Sunday, May 24, 2020

Now that the worst of COVID-19 is over, we must focus on the economy

Scott Morrison

Several weeks ago I said that Australians were a strong people, but with the pandemic upon us, we were about to find out just how strong we were.

Facing the most serious threat to our way of life in generations, Australians have stepped up.  We’ve adapted, made sacrifices, and made sure we have supported each other.

We’ve worked together – employers and employees to save jobs; banks working to save businesses and homes; and even in politics, we’ve found common ground on many fronts through the National Cabinet of states and territories with the federal government.

For many of us, the changes have brought home what is most important – the bonds of family, community and country.

Millions of Australians have been hit by devastating job losses, reduced hours, and business uncertainty. A hard reminder about just how much we depend on a strong economy for the essentials we rely on.

At the same time we have experienced the vulnerability and frustration of isolation, especially tough on those who are older and were more vulnerable to begin with.

These sacrifices have enabled us to do what most countries haven’t. We have been winning our fight against the virus, flattening the curve at the same time as boosting our health system.

While we are no more immune than we were three months ago, we now have much stronger protections in place in our health system.

Like a physical recovery, economic recoveries take time and effort.

Having taken up the fight to the virus and having bought time with emergency lifelines such as JobKeeper and JobSeeker programs, we are now reopening our economy.

The National Cabinet, made up of the state, territory, and federal leaders, has agreed on a three-step plan to achieve a COVID-safe economy and society and is implementing that plan. Step one is almost done.

A key part of step one is finally getting kids back into school. This is also well underway, especially here in NSW.

Treasury estimates that the benefits of step one being lifted will result in 250,000 people going back to work, including 83,000 people in NSW. Step one will put $1 billion back into the NSW economy every month.

By the end of step three, 850,000 people will be able to get back in work including 280,000 in NSW. With NSW representing one-third of our national economy, reopening NSW safely is a critical part of our national recovery.

In the coming months, we need to keep building confidence and momentum in our economy. This will enable us to shift our reliance from emergency assistance programs like JobKeeper, to real and sustainable incomes that can only come by restoring jobs in the workplace.

JobKeeper is an emergency $130 billion lifeline provided by the federal government to more than 6 million Australians in their time of greatest need. It’s the most expensive program in Australia’s history. And then there is the doubling of JobSeeker payments to help all those who are unable to access JobKeeper through their workplace.

These are important emergency supports, but at more than $20 billion per month they cannot go on forever. There is no money tree. All of this money has to be borrowed and paid back.

The JobKeeper and the expanded JobSeeker programs are buying us valuable time to chart our way back, but they are not the plan.

Getting people back into real jobs in growing businesses is the only sustainable way we will get Australians and our economy back on their feet.

But looking to the future, I would rather be in Australia than anywhere else in the world.

The foundation of our recovery will be continued success on the health front.

That means having a COVID safe Australia. Relying on the capability we are building to track and trace the virus. More Australians downloading the COVIDSafe app will strengthen this capacity – it is vital to our national efforts.

As well, businesses, unions and governments are working on efforts to ensure our workplaces are COVID safe. For many businesses, that will mean adjustments to existing layouts, practices and policies.

Beyond the here and now, we need to look at policy settings across all areas and ask a simple question: Are they fit-for-purpose to create jobs and fire economic growth?

On tax, on getting state and federal governments to work better together, in enabling workers and their employers to do better deals where they can both benefit, on getting rid of job destroying government regulation, on making energy more affordable and reliable, and making sure we are training Australians with the skills they need to be successful in their jobs.

This pandemic has shown we can never be complacent about the things we need to do to grow our economy and generate jobs.

While we face the greatest economic shock in 90 years, I am an optimist about what is ahead.

Throughout this pandemic, Australians have shown each other what we can achieve when we work together.


Coronavirus Australia: We can’t spend the rest of our lives avoiding risks

How good are Australians in a ­crisis? The number of active cases of COVID-19 has fallen steadily for more than six weeks. At the start of last month, there were almos­t 5000 known carriers. Today there is a tenth as many.

