As the federal government debates an Indigenous Voice, state and territories are pressing ahead



The Queensland treaty process is still in the early stages and negotiations will not begin for several years. But it’s still a historic step forward for Indigenous communities.
Tracey Nearmy/AAP

Harry Hobbs, University of Technology Sydney; Alison Whittaker, University of Technology Sydney, and Lindon Coombes, University of Technology Sydney

Queensland Deputy Premier Jackie Trad has announced that the state will begin a conversation about a pathway to treaty with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In doing so, Queensland joined Victoria and the Northern Territory in formally commencing treaty processes.

This is a significant development. While the Commonwealth government embarks on another round of important yet time-consuming consultations over a potential First Nations Voice to Parliament, the states and territories are taking the lead on treaties.

Queensland’s ‘track to treaty’

Queensland’s announcement reflects a shift in debate on Indigenous constitutional recognition at the state and territory level. Only a few year ago, the states and territories debated whether to include a reference to Indigenous Australians in their constitutions. Now, they are contemplating negotiating treaties.

Treaties have been accepted globally as the means of reaching a settlement between Indigenous peoples and those who have colonised their lands. They are formal agreements, reached via respectful negotiation in which both sides accept a series of responsibilities.

Treaties acknowledge Indigenous peoples were prior owners and occupiers of the land and, as such, retain a right to self-government. At a minimum, they recognise or establish structures of culturally appropriate governance and means of decision-making and control.

The Queensland treaty process is still in its early stages and negotiations will not begin for several years. This is sensible, because it is important that both the state and First Nations are ready to start negotiations.

For First Nations, this means having a clear sense of what a treaty might mean for their communities, as well as a broad consensus on their negotiating position. Preparing for treaty negotiations can also enable First Nations to engage in nation-(re)building, consistent with their values and aspirations, which is valuable regardless of the content, or even the completion, of a treaty.

For the state, it is equally important that non-Indigenous Queenslanders understand what a treaty is and what it might result in.




Read more:
Will treaties with Indigenous Australians overtake constitutional recognition?


Reflecting these preliminary steps, the government has established a bipartisan eminent panel of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Queenslanders, with Indigenous academic Jackie Huggins and former Attorney-General Michael Lavarch serving as co-chairs.

Their responsibility is to provide leadership and engage with key stakeholders across the state. A treaty working group will also be established soon to lead consultations with First Nations, allowing them to discuss and reach agreement on what a treaty might contain.

Jackie Huggins (left) will take a lead role in the Queensland treaty process.
Alan Porritt/AAP

Others leading the way

These steps follow similar processes in two other states and territories with Labor governments – Victoria and the Northern Territory.

In Victoria, the Andrews government committed to entering treaty negotiations in 2016. An Aboriginal Treaty Working Group was established to lead two rounds of community consultations, which resulted in the creation of a First Peoples’ Assembly. The assembly will not negotiate treaties itself, but will work with the state to develop a treaty framework through which the state and First Nations can negotiate.

At the same time, Victoria also established a Treaty Advancement Commission to maintain momentum for a treaty and keep all Victorians informed.

The process in the Northern Territory is following this pattern. In June 2018, the government signed a memorandum of understanding with representatives of the four Indigenous land councils, committing to exploring a treaty.

Earlier this year, Mick Dodson, the former director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University, was appointed NT treaty commissioner. He is currently leading consultations with Aboriginal Territorians.

Why a lack of federal involvement is a problem

These are promising developments, but there are several challenges ahead.

First, treaties are political agreements. As such, they are vulnerable to political fluctuations.

In Queensland, the Liberal National Party opposition wants to look at the government’s announcement in more detail, but has already suggested it would adopt different priorities. If the LNP wins the 2020 state election, it could abandon the process before negotiations even commence.

We have already seen this play out in South Australia. In 2017, the state Labor government formally started treaty negotiations. But within a year, a newly-elected Coalition government stepped away from this commitment.

Second, the federal government’s position is problematic. Ken Wyatt, the new minister for Indigenous Australians, has said the federal government will leave treaty processes to the states and territories.




Read more:
Politics with Michelle Grattan: Ken Wyatt on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians


Federal government involvement is not legally necessary. Queensland has the legal authority to sign and implement a treaty with Indigenous peoples.

However, the Commonwealth parliament has the power to overrule any state or territory treaty. For this reason, it is preferable that the Commonwealth play a role in these processes. The Uluru Statement from the Heart offers an avenue to do so.

.

In this light, the federal government’s response to the Uluru Statement adds a further complication. The statement calls for

  • A constitutionally enshrined national representative body to advise the federal parliament (known as a “Voice” to parliament); and

  • A Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about Australia’s history.

As constitutional lawyer Megan Davis has explained, these reforms are “deliberately sequenced.” The value of starting with a First Nations Voice and Makarrata Commission is that they can oversee developments across the country. Without these bodies, state and territory treaty processes may diverge and result in wildly different settlement terms.

Ken Wyatt faces intense opposition to his proposal for a referendum on constitutional recognition.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Finally, the support of Indigenous peoples is not assured.

Increasingly, First Nations are resisting agreement-making with governments that act inconsistently with their values and aspirations.

For instance, the Djab Wurrung Embassy, a group of traditional owners protesting VicRoads’ plan to cut down sacred trees, has launched a “No Trees, No Treaty” campaign to highlight the state government’s refusal to listen to their views.

Just last month, the Yorta Yorta Elders Council also rejected a Victorian treaty

as a trip wire and only a pathway to assimilation.

Consensus cannot be assumed, and will become more complex as First Nations articulate their objectives and objections to possible treaties.

What’s next?

Notwithstanding these challenges, Queensland’s announcement is historic.

