The $20 million shark policy that's nothing but uncontrolled risk



By Larry Graham, Columnist and former ALP and Independent Member of Australia’s Parliament

When there are so many deaths that can be linked to the WA government, it is a bit strange that they now claim that the “protection of human life comes first” when dealing with death from shark attacks.

This is silly, because not all deaths are the government's fault, and death by shark is no more the responsibility of the government than is being killed by an angry snake or a rampaging numbat.

Their response to the emotive issue of sharks, I suspect, was meant to be a good news story designed to show the government as decisive and prepared to act in response to a crisis - a strategy that has evolved into high farce.

Having copped some flack, the government is now in defiant mode and has had to resort to the defence that sharks are thinking rational animals that target humans. Inspired more by fictional horror movies and Finding Nemo characters, this talk is nonsense and should be treated as such.

The tough talk is a long way from minister John Day telling parliament that "Divers, surfers and swimmers particularly in the south-west part of the state, enter the ocean knowing that a shark attack, while unlikely, is certainly a possibility".

Although he went on to qualify that statement, Mr Day was correct then and since he said that, the possibility he spoke of has been calculated at one in a million, which is hardly a colossal risk.

But does that risk justify the expenditure of over $20 million of taxpayers' funds?

Even when the risk is completely out of the government's control?

Those questions can only be meaningfully addressed by a comparison with the government's actions over fatalities that occur within their areas of responsibility.

Then a valid judgment can be made about whether the "protection of human life" does actually come first to the government or whether it is expensive nonsense.

A quick look at three areas of the government is illuminating – the five deaths at the government owned and operated hospital in Northam, Worksafe WA advising that on average there is one work place related death every 21 days and the mining industry which has recently undergone a spike in deaths after a long fatality-free period.

The government has more responsibility in each of these areas than it does with sharks and none of these deaths has attracted a similarly well-funded or publicised response.

It is reasonable to assume from the above examples that, while each loss of life is a personal tragedy, the government considers death by shark to be more tragic than other deaths.

That incongruence is further highlighted when we consider that since 1791 there have been 202 deaths by shark in the entire nation and this includes the 20 deaths in the history of WA

However, between 1969 and 2008, over 80 times more (1631) West Australians have contracted the fatal asbestos disease, mesothelioma. Not only does the government reject any responsibility in these cases, it usually appears in the courts to oppose victims' compensation settlements.

Government neglect and inaction contributed to most of these victims' plight and the courts routinely rule that way.

It is clear from all of this that where the government has any form of responsibility, its behaviour is the opposite of its response to death by shark, where it has none.

Not only is this hypocritical and unfair; it is a dumb thing to do and it puts the government in the firing line; and so it should.

The line that "the protection of human life comes first" will resound with the public and the next time there is a shark attack, the public will be completely justified in blaming the government for any deaths.

When that happens, the government will most likely defend itself by arguing that they cannot reasonably be expected to prevent all attacks and deaths from sharks.

That much will be true, so wouldn't it be better if someone in authority just took a deep breath, backtracked and said that now.

Until then, anything associated with a similar number of deaths can legitimately claim that unless they are getting $20 million in protection money, the government is short changing them.

If all that is not enough for public concern, the hard politics of this shark shemozzle are also dodgy.

Conservationists, scientists and unaligned public groups fighting the killing of sharks will damage the government more than the opposition will.

Issues like this should be a no-brainers for any competent opposition; a daily public hoisting of the government on the twin petards of waste and better priorities for the spending are just so obvious.

However, as Mark McGowan has adopted similar positions to the government and then added an even sillier and more expensive rock pool policy, the opposition is so hopelessly compromised that this won't happen.

The bipartisan stupidity we are confronted with brings to mind that insightful 1802 quote from that great American, Thomas Jefferson, who said: "If we can but prevent the government from wasting the labours of the people, under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy".

There really is no need to say any more because Jefferson said it all.