Asian Correspondent » Andrew Bartlett Asian Correspondent Tue, 30 Jun 2015 18:59:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 WikiLeaks saga escalating in Australia Tue, 07 Dec 2010 14:03:09 +0000

Reflections on the views or capacity of the Australian government  have only featured fleetingly in the US government cables which have be released to date by the WikiLeaks website. But the targeting of Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, and an Australian citizen (who grew up in my home state of Queensland around the same time I did), has provided more than enough of an Australian angle.  This is likely to increase further now Assange has been arrested in the UK

What Wikileaks has been doing with this and earlier releases – in conjunction with a number of established mainstream media newspapers, it should be emphasised – raises a number of issues, not all of which have a simple black and white answer.  (One of the most balanced and rational perspectives on these issues I’ve seen to date is this one by US writer Clay Shirky.)  In many ways it is unhelpful that there has been so much focus specifically on Assange, as it is deflecting the opportunity to have more extensive and reasoned debate on the issues raised both in the leaked cables and in the approach that WikiLeaks is taking.   

But regardless of people’s individual views about what Wikileaks is doing, or impressions about Julian Assange’s motives or character, there does seem to be a growing concern that the Australian government is more interested in supporting the increasingly hysterical attacks on Assange and Wikileaks by the political elites in the USA.  Repeated inferences by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Attorney-General Robert McLelland that Assange may have broken some law and/or may have his passport cancelled have not stood up to scrutiny. Even the conservative Opposition party have clearly stated Assange has not done anything legally wrong (regardless of arguments as to whether it is morally wrong in some way).

With a number of political leaders and media commentators in the US now openly calling for Assange to be executed, assassinated or declared a ‘terrorist’ or an ‘enemy combatant’, the lack of interest from the Australian government in expressing any concern about what has basically become an incitement to murder has led a number of prominent Australians to pen an open letter to the government asking them to condemn such calls and indicate the importance of ensuring the situation is addressed within the rule of law and basic procedural fairness.  Within the space of a few hours, that letter attracted expressions of support from well over 4,000 other Australians.

In addition to the acquiescence of the Australian government thus far, the efforts of the US and other governments to take down WikiLeaks’ website, deny access to funds and the like would do communist China proud.  Whilst the Australian community is generally very supportive of the USA and our country’s alliance with them, there is less sympathy if our government is seen as sitting back and letting another country launch witch-hunts and lynch mobs against an Australian citizen. 

The news that renowned human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson – who is Australian, though British based – is preparing to represent Assange in his current legal battles in Britain/Sweded/Europe suggests this issue is likely to escalate further. Even the strongly conservative Murdoch newspaper The Australian has felt the need to provide space for Assange to put his view (with the vast majority of public comments to date being very supportive).   Governments who continue turning up the heat on this matter might want to be careful what they wish for.  

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Australia’s changing approach on climate change Mon, 29 Nov 2010 08:57:07 +0000

The announcement by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard that “2011 is the year Australia decides on carbon pricing,” caps a year where there were some major twists and turns in the climate change position taken by the Labor government.  When the Australian Labor Party took government from the conservative ‘Liberal’ Party at the 2007 election, it was in part due to a belief in the electorate that Labor would finally take meaningful action to address the threat of major climate change.   


This time twelve months ago, the Australian Parliament was locked in dispute over carbon trading legislation aimed at addressing the threat of climate change. That ended with the legislation being defeated and the Opposition conservative party changing leaders to the overt climate change sceptic, Tony Abbott.


Soon after that came the failure of the climate change summit at Copenhagen. After the defeat of its carbon trading legislation, the Labor government, under then leader Kevin Rudd, could have called an early election to get his legislation through.  Barrie Cassidy, in his recently released book, The Party Thieves, states that key Labor Party players, including Mr Rudd, had decided to do just that – at that time Labor was still well ahead in the polls – but for whatever reason, Rudd changed his mind. 


Rudd later abandoned his commitment to continue pushing to put a price a carbon, reportedly at the urging Julia Gillard, amongst others. After taking over from Rudd as Prime Minister, Gillard herself went to the election promising little in the way of action in the area, beyond a 150 person ‘citizen’s assembly’ to consider the issue.


The August election marked the key turning point, with Labor losing many votes and seats.  Most of the increase in votes went to the Greens party, although most of the increase in House of Representative seats – which determines who forms government – went to the conservative ‘Liberal’ Party.  But in the Senate, with its more democratic proportional representation voting system, the Greens won four extra seats, while the Liberals lost three.  This ended the effective control of the Senate which the Liberals had had for the past two terms, meaning that any Labor government legislation which the Liberals oppose cannot be passed through the Senate without the support of the Greens.


This new Senate dynamic, combined with the Independents and Green in the Lower House – who all believe action on climate change is needed – whose support kept the Labor government in power after the election, has clearly convinced Julia Gillard to change tack and revert to a position where putting a price on carbon pollution and taking effective action on climate change once again becomes a priority. 


Of course, a comment from the Prime Minister saying that ‘Australia will decide on carbon pricing’ is no guarantee it will happen. But the swing to the Greens in the federal election means the government now has to negotiate with the Greens – rather than the climate change skeptics who control the Opposition – to get legislation through the Senate means there is a stronger chance of getting some effective measures to reduce greenhouse emissions passed into law.


It’s a positive shift – and the Prime Minister’s comment that 2011 will be the year that ‘Australia decides on carbon pricing’ is an extra step down that positive path.  But – as we have already seen – turning positive comments and signals into effective legislation is a much more difficult thing. We can only hope the Australian Parliament gets it right this time around.

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CO2 levels threaten Great Barrier Reef Sun, 28 Nov 2010 09:50:25 +0000


A recent news report has indicated that a research team led by renowned coral biologist Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg has affirmed the serious threat ocean acidification – caused by increasing greenhouse emissions – has on the Great Barrier Reef (and presumably coral reefs elsewhere).


They have used four experimental underwater chambers – two with current levels of carbon dioxide, and two simulating water with the predicted levels of carbon dioxide in the year 2050.  


A member of the research team, David Kline is quoted as saying: If people’s CO2 emissions continue as they have, the future of the reef is very grim. I would suggest that coral reefs will be highly altered and perturbed ecosystems by 2050 if we do not make a massive effort to curb our emissions.”


In the course of 2010, the federal Labor government’s commitment to act urgently to reduce Australia’s greenhouse emissions was jettisoned – an action which most observers believe was pivotal in the subsequent unprecedentedly rapid decline in support for the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. In one of those ironies which politics is so prone to producing, the woman who replaced Rudd as leader, Julia Gillard, was one of those who urged him to defer plans to put a price on carbon. Yet due to the closeness of the subsequent election, and the fact she was only able to form government with the support of Independent MPs and a Green MP, who all believe action on climate change is urgent, she has now recommitted to attempt to implement a price on carbon in the term of the new Parliament.


With the future of the Great Barrier Reef at stake, which is not only an environmental wonder but directly generates tens of thousands of tourism industry jobs and export income, public support for stronger action on climate change is likely to grow once again, assuming there is strong enough political leadership this time around. 




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Views of the ‘election’ in Burma Tue, 09 Nov 2010 14:04:36 +0000

It has been interesting to read the posts of Zin Linn about the situation in Burma, especially with events surrounding (what passes for) an election in that country.

I usually complain that the Australian media pays little attention to elections and other political events in nations in the south-east Asian region nearby to us.  I find it somewhat ironic that the ‘election’ which seems to be getting a lot of coverage is one which is so unfair and rigged as to barely justify being called an election at all.  None the less, it is good that people are being regularly reminded of the enormity of the injustices and human rights abuses that are continuing to occur in Burma.  

The news site of the ABC, Australia’s public broadcaster, has contained many reports leading up to and about the election, as well as the violence that is occurring around it.  Other independent media have provided differing perspectives about the situation.  Debate is occurring amongst the three main political parties in Australia about whether there should be stronger trade sanctions against Burma. It is unfortunate that it is hard to hear the direct views of the people living in Burma, as well as those who have been forced out.  Condemndation of the ‘sham poll’ and the violence surrounding it is widespread.

Amnesty International Australia has made Burma a priority issue this year. I recently attended a film screening at the University of Queensland in Brisbane showing first hand accounts of  some of the oppression and violence of the military regime.  (A comprehensive report from Amnesty International on human rights abuses in Burma can be found at this link). Human Rights Watch have been giving Burma a lot of attention as well.

