Household savings figures in Turnbull’s energy policy look rubbery


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The big questions about Malcolm Turnbull’s energy policy will be, for consumers, what it would mean for their bills and, for business, how confident it can be that the approach would hold if Bill Shorten were elected.

The government needs to convince people they’ll get some price relief, but even as Turnbull unveiled the policy the rubbery nature of the household savings became apparent.

Crucially, the policy aims to give investors the certainty they have demanded. But the risk is this could be undermined if Labor, which is well ahead in the polls, indicated an ALP government would go off in yet another direction.

And most immediately, there is also the issue of states’ attitudes, because their co-operation is needed for the policy’s implementation. Turnbull talked to premiers after the announcement, and the plan goes to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) next month.

Turnbull describes the policy as “a game-changer” that would deliver “affordability, reliability and responsibility [on emissions reduction]”.

Unsurprisingly – given it would end the subsidy for renewables, rejecting Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s recommendation for a clean energy target – the policy sailed through the Coalition partyroom with overwhelming support.

Finkel later chose to go along with it rather than be offended by the discarding of his proposal. The important thing, he said, was that “they’re effectively adopting an orderly transition” for the energy sector, which was what he had urged.

In the partyroom Tony Abbott was very much a minority voice when he criticised the plan; his desire for a discussion of the politics was effectively put down by a prime minister who had his predecessor’s measure on the day.

The policy – recommended by the Energy Security Board, which includes representatives of the bodies operating and regulating the national energy market – is based on a new “national energy guarantee”, with two components.

Energy retailers across the National Electricity Market, which covers the eastern states, would have to “deliver reliable and lower emissions generation each year”.

A “reliability guarantee” would be set to deliver the level of dispatchable energy – from coal, gas, pumped hydro, batteries – needed in each state. An “emissions guarantee” would also be set, to contribute to Australia’s Paris commitments.

According to the Energy Security Board’s analysis, “it is expected that following the guarantee could lead to a reduction in residential bills in the order of A$100-115 per annum over the 2020-2030 period”. The savings would phase up during the period.

When probed, that estimate came to look pretty rough and ready. More modelling has to be done. In Question Time, Turnbull could give no additional information about the numbers, saying he only had what was in the board’s letter to the government.

So people shouldn’t be hanging out for the financial relief this policy would bring. Although to be fair, Turnbull points to the fact it is part of a suite of measures the government is undertaking.

Business welcomed the policy, but made it clear it wanted more detail and – crucially – that it is looking for bipartisanship.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the policy’s detail “and its ability to win bipartisan and COAG support will be critical”. Andy Vesey, chief executive of AGL, tweeted that “with bipartisan support” the policy would provide investment certainty.

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The Australian Industry Group said it was “a plausible new direction for energy policy” but “only bipartisanship on energy policy will create the conditions for long-term investment in energy generation and by big energy users”.

It’s not entirely clear whether the government would prefer a settlement or a stoush with the opposition on energy.

Turnbull told parliament it had arranged for the opposition to have a briefing from the Energy Security Board, and urged Labor to “get on board” with the policy.

But Labor homed in on his not giving a “guarantee” on price, as well as the smallness of the projected savings. Climate spokesman Mark Butler said it appeared it would be “just a 50 cent [a week] saving for households in three years’ time, perhaps rising to as much as $2.00 per week in a decade”.

But while the opposition has gone on the attack, it is also hedging its bets, playing for time.

“We’ve got to have … some meat on the bones,” Butler said. “Because all the prime minister really announced today was a bunch of bones.”

“We need detail to be able to sit down with stakeholders, with the energy industry, with big businesses that use lots of energy, with stakeholder groups that represent households, and obviously state and territory governments as well, and start to talk to them about the way forward in light of the announcement the government made today,” he said.

The initial reaction from state Labor is narky. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said it seemed Finkel had been replaced by “professor Tony Abbott as the chief scientist”, while South Australia’s Jay Weatherill claimed Turnbull “has now delivered a coal energy target.”

These are early days in this argument. Federal Labor will have to decide how big an issue it wants to make energy and climate at the election. Apart from talking to stakeholders and waiting for more detail, it wants to see whether the plan flies at COAG.

If it does, the federal opposition could say that rather than tear up the scheme in government, it would tweak it and build on it. That way, Labor would avoid criticism it was undermining investment confidence.

The ConversationBut if there is an impasse with the states and the plan is poorly received by the public, the “climate wars” could become hotter.

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Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

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Federal government unveils ‘National Energy Guarantee’ – experts react


Alan Pears, RMIT University; Anna Skarbek, Monash University, and Dylan McConnell, University of Melbourne

The federal government has announced a new energy policy, after deciding against adopting the Clean Energy Target recommended by chief scientist Alan Finkel.

The new plan, called the National Energy Guarantee, will require electricity retailers to make a certain amount of “dispatchable” power available at all times, and also to reduce the electricity sector’s greenhouse emissions by 26% relative to 2005 levels by 2030.

The government says it will save the average household up to A$115 a year after 2020, while also ensuring reliability. Below, our experts react to the new policy.


