Menu lock

Federal

Jan 27, 2011

5 comments

Online

Jan 27, 2011

5 comments

The US Department of Defence suffered another damaging leak this week when NBC learnt the government’s chief suspect in the WikiLeaks case could not be tied to Julian Assange by its own investigation.

The leaking of the confidential findings — now surely to be part of Private Bradley Manning’s defence — sparked a tense exchange during today’s Pentagon press briefing between chief spokesman Geoff Morrell and NBC chief Pentagon reporter Jim Miklaszewski, who broke the story.

That investigation had intended to find evidence of a conspiracy between Manning and Assange, giving the US a crime to seek extradition of the WikiLeaks founder. The lack of a link does not let Manning off the hook, however, as the Pentagon claims it already has evidence he downloaded the documents to his personal computer, which is itself illegal.

“This is a very broad, very robust investigation that will look any and every place to find all those who may or may not have been involved in the leak of this classified information,” Morrell told the briefing.

The spokesman also snapped at other reporters who asked whether the investigation would prevent further leaks through WikiLeaks, telling them to “go ask Assange or one of his cronies”.

But Morrell could not fend off questions about 23-year-old Manning’s treatment at Quantico Marine Corps base near Washington DC. The Pentagon has only refuted a handful of the allegations made by Manning’s lawyer David Coombs and supporters who visited Manning.

Brig Commander James Averhart is alleged to have arbitrarily placed Manning on suicide watch last week, against the advice of two psychiatrists. That involves removing his glasses and all clothing bar his underwear, except during his allotted one-hour recreation time.

Coombs noted this was in addition to the 243 days in confinement, isolated and with 23-hour lockdowns each day.

Averhart was replaced as brig commander today by with Chief Warrant Officer Denise Barnes. The Pentagon denied the move was linked to the media interest in Manning’s treatment, that Averhart had exceeding his authority or that an investigation had been launched into the suicide watch decision. It also denied mistreatment of any kind.

Morrell insisted Manning was being held in conditions consistent with any other solider being held at Quantico, which is officially intended for short-term detainees awaiting trial no more than 90 days.

“He is in a cell by himself, but that is like every single other pre-trial detainee at the brig. It just so happens that the configuration of the brig is that every individual is confined to his or her own cell.”

Unrelated but simultaneously, Manning’s primary visitor was held by military police, questioned, searched and had his vehicle towed when he turned up for a pre-arranged visit on Sunday accompanied by a blogger. 

David House and Jane Hamsher were held until the moment visiting hours ended. More than an hour into their detention, House tweeted: “MPs looking for a reason to arrest us; brass arrives. The US government is like any animal: scare it and it will try to tear your face off.”

The Pentagon is yet to answer questions relating to that incident.

State of the Union

Meanwhile, yesterday’s State of the Union proved a much lighter affair for a nation still mourning the dead in Tucson’s shooting, but was first overshadowed by law makers’ “dates” and then by pitted olives.

President Barack Obama’s address delivered exactly what he had earlier promised: reinvigorating modern job-growth industries and a modest rethink on government spending.

The address is traditionally also a call to American greatness — a signature Obama forte — but lines such as “win the future”, “do big things” and “become a teacher; your country needs you” fell short of his best. Not that the Republican responses did much better. The Washington Post even called the Tea Party response “Michelle Bachmann’s alternative universe”.

Utterly uncaptivated by the address itself, American media and blogs went straight for the gossip and intrigue of what might become a new tradition: Congressional Date Night. Audiences were treated with close ups of law makers introducing their opposite-party “date” to the president as he made his rounds of handshaking.

The new practice of sitting intermingled rather than strictly divided along party lines was in honour of shooting victim Rep Gabrielle Giffords. But so eager were some law makers to sit near the empty chair reserved for Giffords that some “dates” of Arizona delegation members were stood up and had to find alternative seats further away from the cameras.

When the excitement of prom-esque gossip wore off, newsrooms and reporters twitter feeds discovered America’s version of the Australian parliament’s stroganoff incident.

Rep Dennis Kucinich has filed a lawsuit against the House of Representatives cafeteria because the olives in his lunch were not pitted properly. The congressman is seeking $150,000 damages “for future dental and medical expenses and to compensate him for pain, suffering, and loss of enjoyment”.

Kucinich’s “date” for State of the Union was eccentric Republican Ron Paul. No word on whether they went dutch for the unpitted olives.

Food & Travel

Jan 27, 2011

5 comments

Here’s something for Jetstar sufferers to get their heads around.

In a deal just announced in Singapore, oneworld alliance passengers flying economy who make connections from full-service airlines to Jetstar will continue on “selected” flights to get meals and the same free baggage allowance as they took for granted on their non-Jetstar flights.

Let’s set the scene. You’re a frequent flyer for your company and it books you on Qantas group carriers.

You’re squeezed in your suit into the no-service Jetstar format because at times there is no Qantas alternative, or the company can’t resist the savings.

