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Issue #1695      July 29, 2015

Abbott’s inner clique splits Coalition

The secrecy and duplicity with which Abbott and a small clique of ministers rule the federal cabinet is causing major divisions within the Coalition government.

According to Fairfax commentator Nicole Hasham the release of Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce’s white paper on agriculture was delayed last March, because senior government figures considered it contained “every crackpot idea” from the previous quarter century.

Joyce later protested that “the world has gone mad” when he heard the government had approved the giant Shenhua open-cut coal mine at Breeza in the Liverpool Plains. Coal dust from the mine, which would be 1.7 times the size of the City of Sydney, would threaten the Liverpool Plains aquifers and local environment.

Joyce, the local member as well as a cabinet minister, did not hear from Abbott about the decision. Barely able to control his anger, he commented: “… it would have been nice to know about [the decision] a bit earlier … but that’s life, you have to take it on the chin.”

The decision was a superb example of Abbott’s duplicity. In 2010 he had told residents “The message I am getting loud and clear from locals is that they don’t want to destroy this agricultural breadbasket with mining.”

However, he now claims that scientific reports have given the mine the OK, even though the reports express reservations about groundwater safety, and critics say the report’s background data has not been released for public scrutiny.

Members of Joyce’s New England constituency resent his unwillingness to confront Abbott. Labor has challenged him to resign as a minister, and popular retired independent MP Tony Windsor, who previously held the Liverpool Plains seat of New England, has threatened to re-contest it at the next election.

Rebellion against the clique

Having humiliated Joyce over the Shenhua approval, Abbott rubbed salt into the wound by ordering Joyce and other ministers not to appear on the ABC’s popular current affairs discussion program Q&A, after controversy over a previous appearance by former terrorist “sympathiser” Zaky Mallah. The order deprived Joyce of the opportunity to publicly discuss proposals in his Agriculture White Paper.

Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull obeyed the order. However, he subsequently argued that exaggerating the importance of Daesh was just as misguided as downgrading its importance. In doing so, he contradicted Abbott’s alarmist statement that terrorist group Daesh “is coming for you”, and Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop’s absurd claim that Daesh poses a bigger threat than cold war tension.

The government can now jail journalists for disclosing information about intelligence operations, and seize nationwide metadata information about phone and email communications. It can reverse the onus of proof and jail persons without evidence for being in a declared prohibited area, and implement preventive detention orders under which people may be imprisoned for two weeks without charge.

Turnbull was one of six cabinet ministers who opposed Abbott’s proposal to enable Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to strip Australian citizenship from anyone he claimed had links to terrorist groups or acted “inconsistently with their allegiance to Australia”. Turnbull observed that adopting such a policy might win electoral support but “can still be a mistake.”

For his part, Joyce resumed battle against the Shenhua proposal, telling a local paper that the mine was “an absurdity” which would probably damage the local aquifers.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt hastily intervened, declaring “…actual groundwater impacts are likely to be smaller than previous conservative predictions.”

But Hunt himself nurses a grievance, because Abbott did not consult him about ordering the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) to cease funding wind farms and domestic solar installations, and concentrate on newly-developing technologies.

Smouldering resentment

The government hates the CEFC. It tried twice to abolish it and was only blocked by the Senate. But there are other ways to abolish such an organisation. It’s often difficult to make a business a financial success, but it’s dead easy to make it fail.

The order to limit CEFC’s operations has to be seen in conjunction with a directive earlier this year for CEFC to lift its targeted financial returns, which are already very high, without increasing the financial risk.

The obvious way to fulfil that directive was for CEFC to continue financing wind farms and small-scale solar projects, the demand for which is booming. On the other hand, forcing CEFC to back developing technology projects would increase the risk of financial failure.

Other financial institutions are unlikely to provide investment funding for wind and small scale solar because of the government’s ill-concealed hostility to renewable energy.

If the government succeeds in forcing the CEFC to focus solely on new technologies, it could make a further demand for CEFC to financially back the development of so-called “clean coal”, a technological dead duck.

That would ensure a reduction in CEFC’s returns and probably a financial crash. But even without taking that step, the ban on wind and small scale solar would undoubtedly reduce the returns from CEFC business, and that would provide the government with a pretext for closing down the organisation on the grounds of lack of financial viability.

CEFC management may refuse to obey the government’s directive, on the grounds that it contravenes their current charter of operations. If they don’t, the government will give the directive legal standing by tabling it as parliamentary legislation.

The discord within the Abbott government is not just the result of Abbott’s dictatorial style, or his habit of humiliating his ministers, setting them against each other and failing to consult them before making “the captain’s pick”.

The divisions reflect the struggle within capital for market domination. Abbott’s inner clique is dedicated to preserving the economic power of the coal industry, to the point of suppressing renewable energy industries and ignoring potential damage to agriculture, tourism and other industries, (not to mention human health and the environment) from coal mining activities.

Contradictions within the coalition’s ranks may result in a challenge to Abbott’s leadership before the next elections, but it’s also possible that Abbott will call an early election. Let’s hope so, because if he does we can help end his odious period in office.

Next article – Anniversary of the attack on the Moncada barracks

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