Protests as Australian PM delays climate action

SYDNEY, July 23, 2010 (AFP) - Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard Friday announced a new "citizens assembly" to guide action on global warming, in a major pre-election speech which was hit by protests and condemned by critics.

Security staff leapt on one demonstrator who invaded the auditorium and led him away in handcuffs, while chanting could be heard through much of Gillard's address at a Brisbane university campus.

This Sky News television screen grab shows a demonstrator (2nd-R) being tackled by security staff on July 23, 2010 inside the venue at a Brisbane University Campus. AFP

The prime minister made only a slight pause and smiled briefly during the disturbance, which constituted the first hiccup of her tightly managed campaign for August 21 elections.

The 150-strong assembly, to consult over 12 months, was the centrepiece of Gillard's long-awaited announcement on the environment, a key voting issue in the world's biggest per capita polluter.

"Through a dedicated discussion, a representative group of Australians drawn from all ages, parts of the country and walks of life will help move us forward," she said.

"And if I'm wrong and that group of Australians is not ready for the consequence of change, that will be a clear warning bell that our community has not been persuaded as deeply as required about the need for transformational change."

Gillard said the assembly, helped by a new commission to sift scientific advice, would examine the case for a carbon-trading scheme which twice failed in parliament and was then shelved by ex-leader Kevin Rudd, badly damaging his support.

Australia's first woman prime minister said she remained committed to a "market-based" solution to pollution as the country bids to cut emissions by five percent from 2000 levels by 2020.

Businesses would be given incentives to act immediately on pollution and Australia would make use of renewable energy, Gillard added, warning that she would only act "in step" with major economies.

But the initiative drew an outraged response from the Greens party, environmental groups and some academics. Greenpeace said Gillard was pandering to the powerful mining industry -- seen as influential in some marginal seats.

"I'm pretty disgusted with what the prime minister came out with today," said Greens Senator Christine Milne. "It was really a pretty weak position on climate change."

Professor Warwick McKibbin, director of the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, called the approach "extremely disappointing".

"The science and expert input has made a strong case for action for more than a decade. A majority of Australians already want to take action on climate change," he said.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott said the announcement was just "camouflage" for plans to introduce a carbon tax, while a coalition of green groups said the proposal was an "insult" and "appalling".

"The citizens' assembly is basically an insult to the millions of people who did vote for climate change action in 2007," said the World Wildlife Fund's Gilly Llewellyn.

Climate change, along with immigration and the economy, is considered a key issue for next month's elections, where Gillard is seeking a public mandate after her shock ousting of Rudd in last month's party coup.

Rudd won 2007 elections on an environmental platform and signed the Kyoto Protocol, describing climate change as the "greatest challenge of our generation".

But the environmental push was derailed by the carbon scheme's failure and last year's unproductive UN climate summit in Copenhagen, where Rudd was a leading protagonist.

Gillard's speech came as United States lawmakers scrapped plans to introduce climate change legislation, potentially setting back global efforts to control the Earth's warming.

The prime minister, who is in a narrow race with Abbott, was also confronted by about a dozen demonstrators as she arrived for the speech. She later shrugged off the protests.

"We're at a university, and universities tend to be home to passionate young Australians who make their voices heard in a variety of ways," she said. "And we heard some voices today."

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