We are all “prisoners of conscience”

In 1961 when Amnesty International founder Peter Benenson and his friends launched the Amnesty for the forgotten prisoners, they came up with the description “prisoners of conscience”.

For the next sixty years members of Amnesty International continued to work on behalf of the “prisoners of conscience” and what began as a group of friends working out of Peter Benenson’s spare room, has now grown into a worldwide human rights movement. Our mandate has broadened and we now work on a range of human rights issues and the term “prisoners of conscience” is not so prominent in Amnesty literature.

(Photo of Peter Benenson taken in the late 1950s)

This weekend leaders of Amnesty International Australia (AIA) will meet in Sydney to vote on constitutional changes that aim to make the governance of AIA better suited to the environment in which we find ourselves. It is an opportunity to reflect on the challenges human rights defenders face as we advance into the 21st century and how AIA might support us in facing these challenges.

The world was simpler in 1961 when Peter Benenson launched his campaign for Amnesty.  The original action was inspired by an article in a daily newspaper that reported the imprisonment of several people in Portugal for their human rights activism. Initially Peter Benenson and his colleagues thought that this was an isolated case, an aberration, in a world where human rights were generally respected. As their campaign grew they realised that this was not the case and that human rights abuse was common in a number of European countries at the time, and that human rights were not universally respected despite the pronouncement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a decade earlier.

In 2018 I open my computer on any day to find requests to take action on a wide range of issues, many of them human rights related. The task becomes to choose which ones to take action on – to sort out the worthy from the less worthy. Sadly this constant barrage of email requests, twitter feeds and Facebook posts can be disempowering.

Many today feel that whatever they do, it will make no difference. They switch off altogether and live in a world of “infotainment”. Those of us who do struggle to respond to the world around us are in danger of “burning out” – we can end up the same as our fellow citizens who put up no struggle in the first place, disillusioned with the idea that we as individuals can make a difference.

This is one of the great challenges facing movements for positive change today. How do we empower people who strive to build a more compassionate, fair and sustainable future?

Perhaps it is time to revisit the term “prisoners of conscience”. Those of us who work for peace and justice are in one sense all prisoners of conscience – prisoners of our own conscience. We receive a request from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre to phone Scott Morrison’s office to ask him to let the children off Nauru and we do it. Perhaps it is because it gives some relief to a guilty conscience that we are not doing more, or perhaps we welcome the chance to be working with like-minded people on a just cause. Whatever the reason, the important thing is we took action.

(Photo – AIA Online action in support of children on Nauru)

When we define prisoners of conscience in this way we see them everywhere – the doctor who speaks out about the conditions on Nauru even though it may mean losing his or her job, the Liberal Party backbencher in Federal Parliament who says is enough is enough and demands that sick children on Nauru and their families be brought to Australia for treatment, or the public servant who blows the whistle on illegal or fraudulent practices. Using this definition our human rights movement becomes a movement of “prisoners of conscience” working on behalf of “prisoners of conscience”.

What can we do to sustain each other in our work for human rights? Perhaps the most important thing to support and encourage each other. After leaving my message on Mr Morrison’s phone yesterday, I sent an email of support to the three Liberal MPs who have spoken out on the issue of medical treatment for the children on Nauru. They may not get to see these emails but it is a gesture, and such gestures are important in sustaining other “prisoners of conscience”.

In the 1960s Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk and mystic, used the phrase “bombardment of the senses” to describe the impact of the popular media. In his diary he commented that he avoided reading newspapers and did not listen to radio or television. All his news came from individuals – he maintained correspondence with peace activists leading the anti-war movement in the US, with civil rights activists in the US Deep South, with Vietnamese Buddhist monks and with ordinary people struggling to live responsibly in a world that was slowly losing its humanity.

Avoiding so-called popular media, Merton knew what was happening in the world but it was mediated by the experiences of people striving to make a difference. Although he lived as a monk in a silent monastic order, Thomas Merton was at the centre of the changes in the US Catholic Church that saw the Church come out in support of the civil rights movement, declare the war in Vietnam as an unjust war and to call for nuclear disarmament.

