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David Speers
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+ About David Speers

David Speers is Political Editor at SKY NEWS and anchor of PM Agenda and The Nation on SKY NEWS National.

PM Agenda sees David talk to the key newsmakers and dissect what the day's events will mean. The Nation is a one hour program that allows for one of the most in-depth policy discussions on Australian television.

David is one of Australia's most respected political journalists and interviewers. He has been chosen to host every debate and forum at the last three federal elections and has interviewed a number of world leaders, including US President George W. Bush at the White House.

Between elections he is one of the busiest and best connected correspondents in Canberra.

David joined SKY NEWS as Political Editor in 2000 and has since seen the channel grow to become the home of political and national affairs coverage in Australia.

He hasn't been confined to the Press Gallery in that time, traveling extensively across the country and abroad.

David has covered the last three Presidential elections in the United States and reported from China, India, Afghanistan, Indonesia and throughout Europe.

In 2013 David was elected President of the Parliamentary Press Gallery which he joined in 1999. He is also the Director of the National Press Club and winner of more than 10 ASTRA Awards.

Prior to joining SKY NEWS, David worked as a Political Reporter for a number of radio stations in Canberra and at New South Wales Parliament in Sydney.

Follow David Speers on Twitter @David_Speers

Another wild and wacky parliamentary week

Friday, August 18, 2017

By David Speers

As the mad circus of parliament whirled on this week, there was a brief reminder of a time when politics was stable, when serious reform was achievable and when parliament wasn’t a place for playing dress-ups.

Bob Hawke and John Howard shared a stage to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Old Parliament House, now the Museum of Australian Democracy. Hawke and Howard fought some bitter wars in that old building. They also cooperated when it mattered most - on economic reform.

Now, Australia’s second and third-longest serving Prime Ministers are an unrivaled double act. It’s hard not to feel a pang of nostalgia when you see these two discuss the state of modern politics.

They ooze leadership, wisdom and perspective. And they respect each other. 78-year-old Howard took care in helping 87-year-old Hawke down from the stage.

Meanwhile, the current crop of politicians were busy demonstrating precisely why so many Australians treat them as a joke or have switched off entirely.

There are now six who have been referred to the High Court to work out if they were eligible to be elected at all. 

Fiona Nash is the latest to join this unhappy list, revealing last night that she’s a British citizen, thanks to her Scottish-born father. Nash’s Dad left home when she was just 8 and there was little contact until he died 9 years ago. It’s a sad story, but doesn’t explain why she didn’t properly check her possible dual citizenship when nominating to stand for parliament.

The same can be said for Barnaby Joyce, who has presumably known for a while that his Dad was born in New Zealand.

Barnaby Joyce. Source: AAP.

As previously stated in this column, the Constitutional ban on dual citizens sitting in parliament is, in my view, outdated. No one can seriously suggest Nash, Joyce, Matt Canavan, Scott Ludlam, Larissa Waters or Malcolm Roberts have been secretly doing the bidding of a foreign power. But the rules are the rules and they, or their parties, should have done more to comply.

Make no mistake, the citizenship debacle made this the Turnbull Government’s worst week. Not just because it was book-ended by the Joyce and Nash revelations. The way the government handled this crisis was also appalling.

The Prime Minister’s insistence that the High Court “would so hold” that Joyce was in the clear, looked plain arrogant. The Foreign Minister’s attempt to blame Labor for uncovering the truth about Joyce was even worse, stirring up a diplomatic incident across the ditch.

Malcolm Turnbull may prove to be right about the High Court, but right now, we don’t know.

An all-clear for Joyce, Nash and Canavan would be the best-case scenario for the government. As one Cabinet Minister put it, “if we can stop punching ourselves in the chin, we still have two years to recover before the next election”.

The worst-case scenario is the High Court ruling none of the Ministers are eligible to sit in parliament. Nash and Canavan may be able to return to the Senate down the track. Joyce would have to fight a by-election in his lower house seat of New England. 

Senior figures in the National Party are confident Joyce would easily hold the seat. They expect Tony Windsor would have another crack and be defeated again.

But Tony Windsor isn’t the one they should worry about.

One Nation is hungry for the seat. The party reckons its support stands at around 25% in New England. It already has a candidate in mind. And it won’t do any preference deal with the Nationals. “We owe them nothing”, says a One Nation source.

To win a by-election, the government will need political skill and luck. Both have been in short supply.

As many despair at the state of politics in this wild parliamentary week, it is worth finally noting two stand-out exceptions. 

Tony Burke proved why he is easily Labor’s best parliamentary tactician and performer. He deployed a lethal combination of logic and sarcasm to repeatedly dismantle the Coalition’s arguments.

