Malcolm Turnbull seeks legal advice on Hanson’s staffer Ashby


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One Nation is in hot water over the leak of a secret recording that reveals James Ashby suggesting a plan to scam public funds.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Malcolm Turnbull has asked the Australian Federal Police commissioner, the attorney-general and the justice minister for advice about the revelation that Pauline Hanson’s key adviser, James Ashby, floated the idea of One Nation scamming public funds. The Conversation

Ashby suggested at a meeting last year that a way One Nation could make money at taxpayer expense in the coming Queensland election was to inflate receipts presented to electoral authorities.

The party did not pursue the idea, but its surfacing – via a recording of the meeting – is causing serious fallout for Ashby and for Hanson, who was present at the meeting.

Labor has written to the Queensland electoral commissioner and the Queensland police commissioner asking them to investigate.

In the recording, Ashby said: “There is an opportunity for us to make some money out of this, if we play it smart. Now I know they say you can’t make money out of state elections, but you can.”

Outlining the idea at the meeting, Ashby said: “I’ll deny I ever said this but what stops us from getting a middle man or gracing – I’m happy to grace in cash and double the price of whatever it is.”

The party would say to candidates that it would fund 50% of a package, he said. The package might be A$5,000, with the candidate told they were going to pay $2,500 and party would pay the other $2,500.

“The other $2,500 is profit. It’s the fat,” Ashby told the meeting. “When you lodge the receipt at the full price with the Electoral Commission of Queensland you get back the full amount that’s been issued to you as an invoice.”

At an extraordinary joint news conference with Hanson on Monday, Ashby said the revelation was “embarrassing”, adding that it was a “poor choice of words on my behalf”.

He complained that “these were secretly recorded conversations in what we thought was an environment where we could safely put any idea on the table and it wouldn’t go any further”.

“We’ve never implemented this idea that was put forward and it’s regretful that obviously a poor choice of words on my behalf had to be aired in such a public manner,” he said.

Hanson told the news conference: “Don’t forget I was at the meeting as well. You do not have the full recording of that meeting, so you have no idea what was said at the rest of the meeting. We knocked it on the head at the meeting. It didn’t go ahead – that’s why. It was an issue that was raised and it was knocked on the head there and then.”

In comments later, Ashby said he had felt it necessary to come forward to deal with the story – he cast Hanson as being at the news conference to support him. “At times I’m going to have to come forward and defend myself”, he said.

He said political parties were run like businesses, but formerly One Nation had been run in a dismal fashion.

His proposal had been a silly idea, he said. Amid suggestions there was more of the tape to come out, he said could not remember what else he had said at the meeting.

Crossbench senator Derryn Hinch said Ashby had committed a sackable offence but Hanson “won’t sack him”.

In parliament, Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus quizzed Turnbull about the allegations One Nation had conspired to defraud Queensland electoral authorities.

Dreyfus asked whether Turnbull had referred this and previous allegations about One Nation to the Australian Federal Police to investigate whether any Commonwealth laws had been broken, including whether any similar fraud had been perpetrated against the Commonwealth.

He also asked whether the government would be reviewing payments made to Coastal Signs and Printing – Ashby’s Sunshine Coast-based business – to make sure there hadn’t been inflated receipts.

Turnbull said the question raised “some serious matters” and he would be getting advice.

The government is somewhat conflicted over Ashby. It needs One Nation’s Senate votes for legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens – Ashby is Hanson’s right-hand man and arguably the party would be less stable without him. But anything that discredits Ashby and One Nation is useful ahead of the Queensland election.

Ashby is a divisive figure within One Nation, and bitterly attacked by some ex-members.

He has been the centre of controversy over the contested funding for a plane used to ferry Hanson around. He says he purchased the aircraft and it was owned by his business.

A former Queensland One Nation candidate, Diane Happ, who had a row with the party over the cost of campaign material, told the ABC on Monday that Ashby was “a viper, he’s a snake, he’s nasty stuff”.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

‘Fake refugees’: Dutton adopts an alternative fact to justify our latest human rights violation



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Peter Dutton’s condemnation of those he terms ‘fake refugees’ is prejudicial.
AAP/Mick Tsikas

Amy Maguire, University of Newcastle

The federal government has set an October 1 deadline for 7,500 people who arrived in Australia by boat between 2008 and 2013 – but who have not yet lodged claims for refugee protection – to apply for a visa or face deportation. The Conversation

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton declared “the game is up” for “fake refugees”.

‘Illegal maritime arrivals’

The first sentence of Dutton’s media release reads:

The Turnbull government has today set a deadline for thousands of Illegal Maritime Arrivals (IMAs) who flooded into Australia under the previous Labor government to prove they are genuine refugees and owed protection by Australia.

