Constant attacks on the ABC will come back to haunt the Coalition government



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ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie has launched a strong defence of the public broadcaster.
AAP/Julian Smith

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

In January 1931, as the newly elected United Australia Party government of Joseph Lyons was contemplating the establishment of a national broadcasting service, the prime minister received a deputation of prominent Melburnians, including a barrister and member of the Victorian parliament, Robert Gordon Menzies.

They urged that the new broadcasting service “be organised on an independent basis and that cultural potentialities of the Broadcast Service be considered a matter of primary importance”. The broadcast service came to be named the Australian Broadcasting Commission and went to air for the first time on July 1 1932.

It is a measure of how far today’s Liberal Party has drifted away from the values and ideals of its founder, Menzies, that last Saturday its federal council should have resoundingly adopted a motion that the ABC should be privatised.

One of the proponents of the motion was Mitchell Collier, the federal vice-president of the Young Liberals. He said there was no economic case to keep the broadcaster in public hands.




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View from The Hill: Threat to the ABC is not sale but more bullying


No economic case. Where the ABC is concerned, that is a false premise on which to proceed. The ABC was explicitly not established for economic purposes or in pursuit of an economic ideology. It was established for social, educational and cultural purposes.

It was also established on an explicitly non-commercial basis: it takes no advertising. Why? Because it was believed advertising would weaken its independence. The policymakers of the 1930s had seen only too clearly how beholden the newspaper proprietors of the day had become to commercial imperatives: the demands of advertisers and the pressure to increase circulation, even at the cost of editorial quality and integrity.

The newspapers of the day had also become mouthpieces for sectional interests. In Melbourne, The Argus stood for the interests of the mercantile classes and conservative political causes; The Age for a kind of Protestant liberalism and social justice. It supported the miners at Eureka.

The bipartisan political vision for the ABC was that it should not be vulnerable to sectional interests or commercial pressures, but should exist to serve the public interest in the widest sense.

The first paragraph of its charter captures the essence of these expectations:

The functions of the Corporation are to provide … innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard … and … to provide broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community; and broadcasting programs of an educational nature.

No mention there of economic criteria.

Nonetheless, in a political age dominated by the narrow perspectives of neoclassical economics, it is self-evidently no longer enough to rely on ideals of the kind promoted by Menzies and reflected in the charter.

In her reply to the privatisation motion, the ABC’s managing director, Michelle Guthrie, told the Melbourne Press Club the ABC contributed more than $1 billion last financial year to the Australian economy, on a par with the public investment in the organisation.

She also advanced an efficiency argument, saying the ABC’s per capita funding had halved in real terms over the past 30 years, and warned that the latest cuts in funding – $83.7 million in a so-called efficiency dividend – would serve only to punish audiences.

Herein lies the political sting for the government, and especially for the National Party.

A motion to privatise the ABC, no matter how vigorously repudiated by the government, is political poison, especially in regional, rural and remote Australia.

These voters have watched as the Abbott-Turnbull administrations have cut the ABC’s funding by $338 million since 2014. They have watched as the ABC has been used – in Guthrie’s words yesterday – as a punching bag by narrow political, commercial or ideological interests.




Read more:
The politics behind the competitive neutrality inquiry into ABC and SBS


Guthrie was too diplomatic to nail the government or the Murdoch press. But the overt hostility to the ABC shown by the government over the past four years may now reap a political harvest.

That hostility has been demonstrated not only by the funding cuts but by sustained carping criticisms, vexatious complaints and political stunts exemplified by the current competitive neutrality inquiry.

It would be more accurately called the editorial neutering inquiry. Its focus is clearly on the ABC news service, as its own issues paper makes clear. That is the part of the ABC most detested by the government and the politician for whom the government is a cat’s paw in this, Pauline Hanson.

Each Tuesday, I engage in a pro-bono 25-minute segment on media issues with the presenter of ABC Radio Statewide Drive, Nicole Chvastek. The program is broadcast across regional Victoria and southern New South Wales, covering the National seats of Riverina, Mallee, Murray and Gippsland, and the Liberal seats of Farrer, Wannon, McMillan, Corangamite and McEwen.

Yesterday the talkback calls ran hot on this one issue: privatisation of the ABC. Yes, the ABC needed scrutiny; yes, the ABC was a bunch of lefties. But: where would we be without it?

The ConversationJust after 5pm, the Nationals served up their deputy leader, the Victorian senator Bridget McKenzie, to answer talkback calls on this issue. It was like something from the Colosseum.

