The US election hack, fake news, data theft: the cyber security lessons from 2017



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Cyber attacks have the potential to cause economic disruption, coerce changes in political behaviour and subvert systems of governance.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Joe Burton, University of Waikato

Cyber security played a prominent role in international affairs in 2017, with impacts on peace and security.

Increased international collaboration and new laws that capture the complexity of communications technology could be among solutions to cyber security issues in 2018.


Read more: Artificial intelligence cyber attacks are coming – but what does that mean?


The US election hack and the end of cyber scepticism

The big story of the past year has been the subversion of the US election process and the ongoing controversies surrounding the Trump administration. The investigations into the scandal are unresolved, but it is important to recognise that the US election hack has dispelled any lingering scepticism about the impact of cyber attacks on national and international security.

From the self-confessed “mistake” Secretary Clinton made in setting up a private email server, to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s servers and the leaking of Democratic campaign chair John Podesta’s emails to WikiLeaks, the 2016 presidential election was in many ways defined by cyber security issues.

Many analysts had been debating the likelihood of a “digital Pearl Harbour”, an attack producing devastating economic disruption or physical effects. But they missed the more subtle and covert political scope of cyber attacks to coerce changes in political behaviour and subvert systems of governance. Enhancing the security and integrity of democratic systems and electoral processes will surely be on the agenda in 2018 in the Asia Pacific and elsewhere.

Anti-social media

The growing impact of social media and the connection with cyber security has been another big story in 2017. Social media was meant to be a great liberator, to democratise, and to bring new transparency to politics and societies. In 2017, it has become a platform for fake news, misinformation and propaganda.

Social media sites clearly played a role in displacing authoritarian governments during the Arab Spring uprisings. Few expected they would be used by authoritarian governments in an incredibly effective way to sow and exploit divisions in democratic countries. The debate we need to have in 2018 is how we can deter the manipulation of social media, prevent the spread of fake news and encourage the likes of Facebook and Twitter to monitor and police their own networks.

If we don’t trust what we see on these sites, they won’t be commercially successful, and they won’t serve as platforms to enhance international peace and security. Social media sites must not become co-opted or corrupted. Facebook should not be allowed to become Fakebook.

Holding data to ransom

The spread of the Wannacry virus was the third big cyber security story of 2017. Wannacry locked down computers and demanded a ransom (in bitcoin) for the electronic key that would release the data. The virus spread in a truly global attack to an estimated 300,000 computers in 150 countries. It led to losses in the region of four billion dollars – a small fraction of the global cyber crime market, which is projected to grow to $6 trillion by 2021. In the Asia Pacific region, cyber crime is growing by 45% each year.


Read more: Cyberspace aggression adds to North Korea’s threat to global security


Wannacry was an important event because it pointed not only to the growth in cyber crime but also the dangers inherent in the development and proliferation of offensive cyber security capabilities. The exploit to windows XP systems that was used to spread the virus had been stockpiled by the US National Security Agency (NSA). It ended up being released on the internet and then used to generate revenue.

A fundamental challenge in 2018 is to constrain the use of offensive cyber capabilities and to reign in the growth of the cyber-crime market through enhanced cooperation. This will be no small task, but there have been some positive developments.

According to US network security firm FireEye, the recent US-China agreement on commercial cyber espionage has led to an estimated 90% reduction in data breaches in the US emanating from China. Cyber cooperation is possible and can lead to bilateral and global goods.

Death of cyber norms?

The final big development, or rather lack of development, has been at the UN. The Government Group of Experts (GGE) process, established in 2004 to strengthen the security of global information and telecommunications systems, failed to reach a consensus on its latest report on the status of international laws and norms in cyberspace. The main problem has been that there is no definite agreement on the applicability of existing international law to cyber security. This includes issues such as when states might be held responsible for cyber attacks emanating from their territory, or their right to the use of countermeasures in cyber self-defence.

