Fears ease but Europe not yet out of woods


IT IS not always easy to be German in a part of the world where the horrors of two world wars are still within living memory. More than six decades of model citizenship have not yet erased old resentments that, in some quarters, are still simmering.
So for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to say what she did this week was remarkable. She warned that another half-century of peace and prosperity was not to be taken for granted, and that if the euro failed, Europe failed. She added: “We have a historical obligation: to protect by all means Europe’s unification process, begun by our forefathers after centuries of hatred and blood spill. None of us can foresee what the consequences would be if we were to fail.”
Just in case readers failed to get the drift, Britain’s conservative Daily Mail distilled her comments into a headline that evoked ugly spectres: “German chancellor warns of war if currency fails.”
The newspaper wrote: “That Germany, the country responsible for two world wars, is raising the prospect of future conflict is a measure of the panic sweeping Europe about the unrest that could follow a collapse of the single currency.”
Immediate fears about the future of the euro have eased after this week’s historic European summit — historic partly because it managed to win any agreement at all — in which a deal was hammered out that is aimed at solving the financial crisis.
Creditors, mostly banks, have reluctantly agreed to halve Greek debt; the European bailout fund is to be boosted to €1 trillion ($A1.3 trillion), in case other countries such as Italy or Spain should need to call upon it; and banks are to raise more capital as a backup for trouble.
Markets bounced back like Tigger on the news, but Europe and its single currency are not yet out of the woods. Analysts warn the risk of economic apocalypse is less likely for the moment but still possible in the longer term.
If it is to be avoided, the European Union will have to fix the loopholes that allowed this crisis to seed and to fester. This will probably mean setting up some kind of central oversight of its member-nations’ tax regimes, budgets and deficits — a prospect that some leaders might be quietly starting to recognise, but one for which most of their voters back home, proud of cultural identities and national sovereignty, are not at all ready.
Those who manage money call this unifying process “fiscal integration”. British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne is among those calling for the EU to accept the “remorseless logic” that having a shared currency makes necessary this second kind of “financial fusion”. Euro-sceptics have long argued the shared currency couldn’t work unless members also shared oversight of budgets or a federal budget; a view the current crisis seems to have borne out.
Europe is now facing a wide range of scenarios about its future, says Thomas Klau, editorial director of the Paris-based European Council on Foreign Relations, “ranging from the catastrophic to the positive”.
His vision of the negative extreme echoes Dr Merkel’s: “A disintegration of the euro with consequences ranging from deep depression in the euro zone and beyond to the triggering of a rise in nationalism, xenophobia and aggressive populism, leading to severe instability in the democratic system.”
The more positive scenario, he says, is that this crisis, like previous ones, will instead force a major shift towards greater cohesion, “with the countries of the euro currency building something like a federal system to run their economic, budgetary and fiscal policy”.
He thinks the second scenario more likely and is sceptical about the idea that it would be stymied by popular anti-EU sentiment in countries such as Germany. The fear of loss of identity and control have always been big stumbling blocks to union, and the current rescue plan was so long in the making — it took 14 summits over 18 months — partly because many of the decisions had to be taken back to national parliaments for approval.
“There is a difference between voter sentiments and voter behaviour,” Mr Klau says. “Let’s look at election results rather than commentary, analysis and opinion polls. In Germany, voters have voted for parties that are more pro-Europe. They have strengthened the Greens and the Social Democrats and pushed away the party that was openly supporting Euro-sceptics.”
For now, the main question is whether growth will return. This depends on whether markets will support the rescue deal once the fine print is finalised by the end of the year, or whether they will freeze lending because they get spooked again — most likely by Italy, says Waltraud Schelkle, a senior lecturer in political economy at the European Institute at the London School of Economics.
Italy’s debt is running at 120 per cent of its output. Dr Schelkle says Italy has sold its sovereign bonds very short-term, which means it will have to refinance regularly: “So the situation will come again and again, and given the sick state of the economy at large, they will always be situations that could make financial markets nervous.”
Her worst-case scenario involves the markets turning against holders of Italian bonds — many of whom are families using them as retirement savings — followed by a run on Italian banks: “Then, I am afraid, Italy can’t be saved [even with the €1 trillion fund]. It’s too big. It would be so massive a write-down.”
She predicts this scenario would lead to much tougher regulation of capital, with people not able to move money across borders so freely: “We won’t have free markets any more.”
Dr Schelkle does not believe the current rescue plan will hold up. She says the European Central Bank must be authorised to step in and buy unlimited quantities of the bonds of troubled countries facing an emergency.
The need for a bigger role for the ECB is a view pushed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He has been arguing the case to a resistant Mrs Merkel, who says Germany refuses to accept such “non-standard measures”.
Meanwhile, both leaders have mocked Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi; rolling their eyes when his name was mentioned at a press conference this week. Mr Berlusconi is struggling to hold his government together while developing austerity measures that pass muster with the EU.
One topic notable for its low profile in public debate is the question of whether Europe’s troubled banks should be more tightly regulated. Many of them need more capital in order to withstand Greece’s troubles and whatever might come next.
Dr Schelkle says regulating capital flows is not being discussed because the timing is sensitive. “You would at the moment make the markets extremely nervous by showing them the torture instruments,” she says.
But she believes “it’s quite outrageous” that banks’ failings pushed the world into recession in 2008-9, made national budgets blow out more severely and led to greater debt, “and then they turned around [to troubled countries] and said, ‘You are not a good investment’”.
They also had been told from 2002 onwards that Greece was in trouble: “The financial markets knew bloody well that Greece’s budget was dodgy. It wasn’t that they woke up in December 2009 to news they never had. They financed it because no one wants to get out of the bandwagon as long as it runs.
“We left a lot of regulation to banks themselves but they don’t understand their own risk models. Self-regulation left banks to estimate their own risk and obviously they couldn’t.”
But she, like Mr Klau, believes the euro will survive: “There is too much invested in it, politically and economically. The euro will be sacrosanct in the end.”

