The WHO’s coronavirus inquiry will be more diplomatic than decisive. But Australia should step up in the meantime



US Mission Geneva/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Anthony Zwi, UNSW

This week the World Health Assembly, the governing structure of the World Health Organization, endorsed a resolution that comprehensively addressed the global COVID-19 response.

Buried almost at the end, in the penultimate clause of the seven-page document, was the outcome several nations (including Australia) have been clamouring for – or a version of it, at least. The resolution calls for a global investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak, albeit not in the strongest of terms.

With noticeable caution, it calls on the WHO to:

…initiate, at the earliest appropriate moment, and in consultation with Member States, a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation, including using existing mechanisms, as appropriate, to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19.




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Specifically, the inquiry will investigate:

  1. the effectiveness of the mechanisms at WHO’s disposal to deal with pandemics

  2. the functioning of the International Health Regulations – a globally agreed set of rules for controlling diseases across borders – and whether prior recommendations had been implemented

  3. WHO’s contributions to the United Nations’ disease control efforts

  4. the specific actions taken by WHO and the timeline of the pandemic response.

The inquiry will also seek recommendations to improve future pandemic preparedness and responses, including potentially strengthening WHO’s powers.

Vindication for Australia?

Some media and politicians hailed the resolution as a vindication of Australia’s call for a deep and searching independent investigation, with a particular spotlight on China’s role in containing the initial outbreak. But China has branded this claim “a joke”.

So what does the resolution actually add, and is it likely to deliver anything concrete?

It is a great example of well-constructed UN “bureaucratese”. It has something for everyone but demands little from anyone. But buried in the verbiage are some important considerations, which suggest how to forge the way ahead.

Australia can take comfort that there is to be an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation”. But it’s not exactly what Australia had in mind. It is left to the WHO’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (himself a target of criticism by the United States), to initiate such an enquiry. The timing is vague, although a report on progress (which presumably could include delaying the inquiry altogether), is expected a year from now.

Many countries, including China and several European states, argue such an investigation is needed, but not now. They would like the pandemic to be under control first. But when might that be? It might yet intensify, and could grind on for years. Even if an effective vaccine is developed, getting it to the people of the world will take years, and until almost everyone is vaccinated, nobody will be entirely safe.

Previous efforts

The WHO has previously set up investigations into the H1N1 epidemic in 2009 and the 2015 Ebola outbreak. These were led by respected, independent, evidence-driven global health leaders. So we can be confident the WHO has access to people of the right calibre to mount a rigorous and critical inquiry.

Australia will presumably also be gratified by another clause of the resolution, which calls on the WHO, alongside the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), to identify the animal source of the virus and its route of introduction to the human population. Australia’s deputy chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, has cited the risk of such “zoonotic diseases” as a major concern.

Sitting outside the broader evaluation of the WHO response to the pandemic, Australia should actively support an in-depth study of the interfaces between animal and human diseases. Facilitating and resourcing such an investigation in relation to COVID-19, leading to evidence-informed guidance, would be a solid global contribution.

Australia and others can also draw satisfaction from a clause in the resolution calling on all countries to provide the WHO with “timely, accurate and sufficiently detailed” information on the COVID-19 pandemic. Improving incentives to report early and promptly, such as the offer of financial support to offset any recommended travel or trade restrictions, would sharpen the International Health Regulations which frame such action.

Despite being the source of the pandemic, the resolution does not single out China (or indeed any country) for particular scrutiny or accountability. Several clauses refer instead to “national context”, a commonly used piece of diplomatic language that glosses over political contentions.




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Yes, we need a global coronavirus inquiry, but not for petty political point-scoring


With more than 5.1 million people infected and 332,000 deaths so far, the world needs cooperation, collaboration and coordination. The resolution offers important elements, and reinforces important values: balancing public health measures alongside human rights and economic concerns; transparency of information; solidarity with the people most affected; a focus on the most vulnerable; support to health workers; and global equity in access to testing, PPE and, ultimately, a vaccine.

All nations must play a part in the global push to curb COVID-19. The political blame games and the United States’ threat to cut funding to WHO are unhelpful.

The WHO should be supported and strengthened to puruse its vital work, and to overcome the weaknesses in current and previous epidemic responses. It needs to be better resourced, better structured and better respected to fulfil the roles we expect and demand of it.

Wealthy countries like Australia should do more to bolster multilateral institutions like the WHO as well as to support low and middle income country health systems. Since 2012 Australia’s official development assistance to health has fallen from almost A$1.8 billion in 2012 to A$1.1 billion in 2018. If Australia really wants its voice to be heard in a forum such as the World Health Assembly, it should step up and let others follow its example.The Conversation

Anthony Zwi, Professor of Global Health and Development, UNSW

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

The world agreed to a coronavirus inquiry. Just when and how, though, are still in dispute



Sipa USA Jesus Merida / SOPA Images/Sipa

Adam Kamradt-Scott, University of Sydney

Only once before has the World Health Organisation held its annual World Health Assembly during a pandemic. The last time it happened, in 2009, the influenza pandemic was only in its first weeks – with far fewer deaths than the world has seen this year.

And never before has the meeting of world leaders, health diplomats and public health experts been held entirely virtually over a condensed two days instead of the normal eight-to-nine-day affair.

As expected, the assembly proved to be a high stakes game of bare-knuckled diplomacy – with a victory (of sorts) for the western countries that had been advocating for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

China had pushed back hard against such an inquiry, first proposed by Australia last month, but eventually agreed after other countries signed on.

Even though the resolution was adopted, there are still many unanswered questions about what happens next, specifically, when and how an investigation will actually occur.

Harsh critiques from the US

While country after country praised the WHO for its efforts to contain the COVID-19 virus, US Health Secretary Alex Azar predictably accused the global health body of mishandling the crisis.

In a Trumpian-esque attempt at re-writing history, Azar even went so far as to suggest the WHO failed to alert countries early enough to the COVID-19 threat, despite the fact the organisation issued its first warnings on January 4.

China, meanwhile, quickly sensed it had lost the diplomatic battle to prevent an inquiry into the origins of the virus after more than 100 countries supported a draft resolution put forth by Australia and its European and African allies.

President Xi Jinping agreed China would support a WHO-led investigation, but there were two major stipulations – that it happen after the pandemic was over and would focus on more than just looking at China’s actions.

Concerns were also voiced during the gathering about the need for ensuring any COVID-19 vaccine would be made available freely and widely, as opposed to suggested scenarios in which Western countries might gain priority access.

World leaders from UN Secretary General António Guterres to French President Emmanuel Macron stressed the need for any vaccine to be made widely available as a global public good, and health ministers outlined various efforts to support vital research and development into a vaccine.

Nurses take part in a ceremony in Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the virus.
YFC / COSTFOTO / EPA

So what happens now?

China made it clear it will only support an investigation into the origins of the virus after the pandemic has ended. That could be years away, and the longer it takes, the less likely it will be the source will be accurately identified.

China has also insisted the investigation must be led by the WHO. It could be conducted under the auspices of WHO, but if it is led by WHO staff, this is unlikely to sit well with other governments such as Australia and the United States. Both have argued for an independent inquiry.




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Investigations into what went wrong during health crises have occurred before.

In 2009, three independent probes were conducted after the WHO was accused of being unduly influenced by an advisory committee into declaring H1N1 “swine flu” a pandemic. And a series of investigations was also launched after the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak, during which the WHO was criticised for being too slow to declare an emergency.

In each instance, the members of the investigation teams were appointed by WHO after being recommended by governments, and were made up of prominent, independent public health experts and former WHO staff. Notably, these inquiries were also launched before the crises had abated.

These previous investigations focused exclusively on the WHO’s role in responding to the crises and the functioning of the International Health Regulations – a framework that was significantly revised in 2005 to guide government and WHO behaviour during disease outbreaks.




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China has insisted, however, the COVID-19 investigation be “comprehensive”, which has been interpreted to mean it must look not only at China’s actions, but also how other governments responded to the WHO’s warnings.

This is unlikely to be well received by a number of governments, such as the US, which traditionally view such matters as internal and sovereign.

Ultimately though, any investigation will require China’s cooperation, so it’s likely to hold some sway over how, when and who conducts the probe.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus thus faces a difficult task ahead in trying to reconcile the geopolitical tensions between the world’s two superpowers, China and the United States.

Immediate next steps

While the details of an investigation are being finalised, focus must return to containing COVID-19.

To date, countries have understandably prioritised halting the spread of the coronavirus within their borders to save the lives of their citizens. But as Guterres said at the WHA, the virus will continue to pose a threat to every country unless the international community stands together.




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For that to occur, more attention has to be given to supporting low-income countries to contain the virus.

And resources need to be mobilised and deployed. Now.

Research on a vaccine, diagnostics and treatments must also continue. Realising the call to ensure the vaccine is freely available to everyone will be critical to ending the pandemic.

While the scientific research is underway, governments must also increase their manufacturing capacity and address the legal issues around indemnity and liability, which unhelpfully delayed deployment of the H1N1 influenza pandemic vaccine throughout 2009 and 2010.

For this to occur, we have to heal, or at least put aside, the harmful politics that have prevented effective multilateral cooperation to date. It will be a challenge, but one we must overcome.The Conversation

Adam Kamradt-Scott, Associate professor, University of Sydney

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

Yes, we need a global coronavirus inquiry, but not for petty political point-scoring



Rey Moon/Shutterstock

Paul Komesaroff, Monash University; Ian Kerridge, University of Sydney, and Ross Upshur, University of Toronto

The US government’s call for an international inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic has a clear political motive: to shift the blame for its own failure to respond effectively to the epidemic within its own borders.

The finger-pointing by the Trump administration, and by US allies including Australia, has prompted China to refuse to cooperate.

This is unfortunate, because it is in everyone’s interest to work together, not to question China’s handling of the crisis but to discover the factors that cause new infections so we can avert future disasters.




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Murky origins: why China will never welcome a global inquiry into the source of COVID-19


We need to understand how SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, came into existence, and to look at how and when we might have been able to impede its progress.

This means examining the origins of the virus and the biological and environmental factors that allowed it to become so dangerous. To achieve this, an international, collaborative scientific investigation free from recriminations and narrow political agendas is needed.

What we know so far

Extensive scientific data have shown that SARS-CoV-2 was not deliberately engineered and there was no conspiracy to create an epidemic. It did not originate in or escape from a laboratory, in Wuhan or anywhere. The first human cases of COVID-19 did not come from the Wuhan wet market but from elsewhere in China, possibly outside Hubei province altogether.

In fact, the disease did not “originate” in a market at all, although an important spreading event linked to the Wuhan market did occur that brought it to the attention of Chinese public health authorities.

SARS-CoV-2 almost certainly descended from an animal virus that underwent a series of mutations that made it dangerous to humans. The path to humans probably involved intermediate animal hosts, although which animals remains uncertain.

So here is the most likely sequence of events: a coronavirus in a bat found its way into one or more other animal hosts, possibly including a pangolin or some kind of cat, somewhere in southern China. At that time, the virus could not infect or cause noticeable disease in humans, or else the animals infected had little contact with humans. Over an unknown period of time (possibly decades) the virus mutated in a way that made it highly dangerous and eventually, by chance, a human became infected, probably in about the second week of November 2019.

The new virus was quickly passed on to other people and found its way to Hubei province. On December 10, an infected individual visited the crowded market in Wuhan and was responsible for infecting 21 other people. Over the following two weeks, enough people became sick to alert doctors and public health officials, leading to an announcement on December 31 warning the world of the dangerous new disease. The market was closed the following day and vigorous efforts were made to identify and isolate contacts.

Three weeks later it was clear these measures could not contain the epidemic, and on January 23 Chinese authorities took the brave and unprecedented step of locking down the entire city. This controlled the spread of the virus in China, but it was too late to stop the spread internationally, because by that time the virus was already present in Taiwan, South Korea, Europe and the United States.

What we don’t know yet

What we now have to find out is what happened in the months or years leading up to November 2019 and whether, in retrospect, anything could have been done to prevent the disaster.

It is crucial we understand the evolution of this virus because, as with all human diseases that emerge from animals, it will have occurred as a result of both random biological events and responses to environmental pressures. The virus had to mutate, the original wild animal had to be exposed to other species, and the virus had to spread within that species and undergo further mutations. The animal had to come into close contact with a human who, at the right moment, has to contract the new infection.




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Despite the low probability of each individual step, in recent decades a long list of viruses has negotiated this entire pathway, including HIV, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Nipah, Lassa, Zika, Hendra, various types of influenza, and now SARS-CoV-2. This suggests new factors are increasing the chances of exposure, adaptation, infection and spread.

It is likely these factors include population growth, agricultural expansion, the loss of natural wild animal habitat, the loss of traditional food sources, and changing relationships between animal species and between animals and humans. Deforestation and climate change further exacerbate this process, as does increased movement of human populations, through domestic and international travel. The international illegal wildlife trade, inappropriate use of drugs and insecticides, and reluctance of governments to work together make matters even worse.

Knowing exactly how these factors affect the genetics and evolution of viruses will help us find ways to thwart them. We could develop a coordinated early warning system to identify and track potentially dangerous pathogens, and monitor interactions between species that could transmit them. We could preserve native habitats and reduce the pressure on wild animals to enter human habitats in search of food. We could strategically cull animals that act as reservoirs for dangerous viruses.

We could precisely target infection control procedures such as health monitoring and quarantine. We could work together to develop diagnostic tests, new drugs and vaccines. We could develop globally coordinated rapid response plans for when new outbreaks arise.




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This process will only work if undertaken with openness, trust, and an acknowledgement that it is in the entire world’s best interest. It will only work if we accept that viruses are not national problems or sovereign responsibilities, but global challenges.

COVID-19 should be a wake-up call that petty recriminations, ideological rivalries and short-sighted political ambitions must be set aside. The countries of the world must encourage China and the United States to raise their sights to the greater challenge and help conduct the investigation we need to avert future disaster.

It is urgent, because the next pandemic may already be incubating somewhere in the world at this very moment.The Conversation

Paul Komesaroff, Professor of Medicine, Monash University; Ian Kerridge, Professor of Bioethics & Medicine, Sydney Health Ethics, Haematologist/BMT Physician, Royal North Shore Hospital and Director, Praxis Australia, University of Sydney, and Ross Upshur, Professor, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto

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

How the impeachment inquiry might affect Trump’s 2020 re-election chances



As the impeachment inquiry gathers pace in the US, Donald Trump is likely to keep doubling down on his opponents.
AAP/EPA/Chris Kleponis

Dennis Altman, La Trobe University

The next 13 months will see American politics completely dominated by the fate of Donald Trump. As the House of Representatives moves towards impeaching him, leading to a hearing which then moves to the Senate, the Democrats will be engaged in an increasingly bitter contest for the nomination to run against Trump in the November 2020 elections.

At this stage, it appears there are the numbers in the house for impeachment, which entails formally charging the president with “high crimes and misdemeanors”. Their indictment then moves to the Senate, which can remove the president by a two-thirds majority, in a hearing chaired by the chief justice.

Because 2020 is an election year, both sides will manage proceedings with an eye to the November poll. It is possible the house will vote before the end of the year: the decision to impeach Bill Clinton for lying under oath was made in the last three months of 1998.




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Clinton was cleared by the Senate by the following February, so it is also possible the Senate will hold its own proceedings before most of the presidential primaries commence. It takes two-thirds of the Senate to remove a president from office, which has never happened.

While several Republican house representatives have expressed concern about the president’s behaviour, the overwhelming majority of Republican politicians are either supporting him or remaining silent.

Rather as Boris Johnston seems to have captured the British Conservative Party, so Trump has imposed himself on the Republicans. Those who three years ago assailed his unfitness for the presidency, such as Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, are now his loudest defenders. Meanwhile, several of his opponents are withdrawing from political office.

However, Senator Mitt Romney, Republican candidate for president in 2012, has indicated his disquiet, which is almost certainly shared by others. If the house uncovers more apparently illegal activity on Trump, and if public opinion seems to be turning against the president, there are several other senators who may follow, if only to preserve their own positions. Republican senators are facing re-election in states such as Colorado, Iowa, Maine and North Carolina, where they are increasingly vulnerable.

There is an odd historical parallel with the history of Senator Joe McCarthy, who led increasingly virulent anti-Communist crusades in the early 1950s and whose protégé, Roy Cohn, in turn influenced Trump.

Eventually, Republican senators turned on McCarthy, and censured but did not expel him. But this happened only once it was clear that public support for McCarthy was collapsing, which is so far not evident for Trump.

Faced with possible impeachment and loss of support, Richard Nixon resigned. It is difficult to see Trump doing this – it is more likely he will become even more irrational and vengeful as the process winds on. Right-wing media will echo the president’s claim that the impeachment hearings represent treason, with real danger of violent clashes between supporters and opponents of Trump.

For the Democrats, the best outcome would be a split within Republican ranks, which leaves Trump in office but weakened and vulnerable to a challenge for re-nomination. Removing Trump would place Vice President Mike Pence in office, and presumably ensured of nomination in 2020.

The dilemma for the Democrats is that the impeachment process will dominate the news cycle as they jockey for position going into next year’s long battle for the presidential nomination. Trump will use the allegations to focus attention on former Vice President Joe Biden, whose son’s business dealings in Ukraine triggered the impeachment inquiry.

Biden may hope this will allow him to emerge as the injured defender of political propriety, but he will be tarnished through guilt by association, and is likely to slip further in the polls. Biden represents some of the traditional working class and African American base of the Democratic Party, and how they react could determine the ultimate Democrat candidate.

At the moment, Elizabeth Warren challenges Biden’s lead in the polls, with Bernie Sanders the only other candidate consistently supported by more than 10% of Democrats. None of the others in a crowded field — 12 have qualified to take part in the next televised Democratic debate — have much support, and they will start to drop out once the primary season begins in February 2020.




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If Biden continues to lose support, there is room for someone to emerge as the moderate front-runner, given that both Warren and Sanders represent the more radical instincts of the party. This is presumably why so many candidates are determined to continue campaigning, even when some of them rarely muster 2% in the polls.

Were Sanders’ current health problems to lead to his withdrawal most of his support would presumably switch to Warren. Predictions are risky, and my record is poor. But it is increasingly likely that the Democrats will nominate someone other than an old white man in 2020, betting on a figure like Barack Obama who can galvanise a bitterly divided nation and persuade people to turn out and vote.The Conversation

Dennis Altman, Professorial Fellow in Human Security, La Trobe University

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

5 questions about superannuation the government’s new inquiry will need to ask



Superannuation has a smaller role in the retirement incomes system than is often suggested.
Shutterstock

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

The government’s new retirement incomes review will need to work quickly.

On Friday Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said he expected a final report by June, just seven months after the issues paper he wants it to deliver by November.

The deadline is tight for a reason. In recommending the inquiry in its report on the (in)effeciency of Australia’s superannuation system this year, the Productivity Commission said it should be completed “in advance of any increase in the superannuation guarantee rate”.

In other words, in advance of the next leglislated increase in compulsory superannuation contributions, which is on July 1, 2021.




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The next increase (actually, the next five increases) will hurt.

The last two, on July 1 2013 and July 1 2014, took place when wage growth was stronger. In 2013 wages growth was 3% per year.


Source: Australian Tax Office

And they were small – an extra 0.25 per cent of salary each.

The next five, to be imposed annually from July 1 2021, are twice the size: 0.5% of salary each.

If taken out of wage growth, they’ve the potential to cut it from its present usually low 2.3% per annum to something with a “1” in front of it, pushing it below the rate of inflation, for five consecutive years.

If we were going to do that (even if we thought the economy and wage growth could afford it) it would be a good idea to have a good reason why. After all, compulsory superannuation is the compulsory locking away of income that could otherwise be spent or used to pay down debt or saved through another vehicle, regardless of the wishes of the person whose income it is.

