How the pandemic has brought out the worst — and the best — in Australians and their governments


AAP/James Ross

Frank Bongiorno, Australian National UniversityFor many years, surveys indicated declining Australian trust in government. Not anymore.

On the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures average trust in NGOs, business, government and the media, trust in Australia rose dramatically in 2020. In fieldwork conducted October 19 to November 18 2020, Australia climbed by 12 points, from 47% to 59%, the greatest increase in trust in any country measured.

Among those Edelman calls the “informed public” (200 out of 1150 surveyed), Australia stands at 77%, or eighth. But the figure for the general population, which excludes the “informed public”, is 55%. This 22 point gap – somewhat higher than the global average of 16 – is the largest among the countries considered, suggesting notable differences in levels of trust in the community, according to education, income and engagement with current affairs. (The survey, for some reason, only includes people aged 25 to 64 in this category, so it also contains age biases against the elderly in deciding who is “informed”.)




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Trust in government climbed even more dramatically, by 17 points to 61%. Australia is ranked ninth, whereas in past years it occupied the middle of the pack of 27 countries, but among those where government is distrusted (below 50%). To place this in perspective, Britain is now at 45% (up nine points) and the United States at 42% (up three). We are now slightly more trusting than Germans and Canadians, but less so than the Malaysians and the Dutch. China and Saudi Arabia head the pack, but China is down eight points from last time.

The Australian results are in line with other surveys. Democracy 2025 (based at the Museum of Australian Democracy and University of Canberra) had trust in the federal government soaring from 29% to 54% in its May-June 2020 survey, with support for Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s handling of the pandemic at 73%. This is significantly higher than for Britain, the United States and Italy – unsurprising given the much lighter impact of COVID-19 in Australia.

The Scanlon Foundation’s 2021 research also showed trust in both state and federal governments rising. Trust in Canberra to “do the right thing” is 55%, compared with an average since 2007 (when the survey began) of 32%. Moreover, results for July and November 2020 were broadly consistent. Support for the federal government pandemic response was 85%, with some state governments climbing even higher (to an extraordinary 99% in Western Australia in July, and 98% in November). Even in Victoria, while support was at 65% mid-year, it was 78% by November.

State governments’ approval ratings have been high, even in Victoria which has borne the brunt of virus outbreaks.
AAP/Luis Ascui

What does this mean? Firstly, we can assume much of the grumbling about federal and state government handling of the pandemic – even with another Victorian lockdown entering its frustrating second week – does not reflect majority disaffection with those responsible. That does not mean Australians have not sometimes been exasperated and angry. Nor does it suggest decision-making has been perfect. If governments have pursued the utilitarian ethic of the greatest good for the greatest number, they might – indeed have – at times have been negligent and even callous concerning some minorities. They also seem to have gone out of their way further to enrich those usually found at the front of the queue when taxpayer money is being thrown around.

We have learned that governments give priority to “Australia” – understood as a land mass and its citizens (and perhaps permanent residents) – over “Australians”, understood as a people who might be found anywhere from Melbourne to Minsk. Many Australians stuck overseas felt abandoned. Some discovered that their citizenship and passport could not stop the federal government from keeping them out of the country, and even threatening them with prison if they tried coming home. This has been a revelation to many of us, a light-bulb bright enough to illuminate thinking on both the left and right. Many disliked what they saw.




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Similarly, people working or studying in Australia on one of the numerous visas made available for such activities quickly found themselves surplus to requirements. Morrison told them they should go home. Students were treated as you might an empty ATM. Foreign workers, no longer needed in an economy shutting down, were like mobile phones out of charge, range and credit. Later, when fruit-growers complained their usual supply of seasonal labour was not flowing, there was a great deal of hand-wringing, and a ramping up of the usual angry talk of the unemployed refusing work.

Australians like to think of themselves as an egalitarian people, but the pandemic has underlined that as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, some are more equal than others. Celebrities and the super-rich came and went as if it were still 2019, permitted to quarantine at home when they arrived while everyone else went into a hotel room. Some commentators were brazen in their views about the dispensability of the old and frail when there was an economy to run. Government did not follow their lead, but vulnerable people living in nursing homes still seemed too far down anyone’s order of priorities when it came to acting rather than talking.

When it comes to federal government support through the pandemic, some Australians have been more equal than others.
AAP/Mick Tsikas

Casual workers were seen to have little call on the state for support; they were treated as de facto unemployed, not workers temporarily unable to do their jobs. The unemployed themselves gained more support for as long as it suited the federal government’s macroeconomic goals of propping up an economy falling into recession. Then, they were returned to their customary place under the poverty line. The industries dominated by women received less consideration than those largely made up of men, especially men in high-vis vests. Even when the government announced modest financial assistance for the arts, Morrison couched it as a way of keeping tradies employed.




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It’s difficult to know what Australians think of their prime minister after more than a year of a pandemic. His approval rating remains buoyant, but has dropped during those times – the bushfire, and then the sexual assault crisis – when his judgment and empathy have been found most wanting. He’s capable of great callousness, and addicted to publicity and marketing over substance and results. I suspect many Australians don’t quite trust Morrison to find the right way of responding to crises and challenges. But they seem willing to stick by him until something better is on offer, a common enough attitude in the two-horse race that federal politics remains.

The failures of his government on both quarantine and vaccination are problems for Morrison, and may well be reflected in future movements in those trust surveys. The pandemic has exposed many of the frailties of federal government, and a few in the states as well. Canberra has well-developed instruments for transfer payments – which it deployed in JobKeeper and JobSeeker – but its capacity for service-delivery in a wider sense is strikingly limited.

Medical experts have been criticising the inadequacies state government-run hotel quarantine system for months, but until the very recent past, the federal government has resisted acting tooth and nail despite its constitutional responsibilities.