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

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

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Grattan on Friday: Government celebrates on tax, fights on energy


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The odds were always in the government’s favour in the battle to get its A$144 billion income tax package through parliament.

However much some Senate minnows might have objected to the package’s third stage – taking effect way out in 2024 and favouring the wealthy – they didn’t want to be blamed for denying middle and lower income earners early tax cuts.

Pauline Hanson – of course – attracted the limelight but at no point voted against stage three. But the two Centre Alliance (former Nick Xenophon Team) senators epitomised the dilemma – they voted (successfully) to amend the bill to exclude the last stage, but when the government said it was the whole package or nothing, they folded.

In response, they copped a serve from Tim Storer, the South Australian independent who was on the NXT election-ticket in 2016. Storer was the only crossbencher to hold out.

Clearly the government has had a big victory and Labor has taken a risk in saying that if elected, it will (Senate permitting!) repeal the legislation’s second and third stages, while keeping, and building on, the initial tax cuts.

What’s less clear is the size of the risk for Labor.

If the whole package had been defeated, the ALP would have been exposed as tax-cut spoilers. As it is, middle and lower income voters will know that whoever wins the election, they have a guaranteed tax cut, indeed a rather bigger one under Labor.

From Labor’s point of view, committing to repeal the second stage, which moves the threshold at which the 37% rate cuts in from $90,000 to $120,000, is more of a gamble than saying it will kill the third stage, which flattens the scale, with benefits directed to high earners.

But stage two doesn’t start until mid 2022, so a Labor government would not be taking away a bird in the hand but one that was still on the wing. Some voters might apply a discount to a cut so far in the future, even though it has been legislated.

How voters react to Labor’s position will also depend on whether the government can convincingly sell its arguments that the ALP is dissing “aspiration”, engaging in “class warfare” and, via a range of policies, is the “high tax” party.

Also, the debate over tax cuts can’t be seen in isolation. The opposition has money to use and policies still to unveil. Polls show people have other priorities – fiscal consolidation, spending in certain areas. Voters at the election will look at the full menus before them, as well as the leaders and the government’s record.

Nevertheless, the results in the July 28 byelections will be interpreted as a referendum on the competing tax plans, though other factors will feed into those contests as well. Super Saturday will reset the political landscape in one way or another.

It would have been a huge setback if the government hadn’t secured its income tax package, which was the budget’s centrepiece. Politically, there’s less at stake in its intention to put to a Senate vote next week its tax cuts for big business. On current numbers this legislation is headed for defeat.

More crucial than the fate of the company tax cuts is the government’s long struggle to nail down its national energy guarantee (NEG), with the crunch coming when Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg meets his Council of Australian Government counterparts on August 10.

The tax win has further enhanced the reputation of Senate leader and chief negotiator Mathias Cormann. The outcome of the NEG negotiation will be important for Frydenberg’s reputation.

On tax, the battle was only with the parliament. On energy, Frydenberg has to wrangle state and territory ministers (the ACT is particularly challenging), and also fend off an insurgency from Tony Abbott and other sceptics, who ran interference at this week’s Coalition parties meeting. As well, unease seems to be growing among some Nationals, including frontbencher Keith Pitt.

After an earlier general discussion in the party room, the Abbott band had wanted the NEG plan returned there before the August meeting. This isn’t happening – the next broad party room consideration is due when the legislation comes forward. But that doesn’t prevent ad hoc sorties of Tuesday’s kind.

Abbott also launched public attacks covering not just the energy issue itself but the way Malcolm Turnbull runs the party room.

“I think the government is more interested in reducing emissions than it is in cutting prices,” he told 2GB on Wednesday. And it was “a big mistake for the Coalition to sub-contract out its energy policy to the Labor state governments”.

He left open the option of crossing the floor when legislation comes. It will formalise the emissions reduction target. The critics will cavil at any provision that would facilitate a Labor government moving to a more stringent target. Yet this flexibility might be needed to secure a deal for the package.

Abbott said he hoped things wouldn’t get to the floor-crossing stage but “the executive government needs to understand that you can’t take the party room for granted”.

He complained at Turnbull’s “practice of discussing legislation at enormous length every party room meeting before we actually get to backbenchers’ questions and comments”, declaring this “completely unprecedented”.

While by necessity, “the government spends an enormous amount of time negotiating with the crossbench”, it needed to “spend a bit more time talking to the backbench,” he said.