Thomas Merton
(Photo – Thomas Merton with the Dalai Lama in 1968)

The lesson I take from the life of Thomas Merton is the importance of relationships – in many of our campaigns and causes we may not achieve success but if we never lose sight of the importance of supporting and sustaining each other, and we remain in the struggle for peace and justice, who knows the ultimate outcome.

This weekend as we meet to change the governance structures of Amnesty International Australia and reconsider our role in supporting the global movement for human rights, it is important to reflect on how we sustain each other as “prisoners of conscience”.

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Vale Peter Burns – a man for all seasons

Peter Burns, an active member of Amnesty International Australia since the 1970s, passed away on 14 March 2018. I had the privilege of being invited by Beverley and the family to assist them in planning the celebration of Peter’s life, which was held on the 21st of March at the Woongarra Crematorium Chapel in Townsville.

Peter Burns

We began our celebration with an acknowledgement of the traditional owners, the Wulgurukaba and Bindal people. Following that we had a “muster” of all the groups represented which was an impressive indication of the breadth of Peter’s passions and interest. There were people there from the University of the Third Age (U3A), from James Cook University (JCU) where Peter taught Indonesian for many years, from the Indonesian community of Townsville, from the Townsville Arts community, from the Townsville Amnesty group, and from the Australian Labor Party, of which Peter had been a member for even more years than he had been a member of Amnesty.

Andrew Burns gave a moving tribute to his father. We learnt that Peter was born in Adelaide in 1934. He moved to Melbourne after World War II where he studied Dentistry for two years and then completed a Primary Teacher’s certificate. On the basis of the science subjects he studied as part of his Dentistry studies, he soon found himself teaching science at Bright High School where Beverley Nicholson was Principal.

In Andrew’s words: “The prospect of marrying Peter must have had quite some allure because the immediate professional consequences for Beverley were so disadvantageous. When they married in January 1960, regulations then in place resulted in Beverley becoming a temporary teacher while Peter became head of the school.”

So that Peter could complete his education degree, Peter and Beverley moved back to Melbourne where Peter commenced his studies of Indonesian which became his passion for the next 50 years. Peter, Beverley and their sons Andrew, David and Stephen, moved to Townsville in 1974 where Peter was an Indonesian Language lecturer at JCU until his retirement in 1996.

One of Peter’s attributes that Andrew especially admired was Peter’s sincerity to his commitments. Andrew reminded us of his father’s regular presence at the weekly “Fridays in orange” vigils that the Townsville Amnesty group held outside the office of Federal MP Peter Lindsay. We were calling on the Australian Government to ensure that David Hicks be given a fair trial or be released from imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay. We wore orange because this was the colour of the jumpsuits worn by Guantanamo inmates. Each week Peter would repaint a large board which gave the number of days David Hicks had been detained without trial. Andrew told us that the Board was still in the back shed with the number 1937 painted on it.

1860 days David Hicks
(Fridays in orange – by then David Hicks had spent 1860 days in detention)

Andrew also told us that Peter had been a member of the group that successfully lobbied then-Queensland Transport Minister Russ Hinze to introduce the first bike paths to Townsville.

Andrew paid tribute to Beverley’s caring for Peter as he endured the ravages of Parkinson’s disease. Peter had had Parkinson’s disease for eight years. Towards the end of his life Peter was physically frail but he was spared the terrible mental deterioration that afflicts so many sufferers. Peter continued to enjoy Crosswords until two months before his passing. Andrew’s concluding words were “I will miss Peter. I will miss his curiosity, his generosity of spirit and our conversations profoundly.”

Following Andrew’s tribute, those attending were invited to share their own memories of Peter. U3A colleagues said how much they enjoyed the philosophy courses taught by Peter, and gave us the hilarious story of Peter’s antics during a debate held between U3A members and JCU Law students. Jeanie Adams told us that as a beginning tertiary teacher she taught with Peter at Melbourne Teachers College (Secondary Art & Crafts). Jeanie described Peter as a great mentor and told us that on occasions she and John had baby-sat Andrew, David and Stephen.

Artist Jenny Tyack shared stories of Peter’s artistic accomplishments and pointed to Peter’s self-portrait displayed at the front of the chapel and painted during one of Jenny’s classes. Trevor Mack paid tribute to the guidance Peter had given him when he commenced as a lecturer of Indonesian at JCU. Lindy Nelson-Carr, former ALP State MP and Cabinet Minister in the Beattie and Bligh Governments told us of her appreciation of Peter’s longstanding commitment to the Annandale ALP Branch and the wise and generous contribution he made to the life of that branch.

We shared a letter sent to us from Trish Johnson from Canberra when she heard of Peter’s passing:

“In 1985 I wanted to join an Amnesty group in Townsville, but one was not currently active. When I set about starting one again, Peter Burns was quickly on board. His knowledge and encouragement was invaluable: he was a skilled letter writer, a passionate supporter of human rights, and a constant source of varied information and perspectives, with a quirky sense of black humour sometimes thrown in. He and Beverley were often at functions and events, such as Button Day and campaigns, and I found him a great mentor at that stage of activism.

Thank you Peter – we will miss you.”

Following the tributes, grandson Paul Burns, read “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas – one of Peter’s favourite poets. This was followed by a time for reflection when people were invited to place rose petals on Peter’s coffin and say their own farewell. We did this to the recording of Bryn Terfel singing “The First Time ever I saw your face”.

kazoos(Tropical Kazoos join Amnesty International members for the annual Labor Day Parade)

The celebration featured some of the other music Peter loved including Appalachian Spring and “Danny Boy” also sung by Bryn Terfel. The final song was Sydney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance”, which was played by members of the Tropical Kazoo band. One of Peter’s involvements not already mentioned was his long time membership of the Tropical Kazoo Band. He particularly favoured our motto taken from a ‘gruk’ by Piet Hein “The noble art of losing face may some day save the human race”. Peter’s commitment to kazoo playing and the band was evidenced by the fact that he was the only band member who had an instrument case for his kazoo – an ornate polished wooden case.

As we played that day at the end of the service, I imagined Peter listening to our playing with a twinkle in his eye, and agreeing that this was a most appropriate way to conclude his celebration.








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Christmas – a time of high risk factors for Affluenza

In November the Roy Morgan Research Centre together with the Australian Retailers’ Association predicted that Australians would spend $50 Billion over the Christmas trading period. By sector this includes $20.2 Billion on food (including alcohol), $8.7 Billion on household goods, $3.9 Billion on clothing, $3 billion on Department store purchases and $7 Billion on hospitality.

This prediction represents a 2.8% increase on spending in 2016 which left the retailers a little glum as they were hoping for 4-5% increase. This $50 Billion will add to GDP so that makes it good for the economy according to most politicians and economists. More would be better as mainstream economic thinking is all about quantity – quality does not get a look in. Never mind that much of the food will be wasted and most of the gifts will be things not needed and in many cases discarded soon after Christmas.

David Jones

Our obsession with GDP as the best indicator of a healthy economy means that Christmas is a gift that keeps on giving to politicians and economic planners. This is how it works. Let’s be conservative and estimate that 25% of the stuff purchased ends up in land fill in the next three months. That might cost $20 million to dig the holes and an extra $50 million to collect and bury this discarded stuff which adds a further $70 million to GDP. And it doesn’t stop there – Christmas is the peak season of the year for conflict in families and family breakdown. The legal costs that ensue also add to GDP. And then there are the medical costs of treating victims of traffic accidents over the Christmas break … you guessed it – they also contribute to GDP.

Getting back to the spending projections for Christmas, we might think that this extra spending is justified because all this retail therapy is making people happier, but this is not the case. Economist Richard Denniss reports that most Australians are more than 40% wealthier today in real terms than they were 20 years ago but they feel poorer. So what is happening – how have we got to a situation where we waste so much that the very future of our planet is threatened and yet it is not making us any happier?

According to Richard Dennis, most of us in Australia and the rest of the developed world are suffering from a dangerous disease called affluenza. This is explored by Richard Denniss in his recently released book “Curing Affluenza – how to buy less stuff and save the world”.

I shop therefore..

Denniss defines affluenza as “… that strange desire we feel to spend money we don’t have, to buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t know…” It is dangerous because most of us by our behaviour would give the impression that happiness comes from accumulating more and more stuff. We feel that we are defined by the fancy car we drive or the expensive clothes we wear. And then all too soon we get rid of this stuff and replace it with more. The energy that we need to make all this stuff is one of the main contributors to the increased levels of carbon dioxide that causes climate change.

Richard Denniss has no problem about people liking good things but asks why we need to keep replacing them all the time. He suggests that a better way is to cherish the things we own – preserve them, repair them, and then gift them or sell them when we no longer need them. Denniss encourages us to foster new ways of thinking and acting that do not squander limited resources, and which support the things we value most: vibrant communities and rich experiences.

Richard Denniss maintains that the only way to cure affluenza is by cultural change. Most of us depend on our possessions to feel good about ourselves. Denniss believes we need to find other ways to feel good about ourselves – such as feeling good about ourselves when we are not so selfish. I fear Denniss may underestimate the challenge we face in making the changes needed. The people who are rewarded most in the crazy system that has evolved are the leaders and ambassadors of our consumer society.

Curing Affluenza

In Sydney recently I heard Richard Denniss discuss the ideas in his book with Ross Gittens, the Economics Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. Denniss remains optimistic and outlined some of the signs that gave him hope that things can change in time.

One hundred years ago the English writer GK Chesterton wrote: “There are two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.” Western culture has been trying the former way with little success for the past 50 years. It may now be time to try the second way.

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In the Care of our Common Home

In October Bill Ray, The Anglican Bishop of North Queensland and Tim Harris, the Catholic Bishop of Townsville released a joint statement “In the Care of our Common Home: Sister Earth”. Recalling numerous past Christian leaders who have reminded us of our inter-connectedness with all of creation they say: “For Christians, this care for our common home is not an optional or secondary part of our daily living, rather it is “an essential part of our faith”. They go on to say that our dominion over the planet needs to be understood in the sense of “responsible stewardship” especially to future generations.

The Bishop’s statement also draws attention to “Laudato Si – On Care for our Common Home” – the document on the environment released by Pope Francis in June 2015. Laudato Si is not addressed to Catholics or Christians alone but to every person in the world – such is Pope Francis’s concern for a planet where we no longer respect Nature as a shared gift. Pope Francis uses these words to describe the deterioration of the planet “The Earth, our home, is beginning to look like an immense pile of filth.” Pope Francis calls us to a new way of viewing creation as well as a new, simpler life style.

Issues highlighted in the  statement from the two Townsville-based Bishops include the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef due to climate change and threats to the Great Artesian Basin posed by proposed mega-mining developments in the Galilee Basin. Also singled out are the entrenched racism of many towards Indigenous people, increasing inequality in Australia, and the need to restore a moral compass in financial services and economic management.

The Bishops urge us to look critically at some of the modern myths in Australia today: “individualism, self centredness, self-absorption, progress that is unlimited, the unregulated market, competition and consumption as a remedy for all ills.”

The Bishop’s statement finishes with a call to action. The remind us of the words of Pope Francis in Laudato Si “In this day and age, unless Christians are revolutionaries, they are not Christians.” They challenge us to “turn around” the way we see nature, the way we care for Creation and its people, and to live more simply with less negative impact on the environment”.

To help all people of faith begin this process of “turning around”, this Saturday the workshop “Justice, Climate and Responding Ethically” will be held in Townsville. The workshop will be presented by Thea Ormerod and Tejopala Rawls from Australian religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC). This is a collaborative, multi-media workshop in which participants will explore what a faith-based, ethical response to global warming might look like in this time and place.

Thea Ormerod and Tejopala Rawls acknowledge that information about global warming can be overwhelming, so the workshop begins with acknowledging and validating our emotional responses. We will then explore the ethics of climate change, building a sense of our shared morality and values.

We will then hear some inspiring stories of people taking action, from local communities who have made their operations more sustainable to people collectively standing up for a better future for coming generations.

Understanding that Adani’s Carmichael mine project is a sensitive issue locally, Thea and Tejopala will share why and how ARRCC is standing against it. This will open the way for a facilitated dialogue firmly grounded in mutual respect.

About the presenters: Thea Ormerod is a practicing Catholic, semi-retired social worker, grandmother of seven and has been President of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change for ten years. She is a long-time social justice advocate and experienced workshop presenter.

Tejopala Rawls is an ordained Buddhist in the Triratna tradition, who has worked in the environmental movement for most of the past twenty years. He is a climate change leader within a worldwide Buddhist community.

The workshop takes place this Saturday 18 November from 10am to 3.30pm at the Conference Centre at the Mater Hospital.

Registration details and more information at https://www.facebook.com/events/142018559759648/

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Young people make it look so easy

I was invited to participate in the Australian-ASEAN Youth Forum organised by the Asia Education Foundation and held at Kirwan High School on Friday 20 October.

The Australia-ASEAN Youth Forum brought together 65 students from four schools to discuss key issues facing Southeast Asia from the perspectives of  ASEAN member states and Australia. ASEAN member states are Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. Students worked together in teams of six, and their task was to represent their allocated country’s leaders in discussing three contemporary regional issues: refugees, climate change and trade.

(Photo: Delegates address the opening plenary at the Australian-ASEAN Youth Forum)

In the first plenary session of the Forum, each team presented their allocated country’s position on the three issues. We then broke into three groups (two students from each country team per group) to debate ways to address these issues in more depth and try to reach mutually agreeable solutions through negotiation and consensus building. My role was to facilitate the Committee session on Refugee Issues.

As part of their presentation for the Refugee Committee discussion students were challenged to “walk in the shoes” of their allocated country. In preparing for my role I engaged in the same process and was surprised by what I discovered.


I was shocked to find that there are an estimated two million undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia with some sources suggesting that there might be as many as six million undocumented people resident in the country. Of these, there are 150,000 asylum seekers, refugees and stateless people registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This situation is tolerated by the government as it means that there is a vast pool of cheap labour available to Malaysian industry. The downside for the workers is that as they are undocumented, they are vulnerable to exploitation and other forms of human rights abuse.

Thailand faces a similar scenario to Malaysia – Thailand is home to an estimated 600,000 refugees, asylum seekers and stateless people.

Pressure Points


Faced with these overwhelming numbers Malaysia and Thailand must be amazed by the inability of the Australian Government to compassionately manage the estimated 30,000 people on bridging visas and the thousand or so incarcerated in off shore detention centres. The impression given by our Government and the popular media is that Australia is the only country in the region with a refugee problem. How far from the truth is that!

Myanmar is the main generator of refugees in our region. The UN estimates that 420,000 Rohingya have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh in the last two months following persecution by the Burmese Army.  More than a million Rohingya now live in the countries in the region – mainly Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand. There has been strong condemnation of Myanmar’s policies from the UN and human rights NGOs but the ASEAN countries have not said much on the issue.

I was impressed by the approach taken by the delegates in the Refugee Committee. At the commencement of the session delegates agreed that the greatest human rights issue facing the region was the treatment of the Rohingya people by the Myanmar Government. There was division in the room as to how best address this issue. Malaysia wanted a strong condemnation of Myanmar’s policies from other ASEAN members while some other countries counselled a more cautious approach. As time was limited in the session, the decision was made to concentrate on issues where there was some prospect of agreement. Delegates also agreed to widen the focus to refugees, people seeking asylum and stateless people.

Each delegation was invited to nominate one issue of concern.

Philippines spoke first suggesting that there was a need for a regional approach to protecting refugees and people seeking asylum as there had been in the 1970s at the conclusion of the Vietnam War. Malaysia understandably expressed concern at the numbers of people seeking safety in their country.

All delegations agreed that member states needed to reassess their commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention – currently of the ten ASEAN member countries, only Cambodia and Philippines are signatories. Other issues included the financial burden of caring for refugees and stateless people, the vulnerability of undocumented workers, and Australia’s fear of being overrun by people seeking asylum.

In the final session of the Forum, the five resolutions proposed by the Refugee Committee were adopted unanimously by the the member states and these are included below. I came away from the Forum convinced that if national leaders in the “real” world could find the compassion and empathy shown by these students, we might begin to address problems that at the moment appear to be insurmountable.

Refugee resolutions.JPG

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The “Game of Mates” is alive and well in Australia’s universities

On Tuesday 19 September, Brendan Edgeworth presented the Annual Social Justice lecture at James Cook University on the topic of “Poverty, Inequality and the Law in Australia”. Prof Edgeworth told us that on a range of indicators Australia is a much less equal place today in 2017 than it was in 1970.

How this has come about is explained in the recently released book  “Game of Mates: How favours bleed the nation” by Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters.

The first paragraph of the book reads “This is the story of how Australia became one of the most unequal societies in the Western world, while merely a generation ago it was one of the most equal. It is the story of how groups of “Mates” have come to dominate our corporate and political sectors, and managed to rob us, the Australian majority, of over half our wealth.”

The “Game of Mates” has worked very well for the leaders of Australia’s universities.  Back in 1970 everything was pretty well regulated. The Vice-Chancellor’s salary was at the high end of the professorial scale so the Vice-Chancellor would earn around three times the wage of the average worker. It is a bit different today. According to a recent article in The Australian Higher Ed section the average salary package of Australian Vice-Chancellors is now $890,000. Top of the list is Professor Michael Spence of Sydney University who receives a cool $1.4 million. The figures quoted in the article suggest that at most universities the package of the Vice-Chancellor is more than ten times the wage received by the average worker.

Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence
And the winner is … Professor Michael Spence on $1.4million! (Photo: The Australian)

Why is this so? Is it because the Michael Spences, Peter Hojs and Sandra Hardings of the current crop of VCs are much smarter and work much harder than their counterparts back in 1970? Possibly – but probably not. It has much more to do with the way remuneration packages are now determined for those fortunate enough to be at the top of tertiary institutions.

Down where most work, salaries are set by enterprise agreements that take months of wrangling over small increase to salaries and changes to conditions. At the top, the bargaining take place in a much more civilised way.

To show how it works, let’s look at the fictitious university –Neo Liberal University or NLU for short. NLU is governed by a council of 14 members headed by Chancellor Bob and the current Vice-Chancellor Susannah. The council meets every month, and once a year there is a council retreat held at a five star resort at some exotic location – they are all quite chummy. Susannah is appointed for a term of five years and her remuneration package is regularly reviewed. A committee of the Council consisting of Chancellor Bob, and members John, David and Gloria has the task of reviewing Susannah’s salary package.

A management consultant is appointed to carry out the review and to bring back a recommendation to the committee. The consultant reviews the financial position of the university and other relevant information, such as the remuneration packages paid to VCs of other universities and the packages paid to CEOs in government and the private sector. The consultant meets with Bob, John, David and Gloria and discusses her findings. A key exhibit is the the table of packages paid to the VCs of other universities, similar to the table in the article in “The Australian” above. The consultant asks where they see NLU based on its current performance.

Bob, John, David and Gloria look at each other and Bob nods wisely.

Bob says “Well on some indicators we are not doing well – but we are aspiring to be in the top 20% of universities in Australia so the remuneration paid to our chief executive certainly needs to reflect this”. The consultant suggests that this means the package needs to be set around the 80th percentile.  She explains that this is the salary level below which 80% of the current VC salary packages fall. “This would be around $1.1 million”, she says.

“That amounts to an increase of around 35% on the $800k that Susannah is currently paid” remarks John. “We spent most of our last Council meeting being told by the NLU Chief Financial Officer why the increase in salaries for NLU workers should not be any more than 8.2% over the next five years.”

NTEU rally
Photo: Meanwhile the workers struggle for wage increases through industrial action

They four of them and the consultant sit thinking for several moments. Bob says “Look we have been appointed to make the hard decisions – and you know the old saying if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. I move that Susannah’s remuneration for the next five years be set at $1.1million.” The consultant suggests that for public consumption, the motion could be that Susannah’s salary be maintained at 800k and that the extra 300k could be made up of benefits to be determined. A this suggestion they all brighten up and agree to Bob’s motion.

At the next Council meeting, the recommendation of the remuneration committee is accepted. Several days later Susannah is quizzed by the media about the increase in her package. She tells them that her salary is determined by an independent process.

This process works very well for the beneficiaries because all universities aspire to be in that top 20% and in recent years we have seen the salaries of Vice-Chancellors rise much more quickly than the workers at their universities. And it does not stop there because the levels of remuneration paid to the Deputy Vice-Chancellors, Pro Vice-Chancellors, and numerous others are based on the salary package paid to the Vice-Chancellor.

The “Game of Mates” rewards the senior managers of our universities very well. Too bad this mateship only extends to the top few rungs of the institution.

Game of mates


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Why we need to Stop Adani

Several weeks ago I was one of 150 plus people down at the Townsville Entertainment Centre delivering our StopAdani message to ALP members arriving for the ALP Queensland State Conference. Later that morning I met a friend who seeing my t-shirt, asked me why I wanted to Stop Adani. He said Adani is promising jobs and Townsville needs jobs at the moment. And what about all the taxes and royalties that the mining industry pays? Mining was a key part of the Queensland and Australian economy – Australia might have once ridden on the sheep’s back but now we depended on mining for our prosperity.

A good discussion ensued but I have since done some further research so I will better be able to answer his questions when next we meet.

The first thing I want to say that for me a major reason for opposing the Adani mine from proceeding is a moral one. Climate change is real. In December 2015 nations of the world came together in Paris and for the first time came up with a plan to keep global temperature increase to less than two degrees above pre-industrial levels. An important part of this plan is to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and Australia for its part should not be contemplating allowing the development of what will be the country’s largest coal mine. This is reason enough to stop the Adani mine from proceeding.

What about jobs? The number of jobs promised by Adani is a moving feast. Initially the talk was all about 10,000 jobs and then came the Land Court hearing where Adani’s own expert witness Jerome Fahrer from ACIL Allen Consulting put the number of jobs created over the life of the Adani project at 1464. Adani spokesman Ron Watson has since criticised the economic model used by Fahrer and said it was a net figure and too conservative. Fahrer’s model took into account the fact that there are only a finite number of workers and more jobs in one place will mean less somewhere else.

Another factor that was not even considered in Adani’s  job calculations is the fact that global coal consumption is falling and a large new mine in the Galilee Basin will have a devastating impact on existing mines in central Queensland and the Hunter Valley. The net number of jobs produced by Adani is likely to be well below even the 1464 figure.

Jonathan Rooyen, a member of the Queensland Airports Board was recently criticised by Townsville Mayor Jenny Hill for opposing the Adani mine.  Mr Rooyen had said that there is no need for our governments to be contemplating spending billions of dollars on subsidies to Adani for a project that will provide less than a thousand direct jobs, will result in untold environmental damage, and cause economic hardship in other regional areas of Australia. As long as there is a few jobs for Townsville, Jenny Hill apparently does not care about the possible impact on employment in other parts of Australia.

What about the contribution of the coal mining industry to the Australian economy. Politicians and lobby groups like to tell us that coal mining is the backbone of the Australian economy. Richard Dennis in his must-read book “Econobabble” puts the contribution of the coal mining industry to the Australian economy in true perspective. He asks how can an industry that employs 40,000 out of a total 11.8million employed people in Australia be considered the backbone – this represents only 0.39% of the total work force. In comparison the manufacturing sector employs 870,000 and education 960,000.

And what about the contribution of the coal mining industry to our economy. Richard Dennis shows that the taxes and royalties paid by mining companies to all levels of government account for less than 5% of government revenue and this is the total amount paid not the net amount after all deducting all the subsidies they receive. The Queensland Government receives more from car registrations and speeding fines than it does from the coal industry.

And what about Adani – is Adani likely to go against the trend and become a major contributor to government revenue. Not if what we have seen so far is anything to go by. There are two Adani subsidiaries that operated in Australia in the 2014/15 Financial Year. The first is Adani Abbot Point whose Total income was $350,204,603. Its Taxable income was $0 and Tax paid also came to $0

Adani Minerals did a little better. Its total income was $135,934,900 and its Taxable income a paltry $131,098 (= 0.1% of total income) with Tax paid amounting to $39,329 (= 30.0% of taxable income).
To understand more about how Adani and other large corporations minimise their tax contributions, refer to this recently published article by Simon Foale in New Matilda.

These are some of the moral and economic reasons for opposing the Adani mine. Then there is the environmental damage that will result from the mine and the way in which Aboriginal traditional owners have been manipulated in an attempt to get their permission. The we need to add to that the shocking record of Adani described in the Adani Files.

All in all a pretty bleak picture of a company that we should not be involved with and a mine that should not go ahead.

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