His Pacific Leaders’ blue shirt a size too tight Malcolm Bligh Turnbull winces at the camera like Gulliver awakening to find himself tied to the ground by pieces of thread. He can only look up and the tropical sun prevents him from seeing anything but he knows the locals are hostile. He has never been more ill at ease in his political career.
It’s the 48th Pacific Islands Leaders’ forum in Apia. Neither the rig nor the gig are a good fit for our little Aussie bwana. Amidst the Islanders, the canaries of climate change, our coal-powered Prime Minister is way out of his comfort zone. Utterly exposed. Now the whole world can see he’s treading water; not waving but drowning.
He’s left Kiwi of the Year nominee, Barnaby, in charge just to stick it to the Labor Party. Anything could happen.
In other ways our PM is glad to leave Canberra. It’s his government’s 19th straight Newspoll loss; the eighth in a row where the margin is at least six points behind Labor. A one-point gain on the last poll is just a statistical blip.
Way things are, Ian Macdonald kindly tells the party room, at least 30 MPs stand to lose their seats next election.
Turnbull’s tight shirt looks as if it’s shrinking, like the emerald isle of Upolu itself, as climate change, helped by Aussie coal, raises sea levels; brings floods, and storms. The shrinking Samoan shoreline is confronting.
Help is needed. Twenty per cent of Pacific Islanders live in poverty and are unable to meet their basic needs.
Unsettling also is the bad vibe he’s getting from Pacific leaders, burned by an endless gallery of rogues; black-birders, corporate pirates, carpet-baggers and other invaders from the south. Above all, his hosts take Australia’s carbon emissions role in global warming seriously. It’s not a political game to these leaders. He looks pained.
This should be Mal’s happy place. He’s had a big week ranting about downward-pressure on power prices, putting the wind up Blackout Bill and a huge win in the High Court over the constitutionality of Dutto’s delaying tactic. The postal survey is in the bag. Respectful debate is off its leash.
Amanda Devine pens a piece entitled, Fascism has a new flag and it’s a rainbow, in an echo of a Breitbart piece from two years ago. She wins Orwellian double-speak of the week.
Reason, inevitably, flies out the window. Rich and powerful lobbyists such as the ACL whose mystery donors include mining corporations spend up big to create a tsunami of fear that a Yes vote will be the start of a slippery slope which could end with marriage to Sydney Harbour Bridge or the loss of religious and other freedoms.
John Howard, whose change of the Marriage Act in 2004 has helped to make marriage equality a matter to be decided by popular prejudice, helpfully says it’s disingenuous for the Yes campaign to argue that changing the law to include same-sex marriage did not affect other rights and that the survey involved a simple yes/no question.
Yet, as former High Court justice Michael Kirby said in August last year,
“We didn’t do this for the Aboriginal people when we moved to give equality in law to them, we didn’t do it when we dismantled the White Australia policy … we didn’t do it in advances on women’s equality, we didn’t do it most recently on disability equality. Why are we now picking out the LGBT, the gay community?”
Howard’s dog-whistling about rights evokes Augusto Zimmerman’s Quadrant view that the welfare of children of parents in same-sex relationships are physically and emotionally at risk. In a not too distant echo, residents in Newcastle NSW receive No case propaganda suggesting that same-sex parents are likely to be paedophiles.
More alarming for the PM and for most Australians but delighting Abbott and the right-wing of the party is recent Fairfax research suggesting support for the No case is growing, while only 65% who support the Yes case appear much less likely to complete their survey. Yet the shift needs to be seen in context of a strong majority for Yes..
Yes voters still make up nearly 60% of the poll, conducted for the Equality campaign by Newgate Research pollster Jim Reed between August 28 and September 6, with a sample size of 800 and a 3.5 per cent margin of error.
Marriage equality is not something the Australian PM can take on the road, especially given that homosexuality is illegal in Samoa but he’s got a lot of good tidings if only they could look past their hang ups with climate change. The forum leaders are astonished that he could waste so much time avoiding the one issue that really matters.
You’d think, nevertheless, he could kick back and enjoy a South Sea Islands Friday happy hour with his Pacific-leader pals. It’s a chance for them to high-five him over the latest “good set of figures” the tiny rise in GDP created largely by government spending? Record profits. Lowest wages. Our economy is the envy of the world, he brays.
A new IMF study shows lowering taxes for the wealthiest 25%, such as the Turnbull government’s $65bn corporate welfare tax cut may stimulate economic activity but will promote inequality. Such cuts never pay for themselves.
But not to worry, we can import cheaper workers. Mal announces an amazing self-help deal for Polynesian job-seekers. Islanders look warily at yet another Aussie con-man. AusAid 2.0? Or return of the blackbirders?
