Monday, December 17, 2012

When laws silence critics of a system failing children

On Saturday, The Age published a strong piece about a mother with a disability whose child was removed and placed in alternative custody by a court order despite the mother's clear capacity as a good parent.

Laws to prevent people speaking out about individual cases are found in a number of areas relating to children - including (as in this case) in family law, as well as in child protection. However, such laws are too often misused by governments not to protect the best interests of children, but to avoid scrutiny of a system that too often harms them.

Here's the unedited version of my letter published in The Age today responding to Mark Baker's story:

To make worse the removal of a child from a good mother with a disability, and the consequent violation of their human rights, a veil of silence has been cast over "Rebecca" in this sad case of seemingly lawful injustice.

Yet who benefits from this silence? In too many cases it is not children, but the system that is thereby allowed to escape proper scrutiny.

There are often good reasons why the identity of children should be protected, but there is little doubt that laws to achieve this are also misused to veil circumstances where children are harmed by the system itself.

Whether children are taken from good parents with a disability, harmed by a child protection system that fails, or even placed in an adult prison while subject to a child protection order, the law must allow appropriate public scrutiny that can offer a vital path to upholding children's best interests.

Laws that hide the effective abuse of children by the system cannot go unchallenged, and the voices of challenge must not be silenced.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Occupy "funeral" renews protest hope

A hoped-for political "funeral" for Doyle
at Melbourne Town Hall
A modest protest last Sunday marked a year since the forceful eviction of Occupy Melbourne protesters from City Square on 21 October 2011. Robert Doyle, an enthusiast for the eviction who had looked down imperiously on the police horses and more than 100 officers from a balcony of Melbourne Town Hall, will soon learn if he has been successful in his re-election bid for Lord Mayor.

Clouded by allegations he has refused to fully answer about campaign funding, an unrepentant Doyle again seeks the top job with a Federal Court judgment in the offing over whether the City of Melbourne and Victoria Police acted unlawfully and breached the rights of the protesters whose eviction he sought a year ago.

For the anniversary protesters, however, thoughts about Doyle’s continuing bid for power came with more humble reflections about what Occupy continues to represent.

Early on, a mere handful of people gathered near Spring Street on the lowest steps of State Parliament. Just a couple of Protective Services Officers patrolled their upper reaches, but there were no police save for a Critical Incident Response Team van that swung by and continued without apparent interest down Bourke Street.

Was this less the anniversary of a movement than its funeral parade? Would the scene be set for media coverage that would see the numbers as a vote for or against the value of Occupy as a whole?

A year on, with many of the global economic and social justice issues that have concerned the movement only worsening, and with the Sydney coronial inquest into the police tasering of Roberto Laudisio Curti, it would be a mistake to conclude that low numbers could possibly signal irrelevance.

Instead, they would, if anything, signal the challenge of sustaining a disparate movement amid what Noam Chomsky described in July as an “atomised society” where “people are kind of alone, and not by accident”.

Speaking to Gary Younge of The Guardian, Chomsky noted “very large-scale, coordinated, planned efforts to try to restore people to apathy and obedience”. Since Occupy, however, he said that activism had only grown. It was, Chomsky said, a movement of different aspects and strands.

And so it was last Sunday, as the small group at State Parliament was joined by a further group marching up Bourke Street, bearing a black cardboard coffin painted with the words “RIP Doyle” in a hopeful signal of the Lord Mayor’s political demise.

If a sign was sought of the movement’s continuing importance, it was seen in what followed, in the reaction of PSOs to a muted - indeed, funereal - protest on a quiet Sunday afternoon in Melbourne.

The PSOs conferred, radios were spoken into, and police began to gather - two vans at first, and five police officers standing aloof from protesters now lining Parliament’s upper steps with photographs and signs protesting police violence, the coffin at their feet as a funeral dirge floated mournfully in the air.

A PSO confers by radio upon the arrival of Doyle's coffin at
State Parliament
When the protest finally moved off for Melbourne Town Hall, the front and rear of the march were bracketed by police cars, the flanks by officers on foot. This was not so much a safeguard against negligible public risk than it was a will to set the parameters of the march, to mark the limits of its confinement by authority.

In this, the scene brought to mind Chief Commissioner Ken Lay’s comments about such protests distracting police from the prevention of robberies, burglaries and assaults. In what ill-conceived world is constraining peaceful protest a higher priority than such crimes? Was this in any sense meaningful law enforcement?

At the Town Hall the police numbers grew to eight, with five cars ranged along the kerb, across the road and around the corner. The coffin was laid beneath the very balcony where Doyle had witnessed the actions of police last year - the regular and special operations officers, the horses, and all the standard armoury now too often deployed towards compliance with police demands aligned questionably to the actual law.

There was a sadness at this protest, but not over its worth among the protesters. Instead, there was a pervasive sense that in a democracy police should not create confrontation in order to resolve it through the use of disproportionate and unnecessary force. We could have been mourning Roberto Laudisio Curti, or Tyler Cassidy.

The protest at a Flinders Lane police station is well-monitored
by police and CCTV
We ended our protest at the police station off Swanston Street in Flinders Lane. Protesters chalked the road and made their final speeches as police sergeants conferred on the footpath. The filming of protesters with an officer’s smart phone now presumably fell to the CCTV cameras bristling from the station itself.

In the aftermath of the October 2011 eviction, Radio National’s World Today program reported one protester’s words about the state of modern society, if not all who live within it: “We’re trained to see differences between each other; we can’t see what makes us similar anymore”.

Fortunately, one year on from the Occupy Melbourne eviction, and on this day unshaken by police violence, we could be more hopeful. We could still see and share what joins us all.


Listen to Jon Faine speaking with Doyle about Occupy

This post represents my personal views. I did not attend the original Occupy protest evicted from City Square and do not speak for the Occupy movement. I have participated in a number of subsequent protests as an ordinary person supportive of Occupy's aims.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Minchin's denial pays no mind to climate science

It is unsurprising that former Liberal Senator Nick Minchin has followed up his appearance on last night's ABC climate special and Q and A Climate Debate with an opinion piece in today's Age stating the thoroughly expected "news" that they failed to change his mind about climate change.

Yet, if anything emerged from last night, it was that there is no climate debate as such (as opposed to mere disagreement), Minchin's position is irrelevant to the issue, and there's little, if any, common ground between those who argue cogently for urgent action to address climate change and those who deny it.

I Can Change Your Mind About Climate sent Minchin and Australian Youth Climate Coalition co-founder and chair, Anna Rose, on a string of encounters with noted sceptics and scientists around the world.

