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Timothy Egan

Timothy Egan on American politics and life, as seen from the West.



The tutorial in 8th grade biology that Republicans got after one of their members of Congress went public with something from the wackosphere was instructive, and not just because it offered female anatomy lessons to those who get their science from the Bible.

Take a look around key committees of the House and you’ll find a governing body stocked with crackpots whose views on major issues are as removed from reality as Missouri’s Representative Todd Akin’s take on the sperm-killing powers of a woman who’s been raped.

On matters of basic science and peer-reviewed knowledge, from evolution to climate change to elementary fiscal math, many Republicans in power cling to a level of ignorance that would get their ears boxed even in a medieval classroom. Congress incubates and insulates these knuckle-draggers.

Let’s take a quick tour of the crazies in the House. Their war on critical thinking explains a lot about why the United States is laughed at on the global stage, and why no real solutions to our problems emerge from that broken legislative body.

Clockwise, from top left: Representatives John Shimkus of Illinois, Joe Barton of Texas, Jack Kingston of Georgia, Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Todd Akin of Missouri and Paul Broun of GeorgiaClockwise, from top left: Seth Perlman/Associated Press; Manuel Balce Ceneta, via Associated Press; Stephen Morton, via Getty Images; Daniel Acker for The New York Times; Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, via Associated Press; Paul Morigi, via Getty Images for OvationClockwise, from top left: Representatives John Shimkus of Illinois, Joe Barton of Texas, Jack Kingston of Georgia, Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Todd Akin of Missouri and Paul Broun of Georgia

We’re currently experiencing the worst drought in 60 years, a siege of wildfires, and the hottest temperatures since records were kept. But to Republicans in Congress, it’s all a big hoax. The chairman of a subcommittee that oversees issues related to climate change, Representative John Shimkus of Illinois is — you guessed it — a climate-change denier.

At a 2009 hearing, Shimkus said not to worry about a fatally dyspeptic planet: the biblical signs have yet to properly align. “The earth will end only when God declares it to be over,” he said, and then he went on to quote Genesis at some length. It’s worth repeating: This guy is the chairman.

On the same committee is an oil-company tool and 27-year veteran of Congress, Representative Joe L. Barton of Texas. You may remember Barton as the politician who apologized to the head of BP in 2010 after the government dared to insist that the company pay for those whose livelihoods were ruined by the gulf oil spill.

Barton cited the Almighty in questioning energy from wind turbines. Careful, he warned, “wind is God’s way of balancing heat.” Clean energy, he said, “would slow the winds down” and thus could make it hotter. You never know.

“You can’t regulate God!” Barton barked at the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, in the midst of discussion on measures to curb global warming.

The Catholic Church long ago made its peace with evolution, but the same cannot be said of House Republicans. Jack Kingston of Georgia, a 20-year veteran of the House, is an evolution denier, apparently because he can’t see the indent where his ancestors’ monkey tail used to be. “Where’s the missing link?” he said in 2011. “I just want to know what it is.” He serves on a committee that oversees education.

In his party, Kingston is in the mainstream. A Gallup poll in June found that 58 percent of Republicans believe God created humans in the present form just within the last 10,000 years — a wealth of anthropological evidence to the contrary.

Another Georgia congressman, Paul Broun, introduced the so-called personhood legislation in the House — backed by Akin and Representative Paul Ryan — that would have given a fertilized egg the same constitutional protections as a fully developed human being.

Broun is on the same science, space and technology committee that Akin is. Yes, science is part of their purview.

Where do they get this stuff? The Bible, yes, but much of the misinformation and the fables that inform Republican politicians comes from hearsay, often amplified by their media wing.

Remember the crazy statement that helped to kill the presidential aspirations of Michele Bachmann? A vaccine, designed to prevent a virus linked to cervical cancer, could cause mental retardation, she proclaimed. Bachmann knew this, she insisted, because some random lady told her so at a campaign event. Fearful of the genuine damage Bachmann’s assertion could do to public health, the American Academy of Pediatrics promptly rushed out a notice, saying, “there is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement.”

Nor is there is reputable scientific validity to those who deny that the globe’s climate is changing for the worst. But Bachmann calls that authoritative consensus a hoax, and faces no censure from her party.