First published in The Age.

Cameron stares down MP revolt on EU poll

LONDON: The Prime Minister, David Cameron, returning from an EU summit where he had a furious row with the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, was facing a backbench revolt last night from Conservatives who want a referendum on pulling out of the European Union.
As tempers frayed on Sunday among several European leaders struggling to agree on how to fix the deepening euro zone crisis, Mr Cameron fought for the right to have a say in the final plan to be hammered out in Brussels on Wednesday.
Initially only the 17 countries that use the single currency were to be at the midweek emergency meeting over debt but Mr Cameron insisted the union’s other members be allowed to have a say.
Mr Sarkozy retorted: “You have lost a good opportunity to shut up … We are sick of you criticising us and telling us what to do. You say you hate the euro and now you want to interfere in our meetings.”
Mr Cameron has cancelled a trip to Japan and New Zealand to attend tomorrow’s summit.
It was agreed that all 27 EU countries would debate the crucial rescue measures – to recapitalise banks, boost the bail-out fund and write down Greek debt – but only the 17 euro countries will vote on them.
At Mr Cameron’s insistence, leaders inserted into the final communique a promise to safeguard a level playing field for non-euro nations.
Europe’s troubles have bolstered the cause of Britain’s euro-sceptics, who fear the cost of future bailouts and who want to wrestle certain regulatory powers back from Brussels.
Mr Cameron has suggested that if treaty changes were required for a euro rescue plan Britain might agree to back them if it got some of its powers back.
But Mr Cameron has said it is not the time for a referendum and has given his MPs a “three-whip” order, the strongest instruction possible, to vote against the proposal on pain of losing their government positions. “I don’t think this is the right time to legislate for an in/out referendum,” Mr Cameron said. “This is the right time to sort out the euro zone’s problems, defend your national interest and look to the opportunities there may be in the future to repatriate powers back to Britain. Obviously the idea of some limited treaty change in the future might give us that opportunity.”
The vote overnight is expected to be the largest revolt he has faced as a leader, with up to 90 defying him, although the proposal is still likely to fail as Labour and the Liberal Democrats are expected to vote against it.
But Mr Cameron’s authority will be undermined if he is challenged by up to a third of his parliamentary party.
Meanwhile Mr Sarkozy and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, attacked Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, demanding he take tougher measures to get Italy’s debt under control. Markets fear Italy could be the next economy to succumb to a sovereign debt crisis.
The weekend summit agreed in principle on a €100 billion ($133.8 billion) plan to recapitalise Europe’s banks, expected to be announced tomorrow.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

WikiLeaks suspends release of secrets

WikiLeaks must stop publishing and might be dead by the end of the year because a financial blockade by large companies has slashed its income by 95 per cent, founder Julian Assange told a London press conference overnight.

WikiLeaks must stop publishing and might be dead by the end of the year because a financial blockade by large companies has slashed its income by 95 per cent, founder Julian Assange told a London press conference overnight.

He said the refusal of Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, Western Union and Bank of America to process payments to WikiLeaks since last December had strangled the flow of donations, and WikiLeaks had begun legal actions in several countries to fight back.

“WikiLeaks is now forced to temporarily suspend all publishing operations in order to direct all our resources into fighting the blockade and raising funds,” he told journalists at the Frontline Club.

“If WikiLeaks doesn’t find a way to remove this blockade, given our current resources and expenditure we will simply not be able to continue by the turn of the New Year.”

Mr Assange said the organisation had been surviving on cash reserves and needed US$3.5 million to keep going over the next 12 months. It had over 100,000 “pending publications” and ran with a core staff of 20 and about 800 volunteers.

He warned that the blockade against WikiLeaks threatened freedom of speech and was a strategy that could be applied to other organisations that upset powerful vested interests, such as Greenpeace or Amnesty International.

“The blockade is outside of any accountable, public process. It is without democratic oversight or transparency. The US government itself found that there were no lawful grounds to add Wikileaks to a US financial blockade.”

Last year Fairfax worked with WikiLeaks to publish carefully selected and redacted documents. In September, a full archive of 251,000 unredacted Wikileaks documents was published, reportedly after a security breach.

The financial blockade began within 10 days of the first “Cablegate” documents – classified embassy cables – being published last year. The publication was vehemently attacked by some American politicians, who claimed Wikileaks had endangered national security and embarrassed the government.

Mr Assange said WikiLeaks had begun pre-litigation processes in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Iceland, Denmark and Brussels (via an anti-trust complaint to the European Commission). Class actions in the United States were also being explored, spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said.

Mr Assange said the blockade violated competition and trade laws because it singled out an organisation that had done nothing illegal in any country. “There are no judgments or even charges against Wikileaks or its staff anywhere in the world.”

