Sunday, May 31, 2020

‘This virus doesn’t want to kill us’

This is the inside story of how Australian scientists in some ways got the jump on the world.  Australia has had great success in controlling the virus.  Was the early understanding of the virus among Australian scientists part of that?

“This virus doesn’t want to kill us. It has no brain, no will. It just wants to grow and reproduce, to obey the laws of evolution and natural selection.” So says Professor Peter Doherty, a man who knows a thing or two about unpicking a virus. If the virus that causes COVID-19 did have a brain it would probably avoid coming up against the 79-year-old, Brisbane-raised, Nobel prize-winning immunologist who in the mid-1990s unlocked the secret of how our body’s immune system gives viruses a good kicking.

His name has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight again as patron of the research and public health organisation that bears his name, the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity. No organisation in Australia has been more prominent in tackling COVID-19, not only in the lab but in shaping government policy through the findings of its public health scenario modellings. “I’d just written my retirement book,” Doherty laughs down the phone from his home in Melbourne, where his age means he’s under strict isolation. “I thought I was fading into the distance and now suddenly I’m back as a talking head.”

There’s a lot to talk about. If we are in an ­enviable position in this war against COVID-19, with the tantalising prospect of life returning to normal seeming closer every day, it’s in part due to the early work of scientists at the Doherty Institute.

It’s easy to forget those early days back in ­January, when bushfires preoccupied the country and no one suspected a mysterious virus in China would within two months result in unimaginable global upheaval. But in the age of globalisation, viruses can move faster than even the news cycle, and so can those who fight them. Within hours of Australia’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 landing on our shores, the Doherty Institute had grown the virus in culture and shared it with the world (the first lab outside China to do so), sequenced the entire genome of the virus, mapped the human body’s immune response to the infection and was supplying the modelling that informed the Federal Government’s response in imposing the lockdown restrictions. Now its ­scientists are collaborating on a vaccine and testing possible treatments. Things have happened so fast that you could almost swear they were waiting for this virus.

Actually, they were. Doherty director Sharon Lewin calls it “peacetime preparations”: all the work that goes on when you’re not in the grip of a pandemic, when you’re not sure what sort of infectious disease will hit next but you know it will and you’d better be ready for it. It was SARS that primed the institute for COVID-19, but its bread-and-butter work is annual outbreaks of influenza, tracking cases in the community and developing new vaccines and treatments. “SARS was very infectious but the difference was people would only spread the virus when they were unwell,” says Lewin, “so you knew who was spreading it because they were sick and usually in hospital. But nothing like this new coronavirus has ever affected us.”

A collaboration between The University of ­Melbourne and Royal Melbourne Hospital, the Doherty Institute was born out of another disaster – the Global Financial Crisis – as a recipient of the Rudd government’s 2009 stimulus splash in the tertiary sector. It was established to deal with the exact sort of crisis we’re in right now.

The first cases of a mysterious pneumonia-like illness emerged from the wet markets of Wuhan, China in late December. It was soon confirmed to be a new type of coronavirus, and on January 7 China revealed to the world its genetic sequence – like sharing a fingerprint from a crime scene. “That’s when people started getting nervous,” says Lewin. “It was different to SARS. It set alarms off around the world.” The impetus for countries outside China was then on designing a diagnostic molecular test (called a PCR assay), so they’d know if the virus washed up on their shores. But Australia was a step ahead. We already had the test.

“The tests were designed in the wake of SARS and MERS, predicting that this would happen again and we’d need a test capable of detecting an unknown coronavirus,” says Mike Catton, director of the Doherty Institute’s Victorian Infectious ­Diseases Reference Laboratory (VIDRL).

Having the virus’s genetic sequence meant ­Catton and his team could quickly tailor their test to the new virus. From January 15 they started testing samples from anyone arriving from Wuhan displaying cold-like symptoms. Catton jokes that if anything urgent is going to happen, it’ll be on the Friday night before a long weekend. On Friday January 24, the lab got a call from Monash Hospital. Another return traveller from China had presented with corona­virus symptoms and a sample from the patient was taken back to the lab for testing. By 2am they had preliminary results, and by 4am had completed the entire genome sequencing, confirming the matter beyond all doubt that the fingerprints matched. COVID-19 was here.

Getting a positive ID was just the beginning. The next step was to try to grow the virus in cell culture. If growing a virus is an art form then Julian Druce is the artist. Druce is the senior scientist at VIDRL’s viral identification laboratory, where he tends to cultures in flasks with the tender touch of the finest orchid grower. Other labs had failed to get it to sprout, but Catton says if anyone in the world could grow it, Druce could. The practice of growing cultures was once de rigueur, but is now almost antiquated since the molecular test revolutionised virology in the late 1980s. While a molecular test will place your suspect at the crime scene, only by having a viable virus strain grown in culture can you fully interrogate the virus and learn its nature and characteristics, allowing you to potentially design antiviral drugs and vaccines.

Over the weekend Druce and Catton watched their virus grow, sometimes in the lab during the day, sometimes in the middle of the night. When unable to sleep, they would periodically open the laptop and hook into a webcam pointed at the flask back at the office. “It was really exciting,” says ­Catton, adding drolly: “if that’s your idea of excitement.” By the time Australians were back at work on the Tuesday, VIDRL had uploaded the genome sequence to an international database and were spreading the virus round the world, but in a good way, with the hope it could still be contained.

Sharing the virus before having it accepted into an academic journal was a bold and unusual move. Researchers will usually keep their discoveries closely guarded until the findings can be published. It’s possible that at least two other labs around the world had grown the virus before the Doherty Institute, but were sitting on it. Julian Druce says they didn’t have time for that. “We wanted to get the genie back in the bottle. It was clear to us here that public health came before publication.”

Collaboration would also come before commercialisation, with the COVID-19 crisis heralding an unprecedented flurry of global scientific ­co-operation through the sharing of information, materials, expertise and facilities. “I think it sent a message to the world about how we should be playing this thing,” says Catton.

Immediately after sharing the virus, VIDRL focused on helping public health labs, diagnosing samples sent in from New Zealand and states without local capacity. Throughout March the focus was on getting Victorian hospitals and ­community pathology labs set up with their own testing programs. Australia now has the highest per capita testing rate in the world.

Having a viable virus in the lab meant that labs around the world could start work designing antiviral drugs to treat patients, test vaccine candidates and begin serology testing to detect antibodies deployed by our immune system to fight the virus.

At the same time as VIDRL was growing the virus, the institute was claiming another world-first. An early patient had her immune response to the virus scrutinised, providing vital information on how the body fights COVID-19. The 47-year-old woman from Wuhan became the first person in Australia to be tested under a platform called ­Sentinel Travellers and Research Preparedness Platform for Emerging Infectious Disease (SETREP-ID). Doherty Institute infectious disease physician Irani Thevarajan helped set up SETREP-ID two years ago, around the time when the world was getting jumpy over new diseases such as ebola and zika. The platform – with pre-approved ethics – allows for testing and research of any travellers returning to the country with an emerging infectious disease. “We set it up knowing that new infections could walk through the door any day,” says Thevarajan. “So we wanted to be able to do immediate detection and research, to gain an understanding of it when it arrived.”

Thevarajan activated SETREP-ID on January 7, back when the world wasn’t even sure if human to human transmission was possible, and calibrated it to recruit data from any return travellers from China. When the woman arrived at hospital in late January and tested positive to COVID-19, a team led by Dr Oanh Nguyen and Dr Katherine Kedzierska immediately started taking blood samples and mapping her immune system response.

“We wanted to know right away what the immune system does when it sees this new coronavirus, because no one knew at that stage,” Thevarajan says. It was mild case of COVID-19 but the study revealed valuable information about the immune response. However, Thevarajan says a vital part of the puzzle is still missing. “What we don’t fully understand is what’s driving the really severe disease. We don’t yet fully understand why most people recover but some don’t.”

Nor do we fully understand what we stand to lose as collateral damage in the battle against COVID-19. On February 3, a collaboration of researchers led by the Doherty Institute convened a workshop with the Office of Health Protection and jurisdictional representatives in Canberra to discuss modelling the impact of COVID-19 on our health system.

Modelling was released to the public on April 7, two months after being provided to the Federal Government, which used it to inform its public health response. It’s this modelling and the delay in releasing it to the public that’s subsequently become the most controversial and debated element of the early initiatives, and the one that may prove to have the most serious long-term consequences. Doherty director of epidemiology Jodie McVernon led the team that built the model. She says at that early meeting the team proposed a “very broad brush set of initial scenarios based on influenza pandemic preparedness assumptions about severity, which was then highly uncertain”.

Back in 2009, McVernon had led a team of modellers responding to the H1N1 influenza ­pandemic that killed half a million people globally. So when COVID-19 came along and a preparedness model was needed in a hurry they brought out the influenza plan as a template, updating data specific for COVID-19 as it came in. “It’s our business to be surprised. That’s what emergencies are about,” says McVernon. “The reason this [modelling] could be done so fast was because the government had invested in preparedness for a very long time. So the toolkit, the thinking and the strategies were ready, but as the data came in it became clear this was beyond the influenza scenarios.”

The modelling, though, came in for criticism for basing its assumptions on overseas data, for not taking into account Australia’s case numbers, ­different demographics, geography and health care system. Australia never saw the widespread virus transmission of places like Italy, Spain and New York. Some say this is because of the strict social distancing measures the government put in place. Others say it’s because Australia never had the effective reproduction number (the number of people infected by each person carrying the virus) that Wuhan did, our population isn’t as elderly as ­Italy’s, our rate of smoking is relatively low, we don’t have high-density slums, and a thousand other differences that mean a one-size-fits-all model was never going to be an accurate representation.

McVernon says they had no choice but to use overseas data, as that’s where the epidemics were occurring. She says they simply didn’t have time to wait. “We’re acutely attuned to the fact we have to contextualise this to our local setting,” she says, “but you have to start with what you have. Yes, there were uncertainties, but the model is there to help you come to a consistent set of decisions. You ask yourself if any of those uncertainties would change your decisions.”

The modelling revealed that an unmitigated COVID-19 epidemic in Australia would have been a disaster, quickly overwhelming the health system. Suddenly “flattening the curve” became a phrase every Australian was familiar with. The curve was soon flattened, but at what cost? We won’t know until later the legacy of shutting down the economy, consigning so many Australians to the unemployment queue, or the other social impacts. One million Australians have become unemployed, and the Federal Government’s economic support packages are costing the country $320 billion.

McVernon admits she’s nervous about the ­collateral damage but stands by the measures. She says it was their job to avert a crisis. “It’s not a stretch to compare COVID-19 with the plague. ­People are saying that public health is being allowed to run the ­government. Well, I think there was definitely a need for public health to lead the charge to avert a catastrophe. That was our single task.”

The world waits for a vaccine. Doherty Institute virologist Dr Damian Purcell says more than 100 vaccine concepts are being worked on. “It doesn’t take a lot of time to produce a vaccine candidate,” he says, “what really takes time is the testing.” The institute’s collaboration with the University of Queensland to design a vaccine is one of those 100. Purcell says UQ started the work on ­January 20 and it’s now being tested on ferrets in the Netherlands prior to human trials. Elsewhere overseas, other vaccine candidates are already at the human trial stage.

In-house, the institute is working on its own vaccine candidates, thanks to a $3.2 million donation from the Jack Ma Foundation. Meanwhile, two ­international groups, one from Britain’s Oxford University and another from US group Inovio, are testing vaccine ­candidates at the CSIRO in Geelong. CSIRO has partnered with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), part of a global alliance aiming to speed up the development of vaccines, and in April was given $220 million by the Federal Government to upgrade its biosecurity research facilities and help expedite the quest for a vaccine.

Purcell says international collaboration and funding are the keys to unlocking a vaccine. “Funding is the thing that fires up the rocket sled. But things are highly accelerated now because people are sharing information in real time. A lot of the problems with vaccine development is it’s so expensive to manufacture at a high grade and going through the larger scale testing, so we’re speeding up the process of the early phase testing. As soon as things look remotely good and we get the safety signals, we pull the trigger and manufacture.”

If it sounds simple, don’t kid yourself. Developing a vaccine is one thing, but working out how to safely mass produce what is a very complex biological product for the consumption of millions, to fight a virus we still don’t know a lot about, and doing it by yesterday, requires navigating seemingly insurmountable problems. Purcell believes we will get a vaccine, but he’s just not sure if it will be the elixir the world is expecting. “It may be difficult to achieve effective vaccination of the elderly, we just don’t know. Therapeutic antibodies or anti-­viral drugs may turn out to be more important. That’s why we need to advance all fronts.”

Other fronts include a trial led by the institute involving 2500 people in more than 80 hospitals in Australia and New Zealand (called the ASCOT trial) to assess the effectiveness of two antiviral drugs, lopinavir/ritonavir (used to treat HIV) and hydroxy­chloroquine, the antimalarial drug touted by ­Donald Trump and Clive Palmer.

It’s also partnering with Monash University on a study of the anti-parasitic drug Ivermectin. Early experiments done at the Doherty Institute days after the virus was identified in Australia showed that Ivermectin killed SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, within 48 hours in cell culture. Dr Kylie Wagstaff from Monash Biomedical Discovery Institute says anecdotal evidence is good, but getting the dosing right is the key before human trials in Australia can start.

Peter Doherty, who still has a key research advisory role with the institute, remains relaxed and grounded, an endearing everyman infected with an incurable case of humility. On April 27 he tweeted what was meant to be a Google search: “Dan Murphy opening hours.” Even strict isolation comes with occasional caveats. Rather than delete the tweet, he let it stay and gather likes and laughs. “Only flawed humans can be loved,” he later tweeted. “And I certainly qualify.”

The real work is more sobering. Doherty says the worst virus he’s ever seen is smallpox. It killed about 300 million people in the 20th century, about 30 per cent of those it infected. Ironically, it’s also the only human infectious disease ever to be eradicated, the last case occurring in 1978. “We’re probably not going to eradicate COVID-19,” says Doherty. “So whatever people think of what’s being done, we need to build up the armamentarium against this thing. It’s lethal.”


Student activist, 20, is suspended from the University of Queensland after criticising its ties to China and leading a pro-Hong Kong protest

A student who dared to criticise the Chinese government and lead a pro-Hong Kong protest has been suspended by the University of Queensland.

Drew Pavlou, 20, is a passionate student activist due to graduate in just six months, but has been suspended after criticising the university for its ties to Beijing.

He led a series of campus demonstrations last year, in support of Hong-Kong's pro-democracy movement.

The activist also posted messages to social media criticising China's authoritarian regime and denounced the university's close financial ties with the Communist Party. 

It has around 10,000 Chinese students, bringing in $150 million in student fees each year.

He accused the University of Queensland, where he is enrolled studying philosophy, of behaving like the country's communist government after it suspended him for two years.

Speaking after his suspension on Friday following a controversial disciplinary hearing, he said the university hadn't given any good reason for its decision.

'Refusing to provide exonerating evidence, calling no witnesses and providing no reasoning for my expulsion during a secret hearing no one was supposed to know about,' he said. 'What an amazing standard UQ has set in regards to transparency - at least by Beijing's standards.'

Mr Pavlou faced a disciplinary hearing on May 20 at the university over 11 allegations of misconduct, detailed in a confidential 186-page document.

It is reportedly linked to his on-campus activism supporting Hong Kong and criticising the Chinese Communist Party.

The University of Queensland has faced intense scrutiny for its relations with the Chinese government, which has co-funded four courses offered by the university.

It is also home to one of Australia's many Confucius Institutes - Beijing-funded education centres some critics warn promote propaganda.

The Chinese consul general in Brisbane, Xu Jie, even serves as an honorary professor at the university.

Mr Pavlou led a series of campus demonstrations last year, in support of Hong-Kong's pro-democracy movement.

He also posted messages to social media criticising China's authoritarian regime and denounced the university's close financial ties with the Communist Party.

 The university ordered Mr Pavlou's suspension on Friday after the 20-year-old student left the previous hearing after about one hour, citing procedural unfairness.

Mr Pavlou told reporters he views the suspension as 'an expulsion for all intents and purposes' as he was due to graduate in six months.

'I think they're using the term suspension to talk down just how harsh this punishment actually is,' Mr Pavlou said on Friday. 'They've been threatening me with suspensions ever since last year.'

Mr Pavlou says he found out about the suspension via email at 4pm on Friday. The email allegedly asked him to keep the outcome confidential.

'I absolutely p**s on their rule book when it comes to confidentiality,' the Brisbane student said. 'They're trying to do me over in the shadows. F**k that. No way.'

UQ Chancellor Peter Varghese said on Friday he was concerned with the outcome of the disciplinary action against Mr Pavlou.  'There are aspects of the findings and the severity of the penalty which personally concern me,' Mr Varghese said in a statement.

'In consultation with the vice chancellor, who has played no role in this disciplinary process, I have decided to convene an out-of-session meeting of UQ's Senate next week to discuss the matter.'

Mr Pavlou said he found it hard to believe the chancellor and vice chancellor had no part in his punishment and questioned the independence of the disciplinary board.

'They (the UQ chancellor and vice chancellor) directed this from the beginning. There is no way they wouldn't have known about it. It's a joke.'

A UQ spokeswoman said on Friday the institutions disciplinary matters are dealt with under the Student Integrity and Misconduct policy.

Mr Pavlou said he will now appeal the decision with the assistance of his lawyer, Tony Morris QC.  'We're going to immediately appeal this decision in an independent court of law outside UQ.'

Mr Pavlou recently took Mr Xu to court after being attacked at a rally by Chinese nationalists.

'In July 2019, I led a peaceful campus sit-in calling for UQ to completely cut ties with the Chinese state until Tibetans were freed, Uighur detention camps were closed, and Hong Kongers were afforded greater democracy,' he said.

'Masked pro-CCP heavies violently attacked our rally, assaulting me and choke-slamming other pro-Hong Kong students to the ground.'

Following the ugly incident, Mr Pavlou was named in a Chinese state media article by Mr Xu and accused of being 'anti-China'.

As a result, Mr Pavlou claims he then received death threats, unsettling phone calls and letters.

The University of Queensland said in a statement, it rejects the 'unsubstantiated' claims and is not attempting to prevent students from expressing their personal political views or trying to limit their right to freedom of speech.


Radio host Alan Jones took aim at coronavirus restrictions during his final breakfast show today, retiring after 35 years on air

Radio host Alan Jones had a dig at coronavirus measures during his final show on Friday but said “it ain’t over really” as he concluded 35 years on the airwaves.

Jones, 79, is retiring from radio after three decades, finishing his final 2GB breakfast program at 9am.

During his last show, Jones also criticised coronavirus restrictions, saying the “figures are made up”.

Noting that NSW would be winding back some of its restrictions from Monday, including that 20 people will be able to attend weddings and up to 50 people will be able to attend funerals and other places of worship, Jones asked: “Where do they get these figures from?”

“These figures are made up. “Can someone put a paper on a table and tell us where those figures come from?”

Jones added that 98.3 per cent of coronavirus cases in the world were mild.

Joining him for his final broadcast, Jones said, were former prime minister Tony Abbott, an “amazing human being” whose “removal from that office made Australia the poorer”, and state leader of One Nation in NSW, Mark Latham, “who would today be an outstanding prime minister”.

The former Wallabies coach noted that his career is not over and said Mr Latham would be part of a regular segment on Sky News, where Jones is expected to continue hosting an evening TV show.

“There will be a regular segment with Mark, and will replicate the kind of things we’ve been doing here because he’s got something to say, something to contribute,” Jones said. “So it ain’t over really, we’re just going to another medium.”

Jones announced earlier this month that he was retiring on the advice of his doctors, after decades of 2am-3am morning starts to prepare for his show.

In his many years on radio, Jones became the self-appointed and sometimes outrageously dogmatic voice of the battler, feared and courted by politicians.

Jones will continue to host an evening TV show on Sky News and is expected to keep writing a column for News Corp Australia’s newspapers.


Australia's Retail Sector Is Bouncing Back From The COVID-19 Crisis Faster Than Many Landlords Imagined

Australia’s retail industry is bouncing back from the COVID-19 lockdown much more quickly than anyone anticipated, according to some of the biggest shopping centre operators in the country.

After the vast majority of stores across the nation closed in the early days of the pandemic, 80 per cent of them were now back in business as restrictions have eased over the past few weeks.

“And we’re finding foot traffic is now 80 per cent of what it was this time last year,” said Phil McAveety, director of customer experience at the Scentre Group, which operates under the Westfield brand.

“It’s coming back more quickly than we’d imagined, with New Zealand now seeing 93 per cent of retailers back operating.

“In the past couple of weeks, as foot traffic has risen, the spend is going up too. Once we’ve got beyond necessities like food and pharmacy items, we’re seeing anything to do with home in big demand, like homewares, home improvements and TVs.

“We’re also seeing youth fashion coming back really quickly and from next week, we’ll see further growth in out-of-home dining and street dining and entertainment.”

Mr McAveety was taking part in a panel discussion organised by the Property Council of Australia about building owners’ experiences of providing COVID-safe retail precincts, offices, workplaces and public spaces ready for an economic reboot.

They reported that retail was, quite unexpectedly, leading the way forward for a return to the “new normal”.

Louise Mason, chief executive of commercial property at Stockland, said about 85 per cent of stores in their centres had now re-opened with new protocols in place regarding cleaning, sanitisers, security and plenty of advice on maintaining social distancing.

“We are all quietly pleased and quietly optimistic for the future,” she said. “Western Australian and Queensland even opened up on last year, which is a really good sign.”

It’s an expression of confidence in shopping, and an eagerness to return to stores, that has also taken Bob Johnston, chief executive of The GPT Group, by surprise. He, too, said foot traffic was up on this time last year.

“The biggest surprise has been that turnaround,” he said. “People have been keen to get back out and experience shopping centres and it shows how we’re all social animals.

“Customers have also been generally respectful of the need for social distancing and are working with the restrictions.”

Mr McAveety said people’s desire to be social would keep bricks-and-mortar shopping going, and strong brands and strong retailers offering good customer experiences would flourish while the weaker ones, with frailer customer connections, might go to the wall.

Online shopping would also continue to grow, with an acceleration of the trends already happening, said Mr Johnston, and with some consolidation of those trends that they were currently seeing with K-Mart and Target.

Ms Mason also foreshadowed that there would be more non-traditional shopping centre tenants, such as post offices, education, and health and wellbeing stores, take up residence.

There’s also been more opportunity to develop, and introduce, innovation in business, says Mr McAveety.

“So in the next three to six months, we’ll be delivering a whole range of customer benefits that might have taken us a little bit longer had business not been brought into such sharp relief,” he said.

The pandemic had also forced business and government to work together much more closely, and effectively, for the good of the nation. “If we could keep that level of cooperation and engagement,” said Mr Johnston, “that would be great for the Australian economy.”

The forum heard that industrial real estate had generally been less affected by the pandemic, although it was much more of a mixed bag.

Companies involved with logistics for online shopping, for instance, had been extremely busy, having to find more space for storage, while those in the automotive industry had been down almost 50 per cent across the country as people stayed home, Ms Mason said.

It’s less certain, however, how the commercial office sector would fare as Australia re-emerged from the shutdown.

Mr Johnston said there was only 5 to 10 per cent occupancy of offices in the country’s CBDs at the moment and that was showing only slow signs of changing.

“We need to reboot Australia’s CBDs as a lot of businesses depend on them,” Mr Johnston said. “I’m sure there will be an element of working from home going forward, but we need to get people back and feeling comfortable in a responsible way.”


 Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Australia 'has BEATEN coronavirus': Top health official says a second wave of COVID-19 is unlikely as transmission rates plunge to nearly zero - with just 30 patients in hospital nationwide

The chance of a second wave of COVID-19 in Australia this year is unlikely, according to one of the country's top health officials, as transmission rates fall to nearly zero.

New South Wales chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant told state politicians the ban on international travel and the state's grasp of social distancing meant it was well placed to stem further outbreaks of the virus and prevent a second wave.

There is just one coronavirus patient in intensive care across the state - and only five nationwide as of Tuesday. A total of 30 COVID-19 patients remain in hospital across the country.

In the private briefing, Dr Chant conceded NSW's ability to prevent a second wave would rely on widespread adherence to social distancing rules.

It comes as the state looks to June 1 for the next stage of restriction easing - with beauty salons and nail bars set to re-open and regional travel permitted.

'The policy for how to deal with a second wave is that we'll evaluate it at the time,'  an MP close to the meeting told The Australian.

'[Dr Chant's] message was: It's very possible to contain all this ­because we don't have the inter­nationals coming in, and we have good social distancing and hygiene­ practices.'

There were only two new cases of COVID-19 in NSW recorded in the 24 hours to Monday.

There are 7,133 cases of the coronavirus nationally since the outbreak began, but just 478 of those are still active. 

Six million people have downloaded the government's coronavirus tracking app less than a month after its launch, helping authorities trace contacts of any diagnosed cases.  

It follows Premier Daniel Andrews announcing the new 'COVID normal' in Victoria ahead of the loosening of restrictions on June 1.

People in the state will kick off winter being able to enjoy meals with friends at home, attend weddings, swim at pools or even get tattoos, as long as there's no more than 20 people.  

The number will also mark the number of people allowed at weddings, while up to 50 people will be able to attend funerals.

'The rules that accompany that opening up will be with us for a long time,' Mr Andrews told reporters.

'This is a COVID normal, this is not a return to business a usual.'

Victoria's reopening will see 20 people allowed to visit libraries and other community facilities, entertainment and cultural venues, as well as beauty and personal care services.

The start of the coldest season will also include a lifeline for the tourism industry as overnight stays in hotels will be permitted.

Campgrounds will be open for those eager to pitch their tents, but not their communal facilities like kitchens or bathrooms.


Correctly counting the cost shows Australia's lockdown was a mistake

The future will now be worse because the flawed pandemic health projections didn't correctly calculate their effects on economic welfare.

Australia’s economic policies in response to the coronavirus threat have been driven in the main by projections of death and infection rates, produced by epidemiological modelling, that since have been proven to be orders of magnitude above what any country anywhere in the world, regardless of policy, has experienced.

Meanwhile, the welfare costs of our economic policy responses have been either overlooked entirely, gestured towards vaguely but not actually calculated, or calculated in ways strikingly out of alignment with international best practice when estimating the welfare costs of different policy alternatives – eg, using full value-of-a-statistical-life (VSL) numbers, rather than age-adjusted VSL or quality-adjusted life years, when valuing lives lost to COVID-19 (which are predominantly the lives of older people with a few years, not an entire life, left to live).

A leading reason for points 1 and 2 is that it’s a lot less work to count bodies and point to scary body-count projections than to think hard about the many and various costs – many invisible and requiring a reasonable counterfactual that is, again, mentally taxing to create; many manifesting only over time – that arise when we take the drastic economic policy actions we have taken.

The costs of what we have done are enormous. These costs will show up most obviously over the next few months in the body counts sacrificed to causes other than COVID-19 – like from famine, preventable diseases and violence in lower income countries; and deaths from despair, isolation, and non-COVID-19 health problems that have lost resourcing in better-off countries such as Australia – but will also stem from sources that don’t have actual deaths of presently living people attached to them.

Lower GDP now and going forward means lower levels of government services on education, healthcare, research and development, infrastructure, social services, and myriad other things that keep us happier, healthier and living longer.

Kids whose education has been disrupted due to our mandates that schools and universities move activities online, and young people who have lost their jobs or are entering the job market during the recession we have created, will carry the impact of these disruptions for years.

Discoveries of cures for diseases other than COVID-19 will be delayed; IVF babies won’t be born; our progress on lifting up the tens of thousands of Australian children who live in poverty will be set back.

The future we’ll now have is worse than the future we could have had without the policy responses we have seen.

That comparison of what-we-will-have to what-we-could-have-had can be expressed in terms of quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) and wellbeing-adjusted life years (WELLBYs), and compared directly to estimates of the QALY and WELLBY costs of the COVID-19 deaths and suffering that our policies have averted.

When you make this comparison, correctly, the evidence is clear that Australia’s lockdown has been a mistake.

In hindsight, instead of reacting out of fear, our government could have understood its primary role early on to contain and reduce the population’s fear; it could have set proportionate and targeted policy, not blanket policy (eg, extreme lockdowns were not what drove the decline from peak infections in Australia: when many of the harshest measures were set, infections were already on the decline); and it could have been perennially mindful of the massive economic and hence human welfare costs implicit in any decision to stop trade, pull children out of school, or lock people away from their friends and family.

In normal times, we jump up and down and fill national airwaves about changes in GDP or unemployment rates that are an order of magnitude less than what we are seeing now. In normal times we don’t track single-digit daily death rates from any cause as a leading indicator of whether it’s safe to venture outside, knowing that hundreds of people in Australia die each day from myriad causes. In normal times we talk about striving for health not through sitting at home and avoiding other people, but by building our strength and supporting our immune systems. People today have lost their perspective on what is normal.

Travel bans and social distancing rules have drastically reduced footfalls at Australia's prime tourist destinations, and economists anticipate a telling effect of the drop in tourism on the economy.

As the costs of our decisions become more and more apparent, with time, our fear will stop controlling our minds. I hope the perspective of the public and policy-makers returns quickly, so we have a chance of handling things better if the next wave of the virus attacks again what is now one of the most immunologically unprepared high-income countries in the world: Australia.


The coal, hard fact is we must put jobs first in this economic climate

As the biblical saying goes, you can’t serve two masters. For a decade we have been trying to con ourselves we could. We thought you could serve the master of ­climate change and keep a strong manufacturing sector.

The data doesn’t lie. You can’t.

While we have reduced our emissions by 5 per cent (largely by making it illegal for farmers to clear their own land), our manufacturing industry has gone backwards for the first time. During the past decade Australian manufacturing has declined in real, absolute terms. The 1990s and 2000s were not boom times for manu­facturing but the sector still managed to grow by 10 per cent each decade. Since 2010, it has shrunk by 5 per cent.

During that time, our pursuit of climate change and renewable ­energy policies helped double the cost of energy, despite our abundant reserves. The COVID-19 pandemic shows what a mistake this has been.

Now everyone wants to secure our supply chains and start making things again. None of this talk will lead to renewed manufacturing strength, however, if we do not get serious about reducing energy costs. And to do that we need to make tough choices about what is important in a post-COVID, economically depressed world.

Talk of the immediate importance of reducing our small carbon footprint now sounds like a dis­cordant echo from a bygone era. With millions are out of work, and our major trade partner threatens our economic security, why would we continue to self-flagellate by imposing the additional costs of reducing carbon emissions for no environmental benefit?

China’s recent actions demonstrate beyond a doubt that there is no hope a global agreement to reduce carbon emissions will lead to any meaningful global action. If we can’t trust China to keep faith with a trade agreement signed just a few years ago, and can’t trust it to be upfront on the pandemic, how can we trust China to honour a global agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions?

I do not make these points to critique others. I made the mistakes too. I have been a supporter of the Paris Agreement because Australia has benefited from international agreements. But things have changed. With the need to secure our manufacturing industry and the clear breakdown of international co-operation, we must face the fact that era is over.

We should end our participation in the Paris Agreement, given the more immediate need to secure our manufacturing jobs. And we should rule out any moves to net-zero emissions or a future global agreement on carbon until other countries, much larger than us, demonstrate real reductions in their carbon emissions.

Our future targets continue to restrain our ability to make the tough choices to rebuild Australian manufacturing. Because of those targets, many are rushing to promote gas over coal. Gas in eastern Australia is not a pathway to globally competitive energy prices any time soon. The geology of our gas is not the lucrative shale seams from which the US has benefited.

At best we might hope to get the wellhead energy cost of Australian onshore gas down to $6 a gigajoule. That is still double the mining costs of most Australian black coal (and more than 10 times the cost of brown coalmining). It is also more than double the cost of US shale gas.

If we are not going to pursue and fight for the cheapest energy costs, then we are not serious about rebuilding an Australian manufacturing industry.

Some say the politics of building a coal-fired power station is too tough. I am a big supporter of gas developments but I drove to Canberra last week and I saw about 20 “no coal-seam gas” signs in western NSW. But I didn’t see a single “no coal” sign. Sure, lots of inner-city greenies oppose coal, but all politics is local. As last year’s federal election showed, if you have the locals supporting a project (such as Adani), that is a political fight you can win.

The political battle we should engage in is the one to return manufacturing jobs to Australia. To pursue naive policies that reduce our carbon emissions, regardless of what other countries are doing, hurts our ability to win that battle. To recover from this pandemic we must recognise that the era of rampant globalism is over and put Australian jobs first.


Unions get a seat at Scott Morrison's workplace reform table

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has opened talks with ACTU secretary Sally McManus to clear obstacles to a consensus on workplace relations reform, giving union leaders key positions in the forums to decide a deal by September.

Mr Morrison sought the ACTU leader's opinion before launching an ambitious plan to streamline industrial awards and enterprise bargaining agreements in a bid to lift the economy out of the coronavirus crisis.

The Prime Minister also declared he was "very committed" to spending more money on skills and training under a new deal with the states and territories, while warning of the threat to growth from lower migration.

Offering unions and employers a pathway to negotiate reform, Mr Morrison slammed the current industrial relations system for delivering "marginal benefits" for unions while discouraging companies from hiring staff.

"It is a system that has to date retreated to tribalism, conflict and ideological posturing," he said.

"No side of that debate has been immune from those maladies. This will need to change or more Australians will unnecessarily lose their jobs and more Australians will be kept out of jobs."

The government will move within days to name union leaders and business executives to five working groups that will be asked to hammer out reform proposals by September.

Ms McManus said the ACTU would join the process but would set two conditions on any support for change because of the low growth in wages before the coronavirus crisis.

"The first is: will any proposal make jobs more secure for working people? That's really important – we don't want to go back to what it was like pre-pandemic where one in three workers didn't even have sick leave," she said.

"The second measure is making sure that working people get their fair share of the nation's wealth."

The conditions place a significant constraint on Mr Morrison's plan when Liberal MPs are seeking far greater changes to the workplace regime to give employers more freedom to negotiate wages and conditions with workers.

One Liberal backbencher said it was too early to tell whether the agenda would produce significant change but that Mr Morrison was right to start the process without stipulating the final outcome.

Another Liberal MP said the result could "tweak" the industrial relations system when the problem was the system itself.

While some Liberals want to scale back the power of the Fair Work Commission to regulate wages and conditions, some employers want to rewrite the rules of the "better off overall test" that ensures workers cannot be worse off in any changes to enterprise agreements.

Mr Morrison said he would not prescribe the outcome on the "better off overall test" and would leave it to employers and unions because it would be up to them to make sure any agreement was sustained and maintained over the long term.

"What I'm trying to do differently about this process is not run out there with an IR shopping list," he said.  "I haven't seen that work in my political experience in the time I've been in the Parliament."

While Mr Morrison said he was offering unions and employers a way to "get everyone back in the room" and build on the united effort in the COVID-19 crisis, others dismissed the chances of serious change.

The Opposition said it would back any changes that created more jobs, delivered higher wages and gave workers more rights. "Let's be clear: all the government has done so far is book a room. This is not an IR agenda – it's a series of meetings," said Labor workplace spokesman Tony Burke.

Labor welcomed Mr Morrison's decision to set aside the Ensuring Integrity Bill, which was meant to crack down on rogue unions, but said the government did not have the numbers in the Senate to pass the bill anyway.

The Australian Industry Group backed the process and Business Council of Australia chief Jennifer Westacott said workers would benefit if enterprise agreements restored the ambitions of the Hawke and Keating governments to tie conditions to productivity.

"We know from history that that system created higher wages, and if we could get back to that system then I believe Australians will have more secure jobs, better workplaces and higher wages," she said.

"The system has become too complicated – it's too hard to get enterprise agreements done, there are too many things in them."

Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter has been speaking to Ms McManus several times each week and will consult the union movement on the membership of the five working groups.

Two of the five working groups will focus on industrial awards and enterprise agreements amid concerns that complex rules make it too difficult for unions and employers to gain results.

A third group will examine casual employment including the far-reaching consequences of a Federal Court decision last week that found long-term casual workers could seek entitlements including annual leave.

With big employers under fire for not paying workers their agreed rates, the fourth working group will consider compliance with the regime as well as enforcement against unions that breach the law.

The fifth group will seek a deal on enterprise agreements for "greenfields" projects to encourage new investment.

"We must make the most of this time we have and we must move quickly. It will become apparent very quickly if progress is to be made," Mr Morrison said.

"Ultimately it will be the government that will take forward a job making agenda from this process."


 Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Universal pension for all: Retirees call for tax and income reform

This is a very different proposal from Universal Basic Income.  There is no effect on job readiness because pensioners are already out of the fulltime workforce.  And if the pension is taxable any perversity in the payments would be substantially reduced

The existing system is very unfair to savers and investors as the lockdown knocks their income substantially without compensation.  A universal pension would in part compensate for that

We live in a time of great government activism and economic involvement, much of which is neither wise nor benign so it is merely balance to suggest  that governments should take responsibility for the ill results of their policies and do things to compensate for the burdens they create

Every retiree would get at least a part pension under a plan being considered by seniors' groups amid concerns the coronavirus pandemic's effect on key income streams is leaving many older Australians cash poor and increasing the number living in poverty.

Seniors organisations are pressing the Morrison government to look at a massive overhaul to the pension system that would also take into account possible changes to tax concessions, such as franking credits, as a way to pay for any reforms.

The federal government is reviewing the retirement income system although its reporting date has been pushed back to July 24 due to the pandemic's impact on agencies.

The COVID-19 crisis, and measures to stop its spread, has created havoc with equity and investment markets while also leading to a huge fall in global interest rates. Economic shutdowns have hit jobs and seen a sharp increase in the number of renters - private and commercial - unable to pay rent.

Analysis by JPMorgan suggests the huge scope of the income hit facing those dependent on interest, dividends and rents.

It estimates dividend income will drop by $68 billion in the 12 months to the end of June, property income will slump by $59 billion while interest payments will be $8 billion down.

National Seniors Australia spokesman Ian Henschke said the crisis had highlighted key shortcomings in a retirement income system he said was clumsy and complex.

He said many retirees had suffered a sharp fall in their income yet the value of their assets had barely changed. Under existing pension testing rules, it's the value of those assets that determined any pension income.

Axing the means test system and replacing it with a universal pension, paid for by an overhaul of the tax system, would improve retirement outcomes and incentives for savers, Mr Henschke said.

"It would get rid of the pension assets and income tests, doing away with the need for unfair taper rates, deeming rates and work restrictions, and end the need to engage with Centrelink," he said.

"If everyone of pension age received a pension, retirees could just add this to their other income and pay tax. Means testing is costly to administer and leads to perverse outcomes, which are more apparent in the current crisis.

"Asset taper rates unfairly penalise those who save more for their retirement. Income tests undermine ongoing workforce participation and lead to ongoing anger over deeming rates."

David Knox, actuary and senior partner with consulting firm Mercer, said the system of means testing made it difficult for many people to plan retirement.

He said there was scope to adopt a model used in Denmark where all retirees were paid a part pension that maintained some elements of means testing but also guaranteed income for all.

"The advantage is the universal part pension gives everybody a base to build on while the means-tested pension ensures that no-one lives in poverty," he said.

"Another advantage is that the means testing will cease at a lower level of assets or income than currently, as it would only apply to half the pension.

"This means that many retired Australian households would not be subject to any means testing and there would be a much clearer incentive to make some extra savings for your retirement."


Employers to end up as JobSeekers

That $60bn miscalculation by the Australian Taxation Office is good news for long-suffering taxpayers, with JobKeeper now expected to cost us “only” $70bn rather than $130bn. The problem is that every urger is out and about suggesting ways in which the $60bn “saving” can be spent.

When confidence in government is extremely important, this enormous fiscal error carries the danger that the public’s trust in government competence is eroded. Or should that be further eroded?

The revelation of this error came in the same week as the activist judges of the Federal Court handed down a decision that ensures the Australian labour market is now close to being completely dysfunctional.

The judgment that a casual worker should be entitled both to a wage premium and payment for leave entitlements (annual, personal/carer’s, compassionate and public holiday leave) means employers will be wary of employing any worker on a casual basis apart from on a short-term and intermittent basis.

Recall that this was a case about a casual mine worker (he worked for a labour hire firm) who had been engaged on a series of contracts but with each contract involving predictable shifts agreed ahead of time.

This sort of arrangement suits many workers, in part because it is possible for them to make plans about other aspects of their lives. Not all of them want permanent work and, in any case, many employers won’t offer permanent work as an alternative because of the operational and financial requirements of the workplace.

One of the most immediate dangers of this decision is that many employers of casual workers, now and in the past, face claims for back pay based on the characteristics of the work performed. In particular, those casual workers who are given or have been given “firm advance commitments” (the legal phrase used in the judgment) in relation to their work patterns could be entitled to both the premium attached to their pay — generally set at 25 per cent — and paid leave.

There are various estimates about the cost of the back-pay bill, with some figures as high as $8bn based on estimates of 1.6 million long-term casual workers who work regular hours. There are several class actions being undertaken to secure compensation for the affected workers and the areas of employment extend far beyond labour hire firms in mining. Needless to say, these actions also will enrich the law firms handing the cases.

Many firms hit with these claims simply will go broke. They have paid the wage premium on top of the hourly wage to their casual workers but few, apart from some large firms and the public sector, will have the funds to cover the additional bill, particularly given today’s circumstances.

Mind you, many individuals may end up being paid out via the Fair Entitlements Guarantee scheme, which exists to come up with the entitlements of workers whose employer’s business has gone broke. That is, if the employer can’t pay up, the taxpayer will. This is just one of the nightmare scenarios of this fiasco.

It’s easy to see how this judgment also blows up the prospect of any bounce-back as the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. Employers will be loath to take back previous casual workers or to employ new ones — the risks have become too great given the scope for double dipping.

But to take on permanent workers, full- or part-time, with fixed shifts will be impossible given the uncertainty of business conditions. It will be lose-lose, including for those on JobKeeper.

The government must act now. Casual employment is a very Australian invention where workers are generously rewarded for the absence of leave entitlements. It’s not as if temporary work doesn’t exist overseas but there is generally no wage premium.

The arithmetic tells us that casual workers are indeed over-rewarded for the absence of paid leave by virtue of the 25 per cent premium. But the real point is that casual work suits many workers as well as many employers given the nature of their businesses — think weekly variations in demand and seasonal factors.

Note here that the vast majority of awards (and agreements that provide for casual employment) include “casual conversion” clauses. These enable casual workers, after certain periods, to request that their employment be made permanent, a request employers cannot reasonably refuse. Tellingly, a substantial number of casual workers never makes such a request.

Whether the government can strengthen these casual conversion clauses to extract some agreement from the unions to reject double dipping for casuals is unclear. The government’s earlier attempt to solve the problem by inserting a regulation in the Fair Work Act has not worked — the judges simply brushed this aside as having no effect.

For those who think the COVID-19 crisis has led to some easing of the rigid (and oftentimes bizarre) industrial relations regulations that bedevil the workings of our labour market, think again. Apart from some early concessions, it has been a case of defiant resistance from the union movement since the JobKeeper scheme was announced, as well as inflexibility on the part of the Fair Work Commission.

While it’s clear that the government has plenty on its plate, the casual work issue must be sorted out — and quickly, if there is to be a chance of a decent recovery later in the ye


The other diseases the coronavirus lockdown stopped in their tracks

Amid social distancing measures put in place to fight the coronavirus pandemic, case numbers have flatlined for a number of other diseases.

But experts warn with the easing of movement restrictions, people have to keep following social distancing measures to ensure they don’t come back.

Measures put in place to halt coronavirus have also taken out a range of other diseases.
Measures put in place to halt coronavirus have also taken out a range of other diseases.CREDIT:AP

Rates of influenza have been squashed flat after initially hinting at another serious year for case numbers.

The numbers went so low Queensland Chief Health Officer Dr Jeannette Young said residents of the state were more likely to get COVID-19 than a flu in 2020.

"If you have respiratory symptoms there's every chance it is more likely due to COVID-19 than it is due to anything else," she said this week.

But aside from colds and flus, the rates of a range of other viruses have also bottomed out, including a potentially serious disease called EV-D68.

EV-D68 is an enterovirus that can manifest as a serious respiratory illness, especially in children and young teenagers. It's suspected of causing a polio-like condition called acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), which causes the muscles to become weak and unresponsive.

It had not been found in large numbers in Australia but UQ virologist Professor Ian Mackay said the number of cases had been steadily increasing over the last few years.

“EV-D68 is a bit funny in that it behaves more like a respiratory virus than a fecal-oral virus like a lot of the other enteroviruses,” Professor Mackay said.

“It does look like any of those viruses we call respiratory viruses - and EV-D68 falls into that -have just dropped off the radar to a large extent.”

That made sense, Professor Mackay said, because they were spread in similar ways: through droplets expelled into the air and being breathed in by others, or landing on surfaces other people later touched.

That means if social distancing measures slip in the coming months, a range of diseases, not just COVID-19, will spread.

“Most of them will tick up again [once restrictions are lifted], they’re still there in households. Whether they kick back into their patterns straight away will be interesting to watch,” he said.

The other big beneficiary of social distancing have been measles cases, which have dropped to zero in the last few months.

A serious outbreak in the Asia-Pacific region late last year, centred on Tonga, had been blamed for a rash of new cases in Australia and New Zealand.

Epidemiologist and public health expert Professor Linda Selvey said just like other diseases spread through droplets, measles was completely contained when social distancing measures were put in place.

“Measles is actually far more infectious than COVID-19," she said. "If it’s around there would be the potential to spread in public areas and we’re not seeing that. “If we didn’t have a vaccine for measles it would be far more dangerous than COVID-19.

“But we’re able to manage it with the vaccine and with post-infection [treatments].”

Children are historically more at risk from severe side-effects from EV-D68 and measles, while for influenza and COVID-19 older people are more likely to get severe cases and even die.

Professor Mackay said until there were more effective measures to control the pandemic and a vaccine to prevent it, social distancing would likely be a fact of life for some time.

“In particular we’re going to see physical distancing in place for months, probably until next year,” he said.

“Keeping virus hosts away from each other is one of the best defences we have against all sorts of viruses. It’s crude. It’s primitive, but it works.”


Advertisements need more scutiny for false information

Misinformation, hoaxes, and fake cures have run rampant on social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp since the outbreak of the coronavirus. Will new measures be enough?
It is a rare moment in history when you can say with absolute certainty that tomorrow will be a great day.

But this tomorrow most certainly will be. The nation’s first and largest state – Australia’s birthplace of public education – is reopening all schools to all students.

It is a great day for society, for the economy and most importantly it is a great day for our kids. Education is the best antidote to poverty and disadvantage and the greatest gift we can give our children.

And so how did the most vital role of society – that of raising and educating its next generation – get arbitrarily shut down or suspended on the basis of no hard evidence nor top-level medical advice.

How is panic and fake information spreading so far and wide? How do we have supposedly educated people demanding the shutdown of educational institutions with no evidence to support it? And how do we have genuine concerns about the impact of such shutdowns likewise overtaken by lunatics who believe coronavirus is a myth altogether? Or caused by the 5G network? Or a conspiracy engineered by Bill Gates?

A clue to this lies in a cunning little experiment undertaken by a canny little think tank called Responsible Technology Australia (RTA), which was recently established out of concern that perhaps internet and social media giants aren’t quite as responsible and righteous as they pretend to be.

The test case was the online megalopolis Facebook, which despite its mission statement of “bringing the world closer together”, has been infamously exposed for peddling fake news stories deliberately designed to sow division.

After this came to light, a supposedly chastened Facebook claimed that it would move heaven and earth to stop the spread of false and dangerous information, just like a good global citizen should.

Only this week Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the BBC “we don't want misinformation to be the content that is going viral” and that Facebook had and would remove any content likely to result in “immediate and imminent harm” when it came to COVID-19 conspiracies.

And that’s great to hear. The only problem is it hasn’t and it didn’t.

To prove this, the people at Responsible Technology Australia set up a Facebook page called “Ozzie News Network” and then set about posting the most dangerous misinformation they could think of.

These included:

*  COVID-19 pandemic “advice” ads urging users to turn off their 5G, drink more water and get 30 minutes of daily sunshine

*  Saying the Australia-Indonesia free trade agreement was just a front to allow mass migration from Jakarta

*  Telling 18-year-olds not to bother to enrol to vote

*  Saying that the new 5G network will allow the Australian police to spy on you through your phone

*  Telling people the AEC has assessed they live in a safe electorate and therefore shouldn’t bother voting

These posts perpetuated obvious lies and misinformation posing as official advice. At worst they encouraged people to risk their lives and break the law. And the kicker is that they were posted as ads that Facebook both reviewed and approved.

There is absolutely no way on earth they would ever have been allowed to run in a responsible mainstream media outlet. Not News Corp, not Nine; nor Ten nor Seven nor anywhere with a pair of human eyes.

But still, a global giant like Facebook with billions of users could hardly be expected to notice everything that was posted on its millions of pages. Surely once it was brought to their attention the ads would be removed, right?

Wrong. Even after the group reported their own ads to Facebook for fake and dangerous misinformation they were still not taken down.

“No traditional publisher or broadcaster would ever run ads like this,” RTA’s executive director Chris Cooper told

“But not only did Facebook review and approve them, even when we repeatedly reported them as misinformation they were never taken down.”

Yes, even after RTA did Facebook’s job for it and flagged the fake ads, still no action was taken – even though anyone following their advice could be putting themselves at risk. So much so that the group deliberately targeted the ads to an audience which had already been informed they were fake and consented to receiving them to ensure they did not inadvertently spread dangerous information themselves.

“Our fake ads deliberately play on people's fears in ways we know are typical,” Cooper says.

“This experiment proves just how easy it is to spread fake news on Facebook, and it would be easier still for an experienced malicious foreign actor.”

The posts were finally removed only after approached Facebook for comment. The company confirmed they violated its policy.

