Leaders’ dreams are becoming our nightmares

When our challenges are crying out for social cohesion, division is the order of the day.

Brazil’s new strongman, Jair Bolsonaro. PHOTO Leo Correa/AP

AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, a bear of very little brain though a source of much wisdom for me, always liked to chat, but his neighbour Rabbit thought it wasted time.

Pooh always got a good chat out of his friend Piglet. One day, after Rabbit had left in his usual hurry, the pair agreed that Rabbit had Brain. After a bit Pooh said, “I suppose that’s why he never understands anything.”

There is an observation for the ages – or at least, for the age we live in now. Our 7.6 billion human brains deliver more information, more analysis, more knowledge than we’ve ever had.

And yet we’re making a dreadful mess of things. Institutional authority is being steadily eroded, political processes are being corrupted, public policy is being trivialised and society is being reduced to tribes.

History tells us that none of this is new, that things have been bad many times before. But it also says that stable, functioning democracy is less common than we think, and that it’s been known to vanish when least expected.

In the West we used to cherish the belief that things always got better. This seems to have emerged from a vague sense that our race or religion was superior, as Europeans assumed when they took possession of new lands in Africa, the Americas and Australia.

The dominant narrative of every election campaign draws on those disreputable notions. Our improving cleverness, it says, will always deliver better health and education, a roof over the head, secure jobs and a food supply while shielding us from nature’s ravages.

That narrative never held water, but it is now in tatters. Technology is looking impotent in the face of nature. Education and medical services are costing more, housing is out of reach for many and secure jobs are rare. Affordable food and potable water look like being the next dominos to fall.

People faced with uncertainty are drawn to “strong” leaders who initially pose as champions of democracy and the rule of law before turning out to be careless with the truth and averse to legal restraint. And they are now popping up all over the place.

Brazil is a recent arrival on this scene. The hostility of its new president, Jair Bolsonaro, towards people who are not like him – women, homosexuals, black people, environmentalists and others – makes Donald Trump look almost civilised. He is taking his country to a very nasty place.

Besides containing a tenth of all animal and plant species, Brazil’s Amazon rainforest helps to stabilise global climate by removing carbon from the air. Bolsonaro has abandoned land clearing restrictions and allowed agribusinesses to clear nearly 1500 square km of Amazon forest a month.

Bolsonaro can claim that Brazil’s emerging economy deserves a break, but Trump has no such excuse in relaxing US climate and biodiversity controls, including vehicle emission standards and oil and gas extraction in wilderness areas.

Such vandalism is a direct threat to the capacity of nations to meet global challenges, but that would appear to be one of its key aims. Like democracy, international cooperation is anathema to these leaders, all of them willing captives of their own nationalist narrative.

Once in office, their pattern of behaviour is profoundly undemocratic. In order to retain power they stir up fear and insecurity, scapegoating minorities and critics and branding them “enemies of the people” – a phrase which the Nazis exploited to great effect in Germany in the 1930s.

Scott Morrison’s government and its predecessors have played down Australia’s importance on the world stage, especially when attacked about carbon emissions. They’re wrong about that, but they’re even more wrong in the context of failing democratic institutions.

Australia shares with a relatively small number of countries a long history of stable democracy nurtured by a frank, open public discourse and strong institutions, in which regimes can change with little rancour and no bloodshed. In these troubled times, that capability is to be treasured.

Our global importance is further enhanced by the parlous state of the country now widely derided as the Disunited Kingdom, once considered the wellspring of stable democracy. Boris Johnson’s rise to the prime ministership will do nothing to ease doubts about the kingdom’s future viability.

Democracy thrives on disagreement, which is fine so long as everyone understands that and works within the rules. But as ideology becomes dogma and party divisions harden into more permanent forms, those time-honoured rules are being broken in country after country.

Instead of encouraging positive discourse and harnessing social intelligence, leaders are exploiting division for narrow political ends. If they cannot draw on our collective brainpower to deal with the huge issues confronting us, all their dreams will become our nightmares.

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We are now in a place we’ve never been before

Australia’s big dry is now its worst drought on record. Which is pretty much the way it is everywhere.

