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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

Calls for bipartisan energy policy, but who's listening?

Friday, February 17, 2017

By David Speers

When it comes to climate and energy policy, exactly who are the major parties listening to? 

For all the hot air in parliament this week, neither side is paying attention to the growing consensus amongst business, energy and climate groups.

18 organisations including the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Group, the Aluminium Council of Australia, the ACTU and the Climate Institute came together on Monday to issue a very rare joint appeal.

“There is simply no room for partisan politics when the reliability, affordability and sustainability of Australia’s energy system is at stake”, they said. A decade of political point scoring has resulted in “enduring dysfunction in the electricity sector.”

This is a damning indictment of both sides of politics from those who are dealing directly with the mess Australia’s energy system has become.

So what do these groups actually want? First and foremost it’s some bipartisan certainty. The prospect of re-writing the rules after every election is preventing any major investment in power supply.

Beyond that, business groups are wary about backing any particular model. But the Emissions Intensity Scheme (EIS) idea, identified by economists and scientists as the cheapest way to meet out Paris emissions targets, is generally deemed to be the best approach.

I spoke to Miles Prosser from the Aluminium Council, which represents one of Australia’s most energy-intensive sectors. Even he argues an EIS, properly structured, would be fine. This is the head of a heavy-emitting, trade-exposed industry body agreeing a price on carbon would be better than what we have right now!

Labor is on the right track by committing to an EIS. It’s on the wrong track, however, by coupling that with a 50% renewable energy target/goal/ambition/aim/aspiration/dream. It should drop this silly idea. There’s only one target that matters and that’s the target to cut emissions.

The 50% renewables figure was only ever chosen for political reasons. A nice round number, easy for voters to digest as evidence of Labor’s green credentials.

Unfortunately, no one can confidently explain how it would be achieved or what it would actually cost. In their attempts to do so this week, Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen found themselves in a tangle. The Prime Minister didn’t miss the opportunity to strike.

Turnbull has established himself at the start of this year as the best performer in parliament. He is dominating the stage and enjoying it. So are his troops.

But ridiculing Labor’s 50% renewable energy target is the easy part. Soon, the Prime Minister will have to work out his own post-2020 climate and energy policy. Let’s consider the options.

The first option is to continue with the status quo. That means pouring several billion dollars more (which we don’t have) into the “Emissions Reduction Fund” to pay companies for emissions reduction. This is going to become an increasingly expensive exercise, and to date, it hasn’t driven investment in new large-scale energy supply. So billions more debt without fixing the problem.

The second option is to use taxpayers’ funds sitting in the Northern Australia Fund and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to help attract private sector investment in battery storage and maybe even clean coal-fired power plants. This appears to be Turnbull’s favoured approach. Battery storage technology is rapidly improving. There would likely be private sector interest in this with some government help. It’s hard though, to see much appetite for the huge investment required for clean coal, even with some taxpayers’ billions thrown in.

The third option, favoured by some on the Right, is to scrap the Paris emissions target and the Renewable Energy Target altogether. This has simplistic appeal for those who don’t believe Australia really makes a difference to the climate anyway.  In reality, scrapping the legislated RET would open up huge compensation claims from those who’ve invested billions in renewables in good faith. It would also be unlikely to drive an extra dollar of investment in coal-fired power, given the likelihood of Labor winning an election at some stage in the next 30 or so years and re-instating limits on emissions.

The final, and most obvious option, is the EIS. A well-structured scheme would be the cheapest way to cut emissions, it would come with the blessing of industry and it would finally achieve the necessary bipartisanship required to drive investment in energy supply. But Turnbull has ruled this out. Why? Because it would represent a price on carbon, which his party won’t cop.

The settled political consensus is that the Coalition cannot embrace even a small price on carbon. I suspect an EIS will soon look far more politically and economically sensible when one of the other inferior options is attempted.

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Will voters respond to Tough Malcolm?

Friday, February 10, 2017

By David Speers

Those urging Malcolm Turnbull to pull himself out of his recent hole by returning to his moderate roots will be sadly disappointed. This week saw confirmation “old” Malcolm has gone. The leather jacket has been binned.

The “new” Malcolm that’s emerged over the summer has a harder edge. The take-down of Bill Shorten on Wednesday was the most public example of it. But this transformation goes well beyond parliamentary performance.

In both demeanor and policy, the Prime Minister is taking a tougher approach. He's not going to die wondering. He’s decided to fight. And we can see this on a range of fronts.

The post-inauguration phone call with Donald Trump had been looming for months. Everyone knew the new US President wouldn’t like the refugee deal. Most wrote off the chances of it surviving. Turnbull decided to fight for it and won.

Cory Bernardi’s departure from the Liberal Party had also been looming. When it finally happened this week, Turnbull went on the attack. He led the charge and the rest of the troops piled in, labeling Bernardi a “rat”, a “dog” and demanding he quit parliament altogether. 

