Archive for December, 2018

Kidnapped Australian aid worker Katherine Jane Wilson, who goes by the name Kerry, with her father Brian.Australian aid worker Kerry Jane Wilson has been released unharmed after four months being held hostage in Afghanistan.

Dr Wilson was snatched at gunpoint in late April by gun-toting men posing as Afghan intelligence officers from the office of her charity in the eastern city of Jalalabad. Since then there has been little news of the 60-year-old from Perth.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop confirmed the news on Monday morning, offering thanks to Afghan authorities who helped free the charity worker and Australian officials who had provided support to Dr Wilson’s family.

“I confirm that Kerry Jane Wilson, who was abducted in Afghanistan in April this year, has been released, and she is now safe and well. I am relieved for Kerry Jane, and her family with whom I have remained in close contact.

“I deeply appreciate the work of the authorities in Afghanistan whose support and assistance facilitated her release, as well as Australian consular staff who continue to provide assistance to Ms Wilson and her family.”

Ms Bishop did not comment on how Dr Wilson’s freedom was secured, in particular whether any ransom was paid. The Australian government does not make or facilitate ransom payments in hostage situations to avoid encourage further kidnappings.

But it was understood at the time Dr Wilson was taken that her abductors were likely local criminals interested in making money rather than hardcore extremists such as Taliban.

“To protect those who remain captive or face the risk of kidnapping in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the Government will not comment on the circumstances of Kerry Jane’s release. Her family has asked for privacy,” Ms Bishop said.

Dr Wilson’s kidnappers talked their way into her compound by posing as Afghan intelligence officers and then snatched Dr Wilson at gunpoint in the early morning raid.

Dr Wilson is a dual Australian-British national who was living in Kabul and had been in Afghanistan nearly 20 years. She was due to fly to Perth to visit her father Brian days after she was abducted.

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Chris Teoh and Ivan Hinton-Teoh from Australian Marriage Equality, with LDP Senator David Leyonhjelm. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen “Without a free vote from the Coalition we will struggle on the issue of marriage equality”: Alex Greenwich. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Marriage equality campaigners will target Liberal MPs, particularly newly-elected politicians, to keep alive any hope of a vote on same-sex marriage during this term of Parliament, while refusing to concede that any reform is now likely years away.

Australian Marriage Equality called for an immediate “reset” in Canberra and for Liberal MPs who support marriage equality to pressure Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to allow a free vote in the absence of a plebiscite.

Another two groups, including Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays – known as PFLAG – welcomed news that the plebiscite was now all-but doomed, despite government ministers warning it remains the only path to marriage equality over the next three years.

AME chairman Alex Greenwich said he could “guarantee” there would be action on same-sex marriage in the new Parliament but set his sights on an unlikely outbreak of bipartisanship and MPs on the right of politics coming out publicly with calls for a free vote.

“It is clear that without a free vote from the Coalition we will struggle on the issue of marriage equality,” he conceded.

“We need a reset, we need a rethink and we need people to come together and work out in a respectful way how they are going to get through this impasse. Support among many many new MPs is very strong and I know that whether they are members of the Liberal Party or the Labor Party, or indeed the Greens or Nick Xenophon Team, they want an opportunity through this Parliament to show that support.”

AME, which claims 84 of 150 lower house MPs have publicly stated support for marriage equality, has been torn over whether to gear up to fight a plebiscite or concentrate on shooting down the idea, with founder Rodney Croome, an opponent of a plebiscite, leaving the group last month.

Mr Greenwich said a plebiscite would have reflected public support for same-sex marriage identified in polling.

But PFLAG spokeswoman Sharyn Faulkner thanked Senator Xenophon’s party for standing in the way of the plebiscite in the Senate, along with Derryn Hinch, the Greens and likely Labor.

“We are grateful that more and more politicians are seeing a plebiscite for what it really is – a platform for hate and a delaying tactic,” she said.

“Our gay sons and lesbian daughters have made it very clear they don’t want millions of other people passing judgment on their relationships, and we stand by them.”

Lobby group “just.equal” also called on the ALP to publicly declare its hand and a kill off  the plebiscite.

Spokesman Ivan Hinton-Teoh claimed a blocked plebiscite did not mean marriage equality was stalled.

“I expect that when a plebiscite is knocked on the head, the Government will look again at a free vote, and even if a free vote isn’t allowed only a handful of Liberals need to cross the floor for marriage equality to pass,” he said.

“In the absence of a plebiscite I believe there is a parliamentary path forward for marriage equality.”

Education Minister Simon Birmingham, a leading figure on the Left of the Liberal Party warned that a plebiscite remained the “only way” for change to happen.

“A plebiscite is the only way [supporters] will see that change occur over the next three years,” said.

NSW Senator David Leyonhjelm, who supports marriage equality and introduced a private member’s bill in 2014 to make it law, nonetheless called on the Greens and others not to vote down a plebiscite.

“It is now the quickest path to same-sex marriage.  My concern is for the thousands of people who want to marry. For their sake, our job now should be to get it passed. Arguments about the ideal process and symbolic posturing are not helping,” he said.