The vaccine rollout has been a disaster by any measure, but whether Australians will punish the Morrison government for it remains to be seen.
AAP/James Ross

Its vaccination program has been disastrous by any reasonable measure. Federal government failures in relation to its aged-care responsibilities, which contributed to the loss of life earlier in the pandemic, have been repeated. People with disabilities have been reminded of their lowly status in the pecking order.

The lucky country has been lucky during COVID that it is an island. It has been lucky that its federal system often saved its people from the poor judgement and callousness of individual leaders. But it has been lucky, above all, in its people’s notable discipline – a trait rarely associated with the typical Australian.

Despite the inevitable grumbles, government excesses, opportunistic posturing of this and that politician, a likely increase in racist bullying, and the odd protest from sovereign citizens and others – the existence of this surprisingly wide and deep well of social discipline is by far the most important thing that we’ve learned about Australians in the age of COVID.




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The Conversation


Frank Bongiorno, Professor of History, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University

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

New AstraZeneca advice is a safer path, but it’s damaged vaccine confidence. The government must urgently restore it


Jane E Frawley, University of Technology SydneyThe federal government’s recommendation last week that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is now the preferred vaccine for adults under 50 has shaken public confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) advised the AstraZeneca vaccine, previously planned as Australia’s main vaccine, will no longer be the preferred vaccine for adults under 50. It came after an extensive review of data from the United Kingdom and Europe which found an association between a very rare type of blood clot and the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Public confusion has already resulted in mass cancellations of vaccine appointments at GP clinics, by adults both over and under 50.

It’s important to remember the Australian government can afford to choose a safer path because we are not in the midst of a large COVID-19 outbreak.

But a decrease in vaccine confidence may be an unintended consequence of this path.

Now, the federal government must urgently restore public confidence in the vaccine rollout. It needs to quickly reassure adults aged over 50 the AstraZeneca vaccine is safe.

It’s essential the government gets this right. Concerns about one vaccine can damage public trust in other vaccines.

Why has a safer approach decreased confidence?

Vaccine confidence can be fickle. There are many recent examples of established vaccine programs that have been undermined by unrelated events or errors. This has led to mass disease outbreak and preventable death. For example, in the Philippines, a new measles outbreak that infected 47,871 people in 2019 and killed 632, mostly children, was fuelled by a drop in measles vaccination spurred by concerns about a dengue fever vaccine.

Vaccine program resilience is an even bigger ask during a new vaccine rollout where rare effects are expected once the vaccine is given to hundreds of millions of people.

Research from the Australian National University published last week found young women are the most likely to avoid vaccination. Women who did not approve of the government’s handling of recent sexual harassment scandals were less likely to accept a COVID vaccine. This demonstrates the importance of trust, and shows a lack of trust in one area of the government’s remit can spill into other areas.

Because the risk of catching COVID-19 is currently so low in Australia, many people are feeling less interested in being vaccinated.

One Australian study, published in September last year, found fewer people were willing to accept a COVID-19 vaccine compared to a similar study done two months earlier. This decrease was evident following a decreased number of new COVID-19 cases in Australia in the time between these two studies. People can change their intention to be vaccinated when they fear the effects from the vaccine more than the disease.

On top of all of this, some members of the community are still concerned COVID-19 vaccines were developed too quickly and without appropriate checks and balances — even though this isn’t true.

Changing recommendations during a vaccine program rollout can compound these concerns.




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How can confidence be restored?

While the federal government was quick to accept the recommendation from ATAGI, the confusion has added to the rollout chaos. Public confidence has been damaged, and further vaccine delays are imminent across the board, including for younger health and aged-care workers.




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Vaccine program resilience is essential to survive the bumps along the way and the government has not invested enough in understanding public sentiment and developing plain language information resources.

The challenge for public health and the federal government now is to address the understandable concerns and prevent them from contaminating the broader public dialog on COVID-19 vaccination.

With high numbers of Australians needing to be vaccinated to prevent further COVID-19 outbreaks, there’s very little room for vaccine rejection.

The government urgently needs to use clear messaging for all communities and health professionals. This includes communities with diverse cultural and language requirements

These efforts will greatly benefit from multidisciplinary teams of infectious disease, vaccine, social science and communication experts.

We need a compensation scheme

During Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, so far one man in his 40s has developed blood clots following vaccination with the AstraZeneca vaccine. There’s a 25% death rate following a vaccine-related clot according to ATAGI. Four to six clots are expected per million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine (first dose) and while this reaction is exceedingly rare, it is severe.

This also highlights the importance of a no-fault vaccine injury compensation scheme.

Such a scheme recognises that if the government promotes whole of community vaccination for collective good, then it also accepts the ethical and financial burden for the few people who will sustain a serious injury. The federal government should implement one as a matter of priority.




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The Conversation


Jane E Frawley, NHMRC Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

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

Most government information on COVID-19 is too hard for the average Australian to understand



Shutterstock

Cath Ferguson, Edith Cowan University; Margaret Kristin Merga, Edith Cowan University, and Stephen Winn, Edith Cowan University

Almost half of Australian adults struggle with reading. Similar levels of struggling readers are reported in the United Kingdom and United States.

This does not mean all struggling readers are illiterate. It means they often struggle to understand writing in a way required for broad participation in work, education and training, and society.

Our recent analysis of government information on COVID-19 found many documents were written in a way that is inaccessible to struggling readers.

If adults do not understand key health messages, they are unlikely to comply with health directives that can protect themselves and the rest of the population.

Difficulty with reading

There are many reasons adults can struggle with reading. They include English being their second language, having had long or many absences from school, home factors, student attitudes and engagement, school and systems factors, and learning difficulties and disabilities.

People who have difficulty reading information may miss out on key health messages about COVID-19.

This could lead to poor health outcomes for themselves and others. This is because many of the health messages, such as the importance of wearing a face mask and social distancing, require individual action for community benefit.




