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Letters from Downunder

Unexpected Consequences

Submitted by Lindsay Coker, Melbourne Australia

In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments – there are consequences.
                                                        Robert Ingersoll, 1881

(Nov, 2010) When I was growing up we played a game called consequences. Someone would start by writing a line of text on a piece of paper, leaving a line or two below that so the paper could be folder over, and the next line written.

The same lines were written on more sheets, one for every player. The first line could be something like ‘Jackie Jones met………………… at the zoo.’ The next might be, ‘They went for a ride on………………’ and so on down the page. The number of lines equaled the number of players, who each got one sheet, and wrote their answer into the first line, then folded the paper so their answer was hidden and passed it on to the next person. The last line was always, ‘And the consequence was………………..’

At the end the person who had made up the game would read out the best or funniest. Some of the outcomes were funny, some awful, and some, ahem, could not be read out at all. But we really enjoyed it.

The consequences were mostly unexpected, which brings me to one of the greatest of all exports that the USA has ever developed: Privatization.

I’ve visited America on a few most enjoyable occasions, and I know lots of Americans who have visited this country with the same reaction. We speak the same language more or less, laugh at the same jokes, enjoy some of the same music, have similar build, skins and outlooks. Basically we have the same form of democracy, capitalism, foreign policy and trade, and above all we can talk to each other without too much misunderstanding.

We have better beaches and far better food, you have amazing natural wonders, far superior theatre, art galleries, and concerts. The news media is similar, although we reckon your TV dramas are crap, to coin an expression, but we both have a diverse mix of cultures, values and hopes.

But there are also many differences, although less than there were twenty years ago.

Our economies were founded on entirely different principles. I’m no historian, but I believe the idea of private ownership of public utilities took root in America at an early stage, whereas here all utilities were owned and run by the government until about 1990, essentially a part of our English heritage. Transport, communications, water, power, prisons, indeed anything and everything that could be called ‘public’ was the responsibility of the central government. Some things had a foot in both camps – education, health and some of the arts were both state and private, for instance – but the utilities were sacrosanct, and at one stage there was even a move to make the banks part of the government. Horror! The outrage was just short of mutiny, and the idea was dropped quickly.

I have lived long enough to see the plusses and minuses of both systems. Certainly the big plus for us, when we were swayed by the positive aspects of your persuasive ideas, was the reduction of government debt, both federally and at state level. Nearly everything except public health and education was sold off, privatized, and the money paid was, by and large, used to reduce public debt. The state I live in, Victoria, has reduced debt levels from about 50 to 2 billion, the Australian government from 50% of GDP to about 7%, and this is one of the main reasons we have weathered the current economic storm so well.

Unfortunately, you have not been able to sell off that which the government never owned in the first place, and thus reduce your debt, but we face a most unexpected consequence of privatization, the bottom line of the game, if you will. That is, we cannot afford to buy back that which we sold, so we can get into some other form of power generation. Let’s say we received a billion dollars in 1990 from the sale of some major electricity plants running on brown coal. (We have the largest deposits of this cheap and high CO2 producing heat source in the world). We are now trying to show the world our commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and would like to get the owners of the power plants to be nice and get into something better. Sure, they’d be happy to do so, but at a price: about 10 times the price they paid. They have nothing to lose, we cannot afford to do it. So we have a stand-off. Carbon trading? That shifts the problem, but does not solve it. I believe it is very unlikely we will be able to reduce our emissions in the foreseeable future. Any government that tries to foist a multi-billion dollar impost on the power its citizens and industries use will be out the door faster than you could believe.

But you, because you never had this buy-back problem in the first place, have come up with a typically innovative and practical solution. Public land is being opened up for the development of solar panel farms, by far the best way of producing sustainable, renewable energy, and reducing your dependence on oil.

If there is any country in the world that should be doing just this, it is Australia. At least half the continent is wide open space, desert and scrub, and the sun beats down unhindered. Instead of producing greenhouse gasses at an unprecedented rate, and instead of exporting the materials that add enormously to the world production of CO2, we could be exporting pure, clean energy. Enough to push the horizon back a few hundred years.

So look, you guys – you sold us on the idea of privatization, so how about sending someone over here to do the same for solar energy? We have a receptive leader, a growing swell of green support, and a fairly vibrant economy. Surely it’s an opportunity you cannot miss?

Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker