Letters to the Editor

The sources of Vice-Regal advice

Vice-Regal Advice 

SIR: Ken Barnes (Letters, July-August 2013), refers to my article (May 2013) on the propriety of High Court Justices Barwick and Mason providing advice to the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr (himself a lawyer), in relation to the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975. He says it was wrong of Kerr to have sought that advice but poses a question to me in relation to a governor-general like Major-General Michael Jeffery (a non-lawyer) as to who else he could have turned to for expert legal advice had he been in the same situation.

A governor-general, whether a lawyer or otherwise, is not prevented from seeking legal advice from whatever source of expertise is thought appropriate. The present Governor-General, Quentin Bryce (who is qualified in law), recently sought advice from the Solicitor-General on a potential conflict of interest (her son-in-law, Bill Shorten, being a prominent minister in the Gillard government that was facing an internal leadership challenge with potential constitutional implications).

A governor-general is not confined in the choice of legal experts. There are not only eminent legal practitioners to whom a governor-general may turn, but also academic lawyers who specialise in areas of the law relevant to the kind of issues that arise for governors-general.

Any such advice a governor-general may seek must be entirely independent from any perceived bias or political influence and should never be sought from someone who may be called upon to judge the issues to which that advice relates.

As several commentators have observed, the events to which I refer seem to at least ensure that such blurring of the divide between the separation of powers will be unlikely to occur again.

John de Meyrick
St Ives, NSW


Canberra v Teachers

SIR: I am perplexed at how the ALP has so speedily passed “work choices” legislation to impose on Australian teaching.

A major part of the Gonski education reforms package is that Australian teachers must complete more training, undertake more professional development, and have a Canberra-dictated performance review every twelve months. School principals will have more power over their teachers, with regulations for shedding teachers to be relaxed. Canberra will scrutinise teachers around the country, with official “performance files” kept on every teacher.

Teachers face more bureaucratic controls, more work is required of them, with federal oversight, federal regulations, federal reporting and federal tracking of them. More work and effort but not a cent more pay! Bravo Labor!

These reforms are exactly the things WorkChoices was proposing to introduce into teaching. Please explain, Kevin.

Christopher Heathcote
Keilor, Vic

Real Dangers Ahead

SIR: Although I agree with many of Paul Collits’s criticisms of anti-Western and exaggerated alarmist sentiments (July-August 2013), it seems to me that he has overlooked the possibility that “watermelon environmentalists” can sometimes be right, albeit for the wrong reasons.

There have indeed been seventeen years of approximately stable average global temperatures, at about 0.5 degrees above 1950–75 temperatures; so far this is empirically at variance with climate modellers’ predictions of increasing temperature due to measured rapid increases in global carbon dioxide emissions. However, there is plenty of reason for concern that additional heat energy in Earth’s mildly warmer atmosphere is strongly associated with increased frequency and severity of abnormal weather events, for example, extreme heat waves in Europe, extreme cold winters and snowfall in Europe and USA (due to increased warming causing arctic jet-stream penetration down to lower latitudes), rapid melting of polar sea ice and its replacement by heat-absorbing open ocean, methane release from melting permafrost, high-intensity storms and cyclones, and quite a lot more. It is possible that we are seeing a brief abnormal pause in global warming due partly to increased coal burning in China and India, with increased cooling particulate emissions. Pre-industrial carbon dioxide atmospheric concentration was 280 parts per million; it was 387 ppm in 2010, rising at about 2 ppm per year. The Stockholm Resilience Centre (a worldwide team of scientists) has proposed a “safe limit”, within which humankind can safely operate without risking serious disruption of life-supporting ecosystems, of about 350 ppm.

Also, it is far too early for complacency at the possibility of serious disruption of global agriculture in a world which must somehow, within a few decades, provide for an increase from 7 billion to some 9 billion of us. Thomas Malthus’s “constantly operating check” that population can outstrip sustainable food resources was indeed deferred by the 1970s introduction of high-water-requiring high-yield “Green Revolution” cereals and other crops; yet, by 2010, about 1 billion people suffered chronic hunger, and the number keeps rising. With no equivalent to the Green Revolution’s rapid increase in food production currently in humankind’s “agricultural toolbox”, there are grave concerns at the prospects for feeding another 2 billion increase in humankind. 

Based on 2010 data, we in Australia each require 7.8 global hectares (gha), defined as a hectare with world-average ability to produce food and resources and absorb wastes, to support our current lifestyle; one global average lifestyle needs 2.7 gha; the minimum productive area needed to sustain one person’s most basic needs is 0.07 gha, assuming a mostly vegetarian diet with minimal land degradation, water shortages and waste disposal. The Stockholm Centre’s attempts to quantify global “safe operating limits” (or “boundaries for a healthy planet”) for some essentials, in 2010, were as follows; in some densely populated regions, these limits are locally exceeded:

Land use (percentage of land available for conversion to productive cropland): then 11.7 per cent; limit 15 per cent.

Fresh water use (rate of human consumption, cubic km per year): then 2600; limit 4000.

Phosphorus fertiliser eutrophication (loss into oceans, million tons per year); then 10; limit 12.

Nitrogen fertiliser over-use (rate of removal from atmosphere to oceans, million tons per year): then 133, boundary 39!

Biodiversity loss (extinction rate, species per year): then over 100, boundary 10!

Naturally, there are uncertainties and debate concerning these limits. But we lightly dismiss them at our peril.

All this doubtless reminds us of the Club of Rome’s 1970s predictions of exhausted basic resources. These were deferred by technological replacements, new discoveries, and so on. But for how far into the future? There are plenty of examples, from studies of ecological and human population dynamics, of population overshoot and collapse, summarised by the MIGODS phenomenon: migration of a species into a new environment, innovation of new ways of exploiting it, growth of population, overexploitation of available resources, decline of population, until a new sustainable level is attained within its degraded environment. We need to proceed with caution, with due regard for (sorry, Paul) sustainable limits to resource consumption, and for each nation’s population-carrying capacity.

John O’Connor
Cottles Bridge, Vic

Brazil’s Slaves

SIR: Lincoln Wright, in his article on Brazil (July-August 2013), states that “they imported 10 million slaves from Africa”. The number, according to Hugh Thomas, in his major study The Slave Trade (1997), was approximately 4 million, with the total slave population transported to the Americas around 11.3 million. Interestingly, of this total only 0.5 million were taken to North America.

Roger Townend
Malaga, WA

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