Letter to Prime Minister Turnbull

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RETIRED BARRISTER TERRY STANTON’S LETTER TO PRIME MINISTER MALCOLM TURNBULL

Dear Prime Minister,

Last month my wife and I drove from here, near Taree, to Melbourne. We were going to the AGM of AGL. We have a very small shareholding for protest purposes. We are appalled by the threat of CSG to the people of Gloucester and the Manning Valley, in which our village lies. You have recently, apparently, expressed your views about the way this industry is conducted, resulting in the suicide of farmer George Bender. CSG mining is not just a NIMBY threat, so far as we are concerned; it is a threat to all Australians, and all of Australia.

The purpose of this letter, however, is to tell you more about an equally serious malaise of the Australian countryside. What struck us as we drove south west was that the vast majority of the towns and villages through which we passed, or where we stopped for coffee, lunch, or to sleep at a motel, show the clear appearance of decline: many empty shops, empty industrial premises, empty houses, and estate agents windows full of pictures of properties no-one is an any hurry to buy.

Meanwhile the State capitals such as Sydney and Melbourne are bursting at the seams, and the cry from government is that we need more houses built. That is simply not true. Thousands of empty houses are to be found all over the country. There is also concern that house prices are too high, but that only applies to the major cities. Here in Tinonee, Taree, and Wingham, prices are low, and whilst $1,000,000 may only buy a two bedroom flat in a city, you can have two five bedroom houses here for the same money. In some of the places we drove through you could get even more.

In the 18th Century the German writer Jacob Bielefeld wrote that: “The excessive aggrandisement of a capital, which is made at the expense of provincial towns, can never be a sign of a state’s prosperity, which then presents the image of a monster in which the head is of an excessive enormity, and the body is small and withered, and all the limbs are weak.”  He favoured the idea that large scale industries and factories should be located in rural towns and villages, and only small scale business in the cities.

The advantage of that policy is that business is not forced onto high-rent, high-value sites, where the cost of labour is high, and the cost of office staff is higher. Equally, all the workers do not have to find large amounts of money for rent or mortgage, they do not need such high pay, and the price of residences is kept in reasonable bounds. These factors make for a more competitive economy, since costs are lower, but no-one suffers financially, since what they earn goes further.

At the same time, the fact that no town or city is overgrown keeps down the need for extreme traffic control measures, and colossally expensive road networks, which only add to costs. As improvements never take care of the problem for long, costs are increased further by the amount of time and fuel that is wasted by people sitting in traffic queues.

The answer is for a government, which is more interested in doing the right thing than simply mouthing platitudes and staying in power, to move government departments, or sections of them, out into the country, and pass legislation forcing big business to do the same. Your own NBN developments are connecting the country faster than has ever been possible. The current way of doing business, with banks, insurance, pension and other huge employers occupying vast offices in extremely expensive CBDs is old-fashioned. All they need, if they need them at all, are small HQs in such areas, with all the ancillary departments in country towns and villages connected by internet, phone, fax, video conferencing, and all the other myriad modern ways of communicating.

That this is so is demonstrated by the fact that these days, in the same office, hardly anyone goes down the corridor to speak to a colleague; they send them an email instead.

Adopting this sort of policy would, of course take a lot of courage, because those who have been foolish enough to jump on the band-wagon of rising city prices might end up with mortgages larger than the price for which they could sell, but that is always the fate of people who do not recall that ‘if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is’. Indeed, if a policy of building truly sufficient houses were adopted, the fate of these people would be exactly the same, since once supply equalled demand, prices would fall.

The consequence of people leaving town for the country would be a massive increase in work available. The unoccupied houses, shops, offices, and factories would all need renovation. Small businesses would open up in the empty shops and industrial estates to cater for the needs of the newcomers. Here in Taree and Wingham, for example, there are large buildings just begging to be renovated into businesses, or converted into flats or town houses. No agricultural land would need to be turned into concrete, if the policy required empty and disused sites to be developed first. That is true of almost every town and village between here and Melbourne, and here and Townsville, if you drive the country roads.