It’s encouraging that Republican heavyweights have since told Akin that uttering scientific nonsense about sex and rape is not good for the party’s image. But where are these fact-enforcers on the other idiocies professed by elected representatives of their party?

Akin, if he stays in the race, may still win the Senate seat in Missouri. Bachmann, who makes things up on a regular basis, is a leader of the Tea Party caucus in Congress and, in an unintended joke, a member of the Committee on Intelligence. None of these folks are without power; they govern, and have significant followings.

A handful of Republicans have tried to fight the know-nothings. “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming,” said Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, during his ill-fated run for his party’s presidential nomination. “Call me crazy.”

And in an on-air plea for sanity, Joe Scarborough, the former G.O.P. congressman and MSNBC host, said, “I’m just tired of the Republican Party being the stupid party.” I feel for him. But don’t expect the reality chorus to grow. For if intelligence were contagious, his party would be giving out vaccines for it.

May 5, 2012
Peter Hartcher

<em>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari</em>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

Politicians have only themselves to blame if Australians give them no credit for the stellar performance of the economy.

The Wall Street Journal ran a startling story this week about the US-based General Electric, one of the world’s biggest and most profitable multinationals. Its opening line: “For General Electric Co., Australia is the new China.”

What could it possibly mean? “The continent of 22 million people is set to generate more revenue for the industrial conglomerate this year than will the Middle Kingdom, with 1.3 billion,” the paper reported.

It wasn’t that the US-based firm was doing badly in China or giving up on the place. Indeed, it sold $US5.7 billion worth of products and services there last year.

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But GE did even better in Australia, where it reported revenues of $US5.8 billion. And it expects its Australian business to outstrip its Chinese one again this year

For Australians reading this, it’s a through-the-looking glass experience, a giddy moment of cognitive dissonance. It upends our verities – we are told again and again that China is the country we rely on for our prosperity.

So how could the periphery of the Chinese growth zone be more profitable than its centre?

“Australia is in an extraordinarily fortunate position,” GE’s chief executive in Australia, Steve Sargent, tells the Herald. “Developing Asia is the growth engine of the world economy, but Australia is its fuel.

“We are going into our 21st year of growth – there’s no other developed country on the planet that can say that. We have a unique opportunity to set this country up for a couple of generations.”

The Sydney-born Sargent is keenly aware that it’s unfashionable of him to say so, that he’s outside the national narrative of complaint, disgruntlement and anger: “Australians over our history had a fairly healthy attitude of self-criticism – that made us realistic, not too engrossed in ourselves, it drives a culture of continuous improvement – but at the moment we’re taking that a notch too far.

“I have this conversation with colleagues – I was at the business dinner with the Prime Minister the other night – and I say that though you may think the economy is not performing well, I ask a simple question: ‘If you don’t want this one, which one do you want?’

“I get that it’s not perfect, but it’s one of the best performing economies in the world.”

And what answers does he get? “No one yet has said, ‘I want the economy of some other country’.”

The perversity of the great Aussie whinge-fest is so plain and so persistent that even the governor of the Reserve Bank, Glenn Stevens, remarked on it in a speech in Hong Kong last month.

Australians, he explained, used to see their country in a happier light than the outside world did, but that now has been reversed. There is, he said, a “tendency to focus on the difficulties, rather than the opportunities, which come with our situation … For most of my career the difference has tended to be in the opposite direction. We always seemed to struggle to get foreign observers and investors to give us credit for performance we thought was pretty reasonable.”

Why do Australians today see their country in a much darker light than the rest of the world does? There are three main reasons.

First, there are real problems. The value of the dollar puts tremendous competitive pressure on the non-mining sectors of the economy.

And most Australians hear about a mining boom yet tell pollsters they see no personal benefit whatsoever, which probably generates a sense that they’re missing out.

Second, company bosses routinely complain about the business environment and demand that governments accommodate their needs. This is normal and natural, though it has intensified with the legislation for a carbon tax and a mining super-profits tax.

Sargent has a view on this too: “We have to look at these things through a positive lens, not a negative lens.” Indeed, GE counts as a positive for its Australian business the fact that, as Sargent puts it, “Australia has strong forward momentum on climate change legislation. It’s driving investment in renewables, it’s driving energy efficiency.

