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Two weeks in, how does Mr Trump affect Australia?

I read with interest an article in The Saturday Paper called Goad of Silence by Mike Seccombe this morning, this led me down into an intriguing rabbit hole into the depths of the internet. Mr Seccombe described how different official social media channels of information, such as the National Aeronautics and Space (NASA) Administration Twitter account were being blocked by the Trump administration. And that “rouge” unofficial Twitter accounts had sprung up in their place such as @RogueNASA, I went to investigate the @RogueNASA account. Besides being impressed by their fund-raising efforts with pins and patches for charities such as Black Girls Code and FIRST Robotics!, I came across a non-descript looking link for a newsletter titled Garrett on Global Health. It was written by Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health Council on Foreign Relations. This nondescript looking link is the most comprehensive report detailing the first two weeks of the Trump Administration that I have come across. Ms Garrett provides analysis of three national security presidential memoranda (NSPMs), presidential statements, Executive Orders (EOs) and provides a list with links below, of nineteen presidential actions undertaken by President Trump between the dates of January the twentieth and the thirty-first of this year.

  1. “minimizing the economic burden” of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)
  2. freezing all regulations
  3. reinstating the Mexico City abortion policy (also known as the global gag rule)
  4. scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership 
  5. freezing hires for the federal workforce 
  6. advancing the Dakota Access Pipeline
  7. advancing the Keystone XL Pipeline
  8. expediting environmental reviews on infrastructure projects
  9. promoting pipelines “produced in the United States”
  10. reviewing domestic manufacturing regulation 
  11. increasing border security measures 
  12. eliminating “catch-and-release” strategies
  13. pursuing undocumented immigrants
  14. reevaluating visa and refugee programs
  15. strengthening the military (NSPM 1)
  16. reorganizing the National Security Council (NSPM 2)
  17. implementing a lobbying ban
  18. calling for a plan to defeat the self-declared Islamic State (NSPM 3)
  19. reducing regulations

Out of forty-three top State Department positions, thirty-five were vacant by the second of February. Usually new presidents want to avoid mass resignations and wait until replacements have been found. Mr Trump’s party controls the House and the Senate and his party is most likely to support his choice of Supreme Court nominee. This means that the presidential actions above are expected to be backed by legislation and to become law. As Ms Garrett highlights, this behaviour from a new president isn’t unusual, what is different though is the speed of these changes and the confusion and turmoil that it has brought to the executive branch.

On the twenty-seventh of January Mr Trump signed an EO titled: “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” Iran is one of seven countries included in the ban, the other six are Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia. Mr Trump reportedly has business connections with Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, hence those countries seemingly being deemed as safe. It has been estimated that around ninety thousand people have been affected by this, including an Australian born teenager denied a visa to attend space camp in America because his parents are from Iran. A lawyer for the Justice Department revealed last Friday that around one hundred thousand visas have been revoked since the ban was put in place. A formal dissent memo was signed by over a thousand State Department employees, this is unprecedented in the first month of a new presidency, as well as the record amount of signatures. White House spokesman Sean Spicer has said that he was aware of the memo but warned that diplomats should either “get with the program or they can go.”

There has been concern amongst the scientific community that science data stored on American government websites will be erased. Scientific gatherings to save and store government data stored have been organised by a non-profit group called 314 Action.

“The government has done a great job of collecting and maintaining climate change data on these websites located all across the federal government,” said Shaughnessy Naughton, the founder of 314 Action. “The concern is that the data may no longer be publicly available, and then that they may no longer gather the data. It’s a lot easier to deny climate change when you don’t have data.”

Data Refuge is a public, collaborative project that was established by Penn libraries and the Penn program in Environmental Humanities. Data Rescue events are also being held all around America where volunteers are copying data from government sites and government data bases for safe keeping. After Mr Trump was inaugurated a few agencies restricted the amount of information available to the public. An EPA memo said “no press releases will be going out to external audiences, no social media will be going out … no blog messages … no new content can be placed on any website.”

