Weekly News Summary

The big news is that Turnbull finally came through on an energy policy, but it’s not the one any of us were expecting. The ‘National Energy Guarantee’ – which has the rather unfortunate acronym ‘NEG’ – does not include a clean energy target, despite the recommendation of Australia’s chief scientist. But the Turnbull government swears this new policy will not only help us get to targets we shook hands on in the Paris agreement, it will guarantee cheaper and more reliable Aussie power. Labor aren’t so sure. Their main argument is that the shiny new policy is just eight pages long, absent of any economic modelling and short on detail. Plus, the Turnbull government has to deal with the state governments to get everybody on board. We’ll do a deep dive into NEG on Tuesday. In the meantime, re-acquaint yourself with Aussie Energy Policy and climate change.

The government’s plans to cut university spending has stumbled in the Senate. Nick Xenophon joined Labor and the Greens in opposing the move. The government wants to put in place an ‘efficiency’ measure that would lift the average student’s share of their uni fees from 42% to 46%. For the student, it would mean a 7.5% increase in fees by 2021. The Nick Xenophon team didn’t oppose non-controversial elements of the bill, such as raising funding for work experience programs and reforming university entrance equity programs. Still, it’s back to the drawing board for the Turnbull Government on higher education policy.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton received a blow this week after his new citizenship test laws were knocked back by the Senate. He’s trying again, lowering the standard of English required from ‘component’ to ‘modest’. Labor argues that the bill is still fundamentally racist, however, as immigrants from the UK, Ireland, Canada and the US are still exempt from needing to take any citizenship test.

As I write on early Friday morning, the Victorian Parliament has been debating legislation on euthanasia (or ‘assisted dying’) for almost 24 hours. It’s unclear at this stage when a vote will take place. The new law states that anyone over 18 who has suffered for more than 12 months from a painful, terminal illness may request lethal medication from their doctor. The Premier and the Deputy Premier are on opposite sides of the issue, and the Liberal and National Parties have just spent all night stubbornly refusing to let a vote be called to the floor. Proposed amendments have included lowering the eligibility time to six months, publicly disclosing euthanasia statistics, and criminalising the advertisement of euthanasia as an option to patients.

In Queensland, Townsville and Rockhampton local councils announced they’d be paying just over $15 million each to help build an air strip for the Adani coal mine project, in a deal to secure Adani’s promise of over 2,000 construction jobs for the region. While Adani has broad support in Queensland’s affected regional communities, ratepayers aren’t too happy that they’ll have to help foot the bill.

Polling suggests that the ‘yes’ vote on Aussie marriage equality has won. Today is the final day that you can send your form into the ABS for your vote to be counted. Polls of those who say they voted show that the majority voted ‘yes’. Attention and commentary is slowly turning to how the government will legislate the move. The pollies have been warned they may have to stay at work until Christmas Eve to make sure the bill is passed before the end of the year.

In a twist ending, Jacinda Arden has become New Zealand’s latest (and youngest in 150 years – she’s 37) Prime Minister, almost a month after elections took place. Neither of the major parties won enough seats to form government, but Arden’s opposition won more. Nevertheless, Arden formed a partnership with the New Zealand Greens and the New Zealand First Party to claim enough seats to get her the top job. She’s New Zealand’s third female Prime Minister, and famously campaigned on many progressive issues, including free tertiary education and legalising medical cannabis.

Things are only get more tense in Spain. It’s complex – we did a deep dive here – but basically a whole region of Spain, Catalonia, wants independence. Spain has refused to even enter into talks on the possibility. In fact, Spain has announced that it will impose direct rule on Catalonia, stripping it of the autonomy it holds at the moment. This effectively does Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont out of a job, officially. With neither side backing down, it looks as though the situation will only worsen in the weeks to come.

The refugees fleeing Myanmar (deep dive here) now number in excess of over 500,000, with most fleeing to Bangladesh. International pressure continues to descend on the Myanmar government – but not much is happening.

There was a major win in Syria this week, as Syrian democratic and US military forces took back the city of Raqqa from ISIL. Around 50% of the city has been destroyed, and there are reports of up to thirty citizens dying in the conflict. Still, it’s a win against ISIL, who are under continued pressure in Syria and neighbouring Iraq. The one at the top is by Youssef Rabih Youssef and the one below is by Chris Huby.

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In Somalia, citizens of the city Mogadishu are reeling after the country’s most horrific terrorist attack ever recorded. 300 people died and another 300 were injured when a truck exploded in a busy street. It is presumed that the al-Qaeda link al-Shabaab extremist group is responsible. Their previous bombings have claimed the lives of over 4,000 Somalians. Below, children help to clear up wreckage. Photo by Farah Abdi Warsameh.

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Tropical Storm Ophelia battered Ireland this week, killing three people and decimating power lines. Over 300,000 homes were without power. It’s the worst storm to hit Ireland in over fifty years. Photo below by Ben Birchall.

