the recent boat incident off Gaza’s shores. My question is, when was the last time an Aussie other than a political activist put a political comment on Facebook?
Researchers will have to go back to before the recent ice age for such a find. As it is, Aussies tend to keep their opinions to themselves: With all the places I have worked and with all my Aussie friends, I am simply unable to predict who any of the Aussie colleagues I work with vote for. My next question is then: is it good for Aussies to keep themselves out of political debates as fiercely as Israelis put themselves into such debates?
Well, here is a point where I am on the Israeli side of things (for a change). I am of the opinion that political debate is necessary for healthy democracy. Sure, the way it’s done in Israel is often if not usually unhealthy: there is little respect for others’ opinions and those who do not conform to popular opinions are rejected, often by force. Yet this does not mean arguments are bad; it means that we need to manage our arguments properly when we hold them, and hold them we should.
We should hold them because otherwise the leading debates are the debates dictated to us by the media. The media, on its own, is rarely the initiator of debates; as discussed here, Aussie media in particular is stupidly weak and lacks the resources for adequate inquisitive journalism. Instead, the debate is led by interest groups, most of which are either closely affiliated to self interested politicians or closely affiliated to self interested “let’s make tons of money” business groups. Or, for that matter, a combination of the two. To put it bluntly, when no one takes interest in stirring a debate, the debate is led by spin.

Look at Australia’s hottest topic of debate at the moment: the government’s proposed super mining tax. A few weeks ago the government came up with this initiative based on the Henry Review’s recommendations. Henry is a justifiably well respected public servant who was in charge of coming up with revisions to Australia’s tax system. He came up with the goods one weekend a couple of months ago; our PM and Treasurer took to a dirty weekend together and decided which of the recommendations to implement. Should they implement the recommendations that would really improve the life of Aussies, such as tax initiatives that would make housing affordable? No, that’s too hard and would virtually guarantee Labor losing the next elections. No, our pair chose the super mining tax as their pet, a tax that would force mining companies to dig up to 40% extra off their earnings into government coffers. They chose the populist move, and the primary reason for them doing so was the perception that taking money out of the big companies and putting them in the back pockets of the average Aussies would earn them votes. It's all about getting re-elected.
Was Rudd and Swan’s choice of this tax initiative over others ever debated? No.
The next thing we knew, the Liberal party announced it’s against the new mining tax. The newspapers quickly told us of the fact the Liberals receive significant donations from the mining companies, but that was it. Since then the Australian public is being repeatedly bombarded with conflicting messages from both sides, often financed by tax payer money: The mining companies and their Liberal partners claim the tax would ruin the industry and send operations elsewhere, leaving Aussies unemployed, the share market at a slump, and super pension funds in the red. In contrast, the government argues Aussies should get a fairer share in return for the resources they own. Who is right?
I have some very firm opinions on who is right in this debate, but then again I’m a left winger with socialist tendencies. I also prefer my environment intact, uranium and coal included. That, however, is beside the point: the point is that the average Aussie’s only sources of information when it comes to forming an opinion on this most important of matters, judging by newspapers headlines, is spin. There is no room for objective observations; it's all about spin, spin generated by self interest groups. Self interest groups who are allowed to take control over the debate simply because no one else volunteers to take part in the debate.
And these people, who have not much of a chance of forming an opinion based on facts without making a substantial effort (of the type the average Joe would prefer to avoid), these people vote. And that’s how we get our so called democracy.

That’s it for the superficiality of the Aussie political debate. The next thing I would like to look at is the issue of what gets debated in the first place.
I already mentioned the lack of debate on which of Henry’s recommendations are to be implemented. I will go further and argue that the items on the Australian’s debate table are there mostly to distract us from the things “they” – the self interest groups – don’t want you to discuss.
As in, every day in which the debate focuses on the Great Mining Tax is a day business as usual affairs can continue with regards to issues of much higher importance. Issues like climate change.
Think about the following as you’re contemplating mining taxes:
  1. Victoria, a state the size of the whole UK, can cut it’s electricity bill by thirty percent just like that. Given that Victoria’s electricity is generated through brown coal, by far the most contaminative energy source on the planet (carbon emissions wise), that cut would be significant – a billion gazillion more significant than you unplugging your mobile phone charger when not in use or, for that matter, switching your air-con off. All this can be achieved by Victoria stopping the supply of electricity to Alcoa, an aluminum smelter company. Alcoa employs some 750 employees in Victoria, so these should be taken care of; but instead Alcoa is dismissed out of public debate.
  2. The world’s most contaminative power station, Victoria’s Hazelwood, is not only allowed to run but recently had its lifeline extended for a few decades more. Where was the debate on that decision? Oh, wait a minute: there was not much of a debate because the Victorian government came up with new legislation preventing protests near major power stations. Did you ever hear about the debate concerning this legislation, actively allowing the government to subdue debate in the first place?
  3. Victoria is busy building a water desalination plant it doesn’t need at the cost of billions of tax funded dollars. When asked about the eventual cost of water to the end consumer, the government gets away with blatant lies and easily manages to avoid debating the issues. Why? Because the questions come from Greens politicians perceived to belong to in the fringes, while both big parties – Labor and Liberals – are dead silent in serving their affiliated interest groups. For further info, read here.
  4. Labor and its cunning agent Stephen Conroy are still firmly working towards censoring our internet. For a change, they’re in for quite a fight this time from various public groups; yet it is highly likely that they’d be able to get away with their initiative and actually implement it – putting Australia in the same club as China and Iran – just in order to satisfy the Australian Christian Lobby, which could earn them a few more votes at marginal seats and get them re-elected. The reason why Labor can get away with it is simple: the apathy of the majority of the distracted Aussie public. For further evidence, note how Conroy always times his announcements to coincide with other major news items or during public holidays when everyone’s ears are off.

My point with all of the above is simple. It’s time for Australia to wake up from its indifference. Australia is a good place to live in, but we should stop looking no further than our own back pockets when making political decisions; we should be involved with them. Do you really need to wait until you’re asked to pay $4000 for your home’s water bill before you wake up? Do you really want to wait till you’re out of a job because the world has moved on to sustainable energy sources while Australia continued to rely on coal for too long?
We should have political debate. We desperately need a culture of open debating.

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