Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Surat Underground Water Impact Report - part 2

This is the second post on the subject of the Draft Surat Underground Water Impact Report now out for review after the Queensland Water Commission today took its finding to Roma yesterday and Chinchilla today. See yesterday’s post on the background to the report and the geological formations involved.
This post looks at how the model was derived and examines the monitoring regime put in place by the QWC.  There were three key steps in designing the flow model: conceptualisation, construction and calibration.  In the conceptualisation phase, the designers took into account geological data and formation contacts in databases held by the Geological Survey of Queensland and the Department of Natural Resources Groundwater Database.

They also took into account the distribution and depth of the geological layers of the Walloon Coal Measures based on previous studies and developed hydraulic parameter estimates based on pump and drill tests, existing models and reported results.

They devised 19 model layers based the formations from the shallowest (Condamine Alluvium) to the deepest (Permian Sediments) and mapped out the groundwater flow between the layers. The layers are recharged by rain in the outcrop areas on the edges of the Basin. The model is further complicated by the Walloon Coal Measures (the main CSG bearing formation in the Surat Basin) which itself contains various layers of sediment of varying permeability. The model allocates three layers to the Walloon for simplicity.

The model covers an area 550km x 660km each divided into a 1.5sq km cell stacked into 19 layers.  Once constructed with initial hydraulic parameters, the model was calibrated to replicate pre-CSG conditions in 1995.  It was calibrated using groundwater levels from 1,500 bores in the groundwater database.  The model was designed to make predictions from the 1995 data both including and excluding petroleum impacts.  They added uncertainty analysis to provide 200 different predictions of drawdown for each model cell at different time periods. The upper and low five percent of the 200 were discarded as outliers and the maximum value of the remaining predictions was used in the report. 

The report estimates the CSG industry will draw an average of 95,000 megalitres of water a year over the life of the industry.  It will be higher in the next three years as the industry expands with the QWC with an average of 125,000 ML a year over the period.  This is why getting the water monitoring strategy right is so important. 

The water monitoring strategy involves monitoring of water levels in coal seams and surrounding aquifers. It will not monitor water quality (eg for contamination from fracking) or the volume of water extracted from wells. QWC will not conduct the monitoring – that will be left to the gas companies. Someone said to me today that was like leaving Ned Kelly in charge of the bank vault but the QWC assures us the companies have legal responsibilities and any anomalies will quickly be exposed.

The monitoring has six broad objectives. 1. Establish background trends not attributable to CSG. 2.Identify changes in aquifer conditions in petroleum development areas. 3. Identify changes in aquifer conditions near critical groundwater use (eg towns that rely on groundwater), 4 Identify changes in aquifer conditions near springs. 5. Improve future groundwater flow monitoring 6. Improve understanding of connectivity between aquifers.

There will be a regional monitoring network which will have 142 monitoring sites across the region (27 already exist) which will have 498 monitoring points (104 already exist). These sites will target different strata of the Surat and Bowen Basin including the Condamine Alluvium, Main Range Volcanics, Mooga Sandstone, Orallo Formation, Gubberamunda Sandstone, Westbourne Formation, Springbok Sandstone, Walloon Coal Measures, Hutton Sandstone, Evergreen Formation, Precipice Sandstone, Clematis Sandstone and Bandanna Formation.

At each site, water data is collected at least once a fortnight.  Queensland’s regulatory requirements provide for the UWIR to be updated every three years but there will also be an annual report.

Draft Surat Underground Water Impact Report - part 1

Surat Cumulative Management Area
I had much underground water on my mind today.  That was because I attended both sessions today in Roma where the Qld Water Commission were explaining their Draft Underground Water Impact Report (pdf, 8 meg) for the Surat Cumulative Management Area to the public.  The quick and dirty bottom line is that I don’t think the data supports a moratorium of the industry and as a worst-case scenario says the impact is moderate and manageable. However this is the first of several posts that will drill down into the report in some detail.  

The Surat Cumulative Management Area is a rough triangle drawn between Emerald in the north, Roma in the west and Toowoomba in the south-east. The geology of the region is complicated as the nature of the water. I had several concepts challenged including what are the Bowen and Surat Basins, what is the Great Artesian Basin and where is the gas stored. The Great Artesian Basin is not a continuous geological formation but a hydrogeological basin across many alternating geological layers. Similarly I used to think the Bowen Basin as the land roughly inland of Mackay including all the big coalmining areas of Emerald and Moranbah. The Surat Basin roughly went from Dalby to Roma.  But it turns out my understanding is that is faulty too. The Bowen Basin lives below the Surat Basin, it is only in the strip-mining areas at Moranbah where its coal formations come to the surface. 

Petrol and gas is a different mining process to coal and covered by different legislation.  The Draft Underground Water Report was required because the law allows petroleum tenure owners to explore for petrol and gas on private property and by necessity, there is some interference with the water on those tenures including the removal of the water. This is particularly so in coal seam gas production which works by reducing water pressure in the seams to release the gas. In the Surat Cumulative Management Area most of the mining is done in the Walloon Coal Measures (Surat Basin) or Bandanna Formation (Bowen Basin) which are geological layers of the Great Artesian Basin which have low permeability rocks alternating with high economic value aquifers and feed important springs.