“People have this mindset that lower emissions mean more cost, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”

By way of illustration, GE last week signed a deal to sell Qantas the engines for 78 new Airbus A320 planes. The engines deliver a cut in fuel consumption of 15 per cent, in carbon output of 15 per cent, in nitrous oxide of 50 per cent, and in noise “footprint” of 75 per cent.

The third reason for Australia’s outsized pessimism is its politics. The advent of the first minority federal government since Federation damaged the country’s confidence.

The Australian National University last October found that satisfaction with democracy fell by 13 percentage points after the 2010 election to its lowest since 1998, the year of John Howard’s GST election and Kim Beazley’s mighty scare campaign.

Professor Ian McAllister, the man who supervised the poll and a respected political scientist, said: “When we drilled down we found it was people who didn’t like minority government – they were worried about accountability and efficacy.

“I think there’s a fundamental dissatisfaction and discontinuity felt among a significant minority. It’s not about issues, it’s going beyond issues – it’s about how things are working,” says McAllister.

Tony Abbott’s opposition responded to the uncertainty of the minority government to wage a hyper-aggressive campaign against the government, and this too affected confidence.

Stevens observed last year that “increasingly bitter political debates” were damaging consumer confidence.

The Westpac-Melbourne Institute survey of consumer confidence in March found that overall confidence was about 8 per cent below its average since 1989.

Reporting on this survey, the Financial Review’s David Bassanese observed that there was an “unusual situation where households think everyone else is doing better than they are. They see a solid economy, driven by the mining boom, but remain especially worried about their own hip pocket.

“But the biggest standout is the collapse in confidence among Coalition voters compared with Labor voters. Their confidence has fallen relatively harder in recent months and is notably below their average compared with that of ALP voters.”

Next Tuesday the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, delivers the national budget. It’s his big opportunity to declare his accomplishment of balancing the national budget.

This is in itself an act that should create confidence – confidence that the government can keep its word, and confidence that Australia can live within its means.

But Swan has a chance to do more than that. It’s his big chance to try to arrest the national dirge, to engender some confidence. As the country’s first economic officer, it’s part of his job description.

So far, Swan has failed.

His predecessor, Peter Costello, the man who repaid the national debt and put Australia in good stead to face the global financial crisis, has some helpful advice on how he can do better.

“The decision of the federal Treasurer, who has responsibility for economic management, to go to war against the wealth creators who propped up his tax receipts is, in fact, unparalleled,” Costello tells the Herald.

“Why a treasurer would get into a slanging match that demeans him and demeans his office is beyond me. The government should be about creating confidence in the economy rather than sowing division and conflict.”

Swan launched a tirade against “vested interests” who were interested in themselves rather than the national interest, he said, naming three mining billionaires – Clive Palmer, Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest. Palmer countered by announcing he’d stand for preselection for the conservatives in Swan’s Queensland seat of Lilley. Swan continued the argument.

He has also taken to attacking the banks for failing to pass on to borrowers the full effect of cuts in official interest rates – on the opposition’s count, on more than 50 occasions.

“Australian company tax receipts essentially come from the four banks and two or three mining companies,” Costello says.

”He’s gone to war against the people who pay the Commonwealth company tax, the banks and the miners. In aid of what?”

But Costello, as treasurer, also liked to critique banks for their mortgage lending rates. Costello claims a distinction. He was doing it for the good of the economy, he says, where Swan’s motive is different:

“He’s using envy politics to win votes. He’s playing grubby retail politics to try and help him save his seat of Lilley. The most important thing for him to do is to rise above that and talk seriously about economic issues.”

GE’s Steve Sargent won’t talk about individual politicians, but he is aching for a more responsible and unifying political debate.

“We hear a lot of divisive language – between government and business, government and banks. Rather than more divisive debate, let’s have constructive debate.”

It’s most unlikely that the opposition will tone down its angry attacks. But Swan is the treasurer in the world’s most successful economy. The budget gives him a new opportunity to act like it.

Peter Hartcher is the political editor.

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21 Apr, 2012 04:00 AM
Maitland Mercury
After spending almost a year visiting Australia’s coal mining communities Sharyn Munro discovered a warzone. She observed what’s really happening at the coalface: towns and districts dying, people hurting, rebelling and ultimately paying the price for the nation’s mining boom.Munro listened to stories of homeowners being forced out of townships, broken in spirit and in health, or else under threat – their lives in limbo as they battle the might of huge mining companies.

