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.

Explainer: what are the Australian government’s powers to quarantine people in a coronavirus outbreak?



AAP/Mick Tsikas

Amy Maguire, University of Newcastle and Bin Li, University of Newcastle

The Australian government has announced its intention to use powers under the Biosecurity Act, if needed, in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Attorney-General Christian Porter has described these powers as “strange and foreign to many Australians”, but potentially necessary in the face of a pandemic.




Read more:
We’re in danger of drowning in a coronavirus ‘infodemic’. Here’s how we can cut through the noise


The 2015 Biosecurity Act aims to manage biosecurity threats to human, animal and plant health. In the context of coronavirus (COVID-19), a biosecurity risk under this legislation would be defined as:

  • the likelihood of a disease spreading in Australian territory
  • the potential for that disease to cause harm to human health and/or economic consequences.

What powers could the government exercise?

The Biosecurity Act is a mammoth piece of legislation, comprising 11 chapters and 645 sections. It is framed in terms that deliver extensive powers to relevant officers. The attorney-general is correct in saying these powers will seem very foreign to many members of the Australian community.

The director of human biosecurity, in consultation with chief health officers in the states and territories, may determine that a disease is a “listed human disease”. COVID-19 has been listed as such a disease, as it is communicable and may cause significant harm to human health.

People with listed diseases may be subject to “human biosecurity control orders”. Control orders can require people, among other things, to:

  • provide their contact information and health details (including body samples for diagnosis)
  • restrict their behaviour
  • undergo risk-minimisation interventions (including decontamination) and/or medical treatment
  • accept isolation from the community for specified periods.

If a person does not consent to a control order, the director may require them to comply. In some cases, if they refuse, a person may be detained by police.

A person who fails to comply with a control order or escapes from detention could be charged with a criminal offence. Under the act, these offences carry penalties ranging up to imprisonment for five years.

The director may also designate “human health response zones”. This may result in restrictions on entering or leaving a particular area. Failure to comply may incur a fine.

Chapter 8 of the Biosecurity Act sets out circumstances in which the governor-general may declare a “human biosecurity emergency”. Sweeping powers are then available to the health minister.

During a human biosecurity emergency period, the Health Minister may determine any requirement that he or she is satisfied is necessary:

a) to prevent or control…

(ii) the emergence, establishment or spread of the declaration listed human disease in Australian territory or a part of Australian territory…

This power includes, but is not limited to, imposing requirements on:

  • entering or leaving specified places
  • restricting or preventing the movement of people in or between places
  • evacuating places.

Criminal and civil penalties can also apply to people who refuse to comply with requirements under such emergency powers.

In practice, the health minister or delegated officials could require the closure of premises such as shopping centres or sporting facilities. The potential restrictions could have a far-reaching impact on people’s daily lives.

Coercive powers and the community

Such powers, including civil and even criminal penalties, are not uncommon globally. Other countries have similar laws for the purpose of containing the spread of communicable diseases. For example, in Singapore the police can enforce quarantine-related measures.

In China, where the COVID-19 outbreak originated, some infected people are facing police investigation for failing to avoid contact with other people. Indeed, some have been charged with the crime of endangering public security. Penalties for conviction could be very severe, ranging up to life imprisonment or even the death penalty.

To avoid the abuse of such powers, the Chinese Supreme Court has recently warned against the strict application of endangering public security charges in relation to pandemic control measures.

Concerns will certainly be raised in Australia about the exercise of special and emergency powers. The attorney-general is clearly aware of this. He has said the more extreme powers would be used only as a “last resort”. Yet he has also confirmed that biosecurity powers are very likely to be used on a large scale.

The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment is the frontline agency administering the Biosecurity Act. Its website aims to engage Australian citizens with their responsibilities to protect Australia’s biosecurity.

The Biosecurity Act sets out extensive provisions with the apparent aim of ensuring special powers only be exercised where warranted and for the shortest possible time. It also provides for judicial review of certain decisions under the act. Lay people may find it quite challenging, though, to interpret their rights under the act when faced with the imposition of a coercive measure.




Read more:
Is the coronavirus a pandemic, and does that matter? 4 questions answered


Many Australians may be tolerant of special governmental powers if they see such intervention as essential to protect everyone’s health. The community is undoubtedly being inundated with information about the COVID-19 outbreak from government and media sources.

On the other hand, some people may be tempted to resist coercive powers that interfere with their personal liberty. The president of the Law Council, Pauline Wright, notes that the powers under the Biosecurity Act can be exercised against a person even where the relevant officer does not know or reasonably suspect the person is infected with coronavirus.