America has a Whistle-blower Protection Enhancement Act that has been in place since 2012 and by chance the Follow the Rules Act happened to be before “The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee” last Thursday. Legislation strengthening measures related to nondisclosure policies, or gag orders, that restrict the ability of federal workers to communicate with Congress, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and inspectors general were approved. “This law has lived up to its name,” said Eric Bachman, OSC’s deputy special counsel. “It has significantly enhanced OSC’s ability to protect federal employees from retaliation.”

An America First Energy Plan was also released shortly after Mr Trump’s inauguration and it contains such phrases as: “Sound energy policy begins with the recognition that we have vast untapped domestic energy reserves right here in America. The Trump Administration will embrace the shale oil and gas revolution to bring jobs and prosperity to millions of Americans. We must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own. We will use the revenues from energy production to rebuild our roads, schools, bridges and public infrastructure. Less expensive energy will be a big boost to American agriculture, as well.”

“The Trump Administration is also committed to clean coal technology, and to reviving America’s coal industry, which has been hurting for too long.” And that “Lastly, our need for energy must go hand-in-hand with responsible stewardship of the environment. Protecting clean air and clean water, conserving our natural habitats, and preserving our natural reserves and resources will remain a high priority. President Trump will refocus the EPA on its essential mission of protecting our air and water.”

The Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Act 2016 (NAIF) was passed by the Australian Parliament on 3 May 2016, with its headquarters established in Cairns on the 1st July 2016 and it is supported by the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (Efic). It’s offering $5 billion in concessional loans to encourage private sector investment in Northern Australia. Last Wednesday the Prime Minister (PM) of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull addressed the National Press Club (NPC) and said

“We will need more synchronous baseload power and as Australia is a big exporter we need to show we are using state-of-the-art, clean, coal-fired technology,” and that “The next incarnation of our national energy policy should be technology-agnostic.”

Treasurer Scott Morrison stated after Mr Turnbull’s NPC speech that ‘Coal is a big part of the future under a Coalition Government’ Mr Morrison also told the ABC that he won’t rule out Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) funding towards clean coal either “It’s the Clean Energy Finance Corporation — it’s not the wind energy finance corporation.”

Last Friday Australian Resources Minister, Matt Canavan, announced that he had opened up the $5 billion NAIF fund for new “clean-coal” power stations. He told ABC AM that “I’ve received some interest over the past week associated with our commitment to build base load power stations, including to support clean coal options”

Mr Canavan also cited a 2012 report by industry consultants GHD, which indicated that clean-coal power stations could be commercially viable in Australia’s north. “Some people might not realise that in North Queensland there is no base-load power station north of Rockhampton and industrial consumers in north Queensland pay often up to double the prices in southern Queensland”

Mr Canavan dismissed comments by AGL and Energy Australia that argued that new power stations would be expensive to build and would require significant public funding. “With all respect to those very eminent companies, we wouldn’t take advice from Coles or Woolworths on whether we should allow Costco for example to come into the Australian market,” Mr Canavan said.

“I am not surprised that existing generators don’t want another large-scale base load power station to come into the market, part in an area like North Queensland where they are clearly making good money selling electricity at very high prices.

“Good luck to them and good luck to them in the market.”

Australian Conservation Foundation chief executive Kelly O’Shanassy, doesn’t agree and said that there was no such thing as “clean coal”. “Every coal-fired power plant is damaging our climate, intensifying heatwaves and bushfires, polluting our air and bleaching coral reefs,” she said.

“Australia needs energy that doesn’t pollute, not energy that pollutes a little less than Australia’s existing coal generators, some of which are among the dirtiest in the world.”

Noting the use of “base load” in the quotes above, I will quote the Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop, in 2014 “It’s an obvious conclusion that if you want to bring down your greenhouse gas emissions dramatically you have to embrace a form of low or zero-emissions energy and that’s nuclear, the only known 24/7 baseload power supply with zero emissions,” she told Fairfax Media.

A “baseload power supply” is in a nutshell, “continual power supply.”

