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John Pilger: The Queensland floods - Australia’s Katrina moment

Corruption and the cult of the market have made a natural disaster into an outrage.

When you fly over the earth's oldest land mass, Australia, the view can be shocking. There are scars as long as European countries, the result of erosion. Salt pans shimmer where once native vegetation grew. This is almost impossible to reverse. The first to die are the most vulnerable species. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Australia's devastation of its natural environment has caused more mammal extinction than in any other country. The iconic koala is used to attract tourists; the Queen and Oprah Winfrey are photographed cuddling one, unaware that this unique creature has enriched the state of Queensland for decades with its industrial slaughter and the sale of its skin to Britain and America. Today, the belatedly "protected" koala is threatened not by flood or drought, but rapacious land-clearing, of which Queensland is the national champion. Each year, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the state in effect destroys 100 million birds, mammals and reptiles.

The land is "cleared" by fire or machinery, often with a heavy chain tied between two bulldozers: a technique developed by Queensland's most notorious land-clearer, the late Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, the conservative state premier for 19 years, whose self-awarded knighthood was given for "services to parliamentary democracy", such as winning gerrymandered elections with 20 per cent of the vote. In 1992, a defamation jury found that Bjelke-Petersen had been bribed "on a large scale and on many occasions". Two of his ministers and his police commissioner were jailed. Lucrative land became a prize for cronies known as the "white shoe brigade". Brown envelopes of cash were handed over at a five-star hotel recently lapped by floodwaters in the centre of Brisbane.

Wrong type of flood

Last May, the Queensland Labor government announced that it had sold swaths of the state's forests and plantations to Hancock Queensland Plantations, a subsidiary of a US-based timber multinational. Queensland has many low-lying flood plains on which developers have been allowed to make fortunes selling plots. The victims of the great flood have been mostly poor people. Most could not afford insurance, or discovered that their policy did not include "types of flood".

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, says an ACCC report, deliberately stopped insurance companies from agreeing a common definition of flood so that "insurers will continue to compete vigorously by product differentiation" through offerings that use many definitions of "flood" to specify which risks are covered and which are excluded. The callousness of this imposed confusion is emblematic of how the Australian elite have treated those ruined by an inland ocean the size of Germany and France combined. Flooding also struck Brazil in April and Sri Lanka in December, but the disaster in Australia is far more revealing; for Australia is a "first-world" country with advanced technology and communications, and yet tens of thousands of people received no emergency warning. Here, the cult of the "market" has diminished public services and infrastructure budgets, and divided by wealth a society that once boasted the most equitable spread of personal income in the world.

Little of this is discussed in a media where Rupert Murdoch owns 70 per cent of state capital-city press. When the leader of the Greens, Bob Brown, dared suggest that the Queensland flood was due in part to "the burning of fossil fuels [causing] the hottest oceans we've ever seen off Australia", he was told to apologise to the mining industry. In the decade to 2005, says the Wilderness Society, "the amount of land-clearing in Australia was so extensive that the greenhouse gases produced rivalled the amount produced by cars and trucks".

Divide and rule

A feature of the floods has been the PR campaigns of leading right-wing Labor Party politicians, notably the prime minister, Julia Gillard, and the Queensland premier, Anna Bligh, who have talked up the "Aussie battler" spirit in the face of "Mother Nature's wrath". The media echo of this evokes Sir Johannes's description of spinning a line to journalists as "feeding the chooks". In truth, successive governments have rejected, ignored or suppressed the recommendations of their own experts which, if acted upon, could have saved Brisbane.

In 1999, a report commissioned by Brisbane City Council warned of "significantly higher" flooding than in the last great flood in 1974. When this was leaked, an alleged cover-up was referred to the state's crime and misconduct commission, but nothing happened.

Andrew Short, director of the coastal studies unit at the University of Sydney, compares the Queensland flood with the scandal of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. "This is something we have been waiting for . . ." he said. "Why were there no levees to protect the low-lying towns? . . . Why are major highways and railways still below flood level?"

