Saturday, January 01, 2011

Up north, there's another boatpeople issue

Like many Australians who know Melanesians, I have some sympathy for these people. They usually adapt well to Australian life, are good humoured and are not afraid of hard work. PNG is so dysfunctional, however, that we would have millions of low-skilled and poorly educated people flooding in if they were allowed

For the welfare of the people, PNG should have continued under Australian administration. There was no indigenous push for independence but a big-noting Labor government led by Gough Whitlam pushed independence on them

FROM his dingy, overcrowded cell in Port Moresby's Boroko prison, Jonathan Baure is already plotting his next assault on Australia's border.

It has been 10 days since he stood on the shore of Daru Island, along the southeastern tip of Papua New Guinea, to see off 16 dinghies, carrying 119 PNG nationals - including 13 children - headed across the Torres Strait to reclaim their "birth right" of Australian citizenship. Baure, a former tile salesman, had planned and openly promoted the voyage for weeks.

There was no shortage of willing passengers. Despite November's cholera outbreak on Daru, which killed 32 people, more than 400 supporters from all over the country flooded the island, paying Baure to join the unwieldy flotilla of banana boats.

Leader of an emerging group of "Australian Papuans", Baure has for a decade waged a losing battle with Canberra to recognise that people from the former Australian territory of Papua were not given the choice to remain Australian when PNG gained independence in 1975.

Two High Court cases have been lost in Australia over the issue, and Baure unsuccessfully launched his own case in PNG, which was thrown out in 2009.

Several months ago, Baure and his group, which claims to have 700 registered members, decided to take the fight to the Australian mainland. "I was born in Papua in 1967, before independence, and like many others, my birth certificate is stamped 'Australian'," Baure tells The Weekend Australian after his arrest on fraud and immigration charges this week. "Nobody has listened to us, so our plan was to go to Australia, get arrested, raise awareness of the issue and have our cases heard in the courts like the asylum-seekers. We knew they couldn't stop us."

He was right. On December 22, as the boats were about to leave, Australian and PNG customs and immigration officials rushed to Daru, alerted by the influx of people who had emptied the local shops of diesel and other supplies.

One Australian official from the high commission in Port Moresby pleaded with Baure and his supporters, warning they would be flown back to Daru without seeing the inside of a courtroom and the boats - the source of income for scores of families - confiscated.

Undeterred, Baure, who stayed behind to "handle the media", and the authorities then watched as the packed boats disappeared over the horizon. Within hours, the vulnerability of Australia's northern borders was exposed again.

Last year, Torres Strait councils told a Senate inquiry PNG nationals were pouring onto the islands to live, flouting immigration laws, running drugs and overwhelming health services in the region.

Despite a customs helicopter and patrol boat shadowing and then intercepting Baure's flotilla, one of the boats seemingly landed undetected on the tip of Cape York. At one stage, the customs vessel came alongside the lead boat, with the commander inviting Baure's offsider Laura Rea onboard to take a phone call from one of Immigration's most senior officials. "It was somewhere near Zagai Island (about 100km south of Daru), and the man on the telephone said we had no claim, that our case had already been lost in the High Court years ago," Rea tells The Weekend Australian. "He said that unless we turned back, we would lose our boats and be sent back immediately, but everyone wanted to go on."

Darkness started to fall and the boats were tied up to the Customs vessel, with the children brought aboard as the rest of the party slept on the dinghies. The next day, they were led to Horn Island, off the northern tip of Cape York, where they were detained before being flown back to Daru last weekend on a chartered plane.

Australian Immigration spokesman Sandi Logan said the incident could end up costing taxpayers $500,000. Logan says many of the passengers were not born before 1975, and could not qualify under even the criteria of the group's claims to citizenship.

"Customs, Queensland police, doctors and immigration were all involved when many of them were preparing for the floods and they had to deal with this prank, this protest."

The voyage has also come at a great cost to the passengers. Rea says the boat owners are devastated their vessels have been confiscated despite being warned before they left that it would happen.

She claims Immigration officials later assured the group on Horn Island their boats would be returned. "But Australia has confiscated their banana boats, and that is devastating to them and the families they support," she said.

Baure is facing up to three years' in jail, after being arrested in Daru as the passengers were being flown back. PNG police allege the 400 people who travelled to Daru had paid a minimum 200 kina ($77) to Baure for membership of his group and a document that purported to prove each of their claims for Australian citizenship.

Baure has been charged under section 96 of PNG's criminal code, relating to "false assumption of authority", as well as offences under the Migration Act.

He denies duping anybody into believing they were guaranteed citizenship with the documents. "The documents that the police are calling a fake visa was actually just a pass so that the boat owners knew who was legitimately entitled to be on the boat," he says. "I wanted to raise money for the group but also make sure that drug runners and other people didn't slip onto the boats."

Baure says his arrest is an attempt to destroy his group and put an end to the simmering issue. "We are already making plans, there will be other boats.

"There are many people still on Daru wanting to make the voyage. They can confiscate our dinghies but we will come back with canoes and if they take them we will make more and return. This is a fight about our civil rights being denied, not all of us want to move to Australia and people shouldn't think there are going to be hordes of Papuans arriving to live off welfare. "I have the information that will win the case. Why is Australia so fearful of facing a bunch of uneducated Papuans in court?"


They did something

NEW national consumer protection laws and paid parental leave are among the Gillard Government reforms that will come into effect today.

In what the Government has hailed as "one of the most significant reforms in the history of consumer protection" the Australian Consumer Law will today take the place of about 20 Commonwealth, state and territory consumer protection laws, The Weekend Australian said.

The ACL - which the Productivity Commission estimates will provide up to $4.5 billion in benefits to the economy - will include terms to cover standard form contracts, a national law guaranteeing consumer rights when buying goods and services, national product safety rules and unified penalties and enforcement powers.

From today, parents will be able to claim 18 weeks government-funded paid parental leave, at the national minimum wage of $570 a week before tax, The Weekend Australian said.

But Julia Gillard is yet to respond to the concerns of unions and business groups, who are urging the Government to address a loophole that leaves some parents eligible for the payments but not for leave under the Fair Work Act.

New government-funded mental health services will also come online today, with a $21million boost to internet-based mental health services and extra training for frontline community workers.

Trade apprentices in areas where there are known skills shortages will get an extra $1700 over the course of their training to cover the cost of tools and other work expenses.

The age of independence to qualify for Youth Allowance and Abstudy payments will drop from 24 years to 23 years. More generous Youth Allowance eligibility criteria will also apply to "outer regional" and "remote" students but the government is now under pressure to extend those arrangements to inner regional students.

In other changes, workers whose employers go into liquidation will get extra protection. Cabinet records will become available after 20 years instead of the current 30 years.

Publicly listed companies will come under more pressure to redress gender inequalities at a board level, with the introduction of the ASX Corporate Governance Council's Corporate Governance Principles and Recommendations.

In NSW, pioneering political campaign finance reforms become state law, with limits on both donations and campaign spending ahead of the March 26 state election. Individuals and organisations are permitted to donate a maximum of $5000 to any political party in any year. During elections the parties are now limited to spending $100,000 in any electorate. Payroll tax relief for businesses comes into effect, while there will be more leniency on driving infractions, with motorists able to accrue 13 demerit points, instead of the current 12.

In Victoria, cigarette displays are now banned except in specialist tobacconists. The "Underbelly" state is also making it illegal to sell a minor a controlled weapon, including knives, and will introduce new bail arrangements, which give the courts more responsibility for setting bail.

In Queensland, mining companies now have to comply with new energy efficiency standards and prepare an environmental impact statement for any new project undertaken.

South Australian householders will be slugged with electricity price rises after the state's energy regulator allowed a 12 per cent increase in the amount AGL can charge its customers. The average householder will pay an extra $140 on power bills this year as a result.

