Alternative Law Journal
Australia as a global citizen seems hell bent on economic and ecological destruction.
There are obvious problems in treating such a radically divided and unequal society as contemporary Australia as a single actor on the global stage. It is far from clear that Kerry Packer, with his personal fortune of $6.4 billion and his wealth increasing by $3.2 million a day, actually inhabits the same world as the more than 30% of adult Australians primarily dependent on government welfare payments. There seems little in the way of common ground here.
But then again, given the substantial erosion of working class power and representation over the last 25 years, it is perhaps not such a problem after all. Legislative restriction of trade union rights, and economic policies that have created and maintained high levels of unemployment have combined to widen the gulf of wealth and power between the classes. With the entrenching of economic rationalist ideology amongst Labor Party leaders, as well as Liberals, and the effective stifling of public debate about any kind of serious socialist alternative, the voices of dissent seem to have been repressed deep into the national unconscious, leaving the ruling class of corporate executives and political leaders free to speak with a single voice, and to act with a single purpose.
Thus identifying Australia as a world citizen, with the ‘directing mind’ of the local power elite of corporate and political policy makers, we see an individual in urgent need of restraint and rehabilitation — for their own good and that of the rest of the global community. Here is an apparently sociopathic personality, unconcerned with the social wellbeing of others or, indeed, with anything other than their own most immediate and short-term interests; a powerful argument for super-national institutions of criminal law enforcement in the interests of the wider world community.
As Ted Trainer notes, Australia has the worst environment record of all the developed countries, with the world’s highest mammal extinction rate and greatest production of municipal waste (687 kg per person per year, compared with the OECD average of 513 kg), and with non- renewable energy consumption higher than the OECD average. While other OECD countries have cut their energy consumption per unit of GDP by an average of 40% since 1970, Australia has made no significant reductions. In a world of dire and worsening water shortages, Australia has increased household water use in cities by 25% in 20 years.
Australia is the only country that failed to meet the London Convention on Sea Dumping’s 1995 deadline to cease ocean dumping of industrial wastes, and continues to dump highly toxic heavy metals, chlorine and other compounds into its coastal waters. At the same time, Australian forests continue to be cleared at world record rates of around 5000 square kilometres a year. As Bob Brown and Peter Singer point out, an estimated 5 million hectares of native vegetation was cleared in the decade 1983–93. ‘In 1990 alone, 664,000 hectares were cleared. This is in the same league as rainforest clearing in Brazil, estimated at 1.1 million hectares in 1990-91.’ Where legislation has been introduced to try to slow such clearance, as in NSW, the State governments have been hopelessly lax in enforcement.
One third of Australia’s semi-arid zone of 1.8 million square kilometres is still being grazed commercially by cattle or sheep, mostly on huge properties owned or leased by ultra wealthy individuals and private corporations. But the land does not have the capacity for commercially viable beef production, with soils low in nutrients and ‘fertility depending on the recycling processes of fragile ecosystems and the maintenance of the top few centimeters of the soil profile’. The hooves of cattle and sheep destroy this vital topsoil, rapidly degrading the fertility of the land.
Neither can the fragile, old and poor soils of Australia continue to support current wheat production. ‘It has been estimated that with the export of our 1989 wheat crop, some $200 million worth of soil nutrients left the country too.’ Landcare tries to stem the tide but ‘does not have the baseline studies it needs. It also lacks the backup of laws to halt clearance of native vegetation and to ensure the protection of native biodiversity on private as well as public land.’
Classical Liberals might claim that the only victim here is the nation itself; the crime is otherwise ‘victimless’, and should, therefore not be counted as a crime at all. But as with the chronic alcoholic or drug addict the burden ultimately falls on the wider community to care for the body destroyed by decades of dissipation, and for the dependents, terrorised or abandoned.
Australia’s very high rates of consumption of fossil fuels — along with the massive rate of old-growth forest clearance — as well as representing far more than its ‘fair share’ of non-renewable resources, means that it also contributes far more than its ‘fair share’ of greenhouse warming of the surface of the earth. This means the destabilisation of ocean and air currents producing significant changes in the weather, altering the frequency and severity of bushfires, droughts, tropical cyclones, floods, landslides and coastal erosion.
