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My intention to send a message yesterday was thwarted by a lengthy electricity blackout on the South Coast of NSW (no explanation as yet). But the “political” attack by Conroy on Lt Gen Campbell in the Senate Estimates Committee is still being debated as is the reason for the outburst and the broader on-going strategy of the Opposition. 

As a journalist from The Australian, van Onselen, suggested (see below), Conroy  probably did it deliberately to distract attention from the revelation in The Australian of the shocking performance of the NBN (3 pc coverage for over $7bn spending) during Conroy’s period as responsible minister. Indeed it is arguable that Conroy grossly misled Parliament and that, like Thomson, his statements should be referred to the Privileges Ctee. The strategy of distracting from policy failures (is anyone writing a book on them?) is also pertinent to a number  of the Opposition’s current actions, including the attempt to portray as major policy failures the Manus Island riots (see Shanahan article below) and the failure of a junior minister to ensure her chief of staff had no conflict of interest.

The Climate Change Authority has delivered its already determined death knell by advocating that the emissions reduction target for 2020 be increased from 5% to 19% on the pathetic argument that 5% per cent “would leave an improbably large task for future Australians to make a fair contribution to global efforts”. As it is extremely unlikely that there will be global agreement on any target, it is worrying that a former head of Treasury (Bernie Fraser) should as chair of the authority sign off on such a report (it is almost as bad as the hope expressed by David Marr at the Perth Writers Festival that, as a lesson on climate policy, Australia experiences a severe drought). As the CCA board is stacked with radical warmists (including Quiggin, Karoly, Hamilton), it is not surprising that it seemingly has no doubts about the dangerous warming thesis.



Conroy’s turn hurts Labor most

Article by Peter Van Onselen, published in The Australian, February 27, 2014

AS a former communications minister, Stephen Conroy knows full well the ever shortening attention span of the modern media, especially the electronic media, and how quickly the news cycle moves and can be redirected.

In particular, he understands how to capture the eye of broadcasters, thereby allowing him to shift public attention towards (or perhaps more importantly, away from) whatever subject the good Senator deems fit.

His criticisms of the head of the government’s Operation Sovereign Borders, Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, were deliberate and planned: designed to distract attention from news that the costs attached to the National Broadband Network rollout continue to skyrocket from what Conroy claimed that they would when he was the responsible minister.

Of course, the way Conroy’s offensive remarks have snowballed into a political mess for the opposition is something he either underestimated in his bid to distract from past ministerial failings, or did not care about.

The accusation Conroy levelled at Campbell that has captured so much attention was that Campbell was engaging in a political cover-up. Unsurprisingly, the general took offence.

Conroy’s reference to the film A Few Good Men, and Jack Nicholson’s character Colonel Nathan Jessup, is not the sort of commentary in Senate estimates hearings that is thought up on the spot, however tempting it might be to put the comments down to Conroy’s off-the-cuff stupidity.

They were designed to attract attention. The tactic worked.

News bulletins honed in on Conroy’s comparison, replete with grabs from the 1992 film. While this newspaper splashed yesterday with the news almost $7 billion of government funds have been put into the NBN for just 3 per cent of the rollout to be completed, most reporting on parliamentary proceedings on Tuesday went for the colourful story over and above the one which was fiscally embarrassing for Conroy (and is much more damaging to his long-term legacy as a minister).

Simply put, Conroy would have known full well when he sat in the estimates hearings earlier on Tuesday - as the executive chairman of the NBN, Ziggy Switkowski, explained the unnecessary speeds sought for the NBN under Labor and the cost blowouts - that news of that magnitude was likely to feature in political bulletins, unless something more suited to the visual medium that is television could knock it off run-downs.

There was also a strong likelihood that ongoing debate about the cost blowouts of NBN would, in time, damage Bill Shorten and Labor’s fiscal credibility, as Labor seeks to rebuild from the wrong side of the Treasury benches.

To head that off, Conroy decided to cut into the reputation of a decorated army general in an estimates hearing later in the day. But on this score, like so many tactical decisions gone wrong during Labor’s time in government, Conroy’s approach backfired. The law of unintended consequences kicked in.

Yesterday’s question time was dominated by the embarrassment of Conroy’s actions for Shorten’s leadership, as the Opposition Leader was forced to defend his Victorian factional ally. Another MP who well understands the media landscape, Malcolm Turnbull, used question time to lampoon the “madder than usual” actions of Conroy.

Even the independent Member for Denison, Andrew Wilkie, moved a motion condemning Conroy, embroiling Shorten directly in the kerfuffle.

Take a guess what the political news bulletins led with last night?

If Conroy knew his comments might result in a political hand grenade for the Opposition Leader, he simply didn’t care. It was worth it to distract from a discussion on the NBN.

Of course, the irony of Conroy accusing anyone else of a political cover up shouldn’t be lost. Think back to the design of NBN Co, such that Freedom of Information requests were rarely met. NBN Co sits outside the ambit of FoI legislation. Or the way that the Australia Network tender process was handled - on Conroy’s watch as a minister - without details of the botched process being revealed until the Auditor-General gave his scathing report.

While I’ve been critical of the secrecy of Operation Sovereign Borders, Conroy is living in a glass house when it comes to commenting on the openness or otherwise of government. The same could perhaps be said for the Coalition’s confected outrage at Conroy’s denigration of Campbell, given that in opposition it was prepared to attack public servants on an all too regular basis.

But Conroy would rather be criticised for overstepping the mark in attacking a general in estimates, where the damage is short term, than see his legacy as the minister responsible for the NBN be put under the microscope - even if Shorten is damaged in the process.

Legacy protection is just one reason Conroy has decided to continue on in politics. Like Wayne Swan, who is yet to retire from public life, a number of senior ministers from the Rudd and Gillard era remain in parliament. Some, like Conroy, are still on the frontbench. The question for Shorten is this: are they helping or hindering his efforts to become prime minister?

Peter van Onselen is the foundation chair of journalism at the University of Western Australia.

Spies, not boats, put Jakarta ties on ice

Article by Brendan Nicholson published in The Australian, February 27, 2014

THE fear of further damaging revelations about spying is the biggest stumbling block to repairing Australia’s relations with Indonesia and deepening the intelligence relationship between Canberra and Jakarta.

Jakarta remains angry about revelations by former US security contractor Edward Snowden that Australian agencies spied on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and close associates, including his wife.

But The Australian has learned that key members of the Indonesian government do not have major reservations about Australian agencies monitoring events in Indonesia - especially if that is likely to provide warnings of impending terrorist attacks. They have, in fact, expressed a desire to become an unofficial “sixth eye” in the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance with the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

It is also understood that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has recruited the help of a comprehensive network of former diplomats and military figures to use their deep contacts in Indonesia to begin repairing the relationship with Australia.

The main issue of tension between Jakarta and Canberra remains the claims that our agencies listened to the phones of the President and those close to him, and not border protection issues or the navy’s intrusions on Indonesia’s borders, The Australian was told.

After the Snowden spying allegations emerged, Indonesia barred some defence and security co-operation with Australia.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was asked to prepare a set of protocols to be shared with Indonesia, which would set the rules and limits of intelligence activities involving both countries.

Ms Bishop has confirmed that the draft agreement was delivered to Indonesia some time ago. She said the document was being considered by her Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa.

Ms Bishop said she and Dr Natalegawa remained in close contact and they exchanged regular phone and text messages.

The Australian understands the Indonesian government has not yet agreed to accept the protocols because its leaders fear being blindsided by more damaging revelations from the rogue US analyst. They are conscious that more cables are likely to emerge and that they could well be even more embarrassing than those released so far.

If Indonesian ministers accepted the agreement on intelligence-gathering, they might still find themselves dealing with fresh claims, to their considerable political cost in Indonesia’s increasingly fevered election climate. Many former and serving Australian Defence Force officers, diplomats and security specialists remain in close contact with Indonesian counterparts with whom they worked or studied. This includes strong Defence alumni groups that maintain regular contact and which have proved highly valuable at defusing tensions.

A key group is Ikahan Alumni Pertahanan Indonesia-Australia, which has many hundreds of members. Close and confidential contact is maintained by a “senior advisory group” of former generals and their equivalents in the two nations’ navies and air forces.

Former general Peter Leahy, who headed the Australian army for six years and is now a professor at Canberra University, was asked by Tony Abbott to hand-deliver a sensitive letter to the Indonesian government largely because he is a key member of the group.

When Professor Leahy was in Jakarta he is understood to have had discussions with senior retired Indonesian officers.

