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Federal

Aug 28, 2017

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The Prime Minister’s “Snowy Hydro 2.0” project began life as an attempt to influence Newspoll — specifically, in response to what Malcolm Turnbull saw as a blatant effort by Tony Abbott to influence Newspoll against him in February. The idea was, we learnt via Senate estimates, cobbled together in two weeks in March, so that Turnbull could announce the project on March 16.

Despite talk about it costing $2 billion and adding 2000 megawatts of energy in a “game changer” for the east coast electricity grid, the March announcement was only for a $29 million feasibility study, to be finished by the end of the year. Since then, there’s been constant confusion about the numbers. There was no specific funding allocated for the project in the May budget — as the Herald Sun noted at the time. Treasurer Scott Morrison did offer to purchase the stakes of the NSW and Victorian governments in the Snowy Hydro company, for an unspecified cost (which wouldn’t affect the budget deficit, as being an asset it would be on the capital account). But there was no money for the $2 billion it had been estimated the project would cost. This wasn’t surprising, as what looked like a large-scale commitment to infrastructure spending in the budget turned out to actually be some dodgy accounting around the funding of the inland rail boondoggle, a cut in ongoing infrastructure spending and some nebulous commitments to funding in the years beyond the forward estimates.

Problematically, the cost of the Snowy Hydro proposal then blew out 50% at least, with Snowy Hydro admitting at estimates that it hadn’t factored in an additional $1 billion for the transmission lines required to connect the expanded capacity up to the grid. 

[Turnbull lifts his game on gas — as a key reform era ends]

Today the Prime Minister was back to, in effect, re-announce Snowy Hydro 2.0, because he needs to be seen to getting things done rather than being bogged down in marriage equality, Tony Abbott’s war against him, citizenship, and whatever is the crisis du jour of this beleaguered government. Inauspiciously, however, a planned drop by Turnbull’s office to News Corp tabloids on today’s announcement was spoilt when Fairfax’s James Massola got wind of it first and spoilt it yesterday. I’ve been saying for a while that Turnbull’s office can’t manage the basics and it will keep hurting them until they learn.

What is the PM announcing as he potters about in the tunnels under the Snowy Mountains? Is he committing to the $2 billion/$3 billion cost of the scheme? Or the $5 billion-plus to buy out NSW and Victoria? Apparently not — if you persevere to the bottom of the cut-and-paste job in News Corp papers, and get past all the numbers being bandied around about 5000 extra jobs and 350,000 MW/h (and a bizarre reference to “the Tumut mountains”, wherever they are), it turns out it’s $8 million in planning funding. Which, by the way, isn’t new money, it’s just been brought forward.

Anyway — I carp. None of this is out of the ordinary for politicians, who love to recycle infrastructure announcements and throw all kinds of confusing figures around to disguise that there’s no new money being spent — and isn’t it nice that in pumped hydro, we have a new metaphor for the endless reuse of infrastructure spending announcements.

[Snowy Hydro to get the poll numbers flowing for Turnbull]

More serious, though, is that if the Turnbull government signs up for the <insert arbitrary figure here> billion dollar project, it will be doing so without any assessment of whether the project makes any sense. It’s only a few weeks since the Productivity Commission, those old economic stick-in-the-muds who love to point out nonsense from governments, noted about both the South Australian government’s energy announcement and Snowy Hydro 2.0:

“Whether these projects will proceed is uncertain, but there is a risk that they will lead to the wrong infrastructure in the wrong place and the electricity consumer will end up paying higher prices as a result. The more that market forces dictate what and where, the less likely that the investments will end up as white elephants… it is important that any proposals be carefully evaluated and that consideration be given to alternatives that might address emerging problems in the electricity market in a more efficient and less costly manner. A risk, otherwise, is that future generations of taxpayers will be called on to foot the bill for precipitate responses to perceived crises now.”

It’d be a hell of thing if that happened to Snowy Hydro 2.0. That would make that March Newspoll the most expensive poll in Australian history.