Question 1. What’s it for?

Fortunately, the new inquiry doesn’t need to do much work on this one.

For most of its life compulsory super hasn’t had an agreed purpose. At times it has been justified as a means of restraining wage growth, at times as means of restraining government spending on the pension, at times as means of boosting national savings.

In 2014, more than 20 years after compulsory super began, the Murray Financial System Review asked the government to set a clear objective for it, and two years later the government came up with one, enshrined in a bill entitled the Superannuation (Objective) Bill 2016.

The bill lapsed, but the objective at its centre lives on as the best description we’ve come up with yet of what compulsory super is for:

to provide income in retirement to substitute or supplement the age pension

Which raises the question of how much we need. For compulsory super, the answer is probably none. People who want more than the pension and their other savings can save more through voluntary super. People who don’t want more (or can’t afford to save more) shouldn’t.

Question 2. How much do people need?

Assuming for the moment that how much people need in retirement is relevant for determining how much compulsory super they need, the inquiry will need to examine what people need to live on in retirement.

The “standards” prepared by the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia are loose. The more generous of the two allows for overseas travel every two or so years, A$163 per couple per fortnight on dining out, $81 on alcohol “or equivalent spent
with charity or church”.




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It isn’t a reasonable guide to how much people need to live on, and certainly isn’t a reasonable guide for how much the government should intervene to make sure they have to live on. They are standards it doesn’t intervene to support while people are working.

And there’s something else. Super isn’t what will fund it. Most retirement living is funded outside of super, either through the age pension, private savings, or the family home (which saves on rent). Most 65 year olds have more saved outside of super than in it, and a lot more than that saved in the family home.

It’s a slight of hand to say that retirees need a certain proportion of their final wage to live on and then to say that that’s how much super should provide.

Question 3: Does it come out of wages?

The best guess is that, although paid by employers in addition to wages, compulsory super comes out of what would otherwise have been their wage bill.

Treasury puts it this way:

Though compulsory superannuation guarantee contributions are paid by employers, wage setting generally takes into account all labour costs. As such, it is widely accepted that employees bear the cost of higher superannuation guarantees in the form of lower take home pay.

The inquiry will probably make its own determination. If it finds that extra contributions do indeed come out of what would have been pay rises, it will have to consider the tradeoff between lower pay rises (and they are already very low) and the compulsory provision of more superannuation in retirement.

Question 4: Does it boost private saving?

It’d be tempting to think that the compulsory nature of compulsory superannuation meant that each extra dollar funnelled into it increased retirement savings by an extra dollar. But it doesn’t, in part because wealthy Australians who are already saving a lot have the option of offsetting it by saving less in other ways.

For them, the increase in saving isn’t compulsory.

For financially stretched Australians unable to afford to save (or for Australians at times in times life when they can’t afford to save) the compulsion is real, and unwelcome.

The inquiry will have to make its own assessment, updating Reserve Bank research which found in 2007 that each extra dollar in compulsory accounts added between 70 and 90 cents to household wealth.

Question 5: Does it boost national saving?

Boosting private saving (at the expense of people who are unable to escape) is one thing. Boosting national savings (private and government) is another. The tax concessions the government hands out to support superannuation are expensive. The concession on contributions alone is set to cost $19 billion this year and $23 billion in 2022-23, notwithstanding some tightening up. It predominately benefits high earners, the kind of people who don’t need assistance to save.




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On balance it is likely that the system does little for national savings, cutting government savings by as much as it boosts private savings. But because the question hasn’t been asked, not since the Fitzgerald report on national saving in 1993 shortly after compulsory super was introduced, we don’t know.

It’ll be up to the inquiry to bring us up to date.The Conversation

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

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

Pauline Hanson stymies inquiry into Angus Taylor’s intervention on endangered grasslands


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Pauline Hanson has saved Energy Minister Angus Taylor from an inquiry into his intervention over endangered grasslands, with a Labor motion defeated 33-32 in the Senate.

Earlier Taylor defended his intervention in a statement to the House of Representatives, insisting he had obtained a meeting with officials on the grasslands in response to representations from local farmers, and there was no canvassing of the compliance issues that were on foot relating to land in which he had an interest.

The opposition continued to pursue Taylor in question time, but it was already clear it would not have the numbers in the Senate for the inquiry. Hanson said One Nation, which has two votes, would not back a “witch hunt”. Labor’s motion had the support of the Greens, Centre Alliance and Jacqui Lambie. The other crossbencher, Cory Bernardi, voted with the government.

In 2017 Taylor sought a briefing on the classification as endangered of the natural temperate grassland. The environment minister at the time was Josh Frydenberg who was not, however, at the meeting that occurred in response to Taylor’s representation.

At the time there was an investigation into the clearing of a section of the grassland on the property of the company Jam Land Pty Ltd, of which Taylor’s brother Richard is a director. Angus Taylor has an interest in Jam Land through his family company.

Taylor told parliament that when he took up the matter there “had been strong antagonism expressed by the farming community about federal and state native vegetation regulation.”




