Monday, January 02, 2012

Secrecy over foreign investment

A coverup for bureaucratic inertia, no doubt

The rejection letter couldn’t have been clearer. The Federal Government was holding plenty of documents that were pertinent to my freedom of information request — I just wasn’t going to get any of them. In fact, I would need to pay $416.62 just for the chance to officially receive a stack of blanked-out and redacted pages.

"Around 19 documents have been identified as potentially falling within the scope of your request. Given the nature of the documents I envisage that most, if not all, of the documents will be exempt from release,’’ the government wrote.

So what was the FOI targeted at... Troop movements in Afghanistan? The prime minister’s private schedule? The names of ASIO’s anti-terrorism informants?

No, it was a request for some basic facts and figures about the state of foreign investment in Australia’s residential real estate market.

Like the number of temporary residents who’ve purchased established dwellings around the country — and, specifically, how many times people have been pinged for breaking the rules. Not individual names and addresses, mind you, just general stats about how the enforcement regime has been working.

The kind of information that should appear in the Foreign Investment Review Board’s annual report or be available upon request, but for some reason necessitates a FOI filing to even attempt to get access. (FIRB’s annual reports are maddeningly unspecific, not to mention published at a snail’s pace. The 2009-10 report is most recent).

Tussling with governments over the release of information is just part of a reporter’s job, fair enough.

But this kind of blanket ban looks suspiciously political.

The case for tightening up foreign investment regulation was made quite clearly by the Labor government when it changed the rules in April 2010 in response to growing community anger.

"The Rudd Government is acting to make sure that investment in Australian real estate by temporary residents and foreign non-residents, is within the law, meets community expectations and doesn't place pressure on housing availability for Australians," said [Assistant Treasurer Senator Nick Sherry].

"The new provisions announced today will mean that anyone trying to flout Australia's strict foreign investment rules will face tough new penalties that will be fully enforced."

Treasury and FIRB personnel must have missed the point of that announcement since all the documents related to judging the success of those new measures have been deemed out of bounds.

My next step is to contest the fee and the document exemptions on the basis that the release of the information is in the public interest. And I’m going to frequently quote Mr Sherry when I do it.


A real environmentalist thinks the Greenies are clueless

When the Bureau of Meteorology releases its annual data this week, it will probably announce that Australia has just had the second or third wettest year in its recorded history. No surprise. The most miserable summer in Sydney in 50 years. The coldest autumn nationally in more than 50 years. Record flooding in Victoria. A Christmas Day in Melbourne with hailstones the size of eggs. Massive floods in south Queensland. Cyclone Yasi in north Queensland. Heavy rainfall across the desert inland. Extreme rainfall and cold in Darwin.

Multiple-choice question: what's it all mean?

(a) Onset of global warming impact.

(b) Latest cycle of El Nino - Southern Oscillation.

(c) Combination of global warming and El Nino.

(d) Monumental mishandling of the landscape.

The most interesting explanation I have heard for the extreme weather comes from a landscape restorer, Peter Andrews.

He chooses (d).

"Our landscape is still on a dramatic downward spiral," he told me. "When the heavy rains came recently I saw the Goulburn River was running brown. The river was thick with soil. About one farm an hour was being carried down that river. "

He discounts the argument that we are seeing the impact of global warming. "The whole global warming argument misses the point. Yes, we are facing an environmental disaster. Yes, it is urgent. Yes, it is caused by our own activities. But we have misdiagnosed the problem … In terms of dealing with Australia's problems, the global warming industry is a giant con."

His philosophy, boiled down to its essence, is that our landscape was working brilliantly at retaining water and soil until European settlement began making "improvements".

By changing the landscape, we changed the weather. Transforming the land by cropping, herding and irrigation created a cycle of heating and cooling on the land, a cycle of boom and bust, that could only grow more extreme.

Peter Andrews? We wrote about him several years ago. Since then he's been on the ABC's Australian Story, written two books and gathered a following for his land restoration technique called Natural Sequence Farming. His great calling card is the one landscape he has been able to shape and control, the Baramul Stud in the upper Hunter Valley, owned by the retail magnate Gerry Harvey.

During the long drought, I visited Baramul and it remained watered, retaining moisture in the soil. During the big wet of the last two years, Baramul has gained soil, not seen it washed away.

"While other properties have been eroding around us, in the last five years we've gained about 10 million tonnes of soil and sand," he told me. "The reed beds in the creek are now functioning as the system functioned in the millions of years before settlement. The reeds slow the flow of water and help store water in the landscape. The extensive presence of reeds we have now is the same pattern that [Charles] Sturt described when he made his journey down the Darling River."

Gerry Harvey is happy. His wealth may be taking a beating as the share price of Harvey Norman slides thanks to a structural decline in traditional retailing, but Baramul is thriving.

Andrews, like Harvey, is a businessman, not some anti-farming zealot. He's been a farmer, and thinks farming can be done so much better. Even cotton farming could be transformed into a practice less alien to the landscape and more productively.