It was a pity that a meeting with Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history and science at the University of California San Diego, failed to make the final program, for it was on the link between climate denial and the denial of tobacco as a cause of cancer that Minchin was most clearly rattled by Rose's clear and measured questioning.

In Oreskes' book, The Merchants of Doubt, the professor considers the key figures common to the denial of climate change and the campaign to discredit the science on the grim realities of tobacco. Oreskes shows how the tactics of Big Tobacco persisted long after the evidence of the disastrous health effects was well and truly in.

That the same pattern has been followed on the climate issue lies at the heart of Minchin's fallibility, but his television appearances and today's opinion reveal differences and limitations in how the media deal with the issue.

The Q and A Climate Debate included not only Rose and CSIRO head Megan Clark on the panel, but also authorities in the audience - including Professor Matthew England - who were in a position to immediately correct the errors of science put forward not only by Minchin, but by coal magnate and fellow panellist, Clive Palmer.

Unfortunately, it will be left to the letters column and follow-up opinion to correct without the same immediacy and effectiveness the errors Minchin repeats in today's Age, but they must not go unchallenged.

Short-term variations in demonstrable long-term warming trends, the continued (but threatened) existence of polar bears, cities that (for now) remain above the sea and the broken drought provide no basis for challenging the unfolding and ultimately catastrophic impacts of climate change, yet Minchin sells these denialist talking points as knock-out arguments.

Last night he also claimed there is "no empirical evidence" that humans are causing global warming and that the "science isn't settled", while today he writes of a "lively scientific debate" that he hopes will continue.

For Minchin, it does not suffice that the science is verifiably in to the extent that global warming is happening, is caused by human activity, and indicates more not less urgent action with each new finding of research. He is forced to deny these facts - to sow doubt in Oreskes' terms - because the acknowledgment of facts would leave him nowhere to go.

Unfortunately for the former senator, the "facts" on which he seeks to stand are an iceberg long-melted in the sea when we consider the nature of verification of the claims of the respective sides, and their status beyond the mere "conviction" and "persuasion" he attributes to those, like Anna Rose, who base their case on peer-reviewed scientific research.

The omission of Oreskes was indeed a pity in this regard because what we do about climate change comes down to what counts as evidence, and how we can be assured that the conclusions put forward are actually robust and reliable. This is where Minchin's side falls away like an eroding coastline. It is the dividing line between claim and argument, between assertion and substantiated fact.

In his parade of sceptics, however, Minchin has offered a fixed target that I now hope will be closely examined by climate scientists and widely reported across the media. Such debunking of myths has been carried out in the past, but last night's programs offer an opportunity to do so in a substantial media spotlight at a critical time for our nation.

A disagreement is not a debate unless verifiable facts are attributed on both sides. While we cannot stop people disagreeing without reason (or for irrelevant reasons of self-interest), we can call them on their hollow arguments and not be delayed from necessary action in the national and global interest.

Last night Q and A ran my video question challenging Clive Palmer to invest his billions in zero-emission renewable energy instead of carbon-intensive coal. I was happy for it to be on, but I actually preferred another question I had submitted for Minchin himself.

That question asked who he thought were the appropriate umpires of questions of climate science. It also asked him why he was willing to appeal to a false debate in rejecting climate action, when he would surely never consider arguing against emergency surgery in hospitals based on a false "debate" about medical science. That is the frame in which we ought to see the self-interested challenges to climate action here and around the world.

Given the sides in this disagreement, it was a somewhat illusory hope that "common ground" would be achieved, and what passed for compromise looked more like the next move in the climate denialists' play-book. We need, according to Minchin and Palmer, not a price on carbon, but far more investment in research and development of green energy - to make it so cheap that everyone wants to use it.

That's actually true, but the rub is what will happen in the meantime if we fail to also price carbon. Without a carbon price and additional measures to curb our emissions, we can only expect that the continued burning of fossil fuels will cause emissions to spiral upwards to the point where they place any safe climate solution beyond reach.

Sounds a bit like telling us to keep smoking while Big Tobacco works on cigarettes that won't give us cancer, don't you think?

Update: Rose has now published her reply at The Age online.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Memo to ASIO re spying on coal protesters

Today's edition of The Age carries my letter (see "Not cricket, chaps") responding to yesterday's piece by Philip Dorling reporting ASIO's spying on green protesters who are fighting the expansion of coal by Australian State and Federal governments. Here's the unedited version:

MEMO to ASIO: Chaps, I need to give you the nod about some dastardly characters conspiring as part of a secret organisation that poses a direct threat to the interests off all Australian citizens, our allies, and a few billion poor people you may not be too concerned about but it would be nice to look after. This nasty outfit is called the Carbon Party, and draws its global membership from the big polluters and mainstream political parties who think climate change caused by human activities is a lot of rot.

Two of the blighters, federal and state energy and resources ministers, Martin Ferguson (codename "The Fossil") and Michael O'Brien, somewhat carelessly gave a joint press conference earlier this year at a carbon capture and storage launch in Morwell, where an extension to meet its funding conditions was also granted to a rather grubby brown coal-fired power project (since given the "green" light by VCAT).

Usually, these darklings are more careful to veil themselves in talk of their flimsy support for renewable energy and aren't quite so brazen, but they're ramping up their efforts to destroy our climate and collect those dirty coal dollars.

Their Victorian colleagues have abandoned the State 2020 emissions target, removed the cap on emissions from new brown coal power stations, and announced plans to expand the industry, including coal-seam-gas - all to be sold by a publicly funded spin campaign to persuade Victorians that brown coal is good enough to sprinkle on their breakfast cereal.

Their Federal operatives are paying a private company (NOSIC), and now seem to be asking you guys and the Australian Federal Police, to spy on peaceful protesters they want everyone to believe are more dangerous than terrorists.

Hmmm. They're actually not more dangerous than terrorists, and it would be a tragedy if you let some real terrorists through the net while you were wasting your time spying on coal protesters who are working hard to protect the national interest.

You should also seriously consider looking into the organisation and support of the Carbon Party in Australia - they're well funded, well connected, and seem to have the run of the place as our carbon emissions climb endlessly higher. That's not cricket, chaps. They have to be stopped. Get on with it!

Related media

Comments welcome.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Baillieu to spin coal fiction into "fact"

Yesterday, The Age reported the Baillieu Government's "Plan to head off protests on coal". This deceitful plan to sell brown coal expansion to the Victorian public itself acknowledges that "as part of action on climate change, many stakeholders expect to see a transition away from coal".

It's worth asking why, as we also note the fundamental obligation of any publicly funded government campaign to be based on truth.

Coal protest, which the so-called Coal Action Plan (CAP) aims to head off, is founded not just on the unavoidable high emissions from using coal - especially brown coal - as a fuel source, but on its significant health and environmental impacts, and on the clear threat posed to prime agricultural land.

