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David Speers
+ About David Speers

David Speers is Political Editor at SKY NEWS and anchor of PM Agenda and The Nation on SKY NEWS National.

PM Agenda sees David talk to the key newsmakers and dissect what the day's events will mean. The Nation is a one hour program that allows for one of the most in-depth policy discussions on Australian television.

David is one of Australia's most respected political journalists and interviewers. He has been chosen to host every debate and forum at the last three federal elections and has interviewed a number of world leaders, including US President George W. Bush at the White House.

Between elections he is one of the busiest and best connected correspondents in Canberra.

David joined SKY NEWS as Political Editor in 2000 and has since seen the channel grow to become the home of political and national affairs coverage in Australia.

He hasn't been confined to the Press Gallery in that time, traveling extensively across the country and abroad.

David has covered the last three Presidential elections in the United States and reported from China, India, Afghanistan, Indonesia and throughout Europe.

In 2013 David was elected President of the Parliamentary Press Gallery which he joined in 1999. He is also the Director of the National Press Club and winner of more than 10 ASTRA Awards.

Prior to joining SKY NEWS, David worked as a Political Reporter for a number of radio stations in Canberra and at New South Wales Parliament in Sydney.

Follow David Speers on Twitter @David_Speers

Meeting Malcolm in the middle on climate policy

Friday, June 16, 2017

By David Speers

Nearly eight years ago, Malcolm Turnbull bashed out a blistering take-down of Tony Abbott on his blog. It was just days after Turnbull had been knocked off as leader. The emotion was raw, the famous temper flared.

With steam coming from his ears, the freshly deposed leader tore strips off the man who replaced him. “The fact is that Tony … does not want to do anything about climate change … does not believe in human caused global warming. As Tony observed on one occasion ‘climate change is crap’.”  

“Mr Abbott apparently knows what he is against, but not what he is for.”

It’s doubtful Turnbull has changed his view eight years on.

Late on Tuesday, Coalition MPs held a three-hour party room meeting where Climate and Energy Minister, Josh Frydenberg, took questions from the floor. Frydenberg has mastered this complex policy area and impressed his colleagues this week. While not adopting a firm position yet, he is trying to steer his colleagues towards a workable landing point.

According to those present at the meeting, Tony Abbott was constantly chipping away from the back of the room, muttering complaints about the Clean Energy Target (CET) being discussed. Publicly, he’s warned the CET could be seen as a “tax on coal”. It’s clear to all that Abbott intends to lead the fight against this idea.

At this point, it’s worth remembering why the CET is being considered at all. It’s to ensure Australia meets the commitment it made under the Paris Agreement. The commitment is to reduce emissions by between 26-28% by 2030.

And who made that commitment? It wasn’t Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard or Malcolm Turnbull. It was Tony Abbott. In fact, the then Prime Minister was adamant in 2015 that this target was “a strong and credible target … a definite commitment.”

There was no suggestion in Abbott’s many comments in Parliament or in the press at the time that this was somehow an “aspirational” target. He was clear: “we will reduce our emissions by between 26% and 28%.” 

Now, Abbott argues it was only ever an aspirational target. The clear inference being that we should water down or walk away from the commitment, as Donald Trump has done in the United States. To Trump’s credit, he’s at least been consistent in this position. 

The reality is very few in the Coalition seriously argue Australia should break the commitments made in Paris. There are two main reasons why. The first is politics. Australian voters support action on climate change. Following Trump out the door would earn international condemnation and hand Bill Shorten an almighty advantage.

The second reason is power prices. Dropping our emissions targets would do nothing to encourage badly needed investment in power generation. It would therefore do nothing to stop prices continuing to climb.  

It’s true Australia has an abundance of cheap coal. But those who constantly point this out need to also acknowledge the reality. Not one coal-fired power plant has been built in Australia for 10 years. In that same time, we’ve seen the Munmorah, Collinsville, Playford B, Swanbank B, Redbank, Wallerawang, Anglesea, Northern and Hazelwood coal-fired power plants shut down.

Why is there no investment in coal, even after Abbott scrapped the Carbon Tax? It’s because of the uncertainty. No one is going to make a 30-year investment decision knowing the rules could change at each election. Like it or not, the two major parties have to reach a settlement to deliver that certainty.

Those on the far Left and far Right of this debate might feel wonderful about themselves adopting an ideologically pro-Green or pro-coal position. They can preach to the base about how pure they are and how insane the other side is. But they’re doing absolutely nothing to help the poor sods trying to pay the power bills.

This is an issue where bipartisanship is desperately needed. And that means finally shifting to the centre. And here’s the thing: the two sides are actually moving closer together.