Read more: Infographic: the National Energy Guarantee at a glance


“The federal government will be even less important in energy policy”

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University

Business, state governments and the energy industry have been clamouring for more certainty from the federal government. Now they have it: the federal government will be even less important in shaping energy and climate policy than in the past, leaving states and territories, local government, business and households to focus on driving the energy revolution and cutting emissions.

The new policy will impose a reliability obligation on energy retailers, who will presumably have to select an appropriate mix of energy suppliers to meet it, and the devil will be in the detail. If the required proportion of dispatchable electricity is reasonable, and if retailers and new renewable energy generators are free to decide how to deliver it, then the cost and difficulty of compliance may be modest.

For example, retailers and generators could piggyback on the demand response capacity volunteered for the ARENA Demand Response project. This could help accelerate the rollout of a variety of energy storage solutions, in turn reducing the market power of the big generators and driving down energy prices.

On the other hand, if the options are limited, the obligation could increase the market power of the gas industry, meaning no relief from high wholesale prices.

It will also be interesting to see if the obligation is applied across all new generation. If so, it could significantly increase the cost of new coal generation, as retailers would have to cover the risk of failure of a large generation unit, as well as managing its slow response to changing demand.


“Australia’s electricity sector can cut emissions more”

Anna Skarbek, Chief Executive, ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University

The key question is whether the emissions guarantee will be strong enough for Australia to meet its current and future climate obligations under the Paris Agreement.

Electricity creates more than one-third of Australia’s total emissions. If we don’t reduce the emissions in our electricity, then we don’t unlock other emissions reduction opportunities such as electric vehicles.

If the National Energy Guarantee aims at cutting emissions by only 26% by 2030 then other sectors across the economy would have to make greater emissions
reductions sooner.

But our research shows that Australia’s electricity sector can cut emissions by 60% below 2005 levels by 2030. Harnessing this potential will help us to reach future targets that progressively increase under the Paris Agreement.

If you don’t achieve deep emissions reductions in the electricity sector, a major strengthening of policy will be needed for the other sectors where there is less momentum currently. For example, stronger action would be needed in transport, buildings, industry and land.

Australia’s climate policy, which is being reviewed before the end of the year, will need to cover more than just the electricity sector. Other measures should include the introduction of vehicle emissions standards, a more stringent
national building code, a dramatic improvement in the uptake of energy efficiency measures across industry and stronger incentives for reforestation.


How the reliability guarantee will work

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

Under the NEG retailers are responsible for ensuring continuous supply of energy. But retailers don’t always generate the energy they sell. In order to meet the NEG’s reliability obligation retailers will most likely enter into cap contracts with generators.

Unlike other kinds of contracts, which impose a fixed price, cap contracts only come into play when high demand pushes energy prices over a certain pre-agreed level. At that point, generators with flexible dispatchable power guarantee that they will provide extra energy.

The extreme peaks, where the price heads to A$14,000 per megawatt hour – only come a couple of times a year, if at all. To compensate generators for building all that extra capacity, retailers pay a daily premium. Cap contracts essentially act as insurance: they protect retailers from extremely high prices during intense demand, and they offer generators the chance of steep profits.

Cap contracts are a standard part of the market, and retailers already used them to manage their risk exposure. The Energy Security Board has said:

This reliability guarantee would require retailers to hold forward contracts with dispatchable resources that cover a predetermined percentage of their forecast peak load.

If the new reliability standards are in line with retailers own internal guidelines, the impact on the market should be minimal. But if the government imposes higher standards, retailers will have to purchase more cap contracts (or build their own dispatchable power plants).

If demand for cap contracts increase, it would most likely encourage investment in gas and hydro power plants.


The ConversationThis article was updated on October 18.

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University; Anna Skarbek, CEO at ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University, and Dylan McConnell, Researcher at the Australian German Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne

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

The government’s energy policy hinges on some tricky wordplay about coal’s role


John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

The most important thing to understand about the federal government’s new National Energy Guarantee is that it is designed not to produce a sustainable and reliable electricity supply system for the future, but to meet purely political objectives for the current term of parliament.

Those political objectives are: to provide a point of policy difference with the Labor Party; to meet the demands of the government’s backbench to provide support for coal-fired electricity; and to be seen to be acting to hold power prices down.

Meeting these objectives solves Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s immediate political problems. But it comes at the cost of producing a policy that can only produce further confusion and delay.


Read more: Federal government unveils ‘National Energy Guarantee’ – experts react


The government’s central problem is that, as well as being polluting, coal-fired power is not well suited to the problem of increasingly high peaks in power demand, combined with slow growth in total demand.

Coal-fired power plants are expensive to start up and shut down, and are therefore best suited to meeting “baseload demand” – that is, the base level of electricity demand that never goes away. Until recently, this characteristic of coal was pushed by the government as the main reason we needed to maintain coal-fired power.

The opposite of baseload power is “dispatchable” power, which can be turned on and off as needed.

Classic sources of dispatchable power include hydroelectricity and gas, while recent technological advances mean that large-scale battery storage is now also a feasible option.