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For the first time, scientists have tracked gravitational waves to their source: a pair of colliding neutron stars. The dying stars are so massively dense (holding a HUGE amount of weight in a very SMALL space) that their collapse into each other causes ripples in reality (as in space AND time). The discovery solves the mystery of where gold and gamma rays come from and provides a more accurate means to measure the size of the entire universe.

The Wildlife Photography of the Year awards took place in London this week. The picture below is my favourite from the winners. Taken by Ashleigh Scully, who won in the 11-14 year olds category.

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See you next week.

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Tony Abbott: a profile

Tony Abbott is the first profile for Slow News Weekly. Strictly speaking he’s not especially deserving of the honour, given that he’s just a Liberal backbencher – but he’s so much more. In fact, Tony Abbott and the conservatives he represents are exerting more control over public policy than Prime Minister Turnbull would like to admit. Abbott is in public opposition to almost every key policy that Turnbull is trying to champion, despite Turnbull being his boss.

Turnbull’s voting yes. Abbott’s voting no. Turnbull has been a long time supporter of renewable energy. Abbott believes renewable energy is a waste of money. In the 90’s, Turnbull was pushing for Australia to become a republic. Abbott likes the royal family so much he went out of his way to give a special honour to Prince Phillip.

And with Turnbull’s poll numbers going down in recent weeks, there’s been speculation about Abbott making a come back as PM.

Before politics

Looking back, it’s easy to see Abbott’s political ascendancy as pre-ordained. His background and education makes him the very definition of white, male privilege.

He was born in 1957 (which makes him 60 this year) in England. He arrived in Sydney when he was very small. He studied a Bachelor of Economics and a Bachelor of Law at the University of Sydney. He then went to Oxford, England, as a Rhodes Scholar. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

He was a student boxer, and had a respectable record as an amateur sportsmen.

After graduating Oxford, he entered the Catholic Seminary in Sydney, with the intention to become a priest. Despite staying in the seminary for several years, he didn’t complete his training. Upon reflection, he described himself as a square peg in a round hole, and he decided that he would not be an effective priest, but still felt a calling to serve others.

A year later, he married his wife, and they went on to have three daughters.

He worked as a journalist, he ran a concrete plant and began to get involved in national politics. He renounced his British citizenship, making him eligible to run for Aussie Parliament.

Health and Howard

Abbott ended up heading an organisation called the ‘Australians for Constitutional Monarchy’ that advocated against Australia becoming a republic. He gained respect from Liberal Party officials such as John Howard. Prior to this point, Abbott had been chummy with the Labor Party, but said he always felt uncomfortable about the role of unions and drifted towards the Liberal Party.

Under Howard’s urging, Abbott ran for the seat of Warringah in Northern Sydney. Abbott won it comfortably, and has been safe in that seat ever since. (Interestingly, the Australia Bureau of Statistics suggests that most of the people in Abbott’s seat support same-sex marriage.)

He served as secretary to a long line of ministers in his first years as a politician. It only took him two years to become a Minister himself when he took over the Health portfolio – not a small task for a politician so new to the House of Representatives. Abbott had a busy tenure, staying in the job until Howard lost office in 2007.

  • He instigated the Nurse Family Partnership, aimed at improving conditions for indigenous youth by nurturing mother-child relationships. The scheme had success in reducing child abuse and improving school retention rates.
  • He opposed access to the abortion drug RU486.
  • He introduced the Medicare Safety Net to cap the maximum annual out-of-pocket costs to Medicare card holders.
  • He expanded Medicare to include dentists and psychologists.

Opposition

When the Liberal Party lost to Kevin Rudd’s Labor in 2007, Tony Abbott made a brief attempt at becoming Opposition Leader. Brendan Nelson ended up taking the spot, and then Malcom Turnbull. He wrote a book, titled Battlelines, and made his opinions clear on matters such as indigenous affairs (he supported the apology and the Northern Territory Intervention) and refugee policy (at this time there was a spike in boat arrivals and Abbott was determined to stop them). The book reads as an ambitious treatise for a man who was determined to become Prime Minister.

He overthrew Turnbull to become Leader of the Opposition in 2009. At the heart of the change was the ‘Emissions Trading Scheme’ proposed by Labor, which divided the opposition. The Scheme was designed to tax large industry that produced carbon emissions. Abbott wanted it dumped. It’s one chapter in a long history of Abbott repeatedly changing his mind on climate change and renewable energy. In this astonishing article from Crikey, it’s shown that Abbott has held seventeen conflicting views on climate change. His opinion tends to echo whatever view has the most personal political advantage for him at any time. In 2013, for example, when running for Prime Minister, he said he believed climate change was real and action was needed. Just last week, he was quoted as saying that climate change was a joke.