When Bill Shorten used the “Mr Harbourside Mansion” line one too many times, the PM returned the personal attack with both barrels. Scripted or not, the blistering speech cut to the bone. This sort of personal stuff doesn’t always play well amongst voters, but Coalition MPs absolutely loved it.

“The game has just changed”, texted one, while Turnbull was still on his feet. “Phew” came the text from another, simply summing up the relief to see Shorten put under real pressure for the first time by the PM.

The most telling evidence of the transformation from “old” Malcolm to “new” has been on energy policy. Having once championed a price on carbon, he’s now emphatically ruled it out.

He’s been muscling up against Labor’s 50% renewable energy target for a while. When the lights went out in South Australia again this week, Turnbull hammered the Labor renewables plan again and again. This issue is becoming a vulnerability for Labor.

In fairness, the government’s own plans on energy policy remain unclear. It has a fondness for coal, to the point where Scott Morrison even brandished a lump of the stuff in parliament. As much as some Ministers were enjoying passing the lump around, the private sector doesn’t appear as excited about actually building any new coal-fired plants. And maybe they won’t.

When he addressed the Press Club last week, the Prime Minister also referred to “pumped hydro” technology. This didn’t get anywhere near the same attention as his reference to “cleaner coal”. But Turnbull is enthused about “pumped hydro” and sees it as commercially viable. Around 100 potential sites for such technology have been identified and it is being looked at very closely by the special cabinet sub-committee on energy.

On national security, Turnbull is also adopting a tougher edge. I’m told he’s been pushing agencies harder than he did last year, not simply accepting their advice.  In particular, he wants Australia to be better prepared for the threat of a “mobile roving attack” along the lines of the massacres in Paris and Mumbai, which involved multiple gunmen experienced with assault rifles.  

As one security source put it, there’s an “edge” now with Turnbull on national security.

Writing in The Australian, John Lyons called what we saw in parliament on Wednesday the “Raging Turnbull”, a return to the “real Malcolm” he witnessed when profiling the then investment banker in the 1990s. But I think what we’re now seeing goes beyond a flash of rage.

Turnbull has calculated he has to destroy Shorten or be destroyed by Shorten. He has decided to fight for his policy agenda and he’s adopted some tougher policy positions than “old” Malcolm ever would have.  

This is undoubtedly driven by the need to survive, but could also be a result of simply growing in the job. Will voters embrace this tougher Turnbull? Or will they still yearn for the leather jacket? The polls will provide answers over the coming months, but right now Coalition MPs like what they see. That’s a start.

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Turnbull's coal revival

Friday, February 03, 2017

By David Speers

I had dinner last night with a group of pensioners at the Morwell Bowling Club in the La Trobe Valley, followed by a discussion with half a dozen locals for my Sky News program. Barely any of them follow politics, but that didn’t stop some blunt assessments about Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten and Pauline Hanson. It was the most revealing political insight I’ve had in ages.

Wayne Field has worked at the Hazelwood power station for 32 years. When the power plant shuts down at the end of next month, he won’t have a job and doesn’t know what he’ll do.

Wayne is articulate, extremely knowledgeable about the industry and utterly unimpressed with how the political class is responding to the closure of the historic coal mine and power station.

“Most of these guys and girls that put their head on the telly, the trust factor’s just not there”, he says. This view that politicians are only in it to further their own careers, is widespread.

Russell Donahue worked as a boiler-maker at Hazelwood and is now President of the Morwell Footy Club. He laughs at the platitudes from politicians about “structural adjustment”, “transitional assistance” and “jobs, jobs, jobs”.

From the local accountant to the former school librarian, there’s a constant theme. The politicians talk about creating jobs, but where are they?

Morwell is a town already doing it tough. The median house price is just $160,000 and falling. The local unemployment rate is 20% according to some statistics. That’s before the Hazelwood closure sees another 700 or so put out of work.

This is a town being hit hard by the transition away from coal-fired power to cleaner, greener energy. Not surprisingly, most of the locals are big supporters of coal and welcome the Prime Minister exploring ways to keep the industry alive with hi-tech, lower emission plants. Even if it’s come a little late in the piece.

These are folks who feel they’ve been forgotten and left behind. These are the very people who would have voted for Donald Trump if we were in the United States. But here’s the thing, we’re not.

They aren’t huge Trump fans in the La Trobe Valley. They can see why American voters wanted radical change, but see this guy as “inexperienced” and a “fool”. Nor do they support his immigration ban.

When news came through yesterday about the fiery weekend phone call between Trump and Turnbull, I was at the bottom of the huge Hazelwood open cut coal mine, which after 60 years of continuous operation is about to be closed. It’s noisy and dusty down there and the workers didn’t exactly down tools to pore over the details of the breaking news. The excavators kept on  digging, the conveyors kept on running. The workers were largely unfazed by the whole story which has jolted the US-Australia relationship. 

After some discussion that night at the Bowlo, the general sentiment was anger that the US President would try to “bully” an Australian Prime Minister like this. They liked that Malcolm Turnbull stood up to Trump. Not that they have necessarily warmed to Turnbull.

