Monday, October 18, 2021

‘I’m just busting to come back to school’: Sydney’s youngest students back in classrooms

Before kindergarten student Maddy Wong had even left her mum’s car and said goodbye this morning, she was making announcements to her head of school through the car window. “I’m just busting to come back to school!” she yelled out to him.

Daniel Sandral, head of the junior school at MLC School in Burwood, rushed forward to open the door and say welcome back. “I’m busting to come to school,” Maddy repeated, as she put her backpack on. “Because my teacher is coming back and I miss my teacher.”

Mr Sandral and deputy head Joanne Sharke were dressed in unicorn onesies and waiting at the school entrance from 8am on Monday, to greet each kindergarten and year 1 student individually as they were dropped off in the school car park.

“We thought nothing could be more magical for a little girl than turning up to school to see a unicorn,” Mr Sandral said. “I have been longing for this moment.”

Elsewhere in Sydney, balloons, posters and smiling teachers welcomed thousands of students through the gates, as kindergarten and year 1 students became the first primary school children to attend school full-time since the end of June.

Some clung to their mothers and there were a few tears, but others were running onto campus before their parents had a chance to wave them off.

MLC mother Rebecca Lim said her daughter Charlotte was “so excited to see her friends again”. “She’s been missing everybody,” she said.

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet was among the parents resuming the school drop-off routine. He took his son William and said he saw “massive queues” and “excited parents”.

“We know that for many kids, they’ll be anxious with the first day of school... [But there] is a lot of excitement,” he said. “Many of our children have gone through a very difficult time, not being able to interact and play with their friends.”

Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said there were “lots of happy smiling faces across Sydney” as she thanked teachers for all their work over lockdown, preparing for a safe return and getting vaccinated.

She said the public school staff vaccination rate was at about 90 per cent on Monday, ahead of the November 8 deadline.

“The learning from home that they [teachers] have done over the last term has just been extraordinary. The way that they’ve adapted, been flexible and really made sure that they had the strong delivery of education,” she said.

“I think that everybody across the state knows that we owe our teachers a lot of gratitude for everything that they’ve done. But now, obviously we’re back and it’s exciting to be back in the classroom and having students return.”

At MLC, Mr Sandral and Ms Sharke said this first week back would entail additional numeracy and literacy lessons to check student progress, but their welfare was the ultimate concern. “At the end of the day I think the biggest challenge has been not being with their peers and the socialisation,” Mr Sandral said.

Ms Sharke has designed a wellbeing program for the rest of the year, so that each day starts with time for students to re-connect with their friends and teachers; they will spend time playing get to know you games and reacquainting themselves with the school site.

“We’ve got lots of different activities, circle time where they can talk about their experiences and feelings. We don’t really know what life’s been like for them... we are very conscious the girls have been away for a long time,” she said.

“I think it’s important we take the time to understand their feelings around coming back - school has been the ‘unsafe place to be’ all this time’ so it’s making sure they’re comfortable.”

Year 12 students also had the option of returning to school full-time on Monday ahead of their HSC, while the rest of students will return full-time from next Monday, October 25.


Appeal to overturn Narrabri gas project approval dismissed

A NSW court has dismissed a legal challenge seeking to stop energy giant Santos from developing a $3.6 billion coal-seam gas project at Narrabri in the state’s north.

An opponent, the Mullaley Gas and Pipeline Accord, which represents about 100 residents and businesses, launched an appeal against the Independent Planning Commission’s decision last year to grant approval for the controversial proposal to build up to 850 gas wells across 95,000 hectares in the area.

The IPC gave the project “phased approval” in September last year provided a slew of what it described as 134 “stringent conditions” were met. At the time, the IPC said following detailed deliberations, which included 23,000 submissions, most of which opposed the gas field, the commissioners concluded the project was in the public interest and that negative impacts could be mitigated with strict conditions.

The accord argued in the NSW Land and Environment Court that the independent umpire should have been forced to consider not only emissions caused by drilling wells, but also the emissions generated from the end use of the Narrabri gas by Santos’ customers, known as Scope 3 emissions.

It also wanted further consideration of the environmental impacts of building an external pipeline to deliver gas from the site to the east coast markets.

In his findings, environment court Chief Judge Brian Preston dismissed the appeal, saying: “MGPA has not established any of the grounds of review of the IPC’s decision to grant development consent to the project.”

Santos on Monday said it welcomed the court’s decision to uphold the project’s approval, and looked forward to “getting on with our work in regional NSW” to create jobs, drive investment and deliver long-term energy security.

