Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Climate change making droughts in Australia worse as rain patterns shift

Climate Council report says projected decreases in average rainfall are linked to reduced agricultural productivity and increased suicide risk in rural areas.

Climate change is making drought conditions in south-west and south-east Australia worse, with serious ramifications for people’s health and the agriculture industry, a new paper has warned.

The Climate Council report states that since the mid-1990s, south-east Australia has experienced a 15% drop in rainfall during late autumn and early winter, with a 25% slump in average rainfall in April and May.

A drought that has gripped western Queensland and northern New South Wales since 2012 has put pressure on farmers and forced wildlife into starvation. Projected decreases in average rainfall in winter and spring mean it will “likely be increasingly difficult to erase such rainfall deficits in the future” according to the Climate Council report, which cites data from the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology.

Average annual stream flow into Perth’s dams has fallen by 80% since the 1970s, according to the paper, while Sydney dams such as Warragamba and Shoalhaven could experience a 25% drop in water inflows by 2070 if greenhouse gases are not curbed.

Melbourne’s four main reservoirs could suffer an 18% decrease in annual stream flows by 2050. The Climate Council said that increasingly severe droughts were linked to a drop in agricultural productivity and a 15% increase in suicide risk for rural males aged between 30 and 49.

The report’s author, Professor Will Steffen, said a much clearer picture of climate change’s influence on drought was emerging through recent research. “There is stronger evidence that the front that brings rain in from the Southern Ocean has shifted south by about a degree in latitude, while the subtropical ridge, which is a belt of high pressure in central Australia, has intensified,” he said. “We are seeing this kind of thing consistently around the planet.

This is being driven very strongly by climate change, through the models and supported by observations.” Steffen said future rainfall decreases of even 10% would have “pretty serious” implications for urban water supplies due to the reduced flow of water into catchments.

“Droughts have obviously been an important issue for Australia for a long time, but the question is ‘how far can we adapt?’ ” he said. “If you look at wheat yields, for example, yes, you can adapt, but there are limits to that. It’s a bit of false hope that you can adapt infinitely,” he said.

ACOSS: Competition policy must support community needs and outcomes

Tuesday March 31, 2015

Responding to the release of the Government’s Competition Policy Review today, the Australian Council of Social Service said competition policy doesn’t exist in isolation but needs to suit the social, economic and environmental environments to which it applies.

ACOSS CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie said: “We welcome the Report’s recognition of the importance of collaboration in human services for the community and its focus on consumer choice, which as we know is a key element of community control."

"However, we are concerned about the recommendation of deepening and extending competition policy in human services as a ‘priority reform’. We’re not ideologically opposed to competition in social services, but we are saying let’s get it right. You can’t just roll it out the same way in communities with diverse populations and needs.

“To date, the community sector’s experiences of privatisation in health, childcare and employment services point to price inflation, higher costs to government, less collaboration and questionable outcomes for the community.

"The lessons from a lot of the best outcomes in communities is that you can’t always scale approaches nationally. Communities identify and meet their own needs in various ways and funding options, including from governments, need to reflect this.

In a reflection that competition policy is front and centre for community organisations struggling to attract the resources they need to meet community needs, the network of Councils of Social Service across Australia provided a submission to the Review.

Dr Goldie said, "We are in the midst of three pretty spectacular disasters that have come about from competitive processes assuming it is the same context as a tender for a bridge or a construction process."

“We support the principle that individuals, particularly those who are disadvantaged, should be empowered to make choices about which services best meet their needs. But reforms need to build on evidence of the Australian experience to date.

"We should not assume that greater market competition will produce better options for people. Recent competitive tender processes have in fact resulted in less diversity and undermined existing collaborative relationships. They have also seen the loss of smaller, specialist and local providers who are uniquely placed to understand the needs of their community and client groups.

“Competition can also result in a race to the bottom on price, with the result being either that organisations are forced to deliver a poor quality service or to deliver services at a loss. Larger organisations may be able to cross-subsidise poorly funded programs but this option is not available for smaller providers.

“On the evidence of how it’s currently being operated, competitive tendering is not working in the community sector. We've seen that across different portfolios and under successive governments. Competitive tendering is not supporting communities and is diverting vital social service resources to funding processes that they would have been better off ignoring.

"For example in the latest round with Department of Social Services, many organisations invested time and resources applying for funding that was subsequently discontinued as a Budget savings measure; while others only found out they had lost funding when the tender documentation indicated they were ineligible," Dr Goldie concluded.

Bruce Petty – Budget woes

Monday, March 30, 2015

NSWTF: Time for Baird to put Gonski pressure on Abbott

By NSW Teachers Federation 30 March 2015

Premier Mike Baird needs to do more than just talk about Gonski funding, Federation President Maurie Mulheron told the union's Principals' Conference on March 30.