It confirms that progress on Indigenous constitutional recognition is being led by the states and territories. It also directs more attention to the federal government’s approach to this issue.

It is hoped that the Commonwealth reflects on Queensland’s announcement and commits to establishing a Makarrata Commission. And that commission should be designed by Indigenous representatives serving on a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice.The Conversation

Harry Hobbs, Lecturer, University of Technology Sydney; Alison Whittaker, Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney, and Lindon Coombes, Industry Professor (Indigenous Policy), University of Technology Sydney

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

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Regional cities beware – fast rail might lead to disadvantaged dormitories, not booming economies



Many commuters already travel from regional cities to work in capital cities like Melbourne so what impacts will fast rail have?
Alpha/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Todd Denham, RMIT University and Jago Dodson, RMIT University

Governments are looking to fast rail services to regional cities to relieve population pressures in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. The federal government is funding nine business cases for such schemes. But what economic effect might these fast links have on the regional cities?

The current fast rail schemes seem oriented at relieving population pressures in the major cities rather than a productive regional economic purpose. The minister for population, cities and urban infrastructure recently stated:

… the National Faster Rail Agency begins operating from today [July 1]. The new Agency will oversee the government’s 20-year fast rail agenda, which will connect satellite regional cities to our big capitals. This will allow people to reside in regional centres with its [sic] cheaper housing and regional lifestyle but still access easily and daily the major employment centres.




Read more:
We can halve train travel times between our cities by moving to faster rail


The argument seems built on a pitch to city workers priced out of metropolitan housing markets. It treats regional towns as remote dormitories for metropolitan workers rather than as regional cities that serve as service hubs and employment centres. But will subsidising metropolitan workers to live in cheaper regional towns have a positive economic effect on those towns?

An unequal relationship

Concern is growing among international observers that fast rail connections between two cities benefit the larger of the pair. Professor Michael Storper observed:

One of the biggest mistakes we’ve made was being naïve about connectivity – give infrastructure and it spreads. Well, often it concentrates. The high-speed train network in France, guess what it did. It advantaged Paris.

While Paris is seen as benefiting the most from the national fast rail TGV service, the regional cities of Lyon and Lille have strengthened their economic positions. The Lyon and Lille fast rail stations form the hub of their respective regional transport networks and have attracted new commercial activity. They also sit at intersections of major European fast rail networks.

It’s a pattern that cannot be easily achieved for Australia’s regional cities due to our widely dispersed settlements. So what does this mean for our regional cities?

Improving transport infrastructure doesn’t just improve regional business access to metropolitan markets. It decrease the costs of trade in both directions. And large cities are typically more productive economically. This is because they offer more specialised goods and services and can leverage the agglomeration effects of shared high-quality labour markets and infrastructure, plus a concentration of skills and knowledge.




Read more:
Our big cities are engines of inequality, so how do we fix that?


Reduced travel times can mean regional businesses become less efficient than metropolitan competitors that can offer a wider range of specialist goods and services. This may lead to regional business closures, employment losses and wage decline. Unless a regional city is able to develop a specialised set of high-skill, high-wage industries that complement or outcompete the metropolis it risks being economically disadvantaged by faster rail.

New regional demand arising from commuter population growth might counter the loss of higher-order regional jobs due to improved transport links. But that will largely be in lower-value retail and personal service sectors. The result will still be a net economic gain for the metropolis.




Read more:
The growing skills gap between jobs in Australian cities and the regions


An influx of commuters earning metropolitan wages might also inflate regional housing markets. This would disadvantage lower-paid regional workers. The beneficiaries of this scenario are likely to be local rentiers, such as landholders and developers who can profit from land-price inflation.

This interest group will likely vocally promote regional fast rail. But sustainable economic prosperity for regional cities requires more than population-driven land speculation.




Read more:
A housing affordability crisis in regional Australia? Yes, and here’s why


The example of Geelong

The most advanced of the current Australian proposals is the Geelong-Melbourne route. It has received federal and state funding for planning with an estimated total cost of at least A$10 billion. But planners need to ask how this spending will provide a net economic benefit, and how the benefits will be distributed.

Growth in commuter population and the services this attracts may be seem like a resolution to metropolitan population problems, but could further concentrate higher-paid jobs in Melbourne. Faster commutes mean Melbourne-based firms will have a greater pick of Geelong-based workers, thus consolidating metropolitan competitive advantage. Fast rail thus risks placing Geelong at a competitive disadvantage, with jobs and workers being exported to Melbourne.

Meanwhile the pressure of housing another 145,000 residents in the next 20 years already falls on Geelong, a city of 280,000 people. The strain on infrastructure and services is proportionately greater than would be the case in Melbourne, which has nearly 5 million residents.




Read more:
This is how regional rail can help ease our big cities’ commuter crush


What can policymakers do about this?

To resolve this conundrum, thought must be given to what specialised high-value jobs will be attracted to regional cities to accompany fast rail investments, so these cities remain competitive and productive, regionally, nationally and internationally. This might include policies such as relocating public agencies, regional targeting of university-based research and development spending, boosting services such as schools and hospitals, and providing incentives for innovative private companies to relocate to regional towns.

Policymakers should also consider positioning regional cities as rail network hubs in their own right. An example would be connecting Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo by rail, along with better linkages to national and international airports.

We don’t yet know for sure what the effects of fast rail on regional cities will be. But the impact of this infrastructure needs to be assessed very carefully lest it turns Australia’s regional cities into dependent population dormitories rather than regional dynamos, at vast public expense.The Conversation

Todd Denham, PhD Candidate, School of Global, Urban & Social Studies, RMIT University and Jago Dodson, Professor of Urban Policy and Director, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

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

Wind and solar cut rather than boost Australia’s wholesale electricity prices



Power failure. It’s gas, not wind, that’s pushing up electricity prices.
Shutterstock

Zsuzsanna Csereklyei, RMIT University

The 2019 Australian Conference of Economists is taking place in Melbourne from July 14 to 16.