And the guy in the kaftan and sandals intimately inserted into the torture tube next to you and who began his journey in Jordan (Royal Jordanian), Helsinki (Finnair) or Manchester (British Airways) gets a complimentary meal delivered to him.

You go hungry, or pay up if there are any crackers left, and later input the receipt manually into your expenses report if your travel account rules permit such extravagance.

The announcement, that Jetstar will preferentially behave as a full service carrier to capture the business of travellers flying part of the way on full service economy itineraries, could point to a bigger plan to set up Jetstar to take over more Qantas routes to lower average costs across the carrier’s international and domestic networks.

This has long been an obsession with Qantas pilot and flight attendant unions, which has been inflamed recently by the removal offshore of Qantas assets in the form of Australian-registered Jetstar A330s to Singapore to be flown under Singaporean pay and conditions standards on routes that used to be operated from Australian bases.

This is what Jetstar group CEO Bruce Buchanan said about the changes this morning in Singapore.

“From February 1 Jetstar operated flights sold under the Qantas codeshare will be saleable by oneworld carriers and travel agents globally as part of these oneworld itineraries. Qantas codeshares on virtually every Jetstar flight, so this arrangement covers almost the full schedule of Jetstar Australia and New Zealand operations.

“Jetstar continues to break new ground by introducing innovative product for its customers not traditionally offered by low cost carriers.

“For passengers travelling on these fares, Jetstar will provide baggage allowances comparable to other participating airlines, through check of baggage between all international flights, through check of passengers between Qantas and Jetstar international flights and on select services, complimentary in-flight offerings such as meals and comfort packs.”

In a broader context, these changes might be a shot across the bows of Virgin Blue’s intention to migrate its product range to appeal more to business account flyers.

A “full service” option for all on top of Jetstar’s lower cost base fares could be as deadly for Virgin Blue as it could be for a Qantas that the current management keeps diminishing.

People & Ideas

Jan 27, 2011

5 comments

Yesterday I saw a young woman walking down the street wearing an Australian flag bucket hat bearing the logo of a Murdoch-owned newspaper. Another young woman was sporting an Australian flag bikini. A little odd on an inner-city street, to be sure. Still, it was summer; it was Australia Day… But the striking thing was that she’d also painted her entire body green and gold.

Several days earlier, Australia had awarded Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith its most exalted military honour, the Victoria Cross. Roberts-Smith told reporters, “I do what I do because I believe in the country that we live in.”

In his speech, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott noted that while 64 VCs were awarded among the 1st AIF of 330,000 soldiers, and 20 among the 2nd AIF of 500,000, our Afghanistan deployment of only 15,000 has already won two VCs.

“So it seems that the iPod generation can equal the silent movies one!” concluded Abbott jocularly.

Roberts-Smith is 32; Trooper Mark Donaldson was 29 when he was awarded the Victoria Cross in 2009. The “iPod generation” is my generation, too – and that body-painted girl’s.

Increasingly, public discourse is demanding that Australians hold their nationality dear – that they be explicitly ‘proud’. Australia Day is a carnival of consuming nationalism: shops sell all manner of flag-emblazoned merch and copious barbecue provender, while Sam Kekovich spruiks lamb.

The more simplistic strands of nationalism hold that if you have any reservations about the racial and socioeconomic privilege that enables this ‘Aussie pride’ to be so boldly expressed, you must be ‘guilty’ or ‘ashamed’.

But I don’t believe you need to put your life on the line to show your love for your country. Nor do you need to dress up like a cast member of X-Men Origins: Jingoism.

I’m not alone. Most of my peers don’t buy into the pageantry of Australia Day. They might enjoy their day off, get drunk on Aussie beer and wine and eat lamb, pavlova and lamingtons, but they’re uncomfortable with conspicuous nationalism.

That’s not necessarily because, as Gerard Henderson argues, they’re ashamed of celebrating the anniversary of indigenous dispossession, having been brainwashed by a guilt-stricken intelligentsia.

Rather, some younger Australians are questioning the increasing belligerence and divisiveness of nationalist sentiment, as well as its exploitation for politics and profit.

These people use their online social networks to talk about Australia’s sporting and cultural achievements – for example, celebrating Jacki Weaver’s Oscar nomination, or bemoaning the woeful fortunes of the Australian cricket team.

However, they also use Facebook and Twitter to express their reservations. Many of my friends agreed enthusiastically with David Koch’s op-ed. They were pleased and surprised to hear their own feelings echoed by cosy establishment darling Kochie.

They’re also keen to draw distinctions between ‘discerning’, introspective nationalism and its ‘vulgar’, extroverted cousin – epitomised by Australian flag and Southern Cross decorations and merchandise, and slogans aggressively addressing newcomers to this country.

“They ought to reschedule Australia Day so that it doesn’t clash with F-ckwits Draped In Flags Day,” tweeted Tim Sterne). “I remember when it was considered quintessentially Australian to mock the solemn pieties of US-style nationalism. Times have changed.”