Coal-fired plants can be adapted to be “load-following” which gives them some flexibility in their output. But this requires expensive investment and reduces the plants’ operating life. The process is particularly ill-suited to the so-called High Efficiency, Low Emissions (HELE) plants being pushed as a solution to the other half of the policy problem, reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Given that there is only limited capacity to expand hydro (Turnbull’s Snowy 2.0 is years away, if it ever happens) and that successive governments have made a mess of gas policy, any serious expansion of dispatchable power would realistically need to focus on batteries. The South Australian government reached this conclusion some time ago, making a decision to invest in its own battery storage. That move was roundly condemned by the federal government, which at the time was still focused on baseload.

The government’s emphasis on baseload was always mistaken, but the confusion and noise surrounding energy policy meant that few people understood this. That changed in September when the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) reported that Australia’s National Electricity Market faced a capacity shortfall of up to 1,000 megawatts for the coming summer, and that older baseload power stations will struggle to cope.

Clearly this situation called for more flexibility in dispatchable sources in the short term, and widespread investment in dispatchables for the long term.

A question of definition

Obviously, this presented Turnbull with a dilemma. The policy advice clearly favoured dispatchables, but vocal members of his backbench wanted a policy to subsidise coal.

The answer was breathtakingly simple. The new policy redefines coal as dispatchable, despite it having the opposite technological characteristics.

This is not an entirely new approach. Before the government decided to abandon the proposed Clean Energy Target it put a lot of effort into redefining coal as “clean”. The approach here involved creating confusion between carbon capture and storage (CCS) and HELE power stations. CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide from power station smokestacks and pumping it underground, thereby avoiding emissions. This would be a great solution to the problems of carbon pollution if it worked, but unfortunately it’s hopelessly uneconomic

By contrast, HELE is just a fancy name for the marginal improvements made to coal-fired technology over the 30-50 years since most of our existing coal-fired plants were designed and built. The “low” emissions are far higher than those for gas-fired power, let alone renewables or, for that matter, nuclear energy (another uneconomic option).

The core of the government’s plan is a requirement that all electricity retailers should provide a certain proportion of dispatchable electricity – a term that has now been arbitrarily defined to include coal. By creating a demand for this supposedly dispatchable power, the policy discourages the retirement of the very coal units that AEMO has identified as ill-suited to our needs.

Elusive certainty?

Given that the policy is unlikely to survive beyond the next election, it’s unlikely that it will prompt anyone to build a new gas-fired power station, let alone a coal-fired plant. So the only real effect will be to discourage investment in renewables and create yet further policy uncertainty.

This undermines the basis for the (unreleased) modelling supposedly showing that household electricity costs will fall. These savings are supposed to arise from the investment certainty resulting from bipartisan agreement. But the political imperative for the government is to put forward a policy Labor can’t support, to provide leverage in an election campaign. If the government had wanted policy certainty it could have accepted Labor’s offer to support the Clean Energy Target.

The ConversationIt remains to be seen whether this scheme will achieve the government’s political objectives. It is already evident, however, that it does not represent a long-term solution to our problems in energy and climate policy.

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

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

Power bills can fall – but the main attention must be on affordability: ACCC


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), Rod Sims, holds out the prospect of an absolute fall in electricity bills over coming years – but says this will require focusing centrally on affordability, not just reliability and sustainability.

In its Retail Electricity Pricing Inquiry preliminary report into the electricity market, released on Monday, the ACCC says residential electricity prices have increased by 63% on top of inflation in the last decade, with network costs being the major contributor.

Household bills rose by nearly 44%, from an average of A$,1177 in 2007-08 to $1,691 in 2016-17.

Household bills have risen less than electricity prices because usage has fallen, mainly due to self-supply by solar panels.

The report comes as cabinet is set to consider on Monday the government’s energy policy, which it hopes to take to the Coalition partyroom on Tuesday. Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg last week signalled the government had moved away from the Finkel inquiry’s recommendation for a clean energy target.

Facing the prospect of a shortage of power in the period ahead, the government is particularly focused on the need to increase dispatchable power.

The clean energy target, even in modified form, is also unpopular in Coalition ranks.

The ACCC report indicates that supporting renewable energy has been a relatively minor driver of the spiking of prices.

Sims – who flagged the ACCC findings when he addressed the National Press Club recently – says affordability should be the “dominant” objective in policy but in recent years it has come after several other objectives – including reliability, dividends and sustainability.

He said different approaches were needed to pursue each of the objectives of affordability, reliability and sustainability. As reliability and sustainability were pursued, it was important to do it in “the least-cost way and to let people know the costs”.

“What’s clear from our report is that price increases over the past ten years are putting Australian businesses and consumers under unacceptable pressure,” he said.

The ACCC found that on average across the national electricity market (which does not include Western Australia or the Northern Territory), a 2015-16 residential bill was $1,524, excluding GST. This was made up of network costs (48%), wholesale costs (22%), environmental costs (7%), retail and other costs (16%) and retail margins (8%).

Sims said the primacy of network costs in rising bills was not widely recognised.

Since July 2016, retail price rises were likely to be driven by higher wholesale prices.

“We estimate that higher wholesale costs during 2016-17 contributed to a $167 increase in bills. The wholesale (generation) market is highly concentrated and this is likely to be contributing to higher wholesale electricity prices.”

The ACCC estimates that in 2016-17 South Australia had the highest residential electricity prices, followed by Queensland, then Victoria and New South Wales. SA prices were roughly double those in Europe.

