Chief Correspondent, Sydney
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Feb 19, 2010

Australian PM shifts focus to health in election year

SYDNEY, Feb 19 (Reuters) – Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Friday hinted he may call an early election over the populist issue of health, as media reported a new health plan to be released in March would be his centrepiece at 2010 elections.

Political analysts had believed Rudd’s embattled climate policy, twice rejected by a hostile Senate, could be the focus of his re-election campaign, but with voter support waning, health may now be a more attractive issue.

The government holds a commanding lead in opinion polls, but Rudd’s personal rating is the lowest since he was elected in 2007 and he needs a circuit breaker to stop a resurgent opposition before a national election due by the end of the year.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported the government had made its reforms of private health insurance, which will raise some A$1.9 billion in revenue over three years, a priority over its embattled carbon emissions trading scheme legislation.

"Climate change has slid down the order of election priorities with the government to dedicate next week in parliament to gaining a double dissolution (election) trigger on health," the Herald said.

A double dissolution election sees both houses of parliament dissolved for re-election, and if the government wins the poll it would then stage a joint sitting of both houses to pass the legislation which sparked the election.

Asked on television on Friday to rule out an early election on health, Rudd refused, saying "let’s just see what they (the Senate) do", adding his health reforms were a huge budgetary measure.

"I would much rather have that (money) to invest in the public hospital needs of our country," said Rudd, who has promised voters he will fix the country’s hospitals which are struggling to cope with patient demand from an ageing population.

HEALTH OVERTAKES CLIMATE

Rudd will unveil a wider public health reform plan, which will be "an election centrepiece", next month, said the Herald.

It would be easier for Rudd to campaign on health reforms which hit high income earners with a means test on a government rebate for private health insurance, rather than climate policy which many voters now oppose.

This could affect health firms like NIB <NHF.AX> and private hospital operators like Ramsay Health Care Ltd <RHC.AX> and Healthscope <HSP.AX>.

The opposition has vowed to defeat the health legislation in the Senate a second time.

Rudd has also promised a federal takeover of state-administered hospitals, but few political watchers expect him to carry it out, given its likely A$3-5 billion cost.

The government already has an election trigger over climate policy, which has been rejected twice in the Senate. A revised climate policy is also set for defeat in Senate.

Rudd has repeatedly said governments should go full term, but a new opposition leader Tony Abbott has rallied his conservative party and gained traction with voters.

In an attempt to win back voters, analysts say Rudd may also be forced to abandon plans for comprehensive reform of the A$278 billion taxation system that threatens to lift the tax impost, or reverse plans for a tough May 11 budget.

The government has already committed itself to an austere budget that locks in savings and promises a faster return to surplus, as well as a 2 percent cap on spending increases, as the economy recovers from the global financial crisis. (Editing by Jeremy Laurence)





Feb 16, 2010

Australia-China to resume free trade talks

SYDNEY, Feb 16 (Reuters) – Australia and China will resume
stalled free trade talks this month despite tensions over the
trial of an Australian mining executive in China, but
agriculture remains a stumbling block, Australia’s trade
minister said.

“The political will in my judgement is there,” Simon Crean
said on Tuesday in announcing the resumption of Free Trade
Agreement (FTA) talks in Canberra after a break of more than a
year.

Feb 15, 2010

Five Australians jailed for jihad plot

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Five Australian Muslims found with weapons and chemicals to make bombs and convicted of plotting a terror attack in Australia were jailed on Monday for terms ranging from 23 to 28 years.

The men were found guilty in October 2009 of conspiring to commit an attack between July 2004 and November 2005 in retaliation for Australia’s involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Feb 11, 2010

Rio says China partnership key ahead of bribe trial

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia urged China to deal transparently with the trials of four Rio Tinto staff accused of bribery and stealing commercial secrets, as the firm’s CEO said the Asian country remained a key part of its long-term plans.

Against a backdrop of investor concern over dealings with Beijing, China on Wednesday indicted the four China-based employees of Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto <RIO.AX>, the world’s second-largest iron ore producer. They include Australian Stern Hu, its top negotiator at the time of his arrest last year.