Turnbull and Frydenberg are moving towards a Clean Energy Target, with a benchmark that offers a big incentive to investment in renewables and a small incentive to investment in cleaner coal technology. Labor is also willing to support a Clean Energy Target, but no incentive for coal at all.

Let’s hope for all our sakes they can meet in the middle. It really shouldn't be that hard.

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Climate policy: The enduring kryptonite of Aussie politics

Friday, June 02, 2017

By David Speers

Here we go again. Climate change policy has proven to be the kryptonite of Australian politics for almost a decade. Brendan Nelson, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull himself were all brought unstuck as leaders by mis-steps on this issue. Now, the Prime Minister is chancing his arm again. He’s about to unveil Australia’s latest attempt to fix our energy crisis while bringing down emissions.

It’s no surprise Turnbull yesterday pre-empted Donald Trump’s announcement by declaring Australia will definitely stay in the Paris Agreement. After all, Turnbull actually ratified the deal the day after Trump was inaugurated as US President. The timing was designed to show the world that Australia was most certainly committed to the Agreement, despite Trump’s campaign promises to withdraw.

Turnbull didn’t mince his words about the significance of the deal at the time. He called the Paris accord a “watershed” moment that “galvanised the international community.” This was after Trump had been sworn in. Turnbull could hardly then back out of the deal some months later just because Trump had done what he promised to do.

Australia’s commitment to the Paris Agreement was never in doubt. The much tougher question now is how the government will meet its Paris commitments to reduce emissions by between 26%-28% by 2030. Green groups say this target is a joke. But as the government likes to remind its critics, this represents a 50% reduction in emissions per capita. It also means a 65% reduction in emissions intensity.

So how do we achieve this target at the lowest cost? On Friday next week, Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel will present his long-awaited recommendations on this very question to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting of state and territory leaders in Hobart. The Finkel Report will then be made public, before the government announces its formal policy soon after.

Appearing before a Senate estimates hearing yesterday, Dr Finkel gave a big hint as to what we can expect. He laid out two broad options for achieving the target. The first is a “system that involves a certain level of renewable generation”. In other words, a Renewable Energy Target. The second is a “system that controls the emissions intensity”. In other words, an Emissions Intensity Scheme. 

Business groups, energy companies, farmers, unions and a majority of the Senate (Labor, Greens, NXT) all want an EIS. Finkel himself has previously described an EIS as having “the lowest impact on average residential electricity prices.” But Turnbull says no. He's repeatedly ruled it out, citing the fact it’s a form of pricing carbon. Turnbull doesn’t have the power to stare down his backbench on this, even if he wanted to.

So that leaves the Renewable Energy Target as the only politically palatable approach. Finkel is understood to be looking at a new type of RET. One that can drive some investment in clean coal and gas, not just wind, hydro and solar power. If he can find a way to convince all states and territories to adopt the one national target, that would be a big improvement too.

But don’t think for a moment that a new-and-improved RET will be a cost free solution. It won’t. And don’t think this will be an easy issue for Malcolm Turnbull to handle.

On one side, he’ll face conservatives (including on his own backbench) who argue Australia should simply quit the Paris Agreement. On the other, he’ll face Labor and the above-mentioned groups urging an Emissions Intensity Scheme as the most sensible way forward.

Energy policy is Malcolm Turnbull’s passion. When you watch him explain pumped hydro technology or examine a new power-saving gadget, it’s clear this stuff genuinely interests him. He’s spent much of the past year thinking about a policy to deal with Australia’s energy crisis and if he does manage to come up with something that can be implemented, it could become his legacy.

But if history is any guide, this latest foray into the climate wars will involve plenty of land mines. One wrong step and Turnbull’s leadership could be in serious danger.

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One Nation's shocker of a week

Friday, May 26, 2017

By David Speers

“This is not the end, it’s not the beginning of the end, it’s more like the end of the beginning”. That’s how the ASIO boss summed up where the war on terrorism is at, when he fronted a Senate committee last night.

It was a keenly anticipated appearance after this week’s awful events in Manchester and Jakarta, as well as the Coroner’s report on the Lindt Café siege. Duncan Lewis came bearing news both good and bad.

First to the good news (we need some after this week). For the first time, the number of Australians fighting with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has fallen. In fact, it’s been falling for six to nine months. Around 100 Australians are now over there, down from a peak of about 140.

ASIO says there are two main reasons for this. The flow of those leaving our shores to join up as foreign fighters has “reduced dramatically”. And more Australian terrorist fighters have been killed on the battlefield. At least 64 and as many as 76 have died. Peter Dutton for one will be happy. Killing Australian foreign fighters over there is the “best outcome” the Immigration Minister said on radio earlier in the day. Many would agree.

The other piece of good news from Duncan Lewis last night was his new assessment on how many foreign fighters are likely to return home. He now believes there will be far fewer trying to make their way back to Australia than he previously thought. Most will either go to neighbouring countries in the Middle East, head to Europe or South East Asia. 

Now to the bad news. While there might be fewer Australians fighting in Iraq and Syria, and fewer expected to come home, the security environment facing those of us here is “steadily worsening”. The ASIO boss says his agency’s caseload is “unprecedented” both in volume and seriousness. “The terrorist threat is not going to diminish in the foreseeable future”.

So how is ASIO keeping ahead of the game? How has it been able to successfully thwart 12 terrorist attacks over the last few years? Not surprisingly, Duncan Lewis wasn’t about to divulge any of those secrets last night.

But, we did learn what it’s not doing. ASIO is not following the simplistic advice of those who think banning burkas, stopping Muslim immigration and putting cameras in Mosques will solve the problem.

Pauline Hanson used her allotted time during the hearing last night to push all of her anti-Muslim buttons. She was searching for some sort of validation from Australia’s chief spy to support her theories. In the end, it was a case of conspiracy meeting reality.

The One Nation leader asked if Middle Eastern refugees were bringing terrorism into Australia. “I have absolutely no evidence to suggest there’s a connection between refugees and terrorism” came the unambiguous response. Is ASIO concerned about women wearing burkas? “We have no security reason to be concerned”. And what about the experience in Canada, Senator Hanson asked, of refugees’ children turning to terrorism? “I see no evidence of it here”.

Duncan Lewis’ answers to Pauline Hanson were his most forceful and definitive of the evening. His views on politicians pushing anti-Muslim scare campaigns are well known. Two years ago, Lewis was heavily criticised by conservatives for urging a number of MPs to be “temperate” in their language. A backlash from the Muslim community, he argued, was the last thing his agency needed when it relies so heavily on cooperation. This is undoubtedly true, but telling elected politicians what they should and shouldn’t say wasn’t a good idea.

Last night he offered no such advice. He didn’t have to. He simply rebutted every one of Pauline Hanson’s scare campaigns. It capped off a terrible week for One Nation.

In a separate Senate committee last night, the Australian Electoral Commission announced it’s investigating whether the party breached electorate disclosure laws over the “gift” of a small plane from a Melbourne businessman. The Courier Mail also reports Queensland Police and the Crime and Corruption Commission have begun “initial probes” into a leaked recording of Hanson’s Chief of Staff, James Ashby, suggesting ways the party could fleece taxpayers. And One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts’ media advisor was this week charged with assault.

All of this may not necessarily shake the faith of loyal One Nation supporters, but very few of them would surely deny this week has been a shocker for the party.

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Budget squabbles? Trump and China will have greater impact

Friday, May 19, 2017

By David Speers

The polls weren’t great, but otherwise the government should be happy with how this post-Budget week has gone. The AAA credit rating was retained, the unemployment rate fell and the banks ensured the focus remained on the most popular element of the Budget: the big new bank tax.

That’s not to say it’s smooth sailing from now on for the government. Far from it. The ratings agencies still have Australia on a “negative watch”. The unemployment rate bounces up and down like a yoyo as part-time jobs come and go. And this week’s record low wages growth confirms many Australians simply aren’t getting ahead at all (they also highlight how optimistic the Budget forecasts of a steady climb in wages may prove to be).

When it comes to the politics of this Budget, however, the government is winning. This Bank Levy may be unfair. It may run against Liberal ideology and all the government has said about the need to lower company taxes. But the more the banks squeal, the happier the Treasurer seems to be. The banks are not popular. This new tax is. It’s as simple as that.

If the banks pass on the cost in the form of higher interest rates, and somehow manage to convince their customers to blame Scott Morrison, then maybe the politics of this will flip. But, it’s hard to see how that happens. Certainly not by sending out bank bosses earning some of the highest salaries in the land to complain.

If the government isn’t troubled much by the banks, it seems even less worried about Bill Shorten. The Labor leader hasn’t really landed a blow on this Budget. At least not yet. The main fight he wants is a class war. He’s been pitting the “millionaires” against the “battlers” every day this week. “Under a Labor Government I lead”, he says, “millionaires will pay a little bit more and ten million people will pay less.”

In reality, no one will pay less tax than they do right now. Under Labor, the battlers would pay just as much tax as they do right now, while everyone earning more than $87,000 would pay an extra 0.5% Medicare Levy. Those earning more than $180,000 (Bill Shorten’s “millionaires”) would be slugged with an extra 2% hike on top of that. None of this would apparently go towards the NDIS mind you, as Labor maintains it’s fully funded. This would mainly be to fund Labor’s huge $22b increase in school funding.

