Friday, June 05, 2020

Australia will 'continue to welcome' Hong Kong residents as calls mount to match UK's offer of safe haven

The Australian government has declared it will “continue to welcome” Hong Kong residents, but it won’t be drawn on calls for it to match the UK’s offer of safe haven for people fearing China’s planned security laws.

Australian parliamentarians from across the political spectrum are urging the government to help the people of Hong Kong, amid growing international concern about the impact of Beijing’s decision on the city’s rights and freedoms and on the stability of the international finance hub.

The British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, revealed he had asked Australia and other partners to consider “burden-sharing if we see a mass exodus from Hong Kong”.

The UK is holding open the prospect of offering residency and work rights to as many as 3 million people, while the US is considering letting people who no longer “feel comfortable” in Hong Kong to move there. The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, indicated he was also talking to allies, including Australia, about further responses.

On Wednesday Beijing lodged “stern representations” in response to the UK’s offer, warning it to “pull back before it’s too late, abandon its Cold War and colonialist mentality”.

Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, joined her counterparts from Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US for a teleconference to discuss the situation in Hong Kong earlier this week.

The group “reiterated their concerns about Hong Kong in light of the Chinese government’s proposed national security law”, according to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

When asked about the possibility of Australia offering to resettle Hong Kong residents, the department’s spokesperson pointed to existing avenues: “Outside the current Covid-19 restrictions, Hong Kong people can apply for a range of relevant visa categories to work and live in Australia.

“Our people-to-people links include close family connections, business ties and shared values. These and the considerable talent in Hong Kong underscore why we continue to welcome Hongkongers to Australia.”

The leader of the Greens, Adam Bandt, called on the government to follow the lead of the UK and offer safe haven for those “who are concerned about the growing risk of authoritarianism in Hong Kong”.

Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, a hawkish Liberal party backbench senator, said Australia needed to “join with our allies to take strong and decisive action against Beijing’s skulduggery”.

The Labor MP Peter Khalil said if China did not meet its commitment to guarantee Hong Kong’s rights, or diminished the city’s unique status, it could lead to a potential exodus. The Australian government would have to respond to the “emerging and fast-moving situation”.

Khalil said he had met with many Hong Kong students in Australia who had told him “of the violent threats being made to them and their families because of their support for the protests back in Hong Kong”.

Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Penny Wong, said the UK had a special responsibility to lead on this issue, should the need emerge, but the Australian government “could consider how existing visa arrangements can be used to respond to any emerging need, and we would expect it to act with compassion”.

The Liberal MP Dave Sharma, a former ambassador to Israel, said Australia’s highest priority for now should be ensuring Hong Kong’s Basic Law was respected and the handover agreement honoured. “Planning for other contingencies is not something we should be discussing publicly right now.”

The Liberal senator David Fawcett, who chairs the joint standing committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade, joined counterparts from the UK, Canada and New Zealand in calling on the UN to appoint a new special envoy to monitor the impact of the law on Hong Kong.

In a letter to the UN secretary general, António Guterres, they raised alarm over “the erosion of the rule of law and the increasingly serious and urgent human rights situation in Hong Kong”.

“Our concerns are heightened at this time in the light of the Chinese Communist Party’s record of abuses when faced with dissent from its rule, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre which occurred 31 years ago this week,” wrote the group.

The imposition of sweeping national security laws on the semi-autonomous region, bypassing its legislature, has been labelled the “end of Hong Kong” and a breach of China’s international obligations.

Under the 1997 Sino-British declaration, when Hong Kong was returned to China by Britain, the region was guaranteed 50 years of a high degree of autonomy under the “one country two systems” principle.

Its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, obliges Hong Kong to enact national security laws and the failure to do so for 23 years has been used to justify Beijing’s move. But other obligations, including universal suffrage for the people of Hong Kong, have also been left unmet.

Since mass protests erupted in Hong Kong a year ago – sparked by a bill which would allow for extradition to China – Beijing has made increasing encroachments on Hong Kong’s autonomy, including declarations by its offices in Hong Kong that Basic Law provisions did not apply to them.


