Explainer: the war in Syria and the possibility of removing Assad



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The future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s reign lies with Vladimir Putin’s obstinacy and ability to withstand US pressure.
Reuters/Omar Sanadiki

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

The devastating gas attack in Syria, attributed to the Assad regime, and the swift US missile response is a game-changer for all parties involved in the Syrian conflict. This is a complex war, but it helps to look at the key players in three interlocking layers. The Conversation

First layer

In the first layer are the local players within Syria. Since the 2011 Arab spring uprisings, all local players wanted to get rid of the 17-year-old regime of Syrian President Bashir Al-Assad. He desperately tried to cling to power and proved surprisingly resilient under immense political and military pressure.

Assad’s strength comes from Russian, Chinese and Iranian support – as well as support from the large portion of secular Arab Syrians and religious minorities (Alawites, Assyrian Christians and Druze).

Initially, there were three main insurgent groups opposing Assad. The first was the moderate Islamic coalition made up of Sunni Syrian elite who established the Free Syrian Army (FSA), made up of officers who had defected from the Assad forces. The FSA’s initial promise soon gave way to pessimism, as it could not deliver a decisive blow against Assad.

Second, Kurds in northern Syria organised themselves as the YPG (a militia group whose name translates to “People’s Protection Units”) and established the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). They received widespread acclaim and support, particularly from the US and other Western nations, for their strong defence against Islamic State (IS) forces.

Third are the Salafist jihadist groups such as the al-Nusra Front, which changed their name to the Front for the Conquest of the Levant, and claimed independence from al-Qaeda. It was these jihadist groups that led the chief military opposition to the Assad regime for the last six years, including in Aleppo until its fall in 2016.

IS emerged as a key political and military force in Syria in 2014. Unlike other insurgent groups, it did not fight Assad. Rather, it opportunistically claimed large swathes of uncontrolled land and declared an independent caliphate state, becoming the chief source of radicalism threatening Western societies.

Second layer

The second layer in the Syrian conflict is occupied by regional powers such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Iran has been a longstanding ally of the Assad regime because of its sectarian, political and economic interests. Assad and his entourage are Alawites, an off-shoot of Shia Islam.

Syria is an important corridor for Iran to press its influence over Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah and provide access to the Mediterranean. Iran’s regional ambitions require the continuation of the Assad regime.

Worried about Iran’s growing influence in the region, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported the Salafist insurgent groups. Fearing the spread of IS ideology and popularity in its realm, the Saudi government has supported US-led air strikes on IS since 2014.

Turkey has been the most active regional player in the Syrian conflict. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has supported all Sunni insurgent groups with weapons, training and logistics since the beginning of the conflict, with the exception of the Kurdish YPG.

Turkey fears that an independent Kurdish region in Syria (combined with Kurdish northern Iraq) would encourage its Kurdish population to also seek separation.

Erdogan pushed the Turkish army into Syria in August 2016. Although he desperately wanted to become involved in the impending US-backed offensive on the IS capital of Raqqa, he was left out of the US plans.

Third layer

The third layer of the Syrian conflict is occupied by Russia and the US. They are major geopolitical players whose conflicting interests over Syria are the source of the current impasse, and the reason why removing Assad has become exceedingly difficult.

Unhappy with the increasing US and Western influence in the Middle East, Russian President Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity to expand his economic and military interests in the Syrian conflict, and staged a challenge to the geopolitical world order.

In the course of the Syrian civil war, Putin has become the custodian of the Shi’ite alliance between Iran, Syria and Shi’ite political forces in Iraq and Lebanon. Deep down, Russia fears a destabilised Syria falling under IS control would mobilise radical Muslim groups within its borders.

Under the Obama administration, the US consistently stayed out of direct involvement in the Syrian conflict. Busy with the Iraq exit, Barack Obama missed the window of diplomatic opportunity in the crucial early months of the Syrian uprising. When violence started, Obama elected to provide limited military support to YPG and FSA, hoping they could muster enough opposition to dismantle Assad.

Obama admitted his strategy failed as the “US was muscled out of Syria” by an increasingly bold Putin. His support allowed Assad to gain the upper hand in Syria with the fall of Aleppo in December 2016.

This is why it was bizarre that Assad would launch a gas attack at this crucial juncture. He had nothing to gain and everything to lose. Assad vehemently denied the use of chemical weapons, while Russia claimed the Syrian air strike hit a rebel chemical munition depot.