The Opposition Leader has jumped further to the Left in response to Turnbull’s “centrist” Budget and Coalition figures are pleased to see it. But they can hardly afford any complacency. Shorten is a strong retail politician and this “millionaires” versus “battlers” fight has a way to run. The government needs to pass its Medicare Levy increase (for all workers) through the parliament as quickly as it can, with either the Greens, Nick Xenophon or Pauline Hanson. A drawn-out contest over taxing the working class more won’t be in Malcolm Turnbull’s interests.

For all the furious debate between Bill Shorten, Malcolm Turnbull and the banks, it’s worth noting the events in Washington and Beijing this week will have a far more profound impact on Australia.  

Donald Trump is now facing four Congressional inquiries and a special counsel investigation into links between his campaign and Russia. The leaks against him this week have been highly damaging and presumably from a determined element of the intelligence community, which has decided Trump has no place in the White House. Who knows where this will end? The shadow hanging over his Presidency will pre-occupy Washington, stall the prospects of tax reform and damage the standing of the United States.

At the same time, China is stepping into the empty drivers’ seat of global leadership. President Xi Jinping unveiled his extraordinary “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure plan. More than a trillion dollars will be spent on roads, rail, bridges and ports in China and beyond to build a modern day Silk Road.

China is asserting itself economically and strategically, while the United States is consumed by political drama. Here in Australia, we may squabble over the Budget details, but it’s these tectonic shifts that will ultimately matter far more.

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Bill's missed opportunity

Friday, May 12, 2017

By David Speers

Bill Shorten missed an opportunity last night. He had the chance to completely wrong-foot the government, but chose not to. He could have turned the tables and made Labor the party of Budget responsibility by promising a faster return to surplus. Instead, he played it safe.

Consider how Shorten could have approached his Budget reply. Labor already has plans to raise $32 billion over 10 years through negative gearing and capital gains tax reform. It has also vowed to oppose the rest of the government’s company tax cuts, for businesses with a turnover above $50 million. Treasurer Scott Morrison has confirmed the “unlegislated” tax cuts are now worth $35.6 billion.

So Labor is already $68 billion ahead of the government with these policies alone. The problem is, Bill Shorten refuses to be outspent.

In case you missed it, Malcolm Turnbull wanted to frame this week’s Budget as “fair”. He couldn’t use the word enough as he tried to shut down every area of government vulnerability. More money for health, more money for schools and a big punch in the nose for the banks.

But like Crocodile Dundee being threatened with a flick-knife, Bill Shorten's response was to say “that’s not fairness, THIS is fairness”. He promised even more money for health, universities, TAFE and especially schools. The most glaring admission this was all about political positioning was the commitment to spend $22 billion more than the government on schools over the decade. Just last week, both Shorten and his deputy Tanya Plibersek were insisting they couldn’t give such a commitment. They would have to wait until much closer to the election to work out how much schools would actually need. Not any more!

Shorten is determined to keep the political fight on his turf: health and education. In a way, this is understandable. He’s had great success in driving the policy debate from opposition. Shorten has won the battle over Medicare funding. He’s won the battle over university deregulation. He’s won the battle over how schools should be funded. He’s led the government to a tougher line on the banks. And he’s won the battle over the “zombie” spending cuts. They’re now dead.

With the government finally taking these unpopular zombie measures off the books this week, Turnbull gave Shorten a $13 billion opening. Suddenly, the Coalition was left naked on budget repair. Without those spending cuts, the Coalition can’t claim to be the superior economic managers.

Instead of the cuts, the new Bank Tax and the higher Medicare Levy are supposed to do the job of getting us back to surplus and paying for the NDIS. Labor is, of course, much happier to support tax hikes than spending cuts. It backed the Bank Tax within an hour of its announcement. Labor will also support a higher Medicare Levy for those earning more than $87,000 and keep the Deficit Levy on those high income earners above $180,000.

Labor’s approach is an incredibly high taxing path back to surplus (particularly with an effective top marginal rate of 49.5%), but it could have at least given Bill Shorten a chance to get ahead of the government on Budget repair.

He could have walked into parliament last night and promised a return to surplus a year or two earlier than the Coalition. Imagine how that would have flipped the debate! It would have infuriated Turnbull, created more unease within the Coalition over their all-new Budget strategy and given voters reason to take a second look at Bill Shorten as an alternate Prime Minister.