In Western Australia, the Chicken Meat Industry Act 1977 expires. The act was established to promote stability in the struggling chicken industry as it rapidly expanded.

In Tasmania, midwives will be able to prescribe stronger pain relief for their patients, under new laws.


Climate policy still hottest topic for government

Climate change policy has already played a critical role in the demise of four political leaders.

John Howard's failure to ratify the Kyoto protocol was used to characterise him as yesterday's man. Brendan Nelson's instinct to tighten the rein on climate policy was a pivotal reason the Liberals switched to Malcolm Turnbull. Paradoxically, little more than a year later, the same party room narrowly toppled Turnbull to overturn his climate policy.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd lost his confidence when Copenhagen failed, and then lost the confidence of the public and finally his party when he abandoned his emissions trading crusade.

It is clear climate change looms large, it's a known unknown, and it's on track to claim a fifth Australian political scalp. But whose?

For Gillard the issue offers an opportunity to salvage her almost stillborn government. On the other hand, it could deliver Tony Abbott the keys to the lodge.

At one level there is more policy common ground here than either side of politics likes to pretend.

Both main parties are committed to the same 10-year target they took to the election, reaffirmed recently at Cancun; a reduction of 5 per cent on 2001 emissions levels by 2020. What differs is how they'll get there, and the rhetoric and emphasis employed along the way.

It suits Labor to argue it is crusading to save the planet and protect the economy while the conservatives are sitting on their hands and jeopardising our children's future.

It suits the Liberals to argue that Labor is rushing headlong with the tide of political fashion, imposing a heavy cost on the economy when the science is, at best, uncertain.

Neither of these rhetorical lines sits very well with the fact that both sides have plausible plans to reduce emissions by the same amount over the next decade.

Business, especially big business, craves certainty and leans towards an emissions trading system, mainly because it considers a market mechanism inevitable. In short it has been saying we might as well get the system in place so investment decisions can be made.

The Liberals' direct-action alternative might be immediately attractive to industry except that it would worry a change of government or a breakthrough in international talks could suddenly see a market mechanism re-emerge.

Yet Labor no longer has any certainty about what it proposes. Its carbon pollution reduction scheme remains on the shelf; a trading scheme endorsed for a week by the Turnbull Coalition and rejected, in the end, by the Greens for not going far enough.

Gillard must be tempted to dust it off and run it by the parliament again, invite a Liberal or two to cross the floor, and dare the Greens to reject progress on a carbon price agenda for a second time. Surely this would call Brown's bluff.

But Gillard has now outsourced her climate policy, at least to some degree, to a multi-sided (Labor, Greens, independents) parliamentary committee, a Productivity Commission inquiry, a new Ross Garnaut review and two non-government round tables.

Imagine if Labor were confronted with research or recommendations that bolster Abbott's argument that a direct-action approach is advisable in the short term before international commitments become clearer.

Nonetheless, Labor is committed to deliver some kind of price on carbon and it must. To retreat again on climate change would be suicide. This won't be easy. Labor's scheme will be shaped in a tug'o'war between the lower house independents and the Greens. Anything could happen, up to a parliamentary stand-off that would be fatal for Gillard.

But from this distance out, let's assume the stakes are so high that Gillard can carry the day and get her carbon price in place.

She could then claim a victory of sorts and, importantly, show Labor has made good on a pledge that has been pivotal to its agenda for at least five years.

But where the climate alarmists from Al Gore to Tim Flannery once had an unchallenged run, there is now a more realistic and multi-faceted debate. Labor's crusade to save the planet is no longer the political sure bet. The situation is much more nuanced.

Polls tell us most Australians are worried about climate change and believe human activity is a contributing factor. But when asked if they are prepared to pay for a solution through a tax or trading scheme, opinion is more divided.

