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EU President gets Obama’s thumbs up

US President Barack Obama welcomed the appointment of the EU’s first president Thursday, saying it would make Europe an “even stronger partner” for the United States.

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Obama, who returned Thursday from a trip to Asia, issued his congratulations after the 27-member European Union named Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy the first ever full-time president of the European Council.

Former EU trade commissioner, Britain’s Catherine Ashton, was named as high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.

The appointments “will strengthen the EU and enable it to be an even stronger partner to the United States,” the White House said in a statement.

The White House also sought to allay fears that US-EU relations will become less important as China rises and perceptions linger of Europe as a divided continent.

“The United States has no stronger partner than Europe in advancing security and prosperity around the world,” the White House said.

In a separate statement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed the appointments as “a milestone for Europe and for its role in the world,” and described Ashton as “my new counterpart.”

“I look forward to working closely with them to strengthen and broaden our partnership — from achieving stability in Afghanistan to securing Iranian compliance with its nonproliferation obligations and promoting a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, among many other shared objectives,” the top US diplomat said.

“With the appointment of these distinguished leaders, I am more confident than ever that together we can build a more peaceful and prosperous world.”

Unknown pair ‘not strong enough’

But the appointments caused consternation in some quarters, in particular the traditionally ‘eurosceptic’ British press

Some papers called them lightweights who may struggle on the world stage.

Papers also protested the behind-the-scenes process of selecting the two new leaders in Brussels late on Thursday

EU leaders picked little known Belgian prime minister Herman Van Rompuy as Europe’s president with a mission to give the continent a greater world profile.

Catherine Ashton from Britain’s ruling Labour Party became the EU’s foreign policy supremo after Britain dropped its campaign for ex-prime minister Tony Blair so that Van Rompuy got unanimous approval at the Brussels summit.

In backing Blair for the post last month, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Europe needed a president who “stopped the traffic”.

But the Financial Times said Van Rompuy and Ashton “would struggle to stop traffic in their own towns,” and the appointments cast doubt on whether they would able to compete in Washington and Beijing.

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US healthcare debate gets vital backing

President Barack Obama’s signature drive to remake US health care was on track to clear a key Senate hurdle Saturday, as the last wavering Democrats agreed to vote to formally open debate on the bill.

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But those lawmakers, Senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, warned they wanted changes to core provisions in the 2,074-page plan and might side with Republicans in the future to defeat the measure.

Still, their support gave Democrats the 60 votes needed to prevail in a vote on whether to formally take up their legislation to extend coverage to some 31 million Americans who currently lack it.

The measure – which includes a government-backed insurance program to compete with private firms and restrictions on dropping care for pre-existing ailments – is estimated to cost 848 billion dollars through 2019 but cut the sky-high US budget deficit by 130 billion dollars over the same period.

Democrats had no margin for error: With support from two independents, they controlled exactly the 60 votes needed to ensure passage over united opposition from the 100-seat chamber’s 40 Republicans.

A successful final vote – expected a month away at the earliest – would force the Senate and the House of Representatives to reconcile their rival versions of the bill and vote again to send it to Obama.

Republicans hope to delay until midterms

Republicans, one of whom has vowed a “holy war” against the bill, hope to kill the bill or delay the battle into next year with the expectation that the 2010 midterm elections may make it harder for centrist Democrats to support it.

Landrieu and Lincoln added to the measure’s uncertain fate by saying they opposed the so-called “public option” government-backed plan and could side with Republicans in future procedural votes — effectively dooming the bill.

“There are enough significant reforms and safeguards in this bill to move forward, but much more work needs to be done,” said Landrieu.

“I’m promising my colleagues that I’m prepared to vote against moving to the next stage of consideration as long as a government-run public option is included,” said Lincoln.

Debate still focused on cost

As debate opened Saturday, Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned against passing “this staggering spending program at a time when many would argue our international bankers, the Chinese, are lecturing us about debt.”

Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid shot back that McConnell should not “lecture us now on debt” after voting to spend hundreds of billions of dollars for the “war of choice” in Iraq under then-president George W. Bush.

