Government to inject economic stimulus by accelerating infrastructure spend


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government is responding to increasing concern about the faltering economy by accelerating A$3.8 billion of infrastructure investment into the next four years, including $1.8 billion for the current and next financial years.

Scott Morrison will outline the infrastructure move in a speech to the Business Council of Australia on Wednesday night, while insisting the government is not panicking about Australia’s economic conditions.

The government’s action follows increasing calls for some stimulus, with concern the tax cuts have not flowed through strongly enough to spending.

The just-released minutes of the last Reserve Bank meeting show the bank seriously considered another rate cut at its November meeting but held off, partly because it thought that might not have the desired effect. Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe has previously urged more spending on infrastructure.

Morrison is making appearances in various states to publicise the government’s infrastructure plans.

The infrastructure bring-forward over the coming 18 months is $1.27 billion plus $510 million in extra funding. Over the forward estimates, the bring-forward is $2.72 billion plus $1.06 billion in additional funding.

The government’s latest action means since the election it will have injected an extra $9.5 billion into the economy for 2019-20 and 2020-21. This comprises $7.2 billion in tax relief, $1.8 billion in infrastructure bring-forwards and additional projects, and $550 million in drought assistance to communities.

In his BCA speech, draft extracts of which have been released, Morrison is expected to say that “a panicked reaction to contemporary challenges would amount to a serious misdiagnosis of our economic situation”.

“A responsible and sensible government does not run the country as if it is constantly at DEFCON1 the whole time, whether on the economy or any other issue. It deals with issues practically and soberly.”




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He will say that notwithstanding the headwinds, including the drought which has cut farm production, the economy has continued to grow, and is forecast to “gradually pick up from here” with jobs growth remaining solid.

“Against this backdrop, it would be reckless to discard the disciplined policy framework that has steered us through many difficult periods, most recently and most significantly the end of the mining investment boom, which posed an even greater threat to our economy than the GFC.”

The projected return to surplus this financial year would be a “significant achievement”.

Lauding the government’s legislated tax relief, Morrison will say. “Our response to the economic challenges our nation faces has been a structural investment in Australian aspiration, backed by responsible economic management.”




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Morrison’s infrastructure bring-forwards follow his post election approach to the states asking for projects that could be accelerated.

As a result of this process we have been able to bring forward $3.8 billion of investment into the next four years, including $1.8 billion to be spent this year and next year alone.

This will support the economy in two ways – by accelerating construction activity and supporting jobs in the near term and by reaping longer run productivity gains sooner.

Every state and territory will benefit, with significant transport projects to be accelerated in all jurisdictions – all within the context of our $100 billion ten-year infrastructure investment plan.

This bring forward of investment is in addition to the new infrastructure commitments we have made in drought-affected rural communities since the election.

In his address Morrison is also expected to announce the first stages of the government’s latest deregulation agenda, aimed at enabling business investment projects to begin faster.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Chinese embassy says Liberal critics Hastie and Paterson should “repent”


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Chinese embassy has lashed out at two Liberal members of parliament, Andrew Hastie and James Paterson, saying they would need to “repent and redress their mistakes” before they would be welcome in China.

The attack came after the pair, strong critics of the Beijing regime, were refused visas to take part in a trip sponsored by the think tank China Matters.

In a statement late Friday regretting they had been refused entry, Hastie and Paterson said they were “particularly disappointed that the apparent reason why we are not welcome in China at this time is our frankness about the Chinese Communist Party”.

They added they would “always speak out in defence of Australia’s values, sovereignty and national interest.”

The embassy hit back, saying:

The Chinese people do not welcome those who make unwarranted attacks, wantonly exert pressure on China, challenge China’s sovereignty, disrespect China’s dignity and undermine mutual trust between China and Australia.

As long as the people concerned genuinely repent and redress their mistakes, view China with objectivity and reason, respect China’s system and mode of development chosen by the Chinese people, the door of dialogue and exchanges will always remain open.

Both Hastie and Peterson said on Sunday they would not be repenting.

China Matters has postponed the study tour, which was due to take place next month.

It said the goal of the tours it sponsored was “to facilitate free-flowing, off-the-record and informal discussions” with citizens in China.

In previous tours “no issues have been left unaddressed, including our concerns about the plight of Uighurs in Xinjiang and the ongoing protest movement in Hong Kong”. It was “unfortunate” the politicians’ names had become public before the visit, China Matters said in its statement.

‘Private trip’

China Matters describes itself as “an independent Australian policy institute established to advance sound policy and to stimulate a realistic and nuanced discussion of the PRC among Australian business, government and the security establishment.”

The government is trying to keep out of the controversy, saying it was a privately sponsored trip.

Labor frontbencher Stephen Jones told Sky:“I think because of the mismanagement of this government, we’ve got relations with China probably an all-time low”.

Concerns reinforced

Meanwhile Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the leak of top secret documents published by the New York Times showing the treatment of Uighurs and other minorities reinforced concerns previously expressed by Australia.

Some of the 400 pages of documents detailing the treatment of China’s Uighur minority leaked to the New York Times.
NYT

The New York Times reported that the more than 400 pages, leaked from within the Communist Party, “provide an unprecedented inside view of the continuing clampdown in Xinjiang, in which the authorities have corralled as many as a million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and others into internment camps and prisons over the past three years”.

Payne said: “I have previously raised Australia’s strong concerns about reports of mass detentions of Uighurs in Xinjiang.

“We have consistently called for China to cease the arbitrary detention of Uighurs and other groups. We have raised these concerns – and we will continue to raise them both bilaterally and in relevant international meetings.”The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We asked 13 economists how to fix things. All back the RBA governor over the treasurer


Peter Martin, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

Thirteen leading economists have declared their hands in the stand off between the government and the Governor of the Reserve Bank over the best way to boost the economy.

All 13 back Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe.

They say that, by itself, the Reserve Bank cannot be expected to do everything extra that will be needed to boost the economy.

All think that extra stimulus will be needed, and all think it’ll have to come from Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, as well as the bank.

All but two say the treasurer should be prepared to sacrifice his goal of an immediate budget surplus in order to provide it.

The 13 are members of the 20-person economic forecasting panel assembled by The Conversation at the start of this year.

All but one have been surprised by the extent of the economic slowdown.




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The 13 represent ten universities in five states.

Among them are macroeconomists, economic modellers, former Treasury, IMF, OECD and Reserve Bank officials and a former government minister.

The Bank needs help

At issue is the government’s contention, spelled out by Frydenberg’s treasury secretary Steven Kennedy in evidence to the Senate last month, that there is usually little role for government spending and tax (“fiscal”) measures in stimulating the economy in the event of a downturn.

Absent a crisis, economic weakness was “best responded to by monetary policy”.

Monetary policy – the adjustment of interest rates by the Reserve Bank – is nearing the end of its effectiveness in its present form. The bank has already cut its cash rate to close to zero (0.75%) and will consider another cut on Tuesday.

It is preparing to consider so-called “unconventional” measures, including buying bonds in order to force longer-term interest rates down toward zero.




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Governor Lowe has made the case for “fiscal support, including through spending on infrastructure” saying there are limits to what monetary policy can achieve.

The 13 economists unanimously back the Governor.

Seven of the 13 say what is needed most is fiscal stimulus (including extra government spending on infrastructure), three say both fiscal and monetary measures are needed, and three want government “structural reform”, including measures to help the economy deal with climate change and remove red tape.

None say the Reserve Bank should be left to fight the downturn by itself without further help from the government.

There is plenty of room for fiscal stimulus, particularly infrastructure spending – Mark Crosby, Monash University

I agree with the emerging consensus that monetary policy is no longer effective when interest rates are so low – Ross Guest, Griffith University

It is time for coordinated monetary and fiscal policies to boost domestic demand – Guay Lim, Melbourne Institute

The surplus can wait

Eleven of the 13 believe the government should abandon its determination to deliver a budget surplus in 2019-20.

Renee Fry-McKibbin. Ease surplus at all costs.
ANU

Economic modeller Renee Fry-McKibbin says the government should “ease its position of a surplus at all costs”.

Former Commonwealth Treasury and ANZ economist Warren Hogan says achieving a surplus in the current environment would have “zero value”.

Former OECD director Adrian Blundell-Wignall says that rather than aiming for an overall budget surplus, the government should aim instead for an “net operating balance”, a proposal that was put forward by Scott Morrison as treasurer in 2017.

The approach would move worthwhile infrastructure spending and borrowing onto a separate balance sheet that would not need to balance.

Political debate would focus instead on whether the annual operating budget was balanced or in deficit.

Former treasury and IMF economist Tony Makin is one of only two economists surveyed who backs the government’s continued pursuit of a surplus, saying annual interest payments on government debt have reached A$14 billion, “four times the foreign aid budget and almost twice as much as federal spending on higher education”.

Tony Makin. Surplus needed for budget repair.
Griffith University

Further deterioration of the balance via “facile fiscal stimulus” would risk Australia’s creditworthiness.

However Makin doesn’t think the government should leave everything to the Reserve Bank.

He has put forward a program of extra spending on infrastructure projects that meet rigorous criteria, along with company tax cuts or investment allowances paid for by government spending cuts.

Former trade minister Craig Emerson also wants an investment allowance, suggesting businesses should be able to immediately deduct 20% of eligible spending.

It’s an idea put forward by Labor during the 2019 election campaign. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has indicated something like it is being considered for the 2020 budget.

Emerson says it should be possible to deliver both the investment allowance and a budget surplus.

Quantitative easing would be a worry

Five of the 13 economists are concerned about the Reserve Bank adopting so-called “unconvential” measures such as buying government and private sector bonds in order to push long-term interest rates down toward zero, a practice known as quantitative easing.

Jeffrey Sheen and Renee Fry-McKibbin say it should be kept in reserve for emergencies.

Adrian Blundell-Wignall and Mark Crosby say it hasn’t worked in the countries that have tried it.

A quantitative easing avalanche policy by the European central bank larger than the entire UK economy has left inflation below target and growth fading. Quantitative easing destroys the interbank market, under-prices risk, and encourages leverage and asset speculation – Adrian Blundell-Wignall

Steve Keen says in both Europe and the United States quantitative easing enriched banks and drove up asset prices but did little to boost consumer spending, “because the rich don’t consume much of the wealth”.

The treasurer should step up

Taken together, the responses of the 13 economists suggest it is ultimately the government’s responsibility to ensure the economy doesn’t weaken any further, and that it would be especially unwise to palm it off on to the Reserve Bank at a time when the bank’s cash rate is close to zero and the effectiveness of the unconventional measures it might adopt is in doubt.

Measures the government could adopt include increasing the rate of the Newstart unemployment benefit, boosting funding for schools and skills training, borrowing for well-chosen infrastructure projects with a social rate of return greater than the cost of borrowing, further tax cuts that double as tax reform (including further tax breaks for business investment) and spending more on programs aimed at avoiding the worst of climate change and adapting to it.

The economists are backing the governor in his plea for help. They think he needs it.


The 13 economists surveyed




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The Conversation


Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is the Morrison government ‘authoritarian populist’ with a punitive bent?



Scott Morrison’s government may be more authoritarian populist than strictly conservative.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Carol Johnson, University of Adelaide

In a recent interview Malcolm Turnbull raised the possibility that these days many so-called “conservatives” in the Liberal Party might be better described as “authoritarian populists”.

It would be easy to dismiss his comments as being those of a bitter former leader. But maybe Turnbull has a point, and perhaps it might even be applied more broadly to the Morrison government.

Although the term “authoritarian populism” is often associated with far-right parties, it has also been used to describe mainstream governments, such as those of Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990).




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Thatcherite populist rhetoric mobilised the people against big government and elite special interests, which was combined with authoritarian measures such as increased policing of ethnic minorities and militant unions.

Authoritarian populist is a term now sometimes applied to Donald Trump. So it is well worth asking whether the Morrison government also has some authoritarian populist tendencies.

This is particularly the case given Morrison’s recent embrace of a Trump-influenced anti-globalist rhetoric, which seems partly aimed at asserting Australian independence from international human rights frameworks.

The populist tinge to Morrison’s politics was obvious during the 2019 election campaign. Morrison countered Labor’s own populist arguments (standing against the “top end of town”) by using an alternative populism that mobilised the people against big-spending, big-taxing Labor governments. He argued that Labor would rip off ordinary citizens, run up big debts and ruin the economy, costing jobs in the process.

Morrison’s election persona of “ScoMo”, the warm and friendly daggy dad from the suburbs, might not seem authoritarian. However, even then, there were authoritarian tendencies creeping in to his populism. This is not just in his attitudes to asylum seekers, but also to Australians. For example, Morrison’s slogan: “A fair go for those who have a go” implied that some welfare recipients didn’t deserve the benefits they were getting.

Morrison’s ‘daggy dad’ persona may not seem authoritarian, but there are strains of it in his populism.
AAP/Craig Golding

Indeed, the Morrison government’s authoritarian policy agenda also has a punitive element that has become more evident since the election. Not only has the government emphasised it won’t increase Newstart (despite even business groups calling for an increase), but welfare recipients have been increasingly demonised.

The social services minister reportedly rejected increasing Newstart on the grounds that many welfare recipients would just spend the money on drugs and alcohol. The government has instead revived punitive mandatory drug-testing proposals for welfare recipients.

The government has also supported an expansion of the cashless welfare card, despite trenchant criticisms from the Australian Council of Social Service.

Meanwhile, Peter Dutton has suggested climate change protesters should face mandatory imprisonment and lose their unemployment benefits.

Morrison has dismissed calls for greater media freedom with the populist argument that journalists should not be “above the law”. (In doing so, he implies journalists are an elitist group demanding special privileges denied to ordinary people.)

Yet it is governments that make the law, including authoritarian and punitive laws that can shield them from proper democratic scrutiny. Suggesting that the attorney-general should have the final say on whether police proceed with prosecutions against journalists compounds, rather than reduces, the problem.

It is not just powerful media organisations facing the government’s authoritarian streak. Attacking higher energy prices is a popular move (and easier for the Liberals than developing a full energy policy, given internal divisions).

But businesses have expressed their concern at the “big stick” potentially being wielded against them. Predictably, though, it is unions that face the government’s most authoritarian measures, with the ACTU arguing the proposed new laws are designed to bust them.

Admittedly, as I have argued elsewhere, none of these authoritarian tendencies are totally new. The Howard government had a history of tough legislation against unions and of defunding advocacy groups.

Australian governments have introduced increasingly authoritarian measures that the United Nations and human rights organisations have criticised previously for undermining Australian democracy, including under Turnbull’s watch.

Many moderate Liberals who remembered Turnbull from his libertarian spycatcher days, opposing British government secrecy, were sadly disappointed by his failure to stand up to the right-wingers in his party on such issues. (Admittedly, Labor often capitulated on so-called national security issues as well.)

Nor is it unusual for conservatives in the party to demonise protesters. Indeed, a NSW Liberal premier once reportedly urged a driver to run them over.




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However, the attitudes towards Newstart, for example, are very different from the days when Robert Menzies was proud of increasing unemployment benefits. The authoritarian industrial relations measures are also a far cry from the social liberal traditions that used to influence the Liberal Party. The eroding of civil liberties will be concerning to many small-“l” Liberal voters, as well as to more left-wing voters.

Some Turnbull supporters would have felt relieved when he was replaced by Morrison rather than the Coalition’s hard man, Dutton.

However, perhaps “ScoMo” is just a more personable Dutton in some respects. Whether his government’s punitive measures will eventually undermine Morrison’s warm and friendly election image remains to be seen.The Conversation

Carol Johnson, Adjunct Professor, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As the prime minister heads to ASEAN, trade, Vietnam and China will be high on the agenda


Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Given a world in turmoil, an ASEAN leadership three-day summit to begin in Bangkok this weekend has slipped off radar screens. But this is not to say the event lacks importance.

The year-end summit of leaders of the 10 ASEAN nations plus eight dialogue partners may well prove one of the more significant regional gatherings, historically.

Away from the tumult in Europe over Brexit, the United States over impeachment, and a US-China trade war, ASEAN and partners have been quietly working to put in place two constructive initiatives.

The first is the bare bones of a mega trade deal that would knit together ASEAN members plus six regional partners. The second is progress towards a regional security framework.




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Neither of these initiatives will be fully consummated this weekend. But, if progress is made, the Bangkok 2019 summit may well come to be regarded as more than a pro forma talkfest.

Let’s start with negotiations over a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). If the ASEAN summit reaches agreement to push ahead with this initiative, with the aim of completion over the next 12 months, this would represent an important advance in the liberalisation of regional trade.

The RCEP, proposed by China as a counter to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) from which it was excluded, would bring together the ASEAN 10 plus six dialogue partners.

The ASEAN 10 are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The dialogue partners are Australia, China, Japan, India, New Zealand and South Korea.

Needless to say, a trade liberalisation pact that accounts for 45% of the world’s population and a third of global GDP would represent a momentous development, potentially.

The TPP is a free trade agreement that was renamed the Comprehensive Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after Donald Trump withdrew the United States from it in 2016.

That agreement brings together 11 regional countries, some of which are ASEAN members and would also be parties to the RCEP. The awkwardly acronymed CPTPP comprises Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

This is a significant trading bloc. However, it would be dwarfed by an RCEP, dominated by China and India, with the emerging economies of Indonesia and Vietnam as part of the mix.

The RCEP is an important initiative. It matters from a trading standpoint and as a regional power balance in the ongoing strategic rivalry between China and the US.

Beijing correctly views the initiative as a means of countering US-initiated trade and other pressures.

From an Australian standpoint, an RCEP would serve the useful function of providing more certainty to a liberalising regional trading environment.

Australia has a free trade agreement in place with ASEAN and other members of the proposed RCEP, including, importantly, China, Japan and South Korea.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison will attend the Bangkok summit along with Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, reflecting the importance Canberra attaches to these events.

The vast proportion of Australian trade resides in its trading relationships with RCEP countries, principally China, Japan, South Korea and India.

Australia’s trade with ASEAN, both merchandise and services, totals more than A$50 billion a year, or about 12% of Australia’s total exports.

At the same time, ASEAN countries’ investment in Australia exceeds A$118 billion. These are significant numbers.

Among all of Australia’s trading partners, six RCEP parties – or seven if you include Hong Kong as part of China – are in the top 10 Australian export destinations.

These are, in order, China, Japan, South Korea, India, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong. Making up the 10 are the US, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.

This brings us to one of the principal drags on an RCEP deal in Bangkok.

Indian concerns about Chinese goods flooding its market remain a sticking point under any RCEP arrangement. New Delhi is seeking safeguard mechanisms that would guard against surges in imports and what it regards as unfair competition. India’s particular concerns relate to its vulnerable agriculture sector.

Whether these Indian reservations can be satisfied in time for a broad agreement to proceed with the RCEP in time for the Bangkok summit remains to be seen.




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There is another important issue that will feature in Bangkok and on which progress is far from certain. These are matters relating to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. Beijing is in dispute with five ASEAN members over conflicting territorial claims: Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

Conflict with Vietnam over potentially oil-rich territorial waters is the most vexatious of these disputes.

At previous ASEAN sessions, China has aligned itself with client states like Cambodia to bully and block reasonable discussion about its territorial ambitions.

In efforts to reduce tensions over Beijing’s behaviour, ASEAN negotiators hope to achieve a “first reading” of a code of conduct for the South China Sea that would provide some sort of framework for resolving disputes.

It’s not clear whether China will go along with such an initiative.

Judging by remarks made by China’s defence minister, General Wei Fenghe, at a recent defence forum, Beijing will be reluctant to yield ground. He said:

We will not relinquish a single inch of territory passed down from our forefathers.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why the government’s proposed facial recognition database is causing such alarm



Andrew Hastie said the broad objectives of the identity-matching system were sound, but key changes were needed to ensure privacy and transparency.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Sarah Moulds, University of South Australia

Since before the 2019 election, the Morrison government has been keen to introduce a new scheme that would allow government agencies, telecos and banks to use facial recognition technology to collect and share images of people across the country.

While there are some benefits to such a system – making it easier to identify the victims of natural disasters, for example – it has been heavily criticised by human rights groups as an attempt to introduce mass surveillance to Australia and an egregious breach of individual privacy.

The plan hit a roadblock when the government-controlled Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) handed down an extensive report calling for significant changes to the legislation to ensure stronger privacy protections and other safeguards against misuse.




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What are the identity-matching laws?

The identity-matching bills aim to set up a national database of images captured through facial recognition technology and other pieces of information used to identify people, such as driver’s licenses, passports, visa photos. This information could then be shared between government agencies, and in some cases, private organisations like telcos and banks, provided certain legal criteria are met.

The proposed database follows an agreement reached by the Commonwealth and the states and territories in 2017 to facilitate the “secure, automated and accountable” exchange of identity information to help combat identity crime and promote community safety.

Critical to this agreement was that the system include “robust privacy safeguards” to guard against misuse.

The agreement gave the federal government the green light to introduce laws to set up the identity-matching system.




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Access to the service could potentially encompass a wide range of purposes. For example, a government agency could use the system to identify people thought to be involved in identity fraud or considered threats to national security.

But the bill also includes more pedestrian uses, such as in cases of “community safety” or “road safety”.

The proposed laws contain some safeguards against misuse, including criminal sanctions when an “entrusted person” discloses information for an unauthorised purpose. In addition, access by banks or other companies and local councils can only occur with the consent of the person seeking to have their identity verified.

However, much of the detail about precisely who can access the system and what limits apply is not set out in the bills. This will be determined through government regulation or subsequent intergovernmental agreements.

Concerns about scope and safeguards

The Coalition government’s bills were first introduced in 2018, but didn’t come up for a vote. After the government reintroduced the bills in July, the PJCIS launched an inquiry and invited public submissions.

Legal bodies have argued that amendments are needed to tighten the boundaries of who can access the identity-matching services and for what purposes. They note that as currently drafted, the proposed laws give too much discretionary power to government officials and actually create opportunities for identity theft.




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This is particularly problematic when coupled with the potential for the rapid spread of facial recognition technology in Australian streets, parks and transport hubs.

The Human Rights Law Centre said the proposed system is “more draconian” than the one launched in the UK. Another concern is that it could be used by a wide range of agencies to confirm the identity of any Australian with government-approved documentation (such as a passport or driver’s license), regardless of whether they are suspected of a crime.

The Australian Human Rights Commission also pointed to research suggesting the software used to capture or match facial imagery could result in higher error rates for women and people from certain ethnic groups.

What’s next for the bills?

When handing down the committee’s unanimous report, Andrew Hastie said the broad objectives of the identity-matching system were sound, but key changes were needed to ensure privacy protections and transparency.

While the PJCIS cannot actually stop the bills from being passed, it has a strong track record of turning its recommendations into legislative amendments.

The states and territories also have an interest in ensuring a national identity-matching scheme gets the balance right when it comes to addressing identity crime and assisting law enforcement and protecting individual privacy.

The question is whether these calls for improvements will be loud enough to put these bills back on the drawing board.

The future of the legislation will tell us something important about the strength of human rights protections in Australia, which rely heavily on parliamentary bodies like the PJCIS to help raise the alarm when it comes to rights-infringing laws.The Conversation

Sarah Moulds, Lecturer of Law, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The evidence is clear: the medevac law saves lives. But even this isn’t enough to alleviate refugee suffering



Protesters holding a vigil last year for deceased asylum seeker Hamid Khazaei, who died in a Brisbane hospital due to an infection at the Manus Island detention centre in 2014.
Darren England/AAP

Sara Dehm, University of Technology Sydney

Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie has some sobering reading to do over the coming weeks: an 88-page Senate report into the government-sponsored bill to repeal the medevac law that allow refugees and asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru to seek medical care in Australia. The publication of the report last Friday paves the way for a Senate vote on the bill in mid-November.

As predicted, the Senate committee that issued the report split along party lines, with the Coalition majority calling for the medevac provisions to be repealed and the ALP, Greens and Centre Alliance senators releasing dissenting reports.




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What is less predictable is how the report will influence Lambie’s deciding vote. She has indicated she will approach the bill as a conscience vote, saying

Tasmanians don’t want deals done over humanity.

An overwhelming health crisis in offshore detention

The medevac law allows a person to be transferred to Australia for medical treatment or assessment if two Australian-registered doctors recommend such care is necessary and unavailable in PNG or Nauru. There are limited exceptions for the minister of home affairs to reject a transfer on security and character grounds.

Since the law came into effect in March, over 130 people have been transferred for care.

The Coalition government maintains the pre-medevac medical transfer policy for refugees was adequate. This allowed transfers only in life-threatening cases in which the required specialist medical care could not be provided on PNG, Nauru or a third country like Taiwan.

However, evidence given to the Senate committee showed a drastic drop in medical transfers to Australia from 2015 to mid-2018, despite clear medical need.

Statistics given to the committee by the National Justice Project, a not-for-profit legal service that acts on behalf of refugees, documented how some patients had to wait more than four years for medical transfers to Australia.

Tony Bartone, the Australian Medical Association president, described the government’s pre-Medevac process as “torturous” and involving “long periods of delay,” without any appropriate oversight.

Court injunctions and prospective litigation from mid-2018 onwards did compel the government to bring around 350 people to Australia for urgent medical treatment or as an accompanying family member. But such court interventions can be costly, slow and resource-intensive for those in need of immediate medical attention.




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And that need is still extremely high for those refugees remaining in offshore detention. An independent health assessment in June found a staggering 97% of those in detention and processing facilities have been diagnosed with physical health conditions. A further 91% were experiencing mental health problems, including severe depression and PTSD.

All but two of the 95 public submissions received by the committee were strongly in favour of retaining the medevac law.

Tellingly, those two submissions were from the Department of Home Affairs and the International Health and Medical Service, a government-contracted health provider on Nauru.

Overlooked refugee suffering in Australia

What is missing from the Senate report is any mention of the intolerable situation that refugees and asylum seekers face even after they have been transferred to Australia.

Although people can access critical medical treatment here, most remain in community detention, facing economic insecurity and legal uncertainty about their future. Research shows such legal limbo can lead to feelings of despair and dehumanisation.

The day before the report’s release, 32-year-old Afghan doctor Sayed Mirwais Rohani died in Brisbane, the victim of an apparent suicide. Rohani had come to Australia for medical treatment two years ago, after spending four years in immigration detention on Manus Island.

After his death, his former roommate posted on Facebook:

We shared same pain for long time, long enough to destroy someone’s life.

Rohani’s death was at least the 13th among refugees held in offshore detention on Manus or Nauru.

‘Trying to kill themselves because they’ve lost hope’

No doubt the government will use the Senate report to convince Lambie to support its bill when the vote happens next month.

So far, Lambie has remained relatively reticent, even if she did rebuff Dutton’s claim that the “vast majority of veterans” want her to vote to repeal medevac.




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Instead, Lambie indicated she would look to “national security” considerations in weighing up the report’s findings, including the dissenting reports. She has in the past called for children not to be in immigration detention and voted against the Coalition government’s bill to introduce temporary refugee visas in 2014.

Even if the medevac provisions stay in place, the status quo of Australia’s offshore detention regime remains unsustainable and inhumane.

As former MP Kerryn Phelps, a key architect of the medevac law during her brief time in parliament, stated in her evidence to the Senate committee, refugees and asylum seekers are

not trying to make a point; they’re trying to kill themselves because they’ve lost hope.The Conversation

Sara Dehm, Lecturer, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Morrison says China knows ‘where Australia is coming from’, after meeting Chinese vice-president


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison seized the opportunity of his Jakarta weekend visit for Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s inauguration to obtain a meeting with Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan.

Morrison told a news conference he had come out of the discussion “pleased that there is, I think, a very clear understanding of where Australia is coming from, our commitment to the relationship”.

“It was a chat that we had very much in the spirit of the partnership that we have, and very much inoculated from all of the assessments that are made about the relationship,” he said.

The meeting comes after Morrison’s description, while in the United States, of China as a “developed” economy, which China rejects. More generally, the relationship between the two countries has been very cool, with tensions on several fronts including Australia’s strong legislative stand against Chinese interference.

The discussion with Wang did not see an invitation for Morrison to visit China. The Prime Minister said Wang was an envoy of President Xi Jinping and not in a position to issue any invitation.

Wang, speaking at the start of their discussion, made it clear Australia had sought the meeting and Xi had given his approval for it. The discussion went for almost double the half hour scheduled.




Read more:
Define the boundaries in new phase of Australia-China relationship: Wong


Morrison told reporters he’d made the point “which was well received, that Australia is an independent, sovereign nation.

“Yes, we are very much proud of our Western liberal democratic tradition, our open economy and our engagement with the rest of the world and that gives us a set of eyes that look into the world very much from our perspective.”

But he had also stressed “that we will never feel corralled into any sort of binary assessment of these relationships” – assessments that said “pro-United States or pro-China”.

Meanwhile a Lowy Institute report, released Monday, warns that without an increase in its total aid budget Australia could be increasingly at a strategic disadvantage in the Pacific.

The research, which focuses on China’s expanding role there, concludes that so far “China has not been engaged in such problematic debt practices in the Pacific as to justify accusations of debt trap diplomacy”. But the scale of its lending and recipient countries’ lack of strong mechanisms to protect their debt sustainability mean there are clear risks, the paper says.

In contrast, Australia’s infrastructure lending plans contain rules to protect the sustainability of borrowing countries.




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Vital Signs: Why can’t Australia be friends with both US and China?


Making a strong call for a rethink of the overall Australian aid budget, the paper argues: “Today, Australia’s strategic goal of doing more in the Pacific is boxed in by a limited aid budget, the desire to avoid cutting back on other important development priorities (such as health and education, or aid to countries outside the Pacific), and the need to avoid causing debt sustainability problems by relying too heavily on non-concessional lending.

“If Australia wants to do more, one of these constraints needs to be relaxed. Increasing the overall aid budget would be the most desirable option,” the paper says.

Also, “China might itself begin providing substantially more grant financing in the Pacific. In that case, a stagnant aid budget would increasingly place Australia at a geostrategic disadvantage”.

The paper, titled “Ocean of debt? Belt and Road and debt diplomacy in the Pacific”, has been prepared by Roland Rajah, the head of the Institute’s international economy program, Alexandre Dayant, and Jonathan Pryke, the head of Lowy’s Pacific Islands program.

The work draws on data from the Institute’s Pacific Aid Map, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank to examine China’s development finance in the Pacific.

It says China is the single largest creditor in Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu, although only in Tonga does it account for more than half outstanding debt. “With the important exception of Tonga, China is currently not a dominant creditor in the Pacific.”

But the analysis finds: “there are significant risks of future debt sustainability problems under a business-as-usual scenario for bilateral Chinese lending”, pointing in particular to the situations of Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

“China will therefore need to reconfigure its approach significantly if it wants to disprove the debt trap accusations made by its critics,” the paper says, while noting it has taken some steps in this direction.

“Protecting debt sustainability in Pacific countries will also require Australian loans to be as concessional as possible, given elevated debt risks and the often limited economic viability of many infrastructure projects in the Pacific,” the paper says.

The competition among major powers gives Pacific countries an opportunity to press for advantageous financing and better project management, it says.

For their part external players should avoid “geopolitically-driven” assistance aimed at “short-term wins” at the expense of the reforms and improved governance the countries need.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Snowy 2.0 will not produce nearly as much electricity as claimed. We must hit the pause button



Prime Minister Scott Morrison in front of the Tumut 3 power station at the Snowy Hydro Scheme. New analysis suggests the benefits of Snowy 2.0 have been overstated.
AAP

Bruce Mountain, Victoria University

The federal government’s much-vaunted Snowy Hydro expansion is supposed to smooth out the bumps in electricity supply as Australia transitions to renewables. But not only is the project a bad deal for taxpayers, our analysis suggests it will deliver a fraction of the energy benefits promised.