Remember Kevin Rudd won in 2007 by declaring “this reckless spending must stop”. He didn’t exactly live up to the promise in government, but the point is that voters embraced his vow to repair the bottom line. They believed he really was an “economic conservative”.

Instead, Bill Shorten passed up that opportunity last night. He played it safe and went with what he knows. More spending, funded by higher taxes on the wealthy, the multinationals and the banks. The Labor base will no doubt love it.

There was an opening for Labor last night to open up a whole new line of attack against the Government. That window has now closed.

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Gonski 2.0: Can Turnbull's school funding plan succeed?

Friday, May 05, 2017

By David Speers

Malcolm Turnbull’s stated aim this week was a noble one: to end the school funding wars. These funding wars have run for years and tap into a heady mix of emotions when it comes to school education in this country. Class envy, fairness, religion and yes, school performance. So far, there’s no sign of a ceasefire. The states, Catholic schools and the Labor Party were all manning the trenches this week. But the peace plan does have fairness at its heart and with some likely “tweaking”, may yet succeed.

The plan was crafted by Turnbull’s understated but highly effective Education Minister Simon Birmingham. He is the true “fixer” of this government, having now tackled four huge issues in 19 months; vocational education, childcare, university and school funding. He is also one of the few in Cabinet to be a proud product of the public school system. He spoke passionately yesterday about the influence of his grandmother, a public primary school principal.

Put simply, this is a plan to deliver an additional $18.6b over a decade to the neediest schools. If it goes ahead, public schools would see the fastest funding growth (5.1% at an annual average rate). This is followed by independent schools (4.1%) and then Catholic schools (3.5%). Guess which sector is most upset?

It’s a re-embrace of the Gonski model, funding schools based on student need, regardless of whether they are public or private. The idea is to ensure every school has at least the agreed minimum level of government funding required to give each kid a chance in life.

To underline this re-embrace, David Gonski himself was wheeled out to stand alongside Turnbull. His presence alone was enough to say that this plan, like Labor’s original plan, is about fairness. There’s not as much money on the table as Labor originally offered, but it’s more than the Abbott Government was offering to most public, Catholic and independent schools.

So what are the main obstacles? Let’s start with the states. Most have complained they aren’t getting what the Gillard Government offered them. This is true and it would be strange if the states didn’t fight for more money. At the end of the day though, they don’t have much leverage.

Then there’s the Senate. Labor says this is $22b less for schools compared to what it would have delivered. This is also true, but it’s a stretch to describe what is clearly a funding increase as a “cut”. Labor would be crazy to vote against this in the Senate. To do so would deny needy schools immediate extra cash. Labor supports this funding model and can always go to the next election promising to spend more. In the end, if Bill Shorten opts to vote no, the government can always look to the Greens, who are sounding more enthusiastic.

Finally there’s the Catholics. This is where the government’s real battle lies. While Birmingham says they have “no justification” to complain and certainly no excuse to hike fees, that’s exactly what some Catholic Education officials are threatening to do.

Steve Elder was once a teacher, then a state Liberal MP for 11 years and now runs the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria. He calls this plan “Conski 2.0” and says every school across the country will suffer a funding cut after 2020. In particular, he warns funding for students with a disability in Victorian Catholic schools will halve.

This dispute rests on a fundamental disagreement at the heart of the plan. Elder says from 2021, base school funding will grow at only 1.95% per annum. Yet teacher salaries in recent years have grown at 4.6% per annum. He says this indexation rate represents a “massive cut” to school funding in real terms.

Simon Birmingham told my Sky News program he’s set aside a modest sum for “transitional assistance” for some schools, but he’s adamant there will be no special deals. By contrast, Junior Minister Michael Sukkar (himself educated in the Victorian Catholic school system) suggested the government may need to do more work over the coming “weeks and months” to ensure the Catholic schools are satisfied.

The Catholic Education Commission is influential in Victoria, particularly among those Liberal MPs it educated. And if it’s right about the impact this plan will have on kids with disabilities, that’s a powerful argument for the Minister to go back to the drawing board. Birmingham shouldn’t be underestimated and will fight hard for this plan. A lasting peace with the Catholic school sector, though, may require him to drop the hard line and start negotiating.

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Turnbull gets the barnacle scraper out

Friday, April 28, 2017

By David Speers

John Howard used to call it “scraping off the barnacles”. Fixing problems that were slowing down his ship of state. The most famous was a decision to cut fuel excise and remove indexation in the lead-up to the crucial Aston by-election in 2001.

Over the past couple of weeks, Malcolm Turnbull has had the barnacle scraper out, trying to clear away potent issues creating drag for his own Government in the lead-up to the Budget.

