Top diplomat takes over in Defence shake-up

Foreign Affairs chief Dennis Richardson.ONE of Australia’s most respected diplomats has been parachuted into the Defence Department to bridge a deepening rift between Defence Minister Stephen Smith and the military.

In the dramatic shake-up in the $24 billion department, former special forces commander Duncan Lewis has been replaced as secretary of Defence after barely a year in the job.

The department has been in near revolt in recent months over budget cuts and Mr Smith’s criticism of a culture of abuse in the military that has led to a series of sex scandals.

Foreign Affairs chief Dennis Richardson, who had been planning to retire at the end of his term, has now agreed to take on the notoriously challenging Defence portfolio.

Mr Lewis’ sudden resignation caught many close observers by surprise and follows persistent reports of a break-down of trust with Mr Smith.

Mr Lewis warned last month of a gap between the government’s strategic ambition and what it was willing to spend.

Labor has delayed several major projects, notably a decision to build a fleet of 12 attack submarines and finalise plans for air warfare destroyers, helping to bring the budget back into surplus. But the move has sparked fierce debate in defence circles over whether Australia might be left exposed.

The debate has come to a head after the government brought forward the date to publish a new Defence white paper, with insiders now dismissing it as a ”white pamphlet” that will be light on detail.

Mr Lewis will be shoe-horned into the role as Australian ambassador to NATO, taking over from Brendan Nelson, defence minister in the Howard government.

In a memo to Defence staff yesterday, Mr Lewis said ”several weeks ago” Prime Minister Julia Gillard had asked him to consider accepting the post.

”I would like to make it very clear that, notwithstanding media reporting, I have not been forced out of my current position and I am not departing Defence for any reason other than to take up this ambassadorial post at the request of the Prime Minister,” Mr Lewis wrote.

But the move has sidelined senior diplomat Bruce Gosper who had been expected to take up the job.

Mr Richardson has a reputation as a tough operator who reformed the deeply troubled Australian Security Intelligence Organisation in the years before the terrorist attacks of 2001.

He will achieve a rare double: the first person to hold the top jobs in Defence and Foreign Affairs since the formidable Sir Arthur Tange in the 1970s.

Another former spy chief, Peter Varghese, Australia’s high commissioner to India, will take over as Foreign Affairs head.

Mr Varghese has also been persuaded not to quit the public service, having earlier made plain a desire to switch to the private sector after a long diplomatic career and a stint in charge of the Office of National Assessments.

Mr Lewis, a former commander of the elite special forces troops, was National Security Adviser under then prime minster Kevin Rudd.

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Lifting GST rate to 15pc could net extra $25bn

LIFTING the goods and services tax to 15 per cent would boost Australian state budgets by an extraordinary $25 billion per year – almost $6 billion of which would be kept by the Baillieu government in Victoria, but experts warn it would soon evaporate.

Razor-gang budgets have reignited the debate on the rate of the GST, which was originally set at 15 per cent when first mooted in opposition by then Liberal leader John Hewson before the 1993 election. That is also the rate to which New Zealand has now lifted its GST after two decades at 12.5 per cent. It is dwarfed by GST rates of 20 per cent or more in most of Europe.

At 10 per cent, Australia’s GST earns the states $50 billion per year, double the $24 billion it earned when introduced in July 2000.

But as a proportion of gross domestic product it has been slipping for years, something Treasury budget papers blame on increased household saving, and also a ”steady decline in expenditure on items attracting GST as a share of total consumption”.

”We knew this was going to happen,” says Greg Smith, a former head of Treasury’s revenue group and a member of the Henry Tax Review.

”It was clear people were moving their spending from goods to services … but it was also clear they were moving spending to services outside the scope of the GST such as health and education.”

Treasury calculations show the prices of health, education and rent – all excluded from the GST – have been increasing far faster than the prices of items covered by the GST, meaning a growing proportion of spending is GST-exempt.

It is why NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell has called for a debate about lifting the GST, receiving backing from South Australia’s Treasurer Jack Snelling.

But experts warn that lifting the rate to 12.5 or 15 per cent would only buy time, perhaps even accelerating the shift in spending away from items covered by the GST.

”The greater the GST rate the greater the incentive for fraud and for moving spending elsewhere,” says Neil Warren, professor of taxation at the University of UNSW. ”To stop it you would need to tighten up on GST-free imports and consider extending the GST to food, education and health.”

The Age calculations show extending the GST to presently exempt fresh food would raise an extra $6 billion per year (some of which would need to be spent compensating low-income earners), extending it to education would raise a further $3 billion, and health another $3 billion.

But Professor Smith says the health and education savings are illusory.

”The states themselves are the biggest providers of health and education. Taxing their services in order to help fund their services would mean money in one door and out the other. It isn’t a net revenue gain.”

And much of the extra income would be earmarked as soon as it came in.

”The Commonwealth would want the states to cut insurance taxes and stamp duties,” said Professor Warren.

”Those two alone would eat up the extra income.”

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Labor’s ‘Pacific Solution’ gets going in Nauru

Green and khaki canvas tents at the asylum-seeker accommodation centre in Nauru await the arrival of more refugees.A PLANELOAD of Sri Lankan boat people is expected to land on Nauru today as the Labor Party’s reinvigoration of the so-called ‘‘Pacific Solution’’ gathers pace.

The new arrivals, the second group to go to Nauru since Labor reopened the John Howard-era detention centre on the tiny Pacific island, were expected to touch down shortly after 7am (5am Australian time).

Like the 30 Tamils who arrived on Friday, they will be  taken by bus to the 500-person capacity tent city in the sweltering middle of the island, where they will be hemmed in by thick jungle, the island’s rubbish tip and a rock quarry.

With the Australian Army almost finished building the tent city and with the Christmas Island detention centre already exceeding its capacity due to an influx of boats  this year, today’s arrivals will soon be followed by more. Indeed a boat carrying 10 people was detected off West Australia’s coast last night.

Another planeload of several dozen Tamils are expected later this week, and the first group of Afghan Hazaras early next week. By then the camp will house more than 150 asylum seekers.Some of those 150 may also turn out to be women, children or whole families, as Immigration Minister Chris Bowenlast week told a press conference that ‘‘you can expect to see a broad cross-section of people transferred to Nauru next week and in coming weeks’’.

Despite promises by Mr Bowen that Labor’s system on Nauru would involve a processing centre, not a detention camp, the site’s inhabitants are forbidden from leaving.

A Nauruan government spokesman, Rod Henshaw, said on ABC radio that the situation was a ‘‘period of settling in’’.

‘‘I know the Nauru government is anxious to have them settled and, over a period of time, to give them the privileges of wandering around.’’

He said he hoped the asylum seekers would be free to leave the camp in weeks or a month. ‘‘I couldn’t put a time on it … but that is the objective, [to give the asylum seekers] the freedom of the island to some degree.’’

Questions also continue to be asked about the decision to process the refugee claims under Nauruan law. Last week the regional head of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, Rick Towle, said that Australia was handing over legal responsibility for people seeking asylum in that country.

Some  have  expressed concern that Australia may disagree with a refugee approval made under Nauruan law and refuse to take the person, meaning they can’t be returned to their country or resettled in Australia.

The media remains barred  from the site, but yesterday The Age was able to glimpse the tents that house the arrivals.

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Pakistan will cull ‘healthy’ sheep

MORE than 20,000 Australian sheep are facing premature slaughter in Pakistan after local authorities said the animals were diseased and must be killed.

Livestock exporter Wellard yesterday said the veterinary department in Pakistan had issued orders that prevented Australian sheep exported to Pakistan two weeks ago from entering the consumer supply chain and must be euthanised.

This month, the Ocean Drover, owned by Wellard, unloaded sheep in Pakistan, after being at sea for two weeks following rejection from Bahraini authorities because they were infected with the contagious viral disease, scabby mouth.

Wellard said the new orders conflict with previous advice from Pakistani authorities that tests taken from the sheep were still being tested or confirmed the sheep were disease free.

The Age understands slaughter had begun with ”several hundred” already killed, but has now stopped as the company, industry and the Australian government work to stop the cull while Pakistan’s government conducts disease tests.

”We are not sure what is going on as the sheep are healthy,” Wellard managing director Mauro Balzarini said.

”The sheep were farmed for human consumption, so it is disappointing that some healthy sheep are being euthanised when they are absolutely safe to be processed.”

The new revelations have been seized on by Greens senator Lee Rhiannon as further evidence the industry should be shut down.