Certainly many Australians have been made all too aware of just how bad things are for the people of Burma. But as is so often the case, the hard question is what effective things can be done about it? I hope the least we can do is make sure those refugees who have had to flee the oppression and violence are supported and not forced back to danger. The Thai government is the main one in the spotlight about that issue, but along with expressing concern about that possibility, we should look at how we could encourage and support countries in the region who face the main impact of refugees fleeing from Burma.

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Is Australia too full? Tue, 02 Nov 2010 12:09:48 +0000

Australia currently has a population of just over twenty-two and a half million people.  Some suggest this is already too many people, and Australia can’t fit any more people without destroying our environment, and building infrastructure for more people will just make things worse.

Today, the ‘race that stops the nation’ – the Melbourne Cup – was run in Australia, as it is every year. It involves betting on which out of 24 horses can be in front after running 3,200 metres.  Over $110 million dollars was gambled on that one race  – about five dollars per person, and more than the weekly minimum wage in our neighbouring country of Indonesia.

I’d be interested in any comments from readers outside of Australia about whether they believe this country is already overloaded.

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Boat people issue dominates Australian coverage of PM’s Asian visits Mon, 01 Nov 2010 13:39:03 +0000

Despite all the significant economic, human rights, environmental, social and security issues which are important in our future relations with our neighbouring countries, the issue of a few thousand asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat each year is the one which is dominating most Australia media coverage of the Prime Minister’s current visits around the region.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has finished her first East Asia Summit, had bilateral discussions with the Vietnamese government and has been to Malaysia for discussions there. Indonesia comes next.  This transcript of the media conference she gave in Vietnam after the Summit shows that fully half of the questions related to asylum seekers, with most of the other split between the issue of human rights in the region and a local political story in Australia. 

The issue also dominated the coverage by ABC radio of the Prime Minister’s Malaysian talks, with just a brief mention at the end of the story about the possibility of a Free Trade Agreement.  By contrast, this article about the visit from a Malaysian news agency makes no mention of asylum seekers or people smuggling at all, focusing instead on economic opportunities and how this links with tertiary education and training opportunities offered in Australia.

The number of students from the region coming to study in Australia has been in decline in the last year or so. No doubt the Australian government is looking to turn this around. Ms Gillard announced the creation of 7,500 scholarships for students from East Asia Summit countries to study in Australia over the next four years.  

Her Vietnam visit also coincided with the opening of the Hanoi campus of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology – the first foreign owned university in Vietnam.

However, they will need to do more than marketing and scholarships.  Studying in Australia is extremely expensive for international students. They also need to demonstrate they have very significant financial reserves, whilst having restriction on the numbers of hours they (and their spouse if they have one) can work while they are in the country. Changes to the rules around student visas have also made Australia less attractive – particularly the fact that when the rules were changed it affected students who were already here and had spent large amounts of money on the basis of rules which no longer applied.  If people cannot be confident that the rules will not be changed midstream, they are far more likely to look elsewhere. 

Apart from the economic benefits to Australia from international students, it also potentially has economic benefit for the region, and for strengthening engagement at business, as well as civic society level. This is far more significant for the future of Australia and the other countries in our region than having to process and potentially settle some refugees.

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Australian PM turns attention to Asia Fri, 29 Oct 2010 00:02:16 +0000


With the first two full weeks of Parliamentary sittings for her newly elected government just concluded, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is heading to Vietnam for the East Asia Summit.

Having become Prime Minister not long before calling an election, and still adjusting to the rare situation of governing from a minority position in the House of Representatives, it is fair to say Ms Gillard is still settling in to the role of PM.

This particularly applies in the area of foreign affairs, where Ms Gillard has barely bothered to hide her lack of experience or even interest.  However, when John Howard first came to office in 1996, foreign affairs didn’t seem high on his list of priorities or interests either. It probably took him a couple of terms to really get comfortable in the area, but eventually he defined himself as much by these issues as he did by the economic and industrial relations policies which had been his focus for so long.

I don’t know if it will take Julia Gillard the same amount of time to get a proper feel for how to effectively engage with other countries. She has the added element of having Kevin Rudd, the man she deposed as Prime Minister, serving as her Foreign Minister, an area which is seen as his specialty. Whether this will turn out to be a plus or a minus for Gillard remains to be seen.

In any case, south-east Asia and the Pacific is the key region where Ms Gillard needs to get up to speed, and this month will be an important part of that.  After the East Asia summit, she will be visiting Malaysia and Indonesia, followed the G20 in South Korea and the APEC meeting in Japan.

Her visits in Indonesia and Malaysia will no doubt includes talks about the movement of asylum seekers through the region – something which is unfortunately usually portrayed in the media (and by the government) as a security issue rather than a humanitarian or infrastructure issue.

The upcoming elections in Burma will give a clear opportunity to highlight the importance of basic freedoms and human rights standards being met, although there is no real sign that the excessive levels of oppression in Burma are in any way reducing.

No doubt while in Indonesia a request will also be made for clemency for Australians imprisoned, including three on death row in Bali on drug-related offences.  I hope mention is also made of the need to tackle ongoing human rights abuses in West Papua, which have gained more prominence of late due to video footage of Papuans being tortured by Indonesian security personnel.

In amongst all that, finding ways to improve economic engagement and address environmental threats and challenges in the region will need to get some priority. The continuing slump in the number of international students from the region coming to study in Australia is only going to weaken our capacity to make positive advances in these areas.


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Asia’s coral reefs under threat Fri, 22 Oct 2010 04:42:23 +0000


International marine scientists say that a huge coral death which has struck Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean reefs over recent months has highlighted the urgency of controlling global carbon emissions. …

The bleaching event has also hit the richest marine biodiversity zone on the planet, the ‘Amazon Rainforest’ of the seas, known as the Coral Triangle, which is bounded by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

So states a recent report from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.  The vast majority of Australians live on the east coast of the country, and most of the public focus regarding coral reefs is on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), which lies in the Pacific Ocean and extends from the northern tip of Queensland three thousand kilometres down the coastline, and in more recent times on the Coral Sea further to the east.  

This tends to mean there is less awareness about coral reefs and other unique marine life on the other side of Australia in the Indian Ocean. But the biodiversity in these areas is just as important.

Failing to act on climate change will put all coral reefs at risk, if not through bleaching then through ocean acidification. But larger marine parks and protected areas does help improve the resilience of the reef systems.

After a lot public campaigning, the previous Australian government dramatically extended the size of fully protected areas within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park up to around 33 per cent of the total Park area. 

This is probably the single greatest environmental legacy of the former conservative Howard government, which was not known for a consistent commitment on improving environmental protection – as evidenced by their almost total inaction during the eleven years they were in government on tackling the threat of climate change. After one term of stops and starts on climate change action, the newly re-elected Labor government is showing signs of moving more quickly to get meaningful action on implementing a carbon pricing mechanism to assist in reducing carbon emissions, although it will be well into next year before a clear picture emerges about what is likely to be done.

The major improvement in protection in the GBR Marine Park contrasts with the new Great Kimberly Marine Park in the Indian Ocean, which has recently been announced by the Western Australian state government, which reportedly only has 2 per cent of the park area fully protected.

There was some ferocious opposition to extending protection for the GBR Marine Park, mostly from commercial fishing interests. They often sought to get the support of recreational fishers by making exaggerated claims of plans for blanket bans on fishing.  The same false claims were widely repeated in the lead up to the recent federal election in Australia, due to promises by the Greens and the Labor government to seek expand the amount of marine protected areas.  There is now plenty of evidence to show that allowing larger fish sanctuaries improves overall fish stock, so improving the number of protected areas means more fish available for recreational fishers, but I would expect similar scare campaigns are one of the reasons why the Western Australian government has chosen to fully protect such a small percentage within a sizeable park.

However, it is promising to see there is an intent for some of the areas to be jointly managed with the traditional Aboriginal owners of some of the land conservation areas. This is something which governments, especially at state level, have often fallen short in when declaring environmentally protected areas.

(initial information found via Larvatus Prodeo


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Australian election hits half-way point Thu, 05 Aug 2010 00:11:02 +0000

The legal minimum time in Australia between when a national election is officially announced and polling day is 33 days. It is in the hands of the government of the day to decide the date and the precise length of time, but it is rare that the official campaign goes much longer than five weeks. That’s the time frame for this year’s election, and we’ve just gone past the half way point.

