Brumby pushes big-business agenda

February 22, 2008

It seems that Victorian Labor Premier John Brumby wants to be remembered, not as a rational leader advocating solutions to an urgent problem facing the survival of the human species — climate change — but as the creator of some of the most potentially destructive infrastructure projects in the state's history.

As drying rivers and reservoirs, coupled with diminishing rainfall, threaten local food production and people's livelihoods, Victoria's ever-extending freeways and roads are getting increasingly congested with irate commuters and freight traffic. Victorians are screaming out for more public transport as the current system is buckling under the weight of neglect and overuse.

With only a small window of opportunity left for urgent initiatives to halt runaway climate change, Brumby is looking the other way. He is busy shovelling billions of dollars of taxpayers' money into the coffers of private companies and banks, building environmentally disastrous and economically wasteful projects through Public Private Partnerships (PPPs).

A prime example is the Brumby government's Port Phillip Bay dredging project. The bay has beautiful swimming beaches, much sporting and marine activity and tourist attractions. The bay also has precious ecological resources. Its delicately balanced ecosystems support penguins, dolphins, seals, sharks, whales and thousands of marine plant species.

This unique ecosystem, as well as the livelihoods of thousands of people, are under threat by the government's decision to artificially deepen the bay so that just a few of the world's largest container vessels can enter Port Melbourne to unload more consumer goods.

The increased volume of consumer goods — much of it made by super-exploited labour in China — arriving in these monster container ships will undoubtedly result in even more road freight clogging up city roads and the streets of Melbourne's western suburbs, which are already reeling from noise pollution and health problems associated with diesel fumes.

Brumby religiously ignored warnings from environment and health experts, residents and local business operators on the potentially horrendous consequences of the dredging project. According to the Blue Wedges Coalition, the dredging will contribute to substantial soil erosion, rising water levels and the poisoning of marine life through the dumping of toxic sludge from the mouth of the Yarra river into the bay.

Swimming and other marine sporting activities will be at risk due to serious health hazards from the chemical cocktail unleashed into the bay.

The government is paying $1 billion for this project and the only beneficiaries will be the Dutch dredging company, some big banks and the stevedoring companies.

Desalination plant

Another equally ill-conceived and environmentally damaging project is the proposed $3.1 billion desalination plant near Wonthaggi, on the Bass Coast. Ignoring massive resistance from locals and a broken election promise, Brumby is determined to proceed with building the plant, claiming "You've got to create new water and you've got to save water."

Despite the government's claim to be addressing Melbourne's water shortage, the desalination plant did not form part of its water strategy before the 2006 state election, and is considered by most water experts to be unnecessary.

Yor Water Your Say campaigner Peter Baird sdays the plant will be responsible for pumping at least 1 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere — the equivalent emissions of 280,000 new cars — and will thereby exacerbate Victoria's poor record on CO2 emissions (which have increased by nearly 30% since 1990). Local residents are also concerned that the desalination plant poses a potential risk to Aboriginal heritage sites.

A June 2007 World Wild Life Fund report, titled Desalination: Option or distraction for a thirsty world, noted that "all recent studies [of operating desalination plants] have found adverse impacts of entrainment" (the intake of seawater) and that "depletion of marine life may represent the most significant direct adverse effect of seawater desalination".

Melbourne households will be paying double what they are now for water bills within next five years to fund the Brumby government's $4.9 billion water strategy, with the desalination plant being the biggest single expense. The average annual household water bill is expected to reach $1000 by 2013.

North-south pipeline

Another of Brumby's massive hand-outs to big business is the $1 billion north-south pipeline, which aims to pump 75 billion litres of water a year from drought-stricken communities along the Goulburn River over the Great Dividing Range to the Sugarloaf reservoir, and then to Melbourne businesses and households.

Last October, the town council in Swan Hill, in the Murray Valley, passed a resolution condemning the flawed pipeline project, arguing it will threaten not only the existence of ecologically important waterways on the Murray River but the entire future of Australia's "food bowl". The council called instead for the use of already existing environmentally friendly and sustainable solutions.

The Plug The Pipe campaign group accuses the state Labor government of "environmental vandalism", because the pipeline will cut through national parks and state forests without the protection of an environmental impact assessment.

Many people are angry that the government has refused to listen to the concerns of the local farmers and acknowledge that many of the water storage facilities on the struggling Murray-Darling river basin that supply rural towns are drying up and can't be used to supply Melbourne.

Corporate welfare

The Port Phillip Bay channel deepening, the desalination plant and the north-south water pipeline projects are unnecessary and potentially dangerous. They don't address global warming or other environmental concerns, but are perfect for boosting the profits of big business. The banks and corporations contracted to build and operate these projects will get lucrative returns through the use of PPPs — and the government underwrites the risks.

It has been the high level of profitability of PPPs that has been driving large-scale infrastructure projects in Victoria, not their objective necessity. While Brumby is playing Russian roulette with our environment and lives, big business will reap big profits at public expense.

As our water bills rise and ordinary people are fined for watering their backyard veggie plots too often or on the wrong day, the real water wasters are being subsidised and protected by the government. Agribusiness and industry guzzle up and waste most of our precious water, accounting for the great bulk of Victoria's water usage.

If the Victorian Labor government was really committed to addressing climate change and the resulting water crisis we would be seeing urgent and heavy investment into alternative energy and water preservation strategies as a minimum. For a start, it would enforce stringent environmental guidelines for big business, end hidden water and energy subsidies and make the big polluters pay.

Recycling and purification of waste water, the harvesting of storm water and the subsidised installation of rainwater tanks would be a top priority and offer long-term solutions to Melbourne's water crisis.

Halting climate change necessitates more then these immediate solutions — it requires a dramatic rearrangement of our economy, a move away from polluting energy sources and wasteful production.

Victoria needs wind and solar power, and public transport and water preserving projects, on a massive scale. It needs an economy that is guided by the needs of ordinary people and environmental protection — not the greed of the corporate rich.

Brumby is a creature of big business and is quite prepared to face down even overwhelming public opinion to satisfying corporate greed. What is needed is a sharp change of direction, which the Labor government will not do.

Say no to Brumby and his PPPs and fight to take back what is rightly ours — public assets, democratic decision making and our planet!

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