“We’re aggressively going after misinformation about COVID-19 and have teams across the company dedicated to this effort,” a spokesperson said.

“We’ve applied warning labels to millions of pieces of misinformation and remove content that could lead to imminent harm.”

But the fact they were able to be posted in the first place, were spread for so long and were not removed even after being reported should send a chill down the spine of anyone who still believes in facts or whatever the world has left of reality.

We have social media giants policing opinions while publishing obviously false information for the sake of a few bucks. And all the while using the journalism of real news organisations to cannibalise the advertising revenue that allows real journalism to survive.

This is the perfect petri dish for fake news. An Essential poll this week found one in eight Australians believed Bill Gates was somehow responsible for the coronavirus and it was being spread by the 5G network.

The corona crisis has already shown that even argument among politicians and experts can produce catastrophic results for both lives and livelihoods. Adding endless idiotic opinions to the mix makes things far worse, yet for anyone who believes in free speech it is a necessary evil.

But peddling false facts for cash is another level of devilry altogether, especially when you are pretending to be on the side of the angels.

Facebook and other social media titans have already helped forge a wild new world where facts are determined by sentiment instead of science and reality is a matter of opinion. The result has been a decade riven by extremes: Crazed conspiracy theories, right-wing populism and left-wing socialist fantasies.

The chaos they have fuelled on global issues ranging from coronavirus to climate change is often quite literally a matter of life and death. Surely they have profited from it enough without pocketing every last cent from dangerous and dodgy propaganda – not to mention the pontification they serve up for free.


 Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Border friction: New Zealand set to open for NSW, Victorian tourists before Queensland

The border lock is popular with Queenslanders.  It is a good way of preserving our remarkably safe position

Tourism centres of NSW and Victoria may be opened to travellers from New Zealand before visitors from Queensland as the federal government steps up talks to create a "travel bubble" across the Tasman.

In a new warning to Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, the Morrison government said it would not allow state border bans to create an "obstacle” to allowing flights to and from New Zealand.

The Morrison government said it would not allow state border bans to create an "obstacle” to allowing flights to and from New Zealand in a new warning to Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.

The comments raise the possibility that Australians from southern states could ski in New Zealand before they surf in Queensland if Ms Palaszczuk keeps her state border controls in place as late as September, costing her state billions of dollars in lost tourism business.

Federal Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham said the government wanted the tourism industry to stand on its own two feet "as soon as it’s safe” for tourists to travel again.

"New Zealand is obviously the first, and right now only, international market that we could safely agree to open up to,” he told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

"If New Zealand and some Australian states are ready and willing to progress, then the reluctance of other states to open up their domestic borders shouldn’t become an obstacle to progress.

"The recovery of jobs and small businesses in some states shouldn’t be held back by the decisions of other state governments.”

Tourism and Transport Forum chief Margy Osmond released a survey last week showing 53 per cent of people named the Gold Coast as an intended destination in the next six months, while others named Noosa, the Sunshine Coast and tropical north Queensland.

"Unfortunately at this stage it looks like more of a dream than a reality if Queensland continues to batten down its hatches,” Ms Osmond said.

Queensland has closed its borders to travellers but allows freight and business travel.

Ms Palaszczuk said last week she would consider lifting restrictions at the end of each month but the closure could remain until September, a stance also adopted by Queensland Chief Medical Officer Jeannette Young.

Dr Young has argued that a single case from interstate travel could cause an "enormous setback” to the coronavirus recovery plan. "If the tourist industry wants a realistic scenario, then they should be preparing for September,” she said on Wednesday.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wants an air corridor opened with Australia without asking travellers to undergo 14 days of quarantine, signalling this could happen under her country’s level 2 restrictions.

"It is possible to have a trans-Tasman bubble, for instance, at level 2 – it is not contingent on us being at level 1 for that,” she said last week.

Destination Queenstown interim chief executive officer Ann Lockhart said a safe "bubble” would be a huge benefit to the New Zealand city and its surrounding ski fields.

"We stand ready to welcome Australians to Queenstown again, with the enticement of a wonderful ski season in the coming months,” she said.

Queenstown mayor Jim Boult said Australians made up more than one-third of the travellers to the ski fields. "I understand there has been talk of individual states starting trans-Tasman travel before interstate travel recommences,” he said. "If that happens, we are perfectly happy with that.”

Figures released on Sunday showed New Zealand had 27 active COVID-19 cases, with no new cases in the previous 24 hours.

University of NSW epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws said she was concerned about the pressure on Queensland to open its border when new cases in the southern states were yet to fall to zero.

"I am concerned the push is more economic than COVID-safe without mandatory mask use or face shields on planes, leisure boats and other activities where social distancing can’t be guaranteed,” she said.


Australia must 'move on' from the dream of fast rail: Grattan Institute

The cost would be enormous and any advantage over air travel dubious

Australia should put the idea of an east-coast bullet train to rest and "move on”, as the long-held dream of linking major cities from Melbourne to Brisbane via rail will fail to deliver its proposed economic, travel and environmental benefits.

That's the view of the Grattan Institute, which has called for a re-think on high speed rail on the grounds that bullet trains are unsuitable for Australia's population, size and density.

Federal Labor renewed its calls for a fast rail line connecting Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane, arguing it would help the economy recover from the COVID-19 economic crisis.

The federal government is promising to build its own fast rail network in Victoria, NSW and Queensland and has provided $8 million to a private consortium to investigate the merits of an east-coast bullet train from Melbourne to Sydney.

But the Grattan Institute's head of the cities and transport program Marion Terrill said the government should stop using public money to continually study these proposals.

While the sound of a Eurostar, Shinkansen, or TGV might sound appealing, fast rail networks in Europe and Asia connect large and concentrated populations even where the distances covered are very long. Countries similar to Australia in population size and spread — such as Canada and the US — do not have bullet trains.

"As regrettable as it might be given the undeniable appeal of an Australian east-coast bullet train, we should put the idea to bed and move on," Ms Terrill states in her new Fast Rail Fever report.

Rail upgrades such as electrifying track or removing bends and inclines to enable speeds as high as 200km/h makes more sense in Australia, and may improve life for people in regional cities, the report suggests.

But claims they will take pressure off crowded capital cities while at the same time boosting struggling regions are "overblown".

“Australia’s regional towns have more pressing infrastructure needs than faster rail, including better internet and mobile connectivity and freight links. And governments would help a lot more CBD commuters by improving transport options for people in the outer suburbs rather than the regions.

"Every proposed rail renovation project in Australia should be reviewed in light of the COVID crisis. The costs and benefit of each one should be rigorously assessed, and those that don’t stack up should be abandoned."

The analysis also warned that once a bullet train was up and running, it would emit far less than today’s planes, but construction would take nearly 50 years and be enormously emissions intensive.

The Victorian government has invested $100 million in its Western Rail Plan, to improve speeds on the Geelong and Ballarat lines by fully separating regional and metro services.

The federal government launched its Faster Rail Plan last year to speed up links between Melbourne and Geelong, Shepparton, Albury and Traralgon.

It provided funding to the Consolidated Land and Rail Australia (CLARA) company, which proposed to build two inland cities in Victoria and a further six in New South Wales that are linked by high-speed rail lines between Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.

Federal Labor Leader Anthony Albanese has renewed calls for an east-coast bullet train in the wake of the pandemic after developing the policy a decade ago. He argued it would "revolutionise" interstate travel and become an "economic game-changer" for regional communities.

Federal Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure Alan Tudge said the government’s ambition over the next two decades is to “connect the big capital cities to the satellite regional centres surrounding them”.

“In doing so, it can allow people to live in those regional centres and have the cheaper housing and lifestyle associated with that, while still being able to easily access the big city employment centres on a convenient and affordable basis.”

Federal opposition transport, infrastructure and regional development spokeswoman Catherine King reiterated that Labor was a firm supporter of rail - “whether that be urban, regional, freight or high speed”.

“High Speed Rail is a transformative, nation-building project which would reshape all of eastern Australia and deliver major decentralisation and development benefits to regional centres along the route.”

A Victorian government spokesperson said high speed rail along the eastern coast was a matter for the commonwealth government.

“We make no apologies for delivering on our election commitments to deliver fast rail to our regional cities – that will not only deliver faster travel times, but boost our economy and support jobs.”


Smart school funding a problem-solver

As is customary, new changes to school funding have carved up winners and losers. To finally put to bed, it’s time for a market-based makeover.

New Department of Education data shows how much schools’ funding will alter under the new means-testing ‘direct measure of income’ system. Reforms almost always increase the funding pie, but this shakeup doesn’t increase the pie so much as change the way it’s sliced up.

Parents who choose schools with higher median incomes are expected to chip in more, as they should generally. But the new ‘direct measure’ approach is no cure-all either.

First, the subsidy is based on the median parents’ income across the whole school, rather than what each parent actually earns. Second, parents’ income level isn’t always the perfect guide to how much parents can afford to pay in fees — for some, assets or help from family members would make a better proxy.

And, third, parents’ incomes don’t necessarily measure a child’s educational advantages — which is what school funding ultimately is supposed to address in the first place.

But it’s not necessarily fair to call these failures of the new approach though. There are simply so many flaws with school funding that tweaking around the edges just won’t cut it.

For a start, any subsidy should be paid to parents directly, not to schools — cutting out the middlemen in administration who re-calculate what goes to schools.

The amount of subsidy should be based on each students’ and families’ needs, not their schools’ needs. While the Gonski formula is notionally based on a child’s needs, there’s not necessarily any nexus to supporting individual students’ learning needs.

And the subsidy should be genuinely means-tested for each household, not the schools’ median.

We already provide welfare payments directly to households, adjusted to income and assets tests. Why not provide families with school-aged children a cheque each year equivalent to a basic, means-tested amount to spend directly on schooling?

Schools could then set their fees based on demand factors — like how popular they are and how much parents are willing to pay. Parental choice would keep fees in check, since schools with excessive fees will be less attractive. And public schools could offer market-based fees too; perhaps with some regulation to make sure they remain within reach of locals.

Parents could choose to pay more than the cheque’s amount — much like they do already — but the subsidy would be better targeted. And parents might use the cheque to pay for additional out-of-school support too to provide for their child’s needs. That’s far more transparent, competitive, and efficient than anything currently on the table.