Meanwhile, Cate Lawrence, who runs sustainability advocacy group Green Renters, wrote on Facebook: “Happy Australia Day! Eat some locally grown food, drink some Australian wine and don’t buy all that sweatshop plastic flag cr-p.”

Several years ago, when I was working for triple j magazine, we were putting together a special commemorative poster for that year’s Hottest 100 countdown. The countdown is always ceremoniously broadcast on Australia Day, so we put a callout online for readers to send us photos of their Australia Day celebrations, for inclusion in the poster.

Most of the images we received depicted young people having barbecues, drinking beer and horsing around in parks, backyards and swimming pools. The majority were not tricked out in nationalist drag – the exception being a group linked to racist boneheads Southern Cross Soldiers. (We didn’t use their photos in our poster.)

However, at the Big Day Out music festival I’ve increasingly noticed Australian flag imagery shifting from a belligerent, antisocial statement to a casual costume. As I noted this time last year, if you asked these kids to define ‘the nation’, could they? Or is a flag just what they feel is called for on the day – like a suit to a formal event, or a Santa hat to the work Christmas party?

Importantly, Tony Abbott’s ‘iPod generation’ varies wildly in its degree of intellectual and political engagement with the issues surrounding Australia Day. For us, being Australian is not as simple as being ‘proud’ or ‘ashamed’; it ranges from being something we don’t consider relevant at all to something we strongly believe deserves considered thought.

Federal

Jan 27, 2011

5 comments

The proper response when Julia Gillard rises at the Press Club today to announce a flood levy is laughter — the sort that slowly dissolves into tears. Tears at how stupendously awful this government can be.

Its flood levy — for which the way has been prepared with the usual Labor subtlety and sophistication — is wholly unnecessary and wholly political, a product of how it has first allowed its opponents to dictate the terms of economy debate, and, second, bungled its own contribution to that debate.

And it is unrelated to — indeed, possibly antithetical to — serious fiscal policy. Warwick McKibbin may not be on the government’s Christmas card list, but he’s not alone in saying the levy is unnecessary and perhaps even harmful given the state of the non-mining sectors of the economy — Joshua Gans has made similar points. Alan Kohler has, too. There’s a serious debate to be had on our long-term fiscal strategy, including on the issue of whether the overall tax burden should rise in the long-run to address our ageing population — a position, for example, argued by John Quiggin (who supports the flood levy). But at the moment any fiscal debate occurs in a political context where neither side of politics is willing to touch the billions of dollars of expenditure going to middle-income earners, or contradictory tax breaks. It also occurs in the aftermath of the debacle of the Rudd government’s handling of the Henry Tax Review.

Roll on the tax summit — we desperately need a circuit-breaker on our long-term fiscal strategy.

Instead, we’ve got short-term, lazy policy from a government that didn’t have the guts or competence to keep fighting to make transnational mining companies pay something closer to what other sectors of the economy pay in tax, preferring to try to exploit sympathy for the flood victims by hitting PAYE taxpayers.

And forgetting about serious policy for a moment, in doing so, the government has created a wholly unnecessary make-or-break moment for itself. It must sell the levy first to the Greens and independents — all of them in both houses — and then to voters. And we know how good this government is at selling anything. There will be much talk of “tough decisions” and how the government is prepared to do the unpopular thing — but its history suggests that unpopularity reduces this government to a quivering mess. But it can’t afford to fail — what if Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott decide they can’t stomach a new tax? And what if voters misunderstand the tax or react hostilely to it?

Yes, the government would always have been confronted by a dilemma in addressing the floods, but it now faces a self-created problem that failure to secure passage of the levy will massively damage it politically.

The only positives in this mess is that the government is taking the opportunity to get rid of the risible Cash for Clunkers program — although you can be assured that was going to be jettisoned in the budget in May anyway. If Gillard announces some other decent expenditure cuts today, it might lift all this from the laughable to the merely terrible.

Being right for once hasn’t managed to improve the Coalition’s prosecution of the case against the levy. Andrew Robb has started talking about how soft the economy is, when the Coalition’s line for 18 months has been that the economy is strong and the government should slash spending. And much sound and fury has emanated from that simpleton Barnaby Joyce (the ex-Shadow Finance minister, recall), who yesterday contrasted “downloading movies” (the sole purpose of the NBN, apparently — he omitted to mention p-rn) with the much more Austrayan activity of rebuilding after floods.

And while normally significantly saner than Joyce, Tony Abbott, remarkably, topped him by dubbing the levy a “mateship tax”.

At that point, you stop crying and start lying in a foetal position, whimpering and wondering who let any of these people on either side anywhere near power.

Oh, wait.

Victoria

Jan 27, 2011

5 comments

This morning’s backing by CFMEU overlord Bill Oliver of a Supreme Court challenge to block the ALP National Executive’s parachuting of Frank McGuire into John Brumby’s seat of Broadmeadows is almost certain to founder and will instead shine a light on the electorate’s notorious history of branch stacking, party insiders say.