This statement reinforces prejudicial tropes that successive governments have used to demonise people seeking asylum in Australia. The subjects of the government’s announcement are not “people”, “individuals”, “human beings” – or even “asylum seekers”. Instead, they are “illegal maritime arrivals”.

These seemingly non-people did not “travel to” or “arrive in” Australia. Instead, they “flooded into Australia”.

They are the latest group to suffer from the shameful practice of setting human beings apart from others in the community: they are another class threatening peril and menace.

Fake refugees?

Dutton’s condemnation of “fake refugees” is prejudicial. It suggests those people now subject to his deadline must not have genuine protection claims – or they would have been lodged already.

Yet Department of Immigration statistics show people who travel to Australia by boat without a valid visa, seeking asylum, are more likely to be genuine refugees than people who travel by air with a visa and seek asylum on arrival. Over the years, between 70% and 100% of people arriving by boat have been assessed as eligible for refugee protection.

For example, people from Afghanistan have been the most likely to seek asylum in Australia by boat for many years. In this group, between 2008 and 2013, upwards of 95% were found to be refugees and granted protection visas.

The experience of lodging an application for protection

The people subject to Dutton’s announcement are part of a group known as the “legacy caseload”. These are people who have been living for some time in the Australian community in a state of legal limbo.

This state of limbo was imposed when the then-Labor government stopped processing protection visa applications for people who had arrived by boat. This bar on applications operated from 2012 until the Coalition government began to permit some members of the group to initiate applications from 2015. However, the bar on applications was not fully lifted until late 2016.

Dutton’s assertion that the 7,500 people now faced with a very short deadline for application have “failed or refused” to apply for protection unfairly suggests that sufficient time has already been afforded.

The prejudicial effect of this claim is worsened by Dutton’s parallel statement that the people in question are a drain on the public purse:

Many are residing in Australia on government funded support which last year cost the Australian taxpayer approximately $250 million in income support alone.

Dutton’s announcement also fails to mention that the Department of Immigration is unable to process the volume of asylum claims currently lodged, or that an arbitrary deadline for applications from people in the legacy caseload group will force many to apply without proper legal assistance.

Community legal centres around Australia have thousands of clients on their books awaiting assistance with protection claims. The complex process requires the completion of 184 questions and a detailed written statement, and many applicants will require translation. All ought to receive legal advice.

The latest development imposes undue stress on an already extremely vulnerable community. Only three months ago, some members of this group received letters from the Department of Immigration, threatening the withdrawal of Medicare and work rights if they failed to lodge applications within a tight deadline.

That many – if not all – of this group were on waiting lists for legal assistance is seemingly no longer sufficient to explain why they have not yet lodged protection applications.

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Is Australia committed to human rights or not?

Late last week, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop officially launched Australia’s bid for a 2018-20 seat on the UN Human Rights Council. Bishop described Australia as the standout candidate for this position because:

… we are arguably the most successful, the most diverse, multicultural society on Earth.

We have long embraced those fleeing conflict and persecution, and those in need of humanitarian support.

If elected to serve on the council, Australia intends to work collaboratively with all of our international partners towards fulfilling the goals set out in the UN Declaration of Human Rights – we will listen to your concerns. We will work with you.

It is impossible to determine the genuine extent of Australia’s commitment to human rights by juxtaposing Bishop’s claims with Dutton’s announcement. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights requires Australia to protect the rights of all people seeking asylum:

Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Article 33 of the UN Refugee Convention prohibits the return of a refugee to a risk of persecution:

No contracting state shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Yet the imposition of the October 1 deadline for applications from those in the legacy caseload group imposes an arbitrary limit on the time available to seek protection. It suggests the government is willing to violate its international legal option not to deport people who may have genuine claims for refugee status.

Refugee advocates will feel compelled to challenge the deadline in the courts, if the government seeks to deport people who have not had adequate opportunity or support to complete protection applications. This would open yet another front of government spending to support a policy and practice that violates Australia’s human rights obligations.

Amy Maguire, Senior Lecturer in International Law and Human Rights, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Politicians: please ease off on ‘announceables’ until after the electricity market review



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Current political intervention in the energy market is haphazard and disconnected.
chriscrowder_4/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

David Blowers, Grattan Institute and Kate Griffiths, Grattan Institute

A series of dramatic events over the past year, most notably the September statewide blackout in South Australia, have revealed an electricity system under strain, and left many Australians worried about the reliability of their power supply. The Conversation

In response, state and federal politicians have announced a series of uncoordinated and potentially expensive interventions, most notably the Turnbull government’s Snowy Hydro 2.0 proposal and the South Australian government’s go-it-alone power plan.

Yet all of these plans pre-empt the Finkel Review, to be released early next month. Commissioned by state and federal governments and led by Australia’s chief scientist Alan Finkel, the review is expected to provide a new blueprint for the National Electricity Market (NEM).

