Australian Super Funds wanting to invest in America’s infrastructure privatisation, is it ethical?

When I recently learned of the push for Australia’s superannuation industry to invest in American infrastructure, alarm bells rang. Neoliberalism is still very much in economical favour so what was this really all about? When I read articles about it from Australia a little closer, I realised that they were missing the meat of the story, all that I was reading was the bare bones.

Firstly there is no $US1.5 trillion infrastructure plan as such in the 2019 budget. The Trump administration’s infrastructure plan is basically a finance deal that includes deregulation, and the privatisation of America’s state and local government assets. $US200bn is all that the American government is willing to spend including $US100bn that has been allocated to an Incentives Program. These figures however, do not include $US178bn worth of cuts to be made in the state and local government’s infrastructure budgets. They pretty much cancel each other out. The deep cuts in funding, and the need to fix their infrastructure will leave many of these government’s no choice but to look at private funding and selling off its assets.

No matter where the funding comes from, privatisation requires taking over a government function at a lower cost than the government can provide it, and to make a profit, or it wouldn’t be worth its while.  

America has been undergoing privatisation since the Reagan administration through its neoliberal policies. These policies enabled private to take over energy infrastructure and utilities, but not roads, rails, ports and airports, they have mainly remained as state and local government assets. Privatisation though is not as popular as it once was due to American’s seeing and living with the consequences of privatisation; they know how it affects their lives, wallets, and their communities. In Chicago for example, parking meters were privatised 10-years ago with a 75-year lease that has cost the city $US974m in lost revenue, so far.

Privatisation in Australia under the guise of ‘asset recycling’ has been used to lobby American politicians for the last couple of years. It was introduced to Australia by former Australian Treasurer, Joe Hockey. Hockey in his current role as American Ambassador has led the charge with assistance from others, including former New South Wales Premier Mike Baird. In Australia it involved selling state assets to private to help pay for infrastructure projects, and the federal government paid an incentive payment to add to the funding. There were no big cuts or deregulation involved. The super fund’s think selling it to the American public as “workers capital” rather than private, to pay for public assets will do the trick. The super funds have even re-branded: Public Private Partnerships in America, to Pension Public Partnerships.

You might be asking yourself: ‘Why should I care where or how Australian Super is invested if it’s bringing back returns?’ That’s a good question. America has inflicted neoliberalism policies around the world for the last 40-years, this has led to the global decay of infrastructure. The global race to fix ailing infrastructure (or to gobble up what’s left of public assets), is being touted by Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, as the answer to sustaining economic growth. Neoliberal policies are profit driven, whereas things like infrastructure maintenance are not very profitable. Hence the decline. Pretty ironic when you think about it.       

Is it right or ethical for super funds to invest in a country that is also being deregulated within an inch of its life to make it easier for private with their investments? There are grave concerns for the plan to deregulate the country’s water supplies, some water utilities are already struggling to keep their water clean. Did you know that 16 million Americans get sick from dirty tap water each year? Deregulation, especially in regards to environmental restrictions designed to protect communities, will once again add to the monetary burden of cleaning it up onto the states and local governments. Even if super funds just invested in toll roads there like IFM Investors with their Indiana investment, wouldn’t it be better to invest in Australia’s infrastructure? In particular renewable energy, there’s a whole industry waiting to be untapped. Or perhaps the super funds could look to our neighbours in Asia needing infrastructure assistance, including being climate change ready. There is so much more to ethically invest in than road tolls and user charges around the world.

And on a final note, another concern that I have is if investing super into anything that makes a profit becomes the norm and accepted, what other ideas or policies that are unpalatable now, are lurking waiting for the right moment to be introduced? The privatisation of sidewalks in Australia? It’s already happening in Kansas City and Missouri.

There are only public assets (including public land), and services left to invest in or take over. If this were to happen what would the world look like? I don’t even want to imagine.         