It will be crucial for government officers to be cautious in their use of special powers. They must seek to balance legitimate efforts to protect public health with individuals’ rights to liberty and due process.The Conversation

Amy Maguire, Associate Professor, University of Newcastle and Bin Li, Lecturer, University of Newcastle

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

Russian government resignation: what’s just happened and what’s in store for Putin beyond 2024?


Graeme Gill, University of Sydney

News came from Moscow overnight that the Russian government had resigned, followed by the announcement that Putin would be recommending the current prime minister Dmitry Medvedev be replaced by the head of the tax office, Mikhail Mishustin.

Why has the government resigned, and what does it mean for the future?

Prior to the government’s resignation, President Vladimir Putin announced a series of proposed changes to the constitution to be placed before the people in a future referendum. In announcing the government’s resignation, Medvedev hinted that their resignation was to facilitate the progression of the proposed constitutional reforms.




Read more:
Russia’s cabinet resigns and it’s all part of Putin’s plan


What changes did Putin propose?

Among others, Putin proposed that in the constitution:

  • international law should apply in Russia only if it does not contradict the constitution or restrict peoples’ rights and freedoms. This, he said, was a question of sovereignty

  • leading political figures should not have foreign citizenship or the right to live permanently in another state. As well as these qualifications, the president must have lived in Russia for the last 25 years

  • the president should not be able to hold the presidency for two consecutive terms (although Putin said he doesn’t think this is a matter of principle)

  • the prime minister and all ministers should be appointed by the State Duma (parliament) instead of the president, who would have no right to reject those appointments

  • the role of the State Council (an advisory body) should be expanded and strengthened

  • the independence of judges should be enshrined and protected.

The most important of these proposed changes (along with that of judicial independence) is that of moving the power to form the government from the president into the legislature.

If this was done and a truly accountable form of government was established, it would be a major advance on how the system has worked up until now.

But in the same speech, Putin argued that Russia needed to remain a presidential, not a parliamentary, republic. These two positions seem at odds with one another and a potential recipe for constitutional confusion.

Why has Putin suggested this change?

One reason may be dissatisfaction with the government’s performance. The implication from Putin’s speech, and from many other comments, is that both the governance of Russia and the current government have been deficient.

Governance is seen by Putin to be hampered by the lack of a direct constitutional line between president and ministers, and this would be resolved by making the prime minister the key person in the policy sphere rather than the president.

This would be facilitated by removing the president’s power to choose the identity of the prime minister and some ministers. The government’s resignation could be seen as a response to the dissatisfaction with its performance.

But also relevant is power politics. Putin is due to step down as president in 2024. Thoughts are already turning to the question of the succession, in particular, will Putin go, and if so, who will replace him?




Read more:
Is Putin’s leadership legitimate? A closer look at Russia’s elections


The current Constitution forbids Putin from standing for another presidential term in 2024. The last time he faced this question in 2008, Putin stepped down as president and became prime minister. The potential beefing up of the prime ministership under these proposals might make this strategy again attractive.

But in 2024 Putin will be 73, and it is not clear that he would really want to be involved in the sort of day-to-day policy discussions a prime minister must involve himself in. He has already been showing some irritation with the policy process.

However beefing up and reshaping the State Council could provide a slot into which a post-presidential Putin could move, giving him some continuing oversight powers while not making him drown in policy details and paper.

This is surmise. But what is undoubtedly true is that this is only the first public move in what is likely to be a prolonged process of succession and power transfer in Russia.The Conversation

Graeme Gill, Professor, Department of Government and Public Administration, University of Sydney

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

Morrison cuts a swathe through the public service, with five departmental heads gone


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison has announced a dramatic overhaul of the federal public service, cutting the number of departments and creating several new mega ones, while removing five secretaries.

The departments will be reduced from 18 to 14.

But Morrison said there were no changes to his ministry or to portfolio arrangements.

“I’m very pleased, very pleased, with the performance of all of my ministers and the work they’ve been doing,” he told a news conference.

He also said the public service shake up was not a savings measure.

This has been done as a structural issue to better align and bring together functions within the public service so they can all do their jobs more effectively and help more Australians

The new departments are

  • Education, skills and employment, created from the present department of education and department of employment, skills, small and family business

  • Agriculture, water and the environment, which consolidates the department of agriculture, and the environment functions from the current department of the environment and energy

  • Industry, science, energy and resources, which will bring together the present department of industry, innovation and science, the energy functions of the current department of the environment and energy, and the small business functions from the current department of employment, skills, small and family Business.

