Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Abbott government has put Australia's renewable energy industry into limbo -- and almost no-one seems to care

Well done!  The writer below is a Warmist but his facts are pretty right

18 months after the election of a government supposedly “open for business”, the renewables industry in this country is in ruins.

Investment has fallen off a cliff – down a stunning 90 per cent since early 2013. More than 2000 jobs have disappeared. Almost no new large-scale renewable energy is being built in Australia, so hostile has the environment become. Banco Santander, the world's third-largest clean energy lender, packed up and left in March.

The reason? The government has sabotaged the industry. According to international energy consultants Bloomberg New Energy Finance, “the Australian large-scale clean energy industry has become practically uninvestable due to ongoing uncertainty caused by the government's review of the Renewable Energy Target.”

As we’ve chronicled here at New Matilda, the Renewable Energy Target was once the tripartisan policy of the Coalition, Labor and the Greens. The law, which was passed under the Howard government, mandates that there must be 41,000 gigawatt hours of renewable electricity fed into the grid by 2020.

Before the 2013 election, the Coalition promised many times to keep the RET. “We have no plans to change the renewable energy target,” Tony Abbott said in September 2011. “We will be keeping the renewable energy target,” Environment Minister Greg Hunt said in February 2013. “The Coalition supports the current system, including the 41,000 gigawatt hours target,” Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham said in July 2013.

The promise was broken in early 2014, when the government announced that former Caltex boss, noted climate change denier Dick Warbuton, would head up a review. Surprise, surprise: the review recommended abolishing the RET altogether. Energy Minister Ian Macfarlane then used the report as political cover to attempt to slash the RET, to 26,000 hours.

But the RET is a law which requires amendment, and Macfarlane has been unable to get any cross-bench support for his changes. He instead said he would “negotiate” with Labor over a revised target. After first refusing any kind of compromise, Labor eventually came all the way down to 33,500 hours. Macfarlane is holding out for 32,000. In the meantime, renewables investment tanked, and has never recovered.

You get the impression the Coalition is quite happy that negotiations have stalled. No deal on the RET means the renewables industry stays in limbo, killing investment and destroying the medium-term prospects of the sector. Meanwhile, carbon permit-free coal makes windfall profits. And Macfarlane doesn’t even have to do anything. He can just fiddle while the renewables sector burns.

If this wasn’t the Abbott government, and we weren’t talking about renewable energy, it would be difficult to believe. Imagine a government that set out, quite openly, to destroy an entire sector of business activity, for purely ideological reasons – breaking an iron-clad election promise in the process.

But that’s precisely what’s happened in renewable energy, which depends upon the RET to leverage new investment into the Australian grid. It might be the biggest scandal in economic policy in recent history – and almost no-one seems to care.


Australia's approach to climate 'different', but 'fair, constructive', says U.S. rep

This will infuriate  the local Greenies. Interview transcript:

MARK COLVIN: Two days of climate talks in Washington have wrapped up with the lead negotiator for the US acknowledging that Australia's government has a 'somewhat different perspective' on managing climate change.

But special envoy Todd Stern says Australia continues to play a "fair and constructive" role on the international scene.

The Industry and Science Minister Ian Macfarlane, who's in Washington for other meetings, has defended Australia's record.

North America correspondent Lisa Millar reports.

LISA MILLAR: The two day session ended with praise for the clear focus countries are giving climate change months out from the talks in Paris.

On a phone briefing for the press, straight after the meeting, the US special envoy Todd Stern said they're ahead of where they were this time in 2009 as they approached the Copenhagen conference, which ended in failure.

TODD STERN: I don't have any doubts that we're in a better place. It doesn't mean (laughs) we're gonna, it's all going to work out in the end because that remains to be seen. But I think… I think, in a couple of different ways. I think that there is a substantial greater level of understanding about how this kind of agreement can come together. The greater sense of realism.

LISA MILLAR: But French president and host of the December conference Francois Hollande is less optimistic. He's been downbeat about the chances of success this time round, instead highlighting the obstacles.

Todd Stern agrees trying to get more than 190 countries to sign up to a deal to reduce global warming is an inherently difficult negotiation.