The problem is that when water is removed, it affects a wide area around the gas well. This is compounded if there are a number of nearby wells also drawing out water. Today most of the groundwater in the Surat Region that comes to the surface is used by agriculture, industry, stock and domestic – some  215,000 megalitres a year. CSG is only responsible for 17,000 ML at the moment but that will rise sharply in the coming years as the four big projects (Santos GLNG, Origin APLNG, British Gas QCLNG and Arrow Surat Gas Project) take off.

When water is removed from the coal formations, water from surrounding aquifers will flow in.  So when the water pressure is reduced, it doesn’t necessarily mean less water. However it does mean there will be a decline in the water level of the bore that taps that aquifer.  The question is by why how much and to answer that question the Queensland Water Commission developed a groundwater model to predict the impacts of the CSG industry. They used vast reams of already known data on water levels and bores which they added to the known plans of tenure holders plus some science about the way underground water moves through the region.

The resulting flow model was complex. There are 19 interacting layers and three million individual cells in the model. It was calibrated to get close matches with known 1995 results from bores giving the team a high degree of certainty they were in the ballpark. They also added ‘uncertainty analysis’ taking the 95 percentile of 200 different predictions for each well. In other words,  they were taking the worst case scenario in 20.

For each well the QWC set a trigger threshold of drawdown.  For consolidated aquifers such as sandstone, the trigger was five meters, it was two metres for unconsolidated (shallow alluvial) aquifers such as the Condamine Alluvium and just a 0.2 metre drop for springs, including watercourses connected to springs.

If the modelling showed the “Immediate Affected Area” (an IAA) of that well exceeded that threshold in the next three years, then the responsible CSG company must undertake restoration measures to restore the bore’s capacity to supply water, or provide the bore owner with an alternative water supply.  This is known in the legislation as “make good" requirements. It could mean adjusting the bore, improving the pressure, drilling a new bore or finding an alternative source. QWC have identified 85 bores in the Surat Region which will exceed the trigger, all of them in the Walloon Coal Measures.

There was also a secondary measure of long-term impact if an IAA exceeded the threshold at any time in the future. This modelling identified 528 bores affected, mostly in the Walloon but some in the Springbok Sandstone (104), Hutton Sandstone (23) and Gubberamunda Sandstone (1).  It is less clear what the Commission expects to happen with these bores though the Roma session talked about gas tenure holders being “proactive” with bore owners in this category.

Part 2 of this will discuss the monitoring regime QWC is putting into place to determine the trigger points.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Manne bites Australian

Not that it should be a surprise to anyone but Australia’s national daily newspaper The Australian has been wasting scarce journalist resources on a vendetta again. The latest victim is one of the country’s leading media writers Margaret Simons whose 2007 book The Content Makers remains the definitive account of the geography of Australian media (though someone needs to update it for the last five years). In recent weeks, The Aus has unleashed its attack dogs over claims Simons has somehow caused a breach of practice by her actions in the recent Finkelstein Review into media which in turn was inspired by the serious criminal behaviour of one of The Australian's sister publications in the UK.  There are many ways in which this attack on Simons is risible and they are all brilliantly exposed in Robert Manne’s new Monthly essay.

The point Manne is making about the tactics of the newspaper is twofold. Firstly, it doesn’t matter if your allegations are true or false you just have to make enough of them and some of the mud will stick. Secondly, it is another shot across the bows of anyone who dares be critical of the newspaper with treatment similar to Julie Posetti and Larissa Behrend which will be dragged out time and time again whenever a punchbag is needed.

The newspaper fulfils a crucial function in our democracy as one of the few media outlets with a truly national outlook. But it would appear the power conferred by being one of the central squares of Australia's public sphere has gone to the broadsheet’s head. In its constant efforts to defend itself against critics, it has warped in on itself and forgotten what it is there for: to give Australians enough information to give them a useful perspective on the important news of the day.

The biggest problem with the Australian is that appears not to want to learn from its mistakes. It never admits it is wrong. Under Chris Mitchell in particular (editor in chief since 2003) it has been front and centre in a culture war.  The newspaper and its Saturday companion have built up an armada of columnists which can recite the party line in their sleep who regularly trot out the house rules. 

There are still enough good writers at the paper to provide the news function. They cover politics, business, law and international affairs in some detail (with the help of good Murdoch sister papers such as the Wall St Journal and The Times). But their editorial and opinion pages have become barren wastelands of News groupthink where writers like Greg Sheridan, Chris Kenny, Dennis Shanahan and Christopher Pearson flourish. Even when turning to unorthodox opinion it favours those who unorthodoxy is mostly directed against the left and the greens (Brendan O’Neill, Frank Furedi, Bjorn Lomborg) .

As Manne said (and as I can corroborate from discussions with News journalists) there are many within the organisation that are appalled by the blatant and biased political tone set by the editor and his inner team. Manne reckons they should speak up which would be a better way of dealing with the issue than any outside body Finkelstein could recommend. Indeed there is a precedent when journalists at the Australian went on strike in 1975 in protest as Murdoch’s open support of Malcolm Fraser in the lead up to the election.