School funding can be improved — not by spending more, but by spending it more wisely.


‘Audiences are sick of being told they’re horrible’

When David Williamson was starting out as a playwright with his satirical dissections of the 1970s in Don’s Party and The ­Department, Australia’s cultural elites were the people he calls the “first-nighters”. They were from the wealthier suburbs, the silvertails and socialites, effectively being paid by the government to attend premieres at the opera and the ballet.

“We thought they were the real elitists because they were being subsidised about $150 a ticket,” Williamson says.

“The most affluent section of our society was being paid the most to see, to us, elitist art forms. The elitism wasn’t contemporary work. It was the opera and ballet, and I think it still is.”

Today’s culturally privileged are not only the rich but also the poorer citizens who work as ­actors, comedians, directors, ­authors, songwriters, filmmakers, painters and curators. They are members of the creative class who hold a mirror to contemporary Australia and tell us what they see. Williamson knows they can rub people the wrong way.

“I do think that some middle-class audiences at the theatre are finding it a little tiresome to get yet another play from yet another minority group, that tells them that they are unconscionable, and beats them about the head, and tells them that they have caused great problems for minority groups,” he says. “I’m sure there is a bit of that. Some sections of the audience are sick of being told they’re horrible.”

A study released this week by Canberra think tank A New ­Approach also highlights the divide in Australia’s cultural life. The authors wanted to hear what “middle Australians” had to say about the arts, and held focus groups with 56 men and women from the suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Townsville. The groups comprised swinging ­voters who worked in offices, trades and other jobs.

In general, they have a very positive attitude about Australian culture, especially activities that inspire the imagination and involve them in their communities. But they showed little interest in the “high arts” that are too ­expensive, too hard to get to, and not to their taste.

“I am not a big fan of the ballet. I have seen it advertised a lot recently — yeah, not really my thing,” said a man from Brisbane. A Sydney woman told the focus group: “Opera, because of how expensive it is, I don’t think it is easily accessible for everyone. And if you haven’t been exposed to that sort of music you might not enjoy it.”

In recent months, the creative class has taken a great deal of interest in what the rest of Australia thinks. The coronavirus lockdown has devastated the arts and cultural sector, shutting down untold exhibitions and performances and locking thousands out of their livelihoods. Opera Australia, the nation’s biggest and busiest ­performing arts company, has cancelled 570 performances to date, costing $70m. Losses across the performing arts will likely ­exceed $540m, not counting screen production, galleries, museums, book publishers and other cultural businesses.

State and local governments have, to varying degrees, held out a lifeline to the arts and culture sector, which will take months if not years to recover. But support from the federal government has been but a blip in total stimulus spending: just $27m for especially ­vulnerable groups. While Arts Minister Paul Fletcher says “billions” of JobKeeper dollars will flow to those in the arts and creative industries, many are not eligible because they work for government organisations or are employed on short-term contracts. Appeals to broaden the JobKeeper eligibility criteria ­appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

Just why the arts have been ignored is causing significant anguish and not a little soul-searching. Broadly, the problems can be identified as a failure to effectively communicate the value of the arts; a disconnect between the elite arts and the general community’s idea of culture; and a ­difference in values between the progressive creative class and the conservative government.

Arts and culture are big business in Australia when you include film and television drama, publishing, live and recorded music, galleries, museums, dance and drama teachers, the professional performing arts and other activities. The government’s Bureau of Communications and Arts Research puts the value of cultural and creative activity at $111.7bn a year, although that ­figure includes creative industries such as fashion, media and information technology.

Taken alone, the creative arts contribute $14.7bn to the economy and employ 193,000 people, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. As an employer, the arts is bigger than finance, accommodation and coalmining, but many people don’t recognise its significance. In a report released this week, the Australia Institute found that 68 per cent of people underestimate the size of the creative workforce compared with coalmining. It’s an indication, says research director Rod Campbell, that people don’t recognise art and culture as an economically dynamic industry and one that employs tens of thousands of Australians.

A second challenge for the arts is to shake off the elitist tag and connect meaningfully with people beyond a rusted-on audience. One approach has been to widen the frame of reference by giving a boost to artists from different cultural backgrounds.

This is the policy of the federal government’s arts agency, the Australia Council. Its corporate plan sets out strategies to increase the visibility of people from cultural minorities, with particular emphasis on celebrating indigenous artists.

The intention is to give fuller expression to the many different voices and perspectives that make up our nation. One of the findings of the New Approach study is that people value those diverse cultural experiences. But a constant emphasis on minorities or identity politics also risks alienating the mainstream, leading to those familiar accusations of cultural elitism and political correctness.

“Very good at preaching to the converted, not so good at talking to nonbelievers,” is theatre director Sam Strong’s diagnosis of the malaise in the arts sector. But he believes that art is also the way to reach across the cultural divide. Strong recently directed Williamson’s Emerald City — the season at Melbourne Theatre Company was cut short by the lockdown — and is due to direct the stage ­premiere of Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe, now scheduled for next year.

“That is a great example of a contemporary Australian story that has engaged vast numbers of people,” Strong says of Dalton’s novel. “I think that’s partly because there’s an immediacy to Trent’s writing and a lack of pretension. But ultimately there’s a capacity for people to recognise themselves and their own experience in those stories.”

The divide between the arts sector and the rest of society is perhaps more imagined than real, Strong says. But the question ­remains why the federal government has stayed silent on a substantive rescue package for the sector, and the implicit message is that “what we do isn’t valued”.

Strong is careful not to blame the lack of federal support on an ideological stand-off with the Coalition, believing the sector has to own its own failures. But others do. This month actress Noni Hazlehurst accused the government of “waging a culture war” against the arts by denying industry assistance. And Williamson says conservative governments have long regarded the contemporary arts with suspicion, seeing in a film’s or a play’s social critique an attack on their own kind.

“Conservative governments are quite happy with anything that was written 200 years ago — the opera and the ballet — that’s not threatening,” he says. “But I do think there is an element of conservative governments feeling threatened by contemporary work and, consciously or unconsciously, that’s part of the reason they don’t value and don’t fund the arts.”

Indeed, the Coalition’s relationship with the arts has been less than rosy in recent years. There are bitter memories of budget cuts in 2014 and of former arts minister George Brandis’s radical intervention in arts funding. Coalition funding for the Australia Council remains less than that of the last Labor government. And funding for the arts across all tiers of government is in decline. An earlier study by A New Approach reported a decrease of 4.9 per cent in Australian governments’ arts spending, in per capita terms, in the decade to 2018.

Esther Anatolitis, of advocacy group National Association for the Visual Arts, says what is apparent, more than any culture war, is simply a lack of interest from Canberra in a large part of Australia’s economic and cultural life.

“The fact that the government has failed to respond with a specific stimulus is the clearest demonstration that they just don’t want to,” she says. “The government talks about throwing out ideology … but in practice they are being driven by a set of values, and one of those values is not to support the arts.”

Leaders in the arts sector say they must continue to make the case for investment in an industry that brings economic and other pay-offs: that the arts assist schoolchildren in their learning and concentration, that a strong cultural life aids social cohesion and national identity, that creative activity can help ward off some effects of old age.

But there is also a need to master the politics of persuasion, to read the community’s mood, to break out of the arts bubble and to change the well-entrenched narrative that the arts are elitist or only for the rich.

At the time of coronavirus and the nation’s emergence from hibernation, the stakes have never been higher.


 Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here

Monday, May 25, 2020

Coronavirus has left Australia in better shape than most

In one of his final poems before dying at 59, Australian poet James McAuley wrote: “Winter will grow dark and cold / Before the wattle turns to gold.

McAuley (born 1917), a Christian, apparently had in mind eternal life. But he well understood his immediate future on this earth, which was dark indeed.

Treasury secretary Steven Kennedy acknowledged on Thursday that Australia was already in recession, one that had come about so suddenly as to be unique. In Australian history, no government has shut down large sections of the private sector, with or without a pandemic. The same goes for other Western nations.

The economic consequences of the medical response to COVID-19 are new territory. So much so that we do not know whether a depression will eventuate. However, we do know that Australia entered the year with a comparative advantage compared with many other nations.

As Josh Frydenberg pointed out in his well-written and clear ministerial statement on May 12, the Australian economy was in a strong position — when compared with similar nations — at the beginning of the year.

Growth had risen from 1.8 per cent to 2.2 per cent in the December quarter. Moreover, the International Monetary Fund was forecasting the Australian economy was likely to grow at a faster rate than that of the US, Britain, Japan, France and Germany in both this and the next calendar year. And the unemployment rate was reasonable at 5.1 per cent.

The Coalition governments after September 2013 — led by Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison with Joe Hockey, Morrison and Frydenberg as treasurers — worked to reduce the budget deficit of more than $48bn to a balance or near surplus. A constant figure in the budget reform process was Finance Minister Mathias Cormann. The ongoing deficit reduction was accompanied by the creation of some 1.5 million jobs.

Sure, it was not an economic utopia early this year. But the economy was in relatively good shape, contrary to the claims today of some on the green left, including journalists. In short, Australia was well placed to experience an unexpected recession.

It was much the same with novel coronavirus. Like New Zealand, Australia benefits from being an island, which makes border control relatively easy. Australia called COVID-19 a pandemic before this was done by the World Health Organisation. Moreover, early in the pandemic Australia closed its border with China, the centrepoint of COVID-19. This was done contrary to the wishes of the WHO.

The creation in March of what the Prime Minister called the national cabinet — consisting of federal, state and territory leaders — was an important initiative. As it turned out, it made possible a less dramatic shutdown than that advocated by some state and territory leaders and put into practice by Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government in New Zealand.

The states and territories are primarily responsible for health, education and law enforcement. But the Morrison government managed to bring about a “black book” approach to the pandemic. In other words, in various stages certain industries were instructed to close. Those not on the restricted list could remain open. So agriculture, construction (of various kinds), mining and transport, for the most part, remained in operation, as did early childhood education.

The left is in love in Ardern who, without question, is a popular leader. However, despite a more comprehensive lockdown in New Zealand than Australia, on a per capita basis the two nations have similar rates of COVID-19 infections and recorded deaths.

Unlike some green-left politicians and commentators, Frydenberg well understands that the task is to open up the economy as soon as this is possible, then to focus on private enterprise and increasing productivity. The Australian economy will not recover fully by means of increasing taxation and regulation.

The way out of the recession ideally should reflect the way in. The Morrison government introduced three initiatives to temper the economic impact of the close down. First up there was the economic reform package aimed at providing economic stimulus, followed by a $66bn support package aimed at business and households. Then came the huge JobKeeper program, aimed at making it possible for employers to connect with employees whom they have managed to keep at work or who are waiting to return to work.

Without question, JobKeeper has made it possible for many small and medium businesses to remain in operation. Again, this will facilitate the path to recovery when COVID-19 abates.

However, there is little doubt that this recession, which essentially has affected the private sector, has led to many shattered lives and businesses.

The men and women who have lost their livelihoods may recover their health, but many will lose their businesses through no fault of their own.

That’s why it is important that the economy opens up as soon as possible. Initially the national cabinet, the first time Australia has experienced such an entity, worked well. But its use may be fading.

The reluctance of the less populous states (Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania) and the Northern Territory to open their borders is detrimental to the important tourism industry and makes the life of small-business operators even more difficult than at present.

The advice of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which advises the national cabinet, is that there is no reason the borders between the states and territories should remain closed.

Here some Australian governments give the impression that they are being run by public servants. Take Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, for example. Early this week she said the opening of the Queensland border was not her decision but that of Queensland’s chief health officer.

There is no evidence that COVID-19 can be eradicated any time soon. It’s up to elected politicians to make decisions to reopen the economy while managing risk.

The federal government, with the recent support of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, is showing the way. Their approach provides some hope. Otherwise the economic winter will be cold indeed.


Coldest day in a CENTURY: Parts of Australia's east coast shiver through the briskest May day in 98 years

Global cooling!

Brisbane has endured its coldest May day in a century with the mercury hitting 15C at about 1pm on Friday - and the chilly snap is here to stay.

Including wind chill the apparent temperature was even colder - dropping to 10C at 3pm, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

The cold snap wasn't just confined to the north with New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia also experiencing an icy weekend courtesy of cold fronts sweeping over the states.

Australians have been warned to brace for continuing cold weather as the week progresses and we head into winter, with most major cities forecast with maximums of 20C or lower on Sunday.

The cold fronts also mean the wet weather will continue with large areas of the country forecast to experience overcast conditions and showers.

In New South Wales the cold fronts brought wind, rain and even snow in some places such as the Blue Mountains and Bathurst. 

On Saturday in Sydney, a severe weather warning was issued as massive waves battered many of the city's surfing beaches, including Bondi.

A layer of cold dry air, rain and thick cloud cover is causing the unseasonal weather. 'That acts kind of like an evaporative air conditioner,' meteorologist Lauren Pattie said on Friday. 

Ms Pattie also said the cool weather is expected to persist into next week, with frost possible in some areas from Sunday.

Her Bureau colleague, meteorologist Rosa Hoff agreed, saying the cold weather would continue into Sunday. 

Brisbane is forecast to drop to just 9C overnight, before warming up to a top of 21C by midday, she said. [It was 27 degrees at 1:30pm Sunday]

The last time Brisbane hit a top of 15C like on Saturday was in 1922 - with other regional centres also breaking decades-long records.

Longreach and Charleville in the state's mid-west had their lowest May maximum temperatures in 50 years at 14.6C and 13.2C respectively. 


Australian universities face an existential dilemma from loss of income

Time for efficiency reforms

Australian universities are "some of the most creditworthy entities in Australia and the world", ratings agency S&P Global says in a report on the effects of COVID-19 on this country's higher education.

This should put universities in a good place for what will be a punishing 12 months to come. The Group of Eight conservatively estimates a revenue downturn of $2.2 billion for 2020.

Already universities with small cash buffers, among them La Trobe University and Central Queensland University, are flagging redundancies.

S&P Global says universities have healthy balance sheets and low debt levels. But that's putting it kindly.

Critics of the university sector refer to lazy capital tied up in buildings and land holdings, which in some cases are used for only the 28 weeks a year when students are actually on campus.

And without shareholders to keep an eye on costs, payrolls have expanded in a heavily unionised workforce.

Robert Leeson, a professor of economics at Notre Dame university in Perth and biographer of the classic-liberal economist Friedrich Hayek, says Australian universities would benefit from some "creative destruction" of their own, reducing the ranks of middle management and making them more efficient.

As the post-coronavirus reality begins to bite, some policymakers are arguing for structural reform in higher education.

National lead partner for education at KPMG, and a former vice-chancellor at the University of Canberra, Stephen Parker, says the last real reform in higher education was 30 years ago when education minister John Dawkins let colleges of advanced education merge with universities.

S&P Global analysts said there was an appetite in Canberra for university reform.

Its recent report said: "We anticipate that when the pandemic is over, there will be greater political pressure on Australian universities to diversify or reduce their reliance on foreign students."

Some industries facing revenue shortfalls after COVID-19 are talking about mergers to get economies of scale and a more stable revenue base. But Australian universities are already large by global standards.

The vice-chancellor of Monash university, Margaret Gardner, doubts that growth by merger is the future for Australian universities.

She says she can't see the policy setting that would underpin mergers. In any case, universities are already very large. Monash has nearly 70,000 students, making it massive by comparison to British and US universities. Professor Gardner says in some senses it is already "merged" with other universities – through joint research projects with domestic universities and by collaboration with overseas institutions.

Also working against mergers is the fact that universities define themselves by their relationship to local communities.

Monash has a strong identity with communities in Melbourne's south-east, not the least because of the massive health market it serves with research and clinical services.

Gardner agrees that universities are going to change but says "the notion that Uni X merges with Uni Y is a very big question that intersects across community and government interests."

If consolidation through mergers is off the table, one way to get greater efficiencies would be a series of more simple alliances doing things such as shared back office, joint tenders for research or submissions to government.

Professor Parker points out the great universities of California are part of a state alliance.

The former vice-chancellor of Deakin University and interim vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia, Jane den Hollander, says alliances are already on the agenda of university councils.

All five universities in WA are members of the Forrest Research Foundation and this might be a good model for sharing costs and ideas, she said, without losing the structure of individual universities.

Another arrangement might be a federated model that brings together universities with a shared "market type", for example Geelong in Victoria with Newcastle and Wollongong in NSW.

"I'm interested in what regional universities do. Universities are to some extent the first pillar of the community," she says, echoing Gardner. "The big question is not just what happens in the capital cities. How do we nurture the regional role of the university?"

There are some long-established alliances, for example the Regional Universities Network or the Australian Technology Network, but these are more to do with marketing than local communities, shared resources or cost-cutting.

Working with business

The most likely university model for collaboration is with business.

This growth-oriented strategy is well established. Long before the government started pushing universities with tools such as performance funding to produce job-ready graduates, business has been moving onto campuses.

Monash University works with GlaxoSmithKline on pharmaceuticals, the University of Newcastle works with Brambles on printed solar collectors, and Sydney University is partnered with Telstra, Microsoft and Rio Tinto.

Edith Cowan University has 12-week work-integrated attachments for science students, and the University of Queensland commercialises research via its spin-off company UniQuest. UniQuest's first patent application for what was to become the Gardasil cervical cancer vaccine was lodged in 1991.

The University of NSW Torch Innovation Precinct ("We invite you to join us moving from mining and manufacturing to mass innovation and mass entrepreneurship"), which opened in 2016 and is focused heavily on China, is a "good model for driving growth", UNSW vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs says. "It's not going to release spare cash. But it covers its costs and it means we can do additional research."

Professor Jacobs says he has been "hammering" the link between university and business for five years. Universities get cash flow and job-ready graduates and businesses get intellectual property.

COVID-19 has also proven the possibility of some cost savings. UNSW Sydney thought it was at capacity three years ago, the vice-chancellor says. Now that idea is "up for review".

Collaboration, between universities or with business, looks like the best option for universities trying to maintain growth in the face of falling international enrolments.


Strict social distancing rules for lifts, which would have created havoc for office workers around the country, have been ditched

Safe Work Australia reversed its guidelines on Wednesday stating that there was now "no requirement to provide four square metres of space per person in lifts".

The revised rules say that "you must still ensure, as far as you reasonably can, that people maintain physical distancing in lifts and lift waiting areas".

It is a significant back down from the previous rules that would have created a major choke point for returning workers, adding hours to their journey, if only a few people could travel in a lift at any one time to maintain a 1.5-metre distance from each other.

The Property Council of Australia, which had lobbied strongly on the issue with the federal Attorney-General and Safe Work Australia, welcomed the major concession.

"The new guidelines on lift usage are sensible and practical, and give our building owners, managers and their tenants the certainty they need to plan their return to the office in coming weeks,” said the PCA's chief executive Ken Morrison.

“If we hadn't have had this outcome we would have had people milling around unable to get to their offices, posing a transmission risk in foyer areas.

“It provides recognition that if the COVIDSafe app requires a 15-minute proximity test before it does a digital handshake, then riding for a minute or a minute-and-a-half in a lift certainly doesn’t present that risk.”

Darren Steinberg, chief executive of Australia’s largest office landlord, Dexus, welcomed the decision and said the removal of the four square metre restrictions in lifts would go a long way to enabling people to get to their tenancies in a quick and efficient manner.

“It is a far more sensible approach because it is all about the worker experience when we get back to work full time and this would have been a major detractor, spending a significant amount of time waiting for lifts," he said.

But he warned there would still be delays given some restrictions in lifts would remain.

In landmark towers, such as Sydney's Australia Square which has smaller lifts, the previous 1.5-metre rule would have limited lift capacity to just two people.

Workers could have been forced to wait as much as three hours to get to their desks at peak times if all staff were back at work, according to estimates by building owner Dexus.

To ensure lift rides are as safe as possible, the revised rules encourage the use of staggered start and finish times, along with working from home arrangements for some staff.

The Work Safe rules also encourage lift programming to be modified to allow more efficient flow of users.

The updated rules retain the requirements of four square metres of space per person within offices and the need for a 1.5-metre separation between them.


Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here