Tips and rumours

Mar 17, 2017

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Malcolm Turnbull is certainly going to great lengths to hype his unfunded, undetailed Snowy Hydro feasibility study, conducting a round of media interviews to spruik it. We note, by way of comparison, that the high-speed rail proposal — of which Crikey‘s own Bernard Keane is such a huge fan — is now into its ninth year of feasibility studies, scoping studies and corridor selection (that’s the current iteration — there have been previous iterations since the 1990s). But while we may be sceptical that a single watt will ever be generated from Turnbull’s media release, what we’re sure about is the timing: there’ll be a Newspoll out early next week as Parliament resumes, and another poll like the last one will immediately set leadership hares running. So the Turnbull brains trust is clearly hoping a bit of green vision will boost the government’s numbers and Turnbull’s personal ratings. Still, who knows — maybe Tony Abbott will repeat his Newspoll-wrecking performance of two weeks ago with another helpful intervention. Time enough if good enough …

News

Mar 17, 2017

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From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

Tele beats up on Triggs, again. The Daily Telegraph‘s Sharri Markson has gone hard on Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs for the gall of speaking at the seventh annual Hobart Oration at the end of this month, an event put on by the Bob Brown Foundation.

The $50-per-head event is just covers costs for the event, but because Bob Brown is the former leader of the Greens, Markson has Immigration Minister Peter Dutton in the article calling for Triggs to cancel her speech or step aside from her job. The Australian has followed up this morning with a quote from Liberal Senator Eric Abetz along the same lines. You didn’t see this sort of fuss from Liberal politicians when Tim Wilson, now the Liberal member for Goldstein, spoke at political party events as Human Rights Commissioner. In 2015, Wilson was a speaker at a Liberal Victoria party branch event. He subsequently revealed he had spoken at Liberal Party events, Greens events, Liberal Democratic Party events, and Country Liberal Party events on the same proviso as Triggs — that it was not a fundraising event. Where was the same outrage and calls to stand aside from Dutton?

A spokesperson for the Bob Brown Foundation told Crikey that the orations were not fundraisers, and historically they have run at a loss. He said it was run by the foundation, not the Greens, because the Greens gave up running the event years ago because it was running a loss. It is purely a community event and has previously heard from eminent speakers including David Suzuki, Professor Brian Schmidt, and 350.org founder Bill McKibben. In a statement, Brown said The Daily Telegraph had not bothered to contact him about the event before today’s hit piece.

“No one has ever complained before The Daily Telegraph, which has not been in contact with me. Perhaps it should concentrate on it what it does so well, censoring public comment in Sydney,” Brown said.

Turnbull spotted by his mates. After the PM’s Snowy Hydro announcement, Malcolm Turnbull quickly hopped on a plane to Melbourne to appear on Ten’s The Project to sell the feasibility study, meaning he took the train from Melbourne down to South Yarra, as he often does in these situations. In the Facebook group dedicated to pointing out where public transport ticket inspectors are located in Melbourne’s public transport network (sardonically referred to as “our mates” in the group), the below photo was captured of the PM stuck in what appears to be a rather crowded train headed in that direction.

Snowy Hydro to get the poll numbers flowing. Malcolm Turnbull is certainly going to great lengths to hype his unfunded, undetailed Snowy Hydro feasibility study, conducting a round of media interviews to spruik it. We note, by way of comparison, that the high-speed rail proposal — of which Crikey‘s own Bernard Keane is such a huge fan — is now into its ninth year of feasibility studies, scoping studies and corridor selection (that’s the current iteration — there have been previous iterations since the 1990s). But while we may be sceptical that a single watt will ever be generated from Turnbull’s media release, what we’re sure about is the timing: there’ll be a Newspoll out early next week as Parliament resumes, and another poll like the last one will immediately set leadership hares running. So the Turnbull brains trust is clearly hoping a bit of green vision will boost the government’s numbers and Turnbull’s personal ratings. Still, who knows — maybe Tony Abbott will repeat his Newspoll-wrecking performance of two weeks ago with another helpful intervention. Time enough if good enough …

While McManus is condemned, actual illegal strikes ignored. New Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus’ Wednesday interview on 7.30 — in which she flatly stated she didn’t see a problem with breaking unjust laws — continues to be a boon for tut-tutting columnists. In today’s Age, Mark Kenny described the comments as “out-dated,” “politically inept” and an “enormous stick” with which the Coalition can beat Bill Shorten. Meanwhile, the Herald Sun said the comments were “advocating lawlessness and protecting some of the biggest thugs and criminals ever to carry union cards” and illustrated that workers and the union movement deserved better than McManus. And The Australian –– having dedicated its front page to McManus and her thoughts on body hair, among other things — saw fit to publish an editorial, a Cut & Paste column and a David Crowe opinion piece, as well as four letters to the editor about her comments, three of them condemning them.

