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Friday 28th August 2015 - 11:23 am
Comments Off on Risky politics rising

Risky politics rising

by Alan Thornhill

Can Tony Abbott be over-thrown before his first term has expired?

Local Labor activists in WA certainly believe so.

Even though the Liberal party is, at least nominally, taking a 12 per cent lead into the Canning by-election that is to be held on September 19.

The Federal Labor leader, Bill Shorten, has urged caution pointing to the apparent size of the lead the Liberals are taking into the by-election, following the death of a popular local member.

But local Labor party workers are having none of it.

Their organisation, Get-Up, is planning an ” an all-out, banners blazing election campaign.

And it just might work.

Get-Up is circulating its members with a strong message.

It is saying:” Here’s what you need to know. Canning in WA was a safe Liberal seat, by a nearly 12% margin.

“But thanks to the unpopularity of the Abbott Government’s radical right wing agenda, the race is virtually tied: 50.1% Labor, 49.9% Coalition.

“Senior Liberal figures say the loss from a swing of this size will likely cost Tony Abbott his job.

“And Liberal MPs in marginal seats are “mildly terrified” about their future, meaning a loss in Canning could force a political retreat on this government’s unpopular attacks on health, education and clean energy.

“A few hundred votes could tip the balance, and that’s when our movement is at its most powerful.

“But we need to act fast.

“We’re armed with polling from Canning voters telling us the very issues that will shift these key votes.

“Local GetUp members will hit the streets, joining grassroots efforts on the ground.

“And to back them up, we’ll blanket the electorate with hard-hitting outdoor, print and digital advertising.

” But ad space is in high demand and we have to make decisions now about “what we can afford to do.”

What follows in this message is the traditional appeal for fighting funds.

And then a little encouragement, in these words: “Imagine it. An end to the relentless attacks on our public schools and hospitals, pensioners and young people, a clean energy future, and fair go for all Australians.

“That’s exactly what we could see if the Abbott leadership meets its downfall on 19 September in Canning.

“Even Mr Abbott has said that Canning will be the ‘real’ test for how people feel about his government.

“The West Australian was more emphatic: “If the ReachTEL poll is reflected on polling day, it would certainly spell the end of Tony Abbott’s prime ministership.”

“The battle lines have been drawn, but how much we can tip the scales in the next 23 days depends on how much we can raise.

“It’s been two years since Mr Abbott became top dog, and in this time we’ve lost so much.

“Massive cuts to our ABC and the SBS, thousands of experts forced out of the CSIRO, attacks on clean energy, pensions and social welfare – not to mention efforts to dismantle our world-class Australian healthcare and education systems.

“No generation has been spared, no working family left unscathed.

“And despite widespread public consensus they’ve overstepped their mark, Mr Abbott’s Government continues to pig-headedly ram through his radically conservative agenda.

“But the people of Canning could change all that when they cast their ballots on 19 September, in a by-election that’s become a full-blown referendum on Tony Abbott’s agenda.

“Throwing an election campaign together in three weeks is ambitious, but rapid grassroots campaigning and cutting-edge political advertising is what GetUp does best.

“There are billboards available now in major Canning commuter corridors, but we’ve only 24 hours to book them in if we’re to get them up in time,” Get-Up says.

And – on the other side of the continent – an extra-ordinary advertisement appeared in The Canberra Times and – presumably – other Fairfax newspapers today.

It shows Parliament House, Canberra, as a house of cards and talks of “our unstable government” warning that “it could all come toppling down.”

“Then it urges Australian business leaders to prepare themselves, with the “insights” they can expect from reading the Financial Review.

This might sell newspapers.

It certainly won’t win this newspaper any friends in Canberra.

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Monday 17th August 2015 - 6:59 pm
Comments Off on Plan to cut family paid parental leave may fail

Plan to cut family paid parental leave may fail

by Alan Thornhill

The Federal government’s plan to cut paid parental leave may be blocked in the Senate, because it is seen as discriminatory.

