The Poisoned Chalice – Another Casino for Brisbane

When the state government under Campbell Newman announced that there would be a ‘competition’ to select a design for a new casino it neglected to enquire if the people of Brisbane actually wanted one – especially on a prime riverside site in the heart of the CBD. Then, when a ‘winner’ emerged, the community was faced with a ‘done deal.’ Since then the in-coming Labor regime has been preoccupied with the need to create a working government with a new and inexperienced team. A slick multi-media campaign on behalf of the successful bidder ensued and mainstream commercial interests predictably gave their enthusiastic support. According to the current Lord Mayor, Brisbane is on track to become a new ‘world city’ and growth is very much regarded as a ‘good thing.’ Apart from some muted dissenting voices little more has been heard about the proposed new casino and its associated mega-resort. So it’s worth taking a closer look.

What strikes one immediately is that the project is not about Brisbane’s present, its future nor indeed those of its citizens. The primary drivers are corporate interests in Australia and overseas driven by all-too-familiar motives. The Chinese partners, for example, are not involved because they care about the city but because Chinese capital desperately needs to flee the mainland turbulence (including a crackdown on corruption) for safer overseas havens. Brisbane and Sydney are basically two prime sites of convenience where ‘colonisation by capital’ can occur through over-scale projects that include new and enlarged casinos. In a standard past-to-future view the business-related advantages of these locations are obvious. But since the promoters can’t afford to reveal their real motives they disseminate compelling fantasies. Thus far, it must be said, local authorities seem to have swallowed the bait. There have been no organised protests and few or no expression of outrage. Brisbane needs to wake up and take stock of what is being planned while there’s still time to do so.

What casino operators crave – but which is forever out of their reach – is an impression of respectability. Since the normal operation of any casino is little more than disguised theft and single-minded exploitation of human weakness, they try to claim a range of purported social and economic benefits. Chief among these is the promise of jobs – which, of course, is music to the ears of governments and mainstream economists. Yet few appear to be asking questions such as: what kind of jobs, how valuable or secure are they and how appropriate will this kind of infrastructure be in Queensland over time? Equally, what are the opportunity costs of low-level service employment at this particular time and what other options are being overlooked? This is where casino operators never tread and also where they are vulnerable.

Much effort has also gone into portraying this huge and disfiguring development as in some way ‘desirable.’ An expensively produced video depicting a mock fly-over of the completed project made it onto the Channel Nine News. Six pages of the Courier Mail’s weekend magazine were devoted to similarly idealised ‘artist’s impressions.’ Not quite everyone, however, was persuaded. In October 2015 Journalist Katherine Noonan wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece in the same local tabloid drawing attention to the way that Paul Keating had somewhat ruthlessly ‘stared down the developers’ in Sydney a while back and asked ‘Where’s our bastard?’ A ‘visionary bastard’ able to pose the hard questions would not come from the local state government which was ‘terrified of the business community calling them ‘anti-growth.’ Noonan nailed the core of what she called ‘mystifying nonsense’ as demonstrated by the proposed architecture itself: ‘oversized shiny buildings with potted palms on top, infinity pools and indoor atriums are a dime a dozen. Check out the artist’s impression of the development of Brisbane. Looks like something I saw in Hong Kong 10 years ago.’ She added, ‘every casino looks the same. Sky decks are so 2005. You visit cities, stay in these resorts and are bored by them, hungry for a bit of history, soul, grit, texture, authenticity.’

Since the developer’s aims obviously don’t encompass any of these qualities a narrative littered with positives simply cannot ring true. The new casino is not seen as an outrageous and costly deception; rather it is portrayed as a social and economic asset. It will not only benefit the locals but also attract large numbers of Chinese tourists to the area. (The fact that they are already flooding in being conveniently ignored.) Then there are the ‘high rollers’ – wealthy punters whose activities have become increasingly constrained in Macao courtesy of the Chinese government. Perhaps they will come to Brisbane and, then again, perhaps not. What can be stated with confidence, however, is that regardless of what the operators of casinos may wish us to believe they all have a dark secret – the enduring bond between casinos and organised crime.