Attorney General George Brandis was the other star performer. His stunning response to Pauline Hanson’s appalling burqa stunt was both passionate and necessary. Religious tolerance and civility deserve to be defended. As does our national security.  

There are plenty of reasons not to like the burqa, but there’s little evidence banning them prevents terrorism. That certainly hasn’t been the experience in France.

The stunt did the trick and dominated the news cycle. But is this sort of “look-at-me” politics what all those voters disillusioned at the major parties are really seeking? I doubt it.

If given the choice, most would probably prefer to go back to the days of Hawke and Howard.

 

Is the rule banning dual citizens from Parliament outdated?

Friday, July 28, 2017

By David Speers

There is something seriously wrong with our Constitution when politicians who had no idea they were dual citizens are banned from sitting in Parliament.

Fair enough, Australian politicians should put Australia’s interests first, but does anyone seriously think Scott Ludlum was somehow doing the secret bidding of New Zealand, that Larissa Waters was a Canadian plant or that Matt Canavan was running Italy’s agenda? Of course not. It’s a ridiculous suggestion.

There’s no doubt each should have been more diligent ensuring they met the Constitutional requirements to stand for Parliament. Ludlam and Waters were born overseas, which surely raises the possibility of dual citizenship. They should have checked.  

Canavan’s case is murkier. He was born in Australia, his parents too. He insists he had no idea his Mum lodged an application for Italian citizenship, but they had discussed it. The Canavan case is now one for the High Court.

Matt Canavan (right). Source: AAP.

Of course, politicians should comply with the law of the land. This particular law though, makes no sense.

Whatever you think of their politics, Ludlam, Waters and Canavan have all been passionate advocates for their respective causes and they have put Australia first. There’s no evidence of them pushing the barrow of another country in the way say, Michael Danby has for Israel, Sam Dastyari has for China or countless others have for the United States or Great Britain over the decades.

Even One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts, who’s given contradictory and confusing denials of dual citizenship, can’t seriously be accused of siding with the UK over Australia, simply because he was born in India to a Welsh father.

This Constitutional ban on dual citizens standing for Parliament is truly outdated and nonsensical. We’re told we live in the most successful multicultural society on earth. Half the population was either born overseas or has a parent born overseas. Surely we want politicians who genuinely represent this multiculturalism and can build deeper global links for Australia. 

Holding dual citizenship should not prevent someone from sitting in the Australian parliament, as long as it’s properly declared for all to see. Let’s hypothetically consider what might happen were this anachronistic Constitutional provision removed.  

If a dual citizen were elected to parliament, they would still be required to make an oath or affirmation of allegiance in front of the Governor General before taking their seat. Surely this is enough to demonstrate their allegiance to Australia comes first.  

Dual citizenship would be properly declared for the public, the media and political enemies to see. Any hint of favouritism to this declared "other" nation would be political suicide.

And what approach do like-minded nations take on this question? Members of the US Congress can be dual citizens. So can Canadian MPs. Members of the New Zealand Parliament can be dual citizens (but cannot apply for dual citizenship after being elected). Members of the British Parliament can hold dual citizenship with other Commonwealth nations.  

In taking such a hard line against any dual citizens in parliament, Australia is siding with Armenia, the Philippines and Egypt. Hardly beacons of democracy.

Changing the Australian Constitution is never easy, requiring a majority of voters in a majority of states to agree at a referendum. A “no” case on this, replete with scaremongering about Chinese or Russian spies infiltrating our parliament, would be relatively easy to run.  

This change is clearly not going to happen any time soon. Still, it’s worth acknowledging this Constitutional provision is currently creating more harm than good to Australia.

How on earth is it a danger to have dual nationals like Scott Ludlam, Larissa Waters and Matt Canavan in parliament, when it’s ok to have a head of state who genuinely does have divided loyalties? The Queen doesn’t even live here. And in case you’re wondering, her representative the Governor General (who is technically the Commander in Chief of our military), is perfectly entitled to be a dual citizen as well.

 

Why Turnbull should start selling his national security shake up

Friday, July 21, 2017

By David Speers

Gonski, Garnaut, Hilmer, McClure. When you think of any major policy reform in Australia, there’s usually an independent report from a respected third-party expert behind it.

This wasn’t the case with the biggest shake-up of our national security architecture in 50 years, announced by Malcolm Turnbull this week.

There was no Green Paper, no White Paper, not even a report from one of our esteemed national security think tanks. This was a failure of process. A considered, well-argued case from someone like Dennis Richardson, David Irvine or indeed Michael L’Estrange explaining why we need a Home Affairs Ministry would have made a big difference.

L’Estrange says there is a certain logic to Home Affairs, but amazingly, this isn’t something he was asked to look into as part of his sweeping review of our intelligence agencies.