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We analysed the content of online government documents (federal and Western Australian) related to COVID-19 to determine how hard this information was to read. We chose government pages because we expect them to provide reliable information.

The website pages we selected clearly indicated they were for the general public — such as a page with the heading “information and advice on the COVID-19 coronavirus for the community and businesses in Western Australia”.

Women in supermarket wearing a facemask.
Many health messages, such as the importance of wearing a face mask and social distancing, require individual action for community benefit.
Shutterstock

To be accessible to the general population documents should have a reading ability requirement of year 8. This means the health messages governments share should be understandable for someone in year 8 or lower in Australia.

What we found

We used an online readability checker to analyse the documents we accessed.
Readability scores are based on the number of words in a sentence, the number of syllables in the words and the number of sentences in the document.

The documents we analysed had an average readability of grade 13, which is very difficult to read for many adults. The range of readability scores was from grade 8 to grade 26.

Only two of the 52 documents could be read with relative ease, as these were assessed at grade 8. But no document in the set we analysed was easy to read. An easy-to-read document would have had a score of grade 6.




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For example, here is a difficult sentence explaining what the public needs to know about moving from one phase of restrictions to another. It is from one of the government websites. The document from which it was taken scored at grade 24 (very difficult to read).

Phase 3 will be subject to health advice, but will focus on continuing to build stronger links within the community and include further resumption of commercial and recreational activities.

There are 29 words in the above sentence.

As you can see, it is quite a long sentence with a number of big words. Without losing its original meaning, the sentence can be simplified into 18 words.

Based on health advice, Phase 3 will include connecting with community, opening businesses and allowing some personal activities.

The words we used are more common and therefore more easy to understand. Words such as “resumption” may be too hard for many readers.

What does this mean?

Based on the sample of documents we assessed, it appears a lot of government-produced COVID-19 information is not easy to read. This means it is unlikely to be of much practical use.

Our findings suggest governments are failing to take into account that many adults struggle to read when they develop important online communications about the pandemic — and perhaps other health advice.




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If those who create health messages don’t take into account that many adults struggle with reading, a large portion of the population misses out on information important for individual and public health.

We recommend readability checkers, now freely available on the internet, be used to check the grade level at which government documents are written.

Governments have a responsibility to share information so everyone can access it. They should not assume failure to comply with public health measures is always a choice. It’s possible the message simply hasn’t been received.The Conversation

Cath Ferguson, Academic, Edith Cowan University; Margaret Kristin Merga, Senior Lecturer in Education, Edith Cowan University, and Stephen Winn, Professor, Executive Dean, School of Education, Edith Cowan University

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

Government funds are not ‘taxpayer money’ — media and politicians should stop confusing the two



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Jonathan Barrett, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

Rhetoric plays an important role in tax debate and therefore tax policy. If your side manages to gain traction in the public imagination with labels such as “death tax” or “dementia tax”, you have gone a long way to normalising the labels and winning support.

Some truth underpins these particular labels — an estate tax is triggered by a person’s death, and the United Kingdom’s abandoned levy for end-of-life care would have been particularly relevant for dementia sufferers.

Nevertheless, these tags are essentially political messages and we should expect unbiased media to use neutral terminology. Fair reportage would not, for example, repeat the extreme libertarian claim that “tax is theft” — a baseless slogan incompatible with the rule of law.

However, both reputable media and politicians of every stripe invariably use the phrase “taxpayer money” to describe government funds, despite the phrase having no constitutional or legal basis.

This article argues that truth-based media should avoid the phrase, and progressive politicians should recognise they fall into a conservative trap when they repeat it.

Taxpayers don’t own their taxes

Richard Murphy, one of the founders of the UK’s Tax Justice Network and author of The Joy of Tax, explains that “taxpayers’ money” is the money left in our pockets after we have paid taxes that are legally due. Money payable through taxes is the government’s property.

This is quite easy to prove — try not paying your income tax and see if the courts will enforce government property rights in that money.

Murphy also observes that “taxpayer” is typically understood as “income tax payer”, thereby implicitly preferring high income earners while excluding beneficiaries. But a goods and services tax (GST) ensures everyone is a taxpayer, and indirect taxes disproportionately affect the poor.




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Similarly, at a local level, “ratepayer” has become synonymous with the propertied voice to which councils should pay heed, even though renters (rather than the registered ratepayer for a leased property) bear the effective burden of local rates.

If the government is the legal owner of its funds, then, does it hold tax revenue in trust for taxpayers? Not at all. Subject to the rule of law, governments can do what they choose with their money.

Elections decide how taxes are spent

Self-appointed watchdogs such as the Taxpayers’ Union claim to bring government waste to public notice. Rightly so — as citizens, we should demand proper stewardship of government funds.

But our actionable right as electors is to vote a wasteful government out of office. The electorate as a whole, rather than an ideological interest group, determines the size of government we should have.

Unlike trust beneficiaries, we do not have an equitable interest in the government’s money. If it were otherwise, groups of taxpayers might have some claim on the government to spend or not spend its money in particular ways.




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For example, paying taxes to fund belligerent activities is problematic for pacifists, notably certain religious groups. A Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act, which has been regularly introduced to the United States Congress, would permit dissenting taxpayers to assign the defence portion of their taxes to supporting peace work and social services.

Proponents of the legislation have not sought to pay less tax than their fellow citizens but to direct how their tax contribution is spent. These attempts have failed, as they must do. Democratic political communities permit dissent, but nonconformism does not extend to directing how taxes should be spent.

Tax is part of the social contract

In The Variorum Civil Disobedience (1849), a reflection on his imprisonment for failing to pay a highway tax, Henry David Thoreau recognised that an individual citizen can protest against government by refusing to pay tax (and accept the consequences), but they cannot treat the government’s choices in its expenditure as if it were a cafeteria. He wrote:

It is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man or a musket to shoot one with — the dollar is innocent — but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance.