  • The department of infrastructure, transport, regional development and communications, consolidating the current department of infrastructure, transport, cities and regional development, and the department of communications and the arts.

Services Australia announced by Morrison after the election, will be established as a new executive agency within the social services department.




Read more:
Scott Morrison tells public servants: keep in mind the ‘bacon and eggs’ principle


Ten departments are unchanged, Morrison said.

The secretaries who have been dispensed with are: Kerri Hartland (employment); Renée Leon (human services); Mike Mrdak (communications); Daryl Quinlivan (agriculture) and Heather Smith (industry).

It is not known which, if any, were voluntary departures.

Morrison immediately after the election installed his own man, Phil Gaetjens as head of the prime minister’s department, and flagged more changes later.

Morrison is bringing back to the public service Andrew Metcalfe who will head the new agriculture department. Metcalfe was sacked by prime minister Tony Abbott from agriculture.

Morrison said Metcalfe would “bring considerable public policy leadership experience” to the job.

David Fredericks, presently secretary of the environment and energy department becomes secretary of the new industry department.

Morrison said the shrinking of the number of departments was “to ensure the services that Australians rely on are delivered more efficiently and effectively”.

“Australians should be able to access simple and reliable services, designed around their needs. Having fewer departments will allow us to bust bureaucratic congestion, improve decision-making and ultimately deliver better services for the Australian people,” Morrison said.

“The new structure will drive greater collaboration on important policy challenges. For example, better integrating the government’s education and skills agenda and ensuring Australians living in regional areas can access the infrastructure and services they need.”

Andrew Podger, a former public service commissioner who headed several departments, said he was “particularly pleased” to see the department of human services disappear as a department and become an executive agency (Services Australia) in the social services portfolio, although it would have been better if Morrison had gone further and made it a statutory authority.

“But at least we will no longer have the administration of social security payments in a separate portfolio from social security policy,” he said.

“The other mergers make some sense, recreating the ‘mega-dapartment’ structures from the 1987 Hawke years, particularly the combination of education, employment and training, ” Podger said.

“But the main potential benefit of fewer and larger departments is to make cabinet work better, with a smaller cabinet, and with portfolio ministers given more latitude to make decisions (and allocate resources) drawing on their junior ministers.

“If this does not happen, and more departments have two cabinet ministers, that will cause more problems, not fewer ones, particularly for the secretaries giving advice.”




Read more:
Grattan on Friday: Morrison can learn a lot from the public servants, but will he listen?


Morrison, asked who would be the senior minister in the new environment and agriculture department, defended having multiple ministers.

“The portfolio minister for the environment Sussan Ley is responsible for the environment and Bridget McKenzie, who is the minister for agriculture, will be responsible for agriculture policy, and David Littleproud is responsible for water policy, Morrison said.

It is not uncommon for departments to have multiple ministers. They have multiple ministers now. And so the officials that work in these departments respond to the minister that is responsible for those portfolio issues. So who’s the senior minister on environment? Well, it’s the minister for the environment. Who’s the senior minister on agriculture? It’s the minister for agriculture. It should be very plain.

Morrison flagged he would next week provide the government’s response to the still-unreleased Thodey review of the public service.

Mrdak said in a frank memo to staff: “I was told of the government’s decision to abolish the department late yesterday afternoon. We were not permitted any opportunity to provide advice on the machinery of government changes, nor were our views ever sought on any proposal to abolish the department or to changes to our structure and operations.”

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese said the changes were about “centralising power”.


Departments and secretaries from February 1, 2020

  • Department of agriculture, water and the environment – Andrew Metcalfe

  • Attorney-general’s department – Chris Moraitis

  • Department of defence – Greg Moriarty

  • Department of education, skills and employment – Michelle Bruniges

  • Department of finance – Rosemary Huxtable

  • Department of foreign affairs and trade – Frances Adamson

  • Department of health – Glenys Beauchamp

  • Department of home affairs – Michael Pezzullo

  • Department of industry, science, energy and resources – David Fredericks

  • Department of infrastructure, transport, regional development and communications – Simon Atkinson

  • Department of the prime minister and cabinet – Philip Gaetjens

  • Department of social services – Kathryn Campbell

  • Department of the treasury – Steven Kennedy

  • Department of veterans’ affairs – Liz CossonThe Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Government to inject economic stimulus by accelerating infrastructure spend


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government is responding to increasing concern about the faltering economy by accelerating A$3.8 billion of infrastructure investment into the next four years, including $1.8 billion for the current and next financial years.