Mr Mulheron called on Mr Baird to pressure the Abbott Government into funding the 5th and 6th years of the needs-based schools funding program.

A workshop at the conference showcased examples of how Gonski funding had improved teaching and learning outcomes. Principals shared ideas on raising community awareness of the need for the implementation of the full 6 years of Gonski funding in the lead up to the next Federal election.

The conference held a range of workshops, including a special education workshop, which reported the outcomes of Sydney University research into the Department of Education and Communities' Every Student, Every School policy. The analysis identified more work needs to be done, including resource allocation, access to specialist regional support, and professional development (particularly for classroom teachers).

Keynote speaker Professor Bob Lingard from Queensland University spoke about edu-businesses positioning themselves to shape education policy, without having a democratic constituency and to the exclusion of teacher voices.

Unions NSW: Election results

Unions NSW Secretary Mark Lennon has congratulated Mike Baird on Saturday’s election win. He also congratulated Labor leader Luke Foley on his strong campaign.

“It was a robust campaign and both leaders are to be congratulated on the civil way they conducted the debate,” Mr Lennon said.

He said the Union campaign had made privatisation the central issue of the election and although the government has been returned it has suffered a 9 per cent swing against it which is an indication that the public remain uncomfortable with the privatisation of the state’s electricity network.

Mr Lennon said he was proud of the Union movements’ campaign.

“I want to thank all the nurses, teachers, electricity, disability and other workers who made their voices heard and set the agenda on which this election has been fought.  These are strong union members willing to give up their time for an issue they believe in.”

“Throughout the campaign there was a coordinated group of 2000 volunteers who knocked on nearly 30,000 doors and received 8,000 pledges in support of our public services, that is a remarkable effort.” 

“Our campaigning for jobs, rights and services will continue and we will hold the re-elected Baird Government to account on its promise to create more jobs, increase funding for hospitals and to restore fairness and equity to the TAFE system,” he said.

ACTU: Tax debate must be about fairness not profits

30 March 2015

Unions welcome further discussion on tax reform but the focus must be on creating a more equitable system, not a bonanza for the wealthy.

Change is urgently needed as the current system is unfair and skewed to benefit the wealthy.

The Government would save billions of dollars every year by reducing superannuation concessions for high income earners who currently receive more government support for their retirement than low or middle income earners do, and by fixing the corporate tax rorts that too many companies use to pay little or no tax.

Treasury estimates that the concessional taxation of super costs $32 billion a year.

Australia forgoes more revenue through tax expenditure than all other advanced economies.

One of the main differences between high and low inequality countries is the amount of redistribution they do through taxes and transfers.

The amount of redistribution in Australia has fallen over time, partly due to policy choices.

The government could improve the budget bottom line without increasing inequality simply by reforming super tax concessions and stopping the corporate tax rorts.

 Quotes attributable to ACTU President Ged Kearney:

“Unions support equitable concessions focussed on low and middle income earners not a bonanza for high earners.

“So far this Government has ruled only in the interest of the top and this tax review must not result in a continuation of this.

“We need to get serious about the budget bottom line and address, for example, unfair tax expenditure that sees billions of dollars in superannuation tax concessions flow into the pockets of high income earners every year, and the rorts that let too many companies pay little or no tax.

“Unfair superannuation concessions available to high income earners could be overhauled to generate revenue and ensure the system is fair to all Australians.

“How can we talk about reforming the taxes working Australians pay such as the GST without enforcing the existing rules on companies who seek to dodge tax?

We welcome further debate on this vital issue.”

Tax reform is the key to solving Australia’s public budget problems: ACOSS

Monday March 30, 2015

In response to the Treasurer’s launch of the Government’s Tax Reform White Paper at our tax reform breakfast in Melbourne this morning, ACOSS argued that tax reform is the key to resolving our long term public Budget problems. The tax system should be redesigned and strengthened so that people contribute to the cost of services according to their ability to pay.

“We welcome the dialogue on tax reform opened up by the release of this discussion paper. It’s an opportunity for the community and business to take the initiative: these hard issues can’t be left to Governments alone,” ACOSS CEO Cassandra Goldie said.

“People understand we have a public Budget problem: they want solutions that don’t impose the greatest burden on the least well off. To solve our public Budget challenge in a way that’s fair and economically sensible, we must reform the tax system.

“Instead of searching for Budget savings in community services, charging more for doctor’s visits, denying young people income support for six months, or reducing the future value of pensions, Governments should clean out the ‘hollow logs’ in our tax system.

“It is too easy for people with high incomes to avoid paying their fair share of tax through devices such as negative gearing and private trusts, for some international companies to artificially shift their profits elsewhere, and for retired people with substantial assets to churn their income through their super accounts to reduce tax.

“If too many people play the tax avoidance ‘game’ then either tax rates will have to rise or essential services will wither on the vine.

“The starting point for tax reform should be to strengthen the fairest taxes, especially taxes on income, and to make them more efficient. Too many investment decisions are made for tax reasons and that’s one of the reasons we have over-investment in housing that drives costs up for everyone.

“Tax reform must not be reduced to a narrow argument over increasing taxes on consumption such as the GST. This would concentrate the risks of reform on those least able to bear them: people on low incomes. A tax on bank deposits is a consumption tax since it will be passed on to consumers, just as the former State Government bank deposit taxes were.  We should not start the process by ruling things out.

“Tax reform would not be complete without a restructure of State taxes. The States lack a solid revenue base to fund future health, education and community services. There is a broad consensus that the least efficient taxes include Stamp Duties and insurance taxes, and the State Governments should make better use of Land Tax and Payroll Tax.

“There will be a degree of cynicism about Governments starting a ‘conversation about tax reform’ rather than simply making decisions. We don’t share that view. One of the main reasons the public rejected the 2014 Budget is that the Government didn’t take people into their confidence by clearly explaining the problem, or listen to alternative views on how to fix them.

“We need a different approach to an issue as tough and as important as tax reform,” Dr Goldie said.


Congratulations to Trish Doyle: A strong advocate for changes to domestic violence and sexual assault laws, Trish Doyle is expected to take the seat of Blue Mountains away from the Liberal Party. She stood for election in 2011 but was unsuccessful. Ms Doyle has worked for women's services and as a school teacher in Sydney's west and in the Blue Mountains. She grew up in country NSW and moved to the Blue Mountains as a single mother of two boys. She has also worked for former Blue Mountains MP Phil Koperberg.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Melbourne – 9000 march to close Nauru Detention Centre

An estimated 9000 people marched through Melbourne on Sunday demanding the Abbott government close the trouble-plagued immigration detention centre in Nauru.

A former child detainee at Nauru joined protesters at the State Library of Victoria to rally against the centre.

Mohammad Baqiri joined the Palm Sunday Walk for Justice rally to speak about his experiences as a child detainee on Nauru.

Refugee Action Collective spokesman Chris Breen said Australia's offshore detention system "is both brutal and unsustainable".

The rally began at 2pm at the State Library with protesters marching about a kilometre to Queen Victoria Gardens on St Kilda Road while chanting condemnations of the government's asylum seeker policy.

Representations of several churches led the march, along with former refugees.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

ACTU: $27 pay rise and 10 per cent super for minimum wage workers

The ACTU is calling for a $27 increase in the minimum wage to $667.90 per week or $17.58 per hour.

The ACTU’s submission to the Fair Work Commission’s Annual Wage Review shows minimum wages are at a record low of 43.4% of average weekly full time earnings and that inequality in Australia will grow even further without a $27 pay rise for the lowest paid workers.

Australia had the biggest drop in the minimum wage as a percentage of the average wage of any OECD country between 2003 and 2013.

If this trend continues, Australia’s minimum wage will be on par with the United States by 2037 and our society will have an entrenched underclass of working poor.

In addition to a $27 per week increase to the minimum wage, the ACTU is also asking for compulsory superannuation to be increased by 0.5 per cent to 10 per cent for minimum award wage workers.

This is to compensate Australia’s lowest paid workers for the cut to their retirement savings caused by the Abbott Government’s decision to freeze the 0.5 per cent increase to compulsory super that was due to come into effect on July 1 under the Superannuation Guarantee.

Australian Unions urge the Fair Work Commission to award the ACTU’s claim in order to protect the living standards and retirement savings of almost two million Australian workers.

Key facts:

  • 1.86 million Australians (18.8% of the workforce) are paid the national minimum wage or an award minimum wage
  • The ACTU is seeking a $27 per week increase to the minimum wage from $640.90 per week to $667.90 (from $16.87 to $17.58 per hour)
  • The $27 per week increase also applies to award minimum wages up to the C10 tradesperson rate and a 3.6% increase for award rates above the C10 rate (these are classifications for workers on award minimum wages)
  • The Abbott Government’s decision to delay the 0.5 super increase until 2021 means a 20-year-old minimum wage worker will be $18,401 worse off in retirement

Quotes attributable to ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver:

“A $27 per week pay rise for our lowest paid workers is essential if Australia is to avoid creating an underclass of working poor.

“There are already signs that Australia is developing a working poor with financial stress, deprivation and poverty on the rise among low paid workers.

“The Annual Wage Review is the only chance for 1.86 million of Australia’s lowest paid workers to get a pay rise and it helps set the pay and pay increases of many more.