Liberal democracies are based on some form of metaphorical social contract, most obviously manifest in the constitution. Under this arrangement, parliamentarians are elected representatives, not agents for particular groups.

Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau: ‘the dollar is innocent’.
http://www.shutterstock.com

Like any government that fails to comply with the basic values of society, groups that seek to control government expenditure outside the electoral process can be seen as bending, if not breaching, the social contract.

A handbrake on decisive action

A progressive government should reject the suggestion that its funds are not its own to use as it sees fit for the betterment of society — as always, in accordance with New Zealand’s two fundamental constitutional principles of parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law.

Kowtowing to a myth of “taxpayer money” may act as a handbrake on decisive action. We are taxed in accordance with statutory law. If Inland Revenue seeks to collect more from us than is due, we have access to various tribunals and courts.

These legal rules and processes determine what is mine and what belongs to the government. Broadly, we are free to deal with our own property as we see fit — and the government is too.

Media and progressive politicians should stop perpetuating the untruth that taxpayers retain some residual property interest in the taxes they pay. Taxpayer money is nothing more than their after-tax property and the government’s money is its own.The Conversation

Jonathan Barrett, Senior Lecturer in Taxation, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

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

Have our governments become too powerful during COVID-19?



Dean Lewins/AAP

Yee-Fui Ng, Monash University

In the fight against the coronavirus, the Australian government has enacted a series of measures that have expanded executive powers. These include the use of smartphone contact-tracing technology, mandatory isolation arrangements and the closure of borders and businesses.

While Australians seem broadly supportive of this type of government control in times of crisis, critics have expressed concerns about the long-term implications of these measures for individual rights.

There are a few salient questions: how does executive power accelerate during a pandemic — and why is this a cause for concern? And what type of oversight of executive power should there be in a democracy?

What is executive power and how does it work in a crisis?

The government of the day exercises executive power to implement programs and policies. Our democratic system dictates that the use of executive power is checked by the other two branches of government: the judiciary and legislature.

But in exceptional times of disaster and crisis, the executive government tends to take a pre-eminent role. Under our biosecurity and public health laws, governments can declare states of emergency and disaster, which give them significant coercive powers.

As crises such as pandemics, disasters or wars threaten the very existence of the nation, the rationale is the government needs these enhanced powers to protect the people.

By contrast, the parliament and courts tend to stand on the sidelines and reduce their scrutiny of these powers.




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How has executive power been used in the COVID pandemic?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen an expansion of executive power at both the federal and state levels.

The federal Biosecurity Act has been used to impose overseas travel bans (including a cap on the number of returning travellers per week), restricted travel and other emergency procedures for remote communities, and enforced quarantine of returning travellers.

The government also has the power to detain and isolate people who are suspected of being infected with the virus.

State public health laws have also been used to imposed a range of coercive measures, such as mandatory quarantine, compulsory wearing of face masks, restrictions on people’s movements and gatherings, the closure of businesses and border closures between states.

Police in Melbourne on patrol for violators of mask and gathering rules.
James Ross/AAP

How has parliament reacted during the crisis?

Alongside the expansion of executive power has been a decline in parliamentary scrutiny. The federal and state parliaments have been recessed for long periods during the pandemic. As a result, they are not scrutinising government action to the extent they should.

Even when parliament convenes during the pandemic, it passes legislation hastily without much scrutiny. For example, the COVIDSafe contact-tracing legislation was rushed through parliament in three days, despite significant privacy concerns.




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Another issue is parliament has delegated powers to the government to make major decisions by ministerial decree — both during and outside of a public emergency. This further increases executive power. The Centre for Public Integrity estimates such decisions have doubled in the past 30 years.

Parliamentary committee action has also been limited during the pandemic. At the federal level, the Parliamentary Select Committee on COVID-19 and Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation were set up to scrutinise government decisions and delegated legislation during COVID-19.
However, 19.1% of the government decisions and actions made since the beginning of the crisis are immune from parliamentary scrutiny.

This means parliament cannot veto these government decisions, unlike normal delegated legislation.

Why should we worry about expanding executive powers?

The increase of executive power raises several issues.

State police, aided by the Australian Defence Force, have enforced restrictions on individual movement and assembly. There are concerns the police and military have at times implemented these restrictions in a heavy-handed way.

For example, in New South Wales, a man was fined $1,000 for eating a pizza alone in his car on the way home after being laid off from his job.

Police also threatened to fine two women walking in a park with babies for violating the two-person gathering rule. The attorney-general later clarified that babies were not counted under the rule.

Police have been accused of using excessive force in breaking up some anti-lockdown protests.
AAP

Also, research of wartime laws has shown some supposedly “temporary” coercive measures have persisted long beyond a time of crisis and become permanent.

For example, the current Crimes Act has replicated unlawful associations provisions from the first world war.

And Australia’s national security laws have exponentially increased in the years since the terror attacks of September 11 2001. Governments have strategically deployed these sweeping executive powers to punish protesters, journalists and whistleblowers.

Thus, executive powers need to be closely monitored to ensure they are rolled back after a crisis.




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What sort of oversight of executive power should there be?

So, how can we enhance government accountability in a pandemic?

In the midst of a pressing national crisis, legislative safeguards are required to protect individual rights and freedoms.

All legislation enacted during the crisis should automatically expire or be periodically reviewed. All delegated legislation should also have an automatic expiry date and be of short duration. This is not universal practice for all laws made during this pandemic.

All coercive powers under emergency health laws, such as the detention of those suspected of having COVID-19, should be subject to both court and tribunal review to allow for adequate legal scrutiny of government actions.

And both parliament and the courts should carefully police the executive’s use of its extensive powers during the pandemic.

