Peter Jennings on North Korea’s aggression

April 26, 2017

As North Korea continues to antagonise the US and its allies, the prospect of war hangs in the air. But Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says he doesn’t think we’ll see armed conflict with North Korea any time this year.

“I think the US has now resolved that it’s going to exhaust all diplomatic options first before it thinks about pre-emptively striking at the North’s missiles and nuclear facilities.

"And really what that means is – one more try to see if the Chinese are prepared to apply the type of sanctions that would hurt North Korea sufficiently,” Jennings says.

Weighing up North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, Jennings says that up until about 18 months ago, their nuclear program was “going nowhere fast”. “But in the last 18 months, what we’ve seen is a significant acceleration of the North’s nuclear testing.”

“The different calculation the Americans have to factor in is that the North is getting close, and it now sees itself within a decent sprint of being able to weaponise a missile that could hit Los Angeles.”

With Malcolm Turnbull’s New York meeting with US President Donald Trump now confirmed for next week, Jennings has some words of counsel for the prime minister.

“My first piece of advice to the PM would be to say ‘you’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about. We’re actually an ally in good standing’. The next piece of advice would be to say ‘but don’t wait for president Trump to come to you with a list of things he’d like Australia to do’.

"I think we’d always be in a much better situation if we could go to the Americans and say ‘now here are the things we want to do that will strengthen our alliance’.”

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Jenny Lambert on the 457 visa scrapping

April 19, 2017

This week, the government announced it would abolish the 457 visa and replace it with a new temporary skill shortage visa program. The change has met a mixed response from businesses.

Jenny Lambert, director of employment, education and training at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says the key issue for the business community is to “try and reset the button on confidence in the temporary skilled migration system”.

“We really have accepted that we have to get rid of the 457 visa and put in place arrangements that the community can be more confident in. That said, we’ve got some issues about the detail and we’re willing and wanting to work with the government on that,” Lambert says.

Lambert maintains that rorting was never a big part of the 457 visa program.

“When you look at the bigger picture of use of the 457 over the last few years, the predominant users are state governments in their health portfolios, universities and academia bringing in specialist researchers and scientists … and also highly skilled CEOs and managers of multinational corporations. So 75% of the use of 457 over the last five years has been in that high-skilled end. So when we talk about rorting, we’ve always seen it as more at the margins, at the lower-skilled end of the program.”

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Gareth Evans on Australian self-reliance

April 13, 2017

In a speech to the National Press Club on Thursday, former Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans lambasted US President Donald Trump and called on Australia to become more self-reliant. Evans described Trump as “manifestly the most ill-informed, under-prepared, ethically challenged and psychologically ill-equipped president in US history”.

Evans, who is chancellor of the Australian National University, was speaking at the launch of Allan Gyngell’s book Australia’s Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World Since 1942. Gyngell is adjunct professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy and a former director-general of the Office of National Assessments.

In an interview after his speech, Evans tells Michelle Grattan that Malcolm Turnbull should handle Trump “rather more diplomatically than I did today”.

“I fully acknowledge the reality that when you’re dealing face-to-face with these people you’ve got to go through the motions of decency, however indecent you think their behaviour has been,” he says.

“I think the very important thing is for Turnbull to give, as he apparently did in that famous phone conversation, some pretty clear messages about what Australia’s interests are and how they might be distinct from those of the United States.”

Reflecting on Trump’s strike against a Syrian air base last week, Evans has a “complicated response”.

“Half of me, or maybe a bit more than half of me is absolutely applauding, saying ‘wow, yes’ … when we see an overtly humanitarian response to catastrophic behaviour of the kind that we saw from [Syrian president] Assad, your first instinct of course is to cheer.

"But, and there are quite a few buts you have to add up, will this be effective in at least stopping chemical weapons? Well, if it is, that’s good but there’s a lot of other deaths being perpetrated, and will it be possibly counter-productive in terms of bringing this impossibly protracted war to a diplomatic conclusion?”

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Matthew Sussex on Russia’s long game

April 5, 2017

A cloud continues to hover over Russian interference in the US presidential election. Associate professor Matthew Sussex, academic director at the Australian National University’s National Security College and a specialist in Russian foreign and strategic policy, says Russia’s meddling has been “exceptionally damaging”.

“I think that the Kremlin was really dreading having a Hillary Clinton White House because she would have put up the pressure quite significantly on Ukraine, on Crimea, and on Russia’s behaviour more generally,” Sussex says.