Members of the group meet regularly in Australia and Indonesia to talk on matters of mutual concern. They can pass on messages to ADF chief David Hurley or his equivalent, the Panglima, commanding general of the Indonesian armed forces, the TNI.

Such talks are seen as informal but they still carry a sense of authority without the level of implied commitment that comes when governments talk directly.

Manus may be a hellhole, but it’s Labor’s hellhole

Article by Dennis Shanahan, Political Editor published in The Australian, 28 February, 2014

LABOR’S predicament in the aftermath of the riots, death and injuries at Manus Island has been obvious. When in government, it deliberately set out to create a hellhole and achieved exactly that. So it’s hard to complain too much when the Coalition takes over its hellhole and things go awry.

The best Labor can do now is criticise how the Coalition manages its hellhole.

Labor has been reluctant to lash out with full force following the death of Reza Berati. Its arguments against, and parliamentary pursuit of, Scott Morrison have been half-hearted, focused on the timing of his knowledge of the events of last week and his correction of the public record.

The predicament for the Abbott government is that it accepted the arrangements on Manus Island, which means most of what happens there to asylum-seekers, whether on the perimeter of the compounds or in the processing of claims, is beyond its control.

Early reports from Papua New Guinea on last week’s riots suggest Berati died of wounds sustained in the Manus Island compound, and therefore under Australia’s care - which means Australia cannot shirk responsibility.

But the politics of the situation suggest Labor won’t be able to pursue Morrison to resignation, as some have proposed, and the message from Labor and the Coalition will be that offshore processing is working by “stopping the boats” and “saving lives”.

Hence Labor’s concentration on what Morrison knew and when he knew it, and why he didn’t release confirmation that initial reports that Berati had died outside the compound were incorrect until after 8pm last Saturday when he reportedly knew before midday.

Labor cannot stand on principle over Manus Island, and Morrison covered himself as soon as he could last week in declaring that reports from the detention centre were “conflicting”.

Thus the opposition has been reduced to concentrating on a relatively minor issue of public disclosure, which fits its theme of the Abbott government being “addicted to secrecy”. Impotence is the price Labor is paying for its complicity in the establishment and promotion of Manus Island as the PNG Solution to illegal boat arrivals. The Coalition’s price for its complicity will be having to take responsibility for a dangerous and complex situation it doesn’t control.

Morrison can point to the fact he’s not renewing the contract of the current managers, appointed by Labor, but that doesn’t address the processing of the applications for refugee status or affect the world outside the perimeter.

The simple truth about then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s reopening of Manus Island for offshore processing is that he, and Tony Burke, then immigration minister, and Richard Marles, now Labor’s immigration spokesman, who was instrumental in working with PNG last year, all hoped and believed it would not actually have to take asylum-seekers.

The theory was that the idea of going to Manus Island, which was originally part of the Howard era’s Pacific Solution, and the prospect of being banned from coming to Australia and settled in PNG if found to be a refugee would be so frightening the boats would stop.

As part of an act of bravado, Burke said Manus could be made to accommodate 10,000 people to head off people-smugglers’ plans to flood the facilities with asylum-seekers, as they had intended with Julia Gillard’s Malaysian people swap, which had a cap of 1000.

When Rudd announced the plan, he wouldn’t publicly commit to a number at Manus but he was negotiating with PNG for places for 3000. Yesterday Burke batted away the 10,000 figure and said it was “if required, but I also always said the pace at which people would go would be when facilities were there, services were there and people would be safe”.

At the time, Burke believed the reaction would be immediate, that the asylum-seekers would be deterred and nothing like the 3000 places would be needed. This was, of course, on the eve of an election campaign in which “stopping the boats” was going to be pivotal.

There is no doubt Labor’s PNG Solution had the desired effect on illegal boat arrivals - it just wasn’t as immediate as Labor had hoped. Both Burke and Marles have cited the success of their PNG policy, and claimed it was central to Morrison’s success in being able to point to 70 days without an illegal boat arrival in Australia.

But there is equally no doubt that unless it was backed with Abbott’s determined “tow or turn back” people-smuggler boats, the policy of offshore processing - designed to stop the boats with the moral justification of “saving lives” by stopping deaths at sea - would not have been as effective.