There are obvious retorts to Abbott’s criticisms. For example, on the “sub-contracting” to the states, it is the states that have the main responsibilities in this area.

As to party processes, while he contrasted Turnbull’s style with his own and that of Howard and others, some colleagues were quick to recall his notorious “captain’s calls”, especially the paid parental leave scheme.

By late Thursday, the pro-NEG forces were mobilised, with an assortment of backbench Liberals (Julia Banks, Trent Zimmerman, Trevor Evans, Tim Wilson) and Nationals (Mark Coulton, Andrew Broad) publicly rallying to its defence.

As the Coalition celebrates on tax, the internal heat over the NEG has suddenly been turned up to high, with the disunity going on full display.

The ConversationFrydenberg’s timetable means he doesn’t have to deliver on the NEG until after the byelections. But when it comes to the main election game, a credible (though inevitably disputed) energy policy is as crucial for the government as having its income tax plan in place.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Government set to call Senate’s bluff on income tax bill


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Senate on Thursday is set to pass intact the government’s A$144 billion three-stage income tax package – but whether the plan is fully delivered will depend on who wins the election.

On Wednesday the Senate voted 36-32 for an amended package that removed the third stage of the plan. This stage, implemented in 2024, gives tax cuts to higher income earners, flattening the tax scale so the same marginal rate would apply through incomes from $41,000 to $200,000.

But the government has declared the legislation must be passed as a whole, and the House of Representatives on Thursday will reject the amended package.

After intense lobbying of the crossbench, the government is considered to have the required backing to carry the original bill when it is re-presented to the Senate.

Senate leader Mathias Cormann on Wednesday won Senate support for a motion for the bill when it is returned on Thursday to be voted on without further debate. All the crossbenchers except South Australian independent Tim Storer voted for this. Debate on the legislation was also cut short on Wednesday.

Centre Alliance senators Stirling Griff and Rex Patrick voted to strip out stage three, but are now set to vote with the government.

Griff said what while “we are going to make our final decision on the floor”, “we are not going to say no to low and middle income earners getting tax cuts.”

He said stage three was two elections away, and so there was plenty of time to try to knock it out.

Storer lashed out at the Centre Alliance senators. Centre Alliance is the renamed former Nick Xenophon Team – Storer was on its ticket at the election.

“They supported an amendment to remove Stage 3 of the bill … but say they will vote with the government to approve the bill in its entirety when it returns to the Senate,” he said. “We can only conclude Centre Alliance’s initial opposition to Stage 3 was all for show”.

Labor this week committed a Shorten government to repealing the last two stages of the plan if it had been legislated. Instead, Labor would maintain and enhance the first stage, directed to middle and lower income earners.

The first stage starts this year and gives a tax offset to a maximum of $530 for taxpayers earning up to $90,000. Labor would then build this to a maximum offset of $928. The ALP alternative would cost $73 billion over a decade.

An analysis by the progressive think tank The Australia Institute said that almost 95% of the benefits of stage three “go exclusively to top 20%, while 75% of taxpayers get no benefit at all”.

“We’re not splitting the bill,” Treasurer Scott Morrison said. “Our personal tax plan is not about creating winners and losers, setting winners against losers. It is about ensuring that all Australians win.”

Malcolm Turnbull said the government would reject any amendment “because we want all Australians to get the benefit of a comprehensive tax reform. We want to ensure that 94% of Australians don’t have to pay any more than 32.5% for every extra dollar they earn. We want to reward and encourage aspiration”.

“Aspiration is what is driving the Australian economy,” he said.

The ConversationBill Shorten said: “Labor is going to support tax reductions for lower paid workers, 10 million of them. …We have a better plan. We’re going to provide a tax refund, a tax cut, of $928 a year … for most people. That means over three years, that’s nearly $3,000.”

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Turnbull government to give national apology to victims of child sexual abuse


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Malcolm Turnbull will give a formal national apology on October 22 to victims of child sexual abuse, as part of the federal response to the royal commission.

Outlining the government’s detailed response on Wednesday, the Prime Minister said that Western Australia had now agreed to sign on to the redress scheme so there will be a fully national scheme from July 1.

Victims will be entitled to up to A$150,000, with average payments of $76,000. The maximum is lower than the $200,000 recommended by the commission, but the average will be higher. There will be a low evidentiary standard.

The government will set up a new National Office for Child Safety within the Social Services department, which it says will “work across government and sectors to develop and implement policies and strategies to enhance children’s safety and prevent future harm”.