“I always thought that we needed to have a sensible debate about all potential energy sources and, given that Australia has the largest source of uranium, it’s obvious that we should at least debate it,” said Ms Bishop.

It was reported last week by the Guardian that long term coal industry lobbying for years in Australia, by American and overseas corporations, has put pro-coal talking points naturally into Australian leaders’ mouths.

As John Quiggin wrote in Crikey last month, the only real viable option for clean coal was via a “carbon capture and storage” program or (CCS). The only version of CCS that could be considered commercially viable is when Carbon dioxide (CO2) is pumped into exhausted oil wells. This works best though with a pure source of CO2 such as natural gas rather than a mix of gases from coal-fired boilers. After decades of work and funding spent on CCS technology (including $590 million spent by Australian governments since 2009), there is only one operational power plant using CCS, the Boundary Dam project in Canada.

Even if all of the coal-fired CCS projects listed by the Global CCS Institute in Melbourne as possibly happening by 2030, are included in the total amount of CO2 captured, it would be less than 20 million tonnes a year.

Australia roughly generates this amount of energy in two weeks.

The Turnbull government’s administration, despite the focus of the main stream media on presidential phone calls and name mishaps, appears to be pretty much aligned with the Trump administration. Fred Palmer was the Peabody Energy Vice-President for government relations in 2010 and in the same year that the “Advanced Energy for Life” campaign was born. Peabody Energy Corporation (Peabody) is headquartered in St. Louis, America and it is the largest private-sector coal company in the world. Peabody has been developing, refining and honing its campaign tactics ever since. Mr Palmer describes former Australian PM Tony Abbott, as a “precursor” to Trump in the context of climate change and energy policy.

“When Tony Abbott came in, he came in running against the carbon tax. When Donald Trump came in, he came in running against the Clean Power plan. That’s the parallel I am talking about.” When asked if he had problems getting through to the federal government he responded, “No it was not. I was thrilled to have that meeting and reception that I got,” says Palmer.

“I had zero problems. If they had time, they talked to us.”

He also thinks that Mr Trump will be “spectacularly successful”.

And that “We are going down the path of his America first energy plan. There is nothing in there about renewables and there’s nothing in there about carbon taxes. It’s fossil fuel-centric and it is meant to be. It’s a fossil-fuel future for the United States.”

Followed by “I guarantee you the world is going to follow.”

There is no money to be made out of coal today, it’s had its time and has progressed us from the days of having to rely on whale blubber or whale oil for energy sustenance and steam powered ships. Renewable energy can also be a base-load energy that Australia can rely on and lead the world in how to do it rurally even, if there is political will.

Australia is in a unique position, not just in regards to our geological positioning and weather elements but we are surrounded by water and we live in very different circumstances, when we compare this with land locked countries in the Middle East. Countries such as Syria that Australia is involved in protecting values wise or war wise, is a part of this ban too. It is high time that we question our values and ethics as a country. Our country’s shipping ports also need to be thought about for the long-term of Australia’s future and not just a short-term sugar hit for a state government’s or federal government’s budget bottom line.

Human Services Privatisation Creep and TiSA

Australia has the highest rate of private incarceration per capita of any country in the world. We imprison more people now than in any time in history. Private prisons operate in five of Australia’s states: Queensland (QLD), New South Wales (NSW), South Australia (SA), Victoria and West Australia (WA). There are eighty-two state prisons between these five states with around 20% of Australia’s prison population residing in nine private prisons. Victoria has the highest number of inmates held in private prisons than in any of the other four states. It is comprised of thirteen state run prisons and two privately owned prisons. As of 2014 the two private prisons accounted for 31.8% of the total inmate population or 1,845 out of 5,800 inmates.

