Sunday, June 08, 2014

Australia a solid supporter of Israel over East Jerusalem

The Abbott government has pointedly refused to call East Jerusalem occupied, sparking Palestinian accusations Australia is taking a radical pro-Israel stance.

In a statement to a Senate estimates hearing on Thursday morning, Attorney-General George Brandis said it was unhelpful to the Middle East peace process to bring up historical events.

The carefully drafted statement followed a heated hearing late on Wednesday night in which, under questioning from opposition and crossbench senators, Senator Brandis repeatedly refused to say whether East Jerusalem was occupied by Israel.

East Jerusalem is a lightning rod in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The UN deems it an occupied territory and says Israel's unification of Jerusalem in 1980 is illegal under international law.

Senator Brandis said that Australia supported a peaceful resolution in the Middle East, but added: The description of areas which are subject to negotiations in the course of the peace process by reference to historical events is unhelpful.

The description of East Jerusalem as 'Occupied East Jerusalem' is a term freighted with pejorative implications, which is neither appropriate nor useful.

East Jerusalem has been under Israeli control since the 1967 war. Recent Middle East peace talks broke down at the end of April.

In November, the Abbott government quietly registered Australia's opposition to a UN resolution ordering an end to all Israeli settlement activities in all of the occupied territories.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop subsequently questioned in an interview with an Israeli newspaper whether the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank was illegal.

Izzat Abdulhadi, chairman of the General Delegation of Palestine, which provides Palestinian diplomatic representation in Australia, said the statement was part of a trend favouring Israel since the Abbott government took office.

This statement is really outrageous, he said. East Jerusalem is an integral part of the occupied territories and that has been recognised by the UN and under international law.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon, who led the questioning of Senator Brandis, pointed to statements from Coalition ministers going back to the late 1970s and 1980s in which they call East Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories occupied.

It's an extraordinary and reckless departure from the bipartisan approach of the last 47 years, he said.


ICAC finds Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi corrupt over retail leases at Sydney's Circular Quay

Part of the corrupt NSW ALP has had a bright light shone on it

The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has found former NSW Labor ministers Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi acted corruptly over retail leases at Sydney's Circular Quay.

As part of a long-running inquiry, ICAC investigated allegations that Mr Obeid lobbied to have the leases at Circular Quay renewed without a competitive tender. It also investigated if his family had a secret financial stake in the leases.

In a report released today, ICAC found Mr Obeid "misused his position as an MP" to make representations to ministers and to former senior public servant Steve Dunn on various occasions in relation to the retail leases.

Mr Obeid has also been found corrupt for misusing his position as an MP to benefit his family's financial interests in Direct Health Solutions and generous water licences over their Bylong Valley farm.

It has recommended the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) consider charging Mr Obeid with misconduct in public office.

ICAC also found Mr Dunn, the former chief executive of NSW Maritime, acted corruptly over the leases, though it has not recommended charges be laid against him or Mr Tripodi.

During the inquiry in October 2013 dramatic vision was shown of ICAC officers finding cash totalling over $31,000 during a raid on Mr Obeid's offices at Birkenhead Point.


Melbourne University to cut 540 administrative jobs

The University of Melbourne plans to cut 540 administrative jobs as part of a $70 million savings program.

Staff members were told the news at a meeting earlier today.  The job cuts do not include academic staff.

The university's vice chancellor, Professor Glyn Davis, issued a statement after the meeting.

It was not an easy message to deliver, or receive, that the university has to undertake this reduction in the total number of professional staff

"We are hopeful we can minimise the impact on staff through natural attrition as the university had a turnover of 635 professional staff last year, and 580 the previous year.

"We will focus on reducing the total number of casual and fixed term staff where we can and offer minimal redundancies."

The structural changes are a part of the university's Business Improvement Program.  As part of the cuts some academic support services will be either centralised or automated.  The university wants to make the cuts by January 1, 2016.

National Tertiary Education Union's Victorian secretary Colin Long said the cuts mean students will be paying more and getting less.