But Turnbull was unspecific when questioned at a news conference about how to deal with one current big issue of child safety – protecting at risk children in some Indigenous communities. There has been recent controversy about whether too many or too few children are being removed from families. The issue has been highlighted by some high profile alleged rapes.

Turnbull said he had discussed the problem with the Northern Territory chief minister.

Asked about the level of removal of children he said: “the safety of children has to be paramount. It’s difficult to generalise about this because every case is different.” He pointed to the duty of parents and neighbours to ensure children’s safety. “If you … believe a child is being abused, don’t turn a blind eye.”

The government has opened consultations on the content of the national apology and the form of the ceremony.

The commission made 409 recommendations. Of these 84 relate to redress matters. Of the remaining 325, 122 are directed wholly or partly to the federal government, which has accepted 104 of them. It has noted the other 18, which mostly overlap other jurisdictions and will need more consideration. It has not rejected any recommendation.

The government said in a statement it expected non-government institutions would indicate what action they would take on recommendations of the commission and report annually in December, along with all governments. The government will report its progress annually for five years with a comprehensive review after a decade.

“Where institutions decide not to accept the royal commission’s recommendations they should state so and why”.

Speaking at his news conference Turnbull said: “The survivors that I’ve met and the personal stories that have been told to me have given me but a small insight into the betrayal you experienced at the hands of the people and institutions who were supposed to protect and care for you.”

“Now that we’ve uncovered the shocking truth, we must do everything in our power to honour the bravery of the thousands of people who came forward.”

The Conversation“The royal commission has made very clear that we all have a role to play to keep our children safe – governments, schools, sporting clubs, churches, charitable institutions and, of course, all of us.”

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Government response to child abuse royal commission is positive, but will need to go beyond an apology



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Attorney-General Christian Porter, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Australian Minister for Social Services Dan Tehan announce the government’s response to the child abuse royal commission.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Timothy W. Jones, La Trobe University

The federal government has announced it will establish a National Office for Child Safety and issue a formal apology as part of its response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

In addition, every state and territory has committed to join the National Redress Scheme. Australia’s major churches and youth organisations have also joined the scheme.

The timing of the announcement meets a commitment of the Council of Australian Governments to respond to the recommendations of the Royal Commission’s final report by June 2018. However, the apology, the lead item of this announcement, will not be issued until October 22, 2018, to coincide with national children’s week.

The Royal Commission made 409 recommendations in total. Of these, 84 deal with redress, which the government is addressing in the National Redress Scheme, due to commence next month. Of the remaining 122 recommendations directed at the Australian government, 104 have been accepted and 18 remain under review. None has so far been rejected.




Read more:
Royal commission recommends sweeping reforms for Catholic Church to end child abuse


Survivors of abuse consistently state that they want recognition and redress for the past harms and injustices that were done to them.

Recognition

One of the most disturbing elements in the history of child sexual abuse is our capacity, as a society, to be in denial. As I have written elsewhere, we have myriad techniques of keeping disturbing knowledge at bay: there are many ways of not knowing.

We can deny that something happened, we can deny that we understood what happened, and we can deny the legal and moral implications that follow an event. All of these forms of denial are seen in the history of child sexual abuse.

Thankfully, all of these forms of denial were combated by the Royal Commission. You could say it was a momentous exercise in recognition: it brought horrific abuses into public consciousness; it treated survivors of abuse with great dignity and respect; and, it made a comprehensive series of recommendations to deal with the legal and moral implications of the public recognition of this history of abuse.

Through its 57 public case studies, 8,013 private sessions, and over 68,000 calls, letters and emails received, the commission established beyond any doubt the reality and the gravity of Australia’s history of institutional abuse.

Redress

Recognising this history brings legal and moral implications for its redress. So far, the government has responded with uncharacteristic alacrity in accepting and implementing the key recommendations of the Royal Commission.

But justice for historic offences is not simple, and I await with interest the responses of child sex abuse survivor groups to the government’s announcement.

For most people, justice looks like punishment for the guilty. The Royal Commission has referred over 2,500 matters to police for investigation. In recent times, we have seen some prominent cases go to trial, including the most senior Roman Catholic yet to face charges of child sex crimes, Cardinal George Pell.

The National Redress Scheme is the flagship instrument of redress emerging in the wake of the Royal Commission. Legislation has passed the lower house and is now before the Senate. It proposes average payments to victims of $76,000, with maximum payments of $150,000.

