Monday, July 13, 2009

Hu tests Rudd's China influence

Imprisoning people with whom they have dealings is a classic Chinese negotiating tactic -- particularly when they have no other cards to play. It is a s sign of weakness and an attempt to cover that up. That is what is happening in the case below and there is a fair chance that it will force some concessions from Rudd. Presumably Rudd knows all that, which is why he has so far turned a blind eye. If he had any balls he would tell the Chinese to ease up or all further negotiations with them will have to take place in Australia -- which is now likely to happen anyway. More details here and here

WHEN Kevin Rudd was told last week an Australian man was being held captive in a foreign country, you could picture him crossing his fingers and toes that country wasn't China. The Prime Minister prides himself on his diplomatic relations - especially with the burgeoning superpower. And yet as of last night Rio Tinto mining executive Stern Hu was still languishing in a Chinese prison, on suspicion of spying and stealing state secrets, with Australian officials warning the situation is not likely to resolve itself any time soon.

That's bad news for Rudd. Subtlety not his strong point, Rudd has for years given off the impression he's on top of China's party invite list. Australians were led to believe his speaking fluent Mandarin was not just a party trick, but a gateway to the upper echelons of the communist country's regime. That's probably what Hu was hoping too when he was arrested by Chinese secret police Sunday a week ago.

Because of his so-implied special relationship with China, Rudd has faced repeated calls to use his influence to help Hu. Yet it took five full days for Hu to receive Australian consular assistance. Rudd will be pleased that when the story broke he was on another overseas trip - building more diplomatic relations - providing him a welcome distraction. It has been left to Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith - who can't speak Mandarin - to handle the case.

And let's be frank - it's not like the Chinese are playing ball. At one point Smith was forced to rely on Chinese websites to learn more about the case against Hu. Yesterday Smith reported it would be another month before Australian officials will be allowed to visit Hu again. He said Hu was now subject to Chinese law and the Chinese legal and judicial process. "As a result . . . Australia has to conduct itself in that environment," he said.

Coalition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop repeated Opposition calls that Hu's case deserved a more serious response. "He's being taken by the Chinese secret police and there are accusations of espionage and state secrets," she said yesterday. "That elevates this matter to a Beijing-to-Canberra issue."

Today Smith said Australian officials in Canberra and Beijing seek more detailed information from Chinese authorities. Let's hope they're successful, for the sake of Hu's wife and two sons, who are largely being kept in the dark. Hu's wife Julie says she's OK - but she's being brave. Having a husband locked up by a totalitarian regime hell-bent on saving face after Chinalco failed in its bid for Rio has many wondering: how much will one man suffer to make a political point?

Rudd returns from his week-long trip to Malaysia, Germany, Switzerland and Italy, this morning. The Prime Minister is officially on leave this week, taking time to recuperate during the long parliamentary winter recess. While having some down time with his family in Kirribilli, perhaps he could pick up the phone to his good mates in China, and help out a fellow Aussie.


Australia surviving the financial crisis better than most

Another week, another round of not-so-terrible indicators about the state of the economy. It's getting easier to believe and harder to doubt this recession will be a lot milder than we're used to. If the recession does prove to be less severe than advertised, both sides of politics will need to review their plans.

Last week brought the remarkable news that the Westpac-Melbourne Institute index of consumer sentiment rose by 23 per cent over the past two months to its highest level since December 2007, with optimists now well outnumbering pessimists. The number of new housing loans in May was at a 16-month high. And the labour force figures for June showed unemployment continuing to rise quite slowly.

Put that together with recent increases in retail sales, car sales and home prices and you've got a picture of an economy travelling quite a bit more strongly than envisaged as recently as the budget in May. The global recession is every bit as severe as we were led to expect, but it seems it hasn't dragged our economy down nearly as much we feared.

Whereas in early May the Reserve Bank was forecasting that real gross domestic product would contract by 1 per cent over calendar 2009, when we see its revised forecast next month it's likely to be for growth of about 0.5 per cent, maybe more.

If our prospects really are that much brighter, two main factors account for it. First, continued demand from China has limited the expected decline in our export income. The volume of exports actually rose over the six months to March and seems to have held up since then. Much rides on the success with which the Chinese authorities can switch from export-led to domestic-led growth, whether from consumption or infrastructure investment. The beauty from our perspective is that wherever they get their growth from, they'll need lots of steel and energy - the very commodities we supply.

The second factor is the continued strength of consumption spending, explained not just by the cash splash and the huge cut in mortgage interest rates, but by the way this has affected people's sentiment about the state of their own finances and the outlook for the economy.