Sims said measures the government had already taken – notably telling companies to make customers aware of better deals, and its plan to scrap the process allowing companies to appeal against decisions of the Australian Energy Regulator – would help lower prices.

The ACCC is now looking in detail at further measures, ahead of making a final report. In the meantime, its preliminary report puts forward some suggestions. These include the states reviewing concessions policy to ensure consumers know their entitlements and concessions are well targeted to the needy, and a tougher stand against market breaches.

It says increased generation capacity (particularly from non-vertically integrated generators), preventing further consolidation of existing generation assets, and lowering gas prices could help reduce the pressure on bills.

The ACCC will also look at how to mitigate the effect of past investment decisions – but it notes that many are “locked in” and will continue to burden users for many years.

It will as well consider what more can be done to make it easier for consumers to switch suppliers.

The report says that “an increasing number of consumers are reporting difficulties meeting their electricity costs, and some consumers have been forced to minimise their spending on other essential services, including food and health services, to afford electricity bills.

“Businesses across all sectors have faced even higher increases over the past 12 months, following renegotiation of long term contracts. Many of these businesses cannot pass the increased costs on and are considering reducing staff or relocating overseas. Some businesses have even been forced to close.”

The ConversationThe ACCC’s final report will be released in June next year.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Middle income earners probably won’t be paying as much tax as the government expects



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The PBO has likely overestimated future personal income tax revenue.
Shutterstock

Phil Lewis, University of Canberra

The federal government’s return to a budgetary surplus by 2020/21 will mainly be due to a projected increase in personal income tax revenue, according to a report from the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO).

The PBO modelling shows that people in the middle of the income spectrum will bear the brunt of this, due to bracket creep. This occurs when tax thresholds (including the tax free threshold) stay constant while income grows due to inflation.

But the PBO modelling includes assumptions about inflation and wages growth that do not bear a resemblance to what is happening in the economy. Both inflation and wages growth have been depressed for some time, and there’s little reason to believe there will be a sudden increase.


Read more: How market forces and weakened institutions are keeping our wages low


The fundamental assumption driving the PBO projections is nominal (not adjusted for inflation) income growth of between 4% and 5%. This consistutes 2% to 2.5% annual inflation and 2.5% to 3% percent annual increase in real income.

The difference between nominal and real incomes is important as it is increases in real income (adjusted for inflation) that result in higher standards of living. But taxes are levied on our nominal incomes, regardless of inflation. Because of this difference, bracket creep means that real incomes after tax (otherwise known as disposable income) will actually fall.

What the PBO report projects

To calculate how much tax we will be paying in the future, the PBO first makes assumptions about inflation and real earnings growth and uses these to project individual incomes. Current income tax rates are then applied to these projected incomes, and the increased amount paid by each individual is added together.

According to the PBO’s modelling, the average individual tax rate will increase by 2.3% from 2017–18 to 2021–22. And every income group will see their tax rates increase over this period.

The largest tax increase is expected for individuals in the middle incomes, who have an average taxable of A$46,000 in 2017/18. This group are projected to face an increase in their average tax rate of 3.2% by 2021–22. Their average tax rate is expected to increase from 14.9% to 18.2%.

Meanwhile, those in the second lowest and two highest income quintiles are expected to see their average tax rate rise between 1.9% and 2.5%. The average tax rate for individuals in the lowest income group is projected to rise by only 0.2%, as most of their income remains below the tax free threshold.

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The increases in average tax rates are even greater if a comparison is made with 2016/17, the latest year for which individuals have been paying tax. As you can see in the previous chart, when compared to 2016/17, individuals in the middle income quintile will see their average tax rate rise by 3.8%.

As you can see, the largest burden of the tax brack creep will fall on “average Australians”. This is because they will see their nominal (before adjusting for inflation) incomes rise. Typically, the lowest income earners do not earn enough to get above the tax free threshold and the highest income earners already pay a large portion of their tax at the top marginal rates.

Because of increasing inflation and wage growth, the Parliamentary Budget Office projects that even the lowest income earners will be liable to pay income tax by 2019/20.

Heroic assumptions?

The 2% to 2.5% inflation assumed in PBO’s forecast is in the mid-point of the Reserve Bank’s target range of 2% to 3%, so this is not entirely unreasonable assumption.

But both PBO’s inflation and wage growth (2.5% to 3%) assumptions are currently way above the levels seen in the economy. According to the ABS annual inflation currently stands at just 1.8%, and the earnings of all Australian employees is growing at 1.6% per annum.

The reasons for persistent low inflation, not just in Australia but in most other industrialised countries, are not well understood or agreed upon.

And a number of theories have been put forward to explain low real wage growth including, the degree of underemployment, reduced job security, declining bargaining power of unions and increased potential competition, either from advances in technology or from international competition.

But regardless of the reasons for the persistently laggard growth in wages and inflation, there are also no signs that these rates will rise significantly any time soon, let alone to the levels assumed by the PBO.


Read more: Budget explainer: why is Australia’s wage growth so sluggish?


Given the information contained in the PBO report we can’t calculate exactly what the impact of these tax increases will be for individuals.

However, it is clear that if the current wage and price conditions persist the actual tax revenue will fall way short of the projected figures for all years up to and including 2021/22 and make a Budget balance even further off.

