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Thursday 10th September 2015 - 9:44 am
Comments Off on These are not-so-peaceful times in the Pacific

These are not-so-peaceful times in the Pacific

by Alan Thornhill


Tony Abbott can’t expect a heroes’ welcome in Port Moresby today, like that John Howard received in Honiara a few years ago.

Mr Howard, who was then Prime Minister, had just launched the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) which was to restore peace there, after years of low level civil war.

His reward, from the local people, was a greeting so rapturous that Mr Howard was forced to confess, on his return, that he was glad it did not happen everywhere he went.

He admitted that he would not have been able to restrain his ego, if it did.

Mr Abbott is in no such danger in Papua New Guinea, where he is attending a Pacific Islands Forum meeting.

Indeed, his policies on climate change, have already brought about a fundamental reassessment of Australia’s once high standing throughout Melanesia.

So much so, in fact, that the President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, has taken to calling the Abbott Government the “bad brother” of the Pacific.

And there has even been talk of a walkout, by Pacific Island nations, from this year’s Forum meeting, over the issue.

What’s behind all this?


People in the Solomons,for example, know that their low lying island homes could be flooded, if the Antarctic ice shelf melts, as a result of global warming.

Scientists admit that ambient temperatures, around the world, may not have risen quite as much yet – as their research had led them to expect.

But they also say there are indications that some of the extra heat – generated by climate change – is being absorbed by the sea.

That does not provide a lot of comfort to some one who lives with his family on, say, San Cristobal, or one of the other 800 or so islands in the Solomons.

And – although education levels throughout Melanesia are not high – at least by Western standards – awareness of this danger is.

Indeed, as one who has recently returned, from a two year assignment in the Solomons, your author can assure readers that the people of that young nation carry a low-simmering anger, that is readily directed towards anyone who might be called a climate change sceptic.

And Mr Abbott, who once dismissed the entire issue as “absolute crap” is still seen in that way, in the Pacific.

The government’s Labor opponents, at home, say little progress has been made, over recent months, in talks designed to secure a rapprochement on this issue.

Indeed Tanya Plibersek, the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, says it is understood negotiations between the Abbott Government and other members of the 16 nation forum have served only to anger some of the Pacific nations.

And, she says, they are now demanding Mr Abbott make meaningful concessions at the forum in Papua New Guinea.

In a joint statement with her colleague, Matt Thistlewaite, the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration, Ms Plibersek also said Mr Abbott has managed to threaten the Forum’s very existence, through his intransigence on climate change.

Critics are urging Mr Abbott to remember that Australia, too, has a big stake in this issue.

For if the worst does, indeed, happen – and sea levels in the area do rise catastrophically – it could well be facing another refugee crisis.

Just when current experience suggests that one is enough.

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Sunday 23rd August 2015 - 2:46 pm
Comments Off on Tony:too clever by half?

Tony:too clever by half?

by Alan Thornhill


He’s not stupid.

So why has Tony Abbott been getting into so much – unnecessary – trouble lately?

Bronwyn and Choppergate, for example.

Then – sometime this week – Dyson Heydon will decide whether he can continue to preside over the Royal Commission into alleged corruption in Australian unions.

But aren’t we talking about Tony?

Not those others.


But remember that old saying.

“By their fruits ye shall know them.”

Bronwyn Bishop and Dyson Heydon have much in common.

Tony Abbott chose each of them to do a particular job for him.

He wanted the former Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, to run Federal parliament, his way.

And, by June this year, shortly before her time as Speaker came to an end, Ms Bishop had expelled Labor MPs from Parliament for misbehaviour no less than 393 times.

Just seven government members had been thrown out.

If anything begs for a sniff test, that’s it.

It all came to an end, as you will recall, when Ms Bishop thought it would be acceptable for her to charter a helicopter, to take her from Melbourne to a Liberal party fund raiser in Geelong.

The public disagreed.

And that was that.

Dyson Haydon had a spot of bother with a Liberal party fund-raiser, too.

He – clearly – thought it would be acceptable to accept an invitation to speak at one – while he was presiding over that Royal Commission into alleged union corruption.

That, also, may have been a mistake.

Both appointments have been described, quite accurately, as “captain’s picks.”

And both the now retired Mr Justice Heydon and Ms Bishop have, like Mr Abbott, himself, well earned reputations as arch-conservatives.