An example of media disunity

The sunset is seen through smog in Zhengzhou in the Henan province of China.

Image by: Reuters: Stringer

I surfed the ABC news website this afternoon and clicked onto this headline“China fights pollution: New environmental police squad to battle heavy smog”

The article seemed a little threadbare. When this occurs I search further and ideally for an article in the country relevant to the article, I like to get more details this way. I decided to try something different today and scanned the headline blurbs on the first Google page, and I noticed that all of the articles, bar two, started the same: “Officials in Beijing create a new environmental police squad in the latest effort to fight China’s persistent…”

The first one that differed was from The Indian Express, and it began with: ‘Beijing and dozens of cities in China spend many winter days under a thick, gray haze, with air pollution levels that…’

The second one was further down via the Deccan Chronicle and it began withBeijing will set up environmental police force to crackdown on erring factories and step up its supervision and enforce accountability in 16 districts to tackle the recurring pollution problem, officials said on Saturday.’ 

There was a bit more to the story than the basic Associated Press (AP) summaries that the media was reporting pretty much everywhere else in the news. In particular there was no mention of several other measures that were also announced at the same meeting, they included: ‘A target of cutting the use of coal by 30 percent in 2017 to shutting down 500 higher-polluting factories and upgrading 2,500 more. And about 300,000 high-pollution vehicles will also be restricted from entering the city starting next month.’ 

I also found an ABC news analysis that was posted around three hours later than the AP article, with the headline“China’s air pollution crisis shows no sign of ending as nation fails to lower coal use” It goes on to say:

“People are frustrated because air quality was improving in 2016 until coal production ramped up in September to service a mini stimulus package for heavy industries. Cheap coal has powered China’s economic miracle and still provides 70 per cent of the country’s energy. The Government is reluctant to wean itself off coal, fearing unemployment and unrest. In a rare display of anger, China’s rising middle class took to the Chinese social media website “wechat”, demanding the Government take action and protect the children of China.”

There is nothing in the analysis above to back this up in the article in the way of links, or footnotes unfortunately. The writer says further that:

“China’s addiction to coal shows no signs of slowing. China produces and consumes more coal that the rest of the world combined. In the winter its citizens use the most. Like many in northern China, Li Yuan said he had no choice but to burn coal to keep warm. He cannot afford electricity or gas — coal is a quarter of the price. “Using coal is not good. It’s dirty. You touch it and your hands get black,” he said.” 

What also isn’t included in any of the above articles is that China is also investing 2.5 trillion yuan, the equivalent of $US361 billion in renewable power generation by 2020. Fortune reports:

“The investment will create over 13 million jobs in the sector, the National Energy Administration (NEA) said in a blueprint document that lays out its plan to develop the nation’s energy sector during the five-year 2016 to 2020 period. The announcement comes only days after Beijing, the Chinese capital, and other cities in China’s industrial north-east were again engulfed in hazardous smog, caused largely by coal-fired power generation. The NEA said installed renewable power capacity including wind, hydro, solar and nuclear power will account for about half of new electricity generation by 2020.” 

Personally, I was aware of China’s five-year-planning but not of the lofty renewable energy target above until I started to write this. The current Australian government’s energy policies look dismal when compared to this news and it’s not right that the media has missed this, when so many Australians, especially Indigenous Australians care and value nature and worry about the repercussions of our climate changing. China is the world’s biggest investor not just in energy but in renewable energy. It’s citizens need to be able to breathe, just like the developed countries and the rest of the developing countries will follow too, naturally.

We can’t keep ignoring the ginormous elephant that is renewable energy in Australian politics and our economy, this is harming not just investment hopes within our country and overseas investors, but it’s also within our communities. The uncertainty and lack of long-term planning only opens us up to further exploitation by multinational corporations and or foreign countries. China is the world’s biggest producer and investor in solar energy now. Australia still has a chance, together, not on an elitist path, but closer to an egalitarianism one. One that questions authority and those that seek executive powers over us. If journalists can’t or won’t do it, we will just have to. It’s the pioneering Aussie way.