Rising sea levels will destroy farmland with salination, as well as flooding of soils, fresh water supplies and cities, with a rise of one metre inundating five million square kilometres of the world’s lowlands, destroying one-third of all cropland and creating 50 million environmental refugees. This would include flooding one quarter of Bangladesh, one-seventh of its cropland, and displacing 12–15% of its population. So would such a rise inundate 12–15% of Egypt’s cropland, with much of the heavily populated Nile Delta flooded if the seas rose just 50 centimeters. In the Pacific region, parts of Indonesia, as well as hundreds of Pacific atolls would be flooded after first losing their fresh water.
Extrapolating Australia’s current policies towards refugees into the future, it is far from clear that these desperate displaced millions will meet with a friendly reception should they seek sanctuary amongst those most directly responsible for their plight. Rather, like current victims of super-exploitation and repression overseas arriving by boat on Australian shores, they can presumably expect to be locked away in appalling concentration camps in the desert, awaiting deportation back to their flooded homelands.
While Australian researchers have led the world in developing sewage treatment and sustainable energy systems, such as the solar cells developed by Martin Green and his team at the University of New South Wales, it has been the politicians and entrepreneurs of other nations, such as Spain and Germany, who have encouraged and supported the further development and application of such systems. Those in Australia have provided no such support. As Ian Lowe points out, while the Spanish PM has installed Australian designed solar panels on his roof, Mr Howard angrily removed similar panels put on his roof by Greenpeace members, and saw that the installation team members were arrested.
While other nations have extended effective sewage treatment and imposed carbon taxes and restricted motor car access to city centres to reduce fossil fuel consumption, successive Australian State and federal governments have completely failed to follow these leads. Instead they have continued to dump untreated sewage and industrial waste into the ocean, subsidised diesel fuel with its potent carcinogenic emissions, and signed binding contracts with private corporations for the construction of tollways that rule out competition with new public transport for decades.
Most recently, at the sixth conference of parties to the climate convention (COP6) in The Hague, it was no surprise to see the Australian government siding with that of the USA in blocking progress towards implementing the 1997 Kyoto protocol, aiming to achieve a small reduction in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Instead, the very aptly titled Australian Minister for Forestry and Conservation argued enthusiastically for the right of the worst polluters, including Australia, to actually increase such emissions, on the ground of defining certain of their forested areas as ‘carbon sinks’, offsetting emissions through ‘soaking up’ atmospheric carbon dioxide.
It is true that trees and forest litter in the soil can function as long-term carbon sinks. But to see a Liberal government that has done absolutely nothing to stem the tide of destruction of Australian native forests using those that still remain as an excuse for increasing the nation’s carbon pollution of the biosphere is truly stomach turning. Perhaps even worse is support for a US position that would grant ‘carbon credits’ for newly planted forests while deducting nothing for accelerated destruction of old growth forests. This same Australian government has recently legislated to allow electrical power generation through burning ‘waste wood’ on an increasing scale.
Ecological concerns have never been top of the list for Australian policy makers in recent years. Instead, they have struggled with issues of reliance on the export of primary commodities with declining terms of trade, dependence on the import of capital and shortages of managerial expertise. Their solutions, dictated by economic rationalism, have centred on policies of ‘freeing up’ market forces through reducing tariff protection for local markets, privatising government instrumentalities and deregulating financial transactions. Despite massive — and ever increasing — historical evidence to the contrary, it continues to be claimed that such steps will lead to modernisation and growth of high tech industries, reduced unemployment and improved living standards.
In fact, such tariff cuts have encouraged the shift of manufacturing operations to low wage, low cost areas overseas, leading to appalling exploitation of overseas populations and business closures and job losses at home, particularly in car production, clothing and footwear. Such local unemployment, along with part-time, casual and sub-contracted work, has been increased and enforced by new — and ruthless — corporate managerial ideologies, demanding radical ‘downsizing’ and ‘rationalisation’.
Meanwhile, the expanding stratum of parasitic bullies — the ‘managerial and supervisory ranks’, ‘necessary’ for enforcing this intensified ‘discipline’ of work — continue to increase their demands on the limited wealth of the nation. While the real wages of the working population stagnate or decline, those of senior managers ascend into the stratosphere. Indeed, as the managers are well aware, without significant productive gains through large scale investment in new technology and the opening up of new mass markets, their own benefits crucially depend on their extorting an ever greater surplus from the declining group of actually productive workers. And like the priests of feudal Europe, promising the peasants a glorious afterlife in return for appropriate subservience and effort on Earth, so do the economist servants of the new feudal elite continue to promise better days for all sometime in the future as the reward for increasing sacrifice today.