Parliament needs to scrutinise the government’s actions during the pandemic much more closely.
Lukas Coch/AAP

More broadly, given the quiescence of parliament and the courts in times of crisis, further independent oversight in the form of a federal anti-corruption watchdog is essential.

In the heat of a crisis, the vast expansion of executive powers — coupled with a sophisticated regulatory state that has the capacity to closely monitor and police its citizens — generates great risks for individual rights and liberties.

We need to be vigilant to ensure these powers are not abused and are rolled back at the end of the crisis.The Conversation

Yee-Fui Ng, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Monash University

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

ABC has for too long been unwilling to push back against interference – at its journalists’ expense



Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

For those who watch the affairs of the ABC through the eyes of a critical friend, the removal of Emma Alberici, made public on August 21, is deeply disturbing.

It is the climax to a destructive series of events that began more than two years ago and once again draws attention to two serious weaknesses in the ABC’s management arrangements.

One is structural: the editor-in-chief is fatally compromised in that role by also being managing director. The managing director has corporate responsibilities that conflict with his or her editorial responsibilities every time the government tightens the financial screws.

That is not a reflection on David Anderson’s character or probity; it is the inevitable consequence of having the one person in both roles.

It also happens that Anderson – like his ill-fated predecessor Michelle Guthrie – is not a journalist. This makes it hard for him to give the kind of editorial leadership the ABC requires.




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The second weakness is cultural. This long pre-dates Anderson’s term and is the product of sustained hostility from successive Coalition governments going back to the start of the Howard prime ministership in 1996.

The preceding 12 years of the Hawke-Keating governments had hardly been a golden age for the ABC, but it generally got year-on-year funding increases.

And in the tough-minded minister for communications, Michael Duffy, it had a defender in cabinet who was prepared to confront Hawke and other ministers infuriated by some of the ABC’s reporting.

As for the three years of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd interlude, Labor was too busy tearing itself to pieces to bother with the ABC.

Former Prime Minister John Howard
Concerted government attacks on the ABC began under John Howard.
Mark Graham/AAP

Now, according to Anderson, after six years of cumulative budget cuts by the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison administrations, the total effective reduction in ABC funding will amount to A$105.9 million per year by 2022.

And as for defenders in cabinet, the present communications minister, Paul Fletcher, is as mute as a swan.

Clearly all this has sapped morale.

In September 2018, a dossier compiled by Michelle Guthrie was leaked, revealing an email in which Justin Milne, as chair of the ABC, told her to get rid of Alberici, declaring the government “hate her”.

Over the preceding months, the government had repeatedly criticised stories Alberici had done in her role as chief economics correspondent.

Guthrie’s dossier came to light in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald at a time when the ABC had decided to sack her. In the ensuing “firestorm” – Milne’s word – he was consumed as well.




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Milne had been concerned also with the work of political editor Andrew Probyn. He wanted Guthrie to “shoot” Probyn because the government hated him too and his continued presence was putting at risk half-a-billion dollars in funding for the ABC.

Assuming Milne and Guthrie were telling the truth, there could not be a clearer instance of how the government was using funding to undermine the ABC’s editorial independence.

The effects of this sustained intimidation are felt a long way down the ABC’s editorial food chain.

In May 2018, Barnaby Joyce accepted a reported $150,000 fee to appear with his lover on Channel Seven and talk about the affair that ended Joyce’s marriage and was a breach of the ministerial code of conduct. The ABC asked me to write a commentary on it.

I filed an article saying Joyce’s decision to take money for telling a story that concerned his public duties called into question his fitness for public office.

There was an awkward response from within the ABC indicating some disquiet further up the line. Would I mind not saying that about Joyce?

The rest of that exchange was off the record, but suffice to say I minded very much and withdrew the article. It later appeared unchanged in The Conversation and The Age.

That incident – small in itself but large in principle – revealed a malaise in editorial leadership at several levels.

Four months later came the revelations in Guthrie’s dossier about Milne’s attempts to have Probyn and Alberici sacked. It seems reasonable to infer word was filtering down from the top that if the ABC wanted to avoid yet more trouble from the government, it had better mind its manners.

Former ABC chair Justin Milne and former managing director Michelle Guthrie
Justin Milne told Michelle Guthrie to sack Emma Alberici and Andrew Probyn because the government hated them.
Joel Carrett/AAP

Alberici is now gone anyway, part of a wave of 200 redundancies announced by Anderson in June in response to the latest round of budget cuts.

It is clear from a leak of correspondence between her lawyer and the ABC the parting was anything but amicable, having finished up in the Fair Work Commission.

Her position as chief economics correspondent had been abolished and she was offered positions as a presenter. Alberici tweeted she wanted a reporting job.

So the ghosts of Justin Milne, Malcolm Turnbull and Michelle Guthrie continue to haunt the ABC.

The board that presided over the Milne-Guthrie implosion is still largely intact, despite having come out badly from a Senate inquiry into that debacle.

The committee of inquiry said:

This catalogue of events may give rise to the perception that the ABC Board had not been sufficiently active in protecting either the ABC’s independence from political interference or its own integrity.

And the structural and cultural weaknesses laid bare by the saga remain.

The strategy the Howard government developed for dealing with the ABC – funding cuts, pointless inquiries and cultural warfare – is being followed to the letter by the present government.

2017 was a vintage year, and sums up the problems:

  • Abbott’s cuts from three years earlier were working their way through the system

  • Pauline Hanson, smarting from a Four Corners investigation, secured a promise from the government to hold an inquiry into whether the ABC and SBS operated on a “level playing field” (Answer: yes they did)

One of history’s many lessons is that appeasement does not work. Editorial executives have one over-riding responsibility: to provide a safe environment in which their staff can do independent journalism, regardless of corporate, political or economic interests.




Read more:
Why the ABC, and the public that trusts it, must stand firm against threats to its editorial independence


Part of that is having the professional experience to understand what is involved, which includes absorbing the bullying that comes from powerful people and, where necessary, hitting back.

