Australian Politics 2021-09-28 07:09:00


Joe Hildebrand: Real genius of Australia’s submarine pact is nothing to do with boats

The message that other major Anglosphere countries will give brotherly support to Australia is the main point. Considered as a whole, the Anglosphere is a substantial counterweight to China

Beijing is spitting chips about Australia’s US sub deal despite the first boat not being due for more than a decade. Their real anger is because of something else.

The biggest advantage of a nuclear submarine is that it never has to surface, which is also the biggest advantage of Australia’s nuclear submarine deal.

There has been much debate over the technical merits of the new nuclear subs we will get from the US and UK versus the diesel-powered subs we just ditched from the French. At least all our armchair epidemiologists have found a new area of expertise.

But the most critical characteristic of both the diesel and the nuclear subs is the one they have in common: Neither actually exists. Australia has no French submarines or American submarines — and it won’t be getting any of either for a very long time.

In fact, the seismic announcement that sent the French Ambassador storming out and the President sniffily screening his calls has almost nothing to do with submarines at all. Indeed, it is inconceivable that such explosive tantrums could be caused by an argument over aquatic metal.

Instead it is about something far more primal and real — and much more real than phantom U-boats.

Paul Keating knows it, which is why the former PM’s reaction was if anything even more visceral than that of the French. He may have landed on the wrong side of the argument but at least he knew what the argument was about.

The most precious commodities in the submarine swap aren’t underwater tin cans but the flags that stood behind Scott Morrison, Boris Johnson and Joe Biden as the three leaders announced the new deal.

For Australia it was a clear message to China that we might not be the biggest kid in the playground but we’ve got both Blighty and Biff at our back. For the UK and USA it was a clear message that they now have not just an eye on the region but a dog in the fight.

Many on the lunar green left have sought to paint it as a provocative action but this is merely a form of geopolitical victim blaming. After the shameless trade war that China has waged upon Australia, its ubiquitous cyber attacks on our institutions, its open belligerence towards Hong Kong and Taiwan and its literal raising of the seabed in the South China Sea to create military bases — not to mention innumerable mass-scale human rights abuses within its own mainland — one wonders what they would consider an appropriate strategic response.

There was a time in global affairs just a decade or two ago when China was rightly considered a rational and reasonable actor. Sadly its more recent actions prove that while it may well still be rational — its hyper-nationalist and expansionist agenda is nothing if not calculated — it is no longer reasonable. Reasonable countries don’t put 200 per cent tariffs on wine.

So what do we do? The truth is there is not much we can do. Obviously Australia will never be any match for China in a straight fight, be it a trade war, a cold war or — God forbid — a hot one.

Our only option is to remind the Chinese that, as Princess Leia said to Jabba the Hutt, we have powerful friends. Some might sneer that the USA is a declining superpower but it’s the only one we’ve got. And, as Crosby, Stills and Nash once sang, you’ve got to love the one you’re with.

It should also be noted that if the United States can withstand its last two presidents then perhaps reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. If a nation can survive both Trump and Biden then surely that is a mark of infinite resilience.

It is thus both wholly and sadly unnecessary that this new — or rather renewed — alliance is causing such an identity crisis within the Australian Labor Party. Labor has always been a friend of America, to the point that it even uses the American spelling of its very name.

The great John Curtin made perhaps the most important decision in Australian history when he turned to the US to defend Australia from Japan after the fall of Singapore in World War II. It is then strange that the party has been infected by anti-American sentiment in all the decades since.

Of course in the 1990s Labor heralded the advent of the Asian century and it might have been right then. That doesn’t mean it is still right now.

Placating Indonesia while it oppressed East Timor was bad enough. Placating China while it oppresses Hong Kong and Taiwan is a whole new art of acquiescence. It certainly has no place in a party that calls itself progressive.

Anthony Albanese is right to support our reinforced position as a member of a Western liberal democratic alliance. As Opposition Leader he is obliged to ask questions and find fault but he needs to stand strong even as he is bombarded by the bonkers left.

Former PMs might carry on and cry but it’s only future PMs that count.


And then there's the QUAD

Australia is also allied with India and Japan

Australia will intensify co-operation with the United States, India and Japan to ensure that China does not exert excessive control over the supply of minerals essential to modern technology in one of the key goals of the first face-to-face leaders’ meeting of the “Quad” nations.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison will meet with US President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the White House on Saturday (AEST) for the first in-person leaders’ meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

In a separate speech to the United Nations on Saturday, Morrison will position Australia on the front lines of the battle to ensure China does not monopolise the Asia-Pacific.

