HOBART, TASMANIA — Even in this more distant and very beautiful Australian state, the looming issue is becoming (as it is throughout this country) the foreign multinational corporations. The aluminum industry and other companies want cheap hydropower. So they are supporting the damming of rivers in the spectacular wilderness of Southwest Tasmania.
Conservationists, led by Dr. Bob Brown of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, say that the wilderness is for future generations to enjoy, is good for tourism and should not be used for energy-intensive industry that, compared to alternative economies, makes little economic sense for the local people.
They point to one startling fact: The large foreign aluminum company, Comalco, employs one-half of 1 percent of the state’s electricity. Consumers and small businesses pay nearly four times more for electricity than Comalco, indicating a considerable subsidy for that multinational.
Other multinational behavior upsets Tasmanians. The river that flows through the capital, Hobart, has about the highest mercury count in the world. The company that contaminates the river does not have to divulge the extent of its pollution because the state government considers such information trade secrets.
Multinationals have timber concessions on state land at such a cheap price that the administrative costs of the government barely are covered. The timber does not feed a furniture industry or other secondary industry on the island; the multinationals export their harvest to Japan and other countries
The world’s largest mining multinationals are viewing Australia as the quarry of the Western world. Oil, copper, uranium, gold, bauxite and other minerals are the subject of lucrative concessions which state governments award to U.S., Japanese, British, Dutch and other European conglomerates.
The multinationals demand hard terms. They receive tax concessions, government investments in feeder roads and other services, government pressure on labor unions, cheap power and the implicit understanding that the authorities will support them in any conflict with the people.
Thoughtful members of the parliament and other observers believe that multinationals create a dependency psychology among Australians who see themselves as unable to develop their rich country. The allusion that only multinationals can provide the significant resources and jobs is exposed by the fact that more than 50 percent of the foreign multinationals’ investment comes from Australian sources. And, as Japan showed, technology can be licensed.
A more disturbing impact of multinationals affects civil liberties. Citizen and labor demonstrations in 1977 and 1978 against the government’s decision to permit uranium mining for export may have been orderly but they were too much for the state premiers of Queensland and Western Australia. The two men issued regulations forbidding public assembly of more than seven people (Queensland) and three people (Western Australia) without a police permit. If the police chief denies the permit, no appeal to the courts is allowed.
Such a rule would be unconstitutional in our country. But since Australia has no written bill of rights and no strong judiciary to safeguard these rights, conflicts between the public and multinationals are apt to be resolved with authoritarian responses by both the federal and state governments. Amendments to the national atomic energy act by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and his controlling party are replete with what in the United States would be considered unconstitutional infringements op citizen rights.
As unemployment and inflation worsens in Australia under a political regime which for five years has opened the doors widely to multinational corporate projects, the questions of what limits to place on these conglomerates and what reliance to place on Australian-based initiatives may shape the upcoming election.
For that to occur, however, the opposition Labor Party will have to propose an alternative model of local economic development to that imposed by the Alcoas, Exxons, General Motors and Rio Tinto-Zinc Corp.