Nor do the new feudal lords give back very much of their ill-gotten gains as tax to fund the social wage of health, education and welfare. On the contrary, accumulated and inherited wealth remain virtually untaxed, with lots of allowances for the well-off; company profits are taxed at a much lower rate than wage-earners’ incomes and capital gains tax has been reduced to half of income tax. Nor are they even willing to submit to the limited demands that the system does make on them. As Frank Stillwell notes:
ACOSS estimates that about $8 billion of tax revenue is lost annually through exploitation of tax loopholes and shelters; including $2 billion through the abuse of provisions regarding trusts and private companies, $1 billion through negative gearing, $600 million on company cars, $3 billion through ‘unfair superannuation breaks’, $1 billion through property tax loopholes, and $500 billion through artificial income splitting. The major beneficiaries are the relatively wealthy. It has been reported that, of 100 leading wealth holders on the Business Review Weekly ‘rich list’, 80 declared a taxable income of less than $25,000.
With their vast incomes, the irresponsible elite suck in high cost luxury imports, manufactured at the expense of necessary subsistence resources for the poor and destitute of the world. And, through so doing they increase the balance of payments deficit in Australia. The ever-declining revenues of the state mean ever-declining resources for environmental clean-up and regeneration and for assistance to less developed areas of the world.
Similarly, far from encouraging investment in the production of new technology, or reducing real costs to consumers, financial deregulation and privatisation have created an economic environment conducive to rampant speculation and monopoly price fixing by private service providers. High technology continues to be imported — at huge cost to the balance of payments — to replace rather than create jobs at home. The floated currency remains at the mercy of international markets, allowing wealthy overseas speculators to dictate government economic policy — enforcing the miseries of high interest rates (which, in turn, draw in more capital from overseas, increasing balance of payments problems through greater demand for overseas interest payments) and slashed welfare budgets.
As Stillwell points out, Australia has actually become more dependent on exports of basic commodities and low value-added materials than it was at the beginning of the trade liberalisation process, and the largest export remains that major contributor to global warming — coal. Not only does this material produce more carbon dioxide (per unit of energy generated) than any other fuel, but its combustion also releases sulphur oxides and sulphates, mercury and other toxic metals, along with carcinogenic organic compounds. This toxic pollution causes millions of cases of avoidable human illness and death around the world every year, with acid rain from coal destroying huge areas of forest in Europe, Asia and North America.
Along with combustion, coal extraction also creates environmental havoc, with deep mines acidifying streams and producing subsidence, as well as endangering the lives of mine workers, while surface operations destroy great swathes of natural ecosystems, dumping tailings into valleys and leaving the land unfit for future agricultural operations. So that, in recent years, even China, as the world’s largest coal producer, is rapidly closing down mines and establishing coal-free zones. And all ecologically enlightened commentators call for an immediate halt to the burning of coal as fuel.
But Australian entrepreneurs and politicians push on regardless, mining, exporting and burning this filthy stuff, and demanding special treatment from the international community because of the extent of their dependence on it. Nor is this material exported to poorer regions so as to reduce their dependence on destruction of old growth forests for fuel and subsistence farming. It goes instead to wealthy industrial areas to be burned up in the production of high tech luxuries.
Close behind coal as major exports, come wheat, wool and beef, the production of which, as we’ve seen, inflicts massive damage on local ecosystems and is quite unsustainable in the longer term. Again, such material goes to wealthy purchasers, rather than to those in greatest need. And its production uses up resources that could have provided sustainable subsistence for the poor and the hungry.
At the same time, Australia continues to export wood-chips — six million tonnes in 1995–96, mostly to Japan, produced through massive destruction of old-growth forests. As Singer and Brown observe:
The industry is effectively transferring the ancient forests of Australia to the rubbish tips of the northern hemisphere. It is an industry that harms those from whom it takes, as well as those to whom it gives; for it also undercuts the paper recycling industry in Japan, increasing the need for expensive landfill sites and causing jobs to be lost there.