2000 workers from Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru may now spend up to three lonely years in remote parts of country Australia doing poorly-paid low and semi-skilled jobs. And it’s not just hard manual labour, some will work in aged care and tourism. Goodbye backpackers, hello Kanakas 2.0, another brilliant scheme to boost corporate profits, by providing contractors with a stream of docile Pacific labour to exploit in often dangerous, back-breaking work.
Pacific Islanders already throng to work on farms in their thousands, lured by word of high wages. Yet, reports reveal, the reality is near slavery. An ABC investigation found Tongan and Fijian workers were picking fruit in Victoria for $9 a week after deductions for accommodation and travel and work equipment from their pay.
A 22-year-old Tongan national, Sione “Vaka” Fifita, who died after falling ill while fruit-picking, was left for eight days in a caravan park, according to The Salvation Army. Ten seasonal labourers have died in the last five years.
Twenty-two workers tell the Federal Court they often were given no food for entire days, moved from farm to farm without warning and forced to sleep on buses on the side of the road, or on chairs.
Silas Aru was paid $150 for six months work in Australia. Others were abused and threatened with arrest or deportation if they asked for food and water, or about their pay: “Stop asking questions about payment. If you keep asking I will send you back to Vanuatu,” said Emmanuel Bani, the contractor.
No-one from your village will get work in Australia again. It’s a powerful threat to a member of a small community.
A senate inquiry last May heard evidence from Australian unions that exploitation of seasonal pacific workers is widespread. Reports were heard of long hours, up to 60% deduction from wages for board and lodging, excessive hours, unpaid overtime and lack of access to health care. Yet the PM’s announcement is given hearty media spin.
Exploitation, neglect and abuse can be so spiritually uplifting. Minister for Utopia, Michaelia Cash talks of promoting economic resilience and improving livelihoods of ‘the citizens in the region’ as Islanders “access the Seasonal Worker Programme. Why it will even “pilot ways to lower upfront costs for employers”. You bet it will.
So why so glum? True, he’s missed four days of meetings but at least he’s here in time for the leaders’ retreat.
And the camera. Mal’s shunted to one side, his ill-fitting shirt just shrieking exclusion in the forum leaders’ photo. Worse, the colourful Peter O’Neill ear-bashes him about Manus. Wednesday’s $70 m Victorian Supreme Court settlement puts the lie to the Turnbull government’s fiction that the detention centre is not our responsibility.
Our evasion of duty of care extends to having no plans for the refugees beyond telling them they’ll never come to Australia. One hundred men have been moved to Port Moresby, ostensibly, for specialist medical treatment. Immigration Minister – soon to be super minister indefinite detention Dutton has nothing planned beyond that.
By contrast, in another state response to the failure of commonwealth will and compassion, Victoria’s Andrews government will find $600,000 for the asylum seekers living in Victoria so they “don’t starve on the streets”.
Andrews will also set up means whereby Pacific Islanders working in Victoria can be more carefully monitored and policed in order to end exploitative practices in the state. Yet there is no federal acknowledgement. Especially not from Peter Dutton.
It’s hard to conceive that Peter Dutton could think that forcing destitute refugees on to the street is an acceptable strategy but he spends much air-time this week defending his callous inhumanity while his shock-jock hosts nod along.
On radio 2GB with Alan Jones, Dutton defends the introduction of ‘final departure Bridging E Visa’, claiming that people are ‘ripping the system off’. It’s a cruel stunt which is part of a Coalition attempt to wedge Labor as soft on refugees while dog-whistling Pauline Hanson supporters. Yet it is a singularly degrading experience for all parties.
New Zealand Labour leader Jacinda Ardern renews former Kiwi PM John Key’s offer to take 150 men from Manus – possibly more – but the Turnbull government appears implacably opposed to any variation in its punitive detention policy. The dead hand of Dutton denies all compassion or humanity; the access and passage of remorse.
In absurdity of the week, Turnbull manages to insult the Kiwis and all refugee advocates and supporters by maintaining that a NZ solution would offer people-smugglers a “marketing opportunity” for backdoor access.
Worse, like any shyster, our PM doesn’t care if the US takes a single refugee in the much vaunted refugee swap deal, another Dutton disaster. It’s the look of the thing that matters. Last month’s leaked transcripts of his call to Trump make his unconcern shamefully clear. He makes policy not to govern the nation but to appease his party.
Similarly, he’s unfussed how much Australia waters down any climate agreement Pacific leaders may propose.
Last month PICAN awarded the Australian government the inaugural “Pacific Fossil Award”, for repeatedly trying to kid Pacific island countries that it was serious about helping to slow climate change, while, in fact, making the problem worse by increasing coal exports, as well as promoting the use of coal abroad.