The reason is now irrelevant, as the swift US missile attack has sealed the issue. US President Donald Trump served notice not only to Assad and Russia, but all the players in the conflict.

Even though Russia and Iran responded with no-crossing-red-line tough talk, the missile attack opens a large ground for a US-led offensive on the key IS stronghold of Raqqa. The US intends to use this space to eliminate IS and dismantle the Assad regime.

However, this is not likely anytime soon. Western powers suffer from a dissidence – they would like Assad to go, but cannot see a viable alternative. With his secular outlook and promise of protecting religious minorities, Assad still wields much support.

Trump’s impulsive nature is the US’s greatest weakness in world diplomacy, but counter-intuitively, is its greatest strength in a conflict like Syria.

The impulsive courage of Trump, coupled with the military prudence of the Pentagon, gives the US the best advantage in the region and disturbs the Assad, Iran and Russian alliance. They can no longer act with impunity, knowing Trump would have no qualms about hitting Syrian regime targets, which were untouched by the Obama administration.

Trump has tasted the rush of being commander-in-chief. He is likely to follow with other bold military steps, and insist on the demise of the Assad regime.

Assad’s future lies with Putin’s obstinacy and ability to withstand US pressure. As the FBI investigation into the Trump election campaign’s Russian links deepens, Trump is likely to use Assad card to deflect attention and prove his disassociation with Russia.

Betting all his money on Assad, Putin will use the Syrian leader as a bargaining chip to press Trump to accept a place for Assad in the post-IS Syria, at least in the Western part of the wrecked country. This could save Assad’s skin, but at the expense of Syria remaining a divided country.

The YPG will emerge as the main winner securing an autonomous polity in northern Syria in exchange for its help in the US-led Raqqa military offensive, driving another wedge toward the eventual division of Syria. It will follow the trajectory of the northern Iraq Kurdish region, with the prospect of future independence.

Sunni insurgent groups are likely to be the biggest losers. They may have to contend with the remaining remote regions while Syria harbours the propensity to be another Iraq and a breeding ground for IS-inspired radicalism threatening societies the world over.

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

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

Anti-Trump backlash at US by-elections


Adrian Beaumont, University of Melbourne

Today, a by-election was held in Kansas’ fourth Congressional District (CD) for election to the US House. This CD is very conservative, and voted for Donald Trump by 60-33 against Hillary Clinton at the 2016 election. At this by-election, the Republican prevailed by 53-46, a net improvement of 20 points for the Democrats from Trump’s margin in 2016. The Conversation

The Kansas result is not the only poor outcome for Republicans. A by-election was held in California’s 34th CD last Tuesday. This is a Democratic fortress, which Clinton won by 84-11. This by-election used a “jungle primary”, where candidates from the same party, and those from other parties, run on the one ballot paper. Unless one candidate wins a vote majority, the top two, regardless of party, proceed to a runoff.

As California’s 34th CD is a Democratic bastion, about 20 Democrats and only one Republican ran, and the top six vote winners were Democrats. The sole Republican won a risible 3.2% of the votes, well down from Trump’s 11%. The top two candidates, both Democrats, will proceed to a 6 June runoff.

While party control did not change in either by-election, the swing from Trump to the Democratic candidates is encouraging for the Democrats, and indicates that the November 2018 midterm elections could be good for the Democrats.

Next Tuesday (results Wednesday morning Melbourne time), a “jungle primary” by-election will be held in Georgia’s Republican-held sixth CD. The lead Democrat, Jon Ossoff, has a chance to win a vote majority, and thus avoid a runoff against a single Republican. This CD voted for Trump by a 48.3-46.8 margin.

Trump’s ratings in FiveThirtyEight’s poll tracker are currently 52.5% disapprove, 41.5% approve for a net of -11. After dropping briefly below 40% following the health care debacle, his ratings have recovered a point or two after the Syrian missile strike.

Daily Kos elections has calculated the Presidential results for all 435 CDs. Presidential results by CD are not generally published by election boards, and need to be calculated from each county’s precinct information.

Republicans change rules to get Gorsuch confirmed to US Supreme Court

On Friday, staunch conservative judge Neil Gorsuch won a confirmation vote in the US Senate, 54-45, and will now be a Supreme Court Justice. Gorsuch replaces Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016, restoring a 5-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Gorsuch is aged 49, so he could be on the Court for the next 30 years, delivering conservative verdicts.

Barack Obama had nominated Merrick Garland to replace Scalia, but the Republicans, who controlled the Senate, had refused to even grant Garland a hearing, arguing that Obama’s successor should select the next Supreme Court nominee. When Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, this strategy was vindicated.

Under Senate rules, Democrats could have filibustered Gorsuch’s confirmation. For a filibuster to be defeated, 3/5 of the Senate (60 Senators) are required to vote for cloture. With Republicans only holding a 52-48 Senate majority, a Democratic filibuster of Gorsuch would have succeeded.

However, the filibuster rule has never been part of the US Constitution, and a Senate majority can change the Senate’s rules. On Thursday, Republicans used the “nuclear” option, removing the ability of a minority to filibuster Supreme Court confirmations in a 52-48 party-line vote.

Democrats themselves had used the nuclear option to remove the ability of a minority to filibuster lower court and Cabinet confirmations in 2013. The filibuster now only exists for legislation, and that filibuster is likely to be abolished in the near future.

French Presidential election: hard left Melenchon surges

The French Presidential election will be held in two rounds. The first round is on 23 April, and the top two vote winners proceed to the second round on 7 May.

Current polls have the centrist Emmanuel Macron and far right Marine Le Pen tied at 23%, followed by conservative Francois Fillon on 19% and the hard left Jean-Luc Melenchon on 18%. A few weeks ago, Melenchon had just 10% support. His gains have come mainly at the expense of Socialist Benoit Hamon, who has fallen into single digits.

Many on the French left have been frustrated with the current Socialist government’s pro-business agenda, which Macron would continue. In contrast, Melenchon’s policies include a 100% tax on the part of any income over 360,000 Euros a year (about $AU 500,000).

If Macron makes the runoff against any of the other three contenders, he should win easily. While still unlikely, it is possible that Macron could be knocked out of the runoff. If this happens, there would be two candidates that most voters would probably object to, and the runoff would not be predictable.

NSW by-elections: Liberals suffer large swings, but hold their seats

On Saturday, by-elections occurred in the Liberal-held seats of Manly and North Shore, and the Labor-held seat of Gosford. Manly and North Shore became vacant following the retirements of former Premier Mike Baird and Health Minister Jillian Skinner, while Gosford’s vacancy was caused by a cancer diagnosis for its former member, Kathy Smith.

Labor easily held Gosford by 62.5-37.5 vs the Liberals, a 12.3 point swing to Labor from the 2015 election. The Liberals suffered a 24 point primary vote swing against them in Manly and a 15 point swing in North Shore, which Labor did not contest, but held both seats against Independent challengers. Vote shares in both these seats were 43-44% for the Liberals, 22-24% for the main Independent challenger and 16-18% for the Greens.

A Liberal vs Independent two candidate count in North Shore and Manly is not yet available, but Antony Green expects comfortable Liberal wins, especially given NSW’s optional preferential voting. Update Thursday afternoon: The Liberals won North Shore by 54.7-45.3 and Manly by 60.5-39.5

A NSW Newspoll, taken from February to March from a sample of 1580, had the Coalition leading by 51-49, unchanged from November to December 2016. Primary votes were Coalition 40% (down 1), Labor 34% (down 2), Greens 10% (down 1) and One Nation 8%. Premier Gladys Berejiklian had initial ratings of 44% satisfied and 21% dissatisfied, while Opposition Leader Luke Foley’s net approval was up 2 points to -4.

The 2015 NSW election result was 54.4-45.6 to the Coalition, so Newspoll implies a 3 point swing against the Coalition. The by-election results suggest a larger swing, but by-elections are not good guides to general elections. Governments usually do badly at by-elections because people are inclined to vote against the government, knowing that such a vote will not change the government.

Adrian Beaumont, Honorary Associate, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Melbourne

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

Three charts on Australia’s growing appetite for fast broadband


David Glance, University of Western Australia

This piece is part of our new Three Charts series, in which we aim to highlight interesting trends in three simple charts. The Conversation

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ latest figures on internet activity in Australia show a huge jump in the number of people with advertised speeds of greater than 24 Mbps (that’s megabits per second, a measure of data transfer speed).

That trend is significant because it suggests that Australia’s appetite for faster broadband is growing apace, and that the NBN may be helping to drive adoption of higher speed internet.

Starting from Dec 2014, the number of subscribers in Australia with internet advertised as being capable of 24 Mbps or greater rose from 2.3 million to 7.8 million. Or, expressed another way, from 19% of all internet subscribers to 58% of all subscribers.