We can also make some extrapolations based on averages. As a simple example, consider someone on an annual income of A$84,000 in 2017/18 (which is around the current average earnings in Australia). Under the assumption that nominal incomes increase by only 2% per year, the tax paid (including Medicare levy) in 2020/21 would be A$23,158.

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However, if you compare this to nominal income growth of 5% (which is what the PBO assumes) the tax paid would be A$26,357 in 2020/21.

That is, tax collected from this individual would be 12% less under a low growth scenario than under the PBO’s more optimistic scenario. In the years 2018/19 and 2019/20 the tax collected would be respectively 4% and 8% less. This illustrates how precarious the projection of a balanced Budget in 2020/21 is.

The ConversationWhatever the outcome, it is for certain that income earners will see any nominal increases eroded not just by inflation, but also through bracket creep.

Phil Lewis, Professor of Economics, University of Canberra

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

Shorten promises $1 billion fund to finance manufacturing enterprises


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Bill Shorten is promising that a Labor government would set up a A$1 billion fund to assist “advanced manufacturing”.

Modelled on the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), which was established by Labor, the Australian Manufacturing Future Fund “will support innovative Australian manufacturing firms who want to grow their businesses and create jobs, but who might find it difficult to obtain private sources of finance”.

Shorten will make the announcement on Saturday in Adelaide. It comes as South Australia is hit by the shutdown of Holden’s car production plant there on October 20, with a loss of about 950 jobs. It also highlights the more interventionist policy approach being seen from both sides of politics.

A state where manufacturing struggles, SA faces an election early next year in which jobs and business opportunities will be issues. Last week’s announcement that Nick Xenophon will leave the Senate to lead a team of state candidate has thrown a wildcard into the poll.

Shorten and Shadow Industry Minister Kim Carr said in a statement that the proposed fund would help local manufacturers innovate and diversify. This could mean:

  • auto component manufacturers re-tooling or diversifying into other industries;

  • food manufacturers investing in new equipment for new products to export to Asia; and

  • metals fabricators expanding into pre-fabricated housing.

They said that an ALP government would ask the fund to give priority to considering “transformative investments in the automative manufacturing and food manufacturing sectors”.

Shorten and Carr quoted the Australian Industry Group saying that financial institutions were “downgrading manufacturing industries and making access to finance more difficult and expensive”.

“Labor won’t let the big banks hold Australian advanced manufacturing back,” they said.

The fund, which would not be financing large-scale enterprises, would partner with private finance to reduce the perceived risk in innovative projects. It would “apply commercial rigour” when investing and would offer financing in the forms of equity, concessional loans and loan guarantees. It would not make cash grants.

It might partner with the CEFC to invest in energy efficient projects and equipment to help with a business’ energy costs, or with the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation to access new export markets with new products.

The ConversationThe fund would be off-budget. It would be expected to be financially self- sufficient and achieve a benchmark rate of return across its portfolio.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

The government’s new gas deal will ease the squeeze, but dodges the price issue



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The government has so far refrained from putting a legal limit on LNG leaving our shores.
Ken Hodges/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

The deal signed this week by the federal government and the nation’s biggest three gas producers will ease Australia’s gas supply squeeze, but it will do nothing to address the current high prices.

Under the contract, Shell, Origin and Santos have agreed to supply more domestic gas to avert the predicted shortfall for 2018.

In so doing, the government seemingly sidestepped the need to trigger its own powers to forcibly restrict gas exports.

Sighs of relief all round, then. But here’s the thing: neither the new deal, nor the legislation that governs export controls, actually addresses the issue that is arguably most important to consumers – the high prices Australians are paying for their gas.


Read more: To avoid crisis, the gas market needs a steady steer, not an emergency swerve


Australia has vast gas resources, and yet somehow we find ourselves with rising prices and a forecast shortfall of up to one-sixth of demand in the east coast gas market in 2018.

This is partly understandable, given that rising global demand has fuelled a lucrative export market. The primary destination is Asia, which will assume more than 70% of global demand. In geographical terms this puts Australian exporters in a very strong position, and by 2019 Australia is forecast to supply 20% of the global market – up from 9% today.

However, the strong global demand for liquefied natural gas (LNG) does not in itself provide the full explanation for rising gas prices in Australia’s east coast gas market. This is caused by a weak regulatory environment.

Policy levers

The Australian Domestic Gas Security Mechanism, which took effect in July 2017, gives the federal resources minister the power to restrict exports of LNG in the event of a forecast shortfall for the domestic market in any given year.

This five-year provision was designed as a short-term measure to ensure domestic gas supply. If triggered, it would require LNG exporters either to limit their exports or to find new sources of gas to offset the impact on the domestic market.

To trigger the mechanism, the minister must follow three steps:

  1. formally declare that the forthcoming year has a domestic shortfall, by October 1 of the preceding year;

  2. consult relevant market bodies, government agencies, industry bodies and other stakeholders to determine their view on the existing and forecast market conditions; and

  3. make a determination by November 1 on whether to implement the measures.