The Victorian branch’s shaky factional truce is threatening to implode over McGuire’s pre-selection, with the party’s administrative committee deciding on Tuesday to bypass a local ballot and waive a requirement of party membership to install him as a candidate for the safe Feburary 19 poll. Oliver claimed that the decision was an affront to democracy because it ignored the wishes of grassroots members.

But others say the veteran unionist should be careful what he wishes for. If the infighting continues, the resulting probe will almost certainly feature an in-depth investigation into the party’s Coolaroo “ghost branch”, in which over 200 members never meet and a mysterious anonymous benefactor services most of the membership fees. There are around 500 ALP members on the Broadmeadows roll, split between McGuire rival Burhan Yigit and the region’s ruling Socialist Left, which controls Hume Council and the broader federal fiefdom of Calwell.

Yigit — a minority Hume Councillor — has repeatedly denied claims of branch-stacking that emerged in the wake of McGuire’s Peter Garrett-style bid for public office, which is supported by federal heavyweights Stephen Conroy, Bill Shorten and — under the terms of the party’s 2009 stability pact — the Socialist Left. Although the SL controls the area, a local Broadmeadows ballot would be poised on a knife edge, with Yigit utilising his high profile to project far-reaching influence.

Yigit-supporting ALP members are said to be centred mostly around Broadmeadows central, Coolaroo and Somerton, while embers loyal to SL stormtrooper Maria Vamvakinou are concentrated further north in Craigieburn and further west to Sunbury.

The working class heartland has been the site of a series of escalating brawls between Yigit’s rebel right and the Socialist Left. In 2009, Geelong-based Australian Manufacturing Workers Union official Andy Richards launched a nuisance bid to topple Vamvakinou with the notional support of Yigit’s forces. But the sitting MP survived after Richards withdrew thanks to her strong support from the Kurdish community and Lebanese activists associated with savvy numbers man Mo Abbouche.

Oliver’s comments come nearly a year to the day after the CFMEU backed away from the state party’s preselection pact to pursue rolling deals with the AMWU, the anti-abortion agitators in the shop assistant’s union and the National Union of Workers. Under the deal, the SL and the so-called “ShortCons” pledge mutual support for each other and neatly carve up Victoria’s state and federal seats between them. The union chief’s opportunistic alliance with the party’s right — while simultaneously backing progressive candidates like Yarra Councillor Steve Jolly in the Victorian election — continues to raise eyebrows.

Meanwhile, McGuire is shaping as an important tool in Labor’s talent box, with a future front bench position almost assured. Media reports to date have focused on his history as a staffer for Natasha Stott Despoja, however much less has been said about McGuire’s time working as a spin doctor for former Labor Premier John Cain. In fact the subliminal push for his services has been bubbling away inside the ALP for years, with continued work amid projects local community cited as reasons to elevate him to Spring Street.

McGuire, last spied by Crikey at Bruce Guthrie’s ‘Man Bites Murdoch’ launch last year, did not return calls this morning.

Environment

Jan 27, 2011

5 comments

When James Hansen talks climate change, people listen. The head of climate studies at NASA, Hansen first gave evidence on the issue to the US Congress in 1988, and is now an eminent scientist and a prominent public advocate.

In new research just out, Hansen concludes that at the current temperature, no “cushion” is left to avoid dangerous climate change, and that the Australian government target goals  “… of limiting human-made warming to 2° and CO2 to 450 ppm are prescriptions for disaster”.

The question Hansen raises is direct and brutal in its implications: is the planet already entering a zone of dangerous climate change?

With Arctic sea-ice in a “death spiral”, Greenland in 2010 melting at an unprecedented rate, a seemingly extraordinary number of extreme climate events in the past year from the Russian fires to the Pakistan floods, and 18 countries setting temperature records, have we already gone too far for a safe climate?

In a draft of a new research paper, Hansen and his collaborator Makiko Sato has opened a new debate about what might be the conditions for a safe climate; that is, one in which  people and nations can continue to live where and as they have been, with secure food production, and in a bio-diverse environment.

sprat one

The period of human settlement over the past 10,000 years is known as the Holocene, during which time temperatures and hence sea levels (the two having  a close correspondence) have been remarkable stable.  Temperatures over the period have not been more than 0.5C warmer or cooler than the mid-line (see chart). The warmest part of the Holocene (the “Holocene maximum”) was about 8000 years ago, and according to Hansen, today’s temperature is about, or slightly above, the Holocene maximum:

“… we conclude that, with the global surface warming of 0.7C between 1880 and 2000, global temperature in year 2000 had returned, at least, to approximately the Holocene maximum.”