Israel seeks quarantine-free travel with Australia by December as gateway to Europe

Israel wants to introduce direct flights to Australia and waive quarantine requirements for travellers by December, as countries that have so far successfully contained Covid-19 jostle to be the next destination added to the Australia-New Zealand tourism bubble.

Israel, seeking to make permanent the roughly 17-hour direct flight from Tel Aviv to Melbourne or Sydney, is also working with other nations to position itself as a gateway hub for Australian travellers to transit quarantine-free on their way to European countries considered safe, such as Greece, Norway, Denmark and the Czech Republic.

Israel’s ambassador to Australia, Mark Sofer, said the plan would be “a win-win-win” for Australians and Israelis, noting both countries were working on plans to rescue their tourism-reliant economies and provide their airlines with commercially viable routes that would not require quarantine.

“This is the time to sit down and make the crisis into an opportunity,” Sofer said.

The feasibility of such a bubble would depend on the containment and avoidance of any second wave in either country, and would hinge on the successful removal of the 14-day quarantine period between Australia and New Zealand, Sofer said.

Costa Rica’s government is also exploring direct flights to Australia’s east coast and inclusion in a bubble agreement with New Zealand, with officials in the central American country – where 12% of GDP comes from tourism – working to have arrangements in place to welcome Australians quarantine-free by the beginning of 2021 “at the latest”.

The plans are emerging as a result of video meetings between leaders of the “first movers” group of countries that have contained the virus to the extent they are reopening their economies.

The group, led by Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, includes Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Costa Rica, Norway, Denmark, Greece and the Czech Republic. Leaders first met at the end of April to begin sharing notes on reopening different sectors of society such as schools and medical facilities.

The first movers met most recently on Wednesday night Australian time, with Scott Morrison tweeting about the discussions for protocols to “reopen our borders”. The Australian government has been contacted for comment on the Israel and Costa Rica proposals.

Israel, which has recorded just under 16,800 coronavirus cases and 281 deaths, contained initial clusters, notably among its ultraorthodox population. It was one of the first countries to enforce gathering limits, strict hotel quarantine and phone tracing of close contacts.

At the height of lockdowns, residents were not allowed to move more than 100m from their home. The country of just under nine million citizens now records between 10 and 20 cases a day.

Since coronavirus shut down Israel in March – with its unemployment rate peaking at 27% in late April – Sofer has been discussing the practicalities of direct flights with the national airline, El Al. He said the carrier, which had trial flights to Melbourne planned before the pandemic, had always considered Australian destinations potentially profitable, but less so than European and American routes. But with nowhere else to fly, Australia now made economic sense.

“[Officials in Israel] are now looking at giving a permit to those from better performing countries that they won’t need to isolate in Israel ... This is definitely the direction we’re talking about,” Sofer said.

He said it was “not a pipe dream” for the arrangement to be in place by December, and noted Australia would make “a very attractive destination at that time for Israelis as we go into our winter and you go into your summer. They’ll come and spend.”

Sofer said he hoped the arrangement would also lead to an overhaul of the visa regime for Israelis entering Australia, which is more onerous than for Australians making the return trip.

He said that as Israel was “about the distance limit” that most planes could fly from Australia towards Europe, there was potential for it to act as a Dubai or Doha-type hub between Australia and European first-mover countries.

“You can’t fly from Australia to Denmark in one flight. But an Australian can get on a direct flight to Tel Aviv, then on to Denmark, or other first movers countries, and not have to isolate anywhere ... It will take a long time before you can do that with a country like the UK,” he said.


Rents fall as landlords struggle to fill vacant properties during Australia's coronavirus crisis

Tenants are in a better position to demand lower rents than they have been for years as the devastating impact of the coronavirus crisis leaves landlords desperate to fill vacant properties for “whatever they can get”.