(It’s worth noting that the growth is in people who have signed up to packages that advertised internet speeds capable of reaching 24 Mbps. That’s not to say that speed is actually delivered all of the time; there is variation and one doesn’t always get the advertised speeds.)

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This increase is due, in part, to the roll-out of the national broadband network (NBN) and access to broadband at higher speeds – but that’s not the whole story.

True, the number of NBN subscribers over the same period rose rapidly from 322,000 to 1.7 million but that doesn’t explain the other 5.5 million subscribers who moved to faster broadband in that time.

Looking at the types of connection, there was an increase in the number of subscribers using internet delivered by fibre and fixed wireless. This tallies with what NBN data show.

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It’s likely that with the advent of the NBN and its standardised speed tiers, internet service providers started offering services that were on a par or better than those being offered on the NBN. Competition may be at work, and the technology itself is improving.

However, data reported by cloud computing services firm Akamai in their State of the Internet reports – frequently cited by the press – showed Australia’s broadband to be woefully behind most other developed countries.

Indeed, in the same time that Australia saw a huge increase in subscribers on internet speeds of 24 Mbps and above, Akamai was reporting that average internet download speeds had increased by a mere 27%, an increase to an underwhelming 10.1 Mbps. That puts Australia down the list in terms of average speeds.

With ABS data showing that 58% of the population is now on plans capable of delivering speeds of 24 Mbps and above, such a paltry rise in the average internet speed is somewhat surprising.

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It is, of course, possible that the advertised speeds of Australian internet plans are, too often, misrepresenting the true speeds available.

The way that Akamai calculates its figures is not spelled out in its report – it says that it “includes data gathered from across the Akamai Intelligent Platform”. So perhaps it would be wise to take claims about Australia’s rank in the world on internet speeds with a hefty grain of salt. Things may be better than we are being told.

More data is needed to make sense of the impact of the shift of subscribers to higher speed internet. Projects like the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s plan to “test and report on the typical speed and performance of broadband plans provided over the NBN” will help build a more accurate picture.

David Glance, Director of UWA Centre for Software Practice, University of Western Australia

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

John Clarke: an unsurpassed craftsman of the Australasian voice


Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

There are some writers whose voice, by sheer accident of timing in your life, reach far deeper into your brain than the specifics of what they wrote. The Conversation

For me, it was the satirist and actor John Clarke, who died suddenly on Sunday while hiking in the Grampians, aged 68. I never met Clarke. But he taught me a great deal about the English language and the Australasian voice, and what can be done with both.

Clarke was a transplanted New Zealander who became an essential Australian presence. As a young man he’d swapped the shearing shed for university without ever losing his clear affection for both worlds. That sums up the sense of duality in Clarke’s persona, firmly at home yet ever so slightly removed from the absurdity around him.

The ideal posture for the satirist, in other words. And his facility with language was wholly unrivalled in Australian satire.

One of my earliest comedy memories was my parents’ copy of The Fred Dagg Tapes. I had no idea who Whitlam or Kerr were, but I hung on every word. You have to. You cannot listen to Clarke even at his most seemingly flippant without sensing the incredible precision of the word choices and the careful elegance with which his sentences are shaped and finessed. Every flourish and detour, every wry circumlocution, is perfectly formed and placed.

In that craftsmanship lies the unnerving durability of Clarke’s work. So much of early 1980s Australia seems impossibly alien now, yet Fred Dagg’s musings on real estate could have been written yesterday:

You can’t write like that anymore. The media that services our Twitter-addled attention spans won’t reward phrases like “probably isn’t going to glisten with rectitude” or “why you would want to depart too radically from the constraints laid down for us by the conventional calibration of distance?,” or writing insider send-ups of literature (“the stark hostility of the land itself – I’m sorry, the stark hostility of the very land itself”) or entire books parodying major poets with perfect pitch.

Clarke could invite his reader into jokes about Samuel Richardson (“he’s probably dead now, he was a very old man when I knew him”) or Ibsen and Monet playing tennis
without a trace of pretension or smugness. His Commonplace pieces for Meanjin reveal a remarkable racconteur with an obvious curiosity for people and places. Above all, his work is shot through with an unflagging affection for language itself. And, in deference to the fact this is supposed to be a philosophy column, we should note his unique take on Socratic Paradox:

To call what Clarke did sarcasm seems at once too crude and too weak. It’s a dryness beyond sarcasm. To work at all, irony has to find a way to signal the speaker’s ironic distance from what they’re saying. The question is how you do it. Sarcasm screams it at you; subtler irony gives you a knowing wink. Clarke doesn’t have to wink. It’s there already, something at the top of the throat, in the posture, in something the forehead’s doing. A near-total irony perfect for dissecting the deadly serious.