The House of Representatives approved its own trillion-dollar version in a 220-215 squeaker on November 7 only after winning over a platoon of centrist Democrats by toughening restrictions on federal funds subsidizing abortions.

The Senate version does not include that stricter language, and changes several other key provisions of what would be the most sweeping overhaul of its kind in four decades.

Obama, whose job approval ratings have slipped below the critical 50-percent mark in a key public opinion poll, played golf at a military base outside Washington while the Senate pursued its often angry debate.

The United States is the world’s richest nation but the only industrialized democracy that does not provide health care coverage to all of its citizens, at a time when an estimated 36 million Americans have no health care whatsoever.

Several US presidents since Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1900s have sought to overcome the traditional US suspicion of a wider government role in health care.

Washington spends more than double what Britain, France, and Germany do per person on health care, but lags behind other countries in life expectancy and infant mortality, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

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World hopes Romanian poll ends crisis

Romanians go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president for a five-year term, amid a serious recession and an ongoing political crisis prompted by the fall of the government in mid-October.

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The polls opened at 7:00 am Romanian time.

Twelve candidates, all men, are running in this first presidential election since Romania entered the European Union in 2007.

But Sunday’s vote was likely to lead to a run-off election on December 6 with the incumbent centre-right president, Traian Basescu, and his Social Democrat rival Mircea Geoana neck-in-neck in opinion polls.

Tie too close to call

Each expected to win between 30 and 32 percent of votes in the first round, both were clear front-runners ahead of the Liberal Crin Antonescu, opinion polls showed ahead of the election.

Basescu, a former sea captain, has pointed to his achievements as president, including the country’s entry into the EU, his condemnation of the Communist-era regime and progress in the fight against corruption, even though Romania remains near the bottom of the latest corruption index published by Transparency International.

He has also pushed for further state-level reforms and called for a referendum, also to be held on Sunday, to reduce the number of deputies in parliament to 300, from a current 471.

Meanwhile, Geoana, a career diplomat and president of the Social Democrats who likes to compare himself to former British premier Tony Blair or ex-US president Bill Clinton, has proposed a “vigorous” anti-crisis plan that includes building family housing and larger credit opportunities for companies.

International eyes on the economy

Analysts however have said this will be difficult, if not impossible, to finance while the public deficit is due to reach 7.3 percent of gross domestic product and the economy is to shrink by 8.0 percent in 2009.

The election will be closely watched by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, as both organizations have delayed payments of a US$30 billion IMF-led rescue package for Romania after the collapse of the government last month.

There will also be hope in international circles that the new government appoints a Prime Minister to tackle economic concerns.

Over 18 million people out of the population of 21.5 million are eligible to vote.

But with many Romanians claiming disillusionment with their politicians, 20 years after the fall of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, participation was expected to be under 50 percent.

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New indigenous body announced

A two-year wait will come to an end shortly with the establishment of a new national representative body for indigenous Australians, the government has announced.

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been without a representative body since January 2008 when the Rudd government abolished the hand-picked National Indigenous Council, established by its predecessor in 2004.

The new body will be a company limited by guarantee and will consist of a national executive made up of eight board members, including two full-time co-chairs.

Decisions to be made by 120 indigenous delegates

Labor this time is not going down the popularly-elected track it adopted in 1987 with the establishment of ATSIC.

The decision will be left to an annual congress and 120 delegates representing indigenous organisations and communities.

Senior and respected indigenous Australians will oversee the integrity and ethics of office holders and candidates as part of a new ethics council.

Body to focus on ‘forging relationships’

Initially, the new body will focus on forging strong relationships with peak bodies, governments, regions and the private sector, federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin said.

The government will provide $6 million initially to help establish the body and an additional $23.2 million for operational costs from January 2011 to December 2013.

The new body will need to demonstrate funding is used responsibly in order to hold partisan support in Canberra, and will also be required to broaden its financial support from across other sectors.

