19 Dec 2007

Weather the Weather

By Bruce Haigh
Bruce Haigh imagines a dystopian Australia post-climate change
If governments are to meet the demands of climate change, they will need more rather than less control over what used to be termed public utilities and assets. In this light, NSW Premier Morris Iemma's proposal to privatise the State's electricity companies flies in the face of common sense.

Climate change will increase demand for electricity. Under Iemma's short-sighted proposal, pricing and distribution decisions will reside in the hands of private companies and uninterrupted electricity supply will, over time, become a luxury only for those with money.

Telstra is a case in point. Look at Telstra and you see the shortcomings of privatisation in a country where distance reduces or negates profitability outside the major cities. There is a basic incompatibility between delivery of service and the demands of shareholders, and private power companies are not going to perform any better for customers than the shareholder-driven Telstra.

In an Australia transformed by global warming, how will the Government ensure the equitable distribution of water? As I write, major irrigators - mainly cotton growers - are buying up licences in the hope that if they own enough they will ensure a flow of water sufficient to sustain the profitability of their enterprise.

The creation of water licences was an act of unbelievable stupidity. The only thing a privatised market will achieve is an increase in the gap between rich and poor.

How will the States handle consumer demand for the curtailment of privatised essential services? As we have seen with Telstra, recourse to the law - with endless delays and appeals - is not going to deliver solutions as demand increases and supply diminishes.

The law will need to be upheld by force. Such force would be beyond the resources of the State Police. To ensure the supply of water or power from recalcitrant suppliers would require the intervention of the armed forces, which would immediately bring into play the Federal Government.

Shortage of resources, poor distribution, profit gouging and corruption will bring Federally-controlled force to centre stage, rendering the States irrelevant. Extreme events, whether climatic or political, reinforce and deliver power to the centre. Climate change and the centralisation of Government power will go hand in hand.

The need for survival will remove political niceties and rivalries within the hallowed halls of Canberra and strip the large Government-created monopolies of power and profit. Military pressure on Australia from northern neighbours keen to access water and arable land would see the Federal Government take over neglected national infrastructure such as roads and railways.

Climate change has the potential to undermine sound democratic structures in the same way that poor political structures have done in countries such as Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Pakistan or Burma.

The Government would assume control over all aspects of life, including the distribution and allocation of oil, petrol, diesel, coal and gas. It would assume the power to compulsorily acquire property and other private assets deemed necessary to ensure the survival of the nation.

Of course, centralising power need not necessarily mean an end to democracy. Protective structures might be put in place, providing checks and balances to protect the basic rights of citizens. However, if the 11 years of the Howard regime are any indication, there is not much initiative amongst Australians to fight for democratic solutions and institutions.

So Australia would become a military dictatorship, increasingly engaged in military conflict to protect its shrinking resources. All sections of the population would be drawn into militarisation as troops, producers of military equipment and food.

Trade would become an increasingly hazardous undertaking and Australia would slowly be militarily disadvantaged as its overseas-produced military hardware is destroyed or wears out. To survive we would have to adapt and become innovative, self-disciplined and self-sufficient.

It would be nice to end on an optimistic note.

The only way I can do that is to hope against hope and cast a wish that Government and industry might face the above, put self interest aside and create cooperative mechanisms to ensure equitable, prudent and sustainable use of resources.

But even if we achieve that monumental task in Australia, how do we achieve that degree of cooperation and equity in the rest of the world? How do we help achieve it in the Indonesian Archipelago, where military-sponsored corruption is endemic?

Set against all this, the Bali Climate Change Conference was a lost opportunity to establish binding sustainable solutions.

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