“The global strategic environment has rapidly changed, indeed deteriorated in many respects – particularly in the Indo-Pacific region where we live here in Australia,” the Prime Minister will say.

“The changes we face are many, whether it’s tensions over territorial claims, rapid military modernisation, foreign interference, cyber threats, disinformation and indeed economic coercion.

“We must reinforce a sustainable rules-based order, while ensuring it is also adaptable to the great-power politics of our time. Our voice is clear, it’s respectful, it’s constructive.”

The Quad is rapidly emerging as an influential grouping of leading democracies working together to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific.

The four leaders are also expected to announce significant initiatives on vaccine diplomacy, climate change, infrastructure and space exploration following wide-ranging joint discussions.

Morrison, Biden, Modi and Suga have agreed to map out supply chains for key minerals and products - such as semiconductors - to better understand the nations’ technological vulnerabilities.

China accounts for the majority of the global production of rare-earth minerals, including palladium and lithium, raising alarm that the rising superpower could block access to crucial consumer and defence technologies as part of a trade war with its strategic rivals.

An iPhone, for example, contains an estimated eight different rare-earth minerals, which are also integral components of high-tech weaponry such as fighter jets and guided cruise missiles.

Australia has the world’s sixth-largest reserves of rare-earth minerals, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, but they currently remain largely untapped with only two mines producing them. The largest by far is a mine at Mount Weld in Western Australia, owned by the Lynas Corporation.

In February the US Defence Department announced it had awarded Lynas a contract to develop a rare-earth processing facility in Texas.

The Morrison government believes the fellow Quad nations represent potentially lucrative export markets for Australian-sourced minerals such as lithium given their increasing concern about China’s reliability.

Rare earths were also a focus for Morrison during his previous visit to Washington in 2019 with then -president Donald Trump.

The leaders are expected to say that “resilient, diverse and secure technology supply chains for hardware, software, and services” are vital to their shared national interests.

Specifically, the four nations will “launch a joint initiative to map capacity, identify vulnerabilities and bolster supply chain security for semiconductors and their vital components”.

Australia's race against China's 'rare earths weapon'
A global shortage in semiconductor chips is driving up the prices of cars and other electronic goods such as laptops and televisions, leading the Biden administration to make boosting supply and reducing dependence on China one of its top economic priorities.


Bid to remove ‘racist’ slave trader Ben Boyd’s name from Sydney street fails

The Kanakas were NOT slaves. They were contracted labourers. They were free to return to Kanaky at the end of their contract. Most did

Calls to remove the name of slave trader Ben Boyd, who was responsible for ‘blackbirding’, from a leafy Sydney suburb have failed.

North Sydney Council will keep the name of Ben Boyd Rd in Neutral Bay and Cremorne, on the lower north shore of Sydney, after a former Green’s staffer created a petition to change the name.

The petition caused a stir in the community with the council then asked to consider a name change.

The road was named after a colonial entrepreneur who lived in Neutral Bay in the 1840s.

Boyd was known for pioneering the practice of using cheap labour from the South Sea islands to work in Australia. It is known as ‘blackbirding’.

After the petition was circulated the council asked constituents for their thoughts.

A survey was put forward and 2318 residents responded, 54.7 per cent opposed the renaming of the street while 44.3 per cent were in favour. Just 1.6 per cent were unsure.

The papers also said there were 20 council installed street signs referencing Ben Boyd Rd. The cost of replacing these would be about $6200.

There are also two plaques in the community commemorating Ben Boyd with the council preparing to alter these.

“The larger of these are soon to be reinstalled with another plaque outlining the story of Boyd’s place in Australia’s historical narrative,” council papers said.

“With that, the naming of Ben Boyd Road will be put in context, and residents and visitors can decide for themselves the nature of the man and his deeds.”


It’s a $50b-a-year export industry. How long until coal’s rivers of gold run dry?

If the end of coal is near, it’s hard to see it among the open pits and billowing cooling towers of Victoria’s Latrobe Valley and the Hunter in NSW.

Canyons of brown and black coal, set between green paddocks and sloping hills, loom large in these mining districts and dominate their economies as a source of great wealth, just as they have for a century or more.

A global push is accelerating to eliminate the use of thermal coal — the worst-emitting source of energy — to restrain the planet’s rising temperature and avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

But the mines in Latrobe and the Hunter are still operating around the clock. White steam still rises from the nearby power plants as they burn coal to supply more than two-thirds of Australia’s electricity needs. And, at the ports, huge volumes of coal are still being loaded onto cargo ships bound for Asia, bringing in billions of dollars of export revenue a year.

