Doctor and activist


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Category: Environment

Murray-Darling Farce- Another Summit.

19 March 2021

One of the more absurd ideas of neo-liberalism was to privatise ownership of all the water in the Murray-Darling and then rely on ‘the Market’ to allocate the water optimally. All that happened was that water was another commodity to be traded with its price more related to its possible future price than any physical or environmental constraint.

I learned a bit about this many years ago from my grandparents. One of my grandfathers was a retired metallurgist who would tell me about world trends in metal demands and buy shares accordingly. His wife, my grandmother, knew nothing about this but would buy shares based on what the market was doing and tell me separately about how she despaired of my grandfather’s share investments. After a few years, she was much richer than he from a much lower base. The moral was that the share price had little to do with reality.

Why anyone would think that turning water into a speculative commodity would optimise its use is beyond understanding. But that was what happened. Joh Bjelke-Peterson built Cubby dam on the Queensland border and used the water to irrigate cotton, so NSW was behind the 8 ball from the start. NSW cotton farmers used surface water and took water from aquifers with no supervision of their meters. Brokers with mobile phones bought and sold water entitlements, and famously recently a Singapore-based company sold a lot of water rights to a Canadian superannuation fund, who felt that growing almonds (which are heavy water users) would be a good thing to do. (SMH 3/12/19) Hey, the price of almonds is good at present and you cannot smell rotting fish from Canada.

The idea that if you fix the money, everything else will come right seems to permeate every aspect of our neo-liberal, managerial society. I think of it as a religion, that ‘the market knows best and will allocate optimally with the unseen hand’. It also seems that religious folk are more prone to believe this, happier to believe that an unseen force can magically fix things and that it morally worthy to suffer now for some future redemption.

But in politics, we do not even have to debate these things; there is another option, ‘kick the can down the road’. Having the CSIRO produce a report in 2008, ‘Water Availability in the Murray Darling Basin’, led to an inappropriate Murray-Darling Basin Authority report in 2009. The CSIRO’s scientific response in 2011 was ignored. There was a Royal Commission inquiry by Bret Walker which found that the Authority has shown ‘gross negligence’. So they had another ‘Summit’, just last month.

All this is not to mention that Angus Taylor spent $80 million in taxpayer money to buy back water rights from a company called Eastern Australian Agriculture registered in the Cayman Islands and run by an ex-rowing mate, with the deal signed off by Barnaby Joyce. (The Guardian 19/5/19)


It is a worry, when the senior counsel assisting Walker inquiry writes a book called ‘Dead in the Water’ and still comes back with an opinion piece like this.

www.smh.com.au/national/murray-darling-basin-summit-a-laughable-response-to-finding-of-gross-negligence-20210318-p57brq.html

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Interested in Clean Air?

19 March 2021

NSW has a draft Clean Air Strategy and have invited comment.My contribution will be to help solve the climate crisis by introducing electric cars as a major policy initiative. If they were principally charged using renewable energy they could lessen emission from transport, lessen emission from coal fired power and also even the demand for power by plugging in to homes in the peak period and discharging their batteries. The average home battery has less than 10kWh. The new Nissans about to be released have 40kWh. If they were programmed to charge when power is cheap and renewable, and discharge when power is expensive they would be a very major power store, when the fossil fuel lobby (not to mention the Federal Govt.) is talking about needing (fracked) gas for peak load reliability.

www.environment.nsw.gov.au/topics/air/clean-air-strategy/draft-nsw-clean-air-strategy-public-consultation

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Insurance for Farmers with Coal Seam Gas

