Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Belshaw's World - beware oppression by majority

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 5 May 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010.

My last column scoped the environmental wars presently raging across New England.

Since I wrote, the Federal Government has deferred action on any ETS, while also announcing the proposed introduction of a resource rent super tax on mining companies.

The constant flurries in policy at state and federal level make it quite difficult to come to grips with the on-ground effects, more difficult still to work out coherent responses. However, our own history provides us with some principles that we can use to steer our way through the mess.

In 1926 David Drummond, then one of the Northern Tablelands Parliamentary members and the main New England constitutional thinker, published a series of articles in Country Life, a farm newspaper. These were subsequently published in a booklet, Constitutional Changes in Australia. Current Problems & Contributing Factors

Constitutional Changes in Australia can hardly be classified as literature:

Drummond's lack of formal education (he left school at 12) was still apparent in his sometimes clumsy phrasing, while the articles were repetitive and written in a popular style. Nevertheless, the results present a developed structure, one that was to provide an evolving framework for one stream of Australian constitutional debate over the next forty years.

If Governments have power, Drummond argued, they will exercise it, even if they have to override other bodies. Here he gave local government as an example, citing the way in which the Government in Sydney constantly intervened. Does that sound familiar?

Drummond then suggested that all Government actions involved costs, including restrictions on individual actions.

This was not what would now be called a Libertarian position. Drummond was not opposed to Government actions, just the opposite. Rather, he wanted the fact that there were costs to be recognised.

The presence of costs, combined with Governments willingness to use power, could and did lead to what Drummond called oppression of the minority.

To stay in power, Governments would adopt positions that appealed to the majority, overriding other interests. Where minority interests were continually oppressed in the interests of the majority, major political and social trouble could result.

We can see Drummond’s principles working themselves out across New England at the present time.

In the case of Toorale Station, we have a Commonwealth-NSW intervention justified on national interest grounds; the environment must be protected, while Adelaide requires water. However, nothing is done to help those who suffer the direct costs, the loss of 100 or so jobs in an area already suffering in economic terms because of drought.

One somewhat farcical side-effect is that both Commonwealth and the State government continue to spend money in Bourke attempting to address the symptoms of Aboriginal disadvantage, ignoring the causes of that disadvantage, loss of jobs.

Mr Turnbull’s proposed diversion of the Clarence to meet Brisbane’s water needs provides another example. Here we have a proposal justified in the interests of the majority – the need to provide water to South-East Queensland’s population – that would preclude use of that water within New England. There is no recognition of the

costs involved, no mention of compensation.

The Clarence case raises another issue, one that I referred to in my last post.

In defending their river, Clarence protestors opposed any diversion of water at all, even including use for Tablelands’ town needs. The practical effect was to divide those with a direct interest in the water, increasing the chances of an outcome that would cost all.

An issue such as the use of Clarence water will always be difficult. However, those difficulties are compounded by the absence of any mechanisms that could at least allow common issues to be explored.

The difficulties are further compounded by the gobbledy gook that passes for official language.

When I hear PM Rudd or Treasurer Swan use words like “stronger, fairer, simpler” to sell something, I want to know why it is stronger, fairer to whom, simpler for whom and what will be the costs and to whom?

In my last column in this series I will look at Drummond’s suggestions for reform. However, because those suggestions require constitutional change, I will also put forward some ideas as to immediate steps that might at least assist clarification of issues and challenges.


Greg said...

Hi Jim,

I have referred to Tillegra Dam and Camberwell Common before, but this article seems so relevant to those situations in particular.

I can well understand how the people of the Clarence River district feel about any proposal affecting their river.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Greg. I am trying in this series to get people to think about some of these issues in newer ways. Community power will be reduced so long as people are reactive and focus just on their immediate concerns.