Monday, August 04, 2014

Tony Abbott's paid parental leave scheme deferred with no due date in sight

Legislation for Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s prized $5.5 billion paid parental leave scheme has been quietly shelved and is unlikely to be put to Parliament this year, sources have revealed.

The move is aimed at quelling backbench dissent on the issue and is also a recognition it may be voted down by rebel government senators if put to the test.

Treasurer Joe Hockey said in June that PPL legislation would be introduced ‘‘soon’’ and described as ‘‘absurd’’ suggestions the policy had been stalled due to internal unrest.

But a government source said the scheme had been placed in the “too-hard basket” because the Coalition was fighting on too many fronts and struggling to get its basic budget measures passed by the Senate.

Several other sources said a message had been discreetly sent to Mr Abbott that his pet policy could face an embarrassing defeat in the Senate.

Coalition senator Ian Macdonald had been an outspoken critic of the policy and welcomed the delay.

“I’m pleased that Mr Abbott has listened to the overwhelming majority of Australians in deferring the scheme until the country can afford it,” he said.

Nationals senator John Williams had previously said the scheme should only be introduced when the economy was performing strongly, when there was a “four” in front of economic growth and the unemployment rate.

“Affordability remains the issue and also the problems in the childcare industry need to be addressed,” he said.

Crossbench senators Bob Day and Nick Xenophon urged Mr Hockey to scrap the scheme during budget negotiations in Adelaide last week.

When challenged, Mr Abbott refused to back down on the scheme, saying he did not break his promises and his critics would be the first to attack him for going back on his word if he heeded their calls.

But Senator Day said the “world had changed” since Mr Abbott surprised his party room with the policy in 2010 and “the electorate would not see it as a broken promise”.

“What you never have, you never miss,” Senator Day said.

The Greens were the only crossbenchers supporting Mr Abbott’s scheme but said there had been no negotiations since earlier this year when they demanded the government spelt out the details of how the scheme would work and insisted it be funded entirely by business.

“We’re just waiting to see if it’s still a policy they want to pursue,” Greens MP Adam Bandt said.

Mr Abbott’s “signature policy” would award new mothers their full pay for six months, capped at $50,000, after the birth of their child. It would be partly funded by a 1.5 per cent levy on big companies.

One source said the idea was friendless within cabinet, the exception being Mr Abbott. Business also opposed the scheme. Last week outgoing NAB chief executive Cameron Clyne said it would cost the bank $100 million in extra taxes and would not improve workplace productivity. He also believed the money would be better spent on childcare.

If the paid parental leave bills establishing Mr Abbott’s scheme were passed early next year, it could be running in time for the planned start date of July 1.

Labor’s scheme awarded mothers 18 weeks' leave, paid at the minimum wage.


NT nuclear waste dump could 'close the gap' for Aboriginal people: Bob Hawke

The storage of nuclear waste in the Northern Territory would help "close the gap" for Aboriginal people, creating financial opportunities, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke says.

And he told the Garma Festival in north-east Arnhem Land last night that NT Chief Minister Adam Giles was "keenly supportive" of his proposal.

In an address, Mr Hawke repeated his long-held belief nuclear generated power was essential for tackling climate change - and Australia had "a responsibility and an obligation" to take nuclear waste by-product.

Mr Hawke said a report he commissioned during the later stages of his prime ministership found the "safest remote geological formations for this purpose... were in the Northern Territory and to some extent in Western Australia".

"In creating a safer energy cycle in a world facing a threat of global warming, we would not only be doing good for the rest of the world, we would be doing enormously well for Australia, as the world would pay handsomely for this service," Mr Hawke said. "And we would do particularly well for Aboriginal Australians."

Adam Giles 'keenly supportive' of NT nuclear waste dump: Hawke

Mr Hawke said he had discussed the proposal with Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles.

"[Mr Giles] tells me he's been approached by a number of elders who, like himself, are keenly supportive of this proposal," he said.