Figures released on Wednesday showed that rents for houses in Sydney have fallen to their lowest point since 2013 thanks to the Covid-19 triple whammy of economic standstill, lower migration and a flood of former Airbnb lettings left empty by the wipeout in the travel industry.

It now costs on average $646 to rent a house in Australia’s biggest city, according to the latest figures from SQM Research, the cheapest level since 2013 and a 6.5% drop from a year ago. An average unit is $480 a week, the lowest since since May 2015.

Scott, a tenant who was looking to upgrade from his one-bedroom apartment in Rhodes in Sydney, managed to secure a 15% reduction in his rent from $540 to $460 a week after noticing that the asking price was falling in many apartments in his area.

“I was upfront with the real estate agent about the situation,” said Scott, an IT manager. “I linked them to various apartments within the same complex in the $450-480 range before reaching an agreement of $460 on a 12-month lease. It took about four rounds of negotiation to get to that point – the owner was in denial for a few weeks about the state of the rental market in Rhodes.

“There have been a few ridiculously cheap listings on three month leases – as low as $300 – just to get a tenant in.”

Rents have not fallen so quickly in Melbourne in the SQM data series. But tenants in Victoria who have struck agreements with their landlords to drop their rent amid the effects of coronavirus are paying 31% less on average, according to consumers affairs data revealed to a parliamentary inquiry on Tuesday by attorney-general Jill Hennessy.

Jade Costello, co-founder of the agency Melbourne Rental Search, said she was seeing something “we’ve never seen before” with landlords willing to negotiate on the price upfront.

“You might see somewhere for $500 but the landlord will be willing to drop it because they just don’t want places to be vacant,” she said. “It’s a tenant’s market for sure. For the time we’re seeing tenants having the power of negotiation. They are going in with the rent they want to pay and landlords and agents, who used to have so many potential tenants to choose from, are saying whatever we can get we will take it.”

A couple were moving to Melbourne from interstate and were offered a place for $800 a week, she said. But they asked for a $20 reduction per week and it was granted straight away despite the listing having been up only a few days.

The potential for the weakness in the rental market to spread into the housing market remains significant. In the latest sign that prices are under pressure, the research firm CoreLogic said on Wednesday that it was suspending the daily online publication of its closely watched index of house values due to the Covid-19 crisis.

CoreLogic blamed “material reductions” in transactions which had in turn created “additional volatility in the daily reading”.

“A robust volume of timely sales evidence is a critical component of accurately estimating the value of residential properties,” it said. “The monthly results of the index will continue to be reported, but should be interpreted with some caution until transactional activity returns to more normal levels.”

Louis Christopher, founder of SQM, said the economic uncertainty, rising unemployment and closure of the international border due to the pandemic would continue to put pressure on the housing market.

Some investors might come back into the market despite falling rents, but there was a lot of doubt about how soon the normality could be restored after the current shock.

“Its hard to see it coming back to normal and hard to see a full V-shaped recovery in the economy,” he said.

“When is that international border opening again? You’re looking at zero net migration and with 170,000 dwellings being completed in Australia this year, the domestic demand is only 70-80,000 so without migration there’s a 100,000 surplus. That’s a reality for builders


Peter Ridd’s Fight For Academic Freedom In Climate Science

This week the Federal Court appeal hearing took place for the case of Peter Ridd, Australian scientist, who was fired by his university after he had criticized Great Barrier Reef science.

Australian scientist and journalist Jennifer Marohasy is following the case closely and reports about the latest chapter in this sad saga:

To be truly curious we must confess our ignorance. The person who knows everything would have no reason to question, no need to experiment.

If they went in search of evidence, it could only be to confirm what they already knew to be true. Knowledge then would be something that conferred prestige, rather than something to be built upon.

It was because of Peter Ridd that I had to know if all the coral reefs off Bowen were dead, or not. I went looking for mudflats with a Gloucester Island backdrop after the first judgment was handed down, which was back last April 2019.

Of course, Peter was cleared by Judge Vasta in the Federal Court of all the misconduct charges that had resulted in his sacking. Yet the University appealed, and that appeal was heard this last week.

