Following Clive Palmer’s Australian National Living Treasure Award on March 4, by March 8 we were witnessing four of our living treasures in conflict. Ruth Forsythe reflects on what the concept of a National Living Treasure really means to Australians and Australia.

Feeling somewhat unsure about what a Living National Treasure is, I consulted the trusty Wikipedia which said among other things that:

'It is a title awarded in several countries, and denotes a person or a group which is regarded as a national treasure while still alive.In 1950, the Government of Japan began to designate certain individuals or groups who embodied intangible national cultural values as living human treasures, just as places or things of great cultural value are designated as national treasures, thus becoming eligible for special protection and support.'

March 4, 2012, saw the national award announced, on this day, Mr Clive Palmer (born 26 March 1954), became a recipient of an Australian National Living Treasure Award.

The following day, we read of Mr Palmer’s war of words with federal treasurer Wayne Swan. The NZ Herald reported the exchange as a brawl set against opposition to the Labor Government’s diluted minerals resource rent tax, which will cut in when mining companies’ profits exceed A$75 million and will fund a range of measures for low-income households.

In Australia the 5 March SMH led with:

Mining barons Clive Palmer and Andrew Forrest have taken on the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, labelling him an “intellectual pygmy” who does not understand economics.’

In an opinion piece published by Fairfax Media Mr Palmer said Mr Swan was ‘just a puppet of the faceless men who give directions on what to do and say.’

‘The Treasurer needs to admit he doesn’t know how the economy works,’ he continued.

In response, Mr Swan assured Channel 9 reporters that he was not questioning mining profits.

”Mining is a very important industry for Australia,” he said, adding that the resources were owned by the Australian people.

”They can only be dug up once,” he told the Canberra Times.

The perverse insults seem to be directed at the Treasurer’s ability to perform his job, which it could quite arguably be said he has already demonstrated a high competence in, given that in September 2011, Wayne Swan was named ‘International Finance Minister of the Year’ by a European financial magazine.

The media reverted back to its customary larrikinism, as Australians we celebrated Wayne’s International victory as a nation in our own way by laughing at ourselves.

As the leader of the House, Anthony Albanese, said in Parliament:

“Of course they’re a bit sensitive over there. Peter Costello never got the award.”

Two days later, on 6 March some of Australia’s other national living treasures started to come under the spot-light of the media. Eco News reported that Australian Greens Party national leader, Senator Bob Brown, will hand back his Living National Treasure certificate (awarded to him by the New South Wales National Trust in 1998) if recent recipient Clive Palmer is allowed to build a coalmine in a Queensland nature reserve.

Senator Brown was clearly incensed by the major coal mine planned by Mr Palmer’s Waratah Coal at the 8000-hectare Bimblebox Nature Refuge in central Queensland, of which Palmer’s company has exploration rights for an area including the reserve, for the extraction of 40,000 tonnes a year of coal.

Senator Brown said:

“We may dispute whether I am, we may dispute whether Clive is, but there’s no disputing that Bimblebox is a national treasure and has been recognised as such by the federal government.”

He continued:

“I’m not going to stay part of a process that rewards one of the nation’s richest people[1] for destroying a national treasure.”

The topic of living treasure arose yet again on the ABC program Q&A, where former Australian Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja and musician and director of the Adelaide Festival Paul Grabowsky’s were invited to respond to an audience question about the decision to present Clive Palmer with a living Treasure award:

Audience member Priya Pavri said:

“Ian Carroll from the National Trust says the National Living Treasures were chosen because they personified qualities all Australians should aspire to. Their generous and significant contributions have, like them, become a part of our national heritage.”

Pavri then asks: “Does the panel think Clive Palmer is a worthy recipient of the award?”

Image courtesy ABC Q&A

Natasha Stott Despoja’s response was:

“…it is certainly appropriate in some ways. He has made an art form of exploiting our national treasures, so why not”.

In answer to whether he thought Clive Palmer was a worthy recipient of the award, Paul Grabowsky said:

“Well, look. For me, national treasures are people who contribute to our culture on a variety of levels. Really, for me, a national treasure is somebody who makes you feel better for being a part of the culture which produces such a person, and therefore has qualities that you or your children or your friends may aspire to — people who set such a standard of behaviour or such a standard of vision for the country that you can’t help but try and model yourself after them.”

Natasha Despoja also said that “wealth creators aren’t job creators”.