”Either [Agriculture] minister Ludwig has no idea about the fate of these 21,000 sheep or he is deliberately staying tight-lipped,” Senator Rhiannon said.

Senator Joe Ludwig said the Greens were scaremongering and were putting out media statements before contacting his office or industry.

”The Greens want the trade ended and will sabotage it at whatever opportunity they get.”

The sheep had been approved for arrival in Pakistan by local and Australian authorities – Australia has the strictest export conditions in the world.

An agriculture department spokesman said it was confident the sheep delivered to Pakistan were healthy on leaving Australia.

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The farmer wants a life: minister urges lockout over coal seam gas

THE Minister for Western NSW, Kevin Humphries, has encouraged a group of farmers to continue to ”lock the gate” to prevent coal seam gas companies entering their land just days after a cabinet decision on new rules to balance the interests of miners and farmers.

Mr Humphries, who is the member for Barwon, flew to Moree last Thursday to meet a local farmer and anti-coal seam gas activist, Penny Blatchford.

Ms Blatchford owns 7000 hectares at Gurley and Bellata, between Moree and Narrabri, covered by an exploration licence for Leichhardt Resources, which wants to look for coal seam gas.

The exploration licence is one of 22 such licences renewed on Tuesday, the same day the government announced its strategic land use policy for how coal seam gas drilling and coal mining may be carried out in NSW.

Ms Blatchford and 83 other landholders have been refusing to sign access agreements with Leichhardt Resources and other companies for about 18 months as part of a ”lock the gate” protest.

”He said it was important for me to hold the line and not take our [protest] signs down just yet,” Ms Blatchford said. ”He said he had no problem with people locking their gates.”

She said Mr Humphries told her: ”My view is no means no. If you don’t want them in, I think you still have a very good case. I think it would be impossible for them to break through that.”

Mr Humphries expressed concern over the policy when a draft version was released in March.

His latest comments risk undermining cabinet solidarity and reinforce tensions between the Nationals and Liberals.

The policy makes mining companies wanting to access areas classified as ”strategic agricultural land” have their proposals examined by an independent scientific panel. But farmers and environmental groups are furious no area has been quarantined from potential mining activity.

Ms Blatchford said Mr Humphries was genuinely concerned about farmers. But the NSW Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham said his comments acknowledged the policy meant farmers’ only choice was to break the law.

”The Nationals have such a low level of confidence in their own government’s policy that they’re telling farmers to keep locking the gate,” he said.

But Mr Humphries said he was aware of Ms Blatchford’s concerns and wanted to explain the policy.

”I fully support the NSW government’s strategic regional land use policy and am proud of the balance it has struck between the interests of agriculture, the environment and mining,” he said.

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Supporters scramble to spin Labor’s gains

SUPPORTERS of the Prime Minister, the Opposition Leader and the people who most covet their jobs were all claiming vindication yesterday after two major national opinion polls that showed Labor closing the gap on the Coalition.

Both the Herald/Nielsen poll and Newspoll showed Labor clawing back ground against the Coalition, while Julia Gillard’s personal ratings were rising and Tony Abbott’s falling.

As Mr Abbott’s senior shadow ministers rushed to defend him as a good person being vilified, Liberals confided they were relieved that the gap had narrowed because hubris had begun to settle in and the party needed a wake-up call.

”It doesn’t hurt that he’s had a bit of a belt under the ears … We’re taking too much for granted,” a senior party source said of Mr Abbott.

The Herald poll showed that while the Coalition would still win if an election were held today, Mr Abbott’s personal standing was at a record low and twice as many voters preferred Malcolm Turnbull as leader. The Newspoll showed Labor has pulled even with the Coalition and the two-party preferred vote was 50-50.

The Deputy Opposition Leader, Julie Bishop, was Mr Abbott’s main defender yesterday. She said the polls were always going to tighten up and she attributed the plunge in Mr Abbott’s fortunes to the damaging allegations last week that he physically intimidated a female student at university 35 years ago, saying this was part of a broader strategy by Labor to demonise Mr Abbott.

Ms Bishop and the manager of opposition business, Christopher Pyne, argued Mr Abbott was misunderstood. Both pointed out how he had spent Saturday with his local fire brigade, helping with back burning, while on Sunday he helped a blind man run a full marathon.