Any export restriction implemented under the ADGSM would potentially apply to all LNG exports nationwide, including those from areas with no forecast gas shortage, such as Western Australia. The minister does have the ability to determine the type of export restriction that is imposed. An unlimited volume restriction does not impose a specific volumetric limitation and can be applied to LNG projects that are not connected to the market experiencing the shortfall. A limited volume restriction imposes specific limits on the amount of LNG that may be exported and may be applied to an LNG project that is connected to the market experiencing the shortfall.

Non-compliance with the export limits imposed on gas projects would have a range of potential consequences for gas companies. These include revocation of export licence, imposition of different conditions, or stricter transparency requirements.

The new deal

The agreement signed with the big three gas producers effectively relieves the government of the need to consider triggering the ADGSM. As such, 2018 has not been officially declared to be a domestic shortfall year.

But the agreement is not grounded upon any specific legislative provision. Therefore it is essentially only enforceable against the gas companies that are parties to it. And in accordance with the private terms and conditions that those companies agree to.

The broad agreement is that contractors will sell a minimum of 54 petajoules of gas into the east coast domestic market (the lower limit of the forecast shortfall) and keep more on standby in case the eventual shortfall turns out to be bigger.

But what about prices?

The deal contains no specific provision regarding domestic pricing. So, although there will be more gas in the domestic market, this does not necessarily mean that the current high prices will drop.

In the short term, the provision of additional supply may curtail dramatic increases in domestic gas prices. However, the gas deal does not address the core problem, which stems from our enormous commitment to LNG exports and the connection of domestic gas prices to the global energy market.

Indeed, the commitments are so great that many LNG operators have had to take conventional gas from South Australia and Victoria to fulfil their export contracts. This has put significant pressure on domestic prices.

The unequivocal truth is that gas prices were much cheaper before the LNG export boom. The only way to achieve some level of protection for domestic gas prices is to implement stronger regulatory controls on the export market. This should involve taking account of the public interest when assessing whether export restrictions should be imposed.

The ADGSM legislation does not incorporate any explicit public interest test, despite the fact that gas is a public resource in Australia and gas pricing is a strong public interest issue.

Compare that with the United States, where public interest is a key principle in assessing whether to approve any LNG exports to countries with no US free trade agreement (such as Japan). Public interest tests in the United States involve a careful determination of how exports will affect domestic supply and the potential impact that a strong export market will have upon domestic prices.


Read more: Want to boost the domestic gas industry? Put a price on carbon


The Australian government’s decision to broker a deal with gas suppliers, rather than extend the long arm of the law, means that regulators will need to keep a close eye on the gas companies to check that they are holding up their end of the bargain.

That job will fall to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). ACCC chair Rod Simms this week warned gas suppliers to ensure that their “retail margins are appropriate”.

The ConversationIn the absence of any explicit rules compelling gas producers that signed the deal to provide clear and accurate information and adopt stronger transparency protocols, the ACCC may face a very onerous task.

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

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

The economic reasons why Australia needs a stronger space industry



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In the 1950s, Australia was actively involved in the space industry via collaboration with other space players, including the UK.
Shami Chatterjee/Flckr, CC BY-SA

Bin Li, University of Newcastle

A stronger space industry would benefit Australia’s economy, generating more exports and creating more job opportunities. Australia is well placed to expand its industry, particularly with the announcement of a new national space agency.

The government should actually aim to establish a national space policy as part of this announcement. That way it can secure the future of this industry.

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In the 1950s, Australia was actively involved in the space industry via collaboration with other space players, including the UK. However, this started to decline since the late 1960s because of the depression and huge cost of space programs.


Read more: Yes, Australia will have a space agency. What does this mean? Experts respond


According to the current IMF statistics, Australia now ranks the thirteenth in the world in terms of its GDP output, but still spends very little on developing its space industry. So it’s not surprising that the industry is now underdeveloped. Though the international space industry generates about US$400 billion a year, Australia contributes only 1% to this figure.

What a stronger space industry means to Australia’s economy

Australia could create more exports in the space industry by developing its own capability to launch satellites and taking more control of data and information acquired through satellites.

The data Australians use every day is now provided by international satellites and overseas corporations. Every year in order to collect information about earth from space, Australia pays about A$5.3 billion to the overseas satellite corporations.

Australia’s space industry currently employs up to 11,500 people. The plan to establish a national space agency could boost these numbers.

Beyond job opportunities for engineers and technicians in space launch services and satellite manufacturing, the industry also needs a great variety of specialists in other areas. For example, as a part of space industry supply chain, chemists are in demand to develop greener rocket fuel.

The space industry even requires lawyers. The international community has established an international treaty regime regulating space activities and as a part of this Australia has accepted various obligations. So the government and companies will need to access professional legal advice to ensure they aren’t violating Australia’s obligations under international space law.

There are more job opportunities than just astronauts, engineers and technicians in the space industry.
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center/Flckr, CC BY-SA

In the context of manned space programs, Australia could also develop medical professionals who could be recruited to research the space environment’s impact on human bodies, as NASA has done in the US.

Australia’s advantages for a stronger space economy

Australia has a geographical advantage when it comes to being a leader in space industry. From the perspective of physics, the closer the launch site is to the Equator, the heavier satellite the rocket can carry.. That’s why the US has its Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

In terms of Australia, the Northern Territory’s close proximity to the Equator makes it an ideal rocket launch site for space missions. Perhaps this is why the NT government has shown interest in developing a space industry in the state.