Scott Morrison will outline the infrastructure move in a speech to the Business Council of Australia on Wednesday night, while insisting the government is not panicking about Australia’s economic conditions.

The government’s action follows increasing calls for some stimulus, with concern the tax cuts have not flowed through strongly enough to spending.

The just-released minutes of the last Reserve Bank meeting show the bank seriously considered another rate cut at its November meeting but held off, partly because it thought that might not have the desired effect. Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe has previously urged more spending on infrastructure.

Morrison is making appearances in various states to publicise the government’s infrastructure plans.

The infrastructure bring-forward over the coming 18 months is $1.27 billion plus $510 million in extra funding. Over the forward estimates, the bring-forward is $2.72 billion plus $1.06 billion in additional funding.

The government’s latest action means since the election it will have injected an extra $9.5 billion into the economy for 2019-20 and 2020-21. This comprises $7.2 billion in tax relief, $1.8 billion in infrastructure bring-forwards and additional projects, and $550 million in drought assistance to communities.

In his BCA speech, draft extracts of which have been released, Morrison is expected to say that “a panicked reaction to contemporary challenges would amount to a serious misdiagnosis of our economic situation”.

“A responsible and sensible government does not run the country as if it is constantly at DEFCON1 the whole time, whether on the economy or any other issue. It deals with issues practically and soberly.”




Read more:
If you want to boost the economy, big infrastructure projects won’t cut it: new Treasury boss


He will say that notwithstanding the headwinds, including the drought which has cut farm production, the economy has continued to grow, and is forecast to “gradually pick up from here” with jobs growth remaining solid.

“Against this backdrop, it would be reckless to discard the disciplined policy framework that has steered us through many difficult periods, most recently and most significantly the end of the mining investment boom, which posed an even greater threat to our economy than the GFC.”

The projected return to surplus this financial year would be a “significant achievement”.

Lauding the government’s legislated tax relief, Morrison will say. “Our response to the economic challenges our nation faces has been a structural investment in Australian aspiration, backed by responsible economic management.”




Read more:
Why we’ve the weakest economy since the global financial crisis, with few clear ways out


Morrison’s infrastructure bring-forwards follow his post election approach to the states asking for projects that could be accelerated.

As a result of this process we have been able to bring forward $3.8 billion of investment into the next four years, including $1.8 billion to be spent this year and next year alone.

This will support the economy in two ways – by accelerating construction activity and supporting jobs in the near term and by reaping longer run productivity gains sooner.

Every state and territory will benefit, with significant transport projects to be accelerated in all jurisdictions – all within the context of our $100 billion ten-year infrastructure investment plan.

This bring forward of investment is in addition to the new infrastructure commitments we have made in drought-affected rural communities since the election.

In his address Morrison is also expected to announce the first stages of the government’s latest deregulation agenda, aimed at enabling business investment projects to begin faster.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.

Governments took the hard road on clean energy – and consumers are feeling the bumps



Prime Minister Scott Morrison (right) and Energy Minister Angus Taylor at Snowy Hydro Scheme. The Grattan Institute says the government should better encourage investment rather than build electricity infrastructure.
LUKAS COCH/AAP

Guy Dundas, Grattan Institute

More than two years on from the sudden closure of Victoria’s Hazelwood coal power station, quite a mess remains. It is clear the federal government’s market interventions have not worked. Electricity prices are higher and supply is tight. Consumers are not happy.

In the face of this, federal and state governments have felt pressured to act – especially after several severe blackouts attracted fever-pitch media coverage and prompted a national debate about electricity reliability. But their approach has been ad hoc and has made things worse in the long run.

Australia is in the midst of a great energy transition. The nation’s entire coal fleet will close over the next few decades, and the government must urgently improve its policy response or electricity consumers will continue to suffer. We propose a solution that ensures coal plants close in an orderly way.

A high-voltage electricity transmission tower in Brisbane. A new report says governments are hindering the clean energy transition.
AAP/Darren England

We can’t afford a repeat of the Hazelwood mess

The aftermath of the sudden Hazelwood closure is a good case study in failed government intervention.

Hazelwood closed in March 2017 after supplying Victoria with cheap brown coal-fired electricity for more than half a century. The plant’s owner, French energy company Engie, gave only five months’ notice of the shutdown. This left no time to build replacement electricity generation, so prices rose and supplies became less reliable.