Some analysts have proclaimed this to be “the end of cyber norms”. This betrays a pessimism about UN level governance of the internet that is deeply steeped in overly state-centric views of security and a reluctance to cede any sovereignty to international organisations.

It is true that norms won’t be built from the top down. But the UN does and should have an important role to play in cyber security as we move into 2018, not least because of its universality and global reach.

The NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) in Tallinn, Estonia recently launched the Tallinn Manual 2.0, which examines the applicability of international law to cyber attacks that fall below the use of force and occur outside of armed conflict.

These commendable efforts could move forward hand in hand with efforts to build consensus on new laws that more accurately capture the complexity of new information and communications technology. In February 2017, Brad Smith, the head of Microsoft, proposed a digital Geneva Convention that would outlaw cyber attacks on civilian infrastructure.

The ConversationIn all this we must recognise that cyber security is not a binary process. It is not about “ones and zeros”, but rather about a complex spectrum of activity that needs multi-level, multi-stakeholder responses that include international organisations. This is a cyber reality that we should all bear in mind when we try to find solutions to cyber security issues in 2018.

Joe Burton, Senior Lecturer, Institute for Security and Crime Science, University of Waikato

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

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Three (funny) charts on: 2017 in business and economics



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The Conversation, CC BY-NC

Jenni Henderson, The Conversation; Josh Nicholas, The Conversation, and Wes Mountain, The Conversation

Here in the business and economy team at The Conversation, we love charts. This year we’ve made plenty of good ones with academics.

There were the charts that showed how the wealth gap between old and young was growing and how this was affecting mortgages and home ownership.

Then there were the ones on how our workforce is changing (and how we’re discriminating in it) and what this means for unions.

Charts have a way of showing us that we can be wrong about our thoughts on, say inequality in Australia and financial vulnerability.

But it would be wrong of us to finish the year without just a few more charts, three in fact.

Not so many jobs, maybe forget innovation

We’re hearing a lot less of the “jobs and growth” and the “innovation” mantras from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison.

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Maybe Jesse Stein was right when she suggested at the start of 2017 that it was time to ditch the spin around innovation. It got a very small mention in the Federal Budget, but it’s been hard for the government to make it stick to other policies too.

Speaking of other policies, there’s not much doing in jobs either. Despite the enthusiasm about recent unemployment figures, underemployment (where you can’t get enough hours despite having a job) remains high. For those who don’t have a full time job, like young people in the arts or services industry, it seems the pay off of casual work ain’t what it used to be either.

The Amazon apocalypse that didn’t happen

So far, Amazon’s Australian launch has been a bit of a fizzer. But tales of impending retail “decimination” were everywhere this year.

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At The Conversation, Gary Mortimer correctly predicted that Amazon won’t be the end of shopping as you know it. At least so far.

But this isn’t the end of the story. The likes of JB Hi-Fi and Harvey Norman will likely feel the heat, considering Amazon’s scale. And shopping centres are already scrambling to offer customers something new.

More worrying are the implications for Australia’s tax system and industrial relations given Amazon’s business model.

Now that Amazon is finally here, it’s time to start thinking about what it means for our own habits. Should we “click and collect”? And what’s with everyone trying to sell you a subscription box?

Maybe I will invest in Bitcoin…

One Bitcoin, as of mid day on December 15, was worth about A$22,000. That could buy you more than 6,000 avocados (because who wants a house anyway), 1,375 kilograms of Vegemite, four Chinese crested dogs or a small to mid-sized car.

Although you’d have to have at least two Bitcoins to buy a Tesla Model 3 Roadster, but as Tesla is not yet ready to deliver this model in Australia, you may want to wait until you only need one Bitcoin.


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But of course Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency so unless you exchange it for cash at the right time, all these comparisons are meaningless. In fact we’re not quite sure how to value Bitcoin even though we know why the price might be skyrocketing and how much energy it is guzzling.

The ConversationAll we can do is look back on bubbles and crashes of old and hope next year won’t see the worst case scenarios come true.