Clarke’s was a voice that was Australasian in the best sense: refusing self-importance but finding a deep earnestness in taking the piss.

He didn’t do impressions or voices, he just did his voice. It didn’t matter who he was meant to be: the voice sounded right. It sounded right as any politician you care to mention, it sounded right as Wal Footrot, and it sounded right as the conniving developer in Crackerjack.

It was a finely-tuned instrument in The Games. In a country that lurches alarmingly between cultural cringe and shallow triumphalism, The Games hit the sweet spot in the national neuroses in a way that’s unlikely ever to be repeated.

And it was never better than when he and Bryan Dawe deftly unweaved the tortured logic of the week with paradoxically brutal restraint. Clarke and Dawe was a masterpiece precisely because two middle-aged men in unremarkable suits against a black background, not even attempting an impression or costume, made a space where the latest absurdity could be made to disassemble itself in front of us.

Urgency in wryness. Bemused ferocity. We so dearly need voices like that, but we’ve just lost the best we had.

Vale Mr Clarke. We’ll not see your like again.

Patrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Deakin University

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

Farewell John Clarke: in an absurd world, we have never needed you more



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John Clarke, who died suddenly at the weekend, called out absurd politicking and dishonest language wherever he found it.
ABC Pr handout/AAP

Robert Phiddian, Flinders University

It cannot be the final arkle! Surely the inventor of Dave Sorenson, greatest and most persistently injured of farnarklers, will rebuild himself for the next match. Please tell me this is only the umlaut, and John Clarke will be back for the second half. In our more than usually absurd world, we have never needed him more. The Conversation

I can make no claim to personal acquaintance with Clarke – who died from natural causes while bushwalking in Victoria over the weekend – though by all accounts he was a lovely man. I do, however, feel I’ve known his work all my adult life, from Fred Dagg to last week’s Clarke and Dawe, so I write in appreciation of the work on this terrible day.

It is a magnificent achievement of focused and pitch-perfect satire. He gave voice to a brilliant antipodean acerbity that has always seemed a little old-fashioned in its moral and tonal dignity, and has been so pointedly timely because of that.

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The bedrock of his genius is the craft, the total control of rhythm, syntax, and tone. Because he wrote mostly for the screen and in short forms, it is easy to underestimate this quality. He was simply unparalleled. No Australian or Kiwi writer has ever controlled the rhythms and ironies of our English as well.

Internationally, you’d have to admit that Samuel Beckett was tauter, but nowhere near as funny. Other peers are scarce in all the world, even before you take his voice as an actor into account. Go back and read the scripts of the Games, and see if you can find a slip of tone or any emotional or political sloppiness. You may be some time.

His regular mode was disdain and wonderment at the antics of the knaves and fools who run this millennial world. He was the antithesis of excess and profoundly at odds with the dominant celebrity culture. Instead, he has been a voice from the immediate past in this era of globalisation, media glut, and economic liberalism, a voice of understated but never complacent decency.

All this is clearest in the strange success of the Clarke and Dawe skits. His reverse caricature of public figures made no attempt to imitate the person he was parodying, either in appearance or in the more obvious elements of voice.

So far as I am aware, no-one anywhere else has managed to pull it off. If you listen carefully, it really is John Clarke parodying Julia Gillard or Malcolm Turnbull, not by exaggerating the mannerisms, but by inhabiting their patterns of language and clinically exposing their vacuity or dishonesty. It’s a forensic satirical analysis at least half a world away from the swingeing condemnations of our other recent loss, Bill Leak.

Clarke was old-fashioned in manner and also in ethics. Very unfashionably, he valued facts, detachment, and restraint. This led to a deep and coherent form of political engagement that would explode foolishness wherever it appeared. He was broadly of the left, but he called out absurd politicking and the dishonest language wherever he found it.

Satirists are the permanent opposition to power in freeish societies like ours. He fought the abuses of power with wit and irony in governments of all colours, and in the corporate corruption of our national obsession with sport in the Games.