There is no way (in the words of the plan) to "identify actions to address" these "issues" apart from leaving coal in the ground - the only form of carbon capture and storage we know that works.

Talk of "low-emission" or "clean" coal technology is self-contradictory, as there is no existing or foreseeable technology with emissions low enough to avoid a heavy contribution to climate change. Nor is there any such technology that comes even close to genuinely clean energy sources - such as solar and wind - that can be tapped by low or zero emission renewable technologies that are working right now around the world.

The government's "coal narrative" can only ever be a work of fiction; the narrative we need, one that can CAP our growing carbon emissions within safe limits, must be based on fact. The alchemy of turning coal fiction into "fact" does not become possible, even for Premier Baillieu, just because there are coal dollars to be made.

See also views by Lynn Frankes ("Next generation be damned") and Jo McCubbin in today's letters in The Age.

Comments welcome.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Ryan's "streetlight" defence of climate inaction

Victorian minister for the environment and climate change, Ryan Smith, last night offered a feeble "streetlight" defence of the Baillieu Government's climate change inaction.

Speaking on ABC 7.30 Victoria, Smith suggested the Government's scrapping of the State's 2020 emissions target, the slated expansion of its emissions-intensive brown coal industry, and the removal of emissions caps for new brown-coal-fired power stations would be compensated by emissions savings from programs such as more energy-efficient streetlights.

Ryan did cite other "complementary" measures to reduce emissions - including the likely-to-be-scrapped Victorian Energy Efficiency Target - but failed to quantify savings from such programs compared to the massive prospective emissions from the expansion of brown coal.

He asserted the State's role was now primarily to adapt to climate change, with responsibility for abatement and mitigation left to the Federal Government.

As noted earlier this week by Environment Defenders Office lawyer, Michael Power, in this the Victorian Government is relying on national measures to justify the scrapping of the State target at the same time as it attacks the carbon price with leader of the Federal Opposition and climate sceptic, Tony Abbott.

Smith asserted that, despite disagreement with the carbon price, there was bi-partisan federal commitment to the 5 per cent 2020 target - nothwithstanding the widespread questioning of the Federal Coalition's plans to achieve it. He maintained that with a federal scheme, a State target did not make sense, noting commentary during the week supporting his view.

State political editor for The Age, Josh Gordon wrote, for example that State emissions targets could be dumped if a national carbon tax were in place. However, he noted as a "crucial, yet overlooked caveat" the advice of the State Government's own review of the Climate Change Act that a State-based target be considered if the national scheme were "rescinded or substantially amended".

The caveat is important, but the central flaw in Gordon's piece is that Victoria's 2020 emissions reduction target should not be abandoned regardless of the adoption or otherwise of a national carbon price. If national measures were adequate on the science it might be another matter, but they are not.

In this regard both the State and Federal Government are guilty of effective climate change denial - making statements and even laws purporting to act on climate, while pursuing activities that render effective climate action impossible.

At both levels of government, this applies especially to the pursuit of coal. In February, for example, Martin Ferguson and Michael O'Brien, the respective Federal and State resources and energy ministers, together launched a carbon capture and storage project in Morwell, where a six-month extension to the contentious high-emissions HRL brown coal-fired power proposal was also announced.

That project has now won VCAT approval, partly on the back of the scrapping of the Victorian 2020 emissions target.

Even if it were granted that the State Government's role was primarily to adapt to climate change, there would be an implicit moral obligation not to make it worse through policies that can only serve to rapidly and massively increase the State's carbon emissions.

To further abdicate responsibility by abandoning prevention of climate change through State measures only mirrors the forlorn argument that Australia should not act as a nation until there is agreement on global action. Climate denial reigns - effective or explicit, the results for our global atmosphere will be disastrously the same.

Comments welcome.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Baillieu on target for risky brown coal push

A lot can be politically "justified" amid the fear of an economic downturn - cuts to spending, services and public sector jobs, the sale of assets, the short-sighted expansion of the brown coal industry, and now the abandonment of an emissions reduction target legislated with bi-partisan support under the former Brumby Labor Government.

Unfortunately, ideas that are bad even in good economic times remain bad in a downturn, especially when there is much more at stake than a resources windfall and the interests of powerful coal and energy companies heedless of their impact on a climate we all share.

On Tuesday, The Age reported the Baillieu Government's plan to greatly expand brown coal in this State. It is a move now cynically complemented by the announced scrapping of the legislated target to reduce emissions in Victoria by 20 per cent on 2000 levels by 2020.

The coal expansion is to be sold with a publicly funded "communications" strategy seeking to convince us of "the continued relevance of brown coal in a carbon-constrained environment". With the abandonment of the target, it seems even the constraints are now to be shed - at least in law, if not in terms of our global climate, where they are relentlessly tightening.

A big part of the "sell" of these changes is the protection of Victorians in an economic downturn, and the promise of future shared prosperity on the back of a brown coal boom. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to share the claimed benefits, but we are certain to share the risks.

Those risks are not confined to the threat to our climate - a threat already manifest in more frequent and extreme weather events and bushfires in Victoria. Also to contend with are the health impacts of particulate and chemical pollutants released by the mining and burning of coal in the Latrobe Valley, the contamination of the water table in coal-seam-gas extraction, and the potential loss of prime agricultural land we depend on for our food.

To these we must add the economic risks, of which it must first be said that the employment of Victorians in unsustainable, dying industries offers no formula for the future prosperity of local communities.

In July this year, Australia will have a modest but urgently needed carbon price. With at least the stated aim of reducing Australia's carbon emissions, such a carbon price, if it is to be at all effective, will need to rise over time to a level that precludes the very activities the Victorian Government now seems determined to encourage.

It can therefore make no sense to increase the dependence of any community on jobs that will disappear sooner rather than later. Instead, there is a moral obligation that rests largely with government to plan for the transition of those communities, and to create alternative employment in renewable energy industries that can also meet our power needs without the dangerous carbon emissions.

Moving away from an energy source so centrally implicated in dangerous climate change is admittedly hard. Our most emissions-intensive fossil fuel, brown coal currently provides over 95 percent of electricity in Victoria.

Instead of confronting that necessity, however, the Victorian Government has chosen the path of what may be termed "effective denial".

Such a term seeks to capture the phenomenon of governments that make statements - and even laws - purporting to address climate change, but in reality promote activities that render effective climate action impossible.

With its paltry 2020 target of a five per cent reduction in emissions on 2000 levels - on which the Premier seeks to rely - the Federal Government itself suffers a form of effective denial, but the disease has now clearly taken hold with the Baillieu Government.