But it is unlikely any uprising will come from within. News is one of the last 20th century media empires and most workers there fear for their future. It is not making a graceful transition to the digital age though it remains an extraordinarily wealthy company and very powerful in the local market. The Australian, often described as a Murdoch vanity project, is not driving any of this wealth. But it remains very influential with its high demographic readership and its access to power. Politicians of both major parties are wary of criticising it though the Greens have dubbed it hate media.

This is unsurprising as much of Mitchell’s vitriol is reserved for the party which his paper has openly called to be destroyed at the ballot box. Why it even feels it has a right to make such a recommendation is a revealing aspect of its DNA. “We know best,” it screams, and we will punish anyone who has the temerity to think otherwise. No wonder it cannot deal with the sharing tools of 21st century social media when its views are steeped in 20th century paternalism. It prefers intimidation to trust as a way of maintaining its authority. But The Australian is on borrowed time and not just because Murdoch will sooner or later die. Its thrashed brand is a tragedy as much of Chris Mitchell’s making as Rupert's and one which must not be repeated by whatever colonises its habitat when it is gone.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Ireland set to vote a grudging yes on Fiscal Treaty

Ireland is set to vote in no less than its ninth European referendum next week. As they have done in the previous eight, the major two parties are supporting the yes vote. But as in the past, this is no guarantee the ayes will have it. This is because like many of the previous ones the issue on the table is obscure and Austere Ireland has long since lost its romance with Europe. Those supporting the treaty have issued dire warnings of a “no” vote. 

The latest vote is on the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economicand Monetary Union more commonly known as the EU fiscal compact or EU fiscal treaty. The treaty tries to put in place a number of measures to get EU countries to balance their books and put an end to excessive borrowing.  Ireland is one of the worst offenders though is slowly on the mend. The Irish economy has stabilised after three years of contraction. The European Commission forecasts a GDP rise of 0.5% this year and all the quarterly fiscal targets under the bail-out program have been met.

Ireland needs a constitutional change to ratify the compact.  Article 29 of the 1937 Constitution deals with international relations.  Article 29.4 has been modified a number of times to signify the various EU treaties Ireland is a signatory to. If passed, the 10th subsection of Article 29.4 of the Constitution will add a clause to the effect that: “The State may ratify the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union done at Brussels on the 2nd day of March 2012.”

Irish Broadcaster RTE has published a detailed breakdown of the 16 articles of the treaty and how they affect Ireland. The key article is Article 3 which sets out the requirements how to run balanced or surplus budgets and how it will be monitored and reinforced. The article defines an upper structural deficit of 0.5% of GDP where a structural deficit is defined as one where an economy is losing money despite operating at full potential.

Each country must meet a medium term objective which is a program of action to reduce their debt. The original Maastricht Treaty had a Stability and Growth Pact which had targets for public debt which had to be supported by annual programs. It had a 3% rule for budget deficits but it went out the window after both heavyweights Germany and France breached the upper limit in 2003-2004.

That caused a rule change in 2005 to make it more flexible. Many countries hid the true extent of their budget situation – none more so than Greece so that by the time the truth emerged the damage was done. In response, the EU introduced the Six Pack in 2011 of five regulations and one directive and the Fiscal Compact builds on this. The Six Pack has strict enforcement of debt limits with countries subject to monitoring and penalties for breeches. These penalties would kick in earlier before countries could no longer afford to pay them. It also clamps down on property bubbles and makes it easier for countries to vote for sanctions against those who break the rules.

The Six Pack had an upper structural deficit of 1.0% of GDP which the Treaty reduces by half. Those against it such as Sinn Fein have dubbed it the Austerity Treaty. Party president Gerry Adams said it surrendered “significant control of Irish fiscal and budgetary matters to unelected and unaccountable EU officials.”

Those in favour have issued the usual warnings to the consequences of a no vote. Sean O'Driscoll, chairman of the Glen Dimplex manufacturing group said failure to support the treaty would mean Ireland leaving the euro. “Ireland signed up to the currency in 1999 [and] that brought rules – rules which we broke by allowing our economy to become inflated,” he said. “We now need to stay within the system and we need to argue our case within the system.”

The Economist described the referendum as a battle between conflicting emotions among voters. “The fear of many that rejecting the treaty will mean no access to EU finance, potentially sending Ireland hurtling down the Greek path to ruin, against the anger of many about the hardship imposed by four years of austerity,” The Economist said. But in the knowledge that Ireland has grudgingly supported all the other recent Treaties, the Economist was prepared to grant a narrow victory to the “yes” vote. “At the moment it looks as if fear will trump anger,” they said.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Arthur Moore, oil man

Arthur Moore pictured in 1910
On October 10, 1931 it was the Western Star’s solemn duty to report some sad news. The news had reached Roma from Longreach that Mr Arthur Moore, superintendent of Longreach’s Oil Bore had been killed in an explosion. Known as a careful man who rarely took a drink and who was intimate with the science of boring for oil, his death was a mystery.