Had he stayed in New Zealand, he could well have had to take on the All Blacks for the sake of a more innocent love of the game. He ducked that fight, and Australia is the richer for it, in our usual way of Kiwi appropriation.

There was nothing soft about Clarke’s nostalgia. It remained a steady and brilliant challenge to value what is good, not just what is new. And he was fascinated by what he saw around him. His was the most generous spirited derision you could imagine.

Every time I have had to choose the tense of a verb in this article, it has been harrowing to have to use the preterite, and not the present. There were so many more knaves and fools for Clarke to excoriate as the tide of blah swirls ever around us.

I think I’ll go out and check the length of the 100 metres track at Olympic Park in memory of him. Perhaps we could go as a group.

Robert Phiddian, Deputy Dean, School of Humanities, Flinders University

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

FactCheck: do 679 of Australia’s biggest corporations pay ‘not one cent’ of tax?


Fabrizio Carmignani, Griffith University

… 679 of our biggest corporations pay not one cent of tax. – Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Secretary Sally McManus, address to the National Press Club, Canberra, March 29, 2017. The Conversation

Speaking at the National Press Club in Canberra, Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Secretary Sally McManus called for an increase to Australia’s minimum wage and criticised the Fair Work Commission’s recommendation to cut Sunday and public holiday penalty rates.

McManus said that “679 of our biggest corporations pay not one cent of tax”.

Was that claim correct?

Checking the source

When asked for sources to support McManus’ statement, a spokesman for the ACTU pointed The Conversation to a media report and to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) Report of Entity Tax Information for 2014-15, and provided this response from McManus:

According to the most recent ATO Tax Transparency Report, 679 companies with more than $100 million in income paid no tax in Australia in 2014-15.

The list includes such household names as Walt Disney, Sydney Airport, Qantas, Origin Energy and News Australia.

These companies can collectively be considered to be amongst the biggest operating in Australia – both in terms of income, and the prominent position they enjoy in the public eye.

Some of them are not Australian owned, and they may pay tax in other jurisdictions. However, they all operate in Australia, generate revenue from the spending of Australians and utilise existing infrastructure – like roads and ports – that were paid for by Australians.

So there’s something deeply unfair about a system which allows them to not pay any tax in Australia.

The ACTU also provided The Conversation with a spreadsheet listing the corporations it said had paid no tax.

Is that figure right?

The best source for information on how much tax Australia’s biggest corporations pay every financial year is the ATO. The ATO’s Report of Entity Tax Information – the same report the ACTU referred to in their response – is produced annually and shares information taken from the tax returns of:

  • Australian public and foreign-owned corporate entities with total income of A$100 million or more
  • Australian-owned resident private companies with total income of A$200 million or more
  • entities with tax payable under the petroleum resource rent tax, and
  • entities with tax payable under the minerals resource rent tax.

The report includes each company’s name, total income, taxable income, and tax payable.

For the purpose of this FactCheck, the relevant information is the tax payable by each of these companies. By looking at this data, we can see which companies didn’t pay tax in 2014-15, the most recent financial year for which this information is available.

How many companies don’t pay tax?

There are 1,904 companies included in the ATO’s 2014-15 report. Of those, 678 – or 36% of the companies listed – had no tax payable.

My count – 678 – is slightly different to McManus’s count of 679, and to the figure the ATO quoted on its pie chart here (the ATO has since corrected its report to reduce the number of nil tax payable taxpayers by one to 678).

The ACTU provided The Conversation with a spreadsheet listing the 679 companies that, in their view, paid no taxes. When I compared my count with the ACTU’s, I noted the ACTU included a company that I did not, a company named Tal Dai-Ichi Life Australia.

In the report I downloaded from the ATO website, Tal Dai-Ichi Life Australia is recorded as having total tax payable of A$56,171,148 for the 2014-15 financial year, so it shouldn’t be included in the count of companies that paid no tax.

Nevertheless, the difference is obviously minor. McManus was essentially correct.

Why do some companies pay no tax?

In general, there are two reasons why corporate companies pay no tax in Australia.

The first is that some companies are not making any profit. The concept of “total income”, which is used to identify the companies included in the ATO report, relates to revenue – not profit.

So, a company can have income (or revenue) of more than A$200 million, but that doesn’t automatically mean it has made a profit. Its losses or outgoings may outweigh its income. Only companies making a profit have to pay taxes.

Many of the companies that didn’t pay tax in 2014-15 were those in the energy/natural resources and manufacturing sectors – two sectors that were experiencing a downturn in that year and where profit margins were shrinking.