The theory in having a short campaign is it benefits the incumbent and the front-runner, giving their opposition less time to impress voters. But this is an unusual election. The incumbemt Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has only held that office for a little over a month, after her Labor Party decided to remove Kevin Rudd, the man who led them back into government at the previous election in 2007.

Her challenger in the Opposition, Tony Abbott, has also only held that position for about eight months, when he emerged as the surprise victor from a leadership challenge brought on by party dissent over acting on climate change. His persona as an arch-conservative had often been seen as being too extreme to be electable, but it is possible that the appearance of conviction provides a positive for him, compared to the more wishy-washy middle of the road approach which many other politicians tend to adopt. Gillard has been in Parliament since 1998, and Abbott since 1994, and while both have been relatively high profile, voters are still acclimatising to them in their leadership positions.

Julia Gillard started the campaign as the assumed front-runner, but after a less than ideal campaign the halfway mark sees Tony Abbott now in the position of favourite. The nationwide opinion polls have the two largest parties neck and neck, but there is a large amount of regional variation. Unfortunately for Labor, they are doing worse than average in the states of Queensland and New South Wales, which happens to be where the majority of marginal seats are. Stronger showings for Labor in Victoria and South Australia are not likely to win them a large number of seats to compensate for the looming losses further north.

But, as the cliche goes, a week is along time in politics. Two and a half weeks during the hyper-activity of an election campaign provides plenty of time for things to change again – especially with an electorate that is still getting used to the idea of either of the two main contestants being Prime Minister.

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Australian election – 34 days to go Sun, 18 Jul 2010 13:34:24 +0000

As noted here on Asian Correspondent, the Australian election campaign is officially underway. Australia’s first ever female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard – who has held the position for just a few weeks – visited Australia’s first ever female Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, to get formal authority to dissolve the House of Representatives and bring on an election for that house, as well as for half of the Senate – the Upper House in Australia’s national Parliament.

The media is already focusing heavily on opinion polls, which suggest it may be a tight contest between Gillard’s Labor Party and the Opposition Liberal/National Party Coalition, led by Tony Abbott. What is often forgotten in looking at polls which aggregate the voting intentions of people across the country is that there is a lot of regional variation in how voters feel. For a party to win the election, they don’t need to get a majority of votes, they need to win a majority of seats in the House of Representatives.

There are 150 seats in the House of Reps, which in effect means 150 separate electoral contests will determine which party forms government and who becomes Prime Minister. Voters also get to cast a separate vote for the Senate, where each of the six states will elect six Senators, with another two being elected in the two Territories (the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory – which are different in almost every imaginable way, but up until now have always split their two Senate seats equally between Labor and the Coalition). However, while the Senate is equal in power to the House of Representatives in almost every other way, the results here have no direct impact on who is able to form government – although it can have a huge impact on how well that government goes in getting its legislation passed through the Parliament.  It is very likely that this election will see the Greens Party establish itself as holding the sole balance of power in the Senate, meaning that party will have the deciding say on any legislation or issue where Labor and the Coalition disagree.

Heading into the election, the Labor Party holds 83 seats, the Liberal/National Coalition holds 64 seats, and there are 3 Independents (all of who have a background with the National Party). If Labor loses more than 8 seats to the Coalition, they will be likely to lose government. A wild card is the possibility that the Greens may also win a seat or two in the House of Representatives – if they do achieve this, it will almost certainly be seats currently held by Labor. But Australia’s two party system is very entrenched, and it is a big ask for third parties to win House of Reps seats at a general election.

The main issues that have been singled out are economic management (especially jobs, taxes, government spending and debt), climate change and asylum seekers. I’ve written before about asylum seekers – it is ridiculous that such a minor issue gets so much political traction in Australia, but it none the less does. But the other issues I’ve – and many more – are important to the day to day lives of most Australians, and barring a major surprise from left field, those will be the ones which dominate most public debate.

At the moment, it is reasonable to see Labor as the favourite to hang on to government. But the level of disenchantment with both of the traditional major parties is such that what happens during the election campaign between now and August 21 could well shift enough votes to give a shock win to the Coalition, or to make things so close that it would give the Independents and/or Greens a say on who ends up forming government after the election.  

There are two very old and very well worn political cliches – that a week is along time in politics, and that the only poll that matters is the one on election day.

We have five weeks to go until election day, and no doubt also many many opinion polls to be published between now and then.


(disclaimer: the writer is running as a House of Representatives candidate for the Greens party in this election)

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Refugees again a political football in lead up to election Wed, 14 Jul 2010 01:18:09 +0000

The arrival of asylum seekers in boats has been a hot button political issue in Australia for many years.  Public anxiety and antagonism towards these refugees tends to be strong, even though the numbers which arrive in this way are tiny by global standards, and there have been no social or security problems from these refugees once they have settled in Australia. The Vietnamese ‘boat people’ who arrived through the 1970s following the end of the Vietnam war have overall been extremely successful participants in Australia’s economy.

Despite this, the last Australian election which was heavily influenced by the refugee issue was in 2001, when the then-Howard government used the Defence force, including elite Special Armed Services troops, to board and take command of refugee boats. Most of the refugees were then sent to Nauru or to Manus island in Papua New Guinea.

With the Australian election date set to be announced within a matter of days, asylum seeker boats are again a hot political topic. The Australian government has floated the idea of establishing a ‘regional processing centre’ for refugees in East Timor, although it hasn’t been very clear on how a ‘regional processing centre’ would differ from detention centres such as those the previous government set up on Nauru (which were also called ‘processing centres’ but which kept the refugees in detention for a number of years, well after they had been ‘processed’.)

East Timor has been singled out in the region because it has signed the UN Refugee Convention, although Nauru has now said it will consider also signing this Convention. Interestingly, Papua New Guinea has also signed the Convention (with some reservations), but this fact hasn’t been mentioned in public debate to date.

Whilst it is true that the ideal long-term approach to displaced people in the south-east Asian region is a coordinated, regional one, it is hard to see the federal government’s current moevs as anything other than short-term band-aids, aimed at fixing a political problem (rather than a refugee problem) before the election is called.

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Australian election imminent Sun, 11 Jul 2010 00:38:11 +0000

There is a widespread expectation that Julia Gillard, the new Australian Prime Minister, will announce a federal election within the next week or two, which would see an election date of 21st or 28th August.  

Gillard only came into the position in the last month, following the shock decision of the Parliamentarians from the ruling Labor Party to remove Kevin Rudd from the position.  The rapid plunge in public support for Rudd and his removal before he’d completed even a single term after winning office is unprecedented in Australian political history, but that is already history.  Under its new leadership the government is clearly preparing to call an election as early as possible.

It is widely accepted that there were three key problem issues the Labor Party and its new Prime Minister needed to neutralise before they could go to the polls.  The first was a proposed new mining tax, the second was how handle the small but politically potent number of asylum seekers who arrive in Australian territory in boats, and the third is the approach to climate change.

Attempts have already been made to address the first two of these issues.  A deal has been made with the three biggest mining companies to reduce the impact of the mining tax.  This hasn’t satisfied everybody, and the actual cost to public revenue of the change is potentially much larger than has been stated, but it has probably still done the job in removing this as a vote shifting issue, which was the government’s main intent.

On the asylum seeker issue, Ms Gillard has proposed a new regional centre to process asylum claims, potentially as part of a wider agreement with other countries in the region.  This proposal is quite vague and will certainly take quite a while to put into place, so it does little to address existing concerns.  There is a significant political divide on this issue in Australia, with some such as myself being very unhappy at the deliberately punitive and very expensive approach of compulsorily detaining all asylum seekers and drawn out times for assessing claims before they are allowed into the community.

On the other side of the divide are a significant number of people who basically don’t want any asylum seekers to be admitted at all, and are prepared to support very harsh treatment to bring this about.  Ms Gillard has tried to acknowledge the concerns and views of both sides, but she risks leaving everyone unhappy.  I doubt the asylum seeker issue has been neutralised in the way that the Labor Party would like, but I also expect they’ve done as much as they’re likely to do prior to the election and will just hope the issue doesn’t become too prominent.

The government will almost certainly try to tackle the final problem issue of climate change sometime this week.  The decision of the previous Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, to walk away from his promised Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is widely seen as causing the rapid collapse in his popularity – not just because people were unhappy with the policy shift, but because it made him appear that he lacked conviction. Mr Rudd has described climate change as the “greatest political and moral challenge of our generation”. Being seen to then walk away from this challenge with little more than a shrug of the shoulders fundamentally undermined the impression voters had of Kevin Rudd as a person who stood firm on what he believed.