Feb 11, 2010

Australia urges Chinese transparency in Rio case

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia urged China to deal quickly and transparently with the trials of four Rio Tinto mining staff accused of bribery and stealing commercial secrets, amid growing investor concern over dealing with Beijing.

China on Wednesday indicted the four China-based employees of Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto, the world’s second-largest iron ore producer, including Australian Stern Hu, its top negotiator at the time of his arrest last year.

Feb 8, 2010

Australia’s “Top End” too dry to become food bowl

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The dream of turning Australia’s tropical north into a major food bowl to replace drought-stricken southern farmlands and feed a future Asia has been shattered by a new report released on Monday.

Despite a billion of liters of annual rain, the equivalent of 2,000 Sydney Harbours, northern Australia has limited water, with 65 percent of rain lost through evaporation and 20 percent in rivers, while only 15 percent recharges groundwater reserves.

Feb 8, 2010

Australia’s "Top End" too dry to become food bowl

SYDNEY, Feb 8 (Reuters) – The dream of turning Australia’s tropical north into a major food bowl to replace drought-stricken southern farmlands and feed a future Asia has been shattered by a new report released on Monday.

Despite a billion of litres of annual rain, the equivalent of 2,000 Sydney Harbours, northern Australia has limited water, with 65 percent of rain lost through evaporation and 20 percent in rivers, while only 15 percent recharges groundwater reserves.

And climate change will make northern Australia hotter and drier by 2030, reducing water availability, said the report by the Northern Australian Land and Water Taskforce.

Northern Australia’s resources boom, with miners Rio Tinto <RIO.AX> <RIO.L> and BHP Billiton <BHP.AX> <BLT.L> fuelling China’s growth, is forecast to continue to grow significantly.

However, water scarcity in the north will be a major issue for future mining, along with access to skilled labour, said the report on sustainable development in northern Australia.

"Given the significant growth anticipated in this industry, it will be important to monitor the impact of the mining and resources industry on the water balance in northern Australia," the government-commissioned report said.

Farmers and rural politicians have for decades called for the "Top End" of Australia to be developed into a food bowl, citing the success of the nation’s largest irrigation scheme, the Ord River Irrigation Scheme in the far northwest. The Ord scheme produces fresh fruit and vegetables, mainly for export to Asia.

"It will not be the food bowl for the world," said Western Australian state politician Gary Gray after the reports release.

The report said: "Despite high rainfall from November to April there is almost no rain for the remaining six months.

"Evaporation and plant transpiration is so high throughout the year that, on average, for 10 months of the year there is very little water to be seen."

Most rain falls near the coast or on floodplains, quickly running into the sea and making it hard to capture, and little in the upper reaches of rivers, where the topography is suits dams and water reservoirs. Few northern rivers flow all year.

The report ruled out more dams on environmental grounds and said the maximum area that could be irrigated from groundwater was 60,000 hectares, only three times the current area.

MINING, CATTLE TO GROW

Future agriculture in the north could expand by developing small-scale mosaic agriculture, however, and its cattle industry, which exports live cattle to Asia, could double in size by 2030 by intensifying production and improving feeding facilities.

Australia’s largest beef producer, Australian Agricultural Company Ltd <AAC.AX>, has major operations in northern Australia.

Northern Australia carries about 30 percent of the country’s cattle and produces 80 percent of live cattle exports, worth about up to A$400 million ($346 million) a year.

The gross value of agricultural production in the north by 2030 could increase by 40 percent from 2000 levels in response to increasing demands for plant and animal protein from both Asia and domestic consumers, said the report.

Northern Australia is the centre of the country’s mineral resources boom and will continue to grow, employing two-thirds of the region’s population by 2030, it said.