He said in Europe, Visa and Mastercard controlled 97 per cent of credit-card transactions.

Mr Hrafnsson said Wikileaks last year received donations of more than ?100,000 ($133,000) a month but this was now down to around ?7000.

“We received ?130,000 in the last 24 hours before the closing of the credit card network,” he said. Multiplying that suggested the organisation had lost up to ?50 million over the blockade, he said.

WikiLeaks’s lawyers were looking at different measures in different countries and the first legal case was likely to start in Denmark in the next few weeks, with WikiLeaks alleging breaches of the merchant laws, he said.

The European Commission was expected to rule in mid-November over whether it would investigate the case. “The commission has the power to impose an injunction,” Mr Hrafnsson said. “They could force the credit card companies to open up the network pending the result of an investigation.”

Mr Assange said money could still be donated by cash, cheque, SMS and bank-to-bank transfers by banks other than Bank of America. He said no money donated to WikiLeaks had been, or would be, used for his personal legal battle against extradition to Sweden over sexual assault claims.

Fairfax asked Visa why it had imposed the ban and whether any other organisations were subject to one. The company issued a statement saying Visa could suspend payments if a merchant did not abide by operating regulations or the laws of the country in which it was based. A spokeswoman declined to elaborate on what breaches the company alleged against WikiLeaks.

Bank of America said it had no comment.