Proportion of entities with nil tax payable, by industry segment, 2013–14 and 2014–15.
ATO corporate tax transparency report for 2014-15

The second reason could be tax avoidance or profit shifting. These situations arise when companies take advantage of the international tax system to reduce the amount of tax to be paid. For instance, companies may set up complex ownership arrangements that allow them to redirect profit to countries with lower tax rates.

While not necessarily illegal, these situations are closely monitored by the ATO to ensure that Australia receives its correct share of tax under international tax rules.

Verdict

Sally McManus’ claim that “679 of our biggest corporations pay not one cent of tax” was essentially correct. According to ATO records, 678 of Australia’s biggest corporations didn’t pay tax in Australia in 2014-15.

McManus’s figure of 679 included one company that did have tax payable in that financial year. But in percentage terms, the difference between 678 and 679 is negligible.

It’s important to note that when a company doesn’t pay tax, it doesn’t necessarily imply tax avoidance or profit shifting. A company might not be paying tax because it isn’t making a profit, even if its total income (that is, revenue) amounts to more than A$100 million or A$200 million. – Fabrizio Carmignani


Review

This is a sound FactCheck.

The ATO’s annual corporate tax transparency reports can provide useful insights to inform public debate regarding how effectively our tax system is working.

As the author rightly points out, the information must be used with caution. There are legitimate reasons why a company with substantial income does not have to pay income tax. For instance, it may make a loss in that particular year, or has substantial carried forward losses from previous years.

Or, as the author has also rightly noted, tax avoidance may be the reason why a large company is not paying any income tax. – Antony Ting


Have you ever 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.

Fabrizio Carmignani, Professor, Griffith Business School, Griffith University

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

Three charts on Australia’s population shift and the big city squeeze


Nick Parr, Macquarie University

This piece is part of our new Three Charts series, in which we aim to highlight interesting trends in three simple charts. The Conversation

At around 1.5%, Australia’s current population growth rate is above the world rate of about 1.2%, and among the highest in the OECD.

Net international migration comprised about 55% of Australia’s population growth in 2015-16. Natural increase – that’s births minus deaths – makes up the rest.

Victoria is Australia’s fastest-growing state

Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that, since about 2013, Victoria’s population growth rate has risen to become the highest of all the states and territories in Australia.

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Western Australia was previously the fastest-growing state but its population growth rate has fallen sharply (by about 70% since 2011-12), likely driven by the demise of the mining boom. Queensland’s growth has declined more gradually.

Victoria’s higher population growth rate is due to it having the highest per capita rate of net international migration of all the states and territories and the largest net in-movement from elsewhere in Australia.

The most important reason for Victoria’s higher rate of net international migration was its higher per capita inflow of international students. Victoria also gained more people due to permanent migration.

After 2012, the net movement of New Zealand citizens to Australia fell rapidly (by 83% in two years). Due to its fall in numbers being shallower, Victoria replaced Queensland as the state receiving the largest net inflow of New Zealand citizens.

About 68% of the precipitous drop in Western Australia’s population growth rate since 2011-12 is because international migration to that state has fallen away. Previously, more people moved to Western Australia from the other states than in the other direction. Now, that trend has reversed.

Decreased net international migration also explains most of the decrease in Queensland’s growth rate over this period.

Big city squeeze

In recent years, Australia’s population has become increasingly concentrated in its largest cities, and several big cities are growing at well above the average Australian population growth rate.

Melbourne is Australia’s most rapidly growing city, a title it wrested from Perth around 2013-14.

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Sydney’s population, which the ABS says recently reached 5 million, is also growing at above the national average rate. Net in-migration (people moving to Sydney) is the major component of Sydney’s population growth, as opposed to natural increase (births minus deaths).

Brisbane’s growth has slowed but remains above the national average. In contrast, many already sparsely settled areas in inland Australia are experiencing population decline.

The mix of overseas-born residents is changing

About 28.5% of Australia’s population was born overseas. People born in the United Kingdom are still the biggest group of overseas-born residents, making up 5% of Australia’s population. That picture is changing, however, as chart 1.2 from the ABS shows here.

The share of UK-born residents in Australia is declining, and the proportion of people born in New Zealand has grown over the last decade. Over the same period, the share of China-born residents has increased, and that’s also true for India-born residents.

Australia’s India-born resident population remain predominantly male (119 males per 100 females in 2016), although not as heavily so as previously.