Prime Minister Gillard has so far offered crumbs from a treasury in surplus, that subsidises the fossil-fuel industry with A$10bn (£6.2bn) and that is pledged to spend A$1.1bn on Australia's mercenary "commitment" to American wars. Having sent just 13 helicopters to rescue the stranded, Gillard appointed Major General Mick Slater to lead the recovery operation: an admission that the civilian emergency services had been so depleted, they could not cope. Slater's most interesting statement has been a threat. "There is no reason why we won't have [success]," he said, "unless . . . the media start to become divisive within the community and then, if there are areas of failure, I think I could find the reason and track it back to different areas within the media." He was not challenged. The chooks were fed.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

Photo: Getty Images
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Here's why politicians don't fear failure

Left and right alike, our brains are hard-wired to believe politics is easy.

All political careers are supposed to end in failure.  Many don’t take very long to achieve this: in every British election, many more people run for parliament than could win, producing, inevitably, more losers than winners.  Most major party leaders since 1945 have failed to win a single general election.  

Given this, you might expect that anyone embarking on a political project, of any ideological stripe, would think of it as a daunting, complex challenge.  Yet politics seems to be full of people who think it’s pretty straightforward. On right and left, electoral victories are planned out – bish, bash, bosh – between rounds of drinks at party conference or in the final paragraph of a 900 word comment piece.  Even those with years of experience observing politics up close, like Jeremy Corbyn today or Ed Miliband before him, rarely seem burdened by a fear of political failure.

One explanation might be that we all tend to think of ourselves as posessing above average skills in conducting simple tasks or possessing positive traits. If you overestimate the number of people who agree with you – a standard psychological finding called the “false consensus” effect – then perhaps doing politics seems simpler and more pleasant than it really is.  But this shouldn’t last forever: there should be a highly reliable antidote to the false consensus effect, called “losing an election”.  Yet, more often than not, this confidence persists even after a crushing electoral defeat.

There is a similar puzzle in the world of economics: why do so many people start businesses that quickly fail? In the pristine world of classical economics, I should only enter the market if I rationally expect my payoff to be higher by starting this business than by doing something else.  If people are making those rational calculations correctly, why do so many end up failing and losing their shirts? 

Behavioural economists, who are always interested in people acting non-rationally, designed an experiment to try and explain this phenomena.  Participants could decide to enter or not enter for each round of a game. If you entered, how well you did would be determined by how well you answered some sports, logic or current affairs questions. In each round, if you were amongst the top performers of those who entered, you got a big payoff.  But if lots of people entered and you scored near the bottom, you lost money. What the researchers found was that people were much more likely to enter these skill related games than when performance was just determined by luck. They were also more likely to lose money.  People were even more likely to be overconfident – and lose cash – if they had been recruited in answer to an ad which stressed that winners would need to know lots about sports, logic or current affairs.  They forgot that, while they might themselves be quite knowledgeable about sports, that would also be true of the people they were playing against.

If overconfidence explains why so many people throw themselves, so regularly, into losing causes, it doesn’t explain why people offer their strategic advice so readily to political parties, even when said advice isn’t based on an awful lot of evidence, experience or even reflection.  This is where what psychologists call “illusions of explanatory depth” come into play.

If you ask me if I know how a sewing machine or a zip works, I’ll probably say that I do.  But ask me to actually explain it and my confidence will drain away: I don’t really know why they are designed the way they are and couldn’t draw out exactly how a zip’s teeth interlock or sewing machine creates a stich. 

American researchers found exactly the same illusions of explanatory depth when it came to politics: people were willing to say that they supported a particular candidate because of their policies on an issue, but when asked to describe those policies 50 per cent found they knew less than they expected, compared to just five per cent who found they knew more. 

The team investigating illusions of explanatory depth found that it was linked to whether you thought abstractly or concretely and, in particular, whether you broke the problem down into its constituent parts.  If you ask me how each different mechanism in a sewing machine functions, I’ll give a less confident answer. 

Similarly, I suspect that if you are asked how you can win the next election, it’s easy to offer a rather shallow answer like “economic security” or “standing up to austerity”.  If I ask how you can win Derby North, the task is actually smaller but those answers looks more trite. 

By contrast, if I encourage you think abstractly – in this experiment, by making you think about why we do things but potentially by asking you why you are involved in politics – you will tend to have an even more overinflated sense that you have all the answers.

This path, from greater abstraction, to greater confidence, and then to seemingly-unexpected depths of electoral defeat, was the path Ed Miliband took in the last parliament.  It is beckoning Labour again.