He’s moved to replace the entire 457 visa program and announced a dramatic intervention in the market to keep gas prices down. On both fronts, he’s done so under pressure from Bill Shorten. The Labor leader can now add the 457 changes and gas export controls to his impressive list of policy achievements from opposition. A list that already includes superannuation reform and higher cigarette taxes.

Time will tell how much this barnacle scraping helps the Government. It’s at least given the Prime Minister an “action man” appearance. Since parliament last sat, he’s been busy on 457 visas and the Citizenship Test, gas shortages and more pumped hydro. At the same time, the PM has squeezed in visits to Papua New Guinea, India, Afghanistan and Iraq. Next week, he’ll jam in a lightning fast trip to New York to smooth out his relationship with Donald Trump (another barnacle he wants to clear), presumably ticking off final Budget decisions mid-flight.

The pace is impressive. The policy outcomes deserve more time to consider.

Yesterday’s “Affordable Gas For All Australians” announcement is a case in point. The idea is to give the Resources Minister the power to restrict exports when gas “supply” is a problem. If the Minister is convinced there’s not enough gas available in the local market, he’ll act. But when fronting the cameras to sell the policy, the Prime Minister took a big leap further and suggested the Minister would also intervene if the “price” of domestic gas was too high.

“Wholesale prices should not be materially different to export prices”, Turnbull said. “This is one of the ways in which you’ll be able to see if the market is in balance”. Right now, the domestic wholesale price is nearly three times as high as the export price. So voters will rightly be expecting some dramatic action.

By turning the policy aim from tackling “supply” to tackling “prices”, the Prime Minister has put his Resources Minister Matt Canavan under considerable pressure. The LNG spot price in Asia is already forecast to fall further next year. What happens then? How far will Canavan have to go to ensure the local price remains roughly in line? How many LNG export ships will have to be turned back?

This is going to be an ever moving target the PM has set. Whenever a price differential opens up, Labor will be reminding the Government of its promise to act and the industry will be on edge. It’s already worried about the lack of certainty this creates. Not that too many families and businesses will be shedding a tear for the gas industry. Like the “crackdown” on foreign workers, this sort of gas market intervention is a populist move. And it’s likely to be popular.

This new Ministerial power also adds another layer of confusion to Australia’s energy policy muddle. Consider it. The Hazelwood coal-fired power station has just closed, with others set to follow in the coming years. The Government has dangled the carrot of taxpayer support for new coal power plants, but no one has yet taken a bite. We don’t know what incentives the government is offering and whether they would be honoured by a future Labor government. Who’s going to make a 30-40 year investment in a coal plant under these circumstances?

We have a Renewable Energy Target set to expire in 2020, with no certainty as to what will follow. The Prime Minister has made ad-hoc announcements of “feasibility studies” into pumped hydro projects, which sound visionary and sensible. But we don’t know what they might cost or who will pay. And they’re years away at best.

Then there’s gas. A market hamstrung by state bans on fracking and now facing the prospect of export bans whenever the Minister deems it necessary!

The Government has promised a new national energy policy by the middle of the year, but has already ruled out the approach nearly every industry group from farmers to big business actually want: an Emissions Intensity Scheme.

How an energy super-power like Australia has wound up in this mess is an indictment on our political class.   

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Wherever he goes, Turnbull is haunted by Abbott

Friday, April 21, 2017

By David Speers

Even by the standards of a Prime Minister, yesterday was a big day for Malcolm Turnbull. It began with an early Canberra press conference to unveil sweeping changes to the Citizenship Test. Then, a quick visit to Tasmania’s Trevallyn Power Station to detail his vision for the state to become the hydro power “battery of the nation”. And finally back to Sydney to face the formidable Leigh Sales on the ABC.

This was Turnbull the policy action man; setting the agenda and “delivering” as he likes to boast. The first event was about Australian values and tougher screening. The second was about energy security and making renewables more viable. All messages that should play well with middle Australia. But wherever he goes and whatever he does, Turnbull is haunted by Tony Abbott.

This week, Abbott made it clear he’s not for turning. He’s determined to keep causing headaches for the man who tore him down. His one time numbers man, Mathias Cormann, may have labeled him “destructive”, “self-indulgent” and “sad”, but that’s had zero impact. 

In print, on radio and TV, the former PM was out pushing his “5 point policy plan” aggressively this week. He told anyone who would listen that Bill Shorten is on track to become Prime Minister. Not that he’s suggesting Turnbull should be replaced, of course. That would be a declaration of open war. No, this is a Cold War where Abbott attacks Turnbull by repeatedly pounding the government for just not being conservative enough.