The university appealed because the modern Australian university can’t let a comprehensive win by a dissident professor go unchallenged.

The modern university is all about prestige, and they probably thought that eventually, Peter would run out of money, the money needed to defend himself in the courts. But they don’t know Peter, or the team backing him.

Yesterday Peter thanked both the Union and also the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) for their support.

Peter also wrote:

    The Federal Court appeal hearing is over, and the lawyers have done their work. We now wait, possibly for some months, for the three judges to make the decision. In essence the appeal was about defining the limits of academic freedom, and what a university scientist can say, and how he or she might be allowed to say it.

    For example, was I allowed to say that due to systemic lack of quality assurance, scientific results from Great Barrier Reef science institutions was untrustworthy?

    JCU said I was not, [not] even if I believed it to be true.
    I am certainly not ashamed of anything I said, how I said it, or of my motivation.

    Irrespective of the outcome of the appeal, I can now focus on other matters.

    First, I will work tirelessly to raise the problem of hopeless quality assurance of the science of the GBR, including the effect of climate change on the reef. I am hoping that the Senate Inquiry will come out of Covid hibernation soon. I will also be pushing AIMS to release their missing 15 years of coral growth data, and JCU to release its buried report on possible fraud at its coral reef centre. It is shameful the contempt with which these institutions treat the people of the region.

    Second, I will work with those agricultural organisations that show a determination to fight, which is sadly far from all of them, to demonstrate that the recent unfair regulations on Queensland farmers are based on shoddy science.

    Third: I will work to encourage governments at both state and federal level to force universities to behave like genuine universities and not the glossy public relations companies that they have become. Governments must mandate the introduction of genuine and enforceable guidelines on academic freedom such as those outlined in the Commonwealth governments (unimplemented) review by ex-High Court judge, Robert French.

My IPA colleague Gideon Rozner has an important article in The Australian newspaper that provides much more context. The piece includes comment that:

    The Ridd case has resonated around Australia — and has attracted significant attention worldwide — for good reason. It confirms what many people have suspected for a long time: Australia’s universities are no longer institutions encouraging the rigorous exercise of intellectual freedom and the scientific method in pursuit of truth. Instead, they are now corporatist bureaucracies that rigidly enforce an unquestioning orthodoxy and are capable of hounding out anyone who strays outside their rigid groupthink.

    JCU is attempting to severely limit the intellectual freedom of a professor working at the university to question the quality of scientific research conducted by other academics at the institution. In other words, JCU is trying to curtail a critical function that goes to the core mission of universities: to engage in free intellectual inquiry via free and open, if often robust, debate. It is an absurd but inevitable consequence of universities seeking taxpayer-funded research grants, not truth.

    Worse still, it is taxpayers who are funding JCU’s court case. Following a Freedom of Information request by the Institute of Public Affairs, the university was forced to reveal that up until July last year, it had already spent $630,000 in legal fees. It would be safe to assume that university’s legal costs would have at least doubled since that time. The barrister who JCU employed in the Federal Court this week was Bret Walker SC, one of Australia’s most eminent lawyers. Barristers of his standing can command fees of $20,000 to $30,000 a day. And all of this is happening at the same time as the vice-chancellor of the university, Sandra Harding — who earns at least $975,000 a year — complains about the impact of government funding cuts.

    While Australian taxpayers are funding the university’s efforts to shut down freedom of speech, Ridd’s legal costs are paid for by him, his wife and voluntary donations from the public. As yet, neither the federal nor the Queensland Education Minister has publicly commented on whether JCU is appropriately spending taxpayers’ money and, so far, both have refused to intervene in the case.

Gideon Rozner is tireless and has also put together a fascinating 3-part podcast providing background into Peter Ridd’s fight for academic freedom. He interviewed me for this series.

The saga will continue for the next few years, whatever the judges decide. As will my interest in all things to do with the Great Barrier Reef.


 Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here

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