01/08/2012 - 10:58

Mining policy tested in Margaret River

01/08/2012 - 10:58


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The state’s decision to ban mining around Margaret River sets a dangerous precedent.

Mining policy tested in Margaret River

The state’s decision to ban mining around Margaret River sets a dangerous precedent.

THE mining industry is rightly concerned about the state government’s decision to ban coal mining in a 230 square kilometre area covering the Margaret River region.

The move by Mines and Petroleum Minister Norman Moore – following Environmental Protection Authority advice that indicated coal mining in the area posed an unacceptable environmental risk – smacks of being motivated by political convenience; an easy pathway that can become a slippery slope.

Mr Moore’s new policy was effectively designed to kill-off plans by Vasse Coal Management, controlled by LD Operations, to develop an underground coal mine 15 kilometres north-east of the Margaret River township.

The proposal, which included piercing an aquifer and transporting the coal to Bunbury for export, had attracted vigorous opposition from residents and pseudo locals.

In a resources state it is a dangerous game to limit mining for any reason other than for those that would stand up to testing in any part of the state.

It is by no means clear that LD’s proposal was environmentally risky. LD certainly claims it was never given a real chance to explain its strategy.

Instead it discovered that a certain area was out of bounds because a few well-connected locals have been able to make a lot of noise.

The irony of course is that many of those taking issue with the coal mine – either publically or behind closed doors – have enjoyed the bounty of the resources sector in the past.

Some of the founders of leading wineries in the area can be traced back to the mining sector, while many other smaller scale or hobby-style tourism and wine developments have owners whose former careers were in resources.

So there is a fair bit of hypocrisy around this decision.

It is not the first time the fly-in, fly-out crew that has recreational property interests in the South West has played a role in restricting primary industry in the region. I am led to believe that business people with holiday homes on the coast lobbied against certain types of commercial fishing in the area, with the industry all but closed down since. 

This kind of ‘nimby’ attitude is dangerous because, no matter what the political logic of applying it to the South West, it sets a precedent that can be used elsewhere. 

If coal mining risks contaminating aquifers near Margaret River, what about the rest of the state where ore and underground water reservoirs are often co-located? 

I understand there have to be limits. Perhaps I’d be upset if a mining development was proposed in the park near my home.

Then again, I think that rules that safeguard people and the environment are well established in a state like ours, where mining has been a big part of our recorded history. There is no better example of mining and housing co-existing than in Kalgoorlie. 

The Goldfields capital would not exist without mining and makes accommodation for that.

The same can be said for this state. Mining is integral to our way of life, and coal is a fundamental part of that.

I would have liked reassurance that the state had gone as far as it could to ensure the Vasse coal proposal really was unworthy. I am yet to be convinced that was the case.

Merit-based pay

ONE area in which the state has been much smarter is that of education.

The independent schools initiative is a sensible approach to tackling one of the biggest issues in our society – the disturbing problem that education is becoming increasingly expensive and yet deteriorating in quality at the same time.

I have written before about the fact that so much effort to improve teaching has failed. State moves to improve the learning environment by having smaller classes have been undermined by a lack of quality teachers stuck in a system that doesn’t appear to reward the best.

As positive as it is, the independent schools concept – which gives parents and headmasters much more say in who works at a school and how resources are applied – is just scratching the surface when it comes to dealing with this issue.

What is clear is that parents welcome the move. If a policy proves a vote winner, politicians will be more likely to stick their necks out and continue down this path.

There is mounting evidence that there is plenty we can do to improve the state education system.

Merit-based pay to encourage teachers is one factor, but there is plenty more than that.

The Economist recently highlighted an intriguing development in Sweden, where laws that were passed to allow state funding to be diverted to private schools has created a growth industry. In less than 15 years, private schools have taken 10 per cent of the market.

To gain state funding, students have to be taken on a first-come, first-served basis, without any selectivity based on marks or religion. The most successful of the new private schools runs a web-based syllabus that allows students to work at their own pace. 

In the US, a study by a group of academics including Steven Levitt, the co-author of popular book Freakanomics, has found that financial incentives for teachers improve student outcomes.

Interestingly, the study, undertaken in Chicago, found the best results were with teachers who were paid a bonus up front but risked losing some of that money if their students did not perform well enough.

The success of this ‘loss aversion’ approach to incentivisation may well reflect the type of people who are attracted to teaching. Nevertheless, it offers more evidence that there are benefits to giving good teachers better pay.

Regrettably, our current pay structure rewards teachers for time spent in the job. Of course, experience is important and poor teachers might improve over the years, but in the end pay related to longevity appears to have saddled taxpayers with rising costs for no obvious gain.

Education should not just be about value for money, but it is important.

Another bit of literature I found via The Washington Post was a piece on valuing teachers at Education Next, a journal associated with Harvard University.

It points out that good teachers don’t just lift students’ results; they improve their lifetime earnings capacity. That would mean more tax paid, presumably.

Unfortunately, that is a long-term goal when governments have short-term horizons. 

Governments are also responsive to parents, who are usually voters, and who don’t need much convincing that they need good schools with good teachers for their children to have better long-term outcomes.

The ballot box tests parents’ pragmatism because they are also taxpayers and know the well is only so deep. Governments that can improve the system without spending more – by directing more funds to good teachers and getting rid of poor teachers – will win votes.

• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au



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