That’s despite Turnbull passing more Budget repair than Abbott did, putting changes to the Racial Discrimination Act to a vote where Abbott refused to, passing industrial relations reform that Abbott couldn’t, holding the line on a same sex marriage plebiscite, cutting company tax, cutting some personal income tax, refusing to put a price on carbon and now toughening up immigration and citizenship laws.

Malcolm Turnbull isn’t “Tony Abbott Light” as Labor likes to call him. He’s actually delivering for conservatives. The truth is most conservatives in the Coalition can’t complain about the process or the policy outcomes right now. Sure, they’re worried about the polls and fear many voters may have deserted Turnbull for good. But on policy, they’re largely getting what they want.

When Abbott began his latest flurry of media activity this week, the official strategy from senior Ministers was to shrug it off. “He’s a backbencher, entitled to contribute to the debate”, was the line most used while pointing out Cabinet was getting on with the serious business of governing. Put Abbott in his place and don’t pour petrol on the flames. A reasonable approach.

Until some genius decided to leak internal pre-election polling on Abbott’s seat of Warringah to Phil Coorey in the Australian Financial Review. As Coorey reported, the poll showed Abbott was on the nose and faced a tough fight to hold the seat.

No one is disputing the existence of the poll or its findings. Abbott reluctantly agreed to have the poll done towards the end of the campaign, as he was keen to know just how tight things were in his own seat. Having campaigned in several marginals he was worried about how much danger the Coalition was in.

What really got under Abbott’s skin was this week’s leak and the suggestion he only clung on because Malcolm Turnbull “saved the day” by making robo-calls to voters in Warringah. As one source close to Abbott put it, “this is a declaration of war”.

Trying to guess who leaked a story is usually a pointless exercise, but there are strong suspicions those within the NSW Liberal Party division trying to force Abbott out of the seat may have been responsible. Whoever it was, they’ve guaranteed the Cold War is only going to get worse.

The Turnbull Government faces a crucial few weeks ahead. There will be more major policy moves over the next fortnight and then the Budget itself. The Coalition needs every one of its members focused and fighting for the government’s agenda. Not fighting amongst themselves.

Given it’s Malcolm Turnbull rather than Tony Abbott who has most to lose here, he needs to find a way to take some of the heat out of this toxic relationship. The time has probably passed to bring Abbott into the Cabinet, but some sort of peace offering might help.

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Turnbull is right to push for closer ties with India

Thursday, April 13, 2017

By David Speers

After a tour of the relatively modern Akshardham Temple complex in New Delhi, Malcolm Turnbull and Narendra Modi sat on the steps with their shoes off. They had already spent 90 minutes together earlier in the day in a more formal setting, discussing the bilateral relationship.

This was a chance for a more philosophical reflection on where India has come from and where it’s going. Its history, its achievements and its future role in global leadership.

Turnbull came away convinced India is on track to become an “economic superpower”. With that comes the military and strategic clout to match. In an interview for Sky News, the Prime Minister told me India will match the US and China in size and strength. Its population is forecast to pass that of China’s within five years.

Turnbull argues the rise of India is a good thing for Australia. “India will be a force for stability in the region”, he says. “India is committed to the rule of law”. He doesn’t say it, but the inference is clear. The other great power in the region, China, is not.

In fact, while he was in India, the Prime Minister was more assertive than usual about China. When I asked him about North Korea and its nuclear threats, he told me China was “clearly not doing enough” to put pressure on its neighbour.

This tougher tone from Turnbull in India will have been noticed in Beijing.

Australia has shown a remarkable ability to balance its relationships with the United States and China under various administrations.

Sure, there have been some spectacular highs and lows, but over the past 20 years, Australia has been deft at maintaining a trusted alliance partnership with the US and developing a vital trade relationship with China.

India is trying to emulate our success. It needs to keep its relationships with the US and China on positive terms and is looking at how Australia has managed this balancing act.

Turnbull’s visit to India had one primary aim: to demonstrate Australia wants to accommodate the rise of a third global power. Turnbull sees a world where the US, China and India share the stage. He wants to ensure that is achieved peacefully and to the benefit of Australia. 

Strategically and economically, this makes sense. With or without a free trade agreement, Australia needs to deepen ties with India.

Chances are there won’t be a free trade agreement any time soon. India remains a tough place to do business for Australian companies. Tariff barriers are high, state and federal regulations are a minefield, intellectual property rights are often ignored and bribery remains a problem.

Free trade talks have been underway for two years, but there’s no sign of movement on the main sticking points. India’s not budging on farm tariffs. Australia’s not going to let in more Indian workers.  