When people bet and lose they may well become disenchanted so one can appreciate that a certain proportion will try to avoid paying up. That’s unfortunate for the casinos because in order to maintain their façade they must try to avoid dirtying their hands in public. Which is where criminals who specialise in stand-over tactics and other forms of illegal persuasion and money laundering come in. An ABC Four Corners program in 2014 called High Rollers, High Risk explored this issue in relation to Australia and concluded that while Australia is not Macao there are serious unresolved issues about regulation and crime. A more recent documentary aired on the ABC in 2015 called Ka-Ching: Pokie Nation looked at the social impacts of problem gambling at the lower end of the scale. Suffice it to say here that they are sufficiently serious for a well-known legal firm in Australia to begin work on an initiative to ban poker machines. Or, at the very least, to de-legitimise the various ways that they cajole and deceive those who can least afford them. The social costs of gambling are well understood and are known to have pervasive effects throughout society.

The unavoidable truth about casinos is that they are social ‘black holes.’ They sustain forms of ‘rough trading’ that drain health, wealth and well being from any individual or society foolish enough to tolerate them. But there is one further issue that has thus far received remarkably little attention. It emerges from the fact that casino-type developments arise from a worldview whose systemic errors and oversights have become ever more obvious. They include the notion that the earth is merely a set of resources for human use, that economic growth is the main goal of society, that well-being can be measured through GNP, that the human economy takes precedence over the primary earth economy and, finally, that humans are the owners and masters of the world. The hubris, narcissism, greed and short-term thinking that support such commitments are seldom acknowledged but very common and influential. Projected upon the emerging future they become ever more toxic and dangerous.

The worldview commitments that have helped to drive our civilisation to the edge of collapse are, generally speaking, still not widely seen for what they are. Indeed they continue to be pursued by a minority of very rich people and associated corporate interests. Yet what they offer is a poisoned chalice. Rather than offering viable ways forward they further inscribe our collective fall toward diminished Dystopian futures. How can we be so sure? You only have only to take a clear-eyed look at the accumulating evidence of human impacts on the global system to appreciate the emerging dilemmas before us. It is not ‘merely’ a question of coming to grips with global warming – serious as that is – as of acknowledging that humanity is walking into a self-created trap. Solutions will not emerge from denial, evasion or by repeating the mistakes that brought us to this point.

It follows that social, political and economic responses to developments of the kind outlined here must include an emphatic ‘No.’ Australia does not need redundant high-end fantasies that degrade the common good. We don’t need insecure third-rate jobs when time, money and human energy are all needed elsewhere for vastly more constructive purposes. We don’t need ‘high-rollers’ (or their equivalents) in Brisbane, money laundering made ‘respectable’ through retail agencies or sanitised versions of the Asian triads. Australia is so much more than an investment opportunity for the hyper-rich, a retail colony, a casino and a beach. It’s time to renew viable future visions, to get serious about designing and implementing strategies to address the challenging overshoot-and-collapse period before us. It’s time to begin work on the foundations of a more sane and sustainable world. The name of this game is ‘transition’ and the sooner this becomes a broad, multi-threaded social, cultural and economic project, the better. The nature and quality of the changes required have, perhaps, best been summarised by Naomi Klein who suggests that:

Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis – embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy. … In the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilisation and barbarism. (Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, 2014, p. 462.)

Global Integrity Summit

Day One: The Big Picture, Griffith University, Brisbane, 13th October 2015

It’s rare to attend an event such as this one that ticks nearly all the boxes. When my wife and I decided to register it was simply on the basis that it offered three consecutive sessions on issues of major significance. They were:

  • Free speech, freedom of the press and integrity in journalism
  • Big data, privacy and surveillance, and
  • Climate change and climate justice.

The event was held at the impressive Brisbane Conservatorium on South Bank. The auditorium was full, in part due to the welcome presence of a large contingent of senior school students. Prior to the event an essay competition had been held with the winner receiving a cheque for $1,000 on the day. The organisation was impeccable. That’s to say, the staff and volunteers all carried out their roles effectively with a minimum of fuss. The sessions kept to time and the catering was well handled. There was a healthy ‘buzz’ of conversation between sessions and it was obvious that interest levels were high.

Madonna King chaired two of the sessions and Steve Cannane one. Their mastery of content and process added a great deal to the whole process. Moreover questions from the audience were welcomed. This time, however, the use of clunky mikes was discontinued. The audience was provided with a Twitter ‘handle’ for the event, allowing moderators to receive questions in real time and to pass them on to their guests. A large on-stage screen meant that speakers were clearly visible throughout the auditorium.