Australia has lost its identity


The Australian cultural mindset has been eroded and is becoming predominately American. The size of the American population and its dominance in movies, television and music meant that influence was inevitable and it’s reflected in our fashion and in language with words such as “like”, “bro” and phrases along the lines of “you go girl”. American cultural imperialism has only exacerbated since Australia signed the American free-trade-agreement (AUSFTA) in 2004. Australia is losing its cultural identity. The Indigenous Australian culture actually has more in common with Australian culture than many may realise. The love and affection for Australian land is evident when so many Australians spend their time off from work and on holidays to do such things as swimming, sun baking, surfing, yoga, meditating, mountain climbing and hiking.

Australia’s history with Indigenous Australians is also not what many may realise with slave labour, stolen wages and stolen federally paid maternity allowances and child endowments from their trusts. Indigenous Australians not only built the pastoral industry for Australia but they also helped build it in other ways with wage, labour, allowance and endowment theft. They also worked in a wide range of occupations: interpreters, concubines, trackers, troopers, servants, nursemaids, labourers, stock workers and pearl divers. What is also overlooked is that they are the oldest living culture on earth with many achievements starting to come to light such as, superfoods knowledge, being the world’s first bakers and perhaps even being responsible for the world’s oldest astronomical map.

Australian television in the eighties and nineties is markedly different today with the likes of comedy shows such as The Comedy Company, Fast Forward and Full Frontal now fond memories. The reality television show Big Brother, began on Australian screens in 2001, along with a plethora of American shows such as Sex in the City, Law and Order and CSI. Many Australians including Indigenous have been raised subconsciously or subliminally with an American belief or values system. Calls get made to the American emergency number 911 rather than our own national emergency number 000 and “product dumping” is the norm with American businesses selling their television shows in the Australian market for below local cost or production prices. With an American population of around 325 million, it’s a lot easier to recoup your production and overall costs and it means that sales to other countries are essentially pure profit for America. This makes it harder for local industry to compete and it takes away any incentive to innovate or foster local production and talent. It also creates a deficit in our creative knowledge economy preventing innovation at a local level. More funding and tax breaks are needed to bolster confidence and to transition our creative knowledge economy for the future.

Between 1996 and 2000 Australia’s royalty trade deficit (including Information and technology) with America, increased by 84 per cent. In the book How to Kill a Country by Linda Weiss, Elizabeth Thurbon and John Mathews, they suggest an Intellectual Property Right (IPR) tax. They argue that governments have always taxed property as a principal source of avenue, so why not tax royalty flows? This book was written twelve years ago so it would be even easier for the government to look at royalty flows data and to put even a modest tax on it. For example, if Australian businesses paid royalties of AU$1 billion, the government could collect say 10 per cent or AU$100 million and use the revenue to reinvest locally.

Forced control over Indigenous Australian’s wages and savings (bank books) only ended in 1972 and they didn’t receive equal wages until 1986. Despite stolen wages, slave labour and stolen benefits they have fought wars for Australia without recognition and thanked only with discrimination when they got home. They have been portrayed as nomadic, hunter-gatherers but evidence shows that they were actually Australia’s first farmers.

Grindstones that are 36,000-years-old have been discovered in New South Wales (NSW), they were used to turn seeds into flours for baking. The Gurandgi Munjie collective is made up of a number other Indigenous Australians living along the NSW south coast and in east Gippsland in Victoria. They’ve been trialling native millet, kangaroo grass and murnong crops to increase harvests and begin selling bread soon. “One of our aims is to make sure our people earn a living out of it, as well as helping Australia learn about a natural Australian diet.” Murnong – is also known as yam daisy and is a tuber that can be eaten like a vegetable, the seeds of millet and kangaroo grass make up the healthy, gluten-free flours. Pascoe of Gurandgi Munjie’s baking experiments, says: “Kangaroo grass flour has got a really beautiful smell and a nutty flavour. We love making the breads simply because it tastes so good, but also because it makes the kitchen smell good as well.” And that “Environmentally it’s a pretty good deal,” says Pascoe. “They’re perennials, so once you get your crop established you don’t have to plough the land again or add fertiliser or pesticide. Your CO2 emission levels are going to drop dramatically because you’re not turning the soil over and releasing carbon into the atmosphere.”