“The coal industry is just so damn important to the regional centres,” says Peter Jordan, a Cessnock local and mining union official who worked in the sector for more than a decade.

“Our coal mining jobs are well-paid relative to other industries, but they support many others in the mining communities; services, retail, health … most of them wouldn’t exist without coal.”

With 50,000 coal mining jobs nationally, the industry’s head count is relatively modest in contrast to sectors such as manufacturing, which employs 900,000 Australians. But coal has an outsized influence in a handful of seats, where it is a provider of good jobs and rich revenue streams for governments.

“It sends rivers of gold to Sydney in the form of royalties,” Jordan adds, “paying for roads, schools, and hospitals.”

For now, coal is a $50-billion-a-year export industry. How long until its rivers of gold run dry?

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull lost his job over an attempt to reshape energy policy and push down emissions. Scott Morrison went to the last election warning voters that Labor’s “net-zero” target would unleash economic havoc and widespread lay-offs.

Most Australians now say they want stronger emissions curbs, new polling suggests. But fewer than half (49 per cent) think coal power should be phased out within a decade and 44 per cent want to keep mining and exporting coal for as long as buyers want it.

Australia’s coal addiction might seem hard to shake. While 10 coal-fired power plants have shut down in the past decade, coal still generates about 70 per cent of the nation’s electricity.

Winds of change are, however, blowing anyway. The clean energy era is firmly upon us. And powerful forces are radically reshaping coal’s outlook overseas and on the home front.

With 3.3 gigawatts of new wind and solar power capacity plugged into the nation’s main grid in 2020 alone, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) has officially declared the transition to be the fastest of anywhere in the world, describing the pace as “absolutely staggering”.

A consequence of more wind and solar farms being built, and more Australians installing rooftop solar panels, is that coal is getting squeezed. In the past 12 months, the flood of cheaper-to-run renewable energy has pummelled daytime wholesale power prices to levels where just about every coal-fired power plant is considered at risk.

This year, EnergyAustralia brought forward the closure of its Yallourn power station to 2028, four years ahead of schedule. Last week, it said it would shut its Mt Piper plant earlier, too, sometime prior to 2040.

Other sites, though, are still licensed to be burning coal until the back half of the 2040s, or even the 2050s, putting Australia at odds with a growing chorus of world leaders calling for a markedly more urgent phase-out plan.

Ahead of the world climate summit in Glasgow, the United Nations has launched a push for all OECD countries to quit coal power by 2030, and non-OECD countries by 2040. “The alarm bells are deafening,” UN secretary-general Antonio Gutteres says.

Is it possible for Australia’s coal-dominated national power market to be rid of coal entirely by 2030? “It depends,” says Lisa Zembrodt of Schneider Electric, an adviser to many of Australia’s largest corporate energy consumers.

Put this question to the power station operators, and they invariably insist 2030 is far too soon and would raise the threat of a “messy” transition that could see price volatility or even blackouts.

AGL, which accounts for 8 per cent of Australia’s total emissions, says nine years is not nearly enough time for replacement capacity to be invested in, built and plugged into the grid.

“We certainly recognise that the date of 2030 is something that is on the table with respect of the UN targets,” AGL chairman Peter Botten says. “I believe that 2030 is a very, very challenging target.”

Still, at its annual investor meeting last Wednesday, more than 50 per cent of AGL’s shareholders including US investment powerhouses BlackRock and Vanguard defied the board and voted to support an activist climate resolution requesting consideration of new goals that would compel accelerated coal plant closures.

What it boils down to, according to Zembrodt, is a choice we have to make as a society: As expensive as it may be, are we prepared to invest in the transition — smart grids, micro-grids, demand-management technology, batteries, energy storage and infrastructure — to fill the gap?

“We should be seeking to phase out coal as quickly as possible … and 2030 is a great aim,” she says. “But we need clear policy, we need market design, we need coordinated efforts between government, the market operators and consumers to enable the transition and support it, rather than prevent it.”

Grattan Institute energy director Tony Wood agrees: Australia could be capable of retiring all its coal plants and replacing them with clean energy by 2030, but it would cost a “huge amount”.

“You would have to do a hell of a lot of things in the shorter-term that you otherwise would only have done in the longer term,” he says.