These amounts are lower than amounts typically awarded in civil courts in Australia, and significantly lower than settlements awarded in some international jurisdictions.




Read more:
The royal commission’s final report has landed – now to make sure there is an adequate redress scheme


However, the lower standards of evidence required to be awarded a settlement through the redress scheme, relative to standards in criminal or civil law, and being able to avoid cross-examination in court, may make this option more attractive for many survivors. The redress scheme provides access to counselling and psychological services, and provides an option for survivors to receive a direct personal response from the responsible institution.

Australian jurisdictions are also reforming laws to make it easier to sue churches and other institutions.

The establishment of a National Office for Child Safety, along with a raft of national standards and safety frameworks, is heartening.

Apology

The fact is, though, that most of the institutions in which the majority of the historic abuse unearthed by the Royal Commission occurred no longer exist. The institutions of “care” run by churches and the states – orphanages, missions, boarding schools – have largely been disbanded.

Ironically, most current child removal and child trauma can be found at a site for which we have already had an apology, but for which redress has been woefully inadequate. The 1997 Bringing Them Home report into the Stolen Generations opened up public inquiry into child abuse in Australia.

The comprehensiveness of the Child Abuse Royal Commission, and the government’s promised response, is heartening. But as the Stolen Generations apology painfully illustrates, apologies without action become empty, bitter words.

The ConversationLet’s hope that the apology to victims of institutional abuse, to be delivered in October, is well crafted, and sincerely delivered. And that substantial redress is delivered.

Timothy W. Jones, Senior Lecturer in History, La Trobe University

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

Government needs to slow down on changes to spying and foreign interference laws


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Attorney-General Christian Porter wants the legislation passed before the “Super Saturday” byelections on July 28.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

What’s the rush? If you believe Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter, unless two pieces of security legislation are in place in the remaining two weeks of parliament before the winter recess, the country will be in peril.

This was the line Porter was taking yesterday on the release of the Advisory Report on the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill.

His argument is nonsense. Labor should also be taken to task for being party to a hasty process that appears on the face of it to be expedient. Labor’s persistent concern is to avoid being wedged on security issues.

Under the proposed legislation, bodies such as Amnesty International that have been critical of Australian government policies may be vulnerable.

Porter wants two separate tranches of legislation – the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill and a Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill – to be passed before the Super Saturday byelections on July 28.




Read more:
Grattan on Friday: Government and Labor unite to erect the barriers against foreign interference


Porter’s argument appears to be that unless the legislation passes in the concluding two weeks of the midyear session of parliament, those byelections will be conducted in a perilous atmosphere. He said:

There’s an unprecedented level of foreign intelligence activity in Australia and that means more foreign agents and more foreign power using more tradecraft and more technologies to engage in espionage and foreign interference and the attempted foreign influence of our democratic processes.

And that increase in volume is detectable even in the period of time that this piece of legislation has been under consideration by the committee.

No reasonable person would argue against the need for beefed-up legislation to deal with challenges to democratic processes such as those witnessed during the recent US election.

Russian cyber interference in the US political process is hardly in question, nor attempts by Russian agents of influence to suborn the system. The question is to what degree?

What is proposed in Australian legislation foreshadowed by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull late last year is a new and far-reaching suite of laws aimed at limiting foreign interference.

An initial version of the bill was poorly drafted. It represented an unreasonable threat to individual liberties and freedom of expression.

It was particularly antagonistic to journalists operating in the security space. Long jail terms for publication of unauthorised security material were incorporated.

The insertion of a public interest amendment has somewhat alleviated that risk.

Fairfax Media’s publication overnight of leaked documents dealing with alleged war crimes by members of the Special Air Service might have fallen foul of such provisions, and may still do so.

Media coverage of the draft amendments to the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill has been relatively favourable. However, this might have less to do with the merits of the legislation than with relief the bill is less threatening to legitimate inquiry than an earlier draft.

In all, parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security made 60 recommended amendments to the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill.

Most of these recommendations are cosmetic, except those relating to journalistic inquiry. They include the need for security certifications to be validated before proceedings could be initiated for an espionage or secrecy offence, and a review of the legislation by the National Security Legislation Monitor after three years.

Urging quick action on the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill, Porter argued that a second bill, the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill, was required to complement the main piece of legislation.

This refers to legislation that sought to proscribe involvement in Australian political processes not just by foreign governments and their agents, but by entities like GetUp, which has drawn part of its funding from foreign sources.