The government was not getting carried away but several MPs and ministers said there was a softening of hostility towards the government, largely because the carbon tax had not proved to be the monster the opposition claimed it would be.

”This is a campaign that has hit a brick wall of reality,” the senior minister Anthony Albanese said.

While Labor was improving under Ms Gillard, the Herald poll showed the government’s primary vote would jump 10 percentage points to 44 per cent if Mr Rudd were leader.

Supporters of Ms Gillard said these numbers would evaporate quickly if there were a change of leader and they said the steady improvement should keep the Rudd camp at bay.

”It may not [keep him quiet] but it deflates his tyres,” one said.

But a Rudd supporter took a different view: ”We might win with her; we will win with him.”

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Changing nature of a bushwalk in 2070

GOING for a bushwalk in the year 2070 will be an almost unrecognisable experience.

”It will look different, it will sound different, it will probably even smell different,” said Michael Dunlop, a senior CSIRO researcher, who helped produce the first comprehensive national report into the effects of climate change on biodiversity.

An increasing ”sameness” would characterise the landscape, as rainforest became dry forest, woodland became scrubland, and scrub bled into open grassland, Dr Dunlop said.

As a result, many of the ecological patterns that have become familiar would erode away, the report found.

Sophisticated climate and data measurement models were deployed to isolate 23 types of ecological environment around the continent, then track how they are likely to respond to rising temperatures. The models point to rapid change. By 2030, a transformation of many natural environments will be well under way, and by 2070, they will be obvious.

As well as experiencing higher temperatures, many habitats will be drier and prone to more frequent fires, said the report, The Implications of Climate Change for Biodiversity Conservation and the National Reserve System. Some animal and plant species might benefit from the changes, but the models predicted that by about 2070, the net effect on biodiversity would be a decidedly negative one.

The report said climate change was overlaid on existing environmental problems, such as encroaching development on wilderness areas and battles over water resources, and magnified their effects on stressed plants and animals. The researchers hope their study, which took three years to complete, will start a conversation about the meaning of ”conservation”.

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Whistleblowers retrenched

TWO of three CSIRO employees who blew the whistle on alleged ”criminal or civil breaches of the law” by the scientific organisation were later made redundant, it has been revealed.

But the officials who were the subject of the complaints remain employed, the CSIRO has confirmed.

The details have emerged after a group of former CSIRO employees began a campaign for a change in culture, alleging mismanagement and bullying were rife.

Last Thursday, a parliamentary inquiry examining workplace bullying in Commonwealth agencies published the group’s submission. It claims the group is aware of 60 cases of top-flight scientists and other officials who were bullied or otherwise forced out.

This list has names on it such as Maarten Stapper, a soil scientist allegedly pushed out because of his criticism of genetically modified crops, globally recognised oceanographer Trevor McDougall, and award-winning entomologist Sylwester Chyb, who has begun litigation against the CSIRO for misleading conduct and unlawful termination. The CSIRO has declined to respond to the allegations, but the group says some of those forced out had tried to report misconduct or maladministration. Among the group’s recommendations is improved protection for whistleblowers.

”Current whistleblower legislation does not adequately protect from persecution those making public interest declarations,” the document says.

”This is particularly true in circumstances in which it is hard to identify a direct link between a whistleblower complaint and subsequent, seemingly unrelated, adverse action against the employee in his or her workplace.”

The organisation is also grappling with a spike in the damages it has had to pay as a result of occupational health and safety claims made to the Commonwealth OH&S regulator and insurer, Comcare. The increased cost of the claims has meant that the premiums Comcare charges the CSIRO have nearly tripled, from $1.9 million in 2011-12 to $4.9 million this financial year.

At a budget estimates hearing in May, Tasmanian senator David Bushby asked the CSIRO about its handling of whistleblower complaints and those who made them. In answers provided last month, it confirmed two complaints were lodged in 2010 and one in 2008, all of which made serious allegations about unlawful activity.

But while the CSIRO did not retrench any of those against whom allegations were made, it did retrench two complainants.

”One CSIRO employee, who had lodged a whistleblower complaint on March 10, 2008, was made redundant on August 23, 2010, as there was an insufficient volume of … work to sustain the position,” it said.

