The roadmap to nowhere

The Morrison Government’s internal wrangling over its net zero carbon emissions target (or is it a goal?) is not only exasperating. It is depressingly familiar.

For over a decade now the Federal Government has, with a few exceptions, shown itself to be incapable of providing leadership on issues that really matter.

The list of significant challenges facing the country is substantial – climate change, the pandemic, geopolitical uncertainty, entrenched inequality, population ageing, environmental degradation, cybersecurity, family and sexual violence, disability care.

In traditional and social media and across the airwaves these and many other important issues are the subject of vigorous (and at times rancorous) discussion and debate. People are deeply concerned about what is happening to them and around them.

Morrison Government ministers have sound bites at the ready on each of these issues. But that’s pretty much all they have.

After eight years in office, it is all they can do to express a commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. That is where most of the world was at in 2015. Six years ago.

Internationally, the conversation has well and truly moved on.

Nations, local and regional governments, companies and industries are now announcing ambitious plans to slash emissions by 2030.

As befits a global problem, the proposed solutions to climate change are global in their impact too. Australia will be affected.

Countries and groups of countries are talking about tariffs on goods and services adjusted according to their carbon intensity.

Investors are directing their dollars to renewable energy and energy-efficient production and away from fossil fuels. Insurance premiums on coal mines and gas plants are soaring. Coal mines (and to a lesser extent gas operations) are at risk of becoming stranded assets.

Where is Australia in any of these international discussions and debates? Our obdurate federal government has essentially cut our nation out of these conversations. It means our lives will be directly affected by decisions and actions made by others without our input.

Australia will pay three times over for the Coalition government’s sustained failure to be part of the international discussion around climate change solution. Not only will we suffer the consequences of global warming like everyone else (who knew that the effects of climate change could cross borders?)

 We will also be hit with any trade-related charges and penalties that are introduced, without a chance to have a say.

And, instead of being at the cutting edge of clean technology industry for the last few years – as we could easily have been – Australia is playing catchup.

As in so many issues in need of urgent attention and leadership, Australia’s national government is missing or, even worse, a handbrake on action.

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COVID surge weighs on PNG economy

The current surge in COVID-19 infections in Papua New Guinea is weighing on people’s lives and economic activity, if the latest Google COVID-19 Community Mobility Report is to be believed[1].

The report, which collates data from mobile phones to measure movement, shows that since Independence Day on September 16 people have pulled back on how much they are going to shops, parks and hopping on public transport.

Unsurprisingly, there was a surge in visits to restaurants, cafes, shopping centres and bars on Independence Day and the days leading up to it. Independence Day is an important public holiday and the Google data show the volume of such outings soared by about a third over the period while supermarket shopping trips and public transport use jumped by about 10 percentage points as people took the chance to catch up with family and friends.

This year that effect was amplified by the fact Independence Day fell on a Thursday, and many took the opportunity to turn the break into a long weekend. Reflecting this, the Google data show that workplace attendance not only plunged on September 16 but remained well down the following day, a Friday, at about half its normal level.

 At the time, concern was high that Independence Day gatherings would become super-spreader events for the COVID-19 virus. National Pandemic Response Deputy Controller Dr Daoni Esorom warned that “there is a high risk of a surge in infections in the coming weeks and months”.

Tragically, those concerns are being borne out. Infection rates have soared, hospitals are struggling, mortuaries are beginning to overflow and doctors are calling for a national lockdown.

The Google data show that, even without a formal, government-mandated lockdown, people are already curtailing their movements.

Visits to café and restaurants have fallen away significantly since early September, shopping trips to the supermarket and pharmacy are trending down, workplace attendance has dropped and public transport use is about a third lower than it was a month ago.

The decision to go into lockdown is a tough one for any government, given the enormous cost to the economy and the great disruption to people’s lives that is involved.

Those concerns are magnified in PNG, where the majority of people are in the informal economy and the government’s ability to provide income support is very limited.

Government revenue has plunged in the past 18 months, forcing the Marape government to borrow $2 billion to cover the income loss. While the government has been able to retire K1 billion ($AU380 million) of debt this year and invest a similar amount in road infrastructure, the latest surge in COVID cases will continue to put public finances under great pressure.

The worst days of the pandemic for Australia’s closest Pacific neighbour may yet lie ahead.


[1] https://www.gstatic.com/covid19/mobility/2021-10-18_PG_Mobility_Report_en-GB.pdf, accessed 22/10/2021.

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Soy sauced

Little wonder many US farmers are feeling the pinch of Trump’s trade war with China.

Figures from data service Knoema show the value of US soybean exports to China have collapsed. In 2017, US farmers sold $US12.22 billion of soybeans to China; last year that slumped to just $US3.12 billion. This followed the Chinese Government’s decision to drastically reduce US soybean imports in retaliation for Trump’s move to impose tariffs on Chinese goods.