They’ve been kind to us. Ten million Pacific Islanders need our help. They can see what we’re up to.
The Islanders have seen how Abbott dismantled our price on carbon; how he crippled investment in renewable energy. Worse, they have seen how Coalition governments diverted public funds from genuine carbon abatement schemes by pretending that its Direct Action boondoggle was a legitimate mechanism to curb CO2 emissions.
Scott Morrison didn’t even mention climate change in his last budget. The climate change debate has been supplanted by the ‘energy debate,’ in line with world’s best practice in defending the use of coal by ignoring climate altogether and pursuing “energy solutions” instead.
The Pacific has been rising by 4mm per year since 1993. It will inevitably swamp Samoa and other Pacific Islands unless global warming is halted. Mad Mal’s response is to drown our neighbours by increasing carbon emissions – not because he believes in coal but because it fits his selfish political agenda. Talk about make yourself popular.
Island leaders remember last year, too when the PM misled Parliament that Australia’s emissions reduction targets of 26 to 28 per cent on 2005 are “credible and substantial” and ” second only to the cuts offered by Brazil.
His latest ploy to wedge Labor and to win over his own party’s right wing rump is to keep Liddell, Australia’s oldest, dirtiest, coal-fired power station burning.
The week is wasted with attempts to paint Labor as the party of blackouts while the Coalition is determined to roll up its sleeves to keep the power on. This means picking a fight with AGL over its decision to phase out NSW’s Liddell power station, only recently privatised by the former Baird NSW government.
Liddell is the oldest, dirtiest coal-fired plant in Australia. In the view of energy market regulator AEMO, it is likely to cause blackouts rather than supply additional electricity to the grid. Yet over the week it becomes a cause celebre. It will be sold, the government declares. Yet who will buy remains a mystery. It won’t be AGL.
The plant would require at least $1/2bn to keep going but offers investors only five years, operation in a market where profits on coal-fired electricity are harder to make than in renewables.
The crusade to save of Liddell will be a defining point in next week’s debate in the house – just as it stands as a defining point for this government which is so committed to pleasing its coal-lobby sponsors that it has abandoned all pretence at concern with carbon emissions and their role in global warming. No wonder Pacific Islanders see our PM simply as another palagi who is interested only in putting profits before people.
It’s not just home fires burning, moreover, our global warming Coalition promises to help Adani pollute the planet. Back out of Paris. Flunk even Finkel’s feeble CET, a type of Clayton’s carbon price Turnbull is rapidly giving up hope of sneaking past Tony Abbott and his cheer squad of delusional denialists and Minerals Council dupes.
The government pounces upon the Australian Energy Market Operator’s annual Electricity Statement of Opportunities which is released this week and within hours has its own spin on the report which predicts the likelihood of blackouts this summer given the age and unreliability of our national grid. It blames Labor.
What the report really says, the government doesn’t want to admit. It’s an indictment of the failure of Abbott’s war on carbon pricing, his so-called carbon tax that Peta Credlin now confesses was just a stunt. Without such a pricing mechanism, our nation’s progress towards renewable energy sources has been criminally sabotaged.
Equally damning are the ways in which the Abbott and Turnbull governments have discouraged investment in renewable energy generation. Alternative power sources should be available ready, now, to be phased in as we close the dirty, uneconomic fifty-year old coal-burning plants. Instead, the industry has been actively discouraged.
All of his could be foreseen; planned for. For all its attempts to rewrite history and blame both sides of politics, or even to just blame Labor, it is the Coalition with its coal-based ideology and its failure to develop a clear energy policy or a policy on carbon emissions which is responsible for the energy mess we are in now.
More will be heard of the Turnbull government’s base load fetish; the technological nonsense that a stable power source is only possible through burning coal. Much less will be said about the fetish for the free market and for privatisation which helped it to set up an electricity supply which is either affordable or reliable.
And in the ledger of our international responsibility, our status as global citizens we face a growing deficit as polluters. Tuvalu’s PM, Enele Sopoaga, speaks of hypocrisy, of an Australia which is happy to preach renewable energy and emissions control to its island neighbours but which in practice does the very opposite itself.
“We’re simply seeking for the rights of small island states to survive,” he says.
Oddly, no-one in Apia looks overjoyed to have the big blue bwana in their midst. He has dropped in on the tail end of proceedings as if he still believes it’s the great white bwana, the palagi’s prerogative to be fashionably late.
Better late than never? We can’t even give him that. Leadership is what you do not what you preach. And your priorities. When there’s a clear choice between saving his own leadership and the chance to lead or even save others, Turnbull gives up a whole six hours of his time. Just enough time to announce a new kanaka recruitment drive.