This is what she found.

Sharyn Munro is not anti-mining. She is a writer and grandmother with a social conscience wanting to inform the ordinary Australian of what is happening in rural areas.

And she opposes inappropriate development of any sort, driven by the impact of mining she has watched overwhelm parts of the Hunter Valley.

In her latest book Rich Land, Wasteland, Munro presents an impassioned account of the human price individuals and communities are paying for the coal rush.

“I wrote this book to share with Australians what I experienced and learnt,” Munro said. “Most Australians, I believe, are decent people who would be appalled by what is going on if they knew.”

During her research for the book, Munro discovered that incidences of asthma, cancers and heart attacks show alarming spikes in communities close to coal mines and coal power stations.

Once reliable rivers and aquifers are drying up or becoming polluted. Once fertile agricultural land is becoming

unusable and what was once a rich land is becoming a wasteland.

“I am motivated by concern for the health and futures of my grandchildren who have been living in the coalafflicted

Hunter, and for everyone else’s grandchildren who must breathe such polluted air and who face devastated and dewatered landscapes that will be unusable.”

The large, mostly foreign-owned, mining and gas companies continue to push into new areas and Munro observes that our governments continue to help and protect them at the expense of rural communities.


All of this is problematic.
(i) The scientific consensus is that human-created climate change is occuring at a rate faster than accepted and that (a) the costs of remediation will grow the longer no one does anything about it; (b) we may be close to the tipping point, beyond which remediation may be impossible. Where will we live then?
(ii) Science is not optional. One may choose one’s options, but facts are less negotiable. Even for politicians.
(iii) If the conservatives oppose the use of market-based solutions, what sort of solutions will be acceptable? Direct intervention in the market? Huh? A strange moment in political history when the social democrats, the political greens and the left accept the use of market-based solutions, where the polluter pays, and the conservatives argue for the socialisation of the costs of pollution.
  • by: By Malcolm Farr, National Political Editor
  • From:
  • April 20, 2012 12:07PM


  • Carbon scheme will be scrapped within six months – Abbott
  • Lib Leader will call double dissolution if blocked in senate
  • Says voters will not miss out on pension increases, tax cuts

Tony Abbott

Opposition leader Tony Abbott has vowed to scrap the carbon price scheme. Picture: Kym Smith Source: The Daily Telegraph

The Opposition Leader said that if blocked in the Senate he would immediately call another election, a double dissolution, and invite the ALP to commit “suicide twice”.

“I won’t reduce the tax, change the tax, or redesign the tax. I will repeal the tax,” Mr Abbott said in Brisbane today.

The Coalition is maintaining its course to make the election scheduled for late next year a referendum on the carbon pricing scheme set to begin this July.

Mr Abbott ramped up his intentions to scrap the entire scheme if elected, and assured voters they would not miss out on pension increases and tax cuts to be funded by the scheme’s revenue.

“There is no mystery to this. Essentially, all that it requires is the passage of the repeal bill through the Parliament,” Mr Abbott said.

“After all, what is done by legislation can be undone by legislation.

“I don’t expect the Greens to support repealing the carbon tax. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine the Labor Party, beaten in an election that’s a referendum on the carbon tax, committing suicide twice by resisting the new government’s mandate.

“If they do, there is a constitutional procedure designed for just this eventuality. It’s called a double dissolution. I would not hesitate to seek a second mandate to repeal this toxic tax. Indeed, it would be my duty to do so.”

Mr Abbott said that “because the electorate would double-punish the Labor Party for wilful obstruction, I expect that the repeal arrangements would be in place within six months.”

Mr Abbott dismissed the Government’s argument that scrapping the scheme would cost voters extra welfare payments and tax cuts which it plans to fund from pollution penalties paid by major companies.

“Well, the public aren’t mugs. They know that a tax cut paid for by a tax increase is a con, not a cut,” he said.

“The only way that taxes can sustainably be lowered is if government spending is lower or if the economy is larger.

“The Coalition can deliver tax cuts without a carbon tax because we will eliminate wasteful and unnecessary government spending and because lower taxes and higher productivity will boost economic growth.”

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