Archive for March, 2012

March 31, 2012

Cocos Islands: New spy base for the US killing machine?

A US military drone.

(Listen to expanded story on Cocos Islands in a radio interview I did with NZ Earthwise program here.)

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are a tiny group of coral atolls in the Indian Ocean 2,800 km northwest of Perth and 900 km from Java currently with a population of about 600.

These islands were nominally a British Territory between 1858 and 1955 when they were transferred by a British act of parliament to Australia. Yet for the next 17 years, the Australian government allowed the islands to operate as a private fiefdom of the Clunies-Ross family – just as the British had for a 100 years ago before then.

The islands were uninhabited until 1826 when Alexander Hare, a former minor British colonial official, set up an establishment with some 50 slaves, mainly of Malay background, and a personal “harem” he had collected from numerous colonial outposts.

Hare was displaced a year later by his former business partner, John Clunies-Ross, a Scottish ship captain whose descendants enriched themselves on the labour of the Malay plantation workforce they paid with tokens that could be spent only on the company store. The Malay islanders had no access to formal education while the Clunies-Ross children were sent to private schools in England. The head of the Clunies-Ross family was lawmaker, judge and administrator and anyone who did not accept his rule was banished.

So it is no surprise that when in 1984 the Cocos Islanders were finally given the choice between independence, free association and integration with Australia, they overwhelmingly voted in secret ballot for integration. Only members of the Clunies-Ross family and a couple loyal servants were in favour of “independence”.

But the Australian government did not offer the islanders their liberation from semi-feudalism just out of respect for freedom.  Kenneth Chan, the Australian administrator on the Cocos Islands between 1985-85 admitted in a largely unnoticed academic paper he wrote in 1987 that the islands strategic location was the main motivation to acquire and integrate this Indian Ocean territory.

The islands were used as a military base by the British in World Wars I & II and now the US military wants the islands as a base for drones and other spy planes. Pentagon officials are hoping that Australia will make up for a possible closure or downgrading of its main Indian Ocean island military base in Diego Garcia, which it leased from Britain in 1966.

The US built its giant base on Diego Garcia in the 1970s after the 2000 Chagos Islanders were forcibly removed through trickery and starvation, a major colonial crime relatively recently exposed to the world.

The US has used Diego Garcia to base nuclear weapons, marines, warships, bombers and spy planes. And it has used it as a transit station for political prisoners on sent for “rendition” to other countries so they can be tortured, though this is officially denied . Diego Garcia is an strategic hub of the US killing machine.

But the US lease runs out in 2016 and the Pentagon wants to relocate at least some of the military functions of the base to various Australian bases in Western Australian, Darwin and the Cocos Islands. The Gillard Labor government and the Liberal-National opposition wholeheartedly support this process and have already agreed to station thousands of US marines in Darwin.

Green Left Weekly opposes all these new US bases and campaigns for the closure of the existing nominally “joint US-Australian” military bases. You can help us expose and fight the Australian complicity with the US killing machine. By donating online today to the Green Left Fighting Fund.

Direct deposits can be made to Greenleft, Commonwealth Bank, BSB 062-006, Account No. 00901992. Otherwise, you can send a cheque or money order to PO Box 515, Broadway NSW 2007 or donate on the toll-free line at 1800 634 206 (within Australia).

Our objective is to raise $250,000 for our Fighting Fund by the end of this year. So far our supporters have raised $30,006. Please help us get closer to target.

Click to enlarge.

March 16, 2012

The grim news from Cape Grim

The 2012 State of the Climate Report by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO was launched at weather monitoring station on remote Cape Grim in Tasmania. The location was an apt choice for a report which has very bad news about Australia’s continuing failure to respond adequately to the climate change crisis.

Each decade since the 1950s has been warmer, the report states. Annual-average daily mean temperatures have increased 0.9% since 1910 and annual-average overnight minimum temperatures have warmed by more than 1.1% since 1910.

And we shouldn’t be foxed by the recent two years of wetter than usual weather — due to the La Niña effect — into thinking that this long-term warming trend has ended. “2011 was the world’s 11th warmest year and the warmest year on record during a La Niña event”, according to the report.

Furthermore, the world’s 13 warmest years on record have all occurred in the past 15 years.