6 March 2021

I have minimal faith in insurers. Many years ago, one of my friends was killed falling down a crevasse hiking on a NZ glacier. A meticulous person, he had checked his AMP insurance before he left- the only exemptions were scuba diving and private flying. The company told his widow with her 6 month old baby that it was a dangerous sport and he was not covered and the broker he checked with had no right to say that he was covered. They offered her half. She was of substance, hung on and they settled on the steps of the Supreme Court rather than go on with their unwinnable case.Another friend had his house burn down, and was only given the depreciated value rather than the replacement, which was about half; small print as usual- do you feel like fighting Goliath?An acquaintance, who was a merchant banker with a lot of money got a nasty brain tumour and needed expensive chemotherapy. The gap between his Top Cover health insurance and what the bills were was so great that he left St Vincent’s Hospital and readmitted himself to Westmead as a Medicare patient. (Sadly the medical outcome was as expected).Every day I see people injured in Workers Comp or motor vehicle accidents have their treatments denied by insurers on grounds that could only be called spurious. In my practice’s statistics IAG (NRMA) refuse a higher percentage of treatments than any other insurer.It is, of course, impossible to say that fracking for Coal Seam Gas is safe. It involves breaking the rock strata to let the gas come up. Presumably these fractures will also let the water move to a lower level and be less available to the surface. And chemicals are pumped in so that the water may not be fit to drink, and there is no natural mechanism to purify it. Now unsurprisingly the insurers do not want to cover the farmers. For once I am on their side. Fracking is simply not safe. The gas companies will get their gas and move on-the farmers may have land that is useless, or at best less productive than it was before. Because of the nature of the law, farmers only own the surface of the land- mining rights are a separate thing, which is why the government can give companies the right to do what they like below the surface. The government needs to stop this- it should not be left up to the farmers. What a neat piece of nonsense that they are now supposedly protected from Public Liability claims- it might protect them if they are defendants, but it is far more likely that they will be plaintiffs!

www.abc.net.au/news/2021-03-05/big-on-spin-light-on-detail-as-gas-industry-touts-new-insurance/13216226?fbclid=IwAR26XpOCZk9aqusgrEukN44T-esmX-OhNFe4sgj4X7A9-Drtt9_3V-L6SxY

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JobKeeper becomes an Unaudited Subsidy to Big Business

6 March 2021

It seems that while JobKeeeper did help employees, some businesses did not actually need it, but got it anyway.  Now it is ‘moral issue’ that they give it back- that is to say it is voluntary.  If they have already taken it as executive bonuses or shareholder dividends it is probably not refundable.

The welfare recipients who had spent money and were accused retrospectively of Robodebt could not repay it either, but were hounded till the end.  All that will happen to the big end of town is a few days of newspaper articles.   

It is surely a reasonable principle that if taxpayers’ money is given away there should be monitoring of where it goes. If it was too hard to set up a monitoring system quickly, the obvious solution would be to make a regulation that it had to be used for purpose and would be checked and there would be prosecutions if it were misused. This would have allowed follow up, a few prosecutions and majority compliance.  This government seems incapable of any sensible management of anything, unless you think that deliberately handing money to mates is an unwritten policy.

Now even small businesses are annoyed.

www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/pretty-close-to-theft-small-business-slams-big-corporate-jobkeeper-profits-20210304-p577sn.html

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Electricity Pricing in Crisis Situations

27 February 2021

Texas just had a major problem with electricity supply caused by an extreme weather event and the fact that their grid was not connected to the rest of the USA to allow them to import power to the state.  But Australia has a similar market-driven model where generators bid to put electricity into the grid. The price is set by the last bid to get to the quantity that is needed.  This allows the gaming of prices by collusion between generators, which is probably the reason that prices have remained high- the competition that is supposed to lower prices is ‘imperfect’. Interestingly, no one gives this as a reason.

Most Australian retailers buy power, average the wholesale prices and sell to the consumer.  Wholesale prices on the National Energy Market vary widely and can be watched for free in real time on apps such as NEM Data. 

When a massive weather event occurred in Texas the wholesale price went through the roof.  Would our bills be similarly affected?  Possibly, as when South Australia had a similar problem their connection to the national grid was blown down.

A few electricity retailers in Australia merely sell at the wholesale price and take a fixed supply fee, which is cheaper unless huge price spikes come due to unforeseen events.

One aspect that has been neglected in public discussion in Australia is Demand Management, which involves cutting demand, rather than increasing supply.  It would be possible, for example, to have customers notified that prices were very high and have them shut off unnecessary power, such as air-conditioning.  This could be refined to be more selective, turning off the cooler but not the fan intermittently.  It could even be done remotely and houses could have circuits that could be cut off if power was short, and circuits that were considered vital, like lights and frigs.

It would be possible to get an SMS us to tell us that power was very expensive and to turn off whatever was possible.  This assumes the customer is on wholesale prices- otherwise it is the retailer’s problem.  But the issue and some technological and behavioural options need to be discussed. 

In the meantime I am on wholesale pricing and am writing to my retailer about SMSs.

https://theconversation.com/texas-was-a-warning-australia-needs-to-rethink-the-design-of-its-electricity-market-155856?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=The%20Weekend%20Conversation%20-%201874518280&utm_content=The%20Weekend%20Conversation%20-%201874518280+CID_4970c3abdf247db828ca44fdfbdfbc9a&utm_source=campaign_monitor&utm_term=Texas%20was%20a%20warning%20Australia%20needs%20to%20rethink%20the%20design%20of%20its%20electricity%20market
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Mental Health and Cheating

20 February 2021

I like to think that my credentials as a mental health advocate are pretty good.  I was responsible for the NSW Parliamentary Select Committee of Inquiry into Mental Health in December 2001 which reported in 2003.  The result of this inquiry was an increase in the mental health budget in the following year of $320 million, a new accounting system so that the money could not be transferred by hospital administrations to other areas, and publicity which led to a similar Senate Inquiry in Canberra.  This reported in 2006 and led to psychologists being put on Medicare.  (Not that my contribution was noticed by the Parliamentary press gallery).

One of the elements of recognising mental health is having it treated the same as physical health.

But I am also a tennis fan, not a tragic, but a fan.  In the quarter finals of the Australian Open, Ash Barty, Australia’s favourite and No 1 seed was eliminated by Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic.  This might not be remarkable were it not for the fact that the game had Barty winning easily until Muchova took a 10 minute medical timeout.  After this, the game and momentum swung totally Muchova’s way and she won.  Muchova admitted that she wasn’t injured, she just took time off to get her head together.  Obviously she did that, and Barty was sufficiently disconcerted to lose the match. The public waited the 10 minutes and the TV filled the break as usual.

Barty was magnanimous in defeat, saying that Muchova had the right to take a medical break, but one has to ask whether taking a 10 minute break to compose one’s head if one is not doing well in a match will become the new norm  Hey, there is no rule against it, and now a precedent for it!

It will be hard for a tournament referee to say to a player, ‘I do not accept you injury, get back on and play’, but what is the alternative?  This is a bad precedent. This is not mental illness.  Any suggestions how it should be dealt with?

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Federal Auditor-General Defunded- Government cuts teeth of watchdog

20 February 2021

What else would a PR driven government do to lessen criticism of its rorts?

Here is an SMH article today by Katina Curtis entitled:

Cuts Mean Government Agencies will avoid scrutiny’.

The watchdog in charge of keeping the government accountable for its use of taxpayer money says his budget has fallen so much, some agencies might only face scrutiny once every 20 years and auditors are tolerating ‘‘uncomfortable’’ risks in financial statements.Auditor-General Grant Hehir says over the next four years he has to cut the number of performance audits his office does, which in the past year has uncovered the sports rorts scandal and the $30 million paid for the Leppington Triangle land valued within a year at just $3 million.The cut will reduce the number of audits by a quarter, from a historical average of 48 a year to 36, the lowest number this century, bar 2016 when the double dissolution of Parliament meant fewer sitting weeks to deliver his reports.‘‘In effect, I am unable to provide the Parliament to the same extent with the evidence it has used to hold executive government to account, thereby reducing accountability and transparency,’’ Mr Hehir yesterday told a parliamentary committee reviewing the Australian National Audit Office.Over the past two years, the performance audit section has lost 20 staff, equivalent to the capacity for eight audits. ANAO funding as a proportion of government spending is now half what it was 10 years ago.‘‘Should it be going up proportionately? I’m not arguing that, but I think it shouldn’t be going down,’’ Mr Hehir said.Since 2013, the Australian National Audit Office’s budget has been cut by nearly $6.3 million – or more than 22 per cent in real terms – although Mr Hehir told the committee ‘‘we probably wouldn’t use the word cut, it’s fallen’’.While the budget has shrunk, the number and complexity of financial statement audits the office must do has grown. Mr Hehir said the budget squeeze meant he’d had to increase the risk tolerance of these audits to a point where he was ‘‘uncomfortable’’.As well as a reduced number of audits, their scope will be narrower, and they will focus on higher-risk activities in large entities such as the Tax Office and the Defence Department.‘‘Many smaller agencies may not be audited for extended periods of time, potentially over 20 years,’’ Mr Hehir told the committee.