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In late 2016 and early 2017 he had spoken with farmers in his Hume electorate and nearby about their worries with the listing of the grassland.

“On 21 February 2017, I spoke with a farmer near Yass who expressed strong and detailed concerns about the revised listing, pointing out that it had occurred despite the concerns of the National Farmers’ Federation and NSW Farmers, and with little consultation with farmers themselves,” he said.

“All of these farmers were completely disconnected from our family farming operations.”

Taylor said the revised listing of the grassland – which is in both the Hume and Eden-Monaro electorates – “would ultimately halt pasture improvement and efficient weed control across the Southern Tablelands and Monaro” and “has the potential to do untold damage to agricultural productivity throughout the region”.

“I sought a briefing on the revised listing from the then minister’s office, which I made clear was not to include any discussion of compliance matters.”

Taylor said FOI documents already released showed that an official had written that the meeting was “to answer questions on the technical aspects of the listing outcome”, and would “stay out of completely” any compliance action underway.

This was how the meeting had gone, Taylor said. “At no time during this meeting, was any compliance matter, or any personal interest of mine, discussed. At that meeting we discussed precisely what the department had said we would discuss.”

The opposition pressed Taylor to produce any correspondence from complaining farmers. Nothing was forthcoming.




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Labor’s Senate leader Penny Wong accused Taylor of using his ministerial position to “shore his investments up”.

She told the Senate: “Mr Morrison says Mr Taylor has one KPI, to be the minister for lower prices. But he is the minister to increase the value of his own investments.

“Angus Taylor failed to declare a direct financial interest in a company [in the declaration of interests register]. But worse, he then used his position, as a minister, to defend that company’s interests after it was accused of breaking the law.”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.

Government pulls out all stops to prevent inquiry into Angus Taylor



Energy Minister Angus Taylor is under pressure over a potential Senate enquiry.
AAP/Mick Tsikas

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government has lobbied crossbenchers with fresh material in a last minute effort to head off a Senate inquiry into Angus Taylor’s intervention on endangered grassland.

It is expected to produce the material publicly on Monday before the Senate is due to decide whether to establish the inquiry.

Earlier story

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has become the decisive player in whether Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s actions over NSW endangered grassland are probed by a Senate inquiry.

Taylor, seen by the opposition as a weak parliamentary performer, came under sustained attack in question time last week and faces continued heat.

Labor is putting him under pressure on two fronts – his interest through a family company in a farm that is under investigation for land clearing, and his portfolio issues of high energy prices and rising emissions.

In 2017 – when Josh Frydenberg was environment minister – Taylor sought a government briefing on the classification as endangered of the natural temperate grassland. He says he was acting on representations from constituents in his NSW seat of Hume.

There was an investigation at the time into the poisoning of a section of the grassland on the property of the company Jam Land Pty Ltd, of which Taylor’s brother Richard is a director. Angus Taylor has an interest in Jam Land through his family company. Although Taylor’s declaration of interests lists his family company, it does not include that company’s interest in Jam Land. Taylor says this omission is within the rules.

A compliance officer was at the briefing.

Under the Labor motion to be moved on Monday a Senate inquiry would examine

  • whether a compliance investigation by the environment department in relation to the natural temperate grassland of the south eastern highlands ecological community had been adversely affected by the actions of Taylor, Frydenberg, or anyone else.

  • whether the conduct of Taylor and Frydenberg, in relation to the compliance investigation, represented “a proper and disinterested exercise of their responsibilities”.

The opposition last week failed in its move for an inquiry. But since then, Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick has signalled a change of mind.

Patrick had been dissuaded from backing an inquiry by material the government showed him. He has subsequently decided the material is irrelevant, saying that after studying the reporting on the issue and federal and NSW FOIs “I am now prepared to support an inquiry”.

This change leaves One Nation as crucial – the motion won’t pass if it opposes. Pauline Hanson did not support Labor’s push last week, but on Sunday was being coy.

One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts said on Sunday night the party was still weighing its position and would decide on Monday morning.

“We’re not going to allow ministers to get away with an abuse of power. But we’re not going to allow witch hunts,” he said.

He said the issue had been hurting farmers since the Howard government caused the problem by driving, through the states, native vegetation legislation “that stole farmers’ property rights”.

“Angus has been caught up in this – now that he’s involved, the government is interested, ” Roberts said.

Taylor accused Labor of a “grubby smear campaign”

“My indirect interest in Jam Land Pty Ltd has been widely reported in the media, and was declared in accordance with the rules,” he said. “I have had no association with the compliance action, and I have never made representation in relation to it.” He said he had been “sticking up for the farmers in my electorate”.

Labor’s climate spokesman Mark Butler said Taylor was “embroiled in a growing scandal over whether or not he sought to interfere in a compliance action, by his own department, over illegal land clearing on a property in which he had a financial interest which he had not disclosed.

“He had not disclosed that financial interest to the parliament, to the Australian people and it would appear not even to the Prime Minister.”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.