While all these three publications have shown a clear commitment to the rule of law as it applies to industrial relations, it seems strange that none have mentioned what appears to be an actual illegal strike currently happening in Melbourne.

According to a report on the ABC, the staff at Nant’s Melbourne whisky bar have walked off the job, claiming they have not been paid thousands of dollars in wages, superannuation and other entitlements. According to the article, a letter signed by most of the workforce was presented to management last week that said:

“We cannot continue to strive to achieve the future we see for this bar if we perceive no support from management, and feel our basic entitlements, such as regular pay … are not being honoured.”

As anyone condemning McManus surely knows, striking just because you haven’t been paid is illegal. Surely this is just the kind of “reckless assault on [the] rule of law” that the Oz warned us of? And yet not a word about it. Perhaps a quiet strike by a small workforce over an employer’s failure to provide basic entitlements doesn’t quite fit the anarchist union thug narrative, even if it’s illegal?

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips to boss@crikey.com.au or use our guaranteed anonymous form

Companies

Mar 16, 2017

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When the history of the present is written, the offer by Elon Musk and Atlassian founder Mike Cannon-Brookes to solve South Australia’s energy crisis with new battery technology in 100 days, “or it’s free”, will loom far larger than it does at the moment. The offer by two cutting-edge tech companies, with a fast positive response from Labor SA Premier Jay Weatherill, should have been the sort of thing that PM Malcolm Turnbull would welcome as an expression of the new possibilities that make it an “exciting time to be an Australian, to be alive,” etc.

Instead, faced with the promise of new possibilities, the PM has scrambled for every old answer there is. Gas companies — which are pretty much the National Party moved into the private sector — would be persuaded to divert some of the product they are pumping to their Asian-oriented export plants in Gladstone, where our resources are being sold for a song overseas to prop up a disastrous failing investment. That was iconic enough, but it was nothing compared to the new Snowy River scheme, announced by the PM, a move so geared to patriotic notions he might as well have had a boombox with the theme from the 1990s TV series playing behind him. It is stirring, it is nationalistic, and it is all utter bullshit.

The fact that a Liberal PM is announcing a new Snowy River scheme — a vast process that, however much of it was tendered out to private shonks, would have to have a vast state-investment component — is a measure of how desperate and improvised this all is, and where the lines of political division lie now. What was a Labor scheme (initially opposed by the Liberals in the 1940s before they took it over) reliant on a consent to state socialism gained from the collective effort of WWII has now become the centrepiece solution of a government that was hitherto celebrating agility and the nimbleness of the atomised marketplace.

There was nothing agile about the Snowy River scheme. It was a massive quasi-military operation reliant on state command, the forced labour of “New Australian” migrants (with dozens of deaths), which screwed up the regional agricultural system and delivered less than stellar benefits at the time. The new Snowy would be that, but without even the modest achievements of the original. You know, without looking, that it would be a boondoggle sell-off of tenders to mates, with delayed delivery, vast blowouts and poor yields, presuming it ever happened at all, rather than being just another of Malcolm Turnbull’s once-a-week forehead farts from that giant brain of his.

Why has a Liberal prime minister suddenly attached himself to a statist scheme — indeed to the icon of Australian statism? Because the right and their corporate backers are so desperate to keep power generation centralised, and thus commodified, that they will adopt anything, anything at all, rather than contemplate the best and most obvious solutions: decentralised power on multiple scales, using post-grid automated free-flow networks, and bi-directional so that households, businesses and whole cities generate excess power and plug it into the network.

They’re not only willing to adopt anything at all that will avoid innovative solutions, they’re willing to junk any previous solutions offered as part of the culture wars. Notice how the talk of coal-fired power is slipping into the background? With Musk and Cannon-Brookes talking of vast battery capacity to solve the problem of variable solar and wind yield, the right’s defence has shifted to hydro power and boutique nuclear. They’re still pushing the idea of a new coal plant, but it’s in the background. Why? Because it’s absurd. Coal-fired plants are a symbol of backwardness. Coal is deader than mainstream Australian theatre, it just doesn’t know it yet.*

The political-corporate elite, and some sections of the union movement, would rather Australia go backwards for a decade in power generation than admit that the fastest solution — clean and green — is a massive roll-out of modular renewable-generation/battery storage. This is nothing less than the Chinese are already doing on a scale beyond anything we could match, which is, surprise, one reason why those gas plants at Gladstone, got up by those dozy Pitt St cockies in the Nats, can’t generate a profit. Surprise surprise. The world doesn’t want much of our coal. Now it doesn’t want our gas. Meanwhile, Asian societies, which never had book-of-the-month club intellectuals like Paul Keating to sell off national plant for a song, are surging ahead of us because they can co-ordinate state activity, scientific research, private development and individual uptake more effectively. The power crisis has shown us to be truly the “white trash of Asia” — a Little Latin American demesne, run by the latter-day corporate latifundia: Telstra, BHP Billiton, Big Gas, Big Roads, all handed control of the economy for next to nothing.