Note, this is to the year 2000, and temperatures have increased ~0.15C in the last decade, so:

“Global temperature increased 0.5C in the past three decades to a level comparable to the prior Holocene maximum, or a few tenths of a degree higher.”

sprat two

That is, we are already a little above the Holocene maximum. This matters because Hansen’s and Sato’s look at climate history  (paleoclimatology) in this new research finds that it is around this temperature level that the large polar ice sheets start to behave differently. During the Holocene, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been relatively stable, as reflected in the stability of the sea level. But once substantial melting starts, the loss of heat-reflecting white sea-ice, which is replaced by heat-absorbing dark ocean water, produces an “albedo flip”:

“Summer melting on lower reaches of the ice sheets and on ice shelves introduces the “albedo flip” mechanism. This phase change of water causes a powerful local feedback, which, together with moderate global warming, can substantially increase the length of the melt season. Such increased summer melting has an immediate local temperature effect, and it also will affect sea level.”

Their conclusion is that:

“… the stability of sea level during the Holocene is a consequence of the fact that global temperature remained just below the level required to initiate the ‘albedo flip’ mechanism on Greenland and West Antarctica.”

The implication is clear that “just above” the Holocene maximum lurks real danger. As Hansen and Sato say:

“… the world today is on the verge of a level of global warming for which the equilibrium surface air temperature response on the ice sheets will exceed the global mean temperature increase by much more than a factor of two.”

That is, warming at the poles will become more rapid and exceed the ratio so far, of being twice then global average. This change, they say, can be found in past warming events such as the Pliocene about 3 million years ago, so that:

“… even small global warming above the level of the Holocene begins to generate a disproportionate warming on the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. “

To put it bluntly, we are on the edge of a precipice in terms of large ice-sheet losses and sea-level rises, and there is little “cushion” left:

“Polar warmth in prior inter-glacials and the Pliocene does not imply that a significant cushion remains between today’s climate and dangerous warming, rather that Earth today is poised to experience strong amplifying polar feedbacks in response to moderate additional warming.”

Sea-levels are one devastating metric of “dangerous climate change”:

“Sea level rise potentially sets a low limit on the dangerous level of global warming. Civilisation developed during a time of unusual sea level stability. Much of the world’s population and infrastructure is located near current sea level.”

While some suggest a linear (or flat line) increase in sea-levels this century, Hansen and Sato argue forcefully that:

“… the fundamental issue is linearity versus non-linearity. Hansen argues that amplifying feedbacks make ice-sheet disintegration necessarily highly non-linear. In a non-linear problem, the most relevant number for projecting sea level rise is the doubling time for the rate of mass loss. Hansen suggested that a 10-year doubling time was plausible, pointing out that such a doubling time from a base of 1 mm per year ice sheet contribution to sea level in the decade 2005-2015 would lead to a cumulative 5-metre sea-level rise by 2095. “

Here Hansen repeats his view, first published in 2007 but widely ignored, that a 5-metre sea-level rise is possible.  In fact, recent research by Blancon et al published in Nature in 2009, examining the paleoclimate record, shows sea-level rises of 3 metres in 50 years due to the rapid melting of ice sheets 123,000 years ago in the Eemian, when the energy imbalance in the climate system was less than that to which we are now subjecting the planet.

So what evidence do we have of Hansen’s and Sato view that sea-level rises will be non-linear?

“The most reliable indication of the imminence of multimetre sea level rise may be provided by empirical evaluation of the doubling time for ice sheet mass loss. “

Looking at recent research on mass loss in Greenland and Antarctica:

“These data records are too short to provide a reliable evaluation of the doubling time, but, such as they are, they yield a best fit doubling time for annual mass loss of 5-6 years for both Greenland and Antarctica, consistent with the approximate doubling of annual mass loss in the period 2003-2008. There is substantial variation among alternative analyses of the gravity field data, but all analyses have an increasing mass loss with time, providing at least a tentative indication that long-term ice loss mass will be non-linear… We conclude that available data for the ice sheet mass change are consistent with our expectation of a non-linear response, but the data record is too short and uncertain to allow quantitative assessment. The opportunity for assessment will rapidly improve in coming years if high-precision gravity measurements are continued.

Further evidence of our lack of “cushion” can be found by looking at the warm Eemian inter-glacial peak 125,000 years ago, when it is generally understood that:

“… temperatures in the Eemian … were less than 1C warmer than peak Holocene global temperature”

In fact, Hansen and Sato conclude that:

“… global temperature was only slightly higher in the Eemian and Holsteinian interglacial periods than in the Holocene, at most by about 1°C, but probably by only several tenths of a degree Celsius.

Yet at these times:

“…  some paleodata suggest rates of sea-level rise perhaps as high as 1.6 ± 0.8 metres per century and sea level about 4-6 metres above present-day values.”

A look at the Pliocene, three-to-five million years ago, leads to the conclusion that:

“… in the early Pliocene, when sea level was about 25 metre higher than today, was only about 1C warmer than peak Holocene temperature.”

While atmospheric CO2 amount in the Pliocene is poorly known, a typical assumption, based on a variety of imprecise proxies, is 380 ppm, or less than today’s level!!