There has been no sign the ABC’s journalists have been getting that kind of protection, least of all from the board.

Instead, they are at the mercy of a vindictive government, urged on by its mates in News Corporation, which has a vested interest in weakening the ABC and shamelessly campaigns for exactly that.

The original version of this article contained a reference to an email concerning the coverage of marriage equality on the ABC. The author has subsequently learnt more about the origins and context of that email and acknowledges that the context as presented in the original article was wrong. That passage has been removed.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

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

Australians highly confident of government’s handling of coronavirus and economic recovery: new research




Mark Evans, University of Canberra

Australians have exhibited high levels of trust in federal government during the coronavirus pandemic, a marked shift from most people’s views of government before the crisis began, new research shows.

Australians are also putting their trust in government at far higher rates than people in three other countries badly affected by the virus – the US, Italy and the UK.

The findings, published today in a new report, “Is Australia still the lucky country?”, are part of a broader comparative research collaboration between the Democracy 2025 initiative at the Museum of Australian Democracy and the TrustGov Project at the University of Southampton in the UK.

The research involved surveys of adults aged between 18 and 75 in all four countries in June to gauge whether public attitudes toward democratic institutions and practices had changed during the pandemic. We also asked about people’s compliance with coronavirus restrictions and their resilience to meet the challenge of the post-pandemic recovery.

The main proposition behind our research is that public trust is critical in times like this. Without it, the changes to public behaviour necessary to contain the spread of infection are slower and more resource-intensive.




Read more:
Coronavirus spike: why getting people to follow restrictions is harder the second time around


Levels of trust higher for most institutions

Australians are now exhibiting much higher levels of political trust in federal government (from 25% in 2019 to 54% in our survey), and the Australian public service (from 38% in 2018 to 54% in our survey).

Compared to the other three countries in our research, Australia’s trust in government also comes out on top. In the UK, only 41% of participants had high trust in government, while in Italy it was at 40% and the US just 34%.


Confidence in key institutions

Percentage who say they have ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence. (Note: the survey collect data on the Australian parliament as it didn’t convene during the period of data collection.)
Democracy 2025/TrustGov survey; Author provided

Australians also have high levels of confidence in institutions related to defence and law and order, such as the army (78%), police (75%) and the courts (55%). Levels of trust are also high in the health services (77%), cultural institutions (70%) and universities (61%). Notably, Australians exhibit high levels of trust in scientists and experts (77%).

These figures were comparable with the other countries in the survey, with the notable exception of Americans’ confidence in the health services, which stood at just 48%.

Although Australians continue to have low levels of trust in social media (from 20% in 2018 to 19% in our survey), confidence is gaining in other forms of news dissemination, such as TV (from 32% in 2018 to 39%), radio (from 38% in 2018 to 41%) and newspapers (from 29% in 2018 to 37%).


Public trust in various media, scientists and experts

Public trust in various media, scientists and experts (by percentage).
Democracy 2025/TrustGov survey; Author provided

How does Morrison compare with Trump and other leaders?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is perceived to be performing strongly in his management of the crisis by a significant majority of Australians (69%).

Indeed, he possesses the strongest performance measures in comparison with Italy (52% had high confidence in Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte), the UK (37% for Prime Minister Boris Johnson) and the US (35% for President Donald Trump).

Morrison also scores highly when it comes to listening to experts, with 73% of Australians saying he does, compared to just 33% of Americans believing Trump does.


Public perceptions of leadership

Percentage of respondents in four countries who ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ with statements about how their leader is handling COVID-19.
Democracy 2025/TrustGov survey; Author provided

Interestingly, Morrison’s approval numbers are also far higher than the state premiers in Australia. Only 37% of our respondents on average think their state premier or chief minister is “handling the coronavirus situation well”. Tasmanians (52%) and Western Australians (49%) had the highest confidence in their leaders’ handling of the crisis.

This suggests that in Australia, the politics of national unity (the “rally around the flag” phenomenon) is strong in times of crisis, whereas people tend to view the leaders of states or territories as acting in their own self-interest.


Perceptions of the quality of state and territory leadership

Perceptions of the quality of state and territory leadership during COVID-19.
Democracy 2025/TrustGov survey; Author provided

Compliance and resilience

Our findings also showed most Australians were complying with the key government measures to combat COVID-19, but were marginally less compliant than their counterparts in the UK. (Australians are relatively equal with Italians and Americans.)

Among the states and territories, Victorians have been the most compliant with anti-COVID-19 measures, while the ACT, Tasmania and the Northern Territory were the least compliant. This is in line with the low levels of reported cases in these jurisdictions and by the lower public perception of the risk of infection.




Read more:
After the crisis: what lessons can be drawn from the management of COVID-19 for the recovery process?


When it comes to resilience to meet the challenges of the post-pandemic recovery, we considered confidence in social, economic and political factors.

Although a majority of Australians (60%) expect COVID-19 to have a “high” or “very high” level of financial threat for them and their families, they are less worried than their counterparts in Italy, the UK and US about the threat COVID-19 poses “to the country” (33%), “to them personally” (19%), or “to their job or business” (29%).


Perceptions of the level of threat posed by COVID-19

Percentage of respondents who agree or strongly agree with the statements about the economic threat posed by coronavirus.
Democracy 2025/TrustGov survey; Author provided.

About half of all Australians believe the economy will get worse in the next year (this is slightly higher than in the US but much lower than in the UK and Italy). In Australia, women, young people, Labor voters and those on lower incomes with lower levels of qualifications are the most pessimistic on all confidence measures.

However, Australians remain highly confident the country will bounce back from COVID-19, with most believing Australia is “more resilient than most other countries” (72%).