During the conference The Conversation is publishing a selection of articles by the authors of papers being delivered at the conference. Others are here.


Wholesale prices in the National Electricity Market have climbed significantly in recent years. The increase has coincided with a rapid increase in the proportion of electricity supplied by wind and solar generators.

But that needn’t mean the increase in wind and solar generation caused the increase in prices. It might have been caused by other things.

Colleagues Songze Qu and Tihomir Ancev from the University of Sydney and I have examined the contribution of each type of generator to wholesale prices, half hour by half hour over the eight years between November 1, 2010 and June 30, 2018.

We find that, rather than pushing prices up, each extra gigawatt of dispatched wind generation cuts the wholesale electricity price by about A$11 per megawatt hour at the time of generation, while each extra gigawatt of utility-scale solar cuts it A$14 per megawatt hour.

Merit order matters

Here’s how.

In Australia’s National Electricity Market, prices are determined at five-minute intervals and averaged over 30-minute intervals for settlement. Generators place bids for supplying electricity to meet the expected demand which are accepted in a “merit order” of cheapest to most expensive.

The final price – awarded to all the bidders accepted – is determined by the final and most expensive bid accepted, which is often a bid by a gas generator.




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A high price for policy failure: the ten-year story of spiralling electricity bills


Wind and utility-scale solar generators bid into the market at low cost because their power is essentially free when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. They displace higher cost bids, usually from gas or diesel turbines that have high fuel costs. We find this effect on prices (known as the “merit order effect”) has grown as wind and solar generation has grown.

The daily impact of wind and solar on wholesale prices is somewhat lower. A 1 gigawatt per hour increase in daily wind generation
is associated with about a A$1 per megawatt hour decrease in
the average daily wholesale price. The same increase in solar generation is associated with A$2.7 per megawatt hour decrease in daily wholesale electricity prices.

These findings and those of others since 2003 challenge the previous conventional wisdom that mandating renewable generation necessarily increases prices.

So why are prices climbing?

Natural gas prices have been climbing dramatically over the recent years, mainly due to the opening up of east coast export capacity and the integration of the Australian market with international markets. The higher prices have made it more expensive to run gas turbines and have pushed up the price of what is often the last bid to be accepted.

We find the price of natural gas has a strong positive effect on wholesale electricity prices. An increase of A$1 per gigajoule in the natural gas price pushes up wholesale electricity prices by about A$5 per megawatt hour.

Although in recent years the upward price pressure from more expensive gas has overwhelmed the downward pressure from greater wind and solar capacity, it is nevertheless true that wholesale prices are lower than they would have been without renewable generation.

Therefore, a continued expansion of renewables is likely to put downward pressure on wholesale prices for some time.

There’s a case for moving away from gas peaking plants

This means that rather than reconsidering renewables, authorities should reconsider their reliance on gas plants for handling peaks in demand. While peaking plants are more needed with the increased penetration of renewables, there is a case for switching to alternative providers of peaking power, such as large-scale batteries and pumped hydro.

In doing so governments should also consider something else. Wholesale prices that are too low will discourage investment, leading to higher prices down the track.

The lower prices go, the more the government might need to provide investment incentives.

For now, all other things being equal, more wind and solar power means lower wholesale prices. But they’ll have to be watched.




Read more:
The verdict is in: renewables reduce energy prices (yes, even in South Australia)


The Conversation


Zsuzsanna Csereklyei, Lecturer in Economics, RMIT University

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

It’s a bad year for flu, but it’s too early to call it the worst ever – 5 charts on the 2019 season so far



The impact of the flu on a population can be measured by looking at figures including cases, hospitalisations and deaths.
From shutterstock.com

Ian Barr, WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza

From early this year it’s been apparent the 2019 Australian influenza “season” was going to be different. Normally, the flu season coincides with the winter months of July and August, sometimes stretching to September and October.

But this year, things have happened much earlier, with a record number of influenza cases reported in summer and autumn.

So what’s been happening, and is it really as bad as the media have been reporting? Here we look at some of the latest data on cases and their outcomes to see if it is indeed “a horror flu season”.



The impact of influenza on the community is measured in several ways. The most basic measure is to simply count the number of cases of people presenting to their GP with influenza-like illness.

Sometimes the doctor will take a swab, and these are tested in the laboratory to confirm that influenza virus is present (it’s possible another respiratory virus or bacteria might be causing the flu-like symptoms).




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Cases of influenza-like illness were increasing in early March, peaked in early June, and are now decreasing. Laboratory confirmed cases (the results of which we see in the above chart) show a similar trend. We haven’t included July in this chart because it’s not finished yet, but we’re still seeing a high number of cases into July.

Compared to previous years, 2019 looks like a big year with more than 120,000 cases of lab confirmed influenza up to the end of June. But it’s not nearly as bad as 2017, which had more than 250,000 cases reported to the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS) by the end of the year. As this season occurred much later than 2019’s, 2017 had only 24,000 cases reported up to July 7.

The good news is that as the 2019 season started earlier, it’s also likely to finish earlier than usual. This is because once the main influenza season starts, it usually ends around 12-16 weeks later, when the number of susceptible people drops below the level required to maintain efficient circulation.


FluCAN (via Department of Health Influenza Surveillance Report), CC BY-ND

Another measure of how severe the influenza season is can be gauged by the number of hospitalisations, including admissions to ICU (intensive care units).

Hospital admissions show from April 1 to June 30 this year, there have been 1,309 admissions to the Australian sentinel surveillance hospitals (a number of hospitals where flu admissions are tracked each year).