The scope of this proposed legislation – which is yet to be agreed by the JCOIS – has now been limited to foreign governments, foreign-related entities, foreign political organisation and foreign government-directed individuals.

Foreign companies would be excluded from this provision unless it could be demonstrated they were closely connected to a foreign government or political organisation.

In such cases, government-dominated companies, even those associated with friendly nations, would be required to register under the proposed law.

In efforts to guard against interference by individuals or companies who might be connected with a foreign government, the Attorney-General’s Department would be empowered to issue “transparency notices” to identify such individuals or companies.




Read more:
New foreign interference laws will compound risks to whistleblowers and journalists


An appeals process against these findings would be available through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Porter said:

It’s vital that our national security legislation and framework reflects the modern challenges that we face … that framework remains dangerously incomplete while these two remaining and critical bills remain unlegislated.

As interested parties digest the provisions of the proposed amendments, it’s likely more objections will be raised, such as those by Claire O’Rourke, one of Amnesty’s Australian representatives.

O’Rourke told The Guardian that under the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill charities like Amnesty that hold the Australian government to account on its human rights record could face criminal charges. She said:

This is clear government overreach and a cynical exercise by both sides of politics to shield themselves from the scrutiny of Australian society, including charities.

The ConversationThe upshot of all this? Quite simply, more time is needed to review proposed amendments.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

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

Turnbull government shrinks Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme register


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Attorney-General Christian Porter has put forward compromise amendments to the government’s proposed register of foreign agents that will limit its reach.

The changes are designed to meet criticisms from charities, universities and others, and to get a quick agreement with Labor on the legislation.

The bill for the register is still being considered by the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, which on Thursday released a bipartisan report agreeing on 60 amendments to the legislation to counter the threat of foreign interference.

Porter wants to get both bills passed by the end of this month. “Most critically this would allow for Australia’s new legal framework designed to address espionage, interference and foreign influence in Australia’s democratic processes to be passed before the conduct of five key Australian byelections and be fully operational before the next scheduled general election,” he said.




Read more:
Grattan on Friday: Government and Labor unite to erect the barriers against foreign interference


There have been widespread concerns that the scope of the transparency scheme is too wide, and notably the breadth of the definitions in it, including that of “foreign principal”.

Arguments have been put by lawyers, the media, the arts, charities, not-for-profit organisations and the academic sector that these definitions will adversely affect them.

Porter said that the government had now given the committee a range of amendments “that address the most substantive stakeholder issues”.

The bill currently provides that people be required to register if undertaking certain activities on behalf of a foreign government, public enterprise, political organisation, business or individual.

The change would limit the “foreign principals” to foreign governments, foreign government-related entities, foreign political organisations and foreign government-related individuals.

“This ensures that only organisations or individuals ultimately working at the direction of a foreign government or political party are required to register,” Porter said.

The amendment would thus exclude “the vast majority of private international companies”, except where “they are closely related to a foreign government or political organisation”.

To stop some companies or individuals with opaque links to a foreign government falling through the cracks, the secretary of the Attorney-General’s department would have a power to issue notices stating a person or organisation was considered a foreign government-related entity or individual.

“This would allow the government to investigate and declare where it considers companies or individuals are hiding their connections to foreign governments,” Porter said.

Another change would mean broadcasters, carriage service providers and publishers would not have to register “where they are undertaking their ordinary business”.

The definition of “activity for the purpose of political or government influence” would also be changed “so that a substantial purpose of the activity has to be political influence, rather than just ‘a’ purpose of it”.

The ConversationPorter said that responding to the university sector and charities, the definition of “undertaking activity on behalf of a foreign principal” would be amended “so a person isn’t deemed to be undertaking an activity merely because they are supervised by, receive funding from or collaborate with a foreign principal”.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Grattan on Friday: Government and Labor unite to erect the barriers against foreign interference


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government couldn’t have had a more appropriate week for the release of the report from the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security which has examined its legislation to counter foreign interference.

Bipartisan agreement in the report, tabled Thursday, on the 60 recommendations, covering minor and more substantive amendments, has paved the way for the bill – that has infuriated Chinese authorities – to clear parliament within weeks.

A couple of current instances have highlighted how China engages in unsubtle pressure.

Qantas confirmed it would bow to China over how the carrier refers to Taiwan in its advertising and on its website. This followed a demand to three dozen airlines that they make clear that Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau are part of China.

The government was understanding of Qantas’s position, accepting it had little choice.