According to Mackling, indigenous people had indicated they wanted to be represented by a body that was credible and capable of leading, influencing and monitoring public policy development.

“Indigenous Australians must have a voice if we are to achieve change,” she said.

Both sides of politics have struggled with separate representation for indigenous Australians.

Labor established ATSIC, the Howard government abolished it in 2004 and replaced it with the National Indigenous Council.

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Ex-Thai PM Samak dies

Former Thai prime minister Samak Sundaravej, who was forced out of office for appearing on TV cooking shows, has died at the age of 74.

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Samak led the People Power Party (PPP) to victory in elections in December 2007, a year after a military coup ousted his ally, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

“He died just before 9am (1300 AEDT) in hospital. We still don’t know his funeral plans,” one close political associate said.

An official at the private Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok, where Samak had been treated, also confirmed his death.

Samak had been battling liver cancer for more than a year.

‘Proxy’ for Thaksin Shinawatra

He sought treatment for the cancer late last year in the United States, and kept a low-profile after returning to Thailand.

Known as a straight-talker with a penchant for the profane, Samak’s political career spanned four decades.

Many of his supporters remembered him best for his TV show called Tasting and Complaining, a mix of traditional Thai cooking and rants on Samak’s pet subjects.

His political career, which peaked in December 2007 when he became the country’s

25th prime minister, was abruptly cut short in September 2008.

Samak’s tenure as prime minister coincided with one of the worst political crises in Thailand’s history and followed the September 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra.

Massive anti-government protests

He rose to power as the self-proclaimed proxy for Thaksin, who was living in exile, but became the focus of street rallies by anti-Thaksin protesters who demanded his resignation.

Tens of thousands of protesters stormed the prime minister’s compound in August 2008, but ulitmately, it was not the protesters who led to his ousting.

Instead, Thailand’s top court ruled that he had breached rules by accepting payment for two television shows in which he cooked and critiqued food.

The hasty decision prompted speculation that the court ruled to curtail protests and end Samak’s divisive tenure, amid fears of another coup.

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Turnbull: "I am the leader"

Malcolm Turnbull has put on a defiant display in front of the nation’s press, standing firm as Opposition Leader.

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“I am the leader”, Turnbull stressed upon being bombarded with questions.

Asked if he could seriously survice such an onslaught, he said “I’m serious about everything I do.”

Turnbull: This is about the future of our planet

“This is about the future of our planet”, Turnbull said, in relation to the trumoil over ETS.

He said he knows there are people in his party wtih doubts about the science, “but we have to take a prudent approach.”

Asked if the numbers in the senate would carry the ETS bill, Turnbull said “there are more than enough coaltion senators who have supported the shadow cabinet’s recommendations for the bill to be carried.”

He said the Liberals “cannot be seen as a party of…’do nothings’ on climate change. We entered into a bargain, and there was an offer, and an acceptance.”

Mr Turnbull said the vote in the party room on Wednesday had confirmed his position as Liberal leader.

The result of the secret ballot was 48 votes to 35 and meant Mr Turnbull was able to avoid a leadership spill.

One journalist responded by saying: “It’s today though Malcolm”; but he stood firm.

Historic afternoon puts pressure on leader

On a horror afternoon for the Liberals’ leader, former minister Tony Abbott resigned from the front bench.

This triggered a raft of resignations, starting with Sophie Mirabella, as well as Stephen Parry, Mitch Fifield, Mathias Cormann and Brett Mason, while Tony Smith and Eric Abetz were also rumoured to be going.

On resignations in his party, he said “we have to have a reshuffle anyway”, and added he would “assess all of that” after the parliament rises.

Opposition Whip Michael Johnson came out and called for Turnbull to listen to the rebels. “I would call on Malcolm to respect the conventions of the party…to do the right thing and to tender his resignation”, he said.

Later on, there was some support for the leader.

Shadow Special Minister of State Michael Ronaldson later came to Turnbull’s defence saying “there is no leadership challenge.”

