The Politics    Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Perfect storm brewing

By Nick Feik

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking in Tasmania today.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking in Tasmania today. Image via Facebook

Australia’s export industries are being smashed, and not just by China

As we pressed “send” on yesterday’s column, noting the volume of bad-news stories relating to China–Australia relations, it was reported that Beijing appears to have officially blacklisted Australian coal for the foreseeable future. The Chinese government sure knows how to hit where it hurts. Australian coal exports to China were worth $14 billion last year, and, for the many coal-lovers in the Coalition, the one argument for the industry’s continued existence – the financial one – has just been crushed. It was hard enough justifying a project such as Adani’s Carmichael mine before; now it looks ridiculous. Trade Minister Simon Birmingham has urged China to clarify the reported ban, calling it unacceptable and discriminatory, while Scott Morrison somewhat hopefully called the reports “media speculation”, and warned that a blacklisting would “obviously be in breach of WTO rules and our own free-trade agreements, so we would hope that it is not the case”. It’s a lot more than media speculation, of course. And it’s hardly coincidental that this news has arrived hard on the heels of the stoushes over Australian iron ore. Where is all this heading?

Australian businesses are going to suffer, and people are going to get hurt. Journalist Anna Krien has been tracking a terrible situation involving sailors marooned off the coast of China, on ships full of Australian coal. For up to eight months, these ships have been unable to offload their cargo into Chinese ports due to an informal government ban. “China doesn’t want it. The seller won’t leave. A game of chicken except these men’s lives are at stake. Three are on suicide watch,” Krien reported via Twitter. “Their medicine has run out. The water they are being supplied with is bad – causing rashes that won’t heal and [are] pus-filled. They have families. One sailor’s father back home in India has died, his mother is dying.”

Some of the stranded seafarers haven’t been allowed to disembark for 20 months due to COVID-19. Do Birmingham, Morrison, Canavan, Pitt and Payne care about these workers? Does the Minerals Council? Let alone the hundreds of thousands of workers in the other sectors hit by China’s abrupt strikes on Australian products.

Talk about chickens coming home to roost: as the rest of the world’s developed nations pressure a recalcitrant Australia into climate action, our largest trading partner kneecaps our coal trade. The Coalition MPs who have spent so much effort propping up a dirty, dying industry have just been spanked.

So, what can we expect now from the Australian government? An honest appraisal of the global diplomatic situation, and an admission that coal and gas are in permanent decline, and that renewables are the only way forward?

Judging on past performance, our Coalition leaders won’t admit fault or backtrack in any way. It’s just not in their nature. Especially when Essential polling shows that 62 per cent of people “believe Australia is a victim in the trade war rather than making itself a target by the government publicly criticising the Chinese regime (38%)”.

Regardless of where responsibility lies in the ongoing trade fights, and regardless of whether China is “playing fair” or not (or even cares), Australia faces a near future in which most of its major export industries are either smashed or subject to immense instability: iron ore, coal, education, tourism, livestock and agriculture (including wheat, barley, wine, seafood etc). Not all of this is China’s fault, of course, but it’s hard to avoid the sense that there’s a perfect storm brewing: COVID, China, climate change, all converging.    

With our recent record on climate change and human rights, we don’t even have our good name to trade on.

“They should at least be investigating doing more … It is also important to remember the targets are arbitrary. If you have already met the target, why don’t you reconsider it?”

Commenting on a Frontier Economics report that found Australia would make at least a 33% cut in emissions by 2030 compared with 2005 levels if the states meet their emissions-reductions targets, the FE’s Matt Harris says the Morrison government should be doing more to address climate change.

“[The FOI disclosure would] substantially prejudice the Australia government’s ability and capacity to effectively respond to the most critical issues facing Australia at the current time.”

The prime minister’s department and his political office have rejected freedom of information requests for access to taxpayer-funded research undertaken by Liberal pollster Jim Reed, which has been delivered to the PM’s office but withheld from the public.

The Liberal minister forcing action on climate
The Liberal party has historically been a handbrake on serious climate action, but in NSW one minister is pushing through ambitious environmental policy. Today, Mike Seccombe talks to Matt Kean, the Liberal minister forcing action on climate change and uniting the Nationals and the Greens.


The number of electoral votes won by Joe Biden, with the electoral college confirming Biden’s 306–232 win over Donald Trump. 

“Australia’s largest mining companies – BHP and Rio Tinto – have been asked to explain to Chinese steel manufacturers why their iron ore prices are so high…”

The surging iron ore prices on Australia’s $85 billion export have prompted warnings of a regulatory crackdown in Beijing, in a dangerous new development in Australia–China trade relations.

The list

“Munuŋgurr’s recent paintings are, by contrast, a bright azure blue, offset by black and white. Painted in the store-bought acrylic paint she has used since her accident – it was her reduced ability to collect and prepare ochre that provided the justification to shift to acrylic – they are hardly ‘of the land’ in Gumana’s terms. They are also loose to an almost radical degree: if they contain miny’tji, it is of the most abbreviated variety. For these reasons, her paintings stand out like the proverbial sore thumb.”

“Like every other local government around the Australian coastline, Shoalhaven City Council has spent much of the past decade trying to figure out what to do about that wickedest of problems: 85 per cent of us live in proximity to the coast, and as the climate warms and sea levels rise, bringing bigger tides and more frequent storms, the ocean is coming for many of our homes. Local councils – being the ones that decide where and how we build – are the first responders to this critical challenge.”

“For me, and for many other Muslims living in Australia, the Christchurch attack has always felt like an Australian crime that happened to take place in Aotearoa … There needs to be a moment of reckoning that the man behind the Christchurch massacre is an Australian. He was born here, and it was in this country that his hatred and racism developed at a young age. While New Zealand’s government has accepted responsibility for intelligence failings that allowed the shooter to slip past checks in the months leading up to the attack, Australia’s intelligence services missed him for many, many years. There has been no contrition.”

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.


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