”A second employee, who lodged a whistleblower complaint on February 23, 2010, was made redundant on September 4, 2011, as CSIRO no longer required the job be performed by anyone because of changes in operational requirements.”

CSIRO spokesman Huw Morgan declined to give details of the allegations made by the whistleblowers, saying it might help reveal their identity.

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Food-labelling bill puts Greens in hot water

THE major parties have lashed the Greens for rushing in a bill to change country of origin food-labelling rules, without consulting them or properly analysing the impact on the food processing sector.

The Greens yesterday introduced legislation to Parliament that would define country of origin labelling to better reflect where raw produce originated.

At present, if more than half of the packaging costs are incurred in Australia and goods have been substantially processed here, regardless of where the basic produce is from, the item can be labelled ”made in”.

The bill is based on a 2011 review of Australia and New Zealand’s food-labelling standards.

The Greens say it will help people who want to buy Australian products, and local farmers. AUSVEG, which represents 9000 vegetable and potato growers, and consumer group Choice have welcomed the bill. Choice, however, warned the Greens Australians still wanted to know where products were made.

The federal government says it is already working with state governments to respond to the review’s recommendations.

A spokeswoman for Industry and Innovation Minister Greg Combet said the Greens ignored that the Commonwealth could not unilaterally change food-labelling laws and codes.

”The Greens have rushed in with private member’s legislation that involved little analysis of the impact on the food processing sector,” she said. ”Country of origin labelling rules need to give consumers accurate and useful information without imposing unnecessary costs on the food-processing sector, which could ultimately hurt food producers and consumers.”

Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce, who co-sponsored a similar bill with the Greens and Senator Nick Xenophon in 2009, said while the Greens’ idea had merit, the party was going about it the wrong way.

Senator Joyce said the Coalition was working towards a position and warned such tactics by the Greens could set the issue back by making it a partisan matter.

”This is typical Greens, they never negotiate with anybody, they just rush in,” Senator Joyce said. ”Any fool can bring in a bill, but it actually takes authenticity to do the work to gather the numbers so you can achieve an outcome. To the best of my knowledge they have not contacted anybody.”

Greens leader Senator Christine Milne said given the issue had been on the agenda for several years, and that the government had still not responded to the review presented in January 2011, ”it is hard to see how anyone is rushing into anything”.

“This bill builds on years of public work, has been developed in consultation with a range of stakeholders and, as is standard practice, we hope to see it referred to a Senate inquiry. I look forward to Labor and the Nationals engaging in good-faith discussions about how it might be improved,” she said.

Coles merchandise director John Durkan said the company would be happy to see more stringent labels to help shoppers make informed choices.

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Hate-mongering rioters wield religion to express deep-seated resentment

IT’S all so predictable. Someone sets out to provoke Muslims with perhaps the most amateurish, inept and unconvincing piece of footage ever published – Innocence of Muslims – and are duly obliged with a massive over-reaction.

Just as with the Danish cartoon scandals of 2006, the extremists sought to prove Islam is a religion of peace by killing a few Christians and burning churches, so they prove religious maturity by rioting.

The richest irony is that no one would have noticed this ham-fisted message of hate without the worldwide exposure given by those wanting to silence it. What has brought shame on Islam has been the ugliness of a few Muslims.

It’s new and disturbing to see this in Australia, though. The rage is not really about the obviously silly film but wider resentments. The rioters ache to be provoked, to express their rage and humiliation. In chat rooms and social media they are alert for every slight.

In Australia, as Muslims integrate into mainstream society they learn to take the rough with the smooth – Christians and secularists are both used to vitriolic contempt from the far fringes of the other side – but there is no such impetus in Middle Eastern countries where the violence is really dangerous.

Nor is it all about religion, which is a convenient catch-all to express resentments – the context is far broader. The post-war pan-Arab movement was secular, but grew out of the same colonial humiliation; its failure and other historical developments, such as the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah in Iran in 1979, have led to religion replacing nationalism.

In Australia, the majority of ordinary Muslims sigh and take a deep breath. They feel they shouldn’t have to disown this fringe again, but they must, and Muslim leaders and organisations have. And by extension people of all faiths get implicated. For example, The Age yesterday ran a letter with a call to categorise Christianity, Islam and Judaism ”terrorist organisations”. It’s time for everyone to take a deep breath and respond to what is actually happening, not their prejudices.

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