If you want to know what a health crisis really looks like, turn to Britain, where 2642 fatalities have been announced in the past week, pushing deaths per million to 521. In Australia there have been just four per million.

That suggests it is safe to let the experts stand down and put the politicians back in charge. The extraordinary powers given to medical officers and police chiefs should be withdrawn to allow the hard work to begin.

Last week’s unemployment figures are just a taste of the post-pandemic misery. JobKeeper payments have kept Australians employed for now, but not every job is salvageable. Hundreds of thousands more people are likely to be out of work when the payments are wound back.

By any reasonable measure, the health crisis has been averted. Yet the experts who were so swift to alert us to the danger in the first place are slow to admit it.

A second wave, however unwelcome, would almost certainly be smaller than the first. We are far better prepared for its arrival thanks to the investment in ­testing, tracing and additional hospital facilities.

Credit also belongs to the Aust­ralian people, who have sacrificed­ much to beat this virus. Those who still have jobs should be allowed to return to them.

As Scott Morrison was at pains to point out on May 1, opening up the economy involves risk. There will be further outbreaks. More people will be infected and some could die.

Yet we are beyond the point where the pain averted by keeping people at home is greater than the pain it causes. And we are well beyond­ the point when the damage­ to the economy ($4bn a week) can be seen as a necessary or proportionate response.

Let us recall the reason for taking these drastic measures. In late March the virus appeared to be spreading exponentially, such that demand for acute hospital beds might outstrip supply.

The lockdown, together with the work of federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, ensured that didn’t happen. The number of intensive care unit beds tripled to more than 7000. Fewer than 100 were occupied by COVID-19 patients at the height of the pandemic. Yesterday 11 were in use.

With our borders closed, the risk that another wave could be large enough to swamp our health services is extremely slight.

The risk is even lower in South Australia. A swift response from Premier Steven Marshall — the closing of state borders, enforced quarantine for South Australians returning home and the appointment of a state co-ordinator under the Emergency Management Act — allowed SA to contain the virus better than most.

Only one new case has been detected in the state over the past three weeks. Of the 439 cases identified, 435 have recovered. Sadly, the other four died.

Yet bars and pubs remain closed. Cafes and restaurants are limited to 10 patrons at a time, making reopening a loss-making option for most.

Police can issue a $5000 on-the-spot fine to anyone reckless enough to invite more than seven guests to a wedding or 20 mourners to an indoor funeral.

Under whose authority is this extraordinary power given to the police? The authority of the SA Police Commissioner himself, Grant Stevens, who was appointed state co-ordinator of emergency manageme­nt on March 22.

Now that SA is, as near as ­dammit, virus free, Stevens is ­entitled to pat himself on the back, drop in at Government House and relinquish his emergency power, which will otherwise not expire until the end of the month.

Don’t hold your breath. Like the health experts appointed to save us from becoming the Italy of the south, Stevens is in no hurry to return to his day job.

SA Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier put on a “Fri-yay” top to celebrate the “fantastic” news of the state’s clean bill of health, but seems less than eager to step out of the limelight. There was no room for complacency, she warned. There was always the threat of a second wave.

Expert as Spurrier and Stevens might be in their respective fields, health and public order is not the expertise we need at this moment.

Our challenge now is avoiding deep, damaging recession. We need experts in assessing the nationa­l interest, weighing risks and evaluating competing public policy goals. We need experts who can balance the need for a healthy population against the imperative of a healthy economy, particularly in SA, where unemployment is at 7.2 per cent, the highest in the country.

In other words, we need the expertis­e of parliamentarians whose jobs depend on recognising the public interest. The power to make decisions should be remove­d from unelected officials and returned to those with a popular mandate.

The hard road is still ahead. Extraordinary public health measures that impinge on indiv­idual liberty were popular six weeks ago, when the shops were out of toilet paper. Today, they are a burden.

Having controlled this virus better than almost anyone expec­ted, by normalising social ­distancing, reducing international arrivals to a trickle and restricting interstate travel to essential business, governments must act quickly to lift restrictions.