To fill the void, US farmers have had to search for markets further afield, cultivating and expanding markets in Argentina, Egypt and (ironically enough) Iran, among others (see below).

US Agricultural Exports to China Falling, Farmers Seek New Markets

The pain felt by US producers is not just limited to soybean farmers either. Across the spectrum, agricultural exports to China are down – frozen fish, shrimp, pigs, wheat.

The US Government has provided a $12 billion aid package for farmers hurt by the trade battle, more than $7 billion of which has gone to soybean farmers.

So, thanks to Trump, American taxpayers and consumers are copping it both ways – paying more for consumer goods from China, and handing out even more money to farmers hurt by Trump’s own policies.

Then there is the little matter of exacerbating the risk of recession…

 

 

 

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Morrison’s half-hearted climate ploy won’t cut it

Scott Morrison and his government still don’t get it.

A day before arriving at the 50th Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ meeting in Tuvalu, the Australian Prime Minister announced $500 million to help Pacific nations invest in renewable energy and prepare for the effects of climate change.

Pacific leaders have been building up the pressure on Australia to take their climate change concerns seriously and the Morrison Government is obviously hoping that the package will take some of the heat out of the issue at the PIF meeting.

While it might buy Australia some temporary relief, the announcement is unlikely to work for long, for a number of reasons.

For one thing, it does nothing to address regional concerns about the depth of Australia’s commitment to tackling climate change. By giving money to other countries to do something about their energy usage and disaster preparations, Australia is inadvertently reinforcing the criticism that it is doing all-too little itself.

When Tony Abbott whipped Australia out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement he made the country instantly more vulnerable to criticisms that it does not take climate change seriously and shirks from taking meaningful action to curb its own contribution to the problem.

From the viewpoint of small island Pacific countries who see themselves as on the frontline of the effects of climate change, Australia’s position as one of the world’s largest exporters of coal is increasingly morally and politically indefensible, and a $500 million handout won’t change that.

There is also a bigger story here that goes to the heart of Australia’s national interest.

The Morrison Government has significantly increased the policy focus on the Pacific. The tempo of ministerial visits to the region has surged, accompanied by attention-grabbing announcements like the electrification of rural PNG, the construction of a high-speed data cable between Sydney, Port Moresby and Honiara and the establishment of a joint Australia-PNG-US naval base on Manus.

The cause of Australia’s intensified interest is China’s growing presence and heft in the Pacific as an investor and a provider of development projects, funding and finance.

Australia is rightly wary of what China’s plans and intentions are in the Pacific. At the very least, it spells the end of 70 years of unchallenged hegemony for the US in the region.

There is a well of good will toward Australia in the Pacific region.

But it has gradually been draining away over the years as Australian governments have waxed and waned on the region.

Australia’s influence and diplomacy in the region has had several high points under the stewardship of dedicated ministers like Bob McMullen and Gordon Bilney, and Australia’s leadership of the RAMSI intervention to restore order in the Solomon Islands.

But often its engagement has been tepid, fitful and, in recent times, marked by curious decisions and disdainful remarks that have undermined Australia’s standing, like the penny-pinching move to axe the ABC’s shortwave service to the region and Peter Dutton’s dismissive comments about Pacific Islanders under threat from rising sea levels.

This is the context in which Morrison’s $500 million pledge should be viewed.

The fact that it is being funded at the expense of other areas of Australia’s development program will not go unnoticed.

The ability of Pacific nations to absorb significant amounts of aid is limited. Thin reservoirs of expertise and fragile systems of governance mean the risk of funds being misused or misspent is considerable.

But diverting funds from programs tackling family and sexual violence, building roads or supporting schools and hospitals to boost action on climate change sends a curious signal about Australia’s priorities in the region.

Under President Xi, China is shifting the bias in its foreign policy increasingly toward hard power, particularly through the rapid expansion of its navy and an increasingly nationalist and belligerent posture on the international stage.

The leaves an opening for Australia to augment its soft power in the region. Rugby league is a prime example. PNG, for example, virtually shuts down when the NSW-Queensland State of Origin matches are on.

Australia’s labour mobility programs in the Pacific are another example. Already several thousand workers from Samoa, Tonga and Kiribati are sending welcome funds home from jobs on Australian farms, in our hotels, our nursing homes and other workplaces. PNG, which suffers from high rates of unemployment, particularly among its young people, promises to a particularly rich source of labour for Australian employers. For their part, workers who have had a good experience will extol the virtues of PNG’s near-southern neighbour.

Australia has a head-start in the race for hearts and minds in the Pacific, but it will only maintain its position by treating its Pacific neighbours with understanding and respect.

Half-hearted, penny-pinching climate change policies won’t cut it.

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