Thursday, September 22, 2011

Pirates plunder Berlin as Merkel’s government founders

Elections in the city-state of Berlin on September 18 delivered another serious blow to the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, even as her party’s vote increased.
Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) came in second place in the Berlin election, winning 23.4 percent of the vote – up from 21.3 in 2006.

The ruling centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) dropped slightly, from 30.6 to 28.6 percent, but will remain in government in Germany’s capital. SPD leader Klaus Wowereit – Germany’s first openly gay premier – is likely to replace his “red-red coalition” partners, the socialist Die Linke (“the Left”), with the more moderate Greens.

The Greens came third in the vote, winning 17.6 percent – a swing of 4.7 percent – while Die Linke slipped slightly from 13.4 to 11.7 percent.

During five years of coalition government, Die Linke has become implicated in the Berlin government’s antisocial policies and a 13 percent unemployment rate, damaging its social justice credentials.

The hotly contested question of whether – and under what conditions – Die Linke should enter into future coalitions will be debated in late October, when the party holds its national “Program Congress” in the city of Erfurt.

The surprise winner at this election was the Pirate Party, which took an astounding 8.9 percent of the vote, entering parliament for the first time with 15 seats.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

State election defeat humiliates Merkel

Elections in the eastern German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern on September 4 have handed the conservative government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel another humiliating defeat. 

Merkel's centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had already suffered five election defeats this year, in Hamburg, Sachsen-Anhalt, Rheinland-Pfalz, Bremen and the highly embarrassing loss of the wealthy conservative southern state of Baden-Württemberg – held by the CDU for sixty years – to the Greens.

The Mecklenburg-Vorpommern defeat was particularly galling for Merkel – who was born in Hamburg and raised in Brandenburg in the former East Germany – because the state includes her own electoral constituency.

On polling day, the CDU could only muster 23.1 percent of the vote, down by more than 5.7 percent since 2006 and its worst result in the state since German unification in 1990.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD) were the clear victors, with 35.7 percent of the vote, an increase of 5.5 percent.

The socialist Die Linke ("The Left") – campaigning on a platform of social justice, democratic rights and action on the environment – won 18.4 percent of the vote.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Farmers resist GM food contamination

The debate over genetically modified (GM) food has flared up again recently, after Greenpeace destroyed an experimental CSIRO wheat crop in Canberra on July 14.

The Australian Federal Police is now investigating Greenpeace over the incident, which CSIRO scientists claim has set their research back by up to a year.

Greenpeace argued the crop posed a threat to the environment and to human health. Plans are underway for human trials of the GM wheat before tests are first conducted on animals.

Greenpeace also accused the CSIRO of a conflict of interest for its closeness to several biotech companies, including NuFarm (the exclusive Australian distributor for biotech giant Monsanto), agribusiness giant Monsanto and Arcadia Biosciences (a US company with close ties to GM-giant Monsanto).

It also criticised Australia’s weak regulation of GM crops.

The CSIRO rejected that the wheat posed a threat, arguing that the modified wheat contained no genes from other organisms, and was designed to improve the crop’s nutritional value.

GM crops have become the source of increasing contention recently, in Australia and overseas.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Federal police raid Greenpeace offices after GM crops destroyed

Shortly before noon on July 21, officers from the Australian Federal Police raided and shut down the Sydney offices of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, confiscating material but making no arrests.

The raid was conducted in relation to an "alleged trespass and property damage” on July 14, when Greenpeace activists in Hazmat suits used whipper-snippers to destroy a CSIRO trial of genetically modified (GM) wheat being grown near Ginninderra in Canberra’s north.

Greenpeace claimed that the wheat was planned for secret human trials later this year, but had already caused allergic reactions in mice.

According to the CSIRO, however, the wheat was not transgenic, and that wheat genes had simply been slightly modified to lower the glycaemic index and increase fibre in order to improve bowel health and increase nutritional value.

Greenpeace also accused the CSIRO of a conflict of interest because two directors of Nufarm – the exclusive distributor for the US-based biotech giant Monsanto in Australia – sat on the CSIRO board when the wheat trial was approved.

Trials of GM wheat and barley have also begun near Narrabri in NSW, as well as in Western Australia. The Western Australian trials are being run by Intergrain, a company co-owned by Monsanto.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Roll-out of Genetically Modified crops quietly continues

On June 21 - ten days before it expired - the Gene Technology (GM Crop Moratorium) Act 2003 was extended by NSW Parliament until 1 July 2021, meaning that any GM crops grown in NSW would continue to require governmental approval.

This does not prevent approved GM harvests or crop trials, however, and commercial crops and trials are indeed under way, in NSW and elsewhere.

