Thursday, November 07, 2013

Climate change 'exaggerated', former PM says

FORMER PM John Howard thinks there'll never be a worldwide climate change agreement and admits he only backed emissions trading before the 2007 election because he faced a "perfect storm" on the issue.

Mr Howard delivered the Global Warming Policy Foundation's annual lecture in London on Tuesday night.  The foundation was established by former Thatcher minister Nigel Lawson, who is sceptical about the impact of rising temperatures.

"I've always been agnostic about it (climate change)," Mr Howard told reporters in London before his address.  "I don't completely dismiss the more dire warnings but I instinctively feel that some of the claims are exaggerated.  "I don't accept all of the alarmist conclusions."

Mr Howard said he'd grown up being told ulcers were caused by stress but it was later revealed a virus was to blame.  "You can never be absolutely certain that all the science is in."

Before the 2007 federal election then prime minister Howard pledged a re-elected conservative government would introduce an emissions trading scheme (ETS).

But he now says that was because by late 2006 his government hit a "perfect storm" with on-going drought, severe water restrictions, bushfires and the release of the Stern Review and Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth.  "To put it bluntly, 'doing something' about global warming gathered strong political momentum in Australia," Mr Howard said in his written lecture.

Regardless, Labor won the 2007 poll. Mr Howard says that was partly because the party had even "more fashionable" views on climate change.

But six years on, Australia's second-longest serving prime minister insists the high tide of public support for "over-zealous action" on global warming has passed.

"I am very sceptical about the possibility of a global agreement ever being reached when you look at what happened in Copenhagen," he said, adding there was no real prospect of a deal between the major emitters Europe, the US and north Asia.

Mr Howard believes anti-global warming policies should never stand in the way of economic growth in developing countries.

Most economists believe current Prime Minister Tony Abbott's direct action approach to curbing carbon emissions will be more expensive than an ETS.

But Mr Howard on Tuesday refused to be drawn on his protegee's policy.  "It's better for the government that's proposing the direct action plan to engage in the debate," he said.

The former Liberal leader was forced to defend his decision to read Lord Lawson's book An Appeal to Reason twice despite not having picked up any other book on global warming.

Asked if that was unbalanced, the ex-PM said he re-read the work as a courtesy after being invited by Lord Lawson to deliver the lecture.

Mr Howard said it was a "counterbalance" to advice previously received from government departments and stressed he'd read "numerous articles" on climate change.

The 74-year-old also used the lecture to argue nuclear power "must be part of the long term response" to global warming.  "It is a very clean source of energy."

Mr Howard later criticised the ABC for being captured by climate change "alarmists".  "The group-think at the ABC on this issue is quite clear," he said during the question and answer session after his lecture.  "On this issue it's signed up - there's no doubt about that."

The former prime minister said the Murdoch press, particularly The Australian newspaper, was more sceptical.

"(But) talkback radio commentators in Australia have more political influence than they do in this country (and) they are ferociously sceptical.

"So we have had, for some time, a more balanced debate."


The establishment stikes back at cholesterol skepticism

Far be it from me to suggest that they might be in the pocket of the drug companies

THE ABC's leading health expert has accused its flagship science program of putting cholesterol patients at risk of death, in an embarrassing internal feud at the national broadcaster.

Dr Norman Swan has joined leading medicos in criticising a controversial episode of the Catalyst program aired last month that questioned the role of cholesterol in heart disease and could result in patients halting use of cholesterol-lowering drugs.

"People will die as a result of the Catalyst program unless people understand at heart what the issues are," Dr Norman Swan told ABC radio.

Australian Medical Association president Dr Steve Hambleton said medicos were under siege from patients questioning their statin medicines after watching the two-part program.  "Every doctor is going through this," he said.

The cholesterol-lowering statins are the most prescribed medicines in the country and more than $1 billion is spent on them annually.

Dr Hambleton said if patients are prescribed the drugs according to national guidelines, they should stay on them because it will reduce their risk of death, a heart attack or stroke. But he admitted 70 per cent of people who take the drugs won't get any benefit.

Dr Lyn Weeks, the chief executive of the National Prescribing Service, said doctors would have to treat between 29 and 33 people with statins over five years to prevent one death from heart disease. But she said this was true of most medicines.

"People assume that all medicines work on everybody but they don't," she says. "The 30 per cent effect is good."

Critical of the Catalyst program's polarised view of cholesterol, she said it stifled an important debate on the grey areas of statin treatment.

There was strong evidence they prevented heart attacks, strokes and deaths in people who had already had a heart event, she said. She added, the evidence showed statins worked better at preventing deaths and heart attacks in men than in women.

There is not much evidence that it is beneficial to prescribe them to young people who have high cholesterol unless there was a family history of early death from heart disease.

And for people in their 80s who had few other heart disease risk factors, the side effects probably outweighed the benefits, she said.

About one in 10 patients who use the medicines suffer side effects, which can include crippling muscle pain.

A search of the database of the national medicines watchdog records reports that over 4000 patients suffered side effects to the three key statin drugs - atorvatstain, simvastatin and rosuvastatin.

The most common side effects were muscle pain and weakness and in 41 cases, death was reported as an outcome.

Last week, the chair of the Australian Advisory Committee on the Safety of Medicines, Professor Emily Banks asked the ABC to pull the follow-up program shown on Thursday.