By 2030, the gross value of production (GVP) in northern Australia will be near A$35 billion, more than double the value in 2000. Mining, tourism, and marine and environmental service industries will account for 90 percent of GVP, compared with approximately 60 percent in 2000. (Reporting by Michael Perry; Editing by Alex Richardson)






Jan 28, 2010

Australia “faces worse bushfires without CO2 deal”

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia faces a possible 300 percent increase in extreme bushfires by 2050 unless world leaders can agree to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions, a new report said on Thursday.

The report, commissioned by Australia’s firefighters and environmental group Greenpeace, said the failure of U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen to agree on a treaty to tackle climate change had left Australia facing future catastrophic bushfire seasons.

Jan 28, 2010

Australia "faces worse bushfires without CO2 deal"

SYDNEY, Jan 28 (Reuters) – Australia faces a possible 300 percent increase in extreme bushfires by 2050 unless world leaders can agree to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions, a new report said on Thursday.

The report, commissioned by Australia’s firefighters and environmental group Greenpeace, said the failure of U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen to agree on a treaty to tackle climate change had left Australia facing future catastrophic bushfire seasons.

The "Future Risk: Battling Australia’s Bushfires" report comes only days before the Copenhagen Accord Jan 31. deadline for nations to announce emissions reduction targets.

"Bushfire conditions are clearly changing and there is strong evidence that global warming is making Australia’s climate more bushfire-prone," said Jim Casey, secretary of the Fire Brigade Employees Union in Australia’s New South Wales state.

"Bushfire seasons are getting longer and fires are becoming more frequent and intense. We have the power to reverse this trend or we can shrug our shoulders, do nothing and play Russian roulette with our lives," Casey said in releasing the report.

Bushfires are a natural phenomenon in Australia, due to the hot, dry climate.

Australia’s most deadly bushfires occurred in February 2009 and were blamed on a decade long drought and extreme heatwaves. The "Black Saturday" infernos killed 173 people and destroyed thousands of homes in the southern state of Victoria state.

This Australian summer has again seen extreme bushfires.

THREE SCENARIOS

The bushfire report, based on studies by Australia’s peak scientific body the Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), painted three scenarios:

* Under a global climate treaty based on current promises to cut greenhouse gases, Australia’s mean temperature would rise by 2 degrees Celsius above 1990 levels by 2050.

This would double the number of severe bushfire days in Australia’s most populated southeast corner by 2050. Severe bushfire days would occur once every six months in Sydney.

* Without a legally binding climate treaty the upper forecast temperature rise of 6.4 degrees Celsius globally, by the end of the century, would see Australia experience a 2.8 degree Celsius rise above 1990 levels by 2050.

This is the worst case scenario for Australia which could see up to a 300 percent rise in extreme bushfire days by 2050.

* Under a global treaty with dramatic greenhouse gas cuts, which could see Australia halve its greenhouse emissions by 2050, extreme bushfire danger days would rise by only 8-17 percent.

"Future bushfire danger in Australia will depend heavily on how fast and by how much we act to tackle global warming," said the report.

"The best chance of avoiding a high global warming scenario is through a fair, ambitious and legally binding international treaty to cut emissions," it said.

The firefighters and Greenpeace called on the Australian government to dramatically increase its greenhouse emissions target cuts, but Climate Change Minister Penny Wong on Wednesday announced Australia would stick to its 5 to 25 percent emissions cut range under the non-binding "Copenhagen Accord".

Wong said any decision to opt for a 15 or 25 percent target depended in part on strong steps by India and China to reduce the growth of their greenhouse gas emissions.

"This report shows that unless governments ramp up their targets for cutting greenhouse emissions, we’ll be facing more frequent bushfire tragedies on an even greater scale," said Casey. (Reporting by Michael Perry; Editing by Alex Richardson)





Jan 5, 2010

Australia baked under hottest decade on record

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia experienced its hottest decade on record from 2000 to 2009 due to global warming, the nation’s bureau of meteorology said on Tuesday, as annual summer bushfires again burn drought lands and destroy homes.

The average temperature in Australia over the past 10 years was 0.48 degrees Celsius above the 1961-1990 average, said the Bureau of Meteorology said in its annual climate statement.