Farmer Sam White on his property near Guyra, NSW. PHOTO Simon Scott/The Australian

Following a lead from our state and federal governments, today I’m going to avoid the delicate matter of future climate. Instead I’ll focus on what’s happening around us now.

Weather records tell us that June in Australia was 0.26C warmer than average and 31 per cent drier. The first half of 2019 produced the continent’s second warmest and seventh driest conditions in 120 years of records.

In those six months the Murray-Darling Basin had about half its normal rainfall. Basin residents might have coped with this in normal times, but these are not normal times. Dry, warm, high-evaporation weather since January 2017 has left them with conditions they’ve not seen before.

Now it’s official. Rainfall records reveal that today’s Murray-Darling experience is Australia’s worst drought on record – more severe than the Federation, the World War II, the Millennium or any other drought in our recorded history.

Bureau of Meteorology climatologist David Jones told a BOM seminar last week that proxy evidence indicates Australia hasn’t been as dry as this for two or three million years, long before humans existed. This puts the current state of our weather in a completely new place.

Numerous NSW and southern Queensland towns now have emergency water restrictions in place. Many towns in upper Darling catchments calculate their water storage as a few months at most. In Tenterfield they’re pumping already-depleted groundwater to try to keep storage levels stable.

Water is now being carted to the small town of Guyra, 150 km away, but for Tenterfield that’s not an option – at least not a sustainable one. Its businesses and 4000 residents would need 1400 B-double truckloads a month, or nearly 50 each day, to sustain even minimal water use.

The list of towns threatened with losing their water supply is growing, including Warwick and Stanthorpe in Queensland. The larger centres of Tamworth, Armidale, Orange and Dubbo are lining up to join them if good rain doesn’t come this year. The Bureau is not hopeful of that happening.

Running out of water is a nightmare for any community. Cape Town almost ran out a year ago and is still in a tenuous position. In much-larger Chennai on India’s southeast coast, where it hasn’t rained for six months, the situation is dire. Monsoon rain is not expected for another month or two.

This city of 10 million people consumes over 500 million litres a day. The provincial government is now using trains to transport water every day from a half-full storage over 300 km away, but if the city were to run out completely that supply would have to increase 50-fold. That won’t happen.

Early monsoonal downpours in India’s Assam along with Nepal and Bangladesh have brought the opposite problem: too much water, displacing millions of people and killing over 100.

Not far away in the high Himalayas, the rate of glacier melt has been found to have doubled in less than 20 years to more than eight billion tonnes a year. A scientific assessment published in June is a very bad omen for downstream communities depending on glacial meltwater.

Meanwhile America’s Pacific north-west is preparing for another nasty fire season. A scientific wildfire survey has just informed Californians, after their worst season ever last year, that the state’s summer fires have increased five-fold since the 1970s, with rising temperature the key cause.

Wildfire anxiety has spread northward, to the dark, dank forests of British Columbia. The Canadian province’s wildfire service has warned that abnormally high fire conditions will be experienced in coastal regions including Vancouver Island at least till the end of summer.

This comes after several summers of intense wildfires up and down the Canadian west coast, mostly started by lightning strikes. They have been especially devastating in new-growth forests, where less genetic diversity and lower tree density allows higher moisture loss.

Things are hotting up in the far north. Alert, a Canadian military base on Ellesmere Island in the high Arctic, normally has a daytime maximum around 7C in July, but it’s currently experiencing an unprecedented heatwave that has seen temperatures climb above 20C.

Canada’s chief climatologist, David Phillips, says this heatwave is just the latest indicator of what will be a long, hot Arctic summer. The main trigger, say scientists, was a dramatic loss of Arctic sea ice over the past decade that allowed the ocean to absorb much more heat from the sun.

Smoke has become a regular contributor to Arctic weather, and this year is no exception. These are not forest fires so much as peat fires. The dried-out tundra itself is now burning in Alaska and across wide Siberian expanses, sending choking black smoke into the air.

Among the many things I’ve left out are Darwin’s groundwater crisis, depleted Great Barrier Reef coral, Europe’s unprecedented June heat (back again in July, especially in France), vanishing Antarctic sea ice, chronic drought in Africa and the Americas and floods in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Did I mention climate change?