Perceptions of Australian resilience

Perceptions of Australian resilience compared to other countries.
Democracy 2025/TrustGov survey; Author provided

We also assessed whether views about how democracy works should change as a result of the pandemic. An overwhelming majority of people said they wanted politicians to be more honest and fair (87%), be more decisive but accountable for their actions (82%) and be more collaborative and less adversarial (82%).

Staying lucky

Australia has been lucky in terms of its relative geographical isolation from international air passenger traffic during the pandemic.

But Australia has also benefited from effective governance – facilitated by strong political bipartisanship from Labor – and by atypical coordination of state and federal governments via the National Cabinet.

The big question now is whether Morrison can sustain strong levels of public trust in the recovery period.




Read more:
A matter of trust: coronavirus shows again why we value expertise when it comes to our health


There are two positive lessons to be drawn from the government’s management of COVID-19 in this regard.

First, the Australian people expects their governments to continue to listen to the experts, as reflected in the high regard that Australians have for evidence-based decision-making observed in the survey.

Second, the focus on collaboration and bipartisanship has played well with an Australian public fed up with adversarial politics.

The critical insight then is clear: Australia needs to embrace this new style of politics – one that is cleaner, collaborative and evidence-based – to drive post-COVID-19 recovery and remain a lucky country.The Conversation

Mark Evans, Professor of Governance and Director of Democracy 2025 – bridging the trust divide at Old Parliament House, University of Canberra

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

Government to repay 470,000 unlawful robodebts in what might be Australia’s biggest-ever financial backdown


Terry Carney, University of Sydney

In a near-complete capitulation, the government will refund every alleged overpayment it has collected from welfare recipients under the discredited “robodebt” system of income averaging.

Unveiling the automated system in mid-2016 then treasurer Scott Morrison and social services minister Christian Porter promised more “accurate and appropriate income testing”.

They were going to work with the prime minister’s Digital Transformation Office to “cut red tape and ensure that mistakes are minimised”.

The man who headed Digital Transformation Office at the time later described what happened as “cataclysmic”.

Three quarters of a billion to be paid back

Almost half a million Australians received letters from Centrelink telling them they had been overpaid because the income their employer had reported to the Tax Office was more than the income they had reported to Centrelink.

Unless they explained why within 21 days, they would have an assessment made against them and be hit by a 10% recovery fee.

Many paid up, in part because the alleged overpayments went back six years or more, and the Centrelink website had only asked them to keep payslips for six months.

Hundreds of thousands of these assessments appear to have been wrong.

Rather than using the recipients’ actual income in the fortnights for which benefits had been paid, Centrelink calculated an average fortnightly income over a longer period which often included fortnights they were in paid employment and not receiving Centrelink benefits.

November backdown

In November 2019 a week before it was due to defend a test case brought by a 33-year-old local government worker, and after press reports that its own lawyers had told it such collections were unlawful, the government conceded all points and abandoned income averaging.

A court order declared that the debt notice was not validly issued because the decision-maker could not have been satisfied that the debt was owed.




Read more:
Robodebt failed its day in court, what now?


At the time the minister for government services Stuart Robert described the decision not to proceed with income averaging as “a refinement” that would affect a “small cohort”.

On Friday, ahead of the hearing of a larger class action, Mr Robert announced that the government would refund everything collected under the scheme, whether it was calculated using partial or whole income averaging.

The refunds will be paid to all 470,000 Australians who have had debts calculated using income averaging, whether they had paid up voluntarily or not.

Now the half a million repayments

Included in the refunds will be interest charged and collection fees charged, at an estimated total cost of A$721 million.

What the Government has not agreed to is damages for harm and suffering of supposed debtors, which were sought by the class action. Although liability for damages is more difficult to establish, the class action is unlikely to abandon the attempt to obtain compensation.

The harm suffered by many of those caught up by the Government’s illegal and immoral robodebt scheme is an injustice still to be rectified.




Read more:
Danger! Election 2016 delivered us Robodebt. Promises can have consequences


The Conversation


Terry Carney, Emeritus Professor of Law, University of Sydney

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

COVID crisis has produced many negatives but some positives too, including confidence in governments: ANU study


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Research by the Australian National University has found a big spike in the fear of becoming unemployed even among those who have kept their jobs in the COVID crisis.

Among the employed, the average expected probability of losing their job was 24.6% in the April study. This was almost twice as high as it has ever been since 2001.

More than one in four employed Australians assess the likelihood of losing their job in the coming year at more than 50%.

Many people are also worried about finding an equally good job if they were to lose their present one. The average expectation of finding a job at least as good was 41.4%; only 8.2% rated their chances of securing an equally good job at 100%.

The ANU study is the first longitudinal examination of the economic, political, social and mental impacts of the crisis, and is based on an ANUPoll of 3155 people between April 14 and 27. It also compares pre-crisis polling from earlier in the year. The researchers are Nicholas Biddle, Ben Edwards, Matthew Gray and Kate Sollis.

It found the decline in employment in the COVID crisis largest for those aged 18-24, while the oldest workers (65 and over) were also taking a relatively large hit.

These are the cohorts for which becoming unemployed is likely to have the biggest effect.

Gray said: “If previous periods of high unemployment are any guide, the effect on the young is likely to be felt throughout their working life, and those who leave the labour force when close to retirement age may never return”.

The study found the probability of remaining employed in April was much greater for professionals, clerical and administrative workers, machinery operators and drivers than for other workers.

Technicians and trades workers, community and personal services workers, sales workers and labourers who were working in February were less likely to be employed in April.

People who had been out of work for at least three months in the previous five years were less likely to stay employed than those who hadn’t been.

Trade union membership seems to be something of a protection against job loss, the study found, while being employed as a casual was associated with a substantially lower prospect of keeping employed.

While there was a fall of 9.1% in average household after tax income, the detailed picture was more complicated.

“The change in income is not uniform across the income distribution with increases in income at the bottom of the income distribution and declines in income for those who were at the top half of the income distribution,” the report says.