The quality of the speakers and panel members was, with one exception, very high. The otherwise brilliant Michael Leunig was clearly nervous, tentative and ill-at-ease. He delighted the audience with a shaky cartoon sketch but then woodenly read the rest of his address from a prepared text. I am not going to attempt to outline the rest of the proceedings as this would require a much longer piece. Instead I am going to hope that Griffith will make the videos of each session available for wider viewing. If and when that happens I will post the link(s) here. In the meantime the general link to the event page can be found below.

Integrity Summit: Day One

Governance for the Future

There’s no doubt that the new-look government announced today by Malcolm Turnbull will transform what had become a moribund and unpopular government under Tony Abbot. A younger cabinet, more women and a fresh agenda all signal a fundamental shift in focus and perspective. This, we are being told, is a 21st Century government and, indeed, one for ‘the future.’ If that is indeed the case then the country may discover new possibilities for informed optimism. Read more…

Centre for the Future (Summary) Read more…

Overshoot Day 2015 – The Biggest Story of the Year?

In Australia, as in most other places, Thursday August 13th 2015 came and went without any particular fanfare or comment. Yet on that day the Global Footprint Network (GFN) issued a press release that was picked up and commented upon mainly, it seems, by certain on-line ‘niche’ media. It turns out that August 13th was the day that humanity crossed a threshold that went far beyond the merely symbolic. It was the day in 2015 when the collective demands of humanity upon natural systems exceeded what can be regenerated within a year.

The costs are evident in a number of ways that include deforestation, drought, fresh-water scarcity, soil erosion, biodiversity loss and the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Interestingly enough, what the GFN calls Earth Overshoot Day fell last year in early October – which means that our demands on an increasingly constrained world have grown much more rapidly, perhaps, then even the environmentally aware among us may have suspected. Even more interesting is that these challenging facts achieved virtually zero exposure in terms of conventional column inches or airtime. Humanity carried on oblivious to the implications of its spiraling demands. The fact that these are undermining its present and future is evidently a truth that cannot be spoken. It therefore continues to be avoided and overlooked.

The GFN calculates the date of Earth Overshoot Day in the following way. It:

calculates the number of days of that year that Earth’s biocapacity suffices to provide for humanity’s Ecological Footprint. The remainder of the year corresponds to global overshoot. Earth Overshoot Day is computed by dividing the planet’s biocapacity (the amount of ecological resources Earth is able to generate that year), by humanity’s Ecological Footprint (humanity’s demand for that year), and multiplying by 365, the number of days in 2015: (Planet’s Biocapacity / Humanity’s Ecological Footprint) x 365 = Earth Overshoot Day).

No doubt many people would be willing to contest the methodology and its conclusions – and so they should. After all the implications are profound. But the sad fact is that the conversation is simply not taking place out in the open where it can gain traction and inform any meaningful public discourse. There’s a precedent for this elision of uncomfortable reality that refers us all the way back to 1972 and the publication of the first Limits to Growth (LTG) study. As Karen Higgs (Collision Course, 2014) and others have pointed out, it has become increasingly clear that the conclusions of the LTG constituted a rare and valuable gift to humanity that humanity was unprepared or unwilling to receive. The study and its authors were subjected to severe abuse because they challenged the primacy of economic growth – one of the fundamental assumptions of the social and economic order. Now, however, the results of failing to heed and understand the LTG over several decades means that we are currently facing extreme versions of the problems that had earlier been foreseen.

The GFN can, therefore, in some ways be regarded as a successor to the LTG team. But the methodology has changed and, I would argue, improved. Looked at as a date that moves forward each year ‘overshoot day’ provides another clear signal about what is happening. Moreover, the GFN team draws a surprisingly positive implication in its press release. It suggested that: ‘the global agreement to phase out fossil fuels that is being discussed around the world ahead of the Climate Summit in Paris would significantly help curb the Ecological Footprint’s consistent growth and eventually shrink the Footprint.’ Similarly:

The climate agreement expected at the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) 21 this December will focus on maintaining global warming within the 2-degrees-Celsius range over pre-Industrial Revolution levels. This shared goal will require nations to implement policies to completely phase out fossil fuels by 2070, per the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), directly impacting the Ecological Footprints of nations. Assuming global carbon emissions are reduced by at least 30 percent below today’s levels by 2030, in keeping with the IPCC’s suggested scenario, Earth Overshoot Day could be moved back on the calendar to September 16, 2030 (assuming the rest of the Footprint would continue to expand at the current rate).

