Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Democracy and the big miners

A PS to the RSPT

By Gavin Mooney

The ‘debate’ around the super profits tax has been illuminating. For me it has said so much about the mentality of the top executives in the mining sector - and of politicians. Early on there were the suggestions that Kevin Rudd was a communist (Clive Palmer), that it amounted to nationalisation (Andrew Forrest) and the tax was straight from the pages of Das Kapital (Julie Bishop)

In the wake of their success in bringing down both Rudd and the tax, their arrogance and their indifference to democracy is now out there in full flow. According to Forrest it wasn’t the miners who brought down Rudd – Twiggy’s pal – it was Ken Henry. Atlas chief David Flanagan divulges to The Australian that he would talk to his wife each night about the implications of the tax ‘and the legacy it would leave for their two children’. He went on: ‘I actually could see a scenario where the RSPT could destroy the fabric of the Australian economy… I mean, totally f…ing smash it to bits.’

Forrest asked ‘who voted for Ken Henry?’ Thank God for Forrest to alert us to the dangers of an unelected Ken Henry. And thank God for those who brought down the tax and saved us from these commies who were otherwise set to ‘destroy the social fabric’ of Australia.

These mining giants also have global aspirations. They are keen to use their power to save not just Australia. They want to save the world from nasty governments elsewhere as well! In a speech to mining executives in London last week, Tom Albanese, the Rio Tinto CEO, according to Peter Wilson in The Australian, ’issued a none-too-subtle warning about the events in Canberra to other governments attracted to the idea of “resource nationalism” and hiking taxes on mining profits’. Albanese is reported to have stated: ‘Policy makers around the world’ (and presumably that includes democratically elected governments – like ours) ‘can learn a lesson when considering a new tax to plug a revenue gap, or play local politics’. We are fortunate however that as Wilson reported Albanese ‘held back from openly crowing about the fall of Mr Rudd’.

The Fin Review joined in. ‘In a shot across the bows of Brazil, South Africa and Chile’, writes Andrew Cleary, ‘Rio Tinto’s chief executive Tom Albanese, has warned countries considering a super tax on resources to “learn a lesson” from the Australian government’s experience in dealing with the industry’s opposition’.

I would encourage readers to write to The Australian and the Fin Review to express their thanks to the big miners for saving – today - the social fabric of Australia yesterday and – tomorrow - the world. Good chance your letters will be published.

Against this background what chance any reasoned debate about the impact of the mining industry on global warming? Ah, but the Flanagan kids’ future is secure in the knowledge that their dad and the other big miners are there to look after the future of all of us.

And just a final thought: why do we need an election?

Monday, July 5, 2010

WA writers on the failure of the market economy to deliver social and economic and environmental justice

Western Australian writers and thinkers continue to write about the market and corporate economy and issues of social, economic and environmental justice.

Sarah Burnside has published recent pieces in online publications New Matilda and Online Opinion. In New Matilda she challenges the idea that the majority of Aboriginal people benefit from the mining and resources industry. In reviewing a recent Australian monograph on Indigenous people and the mining industry Sarah suggests that there little evidentiary support for the idea that mining is clearly good for Aboriginal people.

On his blog Neville Numbat, Piers Vertegen continues to write important pieces on environmental issues. His most recent piece, also published in the online publication Wangle, discusses the likely impact of Julie Gillard's ascendancy for climate change policies. Piers argues that based on her past record the new PM appears unlikely to support real action to address climate change.

In other articles Piers writes about a recent WA Auditor General's report on the failure of WA government agencies to reduce energy consumption and the lack of tangible action and commitment by the Barnett Government to take action to reduce the alarming growth in carbon pollution in WA.

Colin Penter has published this piece in Online Opinion contrasting the ways that civil society groups are whistleblowers are criminalized, while corporations that break the law regularly avoid any substantial penalty. The tenets of limited liability and corporate personhood are used to enable corporations to avoid facing the full force of the law for their criminal behavior. This is a protection not available to individuals and civil society and violates the idea of equality before the law.

Perth based journalist Vicki Laurie has published a long essay in the July edition of the Monthly on the response of WA government agencies to Aboriginal disadvantage. Using the lived daily experience of one Aboriginal family, Vicki demonstrates the enormous gulf between the policy rhetoric of politicians and government agencies and the realities of life for Aboriginal families.

Disability activist Erik Leiopold has published a number of recent pieces in the West Australian and Online Opinion on the private members bill on Euthanasia currently before the WA Parliament. Erik's piece draws on his new book, based on his PhD thesis, which explores the links between market values, disability and euthanasia.

