Monday, March 16, 2015

Abbott ready for poll fight on deregulation of universities

PRIME Minister Tony Abbott has reaffirmed his commitment to the government’s university reform package and planned curtailment of growth in pension spending, as well as the crackdown on local Islamist extremism foreshadowed last year.

In a wideranging exclusive interview with The Australian on Sky News yesterday that included a defence of his style of government, Mr Abbott also defended his doubts on funding remote indigenous communities.

He said his Coalition government’s resolution mattered rather than its struggle for strong support as measured in opinion polls.

The Prime Minister told editor-at-large Paul Kelly and foreign editor Greg Sheridan of The Australian that the higher-education funding reforms were very important to universities, which needed regulatory strings loosened if they were to be among the best in the world.

Asked if the fee changes might be dropped like the Medicare co-payment recently, Mr Abbott said failure of these reforms affecting taxpayer-subsidised student fee levels would impede the universities and indicated his government would be prepared to take the changes to the next election if frustrated in the Senate.

“This is a reform which has already been adjusted somewhat in the process of bringing it thus far. But the reform as adjusted is one we stand by,” he told Sky News.  “I am expecting that the Senate will see sense because just about every vice-chancellor is campaigning for this.”

The government plans to press ahead with its universities reform package in the Senate this week.

Christopher Pyne says he is “contemplating victory” for his higher education reforms, which will be decided by a Senate vote on Wednesday.

Vowing to “fight to the end” on the contentious reform package, the Education Minister said this morning that passing the legislation to deregulate the sector was critical for the university sector.

“I’m contemplating victory on Wednesday because it’s too important not to win for students and for universities and for Australia,” Mr Pyne told ABC Insiders program this morning.

“I’m never embarrassed about putting forward a good reform policy and fighting for it.  “I have never left the battlefield. I always fought right through to the end and we will fight right through to the vote,” he said.

He said there was no “credible alternative” to deregulating universities, and urged crossbench senators to embrace reform.

Mr Pyne said negotiations with the crossbench would continue early this week.  “Everything is on the table except the centrepiece of the reform which is deregulation, which is going to be good for universities and students, all the other matters are open to negotiation.”

Mr Pyne said he was “not contemplating” what would happen in the event the bill was voted down.

Labor’s deputy leader Tanya Plibersek said the opposition would work with the higher education sector to ensure adequate future funding.  “We are happy to work with the higher education system to ensure funding is adequate,” Ms Plibersek said.

Mr Abbott said just one Australian university was now ranked in the world’s top 50. “Why not try to get two in the top 20. Unless we take the dead hand of Canberra away that is going to be extremely difficult,” he said.


Kimberley gas plant protesters ‘left nothing’ for local people

THE Aboriginal leader who backed a $40 billion gas plant in the Kimberley as a way of creating indigenous jobs has attacked “extreme nutter” environmentalists who he says derailed the plan but have since done nothing to help the region’s impoverished people.

Wayne Bergmann, a businessman and former head of the Kimberley Land Council, told an oil and gas conference in Perth yesterday that suicide rates and unemployment were rising in the Kimberley due to a paucity of jobs, especially for younger people.

Telstra director Geoff Cousins and singers Missy Higgins and John Butler were among those who opposed the use of James Price Point, 60km north of ­Broome as the site for the Woodside Petroleum project.

The high-profile campaigners joined green groups in arguing against industrialisation of the remote Kimberley region, which boasts some of the world’s most spectacular wilderness areas.

Woodside abandoned its plan in 2012 and walked away from a deal with the KLC to pay $1.5bn in benefits to Kimberley indigenous groups over 30 years in exchange for use of the land at James Price Point.

The company is instead planning to build the plant to process its Browse Basin gas reserves off the Kimberley coast using floating LNG technology.

This means that only a fraction of the employment, health and education benefits promised to Aborigines will be delivered.

Mr Bergmann, who lives in Broome, yesterday said the environmentalists had left the Kimberley and their legacy was “destroying any opportunities” for Aboriginal people.

“They’re all gone but the region is still in devastation,” he said.  “We’ve still got the highest suicide rates, the lowest employment (rates).

“Geoffrey Cousins is still living in his house in Sydney — he hasn’t left anything back in our region.

“So I’m driven to create jobs because if our mob don’t have meaning in their life, these statistics are going to continue.”

Mr Cousins has previously defended his role in the campaign and accused Mr Bergmann of failing to ensure that the 2011 agreement with Woodside had a “break clause” to ensure payments would flow to Aboriginal communities even if the company chose a different site for the project.

He said Woodside had a moral obligation to fulfil its promises under the native title deal and he believed the WA government was responsible for ensuring Aboriginal people received the same health and education services that other citizens took for granted.

Mr Cousins was appointed last year as head of the Australian Conservation Foundation — the country’s largest environmental lobby group.

Mr Bergmann said since the collapse of the Woodside deal he had turned his attention to creating jobs for Aboriginal people by helping to form a maritime company that is on the verge of a major expansion.

He said the company, Aboriginal Maritime Pty Ltd, or AML, was finalising a share buyback under which its indigenous shareholders will increase their combined stake to 51 per cent.

Mr Bergmann told the Australasian Oil and Gas conference that he had been offended by claims by the Maritime Union of Australia that AML was underpaying its workers. “We’ve grown up fighting for our mob — the very last thing we are going to do is underpay our workers,” he said.

In January, the Fair Work Commission approved a four-year enterprise bargaining agreement for AML.

The MUA challenged the EBA late last year, saying that it could result in Aborigines receiving pay and conditions inferior to those of non-Aborigines.

But FWC commissioner Tim Lee found the agreement provided for pay between 20 per cent and 220 per cent above award rates.

AML is owned by several Aboriginal sporting and business identities, including former AFL stars Dean Rioli and David Wirrpanda.