"We think about 50 per cent of student support services will be put online," he said.  "So students won't be able to speak to someone directly during enrolment processes very often."

Mr Long said the University of Melbourne was not the first to introduce these type of cuts.  "It's had a devastating effect on those universities and after a few years we can almost guarantee it will be reversed."



Three current reports below

Blackout on green projects if target for renewables is axed

Peter Keatley is a sheep farmer. But the 59-year-old, whose property sits in NSW on the outskirts of Canberra, is also in the business of harvesting wind.

What federal treasurer of a country says he would like to stop the investment of Australian public companies?

The Keatley farm hosts five giant wind turbines, which are set to generate an inflation-adjusted $50,000 a year for at least 25 years.

This income will allow Keatley to pass his farm on to his son rather than selling out when he retires. "I love them," the 59 year-old says. "They've turned my life around."

Their very construction, with huge cranes and machines, "was the best period of my life," Keatley enthuses. "I was like a kid in a lolly shop."

The turbines on his farm are, Keatley points out, "the very first ones you see" across Lake George on the approach to Canberra from Sydney.

So it may have been these very turbines that Treasurer Joe Hockey was referring to when, in a radio interview last month, he spoke of the "utterly offensive" towers he has seen on his drive into Canberra.

In the interview, with Sydney radio presenter Alan Jones, Hockey added that, in the case of existing wind farms, "We can't knock those ones off because they're into locked-in schemes and there is a certain contractual obligation I'm told associated with those things."

It was a comment that alarmed Miles George, the managing director of Infigen Energy - the Australian Securities Exchange-listed company that operates the Keatley farm turbines and hundreds more across Australia.

"What federal treasurer of a country says he would like to stop the investment of Australian public companies?" Mr George said. "I still can't believe he said that."

This week saw US President Barack Obama unveil the most ambitious policy in US history to cut greenhouse gas emissions - a requirement for 1600 power plants to cut emissions 30 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030 - and news that China was also working on a cap for its greenhouse gas emissions.

Last week, South Korea announced plans to cap carbon emissions as part of a carbon trading scheme kicking off at the start of next year.

In Australia, however, the clean energy sector - which by its own count employs 24,000 people and has generated $20 billion in investment - feels under siege, amid government plans to dismantle climate agencies and uncertainty about the future of the nation's Renewable Energy Target.

The price of Large-Scale Generation Certificates (LGC) has plummeted, to the point where new renewable energy developments will not be viable and will struggle to get finance, according to industry figures.

Electricity retailers must buy these certificates - which are generated by renewable energy projects like wind farms - to meet their requirements under the Renewable Energy Target, creating a constant demand for the certificates.

Scrapping the target, or reducing it, means less demand for the certificates and less demand for renewable energy projects - and a reduced willingness for investment in the sector.

Since the start of the year, shares in renewable-focused companies have dived as the wider market has rallied.


G20 not a place to discuss climate change, says BHP chief

The chief executive of the world's largest miner, BHP Billiton, has backed Prime Minister Tony Abbott's decision to keep climate change off this year's G20 agenda, despite concerns Australia is increasingly viewed as being disengaged from the international climate debate.

In the same week that United States president Barack Obama pledged to slash carbon emissions from power plants by 30 per cent on 2005 levels, and China flagged an unprecedented absolute cap on emissions, Mr Abbott signalled he would pass on the opportunity to use Australia's leadership role as host of the G20 to focus on climate change – arguing the November summit in Brisbane was primarily an "economic meeting" to discuss matters of finance and trade.

"I don't think that's a backward step," BHP chief executive Andrew Mackenzie told reporters in Beijing, where he was attending meetings as part of a trade and business advisory panel advising the G20. "I agree with the Australian government with this. If you try and use [the G20] to solve all the problems of the world, you'll solve none. It's better to concentrate on a few things and do them really well."

Mr Mackenzie said he accepted there was a "long-term need" to have a pricing mechanism for carbon to drive the innovation that would "ultimately decarbonise the creation of energy around the world" – but insisted Labor's tax would have done more harm to the economy than good.