La Niña events are associated with warmer-than-average ocean temperatures in the Australian region, the report explains, and sea-surface temperatures around Australia have increased faster than the global average.

The report projected an average temperature rise in Australia of 1 to 5°C by 2070, long-term drying over southern and eastern Australia and an increase in extreme weather events such as severe floods, droughts and extreme cyclones.

Other CSIRO research has found that:

  • With just a 1 to 2°C average temperature rise in Australia, up to 58–81% of the Great Barrier Reef will be bleached every year and there will be a 90% decrease in core habitat for vertebrates in northern Australia tropics.
  • With a 2 to 3°C rise, 97% of the Great Barrier Reef will be bleached every year and 80% loss of freshwater wetlands in Kakadu  due to a 30 cm sea level rise. Malaria receptive zones spread southwards, population at risk of dengue increases from 0.17 million to 0.75-1.6 million, 10% increase in diarrhoeal diseases among Aboriginal children in central Australia, 100% increase in number of people exposed to flooding in Australia and New Zealand and increased influx of refugees from Pacific Islands.
  • With a 3 to 4°C rise, there will be  a 95% decrease in distribution of Great Barrier Reef species, 20–85% shrinkage of total snow-covered area in the Australian Alps and 30–70% loss of core habitat for Victoria and montane (highland) tropical vertebrate species. Malaria receptive zones spread furthercsouth, temperature related mortality among people 65+ years in Australian capital cities increases by 89–123% and the dengue transmission zone shifts as far south as Brisbane.
  • And if average temperatures rise above 5°C, 90–100% of core habitat will be lost for most Australian vertebrates.

The 2012 State of the Climate Report also highlighted accelerating sea-level rises. The global-average mean sea level for 2011 was 210 mm above the level in 1880 and has risen faster between 1993 and 2011 than during the 20th century as a whole.

But these are just average sea level rises. To the north and north-west of Australia the rates of sea level rise are two to three times the global average. While Torres Strait Islanders and South Pacific Islanders have been sounding the alarm for at least a decade but their voices are being drowned out by climate change denialist campaigns strongly backed by mining billionaires like Gina Rinehart.

The report presented clear evidence that the levels of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, in the atmosphere all continue to rise exponentially.  Carbon dioxide has reached a frightening new high of 390 parts per million in the atmosphere.

The report also demolished the climate change denialists’ claim that the rising temperatures are not caused by human activity: “It is very likely (at least 90 per cent likelihood) that most of the observed global warming since the mid-20th century is due to increases in greenhouse gases from human activities.”

It is almost too late to take the necessarily radical action required to avert catastrophic climate change. And if the voices of reason don’t prevail over the powerful vested interests that are blocking such action, then we will soon pass that point.

Green Left Weekly needs your urgent help to step up the fight against these powerful vested interests. Our objective is to raise $250,000 for our Fighting Fund by the end of this year. So far our supporters have raised $25,392 – just over one tenth of this target.

You can  donate online today to the Green Left Fighting Fund. Direct deposits can be made to Greenleft, Commonwealth Bank, BSB 062-006, Account No. 00901992. Otherwise, you can send a cheque or money order to PO Box 515, Broadway NSW 2007 or donate on the toll-free line at 1800 634 206 (within Australia).

March 2, 2012

Rising insecurity as more jobs go

There is a growing disconnect between the official rosy picture of the Australian economy and mounting public anxiety about job security. The latest official unemployment rate figure (for January 2012) was steady at 5.2% and federal Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson insists there is no reason to worry. Australians, he said, should shake off their misplaced “boom with gloom” attitude.

“The whole mindset is a bit overdone, it’s almost as if most Australians think we live in Greece.

”We don’t, we actually have an incredibly bright future ahead of us”, said Parkinson to a Senate estimates hearing, “the opportunities we have in front of us are the like we have never seen before.”

But the headline unemployment rate hides the actual job situation. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has reported rises in underemployment and the numbers of discouraged job seekers since 2007.

ABS estimated that at the end of last year there were 873,500 underemployed workers ( i.e. part-time workers wanting more hours of work or full-time workers being forced to work less hours) in addition to 627,500 unemployed. Since November 2007, 191,400 more Australian workers became underemployed.