“There was an increase of 33.5% in per person after tax household income for the lowest income decile, and smaller increases for the second and third income deciles. The increase in income at the bottom end are almost certainly due to the increases in government financial assistance to households.

“There was little change in incomes for deciles 4 and 5 and then substantial falls for the higher income deciles.

“There were larger declines in income for 18 to 24 year olds. There were smaller declines for those who lived in the most advantaged neighbourhoods.

“Despite the falls in income, the proportion of Australians who said that they were finding it difficult or very difficult on their current income decreased from 26.7% in February to 22.8% in April 2020.

“This finding is explained by the increases in income at the bottom end of the income distribution.”

While the study documents the harm of the crisis on the job front, and in social isolation, psychological distress, and uncertainty about the future, it also found some upsides.

Confidence in government and the public service improved, and social trust rose.

Between January and April confidence in the federal government increased from 27.3% to 56.6%. State and territory governments enjoyed a boost – from 40.4% to 66.7%. Confidence in the public service rose from 48.8% to 64.8%.

“Social cohesion has improved between February and April 2020 based on measures that Australians think most people can be trusted, that people are fair and that people are helpful.”

The study says: “During times of economic stress and uncertainty, there is a real risk that social cohesion, trust in others, and confidence in the government will decline. There is no evidence for this (yet) in Australia, and if anything social cohesion has increased.

“Australians are more likely to think that their fellow Australians can be trusted, are generally fair, and are generally helpful than they were prior to the spread of COVID-19.

“Confidence in the government has also increased.

“What is perhaps most surprising is that satisfaction with the direction of the country has increased quite substantially not only since January 2020 when Australia was being wracked by bushfires, but also since October 2019.

“There is, of course, no guarantee that these trends will continue, especially if the economic slump drags on. In the short term though, there is consistently positive and improving views of Australians to each other, and to government.”The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Privacy vs pandemic: government tracking of mobile phones could be a potent weapon against COVID-19


Patrick Fair, Deakin University

Borders, beaches, pubs and churches are closed, large events are cancelled, and travellers are subject to 14 days’ isolation – all at significant cost to taxpayers and the economy. But could telecommunications technology offer a more targeted approach to controlling the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus?

One possibility is to use location history data from the mobile phones of confirmed cases, to help track and trace the spread of infection.

Some people can be contagious without knowing, either because they have not yet developed symptoms, or because their symptoms are mild. These individuals cannot be identified until they become sufficiently unwell to seek medical assistance. Finding them more quickly could help curb the spread of the disease.

This suggestion clearly raises complex privacy issues.




Read more:
Explainer: what is contact tracing and how does it help limit the coronavirus spread?


All mobile service providers in Australia are required to hold two years of data relating to the use of each mobile phone on their network, including location information.

For anyone who tests positive with COVID-19, this data could be used to list every location where they (or, more accurately, their phone) had been over the preceding few weeks. Using that list, it would then be possible to identify every phone that had been in close proximity to the person’s phone during that time. The owners of those phones could then be tested, even though they may not necessarily have developed symptoms or suspected that they had come into contact with the coronavirus.

The government could do this in a systematic way. It could assemble everyone’s location history into a single, searchable database that could then be cross-referenced against the locations of known clusters of infection. This would allow contact tracing throughout the entire population, creating a more proactive way to track down suspected cases.

The privacy problem

You may well ask: do we want the government to assemble a searchable database showing the locations of almost every person over 16 in Australia over the past month?

Some people will undoubtedly find it a confronting prospect to be contacted by the government and told that surveillance analysis suggests they need to be isolated or tested. Others will be concerned that such a database, or the broad surveillance capability that underpins it, could be used to intrude on our privacy in other ways.

Several countries are already using mobile phone data in the fight against the coronavirus. The UK government is reportedly in talks with major mobile phone operators to use location data to analyse the outbreak’s spread.

India, Hong Kong, Israel, Austria, Belgium, Germany are also among the list of countries taking advantage of mobile data to tackle the pandemic.

The Singapore government has launched an app called Trace Together, which allows mobile users to voluntarily share their location data. Iran’s leaders have been accused of being rather less transparent, amid reports that its coronavirus “diagnosis” app also logs people’s whereabouts.

Is it legal anyway?

We may well take the view that the privacy risks are justified in the circumstances. But does the Australian government actually have the power to use our data for this purpose?

The Telecommunications Act requires carriers to keep telecommunications data secure, but also allows federal, state and territory governments to request access to it for purposes including law enforcement, national security, and protecting public revenue.

Being infected with COVID-19 is not a crime, and while a pandemic is arguably a threat to national security, it is not specifically listed under the Act. Limiting the outbreak would undoubtedly benefit public revenue, but clearly the primary intent of contact tracing is as a public health measure.

There is another law that could also compel mobile carriers to hand over users’ data. During a “human biosecurity emergency period”, the Biosecurity Act 2015 allows the federal health minister to take any action necessary to prevent or control the “emergence, establishment or spread” of the declared emergency disease. A human biosecurity emergency period was declared on Sunday 23 March.




Read more:
Explainer: what are the laws mandating self-isolation and how will they be enforced?


In recent years there has been a great deal of debate over the use of telecommunications data for surveillance purposes. The introduction of the mandatory data retention regime was contentious, as was the broad power granted to multiple agencies to access the data for law enforcement.

One reason for the controversy was the relatively low threshold for use of these laws: authorities could access data relating to any suspected offence punishable by three years or more in prison.

Australia is now facing a crisis that is orders of magnitude more serious. Many Australians would be willing to see their information used in this way if it saves lives, limits the economic impact, and impedes the spread of COVID-19.

The Commonwealth has the legal power to do it, the security and privacy issues can be managed, and the benefits may be significant.The Conversation

Patrick Fair, Adjunct Professor, School of Information Technology, Deakin University

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