A report called: Prison Privatisation in Australia – The State of the Nation June 2016 was the first to collate publicly available information on private prisons in Australia. The key areas that were explored were Accountability, Costs, and Performance and Efficiency. The first private prison to open was the Borallon Correctional Centre (CC) in QLD, near Ipswich. It was operated by Serco until it closed in 2012. Serco is one of three private prison contractors favoured by state governments, the other two are G4S and the GEO Group (GEO), formerly known as Australasian Correctional Management (ACM). The privatisation stemmed from a 1988 report called the Kennedy report. It was chaired by businessman and accountant, Jim Kennedy and its intention was to reform corrective services in QLD. A program for privatisation was set out within his report: ‘(t)he opportunities for introducing private sector involvement are substantial and should lead to an increase in cost-effectiveness’. The reasoning behind this was that in some areas private providers ‘can do it cheaper and better’ and that introducing competition to the public sector would allow for the measurement of public sector performance. It was budgetary concerns with staff sickness and over-time that led to these measures not overcrowding as was the case for the other states except SA. Borallon CC was back in state hands in April 2016 as an education centre called ‘earn or learn’ for eighteen-thirty-year old offenders.

NSW followed QLD’s lead with an ‘Investigation into Private Sector involvement in the NSW Corrective System’ in 1989. The report cited a claim that Borallon CC had made cost savings of 7.5-10%. One parliamentarian cast doubt over the fact that no information had been provided as to how these numbers were established or calculated. Despite this questioning, Junee CC near Wagga Wagga was approved as NSW’s first private prison. It was originally managed by ACM in 1993, the ACM was restructured and became the GEO Group in 2004. GEO won the bid again in 2009 and still manages the facility today.

Independent inspection of private prisons in NSW has been sporadic, an Inspector of Custodial Services (ICS) was appointed in 1997 with a review off office scheduled for 2003. The ICS was to address issues not already covered by the Ombudsman. The review was carried out by former Police commissioner John Dalton and former chairman of the Corrective Services Commission, Vernon Dalton. They recommended it to be discontinued citing that many duties overlapped with that of the Ombudsman and the government accepted their recommendations. Another ICS wasn’t appointed until another nine years later in 2012 and within this time frame in 2009, the NSW government privatised Parklea CC in the North West of Sydney. The contract was awarded to GEO and it revised its plans to sell Cessnock CC in the Hunter due to an economic downturn in the region.

With a record 12,000 inmates in NSW, the NSW government announced “Better Prisons” in March 2016, with plans to “market test” the operation of the John Morony CC near Windsor, Sydney. For contrast, as of June 2015, there were 36, 134 people incarcerated across all eight states in Australia. Private companies were invited to compete against state owned, Corrective Services NSW (CSNSW) for the tender with a winner to be announced in early 2017. A $3.8 billion expansion of the prison system was also proposed and includes a “Commissioning and Contestability Unit” costing $2.9 million. The unit is based on the work of former Serco worker, Gary Sturgess who was also an adviser to former Liberal premier Nick Greiner. The NSW shadow treasurer Ryan Park said “Contestability shouldn’t be an evil word – but under this government, all it means is privatisation by stealth. This government has shown time and time again that contestability isn’t about service delivery – it’s about saving money.” Mr Sturgess argues that it’s not about actually privatising but rather the threat of it to get public services and unions to improve their efficiency. “Gladys Berejiklian understands contestability – she used that approach as transport minister when she took on the private bus monopolies in western Sydney, and then initiated a reform agenda within the State Transit Authority … using the threat of competition if they did not reform,” he said.

The “Better Prisons” reforms also include cutting the number of teachers from CSNSW from over one hundred full-time positions to twenty. Corrective Services Minister David Elliott is to create sixty more roles but they don’t require a teaching degree. Prison teachers went on strike and up to two-hundred people rallied outside the NSW Parliament in September last year. “No-one can do the job that you do, you are highly skilled” Labor’s Guy Zangari told the crowd. “It’s more than just reading and writing, it’s more than just gaining skills to get a job.”