During his time in opposition, Abbott proposed new policy initiatives to fund six months paid parental leave by increasing corporate tax rates. The government opposed the initiative. He also worked with indigenous leaders such as Noel Pearson, and spent time as a teacher in remote indigenous communities such as Cape York. He also famously missed a vote for a stimulus package because he was too drunk to attend, having had too much red wine the night before.

The imploding mess of Rudd-Gillard-Rudd made the government an easy target for the Opposition. Abbott’s leadership was stable and ruthless. He led the Liberal National Party to victory in 2013.

Prime Minister Abbott

During his time as Prime Minister, Tony Abbott:

  • Committed to ceasing illegal boat arrivals on the shores of Australia;
  • Dumped the Carbon Tax that had been put in place by the Labor Government before him;
  • Initiated a Royal Commission into trade union governance and corruption that resulted in amendments to ditch more than 10,000 ‘red tape’ regulations. These included removing watchdog bodies that regulated charities and financial advisors to make sure they weren’t dodgy;
  • Proposed 2014 budget was a publicity disaster and never managed to pass the Senate;
  • Tried to reinstate the knight and dame system into the Order of Australia, with a desire to knight the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip, the Queen’s husband, for services to Australia;
  • Appointed Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker of The House – a role that demands neutrality. Bishop’s favourability towards the Liberal Party was criticised, as was her $5,000 helicopter ride that was paid for with taxpayer money;
  • Ate a raw onion for reasons best known to himself;
  • Opposed any movement on same-sex marriage, eventually saying that he would let the matter come to a plebiscite following the next election.

But he never made it to the next election. After polls repeatedly saw Abbott’s popularity sinking with the public, Turnbull made a challenge and took over.

From the peanut gallery

Since moving to the back bench, Abbott has kept up a persistent media commentary, booking regular spots on conservative radio and television. He’s grabbed headlines for opposing pretty much any of Turnbull’s key issues. He’s made enough noise, and has enough backing from many of his colleagues, that Turnbull’s language has noticeably softened, particularly around action on climate change, renewable energy and same sex marriage. Just this morning, the Turnbull government has announced that they won’t pursue a clean energy target, which Turnbull was in favour of just a few months ago.

Conservative Control

While many of Abbott’s policies over the years have rested in good and moral intentions, he has never been un-ambitious. He poses a threat to the current government, and keeps them in check from wondering too far to the left on key issues.

He publicly denies that he has a decent chance of becoming Prime Minister again. Now that Turnbull is consistently slipping in the polls – in part because of the paralysis on renewable energy and same sex marriage that Abbott’s commentary has triggered – the media is once again getting excited about its favourite topic: leadership spills.

We’ve done deep dives into refugee policy, climate change, energy policy, indigenous affairs and same sex marriage – all of which Abbott has had a massive affect on in the last few years. Check them out to find out more.

We’ll return on Friday with the news.

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Weekly News Summary

The government will announce massive changes to private health insurance today. They’re trying to encourage young people to pick up health insurance to take pressure off Medicare. There’ll be discounts of up to 10% for under thirties. Any insured patient entering a hospital with a mental health issue will be able to immediately upgrade their cover. The government has also faced tough negotiation with medical device suppliers, and will mandate price cuts for procedures such as replacement hips and pacemakers. Commentary and debate over the changes will dominate the news over the coming months (or at least, that’s what the government would like).

Tony Abbott was in trouble again this week. While in London, he visited a climate change skeptic think tank and said that policies to combat climate change were like “primitive people … killing goats to appease the volcano gods”. He said the settled science of climate change was absolute crap, and that climate change, overall, was probably doing good. He suggested that more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was actually helping to green the planet and produce more crops. (The author of the study he’s citing has specifically said this doesn’t mean climate change is a positive for the planet. According to him, the negative effects of rising sea waters, tropical storms and the killing of ocean life far out-weigh any benefits.)

Julie Bishop, the Foreign Minister and one of Abbot’s colleagues, has called him out on the comments and says he needs to explain himself. When he was PM, after all, he had a different position. In fact, he signed Australia up to the Paris climate agreement, saying Australia needed to lower its carbon emissions. All of this is happening while the Turnbull government is still yet to set a clean energy target, despite recommendations from the nation’s scientific advisors. In fact, Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg made comments to an energy summit this week that indicated the government is unlikely to set a clean energy target at all. We’ll take a deep dive into the Liberal National Party’s internal troubles, and particularly the mischief making Tony Abbott, on Tuesday. In the meantime, check out our deep dives on climate change and Aussie energy policy.

Popular independent senator Nick Xenophon is leaving federal politics to run in the upcoming South Australian election. The party is particularly popular in its home state. Now that Xenophon has announced he’ll be running for the State Parliament, it is likely that neither the Labor or Liberal Party will win enough seats to have a ruling government. Instead, Nick Xenophon will hold the balance of power. He will be replaced by another party member in the Federal Senate, where the Xenophon team hold three seats and have already influenced the federal government significantly, most recently on the media reform package.

