Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Defence chief cites 'negative public attention' in decision to wind back move to revoke honours

The chief of Defence pulled back on revoking honours awarded to Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, citing a desire not to "be at odds" with the government's position on the issue and to avoid "negative public attention".

General Angus Campbell announced late last year that he would recommend that the Meritorious Unit Citation (MUC) be stripped from Special Operations Task Groups that served in Afghanistan.

The MUC was awarded to the Task Groups for "sustained and outstanding warlike operational service in Afghanistan from 30 April 2007 to 31 December 2013, through the conduct of counter-insurgency operations in support of the International Security Assistance Force".

About 3,000 personnel received the collective award.

The decision was made in response to the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) report into allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan that detailed 39 allegations of murder and recommended 19 current and serving special forces soldiers be prosecuted.

"It has to be said that what this report discloses in disgraceful and a profound betrayal of the Australian Defence Force's professional standards and expectations," the IGADF report stated.

"The inquiry has recommended the revocation of the award of the Meritorious Unit Citation, as an effective demonstration of the collective responsibility and accountability of the Special Operations Task Group as a whole for those events."

"I have accepted the Inspector-General's recommendation," General Campbell said in his response to the IGADF report in November, "and will again write to the Governor-General, requesting he revoke the Meritorious Unit Citation awarded to Special Operations Task Group rotations serving in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013".

But shortly after the release of the IGADF report, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said "no decisions" had been made on revoking the MUC.

Veterans, media, and some Returned Service League officials had condemned General Campbell for "betraying" veterans of the Afghanistan conflict.

"If General Campbell has not felt the bitch slap from all those millions of Australians out there, he needs to pull his head out of his arse," Senator Jacqui Lambie said in response to the decision.

Within a month of the IGADF report becoming public, the Defence chief released a statement stepping back from the decision to immediately revoke honours.

Documents, obtained by the ABC under Freedom of Information, reveal that the Defence chief was aware of political and public disquiet about his announcement.

The Afghan Files

The ABC's Afghan Files stories in 2017 gave an unprecedented insight into the operations of Australia's elite special forces, detailing incidents of troops killing unarmed men and children and concerns about a "warrior culture" among soldiers.

The documents, which are mostly redacted, include a ministerial briefing note by General Campbell, titled Consideration of Special Forces honours and awards 2007-2013.

"In light of public controversy regarding the revocation of the Meritorious Unit Citation, I am of the view that a slower, more deliberate approach to implementing the Inspector-General's recommendations regarding individual honours and awards will ensure the review process is thorough considered by Defence," General Campbell wrote to then defence minister Linda Reynolds.

General Campbell said an independent oversight panel would consider any action by Defence in response to the IGADF report.

"It will ensure work is not undertaken which could be perceived to be at odds with the publicly stated government direction to defer work on honours and awards, amongst other recommendations, until completion of the Implementation Plan," wrote General Campbell.

Vowing to maintain a "deliberate and consistent approach" to implementing the IGADF's recommendations, General Campbell also noted that outcomes did "have the potential to attract negative public attention".


Australians stranded overseas take frustrations to United Nations, lobby the government’s ‘extreme restrictions’

A number of Australians who have been left “stranded” overseas since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic have taken their complaints straight to the top, after failing to negotiate a safe passage home with the Australian government’s “extreme restrictions”.

All have started vaccination programs while some are fully vaccinated and have the help of world renowned human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC.

The complaint was filed on Monday at the UN’s Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, claiming the government “has arbitrarily breached their right to return to the land of their birth or citizenship”, according to a statement by Stranded Aussies, the group of volunteers affected by the flight caps.

“We think that it is of great international significance that Australia is the only Western democracy that does not have a bill of human rights that protects the rights of Australians to return home.”

The group includes a volcanologist from Melbourne who has been trying to return to Australia since March last year, a microbiologist who lives in New Jersey but wants to return home to Tasmania with his Australian wife and a family from the UK who “want to be closer to loved ones”.