We may suspect it has long been merely dormant. Effectively, the Premier's brown coal plan and the now-abandoned 2020 State target constitute a denial of climate change. They represent the policy equivalent of Tony Abbott's infamous description of climate change as "absolute crap".

Attempting to soften this stark contradiction is a baseless appeal to carbon capture and storage, a technology that is not only currently economically unviable, but technically unworkable at the scale or within the timeframe required. A question mark also hangs over the safety of buried carbon dioxide, while the energy required to drive the process is prohibitive and existing coal-fired power stations cannot be retro-fitted with the technology.

It's true that renewable technologies require incentives, including a higher carbon price, to become economic. There is no question, however, that a range of low or zero emission technologies is already available to safely deliver baseload power - as shown by the Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Stationary Energy Plan.

Victorians must call on Premier Baillieu to have the honesty and integrity to own the inherent contradiction of his claim to believe in climate action as he engages in the headlong pursuit of brown coal free of any real constraint on its emissions.

Like a burning coal in his hands, he surely cannot hold that contradiction in the face of sustained media exposure, and should then have cause to drop his disastrous plans.

Related media
Comments welcome.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

ANZ sheds 1000 jobs to fuel yet bigger profits

In the relative calm of the Australian economy, banks such as the ANZ are imposing the austerity of unemployment on thousands of workers to boost their multi-billion-dollar profits.

Yesterday The Age reported that, in addition to the 1000 jobs being shed by the ANZ, up to 10,000 jobs could go from the financial services sector in Australia within the next two years.

Today the paper ran my letter ("Blameless pay for global greed") responding to this coverage. Here's the unedited version:

So the banks, with their obscene profits, executive salaries and bonuses, and to protect their profitability and competitiveness from unfavourable circumstances, are set to impose the austerity of unemployment on perhaps 10,000 workers over the next two years. For the job cuts - beginning with Westpac and the ANZ - are indeed austerity measures, imposed on those blameless for the profligacy, greed and recklessness of global financial institutions.

Yet, with Australia riding the economic storm better than most, austerity does indeed imply blame on those who must bear its burden here. Workers unable to find jobs will be forced to rely on a welfare safety-net that the conservative champions of austerity seek at every turn to unpick. They will be forced into a job market competing against their peers in a sector-wide downturn, their options in public employment diminished - especially in Victoria, where the State Government will shed 3600 jobs.

On these happy tidings the ANZ share price increased yesterday [Tuesday], the numbers looking good for a corporation set to shed so much of its unnecessary human freight. If you are an ANZ shareholder - indeed a shareholder in any bank trading on the human misery of joblessness - please turn away from those who, without any semblance of genuine regret, or indeed emotion, can announce on television that this mass loss of livelihoods is merely "regrettable".
The bloodless headline of the ANZ's media release read, "ANZ announces changes in Australia to respond to emerging business environment". The Financial Services Union release spoke more plainly with "ANZ announces massive job cuts".

Detailed coverage aired on ABC News and the ABC's 7.30 Report.

Comments welcome.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Ferguson claims "neutrality" as he shores up HRL brown coal

Updated 14/2/12

In a move to "shore up" brown coal rather than properly support genuine clean energy alternatives, resources and energy minister Martin Ferguson yesterday announced that HRL has yet a further six months to get its long-flailing Latrobe Valley brown coal power plant together and meet funding conditions before it loses a $100m Federal Government grant. Ferguson also announced $100m for CarbonNet, a carbon capture and storage project, also in the Latrobe Valley and part of the $1.68b CCS Flagships Program.

The HRL announcement follows concerted community action to stop the polluting brown coal power plant, the tabling in Federal Parliament of a petition of nearly 13,000 signatures opposing it, and a recent public rally at which Labor's Federal Member for Wills, Kelvin Thomson MP, spoke against the project, on which he also addressed the Parliament in tabling the petition.

The announcement has been met with dismay and a commitment to sustained action by community campaigners opposing the project because of its dangerously high carbon emissions, the availability of abundant and genuinely clean alternatives such as solar, and a promise by Prime Minister Julia Gillard not to build more dirty coal-fired power stations in Australia.

Here's the unedited version of my letter published in today's edition of The Age responding to Katharine Murphy and David Wroe's report of the HRL project extension.
In throwing a "lifeline" to HRL's brown coal power project and more money at carbon capture and storage in the Latrobe Valley, Martin Ferguson comes clean in at least one respect - he's aiming at "shoring up the value of Victoria's brown coal resource".

Ferguson can imagine no low-emissions solution that leaves coal in the ground. Unfortunately exploiting coal and lowering emissions are essentially contradictory aims.

Ferguson claims a "technology neutral" approach to clean energy solutions, but those he favours with so-called neutrality in fact serve private coal interests and escalate dangerous carbon emissions despite empty claims of technological advancement.

If Australia is to contribute to a safer global climate, the selection of clean energy solutions cannot be neutral in assessing projected emissions.

Ferguson knows there are jobs in genuine clean energy, but prefers coal at the bidding of coal interests who have no monopoly over energy from the sun and the wind.

He should also know that the public campaign to stop his climate destruction - a broad-based campaign driven not only by Greens - will only grow stronger.
 The published version can be read in today's letters (scroll to "Minister shores up coal").

See also the ABC's investigation of clean coal, Cloud hangs over Rudd's clean coal vision, for which Ferguson refused to be interviewed.

Comments welcome.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

We're gonna stop HRL, fellas, so pull the $100m now

A great line-up of speakers and more than 400 nearly 500 people turned up at Victorian Parliament at lunchtime today (Wed. 1 Feb.) to call for an end to the HRL brown coal power station in the Latrobe Valley. (Why?)

Protesters obviously found it not only acceptable, but highly worthwhile to highlight that the project does not stack up economically and would be a disastrous misstep for action towards a safer climate.

The rally was organised by Greenpeace, Environment Victoria, and the wonderful Quit Coal campaign of Friends of the Earth.

Federal Labor Member for Wills, Kelvin Thomson MP, focused on the inconsistency of the project with Victoria's legislated 20% emissions reduction target by 2020 (not to mention federal targets).

He also noted the $100 million federal grant made by the Howard Government could be much better spent (I suggest redirection to renewables), as could the $50 million of State funding in Victoria - for example, by contributing to undergrounding powerlines in high-risk bushfire areas, a measure recommended by the Bushfires Royal Commission.

Kelvin also noted the lack of any private funding for the project, and a recent UN report calling for the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies by 2020 (see also this post on subsidies). For the full details of Kelvin's speech, visit his blog.

New Federal Green for Melbourne, Adam Bandt MP, also did a great job arguing for renewables over emissions-intensive (i.e. dirty) fossil fuels.

It was good to see some cross-party cooperation on this important issue, especially when it still seems to internally divide the Labor Party - it's a pity, for example, that Martin Ferguson can't seem to change tack from his current fossil-fuel-lobby cooperation.

There were three other speakers, and more about them will hopefully be written or posted as video on the web pages of the organisers.

(A wrap-up is now available from Quit Coal, including Ten News footage, and details of the tabling of a 13,000 signature petition against the HRL project in Canberra are available from Environment Victoria)

I was holding up the main banner with lots of other people, so I'm sorry I could only manage a hasty 40 seconds or so towards the end as Julien Vincent from Greenpeace vowed to continue the campaign even if efforts to end the $100 million federal grant were unsuccessful in the short term - which we are all hoping like hell they won't be.

The 40 seconds shows two things. First, the great crowd reaction, and, second, the difficulty of filming on a "smart" phone with big hands while holding a banner doing its best to demonstrate the abundance of wind energy in Victoria. Green Screen entry it is not.

Where to now?

Finally, there's going to be an action to maintain the pressure to end the HRL project next Thursday 9 February from 12.00-2.00pm in which we're all encouraged to ring, email, tweet and/or connect via all available or about-to-be-launched social media with prime minister Gillard, Finance Minister Penny Wong, and our respective local members (oh dear, that's Martin Ferguson in my case). I'll be in that (that is, it's in my diary as instructed, dear protest groups).

See also Rally says no to HRL coal power station in Victoria (from @takvera)

Comments welcome.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Making coal protest "acceptable"

Tomorrow (Wed. 1 Feb) an important coal protest will take place at 12.30pm on the steps of the Victorian Parliament to call for the end of a brown-coal gasification power station proposed by HRL in the Latrobe Valley.

Such protest should be a commonplace - as acceptable as protest about job security and conditions, the availability of affordable child care, or safer level crossings - but coal protest has been blackened in the eyes of ordinary people.

That's due in part to the governments and coal interests ranged against it. It's probably also due to the remoteness for many of coal-fired power generation - in Victoria, primarily in the Latrobe Valley.

Perhaps its arrival through long overhead lines seems for some to have cleansed coal-fired power of its carbon emissions, airborne pollutants, and other environmental impacts. By the time it reaches our lights and fridges, where it is undeniably needed, what could seem cleaner? How could anyone protest that?

Yet, before we dismiss as "radical" or extreme the growing and peaceful protests against the generation of electricity from coal, before we allow to pass unchallenged the documented surveillance of coal protesters, we should imagine this.

What if the burning of coal to meet our domestic energy requirements could only be undertaken house-by-house?

In some cases we might even imagine "fortunate" households sitting atop their own coal reserves. To the choking airborne particulates - implicated by medicine in cancer, heart attack and stroke - to the carbon emissions driving climate disruption, those "resource-rich" individuals could then add the ground-water pollution and environmental damage of mining itself - coal or coal seam gas, take your pick.

That at a trivial level these problems are seemingly concentrated elsewhere fails to negate the health and environmental impacts of coal-fired power in the Latrobe Valley, or the pumping of emissions into a global atmosphere we all share, an atmosphere that does not care about the geographic location of an emissions source.

When they protest, it is coal's dark and central role in this process that campaigners oppose.

Australia is the world's largest exporter of coal, and is set on the headlong expansion of coal exports. Despite a wealth of renewable energy sources that could slash Australia's total and per capita emissions, we also persist in our heavy reliance on coal for domestic power generation.

Yet scientists consider the end of coal essential if we are to seize the fading opportunity for a safe climate future.

Some may be tempted to reply that we now have a carbon price, a modest 2020 emissions reduction target and a seemingly substantial but very distant 2050 target. They may argue that Australia is doing what it can to take "economically responsible" climate action.

Unfortunately, our efforts are more show than substance, with the Australian Government entered in two contradictory races - one the public relations race to persuade us it is doing its bit to "save" the climate; the other, the coal-driven race to destroy it.

In this race, the climate is losing, with the coal barons racing off 50 metres and the protesters heavily handicapped.

To make matters worse, a recent report in The Guardian suggests that not only are fossil fuel interests starting a long way ahead, but they are also being boosted by "performance-enhancing" subsidies.

The report considered modelling by the International Energy Agency on the effect of ending global fossil fuel subsidies - currently some 500 per cent greater than those available to renewables.

By 2035, the modelling projects a saving of 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, or around half the estimated emissions cuts needed to keep global average temperature rise within two degrees Celsius.

While this "guardrail" temperature limit is now considered unsafe by leading climate scientists, the modelling gives some indication of the impact of ending subsidies alone - not to mention the potential benefits of redirecting them to renewable energy technologies.

In Australia, fossil fuel subsidies have been estimated by the Australian Conservation Foundation at around $12 billion annually. It's also not hard to scratch beneath the surface to find large nuggets of support for coal from public funding.

In Victoria, HRL's Latrobe Valley "dual gas" power station project - combining brown coal gasification and natural gas - has $50 million in State funding and $100 million in Federal funding, the latter now under review.

The review follows the Environment Protection Authority's qualified 2011 project approval (subject to appeal at VCAT), which cut the output of the power station from the proposed 600 megawatts to 300. Unmet funding conditions for the Federal support have also played a role.

It is this review that Quit Coal and other climate groups will be highlighting tomorrow at 12.30pm on the steps of Victorian Parliament as a vital opportunity to end the project and the unacceptable growth in emissions it would otherwise threaten for decades to come.

Protesters will not be arguing for mass power black-outs - just that we finally begin as we must continue, by choosing proven renewable energy sources and technologies that offer not only energy security, but climate and job security as well.

It would be naive to suggest this will be an effortless transition, but we can share that effort fairly to avoid climate impacts that will otherwise be felt where they fall - in terms of more frequent and severe bush fires, for example, particularly in south-eastern Australia.

Sir Nicholas Stern and Professor Ross Garnaut have consistently highlighted the economic benefits of early intervention. However, beyond the figures, we must acknowledge that the need for climate action is a matter of science as surely as emergency surgery is a matter of medicine. A vital part of that action is to leave coal safely in the ground - the only existing form of carbon capture and storage we know to be safe.

Governments at State or Federal level cannot defend inaction because they consider action politically difficult, because they have failed in their obligation to plan a future we can sustain, or, more damningly, because individuals such as Federal resources and energy minister Martin Ferguson are too close to powerful coal interests.

It is further reprehensible that any government should seek to veil inaction by demonising coal protest.

Protest against coal is an act of citizenship in the Australian and global interest. That's why I will be at Parliament tomorrow in my lunch break joining the call to stop HRL - it's acceptable because it's high time we Quit Coal.

