Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Today by Paddy Manning

Coal war
China targets Australia’s biggest export

Image of Trade Minister Simon Birmingham

Trade Minister Simon Birmingham. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Image 

As a rule of thumb, the conservative members of the Morrison government who are stoking fears about the continued rise of communist China are the same people likely to be in denial about climate change. To the extent that’s true, the China hawks have shot themselves in the foot today, as Australia’s clumsy handling of the critically important relationship appears to have resulted in restrictions on both coking- and thermal-coal imports from Australia. Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, who is not one of those hawkish conservatives, told RN Breakfast this morning that it was not the first disruption to our coal exports to China. There have been patterns that looked like an informal quota system, he said, and Australia would try to “seek some assurances from Chinese authorities that they are honouring the terms of the China–Australia Free Trade Agreement and their WTO obligations”. Asked whether he had tried to call his Chinese counterpart, Birmingham ducked the question, saying, “It’s well known that we have, on multiple occasions this year, sought to have ministerial dialogue with China, and that they’ve not been willing to reciprocate. Our door remains wide open to do that, and we continue to reinforce our invitation to have that dialogue.” In other words, no he hasn’t. The trade minister was equally evasive when asked if he had responded to a call last week by Madame Fu Ying, China’s former ambassador to Australia, for the confrontation to end. No, again. Why not? There’s a fair difference between reinforcing an existing invitation and making a new one. 

China has already slapped restrictions on Australian barley and beef, and is investigating a tariff on wine imports as well (Macquarie analysists have tipped a 15 per cent tariff, according to the AFR’s live blog, which also reported heavy selling of coal stocks such as South32 and Whitehaven). The AFR’s Peter Ker writes that the latest curbs on Australian coal imports fit with a Chinese government “buy local” campaign, which sets an unofficial limit of 270 million tonnes of foreign coal each year – a limit that tends to be met towards the end of the calendar year, and followed by a surge in January. “The trend could be particularly acute this year,” he writes, “given the pandemic lockdowns in China during February and March restricted Chinese miners’ ability to produce.”

Asked today about the coal ban, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia was “obviously raising those issues as appropriate with the relevant authorities”, and added: “It’s not uncommon for domestic quotas to be in place in China … to support local production and local jobs in China. So that is not a new thing. And I’d just seek to condition how people look at those reports. That is not uncommon to see that. And I can only assume, based on our relationship and based on the discussions we have with the Chinese government, that that is just part of their normal process.”

When Labor leader Anthony Albanese was asked about the mooted coal-import restrictions during his visit to Wollongong today, he said the state of Australia’s relationship with China was a huge concern, given that China accounts for 48 per cent of our exports. “You have a trade minister who hasn’t spoken to his counterpart in China,” Albanese said. “You have senior government ministers, none of whom have any relationship with people in China”. Recognising that Australia’s national interests should come first, and noting that “we are a democracy, they’re not”, Albanese said the government “doesn’t seem to have made any effort to have a positive, constructive relationship to our mutual benefit”.

Waiting for an outcome to the US election is not a strategy. There’s no time like the present to start repairing the China relationship. Meanwhile coal is increasingly friendless: The Australian reported overnight that giant Californian pension fund CalPERS, controlling US$415 billion in assets, had voted with climate activists to demand tougher action from Australian resources companies, including BHP, Rio Tinto, Woodside, Santos and AGL. That’s a call that will not be ignored. 

“I think a broad-based review – I’m not sure it has to be a royal commission – into media ownership and influence is certainly a good idea. A full independent inquiry is worth considering.”

Former Liberal leader John Hewson gives qualified support to former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd’s petition calling for an inquiry into News Corp’s domination of Australian media, currently supported by more than 190,000 signatories.

“The party routinely seeks advice from the [Electoral Commission of Queensland] because the donation laws that were put in place by the Labor party are complex.”

Queensland LNP leader Deb Frecklington denies allegations that her own party referred her to the state electoral commission for soliciting illegal donations from developers (which she also refutes).

The people the government left behind
Experts have accused the government of failing to properly fund the aged-care sector in this year’s federal budget. Advocacy groups are also concerned about the lack of support for young people, women, the unemployed and migrants. Today, Rick Morton on the groups left behind.

The size of the shareholder protest vote against the Commonwealth Bank’s remuneration report, a sign of investor anger at executive salaries.

“Today we’re updating our hate speech policy to ban Holocaust denial. We’ve long taken down posts that praise hate crimes or mass murder, including the Holocaust. But with rising anti-Semitism, we’re expanding our policy to prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust as well. If people search for the Holocaust on Facebook, we’ll start directing you to authoritative sources to get accurate information.”

In what could mark a profound shift, Facebook founder and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg announces a new policy for the social media giant following the #NoDenyingIt campaign.

The list

“Swifts, starlings, swans, falcons, cuckoos, storks, as well as their eggs and nests, appear throughout the collection. Among these essays (some new, several republished) are a one-page gag on Macdonald family members and goats, and a long, spellbinding account of travelling with the director of the Carl Sagan Center to high-altitude zones in Chile considered ‘terrestrial analogues’ for Mars. There are few stylistic pyrotechnics here – most pieces are insightful, smoothly narrated blends of history, observation, reflection, insight and anecdote.”

“Australia’s federal parliamentarians are virtually the only ones in the country without a dedicated anti-corruption watchdog to keep an eye on them … Although corruption is commonplace at the local and state government levels, the Turnbull government apparently believes the fresh air of the bush capital is enough to keep the stench of corruption at bay.”

“Mojtaba does not want to return to Afghanistan, but feels he has no options left. An officer at Villawood told him he would likely be deported within weeks. Since he has been in Australia, he has married an Australian woman and had a child, but he has not seen his wife, Marsha, or their son, Adam, since February, when restrictions were placed on visitors to detention centres. He cannot apply for a spousal visa because he arrived by boat.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.


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