People have started noticing it because these days we get a power blackout not in a once-in-a-generation storm but because of an Adele concert. Everyone can see that that is more redolent of Zaire, or West Virginia, than it is of a modern, efficient nation. So people from all walks of life are now open to more innovative solutions, and the government must scramble to catch up to them. Both major parties would prefer to leave Big Power undisturbed so its tow wings can fund their parties and remove the need for a membership base, or a genuine mass politics. Cursing their luck, they now have to adopt as their own policies that the Greens have been advocating for more than a decade. The “left” and “right” of Green politics — full post-grid centralisation versus a mixed model of modular and concentrated generation — is now the “left” and “right” of real debate about power generation in the mainstream. The Greens may always struggle to get above 10-15% of the vote, but they will, as before, set the political agenda for exhausted parties, run by exhausted people, out of ideas, and with a barely disguised hatred of both their base and the vocation of politics that they chose decades ago.

Why such concerted resistance to innovative solutions to power generation? Because the new technologies — the combination of wind, solar, battery, kinetics (you can part-power a driverless car simply by feeding back into it some of the energy it expends through the “non-forward” motion of its parts, i.e. the shaking) — are so capable of leaping ahead of existing modes of generation that they undermine the possibility of commodifying power. Battery technology working at the atomic and sub-atomic level takes advantage of the benefit of Moore’s Law — the deep root of which is that any non-mechanical, i.e. chemical/atomic/sub-atomic technological process has the power to expand exponentially in capacity, whereas electro-mechanical processes have a linear progression (one reason why, for example, DVD players, with minimal mechanics, went down to $30 new by the end of their reign, while VCRs, with tape heads and motors, never got much below $150 at the end of theirs).

What is thus happening in the crucible of corporations like Musk’s is a process first described by Marx, and elaborated on by writers after him such as Engels and Hilferding: capitalism produces the technology that creates its own crisis, because its cheapness and automated quality no longer allows for profit by accumulation, i.e. by running a firm and selling goods. Any individual firm, like Musk’s Tesla, gains an initial advantage from introducing a new technology. As it spreads through the sector, the sector is advantaged in comparison to other sectors (i.e. poor old King Coal, and Lord Gas). Eventually, the accumulative power of the system as a whole comes into peril. As that begins to occur, capitalism ceases to earn profit from innovation and market sale, and turns to profit-through-rent — enforced monopolies, cartelised pricing, intellectual property squatting and all the rest. The state is essential to this, which is why we saw the absurd spectacle last year of people saying straight-faced that the green energy bank might be used for coal power. Of course it would. Coal profits are now rent, as m’colleague Keane gestured towards yesterday.

That’s why Musk and Cannon-Brookes’ suggestion of “100 days or it’s free” is so important. I suspect if they’re offering that, then they could probably roll it out in about 30 days, and they’ve left some elbow room. But even if they didn’t make that deadline, they could obviously afford it. And that is the second part of what Engels, Hilferding and others argued: eventually, in the transition to a post-capitalist economy, there may be no need for a “revolution”, per se, at all. Capital will have so developed the productive forces that there will be no option other than to hand them over to socialised management. That is what the “100 days” thing is a tiny gesture towards.

Possibly. The other explanation is that tech companies are so desperate for markets they are offering free prizes! In order to gain huge state contracts. Perish the thought. Yes, one should be wary of billionaires bearing gifts. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Our path to creating post-capitalist poles and foci within the existing economy is made clear by Musk/Cannon-Brookes’ offer, but is not dependent on it. We should be bypassing the big state as much as the market. Unions, community groups, green corporations, forward-thinking cities can simply begin to proof themselves against the crisis of energy — which is the crisis of capitalism at its very essence — by developing autonomous post-grid networks on a variety of scales, and dealing among themselves, with intra-network transfer costs approaching zero as the networks grow. Eventually the power companies will have to be socialised because they will have no value (the threatened sudden sale of Western Power in WA was because it is approaching zero value faster than any other outfit).