Both appointments, ultimately, damaged the Abbott government in the polls, when things went bad.

These weren’t the only cases, either, in which the Prime Minister’s judgement has been called into question, directly, over recent weeks and months.

His usually loyal lieutenant, Christopher Pyne, for example, accused the Prime Minister of “branch stacking.”

He did that after Mr Abbott invited National Party MPs into a Liberal party meeting, called to discuss the delicate issue of same sex marriage.

Mr Pyne – and other Liberal critics – believe Mr Abbott did this to prevent government – and particularly Liberal – MPs having a free vote on this matter, when it is debated in parliament.

That, in Mr Abbott’s mind at least, would have made his leadership look weak.

But the government has been running behind Labor in the polls for some months now, and that trend seems to be strengthening.

So some serious questions have to be asked.

And that that is now happening.

Predictably, a reporter asked Mr Abbott, while he was out campaigning for his party in the upcoming by-election, in the West Australian seat of Canning, if that poll is really is test of his leadership.

Mr Abbott’s reply was unusually frank.

“Look, there’s a sense in which everything’s a test,” he said.

“Every day the national Government, the Prime Minister, every Minister is being put to the test.”

“We’ve been put to the test every day since we won back in September 2013.

” The test of could we get the carbon tax repealed, we passed.

“The test of could we get the mining tax repealed, we passed.

“The test of could we stop the boats, no one thought it could be done, we did it.

“The test of could we get the Free Trade Agreements passed, we did.

“So, look, we’ve passed all the tests up until now and I’m confident we’ll pass the next one.”


But politicians, including Prime Ministers, have also been known seek comforting, rather than penetrating explanations, in troubled times, like these.

Hasn’t Mr Abbott really been too clever by half, in pushing too hard, appointing arch conservatives like himself, to get the results he wants, even if that means using people who step beyond what the public finds acceptable.

Those poll results might well be telling him something very like that.

Sunday 16th August 2015 - 4:42 pm
Comments Off on The new Spring in Australian politics

The new Spring in Australian politics

by Alan Thornhill


The deep winter of Australian politics is almost over.

Our leaders started to speak differently, on the eve of the second week of the Spring sessions of Federal parliament.

There’s more talk now of economic recovery and hope.

And less about debt and deficits.

The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was particularly upbeat, for example, in a speech he gave to the Liberal party faithful in Adelaide at the weekend.

“You will be pleased to know that Australia’s economic growth in the March quarter was amongst the very highest in the developed world,” he said.

“You will be pleased to know that there are 335,000 more jobs in our economy than there were on election night in September 2013.

“Bankruptcies are at record lows.

“Car sales are at record highs,” he continued.

The Treasurer, Joe Hockey, too, has been talking up the Australian economy, predicting better times ahead.

You may have noticed

Many people have.

But not all have been convinced by what they are hearing.

Christopher Kent, the Reserve Bank’s Assistant Governor (Economic), for example, was not prepared to adopt those predictions, when he addressed an Economic Society lunch in Brisbane last week.

The best he would say is that Australia’s unemployment rate, which rose to a seasonally adjusted 6.3 per cent in July, would stabilise over the next 12 to 18 months, then start to fall after that.

Mr Hockey, in turn, has let it be known that he does not accept talk suggesting that Australia might be in for a period of economic growth below 3 per cent, rather than the 3.25 -3.5 per cent rates the nation has come to expect.

“I think we can get back up to 3.25 per cent, 3.5 per cent,” the Treaasurer pointedly told one interviewer at the weekend.

If the government does that, it will soon start producing demonstrable successes, including movements back towards budget surpluses.

Meanwhile the Labor Leader, Bill Shorten says he would “save billions in government by scrapping Mr Abbott’s direct action” policy, which he describes as “wasteful.”

Much of that money, he says, could be devoted to modernising the Australian economy, so that it relies less on fossil fuels.

The Labor leader says that Mr Abbott has never accepted either the reality of climate change or the necessity of tackling it.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this debate, so far, though, is the sense of disengagement that surrounds it.

So far, the main participants have been talking at, rather than to, each other.

And how effective this is at engaging those who really matter – the voters – is still very much an open question.

But there is, at least, a new sense of urgency about it.