In late May, news surfaced that Australia's first trials of GM wheat and barley had quietly begun on the Namoi river near Narrabri in northern NSW. Similar trials are underway in the ACT and WA.

Apart from the information that the trials will
"assess the impact of the technology on yield and nitrogen uptake", the precise details of what genetic modifications have been made to the twenty-seven different strains being trailed remain restricted as the crops are "patented technologies".

According to the May 28 Sydney Morning Herald, "The CSIRO, which is running the three-year experiment, said the various gene combinations in the trial were subject to commercial-in-confidence agreements to protect the interests of various government research agencies and a US company, Arcadia Biosciences."

Organic farmers and environmental groups - including Greenpeace - have been critical of the trial, saying who say there is no known way to stop the altered crops from escaping and contaminating natural strains used in commercial cultivation. They have also demanded laboratory tests on the safety for consumption of resulting wheat before any trial commences.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Germany announces the phase-out of nuclear power

On May 30, the German government announced that all of Germany’s seventeen nuclear power stations would be permanently shut down by 2022.

Germany’s seven oldest nuclear power stations – temporarily switched off after public outcry and protests in the aftermath of the disaster in Fukushima – will remain offline, and will be permanently decommissioned.

An eighth plant
in northern Germany is already offline because of technical problems, and will remain shut down for good.Six of the remaining 9 power stations will be shut down in 2021, and the final three will be turned off in 2022.

"It's definite: the latest end of the last three nuclear power plants is 2022," Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen told reporters. "There will be no clause for revision."

The announcement has been greeted with critical support from anti-nuclear and environmental organisations such as Greenpeace, who have maintained their call for an earlier phase out date of 2015.

The announcement is not an entirely new proposition, either. In 2001, the then coalition government of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the German Greens passed legislation to phase out nuclear power in Germany by the end of 2021.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Elections punish Lib-Dems, boost Scottish independence

Voting across Britain on May 5 resulted in a rejection of changes to the electoral system, but election results in Scotland may herald the end of Britain as we know it.

The referendum on introducing an “Alternative Vote” voting system (much like the preferential voting system in Australia) to replace the current “First Past The Post” system was decisively defeated. With a turnout of only 42%, 67.87% voted against the change.

In council elections held on the same day across England, the Labour party was the biggest winner, achieving a 10% swing to take 37% of the popular vote and pick up 857 new councillors.

Labour’s gains were particularly strong in the north, where its traditional heartland is suffering the brunt of the Conservative Party-dominated government’s austerity drive.

Despite presiding over the austerity measures, the Conservative vote actually increased slightly to 38%. The bulk of Labour's swing came from the Liberal Democrats.

The Liberal Democrats, who are in coalition government with the Conservatives, dropped 9% to 17% overall, and lost 748 local councillors.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Germany: Record demo, Green vote rejects nuclear power

The largest anti-nuclear protests in German history were held on March 26. About 250,000 people marched in Germany’s four largest cities.

Under the slogan “Fukushima Warns: Pull the Plug on all Nuclear Power Plants”, more than 120,000 took to the streets of Berlin, 50,000 in Hamburg, 40,000 in Köln and upward of 40,000 marched in München.

In state elections held the next day, the German Greens won a historic victory in Baden-Württemberg. They will form Germany’s first-ever Green-led government.

They also tripled their vote in elections in Rheinland-Pfalz.

Riding on widespread public opposition to nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster, the Greens doubled their vote to 24.2% of the vote in Baden-Württemberg.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Germany: Greens win historic electoral triumph

State elections on March 27 saw the German Greens win an historic victory in Baden-Württemberg – where they will form Germany’s first-ever Green-led government – and triple their vote in the Rheinland-Pfalz.

Riding on widespread public opposition to nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the Greens doubled their support to 24.2 percent of the vote in Baden-Württemberg.

The centre-left Social-Democratic Party (SPD) won 23.1 percent of the vote – a small drop on their 2006 result – while the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won 39 percent of the vote, down by over 5 points.

The CDU’s ruling coalition partner – the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) – lost more than half its support, dropping to 5.3 percent – barely enough to remain in the Landtag (state parliament).

The socialist party Die Linke (“The Left”), which took 24 percent in state elections in the eastern state of Sachsen-Anhalt on March 20, won only 2.8 percent of the vote – not enough to enter parliament.

The results mean that Baden-Württemberg will be governed by a Green-SPD coalition, led by the Greens’ Winfried Kretschmann – a founding member of the party in Baden-Württemberg and now the first ever Greens state Minister-Präsident (Premier).