Fossil-fuel power generators store coal or gas at the point of production. This means electricity can mostly be created on demand when homes and businesses need it. Renewable energy cannot do this. If wind or sun is not abundant, solar panels and wind turbines may not produce enough electricity to meet demand. At other times they might produce more than required.

The Snowy 2.0 project is supposed to provide a solution to this problem – storing renewable energy for when it is needed.

The project’s cost and time estimates have blown out massively. It would now be surprising if Snowy 2.0, including the transmission upgrades it relies on, comes in at less than A$10 billion or is finished before 2027.

But there is another serious problem. Our analysis has revealed that of the extra pumped hydro capacity promised by the project, less than half can be delivered. There is now overwhelming evidence the project should be put on hold.

The Tumut 3 scheme, with which Snowy 2.0 will share a dam.
Snowy Hydro Ltd

The problems we know about: cost and time blowouts

The list of possible alternatives to Snowy 2.0 is long. Aside from other pumped hydro projects, it includes chemical batteries, encouraging demand to follow supply, gas or diesel generators, and re-orienting renewable generators to capture the wind or sun when it is less plentiful.

But despite this plethora of options, the federal government announced the Snowy 2.0 project without a market assessment, cost-benefit analysis or indeed even a feasibility study.




Read more:
The government’s electricity shortlist rightly features pumped hydro (and wrongly includes coal)


When former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the expansion project in March 2017 he said it would cost A$2 billion and be commissioned by 2021. This was revised upwards several times and in April this year, a A$5.1 billion contract for partial construction was awarded. This excludes the costs of transmission and other considerable expenses.

The main contractor says the project will take eight years to build – bringing us to 2027 before the full scheme is completed. We will happily wager that more delays and cost increases will be announced.

Then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull during a tour of Tumut 3 power station when announcing the expansion in 2017.
Lucas Cochairs/AAP

Snowy Hydro has not costed the transmission upgrades upon which the project depends. TransGrid, owner of the grid in New South Wales, has identified options including extensions to Sydney with indicative costs up to A$1.9 billion. Massive extensions south to Melbourne will also be required.

Snowy Hydro contends it should not pay for the new transmission lines because the benefits would flow to the entire grid, not just its venture. In other words Snowy Hydro argues, conveniently, that we should count the benefits but ignore the costs when thinking about their project.

The numbers simply do not add up

The Snowy 2.0 project grandly claims it could generate at its full 2,000 megawatt capacity for 175 hours – or about a week. This capacity can also be expressed as 350 gigawatt hours (GWh).

Energy Minister Angus Taylor has talked up the project’s superiority to smaller-capacity alternatives such as batteries.

But the maximum additional pumped hydro capacity Snowy 2.0 can create, in theory, is less than half this. The reasons are technical, but worth taking the time to understand.

The figure below outlines the main physical features that define Snowy 2.0. It includes four dams: Tantangara, Talbingo, Jounama and Blowering. For simplicity, we have numbered these from 1-4 in the following explanation.



The Conversation, CC BY-ND

When Snowy 2.0 generates electricity, water will be released from Dam 1 at the top of the system. It will flow through a long tunnel to the smaller Dam 2. The flow of water drives turbines which generate energy. When the turbines are reversed, the water is pumped back to the top to continue the cycle.

For Snowy 2.0 to produce the 350 GWh of electricity claimed, the top dam must be full and all that water released through the system. But replenishing the top dam after this event would take many months of pumping water from elsewhere in the system, and use up 40% more electricity than was originally generated. So the 350 GWh would never be achieved because it is extremely inefficient and inflexible.

In reality, the pumped hydro capacity of Snowy 2.0 is defined by the amount of water that the smaller Dam 2 can hold. If the scheme was a closed system, with no other water flowing in or out, it could produce around 230 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity.

But the system does not exist in isolation. Part of the existing Snowy Hydro scheme, known as Tumut 3, also uses Dam 2. It creates pumped hydro electricity by cycling water between that dam and the even smaller Dam 3 below it.

For Snowy 2.0 to operate at full cyclical capacity, Dam 2 must be empty to receive the water. That would entail emptying Dam 2 into the smaller Dam 3 and from there to Dam 4 at the bottom of the system. This water could not be used again to generate electricity. This “lost” water would have generated 60 GWh worth of electricity in the Tumut 3 scheme.

Khancoban Dam, part of the soon-to-be expanded Snowy Hydro scheme.
Snowy Hydro Ltd

This means that as a cyclical pumped hydro system, Snowy 2.0 does not add 230 GWh of capacity. When you subtract the 60 GWh from the 230 GWh, Snowy 2.0 adds just 170 GWh of recyclable pumped hydro. This is less than half the claimed storage capacity.

And this is the maximum cyclical capacity in theory only. Snowy 2.0 would never produce continuously for the time needed to generate and then pump 230 GWh because it would never be economically viable to run it this way.

In practice if Snowy 2.0’s lower dam is operated in future as it is now – almost always close to full – the cycling capacity of Snowy 2.0 may be as low as 40 GWh – around one tenth of the promised number.

What does all this mean?

These facts put Snowy 2.0 in a completely different light. There are many competing alternatives that can provide storage far more flexibly for a fraction of Snowy 2.0’s price tag. These alternatives would also have far fewer environmental impacts or development risks, in most cases none of the transmission costs and could be built much more quickly.