That became clear at the weekend when Mr Abbott told his Adelaide audience that the next Federal election is now “about a year” away.

Perhaps the most powerful contribution to the debate, so far, has come from a bureaucrat.

The Treasury Secretary, John Fraser, has warned repeatedly that neither growth, nor economic prosperity will be restored by anything resembling a “business as usual” approach to Australia’s economic problems.

He says:” unless we lift productivity growth through reforms across all sectors of our economy, we face prolonged stagflation in living standards not seen before in this country.”

In a keynote speech last week, Mr Fraser recalled that productivity had grown faster in Australia in the 1990s than in either the two decades prior or the decade and a half since.

And he said Australians had grown accustomed to rising living standards.

“For a brief while, Australia became a productivity growth leader, rather than a laggard.”

“As I have said before, we could be accused of having become complacent since the mining boom.”

Mr Fraser noted that the Australian economy is now entering its 25th consecutive year of growth.”

But he added a warning.

“That said, current rates of labour productivity growth remain well below the rates – around 2.5 per cent – experienced in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“But as the terms of trade fall, we are now seeing the effects of lower productivity growth,” he added.

He said tall this had meant growth remained below its long term average.

However Mr Fraser’s optimism has not deserted him.

“The good news is that there is plenty to get on with,” he said.

“Tax reform, for one.

“We know how Singapore’s competitive tax rate helped make their country a global hub for finance and trade.”

Tax reform, though, has always proved difficult in Australia.

That’s largely because it is usually assessed – primarily – in terms of winners and losers – rather than economic efficiency.

And there have been few signs of that changing in the immediate future.

Friday 14th August 2015 - 3:15 pm
Comments Off on “We’ll scrap direct action” Shorten

“We’ll scrap direct action” Shorten

by Alan Thornhill

The Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, says a Labor government would scrap Tony Abbott’s “direct action” policy which he described as “wasteful.”

The Prime Minister says his policy, which offers subsidies to companies which reduce or stop polluting, is an effective way of tackling climate change.

However, in a statement today, Mr Shorten said:” Tony Abbott is stuck in the past when it comes to climate change, and he wants to keep all of Australia with him.”

Then he added:”Australians know he (Mr Abbott) doesn’t believe climate change is real.

“But we can’t afford to let Tony Abbott’s flat earth views hold our country back.”

The Opposition Leader said:” the Government’s emissions reduction target puts Australia at the back of the pack in the lead up to Paris and yet we have the highest emissions per person in the developed world.

“The truth is that without investing in renewable energy, without an emissions trading scheme, without modernising our overall energy sector – it doesn’t matter what number the government picks – because we won’t get there.”

“To date, Tony Abbott’s only response to climate change has been to give billions of dollars to big polluters under Direct Action, run ridiculous scare campaigns and try to destroy the renewable energy industry,” Mr Shorten said.

“Direct Action is a waste of money built on one counter-productive idea: giving great wads of taxpayer cash to big polluters to keep polluting.”

Mr Shorten also said: “Malcolm Turnbull has said Direct Action is ‘a recipe for fiscal recklessness on a grand scale’. ”

He recalled, too, that an independent firm, Reputex, had reported last week that under Tony Abbott’s policy, emissions will actually rise by 20 per cent over the next decade.

“This is in spite of all the money being paid to polluters, and expected to grow to around $200 million a year according to Greg Hunt,” Mr Shorten said.

“We can’t afford to waste taxpayers’ money on a plan that won’t work,” he added.

“And Australia can’t afford to sit on the sidelines or turn our back on global efforts.”

He said:”A Shorten Labor Government will put a strong commitment to renewable energy at the centre of Australia’s response to climate change.

Renewable energy will deliver new investment, good jobs, lower power bills for homes and small businesses and it will help cut pollution.

“If elected, Labor will scrap the Abbott Government’s expensive and ineffective Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF).

“We will honour contracts that the Government has entered into, but the waste ends there.

“Based on the remaining uncommitted funding allocated in the 2014 Budget, and the additional $2.4 billion announced this week, abolishing the ERF represents savings of up to $4.3 billion,” Mr Shorten said.

“There is a better, cheaper, faster and more efficient way for Australia to tackle climate change and at the centre of this plan, is renewable energy.”