On a very different front, former foreign minister Bob Carr, an outspoken friend of China, who heads the Australia China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, was unable to get visas for journalists (including from Fairfax and News Corp) to go on one of the sponsored visits to China he hosts. Carr says “the assumption is that [this] is part of the freeze China is applying to bilateral visits” – a freeze that has hit ministers.

Then there is the much-publicised controversy about Facebook sharing user-data with, among many companies, several Chinese ones including Huawei, a telecommunications-equipment giant that the Australian government has not permitted to tender for National Broadband Network contracts.

We’re well past the optimistic days when we believed it could be all upside in our relationship with China, which has over the years delivered an economic bonanza for Australia.

Trade Minister Steve Ciobo tries to shrug off problems as minor irritants, but presumably that’s just his job. Others in the government have become more forthright.

It’s notable that of recent prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, both very knowledgable about China, have been the most openly tough-minded towards it. Before becoming PM, each was regarded as China-friendly.

Of the various causes of current tensions in the relationship, the legislation against foreign interference is on the top shelf (together with Australia’s stand on the South China Sea).

The purpose of the legislation, unveiled late last year, is to “comprehensively reform key offences dealing with threats to national security, particularly those posed by foreign principals”.

Among its provisions, it “introduces new foreign interference offences targeting covert, deceptive or threatening actions by foreign actors who intend to influence Australia’s democratic or government processes or to harm Australia”.

At its core, what this legislation does is to criminalise foreign interference that is one step below espionage. ASIO has always been able to investigate such interference, but it hasn’t actually been a criminal offence.

While the government goes out of its way to say the legislation is not aimed at any individual country, everyone knows China is in its sights. As is Russia, after the experience in the United States and elsewhere.

Duncan Lewis, head of ASIO, emphasised the foreign threat in evidence to Senate estimates last month, describing the current scale of foreign intelligence activity against Australian interests as “unprecedented”.

“Foreign actors covertly attempt to influence and shape the views of members of the Australian public, the Australian media, officials in the Australian government and members of the diaspora communities here in Australia,” he told the hearing.

“Foreign states maintain an enduring interest in a range of strategically important commercial, political, economic, defence, security, foreign policy and diaspora issues,” he said.

Critics of the legislation seized on sloppy drafting as well raising substantive issues. The Law Council of Australia warned that “many of the offence provisions are broadly drafted to capture a range of benign conduct that may not necessarily amount to harm or prejudice Australia’s interests”.

Some with concerns were within officialdom. The Commonwealth Ombudsman pointed out that “the current drafting of the amendments appears to produce several unintended consequences for my office,” and the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security had some worries.

The media feared being caught by too wide a net.

Where possible, Opposition leader Bill Shorten tries to stick like glue to the government on national security issues, for reasons of politics as well as substance. Given this, and the usual bipartisan functioning of the intelligence and security committee, it is not surprising that agreement has been reached on a refined version of the bill.

Many of the changes, as Attorney-General Christian Porter noted, are to definitions and drafting – which doesn’t make them unimportant.

These include clarifying that “prejudice to national security” has to involve an element of harm, not just embarrassment. There’ll be clarification of “espionage”, “sabotage”, “political violence” and “foreign interference”.

Changes will reduce the maximum penalties for the new secrecy offences, and require the attorney-general’s consent for a prosecution under them.

An amendment will ensure the staff of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security are properly protected.

The changes will give greater protection to the media, expanding the public interest defence for journalists, and making it clear that editors, legal advisers and administrative staff will all be covered by the journalism defence.

Before a journalist can be prosecuted over reporting classified documents, the head of the relevant agency will have to certify that they were properly classified, and the attorney-general must consent to the legal action.

The government, accepting some criticisms of the legislation, itself put forward certain amendments.

The committee – which is still examining an accompanying bill to set up a register of those working on behalf of foreign governments and other interests – said that after three years there should be a review of the operation of key parts of the foreign influence legislation.

The agreed changes haven’t satisfied critics such as the Law Council and Amnesty International. But the political deal is now in place.

Meanwhile Porter explicitly cast an eye to coming elections. “Activity which is designed to interfere or influence our democratic processes is at its most acute when democratic processes are taking place and that means five by-elections in late July and then the full general election”.

The ConversationThe government, saying it wants the legislation passed before the parliament rises at the end of June for the winter recess, is preparing for more angry reaction from Beijing.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

Viewpoints: should the government intervene to fix low wages?