You think this is science fiction? No, this is five or 10 years. These currents are moving faster than a mountain river — and with all the hazards of their rapids to be fair. But they will go where they go, and we will ride them, if we’re smart — and a government like Weatherill’s could really leap ahead of everyone in the West in this matter — while the rent-seekers are still arguing about who gets the contract to build the dam that would allow them to sell it back to the rest of us.

*neither does mainstream Australian theatre, which spends so much time talking about “holding up a mirror to Australia’s middle classes” it might as well be a hair salon in Double Bay. Funny how there’s one thing they never hold a mirror up to.

Economy

Mar 16, 2017

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If you’re a betting person, put some money on Malcolm Turnbull’s “Snowy 2” pumped hydro idea never, ever happening. It’s an announcement of a feasibility study for an unfunded project involving tunnelling in sensitive areas that would take years to approve, let alone complete. You’ll get more power from burning the media release it’s written on.

Which is a pity, because Turnbull’s summit with gas industry executives yesterday was his best achievement of recent months. Turnbull’s first challenge was to not make the existing situation worse — which is what the Coalition has managed to do at every step on energy policy for years now. In essence, Turnbull told the big gas exporters to fix the problem of domestic supply or face the heavy hand of government intervention, complete with the threat of export controls (this is, by the way, the first time since 2009 that the Coalition has put its faith in industry mechanisms to deliver efficient energy outcomes rather than impose a heavy-handed big government intervention).

[How the mining industry parasites helped destroy good energy policy]

The opportunity to attack state and territory governments for gas development moratoria wasn’t missed, but — highly unusually — the word “Labor” wasn’t once uttered by the Prime Minister, marking a rare departure from his constant politicisation of the issue. If that means someone in the PMO worked out that it would be a bad look using a national crisis to attack your opponents, then perhaps there’s hope for political management within this government.

Having displayed good judgement and, perhaps, some old expertise as a negotiator from his business days, Turnbull turned to the gift wrapping — an announcement about investing in pumped hydro in the Snowy Mountains Scheme. To be fair, Turnbull regularly spoke about pumped hydro while he was trying to use clean coal to attack Labor, but it’s hard to avoid the impression the Snowy announcement is designed to counter the clean coal-derived impression that Turnbull is now entirely a captive of the far right.

That’s likely to be the total impact of the announcement. Where is the money coming from? Existing renewable energy funding, meaning the result is no new capacity? Are NSW and Victoria on board? How will they fund it? How long will it take to approve such a massive project? How much longer to build? And what will happen to the energy market in the intervening five to 10 years?

[Turnbull’s lurch to the right hasn’t worked]

Still, good thing the Howard government caved in and didn’t agree to Morris Iemma’s proposal to flog the Snowy Hydro, eh?

As for the suggestion from backbenchers that nuclear power should be thrown into the mix, take note of the names involved, according to the Fairfax reportAndrew Broad, James Paterson, Tony Pasin, Tim Wilson, Chris Back, Craig Kelly, Eric Abetz, Andrew Hastie, Warren Entsch, Bridget McKenzie, Rowan Ramsey. Take note and remember that none of them can count. Nuclear power in Australia is by far the most expensive energy option and would require massive government subsidies and loan guarantees (bigger even than clean coal), and take at least a decade to build once a site was identified (good luck to the relevant MP) and approvals completed — and then will run massively over schedule and over budget. Perhaps they should provide some remedial maths classes for the Coalition joint party room.

But whether it’s nuclear, pumped hydro or, as South Australia has announced, quick start gas, policymakers have reversed two decades of energy market policy and governments are now getting back into power generation. One of the key reform processes since 1990 is being rolled back. From the point of view of voters, who have got little but higher power prices to show for the immensely complex process of privatisation, corporatisation and marketisation of electricity, it’s not before time.

News

May 13, 2014

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As the government prepares to deliver its first budget, Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s approval rating has fallen significantly and, for the first time, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is preferred PM for more Australians, according to new polling from Essential Research.

Abbott how has a -20 point approval rating, with 55% of voter disapproving of his performance and only 35% approving, significantly down from 41%  approval in April (in April 47% disapproved of his performance). Approval splits heavily on party lines, but Abbott’s problems with female voters continue: he trails among men 39%-54% but among women 32%-57%. Shorten has marked time in approval — his 35%-37% split is little different to April’s 34%-38%; Shorten lags badly among “other” voters 27%-44%, but not as badly as Abbott (19%-76%). Unlike Abbott, men and women appear to feel the same about Shorten.