The Prison Privatisation in Australia – The State of the Nation June 2016 report covers publicly available data as of December 2015, and concluded that many problems in QLD private prisons were mirrored in NSW. NSW governments have favoured confidentiality and  commercial-in-confidence protections for private, over providing the public with any transparency about their operations and costs. When it comes to Performance Level Fees (PLF), Key Performance Indicators (KPI) or bonuses for reaching “performance targets”, it gets even more opaque. One example from 2006 involved GEO still being awarded its PLF despite not meeting its performance targets for Junee CC. The justification given By Commissioner Ron Woodham was that ‘performance linked fees were designed to encourage performance rather than be punitive’. The Department of Corrective Services (DCS) makes an annual report about some of the prison’s performance but not the costs, they’re aggregated. In fact, the researchers of the above report could find no publicly available information regarding the breakdown of private prison costs on a year-by-year basis. NSW has an Ombudsman that handles prisoner complaints and reports their data prison-by-prison. According to the data there are more complaints in private prisons than in public ones. There’re contract “monitors” that make reports about both private prisons in NSW but these reports are also not publicly available. The monitors reports don’t marry up with the Ombudsman’s either especially regarding complaints made. In 2011 when inmates died at Parklea and three men escaped from the prison, there was no mention of these incidents at all in the monitors reports.

It is of interest that the NSW government at the end of March 2016, made both the Junee CC and the Parklea CC contracts available through the CSNSW website. The contracts are heavily censored, for example in schedule six of the Junee contract ‘Operational Service Level Fee and Opioid Pharmacotherapy Program Fee’, all of the financial information has been redacted. In section eight, the ‘Key Performance Indicators and Performance Linked Fee’ has had the targets for each KPI censored, meaning that we don’t know the level of service that is expected of GEO. The Parklea contract states that the operational fee in schedule six is $29, 124, 488 but any information relating to the breakdown of these costs has also been redacted. It also lists financial penalties for major incidents such as deaths in custody but it doesn’t include the KPI’s against which the PLF is calculated. Once again, we have no idea what level of performance is expected of the contractor by the NSW government.

Image by artist Banksy

Treasurer Scott Morrison asked the Productivity Commission to investigate privatising human services. The preliminary findings of the inquiry suggested that social housing, public hospitals, dental services, aged care, services for remote Indigenous communities and social housing services could all be reformed. The commission will work on recommendations for each sector and report back to Mr Morrison in October this year.

There has been much said about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) by Prime Minister Turnbull, President Donald Trump and the media. Mr Trump has made it clear that he believes that it’s not in America’s best interests to sign the agreement but Mr Turnbull doesn’t want to let it go. What has been missing is any talk about the Trade in Services Act (TiSA) agreement in the media or by Mr Turnbull or Mr Trump. There is a media release from October 21st last year by Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister, Steve Ciobo. He chaired a ministerial meeting on TiSA in Oslo, Norway that weekend and the release talks of ‘increasing Australian services exports, a key part of the Turnbull Government’s national economic plan to create jobs and drive economic growth.’

Australia’s services sector is a major part of our economy and accounts for 70% of economic activity. It employs four out of five Australians and accounts for 20.9% of all of Australia’s exports. Services account for around 75% of the European Union (EU) economy and 80% of the US economy. TiSA was also meant to be signed off with the TPP at the end of last year but it stalled due to disagreements about the free movement of personal data across borders. Mr Trump has already promised and already met with thirteen US tech giants last year and promised to make it “a lot easier” for their companies “to trade across borders.”

TiSA according to Wikileaks and other whistle-blowing sites is a deal that will “lock in” the privatisation of services, even in cases where private service delivery has failed. Government’s would never be able to return water, energy, health, education or other services to public hands. Perhaps this’s why there is such secrecy and a five-year clause preventing public access to the TiSA agreement after it has been signed.

We have seen the Australian federal government’s attitude towards human services with Centrelink and Medicare, and the absolute lack of transparency when it comes to the treatment of private prison operators in Australia. Should our tax payer dollars be used to pay private, overseas companies bonuses for fulfilling their contract’s? If companies need incentives to do a good job it sounds like human services belongs in the hands of public. When will state government’s using private, prison operators admit that a lack of staffing appears to be much of that sectors problems? And lastly, I implore you to please help create awareness about this, if they come for our services it will be the end of Australia or the world as we know it.

This article was originally published on Political Omniscience.