We did a deep dive into the crisis in Spain on this week. Catalonia is demanding independence from Spain. The President of Catalonia has said he’ll suspend any action in the coming weeks to work on a dialogue with the Spanish government. But the government has hit back hard, giving the Catalonian government a week to back away from independence, or else the Spain would assert control over the region. Catalonia would likely see this as an invasion.

Hundreds of refugees are refusing to leave the Manus Island Detention Centre, which is scheduled to close at the end of this month. Despite the Australian government spending millions of dollars to build new housing in the nearby town of Lorengau, many refugees have said they’re simply not safe in town, saying the government will persecute them. Many are applying to transfer to the US. The government has offered to move these refugees to Nauru, Australia’s other off shore detention centre. Once again, Australia is drawing wide spread criticism for its policies. Check out our deep dive here.

Immensely powerful movie producer Harvey Weinstein is now facing dozens of allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. His poor behaviour is one of Hollywood’s worst kept secrets, but in the last week his actions have drawn public outcries from Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Meryl Streep. He faces criminal investigation.

Donald Trump has challenged his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to an IQ test. It was leaked that Tillerson called Trump a ‘fucking moron’ in private meetings. Trump continues to criticise Puerto Rico, who have said Trump has spectacularly failed to provide support to the country in the wake of a disastrous hurricane. He’s also issued an executive order to weaken health insurance plans that are under the Affordable Care Act put in by Obama. If Trump had his way, he’d get rid of the Act completely, but his recent attempts to do this in Congress failed.

The NSW Government passed a historic bill this week. The Aboriginal Languages Bill will appoint an independent panel of Aboriginal Language experts to establish a new language centre to preserve indigenous languages. About 1,800 people speak an indigenous language in NSW. (Find out more about indigenous affairs in Australia here.)

The Socceroos kept their World Cup dreams alive this week by defeating Syria.

We’ll be back with a deep dive into the LNP on Tuesday. Photo at the top of Julie Bishop and Tony Abbott by Lukas Coch.

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Spain and Catalonia Explained

Hola.

Spain’s in strife. There are mass protests, people trying to suppress those protests, wide-ranging arrests, a referendum that may or may not be illegal, and no one’s really sure just how much of Spain is Spanish anymore. But then again, actually, no one’s really been sure about that for a long time.

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We’re talking about Catalonia, which holds about 16% of the total population of Spain.

For most of history, Catalonia has been its own country, with its own laws, language, taxes and leaders. Then the War of Spanish Succession kicked off in 1702. Remember? No? Well, the result was modern day Spain. But Catalonia was never that keen on being Spanish. Subsequent kings tried to impose the Spanish language but Catalonia stubbornly resisted. And I mean, stubbornly, because in 1931, a few hundred years later, the Spanish government threw up their hands in exasperation and restored the Generalitat, or a national Catalonian government. This didn’t make Catalonia its own country, but it allowed them to elect their own leaders and exist with some autonomy.

Then World War 2 happened, and General Francisco Franco became Spain’s military dictator from 1936 to 1975. And he wasn’t too chilled out about the Catalonians wanting their independence. He shut down the movement and killed about 3,500 people to make sure they knew he meant business.

When Franco died, finally, at the age of 82, democracy was restored to Spain. Soon after, Catalonia was once again put on a leash by the Spanish government – they were given some autonomy, while still ultimately answering to the government of Spain. Many decades, laws and debates later, the issue is still tense for the Spanish and Catalonians.

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Barcelona in Catalonia, currently part of Spain. Clearly, it’s just awful. Photo by ‘Enes’ on Unsplash.

Here’s the thing: Catalonia has money. Barcelona is in the middle of it, and its population is generally a lot better off than the rest of Spain. A lot of industry is in Catalonia, powering the Spanish economy. This is the real sticking point for modern day Catalonians, who pay tax to a Spanish government. So when the global financial crisis hit in 2008, the Catalonians weren’t happy about how the Spanish dealt with the turmoil. In effect, they saw a government spending their money to help the poor that don’t live in Catalonia. All in all, they’re fed up with not being recognised independently of Spain. 95% of their population speak Catalan – a language that is not officially recognised by the European Union.

In September, shit went down in the Catalan Parliament. This gets complicated.

So Catalan has its own Parliament and President, but they still must answer to Spain and its Prime Minister. The Prime Minister of Spain is Mariano Rajoy, but his party doesn’t hold a majority in the Catalan Parliament. The Catalonian President, Charles Puigdemont, is supported by a bunch of Spain’s bigger political parties. So the Catalonian Parliament managed to pass a referendum (a big public vote) on Catalonia’s independence, which doesn’t gel with the Spanish government. This led to violence in and around polling booths. Spanish security took voting boxes. They docked three boats in Barcelona’s port that all held police reinforcements to try and suppress Catalonian enthusiasm. It got ugly.

