Labor’s short memory


silenceOne of the first things the Rudd Government did when it came to power was remove gag clauses in government contracts with the not-for-profit sector. This was an attempt to start rebuilding relationships with the sector which had broken down so badly under the Howard Government’s culture of silencing dissent.

In an interview with The Australian in January 2008, Acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard said of the Labor Government: “We don’t want to stifle debate, we want to ensure that this country ends up with the best possible policy. This requires us to get the gag off and listen to those who know what’s going on”.

Could it be that Labor has a short memory?

This week we have seen the adjectives fly after news leaked of a so-called ‘secret’ document showing sections of the environment movement are considering using the courts to try and slow the massive mining boom. “Reprehensible”, “deeply irresponsible” and “puerile’ declared Treasurer Wayne Swan, who just last week was bemoaning the way that mining magnates spend their private billions to distort public policy.

Let’s be clear about what it is that some segments of the environment movement are proposing to challenge.

Nobody is proposing to shut the coal industry down. But is it that strange that some people should express concern about the largest single mining investment boom in Australia’s history?

At present Australia digs up around 400 million tonnes of coal. While that number means little to most people, consider this.  Each year Australia digs up enough coal to make a pile one metre deep, 10 metres wide by more than 40,000km.

And we are planning to more than double that. If Clive Palmer’s accurately named ‘China First’ mine goes ahead then Australia’s coal exports will rise by 25 per cent. This one single mine will increase our exports by a quarter. And there are another eight mines of similar scale on the drawing board.

The flood of new Queensland coal will travel on a flotilla of coal ships through the Great Barrier Reef. Indeed, it is estimated that a ship laden with coal will depart every hour of every day by 2020.

Is that the low carbon economy you thought the government was talking about?

Last week the Treasurer was concerned that the mining magnates had been too effective in having laws crafted to suit themselves. This week he is appalled that civil society might try to use the laws we already have to protect our environment, and other sectors of the economy, from the potential doubling of the mining industry.

The mining industry has done a wonderful job of wedging our politicians into answering the phoney question: “do we need a mining industry or don’t we”? This means that simple questions like “are the mines legal?”, “will they destroy more jobs in manufacturing than they create in mine camps?” or even just “would we be better off in the future if we simply slowed the rate of the boom?” are seen as examples of radical activism.

Despite the howls of outrage from the mining industry, I doubt too many Australians consider such simple questions as radical. And if Julia Gillard is as committed to ensuring that “this country ends up with the best possible policy”, then surely she shouldn’t mind a bit of scrutiny from environment groups?

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