Clearly, Australia is struggling to manage the transition to a zero- or low-emission electricity grid, and some commentators have concluded that the NEM is broken.

In our report Powering Through, released today, we argue that it is too early to give up on the market. But what we really need is substantial market reforms, rather than piecemeal government investments in various energy projects.

Australia’s troubled transition

The problems are everywhere. Consumers have been hit with a 70% hike in real-terms electricity bills over the past decade, and there is more to come. Wholesale prices for electricity in most eastern states were twice as high last summer as the one before.

New vulnerabilities continue to emerge. The headline-grabber was South Australia’s blackout – the first statewide blackout since the NEM was formed in 1998 – but there have been other smaller blackouts and incidents too.

Poisonous politics means Australia is also failing to stay on track to hit its 2030 climate targets. The mixed messages on climate policy; the seemingly ad hoc public investment announcements; the threat of direct intervention in the activities of the market operator – all of this has created enormous uncertainty for private investors.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking: Australia has enough electricity generation capacity for now, but more will be needed in the decade ahead.

The energy market is in a difficult transition.
georg_neu/Flickr, CC BY-NC

First, do no harm

There is currently an acute danger of politicians panicking and rushing into decisions that will only push electricity prices higher, and make the task of reducing Australia’s emissions harder.

Already, federal and state governments are committing taxpayers’ money to new energy investments. This is premature, with the Finkel Review’s recommendations not yet released. Stampeding white elephants loom ominously on the horizon.

Given the current uncertainties, it is vital not to grasp for expensive “solutions” or to lock in plans too soon. We do not yet know what technology mix will be needed in the future. Maintaining flexibility through the transition will ensure we can take advantage of the best solutions as they emerge.

‘No regrets’ short-term reforms

There are some “no regrets” moves that can and should be made, to address the short-term risks to the electricity system and buy time to resolve the longer-term ones. Australia should build on existing low-cost mechanisms before making major capital investments or redesigning the market.

The immediate challenge is to reduce the risk of blackouts next summer, in South Australia and Victoria especially. Most blackouts happen because something in the system breaks. Some simple changes to the market rules, like the recent AEMO and ARENA announcement to pay consumers to cut their electricity use, would make a big difference to managing equipment failures when they inevitably arise.

To ensure reserves are on hand, some mothballed generators should be recalled to service. Pleasingly, Origin Energy and Engie have already struck a deal to enable the restart of the second turbine of the Pelican Point generator in South Australia.

The longer-term task

The cheapest and most effective way to reduce long-term risks is to rebuild investor confidence. That requires Australia to agree, finally, on a credible climate policy. A carbon price is the best such policy, but any bipartisan policy that works with the electricity market and is capable of hitting Australia’s emissions targets will be a vast improvement on what we have now.

The transition to a zero-emissions electricity sector will be difficult. Even given a credible climate policy, there are still questions as to whether the current electricity market will be able to meet our future needs. And that’s without even mentioning the gas market, which is frankly a mess.

Politicians should begin by adopting pragmatic market reforms and giving clear direction on climate and energy policy. At the very least, they should wait until Finkel delivers his recommendations.

Hopefully the Finkel Review will define Australia’s energy security and emissions reduction needs, and provide a strong platform for politicians to work from. If so, a competitive market will find the cheapest path to a reliable and low-emissions electricity future.

The danger is that partisan politics will make the best policies untenable. If that happens, we can expect the blame to be shifted onto the market, which will be described as having “failed” – but the truth is that it will have been systematically (if not quite intentionally) destroyed.

More likely still is that governments give up on the market without giving it a chance. Scott Morrison’s budget promise of new federally owned power generation set a worrying precedent. If recent announcements deter private investors, still more government investment will be needed, which will shift yet more risk and cost onto taxpayers.

There’s a real danger of politicians focusing on “announceables” and shying away from the market reforms that will make the biggest difference to the affordability, reliability and sustainability of our electricity supply.

David Blowers, Energy Fellow, Grattan Institute and Kate Griffiths, Associate, Grattan Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

With its 2017 budget the government is still discouraging women



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Recent figures show that women are adversely effected by the 2017 federal budget.
AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

Helen Hodgson, Curtin University

The 2017 federal budget was pitched as a fair budget, but much depends on your definition of fairness. Reviewing the policies through a gender lens, there is little to address the entrenched economic disadvantage experienced by women. The Conversation

Australia was known for being a pioneer of policies that are sensitive to the impacts on different genders, but that 30-year history came to an end in 2014 when the Abbott government announced it was abandoning the practice. Rather than see this analysis disappear, the National Foundation for Australian Women (NFAW) stepped in and partnered with academics like us, to analyse the budget through the gender lens. We review the effect that each announced policy will have on women’s lives: their economic status and well-being.

We found there were no measures designed to specifically address gender inequality and the related women’s entrenched financial vulnerability.

It’s a relief that the government has abandoned the so-called “zombie measures” which included changes to the family tax benefit and paid parental leave measures. These measures would have had a direct impact on women by adding to the effective marginal tax rate. They would also have reduced the female workforce participation rate, having a long-term effect on the economic well-being of women and their families.

However the budget still includes measures that have a disincentive effect in the workforce. The increase in the Medicare levy will affect those on incomes greater than A$21,644. For those with eligible children, the Family Tax Benefit A payment rates are frozen for two years and those who pay child care fees receive will continue to face high effective marginal tax rates (EMTR’s).

A flat increase in taxes or levies will particularly impact low income earners. Women are overrepresented in the lowest income levels, so changes to government benefits and increases in taxes have a disproportionate affect on women. Recently released ATO statistics show the median income for women was A$47,125 in 2014/15, while for men the amount was A$61,711.
And the recent reduction in penalty rates has already been identified as disproportionately affecting women.

These changes hit those earning well below the average wage, and are particularly harsh for women. Combined, these changes could lead to effective marginal tax rates of possibly 100% or higher for some women, particularly as Family Tax Benefit Part A begins to decrease at A$51,903.

The long awaited housing package will have some benefits for women. But community organisations will need to be vigilant in ensuring that the new National Housing and Homelessness Agreement ensures that funding is guaranteed for the homeless and for women fleeing domestic violence.

There has already been criticism of initiative to encourage older Australians to downsize their homes, but when a gender lens is applied, the inherent bias becomes clear. Economic patterns established during a woman’s pre-retirement years mean that women are more likely to be in receipt of the age pension, and are more likely to be receiving the full age pension. They are also less likely to have superannuation, and the balance will be lower.

Where a person is in receipt of the age pension, the downsizing initiative will reduce it, so single women are more likely to lose entitlements if they access this benefit. For example, a widow maintaining a home that is bigger than she now needs, will not be able to benefit from downsizing with this policy.

The increase in the Medicare levy to fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is also a mixed outcome. The primary carer for a person with a disability will benefit from access to the NDIS, as the additional funds for services will relieve financial and emotional pressure on the carer. But because women are still more likely to be the primary carer for a family member with a disability, this measure will disproportionately improve the lives of women.

Despite the commitment to fully fund the NDIS there are no measures to address workplace conditions. The caring economy is still largely based on women, whether they provide paid care or unpaid care.

Women working in the care sector still endure historically undervalued pay rates and working conditions, whether in the NDIS, childcare or aged care. The current consumer directed care model encourages the use of casual workers, which further reduces economic security for these women.

This year’s budget delivers some significant improvements in infrastructure, disability support, health and housing. These are welcome because they place a higher weight on the provision of government services, than unfair policies aimed at arbitrarily reducing the surplus.

The 2017 budget contains initiatives that help alleviate some of the worst aspects of its predecessors. However, it doesn’t radically turn things around for women.

Helen Hodgson, Associate Professor, Curtin Law School and Curtin Business School, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Full response from the AiGroup for a FactCheck on how Australia’s top tax rates compare internationally



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original.

Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation

In relation to this FactCheck on the AiGroup’s Innes Willox’s statement that Australia has “one of the highest progressive tax rates in the developed world”, a spokesman for the AiGroup sent the following sources and comment: The Conversation

Innes was referring to top marginal tax rates. Data for 2016 show that Australia has a relatively high top marginal tax rate (49%) but not the highest among OECD countries (Sweden is top, at 60%). The rub is that our top marginal rate cuts in at a relatively lower level of income than most other OECD countries (2.2 times our average wage).

Chart created by AiGroup using OECD data.
AiGroup/OECD
Chart created by AiGroup using OECD data.
AiGroup/OECD

The spokesman also sent a screenshot from an OECD report titled Revenue Statistics 2014 – Australia:

A screen shot from the OECD report Revenue Statistics 2014 – Australia.
OECD

Sunanda Creagh, Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

FactCheck Q&A: does Australia have one of the highest progressive tax rates in the developed world?



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The AiGroup’s Innes Willox, speaking on Q&A.
Q&A

Kathrin Bain, UNSW

The Conversation fact-checks claims made on Q&A, broadcast Mondays on the ABC at 9:35pm. Thank you to everyone who sent us quotes for checking via Twitter using hashtags #FactCheck and #QandA, on Facebook or by email. The Conversation


Excerpt from Q&A, May 15, 2017. Quote begins at 0.50.

Look, we just need to keep in mind that we have one of the highest progressive tax rates in the developed world at the moment. – Innes Willox, chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, speaking on Q&A, May 15, 2017.

When Q&A host Tony Jones asked if wealthy people should pay more tax, the AiGroup’s Innes Willox said that Australia already has one of the highest progressive tax rates in the developed world.

Is that true?

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Checking the source

When asked for sources to support Innes Willox’s statement, a spokesman for the AiGroup clarified that Willox was referring to top marginal tax rates.

The spokesman referred The Conversation to OECD tax statistics, and two charts built using that data, saying that:

This shows that Australia has a relatively high top marginal tax rate (49%) but not the highest among OECD countries (Sweden is top, at 60%). The rub is that our top marginal rate cuts in at a relatively lower level of income than most other OECD countries (2.2 times our average wage).

You can read his full response and see those charts here.

Is it true? Not exactly

Looking at OECD data, Australia’s highest marginal tax rate is higher than the OECD median. Out of the 34 OECD member countries in this data set, Australia ranks 13th for the top marginal rate of tax, meaning 12 countries have a higher top marginal rate, and 21 countries have a lower top marginal rate.

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However, a straight comparison like this can be misleading. More than half (19) of the OECD countries impose “social security contributions”. The OECD defines social security contributions as “compulsory payments that confer an entitlement to receive a (contingent) future social benefit”. It notes that they “clearly resemble taxes” and “better comparability between countries is obtained by treating social security contributions as taxes”.

When social security contributions are taken into account, Australia’s “ranking” in terms of top marginal rate of tax drops to 16 out of the 34 OECD member countries – making it still higher than the OECD median top marginal rate, but not by much.

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The other point noted by the AiGroup spokesman was that Australia’s top marginal tax rate applies at a relatively low level of income compared to most other OECD countries.

Australia’s highest marginal tax rate applies to taxable income above A$180,000, approximately 2.2 times Australia’s average wage. The AiGroup spokesman was right to say this is relatively low, with the majority of OECD countries (20 out of 34) applying their highest marginal tax rate at income levels higher than Australia (that is, at income levels higher than 2.2 times the average wage).

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However, it is worth noting that based on the latest Australian Taxation Office statistics, for the 2014-15 tax year, only 3% of individual taxpayers fell into the highest tax bracket.

Where Australia does rank amongst the highest in the OECD is the percentage of total tax revenue that is derived from individual income taxation.

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In 2014, 41% of Australia’s taxation revenue came from income taxation on individuals. This is the second highest in the OECD (the highest being Denmark at 54%) and significantly higher than the OECD average of 24%.

Verdict

The statement made by Innes Willox that “Australia has one of the highest progressive tax rates in the developed world at the moment” is an exaggeration.

Australia ranks 13th in the OECD for the top marginal rate of tax, and 16th if social security contributions are taken into account.

However, Australia does rely more heavily on personal income tax (when compared to other taxes) than all but one other OECD country. – Kathrin Bain


Review

I agree that the statement is an exaggeration. 13th out of 34 is higher than the median, but it would be equally true to say that more than one-third of the OECD countries have a higher personal marginal tax rate than Australia.

It is always problematic to try to compare tax data across different countries. Although the OECD does try to make the data comparable the differences between tax and welfare systems can lead to misleading comparisons.

It is generally well known that certain Scandinavian countries, such as Sweden and Denmark, have a very high marginal tax rate. However those countries also tend to have a different approach to social and welfare spending. Australia does not have a dedicated social security tax: pensions and income support are paid from general revenue. This structural difference in the tax-transfer systems does limit the comparison.

Australia does have a high reliance on personal income tax, and the top marginal rate is higher than the median OECD level. Although the top marginal rate is relatively low at 2.2 times the median wage, the fact that only 3% of the population are in the top bracket says that we, in fact, have a relatively flat tax structure, with most taxpayers in lower tax brackets. – Helen Hodgson


The Conversation FactCheck is accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network.

The Conversation’s FactCheck unit is the first fact-checking team in Australia and one of of the first worldwide to be accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network, an alliance of fact-checkers hosted at the Poynter Institute in the US. Read more here.

Have you seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

Kathrin Bain, Lecturer, School of Taxation & Business Law, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Vital Signs: dismal wages growth makes a joke of budget forecasts



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Pay packets rose just 0.5% in the first quarter.
bradleypjohnson/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Richard Holden, UNSW

Vital Signs is a weekly economic wrap from UNSW economics professor and Harvard PhD Richard Holden (@profholden). Vital Signs aims to contextualise weekly economic events and cut through the noise of the data affecting global economies. The Conversation

This week: investor loans continue to rise, unemployment ticks down, wages growth remains distressingly low, and consumers are unconvinced the budget will improve their financial situation.


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Now that Australia’s two major political parties (and the Greens) have decided that robbing banks is legitimate public policy, we return our focus to how the Australian economy is actually functioning.

ABS data released Monday showed that investor housing loans rose slightly, up 0.8% on the previous month. The really interesting figures on this front are still to come, since the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority announced tighter macro-prudential measures – especially on interest-only loans – at the end of March. There are already some anecdotal suggestions that these have started to dampen investor demand, but there is no proper evidence yet. The next round of ABS housing finance data will certainly provide some clues.

The ABS also reported this week that first quarter wage growth was distressingly low, with pay packets rising just 0.5%. That puts private-sector annual wages growth at 1.8%. The main concerns here are, of course, for workers struggling to get by and the fact that rising levels of income inequality are not being dented by robust wage growth.

Added to this, however, is the impact of low wage growth on the budget, and the economy more generally. The RBA has pointed out in recent months that around one-third of mortgage holders have less that one month’s repayment buffer. As the cost of living keeps rising, but wages don’t, people with close to no wiggle room get squeezed more and more.

Last week’s budget, and the forecast return to surplus in 2020-21, was predicated in no small part on very robust wage growth.

On budget night I wrote that these wage growth assumptions were bullish and unlikely to eventuate. 3% going to 3.75% annual wage growth looks really aggressive against a stagnating 1.8 – 1.9% (counting the public sector’s slightly stronger growth). When wage growth is lower than it has been since the mid 1990s, how can one forecast with a straight face that the growth rate will double?

Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s certainly understands this. It almost grudgingly reaffirmed Australia’s AAA credit rating this week, but cast doubt on the projected return to surplus, saying “budget deficits could persist for several years, with little improvement, unless the Parliament implements more forceful fiscal policy decisions”.

Figures released Thursday showed the unemployment rate fell from 5.9% to 5.7%. This is seemingly good news, although this ABS series has been notoriously unreliable in recent times.

The workforce participation rate was steady at 64.8% – and this may be a better and more relevant measure of short-term fluctuations in employment.

There was also a continued shift to part-time employment. Total jobs were up 37,400, but people in full-time work fell by 11,600 and the number of part-time jobs was up 49,000.

Consumer confidence weakened a little in May according to the Westpac-Melbourne Institute Index. It was down a point to 98.0 in May (recall that for indices like these 100 is the level at which optimists and pessimists are in equal supply).

Westpac chief economist Bill Evans said:

Respondents’ confidence in housing and the outlook for house prices deteriorated sharply, while the assessment of the budget around the outlook for family finances was decidedly weaker.

And why wouldn’t it be? The budget contained essentially nothing to address the housing affordability crisis, further fuelling concerns that there will be a messy correction to prices.

Meanwhile, the government’s best ideas for how to grow wages and incomes were to waive a white flag about spending restraint, whine about how the Senate won’t pass their legislation (“this is a Senate tax”, said the treasurer on budget day), and launch a populist attack on our five largest banks.

And that attack – the bank tax – will be passed on to consumers, just like the last increase in regulatory capital required by APRA.

So the government raised the taxes of most Australians and blamed the cross-bench. That doesn’t fill me with confidence. And it seems I am not alone.

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics and PLuS Alliance Fellow, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

$89b shipbuilding plan is a major step forward – but sovereignty remains a problem


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The naval shipbuilding plan is undoubtedly a major step forward for industrial capability in Australia.
AAP/David Mariuz

Graeme Dunk, Australian National University

Australia’s long-awaited naval shipbuilding plan, released earlier this week, claims it is a national endeavour: The Conversation

… larger and more complex than the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme and the National Broadband Network.

Irrespective of this particular claim’s validity, the investment of A$89 billion for nine new frigates, 12 submarines and 12 offshore patrol vessels is a substantial commitment to Australia’s security. The plan is a comprehensive approach to establishing a continuous program for building these platforms in Australia.

Apart from the future introduction of these and other vessels into service, one of the plan’s key outcomes is a “sovereign Australian capability to deliver affordable and achievable naval shipbuilding and sustainment”. The development of a sovereign capability is stated as “the government’s clear priority”.

But what is sovereignty in this context? And is it attainable from the naval shipbuilding plan?

Two clear weaknesses

The plan has two interconnected weaknesses when it comes to sovereignty.

First, the Australian defence industry environment is dominated by companies whose parentage and ultimate control rest offshore. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But given the shipbuilding plan’s focus on Australian jobs and resources, it is a reality that needs confronting.

To that end one might have expected to see, both in this document and in earlier ones, a definition of Australia’s defence industry – what it is and, importantly, what it is not.

The UK’s 2005 description of its defence industry embraces the combination of local and offshore companies contributing to defence outcomes in terms of:

… where the technology is created, where the skills and intellectual property reside, where the jobs are created and sustained, and where the investment is made.

A similar definition for Australia would provide a foundation for sovereignty in the shipbuilding environment to be properly assessed. The plan suggests the Australian subsidiaries of offshore companies will be considered as sovereign without discussing how local control might be maintained, and how Australian sensitivities might be tackled.

The proposed definition for defence industry also highlights the second weakness of the shipbuilding plan: it is focused on building and sustaining the structural component (the “float” and “move” aspects), rather than the total capability the ship or submarine represents.