Most recently, in face of such obvious ‘backwardness’ of the Australian economy, the Liberal leadership has identified a shortage of skilled labour — particularly in the areas of science and information technology — as a fundamental cause of the problem. And their proposed solution, rather than reversing the massive cuts they inflicted on the educational system in 1996, is to encourage migration of skilled labour from overseas; allowing the taxpayers of other nations (including much poorer nations) to foot the bill for creating such skills, and then stealing them. Very rational and efficient.
But should we perhaps, at least, see tariff reduction and transfer of manufacture as worthy sacrifices for the benefit of those — previously unemployed — third world populations now offered the opportunity of work in the factories of the transnationals? While it is true that transnational corporations are shifting their manufacturing operations to less developed regions to take advantage of cheap labour in those regions, low wages are still better than no wages at all. As Paul Krugman maintains:
Global poverty is not something recently invented for the benefit of multinational corporations … [and] the only reason developing countries have been able to compete with established first world industries is their ability to offer employers cheap labour. Deny them that ability, and you might as well deny them the prospect of continuing industrial growth, even reverse the growth that has been achieved.
A closely related argument also concerns those whose (allegedly) misguided ecological concerns would similarly seek to lock the third world into permanent backwardness and poverty. For even though these new third world manufacturing operations are indeed often particularly heavy polluters, the solution to pollution itself also lies in economic development, creating the wealth to pay for environmental clean ups and for new, cleaner technology. Certainly, continued poverty and backwardness is no solution.
The first things to remember here, of course, are the appalling conditions of many of these workers, including children, terrorised and bullied in the workplace, without job security, with low wages and long hours and appalling standards of health and safety. And this is all so completely unnecessary given the productive wealth of the modern world, as we see very clearly when we compare the salaries of the managers of the transnationals with the wages of their workers in India, China, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
We must also recognise the particular vulnerability of desperate third world populations in face of the massive advertising and promotional power of the big corporations. We must look at the consumption patterns of this new third world industrial proletariat, subject to ideological manipulation by western transnationals, persuaded to spend their hard won wages on ‘high status’, high cost but low value imported foods and drugs — including cigarettes — and other consumer goods that lower, rather than raise real living standards and prevent the local production of better, safer products. As Self points out, ‘much of the hard-won foreign exchange is spent on cars and imported goods for the new middle class, or on “cargo cult” luxuries such as coca-cola, widely advertised and drunk in poor countries which have excellent fruit drinks of their own available’.
It is true, as Krugman argues, that:
the growth of manufacturing — and the penumbra of other jobs that the new export sector creates — [can have] a ripple effect throughout the economy. The pressure on the land becomes less intense, so rural wages rise; the pool of unemployed urban dwellers always anxious for work shrinks, so factories start to compete with each other for workers, and urban wages also begin to rise.
But, by the same token, such rising wages and — heaven forbid — signs of unionisation and worker militancy can now simply signal another move to still more desperate and backward territories.
At the same time, this growing inequality of incomes undermines the creation of the mass markets that have previously fueled economic expansion and prosperity. As Stillwell points out:
to the extent that investment in production facilities is attracted to particular localities by low cost wage labour, there is a ‘race to the bottom’ in living standards. Different localities engage vigorously in begger-thy-neighbour competition but that leaves open the question of who will buy the products … if all nations are simultaneously engaged in reducing labour costs, there is a global tendency to economic over-production — unless the enhanced spending power of the managerial and professional elites outweighs the depressing effect of wage cutting.
So either the whole system disintegrates, or the gap between the new feudal elite and the rest of the population increases still further, with more and more people simply cut out of the world economic system.
And since the whole reason for the shift of manufacturing operations is to reduce costs, with low wages devoted to subsistence rather than environmental protection, it is ludicrous to argue that such a step will somehow contribute to protecting or reconstructing the global ecosystem. On the contrary, as Stillwell points out, it produces another sort of ‘race to the bottom’ as firms relocate their resource extractive and polluting activities in those countries most keen to attract capital investment, even at the expense of environmental standards.
The massive foreign exchange and stock market crises that struck a series of newly industrialising nations in 1997 and 1998 showed how weak and vulnerable such nations are in face of the whims and prejudices of wealthy foreign investors, with decades of ‘progress’ reversed overnight in some cases. Australia’s voice is hardly to be heard amongst those calling for radical reform and regulation of the world monetary system to avoid further such disasters in the future.