The press statement goes on to assert that ‘this is not impossible.’ Yet these hopeful suggestions adhere to a highly improbable trajectory. Given the current state of social upheaval and geopolitical conflict in the world – to say nothing of dissonant values and uneven development – the chances of contending nations and over-powerful corporations agreeing to rein in humanity’s demands on the Earth appear negligible.

The truth that seldom gets reported anywhere in mainstream media is that the human enterprise is running a long way beyond any reasonable prospect of moderation or control. It follows that the forces most likely to engender changes of course are those that are emerging from the global system itself. That is to say, the planet is adjusting to our collective impacts with glacial but unstoppable momentum. As a result we are, as James Lovelock puts it, in for a very ‘rough ride into the future.’ It’s hardly surprising that currently affluent populations would rather avert their gaze than admit to themselves that the world is running out of options.

Review of Higgs, K. Collision Course:

About Earth Overshoot Day:

Global Footprint Network:

Kerryn Higgs and Collision Course

At the end of May I gave the opening address to the annual conference of the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) in Melbourne. In the audience was a local councillor from Redlands, Brisbane, by the name of Paul Bishop. The title of my address was Responding to the Biggest Wake-Up Call in History (taken from the title of my 2010 book). When I met Paul afterwards I discovered why he’d seemed rather animated during the address. One of the sources I used to illustrate my theme was a book by Kerryn Higgs called Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet. It turns out that Paul had just bought the book and was very interested in reading it. He’d heard the author on Radio National and had, in fact, already made contact. Which is how I found out that she was due to visit Brisbane in the near future.

Laurie and I caught up with Kerryn at the State Library of Queensland (SLQ) during the afternoon of her visit and spent a couple of hours getting to know each other. We were fascinated to learn that Kerryn had spent fully eight years researching and writing the book. The spark for her was the same as it was for myself. That is, she read the original Limits to Growth (LtG) book back in 1972 and was subsequently perplexed and concerned at the way that powerful groups in the USA, Europe and Australia worked hard – and successfully – to marginalise it. Quite obviously the notion that ‘growth cannot continue forever on a finite planet’ was one that had to be put down at all costs. Unfortunately for the rest of us this misguided and ill-conceived campaign succeeded. The whole LtG story and the vital messages it had for humanity were brushed aside and forgotten by most people.

Kerryn, however, was one of the people who refused to forget. In fact, as researchers began to compare some of the LtG projections with the way that the world actually tracked over subsequent years (in relation to energy, raw materials, food production, economic activity, ‘sinks’ for waste and so on), it became increasingly clear that the early work had been surprisingly accurate. As Kerryn points out in the book, the collective refusal to contemplate the issues raised over 40 years ago meant that we were now dealing with extreme versions of the problems and dilemmas that could then be seen on the horizon. She began to get angry but instead of turning that anger inward, as so many appear to do – and then becoming depressed – she decided that she had to act. She registered for a PhD at the University of Tasmania and started those years of painstaking research.

To my mind this suggests a rare quality of moral courage and determination. It’s one that’s greatly lacking in the post-modern world when few peoples’ thoughts or concerns ever seem to involve considering the roots of our contemporary malaise in an honest and sustained way. The research finished, however, Kerryn still had to face the rejection of a major London publisher that kept her manuscript for months and eventually claimed that appropriate reviewers could not be found! Following the disappointment she researched publishers that dealt with broad environmental and cultural issues and attracted the interest of MIT. This proved a very suitable match since the original research for the LtG project was carried out there. It took two years further work to transform the PhD into the book that we now have.

When we reached Avid Reader – the bookshop due to host Kerryn that evening – she’d expected only half-a-dozen people. Instead, the floor of the shop was cleared and packed full of chairs for nearly 60. We went for a quick drink at the pub over the road and then left her to gather her thoughts. Paul Bishop turned up at the conversation with a camera and ABC Radio National producer, Paul Barclay from Big Ideas, had arranged a sound engineer. A link to the audio and video will be provided once it goes to air on ABC radio.

Meanwhile you can read my review of Collision Course in the Reviews By section of this site.