There is a greater awareness of the international developments that put our actions in the shade. For instance, Chinese coal-fired generation will double in the next decade. Increasingly, the public is also aware of other ways to skin the cat, such as the Coalition's abatement purchasing plan.

For all the debates about models, schemes and costs, the public messages are pretty clear. Labor is promising fervent, enthusiastic and passionate action, while the Coalition is promising prudent, reluctant and cautious action. This is a fascinating contrast when they are both committed to the same target.

In fact one of the greatest ironies in all of this has been pointed out by the Liberals' climate spokesman Greg Hunt. He says if the Coalition had won government, it would already be negotiating with large polluters to purchase carbon abatement. Abbott can also attack Labor's carbon price as a step too far, a case of ideological overreach imperilling the economy, especially given the lack of carbon price progress in the US, China and Japan.

He will, however, be presented with a difficult dilemma himself. Will he go to the next election pledging to repeal whatever scheme Labor puts in place?

Clearly Labor will make life difficult for the Coalition if it can establish a scheme and have it operational before the election. If business leaders accept the new regime and argue for it to remain in place in the interests of certainty, Abbott will rankle them by campaigning to repeal it.

But if he has characterised it as a dangerous and unnecessary "great big new tax", he will have no option. Make no mistake. This decision will create some consternation inside the Liberal Party.

All sides of politics have trying times ahead. Gillard is caught between the need to shield voters from higher costs and the extreme demands of the Greens, all fuelled by the high expectations Labor has set itself on climate change action.

Abbott is torn between the election campaign gift of running against a new tax and the challenge of pledging to overturn a scheme agreed to by business to tackle a problem worrying most Australians.

Gillard has the much tougher challenge. Cobbling a carbon price together will go close to tearing her rainbow coalition apart. The country independents will be asked to turn their back on rural abatement schemes that would be lucrative for their constituents and endorse higher power prices at the same time. The Greens will be asked to climb down from their extreme targets and agree to a pragmatic compromise that is perhaps inferior, in their eyes, to the scheme they rejected last year.

If the Gillard can pass through the eye of that needle, she'll have to sell a deliberate cost-of-living increase to all Australians. For Abbott, running a campaign against that shouldn't be too taxing.


Don't get ill in Victoria

Victoria's ambulance crisis set to worsen

The state's ambulance crisis is set to worsen with Ambulance Victoria slashing its graduate program. The 10 per cent graduate recruitment cut means 25 fewer paramedics on our roads - caused by a lack of money.

It comes after a horror year for the service plagued by vehicle shortages, a shortage of paramedics and fatal delays caused by increasingly poor response times.

In November, the Herald Sun revealed emergency ambulances had been unable to respond to thousands of calls during the year, because Ambulance Victoria could not find staff to crew them.

Despite the desperate shortage, only 201 graduates were recruited by the organisation last year compared with 226 in 2009 and 274 in 2008. Ambulance Victoria has also wound back its undergraduate program in which second-year university students completed their studies part-time while gaining on-road experience. While 90 students took part in the program last year, students were told this week the program had been withdrawn.

Ambulance Employees Association spokesman Steve McGhie said it was a blow. "The ambulance service is desperately short of staff, and instead of hiring people, it's knocking them back," he said.

Ambulance Victoria's acting manager of regional services, Garry Cook, said the organisation didn't have the money to take on more graduates. "We are recruiting as many paramedics as we can manage and need to meet our service demands," Mr Cook said.

Shadow health spokesman Gavin Jennings savaged the cuts. "Ted Baillieu was good at criticising our ambulance service, but it's time he explains to Victorians how he will improve the system. He has no excuses, he must deliver his ambulance commitments in full and on time," Mr Jennings said.

A spokesman for Health Minister David Davis said yesterday the Government was committed to its $151 million pledge to deliver 340 new paramedics. "The minister is seeking an urgent briefing from Ambulance Victoria on the impact of the previous government's policies on Ambulance Victoria's recruitment and graduate program," he said.


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