Because electricity production is a dominant source of emissions, exiting coal would help sharply reduce the country’s carbon footprint. At the same time, however, state and federal ministers have also become acutely aware to the risk of abrupt plant closures leading to undesirable outcomes for consumers.

Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor is driving development of a so-called “capacity mechanism” designed to spur investment into “dispatchable” assets – those capable of supplying on-demand power when the wind isn’t blowing and sun isn’t shining.

Taylor insists the mechanism would be technology-neutral, with equal opportunity for gas, pumped hydro and batteries. But the policy has drawn fierce criticism from environmental advocates who have dubbed it “CoalKeeper” because it may see coal plants paid to guarantee future supply by remaining in the grid for longer.

NSW thermal coal has rallied this year to $US180 a tonne – a 10-year-high, and a sign of enduring near-term demand despite accelerating emissions goals globally.

As economies re-emerge from COVID-19 and energy consumption rebounds, coal markets are booming. What will happen next, though, is decidedly less certain. Top Australian coal destinations – Japan, China, South Korea – are targeting “net-zero” emissions by 2050-60, which, eventually, will diminish demand for fossil fuel cargoes.

There is much still to be answered. How sharp will the trajectory in those countries be? Will the world seek to limit global temperatures to 2.5 degrees of warming, 2 degrees or the most aspirational 1.5-degree pathway, as targeted by the Paris Agreement? What does that mean for Australian coal?

When the Reserve Bank of Australia considered these questions, it modelled four scenarios. Under one scenario of no change to existing policies in those countries, Australian coal exports rise 17 per cent by 2050. In other scenarios in which temperature rises are kept at 2 degrees or lower, coal falls by up to 80 per cent by mid-century.

“Countries are unlikely to materially alter their energy mix in the near term, and ... demand for coal will likely remain robust this decade, the RBA said. “However, as global appetite for coal tapers off from 2030 onwards under all scenarios except for the baseline, Australian coal-related investments are at risk of becoming ‘stranded assets’.”

Coal producers and analysts say Australian coal – with a relatively high quality and energy content – could face a brighter future than coal from other sources, as countries across Asia retire their older, less-efficient coal generators and move towards lower-emissions facilities.

“If everybody else goes down, we could end up holding a bigger piece of the global coal pie,” says Herd. “But is that who we really want to be? Do we want to be the last coal exporting-nation in the world?”


A major Queensland university is set to ditch lectures next year in a move which has been slammed by the tertiary education union and protested by students

Seems a lot of nonsense to me, as a retired lecturer

From 2022 the University of the Sunshine Coast will no longer have in-person or online lecturers, with students instead to be provided with alternative learning materials such as quizzes and podcasts.

In a message to students about the change, USC stated “traditional style lecturers have been demonstrated to have poor learning outcomes”.

But many students have already voiced their concerns with USC psychology students launching a petition protesting the change, which has gathered more than 600 signatures.

USC Pro Vice-Chancellor (students) Professor Denise Wood told The Courier-Mai lecture attendance had been dramatically declining over the past few years, and students would now have access to more “engaging” online learning materials.

“USC remains predominantly a face-to-face on campus learning environment and that’s not changing,” she said.

“However over the years learning and teaching has changed, we are now living in a period of contemporary learning and teaching practice.

“Over the last decade, as has the entire sector, we’ve seen a gradual shift from the number of students wanting to come to face-to-face lecturers.

“A decade ago, you would see about 50 per cent attendance by week four, now you’re lucky to see between 20 and 25 per cent.”

National Tertiary Education Union Queensland secretary Michael McNally said members were concerned the university was taking a “one size fits all” approach, by ditching lecturers for all subjects.

“That’s a bit of a slamming condemnation of everything all of the staff up until now have been doing,” he said.

“A lot of our lecturers are quite happy to do some or even all of their teaching in this kind of format, because it works for them, it works for the subject they teach and their students prefer it.

“But there are also lots of situations where that type of format isn’t the best, and the academic staff need to have the ability to decide what’s the best learning format for their students.”

Prof. Wood said there would be no job losses with the change.

“The academics will still need to be available … and of course still need to respond to students,” she said.

In their petition, psychology students argued the “proposed will have a negative effect on student learning, specifically the psychology undergraduate degree”.

“Many students feel that the introduced interactive platform is a way for less and less teacher contact time,” the petition stated.

Prof. Wood said the university would listen to student feedback, with a survey currently underway.

“We will work with the student senate on analysing the feedback from students, and we will be responsive to it,” she said.