The number of discouraged jobseekers (people who want to work and are available to work but were no longer actively looking for work because they believed they would not find a job) have also been rising since 2007. The ABS estimated to have reached 102,100 by September 2010.

An ACTU report Insecure work, anxious lives: the growing crisis of insecure work in Australia found that casual jobs, short term contracts and other insecure forms of work are on the rise and secure jobs are getting harder and harder to find.

  • Only around 60% of workers are in full or part-time ongoing employment.
  • More than 4 million workers are engaged as casuals, on short-term contracts, in labour hire, or as independent contractors.

The sum of unemployed, underemployed and discouraged jobseekers is more 1.6 million. From their perspective and from the perspective of the millions workers with insecure jobs and under the yoke of record household debt, Parkinson’s words are a cruel joke.

Since the beginning of this year all the big banks have begun shedding jobs as have the car manufacturing giants General Motors – Holden and Toyota, aluminium producer Alcoa and the privatised communications giant Telstra. On top of that federal and state governments are destroying jobs to try and return to surplus budgets and deliver tax cuts to big business.

On February 29, a major construction company in NSW, the Reed Group, announced it was in trouble. Brian Parker, the NSW secretary of the building division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) warned a meeting of Unions NSW on March 1 that if Reed collapsed, the ripple effect could cost up to 10,000 jobs.

Job shedding by bigger companies gets into the news but job losses by workers in small and medium sized businesses are not often reported. The ABS estimates that about half of all workers in Australia are employed in small businesses, defined as employing 20 or fewer workers.

According to a report by Dun & Bradstreet, the number of such small businesses going bankrupt jumped by 48% over the last 12 months, while small business start-ups fell by 95% over the same period. Small business failures among firms with less than five employees grew 57% over the year.

So what is the solution?

Last week, Gerry Harvey the chairperson of the electronics and furnishing Harvey Norman retail chain appealed to the public to start spending up again instead of paying down their credit card and other debts to avoid more businesses bankruptcies and job losses.

If we listen to Harvey ordinary people should just get deeper into debt and go on a shopping spree. Other big capitalists tell us to have faith that the billions of dollars of profits now being made by the big mining companies and the banks will trickle down to us.

The Gillard Labor government assures that its subsidies to big car companies and its promised company tax cuts will help save jobs. But will they?

Billions of dollars have been spent by governments over decades to subsidise big steel manufacturing companies and car companies in the name of saving jobs. These companies have taken the money, made huge profits, paid obscene amounts to their CEOs and gone on to shed more than 30,000 jobs in the steel industry and 20,000 in car manufacturing.

Public subsidies to protect the profits of big corporations won’t guarantee jobs. If big profits meant job security, Australia’s big four banks shouldn’t be embarking on a new wave of bank shedding. Last year, they reported a combined profit of $25.2 billion.

ACTU President Ged Kearney recently noted that “the combined salaries of the four major banks’ CEOs totaled $28.6 million. This, along with the massive profits makes it impossible to feel any sympathy for their complaints about their financial circumstances.”

“At the same time,” she added, “the big four banks last year slashed 3300 jobs and already in the first month of this year, Westpac and ANZ have announced plans to shed another 730 jobs between them.”

On February 12, Finance Sector Union national secretary Leon Carter told reporters that 2,000 jobs had gone this year and added: “If this pace continues, we stand to lose 10,000 jobs over the next 18 months.”

Most of Australia’s trade union leadership follows the Gillard Labor governments line that jobs can be saved through more corporate subsidies and more corporate tax cuts. But one trade union leader has broken from the pack and is advocating a different course.

In his exclusive interview with Green Left Weekly on February 18, Geelong Trades and Labor Council secretary Tim Gooden said:

“People say it’s a private world, a free market — that’s crap. All the risk has been socialised, all the profits are privatised.

“In reality, society is pretty much paying for these companies anyway. If the corporate system can’t maintain them, then the public system should take them over…

“If an industry became redundant, workers should be retrained on full pay into the new industry, not thrown on the scrapheap like we see today.

“Nationalisation would also be cheaper — if we aren’t paying business board members millions to suck on cigars, the costs would be lower. And any funds raised are for public, not private, use.

“Importantly, we would be able to plan any scale down of an industry that society decides is redundant or harmful. We could put the resources and skills into industries we want.”