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Photo by Manu Fernandez. Police warn off potential voters.
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Photo by Emilio Morenatti outside a polling place in Barcelona.

The votes that remain according to Puigdemont, are over 90% in favour of independence. He says it’s time to get on with it.

The fall out, however, would be massive for Spain. Spain would lose around 20% of its GDP (gross domestic product) – imagine taking away 20% of a nation’s economy overnight. Plus, there’s the small issue of Catalonia owing Spain over 50 billion euros in debt.

If it went ahead, Catalonia would be no joke. It’s economy would be bigger than Hong Kong or Portugal. It would be wealthier than Israel, Italy or South Korea.

No one’s quite sure what happens next – but it’ll all go down this week. The referendum was last week. The Spanish Supreme Court is moving to shut down attempts made by Catalonia to go independent, but Puigdemont is due to report the official results of the referendum in Catalonian parliament this week – where he might formally declare that Catalonia is now breaking up with Spain.

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Photo by Manu Fernandez. Firefighters join protesters picketing the Spanish government. They’re on strike in order to protest the police brutality. Many unions are urging workers to strike.

We’ll be back on Friday with the news.

Photo at the top by Emilio Morenatti.

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Weekly News Summary

Stephen Paddock, a 64 year old retiree, opened fire on a crowded music festival in Las Vegas, killing 58 people, and leaving at least 489 others injured. Paddock fired from a room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel, where he had brought a large stockpile of assault weapons. He killed himself before police officers could apprehend him. It is the worst mass shooting in United States history, claiming more lives than the night club shooting in Orlando, Florida in 2016 which previously held the title. An investigation is ongoing, but initial evidence seems to show Stephen Paddock had no criminal record and was a legal gun owner. The tragedy has re-ignited debate on gun laws in the States. The National Rifle Association has finally conceded that it may be time for change, banning the use of ‘bumper stock’ which Paddock use to turn his semi-automatic weapons into rapid fire guns.

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Vegas, photo by David Becker.

In a finding that surprises no one, the Climate Council has released a report saying the only barrier to a renewable energy future for Australia is politics. The cohesive study between scientists, engineers and industry experts says there are no technical or economic barriers to the switch. Within a decade, over a third of Aussie coal power plants will be more than fifty years old, at which point they usually shut down. The reports says switching to solar, wind, hydro and grid-scale batteries would create a more competitive, cheaper industry for Australian consumers. The Turnbull government is continuing to stall on a clean energy target. We did a deep dive into Australian energy policy here.

A 4 Corners report on Monday night revealed major concerns around Adani, the Indian company that is planning to begin construction on one of the world’s largest coal mines in Queensland this month. The company has faced multiple charges of fraud and environmental negligence. Queensland Premier Anastasia Palaszczuk has shrugged off the allegations, vowing that the mine will bring thousands of jobs to regional Queensland.

Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) has acted on complaints made about local government elections and councillors conduct. It found widespread breaches of the State’s electoral laws and made 31 recommendations. The Queensland Premier has pledged to ban political donations from property developers after it was revealed that Gold Coast, Logan and Ipswich councils voted more favourably towards developers who had made political donations. Logan Mayor is Luke Smith is under continuing investigation for unfairly influencing property development decisions.  The Chairman of the CCC said problems were widespread:

“It’s certainly at the very least a hotbed for perceived corruption and that happens when you have a lack of transparency. Their perception [the public] is, and I think correctly, there must be something wrong here — and that’s why it’s sought to be covered up. The public is right on the money, frankly.”

 

The PM met with the leaders of the states and territories this week in a special National Security COAG Meeting. They agreed to extend the length of time legally permissible to hold a terrorism suspect in custody to 14 days. They also agreed to sharing their drivers liscence and other ID photos to a national database for better surveillance.

The UK PM Theresa May is struggling in her leadership of her Conservative party. The UK Parliament is divided over contentious issues such as Brexit. The Conservative party held its national conference this week, and it was pretty disastrous.  May’s key speech was interrupted by a prankster handing her an unemployment form, she couldn’t shake a cough, and parts of the backdrop fell down around her. In addition, her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson (who’s a headline-grabbing character known for offbeat remarks), suggested that a city in Libya could be the next Dubai once they ‘cleared all the dead bodies away’.

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A broken sign that was behind the UK PM in her speech this week. It’s meant to read ‘Building a Country That Works for Everyone’. It now reads ‘Buidingacntrythaorksorryon’ which is Klingon for ‘really transparent metaphor.’

There was a referendum in Spain to vote if Catalonia  – a region in the northeast that includes Barcelona – should be independent from the rest of the country. Only problem is that the referendum isn’t officially recognised by the Spanish government. Still, it might be the final push to give Catalonia it’s freedom, or at least push Spain into a constitutional crisis. Official Spanish forces have been aggressive in trying to shut down the referendum. There have been many weeks of ugly protests and riots all over Spain. The conflict arises from decades long animosity between Catalonia and Spain – they went to civil war in the 30’s until being effectively absorbed under the Spanish constitution in the 70’s. The following weeks may see Catalonia’s long-awaited leap towards independent state-hood. We’ll do a deep dive on this issue this Tuesday.