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Germany: State election weakens Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) survived a narrow vote in elections for the eastern state of Sachsen-Anhalt. 

The right-wing CDU lost 3% of the vote from the previous elections, dropping to 32.6% support. The two other big parties in the state, the far left Die Linke and the centrist Social Democrats (SPD), remained steady on 23.8% and 21.5% respectively.

Merkel’s allies at a federal level - the pro-free market Free Democrats - failed to cross the 5% threshold needed to win a seat, as did the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD). 

The lead NPD candidate Matthias Heyder is under investigation for discussing terrorist methods and bomb-making techniques on an online forum. Right-wing and racist violence nearly doubled in Sachsen-Anhalt in 2010.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Germany: Protests force nuclear closures after Fukushima disaster

Facing public outrage and concern over the nuclear meltdown unfolding in Japan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced the temporary shutdown of several of that country's nuclear reactors.

On March 12, over 60,000 anti-nuclear protesters in the south-western state of Baden-Württemberg formed a 45 kilometre human chain,
stretching from Stuttgart to the Neckarwestheim 1 nuclear plant.

Smaller protests took place in more than 450 towns and cities across Germany, according to anti-nuclear organisation "Ausgestrahlt" (Irradiated), and more protests are planned for March 26.

Merkel responded by announcing on March 15 that all 17 German nuclear plants would undergo safety checks. Of these, the oldest seven – all of which began operating before 1980 – would be shut down for three months, beginning immediately with the Isar 1 power plant in Bavaria.

Two of the seven older plants are already shut down – one is undergoing maintenance, while the other was taken offline in 2007 after an accident.

The move has been criticised by anti-nuclear groups and opposition parties as inadequate, and as a cynical, dishonest manoeuvre, designed only to arrest the desperate decline in support for Merkel’s ruling part, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Friday, March 4, 2011

Ireland: Ruling party crushed, left gains in poll

On February 25, Ireland’s governing party, Fianna Fáil, and its coalition partner the Green Party, were massacred in a general election revolt.

The most successful establishment party in Western Europe for the past 80 years, Fianna Fáil were demolished – reduced from 77 to only 20 seats on the back of public outrage over austerity measures and social spending cuts.

In Dublin, Fianna Fáil was reduced from 19 seats to one.

The Greens - its partners in political crime - were wiped out entirely, failing to win a single seat in Dáil Éireann (Ireland’s parliament) and winning less than 2% of the vote.

Voters punished the government for its handling of the global financial crisis, which saw Fianna Fáil bankrupt the country by bailing out Ireland’s major banks to the tune of €45 billion.

To get out of the financial black hole - and 13.6% unemployment - it had created, the government then pawned the country for as much as €100 billion in financial loans from the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The austerity measures demanded by the IMF and EU agreement will result in 30,000 public sector jobs being cut and social spending reduced for years to come.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Bobby Sands: 30 years on hunger strike - never defeated.

On March 1, 1981, Irish Republican political prisoner Roibeárd Gearóid Ó Seachnasaigh - known to all the world as Bobby Sands - went on hunger strike in Britain's "H-Block" prison cells of Long Kesh prison.

He went on hunger strike after he and fellow Republican prisoners had gone on a failed "blanket strike" - refusing to wear prison uniforms - as a protest against Britain's refusal to recognise their status as political prisoners in the struggle for Irish freedom.

In 1978, after a number of them were attacked leaving their cells to empty their chamber pots, their protest escalated into a "dirty protest" - the prisoners refused to wash and smeared the walls of their cells with excrement.

When that strategy too failed to budge the Brits, some among the "blanket men" decided to raise the stakes for political recognition, and volunteered for hunger strike.

The first hunger strike - in late 1980 - won the promise of recognition. However, when Britain refused to carry through its promises, a new coordinated effort began with Bobby Sands on March 1, 1981.

Sands - despite being elected to British parliament from his prison cell - was allowed to starve to death, without his demands being met, the Thatcher government refusing to compromise.

Sands' hunger strike lasted 66 days before - wasted and starved - his body collapsed.

Germany: Police attack anti-Nazi protesters

On February 19, more than 21,000 anti-fascist protesters took to the streets to stop up to 3,000 neo-Nazis from commemorating the Allied firebombing of Dresden during World War II. 

The police again protected the fascists from protesters, but - unlike in 2009 - didn't give them an armed guard in their march.

For the second year running, the anti-fascists successfully stopped the march form taking place, and the neo-Nazis were forced to leave the town centre via the railway to the nearby town of Leipzig, where they were also denied the right to march.

The victory was again marred by police violence against the anti-fascists.