Even though Kevin Rudd made this policy shift with the support of Julia Gillard, it is less of a problem for her as she did not make such strong public statements about the need for action.

None the less, a clear majority of Australians want strong action on climate change, and Labor has to come up with a policy that appears to provide this, even though they have already ruled out any sort of carbon pricing mechanism, whether that is a new ETS or a carbon tax.

In the absence of any carbon pricing, it is highly unlikely the Labor government will come up with a policy which could bring about the necessary reduction in greenhouse emissions to help reduce the threat of climate change.  Whether it will be enough to reduce the threat of people changing their votes remains to be seen.

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Impact of Philippines election in Australia Fri, 21 May 2010 14:50:53 +0000

It is not surprising that a great deal of international media coverage is being devoted to the drawn out turmoil and violence in Thailand.  News coverage of the unfolding events in Thailand has been quite extensive in Australia, which is a reasonable thing given Thailand’s proximity to Australia, and the significance of what is happening.

But I have been a bit surprised that there has been very little coverage in Australian media of the Philippines election.  There has long been a very significant number of Philippine born people living in Australia, and this trend is continuing (details in the Settler Arrivals publication at this link). After the big two of China and India, the Philippines is easily the next largest Asian countries when it comes to the number of people migrating to Australia each year, and it usually ranks around fifth or sixth on this measure out of all countries globally (the other large source countries of migrants to Australia are New Zealand and the UK – South Africa usually ranks below the Philippines, but crept a bit above it in the most recent year).

So Australia retains strong links to the Philippines at civil society level, and provides an import economic relationship too. Given this, I am a bit unsure why the election has gained so little coverage here – perhaps there is a feeling that the more issues and problems won’t change much, regardless of who wins. However, this piece from the Australian Journal of Mining does show that election outcomes can make a big difference economically – and they are just as capable of having a significant influence socially and on the environment. 

While there hasn’t been much coverage of this election in the mainstream Australian piece, this article by Professor Paul Hutchcroft on the Inside Story website does present a very detailed analysis. Prof Hutchcroft is the Director of the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies at the Australian National Universities College of Asia and the Pacific and was in the Philippines observing the election there. Whilst he clearly sees the challenges facing Noynoy Aquino, the new President, as very formidable ones, he also clearly believes there are prospects for progress.

I’d be interested in hearing from any people living in the Philippines whether they agree with Professor Hutchcroft’s assessments of the situation in that country. There will clearly continue to be very large numbers of people living in Australia with direct social and economic links with the Philippines, and greater awareness of developments in that country would benefit us all.



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What lessons could the Liberal Democrats showing in the UK election provide for Australian politics? Sun, 02 May 2010 07:47:06 +0000

A couple of weeks ago, Tasmania made a small but significant contribution to Australian political history when Greens MP Nick McKim was appointed to a ministerial position. It wasn’t the first time an independent or a non-aligned third party MP has been appointed minister outside a formal coalition agreement at state government level, but this occasion came about off the back of a record state-wide vote for the Greens of 21.3 percent which affirmed the party’s strengthened credibility as a third party choice. 

While this result fell slightly short of the extraordinary 22.7 percent won by the new One Nation party in the 1998 Queensland election, that proved to be very much a flash in the pan. By contrast, the Greens in Tasmania have built up their vote and presence over more than 20 years. This has been achieved in the face of fierce resistance by the two traditional major parties — who even went so far as to shrink the size of the Tasmanian parliament in an effort to lock the Greens out of the system.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the appointment of a Greens Minister will consolidate the Greens’ vote. The circumstances are very different, but the failure of South Australian Nationals MP Karlene Maywald — who served as a non-aligned minister in the last two Rann Labor governments — to hold her own seat in the recent South Australian election shows that holding a ministership does not guarantee an increase in voter support. But at a bare minimum, it will be very difficult for Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett to stop Nick McKim from taking part in the televised debates between leaders during the next Tasmanian election campaign, as he managed to do last time around.

This may seem like a petty matter, but as Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats showed in the first of the Leaders’ debates in the current UK election campaign, giving a third party a platform alongside the two traditional major parties can transform voter attitudes. Even though they polled over 22 percent in the 2005 UK general elections, and over 25 percent in the 2008 local council elections, the Liberal Democrats have still struggled with the perception that they are not in the same frame as Labour and the Conservatives. Most people believed Nick Clegg performed very well in the first Leaders’ debate but the mere fact that he and his party were given equal billing with the others was highly significant.

Both the Liberal Democrats in the UK and the Greens in Australia are seeking to break into what have effectively operated as two party systems for more than a lifetime. Both are positioning themselves as progressive, fresh alternatives to tired, spin-driven parties. And both face major opposition not just from two well-entrenched competitors, but also from major media and corporate interests who are much more comfortable with the established system.

After sitting under the radar of Labour and the Conservatives at the start of the campaign, Nick Clegg and his party are now the subjects of direct attacks from the two old parties.

In the fiercely competitive world of politics, this sort of treatment should come as no surprise to smaller parties if they do become a genuine threat.

As Liberal Senator Nick Minchin kindly informed the Australian Democrats during the round of speeches delivered as that party ended its 30 year presence in the Australian Parliament, the major parties pull out all stops when they perceive a serious threat to their turf. Minchin noted his “achievement” in stopping then Democrats leader, the late Janine Haines, from winning a Lower House seat at the 1990 election. As Minchin said, when polling showed Haines was likely to win — which from his party’s perspective “would have been a dreadful thing to have occurred” — he unleashed “the most negative campaign that has ever been run against the Democrats anywhere”. The Democrats never polled that highly again.

The Greens in Tasmania were better prepared for similarly ferocious and misleading final-week attacks from the ALP at the recent state election but it is still hard for smaller parties to avoid some electoral damage from these kind of attacks. While Labor was rightly criticised for its dodgy smears, they almost achieved their purpose of dragging down the Greens’ vote in the seat of Braddon far enough to stop them gaining a seat.

Although the tiers of government in the UK and Australia aren’t exactly comparable, the Greens have mirrored the Liberal Democrats insofar as they have built a presence and trust with voters at a local level. Both parties have allowed voters to get used to the idea that the sky doesn’t fall in when third parties get elected to positions of authority.

The Greens now have over 100 people elected to local government positions across Australia, and 21 MPs across every state and territory — with the exception of Queensland and the Northern Territory. The Liberal Democrats’ strategy of heavily targeting particular localities and slowly building up enough support to be seen as a credible choice in specific House of Commons electorates has worked well for them.

Of course, there are also significant differences between the two scenarios. While the Greens have been slowly but steadily building their electoral support around the country since the 1990s, they have only been elected to lower house seats in general elections in multi-member proportional representation systems in Tasmania and the ACT. Lower house by-election successes at federal level and in Western Australia have yet to be repeated at a general election.

By contrast, while the Liberal Democrats have only been around in their current incarnation since 1988, their party history stretches back to the 19th Century, including a long period as the dominant governing party. Despite long periods in the doldrums, they have always maintained some presence in the House of Commons, even with the disadvantage of its far more primitive first-past-the-post voting system, not to mention the built in disadvantages arising from infrequent redistributions, which strongly favour the Labour Party.

Tasmania, with its population of around half a million under a compulsory voting regime, is a very different electoral environment to the UK, with more than 61 million people, major regional variations and a voluntary voting system.

Although the Liberal Democrats and the Greens can both broadly be defined as centre-left, with the Liberal Democrats consistently giving more attention to environmental issues than the two major parties, they do have different philosophical traditions and social bases. Indeed, one of the side issues of interest in the UK election is whether the British Green party will win their first Lower House seat, with Caroline Lucas seen as a genuine chance to win the seat of Brighton Pavilion.

It is easy to overdo the search for parallels. A Liberal Democrat breakthrough will occur not if they outpoll one of the two majors — although polls currently suggest this is on the cards — but if they gain enough seats to hold the balance of power. This second scenario is also possible, but harder to predict given the serious distortions built in to the UK electoral system.

If the Greens do manage to maintain their general growth around Australia, they are more likely to have lower house breakthroughs in a small number of seats, rather than surge to voting levels on a par with one of the established majors. The impact of these breakthroughs, should they occur, will vary depending on the surrounding political environment — including whether they find themselves in a balance of power scenario or not.

The Greens are tipped as having some chances in a few House of Representatives seats at this year’s federal election, but they are even better poised to break through in a number of lower house seats in both the Victorian and New South Wales elections due to follow the federal poll.

Just like Gordon Brown’s Labour Party, a number of long-term state Labor governments are struggling to convince voters that they haven’t outstayed their welcome — and the conservative parties in opposition are struggling to inspire voters as an alternative. The challenge for progressive third parties like the Greens and the Lib Dems is to overcome perceptions that they are not a credible mainstream choice. This is something the Lib Dems have clearly achieved — while the Greens have a bit further to go.

One final point of commonality between the Greens in Tasmania and the Liberal Democrats in the UK may emerge — and that is a final result which is lower than what the pundits predicted. While the Greens’ result in Tasmania was a record, it was a few percentage points below what some pre-election polls suggested — probably partly as a result of Labor’s final week assault and partly some last minute voter decisions to go “back to the fold” of their traditional major party.

After all the pre-election publicity and many polls that suggest the Liberal Democrats may shoot to second place — at least — in the popular vote, it’s possible a few voters might still shy away at the final minute, especially given the continuing attacks not just from political opponents, but from a mainstream press in the UK which is aggressively partisan.

In the end, after the all the punditry and hype and analysis, next week’s UK election will boil down to very simple arithmetic: how many seats each party wins, and whether either major party has won enough to govern in their own right. And when a federal election is called in Australia, the same will apply.

(This story was first published by New Matilda on April 30, 2010).

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Australia strengthens death penalty ban Fri, 12 Mar 2010 04:02:15 +0000

A significant piece of legislation passed the Australian Parliament this week. The new law prohibits the death penalty from being re-adopted by any state or territory government in Australia, and also made also forms of torture illegal under Australian law.

The initial significance of the legislation lies in what it will prevent, rather than what it will make happen.  While the last state execution in Australia was carried out in the 1960s, and the last state formally abolished the death penalty more than two decades ago, there has been nothing to stop any state and territory government from re-introducing it.

Occasional calls are made from people in the community, and some in the political arena, for this to happen.  Indeed, just a couple of weeks a go, the new leader of the federal opposition, Tony Abbott, tried to have an each way bet – saying he opposed the death penalty, but none the less thought that there were some crimes so heinous that the death penalty was an appropriate response.

The longer-term benefit of the legislation will be to strengthen Australia’s credibility when it seeks to persuade governments of other nations to follow the same path. Many countries in our region still have the death penalty, although some use it more frequently than others.

With three Australians currently on death row in Indonesia for drug smuggling offences, there is likely to be ongoing reminders of the death penalty debate in Australia. The visit of the Indonesia President to Australia this week will have engendered a lot of goodwill in Australia. The final appeals of the three on death row against their sentences are currently being heard by the Indonesian Courts. If these are unsuccessful, the last hope is for the President to use his Presidential clemency powers.

I’m sure if he were to do this, it would also engender significant goodwill in Australia, particular in respect to Scott Rush, whose death sentence seems an anomaly, given he played the same courier role as others arrested with him who did not get the death penalty. The other two on death row appear to have played much more of a central organising role.  Whilst in my view no one should ever be executed by the state, it is doubly wrong when a death sentence is inconsistently applied.

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Two weeks until elections in 2 Australian states Fri, 05 Mar 2010 01:16:08 +0000

 There are only two weeks to go until state elections in both Tasmania and South Australia.  Tasmania is unique amongst Australian states in having multi-member electorates with a proportional representation voting system, which is rare in English speaking jurisdictions, but common across much of continental Europe. The polls suggest it is highly likely that the election outcome will see no single party winning a majority in their own right.  

By contrast, South Australia has a system of single member electorates. Until recently, the widespread assumption was that the incumbent Labor Party, in office since 2002, would be re-elected reasonably comfortably.  However, some are not starting to suggest the government might lose enough seats that there will also be a result where neither major party has a majority. This is reasonably uncommon, though not unprecedented.  Indeed, this is the situation under which current Premier, Mike Rann, first came into government after the 2002 election, when he unexpectedly got support from a former Liberal, turned Independent MP to form government instead of the Liberals. 

While the Opposition Liberals need to win 10 seats to gain a majority in the 47 seat Parliament, Labor only needs to lose five seats to lose majority control.  This would leave the choice of who forms government in the hands of three independents, all of whom are likely to be re-elected. As is unfortunately usual in Australia, there is very little focus on white might happen in elections for the Upper House, even though results there will also be important in shaping the next Parliament and the laws it passed. But if there is a hung Parliament in South Australia it will be a few individual independents who would decide who formed government and with what conditions.  

By contrast, in the event of a hung Parliament in Tasmania, it would be the Green Party, rather than a collection of independents, to decide who forms government.  The Greens look likely to win between 4 and 6 seats in the 25 member Legislative Assembly and Nick McKim, the Greens’ Leader, appears to be making every effort to reassure voters that if the party does find itself in such a situation after the election, they will not adopt inflexible ultimatums or demands with the other parties. He recently stated than if such a situation arises

“We will not be demanding anything because issuing ultimatums and insisting on outcomes is not the way to enter into good-faith negotiations.”

Of course, such post-election scenarios are commonplace in the majority of western democracies. But the Australian media still tends to view such outcomes with unease, occasionally lapsing into fearful pronunciations about the supposed ‘uncertainty’ or ‘instability’ that would result in such circumstances; which is no doubt why Nick McKim is going out of his way to assuage such fears.

He has rightly pointed to the arrangement that has been operating in the Australian Capital Territory Assembly since the last election there. (The ACT also has a multi-member, proportional representation electoral system). After some time weighing up the options, the Greens, with 4 seats in the 17 member Legislative Assembly, decided to back the minority Labor Party to form government.  By all accounts, the arrangement has worked very well thus far.  There is no question about the stability of government in the Territory, but the Labor administration still has to take into account the views of the other two parties in the Assembly if it wants to get its legislation passed, providing better accountability and scrutiny than a government which could basically push whatever laws it liked through the Assembly.

The results in these two states on March 21 will be examined with a view to what it might mean for the upcoming federal election. Some recent opinion polls have shown the large lead of the incumbent federal Labor party over the opposition Liberal party starting to narrow a bit, but currently the Labor Party is still a strong favourite to win a second term at the election, which is likely to be held in the period around August – October.



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Few Asian countries signed up to Convention against cluster bombs as it enters into force Tue, 23 Feb 2010 01:08:03 +0000


Last week, the international convention to ban the use of cluster bombs and munitions was ratified by two more countries, providing the 30 ratifications needed for it to become officially binding international law.  The Convention on Cluster Munitions will now come into force this year on August 1, little more than two years after it was first adopted in Dublin in May 2008.

Movement on this convention has occurred fairly rapidly, due to widespread  pressure and concerns expressed around the globe. According to Human Rights Watch, the convention:

comprehensively prohibits the use, production, and transfer of cluster munitions, provides strict deadlines for clearing affected areas and destroying stockpiled cluster munitions, and requires assistance to victims of the weapons.

Noticeable in the list of nations who have ratified or signed the convention is how few there are from Asia.  Japan and Laos are the only two Asian nations to have ratified the convention to date, with Afghanistan, Indonesia and the Philippines the only others to have signed but not yet ratified it.

In August last year, the federal Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee in Treaties reported on their inquiry into the convention.

The Committee recommended that the convention be ratified, whilst also identifying some areas where domestic legislation to implement the requirements of the convention would need to be made clear enough to prevent any inadvertent loopholes or breaches.

The Australian government has yet to respond to the report or to announce a decision to ratify, leaving us in a group 73 other countries that have signed but not yet ratified the convention.  Ratifying this important piece of international law will not only ensure Australian adherence to it; it will also assist efforts to encourage other nations in our region to do the same.


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Anti-whaling pressure continues – on land and sea Tue, 23 Feb 2010 00:36:13 +0000


Most of the media headlines about the conflict between Japanese whaling vessels and ships from the Sea Shepherd anti-whaling fleet have revolved around collisions on the high seas.  But meantime, the goal of reducing the number of whales being killed is being continually pursued through Sea Shepherd harassment of the whalers and – at least according to Sea Shepherd comments – they are having a fair degree of success in that regard, saying they have managed to prevent a single whale from being killed in the last two weeks.

Sea Shepherd supporter Ady Gil (the man, not the sunken boat) has been in Canberra this week, meeting with the Green Party’s Leader, Senator Bob Brown, and the shadow environment minister for the Opposition, Greg Hunt.