In fact, a few state governments have been part of the push to develop a stronger space industry. South Australia and ACT were lobbying for a national space agency earlier in 2017 and the NT recently joined this push. This could have inspired the federal government to do more to be a national leader in developing space industry.


Read more: Just one small step for Australia’s space industry when a giant leap is needed


Given the technology-intensive nature of space industry, talent is very important for sustainable success. A number of Australian universities have conducted either their own space research projects or with overseas partners. This sort of research has fostered a large team of space specialists.

In addition, state governments, have also discussed space technology collaboration with foreign governments. For example, the South Australia government held talks with the French government on developing more talent in preparation for a growing space industry.

The ConversationGiven Australia’s big size and its reliance on space technology and service, it’s important for the nation to establish its own stronger space industry to meet its needs. Australia has a few advantages in developing this and a national space agency will definitely be a boost to this aim.

Bin Li, lecturer, University of Newcastle

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

It may not be beautiful but the new ten dollar note is pretty secure


Tom Spurling, Swinburne University of Technology and David Solomon, University of Melbourne

You might notice a new blue and gold addition to your wallet in the next few weeks as the Reserve Bank of Australia releases the new A$10 note into circulation. The new series of Australian banknotes are not a designer’s dream but they are the strongest yet in terms of preventing counterfeiting.

The first of its kind polymer note was introduced by the Reserve Bank of Australia in July 1992. This A$5 banknote was arguably the most secure banknote in circulation anywhere in the world.

But in the intervening 25 years banknote security technology, for both polymer and paper banknotes, has improved and Australia’s first polymer notes were no longer world leading. These new notes take us back to being a world leader in this technology or at least equal to the new £10 “Jane Austin” banknote released recently by the Bank of England.


Read more: Our punk, jarring five dollar note: so bad it’s good or just bad?


The next new banknote to be released will be the A$50, planned for 2018 and the A$20 and A$100 in later years. The new A$50 banknote will be particularly important since, in 2016, nearly 84% of our counterfeit notes are of that denomination.

The rate of counterfeit notes is usually quoted as the number of counterfeits per million notes in circulation (ppm). Issuing authorities usually like the number to be under 50ppm.

Canada had the highest rate of counterfeiting before adopting the polymer note, it reached a peak of 470ppm in 2004 and stayed high until the release of their polymer banknotes in 2011. Their rate is now around 10ppm.

In contrast to this, the Australian rate rose to about 15ppm towards the end of the first decimal paper money series but dropped dramatically to 1 or 2ppm when the polymer notes were introduced. The rate rose to as high as 25ppm in 2015.

There are a number of reasons for this. Computing and printing equipment has become more sophisticated and cheaper. Quality printing on polymer is now possible with modern printing and copying equipment.

Also counterfeiters need only simulate a banknote, not reproduce it exactly, to fool us. In 2016 31,682 counterfeits were used before they were detected.

However not all fakes go unnoticed. For example, the “waxy” feeling of a A$10 banknote in 1966 failed to fool a milk bar owner in Ashburton and the forgers were apprehended within a few hours.



Reserve Bank of Australia/The Conversation

The new banknotes retain all of the security features of the first series of polymer banknotes, but with some new additions.

The A$10 note is still printed on the same polymer material, has a clear window and has micro-printed verses from the poems of Banjo Paterson and Mary Gilmore. All polymer banknotes internationally have these two features as neither can be reproduced on paper copying machines.

Both the new A$5 and A$10 banknotes include a top to bottom clear area with a number of devices that change colour when moved or when exposed to different light sources. These are called “optically variable devices”.

These are similar to the original 1988 A$10 commemorative banknote that had a diffraction grating, fine metal lines that when exposed to the light change colour, depicting Captain Cook. The devices in the new banknotes are like this but use more robust technology.

The new notes also have a tactile feature to assist vision impaired users. The A$5 note has one raised dot on the top left hand area and another on the bottom central area. The A$10 banknote has two raised dots. These first appeared on the Canadian polymer banknotes in 2011 and are also on the new Bank of England notes.

Another new feature on both the A$5 and A$10 banknotes is that the serial number and the year of printing fluoresce under UV light. This is quite common technology because its used in paper notes as well.

Polymer notes started in Australia

One of the reasons why the currency of other countries has become as secure as ours is the commercial and technical success of the company that produces the polymer substrate used in the notes.

In the early 1990s the Belgium chemical company, Union Chimique Belge (UCB) built a plant in Craigieburn, near Melbourne, to manufacture the polymer substrate for the new Australian banknotes. This was the first plant dedicated to producing polymer banknote substrate.

In 1996 the RBA and UCB established a joint venture, Securency International, to market the technology internationally. This venture was successful and the many countries in the Asia-Pacific region adopted the new technology.

Some of the success of the company was marred by illegal conduct, with the director of regional sales for Africa, Peter Chapman, jailed for bribery in the UK.

UCB sold its share of Securency to the UK company, Innovia Films, in 2004. In 2013, Innovia acquired the RBA’s 50% share in the business and renamed it Innovia Security.

The large Canadian packaging company, CCL Industries acquired Innovia Security in February 2017. It merged with the Banknote Corporation of America to form CCL Secure. By the end of 2017 this company will have produced more than 55 billion polymer notes in 80 denominations and and in 24 countries.

The ConversationThis latest series of Australian polymer banknotes will place us once again at the forefront of banknote security. But continuing research, development and new features will still be required to keep us there.

Tom Spurling, Professor of Innovation Studies, Swinburne University of Technology and David Solomon, Professorial Fellow in Engineering, University of Melbourne

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

Income inequality ticks down as the rich see their incomes fall: ABS



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A decline in incomes for the top 20% has caused inequality to fall slightly.
Shutterstock

Peter Whiteford, Australian National University

Income inequality has dropped slightly in Australia, largely driven by a fall in incomes for the richest 20% of the population, according to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Survey of Household Income and Wealth.

The richest 20% of the population have seen their real disposable incomes (adjusted for the number of people living in the household) fall by nearly 5%, or close to A$100 per week. Most other households have seen no real increase in their incomes over the two years since the previous survey was released.

Our recent public debate over whether inequality is rising or falling ran into the problem that the two most important sources of data were showing different trends. The ABS survey continues to show a higher level of income inequality than the HILDA survey, but the latest trends now look more similar.

Possibly the best characterisation of the latest ABS figures is that they show inequality remains higher than at any period before 2007-08, but in the short term it is unclear what to expect.


Read more: Here’s why it’s so hard to say whether inequality is going up or down


As you can see in the following chart, there has been a slight fall in income inequality between 2013-14 and 2015-16, with the Gini coefficient for “Equivalised Disposable Household Income” falling from 0.333 to 0.323. The Gini coefficient is a measure between zero (where all households have the same income) and one (where only one household claims all the income).

Equivalised Disposable Household Income is the total income of the household from all sources including social security payments, minus direct taxes, and then adjusted for the number of people living in the household. For example, a household of a couple with two children under the age of 15 is assumed to need 2.1 times the income of a household of a single adult to achieve the same standard of living.

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So what explains these most recent trends? At this stage, it’s difficult to be definitive. It should also be borne in mind that it has only been two years since the last survey, the overall change is not large, and so we should be cautious in unpacking the trends.

But it is worth noting that this small reduction in income inequality has come at the same time as a small fall in both median and mean disposable incomes for Australian households.

The average taxes paid by households have also risen slightly in real terms (adjusted for inflation) since 2013-14, while the average social security benefits have stayed the same in real terms. This masks a significant drop in the real level of family payments (such as the family tax benefit) received by households, and increases in age pensions and “other payments” (overseas pensions and benefits, partner allowance, sickness allowance, special benefit, war widow pension (DVA), widow allowance, and wife pensions etc.).

However, where there does appear to be large changes are in the sources of income for households. If we compare incomes between the 2013-14 and 2015-16 surveys, we find that the only group that has enjoyed real increases in incomes are those whose main source of income is social security benefits. But these have risen by only A$6 per week, or about 1.3%, and they remain by far the lowest income households in Australia, with their average incomes remaining less than half of all other household groups.

Households who mainly rely on wages and salaries have seen their average real disposable incomes fall by about A$17 per week, or about 1.4%.

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The biggest declines are among those who mainly rely on self-employment income from unincorporated businesses – usually a small business which has not incorporated as a registered company – and people whose main source of income is “other”.

“Other” includes many things, such as income received as a result of ownership of financial assets (interest, dividends), and of non-financial assets (rent, royalties), as well as from sources such as incorporated business income (i.e. companies), superannuation, child support, workers’ compensation and scholarships.

This group is fairly small – about 8% of households, but they are both the group with the highest and most unequal incomes and by far the highest level of net worth (assets minus liabilities). Their average incomes have fallen by around A$93 a week in real terms, or around 8%, but their median real incomes rose by around A$11 per week, suggesting that the loss in income was concentrated among higher income households in this group.

This group in 2013-14 had by far the highest level of income inequality with a Gini coefficient of 0.474. This has fallen to 0.423 in 2015-16. But because a lot of this income comes from the stockmarket, we can expect it to be more volatile.

The group who appear to have lost by far the most, however, are households whose main source of income is unincorporated business income. This is an even smaller group – around 4.6% of all households in 2015-16. Their real average incomes have fallen by more than A$160 per week, or around 16%. They also have a high level of inequality within their group, with a Gini coefficient of 0.353 in 2015-16, down from 0.389 two years previously.

But the overall change in income inequality is not large, and it does not significantly change Australia’s international ranking.

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Writing in the Australian yesterday, Nick Cater of the Menzies Research Centre asserted that Australia is “one of the most equal and socially mobile nations on earth”. But even with the slight reduction in inequality, we are slightly above the OECD average, and there are around 20 OECD countries who are likely to have lower levels of income inequality than Australia.

Overall, the data shows a relatively small change in incomes for employee households and for households whose main source of income is social security payments. Together, these account for 87% of all households in Australia.

The reduction in overall income inequality in this period is therefore explained by the falls in income for the self-employed and for the “other” group – the group with the highest incomes and wealth.

The ConversationUnderstanding what exactly has been happening for these groups and why will require further time and analysis. The volatility of the income sources for these groups is another reason to be cautious about projecting future trends.

Peter Whiteford, Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

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