First published on smh.com.au

The trouble with water

AT MILKING time there is a job for everyone. Young Luke, a fearless four, wants one too. Then he sees his chance. As his father herds more Friesians into the stalls, Luke grabs a plastic pipe and charges over to cows in the holding pen. Like a little emperor, he stamps the ground with his new-found staff to get them moving. They part around him placidly, their big brown eyes mild and unquestioning. Here, man and beast understand their appointed places, and man — however small — has dominion.
Luke knows the drill because he has watched it every morning and evening from the time he was a baby, parked in his pram, off to one side. His father, Jeff Broad, working down in the dairy’s “pit”, has known it all his life too. He is a fifth-generation dairy farmer. Broad’s job at this time of day is in the low passageway between the two rows of stalls; he’s in the basement and cows are on the first floor. The machinery chugs steadily in the background but his own rhythm is irregular: he reaches up to snap vacuum cups on udders, detaches them when the cows look ready, squirts them with antiseptic. He’s in gumboots and an apron, and spatters suggest he needs them both. Mucky business, this, in every regard except the result: luscious, creamy, foaming, it looks like nothing ever poured from a supermarket carton.
Ruth Broad is tending to the babies. She scoops up fresh milk to pour into feeders for the calves in the nursery, a corrugated iron lean-to. They nuzzle her with soft noses and raspy tongues. These are the heifers and they will be kept for the herd. In a separate pen with their mothers are the boys; they will be sold as soon as their navels dry out, in three or four days. She checks their eyes for signs of ill-health. “The rim on the bottom of their eyes gets swollen and their eyes sink into their heads when they’re not doing too good,” she says. “That’s when you give them electrolytes.”
This is the busiest time of year for a dairy farmer, and the Broads have another 60 calves to come from their herd of 280 cows. But the twice-daily demands of milking always have them rising in the dark and then working through what in most families would be dinnertime. They bought the farm from Jeff’s father, who had bought it from his uncle, who had settled here after riding around the district on a bicycle in the 1930s looking for just the right place. He settled on this lot at Nanneella, 15 minutes’ drive from Kyabram.
Jeff has lived in the same house all his life. “You know what they say about some of these farmers?” laughs Ruth. “All they do is shift bedrooms!”
Jeff is a man of few words. Asked what he likes about farming, he says, “Your own boss. Just out and about. Being outdoors.”
Ruth teases, “Tractors!”
After 12 hard years of drought, the Broads and their four children and families like them should be sitting pretty this year. But now they find themselves facing a new kind of trouble, one that many farmers across south-eastern Australia fear threatens not only their own livelihoods, but the very existence of their communities and their whole way of life: water wars.
Kyabram is part of the Murray-Darling Basin, a vast irrigation district that stretches from Queensland down to New South Wales through Victoria and on to South Australia. Here in the wide brown land, water is wealth. The 2500 dams and weirs on the Murray River and the thousands of channels that run off them have spread that wealth among the farmers and country towns of three states. But now the river is dying from the mouth and authorities want to return water to its flow. That means taking it back from people like the Broads.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority this month released a basin plan guide that proposed taking back up to 37 per cent of the water from farmers in the Goulburn region. A study by auditing firm Marsden Jacob Associates suggested this might well kill not just Kyabram but Cohuna, Stanhope and Numurkah; a second study — by independent banking consultant Adrian Rizza — warned that eight other towns might not survive, including Robinvale and Mildura.
The proposal to take back between 3000 and 7600 billion litres a year across the basin has unleashed a tide of apocalyptic fury in irrigators. “You have hurt my wife and family, you sons of bitches!” roared one local at a meeting in Griffith, NSW. Another asked if the basin authority intended to bankrupt rural Australia, and a third threw a fake horse’s head at authority chairman Mike Taylor. Protesters burned copies of the basin plan guide.
Taken aback by the response, authorities quickly responded. A federal parliamentary committee chaired by independent MP Tony Windsor will spend six months inquiring into the economic impact of the proposed cuts. The basin authority has said it will research the social impact.
It’s not enough for the 90 farmers who turned up to a public meeting in the historic local theatre organised by the shire council in Kyabram this week. “We are the environment, and other people are destroying us,” said one, to loud applause.
Farmers are not just enraged but bewildered and, underneath it all, wounded. They feel they work hard to be frugal with water and other resources and that they changed their practices radically to cope with drought but now are being attacked as “environmental vandals”. They are outraged by assessments that assume less water is fine because they managed to keep producing despite the drought — assessments that do not take into account those who went bust, or the enormous debt many went into in order to keep going.
Perhaps most importantly, the environmental arguments make no sense to them. Rural Australia is a heartland of climate-change scepticism. Jeff Broad is among the few who acknowledge, warily, that the rivers might need better flows, but many can’t believe a river that looks fine to them is struggling to survive. Farmers in Kyabram view climate-change science as rather like the tooth fairy: a foolish fantasy for those who like to believe it and not something sensible people waste time on. There’s been a drought and droughts break, they say confidently; it’s just natural cycles.
“Not many believe in climate change,” says Ruth Broad. “We don’t know anyone who believes it.”
Says Jeff, “It’s a dry period.” His father, Keith, also sitting at the kitchen table, tells of an international meeting in which “hundreds and hundreds of scientists say they haven’t got enough evidence for it”.
For them, water that runs into the sea is a waste. Says Ruth in disbelief, “We haven’t got very much water and we’re getting a bigger population. We can’t just tip it down the river. We’ve got people that need food.”
A survey last year of 1500 farmers by the Victorian Department of Primary Industries found that while 88 per cent acknowledged that rainfall and run-off had declined and 62 per cent agreed the state was experiencing more high pressure systems, only 30 per cent accepted a link between greenhouse emissions and global warming. Despite this, many were taking action that would reduce emissions or store carbon on their farms, such as tree planting.
Talking to farmers in Kyabram, it is clear they see themselves as custodians of the land and holders of its history. They refuse to discount the evidence of their own eyes, and they resent townies and boffins claiming to know better. At Kyabram’s public meeting, state MP Paul Weller said, “We shouldn’t accept that the environment is a big disaster.” He said the salinity in the Murray was now one-fifth of what it was in 1983 and that it had far more fish and invertebrates and much clearer water. “When I went to school, there were paddocks in our area that were bare with salt that are now green with trees . . . [They] have to acknowledge that the community has done a wonderful job of improving the environment.”
ANOTHER local jeered at scientific climate modelling: “You put something into a computer and let it tell you something at the end, and what it tells you depends on what has gone in . . . It means all the figures they are supplying are really vague and probably false.”
Other farmers said this was always a river that had had dry spells. They told of years in which locals had been able to picnic on the dry bed of the Murray, and one quoted explorer Charles Sturt writing of the river’s “putrid series of saline waterholes . . .”
Aren’t these the benchmarks of its natural history, they asked? Isn’t it overshooting the mark to want flows at the mouth of the Murray nine years out of 10? “It didn’t have that before white settlement,” claimed one man.
There was also fierce resentment at what is seen as a “water grab” in which vote-hungry politicians are diverting country water to city folk via the north-south pipeline and the desalination plant. “Why should 10 per cent of the population have to pay for 100 per cent of the population?” asked an angry woman.
Between the greenie and the farmer there seems almost no common ground. Paul Sinclair is healthy ecosystems programs manager with the Australian Conservation Foundation and author of The Murray: A river and its people. He says Professor Ross Garnaut’s figures forecast that with less rain as a result of global warming, “under business as usual, we are looking at 92 per cent less inflow into the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin over the next 100 years”.
