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Lessons From the Paralympics That Have Been Learnt and Can be Harnessed

The Paralympics have now been over for a bit over half a week. They were a top-class event put together by a masterful organising committee that also had responsibility for that other successful major event, the Olympic Games. Australia did so well. We put together the most successful touring performance of any Australian Paralympic team in history. That performance put us just two gold medals and a number of silver and bronze behind the strongly-funded hosts, Great Britain and just four golds and a handful of minor medals behind second placed Russian Federation.

But far from the phenomenal medal-winning performances and that of all the athletes across all nations involved, the London 2012 Paralympics have taught us some valuable lessons which can be harnessed to facilitate lasting change when it comes to the politics of disability.

Firstly, London put on an amazing show, on an unprecedented scale. These were the highest selling Paralympic Games ever. That mantle looks sure to be safe for quite some time too, perhaps never to be broken, ever. Nearly all of the two and a half million tickets allocated for the Games in London were sold, that makes a huge change to the usually relatively empty stands that our Paralympians tend to have to deal with every four years.

This says that London and Europe in particular “do” disability very well. It shows that people there view disability much more favourably than the much discriminated against and stigmatised disability community here in Australia. This could be a product of many things, but clearly disability and difference experiences a much greater degree of acceptance across Europe. That’s not to say things are great over there, disability has experienced cuts as the economic woes continue in that region.

A large contributing factor is probably how the welfare state is viewed in Europe as compared to Australia. There is less of a stigma to it in that region of the world. Those who rely on it are not discriminated against as much and are viewed as needing it and entitled to it, more so than Australians who tend to view welfare, even for those who cannot avoid it, with a level of disdain.

What the great spectator turnout at the Paralympics also shows is that disabled sport now appears, at least in Europe as just as elite and requiring just as much training, skill, ability and overall sporting prowess as the “able bods”.

But far from the lessons we can learn about Europe and how they view disability, we can also look at how they were viewed back here at home in Australia.

That story is almost as positive. As I wrote last week, the Paralympic Games from London consistently brought strong ratings for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s digital channel, ABC2, as well as the original channel, ABC1. That means Australians were more than willing to give the Paralympics a go and the relatively consistent ratings throughout proves that people continued to be enthralled by the exploits of our elite athletes.

It shows that, as I wrote last week, the Paralympic Games have the ability to transform how we view disability here in Australia, not just the sporting abilities of those with impairments, but also how disability is looked at within the broader community.

The efforts of our Paralympians must be harnessed by disability advocates in order to continue to foment change in such a neglected sector of the community. It shows that the efforts of supporters of those with a disability may well not be in vain, that there is a positive view of disability that is growing across Australia. That growth may be slow, but it is something that can be pushed along just that little bit faster by displays such as the Paralympics. Stigmas are hard to break, some would say impossible, but you certainly couldn’t say that after the last two weeks.

Australia and the world is learning and learning fast about disability. But that means absolutely nothing if the lessons that have been learnt over the last two weeks are not actually used to further the interests of people with a disability. It would be nice if Australia could aim to be more accepting of disability than the Brits showed. You could call it the ‘Ashes of Acceptance’, since we love beating the Poms so much at contests.

Government Still Emitting Mixed Messages and Potentially Leaking Revenue

Carbon pricing is happening, it’s been legislated and that legislation has commenced. The fixed price period began almost two months ago now, on July the 1st. But today things have moved forward as far as the floating price, the emissions trading scheme which will commence in just under 3 years time after the fixed price period ends. The Australian Government has today announced that they’ve reached an agreement with the European Union to link their respective schemes which means Australia joins with 30 other nations in a common market for carbon credits.

But there’s also been a step backwards from existing Labor Party carbon pricing policy, there will no longer be a floor price, that’s gone as part of the pact with the EU linking Australia and European Union countries. This new market, though heavily regulated, will be the largest carbon market in the world, but by no means does it cover anywhere near the majority of the globe and its population. The European ETS covers  just over 500 million people and Australia will add a further 22 million people living under the carbon market.

For the first 3 years of the emissions trading scheme, Australians will have access to European carbon credits but not vice versa. European businesses being able to purchase carbon credits in Australia will be allowed to occur from 2018.

Aside from the broken promise over the carbon price, the biggest point of contention since the decision was made in minority government to pursue the carbon price was over the floor price.

The floor price was instituted by the government supposedly to provide certainty to business and to avoid the price of emissions becoming too low. This price was to be set at $15 per tonne from 2015 when the market-based trading scheme will start. We were told, just as recently as last week that the floor price would happen, though reports had surfaced that the ALP were considering backing away from this element of their climate change policy.

Essentially now, the common market with the European Union will determine the price, any price it likes, and if the EU example is an indication, that price has the potential to go quite low, well and truly under the $29 per tonne that the Treasury modelling banks on for the year 2015-16. This means the revenue projections are surely under serious threat.

But Greg Combet doesn’t think so. The Climate Change Minister today said that the long-term average over the past 4 years of the European ETS has been $23 per tonne of carbon emissions. But whether that’s enough to achieve an effective price of $29 in 2015-16 alone is fanciful. This is especially so with a European economic community in chaos financially, a common market that has seen their permits go as low as single digits per tonne of carbon emissions.

Worse still, this backdown on the floor price is in effect an admission that the Gillard Government was wrong with its legislated policy direction. Rightly or wrongly, it will be construed as the government admitting that a floor price would have hurt Australia and our competitiveness and the people dealing with the flow-on costs of the scheme and that could easily have further negative implications at least temporarily for the struggling ALP.

For an administration struggling with expectations, the mixed messaging and second backflip this month doesn’t bode well in trying to run consistent messaging in areas of public policy and that just makes the government look confused and scared.

By far the biggest damage will be to revenue and that will in turn make promises much harder to deliver, though maybe they’re not too worried about that given the chances that they’ll hold the purse-strings at the start of the floating price are slim. Oh, and the fact that the trading scheme might well not be there under a Liberal Government. But who knows, it’s certainly much, much harder to repeal now.

Australia: the World’s Value-Added Foodbowl?

Australia, way back over 200 years ago from the time of the First Fleet literally grew as a nation “on the sheep’s back”. As a nation Australia began to grow a broader agriculture sector which included a diverse combination of crops across particularly along the length of the eastern mainland states of Queensland, New South Whales and Victoria. That sector also included other animals in addition to sheep, with cattle and dairy farming playing a crucial role in the early economy.

Indeed agriculture does still play a crucial role in our economy albeit a much diminished one in recent decades with our comparative standing in various exports dropping markedly in some cases.

In the global community Australia is among the biggest exporters in the world of wheat, beef, wool and dairy and our three biggest exports are grain/oilseeds, meat and dairy that has obviously been the case for a prolonged period of time, given the industries on which Australia established itself as a fledgling colony and then nation state in the 1900s.

Agriculture in Australia now sits at only a 3% share of GDP in itself and last night Prime Minister Julia Gillard made a speech to the Global Foundation conference in Melbourne where Ms Gillard said she saw Australia becoming  a foodbowl power, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, where a rapidly growing population needs increasing access to a variety of different food imports.

The Prime Minister in her speech last night said that Australia should harness our potential in agriculture, like we did in the past and like the mining sector is now harnessing the potential of our vast mineral wealth.

There is certainly a space for Australia to grow its agriculture sector again, particularly when faced with an economy that at present is powering along on resources which are finite, but the way we do it and the markets and niches we seek to develop as a nation are a lot more intricate than just producing and distributing food across our region and the world.

Prime Minister Gillard in her speech to the foundation did acknowledge that Australia would have to focus its efforts, for the most part, on exporting food products which are value-added, rather than simply trying to up exports of foods that have not undergone the value-adding process.

Australia as a nation simply cannot compete with nations in the region on many basic fruits and vegetables which can be produced in similar climates around our region with much lower input and final product costs than we can achieve in Australia.

We would also tend to be seeking more niche and higher-end markets with our value-added production, thereby in a way limiting just how much we can grow the sector, but still an improvement.

We would have to focus on sending more goods from Australia to countries in our region like China, which is booming and will have a bigger middle class market, as well as countries like South Korea and Japan, even though the latter continues to struggle with economic woes both prior to and exacerbated by the horrific earthquake and tsunami event that destroyed so many lives and areas of the economy with it.