Jenni Henderson, Section Editor: Business + Economy, The Conversation; Josh Nicholas, Deputy Editor: Business + Economy, The Conversation, and Wes Mountain, Deputy Multimedia Editor, The Conversation

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

Seven charts on the 2017 budget update


Ross Guest, Griffith University

Here’s how the budget is looking at the mid-year mark, in seven charts.


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The A$5.8 billion drop in the 2017-18 underlying cash deficit compared with the original May budget is due more to higher revenue than lower spending. Receipts are higher by A$3.6 billion and payments are lower by A$2.1 billion.

The higher receipts reflect the stronger economy, which implies higher company tax (up A$3.2 billion) and superannuation fund taxes (up A$2.1 billion).

Receipts would have been even higher if not for stubbornly weak wages growth which, despite stronger employment growth, has tended to dampen individuals’ income tax receipts. These are in fact down by A$0.5 billion.

The estimates of GST and other taxes on goods and services remain unchanged since the budget.

The lower payments of A$2.1 billion are driven by several changes having opposite effects. Some of these are:

  • A$1.2 billion (over four years) lower welfare payments to new migrants due to longer waiting times;

  • A$1 billion (over four years) lower payments to family daycare services due to more stringent compliance checking; and

  • A$1.5 billion (over four years) lower disability support payments due to lower than expected recipient numbers.

There is not much change in the net debt projections relative to those in the 2017-18 budget. Net debt is A$11.2 billion lower at A$343.8 billion in 2017-18 (around 19% of GDP). Debt stabilises in 2018-19 and starts to steadily decline thereafter to about 8% of GDP in the next ten years.

The lower deficits as a share of GDP are obviously reducing debt, but one factor tending to increase debt is student higher education loans. These are projected to increase by 32% from A$44.4 billion to A$58.8 billion over just the next four years.


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The economic outlook continues to be a puzzle. National output of goods and services, real GDP, is expected to grow slightly slower in 2017-18 than the budget forecast – 2.5% compared with 2.75%.

However this is an improvement on the 2% achieved in 2016-17. And it is expected to increase further to 3% in 2018-19.

The economy is being driven by strong global growth and strong domestic business investment. Australia’s major trading partners are forecast to grow (meaning real GDP growth) at a weighted average of 4.25% in each of the next three years.

Wages and household consumption are the puzzle – they are not growing as fast as expected from the stronger than expected employment growth (up 0.25% on the budget to 1.75%) and lower than expected unemployment rate (down 0.25% on the budget to 5.5%).

Household consumption growth is down 0.5% on the 2017-18 Budget forecast to 2.25%. This has in fact become a global phenomenon due to higher costs and job insecurity from the forces of globalisation and automation.


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Commodity prices are notoriously volatile and hard to predict, yet they are critical to the budget forecasts because they impact the revenue of resource companies which feeds into company taxes and other taxes.

Iron ore prices are assumed to remain flat at US$55 per tonne over the forecast period, as in the budget. This forecast is almost certain to be wrong because iron ore prices never stay flat for long – the problem is that we can’t say in which direction it will be wrong.

The same applies to thermal coal prices which are assumed to be flat at US$85 per tonne which is again consistent with the budget forecast.


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Australian taxpayers continue to bear most of the burden of budget repair. The government can claim with some justification that their efforts to reduce payments further have been thwarted by the Senate.

Excluding the effect of Senate decisions, new spending has been more than offset by reductions in other spending. The gap between the revenue and payment is reducing at the rate of about 0.6 percent per year.

As a share of GDP payments are expected to be 25.2% in 2017-18, falling to 24.9% of GDP by 2020-21 which is slightly above the 30-year historical average of 24.8% of GDP.


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Wage growth has been revised down from an already low 2.5% in the budget to 2.25% in MYEFO. With the Consumer Price Index forecast to grow at 2%, wages are barely keeping pace with inflation – growing in real purchasing power by only 0.25%.