She then cleared up a common misconception about the contribution of mining towards total Australian employment:

“I think it’s really interesting some of the distorted images we have as a community when it comes to the mining sector. There was an Australia Institute survey done not long ago where people were asked to what extent the mining industry creates jobs, to what extent are people employed by the mining industry. People said around 16%. It’s 2%”

“So there’s quite a disparity between the wealth issue, and that issue in relation to job creation or our World Heritage Great Barrier Reef Six Billion annual contribution to our Nation”.

Now the world media spotlight is on us and the World Heritage listed treasure – Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, with its magnificent 400 kinds of coral and claim to being the only living thing on earth visible from space.

It appears that the Barrier Reef, one of Australia’s most significant environmental, economic and social assets, and one of our most sought after tourist destinations – one that consistently averages 1.6 million visitors per year and generates about 63,000 jobs – is under massive threat.

Unfortunately, the Marine Park it is getting in the way and slowing down the destruction of the mainland and dredging of the Queensland coastline that is needed to cope with the massive projected Export Agreements with the Queensland government and Mr Palmer’s mining plans.[2].

So, what’s going on for the future of renewable, sustainable energy initiatives in the “Sunshine” state of Queensland these days?

First solar thermal plant has gone live near Seville in Spain. Photo courtesy Paul Kimmel who says hundreds of mirrors focused on the tower contain salt, that heat up to incredible temperatures and gives base load generation to 25,000 homes.

Renewable energy advocate Matthew Wright of Beyond Zero Emissions[3], said in The Australian on November 26, last year:

“Why wouldn’t you use the sort of technology that’s being used at Gemasolar instead of having to rely on an unrenewable source of energy like gas?”

Sydney Morning Herald reporter Paddy Manning interviewed federal independent Tony Windsor, a member of the government’s multiparty climate change committee, who spent time in August 2011 researching clean energy facilities and policy-making in Europe, including an inspection of Torresol Energy’s groundbreaking world’s first solar power plant capable of producing energy 24 hours a day. The 20 megawatt Gemasolar power station is near Seville, Spain and cost A$300 million.

Mr Windsor said the Gemasolar plant was “an incredible sight”. At the time he reportedly said, “I have been to the future and the future looks great!”

So what is going on in Queensland? What is the long term future vision for the “Smart State”[4].

Remember Premier Anna Bligh’s emotional press conference last year?

“I want to assure regional Queensland you will not be forgotten,” she said in an emotional press conference.

It seems the Great Barrier Reef marine park was forgotten, because in 2011 the Queensland government approved the largest ever dredging operation inshore from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Gladstone Harbour, as well as four Coal Seam Gas plants on Curtis Island, which is part of the marine park. The dredging is to make way for Coal Seam Gas tankers that will transport the gas overseas and for a huge reclamation site in the harbour.

On 10 February 2010, Coalspot.com reported that Mr Palmer and Queensland Premier Anna Bligh on the weekend announced what they said was an agreement for China Power International Development[5] to buy $US60 billion ($68.8bn) worth of coal over the next 20 years from the Galilee Basin in Central Queensland.

In an ABC Four Corners report aired in November 2011, Marian Wilkinson discovered that Coal Seam Gas is a massive undertaking. She reported that:

“It’s estimated there are now close to 4,000 wells in Queensland. That number will grow tenfold over the next 20 years. The plan is to take a lot of that gas to Curtis Island, off Gladstone in the World Heritage Area, where it will be processed and exported."

The Great Artesian Basin is an important water source for the state. Through the drilling of bores it has allowed agriculture, sheep and cattle industry to thrive in the arid Mitchell grass, Mulga and Spinifex plains in western and central regions.

Aerial map of south of Chinchilla in South Western Queensland, landscape is dotted with wells reaching down to the Great Artesian Basin. Photo courtesy ABC News.

ABC News reporter Brigid Andersen spoke with farmers Katie Lloyd and her husband in September 2011. Mrs Lloyd said that they were concerned that the value of their property[6] had dropped since the wells were sunk. They live 30 kilometres south-west of Chinchilla, on the Darling Downs[7] and have 18 coal seam gas wells on their grazing and farming property.

Get Up! is running a campaign that at last viewing has over 90,000 names on a petition to UNESCO and Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke to:

Immediately halt all dredging and industrial development in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and surrounds, and not to approve any major coastal developments until the strategic assessment has been completed.’

The strategic assessment of the future of the Great Barrier Reef that Get Up! are referring to is being undertaken by Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority; but, unfortunately, as Australian Greens Senator Larissa Waters discovered[8], the assessment excludes mining development in almost all of the catchments and any port development, including Gladstone.

