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

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