TODD STERN: I think that we're going to get there in the end but… but, you know you just look at the basic way these negotiations work. You have hard issues that involve everybody's entire economy, it's not like it's sort of a side issue.

It goes right to the heart of economic growth, development et cetera and if there's a 190 plus countries and more or less everybody's got to agree in the end. It's a dive with a high degree of difficulty, there's no question about that.

LISA MILLAR: And there have been questions this week about Australia's ability to dive deep.

When asked about the Abbott Government's contribution to the debate, Todd Stern said he understood the Prime Minister and his team had a somewhat different perspective on how to manage climate change than the last.

TODD STERN: But I think on the international scene they are a… they are a…. fair and constructive participant.

LISA MILLAR: Federal Minister Ian Macfarlane - who's in Washington for talks with science experts and industry groups - has rejected any criticism that Australia is out of step.

The current commitment is to cut carbon emissions by 5 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020 but it hasn't revealed its commission reduction plans beyond then.

IAN MACFARLANE: We'll certainly be in step with the rest of the world and we will have a position by the middle of the year. There is a cabinet ministerial taskforce, a very high powered taskforce headed by Greg Hunt, Julie Bishop, Andrew Robb and myself and obviously cabinet will sign off on it as well.

But we will take a very strong position to Paris that will be in step with what the rest of the world is proposing.

I can assure you that Australia won't be an outlier in this, we have as I say a very sound record in lowering emissions. We are one of the few countries in the world that are on target in terms of meeting our 2020 commitments, and we'll continue to play our part.

LISA MILLAR: And he's again confirmed there'll be no more negotiating over the Government's renewable energy target of 32,000 gigawatt hours.

IAN MACFARLANE: How anyone can say we're not prepared to compromise it's beyond me. It's time that people got serious about this. There is no policy or logic basis to a number higher than 32. The Government has moved twice already and we won't be moving again.

MARK COLVIN: The Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane speaking to North America correspondent Lisa Millar in Washington.


Asylum seekers returned to Vietnam by Australian Navy had claims assessed at sea, UNHCR says

The United Nations refugee agency has revealed a group of Vietnamese asylum seekers had their claims assessed at sea before being returned home by the Australian Navy.

The group of 46 asylum seekers were returned by the Navy to Vietnam, and the UNHCR said they were subject to a screening process at sea.

The agency said it was seeking details from the Government about the procedures used but had expressed its concern.

UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan said individuals who sought asylum needed to be properly and individually screened for protection in an environment where they could explain their needs, or they could be at risk of grave danger.

"We're concerned that people may not have had access to proper procedures," she said.

"We are concerned that the group wasn't screened and assessed in a way that's fair and effective, that somehow their lives may be at risk."

Human Rights Watch deputy director Phil Robertson said he was suspicious about the way the operation was conducted.

"I think that probably these people had no access to counsel or [were not] able to prepare their case. And certainly they had no access to appeal," he said.

"So it's a shoddy process determined to send people back, and that's what's happening to these group of Vietnamese."

Mr Robertson said there were legitimate reasons for Vietnamese nationals to seek asylum.

"Vietnam is still a dictatorial one-party state and there are many people in Vietnam who have run afoul of the Vietnam government for inserting freedom of religion, for blogging, for trying to defend their land against encroachment by the state," he said.

"It goes on and on. There's over 200 political prisoners in Vietnam."

The ABC confirmed HMAS Choules had completed its mission to transfer the group back to Vietnam.

Another source told the ABC the 46 asylum seekers were offloaded in the port city of Vung Tau on Friday.

The asylum seekers were believed to have left Vietnam in March and were detected by the Navy earlier this month before they could reach Australia.

The Opposition has accused the Federal Government of a "new low" over secrecy surrounding the group of asylum seekers.

The Government has said it will not comment on operational matters.


Too much secrecy

Nine days ago, the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Act 2015 became law, after passing through both houses of Parliament with Labor support.

The more power you give any organisation, the more light needs to be shone on how it uses its power.

A record of your electronic communications – who you call, or text, or email, or message, when you do so, and where you are at the time – must now be kept by your service provider for a minimum of two years. And more than 20 law enforcement agencies will have access to those records without the need for a warrant, and without (needless to say) anyone informing you.