“It would be electoral position for us not to show very clearly that we support some action on climate change”, he said

“Malcolm Turnbull is clearly the best person to lead the party”, Ronaldson added.

Albanese: No ‘guillotine’

On the passing of the bill, Turnbull said he was given a solemn undertaking that Senator Nick Minchin, today threatened to resign, won’t frustrate the passage of the legislation. He said that the bills will be voted on before the Senate rises for the summer break tomorrow afternoon.

Following the Turnbull press conference, Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Anthony Albanese stressed that whatever happens, there must be a vote on emissions trading by then.

Asked if there would be any ‘guillotining’ motion tomorrow, he stressed that the government has an agreement with the Liberals – and that that was confirmed by Malcolm Turnbull today.

The vote must take place by 15.45.

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Fiji fight games ban

Vidya Lakhan, head of the Fiji Association of Sports and National Olympic Committee, said on Tuesday the decision taken at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Trinidad to ban Fiji from next year’s Games in New Delhi was “disappointing”.

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Claims of political interference

“We reiterate our position and that is that we see CHOGM’s stance in this matter as political interference in sports,” Lakhan said. “

We will now take our case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and this is our last straw.

The decision made there will stand and we will all have to abide by it.”

Ban confirmed

Commonwealth leaders meeting in Trinidad on Monday confirmed a decision to suspend Fiji over the failure of the military-led government of Commodore Frank Bainimarama to meet timelines for the restoration of democracy.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Bainimarama said Fiji’s exclusion from the 2010 games was an inappropriate way to achieve the Commonwealth’s aims.

Request to reconsider

“We hope that the Commonwealth will reconsider this decision,” Permanent Secretary to the Prime Minister’s Office, Pio Tikoduadua said.

They should not mix politics with sports.

This is not helping in finding solutions to our problems.”

Fiji confident

Lakhan said he had three legal opinions which suggested Fiji had a strong case for reinstatement to the Commonwealth Games and he would be filing papers with the Court of Arbitration for Sport within two weeks.

“I would suggest that they (CHOGM) get into communication with the IOC and learn how sports and politics are separate,” he told Radio New Zealand.

“Politicians are playing their game and of course their intention is to deprive athletes of opportunities. I guess politicians are only good at depriving people of opportunities.”

Bainimarama background

Bainimarama seized power in a December 2006 coup and Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth on September 1 when his government backed down on pledges to hold elections by 2010.

A CHOGM communique said the decision to suspend Fiji from the Commonwealth Games was in line with principles under which “sporting ties are inseparable from the values of the association.”

Fiji needs to meet demands

Australian foreign minister Stephen Smith said the ban was reversible if Fiji met Commonwealth demands.

“There’s one very quick way for Fiji to get itself back into the Commonwealth and to go for example to the Commonwealth Games and that’s to have an election and return democracy, respect for human rights and respect for the rule of law to Fiji,” Smith said.

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Bin Laden was ‘within our grasp’

A US report reveals Osama bin Laden was within reach of troops in the mountains of Tora Bora when military leaders made a decision not to pursue the leader with massive force.

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The report asserts that the failure to kill or capture bin Laden at his most vulnerable in December 2001 has had lasting consequences beyond the fate of one man. Bin Laden’s escape laid the foundation for today’s reinvigorated Afghan insurgency and inflamed the internal strife now endangering Pakistan, it says.

Staff members for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Democratic majority prepared the report at the request of the chairman, Sen John Kerry, as President Barack Obama prepares to boost US troops in Afghanistan.

Kerry has long argued the Bush administration missed a chance to get the al-Qaeda leader and top deputies when they were holed up in the forbidding mountainous area of eastern Afghanistan only three months after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

More pointedly, it seeks to affix a measure of blame for the state of the war today on military leaders under former president George W. Bush, specifically Donald H. Rumsfeld as defence secretary and his top military commander, Tommy Franks.

“Removing the al-Qaeda leader from the battlefield eight years ago would not have eliminated the worldwide extremist threat,” the report says. “But the decisions that opened the door for his escape to Pakistan allowed bin Laden to emerge as a potent symbolic figure who continues to attract a steady flow of money and inspire fanatics worldwide”

The report states that bin Laden was hiding in Tora Bora when the US had the means to mount a rapid assault with several thousand troops at least.