View from The Hill: Joyce could be facing waves at a judicial inquiry after the election


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

It’s hard to believe Barnaby Joyce really wants to lead the Nationals again. Of course everyone knows he does, desperately, but his unhinged ABC interview with Patricia Karvelas on Monday showed a breathtaking absence of political judgement or personal restraint.

Joyce went on the program to defend his conduct in the 2017 A$79 million water buyback from two Queensland properties owned by Eastern Australia Agriculture (EAA).

Regardless of how his approval of this deal will ultimately be judged, his shouting, interruptions and at times absurd language drowned out any chance of his getting his points across.

Joyce loyalists will see it as Barnaby-being-Barnaby. But it was further reason for Nationals to despair about the parlous state of their party, as they watch an ineffective leader and an out-of-control aspirant.

The Joyce interview made it harder for the government to manage this big distraction in a messy second campaign week.

The controversy over the water purchase is based on an old story; the election has enabled it to be resurrected for a powerful fresh spin around the political circuit.

Water expert Quentin Grafton, professor of economics at the Crawford School at the Australian National University, lays out the issues.

Grafton estimates the Commonwealth paid about $40 million too much for this water. He identifies three areas of concern: the government’s failure to get value for money (remembering this was floodwater, which is unreliable); the lack of transparency in the deal, and the nature of the process – a negotiated sale rather than an open tender.

Much has been made of EAA being a subsidiary of Eastern Australian Irrigation (EAI), which is based in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven. This does, however, seem an irrelevance in the context of the value for money issue.

Also, it is one thing to say tax avoidance structures should be cracked down on, quite another to suggest the government should decline to deal with a company with a structure that accords with the law.

There has also been talk about Energy Minister Angus Taylor. As a business consultant Taylor helped set up the two companies and was a director of each.

But according to Taylor’s office he ended all links before entering parliament, never had a direct or indirect financial interest in EAA or any associated company, had no knowledge of the water buyback until after it happened, and received no benefit from this transaction.

So the questions in this affair centre on the conduct of the Agriculture Department and its then minister.

Grafton says: “Either the public servants were incompetent in relation to understanding value for money – or there’s an alternative explanation.”

The department is sensitive, taking the unusual step during Easter (and in the “caretaker” period) of issuing a statement defending its actions. It said it had done “due diligence”. The water purchase had been consistent with Commonwealth Procurement Rules “and paid at a fair market rate, as informed by independent market valuation,” the statement said.




Read more:
Australia’s ‘watergate’: here’s what taxpayers need to know about water buybacks


Joyce is known in general to have been a meddling minister.

In this case, he insists he followed departmental advice in approving the purchase, and had been at arms length from the deal.

“My role was never to actually select a purchaser or to determine a price,” he told a Tuesday news conference. But he approved the authority to negotiate without tender, and imposed conditions, including having the department report back to him before finalising the deal.

The current Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud, tried to stem the damage on Tuesday by asking the Auditor-General to inquire into the matter. Littleproud added a political twist, requesting the audit to look back as far as 2008, to encompass Labor’s period.

But this wasn’t going to satisfy Labor in an election campaign.

The opposition had demanded documents by the end of Tuesday; predictably, it didn’t get what it wanted.

Bill Shorten had already flagged the need for a judicial inquiry.

Late Tuesday, environment spokesman Tony Burke accused Scott Morrison of “trying to cover up his government’s incompetence, chaos and potential misconduct”.

“It is now clear that there needs to be an independent inquiry into the Eastern Australia Agriculture scandal, with coercive powers so that Australians can get the truth,” Burke said. (That inquiry, however, wouldn’t be probing Labor deals.)

If Labor wins on May 18, yet again we will see a government launch an investigation into the conduct of its predecessor. If this comes to pass, Joyce will find himself in the witness box, a prospect he seems to relish – at least now.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.

ABC and SBS are not distorting media market, government inquiry finds


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government’s inquiry into whether the ABC and SBS are competing
fairly with the private sector’s media operators has given a tick to
the public broadcasters.

The report concluded: “Given their market shares, and other factors, this inquiry considers the National Broadcasters are not causing significant competitive distortions beyond the public interest”. But it did see the need for greater transparency from them.

The review arose from a 2017 deal between the government and Pauline
Hanson to get One Nation support for media law changes which
liberalised ownership rules. It has been chaired by Robert Kerr,
formerly from the Productivity Commission. The report was released by
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield on Wednesday.

The outcome will be disappointing to News Corp in particular which has
been highly critical of the ABC’s expansion in online publishing. The
former Fairfax organisation, now taken over by Nine, also complained
about the competition eating into the market of commercial media
groups.

The report said: “Competitive neutrality seeks to ensure that
competition is not distorted by public entities taking inappropriate
advantage of government ownership.

“It is not intended to prevent public entities from competing, nor to
relieve discomfort from competitive processes which are bringing
benefits to consumers as they rapidly adopt and enjoy new services”.

The inquiry found the broadcasters’ business activities in order; they
were “abiding by a best endeavours approach to competitive
neutrality.” It suggested there should be some improvements in
transparency and internal procedures.

Beyond that, “the question arises as to how competitive neutrality
principles about competing fairly without distortion might apply to
the free services delivered by the ABC and SBS.