The pressure generated by the ongoing publicity about the whaling activities has forced the Australian government to reaffirm its preparedness about the possibility of taking action against Japan in international courts, although the potential timing of such an action remains unclear.  The New Zealand government may also support any such action.


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Violence towards Indians remains a big problem for Australia Sun, 07 Feb 2010 10:31:18 +0000

The issue of violence in Australia against Indian students, and others of Indian background living here, has been getting significant coverage in India for many months.  But it is also getting a sizeable amount of consideration and examination in Australia – albeit very belatedly.  It is now more than a month since the murder of Nitin Garg in Melbourne, but the issue of continuing attacks on Indians remain a continuing problem.

Australia’s main national daily newspaper, usually perceived to have a strongly conservative leaning, devoted some significant coverage to the issue this week, with a number of opinion pieces stressing the seriousness of the issue and the deep damage being caused.

The newspaper’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, pulled no punches, describing Melbourne as “the racist violence capital of Australia” and stating that “the anecdotal evidence of widespread racial abuse and assault of Indians is overwhelming”.

Chris Sarra, a widely respected educator with Aboriginal heritage, also had a piece dedicated to the issue, noting “Australian multiculturalism exists alongside hypocrisy about our diversity”.  He also focused on over-defensiveness and denialism about racism amongst many Australians.  As he said

If we are honest with ourselves, we would acknowledge we are affected by racism. Let’s not over-read this problem but racism is a cancer with the very real potential to erode the soul of our nation.

Neville Roach, Chairman Emeritus of the Australia India Business Council, wrote that “the deterioration of the bilateral relationship between Australia and India triggered by the attacks on Indian students is in grave danger of spiralling out of control.”  As Mr Roach notes, overly defensive responses to accusation of racism only reinforce existing perceptions that Australian authorities are not taking the issue seriously enough.  It is the second piece he has published on the issue in recent weeks, along with this one. both measured but damning about our inability to deal with the problems and perceptions of racism.

Roach touches on what may be a key reason why Australian efforts to deal with this issue have failed so dismally to date.  He notes that “a cross we will always have to bear, no matter that it doesn’t reflect current reality, is the long-held perception in virtually all non-white countries of Australia as racist.”  There is a real lack of appreciation of this fact amongst many white Australians, especially of anglo or celtic background.  It is a legacy of the unmistakable racism entrenched for so long in the White Australia immigration policy, which did not fully end until the 1970s. In addition, a continuing inability to fully acknowledge or comprehend the extent and severity of the institutionalised racism in the treatment of the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders over centuries reinforces a suspicion that there remains an inability or unwillingness to recognise racism when it occurs today.

Pointing out the fact that there are many other countries where serious levels of racism are present is not really relevant in dealing with or properly acknowledging the issue here.  Neville Roach may be right that this perception about Australia may be a cross we will always have to bear, but it is still a good idea to not make the cross any bigger than it has to be.

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Sri Lanka – the civil war may be over, but is the conflict finished? Fri, 29 Jan 2010 04:42:50 +0000

In a sad irony – with the emphasis on sad – a news report indicates that former Sri Lankan General and recently defeated Presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka has said he is considering seeking asylum in Australia and that “his officials have already approached several embassies in Colombo about possible asylum”.

While serious questions still remain about some of the actions of the Sri Lankan government and military in the lead up to the final defeat of the Tamil Tigers (or LTTE) – ironically led by General Fonseka – it is hard to see the elimination of the military base of the LTTE as anything but a good thing. In some ways, it doesn’t matter whether you labelled the LTTE as terrorists or independence fighters – what matters was their actions, not how you labelled them, and there is no doubt that they were guilty of some of the worst atrocities imaginable, inculding the widespread forced conscription of child soldiers.

Regardless of past history, and problems which stem back many years, it was reasonable to assume that the effective elimination of the LTTE in Sri Lanka might provide a genuine chance to make a new start in relations between the minority Tamil communities and the rest of the country. Certainly newly re-elected President Rajapaksa has already stated he wishes to move towards full reconciliation with the Tamils, although how he will do that isn’t clear.

But the fact that someone like Sarath Fonseka apparently has fears for his own safety that are sufficiently great that he is exploring asylum options shows that not all the human rights problems in Sri Lanka could be pinned on the LTTE or the need to counter them.  The murder of a number of journalists, including newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, a year ago also shows that. 

Given all the surrounding diplomatic issues, I would be surprised if the Australian government formally offered asylum to Mr Fonseka, in the event that it is seen as a genuinely valid concern. I would expect it would be much more likely to come from a European country.  But it certainly makes the current claims by the Sri Lankan government that all of the Tamils who have been arriving in Australia by boat in recent months would be safe in Sri Lanka and are not real refugees look rather shaky, when even a former General and Presidential candidate apparently feels his life is at serious risk.

UPDATE: This article from Asian Correspondent, published eight hours after my original post, suggests a somewhat different picture to what I have written. It quotes an opposition spokesperon saying Sarath Fonseka will again challenge President Rajapaksa (or at least his political party) by running again as part of parliamentary elections – due to be held by April. It would be hard to contest an election after having received asylum from a foreign government, or even whilst still seeking asylum.

More still to unfold no doubt.

Check out AsianCorrespondent’s video report on the Sri Lank election…



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A small step forward in addressing violence against Indians in Melbourne Thu, 21 Jan 2010 03:07:22 +0000


The statement by the head of the Victorian Police, Simon Overland, acknowledging that there have been racist elements behind some of the attacks on Indians living in Melbourne will hopefully reintroduce some reality to the debate.  It seems to me that the main reason why there has been so much concern and anger from India about these attacks is not so much that they are happening, but that many Australian authorities (and unfortunately many in the Australian community) have given the impression they don’t take the issue seriously.

There is a huge sensitivity amongst many Australians to any suggestion that there is racism in the country. Whether this is due to uncomfortableness about elements of Australia’s history – such as the major mistreatment of Aboriginal Australians or the old White Australia immigration policy – or just unacknowledged insecurity masquerading as national pride, I don’t know.  An over-sensitivity to criticism of ones country by others is probably a feature of all countries to some extent, but it is still unhelpful and self-defeating.

Whatever the reason, unfortunately this over-sensitivity has made it very hard to have a rational debate on this problem.  Any attempt to publicly recognise the obvious racist element involved in some of these attacks is usually met with a volley of criticism.  Ironically, these criticisms often commence by saying something along the lines of “every country has some racism”, before then making the contradictory suggestion that there is supposedly no proof that racism was behind any of these particular attacks on Indians.  Often there also follows an attack on India, suggesting this country is far more racist and far more violent than Australia. The accuracy or otherwise of this statement is irrelevant to what Australia is doing about its own problem – it is the equivalent of a child who gets in trouble at school trying to weasel their way out of it by pointing at another child and saying they did something worse.

A very useful outline of these responses and of examples of the debate in Australia can be found in this post at the Larvatus Prodeo website by Tim Watts, a Melbourne man who set up a Facebook site to map and track public reported incidents of racial violence in Melbourne.  Some other examples of these aggressive and abusive denials of racism can be some in comments responding to this rather benign piece at the Online Opinion website, and at the Global Voices blog.   

Undoubtedly some of the coverage and comments by the Indian media regarding the spate of attacks against Indians living in Melbourne and Sydney have been excessive.  But any Australians with even the smallest amount of self-awareness would acknowledge that the Australian media can be similarly absurd and exaggerated when it comes to Australians running into trouble in other countries.  I previously mentioned the response of some in the Australian media to the sad murder of Australian backpacker in Croatia.  This article by Jeff Sparrow recalls some of the absolutely ridiculous abuse of Indonesia and its justice system following the arrest and jailing of an Australian for drug smuggling.  (And the comments in reply provide more examples of aggressive denialism of racism) Another equally distorted bout of media hysteria came with the arrest of the so-called ‘beer-mat Mum’, for allegedly stealing a beer mat from a bar in Thailand.

In any case, the public statement by police that racism is an element in these attacks – something that has actually been publicly acknowledged before, but unfortunately tends to be quickly forgotten beneath the denialism of racism – is a key step in moving things forward.  Many Australians have also taken the initiative to express their support for Indians living in this country. Sites like Facebook have seen groups set up such as the “1 million Aussies against racism” group, which not only makes an unequivocally clear statement, but also seeks to be a contrast to some of the racist groups inhabiting Facebook. Another group  this group is aimed at encouraging better dialogue between Australians and Indians.  