The lack of any such report made the Prime Minister’s job that much harder. It’s already a tough sell to convince a skeptical electorate that our national security system needs fixing, when apparently it’s not broken. Voters are deeply cynical these days and are likely to jump to the simple conclusion (encouraged by Bill Shorten) that this is just about Turnbull making his own job safer, rather than making all of us any safer.

George Brandis went out of his way to help his boss. This was above and beyond. The Attorney General held deep concerns about the proposal, but once Turnbull had made the call, he defended it strongly. Standing alongside the PM, Brandis articulated a powerful case for shifting ASIO and the AFP from his own portfolio to the new Home Affairs Ministry to be held by his Queensland factional rival Peter Dutton.

Brandis said what no Attorney General has previously admitted: he’s been unable to give his full attention to national security, due to the other demands of his portfolio. As one national security source put it, Brandis revealed the dirty secret. Attorneys General have never been able to focus entirely on threats to the nation.

The truth is Dutton won’t be able to give 100% focus to national security either. With Home Affairs taking in Immigration, he will still be responsible for our skilled migration program, 457 visa program, refugee program, offshore processing, Citizenship changes and so on. Not all of this is national security related, but there’s arguably a stronger link.

While the presence of George Brandis by Malcolm Turnbull’s side to sell the reform on day one helped, what the PM really needed on day two was an appearance alongside the heads of ASIO and the AFP. They have never publicly argued for this change. Whenever asked about creating a Home Affairs Department, they have always defended the status quo.

This doesn’t mean they’re right. Even highly respected bureaucrats can be reluctant to embrace change to the power balance they know and are comfortable with. But ASIO boss Duncan Lewis and AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin will have to enter this debate and should have done so this week, rather than waiting for the next Senate Estimates hearing.

The Prime Minister should have appeared with them to explain the nuts and bolts of how this change will work. The decision to shift these agencies into a new portfolio is rightly a decision for the Prime Minister and government of the day, but Lewis and Colvin could have given some practical examples of how this new approach will help. They always front the cameras to welcome more funding for their agencies. Their silence this week spoke volumes.

For all these failures in mounting a case for Home Affairs this week, the idea does have some merit. The terrorist threat is constantly evolving and we do need Immigration, Border Force, ASIO and AFP to work more closely together. We do need a Minister capable of linking up what each is doing and setting unified policy directions.

Yes, these arms of government already cooperate, but a Home Affairs Minister will be able to take sole responsibility for dealing with a range of emerging challenges: returning foreign fighters, home grown jihadists, South East Asian terrorists, protection of critical infrastructure and foreign interference in our political, academic and business communities.

These threats and more will evolve in the years ahead and it makes sense to have one Minister focused on them. Forget the personalities. Who knows if Malcolm Turnbull or Peter Dutton will still be in their current roles this time next year? This is about adjusting the architecture of government to meet a new security environment.

We’re not in a post-WW2 or Cold War environment any longer. The biggest threats come from state and non-state actors moving across borders, from terrorist recruiters here and abroad and from violent young men being radicalised in our suburbs.

There are some strong arguments for a Home Affairs Ministry. The Prime Minister should really start making them.

 

 

PM expected to make national security announcement

Friday, July 14, 2017

For all the hyperventilation over whether Malcolm Turnbull was abandoning conservatives this week (he wasn’t), the main point of his speech to London’s Policy Exchange think tank may have been missed.
The Prime Minister was laying the groundwork for a major national security announcement, expected as soon as next week. “In a world of rapid change”, he told the packed audience, “we must constantly review and improve the policies and laws that will best keep our people safe. To set and forget would be easy, but it would not be right.”
So what policy “improvement” is he hinting at? Most likely it’s the new Homeland Security or Home Office portfolio that will bring together ASIO, the AFP, Immigration and Border Force under one umbrella.
Not everyone’s a fan of this model, including some of Turnbull’s own Ministers. They defend the status quo with the reasonable point: if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Our security agencies work well together and have successfully foiled a number of terrorist plots.
This is certainly true. Nor is the British Home Office a perfect model. It clearly hasn’t been able to prevent terrorist attacks on home soil. 34 people have died at the hands of terrorists in the UK this year alone.
In Australia, though, the successful terrorist attacks of recent years have been carried out by those who’ve fallen through the cracks. Men who have been on and off the radar of police, Immigration and ASIO at various times. No one department has the responsibility to draw all these sometimes loose threads together.
The other great concern about a Homeland Security or Home Office super-department is the impact on personal liberty and privacy. Will it be easier for ASIO or the AFP to monitor, collect data, share personal information, detain suspects and conduct searches under the changes that may be coming?
In his London speech, Turnbull made no apologies for what many will say is a Big Brother approach. “It is in the very pursuit of freedom that we seek a stronger role for the State in protecting citizens against the terrorist threat.”  He says the fight against terrorism is a fight to defend liberal values. “In order to be free a person must first be safe.”
This is undoubtedly true. And while some on the fringes will complain, the vast bulk of Australians will welcome anything that helps keep them safe. There are deep concerns over domestic terrorism right now. It’s showing up as a top priority in both Labor and Liberal internal research. Some families are worried about taking their kids to the city, a concert or even the footy.
Whatever he does, Turnbull’s decision will inevitably be viewed through the prism of whether it is too moderate or too conservative, or perhaps a sop to the conservatives because he’s so weak. That’s seriously how simplistic our politics has become.
Which brings us to the part of Turnbull’s speech which was apparently so controversial. When Turnbull spoke of Robert Menzies being at pains not to call it the Conservative Party and when he referred to Tony Abbott once wanting to govern from the “sensible centre”, there’s no doubt he was pushing back at conservative critics and Abbott in particular.
It may have been a mistake to even venture into this toxic debate right now and provoke collective outrage from the conservative commentariat and their followers, but it’s hard to disagree with what Turnbull actually said.
Normal people don’t obsess over whether someone is ideologically conservative, moderate, liberal, socialist, a leftie, a libertarian or whatever. And those who do are often confused as to what these labels mean. Should a conservative support open markets or state-owned coal plants? Free trade or protection for Australian industry? Budget repair or tax cuts? Individual liberty for people to marry who they choose or state-sanctioned discrimination?
As Turnbull put it, “labels have lost almost all meaning in the furious outrage cycle of social media politics, long cast adrift to be appropriated, often cynically, by one politician or another as it suits their purpose.”
The Prime Minister can’t do much about the “furious outrage cycle”. It’s not going to stop. His best hope at recovery is convincing voters he’s untroubled by the noise and more focused on delivering results for them.

 

North Korea a test for the G20

Friday, July 07, 2017

By David Speers

Suddenly all the sound and fury over whether Malcolm Turnbull is Labor-lite or whether Tony Abbott is a sniping wrecker seems so trivial. Suddenly there’s a real crisis in our region.

North Korea has successfully test fired an intercontinental ballistic missile, which experts fear could be weaponised with a nuclear warhead in the not too distant future. This development shouldn’t surprise anyone.  Pyongyang has been working towards this for decades.

Almost as alarming as the threat itself is the lack of any clear global response. Indeed the major powers are polarised. At one end is China and Russia, who now form a united front, arguing the US is partly to blame for provoking North Korea. Presidents Putin and Xi have together called for the “parallel freezing of the missile-nuclear activity of North Korea and the large-scale military drills between the US and South Korea”. 

For good measure China and Russia also want the US to remove its THAAD missile defence system recently installed in South Korea. This is in part self-serving. They fear the system’s powerful radar can monitor their own activities. 

At the other end of the spectrum is the United States, which rightly takes no blame for the erratic and provocative actions of Kim Jong-Un. Donald Trump sees this as China’s problem to fix, but has come to the correct conclusion it won’t do so willingly.

The US and its allies can criticise Beijing all they want over this, but it will have precisely the same impact as criticising Beijing over the South China Sea. Zero.

This means the ball is back in Trump’s court. He now says he’s considering some “pretty severe things” to end the North Korean threat, but won’t elaborate, other than to say he intends to “confront it very strongly”.

All options are on the table, including military force, but few expect Trump would seriously choose this path. Yes he’s unpredictable, but the consequences of striking North Korea are terrible to contemplate. Pyongyang has the capability to rain down missiles on the South Korean capital just across the border.

The step that is being openly discussed and threatened is to slap trade sanctions on China or Chinese entities that trade with North Korea. Presumably they would have to be serious sanctions to force some change. Beijing would surely respond, sparking a trade war.

This is obviously far preferable to an armed conflict, but a trade war involving our biggest trading partner and our greatest military ally is a nightmare scenario for Australia.

So this is the situation Malcolm Turnbull must navigate here in Hamburg, where he arrived last night for the G20 summit. Australia may not be a major power, but we have a genuine interest in maintaining peace in this region and could prove influential on the question of North Korea.

If Trump decides to hit China with trade sanctions, he’ll be looking for Australian support. After a brief flirtation from Acting Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce expressing “sympathy” with the idea, senior Ministers and indeed Senator Joyce himself have since clarified they’re not threatening sanctions against the Chinese state. Merely against any companies that trade with North Korea.

In other words, no change in the current position. Indeed on arriving in Hamburg, Turnbull stuck to the standard line he’s used in response to every North Korean missile test: “China has the greatest leverage and of course we urge China to bring more pressure to bear on North Korea, to bring that regime to its senses.”