So at today’s level of carbon dioxide, and not much above the current temperature, the world has experienced sea-levels five to 25 metres higher than at present!  From that, it is not hard to understand why Hansen and Sato conclude that:

“… goals of limiting human-made warming to 2C and CO2 to 450 ppm are prescriptions for disaster.”

Summing up:

“Earth at peak Holocene temperature is poised such that additional warming instigates large amplifying high-latitude feedbacks. Mechanisms on the verge of being instigated include loss of Arctic sea ice, shrinkage of the Greenland ice sheet, loss of Antarctic ice shelves, and shrinkage of the Antarctic ice sheets. These are not runaway feedbacks, but together they strongly amplify the impacts in polar regions of a positive (warming) climate forcing … Augmentation of peak Holocene temperature by even 1C would be sufficient to trigger powerful amplifying polar feedbacks, leading to a planet at least as warm as in the Eemian and Holsteinian periods, making ice sheet disintegration and large sea level rise inevitable.”

In a line:

“Earth today is poised to experience strong amplifying polar feedbacks in response to moderate additional warming.”

We are perhaps already a few tenths of a degree above the Holocene maximum, and the system seems to be in the early stages of rapid change. It is widely expected Arctic sea-ice will be totally lost in summer with a few years to a decade or so, perhaps at less than 1C or warming.  Very few scientists think Greenland would be stable in an Arctic with little or no summer sea-ice, and opinion is split as to whether it is past its tipping point already.

It is hard to argue that anything above the Holocene maximum (of about 0.5 degrees above the pre-industrial temperature) can preserve a safe climate, and that we have already gone too far.  The notion that 1.5C is a safe target is out the window, and even 1 degree looks like an unacceptably high risk.

*This first appeared on Climate Code Red.

Companies

Jan 27, 2011

5 comments

This past week has again seen the federal Labor government give major business groups front row seats at its table — this time for one of our most important discussions of the year: how to fund the national response to the floods that have devastated thousands of our communities on the eastern seaboard.

Promoted as an effort by the Prime Minister to raise corporate dollars, the Flood Taskforce consisting of 13 business and industry leaders has, of course, become an important forum for debating what should happen to the federal budget in light of the major financial pressures arising from these tragic national events. The Australian Industry Group, the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry — yes, all of them are there. And of course their views matter.

But, some of the most important voices have been shut out of the room — including the voice of the thousands of community services across the country — and the people they help — who are directly affected by and responding to these floods. We are the non-government community services and charities that provide assistance to people in financial trouble, people seeking jobs, people who are homeless, those families and individuals needing counselling support, and much more.

So, to be clear, the voice for the community and social services sector, the Australian Council of Social Service, has a view. And the sector should be included in the decision-making process, not least because of the extraordinary role we are playing on the ground to help those most affected by this tragedy.

The personal costs of the floods are beyond measure. And in economic terms, there is still more time needed to put a price on what needs to be done to help where we can. But it is clear that the bill will be large. The government today will outline how it intends to fund the response to the floods and the impact it will have on our national budget. The Prime Minister is talking in austere tones about making “very difficult decisions”. We hear talk of major funding cuts, with the federal government sticking to its position of needing to return the federal budget to surplus in 2012-13 as if somehow this is written into the Australian Constitution. It is not. In this, we are in full agreement with the AIG and the ACTU.

We need a sensible and mature response to this national crisis. This means flexibility and balance — flexibility about the surplus and balance between how to fund important responses now to meet immediate needs arising from the floods, and the need to keep our focus on the long-term health of our nation.

ACOSS supports the proposal to introduce a flood levy. However, it must be introduced fairly, and applied only to those who can afford to pay. It should also not be open ended — that is, the nation must know that the levy is directly related to helping those devastated by the floods, and no more. The federal Opposition should not be tempted to play politics with this important issue with alarmist rhetoric about the budget bottom line.

ACOSS also supports tackling the waste that remains in our national budget.

When the Labor government made its commitment in May last year to return the federal budget to surplus by 2012-2013, ACOSS supported this approach. ACOSS has long highlighted the waste that exists in our national accounts: tax loopholes, unfair tax concessions, poorly targeted subsidies and the like. Just a few weeks ago, we met with the Treasurer to make our case for tackling this waste so that the government could invest in important national infrastructure — the physical and social infrastructure needed to set a strong future direction for our nation: investing for adequate, more secure retirements, creating a more equitable personal income tax system, and improving the affordability of housing.

We recognised that reducing this waste would not always be popular, particularly with some powerful interests in town, but we argued that the broader Australian public would strongly back greater fairness and equity in who pays for what, and how. Our view was supported by a recent survey by one of our members which found that 84% of Australians want the tax summit later this year to crack down on tax loopholes that overwhelmingly benefit wealthier individuals.