“Free ABC and SBS services are having some competitive impact.
Submissions included complaints about the ABC’s online news service
and SBS’ multi-channel and streaming services. But the National
Broadcasters are established and funded to provide free services. So
long as they operate within their statutory Charters they are
operating in the public interest”.

The report said submissions questioned whether the broadcasters were
operating within their charters. But, it said, these charters were
very broad, and reporting against them “is not detailed or robust
enough to settle doubts”.

“Accountability is difficult, especially as there is no opportunity
for Charter complaints to be addressed”.

The broadcasters should improve their reporting of charter performance
in the context of competitive neutrality. “If this enhanced reporting
does not occur, the government should consider a way of managing
complaints about Charter performance in this area,” the report said.

“While the National Broadcasters are not prohibited from competing,
some improvements in the way they interact with markets should be
contemplated”.

The report also said the government should consider options for a
longer term funding framework for the national broadcasters,
accompanied by increased transparency and accountability.

Fifield said he recognised the broadcasters’ charters were broad and
allowed flexibility in how their boards implemented them.
“It is now up to the national broadcasters to act on these
recommendations,” he said.

Labor’s communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland said the
government’s “fishing expedition” had spent half a million dollars to
establish what the public broadcasters had said all along – that they
“are operating in a manner consistent with the general principles of
competitive neutrality.

“Australians trust and value the ABC and SBS and should not have to
foot the bill for Mitch Fifield and Pauline Hanson’s vendetta against
public broadcasting,” she said.

Also in return for Hanson’s support the government agreed to bring in
legislation to require the ABC to be “fair” and “balanced” in its
coverage.

Under the legislation, the board would be required “to ensure that the
gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information
is fair, balanced, accurate and impartial according to the recognised
standards of objective journalism.”

But the legislation is bogged down, with no chance of being passed
before the election.

The government has yet to appoint a new ABC chair, after the implosion
within the organisation involving the board sacking managing
director Michelle Guthrie and the resignation of Justin Milne as chair
amid a row over editorial interference.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.

Inquiry finds Husar behaved badly to staff but dismisses allegations of lewd conduct


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The inquiry into Labor MP Emma Husar’s conduct has upheld complaints that she behaved unreasonably towards her staff, but rejected claims of lewd conduct and misleading the parliament.

These are the central findings of the independent assessment by barrister John Whelan, commissioned by the NSW Labor party. The party said the legal advice, based on this assessment, was that there was “no basis” for Husar to resign from parliament.

Husar, who is in her first term, announced this week she would quit at the election.

NSW Labor issued a summary of the Whelan inquiry’s findings on Friday.




Read more:
Grattan on Friday: Turnbull is trying to turn Emma Husar story into a Bill Shorten narrative


The assessment said the allegation of misuse of public entitlements should be referred to the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority for audit, and noted Husar had advised she was referring herself.

It found allegations of sexual harassment, on the balance of probabilities and Briginshaw Standard, were not supported. Nor were claims that she behaved in a lewd manner in the office of Labor frontbencher Jason Clare.

But complaints that staff performed non-work related and personal duties for Husar had merit – “even accounting for the particular nature of political offices”. They should be referred to the Department of Finance’s Ministerial and Parliamentary Services for advice about the appropriate employment guidelines issued to MPs, the assessment said.

It also found merit in complaints that “staff were subjected to unreasonable management, including unreasonable communication, demands, practices and disciplinary methods”.

The assessment outlined the two contrasting perceptions of what had happened that it had been given.

Husar argued “she manages appropriately to achieve higher standards of performance and loyalty. And does so under a heavy workload, intense personal stress and a desire to serve Western Sydney and in particular the cause of victims of domestic violence.”

But the men and women who made complaints “perceive and allege they have found much of the member’s management offensive and unreasonable”.

“After considering all sides of the relevant issues the assessment has generally favoured the complainant’s perception of events.”

The inquiry recommended Ministerial and Parliamentary Services review the accessibility of the current electorate office staff complaints resolution process.

It also said Husar, who is on extended leave, and Finance’s Ministerial and Parliamentary Services should be asked to develop a “return to work” plan, covering timing, training, staff needs and office support.

The assessment condemned as “reprehensible” the release publicly of selected allegations.

It said there were concerns for the wellbeing of many involved and counselling was being made available.

The full assessment – which emphasised the need for a “de-escalation” – will not be released.

Husar said the report had cleared her “of the most malicious and damaging of allegations, which were not only baseless but leaked to media.”

“I don’t believe any of these should have cost me my reputation, my job, or humiliated me and my children, ” she said.

“This has been trial by media, gossip and innuendo.

“I am gutted that the willingness of certain individuals, and certain parts of the media, to defame me on vexatious and unfounded accusations, has caused so much personal, emotional and professional damage to me, so much hurt to those close to me, and political harm to the party I love, have supported and worked so hard for.”

The ConversationShe said she was confident that if she had been given the opportunity to respond to all allegations in full, without the public attacks, she would have been able to put the matter behind her and continue to serve her electorate of Lindsay.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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