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Police push back against protestors in Spain. Photo by Manu Fernandez.

The SS Macumba – an Aussie ship from the second world war – has been found after 74 years. The merchant ship was charged with carrying supplies from Brisbane to Darwin when it was sunk by the Japanese in 1943. The CSIRO found the ship off the Northern Territory coast this week.

Tom Petty, legendary rock star, has passed away. He was the lead in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as well as one of the founding members of The Travelling Wilburys (which included George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison). He sold over eighty million records.

It’s sort of hope amongst the ruins, I think. To me we’re all in the great wide open. I think life is pretty wild; I really want to like the world, but at the same time I have to write about what I see.

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Tom Petty, 2008. Photo by Chris O’Meara.

Photo at the top is from Mark Ralston.

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We’ll be back on Tuesday with a deep dive into Spain’s current dramas.

Australian Refugee Policy Explained

Australian Refugee Policy is contentious. It’s been at the heart of almost every federal election since John Howard first took office in 1996. Since then, we’ve been given repeated warnings from the United Nations, Amnesty International and the Human Rights Commission that our policy is crap – it traumatises people and causes severe harm. We’ve scrapped policies and built new ones. We’ve opened up our borders and we’ve closed them. We’ve built new detention centres, emptied out old ones, and even tried to move the whole problem overseas. But we’re still failing.

Immigrant versus Refugee

First things first, an immigrant isn’t the same as a refugee.

An immigrant may move to Australia for any number of reasons. A job, a family reunion, or because they’re a big fan of snakes that can kill you or Delta Goodrem (as in, they’re a fan of Delta Goodrem, not that the snakes could kill Delta Goodrem, but I guess they could…never mind).

There’s a legal framework for moving to Australia that’s on par with systems for other developed countries. If you have enough money to buy a plane ticket, have a relatively clean criminal record, and have a good chance of finding a job here (so you won’t leech off the welfare system), then you can call Australia home.

And it’s worth pointing out that immigration has been great for Australia in the past. In the mid-ninteenth century we were one of the most economically successful countries in the world, thanks in large part to our open borders policy and the promise of the Gold Rush. We buggered that up by closing our borders with the White Australia Policy – a piece of legislation that is exactly as racist as it sounds. When we closed our borders, we stumbled into economic recession. The White Australia Policy didn’t properly disappear until 1973, and once we began to welcome both European and Asian immigrants without unfair discrimination, we became more economically stable.

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A popular badge from 1901, in support of the White Australia Policy. Our first PM, Edmund Barton, wore one of these.

Still, the idea that our country is going to be ‘swamped by Asians’ (to quote the ginger nut Pauline Hanson) or somehow corrupted by extreme Islamic influence, remains a key concern for many Australians. This doesn’t change the fact that we’re still happy to accept immigrants on ‘reasonable’ terms – it’s one of the many reasons why we’ve had a booming economy with mining and managed to keep afloat during the Global Financial Crisis.

One way to appease the voters who are afraid of being invaded by a mass of chopstick-waving, suicide-bombing, Telstra customer service phone-answering criminals who will vote for gay marriage and renewable energy and take away the Aussie’s right to have a steak and chips for every-single-dinner – is to make a lot of noise about refugee policy.

So what’s a refugee?

A refugee, or asylum-seeker, is someone who can no longer live in their home country safely without fear of persecution or harm. It is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia. As part of being the United Nations, we’re obligated to accept a certain number of refugees every year and assist them settling into the community.

So what’s the problem?

Well, there’s many problems.

The first being that refugees don’t tend to rock up on a Qantas plane with a passport and Gucci luggage. Given the desperate circumstances of their departure, they may be absent of any identification or money. They may be too traumatised to recount the nature of their escape. They probably don’t speak English. They may have arrived on a boat via illegal people smuggling – watching their crew mates or family members drown at sea.

If we had a blanket policy of letting absolutely everyone into Australia who arrived in this manner, we’d have some major problems. First, all jokes aside, are the very real threats to national security posed by terrorist networks. The other, of course, is that we would only encourage people smuggling more. And that’s been proven. If word gets out Australia’s easy to get into via people smuggling, then more people end up coming through people smugglers – which means more deaths at sea, more exploitation of women and girls, and encouragement for criminal networks.

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An ad that was the result of the policies we arrived at in 2013, an effort to ‘stop the boats’.

But we can check those people, right? Make sure they’re not terrorists and then process them, and if they’re okay, we let them in…

Prior to 2013, that was roughly our policy.

Except we were doing a shit job. People were waiting years for their application to be processed. It was unfair and people were suffering. The system was broken. Plus, people were still rocking up in boats via people smugglers.