“Last year Joe Hockey raided the super accounts of Australian workers and that’s why unions are fighting to get 10 per cent compulsory super reinstated.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Reversal of legal funding cuts an important first step, rest of $1B must be restored

Thursday March 26, 2015

The Australian Council of Social Service has welcomed the announcement today by the Attorney-General George Brandis to restore cuts to vital community legal services.
In making this announcement the Attorney-General stated the need and vulnerability of the people these organisations supported, and the need for certainty and adequacy of funding, as key factors driving his decision to reverse funding cuts that had crippled the community legal sector.
“This is an essential first step but only the beginning of the work the Government needs to do to repair the damage caused by $1b in funding cuts to community services across the country,” said ACOSS CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie.
“ACOSS calls on the Federal Government to implement the next steps, restoring funding to the social services, health services, supports in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and the rest of the community legal sector providing much-needed support to legal services including through policy and law reform advice.
“MPs and Senators returning to their electorates after the last sitting week before the Federal Budget will find crisis as the impact of $1b in cuts to community services hits people most in need in our communities,” said ACOSS CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie.
“The impact of these cuts is already being felt right across the country, from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people seeking health, legal and social services, to people relying on community mental health programs.
“These cuts have targeted people on the lowest incomes, people experience financial crisis or family breakdown, children at risk, vulnerable young people, new mothers and babies, people facing eviction and homelessness, cares in need of respite, those struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, and those with mental health issues or other serious health concerns in the community.

"The cuts are destroying the fabric of local communities, and years of hard and committed effort by community leaders, many of whom area volunteers. Community organisations are facing extensive job losses, with highly skilled people on modest incomes now facing the grim prospect of unemployment. With 85% of workers in community services being female, and many aged 40 and over, these funding cuts will also create a fresh generation of people at serious risk of poverty and homelessness themselves after a life dedicated to helping others.  
“At the same time the defunding of policy advice and advocacy work by housing, homelessness, disability and financial exclusion organisations has reduced the opportunity for local communities to be involved in the decisions made about them by policy-makers and governments.
“We should not be running down important community services, especially those supporting our most vulnerable, in the search for short term Budget savings that will cost us all more in the long term.
“There is another way, as ACOSS has outlined in our Budget submission, which identified at least $13 billion in fairer savings measures that target areas of waste and ensure those with the most capacity to contribute pay their fair share.
“ACOSS will continue to campaign against Budget decisions that hurt people who need the most support in our communities. We call on local MPs to insist on the restoration of this vital funding,” Dr Goldie said.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Neoliberalism and Bullshit jobs

Which jobs are bullshit? “A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble. But it’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish.” He concedes that some might argue that his own work is meaningless. “There can be no objective measure of social value,” he says emolliently.

In The Utopia of Rules, Graeber goes further in his analysis of what went wrong. Technological advance was supposed to result in us teleporting to new planets, wasn’t it? He lists some of the other predicted technological wonders he’s disappointed don’t exist: flying cars, suspended animation, immortality drugs, androids, colonies on Mars. “Speaking as someone who was eight years old at the time of the Apollo moon landing, I have clear memories of calculating that I would be 39 years of age in the magic year 2000, and wondering what the world around me would be like. Did I honestly expect I would be living in a world of such wonders? Of course. Do I feel cheated now? Absolutely.”

But what happened between the Apollo moon landing and now? Graeber’s theory is that in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was mounting fear about a society of hippie proles with too much time on their hands. “The ruling class had a freak out about robots replacing all the workers. There was a general feeling that ‘My God, if it’s bad now with the hippies, imagine what it’ll be like if the entire working class becomes unemployed.’ You never know how conscious it was but decisions were made about research priorities.” Consider, he suggests, medicine and the life sciences since the late 1960s. “Cancer? No, that’s still here.” Instead, the most dramatic breakthroughs have been with drugs such as Ritalin, Zoloft and Prozac – all of which, Graeber writes, are “tailor-made, one might say, so that these new professional demands don’t drive us completely, dysfunctionally, crazy”.

His bullshit jobs argument could be taken as a counterblast to the hyper-capitalist dystopia argument wherein the robots take over and humans are busted down to an eternity of playing Minecraft. Summarising predictions in recent futurological literature, John Lanchester has written: “There’s capital, doing better than ever; the robots, doing all the work; and the great mass of humanity, doing not much but having fun playing with its gadgets.” Lanchester drew attention to a league table drawn up by two Oxford economists of 702 jobs that might be better done by robots: at number one (most safe) were recreational therapists; at 702 (least safe) were telemarketers. Anthropologists, Graeber might be pleased to know, came in at 39, so he needn’t start burnishing his resume just yet – he’s much safer than writers (123) and editors (140).