At the same time those roads would need doing up to handle more traffic. That would need more taxes, but this country contrary to popular belief, is undertaxed. The construction of better roads, with better drainage, and the redevelopment of the railways (so stupidly closed down decades ago) to take traffic and big trucks off the road, would employ thousands of people. The vast majority of the money would stay and be spend in Australia, resulting in permanent jobs and more tax being paid anyway.

This would be so much better than spending billions on American war planes of doubtful usefulness.

With more people in the countryside, health would probably improve, so that taxes needed for Medicare would possibly be less. The stress of city living is no good for health, and neither is the depressing effect of living in a dying country town – dying for want of government will to do anything about it – dying like Acland and Tara, and in the near future, Gloucester, because government prefers to support big destructive business that help and foster small country people.

The Coalition talks a lot about being a party of low taxation, but that is really only of interest to people who pay a lot of tax. It is of no interest at all to the millions who pay little or no tax, and as a man wrote to the SMH a few weeks ago, he’d worry about bracket creep if he got a pay rise. No matter what the tax rate, if you earn more than you got last week, you take home more even if you pay a bit more tax.

It is important to make sure the people at the bottom earn more because they spend most of their money here. The more jobs you create at the bottom, in the ways I have suggested, the more tax you will collect. If costs are lower and the Australian goods and services are cheaper and more competitive, we should sell more abroad. It should be an upward spiral. The way things are, it is a downward vortex.

By contrast, if you leave more money in the hands of the right, they just spend it on luxury foreign goods or holiday homes, or invest it abroad. It is a scandal that the rich can invest in tax havens and pay tax only on the money they repatriate, and still claim to be patriotic Australians.

Last Monday, on the news, ABC reported that the mining giants will soon have almost 100% remote controlled trucks, diggers, and trains in their mines and on the railways. So much for the idea that mining brings jobs. The machinery won’t be built in Australia. The Galilee Basin and the Liverpool plains have provided jobs and food for generations, and will do so forever in the hands of good farmers. They are to be dug up for coal that soon, it seems, no-one will buy. If the work by our local financial analyst, Bruce Robertson, as reported by Michael West in the SMH recently, is anything to go by, these developments and those for CSG in this country, will be a waste of time and money. The way it is being done is less sophisticated and more expensive apparently, than in a third world country like Mozambique.

While large chunks of investment are being poured down this 18th and 19th Century mining drain, the renewable energy sector in this country is starved of resources, even though some amazing University innovations in potentially powerful solar panels of small size are being developed, and (giving the lie to the idea that “Coal is the Future”) solar-powered cars are racing across the country.

You famously but undeservedly lost your job as head of the Coalition a few years ago for being brave enough to offer to side with Mr Rudd over climate change policy. It looks as though you are sticking to that sort of policy. Please continue to do so. Look after the planet and environment.

If you don’t there will be no business and no jobs. Look after the people at the bottom; those at the top can look after themselves.

I doubt that you will read this letter. The rich and powerful in this country listen only to the rich and powerful. It is a mistake; the majority of the population are neither rich nor powerful. If you wish to remain in power and retire with a good reputation they are the ones you have to think about, and represent.

I wish you all the very best in your efforts. I hope you succeed in giving all Australians a chance of a ‘Fair Go’. The majority do not get one, and any suggestion they do is just a fairy story.

In any case, yours is a thankless task. All political careers end in failure, with the possible exception of Cincinnatus. They usually fail because, even if they start off well, the politicians hang on too long, and do not retire when they are ahead. You could be the exception. I hope you are. I have been an admirer of yours ever since you defended Peter Wright, making me think you believed in Human Rights and Justice.

Yours sincerely,

Terry Stanton,

Tinonee, NSW

 

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