The Prime Minister didn’t rule out tougher sanctions, but didn’t exactly promote the idea either. He did make it clear that he wants to bring the regime to its senses “without conflict.”

On one level, this sort of language is entirely understandable. No one wants conflict and everyone would hope North Korea comes to its senses. And it’s true China could do far more to pressure its neighbour. But this sort of language from Australian leaders and others over the years has done nothing to deter North Korea or force China into serious action.

Kim Jong-Un sees a nuclear deterrent as the only way to stay in power and prevent what happened to Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gaddafi and others happening to him. And he may be right. We may be about to see Kim Jong-Un acquire a nuclear weapons capability, simply because no one wants to spark a trade war or a real war.

This G20 couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s an opportunity for leaders to discuss the North Korean threat frankly and privately. The next two days will be an important test for all of the relevant leaders and the G20 as an institution.

 

How do you solve a problem like Tony?

Friday, June 30, 2017

By David Speers

Whether you love or loathe Tony Abbott, whether you think he’s the true voice of the Liberal base or the party’s wrecking ball, whether you’re a Black-Hander or a Conservative, there’s surely one thing all can agree on: things can’t continue the way they are within the Turnbull Government.

This week has been a toxic mess for the Coalition. Instead of selling its school funding success, it’s been careening into the same gully of division that finished the Rudd, Gillard and Abbott Governments.

It’s the iron law of politics: division is death. You would think they would learn. Apparently not.

There’s plenty of blame to be shared around. Christopher Pyne didn’t know he was being recorded at the “Black Hand” dinner of Liberal moderates. But with 150 or so people in the room he never should have boasted about Liberal Moderates being “in the winners’ circle” or about voting against Tony Abbott when part of his Cabinet. 

The indulgence deeply angered his colleagues from the top down and led to a groveling apology on Wednesday night.

But within Coalition ranks, most of the blame for the current shambles is being sheeted home to Tony Abbott. Colleagues are angry at his steady stream of distractions and provocations; his constant policy pronouncements aimed at demonstrating that he somehow represents the true soul of a Liberal Party lost under the hapless Turnbull leadership.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott. Source: AAP

The great difficulty for Abbott is proving he’s genuine about the various policy ideas he’s now championing. Immigration went up when he was Prime Minister, the Renewable Energy Target was locked in, the Paris targets were set, 18C reform was ditched and nuclear submarines were ruled out. Abbott now expresses regret for all this and while the hypocrisy matters little to his vocal supporters, it certainly doesn’t go unnoticed by his colleagues.

No one, however, denies Abbott’s ability to mount a strong case for these new-found positions. Yesterday’s speech on the need to consider nuclear-powered submarines was compelling. He called out the $50b submarine project for what it is: a job creation scheme for South Australia. He pointed out genuine concerns about trying to build a unique submarine for Australia and about the looming capability gap before they come online.

Abbott can give considered speeches about policy and the philosophical direction of the party one day and a cut-through tabloid line the next (although he can surely do better than ripping off Donald Trump with the cheesy slogan, “Make Australia Work Again”).

For all Turnbull’s frustration with the media for focusing on Abbott and the internal woes of his government, he surely knows this is inevitable. It’s the price he pays for having deposed a first-term Prime Minister.

So what can Turnbull do? How does he solve a problem like Tony Abbott? Let’s look at the options.

Ignoring him clearly doesn’t work. Turnbull is right to focus on his list of achievements. He’s delivered more Budget repair, company tax cuts, school funding, childcare and industrial reform through parliament than his predecessor ever did. But none of that is going to stop Abbott. The former PM is relentless.

Blasting Abbott out of parliament is also a bad idea. Some in the NSW Liberal Party are convinced the numbers are now there to defeat Abbott in a pre-selection for his seat of Warringah.  But even if there were a candidate brave enough to try, this would ultimately become a test for Turnbull as leader. If he chose not to use his authority to protect the pre-selection of a former Prime Minister, it would be World War Three in the Liberal Party.

Appeasing Abbott by adopting his policy ideas isn’t an option either. Turnbull would look weak and indecisive.

That leaves the long-resisted option of bringing Abbott into the Cabinet, something Turnbull should have done after last year’s election. If Abbott agreed to a Ministry, he would have to stop the policy freelancing.  If he said no, Abbott would be confirming for all to see that he genuinely doesn’t want to help the Government; that he’s more interested in sniping from the backbench.

Offering Abbott a place in Cabinet would be a risky move for Turnbull. It would require contrition and humility. It's true things didn’t work out too well for Julia Gillard when she gave Kevin Rudd the Foreign Ministry. He kept working towards her demise. Abbott is no Rudd though. He lacks the popular appeal. And right now, Turnbull doesn’t have many alternatives.

