Monthly Archives: October 2019

Taliban on rise in ex-Aust forces province

Taliban fighters are taking back large parts of the Afghanistan province where Australian forces were based for eight years.

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Australian troops first deployed into Oruzgan Province in 2005, with more than a 1000 serving there at the peak.

All withdrew at the end of 2013, but some 400 Australian personnel remain in a variety of mentoring and assistance roles in Kabul and Kandahar.

Most of Australia’s 41 casualties occurred in Oruzgan.

US-based security consultants Triple Canopy said a large number of Afghan local police had defected to the militants since the death of the province’s police chief Matiullah Khan.

Khan was assassinated in a suicide bombing in Kabul two months ago.

“Security for Oruzgan province has become increasingly challenging,” the consultants said in a report covering the last week in May.

“At the very least some 50 security force posts are understood to have fallen to the Taliban advance.”

There have been reports of dozens of deaths in fighting, as well as beheadings.

International agency Cordaid reported this week it was becoming increasingly difficult to provide health care in the province due to fighting.

Cordaid and the Afghan Health and Development Services (AHDS) are caring for 420,000 residents of Oruzgan with 24 clinics.

“Since the most recent offensive of anti-government elements in Oruzgan, starting the beginning of May, six clinics of AHDS had to shut down,” the agency reported.

“Two clinics reopened, three remained closed and one clinic in Dezak village was burned down in the clashes between armed groups.”

Staff were receiving threats from the Taliban.

Since the start of 2015 across Afghanistan there have been 26 aid workers killed, 17 wounded and 40 abducted.

A report by the United States Institute of Peace released last month was highly critical of how Western nations had left Oruzgan province.

It found Dutch, American, and Australian forces in Oruzgan moves to reintegrate Taliban commanders and disgruntled elders “did not fundamentally alter the political environment” in the province.

While some Western officials sought to set up more inclusive local governments, others had simply struck deals to get Taliban commanders off the battlefield.

Each country and agency had their own “tribal darlings” and there was no consensus on the future of the political situation.

Progress was unlikely while the government in Kabul failed to be more inclusive, the report said.

Comment was being sought from Defence.

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Origin says electricity prices will be low

Australians should not worry about electricity price rises for many years because of oversupply, says the boss at the nation’s largest utility group Origin Energy.

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Falling demand, lower poles and wires charges, the end of the carbon tax and supply increases to meet the 2020 renewable energy target were contributing to the situation.

“The consumer level outlook is as benign as it has been for many years and it is probably quite a good outlook for consumers,” Origin Energy chief executive Grant King said during an investor day.

“We see the system’s persistent and chronic oversupply being a long term feature of this market.”

He insisted that was not bad news for Origin, because it was “under-generating”, or producing less electricity, in its role as a wholesale electricity producer as well as a retailer.

That allows it to buy electricity at a cheaper price rather than produce it itself.

Origin also announced plans on Wednesday to cut $150 million in costs out of its energy business by June next year as it seeks to defend its position as the number one utility company.

That includes $100 million in natural gas and electricity retail and generation costs and $50 million in capital expenditure.

It is targeting another $220 million in cost reductions and $95 million in capex cuts beyond that.

“There is still a lot of discounting activity in the market, particularly in Victoria where consumers are benefiting from a very competitive market so you have to keep your costs where they need to be,” Mr King said.

The outlook for natural gas is better, with demand to triple and prices to rise to offset the risk of weaker electricity prices.

The suite of new liquefied natural gas export projects due to come online will send domestic prices higher, with Origin operating one of those, the APLNG in Queensland which is due to double its revenue.

Gas prices are affected by a falling oil price and consumers will benefit somewhat, but the current $US60 a barrel oil price is likely to mean domestic gas oil rise from $3-4 a gigajoule to $8, Mr King said.

He also said that current investments in renewable energy including solar rooftop and hydro put Australia on track to easily exceed the Renewable Energy Target of 20 per cent of demand, with 30 per cent possible.

Origin’s shares closed nine cents up at $12.65.

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No Indon minister at terror summit

Indonesia will send its ambassador rather than a minister to regional counter-terrorism talks in Australia amid continued tensions after the Bali Nine executions.

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Six countries, including Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam and New Zealand will be represented by ministers at the two-day summit, to be launched by Prime Minister Tony Abbott in Sydney on Thursday.

But, despite being one of Australia’s key regional partners in tackling extremism, Indonesia won’t be sending a minister and will instead send its ambassador to Australia Nadjib Riphat Kesoema.

Indonesia’s ministerial absence suggests continuing tensions following the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in April despite the Australian government’s repeated pleas for clemency.

It comes, too, after Defence Minister Kevin Andrews did not hold a bilateral meeting with his Indonesian counterpart at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, although both attended the Asian security summit in Singapore at the end of May.

It is understood other Australian officials were not allowed to meet Indonesian delegates at the conference either, while “time constraints” prevented Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Peter Varghese meeting with his Indonesian counterpart.

After the executions, Australia took the unprecedented step of recalling ambassador Paul Grigson from Jakarta and Mr Abbott said contact between ministers had been suspended “for some time”.

Mr Grigson returned to Jakarta on Monday.

But some defence cooperation has continued.