The lists of skills cited as necessary are those primarily associated with building and sustaining the structure. The shipbuilding plan gives scant coverage to the important combat system and weapons elements upon which the war-fighting capability rests.

The plan does not address the industrial capabilities necessary for the local maintenance and improvement of these ships. Access to the detailed design information for the combat and sensor systems in particular is required so that such systems can be upgraded locally if required. An offshore equipment supplier may not give the same priority to our needs.

The plan for naval shipbuilding in Australia says it will source many systems of the future frigate and other naval platforms from the US. However, the closest it gets to recognition of this reality in the context of sovereignty is that:

Australia’s alliance with the US, and the access to advanced technology and information it provides, will remain critical.

The plan therefore implies that sovereignty is sought for the “float” and “move” aspects of the naval capabilities, but not necessarily for the important “fight” aspects. This means the systems elements of ships and submarines will be tackled in some other context – outside the naval shipbuilding plan.

More than just ‘doing stuff’

The naval shipbuilding plan is undoubtedly a major step forward for industrial capability in Australia.

A successful implementation will provide significant benefits for the Navy in terms of force structure, for industry in terms of a long-term enterprise upon which to grow overall capability and capacity, for innovation, for workers in terms of continuity of effort, and for the development of shipbuilding-related STEM skills. These are all worthy outcomes.

But sovereignty is more than just “doing stuff” in the country.

If the plan really wanted to tackle sovereignty, it should have provided a foundation on which aspects of industrial and operational sovereignty could be properly assessed, prioritised and managed. It would also have addressed the systems aspects of ships, rather than just the structure.

Graeme Dunk, PhD Candidate, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

We don’t have a gas shortfall worth worrying about


Dylan McConnell, University of Melbourne

Australia was warned earlier this year that a shortage of gas could create an energy crisis. A report from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) suggested a shortfall could occur in 3 of the next 13 years. The Conversation

This report was widely reported in the national media, with sensational headlines like “AEMO warns of blackouts as gas runs out”.

A couple of weeks ago, in a dramatic intervention, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared that there was a shortage of gas supplies for eastern Australia and that certain restrictions may be placed on gas exports.

But do we really need “more gas supply and more gas suppliers”? In a report published today, my colleague Tim Forcey and I review AEMO’s initial report and its results and recommendations. Our work finds there is a shortage of “cheap” gas, but not a gas supply “shortfall”. Moreover, high gas prices combined with falling renewable and storage costs mean that there are cheaper options than developing new gas resources.

What gas shortfall?

AEMO forecast of electricity generated by fuel source, showing AEMO’s forecast supply gap as a thin red line at the top of the stack.
Author

The AEMO report suggests that eastern Australia face a shortfall in 3 of the next 13 financial years – 2018-19, 2020-21 and 2021-22. The largest gap modelled by AEMO is equal to only 0.19% of the annual electricity supply, or 363 gigawatt hours.

In gas supply terms, this is equivalent to only 0.2% of the annual gas supply. But AEMO’s modelling considers a range of possible scenarios, with a variation of roughly plus or minus 5%, far larger than the possible shortfall.

Just 11 days after the report warning of a supply gap, AEMO published updated electricity demand forecasts. In this update, AEMO reduced its forecast electricity demand by roughly 1%. This reduction in demand is more than four times greater than the largest forecast shortfall.

A day later, Shell announced it would proceed with Project Ruby, a gas field with 161 new wells. This was not included in the AEMO modelling process.

Alternatives to gas

Gas has historically been characterised as a transition fuel on the pathway to a zero-emissions power system. The falling costs of renewable energy and storage technologies combined with rising gas costs means this pathway and may indeed be a detour, particularly when taking into account Australia’s climate commitments.

This is also a sentiment increasingly reflected by the industry, with gas producer AGL suggesting that:

the National Electricity Market […] here in Australia could transition
directly from being dominated by coal-fired baseload to being dominated by storable renewables.

Gas generation generally falls into two categories: open cycle gas turbines (OCGT) and combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT). These two technologies effectively play different roles in the energy sector. Open cycle turbines are highly flexible, and are used occasionally over the year to provide peak capacity. Combined cycle turbines, on the other hand, operate continuously and provide large amounts of energy over a year.

Each of these technologies is now under competitive threat from renewable generation and storage. Flexible capacity can also be provided by energy storage technologies, while bulk energy can be provided by renewable energy. These are compared below.

Energy: renewables vs gas

The chart below compares the cost of providing bulk energy with gas and renewable technologies. We’ve represented the price of new CCGT, PV (which stands for photovoltic solar) and wind as the cost of providing energy over the lifetime of the plant.

The other two gas generation costs illustrated, CCGT and Steam, represent the cost of energy from existing plants, at their respective thermal efficiencies. The steam thermal efficiency is similar to that of a highly flexible open cycle gas turbine.