He warns it is rural people who will be hardest hit by more extreme weather such as droughts and storms and by the spread of diseases such as dengue and Ross River fever. “Farmers can think what they want and that’s their right, but it’s about more than what farmers think. Sticking your head in the sand means you fail to exercise leadership to help your community.”
As for the river looking fine, he says farmers don’t have a helicopter view of the overall system: “One of the great truisms of the river is that if you are in Albury, you don’t know how it is at Echuca, and if you are in Echuca you don’t know how it is at Swan Hill.”
Sinclair has a litany of disasters to recite: the Murray contains only 10 per cent of the native fish it had 100 years ago and many of its redgums are dead or dying. Ninety per cent of the basin’s floodplain wetlands have been destroyed and 20 of the basin’s 23 rivers are in poor or very poor condition. Vast stretches of the Murray have already collapsed. Two-thirds of the Coorong, at the mouth of the Murray in South Australia, has been devastated by overuse of water: “Rivers die from the bottom up. The consequences of over-extraction [there] are obvious: increased salinity, acid sulphate soils and no water for irrigators no matter how big their water licences are. For example, there used to be 23 dairy farming families around the Lower Lakes. Now there are three.”
Closer to home, “the Lindsay-Wallpolla islands, near Mildura, look like someone has detonated a nuclear bomb. It’s a system, so it won’t all die at once, but bits of it are under great stress.”
Sinclair says it is not valid to use local lore to compare today’s dry spells with those of a century ago or more. Back then the river was more resilient because it was not broken up by thousands of weirs and dams: “The river is like a boxer in round nine of 10 rounds. The river those people are describing hadn’t even got into the ring.”
There is, however, one point on which Sinclair and the farmers are agreed: it was appalling that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority released its detailed environmental proposals without mention of the effect they would have on the human elements of the environment, other than a cursory (and widely derided) estimate that the changes would lead to only 800 job losses. For rural people who already felt abandoned by government and marginalised in the debate, the report was evidence they had been entirely erased from the calculations of distant, hostile powers-that-be.
Sinclair groans when asked about the insensitivity of the process: “The performance of the MDBA has been like watching someone walk slowly into a metal fan. I thought, ‘My God, what are you doing?’ ”
Rural researcher Professor Margaret Alston, head of Monash University’s department of social work, had a similar reaction. She received an early copy of the guide and after she flipped through it her first question was, “Where are the people?” She says, “You will find information about birds and frogs but you won’t find a word about children. I was very uncomfortable that it was a socially blind document.”
AND HERE is where the woundedness comes in. Hurt as they might be by what they feel are assumptions about their environmental recklessness, that is not the main fuel for the fury of farmers around Kyabram. There is a deeper vein of resentment and fear that has spurted like lava to the surface: the pain caused by 10 years of drought. Rain has turned the grass green but has done little to ease other hardships that will be with them for a long time.
Money is tight, so tight. Many had to borrow large sums to see them through; for dairy farmers, no rain meant little or no irrigation, which meant they could not grow crops to feed their cows. Buying in fodder is hugely expensive. “It could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for the largest farms,” says Jenny Reuther, who has relinquished her herd but not her links to the industry.
The drought forced most into ugly decisions of one kind or another. “Some people have said they want to keep going on the farm but others have said, ‘I don’t want to go into any more debt. I don’t want to erode my equity any further by continuing to borrow.’ ”
Many have left and their absence is felt by those who remain. The public meeting was told that the primary school in Stanhope had dropped from 140 students to 50, and many houses were for sale. Bob Winwood, a farmer outside Kyabram who has switched from dairy to beef, talks of a 20-kilometre road that in the 1990s was a sea of black and white cows. Now, “There’s one dairy farm at the top of it and then I don’t think there’s another one right through to the end.” He fears further water cuts “will just devastate this area”.
Deputy mayor and dairy farmer Neil Pankhurst estimates the Goulburn Valley has lost 60 per cent of its dairy farmers in the past decade and is producing a billion fewer litres of milk than at its peak in 2002-03. He warns of the risks for other rural industries if farms are hit any harder, listing milk factories and canneries in the region that depend on farm produce for work.
He says people were stunned and despairing when they heard the latest proposals piled on top of their existing problems: “There’s just so much uncertainty.”
Businesses are worried too. John Bacon has been in the mower and motorcycle shop on the main street for 32 years. He says the drought was purgatory: “The farm market was cut in half or less. So many businesses just survived by a little bit. Many had to tip money back in to keep going. At one stage one in five shops were empty.”
That’s because in a country town everything depends on the profitability of the farms: “If you pull out that bottom rung, it all falls down — the price of properties, the number of doctors and teachers.”
Then there are the private losses. People will tell you quietly that depression is on the rise, with all its sad sequelae, including family violence. Others have lost confidence; that fabled rural resilience is wearing thin. Local counsellor Allannah Jenkins says, “Communities where we had significant people who were enthusiastic and driven to nurture and drive that community have become exhausted.
We are seeing a lot of loneliness and isolation because communities are so fragmented and the people who are left are worn out and no one is stepping up to the mark.”
She uses government funding and donated goods to organise “pamper evenings” for women and “blokes’ barbecues” for men. Children are affected too. Alston says there are country schools where teachers set up anger management classes for children who were bringing the family tensions into the classroom.
The government has said no one will be forced off the land. There is $9 billion for the modernisation scheme and farmers can apply to have their water rights bought back by the government whenever a “subscription” is opened. “Farmers call it ‘the lucky dip’,” says Jenny Reuther.
She and her husband missed out the first time round and are hoping for a second chance to sell just part of their water rights, so they can retire debt but their farm stays workable for others.
Alston has been talking to rural people since 2001. She found gender differences in the family debate about whether to sell back their water rights. “Often it’s women who are going off-farm to source income that’s needed to get people through the next few years. It wasn’t uncommon to come across women in their 60s and 70s who were holding down full-time jobs, some of them in Melbourne. For a lot of them, buyback looks like a get-out-of-jail card.
“But for men, selling water meant revisiting the whole idea of who they are. Who are they if they are not farmers? In a small minority of cases, women were seriously considering leaving because it was just too hard to keep supporting that notion of the male farmer. They just wanted to move and have a dignified retirement.”
There is sympathy for those who put up their hands because the prevailing view is there are no “willing sellers”; people sell because they are financially pressed. But both those considering leaving and those who plan to stay are worried about what it will mean for their communities.
Peter Costello, Tongala farmer and United Dairyfarmers of Victoria district president, says farms that have sold out are now covered in weeds and pests, posing problems for neighbours. He also fears that if more than a third sell out, those left behind will have to share the cost of water between them: “I would expect the water price could double.”
Those worries seem a long way away as little Luke Broad swings on a farm-gate pointing out the smallest calf on the farm. The shadows lengthen across the paddocks and birds flock, chattering, to their nests in nearby trees. Their day is over long before the Broads’ is.
Jeff and Ruth plan to go to the protest meetings but are not as concerned as many of those around them. Their property straddles a “backbone”, a large water channel. They are doing their sums and hope to sell some of their water back to finance improvements to the farm that will make them more water efficient. They don’t want to see 37 per cent of flows taken from the region, though.
“The dirt in our area is rubbish without water,” says Ruth Broad.
Whether their family will see a sixth-generation dairy farmer depends on many factors, not least of which are the outcome of the basin plan and the ambitions of their children. Luke doesn’t want to be a dairy farmer, he admits shyly. What does he want to be? “A racing-car driver!”