Mental health and the military

"Defence Department Invests in Mental Health", ran the headline in The Australian on Monday. Reporter Sean Parnell went on to explain that "hundreds of millions of dollars" will be spent on a massive 'upgrade' in both facilities and training.

Taking care of the mental health of ADF personnel and veterans is not just important; it is a duty. We owe it to the men and women who protect this country to help them deal with PTSD and other lasting effects of their service.

However, The Australian article left readers with a mistaken impression on two important points: the scale of the problem, and the best way to address it.

Parnell cites a recent study from the European Journal of Psychotraumatology showing that "22 per cent of personnel would have met the criteria for a mental disorder in the previous 12 months, the most common being anxiety disorders (14.8%)". For alcohol disorders, the figure was 5.2%.

These figures, far from indicating an emergency, are nearly identical to the figures for the Australian population at large, which are 20%, 14.4%, and 5.1%, respectively.

Nor do these figures relate to serious mental illness attributable to combat or war zone experience. "ADF members who had been on operational deployment were not at an increased risk of developing an anxiety, affective, or alcohol disorder compared to those who had never deployed" (emphasis added), according to the study Parnell cites. PTSD is a serious issue, but it was not the focus of this particular mental health study.

Secondly, there is the question of treatment. Parnell mentions that the ADF is 'reconsidering' its decision not to implement annual mental health screenings, as a result of 'experts' having "warned thousands of personnel were being left unchecked for depression, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts".

But experts are far from unanimous in their view of annual mental health screenings, and many-including the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force-are not convinced the benefits outweigh the potential for harm.

Mental health screenings can have serious negative side effects. For example, by making a person worry whether they are feeling the 'correct' amount of sadness or stress, it may be possible to induce the very symptoms the screening is designed to help treat.

These screening questionnaires also turn up many false positives, which can lead to people being singled out for further testing when there is nothing the matter with them. Fear of subjecting individuals to this sort of stress and stigma is one reason that U.S. policymakers decided against annual mental health screenings for another at-risk population, teenagers.

The Department of Veterans' Affairs already pays for treatment of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, regardless of whether the conditions are the result of service. Before extending mental health services further, the ADF and DVA should make sure that these extensions will truly be of benefit.


Australia scores 'most favoured nation' provisions in FTA with China

Australia's biggest-ever bilateral trade deal is set to grow much bigger, with China agreeing to a special ratchet clause that will ensure that future benefits conferred to other countries will flow automatically to Australia.

The much-coveted "most favoured nation" provisions in the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement have been kept under wraps at the request of Chinese negotiators, who were pursuing a parallel deal with South Korea.

Trade Minister Andrew Robb confirmed the MFN provisions in an interview with Fairfax Media.

"This is huge, I think," said Mr Robb.  "It means that we will automatically receive the same treatment provided by China to any other country in the future including the EU and the United States."

Australian negotiators, analysts and industry bodies were surprised at the range of liberalisation commitments that China committed to during President Xi Jinping's visit to Canberra in November.

The full text, which will not be released until later this year, will include unprecedented commitments over a range of service sectors, including education and financial services.

Some China analysts speculated that Mr Xi may have been using the Australia trade deal as a lever to liberalise his own economy, which is starting to strain under the weight of bad debts and rash investments.

The previously unreported MFN mechanisms take the deal to another level.

Australian negotiators are most enthused by potential MFN gains on the investment side. The "prize" will be a special "negative list" feature that China looks set to provide the US under a bilateral investment treaty, which would greatly increase the range of Australian investment opportunities.

Similarly, Australian fund managers could potentially gain majority ownership rights in Chinese counterpart firms, up from a ceiling of 49 per cent in the existing FTA, if the US manages to get what it is seeking.

"This MFN clause was something we had long sought but didn't really believe we could get," said Geoff Raby, the former ambassador to China who had been involved with negotiations for a decade before stepping down to take on corporate directorships and advisory roles.  "It is a big achievement by Robb and the team to have secured this."

Mr Robb told Fairfax Media the MFN provisions would apply to investment and services chapters.

He said a separate review mechanism had been built into the "goods" provisions, which would apply three years after the agreement entered into force and then every five years thereafter.

"On most fronts, if not all, those will be protected, locked in, in the future when China make concessions with other countries," Mr Robb said.

"Overall this means we have substantially [greater] preferential arrangements than any other trading partner."

Dr Raby, a director of Fortescue, said there had been considerable political resistance on both sides when he first floated the idea of a China trade deal to his ministers in 2003, when the Howard government was concluding a trade deal with the US.

He said Chinese officials had been been anxious that they had paid too high a price for accession to the World Trade Organisation and Australians were unhappy at having to grant China "market economy" status even before negotiations had begun.

"It was the first time a developed country had engaged China on this idea," he said.

Dr Raby said the MFN provisions would be particularly important for investors because China was negotiating an ambitious bilateral investment agreement with the US.

"It is extremely valuable as it preserves our position as China negotiates other FTAs so the benefits which we have 'paid' for in the negotiations can't be whittled away," Dr Raby said.

The chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, said the MFN deal would keep Australia "on a level playing field with key competitors for valuable trade with what is the growth engine of the world".

"This opens the door to deep access to Chinese markets and a greater capacity to further diversify the Australian economy," she said.

Former Austrade chief economist Tim Harcourt agreed that the China deal had surpassed expectations but also warned that great challenges lay ahead in the implementation.

"At the end of the day it's the internal decisions you have to deal with in China, where so much is determined by administrative fiat," said Dr Harcourt, now a lecturer and researcher in the MBA program at the University of NSW.

"FTA or no FTA, you still have to have those connections to get your deal up," he said. "You've got to have the [Chinese Communist Party's] blessing right down through the ranks."


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