In the years since Hazelwood’s closure, the federal government failed to clear up more than a decade of uncertainty around national climate and energy policy – including last year when it dumped the National Energy Guarantee. This has left investors wondering when a framework to cut emissions in the electricity sector will be imposed.

Instead of creating investor certainty, the federal government has adopted a “picking winners” approach. It plans to build new generation assets such as the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro project, and subsidise others through a program of underwriting investments. Alongside this, the government’s proposed “big stick” laws would give it vast powers including those to break up big energy companies. Our research has confirmed this has a chilling effect on investment.

The sudden closure of large coal power stations is challenging enough without being made worse by ill-conceived policy responses. Hazelwood will be the first of many closures. Australia’s entire coal fleet is expected to retire over coming decades as it ages and gets displaced by low-cost solar and wind energy.



The Grattan Institute, CC BY-ND

Flogging the life out of coal plants is not the answer

The crucial lesson from Hazelwood is that Australia needs adequate notice of impending coal plant closures. This allows timely replacement investment to occur, minimising the price and reliability impacts on consumers.

New South Wales’ Liddell power station is due to close next and its owner AGL has given plenty of notice. In 2015 it announced a 2022 closure, and this year firmed up its plans for full closure by 2023. One unit of four will close in 2022.




Read more:
When it comes to climate change, Australia’s mining giants are an accessory to the crime


Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor is so concerned at Liddell’s closure he set up a taskforce to examine how to manage it, including extending its life or replacing the lost generation like-for-like.

But his concerns are misplaced. The Australian Energy Market Operator’s 2019 reliability projection for New South Wales is that the outlook is improving more rapidly than it was in 2018. About 2.3 gigawatts of solar and wind energy has been committed in NSW since the start of 2017 – and more is planned.

The best way to maintain reliability is through investment – not by trying to keep an ageing power station running on hot summer days.

The now-closed Hazelwood coal-fired power station in the Latrobe Valley, Victoria.
Global Warming Images/Cover Images

Laws on coal plant closures must grow teeth

Liddell’s closure is very likely to prove manageable. But this cannot be taken for granted in all future cases.

A new rule introduced late last year requires generators to give at least three years’ notice of closure. It’s a step in the right direction, but the rule lacks teeth. The penalties for non-compliance are small, and the mechanism could be gamed by generators nominating a closure date and then continuously delaying closure. We need better insurance to avoid future disruptive closures.

Past Australian experience gives some lessons on what not to do. In 2011 the Gillard Labor government proposed paying coal generators to close, on the grounds that otherwise they might continue operating indefinitely. Four of the five short-listed generators have since closed – without being paid a cent of government money. We are now dealing with the opposite problem, but the lesson holds – taxpayers will be taken for a ride if government money is used to delay or otherwise “manage” coal closures.

International experience is not likely to translate well to Australia. Germany’s coal closure commission built on deep cooperation between business, unions and governments that is not present here. The UK and Canada legislated coal phase-outs, but they did so at a time when coal provided only 10% of their power, compared to more than 60% in Australia today.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard during a visit to the Acciona windfarm near Gunning, NSW, in 2011. Labor’s incentives for coal stations to close were also misguided.
AAP/Alan Porritt

Make coal plants guarantee orderly closure

The Grattan Institute’s latest report, Power play: how governments can better direct Australia’s electricity market, proposes a new approach. Coal generators should be required to put money – indicatively several hundreds of millions of dollars each – into a fund, managed by an independent third party, to be held as security. Generators would be allowed to nominate their own closure window, but would get these funds back only if they closed within this window – providing a strong financial incentive for predictable and orderly closure.

Circumstances change and generators cannot reasonably fix closure decades in advance. To balance flexibility and certainty, younger generators would be allowed to nominate relatively long windows, but they would need to tighten these windows as they age.




Read more:
How to transition from coal: 4 lessons for Australia from around the world


Limited exemptions would be available if early closure did not harm the reliability of the market, or conversely if continued operation of the coal plant in question was absolutely necessary to maintain reliability.

This policy would come with costs. Collectively generators would need to place several billions of dollars into the fund. As generators have a higher cost of capital than would be earned on the held funds, this would cost them, collectively, several hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But the measure would provide low-cost insurance against the destabilising effect of poorly managed coal closures on the A$18 billion National Electricity Market.