While some of the more excitable Labor MPs are keen to demonise Morrison and call across the parliamentary chamber that he has blood on his hands, the party’s leadership group - including two former immigration ministers who pushed for offshore processing - are more circumspect about sheeting home the blame for what is happening.

Labor has a long and conflicted history on dealing with illegal boat arrivals and asylum-seekers. Its policy has had to be crafted and compromised to allow, on the one hand, for the pragmatist policymakers who want to limit illegal entry to Australia, reassure the public that immigration is under control and try to stop people drowning at sea; and, on the other, those who want to accept more asylum-seekers.

Mandatory detention for those arriving illegally by boat was introduced by the Hawke-Keating government in 1992 when the “wave” of boatpeople was less than 500 arrivals a year. In 2001, when John Howard turned away the Tampa and toughened visa laws, the rate was 10 times the 1992 level at 4141 - which was one month’s arrivals under the Gillard-Rudd government. In 2002, support for detention centres by then Labor leader Simon Crean drew fire from party supporters. These included frontbencher Carmen Lawrence and former Labor adviser Anne Summers, who accused Crean and Labor’s then immigration spokeswoman, Gillard, of dragging Labor back to the White Australia policy of the 1950s.

The criticism from past oppositions, including Liberal immigration spokesman Philip Ruddock, who supported mandatory detention, has been the same as Labor’s attack this week - how the program is managed.

And the prime area of concern and criticism has been the delay in processing applications, and the welfare of people in the care (and custody) of the Australian government. The issue of delays in processing of applications by inexperienced and understaffed PNG officials is cited as one of the main reasons for last week’s fatal riot.

The politics, policies, criticisms, responsibilities and problems remain the same, and only go away when there is no one in an offshore or desert detention centre.

Australia's emissions cut pledge deemed 'inadequate' by Climate Change Authority

Article by Tom Arup, Environment Editor published in The Age, February 28, 2014

Australia should reduce emissions by 19 per cent below 2000 levels by the end of the decade - a significantly stronger target than the current pledge of a 5 per cent cut - to play its part in stopping dangerous global warming.

A review by the independent Climate Change Authority has also found Australia should then dramatically ramp up its efforts in the following decade with a target to cut 40 to 60 per cent of its emissions by 2030.

In what could be the last significant act of the authority - the Coalition is moving to axe it along with the carbon tax - it declared Australia's unconditional pledge to cut emissions by 5 per cent by 2020 as ''inadequate'' and out of step with the efforts of comparable countries such as the US.

World leaders have agreed to keep global warming to an average of 2 degrees across the planet in a bid to avoid dangerous climate change. Between 1880 and 2012 the planet warmed 0.85 degrees.

The authority said the 5 per cent 2020 cut was not a credible step towards Australia meeting its contribution to containing warming to 2 degrees. ''It would leave an improbably large task for future Australians to make a fair contribution to global efforts,'' said the authority, which is chaired by former Reserve Bank governor Bernie Fraser.

The recommendations are not likely to win government support. Environment Minister Greg Hunt said the government supported a 5 per cent target and would review other targets in 2015. Labor had not responded to questions by deadline.

Climate Institute chief executive John Connor said the report should ''shatter the wilful blindness amongst political and business leaders that the current minimum 5 per cent 2020 reduction target is adequate or economically responsible''.

Mr Fraser said the findings were driven by climate science. He said the recommendations were ''a step up, but it's doable''.

The report finds growth in gross national income would be only 0.02 per cent lower in 2020 with a 19 per cent target as with a 5 per cent cut. The average annual income would be just $100 less in 2020 if emissions were cut by 19 per cent.

The authority said given the complexity of climate change a wide range of policies should be adopted, including carbon pricing - which the Abbott government opposes - regulations and industry standards, such as limits on emissions from cars.

Costs could be kept relatively low if the government bought international carbon credits to meet the stronger 2020 emissions target. Lifting the target from 5 per cent to 19 per cent would cost between $200 million and $900 million in international credits. The authority recommended a government fund be established to buy them.

Australia is expected to come under increasing global pressure to detail its emissions cuts for post-2020 in the coming year. The United Nations-led climate talks are aiming to finalise a new climate treaty by the end of next year, which would take effect from 2020.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has invited world leaders to a special meeting on climate change. He is expected to push for countries to make stronger commitments to cut emissions.

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