But on preferred prime minister, Shorten has reversed Abbott’s 10-point lead in April, 42-32%, to lead the Prime Minister 37%-36%, the first time he has led Abbott. Abbott’s support is slightly softer among women, but interestingly Shorten’s support was particularly strong in Queensland (44%) while Abbott was stronger in his home state of New South Wales (42%).

Essential also asked about voter support for a range of Commission of Audit and pre-budget proposals. The strongest support was for university graduates to begin repaying loans sooner, once they reach minimum wage (support 50%, opposition 24%) and forcing single Newstart recipients to relocate away from home (44%-31%) and receive Youth Allowance (39%-31%). The least favoured proposals were raising the pension age (18% to 62%) and raising interest rates on student debt (13%-63%). Privatisation of bodies like Australia Post, the Royal Australian Mint and Snowy Hydro were also strongly opposed, and even disliked by Liberal voters, although the latter were almost evenly split about privatising Snowy Hydro. Medicare co-payments were also opposed 55%-25%, although more Liberal voters supported them than opposed, but there was a big gender gap on that issue: women (60%) opposed co-payments much more than men (49%).

Asked who was most favoured by the policies of each side, the Coalition rates strongly as the party of the rich, although neither side performed well on “treating all groups equally”.

Sixty one per cent of voters also think big business doesn’t pay enough tax (including 56% of Liberal voters); 59% don’t think high-income earners pay enough tax (57% of Liberal voters); 61% don’t think mining companies pay enough tax; 68% think large international corporations don’t pay enough tax, and 56% think religious organisations don’t pay enough tax, with no difference apparent between Labor and Coalition voters.

On voting intention, the Coalition remains on 40%; Labor’s primary vote has lifted a point to 39%; the Greens have lost a point to fall to 9%; Palmer United is on 5%. The two-party preferred outcome remains unchanged on 52%-48% in Labor’s favour.

Environment

Oct 18, 2013

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The New South Wales government intends to replace the independent scientific committee that advises on the health and adequacy of water releases to the Snowy River with a government-controlled committee of community representatives.

The Snowy Hydro Corporatisation Amendment (Snowy Advisory Committee) Bill 2013, introduced into NSW Parliament on Wednesday, will terminate the Snowy Scientific Committee set up under the Snowy Hydro Corporatisation Act 1997. The NSW Labor government, which did its best to avoid fulfilling its commitments to restore water to the Snowy River, resisted establishing that committee until 2008. The delay was caused by concerns the committee’s advice would contradict the demands of the influential Snowy Hydro Corporation and its representative within NSW Labor, the corrupt former minister and customer of “Tiffanie” Ian Macdonald, who as primary industries minister bitterly fought efforts to release more water into the Snowy.

The Scientific Committee was required to have six members nominated by the Environment Protection Authority, the Director-General of National Parks and Wildlife, the relevant catchment management authority, an independent scientist with relevant experience nominated by the Minister for the Environment, and two nominees from Victoria.

Under the 1997 legislation, “the Committee is not subject to the control or direction of the Minister.”

The O’Farrell government has proposed to dump the scientific committee and replace it with a new body composed of “community representatives”, one representative of environmental interest groups and “Aboriginal interests” and representatives of the NSW and Victorian governments. The committee will be “subject to the control and direction of the Minister in the exercise of its function, except in relation to the contents of any advice given by it”, meaning the government can dictate all the activities of the committee, as long as it doesn’t demand edits to reports.

The change was flagged earlier this year when the NSW Office of Water released a discussion paper on a new committee that, remarkably, claimed independence from government was a “weakness” of the scientific committee because “research may not align with current work or may duplicate other work”. The Office of Water also claimed that the lack of direct government appointees was a problem because “committee membership is inconsistent with other environmental water advisory committees in NSW which contain both government and community members”.

The committee will also have the dramatically curtailed role of advising “each year on the timing and pattern for the release of water for environmental reasons under the Snowy water licence” rather than its current role of advising on the adequacy of releases and providing an annual report on the state of the environment of catchments affected by the Snowy Hydro scheme.

Environment

Aug 12, 2010

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“Sh-t. Mate, I wouldn’t drink the water if I were you. It’ll give you the bloody scours,” a middle-aged man yells from his bar stool. It’s 10am at Buckley’s Crossing Hotel and the locals are drinking anything but tap water. “If you’ve come to see the Snowy River, you’ll be disappointed,” the local barman grunts, pointing towards the town’s water supply.