It is always difficult to press the pause button on a major project once it has begun. But the evidence for doing this is overwhelming. In pursuit of the public interest, the federal government should put the project on hold and ask a reputable investment bank to publicly advise, perhaps through the Productivity Commission, what Snowy 2.0 would be worth if built.

A credible independent valuation would establish with some confidence how deeply Snowy Hydro will have its hands in the public’s pockets. A panel of independent experts should then be asked to publicly advise whether taxpayer money is needed to meet the demands of a renewables-dominated power system, and if so, the best way it should be spent.The Conversation

Bruce Mountain, Director, Victoria Energy Policy Centre, Victoria University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

There’s no airport border ‘crisis’, only management failure of the Home Affairs department


Regina Jefferies, UNSW and Daniel Ghezelbash, Macquarie University

In the past five years, more than 95,000 people who arrived by plane have lodged a claim for asylum in Australia, new statistics show.

Labor’s Immigration Spokesperson, Senator Kristina Keneally, has labelled this a “crisis”, stating:

Peter Dutton’s incompetence and recklessness has allowed people smugglers to run riot and traffic record-breaking numbers of people by aeroplane to Australia.

But the “crisis” is not that visa-holding travellers are flying to Australia, then later lodging a claim for asylum. It’s not unprecedented for tourists or students to later lodge a claim for asylum due to circumstances beyond their control.




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In 1989, for example, after events in Tiananmen Square, Australia provided refuge to thousands of Chinese students who had entered Australia with visas.

Instead, the “crisis” is the Australian government’s failure to properly manage the refugee-processing system. It gutted the ranks of experienced decision-makers and made organisational changes that undermine the quality of decisions, contributing to long processing delays and backlogs.

These organisational failures may have contributed to the increase in asylum applications over the last five years.

High staff turn-over

Protection visa decisions are highly complex. They must examine a variety of factors, including country-specific conditions and individual circumstances.

Yet, as the Australian National Audit Office noted in 2018, the Home Affairs department experienced a significant loss of “corporate memory” due to staff turn-over, “with almost half of SES officers present in July 2015 no longer in the department at July 2017”.

In a Senate Estimates hearing last year, Home Affairs officials said the average processing time for permanent protection visas, from lodgement to primary decision (not including appeals), was 257 days, or 8.5 months.

And the department’s training deficiencies are well-documented. The most recent Australian Public Service Employee Census put the department’s organisational management problems into stark relief: only 35% of employees said the department inspired them to do their best work, while two-thirds of respondents said they did not consider department senior executives to be of “high quality”.

These publicised problems raise important questions about the quality of decision-making at the primary level.

Stacking the AAT with political allies

Poor decision-making at the primary level can lead to higher numbers of appeals. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that appeals to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) from people who arrived by plane are also experiencing significant blowouts.

The number of active refugee cases to the AAT has ballooned from 8,370 two years ago, to 23,063 in 2019.




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Cruel, and no deterrent: why Australia’s policy on asylum seekers must change


This results in a backlog. In 2017, the tribunal made 5,153 decisions on refugee claims, and so far this financial year, only 815 claims have been concluded.

In part, these worrying figures are due to the federal government appointing people with Liberal Party ties to the AAT over the last couple of years.

The Attorney-General recognised these problems in the 2019 Report on the Statutory Review of the Tribunal, which pointed to “competencies of members” as a key contributor to complications in the operation of the tribunal.

Stacking the AAT with political allies, many of whom are not lawyers and who are not appointed on merit, has removed independent expertise from the tribunal, risking errors and further delays.




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How the Biloela Tamil family deportation case highlights the failures of our refugee system


And with more errors come further appeals in the courts. This not only places a heavy burden on the resources of the Federal Circuit Court and Federal Court, but also leads to more delays and backlogs in the AAT, where the court sends matters which were unlawfully decided for re-determination.

Address organisational failures

The solution is in proper organisational management. Instead of blaming refugees for fleeing persecution by safe means, the government must address the failures of its refugee processing system.

To this end, an urgent review of the Department of Home Affairs policies and organisational failures is needed. A review could find out whether there’s a management culture stopping Home Affairs from attracting and retaining staff who can make reasoned and well-supported decisions in an environment they can be proud of.




Read more:
‘Stop playing politics’: refugees stuck in Indonesia rally against UNHCR for chronic waiting


Similarly, there must be a transparent and independent system for appointing AAT members that prioritises skills and experience over politics – exactly what was recommended by the Attorney-General’s recent review.

If people seeking asylum can have their claims assessed quickly and fairly, then those who are not refugees can be sent home, while those needing safety could receive it.

Without the chance to remain in Australia for years while their claims are assessed, there would be no loophole for traffickers and others to exploit.

In turn, the number of non-genuine claims will go down, allowing decision-makers to focus on those who are actually fearing persecution.




Read more:
Yes, Peter Dutton has a lot of power, but a strong Home Affairs is actually a good thing for Australia


We should be supporting refugees to access safety by air. If people fleeing persecution can access a flight to Australia, they won’t risk a dangerous journey by boat to find safety.

This is not an airport border “crisis”, it’s a management failure that can be fixed with more staffing, better resourcing, and transparent and meritorious appointments of decision makers.


Correction: A previous version of the article stated 815 refugee claims were concluded this year. This has been updated to clarify that 815 of claims were concluded during this financial year.The Conversation

Regina Jefferies, Affiliate, Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, UNSW and Daniel Ghezelbash, Senior Lecturer, Macquarie Law School, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.