He believes most of the agricultural sector has misread its own lifeblood, the landscape, causing a massive build-up of heat on the land, which then draws cool air from the ocean.

"As soon as all the crops ripen, there is a build-up of heat on the land that is not managed by plants. This heat joins the weather system, causing a massive increase in thermal build-up. This causes extreme weather …"

It is a big theme to consider on the first Monday of the year, especially with the linkages Andrews sees between the wet Sydney summer, the storms in Melbourne, and the rainfall across northern and central Australia.

It's all linked, he says, and the accelerating cycle of extreme weather is a challenge made by our own hand.

He regards the global warming debate, and the government's responses via a carbon tax, as an exercise of expensive irrelevance on a massive scale, compared with the immediate challenge of soil and water loss and the build-up of salinity in the landscape. He sees the threat to the nation's long-term productive capacity as more immediate than the threat posed by higher global temperatures.

Andrews is also disenchanted by the attempts to restore the Murray-Darling river system, a process that has so far pleased no one, and led to the federal government's purchase of water rights for billions of dollars.

"Cattle are the main reason why the Murray-Darling is in a mess," he said. "It used to function perfectly. The amount of evaporation today is a disgrace. It is about 54 per cent. It used to be zero. Water was recycled many times after rainfall."

On the other great issue facing farmers, coal seam gas mining, and the practice of extraction by hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, Andrews also has strong views. "Fracking is exceptionally dangerous. Groundwater is the most critical thing in the landscape and coal seam gas is a real threat to groundwater."

All this should make him a hero to the Greens, but he is appalled by the thought. "The Greens have no idea. They are clueless."


Family Tax Benefits extended to students over 16

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has hit the political trail early with a visit to western Sydney to announce the fulfilment of an election promise. She visited the Huyng and Tran families in a Labor-held western Sydney seat on Sunday to announce the extension of the Family Tax Benefit.

From January 1, the Prime Minister says Family Tax Benefits for low-income families will now cover students over 16. "Currently families get a rude shock when their child turns 16," she said.

"The child's still at school, they still need feeding, they still need new clothes, they've got all the expenses of having a teenager in the household but their family benefit can drop by 67 per cent. From today we are fixing that."

The benefits will be increased by up to $4200 a year for each child from January 1. The increase, unveiled in the May 2011 budget, will bring the Family Tax Benefit Part A for eligible teenagers to $6307 a year. It will apply to youngsters aged between 16 and 19 who stay at school or undertake vocational training.

Ms Gillard said the Federal Government wants children staying at school. "All the evidence tells us that if kids drift away from school early, then that can mean a lifetime of disadvantage," she told reporters at Smithfield in Sydney's west on Sunday. "And we are concerned that for some low-income families, the cost of keeping their teenagers at school is just too much for them."

Families stand to gain up to $160 extra a fortnight, replacing an old system that assumed teenagers left school at 16 and got a job.

Families Minister Jenny Macklin said evidence showed teenagers from lower-income families were less likely to finish year 12. "We want that to change," she told reporters.


Feds standing by 24-hour medical helpline

Federal Health Minister Tanya Plibersek is standing by her decision to fund a 24-hour medical helpline despite criticism from health professionals and the Opposition.

The Government announced the national rollout of the telephone service, saying $260 million will be spent on bolstering after-hours medical options to take pressure off emergency departments.

The service has been available in many states since July 1 and will now be extended to Victoria and Queensland.

Ms Plibersek says the after-hours helpline has been successfully trialled in some cities. "It's received about 70,000 calls already," she said. "A third of those have been from parents of young kids.

"In each circumstance we're trying to make it easier for people to talk to a GP or see a GP, because we know that a lot of people are turning up to the emergency department of hospitals when they would prefer to see a doctor.

"Often a little bit of reassurance over the phone can stop you having to go to the emergency department in the middle of the night with a young child. "They'd be waiting shorter times and of course we take pressure off the emergency departments of hospitals."

Mixed response

Dr John Shephard, the senior medical adviser of the 24-hour helpline, says the service will cut hospital waiting times.

He has been working at a similar hotline for 11 years and says a third of people who call would have otherwise gone to emergency departments. "We're taking the pressure off emergency departments. Some of those callers who would otherwise have gone to an emergency department... a percentage of them, we're managing to divert to see a regular GP in their normal hours," he said.

But the Australian Medical Association disagrees.

AMA president Dr Steve Hambleton says while reassurance is good for parents with young children, a trial of the hotline in Western Australia did not see a decrease in hospital waiting times.

"Certainly seen in WA when some of these telephone trial systems were introduced early, the locum services became concerned that they would be left out of the loop and in fact they were busier," he said.

"The emergency departments were looking at whether waiting times were reduced and they found that they really weren't because I guess parents were quite rightly informed if you really are concerned and things don't improve then you need to see a doctor quickly."

The Opposition says the Government should not be commended for the announcement. "This year the Government ripped $60 million out of after-hours GP services and so mums and dads have been missing out," health spokesman Peter Dutton said.

"You can't take money with one hand and give part of it back with the other and then expect people are going to say that's a job well done."


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