In contrast to China’s male-dominated population back home, among the China-born residents in Australia females are increasingly outnumbering males (just 80 males per 100 females in 2016).

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Nick Parr, Associate Professor in Demography, Macquarie University

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

With Syria missile strikes, Trump turns from non-intervention to waging war



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Military strikes against a Syrian airforce base mark Donald Trump’s first big foreign policy test as president.
Reuters/Carlos Barria

Ben Rich, Curtin University

The United States’ unilateral missile strikes against a Syrian airforce base are a dramatic escalation of its participation in that country’s civil war. The US government has attacked a Syrian government asset for the first time. The Conversation

The attack also marks Donald Trump’s first major foreign policy test as US president. It represents a 180-degree shift from his previous position of opposing intervention in Syria. And the sudden about-face sends a worrying signal for how his administration may handle future crises in international relations.

The operation

On Thursday, the US unilaterally launched strikes against the al-Shayrat airforce base in Homs. This base primarily houses Mig-23 and SU-22 strike craft and Mig-25 interceptors.

The attack consisted of 59 sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, which targeted airframes and supporting infrastructure. It reportedly led to casualties among Syrian military personnel.

Unlike the actions of his predecessor, Barack Obama, prior to the 2012 Libya intervention, Trump sought no international legal sanction for the strike.

The attack has been justified as a punitive response to the Syrian military’s likely use of sarin chemical nerve agents against civilians in Idlib province. This led to at least 70 deaths and drew worldwide condemnation.

The Idlib incident was a much smaller repeat of a major sarin deployment in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in 2013. That attack led to hundreds of civilian deaths – many of them children.

The Ghouta atrocity led the US to the brink of war with Syria; the Syrian government was alleged to have crossed Obama’s infamous “red line”. Ultimately, however, diplomatic manoeuvring by senior US, Russian and Syrian officials de-escalated the situation. They were able to negotiate the apparent dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons program.

Recent events, however, suggest this dismantling was not as extensive as previously thought.

The strikes were launched from the USS Porter.
Reuters

Trump’s humanitarian intervention?

What’s concerning is how the strikes have been rationalised. Trump has described the strikes as aimed at protecting a “vital national security interest”. However, this appears to contradict one of the fundamental themes that buoyed Trump’s rise to power.

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump emphasised the need to embrace a transactional approach to foreign relations that placed little value on human rights.

The then-presidential candidate was criticised for appearing to be open to accommodating the anti-human-rights predilections of authoritarian rulers provided they served US economic and security interests.

Trump condemned the Obama administration’s response to the Ghouta attacks when strikes were under consideration. He explicitly and repeatedly indicated that, as president, he would adopt a non-interventionist position in Syria in spite of the humanitarian crisis.

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However, the strikes clearly contradict this position. Trump now claims intervention was a matter of “vital national security interest”.

Given the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons threatened no US citizens – nor allies – one is left to conclude that preventing further use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians is now seen as vital to US national security.

This view is itself dubious and inconsistent with a conflict where the US has largely turned a blind eye to half-a-million dead Syrian civilians over the past six years. The US has increasingly contributed to this toll in recent weeks.

A worrying precedent

A point of concern for some has been Trump’s inability to fully grasp the consequences of his actions and his general reflexiveness to the conditions he confronts. As with many of his domestic policy promises on the campaign trail, Trump’s Syria stance appears to be a flip-flop.

Shifts in domestic and foreign policy are generally to be expected and afforded some latitude as a candidate transitions to the presidency. But the degree and speed of Trump’s foreign policy switches are of serious concern.

Unpredictability in international relations has particularly high stakes. It can lead to rapid escalations, collapse of long-term relationships and partnerships, and even war.

This is of particular concern in Syria, given the close proximity of Russian forces actively fighting to defend the Assad regime.

The US apparently ultimately alerted (telling, not asking) Russia to the strikes against the Syrian regime. Yet the speed with which such an operation was organised, along with its unilateral and non-consultative nature, does little to dispel the fears of foreign policy realists about the Trump administration’s inconsistent and chaotic approach to world affairs.

The US military’s strikes only intensify that debate. Will the system ultimately force Trump to fall in line with a more consistent and predictable approach to foreign relations? Or will the policy bedlam ultimately prove sustainable, and make unpredictability the new norm in the international system?

Ben Rich, Lecturer in International Relations and Security Studies, Curtin University

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