Another inconvenient truth: demand for coal still strong

Just before Greens leader Senator Richard Di Natale spoke at the National Press Club yesterday, the federal government’s Office of the Chief Economist released the September 2015 edition of its Resources and Energy Quarterly publication.

The document collates important mining and energy statistics and is an interesting snapshot of the strength of the industry and developments in overseas markets.

While Di Natale were pushing the line that the coal industry was “on the way out”, the REQ contained a number of inconvenient truths including:

  • World steel consumption is forecast to increase to 1.6 billion tonnes in 2015 and to 1.74 billion tonnes in 2020
  • The world trade in metallurgical coal (the type of coal used to make steel) is expected to increase to 330 million tonnes in 2020 with Australian exports to increase to 213 million tonnes in 2020
  • While the US and Europe have signaled an intention to phase out the use of thermal coal for electricity, this will be more than offset by increased use in emerging economies.
  • There is around 350 gigawatts of new coal-fired generation capacity either under construction or approved in non-OECD countries.
  • The world trade in thermal coal is projected to increase to 1,180 million tonnes by 2020
  • China’s thermal coal imports are projected to increase to 170 million tonnes by 2020
  • India’s thermal coal imports are projected to increase to 255 million tonnes by 2020
  • South Korean thermal coal imports are projected to increase to 113 million tonnes by 2020
  • Many Asian countries are upgrading their coal-fired power plants to use the higher quality coal that is typically mined in Australia.

The mining industry, which employed 245,700 people in the September quarter of 2015, appears alive and well.


Oakes’ press freedom speech silent on Labor’s freedom of speech controversies


Laurie Oakes speaking at the Melbourne Press Club

Laurie Oakes’ Melbourne Press Freedom Dinner speech last Friday was a broadside against limits on freedom of the press in the name of national security. You can read it here.

It was revealing in more ways than one. Because national security is hardly the only domestic attack on free speech in recent years. Oakes’ speech shows – by omission – that the bulk of the journalistic community was missing in action on almost every major domestic freedom of speech controversy under the Gillard government. These are missing from Oakes’ speech.

The contest over section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act has been a centrepiece of federal politics since the Andrew Bolt case in 2011. There is a bill currently before parliament to amend section 18C right now. Section 18C is clearly, obviously, undeniably a free speech issue. Yet there was no real outcry from our nation’s journalistic corps on section 18C.

Nor was there any great media outcry when the Gillard government introduced the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill in 2012, which would have made it possible for colleagues to sue each other for expressing their political opinions. Another obvious free speech issue.

Now, it is true that media proprietors and editors got agitated about the Gillard government’s media regulation legislation in 2013. But I recall debating journalists at the time who supported the laws. And the regulation proposals had near universal support from journalism academics, those who are to instruct the next generation of journalists. This wasn’t the apathy Oakes describes about recent national security laws. This was outright advocacy.

Finally, it is notable that there was no discernible gnashing of teeth from journalists when the Abbott government decided not to pursue its promise to repeal section 18C. After all, that decision was specifically because the government wanted to push national security changes.

Telling the story of national security law changes without any context – the context of a prolonged debate about the importance of freedom of speech under the previous government – lets the media off lightly.


This man was too dangerous for Australian academia?


Earlier this year, Bjørn Lomborg was deemed too dangerous to set up a think tank at the University of Western Australia. In The Age today, he wrote in support of the government’s plan to tackle domestic violence, making such innocuous points as:

The Australian government’s decision to step up its fight against the scourge of domestic violence does not just make moral sense: it is underpinned by a sound economic case too.

Researchers for Copenhagen Consensus recently conducted one of the first analyses of the total costs of violence worldwide, and found that gender-based violence – believed to affect around one in three women globally – has a considerably higher financial impact on society than many would think.