These disenchanted voters are looking for someone who's willing to listen to them and offer some real solutions. Pauline Hanson is a favourite amongst some of the older pensioners I spoke to, but not because she’s offering any solutions. One Nation is seen as a good way to lodge a protest vote, but not much more.

Bill Shorten’s greatest problem with this crowd seems to be his lack of brand recognition. No one I spoke to in Morwell could cite a single Labor policy. 29-year-old Andrew Northover has started up a thriving local photography business and is a rare voice in the La Trobe Valley willing to say coal should be phased out. That should put him in line with Labor thinking, but when I showed him a photo of Shorten, Andrew didn’t even know he was the Opposition Leader!

As for Turnbull, nearly all the locals I spoke to liked his language on coal, but doubted his ability to follow through. This presents an opportunity for the PM to win over these communities. But there are clearly risks for Turnbull elsewhere if he pushes too hard for a coal revival.

This community of Morwell has some huge challenges in the years ahead. No one knows how (or if) the massive mine site will be rehabilitated. No one knows whether coal is on the way out or maybe coming back. Most importantly, many don’t know how they’ll pay the mortgage this year.

Nor do they feel anyone is really fighting for them.

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Donald trumps Australia's interests

Friday, January 27, 2017

By David Speers

Donald Trump called a number of world leaders this week as he put his feet under the desk in the Oval Office for the first time. Malcolm Turnbull wasn’t one of them.

The Prime Minister likes to talk about his Government’s “strong links and ties” with the Trump Administration, but the reality is the Trump era has dawned with a rush of executive orders that are largely unwelcome for Australia.

The President’s order to withdraw US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal was the biggest blow. Bill Shorten is right when he says the TPP, as we know it, is now dead. Without US involvement, the agreement cannot proceed.  

It’s hard to understand why the Turnbull Government is still toying with the idea of moving a bill in parliament to ratify the deal.

If it’s simply to make the point that the Coalition believes in free trade (as opposed to the protectionists on the other side and the cross-bench), that can be done far more efficiently with a simple motion. Why waste the parliament’s time debating and voting on a bill to ratify a trade deal that’s already dead?

If it’s about trying to keep pressure on the remaining TPP countries to salvage something from the deal, that is looking increasingly doubtful too. There’s hardly been a clamour from Mexico, Canada, Japan, Korea, Malaysia or any of the other TPP nations to proceed without the US.

The PM says Japan “and other countries” have urged Australia to complete the ratification process. Maybe that’s true. Maybe Shinzo Abe did give Turnbull this impression during their private talks. But Abe is also quoted as saying the deal would be “meaningless” without the TPP.

Moving such a bill would only leave Turnbull exposed to another defeat on the floor of parliament over an issue already lost on the world stage.

The PM is right to make the case for free trade. The rising tide of protectionism at home and abroad is a danger for Australia.

Bill Shorten says his priority for 2017 is to “build Australian, buy Australian and employ Australian”. When pushed to explain what this might mean in practice, Labor’s Trade spokesman Jason Clare told me this could include mandating a higher percentage of Australian steel, aluminium and other products in any federally-funded projects. Even if that means a higher cost for taxpayers.

Turnbull accuses Shorten of being a “populist protectionist” and says his hi-viz vest tour of factory floors is a cruel joke. Many of these businesses and jobs would suffer if global trade barriers go up.

But Malcolm Turnbull’s own government isn’t exactly a virtue of free market principles either.

Just last week it decided to spend $30 million of taxpayers’ dollars propping up the struggling Alcoa aluminium smelter in Portland. Last year, it offered a $50m loan to the steel makers at Arrium. Then, there was the pinnacle of protectionism: the $50 billion decision to build submarines in South Australia.

If forking out taxpayers’ dollars like this isn’t at least a little bit of “populist protectionism”, I’m not sure what is.

Donald Trump has already changed the global order. Protectionism is back. Negotiating any sort of trade deal will now be incredibly politically difficult. Whether it’s salvaging something from the TPP or negotiating bilateral free trade deals with India or Indonesia, there will be loud voices of protectionism from the cross-bench, a “buy Australian, build Australian” approach from Labor and undoubtedly rattled free market nerves within Coalition ranks.

This is a setback for a trading nation like Australia.

The other potential setback in this first week of the Trump Administration could come on the issue of refugees.

The Turnbull Government’s deal with the Obama Administration to resettle many of the refugees currently languishing on Nauru and Manus Island is in limbo. The new President is set to sign an executive order placing an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees and a 120-day ban on refugees from the rest of the world.

Malcolm Turnbull expressed confidence yesterday this won’t torpedo the Australian deal. And privately, Australian officials are very confident the resettlement will still go ahead.

But no one has received any concrete confirmation from the Trump Administration on this.  

Malcolm Turnbull spoke to Donald Trump the day after his election victory in early November. A follow-up phone conversation now he’s in office is surely due.  

There’s plenty for the two to discuss.

