Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 29, 2020

The Coal Curse, Resources, Climate and Australia’s Future (Quarterly Essay #78), by Judith Brett

This essay with its evocative title is a comprehensive survey of how Australia came to have its current paralysis on the matter of climate change.

This year’s Melbourne Writers Festival is offering two sessions on this topic, and I have tickets for both of them.  The first one, on Saturday August 8th and titled ‘A Matter of Fact’ features Ketan Joshi and Judith Brett, focusing on how this critical issue has been hijacked.  This is the session description on the MWF website:

As certain branches across politics and the media push mistruths, half-truths and lies about the cause and severity of the climate crisis in Australia, identifying reliable, science-backed information is increasingly a challenge.

But how do we identify misinformation in the battle against climate change, and what can we do to counter it? Academic Judith Brett (The Coal Curse) and renewable energy expert Ketan Joshi (Windfall) join Graham Readfearn in conversation.

(I’ve also got tickets for ‘Australia’s Response to Climate Change‘, more about that later.)

I haven’t been able to get a copy of Joshi’s book because it’s not due for release till September, but The Coal Curse was already on my TBR because I subscribe to Quarterly Essay.  This is the blurb:

Australia is a wealthy nation with the economic profile of a developing country – heavy on raw materials, and low on innovation and skilled manufacturing. Once we rode on the sheep’s back for our overseas trade; today we rely on cartloads of coal and tankers of LNG. So must we double down on fossil fuels, now that Covid-19 has halted the flow of international students and tourists? Or is there a better way forward, which supports renewable energy and local manufacturing?
Judith Brett traces the unusual history of Australia’s economy and the “resource curse” that has shaped our politics. She shows how the mining industry learnt to run fear campaigns, and how the Coalition became dominated by fossil-fuel interests to the exclusion of other voices. In this insightful essay about leadership, vision and history, she looks at the costs of Australia’s coal addiction and asks, where will we be if the world stops buying it?

Judith Brett is a professor of politics so she is well placed to illuminate the sad and sorry story of our coal curse.  She begins with an invidious comparison:

The term ‘resource curse’ was first used by the British economist Richard Auty in 1993 to explain why some resource-rich countries suffer from slow development and corrupt, authoritarian political elites: for example, Nigeria, Angola, Venezuela.  At worst, the country embarks on a spending spree, using the export income earned to buy expensive imports, and is left with little when the limited resources run out, as happened most notoriously with Nauru.  For a few decades, the money flowed from its phosphate deposits, but when the phosphate ran out, the economy collapsed.  (p.9-10)

What should protect us from this fate is a strong civil society, functioning democratic institutions and the rule of law, working together to prevent corruption and nurture a diverse economy.  Byt what has happened instead is that our advantage in mineral and agricultural commodities has been wasted, and worse, cynical operators in big business and in politics have propped up an industry which is a declining sector of world trade, and damaged Australia’s international reputation into the bargain.  When Harvard University’s Centre for International Development ranked economies by their diversity and complexity in order to assess their potential for growth, Australia came in at number 93 of 133 economies among countries that we used to call the ‘third world’.  Worse, our position is falling.  New Zealand came in at 51, and all the other OECD countries were at the top of the pack.  The cause is the resources boom which made us rich but also made us reliant on other countries buying our minerals.  Brett is blunt: from the Harvard perspective, we are a dumb country with a weak industrial base and poor prospects. 

Well, it’s not as bad as that.  Before COVID-19 we had thriving tourism and education industries which brought in foreign income. But as we now know, our weak manufacturing base has made us vulnerable, and our lack of capital-intensive, value-added industrial products is going to make it harder for our economy to survive the post COVID recession.  And this dependence on the resources boom hasn’t even produced enough jobs because despite the rhetoric, mines don’t employ a lot of people.  4.4% of our workers are in industries that produce almost 70% of our export income.

The chapters explaining how both the major parties fell captive to the resource industries is deeply depressing.  Time and again, attempts to reform our economy have failed.  Even though the Labor Party sold its soul over the controversial Adani coal mine, Queenslanders fell for the jobs rhetoric in the last election to deprive the country of a new government that despite its flaws would have been progressive in other ways.  (Brett doesn’t say that, I do.)

The essay ends on an optimistic note.  Brett describes economist Ross Garnaut’s 2019 Superpower: Australia’s low-carbon opportunity as a brilliant strategy (read a summary here), and she feels some hope that the bipartisanship of the COVID crisis may signal a different way forward:

Faced with the crisis of a global pandemic, for the first time in more than a decade Australia has had evidence-based, bipartisan policy-making. Politicians have listened to the scientists and not hesitated to inflict economic pain on their advice.  A Liberal prime minister has worked effectively with both Labor and Liberal premiers and together they have achieved remarkable results, protecting us from the trauma COVID-19 has brought to other countries.  To do this, they put ideology and the protection of vested interests aside and behaved like adults. Can they do the same to commit to fast and effective action to try to save our children’s and grandchildren’s future, to prevent the catastrophic fires and heatwaves the scientists predict, the species extinction and the famines? After all, governments are our risk managers of last resort.  (p.75)

I certainly hope she’s right.

Author: Judith Brett
Title: The Coal Curse, Resources, Climate and Australia’s Future
Quarterly Essay #78, published by Black Inc 2020
ISBN: 9781760642297
Source: personal subscription

Available from Fishpond: The Coal Curse: Resources, Climate and Australia’s Future: Quarterly Essay 78 or better still, subscribe through the QE website.


Responses

  1. I hope that she’s right as well.

    Like

    • The problem is, it’s not just governments that matter. The unity on the pandemic is being undermined by the press…I was horrified yesterday by an article in the Guardian about the press campaign against our premier — I hadn’t seen it because I don’t read the tabloid media. It illustrates too clearly that even when there is political unity about the importance of the problem and what to do about it, powerful media interests have no compunction about sabotaging it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. The press focus seems to be solely on immediacy and ratings: not much time for careful accuracy.

        Like


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