This figure is much higher than previous years at the same time point. In 2018, there were 90 admissions, and in 2017, 311. But in 2017 the season arrived much later and more seriously and ultimately resulted in 3,969 admissions for that year.




Read more:
Kids are more vulnerable to the flu – here’s what to look out for this winter


It’s also useful to look at the proportion of people attending hospital with influenza infections who are admitted directly to ICU. In 2019 it’s been 6.7% of admissions compared to 2018 (a mild influenza year) with 8.1% of admissions, and 2017 (a very severe year) with 8.9% of admissions.

The 2019 ICU rate is at the lower end of historical figures which range from 8.7% in 2015 to 14.2% in 2013. By this measure, the 2019 season is of a similar severity to that seen in previous seasons and is therefore not exceptional.

While hospital admissions can be measured relatively easily, measuring deaths due to influenza is more complicated for a few reasons. The flu often paves the way for secondary bacterial infections, like pneumonia, which can lead to hospitalisation and death, particularly in the elderly. When this happens, it can be difficult to link death directly to an earlier influenza infection.

And, death data is often very delayed. So readily available death data collected by the NNDSS is considered a significant underestimate of the actual number.

To the end of June 2019, there were 231 influenza-related deaths reported to the NNDSS. Virtually all of these were due to the influenza A strain. They spanned all ages, but most deaths were in the elderly (80 years and older).




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Sick with the flu? Here’s why you feel so bad


This compares to 24 and 21 deaths over the same period in 2018 and 2017 respectively. But these figures grew to 55 deaths and 598 deaths reported by the end of 2018 and 2017 respectively.

Clearly 2019 is more severe than 2018, based on the measures detailed above, but at this stage it looks like it will be less severe than 2017. However, we’ll need to wait for a number of weeks yet to be sure.

When we look at what’s happened in each state of Australia so far this year, we see some interesting differences in how the season has played out. Most states began to see significant rises in cases in April, while South Australia had already peaked in April and this number of cases was maintained into May. This means that most other states still have a number of weeks of influenza circulation to endure.



People of all ages are susceptible to influenza, and this is reflected in the wide range of ages at which people are infected. Young children (especially those under 10 years of age) and the elderly (especially those over 80 years of age) are more susceptible, and are often more severely affected by influenza infections – as are pregnant women.

Interestingly, different types of influenza affect different age groups, with influenza B and influenza A(H1N1) more common in the young and influenza A(H3N2) more common in the elderly.




Read more:
Here’s why the 2017 flu season was so bad


At this stage we can conclude that the 2019 influenza season is quite different to our usual seasons and overall, is likely to be one of the more severe seasons seen in the last 20 years.

So while 2019 doesn’t appear to be the worst season we’ve ever seen – that’s likely to remain with 2017 – it may well run a close second place. But we’ll have to wait another month or two before we can be sure.The Conversation

Ian Barr, Deputy Director, WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza

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

China can learn from Australian urban design, but it’s not all one-way traffic



Dalian is an emerging city and tourist destination in China, but its urban spaces could be improved in many ways.
Paul J Martin/Shutterstock

Lucile Jacquot, Griffith University; Karine Dupré, Griffith University, and Yang Liu, Griffith University

By 2017, 58% of Chinese people were living in cities. This is much less than the 79% for Western Europe and 86% for Australia, but China is undergoing very rapid urbanisation, as the chart below shows. It is expected 70% of China’s population will be living in cities between 2035 and 2045.


Source: OWID based on UN World Urbanisation Prospects 2018 and historical sources

In response to these trends, the Chinese government released a national urbanisation plan (2014-2020), with a focus on the quality of Chinese urbanisation and public spaces. So the policymakers’ concern is not solely with the economic development of China’s cities but also a healthier built environment and increased well-being for its citizens.

In addition to growing population pressures, Chinese cities face battles with pollution and climate change. Furthermore, China is now the third-most-visited country, behind France and the United States. No doubt the country’s growing tourism industry is
an important driver for developing better cities.

The rise of private public partnership projects and growing private interests in China’s built environment also call for a fresh look at urban design. Connecting urban planning and architecture, public spaces and private buildings, metropolitan scale and street scale, urban design can help to balance private interests and public needs while developing urban areas.

If those challenges are quite recent for China, they have been experienced, tested and theorised in Western countries for the past two centuries. Thus there might be an interest in learning from Western urban design principles, both to draw inspiration from the good practices and to avoid repeating the mistakes.

Urban design is well established in Australia

Some major Chinese cities such as Guangzhou and Shanghai have recently created their own urban design guidelines. However, many Chinese cities don’t have any.

In Australia the situation is quite different. Urban design theory and practices are well grounded. More than 20 guidelines have been published since the 2000s at all levels of government.

Urban design guidelines in Australia at federal, state and local government level.
Lucile Jacquot, 2019, Author provided

The diversity of Australian guidelines means that urban design research is very active and responsive to the evolution of technologies, lifestyles and expectations. Also, the outcomes are often considered successful – Australian cities usually do well in rankings of urban quality of life. For example, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney are consistently ranked in the top ten of the Global Liveability Index.

Good examples of urban design are also acknowledged in Australia – for example, through the annual Australian Urban Design Awards. The recognition of best practices and fostering of healthy competition create a rich urban design culture.

How can Chinese cities be improved?

Dalian is a good example of an emerging city in China. Its location between the sea and the mountains and its rich colonial heritage make it a major tourist destination. Nevertheless, the experience of Dalian’s urban spaces could be improved in many ways.

Firstly, one of the main goals of urban design is to provide adequate public facilities such as pedestrian pathways, sitting areas and public toilets. In Dalian, an increase in such facilities could encourage the city’s residents to make more use of the public space. Similarly, shaded areas and water fountains could make public spaces more liveable, no matter the hour of the day or the weather.