• VICTIM of a chronic decline in government support, Hobart’s venerable environment and sustainability body, Sustainable Living Tasmania, has been forced to close its doors after nearly 50 years of quiet achievement. It will continue as a volunteer-run organisation with no office.

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Tax scheme is a dangerous gamble with fate

The Morrison government’s tax changes are a line of least resistance, but there are big long term consequences.

Richard Boyle during his Four Corners interview. PHOTO ABC

It was a story made for our times, about the tax man literally seizing the money of unsuspecting people regardless of the impact on their lives.

You may recall the appearance of Richard Boyle, a suspended employee of the Australian Tax Office in Adelaide, on the ABC’s Four Corners last year.

He said that in June 2017 he and other staff were ordered to seize funds from the bank accounts of everyone assessed as being an ATO debtor, without exception. The action commonly requires the bank to continue sending money to the ATO whenever there is a new deposit into the account.

Last month counsel for Boyle, who wants the ATO’s conduct brought to account, told an Adelaide magistrate he would be pleading not guilty to 66 charges arising from his television revelations.

The story fits the old narrative that the money the ATO takes from our earnings actually belongs to us. Early this month the Morrison government gave it official recognition in the folksy subtitle of its latest tax bill, “Tax Relief so Working Australians Keep More of Their Money”.

That’s easy to say, but it’s claptrap. We can always object to the way money taken in tax is spent but that doesn’t make it ours, and dubious ATO practices aside, taxation is not theft. Public revenue belongs to the state.

If we expect to be taxed less we should expect less from government, but the notion of taxpayers’ money has led most Australians to believe that cutting taxes is always good and raising them always bad. Shared by politicians on both sides of the political divide, this mindset has made us one of the developed world’s lowest-taxing countries.

In 2018 the OECD put our tax-to-GDP ratio at 28.8 per cent, slightly above that of the US but well below the ratio in New Zealand, Canada and most of Europe, and little more than half that of some Scandinavian countries, where taxation is widely regarded as an investment in the public good.

Another Australian stand-out is the high proportion of income tax in our total tax revenue – over 40 per cent, nearly twice the OECD average – which means that lowering income tax has an unusually high impact on revenue. That may be why the ATO so zealously pursues revenue goals.

None of that may have seemed important to the government when it brought down this year’s budget with those tax sweeteners in early April, because the looming election looked like handing the budget burden to Labor. But an unexpected win leaves the ball in the Coalition’s court.

An additional stress on the government is its promise of budget surpluses from this financial year. I’m no financial whiz, but a lot of economists warn that after three straight quarters of weak growth and bad job numbers we need more public spending, not less, and the sooner the better.

Income tax cuts now taking effect for lower-and middle-income earners will help our faltering economy, but the legislation that allowed this year’s tax breaks also set up a tax time bomb primed to explode seven years from now.

Under the new act, much larger cuts for higher-income earners will take effect from July 2024. These have been officially estimated to cost the budget $95 billion over the six years to 2030.

Tight revenue goals have already led to excesses such as the behaviour of the Adelaide ATO branch. The added pressure of that legislated time bomb on future revenue collection can only be imagined.

Treasury, which used to take pride in giving frank and fearless advice to politicians often blinded by ideology, should have advised against the cuts. But years of stacking treasury ranks with compliant political appointees has left us without that vital counterbalance.

Further ahead the storm clouds only get darker. Today’s economic conundrums of stagnant wages, low consumption, stalled investment and surplus budgets will look like child’s play compared to the impact that climate change will have on public resources.

Signs are all around us that governments everywhere need to be preparing their systems and people for rising economic pressures from an increasingly disruptive climate. But to listen to the Coalition, no such signs exist, and if they do they can be managed with a bit of tweaking here and there.

Characterising the tax debate as class warfare or the politics of envy is missing the point. Those future income tax “reforms” will only exacerbate inequality. With nature turning on us the last thing we need is public wealth depleted for private gain, or open society replaced by gated communities.

The Morrison government could choose to accept the gravity of our situation and radically change course, which would lose it some skin and maybe even an election. But that would be far better than causing the whole country to crash in a mess of anger and confusion.

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