NSW: Entire State in Drought

The entire state of New South Wales has been declared in drought due to “unusually dry and warm” conditions throughout June, July and August.

The Department of Primary Industries said 61 per cent of NSW is in drought or intense drought, while the rest is drought affected.

Less than 10 millimetres of rain have been recorded over the past month in Western, North West and Central NSW. “This is tough, there isn’t a person in the state that isn’t hoping to see some rain for our farmers and regional communities,” said Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair.

These unfriendly conditions are expected to continue. “The forecast suggests an increase of drier than normal conditions for the next three months across the majority of NSW.”

A number of towns have been placed under water restrictions, limiting residents’ ability to wash clothes and shower.

BOM meteorologist Jane Golding said all parts of NSW usually receive some rain throughout the winter months, but this year is different. “It is unusually dry and also unusually warm which exacerbates the problems, so the warm temperatures dry out the soils even more.”

The state government has announced over $1 billion in drought relief measures, including waivers on farming costs, animal welfare support and transport subsidies. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also announced $12,000 grants for families affected by drought.

National: Defence Department Reveals New IT Services Deal

The Department of Defence has named 32 firms that will provide managed IT services for the government for the next ten years.

The 32 providers will constitute a replacement panel for the previous arrangement known as the applications managed services partnership agreement (AMSPA). The department had been looking to break up the arrangement to make way for “niche” and “flexible” suppliers.

Among the names revealed are Leidos, Unisys, Fujitsu, Atos, Northrop Grumman, Optus and ABB Enterprise Software, along with the big four consulting firms Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG. A number of suppliers who do not have experience working with the department are also included, such as Adactin, Azara, Exeter, Icemedia, RPSPM, Sofitel Systems and the Gruden Group.

The AMSPA is expected to be retired in September 2018.

Budget 2018: What’s in Store for Education

Andrew Norton, Grattan Institute and Glenn C. Savage, University of Western Australia

It wasn’t a big budget for education this year, with schools funding already set in the last Budget, and the funding freeze for universities announced in the Federal Government’s mid-year budget update in December.

But the National Schools Chaplaincy program will become permanent, with A$247 million set aside over four years from 2018-19.

And there is some good news for students in regional, rural and remote areas, with:

  • A$96.1 million over four years for young people in regional, rural and remote communities to transition to further education, training and employment
  • A$14 million over four years for 185 Commonwealth Supported Places annually for students commencing a bachelor degree at university through a Regional Study Hub
  • A$53.9 million over four years to improve regional students’ access to youth allowance, and
  • A$123.6 million over five years to regional universities for additional Commonwealth Supported Places from 2017-18.
Mai Lam/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Schools and early education funding

Glenn Savage, Senior Lecturer in Education Policy and Sociology of Education at University of Western Australia

Despite ongoing political debates about school funding, most of the big news happened in last year’s budget, when the federal government formalised details associated with its Quality Schools reform package.

The package centres on a commitment to align school funding with the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) recommended in the 2011 Gonski report into school funding.

To achieve this, the government plans to progressively raise funding levels for government schools from 17% to 20% of the SRS and for private schools from 76.8% to 80% of the SRS by 2027.

The government argues that this delivers an additional $24.5 billion for Australian schools over the decade, and says it will be up to states as to whether they wish to fund the remaining amounts so that all schools reach the full SRS.

The government also claims its reform package provides more consistent needs-based funding when compared to the so-called “special deals” established under the Labor Gillard government.

Labor doesn’t agree, suggesting the Coalition is shortchanging the nation to the tune of A$17 billion (the initial claim was $22 billion) when compared to promises made by the former Gillard Labor government.

Labor has promised, if re-elected, to return to the Gillard model.

This ensures funding will be a defining issue at the next federal election, especially given last week’s Gonski 2.0 report has made a suite of recommendations that the federal government supports and could very well require an additional injection of federal funds to implement.

But any potential changes hinge on whether the Coalition is actually in power when next year’s budget is delivered. And, if so, whether it has any luck pursuing the new Gonski agenda with states and territories.

Aside from these ongoing Gonski wars, this year’s budget contains a few additional highlights.

Most controversial is A$247 million over four years to extend the National School Chaplaincy Program, which will have a new anti-bullying focus. The program was first introduced under the former Howard Coalition, but was subsequently dumped by Labor. It’s strongly supported by conservative backbenchers.