This provides a meagre compensation for labour productivity growth which is implied to be about 1% in MYEFO. Wage growth is expected to pick up by 0.5% next year to 2.75%.

This is important because it underpins government revenue growth, yet it’s brave to expect the deep forces that are keeping wages down in Australia and around the world to turn around and exactly match the 0.5% growth in real GDP expected to occur next year.


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New measures since the budget have increased the deficit on both the revenue and expenditure sides of the budget. On the revenue side, for example, higher education changes reduced revenue by A$76 million and the GST by A$70 million.

The ConversationOn the expenses side, needs-based funding for schools has cost an additional A$118 million and improving access to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme costs A$330 million. The roll-out of the NDIS in Western Australia adds another cost at A$109 million, and Disability Care Australia at A$362 million.

Ross Guest, Professor of Economics and National Senior Teaching Fellow, Griffith University

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

Instead of congratulating ICAN on its Nobel Peace Prize, Australia is resisting efforts to ban the bomb


Ramesh Thakur, Australian National University

Earlier this week in Oslo, the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was officially given to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a global campaign that was launched in Melbourne in 2007.

ICAN lobbied to establish a special UN working group on nuclear disarmament, campaigned for the UN General Assembly’s December 2016 resolution to launch negotiations on a prohibition treaty, and was an active presence at the UN conference that negotiated the treaty.


Read more: How Melbourne activists launched a campaign for nuclear disarmament and won a Nobel prize


Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull failed to congratulate the Australian faces of ICAN, adding to the growing body of evidence of his flawed political judgement.

There were no political downsides to phoning ICAN, noting the difference of opinion on the timing and means to effective nuclear disarmament, but warmly congratulating ICAN for the global recognition of its noble efforts to promote nuclear peace.

Out of step with the global nuclear order

The global nuclear order has been regulated and nuclear policy directions set by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) since 1968.

The 2015 Iran nuclear deal and North Korea’s unchecked nuclear and missile delivery advances show the benefits and limitations of the NPT respectively.

The transparency, verification and consequences regime mothballed Iran’s bomb-making program by enforcing its NPT non-proliferation obligations. These will remain legally binding even after the deal expires in 2030.

By contrast, the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program has intensified within the NPT framework. Heightened geopolitical tensions in Europe, the Middle East and south and east Asia have further stoked nuclear fears. Meanwhile the NPT-recognised five nuclear weapon states have no plan to abolish their nuclear arsenals.

Frustrated by the stubborn resistance of the nuclear weapon states to honour their NPT commitment to nuclear disarmament and alarmed by rising nuclear threats, on July 7 this year, 122 countries adopted a UN treaty to stigmatise and ban the bomb.

The nine nuclear powers and all the NATO and Pacific allies who shelter under US extended nuclear deterrence dismissed the treaty as impractical, ineffective and dangerous.

Critics allege the treaty is a distraction that ignores international security realities, will damage the NPT, and could generate fresh pressures to weaponisation in some umbrella nations. Nuclear deterrence has kept the peace in Europe and the Pacific for seven decades.

They will argue that the ban treaty undermines strategic stability, jeopardises nuclear peace, and makes the world more unpredictable. It ignores the critical limitations of international institutions for overseeing and guaranteeing abolition and has polarised the international community.

Australia still under the US nuclear umbrella

The ban treaty is not compatible with nuclear sharing by NATO allies whereby nuclear weapons are stationed on their territory, nor with Australia’s policy of relying on US nuclear weapons for national security and nuclear-related co-operation with the US through the shared Pine Gap asset.

In a period of power transition in which China’s geopolitical footprint is growing while the US strategic footprint recedes, reliance on the security and political roles of US nuclear weapons by Australia, Japan and South Korea has increased, not diminished.

The most strident criticisms of the diplomatic insurgency have come from France, UK and US, while Australia has been among “the most outspoken of the non-nuclear states”.