Surprisingly – and depending somewhat on gas price and capital cost assumptions – new renewable energy projects provide cheaper energy than existing gas generators.

Comparison of energy cost from new and existing gas with new renewable energy generation. The range of solar (PV) and wind costs reflect different capital cost assumptions, while the range of gas costs reflects gas price assumptions. CCGT refers to Combined Cycle Gas Turbine.
Author

Flexible capacity: storage vs gas

The next chart compares the cost of providing flexible capacity from gas and storage technologies (again, taking the cost over the lifetime of the plant).

In this analysis we compare the cost of capacity from OCGT with that from diesel and various storage technologies, including battery and Pumped Hydro Energy Storage (PHES). As can be seen, storage technologies can compete with OCGT in providing flexible capacity, depending on technology and capital cost.

Comparison of flexible capacity cost from gas (OCGT), diesel and storage technologies generation, including battery and Pumped Hydro Energy Storage (PHES) . The range of costs reflect different capital cost assumptions.
Author

Another option, not shown here, is demand response. This is the strategy of giving consumers incentives to reduce their energy use during critical times, and is cheaper again.

What is clear is AEMO’s forecast gas shortfall is very small, and that it may have already been made up by revised demand forecasts and new gas field developments. But the question of how Australia should deal with any future shortfall invites a larger debate, including the role of gas in our electricity system, and whether the falling costs of renewable energy and storage technology mean we’ve outgrown gas.


The short-lived gas shortfall: A review of AEMOs warning of gas-supply ‘shortfalls’ was prepared by Tim Forcey and Dylan McConnell.

Dylan McConnell, Researcher at the Australian German Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ratings agency S&P keeps Australia’s AAA rating but doubtful about government’s surplus timetable



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Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen told the National Press Club that a Labor government would “show the ratings agencies the quality of our plans.”
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Standard and Poor’s Global reaffirmed a negative outlook and is questioning the government’s projection about when the budget will return to surplus, but has still maintained Australia’s AAA credit rating. The Conversation

The agency’s maintenance of the AAA credit rating following last week’s budget will be a relief to the government, but its detailed outlook is less than confident.

The initial negative outlook from the agency was made in 2016. In continuing it, it points to “risks to the government’s fiscal consolidation plan and risks to the economic, fiscal, and financial stability outlook should the rapid growth of credit and house prices continue”.

The budget projects a return to surplus in 2020-21. But S&P Global says it continued to think surpluses “could remain elusive beyond fiscal 2021”.

“The balance of risks to government revenues remains negative. On the policy front, enacting further savings or revenue policies could remain a challenge, given the Senate’s unwillingness in recent years to legislate many of the government’s fiscal policy measures or doing so after considerable delay.”

“This dynamic, which could continue, presents further downside risk to the outlook for fiscal balances.”

Craig Michaels, director of sovereign & public finance ratings at S&P Global was blunt: “We have seen governments forecast surpluses for many years now and they haven’t materialised. They’ve continued to be pushed back. So we don’t think further pushback on the surplus target is consistent with the AAA rating here on in.”

“We will continue to assess the likelihood or otherwise of whether the government will reach a balanced or surplus budget by 2021 and that will have a large bearing on whether we leave the AAA rating where it is or whether we downgrade it,” he told the ABC.

The S&P Global report cites the potential for low wage growth and low inflation as a “downside risk” for the projections on getting to budget balance. In the wake of the budget many commentators threw doubt on the budget’s wage growth projection – to get to more than 3% – as likely to be too high.

Noting that the outlook has been negative since July last year, S&P Global warns:
“We could lower our ratings within the next two years if we were to lose confidence that the general government fiscal deficit will revert into surplus by the early 2020s.”

S&P Global says “a strong fiscal position is required to offset Australia’s weak external position. It is also needed to allow for a strong buffer to absorb the fiscal consequences if the ongoing boom in the credit and housing market were to abruptly end.”

The report expresses concerns about the financial stability risks in the housing market in Sydney and Melbourne.

S&P Global highlights the debt problem. “Australia’s high level of external indebtedness creates a high vulnerability to major shifts in foreign investors’ willingness to provide capital”, it says. “We consider that strong fiscal performance and low government debt are important to help ameliorate this risk.”

Scott Morrison tweeted:

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Responding to the S&P Global report, Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen said that if he became treasurer he would talk to the ratings agencies early in the term, taking them through an ALP government’s plans, which would also be clear before the election. “We’ll do what is necessary to work with the ratings agencies and show the ratings agencies the quality of our plans.”

Bowen said the budget showed new record debt for the next three years, a deficit for 2017-18 which was 10 times larger than was predicted in the Coalition’s first budget, and gross debt equivalent to A$20,000 for every man, woman and child in the country.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/55eic-6aa7da?from=yiiadmin

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.