From reading Moore’s log books, the coroner deduced he was making a third attempt to shoot the bore and had a consignment of caps newly arrived from Brisbane and a metre-long torpedo with six plugs of gelignite. The mixture exploded prematurely as he tried to place a battery cap. It was likely a faulty explosives timer concocted with a pocket watch brought an end to the life of one of Roma’s great but unheralded oil men.

Arthur Moore was an Englishman, born in Lime Regis, Dorset in 1876. How he spent his early years is not known but he arrived in Australia in 1910 thirsting for adventure in a new land. He entered into the service of the International Boring Company and was posted across Queensland boring artesian water for the state’s growing demands. Aged 40, he signed up in 1916 for the AIF and went off to Europe with the newly formed Australian Flying Corps.

After the war finished he stayed on in England to train in oil development. On his return he came to Queensland’s growing oil capital: Roma. Here he was placed in charge of the government oil bore on Hospital Hill in 1920 as the first non American to hold this position. It was Moore who released a big flow of oil at QG Number 4 well while removing casing and this was the first oil to be condensed in Roma.

It was here he met local woman Esther “Essie” Nind, the only daughter of two well-known Roma residents. Moore married Essie in 1921 aged 45 (she was 27) and they had one daughter. After visiting America, Moore was convinced there was oil in commercial quantities in Roma. “Prospecting in Queensland,” he said in 1923, “should be carried out on the same type of plant used for drilling artesian water.”

In 1924, the Western Star reported Moore was made manager of the newly formed Queensland Petroleum Limited who secured prospecting permits over Forest Vale and Mitchell Downs. Moore was hired to be superintendent for three years but the plan failed and Moore went to Texas to learn more about drilling. He later took charge of drilling operations in New Guinea. Roma’s booming oil business lured him back in 1928 to become manager of Roma Cornwall Dome oil operation until it went bust.

Moore went back to England where he was accepted into the Institute of Petroleum Technologists of London. He would also drill in New Zealand before heading to Longreach. He was remembered as one of the first non Americans to be feted in the field of drilling and someone who kept meticulous notes on all aspects of oil exploration.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The extinction of Pityus Mancityus

Manchester City’s stunning Premier League triumph was achieved in typically Madchester style. As someone wrote in the aftermath, the second half of their final game at home against Queens Park Rangers was a microcosm of their season. Comfortably winning the league, then almost throwing it away before finally snatching it back at the end.  It was an astonishing climax to a wild ride and probably just as well they won as the alternative would have been one calamity too far for a side renowned for its ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

It was an expensive triumph. Abi Dhabi's Sheik Mansour has poured almost a billion pounds into his expensive toy but he has achieved his first target of winning the Premier League within four seasons. As well as their expensive assemblage of players, Mansour also recruited a hardnosed winning manager in Roberto Mancini who took Inter to three Italian titles before adding the English crown to his collection. The talk now is of moving forward to collect European silverware, a task that fellow billionaire Roman Abramovich has found beyond him in his reign as Chelsea moneybags – though he has one more chance in Munich this weekend.

As a Liverpool fan, I remain a fully paid up member of ABU (Anyone But United) for at least one season.  I have to say I enjoyed the way the title was snatched from Manchester United’s grasp on Sunday. I thought they were a poor team but I thought the same in 2003 and 2011 when they also managed to win the league. Sir Alex Ferguson has long ago proved himself the best manager ever to grace the British game and time after time he has come up with the goods to coach United sides in the fine art of grinding out victories.

I might be persuaded to leave ABU if City put together a run of title successes but I’m not convinced that will happen. I certainly wouldn’t bet against United coming back next season, having just lost out on goal difference this year. Defensively they are almost impregnable while the ageless pair of Giggs and Scholes will be back for another season, playing as well as ever. Wayne Rooney appears at the peak of his considerable powers well supported by the likes of Hernandez and Valencia though their midfield needs bolstering.  The memory of that 6-1 shellacking at Old Trafford (the size of the victory ultimately decided the title) should be enough motivation to do better next time round.

City meanwhile may struggle to keep up the momentum next season and could be distracted by a longer European campaign.  They will have money to spend in the summer but there will be much to spend it on with bad boys Tevez and Balotelli and relative failure Dzeko all likely to move on.  They also rely too much of Yaya Toure which is great when he is on the park, but a risky policy as shown when he limped off injured against QPR. Like United however, Mancini has drilled them into a formidable defensive unit with Kompany and company backed up by Joe Hart who has the chance to earn back the good name of English goalkeepers that was lost around 20 years ago. 

Chelsea and Arsenal will continue to flip around for third and fourth with Tottenham there or thereabouts. Redknapp has proved a shrewd acquisitor of talent in the transfer market with Van der Vaart and Modric both inspired signings while developing the considerable talents of Bale before the inevitable transfer to Old Trafford (or maybe the City of Manchester stadium). I’m not sure if Newcastle’s season is a one-off or they are back in the mix. Papiss Cisse was a sensation at the end of the season as was Demba Ba at the start and getting them both to click at the same time will be crucial to their chance.

My own team Liverpool look an absolute shambles and it is probably just as well they did not win the cup final as a second trophy would have disguised the fact it was their worst season in living memory. The fact is if they keep their 2012 form into next season, they would have to be among the relegation candidates. Their new stadium plans are in disarray, King Kenny’s crown is in tatters and they are a long way from getting back into the Top Four let alone making a title challenge. Gerrard is looking past it, Suarez and Carroll is not working, and none of Downing, Adams or Henderson have risen to the challenge. It’s difficult to see anything but hard times for the Reds in 2012-2013.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Releasing Ranjini: Why ASIO is wrong

Getup’s latest cause is the detention without trial of a Sri Lankan woman and her two small children.  The webpage “No Detention without appeal” says Ranjini and her six and eight year old sons have been detained indefinitely without charges for four days.  
Ranjini survived the Sri Lankan war but her first husband did not and was killed in 2006. She arrived on a boat with her children on Christmas Island in 2010. From there they were moved to Leonora in WA, then Inverbrackie, SA in 2011, and finally to community detention in Brisbane. 

Ranjini met Melbourne man Ganesh while he was in Brisbane on holiday late last year, and she moved to Melbourne with the children in order to wed him this year. The Department of Immigration verified her and the boys as refugees in September last year pending Australian Security Intelligence Organisation security clearance. If they could convince ASIO they could then obtain visas to enable them to stay in Australia.

After months of agonising wait, they fell at the last hurdle. On Thursday, Ranjini was told to pick up her kids from school in Melbourne and meet Department of officials. They had bad news for her. ASIO had done a security assessment on her and came up with a negative assessment. They put Ranjini and the children on a plane to Sydney and sent to Villawood detention centre. They are there indefinitely and have no right of appeal.

Media reports have not reported the surname of Ganesh or Ranjini. The Age said they got married last month with the approval of the Department of Immigration. The boys were enrolled at Mill Park Primary School. Ganesh told The Age he was allowed only five minutes to chat with them before they were taken away. "We were happy and the kids were even happier ... we wanted to start new life with hope. But now we are shocked...We are separated. There has been too much pain before. Are we going to be put through the same pain in Australia as well?"

On Friday Ganesh flew to Sydney and sent a text back to a family friend in Melbourne that the trio were okay but he didn’t understand why they were detained.  Now in Villawood, ABC Lateline says Ranjini and her family face a bleak future.
They and 46 other refugees with negative ASIO assessments are locked up indefinitely with no right of appeal,” Lateline said on Friday. “This morning one of the refugees attempted suicide at a detention facility in Melbourne.”

The program quoted the Refugee Action Coalition who spoke of fellow detainee Kumar who has been in detention for 35 months and was turned down by ASIO a year ago. With no recourse to legal means to end his incarceration and return to Sri Lanka impossible, the 36-year-old  Kumar attempted by hanging at the Melbourne immigration transit accommodation centre. He was dropped down by fellow refugees who found him at around 1.30am this morning.  He was the second inmate in a month to attempt suicide at the same facility. 

Currently there is no right of review or appeal against ASIO findings. The indefinite detention of ASIO negative refugees is the subject of a complaint by Australian refugees to the Geneva UN High Commission for Human Rights. The Australian government has been given until July to respond to a complaint. A Parliamentary Committee has also recommended that there should be an appeal process in a damning report on mandatory detention and Getup called it a basic principle of justice.  

A UNHCR policy document on Australia’s mandatory detention policy and reluctance to release asylum seekers to alternative measures has nothing to do with national security concerns either. On 22 August 2002, the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade asked the ASIO Director-General about the security screening of asylum seekers and learned that out of 5,986 screenings conducted since 2000, not one posed a national security risk. The same Committee also heard no evidence of a statistical linkage between asylum seekers and criminality (other than immigration violations).

But Ranjini, Kumar and the others have few political supporters in an era where a crude call to “stop the boats” is an electable mantra. Governments from Howard onwards have tried to demonise asylum seekers and maintain a wall between refugees and public sympathy. Crucially Getup has photos of Ranjini and the boys with which to humanise this campaign.  The test for Attorney-General Nicola Roxon will be to humanely deal with these cases without creating an electoral wedge for Labor’s already badly beaten back.  I don’t always agree with Getup, but they are right on the money with this. “No matter what,” Getup said. “We mustn't allow anyone - let alone children - to be detained indefinitely without charge, trial or appeal.”

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Reaching back to Ryan to secure Labor's future

Queensland Labor leader Annastacia Palaszczuk has reached far back into the party’s past to conjure up a vision for its future. Palaszczuk used a Labor Day dinner in Brisbane to announce a new not-for-profit organisation to debate and discuss new policies funded by the party and the unions. The new entity is called the T.J. Ryan Foundation after the former state Labor premier. Palaszczuk called Ryan one of the Labor movement’s shining lights. "It was Thomas Joseph Ryan's government from 1915 to 1919 that is regarded as having laid the groundwork for the Labor governments that dominated Queensland politics in following decades,” she said. 
(Photo: National Library of Australia)

But the foundation link to the union would not have entirely pleased the wily lawyer who was the state’s greatest Labor premier and possibly the greatest of either party. As D.J. Murphy notes in a 1978 study of Ryan, Labor never aspired to be purely a trade union party in Queensland. From its foundation until the maritime strikes of 1890, it saw itself as a reforming party based on urban and rural unions and it supported farmers who wanted a more equitable sharing of wealth. It wasn't long before they grabbed power. Though it was only initially for just one week in 1899, Queensland was the first jurisdiction in the world to elect a labour government. In 1904 the first Commonwealth Labor Government of John Watson took power by entering into a coalition with dissident Liberals.

Among the Liberals attracted to the reforming zeal of early Labor was Thomas Joseph Ryan. Ryan was the son of an itinerant Irish farm labourer who arrived in Victoria in 1860 and became a stone fence builder in Geelong. Thomas Joseph was the fifth of his six children to Jane Cullen who died when he was just seven. Eldest daughter Mary, 11, brought up the family in her mother’s absence. Young Tom was a gifted student and got a scholarship to St Francis Xavier College in Kew. He graduated in law in 1899 and he moved to Queensland as a teacher at Rockhampton Grammar School. He was admitted to the Queensland Bar in 1901.

Ryan’s politics were shaped in Victoria by the liberalism of the 1890s which saw a big role for the state, He was also an avid federationist and both views shaped his thinking in power. At Maryborough and Rockhampton, Ryan was marked out as a great public speaker. His specialty was constitutional law and he argued for the vote for women, “one person one vote” and fair elections.

In 1903 he nominated as a Deakinite but it was soon obvious to him he had more in common with Labor. A year later he switched sides and quickly established himself as a leading Labor spokesman in Rockhampton.  He was inspired by the Prime Minister Watson who ruled responsibly in office. He remained Labor in 1907 after William Kitson left the party he led but was defeated in that year’s election. In 1909 he moved west to stand for the seat of Barcoo and was elected. He was respected as a lawyer who had mastery of labour laws and could reduce complex legal questions into arguments anyone could understand.

In parliament he was quickly seen as a rising star and he established himself as a formidable adversary of the government. Aware of the power of the press he bought the Rockhampton Daily Record in 1910 which while supportive never became a mere propaganda tool for Ryan. These were exciting times for Labor as Andrew Fisher gained a majority in both houses at Federal level. 

Ryan was a nationalist who supported referendums to give the Federal Government more power over monopolies and labour issues. Labor had hoped to win the Queensland election of 1912 until a Brisbane general strike allowed Liberal premier Digby Denham to play the law and order card in a snap election. Ryan was elected leader of the new opposition with EG Theodore installed as his deputy. It would prove one of the great combinations of Australian politics.

In 1913 he outlined where he wanted Labor to go. “There was no other party which had a policy formed at the instance of the people themselves,” he said. He appealed to professionals, farmers, clerks and labourers. With Ryan at the helm, Labor won easily in on 1 June 1915 with a broad appeal to workers and farmers who supported his push to end the monopoly power of the Colonial Sugar Refinery. Tom Ryan was just 39 years old. As Ryan became premier and Attorney-General, Australia was being sucked deep into the European War. He fully supported the war. What Ryan hated was the way the big companies grew fat on war profits with the likes of CSR and the pastoralists overcharging the Imperial Army for its supplies. He established a cane price board and negotiated a sugar labour agreement. 

Yet Ryan’s biggest problem wasn’t industrialists but his own parliament: specifically the upper house. As early as 1908 Ryan called the Legislative Council an ‘excrescence on the Constitution”. In 1915, the chamber was stacked with the previous government’s appointees with only five of 45 members supporting Labor frustrating his reform program. Ryan wanted the Council abolished as the Governor seemed unwilling to appoint new Labor members. By 1917, Ryan had charmed the new Governor into appointing 13 Labor members and set the course for the Upper House’s abolition. He supported abolition in a 1917 referendum but it was comprehensively defeated. 

His other major referendum issue was conscription. Australia was the only volunteer army in the war and Ryan could see it emerging as a divisive issue. He delayed a party decision to avoid a split. But once the referendum was called, he was the only premier to take a stand against it. Because of his role in helping to defeat the first conscription referendum, Ryan became the defacto leader of the second campaign, a battle he relished. Prime Minister Billy Hughes had brought in wide-ranging censorship to gag anti-conscriptionists. On 19 November 1917 Ryan made a speech in parliament which the censors refused to allow printed though the same arguments he made a day earlier had been faithfully recorded by the pro-conscriptionist Brisbane Courier. In the offending speech Ryan had quoted war office figures that showed there were already 100,000 men available for reinforcements making conscription unnecessary.

The censor’s report made it sounds as if Ryan supported conscription and refused to budge on requests to correct the record. Ryan insisted Hansard print the censored portion of the speech and Theodore took advantage of this to include two other censored pamphlets with the removed text highlighted in bold print. Theodore also arranged to have the Hansard circulated throughout Queensland.
At this was happening, Hughes arrived in Brisbane and authorised the raid on the Queensland Government Printer’s Office to stop the publication. He challenged Theodore to repeat the pamphlets outside the privilege of parliament and he would “have him in 48 hours.” But the press interpreted this as a direct challenge to Ryan as Theodore’s boss. It was Ryan who accepted the challenge and repeated the speech in front of thousands at two public meetings. He and Theodore were prosecuted but the magistrate dismissed the case.

Because of his strong anti-big business stance, Ryan was hated by the press. In October 1917, the Brisbane Courier editor threw his own remarks into the report of a Ryan speech against the “intolerable” Legislative Council saying it was Ryan who made it intolerable. “He wishes to retain power in the hands of the union s to create these intolerable situations whenever they choose,” the editor said. The Melbourne Argus called his anti-conscription campaign a “paltry and contemptible conspiracy with Germans and other disloyalists.” 

But more people believed Ryan than the Argus and the second referendum was lost by a bigger margin than the first. By 1918, Ryan was a national figure feted by large audiences in Sydney. He was easily re-elected as Premier of Queensland the same year in a personal triumph. He had shown it was possible to achieve in parliament what many socialists believed was only possible through revolution. But his growing stature meant he was increasingly consumed by national issues.

He still found time to pursue his attack on the Legislative Council. When the upper house softened his taxation laws, he threatened them with a large influx of Labor members and worked on a second referendum to curb its powers. In 1918, he left for England for a Privy Council case and arranged for loans with the Bank of England. Ryan’s urbane demeanour allayed the fears of the British moneymen Queensland was in the hands of the Bolsheviks or the Wobblies. 

Ryan and his wife caught the dreaded influenza in England and they lay stricken in their hotel, with doctors expecting both to die at any moment. They both recovered and Ryan won his case but years of political struggle were starting to take a  toll. He returned back to Melbourne to a large crowd and was asked would he enter federal politics. “Possibly” was the answer. When he came home to Queensland, he was escorted by hundreds of soldiers carrying lighted torches crammed by cheering spectators. 

A conference in October 1919 formally asked him to become campaign director of the federal campaign. When his friend Jim Page died in 1921, the seat of Maranoa opened up and Ryan went there to campaign for the seat. He had a heavy cold and was physically exhausted. In Barcaldine, he collapsed and was placed in hospital. He died on Monday, 1 August 1921 aged just 46.

His legacy was immense and his successor Theodore completed many of his projects including the abolition of the upper house. Thanks to Ryan, Labor would rule from 1915 to 1929 and again from 1932 to 1957. As long time Queensland parliament clerk CA Berneys wrote, Ryan was the best he’d seen: “He stood pre-eminent as a leader; as an earnest exponent of the faith that was in him and as a generous big hearted fighter.”
Today's Queensland Labor leader Palaszczuk looks to Ryan as the party emerges from the wreckage of their worst ever election loss. She said the Ryan Foundation would show Labor was something beyond a mere brand. Channelling Ryan she said Labor always been “a living, breathing party” focused on equality, fairness and opportunity. “Labor’s policies and principles should always be about people,” she said.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Hard currency: the state of the Australian economy

I was at the Roma Show today where I listened to a Rabobank expert talk about the macro state of the world economy. It was a rural show so the focus was on agricultural matters. We heard about the price of soy beans, Western Australian wheat, the link between corn and oil, and why there were smiles on the faces of cattle producers.

Yet the talk couldn't help but look at the wider picture. Why Australia needs a free trade agreement with Korea as a matter of urgency, for instance. He also spoke about the importance of China which has grown from 6 percent of our  trade to 27 in 10 years. He spoke about Japan still a steady partner which has stayed at 19 percent in those ten years. He mentioned the growth of Indonesia, which longer term may be more important to Australia than either China or Japan.

Australia’s cosying up to all the Asian economies has had a major effect and cosseted the country from the Global Financial Crisis. The rise of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa if the ‘s’ is capitalised) has meant that the world does no longer fall apart when there is a recession in the US and the EU.  

The Rabobank man said the EU was improving under the leadership of Germany. To bring the European situation home to his rural audience he showed a slide of cockatoos on four wires. On the top wire was the fattest cockatoo – Germany. Bolstered by the union of east and west, it remains a strong, boisterous economy. Underneath it are France, Britain and Italy copping some of the shit and feathers from the German cockatoo. Below this trio are the vast majority of EU nations taking the manure from the four above. At the very bottom are the PIGS. Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain. These four manured-stained porcine cockatoos suffer every indignity from the 20 nations above them.

Australia doesn’t have to worry about different jurisdictions pulling in different directions but still suffers discordances. Our dollar is high as the two-speed boom overheats. The focus phrase of Treasurer Wayne Swan’s budget the other night was “someone else’s boom”. What Swan was describing was “Dutch Disease” which a Rabobank employee (the headquarters are in Utrecht) was well placed to talk about.

Dutch disease occurred in the Netherlands in the 1970s as the North Sea gas price soared. The guilder went up in consequence. The 1973 Oil Crisis led to a recession and high wages and high currency devastated the Dutch manufacturing sector and made tourism in the Netherlands more expensive. Nowadays the Dutch would be insulated from their own disease by the euro which is affected more by what the German Central Bank decides rather than what happens in Amsterdam.

The Aussie dollar is high causing similar problems to local industry and tourism. The Aussie used to be 70c to the US but has risen as high as $1.10 in recent months and is settling around parity at the moment. This means it is a great time to be an Aussie tourist in the US but a bad time to be sending chickpeas or corn to the US market.