Read more: Australia’s stance on nuclear deterrence leaves it on the wrong side of history


Australia’s preferred approach does not challenge the social purposes and value of nuclear weapons nor question the legality and legitimacy of these weapons and the logic and practice of nuclear deterrence. It leaves nuclear agency entirely in the hands of the possessor states, accepting that they can safely manage nuclear risks by appropriate adjustments to warhead numbers, nuclear doctrines and force postures.

To critics, the nuclear powers are not so much possessor as possessed countries. Within the security paradigm, nuclear weapons are national assets for the possessor countries individually. In the ban treaty’s humanitarian reframing, they are a collective international hazard.

The known humanitarian consequences of any future use makes the very possibility of nuclear war unacceptable. Dispossession of nuclear weapons removes that future possibility. Stigmatisation and prohibition are normative steps on the path to nuclear disarmament.

The nuclear weapons states have instrumentalised the NPT to legitimise their own indefinite possession of nuclear weapons while enforcing non-proliferation on anyone else pushing to join their exclusive club. For them, the problem is who has the bomb.

But increasingly, the bomb itself is the problem.

A curcuit breaker

The ban treaty is a circuit-breaker in the search for a dependable, rules-based security order outside the limits of what the nuclear-armed countries are prepared to accept.

The step-by-step approach adopts a transactional strategy to move incrementally without disturbing the existing security order. The ban treaty’s transformative approach transcends the limitations imposed by national and international security arguments.

For Australia, nuclear disarmament is of lower priority than bolstering and indefinitely sustaining the legitimacy and credibility of nuclear deterrence. In its view, the ban treaty will neither promote nuclear disarmament nor strengthen national security.


Read more: Three good reasons to worry about Trump having the nuclear codes


Australia’s instinct is to support incremental, verifiable and enforceable agreements and commitments. There is no detailed framework for actual elimination, verification and enforcement.

The Foreign Policy White Paper repeats the familiar mantra that a complex security environment requires a patient and pragmatic approach. It simply ignores the adoption of the ban treaty, pretending it does not exist.

Australia should join global efforts to ban the bomb

The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a good faith effort by 122 countries to act on their NPT responsibility to take effective measures on nuclear disarmament.

A constructive approach would be for Australia to lead a collaborative effort with like-minded countries like Canada, Japan and Norway to explore strategic stability at low numbers of nuclear weapons and the conditions for serious and practical steps towards nuclear disarmament.

The ConversationInstead, Australia has chosen to join the nattering nabobs of negativism.

Ramesh Thakur, Professor of International Relations, Australian National University

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

NAPLAN results show it isn’t the basics that are missing in Australian education



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Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

The preliminary results of NAPLAN 2017 are out, and the news isn’t good. The annual test of our students’ literacy and numeracy skills shows that not much has changed since 2011, coincidentally – or not – when we began this annual circus of public reporting of NAPLAN results.

In fact, it seems our kids are actually getting dumber – at least as measured by the NAPLAN tests.

Going backwards

The year’s Year 9 students first sat the test back in 2011 when they were in Year 3, so we can now track the cohort’s performance over time.

It is particularly useful to track their performance against the writing assessment task, as all the grade levels are marked against the same ten assessment criteria. Depending upon how they perform against each assessment criterion, they are assigned a Band level – ranging from Band 1, the lowest, to Band 10, the highest.

The minimum benchmark shifts for each year level, because we would expect a different minimum level of writing performance for 16-year-olds than we would of ten-year-olds. So, in Year 3 the minimum benchmark is Band 2, and in Year 9 it is Band 6.

A gifted and talented Year 3 student could easily achieve a Band 6 or above, and it is conceivable a struggling Year 9 student may only reach a Band 2.

This year, a staggering 16.5% of Year 9 students across Australia were below benchmark in writing. Back in 2011, when those students were in Year 3, only 2.8% of them were below benchmark. Somehow we dropped the ball for thousands of those kids as they progressed through school.