Recent developments in Papua New Guinea with massive pollution of the Ok Tedi and Fly river regions through dumping of tailings from BHP’s copper/gold mine in the Star Mountains, along with the cyanide spills from Australian mining operations in Eastern Europe, clearly demonstrate the attitude of Australian multinationals to indigenous overseas populations.
At home in Australia, the logic of continued emphasis on ‘global competitiveness’ in labour costs and downsizing draws the nation into this ‘race to the bottom’, forcing working class wages ever lower in a futile effort to compete with the already below subsistence wages of authoritarian overseas regimes. Local industries, producing for local consumption, collapse due to reduced demand, creating unemployment and general economic decline. In the process, Australian workers lose the ability to purchase the products of third world manufacture.
Of course industrial development is a vital necessity for the poorer parts of the world. But this needs to be an organic and balanced development of broadly based, mutually sustaining industries to replace — and repair the damage of — the one-sided dependence on raw material export bequeathed by decades of colonial and imperial domination. In all areas the emphasis needs to be, first and foremost, on balanced and organic self-sufficiency — with world trade as a bonus, rather than a vital necessity. Of course, this means a great deal of help from the first world to allow others to achieve such an outcome.
Along with cancellation of debt and much expanded direct assistance, a good place to start is with ethical trading agreements, enforced by the developed nations, that require certain basic conditions relating to wages, hours, health and safety and environmental sustainability to be fulfilled as preconditions for allowing goods to be imported. And if this does indeed reduce corporate investment in third world territories then such investment must be undertaken by authorities other than corporations. Such agreements have been defended by leading Australian trade unions — but roundly rejected by the leadership of the Labor Party, in favour of ‘unrestricted’ free trade.
Here again, Australia’s major contribution to the wider global community has been to provide an object lesson in how not to proceed into the 21st century. By pushing the politics and economics of greed and privilege towards their logical conclusion, Australia provides a grim case study in social irresponsibility and a powerful argument for international intervention.
The actus reus of massive and ongoing damage to life and property is well-established. What about the mens rea? Are our leaders (in the corporate and political worlds) so completely blind and irrational as to continue to believe their own rhetoric: the ludicrous and incoherent promises of better days for all achieved through economic rationalist and neo-liberal policies? Or does such rhetoric serve merely as a rationalisation to legitimate (or smokescreen to mask) a narrow, greedy pursuit of immediate self-interest for as long as they can get away with it?
It would be easy to attribute such ruthless cynicism to those on the political right, who, after all, hardly trouble to deny their disdain and disregard for their own workers, their own environment and the rest of the world. But when we see the Labor Party leadership still calmly endorsing, pushing through and applying these same commitments and policies, in defiance of the great majority of their own party membership and trade union support, and in defiance of a quarter century of empirical evidence of the real consequences of such policies, it is difficult not to find them equally blameworthy.
[*] Scott Mann teaches law at the University of Western Sydney.© 2001 Scott Mann. email: firstname.lastname@example.org
 Trainer, Ted, Saving the Environment, UNSW Press, 1998, pp.35-6.
 Singer, Peter and Brown, Bob, The Environment In Crisis, Text Publishing Company, 1996.
 Trainer, above, p.36.
 Singer and Brown, above, p.29.
 Singer and Brown, above, p.28.
 Singer and Brown, above, p.29.
 McMichael, A.J., Planetary Overload, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp.160-1.
 Lowe, Ian, ‘Australia Powers a Gain for Spain’, (2000) 2259 New Scientist, 7 October, p.53.
 Singer and Brown, above, p.12.
 See for example, Stillwell, Frank, Changing Track, Pluto Press, 2000, p.83. As Stillwell points out, ‘105 business executives “earned” over 41 million in the 1998-99 financial year. The CEO’s of Westpac and Coles Myer were reported to be getting around $8 million each in 1999.’
 Stillwell, above, p.219.
 Stillwell, above, p.74.
 Singer and Brown, above, p.31.
 Krugman, Paul, The Accidental Theorist, Penguin Books, 1999, pp.81-5.
 Self, Peter, Rolling Back The Market, Macmillan Press, p.145.
 Krugman, above, p.83.
 Stillwell, above, p.34.
 Stillwell, above, p.35.
 FitzGerald, Barry, ‘BHP in two minds about pulling plug on Ok Tedi’, Age, homepage, 12 August 1999.