Graeber believes that since the 1970s there has been a shift from technologies based on realising alternative futures to investment technologies that favoured labour discipline and social control. Hence the internet. “The control is so ubiquitous that we don’t see it.” We don’t see, either, how the threat of violence underpins society, he claims. “The rarity with which the truncheons appear just helps to make violence harder to see,” he writes.

experts release national plan to tackle housing affordability crisis

Tuesday March 24, 2015

Peak community and housing groups today called on the Commonwealth Government to work with them in developing a national housing strategy to address the worsening housing affordability crisis in Australia.
The groups, including the Australian Council of Social Service, National Shelter, Homelessness Australia, the Community Housing Federation of Australia and the National Association of Tenant Organisations, today released ‘An Affordable Housing Reform Agenda’ which outlines reform priorities to achieve an efficient and affordable housing system that strengthens productivity and participation.
Priorities include:
  • Reforming the tax treatment of housing to remove distortions and improve affordability;
  • Public and private investment in new affordable housing stock to address the shortfall in affordable housing stock;
  • Reform of urban planning, land and building regulation to retain, promote and create affordable housing;      
  • Increasing the maximum rate and improving indexation of Commonwealth Rent Assistance to relieve rental stress;
  • Reforming tenancy protections to provide more security for renters; and
  • Adequate and consistent funding for homelessness services to ensure we meet our goal of halving homelessness by 2020.
Dr Cassandra Goldie, CEO, of the Australian Council of Social Service said:
“It is simply unacceptable that four in five private rental households in the lowest 20% of incomes are in unaffordable housing, paying more than 30% of income in rent. A further 30% of the second lowest quintile is also experiencing housing stress.
“The reality is that the housing supply shortfall is becoming a serious brake on productivity. The current policy and tax mix distorts investment decisions, is a barrier to workforce participation and mobility and contributes to house price inflation leading to greater inequality and social exclusion.
“The lack of affordable housing in Australia is taking a serious human and economic toll. We need to start thinking about housing as a national infrastructure priority to maximise its potential to contribute to economic growth, productivity and participation. 
“The twin reviews of the federation and taxation provide an opportunity for us to grapple with key aspects of current housing policy failure. Reforms on these fronts must be complemented by significant but cost-effective investment to increase supply and relieve rental stress." 
Glenda Stevens, CEO, Homelessness Australia said:
“It is pleasing to see the government extend the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness for another two years, providing much needed certainty for services, especially those supporting women affected by domestic violence and young homeless people. However, we cannot forget other groups of people sleeping rough and with nowhere to go."
“We know that homelessness and housing are inextricably linked. Homelessness cannot be solved if we have nowhere suitable, safe and affordable for people to live. Each day, while the government dithers and discusses, 399 additional people come to homelessness services for assistance. By far the greatest request is for somewhere to sleep. People will remain homeless while there is insufficient suitable housing for them.
“A safe and permanent home underpins all the functions of our society. Living in a car, a tent or on the street, couch surfing or a family crowded into one room, means  children are at risk of disengaging from school, young people ‘drop out’ and people get sick and cannot access the basic services a country like ours should provide.
“On any one night, in 2013-14, more than 7,000 people spent their previous night sleeping in crisis accommodation.  Each day homelessness agencies closed 414 cases of which only 67% resulted in stable housing outcomes."

Adrian Pisarski, Executive Officer, National Shelter said:
“The crisis in affordable housing is now so deep it cannot be far short of catastrophic. Too many households now live in substandard, marginal housing and we have persistent market failure. We need a strategy to recast government programs, taxes and other incentives to create scale investment from institutions in social and affordable housing.
“Governments, community organisations and the private sector must partner to create new ways to leverage investment in affordable housing at scale. Through partnership, innovation, investment and strategic reform we can meet this challenge and unlock the economic and social dividends of secure, affordable and stable housing for all.”

Deb Pippen, from the National Association of Tenant Organisations said:
"This worsening picture also highlights the vulnerable position of tenants across the country, their experience in their homes and the inadequacy of laws to protect them from substandard and insecure housing. 

"If we as a community are concerned about the most disadvantaged members of society we must ensure that tenancy laws guarantee that everyone has access to secure housing that is of a fair standard."
Carol Croce, CEO, the Community Housing Federation of Australia said:
"For too long the crisis in affordable housing has been relegated to the 'back burner' of the national policy agenda. 
"Our housing agenda provides a wide-ranging blueprint for needed reform.  What's needed now is the political will and commitment to bring affordable housing to the forefront of national debate and action."

Baird follows Newman in vote 1

In a close election, the optional preferential voting system can not only affect the result, but also make it harder than in a federal election to use pre-election opinion polls to gauge what the two-party preferred vote will be.

Under optional preferential voting, a voter can indicate a preference for just one candidate, for two, three or more, or fill in every box, as I explained in greater detail in this article in The Conversation. (Meanwhile, Adrian Beaumont’s NSW election preview covers how to preference correctly in the upper house.)

In Queensland, the Newman government ran a strong “just vote 1” campaign, repeatedly claiming that votes for minor parties were “wasted votes”.

That is incorrect, as under optional preferential voting a vote can be cast first for a minor party with subsequent preferences allocated to other candidates the voter supports – thus giving the voter the right to choose only candidates they support. Electoral educators, other parties and interest groups criticised that “wasted votes” claim.