In 2013, when Kevin Rudd returned to the role of PM, he had a firmer hand on this policy. He made it clear that anyone who arrived in Australia by boat would simply not be settled here. (This was a huge turn around. When he was first elected in 2007, he actively closed down detention centres.) The Aussie government would now try to get the boats to turn back, or they would put the refugees in off shore detention – on Manus Island (part of Papua New Guinea) or Nauru (a small pacific island) to be processed and re-settled – anywhere but Australia.

This matched Tony Abbott’s key slogan for the election, to ‘stop the boats’. And the policy was successful. Boat arrivals dropped dramatically and Abbott took as much credit as he could.

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The East Lorengau transit accomodation for refugees on Manus Island – a ‘limbo’ camp while refugees await to be transported. Photo by Refugee Action Coalition.

So problem…solved…?

Not at all. We’re still stuck with Manus and Nauru. We don’t know much about daily life there, as journalists aren’t allowed in (to protect our national security…apparently), but reports aren’t good.

As recently as this weekend, a man has been found dead, apparently by suicide, in a Manus Island hospital. He was a Sri Lankin, and had already been found to be a valid refugee. He was legally owed protection, and was waiting to be re-settled. He had attempted suicide three days before, had been diagnosed with acute mental distress, and sent to a local hospital. The hospital, reported as under serviced, was unable to save his life.

This is not the first story like this – not by a long shot. There was another suicide in August by an Iranian man. His long-standing mental health issues had been raised with Australian Border Officials for well over a year. At least six refugees have died on Manus. Another three have died on Nauru.

Refugees can wait for over four years to be settled.

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A photo released by the Department of Immigration, 2012. The Manus Island Regional Detention Centre.

In June, the Australian Government settled a huge class action law suit with Manus Island detainees – both current and past. They agreed to pay out $70 million in damages to over 1,900 detainees who had signed onto the class action. Had the trial gone ahead, they were likely to have had to pay more.

In 2016, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court declared the Manus Island Centre illegal, as it was against human rights. The centre, which is run by the Papua New Guinea government in partnership with the Australian Border Security, has appalling conditions, with detainees complaining about rampant abuse from staff, appalling food that is mouldy or long expired and a lack of medical care. The centre is set to close at the end of October, 2017.

So where do they go?

Well, fifty of them just left to be re-settled in the United States. That was a deal that Turnbull struck with Obama, and then Trump famously didn’t like. The rest will either be re-settled in Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Nauru or elsewhere. It’s been reported that the government has offered the refugees as much as $25,000 each to return to their own countries.

Ugh, this makes me feel sick.

Yep.

And there’s a lot more to talk about. Our Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is a controversial figure. This month alone he’s gotten in trouble for tightening the English level on the citizenship test (apparently a lot of year ten students wouldn’t even pass it), he’s wanted to take phones off immigrants, and he wanted to send a hundred refugees back to Nauru and Manus Island after they’d be flown to Australia for urgent medical attention. (Just by the by, he also wants to vote no on marriage equality, has been granted unprecedented personal powers as Immigration Minister, and was voted the ‘worst health minister ever’ for his time in the role in 2013 by over a thousand doctors.)

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Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, permanently concerned about his odd eyebrows. Photo by Mike Bowers.

The key problem of a nation’s refugee policy is the very thing that demands our humanity – the idea that refugees are desperate. Desperate enough to do anything. Take the example of Dutton and Turnbull wanting to ship back those refugees who had medical treatment, for example. On the one hand, that seems inhumane and stupid. On the other, would accepting those refugees into the Australian community encourage others in offshore detention to get sick or harm themselves? Quite possible. In the past refugees in off shore detention protested their conditions by sewing their mouths shut. Others have harmed themselves in an attempt to hurry their application process.

At the end of 2016, Nauru had 380 asylum seekers awaiting processing. Manus Island had 866. 1,244 people total. On average, about 90% of people who arrive by boats are found to be genuine refugees. It’s the remaining 10% that we are trying to avoid.

So with those numbers, that means we’re worried about 124 people. How much pain are our policies causing in exchange for those people?

But if we adopt a more compassionate, lenient process, there’ll be more people. In a way, all the bad press about Manus and Nauru is good for the government’s ultimate aim. At the moment, Australia doesn’t look like an attractive destination if you’re seeking asylum. But then, if you’re desperate enough to seek asylum, you many not care where you end up anyway.

There are no easy answers, but almost everyone’s agreed: the current situation is not good enough. Charities such as Amnesty International have frequent campaigns.

We’ll be back on Friday with the news, including a breakdown of the shooting in Vegas.

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Weekly News Summary

It’s been a big week for Tony Abbott, who is requesting that Australia feel sorry for him. First, because he was head-butted by a drunk DJ in Hobart. Abbott immediately went to the press and said he was a ‘yes’ supporter for marriage equality and the attack was politically motivated. The DJ denies this. While he was wearing a sticker that said yes, the headbutt wasn’t motivated by marriage equality. DJ Astro Labe admits he was drunk, and:

All it was is I saw Tony Abbott and I’d had half a skinful and I wanted to nut the cunt.