“If it’s left to the Greens, Saudi Arabia will have marriage equality before we do.”

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has declared budget repair the “massive moral challenge” of the new Parliament, challenging Labor, the Greens and the crossbench to tackle the nation’s ballooning debt “head-on” while echoing Kevin Rudd’s stark warning about climate change a decade ago.

And Fairfax Media has obtained a leaked copy of a “backbenchers brief” that sets out the details of the so-called omnibus savings bill, which largely contains measures that Labor agreed to, or indicated it could agree to, during the election campaign.

The leaked document reveals the omnibus bill is designed to save $6.1 billion over four years and includes 24 measures – up from the 21 that had initially been foreshadowed.

As MPs returned to Parliament on Monday after a four-month break, the Coalition partyroom meeting signed off on 26 different pieces of legislation, including the omnibus bill, that will be presented to the Parliament.

But amid talk of a “battle plan” to ramp up pressure on the opposition to pass the government’s legislative agenda, fully 23 of the 26 bills were first proposed in the previous parliament, including the pair of industrial relations bills that triggered the double dissolution election and media ownership reforms. Some are as much as three years old.

Mr Turnbull told the Coalition partyroom that budget repair was now about “more than economics. It is more than fiscal matters”.

“This is a fundamental moral challenge. How long are we prepared as a nation, as a generation, to load more and more debt on to the shoulders of our children and grandchildren? How long are we prepared to live beyond our means, to live effectively on the credit card of the generations that come after us?”

“We have a task and this Parliament has a task. Every member and every Senator, regardless of their party, regardless of whether they are part of the Government or the opposition or the crossbenches, has a responsibility to face this reality.”

Mr Rudd once claimed that tackling climate change was the “great moral challenge” of the age but in a decision that subsequently proved to be pivotal in the unmaking of his prime ministership, he subsequently dumped the then Labor government’s promise to introduce a carbon pollution reduction scheme – and lost his job months later.

The leaked backbench brief states the omnibus bill “is part of a concerted strategy to demonstrate immediate and tangible progress towards fiscal repair”.

“Strengthening the nation’s finances is key to the government’s economic plan. Working to balance the budget will restore the the buffers that protect Australia against the economic shocks and uncertainties that might otherwise threaten our future success.

“This bill contains 24 savings measures announced in our last term that the opposition assumes passage of in its election costings.”

Labor has held off on committing to backing the omnibus bill, insisting it will only commit one way or another once the government releases the actual legislation.

The actual bill could be released as soon as Tuesday.

The three new measures foreshadowed for the omnibus bill appear to be abolishing the National Health Performance Authority, ceasing social security payments for people in psychiatric confinement who have been charged with an offence and creating a single appeal path under the military rehabilitation and compensation act. None of these measures are new.

The federal government and opposition have traded blows for the last week over budget repair, starting with a speech by Mr Turnbull in which he called on Labor to back the omnibus bill and backed in by Treasurer Scott Morrison and Finance Minister Mathias Cormman.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten attempted to turn the tables on the government in a speech at the National Press Club in which the Labor leader proposed $8 billion in savings over four years, and $80 billion over a decade, that largely consisted of ALP election policies.

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Protesters assembled outside the gates of the Australian embassy in Dili in February, demanding negotiations over the Timor Sea boundary. Photo: Wayne Lovell, Timor PhotographyAustralia has rejected the jurisdiction of an international tribunal on which East Timor is relying to deliver a greater slice of oil and gas revenue.

East Timor remains incensed by claims Australia spied during negotiations for a Howard-era treaty to share oil and gas deposits in the Timor Sea.

The tiny nation has invoked a never-before used “conciliation commission” under the international law of the sea in a bid to end a bitter impasse over drawing a maritime boundary.

Former prime minister and independence hero Xanana Gusmao told the opening hearing of the commission on Monday that East Timor was not asking for favours or special treatment, just its rights under international law.

“So many East Timorese people have fought and died for our sovereignty,” Mr Gusmao said.

He said he was “shocked and appalled” when told Australia had bugged the tiny nation’s cabinet office in 2004. Australia has prevented a former intelligence agent known as “Witness K” from appearing at a separate case brought by East Timor.

But at a hearing at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, Australian officials denied the spying allegations and said East Timor should respect existing treaties to divide undersea resources.

“We’re here today because Timor Leste wants a different deal,” Foreign Affairs deputy secretary Gary Quinlin told the hearing.

Australia argued the commission had no jurisdiction to conduct hearings on maritime boundaries, and said the existing treaties are in full compliance with international law.

The conciliation was invoked in April after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull knocked back a plea from his East Timorese counterpart, Rui Maria de Araujo, asking for fresh negotiations.

International law specialist Don Rothwell said the conciliation process was “completely new territory”.

Participation is compulsory, but the outcome is not-binding – a point Australia has been quick to emphasise.

But Professor Rothwell said the commission was not merely a legal process, but an attempt to find an acceptable solution for both sides.