Far from just focusing on Asia, there is huge potential for our food exports to go elsewhere, particularly to the United States of America and Europe in a bigger way than at present and that is being worked on at present in a fairly big, if little discussed way.

There is also huge potential to continue to expand the market for our top class wine, with very few countries in the world producing truly exceptional wines, making this market a great hope for Australian producers. This market could be expanded and is beginning to be delivered to Asia and for that to continue would be a massive boon for the economy.

In a way, it seems that the speech the PM gave last night was a subtle way of saying, “hey, here’s a way that we can keep the decline of manufacturing somewhat at bay if we do more food processing in Australia”.

If we add the processing of food products to the agriculture sector of the Australian economy, we suddenly get a sector that is approximately 12% of Gross Domestic Product, a significant sector by any measure when the services sector takes up over 2/3 of the overall national economy on its own.

So Australia can definitely look to becoming a major food exporter to both the region and the globe. There are various challenges, not the least of which is a water shortage along the Murray-Darling Basin food bowl and this will mean that the challenge to grow our food exports will be a medium to long-term effort, rather than a rapid expansion, which would be difficult in itself anyway even if external factors didn’t exist.

The vision is there, but helping to move the idea to a reality will be a long and enduring process that will require the political will of governments of both political stripes to oversee its development.

The Sunday Sandwich (That’s a Wrap)

Previous weeks in Australian politics certainly could not be topped, especially against political events in recent decades, but that doesn’t mean that this non sitting week of political debate was dull and boring, it had political debate and action that has been a not unfamiliar feature of this minority government.

The week in Australian politics contained two main events and the wash-up from both provided the most debate during this parliament free period before Canberra is back with a vengeance on Tuesday. They were the release of reports, redacted, some not at all into the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) and ADF culture as a whole and the announcement by Tony Abbott that an incoming Coalition government would hold an audit of all government spending save for the promises that have been made by the current Opposition.

By far the biggest debate was spawned from the details coming out of reviews into defence force culture and the so-called ADFA Skype sex scandal which has landed cadets in court.

The commandant of the ADFA, Commodore Bruce Kafer was stood aside in response to allegations made against him after the allegations of the Skype affair came to light. At the time, Defence Minister Stephen Smith made scathing comments about Kafer’s alleged conduct at the time and one of the reviews released findings this week which cleared commandant Kafer of the allegations, triggering calls for Stephen Smith to apologise, even step aside.

Mr Smith of course did neither, fully standing by his comments and this sent the media into a frenzy, quickly forming into the apologise and/or step aside and the good on ya mate, keep it up camps. Either way it appears that there are divisions between the Defence Force and the Department and its Minister, but this is n0thing new in Defence.

One of the reviews also identified nearly 800 “plausible” allegations of misconduct of varying degrees of illegality and recommended setting up an independent body to investigate the allegations, dating back to the 1950s in a thorough manner. It also recommended the use of compensation and even an official apology from the government to those aggrieved by wrongs committed against them in the Australian Defence Force.

Also this week, Tony Abbott the Leader of the Opposition gave a speech to the Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry in which he outlined some of the priorities of an incoming Coalition Government. In this speech Mr Abbott also announced that, if elected, his government would introduce an audit review committee of all government business, save for the priorities of the incoming administration. This announcement came at the end of the political week but did not fail to elicit a response from various quarters in the ALP Government and even the public sector union over the weekend.

Parliament resumes next week and the Gillard Government looks set to continue focusing their efforts on trying against almost all hope to sell a message based on the economy and its relative strength compared to other nations, particularly the US and Europe as the May budget draws near. This has been something that the government has failed to do since the overthrow of Kevin Rudd, combined with the continued deficits and further taxation.

The Opposition are likely to focus on the economy as a whole too, through the prism of the carbon tax and the mining tax and the perceived effects of such policies on the economy and the people. The Craig Thomson saga is also likely to get a look-in, remaining unsolved as it is to date.

It’s not going to be the biggest of weeks ahead as far as political noise goes, but it certainly will not be among the quietest and the return of Question Time we have to thank for that.

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