… In too many cultures, and for far too long, we have accepted the toll of violence, especially on women. The moral case for action is overwhelming. But economic research can help us to better understand the problem and the best solutions. And it speaks volumes that there have been so few economic analyses of its impact until recently: this is a problem that has not been taken seriously. What the new economic evidence shows is that the Australian government’s decision to step up the fight against domestic violence is likely to be one that will pay dividends to society.

And yet, staff and students at Flinders University are still fighting to keep Lomborg’s Consensus Centre out of Australia.


Tasmanian anti-discrimination case shows freedom of speech is under attack


“An anti-discrimination complaint against the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart shows that freedom of speech is under attack,” says Simon Breheny, director of the Legal Rights Project at free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.

Martine Delaney, Greens candidate for the federal seat of Franklin, has complained to the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission this week that pamphlets produced by Catholic Archbishop of Hobart Julian Porteous are offensive and breach the Anti-Discrimination Act 1998 (Tas). Following amendments passed in 2013, the act makes it a crime for a person to “engage in any conduct which offends, humiliates, intimidates, insults or ridicules another person” on the basis of a range of attributes, including sexual orientation.

If Archbishop Porteous is found by the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission to have breached the act, he may be ordered to apologise, to pay a $3080 fine or to pay compensation to the complainant.

“This attack on free speech is facilitated by Tasmania’s anti-discrimination laws, which are the most restrictive in the country,” says Mr Breheny.

“As I argued in an article for the Sunday Tasmanian in November 2012, the 2013 amendments would have ‘a crippling effect’ on freedom of expression and stifle public debate.”

“This confirms our worst fears about the law, and shows why the act should never have been amended.”

“Even if the complaint is rejected by the commission, the fact that the legislation contemplates such a complaint on a topic of genuine and significant public and political debate shows the overreach of the Tasmanian regime.”

This complaint is a clear example of the chilling effect that legislation can have on speech,” says Mr Breheny.

Simon Breheny’s article in the Sunday Tasmanian can be read here.

For media and comment: Simon Breheny, Director, Legal Rights Project, Institute of Public Affairs, [email protected] or 0400 967 382.


Rattenbury’s paternalist plan to ban bus ads


The ACT’s plan to ban a swathe of ads on government-run buses just goes to show what can happen when even a lone Green MP becomes too influential.

And this is not the first time this lone Green, Shane Rattenbury has displayed his illiberal colours. In March 2014, when the federal government was proposing to amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, and restore freedom of speech, Rattenbury was having none of it. Instead, the assembly member sought support from his colleagues to introduce similar speech prohibitions at a territory level.

In April 2015, Rattenbury called for the elevation of the spurious “legal right of medical privacy”, which meant the right to walk into certain buildings without seeing such harmful activities as a silent vigil – or a protest by, any other means, in a protected area.

Now, and in his capacity as transport minister, he has announced the territory government will ban advertising on the government-run ACTION buses, operating in the ACT. Well, not all advertising, of course. Only the undesirable elements of society that a paternalist dislikes, such as  junk food, alcohol, gambling, fossil fuels and weapons:

Minister for Territory and Municipal Services Shane Rattenbury said buses were a government provided service and it was important that the products and messages promoted were appropriate.

… Mr Rattenbury said advertising on government assets needed to be in line with community expectations.

If the minister is so troubled about what goes on government assets, there is a simple solution. Instead of the government divesting from fossil fuel investments (as the ACT government has already committed to doing) it might like to divest itself of public buses, and leave the trouble of advertising to private operators.


The revenue problem simply doesnʼt exist

Tax calculator_DaveDugdale_flickr_920

With the ascension of Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister, the political left have (erroneously, I believe) sensed a potentially powerful ally at hand who will be receptive to many of their pet causes.

This probably explains why several figures identified with the Australian left have gone into overdrive penning fresh opinion pieces repeating, ironically, the tired but fallacious line that government faces a ‘revenue problem,’ with taxpayers needing to fork out more cash to public treasuries.

First, public health professor Rob Moodie castigates those who oppose taxation, going as far to say that society will collapse without ‘fair and equitable’ taxes, arguing ‘if our political and community leaders continue to demonise tax to provoke outrage, I believe we will start to feel less inclined to contribute to our own collective wellbeing.’

Second, we have lawyer Josh Bornstein trotting out the well‑versed line that taxes are the price of civilisation, complaining that ‘the degradation of paying tax as a social good … encourages individuals to engage in a race to the bottom, finding new ways to artificially reduce our tax bills.’

Finally, there is Matt Grudnoff from Green think‑tank the Australia Institute using Treasurer Scott Morrison’s first public statement, referring to public sector overspending, as an alibi to spruik one of the Institute’s papers alleging we suffer from revenue deficiency.

One way to cut through the false proposition that Australian governments are suffering from a lack of tax and other revenues is to inspect long run trends in these areas. Here is a graph of revenue, as a share of GDP, raised by commonwealth, state, and local governments from 1901 to 2014, with trend lines fitted for each variable (a further discussion, including about data sources, can be found here).

Continue Reading →


Federal government urged to push ahead with federation reforms


Positive news in The Australian this morning, with premiers and chief ministers from South Australia, Western Australia, Victoria, the ACT and the Northern Territory urging the Commonwealth government to seize a “rare consensus” and push ahead with federation reform.

Malcolm Turnbull is being urged to seize a “rare consensus” among states to speed up reform of the federation, as a panel ­cautions against a loss of momentum under the new Prime Minister.

… The states and territories are working on areas including health, education, housing and ­finance to develop a green paper on federation reform, which will then inform the government’s white paper.

The process is aimed at addressing the level of overlap and duplication in the federation, which is seen as excessive.

One of the advisers on the white paper review panel, former South Australian premier John Bannon, said he believed the process had been one of Mr Abbott’s “most successful endeavours”, and urged momentum continue.

A note of caution: politicians often cure “overlap and duplication” by giving the Commonwealth greater control and management of issues which should be managed at a state and local level. So while the Commonwealth should definitely pursue reforms, it should resist any temptation to make the federal-state imbalance, and Australian governance, even worse.


Just how successful is the divestment movement?


News outlets last week excitedly reported on the escalating success of the divestment movement, with some claiming that its campaign has already forced the dumping of $2.6 trillion worth of fossil fuel assets (here and here for example) throughout the world.

A closer look at the figures and the report reveals that there is less to this than meets the eye.

Firstly, the actual research report indicates that the $2.6 trillion represents the total value of the assets held by people and institutions that have committed to divest. This is not the value of their existing fossil fuel assets.

Either way, it is still a lot of money, so it is worth taking a quick look at how broad the movement’s success is.

The primary source for these figures is the divestment movement’s own Go Fossil Free website. Go Fossil Free is a project of which was founded by prominent environmentalist Bill McKibben, whose July 2012 article in Rolling Stone magazine is often held out as the piece that set the divestment ball rolling.

According to Go Fossil Free on 28 September 2015, the 442 organisations around the world that have pledged to divest include:

  • Faith-based organisations (28%);
  • Foundations (26%);
  • Pension funds (14%);
  • Government organisations (12%);
  • Colleges/unis (9%);
  • NGOs (7%); and only
  • 2% private corporations.

Of the $2.6 trillion figure, Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund (which made its money through oil) represents $873 billion, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (the Rockefeller Family also made its money through oil) another $857 billion and the California Pension Funds $483 billion – just these three add up to approximately $2.2 trillion, without counting the commitments of churches, other pension funds, universities and government authorities.

Numerically, of these 442 organisations, only ten are for-profit private sector corporations. Two of these ten listed companies are the Adelaide Bank and the Bendigo Bank – even though these companies merged eight years ago. It is an open question whether the bank currently does any business with fossil fuel companies.

Only 2,040 individuals have pledged to divest. In a world of seven billion people, that is not very many. More people visit North Korea each year than have divested from the fossil fuels.

