The tragedy of the unmanaged Australian commons

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Robbing the future, polluting the present.

One of the biggest challenges facing Australia remains the best way to convert the country’s unrenewable resources into renewable ones. Australians have been endowed with a wealth of natural resources, the most valuable on the international market being our minerals. So how are we using this endowment to leverage our future?

Highly valued minerals produce a one-off wealth windfall—once they’ve been mined and sold, they’re gone. This is particularly important in Australia right now as we have now entered the third phase of mining, the operational phase, when the design and development of mining projects has largely finished and production ramps up. It’s critical for Australia to act now during this phase of mining, as state and federal governments are now collecting increased royalties and tax from these operations.

Other countries have successfully translated non-renewable resources into sovereign wealth funds that continue to yield monetary returns long beyond the time period when the non-renewable resources were extracted and sold. In Norway, part of the wealth derived from North Sea oil is invested in the renewable energy sector via its research and development wing. Another part is invested in education.

If we want to convert unrenewable resources into renewable ones then transferring one off wealth from mining revenues into investments in research and education is a smart way to go. But Australia seems unable to think laterally in this way. Following the recent federal budget, it seems the government wants students and the sick to pay more for university and establish research bodies. The planned levy on doctor visits would ask people visiting the doctor to help pay for a $20 billion medical research fund, all while the government cuts the budgets of other scientific agencies such as the CSIRO are being cut.

Added to this, the deregulation of fees and the Commonwealth’s decision to contribute less to cover the cost of degrees will mean students pay more for higher education.

This is a cruel perversion of the Norway model. Garret Hardin’s famous ‘tragedy of the commons’ is a phrase beloved by ideologues keen to promote the superiority of private ownership of property and user-pay mechanisms. It is little known that Hardin recanted this thesis in 1998 and offered a counter with a significant clarification—it was the unmanaged commons that would inevitably be used in tragic ways, not the commons where a community of users maintains rules of access, shoulders the responsibility for care, including intergenerational care, and shares the benefits.

Knowledge is a commons which we as a society all make, share and take responsibility for fostering. It returns inestimable benefit to us all. Every generation underwrites the access to knowledge and education of the next and in doing so society advances. In this sense knowledge and education is a renewable resource—investment into it now keeps on giving back into the future.

The latest budget and the current policies of the federal government represent the classic case of an unmanaged commons, the type that gets degraded and destroyed by self-interest.

We are failing to divert any wealth made from exploiting the nation’s minerals, our common wealth, from private hands into a fund to be used for on-going national benefit.

We are failing to ask industrial interests who are carbon polluters to divert a fraction of their private funds into a public clean-up of our still unmanaged atmospheric commons.

And we are failing to commit to intergenerational support for access to education and a flourishing meaning industry. We are now asking our young, the adults of the future, to pay for the lack of our political will to take some hard decisions and direct resources from non-renewable to renewable industries.



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