Mr Hawke said such an enterprise would need to be owned and controlled in the public interest by the Government - and "none of this should happen without full discussion with and the consent of Aboriginal leaders".

In 2005, Mr Hawke urged Labor to rethink its uranium policy and promote Australia as a safe place for nuclear waste.

"If we were to do that, we would have a source of income – forget about current account deficit," he said, adding that such income could be allocated to addressing environmental issues in such as salinity, and also flow on to Aboriginal communities.

"We can revolutionise the economics of Australia if we did this."

Comment was being sought from Mr Giles.

Hawke government treaty hopes still alive

At Garma last night, Mr Hawke said he had hoped agreement would be reached on a treaty with Australia's Aboriginal people during his time in public office.

"It saddens me that this aspiration has not yet been fulfilled. It is still my hope that this may come to pass," Mr Hawke said.

He said a referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution was "long overdue".

"I know this is a long-held aspiration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples - the list of leaders who have called for recognition in the constitution is long and distinguished," he said.

"This will be the chance for all Australians... to acknowledge the awe-inspiring achievements of the first Australians (as) the rightful opening chapter of the Australian story."


Free to choose in health

A Medicare co-payment is one way to share the cost of health and enhance the sustainability of the health system. Unfortunately, the politics of health seem destined to defeat the Abbott government's plan for a $7 out-of-pocket fee for GP and other medical services.

An alternative way to achieve health reform is by giving Australians greater choice in how health services are financed.

Those who wish should be allowed to opt-out of Medicare voluntarily in exchange for opening a Health Savings Account (HSA).

Those opting out would trade their Medicare entitlements for an annual Health Voucher (indexed) for deposit into an HSA that could be linked to an existing account-based superannuation scheme. The voucher would be worth average per person government spending on health - approximately $4,300 in 2011-12.

HSA funds would attract the same 15% concessional tax rate as superannuation during its accumulation phase. HSA account holders would draw upon such reserves to meet the cost of specified health expenses, including GP services and other non-hospital care, chronic and catastrophic health events, health insurance premiums, co-insurance and deductibles to cover hospital treatment costs. Upon retirement the health accumulation reserve would merge with the pension fund.

Integrating saving for health with saving for retirement would require adapting the superannuation system by modifying the 'sole purpose test' to permit existing accounts to carry reserves for current and future health expenses, and to facilitate their access before retirement.

This health model would emulate the way Singapore has developed a low-cost and cost-effective, savings-based health financing system. It would encourage saving for unforeseen high-cost health events rather than paying for high-frequency, low-severity contingencies. High-deductible insurance tables would offer the benefit of risk pooling for an account holder's exposure to outlier high-cost claims such as for hospital or day surgery treatment. A market for these new tables (separate from the existing community rated system) would quickly develop, probably offered through existing registered health insurers or other institutions operating HSAs on behalf of their holders.

To the extent that Australia has gone some way towards privatising the public pension system by shifting from Pay-As-You-Go taxpayer funding to Save-As-You-Go self-funding for retirement, there are good reasons on the grounds of sustainability and efficiency to emulate this transition for health services by diluting the monopoly of Medicare.

Finally, Medicare opt-outs would circumvent the politics of health.

Those who wish to remain with Medicare would be free to do so. And those who wanted a more efficient and cost-effective alternative to a taxpayer-funded, universal health system would be free to choose to self-finance their own health care.


The farmers' rights tensions that preceded fatal shooting of environmental officer Glen Turner

Epic fields of wheat and barley separate the dirt road where Glen Turner died in a burst of gunfire and the farm where Alaine Anderson is feeding a rescued koala that, without her help, will not survive.

“If we can save these koalas and their habitat, then Glen’s death will not be in vain," says Anderson. "His children can know that his life counted for something very important.”