The policy would give a clear signal for investment in new, clean power supply before – not after – coal closures, and better manage Australia’s energy transition.The Conversation

Guy Dundas, Energy Fellow, Grattan Institute

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

Governments are making fake news a crime – but it could stifle free speech


Alana Schetzer, University of Melbourne

The rapid spread of fake news can influence millions of people, impacting elections and financial markets. A study on the impact of fake news on the 2016 US presidential election, for instance, has found that fake news stories about Hillary Clinton was “very strongly linked” to the defection of voters who supported Barack Obama in the previous election.

To stem the rising influence of fake news, some countries have made the creation and distribution of deliberately false information a crime.

Singapore is the latest country to have passed a law against fake news, joining others like Germany, Malaysia, France and Russia.




Read more:
Media Files: Australians’ trust in news media is falling as concern over ‘fake news’ grows


But using the law to fight the wave of fake news may not be the best approach. Human rights activists, legal experts and others fear these laws have the potential to be misused to stifle free speech, or unintentionally block legitimate online posts and websites.

Legislating free speech

Singapore’s new law gives government ministers significant powers to determine what is fake news, and the authority to order online platforms to remove content if it’s deemed to be against the public interest.

What is considered to be of public interest is quite broad, but includes threats to security, the integrity of elections, and the public perception of the government. This could be open to abuse. It means any content that could be interpreted as embarrassing or damaging to the government is now open to being labelled fake news.

And free speech and human rights groups are concerned that legally banning fake news could be used as a way to restrict free speech and target whistleblowers.




Read more:
Freedom of speech: a history from the forbidden fruit to Facebook


Similar problems have arisen in Malaysia and Russia. Both nations have been accused of using their respective laws against fake news to further censor free speech, especially criticism of the government.

Malaysia’s previous government outlawed fake news last year, making it a crime punishable by a fine up to 500,000 Malaysian (A$171,000) ringgit or six years’ imprisonment, or both. The new government has vowed to repeal the law, but so far has yet to do so.

Russia banned fake news – which it labels as any information that shows “blatant disrespect” for the state – in April. Noncompliance can carry a jail sentence of 15 days.

Discriminating between legitimate and illegitimate content

But the problems that come with legislating against fake news is not restricted to countries with questionable track records of electoral integrity and free speech.

Even countries like Germany are facing difficulties enforcing their laws in a way that doesn’t unintentionally also target legitimate content.

Germany’s law came into effect on January 1, 2018. It targets social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and requires them to remove posts featuring hate speech or fake information within 24 hours. A platform that fails to adhere to this law may face fines up to 50 million euros.

But the government is now reviewing the law because too much information is being blocked that shouldn’t be.

The Association of German Journalists has complained that social media companies are being too cautious and refusing to publish anything that could be wrongly interpreted under the law. This could lead to increasing self-censorship, possibly of information in the public interest.

In Australia, fake news is also a significant problem, with more and more people unable to distinguish fake news from legitimate reports.

During Australia’s federal election in May, fake news claiming the Labor Party planned on introducing a death tax spread across Facebook and was adopted by the Liberal Party in attack ads.




Read more:
Lies, obfuscation and fake news make for a dispiriting – and dangerous – election campaign


But there has been no serious talk of passing a law banning fake news here. Instead, Australian politicians from all sides have been pressuring the biggest social media platforms to be more vigilant and remove fake news before it becomes a problem.

Are there any alternatives to government regulation?

Unlike attempts to limit or ban content in pre-internet days, simply passing a law against fake news may not be the best way to deal with the problem.

The European Union, which is experiencing a rise in support for extreme right-wing political parties, introduced a voluntary code of practice against online disinformation in 2018. Facebook and other social media giants have since signed up.

But there are already concerns the code was “softened” to minimise the amount of content that would need to be removed or edited.

Whenever governments get involved in policing the media – even for the best-intended reasons – there is always the possibility of corruption and a reduction in genuine free speech.

Industry self-regulation is also problematic, as social media companies often struggle to objectively police themselves. Compelling these companies to take responsibility for the content on their sites through fines and other punitive measures, however, could be effective.




Read more:
After defamation ruling, it’s time Facebook provided better moderation tools


Another alternative is for media industry groups to get involved.

Media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders, for instance, has launched the Journalism Trust Initiative, which could lead to a future certification system that would act as a “guarantee” of quality and accuracy for readers. The agreed standards are still being discussed, but will include issues such as company ownership, sources of revenue, independence and ethical compliance.The Conversation

Alana Schetzer, Sessional Tutor and Journalist, University of Melbourne

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