We strongly oppose any suggestion that cuts should be made to important services to fund responses to the floods — many of these services have been so vital to our flood response and are now in greater demand. We also oppose a line-by-line slash-and-burn approach to our national budget that is not driven by the longer-term objective of building a fairer and more equitable society. For example, should we fund the response to the floods by slashing funding to services? No. Should the recovery be funded by starting to tackle some of the tax breaks for higher income earners? Absolutely.

Since joining ACOSS some six months ago, a week does not go by without me hearing from hard-working community service colleagues that they are tired of being taken for granted by governments. And, yes, it was taken for granted that, in the response to the floods, community services and charities would be there, on the ground, without question doing what it took to help those affected. Of course, we are there. But the role of community services — like that of other sectors such as business and unions — extends well beyond the essential services delivered to people in need on the ground. Our experiences of working on the front line in a crisis such as the recent floods and in the everyday lives of those affected by homelessness or poverty is coupled with our extensive economic and social policy expertise and a determination to promote greater fairness in the national interest.

The Rudd government acted quickly to the global financial crisis to harness our expertise by establishing a community response taskforce. Our contribution helped in ensuring that Australia weathered the GFC economic storms better than most countries. So to have been excluded from the current discussions about how to fund our response to this national crisis is therefore particularly disappointing. The voice of the community and social services sector should be heard.

The Rest

Jan 27, 2011

5 comments

“This is the beginning of an uprising,” Mohamed ElBaradei reportedly told Al Jazerra yesterday. ElBaradei has been dubbed Egypt’s “reluctant revolutionary” and is viewed as the man who could help topple an oppressive regime surrounded — literally — by angry protesters over the past 48 hours.

Emboldened by the overthrow of long-time Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali last week, tens of thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets — and to social media, which the government has periodically blocked — to rally against the autocratic government of president Hosni Mubarak. Like Tunisia, the world — particularly allies like the United States — watches on via international news agencies like Al Jazeera and a fast-moving stream of Twitter traffic.

In Cairo yesterday and now in the early hours of the morning the streets were calmer, reports teacher and The AWL blogger Gordon Reynolds. But as he said on Twitter before heading to bed: “Rumors of continued protests tonight in outlying districts”. Facebook groups are rallying followers for renewed protests on Friday.

On Tuesday an unprecedented wave of protesters surrounded the parliament building in downtown Cairo and protesters continued to clash with police in two cities on Wednesday. One protester and a policeman were killed in Cairo, the BBC reports, and in Suez a government building was reportedly set on fire. CNN says protesters were “beaten with sticks and fists and demonstrators were being dragged away amid tear gas”. In Suez — now the real flashpoint of protest, according to one Al Jazeera journalist — police deployed water cannons and implemented a curfew.

Around 700 people have been arrested, with the interior ministry declaring it “will not allow any provocative movement or a protest or rallies or demonstrations”.

Authorities were prepared for the riots. As Reynolds writes:

“There had been tweets that protests would be staged in Tahrir Square and in the downtown neighborhood of Mohandeseen. These tweets were received by Egyptian authorities monitoring the hashtag #jan25, and they deployed a massive security presence to deter any demonstrations. Officers stood in groups of six to eight, on nearly every street corner. They blockaded the entrance to the parliament building. The teams stood quietly with folded arms watching the empty streets as the sun rose over the Nile.”

Journalists have been targeted by police, according to a press freedom group. At least seven have been detained, The Washington Post reports, with one Associated Press photographer beaten and injured while shooting the demonstrations. British Guardian journalist Jack Shenker recorded harrowing audio from the back of a police van, after being “severely beaten” and detained during the protests. He wrote later:

“At one point the truck began to rock alarmingly from side to side while someone began banging the metal exterior, sending out huge metallic clangs. We could make out that a struggle was taking place over the opening of the door; none of the protesters had any idea what lay on the other side, but all resolved to charge at it when the door swung open. Eventually it did, to reveal a police officer who began to grab inmates and haul them out, beating them as they went. A cry went up and we surged forward, sending the policeman flying; the diabetic man was then carried out carefully before the rest of us spilled on to the streets.”

Shenker quotes one of his fellow inmates, a lawyer, saying: “As I was being dragged in, a police general said to me: ‘Do you think you can change the world? You can’t! Do you think you are a hero? You are not’.”

Authorities have blocked the websites of independent Egyptian newspapers. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports privately-owned broadcaster Hannibal TV was forced off the air for more than three hours, while state-owned news agency Agence Tunis Afrique Presse issued a statement stating an arrest warrant had been issued for the station’s owner on charges of “high treason” for an alleged “plot to destabilize national security.”

Facebook was blocked for a time (though now active according to one user) and Twitter reported hours ago: “Egypt continues to block Twitter & has greatly diminished traffic. However, some users are using apps/proxies to successfully tweet.” Still, Egyptians have managed to post graphic photos and videos of the protests and police violence…

27-01-2011 12-07-53 PM

أول صورة من السويس يبدو الوضع متأزم جدا ..