Australia has committed to participate in the conciliation, even if it loses the challenge to jurisdiction. The conciliation commission is made up of five international legal experts.

The existing treaties, signed soon after East Timor achieved independence, divide undersea resources and Australia said the deal had “benefited both our countries”, with East Timor since accumulating a fund worth more than $16 billion.

But East Timor’s lawyers told the hearing a 2006 treaty – known as “Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea”, or CMATS – had failed and outlived its usefulness.

The CMATS treaty created a 50-50 split of the rich “Greater Sunrise” field, and put off negotiations on a final maritime boundary for 50 years.

East Timor now argues the resources should be under its control – while Australia claims the field sits mostly within its territory.

La Trobe University’s Bec Strating, who has written extensively on the dispute, said the conciliation appeared an effort by East Timor to create public pressure.

“Timor Leste has increasingly viewed permanent maritime boundaries as a core aspect of sovereignty and independence,” Dr Strating said.

But she said a public relations campaign in Australia was unlikely to sway the Turnbull government’s approach.

“If the Australian public can’t get them to change policy on Nauru and offshore detention, what hope do they have on Timor Leste,” she said.

Labor pledged at the last election it would enter into “good faith” negotiations on the maritime boundary and shadow foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said on Monday: “We need this dispute settled in fair and permanent terms.”​

Dr Strating said the conciliation process did not address the central problem of a power imbalance between the countries.

“Australia has the upper hand in this. Australia doesn’t urgently need oil and gas revenues. Timor Leste does,” Dr Strating said.

East Timor’s petroleum fund shrank for the first time last year, the balance falling by $321 million after a drop in global oil prices and an increase in government spending.

Swinburne University Timor specialist Mike Leach warned if the jurisdictional challenge went against East Timor, the tiny nation could move to terminate the CMATS treaty.

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“The only way” to resolve the issue: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull defends the same-sex marriage plebiscite. Photo: Penny Stephens 

Labor is set to keep the Turnbull government guessing about its position on the same-sex marriage plebiscite, with the opposition unlikely to make a decision before it sees the proposed question.

The Nick Xenophon Team on Monday joined the Greens in committing to vote down the plebiscite in the Senate, making Labor the government’s only hope of honouring its election commitment.

Meanwhile, conservative and moderate wings of the Coalition have rallied behind Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for his rigid defence of the Abbott-era plebiscite, insisting it is “the only way” to resolve the issue.

Addressing Labor’s new shadow ministry, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten railed against the “vile, negative campaign” that a plebiscite would unleash, and reiterated that Labor would continue to push for a free vote in the Parliament.

MPs did not discuss the issue at a Labor caucus meeting on Monday, but sources from the Left and Right factions indicated there was very little, if any, resistance to blocking the plebiscite.

One shadow minister suggested Labor could yet be persuaded to wave the plebiscite through if it approved of the wording – for example, if the question referred to “marriage equality”.

It is also understood that consideration is being given to the view that Labor will be judged harshly for delaying gay marriage indefinitely and denying the public a chance to have a say.

Senate powerbroker Nick Xenophon delivered a potentially fatal blow to the plebiscite on Monday, confirming his party would vote to block the bill. “We believe this is an issue that ought to be determined by the Parliament,” he said, adding that all four NXT parliamentarians support marriage equality.

While the government has the support of One Nation’s four senators plus David Leyonhjelm, Jacqui Lambie and Bob Day, that will not be sufficient to get the plebiscite through the Senate if Labor ultimately votes to block it.

Marriage equality campaigners have called for a “reset” in the debate, pinning their hopes on three options: Mr Turnbull changing tack and granting his party a free vote, Liberal MPs crossing the floor, or some sort of multi-partisan settlement brokered between the parties.

All signs coming from the government indicate that none of those will happen. Education Minister Simon Birmingham, a prominent supporter of same-sex marriage, warned a plebiscite was “the only way” to achieve reform in the next three years.

The only person to address the issue of same sex marriage in a Coalition party room meeting on Monday was conservative Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, who wanted to “publicly applaud” Mr Turnbull’s strident defence of the plebiscite.

“As Labor take the low road, we as the Coalition must – to quote the Steve Winwood 80s classic – bring a higher love,” he told his colleagues.

But even ardent same-sex marriage supporters within the government such as Warren Entsch showed no signs of budging.

“We made a commitment on the plebiscite and we are sticking to it,” he told Fairfax Media after the meeting. “If we don’t do this, the debate will be about a broken promise rather than about same-sex marriage and this will be the 19th time this [same-sex marriage] goes down the gurgler.”

Transport and Infrastructure Minister Darren Chester, another supporter of change, told Sky News he had promised his electorate a public vote and the plebiscite was now “the only pathway” to same-sex marriage.

On the Labor side, prominent same-sex marriage advocate Louise Pratt said the plebiscite was a tool used by those opposed to change, and should not proceed.

“I don’t want young lesbian and gay people to have to go door to door asking for their civil rights,” the WA senator told Fairfax Media. “It’s the job of the Parliament to deal with this question.”

– with Tom McIlroy and Heath Aston

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