 

Why Malcolm Turnbull needs to be bold

Friday, June 23, 2017

By David Speers

After another depressing Newspoll for the government this week, the Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, made a point of telling Coalition MPs at Tuesday’s Party Room meeting that the election was still two years away. The comment received little attention and could easily be dismissed as an effort to settle the nerves of worried backbenchers fearing an electoral wipe-out any time soon.

Yet this comment in the party room revealed much more than that.

Malcolm Turnbull is also planning on governing for the next two years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he doesn’t want to repeat Theresa May’s mistake of going to an early election (way too early in her case). The Prime Minister’s current thinking is to hold out until the latest possible date. That’s exactly what Liberal strategists are working towards as well.

According to the parliamentary website, the latest possible date for a full House and half Senate election is May 18, 2019. Barnaby Joyce’s comment in the party room suggests the leadership group has settled on this plan and is now sharing it widely.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. Source: AAP

Recent speculation Turnbull might be tempted to head to the polls some time in 2018 is dead wrong.

So, if the election timing is being discussed, what’s the plan to actually win it? When discussing his evolving energy policy this week, Turnbull said there’s a need to focus “in the short-term, in the near-term, in the medium-term and the long-term.”  

The same could be said for re-election strategies.

Right now, the short and near-term strategy is still to remove the various barnacles being carried from the Coalition’s first term in office. The passage through parliament of the Gonski 2.0 school funding plan last night was the latest example of barnacle scraping. It won’t end the school funding wars, but it should take heat out of an issue that’s been a huge political vulnerability for the Coalition since the 2014 Budget.

The medium-term strategy must surely involve settling the climate and energy policy wars within the Coalition itself and finding a credible plan to lower emissions and keep power prices down. The preference is for a Clean Energy Target as recommended by the Chief Scientist, but with more accommodation for new coal-fired power than Alan Finkel might like.

None of this, though, is likely to win too many votes. The shift to the centre on schools, health, climate policy and so on makes sense, but the electorate seems to have made a negative judgement on the Turnbull Government and tuned out.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Source: AAP

That’s where the long-term strategy comes in. It involves returning to an issue that might just jolt voters to attention by appealing to their hip pockets. Tax.

There’s growing acceptance now in Coalition ranks that they squibbed it before the last election on tax reform and should have gone much further. When voters expected bold action from the newly installed Turnbull, he offered some tinkering on personal tax and a ten-year plan to cut company tax that went down like a lead balloon.

Some of the company tax cut, for small and medium-sized firms, has passed through parliament. The rest never will. The government ran up the white flag when it suddenly announced the new Bank Levy in the Budget. You can’t hike taxes for big business while simultaneously arguing to cut taxes for big business.

The government knows it needs to go back to the drawing board on tax. A process has begun to start preparing the ground for a major tax plan to be taken to the 2019 election. Former Business Council President and Audit Commission Chairman, Tony Shepherd, is working with the Liberal Party think-tank - the Menzies Research Centre - to develop some options.

This time, everything really is on the table, including the GST. The process still has a long way to run, but could see Turnbull going to the next election with the sort of bold tax plan he should have taken to the last election.  

Of course, he has to survive until the next election and there’s no guarantee of that. It’s a decade since an Australian Prime Minister made it from one election to the next without being cut down by colleagues. Which is why Turnbull needs to show his colleagues he has a short, medium and long-term plan for their survival. And why he needs to be bold.

 

Meeting Malcolm in the middle on climate policy

Friday, June 16, 2017

By David Speers

Nearly eight years ago, Malcolm Turnbull bashed out a blistering take-down of Tony Abbott on his blog. It was just days after Turnbull had been knocked off as leader. The emotion was raw, the famous temper flared.

With steam coming from his ears, the freshly deposed leader tore strips off the man who replaced him. “The fact is that Tony … does not want to do anything about climate change … does not believe in human caused global warming. As Tony observed on one occasion ‘climate change is crap’.”  

“Mr Abbott apparently knows what he is against, but not what he is for.”

It’s doubtful Turnbull has changed his view eight years on.

Late on Tuesday, Coalition MPs held a three-hour party room meeting where Climate and Energy Minister, Josh Frydenberg, took questions from the floor. Frydenberg has mastered this complex policy area and impressed his colleagues this week. While not adopting a firm position yet, he is trying to steer his colleagues towards a workable landing point.

According to those present at the meeting, Tony Abbott was constantly chipping away from the back of the room, muttering complaints about the Clean Energy Target (CET) being discussed. Publicly, he’s warned the CET could be seen as a “tax on coal”. It’s clear to all that Abbott intends to lead the fight against this idea.

At this point, it’s worth remembering why the CET is being considered at all. It’s to ensure Australia meets the commitment it made under the Paris Agreement. The commitment is to reduce emissions by between 26-28% by 2030.