Scandal stalks race for Irish presidency

THE campaign to be the ninth president of Ireland has been distinguished by the rattling of skeletons in closets, with two candidates now carrying bruises from old bones that fell out of cupboards and into the glare of the media.
Following a series of controversies, big names have been left trailing in the final week of campaigning before Thursday’s vote, and a relative outsider, Sean Gallagher, has leapfrogged to the top of the list alongside grand old man Michael D. Higgins.
“It has been a nasty and insubstantial campaign and the result is a little like ‘last man standing’,” says Adrian Guelke, professor of comparative politics at Queen’s University, Belfast. “The candidates who have offended the least have got to the top. Michael D. and Sean Gallagher don’t offend lots of people.”
Current President Mary McAleese, a barrister and academic admired for her skilled peacemaking, was re-elected for a second term unopposed seven years ago.
She built bridges with Northern Ireland and arranged an almost penitential visit by the Queen to the republic earlier this year. The Queen laid wreaths at sites memorialising Irish freedom fighters and visited the stadium where the 1920 Bloody Sunday massacre took place.
Mrs McAleese’s predecessor, Mary Robinson, was also a visionary, held in affection for transforming the ceremonial role into one with more warmth and meaning. She emphasised the needs of the marginalised and reached out to the Irish diaspora.
The bar is now set high — possibly too high for two well-known candidates whose campaigns have been tarnished by sexual allegations.
“Dana” Rosemary Scallon is so well known from her singing career that she goes by her stage name. She won a seat in the European Parliament stressing opposition to divorce and abortion and has had two previous tilts at the presidency.
But she is involved in a bitter family row over allegations by her sister, Susan Stein, that a brother abused Mrs Stein’s daughter as a child. Mrs Scallon last week said the allegations had emerged in the context of a court dispute over other matters in 2008 and had now “conveniently” re-emerged. She said she was sure they were malicious and untrue.
In response, Mrs Stein this week hired a libel lawyer. She claimed she had told Mrs Scallon about the alleged abuse when it was first disclosed years ago but Mrs Scallon had advised her to “protect the family name” by not telling others.
“Dana had a very respectable showing last time but she’s in complete meltdown now,” says John Waters, author and columnist for The Irish Times.
David Norris, the first openly gay person elected to public office in Ireland, had been a front-runner. But he withdrew in July after it emerged that in 1997 he wrote a letter to Israeli authorities pleading on behalf of former partner Ezra Yitzhak Nawi, who had been convicted of the statutory rape of a teenage boy.
Mr Waters says: “It’s been watered down as a letter for clemency, but it was a letter in which he misrepresented the situation because he didn’t allude at all to the fact that this was his [former] lover.”
Mr Norris has since re-entered the race and people are divided between those concerned about his judgment and those who see him as hounded by the media.
Still in with a chance is former IRA chief Martin McGuinness, who left his job as deputy chief minister in Northern Ireland, the culmination of his work in the peace process. He has said that the Irish are angry at the way the debt crisis has led to loss of sovereignty to the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.
“It is time for a president who will stand up for Ireland and the Irish people,” he said. “Ireland needs a new beginning, and I do new beginnings.”
He has also promised to be president for “the 32 counties” — republican code for a united Ireland, as there are 26 counties in the republic and six in Northern Ireland. It is not clear how he plans to do this.
Waters thinks Mr McGuinness has not stood up well to strong criticism over his paramilitary past, but Professor Guelke thinks those attacks are unfortunate: “The case is being made that he is morally unsuitable because of his past . . . People in [Northern Ireland] hear that, and Unionists will ask why he has been imposed on them. It gives legitimacy to the argument that the power-sharing arrangement shouldn’t be in place.”
On the other hand, both analysts see Gay Mitchell, the Fine Gael candidate, as part of the establishment in a country still furious at politicians for allowing the “Celtic tiger” to shrink to a mewling kitten.
Mary Davis’s performance in polls is lacklustre, but she shares some of the qualities of the past two presidents: she is a woman who emphasises caring and inclusion, her own background being decades of work with disabled people.
Which leaves the new guy and the old guy: Mr Gallagher and Mr Higgins. Professor Guelke says of Mr Higgins: “He’s elegant, intelligent, thoughtful . . . The thing that has counted against him is that he looks old. He does come across as an old man.”
And at 70, he has to convince voters he can maintain his vigour until he is 78. But he remains a front-runner, along with Mr Gallagher.
“The banana skin that’s waiting for Gallagher is his time in Fianna Fail [the main party of the previous government],” says Mr Waters. “But many people have an association with Fianna Fail and don’t regard it as a criminal offence.
“He’s a very charismatic guy. There’s a particular quality of the Irish personality that outsiders recognise: immediately on contact with another person there is a kind of spark, a warmth, instant banter, and an instant capacity to communicate in a very human, almost intimate way. Gallagher has this quality, and people feel they are meeting the real person.”