The high-performing states of New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT cannot claim immunity from this startling increase in students falling behind as they progress through school. Their results show exactly the same trends. This is a nationwide problem.

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It gets worse

Not only are the numbers of low-performing students increasing, but the inverse is occurring for our high-achieving students: their numbers decrease as they move through school.

This year, only 4.8% of Year 9 students across Australia performed far above the minimum benchmark – that is, at a Band 10 level. However, back in 2011, 15.7% of those same students were performing far above the minimum benchmark for Year 3 – that is, at a Band 6 or above.

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The trend is strikingly similar across all the jurisdictions. As NSW congratulates itself on improving its Year 9 results, it might want to look a little closer to see what the figures are really saying.

In 2011 an impressive 20% of NSW Year 3 students were far above benchmark in writing. But by the time they had reached Year 9 this year, the number of them who were far above the benchmark had dwindled to a depressing 5.7%.

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What is happening?

Why do we start so well, and then lose both high performers and strugglers along the way? Isn’t school supposed to be growing their literacy skills, not diminishing them?

Well, the NAPLAN statistics not only illustrate the problem, they actually provide the explanation.

We don’t have an early years literacy “problem” in Australia. The percentage of students below benchmark in Year 3 converts to very small numbers. In Victoria in 2016, for example, there were around 450 Year 3 students below benchmark.

It should be very easy to locate those children, and provide intensive interventions specifically designed for each student. But apparently we don’t.

By Year 5, those low performers across Australia are simply treading water and our high performers start to slide. Then it all takes a dramatic turn for the worse in Year 7, with a five-fold increase in students below benchmark and a three-fold decrease in those who are far above the benchmark.

So, what is going on?

Well, reading and writing gets harder in Year 4, and every year after that.

The Year 3 test is looking for evidence that the children have learned their basic reading and writing skills. They can decode the words on the page and comprehend their literal meaning. They can retell a simple story that is readable to others.

However, by Year 5, the test begins to assess the children’s ability to infer from and evaluate what they read, and to consider their audience as they write.

In Year 7 it is expected that children are now no longer learning to read and write, but that they are reading and writing to learn. To achieve this they need deep and technical vocabularies, and to be able to manipulate sentence structures in ways we do not and cannot in our spoken language.

And the NAPLAN results suggest that many of them cannot.

Instead, they are stuck with their basic literacy skills, obviously well learned in the early years of school. They can read – but only simple books with simple vocabulary, simple grammatical structures and simple messages. They can write – but they write the way they speak.

What’s the solution?

Raise our expectations of our students. And raise the quality and the challenge of the literacy work we do with them.

There has been a misplaced focus on “back-to-basics” literacy education in recent years. The last ten years of NAPLAN testing shows us we are already exemplary at the basics. It is the complex we are bad at.

It’s time to change tack. Our attention needs to focus on developing the deep comprehension skills of our upper-primary and high school students. And our teachers need – and want – the resources and the professional learning to help them do this.

Teachers must build their own understanding of the ways in which the English language works, so they can teach their students to read rich and complex literature for inference, to use complex language structures to craft eloquent and engaging written pieces, and to build sophisticated and deep vocabularies.

It isn’t the basics that are missing in Australian education; it is challenge and complexity.

The ConversationAnd until we change our educational policy direction to reflect that, we will continue to fail to help our children grow into literate young adults – and that is bad news for us all.

Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra

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

With its 2017 budget the government is still discouraging women



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Recent figures show that women are adversely effected by the 2017 federal budget.
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Helen Hodgson, Curtin University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

Sunanda Creagh, Editor, The Conversation

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

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



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

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


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

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

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

Is that true?

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Checking the source

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

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

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

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

Is it true? Not exactly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict

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

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

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


Review

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Richard Holden, UNSW

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Westpac chief economist Bill Evans said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Graeme Dunk, Australian National University

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

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

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

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

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

Two clear weaknesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More than just ‘doing stuff’

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

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

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

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

Graeme Dunk, PhD Candidate, Australian National University

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