“We are just a group of ordinary Aussies who have been left high and dry by an unfeeling government, and we are supporting these cases because they demonstrate how badly Australia is treating its own citizens,” spokeswoman Deborah Tellis said.

“The government is responsible for quarantine and has a duty to allow its citizens to return and enter into it – it should force the states to admit us and provide for them to increase their quarantine facilities. What it must not do is to breach international law.”

Nearly 500,000 Australians have returned to the country since the beginning of the pandemic but there are still more than 36,000 Australians who remain overseas due to arrival caps.

State and territory governments use these caps to manage “pressure” on quarantine facilities.

The government says these measures “are temporary and will be reviewed”.

In figures released to the Senate from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) last week, 4860 of the 36,206 Australian overseas registered to return home are described as vulnerable.

India has the largest numbers of Australians who have said they want to come home, followed by the UK, the US, Philippines and Thailand. Some have written an open letter to “every one living in Australia”.

“The damage it is doing to many stranded Australians is terrible – they are unable to get back to see dying parents or sick relatives, unable to return to take up jobs or start university courses,” Ms Tellis said.

“By going to the UN, we hope to highlight what an unfeeling government Mr Morrison heads.”

Of the 20 repatriation flights announced by the government earlier this year, 12 have arrived while the rest are due to be completed by April 17.

Victoria announced it would accept international flights again from April 8 but the problems persist, with several international airlines, including Singapore Airlines, recently complaining over the lack of information and operational challenges of flying into the country due to the ever-changing border rules.

Stranded Aussies have blamed the caps for preventing them from returning and say they have made efforts and are “willing to comply with all necessary public health measures, including fourteen days quarantine in Australia”.

Their petitions claim Australia has breached the UN’s International Covenant “because they have no effective remedy – they cannot go to court to require the government to live up to its obligations to permit its citizens to return home”.

DFAT secretary Frances Adamson told Senate estimates last week officials had done “exceptional work” getting Australians home during the pandemic but DFAT’s Assistant Secretary Lynette Wood conceded she could not predict when all stranded Australians would finally return home.

“Just be clear, the cup keeps refilling,” Ms Wood said. “It’s not like it’s a finite number and the door has closed. More and more people have registered.”

But in their claim to the UN, the Australians say the government has “prevented tens of thousands of citizens from ‘calling Australia home’” and that “the right to return to one’s native land is regarded as fundamental in international law”.

They have said that all they ask for is for “Australia to provide enough robust Quarantine capacity to allow enough of us home per week, so that the number of us stranded actually moves downward, and that quarantine is able to be booked alongside a flight, so we don’t get cancelled at the whim of the airlines trying to juggle the incoming flight caps.”

They also called for more quarantine space and a “booking system to reliably be able to get home – that’s it”.

Mr Morrison told reporters he intended to get “as many people as possible home, if not all of them, by Christmas”, while Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said he wanted to “ensure that every Australian who wants to come home is home by Christmas”.

And yet, tens of thousands of Australians remain stuck overseas as life here slowly returns to normal. In fact the number of “vulnerable” Australians has risen since the PM’s Christmas promise.

“International law recognises the strong bond between individuals and their homeland and no respectable government would impose travel caps to prevent, for over a year, its citizens from returning if they are prepared to do quarantine,” Geoffrey Robertson QC, who has advised the petitioners, said.

“Both our political parties have, in the past, done what they can to help Australians overseas but Mr Morrison is behaving as if in a moral vacuum – he does not seem to care very much about the suffering caused to fellow Australians.”


Dwelling approvals record a strong rise in February:

Dwelling approvals record a strong rise in February: Australia
The number of dwellings approved rose 21.6 per cent in February (seasonally adjusted), after falling 19.4 per cent in January, according to data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) today.

Bill Becker, Director of Construction Statistics at the ABS, said: “Approvals for private houses increased 15.1 per cent in February, exceeding the previous record-high set in December last year.”

“Since the introduction of the Homebuilder grant in June 2020, private house approvals have risen by almost 70 per cent.”