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Mike Baird's strong legacy

Saturday, January 21, 2017

By David Speers

When a politician announces they’re going for “family reasons” there’s usually a healthy dose of cynicism in the reaction of most voters. Particularly when that politician has recently gone from being described as “the most popular in the country” to “embattled”.

So the reaction of some to Mike Baird’s bombshell announcement yesterday was understandable. But the truth is Baird isn’t kidding about the family reasons.

As Baird told a stunned press pack, his father Bruce (former NSW and federal MP) underwent open heart surgery over Christmas, his mother requires 24 hour care for muscular dystrophy and his sister Julia (a highly accomplished writer, columnist and broadcaster) has suffered a recurrence of cancer.

Nor is Mike Baird kidding when he says he’s achieved what he wanted in politics. He made it clear from the start he didn’t want to become a career politician. So, after 10 years in parliament, including three as Treasurer and nearly three as Premier, it’s time to go.

In that short time, he’s achieved more than most.  

That includes pulling off some of the biggest privatisations in NSW history, in an era of rising populism. His predecessors tried and failed. But Baird managed to convince a skeptical public that selling electricity poles and wires, as well as port assets was a good idea.

The sale proceeds helped repair the NSW budget and pay for a massive infrastructure program. Now, the state is Australia’s powerhouse economy once again.

This is a legacy to be proud of.

Baird cites as his greatest regret the failure to achieve serious national tax reform. But here too, he should be proud of his role.

The NSW Premier was braver than any other federal or state Liberal in championing the need to raise the GST. He made the case for an unpopular GST hike to fund personal income tax cuts and the extra hospital spending Australians demand.

His federal colleagues and those in other states (apart from South Australia’s Jay Weatherill) lacked the same spine.  

On some issues, Mike Baird clearly over-reached. The greyhound racing ban was the most damaging example. He didn’t consult colleagues and ignored the reaction of his conservative base for too long, before eventually being forced into a humiliating backflip. 

There was similar over-reach with the liquor lock-out laws, which have hurt Sydney’s reputation as an entertainment capital.

But these problems shouldn’t detract from an otherwise impressive legacy for such a short time in the job.

Here was a politician willing to use his political capital to drive real change. Popularity never lasts, but Mike Baird used his to good effect while it was there.

Contrast that with Malcolm Turnbull. What did he do when the sun was shining in 2015 and early 2016? Not much.

The much-hyped tax debate resulted in no change to the GST, no change to negative gearing, no change to inefficient stamp duties and payroll taxes and barely any change to personal income tax.

In fairness, there were some important changes to superannuation taxes which weren’t easy to achieve. And the government has promised to cut company tax, although we’re yet to see how much of that will make it through parliament.

We’ve also seen some limited industrial relations reform (the return of the ABCC) and we’re promised a national energy policy soon to tackle emissions while keeping power prices down.

Right now though, the list of reform achievements isn’t impressive. And with the economy in negative territory, the budget deep in the red and the Coalition stuck six points behind Labor in the polls, there is some nervousness in Coalition ranks about the lack of direction for the term ahead.

Malcolm Turnbull will give a major speech the week after next, setting out his agenda for 2017. He wants to counter the suggestion he's a do-nothing Prime Minister and generate momentum with some bold ideas.

This is looming as a very important speech for Turnbull. Some in his cabinet are already talking about the need to lift their stocks by the May Budget.

If that doesn’t happen, some will be asking whether Turnbull will last any longer as Prime Minister than Mike Baird did as NSW Premier.

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Finding the positive in politics

Friday, December 16, 2016

By David Speers

Let’s face it, the media is generally far more attracted to bad news than good. Cabinet splits, backbench revolts and broken promises are all infinitely more interesting than bipartisan agreement on incremental legislative gains.

But in the spirit of Christmas goodwill, I’ll fight my natural instincts and try to focus on the positives here, as 2016 draws to a close. The truth is our political leaders don’t really need another scathing end-of-year report card.

The greatest positive of 2016 must surely be the pause we’ve seen in Australia’s nasty habit of churning through leaders.

We’ve made it through a full year without a leadership change or challenge in any federal party! Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten, Richard Di Natalie, Pauline Hanson and Nick Xenophon have all survived the killing season and made it to the Christmas break intact.

This alone makes 2016 one of the most politically stable years of the last decade.

A second positive is the strange circumstance in which Turnbull and Shorten still actually like each other, in an odd kind of way. Despite fighting an intense eight-week campaign, and regularly accusing each other of being unfit for office, both will admit to a personal fondness.


The two can share a joke across the dispatch box and speak privately (and frankly) when they need to. This is surely a good thing for the democratic process and a far cry from the sort of relationship that has existed between Prime Ministers and Opposition Leaders in years gone by.

On the policy front, 2016 has hardly been a year of sweeping bipartisan reform, but there has been some agreement. Long overdue steps to wind back superannuation tax breaks passed through parliament. As did $6.3 billion in budget savings and a higher tobacco tax, thanks to the Coalition and Labor working together.

There’s still a long way to go, but these were important steps on the road to budget repair and showed what can be achieved with some quiet cooperation.

On the international front, our three most important relationships are in reasonably good shape. The election of Donald Trump stunned most in the Coalition and Labor, but the initial panic for some has subsided. Trump has softened various positions and nominated a cabinet with many connections to Australia. (Once again, in the spirit of Christmas goodwill, now’s not the time to go through all the remaining Trump negatives).

The relationship with China has faced its tests this year. Beijing’s continued military build-up in the South China Sea and the arrest of three Australian employees of Crown Resorts have been the main points of friction. But the two-way trade relationship has continued to grow and our two militaries have conducted more joint exercises than ever before.

The most improved relationship is surely with Indonesia. After years of tension over the live cattle ban, boat turn-backs and the execution of two Australian drug smugglers, things have settled down in 2016. The trial of Jakarta Governor “Ahok” on blasphemy charges is being viewed cautiously in Australia, but Julie Bishop and Penny Wong both know any lecturing from Canberra won’t help the situation.

Australia and Indonesia are discussing a potential free trade deal and closer security cooperation, without any of the usual dark clouds hanging over the relationship.

Finally, when you look at the scenes from Aleppo this week, it’s hard not to feel incredibly lucky to be living in Australia. If our greatest national problem is the threat of losing a AAA credit rating, we’ve got it good.

Nearly 8,000 of the 12,000 refugees Tony Abbott promised to take from Syria have now been settled peacefully in Australia. This has been done with little fuss or community concern. Australians should all feel proud of our ability to help these poor folks fleeing one of the worst humanitarian tragedies the world has witnessed in decades.

So hopefully there’s something here to feel good about over the festive season. For all the cynicism that usually surrounds our political discourse (mine included), Australia is by far the greatest country on earth. Daylight comes second. We really should try to remember that every once in a while. Merry Christmas!

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Say it ain't so, bro - Turnbull trips over climate policy

Friday, December 09, 2016

By David Speers

“Say it ain't so, bro” Malcolm Turnbull messaged his friend and hero John Key on Monday when news broke the NZ PM was calling it quits.

From the moment he regained the top job himself, Turnbull has held Key up as an exemplar of what’s possible as a leader. Just hours after toppling Tony Abbott last year, Turnbull spoke in glowing terms of the Key approach: “explaining complex issues and then making the case for them”. “That is certainly something that I believe we should do”, he said.

This was back when “evidence-based policy making”, “listening to the experts” and having a “conversation with the people” was all the rage.

This week, as John Key departed the stage, so did any semblance of Turnbull living up to that style of leadership. At least on the “complex issue” of climate change.

Monday’s newspapers accurately reported the government’s willingness to look into an “emissions intensity scheme” as part of the long-promised review of climate policies next year.

That morning, the Minister for Energy and the Environment Josh Frydenberg made it clear this was very much on the table. When the Prime Minister spoke to the media on Monday, and again on Tuesday, he did nothing to suggest otherwise.

The story ran for 48 hours without any hint the Minister or the media were on the wrong track.

By Wednesday though, this was all a terrible misunderstanding. Turnbull pretended the government never intended to look at an emissions intensity scheme at all! The media had simply got it wrong. And as for the Minister, “you’d better ask Josh” was all the PM could offer.

Yeah, right.

So what really happened behind the scenes?  

The PM was spooked by the reaction from Cory Bernardi and other conservatives inside and outside the party room. Curiously, leading moderate Christopher Pyne had also publicly rejected the idea.  

Where John Key might have tried to “make the case”, Turnbull dropped it like a stone. According to one cabinet Minister, the PM opted for a sharp political difference between the Coalition and Labor on climate, rather than risking a detailed policy debate.

Turnbull’s political fear on this is perhaps understandable. Climate policy has proven to be kryptonite for many Australian leaders over the past eight years. It played a role in the downfall of Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, Brendan Nelson and even Malcolm Turnbull himself back in 2009.

But any “evidence-based” policy approach would surely involve at least looking at an emissions intensity scheme? What’s the point of the review after all?

It’s not just the usual suspects in the green lobby who think an emissions intensity scheme is a good idea. It’s not just the scientists at the CSIRO either. Nor is the PM’s hand-picked Chief Scientist alone in advocating this approach.

The industry itself is crying out for action. In a rare public stance, the Australian Energy Council and Energy Networks Australia have called for “a national, market-based carbon price” as the “best option to make the transition to a cleaner energy system.”

These organisations represent all of Australia’s major gas and electricity generators, power distributors and retailers. Even the dirty coal-fired power plants. They want an emissions intensity scheme. So does Labor.

It’s true such a scheme would push up power prices for many. And all the advocates (including Labor) would do us all a great service if they were more honest on this point.

But those prices will likely go up even more if no action is taken and investment in baseload power generation continues to stall. According to Fairfax Media reports, the Australian Electricity Market Commission specifically warned the government months ago that an emissions intensity scheme could save up to $15b over the ten years to 2030.  

Even if we stuck with the same 2030 emissions target committed to by Tony Abbott and didn’t change our energy use, an emissions intensity scheme would save $11.2b.

In simple terms it would give industry the certainty and incentive it needs to start investing in power generation again. And it would be investing in a cleaner energy mix, including gas.

So if such a scheme is going to save households and businesses billions, save taxpayers billions, be welcomed by the industry, enjoy bipartisan support and even lower our emissions, why isn’t it even allowed to be looked at?

A judgement has been made that Australians aren’t intelligent enough to understand the difference between this limited scheme and Labor’s $23 a tonne Carbon Tax. It’s just too politically difficult to “make the case” for this particular “complex policy reform”.

Say it ain't so, bro.

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Turnbull's battle for power

Friday, December 02, 2016

By David Speers

In the end, it wasn’t really about the farmers, the backpackers, or the budget bottom line. On the final day of parliament for the year, the Backpackers’ Tax turned into something far bigger. It was a battle for power and authority. A test of whether the Turnbull Government was in control of parliament, or subject to its chaos.

Being forced to buckle to Labor on the Backpackers’ Tax would have left the government severely weakened heading into the Christmas break, despite its earlier victories on industrial relations.

At lunchtime yesterday, a government cave-in appeared to be a likely outcome. Labor, Derryn Hinch, Jacqui Lambie and others were demanding a 13% rate for fruit pickers. Even the government’s staunchest ally, the National Farmers’ Federation, made it clear while a 15% rate was its preference, a deal had to be struck. If that meant agreeing to 13%, so be it.

The alternative was leaving the rate at 32.5%, and scaring off whatever might be left of the backpacker market. No one wanted that.

Labor felt it had the upper hand and taunted the government through Question Time, unaware a deal had been quietly sealed. Richard Di Natale, the pragmatic Greens leader, had been watching the government’s growing dilemma and saw an opportunity.

Di Natale has come to the government’s aid twice before; on the multinational tax crackdown and age pension reforms. This would be his third mission to rescue the government and the first since the double dissolution election result gave all the spotlight to the One Nation and NXT parties.

Di Natale wants the Greens to be relevant, noticed and viewed as sensible players when the major parties are acting irresponsibly. He put a proposal to the government which it very quickly embraced.

Under the deal finally passed last night, the Backpacker Tax will remain at the government’s preferred 15% rate. But the Greens are calling it an “effective” 13% rate, because backpackers will be allowed to keep more of their superannuation. A further $100m will also be thrown at Landcare, an environmental program the government has actually cut by around $300m over the last few years.

In budget terms, this deal with the Greens will cost slightly more than agreeing to Labor’s 13% rate would have. But the difference is chicken feed really.

It will also require some explaining to convince backpackers they’re better off coming to Australia and paying 15% tax rather than heading to New Zealand where the tax is 10.5% (but the wages are lower).

The additional cost and complexity was deemed worth it, to secure victory in this test of wills. A defeat would have been humiliating.

The same can be said for the ABCC. The building industry watchdog is back, but only after some serious concessions. The most significant was agreeing to Hinch’s demand that CFMEU-friendly workplace agreements be allowed to run for another two years.  

This is not what many Liberals had in mind, but then many doubted the chances of the ABCC getting up at all. On this article of conservative faith, Turnbull has achieved something Tony Abbott could not.

So with the 2016 parliamentary year now drawn to a close, what can we conclude?  

Malcolm Turnbull is using a number of different paths to put together majorities in the Senate. He has relied on cross-benchers (IR reforms), bipartisanship with Labor (Omnibus savings bill) and a direct deal with the Greens (Backpackers’ Tax). The PM has also shown he will cut deals on almost anything to score a win. The gay marriage plebiscite proving to be the exception.

We can also conclude Bill Shorten has learnt a thing or two from the Tony Abbott opposition playbook. He is a tough operator in parliament and will be obstructionist when he can get away with it.

The rest of the Senate is utterly unpredictable. Rod Culleton and Derryn Hinch especially so, proving this week they can flip positions without notice. 

Given the difficulty of working with this parliament, Turnbull has had a good finish to the year. He’s achieved far more than many expected after his narrow victory in July.  

That doesn’t mean 2017 will be smooth sailing. All cross-benchers would have noticed in this final fortnight just how much can be achieved by holding out and horse-trading. If your vote is needed, the PM will compromise.

The legislative battles will be just as tough in 2017 and the stakes will be even higher as attention turns to something with much greater impact on the budget and the economy: company tax cuts.

For now though, Malcolm Turnbull can be satisfied heading into the Christmas break.

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How to break promises and get away with it

Friday, November 25, 2016

By David Speers

In the last few weeks of the US Presidential race, Donald Trump was addressing up to four or five rallies a day in battleground states.  At every single one of them, his ardent supporters would angrily chant a series of three-word-slogans: “Build The Wall”, “Drain The Swamp” and “Lock Her Up”.

Just two weeks after his victory, some of those Trump supporters may be feeling a little disappointed or even disillusioned. 