In fact, the Newman government feared that exhausted votes for minor parties would give the ALP an advantage – and that proved to be the case. (A vote is “exhausted” when it is removed from the count because the candidates preferenced on the ballot have been eliminated from the count. You can read a more detailed explanation here.)

At this year’s election, ABC election analyst Antony Green says Queensland saw a 20% decline in exhausted preferences, and a similar size increase in preference flows to Labor. Many of those preferences went to the ALP, helping it to form a minority government.

Green has concluded that the well-organised Labor and union campaign to “put the LNP last” was crucial in Queensland election result:

It looks like those preferences recommendations, and the decisions of voters themselves to number more squares, have been the difference between Labor winning the 2015 election and the LNP being returned … Preferences can still make a difference.

Vote 1 for privatisation, or preference against it?

In the Queensland election, the LNP government staked its re-election strategy on an infrastructure program funded by privatising assets, despite the political backlash against its Labor predecessor’s plans for assets sales.

In the month before the election, most opinion polls showed that the Newman government was set to suffer a big swing, but still likely to hang on.

In NSW, the polls are not as close as they were in Queensland. And in contrast to Campbell Newman, Mike Baird’s high personal popularity is seen as one of the government’s strongest selling points.

But Baird has still been similarly “courageous” – as they used to say on Yes, Minister – by declaring “there is no Plan B” to fund many of his campaign promises without the government’s plan for partial privatisation of the power industry.

Most polls and the ABC’s Vote Compass have shown the majority of NSW voters oppose privatisation.

However, the latest Fairfax/Ipsos pollshows there is less opposition when people are asked for their view on privatisation with the proceeds being used for infrastructure, with a result of 48% in support and 47% opposed.

Nevertheless, privatisation has given new Labor leader Luke Foley a central theme to run with, which does seem to have resonated in many parts of the state, especially in regional areas and with women.

So just as in Queensland, the only question now is: come election day on March 28, will voters heed the “just vote 1” message, or will preferences prove crucial in deciding the next NSW government?

Paul Krugman on UK economy

The 2016 election is still 19 mind-numbing, soul-killing months away. There is, however, another important election in just six weeks, as Britain goes to the polls. And many of the same issues are on the table. 

Unfortunately, economic discourse in Britain is dominated by a misleading fixation on budget deficits. Worse, this bogus narrative has infected supposedly objective reporting; media organizations routinely present as fact propositions that are contentious if not just plain wrong.

Needless to say, Britain isn’t the only place where things like this happen. A few years ago, at the height of our own deficit fetishism, the American news media showed some of the same vices. Allegedly factual articles would declare that debt fears were driving up interest rates with zero evidence to support such claims. Reporters would drop all pretense of neutrality and cheer on proposals for entitlement cuts. 

In the United States, however, we seem to have gotten past that. Britain hasn’t.

The narrative I’m talking about goes like this: In the years before the financial crisis, the British government borrowed irresponsibly, so that the country was living far beyond its means. As a result, by 2010 Britain was at imminent risk of a Greek-style crisis; austerity policies, slashing spending in particular, were essential. And this turn to austerity is vindicated by Britain’s low borrowing costs, coupled with the fact that the economy, after several rough years, is now growing quite quickly.

Simon Wren-Lewis of Oxford University has dubbed this narrative “mediamacro.” As his coinage suggests, this is what you hear all the time on TV and read in British newspapers, presented not as the view of one side of the political debate but as simple fact. 

Yet none of it is true.

Was the Labour government that ruled Britain before the crisis profligate? Nobody thought so at the time. In 2007, government debt as a percentage of G.D.P. was close to its lowest level in a century (and well below the level in the United States), while the budget deficit was quite small. The only way to make those numbers look bad is to claim that the British economy in 2007 was operating far above capacity, inflating tax receipts. But if that had been true, Britain should have been experiencing high inflation, which it wasn’t.

Still, wasn’t Britain at risk of a Greek-style crisis, in which investors could lose confidence in its bonds and send interest rates soaring? There’s no reason to think so. Unlike Greece, Britain has retained its own currency and borrows in that currency — and no country fitting this description has experienced that kind of crisis. Consider the case of Japan, which has far bigger debt and deficits than Britain ever did yet can currently borrow long-term at an interest rate of just 0.32 percent.

Which brings me to claims that austerity has been vindicated. Yes, British interest rates have stayed low. So have almost everyone else’s. For example, French borrowing costs are at their lowest level in history. Even debt-crisis countries like Italy and Spain can borrow at lower rates than Britain pays. 

What about growth? When the current British government came to power in 2010, it imposed harsh austerity — and the British economy, which had been recovering from the 2008 slump, soon began slumping again. In response, Prime Minister David Cameron’s government backed off, putting plans for further austerity on hold (but without admitting that it was doing any such thing). And growth resumed. 

If this counts as a policy success, why not try repeatedly hitting yourself in the face for a few minutes? After all, it will feel great when you stop.

Given all this, you might wonder how mediamacro gained such a hold on British discourse. Don’t blame economists. As Mr. Wren-Lewis points out, very few British academics (as opposed to economists employed by the financial industry) accept the proposition that austerity has been vindicated. This media orthodoxy has become entrenched despite, not because of, what serious economists had to say.

Still, you can say the same of Bowles-Simpsonism in the United States, and we know how that doctrine temporarily came to hold so much sway. It was all about posturing, about influential people believing that pontificating about the need to make sacrifices — or, actually, for other people to make sacrifices — is how you sound wise and serious. Hence the preference for a narrative prioritizing tough talk about deficits, not hard thinking about job creation.

As I said, in the United States we have mainly gotten past that, for a variety of reasons — among them, I suspect, the rise of analytical journalism, in places like The Times’s The Upshot. But Britain hasn’t; an election that should be about real problems will, all too likely, be dominated by mediamacro fantasies.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Malcolm Fraser – Whitlam Oration 2012

Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser

Draconian metadata laws

The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act will, in its new amended form, require all telecommunication carriers and internet service providers to store the metadata of all communications passing to and from their customers (that's all telephone calls, texts, emails and other digital communications) for two years. These will be available to criminal enforcement agencies.

What is metadata?

Finally, we have a definition, the Government having backed down and agreed to include the "data set" in the Act itself. This includes your name, address and other identifying information, your contract details, billing and payment information. In relation to each communication, it includes the date, start and finish times, and the identities of the other parties to the communication. And it includes the location data, such as the mobile cell towers or Wi-Fi hotspots you were accessing at the time.

The Act says that service providers are "not required" to keep content data - that is, the actual content of your email or text, or the subject line, or your internet browsing history. Well, that's nice, although it would have been nicer still if they'd prohibited the providers from keeping it. As it is, if they do choose to keep it, well, it's there isn't it. More about that later.

But be clear on this: the metadata will give anyone who wants it more information about you than your loved ones will ever know. Who you called, texted or emailed; when; for how long; and where you were when you did it. Every single time. Think about that.

What the cops can do

The good news is that the list of government agencies which can access your metadata has been reduced from 80 to 20. Mainly, it's the cops, ASIO and the various anti-corruption agencies, plus ASIC and the ACCC. Once they get their hands on it, the two year cut-off goes away; they'll be hanging on to every bit of data they acquire, forever.

Will you know when your metadata is being trawled?


What's this stink about journalists?

A last minute deal was stitched together to address the media's complaints that the police will grab their data so they can identify their sources, particularly whistleblowers and other people the government of the day or the cops themselves don't like. Anonymous sources being the life blood of the journalism profession, after all.

The police will now need to get a special type of warrant from a judge before they can access a journalist's data, if they want it for the purpose of identifying a source. Except for ASIO, which only needs the AG's permission; unless it's really urgent, in which case they can just go ahead and do it anyway. The journalist isn't informed and has no means of challenging the warrant.

Really, that's just wallpaper, but two interesting elements jump out. What's a journalist? It's a "person who is working in a professional capacity as a journalist". Oh good, journalists are journalists.

And this: there's a new criminal offence, with a two-year jail term, for anyone who discloses the existence or non-existence of a journalist warrant, or anything about it. Hang on, I could be jailed for two years for saying that a warrant has not been taken out on a journalist's metadata? 100% pure Orwell. This is what you get when legislation is being drafted at 3am under the direction of people who have absolutely no idea what they're talking about.

What about us non-journalists?

Tough. No protections. But surely they've included special protections for communications between doctors and patients, and lawyers and clients? No. Never even discussed.*

I forget, why are we doing this?

If you say "death cult" enough times in enough inappropriate contexts, everyone eventually forgets that you never actually properly explained why the draconian, police-state law you keep demanding is the only thing standing between us and Islamageddon. In that sense, the Government has prosecuted its cause with great success.

The fact does remain, however, that nobody has put up a rationally argued case for what is in reality a mass government surveillance program. I won't trawl back through the various justifications that have been put up by the Government; it's tiresome and pointless.

You'd think that, before we decided as a society to allow our privacy to be serially infringed in this most intimate and comprehensive way, we'd want to be absolutely sure it was necessary. We didn't get that chance, and our Government and Opposition have let us down in the worst way in their joint unseemly haste to look strong. This is one of those moments upon which we will look back and wonder, how on earth.