Academic and Director of the WA 2020 Project Peter McMahon has published an Op Ed piece in the West Australian (Monday July 5 2010) on the coming energy crises and its likely impact on Perth. Perth is one of the least sustainable cities in the world and Peter's article describes the energy challenges facing the State as a result of dwindling oil reserves and climate change.

In the lead up to NAIDOC Week Myrna Tonkinson from the University of WA has written this piece in Eureka St lamenting the lack of progress and commitment by Governments in addressing Aboriginal disadvantage.

Market logic, disability and euthanasia: A book review

A Book Review
by Gavin Mooney
Book Reviewed:

Erik Leipoldt (2010) Euthanasia and Disability Perspective:
An Investigation in The Netherlands and Australia VDM Verlag Dr. Müller Aktiengesellschaft, Saarbrücken

Each of the two central issues in this book - euthanasia and disability - is big in itself. Bringing the two together is a monumental task and especially when this is set in a values framework. The author succeeds in his efforts to do this and in a way which is both accessible and challenging.

The purposes of the study reported in this book were (p39) `to discuss Dutch and Australian disability perspectives towards euthanasia and physician assisted suicide; and to find how the life experiences of the informants [people with quadriplegia] ... may illuminate these perspectives'.

Yet to me the central theme of the book is not euthanasia as such nor indeed disability. What the book questions in debating these themes is what autonomy is and whether it merits being seen as so much of an individualistic phenomenon as it so often is, at least in this neo liberal world in which so many of us live. As Leipoldt argues `individual autonomy is the dominant discourse of our age'.

Without disagreeing I wonder if things are not changing. I have in the past been much struck by the work of the likes of Catriona McKenzie, Diana Meyers and Natale Stoljar [1] on relational autonomy and the idea of `community autonomy'. Despite the efforts of so many economists today (this reviewer is an economist) - particularly market economists - and many liberal philosophers to see us all as free floating atoms, that depiction of human beings just somehow does not ring true. We are social animals, we rely on others to some extent and maybe even take our identities in part from our interactions with others. And the interdependency of peoples across the globe has been heightened yet further by both the Global Financial Crisis and the threat of climate change. OK the impact of these on government policies and in turn on human relationships have not really percolated through yet. But this is one `trickling down' that I am confident will trickle down.

Certainly Rawls' placing of individuals behind his veil of ignorance was simply a philosophical construct to aid understanding. Yet it is so false that one has to question how valuable that device is in reaching any sort of understanding of what it means to be a person. Behind a veil of ignorance or a free floating atom? In an odd sense, much of a muchness and much of an unreality.

So for Leipoldt to look at euthanasia through the eyes of 28 people with quadriplegia in Australia and the Netherlands provides not only a novel view but one that in turn challenges the notion of individual autonomy in a most useful fashion. Whatever else, no one reading this will ever again see autonomy in quite the same way - unless maybe a person with disabilities.

The views of people with quadriplegia on this issue have not been examined before which is a quite startling revelation in itself. Leipoldt suggests (p38): `The perspective of people with disabilities may be able to contribute new ... aspects to the euthanasia debate. Major physical, social and psychological changes and challenges arise for a person who acquires a significant disability like quadriplegia.'

On the question of autonomy and individualism the shift to more of the latter is highlighted by one respondent (p 170): `people are becoming more assertive and demand more. I think that if you look ten years ahead people's autonomy will go further ... I think society will become more and more individualistic.'

The book is insightful on the issue of dependency with one response (p 205) suggesting that `dependency gives a very deep relationship with people and you'. And again (p 209): `How do we look at things like interdependence, that are the bigger issues? Because it doesn't matter how dependent or independent you are if you have people around you and you are part of what's happening and contributing to that then whether you can do it on your own isn't the issue.' Wonderfully for me, issues of reciprocity, mutuality, participation, sharing and caring shriek out from these pages.

There is a sense in which what this book tells us primarily in capturing the views of a group who are in many ways dependent and vulnerable as people with disabilities are two things. First interdependence and dependence are not negative traits; and second in some sense or other to be complete human beings we need to be interdependent and dependent and we need to recognise that need. These are particularly interesting issues in the very specific context of the main thrust for the author of this book i.e. euthanasia and disability. But for me the book shows that worshipping at the altar of individual autonomy or even individualistic autonomy is to bow down before false Gods. Such autonomy is almost certainly not attainable and, even if were, it aint worth attaining.

This is a powerful book at many levels.

1. C Mackenzie and N Stoljar (eds) 2000. Relational Autonomy. Oxford: OUP.