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Climate debate in Australia warms up again, while glaciers are melting elsewhere Wed, 20 Jan 2010 13:12:53 +0000

The period between Christmas and the week leading up to Australia Day (Jan 26) is sometimes called the ‘silly season’ by the media, reflecting the fact that most of the news isn’t as serious and most people are distracted by the school holidays and pay far less attention to so-called ‘serious’ political issues – although arguably the majority of people don’t pay a great deal of attention to political issues at other times either.

This year, the amount of political news has been a bit more than usual, reflecting the fact that (a) it is an election year, and (b) the main Opposition party has a new leader who doesn’t have any time to waste trying to get his message out to the public.  Parliament also resumes at the very start of February, so the preliminary hostilities are already underway.

As the finish of the 2009 Parliamentary sittings involved a very long, drawn out and wildly fluctuating debate regarding climate change and the government’s proposed carbon emissions trading scheme – which was ultimately rejected by the Senate (although it took the replacement of the Opposition Leader to bring that about) – it is only fitting that the new year’s sittings commence on the same topic.

While Tony Abbott, the new Opposition Leader, was previously on record saying “climate change is crap”, he is now saying he and his party are serious about reducing greenhouse emissions, with a proposed policy on the issue promised soon.  However, every attempt to discredit the science underpinning the climate change debate still boosts his cause. So senior Opposition figure Nick Minchin – probably the pivotal person in bringing about the demise of the former Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull – is happily emphasising the so-called ‘glacier-gate’ controversy, the latest effort to discredit climate change by massively exaggerating a molehill regarding one prediction on the rate glacier melting, whilst continuing to ignore the mountain of evidence showing glacier and ice sheets continue to melt at alarming rates – as detailed in this piece by climate policy analyst Joseph Romm (h/t Damien Lawson.

While the political skirmishing has got a bit more serious a bit earlier than usual this year, it is still only in the warm up stage. As with the climate change debate itself, there’s a long way to go this year – although it’s probably not really accurate anymore to call it a ‘debate’ about climate change. It is now reaching a level of partisan party political polarisation which precludes genuine examination of the substance of an issue, just becoming a rhetorical battleground. Whilst the Opposition will maintain a pretence that they believe in a need to reduce greenhouse emissions, in essence their real aim is to further reduce the number of people who believe climate change is a serious issue which needs addressing – a group which is clearly still in the majority at present.

But as this valuable piece of analysis from Possum Comitatus at Crikey says

The battle for climate change policy will not be won or lost on the public battlefield of the detail of carbon abatement policy, it will be won or lost on the size of the majority that believe in the weight of evidence of climate science.  It will be won or lost on the numbers of people that the government can convince to believe in the data.  If you get one, the other follows like a loyal dog.

That’s the focus of the climate change battleground this year, and it’s still very much warming up.

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Election year issues in Australia Mon, 11 Jan 2010 15:19:52 +0000

This year will be full of elections in Australia. The most significant of course will be the national election, but there will also be elections in three of Australia’s six states. Unlike the election at national level, the date for these state elections has already been fixed – South Australia and Tasmania (both in March) and Victoria (in November).  Technically, the national election doesn’t have to be called until the early months of 2011, but it is a virtual certainty it will be called this year – most probably for some date in the August – October period, although the government has the power to call it any time before then if it wishes.

While issues with international aspects, such as violence towards Indian students or Japanese whaling vessels in the Southern Ocean, are currently dominating the news, with the exception of climate change (which is perhaps the most significant international issue of all), the big election issues will have an almost exclusively  domestic focus.  The overall health of the economy in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) will dominate, and the Labor government has a fairly healthy advantage over the Liberal opposition in that area. Despite some criticism of the size of the Budget deficit created through measures aimed at fighting the GFC, Australia is generally seen as having come through the situation better than most other developed nations.

The state of the health system will be another big issue, which should be one where the Opposition should more of a chance to make some ground. Promises for action were made by the Labor government upon coming to office, but there are no obvious signs of improvement.

Tax is likely to be another issue, with the report of a major review of most aspects of the tax system due to be released in the near future, along with the government’s response to it.  That response is likely to be fairly conservative, but it will hopefully provide the chance to get some focus on continuing entrenched inequities and distortions in the tax system. Among other things, those tax distortions are playing a key role in making housing in Australia extremely expensive, but while housing affordability is likely to also be an issue to some degree; it will probably prove to be too politically contentious for the government to try to change them.

Perhaps surprisingly, the continuing Australian military presence in Afghanistan is yet to really surface as a significant issue politically, despite some opinion polling showing a majority of the public believes Australia should look to get its troops out. Unlike Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war, both major parties strongly support maintaining a military presence in Afghanistan, which tends to dilute any potential political controversy around the issue. Only the Green Party, the main minor party, is calling for a troop withdrawal.

Despite the heated public debate and the political pressure currently being felt by the national government about whaling, this is not likely to feature large in environmental issues come election time.  While the Opposition has been criticising the government for not taking court action on the whaling issue, it is becoming more likely that the Opposition will walk away from making such a promise themselves

The key environmental issues will undoubtedly be climate change – an issue which is likely to run fairly steadily throughout the year and one where there are significant difference between the parties – and water policy, particularly in respect of water flows in the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia’s largest river system, which runs across four different state jurisdictions, thus making management of the overall catchment a continuing debacle.

With the Labor government at national level still very popular more than two years after coming to power, the big challenge to the Liberal Opposition will be to ensure they don’t lose further seats. For the Green Party, their big goal will to win some extra seats in the Senate – the Upper House of the national parliament – to gain the balance of power, or the deciding vote on any legislation where the government and the main Opposition party disagree.  Unlike the House of Representatives, the Australian Senate has a proportional representation voting system, which provides a fairer outcome where parties are more likely to win seats roughly in proportion to their overall vote.

At the state level, it would be a major shock if the Labor Party is not returned to government in both South Australia and Victoria. Tasmania, Australia’s smallest state, will be the wild card. It is likely that neither Labor (currently in office) nor the conservative Liberal Party will win enough seats to govern in their own right. This will leave the Greens to decide which of the two main parties will hold government, and to some extent under what circumstances. While the Greens are normally seen as to the left of both the major parties, and thus more likely to lean to Labor, this is far from a certainty, given the growing unpopularity of the current Labor government. The Greens have supported a Liberal minority government in Tasmania before, although if reports of the Liberals being more and more dominated by the hardline right wing of the party are true, this may make it harder for the Greens to go down this path.

However, while a change of government in Tasmania would be noteworthy, it is unlikely to have much impact on the politics or policies at national level.  Barring a major meltdown from Labor, the national election – regardless of what month of this year it is held – will see Labor returned (probably quite comfortably) for a second term in office. What many in the community will be pushing for is not a change of government, but stronger action from the government we now have in pivotal areas like climate change, where progress to date has been disappointingly been both slow and weak.

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Pressure builds in whaling conflict Sat, 09 Jan 2010 15:21:41 +0000

The Japanese whale hunt in the Southern Ocean is always controversial in Australia. But, as predicted earlier this week, the political and public heat around the issue has escalated further following a Japanese whaling vessel ramming and effectively destroying the Ady Gil – a small trimaran – from the Sea Shepherd fleet.

Most Australians are anti-whaling – a stance supported by all political parties, including the government and the main Opposition party – and the widely available video evidence of the collision has only enhanced that view.  The pressure on the Australian government to ‘do something’ is stronger than ever.  The same situation can also be said to apply in New Zealand, where the Ady Gil was registered and where many of its crew are from.  With the Ady Gil now confirmed as having to be abandoned at sea, submerged and sunken, the public squabbling by supporters of either side about degrees of responsibility about the collision will do little other then keep the issue boiling along.  

The Australian government has been forced by the public pressure to publicly state a deadline of June before they decide on whether to take legal action against the whaling, depending on whether or not “substantial progress” has been made in diplomatic efforts to get Japan to end whaling.  As the opening words in this piece from the News Limited paper in Brisbane shows, it is being reported as the Australian government giving the Japanese government “until June to agree to abandon future whale hunts or Australia will take action in the international court.”