“The Krelim side of it was, ‘well Trump will deliver absolutely everything we want’, and that was number one: loosen NATO, which would give it a freer hand in Ukraine and not have to worry about its western flank so much.

"Second, to make America’s allies pay more and make them more uncomfortable for the sense that they might be protected by the United States. And finally – and this is the big one – Trump has promised to wind back the liberal trading order, and it’s widely perceived that this has been what’s kept stability in our own region in the Asia-Pacific but also Europe as well.”

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David Marr on Pauline Hanson’s star power

March 28, 2017

In his latest Quarterly Essay, journalist David Marr delves into why Pauline Hanson attracts so much attention. Looking at figures from the last election, Marr also paints a portrait of those voting for One Nation.

“The principal characteristics of her followers are this: they’re white, they’re at least third-generation Australians, they are – unlike most Australians – pessimistic about their own prospects and about the economic prospects of the country. This is a very optimistic country.

"They’re not all old. About one-third of the people who voted for her in the last election were under 45. They mostly didn’t finish school. That didn’t mean their lives were wrecked; they went on to get other qualifications.

"They are, above all, hostile to immigration. That is the most dramatic thing about them.”

Marr says the fear of Islam is at the centre of Hanson’s appeal. “If people are not recognising this, they’re just not facing facts,” he says.

As to Hanson’s “star” political status: “Whether she can survive a six-year term as a senator with this kind of lustre is a big question about her – because, on the whole, she doesn’t benefit much from prolonged scrutiny – prolonged scrutiny in the political process.”

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Michaelia Cash on union misconduct

March 22, 2017

The government this week introduced a bill that aims to put a stop to secret agreements between employers and unions without the knowledge of union members. The next hurdle will be the Senate, although it’s possible Labor may support the legislation.

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash says she is always in discussion with the Senate crossbenchers about the implementation of the recommendations from the Heydon royal commission.

“And certainly, I’m always willing to sit down with [Shadow Employment Minister] Brendan O'Connor or Richard Di Natale to discuss the legislation.”

Beyond these new measures, Cash suggests the government wants to legislate more recommendations from the royal commission into trade unions.

“There are about 50 to 55 left and we are finalising that package as we speak. We are absolutely committed to adopting the Heydon recommendations.

"There are further recommendations in relation to what employers and unions should be disclosing in the course of enterprise agreements. There are some recommendations which go to, for example, choice of superannuation fund in enterprise agreements. There are some recommendations which go towards further transparency. Again, we’re happy to adopt them all.”

Following a ruling by the Fair Work Commission to cut Sunday penalty rates in industries such as hospitality, retail and fast food, some businesses have been reluctant to show strong support for the changes. Cash would like to see more businesses take up the cause.

“I believe that if you accept a decision and you embrace the positive benefits and you want to bring people with you, then yes, you should be out there selling that message.

"These guys are scared. They are scared that the unions will come and get them.”

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Richard Di Natale on the future of work

March 15, 2017

Greens leader Richard Di Natale is calling for a re-imagining of the way Australians approach work. “What we’re saying is: let’s have a look at some of the models around the world,” he says.

“It’s absolutely possible, as we’ve seen in places like Sweden, where in the aged care sector people are working a six-hour day rather than an eight-hour day, but they’re actually delivering a productivity dividend. They’re happier. They’re healthier at work. They’re actually producing just as much as they would be doing in an eight-hour day.”

With the future likely to see many jobs lost to automation, The Greens are keeping an open mind to the notion of “guaranteed adequate incomes”.

“It’s a system that gives people a wage, irrespective of income. It’s not actually means tested.

"It makes sure that everybody’s got enough to live on. There are a whole range of benefits to the economy. There are few overheads in administering it. So we’re looking … at the trials. We’re watching them very closely in Canada, in Scotland, in France and so on.”

In the wake of an energy crisis, both the federal and South Australian governments are placing a renewed focus on gas in Australia’s energy mix. But Di Natale says we’re having a debate that “belongs in the last century”.

“We shouldn’t be spending a cent on new gas infrastructure. We’ve got some legacy issues with existing gas plants and obviously existing coal-fired power plants. We’ve got to have a transition plan to make sure we can transition away from old, polluting energy generation to new renewable, clean-green generation. That’s the plan that needs to be put in place.”

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WA election – Mark McGowan accuses Turnbull of bluffing

March 9, 2017

The end of the mining boom has hit many people in Western Australia hard, and this has flowed strongly into the election. Debt and deficit are besetting the state budget. In this final podcast from Perth, we talk to economist Alan Duncan about the challenges for the state’s economy and for whoever forms government after Saturday, as WA undertakes a vast transition.