Approvals for private sector dwellings excluding houses (i.e. townhouses and apartments) rose by 45.3 per cent in seasonally adjusted terms, coming off a nine-year low in January.

Total dwelling approvals rose in Queensland (40.5 per cent), Tasmania (31.6 per cent), Victoria (21.7 per cent), Western Australia (19.1 per cent) and New South Wales (16.1 per cent). Dwelling approvals fell in South Australia (3.4 per cent).

Approvals for private sector houses rose across all mainland states in February; Queensland (25.4 per cent), Western Australia (16.7 per cent), New South Wales (14.5 per cent), Victoria (11.1 per cent) and South Australia (4.0 per cent).

The value of total building approved increased 23.3 per cent, in seasonally adjusted terms. The value of total residential building rose 21.0 per cent, comprising a 22.8 per cent rise in new residential building, and a 11.1 per cent increase in alterations and additions. The value of non-residential building also increased in February (27.5 per cent).


Santos gives green light to $4.7b new gas field off Australia

Santos, one of Australia’s largest oil and gas producers, has given the go-ahead to its $4.7 billion Barossa gas project north of Darwin after its plans were put on hold last year amid the coronavirus-driven market crash.

The green light for the offshore gas and condensate project also kickstarts a $US600 million ($786 million) investment in the Darwin LNG plant’s life extension and pipeline projects, which will extend the facility life for around 20 years, the company said.

“As the economy re-emerges from the COVID-19 lockdowns, these job-creating and sustaining projects are critical for Australia, also unlocking new business opportunities and export income for the nation,” Santos managing director Kevin Gallagher said.

“The Barossa and Darwin life extension projects are good for the economy and good for local jobs and business opportunities in the Northern Territory.”

Santos and other ASX-listed oil and gas companies last year were forced to slash their spending budgets, cut back drilling and halt growth plans as coronavirus restrictions began hammering energy demand and prices.

Australia’s exports of LNG, a fuel widely used in power generation, heating and manufacturing, fell sharply from $50 billion to $33 billion, as commodity prices fell. But benchmark prices for LNG cargoes have begun to bounce back in Asia, from historic lows of under $US2 per million British thermal units to more than $US12 in the March quarter as a freezing cold winter in North Asia boosted demand. The federal government expects the LNG prices to hover around $US6.90 during the three months to June 30.

Resources Minister Keith Pitt, who joined Mr Gallagher for the announcement in Darwin on Tuesday, said the Barossa go-ahead was a “tremendous show of confidence” in the long-term future of Australia’s resources sector. “It is also a great sign that oil and gas market conditions have improved,” Mr Pitt said.

However, the Barossa field contains high levels of carbon dioxide, raising questions about its impact on Santos’ emissions footprint. Wood Mackenzie analyst Shaun Brady said Santos would need to deliver on energy efficiency projects and its proposed Moomba carbon capture and storage facility in order to offset the added emissions.

“Santos has a goal to be net-zero by 2040 and reduce emissions by 30 per cent through 2030,” he said. “With such a high carbon intensity, Santos must now deliver the projects that can offset this impact.”

Climate campaigners on Tuesday said the greenhouse gas emissions from Barossa were likely to significantly increase Australia’s emissions profile.

“This could be one of the dirtiest gas fields in Australia, leading to immense harm to the environment in the immediate vicinity, and accelerating dangerous climate change,” said Richie Merzian of the Australia Institute.

“There are real questions about Australia’s ability to deliver on its commitments on the Paris Agreement if this project is approved.”

RBC Capital Markets analyst Gordon Ramsay said Santos was targeting production costs of $US2 per million British thermal units, “making it the lowest cost new source of LNG supply in the Australian region” at $US5.50.

Mr Gallagher said Barossa would be one of the lowest-cost, new LNG supply projects in the world and would give Santos and Darwin LNG a competitive advantage in a tightening global LNG market.

Santos said the project represented the biggest investment in Australia’s oil and gas sector since 2012.




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