Santos managing director Kevin Gallagher said: “We are seeing play out in real time around the world what happens if you do not have domestic energy security.″⁣

Around the world, prices for oil, gas and coal are skyrocketing, as supplies fail to keep pace with rising demand from economies recovering from the COVID-19 downturn, threatening the ability of countries including China and India to keep the lights on.

“On the east coast of Australia, regulators continue to warn about an increasingly tight market in the future,” Mr Gallagher said. “A shortage of supply means only one thing and that is higher prices for NSW households and businesses.″⁣

Santos said Narrabri gas could supply up to half of NSW’s gas needs, and has committed to reserving 100 per cent of Narrabri gas for the domestic market.

The legal challenge in the Land and Environment Court caused a 12-month blow-out to Santos’ targeted timeframe for giving Narrabri the financial go-ahead. Santos will still need to carry out 12 to 18 months of appraisal drilling before the phased development can proceed.

Justice Preston said he would not order MGPA to pay Santos’ legal fees unless the company requested the group to do so.

Santos is expected to seek costs.

Narrabri has been at the front line in a years-long struggle between the gas sector and residents worried about the impact of gas drilling on the environment and the climate. The Santos project has faced years of delays and thousands of objections over feared impacts to groundwater, damage to the Pilliga state forest and its contribution to global warming.

‘Transition’ fuel

Supporters of gas promote it as the necessary “transition” fuel required to smooth the path from coal-fired power to more intermittent wind and solar energy sources, as well as a critical raw material in a range of manufacturing and industrial processes. Climate advocates say it remains a significant source of emissions that must be phased out, not expanded, to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

MGPA spokesperson and Mullaley beef farmer Margaret Fleck said the group was disappointed with the result.

Their lawyers, Environmental Defenders Office, will review the judgment in the coming days.

“If the project goes ahead, the impacts of its greenhouse gas emissions on the global climate, and the people and environment of NSW, will be substantial,” said EDO managing lawyer of safe climate corporate and gas Brendan Dobbie. “At a time when the world is preparing to meet in Glasgow to discuss action to reduce emissions to avoid further catastrophic climate change, it is disheartening that those impacts are now one step closer to fruition.”

Lock the Gate Alliance NSW spokesperson Georgina Woods said despite the decision, the group would continue to oppose the project.

“Farmers and communities in north-west NSW are already suffering the destructive impacts of the climate crisis, and this project will make it worse,” she said. “The Narrabri CSG project would also have a severe impact on the underground water farmers surrounding Narrabri rely on for their businesses, and it would wreak havoc on the Pilliga forest, which is held sacred by Gomeroi people.

“Today’s ruling is devastating, but it’s not the end of the battle. Santos will never build its gasfield at Narrabri. The community does not support it and it has no social licence to proceed.”


George Christensen slams net zero as putting coal jobs at risk

George Christensen says he will fight hard against his party’s net-zero emissions target to save what he claims is more than 653,000 jobs at risk.

The Dawson MP’s renegade stance comes despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison stating members would “come together” to reach the ambitious goal by 2050 while keeping coal mines in operation.

Mr Christensen, who will not contest the next federal election for the LNP in Dawson, said the Institute of Public Affairs report showed net zero would destroy livelihoods, particularly in the heavily coal-reliant Mackay.

“Overall, 653,000-plus jobs would be put at risk for the Dawson electorate and Capricornia electorates, which both encompass the Mackay region,” he said, adding a forced transition to renewables would drive up energy prices for consumers.

Mr Christensen said with renewable energy technologies currently intermittent and unreliable, he would prefer a government strategy that funded research and development into all alternative energies, particularly fusion and thorium power.

“Why does it take the government to get involved to do these (net zero) measures if technology is increasing all the time?” he said. “If you could crack that (fusion) nut, not only could you reduce emissions but you could make power cheaper.”

He said Andrew Forrest’s decision to build a $1bn hydrogen electrolyser plant in Gladstone proved businesses did not need an “artificial net zero emissions police” to invest in alternative energy.

Mr Christensen also slammed the rhetoric on climate change saying Australia was “hamstringing” itself while China built more coal-fired power plants.

“I don’t believe in 50 years time that the planet is going to be on fire or the reef is going to be destroyed or that it’s going to be too hot to live,” he said.

“I think too much of that doomsday material has been pumped into people. “There’s claims out there all the time that there’s going to be some disastrous impact from climate change but we’re yet to see it.”