Other notables in this year’s budget include:

• A$440 million to extend the National Partnership Agreement on universal access to early childhood education for a further year.

• A$154 million to promote active and healthy living. This includes A$83 million to improve existing community sport facilities and expand the Sporting Schools and Local Sporting Champions programs.

• A$11.8 million over three years to expand the Early Learning Languages Australia program to more preschools and trial the program in 2019 and 2020 from the first year of school through to year two in primary schools.

• A$6 million over two years (from 2017-18) to continue and update the communications campaign to increase public awareness of changes to the Quality Schools package (aka public relations to sell the government’s reform package).

• A$1.3 million per year until 2020-21 to continued funding the MoneySmart Teaching program, designed to improve financial literacy education in schools.

• A$134.3 million over four years to the Northern Territory as part of the children and schooling component of the National Partnership Agreement on Northern Territory Remote Aboriginal Investment.

Finally, the government has signalled its intention to continue exploring ways to deliver new and diverse pathways into the teaching profession, with the view to increasing the supply of quality teachers. This measure builds on previous work associated with the Teach for Australia program.

To pursue this aim, the government has suggested it will invite proposals in 2018 from providers to deliver alternative pathways into teaching.

Higher education and VET funding

Andrew Norton, Program Director of Higher Education at Grattan Institute

Mai Lam/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

 

VET

The long aftermath of the VET FEE-HELP loan fiasco is still being felt in the 2018-19 Budget. The government is planning to spend A$36.2M over fours years for a new IT system to ensure compliance in the replacement VET Student Loans program.

The VET Student Loans Ombudsman, given the task of receiving student complaints about vocational education lending, is to receive another A$1 million to help deal with the large numbers of people making complaints.

Mai Lam/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

 

Higher education

Higher education’s big Budget news came early, in the December 2017 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO). It announced a two-year pause in tuition subsidy growth, and a range of reforms to the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP). There is no major change to these decisions in the 2018-19 Budget.

The pause in tuition subsidy growth has been implemented. It was done without going back to parliament using university funding agreements. For domestic bachelor degree places, universities will receive the same total amount that they received for 2017 for each of 2018 and 2019. Previously, there were “demand driven”, meaning that the Government would fund every student the universities enrolled.

This funding freeze means that universities won’t receive the value of inflation indexation to per student Commonwealth contributions, or Commonwealth contributions for any additional students they enrol above 2017 levels. But they will still receive indexed student contributions for all students they enrol.

The government has also used the funding agreements to reduce the number of Commonwealth-funded diploma, associate degree, and postgraduate coursework places. About 4,000 allocated places were abolished, but some of these weren’t being used anyway, so the practical effect may be limited.

Soon after these policies were announced, partial exceptions began with the University of Tasmania, the University of the Sunshine Coast and Southern Cross University all receiving additional places. These are confirmed in the Budget at a cost of A$124 million over five years.

In addition, the Budget has a new announcement of A$96 million over four years for nearly 700 extra student places for young people from regional areas. This is in response to the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education.

Including the new places, funding on Commonwealth contributions through the Commonwealth Grant Scheme will be just over A$7 billion for 2018-2019.

From 2020, the government says it will resume funding increases based on population growth for universities that meet yet-to-be determined performance criteria. The Budget paper shows predicted spending of A$7.3 billion in 2020-21.

But numbers this far out are moot. With an election due in the next 12 months, and Labor indicating it will go back to demand driven funding, the funding freeze could be over by then. If the Coalition survives in office, it may also make substantial changes.

The other major MYEFO announcement was to the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) loan scheme. Unlike changes to total tuition subsidy payments, these need legislating and the relevant bill is still before the Senate.

The most important proposed changes to HELP are the income thresholds determining whether, or how much, a HELP debtor needs to repay each year. If it passes, the bill would lower the initial repayment threshold from A$52,000 a year to A$45,000 a year. HELP debtors earning between A$45,000 and A$52,000 would repay 1% of their income. But some other thresholds are more generous than now, and many HELP debtors would end up paying less per year than they do now.

The government also originally proposed a A$100,000 lifetime cap on borrowing under HELP for all courses except medicine, dentistry and veterinary science, rather than just the full-fee student FEE-HELP scheme. The Budget confirms that the cap would be A$100,000 of HELP debt at any one time, allowing people who have paid off some debt to borrow again.

Whether HELP reforms eventually pass the Senate remains to be seen. In either case, it is fortunate for the higher education sector that they were not rejected prior to the May 2018 Budget. The freezing of the demand driven system showed the government was not bluffing when it said it needed to reduce higher education spending. Like the demand driven system, equity programs and some research programs are vulnerable to cuts the parliament cannot easily stop.

As it turns out, these programs survive in the Budget.

Research funding will receive a modest boost, with nearly A$400 million extra over five years for research infrastructure.

Although the higher education sector gets off lightly in the Budget compared to MYEFO, higher education providers will be hit with extra charges. The Government plans to charge them more for the services of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.

The ConversationThe government also plans to charge higher education providers A$10 million a year to recover costs associated with HELP. We can only hope some of this is used to improve on the current very unsatisfactory public reporting of HELP’s finances.

Andrew Norton, Program Director, Higher Education, Grattan Institute and Glenn C. Savage, Senior Lecturer in Education Policy and Sociology of Education, and ARC DECRA Fellow (2016-19), University of Western Australia

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

National: Optus Pulls Job Ad Calling for ‘Anglo Saxon’ Candidates

Telecommunications giant Optus has called an investigation into an online job ad that called for “Anglo-Saxon” candidates at one of its Sydney stores.

The advert, which asked for casual retail consultant at Neutral Bay, said “candidates who are Anglo Saxon” are “preferred”. It has been removed since.

Vaughan Paul, Vice-President of Human Resources at Optus said the ad was “unacceptable” and not reflective of the company’s values.

“This error [is] a clear breach of our advertising standards and commitment to equal opportunity employment,” said Paul. “Optus proudly supports diversity and employs staff representing more than 70 nationalities.

“We… will be investigating how this occurred with a view to taking disciplinary action against those involved.”

However, the company still receives criticism from customers for the impropriety of the ad.

National: Negative Gearing Should Favor Lower Income Property Investors, Says Report

Excluding richer property investors from negative gearing can help improve housing affordability, according to a report coming out today.

In a research released today, the Australian Housing & Urban Research Institute (AHURI) said negative gearing reforms that prioritise ordinary “mum and dad investors” could save the federal government $1.7 billion.

A proposed model suggests denying the top quarter of income earners any deductions from rental losses, while the bottom half could continue receiving 100 per cent deductions.

The researchers also propose a reduction of capital gains tax discount to limit negative gearing activities and reduce inequities between higher and lower income investors.

Another option the report models is capping negative gearing deductions to up to $40,000.

“Current negative gearing policies are heavily skewed towards high-income earners, raising concerns about the extent to which these policies exacerbate income and wealth inequality in Australia,” said Alan Duncan, Curtin University economics professor and co-writer of the report.

The negative gearing tax breaks policy has been blamed for the surge in housing prices in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. The Labor party has advocated for limitation of negative gearing to only new properties and reduction of CGT discount to 25 per cent, but the Turnbull government said the opposition’s proposals would jeopardise the property market.

The report follows Grattan Institute’s review released on Sunday, which found that housing affordability can be improved by cutting CGT discount, getting rid of negative gearing, and building extra 50,000 homes per year.

National: Apartment Boom Drives Residential Building Growth

Approval rate for apartments continues to rise, boosting the Australian residential building growth beyond expectation.

Latest reports from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that apartment approvals rose by 30.6 per cent in November, while house approvals dipped 2 per cent. The gain was the largest since November 2016.

Victoria contributed the most to this increase, with an 80 per cent surge since October to 6,359 approvals for private-sector dwelling excluding houses while NSW and Queensland experienced month-on-month declines.

Overall dwelling building approvals rose by 11.7 per cent for the month, beating forecasts of 1 per cent fall by Reuters.

National: Amazon Launches in Australia

US retail giant Amazon has finally launched its Australian operations, threatening local retailers with tougher competition.

Amazon’s Australian marketplace now offers items from 23 categories including electronics, toys, clothing, accessories, beauty and household goods.

“Focusing on customers and the long-term are key principles in Amazon’s approach to retailing,” Amazon Australia country manager Rocco Braeuniger said in a statement.