We also interview Opposition Leader Mark McGowan, who goes into the election as favourite. McGowan had much-revered Labor figure Bob Hawke over to help last week. Hawke talked to him about his summit approach to economic policy-making after he was elected prime minister in 1983. McGowan tells us he wants to be a consensus premier locally, but when he ventured out of his state he would be fighting hard for the interests of WA.

“As a West Australian you put forward a robust case on behalf of your state. We never seem to get any favours out of the Commonwealth. And what we have to do is be absolutely forceful and never, ever give in. And I think that’s the way to treat the federal government - whoever they are,” McGowan says.

If he becomes premier, McGowan would face a hostile upper house, with One Nation holding all or part of the balance-of-power.

“The way you deal with the upper house, in my experience as a former minister, is you present good legislation and you argue the case. There’s no easy solutions when you have a hostile upper house.”

“I would just hope that One Nation, if they get elected, look at the merits of legislation that comes before them.”

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WA poll - Kim Beazley on One Nation

March 8, 2017

In our second podcast from the Western Australian election, we talk to Kim Beazley, especially about One Nation. Beazley was federal Labor leader during Pauline Hanson’s first political phase. He sees her as a national security threat and believes she should be opposed in the strongest terms.

“We [in WA] are probably more conscious of South-East Asia. We do more trade with South-East Asia … with Indonesia for example. There’s a strong propensity here to look very seriously at Indonesia. Lots of West Australians holiday in Indonesia. … The positions she is adopting pose to seriously damage a critical security and economic relationship. I think quite a lot of West Australians understand that,” he said.

“The rise of One Nation, to my mind, ought to be greeted in much the same way as we greeted [Hanson] back then - to see it disappear as quickly as possible.”

In this podcast, we also visited Rockingham, south of Perth, where we found mixed views about One Nation and more than a little general disillusionment. Polling analyst William Bowe, who’s been watching the One Nation phenomenon, says their campaign has been “a bit of a shambles”. “I guess the question in this election with respect to how well they’re going to go is: how much does that matter?”

“Given the sort of experience of Donald Trump’s campaign last year, I think there’s an idea that these sorts of populist movements can get away with a great deal.”

Finally, Dexter Davies, federal senior vice-president of the Nationals and a former WA state MP, strongly defends the controversial Nationals’ proposal for a mining tax on Rio Tinto and BHP, which has triggered a massive campaign from the mining companies.

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election report from the West

March 7, 2017

In the first of three Conversation podcasts on the Western Australian election, we talk to Natalie Mast at the University of Western Australia, Premier Colin Barnett and ABC election analyst Antony Green.

Saturday’s election potentially carries a hefty national punch.

The polls are running strongly against the Liberal government. If Colin Barnett loses, the federal Liberals will become even more jittery, although the defeat would be due primarily to state factors.

The election will also test the power of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation as a disruptor, with the party set to win state upper house seats. Hanson is on the campaign trail all this week. Her latest provocative comments on immunisation, Vladimir Putin and Muslims - she said on Monday Muslims had changed Australian suburbs - continue to highlight the dubious deal the WA Liberals have done with One Nation on preferences.

The deal has alienated some among both Liberal and One Nation supporters. Barnett is anxious to keep maximum distance from Hanson, insisting the preference swap doesn’t indicate any wider convergence.

He admits that while some people will be unhappy with the deal, “I think overall it will improve the Liberal Party vote. And can I stress there’s no agreement with One Nation. I don’t endorse their policies. I don’t endorse their candidates and there is no agreement about any role in government about legislation or policy.”

ABC election analyst Antony Green. Pat Hutchens/TC

Barnett, who is promising - ambitiously, given the government’s unpopularity - to sell 51% of Western Power, is highly critical of the way the national energy debate has gone.

After saying at a news conference on Tuesday there was no such thing as clean coal, Barnett told The Conversation: “Coal has relatively high levels of emissions. Higher quality coal tends to have lower emissions per unit of energy produced. In Western Australia we have had good long-term policies on natural gas and for a power station of an equivalent size, gas powered generation produces less than half of the emissions of coal. So if you want to clean up the energy system in Australia, it seems to me that the bleeding obvious thing to do is to make more use of natural gas in Australia,” he said.

He says he watches “with bewilderment” the national debate on energy policy. “Australia, with its huge natural resources of coal, of natural gas, of uranium and so on, has got itself into an absolute mess over energy policy.”

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