It says that a review of existing literature, unclassified government records and interviews with central participants “removes any lingering doubts and makes it clear that Osama bin Laden was within our grasp at Tora Bora.”

On or about December 16, 2001, bin Laden and bodyguards “walked unmolested out of Tora Bora and disappeared into Pakistan’s unregulated tribal area,” where he is still believed to be based, the report says.

Instead of a massive attack, fewer than 100 US commandos, working with Afghan militias, tried to capitalise on air strikes and track down their prey.

“The vast array of American military power, from sniper teams to the most mobile divisions of the Marine Corps and the Army, was kept on the sidelines,” the report said.

At the time, Rumsfeld expressed concern that a large US troop presence might fuel a backlash and he and some others said the evidence was not conclusive about bin Laden’s location.

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Amputee masters robotic hand

The experiment lasted a month, and scientists say it was the first time a patient had been able to make complex movements using his mind to control a biomechanical hand connected to his nervous system.

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Italian team

The Italian-led team said at a news conference on Wednesday in Rome that last year it implanted electrodes into the arm of the patient who had lost his left hand and forearm in a car accident.

The prosthetic was not implanted on the patient, only connected through the electrodes. During the news conference, video was shown of 26-year-old Pierpaolo Petruzziello as he concentrated to give orders to the hand placed next to him.

Initial reaction

“The first sensation I felt was quite strange because I had something foreign in my arm so there was nothing normal, but in the end we realised that everything was going well,” Petruzziello said.

During the month he had the electrodes connected, Petruzziello learned to wiggle the robotic fingers independently, make a fist, grab objects and make other movements.

Project length

The two (m) million euro (three (m) million US dollar) project, funded by the European Union, took five years to complete and produced several scientific papers that have been published or are being submitted to top journals, including Science Translational Medicine and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said Paolo Maria Rossini, a neurologist who led the team working at Rome’s “Campus Bio-Medico,” a university and hospital that specialises in health sciences.

Consolidation

Experts not involved in the study told The Associated Press the experiment was an important step forward in creating an interface between the nervous system and prosthetic limbs, but the challenge now was ensuring that such a system could remain in the patient for years and not just a month.

Mastering the robot

After Petruzziello recovered from the microsurgery he underwent to implant the electrodes in his arm, it only took him a few days to master use of the robotic hand, Rossini said.

By the time the experiment was over, the hand obeyed the commands it received from the man’s brain in 95 percent of cases.

Feedback great

Petruzziello, an Italian who lives in Brazil, said the feedback he got from the hand was amazingly accurate.

While the “LifeHand” experiment lasted only a month, this was the longest time electrodes had remained connected to a human nervous system in such an experiment, said Silvestro Micera, one of the engineers on the team.

Similar, shorter-term experiments in 2004-2005 had hooked up amputees to a less-advanced robotic arm, and patients were only able to make basic movements, he said.

Other creations

Experts around the world have developed other thought-controlled prostheses.

One approach used in the United States involves surgery to graft shoulder nerves onto pectoral muscles and then learning to use those muscles to control a bionic arm.

While that approach was necessary when the whole arm had been lost, if a stump survived, doctors could opt for the less invasive method proposed by the Italians, connecting the prosthesis to the same system the brain uses to send and receive signals.

More research needed

It will take at least two or three years before scientists try to replicate the experiment with a more long-term prosthesis, the experts said. First they need to study if the hair-thin electrodes can be kept in longer.

Results from the experiment are encouraging, as the electrodes removed from Petruzziello showed no damage and could well stay in longer, said Klaus-Peter Hoffmann, a biomedical expert at the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, the German research institute that developed the electrodes.

Simplifying

More must also be done to miniaturise the technology on the arm and the bulky machines that translate neural and digital signals between the robot and the patient.

Key steps forward were already being made, Rossini said.