The speed of economic recovery will depend on the willingness of businesses to take risks by investin­g and hiring, despite the uncertainties that will bedevil us.

Governments must lead by exampl­e before the culture of risk-avoidance that takes hold in a pandemic becomes entrenched in public and commercial life.


Public holiday date is moved to create another long weekend for Australians in a bid to boost domestic tourism

A public holiday has been moved forward to create a new long weekend in Queensland as the premier pushes to boost domestic tourism.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced on Thursday the usual mid-week public holiday for Ekka - the Royal Queensland Show - is being moved back to Friday August 12.

'The Ekka public holiday will move from Wednesday, 12 August to Friday, 14 August to support our tourism industry,' Ms Palaszczuk tweeted.

'For one year only, People’s Day will become the People’s Long Weekend and I’m calling on Queenslanders to use it to boost local tourism.'

The show has been scrapped this year because of COVID-19, but it is hoped the creation of a long weekend will encourage families to further explore their local region.

Ms Palaszczuk on Thursday has also urged the state to plan winter holidays within their regions during the upcoming school break.

She said there had been confusion over the school holiday restrictions, but that Queenslanders would be permitted to travel up to 250km.

'They can holiday in Queensland in their regional areas so I really want to encourage people as much as possible to start planning those holidays and support our tourism industry,' she said.

The announcements come as she faces pressure from the tourism industry and other stakeholders to open the borders.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has repeatedly pushed for Queensland to relax the rules to allow interstate travellers to visit the Sunshine State for a holiday.

But Queensland is holding firm, saying the borders will remain closed until the southern states can bring their COVID-19 cases under control.

Transport Minister Mark Bailey said on Thursday the government won't take health advice from NSW, which has recorded 49 deaths from the virus and is still regularly recording new cases.

'We won't be lectured to by the worst performing state,' he said. 'It's time for Gladys and the NSW government to get their act together and start performing as well as Queensland has on the health front.'

Ms Palaszczuk agreed. 'I hope they get their community transmission under control because that means we will be able to open up sooner,' she said.

The premier is also facing pressure from One Nation leader Pauline Hanson who has engaged a pro bono constitutional lawyer to represent businesses affected by the border closure in a High Court challenge.

'It is unconstitutional for Premier Palaszczuk to close Queensland's border and her actions are causing me a great deal of concern for the economic viability of our state,' Senator Hanson wrote on Facebook.

Ms Palaszczuk said a court challenge was a matter for Ms Hanson. 'But, by the time any action gets to the High Court, I'm quite sure the borders would be open.'

Queensland recorded no new cases of COVID-19 overnight. There as 12 active cases remaining


Reading wars hit home during lockdown lessons

“Dogs say ‘woof’, cats say ‘meow’, what does the letter ‘a’ say?”

And so it began. Perched at the dining table, armed with a 257-page guide on teaching a child to read, I was about to try to do just that. My daughter, Margot, had been at school for two months when the niggling concerns about her reading progress began.

Aged 5½, she could read and write her name independently, but not much else. Despite years of reading to her, singing songs and learning rhymes — many of which were learned by heart — she had difficulty identifying all the letters of the alphabet consistently, while her ability to link the letters with their various sounds was hit-and-miss.

Her teacher reassured me that she was where she was meant to be for a foundation-level student. Still, I was haunted by a conversation I’d once had with a prominent education academic who suggested all the journalists she knew had their children reading by the time they started school.

One evening, I sat down with my daughter to read one of the readers sent home from school and noticed how her eyes were automatically drawn to the pictures. It was hardly surprising; the images were obnoxiously large, overshadowing the much smaller text. As I suggested she point at each word and try to sound out each of the letters, she ignored me and started blurting out what she guessed they might be based on the image.

Frustrated by my gentle attempts at bringing her attention back to the words, she told me crossly that Eagle Eye was helping her to read.

As an education journalist, I know all about this Eagle Eye character who encourages children to guess an unfamiliar word by looking at the picture. Along with pals Lips the Fish (“get your lips ready to try the first sound”) and Skippy the Frog (“let’s skip that word altogether”), these child-friendly characters are a common feature of classrooms that adhere to the balanced literacy approach to reading instruction.

Balanced literacy emerged from whole-language reading instruction, spawned in the late 1960s, whereby children were expected to learn to read whole words naturally, merely as a result of plentiful exposure to books and writing. While balanced literacy concedes that children may need some guidance, it is based on a problematic theory called multi-cueing, also known as three-­cueing, which surmises that a reader looks for meaning, structure and visual cues to help make sense of what is on the page.

Countless researchers from across the globe have dismissed multi-cueing as an ineffective system on which to base reading ­instruction lacking in any evidentiary basis. Yet cueing strategies are popular in many primary classrooms because children often experience some early success using picture cues and context to identify words, especially when aided by repetitive and predictable texts.

However, as Sir Jim Rose, whose landmark 2006 review of reading in the UK was key to the development of Britain’s Primary National Strategy for Reading, has pointed out, “children who routinely adopt alternative cues for reading unknown words, instead of learning to decode them, later find themselves stranded when texts become more demanding and meanings less predictable”.

Through my work I had written about many schools that had transformed their reading results and they typically shared one common feature: they had implemented a phonics program.

While the mere mention of the word phonics risks sparking an outbreak in the long-running reading wars, the debate has at least moved on from whether to teach phonics — the research says we should — to how it is best taught.

In Victoria, where I live, the­ ­Department of Education and Training promotes a balanced literacy approach to teaching reading, in which phonics is taught in ways deemed “meaningful to children”, such as reading books, having fun with rhymes and writing their own stories.

“Phonics instruction should take place within a meaningful, communicative, rich pedagogy, and within genuine literacy events,” the department’s Literacy Teaching Toolkit states.

With phonics in context, a typical lesson might involve the teacher reading with students and periodically stopping at a word to discuss the relationships between letters and sounds (known as phonemes). Occasionally there may be a lesson on a letter or sound, but they are not typically presented in a systematic, cumulative way.

In many other states, such as NSW and South Australia, public education authorities have endorsed a different approach called systematic synthetic phonics. Also known as “blended” phonics, it involves teaching a child about the individual letter-sound relationships first, then having the child combine or synthesise these sounds to form words. While learning to read successfully entails more than simply learning phonics skills — it also depends on the development of phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension skills — major reviews of the teaching of reading in Australia, Britain and the US during the past 18 years have consistently identified ­phonics as a key component of an effective program.

The research also comes down on the side of synthetic phonics.

According to the NSW Education Department’s guide for schools on effective reading ­instruction: “There are a number of different approaches to teaching phonics, with varying levels of effectiveness. The most effective method is called synthetic phonics.” The document highlights results from a longitudinal study undertaken in Scotland that compared synthetic phonics with two analytic phonics programs.

At the end of these programs, children in the synthetic phonics group were reading around seven months ahead of children in the other two groups and were spelling eight to nine months ahead of the other groups.

Seven years on, those in the synthetic phonics group had extended their advantage further.

I was attracted to the simplicity at the core of the synthetic phonics approach; the way children were taught sequentially, starting out learning some simple letter-sound relationships, working towards the more complex end of the spectrum. For a parent with no teaching expertise, it seemed somewhat achievable. And with schools effectively set to close indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic, I finally had the time to help my daughter learn to read.

Having asked several literacy specialists and teachers what programs they rated, I settled on one devised by US author Stephen Parker called Teaching a Preschooler to Read (also suitable for primary schoolers). Parker, a retired teacher, has a knack for using plain language to explain a pretty technical topic. The guide, aimed specifically at parents, maps out clearly what to teach, when to teach it and how.

My first task was to refamiliarise myself with what is known in literacy circles as the alphabetic code. As Parker explains, the alphabet itself is only part of the code, with the 26 letters symbolising 44 different sounds. There are 20 vowel sounds (such as the short A in apple or axe but also the longer A in acorn) and 24 consonant sounds (B in bat and D in dad but also “th” and “sh” and the “ng” in king).

A list of those 44 phonemes was my constant companion during the coming weeks, and I swear I started to have nightmares about mixing up those short and long vowel sounds.

Stage one of the program kicked off with teaching my daughter the five short vowel sounds as well as M, N and S .

With a new Sharpie I wrote each letter on an index card and we practised saying the letters and their corresponding sounds every day. We also started to pay more attention to letters in our environment. Walking down the street, I’d point to the number plates on cars and ask Margot whether she could spot any of “her letters”, as we’d call them, and sound them out.

With her confidence growing, we moved on to decoding simple two and three-letter words. As with the letters, I wrote them on the index cards. To make a game, I had her flip them over and attempt to sound them out.

“A-n … An!” She got it on the first attempt.

I asked when she would use such a word.

“I would like an apple,” she replied. I was quietly impressed.

She moved on to the next word.

“M-a-n … Man.” Again no problem.

“N-a-n … Nan.” Ditto.

And that brought us to the word “sun”. She looked at it, then looked at me with a strained ­expression.

“Snake,” Margot said. I asked her to try again, this time concentrating on each letter. “Sam! S-s-s-sit!” She was becoming frantic, reeling off any word she could think of that started with S.

We were done for the day.

The next time we sat down to practise phonics I introduced her to the Decoding Dragon. The invention of Melbourne linguist and author Lyn Stone, the dragon’s job was to chase away those Guessing Monsters, including the hit-and-miss Eagle Eye.

While I was no fan of Eagle Eye, I decided to redeploy him. I told Margot that Eagle Eye had a new job and would help her focus on each of the letters as the Decoding Dragon would help her to sound them out.

Our little sessions continued. Some days were great. Others — quite a few actually — were a grind. Small children have very short attention spans and I learned my daughter has quite a stubborn streak. Overall, I could see a trend of improvement and a growing confidence. Each time she successfully sounded out a new word, I’d place the index card into her “special word box”.

“Look how many words are in your word box!” I said one morning. “I know,” she said, “I’m killing it.”

I made a decision early on to be upfront with the school about tackling phonics at home and my intention to replace the predictable readers for decodable books.

The teacher was receptive and supportive, going so far as to recommend several online apps for decodable readers, many of which were free as a result of the pandemic. However, concerned about the amount of screentime we were already having, I decided to purchase a hard-copy set. At $420 for 60 readers, they weren’t cheap but I felt it was a necessary investment.

One morning I took to Twitter and mentioned how excited I was that the readers had arrived in the post, only to see first hand how divisive their use is in literacy circles.

With titles such as Pat the Rat, The Pan and The Map, decodables are designed so a novice reader can practice reading the words they have already been explicitly taught.

“A pan sits!” mocked one teacher. “Fit rats. No thankyou.”

“Read to your daughter with ‘real-world’ words,” demanded another.

I won’t lie; I don’t particularly love the books. The language is basic and sometimes seems stilted. They won’t win any literary prizes. But they are not aimed at me — a proficient reader — but at a child, for whom deciphering the strange squiggles on the page is a hugely laborious task.

Further, they are merely a stepping stone along the path to becoming a reader

We’ve been at this caper for two months now and have just moved on to stage two of the program, which involves introducing the letters D, P, G and T. In the meantime Margot’s teachers, who have been doing an exceptional job teaching the children remotely, have introduced the digraph “th” as well as a bank of common ­English words such as the, is, was and my.

With school set to resume next week, I find myself reflecting on her progress. Can she read independently? Not even close; we are still very much at the start of this process. But I no longer feel that underlying sense of guilt about whether I could be doing more to help her out.

The word box is getting quite full and my daughter can now read many of them automatically. At night, when I read her a bedtime story, she will stop me to point out words she knows.

The other day I told her she was starting to read like a grown up. “I know,” she replied, “The Decod­ing Dragon has been helping me.”


 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

No comments: