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News from the front desk Issue No 321: on going backwards, all the way to Dark Ages

A company part-owned by Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest woman, is suing the government of Victoria for nearly $3 billion for loss of revenue it might have reaped by fracking the state.

In Queensland environmentalists who try to use legal argument to stop Adani killing the planet with coal mining are threatened by the Feds for waging “lawfare”.

Attorney-General George Brandis last year flagged he wanted to stop so called “lawfare” with his move to change section 487(2) of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act and “return (it) to the common law” so that he could eliminate the use of legal action to challenge projects such as coal mines on environmental grounds.

So one outfit is cool to use the law to get its way and prove a case; the other not. One is labelled a potential eco-terrorist and the other is lauded as the salt – or should we say, iron ore – of the earth.

The Murdoch press this week continued to ride on the ghost of its News of the World clickbait methods to carry out scathing attacks on environmentalists, including the Total Environment Centre, which works with the property industry and local government to improve sustainability outcomes.

It wants the tax deductible status of these groups cancelled because they “bite the hand that feeds them” with challenges to the Baird government agenda.

On Thursday we learned these are working. A prominent environmental group is being investigated by the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission, at a cost of tens of thousands of extremely hard won dollars.

Their crime? Supporting a program of action designed to protect the environment. They are not alone. There are at least another two or three being put through the mill by the ACNC.

Other companies with the mere suggestion of green enterprise, such as recycling, are being made to wait for 12 or 13 months for their tax deductible status to be approved, we hear.

This is despite the Parliamentary inquiry that has put out dissenting views on how the charitable status of organisations should be treated.

The inquiries were based on deregistering Deductible Gift Recipients in the environmental field if they do not spend at least 15 per cent of their resources on actual environmental tree planting and so on. You can just imagine the Wilderness Society or Greenpeace planting trees or cleaning up the waterways on the weekends.

Sue Higginson, chief executive of the Environmental Defenders Office, said there was clearly a rising trend to “silence or curtail” participation in an area that for decades has always benefited from participation and dissent.

In fact, it’s “very essential that the environmental law and policy embodies the idea of dissent and participation”, she says.

She has faith common sense will prevail. We’re not so sure.

How did we get to this?

Thing is to not dismiss the first bleatings of the loony right when they talk about extreme action. Such as George Christensen did in 2014 when he labelled environmental campaigners in the Galilee Basin eco-terrorists working against the national interest.

The journalists at the time called it “a bizarre speech to Parliament”.

Yet this is how public thinking is manipulated and sold a message. First you let the crazies flag the ambit claim, let the reaction flare, let it subside, don’t respond too hard at the minute. If asked, play dumb, say “who me?”

Then bring the idea back six months or a year later, or even two. Now the idea doesn’t seem so bizarre. We’ve heard it before. It’s starting to become our habitus. The outline of a blueprint is starting to take shape. Our muscle memory takes over and none of it is so shocking any more.

In the US we can see Donald Trump carving out a new public blueprint in the US (read global) stage. He’s talked crazy wild stuff, told lies, made lies seem normal, laughs at fake news and fooling the media.

Peak truth means you can say what you want. And the public gets used to it.

The thing is we humans adjust at the speed of light at new environments. It’s our evolutionary genius. And potential downfall.

Murdoch’s press was outraged that environmental groups would dare to challenge the hand that feeds it.

Yet that is fundamental to their work; their reason for being: to challenge the status quo to push for a better outcome. Otherwise why bother?

A decent democracy is glad to have that kind of robust challenge.

Government leaders might even, and often, be secretly pleased because they can use public pressure to argue for policy change. We need to remember that governments are not free to do what they want.

Witness that NSW Premier Mike Baird wanted to end greyhound racing. Clearly that was a personal commitment. And clearly he was forced to back down by public pressure, some of which might have received government funding or support.

Regardless of the logic; it’s emotion and a screaming headline that carries that day.

Massive slippage in participation rates for women

Some of us remember the launch of National Association of Women in Construction in Australia Square in Sydney. There were women, and plenty of men, about 40 or 50 from memory (albeit rusty) all with hopeful expressions happily chinking glasses in a sense of optimism to a new and brighter future for women in construction.

For two decades this brave incursion into probably the most male dominated bastion in history – aside, maybe, from garbage collection – has progressed happily it seemed. The annual awards grew from strength to strength. First at Town Hall, where it seemed the entire property world had come to celebrate, later at the casino in a spectacular that filled a ballroom and seemed to be a massive show of strength.

It didn’t last.

This week we read about massive slippage in participation rates for women in construction.

Despite all the work by the NAWIC, despite all the awards and celebrations handed out at these high profile awards every year and despite the support of a huge number of industry leaders, women have voted with their feet and left the industry.

We sadly learnt this week that in 2016 women accounted for just 12 per cent of the construction industry workforce – a massive 17 per cent drop in the past decade.

To blame are rusted on work practices that favour men (why? Because they can?) and outright sexism in the promotion stakes. That these two things are connected would surprise no one.

We are going backwards on this.

On Wednesday we also had a meeting with a senior female engineer who is keen to expand the number of women in engineering on the basis that diversity brings better results.

On gender diversity engineering beats construction by just one per cent.

Back to the future folks.

Anyone feeling like Sisyphus, the guy who kept pushing a massive boulder to the top of the mountain only to have it fall back down again?

A backflip of massive proportions

Speaking of Sisyphus, if you’re somehow still pondering who controls the Coalition, this week’s breathtaking 36-hour climate policy backflip should settle things once and for all.

An array of far-right, climate denying, head-in-the-sand back bench ideologues are calling the shots. And it took little more than a day for them to force both the Prime Minister and energy minister into a humiliating back-down on whether the government could consider an emission intensity scheme to cut pollution in the electricity sector, following the results of a climate policy review to be conducted early next year.

The question is, to what end?

It certainly isn’t for the majority of the business community. Speaking too soon, conservative Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox praised the government for not ruling anything out in its review.

Yes, in that tiny window between federal environment and energy minister Josh Frydenberg acknowledging an emissions intensity scheme in the energy sector could be considered, and then denying he’d ever said such an outrageous thing, Willox told ABC News 24: “The idea that some sort of baseline and credit system would be considered, some form of carbon price should be considered, at least the government is not ruling anything in terms of policy direction out. That’s a welcome thing.”

In a separate media release, Willox noted a number of “fundamental national issues” needing to be considered regarding climate policy, including the ability to meet international obligations, clarity and predictability of policy, the priority of secure supplies of competitively-priced energy, and transition arrangements for affected employees and communities as the economy was re-orientated to a low-emissions future (a future these climate dinosaurs don’t want us to see).

A report released around the same time as the climate policy review was announced, by Energy Networks Australia – the peak body representing electricity and gas transmission and distribution businesses – along with CSIRO, joined the call for an emissions intensity scheme.

Energy Networks Australia chief executive John Bradley said a volatile carbon policy would lead to higher costs or less reliable supply. With the Coalition now effectively painting itself into a corner on any effective climate policy, it seems these higher costs are all but guaranteed.

It isn’t consumers who will benefit from this climate vacuum either. The same ENA/CSIRO report found an emissions intensity trading scheme would be the cheapest path to a net zero emissions grid, with households by 2050 saving on average $414 a year compared to a business as usual scenario.

Another concern the network operators must have, and probably part of the reason they commissioned their report into grid transformation, is that fed-up consumers could soon just leave the grid altogether, sourcing their own clean energy from cheap solar backed up by soon-to-be-cheap-and-ubiquitous battery storage. Not that this is good news for those that don’t have the ability to defect, or for the taxpayers who have sunk countless billions into the grid over the years.

So if thwarting an emissions intensity scheme is not going to benefit consumers or the majority of business, then who will it benefit? It’s a question we really don’t even need to ask, though maybe we should take a look at the donation books just to make sure.

If we don’t watch out the slippage in our fight for the climate, our sense of justice, advances for women and minorities, and for truth itself, will send us all the way back to the Middle Ages.

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