Secondly, installing such facilities is not enough on its own to make the city engaging and attractive. Dalian’s urban spaces are quite monochromatic and a more vibrant cityscape could improve the overall ambience of the city. One way to achieve this would be through the use of different colours, textures and materials to define spatial difference between private and public space, and create new pedestrian experiences.

The differences in urban design of pedestrian squares in Dalian (left) and Melbourne are clear.
Images: K. Dupré (left), L. Jacquot (right), Author provided

Lastly, the main purpose of designing the look and feel of a city is to engage people with their surroundings. The urban space not only has to cater for all types of people and their needs, but also to provide safe socialising opportunities.

In Dalian, providing more playgrounds, for example, could enhance these interactions. All the benefits of good urban design come together in a safe urban space where all types of people can meet, exchange and feel comfortable.

Public spaces in Dalian (left) and Gold Coast.
Images: K. Dupré (left) and picswe.net (right), Author provided

Australian cities can also learn from China

While Australia’s urban design principles are considerably more advanced, its cities face similar challenges to those in China.

For example, Australia is still grappling with the relationship between people and their urban space. Most Australian cities are car-dominated, going against contemporary understanding of a healthy, sustainable and liveable city.

Car use is dramatically affecting the urban fabric of Chinese and Australian cities. In particular, it has impacts on the experience of pedestrians. The wide streets are difficult to cross, footpaths are often sacrificed for the benefit of the car, and cyclists’ safety is compromised. Good urban design would definitely strive towards a more people-based city model.

Another common challenge is climate change. Both Australian and Chinese cities must deal with rising temperatures. The positive impact urban design can have to moderate urban temperatures is now widely recognised. Major Australian cities have now developed guidelines on measures to counter heat, while China is actively working on the issue.

But in one area, the battle to reduce carbon footprints, Chinese cities lead the way. The Chinese government has also developed a substantial green policy. So, while Chinese cities could certainly learn from Australia, the converse seems equally true.The Conversation

Lucile Jacquot, Research fellow, Griffith University; Karine Dupré, Associate Professor in Architecture, Griffith University, and Yang Liu, PhD Candidate. School of Engineering and Built Environment, Architecture & Design, Griffith University

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

1 in 10 patients are infected in hospital, and it’s not always with what you think


Drips and other medical devices were potential sources of infection. But no-one expected to find hospital-acquired pneumonia and urinary tract infections.
from www.shutterstock.com

Philip Russo, Monash University and Brett Mitchell, University of Newcastle

Most people expect hospital treatment to make them better. But for some, a stay in hospital can actually make them sicker. Their wound might get infected after an operation or they might get a blood infection as a result of a medical procedure.

Our study, published today in the international journal Antimicrobial Resistance and Infection Control, found one in ten adult patients in hospital with an acute (short-term) condition had a health care associated infection.

In the first study of its kind in Australia for over 30 years, we also uncovered unexpected infections, like pneumonia and urinary tract infections, as well as high numbers of patients with multi-drug resistant organisms (superbugs).




Read more:
Infections, complications and safety breaches: why patients need better data on how hospitals compare


Why do we need to keep track of infections?

Most of these infections can be prevented. So it is important to know what type of infections they are, how common they are and which patients get them. Once we have this information, we can work out a way to prevent them.

Left unchecked, these infections can make already sick patients sicker, can divert hospital resources unnecessarily, and can kill.

Most hospitals in Australia have ongoing surveillance for specific infections, such as wound and bloodstream infections.

Some states have well coordinated programs like the Victorian program VICNISS, leading to detailed data on health care associated infections. This data is then used to inform hospital strategies on how to prevent infections. However, this type of surveillance method requires extensive resources and does not capture all infections that occur in a hospital.

Instead, we conducted a “point prevalence” survey, which takes a snapshot of the current situation on any given day. This is less resource intensive than ongoing surveillance and it provides valuable information on the distribution and occurrence of all infections in a hospital.




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In Europe, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control co-ordinates national point prevalence studies every four years. These have provided valuable insight into the burden of health care associated infections. They have also been used to track the emergence of multi-drug resistant organisms in Europe. The US, Singapore and many other countries also run them.

Most hospital infections can be prevented.
Santypan/Shutterstock

Unlike most OECD countries, Australia does not have a national health care associated infection surveillance program and does not undertake national point prevalence studies.

The only national data routinely collected relates to bloodstream infections caused by the microorganism Staphylococcus aureus. These infections are serious but rare and only represent a tiny fraction of all infections in hospitals.




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To improve our understanding of health care associated infections across Australia, we used the same study method as the Europeans. Over a four month period in 2018, we visited 19 large hospitals across Australia and collected information on all infections in adult acute inpatients. Four of the hospitals were regional, the others major city hospitals.

What infections did we find?

Of the 2,767 patients we surveyed, we found 363 infections in 273 patients, meaning some patients had more than one infection. The most common infections were wound infections after surgery (surgical site infections), pneumonia and urinary tract infections. These accounted for 64% of all the infections we found.

This is important as most hospitals do not normally look for pneumonia or urinary tract infections and there is no routine statewide or national surveillance for these.

Our findings mean these infections are commonly occurring but undetected. A potential source of information on these types of infections is hospital administrative coding data. However, these codes were mainly designed for billing purposes and have been shown to be unreliable when it comes to identifying infections.




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We also found patients with a medical device, such as a large intravenous drip, or urinary catheter (a flexible tube inserted into the bladder to empty it of urine), were more likely to have an infection than those who did not.