Labor’s Shadow Minister for Families and Payments,Jenny Macklin, raised that possibility today.

Ms Macklin cited reports quoting the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, saying the proposed cuts would “exacerbate the current gender pay gap” and “prove detrimental to women’s workforce participation rates.’’

Ms Broderick, who is about to complete her term as commissioner, was also reported to have argued that the cuts would be “inconsistent with Australia’s international human rights obligations.’’

The Federal government dismissed those concerns, with the Social Services Minister, Scott Morrison, describing paid parental leave as “a first-world issue.”

Ms Macklin said that comment shows Mr Morrison is out of touch with the realities of
family life.

“….he just doesn’t get how important it is for government to support women to remain connected with the workforce when they have a baby,” she said.

Labor knows that Paid Parental Leave is an important part of supporting women in work. That’s why we built the scheme.

Under Scott Morrison’s plan, around 80,000 new mums would lose as much as $11,500.

“As a consequence, these new mums will have less time to spend with their new babies,” Ms Macklin said.

“This is bad for children and bad for families.

“Labor designed the scheme so that government and employer contributions combined could help new mums could spend…close to 26 weeks at home with their newborn.

“These new cuts will make that impossible.

“Labor will oppose this legislation when it is debated in the parliament this week, Ms Macklin said.

She said today’s developments follow a report last week by the Joint Parliamentary Human Rights Committee – chaired by a Liberal – which also warned that the cuts might breach Australia’s international human rights obligations, as they would affect women more than men.

“Labor will also continue to oppose Tony Abbott’s unfair cuts to Family Tax Benefits, which have been stuck in the Senate since last year’s budget,” Ms Macklin said.

Friday 31st July 2015 - 12:51 pm
Comments Off on Michael Keenan warns fraudsters

Michael Keenan warns fraudsters

by Alan Thornhill

Fraud has cost the Commonwealth $530 million in recent times, according to a new report

The report by the Australian Institute of Criminology exposes 265,866 cases of suspected internal and external fraud between 2010-11 and 2012-13

In one, the Director of a family day care business is alleged to have claimed Child Care Benefit subsidies totaling $3.6 million to which she was not entitled.

The accused woman is alleged to have created and lodged false documents with the Department of Human Services to support her claims.

The Federal Justice Minister, Michael Keenan, revealed this in a statement today.

He said the report shows why the multi-agency Fraud and Anti-Corruption Centre (FAC Centre) is vital in the fight against serious fraud and corruption.

The Centre was established within the Australian Federal Police (AFP) a year ago and combines the resources and expertise of nine agencies.

Mr Keenan said the centre had been designed to tackle serious, complex fraud and corruption.

It ensures that suspected crimes are quickly directed to the right law enforcement agencies for action.

The agencies within the FAC Centre have access to intelligence resources, like the Australian Crime Commission’s National Criminal Intelligence Fusion Capability.

So they can draw on specialists, data and analytics to develop their own fraud-related intelligence.

Mr Keenan cited the case of Operation Agron, in which the Australian Federal Police led joint agency investigation, in which the Department of Human Services and the Department of Social Services also participated.

That led to the execution of multiple search warrants in the Albury-Wodonga area and the arrest of a 27 year old woman.

“The alleged offender is currently before Court, facing charges of: obtaining financial advantage by deception, using forged documents, falsification of documents and dealing in proceeds of crime worth $1million or more,” Mr Keenan said.

Property and cash worth more than $2.4 million had also been restrained by the AFP as part of an associated proceeds of crime action, he added.

Mr Keenan’s message to those who are tempted is blunt.

“Perpetrators of fraud are on notice.

“You will be caught.

“The Commonwealth will utilise every resource at its disposal to tackle fraud head on,” he said.

And just what are those resources?

In a word, formidable.

Mr Keenan said the FAC Centre brings together the Australian Taxation Office, Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Australian Crime Commission, Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre, Department of Human Services, Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Department of Defence, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Attorney-General’s Department (Advisory Participant) and Commonwealth Director of Prosecutions (Advisory Participant) in order to assess, prioritise and respond to serious fraud and corruption matters.

Like to know more?

The Fraud against the Commonwealth: Report to Government 2010-11 to 2012-13 is available at http://www.aic.gov.auwww.aic.gov.au

Wednesday 29th July 2015 - 2:04 pm
Comments Off on Price rises hit pensioners hard

Price rises hit pensioners hard

by Alan Thornhill

Age pensioners have faced bigger price rises than many other Australians over the past year, according to the Bureau of Statistics.

In papers published today, for example, the Bureau reports that the living costs of Age pensioners rose by 0.6 per cent in the three months to the end of June and 1 per cent in the 12 months to the end of June.

The living costs of employees, though, rose by 0.4 per cent in the quarter and 0.9 per cent for the year as a whole.

Australia’s inflation has been low, by traditional standards, over this time.

The Bureau also reported that its broader Consumer Price Index rose by 0.7 per cent in the quarter and 1.5 per cent over the year.

It noted that rising fuel prices had a big impact on the living costs of both pensioners and employed Australians in the June quarter.

The Bureau calculated, for example, that the transport costs faced by age pensioners rose by 4.2 per cent in the June quarter.

It said this was driven by the rise in automotive fuel prices.

Employed Australians saw their transport costs rise by 3.4 per cent in the same time.

Age pensions are adjusted twice a year in Australia to reflect price rises.

They were also adjusted automatically to reflect rising national prosperity, until last year, when this was discontinued.

Sunday 26th July 2015 - 6:47 pm
Comments Off on Labor moves to make itself electable

Labor moves to make itself electable

by Alan Thornhill

Analysis

Bill Shorten cast the Labor party in his own image – over the weekend – as other Labor leaders have done before him.

Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating all took this necessary step, in their own way, before assuming national leadership.

Two votes, essentially, sealed it for Mr Shorten.

The first, on Saturday, gave him the right to turn back asylum seeker boats, when safe to do so, in circumstances which would make Australia a much more active player, in refugee affairs.(see earlier story)

The second, on Sunday, rejected a move by the Left to require Labor MPs to vote for marriage equality after the next Federal election.

Instead, they will be able to vote according to their consciences, after the next two elections.

But these decisions have one, important feature, in common.

They would give a Labor Prime Minister – presumably Mr Shorten – much greater control over a contentious – and potentially divisive – process, than would otherwise be possible.

If it comes to that.

Of course Labor would have to win the next Federal election, which is due to be held either late next year, or early in 2017, first.

But those two votes have, at least, removed one obstruction on Bill Shorten’s path to the Lodge.

The Opposition Leader did show, at Labor’s 47th Annual Conference in Melbourne at the weekend that he is guiding the modern Labor party today.

Not those who might once have been called Labor’s “faceless men.”

Summing up the weekend’s events, Mr Shorten said:” We are a modern, democratic and confident political party.

“We take our issues out in the open and we trust Australians to understand and respect the conclusions which we reach.

“It is our substance, though, not just our process which distinguishes us from Mr Abbott’s Liberals,” he added.

So what would be different about a Shorten Labor government?

Marriage equality?

In his final speech to the conference, Mr Shorten touched briefly on this subject, advocating:” A definition of marriage that respects, values and includes every Australian.

“I say, let us achieve this in the life of this Parliament.”

How?

Through a free vote for all Federal MPs.

Faster, more determined action to tackle climate change?

Mr Shorten said that even after Labor had adopted its “bold new goal on renewable energy and an emissions trading scheme, the Liberal party is still planning to “investigate” this issue.

“I am not making this up,” he added.

“They have voted and I quote “to investigate the scientific evidence underpinning the theory of man-made climate change.”

At this point, Mr Shorten faced his audience and said:” It’s alright…I’ve got a contraband copy of their draft resolution for their next Federal Council.”

He also spoke of the Labor party’s ambition to ensure that – within 10 years – 50 per cent of its MPs would be women.

Thursday 23rd July 2015 - 11:11 am
Comments Off on GST on foreign purchases to be broadened

GST on foreign purchases to be broadened

by Alan Thornhill

The Goods and Services Tax is to be broadened to include on-line overseas transactions worth less than $1,000.

The announcement was buried deep in a communiqué that Federal and State leaders issued after the first day of their retreat in Sydney.

It said:” all Leaders agreed to keep Commonwealth and State tax changes on the table including the GST and the Medicare levy.

” As a first step, there was agreement in principle by Leaders to broaden the GST to cover overseas online transactions under $1000.

“This matter will be referred to the upcoming meeting of Treasurers to progress in detail.”

The Prime Minister, State Premiers and Territory Chief Ministers who attended also agreed that changes will be needed to put the necessary reforms into effect.

That was acknowledged in the communiqué.

It said:” the key to providing the services Australians aspire to is a more productive and faster growing economy.

“Improving the way our Federation works will improve Australia’s overall fiscal position and our national productivity.

“Achieving this reform will require both the Commonwealth and the States to make policy changes that would both improve the climate for business, and ensure more efficient delivery of government services while keeping taxes as low as possible.”

The leaders will continue to talk tax as their meeting continues today.

However they will also be discussing better ways of financing Australia’s health and education services.

Thursday 25th June 2015 - 4:23 pm
Comments Off on Health policy “driven by ideology” report

Health policy “driven by ideology” report

by Alan Thornhill

A Senate Committee has delivered a stinging rebuke to the Abbott government over its health policies.

In an interim report just published, the Senate Select Committee on Health noted that since “coming to power the Abbott Government has repeatedly called into question the sustainability of Medicare.”

But it added:” the evidence given to this committee and documented in this report reveals the fallacy of such claims particularly with regard to GPs and the Medicare Benefits Scheme.”

In fact, the committee said:” Australia delivers some of the best quality and best value hospitals and primary healthcare in the world.”

And it does so at low cost.

The committee says Australia’s spending on health at 9.1 per cent per cent of GDP – is lower than comparable OECD countries.

The committee says health spending in the United States accounts for 17 per cent of that nation’s GDP.

In France health care spending takes 11.2 per cent of GDP.

Canada spends 10.6 per cent of its GDP on health care.

And in New Zealand, health care costs amount to 10.3 per cent of GDP.

But in both the United Kingdom and Spain these costs are broadly similar to Australia’s, at 9.1 per cent.

The committee also recalled that, before the last election, Tony Abbott had promised that there would be “no cuts to health” if he became Prime Minister.

Yet in its first Budget, his government “had abolished a number of national partnership agreements with the States and Territories,” the committee said.

At question time in Parliament later, the Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, asked Mr Abbott, why he had cut $50 billion from projected health spending.

The Prime Minister’s response was brief.

“There is no truth whatsoever in the Opposition Leader’s assertion,” he said.

The report had said: “The cuts to health were met with the opposition from each premier and chief minister.”

And the public had been affected.

“The impacts on State and Territory budgets and the healthcare sector are already well documented and being felt in frontline delivery,” the committee said.

And that is likely to get worse.

” The 2014-15 Budget reveals cuts to health in the order of $50 billion dollars over the next ten years,” it added.

The committee didn’t have a kind word, either, for the Federal government’s unpopular plan for a $7 co-payment by patients who visit bulk-billing doctors, even though that plan was finally axed in March this year.

In fact, after conducting hearings throughout Australia, it found that:” the overwhelming sentiment of witnesses was that the $7 co-payment will have a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of all Australians and is practically unworkable.”

The committee also found that the government had been guided by ideology, rather than facts, in its decisions on health issues.

“They appear to be driven by ideology rather than based on evidence and have not been developed within a vision and framework of systemic reform,” it said.

Wednesday 24th June 2015 - 10:11 am
Comments Off on Pensions: the system that grew like Topsy

Pensions: the system that grew like Topsy

by Alan Thornhill

analysis

The Federal government has won some unexpected support for its move to tighten eligibility for the Age pension.

A well respected research and advocacy organisation – the Australian Council of Social Service – has welcomed it, describing the new curbs as “sound and fair.”

But ACOSS qualifies its approval, by arguing that more needs to be done.

It says the changes the government made this week, after reaching an agreement with the Greens, are “significant and complex.”

And it says they deserved a Senate Committee hearing.

However this influential organisation is making no secret of what it really wants in all this.

That is a full review of Australia’s retirement income system.

Or, at least, a light shone into some dark places.

Such as who benefits from the generous tax concessions, that are now part of Australia’s superannuation system?

ACOSS believes it already has an answer to that low-burning question.

In a paper just published, it says the rich are unfairly favoured, at present.

It says:”… the top 10 per cent currently receive the one third of the benefits of superannuation tax concessions, costing the Federal Budget over $30 billion a year. ”

Those figures, based on research ACOSS itself did, show that our MPs might well make some real progress towards fixing Australia’s budget deficits if they had just a little more courage.

But even the thought cancelling lucrative tax breaks, treasured by the rich and powerful, are just too much for many of our – otherwise brave – politicians.

Perhaps, though, some of the troubles we are having with our pension system flow from the nature of the system, itself.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of retirement income streams.

The first might be called the “automatic right” system.

This is based on the common idea that “I paid my taxes, throughout my working life, so I will be entitled to a pension – like everyone else – when I retire.”

(Take care, the Scandinavian and other countries which do have this kind of system, usually have quite high taxes, as well).

The second – and cheaper – kind merely aims to prevent unnecessary suffering, by preventing poverty, in retirement.

Keen students of Australian politics won’t be too surprised to learn that we haven’t really decided yet, which of these systems we should have.

However our system – if that is not too grand a name for it – does contain strong elements of the second kind.

The Treasurer, Joe Hockey, neatly illustrated the difference between the two, when he taunted Labor, in parliament last week, by saying it was no longer “the workers’ party” and had become “the welfare party” instead.

That taunt was based on Labor’s opposition to the government’s planned pension reforms.

But Labor has made some strong points, in the debate.

It has accused the government, for example, of “trousering” the $2.4 billion it expects to save through its reforms, at the expense of thousands of pensioners.

Yet, Labor adds, the government is still not doing anything about those juicy tax breaks the super rich have been -and still are – getting through super.

The raw numbers, too, might well cause hesitation.

Those who have studied the matter say 130,000 Australians, with modest assets, will see their pensions rise by $30 a week, as a result of the reforms.

(That won’t happen, of course, until after the next Federal election).

However another 235,000, who now get part pensions, will suffer cuts, while yet another 90,000, with substantial assets, will lose their part pensions, altogether.

In effect, the government will be telling them to “live on those assets for a while, then come back and see us, when you need to do so.”

Pensioners’ homes will be exempt from this process.

So we might well see some old people “trading up” to protect those “excess” assets, instead of moving to a smaller home or unit, as the upkeep of their present homes becomes “too much.”

That is just one of the looming issues.

The Greens believe they have secured an undertaking from the government, to look at those expensive superannuation tax breaks for the very rich.

They say they won that, in an agreement with the government, to allow its pension reforms through the Senate.

However the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, doesn’t remember that.

He says his government is not contemplating any changes to present superannuation tax.

How can we sort out all of these contradictions?

Perhaps we do need that retirement incomes review that ACOSS is proposing.

And a few more brave MPs.

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Alan Thornhill

Alan Thornhill is a parliamentary press gallery journalist.
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