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Health Effects of Coal

14 February 2021

Here is Dr Peter Sainsbury, Prof of Public Health. writing about the health effects of coal. Many of the deaths related to the polluting effects are not in Australia, which is not a very reason for us not to be concerned about it.

Some years ago, as we tried to stop the subsidy to Tobacco Growers in Australia, the number of deaths of tobacco-caused disease was compared to the number of jobs in the tobacco industry, which was orders of magnitude lower.

Sainsbury says it will be about 6 deaths per year per job in the coal industry, which is yet another good reason to transfer to renewable energy.

The practice of looking at the number of deaths caused versus the number of jobs created seems a sound basis for looking at the cost benefit of industries. The ‘defence’ industry needs to be looked at in a similar way.

The other interesting fact in this article is that he estimates that Electric Vehicles will be the same price as petrol ones in about 3 years because of the falling price of batteries. Presumably the Morrison government cannot retard progress forever.

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Energy Storage is a large problem- the German Experience 13/12/20

Energy storage is a worse problem in Germany because they have longer cold periods with less sun than Australia. It seems that pumped hydro storage is our best option, but this article is correct that it requires a lot of energy alternatives for when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine.


Demand management is also important, which means shifting things like off peak hot water to when the sun shines, but also paying people to switch off. If there is only a peak demand for a few hours a year, it is cheaper to pay people to turn off than to have a power source that is only used a few hours a year.

But articles about the problems in the German grid have been around for a long time and lessons need to be learned.

Those of us who want to move to renewable energy need to be aware of the problems and to address them, or we just look like naive ideologues.

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Global Dimming- another climate problem 5/12/20

Global dimming is the reduction in the amount of sun energy hitting the surface of the Earth. Research shows that the amount of sun energy reaching the surface of the earth has fallen 9% in Antarctica, 10% in the USA, 16% in the UK, 22% in Israel and 30% in Russia since the 1950s.  Water evaporates correspondingly more slowly. The results are from long term studies and data, and two relatively rapid studies, the change in temperature differences during the day when planes were all grounded in the USA after 9/11 in 2001 and a study comparing sun energy received in the north and south of the Maldives.

It seem that the particles in the air allow smaller water particles to be suspended on them as clouds, and these reflect more heat and light back out into space, hence shielding the earth.  This affects evaporation of ocean water and may have caused the droughts and famines in North Africa.

There has been a real effort to lessen air pollution particularly in Europe which may have helped African monsoonal rainfall, but if the dimming lessens and more sunlight comes into the atmosphere, it will mean that the greenhouse effect will worsen.

Revised calculations show that global warming may be 10 degrees Celsius in a  century, because the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the release of oceanic methane, which is 14x worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas will make the global warming phenomenon irreversible.

The answer is that we have to stop burning fossil fuels. We need electric cars, renewable energy, and to replace planes with trains as much as possible.  It a shame we have a Liberal Government!

This 49 minute video is from the BBC Horizon program.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=57D2ii5HKxA&list=PLe6EP38qqR0af4fPQGy1LzbR6-8gY8KgA&index=11&fbclid=IwAR2eKLs9Jx2jgksiFy4rkgTaS1jRG2ZgU3Pvs7cGB5Ot9CdyDGLmqtvkyVc&t=0s

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