“By concentrating on providing a great shopping experience and by constantly innovating on behalf of customers, we hope to earn the trust and the custom of Australian shoppers in the years to come.”

In the lead-up to Christmas holiday season, Amazon is also offering free shipping for orders over $49 and one-day delivery for select cities. The goods will be sent from the company’s fulfillment centre at Dandenong South, Melbourne.

“Over time, we will create thousands of new jobs and invest hundreds of millions of dollars in Australia,” said Braeuniger.

“The result will be an ever-improving customer experience driven by the regular introduction of new products and services that we hope customers will love.”

Politics: Jacqui Lambie to Resign from Senate Over Dual Citizenship

Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie has announced that she will resign from the Federal Parliament following confirmation that she was a UK citizen.

Lambie’s father was born in Scotland, which means that she holds a dual citizenship with the UK and Australia. The UK Home Office clarified Lambie’s status this morning.

“I will be resigning from the Senate, it’s been made quite clear that because of my father I am also Scottish,” Lambie told Grant Broadcasters radio.

The senator indicated that while she would not participate in the upcoming state election, she is interested in running at the next federal election.

“I have got candidates running out there for the state election — I’m going to put on my Jacqui Lambie Network jacket and I’ll be right beside them,” said Lambie. “[But] you can’t keep a Lambie down.”

The former Palmer United Party member also said the first thing she would do after resigning was “renounce my [British] citizenship”.

Lambie has become the latest parliamentarian who fell victim to the section 44(i) of the Australian constitution, which rules that people who hold dual citizenship are disqualified from federal political office.

Lambie is set to table her resignation today.

National: Real-Time Bank Transfers to be Available from January 2018

Fund transfers between accounts from different banks could be done in real-time starting January, thanks to a billion-dollar infrastructure upgrade.

Instant payments will be available for 80 per cent of accounts in Australia, including all customers from the big four banks, starting Australia Day 2018. More international and smaller banks are also expected to join the system soon.

“The core benefit at launch is the faster receipt of money in real time, and that will happen 24/7, 365 days a year,” said Adrian Lovney, chief executive of the New Payments Platform initiative, which built the technology.

“Through the weekend, public holidays, at 3 o’clock in the morning — funds will arrive in the recipient’s bank account in about 30 to 45 seconds.”

Lovney said while the old way of batch processing transfers helps with preventing frauds, customers are looking for immediacy in their financial services.

“They expect things to happen instantly, with a mobile phone, in a 24/7 digital economy they expect if I’m going to send you money that you’ll receive it today and not next week,” said Lovney.

However, he said banks will continue to keep their fraud mechanisms up to task after the upgrade is finished.

International: $70 Million Resettlement Deal for Manus Island Detainees Approved

A compensation deal worth $70 million for over 1,300 current and former Manus Island detainees has been approved by Victoria’s Supreme Court.

The class action settlement, reached with Australia’s federal government and the Island’s Regional Processing Centre operators, sought to compensate the detainees for the illegal detention and negligence in housing and protection.

“I am comfortably satisfied that a figure of $70 million to be distributed without deduction of costs amongst participating group members is a fair and reasonable sum,” said Justice Cameron Macaulay on Wednesday.

“[We wanted] to put an end to this fiction the Commonwealth seeks to maintain for political purposes that it’s PNG [that] holds these people, that PNG has the duty of care for these people,” said Rory Walsh of Slater and Gordon, the firm who led the legal action.

“The Commonwealth settled this case and paid $70 million not to have that fiction tested in court.”

Out of 1,923 former and current detainees who are eligible for the compensation, 1,383 have registered to get their share by Monday.

However, more than 160 detainees have objected to the compensation amount, saying that it would not address the plights of those who remained in the Island. About 800 men are expected to remain at Manus Island after the detention centre closes next month.

“Getting that money is not the issue. It is not the matter of the amount of money,” Iranian refugee Amir Taghinia told ABC’s AM.

“We are still in the same situation, we are still suffering from the same conditions, under the cruel regime of the defendant, and the case is finished, the case says ‘yeah, that’s it, it is already settled’ … It is absolutely not in favour of any of the detainees in here, but it is in favour of the law firm and the defendant.”