Germany: Christian Democrats crushed in Hamburg poll

The ruling party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel was resoundingly defeated in state elections in Hamburg on February 20. 
The right-wing Christian Democratic Union's (CDU) vote nearly halved, down from 42.6% to only 21.9%. The "centre-left" Social Democrats (SPD) won 48.3% - a massive swing in their favour and enough for them to govern in their own right.

The result - after 10 years of rule - was the worst for the CDU in Hamburg since World War II.

The Green Party, which had been in coalition government with the CDU in Hamburg, won only a modest increase to 11.2%. The result was doubly disappointing for them as they had been hoping to skip from one coalition government to another, without so much as blinking.

The SPD's high vote has banished them to opposition.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Ecuador: Chevron found guilty of eco-vandalism

An Ecuadorian court handed down a landmark verdict in an 18-year case against international oil-giant Chevron on February 14.
The company was fined US$8.6 billion for polluting the Amazonian basin, and $900 million in costs.

The case — perhaps the biggest environmental case in history — was filed on behalf of around 30,000 peasants, farmers, and indigenous Ecuadorians who have suffered the ill-effects of Chevron’s toxic legacy.

At the heart of the case is the nearly 20 billion gallons of polluted water, oil and toxic waste released between 1972 and 1990 by oil company Texaco (now a part of Chevron) into the ecosystem in eastern Ecuador.

The pollution has caused thousands of deaths, cancers, birth defects and incalculable environmental damage — poisoning animals, plants and the water table — as well as huge economic loss.

So deadly has the impact been that it has been described as an “Amazonian Chernobyl”. In some affected areas, oil still oozes out of the polluted ground.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

GM crops infecting organic farms

In December last year, Kojonup organic grain farmer Steve Marsh found Genetically Modified (GM) canola plants from a neighbouring farm had contaminated 293 hectares — 63% — of his property.

The farm in Western Australia’s Great Southern region is Australia’s first known case of GM canola contamination, and Marsh has had his organic certification revoked as a result.

The Monsanto Round-Up Ready Canola was being grown on a neighbouring farm after a moratorium on growing GM crops was lifted a year ago by the WA Liberal government.

Marsh found that the GM canola had blown over a 1.5 kilometre swathe of his property, well beyond the flimsy 5 metre “exclusion zone” stipulated for GM crops under WA guidelines.

Marsh has launched legal action for the damage caused by the contamination, which has lost him the premium price for his crops.

Organic wheat can sell for up to $500 to $800 more per tonne than regular wheat, and the fact that GM seeds can remain viable for several years means that more than half his farm has now been rendered useless.

Monday, February 7, 2011

English woodlands under Tory threat

Plans by Britain’s Conservative Party government to sell off all of England’s public forests have sparked a rural revolt and mass public outrage across the country.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s Tory government has announced that it plans to sell off 15 per cent of all English land managed by the
government-owned Forestry Commission by 2015 – the largest sell-off the Government can authorise without an act of parliament – for around £100 million.

There are also plans to sell the remaining 85 percent, and a clause in a new Public Bodies Bill would give the Environment Secretary the power to do so – the biggest change in land ownership in England since the Second World War.

The Forestry Commission manages over 250,000 hectares – almost 20 percent of the total woodland in England – comprising approximately 1,500 forests, including the New Forest, the ancient and beautiful Forest of Dean, and parts of the famous Sherwood Forest.

The public forest estates in Wales (126,000 hectares) and Scotland (660,000 hectares) – also managed by the Forestry Commission – remain under the control of the devolved assemblies in those countries (rather than the UK government). There are no plans to sell off the Scottish forests, and the Welsh Assembly has said it will keep forests in public ownership.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

NSW power sell-off exposed as daylight robbery

Testimony to the NSW Upper House inquiry into the sale of the retail arm of NSW electricity has revealed that only a tiny fraction of the $5.3 billion price tag will reach the public purse, with billions of dollars eaten up by a number of “associated costs”.

These include nearly $1.5 billion in government funding for the new Cobbora coal mine north-east of Lithgow to ensure a cheap coal supply for energy producers, and a guaranteed further $1 billion in coal price subsidies to the private energy companies over the life of the mine.

In addition, the legal and administrative expenses for negotiating the deal amount an estimated $300 million alone.

While NSW Treasurer Eric Roozendaal has crowed that the sale would free taxpayers from future risk in the sector, the Inquiry has heard that this is far from the truth.

Treasury Secretary Michael Schur, who appeared before the inquiry on January 18, criticised the “Gentrader” model under which the sale took place, calling it a “second rate” model that retained future risk for NSW taxpayers.