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  • Feb, 2012

    What is world heritage worth?

    Greenpeace’s John Hepburn explains how the Great Barrier Reef’s listing has meant nothing when it comes to our thirst for resources.

    We have 18 sites on it. The Sydney Opera House is up there. So is Fraser Island and, of course, the Great Barrier Reef. But what does world heritage listing mean on a practical level? And what can UNESCO, the body which oversees the listing, do if a site is considered under threat?

    These are the questions facing Australia today in relation to the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s best-known and most extensive coral reef. When it received world heritage listing in 1981, it was with an immense source of pride.

    Yet in the 21st century, the mining boom is threatening its very existence. When the Federal Government approved three liquid natural gas plants in the region last year, it did not even seek approval from UNESCO, the guardians of World Heritage.

    That action earned our government a stinging rebuke from the UN. Read the Four Corners story on it here.

    “The Great Barrier Reef is a unique and precious environment that brings over $5 billion a year into Queensland,” says Greenpeace campaigner John Hepburn. “But instead of protecting it for future generations, Australian politicians are allowing it to be turned into a conveyor belt for coal.”

    Greenpeace is due to release its own report on the reef this week (Thursday March 1) showing:

    • – Six times more coal ships through the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area
    • – Coal port capacity increased six-fold along the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area
    • – The world’s largest coal port proposed for Abbot Point
    • – Volume to be dredged from in and around the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area equivalent to 67 Melbourne Cricket Grounds.

    With unprecedented levels of industrialisation occurring due to gas mining and transport, the reef and its marine life are threatened like never before. Next month, UNESCO inspectors are spending two weeks visiting the site to assess its health.

    At the same time and under pressure from UNESCO, the federal and Queensland governments announced an 18-month ‘strategic assessment’ of the reef – expected to be the most comprehensive ever carried out in Australia.

    Yet it appears this comprehensive assessment will not stop approvals for more operations to go ahead.

    “The strategic assessment is the first opportunity to take an overall look at the impact of mining on the Great Barrier Reef,” said Hepburn. “But as it stands, the government is set to approve the world’s largest coal port at Abbot Point before the assessment has delivered its conclusions.

    “Greenpeace is calling on the Federal and State authorities to suspend approvals for major new infrastructure during the assessment period,” said Hepburn. “If approvals continue, there is a very real chance that by the time the real risks are understood, irreversible damage will have already been done to this fragile eco-system.

    And what if the UN comes back with a finding that the Barrier Reef is indeed deemed “in danger”? In that case, it will join a dishonourable group of countries damaged by war and poverty. But is a national embarrassment for the country enough to stop the mining boom? Greenpeace thinks not.

  • Feb, 2012

    Do you have a secret fortune?

    AustralianSuper’s James Coyle encourages workers to claim $18 billion in lost super.

    Remember the part time job you had straight out of uni working in retail or the local pub – the one where your super went straight from your pay packet to an unknown super fund?

    Years later, over numerous address changes and a few jobs later, that super is still lying dormant and waiting to be claimed. In fact. almost $19 billion of super is “lost”. That is, no activity has been recorded on it for five years or more and mail has been returned. That’s almost 40 per cent more than 2009

    The increase may have something to do with the casualisation of the workforce — where people have numerous short term jobs and therefore super funds.

    Either way, some people really have found a secret fortune. With the help of AustralianSuper, one worker was successfully reunited with almost $250,000 – another found 11 lost super accounts worth over $35,000.

    Late last year industry fund, AustralianSuper, launched a campaign to help people find their lost super. And an online tool to make it easier to the 5.8 million lost super accounts.

    “If you find lost super you’re better off in two ways – you boost your super savings and you save on multiple sets of fees,” says James Coyle from AustralianSuper. “This can make a bigger difference when you retire.”

    AustralianSuper has found:

    – Since November last year AustralianSuper has helped members find and transfer over $50 million of their lost super with an average amount over $7,200.
    – The average age of people finding lost super is 45 with almost twice as many men finding lost super as women.

    On average, people have more than one fund lying dormant being whittled away by administration fees. Although people have been encouraged to roll over for years it has always seemed too hard – especially when facing resistance from the dormant fund who can charge excessive fees for the privilege.

    Now the ATO has made it simpler by establishing a website to allow people to search for themselves, using a few simple personal details (TFN, family and given names and date of birth). Check out SuperSeeker here.

    James Coyle says Australians appear to be resistant to claiming all this money that belongs to them

    “There is a perception being that it is difficult,’ Coyle says. “It is actually a simple three step process”

    In any event, workers will be forced to consolidate their small super funds come 2014 when new government legislation comes into being. Small super accounts.with less than $1,000 in them and that have been inactive for five years or more, will be transferred into a worker’s active account.

    The problem with “lost super” also highlights the disconnect the public has with its superannuation earnings – until the age of 40. This is the average age when people start to examine where their hard earned cash has gone but unfortunately, they may discover it is all too late in terms of planning for a financially sound retirement.  It also raises some interesting questions about our complacency when it comes to monitoring our super.

  • Feb, 2012

    Should we fear a big society?

    Miriam Lyons from the Centre for Policy Development describes the UK political shake up which is finding support here.

    In the UK, the phrase “Big Society” is a household term — a catch phrase for the current transformation of British society as public services are cut and replaced by private enterprise, voluntary and community services.

    It’s presented as a progressive, inclusive philosophy  — who doesn’t want a big society with contributions from all sectors of society?

    But its critics describe it as a grab bag of ideas melded together as an excuse to cut down public spending and a state’s responsibilities.

    British PM David Cameron used the theory to “redefine the role of the state as a provider of public services.” On a practical level that has meant more than £80 billion in cuts to public spending; the dismantling of the NHS and up to 700,000 job cuts to the public service.

    In the UK, the winners have seen large corporations such as Serco and A4e which have received the bulk of the outsourced work which was previously done by the public service.

    But in Australia we’ve heard little of it. While the Opposition has signaled massive cuts to the public service if it were elected, a debate about the role of the state in Australia society is non-existent.

    Miriam Lyons of the Centre for Policy Development (CPD), says that could be about to change. In its paper on “Big Society” CPD explores what it could mean for Australia. Read it here.

    In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron embraced it as a political philosophy first championed by Philip Blond, a theologian, lecturer and founder of the conservative think tank ResPublica. He was also Cameron’s adviser before the 2010 election.

    Lyons says Australians can learn a lot from the negative impacts of ‘Big Society’ in the UK

    “We’ve already seen some aspects of the ‘Big Society’ agenda here, with governments that want to outsource and privatise everything that moves”, says Lyons. “The extreme and rapid dismantling of the state in the UK shows us what we might expect if we continue down this path.”

    Read about what the media and others are saying about a Big Society.

    The whole debate raises some interesting questions about how publicly unpopular theories can be successfully framed to garner support.

    For example, John Howard’s ‘voluntary student unionism’ sounded like a positive policy because most people are opposed to things that are compulsory. By removing its fund base, Howard rapidly killed off student activism in Australia.

    On the other hand, Greenpeace made huge inroads in their campaign on genetic engineering by introducing the notion (and language) of ‘genetic pollution’. When industry began to use the same expression, Greenpeace’s influence was clear.

    You can read more about reframing issues here.

    Equally, Friends of the Earth have successfully reframed the marvels of nanotechnology by framing these emerging sciences as ‘Frankenstein-esque’ and ‘letting the genie out of the bottle’.

    Take a look also at the re-framing of the recent ALP tussle for leadership here.

  • Feb, 2012

    One more promise to break

    As Labor attempts to re-unite after its very public family spat there is one more piece of dirty linen that needs to be aired – the self-imposed strait-jacket that is the government’s pledge to bring the budget into surplus by 2012.

    Listening to both the victor and the vanquished shift the focus to, ermm, moving forward after yesterday’s spill, there was a list of good works that the government insisted it will pursue with renewed vigour: at the top of the list disability reform, education funding, health reform.

    Labor does have a strong set of progressive policy positions ready to roll – the Productivity Commission report into a National Disability Insurance Scheme will revolutionise the delivery of services to society’s most vulnerable; the Gonski review sets out a radical reshaping of schools funding that will shift resources to the public system, the Productivity Commission has also produced a major report into improving services of aging Australians.

    All of these are potentially great Labor reforms that speak to Labor values; they will all set up key sectors for the decades to come and they will all benefit big slices of the electorate.

    But they also come with significant price tags – NDIS $6 billion per year; Gonski $5 billion, with $%1.5 billion from he feds) and the less-known Aged Care reforms a further $6 billion.

    With Labor tied to a 2010 election promise, reinforced last year, to bring the Budget back to surplus – regardless of external economic conditions – by 2012-13, all these initiatives are likely to be left in the starting blocks. Worthy reports gathering dust.

    Walking away from the surplus would clearly be a big call for the Government – it would play out in the tabloids as another lie; and as the PM has learnt to her chagrin despite their low level of trust in politicians, the punters will pounce on a lie.

    But in insisting it will deliver a budget surplus, no matter how wafer-thin, the Gillard Government is sucking up to the wrong crowd.

    Give voters a choice between concrete improvements in key policy issues and delivering a surplus to the books and you get a very clear answer, as this week’s Essential Report shows.

    Q. The Gonski report recommends a $5 billion increase in education funding with $1.5 billion of this additional funding coming from the Federal Government and the rest from the State Governments. If the Federal Government provides this additional funding it may mean they will not be able to return the budget to surplus next year.

    Do you think it is more important to provide this additional funding for schools or more important to return a budget surplus?




    Vote Labor

    Vote Lib/Nat

    Vote Greens

    More important to provide additional funding to schools





    More important to return a budget surplus





    Don’t know





    This is not just a matter of flaky lefties walking away from self-imposed fiscal confines; indeed Coalition voters are nearly as keen as Labor voters for funds to be released to institute the Gonski reforms.

    These findings back more general questions on the budget deficit we asked last November where 69 per cent of respondents favoured delaying a return to surplus if it meant cutting services or raising taxes.

    ‘Returning the Budget to Surplus’ has become one of those bumper sticker policies that hamstring governments. Like ‘Turning Back the Boats’ it is not only impossible to deliver, it creates a series of knock-on effects that compound the problem.

    Worse for Labor, it keeps the economic debate in the abstract frame, the natural territory for conservative governments, rather than placing the economy in its proper context – the forum for improving the lives of ordinary people.

    Could they win the argument? Australia’s current debt to GDP ratio is under 10 per cent – many developed OECD nations have levels ten times that rate;  so actually explaining why Australia has set itself this target at a time of falling revenues could shift the conversation.

    Indeed, not even Tony Abbott is tying himself to a 2012-13 surplus, so while he would cry ‘liar, liar’ he would not do so from a position of fiscal purity.

    Of course, walking away from the surplus guarantee would inflict more pain on a government whose leader already suffers credibility deficit issues. But it might just be that delivering the goods on reform in education, disability and aged care is a better way to establish credibility with the electorate than delivering a wafer-thin surplus as a sop to the business pundits and tabloid press.

    After all the hurt and tears for leadership status quo, surely a shift that opened the way for the next wave of social reforms for the young, the aged and the disabled would be a porky worth wearing.