Mr Christensen said he also disapproved of the “scuttlebutt” between the National Party and the Liberals in trying to reach a net zero deal.

He said Resource Minister Keith Pitt’s suggestion of a $250bn loan package for the thermal coal sector should be considered in par with the sell-out and “disastrous” Telstra sale.

“I just think there’s a lesson to be learnt with that,” Mr Christensen said. “You don’t give in on something you know is going to be disastrous to regional economies on a wish and a prayer that there may be some package that’s going to last the length of time or fix things.


US-style taxpayer bill of rights could help Australians fighting the ATO over alleged debts

Helen Petaia once owned a thriving IT company. In 2012, she was winning government grants and big contracts with sporting bodies.

She had her sights set on going global, but late that year everything changed. She was accused by the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) of owing it money.

This "fabricated tax debt", she says, cost her everything. "It was six years of my life, effectively fighting the tax office.

"By that stage, the business was unable to sustain itself. We lost our investors. As a family, we pretty much financially had everything at risk."

In December 2018, Helen reached a confidential settlement with the ATO.

The drawn-out and complicated dispute process taught her how just how vulnerable some taxpayers are.

Under the law, taxpayers are guilty until they prove themselves innocent. That means the burden to prove you don't owe the ATO money rests with you, and there's no obligation on the tax office to give you reasons for its decision.

The ATO has made some improvements to the way it deals with small businesses after a joint Fairfax-Four Corners investigation exposed aggressive debt collection tactics. But the agency still has immense powers that put it at an advantage over ordinary Australians during tax disputes.

The ATO can legally raid your bank accounts and call you in for interrogations at short notice. This has raised questions, including before a parliamentary committee, about whether there's a need to reverse the onus of proof for some small businesses and individuals, and whether taxpayers need better legal protections.

In the United States, taxpayer rights are entrenched in the law, under what's called the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

It sets out various rights and responsibilities such as "the right to pay no more than the correct amount of tax", and "the right to a fair and just tax system".

In contrast, Australia's Taxpayer Charter is non-binding, like a code of conduct. There are no sanctions if the tax office doesn't abide by it.

And in cases where a person feels they've been wronged, compensation usually depends on the ATO itself determining whether a taxpayer is entitled to it.

Ms Petaia says had there been a US-style taxpayer bill of rights in Australia, it could have saved her the six-year ordeal. "I would immediately have been able to exercise my rights," she argues. "I would have been able to use the law to force the tax office to prove to me how they had been able to arrive at these assessments.

"I would have also been able to save my business. I wouldn't have sold our family home. "And I would have been able to access my rights under the law, not [be] at the mercy of tax officers within the ATO."

Call for Australia to legislate taxpayer rights

Tax ombudsman Karen Payne gets thousands of complaints annually from taxpayers in dispute with the ATO over a tax matter. Pre-COVID, she says the number was about 3,000 annually, but post-COVID that's dropped to about 1,800 a year, although she argues the cases are now far more complex.

"The key complaints that we received are taxpayers who don't understand why they've got a debt, or why they're not getting their refund, or why they're not eligible, for example, to receive JobKeeper," Ms Payne explains.

She has released a report calling for changes to improve the existing taxpayer charter, including to make sure that tax officials have an obligation to make taxpayers aware of those rights as well as get better training.

"When you have a very large taxation office that's well-resourced and educated around how the tax laws apply against a taxpayer who is less familiar with how the tax laws should apply, that in itself can produce a power imbalance," she says.

Her report calls for immediate fixes to the existing taxpayer charter. But, in the the long-term, she sees merit in the federal government legislating rights for taxpayers, saying it would make it "very unambiguous" to ATO officials that taxpayer rights must be complied with.

"You can attach sanctions for not observing taxpayer rights … they can be seen as a nudge."

Currently there are sanctions of up to two years in jail if a tax officer breaches taxpayer confidentiality.

Ms Payne says that is taken seriously within the ATO, and suggests that the same type of sanctions could apply for breaching taxpayer rights, or there could be other changes like reversing the onus of proof in certain cases.

Her point is that having sanctions would force a cultural shift within the ATO. "I think most people would acknowledge that the tax office has embedded within its culture and its organisation, [the premise] that taxpayer confidentiality is something that must be respected," she says.

"I think if you were to convert taxpayer rights … something that looked more akin to a statutory right, you would ensure that it receives the respect and the priority and the equivalent status of taxpayer confidentiality."

"It could be an outcome that changes or reverses an onus of proof, it could be something that means the tax office forfeits its right to take particular course of action."

Ms Payne also adds that in June last year, the Senate Economics Legislation Committee recommended to government that her office be granted greater powers to investigate taxpayer complaints.

The government is yet to respond, but some of the changes recommended include making sure that the tax ombudsman and her staff have full and unfettered access to all ATO records, and that if they put a recommendation to the tax office to make change, there is certainty that the ATO follows through and makes that change.

It's something that Helen Petaia is hoping will be soon implemented, in addition to a bill of rights. "That is something that would transform the entire ecosystem for taxpayers — knowing that they have an independent body that has unlimited access to the evidence," Ms Petaia says.

Call to reverse the onus of proof for some taxpayers

Federal MP Jason Falinski, who chairs a parliamentary committee that scrutinises the ATO, says there may be political appetite to not only give taxpayers legislated rights, but to reverse the onus of proof in some cases. "Australians need to be protected against what has become a very powerful tax office," Mr Falinski says.

He says the tax commissioner can make a finding that someone owes the tax office money, and from that point forward, that money is owed and payable. "And he can do all sorts of things, for example, take money out of your bank account, without you having a chance to go to court to defend yourself," Mr Falinski says, adding that a bill of rights could be legislated to ensure that no longer happens.

"What I'm referring to is a charter, or a bill of rights, that has the enforceability of law, and that taxpayers can rely on, and can use to defend themselves against tax office action that is adversely impacting them."

Mr Falinski says there are also people within the government open to the idea of reversing the onus of proof in some cases.

"Most Australians don't realise that the burden to prove that you don't owe that money was not with the tax office, but with yourself — that that is an extraordinary power that the ATO has long held," he says.

"I think there are a lot of people in government that want to have a very close look at this. "I don't know that it is something that would get reversed overall, for everything. But I think there are specific instances … that impact mum and dads, ordinary taxpayers, who get caught in this net of anti-tax avoidance laws that probably shouldn't apply to them.

"It should only apply to, Mr Big or Mrs Big — the big end of town, who are able to use very expensive tax barristers to avoid paying tax. It was never meant to capture people at the lower ends of the tax system."

Ms Payne agrees, noting that "the onus of proof is part of the the imbalance in the system". Changing that, she says, "might be something that changes the balance of power".

ATO says it seeks to act 'with integrity'

A spokeswoman for the ATO says changes in law are "a matter for government", but that "ATO employees must act ethically and with integrity" and that "the ATO seeks to work collaboratively with taxpayers to avoid issues escalating into disputes".

She adds that the agency also advises taxpayers of their relevant rights to review, complain and appeal and that "if a taxpayer has concerns about how we have managed their tax affairs or are dissatisfied with the decision process there are a number of escalation options available to them, including the complaint process".

She notes that in early stages during a dispute, taxpayers can decide whether or not to what's known as "Alternative Dispute Resolution". "This is a free service and involves a nationally accredited, independent ATO facilitator assisting participants to resolve their dispute," she explains.

The ATO also offers independent review, she notes, focussing on the early resolution of disputes where small business taxpayers disagree with the ATO's audit position.

"This [independent] review is conducted before any audit adjustments occur and is undertaken by a team independent of the audit team in a separate section of the ATO," she says.

She notes that taxpayers also have the option of raising concerns Ms Payne's office as well as the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman.

But Self-Employed Australia executive director of Ken Phillips says there's been numerous documented cases showing that the ATO does not always act fairly. He argues a US-style taxpayer bill of rights would ensure it does.

"The taxpayer charter is a taxation office policy — it's not law, it's not legislation, and the experience that we find is that the ATO breach their own policy on a very consistent basis," Mr Phillips says.

A bill of rights, he says, would also put the onus back on the tax office to prove the debt they've raised against a taxpayer is legitimate. "In the US, they can't collect a tax out of someone unless all dispute procedures have been completed, done, finalised — that's justice," Mr Philips says.

"What we're really talking about here is very, very practical, common-sense approaches to ensuring that the administration of tax and the collection of tax and the behaviour of the ATO conforms with natural principles of justice."

A bill of rights, he argues, is a win for both taxpayers and the ATO because it could minimise the number of tax disputes, and the time it takes to resolve them. "Here it's quite normal for a dispute with the taxation office to go on for five, six, seven – 10 years even," he says.

"That's just not fair. People have a right to know that their case is done, finish and dusted."




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