“There’s some sort of lower level interaction taking place between the defence establishments of the two countries,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute director Peter Jennings told AAP, adding that intelligence sharing and police co-operation had never stopped.

Meanwhile, the immigration minister has criticised what he says is scaremongering about plans to strip dual-nationality terror supporters of their Australian citizenship.

Peter Dutton made the comments while confirming those in line for deportation will be able to appeal against the decision all the way to the High Court.

Echoing the government’s special envoy for citizenship, Philip Ruddock, the minister said legislation being drafted will include provisions for the process to be challenged.

Mr Dutton refused to criticise Howard government minister Amanda Vanstone over her claim on Monday that having ministers strip away citizenship without an appeal was “profoundly dumb”.

“I think everybody in the Howard government did a great job and I think ministers in the Abbott government are doing a great job,” he said.

Ex-Liberal minister Helen Coonan also expressed concern at the process, saying the courts should play a role in assessing the merits of a case.

Labor has provided in-principle support for the idea, but wants to receive a detailed briefing on the government’s plans.

A spokesman from Indonesia’s Co-ordinating Ministry for Politics, Law and Security says Indonesia is sending representatives from its National Counter Terrorism Board and Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the summit.

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UNESCO not misled on Great Barrier Reef health: Hunt

A report, released by Queensland’s auditor-general on Wednesday, says data suggesting an improvement in the quality of water entering the reef is unreliable and comes just weeks after UNESCO’s draft decision to leave the reef off its “in-danger” list.

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Conservationists have accused governments of deceiving UNESCO, which is set to deliver its final ruling on the reef’s status at the end of June.

The draft decision made reference to the latest Great Barrier Reef Report Card, released in June 2014, that stated the goal to “halt and reverse the decline in water quality entering the reef” had been achieved.

But in his report, auditor-general Andrew Greaves said the “veracity of this statement needed to be treated with caution” given progress reports relied upon several assumptions, and there were a lack of water quality monitoring sites.

WWF reef spokesman Nick Heath said UNESCO had clearly been sold a furphy about the reef’s health.

“How can anyone say UNESCO has not been misled – they have relied on these figures that could easily be misinterpreted as fact,” Mr Heath told AAP.

“Governments have spun this narrative over the last few years that the reef has turned a corner but today that story has come down like a house of cards.”

Queensland Environment Minister Steven Miles and his federal counterpart Greg Hunt have both rejected claims UNESCO had been misled.

“I really welcome this report,” Mr Hunt told reporters on the Gold Coast.

“What it says is very clear, there’s significant progress, there are areas where they want to move from (water quality) modelling to monitoring and I agree with that.”

Mr Miles said the draft ruling was based on future plans to protect the reef.

“I believe that UNESCO based their decision on the long-term sustainability plan, which is more about what we would do going forward than what we have done in the past.”

When asked about the report’s timing, Mr Miles stressed he was unaware of any attempts to delay it.

Mr Hunt said he first saw the report on Wednesday afternoon. Mr Greaves has recommended the newly formed Office of Great Barrier Reef be held accountable for the state’s reef management strategies. 

He also suggested current programs be reviewed, catchment monitoring expanded and the degree of uncertainty in reef report card results be made clear.

 

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WA credit rating outlook downgraded

The outlook on Western Australia’s credit rating has been downgraded from stable to negative, with the state warned it will need to tighten its belt even harder.

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Moody’s Investor Services says the revision reflects the ongoing deterioration in WA’s balance sheet.

With a near halving of iron ore prices over the past 12 months and a lower share of the GST carve-up, the state recorded its first budget deficit in 15 years last month.

The deficit is expected to more than double next financial year to a record high of $2.7 billion while debt is forecast to mount to almost $31 billion.

Not only are WA’s ailing finances exacerbated by a lack of financial cushions against adverse commodity prices and exchange rate movements, the state government is also not doing enough to stop WA’s slide into the red, Moody’s says.

Moody’s said it was positive the state had constrained the rapid growth in public sector employee costs, increased land tax, changed the payroll tax threshold and planned a series of asset sales.

But the ratings agency believes the WA government will be hard pressed to achieve much lower level spending forecasts unless it strengthens its commitment to budget improvements.

To achieve its projections, the state will have to slash its rate of spending to as low as 1.9 per cent in 2017/18, compared with 6.2 per cent over the past four years.

Public sector employee cost rises will have to be very low while the growth rate of spending on healthcare and other social services requires a concerted reduction, which could prove difficult as the population continues to rise, Moody’s said.

“The question is how much improvement there will be?” lead analyst Debra Roane told AAP.

“If there’s no improvement, then we would be very concerned about the rating levels.”

Opposition leader Mark McGowan said the outlook downgrade was testament to the Barnett government’s poor financial management and he had no confidence it would turn the state budget around.

“This should never have happened,” Mr McGowan told reporters.

“Their management of the state is unravelling.”

WA Treasurer Mike Nahan said the state still enjoyed a strong Aa1 credit rating with Moody’s and remained a safe place to invest.

“The economy is still very strong and a record capital works program has been crucial to employment growth with the state’s labour market continuing to outperform the other Australian states,” Dr Nahan said.

He said the WA government didn’t expect a significant increase in the cost of borrowing as the change in credit rating outlook had been factored in when ratings agency Standard & Poor’s placed its AA+ credit rating for WA on CreditWatch in April.

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