Thursday, July 22, 2010

Corporations that kill people: the sourge of asbestos

Perth, the city where I live is the asbestos cancer capital of the world, with the highest known incidence of asbestos related disease in the world.

The events that caused this situation constitute perhaps the greatest industrial and corporate crime in Australian history.

Asbestos is a deadly substance, a carcinogen that has taken millions of lives world wide, leading to it being banned or restricted in 52 countries. Global estimates are that between 5-10 million people may die as the result of exposure to asbestos and asbestos related products.

Despite the millions who have died and will die in the future as a result of exposure to asbestos, the asbestos industry continues to grow around the world. When it comes to asbestos, corporate power and industry greed for huge profits are insatiable.

Here in Western Australia, the human cost of exposure to asbestos is a legacy of the Wittenoom asbestos mine where asbestos was mined from the 1940's to the late 1960's, and the presence of many industries that processed, manufactured and used asbestos, for example in construction.

Groups such as the Perth based Asbestos Disease Society of Australia have been tireless in the pursuit of justice for the people affected by asbestos.

Perth based writer Miriam Miller's book Shattered Lives: The Human Face of the Asbestos Tragedy is a searing expose of the human consequences of the reckless and callous disregard shown by many corporations in WA, including CSR and James Hardie, and the industries that prospered on the use of asbestos, all of whom placed profit and greed ahead of human wellbeing.

Miriam Miller's fine book continues the tradition of Ben Hill's Blue Murder, his 1989 book on the history of the Wittenoom mine and of the men and women who worked in the mine or lived in the town, and Matt Peacock's Killer Company, a shocking expose of the evils perpetrated by James Hardie, the building products company that spent years covering up the dangers of its asbestos products.

A new report Dangers in the Dust: Inside the Global Asbestos Trade has found that asbestos industry lobby groups have spent some $100 million since the 1980's to preserve and grow the asbestos market in developing nations. They have been hugely successful. In India the asbestos market grows 25% each year, the result of a powerful, New Delhi-based trade group that spends millions on pro-asbestos ads, lobbying, and counteracting critical science on the mineral. China is now the largest exporter of asbestos in the world where demand for the substance is booming.

In countries like Russia and Brazil where asbestos is mined, powerful connections between the asbestos industry, corporations and sovereign governments exercise control over asbstos mining.

Western governments, such as Canada, continue to fund and support the mining and export of asbestos to Mexico, China and India. The Canadian Government is a staunch defender, supporter and funder of the asbestos industry (The Canadian Resources Minister is a former President of the Canadian Asbestos Chamber of Commerce).

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

When Democracy is beholden to corporate power

"Inverted totalitarianism marks a political moment when corporate power finally sheds its identification as a purely economic phenomenon, confined primarily to a domestic domain of "private enterprise", and evolves into a globalizing co-partnership with the state..... The former becomes more political, the latter more market oriented"

Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Inc: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism
In a recent speech in London the CEO of Rio Tinto made a direct threat to elected governments around the world. His message was clear- challenge the power of the mining and resources multinationals by threatening their interests and the industry will do what was done to Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister.

It is remarkable that with a few exceptions there has been little serious analysis or anger in this country about the stark reality that a powerful industry, a number of multinational corporations and some of the wealthiest Australians could use their money and power to unseat a democratically elected Prime Minister.

One exception is an article in the Age by David McKnight in which he asks- who is actually running this country? His answer is corporate power.

In the article below Gavin Mooney, the co convener of the WA Social Justice Network, writes about the speech by the Rio CEO and the mining industry's use of its corporate power.

A PS to the RSPT
By Gavin Mooney

The ‘debate’ around the super profits tax has been illuminating. For me it has said so much about the mentality of the top executives in the mining sector - and of politicians. Early on there were the suggestions that Kevin Rudd was a communist (Clive Palmer), that it amounted to nationalisation (Andrew Forrest) and the tax was straight from the pages of Das Kapital (Julie Bishop)

In the wake of their success in bringing down both Rudd and the tax, their arrogance and their indifference to democracy is now out there in full flow. According to Forrest it wasn’t the miners who brought down Rudd – Twiggy’s pal – it was Ken Henry. Atlas chief David Flanagan divulges to The Australian that he would talk to his wife each night about the implications of the tax ‘and the legacy it would leave for their two children’. He went on: ‘I actually could see a scenario where the RSPT could destroy the fabric of the Australian economy… I mean, totally f…ing smash it to bits.’

Forrest asked ‘who voted for Ken Henry?’ Thank God for Forrest to alert us to the dangers of an unelected Ken Henry. And thank God for those who brought down the tax and saved us from these commies who were otherwise set to ‘destroy the social fabric’ of Australia.

These mining giants also have global aspirations. They are keen to use their power to save not just Australia. They want to save the world from nasty governments elsewhere as well! In a speech to mining executives in London last week, Tom Albanese, the Rio Tinto CEO, according to Peter Wilson in The Australian, ’issued a none-too-subtle warning about the events in Canberra to other governments attracted to the idea of “resource nationalism” and hiking taxes on mining profits’. Albanese is reported to have stated: ‘Policy makers around the world’ (and presumably that includes democratically elected governments – like ours) ‘can learn a lesson when considering a new tax to plug a revenue gap, or play local politics’. We are fortunate however that as Wilson reported Albanese ‘held back from openly crowing about the fall of Mr Rudd’.

The Fin Review joined in. ‘In a shot across the bows of Brazil, South Africa and Chile’, writes Andrew Cleary, ‘Rio Tinto’s chief executive Tom Albanese, has warned countries considering a super tax on resources to “learn a lesson” from the Australian government’s experience in dealing with the industry’s opposition’.

I would encourage readers to write to The Australian and the Fin Review to express their thanks to the big miners for saving – today - the social fabric of Australia yesterday and – tomorrow - the world. Good chance your letters will be published.

Against this background what chance any reasoned debate about the impact of the mining industry on global warming? Ah, but the Flanagan kids’ future is secure in the knowledge that their dad and the other big miners are there to look after the future of all of us.

And just a final thought: why do we need an election?