In Dalgety — an alpine hamlet in south-east NSW — the Snowy River exists as a shallow channel with flat beds of sediment and grass running between it. Starting out from Jindabyne, the waterway passes only Dalgety before it heads south-east; piercing the Victorian border where its contents are emptied into Bass Strait.

Among the attributes that might be expected of one of Australia’s major tributaries, it lacks only water. At the completion of the Snowy Mountains-Hydro Electric Scheme in 1967 the Snowy River was left with only 1% of its natural water flow. Masses of immobile sediment began to choke the river channel, leaving little room for the wildlife to survive.

“There are times when the river hardly moves. It gets warm and stinks,” Dalgety café owner Julie Pearson says. “Not so long ago, people couldn’t even do their washing and if you did, you’d be walking around in dirty brown clothes. It isn’t much better now.”

But things may soon change. In a desperate bid to increase Labor votes in the Eden-Monaro electorate, Minister for Water Penny Wong yesterday announced that a re-elected Labor government would return 56 gigalitres of water to the Snowy over two years.

The $13.7 million election promise is a planned compensation payment to Snowy Hydro, the company responsible for storing and diverting water from the Snowy.

Local environmentalists have welcomed the measures, but say the announced flows will do little to improve the health of the river.

“Of course we welcome the announcement, we have been fighting for it for years, but we have to realise that it will only increase the annual natural flows by an extra 2% this year,” Louise Crisp, vice-chair of the Snowy River Alliance said.

In 2002, the Commonwealth, Victorian and NSW governments made a commitment to return 15% of the river’s annual natural flow by June 2009 and 20% by 2010.

But as Crikey has previously revealed, despite a Snowy Scientific Committee report detailing that the river is closer to systemic failure than ever, the ailing Snowy River currently subsists on a mere 4%.

Crisp says that if the recent outcome from the Labor government had arisen from the First Five Year Review of the Snowy Water Licence, no compensation would have been allocated to Snowy Hydro.

“This compensation payment should have arisen from the review and the taxpayers would be $13.7 million better off,” she said.

Back at the river’s edge in Dalgety, the town is waiting for change. Along the main stretch of town, business looks as tired as the river. The caravan park is for sale and the garage next door is closed, leaving the pub and café to service the 70 locals.

“Take a look at the cars that have gone past in the last hour, that’s an indication of just how bad things are,” Pearson says scanning the empty street. “I moved here so that my kids could go to school in a small town. But more and more locals are leaving. We need to leave some sort of legacy here for our kids,” she says.

“The people that are old enough to remember the wild river will die soon and we will have lost our history,” Pearson says. “No one will remember what it was like.”

*This article first appeared on Electioneering, a project from Express Media giving eight young writers the chance to blog on the election campaign

Environment

Apr 15, 2010

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The inter-governmental agreement to save the Snowy River is on the verge of collapsing after the NSW government revealed it will unilaterally alter the Snowy Hydro Corporation’s Snowy water licence, in defiance of the Commonwealth and Victoria.

NSW has already infuriated the Victorians over its unilateral, and two-year late, review of the first five years of the licence, which forms the basis of efforts to direct more water down the Snowy as agreed between the Commonwealth, NSW and Victoria in 2000, at a cost of $425 million.

Victorian water minister Tim Holding had been pressing NSW to amend the Snowy water licence to address enable the Commonwealth, Victoria and NSW to work together to address the long-running problem of Snowy Hydro’s removal of water from the Mowamba River as part of a “repayment” for Mowamba flows allowed down the Snowy in the early years of the operation of the agreement.  The diversion of water from the Mowamba continues to deprive the Snowy of high-quality, naturally variable flows.  An extensive study in 2008 revealed the Snowy was continuing to suffer serious degradation.

At the end of March, the NSW Water Commissioner told the Snowy River Alliance that the NSW government was going to vary the licence, ignoring the Mowamba issue but increasing flows for human consumption purposes into the Murrumbidgee from Tantangara Dam, by May 1.

NSW is not permitted to unilaterally alter the Snowy water licence.  Variations to the licence require amendments to the Snowy Water Inquiry Outcomes Implementation Deed, which must be agreed between the jurisdictions.  Then-NSW water minister Phil Koperberg wrote to his then-federal and Victorian counterparts Malcolm Turnbull and Tim Holding in August 2007 about the licence review, promising consultation before any amendments.