Yet the high dollar is a worldwide tick of approval something must be going right here because investors see Australia as a safe haven. Maybe it is just Australia is a reliable quarry and food outlet with a settled system of government. But wages are high here and there is massive correction happening as we get used to the new international prices in a painful one off transition. 

Australian businesses have had to deal with suddenly being 30% more expensive through no fault of their own. This can be a good thing if it makes Australian operators closely examine their value chain. Exporters and tourism operators who have borne the pain of delivering a high-priced product now must be very innovative to return to profits they used to take for granted. Having to find a saving of a third to cope with the more expensive environment employs the creativity of necessity. They either go under or they adapt.
Dutch disease is difficult to overcome but it is possible to hew a new economy out of it.  There is nothing anyone can do to avoid the collateral damage, but there is no going back from the drift of the floated currency. China still resists the floating of the yuan and this failure will eventually hurt it. The market is far from a perfect instrument of equalisation but its groupthink is still relatively sane. Money follows the safest locations and China will not attract money despite its growth because the yuan is so grossly undervalued. Not until it is tested in the currency markets will a true signal of China’s position in the world economy emerge.
Australia floated the dollar in the mid 1980s in one of the Hawke/Keating era's greatest gifts.  It took a Labor government to do it because it was the only way a Labor Government could prove to a suspicious media it could run a market economy. The media remains suspicious today owned as it is by right-wing barons, but there is little vision to take the country forward from either side of politics. Simple policy matters such as a tax on mining earnings or on carbon production become mired in ideology and a lowest common denominator of least change based only on the desire to rule. Neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott have any clue what Australia should look like in five years except that one of them should be in charge.

Labor has long since ditched Karl Marx just as the Liberals have eschewed Adam Smith. No one has articulated better political philosophies in the last two centuries.  The power of the Greens is growing but no democracy yet is prepared to put the Greens in charge of the economy. And it IS the economy, stupid, but pointing out the obvious doesn’t make it the chaos of world markets any easier to manage.

Monday, May 07, 2012

MEAA criticises stalled press freedom in Australia

The local journalist union MEAA has released its annual report card on the state of press freedom in Australia. Kicking at the Cornerstone of Democracy is a comprehensive survey of media law and Australian regulation as well as taking a look at the situation in New Zealand and Asia Pacific.  According to MEAA secretary Chris Warren, the title of the report reflects what the MEAA sees as a failure of government to fulfil its promises. He says five years after the promises were made the project appears to have stalled.

In regulation, the report reflects the disappointment the MEAA expressed at the recent Finkelstein Report which it said would stifle media freedom. While the MEAA is in favour of reform of the Press Council, it disagrees governments should impose self-regulation on the news industry by statute. Warren said Justice Finkelstein’s judgement was clouded by News Corp’s various scandals. With one eye on its membership numbers, Warren’s take was “Finkelstein talks of a reference to the Productivity Commission in two years time – will this be too late? Journalists are losing their jobs now.”

Secrecy is another major concern of MEAA. The report says Australia has 500 secrecy provisions in 176 pieces of legislation across the country with 358 criminal offenses which attract a wide range of penalties up to 10 years in prison. This is despite the Australia Law Reform Commission releasing its report Secrecy Laws and Open Government  in Australia two years ago. That report called for 61 recommendations of reform, none of which have yet been acted on. The MEAA supports supported the ALRC's call for secrecy provisions in the Crimes Act to be replaced with a general secrecy offence limited to disclosures that clearly harmed the public interest.

Freedom of Information is another serious problem, one that anyone that has tried to access government data will find. The MEAA quotes an international FOI survey that puts Australia 39th out of 85 countries. The Center for Law and Democracy  measured indicators such as right of access, scope, requesting procedures, exemptions, appeals, sanctions and promotional measures. Australia’s mediocre performance was put down to a lack of constitutional right of access to information as well as the numerous exemptions to FOI.

The MEAA said Shield Laws were getting bogged down in the issue of who was or wasn’t a journalist. The Commonwealth passed legislation in 2010 that protects anyone involved in the publication of news but the NSW legislation of 2011 narrowed it down to those in “the occupation of journalist in connection with the publication of information in a news medium”. Victoria and WA seem set to follow the NSW threshold.

Journalists are also under pressure from various “star chambers” to reveal their sources. These chambers are extra-judicial bodies in every state with power to investigate police and public service corruption. While the aims may be laudable, they have extraordinary coercive powers including the power to compel witnesses to produce evidence or other “things” (the definition at the discretion of the court) to help the investigation. Some can even deny witnesses their legal representation, a staple of all other courts. Journalists Linton Besser and Dylan Welch were served subpoenas to produce mobile phones and SIM cards after they wrote articles critical of the NSW Crime Commission. The Commission eventually backed down  from the request.

Other issues the MEAA looked at in their 2012 report include restrictive access to detention centres, the growing menace of spin and the “comment cycle” (which is replacing hard news), the growth in suppression orders, a review intocopyright exceptions  in the digital environment, the Convergence Review and concentrated media ownership and continued need for the public broadcasters ABC and SBS.