And who made that commitment? It wasn’t Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard or Malcolm Turnbull. It was Tony Abbott. In fact, the then Prime Minister was adamant in 2015 that this target was “a strong and credible target … a definite commitment.”

There was no suggestion in Abbott’s many comments in Parliament or in the press at the time that this was somehow an “aspirational” target. He was clear: “we will reduce our emissions by between 26% and 28%.” 

Now, Abbott argues it was only ever an aspirational target. The clear inference being that we should water down or walk away from the commitment, as Donald Trump has done in the United States. To Trump’s credit, he’s at least been consistent in this position. 

The reality is very few in the Coalition seriously argue Australia should break the commitments made in Paris. There are two main reasons why. The first is politics. Australian voters support action on climate change. Following Trump out the door would earn international condemnation and hand Bill Shorten an almighty advantage.

The second reason is power prices. Dropping our emissions targets would do nothing to encourage badly needed investment in power generation. It would therefore do nothing to stop prices continuing to climb.  

It’s true Australia has an abundance of cheap coal. But those who constantly point this out need to also acknowledge the reality. Not one coal-fired power plant has been built in Australia for 10 years. In that same time, we’ve seen the Munmorah, Collinsville, Playford B, Swanbank B, Redbank, Wallerawang, Anglesea, Northern and Hazelwood coal-fired power plants shut down.

Why is there no investment in coal, even after Abbott scrapped the Carbon Tax? It’s because of the uncertainty. No one is going to make a 30-year investment decision knowing the rules could change at each election. Like it or not, the two major parties have to reach a settlement to deliver that certainty.

Those on the far Left and far Right of this debate might feel wonderful about themselves adopting an ideologically pro-Green or pro-coal position. They can preach to the base about how pure they are and how insane the other side is. But they’re doing absolutely nothing to help the poor sods trying to pay the power bills.

This is an issue where bipartisanship is desperately needed. And that means finally shifting to the centre. And here’s the thing: the two sides are actually moving closer together.

Turnbull and Frydenberg are moving towards a Clean Energy Target, with a benchmark that offers a big incentive to investment in renewables and a small incentive to investment in cleaner coal technology. Labor is also willing to support a Clean Energy Target, but no incentive for coal at all.

Let’s hope for all our sakes they can meet in the middle. It really shouldn't be that hard.

 

Climate policy: The enduring kryptonite of Aussie politics

Friday, June 02, 2017

By David Speers

Here we go again. Climate change policy has proven to be the kryptonite of Australian politics for almost a decade. Brendan Nelson, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull himself were all brought unstuck as leaders by mis-steps on this issue. Now, the Prime Minister is chancing his arm again. He’s about to unveil Australia’s latest attempt to fix our energy crisis while bringing down emissions.

It’s no surprise Turnbull yesterday pre-empted Donald Trump’s announcement by declaring Australia will definitely stay in the Paris Agreement. After all, Turnbull actually ratified the deal the day after Trump was inaugurated as US President. The timing was designed to show the world that Australia was most certainly committed to the Agreement, despite Trump’s campaign promises to withdraw.

Turnbull didn’t mince his words about the significance of the deal at the time. He called the Paris accord a “watershed” moment that “galvanised the international community.” This was after Trump had been sworn in. Turnbull could hardly then back out of the deal some months later just because Trump had done what he promised to do.

Australia’s commitment to the Paris Agreement was never in doubt. The much tougher question now is how the government will meet its Paris commitments to reduce emissions by between 26%-28% by 2030. Green groups say this target is a joke. But as the government likes to remind its critics, this represents a 50% reduction in emissions per capita. It also means a 65% reduction in emissions intensity.

So how do we achieve this target at the lowest cost? On Friday next week, Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel will present his long-awaited recommendations on this very question to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting of state and territory leaders in Hobart. The Finkel Report will then be made public, before the government announces its formal policy soon after.

Appearing before a Senate estimates hearing yesterday, Dr Finkel gave a big hint as to what we can expect. He laid out two broad options for achieving the target. The first is a “system that involves a certain level of renewable generation”. In other words, a Renewable Energy Target. The second is a “system that controls the emissions intensity”. In other words, an Emissions Intensity Scheme. 

Business groups, energy companies, farmers, unions and a majority of the Senate (Labor, Greens, NXT) all want an EIS. Finkel himself has previously described an EIS as having “the lowest impact on average residential electricity prices.” But Turnbull says no. He's repeatedly ruled it out, citing the fact it’s a form of pricing carbon. Turnbull doesn’t have the power to stare down his backbench on this, even if he wanted to.