Thursday 13th August 2015 - 12:48 pm
Comments Off on Pacific leaders square off over climate risks

Pacific leaders square off over climate risks

by Alan Thornhill


Anote Tong, the President of Kiribati, knows his country is just a tiny speck in the vast Pacific Ocean.

But he also knows the danger its people – and many other Pacific Islanders – will face if global warming is accompanied by rising sea levels as the Antarctic ice sheet melts.


Loss of homelands.

The passions such risks inspire are squarely behind an appeal President Tong is making to stop an industry our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, still finds attractive.

Coal mining.

The Pacific President wants nothing less than a ban on all new coal mines.

“Kiribati, as a nation faced with a very uncertain future, is calling for a global moratorium on new coal mines,” he says.

“It would be one positive step towards our collective global action against climate change.

“And it is my sincere hope that you and your people would add your positive support in this endeavour,” said President Tong, in an appeal he addressed, primarily, to Mr Abbott.

“Let us join together as a global community and take action now,” he said.

“The construction of each new coal mine undermines the spirit and intent of any agreement we may reach, particularly in the upcoming COP 21 in Paris, whilst stopping new coal mine constructions now will make any agreement reached in Paris truly historical,” the President added.

“As leaders, we have a moral obligation to ensure that the future of our children, our grandchildren and their children is safe and secure.

“For their sake, I urge you to support this call for a moratorium on new coal mines and coal mine expansions.”

In cases like this, it is always useful to have allies.

And – this time – the Australia Institute and Greenpeace have declared their support for President Tong.

Ben Oquist, Executive Director of The Australia Institute, said bluntly:”there is no plausible scenario in which a world that is tackling climate change is a world that needs more coal mines.”

The Executive Director of Greenpeace International, Dr. Kumi Naidoo, endorsed that warning, saying:”I join President Tong in calling on all leaders of similarly threatened islands to stand together and demand climate justice.

“I have now seen first hand what a sea level rise means for the people of Kiribati.

“It is not some scientific modelling or projection – it is real, it is happening now and it will only get worse.”

All are waiting for Mr Abbott’s response.

Wednesday 12th August 2015 - 10:35 am
Comments Off on A decisive day in politics

A decisive day in politics

by Alan Thornhill


So where does Australia stand now, on hot button issues like climate change and same sex marriage?

After just one day of debate, in the Federal parliament, the nation is looking for the “confused queue” on both issues.

Although most government MPs now recognise the threats posed by global warming, Federal cabinet decided early yesterday to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions by just 26 to 28 per cent – from 2005 levels – by 2030.

This was – quite literally – the least Australia could do – ahead of an international meeting on climate issues in Paris late this year.

And, after a five hour party meeting later in the day, Tony Abbott effectively killed off a plan to give government MPs a free vote on same sex marriage.

All thoughts of introducing a bill to legalise marriage equality, died too at that time.

The government’s own Climate Change Authority had advised the government that emissions must be cut by 40 – 60 per cent – from 2000 levels.

One critic asked the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, in Parliament yesterday, why his response should not be regarded as weak, risky and dangerous.

Mr Abbott declared, in reply, that substantial cuts in emissions would involve substantial expense, that could run into billions of dollars a year.

And he said he was not prepared to risk the economy in that way.

Mr Abbott’s grip on the nation’s top job appeared to be threatened at one point yesterday.

That was when Liberal front-bencher, Christopher Pyne, warned that Mr Abbott could be accused of “branch-stacking.”

Mr Pyne did that because he was angered at Mr Abbott’s insistence that conservative National Party MPs should be in the room – along with Liberals – when the governing parties decided wether there should be a free vote on same-sex marriage.

That move was lost – and with it all thought of legalising marriage equality in the near future.

The Greens condemned this outcome.

“What a disgraceful lack of leadership from the Prime Minister, who has shown yet again that he is out of touch with the community,” Senator Janet Rice, who speaks for the Greens on marriage and related issues, said.

“Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world on marriage.

“Australians want us to catch up, but Tony Abbott is determined to hold us back, Senator Rice said.

The vote on climate change led one critic to say that the only science that interests the Prime Minister is political science.

Mark Butler, the Shadow Minister for the Environment, was equally sceptical.

Speaking in parliament yesterday, he said: “today confirms that the Prime Minister wants Australia to follow.

“He does not want Australia to lead.

“He does not want Australia even to stay in touch with the rest of the world on the issue of climate change and the enormous opportunities that are presented in investment, jobs and households’ control over their energy by the renewables revolution.

“Labor wants to keep faith with future generations on climate change.

“We want to embrace the jobs and the investment opportunities that are available in a clean energy future.”

Tuesday 11th August 2015 - 4:22 pm
Comments Off on PM defends “weak” emissions target

PM defends “weak” emissions target

by Alan Thornhill

If there is to be a significant reduction in emissions there will also a significant cost, the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, told Federal parliament today.

He was speaking at question time after his government had been sharply criticised over its plan to reduce emissions by 26 per cent from the 2005 levels by 2030.

Its own Climate Council had recommended 40-60 per cent cuts from the 2000 levels.

Mr Abbott was asked to explain, at one point, why his government’s controversial decision is not “weak and dangerous.”

He said the cost, at some levels, could be in the order of $3 to $4 billion a year.

Mr Abbott said that would be “a massive hit” on the economy.

Critics attacked the government’s new policy early today, even before it had been announced.

The Greens described it as “weak.”

However its decision has won support, too particularly from business which has described it as “practical.”

The government is expected to announce its decision later today.

However in a statement early today, the Climate Council said the government’s decision is “out of step with the rest of the world.”

The Council also said it would disappoint other nations attending a climate summit that is to be held in Paris in November.

The statement quoted Professor Tim Flannery, who said:” these targets are vastly inadequate to protect Australians from the impacts of climate change and do not represent a fair contribution to the world effort to bring climate change under control.”

Labor, too, has criticised the government’s decision.

In a statement early today, the Climate Council said the government’s decision is “out of step with the rest of the world.”

The Council also said it would disappoint other nations attending a climate summit that is to be held in Paris in November.

The statement quoted Professor Tim Flannery who said:”these targets are vastly inadequate to protect Australians from the impacts of climate change and do not represent a fair contribution to the world effort to bring climate change under control.”

Labor, too, has criticised the government’s decision.

Monday 10th August 2015 - 8:33 am
Comments Off on Government urged to toughen climate protection

Government urged to toughen climate protection

by Alan Thornhill

The Federal government is being urged to adopt tough new, binding targets to tackle climate change this week, before key international meetings in Paris.

That demand, from the Climate Institute, is backed by fresh research, showing most Australians would welcome such a change.

So far, though, there has been no response from the government.

The CEO of the Institute, John Connor, said both Cabinet and the Coalition party room are expected to consider Australia’s initial post 2020 pollution reduction commitment this week.

That commitment is expected be made ahead of international climate negotiations in Paris later this year.

They would meet this week for that purpose.

Mr Connor said the expected announcement this week on Australia’s post-2020 carbon pollution reduction target is a critical opportunity for the Abbott government to better reflect public sentiment on climate action, renewables and pollution regulation, .

He was releasing the Institute’s annual review of public attitudes on climate change and its solutions.

“This week’s decision on Australia’s initial post-2020 climate commitment comes as nearly two thirds of Australians believe that the Abbott government should take climate change more seriously,” Mr Connor said.

He said the Institute’s research showed that 71 per cent of Australians agree that it is inevitable that Australia’s current coal fired generation will need to be replaced.

A similarly large majority – 72 per cent – agree that governments need a plan to ensure the orderly closure of old coal plants and their replacement with clean energy.

Only 7 per cent disagree, Mr Connor said.

The Labor party is strongly backing the Institute.

The Shadow Minister for the Environment, Mark Butler said:”This means dropping the polluters’ slush fund, putting a legal cap on pollution and stopping the attacks on renewable energy.

“Tony Abbott has desperately tried a smoke and mirrors approach to tackling climate change with his woeful policy, but Australians know it’s nothing but an ineffective waste of their money,” he added.

“As the rest of the world’s leaders are taking major steps towards meaningful action, Tony Abbott should stop trying to force Australia backwards,” Mr Butler said.

The research also shows overwhelming support for renewable energy amongst Australians.

“Tony Abbott is so out of touch on this issue, it beggars belief that any world leader could defy the global momentum and the calls for action from his electorate,” Mr Butler added.


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Alan Thornhill

Alan Thornhill is a parliamentary press gallery journalist.
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