The “wall” between the US and Mexico, he now says will be a “fence” in parts. “Build The Fence” obviously doesn’t sound as intimidating, but no one is likely to quibble if it does the same job.

As for the “swamp”, we’re yet to see much evidence of draining. A stalwart of the Republican machine, Reince Priebus, has been appointed Trump’s Chief of Staff. A Republican Governor has been named Ambassador to the UN and a prominent party fund-raiser appointed Education Secretary. Political insiders all.

Broken promises

The one clear broken promise so far is the pledge to appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton over her emails and the Clinton Foundation. Trump now says he doesn’t want to “hurt the Clintons”. “My attitude is we have to go forward”, he told the New York Times this week. Delving into the past, he says, would be “very divisive”.

On one level this, must surely be a relief for Hillary Clinton. On another, it must be immensely frustrating Trump didn’t reach this magnanimous position before the election.

So what are we to make of Trump’s shifting positions? Most politicians would be slaughtered for breaking such “three-word-slogan” promises immediately after an election.

The Aussie perspective

Imagine Tony Abbott suddenly saying he never really meant to “Stop The Boats”, or Malcolm Turnbull suggesting “Jobs And Growth” was just a bit of campaign fun.

In Australia, breaking a promise can be lethal. Julia Gillard never recovered after breaking the “No Carbon Tax” commitment. Tony Abbott was equally burdened by his promise of “no cuts to education ... health ... pensions ... the ABC or SBS”.

And yet, apparently, no one was meant to actually take Donald Trump literally. His supporters, both in the US and Australia, have latched on to an explanation from journalist Salina Zito, to explain why it’s ok for Trump to break promises. Writing in The Atlantic more than a month before the election, Zito said “the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally”.

Yes, it’s an appealing line that seeks to explain why the press got it so wrong about Trump. But surely some Trump supporters did take him literally. His most loyal media backer, the Breitbart news site, certainly did. It, and others, have been sharply critical this week of the decision not to pursue Clinton.

Trump’s softening position on climate change is also being watched warily by his supporters. Before the election, the suggestion human kind was responsible for global warming was dismissed as a “hoax”. Now Trump concedes “there is some connectivity”. Although he stresses it’s a question of “how much” and worries about the “cost to our companies”.

Specifically, the President-elect is no longer talking about the need to “cancel US involvement” in the Paris Climate Agreement. He now wants to “take a look at it, a very serious look”. This doesn’t mean he’ll necessarily embrace the deal, but the vow to scrap it is gone.

The softer post-election tone from Trump on various fronts is welcome in many respects. Shifting to the centre is a necessary step to heal the deep divisions created during the bitter election campaign.

But it’s worth noting that while the press largely got it wrong in failing to predict his victory, so too did Trump get it wrong in committing to positions he now won’t pursue.

Is there a lesson here?

Perhaps the lesson for all political leaders is to take stock in the immediate afterglow of an election win and jettison anything that’s obviously not going to fly. Assess which promises are impossible or problematic to deliver, rip the bandaid off quickly, and move on.

Trump is not an ordinary politician. Few would be willing to ditch campaign promises and shift course as readily as he has over the last two weeks. Most politicians would be too scared to upset the electorate or their party room. Trump, by contrast, is not an ideologue, and doesn’t care about party sensitivities.  

He did whatever it took to win. The question now is whether he will do whatever it takes to ensure a successful Presidency.

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What does Trump's victory mean for Australia?

Friday, November 18, 2016

By David Speers

There's one name infecting every debate in Australian politics right now: Donald Trump. From foreign workers and company tax cuts to foreign policy, trade deals, climate change and refugees, Trump’s election victory is forcing reassessments, realignments and re-positioning.

Penny Wong is right, this is a change point.

Just how much of a change point is unclear. Apart from a 60 Minutes interview (which focused on domestic priorities) and a few random tweets, Trump has not said much publicly over the last nine days.

Nor has he finalised any of his key cabinet appointments. No one really knows precisely where the President-elect wants to go on a whole range of fronts.

There may be huge benefits on the way for Australia’s defence industries, as Christopher Pyne predicts.

There may be great risks too, if Trump follows through on some of his talk about making allies pay more.

Will refugees be resettled in the US?

The most immediate danger to Australia is the prospect of Trump scuttling the deal struck between Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama to resettle up to 1600 refugees from Nauru and Manus Island in the United States.

Landing this deal is Turnbull’s most significant post-election achievement. 

Tony Abbott (and in no small measure, Scott Morrison) deserves credit for stopping the boats after coming to power in 2013. The problem of permanent resettlement for those sent to the offshore processing camps has remained unresolved.  

When Turnbull took over in September last year, the National Security Committee of Cabinet made an important shift. Abbott preferred third-world resettlement options like Cambodia. The refugees weren’t interested and couldn’t be forced there.

Turnbull agreed a first-world resettlement option had to be found for those determined to be refugees. It had to be somewhere they would actually agree to go. He convinced Obama to say yes.