For further information:

Read Environment Victoria's Eight Good reasons to cut HRL's government funding.

Updated 8.47am Wednesday 1 February 2012

Comments welcome

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Open-sourcing Martin Ferguson

I say it's time to turn the tables in the open-source stakes against Martin Ferguson. As many will know by now - including many in the energy and resources minister's own Batman electorate - Ferguson has been pushing a spy-on-the-protesters campaign to undermine public interest protest and to defend - with the help of ASIO, the AFP and others - the private interests of carbon-intensive resources companies.

Part of the campaign is the Government's hiring of a private firm, the National Open Source Intelligence Centre (NOSIC), to gather what it claims is publicly available information on green protest groups (we don't actually know which information sources NOSIC uses).

Sadly, no-one really knew about this or could subject it to any kind of public scrutiny until Fairfax journalist Philip Dorling recently reported on information he obtained through freedom of information requests.

But shouldn't the information we need to make informed decisions about the policies and decisions of our leaders be freely available, without the need to make freedom of information requests that are too often vetted by the very people who do not want to make that information available to us?

Indeed, too much information is denied, obscured or difficult to find for no public interest or valid privacy reason, but that's where protesters themselves and civil society organisations like the non-partisan OpenAustralia Foundation (Bravo!) can step in to help.

Together, we can open-source Martin Ferguson in a collaborative project that we might like to call the Ferguson Open Source Information Links (FOSsIL) project. #FOSsIL might even be quite a nice Twitter hashtag to let everyone follow what's going on.

To start the ball rolling, here are some easy ways to keep track of Martin Ferguson. They're all open source, there's nothing in the least bit sneaky about them, we can all own up in good conscience to using them, and we'll be doing it not for profit, but in pursuit of the public interest goal of informing ourselves to campaign more effectively for a safer climate.
Some of these sources also allow you to subscribe to email alerts, or to RSS feeds for those who use them (RSS in Plain English explains very clearly how news feeds work).

Of course, this is only a handful of genuinely open sources, but it's a useful start. It's important to read widely, because some of Martin's most climate-unfriendly announcements are made - indeed proudly touted by Martin himself - in Australian and international business media, for example.

Got any good sources of public information about Martin Ferguson? Why not tweet them using the #FOSsIL hashtag!

By the way, I should mention that the pictures in this post are from the Say No to NOSIC protest organised by Occupy Melbourne at Ferguson's Preston electorate office last Thursday.

Comments welcome.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

That's a pretty clear "No" to Ferguson's NOSIC

Lots more photos and video will be available shortly, but Say No to NOSIC, today's Occupy Melbourne event at Martin Ferguson's electoral office, was a very positive coming together of disparate groups - all there to defend public interest protest against private interest spying.

I travelled by 86 tram with a group from the City Square, and it seemed an appropriate beginning that Melbourne City Council officials were there to request the removal of Occupy signage - please do not despair, minions, life can be more meaningful, as we were all about to demonstrate.

When we arrived at Martin Ferguson's Preston electorate office, an advance protest party was already there in force, as was a contingent of Victorian and Australian Federal Police with enough vehicles to give the strange impression of an outdoor law enforcement vehicle showroom.

I asked one besuited young officer if she was from ASIO. "Of course," she replied - rather wittily, I thought - before amending her answer: "No, Federal Police". Unfortunately, not all the officers present had so admirable a sense of humour, with reports of officers swearing at protesters who strayed onto the road to connect with the sympathetic passing traffic. Unfortunately, the AFP's own traffic-stopping antics created far more risk, and they were urged to move on by the crowd.

It was a cause of some amusement to the gathering that Ferguson's office had been closed in response to the protest on "occupational health and safety" grounds. It occurred to me then that if Ferguson is allowed to continue with his lust for burning and exporting fossil fuels, we might just have to close the planet. Fortunately, many worthy campaigners stand in the way.

Occupy Melbourne's Nick Carson did a great job on the microphone, speaking himself but also facilitating a series of speakers in a truly participatory spirit.

Among these was Quit Coal's Shaun Murray, recent author of a powerful opinion piece making the case for democratic protest against coal, and giving the lie to Ferguson's spin regarding the imaginary "risks" posed by protest groups.

Murray had earlier participated in a very funny Tuesday protest filmed to the accompaniment of music from Get Smart.

The addresses continued with Friends of the Earth's Dr Jim Green on Ferguson's complementary delusion that we should not only burn or sell all our coal, we should sell uranium too in a dangerous pretence of action on climate change.
Historian and ALP member Wil Wallace voiced his own disappointment at the party he has followed, a disappointment he has channelled into participatory democracy and protest.

Sadly, we also heard testimony of spying on lawful and peaceful coal protests, including on children, in Queensland and elsewhere - spying that simply isn't justified on any public interest basis - whether or not, as one speaker rightly pointed out, that spying is undertaken by government, or by private agencies directed by government, such as the National Open Source Intelligence Centre (NOSIC).

In accordance with the participatory nature of Occupy, everyone was afforded an opportunity to take a turn with the microphone, so I decided I would also say a few words, transcribed here from my notebook scrawls:
We are here today to Say No to NOSIC, the private firm engaged to spy on lawful and peaceful protesters under the direction of resources and energy minister Martin Ferguson, our local Batman MP.

The Australian Federal Police are here not to repel any real threat from us - we are lawful and peaceful protesters.

They are, however, here to defend a threat - to protect and perpetuate the threat of Martin Ferguson to our climate.

We are here today thanks to Occupy Melbourne, to Say No to NOSIC, to say no to spying on behalf of private interests against public interest campaigners seeking a safer climate. We are here to oppose those who work for the benefit of the 1% against the common good.

We are here to say no to that, and to send a message to Martin Ferguson and the Gillard Labor Government, that the 99% will be heard, that they will be heard on the globally urgent question of climate.
The protest wrapped up with a group photo and chalked messages on the footpath in front of Ferguson's office (my own, "Regards, DL-H"). This was a positive protest organised to communicate a very serious message, and I commend Occupy Melbourne for their democratic achievement.

P.S. Don't forget Friday is National Check in with Martin Ferguson Day. Please ensure your heart is in the right place, and report on yourself to help the government save money on spies!

Comments welcome.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Ferguson spy skit has point of serious protest

If you haven't seen Quit Coal's very amusing short video about Tuesday's action against Martin Ferguson's spy-on-the protesters campaign, it's a must-see, with a very funny punchline about a certain fictional cat.

Unfortunately, the video is also a perfect illustration of the misuse of public resources not to fend off a threat, but to defend and perpetuate one - the Member for Batman himself, resources and energy minister, Martin Ferguson.

That's right - Ferguson is the threat we need to worry about as he works to expand exploitation of the fossil fuels that - burnt here, or exported then burnt - threaten to wipe out any carbon emissions savings from a carbon tax and clean energy development.

In the terms the Batman MP might use, there was no threat from the protesters, who dressed as spies to deliver a "secret" dossier about the coal barons. Ferguson knew there would be no violence or unlawful activity, just an inconvenient point to be made about his contribution to disastrous climate change. Unfortunately, he's the real face of the Gillard Labor Government on climate.

The assembled Australian Federal Police must also have known of the lack of any non-imaginary threat, and yet there they were, perhaps as genuine but unrelated threats elsewhere went unaddressed - witness the parallels between this action and Robert Doyle's nonsense with police attendance at various Occupy sites around the city while real crimes elsewhere just had to go unprosecuted.

The point Ferguson was really making is that he thinks he has the power to not hear directly from protesters, those among the 99% championed by Occupy Melbourne, and of course in this case from the ranks of the worthy activists of Quit Coal and Friends of the Earth.

In that sense, the video's use of the theme music from Get Smart was very appropriate. I can hear Ferguson grumpily pronouncing, "I didn't hear you", and - when the protesters ask "What part didn't you hear" - Ferguson replying, "The part after you said, 'Now listen carefully, Martin'".

If you'd like to contribute to the effort to improve Martin's hearing, please come to the second of this week's three actions, Occupy Melbourne's Say No to NOSIC* protest, at Ferguson's 159 High Street Preston electorate office (Google Map) on Thursday 12 January from 4.30pm, or meet at the City Square at 3.30pm to proceed there together by tram.

Further details are available on the Facebook page for the event.

After that, Friday is National Check In With Martin Ferguson Day, in which you let Martin know what you've been up to in the way of public interest activism to help the Government save money on spies by cutting out the middle-man (sorry, NOSIC*).

*NOSIC is the private intelligence-gathering firm spying on climate protesters for the Government.

Comments welcome.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

More bad news for spymaster Ferguson

Updated 6.54pm.

The continuing public backlash over resources and energy minister Martin Ferguson's spy-on-the protesters campaign spells more bad news for the Batman MP turned private interest campaigner and spymaster.

The wave of letters in yesterday's editions of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald continues in today's Melbourne broadsheet. Quit Coal and Friends of the Earth campaigner Shaun Murray has also today published a powerful opinion piece making a strong case that the risk to Australia is from the coal barons, not protesters.

The coverage came as protesters prepared to gather at Ferguson's 159 High Street Preston electorate office today at 12.30pm (Quit Coal) and on Thursday at 4.30pm (Occupy Melbourne).

Together, the coverage and protests send a strong message saying no to a spying campaign that pits the private interests of emissions-intensive resources companies against community campaigners working in the public interest to achieve a safer climate for everyone.

Here's my letter in today's edition of The Age ("Ferguson must be resisted").
FOLLOWING Saturday's excellent reports by Philip Dorling, it is heartening to see such a united voice opposing the Minister for Resources and Energy Martin Ferguson's undemocratic ''spy-on-the-protesters'' campaign.

Accounts by protesters are emerging across Australia, but notably also in Mr Ferguson's Victorian federal electorate of Batman - a focal point for public interest campaigns to achieve a safer climate.

Mr Ferguson has shown that his local constituents don't count - it's his ''carbon constituents'' from the resources companies he really represents. Sadly, he's willing to engage the government's intelligence-gathering machinery to ensure the companies get their way. He must, and will, be resisted.
 Comments welcome.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Strange freedoms of information

With all the controversy and plans for action in response to Martin Ferguson's spy-on-the-protesters campaign, I was slightly surprised to see my letter ("Keep us informed") in today's edition of The Sunday Age responding to Farrah Tomazin's excellent report last week, Baillieu's FOI watchdog more like a toothless tiger.

Purely coincidentally, of course, the two issues are strangely linked.

While citizens face great difficulties getting their hands on public interest information to critique government and inform their participation in civil society, our politicians and governments - "influenced" by vested corporate interests - rent private firms and use their own formidable intelligence-gathering machinery to unaccountably gather all kinds of information about citizens against the public interest.

Hence "strange freedoms of information" - we're not free to get the information we need to be good citizens; politicians and government are excessively free in collecting information about us to meet ends too often at odds with the common good.

My letter doesn't appear to be online yet, but here it is as submitted:
I welcome the continuing focus by The Sunday Age on freedom of information under successive Victorian governments (Baillieu's FOI watchdog more like a toothless tiger, Opinion, 1/1).

A functioning society in which government can be held accountable for its actions demands an efficient, independent and transparent gateway to public interest information, not needless barriers to its access. Farrah Tomazin nails the claimed aspirations of the Baillieu government on the former, and paints a damning picture of the latter - a toothless system little improved by the mere appearance of reform.

I would suggest, however, that scrutiny of FOI should not prevent us calling for a significant expansion of the scant information government is obliged to release without citizens needing to request it and then being diverted to a bureaucratic process. To gauge government performance, we shouldn't need to piece together a jigsaw of information variously delayed, fragmented, mediated, obscured or denied.

Instead, government should be called on to develop with civil and public institutions - including unions, not-for-profits and universities - indicators that show how effectively outcomes are being achieved. I mean by this not evidence of bureaucratic outcomes based on economic rationalism, but of the effects policies and programs have on real people, whose voices must also be heard in this process.

At the federal level we have MySchool purporting to represent the performance of schools. At state and federal level might we not call on governments to show their own performance in real time on transparent and collaboratively developed websites that could include, for example, MyHealth, MyJobSecurity, MyCommunity and MyClimate?

We then might better hope for our collective well-being.
Comments welcome.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Occupy to send a strong message to Martin Ferguson

I had the pleasure of attending my first General Assembly at Occupy Melbourne today, and did so to urge action over revelations that Martin Ferguson has actively promoted spying on lawful green protest groups pursuing the public interest, and is urging harsher penalties for some protest activities.

The General Assembly resolved that a protest with environment groups will be held at 4.30pm next Thursday 12 January at Martin Ferguson's Batman electoral office at 159 High Street Preston (Google Map).

The spying claims, backed by freedom-of-information requests, were published in today's edition of The Age in two excellent articles by Philip Dorling - Spies eye green protesters and The watchdog's kennel in clandestine Croydon

My own thoughts as one of Ferguson's Batman constituents and as a climate campaigner were captured in my earlier post, Protest magnet Ferguson calls on the spies

It was good to see Occupy Melbourne engage so energetically on this issue, mirroring Noam Chomsky's recent view that the movement was "pretty fantastic", but needed to engage on current issues where it could actually make a difference. The revelation of spying against civil society protest groups is certainly one such issue in Australia.