This is not actually what Australia’s Environment Minister said – he said if they “don’t see substantial progress having taken place (by June)… then the question of legal action will be firmly in front of us, and the Government will be in a position to make a decision.”  While this form of words is designed to provide some wiggle room, the only message the public will hear is that the Government will take court at the end of June if the Japanese government doesn’t agree to stop whaling – which they won’t.  It was always virtually certain that the Japanese would continue to ignore calls to stop or even to reduce whaling, but it is more certain than ever now.  But the wording of the Australian government’s statement makes it far from certain that they will decide to take legal when this fact has been demonstrated in June at the next meeting of the International Whaling Convention.

However, if there is no move to initiate legal action, the heat will be turned up even more on the Australian government and public support for those who are prepared to action – that is, the folks from the Sea Shepherd – will probably grow even more.

Meanwhile, the conservative Opposition party – who normally are more likely to be complaining about the government being too captive to environmentalists – are slamming the government’s response as “gutless” and demanding the government “submit court action papers and give Japan until 30 June to end whaling.”  This media statement by the Opposition last June shows they were already demanding court action back then. It also contains a useful list of some of the previous commitments by the current government to do so, and comments by the current Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, when he was in Opposition back in 2005, calling on the then conservative government to initiate court action.

Calls from government Ministers in both Australia and New Zealand for both the whalers and the conservationists to  ‘show restraint’ will continue to be ignored by both sides. It is far too late for that.  As the Sea Shepherd leader, Paul Watson, says whenever there are calls for restraint from the Australian government:

“We’re not going to restrain ourselves from protecting these whales and we’re not going to restrain ourselves from upholding international conservation law.  The Government has shown so much restraint over the years they have done absolutely nothing.”

That last sentence is by far the most powerful part of the anti-whalers message. The disputes over this issue have been going for more than a decade, but there is little doubt it will become more volatile than ever over the rest of this year, which is of course also an election year in Australia.

ELSEWHERE: These two pieces provide some more useful bacground:

This one from the website of The Australian newspaper provides some background to the perspective of the new Japanese government;

This one from the website of The Guardian newspaper provides some background to the history and attitude of Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd.


ADDENDUM:  The collision that caused the sinking of the Ady Gil has provided plenty of opportunity for those whose aim is to inflame rather than inform, to indulge their bent for petty propaganda. It is understandable that the whalers and the environmentalists will engage in exaggerations and distortions, because they know the publicity battle is half the war.  But plenty of people like to indulge in the same sort of things to push their own ideological barrows. 

I find such approaches very boring and unfortunately sometimes destructive.  My interest is in encouraging discussion and increasing awareness of some of the background underlying various issues, so if you are someone who is only interested in indulging your pre-determined prejudices and reinforcing ignorance with juvenile name-calling, there are other blogs far more suited to that than this one . Fortunately or otherwise, there is even a site such as this here on Asian Correspondent, so I’ll link to it just this once.  Its author was happy to directly attack me simply for reporting the fact that the Sea Shepherd boat was rammed and making the not unreasonable assertion that “it could well lead to serious harm to diplomatic and other relations between Australia and Japan”, and my attempt to respond to put my side of the story was deleted or blocked, which says plenty really. 

In any case, on this blog, I’m interested in constructive engagement with people of all views, so readers are free to leave a comment if they wish.  If you want to read some more blogs which further discussion and insights into some of the public attitudes in Australia, these two – Ambit Gambit and Larvatus Prodeo – both have interesting posts and comment threads frmo differing perspectives.

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Whale wars heat up to boiling point Wed, 06 Jan 2010 07:16:44 +0000

The news that a vessel of the Japanese whaling fleet has deliberately rammed and sunk a small boat of the Sea Shepherd fleet in the open ocean will lift the whale wars to a whole new level.   It could well lead to serious harm to diplomatic and other relations between Australia and Japan. 

In looking at how things have come to this point, it is worthwhile outlining some background to public and government attitudes to the issue.  The tension and antagonism around the annual hunt by Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean has been steadily increasing over a number of years. 

The previous conservative government in Australia adopted a strong anti-whaling stance – in line with the views of the vast majority of the Australian public – but was either unable or unwilling to do more to try to bring about a reduction in the number of whales being killed each year.  Given that at least some of the slaughtering takes place in waters which the Australian government had (self)declared as a Whale Sanctuary, the failure to prevent or even hinder the amount of whaling did little to assuage public concerns.

The Labor Party, then in opposition, echoed these frustrations and many people assumed that stronger action to halt or reduce or at least forcefully challenge the annual whale hunt would occur when the Labor Party came into government.  The usual diplomatic exchanges between Japanese and Australian governments, expressing their differing and incompatible views, continued to occur.  But both the previous and the present Australian governments avoided initiating any court or other legal challenges to the Japanese whalers, despite occasional hints that something along these lines might be done.  It had been left to some Australian based environment and animal protection groups to attempt to pursue court action, which had limited success – while Australia’s Federal court ruled it was illegal under Australia law for whales to be hunted in the Australian Whale Sanctuary, Japan (and many other countries) do not formally recognise Australia’s claim to Antartic territorial waters.  It is really only governments which can initiate legal action in the international arena, so non-government organisations cannot usually pursue actions under international law (not that it is guaranteed that the Australian government would actually win if they pursued such a path.)  

In short, very little if anything has changed in the two years since the change of government despite expectations to the contrary, and in this circumstance, public frustrations with perceived government inaction and/or impotence has continued to grow.  This has created a groundswell of support for the Sea Shepherd organisation, which is one of the most radical direct-action, legitimate environmental or animal protection groups in the world.  Whilst they clearly and continually oppose and avoid any form of direct violence or direct attempts to injure humans, the Sea Shepherd team do virtually everything else possible to directly confront, hinder and prevent whaling from taking place.

In other circumstances, such a confrontational approach would normally not attract much public support in Australia, which doesn’t have particularly strong or rigorous animal welfare laws.  While few people would publicly support cruelty to animals, animal protection activists are still usually treated as a fringe element by mainstream media and political parties, even when the cruelty they expose is not condoned.

However, a combination of very strong public support for the welfare of whales and sea mammals in general, the well highlighted and undeniable cruelty involved in killing whales, and a succession of national governments which have publicly supported anti-whaling views while being seen to do too little to stop it, has all helped help the uncompromising ‘Can Do’ attitude of the Sea Shepherd attract a lot of public support (though there are certainly some anti-whaling Australians who question their tactics).  Sea Shepherd even had the Honourable Ian Campbell, a former Environment Minister of the previous conservative government, join their board of advisors after he left politics prior to the last election.

The preparations on the side of both the Sea Shepherd and the Japanese whaling fleet have been greater than ever for this year’s hunt, with a record level of resources and capabilities being deployed.  The whalers deployed an extra security ship to track and hinder the Steve Irwin, Sea Shepherd’s main vessel.  News also recently surfaced that they hired Australian planes, deployed out of airports in the southern parts of Australia, to assist with tracking the Sea Shepherd ships.

For their part, Sea Shepherd had deployed a high tech, very high speed catamaran, the Ady Gil, and just today unveiled news that they had an additional former Norwegian whaling vessel (named the Bob Barker) which had travelled from a different direction to the Steve Irwin and just intercepted the Japanese whaling fleet. 

The news that Australians businesses have been involved in directly assisting the Japanese whaling efforts  has already led the Australian Greens party to announce that they will  introduce legislation making it illegal for any Australian assistance to be provided to whaling, including air or sea surveillance or communication facilities.  The fact that in previous years the Japanese whaling fleet had been able to use Australian ports had caused controversy, but no formal legal action.

Perhaps the same response would have occurred again this time, but in the light of this sinking of a small vessel of the Sea Shepherd fleet – which has been directly supported by many Australians – by a Japanese vessel, it will now be far less likely that actions can or will be avoided which will escalate the situation further.

UPDATE: In an extraordinary example of how deeply polarised the issue now is, a video of the Ady Gil getting rammed is being posted on YouTube – filmed from the Japanese vesselwith titles stating it shows the Ady Gil ‘attacking’ or ramming the Japanese vessel! As the following comments show, people can obviously view the same footage and see two completely different versions of events (myself included I suppose).  Certainly almost everyone sending a link to the footage around Twitter using the Sea Shepherd hashtag seem to view it as obvious proof of an attack on the Ady Gil, regardless of the title given to the footage (which is up on a number of different YouTube sites).

Following are links to previous posts on my personal site I have done on the topic and the Australian politics of whaling – this one from 2008 and this one from 2005. A post that is almost identical to this one is on my personal website, for anyone interested in seeing some of the comments (most of which are usually from Australia)

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