Changing the Australian Constitution was always meant to be difficult – here’s why


Anne Twomey, University of Sydney

Debates about constitutional change in Australia inevitably raise the poor success rate of referendums. Only eight out of 44 attempts have ever succeeded and there has not been a successful constitutional change since 1977.

So why was the referendum chosen as the means of amending our federal constitution, and was it really intended to be so hard to succeed?

In the 1890s, adopting a referendum as the means of amending the constitution was quite radical. None of the countries from which the framers of the constitution drew precedents and inspiration – the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States – used a referendum.

Why then did Australia take a different path and entrust the people with the final decision on constitutional change?




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The UK supported flexible constitutions and easy change

In the United Kingdom, the view was taken that every generation had the right to change the constitution to suit its own needs. Accordingly, it did not have a formal constitution with restrictions on how it could be amended. Instead, the UK had a range of legislation dealing with constitutional matters that could be changed by the vote of an ordinary majority in parliament.

In the 1850s, when the New South Wales Constitution was being enacted, NSW politicians wanted to:

frame a Constitution in perpetuity for the colony – not a Constitution which could be set aside, altered and shattered to pieces by every blast of popular opinion.

But the British government inserted an overriding provision in the statute that approved the NSW Constitution, which allowed the constitution to be amended by ordinary legislation passed by the NSW parliament. They sought to ensure that the people, through their parliamentary representatives, were free to change their constitution as and when it suited them.

Federal systems need rigid constitutions and more difficult change

When it came to making a constitution for an Australian federation, such flexibility was not possible.

A federal constitution confers different powers at the federal and state level. If the federal parliament had the power to change it by passing ordinary legislation, then all powers and protections of the states could be easily removed, destroying the federal system. That meant that a “rigid” or “entrenched” constitution was needed – one that could not be amended simply at the behest of one level of government.

The two obvious federal examples to draw on were Canada and the United States. The Constitution of Canada was set out in a British statute of 1867. Because it did not contain an internal mechanism to amend the constitution, only the British parliament could amend it.

The framers of the Australian Constitution did not want to go begging to Westminster whenever they wanted to amend their constitution. They wanted control over the constitution to rest in Australian hands. So they rejected the Canadian approach.

The other well-known federal example was the United States. Despite all the constitutional rhetoric of “we, the people”, the US Constitution has never been amended by a direct vote of the people. Instead, it requires a constitutional amendment to be initiated and ratified by a combination of special majorities of votes in Congress, the state legislatures or especially established conventions. The people do not get a direct say.

How the referendum was seen in the 1890s

In the 1890s, the referendum became the subject of much study and interest outside its existing use in Switzerland and in parts of the United States at state and local level.

One strong and influential supporter of the referendum in the United Kingdom was A. V. Dicey. This was surprising, as he is best known for his support of parliamentary sovereignty. But Dicey saw the referendum as both democratic and conservative. In 1890 he said:

It is democratic, for it appeals to and protects the sovereignty of the people; it is conservative, for it balances the weight of the nation’s common sense or inertia against the violence of partisanship and the fanaticism of reformers.

Dicey was opposed to Home Rule for Ireland and saw the referendum as a means of allowing the people to veto constitutional change that would otherwise be imposed on the country due to party-political considerations.

In 1894, he described the referendum as “the People’s Veto”. In words that might well resonate today, he expressed concern that

the art of Party warfare is turning into the art of bribing and confusing voters.

To him, the referendum was a means of defeating change by relying on the general reluctance of people to risk the unknown. It is as if he had foreseen the history of federal referendums in Australia.

Why Australia chose the referendum

The idea of adopting the referendum, both as a means of approving a federal constitution and later amending it, was raised by Alfred Deakin in 1890 and Charles Kingston in 1891. They approached the issue as one of democracy, rather than conservatism.

Nonetheless, the 1891 Constitutional Convention rejected the proposal for a referendum. Sir Samuel Griffith argued that constitutional change was complex and it was not practicable for voters to be familiar with every detail. He considered an elected convention of political experts was better suited to dealing with such issues.

The convention ultimately approved a model similar to that in the United States, involving passage of an amendment by an absolute majority of both houses of the federal parliament, then approval by special conventions in a majority of states.

By the time of the 1897 Constitutional Convention, however, Griffith was gone and those supporting a form of more direct democracy prevailed. The referendum was chosen, but it was still to be subject to several hurdles.

There was no intention that the constitution be easy to change. Tasmanian Premier Sir Edward Braddon observed that the feeling of the convention was:

… that it should be made as difficult as possible to amend the Constitution.

While it was not to be made “absolutely impossible”, the constitution should not be easily capable of change upon “any fluctuation of public opinion” or in response to a crisis of a temporary character.

What is needed for a referendum to pass?

So what hurdles must be overcome for the Australian Constitution to be amended?

First, the amendment must be approved by an absolute majority of each house of parliament, or it must be passed twice by an absolute majority of one house, with an interval of three months in between. This effectively gives the federal government control over what goes to a referendum, because even if the Senate alone approves a referendum, it still requires the governor-general to put it to the referendum. On the only occasion this occurred, in 1914, the governor-general acted on the advice of the government not to hold the referendum.

Secondly, once a constitutional amendment is put to a referendum, it has to be passed by a majority of all the electors who vote. Since 1977, this has included electors in the territories.

Thirdly, a referendum must also be approved by a majority of voters in a majority of the states. That means that there has to be majority “yes” vote in four of the six states.




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There are also special requirements if the constitutional change would diminish the proportionate or minimum parliamentary representation of a state or affect the borders of a state, in which case the approval of a majority of electors in the affected state is required.

The political hurdles to referendum success

These are the legal and constitutional hurdles. But as Dicey noted in the 1890s, and many others have since, there are numerous political reasons why referendums fail. These include poor proposals, fear of change, political opportunism by governments or oppositions, a low level of public understanding of constitutional matters, poor campaigning and sheer inertia or public disinterest.

Constitutional change in Australia is always an uphill battle, but that is no reason to shirk it. Instead, it should be a spur to produce better proposals for constitutional change, develop strong and clear arguments for reform, cultivate widespread public support and undertake vigorous, but honest, campaigns.The Conversation

Anne Twomey, Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Sydney

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

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Hand sanitisers in public won’t wipe out the flu but they might help reduce its spread



It’s quicker to use hand sanitiser than soap and water, which means people might be more likely to use it.
Shutterstock

Trent Yarwood, The University of Queensland

This year’s flu season is off to an early start, with 144,000 confirmed cases so far in 2019. That’s more than twice as many confirmed cases of the flu than for all of 2018 (58,000), and almost as many as the 2017 horror flu season (251,000).

The number of cases so far this year, including more than 231 deaths nationwide, led the NSW opposition health spokesperson to call for hand sanitisers in public spaces to help slow the spread.




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Influenza spreads via droplets from coughing and sneezing, which is why it’s a good idea to catch your cough. But coughing into your hand can leave flu virus on your hands, which is why we recommend coughing into your elbow or sleeve and washing your hands afterwards.

Along with getting vaccinated and staying home if you’re sick, washing your hands is the best defence against getting the flu.

If the government can make this easier by providing hand sanitisers in public places, it may be worth the investment. It won’t solve our flu problem but it might be an important tool in the toolbox of measures to reduce its spread.

What does the research say?

The scientific literature on hand sanitisers isn’t so clear-cut.

A 2019 study in university colleges showed the use of hand hygiene and face masks didn’t protect against flu any better than mask use alone. But unlike some other countries, Australia doesn’t have a strong habit of mask use when people are unwell, so this may not be very helpful to us.

A 2014 study in New Zealand schools showed that providing sanitiser didn’t reduce the rate of absenteeism from school either.

While these studies make it sound like hand sanitiser is not very effective, that’s not the end of the story.

Other studies show a positive effect – a 16% reduction in respiratory illness in one and a 21% reduction in another. For some infections, the evidence is even stronger – for example, gastroenteritis, most of which is also viral.

However, few of these studies showing the benefits of hand sanitisers were done during a large disease outbreak, which means the potential benefit may be even greater.

Not all influenza-like illness is caused by the flu – it can be other viruses as well, so the estimates are a bit rubbery at best. Hand sanitiser trials which look at influenza-like illness or respiratory infections generally are more likely to show benefits than those that just look for influenza – meaning good hand hygiene prevents other infections as well.

If you have the flu, the best place to be is at home.
Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock

Lessons from hospitals

Although preventing infection in hospitals is not the same as doing it in the community, there are two important lessons from hospital infection control.

First, in hospital hand-hygiene programs, hand sanitiser is more effective than soap-and-water hand-washing, provided your hands aren’t visibly dirty.

This is partly because of the rapid effect of the alcohol, but mostly because it’s much quicker and therefore more likely that staff will use it.




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The second important point from hand hygiene and other areas of hospital infection control is that introducing a “bundle” of strategies usually reduces healthcare-associated infection rates – even when the individual parts of these bundles don’t show benefits alone.

This could be because the individual effect sizes are too small, or that change in practice highlights a “safety culture”.

Sanitisers can be one of many strategies

Installing hand rub in public areas won’t solve this year’s flu outbreak by itself. But it can be part of a bundle of strategies – as long as the dispensers are kept topped up.

And it’s certainly a safe intervention – despite some desperate hysteria about the safety of hand gels, or the risk of people drinking them, there is little evidence this actually occurs in reality.

Hand sanitiser is also likely to be easier to implement than fixing the much larger social problem of Australians going to work when they’re sick. This may be because of inadequate sick leave, concerns about “letting the team down”, or other logistical problems such as child-care.

Get your flu vaccine – even now it’s still not too late – and get it for your kids as well, for their sake as well as your own.

Remember to stay home if you’re unwell, and always to cough into your sleeve. And don’t forget to clean your hands – even if the government doesn’t end up making it easier for you.




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The Conversation


Trent Yarwood, Infectious Diseases Physician, Senior Lecturer, James Cook University and, The University of Queensland

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

As the federal government debates an Indigenous Voice, state and territories are pressing ahead



The Queensland treaty process is still in the early stages and negotiations will not begin for several years. But it’s still a historic step forward for Indigenous communities.
Tracey Nearmy/AAP

Harry Hobbs, University of Technology Sydney; Alison Whittaker, University of Technology Sydney, and Lindon Coombes, University of Technology Sydney

Queensland Deputy Premier Jackie Trad has announced that the state will begin a conversation about a pathway to treaty with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In doing so, Queensland joined Victoria and the Northern Territory in formally commencing treaty processes.

This is a significant development. While the Commonwealth government embarks on another round of important yet time-consuming consultations over a potential First Nations Voice to Parliament, the states and territories are taking the lead on treaties.

Queensland’s ‘track to treaty’

Queensland’s announcement reflects a shift in debate on Indigenous constitutional recognition at the state and territory level. Only a few year ago, the states and territories debated whether to include a reference to Indigenous Australians in their constitutions. Now, they are contemplating negotiating treaties.

Treaties have been accepted globally as the means of reaching a settlement between Indigenous peoples and those who have colonised their lands. They are formal agreements, reached via respectful negotiation in which both sides accept a series of responsibilities.

Treaties acknowledge Indigenous peoples were prior owners and occupiers of the land and, as such, retain a right to self-government. At a minimum, they recognise or establish structures of culturally appropriate governance and means of decision-making and control.

The Queensland treaty process is still in its early stages and negotiations will not begin for several years. This is sensible, because it is important that both the state and First Nations are ready to start negotiations.

For First Nations, this means having a clear sense of what a treaty might mean for their communities, as well as a broad consensus on their negotiating position. Preparing for treaty negotiations can also enable First Nations to engage in nation-(re)building, consistent with their values and aspirations, which is valuable regardless of the content, or even the completion, of a treaty.

For the state, it is equally important that non-Indigenous Queenslanders understand what a treaty is and what it might result in.




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Reflecting these preliminary steps, the government has established a bipartisan eminent panel of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Queenslanders, with Indigenous academic Jackie Huggins and former Attorney-General Michael Lavarch serving as co-chairs.

Their responsibility is to provide leadership and engage with key stakeholders across the state. A treaty working group will also be established soon to lead consultations with First Nations, allowing them to discuss and reach agreement on what a treaty might contain.

Jackie Huggins (left) will take a lead role in the Queensland treaty process.
Alan Porritt/AAP

Others leading the way

These steps follow similar processes in two other states and territories with Labor governments – Victoria and the Northern Territory.

In Victoria, the Andrews government committed to entering treaty negotiations in 2016. An Aboriginal Treaty Working Group was established to lead two rounds of community consultations, which resulted in the creation of a First Peoples’ Assembly. The assembly will not negotiate treaties itself, but will work with the state to develop a treaty framework through which the state and First Nations can negotiate.

At the same time, Victoria also established a Treaty Advancement Commission to maintain momentum for a treaty and keep all Victorians informed.

The process in the Northern Territory is following this pattern. In June 2018, the government signed a memorandum of understanding with representatives of the four Indigenous land councils, committing to exploring a treaty.

Earlier this year, Mick Dodson, the former director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the Australian National University, was appointed NT treaty commissioner. He is currently leading consultations with Aboriginal Territorians.

Why a lack of federal involvement is a problem

These are promising developments, but there are several challenges ahead.

First, treaties are political agreements. As such, they are vulnerable to political fluctuations.

In Queensland, the Liberal National Party opposition wants to look at the government’s announcement in more detail, but has already suggested it would adopt different priorities. If the LNP wins the 2020 state election, it could abandon the process before negotiations even commence.

We have already seen this play out in South Australia. In 2017, the state Labor government formally started treaty negotiations. But within a year, a newly-elected Coalition government stepped away from this commitment.

Second, the federal government’s position is problematic. Ken Wyatt, the new minister for Indigenous Australians, has said the federal government will leave treaty processes to the states and territories.




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Federal government involvement is not legally necessary. Queensland has the legal authority to sign and implement a treaty with Indigenous peoples.

However, the Commonwealth parliament has the power to overrule any state or territory treaty. For this reason, it is preferable that the Commonwealth play a role in these processes. The Uluru Statement from the Heart offers an avenue to do so.

.

In this light, the federal government’s response to the Uluru Statement adds a further complication. The statement calls for

  • A constitutionally enshrined national representative body to advise the federal parliament (known as a “Voice” to parliament); and

  • A Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about Australia’s history.

As constitutional lawyer Megan Davis has explained, these reforms are “deliberately sequenced.” The value of starting with a First Nations Voice and Makarrata Commission is that they can oversee developments across the country. Without these bodies, state and territory treaty processes may diverge and result in wildly different settlement terms.

Ken Wyatt faces intense opposition to his proposal for a referendum on constitutional recognition.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Finally, the support of Indigenous peoples is not assured.

Increasingly, First Nations are resisting agreement-making with governments that act inconsistently with their values and aspirations.

For instance, the Djab Wurrung Embassy, a group of traditional owners protesting VicRoads’ plan to cut down sacred trees, has launched a “No Trees, No Treaty” campaign to highlight the state government’s refusal to listen to their views.

Just last month, the Yorta Yorta Elders Council also rejected a Victorian treaty

as a trip wire and only a pathway to assimilation.

Consensus cannot be assumed, and will become more complex as First Nations articulate their objectives and objections to possible treaties.

What’s next?

Notwithstanding these challenges, Queensland’s announcement is historic.

It confirms that progress on Indigenous constitutional recognition is being led by the states and territories. It also directs more attention to the federal government’s approach to this issue.

It is hoped that the Commonwealth reflects on Queensland’s announcement and commits to establishing a Makarrata Commission. And that commission should be designed by Indigenous representatives serving on a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice.The Conversation

Harry Hobbs, Lecturer, University of Technology Sydney; Alison Whittaker, Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney, and Lindon Coombes, Industry Professor (Indigenous Policy), University of Technology Sydney

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

US House of Representatives condemns racist tweets in another heady week under President Donald Trump


Bruce Wolpe, University of Sydney

The past three days in US politics have been very difficult – and ugly.

President Donald Trump chose to exploit divisions inside the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives – generational and ideological – by attacking four new women members of Congress, denying their status as Americans and their legitimacy to serve in Congress. They are women of colour and, yes, they are from the far left of the Democratic Party. They have pushed hard against their leaders.

But Trump’s vicious, racist attacks on them have in fact solved the unity problem among the Democrats: they are today (re)united against Trump.




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You can draw a straight line from Trump’s birther attacks on Obama, to his “Mexican rapists” attack when he announced his run for the presidency, to his Muslim immigration ban, to equivocating over Nazis marching in Charlottesville, to sending troops to the US-Mexico border, to shutting down the government, to declaring a national emergency, to what he is doing today.

And his attacks on these lawmakers is based on a lie: three of the congresswomen were born in America. One is an immigrant, now a citizen, and as American as any citizen – just like Trump’s wife.

I worked in the House of Representatives for ten years. I learned early that you do not impugn – you have no right to impugn – the legitimacy of an elected member of Congress. Only the voters can do that.

Other presidents have been racist. Lyndon Johnson worked with the southern segregationists. Nixon railed in private against Jews. But none have spoken so openly, so publicly, without shame or remorse for these sentiments. So this is new territory.

And this is unlike Charlottesville, where there was vocal and visible pushback from Republicans on Trump giving an amber light to the Nazis in the streets. This is how much the political culture and norms have corroded over the past two years.

The Democrats chose to fight back by bringing a resolution condemning Trump for his remarks to the House of Representatives floor. Historians are still scurrying, but it appears this is unprecedented – the house has never in its history, which dates to the 1790s, voted to condemn a president’s remarks. (The Senate censured President Andrew Jackson over banking issues in 1834.)

The house passed the measure almost along party lines, with only four Republicans out of 197 – just 2% – voting for the resolution.

The concluding words in the resolution are these:

Whereas President Donald Trump’s racist comments have legitimised fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color: Now, therefore, be it resolved, That the House of Representatives […] condemns President Donald Trump’s racist comments that have legitimised and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of colour by saying that our fellow Americans who are immigrants, and those who may look to the President like immigrants, should “go back” to other countries, by referring to immigrants and asylum seekers as “invaders”, and by saying that Members of Congress who are immigrants (or those of our colleagues who are wrongly assumed to be immigrants) do not belong in Congress or in the United States of America.

So Trump is secure within his party – and he believes he has nothing to fear from the testimony of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, next week before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.

Much attention will be paid to the examination of obstruction-of-justice issues when Mueller testifies. But the more meaningful discussion will occur in the assessment by the intelligence committee examining Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the persistence of a Russian threat in 2020.

Mueller ended his Garbo-like appearance before the media in May with these words:

The central allegation of our indictments [is] that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interference in our election. That allegation deserves the attention of every American.

The US presidential election remains vulnerable and it is not clear that sufficient safeguards are being put in place to protect the country’s democracy.

But it is the unresolved drama over impeachment that will colour Mueller’s appearance on Wednesday.




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Mueller concluded he could not indict a sitting president. However, he forensically detailed ten instances of possible obstruction of justice. Mueller said that if he believed Trump had not committed a crime he would have said so and that, as a result, he could not “exonerate” Trump.

The key question that will be asked of Mueller is: “If the record you developed on obstruction of justice was applied to any individual who was not president of the United States, would you have sought an indictment?”

And on the answer to that question turns the issue of whether there will be critical mass among House of Representatives Democrats, and perhaps supported by the American people, to vote for a bill of impeachment against Donald J. Trump.The Conversation

Bruce Wolpe, Non-resident senior fellow, United States Study Centre, University of Sydney

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

Regional cities beware – fast rail might lead to disadvantaged dormitories, not booming economies



Many commuters already travel from regional cities to work in capital cities like Melbourne so what impacts will fast rail have?
Alpha/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Todd Denham, RMIT University and Jago Dodson, RMIT University

Governments are looking to fast rail services to regional cities to relieve population pressures in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. The federal government is funding nine business cases for such schemes. But what economic effect might these fast links have on the regional cities?

The current fast rail schemes seem oriented at relieving population pressures in the major cities rather than a productive regional economic purpose. The minister for population, cities and urban infrastructure recently stated:

… the National Faster Rail Agency begins operating from today [July 1]. The new Agency will oversee the government’s 20-year fast rail agenda, which will connect satellite regional cities to our big capitals. This will allow people to reside in regional centres with its [sic] cheaper housing and regional lifestyle but still access easily and daily the major employment centres.




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The argument seems built on a pitch to city workers priced out of metropolitan housing markets. It treats regional towns as remote dormitories for metropolitan workers rather than as regional cities that serve as service hubs and employment centres. But will subsidising metropolitan workers to live in cheaper regional towns have a positive economic effect on those towns?

An unequal relationship

Concern is growing among international observers that fast rail connections between two cities benefit the larger of the pair. Professor Michael Storper observed:

One of the biggest mistakes we’ve made was being naïve about connectivity – give infrastructure and it spreads. Well, often it concentrates. The high-speed train network in France, guess what it did. It advantaged Paris.

While Paris is seen as benefiting the most from the national fast rail TGV service, the regional cities of Lyon and Lille have strengthened their economic positions. The Lyon and Lille fast rail stations form the hub of their respective regional transport networks and have attracted new commercial activity. They also sit at intersections of major European fast rail networks.

It’s a pattern that cannot be easily achieved for Australia’s regional cities due to our widely dispersed settlements. So what does this mean for our regional cities?

Improving transport infrastructure doesn’t just improve regional business access to metropolitan markets. It decrease the costs of trade in both directions. And large cities are typically more productive economically. This is because they offer more specialised goods and services and can leverage the agglomeration effects of shared high-quality labour markets and infrastructure, plus a concentration of skills and knowledge.




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Reduced travel times can mean regional businesses become less efficient than metropolitan competitors that can offer a wider range of specialist goods and services. This may lead to regional business closures, employment losses and wage decline. Unless a regional city is able to develop a specialised set of high-skill, high-wage industries that complement or outcompete the metropolis it risks being economically disadvantaged by faster rail.

New regional demand arising from commuter population growth might counter the loss of higher-order regional jobs due to improved transport links. But that will largely be in lower-value retail and personal service sectors. The result will still be a net economic gain for the metropolis.




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An influx of commuters earning metropolitan wages might also inflate regional housing markets. This would disadvantage lower-paid regional workers. The beneficiaries of this scenario are likely to be local rentiers, such as landholders and developers who can profit from land-price inflation.

This interest group will likely vocally promote regional fast rail. But sustainable economic prosperity for regional cities requires more than population-driven land speculation.




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The example of Geelong

The most advanced of the current Australian proposals is the Geelong-Melbourne route. It has received federal and state funding for planning with an estimated total cost of at least A$10 billion. But planners need to ask how this spending will provide a net economic benefit, and how the benefits will be distributed.

Growth in commuter population and the services this attracts may be seem like a resolution to metropolitan population problems, but could further concentrate higher-paid jobs in Melbourne. Faster commutes mean Melbourne-based firms will have a greater pick of Geelong-based workers, thus consolidating metropolitan competitive advantage. Fast rail thus risks placing Geelong at a competitive disadvantage, with jobs and workers being exported to Melbourne.

Meanwhile the pressure of housing another 145,000 residents in the next 20 years already falls on Geelong, a city of 280,000 people. The strain on infrastructure and services is proportionately greater than would be the case in Melbourne, which has nearly 5 million residents.




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What can policymakers do about this?

To resolve this conundrum, thought must be given to what specialised high-value jobs will be attracted to regional cities to accompany fast rail investments, so these cities remain competitive and productive, regionally, nationally and internationally. This might include policies such as relocating public agencies, regional targeting of university-based research and development spending, boosting services such as schools and hospitals, and providing incentives for innovative private companies to relocate to regional towns.

Policymakers should also consider positioning regional cities as rail network hubs in their own right. An example would be connecting Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo by rail, along with better linkages to national and international airports.

We don’t yet know for sure what the effects of fast rail on regional cities will be. But the impact of this infrastructure needs to be assessed very carefully lest it turns Australia’s regional cities into dependent population dormitories rather than regional dynamos, at vast public expense.The Conversation

Todd Denham, PhD Candidate, School of Global, Urban & Social Studies, RMIT University and Jago Dodson, Professor of Urban Policy and Director, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

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

Wind and solar cut rather than boost Australia’s wholesale electricity prices



Power failure. It’s gas, not wind, that’s pushing up electricity prices.
Shutterstock

Zsuzsanna Csereklyei, RMIT University

The 2019 Australian Conference of Economists is taking place in Melbourne from July 14 to 16.

During the conference The Conversation is publishing a selection of articles by the authors of papers being delivered at the conference. Others are here.


Wholesale prices in the National Electricity Market have climbed significantly in recent years. The increase has coincided with a rapid increase in the proportion of electricity supplied by wind and solar generators.

But that needn’t mean the increase in wind and solar generation caused the increase in prices. It might have been caused by other things.

Colleagues Songze Qu and Tihomir Ancev from the University of Sydney and I have examined the contribution of each type of generator to wholesale prices, half hour by half hour over the eight years between November 1, 2010 and June 30, 2018.

We find that, rather than pushing prices up, each extra gigawatt of dispatched wind generation cuts the wholesale electricity price by about A$11 per megawatt hour at the time of generation, while each extra gigawatt of utility-scale solar cuts it A$14 per megawatt hour.

Merit order matters

Here’s how.

In Australia’s National Electricity Market, prices are determined at five-minute intervals and averaged over 30-minute intervals for settlement. Generators place bids for supplying electricity to meet the expected demand which are accepted in a “merit order” of cheapest to most expensive.

The final price – awarded to all the bidders accepted – is determined by the final and most expensive bid accepted, which is often a bid by a gas generator.




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Wind and utility-scale solar generators bid into the market at low cost because their power is essentially free when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. They displace higher cost bids, usually from gas or diesel turbines that have high fuel costs. We find this effect on prices (known as the “merit order effect”) has grown as wind and solar generation has grown.

The daily impact of wind and solar on wholesale prices is somewhat lower. A 1 gigawatt per hour increase in daily wind generation
is associated with about a A$1 per megawatt hour decrease in
the average daily wholesale price. The same increase in solar generation is associated with A$2.7 per megawatt hour decrease in daily wholesale electricity prices.

These findings and those of others since 2003 challenge the previous conventional wisdom that mandating renewable generation necessarily increases prices.

So why are prices climbing?

Natural gas prices have been climbing dramatically over the recent years, mainly due to the opening up of east coast export capacity and the integration of the Australian market with international markets. The higher prices have made it more expensive to run gas turbines and have pushed up the price of what is often the last bid to be accepted.

We find the price of natural gas has a strong positive effect on wholesale electricity prices. An increase of A$1 per gigajoule in the natural gas price pushes up wholesale electricity prices by about A$5 per megawatt hour.

Although in recent years the upward price pressure from more expensive gas has overwhelmed the downward pressure from greater wind and solar capacity, it is nevertheless true that wholesale prices are lower than they would have been without renewable generation.

Therefore, a continued expansion of renewables is likely to put downward pressure on wholesale prices for some time.

There’s a case for moving away from gas peaking plants

This means that rather than reconsidering renewables, authorities should reconsider their reliance on gas plants for handling peaks in demand. While peaking plants are more needed with the increased penetration of renewables, there is a case for switching to alternative providers of peaking power, such as large-scale batteries and pumped hydro.

In doing so governments should also consider something else. Wholesale prices that are too low will discourage investment, leading to higher prices down the track.

The lower prices go, the more the government might need to provide investment incentives.

For now, all other things being equal, more wind and solar power means lower wholesale prices. But they’ll have to be watched.




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The verdict is in: renewables reduce energy prices (yes, even in South Australia)


The Conversation


Zsuzsanna Csereklyei, Lecturer in Economics, RMIT University

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

It’s a bad year for flu, but it’s too early to call it the worst ever – 5 charts on the 2019 season so far



The impact of the flu on a population can be measured by looking at figures including cases, hospitalisations and deaths.
From shutterstock.com

Ian Barr, WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza

From early this year it’s been apparent the 2019 Australian influenza “season” was going to be different. Normally, the flu season coincides with the winter months of July and August, sometimes stretching to September and October.

But this year, things have happened much earlier, with a record number of influenza cases reported in summer and autumn.

So what’s been happening, and is it really as bad as the media have been reporting? Here we look at some of the latest data on cases and their outcomes to see if it is indeed “a horror flu season”.



The impact of influenza on the community is measured in several ways. The most basic measure is to simply count the number of cases of people presenting to their GP with influenza-like illness.

Sometimes the doctor will take a swab, and these are tested in the laboratory to confirm that influenza virus is present (it’s possible another respiratory virus or bacteria might be causing the flu-like symptoms).




Read more:
The 2019 flu shot isn’t perfect – but it’s still our best defence against influenza


Cases of influenza-like illness were increasing in early March, peaked in early June, and are now decreasing. Laboratory confirmed cases (the results of which we see in the above chart) show a similar trend. We haven’t included July in this chart because it’s not finished yet, but we’re still seeing a high number of cases into July.

Compared to previous years, 2019 looks like a big year with more than 120,000 cases of lab confirmed influenza up to the end of June. But it’s not nearly as bad as 2017, which had more than 250,000 cases reported to the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS) by the end of the year. As this season occurred much later than 2019’s, 2017 had only 24,000 cases reported up to July 7.

The good news is that as the 2019 season started earlier, it’s also likely to finish earlier than usual. This is because once the main influenza season starts, it usually ends around 12-16 weeks later, when the number of susceptible people drops below the level required to maintain efficient circulation.


FluCAN (via Department of Health Influenza Surveillance Report), CC BY-ND

Another measure of how severe the influenza season is can be gauged by the number of hospitalisations, including admissions to ICU (intensive care units).

Hospital admissions show from April 1 to June 30 this year, there have been 1,309 admissions to the Australian sentinel surveillance hospitals (a number of hospitals where flu admissions are tracked each year).

This figure is much higher than previous years at the same time point. In 2018, there were 90 admissions, and in 2017, 311. But in 2017 the season arrived much later and more seriously and ultimately resulted in 3,969 admissions for that year.




Read more:
Kids are more vulnerable to the flu – here’s what to look out for this winter


It’s also useful to look at the proportion of people attending hospital with influenza infections who are admitted directly to ICU. In 2019 it’s been 6.7% of admissions compared to 2018 (a mild influenza year) with 8.1% of admissions, and 2017 (a very severe year) with 8.9% of admissions.

The 2019 ICU rate is at the lower end of historical figures which range from 8.7% in 2015 to 14.2% in 2013. By this measure, the 2019 season is of a similar severity to that seen in previous seasons and is therefore not exceptional.

While hospital admissions can be measured relatively easily, measuring deaths due to influenza is more complicated for a few reasons. The flu often paves the way for secondary bacterial infections, like pneumonia, which can lead to hospitalisation and death, particularly in the elderly. When this happens, it can be difficult to link death directly to an earlier influenza infection.

And, death data is often very delayed. So readily available death data collected by the NNDSS is considered a significant underestimate of the actual number.

To the end of June 2019, there were 231 influenza-related deaths reported to the NNDSS. Virtually all of these were due to the influenza A strain. They spanned all ages, but most deaths were in the elderly (80 years and older).




Read more:
Sick with the flu? Here’s why you feel so bad


This compares to 24 and 21 deaths over the same period in 2018 and 2017 respectively. But these figures grew to 55 deaths and 598 deaths reported by the end of 2018 and 2017 respectively.

Clearly 2019 is more severe than 2018, based on the measures detailed above, but at this stage it looks like it will be less severe than 2017. However, we’ll need to wait for a number of weeks yet to be sure.

When we look at what’s happened in each state of Australia so far this year, we see some interesting differences in how the season has played out. Most states began to see significant rises in cases in April, while South Australia had already peaked in April and this number of cases was maintained into May. This means that most other states still have a number of weeks of influenza circulation to endure.



People of all ages are susceptible to influenza, and this is reflected in the wide range of ages at which people are infected. Young children (especially those under 10 years of age) and the elderly (especially those over 80 years of age) are more susceptible, and are often more severely affected by influenza infections – as are pregnant women.

Interestingly, different types of influenza affect different age groups, with influenza B and influenza A(H1N1) more common in the young and influenza A(H3N2) more common in the elderly.




Read more:
Here’s why the 2017 flu season was so bad


At this stage we can conclude that the 2019 influenza season is quite different to our usual seasons and overall, is likely to be one of the more severe seasons seen in the last 20 years.

So while 2019 doesn’t appear to be the worst season we’ve ever seen – that’s likely to remain with 2017 – it may well run a close second place. But we’ll have to wait another month or two before we can be sure.The Conversation

Ian Barr, Deputy Director, WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza

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

China can learn from Australian urban design, but it’s not all one-way traffic



Dalian is an emerging city and tourist destination in China, but its urban spaces could be improved in many ways.
Paul J Martin/Shutterstock

Lucile Jacquot, Griffith University; Karine Dupré, Griffith University, and Yang Liu, Griffith University

By 2017, 58% of Chinese people were living in cities. This is much less than the 79% for Western Europe and 86% for Australia, but China is undergoing very rapid urbanisation, as the chart below shows. It is expected 70% of China’s population will be living in cities between 2035 and 2045.