While working with Petruzziello, the Italian scientists also were collaborating on a parallel EU-funded project called “SmartHand,” which has developed a robotic arm that can be directly implanted on the patient.

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Mixed mood on eve of climate summit

As the Copenhagen climate summit prepares to open its doors on Monday, the mood among some participants is lifting.

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News that US president Barack Obama will attend the crucial last day of the two-week summit has boosted hopes of a deal to tackle global warming.

And with India announcing its target on greenhouse gas emissions in recent days, all the big polluters have put their cards on the table.

But one of Australia’s lead negotiators at the Copenhagen summit believes it will be extremely difficult to get all countries to agree on a climate pact.

Howard Bamsey will head up a team of 20 public servant negotiators at the two-week summit. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Climate Change Minister Penny Wong will also be there making the decisions.

Bamsey and his team will work to turn these into agreements which he says is extremely difficult to achieve among 193 countries.

Conference ‘bursting at the scenes’

Last-minute progress towards sealing the deal at Copenhagen may have buoyed the Danish organisers – and given some momentum to curtain-raiser protests and rallies held across Europe over the weekend – but it has also ensured the conference will be bursting

at the seams.

More than 15,000 delegates from 193 countries will be attending, including 5,000 journalists, and organisers have been forced to turn away more journalists who want to attend.

Some delegates are worried about transport and queuing to get into the conference venue, the Bella Center, which is a bus or train ride south of the city centre.

The numbers are so large that only a handful of journalists will be allowed into the conference’s three-hour official opening, which is set to begin at 10am Monday Copenhagen time, (2000 AEDT).

Details of the opening are scant but it is expected to contain a ‘cultural segment’.

Conference called to ‘thrash out deal’ on emissions

In the afternoon, the business of the conference will begin – negotiators will start their meetings on the framework of a climate deal, then attend an official welcoming ceremony in the evening.

The UN conference is supposed to thrash out a new global deal to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming.

The existing deal, the Kyoto protocol, will run out in 2012 and the UN wants all countries, rich and poor, to agree on a replacement.

Big decisions set for week two

The first week of the conference is set aside for negotiators to thrash out the details of how a climate deal could work. The big decisions are expected in the second week, when ministers arrive, particularly on the last day of the conference on December 18.

That’s when more than 60 world leaders will make an appearance – among them President Obama.

The US president had planned to attend during the first week only, when other leaders would not be present, which was seen as an unpromising sign.

But President Obama has changed his mind, citing “progress being made towards a meaningful Copenhagen accord in which all countries pledge to take action against the global threat of climate change”.

He will now attend on December 18.

A statement issued from the White House said he made the decision after discussing “the status of negotiations” with Australia’s prime minister Kevin Rudd, as well as the leaders of

Germany, France and the UK.

President Obama’s change of heart means he will share the stage with Mr Rudd at Copenhagen – the Australian PM is due to attend on December 16-18, where he’ll act as an official ‘friend of the chair’ to the Danes.

Australia’s role forced to change due to ETS failure

But Australia’s role at the summit may have changed after the government’s main weapon to bring down greenhouse gas emissions, an emissions trading scheme (ETS), was killed off by the Senate.

The opposition has dropped its support for an ETS under its new leader Tony Abbott, casting doubt on how Australia will reduce emissions.

Mr Rudd has promised to slash emissions by five to 25 per cent by 2020.

Away from the formalities, the city of Copenhagen is expected to come alive for the first day of the summit – helped by a benign weather forecast of sunny periods and a maximum of eight degrees celsius.

Backstreet Boys drafted in

Pop idols the Backstreet Boys are due to play on Monday evening in the city centre, with a dance concert and a display of rainforest stumps scheduled for other parts of town.

The City Hall Square is to be made into a ‘Hopenhagen’ centre.

Major obstacles to a deal at Copenhagen persist – countries have not promised to cut emissions by the amount some scientists say is needed.

And there’s no agreement on the hot topic of financing – how rich countries will pay poor ones to tackle climate change.

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