27-01-2011 12-24-35 PM

Said one defiant Egyptian via Twitter an hour ago: “after 2 days of protesting , tear gas is like fresh air , rubber bullets are like rain drops , sticks r like thai massage ….”

So what will the US do? The White House is monitoring the situation but playing its cards close to the chest. White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs denounces the violence, at least, but says only of Egypt and the president that it remains a “close and important ally”. And from the State Department today:

“As Secretary Clinton said in Doha, people across the Middle East — like people everywhere — are seeking a chance to contribute and to have a role in the decisions that will shape their lives. We want to see reform occur, in Egypt and elsewhere, to create greater political, social, and economic opportunity consistent with people’s aspirations. The United States is a partner of Egypt and the Egyptian people in this process, which we believe should unfold in a peaceful atmosphere.”

Continue reading “Egyptians online and on the streets, but a US ally stands firm”

Federal

Jan 27, 2011

5 comments

Inspired by the now infamous ‘Mr Right’ headline tacked above an article about Lara Giddings’ ascension to the position of Tasmanian Premier, this week Crikey spoke to a group of female ex-MPS on the double standards that the media employs when it comes to reporting on women in politics. A focus on appearance aside (Cheryl Kernot told Crikey she was “reduced to a red boa”), the real double standard at play is when kids come into the picture. Or more importantly, don’t. Far more than men, female politicians have their political identities framed around their family and relationship situation.

And it seems women can’t win: the presence of offspring makes for a ‘mum’ angle, and no kids? Empty fruit bowl anyone?

“In the media, I am always referred to as a ‘mum from Medowie’, whilst I’m also an experienced commercial lawyer,” Kate Washington, the ALP candidate for Port Stephens in the upcoming NSW election told Crikey. “I have been asked by journalists at least three times, ‘have you got thick enough skin to take on this role’ and more recently, I’ve been asked how I’m going to care for my children if I am elected. I don’t believe these questions would be asked of any male candidates. Aside from the sexism, it also doesn’t allow discussion of issues.”

Ex-WA Premier Carmen Lawrence, the first female to hold a state premier position in Australian told Crikey, “we’ve headed back to the 50s”.

Back when Lawrence entered politics in 1986 she estimates only 10-15% of MPs were female and “it was held to be desirable to get more women into politics, held to be desirable to get more women into senior political parties and that’s happened to a large extent, but the irony is that it hasn’t necessarily improved the way some sections of the media read women’s involvement.”

Marian Sawer hears similar questions being asked of Giddings that were asked of Prime Minister Gillard. The emeritus professor of social science at the Australian National University, with a particular interest in gender, believes politics is now a game for the young and, increasingly in western democracies, a first career choice rather than a later-life pursuit — putting women in the firing line.

But many successful Australian female politicians of an older generation — think Lawrence, retiring Liberal Senator Judith Troeth and former Victorian Premier Joan Kirner — went into political careers as married women with children.

“When I first stood for pre-selection, I was routinely mentioned as ‘Mother of Five'”, Senator Troeth told Crikey. “There were no other female candidates around in that district at the time, I was a novelty. People wondered how I would get to talk to the shearers in the pub.”

But as she gained political experience that attention ended, Troeth tells Crikey. “When I went into federal parliament and then became Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister for Agriculture, the questions like that stopped because it was obvious that I did that throughout my everyday life. It was due to getting into parliament and getting a meaningful position.”

Lawrence was also a married mother when she went into politics, “To be fair to the local press — The West and The Daily News — they didn’t run the ‘she’s a woman, she must have family responsibilities, children’ line. I expected it [the flack] might be greater than it was.” Even when Lawrence divorced and became a single mother, “that issue was never front of mind and never headlined.”

And there does come a day when the media focus on women is no longer on looks and relationships, says Troeth. “On the other end of the spectrum, having achieved ‘mature women’ status, I haven’t had personal questions for a long time.”

Cheryl Kernot suggested in Crikey earlier this week that female politicians should challenge people who ask derogatory or sexist questions. But attempts by female leaders to hit out against sexist coverage have sometimes proved counter productive. Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin, Sawer says, didn’t get much leverage in 1999 by criticising cartoonists — including The Australian’s Bill Leak — for sexually stereotyping female leaders. “I think a dignified silence might be best,” Sawer said.

Troeth agrees. “You have to be very careful sometimes to zip the lip and not make statements — particularly as Premier — in a throwaway manner. [My advice to Giddings is] To be very careful what you say in any interviews on the record. Because the press always remember it.”

Lawrence disagrees with the keep-quiet-and-don’t-question-the-media mentality. “I think the ‘just ignore the flack’ has been the modus operandi for 20 years and it clearly hasn’t worked,” she said.

“People don’t object enough to it,” said Lawrence. “When we were at the height of second wave feminism, people were very quick to jump on you — and reasonably so — if you treated women as having one role, one identity. But we’ve stopped saying ‘hang on’.”

When asked if Lawrence had any advice she would give to Giddings on how to cope with the press, she laughed and replied “Not that’s printable.”