The only thing Turnbull and Modi could “announce” on this visit was that their chief negotiators would report back on the main sticking points quickly. It was a nice line to buy time, but the two leaders know exactly why the negotiations have bogged down. It’s just too politically difficult for India to threaten farm jobs and for Australia to threaten Aussie jobs.

Some Australian industry figures are privately frustrated at the lack of enthusiasm from both sides on the FTA. Nonetheless, they’re getting on with it and trying to take advantage of trade opportunities where they can. And this is the point. An economy-wide agreement that guarantees genuinely free trade isn’t going to happen in our lifetimes. But step by step, gains will be made. Some barriers will be removed. Australia will sell more coal, gas, uranium and higher education to India.

Turnbull is pushing opportunities wherever he can see them, including strong support for the Adani coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. He oversells the benefits, suggesting it would create “tens of thousands” of jobs. Even the company isn’t that bullish. And he’s not ruling out pumping nearly $1 billion of borrowed taxpayers’ money into a rail link for the mine. This would be crazy. Mining projects in Australia need to stand or fall on their own merits, without taxpayer help. 

Turnbull, though, is right to push for closer ties with India. This country will be a great, democratic, global power. Australia has much to gain and nothing to lose by engaging more deeply.

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Turnbull's vital visits to PNG and India

Friday, April 07, 2017

By David Speers

Malcolm Turnbull may not have scored a meeting with Donald Trump yet, but over the next few days he will make long overdue visits to two countries that are hugely important to Australia.

Late this afternoon, the Prime Minister will arrive in Port Moresby. This is his first visit to Papua New Guinea as Prime Minister. By contrast, he’s visited Indonesia twice and New Zealand twice.

Papua New Guinea is our closest neighbour. You can see it from the most northern islands of the Torres Strait. It was part of Australian territory until 1975. Turn on the TV in PNG and you will see Australian shows. News programs, drama programs and a lot of rugby league.

This is a country with deep geographical, historical and cultural connections to Australia. But we pay it such little attention.

Whenever PNG is mentioned in Australia, it’s usually in the context of the asylum seeker processing centre at Manus Island. The relationship should be about much more than this transactional arrangement.

Here’s the reality: PNG is our most deeply troubled neighbour. Crime and corruption are out of control. If it becomes a failed state, Australia will have to pick up the pieces.

Right now, PNG is ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world (150 out of 176 according to Transparency International). It’s also one of the most dangerous. Port Moresby is near the bottom of the ladder in lists of the most livable cities (137 out of 140 according to the Economist Intelligence Unit). Rape and robbery are rampant. An estimated 70% of women in PNG will be raped in their lifetime.

Despite all this, PNG is meant to be hosting the APEC Leaders’ summit later this year. This will be the biggest event in the country since independence. And no one is entirely sure how it’s going to pull it off. PNG can’t afford to pay for its health and education services, let alone build enough hotels and meet the enormous security costs that come with hosting an APEC gathering. 

Australia is already helping with the security. PNG has asked for more assistance. Expect Malcolm Turnbull to offer something this weekend.

Beyond money and logistical support, what’s really needed is more regular engagement with PNG. It may not be a lucrative growth market, but PNG should matter to Australia a lot more than it does. If Australia really is going to be a responsible leader in this region, we need much more dialogue with PNG.

Next on the Prime Minister’s itinerary will be India. This most definitely is a lucrative growth market. 1.3 billion people and an economy growing at around 7.5% a year. Our two-way trade has been steadily growing over the past decade, but is still nowhere near what it should be.

Negotiations for a free trade deal between Australia and India were launched in 2011, when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister. There was greater urgency under Tony Abbott, but for whatever reason, things have stalled under Malcolm Turnbull. The Indians say there has been little to no progress for the past 12 months.

If Turnbull’s visit next week can revive the process, that can only be a good thing. With a growing middle class in India (now around 300 million), there are huge opportunities for Australian exporters of quality goods and services.

But India will only lower its relatively high tariff barriers if it gets something in return. Specifically, it wants Australia to relax its restrictions around 457 visas, so more Indians can work here across a wider range of industries. There’s little chance of that happening in the current political environment. Can you imagine the reaction from Labor, One Nation, Nick Xenophon and the rest?

Still, the PM won’t go all that way with nothing to say. With Education Minister Simon Birmingham also joining the visit, there will be a heavy focus on showcasing Australia’s higher education sector.

Turnbull may also meet with billionaire Gautam Adani about his company’s proposed $16b coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. It’s a hugely controversial project, but the Turnbull Government is behind it.

The visits to PNG and India over the coming days may not be as exciting as an audience with Donald Trump, but they are vitally important. Australia needs to pay more attention to the problems in PNG and the opportunities in India. Malcolm Turnbull is showing he’s willing to do both. 

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