Intensive care units treat patients who are gravely unwell and at greater risk of infection. So it was unsurprising to find that 25% of patients in intensive care units had a health care associated infection.

The emergence of multi-drug resistant organisms (superbugs) is a concern worldwide. Previously unknown, our study revealed that 10% of the adult acute inpatients in our study had a multi-drug resistant organism.

What have other studies found?

For the first time in 34 years we have a glimpse of how common health care associated infections are in Australian hospitals. Although the only other previous study was larger, a major strength of our study is that we used the same two trained data collectors to collect the data from all hospitals.

This reduced the potential inconsistency in finding infections that might occur if hospital staff collected their own data. It also minimised the use of hospital resources to undertake the survey.

Importantly though, we did not survey all types of hospitals. It is possible that if the same survey was extended to include children, babies and cancer hospitals, higher rates of infection may be found given the vulnerability of these patients.

What can we do better?

As one of the authors has previously noted, a major gap in Australia’s effort to combat health care associated infections, and the emergence of multi-drug resistance organisms, is the lack of robust national data.

This means we cannot measure the effect of national policy or guidelines despite significant investment.

In the absence of a national surveillance program, we recommend that large-scale point prevalence surveys, including smaller hospitals, specialist hospitals and the private sector be undertaken regularly. Data generated from these studies could then be used to inform and drive national infection prevention initiatives.The Conversation

Philip Russo, Associate Professor, Director Cabrini Monash University Department of Nursing Research, Monash University and Brett Mitchell, Professor of Nursing, University of Newcastle

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

They’ve cut deeming rates, but what are they?



Not cutting deeming rates when other rates are falling keeps people off the pension.

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

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has cut the deeming rate for large investments from 3.25% to 3%, and for smaller ones from 1.75% all the way down to 1%, backdated to the start of July.

But what exactly is a deeming rate, and why does it matter so much to about one million Australians on benefits, among them around about 630,000 age pensioners?

It’s a topic I covered in The Conversation mid last week in an explainer that went all the way back to the beginning, or at least the most recent beginning, when treasurer Paul Keating brought deeming rates back to Australia’s benefits system in 1991.




Read more:
Deeming rates explained. What is deeming, how does it cut pensions, and why do we have it?


Before that, applicants for the pension were able to pass income tests by ensuring that their assets didn’t earn much income, a service banks and other institutions were happy to provide for them.

From 1991, on applicants for the age pension (and later other benefits) were “deemed” to have earned from their financial assets amounts set by the government, whatever they actually earned.

Of late, deeming rates haven’t kept up

For most of the past two decades both the high deeming rate (which at the moment applies to financial assets in excess of A$51,800 for singles and $86,200 for couples) and also the low deeming rate (for lesser assets) have been below the Reserve Bank’s cash rate, benefiting applicants who could earn more than those low rates while continuing to get benefits.


Deeming rates versus RBA cash rate, July 1996 – July 2019, per cent


Australian government, RBA

Then, beginning with prime minister Kevin Rudd (who, to be fair to him, in 2009 delivered the biggest ever increase in the pension – $100 a fortnight for singles and $76 for couples) and continuing under his successors Gillard, Abbott, Turnbull and Morrision, the government adjusted the deeming rate more slowly, meaning that as the Reserve Bank’s cash rate fell, both the high and low deeming rates ended up above it.

The new deeming rates: 3% and 1%

The decisions announced by Frydenberg on Sunday go a long way to putting things right.

The lower deeming rate will once more be close to the cash rate (exactly at the cash rate, for as long as the cash rate stays at 1%). The higher deeming rate will not be, but then it probably shouldn’t be.

The higher rate applies to the return on financial assets (including shares) worth more than $51,800. As Frydenberg pointed out on Sunday, many of those assets return much more, not much less, than the deeming rate:

It could apply to superannuation returns, and that’s averaging around 5.5%. Or to yields on ASX 200 stocks, which are averaging about 4.5%

The low deeming rate is on the face of it unfair, because few bank deposits pay 1%. The special retirees accounts offered by ANZ and the Commonwealth pay 0.25%. Many deposit accounts pay nothing.

But the low rate applies to financial assets all the way up to $51,800 ($86,200 for couples), and to all types of assets. Many pension applicants are likely to earn a total return on those assets well above 1%.

Deeming is by design, rough and ready. There will always be complaints, and of late those complaints had force. They are now back broadly where they should be.




Read more:
Deeming rates explained. What is deeming, how does it cut pensions, and why do we have it?


The Conversation


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

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

Inequality is growing, but it is also changing as Australia’s super rich evolve



Australia’s super rich are richer than ever, but not like they used to be.
Shutterstock

Salvatore Ferraro, RMIT University

This year’s Australian Conference of Economists takes place in Melbourne on July 14-16.

During the conference The Conversation will publish a selection of pieces written by the authors of papers to be delivered at the conference.


Since the surprise re-election of the Coalition, there has been renewed debate about the role the “aspirational” Australian played in the final outcome. The debate is taking place against the backdrop where income inequality has been growing in most developed countries over the past half-, including in Australia.

Bureau of Statistics figures released on Friday show that the wealth of Australia’s wealthiest households has grown much faster than the wealth of the rest.


Household net worth by quintile (top fifth to bottom fifth)

AUD millions, top quintile is the wealthiest 20% of households.
ABS 6523.0

Over the course of the 20th century, income equality has been U-shaped, a point noted by French economist Thomas Piketty and Australia’s Productivity Commission.

In Australia, the income share of the top 1 per cent peaked at 14% in 1950, then fell to a low of 5% in the early 1980s before climbing again to 9% by 2015.

Wealth inequality has also followed a long term U-pattern, and in many countries wealth is even more concentrated than income.