"That's kind of a mixed message, I accept," he said.

The BHP chief, who was also on the tail-end of a 10-day tour of China, Japan, Korea and India, which included meetings with some of the miner's largest customers, also insisted the mining giant remained an attractive long-term investment prospect for shareholders despite sharp falls in the iron ore price and persistent concerns over China's economic outlook.

Key to its Asian strategy remains the "creeping" increase of metallurgical coal and iron ore exports, but Mr Mackenzie said the miner was "much more likely to make major investments in what we feel is the next phase of China's growth in energy and food", including copper and potash – an ingredient for fertiliser.

But Mr Mackenzie was lukewarm on the prospects of uranium, despite a state-backed push to invest in nuclear energy in China.

He also downplayed the role of India as a key export market for BHP, citing its ability to fall back on its own abundant resources.

Global miners including Australia's Rio Tinto and Fortescue have banked on a sustained increase in iron ore demand from China, ramping up capacity to unprecedented levels.

But a slowdown in China's economic growth, and increasing fears of a sharp correction in its residential property market, has contributed to over-supply and concerns current depressed iron ore prices will persist.

China's top economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, warned last month that it didn't expect iron ore prices to pick up from its current two-year lows for at least another quarter.

"I don't see any reason why the price is going to turn around and shoot back up," Tim Murray of J Capital Research said. "This is not August 2012 when there was massive stimulus, sentiment turned around and everyone bought as much iron ore as they could."

Mr Mackenzie said he did not comment on "short-term trends" and said China's long-term urbanisation trend would see steel production reach 1.1 billion tonnes within the next decade.

He downplayed a recent redundancy round in Western Australia, where a reported 100 jobs were lost, saying the company constantly sought efficiencies.


Solar users the champagne and latte sipping set: Tim Nicholls

Treasurer Tim Nicholls has described Queenslanders who took part in Labor's solar bonus scheme as "champagne sippers and the latte set", while labelling the program "middle class welfare".

In an attack on the opposition during parliamentary question time on Thursday, Mr Nicholls took a question from LNP MP Kerry Millard on "how the government is building on its strong plan for a brighter future".

He used the question to criticise Labor's economic track record and - encouraged by an interjection from the Premier who has solar panels on his home, but does not receive the 44-cent feed-in-tariff - turned into an attack on those who do.

"The only idea he [Curtis Pitt] has put forward in terms of dealing with anything of economic sense was to reintroduce the solar bonus did that work? It worked by adding $3 billion to the cost of power bills for Queenslanders to 2027-28," he said.

"Disgracefully, it worked to penalise those people who could least afford to install solar power.

"So those people who were paying for the middle class welfare that Labor was putting out there - for the champagne sippers and the latte set - with whom they hang around all the time in terms of making themselves feel good, but making the rest of Queenslanders pay for it."

Just under 285,000 households signed up to Labor's 44 cent feed-in-tariff scheme. Another 40,000 households received the 8 cent feed-in tariff until a recent legislation change, which means they will now have to negotiate directly with energy retailers. 

Lindsay Soutar, the National Director of Solar Citizens, a solar power lobby group, said the Queensland government was "demonising" solar users.

"We know that most households that installed solar have in fact been households on lower and middle incomes," she said. "That is because these folks are more sensitive to rises in power prices and solar is one of the best ways to take back control over power bills.

"So typically, it is the outer suburbs and people in regional areas, not the inner-city chardonnay set."

The Queensland Competition Authority recently announced the average home annual power bill would increase by another $200 in the next financial year.

Ms Soutar addressed a Queensland solar users forum in Brisbane overnight, discussing options to "go off the grid".

"The price of solar has just plummeted in the last five years, which is why it has become an affordable choice and that is something that continues to be attractive," she said.

"Which is why the big power companies and the Queensland government are so against solar, because essentially they can see why people are finding it so attractive, and looking for other options away from the big power companies."


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