What I hope we will see from next Thursday's protest is a group that stands for so much showing that it can unify and throw the spotlight on particular issues as needed.

Today I proposed that the event be the first in a series of Occupy plugs in ... events - namely, Occupy plugs in Climate. The range of serious issues with which the movement concerns itself could then revolve through the Occupy spotlight in a similar way, with an Occupy plugs in Indigenous Justice surely a looming priority.

As well as unifying and highlighting the disparate environment groups that will be called on to take part, I am also hoping that next Thursday will see Occupy specifically acknowledged and respected as a wonderful and powerful expression of participatory democracy.

Occupy around the world has put itself bodily on the line to demand equity, justice and genuine democracy for the 99 per cent, who are too often exploited by the kind of vested, wealthy corporate interests that are Martin Ferguson's true carbon constituents.

So, if you can, please come along and show your support. Visit the Occupy Melbourne website or Facebook page, follow the movement on Twitter @OccupyMELBOURNE or search for the #OMEL hashtag, where you'll see lots of updates before next Thursday's powerful and necessary message to Martin Ferguson.

Comments welcome.

Protest magnet Ferguson calls on the spies

Important update: Come to next Thursday's protest (12/1) at Martin Ferguson's Preston electorate office.


Media revelations that resources and energy minister Martin Ferguson has called on the spies to monitor environmental campaigners and urged stiffer penalties for protests should come as no surprise to anyone who has worked on those campaigns and protests in the hope of a safer climate.

What may surprise the federal Batman MP's constituents, however, is the range of peaceful democratic action Ferguson considers a threat.

The minister's rhetoric is full of dire talk about "energy security", disruption to "critical infrastructure" and the prevention and deterrence of "unlawful activity", but the overwhelming majority of the many protests Ferguson attracts are entirely lawful, peaceful, and - inconveniently for him - devastatingly coherent in their critique of his passion for uranium and emissions-intensive fossil fuels.

Ferguson may like to paint activists as potential terrorists, but where is his evidence to support that smear? How many acts of actual criminal sabotage by environment campaigners have really taken place, and how many has his wasteful, anti-democratic enthusiasm for spying prevented? Isn't it really more about winning the public relations war on behalf of the minerals and resources lobby?

The extent of his distaste for the protests of civil society may not be fully known by his local constituents, but they are increasingly connecting Ferguson with his federal role undermining our climate security and preserving business-as-usual exploitation of fossil and uranium "resources" that need to be left - safely sequestered - in the ground.

These connections are as often forged by small-scale protests in his electorate as they are by large-scale protests at coal-fired power stations such as Hazelwood. And, judging by his past performances, they're the ones that really spoil the minister's day.

"... I believe that the right to peacefully demonstrate is an essential part of freedom of speech in a democratic society..."

That's Ferguson in a 9 September 2009 letter-box message to Preston constituents after protesters at his opening of an environmental refurbishment of a local park pointed to the stark contrast between worthy local green initiatives and Ferguson's climate-heating exploits.

The letter-box effort followed a string of letters to local newspapers from climate campaigners pointing to this inconvenient truth. This was also the letter in which Ferguson falsely accused me of being a "Greens activist".

Sounding a more ominous note, however, was his meeting with myself and other climate campaigners in his electorate office on 9 April 2010. The result of a rare, last-minute invitation, that meeting has been recounted in Crikey and in more detail on this blog, but it was an unguarded comment by Ferguson that pointed to the kinds of activities that have landed him in hot water in today's media coverage.

It wasn't his rather grumpy remark to me that "I've read your blog. You're not worth talking to", after I began on what he deemed a "cross-examination" on the energy and climate issues we had come to discuss. Instead, it was his response to my happy claim of a substantial readership.

"We know how many hits your blog gets," Ferguson replied.

It was this statement that hinted at the pervasive monitoring that has now been revealed in today's important public interest reports by Philip Dorling in The Age.

While most activists would be used to seeing a range of government departments, including police, in the reports of server traffic to their websites, they and the public are not nearly as aware as they should be of the extent of what can only be called spying, and of the sinister mismatch between this expensive and fruitless activity and the democratic rights of citizens to protest and seek change in the public interest.

Contrast with this the modest capacity of civil society campaigners, groups and watchdogs to track and shine light on the closed-door fossil fuel and uranium lobbying that wears out the carpets in ministerial offices.

The threat of such hidden, unaccountable activity is real and it's global. That's why protesters rightly dog Ferguson - they want you and your children to be safe.

I hope this message gets through to the minister. One thing is certain - it's sure to be monitored.

Amendment: The date of my meeting with Martin Ferguson at his electorate office has been corrected from the original version. The meeting took place on Friday 9 April 2010.

Comments welcome.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Teachers among many voices stifled by job insecurity

Recent coverage in The Age (No job security for new teachers; School success depends on a secure workforce) has highlighted the impact of job insecurity in Victoria's public education system, and its implications for the State's young people.

Letters yesterday and today have offered further perspectives. Mine focused on the stifling effect of job insecurity on workers in teaching and other vital community services speaking out in the public interest on serious problems in the critical services they deliver.

Here's the unedited version ("A revealing angle" following "Disillusionment then departure" in The Age):
The recent coverage and letters about declining job security for teachers should give pause to every parent who has noticed the surprising end-of-year departure of one or more teachers they may well have had the pleasure of meeting at parent-teacher interviews earlier in the year. That was the case for me, and your focus on the issue has provided a new lens through which to view this unacceptable phenomenon.

Unfortunately, it is a lens with a panoramic view, given that the very same strategy is employed by the Victorian Government across a range of important community services.

Strangely, we are supposed to be reassured that the 3600 jobs slated to disappear from the public service by the December budget update will be found through cuts not only from voluntary redundancies, but also, tellingly, via the failure to renew existing fixed-term contracts.

As well as the barriers to sustainable lives and a high quality workforce this "flexible" job insecurity threatens, there's another side to precarious employment in areas where the government is very sensitive to media criticism. Insecure workers are fearful, their ability to mobilise is fragmented, and the voicing of concern about serious public interest matters within vital service areas is stifled - think teachers, nurses and child protection workers, to name just three examples.

As the late French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, noted in 1997, job insecurity is everywhere now [1]. However, he saw its origins not only in economic rationalism, but also in political calculation. We should resist both if we wish to see the lives of workers valued, and to benefit from the stronger services they can offer with secure employment in which they are at liberty to speak out on problems in the system.

[1] Pierre Bourdieu, "Job insecurity is everywhere now",
Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market, New Press 1998

Comments welcome.