Well, Attorney-General George Brandis​ asks, how worrisome is that? After all, before this law was passed, your metadata was available to 85 agencies.

"The only change that this bill makes to the relationship between the state and the citizen," he told the Senate, "is to introduce safeguards in relation to the access of law enforcement agencies to metadata, which were not there before."

In particular, Senator Brandis addressed the so-called "chilling effect" on investigative journalism that the media feared would result from the authorities' ability to scour reporters' metadata in search of their confidential sources. That's been fixed, he assured us. The new act contains "a large and detailed architecture for the protection of journalists ... which forms no part of the existing law".

So it does. And I've been brooding about that architecture for the past two weeks, as I sat for many hours on aeroplanes, courtesy of the ABC's Foreign Correspondent. I've talked about it to journalists in Paris, Washington and New York, specialists in reporting on terrorism and counter-terrorism. And when I described one particular facet of the act to them – one that has received minimal comment here in Australia – they nearly fell off their chairs.

Division 4C of the amended act lays down that if a law enforcement agency wants to search a professional journalist's metadata in pursuit of his or her source, it first has to get a "journalist information warrant" from an "issuing authority" - usually a judge or magistrate - or in the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation's case, from the Attorney-General.

The authority should only issue the warrant, the act says, if the public interest in doing so outweighs various other public interests, including the source's right to privacy. The authority must also weigh in the balance any arguments made by a public interest advocate.

This curious person – a senior lawyer (of course) with the necessary security clearances – will be appointed by the Prime Minister, no less. And, in the soothing words of the opposition defence spokesman, Labor's Stephen Conroy, "the PIA will be empowered to stand in the shoes of the journalist and argue why it is contrary to the public interest to issue the warrant".

Well fine. Except there's a Kafkaesque catch-22. The public interest advocate will not be able to inform the journalist or news organisation that a warrant has been sought, so the advocate cannot be briefed on any public interest aspect of the story, or any particular reason why the source should remain confidential, that is not already blindingly obvious.

Indeed, this public interest advocacy will not be public. It will be utterly private: one lawyer secretly trying to persuade another lawyer why a spook or a copper should not get access to a reporter's source, while the reporter – and, of course, the source – remain in blissful ignorance.

And here comes the kicker: the clause that had those foreign reporters falling off their chairs, but was barely mentioned by anyone, so far as I can see, in the parliamentary debates about the bill.

Section 182A of the new act says anyone who "discloses or uses" information about a journalist information warrant – about whether one has been applied for, or has been granted, or exists, or even does not exist - can be sent to prison for two years. Think about that.

What possible justification can there be for this extraordinary provision? After all, these warrants need have nothing whatever to do with terrorism or national security. They can be issued to any agency that is investigating pretty much any crime (including, presumably, the crime committed by any Commonwealth public servant who leaks official information to the media – see section 70 of the Crimes Act).

Section 182A is of a piece with the increasingly draconian enforcement of secrecy that Australians have blithely accepted since 9/11.

The 2003 act, for example, authorises ASIO to detain and question people for up to seven days, even if they are not suspected of complicity in a terrorist act, and prevents them from telling anybody that it has happened. The 2014 act says anyone who discloses information about a "special intelligence operation" can be imprisoned for up to 10 years. And there are many more such examples.

In the course of the debate on the new Data Retention Act, Conroy made this extraordinary statement: "Labor is determined to ensure that our national security and law enforcement agencies absolutely have the powers that are necessary to keep Australians safe."

"Absolutely" – what a dangerous word. Absolutism has no place in a democracy, especially not when it is applied to national security agencies. The more power you give any organisation, the more light needs to be shone on how it uses its power. To meet the terrorist "threat", we have been granting our security agencies and police forces more and more power, protected by ever more obsessive secrecy: more power, and more secrecy, than any comparable democracy in the world.

It is no exaggeration to say Australia is on the way to creating a secret police. What a triumph that is for the terrorists.


Plagiarism on rise at Australian universities as academics face pressure to pass international students

This has been going on for years

A NURSE who accidentally gave a 79-year-old hospital patient dishwashing liquid instead of his usual medication could not read the label on the bottle, despite being awarded a degree at an Australian university.