The ABC ran a disclaimer at the start of Thursday's program saying: "The views expressed in this episode of Catalyst are not intended as medical advice. Please consult with your doctor regarding your medications."


Last rites for wealthy super tax

THE nation's wealthiest retirees will get a $300 million boost today when Joe Hockey dumps one of Labor's most hated tax hikes after two years of dispute over how to tax superannuation.

The Treasurer will formally jettison Wayne Swan's plan to tax the earnings of the richest super funds amid official concerns the changes were unworkable.

The move sharpens the political fight over super as the government offers relief to the rich while going ahead with a $1 billion hit to super benefits for 3.6 million workers on low incomes.

Mr Hockey and Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos will also abandon Labor's plan to collect $1.5bn in tax from global companies and confirm their rejection of Labor's $1.8bn increase in fringe benefits taxes on cars.

The Australian can also reveal the Treasurer has won cabinet approval to drop Labor's plan to curtail tax deductions for education expenses. Mr Swan announced in May self-education expenses would be capped at $2000 a year to save more than $500m, but employees and universities hit back, saying it would drive people out of education.

The Australian understands that 550,000 people earning less than $80,000 a year will benefit from the Coalition's decision to reverse Mr Swan's plan.

The new positions heighten the challenge for the Coalition government in the coming budget update, expected in mid- December, because they sacrifice at least $2.5bn in revenue over four years.

Mr Hockey will unveil the changes today in his first response to a list of almost 100 tax changes announced but never legislated.

In a sign of the crowded agenda for parliament when it resumes next Tuesday, the government has set a target of legislating or dropping all of the outstanding tax measures by July.

Out of 92 unlegislated tax announcements, the government will proceed with 18 and adopt another three after "significant amendments" to improve them.

Senator Sinodinos is to consult on the remaining 64 with tax experts and community and business groups but the government's "disposition" is to drop them.

If the government abandons most of the tax measures it would mark the first major removal of regulation on businesses and taxpayers since Tony Abbott came to power with a vow to cut red tape.

The $1.5bn tax increase on multinationals, based on changes to "thin capitalisation" rules that set tax rates on debt, was fiercely opposed by big companies on the grounds it would discourage investment in Australia.

The $300m increase in tax on large super funds also sparked a fight as Labor struggled over how hard to cut the tax concessions available to retirement funds.

Mr Swan's plan was to increase the tax on earnings for about 16,000 of the nation's richest people who collect more than $100,000 a year in earnings on their super funds.

The finance sector is likely to welcome the Coalition decision when it is announced in Sydney this morning but objections are growing to a separate government decision that increases super taxes for low-income workers.

The government's mining tax repeal bill, to be put to parliament within weeks, terminates a scheme that refunds the 15 per cent tax paid on super contributions by 3.6m workers earning less than $37,000 a year.


Queensland Government has plan for schools to use funding for chaplains instead of education

SCHOOLS could use funding for chaplains instead of education programs or support staff under a controversial move being considered by the State Government.

The move would give Independent Public School principals the power to boost school chaplaincy hours at the expense of literacy and numeracy programs, or other staff including guidance counsellors and psychologists.

The Queensland Teachers Union and Australian Secular Lobby are against the plan, arguing that the mainly Christian chaplains have no place in state schools.

Most chaplains in state schools are employed by Scripture Union Queensland, which says its chaplains are trained to provide important social, emotional and spiritual support to all students - and not to evangelise kids.

A document obtained under Right to Information reveals the state's 80 Independent Public Schools could soon use discretionary funds - currently used for literacy and numeracy programs, support staff or professional development - to pay for chaplains instead.

"Currently the Chaplaincy Services in Queensland State Schools procedure states that school funds provided by the Queensland Government for educational purposes cannot be used for chaplaincy services," states a briefing note to Education Minister John-Paul Langbroek. "The flexible use of discretionary schools funds to support chaplaincy/student welfare services can be explored further as part of the review of the chaplaincy procedure."

Mr Langbroek confirmed the move was part of the review, which was expected to be finalised for 2014.

The State Government already provides up to $11,000 a year for school chaplains, while the Federal Government also provides funding.

Secular Lobby spokesman Hugh Wilson said state schools should be free from religion. Mr Wilson said the move would be "absolutely disgraceful".

Scripture Union Queensland CEO Peter James said chaplains were trained in youth work and pastoral care, which complemented psychologists and guidance counsellors.

ASL spokesman Hugh Wilson said state schools should be secular and warned the move to boost chaplaincy services with discretionary funding would be "absolutely disgraceful".

"There's little enough money given over for Education Queensland schools, that is why P & Cs raise money for motor mowers and janitor's utes and playground equipment," he said.

QTU president Kevin Bates said state education should be "free, public and secular" and student welfare services should be delivered through fully trained and accredited school counsellors, guidance officers, psychologists and social workers, not chaplains.

Scripture Union Qld CEO Peter James said they approached the State Government for increased funding for chaplains after the Bundaberg floods, because more students needed their help.

He said chaplains were trained in youth work and pastoral care, which complemented psychologists and guidance counsellors.

"A chaplain is in the playground and at the school gate," Mr James said.  "There is a lot of time that is needed to just chat and unpack that stuff, that isn't necessarily counselling."


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