Friday, December 17, 2010

WikiLeaks cleared of breaking Australian law

THE Wikileaks project has been officially cleared of breaking Australian law. The Australian Federal Police today said an investigation which began November 30 had detected no offences.

This finding is an embarrassment to Prime Minister Julia Gillard who initially said the leaking of confidential cables to Washington from the US Embassy in Canberra was illegal.

Ms Gillard later modified her position by saying the leaks had been based on an illegality - the original downloading of the diplomatic messages by a junior American soldier.

Attorney General Rob McClelland directed the AFP to examine "the matter relating to the publishing of United States (US) embassy cables containing classified information on the WikiLeaks website".

The police today said: "The AFP examined material relevant to potential Australian offences to determine whether an official investigation was warranted. "The AFP has completed its evaluation of the material available and has not established the existence of any criminal offences where Australia would have jurisdiction. "Where additional cables are published and criminal offences are suspected, these matters should be referred to the AFP for evaluation."

Cables published so far have established that the Australian public was given a rosier outlook on our military involvement in Afghanistan than our leaders, particularly current Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, held in private.

It has also been revealed that when Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard was looking at taking the top job after two or three elections, according to a junior MP.

Most of the revelations have been embarrassing to the Government, and less frequently to the Liberals.


Christmas Island tragedy forces review of ALP's asylum stance

LABOR Party national president Anna Bligh has backed a complete review of the government's border protection policies

The call comes as political unity over the Christmas Island asylum boat disaster crumbled. As the frantic search continued for survivors of Wednesday's horror sinking, the opposition said it would not join a proposed bipartisan group announced by Julia Gillard yesterday.

The rebuff came as The Australian learned that Indonesian authorities were searching for an Iranian in the belief he had planned the doomed people-smuggling operation.

It can also be revealed that the two patrol boats that participated in yesterday's rescue, plucking 41 survivors from the sea, were stationed off Christmas Island only because the seas were too rough to resume regular patrols.

The official death toll last night rose to 30, including four children and four babies, after divers recovered the bodies of man in his 20s and a boy about 10 years old, near the sunken hull.

However, the government, which yesterday announced three investigations into the tragedy, said the toll was likely to rise because up to 100 Iraqis, Iranians and Kurds were believed to have been aboard the boat.

Locals said bodies could be trapped for weeks in underwater caves at the site of the boat wreck, 200m from the island's only safe harbour, Flying Fish Cove.

Ms Bligh, the Queensland Premier, speaking in her federal leadership capacity with the ALP, yesterday agreed the "catastrophic tragedy" would raise questions about whether Christmas Island should continue to host the nation's biggest immigration detention camp.

She said the Prime Minister's decision to return to work from holidays demonstrated that she understood the implications for "policy settings in relation particularly to this island".

Asked whether the Indian Ocean territory had become a magnet for people-smuggling, Ms Bligh told The Australian: "I really do think it is premature to be jumping to specific conclusions. All I am saying is that . . . when a shocking incident like this happens, it's incumbent on all of us to have a really good look at all the settings, and we should have the courage to do so.

"This is an absolutely catastrophic tragedy and when we understand better the circumstances that led to it . . . I would expect that we as a nation would have a long, hard look at what it all means."

Inevitably, this would lead to "some questioning" about the viability of the detention facilities on Christmas Island, which was excised from the Australian migration zone by the Howard government. "I think as a nation we are all struggling with how we should protect our borders from illegal entry, how we should ensure we process people who are seeking asylum in a humane way and whether the detention centres are on Australian soil or places like Christmas Island," Ms Bligh said.

The three Indonesian crew members survived the disaster and last night were being held in the island's construction camp, away from the asylum-seeker survivors.

The Prime Minister warned the toll would almost certainly rise. "

Another asylum-seeker vessel arrived in Australian waters yesterday. The boat, with 54 passengers and two crew, was intercepted northwest of Ashmore Island by the patrol boat HMAS Glenelg yesterday afternoon. Those aboard were on their way to Christmas Island last night for security, identity and health checks.

Fending off questions about the role Labor's softened refugee policies might have played in drawing boats here, Ms Gillard called for any policy debate to be "informed by facts". "What we know from past instances in this area is there have been times when there has been a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of debate about the facts," she said.

She said West Australian authorities would conduct a coronial inquest into the incident. There would be a criminal investigation under people-smuggling laws and a review of the incident by Customs and Border Protection.

Mr Abbott said he was loathe to start a "political bunfight" over the issue, particularly while the rescue effort remained under way. "But given the Prime Minister's claim, I think I can make the observation that what Australia needs is a new policy to deal with this problem, not a new committee to investigate," he said.


Learn from Europe

Dr Oliver Marc Hartwich

If you want to understand the European crisis, you only need two statistics. The first is the development of the ratio of government expenditure to GDP over time; the second is the level of government debt.

Half a century ago, the state accounted for around a third of the economy in most EU countries. It was highest in Austria at 35.7% of GDP. In Italy, Belgium and Sweden, it was just over the 30% mark; in Switzerland and Spain, it was even lower than 20%.

What has happened since then can only be described as an explosion of government activities. In today’s European Union, there is not a single country with a government expenditure to GDP ratio below 40%. Ratios in the mid-40s are the norm, and in some countries they are well above the 50% mark. In Britain, it now stands at 52.2%, in France at 55.9%, and in Sweden at 56.0%.

Such expenditure levels require enormous tax revenues, and finance ministers found raising them to be increasingly difficult. So instead they went into debt. According to the latest available data from the European Central Bank, general government debt in Eurozone countries stood at 79.2% of GDP last year. The financial crisis of the past years has obviously contributed to this, but Europe’s march into debt began decades earlier.

What we are witnessing today is the end game of the European welfare state model as described above. Of course, there are further complications such as Europe’s demographic change, its failed migration and integration policies, and the folly of uniting the diverse continent in a monetary union. But above all, the European crisis boils down to the crisis of the overblown, inflated state.

For this reason alone, Australians should closely watch what is happening in Europe. Europe’s present can be our future if we repeat the mistakes Europeans have made in the past.

In comparison to the European figures, Australia’s expenditure to GDP ratio was 21.2% in 1960, had climbed to just over 34% by 1980, roughly stabilising at that level since. Consequently, Australian government debt is minimal by international standards.

Arguably, the smaller state has contributed to the higher growth rates that Australia has generated. As a rule of thumb, an increase in the spending ratio of 10 percentage points reduces economic growth by just under 1 percentage point a year. This may not sound much, but over the years the compound effect is substantial.

By comparing the different economic conditions of Europe and Australia, it should not be too difficult for Australians to make a choice about economic policy. Mimicking European policies is the surest way to economic disaster.

This makes it all the more surprising why the Australian government seems hell-bent on doing just that. ‘Building the Education Revolution,’ ‘Cash for Clunkers,’ the ‘National Broadband Network,’ and the universal parental leave scheme are all steps on the way to a bigger government Australia.

A quick glance at Europe shows why this is a dead end path.

The above is a press release from the Centre for Independent Studies, dated Dec. 17. Enquiries to Snail mail: PO Box 92, St Leonards, NSW, Australia 1590.

Political interference will cripple climate debate

By Michael Asten, a professorial fellow in the school of geosciences, Monash University, Australia

THE Cancun climate change conference has come and gone. As expected, it began with a statement from climate scientists on the magnitude of the threat: a predicted sea-level rise of 0.5m to 2m by 2100.

Australia's Climate Change Minister Greg Combet spoke of Australia's commitment to spend $599 million on regional adaptation programs on climate change for poor countries. This may be a wise move since, based on the conference outcomes, few could be optimistic that the global community would succeed in reversing climate change by agreement on decreasing carbon emissions.

Less wise are the Gillard government's promises to introduce a price on Australian carbon emissions next year; we are entitled to ask first whether the government has learned from past mistakes, in particular its failure to countenance and consider a breadth of points of view on which mechanism, and indeed which scientific prediction we should believe.

The recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report, which advocates putting a price on carbon, is notable in its absence of endorsement of Kevin Rudd's emissions trading scheme over a carbon tax or vice versa.

The preferred mechanism for a price on carbon was a matter of some debate - and bureaucratic abuse of process - last year when Clive Spash, then of the CSIRO, wrote a journal article advocating a response to climate change via changes in economic structure, institutions and behaviour, rather than by the introduction of an ETS.

The Spash paper should have been welcomed as an example of the CSIRO fulfilling its six-point charter, which includes agreement for open communication, encouragement of debate on research issues of public interest, the contestability of ideas and demonstration of independence and integrity. Unfortunately, the CSIRO failed both its employee and its employer (the nation). The author was subject to intense pressure from his employer to modify his conclusions after they had been accepted by external peer review, to align them with the policy of the government of the day.

In what will be seen by historians as an outstanding example of political interference in the academic process, Spash resisted the demands for alteration, had his professional reputation traduced by ill-considered claims by Science Minister Kim Carr and eventually resigned his position.

His paper appeared this year in the June issue of the journal New Political Economy, and it is relevant to the present debate in that it questions the cost-effectiveness of an ETS and warns of the "potential for manipulation to achieve financial gain while showing little regard for environmental or social consequences".

A particular irony of this case is that Spash accepts the scientific evidence for anthropogenic global warming but differed from the 2009 government views on the nature of economic management of such change. Spash now holds a professorial position in Norway, and his work has renewed credibility as the OECD and our parliament consider options for a carbon-pricing alternative or some other mechanism for managing climate change.

Has the government learned from its mistakes of last year? Probably not. The supposedly multi-party Climate Change Committee set up by Combet includes a proviso that members must commit to a carbon price; the opposition has understandably declined to participate under such loaded terms of reference.

I also fear that the quality of scientific advice to the government is likewise loaded so that ongoing studies on scientific parameters vital to the climate debate such as the magnitude of the CO2 and water vapour-related feedbacks in atmospheric warming, the role of solar-magnetic and cosmic influences on climate, and the geological-historical records of cyclic climate change are starved of funding in Australia relative to the munificence of grants available for Combet's regional adaptation programs, or various green energy projects.

And if scientists involved in the foregoing topics arrive at a conclusion inconvenient to government policy, Spash's experience gives us no confidence that they will receive a fair hearing.

Political interference against scientific objectivity is insidious and may ultimately deliver hideous outcomes. It is common in climate change debate for lesser intellects to label those who dare to question present climate science orthodoxy as deniers, making the implicit association between climate sceptics and Holocaust deniers.

Such accusers probably are unaware of the savage irony in this epithet, in that German academics and scientists compliant with government policy were intimately involved in the formulation and development of Nazi racial policy, and, as historians have commented, the Nazi regime brought boom-time conditions for scientists from racial anthropologists, biologists and economists who were able to contribute to this aspect of the regime's policies. Those academics who were outspoken were removed by the Gestapo.

I do not offer these thoughts as being analogous to present climate debate but by way of caution to politicians who may be unwilling to allow debate, and scientists who may be unduly influenced by funding sources.

As a geophysicist my reading and writing leads me to question the level of influence of human-related CO2 emissions on present versus past climate change, and it is of huge concern to our nation's future if we commit to a price on carbon without a parallel high-priority, objective and ongoing scientific effort to quantify uncertainties and natural factors also affecting climate change.

The Cancun predictions on sea-level rises contrast with recent satellite observations on the rate of sea-level change and provide a timely example on the need for scientific objectivity.

A recent peer-reviewed paper by Svetlana Jevrejeva from Britain's National Oceanography Centre, Liverpool, provides a calculation of 0.6m-1.6m by 2100 using a range of climate models. However, these models also show predicted sea-level change rates of 4.2mm-5.4mm a year for the first decade of the 21st century.

I contrast these predictions with just published observations by Riccardo Riva from Delft in The Netherlands and international colleagues who use satellite technology to measure actual global sea level rise in this same decade to be in the order of 1mm a year, which happens to be about the rate of sea-level increase that has been observed during the past century. In other words, the observational data suggests the problem as modelled may be overstated by a factor of five.

Did scientists from the no-longer independent CSIRO (or other competent body in Australia) brief minister Combet and his team at Cancun on this discrepancy and its implications? Are they permitted to make such comment publicly? And how will such observations affect the targeting of our funds on offer for regional adaptation programs?

Until we have confidence scientists can address such issues without censorship or denigration, we cannot have confidence that a price on carbon will be scientifically justified or wisely spent.


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