Koperberg told Turnbull and Holding “when agreement is reached on any amendments necessary, the Snowy Water Inquiry Outcomes Implementation Deed and Snowy water licence will be amended concurrently.  Since the provisions of the Snowy water licence, in respect of the environmental flows, must not be inconsistent with the provisions of the SWIOID, I will seek your approval to amend the SWIOID prior to any proposed licence change resulting from the review.”

Holding refused to make a submission to the NSW licence variation process because NSW had never responded to his previous proposal, made as part of the licence review process, about governments working together to address the Mowamba debacle.

The Commonwealth separately specifically raised this in its own submission to the licence variation process.

During the review process, the Victorian Government submitted a proposed variation to the Licence that aimed to minimise the impediments imposed by the Licence so that governments could make decisions on the Mowamba Aqueduct, following appropriate investigation, without triggering possible compensation issues. The Minister for Climate Change and Water, the Hon. Senator Penny Wong, has written to the NSW Minister for Water, the Hon. Phillip Costa MP, on two occasions supporting further consideration of the Licence variation proposed by the Victorian Government.

On the basis of the recommendation of the Review to investigate the management of the Mowamba Aqueduct, it seems pertinent that the variation proposed by the Victorian Government be considered within this current process. As part of its consideration I suggest that the NSW Office of Water discuss this issue with the Australian and Victorian Governments. In the event that the NSW Office of Water decides not to accept Victoria’s proposed Licence variation, I suggest that it publishes the reasons for not so doing.

Despite this, NSW has continued to ignore Wong and Holding’s calls for consideration of a Mowamba variation.  Its own proposed licence variation does not address the Mowamba issue, despite it being a key reason for continuing degradation of the Snowy.

The NSW government has a long history of bloody-mindedness on the Snowy, refusing to do any more than the absolute bare minimum it is legally required to do — which is not much.

Environment

Dec 10, 2009

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A proposal to significantly boost environmental flows to the Snowy River was blocked in Cabinet by former NSW primary industries minister and ALP powerbroker Ian Macdonald before his sacking, Crikey has learnt.

The Mowamba Viaduct, which connects the Mowamba River, a tributary of the Snowy downstream from Jindabyne, to Lake Jindabyne, is one of the biggest obstacles to efforts to halt the steady degradation of the Snowy River under the $425 million inter-governmental agreement between the Commonwealth, NSW and Victoria.

Since then, NSW has systematically subverted the agreement.

Crikey understands that, before Macdonald’s sacking by Nathan Rees on November 17, water minister Phil Costa took a submission to Cabinet that the Mowamba Viaduct be decommissioned, albeit not immediately.  The viaduct, which delivers up to 40GL of water a year from the Snowy to the Snowy Hydro Corporation, was decommissioned from 2002-06, but recommissioned — some say having been expanded — thereafter, with the intention of “repaying” Snowy Hydro environmental flows sent down the Snowy during the decommissioning period.  The Mowamba water is used to operate a mini-turbine at Jindabyne Dam.

Snowy Hydro’s insistence on the Mowamba “repayment” continues to deprive the Snowy of high-quality, seasonally and naturally variable water flows, leaving the river closer to degradation now than when John Howard, Bob Carr and Steve Bracks signed the original IGA to “save” the Snowy.  Carr and Bracks announced the closure of the viaduct in 2002, only for NSW to announce it would be recommissioned in 2005, shocking Bracks, who said his understanding was that it would remain non-operational.

In response, Macdonald, then primary industries minister, declared that NSW had never agreed to permanently decommission the viaduct.

The decommissioning has long been a goal of Snowy campaigners disgruntled that the IGA, and hundreds of millions of dollars, have not prevented the further degradation of the river.

Costa’s Cabinet submission was said to have been defeated when Macdonald, a long-time supporter of Snowy Hydro, strongly objected to the proposal.  Macdonald has been a dogged advocate for Snowy Hydro’s interests for years, backing its hare-brained cloud-seeding project and its privatisation, which was derailed by the Howard government.

Macdonald was sacked by  Rees as part of the then-Premier’s unsuccessful attempt to purge his ministry in November.  On Tuesday he was appointed by Kristina Keneally to the ministries of mineral and forest resources, state and regional development and the Central Coast.  Costa was reappointed to the water portfolio but lost his former regional development portfolio to Macdonald.