It's always possible, of course, that all we're experiencing is an Indian summer. The global financial crisis may have more shocks to deliver, or it could be that consumer and business confidence will wilt under the inexorable rise in unemployment yet to come. But that fear is starting to wear thin. Whereas the budget forecast was for the unemployment rate to reach a peak of 8.5 per cent sometime in 2010-11, the new expectation is that it may not quite reach 7.5 per cent, and will reach its peak a fair bit earlier.

If that expectation comes to pass then, with the rate now at 5.8 per cent, we've already come a little more than half the distance from the trough of 3.9 per cent in February last year.


The usual bureaucratic yawn from those entrusted with child protection

Laws and duties simply ignored -- with dire consequences

A toddler is on life support after being bashed, days after welfare officers were told of an earlier attack. A top-level inquiry has been ordered into what steps were taken to protect the child, who has been in a coma since last week. Concerns were raised about the two-year-old girl when she arrived at child care with what appeared to be black eyes. The Herald Sun believes childcare staff notified the Department of Human Services, but police were not called in at the time.

About a week later, last Tuesday, the girl suffered severe head injuries. She was taken by emergency air ambulance to the Royal Children's Hospital, where she remains in an induced coma.

The Kennett government introduced laws in 1993 making it mandatory to report child abuse after two-year-old Daniel Valerio was bashed to death. The latest tragic victim of child abuse was in such a grave condition in hospital the homicide squad was notified. The girl's 26-year-old father was arrested by detectives from Stawell at the Royal Children's on Friday. They charged him with intentionally causing serious injury and recklessly causing serious injury to his daughter. A police spokeswoman said the man was granted police bail and will appear in the Stawell Magistrates' Court tomorrow.

Detectives and forensic experts have visited the home where it is believed the girl was attacked. Community Services Minister Lisa Neville has been briefed on the case. "The minister has ordered a full review . . . to ensure that all appropriate steps were taken," Department of Human Services spokesman Paul Heinrichs said. "This is a very serious case and our thoughts are with the child who is in hospital." Mr Heinrichs said specific questions from the Herald Sun about the circumstances of the case could not be answered because of the police investigation.

Professor Chris Goddard, the director of child abuse prevention research at Monash University, said Victoria needed an independent review of all child assault deaths and serious injuries cases. "We need to review cases where children have been injured to see if we could have intervened earlier," he said.

The child protection system came in for a major shake-up after the tragic death of Daniel Valerio in September 1990. It was estimated that in the months before he died, 21 professional people had contact with the sad and broken little boy. Three years later his stepfather, Paul Aiton, then 32, was sentenced to a minimum 18 years' jail.

The judge said there had been a lamentable failure of people in the system to take action when they saw the injuries the boy had suffered in the lead-up to his death. "Daniel would be alive today if there had been mandatory reporting," his father said outside the court.


A good looking woman with her feet on the ground

Top model Cassi Van Den Dungen turns down fashion career -- a career of artificiality and bitchiness

As two Australia's Next Top Model contestants strutted down the career runway yesterday, series runner-up Cassi Van Den Dungen walked away from a future in fashion. While Clare Venema and Adele Thiel attended a casting for Rosemount Sydney Fashion Festival, the feisty but photogenic "bogan" officially turned down prestigious contracts with not just local agent Priscilla Leighton-Clarke but cut-throat New York model management company Elite.

Van Den Dungen - whose looks have been compared to Kate Moss - plans to stay in Sunbury with her bricklaying boyfriend Brad Saul, 25.

Judge Charlotte Dawson, who supported the 17-year-old throughout the series, was not surprised when contacted by Confidential. "After seeing him (Saul) in the audience of the finale, I thought 'That guy is going to ruin her life'," she said. "We gave her so much love and support, maybe even more than the other girls, but at the back of my mind I knew she would do this and that's why I couldn't vote for her."


Demonstration against big Al

THE massive challenges of climate change should be viewed as opportunities, US climate campaigner Al Gore says. The former US vice president and Nobel Prize and Oscar winner was in Melbourne launching non-government organisation Safe Climate Australia at a breakfast of 1000 Australian leaders.

Mr Gore said the world, while facing the dual challenges of environmental and economic crisis, should not be afraid of the difficulties ahead. "We should respond not only to the danger but also to the opportunity," he said. "Because we face this crisis at a moment when the world is in an economic crisis as well."

Outside the function, about 30 protesters from the Climate Sceptics Party staged a peaceful demonstration bearing placards, including one that read "Stop Junk Science". Several party members also wore T-shirts splashed with the slogan "Carbon Really Ain't Pollution - CRAP".

But Mr Gore warned the crisis was gaining momentum. "The planet now has a fever," he said. "We have to act."

On Sunday, Mr Gore said the Rudd Government's carbon emission targets were not what he would have devised but stressed he was "realistic about what can be accomplished within the political system as it is".


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