The Productivity Commission finds that in Australia, a person at in the top 10% of wealth distribution has 40 times as much wealth as a person in the bottom 10%. That person has four times as much income.


Income shares of the top 1%, by country

Per cent of unequivalised gross taxable income earned by the top 1% of adult income earners, 1913 to 2013.
Productivity Commission, 2018

In a paper to be presented to the Australian Conference of Economists in Melbourne on Tuesday, my colleague Monica Jurin and I shed light on wealth inequality over the past three decades through the lens of Australia’s super rich – the richest 200 households and families.

The super rich are changing


The BRW/AFR Rich List, updated since 1984

Based on the Rich List, compiled by the Business Review Weekly since the 1980s, and now updated annually by the Australian Financial Review, we examine the importance of inherited wealth versus entrepreneurship among Australia’s super rich.

The Rich List confirms the rise in wealth inequality. In 2019, the richest 200 families accounted for 3.6% of the aggregate net worth of all Australian families, up significantly from 2.3% in 1989.

But the importance of inherited wealth appears to have diminished.

Those with inherited wealth and family businesses today make up one-third of the super rich, well below 43% in 1989, with a gradual decline over each of the past three decades. Inherited wealth by itself accounts for 37% of the Rich List’s net worth today, well below 55% in 1989.




Read more:
They’re rich, unelected and shaping public policy


The emergence of technology entrepreneurs such as Mike Cannon-Brookes and and Scott Farquar, founders of software company Atlassian, stand out.

Today, the technology sector accounts for almost 8% of the Rich List’s net worth, compared to almost none in 1989.

The results seem somewhat less egalitarian when we examine whether those on the list have appeared on it before.

They’ve more persistence, less inheritance

For instance Frank Lowy, co-founder of Westfield, is considered to be self made. But once on the list, he remained on in each of the four decades we examined.

Whatever the sources of one’s entry to the Rich List, members like Mr Lowy provide evidence of persistence. Conditional on being on the list a decade earlier, members have a slightly higher probability of remaining on it than they did in 1999, controlling for death and other factors.

Our findings complement those of Steven Kaplan and Joshua Rauh who observe similar patterns in the Forbes 400 list in the US.

Here, and in the United States

They find that inherited wealth has become less important and being college educated has become more important.

In Australia we find that a substantially higher share of the richest individuals are tertiary qualified today than they were in 1989, but we are reluctant to draw strong conclusions because the entire society has greater access to tertiary education than it did in 1989.

The super rich have occupied a unique place in modern Australian culture since the emergence of conspicuous entrepreneurs and the emergence of the Rich List in the 1980s.

They are changing, and probably in a good way, even as inequality is growing.




Read more:
Egalitarian or Edwardian? The rising wealth inequality in Australia


The Conversation


Salvatore Ferraro, Lecturer, RMIT University

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

Simple fixes could help save Australian consumers from up to $3.6 billion in ‘loyalty taxes’



On average, customers renewing their insurance policy now pay 34% more than new customers.
http://www.shutterstock.com

Allan Fels, University of Melbourne

A “loyalty tax” occurs when discounts are offered to new customers while longer-term customers pay more. Often this involves increasing premiums at the first and subsequent renewals.

As the NSW government’s Insurance Monitor, charged with making sure insurance companies do not charge unreasonably high prices or mislead policy holders, I have had my office research the prevalence of loyalty taxes.

Our research last year showed, on average, customers renewing their insurance policy paid 27% more than new customers. Our most recent data indicates the gap has risen to 34%. This translates to hundreds of dollars for the average home and contents insurance policy.

Loyalty taxes appear to be widespread in Australia. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission concluded from different pricing inquiries that loyal customers of both banks and energy providers end up paying more. It also demonstrated the price difference for insurance in northern Australian – with one insurer on average charging renewing customers 15-20% more than new customers.




Read more:
Consumers let down badly by electricity market: ACCC report


In Britain, regulators have calculated that customers are, by their fifth renewal, paying about 70% more than a new customer. The Competition and Markets Authority estimates the total cost of loyalty taxes in five British markets – mortgage, savings, home insurance, mobile phone contracts and broadband – to be about £4 billion (about A$7 billion) a year.

Translating this British estimate to the equivalent sectors in Australia (taking into account differences in population and GDP), the cost to consumers could be as high as A$3.6 billion, or at least $140 a year per person. This estimate does not include the energy sector, where evidence suggests the practice of charging longstanding customers more is rife.

Deceptive practice

Discounting to win new customers is not fair if the costs of that discount are passed on to longstanding customers. It discriminates against people who do not or cannot easily switch to another supplier. Vulnerable consumers – elderly consumers, those on low incomes, low education, or those with a disability – are disproportionately affected.

Complicated pricing structures often make it hard for consumers to compare quotes to see if one deal is better than another.




Read more:
Inducing consumer paralysis: how retailers bury customers in an avalanche of choice


Consumer awareness of the loyalty tax appears to be low. It’s quite possible they may not be aware they are paying more each year. Companies can get away with making large price increases over successive renewals with little fear a customer will switch.

This practice is deceptive and falls short of community expectations. Greater respect for loyal customers is something the Hayne Royal Commission said financial institutions should have better regard for.




Read more:
What are we teaching in business schools? The royal commission’s challenge to amoral theory


An important reform

In NSW, in my role as Insurance Monitor, I introduced a requirement that insurers must display last year’s premium on the renewal notices to policyholders. The information is provided in a similar way as it is on a domestic water bill.
It’s now a mandatory requirement in NSW, coming into effect this month.

But the good news is that all of the major insurers have decided to make the change nationally.

Ensuring customers can see just how much their bill has gone up since last year is a significant reform – one I have been pushing over the past five years, since I was involved in monitoring the pricing of insurance in the context of an insurance levy reform in Victoria.