Marnybi, Gugbinge, Kakadu plum, bush or billygoat plums have the highest natural vitamin C content in the world and can be found in abundance in Wadeye, the Northern Territory (NT). For Indigenous Australians it’s known as traditional Indigenous medicine. A local Wadeye woman explains: “It’s good for your headache. If we have headache at bush, we eat plum and it makes us feel good.” It is considered as a gift from the Dreamtime. It has taken off commercially as a powder for smoothies and to be sprinkled on to breakfasts as well as a good source of folic acid, iron and may even protect against Alzheimer’s disease. With this success comes bio piracy which locks up intellectual property around bush foods. Bush foods’ intellectual property is already being largely exploited by companies and individuals that are patenting intellectual property of native plant knowledge. Multinationals can come in and patent the use of products with little consideration for knowledge or history. The Northern Land Council is calling for a blanket moratorium on all patents over native foods and plants until a legal framework protecting Indigenous interests can be enforced. Andrew Forrest has been making noise again recently about a “premium” Australian brand to woo China, wouldn’t it be prudent for Indigenous Australians to have their own?

Australia may be home to an ancient astronomical stone formation that could be older than Stonehenge. The Wurdi Youang stone arrangement 45km west of Melbourne was formed using 90 blocks of basalt and clearly depicts the equinox, the winter solstice and the summer solstice. The Wathaurong people are the traditional owners. Geologists and experts have estimated it to be around 10,000 years-old, or 3,000 years older than the 7,000 year-old Stonehenge. They used the sky to help them work out weather patterns too and shared this knowledge with one another through song and dance, for example, if stars are twinkling rapidly it’s because of high-altitude trade winds. Another example is if the stars are twinkling fast and are bright blue, storms are on the way. They use dreaming and songlines as memory techniques to retain vast amounts of knowledge.

Indigenous are being included and recognised as such a lot more with Acknowledgement of Country becoming the norm as well as “Welcome to Country” ceremonies. Just about daily more stories and discoveries like the ones above can be found if you look, you won’t find them often in main-stream-media, but you will find cartoonists like Bill Leak. The social media campaign that followed with #IndigenousDads to counteract the latter’s cartoon was heart warming and shows that there is good will out there for each other. The ABC television show Cleverman also helped to educate and give insight into Indigenous Australian’s culture. Personally, I still can’t get Jesse William’s speech at the Black Entertainment Awards about racism in America out of my mind. In particular the last paragraph: “We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil – black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is though… the thing is that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”

So much of the Australia that many grew up with and know is gone, owning your own home and endless summers at the beach have been replaced with longer working hours. That is if you can get work and aren’t dealing with underemployment. Now that America and other multinationals are snapping up Indigenous bush foods and medicine patents, I think it’s time that we united and fought for our countries independence from America Inc, it’s a corporation not a country. Call out the main-stream-media misinformation, ignorance and racism when we see it and hear it. Acknowledge the ugly side of Australian history as well as all that we have in common and share this knowledge with others.