Crikey correspondent Lionel Elmore noted that the strategic assessment

“…certainly does not yet include the impact of using this World Heritage site as a dumping grounds for millions of tonnes of dredge spoil."

A team of environmental experts, with a delegation from UNESCO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, arrived in Gladstone on Thursday, 8 March, to compile a report on the state of conservation within the World Heritage listed reef and to assess the impact of gas and port developments on the reef.

The UNESCO visit is in part to express its “extreme concern” over the Queensland and Gederal Government’s approval of a liquefied natural gas plant at Curtis Island.

To service the huge liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers and expand its coal loading capacity, Gladstone Ports Corporation is now undertaking the biggest dredging operation ever attempted inshore from the Great Barrier Reef. Photo courtesy econews.com

In Econews, Senator Larissa Waters said that, during their visit, UNESCO will hear about marine life that is being found in Gladstone Harbour with skin lesions and cloudy eyes.

“They’ll see the scars on Curtis Island, they’ll see the increased boat traffic which is contributing to wildlife deaths and squeezing out the tourism and fishing industries,” she said.

“They’ll see the sheer scale of destruction and when they go up and down the coast, they’ll see this is what’s planned for the rest of the World Heritage area,” Senator Waters added.

So, how to best to decide which treasure is most valuable to us when it appears that the above-mentioned living National treasures are all currently in conflict – Clive Palmer, Senator Bob Brown, The Great Barrier Reef and the8000-hectare Bimblebox Nature Refuge in central Queensland – all arguably important contributors to our nation’s welfare.

“Australians have always had a tendency to be affably superficial airheads, but the reign of John Howard made it a national virtue. Where once the accumulation of money was a by-product of worthwhile endeavour, now it is the endeavour itself, and ethics have been removed from the equation. Get it anyway you can. Screw as many as possible and you will likely be up for an O.B.E. or the John Howard Party equivalent,” is a view expressed by one blogger.

Is this Australia’s karma from the Howard regime? If an Australian gets their wealth by harming, lying and stealing, can they then get an Australian National Living Treasure Award, and thus be forever publicly acknowledged to the rest of the world and in our history as a “person who has made outstanding contributions to Australian society”.

On this occasion, surprisingly, I am leaving it to well-known orator Alan Jones — who in his National Press Club Address does a magnificent sum up to the discourse of where and what Australia’s living treasure truly is.


[1] Business Review Weekly have estimated Palmer’s worth at around A$3 billion, with others put it at $6 billion

[2] Billionaire Clive Palmer’s much-touted ties with China weren’t enough to convince Hong Kong investors to put up $US3.6 billion ($3.35 billion) for shares in his unprofitable iron ore and coal company Resourcehouse. Read more: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/business/why-clive-palmers-hong-kong-ipo-failed-again-20110606-1fos0.html#ixzz1ohTMkCn6

[3] This think-tank proposed last year the extensive use of baseload solar power in its stationary energy plan to re-power Australia with 100 per cent renewable energy.

[4]Queensland Motto(s): “Audax at Fidelis” (Bold but Faithful)

[5] GDF Suez Executive Vice President Jean-Marie Dauger said the Asia-Pacific region is a key growth area for the company’s LNG business due to its robust demand. China’s LNG demand will surge to 46 million tons a year in 2020 from last year’s total imports of 5.5 million tons, as its gas demand is forecast to rise from 93 billion cubic meters in 2009 to 444 billion cubic meters in 2030, according to industry consultancy Wood Mackenzie.

[6] Also of concern to Australian farmers Is that in the US the owner of the land where the gas is extracted is deemed to be owner of the resource below that land, whereas in Australia minerals belong to the state.

[7] In Australia, coal-seam gas is the major new energy source. The Darling Downs plant operated by Origin Energy, for example, is fully powered by coal-seam gas. The $50 billion investment in plants and infrastructure in Gladstone in central Queensland also relies on coal-seam gas.

[8] Exemptions in Greta Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Assessment Strategy provided by Senator Larissa Waters:

On Page 8:

‘The strategic assessment does not affect any development approvals already granted under the EPBC Act, or the assessment and approvals process for new proposals referred prior to its completion.’

On page 4:

‘Planning and decision making for development outside the strategic assessment area, such as agriculture, mining and dams, is not included, except in relation to a consideration of broader cumulative impacts on protected matters within the strategic assessment area. Development outside the strategic assessment area will continue to be assessed through conventional assessment and decision-making processes, including under the EPBC Act where necessary.’

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