Information empowers consumers. It puts pressure on insurers to justify any increases.

If you are not happy with the increase, or the explanation for it, you should shop around and reassess your options.

You will need to get a couple of quotes. Our research shows major variations in insurance quotes for identical homes with identical risks. Every quarter we seek quotes for a specified home with identical risk, and the highest quotes are up to 2.7 times that of the cheapest.

More can be done

The insurance market is in many respects like other sectors. While there are lots of brands to choose from, the market is highly concentrated and not particularly competitive. Like the banking industry, there are just four major players.

The larger problem, however, is on the demand side. Consumers are generally not well informed. The complexity of products and the large amount of fine print in contracts makes it hard for customers to tell if they are getting a fair deal.
Once they’ve made a choice, most will not think about switching, because it’s time-consuming, costly and inconvenient.

I hope this reform will help increase awareness of what consumers are paying – and not just for insurance. I encourage governments and policymakers around Australia to support and continue with reforms aimed at better disclosure for consumers. NSW has taken a small step. But much more can be done.The Conversation

Allan Fels, Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne

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

Vital signs: we need those tax cuts now, all of them. The surplus can wait



If you’re going to stimulate the economy, it’s wise not to wait.
Shutterstock

Richard Holden, UNSW

In an enormous week for economic news at the start of the month, parliament passed the government’s three-stage personal income tax plan, and the Reserve Bank cut official interest rates to an unprecedented low of 1%.

It happened against the backdrop of a flagging economy in dire need of stimulus.

As the bank cut rates to a record low, its governor Philip Lowe again warned about the waning power of rates (monetary policy) to lift the economy.

At the Darwin community dinner after the board meeting he said:

Monetary policy does have a significant role to play and our decisions are helping support the Australian economy. But, we should not rely on monetary policy alone. We will achieve better outcomes for society as a whole if the various arms of public policy are all pointing in the same direction.

Lowe and many others – including yours truly – have repeatedly pointed out that spending on physical and social infrastructure can do what lower rates can’t do well – boost the economy while lifting its productivity. So, too would other productivity-enhancing reforms, particularly in the labour market.

And, of course, the government’s tax cuts will also stimulate the economy when they come into effect.

With tax cuts, timing’s the thing…

The obvious problem is that much of stimulus from those tax cuts will happen years from now, rather than today.

What the government should have done was insist on enacting all three stages of their tax plan immediately. Not staggered over several years, not in 2024-25. Now.

That would have, of course, pushed the budget into deficit in the short run, and that would would have run counter to the government’s narrative about being responsible economic managers.

But how responsible is it to prioritise one’s own political brand over the economic health of the nation?




Read more:
Ultra-low unemployment is in our grasp. How Philip Lowe became the governor who lifted our ambition


Let’s not forget where the timing of the government’s tax plan came from. 2024-25 is outside the budget’s so-called “forward estimate” period and thus the impact on the deficit or surplus projections is not apparent.

It was the same rationale that underpinned the glacial, decade-long pace at which the government’s “enterprise tax plan” was to move to a 25% company tax rate. And it is the same set of dodgy accounting tricks that Wayne Swan was a master of for everything from health to education spending commitments.

…and the timing could be immediate

Productive infrastructure spending is hard to enact quickly. Spending on social infrastructure like education and training has a long lead time.

And structural reform of the industrial relations system might is probably the hardest and longest of all to put in place.

They are real constraints.

The Reserve Bank faces another, the so-called “zero lower bound” of conventional monetary policy and the complexities and uncertainties of unconventional policies such as quantitative easing.




Read more:
Below zero is ‘reverse’. How the Reserve Bank would make quantitative easing work


But a government which won a mandate for its tax policies, and who frankly has the Labor opposition in a tailspin, could have insisted on all three stages of the tax cuts immediately.

The only thing standing between the economy and the aggressive fiscal stimulus it needs is the government’s obsession with balancing the budget regardless of the circumstances.

We’re not in the best of times

Don’t get me wrong, I think debt and deficits most certainly do matter. The government deserves credit for chipping away at the structural budget deficit, and we shouldn’t be running deficits in good economic times.

But we’re not in good economic times. We’re standing on the precipice of the first recession in nearly three decades. We’re looking at highly uncertain global conditions, domestic economic growth that has slowed to a trickle, sluggish wages growth, persistently high underemployment, and even the possibility of Japanese-style deflation.

The irony is that if, with the failure to enact sufficiently bold stimulus, we do tip into a recession, the red ink will flow all through the budget. Unemployment benefits and welfare payments will rise, personal and corporate income receipts will fall, GST revenue will drop. And young people who enter the labour market during a recession will suffer for years to come.

The downsides of not enacting sufficient fiscal stimulus far outweigh whatever benefits there are of a glide to path to budget balance while avoiding a recession.

It’s certainly not the time for hand-wringing

Coming back to Lowe’s admonition that we need the “various arms of public policy…pointing in the same direction”, here’s where we currently stand: The bank has acted, but far too late. For years it told us that 5% unemployment was as good as it could get long-term, to be patient and to wait for higher wage growth and inflation.

It’s been a mere five weeks since Lowe stopped impersonating Charles Dickens’ character Wilkins Micawber, who was fond of saying “something will turn up”.




Read more:
Buckle up. 2019-20 survey finds the economy weak and heading down, and that’s ahead of surprises


Now the treasurer Josh Frydenberg is giving us his version of the same routine. On one hand he says personal income tax cuts are crucial to boosting employment and spending. On the other hand, he says we’d better wait.

The Australian economy can’t afford to wait for aggressive stimulus. The government has shown more concern for its political brand than for our economic health.

It isn’t what a responsible steward would do.The Conversation

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW

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