Corporations want to profit from global health with TiSA and the TPP

I recently wrote about the TPP and now I think it’s time that we take a look at the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA). It’s a services-only free trade agreement (FTA) that began in 2012 with exploratory discussions between Australia, US and the European Union (EU) for a year and with formal discussions beginning in early 2013. Australia, US and the EU take it in turns to chair the negotiations in Geneva. The services sector accounts for around 70% of Australia’s economic activity and accounts for around 17% of Australia’s total exports. Current countries negotiating the TiSA are Australia, Canada, Chile, Chinese Taipei, Colombia, Costa Rica, The European Union (representing its 28 Member States), Hong Kong, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Liechtenstein, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Republic of Korea, Switzerland, Turkey and the United States. These countries also account for around 70% of global trade in services. China and Uruguay have expressed interest but have yet to be invited, it’s also worth mentioning that the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) bloc have not been invited.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) deals with the global rules of trade between nations and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) came into effect in April 1994, and involves all WTO members. The TiSA’s aim is to be compatible with GATS yet, set a new standard in services trade that covers all service sectors including health and public services; financial services; ICT services (including telecommunications and e-commerce); professional services; maritime transport services; air transport services; competitive delivery services; energy services; temporary entry of business persons; government procurement; and new rules on domestic regulation to ensure regulatory settings do not operate as a barrier to trade in services. The discussions are held behind closed doors as per other trade agreements, Wikileaks managed to leak draft text from the April 2014 round of discussions involving further deregulation of global financial services markets, despite the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). The draft Financial Services Annex sets rules to assist the expansion of financial multi-nationals into other nations by preventing regulatory barriers. The leaked draft also shows that the US is particularly keen on boosting cross-border data flow, allowing the uninhibited exchange of personal and financial data.

The Australian government has a web page for it’s involvement in TiSA and in the sixth April/May round that Australia also chaired, more than 140 negotiators and sector-specific government experts attended. There were advanced discussions in all areas of the negotiations, including on new and enhanced disciplines (trade rules) for financial services, domestic regulation and transparency, e-commerce and telecommunications, and maritime transport. TiSA parties also agreed to move to a negotiating text for air transport and market access negotiations also continued. The Global Services Coalition or “Team TiSA” organised a substantial industry presence in the margins of the negotiations and as the name suggests is pro the TiSA for the US. Trading in services has grown at a faster pace than trading in goods since the 1980s. The United Nations Conference on Trade And Development (UNCTAD) estimates that in 2013 global services exports reached $4.7 trillion and grew at an annual rate of 5%.  Overall, the services trade has grown by 95% since 2000. World Bank research shows that the services sector has become the dominant driver of economic growth in developing countries, delivering both GDP growth and poverty reduction.  In 2011, the services sector accounted for a massive 49% of GDP in low income countries and 47% in least developed countries. Team TiSA has every right to be cheering for it as it would benefit the US greatly. The US is the world’s largest single-country exporter and importer of services and they generate more than 75% of their national economic output. In 2013 the US exported over $681bn in services, resulting in a $231 billion surplus. Services exports in 2013 grew by $31.8 bn and services imports in 2013 grew by $12.9bn.

Australia chaired the ninth round early last December and this time it was attended by more than 200 negotiators and sector-specific government experts. Good progress was made in advancing the enhanced disciplines (trade rules) for e-commerce and telecommunications, domestic regulation and transparency, financial services, temporary entry of business persons, professional services, maritime and air transport services and delivery services. There was also further discussion of proposals on government procurement, environmental and energy services, and the facilitation of patient mobility. Parties reported on progress in bilateral market access discussions held since the September round and committed to advance these further in 2015. Besides the vagueness and secretiveness above and what it all means for every day Australians, one thing leaps out and that is the facilitation of patient mobility. Luckily another leak was sprung, the proposal was titled ‘A concept paper on health care services within TISA Negotiations’ and it states there is ‘huge untapped potential for the globalisation of healthcare services’ mainly because ‘health care services is (sic) funded and provided by state or welfare organisations and is of virtually no interest for foreign competitors due to lack of market-orientated scope for activity’. It was allegedly a proposal put forward by Turkey, and was discussed by TiSA members in the September round of discussions. And there are justifiable fears that they want to commodify health services globally as well as to promote “medical tourism” for patients.