Flooding rains plain truth of climate change: scientist

LONDON: Australia can expect more frequent devastating floods like those in Queensland this year, and the world is facing decades of unprecedented hardship as a result of climate change, according to the chief scientific adviser to the British government.
“We are facing what I believe will be unprecedented difficult times over the next 20 to 40 years,” Professor Sir John Beddington warned. He was speaking as chairman of a panel of scientists launching a major international report about the effects of climate change on people.
The report predicts that migration will increase markedly; that millions will move into, rather than away from, environmentally vulnerable areas; and millions more will be affected but not be able to move.
According to the head of the school of geography and the environment at Oxford University, Professor David Thomas, the cities most affected would include Singapore, Shanghai, Calcutta, Dhaka in Bangladesh, and the towns and villages of the Vietnamese delta.
Australia would experience rising sea levels too but “it will respond differently because of its different economy”, he said.
The report says that by 2060, up to 179 million people will be trapped in low-lying coastal floodplains subject to extreme weather events such as floods, storm surges, landslides and rising sea levels, unable to migrate because they are too poor or ill-equipped, or because they are restricted by political or geographic boundaries.
Two-thirds of the world’s cities with populations of more than 5 million are at least partially located in coastal zones, including rapidly growing urban centres in Asian and African “mega-deltas”, the report said.
Other large cities would suffer water shortages, with 150 million people already living in cities where water is limited.
“Cities need to be more strategic about their location,” said Neil Adger, a professor of environmental economics and program leader at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.
Migration and Global Environmental Change is the result of a two-year peer-reviewed project by 350 specialists in 30 countries. It was released yesterday by Foresight, part of the British Government Office for Science, which sits within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Speaking after the launch, Sir John told the Herald that Australia should not expect the La Nina phenomenon that triggered the Queensland floods to be a once-in-a-generation event. The next one could not be predicted but it would return much more frequently than in the past.
“We know that climate change is happening,” he said. “We know that the greenhouse gases already in the upper atmosphere will determine the climate over the next 30 years [and there will be] more droughts, floods and extreme weather.
“Since 2008, on average, 25 million people a year have been displaced by extreme weather events, and that’s in a world of relatively benign climate change.”
Professor Adger warned, “extreme events threaten livelihoods and survival.”
The report recommended policies that allow for migration, better city planning, sustainable-low carbon economies and improved early-warning systems about catastrophic events.
The World Bank said it will meet in December to assess the report’s implications.

Book’s beauty beats e-book

Books need to be beautiful, says the latest winner of the Man Booker Prize, Julian Barnes, if they are to withstand the onslaught of the e-book.

BOOKS need to be beautiful, says the latest winner of the Man Booker Prize, Julian Barnes, if they are to withstand the onslaught of the e-book.

Accepting the prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending, Barnes thanked the book’s designer, Suzanne Dean, and said, ”Those of you who’ve seen my book – whatever you may think of its contents – will probably agree that it’s a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping.”

Barnes finally won the £50,000 ($A77,000) prize after having been shortlisted three previous times and following a bitter controversy over this year’s shortlist, which was criticised as being too populist for focusing on ”readability”.

A group of writers, publishers and agents announced plans to set up a rival literary prize that would reward the artistic achievement of a writer above ”readability”.

Chairwoman of the judging panel and former head of MI5 Dame Stella Rimington said the publishing world had given the judges glee by behaving like ”the KGB at its height”, using ”black propaganda, destabilisation operations, plots and double agents”.

”We were certainly always looking for quality as well,” she said. ”The fact it’s been in the headlines is very gratifying.”

She said Barnes’s 150-page novel had the markings of a classic of English literature: ”Exquisitely written, subtly plotted and reveals new depths with each reading.”

The story is narrated by a middle-aged man, who reflects on the paths he and his friends have taken as the past catches up with him via a bequeathed diary.

Barnes, 65, is literary editor for the New Statesman and TV critic for the Observer. He has written 10 previous novels.

The other nominees were Carol Birch (Jamrach’s Menagerie); Canadians Patrick deWitt (The Sisters Brothers) and Esi Edugyan (Half Blood Blues); and debut authors Stephen Kelman (Pigeon English) and A. D. Miller (Snowdrops).

First published in The Age.

Regal aid to take our pulse

THE Queen makes a point of attending every meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government, says royal biographer Hugo Vickers.
“She told somebody once that she feels a little like a doctor because she sees four prime ministers in the morning and four prime ministers in the afternoon, and they all tell her their problems,” he says.
The royal stethoscope and its bearer are due to land in Canberra today by chartered plane, together with the Duke of Edinburgh and up to 30 support staff.
The Queen’s visit is primarily to open the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth on Friday, October 28.
But the royal couple will also attend functions in Canberra, Brisbane and Melbourne, where the Queen will open the new Royal Children’s Hospital next Wednesday.
Mr Vickers, author of several royal biographies, including Elizabeth: The Queen Mother, says the Queen has made it a priority to work to hold the Commonwealth together.
“She has not minded when Commonwealth countries have dropped her as head of state but she does mind if they leave the Commonwealth,” he said.
The Queen has made 15 earlier visits to Australia in her 59 years on the throne, most recently in 2006.
During her reign she has made more than 250 overseas visits, entertained more than 1 million people at garden parties and conferred 388,000 awards and honours. And, of course, there are the 30-odd Welsh corgis.
She is now 85, but Mr Vickers pooh-poohed suggestions that this might be her last trip Down Under. “I doubt that the Queen would have said ‘This is my last tour’,” he told The Age. “The Queen Mother, when she was 100, would say, ‘I’ve bought a new horse and I’m looking forward to seeing it in a couple of years’ time’.”
One of the Queen’s former press secretaries, Dickie Arbiter, agrees. “With the Queen you should never say ‘last’, never say ‘never’ . . . the Queen still has got a lot of mileage in her.”