So that leaves the Renewable Energy Target as the only politically palatable approach. Finkel is understood to be looking at a new type of RET. One that can drive some investment in clean coal and gas, not just wind, hydro and solar power. If he can find a way to convince all states and territories to adopt the one national target, that would be a big improvement too.

But don’t think for a moment that a new-and-improved RET will be a cost free solution. It won’t. And don’t think this will be an easy issue for Malcolm Turnbull to handle.

On one side, he’ll face conservatives (including on his own backbench) who argue Australia should simply quit the Paris Agreement. On the other, he’ll face Labor and the above-mentioned groups urging an Emissions Intensity Scheme as the most sensible way forward.

Energy policy is Malcolm Turnbull’s passion. When you watch him explain pumped hydro technology or examine a new power-saving gadget, it’s clear this stuff genuinely interests him. He’s spent much of the past year thinking about a policy to deal with Australia’s energy crisis and if he does manage to come up with something that can be implemented, it could become his legacy.

But if history is any guide, this latest foray into the climate wars will involve plenty of land mines. One wrong step and Turnbull’s leadership could be in serious danger.

 

One Nation's shocker of a week

Friday, May 26, 2017

By David Speers

“This is not the end, it’s not the beginning of the end, it’s more like the end of the beginning”. That’s how the ASIO boss summed up where the war on terrorism is at, when he fronted a Senate committee last night.

It was a keenly anticipated appearance after this week’s awful events in Manchester and Jakarta, as well as the Coroner’s report on the Lindt Café siege. Duncan Lewis came bearing news both good and bad.

First to the good news (we need some after this week). For the first time, the number of Australians fighting with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has fallen. In fact, it’s been falling for six to nine months. Around 100 Australians are now over there, down from a peak of about 140.

ASIO says there are two main reasons for this. The flow of those leaving our shores to join up as foreign fighters has “reduced dramatically”. And more Australian terrorist fighters have been killed on the battlefield. At least 64 and as many as 76 have died. Peter Dutton for one will be happy. Killing Australian foreign fighters over there is the “best outcome” the Immigration Minister said on radio earlier in the day. Many would agree.

The other piece of good news from Duncan Lewis last night was his new assessment on how many foreign fighters are likely to return home. He now believes there will be far fewer trying to make their way back to Australia than he previously thought. Most will either go to neighbouring countries in the Middle East, head to Europe or South East Asia. 

Now to the bad news. While there might be fewer Australians fighting in Iraq and Syria, and fewer expected to come home, the security environment facing those of us here is “steadily worsening”. The ASIO boss says his agency’s caseload is “unprecedented” both in volume and seriousness. “The terrorist threat is not going to diminish in the foreseeable future”.

So how is ASIO keeping ahead of the game? How has it been able to successfully thwart 12 terrorist attacks over the last few years? Not surprisingly, Duncan Lewis wasn’t about to divulge any of those secrets last night.

But, we did learn what it’s not doing. ASIO is not following the simplistic advice of those who think banning burkas, stopping Muslim immigration and putting cameras in Mosques will solve the problem.

Pauline Hanson used her allotted time during the hearing last night to push all of her anti-Muslim buttons. She was searching for some sort of validation from Australia’s chief spy to support her theories. In the end, it was a case of conspiracy meeting reality.

The One Nation leader asked if Middle Eastern refugees were bringing terrorism into Australia. “I have absolutely no evidence to suggest there’s a connection between refugees and terrorism” came the unambiguous response. Is ASIO concerned about women wearing burkas? “We have no security reason to be concerned”. And what about the experience in Canada, Senator Hanson asked, of refugees’ children turning to terrorism? “I see no evidence of it here”.

Duncan Lewis’ answers to Pauline Hanson were his most forceful and definitive of the evening. His views on politicians pushing anti-Muslim scare campaigns are well known. Two years ago, Lewis was heavily criticised by conservatives for urging a number of MPs to be “temperate” in their language. A backlash from the Muslim community, he argued, was the last thing his agency needed when it relies so heavily on cooperation. This is undoubtedly true, but telling elected politicians what they should and shouldn’t say wasn’t a good idea.

Last night he offered no such advice. He didn’t have to. He simply rebutted every one of Pauline Hanson’s scare campaigns. It capped off a terrible week for One Nation.

In a separate Senate committee last night, the Australian Electoral Commission announced it’s investigating whether the party breached electorate disclosure laws over the “gift” of a small plane from a Melbourne businessman. The Courier Mail also reports Queensland Police and the Crime and Corruption Commission have begun “initial probes” into a leaked recording of Hanson’s Chief of Staff, James Ashby, suggesting ways the party could fleece taxpayers. And One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts’ media advisor was this week charged with assault.

All of this may not necessarily shake the faith of loyal One Nation supporters, but very few of them would surely deny this week has been a shocker for the party.

 

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