The Coal Curse Judith Brett

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Feature: The Coal Curse Cover, Judith Brett, Quarterly Essay #78, 2020

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The Coal Curse Judith Brett, June 2020

Judith Brett The Coal Curse: Resources, climate & Australia’s future, Quarterly Essay 78, 2020. The Coal Curse is the following Quarterly Essay to Cry Me a River by Margaret Simons which I used to give a 2020 update to my essay on the Murray-Darling Catastrophe. I am using The Coal Curse by Judith Brett in a different way.

It is not my intention to summarise Judith Brett’s essay but more to highlight the salient issues and to focus on a couple of the corespondent’s responses to the essay in the following Quarterly Essay 79. I gave a general background to the Quarterly Essay and Black Inc. in the 2020 update, if you are interested.


Preamble

The Coal Curse Judith Brett’s Essay

Introduction

Judith Brett is emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University in the essay she says:

I am a historian, so I look for explanations not just in the perfidies of the present, but in the decisions and events of the past. … This essay is about the history of Australia as a commodity-exporting nation and its political consequences. Economic history is unfashionable nowadays… Economic history is dry and hard to narrativise. But how a country makes its living can explain a lot.


Resource Cursed

Judith Brett says:

In 2018-19, Australia’s top exports were iron ore, coal, natural gas, international education and tourism in that order. Coal became our top-earning export commodity in the mid-1980s and has been at number one or number two ever since, vying with iron ore, which needs metallurgical coal to be transformed into steel. The production of LNG has increased rapidly over the past decade … and it is now our third-largest commodity export and rising fast. Between 2018-19 and the previous financial year, its export value grew by 60.9 per cent. Coal, LNG, iron ore: in 2018-19 these three earned 41.8 per cent of our export income.

This is why Morrison [Australia’s current Prime Minister] brought a lump of lacquered coal into parliament in February 2017. “Don’t be afraid don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you,” … The point was to ridicule the Opposition’s support for renewable energy, and it was a stupid stunt. But it put on full display how impossible it was for many of our political leaders to imagine Australia’s future without fossil fuels.


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Murray-Darling Basin Update 2020

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Murray-Darling Basin Update 2020: Cry Me a River by Margaret Simons


Introduction

Since I wrote my article The Murray-Darling Basin Catastrophe, which has attracted attention and good feedback, the problems with the Murray-Darling have become even more prominent.

The issue has risen in the public consciousness because of prosecutions of cotton growers in the northern basin, more evidence of corruption, criticism of government waste of money, many more articles on different aspects of the Murray-Darling Basin in newspapers and more stories on Australian ABC radio and ABC TV.

Publicity that water entitlements in Australia, based on 2018 figures, are 10.4% foreign-owned and that Chinese interests own 1.9% (with the USA about the same and the UK 1.4%) has recently enraged people against China on Facebook. Publicity that most water entitlements are owned by large agribusinesses, those with the deepest pockets, and those whose crops make the highest profits has never gained the same traction.

Concern about the Murray-Darling Basin, however, appears to be growing.

Margaret Simons has written an excellent Quarterly Essay called Cry Me a River in 2020, which has ignited more public debate on the Murray-Darling Basin, even under the Covid-19 crisis and lockdown.

The remainder of this article concentrates on Margaret Simons’ essay. I can’t summarise the essay here and I assume most of you haven’t read it. Nevertheless, I think you’ll find the information contained rewarding. It may also inspire you to buy or borrow a copy of the essay. Cry Me a River is the most current, clear and detailed overview of the Murray-Darling Basin crisis currently available.

I hope you have at least read my article The Murray-Darling Basin Catastrophe, which is a succinct 3500 word description of the tragedy!


Quarterly Essay Background

We live in an environment, where I’d contend, there has been no clear political direction on a future for Australia in twenty-five years. The political class — particularly the conservatives — tends to obfuscate debate on crucial issues and to obscure prioritising on where the money is spent. The general media, which is in decline (and dominated by News Corp), doesn’t cover broad topics well or in-depth. The ABC, despised by conservatives, struggles on — despite ongoing funding cuts.

In this environment, Morry Schwarz and Black Inc. have introduced the Quarterly Essay (2001), the Monthly Magazine (2005) and the weekly Saturday Paper (2014) as independent commentary on deeper issues concerning Australia.

The Quarterly Essay is printed in a book-like size. Each issue comprises an essay of at least 20,000 words, which is followed by correspondence on the previous essay. Hence the correspondence to Cry Me a River is contained in The Curse of Coal by Judith Brett, Issue 78, 2020.

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