Euro zone needs action, not finger-pointing: Swan

World leaders have ‘absolutely no excuse for failure’ in managing the euro-zone crisis.

WORLD leaders have ”absolutely no excuse for failure” in managing the euro-zone crisis and must deliver a bold and credible plan at this weekend’s summit in Brussels, Treasurer Wayne Swan told an Austrade business luncheon in London overnight.

He said the outcome was important for Australia because it was not immune from Europe’s troubles. ”In spite of our strong fundamentals and tiny exposures to European banks, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that our economy isn’t already being hit by what’s happening here, or that it can’t be hit harder.”

He said the crisis had made the target of surplus by 2012-13 more difficult to achieve: ”The impact on confidence alone has had consequences for our own growth and budget revenue, and there is every prospect this could get worse if we accept ? that the extreme volatility of recent months is likely to continue for some time yet.”

He said traditional policy arsenals were depleted, and political divisions mired efforts to overcome problems on both sides of the Atlantic.

But he was confident that European finance ministers understood the seriousness of the threat and the need for political unity. But they needed to make more progress on Europe’s bailout fund, tackle debt levels and develop a plan to recapitalise the banking system.

”We know what is happening, we know what needs to be done, and we have a good understanding of the consequences if only half-measures are applied. We know that Europe needs to regain the confidence of markets. It needs to get its house in order and it needs to do this now by setting out credible plans for fiscal consolidation [reducing deficits and debts] ? The time for half-measures, the time for finger-pointing has long passed.”

Mr Swan said Prime Minister Julia Gillard would take the same call to action to a meeting of G20 leaders in Cannes in November. ”The world can ill-afford further hits to confidence,” he said.

Mr Swan also said the US should get its budget in order. ”There needs to be a concerted effort to support growth quickly and create jobs for the millions of US unemployed ? we still need the major components of President Obama’s jobs bill passed in some form.”

Speaking to BusinessDay before his speech, Mr Swan said millions of people ”depend on European leaders getting their skates on”.

First published in The Age.


He will also meet British Chancellor George Osborne and Bank of England governor Mervyn King.

A glass of champagne for you … and perhaps a bowl for your jacket?


Reception lines can be staid affairs – but not when Kathy Lette is in the queue . She presented herself to the Queen in a suit screen-printed with corgis, their tiny eyes glittering with red, green or blue beads.
“Do you like it?” she asked the Queen, of the outfit commissioned from her mate with a sewing machine in Cronulla. “I wore it specially for you.” She says the Queen looked down and her eyes widened: “Philip!” she said, “Look at this!”
“You’ll have to move on,” he told Lette drily. “It’s too much for me!”
It was a party at the palace for 350 of the best people – in this case, Australian people, as a warm-up to the royal tour of Australia by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh due to start on Wednesday.
Lette, Australia’s comic chicklit queen, was carrying a handbag in the shape of a pot of geraniums. She was accompanied by her husband, Geoffrey Robertson, QC. The mellifluous Mr Robertson is a human-rights lawyer known best to Australians for his mental gymnastics on former ABC TV show Hypothetical. He is waiting for the judgment in the case of a high-profile client, Wikileaks leader Julian Assange, who is fighting extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges.
Elle Macpherson came dressed all in nude (no, not the nude, but the flesh colour in mode with fashionistas). Arriving at the palace, she was asked how she thought the Queen would fare as a contestant on popular television show Britain’s Next Top Model.
Macpherson, who has put out a range of designer underwear, joked the Queen would look “awesome in my undies”. In fact the Queen was her usual dignified self in a purple brocade suit.
Entertainer Rolf Harris was a late withdrawal due to illness, along with rugby league player Danny Buderus who couldn’t get a flight from Greece. Kylie Minogue could not make it but her former Neighbours co-star Jason Donovan was among the crowd in the state apartments at Buckingham Palace, along with designer Collette Dinnigan, singers Nick Cave and Gabriella Cilmi, actor Hugh Jackman, rugby league player Matt King, and Socceroos Tim Cahill and Mark Schwarzer.
Also mingling was actor Greta Scacchi, who is returning to Sydney in two weeks to prepare for ensemble performances of David Williamson’s new play, Nothing Personal.
Palace staff prepared trays of drinks and food – including Tasmanian sparkling wine, tiny lamingtons and coin-sized passionfruit pavlovas – in the red-brocade throne room.
Britons delicately inquired of Australians as to the warmth of the welcome the royal couple might receive. They were assured the republican tide was out at the moment, and Australians were not harbouring the kind of fervent nationalism that is inflaming some Scottish hearts.
The Queen and Prince Philip travel to Canberra on Wednesday for a 10-night Australian tour. They will visit Brisbane and Melbourne before opening the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth.

First published in The Age.