Source: OWID based on UN World Urbanisation Prospects 2018 and historical sources

In response to these trends, the Chinese government released a national urbanisation plan (2014-2020), with a focus on the quality of Chinese urbanisation and public spaces. So the policymakers’ concern is not solely with the economic development of China’s cities but also a healthier built environment and increased well-being for its citizens.

In addition to growing population pressures, Chinese cities face battles with pollution and climate change. Furthermore, China is now the third-most-visited country, behind France and the United States. No doubt the country’s growing tourism industry is
an important driver for developing better cities.

The rise of private public partnership projects and growing private interests in China’s built environment also call for a fresh look at urban design. Connecting urban planning and architecture, public spaces and private buildings, metropolitan scale and street scale, urban design can help to balance private interests and public needs while developing urban areas.

If those challenges are quite recent for China, they have been experienced, tested and theorised in Western countries for the past two centuries. Thus there might be an interest in learning from Western urban design principles, both to draw inspiration from the good practices and to avoid repeating the mistakes.

Urban design is well established in Australia

Some major Chinese cities such as Guangzhou and Shanghai have recently created their own urban design guidelines. However, many Chinese cities don’t have any.

In Australia the situation is quite different. Urban design theory and practices are well grounded. More than 20 guidelines have been published since the 2000s at all levels of government.

Urban design guidelines in Australia at federal, state and local government level.
Lucile Jacquot, 2019, Author provided

The diversity of Australian guidelines means that urban design research is very active and responsive to the evolution of technologies, lifestyles and expectations. Also, the outcomes are often considered successful – Australian cities usually do well in rankings of urban quality of life. For example, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney are consistently ranked in the top ten of the Global Liveability Index.

Good examples of urban design are also acknowledged in Australia – for example, through the annual Australian Urban Design Awards. The recognition of best practices and fostering of healthy competition create a rich urban design culture.

How can Chinese cities be improved?

Dalian is a good example of an emerging city in China. Its location between the sea and the mountains and its rich colonial heritage make it a major tourist destination. Nevertheless, the experience of Dalian’s urban spaces could be improved in many ways.

Firstly, one of the main goals of urban design is to provide adequate public facilities such as pedestrian pathways, sitting areas and public toilets. In Dalian, an increase in such facilities could encourage the city’s residents to make more use of the public space. Similarly, shaded areas and water fountains could make public spaces more liveable, no matter the hour of the day or the weather.

Secondly, installing such facilities is not enough on its own to make the city engaging and attractive. Dalian’s urban spaces are quite monochromatic and a more vibrant cityscape could improve the overall ambience of the city. One way to achieve this would be through the use of different colours, textures and materials to define spatial difference between private and public space, and create new pedestrian experiences.

The differences in urban design of pedestrian squares in Dalian (left) and Melbourne are clear.
Images: K. Dupré (left), L. Jacquot (right), Author provided

Lastly, the main purpose of designing the look and feel of a city is to engage people with their surroundings. The urban space not only has to cater for all types of people and their needs, but also to provide safe socialising opportunities.

In Dalian, providing more playgrounds, for example, could enhance these interactions. All the benefits of good urban design come together in a safe urban space where all types of people can meet, exchange and feel comfortable.

Public spaces in Dalian (left) and Gold Coast.
Images: K. Dupré (left) and picswe.net (right), Author provided

Australian cities can also learn from China

While Australia’s urban design principles are considerably more advanced, its cities face similar challenges to those in China.

For example, Australia is still grappling with the relationship between people and their urban space. Most Australian cities are car-dominated, going against contemporary understanding of a healthy, sustainable and liveable city.

Car use is dramatically affecting the urban fabric of Chinese and Australian cities. In particular, it has impacts on the experience of pedestrians. The wide streets are difficult to cross, footpaths are often sacrificed for the benefit of the car, and cyclists’ safety is compromised. Good urban design would definitely strive towards a more people-based city model.

Another common challenge is climate change. Both Australian and Chinese cities must deal with rising temperatures. The positive impact urban design can have to moderate urban temperatures is now widely recognised. Major Australian cities have now developed guidelines on measures to counter heat, while China is actively working on the issue.

But in one area, the battle to reduce carbon footprints, Chinese cities lead the way. The Chinese government has also developed a substantial green policy. So, while Chinese cities could certainly learn from Australia, the converse seems equally true.The Conversation

Lucile Jacquot, Research fellow, Griffith University; Karine Dupré, Associate Professor in Architecture, Griffith University, and Yang Liu, PhD Candidate. School of Engineering and Built Environment, Architecture & Design, Griffith University

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