James Morley, University of Sydney and Beth Webster, Swinburne University of Technology

There have been a few suggestions lately on what policies the government should take up in order to fight slow wage growth.

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating suggested the superannuation guarantee – the amount employers must contribute to workers’ super – be increased to 12% to compensate workers for a lack of wages growth.

While the Australian Council of Trade Unions is calling on the government to lift the minimum wage and “recalibrate” the industrial system to ensure fair incomes for workers.

In this Viewpoints, James Morley argues government intervention could cause unforeseen problems, while Beth Webster notes the need for the government to re-balance the economy.


James Morley: Slow wage growth reflects two key aspects of the “secular stagnation” phenomenon sweeping the industrialised world: low productivity growth and low inflation expectations. Addressing slow wage growth should go to these causes, not to the symptom.

If the government was to intervene directly in the setting of wages to increase their growth, it would be reminiscent of the wage/price controls put in place in many countries in the 1970s. These were an attempt to stem high inflation by mandating exactly how wages and prices could be set. They were a mistake then and would be a mistake now, even if only for wages and not prices.




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One problem is that such policies distort what is already the most complex of all economic markets – the labour market. “Insiders” (those with steady jobs) might win something on a one-off basis with higher wages. But “outsiders” (those without jobs or changing jobs) will surely lose, as firms ration labour given too many controls.

The labour market is notable for its complicated contracts designed to encourage high performance and effort. Because of these contracts, and issues such as confusion about adjusting wages for inflation (a surprisingly high proportion of wage changes are exactly zero, even though it makes no economic sense), wages already do not adjust enough as it is.

These distortions occur even though the labour market has high turnover rates, with flows between jobs vastly outnumbering flows between employment status. Introducing more controls would put sand in the wheels of the labour market by distorting relative wages across industries and decreasing employment.


Beth Webster: A well-functioning economy is all about balance. In Australia, we have a situation of profits being a high share of GDP, low wage growth, low investment spending and low interest rates. The problem is not inflation, but a lack of willingness by people with incomes to buy goods and services.

It’s not a problem of lack of funds for investment. Nor is it a problem of high labour costs.

Economists know that a reliable way to increase spending in the economy is to raise the incomes of the least wealthy. In our case, this could involve enforcing the payment of the minimum wage (for example, in the hospitably industry); raising benefits and pensions, such as unemployment and family benefits; and tax cuts at the low end.




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Is faster profit growth essential for a pick-up in wages growth?


There is ample evidence that a market economy will not invest enough to fully employ all people who want a job, if left to its own devices. The result is low productivity growth and a boom-bust economy. So government action is warranted, and that depends on the position of the economy.

Given the current economic settings, a rise in wages at the low end of the market could lead to higher investment and therefore employment (with the bonus of higher productivity growth). And it may well move towards income equality.


James Morley: I agree that government policy can be important to stimulate a weak economy. But its effectiveness depends on exactly how much slack there is in the economy. Currently, increased government spending or tax cuts are unlikely to be as stimulative, as they would be in a weaker economy.

To address low productivity growth, it’s better to go to the underlying determinants of labour productivity. The Productivity Commission investigates what these are and makes recommendations based on their findings. Notably, it explicitly recommends against a re-balancing between regulation and flexibility in the Australian labour market.

The commission is now examining access to higher education. It will be interesting to see the findings on this.

It’s worth noting that the shares of GDP to labour and capital have been quite stable in Australia at around 55% and 45%, respectively, over the past 40 years. This stability is exactly as predicted by the Solow-Swan model of economic growth. This model also suggests that lower productivity growth, rather than changes in income shares, has been more important for the recent slow wage growth.

Another cause of slow wage growth is low inflation expectations. Responsibility for addressing this lies with the Reserve Bank of Australia, which has been factoring low wage growth into its recent decisions to keep interest rates low.


Beth Webster: There is has been a trend of falling wages as a share of GDP in Australia. According to the ABS, in 2016-17, wages as a share of GDP was only 52.8%, which continues the long term decline from 57.1% in 1984-85. A difference of 5 percentage points is huge.

With 730,400 unemployed people and about an equal number who would like to work more hours, there is a strong case for saying we have a weak economy.

The ConversationThe market is not delivering the balance of demand and supply forces that we need to achieve full employment and raise GDP. Government intervention is needed.

James Morley, Professor of Macroeconomics, University of Sydney and Beth Webster, Director, Centre for Transformative Innovation, Swinburne University of Technology

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