Australia, we have bigger issues to tackle than boardies and thongs
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Australia, we have bigger issues to tackle than boardies and thongs

Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and forcing 537 councils to conduct citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day. And it’s stinking hot.

What could be more Australian than a nationwide ban on shorts and thongs as we confer citizenship on our newest Aussies during an unprecedented heatwave? Nothing screams democracy more than stripping local councils of their ability to conduct citizenship ceremonies in retaliation for suggesting Australia Day be moved to a different date.

It’s much easier to talk about thongs at citizenship ceremonies than it is to make sure Walgett has clean drinking water.

It’s much easier to talk about thongs at citizenship ceremonies than it is to make sure Walgett has clean drinking water.Credit:David Freund

Chances are, six in 10 of those reading this don’t even know what historical event Australia Day commemorates. The Australia Institute conducted a national poll of 1417 people on Australia Day, and in a multiple choice question only 38 per cent of Australians could correctly identify that it was the date the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove, which frankly doesn’t say a lot for our education system. Certainly, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s multi-million-dollar "re-enactment" of Captain Cook’s circumnavigation of Australia (which never happened) would get a fail from any history teacher. Australia Day wasn’t even uniformly celebrated by all states and territories as a public holiday on 26 January until 1994 – I have Tupperware more traditional than that.

I have no doubt the date of Australia Day will eventually change. Aboriginal people across Australia lead Invasion Day (or Survival Day) rallies, with attendance growing each year. And increasingly the campaign is not just for the date to change but, as Brooke Boney, Nayuka Gorrie and Luke Pearson have explained, for Australia to change - and for sovereignty for the Aboriginal peoples who have lived here for 60 millennia.

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The reality is the ban on shorts and thongs, and the mandatory citizenship ceremonies, are just a distraction from the big issues like sovereignty, global warming and the mismanagement of Australia’s greatest river system.

Heatwave should put coal on ice

Today, huge parts of Australia are in the midst of a severe heatwave, and we can only expect more of this extremely hot weather until we, and the rest of the world, stop mining and burning the coal, oil and gas that traps heat in our atmosphere.

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The truth is that Australian gas and coal is responsible for over 1.5 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases
being pumped into the atmosphere every year.

In Sydney, today is going to be about six degrees warmer than last year. Heat records have been breaking all over the country. In Walgett, which has no water (more on that later), temperatures peaked at 39.4 degrees in a heatwave a few weeks ago. At temperatures above 35 degrees the human body’s ability to cool itself reduces. In 2009, Adelaide’s morgue ran out of room after a spike in sudden deaths during a heatwave.

The only solution is to stay cool, but our ability to acclimatise to heat extremes is limited. That’s why demand for energy peaks during a heatwave, as people turn on their air conditioners and pool pumps in an effort to cool off.

Unfortunately, coal-fired power stations are a little like humans – they don’t do well in extreme heat. Last summer there were 46 breakdowns of gas and coal-fired power stations, right when we needed them most – when it’s really bloody hot! This year, extreme heat has thrown the grid into chaos. Over the last couple of sweltering, high-demand days, 1340 megawatts of coal-fired power was offline due to outages. The Australian Energy Market Operator was forced to activate emergency reserves, and there were still blackouts in Victoria.

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This makes Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s plan to underwrite new coal-fired power plants or refurbish existing coal power look extremely silly. Taylor’s stated aim is to create a more reliable and cheaper electricity grid, but coal is expensive and unreliable.

In Victoria, two old brown-coal power stations were offline during the recent heatwaves due to boiler-tube leaks. Last year, brown coal was responsible for about a third of all fossil-fuel breakdowns. Australia’s newest coal plants, including so-called "supercritical" or so-called "High-Efficiency, Low-Emissions" generators, seem to cope even worse in the heat than older power stations, new research from the Australia Institute’s Climate & Energy Program shows. In fact, they break down even more often, gigawatt for gigawatt, than our old clunker coal plants like Liddell.

Thankfully, the two million Australian households who have solar panels on their roofs help save the day by delaying and shaving off peak demand. Earlier this week solar cut the National Electricity Market (NEM)’s state peak demand by 2,700 megawatts – that’s more energy than Liddell can even produce.

Taylor’s determination to throw money at coal, while ignoring cheaper, cleaner solutions like creating "negawatts" with demand response, is reckless. A negawatt is a megawatt of energy conserved. If done properly, this conserved energy can compete against megawatts of generated electricity, to balance supply and demand in the NEM. The core benefit of this "wholesale demand response" is to lower the cost of energy for all consumers, because it helps avoid the large cost of building a new power station.

Walgett has two rivers, no drinking water

Walgett, in western NSW, is in the midst of a water crisis. It is on the confluence of two rivers, but
it has no drinking water.

Like residents from Menindee, where a million native fish died two weeks ago, residents in Walgett say the water coming out of their taps is dirty and smelly. So dire is Walgett’s predicament, multiple crowdfunding campaigns have begun to help ship fresh water to the town. Is it a coincidence that the communities with large Aboriginal populations, like Walgett, seem to be the first to suffer water shortages?

How can it be that, in 2019, Australia has multiple towns that have run out of clean water? We have a $13 billion water-management plan in place – who is benefiting from it? It’s not Walgett or Menindee. We're in a bad drought, no question about that, but there is still plenty of irrigation for cotton happening in the Northern Basin using "carry over" water from last year.

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The justification for draining the Menindee Lakes was that the water would have evaporated anyway. If cotton is being grown this year from last year's water, it must have been sitting in large on-farm storages. How much evaporation was "wasted", rather than going to the environment or downstream communities? Why is evaporation from the Menindee Lakes a waste, but evaporation from huge irrigation dams is just fine? What is clear is that water for irrigation is being prioritised over critical human water needs and the environment, when it should be the other way around.

Banning thongs at citizenship ceremonies is a simple solution to a non-existent problem. With Coalition
members dropping like flies, I’m not surprised that’s where the Prime Minister has focused his
attention.

It’s much easier to talk about dress codes at citizenship ceremonies than it is to make sure Walgett has clean drinking water. But in an election year, I suspect voters will be looking for a little more substance.

Thankfully, the AEC won’t bat an eyelid when you rock up in shorts and thongs to exercise your right to vote.

Ebony Bennett is deputy director of the Australia Institute. You can follow her on Twitter at @ebony_bennett.

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