University academics have told Four Cornersof pressure on university lecturers to pass underperforming students and widespread plagiarism among international students desperate to complete their courses. There was also evidence of fraudulent documents being provided by overseas recruitment agents to help students gain entry to some of Australia’s top universities.

Retired lecturer Barbara Beale of the University of Western Sydney said she believed that there were students who had graduated from the university’s nursing course, one of the largest in the country, who should not have been allowed to do so.

“A lot of students end up in the aged care sector, who do we have in the aged car sector? The most vulnerable, ill people and we have students who may have been pushed through university looking after them.

“In the aged care sector there is not much supervision, very quickly they might find themselves being the only registered nurse on duty and that is something that frightens me.”

In March 2013, one UWS graduate, Bhavesh Shah, fed a cup of Morning Fresh dishwashing liquid to a private hospital patient because his poor English skills meant he could not read the label on the bottle.

At least two other graduates have also been forced out by hospitals due to poor English and dangerous practices, although the university says there have been no similar cases since 2011.

But Ms Beale said there was constant pressure at UWS to pass failing bachelor of nursing students. One student who she originally gave a mark of 2 out of 30 for one assignment, later had this changed to a pass. The paper passed through three reviewers before the fail was upheld.

“If I hadn’t really pressed that, if it had been somebody else that had less experience or less conviction ... then that student would have passed,” Ms Beale said.

In a statement, UWS strenuously denied soft-marking was a problem: “UWS completely rejects the accusation that the standard of our nursing program is ‘falling’ and our nursing students are ‘weak and unsafe’.”

Peak body Universities Australia has described the program as presenting a “one-sided picture of international education in Australia”.

“It is unfortunate that Four Corners failed to acknowledge Australia’s global leadership as a provider of high quality, and highly regarded international education,” University Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson said in a statement.

“The list of agents terminated by Australian universities over the recent period indicates that Australia universities have robust systems for identifying and stamping out fraud and unethical behaviour.”

The report also shed light on the murky world of the offshore agents used by Australian universities to recruit hundreds of thousands of students, mainly from China.

In one case, a Beijing agent who represents universities including Monash, Queensland, Sydney, Newcastle, Southern Cross, Australian Catholic University, Australian National University and University of Technology, Sydney, was caught on tape saying he would accept a forged school transcript if a student had a poor academic record.

Agents also discussed how to get around the English language requirements at universities.

Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said its universities made no apology for using the on-the-ground skills of overseas agents to help choose students.

“However, at all times our global reputation is paramount ... for that reason Group of Eight universities act swiftly to address any issues that are brought to their attention,” Ms Thomson said in a statement.

“It should not be ignored that international education is Australia’s third largest exporter. Getting it right is paramount.”

Dr Zena O’Connor, who teaches at the University of Sydney, told Four Corners the income stream generated by international students was huge. At Sydney University, international students make up a quarter of all enrolments while at RMIT in Melbourne they make up 50 per cent.

“I’m staggered by the increase in plagiarism. To start with, in my experience, it was a very small proportion, you know, maybe two, three, four per cent. I would peg it now at being much, much higher, well over 50 per cent. And some of the cases of extreme plagiarism where a student has plagiarised at least 80 per cent if not up to 100 per cent of their paper, that proportion is growing, and that level of extreme plagiarism I didn’t see five or ten years ago.”

Dr O’Connor has not instituted formal proceedings against any students for plagiarism because she says she was told to do all she could to pass them.

Alex Barthel, who formerly ran the language centre at the University of Technology, Sydney, told Four Corners he had been a longstanding advocate for higher English language entry standards for universities.

“Academic staff increasingly are frustrated by the fact that they are there to teach pharmacy or engineering or IT or whatever they’re teaching and they’re basically saying, ‘It’s not my job to help somebody with 65 spelling errors on the first page of an assignment. It’s not my job to teach them basic English grammar’.”

A major report by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption last week, Learning the Hard Way, reported significant risks of corruption within institutions.

“There is a gap - at least in some courses - between the capabilities of many students and academic demands,” the report said.

“Students may be struggling to pass, but universities cannot afford to fail them.

“There is pressure for some international students to pass courses that are beyond their academic capabilities, pressure on staff within universities in NSW to find ways to pass students in order to preserve budgets.”


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