Experts, such as Dr Odile Frank of Public Services International (PSI) say, ‘The proposal would raise health care costs in developing countries and lower quality in developed countries in Europe, North America, Australia and elsewhere’. Rosa Pavanelli, PSI General Secretary, also commented that ‘Health is a human right and is not for sale or for trade. The health system exists to keep our families safe and healthy, not to ensure the profits of large corporations’. The proposal could see patients being treated in other TiSA countries for reasons such as long waiting times in their home country or a lack of expertise for specific medical problems. The patients’s costs would need to be reimbursed through their own countries social security system, private insurance coverage or other healthcare arrangements.

The beneficiaries of this are the large health corporations and insurance companies, the ones actually behind the negotiations, that would benefit from an approximate $USD 6 trillion business. Public services are designed to provide vital social and economic necessities such as health care and education affordably, universally and on the basis of need. They exist because markets can’t produce these outcomes. Furthermore, public services are fundamental to ensuring fair competition for business, and they provide effective regulation to avoid environmental, social and economic disasters, such as the GFC and global warming. Even the most die-hard supporters of FTA’s admit that there are winners and losers.

New South Wales (NSW) Australia, Nurses and Midwives’ Association organiser Michael Whaites said: “Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey have been saying that healthcare expenditure is unsustainable, but Trade Minister Andrew Robb is quietly engaged in negotiations that could potentially see scarce healthcare dollars going overseas,”. And that “You can ask whether the government is working in a co-ordinated manner, and indeed what is their real intention on the future of Medicare?” Professor Jane Kelsey, an expert on trade in services at the University of Auckland, warns that health-service-exporting countries such as Australia could find qualified staff being diverted to health export services “that often have better pay and facilities, eroding the personnel base for public facilities and perpetuating inequalities in the health care system”. Education and training investments could also be diverted “to benefit foreign healthcare users, rather than local citizens and taxpayers”.

In August 2014 the Australian Health Department called for expressions of interest from private players interested in taking over the payments of $29bn each year in health and pharmaceutical benefits currently being managed by the Human Services. Human Services Minister Marise Payne said much of the Department of Human Services (DHS) IT infrastructure for processing the payments was old and needed to be replaced and that the private sector might have cheaper solutions. The government claims it is merely testing the market with an initial expression of Interest process, not via cost analysis or efficiencies already provided. Australia Post stuck it’s hand up from the get go and other Australian corporations that are keen are – Eftpos and Stellar (Telstra) with overseas companies being Oracle, Fuji-Xerox, SAP, Accenture and Serco.

It’s hard not to feel that we are being attacked at from all angles with corporations eying off developing and developed countries public health services for profit. With an Australian government seemingly hell bent on dismantling it’s Medicare system with outsourcing payments while introducing co-payments, it’s looking clearer now as to what the current Australian government has planned. The rise of corporations and their lust for profits no matter what the cost is, has to stop. Our public services are not the latest money making scheme for corporates, whom no doubt once plundered and ruined will be nowhere to be found or at the very least held accountable for their actions. Governments must get out of bed with them and understand that they don’t know best and an even mix of private and government is required sometimes, but not all of the time. The people elect governments to govern and make decisions, we do not elect corporations. Take some advice from them but if you give them an inch they will take a mile as we have been seeing in recent years. Greed is worming it’s way in globally under the guise of competition and job creation. I find this very hard to believe for your average person, for the corporations yes, they keep getting richer and the equality gap wider. Low income countries delivering GDP growth and poverty reduction will be hardest hit and that’s not fair with many only just recovering from the GFC. The US has the most to benefit from this and all other FTA’s, this also needs to stop, they aren’t the biggest power anymore and even if they were why should they get all of the advantages? People over profits, after all you can’t make profits without us and there’s no need to ruin everyone globally once again for it.