Once called the 'Lucky Country', our chickens are now coming home to roost

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Australia's biggest solar farm. An artist's impression of the proposed solar farm that will stretch over 5,000 hectares near Millmerran, in southern Queensland. (Supplied: Solar Choice)

We not-so-very-clever Australians have seriously compromised the choices of future generations and are now a sitting duck for further exploitation, writes Dermot Daley

IN THE 1950s and 1960s, Australia was known as the "Lucky Country". We were living off the sheep’s back, receiving £1 per pound for our wool. We cried out for workers, such as £10 Poms and displaced refugees from war-torn Europe. Then, by the 1980s and 1990s, we had become the "lazy country", through failing to manage our assets effectively and by "selling the farm" to outsiders.

Shearing sheep and anything hands-on became too much like hard work, so we turned to exploiting our mineral resources and anything else that wasn’t nailed down; no questions asked.

Now in the 21st Century, Australia is the "stupid country" and is rapidly becoming incapable of doing much more demanding than making coffee, selling real estate and handing out tourism brochures.

We are "stupid", because we have endorsed increasing numbers of incompetent or corrupt persons into our Parliament, who then hijack our democratic process, mock the fundamentals of our Constitution, and blithely legitimise the privatisation of profit and the socialisation of debt.

These rogues play drawn-out games of distraction with emerging social dynamics such as the republican movement, marriage equality, man-made global warming and dying with dignity, etc; and they demonise soft targets such as single mothers, the unemployed, first nation people, ethnic minorities, the under-educated, and any other vulnerable "sub-class" group that does not have the ability to defend themselves.

Our political parties are wallowing in factional dysfunction and lack the credibility or the will to facilitate progressive change to this untenable paradigm within their ranks.

This has allowed whacko extremists to jump into the fray, shouting trite slogans, waving their arms about and acquiring disproportionate influence in national decision-making.

We, the electorate, are stupid because we uncritically allow this inane sideshow to go on and on.

Let us examine one simple example of a precedent that has brought about the privatisation of profit and socialisation of loss multiple times.

This observation is based on the premise that in a democratic society access to universal services such as energy (gas and electricity), potable water and essential telecommunications needs to be responsibly managed for the best interests of the whole community.

In this example of critically counter-productive management, the first iteration occurred in the 1990s when Victorian Coalition Premier Jeff Kennett and Treasurer Alan Stockdale decided that looking after the State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SECV) and the Gas and Fuel Corporation (G&FC) was too hard for them. So they sold off these productive public-owned utilities.

Here is how this has impacted on the lives of ordinary working taxpayers.

From the one simple-tiered management structure of the state-owned SEC, the new commercial ownership of the energy utility was transferred to eight or nine separate entities comprising a "power generator", two or three "transmission companies", and five or six "retailers" — each having their own CEO and mirrored hierarchical executives for advertising, marketing, billing, human resources and so on.

In addition to the expectation to make a profit and pay dividends to shareholders, all of this was promised to bring about competition and contain prices.

Note that Victoria’s brown coal power stations had been acknowledged since the early 1970s as the most polluting and inefficient power generators in the developed world.

Concurrent with the sell-off of the SECV, Kennett and Co deemed it necessary to sell the Gas and Fuel Corporation. Natural gas discoveries in Bass Strait in the 1960s were welcomed as a source of cheap clean gas estimated to last for more than 400 years. This was a good thing for Australians. It represented a guarantee of an essential resource, a "common wealth" for the whole population.

But a few years after Jeff Kennett and Alan Stockdale contrived this sell-off, Coalition Prime Minister John Howard stepped in and locked us into an open-ended contract to supply our gas to China at the unconscionably low rate of $US3.80 per MMBtu (AUD 0.176 cents per litre), coupled with the stunningly naive omission to specify renegotiation of the price in the future.

We were selling our resource to a foreign power at a permanently fixed – and much lower – price to what domestic consumers pay. And now, little more than a decade later, we are being warned that domestic gas supply cannot be guaranteed and we may pursue the highly contentious practice of "fracking" to exploit coal seam gas, taking us full circle to the dirty days of brown coal gasification.

The privatised profit from the misguided sale of Victoria’s utilities has created the socialisation of inestimable financial loss upon the disenfranchised majority.

If Kennett had honoured his role of managing the State of Victoria properly and not been so lazy by selling the SEC and the G&FC, the State could have mothballed the inefficient Latrobe Valley brown coal power generators 20 years ago and our power needs could have been met by providing several strategically located compact gas powered turbines.

In conjunction with this, the government could have actively promoted renewable energy, including the installation of photo-voltaic cells in domestic and commercial sites to manage the peak daytime load on power consumption (many home-owners anticipated the future and took this option anyway).

At that time, Australian scientists led the world in the development of photo-voltaic technology and with a bit of sensible leadership Victoria, and indeed all of Australia could have pioneered the transition to renewable energy, creating new jobs and export industries along the way, and we could have become completely independent of fossil fuels.

Instead, the technology was sold offshore and we now import solar panels from China and Europe.

An unacknowledged fact about solar energy is that the many tens of thousands of Australian households who have installed solar panels at their own expense are directly subsidising fossil fuel energy peddlers. Annually, many millions of kilowatt hours of solar electricity are being fed into the national grid during daylight hours when commercial and industrial use is greatest, and at night when business largely shuts down, the reduced demand on the national grid is comfortably met by existing coal-powered and hydro-electric generators.

An outcome of this is that the power companies have not had to carry out costly infrastructure works to meet the increased demand of our rapidly growing population, and our expanding appetite for electrical appliances and tools.

In addition, the power companies receive surplus day-time electricity from domestic photo-voltaic systems installed and paid for by home owners, offer a few cents per kilowatt for the power fed into the grid and then on-sell this "green" solar power to their other customers at several multiples of that price.

Further accentuating this scandal, not only have the fossil fuel power producers benefited from not having to construct new generating capacity, and profiteering from underpaying for domestic solar energy production, they have triple-dipped into the public purse by demanding compensation and taxation concessions from successive Federal Governments for the generation of the carbon emissions that underpin their industry.

This is another "smoke and mirrors' example of the privatisation of profit, and the socialization of loss that has resulted from the irrational sale of state-owned utilities.

Now in late 2016, Engie, the French corporation "owning" the dirty brown coal power station at Hazelwood and having milked the enterprise for the maximum they expected, have advised us that they are closing operations in March 2017, and the State of Victoria will be faced firstly with the task of compensating the community for the "sudden" job losses, and then of dealing with the cleverly talked-up "projected increase" in electricity charges.

Nothing is being said about who will meet the cost of demolishing the bio-hazardous buildings and rehabilitating the site but our compromised politicians and the amoral principals behind the consortium will most certainly push it onto the mums and dads across the State.

So, yet again in this sorry saga of privatised energy assets, everyone who made their profit on these transactions will walk away and the losses will inevitably be borne by the community.

Where we were once lucky because of where we lived in the world, we soon became complacent and lazy and left the hard work to others, and then, it seems, we wanted more of everything that glittered even when we had not earned it.

We not-very-clever Australians have seriously compromised the choices of future generations, and we are a sitting duck for further exploitation; and even though we are stupid we must surely know that, and yet still we sit and watch and wait.

This is what Aesop might have called "watching the chickens come home to roost".

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