Wednesday, July 22, 2020

One-touch environment assessment regime to hand control to states

Control of environmental assessments will be handed to state governments in return for a new system of national standards under a Morrison government plan to speed up major developments.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the government was consulting with the states over the "one-touch" regime, which would "devolve" the Commonwealth's legal responsibilities to them.

The mining and agriculture sectors welcomed the changes, while environmental groups expressed concern Ms Ley had ruled out an independent watchdog to ensure the states complied with the new standards.

Ms Ley revealed the plan as former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Graeme Samuel released the interim findings of his review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which he found was "ineffective and inefficient" and created significant extra costs for business.

"It does not enable the Commonwealth to protect and conserve environmental matters that are important for the nation," Mr Samuel said on Monday.

The Samuel review recommended cutting duplication in environmental regulation by allowing states to approve developments should they meet a strong set of national environmental standards.

The EPBC Act makes the Commonwealth responsible for matters deemed to be of national environmental significance, including the protection and recovery of threatened flora and fauna and World Heritage areas.

Under the bilateral approval system, states would be accredited by the Commonwealth to carry out environmental assessments required under the act.

"This is our chance to ensure the right protection for our environment while also unlocking job-creating projects to strengthen our economy and improve the livelihoods of everyday Australians," said Ms Ley, adding she hoped to introduce legislative changes to parliament this year.

Noting widespread community distrust of the system's ability to adequately protect the environment, the Samuel report said "a strong, independent cop on the beat" that was properly resourced and "not subject to actual or implied political direction from the Commonwealth minister" was required.

Ms Ley said the government would "strengthen compliance functions and ensure that all bilateral agreements with states and territories are subject to rigorous assurance monitoring".

"It will not, however, support additional layers of bureaucracy such as the establishment of an independent regulator," she said.

Since the EPBC Act was established in 1999, the average time taken for large, complex resource projects to be assessed and approved had increased to 1013 days from 817, the Samuel review found.

The Minerals Council of Australia said the proposed changes could deliver "faster approvals, greater national co-operation" and clearer guidelines that would "boost jobs and investment and improve biodiversity outcomes".

National Farmers' Federation chief executive Tony Mahar said the changes were "imperative" to the farm sector and "we must not squander this opportunity for overdue reform".

But environmental advocates said such changes could make a failing system of environmental protection worse.

"Without strong standards and oversight, fast-tracking approvals just fast-tracks extinctions," Australian Conservation Foundation chief executive Kelly O'Shanassy said.

She said state governments had an interest in approving developments in their jurisdictions and were sometimes even the proponents of potentially damaging developments, and it was not enough to have officers inside a department in oversight roles.

The Wilderness Society's law specialist, Suzanne Milthorpe, said the report showed environmental protection laws were failing, yet the government had proposed devolving federal safeguards to states while also ruling out an independent regulator.

Labor environment spokeswoman Terri Butler said her party would consider the report and blamed a blowout in approval times on Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment budget cuts.

"Since 2014, job and investment delays resulting from federal environment decisions have exploded from 19 days to a massive 116 days – almost 4 months – over the statutory timeframes on average in 2018-19."

Greens environment spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said "the outlook is worse than grim". "The PM must immediately drop his plans to make approvals for big developers, land clearing and new mines easier," she said.

Mr Samuel will consult further with stakeholders before delivering his final report in October.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott attempted to devolve environmental approval powers to the states in 2014 but the changes were blocked in the Senate.


How government intervention in the property market is actually harming it

Picture this: it’s a scene that plays out so often it seems inevitable. There’s an election campaign and a politician decides to shore up support by committing to a policy that’s proven to be popular: first-home buyer grants.

But what is the effect on the property market and the economy of these grants? No one knows definitively. Why?

The University of Sydney’s Cameron Murray said the way sales were reported made it nearly impossible to track and to research.

“The concerning thing in this is: why there is a gap [in knowledge]?” Dr Murray said. “Because property information, sales records and ownership records are difficult to get in this country.

“It’s almost an impossible task to match this up. So we have to go on secondary information and look at price changes in certain suburbs.”

While writing peer-reviewed research would help to discourage governments from undertaking the grants, which most agree didn’t work, governments seemed happy enough that they appeared to prevent prices from falling, he said.

So what do we know?

The approach by both state and federal governments to housing policy doesn’t work as a whole, and hasn’t achieved what it has set out to do since the post-war period, many housing experts and economists say.

Successive governments and successive policies haven’t made housing more widely available, and rapidly declining home ownership rates show this.

Housing is more unaffordable than it’s ever been, and academics and economists say the current economic consensus to housing, which tends towards as little government intervention as possible, must change if governments are to address any of their stated goals for housing policy.

Housing professor and author Hal Pawson said the idea that treating housing as a commodity and allowing market forces to dictate who got to own a home was misguided.

“[Governments] have put too much reliance on markets in the housing sphere,” the associate director of the City Futures Research Centre at UNSW said. “Housing doesn’t function in the same way as other commodities.

“It’s an experiment we’ve been living through for more than 25 years and it hasn’t had the effect that was hoped for.”

The experiment he refers to is demand-side stimulus in the form of grants for home buyers, mixed with tax settings which have turned housing into a wealth-creation vehicle for “mum and dad investors”. The grants exist in some form around the country, and have for decades.

Professor Pawson said the current era of housing policy began in 1996 when governments stepped away from regularly building public housing.

In 2000 the first grant-like scheme in this period began, offering buyers between $7000 to $14,000 to help them afford a property, in response to declining affordability.

Now, buyers can get as much as $20,000 to buy or build a new home in most states and territories, and some also offer stamp duty concessions.

The newest program in a similar vein to these grants was the HomeBuilder scheme. It offers $25,000 to people commencing a new build or renovation worth at least $150,000.

While they are effective at stimulating housing construction if targeted to new builds, they fail in almost every other measure.

“Housing is quite hard to turn the tap [supply] on enough very quickly,” Professor Pawson says.

The grants have done more to drive up housing demand than their stated aim of boosting housing supply, according to independent economist Saul Eslake.

“Up until the mid ’60s government policy was about boosting the supply of housing, not boosting the demand, but since then … governments lost enthusiasm for public housing,” Mr Eslake said.

“NIMBYism also emerged … so local and state government policy … switched to restricting supply rather than boosting it, whilst federal policy went to boosting demand [with first-home owner grants and changes to the capital gains tax grant, which boosted the appeal of negative gearing].”

Mr Eslake said cash grants – particularly first-home grants, which date back to 1964 – typically brought forward activity that would have occurred anyway, drove up property prices and did more to help existing property owners and developers.

“It’s hard to think of any other policy that’s been pursued for so long in the face of such incontrovertible evidence that it doesn’t work,” Mr Eslake said.

CoreLogic head of research Eliza Owen said this was called the “vacuum effect”, and it often left prices higher once a spike was over.

“There was what appeared to be a vacuum effect around the early 2000s [and] the GFC, as government provided grants to boost first-home owner purchases and part of the reason that demand fell away after an initial spike was because property values started to rise,” she said.

Katrina Raynor, a postdoctoral research fellow in affordable housing at the University of Melbourne, agreed and said providing grants was generally a silly and inflationary policy.

“It depends on who you’re trying to help and who you’re trying to hinder, but if you’re trying to do anything about housing affordability they don’t work,” said Dr Raynor.

“What they tend to do, particularly in a buoyant market, is that if you give people an extra $10,000, the price of housing in the market goes up by $10,000 … you’re helping the existing home owners or developer.”

Another widely panned aspect of Australia’s housing policy are tax settings which enable the precarious private rental system.

Industry Super Australia chief economist Stephen Anthony said as they were, things like capital gains tax concessions and negative gearing were preventing the housing market from working as it should and created dangerous levels of personal debt in the community.

“The tax policies let mum and dad buy one property after the other as a way of creating a retirement portfolio,” he said. “We had a debt frenzy and now the Australian household is the most indebted in the world. It’s the financial anchor that will sink us all.”

While in good times the debt load wasn’t too much of a big deal, it was a drag on the economy in the bad times, Mr Anthony said.

Housing policy could be improved by using tax settings as a supply-side stimulus, rather than using government cash to prop-up demand, he said.

Mr Anothony said tax breaks for institutions to create build-to-rent buildings was one way to increase supply, but should be paired with discouraging mum and dad investors from creating unneeded demand in buying houses by cutting negative gearing and other concessions.

Professor Pawson said while this was not the only solution, it would rein in price increases and make the whole system more sustainable.

“If a bigger component of our housing system was institutional interests, we’d have a system that’s not fickle and liable to respond by falling off a cliff, or being consumed by a house price boom when the dial turns in the other direction,” he said.

Professor Pawson said this could also be supported by a greater construction of social housing, which advocacy groups and academics had been pressuring the government to build for years.

But failing that, experts tend to agree a national housing strategy that names a problem and attempts to resolve it across Australia would also work better than piecemeal demand-side stimulus across the states and territories.


'They wanted tandoori chicken': Australia's slow embrace of regional Indian cuisine

In an episode of the Netflix food documentary Ugly Delicious, the television host Padma Lakshmi is asked if she thinks Indian food is the most underrated cuisine in the world. “Indian food is really, really varied and regional,” she explains carefully. “People who have never been to India or know very little of India will only know north-western or Punjabi food. It’s always some vegetable or protein floating in brown or orange or red sauce.”

For context, she has a south Indian background, but anyone who has ever gone to an Indian restaurant and asked for chicken tikka masala might feel a bit called out at this.

Indian food, just like any cuisine, is influenced by climate, topography and agriculture, as well as centuries of trade. In north India, the temperate climate and wheat production means people make thick curries with dairy, nuts or a tomato base and eat it with bread. In comparison, the southern part of India is tropical or semi-tropical so the food centres around coconut, fresh chilli, curry leaves and rice-based dishes.

These regional differences are rarely present in Australia’s Indian restaurants. Indian food in Australia, much like Lakshmi’s assessment of North American Indian cuisine, tends to be more north Indian (or Punjabi) cuisine.

The Punjabi community were among the earliest wave of Indian immigrants to Australia and today Hindi and Punjabi are among the top 10 languages spoken at home in Australia. This meant that north Indian food became the default Indian cuisine, and it takes years to change that preconceived notion.

When the husband and wife duo Vikram Arumugam and Preeti Elamaran opened their restaurant Nithik’s Kitchen in Balmain, Sydney in 2013, their customers had never heard of Chettinad food. “They wanted tandoori chicken or butter naan,” Arumugam says.

But diners soon learned to embrace the restaurant’s south Indian flavours. “Our speciality is rice or idlis eaten with goat or fish curry,” Arumugam explains. “The food is always flavourful because we use tamarind, coconut and fenugreek.”

Nithik’s Kitchen is part of a broader trend. Though Australians can’t travel at the moment, before Covid-19 India was among the top 10 most popular tourist destinations for Australians, ahead of France or Italy. Meanwhile, ABS data estimates that Indians are now the third largest migrant group in the country. There are 592,000 Indians living in Australia as of June 2018, which is up 30% from 2016. Indian dialects including Tamil, Malayalam and Bengali saw a big jump in the 2016 census, which points to a newer, south and east Indian diaspora, who bring with them preferences for different types of Indian food.

The proliferation of dosas – a south Indian staple – are another indication of this shift. This typically rice-based savoury pancake is a versatile and healthy snack, and acts as a base for other ingredients like onions, egg, potato and even cheese. It is also suitable for people who are vegetarian or gluten intolerant. You can now spot dosa restaurants in most Australian cities. Dosa Hut is a particular success story – it opened its first outlet in 2007 and has grown to more than 20 franchises in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland.

Arumugam notes that it has become much easier to obtain the specialty ingredients he uses both in his restaurant and as a home cook. “There was always ghee in Australia, but now I have choices in brands!”

He makes an interesting point about the proliferation of choices. Products like curry leaves or asafoetida still require a trip to speciality grocers but mainstream supermarkets have started selling regional spice mixes and curry kits. Shoppers can now find Bengali coconut daal spice mix alongside the more common korma curry sauce. These pre-made mixes cater to both newer immigrants, whose regional food is underrepresented in Australian restaurants, and to curious non-Indian customers who are broadening their home cooking repertoires.

As the range of Indian food grows in Australia, chefs have the liberty of defining their version of Indian food. Newer Indian restaurants, like Delhi Streets and Gopi Ka Chatka both in Melbourne, have done away with a regional focus and now present street food or “chaats” including bhel puri (puffed rice with assorted lentils and chutney) and pani puri (ball-shaped crispy shell filled with a mixture of tamarind chutney, potato, onion or chickpea) in a casual environment.

This shift is also clear at higher end restaurants, including Sauma in Perth. Its owner, Gurps Bagga, describes his food as regional Indian cuisine with local Australian flavours. “Our food here is distinctly south Indian, a bit of Goan and Keralan-inspired but it is also innovative and local,” he says.

For example, Bagga uses Western Australia’s hardwood sawdust mushrooms and cooks them with garlic, korma sauce, chilli oil and hazelnut truffle. “You can taste the Indian spices but I’ve added my own touch to it. You can call it modern, you can call it fusion. The important thing is that you think it’s tasty.”

And that just might be the unofficial ethos of Indian food


US emphasises importance of economic links to Australia with new report

The United States has intensified its push to reshape Australian attitudes on foreign policy and trade, releasing a new report emphasising the deep economic links between the two countries.

The report by Deloitte Access Economics finds that direct trade and investment with the US together contributed more than $130 billion to the Australian economy last year, equivalent to 7 per cent of Australia's GDP.

The analysis also emphasises that the US is the most significant source of foreign direct investment in Australia.

It estimates the cumulative value of US investment in Australia reached more than $984 billion last year — more than a quarter of total foreign investment.

The report was commissioned by the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia and funded by the US State Department.

If Morrison's defence strategy sounds like war talk, that's because it is

If there's a benefit to any anxiety caused by Scott Morrison's bleak outlook of security in our region, it's that it will save time.

It is the latest push in a concerted strategy to challenge entrenched assumptions that Australia is overwhelmingly reliant on China for its prosperity.

China is Australia's largest export market by a huge margin. In 2018-19 it took almost a third of all Australian exports, bringing in more than $153 billion.

In the same period, Australian exports to Japan were worth almost $61 billion, while exports to the US brought in just under $25 billion.

But US diplomats have become frustrated by the way these figures dominate public discussions of Australian foreign policy, arguing that if you look at both trade and investment then the US is just as critical to Australia's economy as China.

A recent poll from the United States Study Centre found that only 17 per cent of Australians could correctly identify the US as the largest investor in Australia.

The US ambassador to Australia Arthur Culvahouse Jr launched the report in Sydney this morning and declared that the US was "Australia's most important economic partner".

"There's been this notion that you can have economic security on the one side and strategic security on the other. What this report shows is that they are one and the same," Mr Culvahouse Jr said.

The Deloitte report makes a similar argument.

"Australia's engagement with the global economy is often characterised with reference to commodity exports and to rapidly growing trade with emerging economies," it reads.

"That characterisation both understates Australia's relationship with the global economy and overstates the extent to which Australia's economy is at the mercy of the swings and roundabouts of emerging economy growth."

China's latest move straight from its punishment playbook

The Morrison Government seems to be betting that all it needs to do is hold its nerve and hold the line when it comes to China's trade threats, writes Stephen Dziedzic.

The report's release coincides with an intensifying debate over Australia's exposure to economic coercion from China.

In May, Beijing imposed tariffs on Australian barley and banned four Australian abattoirs from selling beef to China as the relationship between the two nations soured.

The Chinese ambassador to Australia also warned that Chinese consumers might boycott Australian products because of the Federal Government's push for an independent inquiry into the coronavirus outbreak.

Mr Culvahouse Jr made a thinly veiled reference to that controversy while launching the report.

"Australia will never see the day when a United States ambassador threatens to withdraw from trading with and investing in Australia," he said.

"Recent events have shown starkly that economic security is national security.

"It's not just about the money, it is who you trust. It's about shared values."


 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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