While the divestment movement has definitely chalked up some wins, it would be a mistake to believe that it is as influential and successful as it has led the media to believe.


Laws to tackle activist litigants will go ahead


FreedomWatch readers may recall how I welcomed news that the federal government was set to amend federal environmental law to remove special legal privileges for environmentalists to conduct frivolous legal challenges to major projects.

Currently, section 487 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act) allows for a widely defined “aggrieved person” to challenge ministerial decisions made under the EPBC Act. Rather than an expanded right open to anyone, section 487 grants the privilege only to those individuals and groups who ‘engaged in a series of activities… for protection or conservation of, or research into, the environment.’

Previously the Coalition government proposed amendments to alter this definition which would have brought consistency to the law, and restored the common law position of who was entitled to participate in litigation – namely, that a person was to have a sufficient and not-distant interest in a matter.

For this reason, it was pleasing to read in the Herald Sun this morning:

The Turnbull Government is proceeding with controversial laws that will prevent environmental bystanders from launching legal challenges.

Attorney-General George Brandis said the legacy legislation from the Abbott Government — sparked after the Mackay Conservation Group helped delay Queensland’s $16 billion Adani coal mine — would correct a legal anomaly.

… “Section 487… is a very unusual, indeed unique, provision. And all the Bill does is seeks to restore the ordinary common law position.”

It’s great to see the Coalition is still committed to restoring sense and legal certainty in a sector which sorely needs it.


Who owns the word ‘skeptic’?


USA-based not-for-profit news gathering service Associated Press announced last Tuesday a change to its AP Stylebook (held out to be a ‘writing style guide for journalists’):

Our guidance is to use climate change doubters or those who reject mainstream climate science and to avoid the use of skeptics or deniers.

It is fascinating to read the differing perspectives that people have offered on this decision.

Apparently in late 2014 the group Committee for Skeptical Inquiry lobbied AP, claiming that ownership of the phrase ‘skeptics’ had been taken by non-scientists. The group’s suggested solution was to describe non-scientists who don’t support the idea of human-induced climate change as ‘climate change deniers.’

AP appears to have steered a middle path with its revised guidance, accepting the argument on ‘skeptic’ but refusing the argument on ‘deniers’ noting the obvious Holocaust connotations.

Objective website Watts Up with That said that the AP decision was a positive development because the term ‘climate denier’ had been dropped.

Writers with human-induced climate change sympathies such as in Patheos or  Huffington Post or the Guardian were a little grumpy at the change with an interesting background from another blog here.

However the response that takes the cake comes from the University of Queensland’s John Cook, who was quoted in the above Guardian article, suggesting that people who don’t believe must have physiological problems:

There is a growing body of scientific research into the phenomenon of science denial, whether it be denial of evolution, climate change, vaccination or so on. We can’t counter the corrosive influence of denial unless we heed the psychological research into what drives people to reject scientific evidence, as well as the techniques and strategies employed to misinform the public. It’s essential that we take an evidence-based approach to our response to science denial. So running away from the issue of denial is counter-productive and unscientific. Scolding people for using the accurate and informative term ‘denial’ is tantamount to scientific censorship.

In just this short quote, note the pejoratives that Cook uses to make his opponents look wrong:

  1. denial is a ‘phenomenon’ and an ‘issue’ that has a ‘corrosive influence’ that ‘drives people to reject scientific evidence’;
  2. people who deny employ ‘techniques and strategies’ to  ‘misinform the public’ whereas scientists like him take an ‘evidence-based approach’; and
  3. not agreeing with Cook’s views on denial are ‘counter-productive and unscientific’ and are ‘tantamount to scientific censorship.’

The article has a link to an unintentionally hilarious video that was put together by Mr Cook and others and which purports to tackle the issue of skepticism vs denial, but is in reality is a little more one-sided.

Control of words indeed.