So there. Still Abbott led the charge against yes campaigners, with other conservatives in tow, saying that the yes side of the debate is insensitive and aggressive. This week, Abbot’s protesting Macklemore performing his gay rights song ‘Same Love’ at the NRL Grand Final. In a Trump-like tweet, Abbott demanded to keep politics out of football. Some of his colleagues, including Malcom Turnbull, says he needs to calm down and support the choice of Macklemore as a popular artist. Check out our deep dive on marriage equality here.

In a week where Abbott stole most of the headlines for Australian politics, the Turnbull government announced a comprehensive review of Australian Family Law. It’ll be the most comprehensive review since 1976. It will examine the adversarial nature of legal proceedings, such as custody battles and divorces. The system is currently set up, some argue, to encourage, rather than subdue, conflict.

Treasurer Scott Morrison wants to let you know that they’ve helped the Australian economy. Australia’s budget deficit is about $4.5 billion better off than they anticipated back in May. This is mainly because of company tax collections and a slower than expected uptake of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The deficit is still $33.2 billion – and the government has previously vowed to fix it altogether.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has not backed down from comments he made on conservative radio about refugees on Manus Island and Nauru. He said they’ve received an “enormous amount of support from taxpayers”.  And:

“We have been taken for a ride, I believe, by a lot of the advocates and people within Labor and the Greens who want you to believe this is a terrible existence. “

We’ll look into Australia’s refugee policy and the off-shore detention centres in our deep dive next Tuesday.

Malcom Turnbull has apparently saved us from a gas crisis. In the last months, it has been revealed that Australia has been heading towards a massive gas shortage in 2018 and 2019. Santos, Origin and Shell have all been shipping their excess gas to international markets where they can make more money, leaving Aussies behind. But after months of negotiation, the government has convinced the three companies to cover the predicted shortfall. Labor thinks this isn’t enough to simply trust the companies, rather, they should have higher taxes for their exports, or they should cap the amount of exports altogether. Gas is a key part of Australia’s energy system, which we did a deep dive on here.

Trump’s had a tough week. He tried to repeal the health care that Obama put in place and failed in Congress. He’s also started lashing out at African-American athletes who have refused to stand during the national anthem before games, instead taking a knee as a sign of protest. He’s losing ground quickly, as athletes across the country, regardless of race, have started taking the knee as a form of protest against Trump’s presidency, particularly his approach to racial conflict.

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San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid and quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneel as protest during the national anthem. Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez.

All of Puerto Rico is still without power a week after they were hit by Hurricane Maria. Trump’s approach to disaster relief has been heavily criticised. Some fresh water supply tanks have been mobbed. Complicating the issue is the ‘Jones Act’, which says that relief supplies can only be shipped via American transport, which means that a lot of Puerto Rico’s relief has been stranded in shipping containers back on America’s mainland. Trump finally waived the Jones Act a few hours ago.

Over 100,000 people have been evacuated from their villages in Bali after warnings that the volcano Mount Agung is getting ready to erupt. The last time the volcano erupted was in 1963. Around 30,000 cattle remain in the danger zone, threatening to disrupt the local economy if the livestock dies during the disaster.

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The volcanic Mount Agung, Bali. Photo by Bay Ismoyo.

Saudi Arabia finally allowed women to drive this week. It comes amidst growing tensions within the country’s politics to push a more progressive approach to gender.

New Zealand had an election last week, and the National Party, which has been in power for nine years, remained on top. Only just though, as new Labor leader, 39 year old Jacinda Arden, the youngest in the party’s history, applied a lot of pressure.

Germany’s also had an election, and has kept Angela Merkel as their leader. However, there’s been a rise of the far right in Germany, with the ‘Alternative for Germany’ party, which campaigned on climate change denial, immigration reform to ‘protect’ Germany, and to uphold ‘traditional family values’.

Twitter announced they’re going to double their character limit to 280 characters. The original 140 was designed around previous SMS limits.

Uber will not be allowed to operate in London by the end of the year. The mayor will not re-new Uber’s licence to operate, which expires at the end of September, for fears of public safety and some drivers earning less than minimum wage. The British PM has criticised the London mayor, and Uber has begun negotiations to reform its practices.

Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy, has died at the age of 91 due to natural causes. In his death, some are labelling him a ‘pimp’, others an important social revolutionary who pushed liberal ideals from the late 1950’s.

“[I’m most proud] that I changed attitudes towards sex. That nice people can live together now. That I decontaminated the notion of premarital sex. That gives me great satisfaction.”

“I believe embracing sexuality is part of what it means to be free.”

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A young Hugh Hefner.

We’ll be back next Tuesday talking about Australia’s immigration policy.

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