* Truck protest circles Australian parliament
* Steelmaker BlueScope to shed jobs
* PM Gillard wins support for carbon offsets plan
(Adds vote on carbon offsets laws)
By Rob Taylor
CANBERRA, Aug 22 Hundreds of truckers circled
Australia's parliament on Monday in a campaign aimed at forcing
the government to withdraw a proposed carbon tax law, and call
new elections, the second anti-government protest in the
nation's capital this month.
The truckers sought to draw on public dissatisfaction with
Prime Minister Julia Gillard's minority government and
perceptions of economic incompetence, despite a robust economy.
"Everyone is on the edge because the country is basically in
a state of disarray. We've all been surprised at just how tough
everyone is doing it," said transport company owner Peter
Whytcross as the "Convoy of No Confidence" trucks blasted horns
from roads around parliament and Gillard's home nearby.
Outside the booming mining sector, many Australians are
fighting to keep pace with inflation and high house prices
combining to make the nation's biggest city, Sydney, one of the
world's most expensive places to live.
Despite the country avoiding recession after the 2008 global
downturn, a high Australian dollar and weak domestic demand are
hurting areas other than the resources sector which is booming
on the back of strong demand from China and elsewhere in Asia.
On Monday, the country's biggest steelmaker, BlueScope Steel
, announced 1,000 job cuts and closure of half of its
steel-making capacity, while Qantas Airways last week
said it would cut costs and slash up to 1,000 jobs, shifting
much of its international operations into Asia.
Political opponents dismissed the truck protesters as a
"convoy of no consequence", saying only a few hundred vehicles
circled the hill-top parliament instead of the thousands that
the organisers had promised.
"But it has got the moaners' brigade in town to moan about
everything in general and nothing in particular," said Greens
leader Bob Brown, whose party holds the balance of power in the
upper house and is accused by truckers of holding Gillard's
Labor to ransom.
LOSING JOBS IN HEARTLAND
The prospect of losing blue-collar steel jobs from Labor
heartland areas south of Sydney, however, prompted assurances of
support for the manufacturing sector from Gillard and Treasurer
"There is no higher priority for us as a Labor government
than supporting jobs," Gillard told reporters, while Swan
promised a "market-based solution" to help manufacturing
companies better compete in the face of overseas competition.
The job losses will add to Gillard's woes as she struggles
in opinion polls which predict her government would be swept
from office if elections were held. Fresh elections are due in
2013 and Gillard has a one-seat buffer with support from Green
and independent lawmakers.
The conservative opposition, riding high in opinion polls,
has called for a national vote on the controversial carbon tax,
which truckers and miners say would drive up business costs and
further erode fragile consumer confidence.
"We can have a vote on the carbon tax without necessarily a
change of government. I am making it easier with this bill to
have this matter put to the people," conservative leader Tony
Abbott told lawmakers.
But in a much-needed political win for Gillard, the
government and Greens late on Monday combined in the upper house
Senate to endorse laws to set up a carbon offsets market for
farmers and foresters.
The laws, the first major package passed since the Greens
took the key balance of power votes in the Senate on July 1, are
a precursor to the carbon price package, which will be
introduced into parliament next week.
(Editing by Ed Davies and Sanjeev Miglani)