Widespread calls for rejection of ‘cashless’ welfare card ignored

Monday March 23, 2015

The Australian Council of Social Service today rejected moves by the Federal Government to introduce trials of another iteration of income management through a ‘cashless’ welfare card.
“Of all the recommendations in the Forrest Review, it is deeply disappointing that the government appears determined to adopt the Review’s Healthy Welfare card recommendation contrary to widely held expert advice. All the evidence to date highlights the ineffectiveness and high cost of similar income management schemes,” said ACOSS CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie.
“Following the release of the Forrest Review, ACOSS and more than 30 community organisations, including many leading National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, urged the government not to proceed with the implementation of this recommendation. Yet those calls appear to have fallen on closed ears.
“The welfare card is modelled on the Basics Card currently used to manage the income of people in disadvantaged communities and locations around Australia. This scheme of income management has failed to effect long-term changes in behaviour or outcomes, despite the high cost of the policy.
“Beyond some limited success with people who have entered into income management arrangements voluntarily, the evidence points to the scheme being unsuccessful in achieving the stated aims of preventing people from spending the money alcohol, gambling and drugs, or getting people to buy healthy and fresh food.
“The Government’s intention to consult with communities should include consultation on whether and how they want to participate as well as what other supports communities need to address underlying issues. Any move to introduce such a scheme should only be trialled in areas where there is strong and broad community support. It should targeted narrowly and accompanied by other interventions to address the underlying causes of alcohol and drug abuse.”
“We have long held that reform to government welfare programs should be grounded in evidence of what works. If people have chronic alcohol or drug addictions, or children are at risk, they need intensive case management and intervention based on the best professional advice.
“On the one hand the government says it is planning to roll out a new cashless debit card in several disadvantaged communities in a bid to “reduce the overall social harm which is caused by welfare-fuelled alcohol and drug abuse, particularly against women”. And on the other hand, it has cut half a billion dollars from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs, including services that run alcohol, drug and domestic violence programs.
“Despite this context, the Government has not indicated how much these trials will costs, nor how they will be funded.
“Beyond comments in media interviews, there is little information available about the detail of the policy. There remain many questions about how this scheme would be implemented. For instance, what percentage of funds will be managed by the card; how will communities be selected to participate; will the card be rolled out to entire communities, or just selected individuals; and will trials will be time limited or ongoing?
“There is very little detail beyond a declaration in the media that the government has decided to proceed with this costly scheme, against all advice,” Dr Goldie said.

Welcome relief for homelessness services and people in crisis

Monday March 23, 2015

The Australian Council of Social Service today strongly welcomed the Federal Government announcement to extend the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness (NPAH) for two years.
“This is certainly excellent news, providing vital services some security at a time of great funding uncertainty,” said ACOSS CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie.
“In doing so the government has recognised that domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness.”
“Over 10,000 of the 254,000 people who turned to homelessness services for help last year were young people presenting alone, and more than 13,000 were children in families.
“We must however not neglect other groups affected by homelessness, including those sleeping rough, couch surfing or living in overcrowded dwellings.
“We also must not ignore the structural drivers of homelessness and the need for more secure and sustainable funding arrangements into the future, including adequate indexation.
“The shortage in affordable housing in our major cities is leading more people into homelessness, a point peak housing groups will be making to federal representatives in Canberra tomorrow.
“The combined cuts of around $1 billion in community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services in the last Federal budget has created enormous uncertainty and has already reduced the ability of services to support people in most need.
“We will not accept further cuts to payments and supports for people on low incomes to pay for essential services.
“In our recent Budget submission ACOSS identified savings and revenue measures to pay for community services. We urge the Government to look to wasteful and poorly targeted spending to balance the budget, including tax expenditures which are mainly benefitting those on high incomes,” Dr Goldie said.

Sale of Poles and Wires Rort for ultra rich

Along with the man who singly controls a larger chunk of Australia's energy assets than any other – Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing – the corporations likely to bid for the privatisation of NSW utilities share one thing in common: they are arch-exponents of aggressive tax minimisation.

Li Ka-shing and Spark Infrastructure – both big players in the Victorian and South Australian electricity markets – have been sued by the Australian Taxation Office. So avid a tax minimiser is Asia's richest man that he is now shifting his $30 billion business empire from Hong Kong to the Cayman Islands. The taxes are too high in Hong Kong apparently.

Billionaire Li Ka-shing is on a roll in Australia.
Billionaire Li Ka-shing is on a roll in Australia. Photo: Bloomberg

A compelling case exists, therefore, for getting the Tax Office involved in prospective privatisations. Any privatisation ought to involve a guarantee there will be no fancy trust structures, no stapled securities, and no related- party transactions with overseas entities. Simply, the order of the day should be: set up a company and pay the corporate tax rate. 

In this way, Australia's energy customers and taxpayers, already reeling from a 100 per cent rise in prices in just five years, can be protected from devious structures designed to reroute profits to tax havens.

The sale of public assets to the likes of Victorian electricity providers Spark and SP Ausnet, Singapore-controlled Jemena, APA, Duet – indeed Sydney Airport – has resulted in billions in profits being siphoned abroad to investors who pay nothing near the 30 per cent corporate tax rate.