She respected Turner, the compliance officer from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage who was shot in the back on Tuesday evening, allegedly murdered when he confronted 79-year-old farmer Ian Turnbull about excessive land clearing on his family’s properties at Croppa Creek, north of Moree. Turnbull’s family has described a man pushed to the edge by his court battles over native vegetation laws.

Lionel and Alaine Anderson have been on their Croppa Creek farm for almost 35 years. Like Turnbull, they are broad-acre farmers of wheat and barley. But they have also preserved much of the remnant brigalow and belah woodlands that are critical to the northern koala and other endangered species, and, they say, to the health of their farm. Alaine is a volunteer koala carer for the WIRES wildlife rescue service.

“After this awful week,” she says, “I want the koala to become a symbol of healing in our community.”

The Moree Plains Shire needs some healing. “Violence was always going to happen,” mayor Katrina Humphries ventured on Wednesday. A toxic well of anger, she says, has built up between environmentalists, governments, miners and farmers, and on multiple fronts: coal seam gas, water rights, the NSW Native Vegetation Act and restrictions on what farmers can do with their own land.

The federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has weighed in to say farmers overwhelmingly hate the vegetation laws. But much of the tension is between farmers and farmers, not farmers and blow-in greenies or bureaucrats. Sometimes it is between the smaller family farms and the bigger “agribusinesses”. Some dare to dob in neighbours for illegal clearing.

In two extreme cases, farmers who insist upon anonymity say their cars, fences and gates have been vandalised. One's ute has been rammed with a bulldozer and his phone line has been cut. A neighbour has trespassed by sending in a gang with earth-moving machines to clear remnant woodlands; they have bulldozed Crown access roads and farmed over them. “It’s like a bad western movie,” they say.

Some Moree locals are angry, though, about the mayor’s assessment of a tragedy waiting to happen. Cafe owner Shane Brooker says: "The feedback I’m getting from customers – and that includes some prominent farmers – is it makes us look like rednecks. We understand the Native Vegetation Act can be harsh, but I haven’t spoken to anyone today who thought it was inevitably going to lead to violence."

Humphries responds: “No one, but no one, is condoning what’s happened, but my goal is to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We can’t stick our heads in the sand and pretend there isn’t a problem because there bloody is. I’m fed up to the back teeth with politicians who won’t stand up and talk about this … We’ve all got some blood on our hands. We’ve all known this has been an issue for quite some time, and it’s not been addressed.”

Turner had been threatened previously. “I’m not frightened,” he told a local. But he was frustrated at having too few resources to prosecute land clearers over a vast swathe of NSW. Croppa Creek was a hot spot.

Last month, the Northern Inland Council for the Environment wrote to Environment Minister Rob Stokes to complain about the “failure” to enforce the law against farms run by Turnbull’s family.

In late June, the Office of Environment and Heritage launched a Land and Environment Court prosecution against Turnbull and his grandson Cory for clearing on the younger man’s farm Strathdoon. Ian Turnbull had already pleaded guilty to clearing on his son Grant’s neighbouring farm Colorado. On Thursday, a bulldozer on Colorado worked on multiple piles of felled trees, all set ablaze. On Friday, the court upheld the family’s appeals to reduce the extent of remediation work ordered on both farms.

The mayor wants the killing extricated from a broader public discussion, but she says the pendulum has swung too far against farmers’ rights. The state government is already in the process of swinging it back with plans to allow farmers self-assessment for routine and low-impact clearing. Environmental officers fear this will only make enforcement harder and embolden flagrant land clearers.

Turner had something in common with his alleged killer. He was a farmer. He grew up on a farm. He enjoyed his property near Tamworth with his wife Alison, 10-year-old daughter Alexandra and nine-year-old son Jack. The Moree Koala Group has established a fund to help his family.

“The northern koala is almost finished,” says Anderson. “If we can prevent that, Glen will not have died in vain. Otherwise he’s just collateral damage, and I will not have that.”


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