There's no denying this creates an immediate incentive for other asylum seekers to try their luck and gives people smugglers another powerful marketing tool.

After fleeing somewhere like Syria, who wouldn’t be willing to risk a few years in Nauru if it meant a new life for the whole family in the USA?

This is why the largest peace-time “maritime shield” has been deployed to stop boats passing through. It’s also why “classified elements” have been deployed to disrupt any people smuggling operations from commencing. National security sources say we may never know the full extent of efforts currently underway to keep the boats stopped.

It’s also why the government is pressing Labor (unsuccessfully so far) to support its “lifetime ban” on these resettled refugees ever visiting Australia. It will do anything it can to deter asylum seekers from attempting the voyage.

The one thing the Turnbull Government can’t do much about though is Donald Trump. If he decides taking hundreds of (predominantly Muslim) refugees is not in America’s best interests, the whole plan, nearly a year in the making, will be sunk.

The government’s is clearly nervous this might happen. Turnbull didn’t even mention the refugee deal in his 15 minute phone conversation with Trump. 

When pressed on why Trump would support the arrangement, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told my Sky News colleague Andrew Bolt, Australia has gone “above and beyond” as a US ally. He even cited Australia’s contribution in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

To be clear, Dutton is not saying we’ve deployed Australian forces for the sole purpose of securing a refugee resettlement deal. His point is that we have a deep relationship with the US, which should count for something.

He’s right. These refugees would be within the existing US refugee intake. They are already being screened by American authorities for health and security clearance.  

If Trump were to scrap this refugee deal, it would be a huge slap in the face to Turnbull and the alliance. It would be the worst possible start to the relationship between the two leaders.

Before last week, Turnbull and Trump had never met or spoken. In fact, it seems no one in our foreign policy establishment had made a direct connection with the man chosen as the Republican nominee back in July.

Golfing great Greg Norman had to provide Trump’s mobile phone number so Turnbull could call to congratulate the President-elect.

There’s a big task ahead for Turnbull, Julie Bishop and DFAT to build relationships with Trump and whoever he chooses in his cabinet. The first order of business will be convincing the billionaire President to stick with the refugee plan.

Maybe they should be asking Greg Norman to put in a good word.

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Big personalities trump big ideas in US election campaign

Bill Shorten shoots some serious zingers

Pragmatism rules in politics, just ask Baird and Turnbull

Where does the US stand on China?

Trump v Clinton: What will the outcome mean for Australia?

Should we be surprised by immigration poll?

Malcolm Turnbull's breakthrough week

Malcolm plays the peacemaker

Parli-shambles a bad look for Turnbull government

It's time for the PM to step up

Can Malcolm turn his Midas touch back on?

Ausgrid decision puts Aus-China relations on shaky ground

The new Senate - a school playground?

Turnbull faces tough decisions on Rudd and Herbert

Will the Government water down changes to super and health?

Has Malcolm won Australia's greatest booby prize?

Voters split on election eve

Malcolm needs a commanding win

Shorten's confused narrative

Is Bill's decision brave, or just plain crazy?

Malcolm's super messy week

Bill's budget battle

Police raids conspiracy a stretch

Government shifty on budget and taxes

Turnbull misses the solution on border protection

Shorten's tactics vs Turnbull's strategy

Turnbull’s China test

Shorten's spending bombshell

Turnbull’s “double taxation” nightmare

Government's tax reform shamble

Howard's call for unity

Abbott's wrecking ball

The freedom to navigate

Turnbull’s first strategic error?

A different standard

Make or break time for the Government

Turnbull’s key decision

Forget innovation, it's about tax reform

The honeymoon is over

Will he stay or will he go?

Prime Minister hits the right note

Turnbull's global challenge

Decoding the tax debate

Malcolm goes nuclear

Bipartisan Bill

No place for old politics in the new world order

Silence is golden on national security

A game-changing week on Syria

Malcolm's tricky balancing act

The real popularity contest

Everybody’s playing the waiting game

Should we go to war in Syria?

Canning – the by-election to end all by-elections

Killing season closes in

Will Tony Abbott take on IR reform?

Bronwyn is Labor's lucky break

Will Shorten's about-turn on boats prevail?

Politicians need a serious dose of reality

A free vote is the only option on gay marriage

Make or break time for Bill

A really bad week for Bill

All’s not fair in love, war, politics or sport

Revoking citizenship not a weapon to be trifled with

Don't assume Labor support for pension changes

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Both parties wave white flag on Budget repair

The big Budget test for both sides

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Another climate change election?

What's happened to lower taxes? Costello has a point

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Time to get real on tax-free super income

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Abbott backs down on Budget fight

Government forgets to KISS

Can we afford the future?

Abbott's days are numbered

A glimpse into the future of coal

Time to get off the ropes Tony

All trains lead to Turnbull

The leadership genie is out of the bottle

A difficult end to a difficult year

Why the barnacles haven't been entirely removed...

In defence of Joe

The week from hell

Finding a best friend isn't easy

Big business says climate deal is good for the world

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